Thursday, April 29, 2010

Double Review: Firefly Letters by Margarita Engle and Crossing Stones by Helen Frost

Found via: The Amelia Bloomer Project

As you've no doubt heard by now, April is National Poetry Month. Which means nothing to me, since my relationship to poetry has been well documented in other places on this blog. But I happened to read two books this month that not only share some thematic qualities, but were written totally in verse. Also, I have finally figured out what it takes to get me to like your verse novel. But that's the sort of revelation best left for the end (I am such a tease!)

Margarita Engle definitely has her niche: write books about little known parts of Cuba's history in poetry format. Last year I reviewed (and was underwhelmed by) Tropical Secrets, about Holocaust survivors taking refuge in Cuba. While I wasn't a fan of that book, I wanted to take a chance on Firefly Letters because it was described as a suffrage story, about Swedish suffragist Fredrika Bremer's 1851 trip to Cuba. Fredrika was historically accompanied by a slave, Cecilia, who was the only one in the area who spoke English well enough to act as a translator. Fredrika and Cecilia are two of our narrators, each contributing poems about her experiences in Cuba, one as a foreign tourist and the other as a teenage, pregnant slave. The third character is the fictional Elena, the privileged daughter of the family that owns Cecilia and is playing host to Fredrika for the three months of her stay.

Cecilia and Fredrika have the more active roles, as wealthy women and girls were expected to stay home. So Fredrika's and Cecilia's poems are about traveling the countryside and meeting slaves, while Elena's poems are limited to being observations about the world around her and introspective bits about how meeting Fredrika, a woman with so much more freedom than she has, is changing her thoughts and opinions.

Crossing Stones is another multi-narrator bit of historical fiction, this time 1917 in Michigan on the eve of the first World War. The three narrators are Muriel, strong-willed and outspoken; Ollie, her brother who is desperate to grow up; and Emma, next door neighbor, Muriel's friend, and Ollie's love-interest (who shares the attraction). This is a much broader story than Firefly Letters, as through Ollie's eyes we see some of the horrors of trench warfare in Europe during the war. The three narrators share their hopes and dreams and conflicts about the war, while also going through the more mundane tasks of rural Michigan life. The war leaves its scars on both families, and Muriel's family also has to deal with her aunt running off to Washington D.C. to protest in front of the White House, demanding suffrage for women, despite the war that's going on.

I have to say, that describing Firefly Letters as a suffrage book is totally misleading. While I have no doubt that the historical Fredricka Bremer was a suffragist, the focus of the story is more on her work as an abolitionist. Some very basic women's rights are mentioned, ones that are even more basic than the vote, but suffrage isn't ever brought up, which was greatly disappointing.

Firefly Letters also suffers from an extremely simplistic format. It's the exact same format used in Tropical Secrets where every poem uses a standardized stanza format and varies little in length, so you really have to rely on the names at the beginning of the poem to know who is speaking. Crossing Stones uses different styles of poetry as well as shaping the poems to make them distinct: Muriel's poems are free-verse and zig-zag across the page, while Ollie's and Emma's poems are "cupped-hand" sonnets that are roughly circular, giving them an additional connection outside of the growing relationship described in their poems.

While I feel Crossing Stones is the stronger of the two books on most counts, it still left me wanting a little bit more. When Muriel visits DC to see her aunt, I wanted loads more description, since I know a bit about what a dangerous time it was to be a suffragist at the time (unlike today, people didn't protest in front of the White House, so protesters were rare to begin with, let alone women protesters. And then there was the feeling that mere women shouldn't be questioning the president during a time of war). But I think I've figured out when poetry novels work for me.

Last year I loved Because I Am Furniture, an intense story of abuse. After reading the two historical verse novels back to back, I figured out that Because I Am Furniture worked for me because it's a very personal story. It's all about Anke's feelings and emotions. In Firefly Letters and Crossing Stones, not only do we have to learn the backgrounds of multiple characters, but historical settings need to be described as well, and these settings don't always fit neatly into the first person poem structure, leaving me wanting to know more, more, more. So now I think I can approach future verse novels with more confidence - for historical settings, I'm going to need a vested interest in the subject in order to stay interested despite the format (a la Crossing Stones), otherwise I'm going to start skipping them.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Book Thoughts: My Role as a Reviewer

I feel like a psychic - I've been having lots of thoughts about negative/critical reviews in the past week, and then the Huffington Post goes and posts an essay that hews very closely with my thoughts!

"Nice" reviews are a topic that come up with some regularity in the blogosphere. In the last two Book Bloggers Behaving Badly posts, bloggers who do only nice reviews have come up a couple of times (usually in contrast to people who viciously tear apart a book). I've discussed critical reviews with people on Twitter, and the big fear seems to be that if we write negative reviews, the authors will find them and their feelings will be hurt. Before last week that was something I'd never really had to worry about; the only author comments I've ever received have been on mostly-positive reviews. But then last week an author discovered one of my critical reviews of his work - Mr. John Granger didn't appreciate what I had to say about Spotlight. Which spawned a conversation about online reviewing ethics with my dad of all people (I love my dad but technology savvy he is not).

Part of that discussion with my dad was about the preponderance of positive reviews I see online, and I did figure that a lot of this has to do with how most of us are women. Women in general are socialized to be peacemakers. We tend to avoid confrontation, and writing a critical review certainly leaves us vulnerable in the case that an author finds our writing. As book bloggers, we all have a great amount of respect, and probably even some awe, for authors. Most of us are life long readers and authors are our superstars. The last thing we want to do is to offend those people in some way.

But my view is, and has always been, this: authors know they are putting themselves out there. They have put themselves in a much more vulnerable position than we have as bloggers, and if they have even an ounce of adult maturity they'll recognize that critical reviews aren't a personal attack. As for those terrible, vicious reviews I hear about so often - that appears to be a strawman argument to me, because I've never seen a review that was truly personal and scathing. In fact, even when I see less-than-glowing reviews, the reviewer usually does everything she can to soften the blow and rationalize why she didn't like it or why someone else might like it. Yes, it's possible that my negative review will discourage someone from reading, or even buying a book, but that's how life goes. I certainly don't want to end a writer's career before it even starts, but that's why I make sure to lay out exactly what bothered me about a book, so you can judge for yourself whether what bothered me might bother you. For example, I know I was totally harsh on How Beautiful the Ordinary - but that's because I was borderline offended not only about the glaring omission of bisexual characters but that this book was nominated for a prestigious award while other quality books were totally passed over. But I also noted that David Levithan's story is interesting, so if you're a Levithan fan you might want to at least get the book from the library. I also hope the review encourages people to start noticing who isn't included in what they're reading, from varying sexual orientations to race and beyond.

Really, I think as a whole we need to toughen up. I'm not saying every blogger needs to start writing incredibly harsh reviews. Some of us use our blogs more as reading logs than as a formal review-type site - which is totally cool. Some of us give up on books that would make us write a negative review, and don't want to dedicate blog space to something we didn't finish - which I also understand. But I know I as a blog reader am just as interested in the books you hate as the books you love. The books that rouse our passions are the ones that tell us something about ourselves and can communicate something important to your readers. Knowing what you dislike, as well as what you like, can help me form a better opinion of how your thoughts on a book might reflect my own.

In general, I think we in the YA blogosphere want the books we read to be recognized as something other than "kiddie stuff," something that is "less than" real literature like adult best sellers. One definite way we can start to influence that perception is to take our jobs as reviewers seriously, and treat the books like the serious works they are, and not just review, but critique, them accordingly.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Review: City of Cannibals by Ricki Thompson

Found via: Publisher's Weekly 1/18

I'll admit, I picked this one up thinking it was going to be some creepy science fiction-y thing (potentially where cannibals=zombies). Spoiler alert: this is not the case. In fact, it's kind of the opposite - historical fiction. But despite the lack of zombies, it's still an enjoyable read.

