Book Review: The Apple Throne, by Tessa Gratton

June 4, 2015 at 12:28 pm (Book Reviews) (, , , )

There’s only one person in the whole world who remembers the famous prophet Astrid Glyn: The Berserker Soren Bearstar.

Ever since Astrid agreed to give up her life, her name, and her prophetic dreams to become Idun the Young, who protects the apples of immortality in a secret mountain orchard, she’s been forgotten by everyone. Everyone except Soren.

For the last two years, he’s faithfully visited her every three months. Then one day he doesn’t come. Though forbidden to leave the orchard, Astrid defies the gods to find Soren. But ancient creatures are moving beneath the country. Astrid’s quest might be the key they need to leave the shadows behind forever.

Not-quite-a-goddess, but no longer only a girl, Astrid finds herself in a situation here fate–and not just her own—lies in the balance. Is there a way to save herself and those she loves, or will this choice unravel the ancient magic holding the nine worlds together?

(from back of book)

The Apple Throne

This is the fourth and final installment in The United States of Asgard, following The Lost Sun, The Strange Maid, and the novella collection The Weight of Stars. In a United States where the new world was settled was settled by the Norse and their gods, berserkers form packs to serve Odin Allfather, the army looks to Thor Thunderer, and the seething dances of Freya’s prophets pluck the strings of fate for answers and possibilities. It is our world but not, familiar and known but woven through with new vitality.

I adored The Lost Sun. It’s where we meet Astrid and Soren, a famous prophetess and a berserker who would really like to NOT be a berserker, as they search for the god Baldur, who didn’t wake up from death quite where he was supposed to. It’s a fantastically rich world with strong, vibrant characters, and if you don’t come out of it with a puppy love crush on Soren, there might be something wrong with you. Despite fears to the contrary, because middle books usually bore me, The Strange Maid was EVEN BETTER. Signy Valborn, who’s been promised to the Allfather as a Valkyrie since she was a child, has a riddle to solve before she can take her place. I love Signy. Fierce, prickly, angry, unapologetic, half-mad Signy, who doesn’t care if she’s liked so long as she can serve, and whose heart’s desire may be the thing that destroys her. I was looking forward to the conclusion like woah.

And then Random House cancelled the series.

It happens sometimes, and it pretty much always sucks, but what we as readers tend to forget is that publishing is a business. Sometimes businesses make decisions that their consumers don’t like, but it protects their bottom line so we just have to deal with it. So, when Tessa said she was self-publishing the novellas and the conclusion, I was thrilled. Self-publishing to create a good product is not easy, quick, or cheap. There is a great deal more involved in the process than most people give credit for. What came out was a beautiful package, a well-crafted product, and an amazing conclusion.

If Soren’s journey was about accepting himself, and Signy’s about anchoring herself, then Astrid’s journey is about making herself. Massively oversimplified, of course, but still true. What she has been all her life is gone, lost by her choice to join the gods, and yet her godly identity is neither truly her nor truly godly. The prophet who once danced the webs of fate and plucked the strings to see possibilities is now outside the binds of fate altogether, able to influence but not to be seen. Her journey may start by looking for Soren, but along the way she finds a great deal of herself, finding the places Astrid and Idun intersect.

There is so much to love in this book, but I think one of my favorite elements may be the introduction of characters from the novellas. Amon Thorson is a bastard son of Thor trading items pretty comfortably on the wrong side of illegal. But then, when your step-mother is the goddess of marriage, your life starts out awkward and just goes downhill from there. Unless you’re Amon’s sister Gunn-Elin, who dedicates herself to her step-mother’s priesthood and finds purpose within the ossuary.

Then there’s Thor’s best hunter, Sune Rask, who has a complicated history with Amon, and there’s Signy. Signy with her abruptness and her consuming fury and sorry and complete lack of shame for any of it. You don’t have to have read the novellas to understand the new characters, but there’s definitely some virtue is doing so. As people previously unknown to Astrid, or known only through rumor or story, they help her define the changes in herself the way more familiar characters wouldn’t be able to.

 

If you love Norse mythology or alternate history, if you love journeys of discovery, if you love witty banter and irreverent bobble-heads, definitely check out this book. But, make sure you read the first two. The novellas add without detracting, but the histories of Soren, Astrid, and Signy are definite must-reads, not simply because they’re awesome but because they build directly into our understanding of how these people grow and change. These books will be on my re-read list again and again and again in the years to come.

 

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Audio Book Review: Beauty Queens, by Libba Bray

April 28, 2015 at 8:20 pm (Book Reviews) (, , , , )

Audio books have not, traditionally, been kind to me. They’ve just never meshed with my particular manifestation of ADD. Sitting and just *listening* to something inevitably makes me drift away-it made lecture classes a unique breed of hell in college. Lately, though, I’ve discovered that I do pretty well listening to books I’ve already read and loved, as long as I’m doing something else at the same time, like cleaning/packing, driving, crafting, or leveling up in video games. This weekend, I listened to Beauty Queens by Libba Bray.

Beauty Queens

I reviewed the book a few years ago, when it first came out, and it’s absolutely hysterical and subversive and thought-provoking and fantastic. I loved it.

And now, having listened to the audio book, I might get down on my knees and worship it a little.

One of the unavoidable problems with audio books is that you HAVE to have a good narrator or actors (I do have a love of full cast audio, a la Tamora Pierce or Brian Jacques). A bad narrator can absolutely kill a good book, but it is extremely difficult to find people who can read consistently over long periods of time (weeks, in many cases, to get enough good takes to edit together), read clearly without over-doing it, AND do distinct voices for characters without shredding your ears. (Example: I recently listened to the first Harry Potter narrated by Jim Dale, and think he does an amazing job–except for Hermione, whose voice made me want to retch with every line) It’s a challenge, and there are many, many audio books that fail to meet this challenge sufficiently.

I am VERY happy to say that Beauty Queens is not one of those.

