Friday, July 31, 2009

Review: Wondrous Strange by Lesley Livingston

I've lived in New York City for just under a year now and there are still huge swathes of the city I've yet to explore. So on the nice weekends this summer (of which there have been disappointingly few) I'm trying to go out and see new places - especially if I can connect them to a book I'm reading!

I picked up Wondrous Strange because the annotation on the BBYA nominations page mentions A Midsummer Night's Dream. Now, despite being a huuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuge drama geek, I've never been a big fan of Shakespeare. In college I took a 2 week study abroad course on the bard because I had to take a Shakespeare class and 2 weeks in London sounded a hell of a lot better than a semester in a stuffy classroom. However, Midsummer was my first introduction to Shakespeare, way back in 5th grade when I got to be a fairy in the high school's production (being the daughter of their costumer definitely had its perks!). Then, right when the play was about to open, the cartoon Gargoyles started a Midsummer-themed arc featuring Oberon, Titania and Puck prominently.

So even though there is nothing else about Wondrous Strange that would normally appeal to me, I knew I had to pick it up. And as long as I was reading something Shakespearean-esque, why not check out the Shakespeare Garden in Central Park?

(Inscription reads: This bud of love, by summer's ripening breath,/May prove a beauteous flow'r when next we meet)

From what I've read the garden is best viewed in springtime when all of the flowers are in bloom. I had to settle for greenery. Lots and lots of greenery.

I did, however, find a plaque and some plants from Midsummer. Here's my attempt at fitting the book and the plaque into the same photo:

"I know a bank whereon the wild thyme blows/where oxlips and the nodding violet grows/Quite over-canopied with lush woodbine/With sweet musk-roses and with Eglantine" A Midsummer Night's Dream, ii, 1

Mission accomplished, I found a nice grassy shaded area, broke out a picnic lunch, and settled in to read Wondrous Strange, and was very proud of myself that the book all but opens in the very part of Central Park I was sitting in!

Kelley, at 17, has moved to New York City to pursue her dream of acting, and has caught her lucky break when the tempermental star of A Midsummer Night's Dream storms off the stage, forcing stagehand and understudy Kelley to step into the role of the fairy queen Titania. It's Autumn in New York, just days before Halloween - an eerie time in the city. Kelley, already stressed from being pushed suddenly into the spotlight, is further unnerved when she attracts the attention of a mysterious good looking stranger in the park. And then she finds a horse in the reservoir that proceeds to follow her home and take up residence in her apartment's tiny bathtub.

Kelley has unwittingly been wandering through Central Park when the barrier between the human and fairy worlds is at its weakest. The mysterious stranger is Sonny Flannery, one of Auberon's guards of the gate. Sonny is instantly attracted to Kelley, not only for her spunk and good looks - but rather there's an almost otherworldly element to her that Sonny can't get out of his mind - even when he's supposed to be guarding the human world from Queen Mab's minions.

It feels to me like if you've read one girl-meets-fairies story you've probably read them all - it's not a genre that holds my attention particularly well, but the slight Shakespearean element adds a little bit of depth to the story. Only a little bit, because it's not like the story itself mimics Midsummer, rather characters like Auberon (Oberon) and Puck are inserted where, really, any generic fairy king/trickster could have been.

The inclusion of some Midsummer characters did get me thinking, though - Oberon shows up in lots of places in literature - but I can't think of anything outside of the Gargoyles cartoon that features Titania (who personally I've always found more awesome - the only person with the guts to stand up to Oberon. And he could only get her back using magic!). Anyone know of a book where Titania gets to be the star?

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Review: If the Witness Lied by Caroline B. Cooney

Caroline B. Cooney has been writing YA suspense books for ages. Books like The Face on the Milk Carton helped define the genre in its early years and many of her books are (probably rightfully) considered classics. I know in middle school I absolutely devoured the Janie quartet (which starts with The Face on the Milk Carton) - I absolutely couldn't get enough of that poor girl's story.

