Thursday, December 31, 2009

Book roundup: Favorite Books of 2009

The end of another year means a million and one lists extolling the best of anything and everything in 2009. On top of that, this year we have best of lists for the last decade. I have a terrible memory, and spent a significant portion of the decade in college where my leisure reading was sadly limited, so I'm going to restrain myself and simply list what are, in my opinion, the best books of 2009 in alphabetical order (because asking me to rank them would be impossible - they're all so different it's hard to compare).

Almost Perfect by Brian Katcher. Issues of class kept coming up in my blogging thoughts this year, so I loved how this book sensitively and realistically portrayed a struggling working class family and how his class had obviously shaped Logan's life. I also loved how the relationship between Sage, a young transgendered woman, and Logan was developed - painfully realistic.

Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins. This book is the reason I got my bosses to pull some strings to I could attend the Book Expo in New York this spring, since that's where the galley was first released. Getting up super early on a Saturday morning and waiting in a massive line at the Scholastic booth was totally worth it. I started to read it in the then-new beach chairs in Times Square, but eventually had to go home to read it because my gasps and giggles were making me feel conspicuous. And when you feel conspicuous in Times Square, you know something's up!

Flygirl by Sherri L. Smith. Justine Larbalestier wants to write fan fiction for this book. Can anything I say top a recommendation like that?

Geektastic ed. by Holly Black and Cecil Castellucci. I was giggling hysterically through many of the stories in this collection, either from the inherent absurdity of the situations or recognizing myself in the characters (because I'm nothing if not a geek myself).

Goth Girl Rising by Barry Lyga. Sequel to the fun and poignant Adventures of Fan Boy and Goth Girl, Kyra reminded me so much of myself in high school that it was kind of eerie. Lyga's teen girl consultant obviously did her job well.

Graceling and Fire by Kristin Cashore. This one was an interesting pair of books - Fire not being a direct sequel, or even really a prequel, but more of a companion to Graceling, since it takes its premise from something of a throwaway line in Graceling. Cashore created two very different yet complimentary heroines in Katsa and Fire - I still think I like Fire more!

The Knife of Never Letting Go and The Ask and the Answer by Patrick Ness. The good thing about reading the first in a trilogy several months after its publication date: the sequel is that much closer. But then I read the sequel shortly after publication, and now all I want to know is when I get the third one!!!

Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld. If for nothing else, this book deserves a place on the list just from how physically beautiful it is. The cover is awesome and shiny, it's slightly larger and on heavier paper than most novels, and then there's the endpapers. I love it. Justine Larbalestier has an interesting post here about the audience for Leviathan - it's picking up lots of new fans (especially boys) who haven't looked at Scott's other stuff. Interesting!

Liar by Justine Larbalestier. Speaking of's her book this year. I still don't think I've wrapped my head around it. I borrowed this from the library, but I think I'm going to have to buy it soon so that I can re-read it whenever I want, trying to read with a different interpretation every time and figure out what the hell really happened. A friend and I IMed back and forth after she'd read the book...and I don't think we actually came to any conclusions.

Rage: A Love Story by Julie Ann Peters. I just finished reading enduring Twilight, and Edward's behavior reminded me so much of Reeve it freaked me out, considering one character was written to be the poster child of teenage domestic violence and the other is supposed to be a romantic hero. I can't believe I haven't seen this on more awards lists - I've only seen it nominated for the Amelia Bloomer list.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Review: Pretty Dead by Francesca Lia Block

Found via: BBYA 2010 nominations

I've always had issues with Francesca Lia Block books. Not the stories themselves - the ones I've read I've always liked (including this one!); it's how the book looks physically that always irked me. Her stories are relatively short, and the books are small, and the text is almost double spaced...yet for such a small book I'm expected to pay the same price I would for a book like Liar? According to Amazon, Pretty Dead has 208 pages and is 7.2" x 5.3". Liar is 384 pages and measures 7.8" x 5.2". And yet both are $16.99 ($11.55 on Amazon). This is why I never buy my Francesca Lia Block books - I feel like I'm getting ripped off.

But maybe that's just me?

Anyway, reviewing the actual story now:

Charlotte Emerson is a vampire, and she has been one for a long, long time. She has travelled the world, seen the wonders of the world, as well as the attrocities humanity has committed. Desiring some semblance of a normal life (despite living in a mansion with an exotic collection of clothing one can only accumulate by living the equivalent of several lifetimes), Charlotte has most recently settled on the role of high school student, and befriended Emily, a quiet and shy girl who is almost homely compared to the otherworldly glamor that is Charlotte.

But after Emily dies of an apparently suicide, Charlotte begins to feel herself changing. She breaks a nail. She no longer thirsts for blood. She feels when she's near Emily's boyfriend, a boy who seems to have figured out Charlotte's secret, and wants nothing more than to be a vampire himself. Charlotte doesn't want to turn him, but then again, she doesn't even know if she herself is truly a vampire anymore...or something else.

Reviewers on Amazon seem to feel that this was written as some sort of reaction to how hot vampires are in literature right now - and if it is, so what? It's actually a pretty good take on the vampire mythos if you ask me - it really shows some of the tragedy of being a vampire, as Charlotte never ages beyond being a teenager yet everyone she knows and loves ages and eventually dies. She only has one person she can relate to, the man who turned her into a vampire, but who really wants to spend eternity with one person? Especially if that one person isn't what he first seemed to be.

There's also some lighter moments - Charlotte knows the myth that a vampire will burst into flames in the sunlight - it hasn't happened to her, but just to be sure she wears a high SPF sun lotion and long sleeves whenever she's outside. Then again, if she's nervous about that myth, maybe LA isn't where she should be hanging out?

It's also nice to a see a woman as the vampire for once - I'm thinking about all of the vampire books I've read and they're usually about young women attracted to the mysterious male vampire. As a human Charlotte is that girl, but that's merely a brief portion of the story; the rest is about Charlotte's vampire life, and how it seems to be unraveling. The mystery of what's causing her to act more and more human is interesting and definitely kept me guessing.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Teaser Tuesday!

It's Teaser Tuesday
Teaser Tuesday logo
a bookish blog meme hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading. Here's how it works: Grab your current read and let it fall open to a random page. Post two (or more) sentences from that page, along with the title and author. Don’t give anything vital away!

"As usual, Toby's letter was coded in Kernetin, which Toby and my cousin Veronica and I invented years ago so we could write notes to each other without the grown-ups being able to read them. Kernetin is based on Cornish and Latin, with some Greek letters and random meaningless squiggles thrown in to be extra-confusing. Also, it is boustrophedonic (I adore that word and try to say it as often as possible, but unfortunately it hasn't many everyday uses)." Page 5 A Brief History of Montmaray by Michelle Cooper (Just started this one this morning!)

Monday, December 28, 2009

Review: Prophecy of the Sisters by Michelle Zink

Found via: BBYA 2010 nominations

Hope everyone's been having a happy holiday season so far! Christmas week was off to a rough start for me last week, knocking me off my feet with a cold that left me too tired to read. That's just cruel, right?

But I'm back on my feet, and I have a light week at work, so reviews are back!

Lia and Alice Milthorpe's family has been touched by tragedy far too often. Their mother died of mysterious circumstances years ago and as the novel opens the girls and their little brother are burying their father. Lia's anxiety is hightened by the small symbol that has appeared on her wrist since her father's death, and the bizarre book containing a dangerous-sounding prophecy that the boy she likes found in her father's library.

Intrigued by the prophecy and trying to understand what it means, Lia discovers that the prophecy that speaks of two sisters, one who shall be the guardian of Earth and the other who is the gate that shall let the devil back onto earth, is actually about her and Alice, and they are merely the latest in a long line of twins (including their mother and the aunt who now serves as their guardian) to be bound to the prophecy.

Terrified of her place in the prophecy, and the ends her sister will go to in order to ensure the prophecy comes true, Lia sets out to learn all she can, and hopefully put an end to the prophecy once and for all.

Zink has created a very moody atmosphere for her story, which works great as a background. Unfortunately, the characters didn't grab and hold me - Alice feels far too two-dimensional and Lia, our narrator, is only a bit more interesting. While Lia has an epic task in front of her, far too many pieces seem to fall into place easily for her, hampering any real feeling of drama.

This is the first book in a trilogy (because what fantasy stories don't come as trilogies these days?), but I think this may be one trilogy that I'm going to sit out.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Book Thoughts: Awards season!

(I hate it when I read books faster than the library can send me new ones. I've spent this week feeding my inner-geek by reading Twist of Faith, the Star Trek: Deep Space 9 omnibus of the first four re-launch novels. Technically I've read three and a half books this week...but they're all in that one omnibus so I feel like it's taking ages to finish the book! So instead of a new review today, check out some of the awards coming out this year)

With the end of the year rapidly approaching, lots of award lists are going up, either announcing the best of the year or listing the finalists before the actual best-of lists happen.

Here are links to some of the awards I follow most closely - I might even make some additional posts where I link to my reviews of the nominees/winners to keep track of everything around here!

