Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Month in review: August

Y'know how August tends to be a slow news month? Well, it was a slow blogging month for me. This summer has been brutally hot in NYC (as opposed to last year, when June was almost totally rained out) and has definitely given me a case of the summer doldrums. Of course, just as the calendar turns to September, the heat ratchets back up into the high 90s. I've never been so ready for fall.

This is also time for my annual pity party that I'm not in school. In elementary and middle school I hated fall because I hated going back to school, but by the time high school hit, going back to school was manageable, at least. After the first year of college I started going to classes almost all year, and was living full time in my college town by junior year, so fall meant the arrival of all of my friends who had gone home for the summer, and the return of forensics competitions. This is my third fall without school to return to, and I still get a bit bummed out, though it hasn't been nearly as bad this year as previous falls. Probably because I am beginning to realize that while I would love to return to school, none of my preferred study paths would lead me to a job with more guarantees than I have with my bachelor's degree. So for now it's best for me to keep on plugging away at my current job while continuing to apply for every sales, marketing or editorial publishing position I see.

But enough non-book-ish introspection - what was this month like in blogging? Reviews, reviews and more reviews. As part of my desire to do as little work as possible, I wrote 95% of my blog posts this month in large doses on a Saturday or Sunday. I'd usually knock out two weeks' worth in one weekend, leaving the rest of my week free to waste time in other ways - like re-reading The Hunger GamesCatching Fire and Mockingjay- those posts were what my middle school writing teacher would call "Thursday night specials," as I didn't finish my rereads until Thursday evening for all three books.

And of course, Mockingjay was the big event of the month, if not the biggest book-event of the summer! I designed my own Team Katniss shirt, and attended the big release party at Books of Wonder. I know people are still reading (if they were frugal and ordered the book online, or late to the party and only just started reading The Hunger Games), but if you've finished and are dying to talk about it, there's still conversation going on in my Mockingjay post! I have somewhat strong feelings about the novel, but I also have an intense curiosity to know why people felt differently and want to hear from all sides!

Some stand out books I reviewed this month were Finding My Place, about a black girl moving to a white suburb in the 60s, and Little Blog on the Prairie, where a girl goes to "frontier camp" with her family and chronicles the experience on a smuggled cell phone. I was also surprised by how much I enjoyed Princess of Glass, considering how underwhelmed I was with the first book, Princess of the Midnight Ball.

Here's hoping that September brings cooling air (and no hurricane) to the city, and lots of great books to read!

Monday, August 30, 2010

Nonfiction Monday Review: I Am an Emotional Creature by Eve Ensler

Found via: Amelia Bloomer Project

I debated whether this should be a Nonfiction Monday post or not. It's poetry/monologues, but they are all drawn from interviews and writings of real teenage girls. There are no fictional characters or plot - it's a collection of writings about the real experiences of girls and young women, that have been polished by Ensler. Since Amazon includes it in two nonfiction categories and one fiction category (literature and fiction > Drama), and the Library of Congress headings don't include fiction, I figured it could count for Nonfiction Monday.

I Am an Emotional Creature: The Secret Life of Girls Around the WorldEve Ensler's The Vagina Monologues was a watershed moment for women. A play that spoke frankly about the most shamed part of our bodies. While there are parts of it that are definitely applicable to women of all ages, it's generally not the sort of text you hand to a middle or high school girl. But where can these girls to turn for validation of their experiences? Ensler has filled that void with I Am an Emotional Creature. Inspired by girls all over the world, from US suburbs to eastern European brothels, African villages to middle eastern cities, the poems and monologues interspersed with "girl facts" about our bodies and our treatment around the world (child labor, sex trafficking, etc) give voice to a variety of female experiences. There's the girls at a sleepover playing "would you rather," girls experiencing first love and their "first time," and girls who were sold into slavery - or ran away from home to escape that fate.

The actor in me relished these poems and monologues, as they beg to be performed. Many of the poems are obviously drawn from the experiences of multiple girls and I am sure would be best understood if the various lines were said by different girls to build a story.

Randomly, one selection from The Vagina Monologues is included - "My Short Skirt." It's an excellent poem and definitely worthy of inclusion considering how young women are often shamed for their fashion choices, it was just slightly distracting for me as I was reading the poem and thinking "I've heard this before..." (Freshman year of college I performed in The Vagina Monologues. Unfortunately I didn't do "My Short Skirt." I got to put on my best British accent and perform "The Vagina Workshop")

This should be considered mandatory reading for every teenage girl - even teenage boys would benefit from some of these (like the aforementioned "Short Skirt"). While much of the book is about body image and sexuality, there are lots of other topics too - like child labor, from the girl who works in a Chinese factory assembling Barbies, and dating violence, like in the letter to Rihanna penned by a girl in her own abusive relationship but hasn't left, like Rihanna did. It's an excellent assortment of points of view, arranged well so you aren't overwhelmed by dark and depressing themes before a more lighthearted piece pops up.

Nonfiction Monday
Nonfiction Monday is hosted this week by the Book Nosher. Be sure to check out all the other great nonfiction books highlighted today!

Women Unbound Challenge

Friday, August 27, 2010

Sci Fi Friday Book Thoughts: Mockingjay

In the wee hours of Tuesday morning, years of excitement and anticipation were finally quenched as Mockingjay made it into the hands of readers. I'm sure everyone that read and loved the original Hunger Games has been waiting anxiously for this book, desperate to know how Katniss' story would conclude.

Mockingjay (The Final Book of The Hunger Games)Mockingjay is such a big event book that I don't think a traditional review is necessary. If you've read Hunger Games and Catching Fire, you're going to read this one. So I decided I would follow the format for my previous two Hunger Games posts and do more of a reflection on the book.

Obviously, that means that from here on out we're entering major spoiler territory. If you're like my two best friends and haven't gotten your copy of Mockingjay yet, clearly you need to turn around and come back later.

Spoiler space

Spoiler space

Spoiler space

Okay, we ready now for some serious Mockingjay discussion?

I'm going to be honest with you guys, because I feel like we're friends here: I was a sobbing mess after I finished my first read of the book on Tuesday morning. The tears started when Buttercup came back. I'm a sucker for animals in the first place, but it was Katniss' description of him in the middle of the night, of him guarding her, that just sent me over the edge. And I never quite pulled myself back together.

I wasn't just distraught over Prim and Buttercup and Katniss, however. I was distraught because...I didn't like the book that much. I felt that throughout the book, the romance that had been content to stay in the background of the first two books had risen to a place of prominence that outshone the story I thought Collins had been trying to tell. I've been fighting proudly for Team Katniss since I first realized people were siding with one boy or the other. And to see so much attention paid to Katniss' romantic choices in the text of the final book was disorienting to say the least. I expected that some sort of tacit choice would be made (and it would be Peeta because we spent two books closely observing their relationship in action and ending up with Gale would have seemed like the romance of the first two books was pointless), but it showed up way more often than I was comfortable with.

What story did I think Hunger Games was about? Survival. Corruption. Identity. Katniss is constantly fighting against a corrupt state, hunting in the forest because of poverty and stepping into the Games for her little sister because it's unfair to ask an innocent 12 year old to participate in their horrors before taking on a more overtly rebellious role, culminating in becoming the face of the rebellion in Mockingjay. She's been a survivor since she figured out how to keep her family alive after her father's death. And like many teenagers, she's constantly struggling with her identity - especially as she must adapt to the many faces that are pressed upon her by adults. Her relationships, familial, friendly and romantic, play a role in each of those themes, but I was expecting them to stay in the background again.

Another major disappointment was just how out of it Katniss is for large chunks of the book. Katniss is no stranger to catastrophic injuries, even injuries that knock her out for days at a time, but the recurring theme of Katniss waking up in a hospital bed after a major revelation got real old, real fast. I'm a fan of unstable narrators, but wasn't there a better way to underscore a dramatic event than having Katniss sent to the hospital? For those of you who've read the conclusion of the Chaos Walking series (Monsters of Men), I felt like Ness and Collins had graduated from the same school of dramatic tension.

