April 22, 2012

Women in SF&F Month

Today I'm over at Fantasy Cafe doing a guest post for Kristen's Women in SF&F Month. I'm delighted to be taking part in this awesome event, and I do hope you stop by to say hi. I've got a few female-authored, under-the-radar sci fi and fantasy recommendations to throw your way (shocking, I know).

April 20, 2012

Something Like Normal by Trish Doller

Are you getting a certain vibe from the covers of the books I'm reading lately? Yeah, me too. Though it's purely by chance, I think it's worth noting that after I read the books themselves, I often feel their covers are somewhat of a mismatch. Not that I don't like them. In fact, I quite like the cover for Something Like Normal. It's part of what made me investigate the book further. But I do think they lead you to believe there's going to be more . . . shenanigans . . . going on inside than there really are. Make of that what you will. This is Trish Doller's debut novel, and I had to smile when I looked up her GoodReads profile and she had listed her influences as Kirsty Eagar, Cath Crowley, and Melina Marchetta. Point to you, Ms. Doller. Way to reel in us Aussie YA-obsessed fangirls with just a few well-chosen strokes on your keyboard. But the thing that really drove me to read it was that it is part of the growing New Adult genre. Protagonist Travis is just back from Afghanistan when the story begins, and he can therefore in no way, shape, or form be considered an inexperienced teen. Though he is still very much a young adult. It is exactly this time period that I'm so enjoying reading about these days. So I tracked down an ARC with a few well-chosen strokes on my keyboard and settled in. 

Travis would rather be anywhere but home. Even back in Afghanistan. It's just that facing his dysfunctional family in all its glory and all his old friends from high school just after coming off a tour in the war seems ludicrous at best. It doesn't help that his best friend and fellow soldier Charlie was killed in front him. But home he is. Travis is willing to put on a good face for his mother's sake if nothing else. But being constantly faced with his mother's anxiety, his father's disapproval, his ex-girlfriend's defection to his brother's arms, and . . . oh, a nice healthy dose of PTSD, it's well nigh impossible to get through the day, let alone figure out what he's going to do with the rest of his life. Then a chance encounter with a girl he used to know introduces something approximating normal into his life again. The problem is Travis wasn't all that nice to Harper way back when. He realizes that. What he doesn't realize is just how profoundly his lack of care impacted her life. And what kind of a grudge she's been carrying around ever since. Not to worry, though. Her fist to his face quickly puts these things into perspective for our young vet. As for Harper, running into Travis after all this time is like a slap in the face. All those feelings and doubts she thought she'd done away with come rushing back to haunt her. Even though he's clearly done some growing up in the intervening years, she's just not sure it's enough to warrant putting her heart in his uncertain hands.

My absolute favorite thing about this book is that it's written from a male point of view. I thought Travis himself was impressively drawn, and his reactions felt consistently genuine, even if they occasionally bothered me. And they did. I really liked him, but he drove me batty from time to time with a few of his less-than-stellar choices in regards to his personal life, or, more accurately, his avoidance of said choices. Otherwise, I felt for him deeply. His struggles with his family and his complicated relationship with his mother were the high points of the novel. I like that the focus remained on that and on his experiences in the war, that these key issues took precedence over other secondary matters. As a result, I felt firmly centered in Travis' head by the time a few of the usual suspects rolled around. So much so that when faced with the sheer awesomeness that is Harper, I felt myself reaching out along with Travis. Like she was a drink of cool water in the desert. The relationship development is pretty restrained, which is just as it should be given the fact that Harper is one smart cookie and Travis is all sorts of damaged. When we meet him, he's pretty evenly straddling the emotional maturity line between hormonal teenager and sadder-but-wiser young man. Together they fumble their way toward a sort of middle ground. After the aforementioned avoidance tactics. I loved the arc of Travis' story, his flashbacks to Afghanistan, his tenuous overtures to his mother and to Harper, and especially his interaction with his fellow Marines. Both the ones who made it home and the one who didn't. The ending left me with mixed feelings. While I definitely would not have changed a thing about the place Ms. Doller left her characters in, I (cue refrain) felt that what had been a thoughtful and controlled narrative simply . . . ended. The impact was lessened a bit for me, and I would have welcomed another 40 or 50 more pages. It could be argued that I simply have issues letting go. I merely felt that the sheer distance Travis had traveled merited an extended close. Because I enjoyed my time with him. I harbor hopes for him. And for Harper.  Something Like Normal went down smooth in a single night and is due out June 19th.


