August 31, 2009

Silver Borne Cover

This just in. Patricia Briggs has posted the cover for her upcoming fifth Mercy Thompson book--Silver Borne. I love the title and I love the cobwebby books on either side of Mercy. So what do you think? And do you have a favorite Mercy cover so far? As I've mentioned before I'm extremely partial to the cover of Blood Bound, but I do love the way she's peering over her shoulder and her awesome Mercy's Garage shirt on the cover of Iron Kissed.

Rampant Giveaway Winners

And the winners are RachaelfromNJ, Sharon K, and Ju!

Please contact me with your mailing addresses and we'll get your copies of Rampant on their way. It was awesome and hilarious to hear all of your experiences (or lack thereof) with unicorns in your literature. Also the stories of how you loved them as kids (or found them unutterably terrifying!) and the family and/or close friends who still love all things unicorn. Seriously, I should have asked for pictures because some of that sounds too good to be true. I want to thank several of you for the Yasmine Galenorn Sisters of the Moon series recommendations as I'd never heard of her before and they look like much fun! And for those of you who asked--Harry Potter totally counts. In pretty much any scenario--Harry Potter counts. And one last time thank you so much to Diana for the words and to Harper Teen for the giveaway!

August 28, 2009

Retro Friday Review: The Outlaws of Sherwood by Robin McKinley

I have a thing for Robin Hood. Specifically Robin Hood retellings. I love Robin, Marian, Little John, Will Scarlet, Much the Miller, Alan-a-Dale, and the whole merry crew. I read Ivanhoe cover to cover just for Robin Hood's periodic appearances. And when I went on study abroad to England, I dragged my best friend all the way to Nottingham and Sherwood Forest as well so I could walk around in the woods and soak it all up. It's still one of the happiest, most golden days I can recall, that one. My first encounter with the tale itself was no doubt the Disney animated version (which I still love watching with my son), but I'm pretty sure the first actual novelization I read was Robin McKinley's The Outlaws of Sherwood. And it remains my very favorite to this day. Admittedly, I seem to possess the McKinley gene. I love her writing. I love the unexpected, twisty paths she takes, the obstinate characters, and the wry humor. True to form, her Robin is not the typical Robin of legend. If you cherish the strapping, dashing, swashbuckling hero a la Errol Flynn, then this version is probably not for you. But if you like an unusual, but beautifully wrought, take on a classic then you really ought to give this one a shot.

The story opens with the following lines:
A small vagrant breeze came from nowhere and barely flicked the feather tips as the arrow sped on its way. It shivered in its flight, and fell, a little off course--just enough that the arrow missed the slender tree it was aimed at, and struck tiredly and low into the bole of another tree, twenty paces beyond the mark.
Robin sighed and dropped his bow.
Robin is on his way to Nottingham Fair to meet his childhood friends Marian and Much and have a bit of well-earned frivolity. As an apprentice forester in the King's Forest, Robin barely scrapes by and his days off are few and far between. Unfortunately, while on his way he is ambushed by a few of the Chief Forester's men who have had it in for Robin for years. No one is more surprised than Robin when he wins the resulting archery contest and the skirmish ends in an attempt on his life and Robin's arrow buried in his attacker's chest. From this point on Robin is a wanted man. His friends convince him to go into hiding while they work up a plan to keep their friend alive and prevent the Norman overlords from raining down punishments on all the Saxons' heads as a result of Robin's "crime." Against his better judgement, Robin goes along with Much and Marian's plan and, in the process, he becomes a hero--albeit a reluctant one.

There is so much good in this book and it all centers around the characters. Either you will fall in love with Robin or you will not. And if you love Robin, then you will love all of the characters for they gather around him despite his adamant refusal that he is no hero because they need him. Marian and Much, his old friends, see this. They understand it and they try to help Robin understand it. Their love for him, their need to believe in him, and their willingness to walk away from their homes and their lives to follow him into hiding in Sherwood Forest reflect the desperate nature of the times and the ways in which this good man is able to inspire and take care of other good men and women like him who have been caught in the ever-tightening vise of Norman justice. I love watching this transformation, this coming together of such a motley band of comrades. Every time I read it I savor each one. And, as with any McKinley book, if you're a fan of strong female characters who do not do what they are expected to do, then this book is for you. Marian is awesome. It's Marian who is the excellent shot. It's Marian who has the vision and who knows Robin's potential before he does. It's Marian who risks more than anyone else to create the legend and keep it alive. There is one other standout female character, but I can't tell you any more than that as she is so excellent she must be discovered entirely on her own. Along with Deerskin, I think this is the most emotional of McKinley's works because it is as grounded in reality as any retelling I've read. The Outlaws of Sherwood is an emotional, subtly humorous, visceral take on the legend and I cannot recommend it highly enough.


August 27, 2009

Thursday Giggles: The Hunger Games Version

And to top off your Catching Fire fix, here is a hilarious comic detailing the lengths people would be willing to go to for an ARC of this book.
(Thanks to Janssen over at Everyday Reading for the link!)

Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins

Well, it's only a few days away now. You can practically taste it, can't you? You know, I really hadn't planned on waiting this long to review Catching Fire. Honestly, I don't know what was wrong with me. I started it over a month ago and was totally into it. I got to the halfway point and started to feel more and more anxious. Like twitchy anxious. And since gone are the days of sitting around all day doing nothing but reading a single book, I found myself moving through my regular day thinking about it constantly, worrying about the characters I care about so much that at night when I went to pick it up I COULDN'T BRING MYSELF TO DO IT. The steady building up of tension and pain that Suzanne Collins does so fiendishly well was too much and my mind skittered away from it in favor of less treacherous waters. I'm not proud of it. But there it is. On to the spoiler-free review.

Katniss and Peeta are home once more. Heralded as heroes they reluctantly take up residence in the mansions reserved for Hunger Games victors in their beleaguered District 12. Given the Capitol's idea of "enough time" to recover and lick their wounds, they must soon set off on the obligatory Victory Tour of the districts of Panem. As always, they are accompanied by their mentor--the irascible Haymitch--as well as Katniss' faithful entourage, including the savvy stylist Cinna. As always, they are under the watchful eye of President Snow. For in the interim time between Katniss' unprecedented ending of the Hunger Games and the launch of the Victory Tour, the Powers That Be have learned a thing or two about just how much of a survivor Katniss is and what and most particularly who she cares about. Knowing what they know, and without any doubt at all of what horror will rain down on her head should she set one toe out of line or let fall one word off script, Katniss herself must do what she does best and figure out a way to stay alive.

Remember how you felt the whole time you were reading The Hunger Games? Like you might never find the bottom of your stomach again? Like the tips of your fingers were permanently flattened from pressing too hard on the book? Well, multiply those feelings by ten and add to it the interminable guessing game of what will happen next and you will have the approximate effect of Catching Fire. That is why I put it down halfway through. It was just too stressful! I could feel all the pain laid out neatly in a row just waiting to befall Katniss and Peeta and Gale. And honestly it made me a bit angry because it felt like I was trapped in there with them and there was nothing was going to stop the inevitable heinousness. This is not to say it's not a fabulous book. Because it is. Seriously enjoyable. I just had to stop and let my fingernails grow back a bit before I could continue on. Because when I did pick it up again I sat down and read it through to the end. Suzanne Collins brings the intensity like you can't believe. Even having read The Hunger Games, I wasn't prepared for it. And it's so much worse when you're already hurting for the characters when you open the book. But that's also the lovely thing about it and it is why I loved this one more than the first. There's more Gale (Team Gale!), more Peeta (the boy really is rather alarmingly sweet), more Haymitch (grrr), more Cinna (yay!), more Effie and Co. (hehe). You get to know them better, you care about them more, but what I loved most about this sequel is Katniss. Strong, dogged, always herself Katniss. She has moments of weakness, moments of sweetness, moments of humor, and a couple of hardcore moments when she is made of awesome. I may have punched the air once in solidarity. And then, just when you don't think you can take another shock to the system, it ends. Just like you knew it would.

August 26, 2009

The Bride's Farewell by Meg Rosoff

When I'm opening up a new Meg Rosoff novel I literally never know what to expect. In a good way. She never tells the same story twice. She does generally center her stories around a character who feels ambivalent, anxious, or sometimes downright disenchanted with his or her world. She explores themes both serious and disturbing and her resolutions are bittersweet at best. And yet I love her writing. She's an auto-buy for me and has been ever since I first read How I Live Now and thought I would come apart at the beauty of that book. Readers who love one of her books and long for more of the same with her other books will most likely be disappointed as they are all wildly different tales, the lovely writing being one of the only things they share. But how rare and fine a thing it is to have an author you can always count on but can never quite pin down.

Early on the morning of her wedding day, Pell Ridley sneaks out of the home she's lived in all her life, swipes her dowry money from the teapot, saddles her old horse Jack, and heads for Salisbury Fair. Determined not to become her mother--broken and beaten by a dissolute husband, a host of hungry children, and a hard life in general. Pell won't, she can't, stay and marry her childhood friend Birdie. No matter how much he says he loves her, no matter how many family members and friends are depending upon the match taking place. And so she rides away from it all with only the vaguest notion of finding work at the horse trading at Salisbury Fair. What Pell doesn't count on is her little brother Bean coming along for the journey. Bean doesn't talk, never has, but he seems to know Pell and understand her motives. More than that, he seems to have an essential role to play in what happens to her. She also does not count on the remote Dogman, a poacher she encounters first in Salisbury and once more far away from that place. Of course, nothing goes as it should. In fact, everything that can go wrong does and things get progressively worse as Pell desperately tries to maintain a modicum of control over her own life and, at the same time, not lose the one or two things she considers precious.

