Interview with Ann Aguirre (& Giveaway!)

I first stumbled upon Ann Aguirre's books early last year (after much pimping on Angie's part) and quickly fell in love with her tough and paranoid heroine Sirantha Jax, a gun-toting space jumper turned intergalactic ambassador. The most recent installment in her Sirantha Jax series, Killbox, will be released August 31st (that's tomorrow folks!) and I was lucky enough to snag a quick interview with Ann about her upcoming book. Be sure to stick around because Ann has a couple of surprises in store for us (psst! It's a GIVEAWAY). And now I give you: Ann Aguirre!
Holy cow! It is hard to believe that Killbox, the fourth Sirantha Jax novel, is almost out. Jax sure has come a long way. In terms of plot lines, did you know from the outset how each book would progress or did the stories come to you separately?

I always had a storyarc in mind. That is, I had a beginning point, and an ending point. I wrote the last page of book six several years ago, before I sold the last two novels, in fact. I can't believe we're almost to the end of her journey, but I'm also relieved because I've tortured Jax enough for two lifetimes. It's time to give her that happy ending, and I'm ready. 

It seems like you’ve got your hand in almost every genre now – science fiction, paranormal, romance and soon YA – which of these is your favorite to write?

I love the one I'm with. *g*

How do you plan to celebrate the release day for Killbox?

Well, I will have just gotten back from Peru the night before, so I'm guessing my celebration will take place in Lima and Cuzco.

The Sirantha Jax books all have really unique titles. Where did the name Killbox come from?

KILLBOX came from a line in the first Transformers movie. No, seriously. I'm not kidding. I heard them say:
Who's closer to Killbox One Alpha?

- Send the Hogs, sir.
- Okay, send the Hogs over to Kill Box One Alpha.

It's a danger close... Switch the Hogs to Kill Box One Alpha, 300 feet danger close.

Friendlies in the area.

Seven-man team
north of orange smoke!

Received Kill Box One Alpha.
Engage hostile.
Attack direction west!
You're clear and hot
And in the dark theater, I nudged my husband, who doesn't like when I talk during movies. "Wouldn't that make an AWESOME Jax title?" He glared at me. Then... "What?" "Killbox." He nodded and shushed me. Thus, I named the fourth Jax novel. True story.

Would you mind sharing an excerpt from Killbox? I, for one, am itching for a snippet.

The first chapter is here. And now I'll offer you an exclusive sneak peak at chapter two.
We’ve been cruising for about four days, heading away from New Terra, when disaster strikes.

I awaken to the sound of Klaxons. Next to me, March bounds to his feet and starts scrambling into his clothes. His face seems all hard planes in the half-light, softened by the shock of dark hair and his hawk’s eyes. Though this is new to me, I recognize the warning, even without Constance on the comm.

“This is not a drill or a technical malfunction. Your vessel is under attack.” She sounds so polite and unruffled that I cannot help but smile.

My hands feel clumsy as I tug up my black jumpsuit. Mary, it feels good to be back in familiar gear. “What do you want me to do? We can’t jump from here.”

“Check in with Dina at weapons,” he says over his shoulder, already on his way out.

No time for other niceties.

The ship rocks. In a vessel this size, that can’t be good. Even without seeing it, I know we’re taking heavy damage. It doesn’t make sense, though. We’re not a merchantman or a freighter. We’re not hauling contraband, and we’re well off the beaten path.

I take off for the gunnery bay at a dead run. Dina’s already there when I burst in. She’s got lasers, but she can’t work those as well as the particle cannons. We also have old-fashioned projectiles from an ancient rail gun, but those are best directed at personnel attempting to board, not ships.

“I’ll take cannons,” she snaps. “Get your ass in the chair. Besides March and me, you’re the only one with any interstellar live combat experience.”

High praise, indeed.

“Is that why you’re not trying to keep this thing in one piece up in engineering?”

“The only reason,” she mutters. “I hope those clansmen know what they’re doing.”

“How’re we holding up?”

“Better than expected. Our hull’s been reinforced.”

I bring the sighting apparatus down over my head, and suddenly I’m out in space, part of the fight in a way that scares the shit out of me, even though it’s not my first time. I tap the panel, and the system whines, telling me it needs time to power up. This is a hell of a cutter we’re fighting, slim but fast, and outfitted with enough ordnance to destroy a small planet. Whoever these assholes are, they’re serious. To my eyes it looks like a Silverfish adapted for spaceflight, but I don’t know if that’s possible.

Their shots nearly blind me, but they soar wide, striking the Gunnar-Dahlgren vessel far starboard. I don’t know what they were aiming at, but they missed weapons. Maybe our engines?

I can see but not hear Dina’s first volley; she hits the other vessel in a clean blow that takes out the aft shields. This is more advanced than the technology on the Folly, the first ship March ever owned. For a second I can’t breathe because of all the black space around me. There’s no air here.

With sheer will, I choke it back and tell myself this is only a sim. Focus on the other ship. The system cycles, then shows ready. I just have to point and shoot.

“Do we want to disable or disintegrate them?”

