Monday, November 30, 2009

Double Review: Shine, Coconut Moon by Neesha Meminger and Love is the Higher Law by David Levithan

Found via: BBYA 2010 nominations

Oh man, it's been a crazy week out here. The weekend before Thanksgiving I was in Chicago with my mom, and then I spent Thanksgiving weekend with my in-laws in Florida, meaning there was lots of traveling, and LOTS of reading, but little time to blog! Thankfully, my reading list made my blogging a little easier for me by happening to have thematically similar books, like these two stories of how 9/11 affected high school students.

In Shine, Coconut Moon, Sam is an Indian-American teenager living in a relatively diverse community in New Jersey. For most of her life, she's put the emphasis on the "American" in her heritage, as her mother has kept her away from her very traditional Sikh grandparents. Instead, Sam spends most of her time with her best friend, Molly, and wondering when she'll lose her virginity to her boyfriend, Mike.

The weekend after 9/11, Sam is surprised to find a man in a turban at her front door. He says he's her uncle Sandeep, her mother's brother, and after his tumultuous divorce he wants to be part of Sam's and her mother's lives again. Sam is eager to get to know her uncle, and pressures him to teach her everything about her Sikh heritage, despite her mother's reservations and outright objections to Sam having anything to do with Sikh culture. As she grows more aware of her cultural heritage, she realizes just how different she is in some ways from her friends and community - but also learns to recognize what is truly important in life.

Love is the Higher Law takes place in New York City in the immediate after math of 9/11. The narrative jumps between three characters - Claire and Peter, who attend high school together, and Jaspar, the college guy Peter had scheduled a date with for the evening of 9/11. Alternating chapters explore the three characters and what it's like for them to live in post-9/11 New York City: Jaspar was sleeping late and actually missed the early TV coverage - and his parents were temporarily stranded in South Korea, where they'd been visiting Jaspar's grandmother; Claire spent 9/11 in her brother's elementary school, keeping him and his classmates calm while waiting for their mother to find them; Peter was skipping school to buy a new CD when an employee tells him the news. In the days, weeks and months after, each of them tries to understand how they fit into this new world they've been thrust in to.

I realized with a start about half way through Love is the Higher Law that for the first time in several years, I was reading a book about my peers. As an adult reading YA lit, I'm used to reading about characters who are about 10 years younger than I am, and in both of these books the protagonists are in the 17-19 years old age range - but back on September 11th, 2001, I was just a couple of months shy of my 17th birthday myself. I kind of found myself wondering what the characters were doing "now," in their mid-twenties, almost a decade later. It also made me wonder how today's crop of teenagers react to these books, since they were in elementary school in 2001.

Shine, Coconut Moon also had moments of familiarity for me - I remember reading this article in my hometown paper shortly after 9/11, about a Sikh family posting signs explaining their religion in the windows of their store, in order to prevent any attacks against them.

Shine, Coconut Moon and Love is the Higher Law are both excellent titles showing the wide variety of ways teenagers reacted after 9/11.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Teaser Tuesday, & Bookish post #100!

This marks my 100th post on this blog! I posted my first review just over a year ago (12/11/08). So today for teaser Tuesday, I'm bending the rules, and pulling my teaser from page 100 of my current read.

It's Teaser Tuesday

a bookish blog meme hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading. Here's how it works: Grab your current read and let it fall open to a random page. Post two (or more) sentences from that page, along with the title and author. Don’t give anything vital away!

"Every evening Johnny Rebs stand in the parapets of Fort Beauregard and serenade the Union troops with war songs. They sing in fine voices and close harmonies. "You Can Never Win Us Back" is a favorite, as is "The Bonnie Blue Flat." Their way of showing us their opinions, I reckon." -My Last Skirt by Lynda Durrant, page 100

Monday, November 23, 2009

Review: Into the Wild Nerd Yonder by Julie Halpern

Found via: BBYA 2010 nominations and the Amelia Bloomer project

After last week's series of depressing books, I was desperate for something upbeat and happy. I teased this one back on Tuesday, and let me assure you the whole book totally lives up to the promise of the premise.

Jessie has been best friends with Bizza and Char forever. She has also been crushing on her cool punk older brother's friend Van for years. As the trio of girls enter their sophomore year, and her brother and the dreamy Van enter their senior year and prepare for college, Jessie feels somewhat torn. On the one hand, she wants nothing about her life to change - she wants her brother, with his scraggly mohawk and all, to stay home; she wants Bizza and Char and herself to have the same sort of silly sleepovers they had in middle school; she wants to keep sewing her cute, simple skirts out of novelty themed fabric. On the other, lots of things are changing, and she wonders if she should be as well - maybe her hair is too brown and boring, maybe if she started dressing in Hot Topic punk gear like Bizza and Char, Van would start to like her.

When Bizza betrays Jessie, Jessie feels it's time to find herself a new set of friends. After sitting with Dottie, one of the school's biggest nerds, in study hall, Jessie begins to wonder about her own place in the social hierarchy of high school. If she's friends with the nerdy Dottie, does that mean she's a nerd, too? And what does it mean that the super-nerdy Henry keeps showing up in her dreams? And how on Earth can she find Dungeons & Dragons fun while still maintaining a shred of "cool cred?"

