Friday, December 31, 2010

Book Thoughts: 2010 in review

In 2009 I was a rather casual blogger, but in 2010 I stepped up my pace dramatically - I wrote 108 blog posts in 2009 and this will be my 245th post of 2010. What prompted the increase in activity? Because in 2010 I finally stepped in to become part of the kid/YA lit blogging community. In 2009 my blogging was pretty solitary, with only a handful of comments coming in when people would randomly stumble across my blog. In 2010, I started searching for community in the very first week, participating in the comment challenge and my first Bloggiesta (I know dates for Bloggiesta have been set - and I CAN'T WAIT - but does anyone know if the comment challenge is happening again?). Through the two events (plus my second Bloggiesta in the summer) I found lots of new blogs to follow - which in turn increased the number of books I added to my TBR list, as I didn't have to search out new titles; they came to me!

Speaking of the TBR list, at some point in January (maybe during the Bloggiesta?) I created a Google spreadsheet where I tracked all of the books I wanted to read. Not only was this easier than just starring posts in Google Reader or immediately requesting titles from the library, but it made it easier for me to keep track of links back to where I'd first seen the book recommended - I was having far too many instances where it'd be weeks between requesting the book from the library and finally reading it where I'd be asking myself "Why on Earth did I ever think this was going to be good?!" Now when that happens, I can easily look back and see what the inspiration was and determine whether maybe I misread a review or if the reviewer and I just have totally opposite tastes (and if a pattern develops, it's sometimes a signal that I should pare down the list of blogs that I follow, if someone is constantly recommending stuff I despise!).

Since I kept separate tabs on my spreadsheet for what I want to read, what I have read, and what I've abandoned or changed my mind about even starting, it gives me a good overview of what my reading was like this year. It's not a perfect system yet, as one of the tweaks I'll have to do for 2011 is remember to note when a book has been sent to me for review. My Read & Reviewed tab tells me I've reviewed 127 books this year, but I know books like Prisoners in the Palace, which was sent to me, or Monsters of Men, which I picked up as an ARC at ALA, aren't on the list.

Here's what I've read but haven't reviewed (some will be reviewed in the next month, but by February I hope to be reviewing mostly 2011 books)

  • Supergirls by Mike Madrid
  • She's So Dead to Us by Kieran Scott
  • My Life With the Lincolns by Gayle Brandeis
  • Freak Magnet by Andrew Auseon
  • Sources of Light by Margaret McMullen
  • Tension of Opposites by Kristina McBride
  • Kiss by Jaqueline Wilson
  • Mockingbirds by Daisy Whitney
  • Jump by Elisa Carbone
  • Best Friends Forever: A WWII Scrapbook by Beverly Patt
  • Dangerous Neighbors by Beth Kephart
  • Trickster: Native American Tales by Matt Dembicki
  • The Girl in the Song by Michael Heatley
  • Touch Blue by Cynthia Lord
  • House of Dead Maids by Claire B. Dunkle
  • No and Me by Delphine de Vigan
  • Where the Streets had a Name by Randa Abdel-Fattah
  • Seven Souls by Barnabas Miller and Jordan Orlando
  • Girl, Stolen by April Henry
  • Cate of the Lost Colony by Lisa Klein
  • The Fire Opal by Regina McBride
  • Resistance by Carla Jablonski
  • Not That Kind of Girl by Siobhan Vivian
  • The Jumbee by Pamela Keyes
  • Five Flavors of Dumb by Antony John

25 books... and there's still 54 books on my list that I want to read! I have a feeling I'll never be able to get to  the all (in no small part because some of the books have been on my list all year and my library just never got them).

In 2010 I signed up for my first reading challenges...and kinda failed miserably at them. Not that I didn't read enough books to fulfill the challenges (I purposefully chose challenges where I was already interested in the subject), but I had a terrible time remembering to go log my reviews at the challenge sites. And then they weren't the community builders I was hoping for - I'd love to participate in a challenge with roundups like Nonfiction Monday does, maybe with a post once a month that the participants submit their links to so there's a monthly reminder to check out what your fellow participants are reading and blogging about. So for 2011 I'm not participating in any other challenges; instead I'm focusing on my own What Have I Missed? challenge - I'll be posting my tentative book list for that one tomorrow, so there's still time to leave a suggestion or two!

How was 2010 for you?

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Book Roundup: Favorite Books of 2010

Some people have been posting their lists of favorite books for weeks now...but I'm a bit of a procrastinator. Besides, I read a book less than a week ago that has definitely earned a place on this list (even if I haven't had a chance to review it yet - a week long vacation to Phoenix wrought havoc on my blogging plans!), so today was pretty much the earliest I could post and not feel like I was in danger of leaving a critical title off the list.

Not all of these are strictly 2010 titles - that's why my tag for tracking many of these books is best read in 2010, because sometimes I missed a book when it was first published and didn't pick it up until I saw it on people's 2009 best-of lists, or it wasn't even published until the end of '09. I'm sure the same thing will happen when I put together a list at the end of next December.

So without further ado, here's is my list of my favorite books read in 2010. I make no grand claims about the being the highest quality or most important books of the year - rather this list reflects one blogger's opinion on her favorite titles of the year. These also aren't all of the titles in my best read in 2010 tag - my opinion has evolved over the course of the year and while I still maintain that all of those are great books, some haven't stuck with me as much as others have and thus aren't highlighted here.

Black Hole Sun by David Macinnis Gill. Soul Enchilada was one of my favorites of 2009, and as I said in my Black Hole Sun review, Gill proved in 2010 he's not a one hit wonder - and he's pretty flexible to boot. Both books have witty and sarcastic protagonists, but that's pretty much where the similarities end, as Black Hole Sun is hardcore sci-fi, with an excellent balance of character and world-building as well as alien landscapes and action-packed shootouts.

Brooklyn Nine by Alan Gratz. I loved this book so much I recommended it to my dad - who re-read it about half a dozen times in six months. I don't know if my dad has ever re-read a book, let alone asked for a book for Christmas (he requested Gratz's previous book, Samurai Shortstop, which I was happy to give him). Truly a book that appeals to people on multiple levels - great for the sports geek, history geek, NYC lover or nostalgic dad.

Efrain's Secret by Sofia Quintero. Street lit has been getting a bit of attention this year, online at least, in a campaign that I believe has been spearheaded by Megan Honig. I'll confess that I'm one of those people who generally looks askance at the genre for many reasons that Honig has mentioned (specifically misogyny, homophobia and transphobia). However between blog series like Honig's and awesome books like Efrain's Secret, I realize I'm just as guilty of bias as people who write off YA as a whole, or science fiction, etc. Efrain's Secret doesn't necessarily tackle any of my general street lit concerns head on, but it still seems to present a realistic look at life in the Bronx (I say "seems to" because my experience with the Bronx is limited to a few days a month hanging out at a friend's apartment - I am by no means an expert!). I'm looking forward to reading more from Quintero, and expanding my street lit knowledge in general in 2011.

Every Little Thing in the World by Nina de Gramont. This one has stuck with me in part for its novelty - not a whole lot of YA titles tackle the subject of abortion - but also because it's a genuine well-written book with a lot of interesting supporting characters. I'm so happy one of the few YA books featuring discussion of abortion is a legitimately excellent book - I hate it when a book does fill a void but is lacking quality somewhere else. Definitely one of my "must reads" of 2010.

