Monday, May 31, 2010

Month in Review: May

Too all my US readers: Hope you're enjoying Memorial Day! For me this is day four of a long weekend - the longest break I've had from work since my wedding last year! I got Friday off after working my tail off during Book Expo. Yes, while other bloggers were enjoying the BEA floor and the following Book Blogger Con, I was just a few blocks away - so close yet so far - helping sell books in our showroom. I heard lots of great stories coming out of both conventions and was definitely jealous!

Here on the blog I've made 21 posts this month. Not as good as April, but that averages out to 5 posts a week so I can't complain too much! Most posts were reviews this month, as I'm still trying to work through the backlog of books I've read yet haven't reviewed. On average it's taking me 3-4 weeks between reading and posting a review. Ridiculous, I know! I'm getting closer to being caught up, though; I only have about 6 books read that I haven't reviewed yet as of right now. And that never ending library stack? Down to 21 books out (at the end of last month it was 24). It's not all the same books every month - I just have such a constant stream of books coming in on request that every time I go to return a few, there are more to pick up!

This month was super exciting for me because for the first time an author contacted me to ask me to review a book! Lyn Miller-Lachman e-mailed me about Gringolandia and offered to send me a copy for review since she knew my local library, Queens Library, hadn't been able to buy it yet (word is that problem has now been corrected). She also told me about the Inspired by True Crime panel she was speaking on at the Battery Park City library. It was a great panel and I'm so glad I got to go, not only to hear the authors but also to get Gringolandia signed and host my very first giveaway! There's still time to enter.

I also read (or at least reviewed!) some of my favorite books of the year. Guardian of the Dead is easily the most feminist book I've read since The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks - in spite of the huge, glaring flaw of how down on herself Ellie is about her appearance. That was quite frustrating. Some of the other highlights were The Sky is Everywhere and Sprout - which, if you didn't see my tweet about it, did win the Lambda Literary award for Children's/YA books! Soooooooooo happy that such a deserving book won!

Back in my March review I mentioned that I'd given up on my first book of the year - and this month I gave up on my second. I waited for months to get Shiver, the much-hyped werewolf romance book, but after only a handful of chapters I found myself so bored I had to put it down. It's still a seriously hot title so I could only check it out for a week, and with so many other books clamoring for my attention, I just decided to return it and let someone else take a crack at it. On the whole, the paranormal romance genre just isn't for me - or any romance novel, really. I like stories where the romance is a subplot (if it's there at all - seriously, more stories without romance would suit me just fine!), rather than the entire plot.

Coming up this month: I'm a judge in the first round of the Nerds Heart YA tournament! I'm judging with Arch Thinking - look for our decision June 15th!

Review: Voices of Dragons by Carrie Vaughn

Found via: Publisher's Weekly 2/22

As a kid, I loved, loved, loved the movie Pete's Dragon. And yet I don't read a lot of dragon stories. Probably because none will ever be as cool as Eliot. This continues to hold true in Voices of Dragons, but I won't hold that against the book (Eliot leaves quite large footprints to fill).

Movies tell us that after the nukes went off in WWII, Godzilla rose from the depths to go on his roaring rampage of revenge on Tokyo. In Voices of Dragons, replace "Godzilla" with dragons and "Tokyo" with everywhere, and you have the basic origin story of why there are dragons flying over 21st century Montana. When the dragons realized the humanity had progressed far beyond the medieval weaponry of the last time they'd lived together, and that now any battles would be a war of attrition between dragons and airplanes, the dragons made a truce with the humans, agreeing to remain within their designated territories, and never to bother humans again.

Fast forward roughly 60 years to the 21st century and the Montana town that is closest to the border with Dragon. Kay Wyatt is used to spending time on her own, since her father is the town sheriff and her mother works with Border Enforcement, monitoring the border to ensure no dragons (or humans) violate the treaty. On one of Kay's many hiking trips she takes alone, one misstep sends her plummeting into the river that marks the border. When she's rescued, she finds herself on the wrong side of the border, facing a giant dragon - her rescuer. Artegal is essentially just a teenager himself and has a fascination with humans - not as food, but wanting to learn English. Kay is terrified, after a lifetime of stories about the viciousness of dragons, but she and Artegal begin a tentative friendship, she teaching him English while he shares his knowledge of how humans and dragons used to live in harmony.

When the border is breeched again - this time by US military aircraft - tensions begin to mount again. Dragon drills at school increase, as does surveillance on both sides of the border. Both Kay and Artegal are convinced that their friendship and knowledge of ancient dragon lore is all that can stop all-out war from breaking out again.

Usually I don't pay too much attention to what point of view a story is written in - lots of YA books are being written from first person these days, but how much of a difference would it really make if some of those stories switched to third? Voices of Dragons is a third person novel, which makes it stick out a bit in the first place, but for the first time I totally felt it was the wrong perspective for the story. When Kay actually has the chance to fly by riding on Artegal's back, it should be an absolutely thrilling scene and we should be able to almost feel her fear and exhilaration. While all the right descriptions are there, telling this story in third person added a distance that definitely didn't need to be there.

But POV aside, this was a fun adventure story. I loved watching Artegal's and Kay's relationship build from wariness to affection. The ending clearly sets the stage for a sequel, though unlike other genre series we've seen lately, there's no release date set and the book hasn't even been started, so who knows how long we'll have to wait to see where Kay's and Artegal's adventures take them next.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Meme: Show Me 5 Saturday

Hosted by That's a Novel Idea

Each Saturday You will post the answer to these questions about a book you read or reviewed in the last week. The number indicates the number of answers you will provide.

1 Book you read and/or reviewed this week: Gringolandia
2 Words that describe the book: Rediscovering family
3 Settings where it took place or characters you met:

  • Santiago, Chile
  • Madison, Wisconsin (in winter! About as different from Chile as possible)
  • Daniel Aguilar - son of a protester against the dictator Pinochet, reunited with his father after six years

4 Things you liked and/or disliked about it:

  • LIKED: Historical fiction about people of color!
  • LIKED: Historical fiction about people of color that isn't slavery/civil rights movement!
  • LIKED: Complicated look at doing the "right" thing
  • LIKED: Brutal look at torture (so "liked" is a relative term here)

5 Stars or less for your rating? 3 stars

Be sure to check out my giveaway of Gringolandia!

Friday, May 28, 2010

Book Blogger Hop

I was given today off of work at the last minute (which is why I'm at home in my PJs blogging from my couch rather than at the Book Blogger Con across town!). So while I'm bummed I'm not at the con, I am glad I've finally had a chance to jump in to the Book Blogger Hop!

Book Blogger Hop logo

Hosted by Jennifer at Crazy For Books, the Book Blogger Hop is a "weekly book party [and] is an awesome opportunity for book bloggers to connect with other book lovers, make new friends, support each other, and generally just share our love of books!"

Here are the new blogs I found this week:
Mel's Books and Info - Drew me in with her review of Birthmarked (I reviewed it last week)
The Bodacious Pen - has an awesome blog title ('bodacious' will always remind me of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, which is awesome) and has a lot of interesting discussion posts. She's been doing Armchair BEA this week and definitely has some interesting stuff to check out!
A Reader's Adventure - I'm always love finding YA review blogs that are written, y'know, by teenagers. I'm always amazed that most of the bloggers I read are fellow adults. Yay for teen bloggers!

If you're here via the hop, please leave a comment! I'd love to meet you! As a heads up, I'm hosting my first giveaway this week: a signed copy of Gringolandia. Open to anyone in the US - just answer a fun question in the comments!

Review: By the Time You Read This, I'll be Dead by Julie Anne Peters

Found via: Best Fiction for Young Adults 2011 nominations

So Julie Anne Peters is quickly racing up my informal "favorite authors" list. Last year I loved the under-appreciated Rage and now she's taken on another sensitive and timely topic in By the Time You Read This, I'll be Dead.

