Saturday, January 30, 2010

My Soul to Save by Rachel Vincent

I like a good book in a series when I know I don't have to read the books in order and the back story is loose enough that I get it within a few pages. Rachel Vincent's My Soul to Save is book #2 in her "Soul Screamers" series and falls into that category.

Kaylee is a bean sidhe (banshee), as is the boy she has a serious crush on, Nash. The story opens with them attending an Eden concert, a well-known pop star, whose show was opened by a local rising talent, Addison Page. When Eden collapses on the stage and Kaylee realizes that her screaming talents didn't foresee the death, she knows there's something deeper going on.

You see, Kaylee's talent as a bean sidhe is screaming when someone is nearing their death. Well, she does when the person who is dying has a soul. It is the soul being released that causes the scream.

Things go from bad to worse when she gets signs that Addison Page will be nearing the end of her short life, as well, and it's up to Kaylee, Nash, and Tod -- Nash's dead brother who also happens to have paranormal attributes -- to figure out what is going on and how they can stall the inevitable death of Addison and her younger sister Regan.

My Soul to Save is way outside my normal reading habits, and I didn't find myself hating it as much as I'd expect. I think that Vincent does a good job of world building and she shares enough back story of each character to make them make sense to someone who doesn't read much of this genre. There is a nice mix of adventure, mystery, and romance to make the story move along quickly, and the scenario is pretty interesting, given what Kaylee and company come to learn about why Eden died and why Addison and Regan are about to die, as well. There's actually quite a bit of reality to this.

What I didn't like, though, was the sudden game change in the last couple of chapters in the book. New rules were introduced and it really killed the action that had been going on throughout, and it also made me question if Vincent didn't know how to tie up the story. Again, reading with eyes of a person unfamiliar with the paranormal genre, I felt teased and ripped off a bit by the end. It could have been stronger, more consistent with the text, and left me feeling excited to read the other titles in this series. Instead, I felt cheated and am not entirely compelled to read more.

My Soul to Save is published by Harlequin, so you can expect some of their trademark embedded in the book. I thought it was tastefully done, and I thought it was woven well into the story line. Two teens have a realistic crush relationship, where it is part of their lives and not the entirety of their lives (I mean, tracking down the reason pop stars are dying DOES take up a little time in one's day).

Overall, it's a nice addition to the genre. For fans of the new Harlequin Teen line, this is a good one, and for those who read the prior title in this series, My Soul to Take, this will be a natural choice. I thought the standalone qualities made this a book that stands out just a little more from others. But, don't expect great writing and prepare to feel fleeced at the end.

Continue reading...

Friday, January 29, 2010

Bag ladies

I've discovered a new trend -- headless bag ladies!

Who Do I Talk To? by Neta Jackson was published by Thomas Nelson in September 2009.

The Fixer Upper by Mary Kay Andrews was published by Harper in June 2009.

Rich Again by Anna Maxted was published by St. Martin's Griffin in December 2009.

Three types of bags, three headless ladies. I think that Rich Again did it best, but I'm partial to the dress, the shoes, and the great orange background that will stand out on a shelf.

What do you think? Seen any heads looking for their bag ladies lately?

Continue reading...

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Lockdown by Walter Dean Myers

Let me make an admission: I've never read a Walter Dean Myers book. So, I took a stab and read outside my comfort level on this one.

Reese is living in Promises -- a juvenile detention facility -- for committing the crime of stealing prescription pads from doctors and aided in the acquisition of drug deals. Since he's been a good inmate, he's given the opportunity to take a part-time job at Evergreen, which is a home for the elderly. The job is a privilege and gives him both freedom from his place in jail, and it is meant to teach him responsibility, obedience, and respect for himself and others. It is here he meets Mr. Hooft, an elderly gentleman who has a tremendous impact on Reese's beliefs about who he is and who he can become.

Of course, it's not that simple. About half way through the story, there is a big bomb dropped upon Reese, who has been getting himself in trouble trying to defend some of his buddies. When this arises, it is Reese who must decide what is important to him and how he can get himself out of Promises into a fulfilling life for himself and Icy -- the sister he adores.

Lockdown was exceptionally well written, and the character development kept me wanting more. Although this won't rank as one of my favorite reads, primarily because it focused on a topic I'm unfamiliar with and don't typically seek out, this is a book that has definite appeal to many audiences.

One of the real challenges I had was with the secondary characters: I could not distinguish among the various juvenile inmates nor the adults in Reese's life. I found that Reese himself was very well developed, and his sister Icy had a unique and memorable voice. Likewise, Mr. Hooft kept me coming back as a reader, as I felt the story he told Reese about his time in and immediately after the Vietnam War drew great parallels to Reese's own challenges with keeping on the right side of the law.

Myers writes to impart a lesson, but I felt throughout the entirety of Lockdown that I was not bring preached at. I'm not the real audience for this title, but even the target group will not feel they're being told how to be or act. Instead, the lessons are weaved well enough into action and actual story telling that they feel part of the plot rather than the entire plot itself.

If you're looking for a book for a boy who lives on the fringes, has found himself in trouble before, or seems generally lost, this is an excellent choice. Likewise, this is a book that will appeal to both boys and girls and would make a perfect discussion title. Myers has certainly carved himself a niche in the young adult world, and he will have staying power.

Lockdown will be published February 2.

Continue reading...

Monday, January 25, 2010

AudioSynced: A Tale of Two Audio books

In trying to catch up on many wonderful books I haven't had time to read yet, I've been listening to audiobooks more frequently -- although I'm not new to them, I've been making an effort to really listen to them in order to better hone my sense of what makes an audiobook great and what, well, doesn't. As you may recall, I've covered the basics of audiobooks.