First of all, anyone who's ever played D&D, or a similar role playing game, is going to find this book hilarious. During Jessie's first D&D session, I was immediately transported back to college - it takes the handful of kids over half an hour to decide what pizzas to get and then come up with a super complicated order. That was totally me and my friends back in the day - except I really was the only woman playing, while Jessie has Dottie to help her out. Also, we totally held true to the maxim that while table top role players may be nerds and geeks, at least we didin't LARP.

There are lots of great relationships in this book. Jessie and her brother were sweet and awesome. I loved Jessie's hesitation, then acceptance, of the various "nerds" and "geeks" around her, and embracing of her own nerdiness. And this is a book with some great parents present (I love Jessie's dad). Even the not-so-positive relationships were written well and felt totally authentic - I definitely knew a Bizza in high school, and Jessie's heartache over Van was totally palpable.

This is definitely one of the funnest books I've read in awhile - I recommend it for geeks everywhere!

For more geek-love, check out Lynn & Cindy's review of Geektastic over at Bookends (and/or check out my review from back in August)

Friday, November 20, 2009

Review: After by Amy Efaw

Found via: BBYA 2010 Nominations

I had a bit of a hard time getting into this book, and a few pages in I realized exactly why: it's written in the third-person. I've been reading so much first-person stories lately, both in fiction and in memoirs, that trying to get into a third-person narrative threw me a bit!

Devon is a star soccer player and dedicated student with dreams of becoming everything her mother is not. Her mom is a bit flighty, very flirty, and had Devon when she was only 16.

But now Devon, 15, finds herself on charged with attempted murder - of her own baby. Devon never realized - or maybe never admitted? - that she was pregnant, and when faced with the birth wrapped the baby in a garbage back and threw it into a trashcan behind her apartment. She's placed in a juvenile detention facility, with strict instructions from her court-appointed lawyer to be cooperative, until the hearing which will decide whether Devon's case remains in the juvenile system - or if the attempted murder on her baby was a crime so heinous only the adult justice system, with its sentence of life in prison, can handle her.

This novel completed my week of depressing reads - I was so desperate for something happy that I picked up a picture book reviewed by Lynn and Cindy for Nonfiction Monday at the library Monday night! But I absolutely don't regret picking this one up - Efaw, who spent time observing girls in the real life version of the detention center the novel is set in, has created a dark and disturbing narrative, filled with intriguing characters. I loved Devon's lawyer, and while some of the girls in the detention center seemed a little cookie-cutter at first, most of them get fleshed out, at least a little, by the novel's end.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Review: Breathless by Jessica Warman

Found via: BBYA 2010 Nominations

Oh man. Stories about disabled and/or mentally ill siblings always get to me. At least once during every one of these books I ask myself why I'm torturing myself so. Not because they're inherently bad, but they just hit a little too close to home sometimes.

Katie and her brother have always been extremely close - as children of some privilege in a town where graduating high school without having had a baby first is an accomplishment. Katie is a gifted swimmer and extremely intelligent, and Will was a great athlete - until a combination of extreme bullying and drug use exacerbated his latent schizophrenia.

It's been a few years since his diagnosis, and Will has been in and out of various hospitals while Katie has been trudging on through her unexceptional school. But when Will's behavior turns from idiosyncratic to violent, their parents believe the best solution is to send Katie to a boarding school with a prestigious swim team - and do all they can to limit contact between the siblings.

The novel takes place over the Katie's high school career, from sophomore year - where she's one of two new students at the boarding school, since usually everyone comes in together as freshmen - through graduation. Katie deals with many of the usual high school foibles - fitting in with new friends, dating, sex, drinking and drugs. In fact, if you can pull out a YA lit school trope, it probably pops up in this book. Sometimes it feels a little too crammed with Katie's various problems.

Since the book covers a relatively long period of time (including a Harry Potter-esque epilogue ten years after the final chapter), we get to really see how some of Katie's decisions at the beginning of the book affect her over the years. On the other hand, since so much time is covered there are big gaps in time and so occasionally there are info-dump paragraphs where we're told of everything significant that happened between chapters. Off-puttingly, the book actually opens with such an info-dump, giving us the family history for a couple of pages before picking up with Katie and Will smoking on the roof of their house (their usual hangout).

Reading this immediately after The Road of Lost Innocence wasn't the best plan, which may have colored my feelings a little bit. Not that the two books have anything in common, aside from being "downers" of varying degrees. Friday's review will be of Amy Efaw's After, another unhappy title. Is it any wonder that I was craving something upbeat and happy?! So next week expect the review for Into the Wild Nerd Yonder, yesterday's Teaser Tuesday pick.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Book Thoughts: Blank Page Heroines

A few blogs have been bringing up characterization of women in literature this week. I figured I'd add some of my own thoughts!

Title of this post comes from Sarah Rees Brennan. The Blank Page Heroine is the type of woman that seems "to be there as a match for the hero who won't bother him with things like 'hobbies' and 'opinions.' Sometimes she is carefully featureless (still missing those pesky hobbies and opinions) so that, apparently, the reader can identify with her and slot their own personalities onto a blank page."

