zenn scarlett: author interview & giveaway

Saturday, April 27, 2013 | | 5 comments
Young adult sci-fi is hitting the big time, and I am one hundred percent behind the trend.  I’m trying to read more YA sci-fi in 2013, so when I heard about Christian Schoon’s Zenn Scarlett, a book featuring a girl living in a cloister on Mars and learning to be an alien veterinarian, I knew I had to learn more.  Zenn is one of the most fascinating and unique sci-fi books I’ve ever picked up.  Joining me today for an interview is Christian Schoon, the author who created Zenn Scarlett (and stay tuned until the end – there’ll be a giveaway!).

christian schoon author photo
Born in the American Midwest, Christian started his writing career in earnest as an in-house writer at the Walt Disney Company in Burbank. He then became a freelance writer working for various film, home video and animation studios in Los Angeles. After moving from LA to a farmstead in Iowa several years ago, he continues to freelance and also now helps re-hab wildlife and foster abused/neglected horses. He acquired his amateur-vet knowledge interacting with animals ranging from black bears and cougars to Burmese pythons, alligators and other exotic and local critters.

1) Your book features Zenn Scarlett (she of title fame), who is studying to be an exoveterinarian.  How did you decide to feature alien veterinary science?
 Two-part answer: 1. I’ve been a deeply ardent science fiction consumer since grade school (anyone remember “Rusty’s Space Ship”  illustrated and written by Evelyn Sibley Lampman? A masterpiece of genuine all-wooden spacecraft adventure, to my 4th grade mind.) And 2. I’ve also been an animal person from my earliest memories. More recently, after moving to a farmstead with lots of pastures, barns and outbuildings, I started volunteering with several different horse rescue and wildlife rehab groups. So, I found myself interacting with veterinarians and accumulating some amateur vet know-how. Zenn Scarlett is the love-child of these two passions.

2) I'm sure you had to do extensive research for this book, because even though it features alien biology, it's still biology.  What was a surprising/disgusting/extremely cool discovery you made while writing Zenn Scarlett's story?
Actually, writing the “biology” sections of the book took less research than some of the “Martian environment sections.” My long-term interest in animals also included a fascination with the astounding organic machinery that makes life work. I mean, if you stop and give serious thought to the details of what your own body doing right this second, it borders on the incomprehensible. How your eyes have adaptive lenses to deliver this picture of the world to the retina and zip it along to the parts of the brain that construct what you’re seeing on the screen in front of you, how your heart moves blood through miles of veins and arteries, how the arteries grew along their miles of pathways in the first place, the way evolution basically took sea water and, over a few millions of millions of years, morphed that water into blood… I could go on. And on. But, it was of course enjoyable to extrapolate known biologies into the alienesque, stealing from a prehistoric architecture of, say, a plesiosaur and incorporating it into something like a Tanduan swamp sloo. That sort of blending is always cool. As for disgusting, what happens when Zenn administers a vaccination to a big, lumbering yote comes from experience with animals that have a crop, like some birds of prey. They hold food in the crop for a while before swallowing it. Zenn should’ve stood a little further back after giving Ernie his shot….

3) I know you are a big fan of sci-fi - what are your favorite YA sci-fi titles?
 Just a few faves would be Pullman’s His Dark Materials series, the classic Edgar Rich Burrough’s Princess of Mars/John Carter Barsoom books (and, unlike some, I thought Disney’s John Carter was a grand movie in the swash-and-buckle genre), Jonathan Howard’s Katya’s World, A Wrinkle in Time, Revis’s Across the Universe, Kim Curran’s Shift, too many more to remember, let alone name!  

4) Do you have any hidden (or not so hidden) superpowers?
 My superpower, bestowed on me by the color of Earth’s moon since the moonlight on my homeworld is paisley, is the ability to understand the languages of most animals. It turns out that, much of the time, they’re saying “Treat-Monkey! You are SO not getting me any food right now. What’s up with THAT?”

5) If you could host a dinner party for any fictional literary characters, who would you invite and what would you serve?
Well, let’s keep this initial gathering small and intimate, so that everyone gets a chance to speak up…
I’d send out invitations to Merlin from T.H. White’s The Once and Future King (because, well, MERLIN!),  Ford Prefect from HHGTTG (this guy has been places and I wanna hear about ‘em), the gruff-but-irresistible polar bear Iorek Byrnison (I wanna hear whatever he’s got to say),  Jones, the war vet from Neuromancer (I hear he cleaned up his act and is now counseling other dolphins) and, of course, Death from The Book Thief, because I have some questions for him. I’d serve my world-famous, simmered-all-afternoon rigatoni Bolognese. Crème brûlée for dessert.  Champagne for everyone. Except Death. Sorry, but why chance it?

