Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Book Review: Betrayal on Orbis 2

Betrayal on Orbis 2
The Softwire, book 2
by P.J. Haarsma

Johnny Turnbull - JT to his friends - is a softwire: he has the rare and highly prized ability to communicate mentally with computers. But JT and his friends are indentured servants. They were born from frozen embryos on a seed-ship, and their parents, who were already dead before the children were born, sent the children to the Rings of Orbis in hopes of a better life. JT and the other children will have to work off their parents' debt for the passage as servants on Orbis; when their term is ended, they will have the opportunity to apply to become citizens.

In the first book, Virus on Orbis 1, JT had to solve the problem of a malfunction with the central computer, while trying to prove that he wasn't the once causing the problem. Now, JT, his sister Ketheria, and the other children in their group have other problems. Their guarantor, Weegin, is essentially bankrupt, and instead of turning the children over to the Keepers as directed, he takes them to Orbis 2 to sell them.

JT ends up with a new job, communicating with the Samirans, huge aliens who live in the water and are responsible for cooling the crystals harvested on Orbis. Because of his softwire abilities, JT is the only one who can communicate directly with the Samirans. The Samirans are upset, and it's JT's job to find out why before the Samirans can disrupt the upcoming harvest of the critical Crystal of Life. If he succeeds, he'll be a hero on Orbis. If he fails, the consequences will be enormous. But JT learns that there are dirty secrets lurking under the surface of Orbis, and that there is more at stake than success or failure of the harvest.

Betrayal on Orbis 2 is the kind of outer space adventure that I loved in middle school. With non-stop excitement, rich world building, and lots of cool aliens and technology, this is a great book for science fiction fans and reluctant readers. JT is an interesting and well-developed character, and his character development is well-done within the context of the story without slowing down the action. JT struggles with wanting to do what is right, but wanting to protect himself and his friends, two goals that are sometimes at odds. In one powerful scene, JT, who has been made controller of the group by the guarantor, is ordered to punish one of the other children who has been a bully and a problem for JT and the other children. JT knows that it would be wrong, though, and refuses to do it, until the guarantor threatens JT's sister if he doesn't perform the punishment.

Many of the minor characters are not as well developed, although the bully Switzer is more fully developed in this book than in the first one, and in many ways becomes a sympathetic character while still remaining a thorn in JT's side. Haarsma excels at creating sympathetic villians, who are convincingly hateful but have enough pathos to make them "human," even the aliens. In fact, some of the alien secondary characters are more interesting than the human ones.

You could probably read Betrayal on Orbis 2 without having read the first book, but I think it will make more sense if you read Virus on Orbis 1 first. Go ahead and read them both; The Softwire is a great science fiction series. Put it in the hands of reluctant readers and watch them get hooked.

Betrayal on Orbis 2 will be published on March 25, 2008.

Haarsma has set up a foundation to encourage reluctant readers and to help provide books for libraries, schools, and other institutions in need. Click here for more information about the The Kids Need to Read Foundation.

There's also a multi-player online game (MMORPG) associated with the books; I haven't played it, but it looks really cool. I might actually try it! Click here for the Rings of Orbis game.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Andre Norton Award 2007 final ballot

The final ballot for the Nebula Awards has been announced. There are seven finalists for the Andre Norton award, which is the Nebula's young adult category, and I've read five of them! The five that I've read have all been excellent books and it'll be interesting to see which one wins the final voting. The books on the final Andre Norton ballot are:

(books I've read are in bold, and I've added a link to my review for books that I've reviewed)
  • Vintage: A Ghost Story, by Steve Berman

  • Into the Wild, by Sarah Beth Durst* my review

  • The Shadow Speaker, by Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu my review

  • The True Meaning of Smekday, by Adam Rex**

  • Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, by J.K. Rowling

  • Flora Segunda: Being the Magickal Mishaps of a Girl of Spirit, Her Glass-Gazing Sidekick, Two Ominous Butlers (One Blue), a House with Eleven Thousand Rooms, and a Red Dog, by Ysabeau S. Wilce my review

  • The Lion Hunter, by Elizabeth Wein

* Cybils finalist
** Cybils winner

(Via Sarah Beth Durst)

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Congrats, Greg!