Five Flavors of Dumb by Antony John. This is the novel I read last week and haven't had a chance to review yet. OMG, I couldn't put this one down, and I'm totally confused as to why this one hasn't gotten more blog-love yet - I actually found out about this one through my library's "teen scene" e-newsletter, which I usually ignore because I've usually read everything they're recommending. I'm SO GLAD I opened December's message! An awesome grrl-power message, without actually being message-y, some rock music history, and an unlikely hard rock band manager - a girl with severe hearing loss. Also some epic family drama. This one was published in November, so I don't think it's eligible for awards this coming January, but I hope this isn't forgotten when the next awards season rolls around!

Guardian of the Dead by Karen Healey. I am SO EXCITED this was nominated for the Morris Award (for a debut author of YA), as I've loved it from the moment I picked it up. Excellent use of an unfamiliar (to many US readers, anyway) mythology in an action packed story with so many feminist elements I had to rest to using bullet points in my original review. I haven't gotten much more coherent over the last seven months either - if you haven't read it yet there's not much more I can say to convince you that you need to get on this now.

King of the Screwups by K.L. Going. I'm not a big music person, but I have to admit I have an affinity for glam rock, so I knew Liam's glam rocker uncle was going to be right up my alley. Going does an excellent job portraying class issues, as well as creating a well-rounded supporting gay character that could have easily devolved into horrendous stereotypes (the aforementioned glam rock uncle).

Last Night I Sang to the Monster by Benjamin Alire Sáenz. A haunting look at addiction and recovery in an 18 year old. I also loved the real and raw emotions presented throughout the novel - and even though this is an almost all-male cast, no one is disparaged for their emotional state. Everyone has problems here, and most of them are committed to fixing those problems, to whatever extent its possible.

Little Blog on the Prairie by Cathleen Davitt Bell. This one didn't initially make it into the "best read in 2010" tag, but gets added to this list because it's one of the books I will randomly think of fondly even months later. I love that this title seems to straddle the MG/YA line, and could easily be one of those "clean" books parents (and teens) sometimes look for that isn't condescending or bending over backwards to avoid tough topics. It's a light, fun story about a family's stay at an immersive 19th century summer camp that I think has a wide range of appeal.

Out of My Mind by Sharon Draper. I still want this one to win the Newbery. I absolutely loved it. The writing is beautiful and takes you on an emotional roller coaster. I don't read enough MG to make a fully informed prediction on this one - the Heavy Medal blog posters clearly know more about MG than I do and they seem to have problems with the story that just never even occurred to me. So maybe it's an outside shot at actually winning the award, but I still found it to be a compelling read.

Rampant and Ascendant by Diana Peterfreund. Still kicking myself for not picking up Rampant when it was first published. So much to love about this series so far - the action and camaraderie among the primarily female cast tops the list, along with some overtly feminist elements. Even non-fantasy fans like me find tons to love.

Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi. The other excellent hard sci fi novel of 2010. I read this when the Gulf Oil spill was underway and it was excellent timing. The real life environmental catastrophe underscored just how plausible Bacigalupi's dystopian future really is. As a bonus, the cast is fabulously multi-cultural with some excellent class reflections between Nailer and Nita.

Sisters Red by Jackson Pearce. This is just about the only werewolf novel out there that I can tolerate. Of course, I much more than tolerate Sisters Red - I absolutely adore it. With the two very different sisters sharing the narration, it's almost like two stories in one - a paranormal romance when Rosie's narrating, and an action-horror story from Scarlett. More fairy tale retellings need to take this approach!

The Sky is Everywhere by Jandy Nelson. This is such a chick book it's kind of ridiculous how much I like it. But it's haunting and beautiful and even though I'm so not a poetry person, I love all the found-poetry that's incorporated into the text as Lennie writes out her pain about losing her sister at such a young age.

Sprout by Dale Peck. One of the few times where my tastes and an award committee's fall in line - Sprout won the 2010 Lambda Literary award for young people's literature. I was able to read four out of five of the nominees (my library never did receive In Mike We Trust, grr) and this was definitely my favorite of the bunch.

Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green & David Levithan. I'm still waiting on the Tiny Dancer libretto, gentlemen. It needs to be written. Also now that I think about it, I think Tiny Cooper and Lennie's uncle from The Sky is Everywhere would get along famously, since they're both so in love with love as well as sharing an interest in various illicit substances.

So...17 titles in all. That's not a random number at all! Oh well. What about you - what were your favorites this year? Did I totally miss something? Do I have crappy taste in books? Let me know in the comments!

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Review: Dragon Chica by May Lee Chai

Found via: Forever Young Adult

This is definitely a novel with cross over appeal - I'm pretty sure technically it's written as an adult novel, just because of stylistic quirks that aren't part of the YA tradition, but since it covers Nea's young adulthood (we meet her when she's 11 and follow her through the end of high school), it's definitely accessible to teens as well. I could definitely see this being one of those mother/daughter book club picks.

Dragon ChicaIt's the 1980s and Nea, her mother, older sisters, and three younger siblings, are scraping by in Texas. The only Khmer in the community - the only Asians, really - and not knowing if any of their relatives were also able to escape from the Khmer Rouge regime, Nea feels more isolated than the average 11 year old. So when an aunt and uncle write her mother, saying they now live in Nebraska and run a Chinese restaurant there, Nea's mother promptly packs up the family and their few belongings in their beat up car, and drive from Texas to Nebraska.

Nebraska is not the land of dreams as her aunt and uncle promised, however. While Chinese restaurants were prestigious in Cambodia, Nebraskans haven't developed a taste for Asian cuisine yet. The family spends long hours at the restaurant for little pay off, and eventually Nea's sister Sourdi is set up in an arranged marriage with a much older man who her uncle is in debt to. At 16, Sourdi is suddenly put into the role of a grown woman, and Nea loses the one person in the family she feels she can talk to. Nea spends the rest of her teen years feeling increasingly isolated and angry - at the hicks who shout racial slurs at her family, at the family the demands she works when she should be studying, and at the mother who doesn't understand her Americanized daughter.

While this novel covers ages and experiences that are often part of YA novels, it really brought into focus for me some of the stark contrasts between adult and YA. For one thing, YA novels don't usually last very long - I think covering the course of a single school year is the longest period of time I can think of off hand. More often the novel's events will happen in days or maybe weeks. Dragon Chica covers 7 years in under 300 pages. This isn't a criticism, as Chai does an excellent job of picking out the important events over those 7 years, but merely an observation of one of th major differences between YA and adult novels.

Nea's story is painful to read at times, as her family is the victim of some ugly racism. Her family also has some difficulty adjusting to their places in America - her younger siblings are too young to remember their time in Cambodia so they are excused from acting "American," while Sourdi is old enough that she has extensive memories of Cambodia and wishes in many ways to remain true to that heritage. Nea is truly a child of both worlds, with vague memories of Cambodia but an intense desire to fit in as much as possible with her American schoolmates. While parts of Nea's story are surely unique to the Cambodian immigrant experience, large parts of it also seem like they apply to all immigrants, and will be appreciated by anyone with close ties to another country and culture.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Review: The Dark Game by Paul B. Janeczko

Nominated for the 2011 YALSA award for excellence in nonfiction

I've never been much of a fan of spy/mystery stories. I don't have anything against them, it's just that in the huge number of stories that are published every year, other things pique my interest first. Janeczko says in his introduction that he guesses the reader of the book has an interest in spies that "may run as deeply as [his]." Well that's not the case for me, but I still found this to be an incredibly interesting book.

