Sunday, January 31, 2010

Month in Review: January

I've seen other people posting round ups of what they did this month - I figured I'd jump on the bandwagon!

At the end of December I said one of my New Year's resolutions was to blog consistently - which for me meant 3 times a week. It's the one resolution I've been able to keep so far, actually. This is my 28th post of the month, which means I averaged a post a day! I know in reality I took some days off, and I probably won't keep up this pace all year, but it's a little exciting.

That pace was helped along by the Bloggiesta at the beginning of the month. All that work in one weekend has certainly helped my blog. I was able to focus on setting goals for my blogging, standardizing things like my tags, and of course a bunch of people found the blog and have stuck around since then! I also added a ton of new blogs to my reading list over the course of the month, and seeing all of those other bloggers and their regular posts inspires me to keep going with my own blogging and reviewing, and can inspire me to make my thoughts on one of their posts into a whole new post over here.

January also brought a flurry of controversy over the Magic Under Glass cover. While Bloomsbury is changing the jacket on that particular book, it's clear the fight is far from over. Huffington Post ran an article that totally missed the point of our anger over whitewashing.

Of the 28 posts this month, less than half were actually reviews. The review with the most comments was for The Devil's Kiss. My favorite of all the books I reviewed was King of the Screwups, with The Rock and the River in a close second.

Well, I have two bags worth of library books I need to tackle, plus two reviews for books I finished this weekend to set up for later this week. Seriously, the ability to schedule posts is the only reason I've been able to blog as regularly as I have!

Friday, January 29, 2010

Review: King of the Screwups by K.L. Going

Found via: Kirkus Best of '09

I think all of us book nerds are happiest when we find a book that is truly engaging - not only can't we put it down, but we aren't even aware time has passed. Here in New York, the general consensus seems to be that a book is truly great if it makes you miss your subway stop. King of the Screw Ups didn't actually make me miss my stop - but that's only because I looked up after thinking I'd only been on the train for 5 minutes and instead found myself 6 stops from home (there are 17 stops between work and home). After that I made myself look at what stop we were at constantly, because while it's a high compliment for a book, it's still really annoying to miss your stop!

Liam is the son of a high powered CEO and a former supermodel - and much to his father's chagrin, he's taken more after his mother than his father. Liam brings home average grades (his father thinks anything less than an A is worthless), designer clothes, and far too many girls to fool around with. After one screw up too many, his dad is kicking him out of the house, sending him off to live with grandparents who hate him.

Luckily for Liam, his mom intervenes, and arranges for him to go live with his "Aunt Pete" behind his father's back. Pete is Liam's gay, cross-dressing, glam-rocking, trailer-living uncle who's been estranged from Liam's father and grandparents for years. And while he wants a relationship of some kind with Liam, he's really not sure he's the man to be trusted with straightening out whatever problems Liam is having.

Liam goes from living in an opulent home with a manicured lawn and massive closet space, to sharing a trailer with a dusty yard and absolutely zero closets, not even an iron to help keep his wardrobe pristine. After a shaky start at school, Liam determines that he should aim to be the geekiest, least popular kid in the school, totally devoted to his studies and geeky pursuits like the AV club. He's also on a mission to befriend Darleen, Pete's next door neighbor, the cousin of one of Pete's best friends, and also the most unpopular girl in school. Darleen, however, sees right through Liam's attempts and is convinced he wants to be popular and is trying to befriend her in an attempt to humiliate her.

But it seems that even when he's trying to screw up, Liam keeps screwing up even more. Every attempt at being unpopular blows up in face. He and Pete butt heads constantly in their small shared space, over everything from school to fashion. Liam isn't sure that he can be all his father wants him to be - but what other options does he have?

There was so much I loved about this book I'm not entirely sure where to begin! I loved how there was almost no conflict about Pete's sexual orientation - the only hate comes from Liam's dad (who has lots of issues with Pete; his sexual orientation is only one of them) and a bigoted bus driver who kicks Liam off the bus mostly because he has a gay uncle. None of the teenagers Liam hangs out with cares about Pete, and nothing is mentioned about Orlando, who appears to be openly dating Pete, being a high school English teacher. I found it very refreshing that Pete's orientation was only one part of his personality. He doesn't even cross-dress that often - more often he's in outrageous gender-bending outfits (not totally female, but not traditionally masculine, either, and with crazy makeup) as part of his glam rock band (which I loved).

I also thought this was a great representation of class outside of the very poor and the very rich. Liam's family is certainly very, very rich - but he's living with his uncle who works overnight at a radio station and lives in the trailer park. Liam asks Pete point blank at one point why he lives in the trailer when he's clearly smart enough to get a real job and live some place better. Pete's response is he's happy with who he is and where he lives - why should he try to live up to someone else's standards?

The theme of being yourself runs rampant through the novel, and occasionally gets a little heavy handed, but it's also clear that it's a message Liam needs to hear repeatedly since he has an overwhelming desire to gain his father's approval.

And speaking of his father: this is easily the worst dad since Say the Word. My reaction wasn't quite as visceral against Liam's dad as it was against Shawna's, but I think that's because we're a little more removed from some of the vileness of Liam's dad. We see him briefly at the beginning of the book before he ships Liam off, and then we only see him in Liam's flashbacks, so it's a little harder to judge him through the rosy lens of Liam's perspective.

This is easily going to be on my list of the best books I read in 2010. Highly recommend everyone pick it up!

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Book Links: Huffington Post get whitewashing all wrong

Leonce Gaiter is a novelist and essayist who has written an article for the Huffington Post: Controversies in Black Literature Prove Book Sales Aren't Color-Blind

As I wrote to a friend on Twitter, the article is rather full of fail. 1. The Liar controversy was about 7 months ago, so not really "recent" (especially not in blog years). 2. Justine didn't complain "loudly and publicly," she was incredibly restrained and professional about the whole thing (in public at least. For all I know poor Scott Westerfeld was treated to months and months of curse-filled tirades about Bloomsbury) 3. His cover didn't relate at all to his book, yet he's placing the blame for poor sales on the presence of a black model on the cover (and threatens to "do violence" before he allows a solo black model to appear on another cover of his). As my good friend Rachel says, this makes him sound like he's saying "my publishers are morons, which is why they're out of business." 4. While I think all of us would be happiest if we saw more people of color on the covers of books, I think the minimum we're asking for is to stop the practice of white washing - the UK Cover of Magic Under Glass features people in silhouette - so you can't tell the race of either of them, and everyone seems to agree it's a great cover! the article and go join me in the comments (here or there).

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Review: Tales of the Madman Underground by John Barnes

Found via: BBYA 2010 nominations
Winner: Printz Honor 2010

This book is 532 pages long and it covers one week in 1973. Harry Potter books that are almost twice that length cover an entire school year. Of course, the Harry Potter books skip over vast periods of time in the course of the school year, whereas almost every minute of every day is accounted for here.

In other words, this is a rather detailed book.

Tales of the Madman Underground starts on September 5, 1973, the first day of Karl Shoemaker's senior year of high school and the start of Operation Be Fucking Normal. A tall order for someone who's been in therapy since middle school thanks to his dad's death from cancer and his mom's reputation as a drunken slut.

But Karl has a plan for senior year: if he can be normal one day at a time (a lesson learned from his Alcoholics Anonymous meetings), he can last long enough into the semester to make sure none of his teachers recommend he return to therapy.

But being normal is harder than it looks. After all, if you've never been normal, how do you know what you're supposed to do? Should he continue to hang out with all of his old friends, his fellow therapy members that make up the so-called Madman Underground? Or should he turn his back on all of them, including his best friend since forever? Matters are complicated by the appearance of Marti, a new girl with frizzy hair and no boobs - definitely not the sort of girl a "normal" guy would be hanging out with.

Plus there are some parts of Karl's life that are decidedly not normal, like working five jobs in order to ensure he and his mom can continue to eat. And having to hide that money in various stashes around the house so his mom can't find it and use it to go on a booze and pot bender while looking for her next hook up.

Karl has to balance home and friends, pushy and obnoxious teachers, small town and internal prejudices. All in his quest to be fucking normal.

