Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Month in Review: March

Ack! My blogging is getting less consistent as the year marches on! 28 posts in January, 19 in February, and this is only my 15th of the month. Bad blogger!

This was another tough month for me personally - my husband was out of town for the entire month and that interview I had back in February? Didn't get that job. Interviewed for another and missed it again. Waiting to hear back from Human Resources again about scheduling another interview in a different department, however. It's encouraging that this company seems to really like me, but I wish they would settle on a place to put me!

I have been reading a ton this month, as I mentioned in my Dirty Little Secrets review. However, a lot of those books I just wasn't enthusiastic about. I'm going to review them all, eventually, I just want to be able to break up the negative reviews with some positive ones as well.

I also just flat out gave up on my first book of the year. I usually persevere through even the worst books - I want to be fully informed when I go off on a rant about how terrible it was. This book wasn't even that bad, it just bored me, and as I currently have 29 books checked out from the library, I just don't have the time at this point to waste on a book that I can't dig up any feelings for, positive or negative.

Oh, and of those 29 books, only three of them are overdue! I wanted to return them yesterday, but I got to the library five minutes after it closed (it was only 6:05!) and they even lock up the outside drop boxes out here, so you can't drop off books after hours. Tomorrow I'm heading straight to the library after work to return those overdue books...and pick up several more that just came in. I really need to stop requesting books until I whittle down my already-checked-out pile!

In non-review posts this month, I gave my thoughts on Women's History Month and celebrated Ada Lovelace Day by reviewing a biography of Marie Curie. I finally got one of the preeminent books in the fallen angel paranormal romance trend and was seriously underwhelmed and have decided I need to call it quits on that particular trend. My favorite book by far this month was the previously mentioned Dirty Little Secrets, followed by Scarlett Fever (despite the less-than-stellar ending) and Marcelo in the Real World (where, again, I was way behind on picking up on the trend. But I'm still glad I got around to reading it).

Here's hoping my blogging schedule gets more consistent in April! We're finally getting the first signs of spring here in New York - which means I'm going to get to spend lunch time OUTSIDE in the park, where I can read or blog without my bosses looking over my shoulder (thank you, Madison Square Park wifi!)

Monday, March 29, 2010

Book Links - Awards & Privilege

It's the middle of a tedious workday, which means that while I don't have the time to dedicate a whole post for these links, I can give you a heads up about them!

2010 Lambda Literary Awards Finalists have been announced! The actual awards are on May 27th, but in the meantime check out the YA nominees.

Via Aarti of Booklust on Twitter: The Diagram Prize, which recognizes the year's oddest book title, is incredibly condescending towards traditionally feminine artforms this year. Crocheting Adventures with Hyperbolic Planes is apparently "completely bonkers," even though if you actually look at what the book is about it is in fact a 100% accurate description of the book (it's written by mathematician Dr. Daina Taimina and uses crochet to illustrate a mathematical concept that is otherwise extremely hard to visualize).

The First Blog Carnival on Privilege went up today and includes a submission from me! I know a lot of my followers found me after a post on whitewashing or sexism or other social justice issue, so even though I think mine is the only book-related post, you should find something interesting there!

Friday, March 26, 2010

Review: Dirty Little Secrets by C.J. Omololu

Found via: Publisher's Weekly 1/11

I have a huge backlog of books that need to be reviewed, but I keep holding off because it seems like if I blogged them all now I'd have two week's worth of posts about books that I essentially didn't like. Or I liked a ton of the book...but then there was one GLARING THING that makes me unable to actually recommend a book. I certainly don't think I have to give positive reviews all the time, but I also don't want to be a total downer.

So I'm very happy to report that I loved Dirty Little Secrets, was totally unable to put it down, and finished it in just a couple of hours. Seriously, I started it on the train ride home today (at five) and finished by nine - and that includes breaks taken for dinner, websurfing, and talking to my husband.

Lucy's family has a secret. A giant, hulking, dirty secret. Her mom is a compulsive hoarder and has filled the house with piles of newspapers, old clothes, and just plain garbage. Lucy has lived like this for most of her life, and is now 16 and practically counting the days until she can escape from her mother's grip, like her two older siblings have already done.

After spending the night at her best friend's house (Lucy can never allow friends to visit her garbage-filled house), Lucy returns to find her mother dead in the hallway, her inhaler just out of reach and a six-foot pile of National Geographic magazines collapsed on top of her. Lucy spends the next 24 hours desperately trying to make the house presentable before calling for help; she can't stand the thought of her family becoming a freak show on TV with headlines like "Woman Dies Surrounded by Squalor." As she unearths forgotten shopping sprees and school projects she gives us glimpses into life with her slowly deteriorating mother and the heavy toll growing up with a hoarder has taken on Lucy's relationships with peers and her siblings. Lucy's refuge inside the house is increasingly invaded by suddenly nosy neighbors, her annoying older sister, and best friends who are dead set on setting her up with the cutest boy in school. The tension mounts hour by hour as cleaning years of debris seems increasingly hopeless, and Lucy feels her options for protecting her mother's secret are running out.

This book led to some very visceral reactions from me. I'm really glad I'd finished dinner before Lucy found the maggots in the living room (omg, is there anything more disgusting in the world than maggots? Even the word makes me shiver). And it's been awhile since a book made me say "Holy shit" aloud when I reached the climax. Lucy's story is complicated; as she struggles with how to make the house somewhat presentable, you have to ask just what is her motivation? Is she trying to protect her mother? Her family? Or just her reputation at school? Is she more concerned with whether Josh will like her after he knows of her home life than she was with her mother's well being? How justified are Lucy's feelings about her mother, considering the years of verbal and psychological abuse her mother subjected her to? And what made her mother treat her like crap - was it something to do with the illness that caused the hoarding, or would she have been abusive towards Lucy no matter what?

This is a compelling story, but by no means an easy one. Lucy has a lot of struggles, some serious and others frivolous. At first I was totally annoyed by the more frivolous distractions presented by Lucy's best friend and the cute boy, but this is a well crafted novel and eventually their inclusion serves an important point for Lucy's development. I highly recommend this book for anyone looking for a heavy family drama, even though most of the family is actually absent while the book is taking place.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Review: Clone Codes by Patricia C., Frederick and John McKissack

Found via: Publisher's Weekly 1/18

I've been waiting a couple of months for this one to come in, so as soon as I got it, it jumped pretty high up in the ol' to be read pile. It has a great concept with a lot of potential it just never quite lives up to.

