Book Review: Across the Universe, by Beth Revis

September 28, 2011 at 10:01 am (Book Reviews) (, , , , , )

It wasn’t a simple choice, but the fact of it was supposed to be: Amy would be frozen, stored on the ship Godspeed, and hundreds of years later when they reached their destination, she would be unfrozen and start life with her parents on a new world.
Then she woke up.
And nothing on this ship is as simple as it should be.

Across the Universe is in itself part of a brave new world in teen fiction: science fiction. Aside from the cross-aged Ender’s series, there’s been almost no true sci-fi in YA. Dystopians, contemporaries, straight fantasies, urban fantasies, even steampunk, but very little sci-fi. Now Across the Universe is heading the fleet, joined by books like Glow, A Long, Long Sleep, Tankborn, and others.

This book gives us two narratives: Amy, pre- and post-awakening; and Elder, in training to be the next leader of the Godspeed. They’re both wonderfully naive in their own ways, something that allows for a lot of shocks, a lot of growth, and a lot of change. Amy’s life on Earth focused around running (and just a brief point that I have to admit, really irked me: competitive cross-country runners in serious training for a marathon would not have lush breasts. Just saying.) and her family. She left behind extended family, left behind a boyfriend, to join her parents on their expedition. She is non-essential personnel, brought along mainly because her parents hoped for it, but the choice was hers. Up until the very last moment, her parents made it clear that they would love her no matter her choice. Elder, meanwhile, is set apart from the rest of the crew on the ship by his designation as future leader. He spends a great deal of time with the crotchety Eldest, sneaks time with his friends, and tries to learn the secrets he knows his mentor is keeping from him- which is how he discovers the frozen passengers.

Science-fiction is a worldbuilding experience as intense as any you’ll find in fantasy. Scientific speculation has to mesh with fact and expectation. It’s harder than it sounds. People assume certain things about space, scientifically accurate or not, and no matter how sound the fact, we resist anything that goes against those expectations. At the same time, we don’t want to see something blithely stated that we know for a fact is wrong. Beth Revis does a very good job at juggling those pieces, crafting a world inside the ship that has many, many echoes of our own, but that has evolved into something new through generations of isolation and subtle warping. Think the telephone game with history.

What I really loved about this book was the division between the artistic and the more prosaic. The artists are necessary, but they’re also considered insane, and kept away in a house so as not to bother those who do the more manual labors. Where everyone else in the society is dull and steady, plodding about their tasks, the artists are beautifully, vibrantly alive. There we meet Harley, probably my favorite character, and though we never actually get to meet her, Kayleigh is every bit as strong a presence. Within the confines of the hospital, they’re allowed to paint, to draw, to create, to read, to speculate, all things that set them apart from others, and they’re told they’re sick.

In his collection of essays called Orthodoxy, G.K. Chesterton holds that insanity is not, in fact, the overabundance of imagination, but rather its profound lack. Insanity is being too firmly wedded to reason. To use his example, a man who thinks he’s a chicken is absolutely convinced he’s a chicken, and there’s no room in his logic (in his reason) for any other possibilities. Sound like the hospital setting? Everyone out in the rest of the ship has a single task and they do it, day in and day out, with no questions, no thoughts, no imagination, simply the facts before them and the reasons it must be done. Meanwhile, the ones in the hospital can imagine, they can wonder where they came from and where they’re going. They can dream about things like a sky, like stars, things that they will never get to see. They can experience the whole range of human emotions.

Mystery weaves through the book, the question of the secrets Eldest’s hiding, the question of who is pulling frozen passengers from their cryo-cells and why, even the question of why they’re hurtling through space for generations at a time. And there are no simple answers. Not for any of these, or the other questions that arise, and there are so many questions that a geek-minded book club could speculate for weeks. Notions like insanity and the neccesity of artistic invention to prevent stagnation. Like genetic identity, personality, and predisposition. Like genetic inheritance. Like the moral implications of DNA modification. Like the ripple effect of history seen through an isolated culture increasinly distanced from context. Science, for all its black and white facts, is an extremely grey area when it comes to moral quandaries, and we get to explore a great deal here. Delicately, carefully, without being told what we need to believe.

And once you get to one hell of a confession at the end, you’ll be glad you only have a few months to wait for its sequel, A Million Suns, out 10 January 2012. Across the Universe is out now in hardcover and e-book, or look for its paperback, with a shiny new cover, out on 29 November 2011.

Until next time~

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Cover Love: September Edition

September 25, 2011 at 9:17 pm (General) (, , , , , , , , )

I realized last month that I rather like analyzing the covers, so here we go again!

This one is a recent cover reveal (within the last week, I believe), and the farthest out as far as wait time goes. Insurgent, by Veronica Roth (the sequel to this May’s breakout debut Divergent) comes out May 2012 and holy cow what a cover. Along the bottom, we still have the cityscape of Chicago, where our story takes place, but the background coloration is completely different. The first book was a mottled blue grey, like a cloud drenched sky before a storm. Despite that ominous undertone, though, the colors were fairly soft, which made the brilliant flames of the Dauntless symbol stand out all the more. Here, we see a much more sickly cast, the grey-green, tinged with yellow, of clouds gathering for a tornado. Ever seen those clouds in person before? Once you do, you never forget it. It makes the sky look diseased, and it certainly doesn’t give us hope that our friends are going to have an easy ride. And then, set against all this, is the Amity symbol of a tree. Look at the tree, though. To create that spiral shape, it looks as if a strong wind (tornado, anyone?) is actually bending the branches and tearing the leaves away in a circle. Now look closer, at the coloration- closest to the branches, at the top and slightly to the left of the center, the leaves are brown, like they’re dying, and as you cross the circle, the brown encroaches. What does all this add up to? Tris may find that Amity is not sufficient shelter against the myriad dangers tearing apart her world.