Okay, I've gotten my major beefs out of the way. Is there anything redeeming about this book? Of course there is - Collins is too good of a writer to churn out complete crap.

Collins' background in television has definitely played a role in these books since day one, but Mockingjay is when it becomes most obvious, and I thought it was really interesting. Cameras have been ever present, but I know after The Hunger Games there were a lot of questions about how the cameras in the arena operated, since they were never described. Were they embedded in the scenery? Made invisible? In Mockingjay, Katniss has her own dedicated camera crew, and I think Collins is definitely using them and Plutarch to comment on just how much of our news can be easily staged - or at least enhanced to make for better television.

I've seen people saying both Peeta and Gale got the shaft in terms of character development - that hijacking Peeta was lazy and Gale did a 180 to become the bad guy, but I actually really liked both of their characters for once. Peeta's love for Katniss always felt somewhat immature - he was in love with the idea of Katniss, but never had a chance to fall in love with her as the young woman she was growing into. She was constantly on edge and unable to truly process whatever feelings she did have for him, because projecting the image of happy lovers was necessary for their survival. Hijacking Peeta was cruel and blunt, but it wiped the slate clean, and I believe that they did grow to have a deep and true love for each other. If they'd ended up together without some way of starting at square one, in the back of my head I'd always be wondering if they could truly have a healthy relationship. As for Gale, he's always had an edge to him that Katniss lacked at first. He was the first to suggest running away into the woods, and had a habit of railing against the Capitol when they were outside the fence of District 12. He worked in the horrors known as the mines, while Katniss had a relatively carefree six months between the end of her first Hunger Games and the start of her Victory Tour. And of course, he was there when the Capitol destroyed his home. The hardened, cynical, bitter man we met in Mockingjay seemed to be a natural evolution of what little we'd seen of Gale's character.

Most horrifying moment for me: Finnick's revelation that he'd been a sex slave after winning his Games. That just blew my mind and forced me to put the book down for a minute to collect myself. It seemed to come out of nowhere, yet made so much sense, in a terrible and terrifying way. I just wanted to bundle Finnick into a hug then and never let him go.

And then there were the deaths. This book had to be a blood bath. After reading Catching Fire I was sure lots of people were going to die, and when it became obvious this book was to be set in the heart of the war for Panem I knew that no one was safe. Hell, since the books are written in present tense it was possible that even Katniss could die. However, that doesn't mean I think all of the deaths were handled well. Boggs and Messalla each got lengthy descriptions of their demise, but dear Finnick only got a line or two. And Prim's death I absolutely wasn't expecting. In some ways, that's the death that bothers me the most. This whole story was set in motion when Katniss volunteered to save Prim at the reaping. What was the point of all that pain and struggling, the destruction of everything she ever knew, if Prim wasn't there at the end of it all?

I thought District 13 was interesting. I always figured they were going to be less-than warm and fuzzy when we met them. Remember, I thought we were going to discover Katniss' father among the citizens of District 13, and the place would have to be run by assholes if they wouldn't let him contact his family (oh sure, I can think of lots of logical reasons why they'd be kept apart, such as protecting the rebellion in case Katniss couldn't be rescued from the Quell, but whatever). However, it's very good that Katniss killed Coin, because it's clear that she was just going to be another Snow. Need proof? The crazy woman suggested they hold another Hunger Games. Another Hunger Games! And I'll admit, at first I had no idea what was going on when Katniss agreed, because no matter how distraught she was over Prim I didn't see how she could agree to such a travesty. It wasn't until Amy brought it up on the Maw Books spoiler discussion post and I re-read the book at a slower pace that I realized she was playing along with Coin to be in the perfect position to assassinate her.

I was also left with some larger world building questions, though I can see how they couldn't necessarily be addressed in the context of Katniss' story. The biggest one for me perhaps is what is going on in the rest of the world? Does Panem represent the last of humanity? Is Panem the most powerful nation of Earth, inheriting the US's position as a super power? Or alternatively, is Panem so poor and backwards that the rest of the world doesn't care what's going on? Because what is the rest of the world like if no one cares that there's a country out there murdering its children for entertainment?

Another blog asked us to sum up our feelings about Mockingjay in one word. After my first read I said it would be "disappointed." I went back and re-read the book on Wednesday and Thursday (I couldn't handle reading it again immediately on Tuesday) before writing this, determined to come back with a more rational answer. I think I'm still going to go with "disappointed," but not necessarily because it's a bad book - it's just clear that I wasn't on the same page as Suzanne Collins as to what story she was telling. Whose fault is that? I'm not sure. The Hunger Games trilogy has been quite a ride, but perhaps has taught me not to get quite so invested in defending a position (Team Katniss vs. the romance teams) before I know the final outcome.

If you haven't had your fill of Mockingjay talk yet, please chime in in the comments! I love hearing from people with all sorts of opinions, and in fact would love to hear some commentary from people who loved it!

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Review: The Wager by Donna Jo Napoli

Donna Jo Napoli's fairy/folk tale re-tellings have been favorites of mine since middle school. It's been ages since I actually read one, but even though I didn't know this particular folk tale, based on Napoli's past work, I decided to give it a chance.

The WagerDon Giovanni is rich and handsome, with a reputation for throwing lavish parties and being an excellent lover. All that changes the night that a tidal waves sweeps through, washing away everything Don Giovanni owned.

Now a penniless beggar, Don Giovanni is still determined to hold on to some of his dignity. He bathes and washes his clothes in the river. He uses proper table manners whenever he can get a bowl of food.

And then one day a man appears with a hell of an offer. He will give Don Giovanni a purse that will give him endless wealth - in return, all Don Giovanni must do is refrain from bathing or changing his clothes for three years, three months and three days. If Don Giovanni succeeds, he gets to keep the purse. If he fails, the Devil gets his soul.

Despite his misgivings of literally making a deal with the Devil, Don Giovanni agrees. After all, he's already a beggar and suffered the indignities of that lifestyle, surely having all the money he could want will make up for any faults in his appearance? And so Don Giovanni begins his task, determined to best the Devil, no matter the cost.

I actually read this at the beginning of July, but it has taken me awhile to figure out how to articulate my feelings about the book. I knew I liked it - not loved it, but certainly liked it - but the devil (haha, pun unintended) was in figuring out why. But I think I've finally got it.

This book takes its time. We follow Don Giovanni for over three years, first seeing something of his lavish lifestyle, then seeing it fall apart as he is forced to be a beggar and try to work for the first time, then the ordeal with the Devil. Because of the long time period covered, we get to see Don Giovanni's character change ever so slowly, making for an extremely interesting character arc that really doesn't become obvious until near the end when Don Giovanni is acting wildly different from the beginning. Because we get to watch him nearly every step of the way, some of the changes aren't obvious at first, so it's a real treat to watch the changes and then think back over what has led to such a dramatic evolution. Excellent, deft writing here!

Napoli's descriptions of Don Giovanni's descent into filth are absolutely disgusting - and I meant that in the most complimentary way possible! US society is obsessed with cleanliness, so in some ways it's hard to imagine what it means to truly be filthy, but Napoli brings the horrors to light. Don't read this while eating, unless you enjoy vivid descriptions of pustules and sores and the accompanying flies. Blech. I think I'm grossing myself out again.

This is far from an action packed story, but as the end of the wager approached, I found myself getting more and more tense. Don Giovanni has come so far - will he make it? If he makes it, will he still be sane at the end of it all? Will he truly change for the better, or is this a temporary improvement brought out by horrific circumstances? For such a quiet story, I was surprised by how invested I was getting in the outcome - and how even the end of a morality play could be surprising and satisfying.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Book Events: Books of Wonder Midnight Mockingjay Release

Once again, this is a spoiler-free Mockingjay post. Want to discuss the book? Check out the comments on yesterday's post.

