Monday, May 18, 2015

Game of Thrones: Thoughts about Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken (Spoilers)



Last night's episode was a real downer. My first reaction was, "Well, that was depressing," but as I think about and process it, I have some different thoughts. There will spoilers here, so if you haven't watched the episode yet, I recommend you leave now.

As a clarification, I've only read the first two books in A Song of Ice and Fire, so I can't discuss this episode in relation to the books. However, since the showrunners have made it clear that they aren't strictly following the books anymore, I don't think it's overly relevant.

I think the key to understanding this episode is the title, "Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken." While of course that's the motto of House Martell, I think the producers are also telling us something. (And often the GoT episode titles seem to have more than one meaning.)

As I said to my husband immediately afterwards, "For an episode called Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken, there sure were a lot of bowed, bent, and broken people." However, on further consideration, I'm not sure that's true.

Tyrion and Ser Jorah are captured by slavers. However, Tyrion works his magic with a little help from Ser Jorah in the right places, and the two of them are now headed where they wanted to go anyway. Jaime and Bronn end up captured, but Bronn takes it in stride with usual Bronn-ness: "You fight pretty good for a little girl." And I hope that Jaime learned his lesson from the last time he was a prisoner and won't lose another hand.

A quick aside on the sand snakes: I haven't got far enough in the books to read about the sand snakes, but I had heard about them, and as a former martial artists and a fan of women warriors, I was very much looking forward to seeing them. So far, though, I have to say I'm disappointed. Although it's clear they can fight, they've been pretty ineffective so far, and there's not even enough character development for me to tell them apart.

I think that Ser Loras and Queen Margaery fared the worst in this episode. You might say Sansa fared worst, but more on that in a minute. Lady Olenna will use her considerable personal and House resources do what she can (although it is somewhat worrisome that Cercei sent Mace off right before implementing this plot) and while Tommen may be the Most Ineffective King Ever, he's pretty besotted with Margaery, so maybe this will wake him up. However, I fear for Loras. As the show's token gay character, he's been treated pretty poorly by the showrunners.  I fear that Loras won't survive this, but even if he does, will the showrunners let him become, as the article I linked above says, “a knight and a son of House Tyrell, who happens to be gay" or will he continue to just be "the gay character"?

Finally, I want to talk about the most talked about scene of the episode: Ramsey Bolton's wedding night rape of Sansa. The scene was vile and repulsive, and like everyone else, I was hoping that Stannis would arrive in time to stop the travesty. Viscerally and emotionally I hate it. But on thinking about it, I don't believe that Sansa was as much a victim as she appeared to be. As awful as it was, Sansa made the choice to go through with this wedding.  While Littlefinger may be using her for his own ends, his talk with her about using the situation to regain her birthright seems to have resonated with her.

Remember that this isn't Sansa's first experience with a sadist. This is not the young Sansa with dreams of a fairy tale wedding. This is an older, wiser, more experienced Sansa who has survived Joffrey and Cercei and knows the worst that humans are capable of. This Sansa is a survivor. And thanks to Myranda's attempts at manipulation, she has some idea of what she's getting into. She has options - she knows she could have lit a candle at the top of the broken tower. But she chooses to go through with it for the sake of her birthright, her people, and hopefully for a chance to avenge her family. And Sansa knows as well as anyone that an unconsummated marriage can be annulled, so she endures the rape - with a witness even - to cement her place at Winterfell. When Sansa tells Myranda, "I'm Sansa Stark of Winterfell and you don't frighten me," I have to think that in her mind she was saying that to Ramsey as well. I hope that somewhere not to far down the road, Sansa will stick a dagger in Ramsey. I also think that alternating Sansa's scenes with Arya's was intentional. Even though their roads are very different, they are both in the process of becoming someone else.

Was the scene gratuitous and unnecessary? Maybe, I'm not sure. It does seem like GoT has a disturbing pattern of violence against women, but then GoT has plenty of disturbing violence overall, and yet I still watch it. I'm not sure if this scene was any worse than what the rest of Sansa's family has been subjected to, not to mention many other characters. You want to talk about horrifying? One of the most horrifying things to me was Theon's killing and burning the miller's sons as stand-ins for Bran and Rickon. Theon in turn was the victim of horrifying violence by Ramsey. It broke Theon, but I don't think that Ramsey will break Sansa in the same way.

Personally, I hate the prison that most women in Westeros are forced into. For most, with some notable exceptions, marriage is their only option, most likely a marriage not of their own choosing. As much as we hate Cersei, Queen of Manipulators, we also have to remember that as a young woman she was forced into marriage with Robert Baratheon. But although I hate it, it's also a reflection of the life that many, if not most, women throughout history have been forced to lead. Violence against women is a reality; should we pretend that it doesn't exist?

When we talk about strong female characters in books and movies, we're usually talking about women warriors or leaders of some type. But I think it takes a particular strength to endure rape, forced marriage, or other violences perpetrated against women and to survive, to live, and to move forward. In our outrage and our disgust, in characterizing Sansa merely as a victim, I fear that we are missing the point that Sansa Stark is one of the strongest characters on the show.