The thing about each of Meg Rosoff's novels is that they are short but they never feel short. Quite the opposite. They somehow manage to feel quite epic and The Bride's Farewell is no exception. I closed it feeling as though I'd spent years with Pell instead of the few months the story actually covers. The cover of this book reflects the story quite well. Dark, cold, and spare. The image of a lone white horse fleeing away across an open plain. Rosoff does not shy away from the darkness and despair caused by extreme poverty and an utter lack of options a young woman like Pell would have been familiar with in rural England in the mid-1800s. Her single action on the morning of her wedding day inadvertently sets in motion a chain of reactions she remains initially unaware of but the tale eventually comes full circle and Pell is forced to face the consequences of her choice. Some of them are fair. Most of them are not. I loved Bean. I loved Dogman. I loved Dicken the dog. Pell herself is often a mystery and I spent a good portion of the read attempting to see her clearly. It felt as though she was doing the same. She is a girl torn between her responsibilities and the desires of her spirit. Here is a passage I think illustrates Pell particularly well:
For those poor souls who can only think of the terrible fear and danger of a runaway horse, think of this: a speed like water flowing over stone, a skimming sensation that hovers and dips while the world spins around and the wind drags your skin taut across your bones. You can close your eyes and lose yourself in the rhythm, because nothing you do or shout or wish for will happen until the running makes up its mind to stop. So you hold steady, balancing yourself in the wake, and unhook your mind from the everyday while you wait at the silent center of it all and hope that the feeling won't stop till you're good and ready for life to be ordinary once more.
The problem being that she never was.
The Bride's Farewell is a smooth, at times extremely painful, read. It's hard to watch one bad thing after another happen to good characters. It's hard when they're forced to pay for their mistakes over and over again. But I've learned that with Rosoff it always pays to follow her through to the end. The dark and the dreary are balanced by the truly beautiful writing, the sharp glints of irony, and by the brief but shining moments of perfect understanding and compassion you feel when you're reading.

August 25, 2009

The Book Smugglers Guest Dare

So Ana and Thea of The Book Smugglers fame tapped me for their August Guest Dare. This is an awesome monthly feature in which they dare another book blogger to read a book in a genre they don't usually read and then review it on their site. Since Ana is a big romance reader, and I'd never read a romance before, they dared me to read Mr. Impossible by Loretta Chase! Despite a certain amount of trepidation, I rose to the challenge and today I am guest blogging over there with my review of Mr. Impossible. If you get a chance, please drop in to see what I thought of my very first romance novel!

August 24, 2009

Interview with Diana Peterfreund + Rampant Giveaway!

Ever since I fell in love with Diana Peterfreund's Secret Society Girl series last year, I've been hoping I'd get the chance to interview her here. Tomorrow marks the release of her new novel, Rampant, and let me tell you that you have not read a book like this before. You can read my review here, but all you really need to know is that it's a story about killer unicorns and the young women who hunt them. You want to read it now, don't you? Oh, yeah, and it's YA and the first in a series! To celebrate the release, Diana graciously answered a few of my most burning questions. As she is always a delight, I know you'll enjoy them as much as I did.

First things first: When did the idea for Rampant first hit you and what (if anything) did you know right off the bat?

In early 2005, just after selling Secret Society Girl, I had this dream of being chased by a very dangerous unicorn. I woke up and went to go look it up to see if I could figure out the meaning and discovered that there was this whole side to the unicorn legend that I didn’t know anything about – that a lot of people didn’t know anything about! A side where they weren’t these gentle creatures, but instead very, very dangerous.

As I’d been casting around for an idea for a true YA novel, this seemed like an excellent thing to latch onto, especially since it dovetailed so nicely into another thing I’d been wanting to write about, which was the topic of virginity and its place in our society. The only thing I knew from the start though, was that it was going to be a fantasy adventure about killer unicorns and the heroine’s name would be Astrid. Her picture came very clearly to my mind: her name, her face with its dark brows and long blonde hair.

Rampant went through a couple of different covers before it even came out. What is the story behind the two different covers and what are your feelings on the switch?

It’s not a very controversial one! I’m surprised how many people have shown interest in this. Covers change all the time; my first book had three covers and no one made a peep about that.

The first cover (which appeared on the ARC) was a result of a photo shoot my publisher did out on a horse farm. The horse they’d “hired” to be the unicorn was apparently not feeling very well, so refused to run or rear up or do anything but stand around and try to rub its horn off on nearby branches (poor guy!). So they couldn’t get him in the shot with the model. That Astrid’s single most noticeable physical trait is her long blonde hair and the undeniably gorgeous model had short, curly hair and a faceful of heavy makeup was not what I’d been expecting, but I shrugged it off. After all, the Amy in my Secret Society Girl books never looked anything like the models with waist-length hair they put on the covers, and she wouldn’t be caught dead in a preppy polo shirt with an even preppier sweater around her shoulders.

The resulting cover was very striking and pretty. Maybe too pretty for such an action-oriented novel. And when the ARC went out, we realized that there was something to be said for putting an actual unicorn on the cover of a book that was beginning to gain buzz for being “the book about killer unicorns.” Oops! So it was redesigned to focus more on the action element, as well as on the UNICORN.

I’m in love with my new cover. First of all, the new Astrid looks just like the Astrid in my head (including the eyebrows, and you never get that kind of verisimilitude in covers). Young, thrown into the deep end, but determined to rise to the occasion. I love that she’s not wearing makeup and that her hair looks messy, as if she’s been running around and shooting unicorns. I love the conceit of the unicorn charging in the reflection. And I love the detail of the marks on the sword. If you look closely, you can see that there is an engraving of a unicorn horn on the sword.