Best Books for Young Adults This is the award list that put me on my current reading path, so now I draw most of my reading from the nominations list and look forward to what makes the final list! It seems to me that this year has a preponderance of stories dealing with the death of a family member - haven't had a chance to do any real analysis, but it sure FEELS like every other nominee includes a death in the annotation. Is it just me?

Amelia Bloomer Project I LOVE THIS LIST. Any and all feminist-themed titles end up here (or so it seems). Categories range from children's picture books through young adults, so you can find feminist-friendly titles for children of any age.

William C. Morris Debut Award This is an actual award, rather than a list like the first two awards. Goes to the "a previously unpublished author, or authors, who have made a strong literary debut in writing for young adult readers."

National Book Award this one's already been given out (Claudette Colvin: Twice Towards Justice won for young people's literature) but it still deserves a highlight. The National Book Award is a prestigious prize, but at the same time one shrouded in secrecy: the guidelines for the award aren't as clear as others, which leads to a book like Stitches, considered by many to be an adult title, to receive a nomination in young people's literature.

YALSA award for excellence in non-fiction for young adults New award starting this year! The name kind of explains it all. This has been a great year for non-fiction in YA, so it'll be interesting to see what takes home the prize!

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Review: Bones of Faerie by Janni Lee Simner

Found via: BBYA 2010 nominations

I realized after reading this book that I might have to revise my "I don't like fantasy" stance, because I keep finding fantasy books that I actually do enjoy! I think it's just classic High Fantasy that I don't like - sword and sorcery stories where women are usually reduced to being damsels in distress.

Bones of Faerie definitely isn't that sort of story - in fact, I think it could make a great introduction to fantasy for younger teens who like sci fi but avoid fantasy, because this is essentially a post-apocalyptic fantasy novel.

Liza lives in a world still struggling in the aftermath of the faerie war that ended 20 years ago. While the faeries were driven back, the world is still tainted with magic - trees in the forest will attack wayward travelers; crops stubbornly refuse to be harvested; and occasionally a child will be born with gray eyes or clear hair, the signs that magic has touched the child and it must be killed, before it kills everyone else.

Liza knows magic is dangerous - she has seen people killed by magic-touched children. Her father was forced to leave her infant sister out by the edge of the woods after she was born with clear hair. That loss caused her mother to run away, and shortly after Liza begins to have magical visions. Terrified that this means her father will kill her, Liza runs blindly into the forest. Matthew, a boy in the village who knows first hand how dangerous magic can be, follows her, though neither know how to survive in the enchanted forest. They are rescued by a mysterious woman with magical powers of her own, and discover a whole town where magic is not feared, but is respected as a tool. Liza's visions grow more powerful, leading her to believe she knows how to find her mother, leading her to start an epic quest with Matthew and Allie, another girl with magic powers, in tow.

Atmospherically and somewhat thematically, this reminded me a lot of Carrie Ryan's The Forest of Hands and Teeth, especially as both protagonists discover there's a whole wide world outside of their constrictive home towns.

It seemed like this wanted to become an epic quest story, but it never quite had a chance to grow beyond a bare skeleton of a quest narrative. Descriptions, especially of magic in action, are fuzzy and I often had to re-read paragraphs to figure out how something happened (and even then it wouldn't always be clear). Someone who wants to know all the little details of this post-apocalyptic world is going to be disappointed, but as an introduction to the genre (post-apocalyptic and/or fantasy) it's a good jumping off point.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Review: Ash by Malinda Lo

Found via: BBYA 2010 nominations

Over the weekend, I read a piece in Writer's Digest on the one and only Gregory Maguire. In it, the writer shares a brilliant quote that perfectly explains for me why fairy tale retellings can be so compelling:

Childhood is the source of the only common language we possess. Why not use it to make a fictional point? Children’s fables and stories supply perhaps the only genuinely universal bank of references that a contemporary adult reading audience might be expected to share. We no longer can rely (if ever we could) upon all readers to pick up allusions to the ancient Greek myths, the Roman orations, the Old Testament histories, the New Testament parables. But we can reasonably assume that saying, ‘I have a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore,’ is going to fall on appreciative ears.”

So when you pick up a book like Ash and start seeing elements like dead parents, a mean stepmother with two daughters, a prince looking for a wife, a ball, and magical fairy help, everyone knows we're revisiting the story of Cinderella. But Lo adds delightful twists to ensure that this isn't the Cinderella you grew up with.

Aisling, called Ash, lives in a country that is somewhat conflicted. The King has invited philosophers from the south into his kingdom, philosophers that are determined to convert the people from believing in fairies to believing in the philosophers' ancient texts. In the cities, the ways of the philosophers begin to take hold, but in rural, out of the way villages close to the dark Wood, tales of fairies live on. So when Ash's mother dies, her father follows the old ways, to ensure her mother's body and soul isn't taken by the fairies - just in case those stories really are true.

Not too long after her mother's death, her father goes on a business trip - and returns with a new stepmother and two stepsisters for Ash, women from the city who find life in the village to be backwards. When Ash's father dies suddenly, her stepmother whisks the family back to civilization, leaving Ash with nothing but a few fairy tale books her mother had once read to her.

In her grief, Ash clings to the fairy tales, seeing them almost as instructional stories, rather than the cautions that even she knows they're intended as. While the stories say never to go into the Wood alone at night, Ash takes every opportunity she can to escape the cruelty of her step-family in the Wood, and eventually meets a fairy of her own: the dangerous and enigmatic Sidhean. Ash knows that joining the fairies is practically a death sentence - but considering her parents are dead, she'd rather be with them and Sidhean than working as a servant for her step-family.

But someone else also wanders in the Wood - the King's Huntress, Kaisa. As Ash grows up and learns to live with her grief bit by bit, she finds herself fascinated with the strong and beautiful Kaisa, and risking everything to be near her - not just the wrath of her stepmother, but her very life as she makes a bargain with Sidhean in order for her deepest wishes in her human life to be granted.

Ash's transformation from a sad and scared little girl to a mature, if risk-taking, young woman is slow and absolutely beautiful. When Ash meets Sidhean, it's totally understandable why she would want to go with him and you fell her frustration when Sidhean repeatedly refuses to take her with him into the fairy realm. But then she meets Kaisa and their relationship is so beautiful that it's heartbreaking when Ash asks Sidhean to help her be with Kaisa, because we know from the stories that Ash has read that fairies never offer something without a price attached.

The repeated use of fairy tales within a fairy tale was a fun device, as different characters would share their favorite fairy tales, giving us a glimpse into their personalities. It also allows us to see part of Ash's growing up process, as Kaisa gives her something to live for in the real world, her tastes in fairy tales changes.

For anyone looking for a truly magical twist on the Cinderella story, Ash is definitely for you. It's also exciting to note that Ash has been nominated for the Morris Award for teen books by previously unpublished authors. I haven't read any of the other nominated titles (how do I read so much and yet still miss titles worthy of these awards?!), but Ash definitely deserves a place on that list.

End of the Day Addition: Work was hectic today so I didn't have a chance to post this earlier, but today the YALSA blog interviewed Malinda Lo! It includes details about early drafts of Ash AND a sequel!

Friday, December 11, 2009

Review: The Morgue & Me by John C. Ford

Found via: BBYA 2010 nominations

Before I get to the review, allow me to toot my own horn for a moment: happy blog-birthday to me! On December 11th, 2008 I posted my first blog review for Audrey, Wait. There have been some ups and downs in the past year in terms of my blogging schedule, since back in February I got married and also started a new job, and working two jobs from February to July didn't leave me much time for blogging, but in the last couple of months I think I've settled into a nice blogging pattern :-)

So, now that that's out of the way, time for that review, right?

It's the summer before Christopher Newell starts college and he needs to find himself a job. His parents are professors at a nearby college and offer to get him some kind of internship, but Christopher wants to strike out on his own a bit. When he sees a help wanted ad for a janitor at the local morgue, he pounces on it. Christopher hopes to be some sort of spy someday, and hopes he'll get some insights into forensic science by hanging out at the morgue.

Christopher never thought that he'd be walking into a murder cover up.

It's a perfect modern-noir tale. Christopher tries to play it cool as a pseudo-hard-boiled investigator, but it's clear he's just a kid who's in a little over his head. The cover up involves the highest authorities in town (or does it?), and a pattern of corruption that goes back for several years. Since the police may, or may not, be involved in the cover up and/or bribery scandal, the only person Christopher can trust is the femme-fatale-ish reporter, Tina, who hopes that this story will be her big break to get her out of Petoskey, Michigan and into a paper like the Detroit News.

Ford piles up mystery upon mystery here - what starts as an investigation into a murder cover up becomes more and more complex, dragging unexpected characters into the mix, completely isolating poor Christopher, save for his fellow investigator, Tina. This was definitely a book I couldn't put down - as I was reaching the climax of the story, I couldn't turn the pages fast enough, but abruptly looked up at one point because I realized I hadn't checked the subway stations in awhile - for all I knew I had sailed past my subway stop! I hadn't, luckily, but I was a lot closer to home than I would have thought.

For all that I loved about this book, I do have one small nitpick: if Mr. Ford did in fact grow up in Birmingham, Michigan, you would think he would have remembered to reference a carbonated cola beverage as "pop" rather than "soda!"

