blackfin sky blog tour (review + giveaway)

Wednesday, August 27, 2014 | | 3 comments
Do you like smart, sassy heroines with magical mysteries to solve?  Kat Ellis' debut novel Blackfin Sky may be the book for you.  It will be released by Running Press on September 2, 2014.  Check out the end of the post for your chance to win a copy!

Have you considered the elements that pull you into a story lately?  I am always partial to a beautiful book cover, but I’ve noticed my reading taste changing, too.  I am beginning to adore atmospheric magical mysteries, for one thing, and I’ve never thought of myself as a ‘mystery’ person.  Before I read the summary of Kat Ellis’ debut Blackfin Sky, I had NO intention of signing up for a book tour.  And then, somehow, I was hooked (like a fish on a line, she says, pun intended).  Good thing, too, because another one of my weaknesses is humor, and this book is strangely compelling AND funny.

blackfin sky by kat ellis book cover
Just like any other morning, Skylar Rousseau is late for school, but when she is greeted by a blanket of silent stares upon entering Blackfin High, she discovers that the whole town thought she fell from the pier and drowned on her sixteenth birthday three months earlier. However, Sky remembers the last three months living her life as normal, and since she is a full, living breathing human being, she has no idea whose body is buried underneath her tombstone. Everyone seems reluctant to help except her steadfast friend and crush, Sean... and a secretive man who draws her to a mysterious circus in the woods.

Sky must wade through impossibilities and lies to discover the truth about what happened to her, which proves to be a bit difficult when someone is following her every move with the intent to harm her. And Sky's only hope of finding the answers she seeks may have already been turned to ashes.

Skylar (or Sky, for short) is running late for school one morning when she notices that EVERYONE is acting weird.  Her friends, her family – it’s as if they’ve seen a ghost.  In fact, the entire town believes that Skylar fell off the pier three months ago on the night of her sixteenth birthday and died.  Skylar doesn’t know how or why everyone is under this delusion, but as Blackfin’s normal level of strange amps up, it’s up to her to unravel it all: her supposed death, the crazy fortuneteller’s odd pronouncements, the friend who went after her the night she died, her parents’ silences, and the odd circus in the woods. Blackfin’s citizens may be used to the town’s oddities, but they may also be in danger…

Skylar has never ventured far beyond the borders of Blackfin, but even she knows that the town is full of freaks.  And she counts herself as one of them – after all, she’s been enduring stares ever since she can remember.  Her unrequited crush on relative town newcomer Sean notwithstanding, life seems ideal.  Ideal until she wakes up one morning and everyone believes she has somehow returned from the grave.  Much of Skylar’s emotional energy in the first chapters is spent dealing with echoes of grief and open rumors of what happened on the night of her birthday. While the dialogue is snappy and it’s quite a hook, the main character’s very real confusion does not lend itself to immediate reader understanding.  In other words, the book gets off to a somewhat baffling start.

That said, things quickly pick up, as Sky’s intelligence, wit, and charm come to her aid in unraveling Blackfin’s mysteries.  It’s a fun, weird, crazy-in-a-good-way ride.  The sassy banter between Sky and her friends Bo and Cam is a major highlight, as is Sky’s relationship with her parents.  And of course we can’t forget her budding will-they-won’t-they-admit-their-feelings thing with Sean (it’s adorable too).  The supernatural/fantastical elements were done well, although I would love to one day see a diagram (or glossary of powers!) on paper.  It’s light contemporary fantasy with a twist of sci-fi for good measure.

If we’re going to talk cons, I must again point to the slow-ish start, and also to the overabundance of odd characters in Blackfin.  Which included a haunted weathervane named Silas and Sky’s home, aptly called Blood House (and an almost-sentient structure).  Yes, they add a charming dose of quirkiness, but I did, on a couple of occasions, wish there weren’t quite so many strange tendrils of story to keep track of.  At the same time, I couldn’t easily eliminate any one thing, so that kept the mystery intact. Net result = neutral-to-positive.

In the end, this is an engrossing story about a girl everyone thought was dead, and a legacy of creepy and freaky happenings that make her reappearance seem almost like one of Blackfin’s everyday occurrences.  It’s also young adult romance with snappy dialogue.  Basically, good fun.

Recommended for: fans of Gina Damico’s Croak and Sarah Rees Brennan’s Unspoken, and anyone who likes contemporary young adult fantasy with humor, quirky heroines, and writing to pull off a combination of the two.

Interested in reading the book for yourself?  You're in luck!  Running Press is graciously allowing me to offer one copy to a lucky winner.  To enter, simply fill out the FORM.  Giveaway open to US addresses only, will end on Friday, September 5 at 11:59pm EST.  Winner will be selected randomly and notified via email.  Good luck!

Fine print: I received an ARC of this book for review consideration.  Giveaway prize provided by the publisher. I did not receive any compensation for this post.

waiting on wednesday (80)

Today I’m participating in "Waiting On" Wednesday, a weekly event hosted by Jill at Breaking the Spine. Its purpose is to spotlight upcoming book releases that we’re eagerly anticipating.

Blogging has taught me to love short stories.  I can read one or two on any given weeknight, and finish an entire story while also whittling away at a book (that I can later review, yay!).  Short stories are often dark and dangerous... which is perfect, because I still prefer small bites of horror, rather than novel-length ones.  And if we're going to talk about great, fantastical short stories, Kelly Link must enter the mix.  She is a master at both editing and writing tales of this size, and that's all there is to it.  That's why I'm so excited for Monstrous Affections: An Anthology of Beastly Tales, edited by Kelly Link and Gavin J. Grant (EXCITED!).  It will be released by Candlewick on September 9, 2014.  Yay!

monstrous affections: an anthology of beastly tales edited by kelly link and gavin j. grant book cover
Fifteen top voices in speculative fiction explore the intersection of fear and love in a haunting, at times hilarious, darkly imaginative volume.