Last week, I finished two very different audiobooks, and they were certainly a study in contrasts. Sarah Dessen's Along for the Ride was named an Amazing Audiobook for Teens this year from the American Library Association, and it was an enjoyable, though lengthy, audio to sink into for a while. Rachel Botchan narrates the entire book, but she does shift her voice for a few of the main characters -- a semi-voiced performance. As the ALA committee mentions, the entire book feels like Auden, the main character, is sitting you down in a coffee shop and sharing with you the details of the summer before she went to college. It is very easy to sit back and listen, and since it's a classic Dessen-esque book, there's not too much that happens that requires paying too much attention to details, as they are easily drawn, developed, and enveloping. I found myself drifting into and out of paying attention to the story, but I had no problems falling back into the narrative. Botchan is very even in her performance, and I didn't have any issues with her narration changing, her tone shifting, nor did I find myself hearing any vocal slips (breathing, swallowing, or other unfortunate sounds).

Unfortunately for this audio, I was quite disappointed in the editing. Many times throughout the story, I found it quite obvious where recording sessions were cut, spliced together, or otherwise pieced together to develop a cohesive audiobook. Although I'm not very seasoned in editing techniques, for me it was obvious when sound qualities would change, moving from an even sound to suddenly becoming quieter or louder. I felt the production could have been strengthened a bit, especially with such a good narrator and compelling story.

My other qualm with the audio of this title was that I never quite felt Botchan's voice really matched Auden. Botchan sounded older and wiser than Auden, and while Auden always acted and felt older than 17, if the story were meant to sound like a reflection of a summer, given the growth and changes Auden has over that summer, I wouldn't have wanted such a wise, intellectual, and almost snooty voice for the narration. I wish she could have sounded a bit younger or a bit less bookish -- perhaps a bit more like Esther did (where Botchan did a fantastic job with a very memorable voice and character). On the plus side, her depiction of a Carolina accent was spot on without being over done or under done; rather, it was recognizable enough to better set the scene.

Contrasting Along for the Ride with the second title I listened to this week, and it's clear that audiobooks really fall on a spectrum of listening experiences. My coworker suggested I listen to Drums, Girls, and Dangerous Pie. She hadn't listened to it, but read it, so she couldn't speak to the quality of listening to it, but with a strong story line, I felt this would be a good bet.

I didn't check the reader prior to popping in the first disc, but when I heard a very familiar voice, I was suddenly VERY excited to listen. Joel Johnston is the reader on Sonnenblick's well-known middle grade novel; if the name's not familiar to you immediately, he is also the reader on Gary Schmidt's The Wednesday Wars and Jay Asher's Thirteen Reasons Why. His voice is the quintessential young teen boy -- perfectly wavering on the border of childhood and full-blown adolescence, with just enough innocence and experience to be utterly believable and charming.

Like Along for the Ride, Drums, Girls, and Dangerous Pie is semi-voiced, so just a few of the main characters have distinct voices throughout. Fortunately, this title features relatively few characters, and instead, the focus is on Steven and Jeffrey, a pair of brothers who will be experiencing a very challenging disease - one on the experiencing as victim side and one on the experiencing as brother side. It is a short audiobook at four discs at about an hour each, but the span of the story fits perfectly within those four hours.

With any book on audio, something that is essential is pacing. As I mentioned before, Botchan is very even in her performance of Dessen's title, and it works there. Johnstone, however, has a way of pacing in his audio titles that allows him silent space. At critical moments, and even at moments where it is clear that a character would be pausing or thinking or needing a little breathing space, Johnstone gives those silences in his performance. In doing so, I never once felt myself drift away from the story; instead, he builds in space for the listener to step back for a moment or two and, well, "space out."

Likewise, there are absolutely no quality or production issues in this book. If you're a little unsure about these issues in audiobooks, think about it this way: if it feels like the reader never once stepped away from recording, then it was well produced. If during listening it becomes clear it was recorded over more than one session, then the editing could have been tightened. In Sonnenblick's title, I felt like Johnstone was so in love with the story he was sharing that he never once stepped away.

One pet peeve of both of these titles is something that I have not experienced once during my current listening of Neil Gaiman's Coraline: CD breaks. In both Dessen's title and Sonnenblick's title, there is never an indication when the disc ends; instead, the reader must pay close enough attention to know they're listening to the same material again or have a good disc player that tells them their track has gone back to the start. Because I only listen to audiobooks in the car, this is frustrating, as then I am often not prepared with the next disc immediately. Productions like Coraline, on the other hand, incorporate music at the beginning and termination of a disc, making is very easy to know when it's time to switch.

Next week, I plan on venturing into the world of non-fiction on audio. I haven't tried that land yet, and I suspect that the narrator is going to be the absolute key on making the book work on audio. There are some fictional titles that have really terrible readers (I'm looking at Susan Beth Pfeffer's The Dead and the Gone, where the narrator is way too old and way too flat voiced and emotionless) but the story is compelling enough to make you keep listening.

Have you listened to any of these titles? Any thoughts?
Have you listened to any others on audio that you either absolutely loved or hated? I'm building a nice sized "to listen" list, so I'd love your suggestions.

Continue reading...

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Double Take, Part XX

I love when these pop up in unexpected places. The contrast (or not!) in subject matter this time is too good.

Deadline by Chris Crutcher was published in September 2007 by HarperCollins/GreenWillow. Nice, very memorable cover.

Compare that bad boy to this one:

Conquer Back and Neck Pain: Walk It Off! by Mark D. Brown was published June 2008 by Sunrise River Press. This is a non-fiction, adult title.

The images are just flipped 180 degrees, but it's the exact same one.

What do you think? One book's about a boy knowing he's going to die and the other is a non-fiction book about how to get over aches and pains in your back and neck. This one's too good to be true.

Continue reading...

Thursday, January 21, 2010

The Naught List GIVEAWAY

Remember my review of Suzanne Young's The Naughty List?
Well, here's your chance to win an ARC of the book that will be published February 4 before it's published.