Before her next shot, Dina taps the comm. “Use deadly force?”

March’s voice fills the room, giving me courage as if he’s beside me. “Confirmed. We are at war.”

That’s all I needed to know. I spin the sight and target the panel where they’re trying to restore shields. A tap magnifies my target, then I fire until the lasers whine, telling me they’re out of juice for the time being.

It’s oddly pretty.

And there’s no boom.

But a panel flies wide. They have a hull breach. We probably do, too, but we’ve given them something to think about.

Muffled through my headgear, I hear Constance on the comm. “I have identified the vessel. According to the registration on the hull, this is the Blue Danube out of Gehenna. Data on the ship is scarce, but I found reference to an unpaid tariff on trade goods.”

“Speak plainly,” I mutter.

“In its hold, the crew had concealed four human females, two Rodeisians, and three male humanoids of unknown origin, possibly from some class-P world.”

Slavers. Well, shit.

It makes sense they’d be getting bolder along with everyone else, and Gehenna does a brisk business in the flesh trade. I just didn’t realize they do it literally. I thought it was more of a rental than a purchase. But what the hell are they doing here in the middle of nowhere?

“Did they have slaves on Tarnus?” I ask.

“Yes.” Dina is too distracted to care I’m prying. “Aren’t those lasers ready to go yet?” She lets fly another burst from the particle cannon, focusing on the weak spot. More bits of metal break off in slow, graceful chunks.

Our ship spins, and I wonder how much damage have we taken. I can tell it’s March or Hit in the pilot seat because we’re taking evasive action that has us rolling and twirling. If nothing else, our fliers outclass theirs.

“Almost. Any critical systems where we’re aiming?”

I can hear the evil grin in her voice. “Only little things like power and life support.”

“No wonder we’re shooting that way.”

Slavers. Random evil. They’re not part of any grand conspiracy. They just want to buy and sell us like livestock.

Like hell.

I’m ready for round two. Red beams burst forth, slicing the dark between the pearly gleam of our hulls. Luck or Dina’s calculations—either way, I hit a stress point, and the back half of the ship cracks wide, the stern going dark, adrift in space. At that point, the Blue Danube starts trying to pull away from the fight. Their engines are crippled, which is a good thing; otherwise, they’d leave us sniffing their trail.

There could be slaves on that ship.

I wonder if March has thought of that. It reminds me unpleasantly of Hon’s Station, where he tried to save people who were beyond hope of rescue. In doing so, he proved himself a hero, but he also endangered all of us. Back then, it never would’ve even occurred to me to look. But now, here I sit, worried that we might be blowing innocent people to cosmic dust.

My breath skitters. I shouldn’t say anything. I absolutely should not.

Even as I think it, there’s a warm tingle at the back of my neck. He’s there. The gun bay must be just below the cockpit, or he wouldn’t be able to do this. His gift has a limited range.

What’s wrong, Jax? You’re worrying me.

No turning back now. There could be innocents on that ship.

His surprise crackles through me like footsteps on fresh snow. I know what I’ve done. Seconds later, I hear his voice on the comm. “Dina, belay the order for deadly force. We have to board.”

“Are you out of your mind?” she snarls.

“No,” he answers. “Take out engines and weapons array if you can. I’ll get the tow cables on them to hold ’em still.”

“You heard the man,” she says, yanking the headgear off me. “He wants precision, and for that I need lasers. I guess you’re done here.”

“I’ll go prepare the boarding party.”

“You’ll need me,” Dina calls. “Don’t leave without me.”

I’m already thinking about who else we should take. Hit, March, and Vel for their hand-to-hand skill, Doc in case anyone is wounded. Dina and I round out the group. Of them all, I’m the most expendable. That’s an interesting sensation.

Once I’d have protested the stupidity of this. We should’ve just blown them to atoms and gone on to Emry Station. For good or ill, I don’t think that way anymore.

It doesn’t take me long to assemble my gear: shockstick, torch-tube, a few packets of paste. You never know when that will come in handy. If we manage to save anyone over there, they might be starving. Slavers aren’t known for their kindness.

Once prepared, I head over to the hatch to wait. With the tow cables in place, we’ll launch the boarding apparatus and connect to their hatch doors. Vel has the expertise to get us in, even from the outside. I pull on the full-compression suit but leave the helmet off. It gets sweaty in there fast, and I don’t want to wear it longer than I have to.

I’m slightly queasy over the idea of entering the boarding array. It’s no more than a few thin centimeters of an alloy allegedly perfected for use in space. Seeing how Farwan “perfected” other technology, it leaves some room for concern.

One by one, I notify everybody who’ll be going with us. I don’t need to check with March on that. I know he’ll agree with my call. Too many, and we’ll hinder each other in the close confines of the smaller ship. Too few, and we won’t have the skills we need to make this work. It’s a delicate balance.

Maybe that’s the mistake we made on Hon’s Kingdom. We tried to do it on our own. I just hope history’s not repeating itself because it was my idea this time.
Whoa. Thank you Ann! Now that's what I call a very long and very satisfying excerpt.