It's 2170 and humanity has nearly perfected the science of cloning. Clones are officially classified as not human and are governed by a strict set of rules that further establish their place in the world. Leanna is 13 and firmly believes in the hierarchy that places humans as "Firsts" and clones as "Seconds" - until she learns her mother is an extremist and/or abolitionist (depending on your point of view) with the Liberty Bell movement, and is subsequently arrested for treason.

Leanna is forced to run in order to evade the government forces, though she doesn't understand why the government is so interested in her. She's just a regular girl, isn't she?

Luckily Leanna's mother had planned ahead in case she was caught and has set up an elaborate safety network to help hide Leanna from the government. Leanna is determined to do what's right, and do everything she can to save her mother in the process, while learning more than she probably ever wanted to know about history, equality, and what makes us human.

Like I said above, I really wanted to like this one - but I almost put it down 10 pages in because the Publisher's Weekly reviewer and I have vastly different definitions of "preachy." Even for a middle grade book, the narrative felt overly simplified and like the authors were talking down to their audience. And then there's The Message, which boils down to Slavery Is Bad. Is that really a lesson that needs to be hammered home in this way in the 21st century? Maybe if the parallel were to a more insidious form of slavery like sex trafficking or child labor, but the explicit parallel is to pre-American-Civil-War slavery (Leanna is a run away slave in a virtual simulation at the start of the book, and she mentions Harriet Tubman several times as she grows from thinking of clones as tools to clones as people).

I almost gave up again at the end, when it seemed the authors totally messed up the workings of the Supreme Court. I don't pretend to be a legal expert, but generally cases only reach the Supreme Court through an appeal, and they don't call in witnesses in criminal cases (Wikipedia seems to back me up here). I find it unlikely that if the number of justices didn't change in 160 years, they would change the fundamentals of the the court's operations. Also a lawyer cites the Dred Scott Decision as precedent for treating clones as property, and despite the whole dystopian-like world the McKissack's built up, I just didn't see how the country would go back to thinking that was a good court case. Why'd I keep on pressing through? Because it was a slow day on the subway and it was either read this or stare off into space. I'll take reading every time.

Science fiction for teens is a subject near and dear to my heart - I wrote my senior thesis in college on science fiction and young adult literature, using Uglies as my case study. Science fiction has always been my preferred literary/TV/film genre. So to see it manhandled like this was disappointing, because the story is fundamentally sound, and there's some great action and character building for Leanna. But the tone and over-emphasis of the message kind of killed it for me. Looking for some great SF for the middle grade reader in your life? Check out the Golden Duck awards, which recognize excellence in children's/middle grade/YA science fiction. They also have a Good Books page which wins bonus points with me for being filled with Animorphs books for grades 5-6. Leave your middle grade science fiction recommendations in the comments!

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Review: Marie Curie by Janice Borzendowski

Today is Ada Lovelace Day! Who was Ada Lovelace? Well, she was the world's first computer programmer. In the 19th century. That's right, she was so awesome she figured out how to program a computer before computers actually existed.

I first learned about Ada Lovelace in Scott Westerfeld's Midnighters trilogy where she is an inspiration to one of the characters. I didn't learn about Ada Lovelace Day until it was too late for me to properly celebrate, but I marked my calendar and made sure I'd be ready this year!

The purpose of Ada Lovelace Day is to celebrate women in technology and science. Since this is a book blog, I figured it would be most fitting for me to look at biographies. Unfortunately, that's easier said than done. I like to focus on two things here: recent books (in the last year or so) and young adult/middle grade titles. Searching my library for books on women in science or women in technology yielded almost nothing for MG/YA readers (everything was either picture books or long adult texts). So I had to dig into my limited knowledge of women in science/technology to find a biography on a specific woman - and it was still hard to find one that had been published in the last decade, let alone the last two years. I finally found this Marie Curie biography, from the Sterling Biographies series.

Before I read this, I certainly knew of Marie Curie - she's one of the few historical women that was studied outside of women's history month for me. I knew she lived in France (okay, I actually thought she was French - she was actually born in Poland) and discovered radiation (which really isn't true, either). So, actually, I apparently knew nothing of Marie Curie nee Maria Sklodowska.

Borzendowski's biography does an excellent job of introducing us non-science types to the basics of Curie's research (which didn't involve discovering radiation, but she did coin the term radioactivity) and includes helpful sidebars on defining concepts like "radiation" and "elements and compounds" as well as histories of Poland (when Curie was born, the country was controlled by Russia) and bits on women's rights at the time (Curie achieved lots of firsts - first woman to win a Nobel prize, first person to win one in two separate categories, first woman to graduate from the Sorbonne, etc. etc.). The extra information means this biography is useful outside of a science classroom, and can be easily understood by anyone.

Awhile ago, I saw this slideshow at Slate that looked at how presidents are presented in children's biographies and found that in the biographies meant for children, the presidents were all great people well before they took office. Curious, I wondered if the same thing might hold true in Borzendowski's book. Not having time to check out a stack of adult biographies of Curie from the library, I settled with her Wikipedia page. The only major difference I found was the Wiki claims that Curie definitely had an affair with Paul Langevin while he was married and after she was widowed. The biography says that Curie always denied the affair, which I suppose is true and doesn't actually conflict with what the Wiki says. On the other hand, Langevin's Wikipedia page merely says he "reportedly" had an affair with Curie - and, in an example of how Wikipedia can end up playing a little loose with the facts, all of the citations in the entire article are reportedly to back up that fact.

One thing I absolutely loved reading about is how the presentation of Curie's work has changed in the last century. I was aware that Curie had worked with her husband, though until I read this I didn't know how deep that relationship ran. When the Curies won half of the Nobel prize in physics in 1903, only Pierre Curie was allowed to give a lecture. That happened repeatedly in their relationship, where Marie wouldn't be allowed to present her own research. Luckily, Pierre was always sure to give her proper credit for her hard work and discoveries. In the last hundred years, however, I'd argue that Marie Curie is the better known scientist, while her husband is usually thought of as secondary.

