Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Friends with Boys

Friends with Boys by Faith Erin Hicks

A coming-of-age tale with a spooky twist!

Maggie McKay hardly knows what to do with herself. After an idyllic childhood of homeschooling with her mother and rough-housing with her older brothers, it’s time for Maggie to face the outside world, all on her own. But that means facing high school first. And it also means solving the mystery of the melancholy ghost who has silently followed Maggie throughout her entire life. Maybe it even means making a new friend—one who isn’t one of her brothers.

Funny, surprising, and tender, Friends with Boys is a pitch perfect YA graphic novel full of spooky supernatural fun.
-Plot summary borrowed from Goodreads

There are so many perfect touches in this book- the snappy dialogue, the artwork, the family and friend dynamics, Maggie squeeing over Ripley (Alien, spluh), and the genuine emotion that never slips into melodrama. Hicks perfectly captures the terror of the first day of high school, life as a tomboy, and, from what I can infer from other reviews, the experience of having several older brothers. I loved every character in this graphic novel and can't wait to read more things from this author. Actually, I'd love to see her write for TV- now that we're starting to live in a more Whedon-inspired media 'verse (yay!), I would think that her ability to write an intelligent teen ensemble (with supernatural happenings!) would be a bonus.

Also, this was published by :01 First Second, my new favorite publisher. Some of their other graphic novels include American Born Chinese, Anya's Ghost, Zita the Spacegirl, Robot Dreams, The Color of Earth, and Sailor Twain: Mermaid in the Hudson. WOW.

A Bride's Story

A Bride's Story Volume One, by Kaoru Mori

Acclaimed creator Kaoru Mori (Emma, Shirley) brings the nineteenth-century Silk Road to lavish life, chronicling the story of Amir Halgal, a young woman from a nomadic tribe betrothed to a twelve-year-old boy eight years her junior. Coping with cultural differences, blossoming feelings for her new husband, and expectations from both her adoptive and birth families, Amir strives to find her role as she settles into a new life and a new home in a society quick to define that role for her. -Plot summary borrowed from Goodreads

The art, people, the art. I wanted to make that word longer for emphasis, but it would be too piratical. But seriously. THE ART. 

Oh, and story and character and plot. Those are actually really good, too. The setting is so unique- Central Asia in the early 19th century. The costumes and other tribal things are amazing, and I love Amir's character. Despite being placed in an arranged marriage with a boy 8 years her junior (more on this later), she is upbeat, pleasant, and can shoot rabbits from the back of a horse. Damn. 

The family dynamics are fascinating, too, and the pacing is perfect, allowing the reader to become familiar with the unique characters and setting while enjoying nomadic slice of life episodes and tensions when an outside force threatens. Everything in the text and pictures blend perfectly to form a truly interesting whole. I'm not surprised, Mori was the mangaka responsible for Emma, another excellent historical manga/anime series. 

Buuuuuuuut, the relationship between Amir (20) and her child-husband (12), though historically accurate, sweet and mostly chaste, is, well, slightly icky to the modern sensibilities. It's not a huge deal and it's  not the focus of the story, but it's still jarring. 

Despite that, I'm hoping that a library in my consortium adds the subsequent volumes soon.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

The Curiousities: A Collection of Stories

The Curiousities: A Collection of Stories by Maggie Stiefvater, Tessa Gratton, and Brenna Yovanoff

From acclaimed YA authors Maggie Stiefvater, Tessa Gratton, and Brenna Yovanoff comes The Curiosities: A Collection of Stories.

- A vampire locked in a cage in the basement, for good luck.
- Bad guys, clever girls, and the various reasons why the guys have to stop breathing.
- A world where fires never go out (with references to vanilla ice cream).

These are but a few of the curiosities collected in this volume of short stories by three acclaimed practitioners of paranormal fiction.

But The Curiosities is more than the stories. Since 2008, Maggie, Tessa, and Brenna have posted more than 250 works of short fiction to their website merryfates.com. Their goal was simple: create a space for experimentation and improvisation in their writing—all in public and without a backspace key. In that spirit, The Curiosities includes the stories and each author's comments, critiques, and kudos in the margins. Think of it as a guided tour of the creative processes of three acclaimed authors.

So, are you curious now?
-Plot summary borrowed from Goodreads

This book is really unique. Not only have all three authors (longtime friends and collaborators) chosen stories from their website, they've added notes (and doodles) to each other and readers in the margins! It's a nifty way to get a peek into their creative processes and friendship. There's also plenty of incidental tips for writers that I'd imagine would be helpful when writing fiction, and plenty of comments give additional insight into the stories. At one point Maggie Stiefvater describes the writing process in a way I'd never heard but immediately liked: "... a story is really a reverse telescope of narrowing opportunities. With every sentence you write, you reduce the number of paths open to you as a writer."

