Friday, December 31, 2010

Book Thoughts: 2010 in review

In 2009 I was a rather casual blogger, but in 2010 I stepped up my pace dramatically - I wrote 108 blog posts in 2009 and this will be my 245th post of 2010. What prompted the increase in activity? Because in 2010 I finally stepped in to become part of the kid/YA lit blogging community. In 2009 my blogging was pretty solitary, with only a handful of comments coming in when people would randomly stumble across my blog. In 2010, I started searching for community in the very first week, participating in the comment challenge and my first Bloggiesta (I know dates for Bloggiesta have been set - and I CAN'T WAIT - but does anyone know if the comment challenge is happening again?). Through the two events (plus my second Bloggiesta in the summer) I found lots of new blogs to follow - which in turn increased the number of books I added to my TBR list, as I didn't have to search out new titles; they came to me!

Speaking of the TBR list, at some point in January (maybe during the Bloggiesta?) I created a Google spreadsheet where I tracked all of the books I wanted to read. Not only was this easier than just starring posts in Google Reader or immediately requesting titles from the library, but it made it easier for me to keep track of links back to where I'd first seen the book recommended - I was having far too many instances where it'd be weeks between requesting the book from the library and finally reading it where I'd be asking myself "Why on Earth did I ever think this was going to be good?!" Now when that happens, I can easily look back and see what the inspiration was and determine whether maybe I misread a review or if the reviewer and I just have totally opposite tastes (and if a pattern develops, it's sometimes a signal that I should pare down the list of blogs that I follow, if someone is constantly recommending stuff I despise!).

Since I kept separate tabs on my spreadsheet for what I want to read, what I have read, and what I've abandoned or changed my mind about even starting, it gives me a good overview of what my reading was like this year. It's not a perfect system yet, as one of the tweaks I'll have to do for 2011 is remember to note when a book has been sent to me for review. My Read & Reviewed tab tells me I've reviewed 127 books this year, but I know books like Prisoners in the Palace, which was sent to me, or Monsters of Men, which I picked up as an ARC at ALA, aren't on the list.

Here's what I've read but haven't reviewed (some will be reviewed in the next month, but by February I hope to be reviewing mostly 2011 books)

  • Supergirls by Mike Madrid
  • She's So Dead to Us by Kieran Scott
  • My Life With the Lincolns by Gayle Brandeis
  • Freak Magnet by Andrew Auseon
  • Sources of Light by Margaret McMullen
  • Tension of Opposites by Kristina McBride
  • Kiss by Jaqueline Wilson
  • Mockingbirds by Daisy Whitney
  • Jump by Elisa Carbone
  • Best Friends Forever: A WWII Scrapbook by Beverly Patt
  • Dangerous Neighbors by Beth Kephart
  • Trickster: Native American Tales by Matt Dembicki
  • The Girl in the Song by Michael Heatley
  • Touch Blue by Cynthia Lord
  • House of Dead Maids by Claire B. Dunkle
  • No and Me by Delphine de Vigan
  • Where the Streets had a Name by Randa Abdel-Fattah
  • Seven Souls by Barnabas Miller and Jordan Orlando
  • Girl, Stolen by April Henry
  • Cate of the Lost Colony by Lisa Klein
  • The Fire Opal by Regina McBride
  • Resistance by Carla Jablonski
  • Not That Kind of Girl by Siobhan Vivian
  • The Jumbee by Pamela Keyes
  • Five Flavors of Dumb by Antony John

25 books... and there's still 54 books on my list that I want to read! I have a feeling I'll never be able to get to  the all (in no small part because some of the books have been on my list all year and my library just never got them).

In 2010 I signed up for my first reading challenges...and kinda failed miserably at them. Not that I didn't read enough books to fulfill the challenges (I purposefully chose challenges where I was already interested in the subject), but I had a terrible time remembering to go log my reviews at the challenge sites. And then they weren't the community builders I was hoping for - I'd love to participate in a challenge with roundups like Nonfiction Monday does, maybe with a post once a month that the participants submit their links to so there's a monthly reminder to check out what your fellow participants are reading and blogging about. So for 2011 I'm not participating in any other challenges; instead I'm focusing on my own What Have I Missed? challenge - I'll be posting my tentative book list for that one tomorrow, so there's still time to leave a suggestion or two!

How was 2010 for you?

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Book Roundup: Favorite Books of 2010

Some people have been posting their lists of favorite books for weeks now...but I'm a bit of a procrastinator. Besides, I read a book less than a week ago that has definitely earned a place on this list (even if I haven't had a chance to review it yet - a week long vacation to Phoenix wrought havoc on my blogging plans!), so today was pretty much the earliest I could post and not feel like I was in danger of leaving a critical title off the list.

