Monday, November 29, 2010

Book Review: The Wager

The Wager
by Donna Jo Napoli

The Wager is based on the Sicilian folktale of Don Giovanni de la Fortuna. Don Giovanni is a wealthy & powerful Sicilian in the 12th century, until a tidal wave wipes out his entire fortune and leaves him homeless. After 9 months of homelessness and poverty, the devil offers him a purse that will give him unlimited money, if he agrees to go without bathing for 3 years, 3 months, and 3 days. If he bathes or changes his clothes in that time, then his soul is forfeit to the devil.

Going without bathing for three years sounds bad, but even the vain Don Giovanni thinks that it can't be worse than hunger and cold. But the reality is horrific. As time goes on, Don Giovanni is subject to every possible pain, humiliation, and degradation, from waking up in a pool of vomit after being mugged, to insects and sores. Through it all he can't bathe, can't change his clothes, or do anything to relieve his condition. And on top of it all, he has to be constantly on guard, as the devil tries to trick him into losing the bet.

But as the exterior transformation progresses, so does a corresponding and opposite interior transformation. The more isolated that Don Giovanni becomes from other people, the more he comes to care about his fellow man. The themes of inner versus outer beauty, and redemption, are, perhaps, to be expected, but are no less moving for that.

The descriptions of Don Giovanni's condition are almost too horrible to bear, and the story is taut with suspense about whether he will make it to the end of the bet. Yet there is also beauty all around. The island of Sicily is brought vividly to life, from the beauty of nature to the various cultures--Norman, Greek, Muslim, Sicilian--that inhabited the island in the twelfth century. There's an incredible variety of food, and descriptions of artwork of all types. The richness of the environment contrasts shockingly with the revolting descriptions of Don Giovanni.

The Wager is an exquisitely written and highly readable folktale retelling.

The Wager is a 2010 Cybils nominee in the Fantasy/Science Fiction: Teen category.

Book reviewed from library copy. FTC required disclosure: The links above are Amazon Associate links, and I earn a very small percentage of any sales made through the links.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Book Review: Draw the Dark

Draw the Dark
by Ilsa J. Bick

Strange things are happening in Winter, Wisconsin, and all of them seem to be connected to Christian Cage. Christian is no stranger to trouble; people in his life have died or disappeared before in mysterious ways. But this time Christian is accused of vandalizing a barn, and the image that was graffiti-painted onto the barn is in Christian's style, although he has no memory of doing it.

The same night that the barn is vandalized, Christian begins having nightmares. The nightmares become more vivid as Christian begins working a community service sentence in the local nursing home. Then a body is found in an old house, and Christian begins to suspect that all the strange happenings are connected together, and tied in with Winter's past. Together with Sarah, who is the closest thing to a friend that he has, he begins researching Winter's history looking for clues.

Draw the Dark is an unputdownable story wrapped in vivid imagery and a strong sense of history. Although Draw the Dark is technically a fantasy, it should appeal to mystery and history fans as well. The mystery is a strong element of the story, as Christian and Sarah try to put together the clues to figure out what's going on and what happened in the past. There's also an interesting tie-in to World War II era history.

One complaint I have is the cover: it makes the book look like a horror book, which I think sets up false expectations that will turn off some teens who would enjoy the book, and cause others to be disappointed when the start reading it and find out that it isn't horror.

Another problem with the book is that the various elements aren't always well-integrated. In particular, there's a framing story about a door that Christian paints which may lead to an alternate world where he thinks his parents are, a world he calls the "sideways world." Although the sideways world does play a role in the climax, in general I thought that the sideways world wasn't well explained, and seemed grafted on, and I think it would have been a stronger story without it. The ending of the book may be setting things up for a sequel which has more to do with the sideways world, or it may be just leaving things open for the reader's imagination.

Overall, though, Draw the Dark is a unique and fascinating story that you won't want to put down.

The Wager is a 2010 Cybils nominee in the Fantasy/Science Fiction: Teen category.

Book reviewed from library copy. FTC required disclosure: The links above are Amazon Associate links, and I earn a very small percentage of any sales made through the links.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Book Review: Wolfley-O's

by Sallie Lowenstein

On the last day of the first week of first grade, Davey doesn't want to go back to school. The other kids pick on him, call him names, and push him down on the playground. Then he discovers an unusual box of cereal in the pantry. On the box is a space that reads, "Wolfley-O's! The cereal that ____________________________." After Davey fills in the blank with "Builds Your Confidence," he finds that he does, indeed, have more confidence the next day at school.

Throughout the week, more blanks for different attributes appear on the cereal box, and as Davey fills them in, he finds that things improve at school. The week culminates when a recipe for Wolfley-O cookies appears on the box, and Davey makes the cookies to share with the other kids at school.

Wolfley-O's is a fun and empowering story for kids about the power of imagination to shape our world. Sallie Lowenstein understands well, and does a great job of portraying, the fluid line between imagination and reality for young children. Is the box of Wolfley-O's real or in Davey's imagination? It really won't matter to the kids reading the story.

Lowenstein is good at getting into the mind of a child, and Davey is an appealing character that kids will identify with. The art is lovely, with great attention to detail; for example, Davey's socks are bunched up and coming off in one illustration. The kids at school start out as a child's stick figures at first, then gradually gain detail and transform into fully drawn and shaded characters as Davey gets to know them.

The recipe for Wolfley-O's cookies is included in the story. It sounds delicious enough that I'd like to try it, yet simple enough for a young child to make (with adult supervision).

Wolfley-O's is a Cybils nominee in the Fiction Picture Books category.

FTC required disclosure: Review copy (F&G) provided by the publisher to enable me to write this review.

Monday, November 01, 2010

Book Review: Departure Time

Departure Time
Truus Maati

There is a girl, who finds herself on an empty plain just as the rain starts. She doesn’t remember how she got there, or even who she is. Seeking shelter from the rain, she finds a hotel run by a fox and a rat. There’s something mysterious about the hotel: there are no other guests, although there is the strange music that seems to be coming from an upper floor. At first, the animals seem suspicious and unwelcoming, but the girl begins to win them over, and slowly life begins to return to the hotel.

There is another girl, in another place, trying to deal with grief and guilt. She has suffered a terrible loss, and done something she regrets. She figures that the best way to deal with the pain is to forget. But although the girl tries to forget, her story gradually emerges through a series of flashbacks.

Are these two girls the same? We don’t know; neither one even has a name at first. But as the stories progress, a pattern emerges and the the two stories begin to draw together.

Departure Time is a compelling and moving middle-grade novel. The mystery draws in the reader right from the start. Who is the first girl, and what’s going on in the hotel? What is the second girl trying to forget? At first there is virtually no information for the reader to go by, but as the story progresses a picture begins to emerge, and the astute reader will begin to get a sense of what’s going on.

The mystery draws you in, but it’s the characters and the emotion that hold you. The grief and loss and regret are palpable, even when you don’t yet understand what they represent. But above all, this is a story about love and healing.

Strong readers who can piece together a story with little background information will do best with this book. It would also be a good book to read aloud with a class, with opportunities for discussion.

Departure Time is a 2010 Cybils nominee for Middle-Grade Fiction. (I nominated it).

