Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Book Review: The Underneath

The Underneath
by Kathi Appelt

A lonely calico cat, pregnant and abandoned by her owner in the bayous of East Texas, befriends an abused hound dog named Ranger whom she finds chained outside a rundown shack. Ranger belongs to the owner of the shack, a cruel man known as Gar Face, who shoots anything that moves, and who has chained Ranger permanently in a twenty-foot circle after a hunting accident left him lame.

Ranger warns the calico cat to beware of Gar Face, but in their loneliness, the two can't bear to part. The cat moves under the shack, where she can stay with Ranger but be out of sight of Gar Face. There, she has her kittens, and the cat and the hound dog raise them together as a family. The kittens grow up in the Underneath, with the one strict rule that they must never leave the Underneath. But kittens are kittens, and it's only a matter of time before one ventures out.

Meanwhile, an ancient creature, who has been trapped under the bayou for a thousand years, struggles to deal with a thousand-year-old pain that still feels fresh. And Gar Face sets his sights on trapping the granddaddy of alligators, a beast so large that it will finally earn Gar Face the respect that he craves.

I don't often engage in Newbery predictions, mainly because the type of books I usually read tend not to be the kind of books favored by the Newbery committee. But as soon as I started reading The Underneath, I felt that here was a Newbery-worthy book. The writing is exceptional; the story, moving and poignant. I won't be surprised if it turns up as a Newbery medal or honor book next month.

There are really multiple stories here. The story of Ranger and the cats is intertwined with Gar Face's story, past and present, and a thousand-year-old love story involving shapeshifters and the now-vanished Caddo tribe, former inhabitants of the forest. Kathy Appelt masterfully brings these diverse threads together in a poignant story of love and loss courage and redemption. The writing is poetic and vivid, creating a strong sense of place in the dark forest and bayous; the setting is so vividly described it's almost a character.

As much as I loved this book, I think that some young readers may have trouble with it. It's not a very fast-paced book; there is suspense and conflict, but it builds slowly. And the alternating stories, which jump between characters and time periods, may confuse some readers. Good readers who love good writing and moving stories will enjoy it, and I think that many other readers who might not pick it up on their own can also enjoy it in the context of classroom reading, with support from a teacher.

It's also a dark book, at times; bad things happen, and there is loss and sadness. Some children may find it too much, but others will love it for its poignancy. And in spite of the sadness, it's ultimately an uplifting book.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Fun with Words

Like many people, we keep a grocery list on the refrigerator, adding to it as we need things. Unlike most people, though, all the items on our grocery list start with the same letter. It all started when one time, by pure chance, the first couple of items on the list started with the same letter. Whoever continued the list started manipulating the names of the rest of the items so that they continued the pattern. Thus was born our tradition: whatever letter starts the first item that happens to go on the list is the letter that must be used to start every other item.

For example, eggs have been, at various times, chicken eggs, poultry eggs, avian eggs, or ovoid eggs, depending on the initial letter (this last one is a little redundant, since the definition of ovoid is "egg shaped.") Milk has gone by such names as cow's milk, lowfat milk, one percent milk, bottles of milk, and, my personal favorite, bovine liquid. It makes for some interesting situations when one person is standing in the grocery store trying to figure out what an item that someone else added to the list is supposed to be.

As with many such traditions, there are rules, but the rules are simple: no manipulating the first item on the list to get the letter you want, and no repeating a modifier. For example, if you've used "bottle of dish detergent," you can't then use "bottle of cranberry juice."

Some letters are easier than others. We've discovered that 'C' is a pretty good letter; besides all the wonderful foods that start with 'C' (cheese, Cheerios, chicken, etc) there are lots of good adjectives and some useful container words, such as can or case. 'D' is a surprisingly hard letter, as we discovered when our recent holiday shopping list ended up starting with a 'D', and we had items on our list such as drops of chocolate (chocolate chips), dough flour: white, dairy sticks (butter), diamond-like crystals of sweetness (sugar), deciduous tree fruit pie (frozen apple pie), and dead chicken in shells (eggs).

For those of us who are writers or editors, in one way or another, words are our tools and anything we can do to sharpen the tools helps us. Wordplay such as this is a great way to increase our vocabulary and build our skills at using words in new and unusual ways. Many times we've had to consult a dictionary or thesaurus to come up with appropriate words, and creativity plays a big component as well. But more than anything, it's just a fun and silly tradition that we enjoy doing together as a family.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Cybils 2008: Final days and my picks!