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Review: Candor by Pam Bachorz

Found via: BBYA 2010 nominations

When I'm traveling, I like to bring along books that match where I'm going whenever possible. So when I was traveling over Thanksgiving to celebrate the holidays with my in-laws in Florida, I brought along Candor, set in a perfect community in Florida. Hm, maybe when I'm going to spend time with my in-laws I shouldn't bring along books that encourage distrust of adults!

Oscar Banks lives with his father in Candor, Florida, the community that his father established as the perfect place, especially for parents to bring their troubled teenagers. Only Oscar knows why the kids become so docile upon moving to Candor - his father has set up an elaborate sound system throughout the town that is constantly pumping subliminal messages into everyone's unsuspecting minds.

Rebelling against his father the only way he can and not be sent to the extreme re-education room, Oscar runs a sort of underground railroad where the richest kids in town can buy passage out of Candor (and Oscar in return has an endless supply of contraband - porn, DVDs and M&Ms are just a few of the things that are outlawed in Candor that Oscar hoards). Oscar's secret? He knows how to create his own subliminal messages, which can counteract the ones his father has set up.

And then Nia arrives. Beautiful and rebellious, Oscar can't stand the thought of her being changed into the perfect Candor citizen. He creates a special batch of messages for Nia to keep her from falling under the spell - but never tells her about it. At the same time Nia arrives, one of Oscar's clients who was supposed to escape is caught at the last minute. Oscar's usual balancing act has become much more precarious - there's now someone else in town who knows what he's up to, who could spill the beans at any moment. At the same time he has to encourage Nia to be herself, but pretend that she's like the other Candor kids - without revealing the secret of the messages. All without his strict, controlling father ever suspecting that the rebellion is being run from inside his son's bedroom.

Candor has all the elements of the quintessential YA novel - untrustworthy parents, conspiracy theories, a beautiful stranger, and a smarter than average protagonist. But with all of these elements, I still felt the book fell a little short in some ways. Big things went unexplained, like why exactly someone goes crazy if they leave Candor but don't bring along a set of subliminal messages. I also never understood why Oscar felt it was so important that Nia not know about the subliminal messages, either the ones his father set up or the new ones he gave Nia. It felt like it was an artificial reason, set up so there would be conflict between Oscar and Nia if/when she did find out. Finally, why on earth did Oscar's dad create Candor in the first place? I can see the appeal of creating a perfect community, but there's never an explanation for why he targeted rich families with problem teenagers. Oscar points out a very real problem with his father's business model: since you die if you leave Candor, no one can ever move away permanently (college-bound students have a special CD pack they take with them, but they always come back to Candor), meaning eventually the town's land will be completely used up, with no new families (and thus no new income for his father) until people start dying off. Unless his father's plan is actually to keep expanding Candor until he's taken over the US, it doesn't seem like a feasible plan.

There are some fun elements, however. I enjoyed Oscar's increasing paranoia throughout the book, trying to figure out what new messages his father was implanting in the populace, knowing when to play along with the messages and when to actively rebel. The story is exciting, despite the occasional holes in the logic, and tightly paced, making this a definite page turner.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Review: The Sweetheart of Prosper County by Jill Alexander

Found Via: BBYA 2010 nominations

I've been reading a lot of heavy, serious books lately. Like Into the Wild Nerd Yonder, The Sweetheart of Prosper County provided some lightheartedness to break up the downer books - though this one does have a serious story at its core.

After being made fun of by the school bully at her small Texas town's No Jesus Christmas parade, Austin Gray decides that she needs to be elected as the Sweetheart of Prosper County. If she gets to wear a pretty dress and ride in the parade, no one will be able to make fun of her! Of course, in order to win the crown, she has to join the Future Farmers of America club, and raise a prize-winning farm animal. Enthusiastically supported by her best friend Maribel, and just slightly less so by her overprotective mother, Austin throws herself head first into raising a prize rooster, named Charles Dickens.

When she's not carefully attending to Charles Dickens, Austin is also carefully learning how to grow up and assert her independence under her mother's tight reign. She's been extremely protective of Austin ever since Austin's father died in a car accident one rainy Christmas Eve. Naturally Austin misses her father terribly, but she doesn't understand why his death means she has so fewer freedoms than her peers. And being kept under strict rules isn't exactly conducive to going out with Josh, the cutest boy in the FFA!

I felt there were some uneven spots in this book - the men and boys are a little underdeveloped (I never figured out why the bully was so damn MEAN to Austin - sure she's an easy target since she won't stand up for herself, but he really takes it too far), and the animal-raising plot seems resolved too early so for chapters at a time there's no mention of Charles Dickens, who is so essential to the first half of the book. However, those uneven spots don't take away from the delightful charms of Austin and her relationships with her friend Maribel and her mother. Austin and Maribel are delightfully close, even though the rural town has more than its fair share of racist rednecks who aren't afraid to throw slurs at Maribel. Austin even takes part in Maribel's quinceanera.

It's also always nice to see a functional mother/daughter relationship. Yes, Austin's mother is a bit overprotective, which Austin sometimes resents, but the two of them are also affectionate and there's obviously a deep bond there. They aren't perfect, but they don't hate each other.

Another plus: the book's subtle but ever-present portrayal of religion. A lot of YA books totally gloss over religion - if it's mentioned, the character is either fervently anti-religious, or the whole book is religiously themed. The Sweetheart of Prosper County isn't a religious book, but there are plenty of references to Austin's religion sprinkled throughout the text, mostly through her strategy of "praying the problem:" instead of asking god for a specific outcome, you just pray about what's going on and trust that it will be resolved. Also the quinceanera takes place in Maribel's catholic church, which is very different from anything Austin had experienced before. Though I'm not religious myself, it's nice to see religion acknowledged as part of a character's life.

Thread plug: Yesterday I put out a request for books with explicitly female characters - I'd still love to hear from you and your thoughts in the comments!

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Review: Goth Girl Rising by Barry Lyga

Found via: NYC Teen Author Fest

I first heard about this title back in March, when Barry Lyga read bits and pieces of the beginning of the book at the NYC Teen Author Fest. I have half a dozen other books that need to be reviewed, but Goth Girl Rising is jumping to the head of the line because it is awesome.

Goth Girl Rising is the sequel to The Adventures of Fan Boy and Goth Girl, picking up Kyra's story about six months after the end of that book. Kyra has been in a mental hospital for the last six months, covering the entire summer and the beginning of the next school year. It's now November and Kyra is struggling to get back to her old life.

Kyra's top problem is she feels like she was abandoned while she was in the hospital. Her two best friends claim they sent her TONS of e-mails over the summer, but Kyra didn't receive one. But most hurtful is that Fanboy himself seemed to forget about her - no e-mails, no calls, no texts.

Kyra returns to a school where the social hierarchy appears to have been turned upside down while she was away. When she left, Fanboy was easily manipulated, lonely little geek, harboring secret fantasies about a senior girl and translating those into his epic comic book Schemata. Now Fanboy is the toast of the school, after doing some editing on Schemata and publishing it in monthly installments in the school's literary magazine. The way Kyra sees it, first Fanboy forgot her, then he went and got all popular by sharing his masterpiece with the plebes; now Kyra wants revenge on him.

Life isn't any easier at home for Kyra, where she and her dad continue to butt heads over pretty much everything, from Kyra's attitude at school to the way she dresses. Like most 16 year old girls, Kyra is changing and trying to find her place in the world, with her history, though, she just feels she has it harder than anyone else.

The main reason I loved, loved, LOVED this book and tore through it in one day is that in so many ways Kyra is exactly like I was in high school. A lot of the big things are different, sure - my mom didn't die, I never tried to kill myself, when someone hurt me I didn't set out to destroy his life, and my boobs were nowhere near a D cup (though I still disliked their existence) - but so many of Kyra's smaller moments were just like how I was in high school it was a little scary. Kyra's feminism and mine had a lot in common at that stage - lots of anger, convinced that all guys were stupid and out only for sex. Both of those are still mostly true, but my views are a bit more refined by now. I also loved the moment when Kyra is experimenting with her look and, just to try something different, undoes a few buttons on her shirt to show some cleavage and rolls up the waistband of her skirt to make it a little sexier. Despite how much she hates women who use their appearance to gain control, Kyra recognizes that she, too, could pull off the look - and she might even kind of like it! Kyra spends a lot of time trying to be comfortable in her own skin, which is something I think we can all relate to.

I do think the most exciting part, however, was Kyra's explicit musings on feminism. I thought about this a lot last year with The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks. It's not so uncommon anymore to read YA books with feminist themes, but how often do characters explicitly identify as feminist? During the spring's teen author fest, I went out of my way to make sure to thank E. Lockhart for making that a positive part of Frankie's character. Since then, I can't recall too many other characters that expressly say "I'm a feminist." Does anyone out there know of any others?

If you haven't read The Adventures of Fanboy and Goth Girl, you need to go out and find yourself a copy immediately - this really isn't a sequel that works well without knowing what went on in the first book. After you read that, Goth Girl Rising should definitely be next on your list.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Book Links: How Sad is Too Sad in Children's Books?

