Halloween Horribles

October 30, 2011 at 11:05 am (General) (, , , , , )

Last night after the game (pick one), my brother was flipping through channels when we happened to pause on the movie Gremlins. Everyone know that movie? Featured this ridiculously cute little critter?

I knew there were two basic rules about Gremlins- don’t get them wet, and whatever you do don’t feed them after midnight- but I didn’t realize sunlight and bright lights were part of that too, until someone is sitting there desperately flashing a polaroid to get out of a tight spot. My brother didn’t think anything of my asking at first- it’s been quite a while since he’s seen them- but then it occurred to him to ask if I’d ever seen the movie.

Um, no.

Gremlins 2?

No, not so much.

And while he was sitting on the couch giving me an appalled stare, I tried to remember why.

The first movie actually came out in 1984. I wasn’t born yet. However, I know that when we were growing up, we had at least a Beta cassette of it, if not the VHS. It was definitely in the house, because I remember my brothers watching it.

And I remember my mother taking one look at the stuffed Gizmo I’d inherited from my older brothers and promptly taking me out of the den. When I got old enough to want to stay, she explained to me that I was still too young, that I would get terrible nightmares, and I would probably start crying every time I looked at Gizmo, for all that he’s supposed to be the good one. It didn’t mean I’d never be allowed to watch the movie, just not yet. Besides, as consolation for not being able to watch the movie with the boys, we’d go curl up on her bed with a book or two, which in my mind was so much better.

It took me a little longer to figure out why I never saw it after that, and then it hit me: Furbys.

Those terrifying, demonic pieces of fluff and machinery that singlehandedly did more to scare me than anything since Teddy Ruxbin. Between those two toys, I never, ever wanted to see Gremlins because I couldn’t stand the thought of my sweet, by then very battered and mended Gizmo having scary cousins. Teddy Ruxpin seriously gave me nightmares. We had one- briefly. I’m not sure if my mom hid it or gave it away because it freaked out all three of us kids so thoroughly. Furbys, though…Furbys were actually worse, mainly because of the glitches.

What glitches?

I had some friends at school who had Furbys. They were this HUGE thing when they first came out. All the cool kids had them. Needless to say, I was not a cool kid. They’d bring them to school until they were banned, and then they’d have slumber parties or after school hang outs which would feature the demon creatures talking at you.

And then some of them started talking on their own.

I don’t mean that they became sentient or started making up their own words, or anything. But there was some kind of sensor, or control, or something so you could tell them when to talk and when to shut up. And that control started glitching.

The first time it happened was a slumber party. Twelve or fifteen tween girls all finally sacked out sometime after midnight, fast asleep in sleeping bags, and suddenly around ten Furbys start babbling out of nowhere. No joke, one girl wet herself, started crying hysterically, and her mom had to come take her home in the middle of the night because the girl was so embarrassed. Anything else and we probably would have been teasing her, or at least laughing (like if we’d been telling ghost stories and she just had a bad dream; we were old enough by that point to find them silly). But we weren’t teasing, and the only laughter was that thin, nervous kind that trails off into hiccups and shallow breaths.

The Furbys had successfully freaked us out.

We eventually got over it by reminding ourselves that the Furbys had those little scanner thingies to know when another Furby was nearby so they could “talk” and that they’d probably just recognized the presence of other Furbys. Okay, yes, that was creepy enough, but it gave a solid excuse for why they’d suddenly start talking in the middle of the night. Over the next few weeks, more kids at school started telling us about incidents like these. As scary as it can be at a slumber party- where theoretically you could blame it on some sort of prank by one of the others- it started happening when there was no additional Furby or human around. Just you, the Furby, and your bedroom in the middle of night, where you were supposed to be safe from the things that creep in the night.

Usually once a hacker gets hold of something, it becomes faintly ridiculous and funny, because you know a human with a sick sense of humor has reprogrammed them to say certain things. But when it’s still all based off the original programming?

Furbys made me terrified that something would be wrong with Gizmo, so I absolutely refused to watch the Gremlins movies even after my mom gave her permission. I still won’t watch them. I don’t know that I’d leave the room if someone else put it on, but I will never rent or buy it, simply because I’m still freaked out by those frickin’ Furbys.

So, as we come into the Halloween season- ushered in really well by Nova Ren Suma’s guest blog series on What Scares You?– what are your lingering childhood fears? Please share below!

And everyone, please have a spooky (and safe) Halloween!

Until next time~

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Book Review: Mastiff, by Tamora Pierce

October 26, 2011 at 11:38 am (Book Reviews) (, , , , )

Note: this book is the third in the Beka Cooper Trilogy, so if you haven’t read the first two books, reader beware of what’s below.

In the wake of a personal tragedy, Beka is called to a Hunt unlike any she’s known before, where not just a few lives but the well-being of the entire Realm depends upon her ability to find a lost child. Across miles and weeks, she’ll have to face slavers, raiders, nobles, mages, and fellow Dogs, memories and betrayal, hopelessness and injury, all with the same fierce dedication and loyalty that has named her in the past. Only this time? It may not be enough.

This book starts out us out with the funeral of Beka’s fellow Dog and fiance, Holborn. Three years have passed since the end of Bloodhound, and Beka and Achoo, her scent hound, have been making names for themselves as Dogs. Beka doesn’t have time to grieve after the funeral though; she’s woken in the middle of the night by Lord Gershom, the Provost, and called to a Hunt where secrecy is of the utmost importance.

The Summer Palace has been attacked, and four-year-old Prince Gareth taken.