This book was a little tough to get into, because I kept waiting for something to happen. Nothing major ever does, so if you're looking for a mind-bending thriller, look elsewhere. This is very much a week-in-the-life book - it doesn't even appear to be an out of the ordinary week, aside from Karl's attempts to be "normal" and the introduction of new-girl Marti to the small town school. Less than half way through however I began to enjoy the ride for what it was, liking this glimpse into the past.

Barnes deals deftly with a lot of the social inequity of the time. Casual racism and homophobia run rampant in this small Ohio town, even among friends. This isn't the wild and crazy and totally open 70s we often think about, but small town 70s where people looked upon the changes going on in the wider world with suspicion. Karl's mother is a total hippie in some ways, calling Karl a "special child of the universe" and saying that the age of Aquarius truly is coming upon them, but it's also clear most of the town thinks she's a nut.

I would imagine it might be hard for younger readers to comprehend the large amount of casual abuse in this story - lots of kids are regularly beaten by their parents or sexually abused by family members or locked out of their houses, and "everyone" knows about these incidents but no one really tries to stop them. They just throw the victims in therapy and call it good. The only reason I could buy it is Lightsburg, Ohio doesn't sound too different from the town my parents grew up in and Mom used to tell me some sad stories about kids showing up in school with black eyes and broken arms and everyone would know it was the mom or dad hitting the kid, but it was considered a private family issue. So kudos to Barnes for capturing a lot of the small but major tragedies of the time.

I couldn't tell you exactly why this was a Printz honor book. It's certainly very good, but I don't think I'm the best judge of what makes a Printz-worthy book. I tried reading Jellicoe Road after it won last year, and couldn't even get a third of the way through it. I can definitely, however, see this appealing to adult readers of YA, as the style feels very much like adult literary fiction. At least the little adult literary fiction I've read - have to admit, my reading tastes are definitely stalled at where they were when I was 16.

On the jacket copy: I have no idea why the jacket is designed with big old censor bars. It kind of implies the book is going to be about censorship in some way. There's a brief point about a teacher refusing to censor his teaching of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (so long as you're quoting the book he sees no problem with the racial slurs - it's when you call another person that outside of a literary context that it becomes a problem). So the gratuitous and obvious censoring of the jacket copy comes a little bit out of nowhere.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Book Thoughts: Private Act of Reading

This weekend there was an article in the New York Times about how reading seems to have changed from being "among the last remaining private activities" to a "relentlessly social pursuit" in the age of Facebook and blogs.

I have to admit, I never found reading to be an inherently private activity - not in th sense the article means, anyway. The article quotes Rebecca Stead, author of this year's Newberry-winning When You Reach Me: “For me, as a kid, a book was a very private world,” she said. “I didn’t like talking about books with other people very much because it almost felt like I didn’t want other people to be in that world with me.”

For me, reading was and still is a solitary activity - but the idea of wanting to keep a wonderful, beautiful book to myself is totally foreign. One book, Empress of the World, changed my life in an incredibly private way - yet I excitedly told every single person I knew about it for years. Admittedly, I didn't always discuss why I was so touched by the book - though I'm sure some people figured it out pretty quickly - but I wanted to share it with people and eventually discuss it.

I find it interesting that Laura Miller, a staff writer at Salon and an author herself, speculates that it is the more casual reader who is drawn to the more social aspects of reading, while it is the truly bookish who are more private about their books. I fail to see how it is casual readers who are pouring over the minutiae of Harry Potter or Twilight. Some of these fans may not be the heaviest readers, by which I mean that they may read little outside of these blockbuster series, but clearly they have hunkered down with these massive books and applied some serious brainpower to them.

I know that most of my followers here are fellow bloggers, which the NYT hypothesizes means you're all like me and think this notion of reading as "private" is bunk, but I'd still like to know what your experiences are!

Monday, January 25, 2010

Review: Calamity Jack by Shannon and Dean Hale, illustrated by Nathan Hale

Found via: Maw Books

On the last day of 2008 I posted my review of Rapunzel's Revenge and noted at the end that a sequel was in the works...a sequel which I totally forgot about until I saw Natasha's post at Maw Books about the launch party for Calamity Jack!

Luckily for me, my library shipped this to me right opposed to the two months in transit another book took.

Not that I'm impatient or anything.

Calamity Jack opens with some brief bits of biography of Jack's early life as a budding criminal mastermind, before picking up the story where Rapunzel's Revenge left off. In the first book, Jack was the one who was off balance, as the West was Rapunzel's turf. Now the dynamic duo have returned to Jack's hometown, where he hopes to settle a score with the giants in charge and repair the damage his beanstalk did to his neighborhood and his mother's bakery.

When Jack left, the local giant Blunderboar was a gangster bully who had his hands in several cookie jars. When Jack returns, he finds out that Blunderboar has been busy, gaining city contracts to use his personal giants as a supplementary police force in the face of intermittent attacks from giant Ant People that keep invading the city. He's also holding Jack's mother prisoner as his personal baker (he always requires she use special flour...that's probably made of human bones) and has placed a bounty on Jack's head.

Jack is more determined than ever to make good on his promises to his mother, but it's clear he's going to need more help than just Rapunzel. Jack teams back up with a former colleague, Prudence the pixie (who has a love affair with hats like I have with shoes), and Frederick Sparksmith the Third, a slightly naive newspaper man who ran the last press that dared to oppose Blunderboar until the presses were destroyed in an attack by the Ant People. Everyone has their own skills that will have to be at their sharpest in order to save the day.

I think I enjoyed Rapunzel's Revenge more than Calamity Jack. The first story was much more of a straight-up adventure/quest story - while Calamity Jack has lots of introspection and angst. Also I got a little annoyed with how overprotective Jack was of Rapunzel - sure, she's never been to "the big city" before, but do you really think this woman is incapable of taking care of herself? And I did appreciate how at the first chance she got she was out of the clumsy dress and into sensible pants.

I think I just really wanted another Rapunzel story!

Cover thoughts: Calamity Jack by Shannon & Dean Hale, illus. by Nathan Hale
Rapunzel's Revenge and Calamity Jack both take place in an Old West-style fantasy world, and as part of that world there are Native American peoples. Jack is clearly intended to be read as a Native American (even if in this world the term 'Native American' doesn't exist - it hasn't ever been said this is America we're in!) and is shown as such on the cover! Interestingly enough - the infamous Bloomsbury is the publisher on this one. I'm sure part of the reason everyone is portrayed accurately on the cover is because the illustrator throughout the text also drew the cover.

Once Upon a Time Challenge

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Show Me 5 Saturday

Hosted by That's a Novel Idea

Each Saturday You will post the answer to these questions. The number indicates the number of answers you will provide.

1 Book you read and/or reviewed this week Once Dead Twice Shy
2 Words that describe the book Undead Punk
3 Settings where it took place or characters you met 1. Madison, she of the purple hair and un-dead-ness (though she's not alive, either. 2. Nakita, a badass dark reaper - just like the grim reaper, except stylish and is killing people as a preemptive strike against future misdeeds. 3. Grace, a sparkling guardian angel, who speaks in limericks.
4 Things you liked and/or disliked about it 1. Disliked Madison's cutesy curses - I understand that not everyone curses like a truck driver, but what's so wrong with shoot or crap in place of shit? 2. I think Nakita was intended to be a relatively minor foil, but she's the character I remember most! Well, after Madison. 3. Protagonists with purple hair = love 4. Really interesting spin on why angels might be jealous of humans.
5 Stars or less for your rating? 4 stars!

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Book Thoughts: Author's Intent

Authorial intent is one of those things that always made me grown in my English classes in college. Trying to divine what an author really meant, decades or centuries after their death, felt ridiculous, and I always hated when my professors would say that such-and-such event in a book clearly reflected x event in the author's real life, and thus it meant y.

But when we're dealing with contemporary authors, is it different? Since the authors can and, thanks to the internet, often do interact with their fans on a daily basis, does the authors intent regarding a work matter more or less?

Back in 2007, JK Rowling unleashed a firestorm when she announced after the publication of the last book that Dumbledore is gay. Lots of people were extremely happy to have this example of diversity in children's literature, but other people felt it was a complete cop out; if she truly meant to have a gay character in the stories then it should have been included in the text and, since it isn't, Dumbledore is actually hetero- or asexual.

