Thursday, May 31, 2012

Cover Lust (34)

It's been a while since I've done a Cover Lust post! Mainly because a lot of covers I've been encountering have inspired in me the opposite of lustful feelings. (But that is another post for another day...) At long last, however, I have found several covers that I quite like.

Let The Sky Fall by Shannon Messenger
(Simon Pulse / March 2013)

You can kind of get a Mara Dyer cover vibe from this one. There's something about the combination of that eerie storm-orange tone and the centered alignment of the words and people that draws my eye to it. What do you guys think?

Son by Lois Lowry
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt / Oct. 2, 2012)

Simple in terms of color scheme, but oh, the texture!

Eve and Adam by Katherine Applegate and Michael Grant
(Feiwel & Friends / Oct. 2, 2012)

I'm finding it hard to explain why I like this one. Maybe it's their way of "modernizing"/"computerizing" the symbolic apple. Maybe it's the almost painful color saturation. There's just something about it that makes me nod approvingly. ('Course, 10 to 1 says the publisher will change the cover for the paperback, as this one is so different from what else is out there. But we'll cross that bridge when we get to it.)

The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey
(Little, Brown / Feb. 1, 2012)

Wow, paper cutouts (or at least the impression of that style)... it makes me feel all tingly inside.

Black City by Elizabeth Richards
(G. P. Putnam's Sons / Nov. 13, 2012)

Again, I'm undecided as to whether or not I really like it, but I appreciate all the attentiveness that must have gone into arranging for that rose to shatter into all those pieces. I think the color scheme and the simple but bold fond choice and placement are alluring as well.

Ironskin by Tina Connolly
(Tor Books / Oct. 2, 2012)

I swear, my heart skipped a beat when I laid eyes upon this cover. Oh my wordless. Oh my. Oh my. Oh my. There's nothing about this cover that I do not drool over. That awesome silvery dress. The swirly smoke. The gloomy background. Even the color of the simply-fonted title, complementing the rest of the cover yet standing out at the same time. It gets even better when you know what the book is about... which is why I highly encourage you to click the Goodreads link and go find out more about it.

Which of these is your favorite? What covers have you seen recently that you like a lot?

Monday, May 28, 2012

Review: Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

Tags: dystopian


Kathy reflects on growing up in Hailsham alongside her friends Ruth and Tommy.


NEVER LET ME GO is like a—for lack of a better way to put it—grown-up version of a YA novel. The elements of a YA are all there: the occasionally angsty musings of an adolescent girl; the complex and manipulative best friend; a boarding school with a dystopian feel (two in one!). As Kathy narrates the story, the writing is fitting for the voice of a woman—not overly smart but not dumb either—reflecting on her adolescent years.

But it is the way that NEVER LETS ME GO treats its premise that marks it as not YA. If this were a YA novel (which it very well easily could’ve been, had Kazuo Ishiguro chosen to go that route), there would most likely have been a dramatic ending in which good triumphs over the Ambiguously Bad and they all live happily ever after. I kind of like that this book didn’t do that. Instead, it follows the gradual but inevitable path of characters whose destinies were laid out for them since before they were born.

Ishiguro uses a strategy that I will call “suspenseful foreshadowing” quite liberally, stringing anecdotes along one after another so that you will feel like you can barely stop for breath, something is always about to happen, about to happen. Not a bad strategy, and I like that it seems to reflect more on Kathy’s writing abilities than Ishiguro’s (and it’s a talented writer who can do that).

NEVER LET ME GO is a subtly brilliant and disturbing novel that would be greatly appreciated by readers who like their books a little more thought-provoking, a little less rose-colored or deus ex machina-ridden.

Vintage / March 14, 2006 / Paperback (reprint) / 288pp. / $15.00

Personal copy.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Waiting on Wednesday (121)

Stormdancer (The Lotus War, Book 1) by Jay Kristoff
The Shima Imperium is verging on the brink of environmental collapse; decimated by clockwork industrialization and the machine-worshippers of the Lotus Guild. The skies are red as blood, land choked with toxic pollution, wildlife ravaged by mass extinctions.

The hunters of the imperial court are charged by their Shōgun to capture a thunder tiger—a legendary beast, half-eagle, half-tiger. But any fool knows thunder tigers have been extinct for more than a century, and the price of failing the Shōgun is death.

Yukiko is a child of the Fox clan, possessed of a hidden gift that would see her executed by the Lotus Guild. Accompanying her father on the Shōgun’s hunt, she finds herself stranded: a young woman alone in Shima’s last wilderness, with only a furious, crippled thunder tiger for company. Even though she can hear his thoughts, even though she saved his life, all she knows for certain is he’d rather see her dead than help her.