The Dark Game: True Spy StoriesJaneczko covers spying in America and by Americans from the Revolutionary War through early 2001. He picks out a few individual spies or campaigns for the major wars (plus the cold war) the US has engaged in, as well as highlights some of the evolving technology that's important in spy work (such as cameras, naturally). Some of these stories are absolutely amazing - like the tunnel the US and British dug from West to East Berlin in order to tap into Soviet telegraph cables.

Janeczko definitely has a flair for drama, as often these are tales of agents or governments crossing and double-crossing each other. For example, in the case of the Berlin tunnel, just when you think the story has ended and all is well for the US...Janeczko reveals a major twist in the story, illustrating that even the best laid plans can go awry, and sometimes you won't even know it.

I also have to say I'm really impressed that Janeczko highlights female spies, without ghettoizing them into a "lady spy" section. He covers the glamorous Mata Hari as well as Virginia Hall - a woman with a wooden leg who aided the French Resistance in WWII. Women spies also played important roles in the Revolutionary War and the Civil War.

Janeczko clearly has a deep interest in the technical side of spying. Not only are advances in technology highlighted in each chapter, but he often goes into detail about various codes that spies use. I'll admit a lot of these codes went over my head, but me and numbers just don't get along (and many of these codes rely on number substitutions), so I'm willing to be that's more of a problem on my part. It's still interesting to see the variety of codes used and how they've changed - with a highlight for me being the Choctaw Code Talkers in WWI, who were able to foil the Germans who were evesdropping on US communications by using an utterly foreign language.

This isn't an exhaustive biography of any one spy - rather this is an overview of how spying has affected US policies by looking at a few of the most influential individuals (both those who spied for the US and those who spied against us). I don't know how well known some of the people and events would be to someone who has a hard core interest in spies - I, for example, knew about the women mentioned in the Civil War from my reading on women's roles during that war - but it's certainly an enlightening and entertaining read for someone totally new to the subject.

Nonfiction Monday

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Double Review: Rampant and Ascendant by Diana Peterfreund

OMG, you guys. You guys, why didn't anyone tell me that books about killer unicorns are FREAKING AWESOME?!

I don't know exactly why I decided to skip on Rampant the first time around. I think I was focusing more on the "unicorn" rather than the "killer" part of the description, plus I'm just generally prejudiced against fantasy. Then I read Peterfreund's contribution to Zombies vs. Unicorns and was intrigued - I was curious about whether the characters were original and just set in her previously established world (like Carrie Ryan's contribution), or if these characters appeared in the series proper. But then I never made an effort to seek out Rampant. Until I was browsing at the library and Rampant was sitting face out on a shelf. On an impulse, I picked it up.

And I'm so glad I did. And I'm also so glad I didn't get Rampant until Ascendant was already out, so I only had to wait a week rather than a year to get more of Astrid's story.

RampantAstrid Llewelyn has grown up listening to her mother's crazy stories about killer unicorns. When the rest of the world believes unicorns are mythical sparkly creatures, what else can a trying-to-be-normal 16 year old do? So when her boyfriend is attacked by a real live killer unicorn during a late night make out session in a forest, Astrid's concept of reality is turned upside down.

Her mother, however, sees this as an opportunity, and doesn't hesitate to ship Astrid off to a nunnery in Rome that is the 21st century reincarnation of the ancient Order of the Lioness - an order of nuns who dedicated their lives to protecting humanity from the unicorn scourge. And it just so happens that Astrid's family line was historically known to be the biggest, baddest hunters out there. With the financial support of a pharmaceutical company hoping to find the mythical Remedy derived from unicorns and said to be able to cure anything, Astrid and an international crew of hunters band together to learn the truth of the unicorn Reemergence and defend humanity from the long-forgotten threat.

AscendantAscendant picks up shortly after Rampant ends. While the world at large is well aware of the unicorn threat, the Cloisters is still falling short in their funding and recruitment goals. As soon as they find a girl capable of being a hunter, she quickly decides to relinquish her eligibility. And the only organization willing to fund the Cloisters is the Vatican, who want to place some strict rules on the young women who've taken over their nunnery. To add more worry to Astrid's plate, her boyfriend is heading back to the US and one of her best friends and fellow hunters is mysteriously losing her hunting powers.

So when Astrid has the chance to escape the Vatican's strict rules, gain funding for the Cloisters, and re-focus on her scientific passions all in one go, she leaps at the chance. It doesn't hurt that she also gets to hang out in the French countryside, too. But being part of Gordian Pharmaceuticals again opens up a host of new questions for Astrid, making her question her loyalties as a hunter and a scientist.

What excited me the most about these two books is just how darn feminist they are. Seriously, these are some of the most feminist books I've read since The Disreputable History of Frankie-Landau Banks. Throughout both books there are positive depictions of young women's sexuality, and then especially in Ascendant there's discussions about women (even those who weren't unicorn hunters) who defied traditional notions of femininity to follow their passions in science and medicine. And then yes, there's the idea of a secret group of women who are all that stands between humanity and the unicorn scourge. Women with big swords = awesome.

In Ascendant, Peterfreund also excels where Suzanne Collins failed in Mockingjay to give us an injured protagonist who is a little foggy...yet still manages to keep the story going. Whereas Katniss became half-comatose every time a big plot point comes up, Astrid powers through her injury, acknowledging she's weaker and she can't remember some things sometimes while other things are crystal clear (even if they might be hallucinations...?). Yes, it's a bit confusing, but damn if it doesn't work amazingly. I felt Astrid's frustrations right along with her.

On the other hand, every once in awhile Astrid is a bit...dumb. Even before her catastrophic injury. Her ex-boyfriend disappears right after she tells the pharmaceutical rep that he's the only living person to receive some of the Remedy...and she really believes he just coincidentally ran away? The big biology student can't figure out why a female unicorn may be hugely fat while all of the rest are grotesquely thin? Neither of these require a degree in rocket science to put together a working hypothesis for. Thankfully, Astrid's inability to put two and two together only happens rarely, and doesn't detract from the overall awesomeness of the two stories. My other minor quibble is the lack of description of what's going on in the rest of the world. By Ascendant it's clear that unicorns are known by the general public, but I want to know how on Earth they reacted. Panic in the streets? Mass migrations back into the cities? Inquiring minds want to know! But otherwise, both of these books fall into the "couldn't put it down" category, and they're so richly written that I did find it took me longer to read them than books of similar lengths, because I just didn't want to miss a word.

Peterfreund also does an excellent job in both books of finishing the main story, while leaving a few hooks for the next book to pick up on. This didn't stop me from feeling extremely impatient while waiting to get Ascendant from the library, but that was out of desperately wanting more of Astrid's adventures rather than needing to know how the darn story ends. Of course, there's a big question left unanswered at the end of Ascendant, and I'm certainly desperate to know the answer!

Rampant is actually what really inspired me to put together my What have I missed? personal reading challenge. Technically it doesn't fit into the guidelines I've set for my reading next year, but it got me thinking about all of the similarly awesome books I've missed out on just because I wasn't paying attention to YA when they were published! So please pop into the comments over there and leave more suggestions - and then go pick up Rampant and Ascendant if you haven't already!

Monday, December 13, 2010

Nonfiction Monday Review: Janis Joplin Rise Up Singing by Ann Angel

Nominated for the 2011 YALSA award for excellence in nonfiction

Janis Joplin. Does the woman truly need an introduction? An inimitable voice, a tragically short life, she was a true rock star, one of the few women to jump in feet first to rock hard with the men of the 60s.