Daelyn has had enough. After her last suicide attempt robbed her of her voice and forced her into a neck brace, she is determined that the next attempt will be successful. She finds the website Through the Light, which is for "completers" - people who are determined to kill themselves. The site provides support and ranks suicide methods by categories such as ease of completion and pain involved. The site also asks new members to choose the day they will complete their suicide, setting the minimum at 23 days away. Daelyn chooses the minimum, and so her countdown begins.

Daelyn continues to go through the motions of her daily life, showing up to school where she's the freak who won't talk, and quietly clearing out her closets and shelves to spare her parents the pain of getting rid of her things. Most of her communication is online, reading blog posts on Through the Light and contributing her own, revealing that she has been a victim of bullying for as long as she's been in school, targeted usually for her weight. Until one day after school, while waiting for her mom to pick her up, a boy named Santana sits down with Daelyn and begins talking to her. He's back the next day. And the next. Daelyn sends every signal she can that she doesn't want to befriend this strange homeschooled boy, but Santana is nothing if not persistent. As Daelyn's completion date nears, she finds herself struggling with fundamental decisions about trust, friendship, and just how valuable life may or may not be.

This is not exactly a happy, shiny novel, but it is a timely one. Suicide and bullying are all over the news these days, following the suicide of Phoebe Prince earlier this year. States are proposing anti-bullying laws in order to make sure they have the proper tools to deal with bullying (my home state of Michigan has even proposed one, and my hometown paper is all for it - even if they can't spell it in their headlines...). At the end of the book is a discussion guide - also found online at Through the Light (good job, Hyperion) - prompting readers to really think about bullying and connect Daelyn's struggles with what happens in their own schools.

I was very intrigued by the use of the website in helping Daelyn plan her suicide. The rules of the website explicitly state that it is a support group for those who are planning to kill themselves, and attempts to talk people out of it wouldn't be tolerated, which brings up some major free speech issues, doesn't it? And even this has a counterpart in real life - a former nurse is charged with assisting in two suicides after providing encouragement online.

Daelyn's voice is haunting, and reminds me in some ways of Melinda's in Speak, as both young women have been traumatized and react by not speaking (though Daelyn's silence is initially forced by an injury). Daelyn's story is painful and captivating as we glimpse not only pieces of the bullying she's endured, but the friendship the future may hold for her if she chooses to live. This is another highly recommended title that I hope gets lots of exposure.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Review: Sprout by Dale Peck

Found via: 2010 Lambda Literary Award finalist

Why, oh WHY aren't more people talking about this book?! Fantastic writing, awesome characters, a great twist on the coming-out story - oh, and green hair, which may or may not have been part of my attraction. Seriously, folks, this is a book you NEED to get reading!

Daniel "Sprout" Bradford moved from Long Island to Kansas after his mother's death on a whim of his father's. Sprout still isn't sure if Kansas was the destination all along or if it's just where his dad ran out of steam. In his new small, insular town, so different from Long Island, Sprout is immediately pegged as an outsider, different, even before anyone knows he's gay or he first starts dying his hair.

It's now Sprout's junior year of high school and the advanced English teacher, Mrs. Miller, has decided to stake her reputation for educating essay-contest-champions on Sprout, going with a junior to ensure she'll have a student with an unprecedented two wins in a row. Sprout spends much of the summer with Mrs. Miller while his best (only?) friend, Ruthie, is visiting Europe, practicing speed writing or writing essays under ridiculous constraints ("don't use the letter e") to prep his writing skills for the big essay contest.

The tutoring with Mrs. Miller continues even as she begins dating Sprout's washed up drunk of a father and into the school year, where Mrs. Miller manipulates Sprout's schedule to make sure he isn't influenced by lesser English teachers. Through Sprout's writing we also see him develop a new friendship with Ty, a small, wiry kid who lives just down the street from Sprout's trailer, and who possibly has more problems in his life than Sprout does.

I'm often asking for more novels that aren't about being gay, where a gay character can have adventures that are totally independent of his or her sexual orientation. I found Sprout to be a twist on that, because in some ways this novel is about being gay - it's just not necessarily Sprout who is struggling with this. In fact, Sprout seems to be 100% okay with himself, and we never see that there was any sort of doubt or questioning in his mind. His sexual orientation is just another part of who he is, like having green hair, and the struggles we see are from other characters, reacting either to Sprout's or their own sexuality.

(Side note about Sprout's green hair: what kind of dye is that kid using?! I've bought hair dye from Wal-Mart before; the only type that should be flaking off is the sort that washes out immediately. If it's the sort that requires bleaching hair and weekly root touch-ups, you're doing something totally wrong if it's flaking off and making you leave green finger prints everywhere. Sorry. Had to get that out of my system.)

This is a very wordy and self-aware novel. It's hard to tell when Sprout's stories are part of an essay and when they're just narration. Sprout is clearly an accomplished writer who has an in-character obsession with the dictionary, which gives Peck a reason to have Sprout using words that most teenagers wouldn't be able to use un-self-consciously. Also, since Sprout is aware that he has readers, Peck is able to slip in some masterful foreshadowing that totally ramps up the tension for the last third or so of the book. I swear it's just one line, but Sprout mentions that he hopes his current behavior will make us forgive him for the terrible stuff that he does later, and later on in the story the tension was almost unbearable for me as I waited for that "terrible stuff" to make an appearance. I absolutely love smart novels, ones that require the reader to step up to the challenge, rather than talking down to the reader.

So now I've read four of the five nominees in the children's/YA category of the Lambda Literary awards (the others being Ash, The Vast Fields of Ordinary and How Beautiful the Ordinary. The library still doesn't have P.E. Ryan's In Mike We Trust). The Lambda awards are being presented TONIGHT (and if tickets weren't $100, I would be there). I'll send out a tweet as soon as I know the winner (you are following me on Twitter, right?) and look for an update here on Friday (or Saturday, if I have a lot to say about the winner!).

Also, if you missed it yesterday, be sure to check out the Gringolandia giveaway posted yesterday!

GLBT Challenge

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Book Events: Inspired by True Crime at the New York Public Library PLUS a Giveaway!

When Lyn Miller-Lachman contacted me about reviewing Gringolandia, she also mentioned that on May 25th she'd be at the Battery Park City branch of the New York Public Library on a panel with two other authors, Andrew Xia Fukuda (Crossing) and Peter Marino (Magic and Misery and Doughboy). Even though the panel was scheduled to be right in the middle of BEA (aka, craziest time of the year at work), I worked through my tiredness yesterday and made it all the way down to Battery Park City for the panel.

The library was extremely hot and stuffy - summer is hitting New York but the library doesn't get to turn on its air conditioning until June 1st. A small group was gathered for the presentation and despite the fliers saying it was a talk for 12-18 year olds, it was just adults in attendance. Before the panel got started I introduced myself to Lyn and chatted with her for a few minutes and she introduced me to Pegi Deitz Shea, author of the upcoming Abe in Arms. I also met a few book publicists who I hope to catch dinner with as part of the Book Blogger Con festivities later this week.

But enough about me - let's get to the panel!

Peter spoke first, presenting us with the PowerPoint presentation the dean of his college has dubbed "death by PowerPoint." About halfway through the presentation, I was agreeing with the dean and wanted to point Peter towards the Slate article on how not to do PowerPoint presentations. He spoke about a 1999 incident in upstate New York where a 16 year old gay boy turned on his harassers after days of anti-gay harassment by hitting the other boys with a stick. As this was five months after Columbine, the school's zero tolerance policy was put into effect and he was suspended for months while the boys who harassed him escaped punishment. This set up some of the dynamics in his book Magic and Misery about a girl and her gay best friend.

Next the presentation detoured into talking about Dough Boy, with some statistics about obesity and bullying.

