January 29, 2010

Retro Friday Review: Locked in Time by Lois Duncan

Retro Friday is a weekly meme hosted here at Angieville and focuses on reviewing books from the past. This can be an old favorite, an under-the-radar book you think deserves more attention, something woefully out of print, etc.

So we've talked about my Joan Lowery Nixon phase here before. I actually think I discovered Lois Duncan right before Nixon, but the two will always go hand and hand in my mind. Together they perfectly satisfied my twelve-year-old thirst for a light blending of suspense and the macabre. And no Duncan book did that better than the deliciously creepy Locked in Time. I enjoyed all of her books and they all succeeded in giving me the chills at one point or another. My old copy of I Know What You Did Last Summer is definitely showing its age and my love, as I loved revisiting those characters the most. But Locked in Time is the one that truly scared me. Not just chills, not just anxious anticipation, but the real deal, had me setting the book down long enough to calm my racing heart kind of scared. 

Seventeen-year-old Nore has been away at boarding school since her mother died a year ago. Now she's on her way to Louisiana to visit her father and his new wife and her two children. When she arrives at Shadow Grove, several things are clear. Her father is happy with his new life. Her stepmother Lisette, stepbrother Gabe, and stepsister Josie are perfectly well-mannered and perfectly beautiful. And something is very, very wrong with them. Through conversations she has with elderly neighbors and residents of the town, Nore's seemingly crazy suspicions about Lisette, Gabe, and the entire Berge family start to grow. These vaguely horrific suspicions grow stronger as she overhears them discuss events from decades ago as though they were there when they happened. Nore finds herself torn between her distrust of Lisette and her growing friendship with Gabe. Determined to make her father come to his senses and see the truth, Nore rushes to solve the mystery of her new family before her time at Shadow Grove runs out.

When I think about this story now, years since I last re-read it, I am still instantly filled with the same overwhelming emotions--an appreciation for the heady beauties of the Deep South mixed with a sense of impending doom. Ms. Duncan struck the perfect chord with the impossibly lovely Berges and the simultaneous fear and longing Nore feels when in the presence of a "real" family again. The truth to the mystery unfolds smoothly and slowly, like warm molasses, creeping up behind you to tap you on the shoulder. In some ways it reminded me of a younger, simpler Mary Stewart novel, with its lovely heroine and its beautiful atmosphere. I remember thinking Nore was brave and being desperate for someone to believe her, for Gabe not to really be trying to kill her, for her father, in his grief, not to have ruined them both so thoroughly. It's the same emotional connection I seek out today when I'm in the mood for something slightly dangerous, slightly haunting, slightly bittersweet. It was these early young adult mysteries that led me to the Mary Stewarts, the Laurie Kings, the Deanna Raybourns I discovered later on. I will always love them for being the beginning. 

January 28, 2010

Demon's Lexicon Gets a New Jacket

Sarah Rees Brennan has revealed the new cover the U.S. paperback of The Demon's Lexicon will be sporting come April. It represents a significant shift, I think, in style and focus from the hardback cover. I definitely like it better, though the UK cover remains my favorite. I can't help it. I even ordered my own copy. Love The Book Depository! But at the end of the day they all three have their appeal and how lucky, honestly, for such an awesome book to get three such covers? So here they are, from left to right: UK, US hardback, and US paperback. Which one's your favorite?

Love is in the Air

It's not even February yet and love is in the air around the blogosphere. Feeling a little cabin fever, are we people? A few of these posts caught my eye and are worth a mention here.

*sigh*

A week or so ago the wicked funny Sarah Rees Brennan put together a post entitled The Best Couples in Books Ever! Lol. In this post she outlines the six literary couples she deems the best ever, given the rules that the series they're in (if there is one) is finished and that at the end of it they are, in fact, together. I've read four of the six books/series and would put two of those four on my list, no question. Take a look at the list and see if you can guess which two! And while you're there, make sure you scroll down to the hysterical summaries of each relationship Sarah kindly put together. Though beware spoilers if you haven't read the books yet. I'm still breaking into giggles over them days later.


Next, my friend Michelle over at See Michelle Read is hosting a Literary Love event the first two weeks in February. She'll be spotlighting some of the most memorable literary couples as well as opening up the polls so you can vote on your favorites. There will also be guest posts, a giveaway, and all kinds of fun stuff going on. Make sure to drop by and weigh in!

Lastly, the always entertaining Adele over at Persnickety Snark is talking Perfect Kisses. Of the YA TV variety. She's got three videos of how the perfect kiss looks to her and you should really go give them a view. I'm so very much with her on the Veronica and Logan entry. With the barricaded bathroom hotness. And the Logan...
And if I were to add one of my own favorites to the list it would likely be this one:


And, even though it's not TV, this one:

Because of the awesome.

January 27, 2010

Fey Pretties


Don't these three look like they belong together? I was struck by the similarities in font (particularly with the two on the right) and just the general style and feel. I love how they look together and I am anxious to get my hands on all three.

The first in Kiernan's Moorehawke Trilogy, The Poison Throne follows young Wynter Moorehawke as she goes from a life of peaceful anonymity to a life of exile with her father and back to her homeland once more. In the five years of her absence, she finds her home changed beyond recognition and herself thrown into the middle of a kingdom tearing itself apart. I have the impression this was previously published in the UK and is now making it's US debut. Due out April 7th.

