Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Review: Tropical Secrets by Margarita Engle

After a positive experience with Because I Am Furniture, when I discovered I'd picked up another novel-in-verse format, I didn't immediately groan. Hey, maybe the genre really has grown since I first discovered it in high school, and the poetry really can work!

Mmm, maybe not.

Tropical Secrets follows four people in late 1930s-early 1940s Cuba: Daniel, David, Paloma and El Gordo (Paloma's father). The story begins in June 1939, when Daniel flees Germany after crystalnacht. He leaves his parents behind in Germany with the promise to meet again in New York City - but Daniel's ship is turned away from New York, and several other potential ports; the only place that will accept a boat full of German Jewish refugees is Cuba.

In Cuba, Daniel meets Paloma, a local girl, and David, himself a Jewish refugee, though one that's been in Cuba for years. El Gordo makes occasional appearances as a local criminal who sells visas to the desperate refugees: if they can't afford his prices, they are sent back on the boat, sent directly back to the horrors of Germany.

The problem I have with this being a verse novel is that the poetry just never felt compelling - really it felt like chopped up prose. No poetry doesnt have to rhyme or anything, but isn't the point of poetry that it can convey feelings/images/"things" that prose just can't do (or would take hundreds of more words to)? This felt like basic prose sentences were chopped up and called poetry with very little re-dressing. It ends up being an extremely sparse novel when there is room for so much more.

This does, however, share a very interesting part of history, as many Jewish refugees did end up in Cuba. Nazi spies were sent to the island to stir up anti-semitism against the refugees so they would be sent back to Germany and end up in the concentration camps. Bonus points for that, but not enough for me to recommend the novel without hesitations.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Review: Response by Paul Volponi

Sometimes you want a long, meandering book with a zillion different plot points, intricate character interactions, and pages and pages of luscious descriptions.

And sometimes you just want to get to the point.

Paul Volponi's Reponse is a slim book with a one track mind. One night Noah and his friends decide to cross into a predominantly white neighborhood and steal a car. Before they can attempt it, however, they are chased by three white teenagers and Noah is viciously attacked with a baseball bat. The white boys claim they were protecting their neighborhood and their property but the city suspects otherwise and begins a hate crime investigation.

And that's pretty much all there is to the book. There are some very short detours into Noah's personal life - his grandmother's failing health, dealing with his six-month-old daughter and mother, a soul-killing job at McDonald's with a racist boss, and life at their racially mixed school, where most students are on Noah's side but a vocal minority insists on wearing T-shirts pleading for the jailed white kids' freedom.

But these scenes rarely last for more than a page - the point of this book is a hate crime was committed and we're going to get a brief glimpse at what the judicial process is for prosecuting that crime. How does it feel when a sentence is reduced for "cooperating"? Do the perpetrators deserve the full sentence?

The book moves at a breakneck pace, which made me feel like a lot of possible emotional impact was lost. Lots of relationships could have been fleshed out. On the other hand, the lack of distractions from the main plot could make this an excellent novel for "reluctant readers" - what my mom would call a low level/high interest book: someone in high school wouldn't have to be reading at "high school level" in order to enjoy and understand this book.

Review: Eon: Dragoneye Reborn by Alison Goodman

Usually when books start talking about magic and dragons, I turn and run in the opposite direction. But, running low on book recommendations, I decided to add this one to my library list after seeing it on the BBYA nominations page.

I am SO GLAD I did.

For one thing, it turns out I already love the author. I picked up Goodman's Singing the Dogstar Blues in galley form way back in the day (I forget if I got it at ALA or if I picked it up at the end of the year at BBYA) and absolutely loved it. Brilliant science fiction, great family relationships, and an absolutely touching storyline about the AIDS quilt. I didn't recognize Goodman's name at first, but I glanced at her author bio once I had the book in my hands and immediately got excited.

Despite this being a monstrous-ly sized book, I absolutely couldn't put it down and finished it in less than two days.

The story follows Eon as she tries to maneuver through a treacherous world of political intrigue, hidden identities, and physical danger. Eon was chosen to train to become a Dragoneye apprentice - one of the few who have the ability to commune with and draw power from 11 ancient dragons. However, life has not made this easy for Eon: for one, she has a crippled leg and is often seen as an evil omen by more able-bodied people, and secondly, she is a 16 year old girl, and in order to become a Dragoneye one must be a 12 year old boy. But Eon has an unheard of gift: even without Dragoneye training, she can see not just one dragon, but all 11, so Master Brannon conspires with the girl to turn her from Eona into Candidate, and hopefully Apprentice, Eon.