April 18, 2012

When You Were Mine by Rebecca Serle

When You Were Mine came and went across my radar after I took a brief glance at its cover and mentally relegated it to the Jennifer Echols realm of contemporary YA romance. I enjoyed Going Too Far, but haven't loved her others or found myself in the mood for more of the same since. But that judgement was admittedly based entirely on the cover, font, tagline, etc. Then I read Carla's review over at The Crooked Shelf, and I took a second gander. Shakespeare, you say? Retelling? This is all exceedingly promising. Oh. Romeo and Juliet? Hm. Not sure I want to go there. Not that I don't enjoy R&J (I once saw it on stage, and Romeo's death scene was positively EPIC in scope. My brother-in-law and I were crying tears of mirth long before the poor boy let loose his final gasp and put us all out of our misery). And, as is so often the case, I was powerless to resist the call of a possibly excellent retelling. It was when I realized that it was told from Rosaline's point of view that the deal was sealed.

Rose Caplet is keeping her hopes on a very tight leash. Her best friend Rob has been gone all summer, but he's coming home today and Rose is trying pretty hard to keep it all together. They shared that one kiss, that one extended glance. That's all. And despite her best friends' insistence that the very first thing he'll do now he's back in town is declare his undying love for her, Rose is not so sure. They've always been friends. Rob helped her learn to ride a bike. He taught her how to swim. He knew her way back when. Even if he did have the kind of feelings for her that she seems to be developing for him, wouldn't it rock the boat of their friendship too much to be worth it? But then he is back. And he asks her out on a real date. And things are heading in a most promising direction. Until Rose's cousin Juliet comes to town. Rose hasn't had any contact with Juliet in years, though the two used to be close as kids. Now Juliet's back and trouncing all over Rose's life in her designer flip flops. But it's when she sets her sights on Rob that Rose really begins to worry. What is happening here? Why does her cousin seem to have it out for her? Surely Rob won't respond to Juliet's advances. Not after confessing his affections for Rose. Rob wouldn't do that. Would he?

I'll admit, it took me 100 pages to get into this one. I teetered on the verge of putting it down and moving on. But then I hit the following passage (taken from my uncorrected ARC):
Charlie puts her arm over my shoulder. Olivia stands on the other side, arms crossed, Ben behind her. They're flanking me, like human pieces of armor.

Rob can't see me from this angle, which is worse than if he could, because it means I can stare as hard and as long as I like. He whispers something to her, and she laughs, then brings her finger to her lips to tell him to be quiet. But it's in that cute way certain girls have that lets everyone know they don't really mean it. That she wants him to go on bothering her forever. Even while turning him down she's inviting him. Forget the lip biting. This is definitely her power move.