Predatory kraken that sing with — and for — their kin; band members and betrayed friends who happen to be demonic; harpies as likely to attract as repel. Welcome to a world where humans live side by side with monsters, from vampires both nostalgic and bumbling to an eight-legged alien who makes tea. Here you’ll find mercurial forms that burrow into warm fat, spectral boy toys, a Maori force of nature, a landform that claims lives, and an architect of hell on earth. Through these and a few monsters that defy categorization, some of today’s top young-adult authors explore ambition and sacrifice, loneliness and rage, love requited and avenged, and the boundless potential for connection, even across extreme borders.

What books are you waiting on?

top ten books i want to read but haven’t purchased/borrowed yet

Tuesday, August 26, 2014 | | 14 comments
Top Ten Tuesday is a meme hosted by The Broke and the Bookish, where we all get to exercise our OCD tendencies and come up with bookish lists.  If you’d like to play along, check out this post.

top ten tuesday

How do you keep track of the books you want to read but haven't purchased or borrowed yet?  In my pre-blogging days, I didn't 'keep track.'  Book discovery was limited to the library shelves, bookstore surprises, or on *very* rare occasions, author stalking via blogs.  Now however, I have lists of books I 'Want to Read' on Goodreads, an Amazon wishlist, and a meticulously curated library holds shelf.  I have many unread books at home, but the book-acquiring bug doesn't (ever) let up.  p.s. Friends and family: a bookstore gift card is ALWAYS a good bet if you don't know what to get me. *grin*

Top Ten Books I Want to Read But Haven’t Purchased/Borrowed Yet

1. Greenglass House by Kate Milford – Kate Milford is a fantastic human being, and she also writes lovely books.  Best combination ever.  This one (out today!) has two starred reviews, and I'll read it as soon as the library copies come in (I requested it through my local system, and they bought four copies! #winning).

2. The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman – I usually like (and sometimes adore) Gaiman's novels, but I've been dragging my feet on this one.  I didn't want to get caught up in the release hype, to be completely honest.  I'm thinking several cups of hot tea plus this book will make a long winter afternoon transcendent. 

3. The Islands of Chaldea by Diana Wynne Jones and Ursula Jones – Diana Wynne Jones' last book!  I am of two minds about this one.  I want to read it (obviously!), but I also never want to run out of possible DWJ books for emergencies.  Because DWJ's books are THE BEST for bad days, weeks, and months.  They're medicine for the soul.

4. Six-Gun Snow White by Catherynne M. Valente – I think this is actually a novelette (or novella?!).  I am not sure what it's about, but that cover!  And Snow White in the title!  I'm a fairy tale fanatic, and I can't wait for this one to re-emerge as an ebook download.

5. A Curse Dark as Gold by Elizabeth C. Bunce – Speaking of beautiful covers and fairy tale retellings... say hello to a YA Rumplestiltskin retelling!  I can't believe I haven't read this one yet.  Clearly I am only waiting because I must own it first?!

6. Obernewtyn by Isobelle Carmody – Dear Australia: You have produced some of my favorite fantasists.  Garth Nix, hmm?  I've heard such good things about the Obernewtyn series.  I'm worried I'll feel as though I've missed an important part of my fantasy education until I buckle down and read them.

7. Untold by Sarah Rees Brennan – Brennan tortures her readers, and the first book in this series, Unspoken, was no exception.  I haven't read book #2 because I'm waiting for the series conclusion.  I think I can just about handle the whole series in one big gulp... if I know there's an ending in sight.

8. Royal Airs by Sharon Shinn – I go to Shinn books for guaranteed emotion.  I am just never sure if it'll be swoon or if there'll be an edge that bothers me, you know?  I will pick this one up soon (I think changeable fall weather calls for intense reads!).

9. Runelight by Joanne Harris – Harris, of Chocolat fame, wrote one of the best reworkings of mythology (Runemarks) that I've ever read.  There are two follow-up titles, and this is the first.  I don't know that it's available in hard copy in the US right now, but it's on the to-read list... so I'll order it from England if need be!

10. Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie – It feels as though everyone has read this title (and raved about it).  Well, I want to be part of everyone.  Also, the book sounds amazing.

What books would make your list?


Monday, August 25, 2014 | | 1 comments
One difficulty associated with being on the interwebs at all times is that I often can’t recall where I found a recommendation.  My browsing process goes like this: click on a shiny link!, read about book, decide it is for me, go straight to library website, place hold… perhaps leave a comment?  But most likely just close out the window/tab, and go on to the next blog post.  Related note: I need to keep better track of the reviews that inspire me to click – and eventually read – books! Credit *must* be given.  I don’t know where I heard about Emily Lloyd-Jones’ debut Illusive, but I do know that YA sci-fi + organized crime + superhero capabilities ticked several of my favorite boxes.  I picked it up from the library and read it straightaway (well, almost straightaway… $1.40 in fines is pretty much immediate in my world!).

illusive by emily lloyd-jones book cover
The X-Men meets Ocean's Eleven in this edge-of-your-seat sci-fi adventure about a band of "super" criminals.

When the MK virus swept across the planet, a vaccine was created to stop the epidemic, but it came with some unexpected side effects. A small percentage of the population developed superhero-like powers. Seventeen-year-old Ciere Giba has the handy ability to change her appearance at will. She's what's known as an illusionist...She's also a thief.

