Sunday, September 30, 2012

Open Thread: Supernatural Creatures

So, after a week of highlighting books about ghosts, vampires, murderers and scary authors, I wanted to ask a question which has been around for a while: Has YA become watered-down?

It started with sparkly vampires and continued with all the trends where the point of the book is achieving perfect happiness with the perfect mate. Is it wish fulfilment, to have all those creatures we used to fear become sexed-up and attainable? Or is it a reflection of our own culture?

Think about the origines of the vampire myth, and how it is portrayed today. Do you think that there's a way to reconcile those two things? If yes, then how?

Again, please be respectful of other's opinions and beliefs. Happy discussing!

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Quoth The Raven: Interview with Kelly Creagh

Hello again, book lovers!

Today, we have the pleasure of welcoming Kelly Creagh, author of Nevermore - one of the books which Vinaya highlightd in her In Search of Buried Treasure post all the way back in 2011. Just recently, the much awaited Enshadowed released, and while we're trying to get our hands on it, Kelly has taken the time to talk to us about her books.

Kelly, welcome!

“Nevermore” tells the story of Isobel, a popular girl, and Varen, a Goth, who are paired off for a literature project. Isobel isn’t thrilled about this, especially since her friends don’t want her interacting with Varen at all. But then weird things start to happen and Isobel realizes that there’s a lot more going on. How did you come up with that premise?

The idea of a cheerleader being paired with a goth isn’t necessarily a new idea but one of my hopes with Nevermore was to turn this pairing on its head and really examine the social aspects of what makes someone a goth versus what makes someone a cheerleader and why those two types are at such opposite ends of the spectrum. One of the questions I think Nevermore asks of the reader is “why?”—as in, why is there a differentiation and why does it matter? When I began writing Nevermore, Poe was little more than a footnote. He was who I thought my goth character would pick in regards to the project Mr. Swanson assigned. I started researching Poe on a surface level, just to get a bit of information and he ended up taking over the entire story. I found out about the mysterious circumstances surrounding his still unsolved death.
I also found out about the Reynolds myth and the Poe Toaster and so many ideas began to bubble up on how I could use all of these Poe elements to tell a larger and more epic story than I originally imagined.

One of the highlights in “Nevermore” for me was the level of detail and thought that went into the secondary characters. Did you have a hard time striking a good balance between the main story and the subplots involving Isobel and her crew?

I didn’t really have a tough time balancing the secondary characters and the subplots ith the main plot mostly because I was just spinning a tale. Nevermore felt as though it wrote itself. That said, I had a huge manuscript by the time I was finished drafting and I needed to go through and do quite a bit of cutting, both with my agent and then again with my editor. And you can see that it’s still a big book!

What was the biggest challenge in writing “Nevermore”? What about the most rewarding thing about it?


I think the biggest challenge with Nevermore was the copyediting process. I learned so much about craft just from that pass and it was difficult for me because copyedits are all about making things as seamless and consistent as possible. It was labor intensive for me because, while drafting Nevermore, my focus had been mostly on character development, interaction, imagery and word choice. Copyedits forced me to sit down and think about every single moment and day that passed during the telling of the story. I had to make sure that if Isobel had her backpack with her in one scene, it didn’t suddenly disappear in the next. I wasn’t that hyper focused on the minute details when first constructing the tale.
But the process of copyedits really made me focus and get nitty gritty with every line and word and it demands that I be absolutely as clear as possible. Even though it feels like the toughest part of the process, it also is one of the most refining when it comes
to honing my craft.

Edgar Allan Poe is a character in his own right in your book. Do you have a favorite of his works?

Yes, my most favorite work of Edgar Allan Poe’s is William Wilson. It’s one of his lesser known works and explores the theme of duality and a darker self. This is a theme that pops up again and again in my work. If you haven’t read it, you might want to take a peek at the story in preparing for the third book in the trilogy. Hint hint.

This will probably sound lame, but was there an event in your life that inspired you to become a writer?

Not lame at all! There isn’t really one specific event. I have always been a writer, though I have not always called myself that. When I was younger, I wanted to be an actress. While in the process of getting my degree in Theatre Arts at University of Louisville, I had a revelation when I realized I could not wait to get home from my rehearsals so I could write. I decided to pursue writing after my undergraduate and realize that all my acting and drama training played a pivotal role in my development as a storyteller. So sometimes it just feels like I’m stepping on the stones of life as they appear before me. And now, here I am. ;)

What is the YA horror novel you would recommend to absolutely everyone?


One of my favorite horror YA novels is Stranger with My Face by Lois Duncan. Great read and very chilling!
Also, even though it isn’t horror, there is one YA novel I would consistently recommend to anyone anywhere and that is Fat Kid Rules the World by K. L. Going. I absolutely loved that novel. It’s so real and filled with so much heart. It also happens to be a Printz winner. If you haven’t read either of those you must, you must!

