Saturday, December 31, 2011

Looking Ahead

In many ways, 2011 was a fabulous year for me. Got to spend quality time with family and friends, my family is healthy and happy, and I continue to have steady employment. That's so much more than so many other people can say, that I recognize how lucky I am and continue to count my blessings.

However, 2011 was also a year of a lot of uncertainty. I'm not going to go into the details, but that's partly why my blogging has dropped to zilch over the last few months.

2012, however, is looking up. I'm pulling myself together and will definitely be getting back on the blogging bandwagon. My husband and I got an iPad for Christmas (yes, one to share between the two of us. No, we haven't come to blows over it. Yet) and I'm working on filling it with some ebooks - mostly old favorites for now (the idea that I will always have some of these books on me is very seductive), but I'm keeping an eye on the ebooks my library has available and will be trying that out soon enough.

So this is really just the obligatory "I'm not dead yet" post. Hope everyone has had a great holiday season thus far and will have celebrations just as large or small as they like tonight.

See you all in 2012!

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Review: Don't Stop Now by Julie Halpern

Julie Halpern totally won me over with Into the Wild Nerd Yonder, so even though Don't Stop Now didn't promise me nerdy D&D hijinks, I still needed to check it out. There may be no D&D, but I love road trips, so I thought this would be worth a shot - and I was totally right.

When Lillian's sorta-friend, Penny, leaves her a weird voice mail at 4:30 in the morning, Lil doesn't think much of it. "I did it?" What does that even mean? But then her parents started calling. And then the cops. Apparently Penny has been kidnapped?

Except Lil is pretty sure Penny faked it - she kind of mentioned that once. And Lil has a feeling she may have run away to Oregon. So she calls up her BFF (and major-crush) Josh, and the two set out on a road trip from Chicago to Portland with nothing but Josh's dad's credit card and the clothes on their backs. Along the way the dynamic duo stop at all the great tourist-attractions of fly-over country - the Badlands, Wall Drug, the Corn Palace, etc. And Lil keeps hoping that this trip, probably their last great adventure before she moves away for college and Josh starts pursuing his music career in earnest, will be the trip that makes Josh see her as more than just a girl friend.

In between the chapters of Lil and Josh's antics, we also get short, heartbreaking scenes from Penny's life over the last year or so. Glimpses of a family that uses her as nothing more than a baby sitter, and boyfriend that uses her as a doormat - and a punching bag. It's not hard to figure out why Lil might have decided to run away - but did she really fake that kidnapping?

This story is a road trip and story of friendship first and foremost - the long term friendship between Lil and Josh, as well as the lengths Lil will go to in order to help someone who didn't have a lot of options in the friend-department. The romantic angle was played just right. There's some angst here, because Lil has pretty much always loved Josh but he's never seen it, but that never overwhelms their friendship. Even when she's a little disappointed that they only literally slept together in a cozy motel bed, she still has fun with their zany road trip.

Even though for most of the story we only get small insights into Penny, I really liked her as a character, too. Who didn't have a friend/acquaintance that they knew just well enough to say "hi" to at parties and work on projects together if there was no one else in the class? And a lot of us have probably been in friendships like that where one person clearly read a lot more into it than the other did. The vignettes also painted a clear picture of why someone might stay with a boyfriend (or girlfriend) who clearly isn't right for them - who can be outright abusive. It's terrifying and played exactly right - Penny's story lends some gravitas to what would otherwise be a light romantic comedy.

Julie Halpern is two-for-two with me so far. Her characters are always dynamic, funny and honest. I can't wait to see what she comes out with next!

Monday, September 19, 2011

Nonfiction Monday: Super Mario by Jeff Ryan

I'm not really a big video gamer - I like to say that video games got too advanced for me around the era of the N64. Once they stopped doing side scrolling games? I was totally lost.

But my brother is a huge gamer, so despite hardly playing a game at all, I try to keep abreast of the latest gaming news, so after seeing this Slate interview with Jeff Ryan, I thought I'd give this book a try. My family was always a Nintendo family - my parents liked Nintendo's emphasis on family-friendly games - so I've always had an affinity for Super Mario.

Super Mario: How Nintendo Conquered America isn't a hard hitting expose. This is no tell-all memoir of tawdry details and sordid affairs. Ryan doesn't necessarily avoid some of the less-than-awesome things Nintendo has done, but he certainly prefers to emphasize the positives of the company.

And there's a lot of positives here. Did you know Nintendo was trying to get us all into online gaming way back in the NES (Nintendo Entertainment System) era? That the character of Mario was created in a company-wide contest (because the president of Nintendo didn't want to pull his "real" programmers away from other projects that were more-likely money makers. Mario, via Donkey Kong the arcade game, was a last-ditch effort to recoup losses in the US market)? That the NES Mario games were some of the first to be intentionally designed to make you want to replay them over and over to learn all their secrets?

While there's an extensive bibliography (according to the acknowledgements, there's even supposed to be "downloadable content" extra chapters at the website, but right now that appears to be only for those who preordered? Hm), this isn't a heavy academic tome with footnotes every two paragraphs. It's a serious look at a light-hearted topic, but isn't afraid to have fun, either. Video game puns abound, and the book design is whimsical - the book is divided in sections, further divided into chapters, so the chapter headings are given in familiar Mario-game parlance: 2-1, 4-8 and so on.

While the focus is definitely on Mario and Nintendo, this strikes me as a must-read for all gamers, because without Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft wouldn't be around as we know them. Nintendo was the front runner for so many years that they drove innovation in the industry. And while Nintendo has forfeited the graphics fight to the other two powerhouses, it's still driving innovation in the industry. Ryan calls the other two's attempts to get into motion-controlled gaming merely also-rans, and that Nintendo had considered those ideas first, but opted for a controller-based motion system because they felt using your whole body as a controller would require a player to basically re-learn controls for every game. If nothing else, Nintendo thinks their decisions through with painstaking detail.

This is an excellent adult non-fiction book that will appeal to anyone interested in video games. I highly enjoyed it.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Book Thoughts: Library visit + final #SpeakGeek post

First, the results of my weekly library trip:

Picked up this week:
Sweetly - Jackson Pearce
This Thing Called the Future - JL Powers
Dust and Decay - Jonathan Maberry

Still have from last week, haven't started:
The Floating Islands - Rachel Neumeier
Wrapped - Jennifer Bradbury

Finishing now:
Super Mario: How Nintendo Conquered America - Jeff Ryan (will be finished and reviewed for Nonfiction Monday this coming week! Really enjoying this book; it's absolutely fascinating, even to someone like me who isn't a hardcore gamer)
Don't Stop Now - Julie Halpern (all nerds need to check out Into the Wild Nerd Yonder for its awesome look at high school D&D and LARPing)

Read This Week:
She Loves You, She Loves You Not - Julie Anne Peters (Peters writes awesome lesbian angsty romance. Unfortunately, the rest of the book kind of falls apart, since 90% of the drama hinges on something that could be solved with one conversation)

Usually I end up reading more than one book in a week, but Super Mario is pretty big, and I haven't even finished it yet - I've got one more chapter to go, I think, and it's too big of a book to justify carrying on the subway for such a short amount left to read! Need to finish it this weekend though, so my husband can take it with him when he travels for work (boo).

I've been debating what to write for my final Speak Out with your Geek Out post, and finally decided just to go big:

I am an internet geek.

I know it sounds kind of vague, but seriously? I love the internet. Not blogging, not Twitter, not news sites, not chat rooms.

The Internet.

