Wednesday, December 19, 2012

A Last Round of Cybils Panic

The end of the year is upon us, the Cybils are winding down, and I'm turning pages as fast as I can. I just found a few minutes to schedule one last post blurbing a sample of the fantastic nominations in YA SF/F for 2012.

Vessel by Sarah Beth Durst (Simon and Schuster - Margaret K. McElderry) was a nice surprise, especially since her books haven't quite clicked with me in the past. Normally I wouldn't mention that, but I think it's a good thing to share--the idea that you might not be in love with this book, but you open every book hoping that that one will be the one. In this one, Liyana is ready to die so that her tribe's goddess will come into her and bring prosperity. She is prepared, practiced, and ready for the ceremonial dance--but her goddess never comes. She's cast out, because her people would never believe her goddess just couldn't get there to take over her human vessel, and Liyana has to decide how to reconcile her wish to live with her wish to serve her people.

In The Hunt by Andrew Fukuda (St. Martin's Griffin), Gene is alive. He doesn't hang from the ceiling. He doesn't stay up all night. He doesn't die in the sun. See where I'm going with this? Gene wins a dubious lottery: a chance to hunt down some real, live humans. Mmm. With some of his peers. Can he hide his true self and survive in this dangerous game?

Ismae is a handmaiden of death in Grave Mercy by R.L. LaFevers (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). She's impervious to poison, she can see who St. Mortain has marked for death, and she's a fantastic assassin, which leads to an assignment filled with court intrigue, secret identities, political maneuvering, and the choice between kissing and killing.

The Kairos Mechanism by Kate Milford (The Clockwork Foundry) has an interesting story outside of the story; it was a Kickstarter project by the author, and bridges the gap between The Boneshaker and The Broken Lands. Only a few hard copies were printed, and I think you should consider getting your hands on one if you can. Natalie Minks notices two boys coming from--well, nowhere, if you pay attention to where the roads go, and they're carrying the corpse of a man who either died yesterday or fifty years ago. Natalie could let it go, but she's not that kind of girl.

And so, then, you probably want to know about The Broken Lands, also by Kate Milford (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt - Clarion). In 1870s Brooklyn, when the under-construction Brooklyn bridge looms over a grittier, but no less vibrant NYC, a card sharp and a fireworks expert have to battle the forces of evil. Real history is braided masterfully with the supernatural in this book.

 All of these books are nominated in the YA SF/F category for the 2012 Cybils awards. These reviews are based on copies provided by their respective publishers, except for Grave Mercy, as I owned a copy.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Still More Cybils Panic

Can I mention all of the books I've read? All of the books I really liked this season? No, but I can blurb a few more...

Insignia by S.J. Kincaid  (Harper Collins - Katherine Tegen Books) is fast-paced military SF for fans of Ender's Game and Brain Jack. Tom is nobody, really, and neither is his no-good gambler of a dad. However, Tom is pretty good at video games, and at bluffing, which gets him a spot on an elite team of teenagers whose brains are, let's say, wired. In a future where countries fight for corporations, Tom has to fight the forces of evil that come with an executive washroom and an expense account, but he also has to figure out what's left when your brain is no longer your own.

Ashen Winter  by Mike Mullin (Tanglewood) is just as personally frightening as Ashfall was for me. Sure, it's been a while since Yellowstone blew up, covering the rest of the country with ash and sending temperatures dropping. Sure, we could just keep eating kale, one of the few things that will grow. But Alex's parents are still out there, looking for him, and he can't just wait for them to come home.

When I picked up The Infects by Sean Beaudoin (Candlewick), I knew I'd be in for a ride. See, I don't always know exactly what is going on in Beudoin's books. They're so weird. But I am so glad they're out there. In The Infects, a kid is on his way to camp for juvenile delinquents. And then there are zombies. And it's weird, okay? If you like things a little absurd, The Infects is one to pick up.

In What's Left of Me by Kat Zhang (HarperCollins), the souls of sisters Addie and Eve share one body. Children start out as hybrids, and eventually, one of the souls slips away. It's part of growing up--and it's part of being a good, non-criminal person. Addie and Eve haven't settled, though, which makes them suspicious, different, and ill. When Addie and Eve are sent away to get better, the fight for both of their lives gets dire. This makes an interesting contrast to Every Day, by the way.

Shadowfell by Juliet Marillier (Knopf) completely charmed me. Neryn's not supposed to be magical; it's prohibited. She can see the fairies, though, and that means she has to run. To be straightforward: I've read so many books-with-fairies in the past five or so years that few stand out, but Neryn's journey had something Frodo-esque and pure about it. And there were some very clever moments that stole my heart. If you've read this one: Go small!

All of these books are nominated in the YA SF/F category for the 2012 Cybils awards. These reviews are based on copies provided by their respective publishers, either through the Cybils program or when I requested them from NetGalley and completely forgot to read them earlier in the year. So it goes.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Yet More Cybils Panic

Another roundup of books I'd like to review more carefully for you--but which I simply can't if I'm to attempt to finish looking at as many of the 205 YA SF/F nominees as I can...

This gets tough to do; as soon as I'm through with one book, I'm on to another, and even when I'm ruminating on a book, a few days' distance makes it hard to put together a few lines. I hope this gives you a few hints and inspires you to go looking for yourself!

Long Lankin by Lindsey Barraclough (Bodley Head) is a book that sort of defies its category. "Beware of Long Lankin, who lives in the moss..." That might fit nicely with the last line of Rock-a-bye Baby, but Long Lankin is a much scarier ending than just falling out of the sky. Two girls are sent to live with their great-aunt in the late 1950s. The house where they live, moldering, old, is being swallowed by the sea and by sorrow. Great-aunt Ida wants Cora and Mimi gone, but something much more sinister might get them all first. I'm not entirely sure how to conceive of the children's viewpoints (I couldn't figure out if Cora was an old-school, mature 12, or, say, 14), and the great-aunt receives sections from her point of view as well. Long Lankin is lovingly written, and has something scary for everyone, but it might take a mature reader to unravel the time/place. I definitely think that an older teen who loooooves scary movies will find something here; I spent one long night awake after a certain scene!

I love the cover of The Assassin's Curse by Cassandra Rose Clarke  (Strange Chemistry). The detail, the paper-cut feel, and the swirly font all hint at the story of Ananna, a girl whose world might have been a parallel universe to any bit of the Arabian Nights. Ananna's parents, pirates (quite respectable ones), have plans to marry her off, but Ananna is having none of it. She makes a daring escape on a camel and carries on: there's no going back. It's not easy to be a young girl, on her own, with no tools or funds at your disposal, but things are really not easy when there are assassins involved.

The Freedom Maze by Delia Sherman (Small Beer Press - Big Mouth House) is another that defies category (the Cybils divides only into contemporary and SF/F in YA and MG, so anything with an odd happening is usually SF/F; though this is largely, closely focused on non-magical history, there are a few otherworldly, time-travel-y bits, and that's why this is here). In this carefully researched story, Sophie slips back in time from 1960 to 1860 on her family's land. In 1860, she's taken for a slave, but don't think this is a story of a girl who solves all the woes of the past. She's part of others solving for themselves, and part of something bigger, and more thoughtful, regarding class, race, and power.

