Thursday, September 30, 2010

Review: I Now Pronounce You Someone Else by Erin McCahan

I picked this one up because I was intrigued by the part about a girl in high school getting married. It's so rare that I find a YA book that deals with an event I have handled recently (like a wedding, as opposed to the long ago angst of wondering whether so-and-so liked me) that I wanted to see what was up. I then couldn't stop reading when I discovered the book is set not far from my hometown - and in fact, Bronwen's top college pick is my hometown's college!

I Now Pronounce You Someone ElseBronwen Oliver is convinced she's adopted. She and her mother have nothing in common (not even their hair color, though her mom tries to mask it with monthly salon visits to bleach out Bronwen's naturally brunette hair). From an early age she has convinced herself that she is actually Phoebe Lilywhite; she and the real Bronwen Oliver were switched at birth and any day now the Lilywhites will return to re-claim their lost daughter. As she approaches the end of high school this is seeming less and less likely, but Bronwen never stops yearning to find her "real" family.

Enter Jared Sondervan. An old friend of her older brother's (aka Jesus, judging by how much her mother adores him), Jared and Bronwen re-connect during a random coffee run and quickly begin dating, even though she's just finishing her senior year of high school and he's finishing his senior year at Hope College. Not only is Jared a perfect gentlemen, kind, courteous and eager to draw Bronwen out of his shell, but his family is large and loving, caring more about happiness than appearances - everything Bronwen's family is not. So when Jared proposes they should get engaged, Bronwen happily says yes. Suddenly prom isn't the biggest date on her calendar - it's her late August wedding at sunset on the beach at Lake Michigan. But as she and Jared begin planning their lives together, Bronwen finds herself questioning her choices. Maybe before she gets married, she has to really figure out who she is first.

Like I said above, this book is set around my home town, and McCahan has totally nailed the setting, right down to the proliferation of Dutch names (and the inevitable duplication of names, even when people aren't related). I about died when Bronwen and other characters were meeting in the very cafe on Hope's campus that I hung out at as a precocious middle- and high school student taking classes there. It's been years since I really considered the area home, but it was so much fun revisiting through Bronwen's eyes.

My one quibble with Bronwen? I literally ground my teeth together in frustration when she quips that every girl has her dream wedding no matter "how cool she pretends to be." Grr. Not true. I know, I know, one tiny line in a whole book, but that sort of declaration about how "all girls" or "all boys" act is incredibly frustrating for us girls (or boys) who don't share those traits! (See Tuesday's review of This Means War!)

In many ways, this book is the antidote to many of the unrealistic and down right creepy romances that have been flooding the YA market as of late. Jared is a legitimately nice guy - he respects Bronwen's boundaries (and good on Bronwen for having those boundaries and knowing when she had to say stop!) and seems truly interested in learning her likes and dislikes. His and Bronwen's problems don't stem from any inherent personality flaws, rather they're just in two very different places. When you're in a long term relationship, whether marriage or dating or domestic partnership, you do have to start thinking in terms of Us, and that was scary enough for me as a college graduate; I can't imagine having to make decisions like that in high school!

Bronwen's home life is painful to read about. Her mother is just awful, stopping just short of actually being abusive, though it certainly doesn't seem like Bronwen had the healthiest home life. Then again, I knew many parents in that area who shared major traits with her mom, namely the all-encompassing need to always keep up good appearances and never, ever offend or inconvenience someone else.

I totally acknowledge that a lot of my entertainment from this book was the setting and recognizing so much of the area that I grew up in. However, I wasn't so blinded that I couldn't recognize that this is a really solid book, and a great romance for people who like complicated and honest relationships.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Review: Forgive My Fins by Tera Lynn Childs

The calendar says summer is officially over, and even here in New York the temperature has finally dropped below 80, but I think we can squeeze in one more summer read, right?

Forgive My FinsLily Sanderson is a mermaid. And not just any mermaid; she's the princess of Thalasinnia. She's also half-human, and after she discovered that her mother was human, she chose to spend a few years living on land with her aunt and attending Seaview High School. On the plus side, she gets to know family she never knew she had, and oggle swimming god Brody every day. On the negative side, she has to deal with her obnoxious neighbor, Quince, who calls her dumb names and likes to call her house when she's in the bathtub. Annoying and a little creepy.

While Lily is enjoying life on land, she has a deadline for returning to the sea. As the heir to the Thalasinnian throne, she must bond with a mate for life by the time she turns 18. Lily is sure that Brody is meant to be the love of her life, even if they've never actually had a conversation yet. All she needs is to kiss him, and they'll be bonded for life and all will be well. Unfortunately, Quince ruins Lily's brilliant plan, requiring an emergency trip with him to the depths of Thalasinnia, exposing her secret and potentially ruining her chances with Brody forever.

This is possibly the most perfect definition of "beach read" ever. It's about a mermaid, large chunks of it take place in or around oceans, and it's about the fluffiest, most unsubstantial, romance I've ever read. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but don't go into this book expecting complex characters or multiple sub-plots. Lily is single-minded in her pursuit of Brody, and that translates into being essentially the only plot of the book.

Similarly, I know this isn't the sort of book one isn't supposed to apply logic to, but I just can't help it, since there were a few things that just kept bothering me. Like the concept of bonding at 18. Mermaids have longer lifespans than humans, so why on Earth (why in Atlantis?) would there be a law saying the future ruler must choose her mate for life at 18? Especially since we see how selfish and short-sighted Lily can be, that just seems like a recipe for disaster.

On a similar logic-defying note, while I liked the attempt at creating unique mermaid lingo, some of it just doesn't make logical sense. Like saying "carp" instead of "crap." Sure, the words look similar enough (in English), but think about the etymology of crap - what does that have to do with a fish? Especially a fish that lives in freshwater, while the mermaids live in the saltwater ocean.

If you're a romance fan looking for one last breath of summer, perhaps with a need for a break from serious school-related books, this wouldn't be a bad choice. However, even with the blatantly obvious (and out of nowhere) setup for a sequel, I think I'm done with mermaids. What's the next mythological creature to get a romance?

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Review: This Means War! by Ellen Wittlinger

The Cold War seems to be the hot topic in YA/MG lit this year. I think Deborah Wiles' Countdown has received the most attention, but there are at least two others I know of that have been published within the last few months. This Means War! is one of those.