Now that you all are pumped up for Killbox, Ann was kind enough to offer up one SIGNED copy of Killbox to one lucky commenter. Just fill in the form below and let me know what your favorite science fiction series is. This giveaway is for US residents only and will end Monday, September 13th.

Looking for more chances to win? Ann's got many, many other great prizes up for grabs - head on over to her blog for all the contest details.

We love YA!

Just in time for the weekend, I'm over at Chachic's Book Nook today talking about why I love young adult novels - including a list of my favorites. We Love YA! is a weekly feature created by Chachic and it's one of my favorites. I just love hearing what draws other people to the genre (and seeing what their top picks are too). Take a moment to stop on over and recommend a book you think I'd like.

John Belushi is Dead by Kathy Charles

Hilda and Benji are not your average LA teenagers. Instead of hanging out at the beach or various Hollywood hot spots in hopes of a celebrity sighting, the pair are content to spend their summer vacation visiting celebrity murder or suicide sites. While in search of the apartment of a lesser known silent film star who stabbed himself to death while at home, Hilda and Benji stumble upon the old and reclusive Hank, now living in the infamous apartment. Hank is cranky and wary of the pair but Hilda sees something unique and is worried about the paranoid old man who won't leave his stifling hot apartment. Soon Hilda is doing everything she can to escape the attention of Benji (who is becoming more creepy and sadistic daily) while finding any excuse to watch old movies or discuss the past with Hank.

Thinking she is the only one who cares about Hank, Hilda is surprised to find Hank's apartment empty one day except for Hank's handsome downstairs neighbor, a 19 year-old screenwriter named Jake. Jake couldn't be more unlike Hilda - successful, driven, fashion conscious - but she still finds herself wanting to spend more time with him even as he is convinced that Hank is hiding some terrible, sinister secret. A secret Hilda suspects but one she can't decide if she wants to know or not.

John Belushi is Dead is a singularly unique and at times almost disturbing dark novel. Kathy Charles has crafted a truly compelling book with many unpredictable twists - and some you can guess right away, but are still powerless to stop. What really makes this book a stand-out are the starkly real characters. Hilda is confused and intent on shutting off the rest of the world until Hank (and Jake) force her to open her eyes to life happening all around her. And then Benji - one scary dude - whose obsession with death seems so darkly  real yet utterly separate from Hilda's resigned fascination with the same subject. Not to mention the cantankerous and paranoid Hank, who has countless stories of old Hollywood to tell. I cannot express to you how thrilled I was to see an old man featured in a YA novel (at least one that wasn't overly sugar-sweet) and he plays his role beautifully. The emotions and dialogue are fresh and even if the constant stories of murder are at times a little much, they definitely added to the story in terms of mood and ambiance. Hilda's quiet yet forceful voice ensnares you from page one and her constant observations of friends, family, and death are irresistibly appealing. John Belushi is Dead is an edgy book with a unique voice and an outstanding cover. It's one you won't want to miss.

Because Everyone Likes a Second Opinion:
The Book Smugglers review
Country Bookshelf review
From the TBR Pile review
Persnickety Snark review
Prom Mafia review
Start Narrative Here review

book source: review copy from the publisher

The Thief is King

The final results are in for the YA Fantasy Showdown and I couldn't be more happy (or surprised). To my unending happiness, Eugenides of Megan Whalen Turner's Queen's Thief series took the victor's crown in the final round after a grueling match against Howl Jenkins of Dianna Wynne Jones' Howl's Moving Castle.

Hooray for Gen!

After reading the various fight predictions, I've become immensely intrigued by Howl. I've never read a single Diana Wynne Jones novel but feel like I'm missing out on something HUGE since he obviously is beloved by so many. So here's my question: What Diana Wynne Jones book should I start with? Howl? Or something else? Let me know in the comments which you'd recommend and I'll see about tracking her books down. Cause if he's right up there with Gen, then this is a character I really want to meet.

The Year of Secret Assignments by Jaclyn Moriarty

Well here I am, once again, singing the praises of Jaclyn Moriarty - I seriously cannot get enough of her wicked sense of humor and intelligent teens who understand the necessity of a good friend. As far as I'm concerned, every single one of her books I've tried have been utterly perfect and The Year of Secret Assignments is no exception.

Mr. Botherit is at it again with a new group of Ashbury High students, ready to implement project "The Joy of the Envelope." Best friends Emily, Lydia, and Cassie aren't too sure about having to write the criminals and hooligans of Brookfield high, but teachers just don't understand that, do they? So it's with some trepidation that three await their first letters - which they receive from Charles, who keeps asking Emily for advice on girls; Sebastien, who must prove his trustworthiness to Lydia by performing a series of secret assignments; and Matthew, who despite his cruel letters, slowly begins to respond to Cassie's continued replies. Of course, being Emily, Lyd and Cassie, their seemingly innocent letters do not remain innocent for long. Their correspondence quickly leads to alarm pulling, lock picking, and even a few pranks gone wrong that just might escalate the rivalry between the two schools into an all-out war.