Getting the internet at home back in 1997 absolutely changed my life. We weren't cutting edge by then - I was  hardly the first of my friends with a computer, and I'd been on the internet in school for a few years at that point. But I had some advantages some of my friends didn't - namely, after a few months my parents started trusting me enough to let me go on the internet without supervision (for you young'ns - this was before Net Nanny software and all of that - supervision when I was 13 meant my mom literally sitting just over my shoulder, watching the AOL chatrooms I was in!).

I wasn't yearning to do anything too crazy at that point, but it did mean I had the freedom to interact with people my "real life" friends couldn't, because their parents were sure everyone on the internet was a pervert.

I met my first internet friends in an old chat room called Trekker Chat. It was a great way for young little me to get my feet wet in internet friendships, because my parents ended up joining the chatroom too. Even if we weren't on at the same time (impossible, since we only had one computer!), people knew that little Bellana's parents would be coming around later, so don't hassle the kid.

I also wasn't the only kid of an adult chatter in the room, and it was there that I first met someone other than myself and a few school friends who read the Animorphs books. And thus began my first forays into maintaining websites, writing fan fiction, and developing some of the best friendships I had in my life.

Through high school I had a sprawling online social life, one far more active than anything in school. I was friends with people of all ages, from a few years younger than me up through people as old as my parents. I would have long chats on ICQ with people all around the world. While other kids were sneaking out in the middle of the night to party, I was staying up until 4, 5 or 6 in the morning to put the finishing touches on my latest fan fic masterpiece.

I did have real-life relationships at this time too, just so you know. My two best friends in high school stood up for me at my did one of my best online friends from this time (a friend I never actually got to meet in person until after I'd asked her to be in the wedding! I sent her an e-mail and was like "Uh, I know this could be totally weird to you, so just know that if you say no I won't be offended or anything! But will you be one of my bridesmaids???"). I did theatre all through high school, and book club after school and in the summers. But in my first year of college, when I had to write a speech about a community I belonged to? I wrote about an Animorphs fan fic mailing list 1) to be sure I had an original speech subject and 2) to honor a group of people that were no less real to me, just because we only interacted via e-mails and instant messages.

During college my internet socializing backed off a little - thanks to those stupid things called "classes," but after college my internet usage, as well as TV watching!, picked right back up. Instead of focusing on Animorphs and fan fiction, however, I've moved into book blogging. Just like in my Star Trek and Animorph super-fan days, I've met bloggers in real life, and even attended conventions dedicated to my hobbies. For some reason these aren't looked at with fear and skepticism like they used to be - is it because I'm an adult now? Internet friendships are more recognized? I'm working online on something that's at least tangentially related to the career I'm pursuing? I don't know.

And alongside book blogging folks, I'm accumulating a whole new set of friends now that I've joined an MMO - City of Heroes. I've got a role playing supergroup that is pretty epic - both in terms of role play and the people that are in it. I've actually just set up Skype on my work computer, since that's the chat client of choice among my fellow superheroes, so we can keep in contact during the day.

I've also totally jumped on the Google + bandwagon - though I am the sort of internet geek that notes that it has some ridiculous shortcomings that are going to prevent it from reaching its full potential. Sigh.

The internet is so much more than a mere tool for me. It's a gateway to entertainment, information and communication. And perhaps most importantly, it facilitates a new way to find communities and build and maintain relationships all around the world.

So out of everything I geek out about, I'd really have to say the internet is what I'm most passionate about. Because without it, so many of my passions never would have had a chance to flourish.

For more Speak Out with your Geek Out posts, be sure to check the official site. Also, on this week's episode of A Couple of Geeks, I shared my geek love for YA lit!

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Book Thoughts: Anachronistic Historical Fiction

A few months back I wrote about the suspension of disbelief in fantasy and science fiction, and how it's not necessary to counter one fantastic element with everything else being hyper-real, especially when it comes to cultures that oppress minorities. I'm going to go be all complicated and look at when defying reality feels like it goes a little too far for me.

This Dark Endeavor: The Apprenticeship of Victor FrankensteinI started reading This Dark Endeavour: The Apprenticeship of Victor Frankenstein earlier this week, drawn in by the connection to Mary Shelley's original Frankenstein novel. While the writing is great, however, I think this is one of the few books I'm going to give up on before finishing?

Why? The characters are too darn nice.

In Victor's family, girls are educated just as well as boys. Interest in the arts is cultivated just as much as an interest in science. The rich family spends every Sunday cooking lavish meals for the serving staff!

Any one of these things I would have been okay with - heck, I'd probably be okay with all of them - if the characters weren't so damn smug about how enlightened they are. And, like SF dystopia XVI earlier this year, (so far) there's been no explanation of why this family is so magnanimous. Especially if you're a family with some sort of power, some tangible reason to keep the status quo, if you're going to break that status quo I wan't to know why.

Or? I don't want it to be acknowledged. If the Frankenstein's are wise beyond their years, that is awesome, but why not just show them being awesome? Why make them so aware of their awesomeness? If that awesomeness is integral to the plot somehow, then just show us them being awesome in contrast to evil horrible people who subjugate their women and/or servants and/or artists.

For me there's a difference between escapist literature (imagining a world that is better than the one we live in), and...I guess I would call this overeager literature. It emphasizes that the world MAY HAVE been bad, but look at these people who hold our modern values in this antiquated time!!!

Anachronism can be used well - slightly altering the order of events for better drama, bringing in an invention a few years early or a few years late, or setting aside some common bigotries in order to better get to the story you want to tell. But when anachronism is handled poorly, when that anachronism seems to become a plot point, or a point that overshadows the plot, I get turned off.

How important is historical accuracy to you in historical fiction? What do you think about characters holding 21st century values in settings that are decidedly not the 21st century?

Monday, September 12, 2011

Nonfiction Monday: Wheels of Change by Sue Macy AND #SpeakGeek Day 1!

My first Speak Out With Your Geek Out post ties into the Nonfiction Monday theme, so I figured I'd combine the two in the name of efficiency! First the review, then the #speakgeek post.

Wheels of Change: How Women Rode the Bicycle to Freedom (With a Few Flat Tires Along the Way)Before I had a car, my bicycle was my life. Since third grade I lived close enough to my schools that the district didn't provide a bus, so any time there wasn't snow on the ground, my bike got me to and from school. When a new branch of the library opened up in my neighborhood, my bike delivered me to air conditioned and full-of-books bliss on a daily basis. But despite the way the world opened up for me when my parents let me start biking off by myself, I never considered how the bicycle was once a political statement.

Sue Macy opens up this fascinating element of women's history in an inviting and easy to understand way. It's an excellent way to introduce teen readers to the history of women's rights, because the bicycle is such a universal experience, even in our modern lives. I imagine few people living today can even imagine what it would be like to not be allowed to ride a bicycle - either because it's considered unseemly for a young lady, or because her clothing was too constricting to allow for such physical activity.

Macy examines how the bicycle was truly revolutionary for women. They suddenly had a way to transport themselves without relying on anyone else. The popularity of bicycles first encouraged ingenuity in their design (side-saddle bikes, with both pedals on the same side!), and then encouraged greater acceptance for dress-reform - everything from split-skirts to abandoning corsets.

The only thing I was left wanting more of was more information about the evolution of bicycle design. The book never did answer why on earth early bicycles had those ridiculous giant front wheels.

The book design is engaging and fun - all of the pictures are presented in big circles, mimicking bicycle wheels.

Any book that calls attention to women's history is going to be a big plus for me, but one that does so in an engaging and unique way is even better!

Review copy provided by Media Masters Publicity.

Nonfiction Monday
This week's Nonfiction Monday is hosted by Wrapped in Foil. Be sure to stop by and check out the other great nonfiction titles highlighted this week!