This Means War!Juliet and Lowell have been best friends for as long as Juliet can remember, but their friendship is suddenly at risk when he starts hanging out with a pair of Air-Force-brat brothers who refuse to play with girls. Juliet befriends Patsy, who has also moved to town because of her father's job at the local military base, but her loud and brash ways are no substitute for quiet and sensitive Lowell. When the neighborhood bully worms his way into hanging out with Lowell, and the boys continue to harass Patsy and Juliet, Patsy gets fed up and declares war on the boys. Girls can do anything boys can do, and the two groups of kids (Patsy and Juliet rope in two more girls from school to even out the teams) face off in a series of challenges to prove their superiority.

As tensions escalate among the kids in the neighborhood, life is stressful for the adults as well, as we see through Juliet's eyes. Her parents run the local grocery store that is slowly losing customers to the new supermarket in town. And then of course there's the whole reason new families have been moving to the airbase: the Cold War is in full swing, and what we know as the Cuban Missile Crisis has just begun.

Poor Juliet! Her fear and tension is palpable throughout the book. She's a rather nervous child, but is quite endearing, so I was willing to overlook her nerves. All she wants is her old best friend back and doesn't understand this nonsense over boys and girls not being able to play together. Then her new friend Patsy drags her into this boys vs. girls contest while her family life is getting increasingly stressful and the threat of all-out war is hanging overhead. The nerves are rather understandable in that context, aren't they?

I imagine the boys vs. girls contest will have a lot of resonance with girls who've ever been told we're "not as good" as the boys, and I loved it when the girls decided to turn the tables on the boys and make them compete in traditionally girl-y activities. There's a little bit of gender essentialism going on there, but considering some of the girls excel in the "masculine" activities and some of the boys excel in the "feminine" activities, it's a good counterpoint to what the kids expect will happen.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Book Events: Great Books for Teens and Tweens at Books of Wonder

Last time I was at Books of Wonder it was a madhouse. On Sunday it was pretty much the total opposite, and totally awesome!

I was unfamiliar with most of the authors in attendance, the only one I'd even heard of was Jonathan Maberry, who wrote Rot and Ruin which I highlighted last week in my Fall releases post. So I went to the event just for him, but Matthew Myklusch, Catherine Jinks and Gitty Daneshvari all had great presentations and interesting books as well!

As the audience was filtering in before the panel got started, I got to have a great chat with Debbie, a fellow audience member who happens to be a kids/YA literary agent, and Catherine Jinks about blogging and whether it helps for getting a job in the industry. Debbie and I plugged Scott Westerfeld's excellent blog for Catherine as an example of an author's blog, and I introduced Debbie to Justine Larbalestier's books (I specifically recommended Liar).

Then it was time for the panel to start!

Matthew spoke first about his debut book Jack Blank and the Imagine Nation, about an orphaned boy who has no idea who he is - he was dropped off at a truly depressing orphanage in a basket with just 'Jack' written on the handle. He begins to develop super powers, and discovers he's actually from a place called Imagine Nation, where all of the fantastic things in our world originate. It turns out that Jack's abilities will either make him the greatest hero, or the greatest threat, the world has ever seen. Matthew read from the prologue, and it felt reminiscent of a Roald Dahl story or the first Harry Potter book - rather dark and bleak and some unseen narrator that assures us that from this humble beginning an epic story will emerge.

Catherine spoke next about The Genius Wars, the conclusion of a trilogy. The idea for the first book sprang from a conversation with her brother and her husband, regarding a Professor Gangrene figure of her nephew's. The question was posed "Where do these people get their degrees?" The answer, of course, is the University of Evil. Her reading selection was a little hard to follow, since I know nothing about the books, but I'm interested in the fact that one of the main character's friends is a girl with Cerebral Palsy.

It was kind of interesting hearing from authors who are all over the place in terms of series/trilogies of books. Gitty was talking about the second book in her School of Fear series. The characters all have real fears she suffered from as a child, including a terrible fear of spiders that led her to spraying RAID in her hair every night to keep spiders from nesting there as she slept. Ugh! In the second book, the kids are returning for their second year at a school for kids with crippling fears. She read for us a scene where the kids are trying to convince their principal that they are totally cured and don't need to go back for a second year. It sounds really funny with a great dose of sarcasm.

Jonathan Maberry, it turns out, has written roughly a billion books, but Rot and Ruin is his first YA, and again we're at the first in a series. He spoke a little bit about why zombie stories are actually totally safe to read if you're someone who's totally freaked out by the idea of zombies - because zombie stories aren't actually about the zombies. Instead, the zombie acts as a metaphor and presents an immediate threat to your characters, which is then the catalyst for change. He said this threat or crisis has been the center of storytelling going all the way back to Gilgamesh (who I have a special affinity for, after performing excerpts from the epic in forensics in college. Just about the only time they got me to compete in poetry!) He then asked how many of us had seen Night of the Living Dead - I was sitting in the front so I didn't see how many people behind me raised their hands, but apparently all of the zombie fans were sitting in the same half of the room, which reminded me of Zombies vs. Unicorns debate. He then read from Rot and Ruin, and can I just say that I am SO GLAD I bought a copy for myself because I was getting chills just from the short excerpt he read, with the main character and his older brother talking about how all zombies were once somebody's family.

Then it was question and answer time, and I opened with a question specifically for Jonathan, but I told the other authors they could chime in if they liked. In my opinion it was the most important question of the day: fast or slow zombies? Jonthan prefers slow in books and fast in movies, and apparently tackles the issue later in this series (or maybe it was the end of Rot and Ruin? Listening and taking notes hasn't always been my strong suit). Matthew also said he prefers slow zombies, as they give more time to develop your characters. Catherine says she has a zombie appear at the end of her next book, the sequel to The Reformed Vampire Support Group and he's a very slow, very sad zombie. Slow zombies have pathos she decided. Gitty begged off, saying she had no opinion on zombies.

