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Twisted Shorts

Mark,

I know you’ve been raving about Margo Lanagan’s Yellowcake for months, but I just now got around to reading it. Because, you know . . . . short stories. I honestly don’t know why I so resist reading short stories. Over the years I’ve read some wonderful collections of short stories, but somehow it’s just so hard to pick up a collection and start reading.

Anyway, Yellowcake. I have some fairly random thoughts, so I’ll just throw them out there.

As always, I was blown away by Lanagan’s prose style:

“Their legs were stumps and their arms were lumps and their heads were great heavy pots of brains, fitfully electric.”

“The hair was spread, laquering path and and field like a syrup, materials for a thousand gorgeous bird nests.”

And so many more.

You mentioned in particular “Catastrophic Destruction of the Head,” which is based on the Hans Christian Andersen story “The Tinder-box.” I re-read “The Tinder-Box” before I started Lanagan’s story. Interestingly, in reading it, I was struck by the opening lines about the soldier “returning from the wars.” I was thinking about how many fairy tales have that trope–tales like “The Twelve Dancing Princesses” (also Andersen), “The Blue Light,” and others. And then Lanagan went and used that idea of the soldier returning from war to hang the whole twisted story on!  I suppose we could imagine that he had PTSD, or at least was so damaged by war that he did the things he did. But oh, my! What a creepy, twisted, evil, yet compelling story!Yellowcake

In fact, I thought a lot about Lanagan’s source material here–fairy tales, myths, the Bible–and her nods to the original, while putting her own spin on it. For example, the ferryman’s (Charon’s) daughter was called Sharon. The neighbors in “Night of the Firstlings” were Gypsies (Egyptians). It occurred to me that Lanagan’s stories are very much like Rod Serling’s original “Twilight Zone” stories, which I read as a kid–they often start with something familiar and ordinary, and then . . . the twist into the odd, the strange, the almost-supernatural.

Another comment about short stories: I think that one reason they can be difficult is that because of the length and format, it is almost essential to start in the middle of things. There’s no time to build up and explain. So in “The Golden Shroud,” we don’t have the leisure to get the background of the Rapunzel story–we start at the end of the tale and go on from there.

Finally, when you brought up the book originally, one of our commentors wondered if it would be eligible for the Printz since most of the material was originally published elsewhere. I wondered that too, especially when I noticed that “The Point of Roses” was originally published in Black Juice, which actually won a Printz Honor in 2006. However, “The Point of Roses” was not in the American edition (nor the Australian edition, but only the British edition.) Also, I went back and re-read the Printz policies and procedures, and I didn’t see anything about portions of a work being previously published–it just says the book must be published in the US in the year of eligibility. Some of the stories were published in US collections, others were not. I honestly don’t have any idea how the committee will rule on this point. My gut feeling is that the book is eligible–but I’m not the one who will have to make the final decision.

Anyway, thank you for making such a strong push for this book that I finally felt compelled to read it. Some of those stories are going to stick with me for a long time!

– Mom

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Best of 2013 So Far

Mom,

I thought I had a lot to say about your memoirs post, but when I started to try to compose a response, it all boiled down to, “yeah, what you said.”  So, I’m not going to do that.  Instead, with the year almost half over, I thought I’d make a list of my favorite books of the year so far–the ones that may very well be making their way onto our Mock Printz list–in roughly descending order. 

  • 17 & Gone by Nova Ren Suma–I continue to think that this is the best YA book I’ve read this year.  Emotionally and psychologically complex, gorgeously written, and haunting.
  • Yellowcake by Margo Lanagan–Lanagan returns to short stories. Nuff said.
  • Pieces by Chris Lynch
  • Primates: The Fearless Science of Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, and Birute Galdikas by Jim Ottiviani, illustrated by Maris Wicks–I haven’t officially posted anything about this book, though I’ve mentioned it here and there. It’s definitely the best graphic novel for teens I’ve read this year, and my five-year-old daughter loves it.  It takes us through the lives of three of the great primatologists of the 20th century, all tied together by the great Louis Leakey.  The art is fantastic–approachable and distinct, with bold, rich colors.  And the text has just the right balance of humor, biography, science, and adventure.
  • Corner of White by Jaclyn Moriarty–I have serious doubts as to whether this book will last until the end of the year, but it remains one of my great pleasures of the first half.
  • Lincoln’s Grave Robbers by Steve Sheinkin–this one seems to be taking a lot of heat for not being Bomb (as we both assumed it would), but I haven’t read a better nonfiction teen book yet.  Hope to get to more NF in the second half though.