Speak Out With Your Geek Out - Day 1: Nonfiction Books!
I'm hoping to have a post for Speak Out With Your Geek Out every day this week. I'll post any that are book related here, and will provide links on either Twitter or Google+ for ones that are non-book related. Tomorrow on my husband's and my podcast we'll also be highlighting the event - I'll probably do some book-talking in there, too!

Since I'm getting back into the swing of blogging with Nonfiction Monday, I figured I could start of this week of geeky celebration with a short ode to nonfiction books.

Before the Nonfiction Monday meme started, I certainly liked nonfiction books, but they weren't terribly high on my radar. When I was a kid, I was all over the fiction section - it took a pretty special subject to get me to wander into the  nonfiction section of the library. Nonfiction books were associated with research and school projects. I didn't get an excuse to read fiction for school very often, so my pleasure-reading time was reserved for fiction.

But now as an adult, I don't know what it is, but I've discovered that I absolutely love nonfiction books. If I wanted to sit back and psycho-analyze it, it probably has something to do with my relatively unstructured adult life. There's no more research papers, no more group projects, no more speeches that need to be written, so I'm not getting a constant nonfiction-fix elsewhere. But just because I don't have any assignments to turn in any more doesn't mean that I don't crave those days of fact-finding. So now any time I hear about the existence of a nonfiction book that sounds even remotely interesting, I search it out.

What nonfiction am I reading right now? Unfortunately it's all adult - there really does seem to be a gap in nonfiction for young adults. So much of it seems to be either way too young, or so dry it's clearly only intended for classroom use. I'm still plugging through a biography of Charlotte Perkins Gilman (author of the famous The Yellow Wallpaper, which just changed my life in high school), and I just started Super Mario, a history of Nintendo. On the waiting list at the library is the autobiography of nerd-hero Simon Pegg. 

Not only do I wish there was more nonfiction out there for young adults, but I wish more was coming out in more "adult" formats. Sometimes the oversized books filled with pictures are necessary - I liked the set up in Wheels of Change, after all, and I absolutely loved the design of Frozen Secrets. But the format doesn't lend itself well to taking the book along in a purse, or even a backpack where space is at a premium. I haven't done any research, but it sure feels to me like nonfiction could grab some more readers if it was in the more-familiar novel-size format. It'd look like a novel, and even look more like the adult nonfiction books I've been getting, but not necessarily as dry and bogged down with footnotes as adult nonfiction can be.

But all isn't dark for young adult nonfiction - in fact, I think it's getting better than ever, just like the young adult genre as a whole is! Since starting this blog, I've discovered nonfiction books that have sparked passions I didn't even know I had - Antarctica is now fascinating to me, and it's all because of some excellent nonfiction finds that I want to write a novel set during the US civil war.

Do you love nonfiction? What are you a geek about? Let me know if you make a post for Speak Out With Your Geek Out (whether it's book-related or not) - I'd love to see what else people are geeking out about this week!

Friday, September 9, 2011

Book Thoughts: Library trip, graphic novels, #speakgeek

I ended up taking the whole summer off from blogging, for all intents and purposes. Didn't really mean to, that's just kind of how it happened. Back in June...I don't even really remember what I was reading, but I was getting burned out because so much of it felt kind of repetitive and derivative that I didn't want to write about any of it because almost every post would have been "blah blah, this sucks, blah blah, copy-cat."

Yeah, I wasn't a happy camper!

I also joined Google Plus and have gotten really involved in a couple of "communities" on there - RPG players are huge on there, and then there was the big controversy over G+'s name policy (they require you to use your "common name"). I happen to be on there using my legal name, because I actually want to leave some digital footprints behind (the same reason I blog here under my legal name), but I totally understand why one would value a pseudonym (since I used a few for much longer than I've been using my RL name online).

For the past two weeks I've been posting my library hauls on G+, and I thought pasting in one of those would be a good way for me to get back into the blogging habit!

Picked up this week:
Don't Stop Now - Julie Halpern
She Loves You, She Loves You Not - Julie Anne Peters
The Floating Islands - Rachel Neumeier
Wrapped - Jennifer Bradbury
Super Mario: How Nintendo Conquered America - Jeff Ryan

Still have from last week, haven't started:
This Dark Endeavor

Still have from two weeks ago, haven't finished
Wild Unrest: Charlotte Perkins Gilman and the Making of "The Yellow Wallpaper"

Read This Week:
Dreams of Significant Girls - Cristina Garcia (really wanted to like, but it fell short)
Ultimate Iron Man graphic novel - Orson Scott Card
Will Super Villains be on the Final? - Naomi Novik (another graphic novel)

And the two graphic novel reads inspired the follow rant/book thoughts on graphic novels and me:

Conclusion this week: I can't do graphic novel series. Hate, hate, hate how essentially it's just a snippet of a story. Iron Man came closer to telling a full story than Super Villains, but it's still clearly just a hook to get you to come back again next month.

I hate novels that end on total cliffhanger endings. The books that best start a trilogy are the ones that finish one story, but leave one or two tantalizing hooks for the next one. Katniss survives the Arena - but there's still the danger of President Snow lurking back in her civilian life. Tally redeems herself for leading to the destruction of the Smoke - in part by promising the hook for the second book "Make Me Pretty." If you never go to book two in these trilogies, you still had an entire story. You probably want to know what happens next, but this particular story had a clear beginning, middle and end. Comic books and series like Will Super Villains be on the Final just don't have that completeness for me, so I end up feeling frustrated that there's so much missing, rather than enjoying what I did just read.

And finally, next week is going to be an awesome event that is going to result in you guys seeing a lot more of me: Speak Out With Your Geek Out. It's going to be a great week of geek-positivity. From 9/12 to 9/16, we're asking geeks of all stripes to blog/tweet/write/speak about what they're passionate about. This isn't just for "traditional" geeks - the Magic players, RPG nerds and video game obsessives - but for anyone who's truly passionate about...something. One of my topics here next week will definitely be about YA lit in general, and possibly a few posts about why I love specific genres. I also want to plug my call for audioclips to contribute to next week's edition of my podcast. If you want to rave about YA lit in general, a genre or specific title you totally geek out over, or really any topic at all in audio form, follow these instructions on how to be included in our special episode! And Twitter users, there is (of course) an official hashtag - #speakgeek.

Looking forward to getting back in the saddle next week - thanks for bearing with me everyone!

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Book Thoughts: Why I'm Not Worried about Boys (or Men)

Twitter logo initialImage via Wikipedia
Ooh, provocative title is provocative ;-)

Last night was another meeting of the #YALitChat on Twitter. And part of me really wanted to join in, because I loved the authors being highlighted (Michael Grant, Scott Westerfeld, and Jay Asher). The other part of me wanted to avoid the internet for a couple of hours because the topic of the evening just grated my nerves in the worst possible way.

The topic? Why men write YA.

If nothing else, this was annoying because it's not a topic worthy of a two hour chat, because I can answer it in three words: they want to.

And I think it became quite clear that it wasn't a hot topic because while there were some great conversations going on, few of them that I saw actually addressed what was the main topic of the night!

Instead, there was a lot of hand wringing over what do boys want to read, and whether it's important to have male authors in order to appeal to them.

Which makes me roll my eyes, because I spent years in English classes reading nothing but male authors and fighting like hell to get to read women. For more on this, I direct you to Maureen Johnson.

I'm not saying what's good for the goose is good for the gander - that because my education sucked boys should now be forced to read nothing but Little Women and Little House on the Prairie and Twilight. That doesn't help anybody.