Tuesday, May 05, 2015

Book Review: An Ember in the Ashes

An Ember in the Ashes

by Sabaa Tahir

Told in alternating stories of two main characters on opposite sides, An Ember in the Ashes is a suspenseful exploration of the effects of violence on both the conquered and the conquerors. Set in a Rome-like fantasy world, the Scholars are a subjugated people under the rule of the Martials. Laia is a Scholar living with her brother and grandparents. When her brother is arrested on suspicion of being a member of the resistance, and her grandparents are killed violently by Martial soldiers, Laia runs away in fear. To atone for her cowardice, Laia sets out to save her brother, and goes undercover as a slave to the cruel and sadistic commander of the elite military academy Blackcliff.

Elias is a student at Blackcliff, training to become a Mask, the most elite of Martial soldiers. Although he has lived most of his life as a student under the harsh discipline at Blackcliff, Elias still sees things differently than his peers because he spent the first six years of his life outside the Martial society. Elias is determined to escape the violent society and his role as an enforcer as soon as he graduates. Then a visit from the Augurs — the Martial's version of oracles — puts a difficult choice before Elias. But can he trust the prophecy, or is he being manipulated by the Augurs?

Sabaa Tahir was inspired to write An Ember in the Ashes during her time at the Washington Post's foreign desk, when she was exposed to horrifying stories of the effects of violence on people around the world. An Ember in the Ashes is an exciting dystopian story that shows how a violent society affects everyone, from the slaves to the highest levels. Even the resistance is divided by the question of whether they have an obligation to help those of their people in need, or whether such aid detracts from their mission of fighting back against the Martials.

I had some minor credibility problems, and the plot development was occasionally awkward. I thought that the addition of supernatural characters like djinn was an unnecessary device that muddies the waters. The augurs were fine and really drive the plot in many ways, but the djinn and other spirits made it start to feel like everything was thrown in, including the kitchen sink.

This isn't a subtle book: the message about the effects of violence is hammered pretty hard. However, as I write this in a Baltimore (and a nation) trying to figure out how to police our communities without unnecessary violence by police against the people they are supposed to protect, the message really resonates.

In spite of the minor issues, I found An Ember in the Ashes to be a thrilling and highly engaging plot-driven story with loads of teen appeal, especially for fans of dystopian fiction like the Hunger Games. I can understand why it's been optioned for film already.

Diversity

Elias is described as having golden-brown skin. The identity of Elias' father is unknown, but it's likely that his skin color came from his father, since his mother is described as having pale skin. Other than that, skin color doesn't seem to play a role, although one of the more despicable characters is also described as having dark skin. The Martial empire appears to be generally diverse, with various ethnicities of people coming from the different conquered nations, although it's not significant to the plot.

Although the empire appears to be fairly patriarchal, female characters play a significant role. Besides Laia, there's Helene, who is also a student at Blackcliff and Elias' best friend. Helen is one tough cookie, in some ways one of the toughest students there. In spite of that, though, she's mostly relegated to the traditional female support role, and a subplot about an attraction leaves her acting "like a girl." There's also the female commander of Blackcliff, and several minor female characters including a cook who used to be an explosives expert.

The author is a woman of color.


Who would like this book?

Anyone who enjoys a thrilling, suspenseful plot-driven story, particularly fans of The Hunger Games and other dystopian fiction. In keeping with the theme, An Ember in the Ashes is fairly dark and violent, so sensitive readers may want to take a pass.


Buy from Powells.com:


FTC required disclosure: Review copy sent by the publisher to enable me to write this review. The bookstore links above are affiliate links, and I earn a very small percentage of any sales made through the links. Neither of these things influenced my review.

Wednesday, April 01, 2015

So you want to write a children's book?

As a publisher, I subscribe to a lot of book publishing and marketing newsletters. Yesterday, I received the following email from two of those newsletters:
Ever wanted to write a children’s book?
If so, publishing your work as an e-book on Amazon’s Kindle platform is a great way to go – and now is a great time to get started.
The children's e-book market is up 475% this year alone, which makes it one of the fastest-growing book categories on Amazon.
Plus, once you know a simple formula, children’s books are one of the easiest types of books to write.
To discover how to get started writing and publishing your own children’s e-books, join Steve Harrison for a free webinar this Wednesday, April 1. (link redacted)
Steve will be interviewing an author who wrote a silly little 26-page Kindle children’s book in less than seven days, which, more than two years later, still produces more than $1,000 in royalties each month!
The idea that anyone can write a children's book using a "simple formula" is offensive and misleading. Writing a good children's book is not easy, it's hard! It takes dedication, hard work and a willingness to educate yourself about children's writing.

A common misconception is that writing for children is easy, because the writing in children's books appears simple. But that simplicity is deceptive; it takes skill and experience to know how to write for children in a way that's appealing without talking down to them. Writing good children's books is harder than writing good adult books. That book your children beg you to read every night? It was probably the result of many rounds of edits trying to get exactly the right words and the right tone. Of course, good adult writers do the same thing, but they don't have to agonize over every word, every sentence the way children's writers do.

Simplicity is hard! Theodor Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss, is one of the most well-known and beloved children’s writers. The seemingly simple rhyming text of his stories has fooled many writers into thinking that it’s easy to write such books, but Geisel labored over each book, writing and rewriting, sometimes for a year or more.