Every anthology is a bit of a mixed bag, but this was one of my favorites this year. The aforementioned caged vampire one was a standout, as was one about a viking's widow, a retelling of Snow White, a Halloween dumb supper, and my personal favorite, one that begins thusly: "I was created of beeswax and honey, with a butterfly for a heart. He should have used a spider or an iridescent beetle." Instant love. 

If you like a good fantasy anthology, this is a solid choice. If you are a fan of any one of these talented ladies and/or a writer, I would recommend this book even more highly.

For Darkness Shows the Stars

For Darkness Shows the Stars by Diana Peterfreund

It's been several generations since a genetic experiment gone wrong caused the Reduction, decimating humanity and giving rise to a Luddite nobility who outlawed most technology.

Elliot North has always known her place in this world. Four years ago Elliot refused to run away with her childhood sweetheart, the servant Kai, choosing duty to her family's estate over love. Since then the world has changed: a new class of Post-Reductionists is jump-starting the wheel of progress, and Elliot's estate is foundering, forcing her to rent land to the mysterious Cloud Fleet, a group of shipbuilders that includes renowned explorer Captain Malakai Wentforth—an almost unrecognizable Kai. And while Elliot wonders if this could be their second chance, Kai seems determined to show Elliot exactly what she gave up when she let him go.

But Elliot soon discovers her old friend carries a secret—one that could change their society... or bring it to its knees. And again, she's faced with a choice: cling to what she's been raised to believe, or cast her lot with the only boy she's ever loved, even if she's lost him forever.

Inspired by Jane Austen's Persuasion, For Darkness Shows the Stars is a breathtaking romance about opening your mind to the future and your heart to the one person you know can break it.
-Plot summary borrowed from Goodreads

Between the author, the premise, and the cover, this is one I've been waiting all year for. I was a little bit afraid it wouldn't live up to the hype, but it did!

First of all, I was really curious about how the Persuasion retelling would work, especially in this new setting. It's not my favorite Austen novel, mostly because I wish poor Anne would just show more Lizzie Bennett-esque spark. Luckily Elliot is a heroine I can root for. Intelligent, caring, and both fully aware and capable of taking on the responsibility of managing an estate despite her (seemingly) feckless father and sister (though not without difficulty or allies). She's not a washed out girl (or, to be fair, 27 year old) pining for lost opportunities but a resourceful young woman striving to hold onto her family's land for the sake of those in her care. 

Malakai Wentworth is a bit harder to warm to- often with good reason, but, eh. I was more interested in Eliot and the other characters, especially the admiral's mysterious wife, and in the setting in general. There's quite a lot of agriculture and industrialization and domesticity and noblesse oblige and social gatherings happening, too- perfect for the Austen flavor. Oh, and there are epistolary asides! Nice touch, Peterfreund.

The dystopian label is thrown around pretty liberally these days. I can see why this book is labelled as "dystopian," but please don't go into it expecting something like a government-toppling Regency space adventure (although I would also read that). More time is spent on character development, world-building and relationship tensions than questioning authority or uncovering the answers to menacing questions (namely, what the hell happened to all these Reduceds/Post-Reduceds??) I was a little bit disappointed by all this UNTIL I checked and saw that there will in fact be sequels. (And then I had a twinge of disappointment because other than the burning desire to know more about the calamity that changed the world, and a wish that Elliot's had pushed herself a bit harder in terms of idealogies/coming to grips with the moral issues of her society, the book is pretty complete unto itself).   

Fans of Austen, light dystopias, and even alternate history will find things to love here.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Days of Blood and Starlight

Days of Blood and Starlight by Laini Taylor

Once upon a time, an angel and a devil fell in love and dared to imagine a world free of bloodshed and war.

This is not that world.

Art student and monster's apprentice Karou finally has the answers she has always sought. She knows who she is—and what she is. But with this knowledge comes another truth she would give anything to undo: She loved the enemy and he betrayed her, and a world suffered for it.

In this stunning sequel to the highly acclaimed Daughter of Smoke & Bone, Karou must decide how far she'll go to avenge her people. Filled with heartbreak and beauty, secrets and impossible choices, Days of Blood & Starlight finds Karou and Akiva on opposing sides as an age-old war stirs back to life.

