Monday, November 30, 2009

What I'm reading, Twitter style (alternatively: Lest you say I only read YA)

Maybe there's a hidden theme here, but I suspect it's a matter of finding a ton of really interesting things to read in succession. Without further ado:

Our Lot
by Alyssa Katz: Even-handed history and exploration of real estate and mortgage lending in the U.S. Readable and terrifying and utterly necessary reading.

Generation A
by Douglas Coupland: Coupland's last few titles have been flops for me. This title revisits themes of "Gen X," but w/ the millennial generation. Fingers crossed.

Back Home by Julia Keller: Father returns home from Iraq War completely different - this is a story of a daughter coping with that change. Keller is an expert on topic.

In Cheap We Trust: The Story of a Misunderstood American Virtue by Lauren Weber: History and social commentary on thriftiness as "American." Delves into why we are cheap but why we are afraid to admit to it.

Ayn Rand and the World She Made by Anne C. Heller: New biography of Rand that's gotten a fair amount of both positive and negative press. Likely contrast to current biogs by her institutions.

Coraline by Neil Gaiman: On audio: I'm behind in my listening, but this title, narrated by Gaiman himself, should be a winner. Excited to listen then watch the film.

Continue reading...

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Double Take, Part XVI

The last post was wordy, so this one's just a double take. If you like these posts, you're in luck, as I've got a wealth stocked up right now! In this edition, we've got a book that's been out for a couple of years and one that will be coming out.

Safe by Susan Shaw was published in October 2007 by Dutton. I love the orange against the black.

Lifted by Wendy Toliver isn't out yet but will be published by Simon Pulse in June 2010. Obviously the cropping's different, but it's the same stock image. Although I think it works as well as it does for Safe, there's a part of me hoping this gets changed. Having the same exact cover, along with a very similar use of location for title will get so confusing for not only readers but those who serve them.

Do you think one's better than the other?

Oh, one of our readers, Terry, pointed out this one, too:

Everything is Fine by Ann Dee Ellis was published March 2009 by Little Brown. It's a little too psychedelic for my tastes....

Continue reading...

Monday, November 23, 2009

Not quite double take, but more like a creep-alike

This was one of my first posts here at STACKED, but it's one of my favorites -- so I'm reposting it with a couple of additions.

These all run on a similar theme, so they're not exactly double takes. Rather, I like to think of them as creep-alikes -- while some people may find the idea intriguing or interesting (and both are fair descriptions), I find these covers a bit creepy. Perhaps that's the intention? Maybe it's just the idea of not liking feet (the notion of them being feet of dead people doesn't bother me).

Most recently, there's Alane Ferguson's Angel of Death: A Forensic Mystery. This one was published by Puffin in February of 2008. Shortly before that one there was this:

Jaime Joyce's Toe Tagged: True Stories from the Morgue. I haven't read or seen this one myself, but from my knowledge of the publisher and reading the description, it sounds like a middle grade book. This was published by Scholastic in March of 2007.

But perhaps we owe this trend to the original trendsetter, Mary Roach.

Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers was published by W. W. Norton in May of 2004.

Do you know of any other books with similar covers? While they give me the willies, I still think there's something unique and memorable about them.

Edit (8/4/09) -- There's also a new book coming out with the infamous toe tag!

Liz Wolfe's Let Sleeping Dogs Die came out August 1, 2009 and was published by Medallion Press.

Edited 11/23/09 to add this bad boy:

M. R. Hall's forthcoming title The Disappeared (Simon & Schuster, 12/09) is another addition to my collection of toe-tagged fun.

*Updated 1/19/10: I found another one!

This one's Molly Fyde and The Land of Light by Hugh Howey. It was published December 2009 by Broad Reach Publishing.

Edited 6/2010:

Another one, this time a large print edition of a book put out not too long ago

With a Passion Put to Use by Keith McCarthy was published in large print May 2010 by Severn House Publishing.

You know, at first this trend creeped me out, but now I'm utterly fascinated. Do you know of anymore? I'm starting a collection.

