Blood Red Road: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“Lugh got born first. On Midwinter Day when the sun hangs low in the sky. Then me. Two hours later.

“That pretty much says it all.

“Lugh goes first, always first, an I follow on behind.

“An that’s fine.

“That’s right.

“That’s how it’s meant to be.”

Blood Red Road by Moira YoungAll Saba ever needs is to know that her twin brother Lugh is by her side. With him near, Saba can handle the annoyances of her younger sister Emmi; the loss of her mother, who died birthing Emmi; and even the madness that is slowing pulling their father under.

When Lugh is abducted by four horsemen, he tells Saba to keep Emmi safe. But they both know she won’t. Not when Saba promises to follow him–to find him–no matter what.

She’ll follow Lugh into the lawless, wild world beyond her family homestead. In hunting for Lugh she will begin to understand some hard  truths about herself and her sister. She’ll find a gang of warriors and a daredevil who makes her heart flutter. In searching for her twin brother, Saba might even find a way to change her world forever in Blood Red Road (2011) by Moira Young.

Blood Red Road is Young’s debut novel and the start of her Dust Lands trilogy which continues with Rebel Heart and Raging Star.

Blood Red Road is an interesting novel set at the end of the world. Saba’s first person narration clearly brings her stark world to life with hints like ruined skyscrapers and useless books that suggest the world that might have come before.

Books are obsolete in this novel and, perhaps as a direct result, the spoken word and Saba’s narration have a very distinct cadence to them. The entire novel is written in Saba’s dialect as if she were telling the story directly to the reader. Words often have phonetic spelling and Saba’s speech sounds like nothing so much as a character in a twang-filled western. The prose is sparse and often reads like a verse novel with dialogue interspersed throughout without quotation marks or other punctuation to pull them out of the text. While this formatting is jarring at first, it eventually becomes a seamless part of the story and makes Blood Red Road a very fast read.

Saba is an interesting heroine in that she is resilient and inspiring while also being ruthless and often deeply flawed. For a lot of the novel, Saba wants nothing to do with her sister Emmi (to the point of putting the younger girl in very real danger) as she keeps a singular focus on her efforts to rescue Lugh. Young handles Saba’s growth as she learns more about the world (and herself, and her family) throughout the novel expertly to create a character transformation that is authentic and inspiring.

While some aspects of the world building remain murky–particularly in relation to the overarching villain that Saba will be dealing with for the rest of the novel–Blood Red Road is a solid dystopian and a very unique addition to the genre. Recommended for readers who enjoy post-apocalyptic tales with a survivalist slant.

Possible Pairings: Vengeance Road by Erin Bowman, Graceling by Kristin Cashore, Tin Star by Cecil Castellucci, The Lost Sun by Tessa Gratton, The Color of Rain by Cori McCarthy, Not a Drop to Drink by Mindy McGinnis, Birthmarked by Caragh M. O’Brien, The Kiss of Deception by Mary E. Pearson, Uglies by Scott Westerfeld

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2013 Cybils Titles to Nominate (Young Adult Fiction and Young Adult Speculative Fiction)

It’s Cybils season. Which means there are lots of books that deserve a nomination! (While you’re here–if you are a book blogger–you might also sign up for the Giving Thanks Book Blogger Box Swap that I’m co-hosting this year.)

Here are some books I hope will garner nominations for Round 1.

You can find details about the Cybils here: http://www.cybils.com/

Remember any title published between Oct. 16, 2012 and Oct. 15, 2013 is eligible. Full requirements explained here: http://www.cybils.com/basic-contest-info.html

You can find the nomination form here: http://www.wandsandworlds.com/cybils/nominate.php

You have until October 15 to nominate!

