I finally got around to reading The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman and was SO disappointed I had already seen the movie. I didn't think the movie was terrible and, in fact, it didn't leave much of an impression on me at all. However, I did remember the main plot points and the setting which basically took all of the fun out of discovering those things anew in the book. I kept thinking about what it would have been like to come across the book for the first time and to discover a world that was like ours, but not. When I wrote about Tandem recently, I noted the dearth of "parallel worlds" stories for young readers, and here was one staring me in the face that I'd never read. It's a beautifully written book with unforgettable characters and settings and a very different feel to a lot of MG and YA stories coming out now in the fantasy genres. It's not pure fantasy but it's not urban fantasy either. It's kind of a hybrid because it's a world that's so similar to ours that it really feels like urban fantasy even though there are constant reminders that we're in another place entirely. Pullman's attention to detail in manipulating settings to make them familiar, yet different, is a wonderful achievement in writing, particularly for younger audiences. I did find the ending a little heavy-handed with references to religion and spiritualism, but could see that the whole book was leading to this point so I had to take it as it came. I'm sure it's necessary for the next books in the series. The clever manipulation of religion and religious doctrine to be familiar, but also to suit the alternate world was well done. If you have never seen the movie and are considering whether to read the book first, all I can say is do it. The movie isn't bad, but takes all the excitement and mystery out of the book.
The title of this post is admittedly an overstatement because I didn't actively dislike book 2 (Dare You To) in Katie McGarry's Pushing the Limits series. It's just that the first book set such a high standard for challenging and troubled teen romance that it was difficult for the second installment to live up to the first. I also had trouble connecting with Ryan, the male protagonist of the second book. I didn't have any of those problems with this third book, Crash Into You. The third installment picks up Isaiah's story and pairs him with new character, troubled teen Rachel Young, who has difficulty living up to her family's unrealistic expectations of her.
While the relationship between Isaiah and Rachel never quite lives up to the relationship established in the first book between Noah and Echo, it comes very close. Isaiah and Rachel are both powerfully drawn characters with unusual struggles. Much of what Isaiah is coping with mirrors Noah's struggles from the first book - a child produced by the welfare system facing the challenges of making something of his own life when all the cards are stacked against him.
In many ways, Rachel's challenges mirror Echo's from the first book as well. She comes from a family that has suffered a terrible tragedy (death of a child to leukemia) and she herself has had to "replace" the dead sibling in many ways causing her to face unrealistic pressures. While the family set-up for Rachel is different to Echo's set-up in Pushing the Limits, there are reflections of Echo's struggle in dealing with a family coping with the loss of a sibling.
Fans of the first two books will be happy to see Noah and Echo playing a significant secondary role in this book, and we even get several glimpses of Beth and Ryan from book 2. Overall, the writing here is a strong as ever from Katie McGarry and the plot is much stronger than the plot in Dare You To, but never quite meets the emotional depths of Pushing the Limits. There were some points at which I had to be prepared to suspend my disbelief at how the storyline developed, but the narrative was so engaging that I was happy to do so. While the book deals with first love and the physical attraction that goes along with it, there is nothing too explicit on the page so the book is accessible to, and suitable for, younger readers. I recommend this installment and look forward to book 4 - Take Me On - of which a short extract appears at the end of this book (at least the hardcover version I read).
I'm very excited to be branching out the blog into interviewing authors I admire. My first interview is with children's and young adult author, Monica Shaughnessy, whose recent book Doom & Gloom I have previously reviewed. The book is on sale here through Kindle Countdown today through Dec. 26 for anyone looking for a special deal on a holiday read.
Here's what Monica had to say when I asked her some searching questions about Doom & Gloom ...
KC: What made you interested in writing?
MS: I grew up in the presence of books. We collected them and discussed them at length in my family. My mother, of course, read to me from an early age, and this fostered my love of words. As I got a little older, I was given plenty of time and space to read on my grandparents’ ranch. No TV meant that stories became my main source of entertainment. To this day, I still own many of the books I did as a child, including a rare copy of “The Casual Observer.”
KC: Doom & Gloom has an interesting lead character, a young boy with an unusual disability. Where did you get your ideas for Dane's character?
MS: Years ago, I watched a great movie with Nicole Kidman called “The Others.” In it, her children suffer from the same disease as Dane—xeroderma pigmentosum. The idea of a parent sheltering their child from UV rays, closing off sections of the house like a submarine, fascinated me enough to write a book about it.
KC: Are you planning more Doom & Gloom books? Any spoilers you want to share with your readers?