My first encounter with Books of Wonder was back when The Hunger Games was released in fall of 2008, so it was only natural that I would return to the store for the release of Mockingjay - especially when it was revealed that we'd have the party with Suzanne Collins herself in attendance! How awesome!

The line already! on TwitpicBecause I'm an adult and thus supposed to be a productive member of society, I couldn't get my party on until after 5. The party didn't start until 8, and of course we wouldn't get our hands on the book until midnight, but there were folks parked in front of the store from 3:30 on. I arrived at 5:10 and quickly hopped in line. To the right is my crappy cell phone view of the line. I guessed that I would be the 30th person or so to receive a book - with a lot of teens and younger kids already in line it was hard to tell who was there just for their kid or to claim a book for themselves! Unfortunately, my number turned out to be double that, thanks to poor line-manners throughout the evening.

The weather was overcast and occasionally drizzly - but I was fine since I was under some scaffolding. All I could think of was how happy I was that the heat had finally broken though - I can't imagine what it would have been like to be standing on that line in the 80-90 degree heat NYC has been having for the past few months!

Everyone in line was chatty, which made the wait much more bearable. Some people had come more prepared for the wait than others, however. I dubbed this the Mockingjay internet cafe. By eight o'clock, the line stretched all the way down the block! I don't know what the final count was for the night, but I heard Peter Glassman, owner of Books of Wonder, say it was going to be anywhere from 700 to 1500. Certainly more than 300 people showed up, as I saw tickets to get our books stamped numbered that high.

Finally, promptly at 8 (thanks for that, Books of Wonder!), the doors opened and we were ushered inside, divided into two lines, one for those of us who pre-paid, and the other for people buying on site. All of the pre-release buzz from Books of Wonder had been urging us to pre-pay because that line would go quicker and so we'd get lower numbers for the signing/stamping. Apparently Monday was opposite-day, however, because the pre-pay line was incredibly slow. Second bummer of the night (the first being the blatant line jumping). However, there was some entertainment for us standing on line - jugglers! What do jugglers have to do with the Hunger Games? The only thing I can think of is the metaphor of bread and circuses (or panem et circenses in Latin) and so we took the circuses part literally, bringing in the jugglers and magic tricks. The face painting you can make a pretty direct correlation with the camouflage and the make up and the morphlings from Catching Fire, and the tarot cards are tied to fate, so there was a variety of stuff to try to do once you finally made it through the line to pick up your raffle tickets, signing ticket number, book voucher, and some printouts of Hunger Games crosswords and word searches as well as non-Hunger Games related promotional swag to fill out the bags.

Books of Wonder isn't the biggest store to begin with, and I hate to say it, but it really felt like they weren't prepared for the crowd and the activities. What do I mean by that? Sure, we could all physically fit in the store, and the process of handing out books was incredibly efficient (despite being #58, I was out of the store by 12:15). However, the face painting and tarot lines effectively left you standing in one place for literally hours. This was a combination of very elaborate set ups (the face painting was quite intricate, done by a guy who works with MAC cosmetics) and the tarot readings were running 15 minutes each at one point, and confusion about where lines were so people would (hopefully inadvertently) jump the line.

The people in attendance were great - there were some awesome costumes and T-shirt designs there! I was a fan of this Team Gale/Peeta duo.

And if you've followed any blog coverage of the party, you've undoubtedly seen this girl taking over the blogosphere. Cinna would be proud!

By 10:30 or so, the crowd was starting to get restless. The gallery area, where Suzanne would eventually would be reading and signing, was slowly taken over by people giving up on the activities and just sitting down to chat or read. I tweeted that it felt like we were settling in for a long siege, with nothing left to do but wait! The jugglers and the magicians had to call it quits because people kept encroaching on their space. I stood in line for almost an hour to get my tarot cards read, which in retrospect was totally not worth it. I've never had my cards read, but it's a good thing I don't hold much faith in those things, otherwise I'd be certain my career path is headed for destruction! Depressing.

A little before 11:30, owner Peter Glassman came out to talk a little bit about the store's relationship with Suzanne Collins - she first visited the store when she was a first-time fantasy author with Gregor the Overlander, and she's been a friend of the store ever since. Then one of Suzanne's editors, the famed David Levithan (yep, he edits and he writes. A multi-talented guy!) came out to introduce Suzanne. Then! The big moment! The reading!!!

What a treat. We got to hear selections from both Catching Fire and Mockingjay. Why? Because since Katniss is from Appalachia, Suzanne reads her with an accent. She read Katniss' interview before the Hunger Games of Catching Fire, when her dress turns into the mockingjay, to acclimate us to the accent so we wouldn't miss a thing.

It is pure luck I got a picture this good. I was actually quite a ways back and had a few tall, fidgety people standing in front of me. This is the only picture that doesn't have a shoulder or someone's hair in it.

See? Hair. But! Suzanne with an actual copy of Mockingjay!

When Suzanne came out, the room lit up like it was a red carpet, with everyone pulling out their cameras to snap as many pictures as possible. I'll admit, I was standing on my tip toes and holding my camera over heads to get a good shot. But when Suzanne got into Mockingjay, you could hear a pin drop - until she started dropping major plot points, then you could hear gasps circling the room. I think I saw one girl crying.

After the reading, we were ushered out of the gallery and the brutally efficient book distribution and stamping process began! Like I said, by 12:15 I had my book and gratefully exited the store into the cool night air. You wouldn't normally think of NYC as having fresh air, but it felt wonderful after hours of being stuck in that store! I met up with my husband, who offered to sit with me on the subway to make sure I wouldn't miss my stop in the excitement, and read until 4:45 in the morning, occasionally having to fend off my cat. He's easily excited and didn't like seeing me get so emotional! He kept climbing onto my lap, even going over my shoulder on the couch once, to make sure I didn't have to read about Katniss' ordeals all alone.

Books of Wonder did the best with what resources (space) they had, but while they kept bragging about how they had handled Harry Potter release parties, I don't see how that space is viable for big release parties. Perhaps the kids were having tons of fun, but I think the adults were getting a little fed up with the lack of space. In the future, I'll continue to attend signings and panels at Books of Wonder, but I think for actual parties I'll be heading elsewhere in the city.

Afternoon update: Need more to read? I'm today's featured blogger for There's a Book's When I Was Young series! Read more on my Animorphs obsession. And those who've finished Mockingjay should definitely check out the discussion going on here. Some really interesting thoughts - I bet this conversation will last for awhile!

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Book Thoughts: We now live in a post-Mockingjay world...

So my original plan was to blog immediately after reading Mockingjay, but I was so flipping tired at 4:45 AM, that I chose to pretty much crash straight into bed. And then sleep through my alarm and not wake up until 9:30. For the record, I'm supposed to be starting work at 9:30, not getting out of bed.

My feelings towards Mockingjay are complex, but out of deference to the fact that many of you probably haven't made it to a bookstore yet, or haven't received your Amazon shipment, I'm not saying anything on the front page of the blog today. I might have more to say on Friday - depends on if I've managed to really process the book yet!

However, it takes an extra click-through to get to the comments, which in my opinion makes spoilers fair game there! Feel free to discuss all the details of Mockingjay in the comments, and if you're still reading the book, for heaven's sake, stay away!

Tonight or tomorrow I'll post about the Books of Wonder party! Complete with pictures!