What bothers me is seeing authors talk about writing specifically what appeals to "boys" and what appeals to "girls." First of all, it sets up gender as a binary, which current scholarship on gender and sexuality doesn't support. Second, even if gender is binary, it implies that all boys want the same thing, and all girls want something totally different.

At one point I jumped into the chat when Scott Westerfeld asked if "the shift from paranormal romance to dystopian been correlated to more boys reading?" I replied that recent dystopian novels have all looked awfully romancey to me (which could be a whole other post - anyone interested in my thoughts on Whither?). I'd love to see a straight up dystopia again, in the vein of Uglies or the first book of The Hunger Games. Instead a lot of these books are paranormal romances, but with dictatorial governments rather than vampires or fairies or angels. Sarwat Chadda, of the awesome Billi SanGreal books, asked me if I thought dystopian was "real" or something bigged up by publishers. After fangirling for a second over a REAL LIVE AUTHOR actually asking MY OPINION on something, we got into a great discussion about dystopian lit, and paranormal, and paranormal romances, that culminated with Dawn Metcalf coming up with the best ACT vocab comparison of the night: "romance" is to "paranormal" as "lemony" is to "fresh."

However the most illuminating part of the dystopian/romance part of the convo was when fellow chatter mimicross said, in response to my point on dystopians becoming more like romance, "Well, if world is ending, what would you want to be doing?" And this got me back to my thinking on boy books vs. girl books. Because when I was in high school, I hated romances. Part of this was because I was more interested in dating other girls at the time and wasn't finding many books that addressed that, but even after I started dating my first girlfriend I wasn't all that romantically inclined (this may be why the relationship didn't even last a month...). Writing a book that is supposed to appeal to "girls" is likely to backfire on someone like me - I want explosions and guts and car chases. And I know plenty of boys and men that prefer more relationship-oriented books (maybe not straight-up romances...or maybe they're just embarassed to discuss such an 'un-manly' topic with me!).

It was especially troubling to hear authors talking like this. I expect the marketing department to worry about who is going to end up reading a book - it's their job to get it into the hands of the most profitable demographic. But as writers, why don't we concentrate first on writing an appealing story - and if you want to think about marketing, think about the type of person you want to read the book - is this for someone quiet and nerdy, someone brash and hyperactive? What about brash and nerdy? These are qualities that aren't attached to gender.

Ultimately my opinion of the night boils down to Twitter being a terrible place to have a nuanced chat - something that came up earlier in the day during the new #GayYA chat, where all of us were unfailingly aware of how limiting those 140 characters were (and the one time outside of a specifically feminist space I've heard people throwing around terms like "cisgendered"!) #YALitChat is great for promoting an author or a broad subject (why a genre is popular, how to break into the business), but delicate subjects related to gender should probably be left to overly-long blog posts.
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Monday, June 13, 2011

Book Thoughts: Suspension of Disbelief, featuring Huntress by Malinda Lo and Captain America

If you ever read books or watch movies outside of realistic contemporary fiction, you're familiar with the idea of the willing suspension of disbelief, even if you haven't heard the phrase before. It's how when we're faced with a story with fantastic settings or characters, if there's something "real" in there that connects these fantastic situations with the consumer, we're willing to suspend our disbelief - the instinct to roll our eyes and say something is impossible - in order to enjoy the story. Wikipedia is telling me the term was coined by philosopher Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who was saying that if writers could add "human interest and a semblance of truth" to their stories, readers would be willing to go along with whatever else was thrown at them.

Today, reading the comments in another blog, I came across what is allegedly the contemporary rule for the suspension of disbelief:
The rule of suspension of disbelief is that if you have something have to make everything else as true-to-life as possible. If you have little things which takes you out of the believability, you find it less likely to believe the fantastic things.

In this case, the media in question is the new Captain America movie, where it appears some of the military units have been integrated, even though in reality, integration didn't happen until after WWII.

While reading this, in my head I heard the proverbial needle scratch across the record. Because in the book blogosphere, I think we just had this conversation, in a more specialized sense perhaps, inspired by Malinda Lo's blog post on taking the homophobia out of fantasy. Lo's point is that when authors are creating fantastic new worlds, even if those worlds are often based in some part on our own, we have the ability to remove something that is unfortunately common in our society, and truly imagine some place fantastic. We don't have to "make everything else as true-to-life as possible" - to use Lo's books as an example (and I'll be sure to review Lo's latest, Huntress, this week), just because we have fairies and magic doesn't mean we also have to have an oppressively patriarchal and homophobic society. Lo does an amazing job in Huntress of making love between women just another romantic possibility - there's some good-natured teasing about who likes whom, but it's never a joke because of gender.

So rto go back to Captain America, if we're already going to re-write history to say the Nazis have some bizarre Red Skull on their side, and the US develops a super soldier serum that turns a scrawny guy into Captain-freakin'-America, why would the straw that breaks the camel's back be a black man fighting alongside the personification of American ideals?

Suspension of disbelief is a good rule to keep in mind when creating a fantastic setting - to continue another comic book movie conversation I saw this weekend, will our disbelief be shattered in Iron Man 3 when Tony Stark doesn't call upon the other Avengers to fight the latest bad guy? It's also important we remember the less-than-perfect aspects of our history, and the real struggles real people went through in order to correct historic injustices, but I'm having a hard time seeing this particular argument as anything other than nerd!rage. Want to have a real conversation about re-writing history in a fantasy/sci-fi context? Check out Ta-Nehisi Coates' examination about the dearth of people of color in X-Men: First Class. In the meantime, I plan on enjoying Captain America's look at what WWII could have been like, unless something realy ridiculous pops up - still not sure I'm buying the CGI that makes Captain America's actor look like a 98-pound weakling...

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Shameless Self-Promotion: Audio thoughts on #YAsaves

I've mentioned a few times here that my internet life extends beyond this blog... I co-host a podcast with my husband about all sorts of geekery. This week we mostly talk about the new X-Men movie (go see it!), but I also take some time at the beginning to talk about #YAsaves! Check out the podcast here.

If you were under a rock this weekend and missed all of the #YAsaves news, I'm still collecting titles for my list of light #YAsaves titles here

Monday, June 6, 2011

Nonfiction Monday Review: Flesh and Blood So Cheap: The Triangle Fire and its Legacy by Albert Marrin

My fascination with the tragedy at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in 1911 has been well documented on this blog, but one thing I've been looking for since reading my first book on the fire is a great, YA-focused nonfiction account of the fire. I love historical fiction as a way to introduce readers in a compelling, creative way to historical events, but eventually I start to hunger for some cold, hard facts. Finally, 100 years after the disaster, Albert Marrin provides me with the book I've been looking for.

Flesh and Blood So Cheap: The Triangle Fire and its LegacyMarrin gives a detailed account of late 19th-early 20th century immigrant life, focusing on the Southern Italians and Russian Jews who dominated the workforce in factories like Triangle. Marrin goes back to Italy and Russia to look at the "pushes" that started the huge waves of immigration that brought these people to New York City.

From there we see life in New York's poor immigrant neighborhoods, how the livelihoods of the immigrants back in the home country affected what jobs they took in America, how insulated the neighborhoods were, and how textile factory work became the position of choice for young immigrant women.

And then comes the terrors of factory life, and the nightmare that was March 25th, when the fire broke out just before closing time. Marrin provides plenty of contemporary accounts, from brief quotations from witnesses to longer excerpts of written accounts. When I told my husband I was reading a book about the Triangle Fire his response was "Another one? Don't you know everything?" But there was a lot here I didn't know. For example, I knew the fire escape quickly proved to be useless, tearing away from the building under the weight of the terrified workers. What I didn't know was the fire escape was never truly designed to be useful - it ended directly over a skylight in the roof of the next building, and was surrounded with a fence topped with four-inch spikes. If falling from the fire escape didn't kill someone, landing on those spikes did.

