February 28, 2008

Not a Bookstore in Sight

Awhile back I mentioned a work trip I took to Orlando and the ill-fated journey I made in search of a bookstore while there. My mission was simple. I had just finished the first book in Laura Lippman's Tess Monaghan series and was in desperate need of the sequel(s) to last me my final night in Orlando and for the duration of my trip home. Even though I didn't have access to a car, it seemed a simple enough task.

What follows still haunts me.
(Cue scary music)

Friday night, about 5:30pm
I stop in at the hotel desk to ask for directions to the nearest bookstore.

"A bookstore?" the clerk asks me blankly.
"Yes, a bookstore," I say, nodding and smiling gamely. "You know, a Barnes & Noble, a Borders. Anything will do, really."
"Um, no. I don't know of any bookstores in the area," she shakes her head several times.
Shoving down the beginnings of panic, I press on. "Perhaps a smaller, independent bookstore?"
"No, ma'am. Can I direct you to a shopping center? We have several large malls with lots of cool stores." She smiles for the first time, clearly on more comfortable ground.
"Might any of the malls have a bookstore in them?" I attempt to direct the conversation back to the topic at hand.
"Nope. None with bookstores," she says firmly. The look she gives me is now two parts annoyance, one part pity. I look around desperately but there is no one else to ask. Since it appears we have reached a stalemate, I ask her for a local map. She quickly hands me a folded, brightly colored brochure and motions for the next person in line to advance to the counter. I thank her for all her "help" and purchase a trolley pass.

Outside I take a deep breath and hop aboard the first wobbling, green vehicle that comes my way. I figure I'll keep my eyes peeled for anything that remotely resembles a store that might sell books.

Friday night, about 8:00pm
37 stops later, I spy a neon blue, partially obscured sign ending in "A-Million." I press my nose against the window glass, trying to see the rest of the sign. Could it possibly be a Books-A-Million? I've never actually been to one but have browsed their website online. The trolley continues another six blocks and then stops shakily for two smallish Englishwomen to climb on and collapse on the bench. I hop off and begin the trek back, back past the Denny's, back past the tattoo parlor, back past the self-proclaimed Largest Miniature Golf Course in Florida, which is surrounded by a lime green moat filled with what I am assured are "real, live gators." I stop to watch an elderly couple drop a couple quarters in a vending machine and toss their handfuls of peanuts in the moat. Nothing happens. The couple and I share looks of vague disappointment.

Two blocks later I reach a small strip mall that stretches away from me, the end disappearing into what appears to be a rather ominous, large dark field. Sure enough, the very last store sign reads "Books-A-Million" and I feel a small burst of energy, my quarry now in sight. Picking up the pace, I hike across the parking lot, stopping directly underneath the sign. There are no doors in sight. Just a bare cream stucco wall. At a bit of a loss, I wander around the corner and there, at the far end, is a small door. Sparing a nervous glance at the increasingly creepy, empty field next to me, I open the door and walk in.

The store is completely empty, the lighting a trifle dim. Two clerks sit reading behind the counter. Shocked looks cross their faces (presumably at the sight of an actual customer) as I walk cautiously up to them.
"Do you happen to have a mystery section?" I ask. The one looks at the other and then nods enthusiastically.
"We sure do! Just follow me. I'll show you right where it is." He takes off at a pretty good clip, glancing back occasionally to make sure I really am there. At this point I am very sure there is no way in hell they're going to have the books I'm looking for. There is just no way this mad journey will bear fruit. But lo and behold, I see one copy of each of the sequels on the bottom shelf. I gather them up quickly and beat it back to the counter. I place the four books next to the register and the second clerk looks at me admiringly.
"That's quite a stack you've got there." Indeed. Clearly he has never sold that many books at one time. I smile at him gently, grab my bag, and make a beeline for the door.

Friday night, about 10:30pm
I collapse on my hotel bed, too exhausted to even crack open the first of my prizes. A book clutched in my hand, I fall asleep and dream of lime green alligators chasing me through empty black fields. Not a bookstore in sight.