Monday, August 23, 2010

Nonfiction Monday Review: Cleopatra Rules! by Vicky Alvear Shecter

While wandering through the exhibits at ALA, I stopped dead in my tracks when I saw this cover staring out at me from a backdrop:

Cleopatra Rules!: The Amazing Life of the Original Teen Queen
I just had to stop and look around and ask about that book! Luckily, the ladies staffing the Boyds Mill Press booth were more than happy to talk about it and other books they carry featuring strong women and unique takes on history with an excited blogger. Advanced copies weren't available at ALA, but they made sure to mail me a copy as soon as they were available!

I have always loved Cleopatra - when other girls had a princess phase, I went straight to the top and loved the Queen (okay, I enjoyed my share of Disney princesses too, I suppose). One of my favorite Shakespeare plays? Antony and Cleopatra. So to say I was excited about a teen-oriented biography of this much-maligned royal is an understatement.

Shecter takes the haters to task. She hammers home the point that the victors get to write history, so it's likely that much of the Roman-oriented biography that's been handed down through the generations is unflattering at best. In truth, Cleopatra was as loved by her subjects as a Greek Pharaoh could be. Where others in the line of Ptolemy ruled apart from their Egyptian subjects, Cleopatra learned their language (as well as 20+ others!) and their rites and rituals, making her well loved by her subjects.

Cleopatra wasn't a seductress - she gained her power the old fashioned way, through cunning and shows of strength. She allied herself with the most powerful men in the world - Julius Caesar and Mark Antony - to make sure Egypt could remain a sovereign nation. She built up Egypt's armies so they had a chance of defending themselves. And she was something of a book worm, ensuring that she had the strategic knowledge to use her forces in the best way possible.

This is a beautiful book, both in content and presentation. Lots of full-color photographs of Egyptian antiquities are included and there are colorful sidebars and in-sets to highlight important information. The one turn off for me as an adult reader, was that I couldn't get past the writing style. Shecter uses a very slangy voice for the book, going so far as to refer to Octavian as "O-man" at one point. Perhaps this is just what a teen or tween needs in order to pick up a book about someone who's been dead for thousands of years, but it made it a little hard for me to take the book seriously sometimes. I kept hoping I'd get used to it, but I never did.

However, my hang ups wouldn't prevent me from strongly recommending this to someone desperate for a positive look at one of the most powerful women who ever lived. Cleopatra Rules! certainly rocks as a biography.

Nonfiction Monday
Nonfiction Monday is hosted by Playing by the Book this week. Be sure to stop by and check out all the other great nonfiction finds this week!

Also, final reminder for NYC-area readers, Books of Wonder's Mockingjay release party is tonight! I had some uploading fail yesterday, so be sure to check out my post yesterday to see what I'll be wearing so you can introduce yourself at the party!

Review copy was sent to me by the publisher, Boyds Mill Press.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Book thoughts: Book Fashion

Tomorrow night I'm heading out for the Books of Wonder midnight release of Mockingjay, and like a good little fangirl, I'm dressing up. Originally I had a notion to do a full out costume and go as Effie (I could totally rock the pink wig), but since it looks like I'm not going home between work and the party, I decided to just go the T-shirt route.

Now Hot Topic has some fun Hunger Games T-shirts, and I do have a minor lust for their "Girl on Fire" T-shirt, but I'm a) cheap and b) creative, so I decided to go the "make your own" T-shirt route. If you follow me on Twitter you've seen me discussing this shirt for a few weeks, and here's the big reveal!

Team Katniss all the way!

If you see me at Books of Wonder tomorrow night, please introduce yourself!

Putting all this work into a book T-shirt made me think of other opportunities for book-related fashion.

There's of course the old standby of going in costume, either for Halloween or a midnight launch:

Once upon a time I had long hair. And regularly dressed up as Bellatrix Lestrange. Here I'm at the midnight release of Deathly Hallows, arguing that Snape is untrustworthy...if you're a Death Eater!

Fans of Scott Westerfeld's Uglies and Midnighters books should check out the Wearable Extras boutique for related shirts and hoodies. My favorite might be the Hoverboard Safety Monitor hoodie, but the Tridecashirt is darn impressive, too! Scott also regularly features fans on his blog who dress up for his signings - check out some more Uglies-related shirts and a post-Halloween 2007 post with tons of Specials-tattoos, some hoverboarders, and a few Midnighters!

Of course, you can be hard core about your love of books and have a favorite line permanently etched on your skin. Some day I'm getting UNLESS from The Lorax tattooed on my arm. 
Of course, once the book is turned into a movie, the merchandise explodes, but I always like the fan-created shirts best. Sure, Hot Topic carried tons of Lord of the Rings shirts while I was in high school, but how much funnier is it to picture Gimli as a heavy metal rocker? (If you're a geek of almost any stripe, you should definitely be reading Hijinks Ensue. It's my favorite webcomic of the moment. /offtopic)
Some fan-made items may be more appropriate than others, however. We all remember the Edward Cullen underwear, right? (I'm 99% sure these are fake, but the prank works because it isn't hard to imagine someone wanting them!)

That's about all I've been able to come up with from my own recollections and Googling - searching book t-shirts or book costumes brings you to books on sewing, which are useful in some contexts, but not this one. So leave your own contributions in the comments! Have you ever dressed up special for a book signing? How about gone as a favorite character on Halloween? 

Friday, August 20, 2010

Sci Fi Friday Book Thoughts: Catching Fire

So...we're down to four days until the release of Mockingjay. Four freaking days!!! I can barely contain my excitement - especially since I'm going to the launch party to end all launch parties, the Books of Wonder event with Suzanne Collins herself on hand! I've spent the past two weekends putting together a fancy T-shirt for the event (I was hoping to have it ready to debut on the blog today, but sewing by hand takes for-freaking-ever) and will post it on Monday to show it off and give you a handy way to recognize me if you're lucky enough to be in NYC as well! I'd love to have a blogging friend to hang out with for the evening!

But this post isn't about clothes and partying - I don't live in the Capitol after all! This post is all about Catching Fire, the sequel that I first started reading in the middle of Times Square on a sunny Saturday after waiting in a long line at BEA.

So since I've already reviewed Catching Fire, let's just dive into some analysis. Once again, this section contains spoilers for The Hunger Games and Catching Fire!

I haven't read this book as often as I've read The Hunger Games, so I had to keep going back and re-reading parts to make notes because I was getting so caught up in the story I forgot to put on my analytic hat and pay attention! Once again I had to pull myself together several times because the story was making me emotional and teary while riding on the subway or sitting in the middle of Madison Square Park! New Yorkers tolerate lots of eccentricities, but I still didn't want to be the woman crying over her book on the R train.

The foreshadowing remains a forte of Collins' in Catching Fire - and what's more, reading the two books so closely together makes it clear that hints carry over from one book to another. Johanna is mentioned, albeit only by district and not by name, back when Katniss is first selected for the Games. Katniss mentions the girl who presented herself as weak and pitiful before revealing she has a deadly talent with knives in the arena. And that's exactly who's in the arena this time around with Katniss - often naked, which cracks me up. Poor Katniss! The weight of the world on her shoulders and there's this cocky naked woman at every turn.

Also a follow up - a rather large point is made about the different types of bread representing the different districts, thanks to Peeta's expert baking knowledge. First this showed up as important in The Hunger Games because it allowed Katniss to recognize the gift from District 11 (moment of silence here for Rue). Now it becomes important as a signal for the allied tributes in Catching Fire - the district the bread was from would represent what day the escape would happen.

Now, here's a little hole in that plan - apparently the date changed without anyone acknowledging it. The first bread drop is 24 rolls from District 4. The next day, it's 24 rolls from District 3. Has anyone come up with a good explanation for this yet? Was there a typo in the first edition of the book?

I wrote a bit last week about Katniss as a mockingjay herself - someone the Capitol never anticipated existing. One of the few bits of description of mockingjays in The Hunger Games comes from Rue, who notes they are fierce when their nest is threatened. Of course, mockingjay imagery is even more important this time around, and we have more opportunities to look at Katniss as a mockingjay.