Also, it has the most gorgeous spine ever designed.

You actually traveled to Italy to do research for this series. What was that trip like and how did it impact the story?

Sadly, the trip was kind of a disaster. Both my husband and I were terribly sick the whole time, and the hotel was horrific (we were given dank army cots in a basement, moldy food, and verbal abuse by the management when we refused to eat said moldy food or asked them to pronounce the name of a village we wanted to visit that they insisted we couldn’t because I was pronouncing it wrong) but we didn’t have the energy to find a new place and move and do the research we’d come for. I remember, when we finally left, running into another couple checking in and I was like, “Do not stay here. Run!” Oddly enough, I have since discovered there is a “Hotel Astrid” in Rome that we could have stayed at instead! How funny would that have been?

Anyway, other than the sick and the hotel and the rainy weather (January is not the best month for Rome), we did what we’d come to do. Italy is great at serving comfort food to sick tourists, let me tell you! We visited all the locations I planned to write about in the story, got to stand in the room with Raphael’s “Lady with a Unicorn”, got to climb in and out of the ancient tombs in the Etruscan City of the Dead where my climactic scene takes place, and even discovered a cloisters that looked like it should belong to the hunters, featuring mosaics of unicorns and columns shaped like spiral horns! The main impact on the story was really being able to go into detail about the locations in my book, and adding a level of verisimilitude to the places I was writing about.

How do you go about naming your characters?

As I said before, Astrid came to me fully formed as a name. I know I decided early on that since these characters were from unicorn hunting families, their family names would have something to do with that heritage. Many of the characters have names that mean “lion” (like Llewelyn) or “hunter” or have some other connection to their birthright. Philippa, of course, means “horse lover” and Cornelia means “horn.” Bonegrinder may be my favorite name of all time. It’s so perfect for her, and I love its fairy-tale quality.

Giovanni was the most difficult name—and not coincidentally, the most difficult character—to pin down. When I sold the book, he had a different name and a different character, one that was, unfortunately, not very interested in Astrid. One of my tricks, when I’m not “feeling” a character, is to change his name. I’m surprised how often that changes who he is in my head. I changed his name, but that guy wasn’t interesting to Astrid. Then I hit upon the idea of making him part Italian—after all, since my girl’s in Rome, shouldn’t she have a romance with an Italian boy?—but I didn’t know what his backstory was until the scene where he walks out of the nightclub and spills his guts to Astrid. Then Giovanni came into focus for me: what he sees in Astrid, what Astrid sees in him, and why the relationship is so dangerous for both of them.

As I was reading I got a really good Buffy vibe from Astrid--the girl who longs to be normal but is forced into the role of supernatural creature hunter. What was your vision for Astrid and are you a Buffy fan?

Ooh, I’m so glad. It’s an honor to have a character I wrote be compared to such a great show. I’m actually a huge Buffy fan and have been for a decade. One of my college roommates got me started watching it, and I got my husband into it and countless other friends. Of course, there are lots of stories about female heroes who battle the supernatural: an entire genre full of them. I think we all owe a debt of gratitude to Buffy for that. I think Buffy and Astrid are similar in that they are both reluctant warriors with a very deep understanding that their superpowers come with a high mortality quotient. Buffy has it rough since she’s (usually) alone in her superpowers, a fact demonstrated over and over again and the driving force behind several season climaxes. On the flip side, once she does have a replacement, she can walk away or take short breaks (as she planned to do with college in Season 3) and she has a mandate (which she often seems to ignore when it comes to her various vampire boyfriends).

With Astrid, I wanted to explore a very different side of the supernatural warrior, one whose greatest talent is not actually her superpower, and for whom the question of duty is an incredibly sticky one. Astrid is an intellectual, and a scientist, and her unicorn hunting isn’t just cutting into after-school activities, it’s actively ruining her life – even if she does survive it. She can’t walk away without permanently destroying her ability, because her powers make her presence a danger to others. And then, of course, there’s the question of what her magic truly is, and if she has any right to use it. Finally, there are all the other hunters and the idea that, far from being alone, you’re part of an enormous community that must work together, even if you don’t want to.

And, I feel I must add that I was very annoyed with the denouement of the Riley storyline on Buffy and the implicit argument that men are threatened by female power and (repeated from the Xander storyline) that women cannot love men with less power than they have. The trend in a lot of paranormal and specifically, paranormal YA fiction, seems to be about normal girls falling in love with these vastly powerful, supernatural men. I wanted to write something where the vastly powerful, supernatural woman fell for the brave, sweet, totally normal guy, who didn’t actually have any problem with the way she could kick his ass. (See also: Sokka in Avatar.)

Is there a Rampant soundtrack?

There is, and it’s quite a long one, so I’ll just share a few of the really pivotal songs. Most of the book was composed while listening to the album LUX VIVENS, by David Lynch (yes, that David Lynch) and Jocelyn Montgomery. It’s an album of music written by a brilliant, talented medieval nun named Hildegard of Bingen. She was a writer, a mystic, a polymath, a composer, and a naturalist, and a huge inspiration to me while writing a story about powerful nuns. Lynch reimagines the arrangements for a modern audience. Really incredible stuff. My favorite is “Battle and Aftermath” which includes screaming, stampedes, and drawn swords.

