Tuesday, March 30, 2010

A favorite blog you MUST check out

One of the best things about blogging is sharing other favorite blogs. Since it seems our cover-related posts get so much traffic and discussion going, I must share with you the greatness that is Melissa Walker's blog. Yes, this is THE Melissa Walker of Lovestruck Summer and Violet in Private fame.

Her blog, located here, features regular "cover stories," which are opportunities to talk about the design process of many of the well-known covers young adult readers see. Some of my favorites include the story of Cracked up to Be (which we featured as a double take), Kayla Perrin's Spring Break (the story of race on a cover), and Claire Zulkey's An Off Year. She also wrote up a really cool interview with Michelle Zink on the make over of her Prophecy of the Sisters series.

So if you haven't, head over there and add it to your RSS. Besides this fantastic feature, she's an interesting read and always offers a good photo or two.

Continue reading...

Monday, March 29, 2010

Every Little Thing in the World by Nina de Gramont

A couple years ago, I was enchanted by the cover and description of a book called Gossip of the Starlings by Nina de Gramont and purchased it. This was, of course, a big deal since I am not a book buyer.

Although that book ended up being less than I hoped, I was excited to see that de Gramont would be releasing a teen book this year -- GotS featured a prep school girl, and I had the hopes that when aiming to reach the teen audience, rather than the adult audience, the story would come together a little better.

Every Little Thing in the World delivered.

Sydney Biggs has been getting in more and more trouble lately -- and when she and her best friend Natalia steal a car, that's the end of the rope for Sydney's mother who decides she needs to spend time with her father while they figure out a punishment.

While away, her mother and father decide the best means of punishing her for her poor behavior is to send her to a summer camp in the wilds of Ontario, Canada. The lessons in self sufficiency and survival should help her learn to be more responsible and think through her actions. As Sydney calls Natalia to break this news to her, Natalia lets Sydney know that she, too, will be joining her.

Oh, and Sydney is pregnant but she hasn't told anyone except Natalia.

Every Little Thing in the World follows Sydney as she not only spends an extended period in the wild but as her relationship with Natalia changes. Once best friends, their time on punishment has really changed how they relate to one another and to other people their age. Then there is the issue of the pregnancy, which tears the two of them apart and pulls them back together at the very end of the story.

While the story itself is not the most unique or necessarily the most well developed -- a number of jumps in time and in plot, particularly near the end of the story, were not cohesive with the pacing -- the writing is excellent. de Gramont has a talent for strong writing and attention to detail and syntax which makes the bumps in pacing almost forgivable. In addition to the pacing, I found that the mother and father figure in the story weren't fully fleshed and the ending made her mother especially flat.

Perhaps the biggest strength in the story is the development of Sydney as a character. When the book opened, I didn't feel that connected to her, nor did I find myself caring too much about the predicaments in which she'd found herself. As the story progressed and as tensions rose between her and Natalia, I found myself really caring about Sydney and about what she was going to do about the pregnancy. As readers we're led to believe a couple of different things about this issue, and the way it ends both is and isn't expected.

Every Little Thing in the World will appeal to those who enjoy realistic fiction and coming-of-age fiction. Fans of Amy Efaw's After will eat this one up for sure. There's quite a bit of language and situations that will be a turn off to those who prefer cleaner reads, but I think the writing itself makes this a worthwhile read.

Although I found Gossip of the Starlings a let down, I think de Gramont has found her voice in young adult fiction. She writes a strong, realistic 17-year-old in this story and I think that Sydney's voice will be relatable to teens who find themselves in tight spots. I read an interesting interview de Gramont gave on one of the blogs where she discussed the epilogue in the story. Having read the interview before the book, I read it a little more critically, and I have to agree with de Gramont completely: it could go either way. It both works and could work without being there.

So, though this title contains a lot of what we see in teen lit -- especially the pregnancy, trouble-making teen -- read this one for the writing and for the character of Sydney. I think this is an easy cross-over title for adults, as well, who may already be familiar with the author.

Continue reading...

Friday, March 26, 2010

Audiosynced: When the narrator doesn't work

In the effort to keep abreast of the hot titles circulating and in hopes of making it to my local library's book club (which didn't happen), I finally got hold of Katherine Stockett's The Help on audio. Notice the "finally" in that statement, and you will understand why I didn't make it to the book club.

I'm still not quite done with listening to it, as it is 15 discs long. It is, as Janssen put it, a quick read but because I'm listening, it is taking longer than I'd hoped. But, I've heard enough to discuss a little about what's working and what isn't.

The Help, for those of you in the dark, is a story told through multiple voices about being "the help" in 1960s Jackson, Mississippi. Skeeter, a white woman, is interviewing the local help to write her first book, and presumably, the help -- African American women who do the housework for wealthy and/or helpless white women -- are giving her insight into their lives. Stockett's story uncovers a myriad of worlds within worlds, and the story itself is fascinating as it is at once the story and a story about a story. The voices and the setting are engrossing and engaging. And, obviously, since it's southern fiction, I'm pretty much in love. It's quite a painful story, but it is done so tactfully that it never feels like it panders or lessens the real issues at stake.

On audio, there are multiple narrators: Cassandra Campbell, Octavia Spencer, Bahni Turpin, and Jenna Lamia. Does the last one sound familiar? It should.

Let me say, I think this is absolutely one of those books that is better read to you than read silently. The narrators really set the scene and with their deep southern accents and their dialects, it is unmistakably 1962 Jackson, Mississippi. I'm finding myself falling into the story deeply and really caring about each of the characters. I feel along with Aibilene and Minny, as well as Skeeter. In the scene with Minny in the bathroom after discovering why her employer has been so sullen, the audio heightens the tension and the fear and shame in a way that would no way compare in print. This was a moment I literally needed to stop the car and stare off in shock because of the utter emotion the audio imbued in the scene.