An audience member says that when she was a kid, kid's books were rather trauma-free, but all of the books we were discussing today had some sort of trauma, whether extreme phobias or fighting evil or zombies, and she wondered how the authors' books were being received. Jonathan answered that since kids today have more understanding and/or awareness of what's happening in the world through all of the readily-available technology, authors would be doing a disservice if they wrote a sugar-coated world. Gitty chimed in that her book isn't actually scary, since she's such a wimp she wouldn't be able to write a truly scary story. Catherine and Matthew both said that any "trauma" in their books is diffused through humor. Another audience member commented that perhaps the issues and trauma aren't new, but rather we're more willing to talk about it today than we were fifteen or twenty years ago. Jonathan responded that he, at least, isn't writing about fear, but rather people's responses to it and over coming those fears. He said that when he's talking to people about his adult thrillers they always ask why he's writing about monsters, and he says he doesn't write about monsters, but instead writes about people and how they defeat those monsters.

The Books of Wonder employee who was acting as our MC asked the next question, wondering, since all of the authors were at one point or another in writing a series, how much of the end they knew when they were starting. And here's where the panel began to get really fun, because it turned more into a conversation rather than each author giving their answer in isolation. Matthew said he's a big planner and knows the broad strokes of the story, comparing writing to a road trip. He's the sort of traveler who would need the entire atlas and GPS to get to his destination. However, he's not so inflexible that he doesn't listen to his characters, and will allow the to pull him off the beaten track. Catherine has written several series as this point, but never sets out to write a series, in part because she fears that she will never get all of them published. Her first series became one because the character wouldn't leave her alone, while with Genius Wars she realized that the character was left in limbo at the end of book one, and at the end of book two the character also still needed a major sense of resolution about his relationship with another character. Gitty says she always outlines and writes a "dreadful" first draft. For Jonathan, Rot and Ruin is his third series. The first one was pitched as a closed trilogy, while his second was an open ended series, where each book is a contained "episode" without an overarching plot tying multiple books together (likened it to the James Bond movies). He also said that when he has to switch gears and go to another set of characters for another series, he almost has to have a grief period - for example, the characters in Rot and Ruin feel so real he doesn't want to leave! Here Catherine had to jump in again to note that sometimes the exact opposite happens and you just can't wait to leave these characters forever! Matthew picked up next, noting that some stories just fit one series type better than the other. For the Jack Blank books, he sold the series as a trilogy, but he made sure that this book, at least, finishes up part of the story, so it sounds like it's not one of those annoying cliffhanger series.

Peter Glassman, the owner of Books of Wonder, came up next, saying that what the authors had been saying about series was really showing how series and children's literature have evolved. The first children's series was Louisa May Alcott's Little Women, where each book was a self-contained story, and that was the tradition for decades until Tolkein came along with Lord of the Rings - which wasn't intended to be a trilogy, but the publisher split the book up figuring people wouldn't want to buy a 1500 page novel.

The final question of the afternoon was about what comes next. Matthew has Jack Blank and the Secret War publishing next and is currently writing the conclusion. Catherine is starting an entirely new series that is apparently set in a computer first person shooter game and the character meets a virus (she says her pitching skills her terrible, but I know I'm already curious). Gitty is plugging away on the third School of Fear title, and Jonathan "never sleeps" as he's working on at least three different projects, including a few mini-series for Marvel comics.

Thanks to all of the authors for coming out on a gray afternoon, and thanks to Books of Wonder for putting together an excellent panel of authors! Check back later this week for my review of Rot and Ruin and a truly awesome giveaway!

Nonfiction Monday Review: The War to End All Wars by Russell Freedman

I finished reading my ARC of Scott Westerfeld's Behemoth recently, and figured now would be the perfect time to pick up a book on World War I. The first World War was woefully under-represented in my history classes - I only remember one lesson on it (it was a pretty cool lesson, where we drew country names from a hat and role played being the leaders of those countries to see if the war would turn out any differently. It didn't). Freedman's The War to End All Wars helps correct that glaring deficit in my education.

The War to End All Wars: World War I
The book is organized more thematically than chronologically, starting with the murder of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie in Serbia before backtracking slightly to look at the military buildups and general tension in Europe before fighting broke out. Freeman's writing is excellent in this part, as he made the tension in Europe feel very real, and like this war might have been inevitable, as my high school history class demonstrated.

From there, the sections tend to cover one aspect of the war from the beginning to its conclusion, such as trench warfare and naval battles, with the occasional look at notable battles like the Battle of Verdun, which was a long and bloody battle in France for a tactically insignificant fort that was nevertheless a matter of national pride for the French. Absolutely horrifying.

I wanted to recommend this book for Leviathan fans who want a peak at the real history behind Westerfeld's alternate history, but the book focuses almost entirely on the Western Front, whereas so far the Leviathan series has been more focused on the East (at the end of Leviathan, the great ship is headed for Istanbul, and Behemoth picks up there). While I understand the need to choose something to focus on because the war was so huge, that means that some events are mostly glossed over. For example, can anyone tell me why on Earth Japan declared war on Germany? I've never understood that one. And the communist revolution is covered in three paragraphs. And those are just the questions I recognize I have; I know so little about WWI, who knows what else I'm missing?

On a positive note, the pictures in this book are absolutely fantastic and devastating. Freedman has found some stunning photographs, including action shots that could only have been achieved through luck, like a ship that's just been struck by a shell, or a group of advancing soldiers where one has just been shot but hasn't fallen yet. These aren't pretty pictures, but they do an excellent job of giving the war a human face.

Finally, I found it incredibly interesting in the last chapter where Freedman notes that modern historians often consider WWII an extension of WWI, quoting historian John Keegan saying WWII "is inexplicable except in terms of the rancor and instabilities left by the earlier conflict." Yet I'm sure if you ask the average high school student, they have a much better understanding of what started WWII than WWI. Freedman gives a brief glimpse at how the anger and unresolved tensions of WWI led into Hitler's rise in Germany, but it's clear that whole story would take up a whole other book.

Nonfiction Monday

This week's Nonfiction Monday is hosted by Wendie's Wanderings. Be sure to stop by and check out the other great nonfiction titles reviewed today!

Thank goodness for fall - after a relatively quiet summer, I've got book events to attend again! Check out my re-cap of yesterday's Books for Teens & Tweens event at Books of wonder.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Book Events: Zombies Vs. Unicorns Debate at Symphony Space

Seeing as I follow one of its editors and her spouse on Twitter, I've been hearing buzz about this Zombies Vs. Unicorns book for awhile, but I'll admit I felt no great compulsion to run out and buy it. I am an unrepentant zombie fan, sure, but unicorns? Not so interested.