So picking up Cooney's latest book, If the Witness Lied was in a way like visiting an old friend. The narrative just immediately felt like it was one of her books, even though it's been years since I've read any of them. The characters are all rather upstanding but have some crucial flaw/secret/weight on their shoulders, danger pops up immediately within the first few pages of the book, and its a tightly plotted suspense novel that I read through quickly (started it this morning on the train, read a bit during lunch and then again on the train home, and finished the last quarter of the book in about half an hour at home).

The story follows the four Fountain children - Madison, Jack, "Smithy" and Tris - who within the last three years have witnessed both their mother's and their father's deaths. Their mother died from cancer shortly after giving birth to Tris - she refused chemotherapy during her pregnancy to bring him into the world. A year before the start of the novel, their father died as well - apparently in an accident caused by Tris, earning the family a lengthy stay in the media spotlight thanks to the gristly story of a toddler who caused the deaths of two parents.

In the year since their father's death, the children have split up: Madison lives with her god parents, Smithy ran away to boarding school, while Jack nobly stuck it out and lived at home with Tris and Aunt Cheryl, their mother's stepsister who ingratiated herself into their lives shortly after their mother's death. Aunt Cheryl clearly feels no great love for the children - more than once she's suggested Tris or Jack belong in foster care and has never tried to get Madison or Smithy to move back home. Instead she is obsessed with "fixing up" the house - she's one of those women who watches nothing but home redecorating shows on TV all day. Aunt Cheryl is the witness referred to in the title, as she was the only one to witness the accident that killed the kids' father, thus it was she who placed the blame on Tris.

The day after what would have been their father's birthday, Aunt Cheryl reveals that she has arranged for a reality TV crew to document the family. Jack sees this as "selling" Tristan to TV - again. Coincidentally, the two sisters also feel a pull to come home, uniting the Fountains against the intruding enemy of Aunt Cheryl and Reality TV.

As much as Cooney was a pioneer of YA lit, in some ways this book really felt like it belonged to another era of YA literature. I kept comparing the four siblings to The Boxcar Children - the littlest brother is charming and winning, the oldest brother is the solid, responsible one and the two sisters are pretty much incompetent. Sure they can whip up toast in an effort to feel useful and keep everyone's spirits up, but when it comes to planning and action, they leave it all to Jack (even though he's two years younger than the oldest sister). Perhaps the sisters wouldn't have irked me so much if all the other women in the novel weren't also incompetent and/or evil: we're told right away that Aunt Cheryl is a beastly aunt who apparently wants to remove every little memento of the children's dead parents (she was only a step-sister to their mom, and came into the family when the mom was already an adult), and the neighbor girl is also reliant upon Jack for making plans (and is the only pseudo-motherly influence little Tris has ever known).

All of the adults are largely absent throughout the novel, and when they do appear they are ineffective cardboard cutouts. There's also a bit of preachiness - literally in the form of reflections on religion and appeals to God, and figuratively in the constant diatribes against TV in general. I'm not sure Cooney fully did her research on how reality shows are filmed, either: we meet the associate produce and editor of the show, and they're followed around by a van with a TV antennae on top. In my senior year of college my speech team was followed around by a documentary crew, and I promise there were no creepy white vans with antennae stalking us through tournaments.

This is a quick and relatively engrossing read - if you're already a fan of Cooney's there isn't anything here to put you off. However it probably won't warrant a re-read, nor do I think it's going to stand up as one of her more endearing titles.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Review: Columbine by Dave Cullen

The aftermath of the massacre at Columbine high school totally defined my high school experience. I was in 8th grade at the time and remember being horrified throughout the day as periodically we would get rumors about what had happened out in Colorado. I rushed home from school and parked myself in front of the TV for the rest of the evening. For some reason, when a disaster happens I park myself in front of the news, trying to absorb every bit of information as it comes out (I think this started back in kindergarten, when my mom tells me I was obsessed with the Persian Gulf war and wanted to watch the news about it every night. And kudos to my parents, they let me).