Janis Joplin: Rise Up SingingAs soon as I opened this book I knew why it had been nominated for the nonfiction award. It's a visually striking book, with psychedelic borders on every page, sticking out against the mostly black and white photography.

The book dives right in to Joplin's mostly unhappy high school life. While she had a loving and supportive family, she didn't fit in with the rigid conformity demanded by her small Texas home town. Joplin fell in with the "bad boys," started reading the Beats, and plotting ways to escape - first to Austin, then to LA, San Francisco and New York City.

Angel follows Joplin's artistic growth. Music wasn't her first or only passion - she was also a painter and initially used that as her creative outlet before discovering her amazing voice. Inspired by folk and the blues, Janis went on to forge a sound all her own.

(My favorite Janis Joplin song - Piece of My Heart)

Unfortunately, it doesn't feel like the text lives up to the art design in this biography. It feels choppy, with extremely brief and random notes on parts of Joplin's life that I feel like were only put in there to be edgy. There's a paragraph or two on Joplin's relationships with women, which are never brought up again. Same with a brief paragraph about an abortion Joplin sought in Mexico in 1967 - a paragraph that also includes the factually incorrect statement that abortion was illegal in the United States at the time. This is a minor point, and I have no reason to believe Angel gets any of the important biographical data wrong, but it still bugs me and makes me question how correct the rest of her research was.

EDIT: Ann Angel was kind enough to contact me today regarding this point (and I would have corrected this sooner, but Blogger wasn't cooperating with my work computer). After careful consideration, she and her copy editors "opted to apply the date of the Supreme Court decision (Roe v. Wade)" to the text when discussing the legality of abortion in the US. I really appreciate Ann Angel contacting me about this point and clarifying her writing and research process. I still feel that the way the text is currently written it over-simplifies a culturally significant issue, but I want to publicly thank Ms. Angel for taking the time to contact me and consider my concerns.

This is a beautiful book, about an important person in music history, but unfortunately the writing doesn't live up to its promise.

Nonfiction Monday
Today's Nonfiction Monday is hosted by Books Together, but before checking out the rest of the nonfiction being reviewed this week, please also visit my What have I missed? post from yesterday, where I'm collecting titles for my own personal 2011 reading challenge.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Book Thoughts: What Have I Missed?

I've realized something recently: when people ask me for book recommendations, my choices are pretty limited. While I read a ton of books (obviously), due to the nature of this blog I tend to limit myself to the most recently published titles. How many amazing YA books have I missed...and don't even realize it?

When I was in high school, I was totally immersed in YA books. Working with Lynn and Cindy as they were on the BBYA committee meant I had access to pretty much any new book I wanted and then some.

And then I went to college and my reading for pleasure dropped like a rock. There were just way too many other things going on. And when I did finally get some time to myself back, the first thing I did was throw myself back into watching TV. I didn't get back onto the YA bandwagon until two years ago, when I started this blog.

So I've decided I'm not joining any official reading challenges next year, but I would like to start one for myself, drawing the reading list from you guys. I want to read at least 12 books next year (roughly one per month) that were published between 2003 and 2008 - my lost YA reading years. However, I hardly know where to begin since there were roughly a million books published in those 5 years. That's where you come in! Please, leave a comment with a book (or two or ten!) published between 2003 and 2008 that you think I must read. And by this time in 2011, I hope to be able to call myself a much more well-rounded YA reader than I am now.

(Edited to add: I knew my blog anniversary was around this time...turns out it was yesterday! So...happy 2nd blogaversary to me!)

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Review: Sphinx's Queen by Esther Friesner

I picked this one up in my ARC grab way back at ALA (yes, I'm still working through those books!), solely based on my love of Ancient Egypt. I think Ancient Egypt was the first historical period I became obsessed with and my fascination with the subject hasn't left me yet. So I was very much looking forward to this one, only to be sorely disappointed.

Sphinx's Queen (Princesses of Myth)Nefertiti is on the run from the Pharaoh's court, after being accused of a heinous crime she didn't commit. With the help of Amenophis, brother to the crown prince who accused Nefertiti, and Nava, a young Hebrew slave girl, Nefertiti is able to escape Prince Thutmose's clutches and report his treachery to Pharaoh. While Pharaoh and his wife, a power hungry woman determined to see her favored son take the throne one day, are at first disbelieving, Pharaoh agrees that justice must be sought, and grants Nefertiti the chance for a fair judgement before the goddess Bast.

As Nefertiti continues her quest for justice, she finds herself increasingly isolated from her friends and family in the palace. She discovers twists and treacheries that force her to question some of her fundamental beliefs in the gods, but while she knows she may not have all the answers, there is only one just answer to her cause, and she will not rest until the world knows of her innocence - and her love of a certain prince of Egypt...

The biggest problem this novel has is how one dimensional the story and the characters are. While the fundamental plot is strong enough, I found being in Nefertiti's head to be tiring because she was just so. Darn. Good. She never has a selfish thought and is benign and forgiving of all who sin against her. She's so kind and good that she ends up changing the less savory characters in the story with little effort, they're just so charmed by her. She's so perfect that there's really no narrative arc for her - she's essentially a Mary Sue.

The secondary characters are no better. The villains are cartoons until they have the opportunity to really get to know Nefertiti - somehow she inspires them to want to be better people, just for the sake of being good after a lifetime of selfishness. There's also another royal wife who fits almost all aspects of the magical negro stereotype. She's the only character who is highlighted as having exceptionally dark skin (she was originally a Nubian princess before the Pharaoh claimed her as one of his many wives), she's all but forgotten in the palace and prefers to live that way, only suddenly coming out of hiding to help out the fairer-skinned Nefertiti because, again, Nefertiti is such a good person. Her presence is random and really rather jaw dropping.

Amazon tells me this is part of a series - it looks like Friesner tackles the stories of many historical women, and in fact Sphinx's Queen is the sequel to Sphinx's Princess, though this one stands on its own well enough. There's no mention on my ARC version that this is a sequel and there were no glaring holes in the narrative that made me feel like part of the story was missing - unless Sphinx's Princess includes an explanation for why Nefertiti is so perfect. Since I haven't read any of Friesner's other titles, I can't say how this compares to her other works and whether this is a satisfying sequel, but I can say that this gives me no desire to pick up any of her other titles.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Book Thoughts: More awards and blogger/librarian praise

In November we had the National Book Awards. In the past week, the shortlists for two ALA awards have been posted as well: the YALSA award for Excellence in Nonfiction and the William C. Morris Award for debut authors writing for young adults.

Nonfiction shortlist:

  • Janis Joplin: Rise Up Singing by Ann Angel
  • They Called Themselves the KKK by Susan Campbell Bartoletti
  • Spies of Mississippi by Rick Bowers
  • The Dark Game: True Spy Stories by Paul Janeczko
  • Every Bone Tells a Story by Jill Rubalcaba and Peter Robertshaw

I just picked up Janis Joplin last night, and I have to admit that out of the three I haven't read, it's the one I'm most excited about.

Morris shortlist:

  • Hush by Eishes Chayil
  • Guardian of the Dead by Karen Healey
  • Hold Me Closer, Necromancer by Lish McBride
  • Crossing the Tracks by Barbara Stuber
  • The Freak Observer by Blythe Woolston
Guardian of the Dead is still one of my favorite reads of the year, so currently I'm rooting for that one...but it's also the only Morris nominee I've read. I'm anxiously awaiting the arrival of the others at my library!