After a robbery goes awry, Ciere must team up with a group of fellow super-powered criminals on another job that most would consider too reckless. The formula for the vaccine that gave them their abilities was supposedly destroyed years ago. But what if it wasn't?

The lines between good and bad, us and them, and freedom and entrapment are blurred as Ciere and the rest of her crew become embroiled in a deadly race against the government that could cost them their lives.

Ciere Giba is a seventeen year-old criminal in a near future where a devastating virus decimated the world’s population and its cure (the untested Praevenir formula) created superhuman powers in a tiny percentage of the vaccinated.  War is/was inevitable.  War between nations, war between regular citizens and the immune (those with ‘adverse effects’), and war between the feds and the crime syndicates.  Ciere lives with a crew of freelancers, working mostly art heists, when a series of jobs gone wrong and last-second decisions lead her into the path of the mob, the feds, and an even more dangerous foe.  Survival just got a lot more precarious…

Oh goodness, this book was fun!  It was a rush of a story, with fights, betrayals, identity issues, crackdowns, burglaries, puzzles, and rooting for the underdogs!  All of those things kept the plot and pace moving, and the writing was pretty great too.  See this bit, from page 137:

“Her heartbeat picks up, her pulse fluttering through her neck and wrists.  She loves this part, loves the moment before she pulls off a job—the heat, the cold, the rush.  It’s terrifying and delicious, like teetering out over the edge of a building, her fingers tight on the safety railing.  She can see how everything could go horribly wrong, but that rational part of her is tamped down, silenced by the beauty of the fall.”

If the idea of a cross between Holly Black’s Curse Workers series and X-Men sounds #awesome, then this is the book for you.  If you want gray areas in motivations, secrets that could break apart groups (and agencies!), and crime from the insider’s perspective, you’re golden.

That said, as soon as I put the book down, I started considering the setting (can we call it worldbuilding if it’s sci-fi?), and I noticed a couple of gaping holes.  It was one of those, “I liked the book so much!  But… now that I think about it…” experiences.  Hate that!  But let me tell you my quibbles (perhaps they will be insignificant to you!).  First, twenty years in the future was not that futuristic.  Cellphones, internet, cars, computers, GPS – they all functioned in the exact same way they do today.  Which, I get: write what you know (present day).  But this is supposedly the future, and I am (apparently) picky about sci-fi. Update those little details that give sci-fi an extra boost of imagination, okay?  Okay. 

Second (somewhat related to the previous point), the mechanics of identifying the inoculated and immune tested population… were so basic!  Plot point: people have to carry around physical identity tags, and if they don’t, they can get hauled away.  Identity TAGS.  No instant blood testing, retina scanning, facial recognition, chipping… nope.  This is a world where counterfeit = easy, because there aren’t even hologram drivers licenses.  I call foul.  Even if you take a hit population-wise, I don’t think the tech side of things would regress that much/unevenly.  Or at least explain why it has!

Other annoyances: the set-up is slow and confusing, so even though action is moving right along, Ciere’s world doesn’t come into focus until several chapters in.  This might tempt other, less-patient readers to put the book down.  Also, this story is just full of dudes.  Ciere is the main voice, yes, but she’s the only female with any significant part in the story.  That bummed me out, because the book did so well otherwise in the diversity stakes. 

YES, I’m here to tell you something good instead of complaining anymore!  Diverse characters!  Front and center.  And (I’m pretty sure? It’s not explicit, but I assume?) gay representation as well.  Also, though Ciere is the main character, you also see things from the viewpoint of Daniel, one of her crew, now forced to work for the other side (gasp!).  The dual viewpoints enhance the plot (100% more twists!) and character development, as each operation is ‘visible’ from both sides.

Concluding thoughts?  Illusive was a fun-but-flawed take on superpowers, survival, and honor (or lack thereof) among criminals.  If nothing else, I liked it because I like intelligent cons.  Even though I wasn’t completely satisfied by the final product, I want more.  I will read the next book just to see what Lloyd-Jones does with all of those loose ends.

Recommended for: fans of young adult sci-fi (light on the sci-fi elements) and superhero stories, and anyone who liked Holly Black’s White Cat.

what is one thing you would try if you knew you couldn’t fail?

Friday, August 22, 2014 | | 4 comments
I wrote a few months ago about getting my new job because of skills I learned from blogging.  That’s still true, and incidentally, I still love my job (yay!).  But in that post I also made a note that I’d been at my company for three years and earned their respect prior to landing this job-that-I-love.  Penelope Trunk (an author and entrepreneur who writes great stuff on career and life) wrote a post today on respect and said, look at what you do well. Now. That’s what earns you respect, whether you like it or not.

Penelope writes really raw, honest things, and I respect her for that: she does it well.  And her post made me think about what I do well, and how exactly I earned my own workplace respect.

I (initially) earned respect by asking questions.  And no, they weren’t job-related questions.  Here’s the story: I was given a dark corner cubicle where I could have hidden away and never learned anyone’s names and eventually faded from existence.  That might be an exaggeration… *might*  The one redeeming characteristic of this cubicle was a whiteboard (I didn’t need a whiteboard).  So I wiped it clean and put up a silly question, probably something like “What is your favorite color?”

My secret: I have nice handwriting, and I’m vain about it.  THAT is why I wrote a question.  The good news is that people came by, noticed my question, and responded.  Soon, I was writing up a new question every day.  I was also okay at my job, but that question-a-day routine was what helped me connect with my coworkers and learn more about my office and eventually transition to another role (and from that to this one!).