Dell lives an isolated like in the hills with her father, brother and aunt. They eke out a meager existence with the help of "the Brown Boy" who drops off goods for the family on a monthly basis. With her mother long dead, Dell's father abuses and berates her, apparently for the crime of reminding him too much of her mother. But she stays with her family out of fear of the cannibals she has been told live in the city below. But after one episode of cruelty too many, Dell finally strikes out on her own, determined to find the Brown Boy who she is sure will protect her.

The city Dell lives above is London, which isn't populated by cannibals, but is filled with more people, stink, and filth than Dell has ever imagined. With the help of a few friendly folks, Dell finds places to sleep, earns a few coins for food, and finds the Brown Boy. She also learns that her family was once well known in the city - until her mother's tragic death forced her father to take the family into the hills.

The setting is an interesting one - it's 1536, right when King Henry VIII was breaking his ties with the Catholic church. The Brown Boy Dell is searching for is actually a novice monk, which periodically brings the church schism to the forefront, as the monks refuse to pledge their loyalty to the king and would rather risk death than turn their backs on their religion. So the danger in this story is on two levels - the inherent danger of being all alone in unfamiliar territory on one, and then the institutional danger of a society in upheaval.

There's naturally a love story element to this book, but I wasn't that fond of it. Ronaldo the monk seems a bit too quick to drop his vows to the church, specifically that chastity one, if you know what I mean. And then there's an infuriating period where Dell is convinced she's led Ronaldo to sin. It takes two to tango, sweetie, and while Dell is the pursuer in the beginning of the relationship, by the time it turns physical that's all Ronaldo's idea. Of course, this just proves that sexual double standards are at least older than steam.

But that's really a minor quibble with an overall interesting work. I enjoy reading historical fiction that's set somewhere or sometime different than a lot of other books. The only other historical fiction I know of set during Henry VIII's reign is The Other Boleyn Girl, and while the time period is roughly the same, they might as well take place in two different world's since City of Cannibals is never near the intrigues of the court. (Also, City of Cannibals appears to be more historically accurate)

Monday, April 26, 2010

Review: Leaving Gee's Bend by Irene Latham

Found via: Abby the Librarian

It took FOREVER for me to get hold of this book! I swear sometimes my library pulls a Netflix and delays sending me books as fast as they could (I requested Shiver three months ago and have been at the top of the waiting list with the book's status listed as 'In Transit' for a month now). But I finally got Leaving Gee's Bend!

It's 1932 in Gee's Bend, Alabama, an extremely isolated and poor farming community on the banks of the Mississippi River. When 10-year-old Ludelphia's mother nearly dies after giving birth, there's no doctor in Gee's Bend to help her, just folk remedies and superstition. Ludelphia knows that in Camden, the next town 40 miles and across the river away, there's a real doctor who she is sure could save her mother. Ludelphia packs a small pack for herself, including some food and the first pieces of a quilt she's stitching by hand, and sets off on her own, determined to save her mother's life.

That bit of quilting is Ludelphia's lifeline throughout the story. As she faces physical and emotional hardships, she always grabs hold of the quilt to reassure herself that she's on the right track. Her mother has taught her that every quilt tells a story, so Ludelphia collects bits of fabric on her journey to help her tell the story to her mom and her new baby sister of the adventure. And there's lots to tell: getting swept away by the river current, meeting white people for the first time, a shop manager angry with Ludelphia's family for borrowing more money than they can repay, and a fortuitous meeting with the Red Cross all become part of Ludelphia's journey, and eventually her quilt.

As Latham explains in her author's note, Gee's Bend is a real place known for a tradition of beautiful quilt making. That bit of the story is what first drew me to Leaving Gee's Bend as my mom used to quilt all the time when I was growing up. I really enjoyed Ludelphia's struggle to put together her quilt, the first she's made by herself, and all of the different ways she thinks of to put her bits of fabric together.

As part of my commitment to combat whitewashing covers, I like to make sure I highlight well-done covers featuring people of color, and Leaving Gee's Bend qualifies:

If it's hard to see in your browser, the girl walking away from us is clearly a girl with dark skin. Penguin (the publisher) also gets points from me for putting her in a dress similar to the one that Ludephia describes herself wearing - shapeless sackcloth. She also goes through the entire book without shoes! I also really like the font used for the title.

Latham has put together quite the adventure story. Physically Ludelphia never travels that far from home, but the predominantly-white city of Camden might as well be a foreign country to her. Latham does an excellent job of bringing 1930s Alabama to life, describing the two very different cities filled with distinct characters. I highly recommend this one, not only as a great story, but as a book that fulfill's Ari's call for historical fiction about African-Americans that isn't either about Civil War-era slavery or the civil rights movement of the 60s.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Review: How Beautiful the Ordinary ed. by Michael Cart

Found via: 2010 Lambda Literary Award Finalist

The subtitle on this should really be "Twelve stories of sex." I really don't want to think of myself as a prude, but there are a lot of teenagers/young adults getting it on in this book - including a poem that wouldn't be out of place in an erotica collection. If ever there was a book that seemed intent on catching the attention of the book-banners, this is it.

I'll admit, that I was a bit put off from this book from page 2, during the introduction, before the stories has even started. As I tweeted on Tuesday, the introduction refers only (and repeatedly) to "gay, lesbian and transgender" folks. As someone who identifies under the "B" in the LGBT acronym, the forgotten bisexual reference really stuck out for me. Now it's totally possible that no stories featuring bisexual characters were submitted (though there are two stories that feature men sleeping with and/or marrying women as well as sleeping with men), but I wish that had been acknowledged in the introduction. I don't want to play oppression Olympics, but I'd bet that bisexual characters are almost as invisible as transgender characters.

So I was already spoiling for a fight with this collection. I was ready to relax after reading the first story and title piece by David Levithan. It's haunting and beautiful, addressed directly to the reader from the general collective of gay people from the past. From there the quality was rather uneven. Stories about gay men outnumber the stories about lesbians which outnumber the stories about transgendered teens. I gradually lost interest as the book went on until I about quit halfway through Gregory Maguire's incredibly long concluding story. I actually like the plot of that one, but it just dragged on for way too long, which isn't a way I'd describe Maguire's other work.

The other 2010 Lambda Literary Award finalists for YA lit are:
Ash by Malinda Lo
In Mike We Trust by PE Ryan
Sprout by Dale Peck
The Vast Fields of Ordinary by Nick Burd

I've read (and linked to my reviews) Ash and Vast Fields of Ordinary, so of the three that I've read so far, I'm rooting for Ash to take the award. I'm waiting for Sprout from the library, but they don't have In Mike We Trust yet, so I don't think I'm going to be able to read all of the nominees before the May 1st award ceremony. What I don't understand is how something as uneven and unsatisfactory as this collection can be nominated while great, groundbreaking books like Almost Perfect and Rage are totally ignored.

If you're a fan of David Leviathan, I can definitely recommend picking up this book from the library to read his short story. If you are looking for more transgender representation in YA lit, the stories in here are good. There are also at least three stories featuring people of color: one about a transgender young man who is half black, half white, another about a gay Thai man and the protagonist of Maguire's concluding story is Iranian-American. If you want some lesbian poetry that is sure to be dogeared and passed illicitly among tittering friends at the lunch table, then this would be worth a look as well. Otherwise, pass.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Review: This World We Live In by Susan Beth Pfeffer

I read this one the same day that the volcano started wreaking havoc with travelers around the world. It was a total coincidence, I swear!

Such is just one of the disasters that has happened in Susan Beth Pfeffer's trilogy that started with Life as We Knew It and continued in The Dead and the Gone (both of which were among my favorite books read in 2008). To re-cap briefly: an asteroid hit the moon, knocking it out of its standard orbit and moving it much closer to Earth. Cue instant environmental chaos: tidal waves wipe out coastal cities (in The Dead and the Gone I learned that my neighborhood in Queens would have most likely been wiped out immediately), earthquakes strike and the darn volcanoes start going off constantly. Millions die instantly, and who knows how many thousands more die as electricity, heat, and food are in short supply. Global warming is no longer an issue - with all of the ash in the atmosphere a new ice age settles across the globe, where in the middle of summer in Pennsylvania they're happy for days of a warm 60 degrees Fahrenheit. The first book is told through Miranda's diary entries in Pennsylvania; the second book covers roughly the same period of time, but follows Alex and his two sisters in New York City. This World We Live In is set a year after the asteroid's impact and we're back following Miranda through her diary entries.

