Thursday, October 21, 2010

Self-promotion + Blogging Schedule Change

So first, the good news:

October has been an exciting month for me professionally. First, I got a promotion at my day job near the end of September, so I've been transitioning into that. Secondly, just this week I picked up an internship with a lit agent for YA and MG books. Both are exciting, though I'd say the internship is SUPER exciting, since I'd long ago figured I'd never be able to do an internship (no longer a student + need to work close to full time) and this one lets me work around my full time position, building up experience that will serve me well when I swing back into interviewing in the publishing houses.

But that leads me to the bad news - the combination of more hours at my day job plus the hours I have to spend working for my internship, plus other personal responsibilities like my writing, my friends and my husband, are seriously cramping my blogging style. It's just no longer possible for me to consistently write five posts on Saturday or Sunday anymore - at least not five posts of the quality I want.

So I'm scaling back my blogging. I'm not disappearing by any means, but I'm going to aim for a Monday-Wednesday-Friday schedule starting next week. I don't have any great SF to review, so I'm taking Friday off this week and will hopefully be back on Monday (have a busy weekend planned already!).

Thanks for reading!

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Review: Life, After by Sarah Darer Littman

This is an excellent look at how terrorism can effect one family, but with an unexpected angle, at least from this USian's perspective: instead of looking at terrorism in the US or radical Islamic terrorism, this is some homegrown terrorism - in Argentina.

Life, AfterDani's life changed forever on her 7th birthday. That was the day terrorists loaded a truck with explosives and drove it into the AMIA building in Buenos Aires. Among the victims was Dani's pregnant aunt.

In the following years, political and economic upheaval has rocked Argentina, and Dani's family. Her father has lost his successful business, reducing the family to dinners of wrinkled potatoes - when there's food in the house at all - eaten by candlelight since the electricity has been turned off. As Dani watches her best friends move - one following her family's Jewish heritage to Israel, another to Miami - she is full of both hope and dread when her parents finally announce they, too, will be moving, to New York where her uncle lives.

Dani has to adapt to life in a new country, a new language, and even a new hemisphere where the seasons are the exact opposite of what they should be. To make things harder, her father isn't having an easy time adapting, and has sunk into a shell of his former self, depressed about the move, everything he's lost, and the charity they must now accept. Dani is scared and angry about the person her father has become, and is tired of having to step up to help take care of him, her little sister, and her mom, when all she wants to do is make friends and maybe even go on a date for once. Life After the terrorism and collapse in Argentina is no picnic, but is it even possible to return to the life they had Before?

I loved Dani, as she's genuinely a good kid, but her entire life is falling apart around her and it's all she can do to keep her head up. Her most complex feelings are reserved for her father, who is clearly suffering from deep clinical depression. As a reader, this was totally clear to me, and sometimes I had to stop myself from empathizing too much with Dani's rages against her father. Yes, he should be picking up her little sister from school or helping with the housekeeping, and it was easy to be angry at him for failing miserably at that, but knowing what depression can do to a person I know I shouldn't have those feelings!

What a sad, yet sweet, book. Littman has taken on several complicated issues, yet distilled them into a clean novel. I loved that Dani's family is not only Argentinian, but Jewish as well, a combination I don't think I've ever seen before. However, this isn't a book about being Argentinian Jews - it just adds a little depth to the family's background and gives them a reason to search out help from Jewish aid organizations. On the flip side, I know there are religious reasons for it, but it was a little jarring to see references to a deity written as "G-d" or "D-os." And there's a lot of praying in this book, so it happens rather often.

Like the kids in Dani's school, most of my knowledge of Argentina comes from Evita, so I loved the insight into the political and economic upheaval that has been rocking the country. The focus of the book is definitely on Dani and her family, so there perhaps aren't as many descriptions of life in Argentina as I would have liked, but Littman does a good job of giving peeks at how life has changed drastically while not distracting from the story she wants to tell.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Review: Zombies vs. Unicorns, ed. by Holly Black & Justine Larbalestier

I've realized my TBR spreadsheet has a failing - I almost never remember to add titles that I pick up spontaneously. Like I mentioned in my recap of the Zombies vs. Unicorns event, I was aware of this title for awhile but never put it on my list because unicorns are meh. And since it wasn't on my list, when I was browsing for titles to review, it wasn't there to remind me to review it!

But I'll delay no further!

Zombies vs. UnicornsThe collection is divided into Team Zombie and Team Unicorn, each represented by one of our illustrious editors who introduce each story (Holly is for the unicorns, Justine for the zombies). Six authors tackle each side, and the authors represented are a virtual who's who of YA publishing today - Scott Westerfeld, Carrie Ryan, Maureen Johnson and Libba Bray to name the ones I'd read before picking up this collection. On both sides, the stories range from somewhat traditional representations of their genres (horrific zombie stories, high fantasy-style unicorns) to slapstick comedy, with subversions of the standard tropes happening all over the place. Murderous unicorns and zombies who can love both make appearances.

On Team Zombie, my two favorite stories are Scott Westerfeld's, set on an abandoned pot farm where the adults are losing it while the kids long for some adventure beyond the fences, and Maureen Johnson's, where a celebrity adherent to a strange religion has turned her adopted children into zombies as part of a religious rite. Carrie Ryan's story is set in the same universe as The Forest of Hands and Teeth and The Dead-Tossed Waves and is a great addition to that world. I wasn't a fan of the first book, but the subsequent stories have really grown on me.