We moved to a new office, and the whiteboard moved to the kitchen.  I still write up the question every day.  When new hires go on a tour, I’m introduced as ‘the person who writes the questions on the board.’  I’ve earned respect at work for being good at asking questions.

Another secret: I rarely answer my own questions. I may be good at asking (or finding sources to use when I can’t think of a question), but I don’t have a quick processor upstairs.  I mull, I weigh, and often the entire day goes by without an answer popping into my mind.  Related: It takes me forever to write book reviews.

Anyway, all that to say that I put today’s question up at 9am, and I still haven’t thought of an answer.  It may be just that I am a slow thinker, but it may also be that I am scared of more than just failure.  I may be scared of responsibility, or expectations.

But hey, it’s not all about me (and my possible fear).  I love today’s question, and I love the different answers.  I wanted to figure out a way to ask it on my blog.  So here you go (and I’m sorry you had to ramble through bits on respect and the history of my job/questions to get there):

What is one thing you would try if you knew you couldn’t fail?

the midnight queen

Wednesday, August 20, 2014 | | 4 comments
You know that sense of well-being after you’ve finished a good book, when life is all contentment, and you feel a flush of joy?  I read a very ‘Cecelia’ book, and I felt… pleased with everything and everyone.  I couldn’t contemplate my next read for days – I had to let the euphoria of a tailor-made story buoy me up for some time afterwards.  What was the book that ensorcelled me so completely?  Only Sylvia Izzo Hunter’s debut fantasy novel, The Midnight Queen.

In the hallowed halls of Oxford’s Merlin College, the most talented—and highest born—sons of the Kingdom of Britain are taught the intricacies of magickal theory. But what dazzles can also destroy, as Gray Marshall is about to discover…

Gray’s deep talent for magick has won him a place at Merlin College. But when he accompanies four fellow students on a mysterious midnight errand that ends in disaster and death, he is sent away in disgrace—and without a trace of his power. He must spend the summer under the watchful eye of his domineering professor, Appius Callender, working in the gardens of Callender’s country estate and hoping to recover his abilities. And it is there, toiling away on a summer afternoon, that he meets the professor’s daughter.

Even though she has no talent of her own, Sophie Callender longs to be educated in the lore of magick. Her father has kept her isolated at the estate and forbidden her interest; everyone knows that teaching arcane magickal theory to women is the height of impropriety. But against her father’s wishes, Sophie has studied his ancient volumes on the subject. And in the tall, stammering, yet oddly charming Gray, she finally finds someone who encourages her interest and awakens new ideas and feelings.

Sophie and Gray’s meeting touches off a series of events that begins to unravel secrets about each of them. And after the king’s closest advisor pays the professor a closed-door visit, they begin to wonder if what Gray witnessed in Oxford might be even more sinister than it seemed. They are determined to find out, no matter the cost…

Graham Marshall (Gray to friends and family) is a young postgraduate at Merlin College, in Oxford.  His vocation is the study of magic, and he hopes to one day teach fellow magician-scholars like himself.  All his plans are upset when he discovers a sinister plot against the head of his college after a night escapade gone terribly wrong.  When his tutor, Professor Callendar, takes him off to his country estate, Gray wonders if anything will turn right again… but that is before he meets the Professor’s least-loved daughter Sophie.  Sophie doesn’t have any magic, but that doesn’t keep her from being intensely interested in it, despite the fact that her mother died in a magical accident.  Together, Sophie and Gray may solve several mysteries, and perhaps find something more as well.

A good reading experience is as much luck as it is planning.  I knew from the description of The Midnight Queen that I had quite a good change of liking the book – after all, it was languages/scholars/magic/Regency-esque manners and mores… exactly what I ordered up on my wishlist for reading material earlier this year.  So, I said I’d read it.  I was also lucky in that I read it on a leisurely Sunday afternoon with time enough to get invested (and eventually, lost) in the story, too.  This one starts at a modest pace, but it gathers steam as the story unfolds, and I’m not sure I would have treated it with so much patience if I hadn’t picked it up at the right time.  Long story short, that’s how I came to be happily engaged in an entertaining book for a lovely Sunday afternoon.  And why I am now going to bully you into reading it too (not actual bullying of course… more like, strong recommend-ing!).

After the opening chapters, the narrative switches often between Gray and Sophie’s POVs, though Gray sees more ‘stage time.’  Gray himself is a studious, stubborn young man who happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time to start the story.  Overall he’s a smart, refreshing change from the ‘alpha male who thinks he knows everything’ sort of hero you sometimes see in fantasy.  Sophie, though – Sophie is the winning character, if you can single one out.  She’s young (only seventeen – YA crossover potential!), thirsty for knowledge, curious, caring, and has been cloistered away by her father for much of her life.  Though they’re both odd in their own ways, they make a good team, and much of their character development is spent learning how to complement each other and then putting that into practice.  It’s a mutual appreciation society, though it takes some time for them to realize how much they mean to each other.  I did get my allotment of swoon, though, never fear!

But enough about the characters!  I would say, though I loved Sophie, that most of the book’s charm lies in its complex setting and plot (once it gets going).  Hunter has made up some languages and pulled in other (dead) ones, re-drawn national lines, and in all created an alternate world where everything seems familiar, but has been tweaked just enough to create a truly fantastical background.  I want to go to Merlin and study it all myself!  That said, there are also: secretive compatriots, plots upon plots, disguises and traveling incognito, true love, and parallels to Jane Austen’s novels.  I also adored the sisterly (and sibling) relationships and friendships throughout the book.  We all know in real life nothing gets done without a network of friends to help you out, but it’s rare to see the fictional equivalent in sci-fi and fantasy.  I really loved that aspect, and I think it will only make the following books better (there must be more!).