What about . . . ?

I’m taking a pass on such acclaimed titles as Midwinterblood (as you know), Alex Flinn’s Towering, Kiersten White’s Mind Games, and Megan Miranda’s Hysteria.  And I’m still mulling over my reactions to Matthew Quick’s Forgive Me Leonard Peacock, and AS King’s Reality Boy.  I could be convinced that either of those latter two are among the year’s best, but it would take a good argument.

What about you?  Do you have a best of the year so far list?

– Mark

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The Nebulas

Mom,

I was actually just looking at the Nebula nominations a few hours before you put your post up, and I have to say I’m pretty underwhelmed.  Before I get to the Andre Norton award, here’s the list of movie nominations:

Ray Bradbury Award for Outstanding Dramatic Presentation

  • The Avengers
  • Beasts of the Southern Wild
  • The Cabin in the Woods
  • The Hunger Games
  • John Carter
  • Looper

Now, I don’t get out as much as I’d like (two kids and all) and the only one of these I’ve seen is The Hunger Games, but based on previews and reviews you literally could not pay me to watch any of these movies, except maybe Beasts of the Southern Wild.

Anyway, back to books. I’ve read half of the 12 titles the SFWA members nominated, and find it a pretty perplexing list of titles.  Most importantly to me are the omissions: somehow Margo Lanagan is yet again denied a major award for Brides of Rollrock Island.  And besides Brides, I would have dearly liked to have seen Monstrous Beauty and The Drowned Cities on this list, clearly two of the best pieces of SF/Fantasy written last year, and certainly much better than many of the titles that did make the Andre Norton list.  

Seriously, what is it with Every Day?  How is that book getting so much critical affection?  I didn’t finish Railsea, and I know it is very beloved by many, but I found the 2/3 or so that I forced myself through to be pretentious even beyond my (very broad) standards of pretention.  And speaking of BFYA Top Ten titles (which Every Day is), I just read Alethea Kontis’s Enchanted, which made the Andre Norton nominations, because it was on the BFYA list.  While I like it better than Every Day (not saying much), and while I think “Aletha Kontis” is pretty much the greatest name of all time, I found it to be virtually incoherent.  It started off promising enough as a kind of fairy tale mash-up, but as Kontis started having to figure out a real plot for it, and figure out how the magic was going to work in her world, it swiftly went off the rails.  Also, I’m probably the only person in the world who cares about this, but I really dislike it when true fairy tales (meaning folk stories based on an oral tradition) are indiscriminately lumped together the literary tales of H.C. Andersen.  I’m not even too keen on blended the European stories with English tales like “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” and “Jack and the Beanstalk,” but even I realize that’s probably going a bit too far.

On the positive side of things, I am absolutely thrilled to see Holly Black’s Curse Workers series getting some love.  I can’t remember now how I got turned on to this series, but it is really fantastic.  As to whether you need to start with the first one, I’m not totally sure, but I’d say: there’s no real rush to get to Black Heart, so you might as well start at the beginning.  The other two bright spots on the list are The Diviners and Seraphina (although I am beginning to waver on my devotion to these two–I still think both are fabulous books, but whereas a month ago I would have easily classed both above Monstrous Beauty and The Drowned Cities, I’m starting to think that the flaws in them–especially Seraphina–pull them below those two titles). 

So, that’s my cranky take on the Nebulas–basically: where are Lanagan, Fama, and Bacigalupi?  It occurs to me as I finish this post that I may not know something about the eligibility requirements for the award, but I know it is not limited to Americans (which would exclude Lanagan), because I see many Brits on the list of winners.  Is there something else I’m missing?

– Mark

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Back to Printz Thoughts

Mark,

Now that I’ve cleansed my palate and planned my early 2013 reading, and now that all the 2012 books have been published, it’s time to muse again about the Printz Award.

