Monday, May 26, 2008

The Taker by JM Steele

If Aella Siofra were to read the back of a novel entitled The Taker at the library and find it interesting, then take it home for the process of reading, would she find said novel:

(a) interesting and funny
(b) overblown and depressing
(c) clever and fast-paced, while including the attributes of (a)
(d) dull and unconvincing
Answer: (c)

Carly Biels is a legacy. At least she will be if she makes it into Princeton, the college of her dreams. And why wouldn't she? Her grades are excellent, her father has influence, and her social life is blooming. But all that comes crashing down when her mental block towards test-taking catches up with her in the most important exam of her high-school career. The SAT. After having tanked the most highly regarded college entrance assessment in the United States, Carly is desperate and will do almost anything to restore her position on the fast-track to Princeton. So when she receives a mysterious message signed by a shady figure known only as "The Taker", she agrees to his terms. He'll get her within 150 points of perfect on the exam... if she does exactly what he tells her.

One part of the agreement is that Carly continue to study. That way, it will look less suspicious when her score climbs 500 points in a few short weeks. It seems the only way to carry on is to hire a tutor. EVEN if it's the school geek, Ronald Gross (rhymes with "floss"). EVEN if said school geek is completely in love with her. EVEN if that might call forth complications with her boyfriend, the captain of the school lacrosse team. But through the weeks of interactive learning, Carly discovers there is more to Ron/Ronnie/Ronald than meets the eye. With his help, she is rapidly and visibly improving. But when there is no need for The Taker any longer, getting out of the pact is harder than she had expected. Even impossible. And as the search for The Taker is stepped up, Carly begins to wonder- will the desperation of her past keep her from having any future at all?

I really enjoyed this novel. The plot moved along quickly and in a perfectly plausible fashion. And if you've been through high school (or are still in it), you can completely relate to the emotions and stresses of Carly's every day life. JM Steele encompassed every element of life, including (but not limited to): friends, boy/girlfriends, stress, tests, road blocks, expectations, failure, and secrets. Carly dealt with her problems through humor and quick thinking, although she sometimes found herself saying or doing things she didn't mean to. This was a surprisingly human and excellent part of her character. I really cared about how she would end up, and was crossing my fingers that the repercussions of The Taker (the character) wouldn't be too horrible.

Not to mention the continuous plot twists. The ending was one big firework of ????WHAT???? And that's really all I can say to keep from ruining the story. My one complaint is that Carly stayed with her imbecilic, Neanderthal boyfriend for as long as she did. It made me lose a little bit of respect for her, if it was ever so small an amount. All the same, I would recommend this book as a great beach read, anytime read, or fast paced in-the-car/on-the-bus on the way to school/work read (might take a few of those to finish it - and please don't read and drive at the same time).

6.5 out of 7
for an intriguing and clever YA novel that should be more popular than it is.

Looking for Other JM Steele books and Still in Ending-Shock,

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Siberia by Ann Halam

Sloe is hardened, bitter, and completely alone in the world. But things weren't always that way. Once, she was Rosita- a happy and curious child entranced by the chill and rustic appliances of the Settlement plains. But the final part of that hopeful little girl died when her scientist mother disappeared/was arrested. The woman's sudden missing status catapults 13-year-old Sloe into a world of anger, fear, fairy tale, and a forbidden science her mother has made her swear to protect.

She must make a difficult and arduous journey and escape from a vile academy, the slave trade, a traitorous angel, and everything she has allowed herself to become. Lugging a lab kit and years of Siberia grown shell, Sloe ventures bravely across the ices and into a conspiracy much greater than herself. Can one person protect a world-changing secret, even against the all-seeing eyes of the government? And the fragile creatures growing in her portable chemistry kit... are they beings of science or magic?

I knew by page 150 that there was no longer any hope for me. The plot was complex to a point where it descended into near complete confusion. My brain spent so much time trying to use the descriptions of animals and things and give them manifestation in the real world, that it could barely focus on the struggles of the characters. Due to Sloe's hard exterior, I had nearly given up on her by the page mentioned above and was very pleased to see her soften and learn just shortly after. But it was almost too late. After completing the story, I am satisfied with the character development, but not truly happy.