Fill out the form below. You can earn up to 3 extra entries (1 for following/becoming a follower; +1 for a tweet; and/or +1 for blogging).

Did I mention this ARC is signed, too? Here's your chance to dig into a very fun debut novel with a promising pair of follow ups, too.

Contest runs Thursday, January 21 through Sunday, January 31. Winner will be contacted early February 1. Fill out the form below - you will need to tab through the fields to see them all and the submit button.

Continue reading...

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

"The Lonely Hearts Club" giveaway winners

Congrats to Claudia, Terry, and Squiggles (yep!) -- you have been emailed because you're the big winners of our Lonely Hearts Club giveaway.

Didn't win? Keep your eyes here for another great giveaway this week.

Continue reading...

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Leaving Gee's Bend by Irene Latham

Sometimes you read a book that you just can't get into but yet, when you've finished it, you crave more. Leaving Gee's Bend by Irene Latham did exactly that for me.

Ludelphia Bennett lives on a sharecropping farm in Gee's Bend, Alabama. The time is 1932, but this isn't a story focused wholly on the Great Depression; instead, this is a story of Ludelphia trying to help her mother overcome an illness. Because Gee's Bend is African American and because this is a time of challenges and because this is a story set in the South before Civil Rights, you can bet there's not a doctor in town.

When Mama has a coughing fit so hard she goes into labor with Rose, Ludelphia decides to head to the next biggest town -- Camden -- which is across the river by ferry. But things go terribly, terribly wrong and the wife of the farm where Ludelphia's family sharecrops is not happy. She's so unhappy, she seeks her revenge.

Will Ludelphia be able to find a doctor for her mother? Will little Rose survive? Will the family lose everything they have?

Interwoven into the story line is the story of quilting. Mama loved to quilt and taught Ludelphia the same. This act and the symbolism behind it cement the story of Gee's Bend and the story of family and struggle.

For me, the story's pace was a bit uneven: at the beginning, I felt the story moved too slowly, but the end of the story moved far too quickly for me. I loved the setting and wish I could have gotten more flavor for Gee's Bend; this is precisely one of the reasons I liked this book -- I'm very compelled to go learn more about the area. Thanks to the author, I've got a list of resources in the back to whet my appetite for it, too. I found the subplot involving the Red Cross, which we come to find out at the end is a big thrust of the story, comes very late into the novel and isn't quite developed enough. I think this could have been pushed further throughout to make it stronger and more powerful.

I'm not a big historical fiction fan, but the setting and time period for this one were engaging and unique. Although the story is set in the age of the Depression, developing a plot around an African American family was memorable and one that's very underplayed in the grand world of fiction (not just teen fiction - I mean all of it).

Ludelphia's voice felt like that of a 10-year-olds, and I felt that for the most part, her age and her actions were spot on. I thought some of the resolutions were too tidy to be accomplished by a character her age, but the fact this is a story set in a time where children were expected to be adults early on makes it believable.

Leaving Gee's Bend sets itself apart from the growing field of middle grade novels. I'm going to go out on a limb here and say this might be a title you hear about come next year when awards are around. Although not as intricately detailed as Evolution of Calpurnia Tate, I kind of felt like I was reading a similar story. These books arouse a sense of comfort with them, perhaps one triggered by the fondness of historic places or stories (Latham's author's note mentions this and how a quilting exhibit in New York spurred her to write the book).

Although I thought the quilting metaphor was done well, I wanted more. I think it could have been pushed a bit further and emphasized a little more to really pack a punch at the end.

While it's not one of my personal favorites, this is a book with merits. I think it might be a tough sell to kids because it's a historical fiction, but this is one that would work wonderfully in a classroom unit on the 1930s, culturalism or regionalism in America, or even art/crafts. Because there's enough adventure and not too much stress on emotions and feelings, boys might enjoy this one, as well. For kids who love historical fiction, this is a home run. I appreciated that the book was much shorter than others of this ilk, which may itself make it one kids would be more open to trying.

On the very superficial level, I LOVE the cover. We have a person of color who, while faceless, captures the essence of the story perfectly. This one's memorable.

Needless to say, you can bet I'm going to track down some of these other titles about Gee's Bend. What a neat story to share that will raise awareness and interest in a place so many know so little about.

* I got an advanced copy of this from the publisher. They don't expect a good review, and I sure hope you've figured out by now that I'm not afraid to be honest. But a good book review will give you both the good and the bad. I'm still not sold on writing these disclaimers, and I'm not afraid to tell you that.

Continue reading...

Monday, January 18, 2010

ALA Youth Media Awards

We've talked about the Printz here, the Newbery, the Morris, and more. Now you can see who took home the ultimate awards right here.

I think the Printz list is pretty sad. None have moved much at my library - you know, with teens - though I haven't read a single one myself. Three of the five are heifers in size: Going Bovine is 496 pages; The Monstrumologist is 448 pages; and Tales of the MADMAN Underground weighs in at 532 pages. Part of me wonders if "literary merit" - the goal of the award - actually just means Very Long Book.

I read and Kim blogged about this year's Newbery, When You Reach Me. This was absolutely no surprise. An odd little book indeed, one which reminds me of One Of Those Books Adults Think Kids Like and Should Read. I don't see kids liking this one. It's too strange and told in a very traditional style (yes, it's odd, but the story telling is straight out of a teen book from the 1970s).

As far as the Morris, I cannot be happier that Flash Burnout won. This was my favorite pick, though I didn't think the committee would pick it. This is one that might just have some teen appeal.

But you know what the real good story of the entire youth media awards was?
The Twitter foible.