While the feminist label is never directly applied to Marie Curie in Brozendowski's book, it's clear that she held feminist values close. She often worked as a teacher of female students, and when she had her own laboratories, many of her lab assistants were women. The world needs more women like Marie Curie even today, as the New York Times reported this week that there are still persistent biases against women in science and mathematics.

In the comments, please leave links to your Ada Lovelace Day posts, tell me about your favorite woman in science/technology, or just give me some pointers towards some great YA nonfiction on the subject!

Monday, March 22, 2010

Review: Spies of Mississippi by Rick Bowers

Found via: Betsy at Fuse #8

Spies of Mississippi would make a gripping spy novel. An insidious organization turning neighbor against neighbor, finding collaborators within target communities, and corruption at all levels of the government. But this isn't fiction - this is the true story of the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission. Founded in 1956 by "moderate" governor J.P. Coleman (moderate because he wanted blacks and whites to remain segregated but he also wanted peace and quiet as opposed to wide-scale violence against black citizens), the agency was charged with maintaining segregation in Mississippi for almost two decades. The spies went by names like "Agent X" to preserve their anonymity, and involved everything from writing down the license plate numbers and finding the home addresses of freedom riders who came from the north, to convincing prominent members of the African-American community to turn on anti-segregation neighbors so the agency could threaten those who would work against segregation.

The chapters are short, with each one focusing on a small part of the agency's history and strategy. The format works well, as the short chapters give each part of the story a narrow focus. However, because of that narrow focus, there are some details that are lost. Bowers never gives us much biographical information on anyone, giving us just enough to get the gist and move on. While this is okay for the most part, I would really have loved to know more about the African-Americans who worked with the commission. It's easy to see, if not totally understand, why a white person would be eager to join in a pro-segregation crusade, but what would make a victim of segregation laws join forces with those who sought to continue those laws? Was it fear of retribution? A longstanding philosophy that agreed the races should remain separate?

But that's just a minor nitpick in what is otherwise a fascinating book. I knew that in the 1960s the FBI had a rather extensive domestic spying program targeting Vietnam protesters and the like (a fact which is noted in the final chapter, which gives a brief paragraph or two on what became of the major players after the downfall of the Commission), but had absolutely no idea one state had taken it upon itself to create a wide-ranging, publicly funded, spy agency. This is a slim book, which means that while it doesn't get into every detail I might have liked, it's easy to pick up and read in an afternoon - and trust me, you're not going to want to put this one down.

Nonfiction Monday

Thanks to Books Together for hosting Nonfiction Monday!

Friday, March 19, 2010

Review: Heist Society by Ally Carter

Found via: Liz B. at Teacozy

Kat Bishop comes from a family of thieves. Her father expects her to continue in the family business, but Kat wants out. So she puts all of her skills to work in order to gain entry to a prestigious boarding school where she can have a nice, normal life.

Until her father gets in trouble, and it's up to Kat to save him.

Kat's father is the only suspect in an elaborate art heist, that has all the earmarks of previous heists he's committed. He has the perfect alibi: if he was doing a small job in Paris that night, how could he have done a big job in Italy? But the Italian billionaire whose paintings were stolen is convinced Kat's dad is guilty, and coerces Kat to convince her father to return them.

Kat believes her father's alibi, but also knows he's in incredible danger unless she can get those paintings back. She has two weeks to figure out where the paintings are hidden, and, if necessary, figure out how to steal them back.

Of course, no heist like this could be pulled off by one person. Kat pulls together a group of young criminals, including several childhood friends who grew up in the con business; her friend Hale, who's been practically adopted into the family; her often-obnoxious cousin Gabrielle; and Nick, the new guy who got Kat's attention by picking her pocket (at the same time that she picked his). As the clock keeps ticking, the pressure keeps mounting as Kat and her team try to pull off what may be the greatest heist in history.

First, I need to get this out of the way: this is a slickly designed book. Check out the cover:
Heist Society by Ally Carter cover

It's big and bold and while I don't think the model quite looks like Kat (she's described often as being hopelessly unfashionable) it captures the mood of the book well. The smirk makes the model look a little cheeky, which is definitely a way to describe Kat. If the movie gets made, the poster's already done, just replace the model here with the actor and you've got a slick poster. It's also so refreshingly different from the covers of Carter's Gallagher Girls series (see the covers of all of Carter's books here), which all chop the face off of the models, which is a trend I just can't stand. Also the book keeps a clear countdown so we know exactly how many days Kat has left to pull off her heist, and where she's at now, as she crisscrosses Europe in her search for the paintings. The countdown pages are filled with old-looking maps and every time I came to one I got the theme from Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? stuck in my head.

However, slick design doesn't make up for the fact that this book hit one of my major pet peeves: seeming to go out of its way to fail the Bechdel Test.

Heist Society has exactly two female characters who get more than a page of screen time: Kat and Gabrielle. There's also a female Interpol agent who is in charge of tracking Kat's father, but we hardly see her, and certainly don't see her talking to Kat or Gabrielle. There are no women in Kat's extended thief family (her mother died years ago for no reason other than to make another character sympathetic towards Kat). No women work in museums or are art historians, or even serve hot chocolate in the Alps. When Kat and Gabrielle talk, they're usually being bitchy to each other (I never figured out if there was an actual reason for this animosity), and often being passive aggressive about a boy.

The point where I got absolutely furious about this, however, is when Kat and Gabrielle go to confront the man who's blackmailing Kat and her father. Gabrielle accompanies Kat as "the muscle" so this guy can't just kidnap Kat or whatever. Gabrielle doesn't say a word for the entire scene. It's all about Kat. What the hell was the point of sending Gabrielle along? It was epically disappointing.

The ending clearly sets this up to be the first in a series (though it's not a ridiculous cliffhanger - the story is 99% self contained, with one major element to be picked up as a plot point in another book), and I might even pick up the second one, but I can't guarantee I'll finish it if the gender disparity continues the way this one did.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Double Review: A Faraway Island by Annika Thor & War Games by Audrey & Akila Couloumbis

I have a huge backlog of books to review, and it looks like both of these titles have been on my radar since before I started taking notes of where I was finding books. ~sigh~ But I can tell you that A Faraway Island won the 2010 Batchelder Award as the most outstanding book "originally published in a language other than English in a country other than the United States, and subsequently translated into English and published in the United States."