Like Jaclyn Moriarty's other Ashbury High novels, The Year of Secret Assignments is written as a series of letters, journal entries, emails and various legal-sounding lists and briefs from Emily's dad. All of which are simply excellent. As the stars of this book, Moriarty captures Emily, Lydia and Cassie's friendship to perfection. They really three distinct personalities with equally distinct faults, yet they still love and support each other just the same. And like I've said before, this book is hilarious. All three are blindingly intelligent ladies and I love them to pieces. Their constant witty banter is pretty much my favorite part of the book. Well, that and their ability to think up some truly hilarious pranks. Yet at the same time all the humiliations and turmoil of being a teenager still shine through without ever becoming preachy.

Since I read The Ghosts of Ashbury High first (bad, bad reader!) in which I promptly fell in love with the girls, I was pleased to discover that The Year of Secret Assignments gives us a deeper insight into the trio's enviable friendship. I do have to admit that Emily still remains one of my favorites - the girl's misuse of words constantly had me in stitches. She's a little bit drama, a little bit crazy, but infinitely likable and extremely loyal. Plus there is also Seb and Lyd's crazy relationship chock full of secret agent worthy adventures and heart-rate-racing couple moments.

At the risk of sounding like a besotted fangirl, I'll go ahead and say it now: Love, love, love these books. Love, love, love Jaclyn Moriarty. Go and track down ANY of her books right now, because you are simply missing out if you haven't read one of her hilarious novels yet.

Other Ashbury High novels (not necessary to read in order)
~ Feeling Sorry for Celia - my review
~ The Murder of Bindy MacKenzie (Becoming Bindy MacKenzie or The Betrayal of Bindy Mackenzie)
~ The Year of Secret Assignments (Finding Cassie Crazy)
~ The Ghosts of Ashbury High (Dreaming of Amelia) - my review

Because Everyone Likes a Second Opinion:
The Book Smugglers review (Totally Awesome Books award)
Dragonfly Book Reviews review 
Not Enough Bookshelves review
Reader Rabbit review
Reviewer X review

book source: publisher giveaway

Unholy Ghosts by Stacia Kane

In the wake of the devastating "Haunted Week," when ghosts ran free and murdered at will, the Church of Real Truth was established as the only entity with enough power to effectively banish the rampaging souls. Now an employee of the Church, Chess Putnam is known as a Debunker. It's her job to track down the lingering ghosts that haunt the city and banish them for good. Basically she's a witch and she's got the tattoos to prove it. But Chess also has a serious drug problem, one that has her popping various pills just to make it through the day. Her addiction has also left her with a tidy little debt to the local supplier and scary Downside king Bump. When Bump offers to wipe her debt clear in exchange for banishing a ghost in an unused section of his territory, Chess has no option but to comply. It's either that or pay up (with money she doesn't have) or face the wrath of Bump's terrifying muscle, Terrible. So Chess agrees, knowing full well that extra-curricular use of her powers is an express no-no by the Church. Aided by the menacing Terrible, Chess begins an investigation that will unearth an evil ghost far more powerful than she ever imagined and a far-reaching conspiracy that could shake the tenuous foundation of a life she's built for herself.

For the first 50 pages or so, I seriously considered tucking Unholy Ghosts right back on the shelf. Despite a promising beginning and glowing reviews, I just couldn't bring myself to connect with a protagonist who was a self-admitted drug-addict. Even if she did have a pretty intriguing job as someone who banishes ghosts under the sanction of the Church of Real Truth (which really is a misnomer since it's actually more like a government than a church). I also wasn't finding the appeal of the whole dark and dirty underworld, Downside, where Chess makes her home. Then suddenly, I don't know what changed, but something sure clicked. Without warning, I found myself 100% behind Chess in the Believable Character Department. Her feelings of confusion and stress were coming across loud and clear and just as quickly, my estimation of her strength of character skyrocketed too. It also didn't hurt that I was utterly intrigued by her work for the Church as a Debunker. In other words: I was hooked. From that point on, the pages flew faster and faster as I was right there with Chess as she stumbled along, trying her best to keep from going under.

I honestly don't know how Stacia Kane managed to create such a flawed yet sympathetic character in Chess. On paper, she's a complete mess - someone you wouldn't want to go within a mile of. But in all honesty, once I was able to piece together her unpleasant history and get a better grip on the woman that is Chess, I was completely sold. I began to understand why she has turned to drugs in order to keep herself sane. I don't necessarily like that aspect of her personality, but I am very much sympathetic as to the why. Chess embodies such a unusual mix of fear and courage, vulnerability and strength, someone with a true strong moral code - but only on certain subjects.