Daylight Saving by Edward Hogan (Walker) starts with a boy, Daniel, who's not very pleased to be spending the summer at Leisure World with his dad. His dad is a drunk. Daniel's also not so great, by his own judgment, and then there's a boring summer of boring sport(s) to look forward to. And then there's a girl that only he can see... Covers don't have much to do with insides, but I thought that this cover was really, really interesting. I don't know that it expands on the title, so much, but it's simple, iconic, and memorable.

When the Sea is Rising Red by Cat Hellisen (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux - Books for Young Readers) is another with a very striking cover, and one with a creepy, evocative title. Felicita lives as one of the privileged few in Pelimburg, though it's quickly clear that privilege does not come with freedom; her best friend kills herself to escape an arranged marriage, and soon, Felicita has escaped to the slums. Her friend's death has called forth a strange magic that might or might not be the best thing for everyone, and Felicita has to decide where to fight...

All of these books are nominated in the YA SF/F category for the 2012 Cybils awards. These reviews are based on copies provided by their respective publishers.

Monday, December 3, 2012

UnWholly by Neal Shusterman

If you read Unwind, you might've thought that was enough. It was open-ended, but, somehow, closed. If you're like me, you have a complicated relationship with series, especially unfinished series. So, when I heard UnWholly by Neal Shusterman (Simon and Schuster - Books for Young Readers) was out, I didn't go right for it. Unwind--no pun intended--took me apart.

If you need a refresher--and I went into this reading without one--there's been a war, presented as being over abortion. It is proposed that peace come over an unreasonable, twisted compromise: no abortions, but children can be "storked," or forced upon other families, and once a child is thirteen, a child's guardians can reverse the child's life, essentially splitting the child and its consciousness into spare parts. Understandably, though some kids are tithed--born to be Unwound--others aren't so happy when they get the news that they're unwanted, due to circumstance or relationships, and scheduled to, in essence, die.

Unwind is about getting away from the first, horrific situation. UnWholly is about the after. What if you escaped? What if you were safe? What if your friends weren't? What do you owe for your freedom? And what if people aren't really on your side? What's the deepest, darkest place from which you can return?

That's vague, of course, but I wouldn't want to give anything away. UnWholly is as intriguing and complex as Unwind, and every bit as harrowing.

UnWholly is nominated in the YA SF/F category for the 2012 Cybils. I reviewed a copy provided by the publisher, with no explicit or implied strings.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

More Cybils Panic

When I've been a panelist in the past, a deluge of books (e- and print) has hit my doorstep in early November. This year, probably mostly due to Sandy, that deluge came last week. So, in the interest of giving everything a look, I will have to just give you blurbs. Ready?

Mothership by Martin Leicht and Isla Neal (Simon and Schuster - Books for Young Readers) reminds me, oddly of Libba Bray's Beauty Queens. It's also a very good read for those who enjoyed the nose-tweaking of Bumped and Thumped. At any rate, if the many teen fertility dystopians have gotten to you, you might try this one. Elvie is pregnant, so she'll be spending the next months in space at the Hanover School for Expecting Teen Mothers. You didn't think it was that simple, did you? Nope. It's all fun(ny) and games until the aliens show up. And the dad.

The Unnaturalists by Tiffany Trent (Simon and Schuster - Books for Young Readers) is the first in a series that's a little bit steampunk, a little bit, uh, museumpunk, let's call it, a little bit paranormal. Tesla, one of my favorite dudes ever, has opened up a portal between worlds to let the myths and legends in--only it seems like both our world and that can't co-exist.

Flesh and Bone by Jonathan Maberry (Simon and Schuster - Books for Young Readers) is the third in the series that started with Rot and Ruin and cataloged the adventures of one Benny Imura, who gets sucked out of his safe, gated compound in California and into the outside, where zombies roam. Just as much fun as the others, and just as many heart-stopping moments. Which is all well and good until something eats your brains.

The Blessed by Tonya Hurley (Simon and Schuster - Books for Young Readers) is a quirky little...okay, big book. Several girls who tried to commit suicide end up in the same emergency room, and several girls get caught up in a world of martyrs and saints. The quirky thing, however, is that it reads like Heathers and Mean Girls came out to play. Also, check out the fancy reversible cover on the hardback edition.

Shadows on the Moon by

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Cybils Panic

This is the part of Cybils season when I start to panic. I can read, or I can write a review. I can write a review, or I can read. I can ponder and be thoughtful, or I can start going through all those e-books...

Realistically, it's not possible for me to mention every book I read for the Cybils, no matter how much I'd like to. And maybe I wouldn't like to; I'd rather spend the time reading and considering books, and preparing to thumbwrestle it out with the other first round judges when it comes time to turn our individual shortlists into a representative group shortlist. Before we get there, I want to read everything I've been offered, at least in part.

And blah blah blah. I can't fit in full reviews, sadly, but here are a few books I've read recently.

Seraphina by Rachel Hartman (Random House - Books for Young Readers) has been all over the place, but I hadn't read it, and I can see why so many readers liked it. It's set in a fantasy world that draws from various time periods, and you can tell by the cover that there are dragons. There is also music; generally, as a (retired) musician, I can't stand music themes in fantasy, but this is well done. What is perhaps the most well done are themes of being mixed, of being other, of being outside of behavioral norms, of being smart, of elbowing one's way into a world where one is not accepted, of breaking all of society's rules to follow the rule of love. This turns out to be the first in a series; I'm curious how the themes will play out in future installments.

Shatter Me by Tahereh Mafi (Harper) is, sure, a dystopia. Juliette lives in a world that's been battered and misshapen environmentally, and a mysterious military force is in charge. There are soldiers, mysterious factions, and narrow escapes. But none of these hooked me; instead, I found the writing style compelling. Juliette is dangerous. She's a weapon. (And she's a weapon in a way that I think fans of Graceling might like.) She's been in jail, and she's lost her mind. Her thought processes and a use of strikethrough to indicate what she's suppressing, changing her mind about, kept me turning pages until the end. This is the first book in a series.

Unspoken by Sarah Rees Brennan (Random House - Books for Young Readers) is exactly what I've been hoping for from this author. Kami lives in Sorry-in-the-Vale, and one day, her imaginary friend, the one who she's always talking to in her head, shows up. Kami is tenacious and funny, and not willing to simply stand by while people get murdered. There's a well-rounded supporting cast and a sense of modern-day Nancy Drew about the whole thing, and Sarah balances the humor with the gothic themes--not an easy task. P.S. Even though Barnes and Noble doesn't seem to like it, I think that cover is awesome. Really, truly awesome.

172 Hours on the Moon by Johann Harstad, trans. Tara F. Chace (Little, Brown - Books for Young Readers; previously published by ATOM), is horror...on the moon! NASA has some secrets to cover up, and it's time to get back into the space race. What better distraction than a lottery where three teenagers--here, one from France, one from Japan, and one from Norway--are selected to be astronauts? They'll train! They'll do press junkets! They'll cover up the previously unadvertised moonbase! Don't get too attached, though. This looks like science fiction, but it's actually horror.

In Fair Coin by E.C. Myers (Prometheus - Pyr) Ephraim's mom thinks he's dead. They found his body. They found his wallet with his library card inside. And when he retrieves the wallet, there's a coin in it. Turns out, that coin grants wishes. Wonderful wishes, like "I wish my mom wasn't a horrible parent" and "I wish that girl would like me." Only, with each wish, the world has to bend to make it happen. There are unexpected consequences, and before long, Ephraim has to decide whether some things are worth having.