As with everything else in Tamora Pierce’s world, there aren’t really any easy black and white statements. Despite Beka’s dislike of it, politics stains through every move in this very deadly game. Inspired by his wife, the previously easy-to-manipulate party king has actually started ruling- and not just ruling, but ruling with a mind towards his common people. This has won him enemies from nearly every side, any one of whom could be responsible for the theft of his son. Even worse, the enemy is clever and very spendthrift with massive amounts of magic to both lay traps and erase the scent and proof of their passage. Lives mean nothing to this enemy, and the body count starts around 150 and grows from there.

Luckily, Beka isn’t alone. She has Achoo, of course, her loyal and mildly silly scent hound, and Pounce, her purple-eyed companion (really a constellation in the form of a cat). She also has her two-legged partner, Tunstall, a mage handpicked by Gerhsom who can’t possibly be as silly as he appears, and Tunstall’s lover and a fierce brawler in her own right, Lady Knight Sabine of Macayhill. Being Beka, she also has other companions: the dust spinners and the ghosts who ride pigeon back to tell her things.

One of the things I love about Tamora’s writing is how rich her world is, not just in the building of it but in the telling of it. Beka is a Lower City girl. When she’s tired, her spelling and grammar slip back to atrocious, but from book to book you can actually see how she’s getting accustomed to proper writing. She has a rich Lower City vocabulary in which we’re immediately enmeshed, and she doesn’t shy away from basic bodily functions. In addition to her slum upbringing, she’s also a scent hound handler, so she knows the proper value of strong physical scents. Beka is not, in any respect, a delicate heroine.

What she is, is delightfully complex. She can be very shy, but also very brusque and forthcoming. She is incredibly loyal and relies on the loyalty of her friends, but she also knows that loyalty can be bought or corrupted. For all her disdain of noble honor, she’s got the same principle under less high-falutin’ names leaking out her pores. Even more than all that, she’s at a place where she truly has to question who she is and what she wants- and that’s because of Holborn. Holborn, who she tries to grieve because she knows she should, even though she’s secretly a little relieved. Because if he’s dead, she doesn’t have to call of the engagement and face all those questions. Holborn, who she loved for a while, but didn’t particularly like, with whom she fought frequently, Holborn who felt threatened- or perhaps outdone- by her skills as a Dog and died for trying to outdo her in turn. Holborn, who made her wonder if perhaps she really was as cold as her accused her of being.

And I am ridiculously grateful for Holborn for those very reasons. Beka is in such an interesting place because of him, a place where has the potential to grow in a number of different ways and we’re waiting with bated breath to see which path she takes. Beka is very accustomed to seeing the worst of humanity, and it’s hard to accept that sometimes there needs to be a little hope as well. Even more than that, I’m grateful that we get to move away from the whole “First love is forever” idea. Not that Tamora has ever particularly espoused that in her books- her characters nearly always have their share of heartbreaks growing up- but that’s certainly the idea that we see again and again and again and AGAIN in teen books right now. In a way, I get it- the characters are teenagers. If it’s not first love, they started early, and they want a happy ending, not a break up, so I get it. But it’s refreshing to see a circumstance in which first love isn’t forever, in which there are problems and heartache and an ending.

The characters are rich and alive, full of the contradictions inherent to mankind. Farmer Cape, the mage brought in by Gershom, is both silly and scary smart, powerful but with the appearance and apparent attitude of a yokel. Tunstall is a seasoned Dog, pragmatic and cynical, with profound superstition. Sabine is a noble and lady knight who rather enjoys barroom brawls and isn’t afraid to tell a king to piss off if he’s getting handsy. What’s truly stunning, however, is Tamora’s ability to make us deeply care for characters we see only for a page or two. We’ve barely met them, but we care what happens to them and we’re profoundly affected by Beka’s reactions to what happens to them.

When it comes down to it, I had two problems with this book, but they’re strange little problems (and one of them requires a significant amount of tap dancing around spoilers, so bear with me).

The easier problem? There was a severe lack of Rosto in this book. I want me some Rosto and it seems utterly unfair that there should be this amazing character and we barely get to see him. I definitely missed the Rosto.

The more complicated problem…There’s something that happens near the end of the book. We know it’s going to happen. We’ve been given the hints and clues, given the fears and the deep-dwelling dread. We know it’s going to happen. And by the time it happens, we can be fairly sure who’s involved in the happening. But it feels wrong. I don’t know if that’s because, despite all the clues, it still feels forced, like it’s out of character, or if we just want to call it out of character because we don’t want it to be true. I finished the book last night, and I reread that section this morning, and I’m still not sure. I can’t specifically say there was a flaw leading up to it but I also can’t be sure that it’s purely a gut reaction to a horrible event.

There’s a lot of grief in this book. There’s a lot of fear, a lot of guilt, and a deep inability to know who to trust. For all that, there’s also a lot of humor. Tunstall, Sabine, and Beka have a comfortable banter that they’ve developed over years of working together. Pounce, of course, being the pre-eminent cat, has more than a few pithy things to say. Achoo is adorable, and Farmer’s antics cross an entire range of ridiculous, all the more funny for the fact that he has very good reasons for doing so. One of my favorite things about this book was watching Farmer pull the tails on the other mages, no matter what side the mage is on. And there was a part that me very glad I wasn’t drinking anything when I read it, because mixed with resourcefulness, squeamishness, and the pragmatism of seasoned Dogs was something that made me choke with laughter. I actually had my phone in hand to text my friend before I remembered it was one in the morning and she was probably sleeping. All I’ll say to that is when you hit page 490, just go ahead and put down any drinks as a precaution for the pages ahead.