All the same, there was great redemption to be found in Ann Halam's beautiful writing. I knew that from the Prologue. Her descriptions of "Siberia" are brilliant and the landscape is laid right before you as you read. For this fact I both completed the novel and reconsidered my rating.

4 out of 7 Lightnings. Square in the middle, I believe. And that's where this novel sat. It wasn't bad or all that disappointing. Nor was it excellent and laudable. It was good. Just good.

Pleased? and Still Trying to Comprehend,

Friday, May 16, 2008

An Interview with the Incredibly Fantastic, Chris Wooding

I got to interview one of my favorite authors, Chris Wooding! He has written (in case you haven't read them... if you haven't then I command you to go pillage a bookstore... or plunder a library... honestly, just get them) The Haunting of Alaizabel Cray, Poison, Storm Thief, The Braided Path, and others. I might have commented occasionally.

1.) Where do you get your inspiration for the various, fantastic worlds you have created?

I don't think anyone knows where their inspiration comes from, really. I don't need to go looking for inspiration: it's always there, I just have to channel it into something that I can create. I suppose I was inspired to write because I was so colossally bored throughout most of my childhood that making things up was more interesting than dealing with what was there. I just like the process of putting worlds and stories together and making them work.

2.) Are you ever tempted to write more about your characters like Rail and Moa, or Poison?

Not really. Once I've told the story of a character it's easier to make up a new one than to find something interesting to say about one that already exists. I generally don't rule out sequels but every one I've done so far has been planned from the start.

And I think I can speak for all of us readers when I say we appreciate it. There's nothing quite as unpleasant as an unplanned series... except maybe swallowing a porcupine.

3.) Who were your favorite authors as a kid?

I guess the usual ones: Stephen King, Terry Brooks, Tolkien, that sort of thing. It wasn't till I got older that I started finding books that weren't already bestsellers.

4.) If you could own any vehicle, what would it be?

Hmm. Something fast, with front mounted rocket launchers and a chameleon ability. And it has to have a toaster in it. I like to have English muffins while I'm sowing havoc on the roadways.

Who doesn't?

5.) Do you ever run into fans in weird places?

Usually it happens at conventions. Conventions are weird places, so yes!

6.) Read any good books lately?

Just finished Augusten Burroughs' Dry, and before that it was J.R. Moehringer's (sp?) The Tender Bar, which was brilliant. Both memoirs about alcoholism, oddly. I'm in a memoir-reading phase at the moment. I read so much fantasy and SF as a kid that I find it quite hard to read nowadays unless it's utterly amazing or really original.

7.) *inner artist fights way into interview* Out of all of your books, which one do you think has the best cover?

Of the UK covers, I'd say probably The Weavers Of Saramyr. I really liked that one. Although I really love The Fade too. I just got a Russian copy of Storm Thief that had a superb cover; I wish we'd had it for the UK one!

Argh, I did try to find pictures of those, but I can't tell which ones are which... and now blogger won't let me un-italicize this...

8.) *shamelessly steals question from Aella* Have you ever done anything absurd to procrastinate writing?

Nothing too absurd apart from the usual stuff (you know, talking to sthingys, drinking a thousand cups of coffee and getting the jitters, creating random playlists on iTunes etc). I'm pretty strict with myself when it comes to writing, I don't let myself mess around. If I was your boss, you'd hate me.

9.) Do you have any favorite words?

Abscission is right up there. I'm dying to work it into a book without sounding pretentious.

Wow, that's a good one. You do use some other great words in your books, too *coughmaelstromcough*

10.) Maelstroms, tempests, or whirlwinds?

Maelstroms. I always used to imagine them as a whirlwind of letters and parcels when I was a kid, so I'm quite fond of them.

Excellent choice.

11.) Are you writing anything exciting right now?

I'm about halfway through The Ace Of Skulls, which is the first of a new series of adult SF/fantasy books. It's tons of fun so far. I'm also working on a fledgeling television series with a couple of producers, but that's all hush-hush for the moment.