February 27, 2008

Grimspace by Ann Aguirre

So I hadn't read any actual Sci-Fi in awhile and was looking for something fresh and good. I read a blurb Sharon Shinn wrote for Ann Aguirre's Grimspace and eagerly picked it up the day it came out. Space opera meets urban fantasy, Grimspace is, justifiably, being compared to the most excellent Firefly and Serenity. In other words, it completely rocks.

Sirantha Jax, known simply as Jax, is a rare J-gene carrier, which means she is able to "jump" into a parallel kind of hyperspace known as grimspace and serve as navigator for ships traveling across copious distances in a short time. Each jumper has a pilot and the bond between them is incredibly complex and intense, to put it mildly. Only problem is Jax's pilot is dead, killed in their last flight along with everyone else on board except Jax. Now she's locked up in solitary confinement, deep in the bowels of The Corporation. Under intense psychological "therapy," Jax is forced to relive the moments leading up to the crash over and over again until she either goes mad or confesses to having sabotaged the trip.

Enter March--a renegade pilot who offers Jax a way out. Come with him and his crew and help train a new fleet of jumpers intended to undermine the Corp's stranglehold on travel through their world. Or die for a crime she didn't commit. Jax chooses life, but is determined to have it on her terms. The irascible March desperately needs her abilities but trusts her about as far as he can throw her. Unsurprisingly, all does not run smoothly for March and his crew once they have Jax aboard calling shots, sticking her oar in. Their fast-paced adventures take them to various corners of the galaxy where they encounter a host of strange characters, including one awesome, alien bounty hunter called Velith.

The story is written in first person, present tense, which apparently bugs some readers but which I thought fit the plot and character perfectly. The pages fly by at record speed and it's all so urgent and large and satisfying. Like one of Sunshine's Cinnamon Rolls as Big as Your Head. But, in the end, Jax is the first and best reason to read this book. Full of anger, pain, suspicion, and ego, she's a great big ball of fiery fun. I loved spending time in her world and am very anxious to read the sequel, Wanderlust, due out in September.

Links
Flight into Fantasy Review
Jeri Smith-Ready Interview
SciFi Chick Review
The Good, The Bad, The Unread Review

February 21, 2008

Sun and Moon, Ice and Snow by Jessica Day George

In the fairy tale mood, I was looking for something to follow up Master of Shadows. Jessica Day George's Sun and Moon, Ice and Snow looked like just the ticket. A retelling of the East of the Sun, West of the Moon fairy tale, I was both excited and nervous. For various reasons I have a hard time getting into retellings of this fairy tale and, though I did enjoy Edith Pattou's East, I've been hoping ever since to find a version I liked better. And I found one. I first loved the cover. I like the profile shot. This girl looks like she's ready to take on the frozen tundra. The story follows a girl called "the lass." The last of nine children, she had the gall to be born a girl and, out of spite, her mother refuses to give her a name. The family refers to her as pika, or little girl. Her oldest brother Hans Peter is the one who calls her "the lass," and the two of them are the closest of all the siblings. The story follows the fairy tale pretty closely, but George manages to fit in some twists and new angles that I found very refreshing.

Many elements of this tale are a hard sell in a novel. The family who is willing to give their daughter up to a random snow bear. The girl who lets a stranger climb into bed with her every night and then falls in love with said snow bear enough to take on a troll queen to save his life. George's version of the tale addresses these issues to some extent. The girl is the unwanted ninth child (and a daughter) and therefore expendable. Particularly when the random snow bear offers wealth and opportunity in exchange for their daughter. The girl is lonely in the palace of ice where the walls smell of rotting meat and no one will answer her questions. After it becomes clear the stranger is not going to hurt her, his presence next to her at night is a comfort and a ward against loneliness. And when the lass decides to take on the troll queen, she is doing it not only for the enchanted bear, but the various servants who befriended her in the palace and then disappeared or died as a result of their kindness. I still struggle with the central relationship. It seems there's never enough of a connection for me. That said, the story desperately needed fleshing out and George rises to the challenge. Her deft touch with Norse traditions, language, and everyday life adds a welcome layer of warm reality to this icy tale.