A sense of civilization has returned for Miranda, her mom, and her two brothers. They're still getting canned food from city hall. They're getting electricity for a few hours every day, and spring is on the way, which will hopefully mean warmer days. But the quartet expands rapidly, first as her oldest brother brings a girl home along with a big haul of fish, and then as Miranda's dad returns, with his wife and new baby, and three friends from a refugee camp: Charlie and Alex and his little sister Julie, two of the stars of The Dead and the Gone.

It's tough going from a family of four to a group of 11 almost over night. Food rations are increasingly scarce and privacy - already rare when it was just Miranda, her mom and her brothers - is a thing of the past. To make it all the more frustrating, Miranda and Alex can't seem to stand each other. He's quiet and stand-offish, intent on taking Julie to a convent despite her wishes to the contrary. He doesn't want to take Miranda's advice on anything - he doesn't seem to want to be around people at all. But in this new world they live in, Alex and Miranda can't afford to be at each other's throats constantly and learn to first like, and then perhaps even love each other, even as the future is as uncertain as ever, and tragedy lurks around every corner.

I've said before that diary-style stories can really throw me off, but for some reason I had absolutely no problem with the diary entries here. I don't know if this is because Pfeffer has some magic tricks up her sleeve, or if I was just so excited to get back into this devastated world she's created. In books like the Carbon Diaries series, the natural disasters build gradually over time, but here the change is immediate and devastating and reading about the short- and long-term survival of Miranda and her family is just gripping.

The last two books were necessarily light on the romance since the main characters interacted with few people outside of their families (no Flowers in the Attic storylines here!), but the romance got turned up to 11 in this one, first with Matt and then Miranda and Alex falling head over heels in love almost immediately upon laying eyes upon someone of the opposite sex. While I found it totally believable (it's the end of the world, of course you're going to go looking for connections where you can find them!), I was kind of waiting for the adults to butt in and try to get the kids to act rationally. For example, Miranda's mother can be extremely short tempered and clearly treats Miranda differently than her brothers post-asteroid (this was touched on more in The Dead and the Gone than Life as We Knew It, but the streets are dangerous places for girls alone, and as we've seen in post-earthquake Haiti, natural disasters make areas doubly unsafe for women and girls) yet she never has a real problem with Miranda melodramatically declaring her love for Alex. I got annoyed with the two of them talking about their deep and spiritual love; I found it hard to believe Miranda's practical and short-tempered mother having much of a stomach for it, either.

But really? That's my only critique. Even when she's being whiny or melodramatic, I love reading about Miranda and I'm sad this is the conclusion of the trilogy. Pfeffer has created an intensely compelling world, and even if the Earth didn't seem to be in the middle of heightened seismic activity, I would still love reading this. I think this is another early add to my best of 2010 list.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Review: The Thirteenth Princess by Diane Zahler

Found via: Publisher's Weekly 1/18

Back in my day, the story to re-tell seemed to be Cinderella. Or maybe I just sought those re-tellings out and no one pointed me towards other fairy tales. Either way, I'm pretty sure there's been a marked up-tick in re-tellings of The Twelve Dancing Princesses - this one is the third that I've reviewed for this blog alone! But so long as the stories remain enjoyable, I'm not going to complain.

Zita is the thirteenth daughter of King Aricin and Queen Amara - and their last daughter, as the queen died giving birth to Zita. Devastated, the king banished young Zita to live and work among the servants, naming her after the patron saint of servants, a name very different from her 12 sisters, whose names all begin with 'A.'

When she is 7, Zita discovers that she is, in fact, royalty, and begins a warm and happy relationship with her sisters, spending whatever evenings she can spare in their lush bedroom. The happy arrangement lasts for four years, until the king starts trying to find appropriate suitors for his eldest daughters, and is frustrated that the young women remain mute in front of the visiting princes. Soon all of the princesses start falling ill, and only Zita notices during her late night visits that her sisters' slippers are all worn through.

Zita confides her feelings to her friend Breckin, the stable boy, and together with the help of the forest witch Babette and Breckin's handsome older brother, a soldier, Zita sets out to save her sisters from whatever horrible enchantment has befallen them.

This is neither the most complex re-telling of The Twelve Dancing Princesses I've encountered, nor the most simplistic. Princess of the Midnight Ball I felt stuck too closely to the original story - it really felt like it was just adding details like names to the fairy tale and expanded upon little else. Wildwood Dancing on the other hand made some major changes to the original story, including cutting down on the number of princesses and adding Transylvanian mythology to the curse on the princesses, but it was still recognizable as a fairy tale re-telling and was a great story on its own. The Thirteenth Princess definitely heavily relies on the original story, but adds enough new nuances to remain interesting.

Zita is another plucky young princess in a long line of literary plucky young princesses (who are often set apart from their families by their red hair - physically she definitely reminds me of Princess Amelia from The Extra-Ordinary Princess). She definitely relies on Breckin, his brother, and Babette the witch for help, bu she is as much a part of the action as the boys.

Once Upon a Time Challenge

Friday, April 16, 2010

Review: Vintage Veronica by Erica S. Perl

Found via: Publisher's Weekly 3/1

I loooooooooove me some thrift stores. My mom knew she was raising me well when in 8th grade I went into some store at the mall (I think it was Express) and saw a pair of cut off shorts that were selling for some ridiculous price, and I asked why anyone would spend that sort of money when they could buy a pair of jeans for $3 at Goodwill and do it themselves? Almost all of my clothes shopping in high school was done at thrift stores; from my parents' house you can drive in a couple mile long loop and hit about 5 thrift stores without ever having to back track.

So when I ran across Vintage Veronica, which is set in a thrift store, I knew I had to read it. HAD TO.

Veronica picks up a summer job working at the local thrift store/consignment shop. On the first floor is Dollar-a-pound, where shoppers fill bags with clothes from a giant pile, paying a dollar for every pound of goodies they buy. The second level is home to the consignment shop, staffed by the Florons, aka Zoe and Ginger. Veronica works in the part of the store cordoned off and labeled Employees Only! Originally only an assistant, after her flaky boss takes off without warning it's now Veronica's job to decide what goes into the Dollar-a-Pound pile and what gets sent to consignment. Veronica's been cultivating her own unique fashion sense and an eye for bargains since she was a little girl, accompanying her father to flea markets, so this is essentially the perfect job for her. Fun clothes, and no annoying people to bother her.

Until Zoe and Ginger decide they want to be buddies with Veronica. She's hesitant at first - not only are Zoe and Ginger quintessential Mean Girls (they are constantly harassing the staff at Veronica's favorite donut shop next to the store), but Veronica is overweight and is suspicious that anyone would really like her. But Zoe and Ginger seem sincere, and convince Veronica to help them bust the mysterious of the enigmatic Lenny, the stock boy they are convinced is actually the head of some sort of vintage clothing crime ring.

But Veronica isn't cut out to be a super spy. As she's supposed to be spying on Lenny and reporting back to Zoe and Ginger, she quickly finds herself liking Lenny, first as a friend, and then potentially as more. And Lenny seems to like her, too, leaving Veronica to wonder who her true friends really are - the giggly girls who are out to get Lenny, or the shy, quiet boy who cares for sickly lizards and doesn't seem to notice that Veronica is fat.

This book is the definition of a cast of colorful characters. Aside from Veronica, Zoe, Ginger, and Lenny, there's also Bill, the stoner clerk in Dollar-a-Pound who had a thing for Veronica (and maybe still does), and the hoard that lines up in front of the store in order to ambush the pile. The store is also full of cats, which also made me incredibly happy, because I <3 my kitties.

Less colorful was Veronica's mom, who is a totally two-dimensional character. She's super health conscious, teaches yoga, and wears nothing but leotards and other workout gear, a stark contrast to Veronica, she of the reclaimed prom dresses, stubby pigtails, and lemon logs & mocha smoothies. She's so distant she has no idea where her daughter is working during the summer, and we only see her in brief glimpses at the end of the day, usually when Veronica is nuking a Lean Cuisine dinner.