Not all of these are strictly 2010 titles - that's why my tag for tracking many of these books is best read in 2010, because sometimes I missed a book when it was first published and didn't pick it up until I saw it on people's 2009 best-of lists, or it wasn't even published until the end of '09. I'm sure the same thing will happen when I put together a list at the end of next December.

So without further ado, here's is my list of my favorite books read in 2010. I make no grand claims about the being the highest quality or most important books of the year - rather this list reflects one blogger's opinion on her favorite titles of the year. These also aren't all of the titles in my best read in 2010 tag - my opinion has evolved over the course of the year and while I still maintain that all of those are great books, some haven't stuck with me as much as others have and thus aren't highlighted here.

Black Hole Sun by David Macinnis Gill. Soul Enchilada was one of my favorites of 2009, and as I said in my Black Hole Sun review, Gill proved in 2010 he's not a one hit wonder - and he's pretty flexible to boot. Both books have witty and sarcastic protagonists, but that's pretty much where the similarities end, as Black Hole Sun is hardcore sci-fi, with an excellent balance of character and world-building as well as alien landscapes and action-packed shootouts.

Brooklyn Nine by Alan Gratz. I loved this book so much I recommended it to my dad - who re-read it about half a dozen times in six months. I don't know if my dad has ever re-read a book, let alone asked for a book for Christmas (he requested Gratz's previous book, Samurai Shortstop, which I was happy to give him). Truly a book that appeals to people on multiple levels - great for the sports geek, history geek, NYC lover or nostalgic dad.

Efrain's Secret by Sofia Quintero. Street lit has been getting a bit of attention this year, online at least, in a campaign that I believe has been spearheaded by Megan Honig. I'll confess that I'm one of those people who generally looks askance at the genre for many reasons that Honig has mentioned (specifically misogyny, homophobia and transphobia). However between blog series like Honig's and awesome books like Efrain's Secret, I realize I'm just as guilty of bias as people who write off YA as a whole, or science fiction, etc. Efrain's Secret doesn't necessarily tackle any of my general street lit concerns head on, but it still seems to present a realistic look at life in the Bronx (I say "seems to" because my experience with the Bronx is limited to a few days a month hanging out at a friend's apartment - I am by no means an expert!). I'm looking forward to reading more from Quintero, and expanding my street lit knowledge in general in 2011.

Every Little Thing in the World by Nina de Gramont. This one has stuck with me in part for its novelty - not a whole lot of YA titles tackle the subject of abortion - but also because it's a genuine well-written book with a lot of interesting supporting characters. I'm so happy one of the few YA books featuring discussion of abortion is a legitimately excellent book - I hate it when a book does fill a void but is lacking quality somewhere else. Definitely one of my "must reads" of 2010.

Five Flavors of Dumb by Antony John. This is the novel I read last week and haven't had a chance to review yet. OMG, I couldn't put this one down, and I'm totally confused as to why this one hasn't gotten more blog-love yet - I actually found out about this one through my library's "teen scene" e-newsletter, which I usually ignore because I've usually read everything they're recommending. I'm SO GLAD I opened December's message! An awesome grrl-power message, without actually being message-y, some rock music history, and an unlikely hard rock band manager - a girl with severe hearing loss. Also some epic family drama. This one was published in November, so I don't think it's eligible for awards this coming January, but I hope this isn't forgotten when the next awards season rolls around!

Guardian of the Dead by Karen Healey. I am SO EXCITED this was nominated for the Morris Award (for a debut author of YA), as I've loved it from the moment I picked it up. Excellent use of an unfamiliar (to many US readers, anyway) mythology in an action packed story with so many feminist elements I had to rest to using bullet points in my original review. I haven't gotten much more coherent over the last seven months either - if you haven't read it yet there's not much more I can say to convince you that you need to get on this now.

King of the Screwups by K.L. Going. I'm not a big music person, but I have to admit I have an affinity for glam rock, so I knew Liam's glam rocker uncle was going to be right up my alley. Going does an excellent job portraying class issues, as well as creating a well-rounded supporting gay character that could have easily devolved into horrendous stereotypes (the aforementioned glam rock uncle).

Last Night I Sang to the Monster by Benjamin Alire Sáenz. A haunting look at addiction and recovery in an 18 year old. I also loved the real and raw emotions presented throughout the novel - and even though this is an almost all-male cast, no one is disparaged for their emotional state. Everyone has problems here, and most of them are committed to fixing those problems, to whatever extent its possible.

