Hooray for Cybils Speculative Fiction (Middle Grade)

I am excited and honored to be joining the following fellow bloggers as a member of the Cybils judging panel for Middle Grade Speculative Fiction (Science Fiction and Fantasy) this year.

Rana Bardisi
Reader Noir
@readernoirblog

Maureen Eichner
By Singing Light
@elvenjaneite

Cindy Hannikman
Fantasy Book Critic

Katy Kramp
A Library Mama
@alibrarymama

Brandy Painter
Random Musings of a Bibliophile
@brandymuses

Charlotte Taylor
Charlotte’s Library
@charlotteslib

This assignment means that my fellow panelists and I get to read LOTS of middle grade speculative fiction, probably over 200 books in the genre published between October 15, 2013 and October 15, 2014. And we get to discuss them all via the magic of the internet, and we get to share the best of the best (or the worst of the worst) with readers of our respective blogs. What a privilege.

Nominations for the Cybils in all categories open October 1st at the Cybils website. Get your nominees ready, and check back here for speculative fiction reviews and commentary galore.

Saturday Review of Books: September 20, 2014


“This increasing facility, this breakthrough, reminded him of childhood, of that extraordinary realization that all those black marks on the page could speak, that they were words, language, that they related to what came out of people’s mouths, out of his own mouth. This time round, the black marks of another language began at last to make sense, to leap from obscurity, to tell a story. It was as though you broke into a new world, were handed a passport to another country.” ~Penelope Lively

SatReviewbuttonWelcome to the Saturday Review of Books at Semicolon. Here’s how it usually works. Find a book review on your blog posted sometime during the previous week. The review doesn’t have to be a formal sort of thing. You can link to your thoughts on a particular book, a few ideas inspired by reading the book, your evaluation, quotations, whatever.

Then on Friday night/Saturday, you post a link here at Semicolon in Mr. Linky to the specific post where you’ve written your book review. Don’t link to your main blog page because this kind of link makes it hard to find the book review, especially when people drop in later after you’ve added new content to your blog. In parentheses after your name, add the title of the book you’re reviewing. This addition will help people to find the reviews they’re most interested in reading.

After linking to your own reviews, you can spend as long as you want reading the reviews of other bloggers for the week and adding to your wishlist of books to read. That’s how my own TBR list has become completely unmanageable and the reason I can’t join any reading challenges. I have my own personal challenge that never ends.

The Hero’s Guide to Being an Outlaw by Christopher Healy

Pirates! Pirates! PIRATES!!

OK, now that I’ve got your attention, the new League of Princes book by Christopher Healy, third in the series, does indeed have pirates. It also has all my favorite characters: Liam the Bold, Gustav the Great, Frederic the Fussy, and Duncan the Village Idiot (my names, and I love Duncan the best). The women in the story—Snow, Ella, Lila, and Rapunzel–escape from prison, form their own league (The Ferocious Female Freedom Fighters, or ffff!), and do a lot better than the guys at defeating Evil. There are also a a couple of new female characters who may be my favorites so far: Jerica the Pirate(!) and Val Jeanval, who assaulted a dozen royal soldiers with a stale, stolen baguette.

I must have a somewhat juvenile sense of humor because I really like these ridiculous fractured fairy tales from Christopher Healy, Chronicler of Heroic Shenanigans. These heroes correct each other’s grammar! They argue over who goes first, the guy or the girl when it comes to rescuing or taking out the villain! They are quite easily distracted by definitions of words and questions of grooming and sartorial style. They are persistent and brave, usually in the wrong direction, at the wrong time, and without a good plan. They find a genie and make stupid, useless wishes! They are wanted for murder in thirteen kingdoms! They use lots of exclamation marks!