In less than a week, on January 1, the 2008 finalists will be announced in eight categories for the Children's and Young Adult Bloggers Literary Awards, better known as the Cybils. This year, I wasn't able to serve on the Fantasy and Science Fiction committee as I have in the previous two years, due to a conflict of interest, so I'm on the outside looking in. Like everyone else, I'm eagerly waiting to find out the finalists in all of the categories, but especially in the Fantasy and Science Fiction categories. I'm so excited with anticipation that I feel like it's Christmas Eve all over again.

You can follow the Cybils on their web site. All updates, including announcements of finalists and winners, will be posted there. Even better, add the blog to your blog reader and get the updates automatically.

While we're waiting, I thought I'd post my picks for finalists in the SFF category. Keep in mind that I am NOT on the committee this year, and I have no idea what books they're moving towards for finalists. I'll be as surprised as anyone else. But these are the books that I'd be voting for, if I were on the committee.

In looking at the nominees in the SFF middle/elementary category, I discovered that I haven't read enough of them to be able to pick a shortlist. This surprised me a bit, because for the first part of the year, before I knew I wouldn't be able to be on the committee, I made a real effort to read as many books that I thought might be nominated as possible. But I must have been reading older, because I have read a number of the teen books, although no where near as many as I would have if I'd actually been on the committee. (You can go through a lot of books in two months of concentrated reading).

I'm not even going to attempt to choose a shortlist in the middle/elementary category, but here are the books that I'd like to see as finalists in the teen category:

Ratha's Courage
Disclaimer: Let me be clear up front that I'm not unbiased about this book, because I published it. However, if I didn't love it, I wouldn't have published it, and I still think it's one of the best books of the year. Ratha's Courage is the reason that I couldn't serve on the SFF committee; it would have been a conflict of interest.

The Hunger Games
Children from conquered provinces are forced to compete in a reality TV-esque fight to the death. Read my review

in the company of whispers cover.jpg In the Company of Whispers
This is an amazing, unique, and genre-bending book. A frightening and poignant love story set in a dystopian society is complemented with old photographs, letters, and mementos from Burma. Read my review

51DP3KqlRcL._SL160_.jpg Little Brother
An exciting story about a teenager using technology to resist the Department of Homeland Security in a techno-thriller set in a near future close enough to our present to be frightening. Read my review

215sVGiXP0L._SL160_.jpg Lonely Werewolf Girl
A wild, humorous, and outrageous story of two hapless and naive humans who are caught up in a battle for succession in the werewolf royal family. This was the book I nominated in the SFF category. I actually never reviewed it, but you can Read some of my thoughts about it here.

51saresqz4L._SL160_.jpg Nation
I just finished this book and loved it. After a tsunami wipes out an entire island nation, two young people try to find a way to survive and to make sense of the tragedy, and, as other refugees start trickling in, to rebuild civilization. It's hilarious and poignant and incredibly profound. Read my review.

Book Review: Nation

by Terry Pratchett

Mau is returning home from his manhood test when the wave comes. All the boys from the Nation, an island culture, must spend a month alone on the Boys' Island when they reach the age of adulthood, and they have to find a way to return to Nation on their own. When Mau left the Boys' Island in his canoe, he left his boy soul behind; he would receive his man soul in a coming of age ceremony as soon as he returned to Nation. But before he reaches home, a volcanic eruption triggers a tsunami; Mau barely survives, and he returns home to find out that the entire Nation was wiped out. He's lost his boy soul, but never has the chance to get his man soul. Mau is a boy without a soul, and a man without a nation.

Mau isn't alone, though. An English ship crashed on the island in the wave, and the only survivor of the ship is an English girl named Ermintrude, who takes the name Daphne. Ermintrude is from a noble family, and hasn't been taught any skills useful for surviving on a tropical island, but she's a very determined and intelligent young lady, and it doesn't take her long to adapt. Together, the two young people try to find a way to survive and to make sense of the tragedy, and as other refugees start trickling in, to rebuild civilization.