While Veronica is snarky and sassy, she does fall into cliche territory as well sometimes. She's the fat girl that just doesn't have the self-control to stay away from the donut shop. She wears outlandish clothes that aren't all that flattering (though they are eye catching - taffeta dresses in a rainbow of colors worn with bowling shoes, for example). I wish a little more nuance had gone into developing her character.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Book Thoughts: Top 100 Children's Novels

Earlier this week the final title went up in the Fuse #8 Top 100 Children's Books poll. The poll was immediately turned into a meme: bold the titles you've read!

100. The Egypt Game - Snyder (1967)
99. The Indian in the Cupboard - Banks (1980)

98. Children of Green Knowe - Boston (1954)
97. The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane - DiCamillo (2006)
96. The Witches - Dahl (1983)
95. Pippi Longstocking - Lindgren (1950)

94. Swallows and Amazons - Ransome (1930)
93. Caddie Woodlawn - Brink (1935)
92. Ella Enchanted - Levine (1997)
91. Sideways Stories from Wayside School - Sachar (1978)
90. Sarah, Plain and Tall - MacLachlan (1985)
89. Ramona and Her Father - Cleary (1977)

88. The High King - Alexander (1968)
87. The View from Saturday - Konigsburg (1996)
86. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets - Rowling (1999)

85. On the Banks of Plum Creek - Wilder (1937)
84. The Little White Horse - Goudge (1946)
83. The Thief - Turner (1997)
82. The Book of Three - Alexander (1964)
81. Where the Mountain Meets the Moon - Lin (2009)
80. The Graveyard Book - Gaiman (2008)
79. All-of-a-Kind-Family - Taylor (1951)
78. Johnny Tremain - Forbes (1943)
77. The City of Ember - DuPrau (2003)

76. Out of the Dust - Hesse (1997)
75. Love That Dog - Creech (2001)
74. The Borrowers - Norton (1953)
73. My Side of the Mountain - George (1959)
72. My Father's Dragon - Gannett (1948)
71. The Bad Beginning - Snicket (1999)
70. Betsy-Tacy - Lovelae (1940)
69. The Mysterious Benedict Society - Stewart ( 2007)
68. Walk Two Moons - Creech (1994)
67. Jeremy Thatcher, Dragon Hatcher - Coville (1991)
66. Henry Huggins - Cleary (1950)
65. Ballet Shoes - Stratfeild (1936)
64. A Long Way from Chicago - Peck (1998)
63. Gone-Away Lake - Enright (1957)
62. The Secret of the Old Clock - Keene (1959)
61. Stargirl - Spinelli (2000)
60. The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle - Avi (1990)
59. Inkheart - Funke (2003)
58. The Wolves of Willoughby Chase - Aiken (1962)
57. Ramona Quimby, Age 8 - Cleary (1981)
56. Number the Stars - Lowry (1989)
55. The Great Gilly Hopkins - Paterson (1978)
54. The BFG - Dahl (1982)

53. Wind in the Willows - Grahame (1908)
52. The Invention of Hugo Cabret (2007)
51. The Saturdays - Enright (1941)
50. Island of the Blue Dolphins - O'Dell (1960)
49. Frindle - Clements (1996)
48. The Penderwicks - Birdsall (2005)
47. Bud, Not Buddy - Curtis (1999)
46. Where the Red Fern Grows - Rawls (1961)
45. The Golden Compass - Pullman (1995)
44. Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing - Blume (1972)
43. Ramona the Pest - Cleary (1968)

42. Little House on the Prairie - Wilder (1935)
41. The Witch of Blackbird Pond - Speare (1958)
40. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz - Baum (1900)
39. When You Reach Me - Stead (2009)
38. HP and the Order of the Phoenix - Rowling (2003)
37. Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry - Taylor (1976)
36. Are You there, God? It's Me, Margaret - Blume (1970)
35. HP and the Goblet of Fire - Rowling (2000)

34. The Watson's Go to Birmingham - Curtis (1995)
33. James and the Giant Peach - Dahl (1961)
32. Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH - O'Brian (1971)

31. Half Magic - Eager (1954)
30. Winnie-the-Pooh - Milne (1926)
29. The Dark Is Rising - Cooper (1973)
28. A Little Princess - Burnett (1905)
27. Alice I and II - Carroll (1865/72)
26. Hatchet - Paulsen (1989)
25. Little Women - Alcott (1868/9)
24. HP and the Deathly Hallows - Rowling (2007)

23. Little House in the Big Woods - Wilder (1932)
22. The Tale of Despereaux - DiCamillo (2003)
21. The Lightening Thief - Riordan (2005)
20. Tuck Everlasting - Babbitt (1975)
19. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory - Dahl (1964)
18. Matilda - Dahl (1988)

17. Maniac Magee - Spinelli (1990)
16. Harriet the Spy - Fitzhugh (1964)
15. Because of Winn-Dixie - DiCamillo (2000)
14. HP and the Prisoner of Azkaban - Rowling (1999)
13. Bridge to Terabithia - Paterson (1977)
12. The Hobbit - Tolkien (1938)
11. The Westing Game - Raskin (1978)
10. The Phantom Tollbooth - Juster (1961)
9. Anne of Green Gables - Montgomery (1908)
8. The Secret Garden - Burnett (1911)
7. The Giver -Lowry (1993)
6. Holes - Sachar (1998)
5. From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler - Koningsburg (1967)
4. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe - Lewis (1950)
3. Harry Potter #1 - Rowling (1997)
2. A Wrinkle in Time - L'Engle (1962)
1. Charlotte's Web - White (1952)

43/100. Well, good thing I'm not getting a grade on this! As I've seen this meme hop around, I've noticed a disturbing trend: it seems as though none of the bloggers I follow have read either The Egypt Game or Sideways Stories from Wayside School! What the heck?! I posted about this on Twitter and Facebook and was immediately assured that plenty of people have read them (clearly, or they wouldn't have ended up on a top 100 list!), just none of those people are bloggers (or bloggers that do silly memes). Of course, the great thing about the internet is that now that I've put my reading list out there, I'm sure someone will feel the need to jump in and let me know that I'm crazy for not having read (x)! And I welcome such comments!

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Review: Carbon Diaries 2017 by Saci Lloyd

Sequel to Carbon Diaries 2015

I could have sworn I reviewed Carbon Diaries 2015 somewhere, either here or at Goodreads. Apparently my review was a figment of my imagination. I hate it when that happens.

Carbon Diaries 2017 picks up a year after the first one ended. Carbon rationing has been in place for Great Britain for two years now, and the rest of Europe is planning on following suit. Water riots are breaking out around the world: Africa is still held in the stranglehold of drought, and in the US, states are threatening to dam their rivers so that their precious water won't travel out of state (especially to places like Arizona where it's felt that people have no reason to be living in the middle of the desert).

Laura, our diarist from the first book, is now in college, still dating Adi, and rocking out with the dirty angels with dreams of a European tour about to be realized. While in 2015 the main focus was on survival in a radically altered society, now Laura and her family and friends must deal with the political fallout. A neo-Nazi-esque group the United Front is gaining traction in London, claiming that the foreigners and immigrants are taking the few jobs that are left, leaving the white populace to starve. Fighting against the tide is 2, a radical and potentially terroristic group that is determined to prevent the United Front from gaining any ground. Somewhere in the middle is the government, who will go to any extremes necessary to keep the peace, even if it means severely abridging personal freedoms.

In the last book we got a few glimpses of what the rest of the world was like through e-mails with family members in different countries, but when the dirty angels go on tour we get to see first hand the political unrest caused by the destabilization of the environment.

I vaguely recall that I wasn't a huge fan of the first book, though since I can't find my thoughts on that one ANYWHERE I can't confirm that. Clearly I wasn't put off enough to want to avoid the sequel, which I did mostly enjoy. Books written in diary format often require me to suspend my disbelief a bit, because how likely is a person to be able to accurately recall whole conversations after the fact? Also, it's a paper diary and there's a resource shortage, so is Laura really printing out pictures and texts she receives on her phone to paste into her diary? She's squatting in an abandoned building at one point - I highly doubt there were printers nearby. So while I like the multi-media aspect of the book, it doesn't really make logical sense.