Though I'm mostly enamored with the audio, there is one thing bothering me: Jenna Lamia's performance. She was amazing on Saving CeeCee Honeycutt as an 11-year-old girl. But in The Help, she plays Skeeter, a 23-year-old college graduate and she sounds identical. Her voice is much too young and immature for the role; even though Skeeter IS immature, the voice is not quite deep enough for me, and I find that this is impacting the experience of the book itself. Readers for Aibilene and for Minnie are so strong and spot-on with age, location, and race, but Skeeter stands out in a less-than-spectacular manner.

Despite Lamia having a large part of the book, I am going to continue listening for the sheer pleasure that listening to the book has brought into the story itself. I'm afraid that Lamia's earlier performance has tinged my listening to her, but I do think even without thinking about her as an 11-year-old, I'd still believe the voice is much too young for this story. Though she's a hot name and does a fantastic southern voice, I think that the reading could have been better done by someone else.

I often wonder if I had made the book discussion, whether or not anyone else listened to the book rather than read it. I think that the book groups who can talk about the listening experience would have a great additional element to discuss when it comes to the story itself. Who reads and how they read it really does make a huge difference, and for me, I'm going to remember this book for being 2/3 well read and 1/3 a bit too juvenile. I do have to say, though, I am very glad that the producers didn't rush this one out as soon as it became a hit. It's clear as a listener this was a well-planned audio book production, as there are no quality issues with sound or rendering. It flows smoothly and it is quite easy to follow whose perspective we are in.

Have you listened to this one? What do you think? Do you think your experience with the book would have been different with a reading versus a listening?

Continue reading...

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Who wrote this one?

When I took my first actual class on young adult literature, I learned the name Richard Peck. Know it? If not, don't fear: I didn't either. But when you hear about a book called Are You in the House Alone and see the very, uh, amusing covers for what was one of the first true adolescent novels (and horror ones at that), you remember the name.

So since then, I haven't thought too much about him, but I know his name well now that I work regularly with his books. I noticed something really interesting, as he's always been easily identified as a classical young adult writer. You can kind of get that idea from his book covers. Check out this non-comprehensive gallery from the 1970s to 2008. His books hit all genres and since these cover a wide range of time in design aesthetics, it's interesting to look at:

Not always the highest of design or appeal, but the author's name alone can sell the book. Imagine my surprise when his forthcoming title was on more than on "Waiting for Wednesday" post. "What?" I thought to myself. I don't remember people ever getting that excited about a new Richard Peck book (kind of like they don't get excited about a new Gary Paulsen book or a new Ann Rinaldi book, since these are standard authors who ALWAYS do very well). But look at the cover and tell me what you notice:

Ah, how refreshing: it's like every other paranormal-looking cover on the market now. And to me, it seems like his name is no longer the center stage to sell the book. It's the cover.

Interesting marketing technique or genius? I'm not sure. I like the cover and find it really appealing. I think this will get a new generation of readers into his wide catalog of titles. Moreover, what an interesting perspective on how the young adult book market has changed, seen simply from the changes in covers of one perennial author.

Continue reading...

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Split by Swati Avasthi

Confession: I've been pretty disappointed in a lot of the highly-hyped young adult novels that have been published so far in 2010. I did fall in love with Some Girls Are, but other "heavy hitters" like Before I Fall just flopped for me.

Fortunately, Swati Avasthi's Split delivered.

Split is an issue novel, and it delves into family violence and abuse. Jace is a high school student who lives under a very abusive father, who happens to be a big named judge in Chicago. Jace's mother and he struggle with living with his father, but neither feels they can quite escape from the situation. That was the case until Jace's mother let slip the address of his long-since-gone brother Christian. Christian left the family years ago to escape the violence, unafraid of what the consequences might be.

Jace decides he has to get away, too. But it's not quite what you think: Jace's reason for needing to get away in that moment isn't necessarily the abuse his father doles out. Instead, it is something much deeper and something that will ultimately change the course of his newly emerging relationship with brother Christian and Christian's girlfriend Mirriam.

This book worked because the issues were dealt with in a manner that was quite realistic. I think that the voice worked for the older teenage boy very well, and I think there was just enough fantasy in his actions -- fantasy in the means of solving issues or letting them solve themselves -- was spot on.

Moreover, the issue of abuse is tackled tactfully and without making it either overwrought or light hearted. The issue is two-pronged, as well, and I think that Avasthi does a great job of getting to the deeper psychological issues of abuse. Let me step back for a second and say that this book shouldn't be considered simply an issue book; it's incredibly well-written that moves fluidly and smoothly in the way that Laurie Halse Anderson's does in Wintergirls. I would not, however, compare this book to LHA's, as it is not as unflinching and quite rightfully handles the abuse issue on a different level. That is, there is an entirely different story line here, though the audience for both may be quite similar.

What didn't work for me in Switched were some of the subplots. I thought that introduction of running as a theme didn't quite work as smoothly as it could have. It's introduced a little too late into the book to make it effective. Again, let me go back to LHA and say it didn't do quite what running did in Catalyst.

I found the last quarter of the book a little hard to follow. There was a lot going on, and I thought some of it was unnecessary or a bit under developed. Avasthi keeps her book to about 250 pages, but I think in the interest of furthering some of the relationships and events that happen in the last quarter of the book -- including Christian and Jace's reconciliation, their relationship with their mother, and Jace's confessions to the new girl in his life -- would have allowed easily for 50-75 more pages. I wish this were stronger, as this was the most critical part of the book but felt like a bit of a let down.