Katniss' primary role has been "protector" since she was 11 and her father died. She becomes the primary provider for her family first. She steps up to take Prim's place as a Tribute. When it becomes clear she needs to team up with Peeta, he's her focus for days on end, all signs of her protecting her "nest" - her family and friends. That role becomes even more vital in Catching Fire after President Snow (boo hiss) specifically threatens her family - including Gale. Katniss tells him she wants to run away with him, their families, Peeta and Haymitch, but Gale hesitates, asking about all of the families that can't run, especially since it's the middle of winter. That's Katniss' protective instinct kicking in again - save those closest to her first.

This is also clearly why she has some conflict with Peeta throughout the book. While Katniss may not be 100% certain of her feelings for Peeta, she and him definitely have a unique bond. So Katniss' first instinct is to protect him whenever she can, but of course he instinctively does the same for her, as she notes when she greets him in front of the cameras at the start of the Victory Tour. The two are still on the outs at this point, not having aired their grievances as revealed at the end of the first book, but Peeta isn't about to betray Katniss in front of the cameras. And of course, he makes Haymitch promise that once again the goal will be to get Katniss out of the arena alive - while Katniss has made the same deal with Haymitch about Peeta.

Katniss makes an excellent point about jabberjays and the Capitol - the Capitol left the jabberjays out in the wild to die off, but the birds mated with mockingbirds and passed on their genetic code to the new bird, the mockingjay. Katniss notes the Capitol hadn't anticipated the jabberjays' will to live. Which begs the question: has the Capitol anticipated Katniss' will to live - and to keep her nest safe? President Snow seems to have been able to anticipate a lot about Katniss - he's always known just how to throw her off kilter, showing up at her house, assigning Darius as her avox, and the mysterious attack on Cinna just as she was entering the new arena. But will Mockingjay finally allow Katniss to get a step ahead of the president? We can only hope!

So let's talk romance again, since it keeps coming up, and of course the epic romance of Peeta and Katniss plays a large part in their strategy for getting through this version of the Games (omg, I still remember how I gasped and then started cackling hysterically when Peeta announced Katniss' pregnancy. That kid's a freaking GENIUS). Peeta dropped the L word last book, Gale drops it this time, and Katniss goes all Han Solo on Gale by just saying "I know."

When Gale makes his big confession, I have to admit it totally makes sense that he would be in love with Katniss. They're absolutely best friends, share a common interest, and have a fierce determination to keep each other and their families alive. And if the Hunger Games had never come along, it's very possible they would have ended up married if Katniss didn't stick to her "no marriage, no kids" guns (and of course, you can marry without ever having kids, but Gale strikes me as the type who would want some. Don't ask me why). However, it's undeniable that the Games changed Katniss, and would have even if Peeta hadn't declared his love for her first. Katniss has had a chance to see the world outside of downtrodden District 12. As a victor, she can develop any sort of talent or skill that she wants, even if she can't come up with one appropriate enough for Effie without Cinna's help. You can't blame the girl for being epically confused about where her feelings lie. And once again, she's got slightly bigger things to deal with than romance - she has a rebellion to inspire!

Now, I said in my original Catching Fire review that thanks to Suzanne Collins' excellent foreshadowing in The Hunger Games I thought I would be able to predict lots of what happened in Catching Fire and I was caught completely by surprise. However, I'm feeling fairly confident this time around to make some predictions about Mockingjay. I make these predictions without knowing a single thing about Mockingjay as I'm determined to stay spoiler free (as you may have heard, some stores and libraries broke the embargo on the book, so I bet I could find spoilers with minimal Googling, but I'm too excited to have the full experience on Monday night so I'm avoiding them all!).

  • Katniss' father was an early rebel and is still alive. So much was made about his terrible death in the mines and how there wasn't anything left to bury, that it seems a little suspicious. I bet the mine accident was a set up and the Capitol believes her father is dead, but instead he's been fighting the good fight off in District 13. He will, of course, have some sort of lingering injury. Wild Speculation - this injury will be to his leg, giving him a limp much like Peeta's, foreshadowing a Katniss/Peeta ending since the common wisdom is that girls marry men like their fathers.
  • Madge is a rebel and the mockingjay has been their symbol long before Katniss came along. Madge was awfully insistent that Katniss wear that pin into the arena. And the mockingjay in the footage of District 13 was used as a clue by the runaways from District 8 that something was happening out there in the alleged nuclear wasteland. As the governor's daughter, Madge would be in the perfect position to gain information that could help the rebels in District 12. Wild Speculation - Maybe she even inherited the mantle from her mother, who was undoubtedly traumatized by her sister's death in the Games but must have held it together for awhile in order to marry, have Madge, and not be a complete Morphling addict at this point.
  • Madge will almost certainly die - probably a rather senseless death, just to put us on edge and give us a feeling that no one is safe anymore. Either Gale or Peeta will die, and it will be a noble and sacrificial death, probably to keep Katniss alive. Katniss spends a lot of time focusing on Peeta's mortality in Catching Fire - first devoting so much effort to keeping him alive in the arena (along with the other tributes), and then at the end utterly determined to kill him so his death can't be used as a victory for the Capitol. It could definitely go either way with him.
  • No matter which of the guys survive, Katniss won't ride off happily into the sunset with one of them. Okay, maybe this is just my fervent hope rather than an actual prediction. We all know by now that I'm not a romance fan, especially in The Hunger Games. My focus is totally on Katniss and how much I love her. I forget if this happened during the Hunger Games or Catching Fire event, but Suzanne Collins noted that Katniss is only 16/17, and you generally don't find your one true love at that age, which gives me hope that the wedding is indeed well and truly called off. However, as one of my friends noted when I was discussing this with her over lunch this week, a happy romantic ending could simply conclude with Katniss and one of the guys finally free to enter a romance on their own terms, looking forward to seeing what would happen without the Capitol influencing their lives.
So what do you think? Are my predictions way off? Do you have a prediction of your own? I'd love to hear about them and how you're preparing for the release of Mockingjay!

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Review: Illyria by Elizabeth Hand

Illyria won the World Fantasy Award for best novella back in 2008, when it was published in the UK. Now, I have nothing to do with the World Fantasy Award (which is probably a good thing considering my general apathy for the genre), but looking at some of the other winners, this one doesn't quite seem to fit.

IllyriaMadeline and Rogan think of themselves as two halves of the same soul. Children of identical twins who share a birthday themselves, they are inseparable as children - an intense friendship that grows into an intense love as they enter their teen years.

Multiple generations of their large family all live on the same block, all descended from a great stage actress, though Madeline and Rogan are the only ones who have retained a love of theatre and performing, encouraged by their great aunt who appreciates the art of theatre, though doesn't seem to perform herself.

When cast as the stars of Twelfth Night in a school production (Madeline as Viola, Rogan as Feste), Madeline and Rogan must begin to confront their separate talents and where they might lead them, even as their relationship grows in intensity in the face of adversity.

Notice how in that description there isn't much that would really fall into a "fantasy" story? It's more like what one of my college professors called magical realism. This is a rather straightforward story about two extraordinarily close cousins who face some adversity because of their peculiar talents and relationship. The fantasy/magical element comes from an apparently enchanted miniature theatre they find embedded in the walls of the attic, where the lovers escape for their illicit trysts.

While published as a YA novel, the only resemblance this has to most YA is the ages of the protagonists - but in some ways I never felt like I was reading about teenagers because Madeline is telling this story as a middle aged adult. I had only a tenuous connection with her during the high school phase, but I totally lost it once she skipped ahead to briefly show her life as an adult, and how her and Rogan's decisions from back in their high school days had panned out as adults. 