6) What books are on your nightstand (or wherever you keep your to-read pile) right now?

I’ve only got a few that are physically on the nightstand right now: Redshirts by Scalzi and Ashfall by Mike Mullin (who was kind enough to give Zenn Scarlett a really marvelous endorsement). In ebookery, I’m chomping at the bit to dig into my advance copy of T.L. Costa’s SF thriller Playing Tyler. And I also need to snap up E.C. Meyer’s Fair Coin and Quantum Coin, which have such a grand premise: what if your choices in life had a re-do button?

Thanks for answering those questions, Christian!  If you’d like to learn more about Christian, check out his website or follow him on twitter.  Zenn Scarlett will be released by Strange Chemistry/Angry Robot Books on May 7, 2013. 

Want a copy of Zenn Scarlett for yourself?  Enter the giveaway!  Simply fill out the FORM.  One winner will receive a copy of the book courtesy of the folks at Strange Chemistry.  Giveaway open internationally, will end at 11:59pm EST on May 6, 2013.  Winner will be selected randomly and notified via email.  Prize provided and mailed by publisher.  Good luck!

Fine print: giveaway courtesy of Strange Chemistry.


Thursday, April 18, 2013 | | 6 comments
How many books have you read with a desert setting?  I’ve read more than I thought – I kept recalling more titles, more stories, all disparate but with the common thread of a background in a dry and parched land.  My latest read conjured memories of Robin McKinley’s Daria, Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series, the 1990 Newbery Honor book Shabanu: Daughter of the Wind, Leon Uris’ The Haj and James Michener’s The Source.  Of course, it is not really like any of those books.  But it turns out that if you combine a desert, fantasy, mythology, and a uniquely beautiful cover, I’m hooked. I certainly couldn’t turn down Sarah Beth Durst’s Vessel.

vessel by sarah beth durst book cover
Liyana has trained her entire life to be the vessel of a goddess. She will dance and summon her tribe's deity, who will inhabit Liyana's body and use magic to bring rain to the desert. But when the dance ends, Liyana is still there. Her tribe is furious--and sure that it is Liyana's fault. Abandoned by her tribe, Liyana expects to die in the desert. Until a boy walks out of the dust in search of her.

Korbyn is a god inside his vessel, and a trickster god at that. He tells Liyana that five other gods are missing, and they set off across the desert in search of the other vessels. The desert tribes cannot survive without the magic of their gods. But the journey is dangerous, even with a god’s help. And not everyone is willing to believe the trickster god’s tale.

The closer she grows to Korbyn, the less Liyana wants to disappear to make way for her goddess. But she has no choice--she must die for her tribe to live. Unless a trickster god can help her to trick fate--or a human girl can muster some magic of her own.

Ever since her Dreamwalk, Liyana has known her fate: she’ll serve as a vessel for the goddess of her nomadic desert clan.  She learned the dances, she has the ritual tattoos, and today is the day to give up life to serve Bayla and her people. Liyana’s world is shattered when she performs the ritual but the goddess doesn’t come.  Abandoned by her clan to face the desert alone, she joins forces with Korbyn, who claims he is the manifestation of the Crow god.  Korbyn brings news that the gods are disappearing from the desert, and unless Liyana and he can discover why, the desert people are doomed. 

The mythology, storytelling and traditional folklore in Vessel were its high points.  Durst created a unique world with a fractured history and thousands of years of backstory.  This lent the novel an epic air, all while Liyana and her companions were facing immediate challenges to their survival, among them gathering enough water and avoiding the desert’s other dangers.

Vessel’s opening scene is one of the finest I’ve read in a YA title in a long while.  It features Liyana’s last day before fulfilling her fate and becoming her clan’s willing sacrifice to their deity.  She says goodbye to each member of her clan, bottling emotion, keeping her thoughts in check, and savoring the last of the world she believes she’ll see.  Unfortunately, Durst’s pacing through the rest of the book is a bit uneven.  The basis of the plot movement is a cross-desert journey, and at times emotion or action flag (or even seem misplaced).

Another weakness (which we might put down to personal preference) was the inclusion of a second viewpoint.  The story, while it hit a rough patch or two, was still fairly focused to that time, and I felt that the additional voice threw it sideways a couple of steps.  My final grumble was due to a resolution that was just a little faster than I wanted (again, personal preference). 

While I cannot claim that my reading experience was perfect, Vessel and Liyana surprised and impressed me in many ways.  The mythology and interplay of god/human relations was fascinating, the setting distinctive, and the description of Liyana’s emotion and character clear and direct.