Over on Team Unicorn, I loved Naomi Novik's unicorn who plays fast and lose with the rules of virginity, and Meg Cabot's avenging unicorn. Diana Peterfreund's story is set in her already existing killer unicorns universe, and has almost convinced me that I need to hunt down those other books. The story works well on its own, but I was constantly wondering if these characters had a bigger life in the other novels or if, like in Carrie Ryan's story, these were all-new characters set in a familiar world.

I really loved that these are authors who seem truly committed to diversity, as there are multiple stories with non-white protagonists and there are two stories with queer protagonists. Whether you're Team Zombie or Team Unicorn, there really is something for everyone here.

If you have even a passing interest in zombies or unicorns, I highly recommend you check this out. With such a high caliber group of authors, you're sure to find something to love, and might even be persuaded to some of the other side's arguments. And you'll probably come away with a few new authors whose non-zombie/unicorn work you want to go check out.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Nonfiction Monday Review: They Called Themselves the K.K.K. by Susan Campbell Bartoletti

I knew I had to read this book as soon as I saw the cover. It's striking and even a little bit scary with the hood in stark contrast to the black background and the empty eye holes. It's definitely reminiscent of a ghost, which is of course exactly what the Klan was going for when they created these costumes.

They Called Themselves the K.K.K.: The Birth of an American Terrorist GroupThey Called Themselves the K.K.K. takes a hard look at Reconstruction-era America, examining the social and political unrest that gave birth to, as the subtitle says, an American terrorist group. Bartoletti traces the KKK's origins to a group of former Confederate soldiers who suggested "Boys, let us get up a club" in Tennessee. From humble beginnings rose a movement that spread like wildfire across the South, resulting in the murders of countless men, women and children in the years after the end of the Civil War.

Bartoletti covers the decade or so of Reconstruction in detail, then skips ahead to the early 20th century when the Klan rose to prominence again with the publication of the book The Clansmen and Griffith's epic silent film The Birth of a Nation - it's these fictional narratives that gave us the symbol of the burning cross, as the original Klan never used that particular threat. This is also when the Klan modified its objectives and became a hate group targeting far more than just Black Americans. I believe this is also when the iconic white robe was introduced, as illustrations show that the original Klansmen wore a variety of elaborate costumes. From there Bartoletti briefly covers other important 20th century Civil Rights events, and includes a Civil Rights timeline, from the Emancipation Proclamation to the election of Barack Obama.

Hidden at the very end, in the bibliography and source notes section, are some of Bartoletti's most interesting modern observations, from her visit to the birthplace of the Klan to attending a modern day "Klan congress." I really wish this section were highlighted, rather than hidden between the quote attributions and the index. It's almost like when a movie has an extra scene at the end of the credits; this book rewards those who read literally from cover to cover.

The excellent design work exhibited on the cover continues onto the pages. Roughly every other page includes some sort of illustration, mostly woodcuts and Reconstruction political cartoons, but the occasional photograph as well, mostly included with excerpts from the Slave Narratives collected in the early 20th century. A different font is also used to contemporary block quotes, so the words of the Klansmen and their victims stand out in start relief to the narrative. It makes for a beautiful and compelling text.

One other note about the text: Bartoletti uses lots of primary sources from 19th century Americans, and includes the language of the time in the book. That means crude and vulgar words show up often, as well as passages written phonetically as they were taken down by interviewers for the Slave Narratives. I think the inclusion of such language was absolutely necessary to illustrate just how publicly acceptable racist language was at one point in our history. It makes this book even more difficult to read in some ways, but also highlights its importance.

Nonfiction Monday

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

Friday, October 15, 2010

Sci Fi Friday Review: Feed by Mira Grant

Sometimes I debate what titles I should include in my Sci Fi Friday reviews. Should I expand it to Sci Fi/Fantasy? (No, because I generally dislike fantasy and don't want it interfering with my science-y goodness) What about horror? Or superhero graphic novels? While Feed falls firmly into the horror genre, what with all the zombies running around, there are also some awesome bits of science and tech, allowing me to make it a Sci Fi Friday contribution without hesitation.

Which is a good thing because there's been a dearth of SF in my life lately

Feed (Newsflesh, Book 1)It's been twenty years since the dead have risen. Mutated from the cures for humankind's greatest illnesses, the virus lies dormant in every human being, ready to reanimate the corpse to become one of the walking dead with the incessant need to feast on human flesh.

Siblings Georgia and Shaun, along with their friend Buffy, are mid-level bloggers ready to make it to the big time when they're selected to be part of the press team for presidential candidate Peter Ryman. Dedicated first and foremost to reporting the news, the bloggers unwittingly become part of the news when a series of suspicious zombie attacks start following Ryman. A cut fence here, an infected horse there, and it begins to become very obvious these aren't accidents - someone is using the zombie virus as a biological weapon.

Technically this is an adult novel, but I'm confident it will have plenty of teen crossover appeal. Georgie and Shaun are in their twenties (no definitive age is given that I saw), and they also still live at home, under the imposing shadows of their famous-blogger parents. There's been some talk over the past year about a potential new marketing category called "new adult" and I think Feed could easily be classified there.

Grant has included lots of funny details for readers to pick up on. While it's explained that Georgia was born at a time when the most popular girls' names were Georgia, Georgette and Barbra as George Romero was recognized as a sort of patron saint of the zombie apocalypse, it's up to zombie fans to guess where Shaun's name comes from - Shaun of the Dead anyone? (And for the uninitiated, Barbra was the woman in Night of the Living Dead) Bloggers have also organized themselves into a couple of factions - broadly the Newsies, the Fictionals and the Irwins, who like to go out in the field and poke zombies with sticks (they also give out an annual award called the Stevies, solidifying the tribute to the late, great Steve Irwin). Each faction has sub-factions - for example in the Newsies, the people who deliver the news with a healthy dose of opinion are called Stewarts. I loved these little glimpses into Grant's world building, and make it clear she probably has lots of details planned out for this trilogy.

