Thursday, December 31, 2009

Book roundup: Favorite Books of 2009

The end of another year means a million and one lists extolling the best of anything and everything in 2009. On top of that, this year we have best of lists for the last decade. I have a terrible memory, and spent a significant portion of the decade in college where my leisure reading was sadly limited, so I'm going to restrain myself and simply list what are, in my opinion, the best books of 2009 in alphabetical order (because asking me to rank them would be impossible - they're all so different it's hard to compare).

Almost Perfect by Brian Katcher. Issues of class kept coming up in my blogging thoughts this year, so I loved how this book sensitively and realistically portrayed a struggling working class family and how his class had obviously shaped Logan's life. I also loved how the relationship between Sage, a young transgendered woman, and Logan was developed - painfully realistic.

Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins. This book is the reason I got my bosses to pull some strings to I could attend the Book Expo in New York this spring, since that's where the galley was first released. Getting up super early on a Saturday morning and waiting in a massive line at the Scholastic booth was totally worth it. I started to read it in the then-new beach chairs in Times Square, but eventually had to go home to read it because my gasps and giggles were making me feel conspicuous. And when you feel conspicuous in Times Square, you know something's up!

Flygirl by Sherri L. Smith. Justine Larbalestier wants to write fan fiction for this book. Can anything I say top a recommendation like that?

Geektastic ed. by Holly Black and Cecil Castellucci. I was giggling hysterically through many of the stories in this collection, either from the inherent absurdity of the situations or recognizing myself in the characters (because I'm nothing if not a geek myself).

Goth Girl Rising by Barry Lyga. Sequel to the fun and poignant Adventures of Fan Boy and Goth Girl, Kyra reminded me so much of myself in high school that it was kind of eerie. Lyga's teen girl consultant obviously did her job well.

Graceling and Fire by Kristin Cashore. This one was an interesting pair of books - Fire not being a direct sequel, or even really a prequel, but more of a companion to Graceling, since it takes its premise from something of a throwaway line in Graceling. Cashore created two very different yet complimentary heroines in Katsa and Fire - I still think I like Fire more!

The Knife of Never Letting Go and The Ask and the Answer by Patrick Ness. The good thing about reading the first in a trilogy several months after its publication date: the sequel is that much closer. But then I read the sequel shortly after publication, and now all I want to know is when I get the third one!!!

Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld. If for nothing else, this book deserves a place on the list just from how physically beautiful it is. The cover is awesome and shiny, it's slightly larger and on heavier paper than most novels, and then there's the endpapers. I love it. Justine Larbalestier has an interesting post here about the audience for Leviathan - it's picking up lots of new fans (especially boys) who haven't looked at Scott's other stuff. Interesting!

Liar by Justine Larbalestier. Speaking of's her book this year. I still don't think I've wrapped my head around it. I borrowed this from the library, but I think I'm going to have to buy it soon so that I can re-read it whenever I want, trying to read with a different interpretation every time and figure out what the hell really happened. A friend and I IMed back and forth after she'd read the book...and I don't think we actually came to any conclusions.

Rage: A Love Story by Julie Ann Peters. I just finished reading enduring Twilight, and Edward's behavior reminded me so much of Reeve it freaked me out, considering one character was written to be the poster child of teenage domestic violence and the other is supposed to be a romantic hero. I can't believe I haven't seen this on more awards lists - I've only seen it nominated for the Amelia Bloomer list.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Review: Pretty Dead by Francesca Lia Block

Found via: BBYA 2010 nominations

I've always had issues with Francesca Lia Block books. Not the stories themselves - the ones I've read I've always liked (including this one!); it's how the book looks physically that always irked me. Her stories are relatively short, and the books are small, and the text is almost double spaced...yet for such a small book I'm expected to pay the same price I would for a book like Liar? According to Amazon, Pretty Dead has 208 pages and is 7.2" x 5.3". Liar is 384 pages and measures 7.8" x 5.2". And yet both are $16.99 ($11.55 on Amazon). This is why I never buy my Francesca Lia Block books - I feel like I'm getting ripped off.

But maybe that's just me?

Anyway, reviewing the actual story now:

Charlotte Emerson is a vampire, and she has been one for a long, long time. She has travelled the world, seen the wonders of the world, as well as the attrocities humanity has committed. Desiring some semblance of a normal life (despite living in a mansion with an exotic collection of clothing one can only accumulate by living the equivalent of several lifetimes), Charlotte has most recently settled on the role of high school student, and befriended Emily, a quiet and shy girl who is almost homely compared to the otherworldly glamor that is Charlotte.

But after Emily dies of an apparently suicide, Charlotte begins to feel herself changing. She breaks a nail. She no longer thirsts for blood. She feels when she's near Emily's boyfriend, a boy who seems to have figured out Charlotte's secret, and wants nothing more than to be a vampire himself. Charlotte doesn't want to turn him, but then again, she doesn't even know if she herself is truly a vampire anymore...or something else.