Congratulations to Greg Fishbone, author of The Penguins of Doom, on the birth of his beautiful daughter Alexi. Today, 6-day-old Alexi is the guest blogger on Greg's blog. Read Alexi's observations of this strange universe she finds herself in.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Book Review: Ink Exchange

Ink Exchange
by Melissa Marr

On the surface, Leslie seems like a normal teen, but she hides the truth of her life from her friends. Ever since her mother left, Leslie's life has been difficult. Her father has basically abdicated responsibility for the family, and Leslie's drug-addicted brother controls the house. Leslie tries to pay the bills when she can, and stay out of the way of her brother's drug dealing cronies—especially since some of those cronies raped her with her brother's permission for payment of his debt. Leslie lives in fear, but she's determined to take control of her life. She decides to get a tattoo as a symbol, a promise to herself, and a way to reclaim her own body.

One of Leslie's friends is Aislinn, the new Summer Queen of the faerie. But Aislinn is keeping her own secrets—she doesn't tell Leslie about her new faerie life, or that her new friends are not human. Aislinn wants Leslie to have as normal a life as possible, so she has forbidden any of the faerie to reveal themselves or their nature to Leslie. But keeping secrets can have unforeseen consequences. Leslie doesn't realize that her new tattoo will tie her to the faerie King of the Dark Court, Irial. Nor does she know that Aislinn's friend Niall, who appears to show an interest in her, is really a faerie whose powers are devastating to mortals.

As Leslie becomes more closely tied to the Dark Court, she finds the darkness exhilarating and liberating. But the price that Leslie has to pay for freedom from fear may be more than she is willing to pay.

Ink Exchange is the sequel to Melissa Marr's Wicked Lovely, and if anything, I liked it even better than Wicked Lovely. It's a very different book—much darker, for example—but I thought the writing showed more maturity and I found it a very compelling read.

Leslie is a difficult character to identify with, because she keeps her emotions so tightly restrained due to the devastating events in her recent past. But I think Marr successfully walks the line in portraying a character who is both "broken" and strong. But more interesting than Leslie are some of the faerie characters: Niall, who is tormented by his attraction to Leslie, knowing what will happen if he gets too close, and Irial, a reluctant Dark Lord who isn't entirely evil in spite of the horrifying things he does. I love the duality in these characters, the yin and yang of characters who have aspects of both darkness and light. Irial cares about his people and feels a deep sense of responsibility. If he didn't have both the darkness and the caring, he wouldn't be as good a king for the Dark Court. And conversely, Marr shows the dark side of the Summer King as well.

One thing that upset me is that the Advanced Reading Copy I read is labeled for "Ages 12 and up." I really don't think that this is a book that most twelve-year-olds are ready to read. There are alcohol and drug use, reference to a rape in Leslie's recent past, and some pretty horrifying deaths. I think it would have been more responsible of the publisher to label it as "Ages 14 and up," knowing that twelve-year-olds who are emotionally ready to deal with such things would read it anyway.

Ink Exchange is scheduled for an April 29, 2008 release.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

The 2007 Cybils Winners!

Hooray! The winners of the 2007 Cybils awards have been announced! For fantasy & science fiction, two outstanding books won:

Elementary/Middle Grade:

The True Meaning of Smekday
by Adam Rex
Nothing has been the same since the Boov invaded Earth and re- named it Smekland. But things get even weirder when twelve-year-old Gratuity Tucci embarks on a journey to find her missing mother--accompanied by her cat (named Pig), a fugitive Boov (named J.Lo) and a slightly illegal hovercar--and realizes that there's more at stake than just her mother's whereabouts. A terrific satire with a touching ending and spot-on illustrations by the author, the novel is heartwarming and hilarious at the same time. Gratuity's narrative voice as she struggles to define "the true meaning of Smekday" will draw readers in.
Nominated by jennifer, aka literaticat.

Young Adult:

Book of a Thousand Days
by Shannon Hale
Bloomsbury USA Children's Books
On her first day as a Lady’s Maid, Dashti finds herself locked in a tower for seven years with her Lady, who is being punished for refusing to marry the Lord of a neighboring land. Thus begins a life-and-death battle against evil and time. Lyrically written and set in ancient central Asia, this novel retells a little-known Brother’s Grimm fairy tale with desperate, heart-wrenching emotion. Readers will be drawn in by the beautiful language and fighting spirit of Dashti, whose faith, spunk and ingenuity affect not only the darkness of her tower, but also the hearts and futures of kings.
Nominated by Sarah Miller.