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

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Cybils Review Copies

First batch of Cybils review copies came in today, from Egmont USA via Goodman Media!

Brightly Woven
by Alexandra Bracken

Dark Divine, The
by Bree Despain

Dragons of Noor, The
by Janet Lee Carey

Raised by Wolves
by Jennifer Lynn Barnes

Rise of Renegade X, The
by Chelsea M. Campbell

by Tricia Rayburn

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Books worth nominating

Tomorrow (October 15) is the last day to nominate books for the Cybils awards. Many books have been nominated, but there's still some big omissions. If you're stumped on what to nominated, here are some suggestions of books that I'd like to see nominated:

Dragons of Darkness by by Antonia Michaelis, translated by Anthea Bell (my review)
Category: Fantasy/Science Fiction Teen

Curse of the Wolf Girl by Martin Millar (my review)
Category: Fantasy/Science Fiction Teen

Lord Sunday (The Keys to the Kingdom #7) by Garth Nix
Category: Fantasy/Science Fiction Elementary/Middle

Fever Crumb by Philip Reeve
Category: Fantasy/Science Fiction Elementary/Middle

Nominate a book here but please first read the eligibility rules!

Monday, October 11, 2010

Book Review: Monsters of Men

Monsters of Men
Chaos Walking: Book Three
by Patrick Ness

The three books of the Chaos Walking series are among those rare books that have it all: deep and thoughtful examination of some of the big themes of life, rich characters whose struggles resonate on every page, and a tight plot that keeps the pages turning from beginning to end. They even have that most elusive of qualities, voice, that brings each narrator to life. It's a series that should have strong appeal to teens of both genders.

For those who haven't read this series, I can't recommend it enough. Just don't start it when you have other things to do, because you won't want to put the books down once you start. If you haven't read the first two books, you may want to skip this review for now and read my reviews of The Knife of Never Letting Go and The Ask and the Answer. My review of the first book was qualified by my concern about the ending, but having read the other two books, I remove that qualification. (Although I will warn you that the series end is not completely unambiguous). If you like deep, dark, compelling, science fiction, then I think you won't be sorry.

As the title would suggest, war is a big theme in this book. (It comes from a quote from Todd's foster father Ben: "War makes monsters of men.") The Spackle, natives of the planet, are attacking, and the human colonies are in jeopardy. Yet the humans are divided as well, between those loyal to President Prentiss and those who stand with Mistress Coyle. The two leaders seem more interested in who will end up in power than solving the problems caused by the war. Todd and Viola try to bring the factions together, yet the division and separation puts its own stresses on their relationship. Further complicating the situation are new arrivals from Viola's ship, who aren't sure where they should stand, and who don't even agree between themselves on the best response.

War is depicted in all its brutality: violent, ugly, and escalated by the mistakes, misunderstandings, and selfish actions of people (and Spackle) on all sides. No one is innocent, and humans and Spackle die in great numbers, many of those deaths unnecessary.

Redemption is another big theme, probably the biggest theme in this story. As Todd says in the first book, The Knife of Never Letting Go:

"I think maybe everybody falls," I say. "I think maybe we all do. And I don't think that's the asking."
"I think the asking is whether we get back up again."

In Monsters of Men, everybody does fall (with the possible exception of Wilf). Everybody does horrible things: even Todd, even Viola, even the Spackle. The question is, whether they get back up again. The biggest question, though, is whether Mayor/President Prentiss can be redeemed. Todd thinks maybe he can, and stakes everything on it. Viola doesn't. The question is one that will tear at the heart of the relationship between Todd and Viola, and keep the reader guessing until the very end.

Monsters of Men adds a third point of view character to those of Todd and Viola: the Spackle known to Todd as 1017. Through the eyes of 1017, we come to understand the Spackle, or the Land, as they call themselves. They are portrayed as neither evil nor as somehow better than the humans. They are just different, with a completely different way of seeing and thinking. They are more in tune with the world, and yet they, too commit atrocities.

There are no easy answers in this book. It's a deep and moving look at war and at the things people will do in the name of what they believe is right. Monsters of Men will challenge readers to think, while keeping them on the edge of their seat with its plot twists. Monsters of Men is a worthy conclusion to a powerful series.

Monsters of Men is a 2010 Cybils nominee.

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

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Cybils 2010 Science Fiction & Fantasy Panels

In case you missed it, the 2010 Panels for the Cybils awards have been posted over on the Cybils site. Choosing the panels for the Fantasy/Science Fiction category was heart wrenching. There were so many good volunteers, and just not enough spots to go around. There were good people, excellent people, who should have had a spot, but whom I had to pass on because I couldn't fit them in. There were 85 people who expressed interest in the SFF panels, and I had only 24 spots. I wish I could have fit everyone in.

I spent many many hours over the last few weeks looking at the blogs of all the applicants, as did all my fellow organizers. I was looking for people who showed a good background in reading a variety of different types of SFF and a good understanding of the principles of SFF, as well as the principles of good YA or MG writing.

I read everyone's "About" page and "Review Guidelines," if any was available. For reviewers, I read several reviews, trying to read at least one review of a book that I had read, and one review of a book I hadn't read. I looked for reviews that had at least some analysis of the elements that make up a good book: plot, character, voice, writing style, etc. For blogging authors who blog primarily about their writing journey, I looked for posts about their own writing that showed a good understanding of those same principles. I also looked for things like a unique voice or perspective, and for strong advocates for under-served groups.

Beyond the individuals, I looked to balance each of the panels. As did all the organizers, I strove for a good mix of returning and new panelists, and a good diversity of background and perspective. I tried to make sure each panel had a mix of librarians, teachers, writers, parents, students, and others. (I'm probably the only one with an archaeologist on my panels, though!)

If you didn't get on a panel this year, I hope that you'll apply again next year. We consider everyone fresh every year, and try to make sure we include new as well as returning panelists. Pay attention to the elements listed above in your blogging this year. If there are one or two categories that you are especially interested in, you might try to focus your blogging on those categories and develop/show some expertise in those categories over the next year. Read some good books on literary evaluation, such as the excellent From Cover to Cover: Evaluating and Reviewing Children's Books by Kathleen T. Horning. If you're specifically interested in the SFF panel, books on writing science fiction can give a good background on the principles of the genre, even if you aren't a writer.

Other things you can do are to join the Kidlitosphere Yahoo group and participate so that we can get to know you. Participate in the Carnival of Children's Literature for the same reason. Read and comment on other Kidlit blogs.

If you are already doing all these things and didn't get a spot on the panels, please don't be disheartened. We just couldn't include everyone. Please try again next year. Be sure to nominate your favorite books between October 1 and October 15! A nomination form will be available on the Cybils site starting October 1.

We hope that you'll also follow the awards on the blog, on Twitter, and on Facebook. Join the conversation by commenting and posting your own thoughts. Share on your own blog & social networks what books you think should make the shortlists and/or win. And don't forget to buy some Cybils bling to show off at Kidlit Con 2010! (I covet that tote bag!)