It's the middle of my work day, so I don't have time for lots of blogging, but I wanted to pass along a link to a friend's blog post, exploring how sad should children's books go? My thoughts are in the comments on the post :-)

Review: Hate List by Jennifer Brown

Found via: BBYA 2010 nominations

Here's another wrenching book for you, this one about the tragedy of school shootings. But Jennifer Brown takes some interesting twists with a story we think we should know, adding to the heartbreak, yes, but also showing some unique insights into a tragedy like this.

Five months ago, Valerie's boyfriend, Nick, opened fire in the cafeteria, purposefully targeting all of the kids that had been making their lives miserable. In idle fits of rage, the two had compiled a "hate list," all of the people and things that they hated, from outright bullies to annoying TV news anchors to math homework. Valerie had thought it was all a joke, just a way to blow off steam. Nick had been deadly serious.

After being wounded in the attack, Valerie spent the summer in hiding as the rumor mill remained convinced she had something to do with the shooting, even after the police clear her of guilt. After months of physical and psychological therapy, everyone tells her she's ready to face school again, though Valerie isn't so sure.

The complexity of this story comes from the wide variety of relationships, none of which turn out exactly the way you might think. One of the school's most popular girls is determined to be Valerie's friend, even though she used to make Valerie's life miserable; she thinks that Valerie intentionally saved her life, taking the bullet that Nick intended for her. Other survivors aren't sure how to act around Valerie, and question whether she should be allowed back in school at all, guilty or not. The most complex and heartbreaking relationships, however, are between Valerie and her parents, as her parents don't quite seem to understand how their daughter could have been so angry as to devise the hate list in the first place.

And of course, Valerie is struggling with her own inner demons. She knows Nick did something terrible, but does that mean she can't love him anymore? It wasn't the Nick she knew who pulled that trigger, after all.

Valerie has help sorting out her personal issues and relationships with the help of a fantastic psychologist and a random art teacher, who I really wish had been integrated into the story more. The psychologist was great, however, because so often in YA lit the psychologists are ineffective, either because the character doesn't want to be their or the psychologist is a doofus or a combination of the two. Dr. Hieler is comforting to Valerie and a great sounding board for her. She's on to some of his "tricks" to get her to open up and talk, but since Dr. Hieler is the one person who's actually willing to listen, she keeps going.

If you've got a strong tolerance for depressing books, this could be a good book to pair with Dave Cullen's Columbine. Or maybe you should read the two far, far apart; if you're like me, the books will stay with you enough that even reading them 6 months apart you can remember some stark details.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Review: Perfect Chemistry by Simone Ekeles

Found Via: A Chaire, a Fireplace & a Tea Cozy

Apparently I'm stuck on "perfection" this week! Unfortunately, that really only extends to the title on this one - unlike Almost Perfect, I wasn't really enamored with this one.

Perfect Chemistry is the age-old story of Romeo & Juliet, with a little bit of Pygmalion thrown in for good measure, only this time there's Brittany Ellis, who is rich and white with parents who expect nothing less than perfection from her, and Alejandro "Alex" Fuentes, who is a Mexican immigrant (at least I'm pretty sure he was born in Mexico - he may be Mexican-American) and a reluctant gang member focused on keeping his family safe in dangerous gang turf. It's the beginning of senior year and a strict chemistry teacher forces Alex and Brittany to sit together, despite the fact the two seem to hate each other. Even though Brittany is initially terrified of Alex, romance blossoms.

When I was reading this book, I tweeted that Alex was creeping me out "like Edward Cullen-style creep out." Because this book seems to suffer from the same delusion as Twilight: boys that are mean to you are, in fact, irrepressibly sexy. Alex constantly sexually harasses Brittany (he says in their introductions in chemistry class that she wants to have sex with him, even though that's demonstrably not the case), he briefly kidnaps her, and is just generally an unpleasant person. Brittany isn't the nicest person at the beginning, either, but since her insults don't go much beyond "Fuck you" and she can't physically force Alex to do anything, she doesn't come off as nearly abusive. The Pygmalion aspect comes from Alex accepting a bet from his buddies that he'll be able to sleep with Brittany, despite the fact that when this bet is made she's happily dating a dreamy boy (that happens to share her & Alex's chemistry class, and assumes the worst of Brittany in the face of Alex's taunts. So yeah, he's not really that dreamy, either).

The positive notes on this novel come when the story strays from the romance and show Brittany and Alex's home lives. Alex is an unwilling rising star in his gang - he only joined to protect his family and is dead set against either of his younger brothers being recruited into the gang. Alex's family life is one of the most compelling parts of the novel, and is utterly heart breaking at times. Brittany's parents, on the other hand, seem to put up the veneer of perfection in order to compensate for Brittany's older sister with cerebral palsy. Another heart breaking family story, as it seems that Brittany is the only one who really looks out for and cares about her sister.

Stories like this are why I generally don't wander into the romance genre. It's one thing to play on the trope of opposites attracting, but it's a whole other thing when one of the "opposites" is as malicious and scary as Alex gets.

The discussion is still going on yesterday's What About Team Bella? post, so if you haven't checked it out already, pop over there!

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Review: Almost Perfect by Brian Katcher

Found Via: BBYA 2010 nominations

Two posts in one day! Thrilling, right? I just have SO MANY books to review, that even when I have commentary to make, I need to keep up with my reviewing!

"Almost Perfect" is certainly an apt title for the copy of the book I got out of the library - it was missing a dozen pages! It got worse in the last 50 or so pages - so bad that I read it sitting in front of my computer so I could find the missing pages via Amazon's search inside feature.

It was totally worth the extra effort.

After learning that his girlfriend of three years cheated on him, Logan feels like crap. And he seems determined to keep feeling like crap, until a new girl shows up in his biology class in the middle of November. Logan lives in a small town in central Missouri - new kids just don't show up, especially not halfway through senior year!

Sage is striking and mysterious - super tall with a sexy voice and eclectic fashion sense. She's been homeschooled for years and seems to have the world's strictest parents. Logan is immediately intrigued, and as Sage seems to share the attraction, quickly forgets about that old girlfriend.

Sage tries desperately to keep Logan at arms length, insisting they just be friends, but as that becomes harder and harder, she finally reveals the last piece of her mysterious past to Logan: she was born a boy. Now the ball is in Logan's court - how can a straight boy in central Missouri be friends with a transgendered person? Especially when that person is as sweet, friendly, and even cute as Sage?

This was an extremely compelling book for me, because we so rarely see transgender issues explored in YA lit. The closest I can think of off the top of my head is Debbie Harry Sings in French, where a boy discovers he really enjoys dressing up as a girl (specifically, Debbie Harry). He's not gay or trans, but faces a lot of homophobia. Because the topic is so rarely tackled, Almost Perfect does occasionally feel a little didactic - explaining "this is what transgendered means" and "this is how the transitioning process is accomplished" - but the rest of the story overcomes these shortcomings.

Since class is one of those themes that keeps popping back up on this blog, I wanted to point out that Logan comes from a struggling working-class family, which is handled quite well and has obviously shaped Logan as a character. His father ran out years ago and his mom works as many shifts as she can as a waitress, struggling to keep the roof of a single-wide trailer over their heads and food on the table. Logan does yard work in the warmer months and shovels snow in the winter so he can help his mom out (even though she hates taking money from her kid).

I absolutely loved how Logan's character developed throughout the book - he has a lot of ups and downs during his relationship with Sage. The ups were thrilling while the downs were devastating. I think maybe some of the other characters give him a little too much credit for trying (and usually failing) to do the right thing (I don't believe you should get a cookie just for acting like a decent human being-stopping yourself from punching someone isn't nearly as heroic as stopping someone else from taking that punch). With that in mind, Almost Perfect really is the perfect title for this book.

Book Thoughts: What about Team Bella?

(Title shamelessly stolen from Broadsheet)

I'm sure someday we'll stop talking about Twilight - but today's not that day!

Kate Harding's latest article at Broadsheet really struck a chord with me, because it perfectly articulates the reason why the Team Jacob/Team Edward argument (that has spilled over to what feels like every other book that features two men for the woman to choose from) drives me up a wall.

The marketing campaign for the movie pits "Team Edward" (the vampire) against "Team Jacob" (the werewolf), but as Carmen D. Siering wrote in Ms., "few young readers ask, 'Why not Team Bella?'" That's because the whole point of Bella's existence is earning the suffocating love of supernatural hotties; even if you think her obsessive devotion to Edward might waver in the face of were-love, you know you're never going to see her throw them both over to stand on her own two feet.

When this Team Edward/Team Jacob stuff was limited to Twilight, I didn't much care, because that does really seem to be Bella's great moral dilemma: which guy to choose. She doesn't seem to have any agency outside of the two guys.

But then I started noticing other books being discussed in a similar vein. I had to stop following the Hunger Games Trilogy group on Goodreads because the threads ultimately devolved into shouting TEAM GALE and TEAM PEETA endlessly, with no other content. When it first started happening, I was annoyed, but couldn't quite describe why it bothered me so much. Because Katniss is placed in positions where she has to choose between the boys - or at least, try to figure out how she feels about each one.