Little Blog on the Prairie by Cathleen Davitt Bell. This one didn't initially make it into the "best read in 2010" tag, but gets added to this list because it's one of the books I will randomly think of fondly even months later. I love that this title seems to straddle the MG/YA line, and could easily be one of those "clean" books parents (and teens) sometimes look for that isn't condescending or bending over backwards to avoid tough topics. It's a light, fun story about a family's stay at an immersive 19th century summer camp that I think has a wide range of appeal.

Out of My Mind by Sharon Draper. I still want this one to win the Newbery. I absolutely loved it. The writing is beautiful and takes you on an emotional roller coaster. I don't read enough MG to make a fully informed prediction on this one - the Heavy Medal blog posters clearly know more about MG than I do and they seem to have problems with the story that just never even occurred to me. So maybe it's an outside shot at actually winning the award, but I still found it to be a compelling read.

Rampant and Ascendant by Diana Peterfreund. Still kicking myself for not picking up Rampant when it was first published. So much to love about this series so far - the action and camaraderie among the primarily female cast tops the list, along with some overtly feminist elements. Even non-fantasy fans like me find tons to love.

Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi. The other excellent hard sci fi novel of 2010. I read this when the Gulf Oil spill was underway and it was excellent timing. The real life environmental catastrophe underscored just how plausible Bacigalupi's dystopian future really is. As a bonus, the cast is fabulously multi-cultural with some excellent class reflections between Nailer and Nita.

Sisters Red by Jackson Pearce. This is just about the only werewolf novel out there that I can tolerate. Of course, I much more than tolerate Sisters Red - I absolutely adore it. With the two very different sisters sharing the narration, it's almost like two stories in one - a paranormal romance when Rosie's narrating, and an action-horror story from Scarlett. More fairy tale retellings need to take this approach!

The Sky is Everywhere by Jandy Nelson. This is such a chick book it's kind of ridiculous how much I like it. But it's haunting and beautiful and even though I'm so not a poetry person, I love all the found-poetry that's incorporated into the text as Lennie writes out her pain about losing her sister at such a young age.

Sprout by Dale Peck. One of the few times where my tastes and an award committee's fall in line - Sprout won the 2010 Lambda Literary award for young people's literature. I was able to read four out of five of the nominees (my library never did receive In Mike We Trust, grr) and this was definitely my favorite of the bunch.

Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green & David Levithan. I'm still waiting on the Tiny Dancer libretto, gentlemen. It needs to be written. Also now that I think about it, I think Tiny Cooper and Lennie's uncle from The Sky is Everywhere would get along famously, since they're both so in love with love as well as sharing an interest in various illicit substances.

So...17 titles in all. That's not a random number at all! Oh well. What about you - what were your favorites this year? Did I totally miss something? Do I have crappy taste in books? Let me know in the comments!

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Review: Dragon Chica by May Lee Chai

Found via: Forever Young Adult

This is definitely a novel with cross over appeal - I'm pretty sure technically it's written as an adult novel, just because of stylistic quirks that aren't part of the YA tradition, but since it covers Nea's young adulthood (we meet her when she's 11 and follow her through the end of high school), it's definitely accessible to teens as well. I could definitely see this being one of those mother/daughter book club picks.

Dragon ChicaIt's the 1980s and Nea, her mother, older sisters, and three younger siblings, are scraping by in Texas. The only Khmer in the community - the only Asians, really - and not knowing if any of their relatives were also able to escape from the Khmer Rouge regime, Nea feels more isolated than the average 11 year old. So when an aunt and uncle write her mother, saying they now live in Nebraska and run a Chinese restaurant there, Nea's mother promptly packs up the family and their few belongings in their beat up car, and drive from Texas to Nebraska.

Nebraska is not the land of dreams as her aunt and uncle promised, however. While Chinese restaurants were prestigious in Cambodia, Nebraskans haven't developed a taste for Asian cuisine yet. The family spends long hours at the restaurant for little pay off, and eventually Nea's sister Sourdi is set up in an arranged marriage with a much older man who her uncle is in debt to. At 16, Sourdi is suddenly put into the role of a grown woman, and Nea loses the one person in the family she feels she can talk to. Nea spends the rest of her teen years feeling increasingly isolated and angry - at the hicks who shout racial slurs at her family, at the family the demands she works when she should be studying, and at the mother who doesn't understand her Americanized daughter.

While this novel covers ages and experiences that are often part of YA novels, it really brought into focus for me some of the stark contrasts between adult and YA. For one thing, YA novels don't usually last very long - I think covering the course of a single school year is the longest period of time I can think of off hand. More often the novel's events will happen in days or maybe weeks. Dragon Chica covers 7 years in under 300 pages. This isn't a criticism, as Chai does an excellent job of picking out the important events over those 7 years, but merely an observation of one of th major differences between YA and adult novels.