But soon, Eon is facing more pressure than just hiding her gender. She is not chosen by the Rat Dragon - the one that is coming to power for the new year - rather, she is chosen by the Mirror Dragon, an ancient dragon that had disappeared 500 years prior. She is now a target, as the Rat Dragoneye has no desire to share the year with a crippled Mirror Dragoneye. Combine this with an aging emperor with a bloodthirsty brother who would do anything to sit on the throne himself, Eon has a lot more to deal with than she signed up for when she agreed to live and train as a boy.

The culture of the book, what Goodman identifies as a fantasy inspired by the legends and culture of China and Japan, is rich and fascinating. Superb worldbuilding here, and it is introduced slowly - there are no big information dumps that wouldn't make sense in the context of the story. The reader is left to piece together the larger parts of the culture through the bits of detailed information that are fed to Eon as she rises in status and enters the imperial court. The action is excellent and fast paced, the political intrigue is filled with tension, and of course there is the constant question: will Eon's identity be discovered?

I absolutely CANNOT WAIT for the sequel to this!

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Review: Princess of the Midnight Ball by Jessica Day George

I totally have a weakness for fairy tale re-tellings. I can't tell you how many take offs of Cinderella I've read, and Wicked is a perennial favorite for me. When I saw there was a new take on The Twelve Dancing Princesses I was intrigued - I don't think I've ever seen a re-telling of this one. I loved this story as a kid - I had a book of Care Bear bedtime stories and remember this one with lush watercolor illustrations prominently (no, the Care Bears weren't the princesses - the book had lots of traditional bedtime stories and then a few small Care Bear bits. I don't think Care Bears had enough girl characters to populate this particular story!).

However, Princess of the Midnight Ball left me vaguely disappointed. About 90% of the story doesn't feel like a re-telling of The Twelve Dancing Princesses, but rather just expanding upon the basic facts of the story. For me there's a difference between fleshing out characters and creating epic new backstories (I'm thinking of something like Ella Enchanted that completely re-imagined why Cinderella had to be so darn obedient to her family) and simply giving archetypal characters names and dialogue, as Princess of the Midnight Ball seems to. There's no clever twist here, nothing to keep you guessing - you know exactly what is going to happen on every page, turning this more into a long-form fairy tale than an exciting re-telling.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Book Thoughts: Will the recession hit YA lit?

Last week there were a flurry of Internet posts about the state of the "chick lit" category, specifically that authors were finding that they had to scale back the lavish lives of luxury their characters were leading in the face of the global economic downturn, or whatever the buzz word is this week. Salon's Broadsheet (seriously, one of my favorite blogs) has a good overview of two of the news articles on the phenomenon.

Since my primary book interest is, of course, YA lit, I found myself wondering if we're going to see something similar happening in YA lit over the next year. It seems every time I go into the teen section at Barnes & Noble I see the "Rich White Girls with Problems" table. I'm sure they call it something catchier, but that's what the category comes across as to me: book after book featuring sullen-looking young white women decked out in ridiculous clothes in some fancy setting - a limo or a mansion or a boarding school. Clearly portraying a life that very few teenagers actually experience, before or after the recession.

This isn't a comment on the quality of these books - they could all be awesome and amazing and maybe I'm really missing out by not reading any of them. This isn't about whether these books have a place, but rather is about wondering if they are going to continue to thrive or if, like their grown up chick lit sisters, they're going to be scaled back and new, more budget-friendly, lives are going to be portrayed. Has the change already started to happen? Like I said, I haven't been reading the books so maybe some sort of surreptitious change is happening between the covers.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Review: Because I Am Furniture by Thalia Chaltas

I feel the need to start this post with a confession: I hate poetry. Like, seriously hate it. When I was doing forensics in high school and college, poetry was the one category I could never muster any passion for.

So when I opened up Because I Am Furniture and found myself confronted with an entire novel filled with poems, I was ready to quit before I even started. The only reason I kept going was because I was already on the subway platform and could see my train coming down the tunnel - no time to run back to the apartment to pick up some prose.