I’ve been waiting for this next one since last year. It’s up all over the place at work, it’s all over the internet, and it’s killing me to wait the whole week and change until it’s released. I’m speaking, of course, of Son of Neptune by Rick Riordan, the next installment in the Heroes of Olympus series.

We’ve left behind the rather playful cover of the first book. We don’t have three friends riding bareback on a metal dragon. The stakes are higher and our hero is on his own- both in the story and on the cover. Percy is a creature of water, but somehow we’ve always associated (or maybe this is just me) him with with warmer waters. This may be partly due to the ongoing image of Poseidon as a beach bum in a deep sea fishing swivel chair. Poseidon, I’m thinking, is more than passing fond of Jimmy Buffett. The ice represents a number of things. Obviously, it’s a new setting, someplace completely different, alien to Percy’s experiences (whatever little he may remember of them). It’s cold and harsh, and it’s a strident example of danger. He’s not on a glacier, he’s bursting through a frozen lake. LOTS of dangers available through that. Even the coloration is stark. From the bright teal and gold of the first book, we have very stark gradations of white against a stormy background, deep grey-blues like thunderclouds gathering (unintentional theme, I promise). We know Percy’s older, and we know he’s a fighter, but I think he’s about to prove himself in a completely different arena, one that will require him to take those fighting skills to a whole new level. This one is an SOS for 4 October 2011, so not too long now, however much it may drive me crazy.

I’m normally not a huge fan of the close up model shoots of the face on covers- I personally find them very off putting, like I’m picking up a fashion rag rather than a book- but this is one that actually worked for me.

The colors here are both bright and soft, almost luminous. The girl, clearly lovely, is further softened by (sorry for repeating the word so much) soft focus through the lens. It isn’t so much that she’s blurred as she doesn’t have any sharp edges, like the brightest burst of illumination before the shadows draw crystallized lines. What that light does is draw our eyes to a central point: namely, the butterfly wings that spread across her face like a mask. The colors here are richer- blue and edges of gold instead of the pinks and purples that edge the image. It isn’t just that it’s a mask- intriguing and symbolic of itself- but that it’s a butterfly. Butterflies are extremely rich in symbolism, through many, many cultures, and no matter where you are in the world a butterfly stands for roughly the same ideas. Grace, ephemerality, and reinvention. Or, if you like, reincarnation. The image is a little surreal, the way the wings seem to grow from her rather than simply being placed against her skin, so it gives us the idea that this isn’t quite our world. If we take that assumption, it makes me very curious to know the more literal ways this girl might represent the butterfly she bears. If you’re curious as well, you’ve got a little bit of a wait: Incarnate, by Jodi Meadows, comes out 31 January 2012.

Up next, we have perhaps one of the best uses of color I’ve seen in a long time.

Color, especially in stark contrasts, is one of the first things that draws our eye to a book. It’s the automatic response that makes us reach for the bright colors as children and what makes us notice- right away, without any thought or effort, the one person in a room of dark suits wearing a red silk dress. Brenna Yovanoff’s upcoming The Space Between, out 15 November 2011, does this perfectly. The deep red, mottled with even deeper tones that speak of black, is faintly ominous, deeper than blood, like an ember of rage burning far too long. But red is also the color of passion, not just of anger but of love and lust, and under its shadow, we see a girl reclining. Her immediate background, though, is not that red- it’s cold steel, empty and passionless and sterile. It’s formed into elegant, beautiful designs, full of grace and luxury, but for all that beauty, it isn’t welcoming. It feels like a prison, and the way the girl lies across the steel divan, the drape of her arm, her hair over the edge, even the way she slightly tucks her face into that outstretched arm as she looks out at the viewer, reinforces that. This is a girl who is caught between that coldness and that passion- in whatever form it might take- caught very literally in a space between.

My psych prof once told me that the way someone analyzes something reveals as much about the person doing the analysis as it does about the item being analyzed. This next one might bear that out.

I have a thing for falling. Or flying. Maybe floating. Most of all I love that sensation somewhere between where you're not really sure which it is. Right in that moment, caught in that endless potential of a thousand directions, everything seems simultaneously possible and impossible, the perfect paradox. Shattered Souls by Mary Lindsey, out 8 December 2011 gives us that paradox, but then it gives us more: where the girl’s dress should continue on, we get a sense of disintegration. As it goes from the bodice to the skirts, the fabric gives away to something organic- leaves or flower petals, I’m not sure- and it’s equally uncertain whether that material is dried or dead. (The difference between a dead flower and a dried flower, after all, is both striking and significant). It’s a haunting image, a lingering one, but not knowing whether she’s floating or falling…it’s the kind of thing that makes you curious. We don’t get any hints from her background, either, a textured and somewhat uneven grey that could be any number of substances. The cover leaves you guessing, but it also gives you enough detail (a little hard to see in the pictures) to draw you in.

Like before, feel free to weigh in with the covers you really like! What draws you in when you’re in a store, or makes you curious to read more? On the flip side- what really irritates you in covers? What turns you off?

Until next time~

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Book Review: Shadow of the Bear, by Regina Doman

September 21, 2011 at 6:01 pm (Book Reviews) (, , , , , )

Once upon a time in New York City, there lived a widow and her two daughters. One cold winter night, a Bear came to their door.
And they let him in.