Merlin's Harp by Anne Eliot Crompton
I am a very large sucker for all things Arthurian. What can I say? I'm always on the lookout for that perfect retelling, adaptation, what have you. Merlin's Harp was originally published in 1995 and is being rather fetchingly repackaged by Sourcebooks for a new YA audience. Told from the perspective of Niviene--the Lady of the Lake's daughter and Merlin's apprentice--this revisioning of the old tale has me tapping my nails in anticipation. Due out March 1st.

The first book in the Iron Fey series, The Iron King combines elements of the previous two pretties as it follows modern young woman Meghan Chase whose life takes a drastic turn for the unknown when she discovers she is actually the daughter of faerie royalty. Word is this YA fantasy reads like The Neverending Story meets A Midsummer Night's Dream. So basically you'll want to get your hands on it the day it comes out. Which is just around the corner, btw. Due out February 1st.

January 26, 2010

Mistwood by Leah Cypess

Mistwood has been on my radar for close to a year now, if you can believe it. I've been monitoring its status updates on Amazon and GoodReads and checking Leah Cypess' site regularly for any news. There have been tantalizingly few details about this book floating around the verse. I knew it was YA fantasy. I knew it was about a girl who was a shifter. And I knew it took place in a kingdom in trouble. The back cover copy proclaims it:
For fans of Kristin Cashore's Graceling and Fire, Tamora Pierce, and Megan Whalen Turner's Attolia books
Ahem. That combination right there is only like the holy triumvirate of YA fantasy awesome. And so it was with unmitigated glee that I pulled my ARC out of its box a few days ago. I started reading it that night.

She has no memory. No concept of an existence before the moment they came riding into the Mistwood to drag her back to a castle full of high walls, dark secrets, and the suffocating need of its prince. They call her Isabel. The Shifter. The mythical being who can take any form at a moment's notice, who is faster and stronger than any human, whose entire reason for existing is to protect the rulers of Samorna. From harm. From death. With her own life if necessary. And though she answers the insistent pull to protect Prince Rokan, Isabel cannot reconcile who she might be and what she might have been with who they expect her to be. Set apart by her uncertain status and the legend of her origins, she struggles to harness her abilities and come to grips with human emotions and motivations. Amid a swirl of court politics, scheming factions, and doubtful loyalties, the Shifter must race against time to save the man who would be king. A man she is bound to. A man she distrusts. A man she has come to call her friend.

First things first. The cover copy does not lie. Fans of Kristin CashoreTamora Pierce, and Megan Whalen Turner will definitely find much to delight among Mistwood's pages. Leah Cypess' debut novel is tense, intricately woven, and filled with an almost palpable sense of mystery and foreboding. The entire time I was reading it, I kept thinking to myself--anything could happen. I had no idea how things were going to play out. And I loved that about it. You literally have no idea who to trust. There are those you want to trust so badly, but are afraid to for fear of how much it will hurt if they betray you. And there are those you wouldn't put anything past, so devious do they appear. But all of them surprise you at one point or another. And at the heart of it all is a girl who is neither one thing nor another. Ms. Cypess does an excellent job of endearing Isabel to her readers, no mean feat when she is a supernatural being, a creature purportedly without feeling or even the basic understanding of human emotions. Despite this, I felt Isabel's emotions. With her I felt trapped. I felt confusion, longing, and a desperate drive to understand and to fulfill the measure of my existence.

A favorite passage early on (taken from my uncorrected ARC):

Rokan took a deep breath. The directness of his gaze strengthened his resemblance to the man in the painting, though there was nothing cold or judgmental in his eyes. He was trying to appear as regal as he could, but uncertainty was written all over him, and his face was flushed from his argument with Clarisse.
"I wasn't able to wake you earlier, or I would have warned you. Nobody knows I went to the Mistwood. We think it would be best to keep your true identity a secret for now. I hope you're not offended."
"Of course not," said Isabel, who had no idea what her true identity was. "That seems wise."
"Rokan ran his hand over his hair and clutched the back of his neck. "Oh. Good." He hesitated again, then blurted, "I don't actually know that much about the Shifter."
Then you know more than I do, Isabel thought, and saw an opportunity. She gave him her most enigmatic smile and said, "Tell me what you do know."
"Most of it is legend. An immortal creature who protects the kings of Samorna with her wisdom and magic." He massaged the back of his neck. "When the realm is peaceful, the Shifter sometimes leaves the castle and goes to the Mistwood. Then there may be no Shifter for twenty, fifty, once even a hundred years. But when she is needed, she always comes."
"There's even a song about you," Clarisse put in. "It's very pretty, if you like the high notes."
Isabel ignored her. Based on her brief experience, that already seemed like the best way to deal with Clarisse. She stepped closer to the door and turned sideways, so that she could be closer to Rokan without allowing Clarisse or Will out of her line of sight.
Rokan dropped his hand to his side and continued. "You left ten years ago, and at the time you were called Isabel. I was a child then, but . . ." He faltered and glanced at his sister. "We weren't sure you would come back. When you left . . . there were circumstances."
Running through the snow, blood trailing behind her. Tears falling, not leaving a mark like the blood, and that seemed wrong. Pain. Terrible, terrible pain . . .
"Yes," Isabel said without thinking, "there were."
Rokan straightened, pulling away from the wall. He, Will, and Clarisse looked at one another. They were afraid. Rokan and Clarisse both hid it almost well enough, but Will's face was near white.
Rokan recovered first, leaning back gingerly against the wall, trying to act casual. "So why did you leave?"
Isabel lifted her eyebrows. "I am not going to tell you that, Your Highness."
Rokan's hand tightened against his leg, but all he said was, "I understand."
Isabel highly doubted it.
I was glued to the page with this one, guys. Cypess' writing is quiet, yet gripping. The world itself felt truly unique and, as is the case with my very favorite fantasies, as though it possessed a long and winding history that precedes and encompasses this time and these people. By the time I reached the point of no return, I had abandoned all hope of guessing the outcome and simply devoured the final emotionally charged pages. With a cast of conflicted, compelling characters and a mystery so serpentine your mind is left spinning with explanations and implications, Mistwood is a bewitching and beguiling debut. I loved it and cannot wait to watch the reviews roll in. 


