Monday, October 27, 2014

Book Review: "The Country of Ice Cream Star" by Sandra Newman

I hadn't read anything by Sandra Newman, who has written a number of books thus far in her career. But I picked up her latest, The Country of Ice Cream Star, at the suggestion of a coworker who enjoys the same kind of gritty SpecFic tales of harsh future worlds that I do. My first thought, before I even opened the cover? "Wow. This things is a monster." Which is why I hope you'll excuse the fact that it's taken so long to read the whole thing and prepare this review. But I promise you, despite the length of the book itself, there wasn't a single page that was a chore to read.

Readers know the purpose of the story, the journey that it contains, before the novel itself unfolds. We're told from the very beginning by narrator and protagonist Ice Cream Star that this is the story of how she brought a cure to her people, and all the other people of the world around her. But the true pleasure of this book is in finding out exactly what the significance of that declaration is. In what used to be Massachusetts before an unknown plague either wiped out or drove the general population to a legendary place called Europe, Ice Cream Star and her band of Sengles scrape out a meager existence by raiding old houses and scrounging what they can from the woods. They deal with their allies, avoid their enemies, and once they reach the age of eighteen they die of an unknown sickness called only "posies." It's a harsh, fierce, and beautiful world for Ice Cream, her brother, and the others that make up their clan, and she is just as brilliant and intense as the world around her.

What she thought would be a fairly predestined existence is turned on its head when one day while scrounging around some collapsing houses, she and her clan find a "roo." He's a white man, fully grown, and is brought back to the Sengle camp in a mixture of both curiosity and concern. But soon he integrates himself into daily life in Sengle camp, even learns the rudiments of their language, and the significance of his presence becomes known. Desperate to save her brother Driver from dying of posies, Ice Cream demands to know how it is that the roo, Pasha, lived beyond eighteen. Because of what she discovers as their friendship and trust develop, and through the sudden changes that start to take place in their woods, Ice Cream and her clan are catapulted into a fantastic adventure that I can really only compare with the Lord of the Rings in its scale.

Ice Cream is no hobbit, and there is no Sauron lurking on the eastern seaboard. But there are Russians with powerful guns and a need for child soldiers, a city of Catholics ruled by a santa reina, a race of warriors that guard a walled city called Quantico, and the promise of a cure for posies if only Ice Cream and Pasha can somehow retrieve it from the ships that hold it safely offshore. It sounds like a pretty straight-forward adventure: overcome the adversaries, get to the goal, and live happily ever after. But oh dear reader, this book is so much more than that.

There are an incredible number of things that Ice Cream has to worry about on a daily basis, looking after her Sengle clan and caring for her ailing brother as well as managing allies and deciding what risks are worth taking not just for herself, but for those who depend on her in a world that is reliable only in its difficult circumstances. Sandra Newman takes all these into consideration as Ice Cream tells her story, weaving them into the larger plot in a way that doesn't ignore the larger challenge but also conveys all the things that can distract Ice Cream from her goal. These seemingly small everyday developments, and the relationships that they inform and change, have huge ramifications as the story goes on and Ice Cream must regroup again and again in the face of changing situations.

This story is brilliant. But what's even more brilliant is the way in which it's written. The entire thing, in the voice of Ice Cream Star, is written in a fantastic vernacular that Newman invented for this purpose. It sounds like a cross between AAVE and Haitian creole, and as I mentioned, this enormous book is comprised entirely of this incredible linguistic feat. The language flows so smoothly, it doesn't give the impression that Newman wrote out the text and then translated it into Ice Cream's vernacular; instead it sounds like she's actually thinking in that voice as she writes. Which does mean that it took me a couple of chapters to accustom myself to the pattern of writing, of speech and the expressions that it contained. But oh, what a rewarding experience once my brain really started to engage. The language is like the world around the characters, like Ice Cream herself: stark, honest, with pockets of obscure truths and observations that made me have to stop reading for a few seconds to just appreciate the beauty of what had been said. I think my favorite example from the Advance Reader Copy that I read was something to the effect of "I love you like broken legs." The truth of the description there, the pain and the torture with that feeling of adoration for someone, is just such a simple way of describing an emotion that sometimes even prolific writers fail to communicate well.

I find it interesting that I read this book now, since at Sirens Conference last week I participated in a great discussion of race in SpecFic (and fiction in general). It was observed there that unless a character is specified of belonging to a minority race or ethnicity, they are presumed to be white. Similarly, characters are assumed heterosexual until proven otherwise. In this book, it's pale skin that is an anomaly, pale skin that indicates a minority status and a sense of apart-ness, of otherhood. It's what makes Pasha immediately interesting to and separate from the Sengles, and I as a reader didn't even think to consider the racial implications in this novel until that point was driven home by Ice Cream's descriptions of Pasha's coloring. It's a subtle but profound way of refuting the general trend in a lot of literature, to assume a certain color or race until told otherwise, and the way that Newman accomplished it with her directness and the perspective of the characters is just beautiful.