Harding's article helped me fill it out: it annoyed me because it ignores Katniss' own agency, and the fact that she has a hell of a lot more going on in her life than romance. Bella's life in Twilight boils down to romance, and that's fine - her books clearly fall into the romance genre. Hunger Games, however, is much more of an action-adventure story, with a dash of political intrigue and just a hint of romance for Katniss. Debates over why Katniss might choose one guy over the other could be interesting and fun as one part of discussion of the novel, but boiling everything down to "Team Gale" and "Team Peeta" misses the point of the novels. I, for one, am firmly on Team Katniss (after Catching Fire, I just want her to stay alive through the end of book 3!)!

Coincidentally, when I was hunting down that link for the Goodreads forum, I found a topic on there that reminded me of another blog post I read today: a discussion comparing Twilight to Hunger Games seems like it would hit several squares on Justine Larbalestier's Paranomral/Fantasy YA Review Bingo. Remember that horrendous Entertainment Weekly review of Catching Fire? Yeah, I think the comments there firmly proved that about the only similarities between the two series is that a teenage girl is the protagonist!

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Review: Liar by Justine Larbalestier

Ever since the cover controversy that surrounded this book earlier this year, I've been dying to get my hands on this book.

And then, once I'd had my hands on it, I was dying for a friend to get it so we could discuss it! This is a book that begs for a group to read it and then meet for coffee to discuss it.

Micah is a liar. She tells us that on page one. But she also swears she will tell us the truth. The whole truth. The really real truth. But lying is a hard habit to break. So as Micah tells us her story, of her secret romance, her eccentric extended family, and a mysterious family illness, we are forced to read between the lines and try to figure out just what is true about Micah's story - if anything is at all.

I really can't say more than that because it is SO IMPORTANT that you read this book without spoilers. Justine has pulled together one bizarre book, with so many twists and turns that even after reading it twice and talking via AIM with a friend (who read it in just two sittings at the book store!) I still have no idea what "really" happened.

It's the holidays, so if you're picking up this book for yourself, pick up a second copy to give to a friend as a gift. You'll both be thankful when you finish that you have someone to talk to!

And if you don't have a discussion partner handy, you can always check out the spoiler post Justine set up on her blog. Seriously, though, it's full of spoilers, so if you haven't read the book yet, avoid that post at all costs! Are you reading the non-spoilery parts of Justine's blog yet? She probably has one of my favorite author-blogs on the 'net. She and her husband, Scott Westerfeld, alternated days for giving writing tips during NaNoWriMo, and Justine consistently has some of the smartest blog posts on topics like race and gender in YA lit that I've seen on the web. I highly recommend it.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Review: Blue Plate Special by Michelle D. Kwasney

Found via BBYA 2010 nominations

Note to self: when going on a weekend outing with your mother, don't take along a book about girls who have less-than-stellar relationships with their mothers! Sure, it might make you appreciate your own mother more, but what a downer!

Madeline, Desiree and Ariel are three very different young women growing up in three very different times. Madeline is quiet and overweight in 1977, the defacto head of the family since her father is gone and her mother prefers to spend the welfare checks on alcohol. Desiree, getting ready to graduate from high school in 1993, tells her story through poetry (and I didn't hate it!), as she tries to avoid her mother and her mother's skeezy boyfriend, finding her only refuge in her high school sweetheart. Ariel, the contemporary girl in 2009, has a workaholic for a mother and is throwing herself at Shane, her new boyfriend that wants her to spend all of her time with him - and only him.

Like I hinted at above, this book is a bit melancholy, but ultimately thoroughly enjoyable.

I always find it supremely satisfying when I reach the end of a book and can sit back and appreciate just how finely crafted the book is. There are complex books out there that can feel like they're being complex just for the sake of complexity; there are others that are exciting and breathtaking but don't necessarily feel like they were crafted. It took me a little bit to really feel immersed in Blue Plate Special, probably because the chapters alternate between three different young women in three different decades, but at the end you can't help but appreciate how deftly Kwasney has woven their stories together.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Double Review: Shine, Coconut Moon by Neesha Meminger and Love is the Higher Law by David Levithan

Found via: BBYA 2010 nominations

Oh man, it's been a crazy week out here. The weekend before Thanksgiving I was in Chicago with my mom, and then I spent Thanksgiving weekend with my in-laws in Florida, meaning there was lots of traveling, and LOTS of reading, but little time to blog! Thankfully, my reading list made my blogging a little easier for me by happening to have thematically similar books, like these two stories of how 9/11 affected high school students.

In Shine, Coconut Moon, Sam is an Indian-American teenager living in a relatively diverse community in New Jersey. For most of her life, she's put the emphasis on the "American" in her heritage, as her mother has kept her away from her very traditional Sikh grandparents. Instead, Sam spends most of her time with her best friend, Molly, and wondering when she'll lose her virginity to her boyfriend, Mike.

The weekend after 9/11, Sam is surprised to find a man in a turban at her front door. He says he's her uncle Sandeep, her mother's brother, and after his tumultuous divorce he wants to be part of Sam's and her mother's lives again. Sam is eager to get to know her uncle, and pressures him to teach her everything about her Sikh heritage, despite her mother's reservations and outright objections to Sam having anything to do with Sikh culture. As she grows more aware of her cultural heritage, she realizes just how different she is in some ways from her friends and community - but also learns to recognize what is truly important in life.

Love is the Higher Law takes place in New York City in the immediate after math of 9/11. The narrative jumps between three characters - Claire and Peter, who attend high school together, and Jaspar, the college guy Peter had scheduled a date with for the evening of 9/11. Alternating chapters explore the three characters and what it's like for them to live in post-9/11 New York City: Jaspar was sleeping late and actually missed the early TV coverage - and his parents were temporarily stranded in South Korea, where they'd been visiting Jaspar's grandmother; Claire spent 9/11 in her brother's elementary school, keeping him and his classmates calm while waiting for their mother to find them; Peter was skipping school to buy a new CD when an employee tells him the news. In the days, weeks and months after, each of them tries to understand how they fit into this new world they've been thrust in to.

I realized with a start about half way through Love is the Higher Law that for the first time in several years, I was reading a book about my peers. As an adult reading YA lit, I'm used to reading about characters who are about 10 years younger than I am, and in both of these books the protagonists are in the 17-19 years old age range - but back on September 11th, 2001, I was just a couple of months shy of my 17th birthday myself. I kind of found myself wondering what the characters were doing "now," in their mid-twenties, almost a decade later. It also made me wonder how today's crop of teenagers react to these books, since they were in elementary school in 2001.

Shine, Coconut Moon also had moments of familiarity for me - I remember reading this article in my hometown paper shortly after 9/11, about a Sikh family posting signs explaining their religion in the windows of their store, in order to prevent any attacks against them.

Shine, Coconut Moon and Love is the Higher Law are both excellent titles showing the wide variety of ways teenagers reacted after 9/11.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Teaser Tuesday, & Bookish post #100!

This marks my 100th post on this blog! I posted my first review just over a year ago (12/11/08). So today for teaser Tuesday, I'm bending the rules, and pulling my teaser from page 100 of my current read.

It's Teaser Tuesday

a bookish blog meme hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading. Here's how it works: Grab your current read and let it fall open to a random page. Post two (or more) sentences from that page, along with the title and author. Don’t give anything vital away!

"Every evening Johnny Rebs stand in the parapets of Fort Beauregard and serenade the Union troops with war songs. They sing in fine voices and close harmonies. "You Can Never Win Us Back" is a favorite, as is "The Bonnie Blue Flat." Their way of showing us their opinions, I reckon." -My Last Skirt by Lynda Durrant, page 100

Monday, November 23, 2009

Review: Into the Wild Nerd Yonder by Julie Halpern

Found via: BBYA 2010 nominations and the Amelia Bloomer project

After last week's series of depressing books, I was desperate for something upbeat and happy. I teased this one back on Tuesday, and let me assure you the whole book totally lives up to the promise of the premise.

Jessie has been best friends with Bizza and Char forever. She has also been crushing on her cool punk older brother's friend Van for years. As the trio of girls enter their sophomore year, and her brother and the dreamy Van enter their senior year and prepare for college, Jessie feels somewhat torn. On the one hand, she wants nothing about her life to change - she wants her brother, with his scraggly mohawk and all, to stay home; she wants Bizza and Char and herself to have the same sort of silly sleepovers they had in middle school; she wants to keep sewing her cute, simple skirts out of novelty themed fabric. On the other, lots of things are changing, and she wonders if she should be as well - maybe her hair is too brown and boring, maybe if she started dressing in Hot Topic punk gear like Bizza and Char, Van would start to like her.

When Bizza betrays Jessie, Jessie feels it's time to find herself a new set of friends. After sitting with Dottie, one of the school's biggest nerds, in study hall, Jessie begins to wonder about her own place in the social hierarchy of high school. If she's friends with the nerdy Dottie, does that mean she's a nerd, too? And what does it mean that the super-nerdy Henry keeps showing up in her dreams? And how on Earth can she find Dungeons & Dragons fun while still maintaining a shred of "cool cred?"