Justine Larbalestier followed up with a post of her own, saying she's always thought of this sort of character as The Girlfriend (which is equally accurate, since that's what these characters exist to be - until they become The Wife). Justine says she always imagined this type of woman was a straight male fantasy - but the Blank Page Heroine appears in books written by women as well (in the comments is the obligatory Twilight bashing, which certainly seems appropriate).

And even before I saw the Twilight comment in Justine's post, I was already reminded of a post from Pandagon earlier this week, about The Pornography of Non-Rejection, posing that Twilight fills a sort of pornographic role for women:
"I didn’t really realize how true it was that romance novels are porn for women. And it’s not necessarily the fantasy of sex that they have in common with the videos aimed at men we think of as “porn”. It’s a different fantasy altogether: the fantasy of being completely desired, with no objections and no real obstacles.

"Think about the male-oriented porn’s single most common fantasy, one that exists in the ugliest, most misogynist gonzo porn to the more playful videos marketed as safe for “couples”. For male viewers, porn is all about a world where women are always up for it, with you (or the actor standing in as your cipher), and you’re facing a cornucopia of women who always, without fail, say yes...“Twilight” speaks to that basic fantasy of being so enticing that rejection is impossible."

I think the Blank Page Heroine plays into this notion of being desired without obstacles - because she has no interests to conflict with the interests of The Man, of course he is going to be totally receptive to her advances. The sad part of this is that we're slowly teaching women and girls that supplanting your own personality and desires is the only way to get a hunky awesome guy to totally want you. Just as pornography can create unrealistic standards for sexual relationships for male viewers, so does this "pornography of non-rejection" create unrealistic standards for female readers.

And I don't think this is me just projecting some hypothetical terrifying future filled with uninteresting, hobby-less women: A footnote to the Pandagon article mentions the phenomenon of female Jane Austen fans justifying "their fandom on the basis of having crushes on male characters," rather than on a love of the well-written and witty text of the stories. "Is hiding behind a crush on Mr. Darcy a way to defang Austen, to make being interested in her less threatening to men in your life? You my scoff, but you’d be surprised how many men are uneasy around women who are better-read than they are." The relationship with the literature becomes all about the man, completely cutting out the fabulous woman behind the writing, mirroring the Blank Page Heroine who is interested only in the man of the story rather than herself and any other people(women) around her.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Teaser Tuesday!

It's Teaser Tuesday

a bookish blog meme hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading. Here's how it works: Grab your current read and let it fall open to a random page. Post two (or more) sentences from that page, along with the title and author. Don’t give anything vital away!

"No. It really isn't. He thought it made him look cool in front of his posse, bringing a chick to D&D, seeing as there are never any girls there."
-Page 56, Into the Wild Nerd Yonder by Julie Halpern. I've been reading a bunch of super depressing books lately - I'm about half way through this now and it's the perfect remedy!

Monday, November 16, 2009

Review: The Road of Lost Innocence by Somaly Mam

Found via: Amelia Bloomer Project

This is not an easy book to read.

There are always books out there about child abuse and sexual abuse, and they are always difficult to read. This one was harder than most for me, however, because this one was real.

Somaly Mam is a Cambodian activist who was orphaned as a young child and sent to live with a man she called her grandfather (Mam doesn't know whether he was actually a relation or not). He was physically abusive, and as she became a teenager he became sexually abusive, and would sell Mam to other men to rape in order to settle his debts.

Around 15 or 16, Mam was sold into organized prostitution, forced to live and work in a brothel, again as a way of settling debt.

After a few years as a prostitute, Mam finally escaped with the help of a French aid worker, and has since dedicated her life (and risking it on several occasions) to help the girls and women of south east Asia escape prostitution, get the medical care they need, and learn marketable skills so they'll never need to re-enter the sex trade.

Throughout the book, Mam provides unflinching looks into the world of abuse she lived in for far too long. She is raped multiple times, beaten and tortured.

Mam's story is set against the backdrop of a Cambodia constantly in turmoil. She was born a few years before Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge took control of the country. Mam was illiterate and spent most of her formative years in rural areas so she's unable to give a lot of details of what was happening when, but it's clear that the country has been unstable for her entire life, and Mam theorizes that that instability and the horrors the people survived under the Khmer Rouge play a part in why her countrymen are so willing to allow abusive prostitution to continue and thrive.

While it's difficult to read, this is an important book, highlighting the nightmarish realities of the sex trade. Make sure you have something fun and fluffy to read after this one, though. You're going to need it.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Review: Vast Fields of Ordinary by Nick Burd

Found via: BBYA 2010 nominations

The final list of BBYA nominees has been posted...and I've only read 30 of them! Well, 31 now. Still, not nearly as many as I had thought. BBYA titles are probably going to take over my reading list for a little while.

Vast Fields of Ordinary takes place over Dade's last summer at home before he moves from Iowa to Michigan for college. Brief side note here: as a Michigan native, I have to respectfully disagree with Dade's father, who also attended the fictional Fairmont College in Michigan, who says that "Michigan is always beautiful." Sure, it has it's moments, but nobody thinks the place looks beautiful in the middle of a February thaw. Or alewife season on Lake Michigan. "Always" is an overstatement that I'm sure my fellow Michigan peeps will agree with.

Okay, aside over.