Fiction Picture Books

  • Cinders by Jan Brett

Young Adult Speculative Fiction

  • The Shadow Society by Marie Rutkoski My Nominee!
  • The Darkest Minds by Alexandra Bracken
  • Conjured by Sarah Beth Durst
  • Falling Kingdoms by Morgan Rhodes
  • Dark Triumph by Robin LaFevers
  • The Archived by Victoria Schwab
  • The 5th Wave by Rick Yancey
  • Proxy by Alex London
  • The Demon Catchers of Milan by Kat Beyer
  • Hero by Alethea Kontis
  • Magisterium by Jeff Hirsch
  • Pivot Point by Kasie West
  • The Lost Sun by Tessa Gratton
  • Born of Illusion by Teri Brown

YA Fiction

  • Perfect Scoundrels by Ally Carter
  • Just One Day by Gayle Forman
  • All I Need by Susane Colasanti
  • Paper Valentine by Brenna Yovanoff My Nominee!–it was sooooo tough to pick just one but I’ve had this book on file to nominate for a year!
  • The Tragedy Paper by Elizabeth LaBan
  • The Beginning of Everything by Robyn Schneider
  • Wild Awake by Hillary T. Smith
  • Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell
  • A Wounded Name by Dot Hutchinson

Once you’re done nominating, if you’re a US Book Blogger you should also sign up for the Giving Thanks Book Blogger Box Swap I’m co-hosting this year.

The Drowned Cities: A (Rapid Fire) Review

The Drowned CitiesThe Drowned Cities by Paolo Bacigalupi (2012):

Oh Paolo Bacigalupi, you are so awesome and I so wish I could enjoy your books as much as I appreciate and admire them. The Drowned Cities is a companion novel to Ship Breaker. Both books are set in the same world but The Drowned Cities is in a different location and set years earlier. The connection between the books is obvious in some ways but I often wished some hint of how the plots and characters impacted each other.

Some background on my reading history with Bacigalupi: I read Ship Breaker when it was a Cybils finalist the last time I judged SFF. I had a lot of problems with it.)  that one–problems that did still turn up here–but I was happy to see writing that was much improved compared to Bacigalupi’s first exploration of this world. I also picked up The Drowned Cities as a Cybils judge. It was, again, a book I would not have picked up otherwise given my own tastes as a reader.

There were  a lot of interesting things here. Bacigalupi seems to work a lot with the power of names which is one of my favorite things. I liked seeing how naming came into play for Mahlia and Ocho. And I thought the concept of name was taken to especially good effect with Mouse’s story. The concept of Luck and Choice was also present and interesting although by the end I thought it got a bit heavy-handed with everyone doing horrible things basically all the time and wondering what that meant for their humanity.

I found all of the main characters hard to take in the beginning when they were more self-centered, calculating and ultimately mean. Though, giving credit to the author, that was definitely the point but it was almost unbearable reading about all of these people with almost no redeeming qualities.

My largest problem was Mahlia and her lack of a right hand. By the end of the story, I got that it was important to the karmic side plot Bacigalupi was working and everything coming full circle. That said, having a one-handed character means I, as a reader, am going to be thinking A LOT about how that character does things. Early on Mahlia is at pains to mention that she grips with her left and balances with her stump to plant that seed early on. Generally any time Mahlia was “in action” I was taken out of the story as I tried to figure out how she was doing something (or why she had no phantom pains). How does she wring out a rag with one hand? How does she tie a cloth around her head? How does she “fiddle” with a rifle with one hand?

Given Mahlia’s life, the ending of the story also seemed over-the-top and felt contrived in order to give Mahlia a chance to deliver a very stirring speech. I get that it was a powerful scene and important to the story but I really felt the writing being manipulated to satisfy writerly ends when, really, Mahlia could have suffered any number of other hardships.

In that same vein, I was underwhelmed by the ending of the story overall. After following these characters through all of these horrors I wanted more than the hint of hope and redemption that we got at the end. I wanted more as a big message at the end of the book than war is hell and makes otherwise good people do monstrous things.

This is a trope that I’ve seen in some other novels recently, with less gore and violence, (and it pains me to say it because I do genuinely believe Bacigalupi is a wonderful writer) but it was handled better in other books including Code Name Verity and The 5th Wave. Fans of Ship Breaker will want to pick this one up as will readers who are fond of action, dystopians and stories that don’t shy away from violence.

Planesrunner: A (Rapid Fire) Review

Planesrunner by Ian McDonaldPlanesrunner by Ian McDonald (2011)

I liked a lot of things about the basic premise of this story. It seemed to have a lot of potential–a book about many worlds and a device to navigate them? Cool! A thoughtful main character who likes to cook and play video games? Rad. De facto diversity? Awesome! Even with some fairly obvious hints to Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld and the TV shows Sliders and Stargate, Planesrunner sounded like a good time.