Encouraging people to write a "silly little" children's book using a "simple formula" does no one a service, least of all the writers themselves. The marketing copy above leads people to believe that fame and riches are just around the corner and easy to achieve, when in reality nothing could be further from the truth. There are thousands of new children's books published every year, probably even more than that when you count all the self-published books. Many of those will languish in obscurity, many others will sell a decent number of copies and sit solidly midlist, and very few will sell a large number of copies. I personally know many, many children's authors, both traditionally published and self-published, and very few are getting rich. (Actually, I don't think any of my author friends are rich. If you are, let's talk!)

If you want to write a children's book, great! I admire anyone who pours their heart, soul, time, and effort into writing a book. But don't do it in expectation of making money. Yes, you might get lucky like the author mentioned in the ad above, but that's the exception, not the rule, and unless you are very, very lucky you won't achieve that. There is no magic formula that guarantees success - believe me, if there were, the big publishers would be using it! If you're going to write for children, do it for love, not for money. For most authors I know, the letters they receive from children mean much more than the royalty check. There's nothing wrong with wanting to make money from your writing, but if you go into it with that as your primary goal, there's a good chance that you're in for disappointment.

As a book blogger and Cybils Awards organizer/judge, I'm active in the children's book blogging community. Self-published books have developed a bad reputation in the community, and many bloggers now have review policies that exclude self- or indie published books. For years, I've advocated for indie publishing among my peers. Authors self-publish for many reasons, and self-publishing by itself is not an indicator of the level of quality. Self-publishing gives a voice to those who are disenfranchised by the traditional publishing industry. As one of the leaders of the Cybils Awards, I continually advocate to keep self-published books eligible and judged fairly and impartially. There are excellent self-published books, and a few have even been finalists or winners in the Cybils Awards.

But I sometimes feel that advocating for self-publishing is an uphill battle, when for every excellent book there are hundreds of others that are poorly done. People like Steve Harrison are making the situation worse by encouraging people to take the easy road, to produce more dreck that will further drag down the reputation of self-publishing. Not only that, but it misleads authors to believe that there is an easy road to success. There is no easy road that guarantees success! You might get lucky, but then, someone wins the Publishers Clearing House, too.

If you want to write a children's book, go for it! But rather than looking for easy formulas, take the time to learn what makes a good children's book. To start with, read a great many children's books. (If you have children, this isn't hard!) Read them critically, with an eye to what works well and what doesn't. (I've learned so much about children's books from nearly ten years of reviewing them for the blog, and nine years of being a Cybils judge). Read books about writing children's books. Take classes from reputable institutions or teachers. Join the Society for Children's Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) and your regional chapter of it. Attend writing conferences. Join or form a critique group. Check out any potential agents, publishers, promotional companies, contests, and more on the excellent Preditors and Editors.

One of my good friends, Anne Boles Levy, has her first book coming out in August, a YA fantasy published by independent publisher Sky Pony Press. For Anne, it's been at least a fifteen year journey: writing, editing, revising, and submitting the book. Anne works regularly with a critique group that includes multiple award-winning authors; I believe that the group has been working together since before any of them were published. During that fifteen years, in addition to writing Anne also invested a lot of time into things that helped her to be known in the children's book community: blogging, attending conferences, and even founding a children's book award. None of that guarantees any good reviews, of course, but it does mean that Anne has a better than average chance of getting bloggers to take a look at it. I haven't yet seen the book (although I can't wait!) but I assume that all the work she put into writing it has paid off in the form of an excellent book.

Now, I'm not saying that everyone needs to invest fifteen years. That's a lot of time to wait to achieve your dreams. But I am saying that true success does not come overnight in most cases, and if you want to succeed, you need dedication, perseverance, hard work, and a willingness to learn.

Don’t give in to the siren call of get-rich-quick schemes. Instead, invest your time and money in learning the craft and trade of children’s writing and publishing.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Book Review: Smek for President

Smek for President

by Adam Rex

Science fiction for kids is rare enough; truly funny middle-grade science fiction is even rarer. In fact, off the top of my head I can only think of one book in the hilarious middle-grade science fiction genre: The True Meaning of Smekday. Now that number has doubled, with the publication of a worthy sequel, Smek for President.

If you haven't read The True Meaning of Smekday, why not? Go forth and read it now! It's a great road-trip buddy comedy about a girl and an alien on the run from the evil alien overlords.

Beyond this point there will be spoilers for the first book.

In Smek for President, human leader Dan Landry has taken credit for defeating the Gorg. No one, human or Boov, knows that it was really Tip and J.Lo who discovered the Gorg's weakness and defeated them with hundreds of cloned cats. Tip is living an anonymous life trying to adjust to being a regular girl again. J.Lo is infamous on two worlds: he can't seem to stay out of trouble in their community on Earth, and to the Boov he's still the Squealer, who accidentally signaled the Gorg in the first place. Tip and J.Lo decide to take a trip to New Boovworld (formerly known as the moon Titan) to explain to Captain Smek what really happened and clear J.Lo's name.

Hilarious hijinks ensue, including a low-gravity chase that is every bit as awesome as you'd hope for a low-gravity chase to be, an escape into a garbage-pit, (with obligatory Star Wars reference) and a lonely bubble-billboard. There's more awesomeness that I can't say anything about without spoiling the book. There are several comic sections that extend the story throughout the book.

There's not much else I can say, except that this is a perfect middle-grade book, and fans of The True Meaning of Smekday will love it. Anyone who hasn't read The True Meaning of Smekday would be well served to read it first.

Diversity?