Alright, well that's another splendid interview. I am so glad that all of these amazing authors can take the time to talk to us. *cries* Thank you!

From the Shadows,

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Death By Bikini by Linda Gerber

Before I begin, I must add a great big HAPPY RELEASE DAY!!!- to The fabulous Linda Gerber, author of the book reviewed here. So everyone be sure to check out her blog for all sorts of release day news (*whisper* and book give-aways). So with no further gilding the lily or further ado... I give you the Maelstrom review of Death By Bikini.

Aphra Behn is your not-so-average teen girl. She lives with her father on a tropical island resort in the middle of nowhere and serves prolific celebrities every day. Everything is on the hush-hush on the island, from new and famous romances to messy breakups. But the arrival of the Smith family is oddest. They don't appear to be registered and have been placed in a villa still under construction. All is not well in paradise. To make matters worse, a visitor has just been discovered on the beach, bikini strings fastened too tight around her neck and stone... cold... dead. Aphra's father may blame the macabre event on the unpredictable surf, but our heroine knows better. And she'll go to great lengths to find out the why of the Smiths, the who of the killer, and the mysterious identity behind the mother she thought was lost.

This novel was a great beach read. The characters were almost as intense as the plot and they all had secrets. From the very beginning, I was as determined as Aphra to figure them out. Aphra was an excellent character, with completely real emotions and a fantastic deductive mind. I don't think I predicted one plot twist through the entire thing and was surprised at every turn. It made my plane ride go by so quickly I could barely comprehend that it was over as we landed. Ms. Gerber's humor is quick and every so often the person sitting next to me would look over with a mask of concern at my outbursts of laughter. My only major complaint on this entire read is that it ended so abruptly and I can not imagine how I will survive the wait until the release of its sequel, Death By Latte (September 4th!). So what are you waiting for? Death By Bikini comes out today! Gogogo! Get a copy!

6.7 for this escape of a suspense novel! KWASHAAA!! zap.

Never Wearing a Two-Piece Again,

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Chasing Windmills by Catherine Ryan Hyde

I'm sure you've all read the sort of book that makes your chest feel tight with unspent breath in light of a character's plight. But this entire novel made me feel like that, tapping into emotions I hadn't used when reading a book for quite some time. And that's only one of the many things that made Chasing Windmills brilliant.

Sebastian's father is deeply disturbed. He has kept his only son fenced in the apartment for years, even going as far as to home school him for protection. But Sebastian has come to an age where he is not to be cowed any longer. He dares to risk the outside world and the friendship of an old woman in the neighborhood, while exploring the Big Apple on the dark subways at night. It's on those very tracks that he meets the sad and beautiful Maria.

Maria has problems of her own (although they exist as a very different sort). She's in her early 20s with two small children, no job, and a boyfriend who has yet to marry her, despite a veeeery long engagement. But when that same boyfriend becomes abusive, she is tested to her limits in order to choose a better life for herself and her children. It takes a horrible injury to bring her to see sense. But even through the pain of her betrayal and ribs she is still mulling over the mysterious and charming boy from the subway. Could he heal her and clear the distorted version of affection she has lived for so long? And if he offers her liberty, all the way across America, will she have the courage to take it?

The protagonists of Catherine Ryan Hyde's novel were beautiful and remarkably layered. I felt the individual pains and challenges of both as strong as their friends and family who, unlike many books, were more than supporting characters in their reactions and depth. Maria's story- a particularly heartbreaking one- brought tears to my eyes on several occasions. Even as someone watching from the outside, it was difficult and yet all too easy to remember the abuses exacted on many every day. Maria was the manifestation of those helpless ones, and held a beacon of hope throughout the story. The constant message of freedom was there and hugely impacted the entire experience.

Another splendid thing about this story (other than Ms. Hyde's positively brilliant writing) was that it was familiar and new at the same time. Like Romeo and Juliet or West Side Story, it was a tale of "star crossed" lovers and the tragedies that pursued them. But presented in such a modern way, the entire story was much easier to follow and just as epic.