While Karou and her allies build a monstrous army in a land of dust and starlight, Akiva wages a different sort of battle: a battle for redemption. For hope.

But can any hope be salvaged from the ashes of their broken dream?
-Plot summary borrowed from Goodreads 

This was the book I was most excited for this year. Daughter of Smoke and Bone knocked me off my feet in 2010, and I've been dying to know what would happen to Karou, Akiva, and their worlds. So was it worth the wait and the hype?



This was a slow start for me. I wouldn't say I was expecting too much and was disappointed, I think I was just expecting a quicker pace, more answers, and the same magic & awe of the first book. I should have remembered how the first book ended, and realized I was in for a bitter war story. Instead of starry-eyed romance, glittering cityscapes, magical beasts and thrilling heroics, it's more of a fight for survival, and the fallout of the last book's ending. Which is in no way a bad thing. 

I won't go into much detail for fear of spoilers (for both books, really, but if you're a regular reader I know this is not the first time you've heard me gush about this series, so what's the holdup?? :p), but I will say that I am still completely in love with Karou, Akiva, this setting, and Taylor's writing. As an added bonus, Karou's friends Zuzana and Mik are back, and even better than I remembered them. I saw almost none of the plot twists coming, and once the book starts to pick up speed it does not let go. The villain in this piece is far and away better developed and more menacing than is the norm for YA lit, and he'll have your skin crawling more than once. (Actually this is true for both Big Bads). Oh, and the aforementioned romance, cityscapes, magical beasts and thrilling heroics? Don't worry, they're all in there, too.

If any of the series I've reviewed lives up to the name of this blog, it's this one. FANTASTIC.

Friday, November 16, 2012


Stormdancer by Jay Kristoff

Griffins are supposed to be extinct. So when Yukiko and her warrior father Masaru are sent to capture one for the Shogun, they fear that their lives are over. Everyone knows what happens to those who fail him, no matter how hopeless the task.

But the mission proves far less impossible, and far more deadly, than anyone expects – and soon Yukiko finds herself stranded: a young woman alone in her country's last wilderness, with only a furious, crippled griffin for company. But trapped together in the forest, Yukiko and Buruu soon discover a friendship that neither of them expected.

Meanwhile, the country around them verges on the brink of collapse. A toxic fuel is slowly choking the land; the omnipotent, machine-powered Lotus Guild is publicly burning those they deem Impure; and the Shogun cares about nothing but his own dominion. Yukiko has always been uneasy in the shadow of power, when she learns the awful truth of what the Shogun has done, both to her country and to her own family she's determined to do something about it.

Returning to the city, Yukiko and Buruu plan to make the Shogun pay for his crimes – but what can one girl and a flightless griffin do against the might of an empire?
-Plot summary borrowed from Goodreads

Chances are, you will either love this book or dash it against your wall in a fit of rage. I happened to love it, which earned it a review here, so I'll try to talk about that first before getting to the caveats and addendums. 

This book was fun. And cool. And had lots of nifty things. The set pieces are amazing- Kristoff describes each new scene in such a detailed fashion that I really felt like I could see the whole detailed picture. There are just so many cool details here: the clan tattoos, the mostly familiar mythology (Oni, for one, which are pretty damn intimidating) but also new creatures (Thunder Tigers). Yukiko is a well-executed blend of kickass katana wielder and griffin-loving girl. The baddies are very, very bad and the world-building is exhaustive. Battles are exciting, relationships emotional, and Buruu is just fantastic. Here is an "interview" with him that won't give anything away. This was a world I really enjoyed getting to know and I'm eagerly awaiting the sequel.

Ok, now on to the controversial stuff. So, Kristoff borrows very, very heavily from Japanese mythology, fashion, music, military history, and language to build his fictional world of Shima. For many readers, the phrase "Japanese steampunk" will probably be irresistible. However, these are also the people most likely to take exceptions to some of the quirks in this book. Here are the biggest that I noticed while reading and subsequently looking at other reviews:

1. "Hai" is used as a universal substitute for "yes."
2. "Sama" is used on its own, not always as a suffix
3. Some concepts are used a bit cavalierly, like when Yukiko "throws on a light kimono"

If this list has you foaming at the mouth, just chill, and find a different book. It's ok. There's plenty of good stuff out there (although, sadly, probably not very much Japanese steampunk). These things didn't bother me too much, partially because I'm not an East Asian studies major and also because, look, it's Kristoff's world and it's not Japan so WHO CARES. It's very probably intentional- he never has characters refer to each other as "Chan" or "San," so I think he understands how honorific suffixes work and just thought he'd use "Sama" as a way to address some characters. No biggie. 