While I sat at my computer, thinking all of the things I was thinking about these choices (and how when I thought about becoming a teen librarian back in the day one of my mentors told me that an award sticker on a book is simply a seal of death for kids) I was really glad to see Random House Kids spill the beans too soon. Nearly 25 minutes too soon, in fact, they told us their "When You Reach Me" won the Newbery. Then School Library Journal claimed that Neil Gaiman did the same thing last year (he did not!).

That, my friends, was the highlight.

What did you think of the winners? Are you surprised or not?
Have any favorites for 2010 awards yet? I've got one to review this week that might just be a contender next year.

Continue reading...

What I'm Reading, Twitter Style.

I've been busy - between moving and reading for Cybils, my personal reading has been a little everywhere (and a little spare). But here's what I'm reading or have recently read, Twitter-style!

Wish / Alexandra Bullen: Disappointing fairy tale w/ predictable plot, uninteresting characters, & off-putting writing style. Cannot believe there's a sequel coming.

Leaving Gee's Bend / Irene Latham: Historical fiction set during 1930s w/o being about the Depression. Engaging & one that will be considered a "best" in 2010. Low teen appeal.

The Happiness Project / Gretchen Ruben: Eager for perspective on happiness. Think this year-in-my-life may be valuable guide, rich w/insight w/o preachiness. Husband loved it.

Along for the Ride / Sarah Dessen: Audio book has some voice & volume inconsistencies, but the story is engaging enough, though predictable & same as rest of Dessen's oeuvre.

Searching for Whitopia / Rich Benjamin: Unscientific but interesting non-fiction about what quality makes a community feel "safe" and "special." Black author on whiteness = unique.

Travels with Charley / John Steinbeck: Professing the love of one's country w/ trip through it. Highly entertaining, beautiful descriptions. I underlined many passages for memory.

Continue reading...

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Quick Reminder

Just a quick reminder that we are giving away 3 copies of "The Lonely Hearts Club" if you click here and follow the very simple instructions.

As soon as the winners are announced for that, keep your eyes here for another quick giveaway.

Good Luck!

Continue reading...

Monday, January 11, 2010

Double Take, Part XVII

I both love and hate this one. Love because it's creepy and hate because it's creepy. Alas, here we go:

The Eternal Kiss was published July 2009 by Running Press Kids. It's a collection of short stories.

Wicked Vampire by Nina Bangs (what a name!) was published September 2009 by Leisure Books.

The cropping and coloring are different, and it's interesting in the second book that the mole (maybe it's a piercing) was taken out. Maybe this was intentional so there wouldn't be the double take.

Do you prefer one over the other? Wicked Vampire reminds me a lot of the True Blood-cover of the first Sookie Stackhouse title.

Continue reading...

Friday, January 8, 2010

The Naughty List by Suzanne Young

Suzanne Young was kind enough to send me an early copy of The Naughty List and let me say: I was not disappointed!

The Naughty List follows a group of junior-year cheerleaders -- dubbed the Society of Smitten Kittens (SOS) -- who go undercover to bust the cheating mates of their classmates. This underground operation has Tessa as their leader, who herself has been in a solid, unwavering relationship with Aiden for two years. Their goal as the SOS is not to ruin relationships but instead to help the person being cheated on get out sooner, rather than later. They have a code of ethics, including upholding themselves as model citizens at all times; Tessa is, for example, adamant about not swearing and makes up her own ways to vent frustration (this is really, really funny) and she is always working on correcting others when they do.

While Tessa and Aiden have the ideal relationship -- one which we as readers see as healthy -- she hasn't been totally honest with him. In fact, she's managed to keep the SOS a secret for their entire relationship.

When Christian and his sister Chloe move to town after their parents split up, things begin to change a bit. Christian is a merciless flirt with Tessa, who doesn't like the attention. And Chloe is rude, nasty, and mean to everyone. Everyone, that is, except Aiden, with whom she is paired with in their chemistry class. Will Tessa have the SOS called on her or will someone be calling on her behalf to investigate Aiden?

Suzanne Young's book is the first in a series, and I think this is the first time in a long time I can say I'd go out and read the next ones without doubt. I loved Tessa's attitude, humor, and her relationship with Aiden. I thought it was spot-on appropriate for her age and that teens would definitely relate to her.

Moreover, the twists and turns this book took surprised me. I thought there were a lot of things that would happen (if you don't like spoilers, skip this): I thought Tessa's sickness was going to be an unexpected pregnancy and I thought that her relationship with Christian was going somewhere else entirely. There is a mega twist with that plot that I really liked because it was not what I thought.

And of course, there is a lesson learned here, but it's not a moral lesson. Instead, it's a moment of realizing that not all people ARE cheaters and that some things are, in fact, accidents or mistakes of judgement or perception. It's also nice to see not only respectable cheerleaders in a book, but cheerleaders who are smart and who are really trying to be rolemodels for their classmates.

If I were to criticize the book, I think what stands out to me is that Tessa's quirk of using other terms for swearing may have been a bit over done. But perhaps this was intentional, to give us a good idea of who Tessa is (a bit over dramatic at times). I didn't quite get enough of what made Aiden so attractive or wonderful, since all I learned of him was through Tessa. The beauty of there being more than one book in this series, though, is that maybe we'll know more about him soon. Oh, and Tessa's parents sounded interesting -- they're musicians -- so I hope there's more of them to come, too. Perhaps what really got me, though, was how the heck Tessa kept this a secret for two years from Aiden. I got she was sly, but it seems like so much could happen in two years to break the secret. I wanted more back story to that or I wanted their relationship to not have been so solid and strong, to make that aspect (a big one, I might add) more believable.

This is a title I know has a lot of readalikes, but I'm drawing a blank right now. I think this might work with Sarah Dessen or Elizabeth Scott titles, and though I haven't her books yet, I think the SOS aspect will appeal to fans of Ally Carter.

The Naughty List comes out February 4, 2010. But if you keep your eyes peeled, you might be able to score my ARC before that. Oh, did I mention my ARC is signed, too?