Nea's story is painful to read at times, as her family is the victim of some ugly racism. Her family also has some difficulty adjusting to their places in America - her younger siblings are too young to remember their time in Cambodia so they are excused from acting "American," while Sourdi is old enough that she has extensive memories of Cambodia and wishes in many ways to remain true to that heritage. Nea is truly a child of both worlds, with vague memories of Cambodia but an intense desire to fit in as much as possible with her American schoolmates. While parts of Nea's story are surely unique to the Cambodian immigrant experience, large parts of it also seem like they apply to all immigrants, and will be appreciated by anyone with close ties to another country and culture.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Review: The Dark Game by Paul B. Janeczko

Nominated for the 2011 YALSA award for excellence in nonfiction

I've never been much of a fan of spy/mystery stories. I don't have anything against them, it's just that in the huge number of stories that are published every year, other things pique my interest first. Janeczko says in his introduction that he guesses the reader of the book has an interest in spies that "may run as deeply as [his]." Well that's not the case for me, but I still found this to be an incredibly interesting book.

The Dark Game: True Spy StoriesJaneczko covers spying in America and by Americans from the Revolutionary War through early 2001. He picks out a few individual spies or campaigns for the major wars (plus the cold war) the US has engaged in, as well as highlights some of the evolving technology that's important in spy work (such as cameras, naturally). Some of these stories are absolutely amazing - like the tunnel the US and British dug from West to East Berlin in order to tap into Soviet telegraph cables.

Janeczko definitely has a flair for drama, as often these are tales of agents or governments crossing and double-crossing each other. For example, in the case of the Berlin tunnel, just when you think the story has ended and all is well for the US...Janeczko reveals a major twist in the story, illustrating that even the best laid plans can go awry, and sometimes you won't even know it.

I also have to say I'm really impressed that Janeczko highlights female spies, without ghettoizing them into a "lady spy" section. He covers the glamorous Mata Hari as well as Virginia Hall - a woman with a wooden leg who aided the French Resistance in WWII. Women spies also played important roles in the Revolutionary War and the Civil War.

Janeczko clearly has a deep interest in the technical side of spying. Not only are advances in technology highlighted in each chapter, but he often goes into detail about various codes that spies use. I'll admit a lot of these codes went over my head, but me and numbers just don't get along (and many of these codes rely on number substitutions), so I'm willing to be that's more of a problem on my part. It's still interesting to see the variety of codes used and how they've changed - with a highlight for me being the Choctaw Code Talkers in WWI, who were able to foil the Germans who were evesdropping on US communications by using an utterly foreign language.

This isn't an exhaustive biography of any one spy - rather this is an overview of how spying has affected US policies by looking at a few of the most influential individuals (both those who spied for the US and those who spied against us). I don't know how well known some of the people and events would be to someone who has a hard core interest in spies - I, for example, knew about the women mentioned in the Civil War from my reading on women's roles during that war - but it's certainly an enlightening and entertaining read for someone totally new to the subject.

Nonfiction Monday

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Double Review: Rampant and Ascendant by Diana Peterfreund

OMG, you guys. You guys, why didn't anyone tell me that books about killer unicorns are FREAKING AWESOME?!

I don't know exactly why I decided to skip on Rampant the first time around. I think I was focusing more on the "unicorn" rather than the "killer" part of the description, plus I'm just generally prejudiced against fantasy. Then I read Peterfreund's contribution to Zombies vs. Unicorns and was intrigued - I was curious about whether the characters were original and just set in her previously established world (like Carrie Ryan's contribution), or if these characters appeared in the series proper. But then I never made an effort to seek out Rampant. Until I was browsing at the library and Rampant was sitting face out on a shelf. On an impulse, I picked it up.

And I'm so glad I did. And I'm also so glad I didn't get Rampant until Ascendant was already out, so I only had to wait a week rather than a year to get more of Astrid's story.

RampantAstrid Llewelyn has grown up listening to her mother's crazy stories about killer unicorns. When the rest of the world believes unicorns are mythical sparkly creatures, what else can a trying-to-be-normal 16 year old do? So when her boyfriend is attacked by a real live killer unicorn during a late night make out session in a forest, Astrid's concept of reality is turned upside down.

