Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly


As the school year starts picking up momentum, the writers at Stacked finally agreed on a title for our next round robin review. We have a lot of YA fiction representation, but our coverage of children's literature is lacking at times. So, we all decided to pick up the highly discussed title, The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate. We keep hearing possible Newbery talk bandied about when this book is mentioned... so the contributors were intrigued!

Jennifer:

Two things really stood out for me after I read this book.

1. The setting - Fentress, Texas seems like a stereotypical little town in the middle of Central Texas. As a former resident of Austin (and a Texas native), I recognized many of the peculiar quirks so integral to Texas living - the prominence of cotton and the pecan tree, the excitement over staying at the Driskill Hotel on Congress Avenue in Austin, the constant reminders of Civil War battles, and the importance of county fairs in rural life. I especially loved the names of the Tates - 5 of the 6 Tate brothers are named after important Texas heroes of independence... and a cursory glance at my own family tree would reveal similar naming tactics for my own forebears. My mother's family was from a small Texas town near Mexia - and again, the Calpurnia's family stories sound very familiar when compared to the folklore of my relatives.

2. The main character - Calpurnia was inquisitive without being precocious. Obedient without being too goody-two shoes. Independent without being impractical. Towards the end, I felt like the author made Calpurnia's distress about being a woman a little too modern in tone, but I suppose it works for a book about the dawning of the 20th century. Calpurnia also seemed very grown-up in her narrative - the book felt like it was written by her, but ten, twenty years in the future, after she attended that "university in Austin." Her voice isn't that of a child.

Kelly got more things right than wrong in this book. She was able to write with an authentic voice, and the reader really fell in love with so many members of the Tate family and Fentress community. I was especially partial to Travis, the tender-hearted younger brother who adored his animals.

But Kelly's talent for writing these smaller tableaux may also be the book's greatest weakness. This is a "small" book; very little actually happens plot-wise over the expanse of time. After reading it, I found it difficult to describe what it's about beyond "Oh, a little girl learns about Darwin and her grandfather in turn of the century Texas." In the end, I think that's okay. We don't always need overly-complicated storylines when the relationships between characters seem so real.



Kelly

Jacqueline Kelly can write, there's no doubt about it. The prose is lovely, intricate, and challenging, even for the adult reader. This is a book that will require the intended audience to digest the language and the work of art that has been developed.

That said, this story really, really did not do it for me.

The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate was a very slow moving story with no real problem or resolution; instead, it's a portrait of a girl growing up in small town Texas at the turn of the twentieth century and the challenges she faces with her interest in science and her family and society's pressures for her to be a housewife-in-training. Each chapter is a bit of a different time of year, from spring time and the summer fair to Thanksgiving, Christmas, and finally the new year.

What bothered me the entire time was that this book has been done before, and because there's no compelling story line and no real climax nor action, I don't think this is a memorable read other than for the language aspect. To put it bluntly, I was really bored reading this, and it took me far longer to read than it should have simply because I never felt compelled enough by it to want to read it more.

The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate certainly screams traditional Newbery for me -- this is the sort of book that adults think that kids should read, even if it really doesn't seem to have a lot of kid appeal. I have a hard time envisioning 10-13 year old girls picking this one up by choice and loving it. I suspect an older audience of teens may find more success with it, but because the main character is 11, they may be turned off. Although the historical accuracy with age and maturity is solid, this will read as dated or strange for current intended audiences, I think. Moreover, this book reminds me a lot of A Northern Light by Jennifer Donnelly, which is a similar story set in a historical era where females had desires to be something other than what society has determined for them. Although the concept and theme are great, it is a book than languishes on the shelf.

I found the characters to be flat, particularly the ancillary characters. Callie never gave me a reason to like her nor care about her story; in fact, I wished that the story had been told from the perspective of her grandfather, who seemed a heck of a lot more interesting to me. And while the use of Texas war heroes as the names of her brothers was creative, they were all the same character to me.

Like Jennifer mentioned, this wasn't written with the voice of a child. I think that's precisely why I had a hard time figuring this one out. Had this book been written for adults, I think it would find so much more power and popularity. A story from the voice of Callie as an adult reflecting on her childhood could have developed her a lot more and made me care about her whys and hows. But as it is now, I just couldn't. I don't think that an 11-year-old reading this can possibly "get" it in any sense -- they won't have the appreciation for the language nor will they understand the importance of the historical setting nor will they get the importance of the message here. I also have a hard time thinking a lot of 11-year-olds would quite have the knowledge of Darwin and the implications of his findings that DO make this book rich.

Fortunately, for a language lover, there were long periods of just falling in love with Kelly's word weaving. I look forward to seeing what she does in the future, even though Calpurnia Tate is one book I don't think will make any of my personal favorite lists.

Kimberly

My main opinion about The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate can be expressed as follows: I liked it, but I'm not sure an eleven-year-old would. The book is a beautifully-written, leisurely series of vignettes about young Calpurnia in turn of the twentieth century Texas. Each chapter tells a different story about Calpurnia and her family, and Darwin's ideas form a unifying theme that also functions as a metaphor for Calpurnia's coming of age.

There are two main reasons why I believe the book doesn't really work for its intended age group, and Kelly (my fellow blogger) has touched upon them both. Firstly and most prominently, Calpurnia's voice is that of an adult. Jacqueline Kelly's choice to write the book from the perspective of a grown Calpurnia is a baffling one to me, because it removes the reader from the thick of the emotional eleven-year-old experience. Kelly's voice often comes across as nostalgic, and it's hard for an eleven-year-old reader to feel nostalgic about being eleven. Calpurnia's voice makes the book more suitable for an adult.