Reviewers on Amazon seem to feel that this was written as some sort of reaction to how hot vampires are in literature right now - and if it is, so what? It's actually a pretty good take on the vampire mythos if you ask me - it really shows some of the tragedy of being a vampire, as Charlotte never ages beyond being a teenager yet everyone she knows and loves ages and eventually dies. She only has one person she can relate to, the man who turned her into a vampire, but who really wants to spend eternity with one person? Especially if that one person isn't what he first seemed to be.

There's also some lighter moments - Charlotte knows the myth that a vampire will burst into flames in the sunlight - it hasn't happened to her, but just to be sure she wears a high SPF sun lotion and long sleeves whenever she's outside. Then again, if she's nervous about that myth, maybe LA isn't where she should be hanging out?

It's also nice to a see a woman as the vampire for once - I'm thinking about all of the vampire books I've read and they're usually about young women attracted to the mysterious male vampire. As a human Charlotte is that girl, but that's merely a brief portion of the story; the rest is about Charlotte's vampire life, and how it seems to be unraveling. The mystery of what's causing her to act more and more human is interesting and definitely kept me guessing.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Teaser Tuesday!

It's Teaser Tuesday
Teaser Tuesday logo
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!

"As usual, Toby's letter was coded in Kernetin, which Toby and my cousin Veronica and I invented years ago so we could write notes to each other without the grown-ups being able to read them. Kernetin is based on Cornish and Latin, with some Greek letters and random meaningless squiggles thrown in to be extra-confusing. Also, it is boustrophedonic (I adore that word and try to say it as often as possible, but unfortunately it hasn't many everyday uses)." Page 5 A Brief History of Montmaray by Michelle Cooper (Just started this one this morning!)

Monday, December 28, 2009

Review: Prophecy of the Sisters by Michelle Zink

Found via: BBYA 2010 nominations

Hope everyone's been having a happy holiday season so far! Christmas week was off to a rough start for me last week, knocking me off my feet with a cold that left me too tired to read. That's just cruel, right?

But I'm back on my feet, and I have a light week at work, so reviews are back!

Lia and Alice Milthorpe's family has been touched by tragedy far too often. Their mother died of mysterious circumstances years ago and as the novel opens the girls and their little brother are burying their father. Lia's anxiety is hightened by the small symbol that has appeared on her wrist since her father's death, and the bizarre book containing a dangerous-sounding prophecy that the boy she likes found in her father's library.

Intrigued by the prophecy and trying to understand what it means, Lia discovers that the prophecy that speaks of two sisters, one who shall be the guardian of Earth and the other who is the gate that shall let the devil back onto earth, is actually about her and Alice, and they are merely the latest in a long line of twins (including their mother and the aunt who now serves as their guardian) to be bound to the prophecy.

Terrified of her place in the prophecy, and the ends her sister will go to in order to ensure the prophecy comes true, Lia sets out to learn all she can, and hopefully put an end to the prophecy once and for all.

Zink has created a very moody atmosphere for her story, which works great as a background. Unfortunately, the characters didn't grab and hold me - Alice feels far too two-dimensional and Lia, our narrator, is only a bit more interesting. While Lia has an epic task in front of her, far too many pieces seem to fall into place easily for her, hampering any real feeling of drama.

This is the first book in a trilogy (because what fantasy stories don't come as trilogies these days?), but I think this may be one trilogy that I'm going to sit out.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Book Thoughts: Awards season!

(I hate it when I read books faster than the library can send me new ones. I've spent this week feeding my inner-geek by reading Twist of Faith, the Star Trek: Deep Space 9 omnibus of the first four re-launch novels. Technically I've read three and a half books this week...but they're all in that one omnibus so I feel like it's taking ages to finish the book! So instead of a new review today, check out some of the awards coming out this year)

With the end of the year rapidly approaching, lots of award lists are going up, either announcing the best of the year or listing the finalists before the actual best-of lists happen.

Here are links to some of the awards I follow most closely - I might even make some additional posts where I link to my reviews of the nominees/winners to keep track of everything around here!

Best Books for Young Adults This is the award list that put me on my current reading path, so now I draw most of my reading from the nominations list and look forward to what makes the final list! It seems to me that this year has a preponderance of stories dealing with the death of a family member - haven't had a chance to do any real analysis, but it sure FEELS like every other nominee includes a death in the annotation. Is it just me?

Amelia Bloomer Project I LOVE THIS LIST. Any and all feminist-themed titles end up here (or so it seems). Categories range from children's picture books through young adults, so you can find feminist-friendly titles for children of any age.

William C. Morris Debut Award This is an actual award, rather than a list like the first two awards. Goes to the "a previously unpublished author, or authors, who have made a strong literary debut in writing for young adult readers."

National Book Award this one's already been given out (Claudette Colvin: Twice Towards Justice won for young people's literature) but it still deserves a highlight. The National Book Award is a prestigious prize, but at the same time one shrouded in secrecy: the guidelines for the award aren't as clear as others, which leads to a book like Stitches, considered by many to be an adult title, to receive a nomination in young people's literature.

YALSA award for excellence in non-fiction for young adults New award starting this year! The name kind of explains it all. This has been a great year for non-fiction in YA, so it'll be interesting to see what takes home the prize!