Why did I pair these two books together for a double review? Because they both share new (to me, at least) stories of the atrocities of World War II. It is both amazing and terrifying that 60+ years after that war, there are still stories to be told and discovered.

A Faraway Island was originally published in Sweden in 1996, and is the first in a series of stories about two Jewish sisters from Vienna, Stephie and Nellie, who have been sent to Sweden for their protection. Their parents are still in Austria, trying to secure documentation for the whole family to flee to America. Despite assurances that the sisters would live together, Stephie and Nellie are split up: Nellie lives with a warm family with other children and a kind foster mother called Auntie Alma. Stephie on the other hand is sent to live with Aunt Marta, a cold and stern woman who decorates Stephie's bedroom with a picture of Jesus and seems quick to anger. Stephie and Nellie have to adapt to their new lives as refugees, learning a new language and culture, in addition to the usual trials and tribulations of growing up. As their stay in Sweden grows longer and longer, Nellie easily slips into the ways of her new country, calling Auntie Alma "Mom" and speaking more often in Swedish than German, while Stephie despairs of ever getting home.

In a lengthy author's note, Thor explains that while Stephie and Nellie are fictional characters, she based their stories on extensive interviews with former refugees who have made their lives in Sweden since WWII.

Most of my problems with the story stemmed not from the plot, but from the writing. It often felt stilted, which could easily be written off as a translation issue. I thought the greatest strength of this book was a small, almost throwaway moment that had a huge impact for me. One of the questions that always comes up in discussions of the Holocaust is how could no one know what was happening? From our position 60 years on, knowing the horrors of the concentration camps, it seems like they would be impossible to ignore. When Stephie is trying to get the adults to cooperate and find a way to get her parents into Sweden, one person expresses their doubt that Germany would actually be shooting and incarcerating its own citizens. It's a brief moment, but perfectly illustrates the complete ignorance most of the world had regarding what the Nazis were truly capable of.

War Games also covers an aspect of WWII I had no previous knowledge about: the occupation of Greece by Italian and German forces. Petros lives in a small village, mostly insulated from the rest of the war in Europe. Italian forces have waged battles with the Greek army nearby, and the economy is in a state of freefall, but otherwise life continues as normal for Petros. Until his cousin Lambros, a member of the army, stumbles to his house, bloodied and bruised, with a dire warning: the Germans are coming. While Petros' family isn't Jewish, they do have significant American ties having lived in America for many years. Petros' father orders the family to hide or destroy anything connecting them to America, just in time for the Germans to arrive and decide that the family home will now be housing a German commander. Petros and his older brother Zola become determined to resist in any way they can, right under the enemy's nose.

This is another book based on a true story, with many of the experiences taken directly from Akila's childhood in Greece. The authors condensed many events so they all took place at the beginning of the occupation, rather than spread out over several years. There are lots of great characters here, probably because they are all based on Akila and his family. Petros and Zola's sibling rivalry is well done, so that even though there's a lot of antagonism between the two, when push comes to shove they look out for each other.

Some of the aspects of war are briefly touched upon, but are mostly ignored in favor of focusing on the more exciting resistance plot. It's mentioned a few times that they're worried about friends and neighbors reporting the family to the Germans for being American or for hiding Lambros, a known resistance member, but nothing really comes of those fears. When the commander does show up, Petros spares only a few thoughts for how nice he can be before moving on. I would have loved for the story to be a bit longer to allow for a chance to explore more of the ambiguities of the story.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Review: Fallen by Lauren Kate

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

Holy crap this book is popular. I put it on hold at the library in mid-January and I was the 50th hold request. I only got it a week ago. So...people like this book. Angsty supernatural romance doesn't seem to be going anywhere.

Luce has been sent to the Sword & Cross boarding school after a mysterious fire at her last boarding school left a boy burned to death. On her first day at her new school, Luce meets the usual sort of characters one runs across at reform schools: mildly-psychotic girls that want to be BFFs, girls that appear to be total goody two-shoes and make you wonder why they're in reform school, and, of course, darkly handsome brooding young men. Luce actually gets two of that last category: Cameron Briel and Daniel Grigori.

Cameron is charming and handsome and latches onto Luce as soon as he can. Luce likes him well enough, but the real focus of her attention is Daniel, who alternates between giving her smoldering looks across the library and flipping her off. But Luce is determined to get closer to Daniel - she feels an immediate connection to him, like they've known each other before arriving at Sword & Cross. Luce is determined to find out more about him, and recruits her new friend Penn, the lone sane-person in the school, as an accomplice, while trying to avoid the attention of Arriane (an all-around trouble maker, Luce's guide on her first day and the closest thing she has to a friend at Stone & Cross before Penn) and Mary (whose sole purpose in life appears to be making Luce miserable).

As if adjusting to a new reform school and juggling boys and friends weren't enough for poor Luce, she also seems to have hallucinations. Since she was a child she's seen apparitions of threatening shadows, but until she arrived at Sword & Cross that's all they've been: hallucinations. Now the shadows are getting a lot bolder, and might even be able to hurt her, or her new-found friends.

There is a huuuuuuuuuuge Twilight vibe throughout this book, even though Rachel described this as one of the less-Twilight-esque angel stories out there. From the creepy atmosphere (perpetually overcast Forks vs. humid and creepy southern US reform school) to the plain Jane but irresistible main girl. She's even clumsy like Bella! The prime candidate for being a not-human cute boy saves her from a lethal accident! Aside from cuteness, Luce's continued attraction to Daniel is only slightly better than Bella's to Edward; at least Luce is convinced she knows Daniel from somewhere else.

Over at Teacozy, Liz suggests that this is the sort of book where you're not supposed to think too hard about the story. Just accept that it's a rather fluffy and angsty romance and roll with it. I can see her argument on the one hand, but that doesn't quite work for me with this one. I can overlook many of the small questions, like why the hell is there such an emphasis on the black uniforms? Co-ed dorms at a reform school notorious for being strict? Easily-evaded cameras in lieu of supervision from actual adults? (Okay, I really want an answer on the black uniforms thing. It's seriously emphasized so much that I was waiting for the big reveal as a Chekhov's gun) But Luce is kind of a passive protagonist. Stuff happens to her, but she doesn't cause anything to actually happen. And after the big reveal that angels exist, Luce is treated a lot like Thomas was in The Maze Runner when he first arrived in the Glade: don't ask stupid questions (even if the audience is wondering the same thing) because we're not telling you anything until the next book.