Finally, what can we look forward to in “Enshadowed”?
I’m hesitant to give too much away about Enshadowed. I can only tell you that it’s a bridge book that will reveal larger overall secrets that prepare you for the major events in last book. Read closely. In particular, pay close mind to Reynolds and Pinfeathers.
Kelly, thank you so much!
You can follow Kelly Creagh on twitter @kellycreagh, or visit her website at www.kellycreagh.com (I recommend Varen's sketchbook ;)

Friday, September 28, 2012

Review: The Moth Diaries by Rachel Klein

At an exclusive girls' boarding school, a sixteen-year-old girl records her most intimate thoughts in a diary. The object of her obsession is her room-mate, Lucy Blake, and Lucy's friendship with their new and disturbing classmate. Ernessa is a mysterious presence with pale skin and hypnotic eyes. Around her swirl dark secrets and a series of ominous disasters. As fear spreads through the school, fantasy and reality mingle into a waking nightmare of gothic menace, fuelled by the lusts and fears of adolescence.

And at the centre of the diary is the question that haunts all who read it: Is Ernessa really a vampire? Or is the narrator trapped in her own fevered imagination?*

I like psychological thrillers, especially ones where even the reader doesn’t know what’s going on. Nothing like a good disorientating experience to get the blood pumping, am I right?

The premise of “The Moth Diaries” promises just that - a difficult, is-she-or-is-she-not ride that will leave you breathless. In some ways, it delivers - it is quite a moody, gothic read. In other, however, I just don’t think it fares so good.

On the one hand, this is a very nice take on vampire lore, going back to its roots and exploring the themes that make the vampire such a compelling literary figure. For those of us who have grown tired of the cutesy, watered-down versions we’ve been getting in these past few years, this will be a welcome reprieve. The narrator (who is never named, I believe), is a very interesting figure with lots of creepy potential… which is just never met.

The narrator in Klein’s novel is a girl who has lost her father, whose mother is distant, and who latches onto her roommate Lucy in a manner that’s very unhealthy. In a way, the question throughout the novel is: “Who is the real vampire?” In a way, it reminds me of Zoe Heller’s “Notes on a Scandal” - a more adult book that doesn’t have any vampires in it, but one that is still very compelling because of its characters.

Unfortunately, that’s why “The Moth Diaries” didn’t work so well for me - the MC isn’t strong enough to carry this novel on her shoulders. Barbara from “Notes on a Scandal” is sly, bitter, clingy, abused, abusing, abandoned, angry and absolutely fascinating. She would have you sympathize with her in one moment, and then stare in shock as she breathes fire and brimstone all over the place. She’s charming, but she’s also calculative, she’s scary, but she’s convincing because she believes every last thing she says, and she makes you believe it too.

By contrast, the narrator in “The Moth Diaries” is never sympathetic. I can’t recall any particular instance where I sympathized with her, or bought into her whole “My only best friend is acting strange” spiel, because she clearly only thinks about herself. The problem with unlikeable main characters is that the reader needs to be invested in the story, and from that girl’s point of view, the story is just not that interesting.

I think Rachel Klein had a solid concept going into this, but ended up ramming it into the ground thanks to her completely insufferable narrator. Still, it’s a nice return to the roots of vampire lore (the book often references “Camilla”), so for readers starved for some good old-fashion gothic horror, it’s the way to go.

*Images and synopsis from Goodreads.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Scary Stories, Come Back: Interview with Gretchen McNeil

Hey all!

Continuing our Horror Week theme, today we have the pleasure of welcoming Gretchen McNeil, author of Possess and the upcoming Ten.

Gretchen, welcome!

Your new book, Ten, came out September 18th. Can you tell us, in your words, what it is about?

Easy! Ten teens trapped on an island with a serial killer.


How did you go about writing Ten? Did you come up with the plot or the characters first?

Plot was first.  It's an homage to Agatha Christie's masterpiece And Then There Were None, in a throwback style to the Christopher Pike novels I loved as a teen.


Is there a particular character you especially relate to?

That's always difficult for me, especially in TEN because the main character Meg is very unlike me. However, I can definitely relate to her difficult, codependent relationship with her bipolar best friend Minnie.  Only too well. 


The synopsis is quite different from that of your first book, Possess. What would you say are the main differences between your debut and sophomore novels?

Well, the biggest difference is that TEN is contemporary horror, as opposed to the paranormal elements in POSSESS.  In some ways, it was more difficult to write a novel based in the "real" world, without magic or demons or powers to fall back on.  But I loved it and look forward to writing more contemporary-based novels in the future!


How did you go about creating the mythology in Possess?

I read a lot about demonic possession, especially as related to the Catholic church.  I used first hand accounts of exorcisms along with the Apocryphal texts of the Bible to create the mythology.  I'm a research junky, so it was loads of fun!  Er, except reading about demonic possession before I went to bed at night.  Not one of my better ideas.

