Wednesday, June 30, 2010

It's the midway point: who're you predicting is Printz-worthy?

Since the year is now half over, Kim and I thought we'd offer up what we think is Printz-worthy so far this year. For those unfamiliar with the Printz award, it's the American Library Association's big award for young adult literature, and a boiled down list of criteria is available right here. We're going to throw a few titles each at you and our reasons why we think they'll be contenders. Moreover, we will only mention titles published before today, so no advanced titles are mentioned here.

Please share your comments after our post. We'd love to know your thoughts on our picks or what titles you've been thinking are worthy that we may have missed. And make sure you head over to Janssen's blog, too, as she'll be posting her Printz predictions today as well.

I have to be honest: not that many titles have screamed "Printz-Worthy" to me so far this year. So, be warned that some of my picks aren't ones I've read yet, but ones I'm going by on author reputation and other reviews alone. In no particular order:

Jandy Nelson's The Sky is Everywhere is one that I didn't much care for, but it has a lot of literary merit to it. The story is about loss and about love, and it has a timeless element to it. Yep, I'm putting a debut up for Printz consideration, and it won't be the only one on my list.

Last year, I think Marcelo in the Real World may have had the Printz stolen from it. This year, I think it might happen for Francisco X. Stork. You can read my review of this one later this week, but I was impressed with the writing and I think, again, we have something timeless here in terms of theme. And the issue of overcoming adversity is one that the committee likes to see if it's done well and a little differently (and it is here).

Before I Fall by Lauren Oliver has gotten a lot of praise from reviewers, librarians, booksellers, and readers. Again, it wasn't my favorite, but it was well-written, and it has good appeal: one girl I work with told me she picked it up and read the whole thing in one night because it was so good. The writing is strong, and the story is a twist of a couple familiar literary tropes. I'd be impressed if this debut writer did snag the Printz, but I wouldn't be surprised if she won't honored, at least.

The Cardturner by Louis Sacher was a smart little book about Bridge. It was well written and clever, and Sacher's move from middle grade to young adult novels was pretty successful. He paints a good main character, and I think that the writing is worthy of Printz consideration.

Revolver by Marcus Sedgwick has garnered four starred reviews this year, and it makes me think it might be worth considering (the dark horse, perhaps?). This is an adventure-survival story set in the early 1900s just after the steampunk era that librarians seem obsessed with right now. The writing has been described as gripping and compelling, and the story is one that sounds like it contains elements similar to Adam Rapp's Punkzilla, which grabbed a Printz honor last year.

Two other titles I thought about included Finnikin of the Rock by Melina Marchetta and Incarceron by Catherine Fisher. The first I eliminated because Marchetta won for Jellicoe Road in 2009 and the second I eliminated since it was first published in 2007. I will also say I won't be surprised if Will Grayson, Will Grayson gets considered, since John Green is a perennial librarian favorite (even though this is far from his best work and not one I'd think worthy of this honor).

When making my list, I checked out the running list of starred reviews from professional journals, which is worth looking at. I have to be honest: I'm surprised just how many starred books there are this year when quite honestly, very few have been memorable or all that good so far. But I digress.

For a bonus, I thought I'd throw a couple of my favorites I think will be considered heavily for the Cybils -- a little less on the literary merit side and a little more on the teen appeal factors than those above. Some Girls Are, Dirty Little Secrets, and Harmonic Feedback all stood out to me this year as strongly written with compelling story lines and wide teen appeal.

The hallmark of the Printz award is literary excellence for teens, regardless of popularity or appeal.  This is what I kept in mind as I began to think about my Printz predictions.  Like Kelly, not all of my picks are books I have read - I'm going by authors whose quality of work I trust and also (but not as heavily) by amount of buzz generated.

Incarceron, by Catherine Fisher
While this was previously published in the UK, the American edition was published in January of this year, making it eligible for the award according to the ALA's rules.  While I was not a huge fan of the book, I can see it winning the Printz: it's maturely written, has a unique concept (a living prison), and is very complex.  It's also hugely long, and judging by last year's winner, Going Bovine, the longer the better where the Printz is concerned.

Monsters of Men, by Patrick Ness
This is a personal pick for me, very close to my heart. (It also hasn't officially been published in the US yet, so I'm cheating a little, but it HAS been published in the it's only half-cheating).  I loved the first book in Ness' Chaos Walking trilogy, The Knife of Never Letting Go, and loved the second book, The Ask and the Answer, almost as much.  I've yet to delve more than a few pages into the third book, Monsters of Men, because I know that it will be an incredibly tense experience.  These books are not light reading.  The first two books both had fantastic plots and some of the best and most creative writing I've read in quite some time.  I'd be ecstatic to see Ness take home the Printz.

Fever Crumb, by Philip Reeve
I haven't read this one, but it's gotten rave reviews from four of the major review sources, and I've been very impressed with other books by Reeve.  Reeve's concept for his "Hungry City" chronicles, to which this book is a prequel, is unique, and it is backed up by outstanding writing.  I also have a weakness for strong female protagonists, and this book has been on my to-read list since I discovered it featured one.

The Last Summer of the Death Warriors, by Francisco X. Stork
I'm in the middle of reading this one for our round-robin review (stay tuned!), and while I think the writing is good, the story just does not appeal to me.  Still, the book deals with some heavy themes (death, rape, violence), and for a lot of people, that's an automatic plus.  While I don't think the book's writing is stellar enough to make it award-worthy, I know that Stork's last book was a critical darling, so it wouldn't surprise me to see this one win.

I think these picks really show my biases - I read a LOT of science fiction and fantasy and tend to stay away from much realistic YA literature.  Still, I'm always thrilled when a "genre" book garners awards, and I hope the books on this list aren't overlooked.  A few other books I think might be in the running so far this year but which I did not include on the above list are:

  • A Conspiracy of Kings, Megan Whalen Turner's newest set in the same world as her Newbery honor book The Thief, which I did not include because I'm not sure if it qualifies as a young adult novel;
  • Nothing, by Janne Teller, which I feel is a shoe-in for the Mildred L. Batchelder award; and
  • Will Grayson, Will Grayson, simply because it's by John Green, who is a perennial librarian favorite, but an author whose work I have never read (I know, I know), so did not include.
What are your Printz picks so far this year?