This is not a book to be missed. It's brutal and wonderful and so very human in the way the characters react to situations they never even imagined. They carry a spark of determination combined with a sense of hopelessness, and through it all is this pervasive feeling that Ice Cream will always keep moving forward simply because she never stopped to think that there was another option to her. With Pasha by her side, and her clan in her heart, Ice Cream is a formidable character with a story to tell that you won't forget. The Country of Ice Cream Star by Sandra Newman will be released on February 10th, and I highly recommend that you mark you calendar and make your pre-orders now at your favorite local, independent bookstore.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Sirens Redux

I just had the privilege of spending the weekend with some of the most amazing women I've ever met. It was Sirens Con 2014, a feminist SpecFic gathering of people from across the literary community, and even for someone like me who spends a lot of time exploring the book industry in general, there were a lot of eye-opening moments that changed not only how I see the feminist presence in SpecFic but also how I see myself fitting into it.

Every year Sirens features a specific theme to explore, and this year it was spirits and hauntings. Attention was focused on how feminism, and the female experience, was represented in writing that features women and ghosts or the ghosts of women, and how they are represented in the literary world. Three keynote speakers gave us three very different perspectives on the issue: Kendare Blake, Rosemary Clement, and Andrea Hairston. Kendare writes primarily in the horror genre, Rosemary is the author of YA Gothic stories of witches and ghosts, and Andrea is a playwright as well as a novelist who turns her focus toward the presence of ancestral spirits and how they connect the past and future. I strongly encourage everyone who reads this blog to check out their work, for their diverse perspectives as well as for their dynamic, spine-tingling writing skills.

In addition to three amazing authors who I haven't read before (but you can of course expect some reviews of their work to appear here shortly) I was able to connect with a wide variety of committed, amazing people from all over the literary community. Some attendees were writers and authors, but others were literary agents, publishing reps, bloggers, marketing experts, and other professionals who somehow intersect with the book world. The writers were in all stages of publication, from having their first book deals to searching for agents to just starting on their work, which was encouraging to me personally as someone who sometimes feels like I'm falling behind on what I really want to do full-time someday: write. Having a support network like that, and knowing that there are others out there around the country and the world working toward the same goals as you and helping to encourage you to make some headway, even just a page a day, is a powerful motivation and a true gift.

While it is true that there are some diverse female writers and characters in the genre, the other idea that I really brought home with me (aside from a truckload of inspiration) is that SpecFic as a whole is still woefully behind in representing people of different races, ethnicities, genders, sexual orientations, and creeds, both regarding minority authors and characters who come from more diverse backgrounds. Most of the authors who are making inroads regarding this discrepancy between the people around us and the people in books are women, but this important challenge remains: how to bring readers into contact with the works that will help to broaden their perspectives and the horizon of both SpecFic and writing in general.

After meeting so many amazing individuals and learning so much about the feminist movement in literature, SpecFic specifically, I'm both overwhelmed by the enormity of the challenge facing women and minority writers and inspired by the fact that there is a discussion going on about this, that there is a movement to help subvert writing that really doesn't represent the rainbow of humanity around us. I know that there are a lot of people who will disagree with the idea that women and minorities are still underrepresented in SpecFic (and literature as a whole). And that's great; dissenting opinions are what help to open the discussion. But I will point you toward the recent death threats made to female and minority gamers as a well-publicized example that within geekdom, literary as well as technological, we as humanity still have many ways in which we need to consider where we stand regarding equal representation.

I'm open to hearing other opinions about women in fantasy literature: Do you think we're accurately represented? What about minority characters or people with nontraditional genders and sexual orientations? How can we broaden our horizons in literature by encouraging diversity in readers, writers, and the rest of the literary community as a whole?

Friday, October 17, 2014

Sirens Conference 2014

This weekend I'm connecting with authors, writers, publishing reps and other book lovers at Sirens Conference, so check back in a week for my next book review. (Hint: if you like collapsed societies and creative voice, it'll be worth the wait.)

This is my first year at Sirens, which was recommended to me by author/blogger Rachel Ann Hanley, and so far it's a fabulous combination of writing approaches, the industry, and fandom. It's a perfect combination of events that has me rubbing elbows with some of my favorite contemporary authors, and I know that I'll be planning to return next year!

Monday, October 13, 2014

Hotel-Based Novels

Janet Leigh in Psycho

The big winter holidays are fast approaching, and if you're more organized than I, you may already be considering your holiday travel plans. Sometimes it's nice to stay with family and friends, but on occasion we all find ourselves booking a hotel room. Most of the time, you know what you're getting into when  you make your reservations. Sometimes, though, you may be in for a surprise. In that spirit, here's a selection of novels that take place in, revolve around, or otherwise concern hotels and the people who stay there. Pick one up to read while you're away, and safe travels!