In light of the Magic Under Glass controversy, since the author is known to be online, people have been waiting anxiously for her to jump in. Justine Larbalestier set an excellent precedent for speaking out about a whitewashed cover: when the cover debuted she made a carefully neutral post, acknowledging that the whitewashed cover was a beautiful and striking cover and she was super excited that it was chosen to be on the front of Bloomsbury's next catalog. It wasn't until after other people started to bring up the huge, glaring discrepancy that Justine began to talk openly about the problem of whitewashing. Justine wasn't hiding behind white privilege or anything; rather, she felt that it would be unprofessional to lead the charge against her own publisher and didn't want to come across as childish.

So since this past weekend, I think we've been waiting with baited breath to hear what Jaclyn Dolamore thought about her cover. A few brief comments in another pointed towards feelings of disappointment. Yesterday she made a statement in her own LJ, which included the following:
My writing is my voice. My stories are about accepting your fellow man or woman, about how love is the most powerful force in the universe. I do truly understand why some people are upset by my cover. However, Nimira is from a fictional land which is not meant to be a parallel to a specific country in our world. Her culture has elements, such as costume and music, that might be drawn from Eastern European, Asian and Roma cultures, and I love that readers are interpreting her look in different ways.

The comments on her LJ are very supportive of Dolamore, with some accusing people with "agendas" of annexing the book for our own purposes. The one dissenting commenter essentially being told she isn't welcome. On the unfunnybusiness community, however, there's a lot of disappointment in the author: Peace love blah blah buy my book. That's a shame.

So what now? Does the author's statement hurt the momentum that's been building the protest Bloomsbury (either through letters or a full-on boycott)? The author clearly doesn't want to make waves - do we have an obligation to accept that wish if we want to support her? It seems she doesn't see the character's race in the same light many of the cover critics did - because Magic Under Glass is a fantasy, the color of the character's skin doesn't matter in the way it would if it were a contemporary story, a la Liar.

I have a strong opinion on this, but I want to hear your thoughts first. I'll chime in later in the day with my response!

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Review: Once Dead Twice Shy by Kim Harrison

Found via: Meg in the comments of my review of Devil's Kiss

Because I know my mom reads my blog from time to time, let me preface what I'm about to say with a reminder that I really do in fact love her and think she's all around awesome.

But sometimes I seriously question her taste in books.

Seriously, she'll be all "oh, I read this great paranormal romance! Vampires! Werewolves! Awesome!" And I roll my eyes and say that, no, an awesome book is something like The Hunger Games and she stares at me, aghast that I could find children killing each other to be entertaining, and then I wonder if maybe I was actually adopted from a family of dystopian-fiction lovers, and that family has some mysterious paranormal-romance-loving child in my place.

So when, in the comments to my review of Devil's Kiss, Meg mentioned that my "angels are dicks" refrain reminded her of Kim Harrison's Once Dead Twice Shy...I was hesitant to pick it up. Because the author's name was familiar and once I Googled I saw that this is one of the authors my mom loves.

But then I read more about this actual book and saw that the protagonist, Madison, has purple hair, and we've already discussed my fondness for multi-colored hair. So I had to pick this one up, Mom's taste be damned.

Madison Avery's story actually began in the short story collection Prom Nights from Hell, but it seems like most of the back story is filled in here for new readers (I haven't read the original story, but I'm pretty sure I followed everything). On prom night, in order to get out of a date with Josh, who only asked Madison out as a favor to her dad, Madison runs off with Kairos, a tall dark and handsome stranger. However it turns out that the old adage of you shouldn't talk to strangers is true, because Kairos is actually a type of reaper, as in grim reaper, who was determined to kill Madison.

But Madison is a tricksy girl and manages to steal Kairos' amulet, which grants him his powers, and by claiming the amulet she's able to retain a tenuous hold on her life. Tenuous because she actually is dead - the amulet she now possesses is the only thing giving her the illusion of a body.

Madison is assigned to work with Barnabas, a light reaper, while it's decided what should be done with her. No human has ever taken an amulet before - touching it should have shattered her soul on contact. In the meantime, she hangs out with Barnabas and tries to help him in his work. As a light reaper, his job is to counteract the chaos the dark reapers, like Kairos, try to encourage. Light reapers believe humans have free choice, while dark reapers believe in fate and will preemptively reap a soul if they believe that person is going to do something terrible in the future.

Madison's a bit of a trouble maker, but she certainly doesn't have any evil plans for the future, so she has no idea why a dark reaper might target her.

It's been a few months since prom, and Madison hasn't made any progress on learning the reaper-tips that would help protect her should Kairos come looking for her - and it's certainly only a matter of time before he does. Also back in her life is Josh, who isn't so terrible despite being in cahoots with her dad for a date. But being involved with a dead girl isn't the safest position, so Madison finds herself using all of her wits and burgeoning supernatural abilities, plus a feisty guardian angel sidekick, to keep herself and Josh safe until someone "upstairs" is finally willing to explain to her what this new existence means.

Unlike Meg, I didn't come away from this with a huge "angels are dicks" feeling - there actually are some different personalities here and while some are dickish, others are just as confused as poor Madison.

Madison herself I'm kind of torn on. Overall I like her as a character, but I think Harrison was trying too hard to be witty with her teenspeak, because she'll say things like "son of a dead puppy" or "puppy presents" instead of actually cursing (I swear all of her phrases didn't involve canines, but those are the two that stuck in my mind). It's just a little too cutesy for my taste.

On the other hand, kudos for this clearly not being a paranormal romance title. The burgeoning romance with Josh is clearly secondary here, though it's also pretty clear that future stories in the series are going to build up that relationship. Madison has much bigger things to worry about than boys, so while she spends a lot of time with Josh, most of her thoughts are "how can I keep him safe?" rather than "how well does he kiss?"

Also, I totally love Grace, the guardian angel, and Nakita, a badass dark reaper that Madison tangles with. Through her supernatural characters, Harrison weaves in some very interesting musings on what it is to be human. Aside from the usual commentary on free will that angels often blather on about, there was also fear, which totally caught me off guard in a very fun way.

Cover thoughts: Once Dead Twice Shy by Kim Harrison

I wanted to give HarperCollins some recognition here for not lopping off Madison's head here. The headless girl cover is almost as irritating as whitewashed covers. Madison's purple hair isn't present, but at least the monochromatic cover is tinged with purple. Very goth and cool.

On a final note: I told my mom I had read this book. She told me she had beaten me to it - but hadn't mentioned it to me because she figured that would turn me off completely! Sometimes we think way too much alike. Maybe I really am related to her after all.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Book Thoughts: When you feel like you miss the boat on a book...

I imagine this has happened to most of us at some point or another: you hear about a book that has received rave reviews from everyone you know. You pick up the book, eager to devour this instant classic. But by the discover that not only did you not love the book, you actively disliked it. This isn't a case of a book not living up to the hype; rather, you're pretty sure all of the other readers are insane!

I've had this happen to me a couple of times, sometimes with books where I can see the appeal but the book just really wasn't for me (such as Terry Pratchett's Nation), and sometimes I begin to question people's taste in books - mine or other people's!

For me, it's a rather unnerving experience to come across reviews of books that I actively disliked, especially when the dislike stems from something more serious than disliking a writing style. For example, there's been a lot of love for Perfect Chemistry, which I absolutely can't understand because Alex creeped me out a la Edward Cullen - he sexually harasses Brittany, psychologically abuses her, and then there's the bet to sleep with her. How is this an endearing character, let alone an awesome romance?!

Seeing so many other people rave about a book can also make me question my own judgement - was I too harsh? Did I misread something? Am I actually getting too old for YA books? I want to chime in on super-positive reviews with my own thoughts, but I also don't want to be seen as crashing someone else's party with my downer thoughts!