Thank goodness for that approaching train, because despite my initial dislike of the format, I found Because I Am Furniture to be an extremely compelling story.

Anke is the youngest of three children in an abusive household. Anke's father is physically, sexually, verbally, and emotionally abusive to the entire family - except Anke, it seems. He tries to strictly control her life, forbidding her to participate in volleyball, for example (he claims competition will ruin a woman's mind), but essentially Anke feels ignored - just a piece of furniture - while the rest of her family is the focus of her father's negative attention.

What I found most compelling was Chaltas' acknowledgment of the deeply conflicting feelings often felt by victims of abuse. In several chilling poems, Anke wishes that her father physically abused her - at least then she'd know he was paying attention to her. She feels guilty that she hasn't turned him in, that she hasn't protected her family - but then wonders why no one else is stepping up to report him.

At times the book is absolutely painful to read - not quite on the level of Living Dead Girl, but still chilling and disturbing. It's also an extremely fast read - no poem is more than two pages in length, and due to the formatting they really are all very short. I had this one finished before I got home the same day - despite my initial dislike of poetry in general, I found that I had to keep turning the page to follow Anke's story as she slowly gains the strength to stand up to her father.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Review: Wings by ED Baker

Two weeks ago, after reading Wondrous Strange, I was wondering where I could find a fairy story featuring the fairy queen Titania. A little Googling led me to ED Baker's Wings, which doesn't quite fulfill my request for a story featuring Titania in a starring role, but is a nice enough fairy story.

Tamisin has always felt a little out of place - a feeling compounded by a number of strange experiences throughout her life. Dancing with fireflies in the light of the full moon, sparkly freckles, and seeing threatening half human/half animal creatures while trick-or-treating. Oh, and just when she's attracted the attention of the cute - and mysterious - new boy, Jak, Tamisin discovers a pair of wings sprouting from her shoulder blades.

This is when her parents choose to tell her that she was adopted.

Tamisin's special abilities have attracted attention back in the world of the fey. In fact, Jak has been sent by his goblin uncle to take Tamisin back to the land of the fey. What follows is an adventure through a magical land, where danger lurks behind every tree for the young duo.

Titania shows up for a few brief cameos as Tamisin's birth mother - her father was Bottom from A Midsummer Night's Dream. She's not quite the awesome character I was hoping to show up, but it briefly satisfied my Titania craving (if you know of any other books featuring Titania, send them my way!).

This book is definitely aimed at a younger audience than I'm used to reading for - Tamisin and Jak as freshmen in high school both come across as downright naive compared to the surly and cynical 16-17-18 year olds I usually find myself reading about. It was kind of refreshing, actually.

What wasn't refreshing was the often-stilted writing style and disappearing plot points. The first half of the book is from Tamisin's perspective before we're abruptly put in Jak's perspective and proceed to learn his backstory all in one chunk and re-live scenes we'd seen from Tamisin's perspective almost verbatim.

The most irritating disappearing plot point were the wings of the title - they appear one night, and then we never hear of them again until Tamisin needs them. She has giant wings sprouting from her back, yet she can go to a Halloween party dressed as a cat and no one sees the wings? It seems like a real missed opportunity to add some levity or stress to the story - either it's funny the extremes she goes to in order to hide the wings, or she stresses out over how to keep them hidden. Or heck, she could have dressed as a fairy for Halloween and instantly been declared to have the best costume ever, thanks to authentic wings.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Quick Book Link: Want a free e-book?

To build up excitement for the October release of Scott Westerfeld's Leviathan, Simon & Schuster is offering a free download of the first book of one of Westerfeld's other incredibly successful series: Uglies. It's a .pdf copy, so you can read it even if you don't have one of those fancy e-readers yet. Just give them your e-mail address and zip code and you've got a free electronic copy of Uglies!

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Review: Geektastic ed. by Holly Black & Cecil Castellucci

So last week I started reading the much anticipated Pride and Prejudice and Zombies...after four days of reading I'm only half way through. Last night I knew I was going to be out late being supremely geeky, and while that geekiness did involve zombies, it was also going to involve a late-night subway ride home, which necessitated more engaging reading material.

Enter Geektastic: Stories from the Nerd Herd, edited by Holly Black and Cecil Castellucci and featuring stories from all sorts of YA authors, who proudly proclaim their geekery in the author bios at the end of each story.