Recommended for: fans of Kristin Cashore’s Graceling and Alexandra Bracken’s Brightly Woven, and anyone with an interest in unusual mythology and setting combined with young adult fantasy.

waiting on wednesday (52)

Today I’m participating in "Waiting On" Wednesday, a weekly event hosted by Jill at Breaking the Spine. Its purpose is to spotlight upcoming book releases that we’re eagerly anticipating.

Diana Peterfreund’s For Darkness Shows the Stars was on my list of best books of 2012. I called it “a masterfully written novel that explores the nature of love, duty and evolution.”  It also just so happened to be a retelling of one of my favorite books of all time, Persuasion by Jane Austen.  I admit that I thought to myself, ‘how is she ever going to top that?!’  Then, of course, I found out that Peterfreund’s next book was a retelling of The Scarlet Pimpernel, set in the same world as For Darkeness Shows the Stars.  I died.  I am dead.  The Scarlet Pimpernel was ANOTHER obsession of mine – from high school.  I cannot count how many times I’ve read it, and I cannot flipping wait to read this retelling.  Across A Star-Swept Sea will be released by Balzer + Bray (HarperCollins) on October 15, 2013.

across a star-swept sea by diana peterfreund book coverCenturies after wars nearly destroyed civilization, the two islands of New Pacifica stand alone, a terraformed paradise where even the Reduction—the devastating brain disorder that sparked the wars—is a distant memory. Yet on the isle of Galatea, an uprising against the ruling aristocrats has turned deadly. The revolutionaries’ weapon is a drug that damages their enemies’ brains, and the only hope is rescue by a mysterious spy known as the Wild Poppy. 

On the neighboring island of Albion, no one suspects that the Wild Poppy is actually famously frivolous aristocrat Persis Blake. The teenager uses her shallow, socialite trappings to hide her true purpose: her gossipy flutternotes are encrypted plans, her pampered sea mink is genetically engineered for spying, and her well-publicized new romance with handsome Galatean medic Justen Helo… is her most dangerous mission ever. 

Though Persis is falling for Justen, she can’t risk showing him her true self, especially once she learns he’s hiding far more than simply his disenchantment with his country’s revolution and his undeniable attraction to the silly socialite he’s pretending to love. His darkest secret could plunge both islands into a new dark age, and Persis realizes that when it comes to Justen Helo, she’s not only risking her heart, she’s risking the world she’s sworn to protect. 

In this thrilling adventure inspired by The Scarlet Pimpernel, Diana Peterfreund creates an exquisitely rendered world where nothing is as it seems and two teens with very different pasts fight for a future only they dare to imagine.

What books are you waiting on?

top ten favorite books from my pre-blogging days

Tuesday, April 9, 2013 | | 22 comments
Top Ten Tuesday is a meme hosted by The Broke and the Bookish, where we all get to exercise our OCD tendencies and come up with bookish lists.  If you’d like to play along, check out this post.

top ten tuesday

It was fairly easy to come up with a list of favorite books from my pre-blogging days.  I visualized my childhood bedroom (which I shared with my sister) and the books that never made it out into the many bookcases around our house.  The titles that stayed in the bedroom were ones I read over and over and over again.  That’s what I do with my favorites – I re-read them to pieces.  In the case of my first pick, quite literally. *grin*  Don’t worry, I’ve found an identical replacement copy!

Top Ten Favorite Books From My Pre-Blogging Days

1. A Girl of the Limberlost by Gene Stratton Porter – I've read this one more than twenty times.  It’s about a girl growing up in rural Indiana at the turn of the century, and it has exquisite descriptions of the natural world as well as coming of age and an epic romance.  Recommended for anyone who liked Louisa May Alcott or L.M. Montgomery.

2. The Blue Sword by Robin McKinley – Possibly the first ‘serious’ fantasy that I fell into, soul-first.  The heroine Harry doesn’t fit in her world, and must make her way among an unfamiliar people in an unfamiliar land.  Straight magic.

3. Sabriel by Garth Nix – This book melts my face off.  Young heroine must leave exclusive school to travel into death, rebind ancient evil, and out-clever an elemental?  Oh yes.  Funny, smart and full of nail-biting tension.

4. Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman – Neil Gaiman has written some rather fabulous things, but this is my favorite.  It’s dark and sharp and crazy good.

5. Calico Captive by Elizabeth George Speare – A book based on a true account of an early colonial settler abducted by Native Americans during wartime and sold in French Quebec.  By the author of The Witch of Blackbird Pond.  For a history-obsessed young reader, this was book crack.

