Wednesday, October 27, 2010

"Waiting On" Wednesday: Swamplandia!

"Waiting On" Wednesday is a weekly event, hosted by Jill at Breaking the Spine, that spotlights upcoming releases that we're eagerly anticipating.

Swamplandia! by Karen Russell
Knopf, February 1, 2011


A triumphant debut novel and follow-up to Karen Russell’s universally acclaimed short story collection St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves.

The Bigtree alligator wrestling dynasty is in decline—think Buddenbrooks set in the Florida Everglades—and Swamplandia!, their island home and gator-wrestling theme park, is swiftly being encroached upon by a sophisticated competitor known as the World of Darkness. Ava, a resourceful but terrified twelve, must manage seventy gators and the vast, inscrutable landscape of her own grief. Her mother, Swamp landia!’s legendary headliner, has just died; her sister is having an affair with a ghost called the Dredgeman; her brother has secretly defected to the World of Darkness in a last-ditch effort to keep their sinking family afloat; and her father, Chief Bigtree, is AWOL. To save her family, Ava must journey on her own to a perilous part of the swamp called the Underworld, a harrowing odyssey from which she emerges a true heroine.

What are you "waiting on" this Wednesday?

Sunday, October 24, 2010

A Twosome of Titles from Two Months Ago

I will catch up with my reviews. I will catch up with my reviews. I will catch up with my reviews.

I've got two YA titles left from August, and I'm thinking I can get away with writing more informal mini-reviews of the two of them. Of course, I suck at writing short reviews, so maybe this isn't the best plan, but here it goes anyway.

The first is Full Tilt by Neal Shusterman. Reading Full Tilt reminded me of staying up all night reading some juicy young adult horror novel by someone like R.L. Stine, except with more of a message. One night when Blake and his brother Quinn are at an amusement park, a mysterious worker in a ball-toss game slips him an invitation to ride, and an address. After a terrifying ride on the Kamikaze roller coaster, Blake's had about enough of thrill rides for one night and has no interest in going. When Blake wakes up and something is wrong with his brother, Blake knows he's got no choice but to check out the amusement park.

What he finds is a sinister game where riders have to ride five terrifying, life threatening rides before dawn to escape the black magical amusement park. Failure means being stuck in the park forever. Success is facing all your very worst fears embedded in what, from the outside, look like ordinary amusement park rides. Despite a niggling sense that the facing your fears angle is all a bit too after-school special, Full Tilt is an addicting book. The ride ideas and the way Blake's fears are woven into them are pretty ingenious, so ingenious that it takes a while even for Blake and, by extension, readers to figure out how exactly they relate, but once it's revealed, it makes sense. It's the first book I've read in a while that has demanded that I stay up late to finish because I just had to know what the next ride would be and if Blake would succeed in saving himself and his brother. If you're looking for a fun pageturner of a book with a serious twist, Full Tilt is definitely one to try.

The last unreviewed book of my long ago August of reading is Shade by Jeri Smith-Ready. I didn't dislike Shade, but I had really hoped to like it more than I did, and I really can't peg why I didn't, other than perhaps my summer love affair with paranormal YA was already starting to wear thin as August started to wind down.

Aura lives in a world where ghosts live right alongside the living, and anyone under sixteen can see them. Aura is one of the first, or perhaps the very first person born after the Shift, and anyone born after the Shift can see and talk to ghosts, while everyone born before it can't. The ghosts are mostly harmless, just searching for the absolution they need to cross over. They are limited in their power, can only visit places they've been in life, and are defeated by BlackBox technology that keeps them out of places they aren't wanted, like, the bathroom, for one. Some ghosts are so angry, though, that their anger gives them unusual dark power, turning them to Shades and making them a dangerous menace.

Aura's life is fairly ordinary, for a post-Shifter, that is. She helps her aunt as an interpreter for ghosts in court cases that will help them get justice and cross over. Her boyfriend Logan is in an Irish rock band. She goes to his shows. She knows she loves him, but she worries about whether she's ready to go all the way with him. Then, on his birthday and the day his band gets signed, the day that should be the best of his young life, tragedy strikes, and Logan turns into an angry purple-hued ghost.

I'll stop there for fear of spoilers, but Shade has all the makings of great paranormal YA. It's got a very detailed and well-thought out world, a love triangle (with budding rockstar boyfriend who's a ghost and a guy with a sexy Scottish accent!), mystery, thrills, and a sympathetic narrator to boot. There's no reason people who love paranormal YA won't love this book. All the elements were there, but somehow, when I read it, it just didn't click for me, which makes me think it was just me and my bad timing for reading it, which wouldn't be the first time such a fate has befallen a book and me. I will say, though, that I absolutely love that Smith-Ready compiled a soundtrack for the book on her website. Music is a huge part of the book, and she saved me the trouble of looking up all the songs she mentions (and I totally would have).

In lieu of my ringing endorsement, I give you...other peoples' ringing endorsements (of which, it seems, these are but a small portion)!