The protagonist Tip is mixed-race. She's also an awesome character that boys and girls of all races can identify with. (How many times am I allowed to say awesome in one review?) Here's a great post that discusses race, culture, colonialism, and diversity in the first book. The second book doesn't get into these issues so much, although it does take some pretty funny stabs at politics.

Buy from Powells.com:
FTC required disclosure: Review copy sent by the publisher to enable me to write this review. The bookstore links above are affiliate links, and I earn a very small percentage of any sales made through the links. Neither of these things influenced my review.

Friday, February 20, 2015

2014 Andre Norton Award Nominees


The 2014 Nebula Award nominees have been announced, and with it the nominees for the Andre Norton Award for Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy. The Nebula and Andre Norton awards are given by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America.

Two of the Andre Norton nominees were also Cybils Awards finalists: Salvage, by Alexandra Duncan, and Glory O’Brien’s History of the Future, by A.S. King. As a Cybils judge, I read both books and they're both excellent, although very different, books. I've also read Love Is the Drug, by Alaya Dawn Johnson, and loved that one as well.

Here's the full list of Andre Norton Award nominees:
  • Unmade, Sarah Rees Brennan (Random House) 
  • Salvage, Alexandra Duncan (Greenwillow) 
  • Love Is the Drug, Alaya Dawn Johnson (Levine) 
  • Glory O’Brien’s History of the Future, A.S. King (Little, Brown) 
  • Dirty Wings, Sarah McCarry (St. Martin’s Griffin) 
  • Greenglass House, Kate Milford (Clarion) 
  • The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender, Leslye Walton (Candlewick)
The complete list of Nebula Award Nominees on the SFWA website.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Book Review: The Last Wild/The Dark Wild

I read both of these books together, so I'm going to do what I rarely do and review them together. If you haven't read the first book, you might want to stop after my review of The Last Wild, because my review of The Dark Wild will, of necessity, have spoilers for the first book.



The Last Wild
by Piers Torday

In a dystopian future, all animals have died out from an illness called "red-eye" that mutated to spread throughout the animal populations. The only animals still living are a few hardy species like cockroaches. Even the bees are dead, which means that there are no more food crops. The only food left is a synthetic food called Formul-A, and the only supplier of Formul-A is the Facto corporation, essentially giving them control of the remaining human population.

Twelve year old Kester Jaynes has been incarcerated in Spectrum Hall Academy for Challenging Children for six years. The Academy is just as horrible as its name makes it sound: the children live regimented, restricted lives, and breaking the rules is punished by solitary confinement. Kester can't even complain: he hasn't been able to speak since his mother died. The words just won't come out.

Kester keeps company with a cockroach at lunch, but one day he's surprised to hear the cockroach speaking to him in his head. Shortly after that, one hundred pigeons break through his window and help him escape from Spectrum Hall. Kester discovers that Facto lied: the animals are not all dead. There is a group of them — a Wild — still living on the edge of civilization, and Kester has a unique ability to talk to them through a kind of mental connection. Between the red-eye virus and the cullers sent out by Facto to kill any remaining animals, the Wild is in grave danger. Kester sets off with the pigeons, the cockroach, a stag, and a wolf cub to find his father, who used to be a vet, and try to find a cure for the red-eye.

If all this sounds a bit unbelievable, it is, but that's ok. This isn't the kind of book that has to be realistic. The characters and the situations are somewhat exaggerated, like you might find in a Roald Dahl or a Lemony Snicket book, with the same kind of dark humor found in those books.

The main characters are Kester and a girl named Polly, whom he meets along the way, and various animals. Kester and Polly are good characters, but the animals are really the best thing about this book. Torday has done an outstanding job of giving the animals unique voices that really fit their personalities. Kester develops through the story, as he learns to be self-reliant and to take responsibility.

The pacing is good, and the plot keeps you turning pages, as Kester, Polly and the animals go from one situation to another as they try to make their way to the city to find Kester's dad. The Last Wild is a unique and interesting book, and a good read. I've read a lot of books, and I can honestly say that I haven't read anything quite like it.

Diversity?

There isn't really any diversity that I saw in the book. In fact, in a few cases I was bothered that some of the villains had impediments or physical characteristics exaggerated in a negative way for comic effect. For example, the evil headmaster stutters.

Who would like this book?

Middle-grade readers, particularly those who like animal fiction. Be aware that The Last Wild is a dark book, and there are deaths; some animals are killed by evil people in front of Kester and Polly. Sensitive children who are bothered by such things may want to give it a pass.

I suspect that this book would have strong appeal for fans of the Warriors series. It's a very different kind of book, but I think that Warriors fans would appreciate not only the animal characters, but also the dark conflicts in a dangerous world, the Wild community, the theme of personal sacrifice, and the well-paced plot.






The Dark Wild
by Piers Torday

Kester and Polly have saved the Wild, and helped Kester's dad find a cure for the red-eye virus. But the Facto corporation isn't going to give up their control of the world and everything they've worked for so easily. Selwyn Stone, the head of Facto, wants something more than to kill all the animals. He wants what Polly has, the secret she swore to her parents that she'd never reveal.

Other factions are also after the secret, and Polly escapes into the city to protect the secret. Kester sets off after her, to help and protect her, but before he can find her he discovers another Wild — an army of bitter, angry animals living under the city, who are determined to destroy the human race. Kester is caught in the middle, and must try to find a way to stop the Dark Wild, while also saving Polly and the animals of his Wild from Facto.