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Review: Bones of Faerie by Janni Lee Simner

Found via: BBYA 2010 nominations

I realized after reading this book that I might have to revise my "I don't like fantasy" stance, because I keep finding fantasy books that I actually do enjoy! I think it's just classic High Fantasy that I don't like - sword and sorcery stories where women are usually reduced to being damsels in distress.

Bones of Faerie definitely isn't that sort of story - in fact, I think it could make a great introduction to fantasy for younger teens who like sci fi but avoid fantasy, because this is essentially a post-apocalyptic fantasy novel.

Liza lives in a world still struggling in the aftermath of the faerie war that ended 20 years ago. While the faeries were driven back, the world is still tainted with magic - trees in the forest will attack wayward travelers; crops stubbornly refuse to be harvested; and occasionally a child will be born with gray eyes or clear hair, the signs that magic has touched the child and it must be killed, before it kills everyone else.

Liza knows magic is dangerous - she has seen people killed by magic-touched children. Her father was forced to leave her infant sister out by the edge of the woods after she was born with clear hair. That loss caused her mother to run away, and shortly after Liza begins to have magical visions. Terrified that this means her father will kill her, Liza runs blindly into the forest. Matthew, a boy in the village who knows first hand how dangerous magic can be, follows her, though neither know how to survive in the enchanted forest. They are rescued by a mysterious woman with magical powers of her own, and discover a whole town where magic is not feared, but is respected as a tool. Liza's visions grow more powerful, leading her to believe she knows how to find her mother, leading her to start an epic quest with Matthew and Allie, another girl with magic powers, in tow.

Atmospherically and somewhat thematically, this reminded me a lot of Carrie Ryan's The Forest of Hands and Teeth, especially as both protagonists discover there's a whole wide world outside of their constrictive home towns.

It seemed like this wanted to become an epic quest story, but it never quite had a chance to grow beyond a bare skeleton of a quest narrative. Descriptions, especially of magic in action, are fuzzy and I often had to re-read paragraphs to figure out how something happened (and even then it wouldn't always be clear). Someone who wants to know all the little details of this post-apocalyptic world is going to be disappointed, but as an introduction to the genre (post-apocalyptic and/or fantasy) it's a good jumping off point.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Review: Ash by Malinda Lo

Found via: BBYA 2010 nominations

Over the weekend, I read a piece in Writer's Digest on the one and only Gregory Maguire. In it, the writer shares a brilliant quote that perfectly explains for me why fairy tale retellings can be so compelling:

Childhood is the source of the only common language we possess. Why not use it to make a fictional point? Children’s fables and stories supply perhaps the only genuinely universal bank of references that a contemporary adult reading audience might be expected to share. We no longer can rely (if ever we could) upon all readers to pick up allusions to the ancient Greek myths, the Roman orations, the Old Testament histories, the New Testament parables. But we can reasonably assume that saying, ‘I have a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore,’ is going to fall on appreciative ears.”

So when you pick up a book like Ash and start seeing elements like dead parents, a mean stepmother with two daughters, a prince looking for a wife, a ball, and magical fairy help, everyone knows we're revisiting the story of Cinderella. But Lo adds delightful twists to ensure that this isn't the Cinderella you grew up with.

Aisling, called Ash, lives in a country that is somewhat conflicted. The King has invited philosophers from the south into his kingdom, philosophers that are determined to convert the people from believing in fairies to believing in the philosophers' ancient texts. In the cities, the ways of the philosophers begin to take hold, but in rural, out of the way villages close to the dark Wood, tales of fairies live on. So when Ash's mother dies, her father follows the old ways, to ensure her mother's body and soul isn't taken by the fairies - just in case those stories really are true.

Not too long after her mother's death, her father goes on a business trip - and returns with a new stepmother and two stepsisters for Ash, women from the city who find life in the village to be backwards. When Ash's father dies suddenly, her stepmother whisks the family back to civilization, leaving Ash with nothing but a few fairy tale books her mother had once read to her.

In her grief, Ash clings to the fairy tales, seeing them almost as instructional stories, rather than the cautions that even she knows they're intended as. While the stories say never to go into the Wood alone at night, Ash takes every opportunity she can to escape the cruelty of her step-family in the Wood, and eventually meets a fairy of her own: the dangerous and enigmatic Sidhean. Ash knows that joining the fairies is practically a death sentence - but considering her parents are dead, she'd rather be with them and Sidhean than working as a servant for her step-family.

But someone else also wanders in the Wood - the King's Huntress, Kaisa. As Ash grows up and learns to live with her grief bit by bit, she finds herself fascinated with the strong and beautiful Kaisa, and risking everything to be near her - not just the wrath of her stepmother, but her very life as she makes a bargain with Sidhean in order for her deepest wishes in her human life to be granted.

Ash's transformation from a sad and scared little girl to a mature, if risk-taking, young woman is slow and absolutely beautiful. When Ash meets Sidhean, it's totally understandable why she would want to go with him and you fell her frustration when Sidhean repeatedly refuses to take her with him into the fairy realm. But then she meets Kaisa and their relationship is so beautiful that it's heartbreaking when Ash asks Sidhean to help her be with Kaisa, because we know from the stories that Ash has read that fairies never offer something without a price attached.