Before I run away with this review and tell you everything, I must mention the book’s cons.  The only serious one is that the book started slowly.  It takes a bit of dedication to stick with the narrative when you have sunburned gardening going on for pages and pages.  That said, once it does get going, it’s gold.  My other (minor) complaints all have to do with wanting more detail, more backstory, and more of the side characters.  But that’s the beauty of creating such a rich world – I’m sure Hunter will come back and fill in bits I didn’t even know I needed.  And I didn’t feel as if I was missing anything on that score, merely that I am now curious about everyone and everything.

In all: this was MY sort of book, and I really can’t praise it enough.  I’ve already gone back and read the delicious bits again, and I can’t wait to buy a finished copy for my shelf.  *happy sigh*

Recommended for: those who like books with magical adventure, romance and intrigue, fans of alternate world historical fantasy, and readers who liked Kate Elliott’s Spiritwalker series and Patricia C. Wrede’s Mairelon books.

The Midnight Queen will be released by Ace (Penguin) on September 2, 2014.

Fine print: I received an e-ARC of this book from the publisher for review consideration.  I did not receive any compensation for this post.

top ten books people have been telling me to read

Tuesday, August 19, 2014 | | 10 comments
Top Ten Tuesday is a meme hosted by The Broke and the Bookish, where we all get to exercise our OCD tendencies and come up with bookish lists.  If you’d like to play along, check out this post.

top ten tuesday

Except for one over-achieving stint in high school where I tore through a suggested reading list of classics, I have never been very good at reading what I am supposed to read at any given moment.  If I'm not completely taken with the writing or concept or cover art or even the idea of a book, I will find anything else to do other than read it.  This applies when friends recommend books as well.  It's not them, it's me.  I certainly believe my friends think I will love the book.  It's just that I am rarely in the mood to pick up an untested text at the exact moment of recommendation.  I am also picky as heck these days about my reading, and the TBR (to be read) mountain of books isn't getting any shorter.  All this to say: I have a very long list of books that people have been telling me to read, and this post only skims the surface.

Top Ten Books People Have Been Telling Me to Read

1. Daughter of Smoke & Bone by Laini Taylor – It's not just bloggers who have been hyping this one to me... no, my real life friend Amy burned through the series recently and implored me to read it too (so we can discuss it when we hang out, naturally)(given how fast I read books we may never hang out again!?).

2. The Night Gardener by Jonathan Auxier – I visited with the lovely Kate Milford (author of The Boneshaker, and the forthcoming Greenglass House) for a bit at BEA, and she told me wonderful things about this book.  It's on hold at the library as we speak, I swear!

3. West with the Night by Beryl Markham – So, funny story.  I saw a blogger's review of this title (or maybe it was mentioned in a review of Code Name Verity?), and I thought, "My friend Leigh will love this book."  I gave it to her for Christmas, and she adored it.  She thinks I'll love it too.  I'm inclined to believe her.

4. Mistborn by Brandon Sanderson – I fully expect to love this book (and series), because Sanderson does really amazing magical systems.  Also because Grant Hollis told me I would love it.  Grant, you better not be wrong.  That's a warning. *grin*

5. Divergent by Veronica Roth – Dear best friend, YES, I know.  One day soon!

6. Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell – To my entire (lovable) DC Forever Young Adult book club... I bought the book.  I will eventually read it.  And you will be able to say "I told you so" as much as you like.  Okay?

7. Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein – I don't have a great foundation in classic sci-fi, but Heinlein is always on the suggested reading list when I ask those who know what they're talking about.  One day when I get around to my sadly-neglected sci-fi education, this will be the first on the list.

8. A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness – Something I'm good at: recommending books.  Something I'm not good at: accepting recommendations from friends. Lauren recommended this to me... oh, two years ago now? I trust her, and I know I should trust the book. *le sigh*

9. Ready Player One by Ernest Cline – Last summer I spent my Tuesday nights playing trivia with a fun group of geeks.  They suggested this book.  I have been eyeing it doubtfully, wondering whether most of the allusions would go over my head (I didn't get out much in the 80s, being a small child at that point...).

10. The Walled City by Ryan Graudin – Emma at Miss Print wants me to read this book so that we can discuss.  She even sent me a copy!  I have no excuse.

What books have people been recommending to you lately?

the castle behind thorns

Reading is a weird, personal experience.  Likewise deciding what to read.  Once I’ve settled on a book (enticed by the cover art, title, summary, author or the recommendation of someone I trust) my strange behavior escalates.  I tend to avoid (or at best, skim) reviews of the chosen book.  And after I’ve made a decision not to spoil a book for myself, years may go by, I may even change my mind about reading it, and still steer clear of reviews.  It’s slightly obsessive behavior, but it’s just standard operating procedure.  So: The Castle Behind Thorns.  I loved Merrie Haskell’s middle grade debut The Princess Curse, but her following book, Handbook for Dragon Slayers, didn’t strike my fancy.  Still, I’ve been waiting on this third Haskell title since last year, but I’ve been pretending reviews didn’t exist.  I didn’t even let myself dwell on the summary.  Once I started reading, though, it was all enchantment, and I hardly looked up until I’d finished the book.

the castle behind thorns by merrie haskell book coverWhen Sand wakes up alone in a long-abandoned castle, he has no idea how he got there. The stories all said the place was ruined by an earthquake, and Sand did not expect to find everything inside-from dishes to candles to apples-torn in half or slashed to bits. Nothing lives here and nothing grows, except the vicious, thorny bramble that prevents Sand from leaving. Why wasn't this in the stories?