Then we were back onto LGBT bullying with statistics from the 2007 GLSEN School Climate Survey. He said that the results of the survey seemed more dire than what he heard was going on in schools - but his only point of evidence supporting his claim was that girls are going through "bi-phases" in high school and that's seen as okay. I really wanted to point out that of course girls acting bi is going to be seen as okay thanks to the sub-genre of lesbian porn, the aesthetics of which permeate our culture even if you aren't looking for it. Until it's okay for not-conventionally-attractive girls to identify as bisexual, or boys can walk down the hallway hand in hand without harassment, school culture is going to remain unsafe.

Ahem. Moving on.

Lyn spoke next, with her own PowerPoint presentation that was much more succinct than Peter's and was clearly tailored for this specific panel. She gave us a lot of stats on Chile and Pinochet's reign of terror. She showed us chilling drawings made by political prisoners documenting their torture. She also gave more background on the story of Rodrigo Rojas Denegri, which plays a small part in the story of Gringolandia.

Finally Andrew Xia Fukuda gave us a PowerPoint-free talk, explaining that when Lyn had first asked him to be part of the panel he didn't think his book was a great fit because there was no specific crime that inspired Crossing. However, the more he thought about it he realized that two very different crimes had, at least subconsciously, inspired him. First in 1997 while he was living in Japan, his city was terrorized by a knife-wielding lunatic who went from threatening school children with knives, to stabbing them and finally progressed to brutal murders. The entire city was on edge and the fear was almost palpable, much like the community in Crossing feels. The second inspiration came from the Virginia Tech Shootings. At the time Andrew was struggling with the book and felt his protagonist was missing something, and then the shooting happened and with it the news that the shooter was an Asian-American man. Andrew actually shelved the book and vowed to never publish it because at the time his protagonist was also a dark character who could be seen as supporting some of the worst Asian-American stereotypes a la the Virginia Tech shooter. But over the following weeks and months Andrew re-thought the character and figured out how to add subtleties and nuances to make him much more than just a stereotype, and gives us the book that is out today.

Next was Q&A time. I didn't write down every question and answer as usual because there was just too much going on, but when the inevitable inspiration question came up, Lyn shared a specific (non-criminal) incident that inspired Gringolandia. When she was living in Wisconsin in the '80s, she taught English to immigrants, mainly from Central and South America, including Chile. She also worked with a cultural group that sponsored artists and musicians from Central and South America, bringing them to the US to share their work both with the immigrant communities and to spread awareness to US citizens. At one point Lyn played host to a Chilean father and son musician pair - the father had been exiled from Chile when his son was just a boy. The boy's mother had chosen to stay in Chile with the kids, but when the son turned 18 he decided to join his father and study music. Lyn was hosting them when they were still getting reacquainted, which inspired the relationship Daniel and his father Marcelo have in the novel.

Andrew was asked how concerned he was by stereotypes while writing and got the biggest laugh of the evening when he said that Xing is a character not seen very often in YA lit: he's male, Asian and not a vampire. He said he didn't want to be preachy in the book and instead hoped he'd created a well-rounded enough character that he could stand on his own and influence readers to think beyond stereotypes.

When asked what do they hope readers take away from their novels, Peter said he wanted readers to see the truth of the characters and to have their eyes opened to situations and people they may never have thought of before. Lyn wants readers to be inspired to explore the world, which is how she signs her books, and to think about taking risks, both good and bad.

And that brings me to my first giveaway!

I've mentioned before that I live in a tiny apartment with minimal bookshelf space - that's why most of the books I review come from the library. So not only do I not need another book weighing down the shelves that I do have, but I think Gringolandia is a book that deserves to find new readers. So Lyn was gracious enough to sign the copy she had sent to me so I could give it away!

In order to win a signed copy of Gringolandia, leave a comment answering one of the following questions, inspired by Lyn's final answer on the panel last night:
1) Whats the biggest risk you've ever taken?
2) Where in the world would you most like to visit and explore?

Answer either (or both!) questions for a chance to win, and make sure to leave an e-mail address so I can contact you if you win! I can only ship to US addresses, unfortunately. I'll leave the contest open through Memorial Day (Monday, May 31st). The winner will be announced on Tuesday June 1st - chosen through a random number generator (answering the question is just to make the entries a little more interesting!).

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Review: Gringolandia by Lyn Miller-Lachmann

Found via: the author. Review copy received from the author

Somehow Gringolandia never made it onto my radar last year, even though it made the 2010 BBYA list. It's also now in the running for the Nerds Heart YA tournament (meaning I've now read 10 of the 32 nominated titles, lol). So when Lyn Miller-Lachman contacted me to ask if I wanted to review it (also graciously offering to send a copy to me since she knew my local library had never been able to get it) I was excited and happy to accept!

In October 1980, young Daniel Aguilar wakes up in the middle of the night to the sounds of soldiers - not uncommon in Pinochet's Chile, but this time they're inside his apartment, looking for his father, Marcelo. When they pull his father from hiding, they make Daniel watch as they deliver a bloody beating before carting the man away to prison.

Six years later, Daniel is now a junior in high school in Wisconsin. His mother escaped Chile with him and his sister in tow and have made a new life for themselves in Gringolandia, ironically the country that empowered the dictator responsible for Marcelo's imprisonment. Daniel's new life includes reggae music, playing Latin American songs in church, and dating the pastor's daughter, Courtney. Life is turned upside down, however, with the sudden news that Marcelo's been freed and will be joining his family in the United States.

Six years in prison have left Marcelo a changed man - he was tortured and brutalized in prison, leaving half of his body partially paralyzed. He drinks to excess, alternately ignoring and berating his family. Before his imprisonment he was a great writer, but now every word is a struggle. He desperately wants to continue writing, telling his story and the stories of his fellow prisoners to encourage people to fight to remove Pinochet from power, but his injuries make it nearly impossible - until Courtney steps in. An AP Spanish student preparing to go to college in the fall, she is captivated by Marcelo's story and works tirelessly to re-write his stories and translate them into English. Daniel isn't sure what to think of his girlfriend becoming so involved in his father's life, but if it makes his father happy, Daniel will go along with it, hoping that the work will help heal his father and open up the opportunity for a real relationship again.

Once again, here's an historical fiction novel highlighting an aspect of history I knew next to nothing about. An author's note in the beginning gives the background on the dictator Pinochet's rise to power (Chile's elected president in 1970 was a socialist, which of course the US didn't like, so they supported a coup in '73 that brought in Pinochet) and the novel itself covers some of Marcelo's imprisonment and torture as well as efforts in the United States to free him and other political prisoners before finally giving us a brief look at life in Chile after Pinochet.

I found myself of two minds about this book. The story is absolutely compelling and fascinating and horrifying - but I never connected with Daniel or Courtney (who narrates a portion in the middle). They never really sounded like teenagers, I suppose, though they certainly had the impulsive actions of teenagers.

Also, there was a minor bit about Courtney that came up a couple of times that, as a native of Michigan, drove me up a wall. I have never heard of people in Michigan taking French in high school because we're "so close" to Canada. Michigan borders Ontario, which speaks English - it's when you get closer to Quebec that you have to start thinking of speaking French, and there's roughly 600 miles between Bloomfield Hills, MI (where Courtney is originally from) and Montreal, Quebec. I can't find a comprehensive biography of Miller-Lachmann, so I don't know if she grew up in Michigan and this was how people chose a high school language back when she lived here, or if it was conjecture, or what. But really, that's the only specific criticism I have here - and she gets kudos for realizing that in Wisconsin they drink pop :-)

So while the bit about French was annoying, and the characters weren't the most relateable I've read about, the compelling story kept me going forward and I can definitely appreciate the positive reviews and accolades this has received so far. I'll definitely be interested to see how far this progresses in the Nerds Heart YA tournament!

Tonight I'm planning on seeing Lyn Miller-Lachmann speak with Peter Marion and Andrew Xiu Fukuda at the Battery Park City library where they will be speaking about the real crimes that inspired their books. I can't wait!