And then I heard that not only were several of the authors going to do an appearance in NYC, but they were going to have a debate. As a former speech geek (closely related to debate, though I never actually went to the dark side), I knew I had to see this. And, well, since there was going to be a signing afterwards, I might as well pick up a copy for myself, right? If it sucked, I could always try to give it away on the blog, right? (Spoiler alert: I'm not giving away this copy!)

As our tickets were being taken we were given instructions: zombie fans sit to the left, unicorn fans sit to the right. We were also given nifty buttons so we could show the world our allegiance! The audience seemed about evenly split. The panelists were, for Team Zombie Maureen Johnson, Scott Westerfeld and Libba Bray. Representing Team Unicorn: Holly Black, Naomi Novik and Alaya Dawn Johnson (who is really Team Zombie, but confessed to some high school debate experience so when Team Unicorn realized they were at a disadvantage they recruited her as a double agent). Justine Larbalestier was on hand to serve as the totally impartial moderator. She came out wearing an anti-unicorn T-shirt and shuffling like a zombie until Scott reminded her that she was supposed to be impartial. Also I must note Justine was wearing kickass cowboy boots. They had crossbows on them! Sooooooo jealous. (I wish I had pictures, but my digital camera has disappeared and my cell phone takes epically BAD pictures. They really were awesome though.)

Team Unicorn may or may not have won the coin toss to go first, but Alaya ended up speaking first, in a really weird pro-Unicorn argument that had something to do with how seagulls are like unicorns and how everyone wants zombies in their living rooms? It wasn't the strongest argument.

Maureen Johnson came out next, dressed up in her finest debate duds, and broke out into a populist faux-Sarah Palin pro-zombie speech, with the help of Zombie Joe as her "translator." Zombies are mavericks! They just keep coming at'cha, like a real American! And unicorns are French. At the end it looked like Zombie Joe may not have been adequately fed before the debate. I think he took a chunk out of Maureen's hand...

Naomi Novik was next for Team Unicorn, and she came prepared with visual aids! Her argument basically was, unicorns are made for crushing evil, zombies are 100% evil and shed body parts (ew). QED, unicorns win. Her final unicorn poster was also quite sparkly

Scott Westerfeld's pro-zombie argument involved looking at the literary fruits of the two species, comparing A Unicorn is Born to Max Brooks' zombie classic, World War Z. The excerpts from A Unicorn is Born may be some of the most frightening and nauseating things I've ever heard. Apparently it goes into the details of unicorn sex, though we were spared that. Instead we got to hear Scott's interpretation of the Battle of Yonkers. It was much better than unicorns. And as a former speech geek, I have to congratulate Scott on his excellent time allocation. He was given 2 minutes for his presentation, and right at the 1 minute warning he was switching smoothly from A Unicorn is Born to World War Z.

During all of this Maureen has been slowly fading. When Scott takes his seat next to her, it looks like she bites his hand!

Holly Black, as the captain of Team Unicorn, now gets 5 minutes to sum up her side's argument. She tries to bribe us with packets of glitter - one hit me on the head! She also described unicorns as sparkling "like a suicidal Edward Cullen" which may be my favorite simile EVER.

Scott isn't looking too great at this point, either. He and Maureen are both kind of slumped over with glazed looks in their eyes. Rude audience members? Or is something more nefarious afoot?

Team Zombie's captain, Libba Bray, one-ups Holly's bribery attempt by having a MUSICAL NUMBER for her closing argument. Highlights from her bluesy/gospel song: the most famous undead person ever - Jesus Christ, who rose from the dead and told his followers to eat of his flesh and drink of his blood. Also, after everything the zombies have been through, they have the right to sing the blues. Another famous zombie? The scarecrow from The Wizard of Oz - he did ask for brains, after all!

As Libba's time winds down, Zombie Joe reappears from the wings. The sound of his shuffling sparks something in Maureen and Scott! They stand and all three shamble over to Libba - Maureen and Scott have turned into zombies and they're carrying the team captain away!

Okay, not really. Well, they did pick up Libba and carry her off the stage, but no one was actually turned into a zombie over the course of the debate.

At the end of it all, Justine was waffling over whether we should just say everyone's a winner or if we, the audience, needed to applaud to declare a winner. I shouted out that we needed a winner, so the two halves of the audience cheered in turn for their respective teams. Justine claimed it was a tie, but I'm darn sure Team Zombie was louder!

There was a Q&A session afterwards, but with so many people on the panel it was hard to get all of the questions and answers written down, so I'll just share some of the highlights.

"How did you discover your affinity for unicorns or zombies?"

Libba: claims she was a creepy kid who loved horror stories and always loved zombies. Her first viewing of Dawn of the Dead was at a drive in theater in a small town in Texas, which she says is the absolute best way to see a zombie movie.

Maureen: her mom was a nurse and would share the gory details of her medical thrillers with young Maureen, so she's always been interested in the first infected/patient zero aspect of stories. Seeing Shaun of the Dead was her zombie epiphany.

Holly: was drawn to the natural history aspect of unicorns - we have centuries of stories and text books talking about unicorns as if they were real creatures. Why does she hate zombies so much? She was totally creeped out after watching Night of the Living Dead and the trauma was solidified by the fact that she had to walk to school through a graveyard the next day.

How long did it take to put the book together?
Justine: Took way longer than she thought it would. It was supposed to have been easy, but instead she found she had to bully and beg people to turn stuff in.
Libba: Thought writing for a themed anthology would be easier than writing on her own. Ended up essentially writing two stories - the first one was filled with grown ups and just wasn't going to work for a YA anthology, so even though it was a great story, she had to turn around and write something completely different!

The Zombies vs. Unicorns debate moves to Baltimore tonight as part of the Baltimore Book Festival. This time it's Justine, Scott and Carrie Ryan on Team Zombie and Holly, Kathleen Duey and Diana Peterfreund on Team Unicorn. If the NYC debate was any indicator, it sure to be a hilarious evening!