Mistwood is due out April 27th.

Linkage

January 22, 2010

Retro Friday Review: True Confessions of a Heartless Girl by Martha Brooks

Retro Friday is a weekly meme hosted here at Angieville and focuses on reviewing books from the past. This can be an old favorite, an under-the-radar book you think deserves more attention, something woefully out of print, etc.














A little over two years ago I came across this book. At the time I thought it had been published just recently, but I realized later it was originally published in Canada in 2002 and then a little over a year later in the U.S. I can't even remember now how I first heard about True Confessions of a Heartless Girl. But I remember that the fact that it was set in Canada and written by a Canadian was part of the draw. That and the intriguing storyline. I'm mystified as to why we seem to rarely get wind of some of these gems from our northern neighbors. Heartless Girl was the winner of the 2002 Governor General's Literary Award and if this is any indication of the quality of the winners of that award, I will be paying attention to future winners and nominations. None of our local bookstores had it in, but my library did (bless them) so I picked it up on my way home from work and read it later that night as my husband snored gently beside me. One thing is for sure--I fell irretrievably into Martha Brooks' clear, evocative prose.
A note on the covers: I don't believe either one really captures the essence of the story. The one on the left is probably most accurate, though the coffee cup on the right isn't a bad touch.

Set in present-day Manitoba, the story follows self-proclaimed heartless girl Noreen. World-weary at 17, pregnant and on the run from her boyfriend Wesley (the first kind boy she's ever been with), Noreen steals his truck and his cash and winds up broke and alone in a small farming town not far from Brandon. Against her better judgement, Lynda (the operator of the local cafe) takes Noreen in and gives her a job. And thus she unwittingly unleashes a storm the likes of which the denizens of this small town have never seen. Each of them carry their own burdens. Lynda herself has escaped an abusive relationship and is raising her three-year-old son Seth on her own, while managing to run the cafe. Dolores Harper, the local wise woman, shows up sporting her "Meddling for Jesus" sweatshirt, ready to help the new girl open up. And Del Armstrong, the resident middle-aged bachelor, does his best to help Noreen, all the while unable to forgive himself for the tragedy that occurred the year he was her age. But will any of them be able to see beyond their own personal issues to save each other from their demons?

True Confessions of a Heartless Girl ought to be swallowed in one satisfying session, I think. The writing is spare but weighty. Brooks' words leave a mark on you long after your eyes move past them on the page. We get the story from the perspective of Noreen, Wesley, and several of the inhabitants of Pembina Lake--the small town of Noreen finds herself unable to leave. I loved the characters with their strengths and weaknesses, all of them prominently on display. Noreen isunbearably heartless at times. She is also sensitive and imaginative and capable of love. But where she walks, trouble follows. Everyone she comes into contact with meets with disaster as some point in the tale. But somehow they're unable to just wash their hands of this girl and let her go. Despite their own numerous personal issues, the people there take her in, feed her, give her work, and just try (sometimes against all reason) to help this girl whose life has been seemingly cursed since the day she was born. And then there's Wesley. The Cree construction worker with a sky full of stars and careful hands. I liked that he didn't let Noreen trample him underfoot. I liked that he yelled and stomped and left when he should. I get tired sometimes of the Tireless Good Guy. The one who's always there and comes back even when she doesn't deserve him. On the contrary, these two find their way back to each other only when their eyes can see clearly again. When Noreen learns how to stay still and not run. The vastness of the prairie is in this slim novel. It is exquisite and I love it.

Linkage

January 21, 2010

Bibliocrack Review: Practice Makes Perfect & Just the Sexiest Man Alive by Julie James















Okay, as you all know I am not very well-versed in the romance genre. I took my first dip in last summer when The Book Smugglers dared me to read Loretta Chase's Mr. Impossible. While I had a great time completing the dare and reporting on it, the book was not my cup of tea and I wasn't so taken with the experience that I wanted to repeat it again just yet. I have, however, casually been keeping my eye out for my next attempt. Based on my reactions to Mr. Impossible, Ana recommended giving Julia Quinn's What Happens in London a shot, but every time I go to the library it's been checked out. This is probably a good sign. And so I figured I'd just wait for that one to come back in and give it a go. Then, as part of the Smugglivus Feats of Strength, Thea read and reviewed Julie James' Practice Makes Perfect--one of Ana's favorites of '09. And it was like the this is the next one light went on in my head. I think it was Thea's comment:
I was a little nervous going into Practice Makes Perfect - but from the first page of this delightful book, I found myself immersed and entertained. Ms. James' novel is romantic comedy at its finest.
How could I resist that? Especially when she followed it up by noting that there is a decided lack of "mush" and play-by-play sex scenes in the book. In short, it sounded made to order.