The Dark Wild is a gripping read, and just as thrilling as The Last Wild. In the first book, Kester had to learn to be a leader, but in this one he learns something much more difficult: the value of loyalty, personal heroism, and sacrifice. Other characters develop as well, particularly the wolf cub, who is beginning to grow up and become an adult wolf.

It's also just as dark as the first book, if not more so. In one painful scene, Kester, as a prisoner, has to watch Selwyn Stone taxidermy a squirrel who had been one of Kester's friends. The squirrel was already dead, killed earlier in the book, but it's quite a horrifying scene.

Some things are not resolved by the end of the book, so there may be another book on the way.


FTC required disclosure: Review copy sent by the publisher to enable me to write this review. The bookstore links above are affiliate links, and I earn a very small percentage of any sales made through the links. Neither of these things influenced my review.



Monday, January 05, 2015

Don't overlook these books!

I love the seven books my panel selected as the finalists for YA Speculative Fiction. I'm really proud of our shortlist as a representation of the best YA Spec Fic books of 2014. However, there are always the ones that got away, the ones that didn't quite make it. When seven people are deliberating, compromises have to be made, and sometimes, no matter how passionate you are about a book, you can't convince your fellow judges. Here are some of the 2014 Cybils nominees that I loved, but which didn't make the cut as finalists:


Divided We Fall Trilogy: Book 1: Divided We Fall
Trent Reedy

This is a frighteningly believable book about a near-future conflict between a state and the Federal Government, with the National Guard caught in the middle.  Exciting plot, credible and distinctive teen male voice, and well-developed protagonist.



Gwenda Bond

For anyone who has ever wanted to be Circus. Part mystery, part circus story, and a bit of magic, this story of a young wire walker trying to overcome her family's past and prove herself is dripping with atmosphere and loaded with teen appeal.



Love Is the Drug
Alaya Dawn Johnson

Federal agents investigating Washington DC prep school student Emily Bird may be more of a danger to her than the rapidly spreading global pandemic. An exciting thriller that shows the stark contrast between the power elite in Northwest DC and the working class in the Northeast, and the racism that exists in both.



Shadowfell #03: The Caller
Juliet Marillier

The conclusion of a terrific high fantasy series that started with Shadowfell. I've loved all the books in this series, but sadly I've been unsuccessful at convincing my fellow judges to shortlist any of them. With well developed characters, a page-turning plot, and themes of sacrifice and choice, this may be the best book of the trilogy.


The Girl from the Well
Rin Chupeco

A creepy paranormal horror story told from the point of view of a centuries-old ghost. With distinctive voice, an almost poetic writing style, and a strong dose of Japanese culture, The Girl from the Well has a lot of teen appeal. This one came very close to making the shortlist, but we had some concerns about the mentally ill being used in a stereotyped way for horror effect.



A Creature of Moonlight
Rebecca Hahn

As the daughter of a dragon and a princess, Marni is torn between two worlds, the wild and beautiful but dangerous forest, and the equally dangerous life at court. A beautifully lyrical, character-driven fantasy with a theme of choice and being true to yourself.

Sunday, January 04, 2015

Cybils Awards 2014 Finalists!

The 2014 Cybils Awards finalists have been announced! The Cybils Awards, now in our 9th year, recognize the best children's and YA books of the year as defined by our primary criteria: kid appeal and literary merit. We are an adjudicated award, and our judges are all bloggers specializing in children's and YA literature. Our lists are a great resource for anyone looking for the best children's and YA books. Check out the full finalist announcement at this link..

I serve as a judge in the YA Speculative Fiction category, where I'm also Category Chair. I'm excited to share our seven excellent finalists!

by Leah Cypess
Greenwillow Books
Nominated by: Charlotte
From the moment Ileni stepped into a cave of assassins to teach magic and discover who killed her two predecessors, I was hooked. In DEATH SWORN, Ileni goes deep into a culture that values absolute obedience and killing for the greater good. Ileni herself is the novel's greatest assassin, a heroine who overcomes her fears and doubts, managing to hide that she's weak and easy prey. The intense tension between Ileni and her assassin protector Soren adds a touch of romance to the action, with a refreshing lack of anything resembling a love triangle. The theme of questioning authority and dogma will resonate with teens, as will Ileni's growing engagement with the world around her as she discovers that you can forge a new path for yourself after your dreams falter.
Allie Jones, In Bed With Books

by A.S. King
Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Nominated by: Angie Manfredi
You don't need a dose of hallucinogenic bat to enjoy this trippy tale. A.S. King's capable writing weaves together three worlds: the past, where a young mother's suicide left her husband and daughter reeling, the present, in which the last days of high school close the door on that daughter's childhood, and the future, which is a nightmare existence in a patriarchal dystopia. Today, eighteen-year-old Glory O'Brien's smallest choices and revelations will affect all three worlds. They will clarify her past, determine her present and maybe - just maybe - change the future for everyone.
Maureen Kearney, Confessions of a Bibliovore

