Monday, March 30, 2009

Book Review: Heroes of the Valley

Heroes of the Valley
by Jonathan Stroud

Halli Sveinsson lives in an isolated valley that was colonized by twelve founders; Halli's ancestor Svein was one of them. The twelve founders divided up the valley between themselves, and proceeded to fight, bicker, and duel, until the twelve of them united to fight the Trows, evil creatures of the earth that plagued the valley. The twelve founders drove out the Trows, but died in the process, and were buried around the edge of the valley to protect it. No one leaves the valley, for fear of the Trows, and no one comes in.

Halli grew up listening to stories of the great Svein and the other heroes, and he longs to be a hero, too. But Halli is anything but heroic; he's short, cumbersome, and swarthy, and ill-fated due to his birth on Midwinter's Day. Halli seems to be always in trouble, rebelling against authority and playing tricks on his siblings. And, in addition to all of this, there's no place for heroes in a peaceful valley governed by a council of lawgivers.

When a chain of events leads to the death of a family member, Halli sets off on a journey to seek vengeance, a vengeance that is prohibited by the laws of the valley. Along the way, Halli begins to learn the truth behind the old stories, and discovers that being a hero is far different than he expected.

Heroes of the Valley is an amusing, appealing story about an underdog and the true nature of heroism. Just as he did with the Bartimaeus Trilogy, Stroud builds a society and then challenges its preconceptions. I love the way the heroes' tales included throughout the book gradually reveal the true nature of the heroes, just as Halli's adventures reveal to him the truth about his society and its founding myths.

The book is a little slow in the beginning; there's humor right from the start, but it takes a little while for the action to get going. I think the book will appeal most to strong readers who will recognize the irony woven throughout the story.

The characters are quite interesting, and often humorous. Stroud has a keen eye for human nature, and the characters in the book reveal many human foibles, and occasionally the better sides of human nature as well. Halli's friend Aud, daughter of one of the other families, is quite likable, as well as being more than a little heroic herself.

The book is marred by a climax that brings down an otherwise enjoyable book. I don't want to say too much and give anything away, but in the words of my 13-year-old son, it "...seemed to come out of nowhere." The book seems to be leading in a certain direction, and you expect that the climax will either go one way or another way, and then, bam - something completely unexpected that really doesn't seem to fit in with the rest of the book. It's just...strange. I like surprises in books, but I think that the author really has to sow some seeds early in the story so that when you hit the surprise, you can look back and say, "Oh, so that's where that was going." In this case, the climax was more along the lines of, "Say what?"


Friday, March 27, 2009

Book Review: The Forest of Hands and Teeth

The Forest of Hands and Teeth
by Carrie Ryan

Mary lives surrounded by fences. Behind the fence, she and her village are safe from the Unconsecrated: those former humans who were infected with a sickness that causes them to die and return from death as less than human beings. The Unconsecrated have no intelligence and only one motivation: they crave human flesh. Mary dreams about the world outside the fence. Is there anything beyond the Forest of Hands and Teeth? Is her village the only place where humans survive? Is there any place in the world too big for the Unconsecrated to exist?

But Mary's village is strictly controlled by the Sisterhood, and the Sisters won't tolerate such romantic ideas. Life is about survival, and only adherence to the rules allows the village to survive. Nothing else matters; both love and choice have to be sacrificed to the greater good. Can Mary put aside her hopes, her dreams, and her curiosity? Can she sacrifice love to live the life the Sisters expect her to live?

Out of the most unlikely scenario - a post-apocalyptic zombie story - Carrie Ryan has created a book of depth and beauty. Although the Unconsecrated resemble movie zombies in many ways - and Carrie Ryan says that zombie movies were an inspiration - this book blows away all the cliches to create a truly human story. It's a story of love and death, of choice and the difference between surviving and living. This is a book that draws you in from the very first sentence; it has everything one could want in a book: well-developed characters, suspense, romance, excitement, and depth.