Secondly, and almost as importantly, there is no driving force behind the book. The individual stories are endearing and amusing, and Calpurnia's family is lovable and usually interesting (particularly her wonderful, wish-I-were-related-to-him grandfather), but nothing really seems to be at stake here. True, at times we worry that Calpurnia will be relegated to domestic slavery like the other girls of her time, but as a reader I never felt a sense of panic, and there's no push to find out what happens next. As someone who picked up the book knowing it was geared toward pre-teens, I was surprised at this fact, and it took me awhile to get into it as a result. Quite simply, I kept on waiting for something to happen. Once I realized that the book was not really about plot, I was able to enjoy it, but I just think younger kids need something a bit more than flowery prose to keep them interested.

Less importantly, the book is long. I know that eleven-year-olds of this generation have read the great behemoths that are the later Harry Potter books, but they started off by reading the early ones, which are much shorter. The book also seems longer because nothing really happens, and this is a problem for young readers. There's no reason to read another chapter because there is nothing to be resolved - it's just a day in the life.

As Jennifer mentioned, the historical details are delightful, particularly for someone who is a born-and-bred Texan as I am. I learned a bit about my own state's history, and what's more, I enjoyed learning it, unlike when I was force-fed such history in middle school. I do think the secondary characters were well-developed, with the exception of a few of Calpurnia's brothers, and the book had more than a few very funny bits.

The story-within-a-chapter aspect of Calpurnia Tate reminds me a little bit of Little Women, which I loved as a girl. However, even Little Women built toward something at the end and had what could be called a climax or some sort of denouement. Calpurnia Tate just seems to end. This is not to say that it's a bad book. I quite enjoyed it. But I do believe it will have a hard time engaging the tweens.




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Another bad cover

Along the lines of Ten Cents a Dance in terms of a downgrade in cover design between the hard cover and the paper back is one of my other favorite reads in the past year, The Adoration of Jenna Fox.

This is the hardcover:


It's intriguing and leaves a lot to the reader's imagination. You have no idea what the story will be about, and for this book in particular, this is important. Readers who go in with an idea of the book won't get the pleasure of unraveling the mystery.

But then, there's the paperback:


Now, we have a picture of Jenna. And you know what? It ruins the story. Although the cover really doesn't tell the story, readers go in with an idea or readers who go in blind and find out what happens will ultimately see this as a disservice. I think it looks like a lot of other covers and, well, it doesn't draw me in as a reader as much as the hard cover -- even the colors are gone!

Which do you like better? If you've read it, what do you think about the decision to add a person to the paperback? How about that big spoiler?




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Monday, September 28, 2009

The Dairy Queen series by Catherine Gilbert Murdock

One of my favorite series of books is wrapping up with the final episode, Front and Center, in a couple of weeks. Catherine Gilbert Murdock's Dairy Queen series has been a very quiet set of books, receiving fewer nods than it deserves, but I think this final book may in fact help establish this as one of the best reads for girls of any age -- with no foul language and a few sweet kisses as the most risque scene in book three, this will please readers and parents alike.

The Dairy Queen introduces readers to the Schwenk family, living on a farm in Red Bend, Wisconsin. And what's Wisconsin without a major high school football rivalry? The Schwenks have two college players -- Win at University of Washington and Bill at the University of Minnesota -- who lives to tell the tales of the big Red Bend vs. Hawley games that always bring out the towns in huge numbers.

D.J. Schwenk's the only girl on the farm, and with dad having problems and mom being so busy with work, she's become the default farm worker. But the summer before her sophomore year, Brian Nelson comes by and informs her he needs to be helping on the farm. With trepedition, D.J. shows him the ropes of the farm....and how to condition so he can become the star quarterback of the Hawley football team. Yes, THAT football team.


Perhaps the biggest problem with the Shwenk family is that they don't talk, and D.J. has a lot to say. It's with Brian she finds a companion and she finds someone she can just talk to. As D.J. improves as a football player and Brian becomes a stronger quarterback with greater work ethic on the farm, they become more than just friends -- they become football rivals when D.J. becomes a player on the Red Bend football team.

What I loved about the Dairy Queen was D.J.'s fantastic voice. She's a strong girl but is so unsure of her actions and always feels weird -- but she tells Brian these things. D.J.'s challenges are externally shared and I think these are all things we all feel that we're too afraid to not say. Moreover, a female football player is such a great story in and of itself, and Murdock does her readers a great service in writing a sports-filled book without bogging it down in too many sport-related details. I don't think there is a way you just can't love and admire D.J. and live with her through the highs and lows of her social life, which, by the way, involves learning that her best friend in the world, Amber, is a lesbian. Oh . . . and had a crush on D.J.

The Off Season is the second book in this series, and it picks up with D.J. being interviewed and followed by People magazine because she's a female football player and quite a butt kicker at that! In this installment of D.J.'s life, things really begin looking down: she injures her shoulder and must make a very important decision about whether she will continue playing football and potentially ruin her future as a basketball player (something which she thinks might be her only way into college since, well, she isn't very good at English and doesn't have the best grades -- it's not that she's dumb at all, it's just that being in charge of the farm really takes a lot of her time away from homework).

Moreover, the story in People may have just ruined her friendship with Brian.

Although these are huge challenges for D.J., the biggest comes during a University of Washington football game that the Schwenks had gathered around to watch over Thanksgiving. To save this from being a spoiler, I won't say what happens but that her life is turned upside down, and D.J. is once again reevaluating her role in her family and her future. Oh, did I mention, too, that the Schwenk farm is bleeding money and that Amber, D.J.'s best friend, has been traveling the country with her new girlfriend Dean?