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Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Graphic novels, manwha style: The Colors Trilogy

I purchased the three volume manwha (Korean manga) "The Color Trilogy" by Kim Dong Hwa when ALA had it listed on their initial list of best graphic novels for teens last fall. A few reviews and the super appealing art style on the cover really spoke to me, though I hadn't really been a graphic novel reader.

I'm quite glad I took the time to read through this series, with its richly layered story.

Ehwa and her mother live in a rural town, where her mother works as a bartender at a tavern. The father had died years ago, so this was the fate of the family: mother worked hard for their money outside the home. We meet Ehwa in The Color of Earth when she is a pre-teen. She's a definite child, intrigued and naive about the ways of the world and her culture. But as that volume progresses, we see Ehwa learn more about being a woman and the role she will play in the world. We know this will be a true coming-of-age tale from the beginning of the story, as we are introduced to rowdy and raunchy neighborhood boys.

Ehwa, in her interactions with friends and neighbors, begins to suspect that there is a lot involved in the process of becoming a woman. And Kim, in writing and illustrating this complex puzzle, introduces the reader and Ehwa to the symbolic Korean flowers -- throughout all three volumes, flowers play an intricate role in romance, in development, and in social norms. It is this that helps cement what could be otherwise lewd or gratuitous aspects of the sexuality in this trilogy as cultural and sensitive.

When we have nearly concluded the first book in the series, we learn that Ehwa has fallen in love (or like, more likely) with two boys: a monk and a scholar at home from school while he nurses a broken arm. Immediately, we know the monk is out of the question, but as a reader, I really fell for him -- I wanted Ehwa to pursue that opporunity. And was I lucky since he appears a few more times in the series, but in ways that aren't necessarily what I had anticipated.

In the second installment in the series, The Color of Water, Ehwa's mother suggests that maybe the third time is the charm when it comes to finding a life mate. And indeed, a third male comes along -- Duksam. He is a field man who will later be reassigned when a trickster tries to buy off Ehwa's mother in exchange for Ehwa herself. Luckily, Ehwa's mother will not let this happen, but it will be Duksam who pays a price for it.

Quite honestly, I never felt much connection to Duksam as a reader. I didn't like him, particularly with the way he is crudely introduced to Ehwa. He's a bit presumptuous and pushy. But, he is who Ehwa begins to fall for as seasons change.

The Color of Heaven gives a satisfying conclusion to this trilogy and is just as beautifully rendered in both words and images as the prior two volumes. It is here Ehwa will be betrothed and find out the reality of being a woman. She becomes a fully realized member of Korean society, and in addition, we see a satisfying conclusion to the romance that buds between her mother and a traveling painter. Oh, and our monk will reappear, though I was certainly saddened in the end.

The Colors Trilogy is a delicate story, with marvelous art and a satisfying storyline. It is easy to identify with Ehwa and her struggles, and it is certainly not surprising that readers will find one of her potential mates as a better fit than others.

Though the book does contain nudity, sex, and some frank discussions, the sheer literary merit within the story line makes them completely appropriate and well-used for a teen audience. However, this is a series that will require a mature reader to appreciate, and I suspect it may not be an ideal introduction to manwha or a satisfying reader for diehard manga fans. Fans of graphic novels may find this a good read, particularly those who enjoy the heavy hitting literary style.

Art throughout the series is gratifying, though at times it can become confusing to distinguish among the secondary characters. Ehwa is rendered throughout her maturation quite well. In addition, each volume comes with a small concluding chapter with discussion questions, definitions of the elements of graphic novels, and even some explanation of cultural issues. I loved this, as it really helped me ensure I was getting the most out of the story.

Try this series out if you are looking for something new and different, but be particular when recommending it. This could easily become a bore or uninteresting to readers, but those who are willing to be swept up in a lush story will find this a perfect fit.

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Monday, June 28, 2010

The Summer of Skinny Dipping by Amanda Howells

A lot of books and authors get compared to Sarah Dessen, and it's for good reason: she's a well-respected author who develops characters with dimension, insight, distinct voices, and she can sweep a reader into her world. She has a bit of a magical touch.

I'm pretty pleased to say that debut author Amanda Howells may have just tread onto this territory, too, with her The Summer of Skinny Dipping. This will have mega Dessen appeal and beyond that comparison, it is a title that will appeal to fans of Sarah Ockler's Twenty Boy Summer and Jenny Han's The Summer I Turned Pretty and It's Not Summer without You. We have the summer romance here, but there's more depth and weight to the story, making it one that will stand out longer than just the three short months of summer.

Mia and her family are spending the summer with their cousins in Southampton, on the beach. It's been a few years since Mia's been there, but in the past, she and her cousin Corinne had been close. When Mia and her family arrive, though, they're met with snobbery and pretentiousness. Corinne is now too good for Mia, and when Mia's best friend, Gen, she charms everyone but Mia.

Mia's worried about the summer now: it would be a show of who can outdo who and who can out drink and out party who. She wasn't into the scene like Corinne or Gen, both of whom boasted of the best clothes, best friends, and best parties. But when Mia is tricked by them at one of the parties, she falls into the path of Simon, a boy who would help her fully come into herself over the course of the summer.

While this may sound like your typical summer romance, it's not. There's depth to the story: Mia struggles to accept who she is and struggles with whether or not she should act a different way to fit into the ideal mold her cousin wants her to be. In the event of each, she does things she might regret, and those things will inevitably come back to hurt her.

And Simon -- the geeky guy next door -- is the light that helps guide her. There's a lot of play on The Great Gatsby here, and the use of light in the story is well-woven. He's a fully-fleshed character, though at times I felt his entire history wasn't as strong as Mia's. We know his father is controlling, but some of the events that happened didn't quite convince me.

At the end of the summer, something awful happens. I won't spoil it, obviously, but it took me a bit by surprise as a reader. I wasn't expecting it, and I am not sure how I felt about it. It seemed like a plot device to end the story, but at the same time, it fit the character and was entirely reasonable. I'm going to be thinking this one over for a bit.

My biggest disappointment in the book surfaces from a trend in all of these books: why is it that the guy is always what makes the girl figure out who she is? I'm a fan of a sweet romance story, but I've seen over and over that the girl -- who was otherwise a strong, smart, and interesting character prior to meeting the boy -- always seems to feel better about herself or smarter or stronger after she's been with this guy. He's the transforming agent, not her, even though it really could be her as the transforming agent. But rather than attribute her strength to herself, in the end, it always goes back to the guy.

