15 April 2011


Costume Con is coming up in two weeks, and I'm competing there, so I'll be scarce on here until it's over. Don't worry, though, I'll be back on May 6!

Invasion by Jon S. Lewis

He didn't ask for the job, but now all that stands between us and chaos . . . is Colt.

Colt McAlister was having the summer of his life. He spent his days surfing and his nights playing guitar on the beach with friends. He even met a girl and got his first car. But everything changes when his parents are killed in a freak accident.

He's forced to leave his old life behind and move to Arizona with his grandfather. The only person he knows at the new high school is a childhood friend named Dani. And Oz, a guy he's sure he's never met but who is strangely familiar.

But what if his parents' death wasn't an accident? His mother, and invesitgative reporter, was going to expose a secret mind-control program run by one of the world's largest companies. Before she could release the story, what if agents from Trident Biotech made sure she couldn't go public?

Vowing to uncover truth, Colt gets drawn into a secret world of aliens, shapeshifters, flying motorcycles, and invisible getaways.

The invasion has begun.

This is the first book in the C.H.A.O.S. Series. Even though I am a series completionist I think this will be my last read in this series. I just didn't connect with this book at all. Perhaps it is because I'm not really in the target demographic of pre-teen boys (who I think would eat this up and ask for more), but I found all the technical problems too glaring to enjoy the book. First was the author's problem with starting the book. He jumps us into a "boot camp trial" at the CHAOS Agency where a character named Oz Romero acts as the exposition computer and our lead, Colt, experiences a little bullying for being so small but finds out that he is the seventh son in a history of alien-fighters extending back to his grandfather, who was so legendary there is a popular series of comic books based on his World War II exploits (I'd call Colt a Mary-Sue, but that would imply that there was some kind of female influence in the book which really wasn't present at all). After the military trial we skip to Colt being attacked by a tentacle monster while his parents are killed in a car wreck with a drunk driver. Colt responds to this much like he responded to the bullies at the military tryout: woodenly. He does make best friends with Danielle, who he thinks of as "the little sister he never had" but who is a "quick study" at video games (*insert sarcastic tone* extraordinary, really, since boys are much better at video games than girls, of course). It's ok, though, because she eats salad like a normal girl, and she forces him to explore his feelings (difficult to do in such an emotionless character) and other *girly* emotional things. She's nothing, though, compared to Lily, who has "playful" eyes, "golden waves" of blonde hair, and a "melodic" voice that captivates Colt even before he discovers that she smells like orange blossoms. Meanwhile Colt becomes best friends, again, with Oz (CHAOS wiped his memory of his tryout) and gets tipped off that his parents were killed because his mother was about to write a huge exposee on the Trident company's experiments with mind control.

I think one of the strangest things about this book, though, are the details. It is as if the author felt that he should flesh out the story by making interesting details, but they're so unrelated to what's going on that they read like filler. His male characters get strange names like Colt, Oswaldo, and Aristotle. He wastes half a page on Colt and Danielle arguing over who should pay for gas (he does, of course), and another paragraph on the color of sheet they use to cover up Colt's stolen motorbike/plane (because pink is icky). Some of these details are downright misogynistic. Danielle evades capture in a high-speed car chase but looses the laptop her pursuers were after because she leaves it in her car as she goes for ice-cream (because although she eats salad like a good girl she needs to follow up high-speed pursuit with a triple chocolate sundae). And the most concerning part of being chased by robots to Danielle is worrying about whether or not the robot recorded any close-ups where her makeup is smudged. Even the robots are gendered: the killer ones are male and the servant/waitress ones are obviously "made to look and sound like a female". The cliched sentences even start to contradict themselves. Danielle warns Colt that "if you really care about her like I think you do, you need to protect her" while on the next page Colt thinks to himself that Lily "wasn't wearing a ring on her finger" (because lots of 16 year old girls are?) "that meant she was fair game" to Oz, but Colt is torn because he "didn't want to reduce Lily to some kind of a prize that went to the winner."