I highly recommend this novel with the very rare, very elusive...*Drum roll* 7 out of 7 lightnings! ZIIIIING! SHOOM! CRACK!

In Pursuit of Odyssey,

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

An Interview with the Marvelous Cinda Williams Chima

In case the title didn't spell it out for you, I recently interviewed Cinda Williams Chima, author of The Warrior Heir, The Wizard Heir, and The Dragon Heir (which I can't wait to read). Aella reviewed The Warrior Heir, and I reviewed The Wizard Heir a while ago. Well, I don't want to keep you waiting or anything. Here it is:

I may have inserted occasional comments.

1.) What was your first published piece of writing?

I published an essay about my son’s love of sports in the Plain Dealer (Cleveland newspaper). The first fiction I published was The Warrior Heir!

2.) Did you have a favorite book as a child? Do you have one now?

That's like choosing among my children. I remember loving Old Yeller and Charlotte's Web and Beverly Cleary books when I was really small. My parents had friends with teenage daughters that had shelves and shelves of Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys and I used to borrow them by the sack. Later, I loved Lord of the Rings. That was my first fantasy hit.

*Cheers* Lord of the Rings!

3.) What do you do when you’re not writing?

My husband would say I’m always writing. I read. Sleep. Work my day job (I teach at a university, but I’m leaving to write full time.) I also like to garden and weave and hope to get back to that.

4.) Do you have any favorite quotes?

There’s one from Tolkien that I use in presentations that says that stories grow out of the leafmold of the mind.

5.) Have you ever thought about writing a Wikipedia entry?

No, I don’t really understand how to do that. Someone has posted about Warrior Heir, which is great, but there’s a big spoiler in there and I wish someone would go in and take the spoiler out (and leave the entry). Maybe I’ll figure it out after I leave the day job.

I've often wondered who actually writes the entries for Wikipedia...
6.) Are there any books that you strongly feel people should read?

The Warrior Heir, The Wizard Heir, and the Dragon Heir. 
It’s hard to make a general statement because there are so many books and so many different appetites for reading. True fantasy fanatics should read the LOTR because Tolkien created the archtypes for so much of what we see in fantasy today.

Mmmm, the Lord of the Rings is on my list, too. Right next to Hitchiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams and the Dark Elf Trilogy by R. A. Salvatore.

7.) Out of all the guilds (Enchanter, Sorcerer, Wizard, Warrior) which would you be if you had the choice?

I’d have to be a wizard, because wizards shape magic with words.

8.) Which of your books do you think has the best cover art?

I love them all, but I’d have to say The Dragon Heir. I love dragons.

I would have to agree with you. It's quite fabulous.

9.) Ok, multiple choice time *shamelessly stolen from B*
What should you get when you divide zero by zero?
a) 0 (Zero over anything is zero.)

b) Undefined (Anything over zero is undefined.)

c) 1 (Anything over itself is 1.)
d) 42 (The answer to the ultimate question is 42.)

Excuse me?

I'm confused by that too... but the scifi geek in me screams "42"

10.) Typhoons, hurricanes, or cyclones?

Typhoons. They sound so exotic and dangerous.

11.) Want to tell us a little about The Dragon Heir? Please?

The main viewpoint characters this time are Jason and Madison. But all the other characters have major roles onstage. There is a massive battle scene at the end. One of my favorite characters dies.
Also, if you haven’t seen it, the first chapter is posted to my Website.

In other news, I’ve signed a contract with Hyperion for a new fantasy series, first book tentatively titled The Demon King. There’s some info about that at my site.

I haven't actually seen the first chapter yet. I'll have to go check that out. I'm so glad that Jason is one of the main characters this time, he's amazing.

Well, I would like to extend my thanks for the interview and I hope that everyone enjoyed reading it.

From the Shadows,

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Dingo by Charles de Lint

Charles de Lint paved the road for contemporary/urban fantasy. And his most recent novel, Dingo, received the World Fantasy Award. My only question is...why?