If you've made it this far in this long post, here are the folks that I'll be working with on the 2010 SFF panels:

Panel Organizer: Sheila Ruth, Wands and Worlds

Panelists (Round I Judges), MG/Elementary:

Anamaria Anderson, Books Together
Gwenda Bond, Shaken & Stirred
Cindy Hannikman, Fantasy Book Critic
Aaron Maurer, Coffee for the Brain
Nicole Signoretta, Booked Up
Charlotte Taylor, Charlotte's Library
Karen Yingling, Ms. Yingling Reads

Panelists (Round I Judges), Teen/YA:

Steve Berman, Guys Lit Wire
Tanita Davis, Finding Wonderland
Leila Roy, Bookshelves of Doom
Sheila Ruth (see panel organizer)
Angie Thompson, Angieville
Hallie Tibbetts, Undusty New Books
Heather Zundel, Secret Adventures of WriterGirl

Round II Judges:


Melissa Baldwin, One Librarian's Book Reviews
Kate Coombs, Book Aunt
Emily Mitchell, emilyreads
Nancy Tsai, Kidsmomo
Tanya Zavestoski Turek, Books 4 Your Kids


Emma Carbone, Miss Print
Anne Levy, Cybils
Sam Musher, Parenthetical
Sarah Stevenson, Finding Wonderland
Steph Su, Steph Su Reads

I can't wait for October 1 to get started!

Monday, September 13, 2010

Book Review: Lost in Lexicon

Lost in Lexicon: An Adventure in Words and Numbers
by Pendred Noyce
Illustrated by Joan Charles

Spending the summer with Great Aunt Adelaide starts out great, but soon cousins Ivan and Daphne are bored in their aunt's TV- and video-game-free home. When Aunt Adelaide sends them out to the barn to find adventure, they find more than they expected, when stepping through a window takes them to the land of Lexicon. In Lexicon, they soon learn that something is wrong. Children have been disappearing, there have been strange weather phenomena and lights in the sky at night, and many things are out of kilter in the land. Ivan and Daphne set off on a quest to try to figure out what's wrong, and to find the missing children.

Lost in Lexicon was inspired in part by The Phantom Tollbooth, and it shares the same joy of word and number play. When I first heard about this book, I was worried that it might try too hard to be like that classic book, so I reread The Phantom Tollbooth before reading this book. Lost in Lexicon is different enough to be unique, while still celebrating the fun of words and numbers.

Lost in Lexicon is at its best when it celebrates without trying too hard to teach. There's plenty of fun adventures, including an attack of punctuation, a town where each quadrant is limited to speaking using only one part of speech (verbs in one quadrant, nouns in another, etc), and an adorable llama-like animal which acts as a thesaurus. Unfortunately, the book is a little too didactic in places, especially in its warnings against the evils of television and video games, which are definitely the villains of the story. I don't think that kids are going to be persuaded to give up their screens by this, and the preachiness of it is likely to be a turnoff for many young people.

As Daphne and Ivan travel through Lexicon, they encounter math villages and word villages in equal measure. I found the word villages to be more fun than the math villages, but that might have been just personal preference. There are also social issues raised in some of the villages. Lost in Lexicon is pretty well-written, although it lacks the sharp wit and distinctive voice of The Phantom Tollbooth.

The characterization of Daphne and Ivan is a little flat. I was also a little disappointed at first that Daphne is good at language but despises math, and Ivan is good at math but not language. In a time when much effort is being put into encouraging boys in reading and writing, and girls in math and science, I thought it might have been better to show counter to the stereotypes. However, as the book progressed, this situation allowed for growth; Daphne discovers that she can do math, and Ivan finds value and skill in words.

Try Lost in Lexicon on kids who enjoy math and word games, and those who liked The Phantom Tollbooth and are looking for similar books. It also might be good as a classroom or homeschool read-together, where the book can lead to discussion of the concepts and ideas raised. There are games and activities, as well as a book club guide, available on the web site at

The book is enhanced with fun black and white illustrations by Joan Charles.

Lost in Lexicon will be published in October, 2010.

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

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Exciting new SFF digital book project

Subutai Corporation has announced a new book project that sounds pretty exciting. The Mongoliad, a speculative fiction novel set during the 13th century Mongol invasion of Europe, will be written by a team of authors that includes bestselling authors Neal Stephenson and Greg Bear. (I was particularly impressed to read in the author bios that Greg Bear is one of only two authors to win a Nebula in every category!)

What makes this project unique is that it will be posted serially online, and will take full advantage of the digital platform to offer special features and collaboration between the audience and the authors.

"The form of the traditional novel is a consequence of the technology of the printing press," said Jeremy Bornstein, co-founder and President of Subutai. "We wanted to explore what the novel could be now that it's practical to use a platform more modern than paper."

Among the features will be a Foreworld 'Pedia, a kind of audience-editable wiki of information about the world of The Mongoliad and the people in it. They promise that there will even be secrets in the 'Pedia! There's also a tantalizing suggestion that, "If we really like something you've written, we may just add it to the Foreworld Canon."

The subscription price for all of this is $5.99 for 6 months, or $9.99 for 12 months. Given that's less than or equal to the price of most traditionally published eBooks, it sounds like a good deal. I've already subscribed, and you can find my profile here:

Not much on my profile yet, though, as the "upload a profile picture" doesn't seem to work yet.

There will be apps available for various platforms, but those are apparently in the approval stage and not available yet. It's all still in the early stages, but it looks like they're ramping up quickly and it should be a lot of fun. You can find the world of the Mongoliad at

(via Publishers Lunch via Yahoo News)

Cybils 2010 Call for Judges

If you're a children's and/or YA blogger and you'd like to try your hand at serving on an awards committee, the Cybils Awards has put out the call for 2010 judges. The Cybils, short for "Children's and Young Adult Bloggers' Literary Awards," is the first blogger-awarded book award, and is now going into it's fifth year. We seek to recognize outstanding children's and YA books that bridge the gap between literary excellence and "kid appeal." Check out the call for judges and eligibility requirements here.

I've been on a first round panel for three of the last four years, and I can tell you that it's a lot of fun, but also a lot of work. If you have the time and are crazy enough to want to read and discuss (by email) at least 3-4 books a week over a three month span, I can't recommend it enough. Second round panelists only have to read 5 or 7 books over a six week period.

I'm the Science Fiction and Fantasy organizer this year, as I have been for 3 out of 4 years (a shout out to the terrific Tasha Saecker, who took on that duty the year I couldn't!). I'd particularly like to find people who are well-read in a variety of different SFF subgenres, and who understand the unique requirements of middle-grade or Young Adult SFF. I'll be looking at the blogs of everyone who volunteers, but if you're submitting yourself for consideration for the SFF panels, and you don't feel that your blog adequately demonstrates your SFF experience, please feel free to email me at and tell me a bit about yourself. (But you still must email the cybils09 email address to get on the official volunteer list, as specified in the eligibility requirements at the link above).

Friday, July 30, 2010

Author Zetta Elliott on Blog Talk Radio

I received the following information about an interview with Zetta Elliott, author of A Wish After Midnight, and thought some of you might be interested in tuning in:

Young adult author, playwright and poet, Zetta Elliott will discuss her latest book A WISH AFTER MIDNIGHT during a live interview on Rhymes, Views & News Talk Radio hosted by DuEwa Frazier on Sunday, August 8, 2010 at 5pm EST.