Nation is an incredible book, easily one of the best books of the year. It's hilarious and poignant and incredibly profound. It's a great story of the meeting of two cultures, and the aftermath of a disaster, but it's so much more than that, too. It explores those unanswerable questions that humans have been asking for as long as we've been around: Are there gods, and if so, why do they let tragedies happen? Why do some people die and not others? What makes us human, and what makes a nation? Can science and belief co-exist? It's also a book that explores and challenges many preconceptions.

The characters are wonderfully rich and deep, and often more than they appear at first. Mau, the boy who has no soul, becomes the soul of the Nation, and they in turn become his soul. He's always questioning, and challenging the gods. But he loves his Nation, both the original Nation and the new Nation that he helps to build, and takes personal responsibility for the well-being of the people who depend on him. Daphne appears at first to be the helpless European girl, but it soon becomes apparent that she's anything but helpless. In spite of her training that to do anything useful is unladylike, she's incredibly intelligent and resourceful. She adapts well to life in the Nation and becomes a leader in her own way. The shipwreck really saves her, as it allows her to grow in ways she never would have been able to grow in England, or even in the island English colony where she was headed to join her father.

Beyond Daphne and Mau, there is a delightful cast of supporting characters, from Pilu, with his golden tongue, to Mrs. Gurgle, an older woman with no teeth who needs her food chewed for her, and who is more than she appears. Even the island and the creatures on it are characters; I especially loved the grandfather birds, and their arch-enemy, the parrot who survived the shipwreck.

There's so much to love about Nation, and I think that adults and teens will love it. But it will have special appeal to those teens who always seem to be asking the difficult questions, and seeking answers about life. Nation doesn't provide any answers, but it does give a lot of food for thought.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Book Review: Princess of the Midnight Ball

Princess of the Midnight Ball
by Jessica Day George
Returning from the war, a young soldier named Galen meets an old woman who asks for help. After Galen shares his meager food with her, she gives him gifts: a cloak that renders the wearer invisible, and two balls of wool: one white and one black. Galen has been a soldier his entire life, having grown up on the front, but now that the war is over he's headed to Bruch, the capital city of Westfalin, in hope of finding work with his mother's family.

In Bruch, Galen becomes an under-gardener in the palace. Galen soon learns that all is not well with the royal family: something is going on with the King's twelve daughters. They don't appear well, and every night their dancing slippers are worn out, in spite of being locked into their rooms. After a chance encounter with the oldest princess, Rose, Galen is determined to try to do something to help. But what can a lowly gardener possibly do against the supernatural forces threatening the princesses?

Princess of the Midnight Ball is a lovely retelling of the fairy tale of The Twelve Dancing Princesses. Jessica Day George doesn't break much new ground here - it follows the original fairy tale pretty closely - but she fills in the details nicely, making for an enjoyable read. Princess of the Midnight Ball is peopled with some interesting characters, most notably, the knitting soldier/gardener Galen. Day George explains in an afterword that far from being women's work, knitting used to be the exclusive province of men. In a fun twist, Day George also provides the knitting patterns for two of the items Galen makes in the story. I also liked that, rather than idly waiting to be rescued, the princesses did what they could to contribute to saving themselves.

With twelve princesses, creating distinct characters for each one is a difficult task, and I had trouble keeping them all straight. A few of the princesses stood out in my mind, but many of them blended together. Day George did an admirable job of giving them each individual personalities given the number of princesses and the short length of the book; I think the only way to really solve this problem would be to reduce the number of princesses, as Juliet Marillier did with Wildwood Dancing.

Overall, Princess of the Midnight Ball is a fun read that will be enjoyed by fans of fairy tale retellings.

Princess of the Midnight Ball will be released January 20, 2009.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Book Review: The Knife of Never Letting Go

The Knife of Never Letting Go
Chaos Walking: Book One
by Patrick Ness

Todd Hewitt lives in Prentisstown, a town of men and boys. There are no women in Prentisstown, because they all died, along with many of the men, from a virus released as a biological agent in the war between the colonists and the natives of the New World, known to the colonists as "Spacks." The same virus made it so that all the surviving men can hear each others thoughts, a constant barrage that they call Noise. Todd is the last boy in Prentisstown; all the others have become men, and with no women, there will be no more children. In one month, Todd will officially be a man as well.