But together, the pair will form an indomitable friendship, and rise to challenge the might of an empire. [summary from Goodreads]
So I guess that this has been going around the blogosphere, from which I have been inexcusably absent (in terms of paying attention). When I finally saw it during my 10-something hours a day on Goodreads, I was... intrigued. Intrigued, but wary. After all, no matter how COMPLETELY AND TOTALLY BADASS that cover is (POC! POC! POC!), not to mention that synopsis, I have been led astray by pretty covers and cool-sounding synopses more times than I can count.


--but first, a close-up of the astounding cover (which is actually relevant to my upcoming point):

Jason Chan, I worship you. Please draw the whole world, thanks in advance.

Wuh...wahh... *wipes drool from face* What was I saying? Oh yeah. Whose blurb is that I see in the upper-left corner? Why, only PATRICK MUTHAFUGGIN ROTHFUSS. (I try not to completely curse on this blog.) He's the one who wrote the epic The Name of the Wind, which I reviewed earlier this month and basically invited into bed with me.

I take my author blurbs and author recs seriously now.

So yeah. This book. Major wanting from Steph.

Stormdancer will be released in hardcover from Thomas Dunne Books on September 18, 2012.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Review: The Immortal Rules by Julie Kagawa

Blood of Eden, Book 1

Tags: YA, paranormal, dystopian, vampires


Allison Sekemoto survives as a fierce, unregistered scavenger in a world where master vampires have laid claim over entire cities and keep the humans in line with scheduled blood-letting. However, tragedy strikes, and Allie is forced to become the monster she has always hated. Her creator, Kanin, is a vampire with a dark, mysterious past and many secrets, the biggest one of which drives Allie out of the city, to survive outside on her own.

Allie meets up with a group of humans on their way to find the rumored Eden, an island city untainted by vampires, where humans live as they did before. But Allie can never fully belong among the humans, no matter how nice Zeke is to her. Society will force her to always remember who she is now, and the situation will arise when she needs to acknowledge just how much of her is human…and how much is vampire.


Despite the oversaturation of the market with vampire stories, I’m still constantly on the lookout for something fresh. Julie Kagawa brings a refreshing grittiness to vampires in her new paranormal-dystopian series, starting with THE IMMORTAL RULES, which, while far from perfect, is still an enjoyable read for the forgiving, vampire-crazy reader type.

I like that Kagawa’s vampires don’t glitter. They don’t try desperately to mimic humanity for the sake of a romantic story. They are manipulative and volatile and scary as all hell—and thus, when the uncommon vampire displays some semblance of human emotion or empathy, you know it’s because of the character, not just for the sake of a story.

THE IMMORTAL RULES is also written in a controlled yet smooth-flowing manner, keeping a tight rein on potentially overdramatic situations, and yet moving the story along from event to event, dialogue to dialogue, in a natural-feeling way. It was nearly effortless—at least for me—to become immersed in the story. It’s not fast-paced, per se (to be quite honest, I have no idea how this book managed to run longer than 400 pages; that number of pages was probably not all necessary but it didn’t deter from my reading experience either), but it is easy to read.

I was quite keen on the first part, where Allie learns about being a vampire and begins to see her city in a different light, but where THE IMMORTAL RULES stumbled for me began when Allie met the humans. There is no nice way to say this, because the human characters in this book are such clichés. There’s a mean girl whose hatred of Allie is unfounded—no, really, I’m not even being overly subjective here, the girl heard that Allie came from a city and was all like, “You beeyotch”…uh, wut?—whose main purpose for being in the story seemed to be to make readers even more sympathetic to Allie’s difficult situation…but if you liked her enough in the first part of the book, then you already are sympathetic to her. There’s a preacher-esque leader who speaks in the “destiny-speak” of adults who think they know everything. Even Zeke, as a love interest, was bland in his perfection: the guy is nice to everyone, likes Allie even though she’s sullen and secretive, and—this is my favorite—engages in very lame banter with his male BFF. I’m telling you, the humans come straight out of a CW beach town drama. I found myself groaning and wishing we were back in Allie’s old city (with Kanin, he of the badassery and no-nonsense nature).

I’m not sure how there came to be such a disjuncture between the effortless grittiness of the first part of the book and the forced camaraderie/backstabbing/bravado of the rest. The villain talks like a done-thrice-over villain from a 1940s comic. Science gets pushed to the wayside for the sake of good triumphing over evil (the wet gun, the wet gun!). My best guess is that Kagawa had a great setting and the ideas for sequels and didn’t allow her characters to get from Point A to Point B without a whole lot of interference in characterization from her.