After Columbine, school was different: within a few weeks there was a bomb scare at my middle school, and we watched across campus as visible security measures went up at the high school: cattle gates closing off all but one access to the parking lots during the day, security officers checking visitors in and out of the parking lot, etc. Even as new tragedies befell the nation over the course of my time in high school, Columbine's legacy was felt in all sorts of school policies.

Dave Cullen's tome on the Columbine shootings is the culmination of ten exhaustive years of research. From my perspective, it seems no stone was left unturned. While some of the book was a confirmation of what I already knew (Cassie Bernall most likely never said yes; the trench coat mafia was made up), much of the rest was filled with startling and unsettling revelations. More than once I had to set the book aside and take a break to do something mindless, just so I would stop thinking about it.

Also, reading the book made me totally wreck my nails. I've had a terrible nail biting habit since forever, but usually I only do it when I'm bored. Turns out if I get incredibly anxious I can say bye-bye to my nails as well. All ten finger nails were bitten down to the quick by the time I finished the book. Not my proudest moment.

Back in April, Oprah was going to feature Cullen on a show about Columbine, but decided to pull it because it focused too much on the killers. Cullen's book focuses at least half of its attention on Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris and sometimes disturbingly settles into what Cullen imagines would be their thought or speech patterns. Non-quoted parts of the text curse, call authority figures bastards, etc. The book's chapters alternate between detailing what happened on April 20th, 1999 and afterwards to the survivors and the victims' families and looking at Klebold & Harris prior to the shooting. The text in chapters that aren't about Klebold and Harris doesn't fall into the vernacular of its subjects, so the brief moments where the text does begin to sound like Klebold and Harris sticks out all the more.

For me, this was an absolutely must-read book, and I certainly think it should be required reading (at least in excerpts) for anyone that works in schools as Cullen goes through a lot of effort to debunk the myths of the "profile" or a school shooter. However, it's certainly not an easy read, so have a nice light, fluffy book on the nightstand as well to comfort you when this one gets to be too much.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

REVIEW: School for Dangerous Girls by Eliot Schrefer

For some reason, I always get a kick out of reading books where a character shares my name. I have no idea why - it's one of my weird quirks.

So I was immediately drawn in to the story of Angela Cardenas, a "bad girl" sentenced to Hidden Oaks - a remote boarding school that serves as the last chance for girls that their parents deem dangerous.

The first several chapters are engaging and intriguing, as we watch just how far this school will go to try to control these dangerous girls - from locking them in their rooms and observing them with security cameras, to strange mind games that pit the girls against each other.

There are lots of twists and turns in this book - too many perhaps. Girls disappearing, the mysterious purple thread vs. gold thread standings, ominous warnings from teachers, and a lone teenage guy in a school filled with lonely girls. There's a lot to keep track of, which means that a lot of characters - especially the evil teachers - are never fully fleshed out.

Plus the book has the annoying stylistic quirks of a pulp detective novel. Almost every chapter ends with a cheesey, "ominous" statement, along the lines of "Little did I know, there wouldn't be a next meeting" or "But she wasn't everything she said she was." If they had been occasional additions they would have been fun, but it was a stylistic quirk that was done to death.

And while I don't want to spoil anything, I have to say that the ending of this was completely unsatisfying. There's an exciting plateau...and then an epilogue that skips through several arduous months and just has some telling-not-showing dialogue that says "We did this, and it was hard, and we did that, and THAT was hard, but now we're here!" Everything ties up in too neat of a bow with a real let down in the excitement factor.

I think Schrefer was perhaps going for an old school film noir (book noir?) feeling for this book - a scary, secluded school; rumors of deaths and disasters; evil teachers and absent parents - but wasn't quite committed enough to really pull it off. There were lots of enjoyable elements, but enough uneven parts to make it fall short.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009


While this is a bit of old news around the blogosphere, I hate blogs that get all sensationalistic and then never follow up to let you know what happened. So despite this information being available elsewhere, I wanted to make sure I got it out as well.