I doubt I'm the only one who's been in this conundrum - like I said earlier, I'm sure we've all disagreed with other reviewers, and I doubt I'm the only one who doesn't like to seem negative in other people's space! So I want to open the comments here to anyone and everyone: what book does everyone else love that you just don't get? Are you able to just walk away from positive reviews of books you find atrocious? Has someone's positive review convinced you to give a book a second chance? And did that second chance change your opinion or reinforce it? Oh, and I've got thick skin people and love a good debate - let me know if you think I've been way out of touch on a book! Let loose people!

Book Thoughts: First awards follow up post!

All of the big book awards were announced yesterday - and I've actually read some of them! I'm always happy when all of that reading pays off and I can tell people (well, any who care about YA lit) "Oh, the Printz winner? I read that months ago."

I am, however, totally out in the cold when it comes to the Newberry and Caldecott winners. Back at the Kidlit Drink Night last week, I couldn't even remember which award was for authors and which for illustrators (and this was before I'd had anything to drink!).

Printz Award Winner: Going Bovine by Libba Bray. I need to re-read this one because I sooooooooooooo didn't get it the first time around! I don't think I realized until after I wrote my review that the book was drawing from Don Quixote. Need to re-read with that in mind.

Coretta Scott King/John Steptoe New Talent award: The Rock and the River by Kekla Magoon. SO EXCITED to see this book getting some love - it's also nominated for an NAACP Image Award in literature (which seems to have taken every blogger who mentions it by surprise - no surprise that it's nominated but surprise that the Image Awards have a literary category!). The more I think about it, the more excited I am, because I have absolutely never heard of another YA book presenting a look like this at the Black Panthers.

Pura Belpre Award (best book about latina/latino experience): Return to Sender by Julia Alvarez. As I said in my initial review, I really only enjoyed about half of this book, since some of Mari's chapters feel quite contrived in narrative style, but like The Rock and the River, I appreciate the unique spin this story takes on the immigrant experience.

Sibert Medal (best children's non-fiction): Almost Astronauts by Tanya Lee Stone. (Also made YALSA's Excellence in Non-fiction award/list) AWESOME. An overtly feminist book wins an award that's not about feminism! Recently there's been some questioning over how slanted the book may or may not be and what sort of agenda Stone may or may not had. This may be a case where I don't mind the bias because it's a bias I agree with, but it certainly feels like this is a book that would have been impossible to write in a truly neutral way - the sexism these women faced is egregious.

Schneider Family Book Award (best book about disability experience): Marcelo in the Real World by Francis X. Stork. I haven't read this one despite multiple recommendations - I just haven't gotten around to it and I think I want some of the hype to die down before I do pick it up, because this was the title that was being predicted as the big Printz win by all sorts of people, and then it didn't even get an honor! Very interesting turn of events there - would have loved to be a fly on the wall of the Printz deliberations!

As the title implies, there's going to be a post later on (hopefully still this week) with further reactions to the awards and lists, but I wanted to get some commentary out in the immediate aftermath. Feel free to add your thoughts!

Monday, January 18, 2010

Review: When Everything Changed by Gail Collins

I loved Collins' previous book, America's Women: 400 Years of Dolls, Drudges, Helpmates, and Heroines. It's a great look at all sorts of women who helped form America. Collins has a great narrative style: the big changes are illustrated through the stories of individuals. When Everything Changed picks up where America's Women left off - covering the last half of the 20th century, and is quite current, as not only are Hillary Clinton's and Sarah Palin's historic campaigns covered, but also the signing of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act at the beginning of President Obama's term.

For covering a much shorter period of time, When Everything Changed is a much longer book, exhaustively covering a dizzying variety of women's lives. In some ways, the society Collins describes at the outset of the book feels like an alien world - women were chastised in traffic court for wearing slacks and married women couldn't be in control of family finances. Women were fired for getting married or having children and patronizing limits on how long a woman could work crippled women's abilities to provide for their families.

I'll admit, I knew a lot of those stories. But it's one thing to know that our country used to be so outwardly sexist, and another to read the first hand accounts of women who suffered under such indignities.

In light of today being a celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King's work, I also want to highlight that there is an extended section on the civil rights movement, and the great efforts women put in to ensure equality not just for their race, but for their gender as well. Some of our country's best known equal rights activists have been men, but Collins highlights how that was, at least in part, because the women in the movement were still expected to be subservient, just as women throughout America were expected to be subservient to men in general. However despite the lack of public recognition, women insisted on being part of the civil rights process at every turn, from planning rallies to participating in sit-ins that always carried the risk of violent attacks, helping to create the model that future generations of civil rights activists would follow.

Women Unbound Challenge

Also important to note today: over the weekend it popped up on the blogosphere that Bloomsbury, the publisher that infamously whitewashed the cover of Liar, has done it again with Magic Under Glass. I wrote about it in the early hours of yesterday, and Ari at Reading in Color is collecting links related to this latest incident of racefail. Please check it out and think about what you can do to encourage publishers to accurately portray their characters of color on their covers.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Book Thoughts: Racefail on Magic Under Glass Cover

Back in November after I attended the Children's Literature Cafe on the Cybils, and again in December when I reviewed Liar by Justine Larbalestier, I mentioned the cover controversy surrounding the book, namely that the US publisher, Bloomsbury, had initially chosen to put the image of a white girl on the cover when Micah, the protagonist, clearly emphasizes that she has dark skin with nappy hair. When the blogosphere caught sight of the cover, bloggers were outraged and the outcry convinced Bloomsbury they should have a cover that more accurately reflected Micah.

After that outrage, I think most of us settled back and felt assured that while we hadn't solved the problem of whitewashing characters of color on the covers of YA novels, we had at least made a dent in the problem and that Bloomsbury would firmly be on our side in the future.

Well, according to Reading in Color, the problem is far from over. It turns out that Magic Under Glass by debut author Jaclyn Dolamore has a dark-skinned protagonist from the Far East.

And then the cover is this:
Magic Under Glass by Jaclyn Dolamore

This isn't good, Bloomsbury.

Unfortunately, it looks like us bloggers didn't make it to this title in time - it's already in print. Actually, as Ari points out at Reading in Color, even when bloggers did get their hands on this one, we were slow to point it out: Ari has seen several reviews of this title that didn't mention the discrepancy.

So while I hold Bloomsbury highly accountable for this cover, I also have to say that the blogosphere seems to have fallen down on the job a little bit as well. At that Cybil's panel in November there was a lot of patting ourselves on the back because we (bloggers in general) got the Liar cover changed. Well we absolutely can't be complacent here - Bloomsbury has proven that they aren't going to change their marketing strategy unless their feet are held to the fire. While we can't catch every single title before it goes to press, I think we do have an obligation to comment when a cover egregiously doesn't match the main character. Sure it's mildly annoying when a character is described as a brunette and then there's a blonde chick on the cover, but hair color can be changed with a box of dye. Skin color and ethnicity can't be, and those identities are integral to a person, whether they're a fictional character or a teenager looking for a representation of herself in the bookstore.

I don't pay all that much attention to covers here - cover art has to be either outrageously good or outrageously terrible to attract my attention. But I'm promising that from now on I'm going to pay closer attention to covers, especially those on books about people of color, and recognize both the good and the bad. It's easy to pile up in righteous outrage when someone screws up, but it's also important to recognize when someone does well. I encourage the rest of you to do the same; not all of us have access to early galleys and not all publishers will be willing or able to change a cover before the first print run, but we can take a stand and start making noise now so that racefail like this becomes rare, rather than an all too common occurrence.

Edit: Slowly but surely, others are adding their thoughts! Here's links to some other posts and conversations that are happening.
Jen at Multigenre Fan: Covers That Lie, Yet Again
It’s easy to put up a blog post commenting on how you don’t like something or wish something was different. But actually doing something about it takes effort. I promise to try harder this year. If something isn’t right I’m going to say something about it.

Nymeth at Things Mean Alot: Again
But all this aside, I think that when having these conversations it's much more useful to focus on consequences than to speculate about intentions. No matter what the intention was, the message sent out to teens of colour is the same: they're being told they don't matter. If racism were only ever perpetrated by people who set out to be malicious, it would be a much smaller problem than it is.