Despite my frustrations with this novel, I would still be interested in reading the sequel (but there better be fewer stupid humans), because I found Allie sympathetic and the vampire-human tension interesting. THE IMMORTAL RULES won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but those who enjoy True Blood over The Vampire Diaries or Twilight might consider giving this one a try.

Similar Authors
Stephenie Meyer
Cynthia Hand
Michelle Hodkin

Cover discussion: Oh my g--MY EYESSSS. THEY BURNNNN. WHAT IS THIS CRAP. First of all, if that's supposed to be a tear, it's in the wrong location. Tears are produced in the inside corner of one's eye. They don't just leak out from wherever the hell you feel like it. Secondly, ALLIE IS VERY CLEARLY ASIAN IN THE BOOK. This girl's only Asian if you have yellow fever and are stoned out of your mind. Ladies and gentlemen, I think we have a strong contender for the Worst YA Cover of 2012.

Harlequin Teen / April 24, 2012 / Hardcover / 512pp. / $18.99

e-galley received for review through publisher and NetGalley.

Monday, May 21, 2012

The Letter Q Giveaway!

How utterly wonderful! Scholastic is giving me the opportunity to give away TWO copies of their recently published anthology, The Letter Q: Queer Writers' Notes to Their Younger Selves. It's hard to imagine a timelier publication, what with all the support (and, sadly, the continuation of archaic opponents) there has been for gay marriage lately. This would be a great book to have in your collection!

About the book:
In this anthology, sixty-four award-winning authors and illustrators such as Michael Cunningham, Amy Bloom, Jacqueline, Woodson, Terrence McNally, Gregory Maguire, David Levithan, and Armistead Maupin, make imaginative journeys into their pasts, telling their younger selves what they would have liked to know then about their lives as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender people. Through stories, in pictures, with bracing honesty, these are words of love, messages of understanding, reasons to hold on for the better future ahead. They will tell you things about your favorite authors that you never knew before. And they will tell you about yourself.

Learn more about The Letter Q on their Facebook page.

Two (2) winners will receive a copy of The Letter Q. Enter using the Rafflecopter form below. This giveaway is open to US mailing addresses only and ends Monday, June 4, 2012. Winners will be notified via email; sorry, I won't be able to announce winners on this page. Good luck!

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Friday, May 18, 2012

Marketing Advice for Self-Published Authors
I very, very, very rarely accept self-published books for review, but it doesn't mean that I'm not open to the idea of reading and reviewing them. It's just that I rarely encounter a self-pubbed book with a presentation that is both professional and appealing. Of course, books published by traditional publishing houses have marketing budgets and people to help market and publicize them, whereas in self-publishing that job falls to the author. There are certain things that I don't see nearly enough of that I'd love for self-pubbed authors to pay attention to when packaging and publicizing their book.
1. The cover matters.

Ten bucks says you know someone who is interested in art, digital art, or photography and would be happy to help create a professional-looking cover for your book. Sure, the cover isn't everything, but it is something, and with so many choices bombarding audiences every day, you want to make sure that your cover doesn't stand out in a bad way. Do simple research on what makes good or bad covers by browsing the bookstore, making a note of what types of font make a cover look cheap or immature, which trends you'd prefer to embrace (or avoid). A little extra time spent on designing your cover will make a difference when it comes to first impressions.

2. Treat your review pitch email for bloggers as you would a query letter to agents.

That's how you're going to gain the respect--and, perhaps more importantly, the attention--of the truly influential bloggers. If your only goal is to hit as many bloggers as you can, then this doesn't matter so much: there are always bloggers who are eager to get their hands on any review copies they are offered. If you aim for more than a simple gushing review with little to no substance, however, write a brief synopsis that's worthy of a jacket summary or query letter, while avoiding making it sound like every other book summary out there; be courteous and genuine in your tone. I receive a lot of review request emails from self-published or small-house authors each week; the professional and polished emails really stand out and make me take notice.
3. Avoid gimmicks.

You're not my chum, you're an intrepid author who has to humble yourself for blogger reviews. Don't assume you know my reading tastes or the fact that your book is worth my time. Remember how, after middle school, you were taught not to start your essays with rhetorical questions? Yeah. That. Don't feign nonchalance, the reverse psychology, "I'm cool but you don't know how cool until you read my book" strategy. Don't talk about yourself in third person or from the point of view of a reviewer or from the mouth of your main character. Seriously! I assume you've read books about writing query letters and perused websites that discuss what works and doesn't work in query letters. (Query Shark is a great site for that.) The same is true for review pitch emails to bloggers.