The Summer of Skinny Dipping didn't leave me wanting more at the end. This is a solid standalone novel that will hook readers any time of year. Hand this one over to your Dessen, Han, and Ockler fans without hesistation -- though it's mostly clean, beware there is drinking and drug use (though Mia is adament in her disapproval of this).

* Review copy picked up at PLA, where I got to meet Amanda Howells.

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Saturday, June 26, 2010

CSN Store Giveaway

You guys have probably seen this incredible giveaway a few times, and if you haven't, well, you're in for a treat.

CSN Stores is an online shopping site that sells everything from dining room furniture and decor, to bookshelves and even cool pet furniture. Oh, and librarians, they also sell library furniture! CSN has over 200 stores you can choose from, and I think that their products have really reasonable prices. Many also include free shipping -- you know that anything free gets my heart pitter pattering just a little.

Come with me a second. Do you have any idea what, say, $60 could buy you?

This really sweet piece of modern art (I would buy this in a heartbeat).

This bookshelf, which would be perfect in the kitchen for storing your cookbooks.

Or, for $1 and some change, you can pick up this cool Ottomon with pockets (for storing your books, naturally).

Now that you're salivating, why don't you head over to their website right here and pick out something really cool you'd like. Why, you ask?

I have a $60 Gift Certificate to give away for their website. Most of their items have free shipping, so you'd not have to pay a penny.

This contest will be a quick one: you have until July 4 to enter. Fill out the form below to be entered.

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Friday, June 25, 2010

Fat girl alert!

It's happened.

It took a long time, and it took a cover redesign, as well as a forthcoming show on ABC Family, but we have come to a day I have been looking forward to for a long time.

How awesome is that? This is an entirely marketable cover. It is appealing and relatable to so many young women out there. It's not threatening, it's not mocking, and it is a true representation.

A HUGE thanks goes out to Simon & Schuster for the redesign here. This is so much better than this, this, and this. Let's not resort to this, this, or this again.

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Audiosynced: Crocodile on the Sandbank

The Amelia Peabody series by Elizabeth Peters is one of the first series I can remember listening to on audio.  It was on one of those long car trips with my family that I was introduced to resourceful Amelia, a female English Egyptologist from the late 1800s.  The first book I listened to was actually Seeing a Large Cat, which falls smack dab in the middle of the series, and it's only recently that I've gone back and listened to the series from the beginning.

Crocodile on the Sandbank introduces us to Amelia Peabody - an unmarried woman of thirty (and thus a spinster for her time) who has just inherited a large sum of money after her scholar father dies.  Naturally, due to her inheritance, suitors come knocking on her door, but Amelia is much more interested in traveling and pursuing archaeology, in particular Egyptology (digging up tombs is a standby of each book).  She has a knack for getting herself in trouble, mostly because she tends to seek it out.  Amelia's love and partner in crime is Radcliffe Emerson, whom we meet in this first book.  The two exasperate each other on first sight, and their verbal sparring is one of the best features of the series.      

If you listen to the audio, the book will not only introduce you to one of the best female protagonists out there, but also to the wonderful narration of Barbara Rosenblat.  That woman is good.  I'm not English, so my opinion may not necessarily be the most valid, but she fooled me into believing she was, in fact, English herself.  (She is not - Barbara Rosenblat is American and her natural speaking voice is American.)  She also has the rare talent of accurately impersonating a person of the opposite gender, which is very difficult to do.  Emerson's voice as portrayed by Barbara Rosenblat is so unique that it can be recognized just by its grunt - a noise Emerson is famous for and which cannot be reproduced effectively in print.  And it's not just me who thinks Rosenblat is spectacular - she's won a ridiculous number of awards, including six Audies.

These books are perfect in audio form - they're funny, full of adventure, and narrated in the first person by a smart and strong-willed woman who is way ahead of her time.  Peters herself is an Egyptologist, which makes these books a fascinating blend of adventure, romance, and history.  When I was in library school, I took the bus to and from class, and those bus rides could get looooong.  I needed something to help pass the time, and I discovered that NetLibrary offered many of the earlier Amelia Peabodies.  I was thrilled, and I loved listening to how Amelia met Emerson for the first time.  This series is always one I recommend to people who are hesitant about audiobooks.  The books are fun, clean enough to not embarrass you if you listen to them with your parents (as I did when I was younger), and spectacularly narrated.

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It's all about the format

You know why to listen, how to listen, and have a good idea of the types of audiobooks there are out there, but do you have a preference for how you get your audiobooks? Do you download them, transfer from your computer onto a portable player, or are you a traditional audiobook-on-cd listener? We'll give you a little walk through some of the different formats -- there is something for everyone.

Traditional Audiobook (Kelly):

I'm a huge fan of these. They come fully set to pop into your car's CD player and play. You don't need to do anything, but you do need to be aware these bad boys can get long (and if you're purchasing them, expensive). The Help, for example, ran 15 discs long. If you're anything like me, I pull out ALL of the discs of a book at once and put them in the change tray in my car -- 15 of those bad boys sometimes leads to the CDs falling off and under the seat in the car.

On the plus side, they require little to no work to begin listening. On the downside, they aren't super versatile. You need a CD player of some sort to use them, unless you want to copy them onto your computer's hard drive and then save them in your music player of choice.

MP3 Audiobook (Kimberly):

I'm going to be honest and say that I've never actually listened to one of these before, but they've got a lot going for them.  I was lucky enough to receive a free (signed) copy of Rick Riordan's newest book, The Red Pyramid, at BEA on mp3 CD.  The print book is over 500 pages and the audio runs over fourteen and a half hours, but the entire book fits on ONE mp3 CD. 

Obviously, the compact size is a huge pro.  There's no need to swap out discs while driving (yikes!) and they take up much less space on the shelf.  On the other hand, not all CD players are compatible with the format.  Most CD players being manufactured today can play mp3 discs just fine, but both my car CD player (from 2004) and my boom box (from the Jurassic Age) - the two players I use most often - won't play them.  If I want to listen to an mp3 CD, I've got to use my computer, which is a pain.

In my experience, this lack of compatibility problem applies to most public library users today.  My library is not yet purchasing mp3 CDs, but I have a feeling that's the way the technology is heading (along with downloadables, as described below).  Will we see the traditional CD going the way of the cassette tape soon?