I love fairy tales. I’ve said that before and I’m sure I’ll say it many times again, but I absolutely love fairy tales, and more specifically I love retellings of them. I find it fascinating how many different ways there are to tell the same stories, all the different aspects that go into staying faithful to the original tales and yet still becoming unique stories in their own right.

My sister pointed me to Shadow of the Bear, and we cracked up because we know the guy whose face is on the cover. I think it was curiosity that pushed us to actually get the book and read it- and possible the desire to bring it up for laugh value the next time we see him- but once we started reading the book, that changed. A lot.

On the surface, the story is an updated telling of Snow White and Rose Red. It’s kind of a neglected little sister to the other Snow White story (you know, the one with the dwarves and the evil queen/stepmother) but I actually like it a lot more. It’s a story of courtesy and greed, of friendship and loyalty, of the bonds between siblings, and- of course- true love.

Instead of a quaint cottage on the edge of a forest, we have a small brownstone in New York City. Blanche and Rose Brier and their mother Jean move there after the death of Mr. Brier, leaving behind their farm community and their homeschooling for the busy streets of the city, education at St. Catherine’s, and- for Jean- work in an emergency room to support her girls. Rose, the younger of the girls, takes well to shared schooling and city life, outgoing and flamboyant and at ease in any setting. Blanche is a worrier, practical and shy and uncomfortable in her own skin, silent and mostly unnoticed in public.

Enter Bear, a large, rather shaggy young man with dredlocks who, contrary to a rather imposing appearance, assists their mother with her dropped groceries. They invite him in to thaw out his frozen feet and a slow, tentative friendship forms. The tentativeness comes mostly from Blanche, who recognizes Bear as someone who hangs around the drug dealers at her school, and Bear readily admits that he was once in juvie for possession. Still, over the course of the winter nights and his regular visits, Blanche starts to wonder if there might not be more to him than dreds and a record.

It isn’t precisely safe to be Bear’s friend, however, something of which he is keenly aware and his younger brother is quick to remind him. When an evening out threatens the girls, he starts to distance himself from them for their own well-being, and even Blanche isn’t sure whether she should be relieved or not.

There are several mysteries that weave through the book, Bear’s true identity the least of them. There’s also his brother Fish, as slippery and hard to pin down as his name implies, the murder of their mentor Father Michael Raymond, and the disappearance of valuable church property. Through these run the threads of family life, of school hazards and the adjustment to life in the city and the wonders and dangers that life offers.

Here’s what sets it aside from most other retellings: Regina Doman is a Catholic writer, and that comes through the story in lovely and unexpected ways. It’s never a sermon, not a point on conversion, but it unfolds through the story, through the characters, and allows for some very interesting thoughts. I’m not personally Catholic so in many ways some of the aspects were like looking into a new world, one of structure but also of comfort. For the girls, especially for Blanche, religion is a way to look out on an otherwise terrifying world, a source of strength and grace in difficult times. For the brothers, it’s a way to make sense of a hard, cruel world, a world where a beloved mother dies and a father disowns them, where their mentor can be murdered within his own church. It’s what got them through juvie and it’s what continues to carry them through their quest to find the identity of the murderer.

It’s not a simple thing, but it’s an elegant one, a nature that supports the story and allows it to unfold. We see the best and worst of mankind, the despair of losing against an encroaching darkness of the human soul, but also the supreme hope and redemption that gives us the promise of better times.

Religion, especially in fiction, can be a chancy thing, largely because it’s a highly personal and easily misinterpreted thing. It’s a polarizing issue and people respond to it with a great deal of passion. That passion often translates to anger or outrage. Here it’s offered with a gentle hand, used to support the story and characters in view of a certain outlook on life, but never used as a bludgeon. It never attempts to step outside the story or become separate from it, an inextricable part of the characters but an offering rather a smack to face.

These characters offer a lot to fall in love with. Bright and bold Rose, unafraid of the world even when she should be, gutsy and resourceful and entirely too trusting; timid and careful Blanche, afraid she’ll let life pass her by but too scared to reach out and take hold of it; Bear, wounded and bone-sweet, careful of others even as he’s relentlessly driven by his quest; sarcastic, flippant, and hard-to-know Fish, good as distancing himself from others but not so skilled at connecting with them. They’re very real characters, mixed with virtues and flaws, people who’ve been damaged in their own ways and finding their own roads to overcoming and incorporating those scars.

And the best news? If you love this book, there are more: Black as Night, Waking Rose, The Midnight Dancers, and Alex O’Donnell and the 40 Cyber Thieves, hopefully with more to come in the future.

Until next time~

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A Bit About Jargon: Pre-Orders

September 18, 2011 at 8:38 pm (Industry, Uncategorized) (, , , , , , , , , , )

You know you want it.

It’s that book you’ve been waiting a whole year for- maybe even two or three years. More if you’re a Jordan or Martin fan. It’s that book you scour the internet for, squealing over a cover reveal, searching for teasers and any words the author might release about it. You look for the contests so you can get it early. You have it marked and circled in really bright colors on your calendar. You’ve requested the release day off of work so you can run out, buy it, and just start reading it then and there.

So have you pre-ordered it yet?

You’d be stunned at how many people would answer no.

The thing is, if you really want the book, you should pre-order it, and here’s why:

You have nothing to lose by putting your name down for one. Now, if you’re looking at e-books or if you’re doing it online, that’s different. Obviously there’s money down for that one, and if you get the first few pages and it sucks, e-books aren’t returnable. But if you’re doing it in a store, there’s no money down. There is absolutely no obligation to buy, so you’re risking nothing by having one set aside for you. What that does is guarantees that there’ll be a copy for you if you want it.

