Zombies vs. Unicorns by various authors, edited by Holly Black and Justine Larbalestier

Ah, anthologies!  I do love them and really should read more. I get to try out new authors and put the book down in nice short story length increments. Zombies vs. Unicorns started as a online argument on Justine Larbalestier’s blog, and then became a book. The humor in this “fight” shines through in the first pages where Holly Black and Justine Larbalestier discuss how the book came about, and again in their introductions before every story. It was fun to hear the argument from both sides as to whether zombies or unicorns are the better creature.

This review is for an ARC copy I received at BEA. Zombies vs. Unicorns comes out September 21st, 2010

My reviews are going to be brief impressions for each of the 12 stories as I read along.

1) The Highest Justice by Garth Nix – This is the story of a princess who calls the aid of a unicorn to avenge the death of her mother. I think this is a Team Unicorn story, but it’s hard to tell. Pretty straight forward revenge tale, with perhaps a little more violence than the princess bargained for. I think the author may have been aiming for a bit of “fairy tale creatures may be noble but extreme views of right and wrong are also rather creepy”, and he got it.

2) Love Will Tear Us Apart by Alaya Dawn Johnson – A teenage zombie finds himself going against his instincts when it comes to another teenage boy because of their shared love of Joy Division. A star-crossed lovers sort of tale, full of music references. Made me really want mac and cheese. Romantic yet grisly and perhaps doomed (or perhaps not).

3) Purity Test by Naomi Novik – a drunk teen girl on a park bench in New York City is accosted by a unicorn looking for a virgin to help him on his mission. This was a funny and cute one. The sarcastic banter plus their creative problem solving were very entertaining.

4) Bougainvillea by Carrie Ryan – A dystopian zombie tale with the sheltered teenaged daughter of a powerful man as the protagonist. Loved the dystopian feel and the way this ends in a turning point for the protagonist. I wanted more. I also liked how the story jumps back and forth between past and present, but it was presented clearly. Good sense of place – even Papiamento (a creole language spoken in Curaçao) was interspersed (but I had trouble figuring out what the words meant since it was just off of what I knew to be Spanish).

5) A Thousand Flowers by Margo Lanagan – Set in a medieval setting, this short story has three narrators who each witness a small part what happens to a princess after a mysterious event in the forest. This has some questionable bits in it  (lovely prose sort of shields you from a high ew factor). Haunting with a ‘ghost story’ vibe.

6) The Children of the Revolution by Maureen Johnson – a teen follows her boyfriend to a summer job in a farm in England, and meets some zombies.. a tongue-in-cheek story that has an interesting take on who and what could start a zombie epidemic.

7) The Care and Feeding of Your Baby Killer Unicorn by Diana Peterfreund – I believe this is set in the same world as Peterfreund’s Killer Unicorn series (unicorns were once extinct but have reappeared and certain girls have the power to hunt them). The narrator is a teen girl who is an untrained unicorn hunter, so they are drawn to her. One has already killed her cousins. This story had some good growing pains – questioning parents and beliefs, and felt like it could be the seed of a whole book. Liked this one.

8 ) Inoculata by Scott Westerfeld – This is about teens post-zombie-apocalypse living in a gated, zee-free farm with some adults that have protected them. Surrounding the chain mail fence are zombies waiting outside. Interesting take on a communal life after escaping the zombie horde from a teen POV (which includes teen rebellion and crushes). Another one where I wished I could find out what happened next.

9) Princess Prettypants by Meg Cabot –  A teen gets a unicorn for her 17th birthday. A glowing, farting rainbows kind of unicorn. I think Cabot had a lot of fun creating a unicorn that fits an extreme schoolgirl fantasy, and giving it to a teenaged girl who’s been a little bit jaded by life. I liked this one. Fun but also with a bit of a message for girls.

10) Cold Hands by Cassandra Clare – The girlfriend of the Duke-to-Be witnesses her boyfriend die and then come back to life in Lychgate, a town cursed to have it’s dead come back to life. This had a modern-day fairytale feeling to it, with a combination of Old World traditions in a place that has modern day technology. The ending is an odd combination of both comforting and creepy.

11) The Third Virgin by Kathleen Duey – This is told from the first person POV of a unicorn who has lived a long time and although he can heal people, there’s a price for it. He’s been wandering the world looking for the perfect combination of purity and need. I don’t think I really understood this unicorn but I’m glad I didn’t. This story speaks to a dark place.

12) Prom Night by Libba Bray – Another post zombie-apocalypse story, where the adults are all gone and teens keep the town running. The story is told from the first person POV of a teen who stepped in as law enforcement as the kids in town gear up for the Prom. This was a tale which I thought had an interesting message about hope and survival when there is none.

Overall: There was a consistent level of quality in these stories that impressed me. I don’t think I encountered a dud in the bunch and every one left me with something to think about. This is one of the better anthologies I’ve read in a while, although I would warn that much of it is grim and gory and there are only a couple of light stories. I tried to decide which were my favorites and really had a hard time. I finally settled on Meg Cabot’s for my favorite light story, Margo Lanagan’s for my favorite dark (and disturbing), and Diana Peterfreund’s for something in between. Uh oh, all unicorn tales… let the hate mail from Team Zombie begin.