It’s narrated by Libba Bray–you don’t often find authors reading their own books outside of non-fiction–and she does an AMAZING job. Nearly every voice is distinct, and those that aren’t belong to characters who are, by design, not particularly distinct to begin with. Even heavily accented characters, like the very Miss Texas, or the British-inflected Indian Miss California, don’t lose clarity. The regional dialects are respected, and for the most part (MOST part) not made outlandish. When they are, it’s because that’s the joke. I think the only character voice I had any issue with was Adina (Miss New Hampshire) who had a bit of a flat affect that made it difficult to hear sometimes, but that flatness fit her character so well it was easy to forgive.

This is a rare example of an audio book that can actually give you a little more than the book itself. Part of that comes from fantastic sound effects, like background for the commercial breaks, little chimes for the forty-something footnotes (seriously, footnotes; only novel other than Good Omens where they fit so perfectly), and every single character that mentions a trademarked item gives a high-pitched, sing-song TM after the full product name. A larger part of it, though, comes from being as close to inside the author’s head as it’s possible to be. Here, in the very purposeful choices of delivery, we get unexpected depths to characters who already had the ability to surprise.

One of the strongest elements of that came out in Taylor Renee Crystal Hawkins (aka Miss Texas). She’s a huge personality, completely dedicated to the Miss Teen Dream pageant and a set of very stereotypically Texas ideals. She’s meant to be larger than life, and she absolutely is–but listening to her, rather than reading her, also gives more of an edge to what is, ultimately, a profoundly sympathetic and pitiable character. The performance of Taylor’s break with an already fragile reality is exquisitely performed. Tiara, Miss Mississippi, is still sweet and sincere and too stupid to breathe, but we hear more of that sweetness, and the uncertainty just beneath it. Her obliviousness, and her simple joys and the growth she makes as a character, all come through so much stronger with Libba Bray’s performance.

And then there’s Ladybird Hope. A veteran (dare I say dowager queen?) of the Miss Teen Dream Pageant, a sponsor of the pageant, a corporate superstar, and presidential hopeful, there was always something in her that came off strongly reminiscent of Sarah Palin in the book. Given that the voice was only in my head, it was easy to shrug off that resemblance as pure coincidence. With the audio book? It is definitely not a coincidence. There were many places in this book where I nearly hurt myself laughing, but it was a definite risk EVERY TIME we heard from Ladybird Hope. Really just THE definition of painfully funny.

Beauty Queens is a ridiculous, high-strung journey into the absurd, stretching the absolute limits of plausibility, but travels through genuine, thought-provoking regions of gender and femininity and what those concepts actually mean. It’s a phenomenal book that I love to push into people’s hands, either to start the conversation or continue the discussion, and the audio presentation not only lives up to that love, but quite possibly surpasses it. Even for those like me who love the book, I strongly recommend the audio for your rereading enjoyment. And many congratulations to Ms Bray for taking an already phenomenal book and leading it to make even more of an impact.

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Book Recs: Vicious, Eleanor & Park, and Fangirl

September 17, 2013 at 7:20 pm (Book Reviews) (, , , , , )

Got a trio for you today, because I hit a streak of AMAZING READS.

First up, Vicious, by V.E. Schwab (also known as Victoria Schwab, of The Near Witch and The Archived fame). This one isn’t YA, but oh my God, it is just as phenomenal as her others. On the surface, Vicious is a novel about super powers, but with V, is anything ever really as it looks on the surface? This isn’t a story about heroes and villains, about good guys versus bad- there are no good characters, but there are so many STUNNING and GORGEOUS characters. I could spend days arguing about whether or not the delineation of psychopath versus sociopath is still valid when it comes the making the distinction between Eli and Victor. Aside from a scientific aptitude, they seem to have nothing in common, but they have this missing, broken piece. Victor has always acknowledged that piece, that lack of empathy, but Eli masks his, until he can’t anymore. Each of the characters is so distinct, so beautifully flawed, and yet, despite the horror of some of their acts, despite the repugnance of the beliefs they espouse (or purport to espouse), we’re invested in them. I spent the entire book cheering for Victor, Sydney, and Mitch (and Dol!). We now from the very beginning that Victor is rather twisted- HE knows he’s very twisted. And as much as that matters to the story, it doesn’t matter to us; we still want him to succeed, even as we deeply dread the possibility that he will. We don’t want the actions to happen and yet we cheer when they do. It’s brilliant. It’s sharp and jagged and so deeply creepy and unsettling and yet, incomprehensibly, there’s such a thread of hope that weaves through, the possibility of happiness in terrible circumstances, the kind of family only necessity and coincidence can form. This book is beyond words.

The other two have the same author, Rainbow Rowell, and I will be EAGERLY awaiting what she comes out with in the future. Until recently, I would have sworn with total honesty that straight up contemporary really isn’t my thing, but then Jennifer E. Smith, and John Green, and now Rainbow Rowell, and I’m seriously starting to rethink my general opinion.

Eleanor & Park doesn’t seem like a book I’d be interested in at all. I listen to 80s music at work, and enjoy it, but can’t identify any of it, or any significant bands. I usually don’t dig contemporary. I can’t really claim to be a child of the 80s because I was born halfway through the decade, so the culture references (other than the comics) go completely over my head. I mostly picked this one up because I was interested in Fangirl and it wasn’t out yet- and it blew me away. Neither Eleanor nor Park feel like they belong. Eleanor is dirt poor, pudgy, red-haired, always dresses differently. Park is half Korean, an insurmountable gulf in the eighties Midwest, with a macho father, a sporty younger brother twice his size, and a love of music and comics. What emerges over the course of the school year is fragile, uncertain, and beautiful, each of them doubting themselves and each other. Even when it’s important, even when it feels like the whole world should be waiting with bated breath for things to work…there’s never a guarantee. It’s beautiful and ephemeral and absolutely mind-blowing.