Unfortunately this one never quite hit the mark. MacDonald seemed to have an idea of what a teen narrator should do and think and seemed to be checking marks off as Everett does all of these strange things in the narrative with random sound effects and a really annoying habit of providing a nickname for literally every character Everett meets.

I tend to be wary of adult authors trying to transition into YA writing because more often than not something gets lost on the way as if the author is so used to writing older characters that they are unsure how to transition. I really felt that here. Everett’s behaviors and decisions were very erratic–either too mature or too immature for his given age.

Uneven pacing and odd writing choices made for an uneasy read. The plot picked up significantly in the second half but problems remained as the story continued to feel like two books slapped together. What I mean is there is a very clear direction in the first half of the story and then priorities and focus shift very suddenly in the second half. (Speaking of the second half, McDonald also includes Pallari in the latter part of the novel which is really interesting but requires a lot of glancing at the dictionary in the back.)

I can see this book appealing to fans of pure science fiction as the plot here hits all the marks. Fans of A Confusion of Princes may also see some appeal here. That said, Planesrunner isn’t the smoothest read and it isn’t always easy to connect with Everett though I’m sure readers who finish the story will be rewarded and likely look forward to continuing with the series.

Author Interview: Rachel Hartman on Seraphina

Rachel Hartman author photoRachel Hartman is the author Seraphina, a clever and original story about dragons, mystery, music and a ton of other things besides. Seraphina has also gotten a fair bit of critical acclaim including being selected as the winner of the 2013 Morris Award and the 2012 Cybils. Rachel Hartman is on the blog today to answer some questions about her wonderful debut novel.

Miss Print (MP): Can you tell us a bit about your path as a writer? How did you get to this point?

Rachel Harman (RH): You might say I took the scenic route. I’ve been writing since I was a kid, but it took me until about age thirty to decide that writing should be my career. Then it was another ten years before the book was published. I know that sounds appallingly slow, but I have no regrets. I’m a deliberator and a contemplator; I absorb and synthesize things as I go. The time is never wasted.

MP: What was the inspiration for Seraphina?

RH: The book had many inspirations. The very first idea I had for it, however, came to me when my parents got divorced. I was an adult, with a life and spouse of my own, and yet I found myself shocked and hurt and grieving, no less than if I were a kid. I had a lot of processing to do, and in the course of all that a question kept coming to me: what if you married someone with a terrible secret, and you didn’t learn what it was until your spouse was dead? That’s Claude Dombegh’s dilemma in a nutshell when Seraphina’s mother dies in childbirth; he’s got all these questions that can never be answered. Early drafts focused more intently on Seraphina’s relationship with her father; that’s still in the book, but is much more in the background now.

MP: Seraphina is rich with details of the history of Goredd and its relation with the neighboring dragons including complex political matters and a whole draconian language (not to mention unique dragon sensibilities). With so many details to explain and expand Seraphina’s world, where did you start? What was it like creating all of the corresponding languages and histories for the backdrop of this story?

RH: Goredd has been with me since the seventh grade, in fact. My English teacher asked us to write a narrative poem, and I – always the overachiever on creative writing assignments – came up with this long, silly poem called “The First Adventure of Sir Amy.” Sir Amy was a little girl knight who saved the king from an evil witch. Her country was called Goredd because that rhymed with Fred, the name of her horse. There was also a dragon who played cello (which rhymed with jello), which was the origin of dragons in Goredd.

All through high school, I set various stories in Goredd. When I was in my twenties I wrote and illustrated a minicomic called “Amy Unbounded” about Amy from the poem, now only a knight in her imagination. That solidified the world for me, and is a wonderful visual reference to have.

Making up histories is fun and easy; they’re just stories, after all (I almost majored in history in college, until I realized I was really only interested in it as narrative). I cheat egregiously at languages, though. I’m not Tolkien; I’m not writing up whole lexicons. I just want languages to evoke a particular flavour. If they’re doing that, I’m satisfied.

MP: The dragons in Seraphina are quite unique with their ability to take on human form. What inspired your interpretation of dragons in this story? Do you have a favorite detail about your dragons?