As a blogger, and as someone who probably gets 90% of her news from various blogs (and the other 10% still from internet sources like the New York Times online or streaming Rachel Maddow's show), I absolutely loved following a group of citizen journalists on the campaign trail. Of the trio, Georgia and Buffy were definitely my favorites, but Shaun and Georgia have a great rapport as well.

While I loved the blending of genres in this book (new adult, zombie horror, journalistic thriller), and Grant has clearly done some great work with her world building, the overall setting just never worked for me. It's been twenty years since the zombies first rose, which really isn't much time at all, and there's already a fully functioning government? It felt like the zombies were never that much of a threat if the whole world didn't collapse, and now that the government is functioning so well the zombies are only terrifying on a personal level (like if you're like Shaun and enjoy poking zombies with sticks) and no longer on a widespread level. There are so many weapons and defense tactics and decontamination safety protocols in place, that society really isn't in danger of ever collapsing, which for me is half the fun of zombie stories. Humanity can try to rebuild, but it shouldn't be as good as it was before, unless a much longer period of time has passed.

I know this review is getting long but I have to praise Grant on one other thing - this has one of the best surprises I've ever read in a novel. If nothing else, strictly from a writing standpoint it's fascinating to see it done, and her technique for accomplishing it. It's a huge spoiler so I can't go into detail, but as a writer myself it was interesting to see an author do what I'd long thought was impossible.

Feed is the first book in a new trilogy, but there's no severe cliffhanger ending here and feels like a complete story in itself. I recommend picking this one up, though personally I don't know if I'll be back for more - the fully functional society really irritated me on some levels.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Review: Wicked Girls by Stephanie Hemphill

Every time I'm ready to write off verse novels, something pulls me back. The last verse novels I read were back in April, Firefly Letters and Crossing Stones and I concluded that, for me, verse novels really only work when they're contemporary stories. For historical novels, I need a vested interest in the material. Then along comes Wicked Girls, covering the Salem Witch Trials that have fascinated me for as long as I can poetry.

Wicked Girls: A Novel of the Salem Witch TrialsThe basic story is well-known by now: in 1692, a group of young women and girls in Salem Village started accusing their neighbors of witchcraft. What followed was a literal witch hunt, as the authorities were determined to drive out all hints of sin in their village, and relied on the testimony of the girls to send 19 people to their deaths, and scores more to prison.

Wicked Girls delves into the inner lives of Mercy Lewis, Margaret Walcott and Ann Putnam Jr., following the girls and their cohorts from the initial incriminations through to the bitter end. Hemphill hypothesizes what drew the girls to accusations of witchcraft and why they continue even in the face of doubts.

I'm truly torn about this book, because on the one hand, Hemphill has crafted an amazing story. There are many theories about why the girls began crying witch, and Hemphill explores the possibility that the girls were essentially drunk on power. Once the girls started making accusations, they suddenly had the attention of the entire town. Powerful men were listening to them, and servant girls were just as powerful as the daughters of the merchant class. Some of Mercy's poems were almost physically painful, as she describes being looked at as a powerful person to be respected, rather than a pretty girl to be lusted after by men young and old. Hemphill also explores some scary "mean girl" dynamics, as the ringleaders try to ensure loyalty among the group, showing just how strong peer pressure can be.

On the other hand, as I said at the start of this review, I'm just not a fan of poetry for historical fiction. The poetry itself is fine, though it was more the content that affected me rather than the style. I can't see what the poetry added to this story that couldn't have been achieved through prose. As I said in my Goodreads review, I wanted to give this 2.5 out of 5 stars as a perfect half-way point, reflecting all the good things I felt about the plot that were essentially negated by the format.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Book Thoughts: National Book Award Finalists - awards season begins!

The National Book Award finalists were announced today. What made the cut for young people's literature?

Ship Breaker

 Shipbreaker by Paolo Bacigalupi. Yes. I loved this book - it's still one of my favorites for the year. I'm so glad the NBA isn't an award that shies away from science fiction - in 2002 they gave the award to House of the Scorpion by Nancy Farmer and in 1980 they actually had an award just for science fiction (not in the young people's/children's fiction category, but still awesome). This is the only one of the five finalists I've read so far, so it's not fair for me to cast a vote...but I'm certainly rooting for it at this point!

Mockingbird by Kathryn Erskine. I was looking at the nominees for the Best Fiction for Young Adults list the other day and counted at least four titles featuring characters with asperger's syndrome. I guess Marcelo in the Real World kind of opened the floodgates on that topic. I also wonder if people are going to get confused between this title and The Mockingbirds which is coming out in November (not to mention the other big avian-title of the summer, Mockingjay).

Dark Water Dark Water by Laura McNeal. This is the one title on the list that I haven't heard of at all, and that intrigues me. It's a romance, but it's set against the 2007 California wildfires and the male lead is an undocumented Mexican immigrant. This is at the top of my TBR list as of now!

 Lockdown by Walter Dean Myers. Unlike Dark Water, this one has been on my radar all year, but it keeps getting bumped down my TBR list by other titles that grab me a little bit more. This one is jumping back up and going on this week's library requests.

One Crazy Summer One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia. This one I have requested before, but for some reason my library dropped my request. What the heck, library? They have issues sometimes. Anyway, Ari of Reading in Color recommended this one after I reviewed The Rock and the River and I'm kind of kicking myself for not staying on top of my library requests and getting hold of this one sooner.