For small- to mid-release titles, not all bookstores are going to receive copies in quantity, or even at all. There’s a finite amount of shelf space at a bookstore, so not every title gets to be represented. Sad, but true. If you don’t have us bring it in, we may not be getting it.

For most new releases, publishers send us between three and eight copies, depending on whether or not it’s got extra displays or promotions. Think about that, though: if there are three to eight people in your area who want that book as badly as you do but don’t have to worry about class or work and can get either get to the bookstore right away or send someone else for them, then you don’t get your copy. *sad face* Then you have to order it anyway, but you don’t get it when you were actually wanting it.

For larger releases, we generally get a certain number of books above our pre-orders. There’s a whole equation for it tucked away somewhere but the warehouse considers pre-orders to be an accurate indiation of how many people in our area want the book.

Now me? I live in an area where, for some reason or another, people refuse to pre-order. I don’t know what it is, but everyone just assumes that the book will be there if they want it, regardless of what the title is. They want the books, but they won’t pre-order it.

That results in little things like the Breaking Dawn fiasco.

We were required to have a midnight release party for it, and we were told fairly early on that the number of books we received would be strictly dependant upon the number of pre-orders we got. We busted our butts trying to get those pre-orders, but most people didn’t want to put their name down. They said they’d just come and get it that day, despite our warnings that we wouldn’t be getting that many books above our pre-orders. Despite multiple warnings, even. By the night of the release, we had 45 pre-orders. I think the buyer pitied us because he sent us 130 books.

Then we had 97 people show up for the party.

We were completely sold out of the book by four o’clock that afternoon, as was EVERY OTHER PLACE IN TOWN, because we all got quantity based off our pre-orders. We had to struggle to get more books in, but people STILL wouldn’t put their names down, so as soon as we got them in they sold to other people. This went on for WEEKS (to be fair, it was complicated by the fact that this was a buyer-managed title so we had to beg to get quantities above what their equations told us we should get).

October 4th, we’re going to have a crush of parents in to pick up Rick Riordan’s Son of Neptune, and the kids whose parents have to work during the day will come crowding in at night. We’ve got less than 20 pre-orders and one of those is mine. The buyer knows this is a huge title, they’re going to send us quite a bit, but what about two days from now, when Scott Westerfeld’s Goliath comes out?

If we’re slated to get a certain amount (like in the case of Goliath, about 8) and our pre-order numbers don’t break past a certain percentage, they don’t send us any extra, meaning the pre-orders actually come out of those numbers. If we’ve got three pre-orders, there are five left out in the wild.

Really reduces your chances of getting that copy when you want it.

Pre-ordering through a store costs nothing. You do not pay to reserve the title. We take your name and phone number, and when it comes it we set one aside with your name on it. Release day, we give you a call or email as a courtesy reminder that the book is in. Then, you can come get it or not. Found it somewhere else? That’s fine. Got it as a gift? That’s fine too. Come in and read the first chapter and realize the book is going to dash all your hopes and dreams, and you will actually shrivel and die a little inside if you read the rest of it? You don’t have to buy it.

I like to try new authors, and because I read YA, there are a TON of debut authors. It’s a gamble, trying a new author. You don’t know if you’re going to like the style or the characters, and with debuts, a bookstore may or may not be stocking them without a publisher push. It sucks, but there it is; buyers have to manage a finite amount of display space, so they do their best to tailor to what’s known to sell in each store. So I put in a pre-order. When it comes in, I flip through the first chapter or two and see if I’m caught. Do I like the writing? Do the characters interet me? Does the story intrigue me? If the answers are yes, I buy the book. If the answers are no, I simply have the hold cancelled and it goes out on the shelf.

No money changes hands unless I actually decide to buy it.

Don’t miss out on your chance to get a book when you want it because of a pre-order. It costs nothing, and it takes less than a minute to give us your information to hold it for you. You can even pre-order multiple titles at a time, and we’ll let you know as each comes in (I do my orders a month at a time and just flip through them as they arrive, and I can buy or not buy as I choose).

On November 1st, when Ally Condie’s Crossed comes out, or on December 6th when Cassandra Clare’s Clockwork Prince comes out, do you really want to be one of those people without a book because you didn’t put your name down?

Please, please, as a bookseller I am BEGGING you: if you want a book, take the two seconds to put in a pre-order. You literally have nothing to lose.

But you have a lot to gain- specifically, a guarantee of the book on release day or whenever you want to go pick it up.

Just to satisfy a curiosity, what books are you looking forward to in the next few months? (And are you going to pre-order them?)

Until next time~

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Book Review: Anna Dressed in Blood, by Kendare Blake

September 14, 2011 at 10:00 am (Book Reviews) (, , , , )

Theseus Cassio Lockwood is a fairly typical teenager. He likes to talk to cute girls, surf the web, hunt and dispatch ghosts…Okay, maybe not a typical teenager. After his father was murdered by a ghost, Cas took up his athame and contacts. Now he and his mother, a white witch, travel from place to place so he can dispatch the ghosts that claim people’s lives, honing his skills until- unbeknownst to his mother- he can go after the one that got his dad. He figures one more ghost and he’ll be ready.
But Anna Dressed in Blood is unlike any ghost he’s ever heard of before, posssessed of strange powers and the deep compulsion to tear apart any who enter her house. And this time, Cas won’t be able to do it alone.
Even though he’d really, really like to.