The Forest of Hands and Teeth is almost unbearable to read, at times, because of the strong emotions it evokes. If you don't like books that make you feel anger or sadness or intense suspense, then this may not be the book for you. But as for me, I'm already counting it one of the best books of the year.


Book Review: The Tiptoe Guide to Tracking Fairies

The Tiptoe Guide to Tracking Fairies
by Ammi-Joan Paquette
illustrated by Christa Unzner

I have fond childhood memories of building fairy houses with my mother. With moss for a bed and stones for a protective wall, I really believed that tiny fairies would be occupying the little home. The Tiptoe Guide to Tracking Fairies is a picture book that evokes that same sense of wonder, of magic just out of site and almost seen. The lovely illustrations combine artwork of adorable little fairies blended with photographs of nature, and sometimes children's feet as they search for the fairies. The text invites children to hunt for the fairies, both in nature and on the pages of the book. This fun book will encourage both imagination and love of nature in children. Be forewarned: parents should be prepared to follow up a reading of this book with a fairy hunt outdoors!


Friday, March 20, 2009

Science Fiction Awards Watch

Speaking of awards, I wanted to mention a great site/blog that's worth following if you like science fiction. Science Fiction Awards Watch is just what it sounds like; they post news, announcements, and commentary about a wide variety of SF/F awards. You can also follow @SFAwardsWatch on Twitter.


Ratha's Courage - Twice a Finalist

It's been an exciting week for the Named: Ratha's Courage was named a finalist in two different awards:

  • ForeWord Magazine, which covers the best in independent publishing, named it a finalist for their Book of the Year Awards in the Science Fiction category. The winners in the ForeWord awards will be announced at a special ceremony at BookExpo America on May 29.
  • The Anthropomorphic Literature and Arts Association (ALAA) named it one of five finalists for the Ursa Major Awards in the Best Novel category. The Ursa Major awards recognize excellence in the anthropomorphic arts, which "...include a non-human being given human attributes..." The Ursa Major awards are selected by popular vote, and the nominees in each category are the top five which received the most nominations, so it's very exciting that Ratha's Courage was one of the top picks! Voting for the winner is open from now until April 19, so if you liked Ratha's Courage and believe it deserves to win, please vote for it at the link above!

In other news, Clare Bell's twitter novelette,

Ratha's Island,

has started! To read it as it's posted, follow

@rathacat

on Twitter or use hashtag

#rathafic

. Clare is also using a separate hashtag,

#rathalink

to post links to related information and fan art. You can catch up with the story so far at the archives on

Clare's The Scratching Log Blog

or

the Ratha and the Named forum.

More information about Ratha's Island


YA wins in Hugo Award nominations!

The Hugo Award nominations have been announced, and I was thrilled to see that three out of the five nominees for Best Novel were published as young adult books: "Little Brother," by Cory Doctorow, "The Graveyard Book," by Neil Gaiman, and "Zoe's Tale," by John Scalzi. I guess that YA SF/F is no longer the bastard stepchild of speculative fiction and is finally getting the respect that it deserves! Of course, all three of the authors nominated for YA books are established adult authors, but if it takes top notch adult authors writing in the YA genre to focus attention on it, then I'm all for it. Hopefully it will also bring more attention and recognition to some of the outstanding authors who specialize in young adult SF/F.

I'd also like to point out that all three were Cybils nominees. We recognized 'em first!

View all the 2008 Hugo nominations


Thursday, March 19, 2009

Book Review: Firebirds Soaring

Firebirds Soaring: An Anthology of Original Speculative Fiction
Edited by Sharyn November

Firebirds Soaring is a beautiful anthology of speculative fiction. As with all such anthologies, there were some stories I loved, some I liked and others I didn't like as much, but that's a matter of taste, not quality. Firebirds Soaring is quality through and through: from the selection of stories to the design to the decorations by Mike Dringenberg. Every story is well written, and there's a good variety for all fans of speculative fiction: humor and darkness, Western and Eastern, medieval-type fantasy settings and futuristic worlds, and even a couple that I wouldn't really call speculative fiction.