6. Alphabet of Thorn by Patricia McKillip – A fantasy that stars a young librarian obsessed with languages?  Be still my little beating heart.  Oh, how I loved the lyrical writing and obsession with language.  Still do, in fact.

7. Persuasion by Jane Austen – This was always my favorite Austen book, maybe because Anne has such a rich interior life.  Introverts, unite!

8. Snow White and Rose Red by Patricia C. Wrede – Written initially as part of a series of fairy tales for adults, Wrede’s placement of the traditional story in the time and language of Elizabethan England enchanted me.

9. Phoenix and Ashes by Mercedes Lackey – While it is the third installment in Lackey’s Elemental Masters series, it is by far my favorite.  The classic Cinderella tale is reborn during WWI, with aeroplanes, magic and curses.

10. Quo Vadis by Henryk Sienkiewicz – This epic about Rome under Nero’s rule captured my imagination in high school.  I loved the high drama, the complex story, the multitude of plots and characters.  When I remember this book, I think of how much a reader's tastes can change over time.

If you are a blogger, what were your favorite books in your pre-blogging days?  If you don’t blog, what were your favorite books in high school?

written in red

Monday, April 8, 2013 | | 2 comments
I have read Anne Bishop before, and I really enjoyed the worlds and characters she created (I read her Ephemera series).  Even so, I was skeptical when I saw her name on the cover of what looked like a very stereotypical adult paranormal fantasy.  I have read some great titles in the genre, but in between I have had to weed my way through plenty of ‘did not finish’ books, sometimes after I’d been promised a rip-roaring good time. 

What convinced me to pick up Written in Red, then?  Another reader’s reaction.  Wendy Darling of The Midnight Garden wrote an amazingly positive review and I thought: I’m on a werewolf kick anyway (The Silvered, The Shape of Desire), this is Anne Bishop, readers I trust loved it, and I like the sound of the set up.  Dear goodness, am I glad I bought in.  I read the book all in one (very long) night, and I thought and dreamt about it for several following.  Tonight I’m feeling a strong compulsion to re-read it as I write this review.  Friends, Written in Red is addictive.

written in red by anne bishop book cover
No one creates realms like New York Times bestselling author Anne Bishop. Now in a thrilling new fantasy series, enter a world inhabited by the Others, unearthly entities—vampires and shape-shifters among them—who rule the Earth and whose prey are humans. 

As a cassandra sangue, or blood prophet, Meg Corbyn can see the future when her skin is cut—a gift that feels more like a curse. Meg’s Controller keeps her enslaved so he can have full access to her visions. But when she escapes, the only safe place Meg can hide is at the Lakeside Courtyard—a business district operated by the Others.

Shape-shifter Simon Wolfgard is reluctant to hire the stranger who inquires about the Human Liaison job. First, he senses she’s keeping a secret, and second, she doesn’t smell like human prey. Yet a stronger instinct propels him to give Meg the job. And when he learns the truth about Meg and that she’s wanted by the government, he’ll have to decide if she’s worth the fight between humans and the Others that will surely follow.

Meg Corbyn is a blood prophet.  When her skin is broken, she sees visions – valuable ones.  In her world, that means that her body is a product and her life is not her own.  When Meg escapes from her Controller and stumbles on the preserve of the Others, she thinks she’s found a reprieve.  The Others, who are elementals, shifters and beings that have no name, make a place for Meg.  But Meg’s keepers want her back, and the Others, led by Simon Wolfgard, will have to decide how far they will go to protect this human, and what it may mean for their world if they decide to keep her for their own.

As a character, Meg is a bit of a blank slate.  She’s been enslaved her entire life, and a lot of her experiences in this book are ‘firsts.’  She’s putting intellectual knowledge together with real life, and sometimes it adds up to four, and sometimes to five.  That said, she has strong convictions, a moral sensibility that remains unshaken, and a way of making connections with those who would frighten anyone else.  It is this last quality that wins her a place in the Lakeside Courtyard, and that makes others so willing to fight for her.  While I liked Meg in this installment, I can’t wait to see what she’ll do next with more history and practical experience under her belt.   And please, PLEASE Ms. Bishop include a romantic plotline sometime soon (though i completely understand why there isn’t in this book. she’s just so new to making decisions!).

What really shines in this book?  The world building, the politics, and the community of Others.  Bishop has created an alternate New World peopled by terra indigene, paranormal creatures who view humans as interlopers and prey.  This makes for a skewed power balance, as humans are the minority population, and they depend on the Others for resources and, essentially, permission to live.  The politics of this, the working out of who lives and who dies and the whys and wherefores behind those decisions is absolutely fascinating.  Pair it with unscrupulous humans in control of a force of blood prophets, and portrayals of damaged and lonely people, and you have a setting fraught with tension and emotion.