Unfortunately, because I appear to be missing the gene that makes me love straight-up romances, I don't think I'm going to be sticking around for the next book. Unless someone promises me the black clothes are explained.

As for this whole angel trend? Unless it starts popping up in non-romance stories (like Once Dead Twice Shy, I think I'm done. I can see their appeal in some ways (Fallen is a more chaste love story than even Twilight), but they hold zero for me.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Review: Ice by Sarah Beth Durst

Found via: Liz B at A Chair, a Fireplace, and a Teacozy

My cat, Gopher, thinks that books are pillows. He approves of Ice!

My love of fairy tale retellings is well documented here, but Ice gave me something new to ponder. It re-tells a story I'd never heard before, East o' the Sun, West o' the Moon, and I've been trying to figure out if I like retellings of familiar or new stories more.

Not that it really matters when the story is so well written, as Durst's is here (even after going through and reading two versions of the original, my opinion holds).

As a little girl, Cassie's grandmother told her the story of how her mother made a deal with the Polar Bear King that went sour, and condemned her to being swept away to the ends of the Earth. At 18, Cassie recognizes that the story was just a way of explaining her mother's death to a little girl, and is far too focused on her life as a budding scientist with her father in an Arctic research station to think of childhood fairy tales.

Until Cassie learns that some fairy tales are true. There is a Polar Bear King, and part of her mother's bargain including betrothing her unborn daughter to become the king's wife. Cassie makes a deal of her own with the king in order to secure her mother's rescue from the trolls' castle east o' the sun and west o' the moon. In return, Cassie returns with the Bear to his castle of ice near the North Pole.

The Polar Bear King is, of course, not a real bear - he is a munaqsri, a "caretaker of souls." Every species on the planet has its own munaqsri (sometimes several for large populations, like humans, but the polar bears only have the one) who takes the souls from the dead in order to give them to the newborns of the species. Bear wants a wife so he can have children to take his place, but with the intelligence of humans, rather than polar bears. Cassie is appalled - she is only 18! She doesn't want to be a wife yet, let alone a mother - but she remembers her deal to save her mother's life, and consents to the marriage.

But because this is a fairy tale, that bargain she struck with Bear has a price. When Bear is forcefully wrenched from her by the trolls after Cassie violated the rules of the bargain (rules Bear couldn't tell her about, as part of the rules), Cassie finds herself alone and several months pregnant in the middle of the arctic. That is the start of her adventure to save her husband - a journey that takes her not only across the world, but beyond, to the castle east o' the sun and west o' the moon, both helped and hindered by other magical creatures along the way.

I absolutely loved most of this book. By the time I finally got this one from the library I'd forgotten what fairy tale it re-told, and actually was seeing a lot of Beauty and the Beast in Cassie's relationship with Bear. Perhaps that was intentional on Durst's part, because bits like Cassie arranging to visit home aren't in any of the original stories I read. Durst did, however, include excellent allusions to the original stories - one translator's last name is Dasent, which just so happens to be Cassie's last name in the novel. Another great touch is Durst's totally original take on trolls - fantasy lovers need to read this book for the trolls alone, because while I haven't read a lot of fantasy I'm pretty sure you've never seen trolls like these before.

One thing that was simultaneously awesome and uncool was Cassie's pregnancy. First of all, how the pregnancy came about was seriously uncool. But then Cassie goes on this epic journey, contents of her uterus be damned, because she has a quest she must complete in order to save her husband. They're on totally different scales, but as I was reading this in the middle of Olympic fever I couldn't help but think of Kristie Moore, the Canadian curler who was 5 1/2 months pregnant during the game. We have this cultural trope that pregnant women are delicate flowers who should just lay in bed eating bon bons for the duration of their pregnancy (but, y'know, not too many, lest they get fat). Cassie does some stuff that I'm sure isn't recommended for pregnant women, but then again we're also in a fairy tale so we can let it slide. But the other uncool part of Cassie's pregnancy comes from all the other characters who think that Cassie shouldn't be allowed to do anything because her fetus is practically sacred. She is literally imprisoned until she convinces other characters that she agrees with them. It definitely provided some great drama, and Cassie proves them all wrong, but it still freaked me out a little bit. But I guess since it wasn't really the good guys who were hindering her, that was probably the point.

One other weird thing: it seemed to me like Cassie has some misplaced anger issues. She spends a lot of time railing against her father for lying to her about the truth behind her grandmother's stories and for failing to rescue her mother from the trolls, when it's her mother that made the deal that arranged for Cassie to marry a supernatural being when Cassie was merely an infant. Her dad really had nothing to do with it.

Ice is an excellent story, period. It definitely doesn't rely on previous knowledge of East o' the Sun, West o' the Moon to be enjoyed. It's a flat out fantasy adventure story, that turns a few tropes on their heads, with a dash of romance for good measure. Highly recommended.

Once Upon a Time Challenge

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Review: Fat Cat by Robin Brande

Found via: Galley Cat

Oh boy, do I ever have conflicting feelings over this title. I'm not sure exactly what I expected from this (it was starred in my Google Reader before I'd started keeping track of what I was looking forward to reading and why in my TBR spreadsheet), but for every time this book scored a hit, there was another glaring miss that had my literally cringing.

Cat has one goal for her Special Topics in Research Science class - come up with a project so awesome she'll beat the pants off of Matt McKinney, her rival since the seventh grade. Cat thinks she has the perfect plan: replicate the diet and lifestyle of early hominids as closely as possible, and observe the results, using herself as a test experiment. Minimal electricity usage, walking instead of driving, and eating only the foods that would have been available to homo erectus. A killer project with a side bonus: Cat is sure she'll look fabulous by the end of the school year.

What she doesn't count on is suddenly becoming something of a boy magnet. And not just any boys. Hot boys. Athletic boys. Boys that seem to be making Matt more than a little jealous. Not that Cat cares what Matt thinks; he betrayed her terribly back in the seventh grade, and finally having a science project that beats him at the science fair will be worthy payback.