Dade's life is less than awesome at this point - he has a boyfriend, Pablo, a super popular member of the football team, that won't look at Dade outside of the bedroom. Pablo also has a girlfriend, who hates Dade's guts, even though Dade is reasonably sure she has no idea what is really going on between him and Pablo. Everyone at school as always assumed Dade is gay, but he's never really confirmed or denied the allegation. The marriage of Dade's parents is also falling apart as his dad starts seeing another woman, and even confides this bit of information in his teenage son, requesting he keep it from his mother.

Life begins to turn around for Dade when he meets two new people: first is Lucy, the lesbian niece of one of Dade's neighbors, who's been sent to Iowa from California to keep her away from the bad influences out there. The pair immediately bond over the Jack and Diet Cokes they sneak during a neighborhood barbecue. The other new friend is Alex, a local pot dealer, who Dade falls for at first sight and, with Lucy's encouragement, pursues for a relationship. A relationship which sparks an irrational jealousy in Pablo, but that doesn't particularly bother Dade: he's finally happy, which is something he never felt with Pablo.

This is a quiet, easy going novel. There are few surprises, except maybe for how Pablo reacts to Dade finding someone new, but really even he follows the "jealous, borderline abusive, ex-boyfriend" trope that's seen in non-LGBT-focused books all of the time.

I absolutely loved Lucy, but that's probably because I have a soft spot for rebellious lesbian characters.

All of the characters are well drawn, and there was nothing that I really disliked about the novel, but I also feel like it's one that isn't going to stick with me forever.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Book Events: Brave New Worlds panel & signing at Books of Wonder

Last fall I discovered the awesome bookstore Books of Wonder when I was searching for information about Suzanne Collins and The Hunger Games. I visit fairly regularly and always take visiting friends/family because it's a whole bookstore dedicated to kids books (also: the Cupcake Cafe)! What isn't there to like?

The panel had five guests; originally there were going to be six, but Michael Grant came down with a bug and decided to spare the people who would have shared an airplane with him. So that left Justine Larbalestier, Scott Westerfeld, Kristin Cashore, Libba Bray and Suzanne Collins - who was making her ONLY promotional appearance for Catching Fire! (She is also the only author at the event who doesn't blog - just something I noticed when compiling those links) I'm pretty sure she's almost single-handedly the reason the event neared 200 attendees - everyone else is wonderful and awesome, but I know that Justine and Scott have recently been on tour with their books (Scott has made several NYC stops, including the post-apocalyptic teen lit panel last month), and I know Libba Bray isn't a shrinking violet either, so she's been out and about not too long ago as well. Suzanne Collins, on the other hand, claims she hasn't seen people for the last four months, as she's hard at work on the final book in The Hunger Games trilogy (the title of which she was expressly forbidden to reveal).

Here's a quick rundown of what happened:

Justine spoke first, introducing Liar, which I am eagerly awaiting at the library (seriously, Queens Library: my account page has said the book has been in transit for over a week. I know it doesn't take that long to mail a book from one end of Queens to another). No spoilers, but she revealed that as she was writing she made sure that the reader could make one of two different interpretations of "what really happened" in the book - but then, of course, as readers have been sharing their thoughts with her, they've discovered many more than two interpretations, and all of them work! Sounds like a super complex and interesting read - I need it now!

Next up was Kristin, who really just gave a quick summary of Fire and how it connected back to Graceling. She revealed more in the Q&A and signing time.

Scott spoke next, and did a modified version of the slide show he did at the B&N panel. Modified in part because he had less time to speak, and also because the room wasn't set up well for a real slide show, so he used his iphone and "silly yuppie toy" to project some images on the ceiling! Unfortunately, I was sitting perpendicular to where he was projecting so everything was sideways and hard to make out, but I had seen most of it before, so I'll live. He did have some different content this time, as he spent some time noting that back at the beginning of the 20th century, illustrators of books were often more important in some ways than authors (he had a cover of War of the Worlds that had the illustrator's name plastered across the top, and then a little "H.G. Wells" on the side).

Scott also decided we were a morbid bunch when he got his biggest laugh of the night by very seriously describing how WWI started, and then ended with a rather-glib sounding "And six years later, 30,000 people were dead."

Libba Bray is hilarious as always. After Scott finished her presentation she said she'd either have to "pole dance or self-immolate" in order to follow him up. Didn't seem like the parents of the young kids who showed up thought that was too funny, but the rest of us laughed. Maybe it's because we often see discussions of how to decide what is "appropriate" to put in books for kids and young adults, but sometimes it surprises me when I see these adult authors who write for kids acting like the adults they are. It shouldn't surprise me, but it does.

Suzanne Collins was an incredibly gracious speaker. The Books of Wonder representative said when he was introducing her that she was essentially the reason the whole event had been planned; after he'd read Catching Fire he called up Suzanne to ask if she'd sign stock for them since he knew she wasn't making any appearances, but she said that if he could get together a couple of other authors she'd love to come in for a Books of Wonder event! Suzanne dedicated the first bit of her speaking time to praising the other authors and their books, then summarized The Hunger Games and Catching Fire for the audience - not that I think there was anyone there who hadn't read them both. Seriously, when it was time to get books signed, there were people going up to her with bags filled with copies of the books - she was such a big draw that the Books of Wonder staff started going down the line and any of us who had non-Suzanne books to have signed were told to jump the line, and then we could go back to get our Suzanne books signed.