Buy: Amazon | Powell’s

Other reviews:
The Book Smugglers – various ratings for each story, 7 overall (very good) –  with a giveaway that ends Sat August 21st.
Karissa’s Reading Review – “An above average collection of stories”

Since there are SO many dystopian stories in the bunch..

Suite Scarlett by Maureen Johnson

Suite Scarlett
Maureen Johnson

This is a review for the audiobook of Suite Scarlett provided by Brilliance Audio in the goodie bags at the Book Blogger Convention
The Premise: The Martin family has owned and run the Hopewell, a small, struggling boutique hotel in the Upper East Side since the late 1920s.  The Spencer siblings Scarlett (15), Lola (18), Spencer (19), and Marlene (11), all have their roles in keeping the hotel running, and on her 15th Birthday, Scarlett inherits the Empire Suite and it’s eccentric guest, Amy Amberson.  Mrs. Amberson is a C-list starlet with a penchant for mischievousness and drama, and soon Scarlett’s summer is made very busy by Mrs. Amberson’s schemes. In the meantime, Scarlett’s brother, a struggling actor, has been given a deadline by their parents to find a job or go to culinary school, and he needs Scarlett’s help. Top this all off with a prospective romance and complex sibling dynamics, and you have Scarlett Martin’s crazy summer vacation.

My Thoughts: Things just seem to happen around Scarlett. She doesn’t go looking for trouble, but because of the impetuous plans of people around her (or just pure luck), Scarlett keeps finding herself involved in quirky capers. First there’s Mrs. Amberson. A woman with perhaps too much time on her hands, Mrs Amberson loves a project,  and just sweeps Scarlett into her vortex, ignoring any protests that Scarlett makes. Then there is Spencer. Spencer is Scarlett’s older brother, but he often relies on Scarlett’s ideas to creativity solve problems.  His current one is trying to avoid going to culinary school so he can fulfill his dream of being an actor. Spencer is a very good physical actor with excellent comedic timing, but he just can’t get a job except for a non-paying gig in a parking garage in a student production of Hamlet. Somehow he and Scarlett have to spin this to the Martin parents.  Between these two, Scarlett is very busy, and the charming story is propelled along.

While the story at it’s surface is about Scarlett’s job at the hotel and trying to help her brother fulfill his dream of being an actor instead of being forced into culinary school, it really feels like the book is about the Martin siblings. It’s obvious from the very beginning that Scarlett and her brother Spencer are very close – they hang out together and have a comfortable banter that you only get with prolonged exposure. Lola and Marlene are paired off in a similar way, but have a different dynamic – Lola is the one who has the most patience in the face of Marlene’s brattiness and takes Marlene to all Marlene’s functions. The dynamic between Lola and Spencer, and Marlene, Spencer, and Scarlett, is less clear cut. There’s the usual teasing, bartering, sharing and arguing among siblings, but there’s some history and underlying issues that sometimes surface. That they are all growing up together and things are not always simple and expected between them was something I really liked. I thought it was an accurate portrayal of siblinghood.

The best example of this sibling dynamics is Spencer’s reaction to his sister’s love interests. Spencer never seems to approve of Lola’s boyfriend – a very rich kid who has a chauffeured car, a yacht, and needs Lola to help him with everything. Then when Spencer introduces Eric, a fellow actor in the young college troupe, and he and Scarlett show signs of interest in one another, Spencer reacts oddly. The fallout between siblings because of the romances and the messiness of the romances themselves was well written and they felt real to me. Too often young adult stories simplify the process of liking someone and then being with them. In this book, romantic relationships are as complex and occasionally baffling as real life. As a older (ahem, I mean not a teen myself) reader I admit being concerned about the age difference between Scarlett and Eric (I think he’s 18 or 19 and she’s just turned 15 – when you’re a teen those years count), but I liked the way that their relationship was handled.

Now a couple of comments about the audiobook. I thought that the voice actor did an excellent job with the reading, but I preferred her voice when reading the dialog of female characters over males. There’s a very obvious difference between characters voices and I particularly liked the voice she used as Mrs. Amberson (it has a clear, decisive quality) and Lola (which was quieter and sounded nurturing), but the teen boys – Eric and Spencer sounded strange. Eric is supposed to have a North Carolina accent and I’m still not sure that what I heard was quite it. Spencer sounded very goofy, and I think I would have imagined his voice to be less exuberant and to have a softer wit.

This series continues with Scarlett Fever.

Overall: A charming young adult novel. It maintains an easy balance between quirkiness and moments of depth – particularly in the sibling dynamics and romantic relationships. Listening to this audiobook was the most pleasant 2 weeks I’ve ever had commuting.

Buy: Amazon | Powell’s | The Book Depository (PB)
Buy the Audiobook

Other reviews:
The Book Smugglers – 7 (Very Good)
Angieville – positive review
Tempting Persephone – positive review