I like the humor in these books because it’s silly, wordish, and slapstick without descending to gross-out, crude, or nasty. The characters do a lot of misunderstanding each other’s words with farcical results that are just a step or two above Amelia Bedelia. They stumble all over themselves and each other while attempting to be heroes and heroines. They stop to have useless and entertaining discussions about the plural of “mongoose” and about how people fit those tiny model ships into bottles. Read the first two books first: The Hero’s Guide to Saving Your Kingdom and The Hero’s Guide to Storming the Castle. Then, make your way carefully and speedily to The Hero’s Guide to Being an Outlaw, where you will find:

Outlaws! In-laws! Mongeese! (or mongooses?) A fake Royal Foot Massagers Society! ffff! A Djinn from the realm of Baribunda! The legendary Jade Djinn Gem! Jelly, jelly dragonfruit and ginger sandwiches! Captain Euphustus Baileywimple! Sketchy bartenders, salty-tongued sailors, and grime-coated anglers! Pin-striped soldiers! and Pirates! Pirates! PIRATES!! (since it is Talk Like a Pirate Day—Ahoy, matey!)

Minion by John David Anderson

Superheroes have sidekicks, and super-villains have minions. But what happens when a minion meets a sidekick and they both go up against a super-super villain?

Something like that anyway. If you like the style of a hard-boiled detective novel or a comic book novelization, lots of short sentences and sentence fragments, wise guys spouting off with trite aphorisms and odd metaphors spilling all over the place, you’ll enjoy Minion as well as its companion novel Sidekicked. For example:

“There are those moments in your life, you know, when the last screw is tightened and the green light flashes and you realize that your whole worldview is a loose thread dangling from the blanket you’ve wrapped so tight around you. And somebody’s gotten ahold of that one thread and is starting to pull. And most of you wants to tug back. To stay warm. To stay safe. To keep things as they are.”

“I get that same strange feeling that I got the last time we sat together. That feeling of rightness. Not rightness opposite of wrongness. Rightness like putting on a favorite pair of jeans. Maybe Dad’s right. Maybe normal’s not so bad.”

Michael Morn is a minion: he robs banks and helps his dad make black boxes full of technology for the mob. But Michael isn’t really a bad guy. He just finds it difficult to distinguish between “what’s right and what’s best and why there even has to be a difference.”

He’s not alone in his confusion. All of the characters in the book seem to be somewhat morally ambiguous. The police are inept at best and in the pay of the bad guys at the worst. The superhero who comes to town, The Comet, doesn’t want to show his face and fails to acknowledge the help of his sidekick. Michael’s dad is a criminal and a thief, but he sacrifices safety and money for his son on several occasions. Michael himself can’t decide whether he’s a “good guy” or a “bad guy”, and by the end of the book he’s still undecided.

If you can deal with the ambiguity and the comic book writing style, Minion is a good read. It’s upper middle grade, maybe even young adult, with some middle school romance and a few crude words (not many). Plus the aforesaid moral ambiguity.

Parched by Georgia Clark

“Post-apocalyptic fiction is set in a world or civilization after . . . a disaster that ruins the world. Possible apocalyptic disasters include nuclear warfare, pandemic, extraterrestrial attack, impact event, cybernetic revolt, technological singularity, dysgenics, supernatural phenomena, divine judgment, climate change, resource depletion or some other general disaster.”

“A dystopia is a community or society that is in some important way undesirable or frightening. It is the opposite of a utopia. Dystopias are often characterized by dehumanization, totalitarian governments, environmental disaster, or other characteristics associated with a cataclysmic decline in society.”

Obviously there is/can be some overlap here. Hunger Games is dystopian fiction, but it is hinted that some apocalyptic disaster caused the government of Panem to become what it was. Divergent also falls into this in between category, with most of the emphasis being on the uncovering of the dystopia underneath the seeming utopia of future Chicago. Parched is both post-apocalyptic and dystopian fiction.

Disaster: fifty years of climate change leading to world wide drought and a severe shortage of water.

Ostensible utopia that is actually a dystopia: Eden, a city enclosed by white walls and a clear protective dome under which water is kept for the exclusive benefit of the Edenites. Outside Eden is the Badlands where millions live in violent anarchy with a growing shortage of water.

Government: authoritarian, led by a dictator named Gyan and a group of functionaries called the Trust.