Also, I'm happy this is one award we don't have to harp on for inclusion, as there are both white and non-white authors and protagonists, as well as male and female. I'm always excited when diversity happens naturally, without any hand holding or special directives required.

How many of these titles have you read? Any early predictions for the winner?

Review: Blindsided by Priscilla Cummings

As I mentioned in my fall preview post, this is the first of two books featuring blind protagonists that has come out this fall. I always find it interesting when similar books pop up in close succession. Two books about blind girls aren't enough to make a trend, but combine this with The Dark Days of Hamburger Halpin and Out of My Mind, and it looks like we're finally getting some stories starring fully-realized protagonists with disabilities.

BlindsidedNatalie O'Reilly was born without irises, making her eyes extremely sensitive to light and, despite multiple surgeries over the years, is causing her vision to slowly deteriorate. By the time she's 14, she has only a narrow band of vision left when the decision is made that she should start attending a special school for the blind to prepare for her inevitable loss of vision.

Natalie goes to school, reluctantly, always hoping for a miracle that will restore her sight - or at least stop the deterioration. She's convinced that half of the classes don't apply to her, and hopes never to use the skills taught in the other classes. Whether she wants to or not, however, Natalie is learning important lessons about herself, about her abilities, and about friendship.

While Natalie has some complexity to her character, I should note that this is much more of an "issue" novel than Hamburger Halpin or Out of My Mind. As you may be able to tell by the summary, there is little else going on here other than Natalie's struggle with her disability. Cummings does an excellent job of presenting the practicalities of losing ones sight as a teenager - learning Braille, using a cane, relying on other senses - but considering they make up the bulk of the novel, it's a little short on compelling story-telling.

There's also far too much amazement at what blind people can do - walk a whole mile from the bus stop! Travel to Scotland! Learn self defense! While these facts can certainly seem amazing to someone without experience with disabilities, the repeated emphasis is patronizing and is part of what turns this more into an issue novel, rather than a coming of age story that just so happens to have a blind protagonist.

Cummings does do an excellent job with Natalie's voice. She is the right blend of bratty teenager and sympathetic narrator. 14 is hard for anyone - I can only imagine the difficulties with also having to adapt to losing your vision and changing schools. A lot of Natalie's frustration is totally waranted, and when she does go into extremes of anger or self-pity, well, that's what being 14 is about half the time. By balancing the extremes of negative emotions with genuine moments of compassion and kindness as Natalie grows, Cummings creates a sympathetic and realistic character.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Review: Enchanted Ivy by Sarah Beth Durst

Earlier this year, I loved Sarah Beth Durst's Ice, so when I got an e-mail directly from her in August asking if I wanted a review copy of her next book, I immediately said yes! A book about the college search that also features gargoyles and dragons? I was intrigued.

Enchanted IvyLily Carter is only a junior in high school, but she's already well into the college application process. When her grandfather takes her to his reunion weekend at Princeton, it's supposed to be for a rather standard tour of her dream school, but turns out to be much, much more, after its revealed that she's been selected to take the top secret Legacy Test. Passing the test means automatic acceptance into Princeton. All she has to do is find the Ivy Key.

As she begins her search, Lily is joined by Tye, a boy who apparently has an excess of school spirit, judging by his orange and black striped hair. But all is not as it seems on Princeton's campus, as the famous gargoyles begin talking to Lily, revealing there are actually two parallel Princeton campuses, one ordinary and the other magical, the two universities created to foster understanding between the two worlds. But it has been a long time since there's been a key to open the gate from the ordinary side. Lack of contact has fostered rumors and fear-mongering about what lies on the other side of the gate in both worlds, and Lily finds herself and family secrets she didn't even know about are now at the center of a power struggle - and it's possible that whichever side wins will lead an attack on the other.

Lily's hopes and worries about college definitely brought me back to my own college search. It's funny, considering choosing a college is one of the biggest decisions we make as teenagers that there aren't more books centered around the search. Usually the only time I see colleges mentioned is when an overachieving student is freaking out over her applications, or an underachieving student has made community college plans far in advance. Even with all the fantastic magical stuff going on in this novel, Durst does an excellent job bringing out the normalcy in Lily.

I also really liked Lily's family ties. She lives with her mother and grandfather, as her father died in an accident years ago, and since then her mother has been sliding towards senility. It's obvious that Lily truly loves her mother, but I liked that Lily wasn't a perfect daughter and sometimes a blip of frustration would creep in - never enough to make Lily seem cruel towards a sick woman, but enough to make Lily a believable kid who sometimes just wants a normal mother.

This story wasn't nearly as epic in scope as Ice, and actually follows many tropes of paranormal romance that are in danger of becoming predictable. As soon as the mysterious Tye appeared, I was on the lookout for another handsome boy to be his rival for Lily's affections, as it seems paranormal romances all require a love triangle these days. I'm also really skeptical of stories that bring up soul mates, as it seems like an easy way to get your characters to hook up, rather than building up a believable romance. I think Bear took this tactic in Ice, but we got to see him and Cassie together for months, so we could see Cassie's affections develop. Here the story takes place over the course of a weekend, followed by a final chapter set several months later that confirms what direction the romance went.

This was an enjoyable read, certainly - I actually read it all in one sitting - but not a "must have." If you're looking for a fantasy take on the college process, with mysterious family secrets and some cute boys, pick this one up, but otherwise I wouldn't go out of my way.

Reviewed from review copy received from publisher. Enchanted Ivy is on sale today!