To survive, Sand does what he knows best-he fires up the castle's forge to mend what he needs to live. But the things he fixes work somehow better than they ought to. Is there magic in the mending, granted by the saints who once guarded this place?

Unexpectedly, Sand finds the lost heir, Perrotte, a girl who shares the castle's astonishing secrets and dark history. Putting together the pieces-of stone and iron, and of a broken life-is harder than Sand ever imagined, but it's the only way to gain their freedom, even with the help of the guardian saints.

With gorgeous language and breathtaking magic, Merrie Haskell's The Castle Behind Thorns tells of the power of memory and story, forgiveness and strength, and the true gifts of craft and imagination.

Thirteen year-old Sand wakes one morning in the fireplace of a broken castle, with no memory of the night before, and no way out.  But his arrival is just one of the mysteries of the castle.  First, the castle itself and everything in it has been rent in two – violently.  It was clearly caused by some magical or miraculous event – but what?  Second, there’s an impenetrable wall of thorns growing around the castle walls, and they’re not exactly a benevolent presence.  Third, Sand discovers that the castle’s long-lost heir Perrotte is trapped with him.  While Sand sets about doing what he knows best – mending the castle through his blacksmithing skills – there’s the matter of survival.  These two will need to untangle history, myth and emotion to free themselves and set things right once and for all.

Don’t be fooled: while this tale has the traditional castle-surrounded-by-thorns, it’s not a typical Sleeping Beauty retelling.  The lovely mix of mythology, fairy tale, religion and medieval French setting is all its own.  Unique too is the dual narrative structure, though Sand is certainly the focus. 
Sand misses his loving family, but he’s struggling to forge his own path and this brings him into conflict with his father.  His removal to the Sundered Castle forces him to adapt to independence quickly, and to face a few choice facts.  Young noblewoman Perrotte’s past comes back to her slowly, and emotion threatens to sweep her into rash action when it does.  However, Sand’s presence and her interest in the natural sciences combined lead to growth, and eventually, a future she could learn to love.  At the most basic level, they’re two adolescents making the transition to adulthood, and while they urgently need a way out of the castle, their time of isolation also gives them time to know themselves and each other.

That’s the story, then.  I enjoyed it, though it didn’t set my pulse racing – it’s a quieter sort of story (though not peaceful… there’s quite a bit of remembered violence).  What really shines in The Castle Behind Thorns?  Haskell’s writing and the world-building.  Just A+ stuff!  Haskell’s writing is like a mash-up of the best of Karen Cushman (The Midwife’s Apprentice) and Robin McKinley (The Blue Sword).  It is finely wrought medieval fantasy setting plus fairy tale, magic and mysticism.  I’ve never read anything like it (and I have read a lot of fairy tale retellings, folks).  Haskell is breaking ground, but not in a flashy, plot-above-all sort of way – no, this is heart-driven, mythic storytelling with appeal for anyone who likes smart fantasy with layers of meaning (my preteen self would have loved this book and all of the female agency!).

I’m not sure, rereading my review, that I have convinced you to pick up the book yet.  Let me try again.  My favorite things: Sand as a character – so grounded, perfect temperament for his chosen work, and yet not a perfect cardboard cutout ‘type.’  The inclusion of religious symbols, saints and miracles alongside magic.  Real danger!  Unkindness and tragedy paired with examples of strength and courage.  Good parental figures, as well as ambiguous ones.  Gray areas!  And of course, a historical heroine interested in science.  This one, in case you couldn’t tell, was a total winner.

Recommended for: fans of Rosamund Hodge’s Cruel Beauty (don’t expect a romantic thread!), Elizabeth Gray Vining’s Adam of the Road, Sherryl Jordan’s The Raging Quiet, and all-ages (10+) fans of beautifully crafted historical fantasy.

top ten books i'm not sure i want to read (anymore)

Tuesday, August 12, 2014 | | 15 comments
Top Ten Tuesday is a meme hosted by The Broke and the Bookish, where we all get to exercise our OCD tendencies and come up with bookish lists.  If you’d like to play along, check out this post.

top ten tuesday

Today’s topic is a funny one.  I’m going to list the top ten books I used to be excited about reading, but for one reason or another will probably never get to now.  This is the sort of thing that strikes me as equally sad (giving up on books!) and wonderful (banishing reading guilt!).  Of course, my mind isn’t completely made up – these books do still live on my shelf after all, and they’ve survived weeding for years.  I just don’t know when I can see myself picking them up.  Feel free to tell me in the comments if I ought to strongly reconsider my current stance (or if any of these are hidden gems!).  Kthxbye!

Top Ten Books I’m Not Sure I Want to Read (Anymore)

1. The Fault in Our Stars by John Green – Oh, this book.  The hype machine had its heyday, and then there’s the fact that it’s contemporary (I don’t read much contemporary these days), and on top of that, it’s a sad book.  I have a notoriously hard time reading sad books.  I’m almost ready to donate my signed first edition. 

2. One of Diana Wynne Jones’ backlist titles – Clarification: I have not lost any of my enthusiasm for DWJ’s hilarious and creative fantasies.  No, this is pick is one of those “I know she passed away, so I never want to run out of her books” things.  You do that too, right?  Okay, I’ll go sit in a corner now.