by John Corey Whaley
Atheneum
Nominated by: Mary McKenna Siddals
Travis Coates is a boy out of time. His body was dying of cancer, which led him to cryogenically preserve himself hoping for a cure. But 5 years later, a radical new procedure allows the doctors to place his perfectly good head onto another boy's body. Now he is literally out of time: he is woken up feeling like only a day has passed when in reality, the world has moved 5 years into the future without him. His friends have graduated, his girlfriend is engaged to another man, his best friend is content to stay in the closet and yet Travis is still stuck in high school. As Travis tries to keep his head on straight, you’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll cringe. Pun totally intended. Noggin by John Corey Whaley takes the typical questions of the teenage years – who am I? where do I fit in? – and kicks them up a notch with a brilliant speculative concept that combines biting humor with the perfect amount of angst and sorrow.
Karen Jensen, Teen Librarian Toolbox

by Alexandra Duncan
Greenwillow Books
Nominated by: Kristen
Salvage is the epic journey of a girl severed from her community and exiled from the only life she’s ever known. The struggle to survive becomes a journey for self-actualization, as Ava loses everything and must find within herself the strength to start over and find her own way, not once, but over and over again. Rich details immerse the reader in each setting and culture, from a patriarchal, fundamentalist society in space, to a floating city in the Great Pacific Garbage Gyre, to a futuristic Mumbai. A dark skinned heroine leads a cast of characters diverse in race, culture, and class.
Sheila Ruth, Wands and Worlds

by Matt De La Peña
Delacorte Press Books for Young Readers
Nominated by: Jen Robinson
What starts as a way for Shy to earn money to help his family back in a small town close to the San Diego/Mexico border turns out to be a horrific ride when the dreaded 'Big One' hits the West Coast. Added to the mix is a deadly disease that has killed not only Shy's grandmother, but others. The Living has a gripping plot featuring a Mexican-American protagonist and a cast of diverse characters. It starkly portrays racism and classism among the rich cruise patrons, and the greed that drives some in power to commit questionable acts. Sure to appeal to reluctant readers with its multi-layered characters and action-packed scenes, this novel nails the horror of being caught in a disaster and portrays the courage and strength that can come when people are faced with terrible odds.
Kim Baccellia, Si, se puede

by Marie Rutkoski
Farrar, Straus & Giroux
Nominated by: Heidi @ YA Bibliophile
The Winner’s Curse is a world-building lover’s dream, with a rich setting and two distinct cultures free of stereotypes. Despite the unequal power dynamic between the two leads - Kestrel as a daughter of the conqueror and Arin as one of the conquered and enslaved - they find themselves drawn to each other, playing a game of emotional chess to get what they need even as the attraction builds. Rutkoski deals sensitively with class issues and the realities of slavery, allowing the romance to develop but ensuring her characters remain true to themselves and their own motivations. The action-packed second half, the moral ambiguity of the characters’ actions, and the intense romance make The Winner’s Curse highly appealing and a story readers will continue to think about long after the last page is turned.
Kimberly Francisco, STACKED

by Karen Healey
Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Nominated by: Bibliovore
While We Run opens with Abdi Taalib singing a rendition of Here Comes the Sun - a hopeful, romantic song that directly contradicts his nightmare existence as a government prisoner and puppet. Soon he and Tegan (star of 2013's When We Wake) are on the run, not sure who to trust or what the right next step is. Abdi’s privileged, Somali upbringing may come in handy as they maneuver between the rebels and the installed regime. His ability to manipulate people could be just what they need. But no matter what they decide, lives will be lost.

Healey completely integrates a diverse set of characters into a world so real it seems like the reader is also barreling towards that future. The intersections of race, class, gender, sexuality, and religion are natural and the characters well-rounded and complete. Diversity isn't a plot device, it's part of each character's individual story. While We Run shows throws us into a world that has computers that look and act like paper, night vision contact lenses, legalized drugs, and the worldwide ability to use human waste as manure. But is it a better future?"
Kathy M Burnette, The Brain Lair

Here are the finalists for Elementary & Middle-Grade Speculative Fiction, from the committee chaired by the awesome Charlotte of Charlotte's Library:

by N. D. Wilson
Random House Books for Young Readers
Nominated by: Sarah Potvin
In the swampy mucks of Florida where sugar cane grows and football is king, Charlie’s family has moved to begin a new chapter in their lives. Pairing up with his cousin, “Cotton”, Charlie begins to learn about his new town, but soon Charlie and Cotton find that their carefree days playing football and running through the burning cane fields are coming to an end. There is something not quite alive--but not quite dead either--wreaking havoc in the flats. Old rivalries are tearing the town apart. The little jealousies, bitter musings, and grudges people have cradled in their hearts are taking over their whole souls. The monsters, bent on destruction, are using this for their own ends. Charlie soon finds himself in the role of reluctant hero tasked with bringing an end to the source of the monsters’ power. In Boys of Blur, N.D. Wilson tells a sweeping tale of family, friendship, community, and heroism with a diverse cast of characters and plenty of action.

by Kate Milford
Clarion Books
Nominated by: Tara
Milo Pine has grown up in Greenglass House, the beautiful old smugglers's inn his parents run. Everything in his life follows the same pattern from year to year, and that's just the way he likes it. But one snowy day at the beginning of winter vacation, a visitor unexpectedly arrives, and then another one, and another, setting into motion a chain of events that will change Milo's world forever.