The other major issue is Colt's Mary Sue tendencies. He steals a motorbike/plane to escape from trained military assassins and easily outruns them. He outfights a mind-controlled superhuman programmed to capture him. He is the seventh son of a seventh son . . . (okay, the first is true but the second is not - although I wouldn't be surprised). He's also implied to be psychic: he knew *somehow* that Trident was behind his parents' deaths, and that Oz knows more about Trident than he lets on. He has the highest test scores in the history of CHAOS, and he's hand-picked to lead the organization before he even starts attending their academy (and while he's still 16). He has a girl sidekick (the scatterbrained Danielle, mentioned above) who "gets computers" well enough to hack into an alien corporation's top secret network and a guy sidekick who is probably the only person under the age of 20 who knows all about alien planets and has connections on all of them. And, to top it all off, he plays guitar just enough so that he can accompany the future-country-star Lily as she sings in church.

In all, I think this book shows its roots too much. It reads rather like a comic book without the pictures, complete with stilted dialogue and cookie-cutter plotting. It also is way too sexist, even when it is trying not to be (another major problem I have with much of the comic industry). I don't think I could recommend this book to anyone, even the pre-teen boys who might enjoy it, because I would worry that it would give them bad ideas about girls and gender.

I was provided with a free copy of this book through netgalley, however, I felt guilty getting such a book for free and declined the review and bought a copy so that I could do what I thought of as a proper review.

09 April 2011

Tender Morsels by Margo Lanagan

Tender Morsels is a dark and vivid story, set in two worlds and worrying at the border between them. Liga lives modestly in her own personal heaven, a world given to her in exchange for her earthly life. Her two daughters grow up in this soft place, protected from the violence that once harmed their mother. But the real world cannot be denied forever—magicked men and wild bears break down the borders of Liga’s refuge. Now, having known Heaven, how will these three women survive in a world where beauty and brutality lie side by side?

I almost didn't make it through the beginning of this book. It was tough. Really tough. The first 50 or so pages deal with incest, forced abortion, gang rape, infanticide, and suicide. Hefty, icky stuff. I'll be honest, I wasn't sure if the payoff would be worth it. I'm glad I stuck it out, though, because the rest of the book was almost free of these issues and a pretty wonderful story. And yes, it really did need that setup, so I don't even mind the beginning much. Liga is an amazing character. Even as she's shaped by her history of sexual abuse she isn't consumed by it for the entire book, and I like how she grows and changes without loosing sight of who she used to be. It's also pretty great how she always retains a childlike quality that reminds you how sheltered and abused she was as a child and yet she always strives to rise above and do the right thing. Branza and Urdda are well constructed too. They are unique without being shaped by their conception, which is a hard thing to do when dealing with such heavy material. I like how they each have predictable, unique reactions to the events around them. I also really liked the overall moral of the story: no matter how hard your life is you have to grow up and live it sometime or things will be harder for you later. A good lesson for us all to learn.

06 April 2011

Rage by Jackie Morse Kessler

Missy didn’t mean to cut so deep. But after the party where she was humiliated in front of practically everyone in school, who could blame her for wanting some comfort? Sure, most people don’t find comfort in the touch of a razor blade, but Missy always was . . . different.

That’s why she was chosen to become one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: War. Now Missy wields a new kind of blade—a big, brutal sword that can cut down anyone and anything in her path. But it’s with this weapon in her hand that Missy learns something that could help her triumph over her own pain: control.

A unique approach to the topic of self-mutilation, Rage is the story of a young woman who discovers her own power and refuses to be defeated by the world.