It’s sad to see the end of Beka’s story, but finishing this makes going back to reread the Song of the Lioness quartet that much more interesting. Tamora Pierce always gives us good stories and brilliant worlds, but what I appreciate most is her real people and their real problems. Puberty. Heartache. Politics. Trust. Friendships. Betrayals. Sickness. Death. The whole range of human experience is brought into her books and she doesn’t shy away any of them, nor any aspect of them. Her characters are rich in personality, in contradictions, in virtues and flaws, and despite the rather legendary statures they eventually attain, they always feel like we could sit down next to them and know them. If you haven’t read Tamora Pierce, you need to.

Until next time~

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When to Back Off

October 23, 2011 at 3:35 pm (Writing) (, , )

As writers, we stress over our projects.


We stress over the plot, over the characters, over the dialogue, over the pacing, over the anticipated reader reactions…we break the worrying down to such a fine science that we stress over individual words. Even when we’re not writing, we’re still stressing. Idea phase? Stressing. Planning/brainstorming phase? Stressing. Research phase? Stressing. At the job that actually pays our bills and nowhere near the current project? Yep, still stressing.

It’s consuming and exhausting, and most of all its incessant.

Which is why one of that hardest parts of learning who you are as a writer is learning when you just need to back off.

That’s it.

Just back off.

The first time you do it, maybe even the first several times, your hands will twitch. Possibly your eyes, as well. You might feel nauseous, or guilty- you know you’re supposed to working on it! And when you’re the only person or thing telling you that you can’t work on it…well, you might be tempted to cheat. You might even cave in to temptation. Your head will be pounding with all the story thoughts you should be getting done, and really that chapter only needs a bit of tweaking to be ready, and that stack of research isn’t going to do itself and oh, there’s that thing you promised to beta and…and…and…

When you start piling everything together, taking a break seems both self-indulgent and ridiculous. You don’t have time for this. You’re far too disciplined to let a day go by without writing!

The thing is, whether it’s for a whole day or just for a few hours, you need to take a break. All that stress? Mounts up. And while there are some people who are uniquely suited to stress and actually perform best under hectic conditions, most people don’t operate that way. That’s why in school when they’re supposed to teach you study methods, cramming all-nighters right before the test is not recommended. Refreshing? Certainly. But it’s all on the surface if you cram the morning of, without context, without deeper meaning, without the ability to appropriately reason it through into sound arguments and cogent points. And, chances are, however much you’ve been stressing over the studying, actually having the test sheet in front of you is likely to drive all those factoids you just tried to memorize straight out of your mind.

The more you stress over something, the more you’re likely to keep stressing over it. That one word that just doesn’t seem right? If you keep staring at it, over and over, it’s never going to seem right. Every word is going to feel wrong and it’s going to make you so frazzled you want to throw your notebook or computer across the room. (I don’t recommend either, by the way; the notebook may lose a few pages or you might tear the pages, and you really don’t want to have to replace your computer every time you have an artistic fit. If you’re prone to throwing things, I suggest you invest in spare tiles from hardware stores. They’re cheap, easy to clean up with a broom and duster, and make a very satisfying shattering sound upon impact.) BUT, that word still doesn’t feel right.

One solution is to put a sticky note on it and move on to something else.

But there’s only so many times you can do that until you’ve run out of things to do that aren’t sticky noted.

So take a break. Seriously. The only thing worse than getting stuck is burning out, and you don’t want to make yourself hate what might be a wonderful piece because you just can’t stop stressing over it. Yes, there are deadlines, and expectations, and goals, and all that rot.

I’m in the research phase for my current project, and with every page of notes, I’m remembering why I’ve never tried to write an historical before. I’ve already gone through thirteen books and five documentaries, adding up to well over four hundred pages of notes. I have ten books checked out from the library, totaling several thousand pages of reading. I have a stack of five books that I actually own that I need to go through. My dad, an amateur expert on some of the subjects I’m researching, is sending me a box with five or ten other titles. I have three documentaries by the TV waiting for me to watch them and another six or seven in my Netflix queue. This isn’t even planning. This is flat out research.

I’m starting to panic, really. I keep looking at how long it’s taken to me to accumalate what I’ve already got, and I look at the stacks of what I’ve yet to do, and then the idea of sitting and trying to plan the story through all this information sends me to the verge of a panic attack and I’m starting to wonder if it’s even possible that I’ll be ready to start writing by my goal date.

So you know what I did this morning?

I stayed in bed.

It’s gorgeous outside, the kind of October weather that Florida never gets, and my window is open with a nice lazy breeze coming through. I stayed nestled into my blankets and for a little while, I did nothing. Absolutely nothing. I just laid in the warm nest and daydreamed. And yes, a little of that was story connected, but I didn’t reach for a pen and paper, didn’t try to force the threads into a coherent pattern. I just let them drift. Then I wrote in my journal for a little bit. I let my cat in (he can’t sleep with me because he either settles into the worst possible position that wakes me up every time I try to roll over, or he gets bored with the sleeping and goes digging through everything in the room, also waking me up) and cuddled with him for a while. There is nothing more relaxing that a cat purr that goes along your entire spine. Then, when the cat started getting restless, I got up to let him out and got right back into bed. I picked up a book. It’s not a book I would normally read. It’s not for review, it’s not for research, it’s not even in a genre I read. But I picked it up because it was free as an ebook and you know what? I laughed myself silly. Probably not the author’s intent, but I thoroughly enjoyed it. It was completely mindless fluff reading. After hours of self-indulgence, I finally got out of bed, showered, put away the dishes, made lunch, and sat down to write this.

And you know what?

Now that I’m not stressing over it, now that I’m not panicking, I can objectively look at where I am in the current book and realize “I can finish this one today”. Yes, I have stacks of others to follow in its footsteps. It’ll still be one less than I have right now.