When I was in elementary school, maybe even into middle school, I used to sit at the back of the bus with friends on field trips and take turns reading aloud from Steven Schwartz’ Scary Stories collections. Especially when we were traveling at night, or when the Girl Scouts or Boy Scouts (I was both, believe it or not) were settled in for the night on camp outs. Read during the day or by the wrong people, there was something incredibly cheesy- and therefore side-splittingly funny- about those stories, but at night, in the hands of the right kind of reader, they would scare us spitless. (And then, of course, there would always be that one kid who started crying and ran to the teachers/chaperones/scoutmasters and ruined it for everyone until they actually started forbidding the books on trips)

When I picked up Anna Dressed in Blood, that’s kind of what I was expecting. Something a little scary, a little cheesy, a way to pass an afternoon but not something to linger.

Dear Lord, was I ever wrong.

Step back for a moment to just look at the book. Isn’t that a great cover? It’s eerie and intriguing, with just the right amount of color to it, slightly spooky without trying too hard. Then you open to the first page…and the writing is in red. Dark red, so it’s not hard on the eyes (think the same color red as Forever by Maggie Stiefvater) but definitely red. Given the amount of blood in the book, that was a brilliant choice, one that really helps set the mood.

Cas narrates for us, teaching us a lot about his world of ghosts without too many info dumps. Ghosts are a part of his everyday life, not just the ability to see them, but also to know whether they’re harmless (the old lady who visits her grave but never hurts anyone) or…you know, dangerous. He gets the spirit world. It’s the human world he’s less connected to. People are sources of information, obstacles to be worked around, or- worst case scenario- victims. He has contacts, not friends, and he likes it that way. Much to his mother’s chagrin.

Then comes Thunder Bay and a totally different set-up. His usual MO is to find the queen bee in each new school, finagle his way into a steady source of gossip about the local ghosts, and get the job done as quickly as possible. This queen bee, Carmel, is surprisingly real and down-to-earth, with a jealous ex-boyfriend more than willing to try and scare Cas with the locak spook stories. Then there’s Thomas, a school outcast with mild telepathy and black witch skills. (Don’t let the name fool you; black magic refers to the skill set, not the good-evil alliance).

The jealous ex gives Cas exactly the opportunity he needs to see Anna Dressed in Blood for the first time, and that introduction does not go well. He escapes with his life, as well as some gashes and bruises, but he’s the lucky one.

Still, Anna Korlov is unlike anything Cas has encountered, and her existence and her powers go against everything he’s learned to expect. In order to dispatch Anna, he’s going to have to figure out who killed her and how, and what else they did.

As a narrator, Cas is a fun one to ride along with. Sometimes his voice gets a little old (like when he describes a young woman as havin a future in owning a ton of sweaters and a house full of cats), something we especially see in how he describes his mother. He loves his mother and is very aware of both her support for her and her weaknesses since his father died, but that very understanding is rather unique for a teenager, and sometimes comes off as a little too perceptive. There’s no question that his father’s death made Cas decide to grow up fast, but there’s a difference between growing up by tackling a hard duty and simply sounding too old.

The other main characters make for a charmingly eclectic bunch. Carmel has all the social skills of the queen bee and the sense of reality of a plucky heroine, along with the ‘what the hell is going on’ vulnerability that gives her just a hint of the damsel in distress that Thomas would dearly love to rescue. Thomas himself is adorably scruffy, kind of like the shaggy puppy you really want to take home and feed and bathe- and then adopt as a pet. Thomas’ grandfather gives some well-earned words of wisdom about their ventures, while Cas’ mother maintains a steady reserve of worried confidence. If that sounds like a contradiction, trust me, it isn’t. Tybalt is a strong character in his own right, and rather reminds me of my roommate’s cat. Very selective ownership, selective dignity, selective affection…in other words, a cat.

And then there’s Anna. Anna is…Anna is…Anna is rather hard to describe without giving things away. She’s amazing. She’s complicated and multi-faceted, and she absolutely draws you in to her world. As invested as we become into the story, we become even more invested in Anna.

The story is by turns tense, sweet, wry, ridiculous, terrifying, dark, and- in some ways- incredibly uplifting. To speak too much to the details is to risk spoilers, and I don’t want to ruin anything for you.

Just…don’t read it alone at night, okay?

Anna Dressed in Blood by Kendare Blake. Check it out!

Until next time~

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A Decade Later

September 11, 2011 at 10:00 am (General) (, , )

A decade after the events of 11 September 2001, it still seems like it’s all anyone can talk about. It’s a part of our national consciousness, an indelible part of our awareness that may never fade. Television stations, websites, newspapers, radio, every media form is drowning in coverage and memories. I know there are a number of people who are sick of hearing it, sick of reliving it, and just want to move forward because ten years later we still can’t change what happened, only how we live our lives from here on out. I can understand that; there comes a point where it all becomes more than a bit maudlin. There’s only so many times you can see the same footage before you reach to turn off the TV. There comes a point when you look at reporters digging up the worst day of a person’s life again and again and again to ask the same questions every year and you just wish, deeply and fervently, that everyone would just leave that poor person alone.

But here’s the thing- 9/11 affected us as a nation in a way nothing else in recent(ish) memory has. I’m not talking politically; I’m talking personally. Everyone was affected by that day. Everyone has a story to tell, something deeply personal. The same themes filter through thousands of memories but everyone has a story, and today- just as ten years ago- sharing those stories brings us all together into a single entity: America. We live in a divisive, fractious society but that day, we were all united in the wake of a tragedy unlike anything we could have imagined.