Links
Estella's Revenge Review
Fuse #8 Review
Miss Erin Interview
Slayground Interview

February 20, 2008

Conversations with the Fat Girl by Liza Palmer

After reading (and loving) Liza Palmer's second book, Seeing Me Naked, I had high expectations for her first novel. Conversations with the Fat Girl was not a disappointment. It follows lifelong "fat girl" Maggie who works at a coffee shop even though she has a masters degree in art restoration. Maggie is also hopelessly in love with Domenic--a 28 year old coffee shop busboy who moonlights as a doll maker. But she's afraid to let him get too close for fear he will see her "Area" and lose what interest he seems to have.

At the same time, Maggie's best friend and former fellow fat girl in crime, Olivia, is getting married. One gastric bypass surgery later, Olivia is now a size 2. As they plan the wedding together, Maggie begins to realize that after dropping all those dress sizes there is very little of her formerly witty and fun loving best friend left. As opposed to Elisabeth from Seeing Me Naked, Maggie has a wonderfully supportive family around when she needs them. Bit by painful bit, they help her work through her fears about her body, her self worth, Domenic, and what has happened to her best friend.

I laughed several times while reading this book, though not quite as explosively as while reading Seeing Me Naked. Maggie is easy to like. We all know what it's like to surround ourselves with safe people and a safe place to stay at a time when we're afraid of what life's gonna hand us and of how we will or will not deal with it. What's great about this book is the conversational tone the author takes with her characters, as referenced in the title. Sections in which Maggie seriously questions her life and the Way Things Are flow seamlessly out of scenes of hilarity and heartbreak, including one particularly memorable scene in which Domenic drives a rather the worse for wear Maggie home from a friend's party. As she brokenly tries to tell him how she feels, the conversation devolves into the "In Your Eyes" scene from Say Anything. Palmer knows how to nail a scene and the closing one is great. The only sad thing being that it's over.

Links
Trashionista Review

February 19, 2008

The Cullens

Summit Entertainment has cast the entire Cullen family. And here they are.


I like them. I particularly like the third one of "the kids." The four of them are protecting you from a fuzzy background Jasper who is going to eat you Right Now.

Master of Shadows by Janet Lorimer

I am very partial to fairy tale retellings. I love the unique ways modern authors come up with to treat such old stories. In particular, I have a difficult time turning away a Beauty and the Beast retelling. My favorites (Robin McKinley's Beauty and Rose Daughter) tend to be traditionally set versions of the tale. Although Alex Flinn's recent Beastly is a wonderfully modern retelling of the tale set in present-day NYC. Master of Shadows resides in a rather odd place somewhere between the two. Set "Once upon a time toward the end of the 20th century," the story is definitely set in our modern world, but Lorimer keeps places and details purposefully vague so as to retain that timeless fairy tale feel.

And it works. A bit too well. I got the feeling this book wasn't sure what it wanted to be. Fundamentally a cross between The Phantom of the Opera and the tale of Beauty and the Beast, it works really hard to be a rather creepy murder mystery as well, with the result that I felt confused and a bit jerked around for the majority of the book. I wanted to fall in love with the characters, but Louvel (the Beast) is kept at such a distance from the reader that it's difficult to care about him. All we know is he has a deep, dark secret and that he can somehow be ten places at once. Ariel (Beauty) is likable enough, but she does seem a bit more overwhelmed than I would have expected by her loss of fortune and rich fiance.

I liked that Ariel had to unravel the many threads of the mystery before she could truly understand Louvel and the motley cast of odd characters he surrounded himself with. I liked that Louvel wasn't suffering from an evil spell, but was simply a man born into a pack of troubles. I liked the frequent references to the many other fairy tales that made up the fabric of Ariel's life. I think my main concern with the story was that these two characters spent a total of five days together (a week at the most) before Ariel was unceremoniously sent back to the world. And already they're soul mates. There was no time to develop a bond. It was simply there and, apparently, unbreakable. The whole book followed that pattern. Logical, at times gruesome, explanations for everything. Until finally, there was just no "magic" left. I am a consummate willing suspender of disbelief. But, unfortunately, the whole thing was too big a leap of faith for me.

Links
Alternative Worlds Review
Breeni Books Review
Fantasy Debut Review

February 15, 2008

Magic Study by Maria V. Snyder

Magic Study picks up right where Poison Study leaves off. Yelena is on her way south to Sitia on a journey to learn how to control her magic, find her family, and try not to run screaming back to Ixia when, having been in country for only a few days, several rather largish men want to kill her. And one of them turns out to be her brother. Not much love lost between these long lost siblings.