It’s hard to accept that we need to step back, harder still to make ourselves do it, but once we do, once we give ourselves a few hours to genuinely relax and think of nothing, we can come back the project fresh and energized and ready to throw ourselves back into it.

Do yourself a favor.

Back off for a bit.

Your book, and your health, will thank you for it.

Until next time~

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Book Review: The Daughter of Smoke and Bone, by Laini Taylor

October 19, 2011 at 10:15 pm (Book Reviews) (, , , )

Karou is a mystery. Azure-haired and dark-eyed, she runs errands for the equally mysterious Brimstone, collecting teeth from all over the world, even though she doesn’t know what he does with them. Free-spirited and artistic, she floats through life with the grace of a wish- and she knows better than most what a wish is worth. What she doesn’t know- yet- is what a wish costs. But she’ll learn. When the black handprints start appearing on portals all over the world, when flames sear into her sight, when a war she didn’t know existed spills over into her world, she’ll learn all too clearly the exact price of a wish.

Oh guys.


I have been trying for DAYS to write this review, trying desperately to come up with any way to talk about this book that isn’t incoherent gushing. For days, I’ve been trying. For days, I’ve been failing. And still- even tonight, trying to tell one of my co-workers about this book, I was gushing like a moron.

But this book…oh guys!

It’s like reading poetry. Every word is an image, a texture, a snippet of song. It’s like dropping into the middle of a dance. Not one of those awkward middle school dances where everyone’s trying to dance in groups and the few brave couples are swaying at arms’ length, not a high school dance where everyone’s grinding up obscenely against each other, but a real dance where every movement is simultaneously precise and languid, where the choreography never feels choreographed, where the dance gives every human emotion across the full and vibrant range of life.

I know, I’m gushing, but seriously this has to be one of the most beautiful books I’ve ever read. Every now and then it verged on a little too much but then it would give me an image so gorgeous that I had to actually close the book just so I could savor the words that sketched across the backs of my eyelids. The fact that it was so consistently beautiful also helped with that. It wasn’t normal conversation that suddenly proke into flowery purpleness and just as abruptly reverted; consistently, effortlessly (even though I know it was far from effortless) it was beautiful.

The characters are fully realized, rounded and dynamic and captivating, even the assholes (and yes, there are one or two scattered through, sometimes even amidst the good guys). Karou doesn’t just exist within the dance- she is the dance. She’s such a captivating mixture of honesty and deception, of loyalty and new experiences. Most of all, Karou is a product of wishes, her own and others. She’s a lot of things even she hasn’t discoverd yet, and we want to learn right along with her. Her friends- and her former friends, or at least acquaintances- are equally interesting. They aren’t there just to fill out the background; they exist on their own, vibrant and rich and FUN, but they both complement Karou and stand apart from her.

And Akiva?


Wounded with a painful history, he has this astonishing chance for healing, only it’ll probably kill him before he can actually see it through. That chance, that history and that future and that love, is like trying to hold a sun. There’s no way it can end well yet you really, really hope it will. Even when the beauty burns, you can’t help but try to reach for it. He’s deliciously complicated in so many ways, caught between blood and beauty, between history and heroics, between everything he’s been and anything he could be.

This story soars, sometimes on wings, sometimes on wishes, sometimes on nothing more tangible than hope, cobweb thin and fragile. The worlds are rich and complex, and somehow the age-drenched stones of Prague are as alien as the world of the chimaera, each every bit as strange and real as the other. The mythology bases itself in our common world but it gives it a unique flavor, a vast expanse with a culture every bit as complicated as our own. This isn’t an easy world. It’s complicated with a lot of grey areas, with ethical questions and wars and kindnesses.

There is not enough good stuff I can say about this book, so to keep from gushing even more, I am just going to say this: READ THIS BOOK.

You won’t look at the world the same way afterwards.

The Daughter of Smoke and Bone, by Laini Taylor, out in stores now.

Until next time~

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Cover Love: October Edition

October 16, 2011 at 12:11 pm (Cover Love) (, , , , , , )

And it’s back! Got a mix for you today as far as release dates go, some out now and some that don’t even have a release date yet, but there are a couple of them that may have made me bounce up and down in my chair and squeal like a little girl when I saw them, so without further ado: ta-da!

I loved the cover for Kendare Blake’s Anna Dressed in Blood. It was all eerie shades of white and grey with a few vibrant strokes of black, and eye-catching violent sweeps of red. It told you right off the bat that this was a ghost story, and a violent one. Well, Anna’s back on the cover of Girl of Nightmares (no release date yet) and- just a guess- I’d say she’s back with a vengeance.

This cover is like a photo negative of the first. Here it’s the reds that hold most of the page, with darker shapes in the distance that make it unclear if we’re going through a hellscape or mountains. Either way, the cliff edges are tall and curling in, almost claustrophobic, and clearly an indication of danger. My guess would be hellscape, given the not-entirely there figures in the foreground, reaching for Anna. Here’s the question, though: are they reaching to her for help? Or to offer more danger? You can’t really tell from her face or her body language; if she’s afraid, she isn’t showing it. Her exact expression is hard to define- it could be a lot of things- and the way she’s holding out her hand is equally ambiguous. Is she extending an invitation? Or a dare? Just as the use of red in the first cover drew your eye to the bloodstains, here it’s the unexpected white of Anna’s dress that pulls in your attention. A sweet girl in a cute white dress…in a hellscape? It almost dares you to find out why. Sadly, we’ll probably we waiting until August for this one.

Here we’re going to switch to a contemporary (I know, how often do I do that, right?) but this is one that held be spellbound when I first saw the cover.

