2015 Whitney YA speculative finalists

Of all the Whitney award categories, the one I feel most at home in is YA speculative. I read a lot of fantasy (not as much sci-fi, but some)–and I write it as well. Not surprisingly, when the finalists were announced, I’d already read several of them. This year’s crop of finalists runs the gamut from otherworld fantasy (Followed by Frost) to steampunk (Airships of Camelot) to near-future sci-fi (Airships of Camelot) to dystopian (Firefight) to alternate history (This Monstrous Thing).

Followed by Frost

Followed by Frost, by Charlie N. Holmberg

Followed by Frost initially bears little resemblance to Holmberg’s popular Paper Magician trilogy–but like Holmberg’s other series, it has a meticulous world and a unique  magic system, with remarkable characters. The story reminded me of a gender-flipped Beauty and the Beast, with Smitha herself playing the beast. After unwittingly scorning the advances of her father’s apprentice, who turns out to be a magician of rare powers, Smitha finds herself cursed to be followed by frost. Immediately, winter descents over her village (though it should be summer), and Smitha finds herself driven from her home, and hunted up into the mountains where she can hide. But she cannot hide from Death, who is strangely fascinated by her. Smitha resists his invitations, but she cannot resist the invitation extended by a Southern king, who thinks the ice that follows her might not be a curse for his drought-stricken, but a blessing.

I’ll admit that I found parts of the beginning slow going: Smitha starts out quite unlikeable–selfish, proud, spoiled–and the early parts of her transition are not pretty. She feels sorry for herself, she pouts, she hides away from human company for a very long time. But I’m glad I stuck with the story, both because her encounters with Death were fascinating, but also because the love story that unfolds in the second half of the book was fantastic–my very favorite kind of heart-twinging, bitter-sweet pain.

Airships of Camelot: The Rise of Arthur

Airships of Camelot, by Robison Wells

Given the number of YA speculative LDS authors, the YA speculative category is often dominated by books published with large, national presses. I think it says a lot about the quality of Wells and Patterson’s indie-published novels that they managed to hold their own amid stiff competition.

Wells’ novel was a delightful twist on the Arthurian tales: a futuristic world where the U.S. was decimated by the Spanish influenza. Those who survived managed to do so by virtue of fierce quarantine, under the protection of airship admirals. Three generations later, Arthur is part of a troubled dynasty (Camelot–formerly Colorado) that survives by raiding outcast settlements to pay for the helium they need to run their airships. But Old Ironsides is demanding more and more for the helium, and when a raid goes wrong and Arthur is stranded on the ground with savages who’ve been exposed to the Spanish flu, he’s got to find a way to not only survive, but salvage his father’s empire.

The steampunk elements here were a lot of fun–who wouldn’t want to be part of an army of flying dirigibles? I thought Wells’ world was imaginative and believable, and the Arthurian nerd in me loved tracking the different iterations of Arthur’s knights (some of whom have become ladies in this version).

A Thousand Faces

A Thousand Faces, by Janci Patterson

Sixteen-year-old Jory and her family have a dangerous secret: they’re shape-shifters, paid to take on the identities and likenesses of anyone, to satisfy the highest bidders. Her family has recently begun a cautious truce with another shape-shifting family, working together in a series of assignments.

But when Jory’s parents go missing after a job, Jory enlists the aid of Kalif, her shapeshifting neighbors’ son, to help her find her parents. What they find, instead, is a mystery much closer to home, and in a landscape of shifting identities and lies, Jory has to decide who she can trust, before she loses her parents forever.

This book has some pretty amazing praise from NYT bestselling authors: James Dashner, Brandon Sanderson, Aprilynne Pike. I’m not sure it lived up to the hype for me (but I’ve probably already made my fantasy bias known). The prose was clean, and the story fast-paced and intense.

Firefight, by Brandon Sanderson Firefight (Reckoners, #2)

Brandon Sanderson knows how to write riveting plots–and Firefight, the sequel to Steelheart, is no exception.

In a world where cities are controlled by powerful Epics (humans with superhuman abilities), David has joined the Reckoners fighting to limit the Epics power. But after defeating Steelheart in Newcago (the steel-encased former Chicago), Prof, the head of the Reckoners, thinks they need to focus their efforts on Regalia, who rules former New York City (Babylon Restored, aka Babilar). David’s eager for the new task, not just to take out another epic, but to reconnect with the Epic Firefight (aka Megan) whom he fell for when she infiltrated their force in Newcago.