Marrin ties the story of the Triangle factory into today, looking at the governmental corruption that was overcome in order to ensure some basic workplace safety and the right for workers to unionize (a right that is, of course, under attack again today). Marrin also looks overseas to modern sweatshops in Asia, looking at the ethical implications of boycotting sweatshop labor, since the women who work in these factories have so few other options. (For an alternative view, that I don't think will be presented in YA lit anytime soon, no matter how "dark" we're getting, check out this recent Slate article)

I appreciate that Marrin hasn't white-washed history. When explaining the ethnic makeup of the workers at the Triangle factory, he notes right away that African-American women were absent due to racism. And then during the Uprising of 20,000, he brings up the important decisions African American women had to make regarding their own opportunities for job advancement.

The Triangle Factory Fire was such a pivotal moment in American history, it's a shame it isn't taught about more often, and that the names of those associated with it have been generally lost. I'm so thankful that Marrin introduced me to Clara Lemlich through this book - she was a tireless labor organizer during the Uprising of 20,000 (a massive garment worker strike that ended a few months prior to the Triangle Fire), she was blackballed from the industry afterwards, but continued to dedicate her life towards social welfare and became what we now call a community organizer. She was so bad ass, that even when she was in a nursing home in her 80s, she encouraged the orderlies to organize and form a union! What an amazing person.

Nonfiction Monday
This week's Nonfiction Monday is hosted by Chapter Book of the Day. Be sure to stop by and check out the other great nonfiction titles highlighted this week!

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Book Thoughts: YA a different way

Late last night, the Wall Street Journal posted a terrible excuse for journalism in the form of Darkness Too Visible. The main thrust of the article is that today's YA books are too filled with darkness and depravity like "vampires and suicide and self-mutilation" (is it just me or is one of these things not like the others?).

The response on Twitter has been breathtaking. As I write this, the #YASaves tag is the second highest trending topic in the United States. I saw reports that we cracked top three in worldwide trending over night, and while the WSJ article has collected 26 comments, there are over 15,000 #YASaves tweets. This is why Twitter is an amazing tool! That tag is filled with amazing testimonies by teens, authors, librarians and parents about how some of these "dark" YA books have literally saved their lives. It makes for some truly powerful Sunday morning reading - a way better accompaniment to my Pop-Tart than the WSJ!

Last night, however, Justine Larbalestier posted a tweet that got me to thinking. She points out:
"Yes, @OfficiallyAlly, it's ironic. Majority of YA *isn't* dark. We've both written light funny books. We're hardly anomalies. #yasaves @wsj"

It's not just the deep, dark books that are "important." In YA, it takes all kinds - girls that love vampires, boys falling in love with other boys, people overcoming rape and abuse, as well as the class clown, the fantasy adventurer, and the silly group of BFFs navigating the silliness of high school.

So I want to start compiling some of those books. There are lots of blog posts already reiterating the importance of the books the WSJ article denigrates, and I'm in complete agreement with all of those blog posts! I contributed my own bit of #YASaves to the hashtag last night, and I think we all know someone for whom Laurie Halse Anderson's Speak has been a literal lifesaver. I'm not downplaying their importance - only highlighting that these books aren't the only things going on in YA, and that there's more than one way to save a life. As others on Twitter have said, if the mom in the beginning of the WSJ article had been in an indie bookstore or library, she would have easily found something appropriate for her daughter.
    How to Ditch Your Fairy
  • How to Ditch your Fairy by Justine Larbalestier - Set in a fantasy world where girls playing sports is totally normal - as is having a fairy that grants you a special talent. Charlie has a good parking spot fairy and she does everything possible to get rid of the darn thing
  • Graceling by Kristin Cashore - this is my go-to YA comfort novel. It's not hilarious and has some heavier issues like self-determination, committing violence, and that perennial favorite of moral scolds, pre-marital sex, but if the real world is weighing me down, Graceling has become my saving grace, letting me slip into a fantastic world where I already know everything's going to turn out all right!
  • Suite Scarlett by Maureen Johnson - love this light-hearted romp through experimental theater and living in a hotel in Manhattan, with a quirky family that legitimately loves each other, even as sometimes they find each other impossible.
  • Little Blog on the Prairie by Cathleen Davitt Bell - I love this family summer camp story, where a girl and her family go to pioneer camp to live like it's the 1800s. The action comes in as Gen texts her friends back home with her hilarious observations about the camp through her illicit cell phone. The romance is chaste and far from the focus, which would probably give it even more bonus points for those who are so against darker explorations of teen life.
  • Into the Wild Nerd Yonder by Julia Halpern - A must-read for D&D gaming geeks everywhere, especially us girls and young women who sometimes feel like we stick out like a sore thumb around the gaming table! Another book with excellent family relationships (I still count Jessie's dad among my favorite YA parents).
  • The Sweetheart of Prosper County by Jill Alexander - This one has a dead parent, and a bit of racism, but Austin stays so positive in the face of adversity, even as she's chasing a rather meaningless prize (in the grand scheme of things). 
  • Geektastic ed. by Holly Black and Cecil Castellucci - a collection of short stories that span the full spectrum of YA possibilities, from serious and heartbreaking to absolutely absurd. Another must-read for any self-respecting geek!
8 PM update:
  • Bookgazing queers up the list by suggesting Empress of the World by Sara Ryan, which I left off the first time because this is my personal #YASaves title, and thus I probably imbue it with more weight than it actually has. It is easily the one book that changed my life, in more ways than one, and I shall always be grateful for its existence. Bookgazing also adds Boy Meets Boy and most of the rest of the David Levithan bibliography, and A La Carte by Tanita Davis.
  • Dear @wsj#yasaves
  • @readjunkee suggests Evolution, Me and Other Freaks of Nature and Fat Cat by Robin Brande; The London Eye Mystery by Dowd; How Not to be Popular by Ziegler; North of Beautiful by Headley; and "Anything by Jordan Sonnenblick, Roland Smith, Gordon Korman, Lisa Yee, Helen Frost "
Okay, I know my tastes to tend to skew more towards the dramatic, so leave your own favorites in the comments! I'll update this list throughout the day as I get more suggestions. And I've already decided this topic is getting covered on my weekly podcast, A Couple of Geeks, so check back here on Tuesday for a link to the podcast!

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Friday, June 3, 2011

Sci-Fi Friday Book Thoughts - Series, featuring Plague by Michael Grant

Welcome to the first of my experimental posts - provided I like how this turns out, and depending on feedback, more of my reviews might end up looking like this.

Series are a big thing in the sci-fi/fantasy world right now. Really, they've probably always been a big thing, and for good reason, at least from an author's perspective: you put all this work into creating a (hopefully) totally unique world, why wouldn't you want to stick around and play in it for as long as possible? Using your best settings for a one-and-done story doesn't seem like the greatest use of creative resources from some perspectives, I'm sure.

But there's a tricky balancing act that authors have to do when they're writing a series, and that is how to remind readers of what happened earlier. For one thing, not everyone is going to start with the first book of your series, usually through ignorance that there are earlier books (something that could often be alleviated through good design - I offer the new Uglies covers as a tangentially related aside on an awesome example of how to work the series listing into an awesome cover design). How do you re-introduce previous story elements so they stay fresh for your loyal fans, but keep your new readers from getting frustrated?