S. Krishna's Books
Presenting Lenore
The Story Siren

(If you're listening, FTC, Full Tilt is from my own collection, and I got Shade at an excellent YA Authors Crossing Over panel at Book Expo America.)

Sunday, October 17, 2010

The Gendarme by Mark T. Mustian

Today on "Books that have been sitting on desk awaiting review for too long" we have Mark T. Mustian's novel, The Gendarme. It also falls into the category of "books I meant to review nearer the release date but failed at mightily." You could say that this is an excercise in measuring the strength of my long term memory, but for our purposes, I think we'll just call it a book review. ;-)

Emmett Conn is 92 years old, or so he thinks. After suffering a head injury during World War I, most of his prior memory was erased. Since then, he fell in love with a nurse who took a special interest in him, emigrated to her home country, and lived out his days working as a plumber and doing his very best to live the American dream and pass it on to his two daughters. Even as he has aged, he has stayed in remarkably good health, that is, until he begins to have seizures which reveal he has a brain tumor. Even more disconcerting, however, are his incredibly detailed dreams, dreams of a past that he's sure could not even be possible. He dreams of a time when his name was not Emmett, but Ahmet Khan, and he was serving as a gendarme escorting captive Armenians out of Turkey. He dreams of an Armenian girl who intoxicates him with her beauty and her mismatched eyes. What he has known about himself for decades tells him that these dreams can't be true, but the dreams are too real to deny.

Mustian expertly weaves together the two narratives, one the current life and the remembered times of Emmett Conn, the other the strikingly realistic dreams of the terrible journey out of Turkey with a band of suffering refugees riddled with merciless cruelty and an unexpected and forbidden love. The present day narration is a seemingly spot-on depiction of an aging widower. He recalls a life he considers to be well-lived, full of hard work and family. He wonders how he failed to pass on his hard-won life and rigid values to his two daughters who seem to care about him but fail to visit and seem all too willing to concede his care to strangers. He even makes wry, almost laugh out loud funny observations about his dearly departed wife's relatives, really the only relatives he himself has left.

The other narration fleshes out the details of an incident that is still a taboo topic for many Turks. It effectively transports us to a different time and a different place. It reveals the raw cruelty and the terrible suffering inflicted by the gendarmes on their captive refugees. At the same time, though, Mustian manages to put a very human face on a tragedy using a present-day narrator we have come to like who is seeing this all anew, but in a way that feels distinctly familiar. Emmett's disbelief and regret at the actions of his former self, Ahmet, casts the events in an atypical and disconcertingly sympathetic light as we even watch Ahmet change as he falls in love with this unusual girl that he never got the chance to apologize to.

The Gendarme is a brave and haunting portrait of yet another wartime tragedy that many would rather see pushed under the rug, but it is also a story of love that transcends even the worst circumstances. The Gendarme is a powerful book that definitely makes Mustian an author to watch.

(I got my ARC of The Gendarme at Book Expo America)

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

A Dose of Random Randomness #6: The Post-Vacation Edition

- Yes, I went on a little vacation. I meant to tell you about it, but then I ran out of time what with all the packing and the preparing and my dog being sick and broken. Er, sorry. I was here...

- We rode the Metro, but we never changed lines at Metro Center *grumble, grumble.* We saw monuments and memorials, browsed museums, and watched the Yankees game at McGinty's (which is not really what people do there on a Saturday night while there is live entertainment, but hey, we really wanted to see the game). We even paid a visit to Kramerbooks where we browsed at length (my friend actually appreciates my book nerdy-ness!). (Un)Fortunately, I was able to behave myself and did not buy a book. It's an awesome place, though, and a place where I would eagerly buy lots of books if I were allowing myself to acquire books. (See below)

- That's because I've been contemplating one of those all-out book acquisition bans that I've never been able to bring myself to try before. My physical TBR is wildly out of control, and it's time I took some decisive action, and it may have to be to go off book acquiring cold turkey for a while. Maybe til the end of the year. Maybe longer. It definitely *should* be longer, but I don't know if I can force myself to do it longer. Getting books makes me happy, so not getting books could plunge me into a deep depression by Christmas, or uh, Thanksgiving. *sigh*

- This is the first time this year that I've been reading more than one book at a time. I'm about halfway through Deb Caletti's The Nature of Jade compliments of my BBC swag bag. I'm loving the animal behavior facts at the beginning of each chapter. But then when Operating Room Confidential by Paul Whang showed up in my mailbox for the Green Books Campaign a paragraph or two became a chapter and a chapter became half the book, and so I'm in the middle of that, too!

- I've only been to D.C. twice this year, but both (unintentionally) were during the 24 hour readathon. So bummed I missed it, but not bummed enough to miss out on a little vacation! I think I need to have my own lonely readathon and get some more books read. (See above about reducing the physical TBR)

- I have less than no interest in all those Pride and Prejudice sequels written by modern day authors, even the ones that everyone seems to love. Are there any types of books that even the most glowing reviews couldn't convince you to read?