Erebos by Ursula Poznanski, trans. Judith Pattinson (Annick Press in this edition), is another book in translation, and one that looks like horror but reads like SF. Or maybe it's just a thriller. Maybe I kind of hate labels in YA. At any rate, imagine that you got this very secret, very interactive computer game. One that's more than a game. This is the scarier, not at all funny, and more dangerous version of Vivian Vande Velde's Heir Apparent. If you're a gamer or a watch-over-the-shoulder player, you'll recognize the moments when you get that icky feeling in the pit of your stomach...

Everett Singh sees his father get kidnapped in Planesrunner by Ian McDonald (Prometheus - Pyr). His mother doesn't quite believe it. The police cover it up. And pretty soon, smart, athletic Everett receives a file, one that opens up to become a beautiful computer program. And not long after, his flat is ransacked, he's being followed, and everything is going wrong. His father discovered something that maybe he shouldn't, something others would like to have, and then Everett is tracking down his father, not just on the streets of London, not just across international boundaries, and not just off this planet, but across universes.

Sadly, Blogger won't allow for all the tags I'd like to use.

These books are nominated in the YA SF/F category for the 2012 Cybils. I reviewed a copy that I owned for Seraphina and Unspoken, and the rest were provided by their publishers, with no explicit or implied strings.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Born Wicked by Jessica Spotswood

When I try to describe Born Wicked by Jessica Spotswood (Penguin - Putnam Juvenile), I keep saying not quite. Not quite the suppressive teenage marriage/fertility fantasy that's been plaguing the shelves. Not quite the average love triangle. Not quite.

It's about 1900, and the Brotherhood--an organization that one is expected to respect, if not join, if you're male--keeps everyone safe, especially the women. They run the schools and the church. They make sure you get married or join the Sisterhood as soon as you're old enough. And they have...other duties.

Cate and her sisters, Maura and Tess, have managed to stay out of the way of the Brotherhood, mostly. They rattle around in a big old house, emptier since their mother died. When their father goes away and leaves them with a governess, it becomes much harder to hide their terrible, criminal secret: the three sisters are witches. Cate must marry, soon, or go away to join the Sisterhood, but that will split the sisters up, and Cate's not sure that her sisters will be safe without her; a hint or a rumor could have them sent to an institution or a prison ship.

It seems like salvation has arrived in the form of an old friend who's loved Cate for years--but her heart is going in a different direction. Then she discovers that she and her sisters might be part of a prophecy, and that there are many, many witches, some who would use the girls for their own ends. How much will Cate--how much can Cate--sacrifice, and what if all of her options leave someone she cares about heartbroken?

I really enjoyed Born Wicked. I imagine that some readers will see it as particularly feminist, and I don't think that's bad; Cate learns that she most wants to be the one in charge of herself, and that such a situation is good for all people. I just took a quick look around at some other reviews and see that some readers didn't like that aspect so much, and I find that interesting, not to mention a refreshing change from bleak futures where we've reverted to very, very traditional roles with no hope for change.

This book is nominated in the YA SF/F category for the 2012 Cybils. I reviewed a copy that I owned.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Adaptation by Malinda Lo

So, I thought this book was awesome. In Adaptation by Malinda Lo  (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers), Reese and David are on the way back from a disastrous debate competition, and it turns out that they're not getting out at the airport. No one is: a series of bird strikes has crashed dozens of airplanes, and everyone is grounded. They hit the road with their debate coach, planning to road trip from Phoenix back to San Francisco, but before they get home, terrible, frightening things start to happen, including a car crash for Reese and David. They wake up in the hospital--the kind of hospital that makes you sign a non-disclosure agreement before you leave. Why? Routine, of course, until you start to feel like your body is not your own and men in black suits show up at your door.

I really liked Reese. She's smart and analytical, and she's self-sufficient. She's discovering some things about her sexuality, and--in contrast to a fair number of other books I've read lately--there's no pressure for her to pick out a permanent label, like, today. I liked David, too; he's just not in quite as much of the book.

If Huntress and Ash are watercolors, the style in Adaptation is all sharp edges and overexposed photos. Malinda Lo's journalism background is put to good use here in a handful of articles and reports that feel like, well, an accurate portrayal of uncertain and opportunistic media.

Adaptation gets recommended as "for X-Files fans." I'm not necessarily an X-Files fan, but I definitely enjoyed Adaptation for its otherworldly science, the government conspiracies, and for how, midway through, it starts being hard to figure out whom to trust. Annoyance: I can't go straight on to the sequel.

This book is nominated in the YA SF/F category for the 2012 Cybils. I reviewed a copy that I owned.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Bitterblue by Kristin Cashore

I may be one of the last people--well, among fantasy fans, at least--to read Bitterblue by Kristin Cashore (Penguin - Dial). It had been lingering on my shelf since this spring, waiting for me to "have time" to read it uninterrupted. And then, before I knew it, it was Cybils season, and I was working my way down an alphabetical list of 209 books, and I was reading it right now.

Bitterblue is set in the same world as Graceling and Fire, and while one need not have read either in order to enjoy Bitterblue, I think those will help ground readers through the beginning of the story.

Bitterblue, a young queen, is overwhelmed with running the kingdom of Monsea, and she's not getting a lot of help. Instead, her advisors pile on paperwork and discourage her from leaving the castle. Maybe that's for the best; Bitterblue's father, the late King Leck, had powers that he used for evil on many of his subjects. The problem is that the new administration, in forgetting, is ignoring--ignoring the great wrongs of the past, and not truly able to make a future. That's the part where having read the linked books comes in: in the beginning, it's nice to know a little more than Bitterblue does, since she is so muddled, and later on, when the reader and Bitterblue catch up to one another, it's a bonus to understand references to the linked books.

Sheltered Bitterblue is curious, however, and eventually makes her way out of the castle to hear stories. This is one of several lovely literacy themes throughout. The people of Monsea keep their stories alive through the telling, and the stories live on their own, shifting and changing with the tellers. There are themes that are more textual; Bitterblue constructs herself, in a sense, through what she reads. And, ultimately, forms of writing are very important to the story.

There is romance, and adventure, and fighting, which one probably expects from Kristin Cashore, and Bitterblue has an especially complicated story full of puzzles, something new for this book. It's fiendishly plotted, and it might take more than one read to find and appreciate all of the hidden clues. Bitterblue is a fitting culmination of the Graceling series.

This book is nominated in the YA SF/F category for the 2012 Cybils. I reviewed a copy that I owned.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Every Day by David Levithan

Every Day by David Levithan (Random House - Knopf) is one of those books that might confuse genre readers. To me--to someone who's read old, classic sci-fi in periodicals on newsprint--it feels like it belongs. But since it also feels contemporary, in that way that can't quite be put into words, it's a great read for those who refuse to read one or the other.

In the middle of the night, the jump happens. Think Quantum Leap. In the morning, every morning, A is in a new body, trying to get by with a new family, attending a new school, accessing a new person's memories in order to blend in. A knows better than to get too  attached, but one day, there's Rhiannon, and she makes A want to do whatever it takes to visit her, over and over, no matter the risk to the body A is in. The problem is, while A sees Rhiannon the same way each day, Rhiannon doesn't see A the same. Body or soul?