Continue reading...

Thursday, November 19, 2009

A Dying Cause

Suicide is a morbidly (oops) fascinating topic for people -- it's something that we simply don't understand and it's something that affects everyone surrounding the people who do decide to go through with it. About 5,000 teenagers do it each year, and it is the second leading cause of death for those between the ages of 14 and 25 -- Livestrong can give you more terrifying statistics if you're interested. Many teens have been impacted by it somehow, so it's not a surprise that it's been making an appearance throughout teen literature in the last couple of years (and even before that).

2009 brought at least two such titles, including Nina LaCour's Hold Still (Dutton, 10/2009). Caitlin's best friend Ingrid killed herself at the end of last school year; for Caitlin, this was a summer to mourn before needing to step back into a routine at school that would now have a huge void.

Throughout the story, Ingrid's diary is a device for communicating her thoughts with Caitlin. Ingrid left no note nor explanation but instead shared her feelings on other life experiences. As a reader you can pick up the pieces little by little, but you will not walk away with a solid understanding. Instead, the story is told from Caitlin's point of view -- her mourning and her attempts at resuming her own life.

As the year progresses, as indicated by changing seasons in the book (starting with the summer after, then fall, winter, and spring), Caitlin begins to experience the things like a normal teenager again. She develops a friendship with a new girl that as readers we understand begins tenuously out of fear of loss, and she also begins exploring a romantic relationship. But all is not well, of course. Caitlin's grades are slipping, particularly in a photography class that where she had met Ingrid before. The teacher constantly talks about how her and Ingrid were a pair but that Caitlin needs to grow her own talent and self now. This is hard when Ingrid's work is immortalized on the walls, of course.

Hold Still is an interesting exploration of suicide from a best friend's perspective, but I'm going to be honest and say it felt inauthentic. I'm no expert in understanding how suicide feels from a best friend's perspective, but I can say that I've been in high school when a very popular student took his life. There was not an immortalizing of the student, and in fact, faculty was upfront and honest in avoiding the issue. There was no memorial nor fascination with them. While friends had the opportunity to mourn and seek counseling, the issue was something the school felt was not appropriate to "celebrate." Likewise, it seemed to me that no one in the story was angry. It seemed that the characters actually felt only one or two emotions, and there was not much wrestling with feelings. Caitlin had one angry outburst, but perhaps what left me a little unsure was Ingrid's parents at the end of the story -- they were almost too accepting and, frankly, blase about their daughter's selfishness and desperation.

Personally, this book was a mixed bag. It didn't delve deeply enough into character, as Caitlin to me seemed hollow. Although I believe this is the case because of her situation, I felt in discussions of her prior to Ingrid's suicide that she still didn't have any interests, passions, or feelings. The diary was a bit too much of a safety device in the story that took us away from the graveness of the situation and instead gave Ingrid a voice and personality. This made it too hard to be angry or frustrated with her, since she seemed so sincere. Too many times I believed that Ingrid was rational enough to get help, and though I know it's not that simple, I just didn't feel a connection between her and me or her and Caitlin. Likewise, her parents and the art teacher really made me insane. To me it seemed the adults were written too much as teenagers. And as alluded to before, many of the situations about how the school reacted just weren't realistic from my experiences. A little research would have really made this book that much stronger.

That said, Hold Still will resonate with teen readers. As an adult who can reflect back on my experiences, I felt it fell flat of some real potential. But with the number of teens who probably live Caitlin's story, this will be a comforting book to read. The lack of anger or discussion of Ingrid's mental state and actions was frustrating, but perhaps this side of emotion will really impact someone. It can also be a potential wake up call to those ever considering this plan of exit. I'm excited to see what LaCour does next, as this was her first novel.

Five Minutes More by Darlene Ryan was also released this year (Orca Books, 04/09). If you know anything about the Orca series, it's a publisher interested in fast-moving stories that target reluctant readers. This one was a quick mover.