Dingoes are wolf-dogs that are native to Australia. But that is the last piece of trivia on Miguel's mind when the beautiful and sun-swept Lainey walks into his dad's music shop. All Miguel can think about is "why in the world would a girl like this be flirting with a guy like me." His shock is enough to carry him through a whirlwind three days of she likes me-she likes me not mind games. And when his infatuation turns into loyalty he must test the boundaries of his belief to the supernatural world and back. Because Lainey has a sister named Em. And Em is a dog (technically, a dingo). Surprise surprise. Lainey is TOO! *collective gasp from crowd* On the run from a creepy ancient sacrifice requiring their blood, they can only be saved by betrothal. And Miguel is Lainey's lucky man.

Dingo was very short, the sort of book you might overlook as a juvenile read. But it most certainly is not. Random acts of swearing pop up here and there, as well as some crude comments (mostly about women) from a bully protagonist. But those weren't really my major complaints with the story. Miguel and Lainey fell for each other too fast, the action was too quick, and all the history and details seemed to be crushed together to allow for time. To synopsize: Sprintaroundindizzylove... stop/fight ancient creature.... sprintaroundsomemoreindizzylove...The end. I honestly feel that this book could have been much more enjoyable if prolonged and am somewhat disappointed in Mr. de Lint's latest creation.

4.5 out of 7 Lightnings for this light, afternoon read.

Perusing the local pound,

Thursday, May 1, 2008

The White Darkness by Geraldine McCaughrean

Another intense novel. Wow. Two huge impact books with Maya Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings sandwiched in with my reading time between. I am obviously humor starved.

Me: Whatever shall I do?
Inner Aella: Why, write a review and get that cloying tensity outoutout.
Me: AH! Of course!

Sym has an imaginary friend. So what if she's 14 years old? Titus is the only steady thing in her life. She can depend on him and his past to stay the same. For once, Titus, better known as Captain Scott of the Shackleton Expedition, almost made it to the southerly most point of the world. Unfortunately, the endeavor failed and he died, only to return as the comforting (and 125 year old) figment in a broken girl's mind.

So when Sym's genius of an uncle (Victor) proposes a trip to Paris, who is she to turn him down? And when her mother's passport mysteriously disappears, who is Sym to question how it occurred? But there is more than meets the eyes to Victor's day ride into France. Oh no. Soon Sym finds herself on a trip to Antarctica with celebrities, scientists, and a
very attractive Viking-boy. There, her bond with Titus grows and is sorely tested when everything goes awry (or maybe they were meant to go awry *eyebrow raise*). Dead captain or no, she must keep her wits about her in the barren land that has come to be known as the Ice. And even when surrounded by the mirages of ice and sun that blur the edges of her focus, the choice is clear. Fight for her life above all else. Or die.

The White Darkness received the Printz award this year and was completely engrossing on a psychological level. Sym's character is complex, bearing enough originality to maintain my attentions through the entire first-person work. And yet, at the same time, I was struggling to believe her sanity. Why does she not notice her Uncle is a nutter from the very beginning? At times, I was worried that perhaps I wouldn't be able to enjoy her character because she wasn't giving the appearance of being
especially bright. But at the conclusion of the novel, I was happy I had stuck with it. I realized her ignorance is the product of mental blocks she has developed to preserve herself.

Ms. McCaughrean's novel is excellently researched and at times, chilling (no pun intended). Her descriptions of the poles are dark and beautiful and the experiences of the explorers as they succumb to the blinding white of the snow and the killing cold are written realistically. It seems almost as if the author herself had experienced such things in an earlier time.

But if you're looking for a swashbuckling adventure story, this isn't it. An afternoon of quiet time will be needed to absorb every element. And, like what lies beneath the ice of Antarctica, there is much more to the story than meets the eye. Some key elements are easily missed if the reader so much as skips a page. But I don't think that will be a problem. You'll want to read every piece of the incredible description and startling twists.

I bestow upon this novel a
6 out of 7 lightnings (and a prize for longest review)! Expect more reviews than ever from the Maelstrom in the months to come.

In Pursuit of Odyssey,

P.S. Has anyone read any exceptionally humorous books lately? As I said before, my mindset is in a constant shade of gray from the sort of reading material I have been consuming of late. Comment Away!