RH: This dates back to my comic book days. I had always intended there to be dragons in Goredd; they were there in the poem, so it was a given for me. However, when it came time to draw dragons in the comic, I discovered that dragons are difficult to draw. I could have practiced and gotten better,  of course, but I just wasn’t that interested. Instead, I hit upon a brilliant idea: what if dragons could take human form? Then I could draw humans! So what began as laziness (if I’m being honest) turned out to be an enormous wellspring of ideas. Because if dragons could take human form, the implications of that were rather staggering. Anyone could be a dragon. How were the Goreddis (and the dragons) going to cope? They would surely need some rules.

Readers often marvel at how alien my dragons are, but I don’t quite agree with that. They’re very familiar to me, even if they’re looking at the world from an unaccustomed angle. I love how they let me ask obvious but not-quite-answerable questions. For example: what are emotions for? That’s not a question most people usually bother asking; feeling comes as naturally as breathing and that’s just how it is. I know from raising a child, however, that emotions are not something we’re born knowing what to do with. We have to be taught not to hit when we’re angry, socialized into appropriate behaviours. What if you were only just experiencing emotions for the first time as an adult? My emotions sometimes bowl me over, and I have forty years of practice dealing with them. How are dragons going to respond, process, interpret their inner lives? How do they stay true to themselves under such unaccustomed pressures? What does that tell us more emotional types about the nature of our own emotions? What part of me is dragon, when I look underneath the emotional detritus? I could ask questions all day; I love this stuff.

MP: Seraphina’s musical talents and her love of music are continuing threads throughout the story. Did you always know music would be such a big part of Seraphina’s character? Is her love of music inspired by your own experiences?

RH: I played cello from fourth grade through college. I found performing, especially with a good orchestra, to be one of the most transcendent experiences of my early life. It’s something I’ve always wanted to convey in writing, what it’s like to be in music in exactly that way. Where does it begin and where does it end? My mind to your ears. No other art is as visceral and immediate, and it’s such a challenge to write about! But then, I really like a challenge.

MP: One of my favorite things about Seraphina is the strong ensemble cast with so many well-developed and entertaining characters. Did you have any character that was a favorite to write about? Was any character harder to write?

RH: It’s hard to say if any were difficult. Over nine years, I rewrote the entire book three times with an entirely new plot. The characters were the same people, but run through different mazes. The result is that I got to know them all very, very well. I don’t really remember if I struggled with any of them; by the last go-round, I felt like a director who’s been privileged to work with the same actors for many years. I knew everybody’s capabilities.

I don’t like to pick favourites, but Orma is a constant delight to write. He comes to me very naturally; we’re a lot alike, as counterintuitive as that may sound.

[MP: Orma is a constant delight to read as well!]

MP: Much of this novel focuses on solving a murder and unraveling a conspiracy at court as Seraphina investigates. As a writer, how did you go about pacing this aspect of the story and deciding what to reveal when?

RH: I confess that plot is probably the part of writing that comes least naturally to me. I’m so wrapped up in setting, characters, and what-if questions that I just don’t have a lot of room left in my tiny brain. Here’s where a good editor is invaluable. For this final iteration of the book, I started out by sending my editor plot outlines. He sent them back with every plot hole and logic fail pointed out in excrutiating detail. I answered his questions and fixed things until he found the outline sufficiently airtight. Then I wrote the book and there were still holes and infodumps and red herrings that were way too red. We tossed the book back and forth many times, smoothing all that stuff out. I am so, so grateful for his eagle eye.

With the sequel, he approved my plot outline right away, so I believe I may have learned something from all that earlier process. The old dog has room for a few new tricks after all.

MP: Seraphina is the first book in a series. Do you have a set arc for Seraphina’s story or know how many books will be in the series?

RH: The second book will wrap up Seraphina’s story, I believe. After that I hope to write more books set in the same world, like Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books.

MP: Can you tell us anything about your next project?

RH: I am just awful about spoilers. I say things that I think aren’t spoilers, but then my husband informs me they are. Of course, he’s got deductive skills like Sherlock Holmes, so maybe I needn’t worry too much in general. I think it’s safe to say there will be more Abdo, and that we’ll be meeting a lot of new characters. That’s been fun, and challenging. I was used to having the same cast over and over, so it has taken some time and effort to get to know everyone. I think it’s been worth it, though.

MP: Do you have any advice to offer aspiring authors?