Aside from Hildegard, I also found myself listening to a lot of what are known as “weaving songs” and other “work” songs— these very hypnotic, rhythmic songs that weavers, sailors, or other workers used to sing or play to keep their mind on their work. Since unicorn hunting has that harmonic element, as well as being a sort of altered state of consciousness, it was great to tap into that.

There’s also a song I’ve taken to calling my “Astrid and Giovanni Love Theme,” and that I listen to whenever I’m writing the scenes of them together. It’s an achingly beautiful, all-cello arrangement of Coldplay’s “Fix You” performed by the Yale musical group Low Strung. It makes me cry every time I hear it – there’s just so much longing in the melody, and, by the end, a sort of resolution and relinquishment that is truly heartbreaking.

What was it like writing two separate series simultaneously? Did you ever find it hard switching gears and going from one world to another?

Not really, since the two series are so markedly different. SSG is a comedy. Rampant is a big epic fantasy with life or death consequences on every page. The only thing I really noticed, returning to Amy’s world to write her final book after finishing Rampant, was how truly different Amy’s perspective was than that of a teenager.

It helps that Astrid and Amy are such phenomenally different characters. Amy is outspoken, gregarious, overeducated, successful, experienced, and, yes, spoiled. Astrid is shy and quiet. She’ll think things but not say them (whereas Amy suffers from permanent foot-in-mouth disease). She’s smart, but she’s young, and she’s used to disappointment in her life. Perhaps due to her struggles, Astrid also has a very clear vision of what she wants out of life and how it’s being taken away from her. I don’t think Amy would last two minutes against a killer unicorn. Astrid’s life just keeps getting harder and harder, and she’s hadd to become tough and a little ruthless to survive it. She’s sorely tested over the course of the book, and the decisions she’s forced into exist on a level that Amy has never had to face.

I do not adhere to the belief that a writer should be limited to writing only one kind of story. C.S. Lewis wrote children’s fantasy and adult religious satire. George Orwell wrote about social issues in modern England as well as dystopian science fiction and allegorical fables. I enjoy reading, and writing, all kinds of books.

When and how do you write?

Whenever, wherever, and however I can. If writing at my desk at the computer isn’t working, I’ll take my alphasmart and go sit outside. I’ll write on notecards while at the dog park. I’ll write at any time of the day or night. I plot my books out in advance, and I’m not much of a drafter. I tend to write more slowly, but more cleanly, than writer friends who don’t plan out in advance.

What’s the one book/series you’ve been gushing about nonstop lately?

Lately it’s been tough. I’ve been so busy with two book releases this summer and finishing up the second killer unicorn book that I haven’t had much time to read. But I read DULL BOY by Sarah Cross this spring and I loved it. I want to sneak into Sarah’s house and steal her grocery lists if they are half as witty and engaging as her debut novel. And I’ve been gushing about Carrie Ryan’s books since I first read her first draft of THE FOREST OF HANDS AND TEETH.

And just for fun, what’s the first word that comes to mind when I say:

Poe: (You would list this first. LOL!) Dark

Books: Joy

Astrid: Hard

Avatar: Aspirational

Giovanni: Sweet

Writing: Job

Jamie: (Again?) Angie’s Obsession!

Secret Societies: Done

Sexy: My husband!

Unicorns: wild

YA: anticipation

Home: My husband (yes, again)

Thanks so much, Diana! And, honestly, I couldn't help myself with the Poe references. I love the guy. End of story.


And now for the giveaway! Harper Teen has graciously offered up three copies of Rampant to give away to three lucky commenters. All you have to do is leave a comment telling me if you've ever read a book about unicorns before and what it was. If you've never read one, tell me why you're looking forward to reading Rampant! The contest will run for one week and will close at midnight on Sunday, August 30th. I'll announce the winners on Monday. Please make sure to leave me a way to contact you.

August 22, 2009

Retro Friday Review: Arrows of the Queen by Mercedes Lackey

When I was a kid and my father was out of town for work, my mom and I got to have sleepovers in the big bed. We would curl up with our pillows stacked behind our backs and read books and eat ice cream and fall asleep whenever we wanted to. I loved it. And, unsurprisingly, the tradition continued on until I left home. One particular time I remember it was a Friday night and I was fourteen and my mom and I went to the base library to see what we could find. I wandered down the aisles and stopped when my eye caught on a pink and purple spine in the fantasy/scifi section. It seemed a bit...girly...for me and when I saw the pretty much opalescent horse on the cover I almost put it back on the shelf. But I liked the title. And the girl on the horse looked pale and sad and interesting with her short hair and her threadbare scarf. So I checked it out and that night curled up with my mom and a bowl of mint chocolate chip ice cream and fell in love.