The big news: BBYA was not sunsetted. In fact, it looks like early on in the ALA conference the YALSA board decided to move it from an "Action Item" - where a decision would have been made then and there about whether to phase out BBYA by 2011 - to a "Discussion Item." Liz gave some fast and furious notes about what was being said at that discussion. And from what Cindy and Lynn are reporting over at Bookends there was widespread agreement that BBYA needs to be updated (certainly updated before we throw in the towel), but there doesn't seem to be much agreement about what exactly needs to be updated!

Through the YALSA blog I found several posts on BBYA, but one that was absolutely fascinating by mk Eagle. This one gives another rundown of the events of the meeting (poor people trying to edit their passionate reasons for keeping BBYA down to 1-2 minutes! I know when I set out to write my blog post on BBYA, I did not expect it to be the length it ended up!) plus makes a point that I wasn't aware of before. Around the blog- and twittersphere there were lots of librarians/authors/teachers talking up how much they use the BBYA list for reader's advisory/building collections/getting recognition at a small press. But mk Eagle pointed our attention to the list's policies and procedures page - and would you believe that the target audience is not, in fact, librarians? The target audience is YA readers themselves!

To me this means that BBYA's biggest problem might be in the marketing. I don't recall having any idea that the BBYA list existed before Cindy Dobrez got on the committee while I was in high school. Now I have no doubt that she and all of the other librarians I interacted with as a young adult were using the list, and probably books that went on display in my libraries were often picked for display because of that list. But considering how much I rely on the BBYA list now (both in its final form and the nominations list) to help me find books worth reading, I'm sure I would have been glued to the thing in middle school, steadily working my way through the list.

Ultimately, I'm incredibly happy that BBYA has, at least, gotten a bit of a reprieve. It's clearly a valuable list. Very few things in this world are perfect, so I think everyone should be open to the idea of updating BBYA in some way to ensure it stays relevant and on target, but BBYA is definitely a list that should continue to stick around.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Book News: YALSA proposes to eliminate BBYA list

The internet has been all a-twitter this week after it was revealed (rather surreptitiously, apparently) that the director of YALSA has proposed eliminating the Best Books for Young Adults list (link leads to a .pdf file). In its place, according to Liz B is a Best of "Reader's Choice" list (again, link leads to a .pdf file). I have to take her word for it, since I don't get YALSA stuff all formally in a way that would make the connection obvious, but it certainly sounds like this Reader's Choice list is intended in some way to supplant BBYA.

To make it short, I believe this would absolutely be a bad idea.

But let me elaborate.

As I mentioned over at Bookends, being able to be part of BBYA in some small way was seriously one of the highlights of high school, if not my life, and is definitely what inspired me to pursue a career in literature.

I first heard about BBYA about half way through my junior year of high school. The school librarian told me that Mrs. Dobrez was starting some book club for young adult books and thought that I should be a part. I really don't think I knew much more about it before I decided to join. I knew there were going to be lots of books, other people that liked books, and Mrs. Dobrez and Mrs. Rutan, my middle school librarians who I sorely missed at the high school level.

Participating in the "club" was an exhilarating experience for a young geek like me. Mrs. Dobrez was on the BBYA committee, which meant she was being sent new and upcoming books by the box load. To help gauge interest in the books and to share the wealth, she and Mrs. Rutan started the BBYA reader's group where students from 6th through 12th grade (and eventually higher - even once we'd graduated high school several of us found ways to keep coming back!) could grab new books and eventually share our opinions on them with other readers and, perhaps most excitingly, have our opinions heard by the BBYA committee at the ALA conferences. Mostly these opinions were relayed by Mrs. Dobrez or Mrs. Rutan via the feedback cards we diligently filled out for all the books we read (ironic: I couldn't be bothered to keep track of what I was reading back when I was doing summer reading clubs through the local library, but give me the chance at my opinions on books reaching a national audience and suddenly I became extremely meticulous!). But on a few rare occasions, we students got to make the trek to the ALA summer conference and share our opinions directly with the BBYA committee.