Hero/heroine: Sixteen year old Tessendra Rockwood, an Edenite who, because of the tragic accident that killed her mother, has left the protective environment she grew up in to live in the Badlands outside the city.

Rebel group: Kudzu, a group of teens who are determined to change their world by means of non-violent resistance.

Technology: Eden is highly technological with robots called “substitutes” that perform most of the menial labor in the city, and the development of artificial intelligence is on the horizon for the scientists of Eden. Inhabitants of the Badlands exist on the edges of civilization, using primitive low-tech weapons and the cast-off technology of Eden to survive.

I thought Parched was well-written and solid in its world-building and characterizations. I did figure out one of the two major “reveals’ in the book before they were revealed, but I’m not sure every reader would. And sometimes Tess acts sixteen year old dumb while at other times she is brave, strong, and skilled way beyond her years. If the “border crisis” in Parched is meant to mirror and comment on the current border crisis in the U.S., it’s eerily prescient since the book was published in March of this year just before the border crisis began to dominate the news in mid-summer.

There is teen romance in Parched (no triangle, thank goodness), but it’s an interesting and somewhat restrained romance. There is some mild bad language, which could have have been left out, but unfortunately wasn’t. The language, violence, theme of rebellion against a repressive government, and romance make this one firmly YA, although both younger and older readers who like Orleans by Sherri Smith or Paolo Bacigalupi’s Ship Breaker and The Drowned Cities would also like Parched.

Her Royal Spyness by Rhys Bowen

I really enjoyed certain aspects of this murder mystery set in 1932 among the rich, royal, famous, and impecunious of England. It had the flavor of I Capture the Castle mixed with Downton Abbey mixed with a little P.G. Wodehouse. Lady Victoria Georgiana Charlotte Eugenie, daughter of the Duke of Glen Garry and Ranoch, aka Georgie, finds herself unmarried, without funds, and without a real goal in life. She decides to leave the drafty castle in Scotland that belongs to her older brother the duke, aka Binky, and try her luck in London, unchaperoned and completely unsure about her future plans.

“I reminded myself that it is the 1930’s. Young ladies were allowed to do more than embroider, play piano, and paint watercolors. And London was a big city, teeming with opportunities for a bright young person like myself.”

Georgie, in addition to being of the aristocracy, is also a (very)minor royal, thirty-fourth in line to the throne. The title and the relations don’t get her much in the way of money, but she does get a summons from the queen (Queen Mary, wife of George V) and a commission to do a little bit of harmless spying on Prince Edward and the American woman he seems to have become involved with. However, Georgie finds that surviving on one’s own is more difficult than she had imagined, and spying on a prince comes with its own hazards.

Georgie is a wonderful character, intelligent but innocent. I liked her, and I liked seeing her navigate her way through the perils and amusements of a certain segment of London society. However, the minor characters are not so delightful. Georgie takes up with an old school friend whose constant advice is that Georgie must lose the dreadful “burden” of her virginity as soon as possible. Georgie doesn’t take her friend’s advice, but she is sorely tempted. And she never really mounts any kind of a moral or philosophical defense against this promiscuous and shallow idea of what life is all about.

So, I liked the setting, the plot was OK, and the main character is fun to watch, even if she is a little too easily influenced by foolish and unsavory characters. But the constant drumbeat of propaganda in favor of promiscuous, unattached sexual encounters spoiled the rest of the story for me, even though the actual sexual escapades in the book are limited in number and off-stage. I probably won’t read the rest of the series.

A Month of Sundays by Ruth White

“Is it true what Aunt June says, that everything happens for a reason?”

It’s a key question, and A Month of Sundays, true to the times in which we live, does not presume to give an answer to the question. However the book does presume to raise the right question(s), and for that reason alone, Ms. White deserves kudos.

April Garnet Rose and her mother were deserted by Garnet’s dad before she was born, and now when she finds out that her mother is planning to move to Florida to look for work and a place to live, leaving her behind until things get settled, Garnet feels hurt, abandoned, and furious. Garnet doesn’t even know Aunt June, her father’s sister, who has agreed to take care of her in Virginia while her mother is looking for a job. Then, Garnet finds out that Aunt June believes everything happens for a reason and that April Garnet has come to help her in her search for God.