Monday, May 24, 2010

The Sky is Everywhere by Jandy Nelson

Recommended by Cindy who sold me on it by saying "Humor, grief, sexy bits"

I apologize profusely for taking so darn long to post this review. This was the first thing I read back during the read-a-thon, having only a quarter of the book left to finish at the beginning of the day and desperately needing to finish it before I started on anything else. Why has it taken me so long to write this review? Because the read-a-thon was when my books read to books reviewed ratio started to get skewed and I just lost track of this one for awhile.

But no longer!

Lennie and Bailey are sisters who've been inseparable for as long as Lennie can remember. Abandoned by their mother when Lennie was only two, they've grown up with Gram, an artist who only paints with the color green and grows the most beautiful roses in town, and Uncle Big, a man in love with love, and they've been a content, if idiosyncratic, family for years.

Until Bailey dies suddenly of an arrhythmia. Lennie feels like she's lost without her beautiful and talented older sister around. Gram and Big both fret over Lennie, trying to support her while also letting her heal and grieve in her own way. To add to Lennie's disorientation, she finds that after a lifetime of indifference to boys, sex is suddenly on her mind all of the time, leading her alternately into the arms of her sister's boyfriend and the handsome new French boy in her music classes, in an attempt to reconnect with the world again.

I should note that Cindy's full recommendation of this read "Humor, grief, sexy bits, a reefer smoking uncle and a painter gram (who is made of awesome) and random poetry, a forest bed and band geeks. Doesn't get much better." I couldn't agree more, and that one sentence really does sum up all of the wonderful aspects of this novel. All of the characters were beautifully drawn, even the adults (who often get the short end of the stick in YA books). I love that Uncle Big still loves the idea of romance after five divorces, and fully believes that the roses Gram grows cause people to fall in love.

The snippets of poetry throughout the novel are absolutely inspired. Each chapter begins with a piece of Lennie's poetry written on any number of found objects - receipts, coffee cups, park benches - if she can leave her words on it, Lennie will find a way.

Lennie's relationships are absolutely heartbreaking and totally real. Sometimes she isn't the easiest person to like, because the rational part of my mind says making out with two different guys and lying about it is uncool, but at the same time my heart was breaking for her - Lennie has lost so much in her life, is it so wrong that she wants all of the love she can get at this time?

Definitely one of the top books of the year - you absolutely have to seek this one out!

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Book Links: Roundup, 5/22

I hope to start making this a weekly or bi-weekly feature, highlighting some of the other great book blogger writing that is going on around the internet! This inaugural post is just going to be a catch-all for some of the links that have been accumulating in my Google Reader, but soon it will be more regular.

Last weekend, a great review of Fire was posted at Confessions of a Bibliovore. I absolutely loved Fire and have been shocked at some of the accusations that it's "too adult" with the reasoning being that Fire mentions her period (and that is related to how monsters respond to her). I really like the observation here that Fire isn't necessarily a YA book in the 12-18 sense the marketing category is usually defined as, but rather a book for young adults at the upper end of the teen spectrum and into their early 20s.

I love the What a Girl Wants series that is posted at Chasing Ray. May 11th was the most recent post, asking the panel "what novel (or novels) do you wish you had read the summer before your senior year in high school?" I definitely consider myself fortunate that Colleen's pick, Empress of the World came out while I was in high school (summer before junior year for me).

I've been following Weekly Geeks for months now but never seem to find the time to actually answer a question. This week's is a character comparion - a book character you're like, one you're the total opposite of, or one you wish you were like.

Liz at Tea Cozy is just cruel posting a teaser six months before the rest of the world gets to read this book: Mockingbirds. Totally love that a book is coming out dealing with issues of sex and consent; the vigilante justice aspect makes me a little nervous, however. This is the same reason I've avoided The Naughty List so far. I can't rationally explain it, but something about the concept weirds me out. However I probably will be picking up Mockingbirds in November.

At Reading in Color, Ari reviewed Love is the Higher Law, which I reviewed back in November. When I reviewed it I wondered how it would resonate with current teenagers who were only kids when 9/11 happened. Ari's review answers that question :-)

In case you missed it when this was going around the internet earlier this week, be sure to check out the Ghostbusters busting some ghosts in the New York Public Library's reading room:

Finally, the Nerds Heart YA tournament is getting started - and I'm one of the first round judges! This tournament highlights books that didn't get much blog love over the last year, with a special emphasis on books highlighting disability and mental illness, characters of color, religion and LGBT stories. Look for a post here on June 15th!

Friday, May 21, 2010

Review: Possessed by Kate Cann

Found via: Lynn Rutan at Bookends

I like Lynn's warning on this one - clear your schedule because you're not going to want to put this one down. A gripping paranormal mystery, spooky villagers, and romance with just the right amount of danger.

Rayne Peters feels trapped. She lives in a tiny apartment in noisy London with her mom who constantly relies upon her to babysit her little brother. She spends her few free moments with her boyfriend, who is increasingly controlling and pressuring Rayne to have sex. Just as it's all getting to be too much, and with a long summer about to begin, Rayne sees a job posting for a waitressing position in a remote country manor house. When Rayne visits for her interview, she's a little creeped out by the old house and the staff, but its blessedly quiet. She takes the job.

The more time she spends at Morton's Keep, however, the creepier it gets. The manor has a dark history, with periodic outbreaks of sadism and violence, and Rayne can feel a dark and foreboding presence that seems to be increasing. Her one distraction from her work and sense of dread is St. John, a local boy who is so unlike her controlling ex-boyfriend, and his group of friends, all of whom are interested in the dark hidden history of Morton's Keep.

This novel had two huge pluses for me right off the bat: first, Rayne recognizes that her first boyfriend is a total controlling creep and she needs to kick him to the curb. Second, Rayne is bi-racial, making this the first paranormal romance I've read with a non-white protagonist. I don't believe Rayne's ethnicities are ever specifically named, but there are multiple references to her dark skin and she openly identifies as bi-racial, even if she never goes into more detail. Both points we need waaaaaaaaaaaaay more of in YA. I loved St. John as the new boyfriend because he was a perfect example of having a dark and edgy "bad boy" love interest without actually making him into an abusive guy (and a lot of the danger just comes from the reader being genre savvy - at this point most of us have read enough paranormal and horror stories to recognize when someone is acting strangely).

In addition to Rayne and the romance, the atmosphere of this book is palpably creepy. The old manor house filled with ancient trinkets, including a pair of gloves embroidered with tortured human faces and the comb Anne Boleyn wore to her execution, and the surrounding woods are described in chilling detail. If you stay up past midnight finishing this one, you might find that you won't be sleeping any time soon!

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Review: Birthmarked by Caragh M. O'Brien

Found via: Publisher's Weekly 2/15

More dystopian fiction! Can we ever get enough of this stuff? I have to admit, that for all my enthusiasm for the answer is "maybe." The problem when the market becomes saturated with a genre is that new additions have to work so much harder to stand out from the rest of the crowd, and I'm not sure Birthmarked is up to that task.

An accident as an infant condemned Gaia to a life of poverty, hunger...and the love of her birth parents. In Wharfton, every month a certain number of babies must be "advanced" for the good of the Enclave; taken from their birth mothers and given to adoptive families inside who will ensure the child will never want for anything. When Gaia was born, the infants got to live with their parents for their first year before going into a lottery, but after a severe wax burn left Gaia with scars all along the left side of her face she was no longer eligible. Now Gaia is 16 and working as a midwife alongside her mother; the new requirements for advancement call for the first three babies a midwife delivers in a month to be delivered to the Enclave within 90 minutes of their birth.

Gaia has always been unwaveringly loyal to the Enclave - until her parents are arrested in the middle of the night, accused of treason. Gaia narrowly escapes arrest as well, and continues her mother's work outside of the wall, until she hears of her parents' impending execution. Gaia sets out on a nearly impossible rescue attempt, which seems to be thwarted at every turn, but as Gaia is convinced of the rightness of her mission, she refuses to give up.