If you could only love one--

Two interesting bits for me: first, perhaps because of the first body A is in, I felt that I was hearing a male narrator the whole time. That's not quite A as a character--A isn't gendered. The second interesting bit was a B plot involving a boy that A jumped into and who tracks A down. Even though I love ambiguous, brave endings, and Every Day has an ambiguous, brave ending, I wished for a little more clarity in the B plot at the end of the book.

Overall, though, the questions of body and attraction give the book enough of a hook in for fantasy/SF fans and those readers who identify otherwise, and I suspect it would spark a lot of intense discussion in book groups. I haven't stopped thinking about Every Day since I finished it.

This book is nominated in the YA SF/F category for the 2012 Cybils. I reviewed a copy that I owned.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Summer of the Mariposas by Guadalupe Garcia McCall

Summer of the Mariposas by Guadalupe Garcia McCall (Lee and Low - Tu Books) read like a dozen things you've read recently and not at all like them. The story, to me, straddles that invisible, shifty line between MG and YA, since while oldest sister Odilia is well into YA, her four little sisters are younger, and there isn't anything that, to my mind, would keep it from being appropriate for a broader age group.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Summer of the Mariposas is billed as the Odyssey set in Mexico, and it's that with a side of La Llorona, the legendary woman who has drowned her children and now weeps in her ghostly way. But it's also, a lot, about negotiating borders--cultural and political borders, the border between the magical and the real, the border between love and loathing, the border between childhood and adulthood.

Odilia's father has left them. Her mother struggles to hang on to her job at a restaurant while tending to the needs of her five girls. When the girls find a body in the river, they set off on an epic road trip to Mexico to bring the dead man home--and to figure out what home means to them.

The magical elements come in and out of the story; one moment, the girls are stopping for a soda, the next, they're navigating the book's equivalent of the lotus eaters. Some of the fantasy is familiar to readers of traditional genre offerings, some is very real-world, and some in the middle, more along the lines of magical realism (worthy of its own genre, of course, and also a lovely and unexpected thing that can cross into fantasy, sometimes).

This book is nominated in the YA SF/F category for the 2012 Cybils. I had a review copy from NetGalley before the Cybils opened, and I bought a copy separately. The other disclaimer: the author will be a guest of honor for next year's Sirens; I am on the board of the parent organization and I've been a volunteer since the event's inception. 

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

For Darkness Shows the Stars by Diana Peterfreund

Please don't fret about the sparkly, pale girl on the cover. I know you've seen a lot of them lately. I don't think this looks much like the book's heroine as described.

And if I tell you this is a post-apocalyptic tale, please don't fret about that either. This apocalypse happened a long, long time ago.

In that long, long time ago in For Darkness Shows the Stars by Diana Peterfreund (HarperCollins - Balzer+Bray), genetic engineering got out of hand. People were modified. And somehow, things mutated and changed, as they do, and people were Reduced. A few, the Luddites, rejected the technology and hid themselves away, and later took it upon themselves to protect the Reduced, the people who could then only speak a few words, pantomime a few rudimentary signs, hardly take care of themselves. In the past few generations, there is something new: the children of the Reduced are as aware of the world and intelligent as the Luddites. And now, they want a new life.

Elliot is the youngest daughter living on the North estate, and her childhood friends were a Reduced girl, Ro, and Kai, who is definitely not Reduced, but one of the Children of the Reduced, who call themselves Post-Reductionist. Each orbits a different class sphere, but the three are fast friends until the day when Kai leaves to join an enclave of free people, and Elliot...doesn't. She couldn't; no one else in her family cares enough about the people of the estate, or the running of the land, to ensure that there is enough for everyone. And Elliot, the one who stayed behind and broke her own heart, must struggle with what she knows as a Luddite--science and innovation tore the world apart--and what she knows as a person, that her own inventions could help everyone.

I had forgotten that this is a retelling of Persuasion, but I recognized the bones of so many favorite romances--girl's family is messing up the finances, girl is in odd position of trying to save the farm despite everything, girl has to negotiate class boundaries. But even if you haven't read Persuasion, and I'm not entirely certain I have (Austen mostly blurs together in my head), there's really fantastic worldbuilding, including some truly frightening implications about a world where very few have autonomy over themselves due to intellect. The last bit makes for rough reading at times, but despite some uncomfortable moments, I couldn't put the book down.

This book is nominated in the YA SF/F category for the 2012 Cybils. I had my own copy to read and review.

Sunday, September 23, 2012


I am thrilled to be returning as a first-round panelist for the Cybils! I really wrung my hands; it's a lot of work, if enjoyable work, and last year, I wasn't able to post about what I was reading as much as I'd have liked to have been. And yet, it's hard to stay away from the opportunity to read a huge chunk that's most of what's been published in young adult speculative fiction in the last year and then wrestle with my fellow panelists about what should be on the short list.

First-round panelists read the nominations, attempting to ensure that every nominated book has at least one (if not two or three) different readers. We make our own short lists. And, eventually, we pass on 5-7 titles to the second round judges, who choose the winner.

Last year was the first year for a new category (book apps) and for books that were self-published or only available as e-books. This year, I predict that there will be at least 200 books nominated in YA SF/F, so as you can imagine, it's going to be competitive, and I imagine that it's going to be like it's been the last two years--I'll think that we put together a strong list of finalists, but that I'll wish there were room to honor another ten or twenty. What I do think is that the influx of people blogging about books (that might not have been at aggressively marketed or that might not have been, say, on the minds of people who are only reading in print or in e or from a particular retailer) is a good thing.

Nominations start on October 1 and end on October 15. You can find out how it all works, more about the judging panels, and more about the divisions at

Monday, September 17, 2012

The Chaos by Nalo Hopkinson

The Chaos by Nalo Hopkinson  (Simon & Schuster - Margaret K. McElderry) might not be on your radar; I haven't seen much talk about it, and only a few reviews, which have tended to be mixed. Maybe that shouldn't surprise me so much; it's very different from what's on the YA SF/F shelves right now. It's possible that I missed the buzz, of course, but either way, I'd like to start some back up again.

In short summary, Scotch (a short form of Scotch Bonnet, nickname for Sojourner) has started feeling stable again. Her brother's out of jail, and they're going to get an apartment together as soon as they save up enough money to move out of their parents' house. She's on the dance team, and smokin' at it. She has two close friends, and doesn't have to go to the school where she was attacked and called a slut. She changes her clothes when she leaves the house--there's good-girl wear, and there's Scotch wear--but most teenagers lead a bit of a double life, don't they?

Scotch and her brother Rick go to a bar, where Rick is worried about his open mic appearance and Scotch can't get caught (at 17, she's two years too young to be in a bar in Toronto). And things get rapidly more worrisome when a giant blob eats Rick and a volcano appears in the middle of the lake...and the strange black marks on her body start to take over.

Scotch has the most authentic teenager voice I have read in ages. In the middle of reading the book, I told a friend that it reads like a contemporary; that's not a good enough shorthand for what I mean (and makes it look like I'm trying to make some sort of value judgment that I'm not). Scotch is just so present, so vibrantly of that liminal late-teens age. So waiting for her mind to catch up with her mouth. Working through being wrong, needing time to think, needing to figure out how to be right again, with herself and with other people. Working through trying to be this person that everyone else wants to claim, without allowing her to choose her path. The Chaos is surprisingly character-driven in a way that a lot of SF/F is not.