I should state here for the record that I have a fairly spectacularly bad record of predicting Printz winners (I still think E.R. Frank’s America was robbed back in 2003, but hey, what do I know?). Sometimes, after the award is announced, I can look at the book, and look at the committee members, and say, “Yeah, I can see how those particular people chose that particular book,” but as for predicting . . . nah. There have been several years when I hadn’t even heard of the book that won (White Darkness, anyone? Jellicoe Road?). Continue reading

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More to Look for in 2013

Mom,

Great list of titles.  I’m especially excited about the Sheinkin and the Flinn – Rapunzel is one of my favorite fairy tales for retelling because it has so much subtext that repays closer examination.  Looking ahead to 2013 is pretty easy for me, since as I mentioned last week, I’ve already begun reading some 2013 titles. So, before I get to the books I’m looking forward to, here are a few I’ve already read which I strongly recommend:

  • 17 and goneNova Ren Suma, 17 & Gone (Dutton). I was one who adored Suma’s Imaginary Girls, but thought it had some major flaws that kept it from perfection. This time around, Suma fixes her flaws with plot and balance and creates another gorgeously evocative story of grief and loss.
  • Margo Lanagan, Yellowcake (Knopf).  Another story collection from Lanagan. Pay special attention to the story “Catastrophic Disruption of the Head” (great title) which simply demolishes Hans Chrisian Andersen’s (incredibly creepy) fairy tale “The Tinderbox”. “Catastrophic Disruption” is probably the best thing I’ve read all year, and the rest of the collection doesn’t disappoint either.
  • Yellowcake cover[1]Alan Bradley, Speaking From Among the Bones (Delacorte). I think I missed a couple of Flavia de Luce books in there, and I’m not sure that it much matters since they are pretty formulaic, but I love them to death anyway, and this one was no disappointment.
  • Jonathan Kirsch, The Short, Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan: A Boy Avenger, a Nazi Diplomat, and a Murder in Paris (Liveright).  I’m reviewing this one for Adult Books 4 Teens. It’s a riveting account of a young Polish-German Jew who assassinated a low-level Nazi Diplomat in 1938, an assassination which the Nazis used to justify Kristallnacht, just two days later. Ever since, no one has quite known what to make of Grynszpan, and Kirsch does an amazing job of untangled the web of conspiracy theories, gossip, and propaganda that has stuff to Grynszpan for the last 70 years.

And a book just for you:

  • Peter Meltzer, So You Think You Know Baseball?: A Fan’s Guide to the Official Rules (Norton).  An intensely nerdy book which uses real life examples to quiz the reader on the proper application of the rules of baseball. For this baseball fan, it was pure heaven.

The number one book I’m looking forward to that I haven’t read is Laurie Halse Anderson’s Ashes, the conclusion to the Seeds of America trilogy. It was supposed to come out this year, but it appears to have been pushed back to February.

Others:

  • hysteriaMegan Miranda, Hysteria (Walker). This book just got a 5Q/5P VOYA review, and I have an egalley all lined up. Can’t wait.
  • Rainbow Rowell, Eleanor and Park (Griffin). Starred review in PW and 5Q in VOYA. Looks like a straight-forward realistic romance, but apparently a great one.
  • Marcus Sedgwick, Midwinterblood (Roaring Brook). I’ve never completely adored a Sedgwick book, but I greatly admired Revolver, White Crow, and the Book of Dead Days, so I’ll be looking for this one.
  • Cory Doctorow, Homeland (Tor). Surprised you didn’t mention this one, as you’re always a big Doctorow fan.
  • Six_Gun_Snow_White_by_Catherynne_M_Valente-200x311Catherynne Valente. Six-Gun Snow White (Subterraean). PW gave this a star, and it’s written by the always imaginative Valente, but honestly, I’m looking forward to this based on the title alone.

I’m sure there are many more books that I’m dying to read that I haven’t thought of or don’t realize are coming out.  When’s the next Diviners book?  The sequel to Seraphina?  What else are our readers looking forward to?

– Mark

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The Brides of Rollrock Island (plus assorted other books)

Mom,

bridesFirst some thoughts on Brides of Rollrock Island, which, although I have been championing it since I first read it back in July (thank you Netgalley), I realize I have never quite put into words why I love it.