A lot of life in the Enclave made me think of this as sort of a pre-Handmaiden's Tale. Citizens of the Enclave are increasingly infertile or are carrying debilitating genetic diseases due to generations of inbreeding, leading to the need to take in babies from the outside. I could definitely see the society veering towards Gallahad-ian policies if the birthrate continued to fall - they even already have a class of women who dress exclusively in red! (Though it seems to connote more about their status in society than their fertility)

But even that is a sign of how reductive parts of this book are. There's very little here we haven't seen here before. The bits about inbreeding do add a bit of freshness to the story, as it would be a very real danger for insular societies, but that isn't enough to really keep the momentum of the story going.

I also had a huge, huge problem with the romance. It felt soooooooo forced, like O'Brien got halfway through the book and thought, "Oops, YA books need romance. Quick! Have that boy kiss Gaia!" I exaggerate, but not by terribly much. Authors, I promise you: we don't actually *need* romances in our YA books - sometimes the focus of the story really should remain elsewhere, and you should keep your male and female leads platonic. Those who want/need romance will read sexual tension into the relationship anyway, and sometimes UST can be more satisfying than any on-screen romance (see: X-Files).

I do have to admit, though, I was very excited to realize this was set around the Great Lakes - Wharfton is near Unlake Superior, as the environmental disaster didn't even leave that massive lake unscathed. Whether Wharfton is in present-day Michigan, Wisconsin or Canada isn't revealed, but I like the idea of the upper peninsula becoming a desert wasteland, so I'm going with Michigan ;-)

I suspect this is a great story for those who haven't spent the last year and a half reading every single piece of dystopian literature that's been published. For those of us who are well-versed in the genre, however, there's really nothing substantially new to see here.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Review: Of All the Stupid Things by Alexandra Diaz

Found via: I'm Here, I'm Queer, What the Hell do I Read?

Oh, I wanted to love this one so much. A lesbian romance and coming out story, three girl friends, sports...this had so much going for it on paper, but it falls apart in the execution.

Whitney Blaire, Pinkie and Tara are an inseparable trio of best friends, each quietly wrestling with her own problems. Whitney Blaire is beautiful and rich, but her parents are never around and don't care what she does with herself while she's away. Tara is a star athlete who uses running as a way to block out thoughts of the father that abandoned her when she was little. Pinkie is also missing a parent, her mother who died when Pinkie was a child, and overcompensates by acting as a neurotic mother hen to her two best friends. When Whitney Blaire and Pinkie tell their best friend Tara her boyfriend has been caught fooling around with one of the male cheerleaders, Tara is (naturally) crushed. In the middle of intensive marathon training, Tara doesn't have the time or the energy to handle such a bombshell, and quickly breaks it off, even after Whitney Blaire tries to recant the gossip.

Tara throws herself into her training, until she meets Riley, the new girl in school who's a fellow athlete (a gymnast). With her long black hair and fearless attitude, Tara finds herself drawn to Riley, and discovers she has feelings for the gymnast she's never had for another girl before. As Whitney Blaire and Pinkie discover the depths of this new relationship, they struggle with their own feelings, and what this new revelation might mean for their trio.

There are a ton of subplots going on in this book. Which means it never gets dull, but also means there are some things that don't get as much attention as they deserve. Though I have to say, Pinkie's subplot about dealing with her mother's death, even years and years later, was exceptionally well done. The circumstances behind her mother's death are revealed slowly throughout the story, so that once we know all of the facts some of Pinkie's neuroses make perfect, painful sense.

While I enjoyed the romance between Tara and Riley, I though the opening bit about Tara's boyfriend possibly sleeping with another guy was totally cheap and Tara's reaction was way too sudden. You don't dump your long term boyfriend because of an unsubstantiated rumor like that - without even confronting the guy about it! - unless you've long suspected there's been some hanky panky going on behind your back. Tara hears the rumor, and almost immediately finds said boyfriend and dumps him with next to no explanation. With an opening like that, it was hard to have a lot of desire to stick around for the rest of the story.

Overall I thought Whitney Blaire's and Pinkie's reactions to Tara's and Riley's relationship were good, with one reacting mildly-to-moderately homophobically, and the other accepting Tara with a shrug. I would have liked to have a little more nuance to the homophobic reaction, however. It was great to have a character that had been built up for us as a sympathetic character suddenly have a glaring character defect of homophobia, but it was such a sudden change that my mind was reeling as before the big reveal there was absolutely no clue she could be so harsh and judgmental.

This is Diaz's debut novel, and while Of All the Stupid Things isn't the strongest novel ever, my interest is piqued and I look forward to seeing what else she does.

GLBT Challenge

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Review: Fever Crumb by Philip Reeve

Found via: Publisher's Weekly 2/15

When I saw this reviewed for Publisher's Weely, I vaguely recognized the author's name, but was more fixated on the description of "future steampunk" and happily put this on my TBR list. It wasn't until I saw Lynn & Cindy's review that I realized this was a prequel to another series that I've never read. Their review was published the day I started reading, coincidentally, so I was quite excited to dive in.

Fever Crumb was abandoned as an infant and discovered by the always-rational Dr. Crumb of the Order of Engineers. Dr. Crumb (quite reasonably) decided he couldn't leave the tiny babe bearing just the note HER NAME IS FEVER out in the wilds amidst the social unrest of the time, so he chose to raise her and make her the first female to join the ranks of the Order.

As a teenager, Fever is assigned to be a field apprentice to archeologist Kit Solent, a former Engineer who has specifically requested Fever's help in uncovering a major find related to the Scriven, the former overlords of London who believed they were the next step in human evolution but were overthrown around the time Dr. Crumb found Fever. Unfortunately for Fever, once she steps outside the safety of the Order, her differently colored eyes are considered the mark of a Scriven and a bounty is put on her head. While Kit tries to protect her, she's also troubled by the memories their work seems to be uncovering - memories that aren't her own and leave her with more questions than answers. Who are Fever's parents? Could she really be part Scriven? And where have these mysterious memories come from?

I have to say, Reeve has a way with words. His descriptions are totally unique, and he's filled the dialogue with excellent bits of slang. I have to admit, I was very amused to see that in this future "blog" is a four-letter word. The world is filled with steampunk-ish creations, only instead of Victorians developing technology well ahead of schedule, this is a future where all of our technology has fallen to ruin and people are trying to reverse-engineer it to work on alternate power sources or with alternate materials as oil and the like are no longer an option.

No where on the book is it described as a prequel to the Mortal Engines quartet, so it's clearly intended to be able to stand alone, however once I knew it was a prequel, I found myself questioning everything and wondering what was going to turn out to be important in the other series. I think because I didn't have the knowledge of the other series I can't count this as one of the best of the year, as Lynn and Cindy do. While the story definitely holds up on its own, I bet knowing the other books makes this for a much richer read. As it is, it's a wholly enjoyable science fiction title, and I'm definitely interested in reading more of Fever's adventures.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Review: Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green & David Levithan

Today is the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia. Unlike other "international" action days, judging by their website this truly is an international event, with leaders in the EU recognizing today, rather than being an American-based project that welcomes participation from overseas. Yeah internationalism! I figured there was no better way to promote a day defending against hatred than highlighting a book that is about love in all of its forms.

Will Grayson has been best friends since 5th grade with Tiny Cooper - who is either the world's largest gay man or the gayest man in the world who is large (the name is ironic). While Will would prefer nothing more than to blend into the woodwork (his two life rules are 1. don't care and 2. shut up), with Tiny around that is effectively impossible. Tiny falls in love approximately once an hour, is determined that Will should be in love too, and is writing an epic musical about his life: Tiny Dancer: the Tiny Cooper Story.