Zetta Elliott will discuss the themes within A Wish, her writing life and outreach to young readers. Tune in to listen LIVE and CALL IN with your questions for Zetta at (646)716-9474.


for more information on this and other author interviews!

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

57 great sci-fi and fantasy-themed album covers

SyFy's blastr blog has a great showcase of album art featuring fantasy & science fiction themes. The list includes Boston, ELO, Queen, Styx, Journey, Meat Loaf, and a whole lotta other greats in the music as well as album art department (along with a few I don't recognize).

via @JohnAnealio (via @torbooks @largeheartedboy)

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Book Review: The Red Pyramid

The Red Pyramid
The Kane Chronicles, Book 1
by Rick Riordan

Carter Kane and his sister Sadie live very different lives. Since their mother died six years earlier, Carter has traveled the world with their Egyptologist father, while Sadie lives in London with their mother's parents, who got custody in a bitter fight. Carter and Sadie's maternal grandparents blame their father for their mother's death. Sadie's father is only allowed to visit twice a year, and it's on one of these visits that things blow up — literally. A trip to the British Museum leads to an explosion, destruction of the Rosetta Stone, the disappearance of Carter and Sadie's father, and a lot of trouble for Carter and Sadie, who soon discover that not all is as it seems and that the Egyptian gods are real. Readers of the Percy Jackson books will not be surprised to learn that Carter and Sadie's destinies are intimately tied in with that of the gods, although in a very different way than in the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series.

The Red Pyramid is a solid middle-grade novel, very much in the mode of Percy Jackson, but different enough to be unique. There's plenty of action and excitement, mixed in with interesting information about the Egyptian pantheon, to hold the interest of most middle-grade readers. Carter and Sadie take turns narrating the story; unfortunately this creates some imbalance because Sadie is a stronger and more interesting character than Carter.

One disappointment was that the book isn't as funny as the Percy Jackson books, although it tries to be. There are some amusing scenes, but it's not overflowing with humor like the earlier series. I think that one reason is that it lacks the unique voice of Percy. While Carter and Sadie are strong enough characters to carry the series, they don't have Percy's sardonic voice.

I found the information about Egyptian mythology fascinating. I know a lot less about Egyptian mythology than the Greek & Roman mythology used in the Percy Jackson books, and I learned a lot. Riordan has obviously done a lot of research. Egyptian mythology is apparently very different than the more familiar Greek & Roman; it's not just a matter of different gods, but a different worldview.

Fans of the Percy Jackson series should enjoy this book, although they may find the humor strained. Other middle-grade readers may actually enjoy the series more, going into it without expectations. Overall, though, it's a good start to a series and one that many young readers will enjoy.

FTC required disclosure: Review copy obtained at Book Expo America for the purpose of writing a review. The links above are Amazon Associate links, and I earn a very small percentage of any sales made through the links. Neither of these things influenced my review.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Which Dystopian Future Is Right For You?

As a long-time fan of Dystopian fiction, I found this quiz amusing. I wish it was interactive, but then, the point isn't really to answer the questions, it's to be entertained by the answers, and maybe to learn about some new Dystopian fiction in the process.

Which Dystopian Future Is Right For You?

Found via GalleyCat

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Book Review: Curse of the Wolf Girl

Curse of the Wolf Girl
by Martin Millar

Curse of the Wolf Girl is the sequel to Lonely Werewolf Girl. Kalix, the depressed and laudanum addicted werewolf girl is now attending a remedial college, along with the unbearably perky young fire elemental, Vex. Both Kalix and Vex are living with the humans Daniel and Moonglow. Daniel still pines with unrequited love for Moonglow, who can't reciprocate (and isn't even sure she would if she could) because of the curse placed on them by fire elemental Queen Malveria, in payment for saving Kalix's life. Malveria has her own problems, which include pressure by her ministers to produce an heir, and a desperate need for a pair of limited edition, exclusive designer shoes.

The book is a little slow at first; it takes about 50 pages to really get rolling. Then a murder, an obsessed werewolf hunter, and a plot for revenge by Princess Kabechetka kick the book into high gear. There's a lot at stake here: the imperial succession of two fire elemental kingdoms, the success of an opera event, the love lives of the MacRinnalch werewolves, and the secret of long-lasting lip color.

Curse of the Wolf Girl is just as outrageously enjoyable as Lonely Werewolf Girl. In his trademark style, Millar sets a dizzying array of characters and situations into play like a deranged game-master, then proceeds to bring them together through a series of outrageous coincidences and unlikely connections. It's quite a ride, and great fun. The book is laugh-out-loud hilarious, but it also has its serious side, too. Kalix's anxiety and panic attacks are portrayed with sensitivity and realism, and there are several heart-wrenching scenes.

Curse of the Wolf Girl will be published on August 15, 2010.

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

Monday, July 12, 2010

Book Review: For the Win

For the Win
by Cory Doctorow

Multiplayer online games like World of Warcraft aren't just fun and games anymore; they're also serious business. There are enough people who are willing to pay for help in advancing in the games that an underground economy has developed around buying and selling game gold, items, and even characters, using real-world money. Some of this gold farming is done in sweatshops employing cheap labor in Asia and third-world countries around the world.

For the Win is a compelling story about some of these workers, young people lured by the promise of playing games for money, but who find themselves toiling long hours in poor working conditions. Matthew Fong is a talented gamer in China; when he tries to go independent, his boss sends goons to beat him. Mala leads an army in the slums of Mumbai, India. A talented strategist, she comes to be known as General Robotwalla. The money she earns allows her to bring her family out of poverty, and at first her situation seems like paradise, but Mala soon learns that everything comes with a price. In Singapore, Big Sister Nor works to organize the gold farming workers around the world into a union to protect their rights. But the bosses will do anything to stop her, and Big Sister Nor and her lieutenants are in grave danger.

As these and other young people work both online and offline to organize the workers and bring them together, the forces of big business work to stop them, and all of them are in real, physical danger. People are beaten, tortured, and even killed. But they have an advantage that no other union has ever had; they have the power of the Internet to bring people together, and they know better than anyone else how to use it.

Like Doctorow's Little Brother, For the Win is set in a near future, close enough to the present to be frighteningly real. And like Little Brother, it breaks some of the "rules" of good writing. There are multiple protagonists and multiple stories; some of the characters who are important early on become secondary characters later, and other main characters are introduced late in the book. There are expository digressions from the story, explaining various economic principles.

These things could be a detriment to the novel. But Cory Doctorow knows how to write a good story, and For the Win is a damn good read. Even the lessons on economics are fascinating, and I learned more about economics from this book than I did in college. With interesting young characters, a global perspective, a look at other cultures, and a battle against injustice, For the Win is a book that oozes teen appeal.

My only real complaint about the book is the cover. I personally don't think that the U.S. cover is very appealing. If I hadn't already wanted to read this book, I don't think that the cover would have done anything to interest me. I think that the cover will especially be a turnoff to girls, which is a shame, because I think that many girls would enjoy the book as well as boys, especially since it includes several strong female protagonists among its main characters. Yet how many girls will look at the picture of police in riot gear, and decide that the book isn't for them?