If you like strong writing and an interesting premise that unravels page after page, Switched is one you want to pick up. Avasthi is a fresh voice in young adult writing, and I am excited to see what she does next. She writes believable characters and has developed character relationships that aren't flat or uninteresting (and in fact, they're often a bit surprising how they do come to solidify and change). This was easily one of the best books published for this audience so far in 2010, and it is one I daresay should get some attention come awards season. A refreshing one to read after quite a few less-than-exciting reads.

Continue reading...

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

AudioSynced: Don't Forget!

Don't forget! This month's edition of AudioSynced will be hosted by Abby the Librarian over on her blog. Get your listening ears on and share your March audio experiences on April 1. No April Foolin'!

Thanks again to everyone who contributed for our inaugural edition. I've been shocked to see where our post's ended up and who's shared it. I hope we are able to keep reaching out and getting people into audio literacy.

Continue reading...

Monday, March 22, 2010

From the same photo session

This isn't a double take, but it is the same couple and outfits, outside. When I saw the first cover, I immediately thought of the second and realized they were from the same photo session and photo set:

The Secret Life of Prince Charming by Deb Caletti, paperback edition, March 2010.

Followed with getting a little more up close and personal with this one:

For Keeps by Natalie Friend, to be published April 6, 2010.

I quite like both of them, as the green really does make them stand out. I like the way the images portray something different on both but give the readers enough sense to know what the book is about (as much as people scoff the idea, I think covers can be one of the best tools for determining content, genre, and tone of a book).

I pulled out my ARC, though, and guess what the cover for For Keeps was? I guess they caught the double take before and chose a different cover for the final book.

Do you prefer one to the other? I think the paperback makeover for Caletti's title is an improvement from the hard cover, which also was a double take feature.

Continue reading...

Friday, March 19, 2010

Field Notes: The Hole We're in by Gabrielle Zevin

A new feature I want to try out is "Field Notes." The goal is to provide a review, a target audience, and some of the themes and issues in the book without giving a full-out review.

First up: Gabrielle Zevin's The Hole We're In. You know her name from the teen lit arena, including hits like Elsewhere and Memoirs of a Teenage Amnesiac. This is her first foray into adult novels.

This is a mega-contemporary book featuring a family spending too much money, lying to cover up, the Iraq war,
post-traumatic stress disorder, popular culture, and the way we learn lessons from our past and inform our future.

Time periods change in this book, from the 1990s, to 2006, to 2012, and even further in the future.

The book's tone reminded me a bit of a Jane Smiley novel, but I found the writing itself more friendly. Some of the tone in the novel was reminiscent, too, of Douglas Coupland, particularly when it came to the working world and to living life.

The Hole We're In will appeal to those with an interest in family drama and contemporary situations. I've read other reviews mention the terrible cover, but I LOVE it. It perfectly suits George and Roger and the facade.

Writing here is sparse, and we only get glimpses into the characters. Years often pass with little action; this is realistically portrayed.

Zevin's attempt at adult fiction is well-done and worth the read. It will withstand the test of time, despite the contemporary situations. Though there are a lot of "issues" at work here, it works. It never feels forced or punishing as many can.

Continue reading...

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Trend Spotting: Cult Societies

I talked about the suicide trend in teen lit earlier. Here's another one that keeps popping up again and again, with definite mixed results: cults. More specifically, plural-marriage-accepting-religiously-fundamentalist cults. Here's a quick over view of three of those titles, along with what works and what just doesn't.

Last week, Michelle Dominguez Greene released her Keep Sweet with Simon Pulse. Keep Sweet follows Alva Jane as she falls in love with a boy within her Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints group in rural Uta (approximately an hour outside Moab, if that helps with setting up the story more). Of course, as readers we know this is going to be a problem because the boy was not decreed to be her husband by the Prophet.

Alva chooses to not "keep sweet" and escape her situation. Unfortunately, it takes over 100 pages to find Alva interesting in the least, and it seems as though her switch from being a believer in the Prophet and her religion is sudden and abrupt. Quite frankly, Alva chose to "keep sweet" for most of her life, and it takes little to change her. It's the beating of another woman that makes her snap, but it wasn't convincing to me as a reader. Here's your spoiler warning, guys, so stop reading this paragraph if you don't want this one ruined for you: within -- I kid you not -- five pages, she escapes, runs away to Moab, gets picked up by a couple going to California, stops in a gas station to see her sect was raided, makes the news, and then the folks who picked them up say (this is the icing): "Okay, I figure you are the girls they mentioned in the newscast." The people who picked them up, along with everyone else in the sect, are utterly flat, voiceless, and nothing but air in the story. I mean, that's some of the worst dialog I've read in a long time.

I found Keep Sweet a disappointment. It lacked on plot, and when the plot began to thicken, the writing and lack of development made it fall completely flat. The last chapter was utterly unrealistic, despite having a good premise. In my ideal world, this book would have about eight more chapters, with more development, more believability, and more character insight. It could have been a knock out. I think most readers will leave this one feeling cheated.

I feel comfortable making those comments because last year, Carol Lynch Williams released what I think was the strongest book of this ilk: The Chosen One.

It's been over a year since I read this one, but I remember that the main character, Kyra, escapes to read at the bookmobile that often sits at the edge of the compound where she, too, lives with a polygamist-practicing family. She wants out, and it seems quite clear throughout the book this isn't where she wants to be in her life.