There are so many reasons to explain my complete satisfaction with this novel. First off, the world building is superb. You've got the Church of Truth on one hand (remember - government not religion) keeping a clean face on the surface and then the seedy Downside with all its slums and shady characters on the other. As someone who straddles both these worlds, Chess walks a fine line in her associations. And that includes the mysterious yet terrifying Terrible. Their relationship is already so tangled and complicated that I can only hope that Chess and Terrible are able to establish some sort of trusting relationship in the future, because heaven knows he's an absolute treasure. I'm so happy to have stuck with Unholy Ghosts because it was a winner - and if the glowing reviews for Unholy Magic are anywhere near the truth, I'll be heading out tonight to pick it up for more Chess and Terrible.

series reading order:
~ Unholy Ghosts
~ Unholy Magic
~ City of Ghosts

Because Everyone Likes a Second Opinion:
All Things Urban Fantasy review
Book Chick City review
Dear Author review 
Dreams and Speculations review
Fiction Vixen Book Reviews 
Mindful Musings review

book source: my local library

Wordy Art

Thanks to the Book Muncher, I think I may have found my next 'I Want' item. The genius company Postertext has created starkly graphic posters of a few classic novels using only the text from the novel itself. Each one depicts an iconic moment from the book - immediately recognizable - whether you get close enough to read the text or not. This is brilliant. And now I want them all, because how do you choose from these beauties?

Pride and Prejudice
(poster is created from the first 35 chapters)
I want it because it IS Eliza and Darcy.

Crime and Punishment
(poster is created from the first 4 chapters)
Crime and Punishment happens to be my favorite book from high school (I was a MAJOR geek) but it still managed to give me nightmares for weeks on end. I love it that they chose such a horrific yet iconic scene here.

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz
(poster is created by using text from the entire book)
I want this poster for the image alone. Who doesn't love the Wizard of Oz?

Which would you choose to hang in your library?

The Tiger in the Well by Philip Pullman

***SPOILER WARNING: If you haven't read the first two books in the Sally Lockhart trilogy - especially The Shadow in the North - I highly recommend you not read this review. I really can't talk about The Tiger in the Well without giving away one vital piece of information from the previous novels. So. Now you've been properly warned. But may I ask why haven't you read this series already?

Upon finishing The Shadow in the North, I can only say that my poor heart had been reduced to millions of teeny, tiny little pieces in the face of Sally's heartbreak and the death of her best friend and fiance Fred Garland. I was shocked and stunned to say the least. But I just couldn't stomach leaving poor Sally and friends in such a lurch so I hesitantly sat down with the next installment, The Tiger in the Well, fiercely determined that Sally would get her happy ending.

In the two years since Fred's death Sally has been left to raise their daughter, Harriet, alone. But her life has not been altogether unhappy. Her business has prospered and can rely on her many friends for support. In a matter of minutes however, this framework of happiness comes crashing down when Sally is being sued for divorce and custody of Harriet from a certain Mr. Parrish - a man she has never even met. Determined to combat her enemy's outrageous bluff, Sally turns to the law for help only to discover that he has created a paper trail of lies, spanning years, which only serves to tighten the noose around Sally. Most frustrating is that Sally doesn't even know why someone has set out to destroy her entire life. Finally forced to flee penniless and alone, Sally attempts to solve her most daring mystery yet. And failure is out of the question.

I thought all my fear and pain for Sally had been effectively wrenched out of me by the end of the previous book, but as I watched Sally face bitter disappointment in the face of yet another dead-end, it all came rushing back. Time and again I watched Sally's options dwindle into nothing as she desperately fights to figure out who is trying to destroy her happiness. Even more forceful is the injustice of Sally's vulnerability in the face of a prejudiced society against an unmarried woman with a child. Suffice to say, this one was a doozy.

I was intensely disappointed to discover that Jim (or Fred for that matter) does not have a starring role in this last book. In all fairness, it couldn't have been the same story if Jim had been present, but still. My poor little heart was left missing him something fierce. Somewhat interesting is the curious subplot Pullman inserts on the plight of Jewish immigrants and socialism - which on the surface seem to be incredibly random topics to be sticking into a young adult Victorian mystery, but there you have it. If anyone can make such a crazy tangent work, it would have to be Philip Pullman.

series reading order:
~ The Ruby in the Smoke - my review
~ The Shadow in the North - my review
~ The Tiger in the Well
~ The Tin Princess (companion novel)

Because Everyone Likes a Second Opinion:
Firefly's Book Blog review
PhlioBiblos review

book source: purchased

Why YA?

In keeping with the festive spirit of Young Adult Appreciation Month over at The Book Smugglers, tonight I've brought out the big guns in order to answer the question once and for all, Why YA? That's right my friends, tonight for your viewing pleasure I've prepared a list. A list detailing the top five reasons why I choose to read YA. They're pretty basic points, and ones I'm sure that won't really surprise you, but basically I'm pretty basic like that. Also, I'm very repetitive.

1. The Books (well, duh): Pages and pages of stories about teens (ordinary and not so much) caught up in extraordinary struggles. All of which must occur against the messy awkwardness that we call high school and growing up. Thrilling stuff indeed.

2. The Authors: Because they are far more witty than I could ever be. Because they articulate their passion for YA books in ways I always want to. Because they make me think harder about the books I'm reading. Because they tackle tricky topics in new and intriguing ways. Because their book recommendations are superb. 