Talia is an orphan. Raised in a very claustrophobic, incredibly closed off family hold that her uncle runs with an iron fist, she longs for a kinder, more stimulating world in which "family" refers to people who love you and not people who revile and shame you. When a white horse straight out of her dreams appears one day, Talia climbs into his saddle and never looks back. The horse is clearly no ordinary horse. He can sense emotions and share his own with Talia. He takes her to Haven, the capital city of Valdemar, where her hidden talents are recognized and she is enrolled in the Collegium--a school for heralds-in-training. The heralds are an elite force who are trained to protect the Queen and the realm from threat or harm. There at the Collegium Talia makes the first friends of her life (and a few enemies as well). When she stumbles across a plot to destroy the Queen, she is forced to harness her wayward abilities and use the connections she's made to convince the Queen and her council that there is a traitor in their midst.

This series is a very dear one to me. My fourteen-year-old self completely empathized with Talia and her insecurities and longings. She has to be one of the most passive heroines of any I've read, which makes her unique as I generally find myself drawn to stronger, more forceful personalities. But Talia matures, both chronologically and emotionally in this series, particularly in book two, Arrow's Flight, when she gets shoved through the refiner's fire as she completes her Heraldic training and emerges prepared to defend her Queen. And yet, she retains that innocence and inherent sweetness which somehow captured my heart more than a decade ago and has not let it go. Each book in this trilogy gets better and better and you only grow fonder of this family of characters Lackey has pieced together. Among Talia's inner circle, there is a not-so-ex-thief, a spoiled princess, a gruff and intimidating armsmaster, a crippled harpist, and Rolan--her horse and Companion. Mercedes Lackey's strength lies in these characters and how she is able to make you want so much for them. If you fall in love with the world you're also in luck as Ms. Lackey has written a whole host of books that take place in Valdemar, though this trilogy is by far the best, IMO, and definitely the place to start. Reading order: Arrows of the Queen, Arrow's Flight, and Arrow's Fall.

August 20, 2009

That First Kiss

Rowena over at The Book Binge had a charming post up on her first kiss and what it was like and how she remembers it like it was yesterday. She goes on to talk about her favorite between-the-pages first kisses and why she loves them. I thought it was a lovely post and it made me realize that, though I'm rather a big fan of a good first kiss on the page, I haven't really spent much time thinking about which ones are my favorites.
Now that I have, I have to laugh at what seems to be a trend. I am apparently particularly fond of a first kiss that takes one (or both) people by surprise. Lol. I honestly had no idea I felt that way, but the evidence appears to be incontrovertible. I've removed the names to protect the innocent and prevent spoilers but there is really no way to talk about these kisses (even as briefly as I do) without risking some SPOILERS. So if you see a title you're planning on reading and don't want to know anything, please skip these short descriptions. I don't want to ruin anything for anyone!
Seven of my very favorites (in no particular order):

Son of the Shadows by Juliet Marillier--Almost in spite of herself, she takes a single step forward, puts her arms around him, and takes him unbelievably, monumentally, staggeringly by surprise. Sigh.
Mystic and Rider by Sharon Shinn--Very deliberately, hoping to discover the answer to her question, she takes his face in her hands and forces him to meet her halfway. The quality of his reaction takes them both by surprise.
Stand Down by Zack Emerson (a.k.a. Ellen Emerson White)--After months of exchanging letters and two nights spent just holding hands, he backs her into the wall and lays one on her. It takes her a few seconds, but she catches on.
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince by J.K. Rowling--He's had a particularly awful day and then she bursts in, runs to him, and kisses him in the completely spontaneous, completely perfect moment we've all been waiting for.
Clockwork Heart by Dru Pagliassotti--She looks at him and really sees him for the first time. He's scared out of his mind and shaking with fear. And she holds him. And he rests his forehead on her shoulder. And he leans forward and kisses her.
Rites of Spring (Break) by Diana Peterfreund--These two have a History. Of combat. In an unfamiliar environment, they find the regular old rules don't apply. And when he's the only thing keeping her afloat, she grabs on for dear life.
Silent in the Grave by Deanna Raybourn--Mid-argument, against a tree on Hampstead Heath,
this explosive encounter between two people who've met their match (whether they know it yet or not) is not to be missed.

And there you have it. Interestingly, these first kisses hail from four fantasy books, one young adult historical fiction, one historical mystery, and one contemporary fiction. And it's four to three in favor of the girl kissing the guy. As for my first was short, sweet, and didn't take either of us by surprise. And that's all you're gonna hear about that!

Now it's your turn. Tell me about your favorite between-the-pages first kisses and/or your own!

August 19, 2009

Totally Chuffed

So I've been traveling today (just a quick getaway) but I was able to check my email sporadically and was totally chuffed to receive email notification informing me I'd been nominated for four Book Blogger Appreciation Week awards! The four different categories are:

Best YA Review Blog
Best General Book Review Blog
Best Series or Feature--for Retro Fridays
Most Chatty


That last one really made me smile as the category description reads,
This blogger has a very "chatty" style. You feel like you could be sitting together, sipping wine, and chatting about life.
What a compliment! Since that is exactly the feeling I hope to create on the blog, it makes me so pleased to know some of you feel that way. Honestly, you are the ones who really make it with your wonderfully insightful and funny comments. I don't know which of you nominated me for these but I want to thank you here and now and let you know you made my day.