A Month of Sundays is a short book, 168 pages, and it takes place over a short period of time, a little over a month, but a lot happens in that time. Garnet and Aunt June visit a few different churches and a revival service, searching for God.

Aunt June: “You came here to help me find God. I’ve been searching for him for months now. . . I try a different church every week. Yesterday I was at Big Branch, and last week I went to Little Prater. Now I’ll have you to go with me and help.”

They see people speaking in tongues and handling snakes and preaching and singing. Garnet falls for a preacher boy. But Garnet and her aunt stay on the periphery of the church, observers rather than participants, until Aunt June gets a miracle. Then, Garnet experiences her own miracle—and a tragedy.

I thought it was a good little story, presented in a way that respected the beliefs of various sects without endorsing them. Young readers will be left to make up their own minds about snake-handling and speaking in tongues and faith healing and God. It was a little odd that no one really thought they had “found God” by the end of the book, at least not the Christian God of the Bible. But maybe that’s not who they were looking for in the first place.

Ezekiel

Repetitive. Hard. Weird. Seriously depressing. Ultimately hopeful?

The things I’m marking in the book of Ezekiel as I try to read and make sense of it are the phrases and ideas that Ezekiel repeats over and over:

Son of man: God’s nickname for Ezekiel. Almost every time God speaks to Ezekiel, the Lord calls his priest/messenger boy, “Son of man” or “Son of Adam.” Ezekiel’s actual name is only mentioned twice in the book of Ezekiel, in Ezekiel 1:3 and 24:24. The Hebrew expression “son of man” (בן–אדם, ben-‘adam) appears 107 times in the Hebrew Bible. The phrase is used mostly in Ezekiel (93 times). (Wikipedia)

I remember that Jesus called himself the “Son of man.” What does that mean? It means that Ezekiel and Jesus were both human, both sons of Adam. We forget the humanity of Christ sometimes, that God took on human flesh, that he humbled himself, that he was a “son of Adam” as well as son of God. This dual nature as the theologians call it is, of course, a mystery. But it is also an encouragement. God spoke to a son of man (Ezekiel), and God became the Son of Man (Jesus).

The glory of the Lord: My pastor preached about this phrase this morning. In Ezekiel chapter 11 the glory of the Lord departs from His temple and the glory doesn’t return until chapter 43. What is this glory?

John MacArthur, Grace to You: “The glory of the Lord is the expression of God’s person. It is any manifestation of God’s character, any manifestation of His attributes in the world, in the universe is His glory. In other words, the glory is to God what the brightness is to the sun. The glory is to God what wet is to water. The glory is what heat is to fire. In other words, it is the emanation, it is the effulgence, it is the brightness, it is the product of His presence, it is the revelation of Himself. Anytime God discloses Himself, it is the manifestation of His glory.”

And the Apostle John wrote, “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.”
“The everlasting Logos, the Word of God, who was with God and who is God, has now inhabited the creation that He made.”

Thus saith the Lord, or the word of the Lord came to me or declares the Lord: Ezekiel indicates over and over again that God actually spoke to him, audibly and in visions. Again, the word came to Ezekiel, but that’s only a hint of the final Word that was and is to come, the Word become flesh and dwelling among us.

Then you will know (or they will know) that I am the Lord This phrase appears more than sixty times in the book of Ezekiel. God tells the people through Ezekiel that He is planning to bring great calamity and judgment upon them and that then they will know that I AM THAT I AM. Sin separates us from the life and the glory of God, but we will no longer ignore His word or His glory when He brings both judgment and mercy to bear upon our sin.

Then they will know that I AM THAT I AM.