Q&A session next. I didn't note all of the questions and answers, but here are some of the most interesting:

When the authors were asked how they come up with character names, Kristin said she often watched movie credits, especially to get last names. Suzanne said that Katniss' name comes from a regional name for the arrowhead plant - so of course that makes total sense for someone who is an archer!

What character, from your book or any book ever, would you like to meet? Kristin - Bitterblue, Libba - Winnie-the-Pooh, Justine - Ida Mae (from Flygirl, Suzanne - Simon from Lord of the Flies. Apparently I forgot to write down Scott's answer :-(

Here's the question that made me feel like a bad book nerd: a girl in the audience asked Suzanne to talk about the importance of bread in her books, since it pops up occasionally and, it turns out, Panem means bread! Suzanne explained that she took Panem from a latin phrase for bread and circuses, from an ancient satirist.

There was another question, asking the authors why they think dystopian novels are so big in YA right now (a question I believe was also asked at the B&N event). Justine had the best answer, I think: high school is a dystopia. Truer words were never spoken.

Finally it was time for the signing. I picked up Catching Fire and Graceling and brought along my copy of So Yesterday for Scott Westerfeld to sign (since I technically already have Leviathan, albeit in galley form, I don't quite feel the burning need to pick up the hardback version. Yet. It may be on my Christmas list, because it is a beautiful book). Since there was a huge backup to talk to Suzanne, I jumped ahead to Kristin and Scott and had the chance to talk to both of them for a minute. I was super excited to get to ask Kristin about something I'd mentioned in my Fire review: why did she give both Katsa and Fire such an aversion to having children? Kristin admitted her answer was a bit of a copout, but that's just how the two characters came to her, and it seemed so important to who they were as characters she needed to honor it. She also said it was a perfectly natural thought to her, so we laughed and bonded over that (babies are fine and all, but I'm still nowhere near the point where I actually want to be pregnant). She also pointed out that while neither character wants to be pregnant, that feeling actually comes from two very different places: Katsa draws strength from her independence, which of course includes not having babies depending on her, while for Fire it's a much more tragic stance, because she desperately wants a family. Thanks so much for talking to me, Kristin!

I also told Scott that I felt a little bit like his stalker, since this was the fifth time I've seen him this year. Of course, since he sees so many people he admitted that he didn't remember seeing me before, but when I mentioned I'd given him my thesis on Uglies back in the spring, he remembered who I was (or at least remembered there was a girl who'd given him that paper!) and so he asked what I was up to now and was just very friendly again, until I saw a chance to sneak back over and get Catching Fire signed.

It was a long night, but so much fun. Thanks so much to all the authors who came out!

Finally, Justine has made her own post about the evening, if you want to see it from an author's perspective (also, I'm hiding down in the right hand corner of her picture of Suzanne Collins! Totally my claim to fame now).

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Review: Crashed by Robin Wasserman

I read, and moderately enjoyed, Robin Wasserman's Skinned last year, about a girl who suffers a horrific car accident and wakes up to find her parents have downloaded her brain into a cybernetic body. It wasn't the best book of the year, but it was a fine example of YA dystopian lit. So when Crashed came up this year, I knew I had to read it - even if it wasn't at the top of my "to be read" stack.

After reading Crashed I actually had to go back and read Skinned and then re-read Crashed. For one, there were just enough details I didn't remember from the first book that weren't re-capped adequately in the sequel, so I was totally lost half the time. Secondly, I was trying to figure out why Lia just rubbed me the wrong way.

Crashed follows Lia after she ran away from home at the end of Skinned. She's now living with a small group of other Mechs and helps out in the group by helping to recruit new Mechs to their philosophy: since they clearly aren't human anymore, why cling to the trappings and limitations of their old human lives? The Mechs, led by Jude, live a hedonistic lifestyle: there are a few independently wealthy Mechs with enough credit that no one has to work, they don't go to school, since they don't feel emotions or physical sensations the way humans do they subject themselves to extreme activities just to feel again, and since they'll live forever they find monogamy to be monotonous.

In Skinned we saw the first inklings that there were groups of people who were adamantly opposed to the existence of the Mechs. In Crashed, those groups are back in full force and growing larger and more powerful every day, succeeding in placing new restrictions on the lives and activities of the Mechs. A confrontation is approaching between the two sides, and Lia finds herself conflicted: just how much is she willing to tow the party line? How far is she willing to go to defend the rights of Mechs?

One theme that was introduced in Skinned and is really brought to the forefront in Crashed is class, which brings me back to Thursday's post on class in YA lit. Before the download, Lia was definitely in the upper class of the dystopian society America has devolved into. She doesn't have to live in a city or a Corp town, and totally buys into the bullshit reasons that people live in those less-than-desirable places (people in cities are stupid and lazy; if they'd just work harder they'd be working decent jobs and out of those hell holes!). In Skinned we briefly see a city at night, and Lia's friend Auden often tries to open her eyes to the realities of their society. In Crashed we see more of the cities, as well as a corp town, and learn more of what life was like for Jude, Riley and Ani - three of the first Mechs, culled from "volunteers" in the city.