Now, onto more general book-related stuff ;)

Would you say your background in opera influenced your writing?

Definitely.  Opera is showing a story on the stage; writing is showing a story on the page.  (Rhyming is fun!)  They both employ a similar set of skills, mainly, knowing what your characters' motivations are every moment of the story.  On stage, that keeps you present in the character, active and alive for the audience.  Same thing in a novel!


Is there anything you wish they told you before you went into publishing?

The big thing is that it never gets easier.  You always think "If I can just land an agent" or "If I can just get a book deal" then everything will be awesome!  Well, it is awesome.  But every step up the ladder you get it gets harder, and harder, and more stressful.  There's no finish line in this race.


What would you say the YA genre needs more of?

SCARY BOOKS!!!!!  So many of the things that scared me as a kid – vampires, werewolves, ghosts – have been romanticized.  Which is totally great, except I miss the scary stories I'd read as a teen that would make me want to sleep with the light on.


Finally, can you tell us what can we look forward to after Ten?

My next book is scheduled for Fall 2013.  It's called 3:59 and it's a parallel universe doppelganger story about two girls who are the same girl but different, who discover that their parallel worlds connect every twelve hours at exactly 3:59.  After that, I just announced my next two books, GET EVEN and GET DIRTY, books 1 and 2 in the Don't Get Mad series, for 2014 and 2015.  I pitched them as Revenge meets The Breakfast Club, about four girls who form a secret revenge society for bullied classmates which goes well until one of their targets turns up dead.

Getchen, thank you!



Gretchen McNeil is an opera singer, writer and clown.  Her YA horror POSSESS debuted with Balzer + Bray for HarperCollins in 2011.  Her follow up TEN – YA horror/suspense about ten teens trapped on a remote island with a serial killer – will be released September 18, 2012, and her third novel 3:59, sci fi doppelganger horror is scheduled for Fall 2013.  Gretchen's new YA contemporary series Don't Get Mad (Revenge meets The Breakfast Club) begins Fall 2014 with GET EVEN, followed by the sequel GET DIRTY in 2015, also with Bazler + Bray.

You can follow her on twitter @GretchenMcNeil or check out her website at www.gretchenmcneil.blogspot.com She's also Monday on the YA Rebels on youtube.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Review: The Boy With the Cuckoo-Clock Heart by Mathias Malzieu

FIRSTLY: don’t touch the hands of your cuckoo-clock heart. SECONDLY: master your anger. THIRDLY: never, ever fall in love. For if you do, the hour hand will poke through your skin, your bones will shatter, and your heart will break once more.

Edinburgh, 1874. Born with a frozen heart, Jack is near death when his mother abandons him to the care of Dr. Madeleine—witch doctor, midwife, protector of orphans—who saves Jack by placing a cuckoo clock in his chest. And it is in her orphanage that Jack grows up among tear-filled flasks, eggs containing memories, and a man with a musical spine.

As Jack gets older, Dr. Madeleine warns him that his heart is too fragile for strong emotions: he must never, ever fall in love. And, of course, this is exactly what he does: on his tenth birthday and with head-over-heels abandon. The object of his ardor is Miss Acacia—a bespectacled young street performer with a soul-stirring voice. But now Jack’s life is doubly at risk—his heart is in danger and so is his safety after he injures the school bully in a fight for the affections of the beautiful singer.

Now begins a journey of escape and pursuit, from Edinburgh to Paris to Miss Acacia’s home in Andalusia. Mathias Malzieu’s The Boy with the Cuckoo-Clock Heart is a fantastical, wildly inventive tale of love and heartbreak—by turns poignant and funny—in which Jack finally learns the great joys, and ultimately the greater costs, of owning a fully formed heart.


Mathias Malzieu is not someone I would have found if it hadn’t been for the youtube video of his book. When I first saw it, I thought it was Pixar production. Then I watched it some more, then I got bewitched, and I had to read the book.

How do I describe “The Boy With the Cuckoo-Clock Heart”? Is it magical realism? Yes, a bit. Is it family drama? That too. Is it a romantic drama? Definitely. Is it anything concrete? Nope.

There are things I liked and things I didn’t. I enjoyed how this supposedly fantastical read delivers a poignant lesson about relationships. I love how Malzieu packs so much punch in such a short read. I really, really loved his turns of phrase, to the point where I will actually pull quotes from Goodreads to show you:

“We love each other like matches in the dark. We don’t talk, we catch fire instead.”

“What am I afraid of? Of you, or more precisely, of me without you.”

“You know, when I was in love, I was always inventing things. A whole array of tricks,
illusions and optical effects to amuse my lady friend. I think she'd had enough of my
inventions by the end... I wanted to create a voyage to the moon just for her, but what I
should have given her was a real journey on earth.”