Yelena manages to reach the Citadel alive and begin training with the governing council of mages there. But before long she's neck deep unraveling a plot to kill the Commander and recapture the throne of Ixia. Add to that a rogue mage who is systematically kidnapping and murdering young women across the country, stealing their souls to feed his power. At this point, Yelena and I are both thinking it would be just super to have Valek at her back once more. Where's a deadly assassin when you need him? Fortunately, Yelena's growing abilities come into play. Drawing on her own experiences as Reyad's captive, she is able to draw two of the young women back from the brink of death. Just when she thinks she's gotten her footing in Sitia, a delegation from Ixia comes to the capital. The Ixian entourage includes her old friends and combat trainers Ari and Janco as well as one or two other surprise visitors.

Though not quite as good as Poison Study, I enjoyed this second volume of the trilogy. It was nice to see Yelena holding her own, trusting her instincts, and using the training her friends had given her. I like how she continues to force her way right to the heart of the matter, doing what needs to be done no matter what high-ranking official tells her not to. And I liked how Ms. Snyder maintains Yelena and Valek's relationship, while still acknowledging the complications they face. They both thrive balancing on the knife-edge between life and death. Valek is loyal to the Commander above all. And Yelena won't give up an inch of the freedom she's earned. I'm anxious to read Fire Study which comes out in exactly two weeks.

Links
Bookshelves of Doom Review
The Dragon Page Review
The Story Siren Review

February 14, 2008

Notorious

On this Valentine's Day I find myself with a craving to watch one of my favorite Hitchcock movies, one I haven't seen in years--Notorious. Ingrid Bergman and Cary Grant team up to infiltrate a Nazi spy ring. Complete with lots of uber-creepy Hitchcock goodness and a particularly smooth, particularly sinister Claude Rains.

Alicia: This is a very strange love affair.
Devlin: Why?
Alicia: Maybe the fact that you don't love me.
Devlin: ...When I don't love you, I'll let you know.
Alicia: You haven't said anything.
Devlin (kissing her): Actions speak louder than words.

Sigh.


And lastly. My favorite movie kiss for your Valentine's Day viewing pleasure. Now it's hard to single out just one.

For instance, while I am very partial to this one:

This one is also lovely:

And there's always:


But in the end, I think I'll have to go with this one. For the sheer hotness of it all.


The Cybils: 2007 Winners

The Cybils winners have been announced and you can find the complete list of winners here. I served on the Graphic Novels judging panel and I can tell you it was not easy settling on the two winners in the Elementary/Middle Grade and Young Adult categories.

Elementary/Middle Grade:

21fv7sxv6ml_aa_sl160_ Artemis Fowl: The Graphic Novel
written by Eoin Colfer and Andrew Donkin
illustrated by Giovanni Rigano and Paolo Lamanna
Hyperion
The comics format proves a good match for Eoin Colfer's tale of war between fairies and an obsessed young genius, already popular around the world in novel form. The energetic, manga-influenced drawings capture the book's technologically heavy action and many magical creatures. The book's creative team uses comics techniques from character profiles to changes in lettering to lead readers through the novel's shifting points of view and sympathies. A truly over-the-top adventure.

Young Adult:

21hkbxs1dgl_aa_sl160_ The Professor's Daughter
written by Joann Sfar; illustrated by Emmanuel Guibert
First Second
In late Victorian London, the frustrated daughter of an archaeologist and the repressed son of an Egyptian pharaoh fall in love. That he's been dead for many centuries is the least of their problems. The twisting, fast-paced story that follows takes readers to many landmarks of classic English adventure tales, from the British Museum and Scotland Yard and into the private study of Queen Victoria herself. While the panel layout is the same on nearly every page, the scenes inside those boxes jump from slapstick action to tender reminiscences to deadly danger.

I felt strongly that these two represented the cream of the crop from 2007 and was very pleased to see them win. They are completely different novels, but both ridiculously fun. And thanks to all the organizers, panelists, judges, readers, authors, and illustrators who made this such a fun process to be a part of!