Her mother, however, sees this as an opportunity, and doesn't hesitate to ship Astrid off to a nunnery in Rome that is the 21st century reincarnation of the ancient Order of the Lioness - an order of nuns who dedicated their lives to protecting humanity from the unicorn scourge. And it just so happens that Astrid's family line was historically known to be the biggest, baddest hunters out there. With the financial support of a pharmaceutical company hoping to find the mythical Remedy derived from unicorns and said to be able to cure anything, Astrid and an international crew of hunters band together to learn the truth of the unicorn Reemergence and defend humanity from the long-forgotten threat.

AscendantAscendant picks up shortly after Rampant ends. While the world at large is well aware of the unicorn threat, the Cloisters is still falling short in their funding and recruitment goals. As soon as they find a girl capable of being a hunter, she quickly decides to relinquish her eligibility. And the only organization willing to fund the Cloisters is the Vatican, who want to place some strict rules on the young women who've taken over their nunnery. To add more worry to Astrid's plate, her boyfriend is heading back to the US and one of her best friends and fellow hunters is mysteriously losing her hunting powers.

So when Astrid has the chance to escape the Vatican's strict rules, gain funding for the Cloisters, and re-focus on her scientific passions all in one go, she leaps at the chance. It doesn't hurt that she also gets to hang out in the French countryside, too. But being part of Gordian Pharmaceuticals again opens up a host of new questions for Astrid, making her question her loyalties as a hunter and a scientist.

What excited me the most about these two books is just how darn feminist they are. Seriously, these are some of the most feminist books I've read since The Disreputable History of Frankie-Landau Banks. Throughout both books there are positive depictions of young women's sexuality, and then especially in Ascendant there's discussions about women (even those who weren't unicorn hunters) who defied traditional notions of femininity to follow their passions in science and medicine. And then yes, there's the idea of a secret group of women who are all that stands between humanity and the unicorn scourge. Women with big swords = awesome.

In Ascendant, Peterfreund also excels where Suzanne Collins failed in Mockingjay to give us an injured protagonist who is a little foggy...yet still manages to keep the story going. Whereas Katniss became half-comatose every time a big plot point comes up, Astrid powers through her injury, acknowledging she's weaker and she can't remember some things sometimes while other things are crystal clear (even if they might be hallucinations...?). Yes, it's a bit confusing, but damn if it doesn't work amazingly. I felt Astrid's frustrations right along with her.

On the other hand, every once in awhile Astrid is a bit...dumb. Even before her catastrophic injury. Her ex-boyfriend disappears right after she tells the pharmaceutical rep that he's the only living person to receive some of the Remedy...and she really believes he just coincidentally ran away? The big biology student can't figure out why a female unicorn may be hugely fat while all of the rest are grotesquely thin? Neither of these require a degree in rocket science to put together a working hypothesis for. Thankfully, Astrid's inability to put two and two together only happens rarely, and doesn't detract from the overall awesomeness of the two stories. My other minor quibble is the lack of description of what's going on in the rest of the world. By Ascendant it's clear that unicorns are known by the general public, but I want to know how on Earth they reacted. Panic in the streets? Mass migrations back into the cities? Inquiring minds want to know! But otherwise, both of these books fall into the "couldn't put it down" category, and they're so richly written that I did find it took me longer to read them than books of similar lengths, because I just didn't want to miss a word.

Peterfreund also does an excellent job in both books of finishing the main story, while leaving a few hooks for the next book to pick up on. This didn't stop me from feeling extremely impatient while waiting to get Ascendant from the library, but that was out of desperately wanting more of Astrid's adventures rather than needing to know how the darn story ends. Of course, there's a big question left unanswered at the end of Ascendant, and I'm certainly desperate to know the answer!

Rampant is actually what really inspired me to put together my What have I missed? personal reading challenge. Technically it doesn't fit into the guidelines I've set for my reading next year, but it got me thinking about all of the similarly awesome books I've missed out on just because I wasn't paying attention to YA when they were published! So please pop into the comments over there and leave more suggestions - and then go pick up Rampant and Ascendant if you haven't already!

Monday, December 13, 2010

Nonfiction Monday Review: Janis Joplin Rise Up Singing by Ann Angel

Nominated for the 2011 YALSA award for excellence in nonfiction

Janis Joplin. Does the woman truly need an introduction? An inimitable voice, a tragically short life, she was a true rock star, one of the few women to jump in feet first to rock hard with the men of the 60s.

Janis Joplin: Rise Up SingingAs soon as I opened this book I knew why it had been nominated for the nonfiction award. It's a visually striking book, with psychedelic borders on every page, sticking out against the mostly black and white photography.

The book dives right in to Joplin's mostly unhappy high school life. While she had a loving and supportive family, she didn't fit in with the rigid conformity demanded by her small Texas home town. Joplin fell in with the "bad boys," started reading the Beats, and plotting ways to escape - first to Austin, then to LA, San Francisco and New York City.