One thing I did enjoy about this one was the wide variety of view points on the political scene afforded to us by the multiple band members. Two band members grow increasingly radical, though not always for the same cause, which brings about some tension. Another band member seems to care about nothing other than music and wants to avoid thinking about anything even slightly political. Laura is still caught in the middle - she recognizes there are a lot of things wrong in the world, but will her contributions to any one cause actually bring about change? Or will it just get her into trouble and further hinder her dreams of punk rock stardom? There are tons of debates in this book; it's certainly not a light read, but it is a good one!

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Book Thoughts: Library Love for Library Appreciation Week

Last week's Weekly Geeks question was about libraries, but I never got my act together to actually type up my thoughts. Now that it's officially Library Appreciation Week, seems like I should put something together!

I have always been a library fan. I still remember getting my first library card in 1st grade - my local library back then was a squat and relatively dark building. Across from the circulation desk was a huuuuuuuuuuge card catalog - it towered over little ol' me. I could hardly sign my name on the little card (I remember being especially irked that the signing space wasn't wide enough to accommodate the bottom tail of the 'g' in my name) but I held on to that thing for dear life.

The children's room used to have this fabulous set up with a faux-carousel in the middle. Instead of horses or whatever, it was filled with benches with paintings of animals on the end of the benches. That thing was awesome. There was also a special display of the latest books that had been featured on Reading Rainbow. At this point I was generally reading at a more advanced level than what was on Reading Rainbow, but I still watched the show because of LeVar Burton. I didn't like Star Trek back in the day (unbelievable, I know), but I knew the host of Reading Rainbow was also on that show my parents liked, so it was like we had a connection!

My next memories of libraries are my school libraries. I felt so stifled in elementary school since the policy was we could only have two books out at a time, and we only could visit the library once a week with our class. Even back then two books weren't going to last me a week, especially since library day was usually on a Friday - more often than not, my two books were finished by Sunday night! (Oh, for the simpler days before we had computers and the internet) And then a magical thing happened: at the end of 5th grade we took a tour of the middle school, which included a trip to the library. This is where I first met Lynn and Cindy, though of course they were just Mrs. Rutan and Mrs. Dobrez back then.

The middle school library was huge. That alone excited me - it was way bigger than the elementary school library, and even bigger than the kid's room at the local library. Plus, all of the books were something that I could read and enjoy, as opposed to the other two libraries that were filled with "babyish" picture books that I didn't care about. And then the kicker: no limit on how many books we could check out! I checked out so many books during middle school that I can still tell you what my library card/student ID number was. I was so excited once to check out a huge stack of books that I actually forgot my oboe (luckily no one ran off with it and I picked it up again in the morning).

I think a lot of reading for pleasure drops off in high school - there are just so many other demands on high schooler's time! Books required for class become more and more complex, and then there are extracurriculars and jobs and boyfriends/girlfriends for the first's a lot to handle. Even I drifted away for a little while, except during the summer. It was before my freshman or sophomore year I think, when a branch of the local library opened just down the street from my house. Here I was introduced to the wonders of interlibrary loan. My house didn't have air conditioning, but the library was a short bike ride away, so I'd ride to the library, pick up the latest stack of books that had come in for me, then spend most of the afternoon crashed on a couch in the air conditioned building. Heaven! Fitting in library time during the school year was a little harder, until Mrs. Dobrez sent word through the high school librarian that she had joined a little committee called BBYA and needed teen readers to join the club. I didn't hesitate before jumping on board!

After being on BBYA for a year or two, I decided or my senior year I wanted to do an internship with Mrs. Dobrez in the new middle school library. I'll be honest - this totally started out as a goof off decision. I was a senior, I was tired of school, I had more than enough credits to graduate, I was pretty much out of English classes I could take, and I had already taken a class at the local college, so I figured that interning in the library would be an easy way to coast through senior year. What I didn't anticipate was it being so fun - I still remember being really excited to book talk a title that Mrs. Dobrez and Mrs. Rutan had booktalked to me years before (Running out of Time), and then being more excited when a bunch of kids really wanted that book after I'd described it! And not only was it fun, but I learned tons. I had never really thought about what librarians do other than check out books, nor did I have the slightest clue about what went on behind the scenes in publishing. While I took a circuitous route to get here, I absolutely believe I wouldn't be trying to get a publishing job today if it hadn't been for that internship.

Now I'm in New York City, where I'm once again lucky enough to have a local library branch just a stone's throw from my apartment. Discovering that library was a life saver for me right after we moved. We were absolutely broke and I didn't have a job yet. The library gave me a place to go so I wouldn't stay in the apartment all day feeling sorry for myself. It's also what enabled me to start this blog - pretty much every review I post here is based on books I've read from the library. I would love to own most of the books I read, but my apartment is small and every time I suggest covering the walls with bookcases I'm shot down, so I continue to satisfy myself with library books (which in all honesty is also healthier on my wallet, even if the stacks of library books drive my husband up a wall sometimes).

So I can honestly say that I owe pretty much all of my adult life to libraries, and to the people who made it possible for me to spend so much time in libraries: my parents, Cindy and Lynn. True fact: Cindy and Lynn came to my wedding last year and the photographer caught them talking to my mom. When I shared my wedding pictures on Facebook, that one was labeled as being of the three most influential women of my life. Now if only I'd gotten married in a library, it would have commemorated all of the most influential women and places.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Review: Hoppergrass by Chris Carlton Brown

Found via: BBYA 2010 nominee

I added this to my to-be-read list before the final BBYA list was announced in January. It didn't make the final cut, which I'm pretty sure I agree with.

It's 1969 and Bowser has been sent to the Hill, a Virginia juvenile detention center. While the Hill is ostensibly integrated, the boys incarcerated there strictly adhere to racial divisions; while they might work together as assigned, black boys and white boys don't mix otherwise.

Until Bowser and Nose, one of the leaders of the African American boys, have a face off in the bathroom. To the rest of the Hill, Bowser and Nose act like enemies; privately the two become close friends, sharing stories of how they ended up on the Hill.

Until a white boy, Evan, is killed in an accident while on work duty. Shorty Nub, a sadistic and racist supervisor who has already attempted to beat Nose to a pulp once before, tries to blame Nose for the accident, calling it nothing short of murder. Bowser knows Nose, and doesn't trust Shorty Nub, and becomes obsessed with unveiling just how truly sadistic Shorty Nub is while exonerating his friend.

There's some great things about this book, but it reads as a very shallow story. While there are important and serious themes of friendship and racism, the story never digs very deep into them. The imagery is shallow (like the recurring hoppergrass - grasshoppers that Nose temporarily keeps in glass jars) and feels like it was just stuck on in an attempt to make the story a little deeper.

I did really like Bowser's character - it's absolutely impossible to tell whether he's playing the system or if he really is mentally unstable. We do know when he is telling the truth or not about events that happened, but then he'll do something like eat handfuls of paper and cigarettes. Is he crazy, or just trying to make everyone think he's crazy? Should he be held in a psychiatric hospital or is he fit to rejoin society at the end of his sentence? I really enjoyed that unstable element about him.

Bowser and Nose are about the only fully fleshed out characters in the story. Some of the other boys on Hill are interesting, but then the adults are once again quite shallow. They are all either evil or saints. Mr. Woodrow, one of the saints, is the closest to a well-rounded adult character. Miss Lovitt, the librarian that Bowser works with, is just about the only other decent character in the story, but seems to function as little other than a plot device. The not-so-good characters just get one evil trait after another piled on top of them, as if the author thought we wouldn't really believe they were bad guys unless they were some of the evilest people on the planet.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Book links: Read-a-thon wrap up, top YA books, and my 200th post!

Technically this is post #200...but it's really kind of not, because some of those posts are scheduled and waiting to be released into the world later this week. But it does mean I've written 200 blog posts at this point, and that's something, isn't it?