4. Use social media wisely.

In this day and age, you have so many ways to connect directly to your audience. This is both a blessing and a curse. You can make it a blessing by interacting with the large, varied, and awesomely enthusiastic blogging community on Twitter; by reading, writing, and commenting on others' blog posts. You can turn it into your curse by oversharing, over-pimping your book when people just want to have a nice dialogue about whatever it is they're talking about on Twitter, or responding badly to critical reviews, which are inevitable.
5. Don't abuse the Goodreads friend request function.

Goodreads is a website for readers; it's not a book signing where the author reigns and the mere mortals bask in the author's glorious genius. Few people want to be friends with the Goodreads user who spams everyone with invitations to random events on their blog. I am completely turned off by authors who only use Goodreads as a platform from which to pimp their book, by rating their own book 5 stars (and not rating anything else), by liking all the 5-star reviews of their book, and by friending anyone and everyone they can find. If you want your presence on Goodreads to be a success, use it for what it's intended to be: a place where readers can share their love of books and connect with one another. Save the self-pimping for your author website and those review pitch emails--which, of course, you have meticulously revised so that it won't be immediately ignored by yours truly on the basis of unprofessionalism and redundancy.

6. Personalize--but only to a certain extent.

I no longer respond to review pitch emails that don't include my name or blog name in the email: why should I waste my time replying when you couldn't bother with a personalized salutation for me? At the same time, the over-personalized ones make me uncomfortable as well--e.g., I see you're in China, would you like to read my book in Chinese?--even more so when it's clear that the overpersonalization is formulaic: I'm glad to see that you like [insert] / I see that you want to read [copy and paste from my blog's review policy]. Think of it this way: if all the bloggers to whom you sent review pitch emails were to get together and compare the email you sent them, would you be embarrassed to have them see your personalization formula?

7. Have a writing sample available online somewhere.

Here's one that even traditional publishing houses should really do: make writing samples available online! Post your first chapter, or a snippet of your book, online somewhere, and link to it in your review pitch email. I acknowledge that the email is often not the way to judge your writing, and so I want to have the chance to sample your writing before I decide whether or not to accept your review pitch. (On the other hand, the email is an example of your writing, so you better damn well make sure it's polished.)

The potentials for the self-publishing world are so vast; let's make sure it doesn't get a bad rep. Hopefully I'll see improvements in self-publishing marketing in the future!

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Review: Ordinary Magic by Caitlen Rubino-Bradway

Tags: middle grade, fantasy, family, magic


On Abby Hale’s twelfth birthday, she tests as an “Ord”—a person who has no magical abilities at all. In Abby’s world, to be without magic is almost unheard of, and Abby’s newfound status as an Ord makes life quite difficult for her and her family.

Fortunately, Abby hears about a school for Ords like hers. At school, she continues her general education but also learns how to survive in the world of magic as an Ord. King Stephen’s recent proclamations offer more protection for Ords, but there are always people who prize Ords’ imperviousness to magic, and would do practically anything to get their hands on an Ord…


Oh, oh, oh, oh, oh. “Charming” doesn’t even begin to cover the magical delight that is ORDINARY MAGIC. From a fascinating magical world to laugh-out-loud character interactions, there is nothing ordinary about this book at all!

ORDINARY MAGIC is as good as a Pixar movie in terms of having both kid and adult appeal. Young readers will be fascinated by the colorful, yet familiar, world that Rubino-Bradway creates, replete with magic carpets, boarding schools, and kickass family members.

What makes ORDINARY MAGIC truly extraordinary, however, is its rare quality of appealing to a wide age range of readers. The story zips back and forth with witty banter, and it is the more experienced reader that will be delighted with how Rubino-Bradway mashes together so many almost stereotypical features of magical worlds to create one that is unique and not at all stereotypical. There are a whole bunch of cute romantic undercurrents throughout the story that will make you squeel with suppressed glee.

Readers will surely get a heck of an experience out of ORDINARY MAGIC. This is truly one of the most memorable middle-grade novels I’ve read in recent years.

Similar Authors
Stephanie Burgis
Lindsay Eland

Cover discussion: A delightful, colorful, and approachable cover to match the book's content!

Bloomsbury / May 8, 2012 / Hardcover / 288pp. / $16.99

e-galley received from NetGalley and publisher.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Review: Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein

Tags: YA, historical fiction, World War II, friendship, piloting

Goodreads Summary

I have two weeks. You’ll shoot me at the end no matter what I do.