But living a la homo erectus isn't always easy, and navigating the murky world of boys and romance is difficult for anyone. The pressure is rising for Cat, not only to keep up with her project, but to keep the boys at bay long enough for her to truly heal her broken heart.

Okay, yes, that broken heart bit makes me gag a little bit too, but it's a running theme throughout this book.

Let me get the cringe-inducing moments out of the way so I can end on a positive note, okay?

First of all: almost all of the boys in this book suck. Brande gives us two guys who date Cat who don't understand the meaning of "no." Which is okay on the surface - it gives the story dramatic tension and it's good to see that Cat knows exactly where her boundaries are and knows how to say "no." But then her best friend comes along and doesn't care that these boys don't respect her boundaries. One boy grabs Cat's rear end in the hallway, and she forcefully tells him to knock it out. He does it again and she shoves him against a locker (which made me cheer). But when he comes back with a flower and begging for forgiveness, not only does Cat accept but her best friend tells her she really needs to give the guy another chance.

The best friend, Amanda, is actually the source of a lot of my tension with the novel, because while she is funny and smart and a great poet and seems to love Cat, she's also super annoying and lacks some fundamental respect for Cat. She repeatedly tells Cat that she's going to grow up to be a bitter old hag if she doesn't date in high school and constantly lures Cat away from the tenets of her science experiment. If it had happened once or twice I would have overlooked it, but Amanda never seems willing to compromise her plans for the sake of Cat's experiment; instead it's always Cat trying to rationalize breaking her own rules. Ugh, ugh, ugh.

Because most of the time I really liked Cat. She's unapologetically smart and knows what she wants in life (well, as much as you can really know at 17). I loved it when she said early on in the novel that dating was not what she wanted to do right now - she wasn't ruling out the possibility of romance and love and marriage in the future, but she doesn't feel she needs to rush into things. Also, over the course of the novel, she becomes much more athletic, and revels in it:
Because there was a time in my life, before Willie Martin pointed out how fat I was, that I would have known I could beat those two people and anyone else in the pool. Maybe not an Olympic swimmer or someone twice my age with longer arms and legs, but definitely someone my own size, Willie Bleeping Martin included.

Because I was good. Really good. I was a strong girl, and I loved my sport. I loved competing (203).

I also liked how Cat's weight was handled in the novel. The only specific sizes we are told is that she would one day like to be a size eight and her rapidly shrinking bra size. We don't see anyone shame Cat for her weight except for episodes in her past like from Willie Bleeping Martin, and we're never told what her weight or jeans size is before or after the experiment starts. I thought it was a tactful way to avoid shaming or embarrassing a reader who is larger than a size eight.

I really enjoyed seeing how Cat's experiment evolved over the course of the novel; there were some interesting scientific theories proposed. Of course, I also felt sometimes that the reader was being lectured about nutrition through Cat's dietitian. Also, WTF, dietitian, saying that cutting out pop and chocolate will reduce acne? Because I'm pretty sure that myth has been debunked. I really hope the rest of the science in the book wasn't flawed like that, because there's some interesting stuff in here.

So Fat Cat gets points for having a smart, athletic, not-skinny protagonist, but loses a lot of points for her unhelpful best friend. I think what was most disappointing about that best friend is that one of Brande's books made the 2008 Amelia Bloomer Project list. While Cat definitely has some feminist cred, the boys and Amanda combined cancel out those positive points.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Review: Marcelo in the Real World by Francisco X. Stork

Winner: 2010 Schneider Family Book Award

I've been hearing wonderful things about Marcelo in the Real World for months. Everyone seems to love it. Lots of people were saying it was going to win the Printz (and then were stunned when it didn't even get an honor). But I held back. Because everyone was describing this as a book about an autistic kid, and that's a touchy subject for me; if you don't get the description of autism right I'll immediately shut the book and walk away. It's a subject that hits too close to home for me so I'm wary about what I'll pick up just to save myself the stress.

It turns out people just need to be a lot more accurate in their descriptions of Marcelo. He is not autistic; he hasn't even been diagnosed with Asperger syndrome. Instead he's on the autism spectrum in an unidentifiable way. This seemed to me an excellent way to present Marcelo: not only does it highlight the wide variety of ways that autism can present itself, but Stork could describe Marcelo and his disabilities however he wanted, and since Marcelo didn't have a medical label attached to him, there was really no wrong way to go.

In case you've been living under a rock, here's the quick story: it's the summer before Marcelo's last year of high school and he's extremely excited to pick up his summer job working with the ponies at Paterson, his private school for children with disabilities. His father, a powerful lawyer, however, has other plans: Marcelo needs to get out into the real world and interact with other people, because he wants to send Marcelo to the public high school for his senior year. The two make a deal: Marcelo will work in the mail room at the law firm for the summer and if he's successful he will get to go back to Paterson for his senior year. If he fails, then it's off to public school. While going through some routine files, Marcelo uncovers a mysterious photograph: a girl with a horribly scarred face. The picture obviously relates to the case his father is currently defending, but is filed to be thrown out rather than be kept with the rest of the evidence. Marcelo and Jasmine, his boss in the mail room, begin an investigation of their own, giving Marcelo some of his greatest real world lessons in friendship, work and doing the right thing.

The law firm setting is absolutely perfect for exploring ideas of right and wrong and the rules of social interaction that Marcelo is supposed to absorb over his summer. The legal system is murky, and in this case Marcelo's father is defending a company that is accused of making dangerous windshields that crack into dangerous shards rather than tiny little pieces in an accident. The company doesn't want to settle any of its lawsuits out of court, but then Marcelo overhears his father discussing a possible settlement with a high-powered lawyer while absolutely refusing a settlement with another lawyer representing a poor client. It's a confusing set of social mores for the best of us, and especially confusing for someone like Marcelo who is used to seeing the world in relatively black and white terms.

Another great/terrible addition is Wendell, the son of the other major partner in the law firm. Wendell is a slimeball. I felt creepy just reading about him. He is the exact opposite of the kind and open Marcelo and I wanted to punch him in the face several times, an excellent quality in the "villain" of the story. So he's great because he functions exactly how the bad guy should, but terrible because he's so creepy and manipulative.