Payton and J.D. have worked at the same Chicago law firm for eight years. And for eight years they have been at each other's throats. Opposites in almost every way, Payton is a liberal vegetarian, attended a public university, and worked her way up the corporate ladder on pure talent and grit. J.D. Jameson, on the other hand, is as old money/conservative as they come, grew up privileged, attended an Ivy League school, and considers himself a shoo-in for partner. Since they specialized in different kinds of law, they are fortunate not to have to work with each other too often. The fragile balance is thrown off kilter, however, when they're assigned to the same case and forced to see if they can put aside their animosity in favor of securing those partnerships they've both been counting on.

I was still hesitant as I cracked open Practice Makes Perfect. And for the first few pages I still wasn't sure. The somewhat blatant clichés (liberal feminist vs. conservative money) worried me and I was concerned the predictability would end up bothering me and that the characterization would be slapdash at best. But then Payton and J.D. start interacting. And the dialogue...well, it's incredibly witty. They excel at insulting each other and concocting hilarious pranks to play. Having known and hated each other so long they know all the right buttons to push. But my favorite part is how the wit doesn't end when they stop talking. Ms. James stays in their heads just long enough that we get that sort of running self-editorializing of thoughts that we all do and that is simply hilarious to be in on. The other aspect of the book I enjoyed was all the legal shoptalk. Ms. James herself was a lawyer for many years and it shows in the writing. I appreciated how interesting it was and it definitely lent the story a welcome authenticity.

I read Practice Makes Perfect in one night and enjoyed it so much I immediately went out and hunted down Julie James' first book--Just the Sexiest Man Alive. As the title might indicate, this one features a ridiculously famous actor who has recently been named People magazine's Sexiest Man Alive. Jason Andrews is on top of the world and believes nothing is out of his reach. Then, while preparing for his next legal thriller, he agrees to spend a day with an actual attorney to help get into the role. Taylor Donavan is only in L.A. for a few months. On loan from her law firm in Chicago, she's helping out with a high stakes sexual harassment case. Then she's asked to do a "favor" for one of the partners and babysit Jason Andrews for a day or two to show him what it's like to be a real lawyer. Furious at this monumental waste of her time, and still smarting from breaking off her engagement, Taylor is determined to hate the big, dumb movie star. For his part, Jason is intrigued by the existence of a woman who appears to actually dislike him. And from that point, things pretty much go the way of the inevitable.

What can I say? These books are bibliocrack. In the most basic sense of the term. Absolutely addictive, hilariously entertaining, irresistible romantic comedies. I ate them up with a spoon and consider my time reading them very well spent, especially as Thea was exactly right. They feature smart, independent protagonists who are good at their jobs and have interests and goals in life outside of the romantic. And these protagonists are drawn to each other because of these qualities. And, okay, yes, they're all pretty much aces as far as the hotness factor goes, but their connections are real and you want them to understand each other and realize what's there under the hot lawyer and/or actor surface (take your pick). The writing is clean and even, the dialogue shoulder-shaking-giggles-inducing (though expect a fair amount of language), the best friends good and true, the tension sizzling, the intimate scenes minimal and fade to black, and the endings just the way you want them--decidedly happy. If you're in the mood for any or all of the above, you might as well grab yourself a bowl of popcorn and settle in, because you're in for a rocking good time. I myself can't wait for Ms. James' third book, Something About You, which is due out March 2nd.

January 19, 2010

Tuesday Giggles: Han Solo Version

For your dose of levity this gray Tuesday, I present you with:
Warning: the brief bit that follows includes one instance of strong language, but, man, is it awesome.
And now, of course, I really want this shirt.

January 18, 2010

January 15, 2010

Retro Friday Review: The Gryphon Trilogy by Andre Norton

Retro Friday is a weekly meme hosted here at Angieville and focuses on reviewing books from the past. This can be an old favorite, an under-the-radar book you think deserves more attention, something woefully out of print, etc.
I remember the day I first discovered science fiction grand dame Andre Norton. I walked into our favorite used bookstore in San Antonio, Texas. The same used bookstore where I first ran across so many other gems. This particular trip I was looking for something unusual and different and my eye caught on the cover on the left above. I liked how angular the art was and the look of the two companions traveling through what appeared to be an extremely bleak, almost sinister landscape. So I picked up The Crystal Gryphon and took it home with me. I was intrigued by the title as I had absolutely no idea what a gryphon was or if a crystal one was exceptional in any way. Shortly after returning home I blew back into the shop, hoping against hope they would have the two sequels it listed inside the cover. Lucky for me, they did. And they had learned by then not to be surprised by the neighborhood kid's urgent comings and goings. I'm pretty sure one of them was a Norton fan anyway.

Kerovan has been cursed since birth. On her way home, his mother was forced to take shelter in one of the ancient ruins of the Old Ones and, as a result, Kerovan was born with hooves instead of feet and eyes the color of molten amber. The heir to the Ulmsdale estate in High Hallack, Kerovan's life has never been his own and he spent much of it being tutored in private and shunned in public by his father's people who do not trust the eldritch young lord. At the same time, far away in the Dales, the young lady Joisan has been married by proxy since she was eight years old to a mysterious Lord Kerovan whom she has never met. Expected to grow up and take over the reins of running his household, Joisan's path takes a drastically different turn when an unidentified force invades High Hallack from the sea. With nothing but a small gryphon set in a crystal globe sent from her lord to wear around her neck, Joisan takes up the armor and weapons to defend her homeland. Kerovan is forced to travel to find Joisan and the two strangers must join together to defeat the dark magic that is invading their land.