3. The Help by Kathryn Stockett – My mother is not a reader.  My mother has read this book.  I am going to call this feeling shame and dispose of the book quietly, to a good home.

4. Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke – I just don’t know if I’ll ever read this book while I’m still blogging.  I once got halfway through it, but put it down in order to finish something slimmer for review.  It has that abandoned look to it now.  In case you’re wondering what an abandoned book looks like, it means: spine cracked (but only halfway through), thin layer of dust, on a shelf that I haven’t touched in months (possibly years).  Sad trombone.

5. Dingo by Charles de Lint – I went through a pretty heavy de Lint phase in high school and college, but I think I may have turned a corner… I haven’t finished a de Lint book in ages, and they don’t appeal to me much anymore, to be perfectly frank. I bought this one in a hopeful mood several years ago, but I don’t know when/if I’ll ever read it.

6. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak – I broke down and saw the film before reading the book.   And I wept throughout most of the film.  Like, red eyes and a headache afterwards sorrow.  I don’t know if I could handle that going in, knowing what I do…

7. Cecilia by Fanny Burney – Burney's work was a influence on Jane Austen (and I love Jane Austen, obvi), but I think we all know the reason I tracked down a copy of this book.  For the title character/heroine.  In person it’s a brick of a book with paper-thin pages… and again I face the conundrum of a big book vs. blogging urgency.  *le sigh*

8. Dragonhaven by Robin McKinley – See explanation under Diana Wynne Jones’ books, above.  I freaking adore McKinley, and it has to be madness that has kept this one unread on my shelf for so long.

9. Bitterblue by Kristen Cashore – I waited for this book like everyone else who was entranced by Cashore’s first two titles… and then I read in a review that it wasn’t very magical.  Excitement plummeted, and now… I just don’t know?  Maybe one day I’ll do a series reread of the Graceling books and zip right through this one.  Maybe.

10. Rose Under Fire by Elizabeth Wein – I did mention above that sad books = hard, right?  Yeah, that.  BUT Code Name Verity!  It hit me in the feels!  So I still haven’t made a final decision.

What are some books you used to be excited about? 

love in the time of global warming

Anticipation is one of the constants of my book blogging life.  When I began blogging lo, these many years ago (okay, fine, five and a half years!), I looked around to see what the community was doing.  A weekly event called Waiting on Wednesday (WoW) drew my attention, and I’ve been participating on and off ever since.  It’s all about finding books that aren’t released yet and highlighting them while you wait for the release date to come around.  Since then, I’ve been much more aware of what books are coming, when, and whether I’m interested or not.  A year and a half ago when I saw Francesca Lia Block's Love in the Time of Global Warming cover art and heard Greek mythology, retelling, and post-apocalyptic in combination, I coveted it.  Now, after no less than three library fines and several ultimatums to myself (I’ll finish it by Tuesday!), I’ve finally read it.

love in the time of global warming by francesca lia block book cover
A stunning reimagining of Homer's Odyssey set in post-apocalyptic Los Angeles, written by a master storyteller. 

Seventeen-year-old Penelope (Pen) has lost everything—her home, her parents, and her ten-year-old brother. Like a female Odysseus in search of home, she navigates a dark world full of strange creatures, gathers companions and loses them, finds love and loses it, and faces her mortal enemy. 

In her signature style, Francesca Lia Block has created a world that is beautiful in its destruction and as frightening as it is lovely. At the helm is Pen, a strong heroine who holds hope and love in her hands and refuses to be defeated.

Pen lives in a post-apocalyptic Los Angeles.  Two months after an earthquake opened a huge gash in the earth, and the sea came rushing up to her house, she’s still hiding from the broken world outside, surviving on stockpiled canned goods.  She hasn’t seen her family since the disaster, and fears the worst...  When her fragile denial and ‘peace’ is broken, Pen must venture out into a changed landscape.  She will see unbelievable things, meet mythical creatures, mine her strengths, and adopt a dangerous quest, all in the name of love.  Whether or not she comes home again will be a matter of will, of luck, of the strengths of her companions, and a bit of magic.

My summary above makes this book sound rather concrete!  I’m actually proud that I could distill it down from concepts and allusions and magical realism into something that makes linear sense.  Warning: Love in the Time of Global Warming does not make much sense, in a traditional plot sort of way.  Yes, it is about a journey that mirrors Odysseus’ in The Odyssey.  But.  This version of the story is full of flashbacks and foresight to other times, musings on art and its importance even in a world where survival is paramount, queer identity, being good to the earth, and possible gifts/powers that have sprung up amid the desolation.  All of those things overwhelm the ‘journey’ thread, making the book seem more like a series of related vignettes.  The effect is fable-ish.

Pen herself is a confused, grieving teen with a bent toward the fantastic.  Her mind loops around a blend of memory, religion, art, symbolism, and story, and in the midst of it all Pen finds pieces of herself that weren’t evident in life ‘Before.’  While she occupies the post of narrator, she’s not always the central figure in the tale.  I found myself frustrated in the extreme with this Pen-narrated, unfocused storytelling.  Experiences had a vague quality to them, so even though the end of the world sounded terrible, it never made it into my mind’s eye.  In addition, the themes of sexuality, gender, and addiction were never fully explored.  I could tell that the book was making statements, but I felt as though I was being asked to unravel a muddle that could have been made explicit.  Feeling stupid while reading makes me grumpy, folks.

In the end, I have found two ways to describe this book: one is kind, the other one… honest.  Feel free to take your pick.  1) Love in the Time of Global Warming is an elliptical, fantastical tale that takes on the theme of identity and claims art and love above all. 2) Love in the Time of Global Warming is a book that tries very hard to be meaningful, but in the end feels like reading an extended nightmare or drug-addled dream.  As I said… take your pick.