Ask any good Southern girl, she’ll tell you that a porch swing and a glass of lemonade make for a nice day; a porch swing and an older person make for a history lesson. When I was little, I used to sit with my grandmother in the craft circle at church and listen to the older woman swap history. They could tell you with frightening clarity exactly what they were doing when JFK was shot. Most of them could still tell you what they were wearing when Pearl Harbor was bombed. That baffled me. The idea that anything could be that riveting was foreign to me.

But then came 9/11.

When I came out of my third period geometry class, the hallways were buzzing. Big deal, right? It’s high school; the hallways were always buzzing. My fourth period class was practically right around the corner, less than a minute away, but as I passed one of the other math classrooms, one whose door was open, I was stopped by the sight of the TV. The math teachers never turned their TVs on. As I stood and watched with a small cluster of other students, surrounded by curses and insults as others had to detour around us to get to class, the newscaster explained that a plane had been flown directly into one of the towers. There were a lot of people who thought it was a movie and couldn’t figure out why the teacher was showing it, except that that buzz in the hallways was increasingly filled with the same words. Planes. Two towers. Hijack. Then it switched to live coverage and, as we watched in the four minutes between classes, the second plane flew in.

Our section of the hallway fell absolutely silent. The door to my next class was less than twenty feet away so I stood there in the hall and stared incomprehendingly at the television mounted on the wall. The math teacher, whose name I didn’t know then and still don’t now, sat behind her desk and sobbed.

But the tardy bell rang and we hurried into our classes and everyone was talking about it. One of the boys reached up to turn the TV on, but our English teacher told him no.

There was another moment of stunned silence as we all turned to stare at her.

She said our watching the news wasn’t going to change anything that was happening in New York, but it was going to waste a day of learning and we had things to do. The television was not going on.

In a way, I understood- keeping us busy might have been a good way to keep us distracted from everything that was happening, and she was right in that we couldn’t change anything- but there were people in that room with family in New York City. At least two of them had family working in the towers. We all wanted to know what was going on, and there’s nothing quite like a class of AP English Language juniors to spark a debate on the subject, and protests flew like crazy through the room, but the TV stayed off and the lecture went forward as planned. I’m not sure any of us heard a word of it; we were too busy trying to hear through cinder block walls into the classroom next door.

Then the door opened and my friend Jenn, an office aide for the period, stood there with a blue summons slip in her hand. She glanced through the classroom, I thought to find the teacher, but she looked straight at me. Looked like she was about to cry, actually. She practically threw the slip at me and ran back down the hall. The slip didn’t tell me much- I was needed at the office because my mother was on the phone. Strange, especially given my mother’s boss at the time (let’s call them less than understanding or flexible and leave it at that) but whatever. I showed the slip to my teacher and walked down the hall to the office.

Hallways in the middle of class are always strange things, not quite silent for the strains of lectures or class activities that drift through doors and windows of classroom. The women in the front office were sniffling, one sobbing openly, but the stacks of blue slips at their elbows steadily grew at they tracked through the school records to find where students were. As soon as the aides came in they went back out with a new slip, but they had them do it one by one to keep the traffic in the office to a minimum.

I’d interpreted the message to mean that my mother had called and I needed to call her back, but she was actually still on the phone. Already not a good sign. I could hear the strain in my mom’s voice, the way it pulls taut when she’s been crying but trying not to, and she asked me how I was doing. To which I answered very truthfully, I’m confused as hell. Then she says “Dot, we haven’t heard from your dad yet.”

My dad?

My dad didn’t live or work in New York, and to the best of my knowledge, he hadn’t been given an assignment or inspection there, so I wasn’t sure how he’d suddenly come into the conversation and told her so. There was a long silence and then- carefully, tentatively- she says “Dot, another plane was flown into the Pentagon. It…it hit the section with your dad’s office.”

And suddenly the world tilted. I know she was still saying something, knew that one of the office ladies was asking me something, but I couldn’t hear anything. All I knew was this unbearable tightness in my chest- the precursor to a panic attack. I hadn’t known about that other plane because the damn TV in my classroom was off. Mom asked me if I needed her to come take me home and I almost said yes- until I realized she’d have to go back to work and I’d be sitting all alone in the house staring at the televison.

I elected to stay at school so I could be with my friends. Being alone at that point seemed like a very bad idea. Mom said she’d keep trying to get in touch with my dad and she’d let me know as soon as she knew anything, and that I was to call her if I needed her or if I changed my mind and wanted to go home, or even just wanted to come to her office. I stayed in the school office for another minute or two to catch my breath, and watched some other unlucky kid follow me to the phone with his blue slip clutched in hand. He was a freshman, new not just to the school but to the town, and his mother was calling to tell him that his aunt had been on one of the planes.

There are times when I’m a coward.

That was one of them, and I escaped back to the hallway before I could see how he reacted. I was already crying over not knowing what had happened with my dad, I didn’t think I could handle seeing someone else know they’d lost someone.

When I got back to my English class, I walked right up to the TV and turned it on. My teacher started to walk over to turn it back off and as much as I normally loved that teacher, I’m pretty sure I would have knocked her on her ass if she’d gone through with it. If there was even the slightest chance that I’d see my dad in the crowd as news coverage showed the Pentagon, that TV was staying on.

Well, I probably wouldn’t have punched her. But I would have taken my stuff and gone to the library for the rest of the period so I could watch it there.

She left it on but muted it.