Downloadable Audiobook (Kelly):

Many libraries offer a way for users to download audiobooks directly from their database to your home computer (and now, sometimes right onto your portable device). Though I haven't tried this out yet, it's on my list of things to achieve in the next few weeks. . . fitting with the goal of using audiobooks on my ipod for working out.

There are a few vendors for downloadable books, but the two biggest include NetLibrary and Overdrive. Both have their pluses and minuses, so you have to figure out the quirks of your library's system for yourself (or ask the librarian, of course). Don't think you have access to downloadable audio? Think again. Janssen has pointed out that there is a wonderful way to find out if your library has access to Overdrive via this link.

Another downloadable option is LibriVox. I've never used it, but I know people who do. It's run on a volunteer basis, where readers choose to help record all of the books in the public domain. In other words, if you're looking to listen to a classic, try them out. And, if you're so inspired, try your hand at recording a title, too.

Playaway (Kimberly):

The Playaway is such a good idea - an audiobook player that comes pre-loaded with the audiobook.  No need to convert any files or go to the trouble of loading the files onto the device.  No need to even HAVE a device. 

It seems like Playaways are best for people who want a portable audiobook but may not be able to afford their own mp3 player or just don't feel technologically savvy enough to download or transfer files to one.  I've read anecdotal evidence that public libraries in poorer communities see more use of the Playaway, but I don't have any numbers to back that up.  There are some definite downsides - they can be pricey, require the user to supply their own batteries and headphones, and lack the flexibility of a normal audio player which can hold more than one book at a time.

Which format do you prefer?

Continue reading...

Thursday, June 24, 2010

AudioSynced: Highway Cats by Janet Taylor Lisle

Before I headed out for a long weekend, I wanted to pick up a very short audiobook for the couple of days of commuting to work I'd be doing. When I stumbled upon Highway Cats, I remembered putting it on my GoodReads "to read" list a long time ago, and I was excited to see it was only 2 discs long. It'd be a quick one.

I was wrong.

There is nothing bad about this story at all. A group of cats who live along the highway are going to lose their homes to the greedy politician who wants to expand the highway in order to build more shopping centers. A litter of kittens is abandoned there, as well, and it is the kittens who will ultimately help scare away the construction crew and ultimately shift what happens to the politician in the story. It's a cute premise with a pretty interesting message about human land use versus animal habitats.

I loved the narrator of this audio, James Jenner. He has a nice commentator voice on this, and he manages to make the politician a source of evil with just slight changes in his tone. His reading style reminded me quite a bit of the style of reading that we have in Hold Tight. Tension is build well.

Weighing in at only 2 hour-long discs, this should have been a very quick listen, but it took me nearly two weeks to listen to it. I had a hard time getting into the characters, and I felt all of the cats who played big roles in the story were one and the same. Highway Cats reminded me a lot of The Underneath by Kathi Appelt. It's the animals as the main characters and people as the bad forces. Perhaps my problem is it's hard to listen to that, as well as hard to read it. I'm an animal lover, so hearing a story about mistreated or forgotten about animals makes for a less-than-enjoyable experience for me. I haven't read a single news story about the oil spill for the same reason.

Highway Cats has an audience, and there is ultimately a positive ending in the story. Fans of Appelt's story will love this, and this would make for a good family listen. For a quick trip in the car, it's a worthwhile listen. If for no other reason, listen for Jenner's great narration and the excellent production -- everything is seamless.

Continue reading...

Promoting Audiobooks

So now that you know how to review an audio and you get an idea of how flexible an option audiobooks are for getting more reading into your busy life, how do you promote audiobooks to the non-listener? Here are a few tips and ideas for spreading the audio love.

For me, promoting audiobooks is easy: whenever I talk a book I listened to, I make sure to emphasize that I listened to the book. I highlight some of the things that worked really well in the audiobook and sell that. Sometimes it works and other times it doesn't, but I've been pleasantly surprised to discover how many audiobook listeners there are, especially among teenagers (that's the age group with whom I work a lot). If I can model that listening is perfectly acceptable reading, then others will see it the same way. Sometimes, I like to play an audio clip, too, and it was a clip from M. T. Anderson's Feed that turned many of the teens onto a book that had languished for a long time on the shelf. My audio copy got a lot of play for a couple of months after that.

Likewise, I try to always have an audiobook going. It keeps me fresh and helps me quickly talk an interesting title to those who are new or are looking for something different. I had a family, for example, who exhausted many of the titles in the children's area and needed a family-friendly, lengthy series of audiobooks. Redwall was my first instinct, and they've been making their way eagerly through that series.

Other ways I personally promote audiobooks involves including them in displays and putting them out within the book stacks. In Illinois, there are two sets of award books for teens: The Abe Lincoln Awards and the Read for a Lifetime list. I intershelve my audio copies with the print copies, and I see both moving quite a bit. I think too easily that readers can overlook audiobooks, and when they see them right there with the print titles, they remember that those can be just as enjoyable (and it helps the titles on these lists include family friendly reads, adult titles, classics, and teen classics). I've also made sure that teens know during summer and winter reading club, audiobooks are DEFINITELY considered books, and they should be counted toward meeting their reading goals.

Perhaps the biggest promotion tool is right here on the blog. We make an effort to review for a reason, and Abby (the) Librarian and I developed AudioSynced for this precise reason: to get the word out about audiobooks. It's important to review them, to talk about issues such as readers and production, and to emphasize that listening to a book is an easy way to increase your reading. Many people ask how I read so much, and it's easy to say audiobooks have helped me carve out more reading time in my daily life.

I'm always talking about what I read with friends and family (and when I get the opportunity to do so with patrons, I seize it as well).  When discussing books, I make sure to mention that I listened to the book rather than simply saying I read it.  I think that this technique helps push the fact that listening to audios is, in fact, reading.

If people tell me "I like to read, but I just don't have the time" (which is a dubious statement, but nonetheless...), I'll urge them to try audiobooks, particularly if they have a commute to work.  I'll mention that it makes doing household chores much more tolerable and actually speeds up my morning routine.  So, not only does it allow me to get in more reading, it actually helps free up time for traditional reading. Win-win!

Honestly, just having an audiobook playing when someone visits me at home or when I give someone a ride in my car is good promotion.  Many people are skeptical of audios, but if they actually hear one, it changes their mind.  Wouldn't it be nice if libraries could have those demo stations for audiobooks like music stores have for CDs?  (After I wrote this, I thought about it some and decided some libraries probably do.)