Continue reading...

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Non-fiction: The Great and Only Barnum

Welcome to the big top! One of STACKED's goals this year is to post more and a wider variety of content (believe it or not, we have a huge, varied list of topics we want to cover in a Google Doc). To start, we're hoping to post more non-fiction reviews and discussions. And onward.

The Great and Only Barnum by Candice Fleming was one of the first young adult non-fiction books I've read. Not to mention it's a biography, which is another genre I'm pretty poor at reading in. But let me say, this title did NOT disappoint.

TGAOB follows the life of show man P. T. Barnum from his birth to his death, highlighting his younger years as a sales clerk, shuffling between Connecticut and New York City and his decision to go into show business. His circus career began, as it seems, quite accidentally, after a long stint in the museum business. I thought Fleming's narrative was engrossing: I found myself flying through the text, eager to learn more about the man of infamy. At the beginning of the book, we meet his lineage, and throughout the text, I kept thinking back to a connection Fleming made between Barnum's prankster grandfather and himself. The likeness was not only amusing, but it really did shed a lot of light into why Barnum chose the path he did in life and why, even though he has had so many critics, he is still a fascinating and likeable character.

Throughout the book, there are ample photographs, and there is a fascinating spread of sideshow trading cards. I thought the section about the people Barnum brought to the spotlight left him more of a good person than a bad person -- if there were a bias in this book as a whole, it would be that it was quite apologetic for Barnum's decisions to showcase people with different physical traits from the norm. But at the same time, it didn't delve deeply enough into the criticisms he received to make these apologetics worth including in the text; it almost seemed like a preemptive band-aid for those reading the text who might be ready to be angry. From the text, it seemed to me that Barnum really and truly cared for his people, putting them to spotlight to showcase the varied nature of humanity (and while there was absolutely financial gain here for him, he also took great care of these people who may otherwise have been outcasts in society).

Some of the issues I had with the book included the facts that were brought up but not elucidated further. I wish I could learn more about the strange relationship Barnum had with his first wife (though we hear about his quick marriage overseas) and I would love to learn more about the race relations. Barnum's museum had a policy to not allow African Americans in, except for a few hours one day a week. Knowing the museum was in New York City, I had a lot of questions about whether this was the norm and whether Barnum's policy was groundbreaking because he let them in. Here's perfect fodder for a future book!

I thought the use of sidebars and photos was well done, with just enough to keep me interested. I appreciated how, for the most part, the narrative ended on the page where a side bar was so I could read those without flipping pages; unfortunately, this did not last throughout the book and became a point of frustration for me. More frustrating, though, were the sidebars that jumped pages and the use of the black box with white text. It is well-known this is the hardest way to read text. But aesthetically, the book showcased a nice use of font to text to decorative elements, and it felt like a lengthy magazine article. This will definitely appeal to teen readers AND to adult readers who want to know about Barnum but don't want to invest time into a lengthier biography. I got just enough to pique my interest.

My other criticism on this title is that there was not enough discussion of the circus. I went in believing to know about Barnum's circus career and decisions, and though I learned these came near the end of his life, I wanted more. I wanted to know how the various circuses came to meld together and become what they are in today's society. Again: here's another prime book opportunity. Something of that nature would be a great readalike to this one. Authors - take note!

Continue reading...

Monday, January 4, 2010

The Lonely Hearts Club GIVEAWAY

Remember our teaser to keep your eyes here on my review of The Lonely Hearts Club? Well, here's why:

We're giving away THREE COPIES of the book to US residents. That's right -- this is an opportunity to snag a copy of Elizabeth Eulberg's first title.

How do you enter? Simple! Fill out the form below between today January 4) through January 18. You have the chance to get multiple entries on this contest since it's a big giveaway, so read the form carefully to make sure you can earn those entries.

Thanks to Big Honcho Media for giving us the opportunity for such a fun giveaway to start out a new year of blogging about books. They also put together this great trailer for the book:

Continue reading...

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Lonely Hearts Club by Elizabeth Eulberg, Part II

Kelly reviewed this book about a week ago, so I won't rehash the plot too much. I will say that it was not really my cup of tea, but I do know that it will have its audience.

The premise is cute. Most girls at some point in their lives have been fed up with boys and threatened to swear off them completely. For those girls, Lonely Hearts Club is wish fulfillment, a way for them to see what giving up boys and dating would be like without actually doing it themselves.

Teen Beatles fans may get a kick out of it, particularly out of Penny Lane's parents, who take the word "fanatic" to new levels. (For example, Penny's parents have become vegetarian, not because they are animal rights activists or for health reasons, but because Paul McCartney is a vegetarian.)

Learning to remain yourself, even if you're part of a relationship, is important. This, I think, was the strongest part of the book. Diane, Penny's former friend who ditched her when Diane started to date a boy, returns to Penny's life after Diane is dumped by said boy. Through this, Diane learns how to have girlfriends again and decides to pursue the activities she enjoys rather than what she thinks she should do to please others. Putting your friends first isn't an original concept for a book, but it's still important.

I couldn't relate to any of the characters. High school wasn't that long ago for me, but the characters' high school experience in no way resembled mine. I had more things on my mind than just boys, and the boys at my school had more going on in their lives than just girls. A good deal of the book centers on how the boys don't pay attention to these awesome girls - but it's never clear why they should in the first place. The girls seem more interested in dating the boys than trying to establish a friendship with them, when really, a good relationship starts with friendship anyway. This, to me, was the biggest flaw. Maybe it's because I didn't date a whole lot in high school, or because I haven't dated anyone truly terrible, but not one of the girls in the story seemed authentic. Sure, girls can be boy-crazy sometimes, but I really did not meet a single girl in high school who was so fixated upon boys to the exclusion of everything else.