There are a few more criticisms I could make- the descriptions do go a bit overboard sometimes, and the plot is a bit slighter than I would like, but honestly? I don't care. It was still a fun read that left me wanting more and I would highly recommend this one despite a few flaws.

Something Strange and Deadly

Something Strange and Deadly by Susan Dennard

The year is 1876, and there’s something strange and deadly loose in Philadelphia…

Eleanor Fitt has a lot to worry about. Her brother has gone missing, her family has fallen on hard times, and her mother is determined to marry her off to any rich young man who walks by. But this is nothing compared to what she’s just read in the newspaper—

The Dead are rising in Philadelphia.

And then, in a frightening attack, a zombie delivers a letter to Eleanor…from her brother.

Whoever is controlling the Dead army has taken her brother as well. If Eleanor is going to find him, she’ll have to venture into the lab of the notorious Spirit-Hunters, who protect the city from supernatural forces. But as Eleanor spends more time with the Spirit-Hunters, including their maddeningly stubborn yet handsome inventor, Daniel, the situation becomes dire. And now, not only is her reputation on the line, but her very life may hang in the balance.
-Plot summary borrowed from Goodreads

Well, that pretty much sums it up. There's a lot to like here- steampunky devices, an increasingly plucky heroine, shuffling corpses, and some pretty Baritsu-tastic fight scenes (short of a cricket bat, a parasol might be my new favorite zombie weapon). There's also a lot of talk about electricity, especially in terms of battling the undead, which makes me long for a book with Tesla traveling the world fighting eldritch forces of supernatural dread.

The writing reminded me a bit of the fan-fiction flavor shared by another YA steampunk book: The Girl in the Steel Corset. However, where that was a bit of let-down, I enjoyed this one much more, and I liked it more as I got further into it. Speaking of readalikes, if you enjoyed Masque of the Red Death (the Bethany Griffin YA book, not the Poe novella) you would probably also enjoy Something Strange.

It's not a zombie book either- I've seen some reviews where readers were disappointed on that score. It's more alternate history with necromancy, voodoo and some new concepts for good measure. For those who enjoy well-researched period pieces with a twist, this is a great series opener.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There

The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There by Catherynne M. Valente

September has longed to return to Fairyland after her first adventure there. And when she finally does, she learns that its inhabitants have been losing their shadows—and their magic—to the world of Fairyland Below. This underworld has a new ruler: Halloween, the Hollow Queen, who is September’s shadow. And Halloween does not want to give Fairyland’s shadows back. 

Fans of Valente’s bestselling, first Fairyland book will revel in the lush setting, characters, and language of September’s journey, all brought to life by fine artist Ana Juan. Readers will also welcome back good friends Ell, the Wyverary, and the boy Saturday. But in Fairyland Below, even the best of friends aren’t always what they seem... -Plot summary borrowed from Amazon

I don't think I can overstate how utterly and madly I love this series. It's like going home. It's like reading a book in a dream that is so exactly what I long for in a book that it couldn't possibly exist upon waking. It just needs need to be read.

It's been almost a year since September's first adventure in Fairyland, and she's a bit more grown up in this one- the action begins on her thirteenth birthday. Much was made in the first book about children being heartless:

 "All children are Heartless. They have not grown a heart yet, which is why they can climb high trees and say shocking things and leap so very high grown-up hearts flutter in terror. Hearts weigh quite a lot. That is why it takes so long to grow one. But, as in their reading and arithmetic and drawing, different children proceed at different speeds. (It is well known that reading quickens the growth of a heart like nothing else.) Some small ones are terrible and fey, Utterly Heartless. Some are dear and sweet and Hardly Heartless At All." 

This time around September has definitely begun to grow into her heart, and compassion, sympathy, love, betrayal, and forgiveness are major themes for our heroine to contend with. That being said, while September has matured in some ways and much of the novel is pretty dark both literally and figuratively, the novel itself is seems just a bit more whimsical than its predecessor, more Phantom Tollbooth and less "through a glass darkly." (On a third hand, Valente makes no bones about the fact that these books are partially spiritual sequels to Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass respectively, so there are lots of satisfying references to chess, queens, knights, mirror images and so forth this time around).

There are new companions and old friends, riddles to solve, glorious puns, and prose you just want to roll around in to soak up all the lovely imagery. It's hard for sequels to match up to the first in a series, especially ones so beloved by many, but I think Valente has done an excellent job of expanding her world and allowing her protagonist to grow and explore while still making the reader feel at home.