Saturday, October 03, 2015
Wednesday, August 19, 2015
Everyone else is doing it, so I thought I'd post my five reasons why you should apply to be a Cybils Awards judge. As you would expect, there's a lot of overlap with other people's reasons, but I'll add my own spin on them, and with an emphasis on my category, Young Adult Speculative Fiction. For those who don't know what speculative fiction is, it includes fantasy, science fiction, horror, dystopian, steampunk, and basically anything else with supernatural, fantastical, or futuristic elements.
1. Read and discuss good books. Hopefully you don't need an excuse to read, but it doesn't hurt to be able to say, "Sorry, I can't do the dishes, I have to finish this Cybils book." Cybils judges engage in intense reading - and for Round 1, a LOT of reading - and intense discussions with a small group of people who share your book passion.
In YA Spec Fic, we've sometimes had upwards of 200 nominated books in Round 1, and while you don't have to read them all, Round 1 judges in YA SF can expect to have to read at least 40 books over a 3 month period. (Presumably, you'll already have read some of the category nominations). It's crazy intense, but so much fun! Round 2 judges have to read 5 to 7 books in a little under 6 weeks, but they get to read "the best of the best" and choose a winner.
2. Make lifelong friends. Those intense discussions with like-minded people? Turns out they're a great basis for a friendship. I've made lifelong friends from serving together on a Cybils panel. (And KidLitCon is a great place to meet up with them in person!)
3. Influence the books available for children/teen reading. Yup, awards do have an influence. And while the Cybils don't get as much media as, say, the ALA awards, we have a pretty big and dedicated following that includes teachers, librarians, and booksellers. The books you choose may end up on reading lists, getting purchased by a library, or in bookstore displays. Books that win awards and get that attention may be more likely to be reprinted or have a sequel or other books by the author published.
4. Get your blog better known. Did I mention we have a following? Round 1 judges are encouraged to blog about the books you read, and while Round 2 judges can't blog the finalists during the round, they can post reviews after the winners are announced. Throughout the Cybils season, we post review excerpts with links to reviews by both Round 1 and Round 2 judges to the Cybils blog, thus further aiding discovery of judges' blogs. During the summer, you can contribute themed book lists for posting on the Cybils blog. Being a Cybils judge can bring greater visibility to your blog, increase your traffic, and give you greater credibility with publishers.
5. Learn a lot. I mean, a lot. I sometimes think I know a lot about YA SF, but every year I'm blown away by the knowledge and expertise of my fellow judges, and every year I learn more from them.
What I'm looking forAs Category Chair for YA Speculative Fiction, I have the responsibility to choose the judges for my category. It's my least favorite part of the Cybils: I hate having to choose one person over another, but unfortunately we usually don't have room for everyone.
Here are some of the things that I look for:
1. A passion for speculative fiction. If your "about" on your blog says that you don't really like most spec fic, then I'll most likely pass. If you don't post about SF much, I'll think long and hard before choosing you.
2. Knowledge of spec fiction and its subgenres. Speculative Fiction is a very diverse genre. One day you might be reading a scary ghost story, and the next a futuristic dystopian. I look for people who have read broadly within the genre and can discuss the various aspects, literary elements, and tropes of the genre.
3. Critical thinking skills. I have to know that you can think critically about books and analyze the literary elements and readability of a book. Reviews are a great way to demonstrate this, but if you don't review books, hopefully you can submit other blog posts that demonstrate your critical thinking skills.
4. Open to diverse perspectives. I want to see that you have a demonstrated interest in diversity, and a tolerance for worldviews different from your own.
5. Diverse backgrounds. I mean this in two ways. First, I look for people who can bring expertise or experience with one or more under-represented groups, in what we usually mean when we say diversity. For example, do you blog about people of color, LGBTQA+ characters, differently-abled characters, different religious or worldviews, etc.? Second, I look for a variety of personal and work experience, so that the panel is hopefully made up of a good mix of librarians, teachers, parents, booksellers, authors, etc.
So I have I scared you off yet? Oops, I was supposed to be convincing you why you should apply! Please do apply, and if YA Speculative Fiction isn't your thing, we have plenty of other categories ranging from Easy Readers to Young Adult. We even have a book apps category!
Here's the information on how to apply!
Also, see the following posts for more reasons to apply!