There's lots that unexpected here, even for genre enthusiasts. The Chaos doesn't bother to explain its Toronto setting for the reader, and rightly so. There's a sort of old-school, classic urban fantasy feel to the disruption, as if the weird is so weird it must be normal again; combined with the denial of mid-apocalypse, fear can feel a little distant for short stretches, but that's realistic--too much, and the characters would be paralyzed. The weirder things get, the more threads come in from surprising angles. There are duppies and a rolling calf, a bird I think is a phoenix, Baba Yaga and her house (seriously, Baba Yaga should be in everything, and I especially like this one), disembodied voices, Brer Rabbit, Anansi (and oh, the moment of Brer Nancy!). Around every corner is some new amazement. Alice is truly in Wonderland.

The Chaos touches on, or directly confronts, identity, racism, disabilities, sexuality, class, bullying, and more, all as part of the real and unreal landscape in which the characters move, stumble, and eventually negotiate, if sometimes imperfectly. There are some reviews that explain this better than I can here, here, and here.

In about 240 pages, Scotch undergoes a physical and personal transformation, becoming who she wanted to be all along. It's not so much about defeating the chaos or any particular big bad, but about remaking and repairing relationships with herself and others. I think that The Chaos makes a good read for fans of Kristen Cashore's Fire, Dia Reeves's Bleeding Violet, Alaya Dawn Johnson's Racing the Dark, and Justine Larbalestier's Liar, for a start--there's more than a little thread of "being the monster" here, and a certain horrific twist to the whole thing. 

This book is nominated in the YA SF/F category for the 2012 Cybils. I had my own copy to read and review. 

Friday, September 14, 2012

The Crown of Embers by Rae Carson

You might want some spoiler space.

Usually, I don't read reviews of books that aren't out yet, which, I suppose, undermines all of those nice publicity people. I recognize titles, sometimes glance at opinions, and that's it until after I've done my own reading.

I'm going to try very, very hard not to spoil you too much while still telling you what I think about this book.

As I mentioned earlier, I enjoyed rereading The Girl of Fire and Thorns, and I was really glad that I took the time to reread it right before reading The Crown of Embers by Rae Carson (HarperCollins - Greenwillow). The stories are complex, and there are themes that take more than one book to roll out and, I presume, to resolve. I like this a lot, actually; I know it can be tough to have a theme that needs several books to explore.

If you don't want to know anything about this book, back button now...

Elisa is now known to be Queen of Joya d'Arena; she was the queen, but now everyone knows of her and her adventures in The Girl of Fire and Thorns, knows of her courage and bravery.

Almost immediately, her grasp of the position is shattered by a series of attacks on her and on her city, and amplified by disconcerting power struggles both that remove her from making decisions and cause her to question her own abilities. She's struggling with impostor syndrome, sometimes, and doubts about her gut instincts. Every piece of her existence is open to scrutiny, and in the capital, she has to rule many instead of a few; she has to, or thinks she has to, choose strategies that harm some to spare others. Sometimes, those strategies mean putting herself last. Sometimes, they mean growing up too fast. Sometimes, they mean choosing between what she wants and what the people she loves want. Sometimes, they mean being monstrous.

I like that this second book complicates the characters; even the good guys have their flaws and some short-sighted views--sometimes views they hold of own volition, sometimes views more reflective of their society's standards. And in this volume, layers are peeled back on the villains, slowly, part of an overall theme of awareness: I cannot hold the same views all my life if I'm provided with new information.

I like Elisa as strategist. I love Elisa as strategist. I like the formerly secondary characters coming into sharp relief and altering the landscape we thought we knew. I like how the enemies start to become human, and how Elisa has to confront her own unkindnesses. And I like that, for all that Elisa is close to many people, there are some things she must do alone.

And if I told you more, I'd actually have to present spoilery things. I kind of hate when people give me spoilery things. I am very protective of the times when I can be lost in a book. But I think that if you liked The Girl of Fire and Thorns, you'll be head over heels for The Crown of Embers.

I read an ARC provided by HarperCollins - Greenwillow via the author. I didn't receive any compensation, suggestion, or marketing asks for this or any other review; it accurately reflects my opinion. This blog does not make money from advertising or any other sources.

This book is nominated in the YA SF/F category for the 2012 Cybils.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

The Girl of Fire and Thorns, Media

Monday, I blogged about my re-read of The Girl of Fire and Thorns, which was a finalist for the Morris award, the Cybils, and the Andre Norton Awards, and was named to ALA's Top Ten Best Fiction for Young Adults list. Today, I wanted to highlight some media related to the series, set to be three books (last I checked, but I think that's pretty solid).

First, in print: it's available in hardcover and paperback from your favorite indie or world-eating bookstore. Second, it's available as an e-book. Same rules apply. Third, it's available in audiobook.

The Crown of Embers comes out next week, on the 18th. I'll review that tomorrow. But to fill the gap, there's a prequel short story available as an e-book, called The Shadow Cats. HarperCollins's website describes it thus:

Once a century, one person is chosen for greatness. And it was not Alodia.
Alodia is the crown princess of the realm. The sister who knows how to rule, the one who is constantly reminded that she has not been marked for a grand destiny. But Alodia has plans, and she will be the greatest queen her people have ever known. So she travels—with her hopeless, naive, chosen sister—to a distant part of their land, to begin to secure her supporters. This region needs its princesses, for it is plagued with a curse; the crops don't grow, spring doesn't arrive, and a fierce jaguar stalks in the shadows, leaving behind only empty homes splashed with blood. If Alodia can save them, no one will be able to deny her strength and her sovereignty.
But what she discovers could change the fate of her kingdom, if not the entire world. And it will most certainly change her opinion of her younger sister.

(I'm hoarding this one; I can't decide if I'll read it when it's halfway to the last book in the series, or if I'll save it for the very end.)

Rae Carson's website:

Rae Carson talking about The Girl of Fire and Thorns:

Tomorrow, I'll review The Crown of Embers.

Monday, September 10, 2012

The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson (...Again)

A little over a year ago, I was very happily reviewing The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson (HarperCollins - Greenwillow) right here. Sometimes, once every 200, 300 books, you hit one that makes you enormously happy because--you think--it has been written especially for you.

Of course, I didn't think that when I first heard of the book, as I noted in that review.

I recently reread The Girl of Fire and Thorns, and a lot of my first impressions held true, but I think I appreciated certain themes more this time around.

For example, at the beginning of the book, Lucero-Elisa is being fitted for a wedding gown, and ripping it. She's sixteen, and she's not a "fit"--for princesses, for her clothes, for her upcoming role as queen of a larger and wealthier country. She bears a Godstone in her belly, religiously significant, but she feels like she's second-best behind her conventionally beautiful older sister, Juana Alodia. When she's sad, emotional, she eats. Delicious things. But not to taste them, always; most often to fill up the empty places inside. She fervently hopes that her husband will be old, fat, ugly, diseased, anything so she can excuse why they might not have to touch--but also, I think, so that she can have a reason to not fit the role(s) that she didn't choose for herself.

Lucero-Elisa's self-esteem issues are deep and vast, but she seems to recognize at least a couple of skills: a hand for embroidery, trilingualism, and an interest in her studies, particularly those about strategy and war. Her new husband arrives--older, but handsome and kind. They achieve a rapport; it turns out that Alejandro needs a thoughtful, loyal friend, and they become the odd couple.