I got to go to ALA twice - first I made my poor mom drive me all the way down to Atlanta so I could not only share my opinions on the panel, but meet Sara Ryan, whose book Empress of the World pretty literally changed my life (I read it seven times in the week I borrowed it from BBYA and I will still re-read it eagerly. I also used it for pretty much any college project for a couple of years that could be manipulated to be about a YA book). I felt like such a star-struck fangirl. First I nearly passed out when Mrs. Dobrez introduced me to Sara Ryan, and then I distinctly remember walking around the conference hall with Mrs. Dobrez and Mrs. Rutan. They paused for a moment to talk to some people they knew and I remember glancing at the nametag of one woman to discover it was E.R. Frank. I felt like I was in Hollywood or something, rubbing elbows with all of these famous people!

Attending that first ALA conference was the first time, I think, that I realized that librarians actually do stuff outside of the library. It's not all checking out books, giving endless booktalks, and shushing rowdy kids (although, as I learned from the internship I did my senior year with Mrs. Dobrez and Mrs. Rutan, there is plenty of that!). Librarians not only get all the cool books and meet the cool people, but can really play a part in getting obscure books into the hands of people who need them (Alex Flinn explains this from an author's perspective here).

Actually contributing to the BBYA panel was a real trip, lol. The teen presentation day fell on father's day, which meant pretty much all of the local teens dropped out at the last minute. They'd managed to rope in a random group of kids who were attending the conference, I believe, to see the Printz winners. Which meant they were a well read bunch of kids, but they'd all read the same books. Meanwhile, I had been systematically plowing through as many of the nominated titles as I could. I think on the handout they gave us of all the nominated titles there were ten titles per page, and I regularly found that I had read 6-9 of the titles on every page. I felt so self-conscious after it quickly became clear that I had easily out-read all of the other kids there that I made myself pick only one book per page that I felt really strongly about. Usually strongly positive - Mrs. Dobrez remembered that I'd had a very negative reaction to Three Clams and an Oyster and made me share my opinions with the whole group, lol. It was a heady experience, and one I'll absolutely never forget.

A few years later I got to go back to ALA when it was in Chicago (much shorter road trip this time!). I was officially "too old" to be a teen reader, but the current crop of BBYA readers was going and I was old enough to be considered a chaperon. So one sunny summer day I climbed on a bus with a bunch of middle and high school kids to play grown up while they shared their opinions with the BBYA panel. The kids ran the gamut of "young adult," from middle to high school. Most of the high school kids had been middle schoolers when we started BBYA, and most of us could hardly string together a more coherent sentence than "I really liked this book. It was cool and exciting. I liked the main character" when sharing with each other at our weekly meetings. So it was great to go into the teen BBYA panel and see these kids be able to give concise and precise reviews of exactly why any particular book should or should not be part of the final BBYA list. Even the younger kids held their own - undoubtedly they had learned by the example of the older members.

From the comments over at Bookends, it's obvious that a lot of people feel passionately about the BBYA list. Teachers and librarians alike use the list to decide what books should be added to their school libraries. They use it to justify adding books to the curriculum. BBYA doesn't rely strictly on popularity, which means that obscure books or controversial books have just as much of a chance of being recognized as heavy weights like Harry Potter. But for me, BBYA has touched me on a much more personal level. I hope to one day be one of those librarians who relies on BBYA - or maybe even be one of those who gets to vote on the list. Or maybe I'll be an editor at a small publisher, who finds that a little gem of a book has a chance at wider recognition because the BBYA committee is considering it at a conference. I don't know where exactly I will end up, but I know I will end up there in no small part because of what I learned as a teen reader for BBYA.

Update: YALSA board member Michele Gorman tries to calm things down over here, clarifying that this is only a proposal at this point, and saying that the Reader's Choice list is not intended to be a replacement for BBYA, since neither proposal mentions the other. I think the assumption that the Reader's Choice is a replacement is because a) the two proposals appear consecutively (which could just be a coincidence) and b) the Reader's Choice list would appear to be the only opportunity for a general best-of-YA-lit list. Reader's Choice could certainly co-exist with BBYA, but if it comes into being just as BBYA is phased out, it will be seen as a pretty poor replacement.
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