- Five reasons to apply to be a Cybils Judge (with particular referrence to middle grade spec fic) - from Elementary/Middle-grade Speculative Fiction Chair Charlotte Taylor
- 5 Things I Love About Judging the Cybils - from Easy Reader/Early Chapter Books Chair Katie Fitzgerald
- Cybils Awards v. The Walking Dead – a No Brainer - by new Fiction Picture Books Chair Terry Doherty
- The Cybils: Why I Keep Coming Back - by Blog Editor Melissa Fox
- Cybils 2015 - from Random Musings of a Bibliophile
- It's Cybils Season!! - from Elementary/Middle-Grade Nonfiction Chair Jennifer Wharton
- For Bloggers: Why You Should Consider Judging #Cybils + Attending #KidLitCon - from Cybils Social Media Guru Jen Robinson
Tuesday, August 04, 2015
The Temple of Doubt
Fifteen-year-old Hadara and her mother Lia are technically committing a sin when they collect plants and make medicines. The priests of the Temple of Doubt use magic to cure people under the power of their god Nihil; natural remedies are heresy. But magic doesn't always work, and the priests usually look the other way and ignore the illicit medicines.
Everything changes when two powerful Azwans visit Port Sapphire. The Azwans are Nihil's highest priests, or "navigators," and they come seeking a demon that fell from the sky. Hadara and Lia are forced to guide the expedition to find the demon, because of their knowledge of the swamps and the secretive race called Gek who live there. But the swamps are dangerous and the Gek hostile to outsiders. Add in an arrogant Azwan who thinks he can take what he wants, and the expedition may not make it out of the swamps alive.
In The Temple of Doubt, Anne Boles Levy has created a beautifully detailed world, complete with three separate races and cultures, and a well-developed and unique religion. The religion is an amazing thing: Levy has obviously put a lot of work into developing it, including scriptural quotes at the beginning of each chapter. As you would expect, faith is a theme explored in this book. Although their religion is based on doubt and ambiguity, it seems like the followers of Nihil are not allowed any doubt or ambiguity in their faith, and are expected to conform and obey in all things. There are hints that there is more to this religion than it appears, and I look forward to seeing where Levy goes with it.
Hadara is a great character that teens will appreciate. She's bright and curious and bold in a culture which frowns on those characteristics, especially in a young woman. Hadara's impulsiveness gets her in trouble, especially her inability to stop herself from speaking her mind. Hadara has trouble with faith; as bright and curious as she is, she can't help asking questions, or thinking that the things she has to learn are pointless. She knows the names of a thousand plants and animals, but she can't remember the name of a single one of Nihil's wives, or their faults.
Some of the other characters are interesting as well, although not as well developed as Hadara. Surprisingly, the Azwans are two of the most interesting and well-developed characters. They could easily have been portrayed as flat, stock fantasy villains or cliched high priests, but instead they have some interesting depth and potential.
The relationship that Hadara begins to develop with one of the soldiers is disconcerting, but I think it was intended to be. Any relationship that begins with a power imbalance is bound to be uncomfortable, particularly given the destruction caused by the soldiers. Hadara holds her own, but even she feels discomfort and confusion about the situation, even as she begins to develop genuine liking for the soldier, and he seems to genuinely like her. It's interesting as a developing friendship dealing with differences in culture as well as the power imbalance, however I never really felt enough chemistry between them to make anything more than friendship credible.
The pacing is a little uneven, and although there are several exciting scenes, overall this is a book that you read slowly and ponder. I actually enjoyed it more on the second read because I picked up on more detail and development on the second time around. This is the first book in a series, and so in part it sets up the rest of the series. It'll be interesting to see how it develops.
Who would like this book?Teens who like richly developed worlds and strong female characters. This is a book that will appeal more to teens who like their fantasy slower-paced and thoughtful.
Diversity?Hadara and her people have bronze skin, in contrast to the Feroxi soldiers accompanying the Azwans, who are described as being very fair. One of the Azwans has ebony skin, and is described as handsome.
Buy The Temple of Doubt from Amazon.com
FTC required disclosureReview copy sent by the publisher to enable me to write this review. Anne Boles Levy is an online friend whom I've met several times in person. We've worked closely together on the Cybils Awards. However, I don't write biased reviews even for a friend. The bookstore links above are affiliate links, and I earn a very small percentage of any sales made through the links. None of these things influenced my review.
Tuesday, July 14, 2015
Thursday, June 11, 2015
I was inspired to start blogging by the fabulous Tasha Saecker, who now blogs at Waking Brain Cells. I had already been reviewing books on a website (the original Wands and Worlds, no longer online) that I created with my son. I followed and enjoyed Tasha's blog, and was intrigued by the blog format as a way to share reviews. I emailed her to ask about it, and she encouraged me to start.
Although I've always been an irregular blogger at best, I can say that blogging has had a huge impact on my life. Because of blogging, I've gotten involved in the Cybils and Kidlitcon, two things that I care deeply about. I've learned so much about books and what makes a good book, both from following other bloggers and from evaluating them for my own reviews. Perhaps most importantly, I've made friends with good people who care passionately about children's and YA books. So thank you to everyone who has been on this journey with me: you've inspired me, taught me, and been good friends.