MS: There will be a total of three Doom & Gloom books. In Book 2, we’ll see Jinx’s character come more into her own, and she’ll receive a suit made for her. And while Dane becomes more comfortable with his role as superhero, he runs into complications with his new double life. We’ll also confront Dane’s archenemy, with a few unexpected results that I don’t dare tell you about.
KC: You use a lot of science and technology in Doom & Gloom. Do you have a background in robotics or computer science?
MS: I wish I did! It would’ve made the research a little easier. In a former life, I worked for a computer company and am pretty tech savvy, but don’t have a technical background. I will say, however, that I’m a bit of a science geek. I want to be Michio Kaku when I grow up.
KC: Doom & Gloom is very different to your other work. You've written for younger and older readers. Who are your favorite readers to write for?
MS: This may sound like a cop-out, but I don’t compartmentalize too much with my writing. I try to tell the best story possible and let it roll from there. Sure, I keep things like word comprehension and interest level in mind for younger readers, but I think kids are capable of understanding a fairly sophisticated plot.
KC: Who are your favorite authors?
MS: Er, how much space do I have? I’ve read a lot of good books in my time, but only one author makes me cry every time (Gary Paulsen), only one author makes me read and reread his sentences for their sheer musicality (F. Scott Fitzgerald), only one author stuns me with his immediacy and his verisimilitude (Ernest Hemingway), and only one author makes reading effortless (Stephen King). Geez, I’ve left out so many…Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, Edgar Allan Poe…now I feel bad.
KC: Any exciting plans for the holidays?
MS: I’ll be curled up on the couch…you guessed it…reading. Right now, I’ve got three non-fiction books I’m reading simultaneously. After that, I’m starting “The Beekeeper’s Apprentice,” an “old” book that I just discovered at the library, my second home.
Check out the Doom & Gloom book trailer ....
I wanted to enjoy Virals by Kathy Reichs so much more than I did and I have to agree with some of the reviewers on Goodreads who suggested that Reichs may have been pressured into writing a YA book because of the success of her books for the adult market. But this really seems to be cashing in on the Tempe Brennan books - which in full disclosure I haven't read. I think one of the problems with Virals for me at least was hat the book never really decides what it wants to be - horror/science fiction, forensic mystery, high school drama? It has elements of everything thrown in, but never really picks a genre. Ordinarily I have no problem with combining genres, but this book only barely scratches the surface of the issues it covers despite its length (the hardcover version is around 450 pages, although admittedly there's a lot of white space).
The characters are not particularly engaging and it's hard to relate to the main character (Tory). She's going through a lot in her life, having lost her mother, moved house to a tiny island community with a father she never knew she had, discovered she's the niece of famous forensic anthropologist Tempe Brennan and getting caught in the middle of some crazy science experiments and everyday high school drama as a fish out of water in a school for rich kids. But somehow her character is superficial and difficult to engage with. Her pack of best friends are almost indistinguishable from each other although we're told several times that one of them is Jewish and his mother is a bit of a caricature of a Jewish mother. I may read other books in this series, but I'm not going to put them at the top of the list. Overall, I had a bad reading week this week also slogging through The Scarlet Letter for the first time (for no apparent reason other than that I hadn't read it before). Let's hope I pick up some more interesting books next week!
Having read most of Maggie Stiefvater's more recent books, I picked up a second hand copy of Lament recently. It's the first in a trilogy that's currently missing its third book, which makes me hesitant to read book two because I don't want to be left hanging. I actually feel like Lament itself has left me hanging, particularly as I know that the second book, Ballad, focuses on different characters and I still want to know what happens to the main characters from the first book. While Lament does have an ending, it doesn't have a sense of finality. I suppose the same could be said of the ending of the Shiver trilogy by the same author. Stiefvater obviously doesn't mind leaving some big questions about her main characters' futures up in the air, but I didn't really find the ending to the Shiver trilogy satisfying and I'm worried that there won't BE an ending to the Lament trilogy if the third book never appears (or possibly even if it does).
But having griped about endings for a paragraph, I have to say that as with all of this author's books the writing style is simply beautiful and the characters are wonderfully engaging. I can't describe what it is about Stiefvater's style that grabs me so much. It seems somehow different from all of the other YA voices out there even when she's dealing with the familiar themes of growing up, falling in love, and making sacrifices for those who mean the most to us. The plot of Lament evidences shades of Twilight in its dynamics between the main characters (impossible love between creatures of different ages and species), but the setting and context is very different and the writing is transcendent.