My favorite stories were "Egg Magic," by Louise Marley, (loved the characterizations in this one), "Flatland," by Kara Dalkey, (a frightening view of the future that every teen considering a white collar career today should read), "The Ghosts of Strangers," by Nina Kiriki Hoffman, (some interesting and unique elements in this one), "Fear and Loathing in Lalanna," by Nick O'Donohoe, (I wasn't sure I would like this one at first, but it ended up being hilarious), "Bonechewer's Legacy," by Clare Bell, (of course), and "Something Worth Doing," by Elizabeth E. Wein, which I LOVED even though I think it's more historical fiction than speculative fiction.

Each story is followed by a biographical note about the writer and a writer's note about the story. These notes were fascinating and often provided context for deeper understanding of the story and what the author was trying to convey.

The stories intentionally sit in the gray area between YA and adult speculative fiction, and should be enjoyable to both teens and adults. A few of the stories may be too dark for some younger teens. (At least one of them was too dark for me).

Disclaimer: I have a business relationship (and subsequent friendship) with the writer of one of the stories (Clare Bell) so I'm not entirely unbiased, although I have no financial interest in this book. I have no relationship with or bias about any of the other writers or editors, and I was a fan of Clare before I ever published her latest book. (If I didn't love her work, I wouldn't have published it).


Me - on the radio?

I'll be making my first ever radio appearance (gulp!) next Tuesday, March 24, from 8-10pm Eastern time. Sallie Lowenstein of Lion Stone Books, another children's book small publisher, and I will be on the Radio Hotline with Dennis Price on WEBR Channel 37 Radio Fairfax to talk about "Adventures in Small Press Publishing."

To listen on the Internet go to http://www.fcac.org/webr

and click on Listen Now.

To call in on the air dial: 571-749-1140 or call the listener comments line at: 703.573.1090 and press 3, or ext. 600


Sunday, March 15, 2009

Book Review: Daughter of the Flames

Daughter of the Flames
by Zoƫ Marriott

For as long as she can remember, Zira has lived in the House of God, with the Noirin Surya, the head of the order, as a surrogate mother. Zira knows that her parents died when the Sedorne invaded Rua when Zira was a young child, but she doesn't remember anything before the House of God; it's the only home she's ever known, and she fully expects to take the oath to become a novice when she turns 16. Zira loves the martial arts, and she's quite good at them, so she hopes that when she takes the oath, she'll be assigned as a novice fighter.

But fate, or God (God is female), has other plans in store for her. Unknown to Zira, she is the only surviving member of the Rua royal family. (Don't worry, this isn't a spoiler - it's pretty much given away in the prologue). When she impulsively saves the life of a Sedorne noble - an enemy - it sets into motion a series of events that will force Zira to confront her identity and make difficult choices that will affect not only her own life, but that of her people as well.

I love female warrior characters, so when I saw that Daughter of the Flames had a warrior priestess as a main character, that, and the gorgeous cover, enticed me to read it. Daughter of the Flames is a solid, entertaining fantasy, although I felt that some of the story elements were not as well developed as the could have been. The first part of the book seems fairly standard fantasy fare, but as the story progresses, it moves beyond cliche into some interesting directions. I liked that what seems to be a logical plan, doesn't work out as anticipated, and both Rua and Sedorne don't always behave in expected ways.

I liked Zira as a character in the first and last parts of the book. The identity crisis in the middle of the book weakened her, and made her less interesting to me. It was an interesting conflict, but it also made it difficult to like or identify with her. As villains go, Abheron is a good one: believable and darn creepy, with just enough pathos that you feel sorry for him, even as you despise his actions.


Monday, March 09, 2009

Ratha's Island: New Ratha novelette on Twitter!