The Off Season developed a lot of challenges and resolved few, making room for the final installment of this series, Front and Center. It's D.J.'s junior year of high school, and after choosing to pursue basketball as her sport, she's being told from her coach she needs to step it up as a leader on the team if she ever wants to be recruited by a college. But where will she go? Will she go at all? With the trouble the family has financially, the only hope is a full scholarship.

D.J. struggled in this book with her desires for a relationship with Beaner or with Brian -- yes, THE Brian Nelson. More importantly, D.J. doesn't think she wants to go on to play ball at a Division 1 school. After visiting the University of Minnesota last year and again this year and watching the pressure these players feel from tens of thousands of fans, she feels it might be safer to go to a Division 3 school where she can play for fun, rather than feel the pressure to perform.

Of course, D.J. is offered two full rides from two very different schools that each have their strengths and weaknesses and she struggles with the decision to go at all. This is perfectly overlaid with the relationship struggles she's feeling and the challenges at home. This book makes D.J. so human and so relatable, that with every page I wanted to be her best friend and her cheerleader.

It is Win, D.J.'s brother, who ends up helping her make the most important decision of her life, and it is he who ultimate changes her way of thinking about herself and her life. But it's not JUST Win, it's everyone in her life, including Amber and Brian, and mom and dad Schwenk.

The Dairy Queen series is one that I think all teen girls should read. D.J. is such a good kid, but she has challenges in her life that all teens do -- and she is able to make solid, strong decisions in ways that teenagers can, too. Her family's not perfect, but she is able to see them as people and understand why they do what they do and why that's necessary. She's funny and likable in so many ways. She's empowered but vulnerable, and she's not afraid to be either one of them. D.J. is a perfectly imperfect person. Murdock also weaves in a story of homosexuality that is well done and so realistic without being flat or stereotypical. Bravo.

I listened to the first two books on audio and commend them for those productions. The voice of D.J. is perfect, and throughout my reading of Front and Center, I couldn't imagine her sounding any other way. I can't wait to listen to this one again when it comes out on audio.

If you haven't picked these up yet, please do. Now that the series is complete (well, okay, it will be in October), it's the perfect series to recommend to readers looking for something with a strong character, great plot, and that will remain with them for a while.




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Sunday, September 27, 2009

YA Lit Conference and Why YA Matters

This weekend, I got to meet the likes of Ellen Hopkins and Libba Bray, listen to the stories behind the stories of James Owen and Gennier Choldenko, and share lunch and stories with Michelle Zink. The main theme? How YA literature is really the best written material being published these days, how the writing process works, and why book banners are not only bad but that they seem to be increasing in numbers and in anger.

Perhaps it was best stated that the reason so many teens and adults love ya material now is because it's a fiction of growth and of choice and of change -- something we all, regardless of age, always go through. Sure, we aren't picking out a college when we're in our 20s, but we can always be making similar life course choices, so we know exactly what that character is going through. We relate to the situations and issues, and age isn't the determining factor.

To open the event, Judy Blundell and Ellen Hopkins gave thirty minute talks. Judy discussed going from a writer for hire to a National Book Award winner, while Hopkins gave a very moving and provoking speech about those in Norman, Oklahoma who banned her from giving a talk. She then read her Manifesto, written for this year's Banned Books Week, and she read these incredible letters from readers who were moved by her work.

After the morning talks, we all could choose two of six panels to attend. I went to a panel about local authors that included Cynthea Liu, Claire Zulkey, Susan Fine, and David Kraus. Cynthea made me pumped to finally check out the Students of the Seven Seas series and I was so excited to see Claire since I was reading her book at that moment (more on that in a minute). Susan's book really excites me, too, as it sounds like such a fantastic book group book. It sounds like a very contemporary Chocolate War. And finally, David's current book not only excited me, but his talks about a huge book he just submitted sounds like it's going to be a hit -- it's about modern grave robbers.

Honestly, I should have chosen another session for the next panel; I attended one on new and upcoming books. I chose it over another panel, and I felt like I got nothing out of that one. Alas!

After that panel, we got to get books signed and eat lunch. It was then I met and had my photo taken with Ellen Hopkins:



And sitting next to Ellen was Claire Zulkey. As I mentioned, I bought her book for our library and was reading it -- it's a cute story and one that covers a very interesting topic (that of choosing NOT to attend college right after high school). Her talk during the panel was interesting because I learned about another local author to read about. But, I went up to her and asked if she'd sign the library's book to the kids. Not only did she do that, but she said it was her first library book. Woo hoo!


Immediately after lunch, James Owen talked about his work as an author/illustrator. He reminded me of those speakers you do listen to in high school and junior high, filled with wisdom and insight. I loved it and couldn't stop thinking about what a great speaker he'd be, especially for boys.

We had the opportunity for two more break out sessions, and for the first one, I listened to a panel of fantasy writers, including Michelle Zink, James Owen, Kaza Kingsley, and Libba Bray. I don't know a lot about the genre nor have I read quite enough, but there was a fascinating discussion of female fantasy readers and female-aimed books. Earlier during lunch, Michelle had been talking with my table mates and I about Stephenie Meyer's Twilight series and the role of Bella -- that she's an empty vessel for Edward to be a main role, rather than being a main role herself. Needless to say, they were in agreement that the fantasy coming out now really features enviable, strong, empowered females. And most importantly, it is read and enjoyed -- Twilight was really an important gateway for these readers who seek stronger, more literary pieces, too.