-Mathias Malzieu, “The Boy With the Cuckoo-Clock Heart”

Isn’t that just lovely?

Pretty prose, gothic atmosphere and a bittersweet love story - can I ask for more?

Well, maybe. Just a little bit. In spite of the fact that this book is by miles better than a great deal of YA I’ve read, it is, ultimately, the story of a very lonely boy with a very unhealthy obsession with a girl. So unhealthy, in fact, that he travels across Europe to find her, and then goes on to make her the center of his universe. It’s a bit uncomfortable to read, and if the text glorified that, I would have been really disappointed.

However, that doesn’t happen, and I’m infinitely grateful. The dark, dark tone of the book, offset by the rare bursts of humor, works well with the story Malzieu’s telling, and makes for a satisfying, thoughtful read.

Note: Images, quotes and synopsis via Goodreads.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Writing Ghosts: Interview with Kendare Blake

Hey all!

Today, we have the  pleasure of welcoming Kendare Blake, author of “Anna Dressed in Blood” and “Girl of Nightmares”!
Kendare, welcome!

Anna Dressed in Blood is a YA horror novel that doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to tragedy and gore. With a debut that is such a departure from what is considered “trendy”, was the road to publication difficult?

No, surprisingly. With other books it took such a long time, but Anna seemed to get a lot of interest. I think perhaps it was because it had the gore.

Cas and Anna have a very interesting relationship dynamic – much like a chimera, it’s never one thing entirely. How did you go about writing it?

It evolved naturally. I was excited to write them from the start. Come on, ghost hunter and dead girl, you know they're going to spark in interesting ways. It surprised me how much they related to one another. They have different kinds of solitude, and different burdens to bear, but they seemed to connect.

Girl of Nightmares has the characters dealing with the fallout of their actions in the end of Anna Dressed in Blood. Did you ever worry about the second book syndrome?

I think everybody worries about second book syndrome. But I didn't start writing until Cas was ready to talk. And when he started, it all just took off, and what happened happened. I have no illusions that Girl of Nightmares will please as many people as Anna. Now readers have their own hopes and expectations (I did too) and no doubt some of them will be disappointed. But the story went the only way it could.

Without spoiling, can you tell us one thing that Girl of Nightmares has that Anna Dressed in Blood does not?

It has the history of Cas' knife. Is that spoiling? Eh. I don't think so.

This isn’t really a question, but I love the winks towards Greek Mythology in “Anna Dressed in Blood”, as well as how your next book, “Antigoddess” , will focus on the gods and goddesses of Olympus. *hi five*

Oh thank you! I hope you enjoy it. I'm in the middle of the second book now.

 What are your top three underrated YA books?

Underrated? Probably So Shelly by Ty Roth, and I don't mean it performed badly, but it deserved all the love in the world. Um...I'm drawing a blank. Darn it.

 What is, according to you, the biggest myth related to writing?

That it will make you rich and famous.

 What is your favorite non-writing related activity?

Eating! Oh, that makes me sound like a glutton. Which I am. I also enjoy hiking, and travel. And playing bad tennis.

Finally, can we hope to see more of Anna and Cas in the future?

I don't know. In a book? I don't think so. Someday I would love it if Cas would tell me what he's up to. Whoops, spoiler alert! Cas doesn't die!

Thank you, Kendare!

You can follow Kendare Blake on twitter @KendareBlake, or visit her website at www.kendareblake.com You can order her books from Amazon, or your local bookseller. The first book in her Antigoddess series comes out in 2013.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Back to Classics: The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories by Angela Carter

From familiar fairy tales and legends - Red Riding Hood, Bluebeard, Puss-in-Boots, Beauty and the Beast, vampires, werewolves - Angela Carter has created an absorbing collection of dark, sensual, fantastic stories.*

As I read the reviews of this book, I came to the following conclusion - in popular YA books, girls aren't going after Prince Charming, but Bluebeard, and there was no better example for this than "The Bloody Chamber", the first story in this anthology.

Think about it - a man, with several complexes, probably impotent or in possession of some weird blood fetish, purposedly chooses a wife that is both curious and insecure. He presents her with a key, telling her not to go into the room, fully knowing that she would disobey, and then prepares to murder her because she went down the path of ruin he himself placed her on. By doing so, he restores his sense of superiority and for a while, his complexes are quelched. Try to put this theory to Edward Cullen, Daniel Grigori and Damen Auguste and tell me if you see the similarities - why do they choose a weak, insecure girl, starving for attention and understanding, if not to make themselves feel better?

This is not a book that you can understand in one sitting. You can read these stories again and again and find a new meaning to them. Also, please note that those aren't the stories sugar-coated to be made fit for mass consumption. Angela Carter writes her stories in the spirit of the original Grimm fairytales - real, raw, full of dark melancholy and, even at times, saucy adult humor. The focus is on the woman, even in Puss-in-boots, where the tom finds an ally in the face of an ingenious tabby.