But then there are also loyal fans like me, who either have memories like a sieve or just read too darn many books in a year to remember every last detail from your last book. And this became painfully obvious to me when I was reading Plague, the fourth installment in Michael Grant's Gone series.

Plague: A Gone NovelGone kept me thoroughly entertained. Not the slickest writing or most original plot, but an entertaining new take on the "no more adults" genre. And after seeing him speak at an author's panel where he assured the audience that, unlike Animorphs (which he co-wrote with wife K.A. Applegate), he knew how it was going to end and what precisely had caused the FAYZ, I was excited to see where this series was going. But four books in, I'm afraid I have to give up - at least for now. Maybe, if I'm still curious, I'll pick the books back up when the final title is published, but until then I'm sitting out.

Why? There is absolutely no re-capping in these books. There's a huge cast of characters, and each book picks up shortly after the last one ended - with no look back at what happened last time. Through the course of the story some characters will think back on individual actions, but no details are provided. The tipping point for me this time when it was referenced that Astrid had killed Nerezza - and all I could think is "Who the fuck is Nerezza?!" Seriously, was she one of Cain's evil buddies? Was she a tool of the Gaiaphage? I don't know. And that's a problem.

Re-reading the other books before the new one comes out also isn't an option in this series, for me at least, because these are 500 page books. Life is too short to re-read a 500 page book six times because the author won't review what happened in it. At the very least, I need a cast of characters at the beginning of these books. While I'm sure the intention was to give us a diverse cast to illustrate multiple shades of gray morality, it just ends up feeling unwieldy and, of course, it's impossible to keep track of who did what across 2000 pages of story, now that we're through book 4.

So what are some books that have handled review well? The aforementioned Uglies series, for one. It's not always given to us upfront, in part because Tally gets a hard reset at the beginning of each book, but weaving the backstory in throughout the narrative is an organic way to catch us up. In some ways we meet Tally for the first time in each of the first three books (if you're unfamiliar with the series, the first three books are all about Tally, and then the fourth takes us out of the US and over to Japan to meet Aya, though Tally does eventually show up). The Hunger Games, of course, also gives us a fair number of reminders of what happened before - either through Katniss remembering something from the previous book, or the Capital broadcasting the film of what happened earlier. I just finished reading Eona, sequel to Eon: Dragoneye Reborn, and it opens with a preface that tells you all the major things that happened at the end of Eon, so even if, like me, you haven't read the book in two years, you immediately know the gist of the major events of the previous book, and then as necessary Eona fills us in on some character and emotional development that happened earlier. Is it an obvious tool to catch your readers up? Yes. Do I care? Nope!

Some books can get away with less review than others - I noted in my review of Behemoth that I didn't think it would be a good place for new readers to start, because it picks up immediately after Leviathan and is so action-packed there's never a chance to look back at what happened earlier. So why was I okay with that? For one thing, it's only the second book, not the fourth, so there was less for me to remember. There's also a smaller cast, with narration only being handled by Deryn and Alek, so it presents a more cohesive story. And the two books have had relatively straightforward, action-oriented plots thus far, unlike the Gone series which has multiple sub-plots for each character, and at least two major mysteries that may or may not be intertwined: what caused the FAYZ and how can the Gaiaphage be stopped. For all that Leviathan and Behemoth are set during the complex WWI, so far the main mystery seems to be what Dr. Barlowe has in those eggs and why does she want them delivered to world leaders. Much easier to follow than the freaking Gaiaphage.

With the market flooded with trilogies and series right now, it's a buyer's market for ongoing stories. Perhaps a series like Gone just requires a different sort of reader, but for now I'm going to stick with series that either can keep a firm grip on their wide scopes, or provide more in terms of reviewing what happened before so I don't need to keep a copy of Cliff's Notes (or Wikipedia) nearby.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Review: The Dark and Hollow Places by Carrie Ryan

Back when I first read The Forest of Hands and Teeth, I was sorely disappointed by how much of a romance the story was. I wanted zombie action, not romantic angst. Now, I realize this is my fault for not thoroughly checking up on the book before buying it, but it made me hesitate before reading The Dead-Tossed Waves. Perhaps it was a stronger book, or perhaps I just knew what I was in for, but I ended up enjoying that much more. Still, the memory of The Forest of Hands and Teeth lurked and I waited awhile before picking up The Dark and Hollow Places - would it be more like Forest or Waves? And was I really in the mood for any sort of romance story anyway?

The Dark and Hollow Places (Forest of Hands and Teeth, Book 3)
 Annah is alone in the Dark City. A place that promised safety after she and Elias were lost in the Forest of Hands and Teeth, the forest where they abandoned her sister. And now Elias has apparently abandoned her, as he should have returned from his tour with the Recruiters months ago.

If he's still alive.

Just as Annah has convinced herself that the City is no longer the place for her, as she is about to literally cross the bridge that will take her out of the City, an apparent miracle happens: her sister is here! And she's brought a mysterious boy with her, a boy the Recruiters want desperately, and who the Unconsecrated ignore like he's one of their own: Catcher.

As an unforgiving Horde bears down upon the City Annah was once so ready to abandon, Annah must look inside herself to understand what it means to have family and friends, and to what lengths its acceptable to go to keep safe what - and who - is precious to you.

One thing I've found very interesting as this trio of novels has progressed, is the way the settings have changed. When a series is exploring the end of the world, the usual progression is to go from largely populated areas to smaller, as the population is decimated. Here the progression is the opposite, as The Forest of Hands and Teeth was set initially in a very small village and then saw the village attacked by the Unconsecrated, leaving just our handful of protagonist to wander the dangerous Forest. The Dead-Tossed Waves brought us to Vista, a small town with knowledge that they aren't the last people on Earth, as there are the Recruiters working to keep the population safe and wandering bands of religious fanatics that see the zombies as something akin to holy icons. The Dark and Hollow Places gives us our biggest setting yet - the burnt out husk of a once thriving city (and Ryan leaves just enough clues that savvy readers will figure out what city it is well before Annah does). The actual scope of these stories has remained the same; there's no sprawling cast of characters to keep track of and the zombies are merely a dramatic backdrop against which romantic melodramas play out.

So how does this story compare to Forest and Waves? In terms of my personal enjoyment, I think it'd be in the middle of the three books. Of the three protagonists Ryan has given us (and as an aside, I love that this is a series that gives multiple view points, rather than contriving a way for Mary from  Forest to have all of these experiences herself), Gabry is my favorite. She's just so normal. She's totally fine with the status quo in Vista and doesn't feel the need to wander that Mary did. Annah doesn't have much of a status quo to either support or rebel against, and ends up feeling like a very reactionary character for me, after her first big independent decision to leave the City is immediately reversed.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Book Events: My BEA Post

Hey...long time no see, eh? Sorry for going AWOL on the blog for the past month (though if you've been following me on Twitter you know I haven't died...yet). Figured that before I return to regular posting, I'd write up an explanatory post...that can also function as a BEA post, since that's a large part of why I wasn't blogging.

'But BEA was just last week!' You may find yourself saying. 'It only lasted a few days! Why would it take you away for a month?'

For those who don't know, my day job is actually in books. Not quite publishing, but remainder wholesale. Consumers generally know these books as the bargain books you see on display at your large chain bookstores. We have a showroom in NYC and my fancy title (seriously, I'm getting it on business cards this week) is showroom manager. We keep books on display in the showroom year round, and when BEA comes to town instead of exhibiting at the massive Javits Center, we get extra books into the showroom, have a few extra salespeople come into town, and set up our appointments in the office.