FTC required disclosure: Review copy obtained at Book Expo America for the purpose of writing a review. The links above are Amazon Associate links, and I earn a very small percentage of any sales made through the links. Neither of these things influenced my review.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Fifth Blogiversary!

On June 11, 2005, just over five years ago, I made my first blog post. I had already been writing reviews for Wands and Worlds, a site I founded with my son, and posting them in a homegrown database. But I had started reading kidlit blogs (there were a lot less back then!) and, inspired and encouraged by the talented Tasha Saecker, who blogs at Kids Lit, I decided to take the plunge and start blogging. My first post was a look at BEA 2005, which I had recently attended. It was a pretty good post, but the posts that followed were a little insipid, and it took some time for me to find my voice.

In honor of my fifth blogiversary, I decided to do something that I should have done, er, five years ago: I wrote up my blog and review policy. So now publishers, authors, and publicists don't need to guess what I review and what my policies are. You can see it at the "Blog & Review Policy" tab above, or at this direct link. Comments, questions, and critique are welcome.

A lot has changed in five years, but a good book is still a good book. I haven't started running out of books yet, so I hope to be blogging for a long time to come.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Little Tiger Press Young Writer and Illustrator Awards

I received information about a contest that I thought sounded interesting, for children ages 5-11 in the UK. From their web site:

The Little Tiger Press Young Writer and Illustrator Awards 2010, sponsored by PriceMinister, are designed to encourage reading and creativity in children from an early age. This national competition aims to promote a life-long love of reading, writing and illustrating.

Children either choose one of two stories to draw an illustration about, or one of two illustrations to write a story about. Entries are submitted by the schools. The winners receive vouchers to spend on the PriceMinister web site, and the winners' schools also receive vouchers. The first place winner's school receives an £800 voucher, and the second place school receives a voucher for £400.

The closing date for entries is 23rd July 2010.

More information is available on the award web site.

Friday, June 04, 2010

48-hour book challenge starts TODAY

Don't forget that MotherReader's annual 48-hour book challenge starts TODAY! The idea is to read and review as much as possible over a 48-hour period between this morning and Monday morning. There are even prizes!

You can pick your starting time, so it's not too late: you can start as late as 7:00am on Saturday and still make the 48 hours by the deadline of 7am Monday. Unfortunately I won't be able to do it this weekend like I had planned, but I'll be cheering everyone on. Sign up for the challenge here!

Thursday, June 03, 2010

Digital World 1990

Twenty years ago, I attended a conference in Monterey, California, organized by Seybold and called "Digital World 1990." The conference was intended to address the rapid technological changes affecting publishing, computer gaming, movies, and other media industries, and the coming convergence of technologies. I've attended other conferences, but that one was strongly imprinted on my memory, and I've never forgotten it. Last week, attending BEA and IBPA's Publishing University was somewhat of a déja-vu experience, which reminded me strongly of that long ago conference.

In 1990, we were in the midst of a sea change of technology that threatened to drastically change the way we did business. Publishing was still reeling from a relatively new technology, desktop publishing, that took power away from the corporations and put it in the hands of ordinary people. There was disagreement between advocates of desktop publishing, and those of us (including me) who advocated a device-neutral tagging system, SGML, as a better approach for the long term. Multimedia, in the form of CD-ROMs, was going to change the way information was presented, and a convergence of technologies meant that soon computers, televisions, telephones, and other devices would merge into multi-purpose devices.

Broadband access, in the form of ISDN, would put the world at our fingertips, although no one seemed to know exactly what that meant. The internet was gaining in popularity, but gopher was the primary means of using the internet, and the World Wide Web was just on the cusp of being developed. Ted Nelson spoke about his vision of a world wide hypertext library of information, Xanadu, which would allow anyone to create content and link to other people's content. Digital World 1990 was where I first heard about a new technology being researched, I think it was by Xerox, called electronic paper, which would use rotating dots of electrically charged ink to create paper on which the image could be changed.

There was both fear and excitement at the conference, but excitement seemed to be the primary emotion, particularly since many of the people at the conference were deeply involved in bringing about those changes. I remember one speaker, I wish I could remember who it was so I could credit him, talking about the curve of development of new technologies. Using the example of multimedia CD-ROMs, he talked about how when a new technology is first developed it generates a lot of excitement, and people think it's going to change the world. Then, when change doesn't happen as quickly as expected, there's a backlash against it. Finally, the change does happen, although often differently than expected.

Today, we are once again (or still) in the midst of a sea change affecting the way we do business. Just as twenty years ago, there is both fear and excitement, but whereas I think fear was the primary emotion at BEA 2009, I think BEA 2010 moved more towards excitement.

Some of the changes predicted at the 1990 conference have come about, although in almost all cases the change has been different than expected. CD-ROMs still exist, but they are essentially dead, however multimedia presentation of information is stronger than ever, as evidenced by the many demonstrations of "enhanced e-books" at BEA 2010. Broadband access has indeed come about, although through DSL and cable and wireless, not ISDN.

We do indeed have "the world at our fingertips," but the World Wide Web has replaced Ted Nelson's Xanadu (although project Xanadu still exists and is working to bring their vision to reality). I do wish that Xanadu had won out over the web, because Nelson's vision was far superior to what we have today. Xanadu had greater granularity of linking -- you could link to any amount of content, even down to a single byte, instead of being forced to link to whole pages -- links were bi-directional, and there was built-in copyright protection and automatic compensation of copyright holders.

E-readers based on e-ink, the descendent of e-paper, are the hot item in 2010, although sadly it seems that once again Xerox missed the boat on a technology for which they were a pioneer. There is indeed a convergence of technologies, although there is also increased specialization. Today consumers have a choice: you can purchase multi-purpose devices like the iPhone, which combine telephones, computers, and video, or you can purchase specialized devices like the Kindle that serve one purpose. Instead of an overall convergences, we've seen a combining, separating, and re-combining of technologies in many different ways.

Desktop publishing has evolved into robust graphical typesetting programs like InDesign. Yet, with the increasing importance of e-books and multi-platform publishing, format-neutral tagging based formats -- in this case XML, the intellectual descendent of SGML -- are playing a more important role, and even InDesign now incorporates XML tagging capabilities.

Using the development curve described above, I think that e-books are starting to move from the second phase, backlash, into the third phase, real change, although there is certainly still some backlash.

I think the important thing to take away from all this is that change will happen, although probably differently than we expect it to. Twenty years from now, the world -- and publishing -- will be very different than today, but it will also be different than today's predictions of where it's headed. The important thing is to be flexible and creative; companies that can adapt, in one way or another, to the change, will survive, and those that don't, won't. Adapting doesn't necessarily mean moving everything to e-books, but it does mean finding ways to do business in this new world, whatever that might mean.

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Book Review: The Stand graphic novels

The Stand: Captain Trips
The Stand: American Nightmares
Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa
Mike Perkins
Based on The Stand by Stephen King

Stephen King's The Stand is one of my favorite books of all time. It's one of those books that I go back to and reread from time to time. So I was excited when I heard about the new graphic novel adaptations from Marvel Comics, written by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa and illustrated by Mike Perkins. I haven't read many graphic novels, but it's something that I've wanted to get more into, so I thought this would be a great opportunity. I wasn't disappointed.