Fangirl felt like Rainbow Rowell took up residence inside my college years. I was lucky, in that I had friends already at the school and had friends going down with me, and was in a program that was, by necessity, very tight knit. But the social awkwardness, the anxieties, the absolute escape into fanfiction and the debilitating fear that there are no original worlds tucked away in my skull, because the worlds of the fics are so familiar and comfortable? The panic of growing up and growing apart and going away, and worrying over those we left behind? In some ways this book felt like it could have been my diary, except I had no Levi or Nick (and for half of that, I’m grateful). Cath is shy and nervous and afraid, someone with a very insular world: there’s her father, her twin sister, her sort-of-but-very-comfortable boyfriend, and Simon Snow. Simon Snow is an equivalent to Harry Potter, with the same kind of all-encompassing envelopment of true fans. We have the books and the movies and all the merchandise…and, of course, the fanfiction. I love that we get snippets of both the original books and the fics. I love Cath’s fiction writing professor, her roommate, her father, Levi…oh so much love for Levi. This book is laugh-out-loud funny at parts (“There are other people on the Internet. It’s awesome. You get all the benefits of ‘other people’ without the body odor and the eye contact.”), and heart-breaking, and challenging, and I can go on and on and on about how amazing this book is and still not do it any justice. This is a MUST READ.

So, what are y’all reading? Any recs?

Until next time~
Cheers!

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Book Rec: Of Beast and Beauty, by Stacey Jay

August 10, 2013 at 11:50 am (Book Reviews) (, , , , )

I’ve finally reached the point in the move that never ends where what I have left to do is minimal enough that I can actually relax a little bit in the evenings. I can sit down on my new-to-me couch with a wine glass of soda (because I’m just that classy) and after two months of reading nothing but fanfiction because I didn’t have enough brain cells not dedicated to moving to make sense of anything else. My bookshelves are up, and while my trade books are still in stacks on the floor, my YA and younger books are up on their shelves in the living room.

Most of my life is still in boxes, but that room feels like home.

There are books there that I have been wanting to read for MONTHS, but they’ve either been in storage or my brain has been thoroughly absent. The other night I went to the wall of books to choose one to read, and I hit that moment that every bibliophile hates: THERE ARE SO MANY BOOKS I WANT TO READ AND I CAN’T PICK.

But the cover of Of Beast and Beauty by Stacey Jay kept jumping out at me.

Of Beast and Beauty

Something about the rose against that pale skin, with the city beneath it. And it’s a jump-off from Beauty and the Beast, which is a story I absolutely love.

THIS BOOK IS AMAZING.

The world-building is gorgeous, distinct and strong, and while it’s been thousands of years since the settlers arrived on this new world, we still get pieces of the pure shock as a scientific culture suddenly finds itself face to face with magic. Forced into change on a physical and genetic level by the planet’s native magic, the population split- the Smooth-Skins, those left relatively unaffected by the mutations, who live in domed cities away from the ravages of a harsh environment, and those they call Monsters, those who lives out in the wilds by grace of the mutations the Smooth-Skins fear. The cities have a covenant with part of the planet’s magic force, a pledge of sacrifice to keep the cities thriving, but it isn’t enough to keep the children from being born missing some piece- sometimes a voice, or sight, or hearing, sometimes extremities or limbs, but every child born within the cities has something missing. Mutations can also be found within the city, and those Banished, as they’re called, are cast to the very outer edges of society. Those the Smooth-Skins call the Monsters eke out a meager existence, scraping by on harvests that diminish with each passing season.

The narration passes back and forth between two characters, for the most part, with occasional interjections from a third. Isra, the princess of the domed city of Yuan, has been blind since she was five years old, after a terrible fire that led to her mother’s death. She has been sequestered in a tower since that point, interacting only with her father, her father’s chief advisor, and her mute maid, Needle. She escapes the tower from time to time, going out to the royal gardens where the roses have their own magic to help her ‘see’. Gem is from a tribe across the desert, a reluctant warrior sent on a dangerous mission as the last hope for his people- and his infant son. Bo, a soldier and the son of Yuan’s chief advisor, fills in some of the elements we would otherwise miss. The language is distinct between the three, Isra sharp and longing and defiant, Gem with a storytelling soul and the deep desire for home and family, Bo formal and uncomfortable.

One of my favorite things about this book is Isra’s personal journey. She is so sheltered and naive, but her arc isn’t as easy as shrugging off her innocence. She has responsibilities to her people, to her city, and she’s willing to make incredibly difficult and self-sacrificing choices. But there are constant setbacks to her growing knowledge. She gains understanding in jagged bits and pieces, and she frequently forms a resolution to do the best thing based off incomplete knowledge- which can lead to that resolution being the wrong choice. Her growth, painful and shocking and genuine, was riveting. The relationship that grows between her and Gem, based on deceit and hope and a very fragile future, slowly becomes something real, shocking the hell out of both of them.

I love the darkness in this story, something so much more than the literal darkness of Isra’s blindness. The roses are creepy and haunting and lovely, kind of like a botanical version of the Weeping Angels. Needle’s faithfulness and ingenuity, Bo’s desperate need to make his father proud, the dark and disturbing history of the city, and the staggering deprivation of the tribes…there are points where this story becomes genuinely heart-breaking. Seriously, there was one part where I had to close the book and fight the urge to swear at Stacey Jay, because holy hell, my poor heart! But there’s so much beauty to it as well, not the beautiful or a person or a landscape, but the kind of beauty that really does change the world in the right conditions.

If you love fairy tale retellings, if you love the places where science and magic clash, if you love journeys of discovery, this book is definitely for you.

Until next time~
Cheers!

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Book Review: The Twelve-Fingered Boy, by John Hornor Jacobs

December 5, 2012 at 7:51 pm (Book Reviews) (, , , )

Twelve-Fingered BoyShreve’s got a pretty sweet gig for now- sure, he’s in juvi, but he makes a pretty penny by peddling contraband to his fellow inmates. The way he figures, he can coast along, leave with more than he came in, and get back to his little brother. Then he gets a cellmate, Jack, a shy boy with six fingers on each hand and a whole host of secrets, and Jack has some creepy folk after him. When Jack displays a power Shreve can’t explain, he knows they have to get out before those interested parties can find a way to take him. Getting away, though, isn’t as hard as staying free, or knowing what’s right.

I have to admit, when I first got my hands on this, I was hesitant, purely because I wasn’t really digging the prospect of a book set largely in a juvenile detention facility. Then I actually started reading it, and it could have been set anywhere and I still would have been fully immersed.