On the other side of Chicago lives another will grayson, who writes all in lower case as a sign of his existential angst (or an easy way to tell the alternating Wills apart if you're cynical). will is gay, though about as closeted as Tiny is out. He has only one friend in real life, the extremely fragile and manipulative Maura, but online an epic romance is blossoming with a boy named Isaac. will's life looks like it may finally be looking up when he and Isaac decide to meet in Chicago.

Once in Chicago, will doesn't find the boy he was looking for - instead running into his namesake, Will Grayson, and being absorbed into the orbit of Tiny Cooper whether he wants to be or not. What follows is an adventure almost as epic as Tiny Dancer about the meaning of life, friendship, and love, platonic and romantic and everything in between.

First of all, I demand that the libretto of Tiny Dancer be released in full. I don't care whether it's only released as an e-book or maybe Green & Levithan could write it for charity a la JK Rowling and her Hogwarts school books, but Tiny Dancer is clearly a masterpiece that deserves its day in the sun. Also I have to thank Green & Levithan for giving me a book that so clearly shows what it's like to be in theatre without making me sit through Shakespeare.

Tiny Cooper is seriously a revelation as a character. Rarely do we meet someone who is love with life but also has deeper layers that are revealed as the story goes on. At first it looks like Tiny is going to be on big (sorry) stereotype, jolly and partying and breaking out into song at the drop of a hat, but it's clear even before we get to see Tiny Dancer that there's a lot more to Tiny than being fabulous. Part of me wants to see a book about him, but in a way Will Grayson, Will Grayson already is, as he's such a major catalyst in the lives of everyone around him - and it's clear they affect him as well (a true sign that someone is more than just a caricature).

While on the one hand having will grayson write all in lower case seems like a cheap and easy way to differentiate the two Wills, the way the two boys talk and think is really what makes the alternating chapters work. Just a few sentences into the first will grayson chapter made me feel like all the air had been sucked out of the room (or subway car, as it were). Will Grayson seems to love life in comparison to will. will can get a bit "woe is me" dramatic at times, but so can Will, and if you can't be melodramatic at 16, when can you be?

As I said above, this is a novel that is about love. There are hookups and breakups throughout the story, and those are certainly a type of love, but really this story is about the type of love that binds people together, whether you want to be or not. After you've been through a lifetime of ups and downs (or even if it only feels like it's been a lifetime), you develop a bond with another person that can't be broken easily. I couldn't help but grin when Will would declare that he loves Tiny (in a totally platonic sense) because we don't see people (especially boys) talk about their friends and family in such a way very often. I've said this is why I love the show Glee, because every time Kurt's dad shows up we're guaranteed at least one "I love you" that you don't really see anywhere else - on what other TV show do you have a father and son who will hug each other and cry and talk explicitly about their feelings? Will and will and Tiny never get quite to that point, but there is a lot of open talk about love, which is absolutely the message the world needs to hear.

GLBT Challenge

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Double Review: The Dark Days of Hamburger Halpin by Josh Berk and All Unquiet Things by Anna Jarzab by

Hamburger Halpin found via Publisher's Weekly 1/18
All Unquiet Things found via Tea Cozy

On the surface it looks like I'm stretching for this Double Review pairing, but hear me out! While The Dark Days of Hamburger Halpin is a dark comedy and All Unquiet Things is a noir-ish murder mystery, at the center of both stories is the murder of a young classmate. How each novel handles that murder, and tracking down the killer, however, couldn't be more different.

In The Dark Days of Hamburger Halpin, the Will "Hamburger" Halping has decided it's time to ditch "deaf school" and join mainstream classes at the local high school. He's fairly adept at reading lips, but being new, disabled, and overweight all combine to work against Will when it comes to making friends. His only social prospect is perpetual dweeb Devon Smiley. Will does his best to ignore Devon, despite the latter's eager attempts at communication, including learning to finger spell and sign some basic phrases so Will doesn't have to read his lips all the time. The two join forces and forge a friendship in the aftermath of a tragic accident at a coal mine during a school trip where a popular classmate died. Or was it an accident? Will and Devon take it upon themselves, roping in Ebony, Devon's friend from his deaf school days (and who just narrowly avoids falling into the "sassy black friend", to solve the crime, relying on Will's & Ebony's lip reading abilities to surreptitiously gather information. Their investigation takes them through all the rungs of the high school social ladder, uncovering secrets and petty gossip the popular kids would rather remain quiet, until the startling reveal of whodunnit.

All Unquiet Things also has a murder at its center: Carly, Neily's ex-girlfriend and Audrey's cousin. Months after Carly's murder, Neily has come to terms with her death (as well as you can when someone you love has been brutally murdered) - until Audrey shows up in school again after an extended absence, saying that her father - Carly's uncle - wasn't guilty, and she wants Neily's help to uncover the true suspect. Through alternating sections, we see the investigation unfold through Neily's and Audrey's perspectives as the two start sticking their noses where they don't belong, tangling with teenage drug dealers and stalkers, while trying to uncover the motive and the guilty party that snatched Carly from their lives all too soon.

I enjoyed Hamburger Halpin for about 99% of the book - until the murderer and motive was revealed. My dislike of the conclusion was only heightened after reading All Unquiet Things which took a very similar tactic and treated it with seriousness and respect. I'm trying to be circumspect here so as not to spoil the ending for either book, but the murderer and motivation in Hamburger Halpin feels totally out of place in a comedic book. I'm all for dark comedy, but the conclusion comes out of nowhere and the very serious motivation is treated like an afterthought that just totally ruined the end.

All Unquiet Things, on the other hand, builds the mystery slowly over the course of the book, with multiple suspects investigated, so that when the big reveal is finally made it feels like we've really been on the investigation with Neily and Audrey. The final few scenes at the climax are tremendously tense and were everything a person could ask for in a dramatic murder mystery.

In Hamburger Halpin's favor, I did enjoy reading about a deaf protagonist, even if I felt the communication difficulties were overcome rather quickly. Until Devon procures smartphones for text messaging for both of them, a lot of communication is done via notebook paper. Have you ever tried to carry on a conversation by writing everything down? It drives you crazy (I did this in high school during the Day of Silence). Also I thought it was a little convenient that Will rarely missed important words while lip reading. Luckily, Will is a fun character, so I didn't mind spending so much of the book inside of his head with just his observations to carry the story until he and Devon become friends.

Has anyone else read either title? What did you think of the big reveals?

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Review: The Dead-Tossed Waves by Carrie Ryan

Consider this post not just another book review, but an important public service announcement: May is Zombie Awareness Month. Please take the time this month to check on your provisions (remember: knives don't need to be reloaded) and review your escape routes and safety zones with your loved ones.

Thank you.

The Dead-Tossed Waves is the sequel/companion novel to Ryan's Forest of Hands and Teeth, which I didn't review but did summarize a few of my thoughts on here after the Post-Apocalyptic Teen Fiction panel last fall. At this point, I really think my problem with Forest of Hands and Teeth was I wasn't paying attention to the genre: I wanted a straight up horror novel but Ryan was writing post-apocalyptic romance. Since I knew what I was going to get this time around, I found The Dead-Tossed Waves to be much more enjoyable.

The protagonist this time around is Mary's daughter, Gabry, safely living in the town of Vista that Mary stumbled upon at the end of the last novel. Gabry is a bit of a coward, there's no other way to put it. While Mary was constantly wondering what was outside of the chain link fence of her home village, Gabry is terrified to climb over the fence that protects Vista. Unfortunately for Gabry, none of the other teenagers in town feel the same way, and during one excursion over the fence into the abandoned amusement park, tragedy strikes as a Breaker (one of the fast zombies we were introduced to in the first novel) attacks, and Gabry is the only one to escape unscathed before the authorities show up, ready to punish all of the surviving teens for blatantly violating Vista's rules.