In non-awards news, this week also saw the publication of a profile on one of my favorite people in the world, Cindy Dobrez, my librarian from back in middle school and current blogger extraordinaire along with Lynn at Bookends. I talked to a columnist with the Christian Science Monitor last month, sharing how Cindy inspired me as a student and still helps me out today (even if most of that didn't make it into the article!) Check it out! 

Monday, December 6, 2010

Review: The Turning: What Curiosity Kills by Helen Ellis

Found via: Forever Young Adult

When I was 12 years old, I received my first Animorphs book (#2, The Visitor) in my Easter basket. Did my mom choose it because it was excellently reviewed, popular science fiction with a diverse and engaging cast of characters?


She picked it out because there was a girl turning into a cat on the cover, and I liked cats.

Since the Animorphs books aren't being re-printed until Spring 2011, I think 12-year-old-me would be getting The Turning: What Curiosity Kills for Christmas 2010. And the girls-turning-into-cats thing isn't even the only bit these two books have in common.

The Turning Book 1: What Curiosity KillsHaving been adopted into an elite Manhattan family at a young age, all Mary wants to do is fit in. While her sister Octavia is outspoken and brash, Mary attempts to be normal and unassuming in every way possible - even if that means the boy she's crushing on hardly knows she exists. When she starts feeling tired all the time and having weird cravings, Mary can write that off as a growth spurt. But what about her sudden dislike of running water? And an amazing sense of smell? Oh, and the thick patch of orange hair that sprouted on her leg after a run in with the neighborhood stray?

Mary is far from normal, it turns out. Bit by bit, she's transforming into a cat, at a time when there's a bit of a power struggle happening between different cat factions in New York City - and each side wants Mary to join them, when all Mary wants is to return to her normal life. Enlisting the aid of Octavia, who has some excellent research skills on top of her sauciness, Mary desperately searches for a way to end her turning before there's no turning back.

So aside from turning into a cat, what does this book have in common with Animorphs? The length. This book goes at a ridiculously quick pace, and it's one of the few stories that I wish were a hundred pages longer just so everything can be slightly more fleshed out. There are lots of details that are glossed over - like there are bits where cats will speak to Mary, with their dialog indicated in italics. It's never explained whether these cats are psychic and are putting fully formed phrases in Mary's head, or if maybe Mary is just translating cat behaviors into human speech. The ending is also quite abrupt, which is no problem if the next installment is coming out in a month or two, but leaves us hanging in the worst way when the wait between titles is indefinite (Google revealed nothing about book 2 of The Turning and Helen Ellis' website isn't the easiest to navigate. I'm not a fan of video blogs). This isn't a book with a cliff hanger ending - the climax finishes and then...the end. No denouement, no closure, and no real indication of what could happen next.

Octavia has gotten some blogger love, as she well should. First of all, she's a debate geek, and while I technically didn't do debate, forensics was debate-adjacent, so I love that about her. At first she comes across as a horrible sassy-black-girl stereotype, but Ellis does an excellent job of revealing why Octavia presents herself the way she does. Very interesting.

Also thought it was interesting that both Mary and Octavia are adopted. At first it's totally random and seems like it's just a way to put two non-New-Yorker characters (Mary is originally from Alabama, Octavia from Nebraska) in the big city. So far it hasn't added a lot to Mary, but again it adds some real depth to Octavia's character, as the girl who appears to totally have it all together does in fact have some deep rooted insecurities tied to being adopted.

This is a fun, short read with an interesting twist to the ever-expanding genre of fantasy and paranormal creatures taking over YA. Not a book I'd necessarily run out to get, but certainly fun once you dive in.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Review: Prisoners in the Palace by Michaela Maccoll

Okay, enough slacking off from me! I've had essentially a month's vacation from blogging, and hopefully I've gotten that slacking out of my system. It's the beginning of a new month, the last month of the year, and I'm going to be much better about blogging regularly from here on out!

On to the book at hand: I was already looking forward to reading Prisoners in the Palace: How Princess Victoria became Queen with the Help of Her Maid, a Reporter, and a Scoundrel before Chronicle contacted me and offered me a copy for review (so thanks for that!). If nothing else, I was eager to get my hands on a copy to get a look at the cover up close. The Space Between Trees, reviewed in July, had a beautifully unique cover, with the cutout silhouette revealing a pearlescent paper. This time around the front cover is metallic (I'm like a magpie when it comes to shiny stuff), with the back cover invoking the 19th century equivalent of supermarket tabloid with excerpts of gossipy articles teasing plot points of the book. Underneath the jacket, the book is decorated in a damask design. Chronicle is clearly invested in making their books look just as good on the outside as they are on the inside - and Prisoners in the Palace is quite excellent!

Prisoners in the Palace: How Princess Victoria became Queen with the Help of Her Maid, a Reporter, and a ScoundrelJust as Liza Hastings is preparing for her grand debut into London society in 1836, tragedy strikes - her parents are killed in an accident, leaving Liza penniless and destitute. Through generous family connections, however, Liza is able to apply for a position in the household of Princess Victoria - as a lady's maid. It's a huge step down socially for Liza, but when the other option is to be out on the street, she is determined to make the best of her situation.

A cunning and clever young woman, Liza is drawn into the intrigue of royal life, and the lives of the royal servants. Genuinely fond of the princess, Liza looks out for the naive young woman and does all she can to protect the princess from her predatory guardian, while trying to avoid being fired for impertinence. She is assisted by, as the subtitle says, a reporter and a scoundrel. The newspaper industry was growing rapidly during this era, and Liza teams up with a promising broadsheet entrepreneur to promote Victoria's interests. The scoundrel facilitates Liza's meetings, and even has the chance to be a hero in his own right.

Maccoll has crafted an excellent work of historical fiction. In fact, I think this is even deserving of the title historical thriller, as Laurie Halse Anderson has asked that her historical works be called. Prisoners in the Palace is filled with intrigue and danger, though perhaps on a smaller scale than Chains and Forge. Maccoll truly brings her characters to life through engaging dialog and seamless integration of historical facts into the narrative. History is further brought to life through excerpts of Victoria's journals and other contemporary writings, though Maccoll admits in the author's note that she fudged the date and order of some of these.

This is a novel primarily populated by women, and they are a diverse and engaging group, ranging from disgraced maids to Queens of England. The men don't get as much screen time so they come off flatter in comparison to people like Liza and Victoria, but still support an excellent story.

I enthusiastically recommend Prisoners in the Palace to fans of historical fiction thrillers, and even to those of you who claim you'd rather stick with contemporary or fantasy novels. Maccoll clearly paints the picture of early-19th century England for those of us who know little of the time period, and populates the world with characters who perfectly balance historical and modern sensibilities.

Reviewed from review copy received from publisher.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Book Thoughts: National Book Award nominees "change in schedule" thing turned into a month long blogging vacation. That was weird and unexpected. And I apologize for not jumping back in with a regular review post, but the National Book Award winners are being announced TONIGHT and I actually managed to read all of the nominees, so I felt some round up of my thoughts was necessary, as a follow up to the finalists post I did a month ago, even if I don't have time for full reviews.

Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi is the one title that did get a full review since I read it back during the summer when 5 or 6 day a week blogging was more feasible for me. I still love this one as one of my top picks of the year and, I'll confess, I want it to win the big award. Smart science fiction (even if that isn't what Bacigalupi would call his work, according to a tweet I saw earlier this evening and managed to not save) is woefully underappreciated, and I would hope that winning a big award like this could change some of that perception.