From the very first page, Shreve’s voice just grabs you, and never lets go. It’s a voice rich with slang, the language of incarcerado, as one of the guards calls it. It’s a hard-boiled prison book, and the fact that the contraband isn’t the strictly illegal type doesn’t actually lessen the stakes- or the ugliness- of those bound inside. Sure, there’s an element of humor to it- I mean, they’re using classic spy drop moves to deliver Skittles and Blow Pops- but there’s also something very sharp edged, something that subtly layers through as a reminder that half the kids in juvi will graduate, not to freedom, but to far harsher imprisonments. It’s not so much a parody of those adult dangers but a foreshadowing of them.

Shreve is a smart-ass, someone pretty much incapable of quitting while he’s ahead, whose mouth runs away with him at the worst possible times, a pragmatist who understands how to work the system and has no compunctions against doing so. He needs the good favor of the kids he’s supplying, mostly because he needs their protection against the times he smarts off just a little too far. From his attitude, from his easy cynicism, it’s not hard to see him in juvi. BUT- and this is wonderful- there’s also the part of Shreve that desperately misses his little brother, that worries about him constantly. There’s the part of Shreve that misses the girlfriend he hasn’t heard from, the vulnerable goodness that’s somehow managed to survive against the obstacles in life, incarcerado and free alike. There’s the part of Shreve that can reach out to a scared new boy, and be willing to help when he recognizes the danger. Shreve could be safe if he just didn’t interfere, if he just kept his head down and served his time.

But of course, keeping his head down wasn’t what landed Shreve in juvi in the first place.

Jack’s character is, in many respects, more straightforward than Shreve, but also in a way more complicated. Shreve grew up in a hell he could at least influence to some extent; there were obstacles he could work around, he could manipulate things to at least make the best of crap situations. Jack just had hell. He’s almost painfully sweet, shy and wounded and battered by his experiences, and he clutches at that first, tenuous offer of friendship like a lifeline. He’s remarkably self-contained, so the places where he’s most interesting are, for me at least, the places where he loses that control. Self-composure is frequently a mask, something polite and affected. That loss of control is a brilliant flash much closer to who we truly are.

It’s somewhat indicative of YA fiction that most adults (not all, admittedly, but most) are categorized by both characters ands readers as either useless or antagonistic. They’re either background at best or they’re obstacles. That’s true for many of the adults in this book, but there are also a few who inhabit a more nebulous categorization. Booth, in particular, stands out. He’s a guard at the detention center, someone who delights in being a bit of a bully, but also a bit of an enabler, someone who hovers between Person of Authority and Wicked Uncle in many respects. Our first impression of him is a solid one- someone so meticulously put together that the ritual becomes its own form of intimidation, someone who threatens a great deal more than he enforces. It’s like the big, burly man who slaps the nightstick into his hand even as he winks at you. The threat, the danger, is there, and he doesn’t want you to forget it for a moment, but you also get the sense he’d rather not ever have to deliver that promised trouble. He’s an interesting character, part obstacle, part scenery, part almost-ally, and yet he also becomes an intriguingly sympathetic character.

There are other adults who make appearances of course, and they run a gamut of impressions that can bewilder the reader almost as much as the teenage boys trying to understand who they can trust. Most of the adults are little more than impressions, brief encounters that aren’t meant to linger, and yet those impressions are so well-painted that despite less than a page of contact, we find ourselves hoping that some of them will work their way back into the course of things.

The ending (no spoilers, I promise, you’re safe) is a bit abrupt, and even after re-reading it, I’m not sure if that’s because I was so absorbed in the book that reaching the last page was that much of a shock, or it’s because it’s genuinely a sudden ending. There’s certainly more to come- there are many, MANY things that have not been answered, and these characters have much more to discover about themselves and what they can do, as well as what they can and can’t have, and I definitely look forward to more of Shreve and Jack.

The Twelve-Fingered Boy, by John Hornor Jacobs, out in February 2013!

Until next time~
Cheers!

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Book Reviews and NaNoWriMo

October 31, 2012 at 11:54 am (NaNoWriMo, Writing) (, , , )

Here’s where I could apologize for the paucity of book reviews recently- except I’m not going to. I’m going to explain it, instead, because it’s going to continue for a little bit.

During October, I wrote the first draft for a new project. I work full time, had other engagements that necessitated being away from my writing habitats or even out of town entirely, which should give some indication of the quasi-obsession needed to come through eighteen scattered days of writing with 95,000 words. It doesn’t give much time for reading new things- some days I come away from my writing computer so thoroughly fried in the brain that I can’t do anything other than stare mindlessly at the tv or re-read old favorites I can nearly recite.

I’d intended November to be a month of decompression, binge-reading and not even looking at anything I’ve written. I like to let first drafts sit for a few weeks before I go back to them, and with a couple of things coming up this month, it seemed like a brilliant idea. I’d get to read all the amazing books I’ve been stockpiling, catch up on reviews, and the only chances for my brain to be fried would be coming home from work as we key up into retail hell (also known as the holiday season).

Then I signed up for NaNoWriMo, or NaNo.

If you haven’t heard of it before, that stands for National Novel Writing Month. Every November, huge numbers of people come together in an online community- that sometimes stretches to local or regional write ins and physical check in support groups as well- with the goal of writing 50,000 words in the month of November. For the most part, 50K isn’t a novel, but it’s a good start, and you have a ton of people cheering you on and helping you stay accountable.

NaNo on the whole has its ups and downs.

Some of the ups: similar to the Butt-in-Chair philosophy, it’s a way to just WRITE. To train your brain and your muscles, to develop habits that could stick with you, to find how you can be productive. Or how not. The accountability is fantastic, the community is amazing, and a lot of fantastic books are born as NaNo projects. It’s also a great push for those who’ve been trying to make themselves write.

Some of the downs: a NaNo project is not truly a novel. It’s a sprint, a sloppy mess that takes a lot of time, attention, diligence, and personal responsibility to shape afterwards into a novel, and even more into a good novel. Too many people hit that 50K and with little more than spellcheck start sending it off to agents or editors as soon as it hits December 1st. And NaNo doesn’t work for everyone- many can’t create that kind of word-vomit, or else are quintessentially opposed to creating a crap first draft in the name of later revisions if simply taking the time in the first place will create a quality draft.