He's leaning so close to her that it takes everything in me not to run right over and tear them apart. And part of me wants to. Part of me wants to fight. To tell him to pick me. To beg him to stop what he's doing, erase the last three days, and just come back. But I'm already fading into the background, like a house in the rearview mirror. I can feel myself getting smaller and smaller, shrinking, so that when Mr. Johnson says, "Have a great day, everyone!" I think I might have just disappeared.
And that's all it took. From that sentence on, it was all systems go for me. Because that is exactly what happens in the play. Rosaline--the object of all of Romeo's formidable passion and desire--just . . . disappears . . . when Juliet comes on stage. And when this Rosaline experiences that precise moment, it called to the forefront of my mind every ounce of sympathy I had for her and for the singular horror of being overlooked, of being left behind in the wake of fickle infatuation. All these years I assumed Rosaline never gave Romeo a second thought. But what if she did? What if the loss of his love hurt like a brand pressed to her skin? The rest of the story following this moment has its share of ups and downs. I never completely warmed to Rose's flock of privileged, preening friends. There were hints at more depth than was shown, but I could have done with some actual exploration of those hints, especially when it came to Charlie and Olivia. I've heard that some readers felt the inevitable tragedy that comes lacked weight, but I actually thought it was incredibly thoughtfully done. I grieved with Rose. For the years wasted in enmity between the two families, for the deception between the generations, and for the senseless loss of two teenagers whose greatest sin was letting go of their senses so wildly, of losing sight of themselves in the name of each other. Because if I didn't love this Rob and Juliet as much as I did the originals, I loved Rose more. And her love and compassion for them (despite what they did to her) overshadowed any bitterness I might have harbored. All of this is helped, of course, by the fact that Rebecca Serle chose to give Rose another love interest who I admired wholeheartedly. I would have liked a bit more in the way of development in this arena as well, more than I got by the time the ending rolled around. As it was, the ending lacked the kind of weight I felt it needed in order to serve as a proper epilogue to the tragic events that preceded it. It felt a bit pat, a bit cute, when I wanted it to mean more. A contemporary retelling of this play is always going to run that particular risk, but given the excellence of Rose's point of view and the truly elegant moments Ms. Serle was able to craft, I was really pulling for a perfect end for When You Were Mine. An enjoyable, if uneven read, recommended for its interesting perspective and moments of insight.

When You Were Mine is due out May 1st.

The Crooked Shelf review
MarjoleinBookBlog review
Midnight Book Girl review
So Many Books, So Little Time review
Turn the Page review

April 9, 2012

To Notebook or Not to Notebook . . .

. . . that is the question.

All right. I realize I may be asking for it here, but I'm gonna go ahead and, well, ask for it. I have never seen The Notebook. I've never read it either, for that matter. Truthfully, I'm not all that interested in losing my Nicholas Sparks virginity. And I've always sort of scoffed at the movie for being over-the-top sappy and whatnot . . . with the kiss . . . in the rain . . . and that beard. But I recently watched this little clip:

And it kind of makes me want to run out and watch the source material, yeah?

So give it to me straight. The Notebook (the movie): yay or nay?

National Library Week

It's National Library Week, you guys! Time to get to your library, take part in events going on around the nation, and support your local libraries and reading in general. It's also time for the ALA to release the list of Top Ten Frequently Challenged Books of 2011. And here they are:

1. ttyl; ttfn; l8r, g8r (series), by Lauren Myracle
2. The Color of Earth (series), by Kim Dong Hwa
3. The Hunger Games trilogy, by Suzanne Collins
4. My Mom's Having A Baby! A Kid's Month-by-Month Guide to Pregnancy, by Dori Hillestad Butler
5. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie
6. Alice (series), by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor
7. Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley 
8. What My Mother Doesn't Know, by Sonya Sones
9. Gossip Girl (series), by Cecily Von Ziegesar
10. To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee

I've read 6 of the ten (yay me!) and have my usual pfft! to say in response to their being challenged. I also find it hilarious that The Hunger Games trilogy is challenged for being anti-family. 'Cause if there's one thing that Katniss hates more than President Snow, it's her family.

The fact that To Kill a Mockingbird is challenged for racism? There really are no words. 