I had first lunch, which I normally spent outside with my friends in a technically out of bounds area between the auditorium drama room, auditorium, and band and chorus hallway. That day we spent it inside the drama classroom, despite the fact that there was a class going on in there, because our drama teacher knew there wasn’t going to be any teaching that day. Some days you just give in gracefully to the inevitable and serve as counselor to those who are waiting to hear the worst. I couldn’t eat for the nausea that clenched my stomach, so we sat along the back counter like a line of gargoyles and stared at the television and wondered how the world could be any worse. Over and over, we watched the first plane hit, watched the second tower hit, watched the Pentagon burn, watched the towers fall. Over and over we watched the faces of those who had barely escaped with their lives.

And watched others enter the wreckage of the towers knowing they’d never walk out again, but hoping they could get others out in their stead.

Fifth period was AP Psych, with a teacher I loved largely for his biting, irreverent and usually downright insulting sense of humor, but he simply took roll and kept the TV on. Said we could analyze it once everyone had heard the necessary news from home. I sat on the floor against one wall and my friend Kristin sat beside me with her arm around my shoulders because by that point I was so cold I was shaking. It wasn’t cold in the classrooms, it was just me. Every time they showed the Pentagon I wanted to look away because somewhere in the midst of those flames was my dad’s office. I didn’t dare look away because what if the camera panned to all the activity outside the building and it showed him alive and well?

Gradually we learned more. The planes had been hi-jacked by terrorists, which at that point was as unfathomable to me as anything else about the day. We heard about Flight 93 and the incredible bravery and sacrifice of those on board. We saw the emergency responders and learned just how few of them were expected to make it back out.

And then my psych teacher was kneeling in front of me with a note from the office in his hand, and he gave me a hug and told me “Your dad’s okay. Dot, your dad is okay. He’s safe.”

And I started sobbing.

It was hours before I could actually talk to him- the lines were so busy there were entire sections of New York and DC that were unreachable by phone.

He’d forgotten his lunch.

Isn’t that a crazy thing? He’d forgotten his lunch and didn’t want to deal with a crowd or rush, so he took an early lunch to go out and get a sandwich to bring back to his office for later. That stupid sandwich saved his life.

The physical and emotional fallout wasn’t limited to that day. It isn’t limited to that week, to that month, to that year. We’re still feeling it. In some ways, we always will. Ten years later, I can still close my eyes and I’m back in that hallway between third and fourth period, still baffled as I watch the second plane fly into the tower.

Everyone has a story to tell about that day. It’s the kind of day that necessarily changes lives, changes people, changes a nation.

As we mark this anniversary and honor those who lost their lives on this day ten years ago, as we recognize all those who lost family and friends, as those of us who got the good news call feel grateful and guilty at once, let us also remember the incredible spirit that bound us together in the wake of this tragedy. Honor and recognize the people, but also the innate human goodness that led to such charity, as aid was rushed in from all over the country and world, as businesses opened their doors. Remember the day the newscasters openly wept and every tiny victory was celebrated. Remember the heroes, because there were so many that day.

And remember, as we honor this day in our past, that there’s so much more to look to in our future.

God bless.

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Book Review: Vanish, by Sophie Jordan

September 7, 2011 at 9:49 pm (Book Reviews) (, , , , )

NOTE: This is the sequel to Firelight, so what’s below will contain spoilers for the first book. If you haven’t read that one, you’ll probably want to skip what’s below.

To save Will’s life, Jacinda did the unthinkable. Now, with her secret exposed before a family of hunters, she has no choice but to accompany Cassian back to the pride, along with her mother and sister, but for Tamra, a perpeptual outcast among the draki for never having manifested, homecoming isn’t the hardship they all expect it to be. For Jacinda and her mother, it’s pure hell.
Jacinda knows her only choice is to let Will go, to trust that the magic of draki shading has wiped her completely from his memory. She knows that- but that doesn’t mean it’s easy.
And danger didn’t stop at the pride’s boundaries.

Vanish picks up right where Firelight left off, with Jacinda in a LOT of trouble. It’s not that she regrets her choice, precisely- it saved Will’s life- but there are a lot of consequences that won’t be so easy to run away from. When she left the pride, she was on the verge of having her wings clipped. Their secret should be safe, thanks to the draki magic of shading, which wipes human memories among other things, but it still means returning to the pride after they snuck out. However worthless Tamra and their mother are considered to be by draki terms, Jacinda is still the pride’s only fire-breather.

But- perhaps as a stress reaction, perhaps something more- the impossible has happened, and Tamra has finally manifested: into a shader, equally valuable and equally rare. Suddenly she can be a part of things, a part of the pride, in a way she never could before. And she finally has a chance at Cassian.

This book looks a great deal at consequences and how incredibly difficult they can be to take. It isn’t just Jacinda who has to deal with those consequences, though, and we get to see how they ripple out to the others. We get to see Az- love Az!- and how much she’s missed her best friend, but we also see how she’s changed to work around the hole of Jacinda’s absence. We see what coming back does to Jacinda and Tamra’s mother- and it’s terrible. And incredibly realistic. It breaks my heart to watch but at the same time it’s so right that I can’t imagine it any other way. We see how lost Jacinda is amidst this familiar world, where everything is the same but everything’s different at the same time.

And we see Cassian.

I wish we saw more of Cassian. He is such a complicated character and I really wish I was able to know more about him. I get that we’re limited by Jacinda’s perspective, trust me I do, but still… WANTS. I want to know more of what motivates him. Why does he love Jacinda? Why not Tamra? Why does he go after her, why is he willing to wait for her, why is he so sure of his feelings for her? And why does she mean so much that he’ll go up against his father for her? Cassian is an interesting, compelling, multi-faceted character and I want to know him so much better.