Ah Yuan at GALNovelty: Stop Failing Bloomsbury
There are other publishing houses starting up that BELIEVE in diversity (such as TU Publishing and Verb Noire) and I believe my money will be better spent there

Susan at Black Eyed Susan's: No Magic for Bloomsbury
The Industry behaves in part based on what the consumer accepts. It is time to call out peers for failing to stand up for what's right. I'm not talking name calling, I'm talking about publicly calling on our peers to speak up, asking YA bloggers to join us in promoting POC writers and denouncing unfair practices at publishing houses.

Show Me 5 Saturday

Show Me 5 Saturday

Hosted by That's a Novel Idea

Each Saturday You will post the answer to these questions. The number indicates the number of answers you will provide.

1 Book you read and/or reviewed this week
2 Words that describe the book
3 Settings where it took place or characters you met
4 Things you liked and/or disliked about it
5 Stars or less for your rating?

1. The Rock and the River
2. Adolescent restlessness
3. Sam, protagonist trying to find his place in his family and his community as he's pulled between his father's non-violent civil right's principles, and the Black Panther Party that his brother is involved in. Chicago Projects, not Sam's neighborhood, but close by, where the Panthers have a strong influence and Sam witnesses first hand police brutality against a Black man. Roland Childs, a colleague of Dr. Martin Luther King, teaches and rallies for non-violent protests and is trying to keep his family safe.
4. 1. LOVED learning about the Black Panthers. 2. Great family dynamics (always like seeing the whole family play a part in a story, rather than inexplicably absent parents). 3. Both unpredictable, and yet tragically predictable (from the point of view of someone 40+ years on). 4. Though Maxie was a relatively minor character, I loved her attitude and how she was rarely held back from participating because she was a girl.
5. 5 stars!

Friday, January 15, 2010

Comment Challenge + keeping up with what's new

So the official Comment Challenge Check-in Post was yesterday, but yesterday was also a killer day at work, so here's my post on it so far:

I've made 33 comments on 23 blogs, and most of those blogs are new ones I discovered through the bloggiesta! Considering that the goal is 5 a day, I'm just barely below that - I can easily catch up.

And of course, that comment count doesn't begin to take into account the number of comments I've left on my own posts in response to some of the great comments I've been privileged to receive.

I hope everyone's enjoying this challenge as much as I am!

This weekend is ALA's midwinter conference - oh, how I still wish I were going! Of course, from a non-librarian's perspective, the best part of the conference is all of the new books that are on display and galleys free for the taking (okay, that's probably the best part even from a librarian's POV!) The latest and upcoming books are going to be on display. Now, I'm someone who is terrible at keeping up on what's coming out soon - I only memorize release dates for highly anticipated books (ahem, 8/24/10 for the final Hunger Games book!). For the past year, I've been picking up most of my books for review through the library after I've seen someone else review them or they show up on the nominations list for some award or another. One of my goals for this year is to be a little more ahead of the game, so I ask you, my fellow bibliophiles, how do you keep up on what's coming out next? If you're not a blogger (or heck, even if you are!) is it important for you to be on top of what's newest?

Feel free to chat on this throughout the weekend and rack up some comments for yourself to count towards that Comment Challenge!

Review: The Unnameables by Ellen Booraem

Found via: BBYA 2010 nominations

Stories about conformity are always intriguing to me - probably because I'm such a non-conformist myself! The idea of places where conformity is strictly enforced is simultaneously terrifying and fascinating, so The Unnameables is one of those books that appears to be right up my alley.

Medford Runyuin is an outsider in the community of Island. The citizens of Island live by the creed of the Book, and one of the most important rules is "If it hath a Use, give it a Name. Let the Name match the Use. If it hath no Use, it needeth no Name and wilt do thee no Harm." As such, people's names match their uses - Carvers carve Useful tools, Weavers weave Useful clothes. Even plants and animals are renamed to their uses - milk comes from Greater Horned Milk Creatures and beets have been renamed Crimson Boiling Roots. Medford Runyuin is an outsider, an orphan who washed up on the shores of Island tied to a plank, and stubborn town elders and young bullies alike won't let Medford forget that his name proclaims no Use.

At fourteen, children pass through Transition, when they officially take on their Useful name and begin plying a trade as adults in the community. The Town Council, still distrustful of Medford's outside status, denies him the name Carver (he can try again next year), but he will still take on the work of a Carver, while his best friend Prudy, raised by Carpenter parents and had always wanted to be one herself, is instead forced into the scholarly ranks as a Learned.

Medford applies himself as well as he can to his charge as a Carver, but he has a terrible secret - he carves Unnameables. From the wood he is supposed to use to create something Useful, he will instead see a squirrel, a bird, or even a person, and be compelled to bring it out of the wood. Medford knows if anyone discovers his carvings, he will be banished, for "The Unnameable is another thing entire. Take care, or thou shalt be gone."

Four months after Transition, however, Medford has more troubles than simply hiding his fanciful carvings. For someone that simply shouldn't exist has washed up in his front yard - a Goatman. He has the legs of a goat (lesser horned milk creature), the torso of a man, and great horns tipped with golden balls. And a somewhat unrefined ability to summon the wind. Medford knows that if the Town Council can't accept a boy with the name Runyuin, the Goatman is surely doomed. Yet Medford is moved by the Goatman's story, and tries to hide him from prying eyes - but how do you hide a half-goat/half-man in such an insular community?

Yet even as Medford's secrets are spilling out before his adoptive community, long-buried secrets of Island's past are emerging. If Medford has any hope of keeping himself and his new friend safe, he's going to have to use all of his skills, and those of his friends, to uncover parts of the past that some on Island would rather remained buried forever.

The description of Island was giving me major flashbacks to The Giver. Island is much less dystopian (there's no Releasing, no apparent restrictions on family size, etc), but the assignment of jobs (sometimes against the child's will) and banishment, sometimes at the will of only one person, definitely felt familiar from The Giver. Was it just me?

I will say the Goatman plot kind of threw me - for quite awhile I wasn't sure what the point of his character was, and even after finishing I'm not entirely satisfied with how he worked out. He comes across as a bit of a Deus ex Machina a few times, though he is often quite entertaining. His introduction threw off the pacing of the book for awhile - within a few pages suddenly two days had passed and all I could figure Medford and the Goatman had done was drink tea (really, they drink a lot of tea in this book).

Ultimately this was a nice, satisfying book - I can't find too much to critique but at the same time, but I can't find a lot of great things to say about it either. A nice book to while away some time, but not something to go out of your way to find.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Book Links: Recapping the Holidays with Publisher's Weekly

In the broader economy, word came out that December's retail sales fell way more than expected, but Publisher's Weekly is saying sales were up by as much as 10% over last year for stores selling children's and YA titles. Article also includes some of the best selling titles for holiday giving, including some of my favorites such as The Hunger Games and Catching Fire, Leviathan and Fire.

Also I need to thank Miss Attitude at Reading in Color for giving Bookish Blather an award! I'll post more on the award tomorrow - I have to do some work to pass it on myself, which I can't exactly do in the middle of the work day - but I wanted to express my sincere appreciation for the award and say hello to anyone who may have followed the link over here.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Review: The Rock and the River by Kekla Magoon

Found via: BBYA 2010 nominations
Winner: Coretta Scott King/John Steptoe New Talent Award 2010

This weekend is ALA! That means pretty soon there will be a whole new BBYA list to be getting my recommendations from (though soon it could also be a much different list, as once more there is a proposal to significantly change BBYA. Read more at the Bookends blog, including my comments. I've posted previously about BBYA and my feelings on changing and/or eliminating it).

I wish I were going to ALA, either to support BBYA or just to check out the exhibits, lol. Was seriously considering it for awhile, as it'd be easy enough to hop on a bus to Boston and exhibit passes are only 25. But it's cold and I think I'm coming down with something (again), so maybe it's for the best. Maybe I'll go this summer when they're in DC?

Anyway: review time!

Chicago in 1968 was a bit of a crossroads, and in The Rock and the River, that crossroads is embodied in Sam Childs, son of the prominent civil rights activist Roland Childs. Roland's activism follows in the footsteps of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and Dr. King has even been a dinner guest in the Childs' house more than once. Sam's brother, Stick, however, has found a different path he'd like to follow: the Black Panthers are in Chicago, and Stick is tired of waiting around for the white people to change.