First of all, anyone who's ever played D&D, or a similar role playing game, is going to find this book hilarious. During Jessie's first D&D session, I was immediately transported back to college - it takes the handful of kids over half an hour to decide what pizzas to get and then come up with a super complicated order. That was totally me and my friends back in the day - except I really was the only woman playing, while Jessie has Dottie to help her out. Also, we totally held true to the maxim that while table top role players may be nerds and geeks, at least we didin't LARP.

There are lots of great relationships in this book. Jessie and her brother were sweet and awesome. I loved Jessie's hesitation, then acceptance, of the various "nerds" and "geeks" around her, and embracing of her own nerdiness. And this is a book with some great parents present (I love Jessie's dad). Even the not-so-positive relationships were written well and felt totally authentic - I definitely knew a Bizza in high school, and Jessie's heartache over Van was totally palpable.

This is definitely one of the funnest books I've read in awhile - I recommend it for geeks everywhere!

For more geek-love, check out Lynn & Cindy's review of Geektastic over at Bookends (and/or check out my review from back in August)

Friday, November 20, 2009

Review: After by Amy Efaw

Found via: BBYA 2010 Nominations

I had a bit of a hard time getting into this book, and a few pages in I realized exactly why: it's written in the third-person. I've been reading so much first-person stories lately, both in fiction and in memoirs, that trying to get into a third-person narrative threw me a bit!

Devon is a star soccer player and dedicated student with dreams of becoming everything her mother is not. Her mom is a bit flighty, very flirty, and had Devon when she was only 16.

But now Devon, 15, finds herself on charged with attempted murder - of her own baby. Devon never realized - or maybe never admitted? - that she was pregnant, and when faced with the birth wrapped the baby in a garbage back and threw it into a trashcan behind her apartment. She's placed in a juvenile detention facility, with strict instructions from her court-appointed lawyer to be cooperative, until the hearing which will decide whether Devon's case remains in the juvenile system - or if the attempted murder on her baby was a crime so heinous only the adult justice system, with its sentence of life in prison, can handle her.

This novel completed my week of depressing reads - I was so desperate for something happy that I picked up a picture book reviewed by Lynn and Cindy for Nonfiction Monday at the library Monday night! But I absolutely don't regret picking this one up - Efaw, who spent time observing girls in the real life version of the detention center the novel is set in, has created a dark and disturbing narrative, filled with intriguing characters. I loved Devon's lawyer, and while some of the girls in the detention center seemed a little cookie-cutter at first, most of them get fleshed out, at least a little, by the novel's end.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Review: Breathless by Jessica Warman

Found via: BBYA 2010 Nominations

Oh man. Stories about disabled and/or mentally ill siblings always get to me. At least once during every one of these books I ask myself why I'm torturing myself so. Not because they're inherently bad, but they just hit a little too close to home sometimes.

Katie and her brother have always been extremely close - as children of some privilege in a town where graduating high school without having had a baby first is an accomplishment. Katie is a gifted swimmer and extremely intelligent, and Will was a great athlete - until a combination of extreme bullying and drug use exacerbated his latent schizophrenia.

It's been a few years since his diagnosis, and Will has been in and out of various hospitals while Katie has been trudging on through her unexceptional school. But when Will's behavior turns from idiosyncratic to violent, their parents believe the best solution is to send Katie to a boarding school with a prestigious swim team - and do all they can to limit contact between the siblings.

The novel takes place over the Katie's high school career, from sophomore year - where she's one of two new students at the boarding school, since usually everyone comes in together as freshmen - through graduation. Katie deals with many of the usual high school foibles - fitting in with new friends, dating, sex, drinking and drugs. In fact, if you can pull out a YA lit school trope, it probably pops up in this book. Sometimes it feels a little too crammed with Katie's various problems.

Since the book covers a relatively long period of time (including a Harry Potter-esque epilogue ten years after the final chapter), we get to really see how some of Katie's decisions at the beginning of the book affect her over the years. On the other hand, since so much time is covered there are big gaps in time and so occasionally there are info-dump paragraphs where we're told of everything significant that happened between chapters. Off-puttingly, the book actually opens with such an info-dump, giving us the family history for a couple of pages before picking up with Katie and Will smoking on the roof of their house (their usual hangout).

Reading this immediately after The Road of Lost Innocence wasn't the best plan, which may have colored my feelings a little bit. Not that the two books have anything in common, aside from being "downers" of varying degrees. Friday's review will be of Amy Efaw's After, another unhappy title. Is it any wonder that I was craving something upbeat and happy?! So next week expect the review for Into the Wild Nerd Yonder, yesterday's Teaser Tuesday pick.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Book Thoughts: Blank Page Heroines

A few blogs have been bringing up characterization of women in literature this week. I figured I'd add some of my own thoughts!

Title of this post comes from Sarah Rees Brennan. The Blank Page Heroine is the type of woman that seems "to be there as a match for the hero who won't bother him with things like 'hobbies' and 'opinions.' Sometimes she is carefully featureless (still missing those pesky hobbies and opinions) so that, apparently, the reader can identify with her and slot their own personalities onto a blank page."

Justine Larbalestier followed up with a post of her own, saying she's always thought of this sort of character as The Girlfriend (which is equally accurate, since that's what these characters exist to be - until they become The Wife). Justine says she always imagined this type of woman was a straight male fantasy - but the Blank Page Heroine appears in books written by women as well (in the comments is the obligatory Twilight bashing, which certainly seems appropriate).

And even before I saw the Twilight comment in Justine's post, I was already reminded of a post from Pandagon earlier this week, about The Pornography of Non-Rejection, posing that Twilight fills a sort of pornographic role for women:
"I didn’t really realize how true it was that romance novels are porn for women. And it’s not necessarily the fantasy of sex that they have in common with the videos aimed at men we think of as “porn”. It’s a different fantasy altogether: the fantasy of being completely desired, with no objections and no real obstacles.

"Think about the male-oriented porn’s single most common fantasy, one that exists in the ugliest, most misogynist gonzo porn to the more playful videos marketed as safe for “couples”. For male viewers, porn is all about a world where women are always up for it, with you (or the actor standing in as your cipher), and you’re facing a cornucopia of women who always, without fail, say yes...“Twilight” speaks to that basic fantasy of being so enticing that rejection is impossible."

I think the Blank Page Heroine plays into this notion of being desired without obstacles - because she has no interests to conflict with the interests of The Man, of course he is going to be totally receptive to her advances. The sad part of this is that we're slowly teaching women and girls that supplanting your own personality and desires is the only way to get a hunky awesome guy to totally want you. Just as pornography can create unrealistic standards for sexual relationships for male viewers, so does this "pornography of non-rejection" create unrealistic standards for female readers.

And I don't think this is me just projecting some hypothetical terrifying future filled with uninteresting, hobby-less women: A footnote to the Pandagon article mentions the phenomenon of female Jane Austen fans justifying "their fandom on the basis of having crushes on male characters," rather than on a love of the well-written and witty text of the stories. "Is hiding behind a crush on Mr. Darcy a way to defang Austen, to make being interested in her less threatening to men in your life? You my scoff, but you’d be surprised how many men are uneasy around women who are better-read than they are." The relationship with the literature becomes all about the man, completely cutting out the fabulous woman behind the writing, mirroring the Blank Page Heroine who is interested only in the man of the story rather than herself and any other people(women) around her.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Teaser Tuesday!

It's Teaser Tuesday

a bookish blog meme hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading. Here's how it works: Grab your current read and let it fall open to a random page. Post two (or more) sentences from that page, along with the title and author. Don’t give anything vital away!

"No. It really isn't. He thought it made him look cool in front of his posse, bringing a chick to D&D, seeing as there are never any girls there."
-Page 56, Into the Wild Nerd Yonder by Julie Halpern. I've been reading a bunch of super depressing books lately - I'm about half way through this now and it's the perfect remedy!

Monday, November 16, 2009

Review: The Road of Lost Innocence by Somaly Mam

Found via: Amelia Bloomer Project

This is not an easy book to read.

There are always books out there about child abuse and sexual abuse, and they are always difficult to read. This one was harder than most for me, however, because this one was real.

Somaly Mam is a Cambodian activist who was orphaned as a young child and sent to live with a man she called her grandfather (Mam doesn't know whether he was actually a relation or not). He was physically abusive, and as she became a teenager he became sexually abusive, and would sell Mam to other men to rape in order to settle his debts.

Around 15 or 16, Mam was sold into organized prostitution, forced to live and work in a brothel, again as a way of settling debt.

After a few years as a prostitute, Mam finally escaped with the help of a French aid worker, and has since dedicated her life (and risking it on several occasions) to help the girls and women of south east Asia escape prostitution, get the medical care they need, and learn marketable skills so they'll never need to re-enter the sex trade.

Throughout the book, Mam provides unflinching looks into the world of abuse she lived in for far too long. She is raped multiple times, beaten and tortured.

Mam's story is set against the backdrop of a Cambodia constantly in turmoil. She was born a few years before Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge took control of the country. Mam was illiterate and spent most of her formative years in rural areas so she's unable to give a lot of details of what was happening when, but it's clear that the country has been unstable for her entire life, and Mam theorizes that that instability and the horrors the people survived under the Khmer Rouge play a part in why her countrymen are so willing to allow abusive prostitution to continue and thrive.