At work, I don't get a lot of face to face time with patrons, so I have to find other ways.  Wherever I highlight new titles (the monthly newsletter, the website, etc.), I make sure I include audios.  Our new audios are out on the shelf with the new books, and I try to display audios that I think will circ well face-out.  Unfortunately, we put our check-out pockets on the front of our audios, obscuring a large portion of the cover.  This is a practice I wish we could change.

Kelly's mentioned other good techniques, so I won't rehash them here.  How do you promote audiobooks?

Continue reading...

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Audiosynced: His Dark Materials, by Philip Pullman

In my very first post for STACKED, I mentioned my intense love for Philip Pullman's masterpiece of a children's fantasy trilogy, His Dark Materials (including The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass). Impeccably written without a single flawed section, these books are far and away My Favorites.

Despite that, I was hesitant to pick up the audiobooks. They're done by a full cast, each character's voice (and there are many, many characters) performed by a different actor, with a few overlaps, and the narration is performed by Pullman himself. I was concerned that the voices for the characters - in particular Lyra, the protagonist - would not correspond with my own inner voices I had used since I first read the books as a twelve year old.

I needn't have worried. This audiobook trilogy completely won me over to fully-voiced productions. I am frequently frustrated when male narrators voice female characters, since the voices so often come across as breathy and weak. It would have been tragic to hear Lyra - a strong, impetuous character - voiced in that way, but it obviously wasn't a problem.

I cannot say enough good things about Pullman's narration. He speaks neither too slowly nor too quickly, infusing just the right amount of inflection into each sentence. He turns the audio production into a work of art. Normally I need to be active when listening to an audiobook (driving, getting ready for work, etc.), but with these, it was enough to just sit and listen.

I didn't really believe it was possible, but the audiobooks deepened my appreciation for these books. My attention was drawn to new details, and parts I found only mildly interesting before became fascinating. (For any of you who have read the third book, Mary and the mulefa tended to drag for me, but the person who voiced Mary was so utterly perfect that these sections were a joy to listen to.)

I'm always so grateful when I discover that a book I love has been transferred so wonderfully into audio. I have no doubt that I'll be listening to these again sometime soon.

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Audio Styles

Do you have a preference for your audiobook narration? Today, Kim and I will talk a bit about our preferences and what differences these production choices make.

Up until recently, the only audiobooks I had ever listened to (that I can remember) were single-voiced.  One person narrated all characters, with varying success.  Some narrators chose to differentiate each character's voice drastically, while others changed their voice only slightly, if at all.  I honestly didn't even know that audiobooks existed where each character was voiced by a different person until a few months ago.  My first experience with a fully-voiced audiobook was Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials, which I'll be reviewing later today.

Even more recently, I've ventured into listening to books narrated by multiple characters - and thus voiced by different narrators.  Make sense?  What I'm referring to is Edith Pattou's East, which shifts perspective from character to character with each chapter.  It's an interesting way of writing a book and a really interesting way of listening to it.  Each character speaks within the other characters' sections, so the listener hears how each character interprets the other.  This is the kind of insight into characters that is really unique to audiobooks - it's impossible to understand from a print book that a daughter hears her father's voice as gentle while a son may hear it in harsher tones (unless of course it's spelled out for you in the text).

I don't think I really have a preference when it comes to one vs. multiple voices, provided the narration is expressive and paints a picture in my mind.  What I do prefer, however, is for the audiobook to be - by and large - free of sound effects.  Music to divide chapters is generally okay, but anything beyond that is just excessive (and so cheesy it makes me cringe).  Audiobooks should be a faithful presentation of the text, and added noise of thunderstorms or horse's hooves is inauthentic to the story the author has written. (Of course, there's an exception to every rule, and I have to say that Feed used sound effects in a really effective way.)

I haven't listened to enough audiobooks to have a clear preference on what style I prefer, quite frankly. I had the opportunity to meet a producer and a couple of readers from the Full Cast company, and I loved getting an insider's look at how these books are put together. The example they showed us was from Lisa Mantchev's Eyes Like Stars, and while I haven't been able to pick it up to listen to yet, I was impressed with how much like reader's theater it was. For a book about life in the theater, I would think it essential to employ a full cast.

I got a real kick out of the use of multiple narrators for Stockett's The Help. Three narrators take turns as the main characters, and a fourth narrator is introduced during a couple of pivotal, non-charactered scenes. I thought for this book, it was necessary to use the different voices, as the women were of different ages and races, something that would never have worked as a single reader. Despite loving the production, I still found some of the choices didn't work for me.

What I get a kick out of, though, are partially-voiced audiobooks. I love when one reader provides the voices for a few of the main characters in a story -- but only if the book is told from the first person perspective. If a story is told through the eyes of one character, using just one reader seems to fit better, and by partially voicing it, we are able to get a true insight into the main character. We know, for example, that the main character thinks he has a whiny-sounding sister or that the mom always sounds regal. The Art of Racing in the Rain, told partially voiced from the dog's perspective, worked well for me, too.

I guess for me the preference falls to the story itself. Does it lend itself to a full cast better than a single narrator? Does it require drastically different sounding readers for the different parts? These are the things I think about when listening and that ultimately helps decide whether the book's been successful to me as a listener.

Do you have a preference? We'd like to hear! Share your thoughts below.

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Tuesday, June 22, 2010

AudioSynced: The Killer's Cousin by Nancy Werlin

I've mentioned before that I'm more willing to try books outside my preferred genres when I am listening to them on audiobooks. When I read Janssen's review of Nancy Werlin's The Killer's Cousin, I thought it would be one worth listening to, and let me say: this was one of the more engaging audiobooks I've enjoyed lately.

David did something awful, and the rumors are that because his dad is a Very Important Person, he got out of it. No jail time, no probation, nada. But, he didn't get to finish his senior year of high school, and rather than go back to the place where everyone knew who he was and what he did, his parents decide to send him to live with his aunt and uncle in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to finish out his senior year at a private school.

Aunt Julia and Uncle Vic have had to deal with the loss of their older daughter Kathy, who killed herself in the apartment where David would now be residing. But it's their younger daughter, Lily, who will take on a starring role in this haunting story.