But then Todd finds something unexpected in the swamp; something that will turn his world upside down. Everything he knows, or thinks he knows, is wrong, and soon Todd is on the run, pursued by the Prentisstown authorities. The world is far different than what he was led to believe, but is there anyplace in it where he can be safe?

I'm still trying to decide if I loved this book or hated it. First, you need to know that Bad Things Happen in this book. That's not necessarily a bad thing; it does provide a fair bit of dramatic tension. But if you are a person who doesn't like sad books, you may not want to read this one.

Overall, I loved the book. It's well-written, engaging, exciting, and the characters are very well developed. Even Todd's dog Manchee turns out to be quite an interesting character, in spite of Todd's assertion on the first page that "...dogs don't got nothing much to say."

I love the way Ness shows the Noise, as a mess of overlapping words of different sizes and shapes. It really conveys what it must be like to hear every thought that bounces through everyone's mind. I also loved the idea that in spite of hearing every thought, deception and outright lies are not only possible, they're common. Noise lies. The thoughts that go through our heads aren't always true, and with so much noise, it's easy to hide things in the commotion.

I read this book pretty much straight through without stopping. I kept wanting to slow down so that I could better appreciate the excellent writing, but the story was so exciting that it drove me along at a fast pace. I told myself that I'd go back and reread it when I finished, to savor the writing. But - when I finished the book I was so angry that I didn't feel like going back to reread it anymore.

I don't want to say too much, because I don't want to spoil the book for you. But I can't fully express my opinion without saying something about the ending. I'm not going to say very much, but if you don't want to know anything, you should stop reading now.

The book ends on a cliffhanger, which isn't uncommon for the first book in a series. But what made me angry is that what happens right before the end, and the way things seem to be headed, negates the whole theme of the book. Hope is such a strong theme throughout the book; even when you have no reason to hope, you have to go on because of hope. But, the way things seem in the end, it appears that all that hope was wasted. There is no reason to hope after all. It made the book pretty much of a downer. Laini Taylor called it a "punch in the stomach," and I think that's a good description.

I've decided to reserve judgment until the second book. Maybe things will turn out differently than they appear at the end. Maybe there is hope after all. But for right now, if you don't like reading books that leave you feeling a little down, you might want to wait on this one until book 2 comes out.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Fantasy and SF Book Reviewers

Who knew that there were so many fantasy and science fiction book reviewers? Well, maybe you did, but I sure didn't. Grasping for the Wind has started a Genre Book Reviewers Linkup Meme to collect the links from across the blogosphere. If you are an SFF reviewer, repost this list to your blog and add your blog to the list (in alphabetical order). It's kind of like a chain letter, except that the originator is going to pick up the additions from the back links and add them to the original post. Full instructions and a handy-dandy html copy window can be found here. I'm looking forward to exploring these:

A Dribble Of Ink
Adventures in Reading
The Agony Column
Bibliophile Stalker
The Book Swede
Breeni Books
Dark Wolf Fantasy Reviews
Dragons, Heroes and Wizards
Dusk Before the Dawn
Enter the Octopus
The Galaxy Express
Graeme's Fantasy Book Review
Fantasy Book Critic
Fantasy Debut
Fantasy and Sci-fi Lovin' Blog
Jumpdrives and Cantrips
Literary Escapism
Neth Space
OF Blog of the Fallen
The Old Bat's Belfry
Pat's Fantasy Hotlist
Realms of Speculative Fiction
Rob's Blog o' Stuff
Severian's Fantastic Worlds
SF Signal
SFF World's Book Reviews
Sporadic Book Reviews
The Road Not Taken
Urban Fantasy Land
Vast and Cool and Unsympathetic
Variety SF
Walker of Worlds
Wands and Worlds
The Wertzone
WJ Fantasy Reviews
The World in a Satin Bag

Edit: Just updated the list to pick up all the new blogs added to the list. To see the most updated version, go to Grasping for the Wind.

Monday, December 01, 2008

RIP Dewey/The Hidden Side of a Leaf

In case you haven't heard the sad news, the book blogging community lost a member this week. Dewey, who blogged at The Hidden Side of a Leaf, passed away on Tuesday. Her husband posted the sad news on her blog today. According to her husband, she was in a lot of pain, so I hope that she's much happier now, free from the pain. I didn't know Dewey like I know some of the other bloggers, but it's a sad loss for the book blogging community and I know she'll be missed.