Monday, October 11, 2010

Review: The Red Umbrella by Christina Diaz Gonzalez

No new nonfiction books made it to the library for me last week - well, no new YA. I have a big, serious look at whether gender differences actually exist in the brain, but I'm undecided as to whether that will get a review on the blog. I also finally got my hands on A Family of Readers, which I plan on tweeting like Natasha did.

In the meantime, to satisfy any beginning-of-the-week cravings for facts, I'm going with a historical fiction book.

The Red UmbrellaIt's been two years since the Cuban revolution, and while Lucia generally supports the revolution, it's not her top concern. There's school and parties to attend and a cute boy to flirt with before he goes off to do his part for the revolution, educating underprivileged children in rural areas of Cuba.

And then the soldiers come to town. Freedoms are stripped away, and people disappear. Lucia's parents want her to stay as far away from anything to do with the revolution as possible, but that brings suspicions of anti-communism. Even Lucia's best friend seems to be suspicious of Lucia's parents. To protect Lucia and her little brother, her parents decide the safest place for the children would be away from Cuba - in the United States.

Moving from a beautiful island to landlocked Nebraska is only one change Lucia and Frankie have to adapt to. A new language, new clothes, a whole new way of life are waiting for Lucia in America. While at first she was sure this was going to be a short trip - the equivalent of an exotic summer vacation, perhaps - Lucia begins to wonder if she'll ever see her parents, or her beloved Cuba, again.

Operation Pedro Pan was a real movement in the 1960s, and Gonzalez's author's notes explain. Children were sent from Cuba to live in orphanages or foster families in the US in order to protect them from Castro's regime. This need for protection is illustrated by Lucia's best friend Ivette, who joins the revolution whole-heartedly and repeatedly chastises Lucia for not joining her. It's chilling for someone who has only known the freedoms of the US to read Ivette's railing against capitalism.

I absolutely loved the foster family Lucia and Frankie end up with. Maybe I've read about too many evil stepmothers recently, but it was such a relief to read about a US family that makes a real effort to understand another culture and help the kids out in any way that's practical. Truly wonderful family dynamics there.

This week marks the end of Hispanic Heritage month, and while it's more coincidence than anything that I'm reviewing this title now, it's great timing because this is about a little known bit of Cuban heritage in the US.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Rot & Ruin Giveaway winner!

This is a little later than I promised but...oh well. Work got hectic this morning, what can I say?

But now that it's a quiet Friday afternoon, I'm free to announce the winner. Through the time-honored method of drawing names from a hat, the winner is...


In answer to the (purposefully vague) question of how do you like your zombies, Tia answered "The zombies gotta be slow! Otherwise how are the measly humans able to come up with something cool to protect themselves?"

I thought it was interesting that most votes came down on the side of slow zombies, at least in novels, but fast when it comes to movies. Interesting to keep in mind for my own zombie novel!

Thanks to everyone who entered, and to Jonathan Maberry who was awesome enough to offer the book for giveaway! Tia, I'm going to send your e-mail address to Jonathan, and from there the two of you will work out shipping.

Sci Fi Friday Review: Behemoth by Scott Westerfeld

It's no secret to long-time readers of this blog that I have a thing for Scott Westerfeld's writing. I wrote my senior thesis on the Uglies series, for goodness' sake! So it's probably no surprise, given my history with Westerfeld's work and my feelings about last year's Leviathan, that I enjoyed Behemoth. Just wanted to get that out of the way in case the curiosity was killing you.

Behemoth (Leviathan)When we last left the crew of the British airship Leviathan, they had just picked up several Austrian passengers, including the son of the recently-assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand, Alek - not that any of the British crew know that. Alek's lone friend among the crew is a young airman Dylan, who is actually a young woman, Deryn, disguising herself so she can serve in the air force - not that anyone knows about that. The airship is carrying some precious cargo and distinguished guests, including the granddaughter of Charles Darwin, who has some very special eggs she wants delivered to the ruler of the Ottoman Empire before a great war can break out among the European nations in response to the murder of Alek's parents.

The Ottoman Empire is at a crossroads when the Leviathan docks. They are technically neutral in the burgeoning conflict, but are being courted by both German and British forces for an alliance. And all is not well within the Empire, as the current sultan has only been in power for a few years and already militants are planning a coup to replace the monarchy with a democratic government. Alek and Deryn know that technically they are on opposite sides in this war - Clanker and Darwinist, royalty and commoner - but discover they will have to work together, along with an eclectic mix of allies, if they ever hope to achieve their mutual goal: stop a world war from beginning.

If you haven't read Leviathan yet, you absolutely need to read it before reading Behemoth. The story picks up mere days after the end of Leviathan, and the action starts within just a few pages, leaving precious little time to catch the reader up on what happened in the last book. I really liked the fact that Westerfeld just goes with the assumption that the reader already knows the back story, because that means each and every page can be devoted to developing what happens next.

This is one wild ride both similar to and very different from Leviathan. In the last book, we followed Alek wandering in the wilderness towards safety with his body guards, and Deryn spent much of her story alone among the crew out of need to protect her secret. In Behemoth, less physical ground is covered, as the story stays focused on Istanbul, and the story becomes more of a political thriller as Alek and Deryn become involved in the resistance movement - which introduces my favorite character, the feisty revolutionary Lilit, who has dreams of bringing women's liberation to Istanbul. She also has a huge crush on one of our dashing heroes. Lilit is a young woman destined for greatness and could probably support a whole novel of her own!