Sci Fi Friday Review: Monsters of Men by Patrick Ness

Back when I went to ALA, I knew I was going to meet up with Lynn & Cindy at some point, but probably not until Saturday or Sunday. Yet when I got to the convention hall on Friday evening to register, I saw them across the lobby and snuck up on them like the sneaky person I am. And good thing too - while they were off to do important committee stuff, they clued me in that Candlewick had a few ARCs left of Monsters of Men and I should make that my first stop if I wanted to get my hands on this book before September. I then impressed them when we met up again on Sunday to report that I'd already finished the book!

Monsters of Men: Chaos Walking: Book Three
Monsters of Men is the conclusion to the Chaos Walking trilogy, all of which have had slightly unwieldy names (The Knife of Never Letting Go and The Ask and the Answer). When we last left Todd and Viola, they were facing the prospect of all out war, with Mayor President Prentiss' army of men and Mistress Coyle's resistance/terrorist cell of women and cast off men ready to kill each other, if the massive army of rebelling Spackle don't kill all of the humans first. Oh, and Viola's people, her fellow colonists, have reached the planet. Monsters of Men drops us right back into the action, with the adults and the Spackle known as 1017 all itching for war. Todd and Viola are once again caught in the middle, and now 1017 is added to the narrative mix, struggling with many of the same issues as the humans - he wants revenge, and is even willing to go against the nominal leader of his people, The Sky, in his quest. Will cooler heads ever prevail?

First of all, I love how Ness writes the animals in these books. There's Manchee, of course, and his lovable enthusiasm, but Angarath was tugging at my heartstrings throughout the entire book. It's great because these animals retain their essential animal-ness, just now it's easier for them to communicate with the humans around them. It's totally a dream come true for someone like me who would love to know what her cat is thinking (I just gave my cats some catnip, so I'm pretty sure their thoughts right now are I'M SO HIGH, but that's just a guess).

I have to say, I was on the edge of my seat for most of the book, but it was written in such a way that I felt a little manipulated. Every few chapters a new emergency arises or someone blows something up, which is pretty much the sole way the plot moves forward for much of the book. Around page 350 I found myself sighing with each new emergency - and at Mistress Coyle and Mayor Prentiss as they constantly bickered, backstabbed, and manipulated their proteges to get Viola and Todd to follow in their footsteps. After reading Mockingjay, I found myself comparing the two books - Ness moves the plot forward by blowing something up, Collins moves Mockingjay forward by having Katniss suffer a traumatic injury. Both are effective in small doses, but repeatedly in one novel is just...repetitive. The pace picked up again in the last 100 pages or so, but part of that may have been me realizing I was so close to the end and desperate to find out what the payoff would be for the series.

Writing the conclusion to a trilogy has to be super stressful for an author. Undoubtedly, it will be impossible to please everybody (as we saw with Mockingjay last month). While I had a few minor problems with Monsters of Men, it is overall a very satisfying conclusion to this story.

Reviewed from ARC picked up at ALA.

BTW: Last night I attended the awesome Zombies Vs. Unicorns debate! Check back here after 1 PM Eastern to see my re-cap of the event!

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Book Thoughts: Fall Releases

While fall is the big season for movies (awards season! FINALLY all of the good movies are being released), for books it's sometimes not quite as hyped. After all, autumn is when we're going back to school and gearing up for major holidays. There's so much other stuff going on, but there's also some really exciting books being released soon. Here's a preview of some of the books I'm most looking forward to:

Behemoth (Leviathan)
 Behemoth by Scott Westerfeld. The sequel to last year's "diesel-punk" Leviathan. I'm reading it now - expect a Sci-Fi Friday review in a week or two - and having A LOT of fun. I'm a little disappointed in the cover change - the hard cover version of Leviathan was just stunning and here the cover has been designed to match with Leviathan's paperback cover - but I'll be interested to see if the overall design looks like the first book (heavy paper, slightly larger dimensions) or if they've scaled back for the sequel (I'm reading from an ARC I picked up at ALA, so it's incredibly flimsy. And missing page 12). October 5.

Monsters of Men: Chaos Walking: Book Three Monsters of Men by Patrick Ness. Another ARC I picked up at ALA, only instead of waiting months to read it I barely waited hours and finished it before I even left DC. This one comes out next week, and if everything goes according to plan I'll be posting my review tomorrow. It's an epic conclusion to the Chaos Walking trilogy, and I highly recommend you read the first two before diving into this tale of war, insurrection, backstabbing, friendship, and explosions. Lots and lots of explosions. September 28.

Rot & Ruin Rot and Ruin by Jonathan Maberry. I'm always a little disappointed in myself when I discover a book because I'm browsing at Barnes & Noble, rather than through blogs or other online resources. I feel like I'm failing a little as a blogger - I'm supposed to know these things in advance, right? Especially when it's a ZOMBIE book (like you couldn't guess that from the cover). From the Goodreads description: "In the zombie-infested, post-apocalyptic America where Benny Imura lives, every teenager must find a job by the time they turn fifteen or get their rations cut in half. Benny doesn't want to apprentice as a zombie hunter with his boring older brother Tom, but he has no choice. He expects a tedious job whacking zoms for cash, but what he gets is a vocation that will teach him what it means to be human." September 15.

Hunger Hunger by Jackie Morse Kessler. Another title I saw at ALA (though I don't believe I got an ARC...will have to check the "October" row of my ARC shelf!) and was instantly intrigued by. Excerpted from the description on Goodreads: "Lisabeth Lewis has a black steed, a set of scales, and a new job: she’s been appointed Famine. How will an anorexic seventeen-year-old girl from the suburbs fare as one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse?" I LOVE the juxtaposition of anorexia and Famine. This is the start of a new series, and I'm very interested to see how it's going to turn out. October 18.

Jane Jane by April Lindner. "What if Jane Eyre fell in love with a rock star" is the tagline on this one. I read Jane Eyre in college and didn't totally hate it (though I enjoyed The Wide Sargasso Sea so much more), so I have to admit I'm curious about this one. Excerpted from the Goodreads description: "Forced to drop out of an esteemed East Coast college after the sudden death of her parents, Jane Moore takes a nanny job at Thornfield Park, the estate of Nico Rathburn, an iconic rock star on the brink of a huge comeback. Practical and independent, Jane reluctantly becomes entranced by her magnetic and brooding employer, and finds herself in the midst of a forbidden romance." October 11.