My final panel session of the day was on contemporary fiction, featuring Jill Wolfson, Ellen Hopkins, and Lisa Yee. Julia Keller was going to come too, but had to pull out for family reasons at the last minute (keep your eye here for a review of her book very soon, btw!). Perhaps what was most interesting about this panel, aside from accumulating a huge to-read list, was that almost all of the panelists came from journalism backgrounds. I think it shows in their writing and in the topics they tackle -- talk about contemporary! I'm very excited to read their titles. If Lisa Yee doesn't sound familiar, you might know her better as the brains behind the "Pass the old El Paso" slogan.

Finally, the day wrapped up with talks by Gennifer and Libba. Gennifer talked about Alcatraz and writing her book, Al Capone Does My Shirts. I didn't know how much her book was steeped in reality, so it made my love for it just a little bit stronger. She was very funny and the photos and research she did for the books were right up my alley. Libba's talk centered on her strange brain (her words, not mine!). She was hysterical but powerful. Right after, I ran up to her and got her to sign my copy of Going Bovine.

All of this is to say that YA will be here a while, and I think it's going to continue being the most popular area writers want to publish in. The readers aren't just teenagers; adults continue to be a big market because the writing and the topics are so good and relatable. Perhaps more importantly, we're going to keep hearing about challenges and struggles from audiences seeking to protect teens from reality in these books -- and by trying to do so, limit everyone's access to such powerful writers and stories. We need to keep fighting and keep promoting, as it will only expand the believers. And we need to keep supporting these authors who care SO MUCH about their readers. The love and utter respect and understanding they have for teenagers is what those teenagers need in their lives and what so many may not have.




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Wednesday, September 23, 2009

When the cover fails

I have to give credit to Bookshelves of Doom for this one.

One of my favorite books this year and perhaps in a very long time has been Christine Fletcher's Ten Cents a Dance. It's set in 1940s Chicago and follows Ruby as she becomes a taxi dancer to make money to move her family up in the world. It's beautifully rich, with a great plot, great characters, and a fantastic setting and era. Here's the cover:



Perfect! It captures a sense of time and place, and it doesn't give you too much in terms of what the story's about so that as a reader, you can make your own images.

Well, as has been a trend for a while now, the publisher has decided to change the cover for the paperback of this book. This is the paperback cover:


I'm really, really disappointed in this one. First, it kills any sense of time. Second, the male character there? He's not in the story. And really, groping on the front cover? I don't think this looks like a 17-year-old in 1940s Chicago at all. In fact, this books like every other book out recently set in contemporary times. It reminds me a lot of many of Simone Elkeles's paperbacks.

I think this is a mistake -- it's now going to have a harder time finding its audience, who may be turned off immediately by a cover that not only looks like so many others on the market, but also because it doesn't convey that it's a historical fiction that's not filled with boys groping girls (Ruby would actually be quite offended, I think!). Although I don't require my books to give me anything on the cover, when a cover is such a success because it DOES capture the essence of the story, it's disheartening to see that discarded for something generic.

What do you think? Have you seen any other hard cover to paper back cover changes that have made you cringe?




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Sunday, September 20, 2009

Tales from Outer Suburbia by Shaun Tan

When this title showed up at work, my coworker and I talked about whether it was a graphic novel or teen fiction. After thinking it over and looking around a bit, I decided to buck the trend and put it with graphic novels. Now that I've read this one, I still don't know. Perhaps I'm more confused now!

Tales from Outer Suburbia by Shaun Tan is a picture book for teens and adults (I don't think it's exclusively one or another, really!). More accurately, it's a collection of short stories accompanied by detailed, fantastical art work. This is not my usual genre but I absolutely adored it.

This collection of short stories is bizarre yet familiar. As you read it, you are transported into an alternate reality that at the same time feels so normal or familiar. In the first story, a family's international student decides to live in the kitchen cupboards during his stay and collects not the interesting and valuable pieces of the Australian culture, but instead the garbage and "throw away" pieces of life. At the end, he leaves his hosts a wonderful little surprise made with those assorted discards.

Another story -- inspired by the cover pictured above -- is about a deep sea diver in the old get up showing up in a family's yard. Unsure what to do with this strange guests, the children deliver him to "Mrs. Bad News," their neighbor who returns all of their lost toys to them broken. The images are beautiful and the story ends much differently than the children planned.

A couple other stories involve the discovery of hidden worlds within one's own home and a story about what happens to the poems people write and never do anything with.

Each and every story is beautifully illustrated. This is a book that those who like fairy tales or fantasy, as well as short stories or graphic novels will love. It is part fiction and part graphic novel, as well as part book of art. Tan received a grant from his home country of Australia to complete it, and I think they were smart to let him develop such a unique book. This is a great one for an adult story time or for a family read. I am so eager to get my hands on Tan's other book, The Arrival, because this one was just so darn good.

I think this is one of those books that proves literacy is so much more than the words on a page. Literacy is also visual, and without the visuals that Tan provides, this book wouldn't be quite as fun. Although it's a picture book, I don't think this is the sort of book the younger crowd would "get" as well as teens and adults would simply because of the importance of the visuals to the stories and because of the sheer (wonderful) absurdity of some of the tales.

So, even if you're not the traditional graphic novel aficionado, give this one a whirl. It might change your mind ... or at least give you an appreciation for the fine art of balancing words and images to weave a set of fun and memorable stories.




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Thursday, September 17, 2009

Double Take, Part XII

This one isn't perfect but so close!

Snitch by Allison van Diepen was published by Simon Pulse in November 2007.


Permanence by Kip Fulbeck was published March 2008 by Chronicle Books.

I like both covers a lot. Edgy and artistic without being too risque.