Mockingbird by Kathryn Erskine is probably the most controversial title on this list, as many bloggers seem to be undecided on whether Caitlin's Asperger's is authentic and what the author should or shouldn't have revealed about  her personal connection with autism-spectrum disorders. For me, I felt Caitlin was fine, but her teachers and counselors weren't using therapy techniques that seemed like they would actually work. Also, in that little author's note at the end, Erskine writes that she wanted to write about school violence/shootings and Asperger's because they are both cases where early intervention is necessary, which totally threw me for a loop, as the wording used made me feel like the two issues were being compared in ways they just shouldn't be. Unfortunately I've returned the book to the library and the text isn't available on Amazon, so I can't pull a direct quotation for you, but the comparison was really unsettling for me. Verdict: a complicated story that may have been trying to fit too much into one package to truly be successful.

Dark Water by Laura McNeal. The jacket copy on this one sells this as a "forbidden romance" which makes me uncomfortable because this isn't a love story. This is a story of obsession and lust. Pearl falls in "love" at first sight, but we never get into Amiel's head and he's one of the least talkative characters I've ever seen (thanks to an accident that damaged his voice). There's an inherent power imbalance, since Pearl is the niece of the man who employs Amiel (who is an undocumented worker), so to me it read a lot like Amiel spends most of the book indulging the whims of a younger girl who could probably get him fired, if not deported, if she didn't get her way. Not that Pearl comes across as that petty, but it seems like a logical thought process for someone in Amiel's position. Verdict: this may be a case of poor advertising, but while the writing is painfully beautiful I couldn't get over the fact that this was "supposed" to be a romance

Lockdown by Walter Dean Myers. What a frustrating and terrifyingly realistic book. Why frustrating? Because it's obvious that the juvenile prison where Reese is being kept is a corrupt institution. Also, the "code" among the inmates is only going to keep them walking in place, or headed for a real prison. A terrifying look at our "justice" system that lets known drug dealers out on plea bargains while kids who screwed up are locked away without the help and support they really need. Also fascinating is the inclusion of an elderly survivor of the Japanese occupation of Dutch colonies in Southeast Asia. He gives Reese a historical perspective, in the midst of his senile and racist tirades. Makes this much more than just a prison story. Verdict: I still want Ship Breaker to win, but I wouldn't be too disappointed if this took the prize instead

One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams Garcia left me wanting more - namely the story of the girls' mother. I can't think of a single other book where I've been more fascinated with a parent than with the young protagonists. Garcia drops hints that Cecile has a less-than-idyllic past - including an oblique reference to wishing she'd gone to Mexico to "take care" of her pregnancies before her daughters were born. What really drove her to abandon her family? Why, after so many years, did she agree to take her daughters for the summer? On that note, why would the girls' father insist on sending them to someone who wasn't totally committed to their welfare? Ever since The Rock and the River I've been dying for more insight into the Black Panthers, and I think One Crazy Summer could have been a great story for me - if it were either from Cecile's perspective, or if Delphine had been just a little older than 11 so Cecile could have shared more of the facts of her story. Verdict: Left me wanting too much more.

Any last minute predictions before the awards announcement tonight? Want to take issue with any of my thoughts? Leave a comment! And for my fellow Twitter-users, the whole awards dinner and ceremony is going to be live-tweeted, so be sure to follow along! I know I will be watching.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Self-promotion + Blogging Schedule Change

So first, the good news:

October has been an exciting month for me professionally. First, I got a promotion at my day job near the end of September, so I've been transitioning into that. Secondly, just this week I picked up an internship with a lit agent for YA and MG books. Both are exciting, though I'd say the internship is SUPER exciting, since I'd long ago figured I'd never be able to do an internship (no longer a student + need to work close to full time) and this one lets me work around my full time position, building up experience that will serve me well when I swing back into interviewing in the publishing houses.

But that leads me to the bad news - the combination of more hours at my day job plus the hours I have to spend working for my internship, plus other personal responsibilities like my writing, my friends and my husband, are seriously cramping my blogging style. It's just no longer possible for me to consistently write five posts on Saturday or Sunday anymore - at least not five posts of the quality I want.

So I'm scaling back my blogging. I'm not disappearing by any means, but I'm going to aim for a Monday-Wednesday-Friday schedule starting next week. I don't have any great SF to review, so I'm taking Friday off this week and will hopefully be back on Monday (have a busy weekend planned already!).

Thanks for reading!

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Review: Life, After by Sarah Darer Littman

This is an excellent look at how terrorism can effect one family, but with an unexpected angle, at least from this USian's perspective: instead of looking at terrorism in the US or radical Islamic terrorism, this is some homegrown terrorism - in Argentina.

Life, AfterDani's life changed forever on her 7th birthday. That was the day terrorists loaded a truck with explosives and drove it into the AMIA building in Buenos Aires. Among the victims was Dani's pregnant aunt.

In the following years, political and economic upheaval has rocked Argentina, and Dani's family. Her father has lost his successful business, reducing the family to dinners of wrinkled potatoes - when there's food in the house at all - eaten by candlelight since the electricity has been turned off. As Dani watches her best friends move - one following her family's Jewish heritage to Israel, another to Miami - she is full of both hope and dread when her parents finally announce they, too, will be moving, to New York where her uncle lives.

Dani has to adapt to life in a new country, a new language, and even a new hemisphere where the seasons are the exact opposite of what they should be. To make things harder, her father isn't having an easy time adapting, and has sunk into a shell of his former self, depressed about the move, everything he's lost, and the charity they must now accept. Dani is scared and angry about the person her father has become, and is tired of having to step up to help take care of him, her little sister, and her mom, when all she wants to do is make friends and maybe even go on a date for once. Life After the terrorism and collapse in Argentina is no picnic, but is it even possible to return to the life they had Before?

I loved Dani, as she's genuinely a good kid, but her entire life is falling apart around her and it's all she can do to keep her head up. Her most complex feelings are reserved for her father, who is clearly suffering from deep clinical depression. As a reader, this was totally clear to me, and sometimes I had to stop myself from empathizing too much with Dani's rages against her father. Yes, he should be picking up her little sister from school or helping with the housekeeping, and it was easy to be angry at him for failing miserably at that, but knowing what depression can do to a person I know I shouldn't have those feelings!

What a sad, yet sweet, book. Littman has taken on several complicated issues, yet distilled them into a clean novel. I loved that Dani's family is not only Argentinian, but Jewish as well, a combination I don't think I've ever seen before. However, this isn't a book about being Argentinian Jews - it just adds a little depth to the family's background and gives them a reason to search out help from Jewish aid organizations. On the flip side, I know there are religious reasons for it, but it was a little jarring to see references to a deity written as "G-d" or "D-os." And there's a lot of praying in this book, so it happens rather often.

Like the kids in Dani's school, most of my knowledge of Argentina comes from Evita, so I loved the insight into the political and economic upheaval that has been rocking the country. The focus of the book is definitely on Dani and her family, so there perhaps aren't as many descriptions of life in Argentina as I would have liked, but Littman does a good job of giving peeks at how life has changed drastically while not distracting from the story she wants to tell.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Review: Zombies vs. Unicorns, ed. by Holly Black & Justine Larbalestier

I've realized my TBR spreadsheet has a failing - I almost never remember to add titles that I pick up spontaneously. Like I mentioned in my recap of the Zombies vs. Unicorns event, I was aware of this title for awhile but never put it on my list because unicorns are meh. And since it wasn't on my list, when I was browsing for titles to review, it wasn't there to remind me to review it!

But I'll delay no further!