This book was sparse, and it works. Williams develops a character -- and she chooses not to overextend herself and develop more than a couple of characters -- and a situation. In rereading my GoodReads notes, I mentioned that the characters aren't especially well developed because of the sparse writing and that this was the important point in her story line. We know in this particular cult that who you are does not matter. It's what you do. It is not a judgmental scenario in the same way that Greene's is. Rather, we know Kyra's not happy and wants to get out. Although Greene seeks to prove the same point about girls being simply there to provide children for the profit, her decision to dig into character development and fall flat while doing so (especially with characters like Brenda) weakens and buries that issue.

The Chosen One, I noted, was satisfying and fast-paced. This one seemed aimed at the younger end of teen readers, too. I think Greene's may have aimed higher, especially with the end note about FLDS. It was published last May by St. Martins Griffin.

Sister Wife by Shelley Hrdlitschka was the first book published with this theme (at least during the "trend" -- I know others were published before this one) by Orca in October 2008.

Again, it's been a year or more since I read this one, but thanks to GoodReads, I'm able to pull some memories together. To quote myself (oh I've always wanted to do that!), "My biggest problems were poor pacing (the end seems to skip years over pages), uninteresting characters, and unrealistic plot lines (the faith lines were so loose and sketchy, even in the polygamist setting, it was hard for me to really believe any of that backdrop). I think the stone setting and interaction among those within Unity and those outside was strange -- in the polygamist stories we hear in the news, there is security and the places are compounds not easily broken into or out of. While certainly the story isn't meant to be a strict telling of any of the real situations, I thought it had a lot of basis in reality and could have been better pushed in that direction. I just couldn't get into this one because there were too many questions in my mind and none were really related to the characters themselves but on the writing/story choices."

I did note that it deserved praise for the unique premise and situations that I hadn't stumbled upon quite yet. And to be fair, knowing now this was an Orca publication, the pacing and the more shallow plot development makes sense. This publisher aims at the reluctant reader market, and I think this *is* a book that will appeal to them.

What struck me as most interesting in the trend of these books is they all have the same basic story line and characters -- a girl, unhappy, tries to escape. We know that girls shoulder a lot of the weight in polygamist sects, but you know what I want? I'd eat up a book from the male's perspective. What about a male who is fighting for power and control? What about a male trying to escape? There's plenty of juice here, writers, and I'm eager to read it. It's clear the trend's big because of the news and the images we see in the news, but I'd like something with more twist to it.

That said, if you are looking for a good read, you have choices. I think of the three, The Chosen One holds the most promise, and perhaps that's in part due to Williams's experience in writing for the teen market.

Continue reading...

Monday, March 15, 2010

AudioSynced: The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein

There are books that come up that become required reading in a librarian's life, and for me, one of the big ones was Garth Stein's The Art of Racing in the Rain. A few local book clubs were reading it, and it never seems to be on the shelf at work. I decided I should take the time to see what it was about, and not only am I thrilled to have taken the plunge, but I could not find a better way to experience this one than through listening.

Enzo is a philosophic dog and the story is told entirely through his eyes. His owner, Denny Swift, is an aspiring race car driver. The story starts at the end of Enzo's natural life, and it is a reflection of his experiences with Denny.

Denny's a guy you cannot help but fall in love with. Perhaps this is precisely the motive behind using Enzo as the narrator, as we're given a completely biased perspective, but this is one of the few books where the end of the story leaves me sadder for the person than the animal. Yep, I'm heartless.

But I digress. Enzo's story is the story of Denny, as he navigates through his wife Eve's crippling disease and eventual death, as well as the tough situation that Eve's family puts Denny through afterward. There's the subplot of Denny's racing career, too, but it is just that: a subplot. And really, the story is this simple. I cannot give you much of a longer description of the plot.

The Art of Racing in the Rain is remarkable because of its simplicity, but it is brilliant because of Stein's narrative decisions. Enzo is incredibly astute and offers his readers, whom he addresses head on, with quite inspiring insights into life and living. The metaphor here is quite simple, too: no race is one in the first lap, but many races are lost there.

What I really liked about this book was how simple and beautifully the metaphor worked, without once ever feeling overworked. This is a relatively short book -- and on audio, it was only 6 discs -- but it packs in a lot worth thinking about and discussing without developing an overly complicated story line. Throughout the book, I did feel myself jarred at what happened to Denny, but not because it was entirely surprising. My real surprises came because I hadn't been paying enough attention to what was going on to sense the next step coming. In other words, I, too, caught myself getting too stuck into my ideas and beliefs instead of "living" the story.

Christopher Evan Welch narrates this book, and I think he is the perfect Enzo. If that name sounds familiar to you, you may remember him as the voice of Tails in the cartoon series of The Adventures of Sonic the Hedgehog in the 1990s. What works is his slightly deeper voice -- not baritone deep, but enough to sound slightly gruff and yet smooth simultaneously. He both reads with 100% emotion yet makes it feel emotionless, like a canine observer. It is easy to fall into the story and lose yourself. See my earlier comment about "living" the story.

The production and editing of this audio were spot on. There was just enough music at the beginning of each disc to help you drop into the story and the setting. I didn't find any noticable production issues. This was a semi-voiced narration, too, which made for an interesting contrast. The dog-to-person transitions were natural and never forced.

The Art of Racing in the Rain is a book that will stand the test of time. There is a lot to dig into here, and I would venture to say it's a modern classic. Book groups will find plenty to discuss here, but I can see literature classes having a lot to talk about. The writing is strong, but the messages are stronger. The narrative device gives rise to a lot of questions on perspective, especially in a story that involves scandal: can we believe Enzo?