I loved both of these books and think that they are outstanding choices!

View the 2007 Cybils winners in all categories

Congratulations to the authors, illustrators, and publishers of the winners!

I'd like to thank the Cybils Fantasy and Science Fiction category judges for their hard work in reading the finalists and choosing the two fantasy and science fiction winners:

Gwenda Bond, a writer and critic
Libby Gruner, an English professor who specializes in Children's and YA literature
Chris Rettstatt, YA author of the Kaimira series
Janelle Bitikofer, YA/Children's writer
Michele Fry, Independent scholar and writer

Monday, February 11, 2008

My favorite books that didn't make the Cybils shortlist

I love the Cybils Fantasy and Science Fiction shortlist. It's a beautiful list of ten amazing books that I think all deserve to be on the list. But, to come up with the list, we all had to make compromises, and each of us on the nominating committee had to sacrifice some of our favorite books. While we're waiting for the announcement of the winners on February 14, I wanted to share with you some of my favorite Fantasy and Science Fiction Cybils nominees that didn't make the shortlist:

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows
by J. K. Rowling
I know that a lot of people thought that there were problems with this book: too much time in the tent, and the darn epilogue that either was unnecessary or didn't go far enough, depending on your point of view. But, I loved it. It affected me so strongly that I had some kind of post-reading emotional reaction. For days after I finished it, I was moody, irritable, and weepy. Part of that was just because it was the last book in the series, but part of it was a reaction to the powerful themes, events, and character development. Camping notwithstanding, I really thought this was one of the best books of the year.

Alfred Kropp: The Seal of Solomon
by Rick Yancey
This is a fast-paced book with an "everyman" hero and a healthy dose of humor. With fast cars and demons from hell, it's a great book for reluctant readers who love action movies. Read my review of The Seal of Solomon.

Wildwood Dancing
by Juliet Marillier
Based loosely on the fairy tale of the Twelve Dancing Princesses, this book is no fairy tale: it's a richly textured, fully developed fantasy that draws on Transylvanian folklore. Jena is a strong heroine, fighting to protect her family and all she loves in a world where women are powerless. Read my review of Wildwood Dancing.

Through the Eyes of a Raptor
by Julie Hahnke
When American Kelly MacBride's mother dies, she's sent to live with her grandmother in Scotland. Kelly is a stranger in a strange land, as she learns to adjust to the customs of her new land. But things are stranger than she realizes at first, as Kelly begins to suspect that there are supernatural forces at work.

I'll admit it: this book caught me by surprise. I didn't expect to love it as much as I did. I found it a well-written novel which drew me in and held my interest. I engaged with the main character and felt her pain over the loss of her mother. I liked the fact that it kept surprising me, and that good and evil aren't always clear-cut or black and white. I hope to publish a longer review soon.

Dragon Slippers
by Jessica Day George
The best thing about this book is the dragons: each dragon has a distinctive personality, and you can't help but like them. This is a must read for dragon lovers. Read my review of Dragon Slippers.

First Light
by Rebecca Stead
Although superficially similar to City of Ember, First Light is very different in a lot of ways. It's a compelling, character-driven story about two children facing challenges in the context of their environment. Read my review of First Light.

What-the-Dickens: The Story of a Rogue Tooth Fairy
by Gregory Maguire
This was another book that caught me by surprise. I didn't have any interest in reading a book about a tooth fairy, but once I started, I was totally captivated by the twin stories: one of a family trying to survive a natural disaster, and the other of a lonely skibbereen seeking his place in the world. Read my review of What-the-Dickens.

Cybils update

Less than three days left until the Cybils winners are announced! The winners will be posted on Valentine's Day, February 14: this Thursday! Look for them on the Cybils blog. I'm so excited and I can't wait to see all the winners! What a great Valentine for book lovers.

While we're waiting, here's a few more reviews of Fantasy and Science Fiction nominees by members of the nominating committee:

The judging committee members aren't supposed to post reviews of the finalists until after the announcement of the winners (because it might give too much away!) But if any of the judges post reviews after the announcement on the 14th, I'll post links to them here!

Monday, February 04, 2008

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Book Review: Incarceron

by Catherine Fisher

Incarceron is a 2007 Cybils finalist.