Marvel is releasing the story in installments, first as comics, then as hardcover books collecting five comics in each hardcover. The first hardcover is The Stand: Captain Trips, and it tells the story of the spread of the deadly bio-engineered virus that comes to be known as Captain Trips. In the second hardcover, The Stand: American Nightmares, the survivors of the modern plague begin to travel, in search of help or other survivors, while being plagued by nightmares of a dark man.

One of the best things about the original book is the characters; there is a large and diverse cast of characters representing all aspects of humanity. Some of them you can't help but love, others are ambiguous, and others are strongly in the camp of darkness. Stephen King brings all these characters to vivid life, and The Stand is really the story of how these characters weather the crisis and the aftermath, and what choices they make in the larger battle between good and evil. Bringing these characters to visual life on the page had to be one of the biggest challenges for Aguirre-Sacasa, Perkins, and the team, and they succeeded brilliantly. As an appendix to the first book makes clear, the team gave much time and attention to getting the characters right, and I think it paid off. Most of the characters look pretty much the way I imagined them, although the characters on the dark side tend towards an exaggeration in appearance that isn't to my taste, but that is probably the norm in the comics genre.

The same attention to detail was applied to the locations, from the beautiful seaside town of Ogunquit, Maine, to the streets of New York City. The appendix to the second book explains how Mike Perkins traced Larry's route through New York City and took photographs, and how he used those photographs to create the panels in the book.

The graphic novel is very true to the book, and although the scenes are necessarily abbreviated, the pictures do much to fill in the details, as they should. I was particularly interested to see how they would handle the famous Lincoln Tunnel scene, one of the scariest scenes I've read in a book. Because much of what's frightening in that scene stems from the unseen, rather than what's actually seen, I was concerned that a visual adaptation would reduce the impact. However, Aguirre-Sacasa and Perkins accomplish this by alternating panels of Larry using his Bic lighter for light, with completely black panels when the lighter gets to hot to keep on. (And a few panels showing the things in Larry's imagination). For me, it didn't have quite the visceral impact of Stephen King's words, but it did a darn good job of creating an atmospheric, frightening scene.

The first two volumes of The Stand graphic novel are very well done, and are fast-paced, entertaining reads. The artwork does a beautiful job of bringing Stephen King's vision to life. Both fans of the original book and those who have never read it will enjoy these visual interpretations of the story. I look forward to reading the next installment, The Stand: Soul Survivors, when it is released in July.

Please note: the links above will take you to the books on However, I strongly encourage you to visit your local independent comic book store and purchase them there.

FTC required disclosure: I purchased the books read for this review. The links above are Amazon Associate links, and I earn a very small percentage of any sales made through the links. Neither of these things influenced my review.

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Two innovative new e-readers

It seems like every day now, another new e-reader is announced. Some of them seem to have little to set them apart, but I saw two e-readers at BEA that caught my eye for their innovation.

enTourage eDGe

The first one is the enTourage eDGe, an exciting new dual screen reader. The left hand screen is a black & white e-ink screen for displaying your books, and the right hand screen is a full color netbook which runs the Google Android operating system.

The e-ink screen is large and comfortably displays a fair amount of text. A stylus enables you to write and draw on the e-ink screen, useful for taking notes and annotating books. The netbook half is a full-featured netbook, and runs Android apps as well as Microsoft Office applications. The current model has built-in WiFi, with 3G coming on future models. The screens can be held open side by side like a book, or can be folded back and held like a tablet.

enTourage is aiming at the higher education market with this, and I think that it would be a perfect reader for college students. The touch screen would allow them to take notes in their textbooks, and the netbook gives them access to their email, internet, and Office applications. There are even skins available for the device.

enTourage is working with textbook publishers to make their content available for the eDGe, and several large publishers have already been announced, including Elsevier's Science & Technology division, Wolters Kluwer Law & Business Books, and McGraw Hill Higher Education. In addition, the eDGe can display any book in ePub or PDF format.

The only drawback that I found to this device is its weight; it weighs slightly over three pounds, and it felt a little heavy to me. This definitely wouldn't be a device for my mother, who loves her Kindle and would have trouble holding this, but my mother isn't in the target market. It's lighter than some textbooks, and I think for college students it would be great.

The enTourage eDGe is $499, with an additional $40 for some colors.


The other interesting e-reading experience I learned about was a new book social network called Copia, with e-readers that integrate the social capabilities. I didn't get to see the actual readers, but it sounds like an interesting concept. Copia is a new social platform for readers; it apparently combines content with social networking capability. In addition to recommending books, similar to other book social networks, readers can share their notes and annotations, in a sort of online book club. The Copia e-readers are e-ink devices in a variety of sizes and configurations, but with the ability to access the recommendations, conversations, and notes of your friends as well as the e-books you purchase. Copia is still in Beta testing, but you can find more about it at

Monday, May 31, 2010

Book Review: The Marvelous Toy interactive app

The Marvelous Toy

Words and music by Tom Paxton
Additional musical arrangements by Christopher Kennedy
illustrated by Steve Cox
Interactive e-book app by mobiStories

Interactive e-book apps were one of the hot topics at BEA, and I had the opportunity to preview The Marvelous Toy interactive picture book app. The song The Marvelous Toy, by Tom Paxton, has long been a favorite of kids and adults, and Imagine Publishing created an illustrated picture book out of the song. MobiStories Digital Books has gone one step further, taking the images from the picture book and the audio of the song, and added interactivity to create an enhanced digital e-book app.

The app proceeds through a series of screens, each one displaying art from the book and playing one verse of the song while showing the words to the song. When the verse finishes, you can click on or touch different items in the picture to see them do different things, including the marvelous toy of the title, which does indeed zip, pop, and whirrrr.

The art is lovely, and of course the song, sung by Tom Paxton himself, is wonderful. Playing with the different toys is fun, and overall I think that kids will enjoy this app. My only criticism is that the response on the iPhone app was a little slow, and you have to wait for one animation to finish before you can activate the next one. My experience with kids in general leads me to believe that most will try to touch everything quickly, without waiting for the first one to finish, and when nothing happens they may assume that object doesn't do anything. From what I saw of the computer version at BEA, it seemed that this problem doesn't exist on the computer version.

The book is available as an iPhone/iPad app or as a download for your computer.

On a meta level, I can't help wondering how far you can go and still call something a book. Is an app based on a book based on a song still a book? In one sense, it doesn't matter what we call it, but to some extent it does. There's nothing wrong with kids "reading" something like this some of the time, but I wouldn't want this to become the only thing that kids read. Partly because, although the words appear on the screen, kids don't actually have to read them to enjoy the app. But also because it doesn't leave anything to the imagination, and developing imagination is another important thing that books can do. Even picture books, with art that shows what things look like, still encourage imagination; in The Marvelous Toy print book, for example, kids can see the toy but have to imagine it lighting up, zipping, and whirring. In the app, they can see it and don't have to imagine it. I don't mean this as a criticism of the app, which I like, but more as a musing on the possible implications of where we're headed.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

More BEA 2010

BookExpo America was crazy this year. With the show floor only being two days instead of the usual three, it was a mad rush of activity and I felt like I was on the run constantly trying to accomplish everything.