In this case, I can tell you that the cover art on that first book is right on. I can't imagine a cover that would more effectively convey the marvelous blend of cold magic and unknown danger that fills this novel. I fell instantly under its spell and could not get enough of Kerovan and Joisan and the awkward way they had to get to know one another against a backdrop of war. They are both so tentative and independent and used to silence and walking hallways alone. The idea of the marriage by proxy fascinated me in a sort of morbid way. I felt so bad for Joisan, but bad for Kerovan as well as he was not used to people becoming accustomed to him and/or welcoming them to their homes. He cannot imagine Joisan would want him and, when she mistakes him for one of the Old Ones upon first meeting, he is sure of it. The story alternates between their points of view and by the time they actually meet for the first time the reader is filled with that delicious mouthful of more knowledge than the characters themselves have and a fierce urging to root for them. It was a pleasure watching them get to know one another and it was especially interesting as the world itself is such a well-developed major player in the novel. Things are by no means "resolved" by its end and I plowed through the next two with relish. A highly recommended trilogy, certainly for Norton fans, but also for those who enjoy their fantasy mixed with a hint of the weird and featuring a pair of strong main characters.
Reading Order: The Crystal Gryphon, Gryphon in Glory, and Gryphon's Eyrie (co-written with A.C. Crispin)

January 14, 2010

Adam and the Wonderful, Beautiful, So Good, Very Pretty Header

A couple days ago the very kind J. Kaye gave me a blog award and I've been meaning to thank her ever since. It was the:
I'm really tickled! But I really can't take any credit for it, being no kind of artist at all. And then it occurred to me that today is actually the artist's birthday (kind of a big one, too), and since many people have commented on my lovely header I thought this would be a nice time to highlight its creator--my brother-in-law Adam.

I don't talk about my personal life very much here on the blog, but I'm an only child. And, as fate would have it, when I got married I married the oldest of five. At first that many siblings made me nervous, but it didn't take long before I fell in love with them hook, line, and sinker. Five lovelier siblings you could hardly hope to find. Three boys and two girls. Together they run the spectrum of talent and personality. There's an audiophile, an actor, a writer, an artist, a hairdresser/cook extraordinaire, a father, two mothers, three uncles, two aunts. And they graciously let me join them and taught me so much of what I know about family and support, companionship and laughter.
Adam is the artist, as you might have guessed. He gets it from his mother. And ever since I first met him I've watched with admiration as he sketched and painted and drew and created. I think all non-artists find something of wonder and awe in the hands of those who are. Here are some of my favorites of his:
Isn't he talented? That top one some of you might recognize as Adam Warlock. The middle one is a sketch of me and his brother that I love because it looks so much like us. The bottom is a mural he did on the wall at the hospital where he works to help cheer up the youth patients. He's just that kind of person. He's always there when you need him, he drops in at random times throughout the week to play with my kids and to check in with us, and he does the best impressions I have ever heard in my life. He opens his mouth and I'm immediately in stitches.
So today I just wanted to let Adam know how awesome I think he is. When I told him I'd like a new header he didn't waste any time at all getting started and before I knew it he'd surprised me with the amazing one I have now. All I told him was that I wanted something that reflected me and my reading tastes more and he came up with the most perfect painting I can think of. So thanks, Adam. Happy birthday, bro.

January 13, 2010

Willow by Julia Hoban

I had, of course, seen Willow all over the blogosphere when it came out last April. It got tons of good press and I suspected it was a pretty solid read. But I admit I stayed away. In part, because of the subject matter. I'm a bit of a lightweight when it comes to self-harm or abuse in all their forms and cutting (Willow's specialty) is a particularly visible and grisly form of self-harm. At the same time, I can and have read several books featuring one or both of these topics and absolutely loved them. It's all in the approach, I suppose. That and how deft a touch the author has and how well the characters are drawn. And then Harmony featured it in her Top Books of 2009 post under the category of My Second Favorite Book of 2009 and something just clicked. I reserved it at my library that day and, when it came in just a few days later, I went and picked it up.

Willow is not okay. Seven months ago her parents died in a car crash with Willow behind the wheel. And it's been seven months of anguish since that awful night. Since then she's left her incredibly normal life behind, moved in with her older brother and his wife and baby girl, and started at a new school where she is sure everyone is talking about her behind her back. The girl who killed her parents. Since then she's also discovered cutting. In lieu of melting down completely, Willow finds release and a brief respite from the overwhelming emotional pain and a brother who won't talk to her and most likely blames her for their parents' death by inflicting physical pain on herself. She's not particular. Arms, legs, even her stomach will do, as long as she can successfully hide it from her brother, her teachers, and her fellow classmates. Willow is scrupulous about taking care of the cuts after and never working in one place for too long. But things are drifting precariously closer to the edge. And then a young man walks into the library on Willow's shift looking for a few anthropology books and Willow is assigned to help him. Willow and Guy fall into rather comfortable conversation and, even though she runs the other way before long, a seed has been planted that will change the fabric of Willow's life from this point on.