As stresses between Stick and the family rise, Sam is also starting to date Maxie, a girl from his school who lives in the projects. When Sam is walking her home one day, he witnesses a clear case of police brutality against Bucky, a former schoolmate who had to drop out in order to work to support his family. When the police accuse Bucky of attacking them (all he did was bump into them accidentally when he wasn't looking), no one except Sam and Maxie are willing to speak up at Bucky's trial - and it's the Black Panthers, not Roland Childs, who supports the kids' decision.

While spending time with Maxie, whose brother is active in the Panther's leadership, Sam learns more and more about the Black Panthers - and begins to think he'd much rather be like them than like his father, especially after the assassination of Dr. King.

I had just been reading a few weeks ago on Reading in Color that there's a desperate need for more historical fiction set outside of the civil rights or slavery eras, and if a book was going to be set during the civil rights movement, we should at least have more points of view than just the non-violent model. And then The Rock and the River fell into my lap. (Coincidentally, she just posted about The Rock and the River on Sunday as one of the books she's looking forward to reading soon)

I realized as I read this book that I really knew very little about the Black Panther movement - I knew they were a militant organization, and that they used violence. Turns out that violence was not at all a goal of the Party as a whole, and in fact the Black Panthers had a much wider social platform than I think popular culture gives them credit for. Their ten point platform was summed up by "We want land, bread, housing, education, clothing, justice, and peace."

There was also a throw-away line in this book that I think could lead to a whole new book. When Sam and Maxie's big brother, Raheem, are about to go out after learning some big news, Maxie wants to go with them. The following exchange happens:

Raheem pointed to the desk. "Someone has to stay and make the calls."

Maxie shot him a look. "And I guess that's the girl's job?"

"You got it, little sister," Raheem said, chucking her under the chin. (page 239)

I've read before how in a lot of the political movements in the 50s and 60s, prior to the women's movement gaining a foothold, the men in charge held the women, who felt just as strongly about the movement, back. In groups that protested against Vietnam, women were expected to do the secretarial work and be sexually available (too often "free love" meant the men could sleep with whoever they wanted and the women were supposed to accept it from whoever offered). I haven't read anything specifically about black women in the civil rights movement and how they were treated, but I do know that when the women's movement did come to prominence, some black women hesitated because they felt it would be abandoning the struggle black men were continuing to fight. I would love to know more about the sexual politics of the Black Panther party - anyone know if any books exist yet?

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

It's Teaser Tuesday!

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading. Anyone can play along! Just do the following:

1.Grab your current read
2.Open to a random page
3.Share two (2) “teaser” sentences from somewhere on that page

BE CAREFUL NOT TO INCLUDE SPOILERS! (make sure that what you share doesn’t give too much away! You don’t want to ruin the book for others!)
Share the title & author, too, so that other TT participants can add the book to their TBR Lists if they like your teasers!

"I counted to six, saying "Don't do it" each time, and then grabbed the envelope and tore it open. It was one page. Writte on it, in red marker, were three words. That was my progress report. Three words.
Beware The Nurse" Fade to Blue by Sean Beaudoin, page 68

Reading Challenge: GLBT Challenge 2010

This particular reading challenge also includes mini-challenges, so I thought I would use this post as my entry in the first mini-challenge: take a moment to write a paragraph or two on why this challenge and/or this issue is important to you.

I think it was about 10 years ago that I first became an LGBT activist in a small way - slash fan fiction started appearing in my Animorphs fandom, and the stories always paired up the boys, leaving the series' two female characters out in the cold. So, being the gender-equity activist I am, I decided to start pairing up the two female characters in order to promote lesbian visibility in the fandom.

Before I started writing slash, I knew homosexuality existed - I've been involved in theatre since I was 6 or 7 and my mom had been doing costumes with a professional summerstock theatre group in Saugatuck, Michigan for a few years at that point (Saugatuck is a popular vacation destination, especially among LGBT people, which is ironic considering how conservative western Michigan is!). But I had also been raised with a lot of ideas about "love the sinner, hate the sin." However I made a startling discovery when I started writing slash: I empathized a lot more with these stories than I ever did about the heterosexual romances I usually wrote and read.

Because books are always where I turn when I have questions, I started picking up every LGBT book I could find: my early favorites were Am I Blue?, Annie on My Mind (of course), and Empress of the World, the book I like to say changed my life and finally got me to start admitting that my sexual orientation was not heterosexual.

So it is as a feminist and a bisexual woman that I choose to highlight LGBT fiction whenever I can, especially YA fiction because that's the genre that helped me so much through my own coming out process.

GLBT Challenge 2010

Monday, January 11, 2010

Bloggiesta Finish Line!

Wow. What a weekend!

I found out about the Bloggiesta just a day or two before it started and figured it was as good of an excuse as any to do some of the work I had been planning on the blog. Well, only one of those pre-planned tasks were completed; I was distracted by reading about all of the mini-challenges, and then the task of finding lots of new blogs to comment on!

Before I get into exactly what I accomplished this weekend, I first wanted to share some of my thoughts on Bloggiesta and why a weekend of nothing but blog-work was actually incredibly fun.

Some background: I love internet communities. In middle school and early high school I was an active participant in the Animorphs fan-communities centered around FanFiction.Net and my own webpage at the time (one of those GeoCities pages that met its final doom last year). After the end of the series, my chosen internet communities became focused more on fanfiction mailing lists and communities for various fandoms on LiveJournal.

What I loved about these very focused communities was that at almost any given time you could post on your site or on the mailing list or hop on your IMing service of choice and find other community members there. You could rant and complain about something that wasn't working, or brainstorm your next brilliant idea, or ask someone to look over your work.

When I started book blogging, I wasn't expecting to find that same community-feeling that I've had in the past. I realized quite quickly that posting reviews isn't the sort of blogging that creates a real community feeling. It's kind of a solitary existence, the life of a book blogger.

But the Bloggiesta changed all of that.

The book blogging community is huge. And I saw a lot of people expressing the same thoughts that I have had: I wish our blogs were more social. I wish I had more people commenting; not because it's an ego boost, but to encourage conversations about the literature that we love. By participating in events like the Comment Challenge, a lot of us are stepping out of our comfort zone and posting where we never thought we would necessarily be welcome before - and I think we're being rewarded for taking those risks.

It was incredibly fun and energizing to know that I wasn't the only one stretching myself this weekend. It gave me permission to comment on blog posts where a conversation hadn't started yet; I could drop in unannounced on someone's blog, say "Hey, I found you through the Bloggiesta!" and instantly know that we had some sort of connection, and more often than not a short blogging conversation was sparked. I knew I wasn't the only one trying to figure out favicons, and my twitter feed was constantly updating with people sharing resources and success stories using the #bloggiesta tag.

The Twitter community was probably the most exciting and helpful aspect, because it allowed for a type of immediate gratification you can't get from posting one comment to a single blog post. Posting to someone's blog, you have no idea what the original poster is up to at that moment: maybe it's the middle of the night for her, or she's taking a lunch break. Posting something into the Twitter ether meant that surely someone, somewhere was checking Twitter at the same time and could respond within minutes, if not seconds, and you could mine the wisdom of the crowd and seek multiple answers from a single post. Plus the 140 character limit was perfect for short bursts of encouragement from the @Bloggiesta account.

So, to Natasha, our Bloggiesta host, and all of the hosts of the mini-challenges, and everyone who has stopped by this blog over the weekend to say hi, please accept my most heart-felt thanks for your help and support this weekend. It's totally geeky, and a little cheesy, to be so excited about an online event, but I truly believe this has made my blog stronger and created an overall more positive internet experience for a lot of us.

Now, for my Bloggiesta goals and accomplishments:
In my first Bloggiesta post introducing the challenge, I mentioned that I had "lots of things I've wanted to add to the blog over the past year - this weekend I'm finally going to get them done." I didn't enumerate them, but among those were an "About Me" page and some commentary posts, including one on my thoughts on Twilight after I actually read the first damn book. Well, as you can see in the header of the blog, I accomplished one of those tasks - the other, not so much. In fact I only have one post ready to use at a future date - and it's scheduled for Tuesday, a post about a reading challenge I signed up for that also contains a Book Thoughts-esque short essay fulfilling a mini-challenge requirement for the reading challenge. So I kind of let myself down there, but maybe next weekend?