Since during the actual show most of our customers want to be over at Javits, most of our appointments are made for the week (and weekend...ugh) before BEA. Which means that I need to have the showroom set up and looking pretty two weeks before BEA....and then work straight through until the end of the show. Long days with lots of manual labor meant that by the time I got home in the evening and then even on the weekends, I didn't want to do much more than sleep. So instead of writing some half-assed blog posts...I thought I'd just take a few days...maybe a week off.

And that turned into a month.

But I haven't totally slacked off this past month - even though I abandoned Goodreads for awhile, I have still been reading. I've also been considering re-tooling how I do posts here - there might be fewer reviews in favor of more general posts about writing or trends or style...I don't know. It's still very nebulous in my head, but I'm trying to figure it out, so I hope you'll bear with me if you start seeing some more experimental posts on here (there's a reason this blog was titled 'Bookish Blather' - to give me permission to rattle on about more than just straight up book reviews!).

So, sorry about that, y'all. Things should get back on track now that it's pretty much summer and I don't have to worry about a trade show until November (and that one's in Chicago! Less work for me!). Regular posting will resume on Wednesday. In the meantime, consider this an open post to ask/discuss whatever you want! Any questions about the remainder/bargain book business? What I've been reading? Did you go to BEA and get some awesome ARCs?

Monday, April 25, 2011

Nonfiction Monday Review: Amelia Lost by Candace Fleming

Amelia Earhart has always been a legendary woman for me. A larger than life person who defied the odds and the conventions of the day, only to find her life cut tragically short (or was it?!) in pursuit of her dreams. But I have to admit, I've never known much beyond the myth, which is where Amelia Lost comes in, as Fleming does an amazing job of describing not only the myth of Amelia, but bringing to life the human woman as well.

Amelia Lost: The Life and Disappearance of Amelia EarhartFleming skillfully uses alternating chapters to explore both the search for Amelia Earhart after she was lost in 1937, and a biography of her life up until that point. The book opens on the coast guard cutter Itasca, which was scheduled to meet up with Amelia and refuel her plane before she made the hop to Honolulu and then back on to the United States. As the crew of the Itasca grows frantic trying to contact the missing pilot, Fleming then brings us back to Amelia's childhood - where she was known early on as a tomboy.

Even though I knew how the story would end, Fleming does an amazing job building up the tension of Amelia's final flight, as she edged closer and closer to the final Pacific leg of the journey. A real nail biter. But what's perhaps most amazing is that Amelia had made it to that point at all. Flying in the 1920s and 1930s wasn't always the safest proposition, and it seems like Amelia may have had more than her fair share of accidents, in part because she was always pushing herself to establish or beat the next record.

If ever there was a book that seems like it's a candidate for the enhanced ebook treatment, Amelia Lost is it. Okay, I don't have an ereader so I have no idea if they're up to the task of handling all of the pictures (these are 99% black and white, so the grayscale e-ink wouldn't be a problem), but Fleming judiciously includes URLs in the text where appropriate - such as learning Morse code - that could easily be incorporated into the ebook version. She also includes links in the bibliography.

This is also a wonderfully designed book. I love the Art Deco-style chapter headings, which really add a historical flair to the story, and then the chapters about the search for Amelia are set apart on gray paper, giving an additional visual cue that this is a different part of the narrative.

If you've ever been at all curious about Amelia Earhart, Amelia Lost is definitely a must read.

Nonfiction Monday
This week's Nonfiction Monday is hosted by Writing Nonfiction for Children. Be sure to stop by and check out the other great nonfiction titles highlighted this week!

Monday, April 18, 2011

Pink by Lili Wilkinson

I was super excited for this book - Australia, theater, and, most importantly, a bisexual protagonist! And in fact, there are lots of small things to love here, but I was never quite sold on our protagonist.

PinkAva has always been a dutiful daughter - going with the flow at her public high school, eschewing pink (and most other colors) from her utilitarian wardrobe, and spending lots of time with her radical anarchist girlfriend. Did I mention that Ava's parents are anti-establishment types? But Ava yearns for some normalcy in her life - demanding academics, pink argyle sweaters, and maybe even a boyfriend or two. So she convinces her parents that she should start attending a rigorous private school, a place where no one knows the old Ava and she can make herself over without anyone from her old life commenting on the change.

While her new look immediately ingratiates Ava with the popular "pastels" of the school, that doesn't make her new life easy. Joining the stage crew of the school musical (after an epic crash and burn at the actual auditions) in order to be close to the cutest boy on campus, Ava finds the "Screws" are the school's social lepers - and decides that she's now qualified to give them a social leg up even while she's precariously balancing her new social status, and hiding her new self from her old girlfriend and family. Most troubling to Ava is balancing her emotions - she still feels close to her girlfriend Chloe, but she undeniably finds the lead guy in the musical hot, and then there's the cute and helpful leader of the Screws who makes her feel all sorts of confused. Which Ava is the real Ava? And will she ever become comfortable with herself?

For me, Ava herself was the biggest problem of the story, in that she doesn't seem to actually grow in any meaningful way. The best illustration of this for me was when she tried to play matchmaker among the Screws, and it fails miserably, in part because Ava makes a lot of assumptions about the people whose hearts she's toying with. But in the end, Ava pulls the exact same stunt...only because it's a platonic set up everyone's okay with it? Also I have to say that while I love having a character proudly call herself a feminist, Ava has some extremely retrograde and ill-informed feminist thoughts. Which would be okay if she'd come up with them independently but considering her parents are professors and should be on the cutting edge of gender studies, it doesn't make sense that Ava would be so incredibly wrong sometimes (and really, asking the kid of Asian descent where he's "really" from? Wow, not okay. And that's pointed out in the text, but is again illustrative of just how out of touch with progressive and feminist thought Ava is).

BUT, it is encouraging to see a story with a bisexual protagonist - not that Ava uses the label for herself, but it's probably the closest label that fits. She makes it very clear that her relationship with Chloe is real and important and certainly not just a phase, and while it's a little preachy I did feel it was important to include some acknowledgement of the legitimacy of that relationship to make it clear that Ava wasn't just a lesbian until the "right guy" came along to straighten her out.

Also, science fiction geeks will have a lot of fun with Ava's stage crew friends, as they are huge nerds. In a delightful way. Lots of discussions of Star Trek and Lord of the Rings and zombies and...just general geekery. Gotta love that.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Review: Clara and Mr. Tiffany by Susan Vreeland

My first introduction to Susan Vreeland was in high school when I read The Passion of Artemisia. At the time it was being considered for the BBYA list because of the teenage protagonist. It didn't end up making the list, but it was a powerful story - based on the life of Artemisia Gentileschi, a 17th century painter who often depicted strong women of the Bible and mythology. A haunting and captivating story. So when I heard that Vreeland had a new book, I knew I needed to get it - I didn't even look to see if it was based on a real person this time around and just dove in!

Clara and Mr. Tiffany: A NovelLike Artemisia, Clara Driscoll is an artist constricted by society's attitudes about what women can and should accomplish. Instead of paintings, however, Clara works in glass, and is responsible for creating some of the most famous designs for Louis Comfort Tiffany's innovative glass lamps.

While working for Tiffany is a dream come true in some ways, it's incredibly stifling in others. The unionized male glass workers don't appreciate the women's department, headed by Clara, getting some of the greatest commissions. And while Tiffany is rather forward thinking in hiring women at all, he has old fashioned notions about married women, namely that they shouldn't be working. Clara resigned from Tiffany's once before to get married, but returned upon the death of her husband. She longs to have a romantic companion in her life again, but is also loyal to Mr. Tiffany, and then there's the matter of her life's passion in being an artist. How is Clara supposed to choose?