NaNo requires a pretty serious time committment. If your goal is 50K and you write every single day, that’s a little over 1600 words a day. Maybe that doesn’t seem like a lot, and maybe for some people it isn’t, but that’s EVERY DAY. It doesn’t matter if you’re sick, if you’re tired, if you have eight million things you have to do, if you’re out of town, at a wedding, a funeral, having a baby, whatever, you have to average 1600 words a day. Of course you have the choice to skip some days and binge on others, which is fine as long as you keep that average in mind.

I like NaNo on the whole, but I had no intention of signing up for it. I was going to take the month for decompression, remember?

But then…

I kept seeing people on twitter who were SO EXCITED about NaNo and the community. I saw comments from people who are going to try writing for the first time. I saw posts from authors I love talking about NaNo projects, and the realization that whatever’s conceived in this month could be my next favorite thing from them was kind of enthralling. I was getting excited about NaNo, but I didn’t sign up because I didn’t have an idea that was ready. Then something I’ve been mulling over for two and a half years shifted and settled into something right, and I realized that if I was willing to be more than a little insane, I could finally rewrite this thing. This will be my first NaNo, though probably not my last.

Here’s the thing, though: NaNo is pretty much how I write everything.

Writing is perhaps one of the most idiosyncratic and individual processes out there. Everyone approaches it and does it differently. That being said, I’m a queer duck. By the time I actually start writing a project, I’ve been thinking about it for weeks or even months. I know the characters, the bulk of the story, the settings, the major story and characters arcs, half the time I’ve even got speech patterns set by talking -literally talking, out loud- with my characters. When I finally sit down to write a new project, most of it is already comfortable and familiar in my skull. Opening up that wordfile is like opening the floodgates.

I don’t write every day. Usually it’s on my days off, a little on the easiest work days if I can come home with most of my brain function intact, and on the mornings of days when I close. First drafts usually take me between four and six weeks of stretched out time- usually 15-25 writing days. For me, doing NaNo isn’t much of a stretch.

FOR ME.

What this does mean, though, is that I won’t be doing nearly as much reading through November as I’d like to be, which means there won’t be as many book reviews. I’ll still be posting on Sundays, and likely I’ll post some NaNo updates on Wednesdays. If you’re doing NaNo, feel free to add me as a writing buddy, I’m signed up at Dot_Hutchison . Feel free to check in here when I do my updates- accountability (a more positive spin on peer pressure) is one of the great components of NaNo.

If you’re a writer and you’re not doing NaNo- no worries. Life sometimes causes obstacles, and the simple truth is that NaNo doesn’t work for everyone. Some people come out of it feeling energized and triumphant, some come of it feeling depressed and miserable.

One last thing I’ll say about NaNo in this- if you ARE doing NaNo, and if you ARE interested in getting published- DON’T SEND OUT YOUR NANO NOVEL IN DECEMBER. Seriously. Take the time to make sure your novel is the absolute best it can be. You’ll need to flesh out, to tighten, to check for consistencies. You’ll need to polish the language. You’ll need to actually research agents or editors, whichever’s your thing, to make sure that you’re querying intelligently. If you come out of NaNo with those 50K words, you’ve done something amazing. Don’t waste/ruin that by sending it out before it’s ready.

NaNo is largely about discipline, about the ability to train yourself to a task. Maintain that discipline in other areas as well. It’s something you’ll have to learn anyway if you do acquire an agent/editor/self-publisher, and you’ll be pleased by how much better your book can be.

Until next time~
Cheers!

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Book Review: The Mark of Athena, by Rick Riordan

October 10, 2012 at 10:25 am (Book Reviews) (, , , , , , )

Note: this is the third book in the Heroes of Olympus series, the sequel series to Percy Jackson and the Olympians. If you have not read the previous seven books, there will be not only confusion but abundant spoilers below

Percy and Annabeth have been reunited, Percy and Jason have their memories back, and the Greek and Roman demigods seem like they might be able to work out an alliance to face the Great Prophecy and the continuing struggle against Gaea and her children. Great, right? Except…well, Leo’s not sure how it happened, but let’s just say a lot when wrong really fast, and now Leo, Percy, Annabeth, Jason, Piper, Hazel, and Frank are on the run on the Argo II with several desperate missions and not a lot of time in which to accomplish them. With trademark humor, sympathy, and action, Riordan takes us on a whirlwind ride.

I make no secret of the fact that I love Riordan’s books. They’re smart, they’re interesting, they’re funny as anything, they’re exciting, and yet we also get an amazing blend of personal obstacles, sorrow, and growth, something that makes them uncommon and wonderful. These stories have a bit of everything, but they’re brought together so neatly that it doesn’t feel overcrowded- quite a feat for a story that started in single-narrator first person and now has an entire stable of narrators in third.

Our narrators for this leg of the journey are Annabeth, Percy, Piper, and Leo, each claiming four chapters at a time. It’s a big book, which make worry some of the younger readers who haven’t hit Harry Potter yet, but the pace snaps so well that you’re pretty far in before you look up to remember there’s a mundane world around you. This is the first time we’ve been inside Annabeth’s head, and though I already really liked her as a character, this time she wins ALL THE LOVE. Well, most of the love; I still have some for the others, too. But Annabeth! We get to see so many different facets of a wonderfully complicated character. We see her as Percy’s Wise Girl, someone intelligent and resourceful, someone willing to dig down and do research, someone ready with the history of a thing to understand how to work with it or beat it down, as the situation calls for. We see her as someone who’s been an important aspect of leadership and influence in Camp Half-Blood since well before Percy got there, a leader in her own right who’s able to make use of widely varying skill sets and personalities- even when two of those personalities are rather used to being the leaders themselves. We see her as a girlfriend, which is painfully sweet and funny (judo flip, anyone?). Perhaps my favorite aspect? We see Annabeth as daughter. She’s loyal, rebellious, proud, aware of faults, frustrated, loving…in short, all the contradictions that perfectly make up most mother-daughter relationships. And I’m sorry, but her wanting to find her mother’s sacred owl and punch it in the face wins her EVERYTHING EVER. She’s an amazing character and I’m so glad we get to see more of the world inside her head.