The language in Carter's books has always been a delight, and in "The Bloody Chamber", she doesn't disappoint. The sentences are sophisticated, but elegant, and in no time do they sound even remotely clumsy. The story flows easily, and it could appeal both to someone who is studying it for purely academic purposes and to someone reading it just for fun. You'll find yourself easily lost in the imagery and might even feel the urge to paint the sentences on your walls. Here are a few lines from "The Lady of the House of Love":


"She is so beautiful she is unnatural; her beauty is an abnormality, a deformity, for none of her features exhibit any of those touching imperfections that reconcile us to the imperfection of the human condition. Her beauty is a simptom of her disorder, of her soullessness. "
- Angela Carter

This is not a book you can pick up, expecting a light, unengaging read. This is a book that will shake you, set your mind on fire and things will never be the same. I loved it.

*Synopsis courtesy of Goodreads.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Review: Blood Ties by Sophie McKenzie

When Theo discovers the father he thought died when he was a baby is still alive, he's determined to find him. The clues lead him to the lonely Rachel, who has problems of her own, including parents who compare her unfavourably to her long-dead sister.

But when Rachel and Theo are attacked by men from RAGE - the Righteous Army against Genetic Engineering - at Rachel's school disco, they are rescued by strangers and taken to meet a mysterious figure. There, they both make some startling discoveries about their identities, which will affect their past, present, and future in dramatic and life-altering ways...


 
Contains Spoilers!
Unnecessary drama is the bane of my existence.

Okay, not really, but it’s pretty high up the list, right there with forced romances and nonsensical motivations, though one can make the point about this being all unnecessary drama. How does this tie in with today’s pick? Simply put, it ruined a perfectly good premise.

The pitch for “Blood Ties” is very ambiguous. Honestly, when I first saw it, the sci-fi aspect went completely in over my head. I knew there was a mystery, but not until the big reveal, which is either a testament to McKenzie’s mastery as a writer or my own scatter-mindedness. Pick the one which suits you best.

I’ll admit, I had a hard time liking the two main characters, Rachel and Theo. The latter, I never really liked, mostly because of his tendency to wangst over ridiculous shit. Rachel, on the other hand, grew a lot on me - I did facepalm a lot, especially when she decided she’s in love with Theo, even when she knew he was using her, but then she grew into a much more kick-ass character, one that was willing to take risks and be in charge. I liked that.

What I didn’t like was how overwrought this whole thing is.

Here’s a scenario for you. You discover you are a clone. What do you do? Would you:

A/ Sit down in expectation of the inevitable identity crisis
B/ Inform yourself about the genetic illnesses and mutations that could result
C/ Freak out that you’re a Nazi, because your parents were Nazis

If you answered C, congratulations, you and Theo will get along just dandy.

Logicfail aside, the above example is just one of the few things that made Theo completely insufferable to me. So the guy discovers he’s a clone. I understand that he’s too immature to realize everything that comes with that, but out of all the soul-searching to be done, is ideology the best thing you could think of? Seriously?

Another thing I didn’t particularly like was his relationship with Rachel. As much as I rolled my eyes at her for throwing the “L” word around when the book wasn’t even through its halfway mark, I can’t really blame Rachel - she’s a teenage girl, a very lonely teenage girl, who has been bullied in school and at home and who has some understandable self-esteem issues. Why wouldn’t she latch onto the first guy who pays attention to her?

Theo, on the other hand, didn’t give two shits for her - not at first, and not later, though the text would have us think otherwise. He didn’t care for Rachel, except in terms of how she could get him what he wanted. He only started to care for her after she brought the freaking cavalry to his rescue, and after he suspected she might be crushing on someone else (in spite of that someone else being in a committed relationship, much older, and his friend. Because tension needs to happen.) At which point he was all: “Hey, Rachel’s hot. And she used to kind of be into me. Maybe I should make sure she still is.”

Yeah, no. Go to hell, Theo. And your fucking attitude too.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Review: Legend by Marie Lu

What was once the western United States is now home to the Republic, a nation perpetually at war with its neighbors. Born into an elite family in one of the Republic’s wealthiest districts, fifteen-year-old June is a prodigy being groomed for success in the Republic’s highest military circles. Born into the slums, fifteen-year-old Day is the country’s most wanted criminal. But his motives may not be as malicious as they seem.

From very different worlds, June and Day have no reason to cross paths—until the day June’s brother, Metias, is murdered and Day becomes the prime suspect. Caught in the ultimate game of cat and mouse, Day is in a race for his family’s survival, while June seeks to avenge Metias’s death. But in a shocking turn of events, the two uncover the truth of what has really brought them together, and the sinister lengths their country will go to keep its secrets.

