I read Birthmarked by Caragh M. O'Brien (Holt, 2010) because Melissa Rabey told me to, and the only thing I trust more than her taste in clothes is her taste in books. Once again, Melissa proves she can pick a winner, something both trendy and stylish.
The premise: Gaia (first syllable is pronounced like "guy," not "gay"), sixteen, is the apprentice to her mother, the sector's midwife. Gaia and her parents are mostly happy with their simple life outside the walled city called the Enclave. Gaia looks forward to learning more about midwifery. Every month, the first three babies born that month are brought, or "advanced," to the Enclave. Gaia doesn't like this ritual but she knows it's the law. She doesn't think that anyone has done much to act against the law until she comes home one night to an interrogation. Her parents are gone, arrested, and she must carry on her mother's work by herself in order to make a living. She can't deal with the lack of information about her parents and finds an underground group that can help her enter the Enclave. While in the Enclave, she performs an extraordinary feat: She delivers a full-term healthy baby from the body of an executed prisoner. Now she is simultaneously hero and criminal. Either way, she knows she has to get to her parents and rescue them from the Enclave. An unexpected ally in the form of an attractive young soldier with his own dark past joins Gaia when she is asked to break a code that could give the Enclave the key to saving many of its residents from genetic diseases.
What you'll love about it: Gaia kicks ass! Okay, well, she kicks ass as much as any other human would in her situation. In the face of danger she stands up for herself even when she's scared. It's not enough for the love interest to be hot; he was to be able to keep up with her. Gaia has an admirable sense of loyalty to those she loves and to the profession of midwifery. Through most of the book, she is hunted and has to think on her feet. She also comes face-to-face with the cruelty behind the Enclave's government. It does upset her, but it also inspires her to learn more about her own past and what her parents' work in their town did that got them arrested. I see more than one Katniss Everdeen comparison in the future.
Most likely to succeed? I know this book has a few things against it in terms of making the big sales: a striking but not bright-on-black cover, straightforward science fiction, no paranormal creatures to romance with. It has quite a lot, though, in its favor: A well-built dystopian world, fascinating and damaged people, and captivating writing that mixes action neatly with world-building. And as we know in the literary world, good writing trumps all. I'd love to see this show up on the Morris Award shortlist, as it definitely shows excellence by a first author.
When I think of the delightful Maryrose Wood, the first book that always comes to mind is Sex Kittens and Horn Dawgs Fall in Love, which I love to recommend when I'm asked about romances appropriate for middle schoolers. So it's hard for me, in a way, to think of Maryrose as a writer of gothic MG. (Old dawg, new tricks, you know the drill.) I need to get over myself, and fast, because this new book of hers is gothic and Snickensian (Snicket+Dickens) and a fabulous read.
The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place: Book I: The Mysterious Howling (Balzer & Bray, March 2010) centers around Miss Penelope Lumley, a recent alumna of the Swanburne Academy for Poor Bright Females. She answers an ad for a governess and is thrilled to find that the job is at a beautiful estate. Sure, the residents are a little oblique as to what the actual governess duties will be, but Penelope can tolerate that. Then she meets the children.
They were raised by wolves. No, really.
Employing a little quick thinking and some animal psychology, Penelope is able to communicate with the children and later gain their trust and love. Not everyone in Ashton Place is as enamored of the children as she is, though. In fact, someone seems to be looking for a reason to send the children back into the wild. Penelope, however, is having none of that, and one should never underestimate the tenacity and smarts of a Swanburne graduate.
There is nothing about this book that isn't pure delight. Penelope's neuroses in the beginning of the book are charming (and all too familiar to me!), and she admirably works through her uncertainties by employing logic and a strong sense of what is right. The children are intelligent and kind at heart without falling into the trap of being overly precocious or smarter than the adults. Wood sets up a mystery at the end of the book because she's evil and now I have to wait for the next book, I mean, a good writer who is building a larger overreaching plot for the Incorrigible Children series. I love the timelessness of the setting and the story. I also think that with its four starred reviews, we could be looking at a Newbery contender.
You know it's been a good BEA when weeks later, you're still unearthing yourself from the galleys. I'm hoping to get out some reviews of at least a few of my BEA haul, but we'll see.