February 13, 2008

Poison Study by Maria V. Snyder

I remember seeing Poison Study on the shelves when it first came out, but passed it up several times because of, yes, I admit it, the cover. It was this older mass market paperback cover and not the lovely new trade paperback one I've posted here. The girl on the old cover looked just a little too haughtily seductive for me. And I knew that Luna was the fantasy division of Harlequin and so I was suspicious it was a romance thinly disguised as fantasy. So when the new trade paperback came out, I went and read a few dozen more reviews just to "make sure" and decided to go ahead and give it a shot. I'm so glad I did. You'd think I'd have learned by now not to judge a book by its cover. Archangel, anyone?

Poison Study opens with a young woman named Yelena imprisoned for murder. A murder she freely admits to committing. When a pair of guards yank her from the dank dungeon she's languished in for almost a year, Yelena is certain she faces imminent death. She even welcomes it in light of the hell her life has become in the past few years. More to come on that bit of nastiness later, we learn. But instead of the gallows, she finds herself in the office of Valek, the chief of national security (i.e. the Commander's Personal Assassin) being offered a choice. To be hung by the neck until dead or to become the Commander's Personal Food Taster. The last one having recently died on the job. Yelena chooses life and immediately begins a crash course in the art of poison detection. To complicate matters, Valek slips Yelena a deadly poison known as Butterfly's Dust to ensure she won't attempt to escape the first chance she gets. In order to survive, Yelena must show up at Valek's door each morning for the antidote. Skip one morning and she'll be dead within 48 hours. And all of this happens within the first few pages of the book. I was completely sucked in by page ten.

The pace never slows throughout the rest of the book as we come to care more and more for this young woman who is forced to court death on an hourly basis. Piece by piece we learn more about why she was in the dungeon in the first place, her complicated background, and the demons that haunt her. Fortunately, her unquenchable will to survive and her quick mind earn her a few choice friends within the compound and these supporting characters are delightful and funny. Then there is Valek, the ruthless assassin who employs his vast array of frightening skills to protect Yelena even as he poisons her, convinced she is the missing piece of the puzzle in his quest to discover who is attempting to overthrow the government and why. I loved this book and can't wait to read the sequel, Magic Study.

Links
Bookshelves of Doom Review
Dear Author Review
Twisted Kingdom Review

February 11, 2008

Bitten by Kelley Armstrong

Elena Michaels is determined to go it alone. She doesn't need the pack. She doesn't need Clay, the werewolf who misled her, made her believe he loved her, and then turned her into one of them without her permission, without even telling her what he was. To make matters worse, it turns out she's the only female werewolf in the world. That's right. Elena's the Only One and so not interested in dealing with the inevitable "attention" this brings her way. So she leaves the pack and moves to Toronto where she gets a job as a journalist and finds a nice, normal boyfriend to cuddle with. Problem is, she can't outrun her past and she can't escape the call of the wolf.

Her troubles intensify when the pack needs her help and Jeremy, the Alpha, calls her home to help them solve a string of grisly murders. They suspect some mutts (rogue wolves) of causing the mayhem and Elena's specialty just happens to be tracking mutts. Unable to refuse Jeremy's summons, Elena reluctantly returns to the compound in upstate New York. Gritting her teeth in anticipation of the welcome she'll receive. Turns out Clay's been waiting for her this whole time, insisting he's still in love with her and always has been. Elena's pretty sure she's still in love with him, too. But none of this stops them from bickering like teenagers and snarling at each other every chance they get.

The scenes where members of the pack interact as a motley, roughhousing family are extremely well done. As are Elena's painful transformations from human to wolf form. The undeniable sense of freedom and belonging she feels back with the pack is vivid and tangible and I found myself wrapped up in finding out the fate of these vulnerable, larger-than-life characters. Elena's external and internal conflicts were well-plotted and compelling and the book builds strongly toward an intense showdown between the pack and the mutts. Only in the last few pages is anything resolved and, unfortunately, I felt the internal conflict was wrapped up entirely too quickly. Elena and Clay's relationship was wonderfully messy and complicated, with layer upon layer of distrust and longing. The book itself was almost 400 pages and trying to clean the mess up in just the last six pages left me dissatisfied and upset. I liked the whole tangled web and felt it deserved a more careful treatment in the end. I am currently still wrestling over whether or not to pick up the sequel, Stolen.