Zombies vs. UnicornsThe collection is divided into Team Zombie and Team Unicorn, each represented by one of our illustrious editors who introduce each story (Holly is for the unicorns, Justine for the zombies). Six authors tackle each side, and the authors represented are a virtual who's who of YA publishing today - Scott Westerfeld, Carrie Ryan, Maureen Johnson and Libba Bray to name the ones I'd read before picking up this collection. On both sides, the stories range from somewhat traditional representations of their genres (horrific zombie stories, high fantasy-style unicorns) to slapstick comedy, with subversions of the standard tropes happening all over the place. Murderous unicorns and zombies who can love both make appearances.

On Team Zombie, my two favorite stories are Scott Westerfeld's, set on an abandoned pot farm where the adults are losing it while the kids long for some adventure beyond the fences, and Maureen Johnson's, where a celebrity adherent to a strange religion has turned her adopted children into zombies as part of a religious rite. Carrie Ryan's story is set in the same universe as The Forest of Hands and Teeth and The Dead-Tossed Waves and is a great addition to that world. I wasn't a fan of the first book, but the subsequent stories have really grown on me.

Over on Team Unicorn, I loved Naomi Novik's unicorn who plays fast and lose with the rules of virginity, and Meg Cabot's avenging unicorn. Diana Peterfreund's story is set in her already existing killer unicorns universe, and has almost convinced me that I need to hunt down those other books. The story works well on its own, but I was constantly wondering if these characters had a bigger life in the other novels or if, like in Carrie Ryan's story, these were all-new characters set in a familiar world.

I really loved that these are authors who seem truly committed to diversity, as there are multiple stories with non-white protagonists and there are two stories with queer protagonists. Whether you're Team Zombie or Team Unicorn, there really is something for everyone here.

If you have even a passing interest in zombies or unicorns, I highly recommend you check this out. With such a high caliber group of authors, you're sure to find something to love, and might even be persuaded to some of the other side's arguments. And you'll probably come away with a few new authors whose non-zombie/unicorn work you want to go check out.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Nonfiction Monday Review: They Called Themselves the K.K.K. by Susan Campbell Bartoletti

I knew I had to read this book as soon as I saw the cover. It's striking and even a little bit scary with the hood in stark contrast to the black background and the empty eye holes. It's definitely reminiscent of a ghost, which is of course exactly what the Klan was going for when they created these costumes.

They Called Themselves the K.K.K.: The Birth of an American Terrorist GroupThey Called Themselves the K.K.K. takes a hard look at Reconstruction-era America, examining the social and political unrest that gave birth to, as the subtitle says, an American terrorist group. Bartoletti traces the KKK's origins to a group of former Confederate soldiers who suggested "Boys, let us get up a club" in Tennessee. From humble beginnings rose a movement that spread like wildfire across the South, resulting in the murders of countless men, women and children in the years after the end of the Civil War.

Bartoletti covers the decade or so of Reconstruction in detail, then skips ahead to the early 20th century when the Klan rose to prominence again with the publication of the book The Clansmen and Griffith's epic silent film The Birth of a Nation - it's these fictional narratives that gave us the symbol of the burning cross, as the original Klan never used that particular threat. This is also when the Klan modified its objectives and became a hate group targeting far more than just Black Americans. I believe this is also when the iconic white robe was introduced, as illustrations show that the original Klansmen wore a variety of elaborate costumes. From there Bartoletti briefly covers other important 20th century Civil Rights events, and includes a Civil Rights timeline, from the Emancipation Proclamation to the election of Barack Obama.

Hidden at the very end, in the bibliography and source notes section, are some of Bartoletti's most interesting modern observations, from her visit to the birthplace of the Klan to attending a modern day "Klan congress." I really wish this section were highlighted, rather than hidden between the quote attributions and the index. It's almost like when a movie has an extra scene at the end of the credits; this book rewards those who read literally from cover to cover.

The excellent design work exhibited on the cover continues onto the pages. Roughly every other page includes some sort of illustration, mostly woodcuts and Reconstruction political cartoons, but the occasional photograph as well, mostly included with excerpts from the Slave Narratives collected in the early 20th century. A different font is also used to contemporary block quotes, so the words of the Klansmen and their victims stand out in start relief to the narrative. It makes for a beautiful and compelling text.

One other note about the text: Bartoletti uses lots of primary sources from 19th century Americans, and includes the language of the time in the book. That means crude and vulgar words show up often, as well as passages written phonetically as they were taken down by interviewers for the Slave Narratives. I think the inclusion of such language was absolutely necessary to illustrate just how publicly acceptable racist language was at one point in our history. It makes this book even more difficult to read in some ways, but also highlights its importance.

Nonfiction Monday

This week's Nonfiction Monday is hosted by Mother Reader. Be sure to stop by and check out all the other great nonfiction this week!

Friday, October 15, 2010

Sci Fi Friday Review: Feed by Mira Grant

Sometimes I debate what titles I should include in my Sci Fi Friday reviews. Should I expand it to Sci Fi/Fantasy? (No, because I generally dislike fantasy and don't want it interfering with my science-y goodness) What about horror? Or superhero graphic novels? While Feed falls firmly into the horror genre, what with all the zombies running around, there are also some awesome bits of science and tech, allowing me to make it a Sci Fi Friday contribution without hesitation.

Which is a good thing because there's been a dearth of SF in my life lately

Feed (Newsflesh, Book 1)It's been twenty years since the dead have risen. Mutated from the cures for humankind's greatest illnesses, the virus lies dormant in every human being, ready to reanimate the corpse to become one of the walking dead with the incessant need to feast on human flesh.

Siblings Georgia and Shaun, along with their friend Buffy, are mid-level bloggers ready to make it to the big time when they're selected to be part of the press team for presidential candidate Peter Ryman. Dedicated first and foremost to reporting the news, the bloggers unwittingly become part of the news when a series of suspicious zombie attacks start following Ryman. A cut fence here, an infected horse there, and it begins to become very obvious these aren't accidents - someone is using the zombie virus as a biological weapon.

Technically this is an adult novel, but I'm confident it will have plenty of teen crossover appeal. Georgie and Shaun are in their twenties (no definitive age is given that I saw), and they also still live at home, under the imposing shadows of their famous-blogger parents. There's been some talk over the past year about a potential new marketing category called "new adult" and I think Feed could easily be classified there.

Grant has included lots of funny details for readers to pick up on. While it's explained that Georgia was born at a time when the most popular girls' names were Georgia, Georgette and Barbra as George Romero was recognized as a sort of patron saint of the zombie apocalypse, it's up to zombie fans to guess where Shaun's name comes from - Shaun of the Dead anyone? (And for the uninitiated, Barbra was the woman in Night of the Living Dead) Bloggers have also organized themselves into a couple of factions - broadly the Newsies, the Fictionals and the Irwins, who like to go out in the field and poke zombies with sticks (they also give out an annual award called the Stevies, solidifying the tribute to the late, great Steve Irwin). Each faction has sub-factions - for example in the Newsies, the people who deliver the news with a healthy dose of opinion are called Stewarts. I loved these little glimpses into Grant's world building, and make it clear she probably has lots of details planned out for this trilogy.

As a blogger, and as someone who probably gets 90% of her news from various blogs (and the other 10% still from internet sources like the New York Times online or streaming Rachel Maddow's show), I absolutely loved following a group of citizen journalists on the campaign trail. Of the trio, Georgia and Buffy were definitely my favorites, but Shaun and Georgia have a great rapport as well.