Another very fun, and compelling, aspect of this book is the fact that both Percy and Jason are accustomed to leadership. We see the struggle of them working together, of having to acknowledge someone as an equal in experience and strength and talents. We also see two cocky teenage boys butting heads, which is hysterical. More than that, though, something we see both of them struggle with again and again, is the helplessness that comes with not being the ones to save the day. They’re not always the ones with the great ideas, they’re not always the ones with the needed talent. Sometimes, they’re the ones that need to be rescued. That’s a humbling and terrifying moment for people like them, and we get to see that, both in the struggles they deal with personally and in what they’re willing to confide to the girls they love. There’s also a rather striking difference between the two in leadership. Jason was expected to be a leader. He’s a son of Jupiter, so great things and leadership skills were always expected of him. He was placed in a position of authority because it was expected that was where he should be. Percy earned his leadership. He wasn’t a driving force within the camp at first, but through years of quests and obstacles, through strong leadership through the war, he earned his place. He doesn’t expect anyone to kowtow to him, but he leads with the steady confidence of someone who’s walked through every level of the ranks. He has a knack for other people’s skills, for how to use other people to the best advantage- even if that means he’s not The Hero. Jason still tends to focus on what he can do.

I love that in this book we get to see more of the reality of the schism between the Greek and Roman Aspects. We’ve been told about, and we see it in bits and pieces through the first two books, but we see it in a serious way here through two gods. The transition from Athena to Minerva is heartbreaking at best, frequently infuriating, and somewhat painfully appropriate for a lot of the struggles going on in our culture today. What makes it agony is the fact that she’s aware, in some sense, of what’s been lost, of what’s been taken from her. She knows she’s not complete and that she’s missing something vital and immense. And then there’s Mister D- or, er, Mister B. Bacchus and Dionysus share many qualities, but like the other gods, they reflect the differences in their cultures, as well as the varying attitudes those cultures espouse. Mister D is all snarl and bark, but the only time we actually see him bite is at the enemy. Mister B, while seeming laid-back, also comes off as a lot more dangerous. While D’s maenads are terrifying, it’s B’s full embrace of the bread-and-circuses way of life that makes your skin crawl.

Although, Coke and Pepsi? Brilliant.

As much as I loved this book, it left me with two worries. Well, one worry and one wish. The worry is that, while it’s great to be aging the kids up, and aging up the things they’re dealing with on an appropriate parallel, this book is very, very couple-centered. There’s Percy and Annabeth and all of their relationship stuff, there’s Jason and Piper and all their relationship stuff, and there’s Hazel and Frank and Leo and any number of obstacles and concerns tying the three of them together. For the older readers, yay! A lot of us really LIKE the couple-y things. I saw an absolutely phenomenal fan-poster that said “Keep Calm and Shut Up, Seaweed Brain”, which is just fantastic. But. A lot of the kids coming to this series are younger readers who are swallowing the first set in a gulp, and may not be ready for all the internal angst that comes with hormones. And there’s a second part to that- I hate the notion of boy books and girl books, hate the fact that there are parents and booksellers and teachers who are actively promoting that kind of label and telling children they can’t read a book because “it’s for the other gender”. Hate it. The fact, however, remains that there are many adults who believe this, and many children whose reading habits are limited by it. For those boys who are told by adults or friends that it’s not okay to read romance books, this may lose some of them for the series. The wish has to do with the narration. My friend Margaret and I were bouncing theories back and forth as to who we’ll see as narrators in the next one, and it made me realize that all four of our narrators in this one were Greek. The first two books were balanced, The Lost Hero with two Greeks and a confused Roman adopted by the Greeks, Son of Neptune with two Romans and a confused Greek adopted by the Romans. Or, as my brother put it, Jason and Percy are the Praetor Traitor Twins (say that three times fast). I would have wished for more of a balance in the narrative duties of this book, that the narrative duties balanced the very real need for balance among the seven demigods on the task. It’s a hard wish, though, because I really did love the narratives we got.

This is a fantastic new installment in the series, keeping the action and adventure and truly-snort-worthy one-liners flying so fast you don’t even notice how many pages you’re turning, but it also gives some fantastic depth to characters we come to love even more and an ending that will make you curse the year’s wait to The House of Hades. Definitely not to be missed. It’s smart with mythology, with history, with the innate struggles that come with the cusp of greatness, and all the trials and triumphs that come with simply being a teenager.

Until next time~
Cheers!

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Book Review: School Story, by Andrew Clements

September 5, 2012 at 8:04 pm (Book Reviews) (, , , , )

Natalie is a writer, one with a wonderful book pouring out onto the page, one her friend and teacher are sure should be published. Natalie is twelve years old. With hard work, determination, and more than a few pushes from her bossy friend, Natalie just might be able to pull off the improbable, but what she learns along the way? Is worth so much more than a book deal.

This is one of those stories that seems light and sweet while you’re reading it, and then clobbers you with deeper layers a few hours later. I picked it up a few years ago because one of my coworkers, herself a former Children’s Lead, told me I absolutely had to be able to talk intelligently about Andrew Clements. He’s a staple, she told me. Teachers love him, parents love him, kids love him. Learn him. So, given my interest in writing and publishing, picking up School Story seemed like a no-brainer. I read it, loved it, promptly lost it in a sea of books.

But the other day, as I was pulling books out of the boxes and sorting them to make alphabetizing and shelving an easier task, I came upon it again. It’s a thin book, the kind that bridges perfectly between chapter books and middle grade so the reluctant readers aren’t as scared and the stronger readers can trust an author they love to deliver, so when it was time to take a break, I took the book with me.

And fell in love with it all over again.

On the surface, I love the basic walkthrough of publishing. For any kid who has ever dreamed of being a published writer, it’s a gentle wake up call. At no point does it say “You can’t do this”. At every step, it says “This is work, but it’s wonderful”, encouraging and inspiring. Though from a purely selfish point I would have wished to see self-revision before submission, we get to go with Natalie from first reader to second reader, to submission reader, to acquisition, and beyond that to some of the numbers of a deal, the levels of a publishing house, and all the steps that go into making a manuscript into a book. We learn, as Natalie and Zoe do, that it truly is a process- you can tell the kids who’ve read this book because they’re the ones who aren’t surprised that their favorite series only come out with one book a year. They know all the things that are happening behind the scenes to fill that year.