Incarceron is a prison, a penal colony of sorts. All "criminals, undesirables, political extremists, degenerates, lunatics" were placed in Incarceron, along with 70 wise men called Sapienti to guide them, and then the prison was sealed. No one can enter or leave Incarceron and only one person—the Warden of Incarceron—even knows where it is located.

Centuries later, most of the inmates don't believe that "outside" even exists. But Finn does. Finn has no memories of a time before he awoke in a cell in Incarceron a few years back. Most people believe he was born of Incarceron - a child of the prison created from the recycled bits and pieces of human waste. But Finn believes that he came from Outside, and is determined to find a way back. Life in Incarceron is brutal, violent, and harsh, and Finn survives through a combination of wits and recklessness, and with the help of his oathbrother, Keiro. When Finn gains possession of an ancient artifact, a crystal key, he believes it is proof that he came from Outside. Finn and Keiro, along with an elderly Sapient and a rescued slave, embark on a quest to find the way out of Incarceron.

Claudia is the daughter of the Warden of Incarceron, a position of wealth and prestige. But Claudia is trapped as surely as the inmates of Incarceron; she lives in a society bound by strict social rules, and her destiny was set for her from the time she was a young child, when she was betrothed to the Crown Prince of the Realm. The Crown Prince, Caspar, is spoiled, self-absorbed, and unpleasant. Claudia can handle Caspar—her father has trained her for this her entire life—but the thought of a lifetime of nothing but court politics is depressing for the spirited, curious young woman. Claudia believes that the key to her future lies in Incarceron, and along with her tutor, a Sapienti named Jared, seeks a way into the prison.

As Claudia seeks a way in and Finn seeks a way out, the two come into communication. Each finds that they must come to terms with a reality that is far different than either expects. As they battle for their lives, dark secrets are revealed and loyalties called into question. And the greatest enemy of all may be Incarceron itself.

Incarceron is a riveting book that keeps you turning pages. There are plenty of plot twists, mysteries, excitement, and secrets to hold your attention from the beginning to the very end. Even things that seem obvious may not be as they seem; there's enough ambiguity to keep you guessing.

The characters are fascinating and have depth and dimension, even many of the minor characters. Many of them seem to be holding back secrets, and motivations and loyalties aren't always clear. Finn and Claudia are remarkably well-drawn and complex characters. Living in such a brutal environment, Finn has had to develop a certain ruthlessness and recklessness to survive, and yet somehow he has managed to keep a sense of compassion and humanity as well. Claudia is also ruthless in her own way, and well-suited to the political machinations of her world, yet increasingly impatient with them. She fears her father, and yet retains an independence of self in spite of her years of training. As the story progresses, she becomes increasingly willing to take risks and step outside what is expected of her.

Although much is resolved and much is revealed, there are some things left open at the end of the book, and the reader is left with a sense that there are still secrets left to be revealed. Luckily, there's a sequel in the works, to be called Sapphique.

Unfortunately, Incarceron is not published in the U.S. yet. It is available from some of the Marketplace vendors on, or from Amazon UK.

Vocabulary quiz/meme

I don't often participate in these meme things, but I love words, so when I found out about this vocabulary quiz, I couldn't resist.

Your Vocabulary Score: A

Congratulations on your multifarious vocabulary!

You must be quite an erudite person.

Thanks to Shaken and Stirred for pointing this out.

Saturday, February 02, 2008

Absence, Congrats, and Break a Leg

I'm sorry that I haven't posted in a couple of weeks. I've been really busy with some family things:
  • My son participates in a First Lego League team, which I coach. First Lego League is a program where a team of kids builds a robot using Lego Mindstorms to accomplish a series of missions. They also have to do a project related to the theme for the year. This year's theme is energy conservation and alternative energy use. The tournament was last weekend and I'm thrilled to say that their team, the Sorcerers of Science, won the Team Spirit award. They're a great team and they really earned the cool Lego trophy. Congratulations to the Sorcerers of Science!
  • The other thing that's been keeping us busy is that my son is playing the title role in the musical Oliver, based on Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist, at the Oregon Ridge Dinner Theatre. Nick and I have been helping with the lighting and sound crew so we've all been busy with rehearsals. Opening night is tonight and I want to wish all the cast and crew, but especially my son, a great opening night. Break a leg!

I hope to start posting reviews again over the next couple of days. And, of course, it's less than two weeks until the Cybils winners are announced!