Full of nonstop action, suspense, and romance, this novel is sure to move readers as much as it thrills.*


“Legend” is a book that’s been getting a lot of airplay over at Goodreads for being a “good” dystopia. What does “good” dystopia mean? Presumably that it doesn’t revolve around true love and sticking it to the society (oh, pardon, Society) for no other reason than because it stops you from being with the one you care for. (Which is, you know, legit, but not solid enough motivation for the long run.)

In terms of providing solid writing and powerful characters, “Legend” definitely delivers. Day and June, the two protagonists whose eyes we borrow throughout the book, are very well drawn, and you can easily relate to them. The plot moved at a fast pace, the stakes kept getting bigger and bigger, and by the end, you could not tear me away from the Kindle.

I especially liked June, because of how she handles everything. Throughout the book, she systematically has all her supports taken out - her brother, their childhood friend, the boy she might come to care for, and many more - and yet she approaches all these challenges with a quiet determination to get through to the end. It’s admirable that she manages to retain her focus, even when she hurt.

I also liked Lu’s take on the “Nice Guy” problem - you know, when a guy would rather try to earn a relationship by being a friend first, but would not ever put his own feelings at stake. I like how she handled that - very nicely done. June faces the double whammy of being female and a very popular figure in the Republic, so some very problematic expectations were leveled at her, but she manages those too.

However, I really think that “Legend” works better as a sci-fi, or maybe even as an alternate-universe piece than it does as a dystopia. I just don’t think it manages to explore dystopian trends well - the world is sketchily drawn, with the same standard “evil government” elements thrown in. There’s not really an explanation why the Republic came to be, or what is the bigger conflict besides those two people.

Then again, this is a criticism that can be leveled at most, if not all, YA dystopias nowadays. Moreover, the book is told from the viewpoints of June and Day, which means that we only know as much as they do. Some worldbuilding fails, like the Trials and the genesis of the Republic, can be attributed to them being unreliable narrators.

Ultimately, “Legend” isn’t really a book about the individual standing up against a repressive society, as much as it is a character study about grief, family and conformism. As such, it wins on every level.

*Image and synopsis courtesy of Goodreads.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Past the Final Fronteer: Interview with Author Phoebe North

Hello, fellow book lovers! Today, on the Lantern, we have the pleasure of welcoming Phoebe North, debut author and blogger for The Intergalactic Academy, who agreed to talk to us about her upcoming release and the changing faces of publishing.
Phoebe, welcome!

“Starglass”, your debut novel, comes out in 2013. In your words, how would you describe it?

Starglass is soft science fiction with a commitment to psychological realism. It's the story of Terra, a sixteen-year-old girl trying to cope (largely unsuccessfully) with the specter of grief, and what happens when she's pulled into a rebellion on the generation ship where she lives. It's got botany and boys and secret meetings in musty libraries--all things I love. I hope readers love it, too.

Do you have a favorite character to write about?

Something I decided early on with Starglass was that whenever possible, I'd show women in positions of power, flexing their intellectual and leadership muscles. Nowhere did that work out better than with Mara Stone, the ship's botanist--a woman who doesn't suffer fools easily. She's easily the most fun character to write, a pistol who is great at what she does (but not so great with people).

What is the most important thing to you in a sci-fi novel, as a reader and as a writer?

Hmm, accurate xenobiology?

Just kidding! What I look for most is a world that sucks you in, one that feels wild and complex and just as real as ours. Accurate worldbuilding helps, and so does immersive writing.

Can you tell us a little bit about your road to publication? Was it quite as you expected it to be?

Publication is crazy. Over the past eight months, I've been known to pop my head into my husband's office and just shout "Book!" It's really still that shocking, still that strange.

I queried two novels--and wrote four--before I hit on something that worked with Starglass. I was very, very lucky; my agent Michelle Andelman (who rejected me on a previous book) read a snippet on my website and reached out before it was even finished. After I finished the novel and signed with Michelle, we edited for six months before we went on submission. And after the book deal, it was another six months or so of editing with my editor at Simon and Schuster, Navah Wolfe. What's surprised me the most is how dedicated publishing professionals truly are. Both Navah and Michelle care deeply about quality. Publishing is challenging--intellectually, emotionally. But it's very, very rewarding.

You’re running a blog with a focus on speculative and sci-fi YA, “The Intergalactic Academy”. How would you describe the effect of the increased writer-reader interactions through the Internet?

It certainly keeps things interesting! As you know, I've been a reviewer far longer than I've been a writer, and I've never really been one of those reviewers who felt it as wan inevitable disaster when writers engage in dialogue with their readership. In fact, I think a lot of good can come out of those interactions, so long as they're undertaken with empathy and respect.

Come to think of it, that's a good guideline for MOST interactions.

 What are, to you, the best examples of genre fiction in YA?