Tuesday evening I went to Books of Wonder for a Class of 2K10 event. There were 13 YA authors presenting their debut books, released this year.

Of the thirteen, the ones that I'd most like to read are Mistwood, 13 to Life, and Shade.

At Books of Wonder, I also got to meet a couple of teen members of the Wands and Worlds community for the first time, which was a great experience!

Wednesday night I attended the Kidlit Drink Night, organized by Cheryl Klein and Betsy Bird. In addition to Cheryl and Betsy, I also talked to Abby (the) Librarian and her friend Jen. Barry Lyga was wearing an awesome shirt promoting his new book, Archvillain. The shirt read, "I'm not evil, I'm just misunderstood." I also met Elizabeth Kennedy,'s guide to children's books. I looked at her name tag and then did a double take when I realized who she was; I told her I was in the presence of a celebrity! I also met one of the FiveAwesomeYAFans (I'm really sorry but I don't remember your name!) and Violet Haberdasher, author of Knightly Academy, who gave me a bookmark with the great slogan, "Fencing lessons, protocol drills, and death threats. Just your average day at Knightly Academy."

I'm sure there are other people I met, so if I've forgotten you please post a comment here! I didn't stay long, because I don't deal well with noise and crowds, and it was definitely noisy and crowded! But it was fun to go for a little while and catch up with old friends and make new ones.

Most of my time Thursday was spent running between meetings with publishers to talk about the Cybils, and standing in line for autographs. I did find the time to walk the show floor, although not until Thursday afternoon, and saw some interesting things, some of which I'll be posting about in separate blog posts. The books I got that I'm most excited about are:
For the Win
Cory Doctorow
Available now
Multiplayer gaming and gold-farming sweatshops in poor countries

Ally Condie
November, 2010
Futuristic dystopian story with romance

Catherine Fisher
December, 2010
Sequel to Cybils finalist Incarceron and a book I've been looking forward to reading!

Fat Vampire: A Never Coming of Age Story
Adam Rex
July, 2010

The Red Pyramid (The Kane Chronicles, Book 1)
Rick Riordan
Available now

Towards the end of the day, when my feet hurt so much I could barely walk, I had two delightful serendipitous discoveries. The first was coming across origami experts Michael LaFosse and Richard Alexander promoting their line of Origami books. They had some pretty amazing examples of origami with them. You can see some of their work in the photo gallery on their web site at The picture shows LaFosse with an F-14 Tomcat that I watched him fold.

The second discovery was coming around a corner at the very end of the day and finding a small crowd gathered around a booth that hadn't started packing up yet. Peter Yarrow and Noel Paul Stookey (Peter and Paul of Peter, Paul & Mary) were there promoting their new children's book, The Night Before Christmas. Unfortunately, I'd apparently just missed them singing, but I did get an autographed CD for my husband.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

BookExpo America (BEA) 2010

Today was the first day of the exhibit halls for BookExpo America, or BEA, the (hopefully still) annual U.S. trade show for the book business. This year the exhibit part of the show is compressed into two days instead of three, and one floor of the Javits Center instead of two. In spite of that (or maybe because of it) the show was buzzing with activity and, well, buzz. The aisles were so crowded you could barely walk, and the autographing area smelled like a locker room. Debate about "p" vs "e" could be heard throughout the exhibit floor, and more than one person was heard to exclaim that print is not dead. And judging from the number of people standing in line for autographed books, print is definitely far from dead.

This morning I attended the Children's Book and Author Breakfast, an event which featured Sarah, Duchess of York as MC, with Cory Doctorow, Mitali Perkins, and Richard Peck speaking. A music group called 4TROOPS, comprised of four combat veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, performed their song "For Freedom" and sang some beautiful harmonies.

All of the speakers were wonderful. Sarah was poised and funny and didn't seem at all phased by the reporters and camera crews climbing over each other trying to see her. She showed her new line of children's books, and concluded by saying, "I'm Sarah Ferguson, I'm a children's book author and a mom, and I'm proud of it." (I may have the exact wording of the quote wrong, but this is in essence what she said. I apologize for any errors on my part).

Cory Doctorow, author of Little Brother and his newest book, For the Win, talked about how much he loves connecting with teens. He called adolescents nature's daredevils, and said that it's a time of taking risks without the experience to necessarily understand the consequences. He talked about the exhilaration of doing things for the first time.

Through the medium of stories about her life, Mitali Perkins talked about books as windows and mirrors. Books can give us a window into another culture or another way of life, or they can be a mirror in which we can see ourselves. Growing up all the books she read had white characters, and yet she connected with those characters in many ways, so the books were mirrors. In the same way, she thinks of her books as mirrors for Asian-American children, and windows for many white American children, as a look at another culture. Yet many white children also find mirrors in her books and connect with them in unexpected ways.

Richard Peck talked about how he had to quit teaching in order to be able to communicate with children. He was quite funny talking about the changes in the teaching profession as a result in the changes of society's attitudes towards children, remarking that the Latin teachers were kicked out and chased out of town by angry mobs, and then after the Latin teachers were gone there was so little English left to teach that the name had to be changed to "Language Arts." He talked about the importance of the book The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier, and its influence on Peck's new book, Three Quarters Dead.

After the Author Breakfast, I spent most of the rest of the day bouncing between meetings with various publishers to talk about the Cybils, and standing in autographing lines. I did meet and talk to some interesting people while standing in the lines. Rick Riordan is a champion autographer; his line moved quickly as he chewed through the crowd. Matthew Reinhart apparently signs more slowly, as his line crawled along, but to be fair, his book was a lot more awkward to handle, so that could account for the difference. I was also thrilled to get a copy of Cory Doctorow's For the Win, which I'm looking forward to reading.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Book Review: The Turning

The Turning Book 1: What Curiosity Kills
by Helen Ellis

Mary Richards lives in New York's Upper East Side with her strict but loving adoptive parents and her adoptive sister, Octavia. After a childhood marred by neglect from her biological parents, Mary knows how lucky she is to have loving parents, even if they are luddites that restrict the girls' access to cell phones and computers. Mary and Octavia attend the exclusive Purser-Lilley Academy, where their only problems are not unusual: fitting in, schoolwork, and boys.

Then Mary has an encounter with a strange cat, an encounter that leaves her with...fur? Yes, fur: an orange patch of it on her leg, that she tries to keep hidden under her socks. More strange things keep happening, and finally Mary learns the truth: she is Turning, Teen Wolf style, into a cat, and that she is one of a rare group of teens that can do so. Being a cat is exhilarating, but the Turning itself is painful, and Mary finds herself caught in the middle of a brutal war, and between two very different boys.

The Turning was different than I expected. I had thought that it would be a lot about what it was like for a teen girl to experience the life of a cat, but while there are some passages from the point of view of Mary as a cat, they are few and don't give a strong picture of what it might be like to be a cat. That's not a bad thing, but it just means that the audience for this book is different than I had thought it would be. I interact a lot with fans of animal fiction, and I thought it might be a book that would appeal to them, but after reading it, I wouldn't put it in that niche.

I enjoyed the book quite a bit, however. This is a compelling and immersive book that keeps you turning the pages. It has interesting characters that have a lot of teen appeal, and the story moves along quickly and keeps you involved.