There's a great bit of narration in the novel that describes Marcelo perfectly, after hearing from Jasmine that his father described him as having a cognitive disorder:
He has always insisted that there's nothing wrong with me. The term "cognitive disorder" implies that there is something wrong with the way I think or with the way I perceive reality. I perceive reality just fine. Sometimes I perceive more of reality than others

It's constantly apparent that there is something different about Marcelo. He'll slip into speaking in the third person. He hears what he calls internal music that no one else can sense. He is almost obsessive over studying religion and has to be reminded not to quote scripture or correct or cite quotations that have slipped into idiomatic usage. But this difference is impossible to define. I can see why people have used autistic or Asperger to describe Marcelo, but neither is quite right. I'm very glad I got over my own hesitations and picked this one up. I'm a terrible judge at what should win the major prizes, but I can definitely see why people would be surprised this one didn't get any major recognitions.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Review: Scarlett Fever by Maureen Johnson

Yay, another Scarlett book! I loved Suite Scarlett, so I was checking my library every day after Scarlett Fever was published to make sure I'd get this one ASAP!

Scarlett Fever picks up shortly after Suite Scarlett left off - Hamlet has closed and the set is being struck. Lola is still at her job at the spa. Spencer has signed with newly minted agent (and former Hopewell Hotel guest) Amy Amberson, and Scarlett is her assistant. Melanie is at her Powerkids summer camp, so Scarlett has a few blessed days without her antagonism to wallow in her own self-pity.

Why is Scarlett wallowing? She's still hung up over Eric, the super cute Southern boy who teamed up with Spencer in Hamlet and was a total jerk to Scarlett by seeing her when he already had a girlfriend back home.

Yeah, I wasn't an Eric fan.

School is about to start, and happens to bring big changes to the Martin family. Perhaps the biggest is Spencer's surprise role in Crime and Punishment (an homage to Law and Order) which makes him an overnight celebrity - the kind that attracts semi-creepy people to wander into the hotel and up into the family's living quarters looking for him. Chip, Lola's former boyfriend, is back in the picture with Lola, much to Spencer and Scarlett's disappointment. Oh, and Melanie? Melanie is back from camp and being nice. It totally freaks Scarlett out.

And Scarlett has enough on her plate. Mrs. Amberson is as demanding as ever - she wants to sign a promising young Broadway performer to the agency. Chelsea is 15 and has a beautiful voice, but is stuck in one of the worst Broadway performances in memory. Not to mention she is saddled with a crazy stage mother and a bitter older brother who just so happens to sit next to Scarlett in biology class. Mrs. Amberson has asked Scarlett to "keep an eye" on him on top of her assistant duties, which now include taking a terrified little dog out for daily walks. And to top everything off - Eric is trying to hang around again, ostensibly to get Scarlett's advice on acting, but how is she supposed to get over him if he won't just leave her alone?

I love the Martins. They are a crazy, mixed up, and totally loving family. Even Melanie this time around! (Even though I agree her being nice is really kinda creepy). I also love Johnson's descriptions of New York City. I've been here a year and a half now so I'm really beginning to get the geography. I also cackled with glee when Scarlett took Chelsea to my favorite food place in Manhattan, the Shake Shack.

Johnson also does a great job with the class issues the Martins face, both subtle and overt. The subtle bits are with Scarlett and her relationship with money and her thoughts about her friends who clearly have more money than her (friends who spent the summer in Europe rather than staging plays in their dining rooms). On the one hand it seems like her family should be fabulously wealthy since they own a hotel and all, but since the hotel gets next to no guests and the massive medical bills that piled up during Melanie's cancer, money is tight in the household. More overt bits are with Lola and Chip and his family. Chip comes from money and some of the Martins, Scarlett and Spencer in particular, feel he's a bit ostentatious with it. There are serious questions of why Lola is back with him, so once more I really appreciated a look at life for a family that is neither incredibly rich nor nearly destitute. The Martins get by, but it's no cakewalk.

Two gripes on this book: first of all, it just ends. It's really abrupt and I closed the book thinking "that's it?" The last scene isn't bad (it's actually quite hilarious), but it doesn't feel like a complete ending. There's definitely more Scarlett books to look ahead to, I guess.

Second of all, I feel totally bleh about the cover
Scarlett Fever by Maureen Johnson cover

It's a golden key on a purple wallpaper background. It feels dull. It's really uninspiring to me.

Suite Scarlett in paperback has been redesigned to have a coordinating cover. I'm not saying the original cover was perfect, but it had a bit more character than the new covers:
Suite Scarlett by Maureen Johnson cover

I have some nitpicks on this cover - Scarlett's hair is way too perfect for example - but that's so minor and so nitpicky that it doesn't matter. At least it has more character than the new ones.

Cover and ending aside, this is another great Maureen Johnson book. She has her own brand of wit and humor and uses it with ease. Scarlett Fever works excellently as a sequel (right up until that ending), and I can't wait to read the next Scarlett story.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Book Thoughts: Women's History Month

Last month, Ari at Reading in Color had a great post about Black History Month, sharing her frustrations with relegating all of the rich history of African Americans to the shortest month of the year. I wanted to applaud her post, because every word she said was so true, and her thoughts are so similar to mine on women's history month.

Women's history month is unfortunately necessary in some ways. I would rather women be recognized a little bit rather than not at all. But I have a love/hate relationship with this month, because I've witnessed first hand how women really do get left out of our collective consciousness the rest of the year.

I still distinctly remember having to get special permission to do projects on women at least twice in my school career. In elementary school, third grade I think, we were doing some sort of biography project on famous Americans - and there wasn't a single woman on the list. I had just found out I am related (distantly) to Abigail Adams and figured she had to count - so I asked to do a project on her. Mine was the only presentation in an entire class of third graders that was about a woman. Oh, and my teacher that year? Was a woman.

Years later, this time as a senior in high school taking AP English, our summer reading list was heavily skewed towards male writers. We got the list before the start of the summer at a meeting to be sure we all knew exactly what we were getting into. Seeing the dearth of female names, I asked if the reading list for the whole year was going to look like this, and the teacher assured me it wasn't - that there would even be explicitly feminist texts in our midterm reading project.