The repeated use of fairy tales within a fairy tale was a fun device, as different characters would share their favorite fairy tales, giving us a glimpse into their personalities. It also allows us to see part of Ash's growing up process, as Kaisa gives her something to live for in the real world, her tastes in fairy tales changes.

For anyone looking for a truly magical twist on the Cinderella story, Ash is definitely for you. It's also exciting to note that Ash has been nominated for the Morris Award for teen books by previously unpublished authors. I haven't read any of the other nominated titles (how do I read so much and yet still miss titles worthy of these awards?!), but Ash definitely deserves a place on that list.

End of the Day Addition: Work was hectic today so I didn't have a chance to post this earlier, but today the YALSA blog interviewed Malinda Lo! It includes details about early drafts of Ash AND a sequel!

Friday, December 11, 2009

Review: The Morgue & Me by John C. Ford

Found via: BBYA 2010 nominations

Before I get to the review, allow me to toot my own horn for a moment: happy blog-birthday to me! On December 11th, 2008 I posted my first blog review for Audrey, Wait. There have been some ups and downs in the past year in terms of my blogging schedule, since back in February I got married and also started a new job, and working two jobs from February to July didn't leave me much time for blogging, but in the last couple of months I think I've settled into a nice blogging pattern :-)

So, now that that's out of the way, time for that review, right?

It's the summer before Christopher Newell starts college and he needs to find himself a job. His parents are professors at a nearby college and offer to get him some kind of internship, but Christopher wants to strike out on his own a bit. When he sees a help wanted ad for a janitor at the local morgue, he pounces on it. Christopher hopes to be some sort of spy someday, and hopes he'll get some insights into forensic science by hanging out at the morgue.

Christopher never thought that he'd be walking into a murder cover up.

It's a perfect modern-noir tale. Christopher tries to play it cool as a pseudo-hard-boiled investigator, but it's clear he's just a kid who's in a little over his head. The cover up involves the highest authorities in town (or does it?), and a pattern of corruption that goes back for several years. Since the police may, or may not, be involved in the cover up and/or bribery scandal, the only person Christopher can trust is the femme-fatale-ish reporter, Tina, who hopes that this story will be her big break to get her out of Petoskey, Michigan and into a paper like the Detroit News.

Ford piles up mystery upon mystery here - what starts as an investigation into a murder cover up becomes more and more complex, dragging unexpected characters into the mix, completely isolating poor Christopher, save for his fellow investigator, Tina. This was definitely a book I couldn't put down - as I was reaching the climax of the story, I couldn't turn the pages fast enough, but abruptly looked up at one point because I realized I hadn't checked the subway stations in awhile - for all I knew I had sailed past my subway stop! I hadn't, luckily, but I was a lot closer to home than I would have thought.

For all that I loved about this book, I do have one small nitpick: if Mr. Ford did in fact grow up in Birmingham, Michigan, you would think he would have remembered to reference a carbonated cola beverage as "pop" rather than "soda!"

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Review: Candor by Pam Bachorz

Found via: BBYA 2010 nominations

When I'm traveling, I like to bring along books that match where I'm going whenever possible. So when I was traveling over Thanksgiving to celebrate the holidays with my in-laws in Florida, I brought along Candor, set in a perfect community in Florida. Hm, maybe when I'm going to spend time with my in-laws I shouldn't bring along books that encourage distrust of adults!

Oscar Banks lives with his father in Candor, Florida, the community that his father established as the perfect place, especially for parents to bring their troubled teenagers. Only Oscar knows why the kids become so docile upon moving to Candor - his father has set up an elaborate sound system throughout the town that is constantly pumping subliminal messages into everyone's unsuspecting minds.

Rebelling against his father the only way he can and not be sent to the extreme re-education room, Oscar runs a sort of underground railroad where the richest kids in town can buy passage out of Candor (and Oscar in return has an endless supply of contraband - porn, DVDs and M&Ms are just a few of the things that are outlawed in Candor that Oscar hoards). Oscar's secret? He knows how to create his own subliminal messages, which can counteract the ones his father has set up.

And then Nia arrives. Beautiful and rebellious, Oscar can't stand the thought of her being changed into the perfect Candor citizen. He creates a special batch of messages for Nia to keep her from falling under the spell - but never tells her about it. At the same time Nia arrives, one of Oscar's clients who was supposed to escape is caught at the last minute. Oscar's usual balancing act has become much more precarious - there's now someone else in town who knows what he's up to, who could spill the beans at any moment. At the same time he has to encourage Nia to be herself, but pretend that she's like the other Candor kids - without revealing the secret of the messages. All without his strict, controlling father ever suspecting that the rebellion is being run from inside his son's bedroom.