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Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Candor by Pam Bachorz

I took a class in college that spent some time studying the infamous Pullman community, and during the course, we got the opportunity to go down to Pullman and see what remains. I find the idea of the utopian community endlessly fascinating and terrifying, which is precisely why Candor by Pam Bachorz struck me as something I definitely wanted to get my hands on. Thanks to her and the wonderful folks at Egmont, I scored a copy of this book that will be released next week.

Candor, Florida is home to perfection -- families wait for years to get into the community that breeds stellar students, happiness, safety, and unparalleled community. Every kid goes to a good college and every kid is well behaved. Why wouldn't anyone want to be a part of this?

The thing is, they're being brainwashed by the founder, Campbell Banks. He's hidden his messages in everything, and everyone is reprogrammed to follow his regiment and ideals. Except, as it seems, his son Oscar.

Even though everyone in Candor things Oscar is the model child, he's actually got them fooled. For a good price, Oscar will share with other teens how to escape Candor and regain control of their own lives and their own minds.

That is, until Nia arrives and challenges his every power.

As Oscar falls more into obsession with her -- because calling it love or romance wouldn't necessarily be appropriate -- his knowledge and his image unravel, as does his own power over the citizens of Candor.

Candor both was and was not what I expected. I really enjoyed the story and the ideas here because they were based on a real premise, but they were twisted in a way to make it unbelievable enough for me as a reader. I found the character development a bit sparse, but when I came to the end of the book, I found this was much to the benefit of the story itself. What I loved was that throughout the entirety of the book, I felt like my own mind was being brainwashed, along with Oscar. As a reader, you have no idea whether or not to believe Oscar. Ultimately, the book becomes a large question about who really has the power in Candor.

Unlike a lot of titles I've read lately, Candor was a bit of a slower read for me. Perhaps because I did have to shift my expectations of the book, I kept needing to put it down, digest, then pick it up again. I don't think, though, teens will be doing this -- without the background and paranoia that older readers may bring to the book, teens will devour this and, I think, really come to think about big issues such as privacy, control, and power. What seems like a relatively unrealistic tale becomes more and more chilling because of these layers and themes.

Candor will be a great book to discuss in a book group or in a classroom because of these issues. I am really looking forward to hearing what the teens reading it have to think about it because their perspective is entirely different from my own and, I believe, will breathe some really unique ideas into it. And maybe they'll have a good idea of who's really being controlled: the reader, Oscar, or the citizens of Candor. As readers we know Bachorz was inspired to write this after living in Disney's town, Celebration, Florida. I think this is a title that would go perfectly in a discussion about planned communities, utopias, or even Pullman. While fictional, I think the key issues in the book are going to be relatable on many levels.

Although one of the key plot points that is played up in the jacket blurb is the relationship between Oscar and Nia, I don't think this is central. In fact, I think that Nia is much more symbolic of many things, including Oscar himself. The relationship/obsession needed to be there to make this clearer for the reader, but the romance itself is merely illusion and illustration. I think Bachorz made a very smart decision in making this more symbol than central.

As an added bonus, Bachorz's book has a website, as well, right here. After poking around on the site and watching some of the testimonials, I can only imagine it won't be too long before someone wants to make this one into a full length film. I love the testimonials on the site, and I believe that this is a site a reader should check out before reading the book. It sets a great tone, and it really contributes to the issues of control and power.

Candor will be available September 22. I'll be eager to talk with other readers about this title because, well, there's just so much here to discuss. This book is no silo.




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Monday, September 14, 2009

Love is the Higher Law by David Levithan

Ever read a book and when you begin it you cringe thinking you already know how disappointing it will be? Well, I will say that's how I felt when I opened Love is the Higher Law by David Levithan -- it was my first book by him and well, the topic of 9/11 was one that I just don't think can be done well just yet. Maybe never. But I was wrong. Very, very wrong.

Love is the Higher Law takes its name from one of my all time favorite songs, "One," by U2. The story, told from three alternating perspectives, begins on the morning of 9/11 in New York City. Each of the three main characters -- Claire, Jasper, and Peter -- takes turns telling where they were and what was going on. I immediately connected with Claire because she was only a year older than I was when 9/11 happened. Although our moments in time were quite different, I just felt a connection with her that really helped me relate to the story.

This isn't a simple story of the day of 9/11. Levithan does a really great job of connecting the characters to one another because as much as this is a story of alternating perspectives, it's ultimately the story of one experience and one "being" -- how we ALL relate to one another, and how we all related to one another in the moments of 9/11. The story follows the characters in the days following 9/11, as well as six months later and one year later.

Love is the Higher Law is a short book, but it's mighty powerful. People like me who were aware of what was going on that day and in the days and months following can really connect, but it's what Levithan writes in his author's note that makes this book so powerful. He makes note that today's teenagers were so young when 9/11 happened and just don't have the stories to connect to. They've forever been in a post-9/11 world, and it's our duty to share our stories so they don't disappear. As much as we're all hesitant sometimes to reflect or write about such a historic and defining moment, it's something we should and have to do to ensure others "get" it.

I think what really struck me the most in this book was the use of U2 as a major thematic element. I think teens, who already have such intimate relationships with music, will connect with the idea that a band or an album can be a powerful instrument of memory and of humanity. As one of those people who absolutely fell in love with All That You Can't Leave Behind, I really found that Peter's connection with it is perhaps exactly why I find that to be such a strong album. This kind of defines the book and the historical importance of the entire moment, and it does so in a way that I think anyone can feel and understand. I thought it was an innovative way to develop a theme and plot without making it inaccessible to non-U2 fans or making it a story about one band. It's much more, but this layer will really click with some readers without leaving others in the dark.

While I read this book quickly, it's one that I know will stick around. I'd recommend this book to just about anyone because I think it will resonate with all readers. I applaud Levithan for writing it, and I can only hope other authors follow. And the alternating perspectives? Spot on. That's a rarity.