First up: The Duff by Kody Keplinger (Poppy, September 2010). I will knock people down to get to advance copies of anything Poppy prints, and The Duff did not disappoint. I got a copy after hearing Cindy Egan, queen of Poppy, speak about it. Duff, she explained, is an acronym for designated ugly fat friend. The book is narrated by Bianca, who knows her two closest friends are gorgeous but never really thought of herself as fat and ugly until it's pointed out to her by Wesley Rush, a gorgeous sex-crazed egomaniac. Bianca wants nothing to do with Wesley, who insists on calling her Duffy. Too bad for her, they've got killer sexual chemistry. What starts for them as a sex-without-strings relationship evolves into a friendship when Bianca finds that not only is Wesley's life not perfect, but he's happy to listen to her about her own troubles. Then Bianca starts dating with the boy she's crushed on for years. So why is she still pining for Wesley?
What's good: The emotional complexity. Bianca's front of sarcasm hides her insecurities from almost everyone, and her relationship with Wesley doesn't morph into instant awesomeness once she realizes the trouble he hides. The female relationships were very positive, too, even when Bianca and her two BFFs drift apart for a while. Despite feeling like the Duff, Bianca's friends don't do anything that makes her think she's less than beautiful and cherished. I don't love the cover and I thought there were some cliched sentences and phrases that screamed "amateur writer," but the potential of the book to spark discussion far outweighs these blemishes.
I also saw in Variety that McG (producer of one of my favorite shows, Supernatural) is looking to produce the movie version. I think there are definitely cinematic qualities to the book, so I'll be interested to see what happens with it.
A lot of people, now that I'm a confident, outgoing, stylish adult with a killer shoe collection and a makeup box to put Carmindy to shame, believe that I must have been popular in high school. Truth be told, I was neither super popular nor super unpopular. I wasn't the prettiest girl around, but no one turned to stone when they looked at me, either. I had friends, interests, activities, boyfriends from time to time, etc. I was mostly average.
The one thing about me that stood out was my devotion to all things band geek. I was a percussionist (and went on to get a degree in percussion), a drum major for the marching band, briefly sang in the choir, played in the school orchestra and jazz band, did well at Solo and Ensemble, you get the picture. And any high school drummer who devotes time to the instrument eventually hears the musical stylings of Neil Peart and is nothing short of hella impressed. When I first heard a recording of Rush at band camp in seventh grade, I was hooked. I had to run right out and get that recording of A Show of Hands so I could listen again and again to the drum solo track, "The Rhythm Method." Turned out that "The Rhythm Method" was a gateway drug. By the time I was a freshman in high school I had found all of Rush's albums on my own, and if you were the person who wanted to borrow Chronicles from the Niles Public Library that summer, I am really, really sorry.
Rush stayed with me through boyfriends and college and moving and grad school and more boyfriends and a husband and more moving and into my career. Rush was the first concert I ever saw (not saying how old I am, but it was the Counterparts tour, and if you're the person who stole my concert t-shirt out of the laundry at Lawrence, you're going to Hades). I made one of my first friends in college when Jeremy, seeing me walking down the hall in my Rush t-shirt, fell to his knees and said, "A girl Rush fan! A pretty girl Rush fan! Wow." Yes, female Rush fans are few and far between, but look at it this way: I never have to wait in line for the bathroom at their concerts.
Being a Rush fan for over half my life, you can imagine my happiness when I saw that Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage, a documentary following the band's 35+ year career, was coming to theaters nearby for a one night engagement. Here's the trailer:
In short: Three geeky guys form a band, band puts out millions of records, the guys stay geeky, and now that people like Stephen Colbert have a big hand in pop culture, it's cool to like Rush. What keeps Rush relevant? Lyrics that resonate with their intelligent, mostly marginalized audience, and more musical technique in one finger than most bands will gain in a lifetime. The movie also has a 100 percent fresh rating on RottenTomatoes.com. Missed it in the theaters? It'll be available on DVD June 29.
Even if you fall into the camp of "the sound of Geddy Lee's voice makes my ears bleed," consider Netflixing the movie. It's a fascinating look at what Rush has meant to today's pop culture leaders...and what they meant to yesterday's band geeks.
Still alive, just working on a lot of projects that I prefer not to discuss at this time. But!
It's going to be a long, dark rest of 2010 until Solitary: Escape From Furnace 2 comes out in December. To tide you (and me) over, here's an Escape from Furnace LOLCat, made especially by Courtney of Otaku Goddess, who is also a Furnace fan.