April 6, 2012

Retro Friday Review: Song of the Sparrow by Lisa Ann Sandell

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. Everyone is welcome to join in at any time!
So this is a book I've spent a lot of time talking about. Chances are, if you've hung around these parts, you've heard me push it. But I actually read it for the first time way back in the olden days before the blog was, well, what it is now. I read it shortly after it was first published, back in 2007, when I was writing monthly posts, mere collections of mini-reviews. So Song of the Sparrow got shortchanged. I decided to address that situation today. The fun thing is lots of friends have read (and reviewed) it since, and so I was able to trip through their lovely thoughts and remember my own. When I heard about a retelling of Tennyson's "Lady of Shalott," I was so in. I mean, I'm nothing if not up for a good Camelot tale. I could bore you to tears with my obsession with the entire Arthurian legend, but who needs that on a Friday afternoon? The thing is, when I heard this retelling was, like Tennyson's version, told entirely in verse, I was no longer so sure. Truthfully, I tend to like my modern poetry short and to the point. So I did what I often do. I went to the bookstore and read the first page. Then I read the second page. And on through the tenth, at which point I accepted the delicious inevitable and bought the book.

Elaine of Ascolat is sixteen years old and alone. The lone woman among an endless encampment of men, she has grown up wild and independent and determined to keep her father and brothers and friends alive. Though she is not allowed to fight alongside them, she works tirelessly in any way she can to keep their spirits alive, to mend both their limbs and their souls between battle forays against the ever-encroaching Saxons. After her mother died, her father brought his two sons and one small daughter to live with the soldiers. And so Elaine's oldest friends are Arthur, Lancelot, Gawain, Tristan. But when Ambrosius Aurelius, dux bellorum, is killed, Elaine must watch the laughing eyes of her friends turn grim with strain and responsibility. She must watch as they rally around Arthur--their new leader. As they reform in their new roles and battle leaders and men. And she must watch as a someone new enters their lives and disrupts their old balance perhaps forever. Gwynivere. Haughty and proud, she ensnares Elaine's friends with seemingly no effort at all. But, though her boys seem entranced, Elaine can see clearly just how much craft Gwynivere puts into the web she casts. And when that web extends to Lancelot, the one she loves most, wild, independent, determined Elaine decides it is time to fight at last.

This book. This book set a flock of butterflies free in my stomach on the first page. The writing is that heady blend of urgency, vision, and nostalgia. I loved Sandell's revisionist version of Elaine of Ascolat. I knew there was more to her than her magic web and her love for Lancelot. I just knew there was. Sometimes you meet a character, sometimes over and over through the years, and you know her. In bits and pieces, through various art forms and articulations, I have always felt a kinship with the lily maid. But it took until Lisa Ann Sandell decided to paint her version of her, for me to realize why. All that history you just know is there, the spell, the mirror, knotted web of threads, the loyalty to Lancelot, it all comes together in Song of the Sparrow. Any lover of all things Arthurian will tell you, it can be a life of suffering. A rich life, but a rocky one. This retelling soothes the soul. And the beautiful thing is that, by all accounts, it seems to work for newbies (even those utterly uninterested in the myth) as well as us dedicated fans. And it's because the writing and characterization are strong and sure. I'm so glad this Elaine chose to fight instead of die. I loved beautiful Gwynivere, and the choice she makes. The women in this novel are ace. They inhabit the tale, fleshing it out with life and pain and wanting, and together they are my favorite part about this version. But right up there with the ladies is the way Sandell wove in Tristan and his horrible past. In a genius move, we get a glimpse of Tristan (of Tristan and Isolde fame), and I kind of am of the opinion it should always be this way. Forgive the long passage, but it is the moment Elaine first comes to the camp, and it is a favorite.
It was nighttime when we reached the camp.
When my mind began making sense
of what it saw and heard again.
In the torchlight I could see Lavain's face
was smeared with dirt,
streaked with ash.
His eyes were still wide with shock,
so white
so white
against his dirty ash face.
He looked like a scared, wild animal.
I must have looked the same.
Frightened animals.
Arthur, younger then,
stepped forward,
caught my father in his
arms in an embrace.
Then Tirry.
He pressed little Lavain's shoulder,
then put his hands on my hair,
petting, stroking.
And I felt safe,
a tiny bit,
for the first time again.
Poor children, he murmured.
You are welcome here,
in this camp,
into this brotherhood.
Lavain, someday, no doubt,
you will be a fierce fighter.
Aye, I can see it in your eyes.
But for now, you must take care
of your little sister.
Lavain turned away sullenly,but I alone saw him blink
back tears.
Arthur looked to me,
What a brave girl you are,
indeed, I've never met a girl
so courageous.
There are not any others
here to keep you company,
but you have a whole army
of brothers now.
He gave me a sad smile and
stepped back.
Then raven-haired Lancelot came to us,
kneeling to look in my eyes.
And I felt I was standing in
the sunlight, as though
his bright gaze alone could warm
my frozen insides.
He had blankets for Lavain and me.
And once more I felt protected.
Finally, a young boy who could not
have been more than a few years
older than Lavain
presented me with a doll
unevenly sewn of corn husks and rags.
He turned to Lavain and placed
a wooden sword in his hand.
He said his name was Tristan.
His golden cat eyes shone in the dark,
his mouth downturned, his brow
creased as though--
as though he knew.
He said his name was Tristan . . . This one joins Beauty, Daughter of the Forest, The Outlaws of Sherwood, and Valiant on my most beloved retellings shelf. I love gifting it. I love re-reading it. And I will be doing both for the foreseeable future.