When Elisa and Alejandro leave for Joya d'Arena, where they'll make their home, Elisa discovers that her father and sister might hold more affection for her than she realized, and this resonated with me as the start of a journey where she not only questions the people she loves and who love her, but other sorts of expectations and structures of her world. But it's when the caravan is attacked that Elisa's story really starts to build, I think--when she does unthinkable things, heroic things, to save her servants and king, things she would never have expected. And her Godstone, suddenly, is alive, and even dangerous. It's also where the groundwork is laid in the story for the body as a vessel, its size and shape far less important than the person inside--and additionally, where Elisa begins to question her faith in her god and her Godstone.

And I think that's where my reading diverges from that of some other reviewers (not unexpectedly, perhaps, or unreasonably, because we place so much emphasis on bodies). Elisa is starting to realize that her shape and size don't separate her from others so much as the complicated religious beliefs surrounding the Godstone do. Then, she has to withstand an enormous physical trial in a body that hasn't been in training--which makes her stronger, not insta-skinny. She doesn't stop liking and eating food. She doesn't understand, immediately, though some around her do, that her relative body isn't--and hasn't ever been--a measure of her worth as a person.

I won't spoil the middle--its complicated political plot--but interwoven with adventure is coming of age, a little romance, and rising to the possibility of self. I will sneak in, just at the end, that rereading gave me a different, more open view on the setting and its nuance that I didn't pick up the first time around, and that I got a better sense of some of where problems are laid out for characters to solve in later books, but that's me reading with an editor hat on, not with just my reader eyes.

The next book in the series, The Crown of Embers, comes out on September 18 from Greenwillow.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Drive-by Reviews

Two quickies that I've read and that have been languishing in my drafts:

Redemption in Indigo by Karen Lord (Small Beer Press; has also been published by Quercus; the top image is the Quercus edition, I believe) is a book that's won or been listed for a nice handful of awards. It's fantasy based on a Senegalese tale by a Caribbean writer--at least, the beginning of it is--and to me, had a lot of the flavor of the SF end of fantasy in the middle, bookended with oral storytelling and a fairy tale feel on both sides.

Paama's husband is so much trouble that she left him behind and returned to her parents. He's traveled to meet her, and his arrival heralds a string of problems: he fills empty places and paranoia in his soul with food, and his first act as a village guest is eating the prize peacock. While a familiar spider man shows up in the story, Paama has a few tricks up her sleeve as well, and this marks her as someone to receive the chaos stick...

While there are madcap bits to this story, Paama wrestles with some pretty big questions, including what she'd do if she could change the future--and what might happen if she did.

Coming in under 200 pages, this is a great plane-length read.

 I have the second version of The Conch Bearer by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni (from various publishers over the years, but I'll credit Simon &Schuster - Aladdin), but it stayed on my shelf for a long time. I think that's because this was published in the middle of the Potter years. Drop me in a bookstore sometime between 2002 and 2012, and I can probably tell you the date based on the independent reader/middle grade/YA selections. For a while, the big trend was boys having magical quests; while you could argue that this never really goes out of style, there was sure a deluge in at least a few retailers for a while.

Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni is probably best known for her adult fiction, including Palace of Illusions and Mistress of Spices. In my head, this book is MG, though it may have been marketed as YA. Anand, a young boy who works in a tea shop, is given an opportunity to be charitable, and this is the start of a grand cross-country adventure during which he must battle demons, learn from his wise old mentor, and put up with an annoying girl to protect a magical conch that must be returned to its owners.

That doesn't necessarily sound so different, I know, but the choice made at the end of the book (it's got a sequel, which I haven't read) was something I found very surprising, and not something I think gets considered in most books marketed for children.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Everybody Sees the Ants by A. S. King

This is one of those "oops, I meant to say something" reviews; I have a bunch of drafts in progress, but somehow, I failed to finish them. So, oops, because Everybody Sees the Ants by A. S. King (Little, Brown - BYFR) is one of the best books I read last year.

Lucky Linderman sees things. A lot of things. Things that other people don't see. He sees his grandfather, a man presumed dead at war, and he sees himself in combat situations. It's harder to see what's right around him--how to mend or forge relationships with his relatives, including his parents, his aunt and uncle (at whose house Lucky and his mom go to retreat for a while), and a group of bullies.

There is a powerful and disturbing scene wherein a group of boys attack Lucky, one I'd even say might be triggering for some readers. Yet, I know this happens. I know it does; there was a much more violent similar incident at a town in my state when I was about Lucky's age. And this is real bullying, the kind where you can't quite prove things, where the parents are afraid, where no one knows what to do, and one doesn't have the skills to try anything new should the bully change their mind and be receptive to change. Which is all to say: bullying sucks. It's truly difficult to prevent and solve, despite all the prepackaged programs that promise to save us all.

And: despite my feeling that teaching and learning about bullying is difficult, I don't think it should be ignored. In fact, I think that Everybody Sees the Ants is a highly appropriate book for classroom discussion precisely because it doesn't pull punches. Stuff sucks. And kids know it. And the time to start talking about it beyond the couched, please-don't-let-the-parents-complain presentations is right now.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton

Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton (Random House - Ballantine) is a comfort (re-)read for me. Of late, I’ve been tackling more challenging reads and trying to cut down on my “I think I won’t like these” to-read stacks, so I took a break with some dinosaurs.

I saw the movie of Jurassic Park before I ever read the book, and I saw it when I hadn’t been to a movie in several years. The experience was, as you can imagine, memorable: here are lifelike dinosaurs, wondrous and awful. And scary. They will roar you.

I am not afraid of monsters under the bed. I am afraid of dinosaurs under the bed. I heartily approve of their demise into fossils and petroleum products even as I get excited to fuel up at a Sinclair station. And I find that any Jurassic Park movie is a great companion for an afternoon on the treadmill (or, of late, this, to better avoid neck and back pulling issues).

And, I’m sorry to say, the movie—the first, at least—is better than the book.

I’m a big fan of this kind of adult sf, of stuff where we have to fight disease or figure out that wormhole or battle the problems of ancient creatures brought back to life. Terra Nova, canceled as it hit its stride, was right up my alley, as Revolution will be this fall (up my alley, that is; it's too early to predict demise). But even as I love, love, love the scientific details, the ideas about space and physics and biology, I recognize that the stories are sometimes lacking. I used to say that I liked the book and movie of Jurassic Park equally, as you’d like two very different siblings, but this last read, I had an editor brain turned on.

What’s not to love about Jurassic Park? Well, throughout the book are features that appear in many similar books and that are hard to balance. For example, there are a lot of characters in the book, and the movie does a good job of combining several people and cutting others down to cameos. (Not necessarily in the best of ways; in the book, Dr. Wu plays a much bigger role as a scientist who buys into the idea that he can simply keep making new versions of dinosaurs until he hits on the right one. In the movie, BD Wong  gets a few seconds of screentime to explain the use of amphibian DNA; we all know that Asian actors don’t get a lot of roles, so that sucks extra.) 