At first glance, it’s easy to miss what this is. An x-ray of a flower, maybe, or a magnified fractal image of a snowflake. But look again- those are dancers. People made to look so identical that they all blur together into a single design. Welcome to the world of ballet. It isn’t just the image is harmonious. It isn’t just that the repeating pattern lulls the eye into tracing the arms. Fractals are intriguing, they’re soothing. Here the image is delicate and elegant- and also a little frightening. Because again: THOSE ARE PEOPLE. And to create an image like they, they sacrificed all individuality, everything unique about them, to blend against the larger design. Ever watched a ballet and wondered how they survive being made to dance all the same? What about making your life all the same as well? I don’t normally go for contemporary, but this cover alone is enough to make me want to read this book. Bunhead, by Sophie Flack, is out in stores now.

To those familiar with this next author, this cover is QUITE a switch from her others- which gives some interesting promise that the story will be, as well.

I love instruments of time on covers. Hourglasses, watches, clocks, even sundials, anything that gives the impression that time is of the essence. That being said, I don’t know that I’ve ever seen it come across in such a fantastically creepy manner. It isn’t just that the hourglass is filled with sand rather than blood- it’s that there’s blood on the outside of the glass, too. The two pieces are nearly equal in volume so whatever’s happening, there is a balance to it. Hourglasses, once empty, turn over to start the new process. But given that blood, unlike sand, is a perishable substance- do you suppose it needs to be replaced once it runs out? I love the background here, largely because it gives the ghost of images without destracting from the main focus. The vine-like designs in the upper corners, the suggestion of a face on the left side. It doesn’t pull from the hourglass in the way a busier background might, but neither does it detract in the way a completely plain background would. It is, like the levels of blood in the hourglass, the perfect balance. Every Other Day, the first of a new series by Jennifer Lynn Barnes, is out December 27th of this year.

Ready for the next one?

Starting at the top of the cover of Fracture by Megan Miranda, we get a winterscape, cold and grey, skeletal trees caught between slumbering and dying, with a light dusting of snow. Bleak, relentless, frigid…already not a promising sight. Then, as our eyes travel down to the base of the cover, we see what might be a ghost, might be a reflection, of a girl. Her face is expressionless, caught in that same in-between aspect as the trees beyond her. Then, just a little further down, we see the girl herself, caught against the sheet of ice on the lake in such a way that she might almost be under it. She isn’t- but she might have been once, leaving behind the ghost or the echo or the reflection of the girl who looks back at her. Despite the parka, there’s something cold to her- something that has a lot to do with why she’s lying on snow or ice out in the middle of the woods. This is a book where Death is a constant shadow, reaching out a hand as skeletal as the bare trees to try to keep what it has claimed. What we’ll have to discover is what the consequences of escaping Death once might be. This comes out 17 January 2012, right in the dead of winter.

Last one for today, one I have been looking forward to so, SO much.

Even before you read the jacket copy, you know Marie Lu’s Legend has a military rigidity to it. It’s all polished steel like a gun barrel, with stark, sharp-edged contrast in the form of antique gold like medals and insignia. And that’s it. Spartan, severe, no frills or extra colors, it’s like a punch to the stomach if you step out of line. We are not going to go into this book expecting softness and cuddles. Look at the actual insignia though. The left side of it forms a stylized R (presumably for Republic), but look at the right side. In order to maintain the design, in order to keep the visual appeal without disrupting the identifiable nature of the R, there’s a free-floating piece. Essential to the design, but probably rather difficult to pin in place. Necessary, but troublesome. That free-floating piece? That’s our story. How that free-floating piece works within the larger design, the fragility of a portion without connection to the whole, that’s what we’re diving into the gun barrel to find out. If you’re like me, 29 November 2011 can’t come quickly enough.

Any covers you’ve seen in the past month that you want to share? Anything out now or upcoming that you think sells you on trying the book? Share below!

Until next time~

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Book Review: The Name of the Star, by Maureen Johnson

October 12, 2011 at 11:04 am (Book Reviews) (, , , , )

Rippermania has gripped London in the wake of a series of brutal murders emulating one of the most famous unsolved crimes of all time, and not even the labyrinthine system of CCTV through London’s streets can capture the killer. Into the middle of this walks Rory Deveaux, a Louisiana teenager bound for the boarding school of Wexford- right in the middle of Jack the Ripper territory- while her parents take a year’s sabbatical to teach in Bristol. She just doesn’t realize that middle? Really does mean middle. Soon she’s the only witness to actually see the murderer and she’s going to have to trust some people with a pretty bizarre story, or she’ll end up as a new victim.

Have you ever read a book that had you simulataneously on the edge of your seat with suspense and falling off of it with laughter? After you read this book, you can honestly say you have.

For anyone who follows the incomparable Maureen Johnson on Twitter, the humor is hardly unexpected, and what we get is classic. Between her tales of small-town Louisiana and the way she meets the Head Girl- dancing on a table in front of a mirror in partial uniform- Rory is an absolutely hysterical narrator. Within the narration it’s effortless, but every now and then in the dialogue it tries a little too hard and falls flat- which is perfect for the situations of the time. She’s resourceful and clever with a wide pragmatic streak, but she also has an openness that allows for the impossible. Not to say there won’t be some sputtering about the impossible, but she adapts pretty quickly.

Rory’s a new girl in London, which lets Johnson teach her American readers without an info dump. Because it’s new for Rory, it’s okay that it’s new for us. It’s not a tutorial, it’s not a lecture, it’s a “hey, here’s a new experience!”. From juggling classes to remembering which side of a car to climb into, we get to shall all those new things with Rory, which helps reinforce her Lousisiana background. Guaranteed, no one in London worries about gators in the backyard. Her entry into the school, the way she has to adapt to the completely different classes and class schedules, even the way she’s always colder than everyone else, all contributes to this new world of hers, one that is excellently crafted and rich with atmosphere.