Willow is incredibly earnest in its approach to one girl's unhealthy attempts to survive a life that has been ripped apart. I was struck by Julia Hoban's sort of stripped down depiction of Willow's thoughts and actions as she struggled to get through each day. Her relationship with her brother, in particular, rang true for me. You can tell they're both trying so freaking hard not to burden the other with their grief and, in the meantime, failing spectacularly to deal with the grief alone or interact with each other on anything other than a purely superficial basis. I liked how there were no sinister motives on anyone's part in this book. Real life is rough enough without evil lurking around every corner. And it added to the reader's sense of being firmly grounded in the here and now. There were no big reveals. There was no mystery to unravel. There was just Willow. And there was Guy. Who is really too sweet for words and I loved him and felt sorry for him and kept wondering what in the world I would do in his place. I had a slightly harder time connecting with Willow, but that stems mainly from the lack of bone crushing guilt in my life and my subsequent inability to contemplate cutting myself. The point is, I bought them both. And I bought them together. And I cared about what happened to them. Though some scenes were hard to read, I never felt the urge to put Willow down or take a breather and I very much enjoyed it.

January 12, 2010

The Sugar Queen by Sarah Addison Allen

My lovely book-gifting mother gave me a nice, healthy stack of books for Christmas and among them was The Sugar Queen. I read and loved Sarah Addison Allen's first novel, Garden Spells, last year on the recommendation of my good friend Michelle. Incidentally, I actually gave my mom Garden Spells for Christmas so there was some fun karmic reciprocity goin' on there. Garden Spells was the perfect autumn read and I finished it itching to get my hands on Allen's second book, which, as it turns out, is the perfect winter read. I love it when my book and the season serendipitously mesh. Set in a small ski resort town in North Carolina with magical snowflakes falling and the smell of peppermint in the air, I had no interest in resisting its spell. I just sat back and let The Sugar Queen carry me away for a couple of wintry nights.

Josey Cirrini loves candy. And I mean Josey LOVES candy. Sweets, snacks, baked goods of any kind. She keeps them in a stash in her closet and retreats there whenever she's feeling particularly anxious or down. Which is pretty much every day, several times a day. You see Josey lives alone with her aging, patrician mother in their aging, empty mansion. And every day her mother reminds her how plain she is, how she should never wear anything but black or white but for-the-love-of-all-that-is-holy no RED, and how she was such a trying child and should spend the rest of her life making it up to her poor, beautiful, widowed mother. Gah. The only bright spot in her day is the moment when their mailman Adam walks up to her door to deliver the mail. Then there's Chloe. Lovely, orphaned, loves to read, lost in love Chloe. She runs a small fast food stand in the local city courthouse lobby, lives with her lawyer boyfriend Jake, and dreams of owning her own home one day after having had to sell the only home she'd ever known when her grandparents passed away. Neither of these girls sees her life changing anytime soon. But on one fateful day a local tramp shows up in Josey's closet and Chloe discovers her boyfriend cheated on her but won't tell her with whom. And, just like that, everything changes.

Like its predecessor, The Sugar Queen is one part magical realism, one part fairy tale, and one part contemporary fiction. And like before, I fell immediately under its spell. I don't know if I was just in the mood for something pretty and sweet and romantic in the dead of winter, or if there's something about Allen's kind, honest characters that speaks to me, but I absolutely loved this book. Possibly even more than Garden Spells, I think, because I liked Josey so much. With her unselfconscious awesomeness, her straightforward goodness, she was vulnerable but never beaten. The slow, pleasantly-deceit-free way she and Adam negotiated their relationship was delightful to me. And Josey and Chloe's friendship, in particular, was extremely well done. I love how helping and being needed by Chloe makes Josey brave. How Chloe recognized Josey for what she was and took her in even when she was the one who was slowly but surely drowning. In a Sarah Addison Allen book, you can always count on a little organic magic and my favorite instance of this in The Sugar Queen was undoubtedly the way books literally popped up around Chloe whenever she needed them. For example:
She could remember very clearly the first time it happened to her. Being an only child raised by her great-grandparents on a farm miles from town, she was bored a lot. When she ran out of books to read, it only got worse. She was walking by the creek along the wood line at the end of the property one day when she was twelve, feeling mopey and frustrated, when she saw a book propped up against a willow tree.
She walked over and picked it up. It was so new the spine creaked and popped when she opened it. It was a book on card tricks, full of fun things she could do with the deck of cards her great-grandmother kept in a drawer in the kitchen for her weekly canasta game.
She called out, asking if anyone was there. No one answered. She didn't see any harm in looking through the book, so she sat under the tree by the creek and read as much as she could before it got dark. She wanted to take it with her when her great-grandmother called her home, but she knew she couldn't. The owner of the book would surely want it back. So she reluctantly left it by the tree and ran home, trying to commit to memory everything she'd read.
After dinner, Chloe took the deck of cards out of the kitchen drawer and went to her bedroom to try some of the tricks. She tried for awhile, but she couldn't get them right without following the pictures in the book. She sighed and gathered the cards she'd spread out on the floor. She stood, and that's when she saw the book, the same book she'd left by the creek, on her nightstand.
For awhile after that, she thought her great-grandparents were surprising her with books. She'd find them on her bed, in her closet, in her favorite hideouts around the property. And they were always books she needed. Books on games or novels of adventure when she was bored. Books about growing up as she got older. But when her great-grandparents confronted her about all the books she had and where did she get the money to buy them, she realized they weren't the ones doing it.
The next day, under her pillow, she found a book on clever storage solutions. It was exactly what she needed, something to show her how to hide her books.
She accepted it from then on. Books liked her. Books wanted to look after her.
You can imagine the smile of contentment on my face after I read that passage. It was clear this book and I would get on well. And we did. I absolutely loved it. And you can bet I will be picking up Ms. Allen's upcoming third novel, The Girl Who Chased the Moon, the day it comes out.