Many of my blog readers probably know that I recently published Clare Bell's newest book, Ratha's Courage, book five in the Named series and the first new book in the series in 14 years. Clare and I have been working together on a new project, an experiment in Twitter fiction. Clare has written a brand new Ratha story - a novelette, really, by word count - specifically to post on the Twitter microblogging service. She'll be posting the story, titled Ratha's Island, in snippets of 140 characters or less, with several snippets each day, starting this Saturday, March 14. Each day's posts will also be collected and posted as daily installments on the Ratha and the Named Facebook page, and also on Clare's Ratha's Courage web site.

More information about Ratha's Island, including links and a downloadable press release.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Suvudu Free Book Library

To introduce new readers to some "popular and acclaimed" science fiction and fantasy series, Random House has started the Suvudu Free First Book Library. The library will feature free downloads of the first book in various series in PDF format. The library kicks off with five free downloads, and more will be added. The first five books are:
  • His Majesty’s Dragon by Naomi Novik

  • Assassin’s Apprentice by Robin Hobb

  • Settling Accounts: Return Engagement by Harry Turtledove

  • Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson

  • Blood Engines by T.A. Pratt

For more information and to download free books: Suvudu Free First Book Library

New YA series from Orson Scott Card

Orson Scott Card has signed with Simon Pulse for a new young adult science fiction series, to be published beginning in 2011. Although many of Card's books are popular with a young adult audience, this is the first time that he's written specifically with that audience in mind. The new series will have "a strong steampunk element," according to PW.

For more information:

http://www.publishersweekly.com/article/CA6641728.html?nid=2788

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

ABA Indies Choice Book Awards nominees

The nominees for the ABA Indies Choice Book Awards have been announced. The Indies Choice Book Awards "reflect the spirit of independent bookstores and the IndieBound movement."

The nominees in the Young Adult category are:

Graceling, by Kristin Cashore (HMH)
The Graveyard Book, by Neil Gaiman (HarperCollins)
Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins (Scholastic)
Little Brother, by Cory Doctorow (Tor)
My Most Excellent Year, by Steve Kluger (Dial)
Savvy, by Ingrid Law (Dial)

Hmmm. I'm starting to see a pattern here. Most of these are the same books that I keep seeing everywhere else. I'm also thrilled to see fantasy and science fiction making such a great showing in the major awards this year!

Find these books in your local independent bookstore.

Thanks to Publishers Lunch for the information.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Nebula and Andre Norton final ballot

The final ballot for the 2008 Nebula awards has been announced, including the associated Andre Norton award for young adult SFF. The Andre Norton final ballot includes:

Graceling - Cashore, Kristin (Harcourt, Oct08)
Lamplighter - Cornish, D.M. (Monster Blood Tattoo, Book 2, Putnam Juvenile, May08)
Savvy - Law, Ingrid (Dial, May08)
The Adoration of Jenna Fox - Pearson, Mary E. (Henry Holt and Company, Apr08)
Flora's Dare: How a Girl of Spirit Gambles All to Expand Her Vocabulary, Confront a Bouncing Boy Terror, and Try to Save Califa from a Shaky Doom (Despite Being Confined to Her Room - Wilce, Ysabeau S. (Harcourt, Sep08)

Three of these books - Graceling, Savvy, and Lamplighter - were Cybils Fantasy and Science Fiction finalists.

Interestingly, two of the six books on the Nebula novel final ballot are also books that were published as young adult: Little Brother, by Cory Doctorow, and Powers, by Ursula K. Le Guin. Does that mean that young adult books are now officially mainstream?

The only two of these that I've actually read are The Adoration of Jenna Fox, which was well written, but I didn't connect with it, and Little Brother, which I loved. You can read my thoughts on both of them here. I've been wanting to read Graceling and Savvy, and this just gives me extra incentive!

Lonely Werewolf Girl sequel in the works!

215sVGiXP0L._SL160_.jpg I loved Lonely Werewolf Girl, by Martin Millar, so I was thrilled to read that a sequel is in the works. The sequel, provisionally titled Queen Vex, is scheduled for publication in the U.K. in March, 2010. There's no U.S. deal yet, according to Millar's blog, but I hope that it won't be long before it comes to the U.S.

Lonely Werewolf Girl is 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. Read some of my thoughts about it here.