As expected, there are more great beasties and machines this time around. The Ottoman Empire is a Clanker nation, but they're more in touch with nature than the Germans or Austrians, as their mechanics are based on animals. My favorite was probably the spider-like machine that worked the great library. On the Darwinist side, we finally get to see what was in those eggs that were so carefully guarded in Leviathan and, of course, there's the title beastie, the Behemoth. It's awesome, in every sense of the word.

Because I feel like it's becoming my trademark, I do have to comment for a moment on the romance element of the book. Deryn is beginning to develop "feelings" for Alek. Maybe this just annoyed me because I read it shortly after The Education of Bet and A Golden Web, two other novels about young women dressing up as men, but I'm getting quite tired of girls putting all of their other goals at risk because of some boy that literally thinks they're just one of the guys. Deryn keeps a handle on herself better than the protagonists of the other two books, and it's really just a small bit of this otherwise giant story, but it still rankled me a bit. I am certain Goliath won't go the way of Mockingjay in terms of focus on relationships, but I can't deny there's a little bit of worry in the back of my head. Hopefully, averting World War I will remain the focus.

Rot & Ruin Giveaway Reminder: I'm going to draw the winner for the Rot & Ruin giveaway at 12 pm Eastern time today! If you still want a chance to win, enter here!

Reviewed from ARC picked up at ALA 2010.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Review: Bruiser by Neal Shusterman

When I finished reading this, all I could do was agree with Laurie Halse Anderson's cover blurb - this was a wild ride, and absolutely magical.

BruiserBrewster "Bruiser" Rawlins was voted "Most Likely to get the Death Penalty" by the school - so when 16 year old Tennyson discovers the brute is dating his twin sister, Bronte, he's pissed and does everything possible to sabotage the relationship, from following the pair to mini-golf to making sure their dad knows the kid's brutal reputation. Bronte, however, insists the others don't know Bruiser - they don't know he's memorized "Howl" and how tenderly he cares for his little brother after their mother has died and they're living with a drunk uncle. Tennyson is reluctantly drawn to Bruiser, after seeing him in the locker room with his back covered in bruises and scars. As Bruiser becomes closer to Tennyson and Bronte, the twins start  noticing strange things happening when he's around - their injuries heal and disappear quickly, while Bruiser adds new ones daily. And while their parents' marriage is crumbling, when Bruiser is around their problems don't seem to be so bad. Bruiser's friendships with Tennyson, Bronte and their family lead to complex questions about the meanings of friendship, family and pain.

I read this shortly after I finally got around to watching The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, and found myself comparing the two in terms of tone and genre. Shusterman has written a story that has some very classical elements, combining a deathly serious story with the slightest touch of fantasy. There is no explanation for Bruiser's abilities, just like no real explanation is given for Benjamin's aging in the movie (and, I assume, the story on which its based). It's just something that exists, and in the face of undeniable evidence, Tennyson and Bronte accept it with little question. They acknowledge it's weird, and they wish they knew the how and why of it all, but when your twisted ankle heals itself in minutes while your boyfriend suddenly starts limping, you can't really argue with what's happening.

There are four narrators to this story: Tennyson and Bronte, then Bruiser and his little brother, Cody. The last two are the narrators that really stick out stylistically, for Cody narrates perfectly in the voice of an eight year old who is simultaneously wise beyond his years and painfully naive. He's never had a real injury, which gives him even more bravado than the average eight year old, but he's also been witness to and subjected to horrific abuse at the hands of his uncle. And Bruiser narrates in amazing poetry - starting with a perfect adaptation of "Howl" before moving into free verse.

This is a dramatic story with some very serious questions at its core about pain, joy, family, responsibility and friendship. The magical touch of Bruiser's ability gives Shusterman a unique way to comment on life, without having to go too far into the realm of fantasy. It is a perfect blend of the fantastic and the all-too real.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Review: The Wonder of Charlie Anne by Kimberly Newton Fusco

Found via: The Fourth Musketeer

First, I'd just like to give a shout out to the Fourth Musketeer blog. I've been getting tons of historical fiction recommendations from there for the past few months, books that I don't always see reviewed elsewhere, so a big thanks to Margo for highlighting these great books!

The Wonder of Charlie AnneIt's the 1930s, and with the US in the grip of a devastating Depression, Charlie Anne finds herself in the midst of her own depression, following a series of personal tragedies. Her mother died in childbirth (which the baby didn't survive, either), her cousin Mirabel showed up shortly after the funeral to serve as the "new mama" to Charlie Anne and her four siblings, and now her father has gone north with her oldest brother to build roads.

On the home front, Mirabel runs the household with an iron fist, and never seems satisfied with Charlie Anne. Charlie Anne is forced to do all of the menial, domestic chores when she'd much prefer to be outside working with the animals, and Mirabel is constantly reminding her to act like a little lady, with advice from a book on manners she constantly keeps in her pocket. Just when life can't seem to get any drearier, a spark of excitement comes to town in the form of Rosalyn, the new wife of Charlie Anne's neighbor, and Phoebe, the African-American girl about Charlie Anne's age she brings with her. In Charlie Anne's small town, no one has ever seen anyone like this pair - witty, educated, and confident enough to wear trousers in colors like "red pepper red." But difficult times and a fear of change bring out the worst in people, forcing Charlie Anne to confront the ugly racism that can hide even in seemingly-reasonable people.

While this is definitely a novel about the terrible things racism can do to a community, I enjoyed immensely the undercurrent of feminism in Charlie Anne, Rosalyn and Phoebe. While Charlie Anne may not have the words to express quite why it's wrong, she complains about being forced to do chores like cleaning clothes and cooking while her brother milks the cows, when everyone knows Charlie Anne is better with the cows. Rosalyn and Phoebe show up in their daring fashion choices that wouldn't become commonplace for American women for decades, declaring they're the most sensible clothes for anyone who works and plays hard, but Charlie Anne is forbidden from wearing a pair of her own because it's not how proper young ladies are "supposed" to dress, according to Mirabel.