This is a book everyone should read. I don't think it's one everyone will like, as Janssen herself was not a huge fan. I'm going to disagree with her though on a couple points (this rarely happens!) - I didn't think the book was depressing, and I definitely didn't think this was about a dog. The book is quite hopeful, and the focus, I think, is on humans and humanity. The dog's the device, the race car if you will, that sets the story in motion. And don't worry if you're not a racing fan: it's minimal. But do be aware there is a lot of swearing and quite a few moments that will make you blush...especially when you're in your car driving in traffic at 7:30 a.m.

(P.S.: Does anyone else think these covers cater to entirely different audiences? The lighter blue with the script-like writing appeals to the younger readers, while the deeper blue with the more inquisitive-looking dog definitely appeals to the older readers. An interesting tactic!).

Continue reading...

Friday, March 12, 2010

Shadow Hills by Anastasia Hopcus

Sometimes, a book clicks with you, and other times, it just doesn't. For me, Shadow Hills by Anastasia Hopcus falls on the "does not" side of that equation.

Persephone ("Phe") Archer lost her sister not too long ago from mysterious circumstances, and as if that weren't bad enough, Phe has suffered from a series of horrifying dreams in a graveyard, where a mysterious man has stepped in to play a significant part. Like her sister, Phe is drawn to Devenish Prep School in Shadow Hills, Massachusetts -- quite a distance away from her home in Los Angeles. But because of the recent death of her sister, Phe's parents aren't too argumentative when she asks to enroll in the school.

When Phe gets to Devenish Prep, weird things start happening. She's having the dreams more and more, and in addition, she's been called Rebeckah by a local shop owner who is convinced she is actually someone else from the 1700s. Oh, and this guy, Zach, is able to know her thoughts, feel her energy, and make weird things happen with electromagnetism. Add to that the graveyard Phe happened to stumble upon behind the school, and you have a paranormal adventure with a hefty dose of mystery to unravel about the school, Phe, and her sister's death.

Shadow Hills is a lengthy book, but it never once felt that way. This is a fast moving book, but it suffered from too many elements that never seemed fully developed. Throughout the story, I felt like Phe had too many issues going on -- the dead sister, the dreams, the utter fascination with Shadow Hill's mysterious grave yard, friends who may or may not be friends, romance with the magnetic boy, and more. These story lines never gelled for me, and many times, I thought I was rereading Twilight, as the bulk of the story's arc was near identical.

What I would have really wanted from this title (and note, this is something I hardly ever say) was more length. I think this was the sort of book that could have benefited from the length and description and back story that Beautiful Creatures had. I felt throughout this book, the mystery and the paranormal aspects were made up on the spot without a lot of history imbued within them; the rules kept changing and appearing without much rhyme or reason. This could have been better developed and lengthened, and in that, I could have more easily fallen into the story and the world. Likewise, there were too many characters, and their importance in the story seemed to shift too much for me to keep track of. I never sunk into their histories or their experiences, thus when someone held the key to unsolving an aspect of the mystery, I didn't find myself questioning why or how. I skimmed it and went on without hesitation. I didn't get to know the characters in enough depth to warrant more than the passing read. And the added aspect of the electromagnetism left me confused and could have probably been edited out. That alone may have helped the issue of too many strings and not enough puppetteers for me.

As a non-reader of this genre, I wasn't pulled in as I was in others I've tried. The ability to see too many other story lines in this was a little disappointing, too, as I didn't find enough new here. And Phe was far too male-dependent, much like Bella. Phe was kind of an irritating character throughout. I think Graham -- who she meets when she first enters Devenish -- was my favorite. I wish there was a little more of him. Oh, and good grief, did the librarian NEED to be described as an old lonely spinster? This isn't making friends with the profession...

When I mentioned that this book wasn't doing it for me, one of my friends said this sounded like something totally up her alley. Shadow Hills will have a definite audience, and I think for those who did like Twilight, this is a natural go-to. This may appeal to more mature paranormal readers, as well, who will find themselves digging the mystery aspects more than perhaps the actual paranormal moments.

Shadow Hills is Anastasia Hopcus's debut novel, due out in July of this year. She's an Austin based writer, and I think had this book been set there, rather than a distant place in Massachusetts, I'd have maybe eaten it up just a little more (yep, I'm sometimes that shallow a reader).

Continue reading...

Thursday, March 11, 2010

AudioSynced: Zeitoun

When I moved, I got a new public library. One of the things that they do I love is separate out their new audio books from the huge selection they own. They're on the same shelves as the new fiction and non-fiction, making them stand out. Zeitoun, by David Eggers, was a book I'd heard about over and over last year since it ended up on a number of "best of" lists, but I hadn't thought to pick it up. When I saw that it was available in audio and knowing what a great experience I had previously with a non-fiction audio book, I thought I'd give it a whirl.

I'm so glad I did.

Zeitoun is the true story of Abdularahman Zeitoun (who goes by Zeitoun), the owner of a small contracting service specializing in painting and roof repairs in New Orleans. The story takes place in the immediate wake of Hurricane Katrina and follows Zeitoun as he chooses to ride out the hurricane in his home so he can watch over it and his rental properties.

Zeitoun's both a father and a husband to Kathy. Kathy and the children do not like Zeitoun's decision to stay in the city and they decided they need to leave. If there is a mandatory evacuation, they think it is best to follow the orders, and they choose to head to Baton Rouge, where Kathy has family.