January 11, 2010

Salt and Silver by Anna Katherine

This one has been on my list for a long time now. But for some reason I was under the impression it was YA urban fantasy, which is actually not the case. The main character Allie is fast approaching 30 and, though the impetus for most of the action in the novel took place when she was a fair bit younger, her main concerns and musings are those of an adult--albeit an, at times, admittedly charmingly immature one. The author, Anna Katherine, is interestingly the pen name of Anna Genoese and Katherine Macdonald. Together these two publishing industry insiders created a snarky, lighthearted, fast-paced urban fantasy debut.

Allie used to live on Long Island and never wondered where her next dime was gonna come from. Her two best friends, Amanda and "Stan," were the height of shallow and together the three of them lazed around their posh estates indulging in pretty much whatever debauched activity took their fancy. But then Allie's mom runs off, her dad fades away, and Allie is left living above a Brooklyn diner, working her butt off for tips. One night, on a drunken whim, Allie and her two cronies try to cast a spell and end up opening a literal door to hell in the basement of the diner. Quicker than you can say Practical Magic, a dude in a leather duster and Stetson hat bursts into the room claiming he's an honest to goodness demon fighter. He proceeds to take up residence in the basement, sleeping on a cot, and guarding the door night and day from supernatural nasties. Just when she thinks she's gotten used to the new extreme version of her life, Allie's door mysteriously disappears, others start appearing all over creation, and Allie and Ryan team up to stop the underworld from taking over completely.

I had heard if you don't like Allie's voice you wouldn't like the book. This is probably true, as she has a very self-disclosing, up-front approach to narrating her life. Personally, I found her hilarious and winning, if not quite as dedicated to maintaining her own dignity as I maybe would have liked her to be. Her simultaneous pining for and territorial attitude around Ryan filled me with mirth and I was instantly rooting for them to overcome the barriers engendered by their different backgrounds (to put it mildly) and the fact that one of them is a wicked cool demon hunter and the other the manager of a diner who stumbles around opening doors to hell in her spare time. I laughed over and over again reading Salt and Silver and it was a rather welcome relief to read an urban fantasy with a healthy devil-may-care attitude and not so much angst and drama. Unfortunately the story and characters that sparkled while Allie and Ryan were aboveground and searching for clues, began to flag when they actually entered the hell dimensions and started their quest. Suddenly Allie's pining became grating and a little embarrassing. And Ryan never really broke out into a three dimensional character, staying hidden behind the brim of his Stetson and his tall, dark, and brooding role. I really liked them together, I just wish they had been more fleshed out, with a little more effort from Ryan and a little less desperation from Allie. Interestingly, once they were back aboveground things picked up once more for the wrapping up section. Though it didn't quite fulfill on all its promises, I enjoyed Salt and Silver overall for its sarcasm and light heart.

January 7, 2010

The Lioness & the Lexicon

A couple of noteworthy items for you this evening:
My friend Chelle over at Tempting Persephone is hosting a wonderful challenge called Pursuing the Lioness.
This event is a chance for those who have not yet discovered Tamora Pierce's phenomenal Alanna books (the Song of the Lioness quartet) to read one or all of them and post about the experience sometime over the next six months. And for those who know and love Alanna already, Chelle is asking for guest posts about your favorite book, character, or memory associated with the series. Most of you know what a pivotal series this was for me growing up and so you can guess how much this event gives me the deep tingles. I'll be helping kick off the festivities with a guest post on the 18th. I hope you'll take part as well. See you there!

A few days ago I was over on Twitter rhapsodizing about my love for The Demon's Lexicon and all things Alan & Nick, when the Ana-half of The Book Smugglers hinted I should head over to Sarah Rees Brennan's site to read the short story "Nick's First Word." Naturally, I hightailed it over and Oh.My.Word. Seriously, you must go read it if you have read The Demon's Lexicon. If not, why have you not? Don't look at me like that. Go. Now! And while I was there I stumbled across the most awesome graphic novel-style art of the four main characters. Plus, there are wallpapers!
Behold, Nick and Alan:










I mean, how awesome are these two? With the sword and the gun and the...?
*sigh*

January 6, 2010

Cybils Finalists

As you have probably noted, the Cybils finalists have been announced! I served on the first round of judges for the Young Adult Fantasy & Science Fiction category and let me tell you it was a ton of work. My eyes still glaze over a little bit when I think about it. But I had a great time and most of that was the fact that I got to work with six other amazing panelists: Sheila, Gwenda, Steve, Nettle, Sami, and Tanita. Our final discussion chat was an absolute hoot, as well as being a stimulating and challenging discussion on the merits of each and every one of the nominated titles this year. I found myself wishing I knew these people in person and could meet up in coffeehouses and chat with them on a regular basis. They're that smart and that funny and that into reading. It was a rocking good time and I feel like we narrowed the long list down to seven absolutely solid books. And here they are, complete with blurbs written by one of us seven judges:

Young Adult Fantasy & Science Fiction

Candor
by Pam Bachorz
Egmont USA
Nominated by:
Chelsea Campbell

Oscar Banks has fooled the town of Candor, Florida, into thinking he's the perfect son. Even his father, the town's founder, believes that the subliminal messages he invented and that are carried by ever-present music, have brainwashed Oscar into becoming one more "good kid" among many. Oscar, though, knows about the messages and has trained himself to resist.