He is there, and He is not silent. ~Francis Schaeffer

And the Egyptians will know that I am the LORD when I stretch out my hand against Egypt and bring the Israelites out of it. Exodus 7:5

The LORD is known by his acts of justice. Psalm 9:16

The true state, both of nations and of individuals, may be correctly estimated by this one rule, whether in their doings they remember or forget God. ~Matthew Henry

For this reason also, God highly exalted Him, and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow, of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and that every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. Philippians 4:9-11

Saturday Review of Books: September 13, 2014


“I divide all readers into two classes: Those who read to remember and those who read to forget.” ~William Phelps

SatReviewbuttonWelcome to the Saturday Review of Books at Semicolon. Here’s how it usually works. Find a book review on your blog posted sometime during the previous week. The review doesn’t have to be a formal sort of thing. You can link to your thoughts on a particular book, a few ideas inspired by reading the book, your evaluation, quotations, whatever.

Then on Friday night/Saturday, you post a link here at Semicolon in Mr. Linky to the specific post where you’ve written your book review. Don’t link to your main blog page because this kind of link makes it hard to find the book review, especially when people drop in later after you’ve added new content to your blog. In parentheses after your name, add the title of the book you’re reviewing. This addition will help people to find the reviews they’re most interested in reading.

After linking to your own reviews, you can spend as long as you want reading the reviews of other bloggers for the week and adding to your wishlist of books to read. That’s how my own TBR list has become completely unmanageable and the reason I can’t join any reading challenges. I have my own personal challenge that never ends.

The Green Glass Sea by Ellen Klages

I didn’t know until the very end of this book what the title “the green glass sea” meant, but it turned out to be an appropriate name for a particularly enjoyable book. The Green Glass Sea was the winner of the 2007 Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction, an award presented to a children’s or young adult book published in English by a U.S. publisher and set in the Americas. I certainly concur with the award committee and with several reviewers who liked the book a lot, including Kelly at Big A Little a, Bookshelves of Doom, and Betsy Bird at Fuse #8 (that last review is where I think I heard about this book and put it on my TBR list several years ago.)

Published in 2006, the book’s setting is World War II, 1943-1945, in Los Alamos, NM. I learned a lot, painlessly, about the Manhattan Project and the background to the development of the atomic bomb just from reading this book. I didn’t know that Los Alamos didn’t even appear on the map during the mid-1940’s, and that the project was such a secret that the scientists who were working on it had to live in a place called the Hill (Los Alamos). In the book kids and adults were told, “Off the Hill, you can’t tell anyone where you live, or who you live with, or what you see or hear.”

The setting and the characters drive the plot in this rather quiet story about an eleven year old girl, Dewe Kerrigan, who comes to I’ve with her scientist father on the Hill. Dewey is delighted to live in this math and science town as she gets to question famous scientists such as Enrico Fermi and Dick Feynman and scour the town dump for cast-offs for her mechanical projects built out of spare parts and ingenuity. However, Dewey’s scientific and mechanical interests make her something of a misfit with the other children in Los Alamos who call her “Screwy Dewy,” and when tragedy strikes, Dewey is not sure where she can turn for help.

The author makes some odd choices about verb tenses. The book starts out in third person, but told from Dewey’s point of view, in present tense, and continues that way for the first 37 pages. Then, it switches to third person, another girl named Suze’s point of view, past tense. The story alternates between Suze’s thoughts and feelings and Dewey’s, staying in past tense. Then later in the book, the author throws in a couple of pages here and there where we’re watching Dewey again, and her story is told in present tense again. I’m not sure what the point was. Maybe someone else can explain?

Such a great story, though. Dewey, and later the other main character, Suze, are very real characters with quirks and changes in attitude and demeanor throughout the book. There is some cursing in the dialogue in the book, which may bother some young readers, but it wasn’t overdone, just enough to be true to the times and the atmosphere. Suze’s mother smokes like a fiend, and the adults all indulge in the occasional beer or other alcoholic beverage of choice, again very true to life. I enjoyed getting to know all of the characters in this book, and I didn’t want it to end. So I’m glad to find out that there’s a sequel called White Sands, Red Menace. Dewey is a young lady I really want to know more.

Oh, and by the way, I loved the ending—very realistic in the characters’ obliviousness to the import of the news they hear on the radio about some place in Japan called Hiroshima.