Charlie Anne has a wonderfully earnest voice. She's young enough to still believe in magic in the world, but the rapid succession of her mother's death, her father leaving to build roads, and the ugly face of racism in her family and community, are forcing her to grow up. Hopefully she won't ever lose the sense of wonder she carries through the novel.

Charlie Anne's voice also allows Fusco to overcome one of the hurdles of writing historical fiction - how to explain things that are a matter of fact to the characters but are strange and unfamiliar to a modern audience? Well, Charlie Anne is the sort of person that I think would explain how to make a vinegar pie over and over again to her neighbors, even though they've been doing it themselves for years. She's so eager and thorough that all of the historical descriptions seem totally natural in Charlie Anne's words.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Nonfiction Monday Review: The Good, The Bad and the Barbie by Tanya Lee Stone

Last year I absolutely loved Tanya Lee Stone's Almost Astronauts, about the American women who trained to fly the space shuttle. This time around, Stone has set her sights on something far more down to Earth, something that almost every woman had her in childhood bedroom over the last fifty years: Barbie.

The Good, the Bad, and the Barbie: A Doll's History and Her Impact on UsStone takes a methodical look at the history of Barbie, from her creator's early beginnings through the creation of Mattel and the first Toy Fair where Barbie was set to make her big debut - and flopped. Who would have imagined this ubiquitous doll would, at one point, have been totally shunned? The toy buyers at the time were almost all male, and couldn't imagine that a mom would ever buy her daughter a toy with breasts.

From there, Stone looks at the evolution of Barbie, noting when her friends and family appeared on the scene and when she finally deviated from the blonde-haired blue-eyed original to represent girls of various ethnicities, and the criticisms that quickly followed and dog Barbie to this day. Stone fills the book with quotations from girls and women, giving their true feelings on Barbie, from young girls who are genuinely angered by how Barbie doesn't reflect them to older women reflecting on how they mutilated their dolls - not out of anger, but just for fun!

Stone also looks at the art that Barbie has inspired, from altered dolls to sculpture and painting to jewelry and short films. For better or worse, Barbie is an icon that had a lot of cultural cachet. 

Stone takes a very even-handed look at this often-controversial doll. There are both young girls and grown women who hate Barbie...and then there are young girls and grown women who love Barbie, and all of them have a say in this book. The most interesting part for me was the development of, and the reactions to, non-white Barbies. For some girls, it's great to have a Barbie that looks at least a little more like them, but for others its still frustrating because so often the only change was the pigment in plastic - it wasn't until 2009 that Mattel even attempted more African-American hair textures and styles with the So in Style dolls.

I also loved the look at how girls (and their brothers) will destroy their Barbies. When I first heard about kids doing this, I was horrified - I could never even bring myself to cut my Barbie's hair when I was a kid, let alone pull her apart and dye her hair with food coloring. But I had issues as a kid - usually I never got much farther than dressing all of my dolls up. I had at least a dozen and was convinced I needed to play with them all equally, but by the time all of their outfits had been changed...I wanted to go do something else!

The book does focus on the more "real world" aspects of Barbie - concerns over girls wanting to look like her, and questions about how she's styled for her various careers (at one point apparently Surgeon Barbie was in a scrubs mini dress) or ethnicities, but nothing about the more fanciful aspects of Barbie, like all the times she's been some variation on a princess (I realized this as I was thinking about my own Barbies - I had two collector's editions, one Native American Barbie and the other Barbie as Rapunzel). I suppose when the doll has had over 100 careers, you have to leave something out.

Stone neither praises Barbie nor demonizes the doll. She lays out the evidence for the reader to draw her own conclusion. I doubt a hard core hater or lover of the doll will be swayed away from their beliefs, but for someone like me who is more ambivalent about the doll, it raised a few new questions to consider while helped me put some other concerns to rest.

The Good, The Bad and the Barbie will be published on October 14th.

With all the talk of Barbie mutilation in this book, I'd love to hear how you played with Barbies as a kid! Were they tortured or prized? Did you collect them by the dozen or only have a prized doll or two? Was there something else entirely you liked better than Barbie? For the guys, were you forbidden from playing with Barbie, or did you never have an interest outside of torturing your sisters' dolls?

Nonfiction Monday
Today's Nonfiction Monday is hosted by Madigan Reads. Stop by to see all the great nonfiction being reviewed this week!

Reviewed from ARC picked up at ALA.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Month in review: September

Yes, it's the second day of October. It's actually almost the third day of October (reminder to self: call Dad tomorrow for his birthday!), but I spent all day today being a huuuuuuuuge nerd with a bunch of friends, playing the World of Darkness role playing game, set during the zombie apocalypse.

I've been in huge zombie overload recently. First there was Zombies vs. Unicorns and its accompanying debate (review of the actual book will be posted soon!), then Rot & Ruin, which of course has a giveaway running through Friday, October 8. I also just finished reading Mira Gran'ts Feed, a journalistic thriller starring bloggers after the dead have risen. Technically it's an adult novel, but I think it'll find some crossover appeal, as the narrator is only 20-something and it's quite an action-packed novel.

But enough about what's coming up - these review posts are supposed to be about looking back!