Let me be fair in saying I had one HUGE criticism, and that would be the last few pages of the book. What made this title great was how apolitical it was. But in the end, Levithan made his political beliefs a little too clear. Moreover, for a book focused on 9/11 as an event and moment, making blatant political criticisms didn't sit well and, I think, diverged from his ultimate goals. I found it out of place in the book and out of character. I wish he'd left this out -- this is one of those issues I feared most in beginning any book on this topic.

Go read this one, please. As much as I've read about this book being award-worthy, I'm mixed on that. I feel giving it attention via an award might make teens a bit resistant to reading it (be honest -- you slap a book with an award and sometimes that's the last time it'll be read), but I feel it also might fall behind other titles because it hasn't had enough spotlight on it yet. Not to mention the professional journals didn't give this one a good review, which is a bit short sighted. I just don't think you can compare this title to Levithan's others -- it was written with an entirely different purpose and goal, and he hits a home run with that intention. Read it for the story and be pleased enough to pick up other books by this author. Don't read it to compare it to his other books.




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Saturday, September 12, 2009

"Fat" by Jennifer McLagan


"For all the Jack Sprats out there - you're wrong!"

This is the dedication for my new favorite cookbook, Fat by Jennifer McLagan. I'm not alone in loving this work; the James Beard Foundation gave the coveted "Cookbook of the Year" award to this title. More than a simple collection of recipes, McLagan included extensive food histories, nutritional information, world-wide food folklore, and step-by-step instruction on everything involving fat.

The book is divided into four different sections - butter ("Worth it"), pork fat ("The King"), poultry fat ("Versatile and good for you"), and beef and lamb fats ("Overlooked but tasty"). Each section has a 10 page spread giving an overview of that types of fat included within the chapter. For example, the beef and lamb fats chapter touches on suet, bone marrow, marbling, tallow, and dripping. An extensive introduction, bibliography, and index round out the structure of the book.

McLagan truly believes that one of the problems with the modern diet is its fear of fat. She starts developing this thesis in her dedication, expands on the sentiment within the introduction, and continues to discuss specifics within the beginning pages of each chapter. "Fat, we reasoned, was why we packed on the pounds and got ill, so we banned animal fat from our lives" (page 2). She makes a good point - as a whole, North Americans are still obese, unhealthy, obsessed with exercise... and eating less animal fat than ever before. The animal fat sources that she examines are rich in monounsaturated fats - different beasts than the hydrogenated and polyunsaturated fats found in an average American diet. McLagan not only looks at the nutritional benefits of eating more fat, she also examines the reasons why it's so pleasureful. She includes many interesting "fat" quotes and phrases in the margins of the pages, reminding us how fat wasn't always such a taboo thing to be called. I loved the variation of sources - Shakespeare sits next to German folklore next to Dorothy Hartley.

McLagan highlights many fascinating history tidbits about fat. Did you know that the Indian Mutiny of 1857 was, in part, due to a misunderstanding between Indian sepoys and the East India Company over the loading procedures of the Enfield rifle? The design required the sepoys to bite off the casing before pouring out the gunpowder, but the casings were said to be greased with lard (pork fat) or tallow (beef fat), distasteful to both Muslim and Hindi soldiers. Rebellion ensues, and the British government has to take over control of the subcontinent. Other interesting anecdotes include the origins of the name "Fat Man" for the second atomic bomb dropped on Japan, history of Bolladagur day in Iceland, and discussing the chemistry of the soap lady at the Mütter Museum.

But this is more than just a book that preaches at us - at its core, Fat is a cookbook. With its gorgeous photography, I wanted to eat everything on the pages, even if it was just a picture of lardo and persimmons. The endpapers are really a magnified picture of caul fat, delicately lacing the contents of the book. McLagan prefaces every recipe with great instructions and stories. And there are a lot of decadent recipes in here - Fat Fat-Cooked Fries, Sauteed Foie Gras with Gingered Vanilla Quince, Bone Marrow Crostini, Prosciutto-Wrapped Halibut with Sage Butter, and a ridiculously mouth-watering Salted Caramel Sauce. Cooking with real fat sources doesn't seem easy; many recipes require a great deal of preparation work, but McLagan assures us that the payoff is worth the effort.

Of course, there's a waiting list a mile long for this book at the library, so I had to give up my copy too soon, well before I was able to cook any of the recipes for myself. But I've not so subtly hinted about my love for this book to my friends, plus I have a birthday coming up... One can only hope. I promise there will be a roast goose for any generous gift-givers in the future, though.




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Double Take Re-Take

Remember this double take of two books not even published yet? Alea pointed out that the publisher's changed the cover now because of it. Here's the new one:


Kind of interesting, seeing how the two takes on the same cover are radically different. I'm not sure which I like better nor am I sure which one fits better. They're so different!




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Ripley's Seeing is Believing Giveaway WINNER

Abby the Librarian can thank the mystical powers of random.org who chose #1 as the winner of this give away! Congrats, and I will be emailing you shortly.

Thanks for everyone who entered. We didn't quite get enough entries for a second giveaway, but keep your eyes peeled because I have a fantastic giveaway coming up in a couple weeks courtesy of Barry Lyga!




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Thursday, September 10, 2009

Double Take, Part XI

This one is one you just wouldn't see unless you spent a little time on Meg Cabot's blog (which, I've yet to read one of her books but wow, her blog was a lot of fun and makes me want to!).



This is the Brazilian cover for Meg's book Mediator.

Does it at all look familiar to you? Now it's funny because the cover I'll post below is one I've scratched my head at again and again wondering if it had a double take somewhere.