Friday I also accomplished making my first 5 comments in the Comment Challenge.

Saturday I posted that I had already succeeded in analyzing my blog and creating meta tags, as well as cleaning up out-of-date widgets and creating templates and cheat sheets in Google Docs. By 6:15 PM I had also completed one of those goals I set out earlier in the day: clean up my tags. I eliminated a few tags, renamed others, and updated the tags on a lot of older posts.

My additional goals were to organize my link lists and start on those commentary posts. Again, missed the boat on the commentary, but the two blog rolls I keep at the bottom of this page are up to date with a slew of new blogs in both categories (Author/Publishing blogs and fellow book bloggers).

I also created the About Me page on Saturday, as well as adding the subscribe via RSS feed and follow me on Twitter links, and added a Twitter widget to the bottom of the page so my latest updates appear on the blog.

As for today, I didn't make an additional update post, but I still accomplished a lot. I created a new page, linked in the header, highlighting some of my favorite posts. I added copyright information in the footer, and joined three reading challenges for the year. I also did a lot of the smaller mini challenges today that aren't reflected directly on the blog: adding my blog to various directories, setting up vanity Google alerts, and brainstorming future posts. The brainstorming is something I'm going to do on a semi-regular basis and hope to create a habit out of it, just like I'm hoping the comment challenge will make commenting on other people's blogs a habit!

The full list of mini-challenges completed:
(old challenges from the first Bloggiesta)
Create list & opinion posts (Best of Blather page is a list of my best/favorite posts)
Creating vanity alerts
List your blog in several directories
Create a favicon and a gravatar
Get your blog analyzed

(Current challenges)
Create cheat sheets
Add copyright to footer
Clean up labels (I think this may have been the most popular challenge!)
Show off your best content
Brainstorm new post ideas

And doing all of that, plus my comment challenge comments, took approximately 24 hours of my weekend, from Friday until now. Wow. That's a lot of blogging, but I enjoyed every minute of it!

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Reading Challenge: Once Upon a Time

The Once Upon a Time challenge is hosted by Crazy Book Slut. This one should be easy for me to accomplish over the year: read 5 fairy tale re-tellings. I've already established here how much I like these stories, so now I have another excuse to seek them out!
Once Upon a Time Challenge

Reading Challenge: Women Unbound

Late in '09 I found out about the existence of reading challenges, where you set a goal for yourself to read a certain number of books about a certain topic within a time frame. I like the idea of having another way of keeping track of what I'm reading, and sharing those books with a community of like minded people. Women Unbound is my first one!
Women Unbound Reading Challenge

Probably the best part of this challenge for me is that, even though I'm starting a few months late, I really don't think it'll be difficult for me to complete the suffragette level - read eight book, at least three of them non-fiction. Books that meet the qualification are those that can fall under the banner of "women's studies."

This is going to be fun!

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Bloggiesta update!

Hey, it's day 2 of the Bloggiesta!

Yesterday I did a lot of behind the scenes stuff, as well as seeking out new bloggers and fulfilling my Comment Challenge requirements.

Behind the scenes work: did one of the old mini-challenges, analyzing my blog. I scored 44 out of 100, losing points because I didn't have meta-tags and because I had too many images and they all were alt-tag-less. The first part, adding meta-tags, was easy enough, and putting them in raised my score to 55 overnight! But the images...I have no idea where the analyzer is getting that idea. I think it didn't like the Goodreads "To Read" widget I used to have...but when I got rid of it, my image number magically rose from 18 to 36. So I'm kind of giving up on that part.

I've also made some templates and cheat sheets for posts like Teaser Tuesday and Nonfiction Monday, as well as common links like the BBYA 2010 nominations page that I usually search Google for every time I post. Hopefully this will increase my posting speed!

Plans for today:

  • Clean up tags. I'm pretty happy with the tags I have now, but I know that as I've added tags over the year, that means that early reviews may not have all of the applicable tags!
  • Organize widgets and link lists - I've already started this one this morning by getting rid of my Goodreads to read widget, since I haven't been using Goodreads much lately and it was hopelessly out of date. I want to go through my links at the bottom of the page and make sure they're all for blogs that still update regularly, and add new links that I've discovered (since I think I've updated those lists...twice in the past year? Waaaaaaaaay overdue!)
  • Get started on some commentary posts that I've been sitting on. Review posts I can type up in the morning before I go to work, but commentary posts take a lot more work, so I want to get a backlog of those!

Hope my fellow bloggers are having a good weekend!

UPDATE: 6:15 pm. It took 2 hours and 45 minutes, but I've gone through all of the posts on the blog and updated the tags! New tag added: supernatural. Renamed tags: dance (became dancing) & twists on the tale (became stories retold - going for clarity here). New posts added to the class, WWII, war & awards tags.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Blogging events, this weekend and beyond

Before I got into book blogging, I hung out mostly in fannish corners of the internet, where the big blogging season was November and December, as a wide variety of holiday-oriented fan fic exchanges are organized at that time. As such, fandom goes into a sort of hibernation in January, with challenges not coming back in full force until the spring.

In book blogging land, it looks like the big time to get stuff going is in January. This month I'm participating in at least two blogging challenge events, and preparing myself for more throughout the year.

Starting today is the month long Comment Challenge 2010, sponsored by Mother Reader and Lee Wind. The challenge is to comment on five book blogs every day from now through Thursday, January 28 (three weeks because it takes 21 days to form a new habit). The goal is to increase the sense of community in the kidlitosphere, as often our blogs seem to be quite solitary. I, for one, can't wait to get started, and I hope to find lots of new blogs to follow this month!

This weekend is also the Bloggiesta. The goal here is to catch up on reviewing already read books, cleaning up the layout of the blog, creating templates and writing posts ahead of time to be saved for a rainy day. I have lots of things I've wanted to add to the blog over the past year - this weekend I'm finally going to get them done! I'm also going to sign up for a number of reading challenges this year - not that I need some sort of goal to encourage an insane ammount of reading, but I like the idea of searching out books on a theme and possibly discussing them with others invested in that theme (plus it'll encourage me to comment more!)

Anyone else have big blogging plans? You participating in the commenting challenge or bloggiesta?

Review: Devil's Kiss by Sarwat Chadda

Found via: BBYA 2010 nominations

My friend Rachel once predicted in a conversation that once vampires ran their course as the supernatural creatures of note, they would be followed by werewolves and finally angels. Personally, I haven't seen any surge in werewolves, but over the past year or so, the TV show Supernatural has been overrun by angels, there's a movie coming out later this month, and Devil's Kiss is at least the second YA book to prominently feature angels.

Billi is a modern member of the ancient order of the Knights Templar. While popular mythology says the order was wiped out after the Crusades, in truth they have survived, turning their focus from protecting Christianity to protecting humankind from a variety of supernatural terrors, including werewolves, vampires, and rogue angels. Today the Knights are composed of 9 members, including young Billi, who was recruited by her father.

As the Templars make more and more demands on Billi's time, interfering with her schoolwork and her sleep, she finds herself wanting to rebel. She never asked for this life, after all - it was thrust upon her by her cold and ruthless father. So when a chance encounter introduces her to Mike, a mysterious boy who seems to understand Billi better than anyone else, she's tempted to reorganize her priorities. Of course she wants to save the children, but does that mean she's not allowed to have any sort of social life?

Shortly after being officially initiated into the order, a strange variety of illnesses begin affecting the children of London. Parents are terrified, bringing ill children into the hospitals, but the doctors can't find a cause for the various symptoms, and before long the children die. Billi and her friend Kay, an Oracle with psychic powers who works with the Knights, discover that the deaths are connected by supernatural means. These deaths aren't random, but rather are the Tenth Plague: the death of the firstborn, as was done in Egypt in the time of Moses. The return of the Tenth Plague can mean only one thing: the Angel of Death has returned to Earth, and only the Knights Templar, including Billi, have any chance of stopping him.