3. The Readers: I'm sorry, but YA has some of the best fans and readers ever to grace the steps of a bookstore. Seriously. No other group can boast the dedication it takes to host an epic YA Fantasy Showdown, wear (or make) winning bookish-inspired apparel, or shower the authors we love with constant praise and adoration. Not to mention hosting a month-long YA celebration. 

4. The Girls: Girls that make me cheer, girls that make me proud. Tough, smart girls that keep on going when it seems like the entire world is stacked against them. Girls that I still want to be when I grow up.

5. The Boys: Couldn't leave this one off the list, could I? Because no respectable YA book is without the heart-breaker, the bad boy, the geek, the boy next door, the hero, or the best friend turned something more. Each one is vastly different, but they all manage to bring something brilliant to every story.

Why do you YA?

The Shadow in the North by Philip Pullman

It's been six years since Sally Lockhart solved the murder of her father with the help of photographer Frederick Garland and the handy office boy Jim Thorpe. In the years since Sally not only studied at Cambridge (although not with a certificate - dang Victorian anti-feminists!) but set up her own thriving investment consulting business. With Sally's sound business advice (and capital), Fred's photography business has continued to grow and evolve - even allowing him to do a bit of private detective work on the side. While the lovable, jack-of-all-trades Jim spends his nights at the theaters and his days writing fantastically gruesome plays which continue to be rejected by every playhouse in London. The three have remained fast friends although Fred's repeated attempts to ask Sally to be his wife - and her subsequent refusals - have added an element of strain to an otherwise enviable friendship and partnership.

Proud of the name she has made for her business, Sally is quick to offer help to a former client who cries foul after all the money Sally advised her to invest in a British shipping company is unexpectedly lost when the company goes under (pun intended). In her methodical and rational way, Sally begins to tackle this newest mystery with her customary intelligence and tenacity. Along the road to discovery, she begins to find parallels in her own search to Fred's current job of helping a talented magician discover who is trying to kill him. But it's a good thing they continue to cross paths because the solving of this mystery proves to be a deeper and more dangerous game than they've ever played before.

If I had only one word to describe The Shadow in the North it would be gut-wrenching. Seriously. Sally, Fred, and Jim face some enormously hard situations that do not end well. At. All. But luckily there are those quiet moments too, when they are finally given a chance to sit together and talk and remember just why they became friends in the first place. Each one is so very different, but the strengths of each contribute a whole so perfectly matched to the group. If nothing else, The Shadow in the North is a beautiful treatise on friendship and relationships. To my unending delight Jim was give a much bigger role in this book. By far he was one of the most intriguing characters from The Ruby in the Smoke and I loved to see how his boyish penchant for penny dreadfuls translated to a passion for play-writing.

Sally's second adventure was a much more intense and plot-driven novel with plenty of twists and atmospheric references so that as a reader, you can never escape Sally's unenviable place or position in the strict Victorian England society. What can I say besides the fact that it's a fabulous piece of storytelling by Philip Pullman? It was like each new page introduced some new compelling and intriguing detail that I had no idea what to expect next. Furthermore, given the shocking ending - which literally left in tears, my friends - I am happy to say I already have the next Sally Lockhart mystery, The Tiger in the Well, on hand and despite such heartbreak, am ready to dive right back in.

series reading order:
~ The Ruby in the Smoke - my review
~ The Shadow in the North
~ The Tiger in the Well
~ The Tin Princess (companion novel)

Because Everyone Likes a Second Opinion:
Alice in Blogland review
Jenny's Books review
Soliloquy in Blue review

book source: my local library

The Ruby in the Smoke by Philip Pullman

Sally Lockhart wasn't an entirely new character to me when I first decided to sit down with The Ruby in the Smoke. My mom had recommended I give them a go a few years back and then Angie did a Retro Friday post on their awesomeness and so, consequently I've had them in the back of my mind ever since. Now I'm not really a dedicated mystery reader, but after finishing Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy earlier this year, I found myself stunned with his storytelling ability and curious about his other novels. What I found in this first Sally Lockhart mystery was a entirely unexpected yet happy surprise. With what has to be one of the best opening paragraphs I've ever read, I became immediately invested in the struggles of one friendless sixteen year old girl trying to solve the mystery of her father's murder.

Sally Lockhart wasn't raised like your typical Victorian England lady. She likes to read books, review military tactics, and happens to be a crack shot. So when Sally is told that her father has been killed while sailing home from China, Sally isn't content to simply mourn her beloved father while others decide her fate. This unusually intelligent sixteen year-old decides to track down her father's murderer on her own - no matter that she is female, alone, and penniless. Along the way, Sally receives help from the resourceful errand-boy Jim Thorpe (who likes nothing better than to trade insults or sit down with a penny dreadful) and a quick-witted young photographer named Frederick Garland. Support that goes a long way in helping Sally face murderous secrets, horribly nefarious landladies, opium dens, and even one fist-sized ruby. 