Lily is creepy. She is the epitome of creepiness. Think about your worst, most annoying cousins, and multiple it by thousands. Lily is cold toward David, and she seems to spend a lot of time alone. But rather than spending it alone idlely, she sneaks around the house and David's apartment, and eventually, she begins calling David some horrible things. Over and over and over again.

David finally breaks. Despite his fear of his aunt and uncle, he tells them he thinks Lily needs psychological help. But will they believe him? He's the one who has a problem, which is why he's been living with them in the first place. A tragedy, though, will strike the family again, and this might be when the truth about Kathy's death finally emerges.

Nick Podehl delivers a fantastic narration for this utterly creepy story. His reading was authentic to an 18-year-old boy, and his ability to partially voice this one kept me engaged, particularly with his spot-on portrayal of a spoiled-sounding 11-year-old Lily. Changes in his tone, his delivery, and his pacing worked here, helping deliver the suspense and intrigue the story contains. The production on this one is top-knotch, as well: the few instances I noticed the editing were so minute that it did not distract from the story or the narration.

The beginning and ending of each disc of the 5-disc audiobook made effective use of music to not only signal where the listener was in the book, but it helped set a mysterious mood. Again, I'm an audiobook listener in the car, so every little aspect like this is not only helpful to me, but it helps break up my listening -- somewhat like a new chapter or break in a chapter helps you when you read visually.

While listening to this one, I was utterly captivated by Lily. She is one of the better-drawn characters I've read in a long time, and she'll stick with me for quite a while. Although David is our main character, he definitely serves as the story teller for Lily. I don't think it could have been done vice versa, nor could Lily have told her own story here.

I think this is one of those books better listened to than read. Podehl wraps the listener in the story and leaves you wanting more, more, more. This is a quick listen with a story well-paced and plotted by Werlin. I will definitely be seeking out Locked Inside, one of Werlin's other mystery/suspense books, and you better believe it'll be all audio for me.

Make sure you check out the sample audio available right here.

Continue reading...

Writing Audio Reviews

Today, we're talking audiobook reviews. Ever curious how we write a review or what we listen for to comment on when planning to review a title? Here's your insight into our minds, as well as what we hope are helpful pointers for the new listener, new reviewer, or seasoned pro looking for a little more vocabulary for what they're doing!

For me, it's all about the narrator and the production/editing of the book. When I listen, I know immediately whether the book is going to work for me or not. I have ended books well before I should have on audio -- whereas most print books I'll give 50 pages, the audiobook has just about 10 minutes. I need to be hooked into a believable narrator immediately. Books that haven't worked for me tend to have either a lot of weird editing issues -- where you hear the reader swallowing, the sound quality changes from track to track so you need to keep adjusting your volume, or there are background noises distracting from the reader -- or it has reader issues -- the age of the reader doesn't match the character or the accent is all wrong.

In writing audio reviews, I follow my gut a little more than I do with a printed text. I am willing to talk more about my shortfalls as a listener, too, as you probably remember from my review of Zen and the Art of Faking It. I do use a little bit of a cheat sheet to make sure I hit on as many important points as I can, and that little cheat sheet is from my post right here. I like to look at that to hit on the things that matter, but that I don't necessarily consciously look for, when listening to a book (since I'm listening to the story).

Since I brought up narrator, I thought I'd share with you my best experiences and my worst. My favorite narrators are Joel Johnstone (from The Wednesday Wars and Drums, Girls, and Dangerous Pie) and Natalie Moore (from The Dairy Queen). Both fit their characters in the books perfectly and they did so in a way that was authentic to the age, gender, race, and accent to the listener. Moore delivers a pitch-perfect Wisconsin accent that made me sad that I had to READ the last book before I could listen to it. She will always be the voice of D. J. to me.

On the worst end, I had a rough time with Susan Beth Pfeffer's The Dead and the Gone on audio, as well as Andrew Smith's In the Path of Falling Objects. I couldn't find the voices as matching the story . . . and interestingly, the reader of Smith's work was the reader for Zen and the Art of Faking It, which fit much better for me as a listener. Proof that it's not necessarily the reader who makes the book hard to go to; it's the need to match the reader with the right character.

 Much of what Kelly wrote above applies to my audio review style as well.  For me, a lot depends on the narration.  While good narration doesn't always save a bad book, bad narration will almost certainly ruin a good one.  I'm currently listening to Going Bovine, Libba Bray's huge doorstopper of a book that most recently won the Printz, and the narration is almost killing me.  The book is in first-person, and the voice is just so wrong.  Apart from sounding much too old, the narrator infuses sarcasm, sardonicism, and irony into every single sentence.  This is not so bad some of the time, because Cameron, our protagonist, is frequently sarcastic.  The problem manifests itself when he tells the listener something like "I went to the store."  Imagine hearing all lines that are meant to be matter of fact, emotionally moving, or exciting as sarcastic.  It's grating.

That rant over...other annoyances include mispronunciation of words, long gaps between pieces of dialogue in a conversation (sounds fake), and, as I mentioned in yesterday's post, poorly done female voices (usually by a male narrator).

Poor production values can also get to me, but it's not something I make a habit of listening for consciously.  If something sticks out (usually a bad something), I'll remark upon it, but otherwise, I don't pay a lot of attention.

All the importance of the narration aside, when I review an audio for the blog or other medium, I try to devote half the space to the actual story and writing.  I like to give our blog readers an impression of whether or not they'd enjoy the book in either format - audio or print - and I can't do that by concentrating only on the narration.  If the narration is bad, it's good to note that the story itself is good, so interested readers will check out the print version (and vice versa).

Continue reading...

Monday, June 21, 2010

AudioSynced: Airman, by Eoin Colfer

I am a sucker for audiobook narrators with accents.  John Keating, who narrates Airman, has a slight Scottish accent, and I am sure I would not have enjoyed the book nearly so much without his delightful voice.

Airman has all the components necessary for a fantastically fun adventure story: our protagonist, Conor Broekhart, is born in a hot air balloon while being shot at from below; he spends his boyhood studying the science of flight with a Frenchman; he's cruelly betrayed by a man named Bonvilain (what a fantastic name) and sent to a prison island where he toils away in the salt mines; and eventually...well, you can probably guess.  And of course, there's a bit of romance, which any respectable adventure tale should have.