While I loved the blending of genres in this book (new adult, zombie horror, journalistic thriller), and Grant has clearly done some great work with her world building, the overall setting just never worked for me. It's been twenty years since the zombies first rose, which really isn't much time at all, and there's already a fully functioning government? It felt like the zombies were never that much of a threat if the whole world didn't collapse, and now that the government is functioning so well the zombies are only terrifying on a personal level (like if you're like Shaun and enjoy poking zombies with sticks) and no longer on a widespread level. There are so many weapons and defense tactics and decontamination safety protocols in place, that society really isn't in danger of ever collapsing, which for me is half the fun of zombie stories. Humanity can try to rebuild, but it shouldn't be as good as it was before, unless a much longer period of time has passed.

I know this review is getting long but I have to praise Grant on one other thing - this has one of the best surprises I've ever read in a novel. If nothing else, strictly from a writing standpoint it's fascinating to see it done, and her technique for accomplishing it. It's a huge spoiler so I can't go into detail, but as a writer myself it was interesting to see an author do what I'd long thought was impossible.

Feed is the first book in a new trilogy, but there's no severe cliffhanger ending here and feels like a complete story in itself. I recommend picking this one up, though personally I don't know if I'll be back for more - the fully functional society really irritated me on some levels.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Review: Wicked Girls by Stephanie Hemphill

Every time I'm ready to write off verse novels, something pulls me back. The last verse novels I read were back in April, Firefly Letters and Crossing Stones and I concluded that, for me, verse novels really only work when they're contemporary stories. For historical novels, I need a vested interest in the material. Then along comes Wicked Girls, covering the Salem Witch Trials that have fascinated me for as long as I can poetry.

Wicked Girls: A Novel of the Salem Witch TrialsThe basic story is well-known by now: in 1692, a group of young women and girls in Salem Village started accusing their neighbors of witchcraft. What followed was a literal witch hunt, as the authorities were determined to drive out all hints of sin in their village, and relied on the testimony of the girls to send 19 people to their deaths, and scores more to prison.

Wicked Girls delves into the inner lives of Mercy Lewis, Margaret Walcott and Ann Putnam Jr., following the girls and their cohorts from the initial incriminations through to the bitter end. Hemphill hypothesizes what drew the girls to accusations of witchcraft and why they continue even in the face of doubts.

I'm truly torn about this book, because on the one hand, Hemphill has crafted an amazing story. There are many theories about why the girls began crying witch, and Hemphill explores the possibility that the girls were essentially drunk on power. Once the girls started making accusations, they suddenly had the attention of the entire town. Powerful men were listening to them, and servant girls were just as powerful as the daughters of the merchant class. Some of Mercy's poems were almost physically painful, as she describes being looked at as a powerful person to be respected, rather than a pretty girl to be lusted after by men young and old. Hemphill also explores some scary "mean girl" dynamics, as the ringleaders try to ensure loyalty among the group, showing just how strong peer pressure can be.

On the other hand, as I said at the start of this review, I'm just not a fan of poetry for historical fiction. The poetry itself is fine, though it was more the content that affected me rather than the style. I can't see what the poetry added to this story that couldn't have been achieved through prose. As I said in my Goodreads review, I wanted to give this 2.5 out of 5 stars as a perfect half-way point, reflecting all the good things I felt about the plot that were essentially negated by the format.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Book Thoughts: National Book Award Finalists - awards season begins!

The National Book Award finalists were announced today. What made the cut for young people's literature?

Ship Breaker

 Shipbreaker by Paolo Bacigalupi. Yes. I loved this book - it's still one of my favorites for the year. I'm so glad the NBA isn't an award that shies away from science fiction - in 2002 they gave the award to House of the Scorpion by Nancy Farmer and in 1980 they actually had an award just for science fiction (not in the young people's/children's fiction category, but still awesome). This is the only one of the five finalists I've read so far, so it's not fair for me to cast a vote...but I'm certainly rooting for it at this point!

Mockingbird by Kathryn Erskine. I was looking at the nominees for the Best Fiction for Young Adults list the other day and counted at least four titles featuring characters with asperger's syndrome. I guess Marcelo in the Real World kind of opened the floodgates on that topic. I also wonder if people are going to get confused between this title and The Mockingbirds which is coming out in November (not to mention the other big avian-title of the summer, Mockingjay).

Dark Water Dark Water by Laura McNeal. This is the one title on the list that I haven't heard of at all, and that intrigues me. It's a romance, but it's set against the 2007 California wildfires and the male lead is an undocumented Mexican immigrant. This is at the top of my TBR list as of now!

 Lockdown by Walter Dean Myers. Unlike Dark Water, this one has been on my radar all year, but it keeps getting bumped down my TBR list by other titles that grab me a little bit more. This one is jumping back up and going on this week's library requests.

One Crazy Summer One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia. This one I have requested before, but for some reason my library dropped my request. What the heck, library? They have issues sometimes. Anyway, Ari of Reading in Color recommended this one after I reviewed The Rock and the River and I'm kind of kicking myself for not staying on top of my library requests and getting hold of this one sooner.

Also, I'm happy this is one award we don't have to harp on for inclusion, as there are both white and non-white authors and protagonists, as well as male and female. I'm always excited when diversity happens naturally, without any hand holding or special directives required.

How many of these titles have you read? Any early predictions for the winner?

Review: Blindsided by Priscilla Cummings

As I mentioned in my fall preview post, this is the first of two books featuring blind protagonists that has come out this fall. I always find it interesting when similar books pop up in close succession. Two books about blind girls aren't enough to make a trend, but combine this with The Dark Days of Hamburger Halpin and Out of My Mind, and it looks like we're finally getting some stories starring fully-realized protagonists with disabilities.

BlindsidedNatalie O'Reilly was born without irises, making her eyes extremely sensitive to light and, despite multiple surgeries over the years, is causing her vision to slowly deteriorate. By the time she's 14, she has only a narrow band of vision left when the decision is made that she should start attending a special school for the blind to prepare for her inevitable loss of vision.

Natalie goes to school, reluctantly, always hoping for a miracle that will restore her sight - or at least stop the deterioration. She's convinced that half of the classes don't apply to her, and hopes never to use the skills taught in the other classes. Whether she wants to or not, however, Natalie is learning important lessons about herself, about her abilities, and about friendship.

While Natalie has some complexity to her character, I should note that this is much more of an "issue" novel than Hamburger Halpin or Out of My Mind. As you may be able to tell by the summary, there is little else going on here other than Natalie's struggle with her disability. Cummings does an excellent job of presenting the practicalities of losing ones sight as a teenager - learning Braille, using a cane, relying on other senses - but considering they make up the bulk of the novel, it's a little short on compelling story-telling.

There's also far too much amazement at what blind people can do - walk a whole mile from the bus stop! Travel to Scotland! Learn self defense! While these facts can certainly seem amazing to someone without experience with disabilities, the repeated emphasis is patronizing and is part of what turns this more into an issue novel, rather than a coming of age story that just so happens to have a blind protagonist.

Cummings does do an excellent job with Natalie's voice. She is the right blend of bratty teenager and sympathetic narrator. 14 is hard for anyone - I can only imagine the difficulties with also having to adapt to losing your vision and changing schools. A lot of Natalie's frustration is totally waranted, and when she does go into extremes of anger or self-pity, well, that's what being 14 is about half the time. By balancing the extremes of negative emotions with genuine moments of compassion and kindness as Natalie grows, Cummings creates a sympathetic and realistic character.
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