Jude especially seems to revel in telling Lia what a spoiled and clueless girl she is, since she has grown up sheltered outside of the cities. He and the others don't waste an opportunity to let Lia know that she doesn't "really" know how the world works and she's just naive and/or a stuck up rich bitch to think the way she does. And it is painfully obvious that Lia doesn't get what life is like in the cities, but on the other hand I felt the book was really cramming it down my throat, "poor people aren't poor because they want to be! The Man keeps people down!" We got the point the first dozen times; now do we really need to keep calling Lia stupid because she doesn't think something is fair (or right)? I commented over at Adventures of Cecelia Bedelia that I couldn't figure out if Lia irritated me because she's legitimately irritating, or if I was reacting to and sympathizing with the other characters' irritation. I still haven't figured out which it was - all I can pinpoint now is that these books get under my skin, but not in a good way.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Book Events: Children's Literature Cafe Cybils Panel

On Saturday I hooked up with new friend Rachel and attended the New York Public Library's Children's Literature Cafe panel on the Cybils. I have to confess, I was super excited to be attending an event about kid/YA lit that was geared towards adults - at a lot of these events that I tag along to, I feel like the odd one out. I'm old enough now that I can't really pass for a high school student, but I am also clearly not chaperoning a teen of my own. So it was kind of fun being one of the youngest in the room for once - there were three or four rows of chairs filled with people old enough to be my parents, and then a back row of twenty-somethings. I am terrible at estimating numbers, but it's safe to say that we were definitely in the minority.

The panelists were Pam from Mother Reader; Anne Boles Levy, founder of the Cybils; Susan Thomsen of Chicken Spaghetti and Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, a Fireplace and a Tea Cozy. The press release said the panelists would "discuss the state of children's literature online today including ethics, publisher/blogger relations, transparency, influence (or lack thereof) over published titles, and what it means to represent an online community of children’s literary enthusiasts."

The panelists did a good job of touching on all of those points briefly, but I definitely felt we were hindered by having only an hour for discussion. There was quite a bit about ethics and transparency in light of how book bloggers were curious about how the FTC's blogging guidelines were going to affect people like bloggers who review publisher-provided ARCs. Also discussed at length were the controversies surrounding the cover of Liar and Scholastic Book Fair's attempt to censor Luv Ya' Bunches. A bit of time was spent discussing the Cybils themselves, but I think the panelists may have thought we knew a lot more about the Cybils than we did, because the only question presented to us, the audience, by them was where we thought the Cybils should go in terms of funding - non-profit status, seeking grants, etc. Since I know nothing about funding a literary award, I have no idea what applying for non-profit status would entail or mean, and it didn't seem like the audience as a whole had solid ideas, either, so that fell a bit flat.

I have to admit, I was also a little disappointed in terms of representation. Pam had a short little speech prepared to open the panel, and in it she listed all the different types of people who are active in the kidlitosphere - teachers, librarians, moms, dads, teenagers, professors, etc. And yet the panelists were four white women who had careers related to books (reviewer, librarian, etc), and most were mothers. I felt it presented a very narrow look at the kidlitosphere, and did nothing to support Pam's claims of diversity.

I am super excited to know now that the Children's Literature Cafe meets monthly - I definitely plan on going back again. I just wish it lasted longer! An hour really isn't enough time to get a great discussion going, but thanks to everyone that came out and made the hour that we did have worthwhile.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Review: The Ask and the Answer by Patrick Ness

In middle and high school, as I became painfully aware of the fact that my school-assigned readings were dominated by male authors and male characters, I unofficially set out to read books that revolved around female characters. I never said "Oh, I won't read that book, it's about guys," but given a choice between two books, I would always choose the one about a girl. Back in May of this year I first read The Knife of Never Letting Go, and I remember being a little hesitant; why would I want to read a book set on a world where there were no women?!

Thank goodness I got over that hesitation, because The Knife of Never Letting Go is an amazing book, and Viola's awesomeness, combined with the terrible secrets of Prentisstown, make up for the lack of women.

The Ask and the Answer was high on my "Most anticipated books of 2009" list (right up there with Catching Fire). The Knife of Never Letting Go ends on a cliff hanger, and The Ask and the Answer picks up shortly after we were left hanging.

Haven, where Todd and Viola were sure they were going to be able to find refuge from Mayor Prentiss' relentless army, and find a way to contact the settler ships Viola had come from, has been transformed into New Prentisstown. Haven's mayor has been deposed and is held as a political prisoner, while Mayor Prentiss has installed himself as President Prentiss and is intent on reinstating order in New Prentisstown - there are curfews, men and women are separated...and the Mayor begins to limit who can have Haven's famed Cure for the Noise that plagues the men of the New World.

As Viola is recuperating from the wounds she sustained at the end of The Knife of Never Letting Go, she is sent to a house of healing - Haven has always had female Healers versus male Doctors, ostensibly so patients could choose whether they wanted to hear their doctors thoughts, but since men and women must now be kept separate female patients go to the Healers and male patients go to the Doctors. Surrounded by women - women who aren't too keen on Mayor Prentiss' new isolating policies - Viola learns some important history lessons about the New World, about the early days of colonization and the devastating Spackle War. Among those who fought in the Spackle War were a group of guerrilla warriors, mostly women who called themselves the Answer, who took up arms when they felt the male-led army wasn't doing a good enough job. Now that a new male threat has appeared, it looks like the Answer is going to have to return.