There are also wonderful subplots and minor characters - Clara has several gay friends she interacts with throughout the story, growing quite close to some of them, but my favorite recurring subplot had to be Clara's burgeoning social consciousness and labor organizing. When the male glassworkers start grumbling about all the work the women are doing, Clara organizes all of the women to march to work in solidarity under the banner of labor rights and women's rights. She counsels many of the young women in her department to improve their skills so they can earn more money to support their families, and delay marriage as long as possible to be sure they can start their married lives with a bit of money of their own. She also gets a bicycle, which just makes me want to read Wheels of Change even more (NYPL, Queens Library: WHY DON'T YOU HAVE IT YET?!). I have a feeling Clara's bike rides really illustrate a lot of what that book is talking about.

Clara has some thoroughly modern attitudes, but they're tempered by some truly Victorian attitudes that keep her from coming across as too 21st century, such as buying into the "benevolent" stereotype that women are more attuned to color so it's okay that they are segregated in their own department in the glass factory. She's overall a great character because she has so many different interests, passions, and problems that she truly comes to life. The same can't be said for all of the side characters, as especially some of the men in the periphery of Clara's life are hard to distinguish from each other.

So was Clara Driscoll a real person? Absolutely - though no one knew it until 2006. Because I'm a huge geek I would have liked a longer author's note at the end about Vreeland's research. While she relates the discovery of Clara's letters that led to the re-evaluation of the design of Tiffany lamps, I wondered how much of the characterization of other historical characters were based on fact - especially Louis Comfort Tiffany himself. But hey, I suppose I can find a biography of him on my own and try to learn for myself what may have been fact and what was fiction in Vreeland's complex depiction.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Sci Fi Friday Double Review: ANIMORPHS #1 & #2, by K.A. Applegate

I've mentioned a few times before, here and in various blogger profiles I've done for other blogs, that I absolutely loved the Animorphs series when I was younger. It's been just about 14 years since I got my first book - Easter Sunday, 1997, I woke up to find a book tucked in amongst the candy in my Easter basket. A red book with a weird picture on the cover of a girl turning into a cat.

I stuck through the whole series for five years, through the ups and (devastatingly terrible) downs that the 62 book series took. I ran a fan website, wrote tons and tons of fan fiction, and made some of the best friends a girl could ever hope to have, all because of these books.

So even though the books didn't go out on the highest note, I was beyond excited when I heard they were getting re-released, with some small updates to correct mistakes and bring the books into the 21st century. And when Cindy asked me if I wanted to check out the galley copies she had, I about had a heart attack from excitement. I still have all of my original books (including that 14 year old copy of The well as a copy of the second print run version and a copy in German) but I wanted to see what had been changed in these new versions. What I was entirely prepared for was a) the huge wave of nostalgia I felt upon reading the opening lines and b) just how awesome these books still are all these years later! Trust me, there's nothing else like Animorphs out there for this age group right now.

The Invasion (Animorphs Book 1)The Invasion introduces us to Jake, Rachel, Tobias, Cassie and Marco - five totally ordinary kids who make the fateful decision to walk home one night by cutting through an abandoned construction site. Their leisurely walk home is interrupted by a crashing space ship - and the kids make contact with their first alien, an Andalite called Prince Elfangor-Sirinal-Shamtul. He warns the group, telling them their planet is already being invaded by the Yeerks, slugs that crawl in through a person's ear before wrapping themselves around the brain and taking complete control of the body. Elfangor gives them the only weapon he can to defend their planet: the power to morph, to acquire the DNA of any animal and then change into that animal.

Jake, serious and responsible, quickly slips into the role of the leader of the group. The others all have strongly defined personalities as well: Rachel is fearless, Cassie compassionate, Marco a wiseass with a tragic past, and Tobias is quiet and shy with a good dose of tragedy of his own. Each book is told from a different character's point of view, so these first two give us the deepest looks into Jake and Rachel. If the other characters don't seem the most complex yet, just you wait.

The Visitor (Animorphs)The Visitor is set a short time later. Just long enough for the group to recover after some of the horrors they experienced in the last book before launching into another mission. This time we follow Rachel as she spends most of her time on reconnaissance missions into enemy territory, sneaking into the home of a friend in order to spy on her parents who are Controllers - people who have been taken over by the Yeerks. It's less action packed than The Invasion, but still filled with tension and drama of a different sort.

If you thought The Hunger Games was a little too violent...well, Animorphs isn't much better. It's not kids killing kids, but it does involve aliens being eaten alive by other aliens on a semi-regular basis. And Applegate doesn't pull away from these darker scenes - they're not gratuitous, but are certainly well-described.

K.A. Applegate absolutely doesn't condescend to her audience or pull any punches. I know the books end up dealing with some really serious moral issues, including war, murder/killing, the nature of evil and so on, but I'd kind of forgotten how outright violent they start. And I love it. The theme of the whole series is about war and its affects on people (much like the culmination of The Hunger Games), and you can't adequately explore that without getting into some bleak moments. Like I said, the descriptions aren't gratuitous - there isn't a grisly scene just for the sake of being edgy or dark - but they are definitely there, and are part of what really set these books apart (they're intended for ages 8-12...I was 12 when the series started. omg, I'm so old, and always have been in this fandom!).

There are also lots of little bits of awesome commentary that slip into these books. I immediately identified with Rachel back in the day (and she remains one of my favorite literary characters of all time), not only because she was tough and fierce and tall like I wanted to be, but she has lots of feminist moments, taking jabs at the boys when she thinks they are being unreasonably protective. There are also two characters of color - Marco is Hispanic and Cassie African-American. Their races are only mentioned in passing (until time travelling starts happening much later in the series), but it's there. There's also a bit of class consciousness - Marco's dad is extremely messed up after the death of Marco's mother a few years ago, meaning that money is short and they don't live in the greatest of neighborhoods. Meanwhile Rachel is the daughter of divorced parents but has her own credit card. It gets a little bit into Five Token Band territory (warning: TVTropes link), but as their distinct personalities develop it doesn't feel like lazy stereotyping.

For a 15 year old series (I got into the game a year late), it holds up surprisingly well. There's nothing here that screams mid-90s, and as someone who read these books obsessively, I can also tell you that the updating is quite minimal. The biggest update was changing a major continuity error in the first book (well, it wasn't a continuity error then, but they made a big deal out of the opposite thing happening in subsequent books). Otherwise it was like changing the name of a specific game system to just say "system." When I read the new Babysitter's Club prequel last summer, the writing felt like it definitely could have fit in with the original books...which wasn't the greatest thing. Those books were kind of clunky - like the template of the second chapter of every book detailing the characters. Nothing about these books feel dated, other than the fact that they are designed to be a monthly science fiction series - a genre you don't see at the book store too often anymore.

The Message (Animorphs , No 4)The Invasion and The Visitor will be released in May. Right now I believe the plans are for the first six books to get re-released over the next two years, so this definitely won't be the snappy pace I got used to back in middle school. Old school Animorph fans won't find much terribly new here - if your original books are still in your parents' basement, you're not missing out on anything if you just stick with those. But if tragedy struck so you don't have them anymore, and now you've got a serious craving for some old school Animorphs, you'll be pleased with these. Though I'm sad the corner morphing flipbook is gone :-( On the other hand: lenticular covers! The original cover style never excited me (that's book #4 to the right), and the new cover style isn't translating well into online images - the background patterns are much richer in real life, and the lenticular action is really quite good!

So, to sum up an incredibly long entry, let me just say this: I am so excited to see these books come back so that a whole new generation can get to know these amazing books.

Reviewed from galley copies. The Invasion and The Visitor will be released in May!
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