Candor has all the elements of the quintessential YA novel - untrustworthy parents, conspiracy theories, a beautiful stranger, and a smarter than average protagonist. But with all of these elements, I still felt the book fell a little short in some ways. Big things went unexplained, like why exactly someone goes crazy if they leave Candor but don't bring along a set of subliminal messages. I also never understood why Oscar felt it was so important that Nia not know about the subliminal messages, either the ones his father set up or the new ones he gave Nia. It felt like it was an artificial reason, set up so there would be conflict between Oscar and Nia if/when she did find out. Finally, why on earth did Oscar's dad create Candor in the first place? I can see the appeal of creating a perfect community, but there's never an explanation for why he targeted rich families with problem teenagers. Oscar points out a very real problem with his father's business model: since you die if you leave Candor, no one can ever move away permanently (college-bound students have a special CD pack they take with them, but they always come back to Candor), meaning eventually the town's land will be completely used up, with no new families (and thus no new income for his father) until people start dying off. Unless his father's plan is actually to keep expanding Candor until he's taken over the US, it doesn't seem like a feasible plan.

There are some fun elements, however. I enjoyed Oscar's increasing paranoia throughout the book, trying to figure out what new messages his father was implanting in the populace, knowing when to play along with the messages and when to actively rebel. The story is exciting, despite the occasional holes in the logic, and tightly paced, making this a definite page turner.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Review: The Sweetheart of Prosper County by Jill Alexander

Found Via: BBYA 2010 nominations

I've been reading a lot of heavy, serious books lately. Like Into the Wild Nerd Yonder, The Sweetheart of Prosper County provided some lightheartedness to break up the downer books - though this one does have a serious story at its core.

After being made fun of by the school bully at her small Texas town's No Jesus Christmas parade, Austin Gray decides that she needs to be elected as the Sweetheart of Prosper County. If she gets to wear a pretty dress and ride in the parade, no one will be able to make fun of her! Of course, in order to win the crown, she has to join the Future Farmers of America club, and raise a prize-winning farm animal. Enthusiastically supported by her best friend Maribel, and just slightly less so by her overprotective mother, Austin throws herself head first into raising a prize rooster, named Charles Dickens.

When she's not carefully attending to Charles Dickens, Austin is also carefully learning how to grow up and assert her independence under her mother's tight reign. She's been extremely protective of Austin ever since Austin's father died in a car accident one rainy Christmas Eve. Naturally Austin misses her father terribly, but she doesn't understand why his death means she has so fewer freedoms than her peers. And being kept under strict rules isn't exactly conducive to going out with Josh, the cutest boy in the FFA!

I felt there were some uneven spots in this book - the men and boys are a little underdeveloped (I never figured out why the bully was so damn MEAN to Austin - sure she's an easy target since she won't stand up for herself, but he really takes it too far), and the animal-raising plot seems resolved too early so for chapters at a time there's no mention of Charles Dickens, who is so essential to the first half of the book. However, those uneven spots don't take away from the delightful charms of Austin and her relationships with her friend Maribel and her mother. Austin and Maribel are delightfully close, even though the rural town has more than its fair share of racist rednecks who aren't afraid to throw slurs at Maribel. Austin even takes part in Maribel's quinceanera.

It's also always nice to see a functional mother/daughter relationship. Yes, Austin's mother is a bit overprotective, which Austin sometimes resents, but the two of them are also affectionate and there's obviously a deep bond there. They aren't perfect, but they don't hate each other.

Another plus: the book's subtle but ever-present portrayal of religion. A lot of YA books totally gloss over religion - if it's mentioned, the character is either fervently anti-religious, or the whole book is religiously themed. The Sweetheart of Prosper County isn't a religious book, but there are plenty of references to Austin's religion sprinkled throughout the text, mostly through her strategy of "praying the problem:" instead of asking god for a specific outcome, you just pray about what's going on and trust that it will be resolved. Also the quinceanera takes place in Maribel's catholic church, which is very different from anything Austin had experienced before. Though I'm not religious myself, it's nice to see religion acknowledged as part of a character's life.

Thread plug: Yesterday I put out a request for books with explicitly female characters - I'd still love to hear from you and your thoughts in the comments!

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Review: Goth Girl Rising by Barry Lyga

Found via: NYC Teen Author Fest

I first heard about this title back in March, when Barry Lyga read bits and pieces of the beginning of the book at the NYC Teen Author Fest. I have half a dozen other books that need to be reviewed, but Goth Girl Rising is jumping to the head of the line because it is awesome.

Goth Girl Rising is the sequel to The Adventures of Fan Boy and Goth Girl, picking up Kyra's story about six months after the end of that book. Kyra has been in a mental hospital for the last six months, covering the entire summer and the beginning of the next school year. It's now November and Kyra is struggling to get back to her old life.

Kyra's top problem is she feels like she was abandoned while she was in the hospital. Her two best friends claim they sent her TONS of e-mails over the summer, but Kyra didn't receive one. But most hurtful is that Fanboy himself seemed to forget about her - no e-mails, no calls, no texts.

Kyra returns to a school where the social hierarchy appears to have been turned upside down while she was away. When she left, Fanboy was easily manipulated, lonely little geek, harboring secret fantasies about a senior girl and translating those into his epic comic book Schemata. Now Fanboy is the toast of the school, after doing some editing on Schemata and publishing it in monthly installments in the school's literary magazine. The way Kyra sees it, first Fanboy forgot her, then he went and got all popular by sharing his masterpiece with the plebes; now Kyra wants revenge on him.