It was so fluffy as to be almost weightless. Nothing is really at stake here. As Kelly mentioned, an eating disorder is mentioned briefly but it's so insignificant that it really should have been edited out. At one point, the principal threatens some serious consequences for Penny and her club, but it's resolved within a few pages. I like more substance in my books.

There was too much boy-bashing. Maybe it's because I've never dated anyone completely horrible, but I just don't think it's a good thing for a girl to read this book and learn that it's okay to universally categorize all the boys in her school as dirtbags. Penny Lane, our protagonist, mentions that it's wrong of her to do that, and this is a lesson she supposedly learns, but at the end of the book where this lesson has already been learned, there are only three boys allowed to hang out with the Lonely Hearts Club. Not so great. The better lesson would have been to judge a person based on his or her own merits first and foremost. You know, getting to know a person as a person before you size them up as a piece of meat.

With a book like this, it's important to seriously consider its potential audience. The Lonely Hearts Club is a fast, breezy read. It's not hard-hitting or emotionally wrenching, and sometimes that's exactly what a reader is looking for. Girls who have been seriously hurt by a boy may find something they enjoy here.

Stay tuned for more on this book very soon...

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Cybils Sunday - Into the Wild Nerd Yonder by Julie Halpern

Get ready for a Renaissance Faire, Dungeons & Dragons, peeing in the woods, and twenty-sided dice! Welcome to Into the Wild Nerd Yonder by Julie Halpern.

Jessie Sloan is best friends with Char and Bizza as she begins her sophomore year of high school, and she's been close with them forever. Jessie is a bit of an odd duck who loves wearing her own home made skirts, and her goal this year is to make enough skirts out of different fabrics so she never has to rewear a skirt.

But things between her and her friends aren't peachy keen. Jessie is actually quite frustrated that her friends want to spend all of their time hanging out with her brother Barrett and his punk rock band friends at the local Denny's, which is full of smoke and really boring conversation.

Bizza and Char transform into punk girls and spend the beginning of their new school year getting close with the punk boys, including Van: the guy who Jessie's been crushing on for a long time. Bit he's Bizza's boy now, thanks to her transformation.

Jessie's disappointed to find herself alone for what should have been a great school year. Rather than wallow in her own pity, though, Jessie chooses to befriend Dottie, the weird girl in her study hall. And we're not just talking weird. We're talking Weird -- one of those kids who's been labeled the weird one since elementary school. But once Jessie strikes up conversation, she really begins liking Dottie, who she learns has been dating a guy for quite a long time and is mega involved in the game Dungeons and Dragons with a slew of other kids at school. Will Jessie decide to give in and become a mega-nerd or will she spend her year trying to maintain her old, though beaten, friendships?

Into the Wild Nerd Yonder is a very, very funny book. Jessie encompasses the perfect high school tone: she is funny, culturally-aware (and a total book nerd who kept talking about books like Life as We Knew It and Elsewhere), sarcastic, and 100% realistic. She embraces her inner nerd prior to meeting Dottie and her D&D playing crew, as we see with her skirt obsession. But you know that obsession? It's much more than Jessie thinks; it's proof she has an enviable and valuable skill and knowledge that she's actually appreciated for and which she can use to enjoy herself.

Beyond the strength of Jessie's character is the development of a number of strong, well-executed subplots. Bizza and Van's developing relationship leaves readers wondering what's going on, seeing they begin getting very close immediately after Jessie herself had a tender moment with him. Is he cheating on Jessie or is he using Bizza? When Bizza is left friendless, she must turn to Jessie to escort her to a clinic .... to be tested for a possible STD. The pacing, dialog, and delicate atmosphere between Jessie and Bizza in this plot point were pitch perfect and absolutely believable. But you know what was best about it? It was not at all contrived, nor a plot aspect upon which characters dwell, nor something that makes readers roll their eyes in utter frustration. Instead, it's quite compelling and the emotions Jessie and the other characters display are authentic. It doesn't become all consuming.

Jessie's relationship with her parents and her brother Barrett are fresh in the wake of terrible parents that seem to be invading YA lit. I found the relationship that developed between Jessie and Henry -- one of the D&D boys -- to be very sweet and their moment together at the Renaissance Faire tender and a bit drool-worthy. Oh, and also hilarious.

One of the issues that stuck in my head when I finished the book is one I am eager to discuss or hear opinions on, both those of the YA judging panel and our readers. It seemed to me in the end that Jessie becomes completely okay with who she is, and she embraces her multiple sides, her dorkiness, and her comfort with being uncomfortable. She makes it clear throughout the book she doesn't aim to change anyone, which is precisely why her relationships with Bizza and Char stand as they do. But Jessie sure did judge Henry's clothing choices ... and in doing so, she drops many hints about him changing his style, especially since his mom did a poor job dressing him. At the very end, there is a moment when Jessie comments on him changing from sneakers to Chucks, thanks to her shopping trip. I almost felt like she took a back step here and decided to change Henry; she liked him, but she liked him more when she made his apparel choices so that he'd be less dorky and more to her acceptable standards.

Aside from that criticism and flaw in Jessie's otherwise enviable character, I spent a long time thinking about audience. I really enjoyed this book, but I also am able to look at it from a perspective outside of high school and one in which I am widely-read and somewhat (emphasis on somewhat) culturally-aware. While Jessie will absolutely speak to teen readers who embrace themselves and who they are, I wrestled with how much broad appeal this title will have. It is a very funny book, but the humor is subtle. Good teen readers will eat this book up, though your average reader may not enjoy the subtlety. For readalikes, coming to my mind are Pete Hautman's How to Steal a Car (the humor!), Abby McDonald's Sophomore Switch (the fitting-in-without-friends factor), Donna Freita's The Possibilities of Sainthood (loving and embracing who you are), and Melissa Walker's Violet on the Runway or Lovestruck Summer (self-assured but humorous and wonderfully sarcastic leading girls). You know, that's great company!