Indeed it does, though it's a Brazilian double take (and obviously it's purple rather than pink). The Dark Divine by Bree Despain will be published in December 2009 by Egmont.

Either way, I like the cover a lot. Both the purple and pink are vibrant against the black and, well, the cover's memorable!




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Wednesday, September 9, 2009

How to Build a House by Dana Reinhardt

If you remember my review for Marcelo in the Real World, you'll know that I had a hard time with the book because I didn't know the intended audience. For me, intended audience makes a huge difference whether a title is a hit or a miss.

How to Build a House by Dana Reinhardt is one of the books on this year's Read for a Lifetime list. It's a concept I think a lot of teen relate to. Harper's family in Los Angeles is in disarray, and rather than allow herself to be saddened by it all summer, she decides to join a non-religious non-profit program that would allow her to involve herself in a summer-long community service project. More specifically, she's going to help rebuild a house in Bailey, Tennessee that was destroyed in a major tornado. As someone who's actually done exactly this, I was so intrigued by the idea and know there are a lot of other people who would love reading about this.

Harper's dad and step mother are getting a divorce, which is tearing apart the family Harper came to believe was so great. Her sister through the marriage, Tess, was her best friend. Jane, her step mom, was the mother she never had. Things were perfect until her father tore the family apart through an extramarital affair. Harper turned to her best friend Gabriel, who also happened to be a guy she really had a lot of feelings for, and they were mutual feelings. At least that's what she thought until she saw who Gabriel was kissing one night at a party.

Getting out made sense. And Bailey, Tennessee, was the perfect place to hid out. She's never going to be known here, and she has no reasons to make any ties. This is the ideal summer project. Oh, and this is also the perfect way for Harper to feel like she's giving back to the earth us humans are ruining through global warning. Why else would Katrina happen and why else would more and more tornadoes keep happening and destroying people's lives?

Sure, she's building a house, but she ends up finding romance with one of the members of the family who will be receiving the house when it's done.

While How to Build a House sounds sweet and relatable, I found it fell flat on a lot of levels. First, I thought the metaphor was far too obvious and far too drawn out. Yes, the family fell apart like a tornado tore apart the house and it takes team work and communication to rebuild both. Oh, yeah, don't forget that through team work and communication we can also stop global warming. It was just far. too. much.

I found Harper to be a smug main character. She seems bitter the entire time she's on the trip, and she's the one who chose to go. Her discussion of Christian and country music got so irritating because she thought she was so above both of them -- and I thought that reiteration of Christian ideas as "bad" was irritating. I'm not sure that's what Reinhardt intended, but if it was, I don't think it hit the nail right on nor will the right audience get it. And if it's not the intention, this is going to turn off many, many readers.

Perhaps my real issue was that this is targeted at the wrong audience. Teens aren't going to buy this metaphor because it literally hits them far too hard over the head. I almost felt this a bit insulting to the reader. It could have been more smoothly woven or more interestingly developed. The smugness of Harper won't resonate with readers who just aren't going to give her a chance. Additionally, while it's clear no one has a perfect family, I think the "broken family" trope has exhausted its opportunities in the teen lit world, and this is not breaking down any additional barriers. Maybe readers will relate to the sister/best friend relationship.

That said, I think this is a good read for adult audiences looking for something sentimental. That's not to say this isn't a worthwhile book; it's just mismarketed. Even with Harper, the protagonist, as a teenager, I think adults will connect with the idea more because their ideas and ideals of family are more mature. This is the sort of book they can read and reflect upon and really feel connected to. There are a lot of moral ideas discussed here that will resonate with them. The story moves slow, and the metaphor will mean more to those who have literally built a family from the foundation, to the room, to the storm shelter. I don't think teens can really relate to that.

Overall, I think teens will find some enjoyment in the idea of reaching outside oneself to help others in need, but beyond that, they may find the topic and metaphor overworked and underdeveloped. But handing this one to fans of family-centric or relationship-centric adult titles might be the perfect way to introduce readers to some of the stuff out there marketed for teens that really appeal to adults on a different level.




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Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Double Take, Part X

This double take courtesy of reader Terry from Nevada.

I think a number of us are familiar with this (frequently challenged) book:


There aren't any similar covers, as far as I know. But, check out the (much tamer) paper back cover:

I dig this cover. I can't get a date on it, but the original hardcover book was published in May 2004 by Henry Holt and Company. The coloring and style is more approachable than the original, I think. Alas. It sure looks familiar!



Steven Herrick's Love, Ghosts, & Facial Hair was published in February 2004 by Simon Pulse.

I think both covers fit the books, so it's impossible to say who did it better. I can say, though, I like this cover much better than the original one for Doing It. What about you?




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Sunday, September 6, 2009

Jumping Off Swings by Jo Knowles

I like when authors share their tales of inspiration. It's something I wonder about a lot -- just how did someone get it in their head to write about a certain topic? When I write, it's because I have an idea in my head and I want to play with it on paper to make sense of it. I think this is how many others are, and Jo Knowles explains that that was her inspiration for writing Jumping Off Swings.

Jumping Off Swings (2009) explores one teen's pregnancy from four perspectives. There's Ellie, the girl who is pregnant; Josh, the soon-to-be father; Caleb, the boy who's always had a sweet spot for Ellie; and Corinne, Ellie's best friend.

The book begins with Josh and Ellie having one night together. It was a game for Josh, who's keeping tabs with his jerk friends, and for Ellie, it was a way to be accepted. Unfortunately, Ellie discovers three months later she's going to be living with the consequences for many years to come. And Josh? When he finds out, he unravels emotionally to the point of needing to take his life in an entirely different direction than he planned on.