Life isn't any easier at home for Kyra, where she and her dad continue to butt heads over pretty much everything, from Kyra's attitude at school to the way she dresses. Like most 16 year old girls, Kyra is changing and trying to find her place in the world, with her history, though, she just feels she has it harder than anyone else.

The main reason I loved, loved, LOVED this book and tore through it in one day is that in so many ways Kyra is exactly like I was in high school. A lot of the big things are different, sure - my mom didn't die, I never tried to kill myself, when someone hurt me I didn't set out to destroy his life, and my boobs were nowhere near a D cup (though I still disliked their existence) - but so many of Kyra's smaller moments were just like how I was in high school it was a little scary. Kyra's feminism and mine had a lot in common at that stage - lots of anger, convinced that all guys were stupid and out only for sex. Both of those are still mostly true, but my views are a bit more refined by now. I also loved the moment when Kyra is experimenting with her look and, just to try something different, undoes a few buttons on her shirt to show some cleavage and rolls up the waistband of her skirt to make it a little sexier. Despite how much she hates women who use their appearance to gain control, Kyra recognizes that she, too, could pull off the look - and she might even kind of like it! Kyra spends a lot of time trying to be comfortable in her own skin, which is something I think we can all relate to.

I do think the most exciting part, however, was Kyra's explicit musings on feminism. I thought about this a lot last year with The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks. It's not so uncommon anymore to read YA books with feminist themes, but how often do characters explicitly identify as feminist? During the spring's teen author fest, I went out of my way to make sure to thank E. Lockhart for making that a positive part of Frankie's character. Since then, I can't recall too many other characters that expressly say "I'm a feminist." Does anyone out there know of any others?

If you haven't read The Adventures of Fanboy and Goth Girl, you need to go out and find yourself a copy immediately - this really isn't a sequel that works well without knowing what went on in the first book. After you read that, Goth Girl Rising should definitely be next on your list.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Book Links: How Sad is Too Sad in Children's Books?

It's the middle of my work day, so I don't have time for lots of blogging, but I wanted to pass along a link to a friend's blog post, exploring how sad should children's books go? My thoughts are in the comments on the post :-)

Review: Hate List by Jennifer Brown

Found via: BBYA 2010 nominations

Here's another wrenching book for you, this one about the tragedy of school shootings. But Jennifer Brown takes some interesting twists with a story we think we should know, adding to the heartbreak, yes, but also showing some unique insights into a tragedy like this.

Five months ago, Valerie's boyfriend, Nick, opened fire in the cafeteria, purposefully targeting all of the kids that had been making their lives miserable. In idle fits of rage, the two had compiled a "hate list," all of the people and things that they hated, from outright bullies to annoying TV news anchors to math homework. Valerie had thought it was all a joke, just a way to blow off steam. Nick had been deadly serious.

After being wounded in the attack, Valerie spent the summer in hiding as the rumor mill remained convinced she had something to do with the shooting, even after the police clear her of guilt. After months of physical and psychological therapy, everyone tells her she's ready to face school again, though Valerie isn't so sure.

The complexity of this story comes from the wide variety of relationships, none of which turn out exactly the way you might think. One of the school's most popular girls is determined to be Valerie's friend, even though she used to make Valerie's life miserable; she thinks that Valerie intentionally saved her life, taking the bullet that Nick intended for her. Other survivors aren't sure how to act around Valerie, and question whether she should be allowed back in school at all, guilty or not. The most complex and heartbreaking relationships, however, are between Valerie and her parents, as her parents don't quite seem to understand how their daughter could have been so angry as to devise the hate list in the first place.

And of course, Valerie is struggling with her own inner demons. She knows Nick did something terrible, but does that mean she can't love him anymore? It wasn't the Nick she knew who pulled that trigger, after all.

Valerie has help sorting out her personal issues and relationships with the help of a fantastic psychologist and a random art teacher, who I really wish had been integrated into the story more. The psychologist was great, however, because so often in YA lit the psychologists are ineffective, either because the character doesn't want to be their or the psychologist is a doofus or a combination of the two. Dr. Hieler is comforting to Valerie and a great sounding board for her. She's on to some of his "tricks" to get her to open up and talk, but since Dr. Hieler is the one person who's actually willing to listen, she keeps going.

If you've got a strong tolerance for depressing books, this could be a good book to pair with Dave Cullen's Columbine. Or maybe you should read the two far, far apart; if you're like me, the books will stay with you enough that even reading them 6 months apart you can remember some stark details.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Review: Perfect Chemistry by Simone Ekeles

Found Via: A Chaire, a Fireplace & a Tea Cozy

Apparently I'm stuck on "perfection" this week! Unfortunately, that really only extends to the title on this one - unlike Almost Perfect, I wasn't really enamored with this one.