That’s what you do to enemy agents. It’s what we do to enemy agents. But I look at all the dark and twisted roads ahead and cooperation is the easy way out. Possibly the only way out for a girl caught red-handed doing dirty work like mine — and I will do anything, anything, to avoid SS-Hauptsturmführer von Linden interrogating me again.

He has said that I can have as much paper as I need. All I have to do is cough up everything I can remember about the British War Effort. And I’m going to. But the story of how I came to be here starts with my friend Maddie. She is the pilot who flew me into France — an Allied Invasion of Two.

We are a sensational team.


The less you know about the contents of this book going into it, the better your reading experience will be. For CODE NAME VERITY is a truly exquisite book, one of those rare stories that will touch the heart of every reader who is fortunate enough to encounter it.

CODE NAME VERITY is fueled by the memorable narrative of a feisty, fiery, and fiercely intelligent and loyal character who will shoot her way to the top of your “favorite characters” list. I don’t know about you, but I go absolutely head over heels for characters who are smarter than me, those whose intelligence isn’t shoved into my face with telling sentences, but instead unfolds over the course of the book.

The book winds through flight and war terminology but transcends historical fiction with its narrator’s fun, relatable, and just basically genuine voice. I found myself practically cackling with laughter at the narrator’s numerous antics, even in her terrifying situation. Elizabeth Wein’s writing is brilliant: the pace and style of words mimic the event that the narrator is telling, long or short, dialogue vs. narration, profound vs. charming.

You’ll notice that I didn’t use any names in this review. That’s because, first of all, the war setting makes it unclear whether or not the characters are using their real names, and secondly, part of the enjoyment of this book is figuring out when characters are telling the truth and when they are not. Don’t let that—or my woefully inadequate review—deter you. Read CODE NAME VERITY; I am 99% sure you won’t regret it. Recommended for readers who enjoy historical fiction set in World War II and character-driven novels.

Cover discussion: I... I like it. Yes. I like it. It evokes a little bit of everything about this book--friendship, writing, the bleakness and looming horizon of death.

Hyperion / May 15, 2012 / Hardcover / 352pp. / $16.99

Personal copy / e-galley received from publisher and NetGalley.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Postcard Sharing

My dear bookish friend Chachic asked if I could post pictures of the postcards I acquired recently, and I was only too happy to oblige. I recently acquired these three postcard sets:

The Pixar set is the one I've been pining over for several months before the wonderful boy bought it for me as a surprise present. The Shanghai Now & Then set on the left is from the Foreign Languages Bookstore, and the one on the right is from the Shanghai Art Museum, featuring works of art from the museum's collection.

Inside the beautiful Pixar box is 100 high-quality, colorful postcards, featuring stills or sketches from various Pixar movies!
The first seven cards at the top of the pile:

The Shanghai Now & Then set consists of "paired" postcards, one featuring a site in the present day, the other showing it as it was in the early 20th century.
Here's an example of a pair featuring the Bund, the long avenue alongside the Huangpu River with stunning European-style architecture:

Some of the postcards inside the Shanghai Art Museum set:

And because I had my camera out, here are some shots of the postcards I have received lately from friends, family, and PostCrossing members:

If you're interested in exchanging postcards with me, leave me a comment below or send me an email! I never get tired of sending out postcards. :)

Friday, May 11, 2012

Review: The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

Tags: YA, contemporary, cancer, death


16-year-old cancer patient Hazel has been in and out of hospitals for years. The routine of her daily existence, however, is drastically shaken when she meets Augustus Waters, in remission and more fascinating than any one young man should have the right to be. Hazel struggles with whether or not to let Augustus into her tenuous life, and in the process goes on the trip of her life and just might find someone who makes life worth living.


In this day and age, the line between artist and art is a blurred and confused one. Publishers encourage their authors to have an online presence—and no author has been more successful at that than John Green, with his popular YouTube videos and millions of Nerdfighter followers. It is nearly impossible to separate THE FAULT IN OUR STARS from its hype, should you even want to do that. In between or in spite of the cancerkid plotline, TFiOS is distinctly John Green, and that comes with its pros and cons.

Pros: TFiOS is chock-full of John Green-isms. His characters are, in a sense, himself; he is his characters. Theoretically (or technically) this is true for all writers and their characters, but the public John Green himself is already such a character that Hazel, Augustus, and the others just seem like extensions of his online persona. His words in their mouths. They’re far from being bad words, no, but they’re very recognizably his, and readers who perhaps were trying to appreciate the characters and the writings on their own may find it a slightly more difficult job.