Part puzzle, part mystery, Greenglass House is an enchanting and thoughtful story. Milo's conflicted feelings about his identity and the idea of growing up will resonate with reader. His growing friendship with Meddy and their adventures playing his father's forgotten RPG provide an emotional backbone to this strongly written story about finding out that you are more than you ever thought you could be.
Maureen Eichner, By Singing Light

by Lynne Rae Perkins
Greenwillow Books
Nominated by: Lwad
When Jed the squirrel is captured by a hawk, he manages to escape, but he is lost and far from home. Fortunately for him, Jed has good friends, TsTs and Chai, who are willing to put themselves at risk to come to his rescue. Then, the three friends discover a greater threat to their squirrel community than hawks and other predators. Can they return home in time to sound the warning, and can they persuade the busy, nut-gathering squirrel clan that their lives are in danger?

Nuts to You is a squirrel-y story. The squirrels talk to each other–--in squirrel. One of them has learned some English, and he tells the story to the author who writes it down for us. The moral is, “Save the trees,” for the sake of the squirrels and for humans, too. All of that–--the talking squirrels, the environmental message, the author inside the story—works together for a tale of friendship and adventure that is a cut above your usual talking animal story. At times poignant and at other times hilarious, Nuts to You will keep kids reading and laughing and perhaps looking for their own squirrel friend with whom to share a conversation and a peanut butter sandwich
Sherry Early, Semicolon

by Merrie Haskell
Katherine Tegen Books
Sand has lived all his thirteen years in view of the cursed castle surrounded by a thick hedge of poisoned thorns. But that doesn't prepare him for the morning when he wakes up inside the castle, among the ashes on the hearth. Everything in the castle is broken, including loaves of bread, items of clothing, and the giant anvil in the smithy. Everything is broken except the body of the princess whom Sand finds in the castle crypt. How to break this curse isn't obvious, and Sand is not a prince. In fact, he's never wanted to be anything but a blacksmith, and as he starts repairing the items in the castle, he discovers a gift for mending -- and healing. But waking the cursed princess is only the beginning. Trapped together inside the castle by the poisonous hedge of thorns, blacksmith's boy and princess must learn to work together to uncover the secrets of the past and break the curse.

The Castle Behind Thorns is a tale of enchantment, friendship, and forgiveness, a story of overcoming obstacles, mending what's broken, and finding one's place in the world. It will appeal to those who love fairy tales but appreciate stories where it can take much more than a simple kiss to break a spell.
Sondy Eklund, Sonderbooks

by Jason Fry
HarperCollins
Nominated by: Stephanie Whelan
Pirates! In Space! Twelve-year-old Tycho Hashoon and his twin sister Yana are actually privateers on their family’s ship, the Shadow Comet, licensed by the Jovian Union of the inhabited moons of Jupiter. Their older brother is, like Tycho and Yana, training to be captain of the ship someday. When Tycho earns a chance to lead a boarding party, disaster strikes. The Hashoons have to give up their hard-won prize and risk losing their letter of marque. Tycho and Yana’s efforts to uncover the truth take them from the Ceres Admiralty Court to seedy port hangouts and uninhabited regions of space.

The Hashoon family itself is as appealing as the space-faring premise. They are both loving and competitive, with an extended family all living, joking and squabbling together on board ship. Part space opera, part legal thriller, with a whole lot of very relatable family relationships, Jupiter Pirates: Hunt for the Hydra is an exciting yarn that will hook kids with the adventure while leaving them with deeper thoughts on topics from siblings to slavery.
Katy Kramp, alibrarymama

by Paul Durham
HarperCollins
Nominated by: Ruth Compton
Welcome to the village Drowning. For centuries, the residents of Drowning have been warned not to venture into the dark, murky bogs that surround the village. After all, the bogs are home to the evil and terrifying Bog Nobblins – or so the legend goes. Rye O'Chanter has always believed Bog Nobblins were a thing of legend. No one has seen one and there has been no indication they even exist. That all changes when she has a horrific encounter with a single Bog Nobblin that forces Rye to realize the thing people fear most is real.

Now, Rye is tasked with convincing others the Bog Nobblin is a threat and the village needs help from a mysterious group of criminals known as the Luck Uglies. Luck Uglies, the first book in a trilogy, is a fantasy novel that has it all – magic, friendship, adventure, mysterious creatures, and secrets that need to be uncovered.
Cindy Hannikman, Fantasy Book Critic

by Charis Cotter
Tundra
Nominated by: Reno
Rose sees ghosts and thinks she herself might be one, for no one seems to see or care about her. Polly desperately wants to see ghosts, or at least find respite from her busy, family-filled house. What neither expected was for the angry ghost of a third girl to interfere in the friendship they have made with each other through their shared attic wall.

Part mystery, part ghost story, this gripping and sometimes deeply poignant book will delight readers who love character-driven stories of friendship and family. Full of twists, both ghostly and otherwise, this is an utterly absorbing and beautifully written story.
Charlotte Taylor, Charlotte's Library

I'd like to give a shoutout to my fellow judges, an amazing group of smart, hard working, passionate and dedicated book bloggers. It was a pure pleasure discussing books with you! Anyone looking for children's or YA book recommendations would do well to follow these blogs:
Now a second panel of judges in each category will choose one winner per category. Winners will be announced on February 14, so stay tuned!