Perfect Chemistry is the age-old story of Romeo & Juliet, with a little bit of Pygmalion thrown in for good measure, only this time there's Brittany Ellis, who is rich and white with parents who expect nothing less than perfection from her, and Alejandro "Alex" Fuentes, who is a Mexican immigrant (at least I'm pretty sure he was born in Mexico - he may be Mexican-American) and a reluctant gang member focused on keeping his family safe in dangerous gang turf. It's the beginning of senior year and a strict chemistry teacher forces Alex and Brittany to sit together, despite the fact the two seem to hate each other. Even though Brittany is initially terrified of Alex, romance blossoms.

When I was reading this book, I tweeted that Alex was creeping me out "like Edward Cullen-style creep out." Because this book seems to suffer from the same delusion as Twilight: boys that are mean to you are, in fact, irrepressibly sexy. Alex constantly sexually harasses Brittany (he says in their introductions in chemistry class that she wants to have sex with him, even though that's demonstrably not the case), he briefly kidnaps her, and is just generally an unpleasant person. Brittany isn't the nicest person at the beginning, either, but since her insults don't go much beyond "Fuck you" and she can't physically force Alex to do anything, she doesn't come off as nearly abusive. The Pygmalion aspect comes from Alex accepting a bet from his buddies that he'll be able to sleep with Brittany, despite the fact that when this bet is made she's happily dating a dreamy boy (that happens to share her & Alex's chemistry class, and assumes the worst of Brittany in the face of Alex's taunts. So yeah, he's not really that dreamy, either).

The positive notes on this novel come when the story strays from the romance and show Brittany and Alex's home lives. Alex is an unwilling rising star in his gang - he only joined to protect his family and is dead set against either of his younger brothers being recruited into the gang. Alex's family life is one of the most compelling parts of the novel, and is utterly heart breaking at times. Brittany's parents, on the other hand, seem to put up the veneer of perfection in order to compensate for Brittany's older sister with cerebral palsy. Another heart breaking family story, as it seems that Brittany is the only one who really looks out for and cares about her sister.

Stories like this are why I generally don't wander into the romance genre. It's one thing to play on the trope of opposites attracting, but it's a whole other thing when one of the "opposites" is as malicious and scary as Alex gets.

The discussion is still going on yesterday's What About Team Bella? post, so if you haven't checked it out already, pop over there!

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Review: Almost Perfect by Brian Katcher

Found Via: BBYA 2010 nominations

Two posts in one day! Thrilling, right? I just have SO MANY books to review, that even when I have commentary to make, I need to keep up with my reviewing!

"Almost Perfect" is certainly an apt title for the copy of the book I got out of the library - it was missing a dozen pages! It got worse in the last 50 or so pages - so bad that I read it sitting in front of my computer so I could find the missing pages via Amazon's search inside feature.

It was totally worth the extra effort.

After learning that his girlfriend of three years cheated on him, Logan feels like crap. And he seems determined to keep feeling like crap, until a new girl shows up in his biology class in the middle of November. Logan lives in a small town in central Missouri - new kids just don't show up, especially not halfway through senior year!

Sage is striking and mysterious - super tall with a sexy voice and eclectic fashion sense. She's been homeschooled for years and seems to have the world's strictest parents. Logan is immediately intrigued, and as Sage seems to share the attraction, quickly forgets about that old girlfriend.

Sage tries desperately to keep Logan at arms length, insisting they just be friends, but as that becomes harder and harder, she finally reveals the last piece of her mysterious past to Logan: she was born a boy. Now the ball is in Logan's court - how can a straight boy in central Missouri be friends with a transgendered person? Especially when that person is as sweet, friendly, and even cute as Sage?

This was an extremely compelling book for me, because we so rarely see transgender issues explored in YA lit. The closest I can think of off the top of my head is Debbie Harry Sings in French, where a boy discovers he really enjoys dressing up as a girl (specifically, Debbie Harry). He's not gay or trans, but faces a lot of homophobia. Because the topic is so rarely tackled, Almost Perfect does occasionally feel a little didactic - explaining "this is what transgendered means" and "this is how the transitioning process is accomplished" - but the rest of the story overcomes these shortcomings.

Since class is one of those themes that keeps popping back up on this blog, I wanted to point out that Logan comes from a struggling working-class family, which is handled quite well and has obviously shaped Logan as a character. His father ran out years ago and his mom works as many shifts as she can as a waitress, struggling to keep the roof of a single-wide trailer over their heads and food on the table. Logan does yard work in the warmer months and shovels snow in the winter so he can help his mom out (even though she hates taking money from her kid).

I absolutely loved how Logan's character developed throughout the book - he has a lot of ups and downs during his relationship with Sage. The ups were thrilling while the downs were devastating. I think maybe some of the other characters give him a little too much credit for trying (and usually failing) to do the right thing (I don't believe you should get a cookie just for acting like a decent human being-stopping yourself from punching someone isn't nearly as heroic as stopping someone else from taking that punch). With that in mind, Almost Perfect really is the perfect title for this book.

Book Thoughts: What about Team Bella?

(Title shamelessly stolen from Broadsheet)

I'm sure someday we'll stop talking about Twilight - but today's not that day!

Kate Harding's latest article at Broadsheet really struck a chord with me, because it perfectly articulates the reason why the Team Jacob/Team Edward argument (that has spilled over to what feels like every other book that features two men for the woman to choose from) drives me up a wall.