In the midst of all of that, Meg and the rest of the characters grapple with fundamental questions of the human experience: What will fear lead you to do? What does kindness mean, and how is it experienced differently person to person?  What is the relationship between image and truth?  It is absolutely gripping reading.

If I have a quibble (and I don’t, really), it is that you get to know everyone and their motivations except for the villains.  This is another thing that further volumes in the series may address.  Do I really want to empathize even the tiniest bit with these bad guys?  No.  They’re all evil all the time.  So even my objection is a non-issue.  In case I didn’t bring this home to you before, Written in Red is excellent. Read it!  And please ignore that cover art.  Okay, I’m done.

Recommended for: fans of Emma Bull, Wen Spencer and Michelle Sagara, and those who like fantasy books full of issues, tension, and unforgettable world building.

middle grade march wrap-up

Sunday, April 7, 2013 | | 0 comments
We’re already a week into April, but I never did a wrap-up of Middle Grade March, so this is it.  At the beginning of the month I had a long list of planned blog posts, lots of catch-up reading, and some pretty impressive (read: unattainable) goals.  Life happened.  And that’s okay!

middle grade march

I reviewed (and liked) Lisa Graff’s A Tangle of Knots, Philip Reeve’s Larklight and Neil Gaiman’s Odd and the Frost Giants.  I also reviewed Kelly Barnhill’s Iron Hearted Violet, which had some interesting fairy tale elements but didn’t work for me in the end. 

In addition to a couple of giveaways and posts about books I’m looking forward to, I made a couple of lists.  The Top Ten Middle Grade Books I Had To Buy…But Remain Unread and the Top Ten Middle Grade Books I Recommend Most are full of books I hope to read or suggest often to others as sure bets.

March was about reading at my own pace and finding new and wonderful middle grade fantasy.  I’ll be back next year for more!  

blackberry buttermilk cake

Blackberries remind me of thorn-scratched hands, warm summer days, and juices bursting on the tongue while picking berries off the vine.  I rarely buy them because they never seem as good as fresh and foraged.  Last week when I saw blackberries in the produce aisle at my grocery store it seemed like a promise that summer is coming, so I purchased a package.  Then I went to the internet for a blackberry recipe.  I was distracted by cake.  That turned out to be a good thing.

Blackberry Buttermilk Cake (adapted from this Bon Apetit recipe)


3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature, plus more for pan and parchment
2 1/3 cups flour, plus more for pan
2 1/2 cups (10 ounces) fresh blackberries
1/4 cup plus 1 1/3 cups sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
3 large eggs, room temperature
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
zest of one small lemon
1 cup buttermilk
powdered sugar (for dusting)


Position a rack in middle of oven and preheat to 350° F. Butter pan; line bottom with a round of parchment paper. Butter parchment. Dust with flour; tap out excess. Arrange berries in a single layer in bottom of pan; sprinkle evenly with 1/4 cup sugar.

Combine 2 1/3 cups flour, baking powder, salt, and baking soda into a medium bowl, whisk  and set aside. Using an electric mixer, beat 3/4 cup butter and remaining 1 1/3 cups sugar in a large bowl at medium-high speed, occasionally scraping down sides of bowl, until pale and fluffy, about 2 minutes. 

Add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Beat in vanilla and zest. Reduce speed to low; beat in flour mixture in 3 additions, alternating with buttermilk in 2 additions, beginning and ending with flour mixture and beating just until incorporated. Pour batter over berries in pan; smooth top.

Bake until cake is golden brown and toothpick inserted in center comes out clean, about 1 hour 10 minutes for a 9" pan (check continuously from 45 minutes on, as oven temperatures vary).  Let cool in pan for 15 minutes, then run a thin, sharp knife around the edge of the pan to loosen. If the cake rose past sides of pan, cut off excess so that cake will sit level on plate.  Invert on cake plate and remove pan. Peel off parchment. Dust top generously with powdered sugar and let cool completely.

Note: the original recipe called for a springform pan, and though that may have made it easier to invert, I had no problems using a traditional pan.  Also, I don’t have a KitchenAid, but a simple two-beater mixer works just fine.

Recommended for: a delectable and polished dessert for those who prefer cakes without icing, and as a perfect accompaniment to a spring tea or light summer supper.

Interested in other food-related posts?  Check out Beth Fish Reads’ Weekend Cooking.
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