Retro Friday Roundup
Book Harbinger reviews Whiskey Road by Karen Siplin
Chachic's Book Nook reviews Whiskey Road by Karen Siplin
Good Books and Good Wine reviews Magic Study by Maria V. Snyder
A Jane of All Reads reviews Small Gods by Terry Pratchett
Janicu's Book Blog reviews Whiskey Road by Karen Siplin

Book Harbinger review
Caught Between the Pages review
Chachic's Book Nook review
Giraffe Days review
One Librarian's Book review
One More Page review
Persnickety Snark review
See Michelle Read review
Small Review 

April 3, 2012

Nightshifted by Cassie Alexander

The great thing about reading is that books always surprise you no matter how long you've been reading them. You think you know an author or a genre or a style, and then they go and rip the rug right out from under your feet. Sometimes I'm going along, doing my thing, reading my books, and then I pick one up and realize it's what I've been starving for. I love a good urban fantasy. Ever since Sunshine. Ever since I made the acquaintance of Mercy Thompson. I've loved the real deal. And when I fall, I fall loyally. I look forward to the new Mercy and the new Kate religiously each year. But it's been kind of awhile since I sank into a brand, spankin' new one that really did it for me, you know? In fact, I'm pretty sure it's been a couple of years. Gah. There's so much paranormal stuff out there (some of it excellent, some of it not so much) that I often find myself longing for some true urban fantasy. So I was kind of surprised and kind of excited when I found myself gravitating toward Cassie Alexander's upcoming Nightshifted before I even knew very much about it. Something about the girl on the cover and the silhouetted dragon through the hospital doors behind her said good things lie inside. And wouldn't you know? It was the one I was starving for.

Edie Spence is the new nurse on Y4--the paranormal ward at County Hospital. The one no one knows about. Edie wouldn't have a clue either except the mysterious Powers That Be stepped in to save her druggie brother from ODing. But their continued intervention on her brother's behalf comes at a price . . . namely Edie's unquestioning (and indefinite) service on Y4. Edie's worked in some holes, but this one takes the cake. From her indeterminate gendered supervisor Meaty to the lengths they go to to disguise the true nature of their patients in nightly reports, nothing about nursing school prepared Edie for catering to a steady stream of vampires, weres, shifters, zombies, and the like. But despite the fact that she's all but washed her hands of him and that he's done everything he can to mess up her life and his own, Edie still loves her brother. Besides. She's always flown solo. It's not like her life was all that social to begin with, so what's a few more hours spent with the dead than the living anyway? But then a random vampire dies on her watch, and newbie Edie finds herself unable to forget him or the words he whispered before crumbling into dust in her hands. Before she knows it, she's tracking down the vampire he mentioned in an attempt to set things right. But what she finds is so wrong it quickly bleeds over into Edie's life and turns it upside down.