Links
BookLoons Review
Trashionista Review
Twisted Kingdom Review

February 8, 2008

Star-Crossed by Linda Collison

Linda Collison's Star-Crossed reminded me of a mixture of The Witch of Blackbird Pond and a more mature The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle. Like Kit and Charlotte, sixteen-year-old Patricia Kelley is forced into a radically new life, but remains stubbornly determined to shape it to her will. Orphaned, illegitimate, and penniless, Patricia stows away on a British merchant ship bound for Barbados. She was born there and is certain her father left her his sugar plantation before he died. She is soon discovered by bosun's mate Brian Dalton. But instead of exposing her, Dalton gives her a set of sailor's clothes and helps keep her presence a secret. In the dead of night, he spirits her up onto the deck and teaches her how to climb the rigging and track their progress by the stars.

Their secret is soon revealed, however, and she is only allowed to stay in the capacity of assistant to the ship's doctor, Aeneas MacPherson. Patricia gets through her days learning how to set a bone and stitch a wound, but she longs for the clear nights when she can climb to the top of the crow's nest with Dalton. Upon reaching Barbados events do not unfold as Patricia hoped. With no choices available to a girl in her position, Patricia numbly accepts Aeneas' proposal of marriage and Dalton leaves immediately for a gunner's position aboard a naval ship. The second part of the novel follows her life with Aeneas, while the third depicts the unexpected chain of events that lead to her crossing paths again with Dalton, once again disguised as a boy, this time aboard a naval ship in the midst of war with Spain.

Like its lovely cover, everything about this book is strong and vivid. Patricia's first attempt climbing the rigging to dizzying heights, gruesome descriptions of patients suffering from yellow fever, fiery battle sieges at sea, and the few stolen moments when Patricia and Dalton are able to speak freely. All of these leave the reader breathless and feeling as though she were actually there with them, desperate to survive. The novel is meticulously researched and I loved the map, glossary, background information, and particularly the closing quote by Sappho. "I tell you, someone will remember us." I look forward to Patricia's further adventures as Ms. Collison has indicated it will be a trilogy.

Links
Big A little a Review
Jessica Burkhart Interview

February 6, 2008

Butchers Hill and In Big Trouble by Laura Lippman














Butchers Hill takes place several months after Charm City concludes. Tess has actually rented office space and hung out her shingle. Her first couple of clients are most interesting: a convicted murderer whose served his time and is interested in becoming an anonymous benefactor to some missing children, and a successful businesswoman intent on finding the daughter she gave up for adoption years ago. Against the advice of her lawyer, the local homicide detective, and sometimes her own better judgment, Tess agrees to help these clients. The intertwined mysteries unfold as Tess once again plumbs the gritty, familiar neighborhoods of Baltimore searching for the lost children. What's wonderful about this growing series is Lippman's shrewd ability to keep the drama real and close to the vest as far as her heroine is concerned. This is Tess' story as much as it is the story of the disenfranchised lower classes of Baltimore and the two worlds collide and mesh in wholly unexpected ways. For Tess and the reader. Well done, Ms. Lippman. Another riveting read.

In Big Trouble picks up not long after the unsettling events of Butchers Hill. Just when this loyal reader was on the brink of breaking down and pleading for a sign of the missing Crow, there he is! Or rather, there his picture is. Sans dreadlocks and sporting an unfamiliar bitter look, Crow's picture is cut out of a newspaper clipping and mailed to Tess via her lawyer Tyner. The headline above the picture reads, "In Big Trouble." Unsure of who sent the hint, Tess struggles with herself for a week before driving down to Virginia to see if Crow's folks have heard from him. To Tess' surprise, his parents insist on hiring her to find their son and soon she's on the road to Texas, leaving her beloved Baltimore behind. It was so fun to see Tess transplanted into unfamiliar territory, forced to be the awkward outsider instead of the cool insider we know and love. Like Baltimore in the previous books, San Antonio is a character in its own right. There are beautiful descriptions of the food, culture, weather, and landscape that made me nostalgic for the years I lived there in my early teens. My favorite Tess book so far.