What sets Lanagan apart from every other YA writer out there is her prose style.  You already mentioned some aspects to this (her unique adjectives, for one).  Here are a few phrases that I picked out of the book more or less at random:

“It was a poisonous day. Every now and again the wind would take a rest from pressing us to the wall, and try to pull us off it instead.” (p. 3)

“I wore a dress newly handed down from Tatty, and I felt blowsy and floaty in it, not held together properly” (p. 14)

“A little knifing of fear cut me free” (p. 120)

“Against the green-gray of the sea and the mottle-gray of the stony beach, white Aggie glowed” (p. 230)

There are those adjectives again–a poisonous(!) day, blowsy, white Aggie–but there is also just this sense that Lanagan can do anything she wants with words.  “A knifing of fear”, that personification of the wind, the image of not be “held together properly”.  To me it is just incredible.

But what sets this Lanagan apart from her other books is her incredible sense of narrative.  Even in my beloved Tender Morsels there were parts that dragged and her decision to pin the entire plot to the “Snow White Rose Red” story caused just a few hiccups.  This time, she is working from her own story and she uses her prodigious skill as a short story writer to offer an almost prismatic view of the plot, with six different narrators conveying the story to us.  And who are those six narrators: 1) Misskaella, the “witch” herself, 2) Bet Winch, the daughter of a wife soon to be cast aside in favor of a selkie by the Rollrock men, 3) Dominic Mallet, a man put under the spell of the selkies, 4) Daniel Mallet, a half-human, half-seal boy who understands both sides, 5) Lory Severner a foreigner seeing Rollrock for the first time, and 6) Trudle Callisher, the new “witch”.  Continue reading

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What I’m Reading

Mark,

As always, I have multiple books going at once. I’m trying to catch up on books that people have nominated for the Pyrite Printz. I have already read seven of the ten formal nominations:

  1. Code Name Verity
  2. The Fault in Our Stars
  3. Seraphina
  4. Bomb
  5. Ask the Passengers
  6. The Brides of Rollrock Island
  7. Every Day

I’m about halfway through The Raven Boys on audio. I’m about halfway through The Diviners in print. And I haven’t started The Drowned Cities, although it has been sitting on my nightstand.

Plus, I’m also reading Dodger and listening to A Confusion of Princes. And I have a book you have been championing all year–We’ve Got a Job–also waiting for me to read.

I actually started The Diviners back in July, but then put it aside for other books, and am just now getting back to it. I’m not sure why I didn’t get back to it before now. The interesting thing about it, though, is that I picked it up last night, and I was able to start reading from the place I left off several months ago. The fact that I could remember who the characters were and what was going on actually says a lot about Bray’s ability to create strong characters, plot, and settings. So I really will finish it this time.

Of the seven Pyrite nominees above that I have already read, there are two that I have read twice. I read Code Name Verity once in galley and once on audio, plus I thumbed through the finished copy. I still think this is a very well-written book, but despite all the love it is getting, I’m not convinced it is the best YA book of the year.

Right now, my vote for that goes to The Brides of Rollrock Island, which is the other book I have read twice. And I was even more impressed with it on the second time through.rollrock Her language is beautiful, but not intrusive. I love the way she creates adjectives  and phrases like “tipped-steep” [“Ann Jelly carried me down the cliff path, back and forth in a tipped-steep world.”] and “pearlycoated blubber-bulk” [describing the seals’ bodies]. And there were just wonderful expressions that made me smile, like “But Bee was snatched up too, in time, by Thomas Bolt in his brief moment of half-handsomeness and hers of nearly-beauty.”

The second time through, too, I saw more of the foreshadowings of what was to come, which just add pathos to the story. On page 27 (e-galley), Misskaella is looking at the seals on the beach, and remembers the picture she saw drawn on a sea-wall, of a woman rising from the skin of a seal, and realizes that this is “a history that might be repeated if such as I happened along.” It wasn’t as clear to me the first time through that this had happened before and, even more, could happen again. And it kind of makes the whole scene breathtaking to realize that she realizes what she can do and what it will mean.

And the whole section where Daniel Mallet is deciding about helping the mams go back to the sea: his discussion with his friend about being happy (“Was any of us ever happy, I’d like to know?”) and his decision to move forward:

“I woke in the morning knowing what I must do. I ached all over, from my hair ends in to my heart. I sat up and regarded the different ordinariness of my room and its furnishings, the spills of light on the wall around my window curtain, as I moved around my idea, considering it from all sides. It held good–as far as anything could be thought good on Rollrock, in Potshead. At the very least, it would move us on to a different dreadfulness.”