D'Arcy's dad has killed himself. He used to always say that anything could be solved by just "five minutes more," a mantra that gets repeated throughout the book. But as we discover, D'Arcy's dad could not live with Lou Gehrig's disease for five minutes more and instead, chose to drive his car off a bridge and end his life.

Told through seasons, much like Hold Still, we see D'Arcy become a figure who removes herself from her life. Her budding relationship with Seth waxes and wanes, her grades drop dramatically, and she begins getting involved with drinking and smoking -- something she'd never do if it weren't for her father's death.

Unlike Hold Still, as a reader we feel entirely distanced from D'Arcy and her relationships in Five Minutes More. To be entirely honest, I don't remember much emotional discussion from D'Arcy; her feelings were acted upon and out for the reader. She broke many items in a way that felt quite authentic with her anger, but it seemed to me this was a strategy used a bit too much to give readers insight into her mind. For me, I wasn't able to stand the thought of her breaking anything else, but thinking in context of the audience for this title (and this author), I think this is a story that reluctant readers will appreciate since there is NOT a lot of dwelling on emotions. Things happen instead.

Again, I'm not an expert on this topic, but this title also felt inauthentic to me as a reader. The voices were not quite there enough, and none of the characters seemed to be talking like people of their own age/experience. But then again, I'm not a teenager and thus cannot believe that there won't be many who really see themselves in D'Arcy. What I did appreciate about this title was that it took a risk -- it's NOT just teenagers who take their lives. Ryan chose to have her adult character take his life and take it for a very different reason than a teenager: disease. I felt compelled to keep reading, though I was disappointed in an abrupt ending without any sort of closure. I'm sure this is intentional. I felt, though, her romantic relationship did not develop enough over the course of three seasons to make it an essential element of the story. I wondered what purpose it served since it didn't have enough power in the story to even be brought up at the end.

I liked D'Arcy as a character a little more than I liked Caitlin, perhaps because D'Arcy felt like a real character, more fleshed out than Caitlin. I also actually liked D'Arcy's dad in this one; by that I mean, I really wanted to know more about him and his challenges with Lou Gehrig's disease. I did not feel that way about Ingrid.

Finally, what book discussion about suicide would be complete without at least making a mention of Jay Asher's unbelievably popular title Thirteen Reasons Why (Razorbill, 10/07).

Like Hold Still, this book is held together with a plot device, namely a set tapes that Clay Jensen receives following the suicide of classmate Hannah Baker. He's one of thirteen people to get this set of tapes that describes exactly what things people did or said that pushed Hannah over the edge. The story's told through Hannah's voice on the tape and Clay's voice as he visits all of the people and places that impacted Hannah.

What Thirteen Reasons Why does that neither Hold Still nor Five Minutes More do is emphasize the impact that small things can have on a person. More generally, I felt like Hannah's voice brought out the point that there are so many things that go into people's decisions to take their lives. It's not a simple thing or two but generally the accumulation of many issues. It's not simple and it can't be understood.

It's been over a year since I read this one, so I had to pull up my review to see what I said initially, which was simple: well-crafted, insightful, consistent, and gripping.

All of this is to say that the teen fiction genre is full of titles that tackle this very complicated issue and each title takes the issue in a slightly different way. As such, there is going to be a title that resonates with a reader who will tackle the grief and lack of understanding that comes along with suicide in a way similar to one of these -- or the other titles in this area. Although the word bibliotherapy bothers me, I believe these are the sorts of books we should know as tools for helping those struggling with the issue of suicide, both from the perspective of the person who is considering taking their life and the people who have been impacted by such a loss.

We will never truly know what is going on nor why things like this happens, but we can explore it as deeply and widely as possible to have a support system. Besides people, books are support; when you consider that each of these characters withdraws into themselves, then you know that a book can be a companion during those times of isolation.

Have you read any other similar titles or any of these? What are your takes on them? It's a fascinating topic that deserves exploration, and kudos to each and every one of these authors for doing it the best they can.