Eggers's story gives the day-by-day details of Zeitoun's time in New Orleans. Prior to the storm, he invested in a small paddle boat. As the water starts rising around him, he finds he can be quite helpful to others who have found themselves in the city and stuck. He helped an elderly woman find safety, and he took responsibility for feeding some neighborhood dogs left abandoned by their neighbor. And, as luck would have it, one of the Zeitoun rental properties managed to maintain phone service; Zeitoun is able to make daily phone calls to Kathy and give her the update on the city and on himself.

While listening to the story, it was at this point I immediately thought that Eggers had written a text much like the graphic novel A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge by Josh Neufeld. That, too, is a story of those who chose to stay in the city, rather than leave.

But I was so, so wrong.

What happens nearly a week after the storm wrecked havoc on the city is painful to hear. Kathy, accustomed to Zeitoun's daily noon phone calls, suddenly stops receiving them. She has not heard from her husband in a number of days, and now that she is on her way to Phoenix (tired of her family in Baton Rouge), she is convinced Zeitoun has died. What would she tell her family? How would she ever be able to go back to the city?

It turns out that Zeitoun had not died. Rather, the Department of Homeland Security, in a hasty sweep of the city, had arrested him, stripped him of any and all of his rights, and locked him into a taunting high security prison for weeks. He was not told what for, nor was he given a single phone call. He was labeled a terrorist because of his skin color and religious beliefs, and he endured something far worse than the terror Katrina caused the city.

Zeitoun was a powerfully moving story that will stick with me for a very long time. I had not known about these stories of post-Katrina New Orleans, and it was absolutely painful and horrifying to find out these atrocities happened to innocent people. Although I am not ignorant about these sorts of abuses, it was not something I had expected to happen in the wake of a natural disaster in our own country. This is the sort of story everyone needs to read and become aware of.

Listening to this book on audio was perfect for me. The narrator, Firdous Bamji, delivers a wonderful voice to the story. It is not fully voiced, nor really semi-voiced audio. Bamji does offer us a bit of tone difference among the characters, but that is less for effect than simply for audio distinction (think more like a the fact we separate dialog on a page with new paragraphs to make it clear someone new is talking). He offers a nice, truthful rendering of how I would imagine Zeitoun's life to sound, with his slight Syrian accent.

However, I had a huge problem with the production of this audio book. It was muffled and garbled, and the sound quality left a lot to be desired. On each disc, I had to readjust my sound and volume in the car, and immediately upon changing discs, I had to turn the volume way down or else I'd blow out my speakers. For such a well-received story and such a strong narrator choice, I was really quite surprised at the production weaknesses. Fortunately, the compelling story and sheer range of emotional investment I had in the characters -- particularly Zeitoun -- made me keep listening despite the flaws.

A fair bit of warning: aside from the anger and frustration one will feel with the central story here, there are a few other disturbing scenes. Zeitoun is made completely human and admirable in them. I won't ruin them, but be prepared to cry a couple of times.

Zeitoun is worth the 9-disc investment. I think this is a story more powerfully told through audio than printed word, too. And in the end, prepare to feel both satisfied and unsatisfied. This is exactly the type of ending a book like this deserves.

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Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Aren't you a fan?

Here's a trend I don't mind seeing more than once. It's the perfect mix of setting the genre of historical fiction with intrigue.

The Queen's Lady
by Shannon Drake (Large Print edition)

Bewitching Season by Marissa Doyle

The Bad Queen by Carolyn Meyer

There's just something about hiding the mouth but giving enough facial expression through the eyes that draws me into the covers. I know there are more out there with the same set up -- any leads? Share in the comments.

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Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Wherever Nina Lies WINNERS

Congrats to ReaganStar, Jennifer M., and Squiggles, our winners of Wherever Nina Lies. Thanks for entering, everyone, and stay tuned for more giveaways in the future.

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Monday, March 8, 2010

The Beautiful Between by Alyssa Sheinmel

Connelly doesn't come from a broken home, nor is she unattractive or unintelligent. She's also not perfect, but she feels like a princess the day that Jeremy Cole -- the guy anyone would be crazy about -- decides to sit next to her at lunch. Not only does he want to sit by her, but he wants to get to know her.

Connelly's been struggling a bit with physics, where Jeremy's a pro, and he'll offer her his insights in exchange for her SAT preparation in vocabulary ... and her first-hand knowledge of what it's like to have a close family member go through a tough disease. But what Connelly can't do is just that. She was only 2 when her father died and she's never been quite sure what caused his death. Her mother won't tell her what happened.

It must just be Jeremy who is able to unearth what happened to Connelly's father when he himself must experience something terrible.

The Beautiful Between was a surprisingly refreshing read. Although the topic's been tread many times before, I think Scheimel offers something fresh to the story line, and she does so with two very likeable main characters.

One of the first and very shallow things I liked about this book was its length: it's slated to be 192 pages. If you take a minute to reflect upon the length of the hundreds of teen novels coming out lately, this stands out. Sheinmel's debut is able to contain an entire story in under 200 pages and still make it an engaging page turner with strong characters, an interesting plot, and never once did it feel like there was excess fat. This isn't a "sparse" novel, either, in the way of writing. The writing itself is fluid and descriptive, weaving in fairy tale analogies to both Connelly and Jeremy.

This isn't a book that is going to give you a long set up into the history or lives of these characters. No, instead you are plopped into the middle of a high school cafeteria to live alongside Connelly the moment Jeremy notices her. Oh, and don't worry: there are no mean girls to be had, no clique drama, or other "typical" high school lunch-time scenes.