I'm a sucker for the soft sci-fi of the 70s, and 80s, and as an old school sci-fi fan, I absolutely adored Karen Sandler's Tankborn. She created a beautifully-drawn world with a compelling central character. The same could be said of Rachel Hartman's Seraphina, on the fantasy side of things. But there are a lot of other fantastic genre YA titles out there right now: Incarnate by Jodi Meadows and Under the Never Sky by Veronica Rossi are great examples of the possible strengths of the dystopian trend. The Obsidian Blade by Pete Hautman is terrifically weird, and shows what can happen on the fringes of the genre. And of course, Patrick Ness and Beth Revis both did an amazing job of opening up modern YA to the possibilities of science fiction. The Knife of Never Letting Go and Across the Universe are both stellar books--it's easy to see why they were trendsetters.

How about the books you were most influenced by?

My biggest influences are two little-known soft science fiction novels. The first is a sci-fi romance called The Merro Tree by an author named Katie Waitman. It's the story of an alien performance master and his soulmate and their battle against the worst villains in the universe--censors.

The other is a novel by Megan Lindholm, who is better known for her fantasy titles written under the name Robin Hobb. It's called Alien Earth, and it tells the story of humanity after we've been "saved" by aliens with sinister purposes. It had a living ship years before Farscape featured Moya--Evangeline and her pilot Tug are incredibly rendered as both characters and as extraterrestrials.

What is your favorite strange-but-true story?

The Velvet Underground played their first-ever concert in 1965 at a high school in New Jersey. They opened for another band, and played three songs--"Venus in Furs," "There She Goes Again" and "Heroin." Can you imagine being one of those teenagers in the audience that night? Lou Reed must have seemed like a space alien.


And finally…. Who is your favorite Doctor?

 Eight! I absolutely adore Paul McGann, and I think he got short shrift with the movie. His vocal performances on the audio dramas bring a tremendous amount of depth to the role. If you're a Whovian, they're worth a listen. Hope they bring him in for the fiftieth.

Thank you so much for this interview, Phoebe.

Phoebe North is a YA writer and blogger. Follow her on twitter @phoebenorth, or  check out her website at www.phoebenorth.com You can also check out her sci-fi YA blog at www.intergalactic-academy.net

Starglass comes out in 2013 from Simon and Schuster.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Review: Embassytown by China Mieville

We're taking a break from your regularly scheduled YA blogging to offer you something a little different.

Okay... it's very different.

If you've been keeping an ear out in the reading blogosphere, you might have heard the name China Mieville. You know - he's the guy who owns all and none of the genres. The writer who is self-classified as one of "weird fiction" and who keeps churning out amazing, shocking, thought-provoking books. The one whose grocery lists are amazing and who kicks right-wing Britain's ass on a daily basis.

Alright, some of those things aren't totally true. But, let me tell you - if you want more "adult" fiction, China Mieville is the way to go.

In the far future, humans have colonized a distant planet, home to the enigmatic Ariekei, sentient beings famed for a language unique in the universe, one that only a few altered human ambassadors can speak.

Avice Benner Cho, a human colonist, has returned to Embassytown after years of deep-space adventure. She cannot speak the Ariekei tongue, but she is an indelible part of it, having long ago been made a figure of speech, a living simile in their language.

When distant political machinations deliver a new ambassador to Arieka, the fragile equilibrium between humans and aliens is violently upset. Catastrophe looms, and Avice is torn between competing loyalties—to a husband she no longer loves, to a system she no longer trusts, and to her place in a language she cannot speak yet speaks through her.
What's that?

That's the sound of my brain cells panting after being brought to the height of physical exhaustion.

Seriously, if long books like
The Count of Monte Cristo are like a good stretch and high-concept sci-fi like The Left Hand of Darkness is like a lovely exercise, reading Embassytown is a little like running a bloody triathlon. And for someone like me, who has had a very... unbalanced reading diet, the experience has been.... interesting.

First of all, I have to give props to whomever composed the summary, because it was not an easy job. Set in a world on the very edge of the explored immer (kind of like space, but a lot deadlier), Embassytown is a human outpost in a strange world. The alien Hosts, the Ariekei, are creatures with two mouths, whose Language is so complex that they cannot lie. Humans communicate with them through the Ambassadors - lab-grown twins taught to think alike so that they can speak the Language. But then one day a new Ambassador arrives from the outside, two people who are not only not doppels, but also have a strange effect on the Hosts, and effect which triggers "the end of the world".

Our heroine, Avice, has a special connection to the aliens because, when she was young, she was turned into a simile. Because, you see, the Hosts cannot say something which is not true, and for the more complex interactions with humans, they need something to compare it to, and in order to create a simile, one must first be acted out. Avice doesn't make much of it, and goes on to become an immerser (a kind of an astronaut, I think), which takes her away for a while. When she comes back to Arieka, she and her husband find themselves thrust into a complex power-play that honestly... kind of blows your mind.