Thanks to the YA Fiction Cybils Panel for such a fantastic title on the short list. I hope that Halpern sees her book getting a ton of attention, as it is well-deserved. I eagerly await her next title (and I plan on going back to read her first book).

* These are entirely my opinions, not the rest of the judging committee's.

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Saturday, January 2, 2010

Morris Nominees: Read and Reviewed!

The Shortlist for the 2010 Morris Award was announced a few weeks ago, and Kim did a great job introducing each of the titles right here. I've finally had the opportunity to dig into each one of them!

Ash, by Malinda Lo

This retelling of Cinderella with a lesbian twist left me less than impressed. I found Ash's character throughout the story uninteresting, and frankly, I felt that the entire lesbian twist came about suddenly and without any real meaning. Ash didn't seem interested in a female-female relationship throughout, so the decision to have the story take that turn left me feeling like the heft of the story wasn't succeeding quite as it should and needed something to make the pieces wrap up at the end. As a character, Ash was disappointingly boring, and I didn't see why any of the secondary characters cared about her. She didn't seem to give any thought or time into developing and sustaining those relationships; she just had them and there were never any challenges to those facts.

That said, I was also disappointed in the world building. For the entirety of the book, I never felt like I was being invited into a story; instead, I felt like I was being given a third-person account of a situation, without any feeling of being enveloped in a world. The back story dragged on much longer than necessary, and because they were displayed as facts (this is how it is) rather than pushed to be a real inviting storyline (this is why it is), I felt like an outsider unable to step into the story. The setting left me wanting a lot more, as well, since none of them seemed well enough delineated to differentiate among them.

For fans of retellings, this may work, but for lovers of fantasy and lush story telling, this is a disappointment. My feeling regarding its selection as a Morris nominee is, unfortunately, the fact there's the lesbian twist. I feel like that element may have been given more weight and attention than the writing and world building itself. Since last year's winner was a similar retelling (and had many of the same criticisms from other readers as I give this title), I suspect this may not be this year's ultimate winner. You may want to bear in mind with my review that I am not a heavy fantasy reader, so my expectations in such a story may be widely apart from major readers in the genre. I'd love to hear your thoughts on this title!

Beautiful Creatures, by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl

Kim wrote that this was "[a] huge doorstopper of a book advertised as a Southern gothic thriller with plenty of mystery and romance. Normally right up my alley, but I confess the length (626 pages!) is daunting." Let me just confess: 626 were entirely unnecessary for this title!

The writing in Beautiful Creatures was gorgeous, fluid, and enveloping. The setting was wonderfully southern and gothic -- something I adore in any book! Unfortunately, the overuse of elements and story lines grated on me as I struggled to understand the need for not only 626 pages but also forthcoming sequels.

The characters were uninteresting, particularly Ethan who did nothing but live for Lena, who was herself very boring. I didn't care about their family history and I felt there was way too much happenstance. I mean, for 16 years nothing, absolutely nothing, leaked out about the history? Hard to imagine. Likewise, the library/librarian scenes were pandering to librarians and were painful to read. I'm very critical with books that dabble on too long about librarians or libraries because to me, it's begging for those venues to then be very excited about the books. The only interesting character the entire book for me was Uncle Macon who we don't learn enough about. Actually, Boo the dog was pretty interesting too. I wish we learned more about those two and less about Lena the Rain. With the way the story was built in its southern setting, I thought Macon and Boo deserved much more attention than they were given.

Ethan is no hunk nor droolworthy, unless you like a guy who has nothing going on except obsessing about other people. He needed to grow his own spine and interests. I'm not sure why this is being called such a great book, except perhaps because readers are excited they made it through such a long tome? It's nothing special, and I'm kind of sad to feel that way. Definitely not worth the 626 page investment; this could have been done much more effectively (even capturing the same story!) in 1/2 of the pages.

To be entirely honest, I felt like this was trying hard to be the antithesis of Twilight: Ethan is the wirey, spineless character who lives for no one but Lena, much in the way that Bella does for her vampire. So maybe for readers of that series looking for something similar, this may fit the bill. It's a bit more literary, but the romance plays out similarly.

The Everafter, by Amy Huntley

I listened to the audiobook version of The Everafter, and it killed me to have to stop listening when I would get to my destination. I really became involved in the story itself, and I found that the narrator, Tavia Gilbert, did a great job for the most part (though I found her portrayal of a 17-year-old a bit too old sounding and found the editing of the audiobook left a LOT to be desired in terms of sound quality....and not because of the story drifting from the afterlife to the past - that itself was quite clear).

The story line is both original and not -- it reminded me a lot of the premise to both The Lovely Bones and Elsewhere by Gabrielle Zevin, both titles I was unable to get through. But this title I had no issues getting through. Huntley writes fluidly and fully, developing not only a compelling character in Maddy, who exists in "IS," but I felt her development of Gabe, Tammy, Sandra, and Sandra's family fantastic.

This book has a bit of a mystery to it, but I knew immediately how it would end. Even with that knowledge, I still wanted to know what happened and what events came to cause Maddy to die at the age of 17, before she became an aunt. I found the notion of using lost objects to return to a place magical enough to be believable. I really fell into Maddy's "IS" and real-life worlds and believe that there was a great balance among the two worlds, the mystery, and the character development to drive the narrative forward without dragging. Janssen reviewed it, too, and made the comment I would like to emphasize: this is a quick read and should not be anything more.

But here's my criticism (and you knew it was coming): this isn't all that original. Before I picked it up, I knew it was going to be like the two aforementioned titles that I didn't like. So while I liked this one, I think it was because it was similar to the other two but "done right." That, of course, means it was done correctly for ME as a reader. For those who loved either of the other two, though, this might be just a copy cat attempt. I wish I could sit in on the Morris committee meeting just to hear the discussion from those on either side of this camp.