Angel follows Joplin's artistic growth. Music wasn't her first or only passion - she was also a painter and initially used that as her creative outlet before discovering her amazing voice. Inspired by folk and the blues, Janis went on to forge a sound all her own.

(My favorite Janis Joplin song - Piece of My Heart)

Unfortunately, it doesn't feel like the text lives up to the art design in this biography. It feels choppy, with extremely brief and random notes on parts of Joplin's life that I feel like were only put in there to be edgy. There's a paragraph or two on Joplin's relationships with women, which are never brought up again. Same with a brief paragraph about an abortion Joplin sought in Mexico in 1967 - a paragraph that also includes the factually incorrect statement that abortion was illegal in the United States at the time. This is a minor point, and I have no reason to believe Angel gets any of the important biographical data wrong, but it still bugs me and makes me question how correct the rest of her research was.

EDIT: Ann Angel was kind enough to contact me today regarding this point (and I would have corrected this sooner, but Blogger wasn't cooperating with my work computer). After careful consideration, she and her copy editors "opted to apply the date of the Supreme Court decision (Roe v. Wade)" to the text when discussing the legality of abortion in the US. I really appreciate Ann Angel contacting me about this point and clarifying her writing and research process. I still feel that the way the text is currently written it over-simplifies a culturally significant issue, but I want to publicly thank Ms. Angel for taking the time to contact me and consider my concerns.

This is a beautiful book, about an important person in music history, but unfortunately the writing doesn't live up to its promise.

Nonfiction Monday
Today's Nonfiction Monday is hosted by Books Together, but before checking out the rest of the nonfiction being reviewed this week, please also visit my What have I missed? post from yesterday, where I'm collecting titles for my own personal 2011 reading challenge.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Book Thoughts: What Have I Missed?

I've realized something recently: when people ask me for book recommendations, my choices are pretty limited. While I read a ton of books (obviously), due to the nature of this blog I tend to limit myself to the most recently published titles. How many amazing YA books have I missed...and don't even realize it?

When I was in high school, I was totally immersed in YA books. Working with Lynn and Cindy as they were on the BBYA committee meant I had access to pretty much any new book I wanted and then some.

And then I went to college and my reading for pleasure dropped like a rock. There were just way too many other things going on. And when I did finally get some time to myself back, the first thing I did was throw myself back into watching TV. I didn't get back onto the YA bandwagon until two years ago, when I started this blog.

So I've decided I'm not joining any official reading challenges next year, but I would like to start one for myself, drawing the reading list from you guys. I want to read at least 12 books next year (roughly one per month) that were published between 2003 and 2008 - my lost YA reading years. However, I hardly know where to begin since there were roughly a million books published in those 5 years. That's where you come in! Please, leave a comment with a book (or two or ten!) published between 2003 and 2008 that you think I must read. And by this time in 2011, I hope to be able to call myself a much more well-rounded YA reader than I am now.

(Edited to add: I knew my blog anniversary was around this time...turns out it was yesterday! So...happy 2nd blogaversary to me!)

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Review: Sphinx's Queen by Esther Friesner

I picked this one up in my ARC grab way back at ALA (yes, I'm still working through those books!), solely based on my love of Ancient Egypt. I think Ancient Egypt was the first historical period I became obsessed with and my fascination with the subject hasn't left me yet. So I was very much looking forward to this one, only to be sorely disappointed.

Sphinx's Queen (Princesses of Myth)Nefertiti is on the run from the Pharaoh's court, after being accused of a heinous crime she didn't commit. With the help of Amenophis, brother to the crown prince who accused Nefertiti, and Nava, a young Hebrew slave girl, Nefertiti is able to escape Prince Thutmose's clutches and report his treachery to Pharaoh. While Pharaoh and his wife, a power hungry woman determined to see her favored son take the throne one day, are at first disbelieving, Pharaoh agrees that justice must be sought, and grants Nefertiti the chance for a fair judgement before the goddess Bast.

As Nefertiti continues her quest for justice, she finds herself increasingly isolated from her friends and family in the palace. She discovers twists and treacheries that force her to question some of her fundamental beliefs in the gods, but while she knows she may not have all the answers, there is only one just answer to her cause, and she will not rest until the world knows of her innocence - and her love of a certain prince of Egypt...

The biggest problem this novel has is how one dimensional the story and the characters are. While the fundamental plot is strong enough, I found being in Nefertiti's head to be tiring because she was just so. Darn. Good. She never has a selfish thought and is benign and forgiving of all who sin against her. She's so kind and good that she ends up changing the less savory characters in the story with little effort, they're just so charmed by her. She's so perfect that there's really no narrative arc for her - she's essentially a Mary Sue.

