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.

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