As a sequel to Hunger in Kessler's Four Horsemen series, Rage is a perfect counterpoint. Where Hunger was about anorexia, Rage is self-mutilation. This scared me at first, because it would be easy to make a second book by using the first as a template, fleshing out Missy exactly like Lisa, making their issues the same and their coping only slightly different. Instead, though, Kessler chose to craft a new book that was cleverly related to the first and yet still individualized. This master plan works brilliantly. Where Lisa had a loving boyfriend who breaks up with her out of concern for her well-being Missy has a boyfriend who runs from her disease in fear and then sets out to make her life more difficult. And this theme of reflection and distortion between the two books occurs over and over: from Lisa's body image and Missy's cat to the way they take up their offices as horsemen. Best of all, though, is how Missy's disease of self-mutilation is presented. Instead of being "like anorexia, but with knives" like I feared, Rage's story of self-mutilation is unique and really helps you to understand that, while the underlying issue of both self-mutilation and anorexia is control and the lack of it that the victims feel, the symptoms present in a way that is not only unique to self-mutilation but unique to Missy and her issues. And her way of figuring out how to deal with those issues instead of being consumed by the horseman WAR is beautifully unique as well. Missy is not the only good thing about this book, though. DEATH provides a much better counterpoint in this book, serving as less of a source of exposition and more as an obstacle that could help or hinder Missy (although I am somewhat worried about the constant Cobain references with death). FAMINE, too, is fleshed out as a more realistic character, and we see PESTILENCE for the first time. The world of the horsemen makes more sense, and it works as a vehicle to understand more about the pain people feel and how to help them with it.

I was provided with a free copy of this book through netgalley, but I picked up my pre-orderd hard copy this morning!

05 April 2011

A Young Adult Hugo Award?

I know I'm resurrecting a months-old topic, but I'd like to post my view on a pervasive argument against a YA Hugo that I've seen. It has a few permutations: would a YA Hugo attract readers to other Hugo nominees that aren't YA? Would the adult Hugo voters nominate and award stuff that kids and teens want to read? Would a YA Hugo attract younger people to WorldCon? I think this is really all part of the same question: would implementing this category actually get younger people to pay positive attention to us?

My answer is a limited yes. I do think it would help younger people to pay more attention to the Hugos and to WorldCon. Why limited? Because of course it's not going to work on every YA reader who's bought a YA novel in the last year. Nor should it. We don't want all the readers who ever read YA fiction. We want the ones who like science fiction and fantasy. The ones with inquisitive minds who like the imaginative elements of the escapist fiction we find valuable. We want the ones who will grow up to read (and maybe write) novels that will resonate with the Hugo voters in other categories as well as YA book nominations. Yes, I know this eliminates most of the "Twilight-only" and trendy paranormal romance crowd who crave romance over the spec-fic packaging it's in (not that all paranormal romance fans are like this, but I feel that the trending ones have more of a tendency to this). I think that's an ok result. Romance books have their own awards. And, after all, while we would like *more* people, we don't want a singular fan base overwhelming the convention or the voting or changing the tone and atmosphere of the convention. But I do think that in every genre, including the paranormal romance one, there are books worth reading and awarding, and we shouldn't throw all the genre out because of our opinion on one or two popular examples.

As to the related question: would a YA Hugo get more kids to read books? I'll have to answer honestly: probably not. I do think, however, that it will appeal to kids like us. Thinking back to Jr. High and High School, though, my parents never agonized over getting me to read more. In fact, I was specifically told to read less (because SOME people think math class is inappropriate for reading :( Can you imagine!?!). My problem was always finding more stuff to read that was of the type I wanted. My choices in a pre-internet Kansas school and library system were incredibly limited, and even finding names of books to order on ILL was a hard thing. While I think the internet makes this easier, I would still think that a YA Hugo would assist in this matter. Knowing the names of five books a year that are guaranteed to be the type of fiction I liked would have made me feel incredibly happy because I wouldn't have felt so alone in liking the "weird stuff" (as my parents, peers, and librarians made me feel when I asked for sci-fi and fantasy). If it also encouraged librarians in smaller public and school libraries in the middle of Kansas to stock more sci-fi and fantasy it would be an incredible boon. Even if it is adults choosing books for children, it's also increasing the choices available to those children who like the stuff we like. I think that giving kids access to Sci-Fi at a young age can only be a good thing. Giving them access to varied kinds of GOOD Sci-Fi would be even better. As someone who read Battlefield Earth five summers in a row because it was the only Sci-Fi book on the shelf in the public library I certainly would have appreciated it. I think that if a Young Adult Hugo makes a Young Adult librarian pause and go "maybe I should get the Hugo winner instead of another copy of this victorian classic" then we have done what the Hugos should do: increase interest in good Science Fiction.