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Book Review: "Clariel: The Lost Abhorsen" by Garth Nix

Middle school was around the time when I distinctly remember beginning to develop my own strong reading preferences. Almost immediately I favored darker stories of adventure and epic quests, preferences that have stuck with me to the present day. During this time of literary exploration and discovering what it was that I truly enjoyed reading, I discovered the Abhorsen Chronicles by Garth Nix and fell instantly, irrevocably in love with the characters that he created and the dark, beautiful, complex world that they inhabited. Protagonists Sabriel and Lirael were the first book characters to teach me that knowledge could in fact be power, that book-smarts can be just as useful to heroes as a weapon can, So you can imagine my delight when I heard a few months ago that author Garth Nix was returning to the Old Kingdom with another tale of the Charter and the Abhorsens.

Clariel: The Lost Abhorsen takes place 600 years before Sabriel's time, in an age when Charter magic has been deemed unfashionable and is forgotten by most, even the Abhorsen. All young Clariel wants to do is join the Borderers, who patrol the Great Forest and care for its creatures, to be alone under the trees. But instead her mother, an estranged relative of the Abhorsen and a renowned goldsmith, moves the whole family to the capitol city of Belisaere. Forced into the deceptive world of politics, where everyone has an ulterior motive and merchant guilds have taken over governance of the city, Clariel is miserable. She's made to attend a finishing school designed to polish her for an advantageous marriage, but it's there that she meets Bel, another member of the Abhorsen's extended family. Together they uncover plots against the Crown and face dangerous Free Magic creatures in pursuit of answers, all while Clariel keeps trying to get home to the Great Forest and live a quiet life there alone.

This installation of the Abhorsen Chronicles focuses lesson the Abhorsens themselves, less on Death (in fact nobody enters into death in the entire novel), and more on the history of the Old Kingdom and Free Magic workings. It's an exciting look into a part of the Old Kingdom when the Charter was mostly forgotten, when the importance of major bloodlines like royalty and the Clayr was held in low regard and the responsibilities of the king and the Abhorsen were left by the wayside. By putting Clariel, Bel and their allies in a version of the world without everyday magic, Nix was able to emphasize and explore the hereditary qualities of the Abhorsen's family, like the succession of the title of Abhorsen and the inheritance of the berserk rage that runs in the royal family.

Clariel's desire to live alone, and her lack of interest in being with other people either romantically or platonically is treated as an unusual but perfectly acceptable approach to life, preserving Nix's great track record of demonstrating partnerships instead of romantic obsessions in his stories. Following one's calling is held in high esteem, but in this novel in particular the author emphasizes the danger of blindly following what you want without regard for the people who are around you and who sometimes depend on you. This is especially apparent not only with Clariel's struggles to control her rage, but also with her attraction to Free Magic and the raw force that it represents. Bel, with his overwhelming sense of duty in the face of his uncle's shirking his duties as Abhorsen, is great as both a supporting and a contrasting character to Clariel as she attempts to find where she belongs and the world and where her allegiances actually lie.

Of course Mogget, everyone's favorite Free Magic cat creature, plays a part in this story. I'll admit, I was hoping to learn more about his origins and how he came to be bound by the Abhorsen. But alas, I'll have to keep waiting with baited breath to hear that tale in its entirety. Readers are, however, treated to a return to Abhorsen House, paperwing flights, Charter sendings and, as I mentioned, a trip to Belisaere.

If you've been pining for the Old Kingdom, it's time to celebrate! Clariel: The Lost Abhorsen by Garth Nix will be released on the 14th of this month. Refresh your good memories of Nix's wonderful writing by reading Sabriel, Lirael and Abhorsen (yes, yes, Across the Wall too) before diving into the new adventure.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Randall Munroe and "xkcd" logo

I love reading Speculative Fiction. If I didn't, it's very unlikely that I would be able to sustain a blog dedicated to reading it, after all. But in addition to the things that are fantastical, I enjoy learning about new breakthroughs in science. Randall Munroe likes science too, and is far more qualified to talk about it than I am. He's the author of my favorite webcomic, the immensely popular "xkcd," which is described as "A webcomic of romance, sarcasm, math, and language."

Munroe and "xkcd" make me smile because they're a great example of how a person can love science and still enjoy a ridiculous side of things. This idea is epitomized in Munroe's new book, now a #1 New York Times bestseller, What If? Monroe uses his knowledge of science along with a snarky sense of humor to answer questions like how long it would take a sarlacc (to all the folks who aren't huge Star Wars fans, check here to see what it is) to eat a T-rex. It's the perfect combination of the application of science and an appreciation for the absurdity of the world around us. You can find a preview of another question from What If? right here.

Randall Munroe also has a sense of humor about books. Here's one of my very favorite comics from "xkcd," since I think every avid reader has been guilty of this at some point in our lives!