Prisoners in the Palace: How Princess Victoria became Queen with the Help of Her Maid, a Reporter, and a Scoundrel Prisoners in the Palace by Michaela MacColl. Colleen at Chasing Ray first highlighted this one, drawing attention to that fabulous cover. Then just this morning, Tara at The Bodacious Pen absolutely raved about this one. Excerpted from the Goodreads description: "London, 1838. Sixteen-year-old Liza's dreams of her society debut are dashed when her parents are killed in an accident. Penniless, she accepts the position of lady's maid to young Princess Victoria and steps unwittingly into the gossipy intrigue of the servant's world below-stairs as well as the trickery above. Is it possible that her changing circumstances may offer Liza the chance to determine her own fate, find true love, and secure the throne for her future queen?" October 13.

The Mockingbirds The Mockingbirds by Daisy Whitney. Eary reviews of this initially had me thinking this was going to be about wacky revenge hijinks. Pretty sure this was an incorrect conclusions. From the Goodreads description: "Themis Academy is a quiet boarding school with an exceptional student body that the administration trusts to always behave the honorable way--the Themis Way. So when Alex is date raped during her junior year, she has two options: stay silent and hope someone helps her, or enlist the Mockingbirds--a secret society of students dedicated to righting the wrongs of their fellow peers." "Date rape" and "hijinks" don't go hand in hand. November 2.

The House of Dead Maids The House of Dead Maids by Clare B. Dunkle. It's the season of Bronte stories! This is a prequel to Wuthering Heights. Which I've never read. But since this is a pre-quel, that shouldn't be a problem, right? Excerpted from the Goodreads description: "Young Tabby Aykroyd has been brought to the dusty mansion of Seldom House to be nursemaid to a foundling boy. He is a savage little creature, but the Yorkshire moors harbor far worse, as Tabby soon discovers. The ghost of the last maid will not leave Tabby in peace, yet this spirit is only one of many. Why do scores of dead maids and masters haunt Seldom House with a jealous devotion that extends beyond the grave?" September 14.
Where The Streets Had A Name
Where the Streets had a Name by Randa Abdel-Fattah. A contemporary story set in the West Bank. I can't think of any other YA novels that have taken on that setting. From the Goodreads description: "Thirteen-year-old Hayaat is on a mission. She believes a handful of soil from her grandmother's ancestral home in Jerusalem will save her beloved Sitti Zeynab's life. The only problem is the impenetrable wall that divides the West Bank, as well as the checkpoints, the curfews, and Hayaat's best friend Samy, who is always a troublemaker. But luck is on their side. Hayaat and Samy have a curfew-free day to travel to Jerusalem. However, while their journey is only a few kilometres long, it may take a lifetime to complete." November 1.

Girl, Stolen Girl, Stolen by April Henry. I like this version of a girl's face on the cover! Interesting take. Also interesting: this is the second book with a blind female protagonist I've seen this fall (the other is the already released Blindsided, where the girl is going blind. At least that's what the jacket said - still waiting on the book from the library). Excerpted from the Goodreads description: "Sixteen year-old Cheyenne Wilder is sleeping in the back of a car while her mom fills her prescription at the pharmacy. Before Cheyenne realizes what's happening, their car is being stolen--with her inside! Griffin hadn’t meant to kidnap Cheyenne, all he needed to do was steal a car for the others. But once Griffin's dad finds out that Cheyenne’s father is the president of a powerful corporation, everything changes." September 28.

Cate of the Lost Colony Cate of the Lost Colony by Lisa Klein. Not so much a fan of this cover, but that's just because I think putting the face of a contemporary girl dresed in vaguely period clothes is some lazy design work (I'm very hard to please when it comes to covers - this is why I ignore them most of the time). I am, however, totally intrigued by Roanoke and don't think I've ever read a YA book set there. From the Goodreads description: "The greatest unsolved mystery of American history--what happened to all the colonists who landed on Roanoke Island in 1587? This novel traces the fortunes and misfortunes of one Cate Archer, banished to Virginia by a jealous Queen Elizabeth because of her dalliance with Sir Walter Ralegh. What will be her fate in this dangerous New World?" October 12.

The Other Side of Dark The Other Side of Dark by Sarah Smith. All I have to say is this sounds utterly creepy. And it has an interracial romance - you all know I'm not a romance fan, but I am so, so glad to see a paranormal story that isn't lily white. Excerpted from the Goodreads description: "Since losing both of her parents, fifteen-year-old Katie can see and talk to ghosts, which makes her a loner until fellow student Law sees her drawing of a historic house and together they seek a treasure rumored to be hidden there by illegal slave-traders." November 2.

Sapphique Sapphique by Catherine Fisher. This was the ARC at ALA that almost got my arm ripped off, Lynn was so eager to have it. She found her own copy, my arms are both intact, so we're both happy. Incarceron and Sapphique are unique in that this is a pair of books, rather than stretching into a trilogy. I really think the story would have suffered if it'd been drawn out into a third novel - the pair of books pull this story together in an extremely satisfying way. December 28.

Okay, I think it's about time that I stop. What titles are you looking forward to this fall?

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Review: The Wide Awake Princess by E.D. Baker

Found via Melissa at Book Nut

Another day, another fairy tale book! This one starts off as a take off on Sleeping Beauty, but ends up covering so much more.

The Wide-Awake PrincessIn a land where all Royals are bequeathed with magical gifts at birth, Princess Gwendolyn is the prettiest, charmingest, and all around best princess of them all. But a jealous fairy cursed her as well, proclaiming that by her 16th birthday, the princess would prick her finger on a spindle and die. While her parents banished spinning wheels from the kingdom, when their second daughter, Annabelle, was born, they weren't going to take any chances and asked a fairy to protect her from evil spells. So Annabelle was gifted with a lack of magic - she has no magical enhancements, enchantments won't work on her, and she even diminishes the effects of magic on those around her - which certainly doesn't endear her to the women with magical beauty (including her mother!).

When a rogue spinning wheel makes it into the castle on Gwendolyn's birthday, the curse falls into place, only thanks to another fairy the punishment is lessened from death to 100 years of sleeping for Gwendolyn and the castle's inhabitants, to be ended only by the kiss of Gwendolyn's true love. Of course, the spell doesn't work on Annabelle, so it's up to her and one of the castle guards who'd been out of the gates on an errand, to track down Gwendolyn's love and save the day. 