Monday, October 4, 2010

City of Tranquil Light by Bo Caldwell

I've reached out my hand to the BEA plunder box (yes, they're still in the box, okay? Where am I supposed to put them?) again and emerged with City of Tranquil Light by Bo Caldwell. Once upon a time, many years ago I read Caldwell's other novel, The Distant Land of My Fathers, and while I don't remember loving it, I remembered liking it and that it left several intact images of 1930s Shanghai lodged in my brain that have ultimately led me to read other books about that time period in Shanghai. With this in mind, it didn't take much of a great leap to know that this book about American missionaries in China during the early 1900s might tickle my fancy, so I lurked by Macmillan's Book Expo America booth at the appointed time and snagged myself a copy. I expected that I'd probably like it, but little did I know that I was stuffing a copy of what would likely be one of my favorite reads, possibly my favorite read of the year, into that overflowing tote bag.

I loved this book in so many ways that it's actually difficult to review. It's difficult to separate the many ways it dug into my own thoughts and ideas and beliefs and touched me emotionally from its value as a book if you're, uhm, well, not me. Nevertheless, I shall try and hopefully convey to you what's so great about this book.

City of Tranquil Light is the story of young Will Kiehn, who, growing up as a Mennonite and a farmer in Oklahoma, hears the unmistakable call of God to serve as a missionary in, of all places, China. It's not something he wants to do or something he's even qualified for, but he can't shake that feeling that the God he loves and knows loves him wants him to go to China. Dreamy, clumsy, and homesick, 21-year-old Will is, at first, terribly ill-suited to his calling, but his mentor, Edward, and Edward's young sister-in-law Katherine, who travels to China for the first time at the same time that Will does, soon see a change being worked in him. Katherine, a nurse, has almost happily abandoned life in the U.S. to serve the Chinese who suffer from many ailments and also suffer from the traditional cures for those ailments. As she and Will work together under Edward and his wife Naomi's tutelage, to help and to share the Gospel with the local Chinese, Will and Katherine find that they are falling in love.

Before long, Katherine and Will are married and embarking on their own journey of mission work together. When they arrive in Kuang P'ing Ch'eng, the City of Tranquil Light, Katherine and Will don't know a soul and only have tenuous grasp on the local culture. Soon, Will is nervously preaching his first sermon to a crowd of Chinese, and Katherine is opening a makeshift clinic to help the sick. Little do they realize that the people with whom they are sharing their faith, will bless them richly as well. City of Tranquil Light is the story of how Will and Katherine become a part of Kuang P'ing Ch'eng's community told in both point of views, with Will's narration coming from his last years as he reflects upon his life and Katherine's view from journal entries written throughout their life in China. Theirs is a story rife with the heartbreaks of living in an inhospitable environment constantly troubled by famine, bandits, and war. It's also a story filled with the joy of seeing God's promises kept to a couple who often has only their faith to sustain them. It's a bittersweet story of missionaries who come to learn that even while they seek to serve their Chinese neighbors, their neighbors have much to offer them as well.

City of Tranquil Light is fiction's answer to all those kooky, ultimately harmful Christians/Christian missionaries found in life and in books who judge, exploit, and damage the people they should be helping, who force their beliefs down the throats of all without regard to their cultures or their everyday circumstances. The Christian faith displayed in Katherine and Will is real, and it's beautiful. It's marked by love and self-sacrifice and forgiveness. Instead of trying to force those around them to change, they focus on helping them, building lasting relationships with them, and freely sharing the faith and the God that sustains them. Katherine and Will's is a relationship that deepens and blossoms as they face the trials of life in China together, and their love story is heartrending. They love each other, they love their God, and the lives they lead speak of God even louder than the words that Will gladly preaches. Of course, their life isn't all sunshine and rainbows, and Katherine and Will and their growing congregation face often unbearable suffering, and crises of faith soon follow, but ultimately their passion for God, His promises and His faithfulness, never allow them to fall.

Bo Caldwell writes in the introduction (in the ARC, at least) that City of Tranquil Light is a novel based on the lives of her own grandparents who served as missionaries in China and Taiwan for many years, a story she always thought would be too dull to be worth telling. Thankfully, she changed her mind, and what results is an honest, genuine but never preachy, cheesy or overblown story of people who gave their lives to the work of spreading the Gospel in the vast mission field of China. It is anything but dull. It is a profoundly moving love letter of faith about a God who is always at work even if it is behind the scenes.

This book has plenty of merit for the Christian and the non-Christian. It's full of memorable characters that you can easily come to care about. It's a detailed rendering of historical China complete with well-researched cultural details. It's a realistic love story and even has elements of suspense as dangerous situations crop up. That said, for a Christian, this book is that much more powerful. I wept more than once at God's grace to these characters and displayed by these characters as well as the love they received in return - grace that I have seen in my own life and in the lives of my friends in one way or another. It accurately and heartbreakingly portrays struggles with faith and unbelief that plague even the most devout, well-meaning believer. It's a beautiful story of God and His faithfulness to His people who He loves beyond reason and sent His Son to save, and by the end I felt blessed for having read it.

Absolutely among my favorite reads this year (and probably beyond!).