Connelly's a strong female character and doesn't fall victim to head-over-heels-live with Jeremy. Although there are a few scenes and few selections of dialog that hurt me to read (really - Jeremy kisses Connelly on the cheek way too many times to feel real or believable . . . those scenes felt a bit inauthentic) for the most part, it's spot on for a pair of teens living in a wealthy part of New York City. The book's time setting isn't entirely clear; it is contemporary, as the characters more than once make a comment about something being "so 1990s" (another ick-inducing phrase included more times than necessary), but there wasn't a reliance on gadgets to make the setting. I think this is a very positive aspect to the book, as it won't date itself quickly. The cringe-worthy moments don't kill the overall positive aspects of the novel, and I suspect with more writing, Sheinmel will avoid this more easily. I'm excited to see what she does next. Oh, and please, please, PLEASE continue writing with restraint. Two-hundred pages was the perfect length for a story like this.

The Beautiful Between will appeal to Sarah Dessen fans. There is a slow development of a very close friendship between a guy and a girl, and there is depth to both characters. Actually, this book really struck me as one that would appeal to fans of Jenny Han's Summer I Turned Pretty or Sarah Ockler's Twenty Boy Summer.

Sheinmel's debut hits shelves May 11.

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Sunday, March 7, 2010

Bodies on covers, yet again

Apparently, Entertainment Weekly decided to run a piece on the fact that plus-sized women don't make covers of books. Remind you of something from earlier?

It's both interesting and irritating when a big name publication picks up on trends like this. Interesting since it's out there. Irritating because, well, is it a call to action or merely a story idea culled from the blogosphere (I'm not taking credit for this, but this is an issue that comes up again and again in book blogs, both in regards to size and in racial representation on covers). Guess who got covers changed before? I don't think it was EW.

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Friday, March 5, 2010

What I'm Reading - Twitter Style

Welcome to what I'm reading, Twitter-style. Here's a quick glance of what I've got a book mark in or have at the top of the pile for when I've got a book mark to put somewhere.

War Dances/Sherman Alexie: Alexie's a favorite - audio is narrated by author, hope it'll add a huge element to these short stories. New format for my listening needs.

Epitaph Road/David Patneaude: Post-apocalyptic thriller by debut ya author with interesting premise. Mixed reviews in blogosphere but hoping for unique dystopian take.

Government Girl/Stacy Parker Aab: Non-fiction memoir of an intern during the Clinton administration. She sounds kind of irritating herself, but the politics sound fascinating.

Dark Life/Kat Falls: Another debut author, another dystopia. Abby promises a thrilling & memorable read, and w/setting under water, I am 100% sold on this one!

Zeitoun/Dave Eggers: Non-fiction story of man who stayed in New Orleans during Katrina. Great story, characters but audio quality horrific, muffled, unpolished.

Shadow Hills/Anastasia Hopcus: Girl starts new school, meets mysteriously attractive new boy and falls in love. Sound familiar and overdone? Cliche and disappointing read.

It's Not Summer Without You/Jenny Han: Second "Summer I Turned Pretty." Lest you worry, I eat up sweet romances. Hope this sequel is as good as first. Perfect for spring/summer!

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Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Double Take, Part XXIII

Not only is this a double take in the stock image, but both of these covers block multiple images together for the cover. Check this out:

Funny How Things Change by Melissa Wyatt was published April 27, 2009 by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.

The Sorcerer and Sainte Felice by Ann Finnin will be published June 1, 2010 by Flux.

Poor guy. I think he's gotten the raw end of a deal in both covers. I really don't like the first cover, and having read the book, I think the cover further makes this a tough sell title. The girl on the cover just doesn't even make sense to me - she's an afterthought on the design, and the green totally fades her out.

As for the second cover, it's marginally better, but it still suffers from color saturation issues.

Do you prefer one to another? What are your thoughts on the blocked image covers? I don't think either succeeds, and I think the colors on both are not the best choices.

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Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Before I Fall by Lauren Oliver

This last week, I was only able to get through one book. I'm a quick reader, so it was a little disappointing to get through little, given the growing pile of books I want to read right now. Although there are a number of reasons, one of them was that I picked up Before I Fall by Lauren Oliver, on account of Janssen's request.

Weighing in at nearly 500 pages, this is a book that asks for an investment.

Samantha Kingston is a mean girl, and on February 12, she and her clan of chicks who rule the school, will be celebrating Cupid's Day. The school lets students purchase flowers for one another that get delivered in the classroom, and the flowers are a status symbol (does this not sound exactly like a scene in Mean Girls?). More than just that, this is the day Sam will lose her virginity to her long-time boyfriend Rob.

It just so happens that this Cupid's Day, there's also a big party at Kent's house, where anyone who is anyone will be (even though Kent himself isn't all that popular). But of course, it'll be more than just the popular girls who'll be there: Juliet Sykes will make an appearance, and she's the girl who not only Sam and her clan hate, but she hates them back with just as much fire.

Everything lines up for an unforgettable night. And that's when the accident happens.

...and Sam gets to relive February 12 yet again.

Before I Fall is what you would expect if you combined the social aspects of Mean Girls with the storyline of Groundhog Day. Mix in a little bit of the after-death and ability to interact post-death of Amy Huntley's The Everafter, and you'd have a good idea of what this book is and attempts to do. It is a very lengthy book that asks readers to invest in long chapters that chronicle the span of one day in Sam's life. At the end of each day, we know something is inevitably going to happen and that Sam will get to relive it again.