Considering my own late night geekiness involved table top role playing where zombies had taken over New York City, I felt it was a delightfully appropriate choice. I thoroughly entertained my husband and his friends since I was reading while my husband taught them role playing basics, because I kept cracking up.

The stories here range from the absurdity of a Klingon warrior and Jedi Knight ending up in bed together at Comic Con or a cheerleader trying to learn the finer points of geekdom for the sake of her football playing boyfriend, to awkward and tender stories of geeks finding their first love or their first heartbreak. Every kind of geek is represented: LARPers, theatre geeks, astronomy nerds, band geeks, dino geeks - even a pair of young Rocky Horror aficionados. The strongest stories - in my opinion - probably bookend the book, but then again the first two and the last story touched upon some of my nerdier habits, so of course I was going to be drawn to them.

Anyone who has ever felt so passionate about something that they're seen as weird - or maybe just knows someone who is that passionate - needs to read this book. Also, I got a great kick out of seeing which authors were what sorts of geeks (Barry Lyga has hurt me deeply by claiming that being a Trekker is beneath his geek standards - somewhere there are pictures of me dressed as a Klingon for Halloween. Twice, actually, since once I was B'Elanna Torres and then another year I was a full-fledged Klingon warrior complete with cardboard-and-tin-foil bat'leth).

'Fess up readers - what's your geeky pleasure?

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Review: Soul Enchilada by David Macinnis Gill

Oh, man, this was a fun book.

I love gripping adventure stories, protagonists in peril and deep character dramas, but while all of those are often gripping and intriguing, they can rarely be described as "fun" (example: I love The Hunger Games and Catching Fire more than is probably healthy, but I am EXHAUSTED by the time I'm finished reading them because of the emotional ups and downs throughout. Entertaining and satisfying describe both books, but "fun"? Not unless you're Machiavelli).

Soul Enchilada, however, is fun, despite the literal life-or-death circumstances Bug finds herself in when she finds out her grandfather put her soul and beloved car up for collateral in a literal deal with the devil.

Bug hasn't had an easy life - her mother died in a house fire when she was young and she and her grandfather have bounced from one crappy apartment to another. But Bug doesn't wallow in self pity - instead these hardships have given her an admirable backbone and a bit of an attitude. That attitude gets her into lots of trouble throughout the book, but it's also the source of her strength and what keeps her determined to stay one step ahead of Lucifer and Beelzebub - the Devil's repo man.

There's a wide variety of supporting characters, each more colorful and entertaining than the last. I loved Bug's strength - and also loved that she wasn't the only female character with spunk in the book. Strong female characters can exist in a vacuum - they are the soul woman who can stand among men. But Bug not only has Pesto, an easy on the eyes demon hunter, in her court, but Pesto's (good) witch of a mother plus the mysterious E. Figg, the only attorney not on the devil's payroll on her side. Both women play small but influential parts in Bug's story - it's safe to say that Bug probably wouldn't have had a snowball's chance against Mr. Beals and Lucifer without their help.

On a side note, I also loved the cameo appearances of my college friends in twenty years: the middle aged guys that work with Pesto whom we first meet during an epic Halo battle that involved tea bagging. I know several guys who could turn out like that (minus the demon-hunting; outside of D&D, anyway).

Monday, August 3, 2009

Review: Almost Astronauts by Tanya Lee Stone

Winner: Siebert Medal 2010

I've never seriously wanted to be an astronaut - unfortunately, I'm one of those women who dropped out of math and science way too early to think of making a career of it. But I've always been fascinated with space (I blame family Star Trek nights as a child). Combine that with my desire to read anything about women's history I can get my hands on and Almost Astronauts becomes my kind of book!

Stone has packed a lot of history into a compact book, giving great descriptions of not only the physical astronaut trials the Mercury 13 women went through, but also the social and political trials they faced in daring to want to pilot a space shuttle. Stone does an excellent job conveying the various injustices these women faced; the jokes made at their expense, and the outright discrimination they received from the highest levels of government. Sprinkled throughout the book are also concise glimpses of what was going on for women outside of NASA in the 60s and 70s, so contemporary readers get the feeling that these women weren't only being shut out of NASA, but they were shut out of institutions we now take for granted (I don't know how I would function if I weren't allowed to do banking on my own without my husband's permission!)