The biggest character changes are in the children and Dr. Grant. Lex is transformed from a whiny victim to a much older girl who’s still not fond of dinosaurs, but who helps save the day with her computer skills; Tim is younger, but doesn’t lose his dinosaur knowledge, and takes on some of the vulnerability that book-Lex is supposed to embody (but in the book, she is a character that could have been cut with no real loss to the story, unfortunately, except for gender balance). Dr. Alan Grant, a Hawaiian-shirted, cowboy boot-wearing, bearded dino guy, goes from being just the guy who knows all the stuff to the guy who’s experiencing the amazement of his life’s work come alive, to, in the film, the guy who grows through his reluctant relationships with kids Tim and Lex. 

Hammond, Arnold, Nedry, Muldoon, and Dr. Ellie Sattler each keep similar roles in the books and films, or similar amounts of importance, but I appreciate that they aged Ellie up so that she’s clearly Grant’s colleague and not just some hot TA. Mathematician Ian Malcom isn’t as much of a hotshot in the book as he is in the film, and interestingly enough for me, a lot of his dialogue made it straight into the film, with only a few changes, even though he’s the voice of explanation; strangely, his ranty monologues work in the film, but I might have to credit Jeff Goldblum for that. Genarro, the lawyer, lives much longer and has more to do in the book, shadowing Muldoon and representing arrogance in big business; his role as meal in the film is nothing more than a cheap lawyer joke, and Hammond acquires most of Genarro's traits, as well as more of a conscience.

All of this adds up, though: Jurassic Park the movie is streamlined. There are no extra people, events, or scenes. The implications of the science are not so much discussed as they are illustrated; we see the chaos theory in effect as things spiral out of control. Most importantly, the characters, almost all of them, grow and change in the film, whereas in the book, they pretty much stay the same, and the interest is in how they solve a problem like maiasauru.

In summary, this provides an exercise: Read, watch, figure out how to amp up conflict, streamline…and some books should be more like films.

And don’t move. They can’t see you if you don’t move.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Australia Trip, Part 5

After arriving back at our accommodation very late, I bounced myself out of bed around 5 a.m. because we had a flight at around 9 a.m., and my stuff was in disarray. I hustled us out the door around 7, to C's amusement, because we had called for a taxi, driven to the airport, checked in, and made it to the gate by 7:35. Let's call it amusement.

I was highly impressed by my airport experience! We got out at the airport and wandered in the door, up to some small kiosks. We put in our confirmation numbers, I chose a new seat (I had a window away from C, but I got the last aisle), and out came our destination stickers. We put them on ourselves and rolled over to this other little thing where we scanned our boarding passes (I think), plopped the bags on the conveyor belt, and whoosh, there they went. Security was nostalgic; nothing out, nothing off, just an x-ray and a metal detector. And, no, I don't feel that there needed to be anything else.

We settled in at the gate and I went to find breakfast, a delicious coffee and a muffin. I did not have any of these items:

C recently sent me some pictures of Lego vending machines in Germany. I think that's nifty too, though I'm always up for a game of eat the baby.

At last, we boarded our flight for Cairns. This was where I sort of finally got my mental reset; a large tour group of American senior citizens was on board as well, and I sat next to two of them. The wife was quite loud and annoyed by everything, including the food (she wanted to know what a tortellini was, as if it were something made up simply to stump her). Her husband took a chance on the butter chicken, as did I, but I knew what I was getting into. (It was delicious.) I wish she'd given me her mango ice cream, also delicious, instead of sneering at the weirdo fruit on the lid and handing it off. I watched The Help for the rest of the flight for a distraction.

Cairns is a jumping off point for all sorts of rainforest and snorkeling adventures, and I seem to remember it being an international entry point for a lot of flyers from Asia. We collected our bags and got a taxi to town; it's touristy, sort of spring-break-y touristy, to me. We dropped off our things at the Sebel Cairns, and if I'd been thinking, I'd have signed up to go to the spa right then. But we thought we'd have a little walk around, get checked in when our room was ready, and have some pool time.

I was really underdressed for this lobby.

Some greenery. Below, some greenery on the outside of another hotel.

The marina. Lots of tours, from river tours to Great Barrier Reef snorkeling, left from here. If we'd hustled straight out to the docks, we might have been able to catch some. It wasn't on our agenda, though, and later turned out to be a lucky thing!

Having a Coke. I'd tell you the restaurant where we had that, some samosas, and some spring rolls (and some other thing I've forgotten) but I can't figure out where we were. After a bit more strolling and a quick stop to pick up some snacks, we headed back to the hotel, thinking we'd have some pool time. Pool time, to me, is deck chairs, sun umbrellas, and someone to bring you drinks and snacks. I don't know if any of that was on offer, but it was a nice idea. We got checked in, to these views:

I think it was prettier in person--greener, more touchable, more present. It was also more humid; if you didn't leave the air on and the door closed, you had a steam room!

As it turned out, C wasn't feeling too well that afternoon, so we sat on the balcony and ate Pringles (yes, yes we did) and read books and I think took naps until we felt better. And then we wandered out to find some dinner, and as we did, it started to do a torrential rain sort of thing.

Yeah, like that.

We weren't really sure what we wanted, and now we were sopping wet, and I thought to pass up some local food offerings with a plan to try later (I really wanted to, er, eat the native fauna and flora, but wasn't spruced up enough to go in anywhere that cost $75 a person), and eventually, we just went back to the hotel and got room service. Mmm, fish and chips.

And then we went to bed, because in the morning, we had another tour!

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Australia Trip, Part 4

After waking up early--too early, still--C and I ventured out for some breakfast. Queen Victoria Market was still too overwhelming, so we ended up at Le Croissant Des Halles, where I had some juice and a roll with bacon. Maybe egg. If it was a bacon buttie, I ordered it, because I've always wanted to order a bacon buttie and snicker a little.

After breakfast, we still had something like two hours before our tour, one designed as an afternoon/evening, rather than early morning and on. I was pretty nervous. It turns out that adhering to timing is something I worry about during travel. I'm afraid of missing my transportation or forgetting reservations entirely! In the meantime, we wandered around the few blocks right near the hotel. I discovered that the ATMs in the post offices--closed, that day--would actually give me money. We wandered into a grocery chain that K had told us not to, and of course, K was right. We looked at apartment listings in the window of a real estate office, and I contemplated moving to Melbourne. As it turns out, I mostly want to visit plants and animals, walk around, and sleep on vacations, but I loved Melbourne, to the point of doing some hard thinking about emigration. Eventually, we went back to our apartment and stopped at a bank of computers, where C bought a little time, and I frantically rushed through some e-mail.

Around 11:15, we wandered downstairs and out to the front of the hotel next door where we were to meet our tour with Go West Tours (of Australia, versus any similar-sounding companies from elsewhere). We'd just about given up when they showed up close to noon. It turned out that Jack (I think) was just ending his training week, accompanied by Katie, a fantastic senior tour guide. Now, the tours we had were usually a small van/bus with one row of single seats and one row of doubles, holding about 20 people. On most tours, we stopped three or four times to pick up families and people who'd all been at the same hotel, but poor Jack--I think that we made nine or ten stops at least to pick up single travelers. Katie and Jack were the very best tour guides we had the whole time, and shared a lot of the things that other tour guides would say, wrongly--and Katie and Jack were right.