Gabry is torn on whether to turn herself in, and her indecision only heightens when she discovers her crush, Catcher, may not have died in the attack after all. Venturing out again on her own, she relies on the help of the mysterious Elias to find her way through the ruins and avoid the suspicions of the authorities who are eager to send the batch of troublemakers off to serve in the army of the Protectorate - a virtual death sentence of zombie fighting. But all the rules and good intentions can't keep Vista safe forever, and before long Gabry finds herself in the same position her mother was in so many years ago: wandering aimlessly through a chain link maze, relying on cryptic letters as a guide, with only the faintest hope that safety lies at the end.

While I did enjoy this more than The Forest of Hands and Teeth, that's not to say this novel is perfect. For one thing, once Gabry and her companions are in the chain link path, I really felt like we'd just been transplanted to the reversed quest from the last book. But the first two thirds of the novel I thought were well done - it's a very introspective novel, and Gabry isn't really a noble protagonist, but it's her imperfections that endeared her to me. She's perfectly fine with the status quo (and while Vista's rules are strict, there are reasons behind them so it doesn't really slide into a Panem-style dystopia, so we don't have to dislike Gabry for not making waves) and she's a little bit of a scaredy cat. But really, when the dead have risen, isn't fear a natural reaction? It's the people who say they aren't afraid that scare me!

I also love, love, love Ryan's compromise between fast and slow zombies. And all of the different names zombies go by. In the last novel they were the Unconsecrated, which made sense considering how religious Mary's village was, and Mary continues to call them by that name (even though everyone thinks she's totally weird for doing so). Normal zombies in Vista are called Mudo, which I don't think is ever actually explained but probably stems from the fact most zombies in the area wash up from the ocean and are thus muddy? (Edit: Sami pointed out in the comments that 'Mudo' was actually explained at the end of the first book - it means speechless.) And then there are the Breakers, which are Ryan's answer to new-school fast zombies versus Romero-style slow zombies. Breakers are a biological evolution in zombies, where an infected person will turn into a Breaker if there aren't enough other zombies around, like how frogs will change their sex if the population isn't appropriately balanced. I thought it was awesome and a great explanation for why, even with a functional government and army in place, they haven't been able to wipe out zombies.

I'm not terribly enamored of the cover on this one, but rather than re-hashing that point, I'm going to direct you to Sami's post at Twisted Quill where her rundown covers most of my objections (and the one objection I had that she didn't list I mention in the comments).

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Review: Paper Daughter by Jeanette Ingold

Found via: Reading in Color

I picked this one up because I was interested in the journalism aspect of the story; it's simply coincidence that I'm posting my review during Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month.

In the aftermath of her father's death in a hit-and-run accident, Maggie Chen is helping her mother sort through his things when she starts uncovering startling inconsistencies. His old prep school and fraternity claim they've never heard of him. His notebooks have cryptic messages scribbled in the margins. An aspiring journalist, taking after her father, Maggie vows to delve deeper into the mystery. What she doesn't expect is to stumble upon a major criminal story in the course of her work as a newspaper intern that might just connect to her father's mysteries. But is it simply that her father was onto the same story? Or was the man lying about more than just his origins?

But this isn't just the story of Maggie and her father - this is also the story of Fai-yi Li, a 19th century Chinese immigrant whose story also plays a role in Maggie's life. As his story slowly unfolds, Maggie digs deeper into her father's past, until the stories intersect.

I like to think that I'm fairly well versed in history, but then I stumble across stories like this and I realize just how much there is that I don't know. I know that Chinese immigrants weren't treated well in the 19th century (because Americans really didn't treat any immigrants well at that point), but I didn't know about the Chinese Exclusion Act, which suspended legal Chinese immigration into the US for decades. The Act gave rise to "Paper Sons," Chinese immigrants who were allowed into the country because a Chinese-American citizen would claim the immigrant as a son (or daughter). Want more information on Asian immigration in this era? My friend Ay-leen the Peacemaker not only has a badass name, but runs the awesome steampunk project Beyond Victoriana and this past week's post was all about Asians in the Americas. (While the general focus of Beyond Victoriana is multi-cultural steampunk, many of Ay-leen's essays provide historical background for non-western cultures in the Victorian-ish era that are fascinating even outside of a steampunk context, hence the link this week)

I found the historical chapters to be a bit of a drag, and once Maggie starts researching the history of Chinese immigrants in Seattle the characters can get a little preachy - it's clear that Ingold did a lot of research and I'm sure it was insanely difficult for her to decide what there was room for in the story and what wasn't. The information she does include is fascinating, but I feel it doesn't roll out smoothly. But the journalistic thriller aspect of the story, as Maggie helps track down leads both about corruption in city hall and her father's secretive past, is fast paced and well done.

This is also an interesting novel on the immigrant experience, in part because that isn't the focus of the story. Many, many stories featuring non-white protagonists are about how the character doesn't fit in to mainstream America society and how different she or he is, but Maggie tells a fellow intern at one point that she doesn't necessarily think of herself as "ethnic" - she is aware of and proud of her Chinese heritage, but her family has been in the US basically "forever" so her primary identity is American. It is through the historical chapters with Fai-yi Li that we see what immigration was like for the Chinese on the Pacific coast.

On a closing note, continuing with my goal to not only shame publishers that white wash covers but to applaud those who accurately portray people of color, Harcourt wins for giving us an unambiguous Chinese model on the cover:

Monday, May 10, 2010

Review: Borrowed Names by Jeannine Atkins

Found via: Read Roger

More poetry! But I'm not too bothered I couldn't fit this in to National Poetry Month, as this collection is all about mothers and daughters. Well, three specific pairs of mothers & daughters: Laura Ingalls Wilder and daughter Rose Wilder Lane, Madame C.J. Walker and daughter A'Lelia Walker and Marie Curie and daughter Irene Joiliot-Curie. A perfect post-mother's-day book!

1867 was apparently a banner year, as that is the year the three mothers highlighted in this collection were born. The book is divided into three sections, each focusing on one mother/daughter pair, chronicling the daughter's life as she grows up, watching her mother, learning from her mistakes, and gaining inspiration for her own life. For the daughters are no slouches either: Rose Wilder Lane was a journalist and a biographer before helping her mother turn stories of her childhood into the Little House series; A'Lelia Walker used the fortune she earned as part of her mother's company to support the Harlem Renaissance; and Irene Joliot-Curie joined her mother as a WWI X-Ray technician, saving countless lives, before earning her own Nobel Prize, following in her mother's footsteps by studying radioactivity.

The poetry is well done, as is the biographical content. While I'm no expert on any of these women, Atkins doesn't pull any punches and shows both the ups and downs in these women's lives, including a troubled marriage for Rose and the sexism of the Nobel committee. This bit stuck out for me:
She remembers them taking a train to Sweden
where a woman might earn the Nobel Prize
but would be kept from speaking on the stage

Borrowed Names page 149

It's subtle but spot on, in the way that only poetry can be.

This is the sort of book I would have loved to have available for Ada Lovelace Day. Maybe someone else will pick it up for review next year. While I don't think this would be a replacement for a full biography on any of these women, it's certainly an interesting supplement, and really breathes life into these families in a way a standard biography never can.

Nonfiction Monday
Nonfiction Monday is hosted this week by Picture Book of the Day. Check out other great non-fiction posts going up today!

Women Unbound Challenge

Monday, May 3, 2010

Book Thoughts: Sharing Success Stories

99% of the reason I have a book blog is to share my thoughts on books with the rest of the world. I share the awesome, the not-so-awesome, and the downright painful, but almost always these thoughts are shared somewhat anonymously. Few of my readers know who I am outside of the blog, and rarely do I hear back from someone who has picked up a book based explicitly on my recommendation.