Sunday, June 07, 2015
Monday, June 01, 2015
Two of the five buzz books were speculative fiction and both sounded intriguing. Nightfall by Jake Halpern and Peter Kujawinski is about a land where day and night are each 14 years long, and three teens who are trapped on their island when everyone else evacuates at the beginning of night. Nightfall sounded deliciously scary! The Death and Life of Zebulon Finch, Volume 1: At the Edge of Empire by Daniel Kraus is about a teen who dies in 1896, only to be resurrected mysteriously. As he tries to understand what happened and why, he lives through 100 years of history.
Friday, May 29, 2015
The main conference and exhibit halls for BEA 2015 started mid-day on Wednesday, and ran for half a day. This unusual late opening was convenient for travel, because I was able to drive up in the morning and save a day in the hotel. However, it gave an odd feel to the exhibit hall, almost as if it were a preview and not fully open for business. Although there were plenty of people in the hall, it seemed to me less crowded than usual, and the mood seemed subdued. It'll be interesting to see if things are different today, the first full day of the conference.
I spent most of the afternoon in meetings with publishers, talking about the Cybils Awards and Kidlitcon 2015, but I did find time to catch most of the Best in 2015 Fall Graphic Novels panel and the Marvel Presents: Star Wars panel.
The graphic novel panel included Derf Backderf (Trashed), past Cybils Awards winner Ben Hatke (Little Robot), Jeremy Sorese (Curveball) and Maggie Thrash (Honor Girl). I was particularly interested in Ben Hatke's discussion about how working on a picture book in turn influenced his comics art style, and Little Robot looks adorable. Jeremy Sorese's Curveball sounds like a fascinating science fiction comic, and I'm glad I picked up a sample from the Nobrow booth.
Marvel Editor Jordan White moderated the Star Wars panel, with writer Charles Soule and artist Alex Maleev. I've been a Star Wars fan since the original movie came out in 1977, (I was 13) and I was interested to learn about the new Star Wars comics coming out. Kanan: The Last Padawan tells the story of how Kanan from Star Wars: Rebels survived Order 66, and it's exciting to see Lando get his own comic series.
During the Q&A at the end of the panel, @MizCaramelVixen, creator of BlackComicsMonth.com, asked whether there would be an effort to increase diversity both within the Star Wars universe and among the creators. The panel's response to her very important question was disappointing. Editor Jordan White at least tried to address the question seriously, but Charles Soule basically dismissed the question by saying the Star Wars universe has always been diverse, and Alex Maleev asked whether it wasn't enough diversity to have a Bulgarian working on a comic about a black man (Lando). Both either missed the point or intentionally ignored it. Saying that the Star Wars universe is diverse is a smokescreen. Sure, there are many different species of beings, but all that CGI doesn't hide the fact that Lando has been, for a long time, the Star Wars universe's token person of color. And having a Bulgarian working on the comic does not address the very real need to have writers and artists of color working on the comics.
Much as I love Star Wars, how much more awesome would it be with a real diversity reflecting the glorious variety of people in our world? And one way to improve on that would be to employ more creators who represent that diversity in all its forms. (I do have hopes for The Force Awakens, and look forward to seeing John Boyega and Lupita Nyong'o, and I hope other diverse cast as well.)
After the exhibit halls closed, I headed to the Hudson Theatre in Times Square for a party and presentation about Brian Selznick's new book, The Marvels. The party started with wine and hors d'oeuvres, which wasn't as much fun as it sounds, because it mostly consisted of fighting through crowds and battling in Hunger Games-style death matches over trays of hors d'oeuvres. I've never enjoyed crowds, so I managed to get a glass of wine and then tried to stand out of the way in the corner until it was time for the presentation.
The presentation was worth it, though! Brian Selznick is a terrific speaker. He started with a video presentation of a series of art from the book. The art was incredibly beautiful, and the part of the story it told was so sad and moving that I wasn't the only one wiping my eyes at the end. Then he talked about the creation of the book, including spending time in London doing research at the Dennis Severs House, which was an inspiration for the book. He also showed his process of creating the art for the book, starting with tiny thumbnail sketches of each page which he then bound into a tiny book.
After the presentation, we all got copies of The Marvels ARC, which Selznick signed for us. They also gave us a surprise gift: an adorable tiny book of art similar to the one that Selznick had created as a mockup! The Marvels looks like an incredible book, and I look forward to reading it.
Monday, May 18, 2015
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
An Ember in the Ashes
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.
DiversityElias 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.