The Ruby in the Smoke is an atmospheric, dark mystery with engaging characters where things tend to go horribly wrong - always a good thing in my opinion. I admire Philip Pullman for putting his characters in no-win situations where they are forced to make a hard choice, followed by a more difficult one. Sally may not be accomplished enough for the drawing room but her talents are many. Most refreshingly, her difficulty in remaining an independent woman in Victorian England is never made light of - in fact it's one of the major obstacles Sally has to overcome. And although I enjoyed Pullman's His Dark Materials books, the Sally Lockhart Mysteries are my new personal favorite and ones I'm glad to have finally discovered.

As a side note, has anyone watched the PBS Masterpiece adaptations to this series? I haven't heard much about them but I'm curious.

series reading order:
~ The Ruby in the Smoke
~ The Shadow in the North
~ The Tiger in the Well
~ The Tin Princess (companion novel)

Because Everyone Likes a Second Opinion:
Angieville review
Firefly's Book Blog review
Jenny's Books review
Things Mean A Lot review

book source: swapped

You're The Best.... Around!

Please, please just do yourself a favor on this sunny Tuesday morning and head over to the YA Fantasy Showdown. It's a bracket style match-up of all your favorite YA characters in a fight to the death a la Hunger Games. In short, it's a feat of creative genius. Vote for who you think might win each battle to the death - but be sure to read each and every one of the creator's How We Think The Fight Might Go... because that section is hugely made of win. And awesomeness.

Excuse me while I go waste spend monumental amounts of time online.

Feeling Sorry for Celia by Jaclyn Moriarty

Last month I stumbled upon the fabulous, the funny, the clever Jaclyn Moriarty in her latest novel The Ghosts of Ashbury High and have been on the hunt for her other books ever since. Simply put: I love this woman's books to bits. Getting my hands on Feeling Sorry for Celia couldn't have made my day brighter.

*A side note, although all four books take place at Ashbury High, it is not necessary to read them in order. They are loosely connected and I would recommend you at least read The Year of Secret Assignments before The Ghosts of Ashbury High, but it's not strictly necessary. As for me, I read them all out of sequence (highly unusual for someone so bookishly OCD as myself) and still loved each one.

As the title suggests, Elizabeth Clarry is truly worried about her best friend Celia. The pair have been inseparable ever since they were tiny but lately Celia has been acting strange - even for the unpredictable Celia. She's run away (again) and Elizabeth doesn't know who to confess her fears to: not her mom, who stays busy with work and only communicates with Elizabeth through post-its on the fridge (albeit hilarious post-its); not her father who has suddenly reappeared in her life and who would like nothing more than to take her to fancy restaurants and talk about fancy wine (ugh); and not Celia's mom, who can only think of Celia's habit of escaping as a beautiful form of youthful expression.

It's not until Mr. Botherit, Elizabeth's brilliant English teacher, sponsors a letter writing project called "The Joy of the Envelope" between his students and the local public school that Elizabeth finds herself detailing her worries to a complete and utter stranger, Christina. Beginning somewhat hesitantly, Elizabeth and Christina slowly forge an unusual friendship solely based on the written word yet one that expands to help each other through a multitude of joys and heartaches.

Frequently, their letters are interrupted by missives to Elizabeth from The Association of Teenagers, The Best Friends Club, THE COLD HARD TRUTH ASSOCIATION, and The Society of High School Runners Who Aren't Very Good at Long-Distance Running but Would Be if They Just Trained. With the subtly of a sledgehammer, these witty letters add humor and levity to the constant niggle of teenage self-doubt ever present in the girls' letters.

I'll say it again: Jaclyn Moriarty's books are made of win. I love that they written completely as letters. I love that even while they manage to be laugh-out-loud funny, they still capture all the heartbreak and all the turmoil inherent in the ever-changing landscape of teenage friendships. Elizabeth's voice comes across so fluidly in Feeling Sorry for Celia. I felt myself responding to every poignant or exultant letter in kind. Love, love these books.

Other Ashbury High novels (not necessary to read in order)
~ Feeling Sorry for Celia
~ The Murder of Bindy MacKenzie (Becoming Bindy MacKenzie or The Betrayal of Bindy Mackenzie)
~ The Year of Secret Assignments (Finding Cassie Crazy)
~ The Ghosts of Ashbury High (Dreaming of Amelia) - my review

Because Everyone Likes a Second Opinion:
21 Pages review
The Bookette review
Bookshelves of Doom review

book source: my local library

The Call of the Reread

Lately I've been feeling the pull to revisit some of my best loved books. Whenever life gets particularly crazy, I've noticed I tend to return once again to those tried and true favorites. Since I usually don't even want to think about picking up anything new, I tend to fall into my comfort reads and not worry about anything else. Without fail, I emerge from these binges feeling much refreshed and satisfied with the state of my library for containing such treasures. Although, consequently, sometimes these spurts do tend to lead to shopping sprees as I decide, once and for all, that I cannot live without such-and-such book.