But David’s experiences in Babilar make him start to question his fundamental understanding of Epics: that their power inevitably corrupts them, to a degree proportionate to their strength. In Babilar, he finds people who are relatively content with their life, feeding off the strange fruit growing in the building and grown by a mysterious Epic named Dawnslight. Regalia, too, has some deeper motive in drawing them to Babilar–and some connection with Prof. And then there’s Megan–Firefight–whose ability to stave off the Epic madness has David wondering if destroying the Epics is really the answer they should be looking at.

This one started a little slower than Steelheart for me (after the break-neck first chapter). But it definitely picked up, and there were some fascinating twists at the end of the book. Sanderson is not, unfortunately, as good at writing romance as he is at action sequences (or maybe I just like my romance tender, rather than funny). All things considered, that’s a pretty minor complaint.

This Monstrous Thing

This Monstrous Thing, by Mackenzi Lee

The only debut among the YA speculative finalists, Lee’s novel reimagines Frankenstein in an alternate  steampunk world, where the resurrection is accomplished through gears and gadgets. So far, the book is easy enough to sum up. But Lee has done much more with this retelling. It’s a lovely homage to the original, down to the inclusion of Mary Shelley herself as a complicated character.

Two years before the story begins, Alasdair Finch did a terrible thing. An accident happened, his brother died, and Mary, the girl he loved, fled Geneva. Unable to live with what he’d done, Alasdair did the unthinkable: he brought Oliver back to life.

Now, Alasdair is trapped in Geneva, helping his father perform illegal surgeries on clockwork men, though he longs to study with the brilliant Dr. Geisler at the university. He can’t leave Oliver behind. But when a new disaster brings with it unexpected opportunity, Alasdair finds his past is not so easy to leave behind as he believed.

The historical details shine, creating a vivid story world. But the heart of the story is the relationship between brothers Oliver and Alasdair–and in keeping with real sibling relationships, this heart is complicated, bruised, hopeful, loving, powerful.

Have you read any of the YA speculative finalists? Which was your favorite?

Shut Up and Learn Something

“Kel, sit down for a minute, I need to talk to you about something.”

I’ve never sat down after hearing a sentence like that with anything approaching excitement. Usually those words combust into a roil of foot-long worms in my belly, or start an acid burn in the back of my throat that drips and pools directly behind my breastbone. This specific time, just recently, I was looking at my beloved Mimi who smiled at me and patted my hand as I sat warily at my Nanna’s dining table.

I love my Mimi, Mim for short. She’s my aunt, barely a decade older than me, has a fantastic laugh, is allergic to stupidity, lives in a different state, and we only found ourselves in the same place due to my Nan’s ill-health.  I had no clue what Mim wanted to speak to me about – I didn’t have footlong worms happening, but Tabasco gummiworms were certainly making themselves at home.

“Don’t worry, it’s nothing bad,” she nodded as she patted my hand, “I just want to talk to you about something you put on Facebook.”

Instant movie-reel of recent ramblings whizz, and I am still baffled.

“You know, the one about finding out about your… um… ah… dad… Ken – what do you call him?”

I’m blinking repeatedly, processing this stealth bomb launched across the table. “Uh… Ken.  I call him Ken.”

“Ok. You know that post? When you were talking about how you finally found out about all that? And you said something like you couldn’t believe your family kept their mouths shut about it for so long.”

I’m sweating in the airconditioning, feeling my Mum’s concerned stare sunburning the side of my face, wondering if my Nan is paying this taboo conversation any heed. Thankfully the cricket’s on so she’s critiquing the umpire, oblivious, while I’m hyperaware of my breathing, Mum moving closer to the table to hear better, the shine in Mim’s eyes as she looks away blinking then back at me.

“Yes,” I tell Mim, swallowing hard, “I remember that post.”

FB 22nd Jan post

I can’t not remember that post. I can’t not remember that date – it’s the birthday of the woman I grew up believing to be my grandmother, and I was told the truth of my paternity on her birthday. I can’t not remember growing up knowing I was never going to please my Dad, of asking my family to tell me the truth that I was adopted, I can’t not remember the mess and burn of finding out, the ache and mess of finding that family again, the puzzle and mess of trying to piece together who I really was, after all.

Mim looked at me, her smile heartfelt and sliding slowly off her face. “That post hurt me Kel.”

We both swallowed, and I bit the spines of the words trying to fire from my mouth – hurt YOU? Some words hurt YOU?  – and kept the missiles to myself, steaming.

“It hurt me, darl, because I never wanted to lie to you.  Never.  All those years – what? twenty something? – years of knowing we weren’t to talk about it, not to say anything to you, it was so hard. It hurt me, darl, to not tell you truth. But I had to keep your mum’s wishes.”

Mim was staring at me, earnest and intent. “Then to see your post…” She tried smiling again, and a tear dashed away. “Don’t ever think that it was easy for us… easy for me, Kel. Not ever.  I love you. I hated it, all of it.  And I am so sorry for not saying anything.”