I’d also love to know more about Will, which sounds strange given the first book, but we get Jacinda’s very visceral response to him. Gut reactions are strong and they can be deep, but I want to know more about him, like what it’s like to grow up amidst the hunters- like what else changed because of his father’s choice of cure. I especially want to know about his grandmother.

I love the variety of draki that we get to see, and love that each type serves a very specific purpose. That these talents affect their lives is clear, but they also affect their personalities and appearance. It makes you think: if Jacinda weren’t a fire-breather, would she be half so hot-tempered and impulsive? We might have a very different story then, which is so much fun to consider.

Most of all I love that nothing’s easy. Coming back to the pride isn’t sunshine and roses for anyone, but I really like that it’s just as dangerous there as in the broader world. People are people, whether they’re human or draki, so they’re still prey to the fallacies of mankind. There are still power-hungry, abusive dictators, there are still possessive creeps, there are still snide superior douchebags convinved they always have the right of things…and there are still those who can’t forgive, those who buckle under grief, and those who try desperately not to be victims.

I think what I hated about it was that it ended too soon. Did it end in exactly the right place to set up the next book? Yes. If it had gone on, it would have had to either dither around without committing or it would have committed and then cut off abruptly or been three times the length of the first one. But I wanted more! Especially given [spoiler redacted] and [spoiler redacted].

Vanish by Sophie Jordan, out in stores now!

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Share the Love

September 4, 2011 at 11:40 am (General) (, , , , )

When I was little and tried to imagine what heaven looked like, it looked an awful lot like the main branch of my county library.

Our main branch is situated right in the middle of the downtown-university area, nowhere near where we lived at the time, so getting to it was a pain, parking was a pain, and timing was everything. Despite that, Mom made sure we got there as often as we could- as often as I’d been good- especially when school was out. At the tender age of five and a half, I knew that place like the back of my hand and could find any book I wanted, even if it wasn’t in the kids’ section. When I checked out books, it wasn’t one or two, it was a STACK, and I’d have them all read within a week.

A couple of years later, we hit a bit of a snag with our summer arrangements. My brothers were old enough enough to stay home unsupervised, so technically they were old enough to babysit me, but that would have been cruel and unusual punishment for all involved and very likely to end in tears and bruises for multiple parties. My brothers and I didn’t really get along all that well at that age. My grandparents were talking about moving down, but they hadn’t yet, and we couldn’t really afford daycare (one of the reasons we went to the library rather than the bookstore). So, bright and early one Saturday morning, my mom and I got in the car and toddled down to the library to talk to the head librarian. I remember nothing about her, because I’m pretty sure that was the only time I ever met her, but at the end of the meeting, we had a rather bizarre little arrangement worked out on a probationary basis.

Librarians are not, in fact, babysitters- as far too many parents assume- but some of the librarians were familiar enough with me to vouch for my habits and behavior, so the head librarian gave my mother permission to let me stay in the library during the weekdays without direct adult supervision. The slightest inconvenience, the slightest sign of misbehavior, that permission would be revoked. (During this meeting, I went down to the kids’ section, pulled two books, read them completely, toddled back down and put them exactly where they belonged on the shelves)

Monday was the big trial. As soon as the library was open, my mom dropped me off with my backpack (which had some coloring books and crayons in case I needed a break from reading, as well as one of the stuffed animals I loved to read with/to), five dollars for lunch, and two sheets with names and phone numbers on them, one for me and one to keep with the librarians at the kids’ circulation desk. I found a comfortable chair in a sunny spot (I’m rather like a cat that way), staked my claim with my backpack, and wandered off to round up a good selection of books for the morning. I read, I played quietly with some of the younger kids as their parents looked through books, read out loud to some who weren’t old enough to manage on their own, and when I got hungry, I put away my books, told the volunteer at the kids’ desk that I’d be back, and left the library for lunch. Before anyone gets too scared, there was a Subway right across the street, so it wasn’t like I was wandering around downtown. Then, after I’d eaten, I came back and repeated the routine for the afternoon. When my mom came to pick me up, I picked another few books to check out, we went home, and the whole thing had been such a success we repeated it for a large part of the summer.

I got to know every librarian and they’d give me suggestions for books to try next, or- and this got me really excited- ask me what I thought some of the other kids should read. I’d help with the reshelve carts and the decorations, and help with the storytimes, and I loved it. All of it.

Why am I telling you this?

Libraries have a lot of love to give, but they need love in return, and in the wake of Hurricane Irene, there are some that need extra love right now.

Kate Messner posted a blog with pictures from a small library in Upper Jay, New York whose children’s section has been completely ruined by flooding from Irene, and it’s far from the only library so devestated. I dare you to look at those mountains of ruined books and not choke up a little. For this area and others, the libraries are the only way some kids get access to books, especially now with schools equally damaged or hard to access.

If you love your libraries, your librarians, your kids, your readers, if you love anything about putting a book into someone’s hands, share that love.

Kate’s blog has a list of contacts and info for some of the libraries she knows of that need special help right now, but you can search out other libraries in the northeast that have also been hit. Most of them are asking for checks at this point, given the severe limitations on dry storage space for packages, but some are also working with local bookstores to allow people to purchase books through the store and the store will not only keep track of what’s been purchased and what’s still needed, but also hold the books there until the library is repaired and ready to receive them.

We live in a time when money is extremely tight, but even five or ten dollars can help restore these libraries, one book at a time.

When you share the love, it isn’t just the libraries you’re helping; you’re also helping all the kids like us, the ones who are starting off on a lifetime love affair with reading, the future writers, the future agents and editors and publishers. You’re helping an entire generation fall in love with books.

So please, if you can, share the love.

Until next time~

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