Natalie is a wonderful character, a little timid, a little down on herself, but full of a cautious optimism at seeing her book come out into the world. Even as a twelve-year-old, the neurosis is there a little, and frankly, that won me over in a heartbeat. Most writers are neurotic people, especially when it comes to our writing, and re-reading some of the scenes in this book made me think of Rapunzel leaving the tower in Tangled. we want to send our books out into the world, but at the same time, we really don’t want to leave our safe little bubble of ignorance. Her relationship with her mother, her lingering struggle with her father’s death, they’re very real, and they invest both the story and her character with a more personal thread. Her best friend Zoe is a perfect match for her, brash and brazen and uber-confident, sure of getting her own way in everything, and not at all hesitant to go for what she wants. She and Natalie have a push-pull relationship, with Zoe tugging on Natalie to trust in her manuscript and Natalie pulling Zoe’s more out-there ideas to a more practical place.

One of the things I loved most- and not something you see all that often in kids’ books- was how important and supportive the adult figures are. Ms. Clayton, their teacher and eventual club sponsor, is young and starting to wear down a little under the grind of daily teaching, but despite feeling a little bewildered and over her head, she at no point tells the girls not to pursue their goal. She helps them with the more practical aspects, often mediating between the disparate personalities, and perhaps most importantly, she’s an adult they can trust and depend upon. She protects them and helps them, even at the risk of losing her job. Zoe’s father becomes someone else they can trust, and they also learn the nature of confidentiality. Some will keep your secrets purely because you wish them to; some will keep your secrets because they’re legally obligated to do so. Not that Mr. Reisman wouldn’t help his daughter and her friend of his own volition, but it’s another practical lesson in the process of publishing. And yet, his true importance to the story is less in what he does for the girls, but in the validation he gives to Ms. Clayton as a teacher and a role model- she is precisely the kind of teacher who changes lives for the better, the kind of teacher everyone wishes for their children. Parental acknowledgment of superior teaching helps so much in buoying up teachers who are constantly worn down by non-existent budgets, children who frequently don’t wish to learn, and the legion of parents who just don’t care. The interaction between these two adults is limited to a single phone call, but those few minutes are enough to reaffirm the faith and spirits of a young teacher.

I especially loved the relationship between Natalie and her mother, Hannah, who’s an editor. There’s a balance of curiosity in her work and the simple joys of being with her mother for movies and Chinese, but they don’t so much dance around the place where Natalie’s father used to be as they do embrace it. It’s hard and it’s painful, and sometimes the memories are heavier than others, but their connection is solid, which makes Natalie’s professional progress a beautiful mirror to her personal progress. And Hannah has her own progress to make within the workplace; Natalie came by her partial-timidity naturally. The adults in this novel (well, most of the adults in this novel; Letha is less than rounded) have their own journeys to make alongside the girls, becoming as real and as significant as either of the girls. That’s rare in this field.

I don’t care what age you are, this is a book to be read, treasured, and passed down and around.

Until next time~
Cheers!

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Book Review: The Diviners, by Libba Bray

August 29, 2012 at 7:20 pm (Book Reviews) (, , , )

Evie O’Neill has a posi-tute-ly neat-o party trick that lets her read memories from touching anyone’s personal possessions. Doing it at a party, however, gets her kicked out of her home and sent off to her Uncle Will, in Jazz Age New York. What should be a delightful escapade is soured by the presence of a twisted killer with a ritualistic aspect that brings Will into the investigation. As Evie reconnects with old friends and makes new ones in the heady world of Follies, fashion, and speakeasies, unearthly powers are shfiting, pulling together young men and women with unusual gifts. The Diviners are being called- and their story is only starting.

Sometimes timing sucks, because this ARC arrived right as I was supposed to be getting down to the nitty gritty of packing to move. Nitty gritty didn’t happen until the book was finished, because OH MY GOD, strap in.

As much as I want to speak about this intelligently, I’m not even sure where to start. The characters, the setting, the story, the MAJOR creep factor…there are eight million pieces to this book that all come together in this amazing manner that is just mind-blowing.

So…characters. There are a lot of them. The perspective shifts between them, some of them only with us for a chapter, or even part of a chapter, some of them prominent. In as much as you can say there’s a single MC, it’s Evie, but this is very much an ensemble cast. She’s centerstage for this one, but you get the strong feeling that the others will be taking their turns in later books. Despite the sheer number of characters to keep track of, it doesn’t prove to be a difficult or daunting task- each of them is so finely crafted, so detailed and distinct, that you can’t really confuse them. What I really love about them- all of them- is that they each have specific journeys to make. Every significant character has his or her own story arc that doesn’t end with the final page. This is the definitely the first book of a series, but we don’t have to wait for each book to see the growth. Every character has their surface layers- the slang and the parties, the devil-may-care or the dedication to a cause- but they also have layers of secrets and dark pains that define them just as much as the bobbed hair and charming smile. To talk about them individually would take up the entire review, but in a nutshell, some of the things I loved the most: Mabel’s anxieties, Jericho’s broody introspection, Sam’s adaptability, Theta’s vulnerability, Henry’s generosity, Memphis’ guilt, and Evie’s slow realization of a world beyond illegal gin and patterned stockings. Brilliant.

In opening the front cover of this book, we’re invited into Jazz Age New York, the height of the Roaring Twenties. The Great War is done, leaving in its wake a surge of nationalism and euphoria as the nation heals from the first wholescale slaughter of trench warfare. Prohibition is in effect, women have only recently won the legal right to vote, and social reform has swept the streets of the poorer parts of the city. Harlem is the center of jazz, silent pictures and elaborate burlesque stage shows are in their heyday, with the bells poised to ring their deaths with the creation of talkies. Women are bobbing their hair, showing their knees, and glorying in fashion after the deprivations of war. Slang is rich and fast, and for the flappers and their boys, every day is to be lived to the fullest, without care or concern for anything beyond right now. The details of this world envelop us, never drowning or trying too hard to set the stage or to explain, but simply bringing us into it. I mean EVERY detail, right down to word choice and the fact that you have to crank the car to get it started when it’s cold. I’m not normally a Roaring Twenties girl; I kind of overdosed on it in a phase back in high school and haven’t yet gotten past that. But this is…this book made me fall in love with the Twenties all over again. The setting wraps around us in a million different ways, some of which we don’t even notice until we specifically look for them, but it keeps us firmly planted in a time without cell phones or mini-skirts.