Edited to add: Make that eight total categories! Got four more for Best Writing, Best Reviews, Best Commenter, and Most Humorous/Funniest Blog. Woot!

August 18, 2009

There She Goes

There she goes again. With her fantabulous, freaking book trailers. And I'm not even a fan of the format myself. I generally find them the height of cheese, though I realize I'm not likely the target audience. Still. If I'd never read her books or heard her name, I would want to read both Shiver and Ballad based on these awesomely beautiful trailers Maggie Stiefvater made herself. Wouldn't you?
For a behind-the-scenes peek into the making of the Shiver trailer, go here. Amazing. Maggie also has contests going on to win both books. So be sure to check those out here.

August 17, 2009

Going Too Far by Jennifer Echols

I picked up Jennifer Echols' Going Too Far on the recommendation of the Ana-half of The Book Smugglers. Ana is good peeps and pretty much never steers me wrong. She said she stayed up into the wee hours of the night reading this one and what do ya know? I did, too! It's just that it was my birthday eve and I was feeling like being incredibly cozy and wanted something sweet and absorbing. This book is both. I read it in one sitting and pretty much had to know what happened before I could sleep. The funny thing was my dreams had an interesting musical score behind them that night. Full of songs about love and loss. Particularly "Re: Stacks" by Bon Iver. Over and over again in my head, this one seemed to fit Meg and John so well.

Stuck in Nowhere, Alabama, Meg MacPherson is counting down the hours until she can move away to college. And it doesn't even matter that she's only going just a few miles down the road to Birmingham. She'll still be away from her hometown, away from her parents, and away from her thankless (and payless) job at their 24-hour breakfast greasy spoon--Eggstra! Eggstra! *snort* For the last few years Meg has comfortably occupied the position of town Bad Girl, complete with rapidly changing hair color (currently blue) and revolving door of lousy boyfriends (seriously, her latest makes Charlie Sheen look like a real catch). One night up on the railroad bridge, Meg and three compatriots have the misfortune to be caught, drunk and disorderly, by the local cops. For their punishment, they each have to spend a week riding with one of the emergency personnel that had to come out after them that night. Meg pulls the cop who chewed her out that night--Officer After--a 19-year-old hometown boy whose only ambition in life appears to be busting the butts of errant high schoolers and who never dreams of leaving. Over the course of the next five days, Meg and Officer After learn a few things about each other that complicate both of their long-term plans.

At first these two seem like fairly straightforward stereotypes. Bad Girl meets Straight Shooter. Sparring and romance ensue. In that order. But then, just as you're prepared to get bored, things get interesting. Meg shows herself to be quite a bit more layered than initially expected. She's clearly got several hideous incidents in her past which make it, among other things, difficult to be in confined spaces. Handcuffs or prison bars, for example, assume nightmarish proportions for Meg. And she has a charming habit of voicing her thoughts and emotions. Every time she blurted out, "I am full of fear," I laughed and loved her more. Except when she really was. And had good reason to be. Then I was full of fear for her and I couldn't stop turning the pages. John is as layered as Meg, only it comes out more slowly as Meg herself discovers it. And it doesn't all come out in the right order, which is frustrating for all concerned. But they're both so likable, you'll go along for the ride. My favorite bit about this story is that in the end, when the inevitable unforgivable act occurs, Meg squares her shoulders and fixes things. She doesn't dissolve in her despair but rather has a good cry and then goes about making reparation and salvaging what she can. I always liked her, but that's when I admired her. Recommended for fans of Simone Elkeles' Perfect Chemistry, Laura Wiess' Such a Pretty Girl, and for when you're looking for a light, swallow-in-a-single-gulp read.

August 14, 2009

Retro Friday Review: Westmark by Lloyd Alexander

Lloyd Alexander is one of a handful of authors who had a hand in forming who I am today. At the beginning of sixth grade my teacher pulled out The Book of Three, the first in Alexander's Chronicles of Prydain, and began reading. He did all the voices, from opinionated Eilonwy to noble Gwydion to humble Gurgi with his poor, tender head. We sat there enchanted as he read the entire five-book series aloud to the class. We were living overseas at the time and, unfortunately, we had limited access to books. When we moved back to the states, we stopped in at the local library and I immediately went to the A section to see if they had any other Alexander books. I was in luck. I picked up Westmark first because of the cover (left below) and because I read the first line and was completely sold.
Theo, by occupation, was a devil.
When the librarian informed me it was the first in a trilogy, I quickly grabbed the other two and made for the door. They were utterly different from the Chronicles of Prydain--darker, and not really fantasy at all, though they are set in a fictional kingdom. Alexander is so well-known for the Chronicles of Prydain and it seems to me this little gem of a trilogy hasn't gotten quite the same reception, though Westmark actually won the National Book Award in 1982. I have re-read them many times since the first time and I love them more with every encounter.
Main character Theo is, in fact, a devil. Though not the kind you might be expecting. Theo is a printer's devil--an apprentice to the printer Anton in the small town of Dorning in the kingdom of Westmark. After printing a pamphlet by Dr. Absalom, Theo and his master are forced to flee into the night as guards break into the printing press and burn the shop to the ground. Ever since Chief Minister Cabbarus took over the running of the kingdom from their grieving king, he has been systematically curtailing the freedoms of the people. On the run from the law, Theo finds himself in league with the mysterious Dr. Absalom, also known as Count Las Bombas, the trusty dwarf Musket, and the bright but haunted girl Mickle--a former pickpocket and street urchin. But when the demands of his conscience prove to much to bear, Theo strikes out on his own and takes a job as scribe for a small group of revolutionaries led by the charismatic Florian. As the story builds to its heart-palpitating climax, these two bands find themselves inexplicably drawn to the capitol city of Marianstat and into the grasping hands of the sinister Cabbarus.