What initially drew me to this book was the Jack the Ripper storyline. I love Criminal Minds, I’ve done research projects on serial killers in general and on the Ripper specifically, and I’m one of those people who finds the whole notion disturbingly fascinating. Jack the Ripper is a part of our popular culture, so the notion of someone coming along and exactly replicating his crimes is both terrifying and amazing. Add in all the Ripper-experts and the expectation- almost the sense of macabre excitement- that comes of waiting for the next kill and you have a chaotically charged atmosphere where any number of things can happen. The two storylines comes together gradually, weaving into a single thread that suddenly rushes forward and doesn’t slow until the very end.

The characters are gorgeously crafted. Rory, of course, is vibrant and larger than life, but the connections she makes are very real. Her roommate Jazz and her rivalry with Charlotte, the boy she may or may not be dating but certainly has something with, Alistair the moody boy in the library, and of course a trio of people, secretive in different ways, who mean to keep an eye on Rory. Don’t want to give away too much about them, but seriously? LOVE THEM. I just wish, these and the school friends included, that I could have known them a little better. There’s a bit of reserve there- unsurprising if you think about it- but it feels like surface friendship, hanging out with people because it’s better than not having any friends at all. There’s more to them than neurotic attention to school work and Ripper expertise, but I never really got to feel like I saw that.

One of the things I loved most about this book was the refreshingly original take on the paranormal. NO, there are no vampires or werewolves, but there are ghosts, with very interesting stories to tell. They interact with the world in peculiar ways, ways as unique and telling as the people they were in life, but they’re all around us. Sometimes they’re strong, sometimes resigned, sometimes confused, sometimes mischievous, but they interact with us in ways we try to ascribe to other things. Most of all, they’re important.

This book makes you gasp, makes you keep a finger under the next page so you don’t lose even a second turning it, laugh out loud (pages 166 and 167 made me snort soda, I laughed so unexpectedly), and more than anything, makes you want the next book in the Shades of London series.

Want more Maureen Johnson? Check her out on Twitter (@maureenjohnson) or at her website.

Until next time~

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American Girls: A (Personal) History

October 9, 2011 at 12:10 pm (General) (, , , )

Last week at the store, we had a tea party to celebrate the release of the newest American Girls, Cecile and Marie-Grace. It’s a first for American Girls, introducing two at a time, but their stories are woven together so they alternate books, and it switches up the formula a little. Our newest friends are from 1853 (’53! Every other American Girl ends in ‘4; heard a story that it’s because the company was founded in a year ending with a four, but who knows), in New Orleans, set against a Yellow Fever epidemic and orphans in desperate need of care from compassionate girls.

The party by itself was a lot of fun. We got an event kit so we didn’t have to come up with anything too extraordinary, but we got snacks and made tea and invitedd girls to dress up and bring their dolls, and that’s where the fun is. Almost every single girl brought at least one doll; one brought so many she carried them stacked in a baby stroller, then set them all around her like a fortress on the table. Have a feeling that girl has a lot of solo tea parties with her dolls. Some of them came in matching modern clothing, though when we introduced Rebecca at her own event (last year? year before?), we had a handful match their dolls’ period costumes. Some of the dolls had tangled hair, some looked like they’d just come back from the salon, but in every case, it was clear these dolls were very loved.

About half of them had the looks-like-me dolls, but even they could tell you their dolls’ stories, where imagination had provided them all they needed to give their girls backgrounds as rich and interesting as the official American Girls. And they’ll tell you. In a heartbeat. Some of them may not even wait for you to ask.

That, to me, is one of the true wonders of American Girl. In a time when girls are drfiting to so many other things, American Girl manages to keep them thriving in imagination, not just with the stories but with the vast array of products. (By the way, THIS IS NOT A SALES PITCH) They have little craft kits that show you how to make props for doll school, doll diner, doll pets. They encourage you to MAKE doll clothing- and show it off! They keep girls playing make-believe.

The other part, of course, is the history. I’m a history buff, so I love to see kids getting excited about historical fiction. They read about Felicity and they start asking questions about the Revolution; they read Addy and they start asking questions about slavery and the Civil War. It encourages them to question and explore and discover.

I don’t remember when I started reading American Girl. It’s something that feels like it was just always there. When I had them, they were white books with a centered photo of the girl. The “Meet” ones all had the slightly turned out profile walking picture that always makes me think of Abbey Lane. At that point, there was Felicity, Kirstin, Addy, Samantha, and Molly. Yes, just five of them (I’m old!) Right as I was moving away from the books, they introduced Josefina. I never read much Samantha; not really sure why, except that I didn’t have the books. But I LOVED the others. I loved Felicity’s mischief, loved Kirstin’s similarities to members of my own family who came over from Sweden, and reading Addy let me talk to my dad about the Civil War. I even dressed up as Molly one year for Halloween because I looked so much like her, glasses and all. Their stories were amazing, full of laughter and joy and sorrow and hope and growth, full of things to be learned and things to be taught, but what made them all the more real to me was the fact that they were built off of our history. A girl I know in Kristianstad needed to get a loan just to come home. There was no real Felicity Merriman running around in 1774; but there were girls just like her.

The highlight of my month used to be getting the American Girl catalog, not because I actually had any expectation of getting anything (I don’t know what the prices are now, but back then they were expensive!) but because I loved looking at the stuff. For the history, I loved learning about the different parts of the clothing, the styles and why they were popular. For the half that was the modern stuff for the looks like me dolls, I loved making stories around them. What kind of doll would wear that kind of outfit, and why? BOOM, instant story.