My recommendations don't get shared in real life too often as most of my real-life acquaintances aren't big YA readers (and if they are, they're probably already following the blog!). But last weekend while visiting family for a wedding, I got to impart some of my wisdom to people in real life, namely my dad. He was talking about some baseball stuff - I forget what exactly at this point - and I said he needed to read Brooklyn Nine by Alan Gratz. Not only was it one of my favorite books of the year, but I figured as a bit of a baseball history fan, he'd really get a kick out of watching the game evolve. Plus my dad isn't a huge reader, so I thought a series of short stories would go over well.

As we were wasting time waiting to drop me off at the bus stop after the wedding, my parents and I stopped at a Barnes & Noble, where Dad asked me to find Brooklyn Nine for him. He started reading it almost immediately (it was that or take a nap while Mom and I shopped for clothes - everyone once in awhile I go and do something girly like that!) and called me the other day to say he'd finished the book and he really did like it - though I think what he liked best of all was that I'd thought of him after reading it (parents can get sappy about that sort of thing).

So I wanted to throw this out to my blog readers - anyone else have some book sharing success stories? A time when someone came back to you after hearing your recommendation and said "Wow, you were right! Thanks!"?

Review: Guardian of the Dead by Karen Healey

This book pretty much has everything I love in it: a culturally diverse cast, myths and legends (with major bonus points because they are Māori myths, which I knew nothing about prior to reading this), casual talk of feminism, passes the Bechdel test, and no creepy co-dependent/stalker-y romance. Karen Healey may be my new hero.

When her mom's cancer goes into remission, Ellie's parents go on an around-the-world vacation, leaving Ellie in a strict private boarding school. Ellie is slow to make friends, but quickly bonds with Kevin - who she develops a crush on despite his asexual identity. After Kevin convinces her to put her tae kwon do skills to work choreographing epic fights for the local college's Māori-tinged production of Midsummer Night's Dream (there I go, reading another book with Midsummer in it), she quickly starts making friends inside and out of the play: Iris the underclassman director (no senior wanted to take on a play close to exams) and Mark, a quiet day student at her boarding school who is dreamy and handsome - and seems to be able to literally hypnotize her. Kevin also makes new friends - namely the mysterious Reka, playing the fairy queen Titania, who freaks Ellie out. Probably because her pupils have a habit of disappearing.

But Ellie has a few tricks up her sleeve as well, even if she doesn't know it at first. As Mark repeatedly tries to use his mystical powers to keep Ellie safe, she finds ways to break, or at least weaken, his spells - proving that she has some latent magical ability herself. And once this latent ability is revealed, she suddenly becomes a much more inviting target for the Eyeslasher Killer - a serial killer targeting those who have connections to magic and mysticism and takes their eyes as trophies.

Ellie is skeptical of her newfound abilities, but can't deny the evidence right in front of her. And after she and Mark learn of a plot to magically inspire an epic disaster, Ellie knows she has to at least try to stop it - or die trying.

Okay, there's so much to love here that I'm going to resort to bullet points, because otherwise this post will never be finished:

  • Diverse cast: Ellie is pretty much the only white, European-descendant character in the whole book. Kevin and Mark have Māori ancestry (though descriptions of them do read as more "white" than anything else), Ellie's favorite teacher is Eritrean (and has lived all around the world), Iris is Asian, and even descriptions of random people in crowd scenes are written to ensure we know that Ellie's world is incredibly diverse. No token ethnic folks here.
  • Māori myths: I knew nothing of Māori mythology before picking up this book. An authors note at the end explains what is based on true mythology and what Healey made up or adapted for dramatic purposes, which just piques my interest more!
  • Casual feminism: Feminism pops up all over the place here. Myths are called out as sexist for lack of female participants or blatant female subjugation. And here is something that just shocked me: a relationship is described as rape because one party wasn't fully aware of the identity of the other party. Magical person seduces human person without revealing the magical identity and Iris flat out calls that rape, since the human didn't consent to having sex with a magical person. This is the sort of conversation I never see outside of hardcore feminist arenas, so I was shocked that it just appeared in the middle of my urban fantasy YA book. Thus officially making Karen Healey my hero.
  • Passes the Bechdel Test: Ellie does spend most of her time hanging out with dudes, but there are two important female supporting characters: Iris and Professor Garibaldi, the Eritrean teacher. Ellie has numerous conversations with them that are not about boys (and it should be noted that neither character is white!)
  • Non-creepy romance: Well, okay, there is creepy romance in this book, but Ellie isn't part of it. When Mark starts using his magical skills on her, Ellie instantly forgets whatever conversation they had had, but because of her latent abilities she has a lingering sensation that despite how handsome and nice he seems, there's something weird about Mark, and rather than continuing to moon over him, she gets pissed until she gets some answers. The creepy relationship is between Reka and Kevin, where for once it's the woman who is the creepy stalker type and the boy who is going along with it (not that I'm condoning creepy relationships of any kind). However, everyone aside from Kevin recognizes there's something wrong and work to get to the bottom of it.
  • One more that I forgot at the top of this post: not just heterosexuals here! As mentioned above, before Reka shows up, Kevin identifies as asexual. Which is kind of awesome, because when was the last time you saw an asexual character in any book? It's one of the ways Ellie and Iris are sure that something weird is going on with Reka, because even though they both have a crush on Kevin they recognize that he is serious about his asexual identity - they don't think it's a phase or a lie so that he could get close to hot girls. Ellie's sister off in Australia is gay, which is part of the reason she's at boarding school while her parents are away - the implication is they were worried about Ellie catching "the gay" if she stayed with her sister for a year.

There's only one downside here: despite the feminism, Ellie has some major body image issues going on. Did we really need to be constantly reminded that she hates her body? Any time she has to change clothes she starts going off on how much she hates the rolls of fat around her belly. Considering how physically active she is in other parts of the book, it seems unlikely that she's actually significantly overweight. It was really disappointing to see that brought up multiple times for absolutely no purpose.

Okay, I'm putting an end to my list-making here. I think I've covered all of the main awesome points. To summarize: this is an awesome fantasy book with excellent progressive elements and I highly recommend it!

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Month in Review: April

Whew. After two months of falling short of my blogging goals, I picked the pace back up in April, posting 24 entries. Not bad at all, considering the last two weekends (when I do a lot of my blogging for the week) have been eaten up by family weddings - I actually only got back from the last one an hour and a half ago!

The good thing about traveling for those weddings was it meant I had plenty of reading time, first on the bus to and from Baltimore, and then as I flew back and forth from my husband's hometown in Ohio.

April was also a busy month for me as my husband and I joined a gym on April 1st (no foolin'!). I'm a pretty sedentary person by nature, but I've really been enjoying working out so far. My favorite time to go is first thing in the morning on Saturday and Sunday - after lifting some weights I get out my latest book and settle back on one of the stationary bikes to peddle for awhile. It's definitely helping me work through that pile of library books (which is still almost unmanageable. At the end of March I had 29 checked out. As of today I have 26).

April was also a busy month on various blogs, as we had the 24 hour read-a-thon, the top 100 children's books, library appreciation week, and then at least two controversial articles in the media, first about parents in YA lit, and then about one person's perception of a lack of rigor in blog reviews. It was also National Poetry Month, which doesn't really light my fire, but I read two verse novels and made sure they were reviewed before the month finished.

I read some really great and some really not-so-great books this month. The conclusion to the Last Survivors trilogy with This World We Live In, The Less-Dead and Out of my Mind were three excellent novels, with Out of My Mind already guaranteed a spot on my "best of 2010" list. In not-so-great news, there was the short story collection How Beautiful the Ordinary. But I do have to thank that book for one thing - apparently someone out there in the real world was talking about that blog post at a party. One of the partygoers happened to be one of my best friends from elementary and middle school who I haven't seen in years and years. I'd heard she moved out to New York at some point but we'd completely lost contact. Well after that party, said-friend searched out the blog and found me on Twitter and now we're planning on getting together in the next week! Behold the power of blogs :-) And whoever is talking me up at parties - I love you. Can I get an invitation next time? ;-)
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