It’s a fantastic story, the supernatural woven through with the obsessive nature of the fanatic, a careful balance between the demonic and the divine. There’s a large degree of disgust that comes with the murders and deepens as we learn more behind the motivations and purpose of the deaths, but there’s also a pervading sense of menace. Be careful reading this book at night- some of the most superbly terrifying parts of this book are packed into just a few pages, even a paragraph or two in the midst of so much more, but you devour the pages and in the back of your mind there’s the little voice that’s singing a child’s song that just sends shivers stabbing down your spine. I don’t think it would be a Libba Bray book if it weren’t laugh out loud funny, but it’s a very different type of humor than, say, Beauty Queens, where everything was in your face and over the top and absurd. Here, the humor is part and parcel of the Roaring Twenties, when wit was fashionable and one-liners were idolized. It’s funny as hell, but it’s fast and snappy, and some of them are most enjoyable when the characters around them miss what’s being said- or why it’s funny. Just as the slang and the rhythms of speech show proof of the flawless and deep research, so does the humor.

And the fact that this is a series? Makes me jump with joy. I’m sorry- I truly am- that I can’t talk about this more coherently, but there is just SO MUCH to this book. It’s a hefty one, so it may lose some of the more impatient readers, but those who stay through til the end? Will be waiting for the next one just as much as I am.

And if you want to win an advance copy before it comes out 18 September, check out my giveaway, open til midnight ending Wednesday, 19 August!

Until next time~
Cheers!

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Book Review: Amy’s Eyes, by Richard Kennedy

August 15, 2012 at 7:07 pm (Book Reviews) (, , , , )

This is less of a book review than it is talking about a book re-view.

When I was in fourth grade, I pretty much lived down in my school library. I finished my assignments so far ahead of my classmates that my teacher sent me off to the library so I wouldn’t get bored and cause trouble. (Not that I was a troublesome kid, but if I was bored, I would try to entertain myself- sometimes caused unintentional problems.) I read through great swathes of that room in my years at that school, and one of the books on the shelf was this great fat thing with selveged pages called Amy’s Eyes, by Richard Kennedy.

I fell in love with that book. It was an epic thing of sailors and pirates, the search for treasure, family lost and found, secrets, dolls coming to life and even little girls becoming dolls out of loneliness and sorrow. It had orphanage hi-jinks and adventure on the high seas, it had mutiny and religion and nursery rhymes, and what made me truly fall in love with the book- and this may or may not say something significant about me- was that it taught me the song Greensleeves. I checked that book out several times that year and next, and when I found that my middle school library didn’t have it, I checked it out from the public library. I read that book at least twelve times through the next three years.

But then Things Happened, and real life intruded, and with how insane my schedule was, the public library became rather hard to get to, and while I still thought fondly of the book, there wasn’t really a chance to catch up with it.

Fast forward to senior year of college, as I’m sitting down with my honors thesis advisor and talking about the influence of books in my life, and he tells me to track down a handful of books with significant influence and re-read them. Some were things I still read again and again- David Eddings’ Elenium trilogy, for example, which is largely responsible for my sense of humor- but I immediately thought of Amy’s Eyes. I remembered it as being a great adventure full of sweetness and laughter. It was out of print and a little tough to track down- none of the libraries I had access to had it, not even the trusty library back home; it had been stolen and they hadn’t replaced it. I finally found a used copy online that a former library copy, and not too dinged up (I’m a little OCD about my books), and when it came, I settled down to immerse myself in childhood nostalgia.

HOLY CRAP.

Somehow in reread after reread after reread when I was younger, I had managed to completely miss how CREEPY large portions of that book was! There were some sections, even some characters, who absolutely made my skin crawl coming back to it almost ten years later. This went far beyond merely unsettling- this was sit up awake in bed clutching the baseball bat against the moving shadows terrifying. As a child, I’d categorized the characters into three groups: Good, Bad, and Surprise. As an adult, the characters were much more difficult to dismiss into those simple corners. I understood a lot more of the nuances in their personalities, got a lot more out of the shifting loyalties and the plaintive confusion at their existence. The nature of identity, the simple fact of existence, weaves through this story in ways I never could have grasped when I was nine years old.

As a child, I thought parts of the book were sad. As an adult, I found some parts downright tragic- and not always the same parts. I learned about disguise as a part of truth and how far some people would go for love- and for greed. There were a few stray elements that I remembered as being the same, but in so many ways, it was like I was reading a completely different book.

For the next two weeks, before my next advisor meeting, I tried to wrap my brain around just how different this was from what I’d remembered, and therefore expected. The book, of course, hadn’t changed. I was two years old when it came out, and the text hasn’t altered a bit since the date of publication.

What had changed was me.

Another decade of life, another decade’s worth of experiences, had changed my perspective on things. As a child, I didn’t understand anything about betrayal or greed or black-hearted villains except for what I read in books. As an adult, I’d learned, and if I’d sometimes mourned the knowledge, I still had the deeper experience. Limitless devotion wasn’t something I took for granted anymore, so seeing just how far some of these characters would go to protect and reunite with the ones they loved wasn’t something I took for granted anymore either. Because of those life experiences, everyone reads the same book in different ways.

What I learned from re-reading Amy’s Eyes proved invaluable when I wrote the novel for my thesis, and for each novel after that. The character who was most deeply unsettling was also the one for whom we feel the deepest sympathies. Good and evil were not nearly as separate as I’d previously imagined, and just because a person is Good, it doesn’t mean they don’t have deep flaws within them. And perhaps the deepest lesson- the one that wove its way through again and again in what became Elsinore Drowning: sometimes we injure those we love the best, even when- or perhaps especially when- we’re trying to do what’s best or right.

Have you ever had a book that seemed drastically different upon a re-read?

Until next time~
Cheers!

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