Stiefvater herself is an accomplished musician and much of this story revolves around music and the characters' relationship to music. All of the musically oriented passages really shine. It's original and lyrical and engrossing which is why I'm all the more disappointed that there may not be a third book forthcoming. I sorely hope Stiefvater decides to finish the series either before or after she finishes The Raven Boys trilogy.
I met debut YA author Mindy McGinnis at the SCBWI regional conference in Northern Ohio this year and was impressed by her quiet thoughtfulness which shines through in her novel, Not a Drop to Drink. One of the cover reviewers of the hardback edition at least (Ilsa Bick) compares McGinnis to a cross between Laura Ingalls Wilder and Cormac McCarthy and I think it's spot on. This is a dystopian novel with a difference. It's not action-packed adventure and excitement. Rather, it's a thoughtful and at times horrifying meditation on the depths to which the human race might descend if a commodity such as water became scarce.
While we hear a little about what's going on in the big cities, this book is set in rural Ohio and is told from the perspective of a girl (Lynn) who has holed up alone with her mother in the family home to protect their water source, their pond, from outsiders. Lynn's mother has raised her to be tough and a survivor, and has omitted social graces and affection from her upbringing. This results in a character somewhat like Katniss from the Hunger Games i.e. a good person who does what she has to do to survive, but who has hidden depths that are discovered when she's finally confronted with the need to accommodate new people in her life.
The pace of the narrative is pensive, but never dull. The setting is contained within a small section of the countryside. Even though there are plenty of woods and open fields, the book has an (I assume intentionally) claustrophobic feel to it. The characters are well drawn and often surprising and the time span is large for such a short(ish) book. It's not a difficult book to read in terms of style - easy and accessible for younger readers. However, it is difficult in terms of the bittersweet themes it contains. A unique take on the modern YA dystopia. I'm glad I picked it up.
A Spark Unseen is the second, and I'm hoping final, book in the Dark Unwinding series by recent SCBWI find, author Sharon Cameron. I've read and enjoyed both books and that's why I'm seriously hoping this doesn't turn out to be a trilogy. The first book left questions unanswered which were beautifully answered in the second book with a lovely feeling of finality. There are still questions open at the end of book two, but they don't need to be resolved in a third book. They really don't!! Don't succumb to pressure to write more books in a series if it's already DONE!!!
Okay, I'm off the trilogy soapbox now and back to the book itself. This is a wonderful sequel to an original steampunk concept with a crazy inventor type coming up with crazy ideas that can be utilized for good and evil. There's a plucky heroine - Katherine - and a somewhat mysterious romantic lead, Lane. Plus sidekicks, villains and some characters who may be playing both sides. The first book is set in England and the second in France and the setting details (including architecture, clothing and weird inventions) are rich and wonderful. The tone is delightfully reserved, despite the pluckiness of the heroine and her determination to save the world and protect the people she loves, including actually LOCATING one of the people she loves in this second book.
While I tend to gravitate toward fast-paced action-adventure stories, the tone of this series is more muted, but I still enjoyed both books and read them very quickly. The characters are engaging and the plots are unique, even among the existing steampunk genre. I found the second book a little slower than the first to pick up steam (no pun intended ... well, maybe just a little) and get the plot moving, but once the gear shift was engaged, I was hooked. Highly recommend this (fingers crossed) DUOLOGY. Very suitable for older and younger readers alike.
All Our Yesterdays by Cristin Terrill was an amazon recommendation for me. I'm not always sucked in to reading everything amazon tells me to but this time I was happy I did. Yes, it's YA sci-fi time travel which could be a pretty lethal combination done badly, but luckily in Terrill's hands the book is a breeze to read with unexpected twists and turns around every corner. And she does her best to avoid/explain time paradoxes such that this reader could suspend her disbelief and get lost in the story. While there's a lot of sci-fi and adventure, the book also covers some of my favorite themes about growing up and discovering who we really are. Terrill uses the technique of creating multiple possible versions of the main characters to show how the choices we make can define our future selves and also how the seeds of our future selves can be found in our present selves if we scratch the surface. She also covers familiar ground about the nature of good versus evil. When do the ends justify the means and when do good intentions create evil acts that can't ever be condoned? The characters are beautifully drawn and the story revolves around a trio of three lead players, although there's a central narrator (Em) and it's her perspective through which the reader experiences the story. It's hard to go into the story in any detail without spoiling the plot which is intricately crafted despite the fast pace. In many ways, the story structure reminds me a little of False Memory by Dan Krokos in terms of the pace, the high stakes for the young characters, and the need to keep a sense of how the same character could turn out differently if subject to different events. However this book, its plot and characters are completely distinct. Terrill's voice stands out as something completely new in the YA sci-fi marketplace and I look forward with interest to what she writes next.