When I was twelve, we came home from Christmas Eve services to find our house on fire. Well, technically it was the inside that was on fire, not the house yet, but there was a house and there was fire and smoke and really it was not at all a fun time. Later that day, when all the flames were out and the smoke had cleared a little, the firefighters brought out our Christmas presents. We’d put them somewhere other than the usual place and closed doors that weren’t usually closed to lock away pets that weren’t normally locked up- because of that, all the pets were safe, and when they handed us the wrapped presents, their gloves leaving streaks of soot on the paper, the firefighters got to see us burst out laughing. That night, after we had Christmas dinner with friends, we sat down and opened presents.

And one of mine was an American Girl doll, one of the look-like-mes. She’d been wrapped and in all of her sealed packaging, but somehow just a little bit of smoke or soot had gotten through anyway and she had ashy smudges on her cheeks. And I loved her for it. I never sent her to the doll hospital to get cleaned (normal cleaning didn’t touch it) because my doll, like me, was a survivor. Her house caught fire like Kirstin’s but we were going to come out of this and, with some hard work and sacrifice and a lot of changes, things were going to get better.

Fourteen years later, still with the ashy smudges on her cheeks, Lexi came with me to the tea party. She’s older than all of the girls who came and has been in the same nightgown for ten years or so because somewhere in the seventeen moves I’ve made since then, all of her clothing got lost and I couldn’t afford to replace it/wasn’t skilled enough to make it. Her hair is in two French braids with mismatching ties, but this was before they changed the way they crafted the hair and skulls to allow for more intricate hairstyles, so really there are two braids on the side and then in the middle there’s a giant swatch of fabric with lines of sewn-in hair. She’s a little battered, but fourteen years later, she’s still a survivor.

And she’s still helping me make up stories.

I’ve never understood why American Girl doesn’t spawn off a brother company for American Boy. Understandably the dolls wouldn’t be a big hit with the boys but there are so many other ways to provide for them, and I think it does the boys a disservice not to give them historical fiction that is so incredibly accessible. Not to mention the vast array of non-fiction books that have been godsends for so many parents and children dealing with the terrifying world of middle school and puberty. American Girl? PLEASE give our boys the amazing experiences you gave us girls.

Do you have an American Girl story? Please share!

Until next time~

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Book Review: The Girl of Fire and Thorns, by Rae Carson

October 5, 2011 at 10:38 am (Book Reviews) (, , , )

Once every century, a child is chosen to bear the Godstone, a sign that they are chosen for a great and holy service. For Elisa, second-born princess of Orovalle, it also represents a bewildering burden. A cloistered comfort-eater who’s never been part of the ruling routine, she can’t even imagine what that service will be. Then comes Joya d’Arena and all the court intrigue she’s always been sheltered from, with war looming on the horizon of a desperate people. Joya d’Arena needs a Godstone.
Elisa’s just not sure she can be worthy of it.

From the very beginning, we know Elisa’s view is rather different from what we’re used to with our heroines. “I have been praying- no, begging- that King Alejandro de Vega, my future husband, will be ugly and old and fat.” For another thing, she’s fat. Not curvy, not plump, actually breaking buttons on the clothes and eating herself to stomach pain for comfort fat. Not typical for main characters in books, especially not teen books. She’s naive and anxious, scared, with a deep and abiding belief in her own basic uselessness. It isn’t that she hates herself- she’s not a prime candidate for cutting, or whatever it might be called in her world- but that she has such a dismal opinion of herself because it’s been reinforced by a more general belief of her.

And this is our chosen one.

What makes Elisa so compelling as a character and narrator is that she’s aware of many of her flaws. Not all of them, and she doesn’t overcome all of them, but despite her low opinion she’s remarkably self-aware. What she learns to do, slowly, painfully, and at great cost, is to also acknowledge her strengths. Step by step (sometimes literally) she comes to the awareness that she does have gifts, she does have talents, and she does have strengths. Most of the circumstances in which these discoveries take place are hardly ideal, but what else could force us to rely on strength we didn’t even know we had?

In the manner of those who are always standing on the edge of whatever group they’re in, Elisa notices people, observes them, notes the patterns in their behavior. Physically, she isn’t a soldier. Mentally, she’s probably the best strategist Joya d’Arena could ever hope to gain, a talent she has, again, never before had to use because she wasn’t part of her father and sister’s court. She knows to look for allies in unlikely places, but also knows how to name her enemies. How she comes by her maid is both priceless and brilliant.

One of the two biggest things I love about this book is how beautifully real the characters are. They’re complicated and layered, a profound mixture of virtue and vice, and because they resonate so strongly into real life, we feel as if we’re part of their story. There are no caricatures here. Even fleeting characters get a roundness that’s frankly astonishing. Sometimes attempts to flesh out characters in such a way ends up feeling inconsistent, like the author just doesn’t know the characters at all and so they teeter back and forth between different personalities, but here, all the disaparate pieces of personality come together- the ability to adapt under changing circumstances, the different faces we show to accomplish our tasks or aims, the vulnerability of being startled or hurt- into vibrant, real, captivating people.

The other biggest piece? Worldbuilding. Oh my God, the wordlbuilding. It echoes of Moorish Spain but comes alive into something all its own, a world where scent and taste envelops you every bit as much as geography and architecture and language. The food alone…*drools* This book will make you as hungry as Elisa when she’s upset. Just as the characters step off the page, so does the world. Heat sears your skin across the dry city, chills you over the desert at night. The fabric rubs against you and your nose fills with the scents- sometimes appealing, sometimes not- of life and activity. Even battles and wounds are given this vibrancy, so the weak of stomach? Be careful. When you open this book, it’s easy to forget that you’re reading; it’s like you’re there, watching it unfold right in front of you, a ghost that no one sees.