Tuesday, November 04, 2014

Book Review: The Name of the Blade by Zoe Marriott



The Name of the Blade
by Zoë Marriott

Mio Yamato has a secret sword hidden in the attic. Her grandfather, Ojiichan, showed it to her when she was nine years old, He told her that the sword would be hers when she turns 16, but he made her promise not to touch it before then. Ojiichan planned to teach her about the katana, but he never got a chance, because the next day he died from a massive stroke.

All these years, Mio has avoided the sword as she promised her ojiichan, and kept it hidden away, even from the rest of her family. But when she needs a katana to complete her costume for a costume party a few days before her sixteenth birthday, she figures that she's close enough to 16 to take it. As soon as she touches the sword, though, strange things start happening. She feels an immediate connection to the sword; it's almost as if the sword is alive and speaking to her. Then a giant, catlike, many-tailed monster called the Nekomata appears. The Nekomata claims the katana, and threatens to kill everyone that Mio cares about to get it.

With a distinctive teen voice and an action-packed plot full of Japanese monsters, sword battles, Kitsune, and a super-hot 500 year old Japanese dude, The Name of the Blade is loaded with teen appeal. It should especially appeal to anyone who likes anime, Japanese folklore or culture, but there's so much Japanese influence in pop culture today that its appeal should be much broader than that.

The characters are interesting, well-rounded, and authentic teens. Mio is ethnically Japanese, but culturally she's a Londoner. Her ojiichan taught her Kendo and some Japanese folklore when he was still alive, but her father eschews his Japanese heritage, and Mio knows very little about Japan except for Kendo and anime. Mio's impulsiveness in taking the sword and her other early behavior show an immaturity that she starts to grow out of throughout the book, as she begins to take responsibility for the consequences.

Her best friend Jack (Jacqueline) is a bit of a rebel, with pink and purple streaked hair and black fingernails. Both girls get along with their families, although Mio's relationship with her father is somewhat strained. Shinobu, the 500-year-old Japanese boy, is mostly a one-note character, but his hotness more than makes up for that. He looks out for Mio, and yet I found it refreshing that he doesn't try to take the sword from her, even though they both have a claim to it, and he lets her take the lead in battle. (Although he does teach her a few things about combat).

There is also a young Kitsune (fox spirit) named Hikaru. The Kitsune are one of my favorite parts of this book. Apparently, there's a London court of Kitsune; how cool is that? Mio, Jack, and Shinobu get caught up in Kitsune politics when they visit the court to ask for assistance.

The plot is exciting but well-paced. The story alternates the big battle scenes with quieter moments and other challenges. It's quite an enjoyable read.

There are a few things that weren't explained, but since this is the first book in a trilogy, I hope that everything will be explained fully before the end.

Diversity?

The Name of the Blade does well on diversity. Besides Mio's Japanese heritage, Jack and her sister Rachel had a grandmother who came from Barbados, and they have brown skin. Jack is also a lesbian, which comes up a few times, but doesn't really play a role in the story, except when Jack has to tell a Kitsune who is sweet on her that he isn't her type. The girls are multifaceted personalities that are not defined by their ethnicity or sexuality.

Who would like this book:

Anyone with an interest in Japanese folklore, culture, martial arts, or anime. Anyone who likes stories where the contemporary world intersects with the fantastic.

FTC required disclosure: Review copy sent by the publisher to enable me to write this review. The bookstore links above are affiliate links, and I earn a very small percentage of any sales made through the links. Neither of these things influenced my review.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Cybils Nomination Suggestions!

Wednesday is the last day for Cybils Awards nominations, and there are still eligible books that haven't been nominated that maybe should be considered. If you're looking for something to nominate, here are some suggestions that might jog your memory. See this post for information on eligibility and how to nominate.

Young Adult Speculative Fiction


Chasing Power
by Sarah Beth Durst
ISBN 978-0802737557

Published today (October 14), but still within the eligibility window.

Amazon link

Has now been nominated.







The Truth Against the World
by Sarah Jamila Stevenson
ISBN 978-0738740584

Amazon link


Has now been nominated.






Glory O'Brien's History of the Future
by A. S. King
ISBN 978-1478957775

Amazon link

Another book with an October 14 publication date.

Has now been nominated.
William Shakespeare's The Empire Striketh Back
by Ian Doescher
ISBN 978-1594747151
Amazon link

and

William Shakespeare's The Jedi Doth Return
by Ian Doescher
ISBN 978-1594747137
Amazon link

Sequels to last year's finalist, William Shakespeare's Star Wars



Mortal Gods
by Kendare Blake
ISBN 978-0765334442

Amazon link

Sequel to Antigoddess. Also published October 14, just within the eligibility window.



Has now been nominated.



Circle of Stones
by Catherine Fisher
ISBN 978-0803738195

Amazon link

Has now been nominated.








While We Run
by Karen Healey
ISBN 978-0316233828

Amazon link



Has now been nominated.






The Slanted Worlds
by Catherine Fisher
ISBN 978-0803739703

Amazon link


Has now been nominated.








Young Adult Fiction

Reality Boy
by A.S. King
ISBN 978-0316222709

Amazon link

This one came out just after last year's eligibility period. It was too late to be eligible last year, but it is eligible this year.



Has now been nominated.



The Doubt Factory
by Paolo Bacigalupi
ISBN 978-0316220750

Amazon link

Has now been nominated.

Elementary/Middle Grade Speculative Fiction

Storm: The SYLO Chronicles #2
by D.J. MacHale
ISBN 978-1595146670

Amazon link