For the most part, What Curiosity Kills does pretty well in the diversity department. New York looks like New York should: with a diverse array of characters of all ethnicities and backgrounds. Mary's adoptive sister Octavia is African-American and one of the most interesting characters. Octavia is the captain of the debate team, assertive and smart, and not afraid to show it. Asian characters probably fare the worst; the mean girl is Chinese, and the "bad boy" who tries to tempt Mary into joining the "other" group of cats is Korean-American.

One thing that bothered me was the climax, which seemed contrived to me. I can't say too much without giving away spoilers, but the situation seemed to be artificially set up to create a moral dilemma. It seemed to me that there would have been other options that Mary could have used; those options might still have been morally ambiguous, but at least wouldn't have had the same implications. The climax, for me, marred what was otherwise an enjoyable book.

What Curiosity Kills is the first book in a series, and it will be interesting to see where Helen Ellis goes with this series.

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

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

MotherReader announced next 48 Hour Book Challenge!

For the last four years, MotherReader has organized what she calls a 48 Hour Book Challenge: an unrestrained orgy of reading lasting 48 hours over the course of a weekend. It's that time again: that weekend when you can legitimately say, "Sorry, I can't. I have to read." The challenge this year takes place on the weekend of June 4-6, 2010. You can choose your 48 hours any time between 7:00am Friday and 7:00am Monday.

Details and sign-up here.

Saturday, May 01, 2010

Free Comic Book Day

Yesterday, I saw a blurb that today was Free Comic Book Day, and that comic book stores nationwide would be giving away free comics to anyone who stopped in. I'm generally not a comic reader, although I did enjoy some of Neil Gaiman's Sandman comics a while back, but I was intrigued by the idea, which is "to reach out to those individuals unfamiliar with the comic book specialty market, not to mention a comic book shop." I was also curious to see what comics might have to offer, so I dragged my husband and son into our local store to check it out.

I found that I was generally underwhelmed by the selection of free comics. Granted, we didn't go until late afternoon, and I knew we were in trouble when I saw the sign on the door that said, "We open at 11. Line forms here." So I assume there would have been a greater selection of comics if we'd come earlier.

However, the problem with the comics that were available is that most of them fell into two categories: kids' comics, and superhero comics, neither of which interest me. If the point of the promotion is to attract new readers, it seems to me that there would be an advantage in showing a wider range of comics that might appeal to more new people. For example, as a fantasy/sf reader, I had hoped to find some good sff comics to check out. (I know they must be out there). I looked at the list of comics offered on the Free Comic Book Day web site, and there are a couple that would have interested me, but unfortunately they weren't available in my store.

I picked up the Oni Press Free For All, because it includes a story from The Crogan Adventures, which I was curious to see since Crogan's Vengeance was a Cybils finalist. I also picked up one called Weathercraft, just because it looked different and unusual, although I'm afraid it might be too unusual for me: on a quick look, I don't understand it, but I want to spend more time with it and see.

But I'm most excited about the book that I bought: the hardcover of The Stand: Captain Trips, the first part of the graphic novel adaptation of Stephen King's The Stand, one of my favorite books of all time. I'm looking forward to seeing the artwork and how the book was adapted to the form (once I can get it away from my son, who is already immersed in it). So for me, at least, the promotion was successful, because I, a non-comic reader, went into a comic store and came out with something that excited me. It just wasn't free.

FTC Disclosure: Some of the links above are Associate links, and I receive a small percentage of any sales made through the links

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Book Review: Dragons of Darkness

Dragons of Darkness
by Antonia Michaelis
Translated by Anthea Bell

Everyone loves Arne. His smile, his good heart, and his easy way with people make him popular. So when Arne disappears in Nepal, everyone is devastated.

No one is more devastated than Arne's 14-year-old younger brother Christopher. Although Christopher is nothing like Arne, and has always been in Arne's shadow, Christopher loves and adores his older brother. Paralyzed and helpless at the disappearance, Christopher can do nothing but look at a book about Nepal and wish that he could do something to help his brother.

And then, something happens. Transported through the book to Nepal, Christopher sets off on a quest to save his brother. But he discovers a Nepal on the brink of war between factions, and beset by color dragons who drain the land they attack of all color and value. Christopher meets an invisible boy named Jumar -- the heir to the throne of Nepal -- and the two of them set out to do what they can for the country, and maybe save Arne as well.

Dragons of Darkness is a fascinating blend of modern realistic and fantastic elements. At first, the juxtaposition of these disparate elements seems a little odd, but Antonia Michaelis' beautiful writing soon immerses the reader in her world.

From the same author and translator as Tiger Moon, it's natural to compare it to that book. Yet Dragons of Darkness is very different from Tiger Moon, although it touches on some of the same themes: the power of story and our ability to write our own destiny.

Like Tiger Moon, the writing in Dragons of Darkness is evocative, but it has a more modern feel to it, appropriate to the setting, than Tiger Moon's fairy-tale feel. It's also a grittier book, one in which the horrors of war are depicted brutally, and innocent people caught between two armies are the ones who suffer the most.

The Nepal in this book is clearly a fictional Nepal, but one that resembles some elements of recent Nepalese history: Maoist insurgents in the mountains are fighting to overthrow the king. Although Michaelis does include an "Afterword: For Political and Geographical Correctness" which gives some information about what's real and what isn't in this book, the afterword is short and sketchy, and written in a style as if it's part of the story. The story bears enough resemblance to reality, that I wish Michaelis had included a clearer and more detailed explanation of the facts. It was enough, however, to make me curious to know the truth and read more about Nepal. I hope that teens who read this book will be equally inspired. Each section of the book is also preceded by a page of information about the ecological niche that they are traveling through, another feature that will hopefully inspire interest in the "real" Nepal.

The characters and the relationships between them are one of the best things about this book. Christopher and Jumar become, in a sense, spiritual twins, and yet has his own personal journey. As Christopher searches for his brother, he learns to step out of Arne's shadow and value himself, even as he discovers that he and Arne have more in common than he realized. The sheltered Jumar grows to understand and love the people of his country, even as he seeks to learn about his past. The third member of their group is a girl they meet among the Maoists: Niya, who joined the Maoists after her entire family was killed by the King's soldiers.

I was a little disappointed in the author's use of the "is it real or is it a dream" device for transporting Christopher to Nepal. Christopher finds himself in Nepal while looking at a picture in a book about the country, and later there are hints that he has actually been at his home in Germany the whole time. There are suggestions at the end that the journey may have been real, but it's ambiguous. I've never been a fan of this device; I like my fantastic journeys to be real, at least to the main characters. I always hated that the Wizard of Oz movie makes it seem like Dorothy's trip was just a dream. In the book, she really travels to Oz.

One thing that I loved is the lack of absolutes in terms of good and evil. Although the Maoists are fighting for equality and to overthrow a corrupt government, they also commit atrocities in the name of their cause, and in some ways seem no better than the government they are rebelling against.

Overall, Dragons of Darkness is a rich, layered story, with lovely writing, deep meaning, poignant characters, and a strong sense of place. It's dark in places, but it's also not without moments of humor. The writing style will most likely appeal to strong readers. I'd like to read it again; I think that it's the kind of story that will yield new discoveries on a second reading.

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