To the final question, "can adults pick out good YA books in an award system like the Hugos?" I say yes as well. Perhaps it is because I still read YA fiction to a great extent, but I don't think it is a reach for adults to judge YA fiction and find the stuff that is good. Good books resonate. Even as an adult they have the ability to make you remember how it felt to be a teenager going through similar difficult times. I also think it is something that would reach down to the readers, especially the readers who will grow up to be Hugo voters. Yes, we may not identify with the girl who lives to fall in love with a sparkly vampire, but I think that a well-written book about a vampire (sparkles or no) would appeal to adults as well as children. And I believe that the YA books that would appeal to the Hugo voters would be the ones that appeal to children and teens that are "one of us". The people we want to attract to the Hugos and to WorldCons in the future. The ones who can be running WorldCon in 2035 because they were attracted to the scene young. I would also argue that reading habits don't change that much over the years. Think back to what you read as a teenager. If you're a hard-core sci-fi fan I bet it was sci-fi. If you lean more towards fantasy I bet it was fantasy. However, I'd bet it wasn't Harlequin romances that developed your love of science fiction. Sure, themes you identify with the most may have changed from "experiences of a teenage boy" to "experiences of a middle-aged man", but I bet those themes were wrapped up in approximately the same package. If we're looking to attract readers who will want to enjoy the media in all the Hugo award categories then it makes sense to award the stuff that the adults like. In doing so we're self-selecting, and the readers who like what we select will understand that the Hugos are the books that mean something to them, so the people that vote on them might be people who will understand them and their loves.

04 April 2011

Hex Hall by Rachel Hawkins

Three years ago, Sophie Mercer discovered that she was a witch. It's gotten her into a few scrapes. Her non-gifted mother has been as supportive as possible, consulting Sophie's estranged father--an elusive European warlock--only when necessary. But when Sophie attracts too much human attention for a prom-night spell gone horribly wrong, it's her dad who decides her punishment: exile to Hex Hall, an isolated reform school for wayward Prodigium, a.k.a. witches, faeries, and shape shifters.

By the end of her first day among fellow freak-teens, Sophie has quite a scorecard: three powerful enemies who look like supermodels, a futile crush on a gorgeous warlock, a creepy tagalong ghost, and a new roommate who happens to be the most hated person and only vampire on campus. Worse, Sophie soon learns that a mysterious predator has been attacking students, and her only friend is the number-one suspect.

As a series of blood-curdling mysteries starts to converge, Sophie prepares for the biggest threat of all: an ancient secret society determined to destroy all Prodigium, especially her.

I don't know why I waited so long to read this book. It was excellent, and I was disappointed when I had to wait a few weeks for the sequel. I think my favorite part was Sophie's sarcastic tone. It was very true-to-life, sounded like a lot of teenagers I know: a tone that sounds so put-upon, as if the whole world is out to get them, and yet still sounds young and fresh. Hawkins' gift is tone and characterization, because Sophie is not the only spot-on character. I think all the people in the book, from Sophie's mom to the villain, had excellent motivations and personalities that affected the scenes in great and surprising ways. That's not to say that the plotting of the book was bad, far from it. However, it did seem that at points the quality of the plot was sacrificed for a great characterization scene. None of these scenes affected the book incredibly negatively, however, I do think there are a few pacing issues. For me the characters more than made up for it, though. The worldbuilding was also a bonus. Hawkins has created a great parallel world for witches and denizens of magic, and it is totally believable and immersable, even if it is a little anglo-centric and imperial. In all a great book, and more than worth picking up.