Oh, my. I  can feel the pain, the sorrow, and yet the determination!

For the other books, I’ve been thinking of rereading Ask the Passengers. This is probably at the moment my other serious contender for best book of the year. I’m probably not going to reread The Fault in Our Stars, although I may page through it. I’m trying not to let the fact of its popularity get in the way of my critical evaluation of it. I definitely won’t reread Every Day, which I thought was clever, but slight. Seraphina and Bomb are among my top five, so I may well take another look at those.

There are books in that middle range that in my opinion are better than some of the top ten: Graffiti Moon, for one. Titanic. graffitiChopsticks and Amelia Anne is Dead and Gone were two of my early favorites, but I don’t think they stand up to Rollrock, Passengers, Seraphina, Bomb, and Graffiti Moon. Or Code Name Verity, for that matter. But far, I’m thinking Dodger has a chance to crack the list.

The Wicked and the Just got write-in votes; I thought it was good, but not top ten.  I thought Small Damages was an excellent book, but again, not top ten. In Darkness, on the other hand, is definitely top ten for me. It is really sticking with me. I noticed you’ve read it now; perhaps we can talk about it.

Seriously, though, I don’t envy the Printz committee. So many great books–and so many of them published near the end of the year! This is the committee that I appointed, and I’m just hoping that by January 28 they’ll still be grateful to me for appointing them, and not angry at me for giving them such a tough job!

And, of course, Morris and Nonfiction finalists will be announced this week or early next week, probably adding more to the pile.

So what is your recommendation for how I should direct my reading for the next month or so?

– Mom

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Mythic Monsters

Mark,

What a great concept! I love the idea of reinvigorating the mythical monsters by reimagining them in a more realistic setting. Another recent YA book that does this well is Necromancing the Stone, Lish McBride’s sequel to Hold Me Closer, Necromancer. While I don’t see this book as a serious Printz contender, it is a great, fun read. In this case, it’s werewolves and were-bears who are the mythical monsters placed in a realistic setting, along with some witches, and, of course, necromancers.

But back to Seraphina for a moment: it occurred to me after I wrote my last post that despite what I said there, Seraphina really is a straight-up fantasy. The world is a medievalish world, which in the fantasy genre mainly means little or no “technology” as we think of it, although there are occasional fantasy elements that seem technological to us (like Orma’s ability to talk with Seraphina through the frolicking kitten on her harpsichord). So why did I think of it as realistic? Well, for one thing, as I said before, the world-building doesn’t get in the way of the story. For another, there are the Vulcanish dragons, who seem more modern, somehow than ordinary fantasy dragons (despite retaining some classic dragon characteristics, like fire-breathing and concern for the hoard). Also, the characters–dragon, human, and half-human–have a modern sensibility to them. Continue reading

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Realistic Fantasy and Mythic Monsters

Mom,

I’ve been thinking about your concept of Realistic Fantasy–which you defined as novels “clearly set in fantasy worlds, i.e., worlds that are not our world. Yet . . . set in worlds that are only a little bit different from our world”– and looking at Someday My Printz Will Come’s list of contendas for the Printz Award this year to try to get some examples.  Here are the contendas I can identify as fantasy of some sort (including Science Fiction):

  • Froi of the Exiles
  • There is No Dog
  • The Drowned Cities
  • Bitterblue
  • The Obsidian Blade
  • Railsea
  • A Confusion of Princes
  • Dust Girl
  • Tiger Lily
  • The Diviners
  • Monstrous Beauty
  • Seraphina
  • The Brides of Rollrock Island
  • Every Day
  • The Girl with the Borrowed Wings
  • Unwholly
  • Raven Boys
  • Days of Blood and Starlight
  • Son

Continue reading

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Margo Lanagan

Mom,

I know you’ve already read this post, but in the spirit of our Australia Week, I thought I should link to my post on The Hub on Margo Lanagan.  I mentioned last week that I was working on this post, examining all of Lanagan’s YA work.  I’ve written three of these Completist posts now, and this one was in some ways the most challenging (mostly because so much of her work hasn’t made it across the ocean), but it was also the most satisfying for me, because I felt like I really started to get my head around what makes Lanagan such an amazing author.

You have any other Australian authors you want to highlight before we leave off this topic?

– Mark

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