The romance between Madeline and Rogan is heady and impulsive - and yes, they are cousins, but really, we're still grossed out by that these days? Their familial relationship isn't fetishized - rather Madeline sees them as two halves of one whole, and it's the most natural thing in the world for them to come together. Maybe if someone in the extended family modeled a healthy relationship, or tried to speak to the kids frankly and without judgment, things would have turned out differently, but as-is, the romance was the least-problematic aspect for me.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Review: Princess of Glass by Jessica Day George

Found via: Bookends

Last year (exactly), I reviewed Princess of the Midnight Ball and was...less than impressed. I knew lots of people who loved it, but I could never get into the story myself. So I had no intention of picking up the companion/sequel Princess of Glass. A woman can only take so much disappointment, right? But people were again raving, and this one picks up my favorite fairy tale so I finally caved and gave it a chance.

Princess of GlassAfter the events of Princess of the Midnight Ball left several (male) heirs to various kingdoms dead and a war was narrowly averted, the monarchs from the neighboring kingdoms have proposed a royal exchange program for their eligible children. Hoping to rebuild alliances and maybe find a royal spouse, the Westfallin princesses are part of the exchange program, too. Poppy has been sent to Bretoner, where she's not the most popular person. but is being hosted by a lovely family with a daughter close to Poppy's age.

After spending every evening of her life dancing, Poppy has no interest in dancing ever again. However, as a gracious guest she still agrees to attend the various balls - usually choosing to play cards with the men who don't dance. Though Prince Christian, another exchange royal, is just handsome and kind enough to make her reconsider her stance - until the mysterious Lady Ella starts showing up at the balls, dressed to outshine royalty in her glass slippers and extravagant gowns and captivating every male eye in the room. Especially Prince Christian.

No stranger to magic, Poppy is sure Ella is using some sort of enchantment, and also recognizes that Ella may not be a willing participant. Teaming up with Roger, a member of Bretoner's gentry who knows a little something about magic himself, the pair set to work to find a way to counter Ella's spell and rescue her from her enchantment before it's more than just her shoes that are spun from glass.

Maybe I had low expectations going into this, but I ended up really enjoying Princess of Glass. I've read dozens of Cinderella re-tellings, but this one still found a way to be fresh and add new twists to the tale. I love the allusions to different versions of the tale (I've always liked the stories where Cinderella has three balls to attend, and sure enough Lady Ella has three balls in which to ensnare the prince), and the explanations for the glass slippers and why a man can lose all of his sense and fall in love at first sight.

Poppy may be one of my favorite princesses ever. I personally would much rather be playing cards and swearing colorfully than dancing. After being cursed to dance, it makes perfect sense that a ball would be hell for her, but instead of sitting aside like a wilting wall flower, she's found a way to entertain herself and still be part of the festivities. Choosing her as the protagonist not only gives a direct tie-in to Princess of the Midnight Ball, but also further separates this story from other versions of Cinderella. The story is told from a third person omniscient perspective, so we do get to see bits and pieces from Eleanora/Ellen/Lady Ella's perspective, but most of the time we're with Poppy. Snarky, (relatively) vulgar, Poppy.

As a bonus, like Princess of the Midnight Ball, knitting patterns are included at the end. I know nothing about knitting (I've always stuck to crochet), but it's an interesting addition!

Once Upon a Time Challenge

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Review: The Lighter Side of Life and Death by C.K. Kelly Martin

Found via: Good Books & Wine

Books about relationship and sexuality often look at first love from the girl's point of view, carrying on the old trope that girls are interested in love and boys are interested in sex. So after reading April's review about this "gripping portrayal of growing up and burgeoning sexuality for a teenage boy, my curiosity was definitely piqued!

The Lighter Side of Life and DeathMason Rice, 16, is on top of the world. The school play has just finished, emotions are riding high for everyone, and on the night of the cast party he sleeps with one of his best friends, Kat. Life is perfect, right?

Until school on Monday when Kat starts avoiding him. She won't return his calls and eventually confronts him in the hallway, telling him it didn't mean anything and they should just forget it ever happened. Oh, and his other best friend, Jamie, isn't too happy either - he had a crush on Kat and is convinced the whole evening must have been less-than-consensual with the way Kat is acting.

With his feelings hurt and ego a little bruised, life at home isn't any easier, as his dad's girlfriend and her two kids are moving into their house. With home no longer a refuge and his two best friends not talking to him, Mason befriends a friend of his new step-aunt - Colette. Beautiful, witty - and 23 years old. As Mason tries to forget the broken  heart Kat left him with, he dives into the forbidden with Colette, determined to enjoy this relationship for as long as it lasts.

It was interesting to see a slight role reversal between Mason and Kat here - Mason is the one who is convinced their sleeping together means he and Kat can finally have a relationship, while Kat is the one saying he should forget about it. However, it's only a slight reversal because it becomes pretty clear that for Kat the evening did mean something; she just doesn't want to face what has changed.

Mason and Colette's relationship on the other hand is pretty hot. They're definitely in a weird place - 16 years old is definitely underage, but Mason doesn't seem to be coerced into the relationship, and initially pursues Colette. Of course, she could have/should have said no, but it's certainly not presented as a weird abusive relationship. Colette isn't in a position of power over Mason (not a teacher, coach or even close family friend), so there's no weird power dynamics in play, either. On the other hand, as an adult it's also a little weird to read the relatively explicit sex scenes between the two, because in the back of my head I'm going "He's 16! I don't care how hot he is!"

This is a book that expects some maturity from its readers, and I absolutely love it for that. The book presents several relationships that are outside of the teen romance norm, and doesn't pass judgment on any of them. It's up to the reader to interpret these relationships as healthy/unhealthy, positive/negative or somewhere in between. This is the type of book that is considered "dangerous" by some adults because it doesn't present a black and white view of the world - and that's exactly why books like this need to continue to be written.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Nonfiction Monday Review: Spilling Ink: A Young Writer's Handbook by Anne Mazer and Ellen Potter

Found via: Fuse #8 

True story: as a kid, I hated writing. It was easily one of my least favorite things to do, until a wonderful sixth grade teacher had writing days once a week, and eventually wore me down to the point that in high school I constantly had a notebook with me and spent every spare moment (and even some class time that technically wasn't "spare") writing (Animorphs fan fiction, if you're curious).

So if Spilling Ink had been around back in middle school, I probably would have devoured it.

Mazer and Potter have broken down writing into three general sections - Ready, Set, Go!; Crafting Your Story; and The Writer's Brain - and then those sections have been further divided into smaller sections, each like a mini-article written by Mazer or Potter (complete with byline, so you know who's talking to you). Some old writing standbys are addressed, like where to get ideas and questions to answer to help build your characters, but some other sections are unique to a book for young writers, like a few guidelines on writing children's picture books, and how to accept criticisms and tell good criticism from bad. About the only aspect of writing that isn't covered here that is covered in "adult" writing guides is publication.

Like noted in the Fuse #8 review, after children's books and series writing were mentioned, I hoped that other genres would be covered, like graphic novels and nonfiction, but I think the picture books and series were noted simply because those are the author's strengths. It's not a bad thing, but definitely left me wanting more!

I also have to say, this isn't a book that lends itself well to skipping from section to section - it seems designed to be read cover to cover. The small sections have really creative names, but that creativity sometimes means you can't figure out what they're about without the context of knowing its place in the entire book. "How to Turn Off Your Brain and Turn On Your Ideas" is straight forward, but "The View from the Boulder" is less so. So while in the introduction Mazer and Potter say they want this book to be for kids who are writers, kids who want to be writers, and kids who have no idea they want to write, I'm betting that last group isn't going to be picking this one up on their own. For kids who are passionate or curious about writing, this will be helpful, and really that's enough for me!

Nonfiction Monday

Today's Nonfiction Monday is hosted by Apples with Many Seeds! Be sure to stop by and check out the other great nonfiction being posted today!