First-time author Pam Bachorz has created a book that perfectly snares what every teen both fears -- to lose his/her identity and be part of the bland crowd. Oscar may be selfish, but his motivations are sincere and natural based on the tragedies that have happened to his family. Good science-fiction for young adults is scarce--SF is more than spaceships and lasers, it is how technology could be used to help or harm humanity--and Barchorz's book will linger long in the minds of readers. They'll wonder what they would do if they ever found themselves in Candor.
--
Steve Berman

Demon's Lexicon, The
by Sarah Rees Brennan
Margaret K. McElderry
Nominated by:
Nick Jessee

Brothers Nick and Alan have been living on the run for years, hunted by magicians trying to take back their mother. But while the brothers' relationship is front and center, the story truly belongs to Nick, the ultimate bad boy barely managed his whole life by his nicer brother. Nick should be unsympathetic, but instead Sarah Rees Brennan manages to make his lack of self-awareness achingly riveting. And in doing so she gives us one of the most memorable, fully realized characters in YA contemporary fantasy--and then she surrounds him with a slew of other memorable characters in an equally intriguing and unforgettable world. The jury simply couldn't put this book down, not until we reached its satisfying and surprising ending. A thrilling read--this debut novel goes off like fireworks.
--
Gwenda Bond

Dust of 100 Dogs, The
by A.S. King
Flux
Nominated by:
Lisa McMann

It's starts with the death of Emer Morrisey, famed female pirate, who is cursed to live the life of 100 dogs. When Emer is reborn as Saffron Adams, completely aware of her past lives, all Saffron can think is how fast she can get to Jamaica to rightfully reclaim her buried treasure. Dust is a novel that interweaves not one but three storylines that work to create one amazing story. King's ability to tell a story in three distinctive and controversial voices is what truly makes Dusta novel that will push the boundaries of what YA fiction can accomplish.
--
Samantha Wheat

Fire
by Kristin Cashore
Dial
Nominated by:
Jenny Moss

Fire is a human monster and the last of her kind. With the ability to control the minds of those around them, monsters inspire an uncomfortable (at times deadly) mixture of fear, hatred, and absolute longing in the people of the Dells. When her service is requested on behalf of the young King Nash, Fire is thrust into a mounting war and forced to reconcile her questionable abilities with her own demanding conscience. A first-rate high fantasy, Fire is at once subtle, thoughtful and throbbing with genuine emotion. The novel is peopled with a breathtakingly real cast of characters who wrestle with the thorny issues of gender, power, race, friendship, violence and family. Kristin Cashore’s gorgeous, understated writing weaves a complex, vivid world around them and the reader, making Fire an intensely gripping and nuanced read and one of the year’s finest.
--
Angie Thompson

Lips Touch
by Laini Taylor
Arthur A Levine
Nominated by:
Jolie Stekly

In Lips Touch, Laini Taylor takes on that most daunting of tasks reinventing the fairy tale--and succeeds brilliantly. Each story feels like a fresh new tale, and yet still holds the timeless haunting enchantment and wonder of all the best fairy tales. Every story is a self-contained gem, and centers around the danger, power and wonder of that most magical moment--the kiss. These stories are complemented by Jim Di Bartolo’s luminous art, adding another vivid dimension to the magic of the book. In Goblin Fruit, Kizzy is so consumed by longing that she is drawn into a kiss whose price may be more than she can afford to pay. In Spicy Little CursesSuch as These, Anamique, cursed at birth to kill with the sound of her voice, must decide if love is worth risking everything for. And inHatchling, Esme learns the shocking secret of her mother’s past and her own true identity. Taylor’s language is beautiful, lush and rich, and demands to be read slowly so that every word can be savored. Lips Touch is like goblin fruit, tantalizing and delicious, each taste leaving the reader desperately hungry for more.
--
Nettle

Sacred Scars (A Resurrection of Magic, Book 2)
by Kathleen Duey
Atheneum
Nominated by:
Jenn R

As with its predecessor, Skin Hunger, Sacred Scars tells two stories, separated by many years and yet linked together. The story of the founding of the Limori Academy of magic--and a tragic yet resilient young woman named Sadima--connects in surprising ways with the parallel story of Hahp and his fellow students at the Academy generations later. The attention to detail is amazing, and the characters real and poignant. Sacred Scars is deep, dark and intense, and immersive in a way that lingers in the mind long after turning the final page.
--
Sheila Ruth

Tiger Moon
by Antonia Michaelis
Amulet
Nominated by:
Carolyn Dooman

Set in the 1900’s, Tiger Moon is a lyrical South Asian fairytale which invites readers to a front row seat with a masterful storyteller. Colonial history, Hindu religion and mythology all play their part in this sweeping tale narrated by Raka, a new bride who is waiting for her execution at the hands of her husband. Like the Arabian Nights tales, Raka’s sweeping epic is told to pass the time, and includes elements of the fantastic and the realistic, relying on a talking tiger, a 16-year-old thief "with a conscience" and the kidnapped daughter of the god, Krishna, to explore themes of fate, change and free will. Translated from German, and described as both "playful" and "magical" by our panelists, Tiger Moon offers readers a chance to indulge in the richness of a different culture and go beyond the boundaries of the ordinary.
--
Tanita S. Davis

All the Categories:

Easy Readers & Short Chapter Books
Fantasy & Science Fiction (Middle Grade)
Fantasy & Science Fiction (Young Adult)
Fiction Picture Books
Graphic Novels
Middle Grade Fiction
Non-Fiction Middle Grade/YA
Non-Fiction Picture Books
Poetry
Young Adult Fiction