With all due respect to Rachel, I don't know if angels are ever going to be able to get the foothold into popular culture that vampires have. The angel narrative seems rather one note: angels are far from cute and cuddly; they're actually kind of dicks. I don't know how long that's going to be able to hold its appeal. I for one have mostly stopped watching Supernatural and their angels vs. demons storyline, partly because I prefer the monster hunting story lines and partly because the angels are all jerks and that's not the most interesting attempt at character development.

I also don't know how I feel about Billi being the token female member of the Knights Templar. On the one hand, woo hoo girl power, teenage girl proving she can kick ass just as the men do. On the other hand, we know from real life that a woman stepping into a role traditionally held by men faces all sorts of backlash. I'm sure Billi would be protected from some because her father is the leader of the Templars and apparently the only thing the Devil fears, but the only backlash Billi seems to face is due mostly to her age, followed by her apparent lack of commitment to the Templars, and then finally her sex.

I did, however, enjoy Billi as a character and found her multi-faceted. What I thought was particularly interesting is she's a bi-racial character in a story that isn't about racial identity - it's mentioned several times that her mother is Pakistani and in fact Billi is short for her Muslim name, Bilqis. Just as I want there to be more gay characters in stories that aren't about being gay, characters of color should be present in a variety of stories that aren't just about their racial or cultural identity.

I also enjoyed how much the London setting was woven into the story - Chadda is obviously a London resident, as the British setting and slang is a fully realized part of the story. Too often stories that are set in places other than the US feel like the setting is simply slapped on top of the story - definitely not the case here!

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Review: A Brief History of Montmaray by Michelle Cooper

Found via: BBYA 2010 nominations

BBYA's annotation for this title is "Not even a small island nation populated mostly by royalty can keep neutral in the events leading up to the Second World War." The bit about WWII is what made me pick this up - I'm still a sucker for WWII literature (it all started with Anne Frank's diary, way back in elementary school) and this sounded like a different spin on it.

This isn't, however, your usual WWII book. For one thing, it doesn't take place in Europe proper, but rather a small (fictional) island nation in the Bay of Biscay, called Montmaray.

Montmaray has a storied past, with the royal family's history filled with noble warriors. The island once had a thriving population - but in 1936, the island has a handful of villagers (most of them elderly), a mad king, and three princesses. The crown prince spends most of his time at school in England along with Simon, the son of the royal family's housekeeper (who spends most of her time doting on the senile king rather than keeping house) and the object of Sophie's, our narrator, affections.

As Sophie relates in her diary, the story spans the end of 1936 and into the beginning of 1937. The island is so isolated that news from Europe comes in fits and starts. They know trouble is brewing in Spain thanks to Franco and his fascists, and Sophie's scholarly cousin, Veronica, has heard rumors of the terrible things Hitler does to his enemies in Germany. Trouble in Europe means that should anything happen on the island, opportunities for help will be few and far between.

While Montmaray was once a key player in European politics, it is now an unimportant backwater that rarely receives visitors - so it is a surprise when a pair of Nazi scholars take up residence in the village, allegedly looking for the Holy Grail, or at least information about it, on Montmaray. After one of the Nazis is accidentally killed, and then the family dog bites a chunk out of the leg of their commanding officer, it begins to look like the family's days of safety in Montmaray are numbered.

I have to say, I don't always quite "buy" the diary novel format. Maybe I'm just a terrible diary keeper, but it seems unlikely that a person could take down a story in such detail as to include lengthy conversations. However one thing I did like about this stories use of the format is how Sophie's use of the diary changed from the beginning of the story through the end. The diary is a gift from Sophie's brother, and initially she uses it to talk about how much she likes Simon and wants to go to Europe to make her debut in society and wear lots of pretty dresses. She also shares her frustration that her cousin and best friend Veronica doesn't share such ambitions - while Sophie is writing her musings in her diary, Veronica spends her days in the library researching and writing her own Brief History of Montmaray. Veronica notes that it is good Sophie is recording the events of life on Montmaray in her diary, as such a book will be invaluable to future historians. That makes Sophie reconsider some of her silly musings, and while her feelings for Simon are still present throughout the story, Sophie begins to become much more serious about writing about life on the island. It's a subtle way of showing how Sophie must grow up in the face of unprecedented adversity.

While Montmaray and its royal family are completely made up, the book still closely follows the political upheavals of the 1930s. The author has included a historical guide on her website, with plenty of links to Wikipedia, so readers can find out more about the people, places, and literature mentioned in the story.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Review: Freeze Frame by Heidi Ayarbe

Woohoo! First post of 2010!

Hope everyone had a great holiday weekend. I always enjoy New Year's Eve - though now that I live in the celebration capitol of the country I fear for my life if I have to enter Manhattan on New Years Eve. Not because it's actually dangerous, but because there's so many people! But tourist season is officially winding down here, so that means I have a few months of (relative) quiet before tourists start coming back in the spring.

I got Freeze Frame from the library a couple of weeks ago, actually, but it took me a couple of tries to get into it. Not sure why, but when I did finally make it past that first chapter, I couldn't put this book down - I even stayed up late to finish the last two chapters (which actually doesn't happen to me too often anymore - since I know I have a train ride in the morning, I'm usually content to wait until then to do my reading).

On a cold winter morning, after Kyle insults his sister and angers his mom, he and his best friend Jason escape the house to explore the old shed behind Kyle's house. Jason pokes around on the shelves and unveils a gun that was hidden up there.

The next thing Kyle knows, there's a gun shot, and Jason is on the ground with blood flowing from his chest.

At the hospital, at 10:46 AM, Jason is pronounced dead.

Though Kyle can't remember what happened, the court sentences him only to probation, sure that this isn't an act of cold blooded murder. Everything has changed for Kyle, but now that he's on probation he's expected to resume his life: his probation agreement means going to school, getting good grades, and staying out of trouble, all of which are easier said than done since Kyle can't seem to care about school and when he is there, the other students either stare and whisper or harass him outright for being a killer. Home isn't a relief either: Kyle's sister was friends with Jason's brother, and the two families live next door to each other. Also, Kyle has taken it upon himself to look out for Jason's little brother, a target for bullies at his elementary school.

Kyle's one coping method is writing. As a film aficionado, he writes the scene of Jason's death over and over, imagining it as a movie script directed by a different director, each time getting closer and closer to uncovering how exactly he killed his best friend.

Kyle finds two saving graces at school: Clock, another outcast who tells stories through pictures, and Mr. Cordoba, a strict librarian who is the subject of numerous rumors about his past. When the cafeteria becomes unbearable, Kyle starts eating his lunch in the library, and Mr. Cordoba slowly but surely takes the troubled boy under his wing, giving Kyle a place to study in peace in return for some help re-shelving books. He also gives Kyle a series of books to read, and encourages Kyle to talk about them after he's read them.

As Mr. Cordoba's and Kyle's relationship grew, I found myself wondering why we don't see more awesome librarians in literature. We see cool teachers in all sorts of subjects, and sometimes the local public librarian can be an ally if a book takes place over the summer, but school librarians seem to be mostly absent. They certainly aren't as awesome as Mr. Cordoba. Kick ass librarian there.

What kept me up late reading was to see the culmination of the relationships Kyle built over the course of the novel. Before Jason's death, Jason really was Kyle's only friend, and even that relationship was drifting apart as Jason began to make friends among the popular kids. In the aftermath of losing everything, Kyle slowly rebuilds through his friendships with Clock, Mr. Cordoba and Chase, which is what really keeps the novel moving - the scripted scenes are interesting, but I didn't have nearly as much interested invested in those.

Has anyone out there made any reading/blogging resolutions for the new year? I know lots of people try to read 50 or 100 books in a year (I just went back and counted - I reviewed 97 books on here last year, though not all in full posts, which means I easily cleared the 100 book mark as there were a handful of books I read but didn't blog about, including one book that was actually an omnibus of 4 novels and a novella). I'm not setting a goal for myself this year, but one of my handful of resolutions this year is to blog consistently. That means averaging 3 times a week and hopefully building up a backlog of reviews to post automatically should I find myself away for a few days. Fingers crossed!
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