The secondary characters are no better. The villains are cartoons until they have the opportunity to really get to know Nefertiti - somehow she inspires them to want to be better people, just for the sake of being good after a lifetime of selfishness. There's also another royal wife who fits almost all aspects of the magical negro stereotype. She's the only character who is highlighted as having exceptionally dark skin (she was originally a Nubian princess before the Pharaoh claimed her as one of his many wives), she's all but forgotten in the palace and prefers to live that way, only suddenly coming out of hiding to help out the fairer-skinned Nefertiti because, again, Nefertiti is such a good person. Her presence is random and really rather jaw dropping.

Amazon tells me this is part of a series - it looks like Friesner tackles the stories of many historical women, and in fact Sphinx's Queen is the sequel to Sphinx's Princess, though this one stands on its own well enough. There's no mention on my ARC version that this is a sequel and there were no glaring holes in the narrative that made me feel like part of the story was missing - unless Sphinx's Princess includes an explanation for why Nefertiti is so perfect. Since I haven't read any of Friesner's other titles, I can't say how this compares to her other works and whether this is a satisfying sequel, but I can say that this gives me no desire to pick up any of her other titles.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Book Thoughts: More awards and blogger/librarian praise

In November we had the National Book Awards. In the past week, the shortlists for two ALA awards have been posted as well: the YALSA award for Excellence in Nonfiction and the William C. Morris Award for debut authors writing for young adults.

Nonfiction shortlist:

  • Janis Joplin: Rise Up Singing by Ann Angel
  • They Called Themselves the KKK by Susan Campbell Bartoletti
  • Spies of Mississippi by Rick Bowers
  • The Dark Game: True Spy Stories by Paul Janeczko
  • Every Bone Tells a Story by Jill Rubalcaba and Peter Robertshaw

I just picked up Janis Joplin last night, and I have to admit that out of the three I haven't read, it's the one I'm most excited about.

Morris shortlist:

  • Hush by Eishes Chayil
  • Guardian of the Dead by Karen Healey
  • Hold Me Closer, Necromancer by Lish McBride
  • Crossing the Tracks by Barbara Stuber
  • The Freak Observer by Blythe Woolston
Guardian of the Dead is still one of my favorite reads of the year, so currently I'm rooting for that one...but it's also the only Morris nominee I've read. I'm anxiously awaiting the arrival of the others at my library!

In non-awards news, this week also saw the publication of a profile on one of my favorite people in the world, Cindy Dobrez, my librarian from back in middle school and current blogger extraordinaire along with Lynn at Bookends. I talked to a columnist with the Christian Science Monitor last month, sharing how Cindy inspired me as a student and still helps me out today (even if most of that didn't make it into the article!) Check it out! 

Monday, December 6, 2010

Review: The Turning: What Curiosity Kills by Helen Ellis

Found via: Forever Young Adult

When I was 12 years old, I received my first Animorphs book (#2, The Visitor) in my Easter basket. Did my mom choose it because it was excellently reviewed, popular science fiction with a diverse and engaging cast of characters?


She picked it out because there was a girl turning into a cat on the cover, and I liked cats.

Since the Animorphs books aren't being re-printed until Spring 2011, I think 12-year-old-me would be getting The Turning: What Curiosity Kills for Christmas 2010. And the girls-turning-into-cats thing isn't even the only bit these two books have in common.

The Turning Book 1: What Curiosity KillsHaving been adopted into an elite Manhattan family at a young age, all Mary wants to do is fit in. While her sister Octavia is outspoken and brash, Mary attempts to be normal and unassuming in every way possible - even if that means the boy she's crushing on hardly knows she exists. When she starts feeling tired all the time and having weird cravings, Mary can write that off as a growth spurt. But what about her sudden dislike of running water? And an amazing sense of smell? Oh, and the thick patch of orange hair that sprouted on her leg after a run in with the neighborhood stray?

Mary is far from normal, it turns out. Bit by bit, she's transforming into a cat, at a time when there's a bit of a power struggle happening between different cat factions in New York City - and each side wants Mary to join them, when all Mary wants is to return to her normal life. Enlisting the aid of Octavia, who has some excellent research skills on top of her sauciness, Mary desperately searches for a way to end her turning before there's no turning back.