Cons: Having grown up reading John Green—that is, having read each of his novels within a few weeks after they were released—it’s interesting observing the development (or lack thereof) of his subsequent novels. That John Green is good at what he does is no secret. He’s funny, he’s insightful, he’s energetic. But he could’ve done more with Hazel, Augustus, and the others. Instead, his characters and stories seem to stall at “witty” and never progress to “profound.” Events could have been expanded into something bigger and more meaningful; instead, things were rushed or felt simply like vehicles for comic relief.

That being said, I still felt that THE FAULT IN OUR STARS was a great read. I always enjoy reading about smart characters, and there were plenty of moments where I nearly jumped up and ran around to find someone to show a particular quote to. We need more YA like this, this combination of humor and intelligence and interesting thoughts. TFiOS being a cancer book, there are certain things that we readers can expect over the course of the story, which dampened the end effect for me somewhat.

The TFiOS reading experience brings up the interesting dilemma of whether or not we readers should consider our relationship with and knowledge of the author when reading his or her book. How you enjoy THE FAULT IN OUR STARS, then, sort of depends on your context. On its own and compared to nothing, it’s a pretty good book with its funny and sad moments. Compared to YA lit as a whole, it’s rather respectable and reason for encouraging more books of its kind. Compared to The John Green Persona, however, it’s a mere middling extension of what he’s already good at, and doesn’t do anything new.

Doesn’t mean, though, that I didn’t enjoy it.

Similar Authors
Jenny Downham

Cover discussion: John Green just can't catch a break on his book's covers, can he? This looks like someone like a kindergartener loose at the crafts table. I get that sometimes the less complex cover is the more effective one, especially when the story contains so much, but did it really have to include cloud shapes and crayon lines?

Dutton Juvenile / Jan. 10, 2012 / Hardcover / 336pp. / $17.99

Personal copy.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

How To Deal With Thieves

Yesterday morning, on my way from the bus stop to the train station, a thief attempted to unzip my backpack and steal whatever he could get his hands on. Fortunately, he didn't succeed, but last summer, when I had been in China only about a month, I had my wallet stolen from my backpack as I was walking from the train station to the taxi line. (Tangentially, I hate Chinese train stations now; my heartrate gets elevated every time I go near it.)

When my wallet was stolen, what followed was a world of inconvenience, as I scrambled to cancel debit cards and report them as stolen, make new copies of the keys and keycard to my apartment, and basically just inconvenience the hell out of my apartment-mates with my keylessness. This time, of course, all ended well. I even got a look at (the back of) the would-be thief: short, skinny, male, dressed all in black, head down as he watched passersby out of the corner of his eyes. I was in too much of a shock at the moment to do anything except rezip my backpack, but then I spent the rest of the day dreaming up possible things I could have done to him.

Things That Steph Wishes She Could Have Done to the Thief:
  • Trip him as he ran past me up the stairs after I foiled his attempt at theft.
  • Make a sign along the lines of "KICK ME," except this one says "I'M A THIEF," and surreptitiously attach it onto his back.
  • Same thing, except on his forehead, and accompanied by a punch in the face.
  • Making him supremely nervous by stalking him (making sure he knows he's being stalked) and grinning maniacally at him whenever he looks at me.
Vengeance: it feels so good.

Alas, consult the title of that list. Therefore, I will channel my unspent anger into giving (probably unnecessary, for you urbanites) advice on how not to let yourself be a target for thieves in China, which really boils down to one thing:

Avoid using backpacks as much as possible.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Review: Born Wicked by Jessica Spotswood

The Cahill Witch Chronicles, Book 1

Tags: YA, historical fantasy, witches


Every day Cate Cahill worries that today’s the day she and her younger sisters Maura and Tess will be exposed as the witches they are. The Brotherhood, which controls almost every aspect of life in New England, nearly wiped out the Daughters of Persephone several decades ago, and Cate fears for their lives every day.

When a warning note from a stranger and her mother’s diary reveal to Cate a dreadful prophecy that affects them all, Cate finds herself ever more mired in the events and relationships of Chatham: trying to decide what the new friendships of several popular girls in town means, dealing with a suspicious new governess, fending off the advances of her childhood friend, falling for someone completely inappropriate for her, and delving more into her mother’s history and the details of the prophecy. The more Cate explores, the more she realizes that few people are who they seem…and they all seem to want something from her. But what about what she wants for herself?


There’s no good way for me to start this review except to just come straight out and say that this book disappointed me. With a pretty cover and interesting premise but lacking in world-building, solid pacing, and full characterization, BORN WICKED seems to exemplify all that is characteristic of recently published YA that are big hits but technically weak. So what follows is probably going to be more of a what-not-to-do essay for YA writers, and I hope to God that future writers and publishers will take these points into consideration before publishing their books.