Friday, August 13, 2010

Sci Fi Friday Book Thoughts: The Hunger Games

OMG, you guys, we're only 11 days from the release of Mockingjay! I CAN'T WAIT. I'm hard at work making a special shirt for the midnight release at Books of Wonder (will you be there?). But since I can't spend all of my time sewing and painting, I have to find something else Hunger Games-related to fill my time - and thus, you finally get a post about The Hunger Games!

The Hunger GamesI first heard about the book back in August 2008 when Cindy was raving about it at the last BBYA meeting of the summer, and the first one I had attended in years, as I was back in Holland for a brief week between the end of the lease on my college apartment and the big move out to New York City. I knew it was going to be published in October, so I began keeping a close eye on y library's website and requested the book as soon as I could.

Reader, I devoured it. My husband kept threatening to take the book away and hide it because I was so vocal - gasping, cringing and crying out as if my reactions would affect Katniss' ordeal. Almost immediately after finishing it, I was online, searching for more information about this wonderful book. And that's when I discovered Books of Wonder for the first time. I believe it was on a Thursday that I was searching, and their website said that on Saturday Suzanne Collins herself would be at the store!

This was obviously a few months before I started blogging so I don't have any intensive notes to fall back on, but I do remember the event was rather small. I don't actually think there were any teenagers there - I was probably the youngest person there! Maybe two dozen of us were there, not even filling all of the chairs Books of Wonder had set out. What a difference between that and the next November when Suzanne returned to Books of Wonder and was mobbed by people carrying bags' worth of her books for her to sign! I can only imagine the madness that will be August 23rd!

But this post isn't about how the hype surrounding the books have changed. I'm not going to bother doing a traditional review at this point - most people who wanted to read the book already have and two years seems like plenty of time for spoilers to get out there. I've just re-read The Hunger Games and wanted to document some of my observations, reactions and analyses here. Next Friday I'll do the same thing for Catching Fire, and the Friday after that will hopefully be a similar post for Mockingjay. So if you're one of the five people on the planet who has decided to hold off on reading The Hunger Games until you can read the entire trilogy at once, come back to this post in a couple of weeks and consider yourself warned for spoilers for both The Hunger Games and Catching Fire!

First of all, the book's ability to make me physically respond to it has barely diminished over the last two years. I wasn't actively freaking out this time, but I did want to cry, even though I was in the middle of a rush hour subway car, when Katniss volunteers to take Prim's place and no one claps. Just that small act of rebellion is enough to take my breath away still, even though I know bigger acts of rebellion are to come.

Ever since the second time I re-read this book, I've been struck by how tightly Collins has woven this story. She has truly mastered the art of the Chekov's Gun. Small things that occur early, even something innocuous like Gale and Katniss teasing each other by saying "Stealing is illegal" comes up again in the arena. After Katniss teams up with Rue, she reminds herself that they both can't win - and while it's true that Rue doesn't join Katniss as a winner, for the first time there are two winners of the Games. And while it's been awhile since I've read Catching Fire, I noticed two small things mentioned here that play a large role in figuring out the arena in Catching Fire - that each district has a unique type of bread; and that certain parts of the arena are rigged for certain traps, so if you reach the boundary of that trap you'll be safe. I wonder if after reading Mockingjay we'll uncover some clues that were laid all the way back in The Hunger Games? (Next week I plan on including some of my predictions gleaned from the two books!)

There have been a few interviews with Suzanne Collins popping up recently, though clearly she can't say much out of fear of spoiling Mockingjay. The most interesting one I've read so far is the interview with School Library Journal where Collins explains how Katniss is like the mockingjay:
Symbolically, I suppose, Katniss is something like a mockingjay in and of herself. She is a girl who should never have existed. And the reason she does exist is that she comes from District 12, which is sort of the joke of the 12 districts of Panem... [Because the Capitol thinks] that 12 is not ever really going to be a threat because it’s small and poor, they create an environment in which Katniss develops, in which she is created, this girl who slips under this fence, which isn’t electrified, and learns to be a hunter. Not only that, she’s a survivalist, and along with that goes a degree of independent thinking that is unusual in the districts.
With that in mind, I paid more attention to the descriptions of the mockingjays this time around, perking up when Rue says "They can be dangerous though, if you get too near their nests. But you can't blame them for that." Katniss isn't a violent person, but when she or the people she loves are threatened, she springs into action.

Which leads to one of the most masterful parts of this book: how Collins wrote about a girl who is in a brutal death match, yet keeps her sympathetic. It was in the back of my head from the moment I heard the premise of the book, but when Katniss starts plotting the demise of the tribute foolish enough to start a fire in the middle of the night, I really started to wonder how Collins was going to handle the deaths. Katniss was clearly going to survive the book, and it didn't seem plausible she'd be able to get out without killing someone, but murderers aren't generally great protagonists and she couldn't just drop tracker jacket nests on everyone's head, so I was really impressed when she killed the District 1 tribute in retaliation for Rue's murder. Quick and instinctive, brutal enough to be realistic, but the circumstances painful enough to keep the reader on Katniss' side.

And the last major area of note - the romance. I've mentioned this before, but I think it bears repeating that I am firmly Team Katniss. I really don't care if Katniss "chooses" between Gale and Peeta by the end of Mockingjay, and would prefer it if no choice were actually made, because A) this isn't a romance and B) focusing on the romantic exploits ignores something Katniss states repeatedly throughout The Hunger Games: she's not interested in falling in love. She doesn't want to get married and she definitely doesn't want to have kids. Sure, she's 16 and 16 year olds are notoriously picky, but if we're willing to accept books where teenagers meet their soul mates in high school, why would we not give the same credibility to a teen who makes the opposite choice? I totally remember what it's like to be 16, declaring I have no intention of getting married, and being told patronizingly that I would change my mind. Yes, I suppose I did on that one point, but my 16 year old self got lots of other things right, like living in New York City, so I have to give her, and by extension Katniss, some credit for knowing what she wanted.

I think that's all I've got in me for now. I would love to hear your Hunger Games thoughts in the comments!

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Review: Sellout by Ebony Joy Wilkins

Found via: Reading in Color

I've said it before and I'll say it again: my social justice weak points are gender, sexual orientation, race and class. When a book hits any one of those sweet spots, I give it at least a second glance. Hit two or more, and its assured a spot on my to-read list. I've been waiting on this one since April, when Ari highlighted it as her Waiting on Wednesday title, since it looked like it was going to squarely hit race and class head on.

SelloutNaTasha is the only Black girl in her affluent New Jersey suburb. She spends a week every summer with her grandmother in Harlem, but otherwise NaTasha spends all of her time with her white girlfriends, doing things like silly contests to see whose hair grows the longest during the school year - a contest NaTasha knows she can't win with her nappy hair, even if her mom irons it straight regularly.

After a ballet recital where NaTasha's attempts to fit in with her white peers have disastrous results, her grandmother, Tilly, decides a mere week in Harlem isn't enough. NaTasha is going to spend most of her summer in the city, working with her grandmother at Amber's Place, a community center for troubled girls up in the Bronx.

After her first day at Amber's Place, NaTasha is sure she won't fit in with these girls any better than the white girls back home. For while these girls have brown skin, they immediately peg NaTasha as a sellout - someone who acts white and thinks she's better than her Black peers. But NaTasha decides to stick it out a bit longer, out of respect to Tilly, and hopes that sooner rather than later she really will find herself.