Todd is kept as far from Viola as possible - Mayor Prentiss will neither confirm nor deny that she is alive. Todd begins to fear the worst - that even if she isn't dead, she doesn't want to be with him anymore. Todd initially resists the Mayor's new rules - but as the terrorists of the Answer begin to make themselves known (and he wonders whether Viola is among them), some of the Mayor's policies make sense. He is just trying to protect them from the terrorists, isn't he?

The Ask and the Answer has some absolutely heart wrenching moments, as Todd and Viola are forced to choose sides in the conflict over New Prentisstown. As the Mayor tightens his grip on the women of New Prentisstown, I found myself comparing it to The Handmaid's Tale: In The Handmaid's Tale, we only get brief flashbacks to the events that led up to the total oppression of women; here in The Ask and the Answer, we actually get to see some of those steps taken: women and men separated, women only allowed out at certain times of the day and then only in small, tightly controlled groups - and even worse, grotesque measures that I won't spoil because you really need to read it for yourself to feel how TERRIBLE it is. Women are kept apart "for their own safety," yet it's widely known that the soldiers assigned to guard the women sneak into the women's homes and dormitories at night.

Todd and Viola do a lot of growing up in this book - it's wonderful and heartbreaking at the same time to see them forced into the frontlines of the Mayor's war. And my stomach dropped when it came to this book's cliffhanger ending - how long do I have to wait until book 3?!

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Book Thoughts: Class in YA Lit

Back in August, I asked Will the recession hit YA lit? Short summary: adult chick lit is introducing characters that are used to rich, jet-setting lifestyles but must now downgrade in the midst of the real life recession. Reflecting upon the book store displays I dubbed "Rich White Girls with Problems" books, I wondered if we would start seeing similar patterns in YA books.

A post in the What a Girl Wants blogging series made me think of this again. That post is actually over a month old (I haven't gotten around to adding the blog to my Google reader yet...I only remember to check it out when Sara Ryan re-posts her response), but I wanted to highlight the blog post over here.

The What a Girl Wants prompt for this round was:
Do you think historic MG & YA fiction addresses socioeconomic status more effectively than contemporary titles? How important do you think it is for readers to identify with protagonists of their own socioeconomic background? Do you need to read about people with the same financial struggles you have or in times of trouble is it better just to live vicariously? Are realistic titles of this type just too much of a downer? If the book is about fitting in or teen love or friendship, does it help or hinder to drop those details into the plot? Is socioeconomic fantasy just a new kind of fantasy - as out of this world as vamps and wizards and just as much fun? Are we in literary denial or just willfully trying to conjure a more carefree world?

There are some absolutely fantastic responses over there. Please, check them out!

Class in YA lit has been on my mind a bit this week, thanks to the character I'm writing for the NaNoWriMo novel I'm working on with my husband. We're writing steampunk zombies (really, there's not much more to the story than that!) and originally the character I was going to write was going to be a rich young woman who had always thirsted for adventure, and now has more adventure than she can handle, fighting zombies.

But then I realized - once again her story could be boiled down to "rich white girl with problems." Granted, zombies are a much bigger problem than how to keep your boyfriend, but the essence is there. So in a fit of frustration with myself I threw out that whole concept and am now working with an Irish immigrant who worked in a factory prior to the zombies showing up. Does this put her on the opposite end of the spectrum referenced in the What a Girl Wants post ("parents ... receive either masses of money, or conversely can't get jobs at all")? I hope not - I hope to make her as close to working-class as possible in the world we're creating. She's not going to be comfortable by any means, but she's going to (start off) better than my husband's character, who is a homeless, orphaned street urchin.

Of course, once there are zombies I'm not sure class matters too much anymore, but I want it to inform the background of the characters. Maybe we'll never see my character at work in a factory, and maybe by the time the story starts money will be useless, but I'm sure class consciousness will affect her decisions in some way or another down the line.

I've also just re-read Robin Wasserman's Skinned and working on my second reading of the sequel, Crashed (read Crashed once and then realized I didn't remember enough from Skinned to really get it, so I had to go back). The sequel in particular has a lot of comments on class, so this discussion may pop up again next week when I post my review of Crashed.

Any other thoughts out there? Know of any YA books that really look at class issues? The What a Girl Wants blog post has several examples of "classic" MG & YA lit that shows struggling middle class characters, but I didn't catch any mentions of more contemporary titles. Do they really not exist? Or do you just have to know where to look?

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Review: Fire by Kristin Cashore

When Lynn and Cindy reviewed Fire on Bookends, I got super excited - I had known that a prequel to Graceling was in the works, but hadn't realized it was published! Of course, thanks to my inability to keep track of publishing dates, that meant there were already half a dozen people on the library's waiting list. I lamented that this meant I probably wasn't going to get to read the book before February.

Not long after that, Cindy sent me a cryptic e-mail, asking for my mailing address so she could send me a book. A few days later, imagine my excitement when my very own galley of Fire arrived in the mail! And just a little bit before my birthday, too.

The same day, The Ask and the Answer also finally made it to me via the library. Deciding which to read first was a very tough decision.