The story is set in the fictional nation of the Saltee Islands in the late 1800s, which gives Colfer leave to do pretty much whatever he wants regarding the royal family and battles and such, without worrying about messing with history.  Is that cheating?  Well...yes, but it's forgivable.  Airman isn't meant to be a book that reveals Great Truths About Humanity - it's a hugely fun story with funny, interesting characters and non-stop action.

While Keating does not have the vocal range of either Jim Dale or Barbara Rosenblat, my top two audiobook narrators, he does a solid job of differentiating the characters, particularly Bonvilain and Conor's guard on Little Saltee.  There are only a handful of really major characters, so it's easy to keep them straight, and Keating has a really authentic way with all the required accents (English, French, and American, plus the Scottish narration).

Colfer must have had so much fun writing this book.  I've heard it compared to The Princess Bride due to its combination of adventure and camp, and I'd say that's a fair judgment.  It's not a book to be taken too seriously, and as an audio, it's a joy.

Continue reading...

Welcome to Audiobook Week!

Welcome to Audiobook Week. From now until Friday, celebrate with us as we offer insights into the power of audiobooks, as well as a load of reviews. Join in and share your thoughts as we discuss the excitement and challenges that being an audiobook listener brings.

Today, we'll be talking the pillars of journalism: who, what, when, where, and why (mostly).

I've always been an audiobook listener.  When I was a child, my family would take annual road trips to various destinations across the country, and to while away the time, we always checked out a big stack of audios.  (Luckily, my hometown library allowed us to keep them for three weeks, so we had no worries about late fees.)  I remember I really loved to listen to the scary story collections, but we would check out a number of different genres.  This still being the era of cassette tapes, the player in the van would occasionally overheat and the narrator's voice would be transformed into a chipmunk's - all part of the audiobook experience.  The long car trips in between national parks would not have been nearly as bearable (for my parents, certainly) without these books.

As my siblings and I got older, the selections did, too, and we were soon listening to Sue Grafton and Janet Evanovich.  I credit audiobooks for broadening my book horizons.  The public library's collection of audios was of course much smaller than its collection of print books, so I couldn't just stick to the genres that were my particular favorites.  I was also not the only selector, so I ended up listening to my brother's and sister's selections as well.  While I still have my preferred genres, I read widely and tend to give anything a shot, provided the writing is good.

When I went away to college, my dad would occasionally send me an audio that he had enjoyed recently.  This introduced me to Davina Porter, who so wonderfully narrates Marion Chesney's clever books and remains one of my favorite audiobook narrators.  It also provided me with a connection to home (I grew up in Texas but went to college in North Carolina).

Now, as an adult, I listen to audiobooks constantly - in the car, while I get ready in the morning, while doing the dishes, or any other time my hands and eyes are occupied with something useful.  The quality of audios varies greatly, just as it does with print books.  It's not a replacement for the print book in any way - it's a much different experience.  There's no tactile component to an audiobook, and that wonderful smell is missing.  But sometimes, an audiobook can bring the story to life much more clearly than just words on a page.  I worry constantly about an audio production marring a story I love by interpreting the voices in a "wrong" way, but each time I've listened to one of my favorites, it has only deepened my love for it (if you are a Harry Potter-phile and have not yet listened to the Jim Dale audios, you NEED to check them out now).

I have encountered a few narrators I do not care for, so often if I see a book narrated by someone whose voice I know I enjoy, I'll pick it up, even if it's not a genre I usually read.  Anything narrated by Jim Dale, Barbara Rosenblat, or Davina Porter is almost guaranteed to be a hit with me.  A good audio production can sometimes compensate for lackluster writing or a less than engaging plot.  The best audios allow me to close my eyes and feel like I've been transported into the author's world - something a print book can't do.

I was never an audiobook listener. I'd been listening to people talk about them for a long time, but I never really understood how I could work them into my life.

That was, until I moved to a very rural town in northern Illinois and commuted to the suburbs for work a little over a year ago. My commute, approximately 45 minutes, left me bored with radio; we have about three stations that come in decently. My iPod doesn't work well because of the poor radio frequencies. I only wanted to listen to my home made CDs so many times.

It was then I dove into my library's large audiobook selection. While my selections were so-so for a long time, it was after attending a fantastic day-long conference on audio literacy when my mind changed. And the audiobook that did it was M. T. Anderson's Feed. Besides being well read, it incorporated a ton of cool effects, including commercials that fit the story line. It was journey that made me fall in love with the spoken word, and I've been listening non-stop since.

I have only ever listened to audiobooks in the car. It's a space where I don't need to do a lot of thinking and a space when I can become fully absorbed in a story (driving through miles and miles of farm land helps). I have been meaning to give listening to them while working out a try, as I've known many who find this to be the best way to convince themselves TO work out. Maybe this will be my goal after audiobook week.

What do I listen to on audio? Anything. I find I am a much more receptive listener than reader. I will try new genres and styles, knowing that what makes the book work for me on audio is the reader. I loved Harlan Coben's Hold Tight on audio, even though the thriller genre is not one of my favorites. The reader sold it to me completely. I really dug Art of Racing in the Rain and The Help on audio, as well. And Sarah Dessen is an easy one for me to pick up on audio.

I thought, too, listening to non-fiction may be difficult on audio, since it takes a lot more to absorb. But I was wrong. The Geography of Bliss may be the best audiobook I've listened to. In my car right now, too, is Shooting Stars, the Lebron James story -- a recommendation from the high school librarian I collaborate with. It's not my genre at all, but she told me listening to it made it work really well. Of course, it makes sense: sports WOULD come more alive through listening than reading.

If you have always been curious about audiobook listening, give it a whirl. Your local library likely has a nice selection of titles, including copies of those on the best seller list. Pick up something that's been recommended, even if it's outside your genre: much of the art of the audiobook is in the production itself. A good story helps, of course, but sometimes I'll forgo the story for the production.

Continue reading...

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Iron King Giveaway winner!

So, we had our largest turn out in this contest in quite a while. And now I can announce our lucky winner:


That would be...


Thanks to everyone who entered, and if you weren't this giveaway's lucky winner, just hang tight. There is one heck of a sweet giveaway coming up soon, provided by my own pocketbook. You're going to love it.

If you have read The Iron King, you can check out the second book, The Iron Daughter up on NetGalley.

Continue reading...