So let’s begin by going down that list, I guess. BORN WICKED claims to take place in an alternate history of the world, but unless your copy of the book came with the Editor’s Note saying so, it’s extremely difficult to figure out the “rules” of said world. BORN WICKED is set in an alternate world where New England is religiously oppressed and women dream of someday going to “Dubai” and engaging in freedom of expression. All of these similarities-but-differences beg the question: so where in the course of Earth’s history did things change? Only that is never explained in the book. There is no explanation of any “turning points” that led to this alternate course of history. Instead we simply have proper nouns like Dubai and New London and Mexico and the Indo-China War with no anchors in our own history. We have details like dress shapes and vague descriptions of architecture but the details seem to be a jumbled mix of Victorian, American Colonial, and Asian history.

Look. If you want to write a fantasy, then just make up different names and say that your inspiration came from the Salem Witch Trials. Dune is often said to be an allegory of the Middle East oil crisis, but it’s not set in the Middle East of our world, is it? If you want to write a story that has its roots in our world, then you damn well better explain in the story how your fictional setting came about. People seem to be confused about how to world-build different genres. For the record, science fiction, dystopian, and alternate-history settings require MORE world-building than fantasy, because they are a what-if regarding a possible different future or past track that we could take. Science fiction, dystopian, and alternate-history settings must, if anything, read like contemporary fiction: the world in the story must be completely natural for readers.

I think I’ve said enough about that one subject. Moving on.

Some people think it’s a good thing that the last several chapters of a 300-plus-page book are dramatic and full of startling revelations and villains going BOOM and protagonists agonizing over difficult decisions that they must make in a pinch of a moment. This is not a good thing. It means that the pacing is uneven and that the rest of the book up until the last few dramatic chapters either drag painfully or could have been condensed into a few chapters without losing anything. You don’t sell a 300-plus-page book by saying, oh my goodness, but just wait until you get to page 300. Page 300?! No. The first 300 pages need to be tight. They need to be informative. They need to ensnare the reader. The last few chapters CANNOT justify the first several hundred pages. I don’t find the last few dramatic chapters of a book to ever justify the amount of time I spent dragging myself through the first several hundred pages.

And finally, characterization. Writers, minor characters deserve almost the same amount of thought and development you give to major characters. Consider that, if they were real (which is kind of the point of writing fiction: to make everything feel as real and believable as possible, no matter your intention for doing so), minor characters could and should have the potential to be protagonists of their own stories somewhere out there. All of the characters in BORN WICKED are kind of jumbled together in my mind. No one stands out. The Biggest and Baddest Villains are Completely Opaque-Black Badddd, but nearly everyone else’s natures and backstories seem to be able to be summarized in just two sentences each. If you want your characters—and thus, essentially, your story—to be memorable for readers, this is not the way to go.

BORN WICKED is probably not better or worse than most of the other hyped YA out there, but, coming at the end of a looooong line of other hyped YA that display the same problems, it has, unfortunately, been forced to bear the brunt of my frustration with recent YA. BORN WICKED really isn’t bad, depending on what standards you have. If you’ve found yourself enjoying most of the YA bestsellers of the past year or so, then BORN WICKED will be your cup of tea. If you are looking for standout YA that elevate the genre, though, it may be best not to have too high expectations for this book. I’m going to get off the computer and go hit some walls now.

Similar Authors
Michelle Zink
M. J. Putney
Libba Bray

Cover discussion: This cover is so sexy. I love the eye-popping color detail, the camera focus, and the varying textures of the fonts vs. the picture.

Putnam Juvenile / Feb. 7, 2012 / Hardcover / 272pp. / $17.99

ARC sent by publisher for review.

Monday, May 7, 2012

1933 Shanghai

The architecture of Shanghai is fascinating. You have modern glass-laden high-rises overlooking the red-shingled rooftops and laundry-draped balconies of older housing. Scattered throughout this city are remnants of Shanghai's earlier industrial days, now turned into art galleries, museums, and touristy places.

On Friday, I went to a building that's basically just called 1933. It's a slaughterhouse turned boutique shopping area / performance space / photographer's heaven. Late afternoon was an INCREDIBLE time to go, because there was all this warm golden sunlight splashing on stone, filtering through the nooks and crannies and bends of 1933:

I was particularly fascinated by the way they so artistically illustrated the toilets:

And, like I said, the light, the light!

1933 had these "cow paths" (left side) for--what else?--the cattle (the humans walked up tight staircases that were just wide enough for two skinny people, so that the cattle can't go there) that wound up four stories:

The view from the fifth-floor rooftop. See what I mean about high-rises/older housing? Oh, and that perpetual haze was actually on the light side that day. As in, I could see a relatively blue sky!