Continue reading...

National Book Award winner

My goal WAS to read all 5 of the NBA nominated books in Young People's Literature before yesterday's announcement, but I am going to admit that Charles and Emma was too intimidating. I never got to it, even though it sat innocently (beggingly) on my shelf for weeks. I think I'm still a little burned out on Darwin thanks to it being around a lot this year (see Calpurnia Tate)

That said, this year's winner was Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice. As you recall, I liked this one, but I didn't predict it as the winner (Janssen, on the other hand, thought this would be the one).

Even being nominated for the NBA is a big deal, since it gets your title a lot more attention, and I think that that alone is worthwhile. As more and more books get published in the teen world, having these committees notice a title helps, even if it's not always a title that will see huge popularity or circulation. Why? It's a great opportunity to think about the factors that make good books good books to an awards committee (which you generally do not understand or have inner knowledge of) but more importantly, it's an opportunity to think about the factors you personally hold important in judging books. Appeal is important to me, but so is an important story, and I think Claudette Colvin definitely hit the mark there. I hope that this award will help get the book into classrooms and hands of students interested in American Civil Rights history. I know it gave me a lot more knowledge and interest in the topic.

Continue reading...

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Double Take, Part XV

This one's not a perfect double take but close enough to be memorable!

Double Minds by Terry Blackstock was published in early 2009 by Thorndike publishers. I love that the orange stands out so well against the black background. The face creeps me out a little bit, though.

Shadow Hills by Anastasia Hopcus isn't out yet, but the ARC has been making the rounds on a number of blogs I read. This one will be out in June 2010 by EdgmontUSA. Again, I love the orange against the black, but I think I like the yellow font for the title just a teensy bit more than the white on the other cover. But honestly? As much as they both look similar, I like them both. I don't think one's done it better than the other.

What about you? Is one standing out more?

Continue reading...

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

All the Broken Pieces by Ann Burg

The Vietnam war is something I am pretty underinformed about, aside from what I learned in a few history classes and those classes, as any student of history knows, are biased. But perhaps what is more a disservice than some of the bias is the fact that the Vietnam war lessons come at the end of a long semester (unless one takes a whole class) and gets short changed. A lot of what happened goes unlearned.

All the Broken Pieces by Ann Burg is a novel about the Vietnam war without being about the physical war itself. This quick novel, written entirely in verse, takes place in the aftermath of the war. More specifically, it is set when Americans had the opportunity to save Vietnamese children Vietnamese children of war and give them homes in America.

Burg's book opens with Matt, one of the rescued children, recalling something that happened in his life -- but as readers, we're left blind to what experiences he had as a child in the war-torn nation. His mom was Vietnamese and his father was an American soldier who raped her and left her. When his mother sends him with Americans, he is adopted into a family that loves him dearly and gives him every opportunity they can. He's got a natural baseball talent, but even great talent doesn't stop members of the team he made from making fun of him and his heritage. Tensions were high after the war, as it touched the lives of so many. Rob, one of his teammates, really dislikes him and goes out of his way to make Matt's life difficult.

As the novel moves forward -- and it moves VERY fast -- we watch as Matt makes decisions about what he shares and doesn't share about his experiences. At the same time he is involved in truly American pastimes, including baseball and music lessons, his mind reminds him of his uniquely non-American life. This comes to a head when he and Rob are paired for an exercise on the baseball field that causes them to come to total understandings of one another and of themselves. It is at this moment we as readers develop a total understanding of Matt and his life both in Vietnam and America. At this same time, Matt learns about how the war impacted other people he interacts with daily in America and he relates with them in a new way because he, too, is able to share his experiences on the other side. All the Broken Pieces is a novel that highlights cultural understanding in a way that readers of all ages can relate.

I found this to be quite a moving book; Matt is an exceptionally drawn main character with a great voice that left me wanting to know more. I felt like his adoptive family in hoping he would share his story with me and I felt great satisfaction when he did. Along with that satisfaction, as a reader I felt utter sympathy for him and his experiences. Moreover, this is the sort of book that left me as a reader wanting to know more about the Vietnam war's outcomes and effects on civilians both American and made-American.