I love fall. It's definitely my favorite season, and it's especially exciting for book-people here in NYC because the book events pick up again in earnest. Within one week I had both the Zombies vs. Unicorns debate plus the Great Books for Teens and Tweens event at Books of Wonder - which is hosting more great events throughout October, so expect plenty more dispatches from that!

Looking back, I reviewed a lot of books about war this month, far more than I do in a usual month, I think. WWII was covered from a variety of angles with Ashes and Once as well as the excellent new graphic novel biography of Anne Frank. WWI was covered in my last Nonfiction Monday post with The War to End All Wars which I read shortly after I finished Behemoth (which will be reviewed on Friday - it got bumped in favor of the Rot & Ruin giveaway). The Cold War was the background for This Means War and The Red Umbrella which I'll also be reviewing soon. A fictional war was concluded in Monsters of Men, and while Black Hole Sun doesn't have a full scale war raging, it's still got plenty of fighting. Weird how things like that work out sometimes!

Stand out titles this month include the aforementioned Black Hole Sun and Rot & Ruin. Additionally, I Now Pronounce You Someone Else cracked me up because it is set around my home town, but also has a great serious side. A Golden Web is amazing historical fiction about the first female anatomist, and on the nonfiction front, I found Curveball to be a fascinating look at the first woman to play professional baseball on a men's team. A truly awesome story.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Sci-Fi Friday Review + Giveaway: Rot & Ruin by Jonathan Maberry

Yeah, you read that subject right! To kick off October right, I'm jumping in with a PERSONALIZED, SIGNED copy of Jonathan Maberry's new YA zombie novel Rot & Ruin! Read through my review to find the details at the bottom.

Rot & RuinSet 14 years after the dead first began to rise, Benny Imura is 15 and has to choose his career quickly, before the town cuts his ration allowance in half. Benny looks into pretty much every half-decent job in town (and even a couple that are less-than-decent), all hoping to avoid the inevitable: joining the family business and becoming his brother's apprentice. What does his brother do?

Kill zombies.

Benny and his older brother Tom have a complicated relationship - as in Benny does little more than tolerate his older brother, who is totally uncool in comparison to the bad-ass zombie bounty hunters that tell tall tales filled with daring and adventure to entertain the kids. But when Benny runs out of other job options, he reluctantly begins training to join his brother in the field - and learns that there's a lot more to zombie hunting than just whacking zoms.

When Jonathan was talking about the novel at Sunday's Books of Wonder event, he noted that zombie novels are never about the zombies - the zombies are metaphors and catalysts for change. I think rarely has that fact come through as clearly as it does in Rot & Ruin. This is not a book about zombies. This isn't even really a book about zombie hunters. It's a book about brothers, about family, and about what it means to be human. There's lots of philosophy in this book - not the heavy sort that put me to sleep in college, but this is definitely a book that asks readers to think.

That's not to say there isn't any zombie killing action in the story. In fact, there's quite a bit, and Benny is often in the thick of it, even though he's not a trained bounty hunter yet, which adds to the drama - often he's armed with nothing more than a bokken

Placing the story within one generation or so of the onset of the zombies was an excellent idea. It's far enough that people realistically have some knowledge of the zombies (what will make a person return, how to kill them, what attracts them), but it still makes sense for some of the history to have to be explained to someone like Benny who was barely a toddler when the outbreak again. While some scenes were heavy on the exposition as older brother Tom explains the ways of the world to Benny, the reason for the exposition never felt forced; it just could have been trimmed a little. Also, Tom spends a bit too much time congratulating Benny for asking great questions; there certainly could have been a little more showing rather than telling.

I also have to give a major shout out for the multi-cultural cast. Tom and Benny are Japanese-American - which explains the affinity for Japanese weaponry (Tom uses a katana when fighting with a blade - remember, blades are quieter and don't need reloading!). A quick rundown of the heritages of other characters is given at one point as well - a doctor born in India, another man from Oaxaca, and Vietnamese and Chinese characters as well. While the zombies are a more-or-less uniform shade of gray, the living characters are vibrant and represent the real diversity found in the contemporary United States.

I know a book, especially a zombie book, is resonating with me when I can't wait to finish it so I can go work on my own novel. I've been toiling for ages on my own zombie novel, and I find my biggest inspiration to get back to writing is to read another great book. In this case, I'm not inspired because I think I have a superior take on zombies - rather I'm just excited about some day adding my own bit of input into this rich genre, and I get excited by what other people are adding along the way.

While you're waiting for the next book in the trilogy to come out (Dust & Decay), I highly recommend you check out Jonathan's website. There's a great interview up right now with Carrie Ryan (The Forest of Hands and Teeth and The Dead Tossed Waves) and Alden Bell (The Reapers are the Angels - which I hadn't heard of before! Amazon doesn't list it as a YA novel, but the protagonist is 15, so you can be sure I'm trying to get my hands on it now) giving their thoughts on all things zombie.


This is the part you're waiting for, right?

After my Fall releases post last week, I got a lovely e-mail from Jonathan offering up a signed copy of Rot & Ruin for giveaway here on the blog! After responding that yes, I would love to host a giveaway, he upped the ante on his offer: not only will the book be signed, but he'll personalize the book for the winner! So instead of just his signature, the book will be signed just for you!

The contest is going to run for one week - I'll announce the winner on Friday, October 8th.

How to enter? Leave a comment in this entry with your e-mail address. And just to make this fun, answer the same question I posed to Jonathan and the other panelists last Sunday: do you prefer fast zombies or slow? 

The winner will be chosen randomly - as in my last giveaway the question is just to make the entries more interesting - and I'll send Jonathan the winner's e-mail address so the two of you can work out signing and shipping details. 
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