I love how perfectly paced Lloyd Alexander's writing always is. He truly was a master at constructing the ebb and flow necessary to a genuinely riveting storyline, the heights and depths in which to lead his characters, and the clever and crafty words to put in their mouths. His main characters are so far from perfect and they are often painfully aware of it. They want so badly to do the right thing and yet they are constantly faced with how difficult and conflicting a desire that is. Theo is no exception. He is a simple young man hurled into a complex web of secrets and plotting not of his making. The world and conflict is based on the French Revolution and the pain and ambiguity of that conflict is not spared in Alexander's fictional version, particularly in the sequel, The Kestrel, where Theo and his companions are caught up in bloody battle as the nation tears itself apart in the name of freedom. But that trademark humor and overwhelming compassion are still there. Witness this scene:
Florian lifted his own glass. "To the health of one who is ever in our thoughts: our chief minister."
Theo reddened. He was too tired to be polite. He pushed away the glass. "Drink to him yourself. I won't."
"My children!" cried Florian. "Do you hear? This youngster, clearly perishing from hunger, stands nevertheless on his principles. He sets us an example. Put to the same test, would we do as well?" He turned to Theo. "Spoken bravely but carelessly. You haven't the mind of a lawyer, which is a great blessing for you. Otherwise, you would have observed the health was not specified as 'good.' You jumped to a conclusion. In this case, a wrong one. Would you care to reconsider?
"Seize the opportunity," Florian continued. "Don't think we banquet like this every day. We are celebrating the anniversary of Rina's birth." He nodded at the laundress, who rose and made a mocking curtsy. "With us, it is feast or famine, more often the latter."
Theo ventured to ask if they were students. Hoots and whistles followed his question.
"We forgive your unintended offense," Florian said. "No one with a thirst for knowledge goes to the university now. Half the faculty has resigned, the other half gives courses in advanced ignorance. The Royal Grant is no longer very royal nor much granted. Public intelligence, in the view of Cabbarus, is a public nuisance, like a stray cat. If unfed, it will go away. But allow me to present my children, my fledgling eagles waiting impatiently to spread their wings.
"Our worthy Stock, though he may look like a prize bull, is by inclination a poet; by temperament, a dreamer. this one, Justin,"--he pointed to a thin, pale youth, close to Theo's age, with hair so yellow it shone almost white, and with long-lashed eyes of astonishing violet--"Justin has the face of an angel; whereas, in fact, he is a bloodthirsty sort of devil. The result, possibly, of seeing his father hanged. Our two goddesses, the golden Rina and the russet Zara, guide and inspire us.
Florian stood, laid a hand on his bosom, and struck an exaggerated oratorical pose. "As for me, I pursued the study of law until I learned there is only one: the decree of Nature herself that men are brothers; and the only criminals, those who break her statute. Students? Yes. But our classroom is the world."
When his companions, playing audience, finished cheering and pounding the table, Florian went on more quietly.
"And you, youngster? What brings you here? Your trade appears to be professional scarecrow. You may find little call for your services."
Theo's fever was singing lightly in his ears. The food and drink had turned him a little giddy. Florian, on top of that, seemed to have the odd power of drawing him out. Though he kept enough caution to say nothing of Dorning, Theo hardly stopped talking long enough to catch his breath. He gladly unburdened himself, having spoken no more than a dozen words in a dozen days. He detailed his journey with Las Bombas and tried to explain that he had left Mickle for her own good. He finally realized he had been babbling and let his account trail off.
"He loved her," sighed Rina. "It was noble of him. It was beautiful."
"It was stupid," said Zara.
Florian raised a hand. "Children, we are not called upon to render a verdict, only to ponder what should be done."
He spoke apart with the auburn-haired Zara for a moment, and turned back to Theo. "The russet divinity will see you housed for the time being, Master--would you care to tell us your name?"
"It's"--Theo paused, remembering the order for his arrest, and hoping to cover his tracks as best he could--"it's--De Roth."
"Go along with her, then, Master De Roth." Florian grinned. "Here, we feed our stray cats."
It's a beautiful series filled with a host of fine characters (some delightful, some dreadful) who spend their lives wrestling with questions of morality, purpose, and honor, and leavened by roguish wit, high adventure, and a sweet romance. Highly recommended for fans of Megan Whalen Turner's Queen's Thief series. Reading order: Westmark, The Kestrel, and The Beggar Queen.