Recommended for: readers who like trippy fantasy and sci-fi as long as it is pretty (and for whom coherency is not a number one priority).

waiting on wednesday (79)

Today I’m participating in "Waiting On" Wednesday, a weekly event hosted by Jill at Breaking the Spine. Its purpose is to spotlight upcoming book releases that we’re eagerly anticipating.

My love of/for fairy tale retellings and fantasy is a given.  However, there are certain kinds of fairy tales I like more than others.  Stories with curses are just... better.  A curse gives the protagonist a disadvantage to overcome from the very beginning, and a concrete evil to fight against/unravel. Another favorite flavor of fairy tale = shapeshifting.  People who can transform into animals are by turns amazing and sinister, depending on perspective.  Lucky for me, there's a young adult book on the way that combines these two fairy tale elements.  I'm pretty pumped.  Cat Hellisen’s Beastkeeper will be released by Henry Holt and Co. (Macmillan) on February 3, 2015.

beastkeeper by cat hellisen book cover
A haunting story of magic, curses, and dangerous family secrets.

Sarah has always been on the move. She's grown up lonely, longing for magic. She doesn't know that it's magic her parents are running from.

When Sarah's mother walks out on their family, all the strange old magic they have tried to hide from comes rising into their mundane world. Her father begins to change into something wild and beastly, but before his transformation is complete, he takes Sarah to live with grandparents she's never met.

Deep in the forest, in a crumbling ruin of a castle, Sarah begins to untangle the layers of curses affecting her family, until she discovers that the curse has carried over to her, too. The day she falls in love for the first time, Sarah will transform into a beast... unless she can figure out a way to break the curse forever.

What books are you waiting on?

house of ivy & sorrow

I don’t know about you kids, but I can’t be trusted in a bookstore.  I mean, I love bookstores.  I adore them.  They’re full of books, and books = my jam.  BUT.  A bookstore is full of books for SALE, and that can pose a problem for my wallet.  I went into a bookstore this past spring with my friend Lauren, and I made some stupid proclamation along the lines of, “I’m not going to buy anything unless they have the exact title I want!”  Ha.  Hahahahahahahahaha.  I walked out with the prettiest book I saw in the Young Adult section, Natalie Whipple’s House of Ivy & Sorrow.  And I thanked my lucky stars that I didn’t do more damage.

house of ivy and sorrow by natalie whipple book cover
They say a witch lives in the old house under the bridge…

What the residents of Willow's End don't know is that there are two witches living in the crumbling old house draped in ivy. Ancient, toothless Dorothea Hemlock … and her seventeen-year-old granddaughter, Josephine.

Jo has always managed to keep her magical life separate from her normal one. But now the mysterious Curse that killed her mother—and so many Hemlock witches before her—has returned. Soon Jo realizes that the life she's fought to keep hidden could destroy the one she's worked so hard to protect.

Josephine (or Jo, as everyone calls her) is a hereditary young witch living in the back-of-beyond Iowa with her Nana, a formidable (if nearly toothless) power, her two best friends, and her crush-turned-almost-boyfriend, Winn.  When a mysterious man appears on their doorstep, Nana looks forbidding, and Jo starts worrying about the Curse, a Black family legacy that killed her mother.  From there, things only get more dangerous, as the witchy mystery escalates and Jo tries to keep it together at school and at home.

I think this book wanted to be a lot of things.  It wanted to be funny, with snappy dialogue.  It wanted to pose deathly-serious consequences to magic-gone-wrong.  It wanted to be a sweet, first love kind of romance with just enough tension and another boy on the horizon to keep things young-adult-fiction-interesting.  What it managed, in the midst of all that striving, was to give me a headache.

The issue, as I see it, was tone + worldbuilding.  While it is possible to do light-hearted plus dark (see: Sarah Rees Brennan’s Unspoken), House of Ivy & Sorrow didn’t hit that level.  I felt like I had whiplash: first reading a scene of mild embarrassment over sitting next to a boy on the bus, and then an abrupt shift to tearing out teeth, gouging skin, or pulling hair out by the roots to make a powerful spell. The dialogue was frequently fresh and fun, but it didn’t match the magical system, where the ‘sacrifices’ practioners had to make were horrible (but never seemed to incapacitate) and the reasons for doing them either terrible or vague enough as to seem unnecessary.  Long story short, it didn’t gel.

Main character Jo had strengths and weaknesses, and it was refreshing to read a book where a young magic-user gets things wrong and fumbles around a bit (as you’d expect anyone new to a skill would!).  I also appreciated the small town setting, her healthy female friendships, and their realistic banter.  That said, Jo’s reactions under pressure were… not mellow, exactly, but not urgent.  And that didn’t match the sarcastic, smart, difficult girl she was supposed to be.

Let’s review: there was the matter of tone, discussed above, and various other inconsistencies (for example: these witches are always harming themselves… so how does no one notice that Jo isn’t completely covered in scars/bruises?!) that interrupted any flow before it could really get going. Additionally, what I would call the essential elements of a good fantasy/paranormal were the weakest bits. It was trying for spooky but not laying the groundwork for the proper atmosphere.  In all, House of Ivy & Sorrow was a mixed bag of a book.  It didn’t work for me, but I think it will appeal to those who aren’t regular readers of fantasy.

Recommended for: fans of Aprilynne Pike’s Wings or Kiersten White’s Paranormalcy, and those who like a mix of not-too-dark and light in their YA reading.
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