Saturday, June 19, 2010

The Stormchasers by Jenna Blum

When I saw Jenna Blum, author of the powerful Those Who Save Us, had a new book coming out, I put my name on the holds list for it . . . months ahead of time. And am I ever glad I did. As you recall, one of my favorite books of all time is Ann Patchett's The Magician's Assistant, and as I read The Stormchasers, I couldn't help but see there were many similarities and my experience in reading it was so similar. This has shot to my favorites list, without a doubt.

Karena is a divorcee living near the Twin Cities, and one morning, she receives a phone call from a Wichita mental health clinic saying that her brother had been admitted as a patient, and she had been listed as one of his contact people. Funny, she thought, since they had not seen or talked to one another in 20 years, as Charles fell further and further into the depths of a few different mental illnesses. Karena, though, had always wanted to rekindle that relationship -- they were twins after all -- so she drops everything and chooses to go to Wichita in order to find her brother.

She was too late. Charles had left before she arrived, but she had a feeling that by following his passion, she'd find him. His passion, as you might guess, was stormchasing. Karena signs up for a storm chasing tour, and quickly finds she and fellow chaser Kevin have a great rapport . . . and Kevin himself might hold the key to helping Karena track down her brother.

The Stormchasers is written in present tense, which at the onset is a bit jarring, but as the story progresses, it is the ideal method for telling this tale of love, family, and passion. Like Those Who Save Us, we are thrust into the depths of family life and challenges with loving and accepting who we are within our families and the ever-changing nature of family dynamics. Set amid the heartland of America, Blum lovingly depicts the people and places that are too often ignored in literature. But it's not just a loving portrayal: it's realistic and gritty, giving readers a true sense of life in a small town.

Obviously, the stormchasing is a metaphor for the family and for the relationship between Karena and her brother Charles. But it's well-done, and it provides further for the setting, which is itself a character in the story.

I'm purposefully leaving out a lot of the plot because I knew very little going in. I will say that this story travels two distinct time periods: the present and 20 years before then. Something horrible happened in the lives of Charles and Karena on their 18th birthday -- the time immediately before Charles went off radar. This again is where the stormchasing fits in, but it never felt forced nor too much like the author was trying just a little too hard.

Lest I not forget, there is romance here too, and at times, it gets a little hot. So while there's drama in the story, there's also a little love to resettle you. Maybe!

One issue I had with the book was the end: I thought the epilogue was unnecessary and almost condescending to the reader. After 350 fantastic pages of story, the epilogue was tacked on and did more telling than showing. I'm mostly pretending it didn't exist in the book, since the last chapter ending fine enough for me.

Back to an original assertion I made: this book reminded me a lot of Patchett's gem The Magician's Assistant. There is travel among places and family secrets waiting to be revealed page after page. The development of setting is strong, and the characters each have their own quirks that make them evolve from page one to page 350 and beyond. Blum uses metaphor in the same manner as Patchett here, in a simultaneously obvious and brilliant manner. And as for me, I read it in the same way, falling deep into the story and staying up far too late to find out what was going to happen next.

I'm both sad and glad this is only Blum's second book. Sad because I have to wait for her next one (which could take a few years, the time frame between this and Those Who Save Us) and glad because she spends the time to write something powerful and worthwhile. The Stormchasers will be staying with me for a long time, and I am excited to pass this one off to my adult fiction readers at work.

Continue reading...

Friday, June 18, 2010

AudioSynced: Coming up soon!

Don't forget to join in for this month's AudioSynced. It's hosted here at STACKED, and since it's official audiobook month, it should be a nice, full month around the blogosphere. If you can't wait till July 1 to see the round up, join audiobook week hosted by Devourer of Books, June 21 - 25.

Haven't participated in AudioSynced before or are curious what to contribute? Check out all of the new information about the monthly round up right here.

Continue reading...

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Finally by Wendy Mass

Every time I read a Wendy Mass title, I fall more and more in love with her style and her ability to get into the minds of middle schoolers so perfectly. Finally, her latest release, is no exception: Mass depicts a funny and adorable 11-year-old-turning-the-big-12 in Rory.

"When you're 12, you can," is a common phrase Rory's learned to live with. But she doesn't just live with it, she takes stock in it. You see, Rory has been keeping a list of all the things she will be able to do when she turns 12, including getting her ears pierced, getting a cell phone, riding a roller coaster, getting an instant messenger screen name, and more.

But things won't be as easy as she thinks, when she first has to leaf through stacks of pamphlets on different cell phones and cellular plans in order to pick one out. Nor will it be easy when she finds out that the number she gets for her phone actually belongs to an out-of-business pizza place and she begins receiving phone calls for extra large sausage and pepperoni pizzas while she's sleeping and garlic-topped pizzas in the middle of class. And let's not get started on what happens when she gets her ears pierced.

There's good news though! Rory's school is the site of a movie screening, and the lead actor in the movie is the oh-so-swoon-worthy Jake Harrison. When she and her friends hear the film crew will be casting for scene extras, you better believe she'll be just might be with some interesting physical issues that have come up as a result of her birthday list.

Finally is a fast-paced, hilarious novel that will take readers back to one of the most exciting ages in their lives, and it will resonate with middle schoolers who are themselves struggling with the challenges of never being old enough or mature enough to do some of the things that their friends do. Mass captures an authentic 12-year-old here that never once feels forced, too old, or too young. This is a page turner in the sense that as a reader, you want to see Rory succeed, but you also get a kick out of the terrible things that happen to her (don't worry -- none are terrible in the sense of bad, but rather in a funny sense).

Here's a bonus for readers: if you've read 11 Birthdays, Leo and Amanda make an appearance in this book, too. In fact, the line when they are introduced is something to the effect of "Something weird happened on their birthdays last year, and it brought them together but they won't tell anyone what happened." I was laughing quite hard at this point, and I think that other readers will get a kick out of their reappearance in Finally.

This book would be an ideal readalike to Lisa Greenwald's My Life in Pink and Green, a title that I've talked to middle schoolers a few times and which they report back to me they adore. The main characters in both are driven individuals with a lot of spunk and creativity, but they both have faults. There is a good family surrounding each, which is refreshing to see.

After reading this one, I'm so eager to dive into Mass's forthcoming The Candymakers and to go back and read through some of her titles I've missed. If you haven't been reading Mass, Finally may be a great place to begin, since it is a quick read and introduces you to her humor and character style quite well. This book is appropriate for middle schoolers and older, and it is a completely clean read.

Continue reading...
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