When that midterm project came around, the entire list consisted of novels written by (non-feminist) men. I was furious and asked the teacher where was the promised feminist work - she gave me the title she had been considering and warned me I might find it "too extreme." Yes, again this class was taught by a woman. (The book she gave me was Susan Faludi's Backlash, which I found far from being extreme at the time - clearly the teacher underestimated my feminist streak!).

So for years and years in school, the only time I learned about women's contributions to history, science, or literature was either in March or when I made enough of a fuss to get them included (and I was always the sole rabble-rouser). This, as I alluded to yesterday, is why my reading tastes to this day skew heavily female and contemporary: I had to spend so much time reading about the exploits of men (usually white men), that in my free time I wanted to read about people like me. I do consider myself incredibly lucky that I can focus so much on women's and girls' stories and find no lack of compelling stories to read, but I certainly wish there had been more emphasis on getting these stories into the everyday curriculum.

For me, every month is women's history month. That's why I spend so much of my time on this blog discussing feminist issues, whether they are underdeveloped female characters, women's roles in historical events or dissections of class and racial struggles. That's the beautiful thing about feminism - so many topics fit under the umbrella I'll never be bored! Nothing is going to change here for the duration of March - in venues where people are struggling to fully include women's stories, highlight the month makes sense, but here it really wouldn't make much of a difference, would it?

I hope you have a happy March - and some woman-positive experiences from unexpected sources.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Review: The Maze Runner by James Dashner

Found via: B&N Post-Apocalyptic Teen Fiction Panel

I heard about this one back in the day, but put off picking it up. Now that I've read it (and read it fairly quickly), I've been delaying writing my review, because I feel like I have a major bone to pick with the characterization of the lone girl in the story - but I've been having trouble articulating my feelings about her. More on that after the summary:

Thomas enters the Glade in the Box. He doesn't remember where he came from, or even his last name. He knows he is Thomas, and he knows the basics of how the world works, but all of the details of his life have apparently been erased.

He emerges from the Box into the Glade and a group of teenage boys, most of whom don't seem too keen on giving Thomas too many answers on where he is or why he's there. And just when Thomas is supposed to start his grand tour of the Glade, a wrench is thrown into the works.

A girl shows up.

Thomas gets a crash course in the rules of the Glade: two years ago a group of boys was dumped into the Glade, which seems to be in the center of a giant, ever-changing maze. Since that first group, one new boy has joined them on the same day every month. The girl, Theresa, shows up one day after Thomas and is, clearly, the wrong gender. She also comes bearing an ominous message: she is the last teen to be delivered to the Glade. Clearly, everything is about to change.

Thomas is a boy of action - he doesn't like sitting around and obeying the rules of the Glade. The rules are there for a reason, as is explained to him many times: when dozens of nervous and scared boys are forced to live together for years, the rules bring order, and order is the only thing that keeps them sane. The rules include assigned jobs for every boy - and one particularly prestigious, and dangerous, job is that of the runners. The runners are the boys who spend every day running frantically through the Maze, trying to map the corridors and find an exit, even though the walls move every night. The runners have to be fast, because the maze is populated by Grievers - horrifying creatures, part machine and part flesh, that will kill anyone who gets in their way - or at least sting them with a poison that causes the boy to see flashes of terrifying memories of life before the Glade.

After Thomas and Theresa's arrivals, life in the Glade changes quickly. Thomas and Theresa discover they have some sort of connection to each other from Before, and life in the Glad becomes progressively more dangerous until one thing becomes clear: the Gladers need to find that way to escape, or one by one they are all going to die.

Let me get some of the good points out of the way before I launch into my thoughts on Theresa: there are lots of interesting characters in the Glade, and the world is definitely very interesting. There's all sorts of slang in the book, which judging from other reviews has thrown people, but isolated communities are naturally going to create their own slang (two years is more than long enough) and the general meaning of the slang I felt was pretty obvious (it's used in place of traditional curse words. Even if you don't know what "klunker" actually means, context lets you know it's some sort of expletive most of the time).

I was torn between being annoyed with the Gladers a lot, and accepting their portrayals as realistic. Thomas has lots of questions, naturally, upon waking up - and absolutely no one will answer them. This is a recurring theme - if Thomas (and we as the readers) have a question, there's going to be a lot of hesitation and arguing before the answer is given to us. Likewise, every single idea Thomas has is immediately shot down because of course the Gladers have already tried it. It makes the Gladers rather unsympathetic initially. On the other hand, if Thomas really did come in and save the day on his second day in the Glade, I would have questioned the intelligence of the rest of the Gladers that a boy figured out in two days what they couldn't in two years. Generally I think the constant belittling of Thomas just went overboard.

And now. Theresa. I think part of the reason I avoided this book for so long is that I have an aversion to guys-only stories - a habit carried over from middle school and high school when I was protesting the forced-reading of so many stories by and about Dead White Guys so I focused my reading on female-centric stories. I've broadened my reading horizons a lot since then, but I still hesitate before picking up a book that I know features only a token female character. I figured I'd give The Maze Runner a chance finally because I liked The Knife of Never Letting Go so much, and that after all is sold as a story about an entire planet with no women until Viola shows up. But Theresa is no Viola, and Thomas is no Todd. For one thing, Viola is given character development, while Theresa is in a coma or otherwise separated from the action for most of the story, which makes her more of a plot device than an actual character. Despite it being so strange for a girl to show up in the Glade, we don't get to see any actual repercussions from that because Theresa rarely interacts with anyone. I hope her presence is setting something up for the sequel that will explain her importance, but as a character (or even as a plot device) she doesn't work at all in The Maze Runner. Ultimately I was left wondering why Thomas on his own couldn't have served the purpose Theresa ended up doing (aside from future dramatic and romantic possibilities in the sequel. Oh man, was Theresa included just to prove these guys weren't gay? That's a terribly depressing thought - because several guys do go out of their way to mention or ask about how hot Theresa is).

As another contribution to the ever-growing list of YA dystopian fiction, The Maze Runner is a solid attempt. A weird and creepy world was definitely created - and we only get the smallest glimpses of what life may be like outside of the Maze. I'm mildly curious to see where this trilogy goes, but I'll probably wait to hear other people's opinions on it before jumping in myself.

Has anyone else read this one? I looked around for other reviews, but I couldn't find any commentary on Theresa. I would love to know if I'm the only one that has a hangup about her.
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