All the Broken Pieces is a Cybils nominee in the middle grade category, and while I don't disagree with that age appropriateness, I think it might be better appreciated by those who are a little older. This is a story that has less in the way of action and more in character development, and the verse use is spot-on. Berg could not have picked a better way to share her story, and I am excited to see what she does in the future. I think this is a title that's been under the radar this season, but I wouldn't be surprised to see it get its due come awards time. At least I hope so!

Continue reading...

Friday, November 6, 2009

Double Take, Part XIV

Here's one with a recently released book and a book yet to be released. Remember what happened last time when two soon-to-be released titles had the same cover? Now, they're not perfect double takes, but they're really darn close.


The Sky Always Hears Me and the Hills Don't Mind is by Kirstin Cronn-Mills and was published September 1, 2009 by Flux. I like this cover a LOT - I like that we don't get a face on shot of the girl and I love the cloudy sky. It fits the title so well. I've had this one on my to-read pile for a while but haven't gotten there quite yet.

Dreaming of Amelia by Jaclyn Moriarty will be published April 2010 by MacMillan UK. Now on this cover, her hair is about the same color and has a similar aesthetic of loose pieces falling down her back, but the knot is on the side of her head, rather than on the back. She's looking at the sky again, though this one is a light blue sky. The feel's totally different than The Sky Always Hears Me but I like it.

Do you prefer one or another? It almost makes me think it's a shot from the same photo shoot, so the same girl with a slightly different hair style. What do you think?

Continue reading...

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

More Claudette!

Kirsten over at Curious City left a comment on my last review with a video -- she wove together Claudette's narrative and Hoose's comments on his inspiration for writing the book. It's really well done, so I had to share it:

Continue reading...

Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice by Phillip Hoose

Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice by Phillip Hoose is the fourth book in my quest to read all five National Book Award nominees for Youth Literature. Unlike the prior three books, Claudette Colvin is a work of non-fiction.

Claudette Colvin was the catalyst for the Montgomery Bus Boycotts during the 1950s and Civil Rights Movement. But unlike Rosa Parks, she was forgotten and overlooked for her major contribution to integration.

Hoose's story is meant to share Colvin's story and shed light into her role into the monumental and oft ignored Browder v. Gayle case that ruled integration the law in Montgomery and all of Alabama.

Claudette refused to give up her seat on the bus as a teenager, and she didn't go quietly. She was beaten and degraded as police officers dragged her off the bus for not giving up the seat upon the bus driver's request (which, back then was de facto for blacks). She was sentenced for the crime, but her cause was taken up by Dr. King and Rosa Parks shortly thereafter. As students of American history, we have an idea of what happened when they became involved in the situation in Montgomery.

But Colvin faded from the spot light, even though it was her action that spurred movement from blacks and equal rights supporters of all colors and backgrounds. Why? She became pregnant and birthed a light-skinned baby. Scorned by white culture for being black and refusing to follow Jim Crow and equally scorned by her black community for having a child out of wedlock with what they assumed was a white father pushed her story to the periphery.

Hoose's book was engaging and solid -- I felt like the prose moved in a story-like fashion enough to keep audiences who may not otherwise have found a non-fiction book about a lesser-known history maker reading. Fortunately for Hoose and for readers, Colvin is still alive today and was able to provide insights into the story herself.

The book has segments of her interviews, along with a selection of photos, sidebars, and other graphics to tell the story. Additionally, Hoose fills in many of the holes between Colvin's interviews to give the book shape and structure.

This, however, made me sad -- I actually found Hoose's additions the dullest and slowest portions of the book. I wanted to read more of Colvin's own words and I feel like she got short changed for his prose. I'm a big fan of graphics, and I almost would have preferred more, as well. I consider myself a fairly well educated reader and I felt like having more visuals would have helped me better construct an understanding; I imagine for the age range this book is intended for that adding more graphics would be not only helpful but crucial to better capturing the essence of the Civil Rights struggle, particularly in Montgomery.