While it's difficult to read, this is an important book, highlighting the nightmarish realities of the sex trade. Make sure you have something fun and fluffy to read after this one, though. You're going to need it.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Review: Vast Fields of Ordinary by Nick Burd

Found via: BBYA 2010 nominations

The final list of BBYA nominees has been posted...and I've only read 30 of them! Well, 31 now. Still, not nearly as many as I had thought. BBYA titles are probably going to take over my reading list for a little while.

Vast Fields of Ordinary takes place over Dade's last summer at home before he moves from Iowa to Michigan for college. Brief side note here: as a Michigan native, I have to respectfully disagree with Dade's father, who also attended the fictional Fairmont College in Michigan, who says that "Michigan is always beautiful." Sure, it has it's moments, but nobody thinks the place looks beautiful in the middle of a February thaw. Or alewife season on Lake Michigan. "Always" is an overstatement that I'm sure my fellow Michigan peeps will agree with.

Okay, aside over.

Dade's life is less than awesome at this point - he has a boyfriend, Pablo, a super popular member of the football team, that won't look at Dade outside of the bedroom. Pablo also has a girlfriend, who hates Dade's guts, even though Dade is reasonably sure she has no idea what is really going on between him and Pablo. Everyone at school as always assumed Dade is gay, but he's never really confirmed or denied the allegation. The marriage of Dade's parents is also falling apart as his dad starts seeing another woman, and even confides this bit of information in his teenage son, requesting he keep it from his mother.

Life begins to turn around for Dade when he meets two new people: first is Lucy, the lesbian niece of one of Dade's neighbors, who's been sent to Iowa from California to keep her away from the bad influences out there. The pair immediately bond over the Jack and Diet Cokes they sneak during a neighborhood barbecue. The other new friend is Alex, a local pot dealer, who Dade falls for at first sight and, with Lucy's encouragement, pursues for a relationship. A relationship which sparks an irrational jealousy in Pablo, but that doesn't particularly bother Dade: he's finally happy, which is something he never felt with Pablo.

This is a quiet, easy going novel. There are few surprises, except maybe for how Pablo reacts to Dade finding someone new, but really even he follows the "jealous, borderline abusive, ex-boyfriend" trope that's seen in non-LGBT-focused books all of the time.

I absolutely loved Lucy, but that's probably because I have a soft spot for rebellious lesbian characters.

All of the characters are well drawn, and there was nothing that I really disliked about the novel, but I also feel like it's one that isn't going to stick with me forever.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Book Events: Brave New Worlds panel & signing at Books of Wonder

Last fall I discovered the awesome bookstore Books of Wonder when I was searching for information about Suzanne Collins and The Hunger Games. I visit fairly regularly and always take visiting friends/family because it's a whole bookstore dedicated to kids books (also: the Cupcake Cafe)! What isn't there to like?

The panel had five guests; originally there were going to be six, but Michael Grant came down with a bug and decided to spare the people who would have shared an airplane with him. So that left Justine Larbalestier, Scott Westerfeld, Kristin Cashore, Libba Bray and Suzanne Collins - who was making her ONLY promotional appearance for Catching Fire! (She is also the only author at the event who doesn't blog - just something I noticed when compiling those links) I'm pretty sure she's almost single-handedly the reason the event neared 200 attendees - everyone else is wonderful and awesome, but I know that Justine and Scott have recently been on tour with their books (Scott has made several NYC stops, including the post-apocalyptic teen lit panel last month), and I know Libba Bray isn't a shrinking violet either, so she's been out and about not too long ago as well. Suzanne Collins, on the other hand, claims she hasn't seen people for the last four months, as she's hard at work on the final book in The Hunger Games trilogy (the title of which she was expressly forbidden to reveal).

Here's a quick rundown of what happened:

Justine spoke first, introducing Liar, which I am eagerly awaiting at the library (seriously, Queens Library: my account page has said the book has been in transit for over a week. I know it doesn't take that long to mail a book from one end of Queens to another). No spoilers, but she revealed that as she was writing she made sure that the reader could make one of two different interpretations of "what really happened" in the book - but then, of course, as readers have been sharing their thoughts with her, they've discovered many more than two interpretations, and all of them work! Sounds like a super complex and interesting read - I need it now!

Next up was Kristin, who really just gave a quick summary of Fire and how it connected back to Graceling. She revealed more in the Q&A and signing time.

Scott spoke next, and did a modified version of the slide show he did at the B&N panel. Modified in part because he had less time to speak, and also because the room wasn't set up well for a real slide show, so he used his iphone and "silly yuppie toy" to project some images on the ceiling! Unfortunately, I was sitting perpendicular to where he was projecting so everything was sideways and hard to make out, but I had seen most of it before, so I'll live. He did have some different content this time, as he spent some time noting that back at the beginning of the 20th century, illustrators of books were often more important in some ways than authors (he had a cover of War of the Worlds that had the illustrator's name plastered across the top, and then a little "H.G. Wells" on the side).

Scott also decided we were a morbid bunch when he got his biggest laugh of the night by very seriously describing how WWI started, and then ended with a rather-glib sounding "And six years later, 30,000 people were dead."

Libba Bray is hilarious as always. After Scott finished her presentation she said she'd either have to "pole dance or self-immolate" in order to follow him up. Didn't seem like the parents of the young kids who showed up thought that was too funny, but the rest of us laughed. Maybe it's because we often see discussions of how to decide what is "appropriate" to put in books for kids and young adults, but sometimes it surprises me when I see these adult authors who write for kids acting like the adults they are. It shouldn't surprise me, but it does.

Suzanne Collins was an incredibly gracious speaker. The Books of Wonder representative said when he was introducing her that she was essentially the reason the whole event had been planned; after he'd read Catching Fire he called up Suzanne to ask if she'd sign stock for them since he knew she wasn't making any appearances, but she said that if he could get together a couple of other authors she'd love to come in for a Books of Wonder event! Suzanne dedicated the first bit of her speaking time to praising the other authors and their books, then summarized The Hunger Games and Catching Fire for the audience - not that I think there was anyone there who hadn't read them both. Seriously, when it was time to get books signed, there were people going up to her with bags filled with copies of the books - she was such a big draw that the Books of Wonder staff started going down the line and any of us who had non-Suzanne books to have signed were told to jump the line, and then we could go back to get our Suzanne books signed.

Q&A session next. I didn't note all of the questions and answers, but here are some of the most interesting:

When the authors were asked how they come up with character names, Kristin said she often watched movie credits, especially to get last names. Suzanne said that Katniss' name comes from a regional name for the arrowhead plant - so of course that makes total sense for someone who is an archer!

What character, from your book or any book ever, would you like to meet? Kristin - Bitterblue, Libba - Winnie-the-Pooh, Justine - Ida Mae (from Flygirl, Suzanne - Simon from Lord of the Flies. Apparently I forgot to write down Scott's answer :-(

Here's the question that made me feel like a bad book nerd: a girl in the audience asked Suzanne to talk about the importance of bread in her books, since it pops up occasionally and, it turns out, Panem means bread! Suzanne explained that she took Panem from a latin phrase for bread and circuses, from an ancient satirist.

There was another question, asking the authors why they think dystopian novels are so big in YA right now (a question I believe was also asked at the B&N event). Justine had the best answer, I think: high school is a dystopia. Truer words were never spoken.

Finally it was time for the signing. I picked up Catching Fire and Graceling and brought along my copy of So Yesterday for Scott Westerfeld to sign (since I technically already have Leviathan, albeit in galley form, I don't quite feel the burning need to pick up the hardback version. Yet. It may be on my Christmas list, because it is a beautiful book). Since there was a huge backup to talk to Suzanne, I jumped ahead to Kristin and Scott and had the chance to talk to both of them for a minute. I was super excited to get to ask Kristin about something I'd mentioned in my Fire review: why did she give both Katsa and Fire such an aversion to having children? Kristin admitted her answer was a bit of a copout, but that's just how the two characters came to her, and it seemed so important to who they were as characters she needed to honor it. She also said it was a perfectly natural thought to her, so we laughed and bonded over that (babies are fine and all, but I'm still nowhere near the point where I actually want to be pregnant). She also pointed out that while neither character wants to be pregnant, that feeling actually comes from two very different places: Katsa draws strength from her independence, which of course includes not having babies depending on her, while for Fire it's a much more tragic stance, because she desperately wants a family. Thanks so much for talking to me, Kristin!

I also told Scott that I felt a little bit like his stalker, since this was the fifth time I've seen him this year. Of course, since he sees so many people he admitted that he didn't remember seeing me before, but when I mentioned I'd given him my thesis on Uglies back in the spring, he remembered who I was (or at least remembered there was a girl who'd given him that paper!) and so he asked what I was up to now and was just very friendly again, until I saw a chance to sneak back over and get Catching Fire signed.

It was a long night, but so much fun. Thanks so much to all the authors who came out!