So aside from turning into a cat, what does this book have in common with Animorphs? The length. This book goes at a ridiculously quick pace, and it's one of the few stories that I wish were a hundred pages longer just so everything can be slightly more fleshed out. There are lots of details that are glossed over - like there are bits where cats will speak to Mary, with their dialog indicated in italics. It's never explained whether these cats are psychic and are putting fully formed phrases in Mary's head, or if maybe Mary is just translating cat behaviors into human speech. The ending is also quite abrupt, which is no problem if the next installment is coming out in a month or two, but leaves us hanging in the worst way when the wait between titles is indefinite (Google revealed nothing about book 2 of The Turning and Helen Ellis' website isn't the easiest to navigate. I'm not a fan of video blogs). This isn't a book with a cliff hanger ending - the climax finishes and then...the end. No denouement, no closure, and no real indication of what could happen next.

Octavia has gotten some blogger love, as she well should. First of all, she's a debate geek, and while I technically didn't do debate, forensics was debate-adjacent, so I love that about her. At first she comes across as a horrible sassy-black-girl stereotype, but Ellis does an excellent job of revealing why Octavia presents herself the way she does. Very interesting.

Also thought it was interesting that both Mary and Octavia are adopted. At first it's totally random and seems like it's just a way to put two non-New-Yorker characters (Mary is originally from Alabama, Octavia from Nebraska) in the big city. So far it hasn't added a lot to Mary, but again it adds some real depth to Octavia's character, as the girl who appears to totally have it all together does in fact have some deep rooted insecurities tied to being adopted.

This is a fun, short read with an interesting twist to the ever-expanding genre of fantasy and paranormal creatures taking over YA. Not a book I'd necessarily run out to get, but certainly fun once you dive in.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Review: Prisoners in the Palace by Michaela Maccoll

Okay, enough slacking off from me! I've had essentially a month's vacation from blogging, and hopefully I've gotten that slacking out of my system. It's the beginning of a new month, the last month of the year, and I'm going to be much better about blogging regularly from here on out!

On to the book at hand: I was already looking forward to reading Prisoners in the Palace: How Princess Victoria became Queen with the Help of Her Maid, a Reporter, and a Scoundrel before Chronicle contacted me and offered me a copy for review (so thanks for that!). If nothing else, I was eager to get my hands on a copy to get a look at the cover up close. The Space Between Trees, reviewed in July, had a beautifully unique cover, with the cutout silhouette revealing a pearlescent paper. This time around the front cover is metallic (I'm like a magpie when it comes to shiny stuff), with the back cover invoking the 19th century equivalent of supermarket tabloid with excerpts of gossipy articles teasing plot points of the book. Underneath the jacket, the book is decorated in a damask design. Chronicle is clearly invested in making their books look just as good on the outside as they are on the inside - and Prisoners in the Palace is quite excellent!

Prisoners in the Palace: How Princess Victoria became Queen with the Help of Her Maid, a Reporter, and a ScoundrelJust as Liza Hastings is preparing for her grand debut into London society in 1836, tragedy strikes - her parents are killed in an accident, leaving Liza penniless and destitute. Through generous family connections, however, Liza is able to apply for a position in the household of Princess Victoria - as a lady's maid. It's a huge step down socially for Liza, but when the other option is to be out on the street, she is determined to make the best of her situation.

A cunning and clever young woman, Liza is drawn into the intrigue of royal life, and the lives of the royal servants. Genuinely fond of the princess, Liza looks out for the naive young woman and does all she can to protect the princess from her predatory guardian, while trying to avoid being fired for impertinence. She is assisted by, as the subtitle says, a reporter and a scoundrel. The newspaper industry was growing rapidly during this era, and Liza teams up with a promising broadsheet entrepreneur to promote Victoria's interests. The scoundrel facilitates Liza's meetings, and even has the chance to be a hero in his own right.

Maccoll has crafted an excellent work of historical fiction. In fact, I think this is even deserving of the title historical thriller, as Laurie Halse Anderson has asked that her historical works be called. Prisoners in the Palace is filled with intrigue and danger, though perhaps on a smaller scale than Chains and Forge. Maccoll truly brings her characters to life through engaging dialog and seamless integration of historical facts into the narrative. History is further brought to life through excerpts of Victoria's journals and other contemporary writings, though Maccoll admits in the author's note that she fudged the date and order of some of these.

This is a novel primarily populated by women, and they are a diverse and engaging group, ranging from disgraced maids to Queens of England. The men don't get as much screen time so they come off flatter in comparison to people like Liza and Victoria, but still support an excellent story.

I enthusiastically recommend Prisoners in the Palace to fans of historical fiction thrillers, and even to those of you who claim you'd rather stick with contemporary or fantasy novels. Maccoll clearly paints the picture of early-19th century England for those of us who know little of the time period, and populates the world with characters who perfectly balance historical and modern sensibilities.

Reviewed from review copy received from publisher.
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