This is great fun for anyone who's a fan of fairy tales in general, as during their journey Annie and Liam stumble across a boatload of other fairy tale and mythological characters, from kelpies to Hansel and Gretel to Rapunzel.

Annabelle is up there with Poppy for the title of "Awesomest Princess Ever." Annie spends a significant chunk of the story on her own before Liam shows up, and he's truly the sidekick, often relying on Annie's common sense and lack-of-magic to get the job done. The fairy who bestows this gift upon Annie says she'll have to rely on her own natural charm, which luckily Annie has in spades.

Also? I love this cover. I don't know why, but I think it's brilliant.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Double Review: The Education of Bet by Lauren Baratz-Logsted and A Golden Web by Barbara Quick

A backlog of reviews means more double reviews, simply so it doesn't take me two months to catch up with myself. On the other hand, I would probably have reviewed these two together anyway, since they share a few elements: historical fiction, romance between students, and girls disguising themselves as boys in order to receive an education.

The Education of BetIn 19th century England, Bet is the orphaned daughter of a maid, and has been the ward of a relative of her mother's employer for most of her life. Bet occupies a precipitous place in a society rigidly defined by class: she comes from the humblest of beginnings and has been raised in the lap of luxury, yet now belongs to neither world. What Bet longs for most, however, is an education - something denied to her and yet forced upon the unwilling Will, great-nephew of her benefactor who lost his parents to the same illness that killed Bet's mother. Will wants a life of glory in the military. Bet wants to go to school. So Bet concocts a plan: since Will is due to be sent to a new school at the start of the term, she will dress as a boy and pretend to be him, leaving Will free to pursue military service.

Away at school, Bet thrives in her classes, but finds interpersonal relationships much more tricky, as she attracts the attention of bullies and generally has no idea about how boys act when girls aren't around. To make matters trickier, she shares a room with an attractive roommate, and discovers that even the best laid plans can have holes in them (for example - in a school full of men and boys, how is she supposed to handle her period?).

A Golden Web
A Golden Web is set much earlier, going back to 14th century Italy, and follows Alessandra Gillani, who is thought to be the first female anatomist. As Quick's author's note explains, no one is entirely sure if Alessandra existed or if she was as educated as legend says she is, but Quick paints a rich picture of her possible life. Daughter of a wealthy book maker, back when books were still written and illustrated by the hands of apprentices, Alessandra has access to a wealth of knowledge denied to other girls and women of her age. Threatened with an arranged marriage at 15 by a disapproving stepmother, Alessandra first hides in a convent, then disguises herself as Sandro and makes her way to Bologna to study with the masters of medicine and the fledgling science of anatomy, where her talents make her the enemy of a jealous fellow student, and also attract the eye and support of a handsome student who she may just be able to trust with her secret.

With so much in common, these books are actually vastly different. The Education of Bet focuses almost exclusively on the romance between Bet and her roommate, to the point where at times it hardly even seemed like an historical fiction novel, and the cross-dressing was merely an elaborate plot device to bring the two unlikely lovers together (unlikely thanks to that pesky class difference). A Golden Web spends much more time on historical details, making it totally believable why Alessandra would have to disguise herself as Sandro. And despite her younger age, Alessandra is much better equipped for an extended disguise - even though she set out before she started her period (or "flowering," which is probably the most ridiculous euphemism I've ever heard), she knows it's going to come thanks to her medical books and quickly adapts. Bet has been menstruating for awhile, and yet totally forgot to plan ahead, which struck me as ridiculous. I've been known to forget to have pads or tampons with me on a trip, but that's not because I forgot I was going to have my period, rather I was just too scatterbrained to throw extras in my bag. Bet just forgot it was ever going to happen.

Parts of A Golden Web feel slightly too coincidental to be realistic, and for awhile I wondered if this was actually going to go into a Cinderella-style story since her stepmother is just so wicked. However, I loved Alessandra's special interest in women's bodies and health, and descriptions of her visiting midwives and female healers in the unsavory part of town to learn from their traditional knowledge, handed down orally from generation to generation, and combining that with her schooling.

If you're looking for a fluffy romance, you could do worse than The Education of Bet. If you want a nuanced historical novel, A Golden Web is the book for you.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Nonfiction Monday Review: Anne Frank: The Graphic Biography by Sid Jacobson and Ernie Colon

Sid Jacobson and Ernie Colon are making a career for themselves out of adapting stories to graphic novel form. I first became aware of them with their graphic adaptation of The 9/11 Report. Since then they've looked at the War on Terror and written a biography of Che Guevara. Now, with the blessing of the Anne Frank House, they've put together a biography of the Holocaust's most famous young victim: Anne Frank.

Anne Frank: The Anne Frank House Authorized Graphic BiographyJacobson and Colon go back to the 1920s, when Anne's parents met, to give Anne's brief life a history and context. Both of Anne's parents were well-to-do members of society, with her father working for the family bank and serving honorably in World War I. The book briefly covers their early lives together and the birth of Anne's sister, Margot, before bringing Anne herself into the story.

Anne had a happy childhood, filled with loving friends and family, that was unfortunately marred by increasing hardship, thanks to the rise of the Nazi party in Germany, ultimately leaving the family no choice but to move into the famous Secret Annex.

Jacobson and Colon do an excellent job of putting Anne's life into the context of the greater war that was being waged first in Europe, and then around the world. Periodic "snapshots" take us to important events, giving us a quick synopsis of the events and their aftermath (for example, the new restrictions placed on Jews in German-occupied territories after Kristallnacht). World maps also quickly and clearly identify that allies and axis powers as well as their colonies and territories throughout the world. The visual nature of the graphic novel is really utilized well here.

This biography is also extremely powerful when it comes to illustrating what happened after the family was discovered, grimly detailing the family's days in various concentration and extermination camps. Jacobson and Colon pull in references from other prisoners who knew Anne, some who knew her both before the war and were also imprisoned with her.