RH: Love writing, because sometimes the work will have to be its own reward. Also, don’t panic if it takes a long time. The world likes to tell us we’re washed-up if we’re not brilliant before we’re thirty. That’s nonsense. There’s lots of time.

Thanks again to Rachel Hartman for a great interview! You can also read my review of Seraphina here on the blog and visit Rachel Hartman’s website for more info about her and her books.

We have a (Cybils) winner

My work as a judge for the 2012 Cybils is over. With my fellow round two judges I helped pick the winner for this year’s Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy category.

cybils2012

The winners were announce earlier on the Cybils site so now I can share with you that our winner this year is . . .

*drumroll*

Seraphina by Rachel Hartman.

Here’s what we had to say about Seraphina:

Seraphina is a genre-blending fantasy that dazzled us all. Dragons, a murder mystery, family secrets, and a love story — there is something here for everyone, even those who aren’t regular high fantasy readers. We were hooked by the mystery and intrigue of dragons and conspiracies as well as the fascinating and intricate world building. Seraphina is a complex and appealing heroine. She’s fiery and vulnerable and gifted and brave. Her love of music is a refreshing thread throughout the story as is a fairly surprising mystery. Seraphina’s transformation throughout the novel was inspiring and wonderful to follow. With beautiful writing and tight pacing, Seraphina kept us turning the pages, eager to follow the heroine and learn more about the strong ensemble cast. We’re sure readers will find a lot to love in this highly original dragon story.

I’m really happy with our selection. Seraphina was one of my favorite books from 2012 along with fellow finalists The Curiosities and Vessel (my own Cybils nomination that made it all the way to finals!). I also had a lot to say about Every Day last year (one of my Hurricane Sandy reads) and will likely later have thoughts on the other finalists should I decide to review them. It was a great year to be a SFF judge and I hope everyone is as excited with the winner as we are!

In fact, since it is Valentines Day, it might be a great time to treat yourself with a gift of this multi-award winning title or one of its fellow finalists.

You can read the rest of the Cybils winner announcements on their site: http://www.cybils.com/2013/02/the-2012-cybils-awards.html

Code Name Verity: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“It’s like being in love, discovering your best friend.”

Code Name Verity by Elizabeth WeinCode Name Verity (2012) by Elizabeth Wein is a strange book in that, I’m not sure what I can actually tell you about it without ruining everything. A plane has crashed in Nazi-occupied France. The passenger and the pilot are best friends. One girl might be able to save herself while the other never really stood a chance. Faced with an impossible situation, one of the girls begins to weave an intricate confession. Some of it might be embellished, some of it might even be false. But in the end all of it is ultimately the truth–both of her mission and a friendship that transcends all obstacles.

Broken into two parts, Code Name Verity is a masterfully written book as, time and time again, Wein takes everything readers know and turns it upside down as another dimension is added to the plot and its intricate narrative.

If a sign of excellent historical fiction is believing all of the details are presented as fact, then the sign of an excellent novel might well be wanting to re-read it immediately to see just how well all of the pieces fit together. Code Name Verity meets both of these criteria.

With wartime England and France as a backdrop, there is always a vague sense of foreboding and danger hanging over these characters. There is death and violence. There is action and danger. And yet there are also genuinely funny moments and instances of love and resistance.

Nothing in Code Name Verity is what it seems upon first reading–sometimes not even upon second reading. This book is undoubtedly a stunning work of historical fiction filled with atmospheric details of everything from airplanes to Scottish landscapes. But what really sets Code Name Verity apart is the dazzling writing and intricate plot that Wein presents. Then, beyond the plotting and the details, there are the two amazing young women at the center of a book that could have been about war or flying or even spies but ultimately became an exceptional book about true friends.

Possible Pairings: Tiger Lily by Jodi Lynn Anderson, Peter Pan by J. M. Barrie,  A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens, We Were Liars by E. Lockhart, Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta, Every Hidden Thing by Kenneth Oppel, Tamar by Mal Peet, The Shadow Society by Marie Rutkoski, All Our Yesterdays by Cristin Terrill, Paper Valentine by Brenna Yovanoff, In the Shadow of Blackbirds by Cat Winters, The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

You can also check out my exclusive interview with Elizabeth about this book!