Finally, Justine has made her own post about the evening, if you want to see it from an author's perspective (also, I'm hiding down in the right hand corner of her picture of Suzanne Collins! Totally my claim to fame now).

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Review: Crashed by Robin Wasserman

I read, and moderately enjoyed, Robin Wasserman's Skinned last year, about a girl who suffers a horrific car accident and wakes up to find her parents have downloaded her brain into a cybernetic body. It wasn't the best book of the year, but it was a fine example of YA dystopian lit. So when Crashed came up this year, I knew I had to read it - even if it wasn't at the top of my "to be read" stack.

After reading Crashed I actually had to go back and read Skinned and then re-read Crashed. For one, there were just enough details I didn't remember from the first book that weren't re-capped adequately in the sequel, so I was totally lost half the time. Secondly, I was trying to figure out why Lia just rubbed me the wrong way.

Crashed follows Lia after she ran away from home at the end of Skinned. She's now living with a small group of other Mechs and helps out in the group by helping to recruit new Mechs to their philosophy: since they clearly aren't human anymore, why cling to the trappings and limitations of their old human lives? The Mechs, led by Jude, live a hedonistic lifestyle: there are a few independently wealthy Mechs with enough credit that no one has to work, they don't go to school, since they don't feel emotions or physical sensations the way humans do they subject themselves to extreme activities just to feel again, and since they'll live forever they find monogamy to be monotonous.

In Skinned we saw the first inklings that there were groups of people who were adamantly opposed to the existence of the Mechs. In Crashed, those groups are back in full force and growing larger and more powerful every day, succeeding in placing new restrictions on the lives and activities of the Mechs. A confrontation is approaching between the two sides, and Lia finds herself conflicted: just how much is she willing to tow the party line? How far is she willing to go to defend the rights of Mechs?

One theme that was introduced in Skinned and is really brought to the forefront in Crashed is class, which brings me back to Thursday's post on class in YA lit. Before the download, Lia was definitely in the upper class of the dystopian society America has devolved into. She doesn't have to live in a city or a Corp town, and totally buys into the bullshit reasons that people live in those less-than-desirable places (people in cities are stupid and lazy; if they'd just work harder they'd be working decent jobs and out of those hell holes!). In Skinned we briefly see a city at night, and Lia's friend Auden often tries to open her eyes to the realities of their society. In Crashed we see more of the cities, as well as a corp town, and learn more of what life was like for Jude, Riley and Ani - three of the first Mechs, culled from "volunteers" in the city.

Jude especially seems to revel in telling Lia what a spoiled and clueless girl she is, since she has grown up sheltered outside of the cities. He and the others don't waste an opportunity to let Lia know that she doesn't "really" know how the world works and she's just naive and/or a stuck up rich bitch to think the way she does. And it is painfully obvious that Lia doesn't get what life is like in the cities, but on the other hand I felt the book was really cramming it down my throat, "poor people aren't poor because they want to be! The Man keeps people down!" We got the point the first dozen times; now do we really need to keep calling Lia stupid because she doesn't think something is fair (or right)? I commented over at Adventures of Cecelia Bedelia that I couldn't figure out if Lia irritated me because she's legitimately irritating, or if I was reacting to and sympathizing with the other characters' irritation. I still haven't figured out which it was - all I can pinpoint now is that these books get under my skin, but not in a good way.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Book Events: Children's Literature Cafe Cybils Panel

On Saturday I hooked up with new friend Rachel and attended the New York Public Library's Children's Literature Cafe panel on the Cybils. I have to confess, I was super excited to be attending an event about kid/YA lit that was geared towards adults - at a lot of these events that I tag along to, I feel like the odd one out. I'm old enough now that I can't really pass for a high school student, but I am also clearly not chaperoning a teen of my own. So it was kind of fun being one of the youngest in the room for once - there were three or four rows of chairs filled with people old enough to be my parents, and then a back row of twenty-somethings. I am terrible at estimating numbers, but it's safe to say that we were definitely in the minority.

The panelists were Pam from Mother Reader; Anne Boles Levy, founder of the Cybils; Susan Thomsen of Chicken Spaghetti and Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, a Fireplace and a Tea Cozy. The press release said the panelists would "discuss the state of children's literature online today including ethics, publisher/blogger relations, transparency, influence (or lack thereof) over published titles, and what it means to represent an online community of children’s literary enthusiasts."

The panelists did a good job of touching on all of those points briefly, but I definitely felt we were hindered by having only an hour for discussion. There was quite a bit about ethics and transparency in light of how book bloggers were curious about how the FTC's blogging guidelines were going to affect people like bloggers who review publisher-provided ARCs. Also discussed at length were the controversies surrounding the cover of Liar and Scholastic Book Fair's attempt to censor Luv Ya' Bunches. A bit of time was spent discussing the Cybils themselves, but I think the panelists may have thought we knew a lot more about the Cybils than we did, because the only question presented to us, the audience, by them was where we thought the Cybils should go in terms of funding - non-profit status, seeking grants, etc. Since I know nothing about funding a literary award, I have no idea what applying for non-profit status would entail or mean, and it didn't seem like the audience as a whole had solid ideas, either, so that fell a bit flat.

I have to admit, I was also a little disappointed in terms of representation. Pam had a short little speech prepared to open the panel, and in it she listed all the different types of people who are active in the kidlitosphere - teachers, librarians, moms, dads, teenagers, professors, etc. And yet the panelists were four white women who had careers related to books (reviewer, librarian, etc), and most were mothers. I felt it presented a very narrow look at the kidlitosphere, and did nothing to support Pam's claims of diversity.

I am super excited to know now that the Children's Literature Cafe meets monthly - I definitely plan on going back again. I just wish it lasted longer! An hour really isn't enough time to get a great discussion going, but thanks to everyone that came out and made the hour that we did have worthwhile.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Review: The Ask and the Answer by Patrick Ness

In middle and high school, as I became painfully aware of the fact that my school-assigned readings were dominated by male authors and male characters, I unofficially set out to read books that revolved around female characters. I never said "Oh, I won't read that book, it's about guys," but given a choice between two books, I would always choose the one about a girl. Back in May of this year I first read The Knife of Never Letting Go, and I remember being a little hesitant; why would I want to read a book set on a world where there were no women?!

Thank goodness I got over that hesitation, because The Knife of Never Letting Go is an amazing book, and Viola's awesomeness, combined with the terrible secrets of Prentisstown, make up for the lack of women.

The Ask and the Answer was high on my "Most anticipated books of 2009" list (right up there with Catching Fire). The Knife of Never Letting Go ends on a cliff hanger, and The Ask and the Answer picks up shortly after we were left hanging.

Haven, where Todd and Viola were sure they were going to be able to find refuge from Mayor Prentiss' relentless army, and find a way to contact the settler ships Viola had come from, has been transformed into New Prentisstown. Haven's mayor has been deposed and is held as a political prisoner, while Mayor Prentiss has installed himself as President Prentiss and is intent on reinstating order in New Prentisstown - there are curfews, men and women are separated...and the Mayor begins to limit who can have Haven's famed Cure for the Noise that plagues the men of the New World.

As Viola is recuperating from the wounds she sustained at the end of The Knife of Never Letting Go, she is sent to a house of healing - Haven has always had female Healers versus male Doctors, ostensibly so patients could choose whether they wanted to hear their doctors thoughts, but since men and women must now be kept separate female patients go to the Healers and male patients go to the Doctors. Surrounded by women - women who aren't too keen on Mayor Prentiss' new isolating policies - Viola learns some important history lessons about the New World, about the early days of colonization and the devastating Spackle War. Among those who fought in the Spackle War were a group of guerrilla warriors, mostly women who called themselves the Answer, who took up arms when they felt the male-led army wasn't doing a good enough job. Now that a new male threat has appeared, it looks like the Answer is going to have to return.

Todd is kept as far from Viola as possible - Mayor Prentiss will neither confirm nor deny that she is alive. Todd begins to fear the worst - that even if she isn't dead, she doesn't want to be with him anymore. Todd initially resists the Mayor's new rules - but as the terrorists of the Answer begin to make themselves known (and he wonders whether Viola is among them), some of the Mayor's policies make sense. He is just trying to protect them from the terrorists, isn't he?

The Ask and the Answer has some absolutely heart wrenching moments, as Todd and Viola are forced to choose sides in the conflict over New Prentisstown. As the Mayor tightens his grip on the women of New Prentisstown, I found myself comparing it to The Handmaid's Tale: In The Handmaid's Tale, we only get brief flashbacks to the events that led up to the total oppression of women; here in The Ask and the Answer, we actually get to see some of those steps taken: women and men separated, women only allowed out at certain times of the day and then only in small, tightly controlled groups - and even worse, grotesque measures that I won't spoil because you really need to read it for yourself to feel how TERRIBLE it is. Women are kept apart "for their own safety," yet it's widely known that the soldiers assigned to guard the women sneak into the women's homes and dormitories at night.

Todd and Viola do a lot of growing up in this book - it's wonderful and heartbreaking at the same time to see them forced into the frontlines of the Mayor's war. And my stomach dropped when it came to this book's cliffhanger ending - how long do I have to wait until book 3?!
Related Posts with Thumbnails