(I decided on Fire - The Ask and the Answer will be reviewed on Friday)

Fire is set 35 years before Graceling - but isn't set anywhere that is entirely familiar to Graceling fans. Graceling was filled with gracelings - people who had unusual abilities. Fire is filled with monsters: bug monsters, bird monsters...even human monsters, all with an unnatural beauty, the ability to force people and animals to act as the monster desires, and with a thirst for blood. Fire (the main character that the novel is named after) is the daughter of a monster and a human. She has a mane of fiery red/orange/green/pink hair that inspired her name, and shares her father's beauty and mental abilities, which makes Fire both feared and coveted.

In the kingdom of the Dells, King Nash is barely holding his kingdom together, as rival lords seem to be plotting together to overthrow him. A series of mysterious deaths have been plaguing the kingdom: committed by expert archers who seem able to assassinate someone against impossible odds. Nash and his brother Brigan know of Fire, as her father was their father's closest adviser. Fire prefers to live in a tiny rural settlement, far away from the center of the kingdom, but when her king asks for her, she chooses to help him as much as she can.

If you enjoyed Graceling, you're going to enjoy Fire - it has the same action/adventure/romance feeling of Graceling, as Fire spends almost as much time mildly angsting over her feelings for the male lead(s) as she does kicking ass and taking names. In some ways, I think Fire may actually be a more impressive protagonist than Katsa: Katsa threw herself into battle knowing that she had superior fighting skills; Fire is a well-trained archer, but she has no super-human ability to help her fighting (at least, she never seems to use her ability to control human minds as a battle tactic. I suppose theoretically she could).

One similarity between the books I found extremely interesting: both Katsa and Fire spend a lot of time thinking about babies and how they really don't want them. They don't necessarily dislike children, they just don't want to pass on potentially dangerous traits to their children. I think this sticks out for me because I'm not used to seeing issues that I currently deal with in young adult books - usually my connection with YA characters is a little more removed, as in "I remember feeling that way, back in the day." Or with fantasy/sci-fi characters, the connection is on the emotional, not literal, level.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Double Review: Sister Wife by Shelley Hrdlitschka & The Chosen One by Carol Lynch Williams

Found via: BBYA 2010 nominations and The Amelia Bloomer Project

After the controversies in the last year over Warren Jeffs and the raid on the Texas polygamist compound, it's unsurprising that this year we have a few titles set in similar polygamist sects.

What I wasn't expecting were two that share some uncanny similarities.

Both Sister Wife and The Chosen One focus on polygamist sects led by a charismatic - and abusive, at least to outsiders - men who call themselves prophets. Both books have a protagonist about to be married off to a much older man, despite her desire for a boy closer to her own age, and these girls fret that their impure thoughts and actions are going to damn them to hell. Each girl has a mother whose health is in danger after so many pregnancies so close together. Both books have an uncommonly gentle father who is loathe to discipline his children the way the community believes they should be punished. Libraries also play a prominent role.

I suppose on the one hand some of these similarities are just going to be part of the genre (for example, a young girl who begins to question the tenets of her faith when faced with something extremely unpalatable, such as becoming the youngest wife of a much older man, who has already been blessed with more than enough wives to ensure his place in heaven).

Sister Wife follows the stories of three women in a sect called the Movement - Celeste, who is approaching her 15th birthday, the time that young women are traditionally married, Nanette, Celeste's slightly younger half-sister who truly believes in the Movement, and Taviana, a young prostitute from the nearby town who was saved by an older man in the movement and brought to live with Celeste's family. The family is thrown into turmoil when the Movement's Prophet believes the police are looking for Taviana and suspect the Movement of kidnapping her, so he demands she be kicked out of the compound. Around the same time, the Prophet says Celeste is to be married to a much older man - a man that Nanette had hoped she would one day be assigned to marry, causing strife between the two sisters.

The Chosen One has only one protagonist, Kyra. She's younger than Celeste (13), which makes the thought of her forced marriage (to her 60 year old uncle) that much more repugnant. Like Celeste, Kyra has found a boy her own age among the Chosen Ones that she would like to one day marry, but after the Prophet says he saw Kyra marrying her uncle in a vision from God, there is no way of avoiding the wedding. Kyra seeks solace from Joshua, the boy she loves, as well as the mobile library van that drives by her compound. Kyra strikes up a wary friendship with the van's driver, and borrows forbidden books like Harry Potter.

Maybe it's because I read it first, but I enjoyed Sister Wife much more than The Chosen One. In some ways, Sister Wife feels like the much more balanced look at life within a polygamist sect - while there is much about the depicted way of life I find horrendous, it also seems to be populated by people who genuinely believe they are doing the right thing. Celeste's chosen husband assures her that he is a good husband, that he'll care for her and take care of her, and seems very genuine in these promises. Kyra's chosen husband is not only 50 years older than her and her uncle, but is shown to be cruel and domineering - he is nothing but a shallowly painted villain. All of the church leaders seem to be cast from the same mold, and explicitly tell Joshua that the young women and girls of the compound are meant for the older men, hence Kyra was chosen to be the seventh wife of her uncle while a young man like Joshua has no wives.

I always find it interesting when two books with similar themes are published at the same time, but these two carry the similarities to almost absurd levels. I'd be interested to know if anyone has read The Chosen One before Sister Wife - is one actually a superior book, or does it just seem that way because of the order I read them in?
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