Flash Burnout, by LK Madigan

Like Kim, this was the title I was least excited about because the description was kind of vague. But you know what? This was, hands down, my favorite of the five.

Flash Burnout is a story about choices in life when it comes to relationships; in this particular instance, it's a story about Blake deciding between his super hot girlfriend and a girl with whom he develops a close friendship. But it doesn't transpire as you expect, especially given that summary and the introduction to who Blake is.

When I began the book, I absolutely hated Blake. He reminded me of a stereotypical boy who cares nothing about people but instead was dating Shannon because of her totally hot body. He obsesses with looks, and he's not shy about being a complete jerk about it. But perhaps that was what the charm was: Blake wasn't afraid to be himself. And as the story progresses and we watch him get stuck into a pretty tricky situation with two girls, he doesn't stray from his real heart and desire to be a good guy. I'm ultimately thrilled with how Blake ended up in the end of the book, and I felt like his cheerleader throughout the course of the story.

Like The Everafter, I felt LK Madigan did a great job creating secondary characters. Shannon and Melissa are believable girls, who are both total opposites and quite similar. I thought that the multiple story lines hidden within the story -- those of photography, loss, love, and the drive for "getting lucky," -- worked together smoothly without being trite. The dialog is really well done and definitely screams teen. There have been a lot of books lately where the dialog falls so flatly, but this one does NOT disappoint. This may be the precise reason why Blake is such a great character who you can't help but love and hate: he speaks realistically, and not the way we just hope he'd talk. The final scenes include photography backdrop and his last photo exhibit , and they were brilliantly connected to the entire story.

Criticizing this title was a little hard, but if I had to make any, it would be that Blake doesn't take himself seriously enough. There are a lot of missed opportunities in terms of how the story could have shaped up, but perhaps it comes back to Blake being such a great character because of his faults. And being frank here, the premise, like that of The Everafter is not entirely original or unique. Boys and girls have relationship issues like this, and there are a million books on that. Likewise, I think audience on this title will be hard to find: it's a little crude for most "girl" readers (those who like to read girl-centric books) and it's too invested in emotion for most "boy" readers. It's not a mystery and it's not a fantasy or science fiction. It's not a problem novel nor a real coming of age story. It's a bit of a romance, but it's not a traditional one, either. I love books that fall into this nether land, but they are ultimately tough to sell. I would, however, LOVE to see this one take home the Morris to raise its awareness. The buzz will help it find the right audience.

Hold Still, by Nina LaCour

I've already read and reviewed this one, and I did so before the Morris short list. You can read that review here.

I wasn't a huge fan of this title, but I suspect it was short listed because it's an issue book. Although I think it never coalesced well, I know there were a lot of fans, and I do think there is teen appeal here (however unrealistic I found the entire premise and however much I absolutely did not care about Caitlin or Ingrid).

So that said, I'm a little let down in the choices overall. I felt like some of the books were chosen due to hype and marketing (Beautiful Creatures has had incredible marketing, which you best believe contributes to titles being read and considered for award nominations) and I felt others were chosen because of their clear appeal to the target audience. I'm disappointed that other knock out first-time authors didn't get their time in the limelight....but that's where other awards like the Cybils, BBYA, and others come in, right?

Have you read any of them now? What do you think deserves to win? Do you disagree with my thoughts? I'd love to hear them!

What do you think of the list? Had you heard of most of these books before the shortlist was announced? I’m actually quite surprised that I had – that was not the case last year.

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Friday, January 1, 2010

2009 in Review

The blogosphere is awash with "Best of 2009" lists, so I've decided to review my 2009 reading in a slightly different way. These aren't necessarily books that were published in 2009, just books that were read by me in 2009.

Best Book of 2009

The Knife of Never Letting Go, by Patrick Ness

I couldn’t stop thinking about this book for months after I finished it. I’ve been coercing everyone I know to read it. If you haven’t read it, go check it out from your library today.

Biggest Disappointment

Impossible, by Nancy Werlin

Quite truthfully the worst book I have read this year. I know it has received many accolades; I know people love it. With many books like that, I can honestly say “I see why people like it.” I don’t see it with this one. Bland characters who all speak with the same voice, contrived plot (even for me, a diehard fantasy reader), bad dialogue. Huge disappointment.


When You Reach Me, by Rebecca Stead

The best phrase to sum up this gem is still “What an odd little book.”

Most Overrated

The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate, by Jacqueline Kelly

I’ve seen this one in the running for many people’s Newbery picks, but it just doesn’t have the kid appeal it should have. Then again, the Newbery committee isn’t really known for picking books that kids like.

Most Beautiful Book

Lips Touch, by Laini Taylor, illustrated by Jim diBartolo

Taylor sure can write, and unlike other readers, I think the third and longest story is the strongest. I’m so glad this was nominated for the National Book Award, because I never would have read it otherwise. The artwork (consisting of mostly grays and reds) is incredible and the cover is one of the best of the year. A beautiful package all around.

Book That Made Me Want to Throw it Against a Wall (in a Good Way)

I am the Messenger, by Markus Zusak

An ending that really blew me away – I did not predict it at all. I had to re-read it and then immediately call up a friend to discuss it. Not as good as The Book Thief (nothing is), but still great.

Most Unique

Once Upon a Time in the North, by Philip Pullman

Everything Pullman writes is golden, but this is a particularly neat little book because of all its extras, which I discussed in a previous post.

Most Eagerly Anticipated for 2010

Monsters of Men, by Patrick Ness

barely edges out

Hunger Games Book 3, by Suzanne Collins

I like Katniss, but I love Todd and Viola. Oh, Todd and Viola. I must know how your story ends. Please don’t put them through any more torture, Patrick Ness. (I say this knowing that he will.)

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