The marketing campaign for the movie pits "Team Edward" (the vampire) against "Team Jacob" (the werewolf), but as Carmen D. Siering wrote in Ms., "few young readers ask, 'Why not Team Bella?'" That's because the whole point of Bella's existence is earning the suffocating love of supernatural hotties; even if you think her obsessive devotion to Edward might waver in the face of were-love, you know you're never going to see her throw them both over to stand on her own two feet.

When this Team Edward/Team Jacob stuff was limited to Twilight, I didn't much care, because that does really seem to be Bella's great moral dilemma: which guy to choose. She doesn't seem to have any agency outside of the two guys.

But then I started noticing other books being discussed in a similar vein. I had to stop following the Hunger Games Trilogy group on Goodreads because the threads ultimately devolved into shouting TEAM GALE and TEAM PEETA endlessly, with no other content. When it first started happening, I was annoyed, but couldn't quite describe why it bothered me so much. Because Katniss is placed in positions where she has to choose between the boys - or at least, try to figure out how she feels about each one.

Harding's article helped me fill it out: it annoyed me because it ignores Katniss' own agency, and the fact that she has a hell of a lot more going on in her life than romance. Bella's life in Twilight boils down to romance, and that's fine - her books clearly fall into the romance genre. Hunger Games, however, is much more of an action-adventure story, with a dash of political intrigue and just a hint of romance for Katniss. Debates over why Katniss might choose one guy over the other could be interesting and fun as one part of discussion of the novel, but boiling everything down to "Team Gale" and "Team Peeta" misses the point of the novels. I, for one, am firmly on Team Katniss (after Catching Fire, I just want her to stay alive through the end of book 3!)!

Coincidentally, when I was hunting down that link for the Goodreads forum, I found a topic on there that reminded me of another blog post I read today: a discussion comparing Twilight to Hunger Games seems like it would hit several squares on Justine Larbalestier's Paranomral/Fantasy YA Review Bingo. Remember that horrendous Entertainment Weekly review of Catching Fire? Yeah, I think the comments there firmly proved that about the only similarities between the two series is that a teenage girl is the protagonist!

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Review: Liar by Justine Larbalestier

Ever since the cover controversy that surrounded this book earlier this year, I've been dying to get my hands on this book.

And then, once I'd had my hands on it, I was dying for a friend to get it so we could discuss it! This is a book that begs for a group to read it and then meet for coffee to discuss it.

Micah is a liar. She tells us that on page one. But she also swears she will tell us the truth. The whole truth. The really real truth. But lying is a hard habit to break. So as Micah tells us her story, of her secret romance, her eccentric extended family, and a mysterious family illness, we are forced to read between the lines and try to figure out just what is true about Micah's story - if anything is at all.

I really can't say more than that because it is SO IMPORTANT that you read this book without spoilers. Justine has pulled together one bizarre book, with so many twists and turns that even after reading it twice and talking via AIM with a friend (who read it in just two sittings at the book store!) I still have no idea what "really" happened.

It's the holidays, so if you're picking up this book for yourself, pick up a second copy to give to a friend as a gift. You'll both be thankful when you finish that you have someone to talk to!

And if you don't have a discussion partner handy, you can always check out the spoiler post Justine set up on her blog. Seriously, though, it's full of spoilers, so if you haven't read the book yet, avoid that post at all costs! Are you reading the non-spoilery parts of Justine's blog yet? She probably has one of my favorite author-blogs on the 'net. She and her husband, Scott Westerfeld, alternated days for giving writing tips during NaNoWriMo, and Justine consistently has some of the smartest blog posts on topics like race and gender in YA lit that I've seen on the web. I highly recommend it.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Review: Blue Plate Special by Michelle D. Kwasney

Found via BBYA 2010 nominations

Note to self: when going on a weekend outing with your mother, don't take along a book about girls who have less-than-stellar relationships with their mothers! Sure, it might make you appreciate your own mother more, but what a downer!

Madeline, Desiree and Ariel are three very different young women growing up in three very different times. Madeline is quiet and overweight in 1977, the defacto head of the family since her father is gone and her mother prefers to spend the welfare checks on alcohol. Desiree, getting ready to graduate from high school in 1993, tells her story through poetry (and I didn't hate it!), as she tries to avoid her mother and her mother's skeezy boyfriend, finding her only refuge in her high school sweetheart. Ariel, the contemporary girl in 2009, has a workaholic for a mother and is throwing herself at Shane, her new boyfriend that wants her to spend all of her time with him - and only him.

Like I hinted at above, this book is a bit melancholy, but ultimately thoroughly enjoyable.

I always find it supremely satisfying when I reach the end of a book and can sit back and appreciate just how finely crafted the book is. There are complex books out there that can feel like they're being complex just for the sake of complexity; there are others that are exciting and breathtaking but don't necessarily feel like they were crafted. It took me a little bit to really feel immersed in Blue Plate Special, probably because the chapters alternate between three different young women in three different decades, but at the end you can't help but appreciate how deftly Kwasney has woven their stories together.
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