This weekend was the 24 hour read-a-thon. My husband summed up my participation this way: "You making a goal to read a lot of books in a day is like someone making a goal to breathe a lot in one day. You're going to do it anyway!" And he's right - this wasn't like the bloggiesta where I really needed a community of support to help keep me working. During the bloggiesta we were all online at the same time, almost constantly, and we were constantly giving each other new ideas and helping out people who were stuck, because I don't usually spend hours at a time working on the nuts and bolts of my blog. This time around, while it was nice seeing the encouraging tweets and comments left by the cheerleaders I didn't feel it was something I needed. For one thing, I had to go out of my way to see the encouragement, since I wasn't already on the computer. Also, during the hours I was reading, it wasn't a great struggle at all. Waking up early so I could start reading right at 8:00 am was a bit of a struggle (I had to repeat my Starbucks order because the first time it was horribly mangled as I was so sleepy!) but after that I was on a roll. The only difference between yesterday and other Saturdays is that normally I take more breaks when I'm reading to surf the internet. So I'm not too sure I'll be participating in the next one. I like the idea, but the execution just doesn't work for me.

Something else I discovered this weekend: there's another top 100 YA books list being started. First there was the Fuse #8 list of the Top 100 Middle Grade fiction titles of all time, and then next I saw April at Good Books and Good Wine did a list for the top 100 YA books. I've been following that one as its been posted and I've been thinking it must have had a significantly smaller group of voters than Fuse #8's list, or at least a significantly different type of voter, because the list is weighted so heavily towards recent and very popular titles. I mean, I love The Hunger Games more than is probably healthy, but the best YA book of all time? I really don't think we can declare it that yet. I know YA is a younger genre than middle grade (well, technically, since I doubt books were marketed as "middle grade" until they'd come up with the "young adult" category, but there have been separate books for kids longer than there have been separate books for teenagers because even the idea of "teenagers" is a relatively recent one) but having so many books from just the last 5 years feels a little off.

Now I see that Persnickety Snark is doing her own top 100 YA list, with the methodology poached directly from the Fuse #8 middle grade list (with permission, obviously). She's directly solicited teachers and librarians and publishing folks before opening it wide for the general blogosphere to join in. Voting started March 19th and continues through April 30th. I just sent in my list of votes and just might share them once the list starts going up!

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Read-a-Thon Update #3

Going with numbers 'cause I'm too tired to figure out what hour I'm on!

Title of book(s) read since last update: Of All the Stupid Things The Thirteenth Princess, The Firefly Letters
Number of books read since started: Four complete books, bits of two others
Pages read since last update: 761
Running total of pages read since you started: 1018
Amount of time spent reading since last update: 6.5 hours
Running total of time spent reading since you started: 9? That sounds about right

Just wanted to post about what I've finished since 8 o'clock this morning. Took more breaks than I planned in order to spend some quality time with the husband (he spent the entire month of March travelling for work, so we're still playing catch up! But we bought him a book while we were out tonight, so now we're reading together and calling it quality time). I had been planning on going to the gym this evening and reading on the treadmill or stationary bike, which was supposed to wake me up, but that didn't happen. Instead we got ice cream and Chinese food - kind of the opposite of the gym!

It's about 11:30 for me now. I might read a few more pages in Crossing Stones, but then I'm going to call it a night. Good luck to those of you who can keep going (or are in an earlier time zone)!

Read-a-thon Update, 3rd hour

Title of book(s) read since last update: City of Cannibals
Number of books read since started: 1/4 of one, 3/4 of another
Pages read since last update: 187
Running total of pages read since you started: 257
Amount of time spent reading since last update: 1.5 hours
Running total of time spent reading since you started: 2.5 hours

Two older women have joined me at my tiny table at Starbucks. They have covered their half in paper towels and keep glancing at my book and/or computer dubiously. I don't know if they think I'm weird for reading/blogging in Starbucks, or if they wish I wasn't taking up space at the table. Whatever - they're the ones that joined me. I've been here since 8:15 or so.

I want to do more reading than blogging today, but I pick up the computer to check the challenges and I really like hour three's mini-challenge! I'm not putting much thought into this one - I could spend hours deliberating my answers, but I need to get back to 16th century London (in City of Cannibals).

This is hosted by Til We Read Again.

Favorite Female Character in a book: Katniss from The Hunger Games
Favorite Male Character in a book: Logan from Almost Perfect
Favorite Side Kick in a book: Gonzo from Going Bovine
Favorite Couple in a Book: Probably just because I finished reading it, but right now Lennie and Joe from The Sky is Everywhere
Favorite Book Series: Animorphs (spent too many years of my life obsessing over that series to considering anything else at the moment!)
Favorite Author: Scott Westerfeld
Favorite Book Cover: I really like the Out of my Mind cover right now - illustrates a great metaphor from the book.
Favorite Book of 2009: UGH. Catching Fire? I don't know - I couldn't rank my favorites in December, and four months hasn't changed anything!

Okay, I'm going to relinquish my table to these ladies so I stop getting the stink eye from them. Going to pack up and head back home, reading more of City of Cannibals on the bus!

Read-a-thon Update: 1st hour

Title of book(s) read since last update: The Sky is Everywhere
Number of books read since started: 1/4 of one
Pages read since last update: 70
Running total of pages read since you started: 70
Amount of time spent reading since last update: 1 hour
Running total of time spent reading since you started: 1 hour

I'm at the local Starbucks inside the local Barnes & Noble. I've had one tall non-fat White Chocolate Mocha (that I had a hell of a time ordering since I was still half asleep). I also ordered a "raspberry" "scone," but it was an abomination and I owe my body some serious apologies for making it ingest even a nibble of that...thing.

Just taking a short break because I finished up The Sky is Everywhere (and ended up almost sobbing in Starbucks) and Barnes & Noble opened which means the free WiFi is now in effect (I am not an AT&T person so no free Starbucks wifi for me). I'm debating whether it's too soon to order another coffee.

Also, mini-challenge number 1 is up. As I learned in the Bloggiesta, I'm not one to shy away from a challenge! This is the traditional hour 1 read-a-thon meme

Where are you reading from today? As mentioned above, the B&N Starbucks in Forest Hills. Later I will go back to my apartment (after my husband has woken up so I can have the bed to myself - the other draw of Starbucks, aside from the coffee, was the comfy booths. We still don't have a couch in our apartment after a year and a half living there!)

3 facts about me
1) I have a very patient and understanding husband who only rolls his eyes a little bit when I tell him I'm doing something like a 24 hour readathon
2) Starbucks' White Mocha Latte is the only coffee drink I can stand, and this is the first one I've had in months
3) I always have a terrible time coming up with the requisite number of facts for these things. favorite color is black? And I am, in fact, wearing my favorite comfy black T-shirt for this readathon.

How many books do you have in your TBR pile for the next 24 hours? That library book pile I mentioned in my last post contains 28 books at this point. But I'm planning on sneaking to the library later and picking up the three or four books I have on reserve there. I'm hoping to get through 5 books today.

Do you have any goals for the read-a-thon (i.e. number of books, number of pages, number of hours, or number of comments on blogs)? No specific goals, just want to read!

If you’re a veteran read-a-thoner, Any advice for people doing this for the first time? This is my first time, so no advice from me yet!

24 Hour Read-a-thon!

I'm up early on a Saturday morning, all because the 24 hour read-a-thon is starting in a few minutes! My camera currently has no batteries, otherwise you would get a post showing off the huge stack of library books I need to put a dent in.

This read-a-thon is at a perfect time for me. My husband was doing some cleaning around the apartment the other day and said he'd almost just scooped up all my library books and returned them! Considering how long I had to wait for some of these things, I wouldn't have been happy.

First on my list is The Sky is Everywhere, which I started yesterday and so far absolutely love. I'm about 3/4 of the way through, so it shouldn't take me too long to finish it and move on. I think I'm going to start my reading day at Starbucks - caffeine and comfy chairs beckon me! Also, I can pick up batteries at the Duane Reade next door.