I don't really have any particular book that I reread on a regular basis. This time around I found myself drawn to Just the Sexiest Man Alive by Julie James and Fire by Kristin Cashore - both perfect books, but very different in terms of story. What they had in common was that both were just right for what I wanted at the time. In all actuality, you could probably pinpoint my exact mood by looking back at what books I choose for a reread. In the case of Just the Sexiest Man Alive, I was days away from heading down to LA for my beach vacation with good friends and wanted to catch the flirty and hilarious mood inherent in this (or any) Julie James novel. With Fire, I started in late one night, not wanting to do much besides curl up on my couch while waiting for the hubby to come home. Two vastly different books, but both hit just the right nerve for my mood.

What are some of your favorite rereads? Do you any particular books you gravitate towards at certain times?

This Lullaby by Sarah Dessen

Sarah Dessen is pretty much a fixture in YA literature. Since basically everyone seems to love her books, I wanted to find out what I had been missing and earlier this year picked up my first, The Truth About Forever - which I really liked. A couple of weeks ago I read Lock and Key but was left feeling pretty underwhelmed by Ruby's story of redemption from a life of neglect. Hoping that is was simply a fluke, I dove strait into my third Dessen, This Lullaby, with high hopes. And then proceeded directly to Unsure Land.

Having just graduated high school, Remy is ready to set off for Stanford at summer's end and there's no incentive that could ever induce her to stay home with her flaky, soon-to-be-married mother (fifth time's the charm!). Seeing as her mother could never hold down a lasting relationship, Remy has what you might call a 'cynical' view on relationships. Even with Remy's father, a man she never even met; a deceased bohemian musician whose legacy to Remy entails a one-hit-wonder called "This Lullaby" written after hearing of her birth. So in an effort to not become her mother, Remy has created her very own Dating Cycle: enjoy the initial, first giddy phase of a relationship, break it off while things are still good, and then move on. Rinse and repeat. Like about 50 times.

Then Remy meets Dexter one auspicious day and although she continues to brush him off (he's a musician, he's goofy, he eats in her car, etc.), Dexter slowly captures Remy's interest. Unlike every other predictable guy Remy has ever met, Dexter worms his way into her heart and makes her wonder, for the first time ever, what falling in love might actually be like. But then relationship drama ensues (*cough*Remy's commitment phobic *cough*) and the Remy Dating Cycle rears up once more. Though Remy isn't as blase about this breakup as she pretends to be - suddenly she's finding it very hard to pretend that Dexter is just another inconsequential blip on her dating map.

There are lots of good things to like like about This Lullaby. For starters, Sarah Dessen knows how to craft a readable book. Her novels aren't exactly short, but I'm always startled at how quickly they seem to fly by. And even though she's dealing with some heavy subjects I found myself laughing aloud often ("Hate Spinnerbait" anyone?). Remy and Dexter are intelligent and intriguing characters, with personalities fully-formed, but who still underwent some visible and hefty changes throughout the novel. Always a good thing.

That said, I have issues.

First of all, I know I'm not a teen (anymore), but I couldn't help but be floored by the acceptance of underage drinking throughout the novel. On several occasions Remy is invited to drink (either directly or indirectly) by most of the adults in her life, including her mother and boss. Friends, she's only 18! It was like a forgone conclusion that Remy should have a beer, or champagne or whatever in hand at any function. Perhaps if Remy's story had been set during college, this wouldn't have stuck out to me so much, but since Remy and her friends had had easy access to booze since their early teens with no consequences, I just couldn't see this as an accurate portrayal of teen life.

And then there is Remy's odd view of relationships and love. I don't see how a perfectionist such as Remy would resort to all the unnecessary hassles that go along with dating - even in Remy's modified version. Why all the sleeping around? Why the constant revolving door of relationships? Didn't she see how similar it was to her mom's own pattern (without the marriage proposals, of course). I never understood her motivations for doing any of these things even if I could sometimes understand her confusion over people's explanations of love.

So how do I balance all this? On the one hand, I found This Lullaby to be an engrossing book, full of thought-provoking, if not often heart-breaking, descriptions of love and relationships. The characters I found to be fully-formed and interesting and in most cases, extremely likable. At at the same time, I never felt that Remy's high school party persona was consistent with the rest of her Miss Fix-it character. I think I'm just going to have to sit on this one for a while. Any one else out there have a similar experience or thoughts?

Because Everyone Likes a Second Opinion:
Emily and Her Little Pink Notes review 
The Sarah Dessen Diarist chapter-by-chapter review
Teens Read Too review

book source: purchased

Toronto or Bust!

Whew! Even though I just got back from one vacation, as of tomorrow morning (4am to be exact, eek!) I'll be winding my way to the lovely Toronto, Canada with my family. Amazingly enough, I actually managed to prepare a couple of posts in advance for your enjoyment, so hopefully things won't be too terribly dull around in my absence. I'm not too sure how often I'll have access to the internet (the hotel has assured me that they have wi-fi, but you never know), so don't be surprised if I'm not responding to comments/emails.

Also, if anyone has suggestions for good places to go, food to eat, things not to be missed, etc. while in Toronto, please let me know. I've been doing lots of research but suggestions are always helpful.

I thought I'd give you a peek at what I'll be taking along with me before I finish up packing for the night. Hopefully this pile of pretties will be enough to keep me company on two cross-country flights and a week away from everyday life.