Although I believe this is a fantastic book, I do wonder how receptive audiences would be to this if it were not hand sold or used as part of a classroom collection/unit on the Civil Rights movement. I think this because she is (unfortunately!) a little known member of such an important era and she will be overlooked on the shelves in favor of King or Parks. That's not to say she doesn't belong, for sure. Additionally, I did find the section about her becoming pregnant a bit non-essential -- the graphic details about sex here were tangential to the larger issues, and I think they will be a sticking point for use with younger readers.

I think this is a worthy NBA nominee, for sure, but I still hold my torch for Lips Touch. Fortunately for Claudette Colvin, the nomination will get more librarians, teachers, and book loves to read this story and talk up this lesser known but utterly important member of the Civil Rights movement and perhaps will bring a renewed interest in learning about the faces and stories behind it.

Continue reading...

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Half Broke Horses by Jeanette Walls

You probably read her memoir, The Glass Castle, and now Jeanette Walls is back with a fictionalized story about her grandmother Lily. Lily is a hard, rowdy woman who wasn't afraid to go after what she wanted in a time that these activities weren't seen as lady-like nor appropriate.

The story follows as she grows up in west Texas and then moves on to Arizona to teach -- without her 8th grade education. When Lily gets fired thanks to the end of the war, she chooses to move to Chicago and start a life there. But when she married a two-timing louse, she relocates again, back to her wild ways in the desert southwest.

She eventually marries a stable man and has a couple of children, but she'll never be broke of her wild ways, and the rest of the story tells of other adventures she and her family have.

Half Broke Horses is told in short vignettes, with each chapter being just a page or two long. It's very episodic, though for the first 2/3 of the book, there is a great flow between the stories. I felt like the last 1/3 of the book, however, fell completely apart as Wells tried to wrap up the entire adulthood of Lily in fewer pages than she had spent describing her childhood. Within four pages, she'd gone from having young children to fighting with a teenage daughter to Wells being born. Too much too quickly for me.

I wasn't a big fan of this book. I felt like the fictionalization really made the story boring. Wells had a fantastic concept and the character of Lily was interesting, but by fictionalizing the story, it was devoid of any emotion. Additionally, the episodic nature further disjointed the story in a way that I found Lily nothing more than an interesting character -- I never had feelings for her one way or another, but rather just went with her.

I didn't get quite the sense of how wild a character she was, either. I felt like the book was billed as much more of a wild west girl who really broke horses and bucked the tradition, but it seemed to me by fictionalizing the story, it just fell really, really flat. I've read more interesting fiction with more interesting female characters who did this. I would have loved this a lot more if this were more biographical.

Like The Glass Castle, I felt distanced from the book. As a reader, I never got fully absorbed in either story, and the more I think about it, I believe it's Walls's style. She builds a wall around her story that as a reader, I don't like. For other readers, this works well because the subjects are real and therefore not always easily accessible or relatable.

I suspect this might get picked up as a film down the road: it's episodic and fitting to cinematic molding; it's Jeanette Walls who has proven to be popular; and the story IS interesting. I feel like the help it could get with an artistic director will elevate it and make it more engaging and realistic.

I wonder how hard this story would have been to make biographical, rather than fictional. Walls states in an end note that her original intent was to write about her mother, but her mother insisted that her mother, Lily, was the real interesting one. I wonder how much of the decision to fictionalize came from the publisher, rather than her original intent? Or if it was her intent to do it all along, how much came from her worry to be seen as another James Frey or similar memoirist accused of making it all up?

I believe readers know not everything in a biography or memoir is going to be 100% true (how can it be?). I sure hope it wasn't done this way to convenience the reader from thinking -- there is a good story here, but I just had a hard time connecting and reveling in it knowing that it never could be fully realized as a fictional novel.

Continue reading...
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