I didn't find this book to move much. I thought that the pacing was quite slow, given the premise and the storyline. I never found myself believing in the mean girl aspect, as I never understood what made Sam and her friends mean girls. Juliet certainly didn't like them, but they never gave me a real reason to believe in them. Sam never gave me anything to hold on to nor anything to make me want to either hate her or pull for her. They stole a parking spot from someone and ditched class, and they said mean things about other people amongst themselves, but that seems like what happens to high schoolers. It didn't stand out as identifying this subset of people "mean girls." Perhaps I'm still convinced they're not mean girls unless they're written like the ones in Some Girls Are.

The reliving aspect of this story didn't push the story forward very well. It seemed to get tangled in on itself, and quite frankly, there were a number of times I got confused when reading. And the ending was completely confusing to me as a reader, as it didn't seem to jive or make sense as to why things had to end the way they did. I think this all goes back to not having enough character development to reign in reader sympathy or understanding.

Although the premise was a construction of many others, I thought it was original enough to stand on its own. Oliver is a good writer, and I think this is a good debut that promises she'll strengthen her writing in the future. I think that this book asks a lot of its readers -- you have to buy into the premise (even the blatant rip off of the flower idea from Mean Girls) and you have to give the book nearly 500 pages to come to a conclusion. I didn't find the conclusion satisfactory, but many might find it works. It's quite possible along the way and the week long reading the book required I missed a detail here or there, but that in itself might be problematic.

That said, I still think on a scale of 1-5, this one lands as a 3 for me. It wasn't a favorite, but it was just different enough to stay a little memorable. It's a dead girl story without being a dead girl story, and the fluid writing it something that stands out. Sure, it's slow and lengthy and the characters don't always work, but there will be readers who absolutely eat this up. This is the kind of book you can read when you're reading another one, too, and still know where you are when you pick it up again. Fans of The Everafter or mean girls inspired books that aren't as gritty as Courtney Summers's titles will enjoy this book.

Before I Fall debuts today from Harper Teen.

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Monday, March 1, 2010

AudioSynced Round up -- Inaugural Edition

Welcome to the inaugural edition of AudioSynced, hosted by Stacked and Abby the Librarian. This is your monthly stop for all things audio. If you didn't get to participate this month, join in next month at Abby's blog. All that you have to do is blog something audio related -- a review, a discussion, or any news you have.

Reviews Around the Blogosphere:

  • Playing by the Book gives us a great review of Katie Morag and the Two Grandmothers by Mairi Hedderwick. Not only do we get a great review, we get to see all of the inspiration from the book and recording. And that display from the library is brilliant. She writes: "With illustrations playing such an important role in the Katie Morag books I was curious to see how an audio book could possibly do the printed books justice. And yet, and yet, this recording does transport you to Scottish island life, in a magical and unforgettable manner."
  • Amanda at A Patchwork of Books offers up a variety of mini reviews, including A View from Yesterday and The Heretic's Daughter on audio. She writes of the latter, "Listening to it, there were some moments I found my mind drifting away, but overall, the reader, the reading, and the overall story were very good."
  • Janssen reviewed Susan Beth Pfeffer's Moon series. Of the audio books for Life as We Knew It and The Dead and the Gone, she writes: "I found myself looking for excuses to listen to it (the laundry has never been so well-managed in my house)."
  • Elisabeth at YS Princess gives us her take on the first and second of Libba Bray's "Gemma Doyle" series. She writes, "I have never heard a narrator with such amazing accents for all of her different characters. I was delightfully surprised that listening to this book on CD didn't feel like I was listening to War and Peace, or some other Old English book." She also offers up a review of Fairy Haven and the Quest for the Wand, which she says, "I found this audio book difficult to pay attention to. If I stopped paying attention even for what seemed like only a moment, I was really confused as to what was going on."
  • Abby reviewed the 39 Clues audio books. She writes, "David Pittu gives a full-voiced performance and the number of accents he includes is impressive. These would make great family listens for road trips with the lively narration and the fast-paced plots keeping the interest of everyone in the car."
  • The Book Lady's Blog gives us a three-for-one review, to include Naked, Mennonite in a Little Black Dress, and Assassination Vacation. She writes, "You can’t go wrong with any of them."
  • Kylee read and reviewed a cozy mystery -- Joanne Fluke's Cherry Cheesecake Murder. For those of you not in the know, they do have entire mystery series based in food, and this is one of the most popular. Of the audio, Kylee says, "I was expecting to miss out on the recipes that are in the books, but the unabridged is truly that! The recipes are on the audio, how cool is that?"

Looking for places to find more Audio reviews?

  • Reading with My Ears has such a wide variety of audio book reviews, but what stands out is how well the review covers audio-related issues apart from the plot. Haven't tried an audio book before? This will guide you the right way, as this librarian has served on the Odyssey Committee and knows a thing or two about quality audio.
  • Audiobooker, part of Booklist Online's blog series, covers not only audio reviews, but offers a lot more than that. Here you can get inside the studios, meet the readers, and much more. To learn more about the dirty work of audio books, this is the place to go.
  • Books for Ears covers a little of everything and does a good job of breaking down the author, title, and the reader, which as we know, can make or break the audio book.

How about where to find audio books?

  • Janssen offers a great overview of finding free downloadable audio books from your public library. Now, you no longer have the excuse of being unable to make it to the library - try it from home!
  • Playing by the Book started a resource page for audio books, which gives you some places to go to for free audio books (and some great resources on the value of listening).
  • Sterling Publishing is beginning a new program to offer free downloadable audio books of some of their greatest print hits. You can find out more about the program and get to downloading today (March 1!) by going right here.

Did you review or give audio books a spot light in the last month on your blog? Share your links in the comments, and I'll add them to the roundup!

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