The thing about Embassytown is that you don't get that "oomph" moment until about 100 pages in (200, if you're like me). I honestly didn't see where Mieville was going until the halfway point - he takes us through Avice's past, explains the finer points of Language, then alternates between the actual plot and giving us a full account of a minor incident which was the precurser to the big inciting one... and it is all absolutely necessary. It doesn't seem like that, but when you get to the end, you understand - there was just no way for the actual plot to function without that initial foundation. The world of Arieka is simply unlike any other I've read about.

Because you see, Hosts don't speak the Language - the Language speaks them. It is so complex it makes it literally impossible for them to have an independant thought, which is why the words of the new Ambassador literally give them a high. Very fast, stakes are raised sky-high and the life of the whole planet is put at stake, just because the new Ambassador (the two of them, actually) are unlike any other.

If that confuses you, rest assured, that's the point. Throughout the book, Mieville stresses on the fact that humans aren't the only intelligent species in the universe, so why should they be used as any standard. Early on, one of Avice's commanders chastises her for giving her age in years, which is perfectly reasonable - use kilohours instead. Avice herself mentions casually that she was married four times, once to a woman. Homosex (as she refers to it) is frowned upon in Embassytown, yet no-one bats an eye when both Ambassador doppels take a lover.

It's all so wonderfully, wonderfully different.

Now, if my summary above made any sense to you, you mught be saying: Hey now, isn't this just like Avatar? Humans coming to a new world and fucking it up? You would be right, to an extent. Unlike those narratives, however, Mieville doesn't sanctify the Ariekei - they're not portrayed as these pure, innocent creatures that were ruined by the evil humans. Nor are the aliens wild savages that need to be civilized at any cost. The revolution (and evolution) is not easy, and both sides are very reluctant to engage in it. The change is ugly and painful and Mieville doesn't shy from painting us a picture of blood and guts and dying worlds. It's horrible, and at the same time necessary.

The best thing about it, though, is that the characters are all great, and experience growth. Avice starts off as a "floaker" - someone who goes with the flow, who doesn't take initiative, and doesn't care for much. She doesn't show much affection for her shiftparents, doesn't mention any friends, and only mentions her previous spouses in order to say that marriage was not perhaps her skill.

In other words, she starts off as an embodiment of the cliche that a strong female character is, in fact, a woman that acts like a man.

But throughout the book, she starts to grow. She doesn't leave her birth place, even when it becomes clear that things are about to get very bad. She discovers she cares for her friends, Host, human, and even the automaton Ehrsul. She has a lot of feelings for her lovers, and she retains a great deal of affection for her husband Scile, even when their relationship sours beyond reconciliation.

And, best of all, she still stays a kick-ass character. She has swagger. She fights. She stands up for what she believes in. Her emotional vulnerability doesn't make her any less competent, and she admires the selfless actions of others, instead of dismissing them as foolish.

I initially thought about giving this four stars, for the slow start and a few minor hiccups along the way, but I really can't do that. Fantastic book, highly recommended.
Note: Summary and image courtesy of Goodreads.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

A Reader's Suspension of Disbelief

Reading reviews of sci-fi or dystopian books, one of the comments I come across often is one about world-building. Specifically, whether trends and/or scientific advancements are plausible in this universe. For example, what kind of society would legalize a partial lobotomy in order to get rid of the sentiment of love? Why would anyone sit by idle when their children are being shipped off to an execution? And how, exactly, does society go as far as to rob children of their childhoods just so that they can go to university at 11 and invent time-travel potions?
Whoever tells me where I got that last reference from gets a cookie.
World-building, in itself, is a sometimes fun, sometimes exhausting, but totally necessary exercise. Some sci-fi/weird fiction writers avoid the plausibility loophole by setting their books in an alternate universe or alien world, where different physics and biology apply (think China Mieville’s “Embassytown”, for example). Others just keep their fingers crossed that you’ll just say: “Well, it’s the future, who knows what they’ll be able to do”. Then there are those who don’t give two shits about whether you think their premise is plausible.
Each and every one of those methods can work, if done right.
I think suspending disbelief is just like anything else in books: It depends on a writer’s skill. Half the books I recommended on Monday cannot stand the plausibility check (seriously, cities eating cities? And you played that straight?) and still they grip me with their passionate characters and powerful stories. On the other hand, perfect world-building won’t do anything for me if the writing or characters don’t hook me in.
So this goes out to any budding sci-fi/dystopian writers: If you have an impossible premise, make me believe in it. Have me sitting on the edge of my seat, gasping, crying, laughing, caring for your characters. Make me invested – if that happens, I won’t care how your world came to be.
What about you? How far are you willing to suspend your disbelief?
*Images courtesy of Goodreads.