DEFCON minus 3697 engaged.  All spit and vinegar vapourised. Tissues were grabbed, destroyed, and hurts soothed and bandaged.  I am so impressed by Mim’s courage in speaking up about her feelings, about coming at the issue head on.  Looking back on that conversation, I’m also knee-wobblingly relieved that I kept my mouth shut long enough to learn something important. Something about my past, something about a beloved aunt, something about the difference between reacting and responding.

I love words, in creating beauty and warmth in the dance of meaning and syllable. I’m also guilty of using my mouth as a weapon.  I’ve used words to amuse, to entertain, to guide and show appreciation.  I’ve also used words to splinter, to burn, embarrass and belittle.  Sometimes I use my words wildly like throwing glitter and paint, and othertimes with savage, gutting precision.  Then there are the magnificent, painful and tongue-biting times when I don’t use my words, but listen while someone else shares theirs, and I learn.

Do you think before you speak? When is the last time you shut up and learnt something? How do you see your relationship with words affecting others you love?

Peculiar Treasures: All The World’s A Stage

natural woman pic
On children being seen and heard: a mother’s response to seeing her 3-year-old daughter copy her morning routine of standing on scales raises some interesting questions, as does this article asking if kids should address adults as Mister and Missus.

Stage or arena? Michael Bublé has his show interrupted by a mother, and ends up sharing the stage with her son and a whole lot of surprise. A fabulous quote by Brené Brown on facing our inner critic in our own arena is wonderfully put to pen and picture by the incredible Zen Pencils.

It’s all in the emphasis! A wide range of notables argue how best to emphasise the line “to be or not to be…” with hilarious results and guest appearances. All hail the comma in pacing and emphasis, with personal input on the glorious punctuation mark from the New Yorker’s Comma Queen.

Shine spotlight here… Omid Safi visited Salt Lake City while giving talks, and considers the power in spotlighting the good people and communities do, instead of highlighting the bad. If you’re waiting with baited breath, or need a break from a plague on both your houses, use this flowchart to suggest which shiny Shakespeare play is best for you to watch right now.

Open air theatres. A huge coral reef been discovered at the mouth of the Amazon river, and here’s 10 more ideas to get kids to get outside. This interactive photo display of numerous theatres of war show beach landings, French towns and cathedrals – where the 1944 snapshots fade away to show the same places today.

First Draft Poetry this week is by Lara.

Sometimes we stay hidden
for generations,
for hours,
silty rivers camouflage what’s really
going on, flowing by.

And we emerge,
seen suddenly,
a new species in a
plume of clarity,
the poverty of sediment

washing our reef-selves,
and we are
seen.

Sabbath Revival: Broken

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Today’s post from Jill in 2008 stabbed at my heart a little…have you ever had a broken relationship that just wouldn’t heal? 

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This is a post by Jill. You can read more from her at her blog, Sweet Happy Life.

This morning I wiped down the counter top while listening to one of my favorite bands from my college glory days, Moonpools and Caterpillars. I was singing along with Kimi, identifying with her lyrics, and lamenting my “achin-breakin-beat up-shaken-sorry-blubbering-heart”. That’s when the doorbell rang.

I hesitated. It was nearly noon, and here I was, dancing around the kitchen in my pajamas. The dog barked. The doorbell rang again. I was trapped. I knew the dog would keep barking until the door was answered, and I knew her barks would wake my sleeping baby. I cautiously peeked around the corner of the door and was greeted by a smiling stranger holding a beautiful vase of flowers. Continue reading Sabbath Revival: Broken

Lending a Hand: Deciding How and When to Serve

BettyBalzarhandsServing others is central to declaring Christian faith. How to serve, when to serve and when not to serve is subject to interpretation.  Serving from time to time in Relief Society presidencies gives me additional cause to think about service since I end up observing more need and more acts of service.

How to serve.   Sometimes people serve others based on their particular talents and resources. You know the person with the truck. The person who can cook for a crowd.  The person who can fix a dryer. The person who can revise a resume.  The person who can offer rides.  Other times, the need dictates the service. For example, I am not particularly good at conducting music, cooking, gardening, sewing, or teaching teens, but I have been invited to serve in these areas.

I admit that I am often the person with the hammer who treats every situation like a nail. In other words, I try to find a way to write a newsletter, type a flyer, compose a group email or set up a phone tree—no matter what the best course of action might be.  These acts of communication aren’t always the appropriate way to address a need.

When to serve.  This is a very tricky aspect for me to negotiate. When am I helping and when am I enabling?

Continue reading Lending a Hand: Deciding How and When to Serve