I'll check in again soon. Happy reading to my fellow participants!

Friday, April 9, 2010

Review: The Less-Dead by April Lurie

Found via: Publisher's Weekly 1/11

Wow. This book has some heavy stuff - religious bigotry and an apparent serial killer on the loose, targeting some of the most vulnerable kids in Austin, Texas.

Noah Nordstrom has grown up as the son of the Bible Answer Guy, a local evangelical Christian radio personality. Noah has summarily rejected all of his father's beliefs, prefering to almost single-mindedly pursue his dream of breaking into the Austin music scene with his buddy, Carson. While taking a break from playing on the streets in Austin, Noah befriends Will, another student at his school for troubled kids who shares Noah's interest in music and poetry. Will and Noah quickly become friends, before it turns awkward when Noah realizes that not only is Will gay, but he has a crush on the adamantly-straight Noah.

Before Noah can resolve the awkwardness lingering between them, Will is brutally murdered, the third victim of a serial killer who has been targeting gay kids in the foster care system. Only, the killer was supposed to be in jail before Will was murdered - either there's a copy cat on the loose, or they locked up the wrong guy.
At the crime scene, Noah pocketed Will's poetry journal, and is shocked to discover the murderer has apparently left cryptic clues about his next victim. Unsure of who to talk to, or who he can even trust, Noah sets out to investigate on his own. The killer is clearly targeting those who are unimportant, and in some ways are considered "less-dead" than if someone like Noah turned up murdered; Noah is intent on proving that Will's life mattered, and thus his death did, too.

Ugh, like I said, heavy stuff here. But Lurie handles it well for the most part. Occasionally the various characters can start sounding a little preachy (though ironically, I didn't catch the Bible Answer Guy ever sounding that way. Mostly it happened with the kids), or the dialogue just felt stilted. Certainly not enough to dampen my enjoyment.

Lurie includes an extensive author's note at the end of the book, thoroughly debunking the usual Biblical claims against homosexuality. I highly doubt her explanations are going to pursuade anyone who truly believes the Bible is an infallible divine document, but it could be a lot of help to someone who is struggling with their sexuality and their faith.

There's some great supporting characters here. Carson, Noah's friend who's obsessed with girl's and pissing off his super-atheistic father, is a great supporter of Noah who undergoes his own character arc on the sidelines. After Will's death, Noah also begins hanging out with two of Will's homeless friends, Quindlan and Doomsday - a street preacher who holds his faith very dear. There's also the mysterious Hawk, another student at the school who was a friend of Will's and seems to want to help Noah, but Noah isn't sure if he's actually trust worthy.

I highly recommend this one. It's a great story of acceptance and redemption, as well as a bit of a mystery as Noah tries to use the flimsy clues he has to track down the killer before he can strike again.

GLBT Challenge
This title not only falls under the GLBT Challenge banner, but also is part of April's mini-challenge, to read a YA novel.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Review: The Great Death by John Smelcer

Found via: Notes from the Horn Book Jan. 2010

Two things caught my attention that made me pick this book up: Native Americans and a survival story about girls. Oh, and the setting isn't some Wild West trope; instead it's 1917 Alaska. So, three things.

Millie and Maura are sisters living in a quiet, out of the way village in Alaska. They rarely have contact with anyone from other villages, let alone non-natives, so when a white man visits their village one day, the girls (and everyone else) are fascinated.

And then an illness sweeps through the village. One by one, everyone in the village succumbs to a smallpox epidemic, leaving only Millie and Maura untouched. As winter approaches and the girls are alone, they know they must start walking, hoping to find shelter in either the next village, or in the small city that has popped up down the river. They gather as many supplies as they can carry, and set off on the treacherous trek, relying on the skills their father taught them, hoping they can make it to safety before the worst of the winter strikes.

Author John Smelcer's website claims that this is a young adult novel that can be enjoyed by all ages, but it really feels more like a middle grade novel, and it has some stylistic quirks that I don't think will be ignored by the average older reader. While there is some interesting survival information included, I found the narrative style made it difficult to tell whether it was the girls or the narrator who was giving us this information. The book seems to be written in a third person limited view for most of the story, focusing on Millie the older sister, but every once in awhile we'd jump to Maura's POV, and then we would learn stuff that I don't think the girls could have told us, like just how many degrees below zero it is outside. Their survival gear was listed when they set out, and a thermometer wasn't mentioned!

Millie and Maura are definitely a believable pair of sisters. Millie is resentful that she always has to take care of Maura, but she certainly loves her sister. Maura for her part can be whiny, but once it's just her and Millie she pulls herself together for the most part. Both of their faults come out occasionally during their journey, which made for a richer story - just because you're suddenly in danger doesn't mean your personality is going to do a complete 180. Maura is going to complain and Millie is going to get angry, but because they're family and they love each other they get over it and focus on finding their way to safety, even when it seems impossible.

While I was searching around for some other reviews on this title, I uncovered a bit of a controversy around the author. Apparently Smelcer insinuates he is of Native ancestry when in truth he was only adopted by his Native step-father. I encourage you to read that blog post and the comments, as they have some interesting thoughts on cultural appropriation and definitions of race.

Knowing about this controversy, however, doesn't really change my thoughts on the book. It's an enjoyable enough story, though the narrative style left me feeling quite distant.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Review: Eyes Like Stars by Lisa Mantchev

Found via: Confessions of a Bibliovore

I will confess: 90% of the reason I picked up this book was because of the blue hair on the cover. We all know I have a weakness for colored hair (though blue seems to be the most popular color. I wonder why). Seriously, it's pretty sweet:
Eyes Like Stars by Lisa Mantchev cover

Beatrice Shakespeare Smith (aka Bertie) lives in the Theatre Illuminata, where all the characters from every play ever written reside. She has lived there for 17 years, since she was left at the theatre as an infant, the only non-fictional resident of the theatre. After irritating the powers that be one too many times, Bertie has to find a way to make herself invaluable to the theatre, or she'll be cast out. She proposes to direct a re-staging of Hamlet as set in ancient Egypt, an attempt to create the sort of performance that will fill the house and woo back wealthy donors, restoring the theatre to its former brilliance.

But nothing can be that straightforward, can it? The Stage Manager seems intent on sabotaging Bertie's plans and most of the Hamlet cast is rebelling against tampering with their show. Bertie's only ally in the production is Ophelia, who helps reign in the cast during her brief moments of clarity between suicide attempts. Also making life difficult for Bertie is Ariel (of The Tempest), who desperately wants to escape the theatre entirely, but is bound by the Book - the large tome that collects the first appearance of every character in every play ever written. Ariel thinks that if he can tear his entrance out of the book, he'll be free, and wants Bertie's help in planning his escape.

On Bertie's side are the fairies from A Midsummer Night's Dream and Logan, a pirate from The Little Mermaid, who encourage Bertie through her trials with Hamlet and avoiding Ariel. Ariel seems to think he and Bertie have a bit of a thing going on, but Bertie only has eyes for Logan...and staying in the theatre, of course.

First of all, I have to say I love the Shakespearean characters throughout this story. Ophelia is funny and tragic - any time there's water around she appears to try and kill herself again, but occasionally graces us with moments of lucidity that make it clear she's more than just a crazy, love-lorn girl. The fairies are all hilarious as the squabble amongst themselves and more often than not get Bertie into trouble (though Bertie can be a troublemaker all on her own). It's also great to see a character other than Puck take on the trickster role. The character of Logan stuck out, because he's the only named, non-Shakespearean character that lives in the theatre. When plays are listed, it's like 'Shakespeare, Shakespeare, Shakespeare...The Little Mermaid?!' It seems like a random addition, especially since it's not like there's a definitive stage version of The Little Mermaid. If a pirate character was necessary, why not say he's an extra from Peter Pan, since that was originally a play. Or name drop a few other characters from plays,go back to the Greek tragedies if you're looking for things that are exclusively public domain if necessary, just so Logan doesn't stick out so much.