The graphic novel format is perfect to bring Anne's story to a wider audience, and one that works for all ages. This could be read by children who are just being introduced to Anne Frank (I think I first read her diary in fourth grade), or older students or adults who are re-visiting the era. The format is used extremely effectively, as I found it easier to understand the timeline of events and to connect Anne's life with what was happening in the rest of the world easier than ever before. It's a quick read and while not the most exhaustive biography of Anne Frank ever, it's a great introduction to a powerful story.

Nonfiction Monday
This week's Nonfiction Monday is hosted by Wrapped in Foil. Be sure to stop by and check out all the other great nonfiction books this week!

Friday, September 17, 2010

Sci Fi Friday Review: Black Hole Sun by David Macinnis Gill

Found via: Bookends

I feel like I can play Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon with this book, except instead of Kevin Bacon the goal person is Suzanne Collins. I know Cindy Dobrez. Cindy Dobrez reviewed Black Hole Sun for Booklist and her review is on the back cover. Also on the cover? Suzanne Collins. So that puts me one degree away from celebrity, right? (I'm also one degree away from James Earl Jones, but that's another story).

Black Hole Sun
Durango is eight and a half Mars years old (17 Earth years), and the disgraced leader of a ragtag group of mercenaries hired for a fool's errand - to protect a group of poor miners from the cannibalistic draeu. The draeu are the boogeymen of Mars, unfeeling and terrifying cannibals, while the miners are some of the lowest of the low, originally necessary to procure materials to build Mars and then abandoned when the planet was habitable enough. The only people lower on the totem pole than the miners? Dalit Regulators, like Durango and his second-in-command, Vienne. A man of honor, Durango is determined to protect the miners, even when it's clear they're hiding something from him, and the fight against the draeu is taken to a whole new level when the true extent of their abilities, and their leader, is finally revealed.

I've gotten progressively more excited about this book since page one. This is a perfect blend of science fiction, action-adventure, and humor. I finished it on the subway ride home yesterday (right around the time a possible tornado was in the area - I missed the whole storm while underground!), and was satisfied, even happy with the story. But as the evening wore on I found I had more and more I wanted to talk about - conversation about the book ended up dominating my dinner conversation, overshadowing discussion of the storm and my new promotion (I'm very proud of it, thus sneaking it into conversation - or blog posts - whenever possible!). That has to be one of the best signs of a great book, right?

Easily what sets this book apart from other science fiction novels is the humor. Durango and Mimi, his former commander turned artificial intelligence implanted in his brain, have a constantly running sarcastic repartee throughout the book. And then there's Fuse, the explosions expert. And Leroy Jenkins.

Yes, Leroy Jenkins.

Big thumbs up for that, Mr. Gill. I just burst out laughing the first time I saw his full name (usually he's just Jenkins), and he quickly became my favorite character.

There's also some intricate world building here - we're dropped right in the middle of an incredibly complex and class- and honor-conscious society, and there's no hand holding to explain the finer points of Mars etiquette. We learn the necessary details on the go, with enough questions answered to leave the reader satisfied, but so many open possibilities that Gill could easily extend this into a long running series without running out of juicy material. The ending definitely leaves open the possibility for a sequel, but there's no annoying cliffhangers or gimmicks here. This chapter of the story is over, and while I certainly hope to see more of Durango, Mimi and Vienne (and Jenkins, of course), I can't be too disappointed if this is the last we see of them.

This is exquisite science fiction, folks, in a style that hasn't been too common in YA lit to date. Oh there's plenty of YA sci-fi out there, especially with the current dystopian trend, but like the rest of YA lit, the science fiction has tended to focus on relationships with the science in the background - it's just teenagers on a future Earth that has had all kinds of crazy stuff happen. This is a true action-adventure story, set on an alien world. The closest other recent book in terms of setting would probably be Patrick Ness' Chaos Walking trilogy, but even that is much more about Todd and Viola and their struggles with Mayor Prentiss and Mistress Coyle than presenting a hard science fiction story. In Black Hole Sun, there is absolutely no forgetting that we're not in Kansas anymore.

I already loved Gill's writing in last year's Soul Enchilada. With Black Hole Sun he proves he's definitely not a one hit wonder, and has some range to boot. I can't wait to see what he comes up with next! I'll be sure to pick it up on day one.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Review: The Secret to Lying by Todd Mitchell

Since I'm always on the lookout for titles dealing with mental illness, when I saw Publisher's Weekly described this as "a vivid picture of teenage social and mental health issues," I knew I had to have it. The fact that it's set in a boarding school and is filled with pranks, a la the inimitable Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks,  was a bonus.

The Secret to LyingAt his small town high school, James was all but invisible. So when he is accepted to a prestigious boarding school for the gifted and talented, he takes the opportunity to re-make himself into a brooding punk with a history of carjacking and back alley brawls. He quickly falls in with a new group of friends, and even gets a hot girlfriend. Only two people remain unimpressed: the school's ice queen Ellie (who inspires boyfriends to pull crazy stunts like run half naked around campus out of love for her) and ghost44, another student who communicates with James only via IM and sees right through his facade.

During the day, life is going well for James, as he and his friends begin an escalating prank war with a few guys down the hall (and also stage some epic performance art level protests against the awful cafeteria food). But nighttime is a different story, as James begins to dream of being a demon hunter. While the dreams are exciting at first, they begin to bleed over into James' real life, distracting him from his friends and his studies, and inspiring James to attempt deadly feats when he's awake. Will he be able to pull himself out before he gets out of control?

While the pranking wasn't on the epic level of Disreputable History (Frankie's pranks all had some sort of philosophical point behind them while James' are petty and silly), this is definitely an excellent book on identity, belonging and mental illness. James and one other major character have some major psychological struggles (I'm maintaining the anonymity of the other character because the big reveal doesn't come until the final chapter), but it's handled sensitively and deftly. There are no big revelatory scenes, rather James' illness progresses smoothly through the book so even the reader doesn't realize just how dangerous his dreams are until well into the story.

And those dreams - damn are they spooky. I often see dreams used as a sort of lazy plot device, a way for a character to metaphorically examine events of the story without relying on pages of exposition and internal monologues. Here the dreams form a whole other narrative where it isn't immediately clear what bearing they will have on the rest of the story, or if they will at all, and it's all fabulously creepy. The pranks and humor throughout James' waking moments provide and excellent and much needed counterpoint to the seriousness of his dreams and inner thoughts.
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