One thing kept worrying me as I read, though, and it dances a little around some spoilery stuff. As soon as I knew Elisa was fat- so, the top of page two- I knew that was going to change. I wasn’t sure when or how or under what circumstances, but I knew it was going to change. Pretty much had to, because at the end of things, a fat heroine isn’t who we generally want to be. As that expectation bobbled in the back of my head, always there, slightly intruding, I worried about what would happen once it did change. It’s easy, I think, to fall into the trap of “oh, now that I’m not fat anymore I’m quite pretty and everyone loves me and won’t life just be grand?!”. Rae Carson avoided that trap with skill and finesse, and I love her for it. Does Elisa lose the weight? Yes, and under completely believable circumstances, but because of those circumstances, she doesn’t really have the time to dwell on it for a while. There are things to do. By the time it could have broader impact, she’s already learned to value those who didn’t see anything wrong with her before. When it does have that broader impact? She learns that being thinner and admired- not skinny, and the skin is still slack where the flesh used to be, another brilliant detail- can actually be just as painful as being fat and overlooked. In the beginning of the book, her weight is very much a part of who she is, but over the course of the pages, she’s learned to step back from that kind of physical definition and look at all the rest she has to offer. For all my worry, there was nothing to worry about. What readers take away isn’t “oh, lose the weight and everything will be dandy”; it’s “learn who you are and believe in that”.

Read this book and you will fall into the world of Orovalle and Joya d’Arena and Basajaun. You will fall in love not just with Elisa but with Ximena, Hector, Rosario, and even those you don’t really expect to love but do anyway, despite, or perhaps because of, their flaws. You’ll travel through rich detail and driving action, to a conflict where everything is at stake and all the best efforts might not be good enough.

In short? Read. This. Book.

The Girl of Fire and Thorns, by Rae Carson, out in hardcover and e-book now.

Until next time~

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The Dreaded Question

October 2, 2011 at 10:24 am (General) (, , )

There’s this question that I think every serious reader loathes and fears. It sits and waits- or doesn’t. When a non-reader or mild-reader finds out how into books you are, it’s often the first thing out of their mouth. It comes up in conversation when you have a book with you in line for fast food, outside of a movie waiting to be seated, on the bus.

Sometimes in job interviews, if the field is book-related.

I know the question’s coming and I try to prepare for it, but every time I manage to draw a complete blank. Mostly because there’s a lot of swearing where my regular words should be. Even when I know it’s coming.

The question?

What’s your favorite book?

How the f@&$ing hell do I CHOOSE?

The whole concept of a favorite book baffles me. It’s like choosing a favorite child- parents aren’t supposed to do that, right? Teachers aren’t supposed to choose a favorite student, bosses aren’t supposed to choose a favorite employee, favoritism in general is frowned upon in both a personal and professional setting. We’re not supposed to pick favorites.

And yet as soon as you tell someone that you don’t have a favorite book, they’re look at you like you’re:

A) Crazy. Favoritism, socially acceptable or not, is nonetheless an inherent part of human nature, therefore anyone without a favorite item within various categories is clearly missing an essential piece of intelligence or function.

B) Slow. You do actually have a favorite, right? It’s just not coming to you with the speed of the rest of the conversation. If they sit back with a condescending smile on their face and wait, it’ll catch up to you. Because everyone has a favorite.

C) Indecisive. Once they find out you are unable to name a favorite book, you’ll notice they ask for less input in other arenas as well. Like where to eat. Or what movie to watch. Because if you can’t even come up with a favorite book, how are you going to be able to come up with a decision for anything else.

D) A Reader. This attitude comes pretty much only from other serious readers. Which means the question probably came from someone else in the conversation.

I honestly don’t think I know anyone with a favorite book. Granted, I know and love a WHOLE BUNCH of people who read for fun and fulfillment, so my view is noticably skewed. But if I go around to my family, to my friends, to my co-workers, I don’t think there’s a single one who can identify a favorite book. Maybe a favorite author or series, and they can sometimes name a favorite book within that set, but if you ask them flat out if that’s their favorite book, they’ll probably sputter and backpeddle and say no, just one of them.

Because that’s the only answer most readers can give, me included. I don’t have a favorite book. What I do have is a list of favorite books. Books that for whatever reasons- some I’m able to name, some I never can- stick with me over the years and always jump to the tongue during conversations like this. Books that I consistently bring up whenever talk of good books arises.

When I sat down in my first interview for my current job at a bookstore, I was half-expecting The Question to come up at some point. It’s a bookstore, right? You have to be able to talk about books. I kept waiting for it as we wove through a mix of personal and professional questions, interspersed with some hypotheticals, and then it came. And I still had no idea how to answer it. What I finally said? “Ask me tomorrow.” And the manager started laughing and said “Oh, yeah, you’re a reader”.

But customers ask me ALL THE TIME. What’s your favorite book? Most of them will smile and go along with it when I take them to several on the list and talk about them, but some want to press the point. No, what’s your favorite?

The thing is, these people? They’re not readers. They may grab a Nicholas Sparks or James Patterson to rip to shreds at the beach, but they can probably count on one hand the number of books they read in a year. Well, if they’re James Patterson fans, they may go up to two hands and a foot just to keep up with the new releases. For these people, their pool of choices is so slim that maybe it’s not hard to pick a favorite.

But when you read literally hundreds of books in a year’s time?

Then The Question becomes the bane of your existence.

So, for the sake of the curious, what do you say when someone asks you that question?

Until next time~

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