Stone also follows up on the Mercury 13's history by showing what has happened for women in flight in the last 40+ years, from Sally Ride being the first female mission specialist (which was actually quite different from what the Mercury 13 were trying to accomplish - they wanted to be pilots, while Ride was a scientist. And important and exciting position, but her presence on the shuttle wasn't the success the Mercury 13 had been waiting for) to the first woman Thunderbird pilot. But Stone also isn't afraid to point out that everything is roses now - I was very happy when she pointed out that in media portrayals of contemporary astronauts, the men are still portrayed as heroes off to do a job while stories on the female astronauts tend to focus on their non-spaceflight hobbies and how their children will cope with Mommy being away. All too often these subtle forms of sexism go unnoticed, and while it's disheartening they're still there, we can't eradicate them if we don't recognize their existence.

Be sure to check out Stone's website for bonus material - poems that she wrote when she was originally envisioning this book as a children's poetry picture book. It's a fun addition to the text of the book - like an Easter Egg on a DVD, but more literary.

Almost Astronauts is absolutely a must read for anyone interested in space, NASA, and previously-unknown tidbits of women's history.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Book Thoughts: "The Kids Don't Read"?

When I'm not blogging, I work as at a remainder book wholesaler. We're the people that supply (some of) the bargain books to retailers like Barnes & Noble, Borders, etc. This means that day in and day out, I'm surrounded by all kinds of books - it's kind of exciting for a book nerd like me.

When I started working there, I was definitely excited to see a bulging book shelf filled with YA books - the world needs as many YA books as it can get, I figure. However, from the attitudes of my bosses I quickly gathered that the YA section was the red-headed stepchild of our showroom. The bookshelves were packed because publishers keep sending us books but no one out there is buying them.

The other day a buyer was in the showroom and chatting with one of our sales reps, and the conversation turned to YA books. The buyer was complaining that "the kids don't read." He still does a brisk business in kids' books because the parents and grandparents want to encourage reading, but teenagers are "too obsessed with the Wiis and the X-Box to want to read!"

Now, I happen to know for a fact that this just isn't true. Fantasy series like Harry Potter and Twilight brought out legions of young people eager to devour those books and, I would bet, enticed them into trying some new titles while waiting for the next in the series. Over at Bookends you can see pictures of the 60+ teens who turned out for the BBYA teen session at ALA. The number of YA books being published in the last ten years has skyrocketed (back at the NYC Teen Author's festival, David Levithan said that before 10 years ago or so, the YA genre hardly existed, and it certainly didn't exist as today's teens now enjoy it). That genre wouldn't have exploded as it has if kids weren't reading.

So that got me to wondering why there doesn't seem to be a market for YA bargain books - or if maybe this idea that teenagers aren't reading is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Afterall, I've never seen a table of YA bargain books at Barnes & Noble or Borders (I was even in B&N yesterday looking for YA bargains specifically). The particular book buyer I overheard wasn't from either of those stores - I honestly have no idea what company he was from but I know it wasn't Borders/B&N - so maybe his store just isn't drawing in teens anyway so they aren't going to make a special trip just to check out his bargain books.

First I wondered if maybe it's true that teens aren't buying books in huge droves. Yes they'll go out and buy the latest event book like Harry Potter or Twilight, if only because it would take months to get the book through the library, but are they seeking out other books at the bookstore? I know when I was in high school I bought precious few books - I didn't have a job until my senior year and then I barely made enough money to put gas in my car so I could make it to work. Throughout middle school I would skip lunch some days so I could save up enough money to buy the next month's Animorphs book. So even though I was constantly reading library books, I wasn't contributing to the publisher's - or booksellers - bottom line.

The second thought that occurred to me was that teens are still buying books - but they're buying new books, and by the time a book ends up on the bargain table it's considered passe. Movies are seeing a trend where box office receipts are extremely front loaded - everyone goes out to see a movie its first weekend and from then on it just kind of lingers on the box office top 10 until something newer and flashier comes along. Any given movie is pretty much only going to get one weekend as the top box office draw, unless absolutely nothing opens the next weekend. Are books the same way? Teens hear about a book they want, buy it close to it's publication date, and from then on the title just lingers on the shelf until the publisher finally decides it's wasting precious catalog space and sends it on to someone like my company to deal with?

Food for thought.
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