Nightshifted is exactly what I was looking for--a true urban fantasy. It's gritty and dark, its heroine jaded and tough, and both of them are studded with moments of humor and human frailty. Edie is no superwoman, and her very normal skills are not always up to the paranormal requirements placed upon her in order to survive. But she is scrappy. And fiercely independent. And very much not inclined toward self-pity. Which is to say I liked her right away. But I wasn't always sure she would survive her story, as pretty  much all the creatures that go bump in the night make appearances at one point or another. And while a few really nasty versions of vampires play a large role in the book, I liked that they weren't the sole focus. In fact, my favorite character besides Edie turned out to be a zombie that I developed a bit of a crush on. I'm pretty sure that qualifies as a first for me, but I'm thinking I'm not gonna be the only one who feels that way. Because as zombies go, this one is pretty charming. Witness an interaction early on (taken from my uncorrected ARC):
The next night, I was finally assigned the gentleman in room five. I got the report and then looked at the chart myself. He was a zombie . . . firefighter? That was a bit odd. We'd only had two zombies on the floor while I'd been here--Mr. Smith was the second of them, and I'd never been assigned the first.

But I had a mission tonight, above and beyond mere nursing. I needed to get more blood. I walked into the darkened room, tubes in hand. If I got his blood now, I could toss it in my purse on break. The monitor was still in standby, casting a faint glow over him where he lay on the bed. I knew what smelled different about this room now, it was the scent of warm earth.

"Hello, Mr. Smith."

He smiled in the dim light. "Hello again, ghost nurse."

I snorted. "Well, neurologically, you're intact. Mind if I turn on the light?"

"Feel free."

My hand found the switch and I got my first look at a real live--dead?--zombie.

Mr. Smith was tall, stretching almost the entire length of the bed, with wide shoulders. The parts I could see of him outside of the sheets and his hospital gown--his arms, his neck, and his face--were all covered by almost-healed smooth rippling scars. Between the dark color of his skin as it was and the slightly lighter color of his skin as it healed, he looked like a dark pond on a windy day.

"I remember you," he said. His eyes were a light golden brown, and the skin around them crinkled when he smiled.

"I remember you, too." I smiled back. "Thanks again--and sorry for waking you up."

"I don't really sleep." He sat up straighter in his bed. As I walked into the room I formed my plan. I would do the blood draw last, so I could hurry away and hide. I hadn't heard about any IV sites, but I had a butterfly needle for the draw. I didn't really like poking someone unnecessarily, but it wasn't like he could get an infection and die from a needle stick now, was it? I reached for the blood pressure cuff, to start my set of vitals, and held it aloft. "Which arm?" I asked. A lot of patients with heavy scarring had a side they preferred, one which the cuff's squeezing hurt less.

Faint eyebrows rose. "I believe the previous nurse was having you on."

"How so?" I un-Velcroed the cuff.

"I don't have blood pressure." The corners of his lips quirked into a smile. "I have blood, but to the best of my knowledge, it doesn't really go anywhere."

"Oh." The lab tubes in my pocket felt heavy, and I felt my face flush. "Damn."

"You were . . . looking for some?" he asked, tilting his head forward.

"Actually, yes. Sorry." I frowned at myself. How was I going to get Anna to come closer tomorrow night, when I was off-shift again

"I could . . . give you a finger?" He held up his right pinkie. "I don't need all of them. One won't hurt much." I blanched, and he laughed out loud. "I'm teasing. It would grow back--but I'm teasing."
And the romantic subplot manages to be quite nice without overwhelming the story or impeding the world building. But what I ended up loving best about Nightshifted is how real it felt. My favorite urban fantasies are unvarnished. They highlight their humanity by scoring it against a background of the supernatural. They plunge me into a world already seething with life and magic and danger. They take over the city they're set in, so much so that I begin to feel as though I live there, too. Nightshifted hit all of these buttons and more, capping it off with a final line that made me want to fist bump Edie in solidarity. The promise of a sequel to look forward to is music to my ears.

Nightshifted is due out May 22nd.