The logistics of the theatre didn't quite work out for me - at first I thought this theatre was firmly located in the world of imagination (because really? Every character ever written for the stage is here? And can be summoned just by posting a notice on the Call Board?). But then Bertie is originally from the world outside of the theatre, and then real-world patrons show up for performances, which then leads me to question things like how would the playbill credit the performers, if Hamlet is truly played by Hamlet? But if you don't think about it too hard about that point, it's a fun adventure story with lots of humor, and a sequel on the way in May! I won't be rushing out to pick up the sequel on day one, but if I see a lot of positive buzz about it, I'll probably get around to it eventually.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Review: Out of My Mind by Sharon Draper

Found via: Cindy at Bookends

OMG, I loved this book. It kept making me want to cry, mostly from sheer loveliness and happiness. What a beautiful book.

Melody is 11 years old, and has never spoken a word. She was born with severe cerebral palsy, so she has spent her life in a wheelchair, unable to feed, dress or bathe herself. A board attached to her chair filled with basic nouns and verbs is essentially her only means of communication. She has spent all of her school years in the special education classroom with other children with a variety of cognitive disabilities, but at the start of 5th grade, the school begins an inclusion program, introducing the special education students to selected mainstream classrooms.

Most exciting for Melody is the introduction of a personal aide, who helps Melody obtain a personal communication device - essentially a computer that Melody can program to speak for her. It is the gift she's been waiting for her entire life, as she is finally able to prove to skeptical teachers and classmates that she is just as smart - if not smarter - than they are. When the history class begins preparing for the quiz bowl, Melody shocks them all by acing the practice quiz. And the try-out quiz, securing herself a spot on the team.

This book is filled with moments of happiness and tragedy. I about lost it when Melody finally got her computer (named Elvira after her favorite country western song) and can tell her parents she loved them. It wasn't just that she was able to speak to her parents, but that her dad also had out his trusty video camera, which hadn't been focused on Melody much since it became clear she wouldn't pass the usual developmental milestones. Her little sister, Penny, was born completely normal, and has been the main focus of the family movies for the past two years. Melody had felt slightly envious watching her sister do all the things she'll never be able to do, so the first time she was able to really speak was beautiful.

Because Melody has essentially a photographic memory, she knows hundreds of thousands of words and facts, and Draper puts all of them to good use in the narrative. This is a beautifully written book, and since we spend so much time in Melody's head, with literally no way for her to communicate with anyone other than us, it is a very intimate read, which leads to Melody's triumphs and tragedies resonating much more with the reader than they might usually. Highly, highly recommend this to everyone, and I fully expect to see it winning some awards next January!

Monday, April 5, 2010

Book Thoughts: Does YA Lit have a "Parent Problem"?

There's been some buzz this week about the New York Time's latest piece on YA lit, The Parent Problem in Young Adult Lit. I have to say, I find most of Just's arguments lacking.

First, Just casts a wide net as to what makes a bad parent. She cites three of the most popular current fantasy novels, Twilight, Shiver, and The Hunger Games as all having bad parents. I haven't had a chance to read Shiver yet (I've been on a waiting list at the library FOR MONTHS), but the "bad parents" in Twilight and Hunger Games couldn't be more different: Bella's mother is a newlywed who wants to travel with her new husband, but clearly loves her daughter so only leaves after Bella has assured her that it's okay. Her dad simply isn't used to being a dad, and so leaves Bella to her own devices most of the time. Katniss' mother, however, has been in the throes of a dangerous depression for years, ever since Katniss' father died, leaving her rather incapable of taking care of her daughters. Are any of these parents truly bad? I wouldn't think so. Bella isn't a child by the time her mom has remarried, and her mom didn't force Bella to move to Washington; that was Bella's choice. The implication in Just's piece seems to be that "good" mothers always put their children first and their own lives second, which I just can't agree with. Katniss' mother seems like a genuine candidate for clinical depression, a devastating illness that I won't even blame a fictional person for. To me, these parents are just too different to all be considered truly bad.

Just's argument also gets muddled when she says that "it took a surprisingly long time for bad parents to show up in children’s books," but then goes back to essentially the modern invention of YA lit with examples of "bad" parents, with only a brief nod to '60s books like The Outsiders where the kids are orphans "or might as well be." I haven't read any of the books Just lists, but the "might as well be" part tells me that so-called bad parents have clearly been around since the dawn of YA lit.

The 'absent parent,' who is either dead or effectively out of the way, is a hallmark of children's and young adult literature, because truly effective parents would get in the way of lots of adventures. When I highlight books with great family relationships, generally those books have smaller problems to deal with, like questions of popularity in Into the Wild Nerd Yonder. I love that book, but the plot clearly doesn't have the epic scope of The Hunger Games. But I am finding more and more books with great parents; back when the "problem novel" dominated the YA scene, great parents were hard to find, but they're getting easier and easier, which I think would be a much more rewarding subject for a trend piece.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Book Links: 24 hour read-a-thon!

Next Saturday is the 24 hour read-a-thon, a challenge to read as much as possible for 24 hours!

I am not the greatest at pulling all nighters (in college I learned eventually that instead of staying up all night to finish papers, I should go to sleep early and wake up at 4 or 5, and when I got the last Harry Potter book the only reason I stayed awake to finish it was because my friends and I camped out at Starbucks all night!). Since there is no 24 hour Starbucks in my neighborhood (sacrilege!) I probably won't be going that full 24 hours, but I'm going to be reading as much as possible! I have a huge stack of library books, and reading just one book every day or two isn't putting much of a dent in it.

I'll be blogging here periodically throughout the day, like I did during the Bloggiesta. I'll probably just have one post that I'll update as needed, so you won't be flooded with new posts. Check in to cheer me on, or let me know if you're participating, too, and I'll cheer back!

Friday, April 2, 2010

Review: Total Tragedy of a Girl Named Hamlet by Erin Dionne

Found Via: Publisher's Weekly 1/25

Y'know, for someone that doesn't like Shakespeare all that much, I end up reading a lot of books where he or his work features prominently. I think it's because it's about the only way I get to read stories about theater - since Shakespeare's all public domain, the author can quote at liberty and the stories are well enough known that you don't have to summarize the story. Also, I do happen to very much like A Midsummer Night's Dream, so even though the main character here is named for a very different play, Midsummer plays a prominent role.

Hamlet wants nothing more than to be normal - which is really hard to do when your parents are Shakespeare scholars who insist on dressing and speaking in Elizabethan style and her younger sister is such a super genius that at the tender age of 7 she'll be starting 8th grade with Hamlet. And then, of course, there's that name. At least younger sister Desdemona ended up with something feminine.

So Hamlet's life is tough enough before it's announced that Shakespeare will be the focus of an interdisciplinary study in history and English this year. In history they'll construct replicas of the Globe theatre (conveniently, one of her dad's hobbies) and in English they'll be performing scenes from A Midsummer Night's Dream, where it's discovered that Hamlet is a superb Shakespearean performer and is assigned the role of Puck against her will.

Adding to Hamlet's horror are her two nemeses who quickly befriend Desdemona, who can't see that the older girls are just using her for her brain. Hamlet's crush hardly seems to know she exists, and her best male friend is apparently harboring a major crush on her, which is weird. And somebody keeps leaving origami pigs in her locker, which is weirder. Eighth grade is definitely turning out to be a total tragedy.

At first I was a little put off by just how weird Hamlet's life can be sometimes. I've had some college professors that were hugely into their subjects, but nobody was dressing up in period garb and then showing up at their daughters' school unannounced. But then I decided to read this as an all-out farce, and everything fits much better.

The parental obsession with Shakespeare aside, I did like Hamlet's family relationships, even though they're often dysfunctional. Hamlet often feels like she's ignored and standing in the shadow of her genius little sister. Her parents ask Hamlet to make sacrifices to accomodate Desi's schedule, and when things get broken at home it's automatically assumed that Hamlet (or one of her friends) must have done it, because Desi's too perfect. Lots of siblings will be able to relate to that!

The romance is well handled as well. Hamlet has a major crush, but that doesn't overshadow the rest of her life. The secret admirer is fun, and the best friend crush is horrendously and delightfully awkward.
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