Endless Knight is the second book in Kresley Cole's YA Arcana Chronicles, immediately following the impressive first book, Poison Princess. The series is a YA dystopia with a twist in that the apocalyptic event is caused by the beginning of an ancient game involving characters from the Tarot Cards who have been incarnated (or reincarnated) as teenagers. The game is somewhat akin to the Hunger Games in the sense that these characters are destined to fight to the death and the winner receives immortality ... until the next game. Each character has supernatural powers that match the Tarot card (s)he represents. Thus, the heroine (Evie) as the Empress has power over largely botanical living things and can utilize them as weapons. There's also a huntress, a "fool" who has been destroyed by being privy to everyone else's inner thoughts, a magician, a girl who controls animals - you get the drift. And, of course, the Grim Reaper, who takes on a major role in this second installment.
While I really loved the first book, I was more lukewarm about this one. I think it's because the first one showed us the apocalypse itself. We saw the main characters' lives, hopes and dreams both before and after the apocalypse. This gave the book much more light and shade than the second in the series which basically consists of a bunch of the major players traipsing through the post-apocalyptic wilderness struggling against the elements and a bunch of nasty zombie-like creatures and some cannibals to boot. Evie struggles to re-establish her relationship with bad-boy Jackson who, as a Cajun boy with a good Catholic upbringing, has trouble coming to terms with her supernatural talents. Her task is made more difficult by her growing connection (and the sense of a shared past) with the Grim Reaper himself. Evie also struggles to establish alliances with other tarot characters so she can foil the game and avoid everyone's inevitable (or is it?) battle to the death.
I think the problem for me is that this book is more of a one-note love triangle set against the backdrop of a dystopia than a truly engaging story. The first book set up all sorts of intriguing questions which are more or less put on hold in this book: for example, why the "opening event" (the flash) of this version of the game almost destroyed the whole world while previous games' opening events weren't quite so traumatic; and what's supposed to happen after the game is over. Even Jackson's struggle between religion/morality and his love for Evie isn't as poignant as it seemed it was going to be as set up in the first book. And Evie's struggle to come to terms with who and what she is hits the same notes multiple times. There's very little growth and character development in this book in contrast to the first in the series.
As with all of Cole's books, the writing is very clear, the pace brisk, the characters well drawn and the plot easy to follow. But there's not as much plot as I would have liked here. Parents should also be warned that there's some sex scenes in this book that are pretty racy for a younger audience, certainly more racy than the first book where the main romantic relationship was more noble, chaste and sweet. I'm not prepared to give up on this series just yet, but I do hope there's more depth in the next book and that Cole doesn't rely so much on action sequences and sex scenes to keep the reader engaged.
And today it's back to SECOND books in a trilogy as I've just finished Maria V Snyder's Scent of Magic, the sequel to Touch of Power. Even though I generally love Snyder's writing, I was in two minds going in with this book. I had read mixed reviews. Those that hadn't liked the book as much as the first one had complained that there wasn't much interaction between the hero and heroine (Kerrick and Avry). Unlike the first book, this one is told from alternating points of view of the two characters and they are both off on separate adventures. I have to agree with those who made that criticism. What made the first book really sharp was the relationship between Kerrick and Avry and to some extent also secondary character Belen's relationship with each of them. In this book, all three characters spend most of their time apart and Belen doesn't get much page time at all. The chapters in Avry's perspective are in first person and those in Kerrick's perspective are written in third person, but that wasn't so much a problem for me - it was just that we didn't get much of the leads interacting with each other. The other issue I had with this book is that there seemed to be a lot going on, on one level, but it felt like nothing much was happening on another. While there were dramatic political and military machinations afoot, the book didn't have the same sense of urgency and high stakes as the first one. The characters seemed to be taking the challenges a lot more in their stride here and not reacting as meaningfully as in the first installment.
The story also ended on a cliffhanger which I didn't love, but it wasn't too terrible and won't stop me from picking up the third book when it comes out.
Overall, this was a somewhat disappointing second installment, although it was still very readable and I still managed to tear through it in a couple of days. It just didn't hold my attention to the same extent as the first one. I suspect Snyder will redeem herself in the final installment and I am looking forward to it with interest. I think the problem here is that it is a "second book" that needs to position the characters for the final book so there was too much "positioning" and not enough character and emotion. I'm betting the third one will be stronger.
I love to read books and chat with other authors and artists about their work. Here's where I share my thoughts about writing (the craft and business/legal aspects of the writing life) and my interviews with other authors. Feel free to visit and add comments anytime!