Corinne is the ever-present and strong friend for Ellie -- she is there for her from day one, defending Ellie. And Caleb is also the best friend either of them can have, as is his mother, who becomes a very valuable and trustworthy adult for these teens during this tumultuous year. As the story progresses, it's interesting to see how all of the relationships grow and change.

The use of multiple perspectives often makes me nervous. It's very difficult to capture multiple voices well, but Knowles does a masterful job of making very individual characters. We get to see and understand each character's perspective well enough to really feel for them, but we don't find out too much that the topic gets dried out. With the deluge of teen pregnancy books out there, I think this one stands out for this reason.

This was a very quick read. Jumping Off Swings is sparse on details, focusing more on the cerebral elements and development of each character. It's one that will resonate with so many readers because it does give insight into more than just the "girl with the problem." Teens will find themselves as the Corinne who has to be the friend for someone in trouble, Caleb who has to come to grips with his feelings toward Ellie and toward his friend Josh, and Josh who has to come to grips with what it's like to make a mistake and then be unable find a suitable resolution. It doesn't matter this is a book about teen pregnancy. This is one to hand to teens who find themselves in any number of difficult situations.




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GIVEAWAY reminder!

Just a reminder that there's just over a week left to enter to win Ripley's Seeing is Believing. Read about the book, the rules for entering, and enter to win right here.




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Tuesday, September 1, 2009

The Knife of Never Letting Go, by Patrick Ness

Todd Hewitt, a boy on the cusp of manhood, lives in Prentisstown on New World, where his people settled in order to live a simpler life closer to God. Only problem is, the natives of New World weren't the friendliest, and during the war that ensued, they released a germ that killed off all of the women (including Todd's mother), half of the men (including Todd's father), and caused all men's thoughts to be broadcast. (Incidentally, all the animals can speak too. Who doesn't love a talking dog?) This Noise is not something that can be turned off or ignored - it is always there, and it is the concept from which Patrick Ness draws the title for his trilogy, Chaos Walking. As Todd tells us, "Noise is a man unfiltered, and without a filter, a man is just Chaos Walking."

In The Knife of Never Letting Go, the first in the trilogy, Todd is mentally preparing himself for becoming a man in a few short days when he stumbles upon a strange silence in the Noise, something he knows cannot exist. But there it is - silence, in a way even louder than the Noise itself. Todd's discovery changes his life completely, setting him off on a mad chase as he is pursued by several men who may or may not be crazy, are probably lying about everything, and most certainly want to kill him. This is an oversimplified synopsis, but much of the joy of reading a great dystopia is its newness. The less you know, the more enjoyable it is. You'll have to take my word for it that this is a great one.

The idea of being able to read minds (willingly or unwillingly) is not new, but Ness writes about it in such a way that it feels fresh. He makes several stylistic choices that contribute to the unique feel of the book. The most obvious is the way he (or his editor) chose to represent Noise - in a radically different, messy, large font. At a couple of points in the book, Noise covers a whole spread of pages, and the effect is powerful. Reading those pages feels both fascinating and claustrophobic. While I love audiobooks, I can't imagine listening to this one. It really should be read with the eyes.

Several of Ness' other stylistic choices also paid off. The story is told in first person present tense, and the feeling is that Todd is telling it to you as it happens. This technique works great for an action-centered book such as this, whereas I find it a bit wearing in other books. Todd is illiterate and grew up in a pretty primitive settlement, so he tells his story in dialect. Far from being annoying, it makes Todd an endearing, frustrating, and real person. I could hear Todd speaking to me; it felt as if I were reading his own Noise. At points when Todd is stressed or proud or angry, he'll give the reader a parenthetical aside - (shut up!) - bringing us even further into his mind. Ness also makes liberal use of run-on sentences when Todd's thoughts are moving too swiftly for proper punctuation. Some of the action sequences are written with short, fragmentary, one-sentence paragraphs, a technique I found less successful but didn't detract too much. The end result of these style choices is that the reader is left with a book that really feels like a creative work. Ness isn't just telling us a story - he has created something, and it is different and artful and challenging.

A lot of well-plotted young adult fiction suffers from a lack of depth or meaning. I can immediately think of a dozen young adult books that start with a great premise but just aren't very good books. The Knife of Never Letting Go is not one of these. Like The Hunger Games, which I was reminded a lot of while reading Ness' book, The Knife of Never Letting Go is essentially one long action sequence, but I feel that Todd's world and its characters were better fleshed out. It is for this reason that I anticipate reading The Ask and the Answer, the second book in the trilogy, even more than I anticipate reading Catching Fire, the sequel to The Hunger Games (and I did really like The Hunger Games).

Truly great literature always includes three essential things: an interesting plot, eloquent writing, and layers of meaning. This one's got them all, particularly that last one (it won the Tiptree award, but the way the book explores what it means to be a man is not its only takeaway). Sure, it's not a perfect book. The short lines irritated me, and at points I had a hard time suspending my disbelief. But the book's strengths overwhelmingly outweigh its weaknesses. How do you think your own community would react if everyone's thoughts were suddenly broadcast to you, without any way to stop it from happening? Would your community's reaction make you proud or afraid?

The Ask and the Answer will be released in the US one week from today. That is plenty of time for you all to go out and read The Knife of Never Letting Go. And then you can send me a message and we can commiserate over how much we hate Patrick Ness for [this phrase has been removed due to spoilage]. And how even though we truly do hate him, we're still going to read his next book.

While you wait for the second or third book, check out this short story prequel that Ness has written. Even though it's a prequel, it's heavy on spoilers, so don't read it unless you've read Knife.




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