I totally understood Tilly's desire for NaTasha to get in touch with her roots. Her actions at the ballet recital (weaving scarves into her hair to give the illusion of a hair bun) indicate on some level that she's embarrassed or ashamed of who she is. Some time up in Harlem could do her some real good, showing her how other African American women love and accept the way they look. However, making her volunteer at Amber's Place really came out of nowhere. What is NaTasha supposed to learn from girls that have been abused, and even continue to abuse themselves? And then making NaTasha take part in the activities like she was just another girl - of course she and the girls are going to clash! To them, NaTasha doesn't have a real problem in the world. And in some ways, I felt that sending her to Amber's Place did make light of NaTasha's problems - they are rather "first world" problems (you need to feel that your basic needs are being met - food, shelter, safety - before you can start worrying about your identity and fitting in socially), but that doesn't make them any less real for NaTasha.

The other girls at Amber's Place, however, are totally and heartbreakingly real. Each of them has a story to tell, and especially Shaunda's and Monique's will make you rage at the injustices of the world that two otherwise bright young women would feel they are deserving of anything less than love and respect. Quiana, NaTasha's primary tormentor, also has a story to tell, making her anger perfectly understandable.

Once NaTasha gets to Harlem, the story really picks up and I enjoyed it - it's just the framing device, getting NaTasha into Harlem and the Bronx, falls a little flat and could have been handled with much more depth.
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Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Review: Little Blog on the Prairie by Cathleen Davitt Bell

I wasn't a Little House on the Prairie fan as a kid. Admittedly, I don't recall actually giving the books or the TV show a chance, I was just pretty sure I wouldn't like them and went on my way. Luckily, the Little House allusions seem to be primarily confined to the title, so don't think you have to be a fan in some way to enjoy this thoroughly entertaining book.

Little Blog on the PrairieGen's family isn't big on "family time," as each family member seems to be going in her or his own direction at any given time. Her dad doesn't even get involved with vacation plans, preferring to leave all that to her mom - which is how the family gets signed up for an entire summer at Camp Frontier - an immersive summer experience where families live, dress and work like they're on the Wyoming frontier in 1890.

To 13 year old Gen, this is the end of the world. She's supposed to be hanging out with her best friends and practicing soccer all summer so she'll be prepared for the high school's team in the fall. So her mom bribes her - come to camp without complaint, and get a fancy cell phone at the end of the summer. Gen agrees, but the allure of the phone is too much - she sneaks it to camp, promising to text her friends for as long as the battery holds out (after all, there was no electricity on the frontier - where will she charge the phone?)

Several families have come together to live the frontier life for the summer - and none of the kids seem terribly fond of the idea, including Nora, the daughter of Camp Frontier's organizers who has to live every day like it's 1890. Almost immediately, Gen bonds with Ka (short for Kate, rhymes with Saw, her favorite movie), the goth chick from a family of perky blondes set adrift without her supply of black  hair dye to keep her own blond roots at bay. And then there's the camp heartthrob, Caleb, who has just about every girl in the camp swooning in his wake, but doesn't seem to realize this.

The complicated interpersonal relationships, as well as the hardships and indignities of life on the prairie (three words: outhouse at night), are faithfully recounted by Gen via text message - which her friends back on the outside are faithfully translating into a blog. And not just any blog, but an overnight blogging sensation that has repercussions all the way back to the 1890s life of Camp Frontier.

This is a lighthearted, feel good book, totally entertaining book that is going to appeal to a variety of middle grade and young adult readers. Gen is only 13, and keeps her thoughts about Caleb on a totally PG level - when she discovers an illicit "electricity shack" on the farm, her first thought is about charging her phone, not about getting Caleb alone. Her sarcastic attitude is just enough to keep readers used to edgier fare interested in her misadventures on the farm, while being tempered with an innate sweetness that keeps her from coming off as a spoiled teenager. Gen isn't happy about being at Camp Frontier, but she does love her family, and is willing to put on a good face at least for their sake for the duration of the adventure.

The book is filled with great supporting characters as well. Even the adults have some personality - I about cheered when the moms threatened a feminist uprising when the camp owner tries to keep the women from speaking (Gen's mom is the first to point out that Wyoming had given women the vote well before 1890, meaning that women would certainly be used to speaking in their communities if nowhere else). Of course, bringing up that women were expected to fulfill 19th century societal roles gets a bit uncomfortable if you follow it to its logical conclusion - if you expect women to keep quiet, what would happen if an African- or Asian-American family signed up? It seems like some aspects of 1890 are best left ignored, like the corsets that aren't required thanks to liability issues. The feminist uprising is extremely brief, just a quick opportunity for some educational humor, and clearly isn't meant to be dwelt on.

Another educational bit is the mini-moral slipped in by the end regarding technology and expectations of privacy. It's not heavy handed, over the top, or totally obvious, but hopefully it will get younger readers thinking about privacy issues regarding e-mails and text messages - namely that once a message leaves your phone or computer, you no longer have much control over who else might see it.

While I know the summer is winding down, there's still a few weeks left for most people, and this would make an excellent last minute addition to your summer reading list!

Monday, August 9, 2010

Nonfiction Monday Review: Reel Culture by Mimi O'Connor

A lot of the nonfiction I've been reviewing has been quite serious in nature - Civil War prison camps, anorexia, bullying and feminism have all been covered recently. So Reel Culture is a nice change of pace!

Reel Culture: 50 Classic Movies You Should Know About (So You Can Impress Your Friends)Mimi O'Connor highlights "50 classic movies you should know about (so you can impress your friends," as the subtitle explains. However, from the introduction it's clear this is less about impressing your friends than gaining a quick understanding of where lots of American cultural catch phrases and images come from. It's like Cliff Notes for US popular culture.

These aren't necessarily the 50 most popular movies, critical successes or big money makers - these are films that have contributed to US culture but might not be known by today's teens. Thus a culturally important movie like Star Wars isn't included, because we've all already seen that. Instead there's Sunset Boulevard, Taxi Driver, Harold and Maude and 2001: A Space Odyssey - basically the syllabus for my 200-level film course in college (we mercifully skipped 2001 - I tried watching that in high school after I spent the summer reading all of Arthur C. Clarke's books in the series. I don't think I lasted an hour). Then there's more popcorn quality movies included, too: Jaws, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Mad Max 2 and The Rocky Horror Picture Show. And that's just a fraction of the total. Each movie gets a 2-3 page spread, describing the plot (including - spoiler alert - the endings), trivia about the making of and reception of the film, highlighting important scenes, memorable quotations (and their original context), as well as mini-filmographies for the actors and directors.

I found this to be a pretty comprehensive little book. I'd be hard pressed to think of a significant movie from 1938 to 1991 that was left out (the last entry is Silence of the Lambs because later movies haven't been established as truly culturally significant. I think you could argue about that, but on the other hand, more recent movies are more likely to have been seen already). The only possibility I can think of is from before 1938 - why not go back to the dawn of talkies with The Jazz Singer and it's famous quotation - "You ain't heard nothin' yet!" Otherwise, I'm happy with the selections.

My one complaint is the book is slightly uneven with it's social commentary on the films. When the entry on Gone with the Wind didn't earn a single mention of the enduring Mammy stereotype, which existed before the film but was certainly cemented into place in our culture upon its release, I first thought the book was going to avoid discussions of race or controversy in general. But skip forward a couple of decades to Breakfast at Tiffany's and under the "Stuff people still talk about" heading is Mickey Rooney's portrayal of Mr. Yunioshi - a Caucasian actor playing a Japanese character that is "now considered somewhat racist and offensive." I haven't actually seen Breakfast at Tiffany's, but while I don't doubt the role is considered racist now, is that really a more enduring legacy than Mammy?

A movie buff who's truly immersed herself in film isn't going to learn much from this book - the movies in there that I have seen I already knew the trivia about. However, if you've got large gaps in your movie knowledge, this is an excellent way to quickly see what you've been missing and get a few recommendations for your Netflix queue.

Nonfiction Monday
This week's Nonfiction Monday is hosted by Moms Inspire Learning. Be sure to check out all of the other great nonfiction books being reviewed today!

Review copy sent to me by the publisher, Zest Books.
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