There was this empty ballroom-esque space that could fuel a month's worth of fictional imaginings:

This is the circular room in the center at the top, with a see-through glass floor, that could also be transformed into a performance space. It just takes my breath away:

Cool graffiti in the basement:

Next step: return when I buy a DSLR and have people willing to model for me. Can't you just taste the possibilities?

Friday, May 4, 2012

Review: The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss

The Kingkiller Chronicle, Day 1

Tags: fantasy, boarding school, music


At the unassuming and immaculate inn just out of town, you’d never expect to find a contemporary legend in the quiet, red-haired, green-eyed innkeeper. But he is Kvothe, and when he finally tells his true story for the first time, it is one of love and loss, childhood inquisitiveness and hard-knock-life resilience, boarding school pranks and events that will change the course of the world. You don’t believe in magic? You’ve never heard Kvothe tell his own story.


You’ve all felt it at one point or another. The desire. The craving. The urge to go to bed with a book. The new hardcover whose jacket you’ve taken off for safekeeping; falling asleep with one hand splayed over its naked, embossed cover. An old favorite, its edges worn and soft to the touch; it fits perfectly in the space beside you on your wrinkled sheets.

At around 700 pages, THE NAME OF THE WIND is the perfect shape and story to sleep with.

(At least, I assume it would be, as I read this on an e-reader.)

Even without the tangible reassurance of a physical copy, THE NAME OF THE WIND easily slid into its position as my new favorite book. Somewhere in an alternate universe, J. K. Rowling and George R. R. Martin had a literary lovechild, who somehow stowed away on a ship bound for Earth, assumed the human name of Patrick Rothfuss, and, after wandering, bard-like, through many years of higher education, discovered the secret to turning words and ideas into gold.

Remember those sleepaway camps and public library programs you attended when you were young, the ones where the performer would gather you and the other kids round the sleepy campfire or colorful hand-sewn rug? Remember how, at first, you were suspicious of this stranger with the odd hair or scruffy beard or clothing that audibly ruffled whenever he shifted positions? Remember how his voice sounded unfamiliar at first, unlike the dulcet tones of your own parents telling you bedtime stories? And then remember how, before you knew it, you were so far immersed into the story you forgot who was telling it and found yourself leaning forward, hanging on to his every mesmerizing word?

That’s kind of how THE NAME OF THE WIND was for me. The third-person beginning section was a little awkward, as I wasn’t sure how I was supposed to feel about this Kote/Kvothe character. But as Kvothe stretched out his long-unused storytelling muscles and the book eased its loving way into first-person narration, I found myself as entranced as Chronicler and Bast were, sitting in that inn and listening to the never-before-told story of a contemporary legend.

He has a sexy voice, what can I say?

I could mention some minor quibbles I had with the book, like Kvothe’s unfortunate near-“perfect-ness,” or how Denna skirts the edge of geeky-adolescent-boy’s MPDG wet dream, but it totally and completely doesn’t even matter because don’t you know that the greatest artists can break all the rules? THE NAME OF THE WIND is an epic novel, part memoir, part boarding school tale, part wild adventure, and I just know that Kvothe’s world is only going to expand from here in future installments. Recommended for anyone and everyone anywhere—except for maybe that hipster classmate of yours with the I-just-got-out-of-bed-no-really-I-just-did messy hair and black Free Trade coffee perpetually in hand who refuses to read anything that hasn’t won the Nobel, Pulitzer, or Man Booker Prize. But who wants to be reading buddies with them anyway?

Similar Authors
J. K. Rowling
George R. R. Martin
J. R. R. Tolkien

DAW / April 7, 2009 (reprint) / Paperback / 672pp. / $17.00

Personal copy.

Thursday, May 3, 2012


Why, hello there, readers whom I have sadly neglected in favor of pre-scheduled review posts! How are y'all doing?

I, uh, really don't have anything I planned to say in this post. So I'l just start making a list of things that I hope to address in future blog posts, at a time when my brain feels less scrambled and sleep-deprived.

Things That Steph Hopes To Blog About Sometime in the Future
(With Enough Nagging)

  • Changing reading tastes
  • Racism encoded in our society
  • YA tropes that should be blistered out of books forever
  • Plagiarism (oh yeah, touching upon that subject...again)
  • Shanghai restaurants, and how to survive while eating food in China
  • Recent trends in YA book covers
  • Who you'd be if you were a character in a YA novel

Anything you're particularly interested in reading my thoughts on?


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