Before I go on, let me tell you something else about small tours. This tour was full of very well-behaved people or, at least, people who all have to a mutual understanding. But here are my tips, based on some other tours. First, be on time to your tour. Don't make the operator wander around inside the lobby looking for you. Second, get on the bus with your group and stay with your group. By this I mean that I don't care where you sit, but sit together, and take either the first open seats, or move all the way to the back, so that the open seats are all together in a block, because inevitably, the last group to board with be parents with a bunch of small children, and we'll have to take a year sorting it out. If there are two of you, don't sit one person in the single seat and one person in the adjacent double. What is wrong with you. And once you've chosen a seat, you should keep it unless there's a compelling reason to change; sometimes, it's okay to leave things on the bus, and no one likes to get back on and find out that not only do they have to figure out where their stuff is, and under whom it is, but they have to find a new place to sit. Personally, I preferred to sit near the front to be able to see and hear better, but I had nice times in other parts of the buses, too. Except that time that kid from Canada kicked my seat for an hour (though, nothing really bothered me for more than a minute or three the whole trip).

One other tip, drawn from recent U.S. National Parks visits: If there is a walking path around attractions, don't stand on one side of the path and have your group try to line up on the other side with the attraction in the background, and get mad that people want to walk by, including people who don't speak your language and understand your anger and woe. Instead, stay on the same side of the path as your photo subject, and take a picture from that angle so you can get the person and thing without blocking, oh, 3,000 people who need to keep moving lest they be trampled. Or I will come after you.

I'd been up for driving out to Phillip Island, but C didn't like that idea, and booked us for the Penguin Parade Day Tour. (We'd probably have been fine with a GPS to get us out of the city; most of the roads were divided, or pleasantly rural and not busy.) As much as I love(d) Melbourne, it was nice to be out in the green countryside. And to be on the way to penguins!

Our first stop was the town of Koo Wee Rup. We were given about twenty minutes to go to a pie shop and get groceries for lunch. It was a very, very good thing that we did, though we didn't know it at the time. First, C and I hustled over to the IGA.

This will sound very rude, but all I could think at the time was I came halfway around the world to go to IGA. (IGA, in the US, is always that little supermarket in towns that would not otherwise have a supermarket.) I remember looking for a particular kind of lemon fizzy candy, and I think we grabbed some water, Coke and Pringles, which I'm only a little ashamed to say was our go-to "no time to think about it, just get something that's portable and you know how you'll feel after you eat it" combination. Then, we got meat pies from--and I'm not sure, even on street view--either Kooweerup Bakery or Wattle Cafe and Milk Bar. At the time, I felt a little bit weird chowing down when others weren't, but it turned out that we didn't get much of a chance to eat again until the next day. But more on that later.

Our "real" first stop was at Panny's Amazing World of Chocolate. I can kind of take or leave chocolate--I either want all of it, or none of it. That day, I was wanting none of it, but I picked up some mint, ginger, and honeycomb chocolates, which I wanted very much later in the trip! C. picked up some sort of assortment that melted into a big and, I think, luscious gob.

Here are some shoes made of chocolate.

Our next stop was at The Koala Conservation Centre. It turns out that Katie helps do a census of koalas, and told us a lot about them, from the misconception that they're getting high on eucalyptus--nope, just very picky about eating the leaves, and not getting enough energy from them to be super-active--to the preponderance of chlamydia in the koala population that's one of the many risks the animals are facing. 

There's a small interpretive center, but the main attraction for me was a series of trails and boardwalks, where you could get up close to view the koalas without being able to touch them. Here are the rules: no spanking, shouting, or shaking.

I could have stayed here all day just to check them out! That plastic you see in the background is something that's hard to climb over, and sets out ground territory so koalas can switch trees. Here are some koalas. Did you know they have two thumbs?

And an awesome bird. I'm not sure what it is.

I could have hung out here all day, but tours are tours (and oddly enough, you know, some people want to do this thing, others that). We headed on out into the countryside, and it was a beautiful day.

Then, we made a stop at a small winery. Phillip Island Winery, where I learned that roses planted around vineyards are the early warning system for grape problems, and where we tried a variety of wines and cheeses. I really liked the first one, a rosé. We also heard about screw-top wine, explained as fitting better with the Australian lifestyle than corks (and of course, corks can get icky).

I'm all for getting to the wine without need for a corkscrew. Nicely aglow, we headed out to a park, The Esplanade area, on the north side of the island. It was a very quick stop. I didn't take any pictures. It was suggested that we grab dinner, but I didn't see how we could accomplish that in the 15 or 20 minutes we had (walk uphill included), and we were headed out to see penguins soon after. Or we did some bit around the sea, and a stop at a visitor center, and then the park; I can't remember. But here are some pictures from the island.

I think that's a little penguin in a little penguin den. Most live in a no-photographs area. More on that later.

Some of this is the Nobbies. I'd have to look up things to tell you more.

At last, at last, we headed to the Penguin Parade area. I grabbed a guidebook with pictures at one stop because you're not to take pictures in the viewing area. (You can get an idea by going to Google Images, though, and searching for penguin parade.) And I didn't, even when I saw a rogue penguin out in the parking lot later.

This is not the penguin in the parking lot.

Signs directed us into the building, which was busy with exhibits and shopping.

Penguins: This way to eating and gifts! Or is it penguins, get eaten and turn into presents ahead?

C was very generous and got us the fanciest of fancy things, only available by advance arrangement. It turns out that I would probably have liked the mediumest of fancy things, because we were turned over to a ranger. I had on my jacket and my credentials around my neck, my purse slung around one way (exacerbating a medical issue, all on its own), and then added a set of binoculars and a radio-hearing thing, plus my glasses--it was pretty heavy and overwhelming, and then we went out onto the crowded boardwalk and beach just at twilight, when I find it very, very hard to see. So I might have just liked to sit in the sand, or on the off-to-the-side platform, to watch.

We picked our way down into the cool, wet sand--and I swear I didn't step on too many people on the way--and waited for sunset. As the sun goes down, rafts--gatherings--of penguins start to form in the waves, dark blotches. They clump up and then ride the waves in, thousands of them, spilling onto the beach on their tummies, and then walk, slide, wander up to their dens in the hills, passing over sensors that track and weigh them. They're wary of shorebirds, but they mostly ignore the people. They waddle back into the dark to mate (noisily!) and feed their chicks, some huge and pushy. And there are some penguins, females, going back the other way, down to the beach--I've forgotten the details, but I think to get minerals, to make stronger shells for eggs.

We got up to do some other boardwalk activities, tricky in the crowd (and while it would have been easier for me to see and follow C, I think he was afraid I would somehow get lost), and went up to the visitor center just in time to grab our included drinks and hop on the bus. Really, though, the parks on the island could be an all-day trip; you can find out about farming and working dogs and sheep shearing and whips in the day, visit the koalas in the afternoon, and see the penguins at night!

Also, there are some fantastic-looking tours in the area around Melbourne. If I'd had more time, I'd've liked to explore the beaches and the Great Ocean Road, the 12 Apostles, and so on, and the mountains, maybe on the Puffing Billy Railway. Of course, I wanted to tour the country by car, and if we'd had a couple of months...

We headed back to Melbourne, arriving very late, and getting caught in a traffic jam. I am not sure what that was about, but things were busy at 1 a.m. We were nearly the last to get dropped off--I think with all the pickups and dropoffs, there was a question of running out of fuel, too--so we stumbled home, hungry, but too tired to do anything but fall into bed.

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