Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Guest Post: The Sherlockian by Graham Moore

Journalist and blogger Matthew Jackson joins us a second time for a guest review of The Sherlockian, a debut adult mystery/thriller from Graham Moore which went on sale today.  Jackson blogs about books, movies, and other nerdery at www.awalrusdarkly.blogspot.com

 Upon Arthur Conan Doyle’s death in 1930, his personal effects and papers were scattered among family members, universities and other scholarly organizations. Doyle was a writer in the most literal, compulsive sense, documenting the details of his life in a series of leather bound diaries. After his death, one of these diaries, documenting the latter portion of 1900, went missing. Sherlockians (scholars who study, often fanatically, the life and times of the world’s greatest detective, Sherlock Holmes, and his illustrious creator) of the highest caliber have searched for the diary, considered the Holy Grail of Sherlock Holmes studies, for eight decades without success.

Graham Moore uses this last mystery of one of the great mystery writers as the catalyst for his debut novel, The Sherlockian. In Moore’s highly fictionalized version of events, based loosely on the strange death of noted Sherlockian Richard Lancelyn Green, a noted Doyle scholar claims to have found the diary and promises to debut it to the world at the annual convention of the Baker Street Irregulars, the world’s largest Sherlock Holmes club. On the eve of this highly-anticipated lecture, the scholar turns up dead in his hotel room, and the diary is nowhere to be found. Newly-initiated Irregular Harold White and freelance reporter Sarah Lindsay are asked by a member of the Doyle family to get to the bottom of the mystery.

In between Harold and Sarah’s Da Vinci Code-like quest for the grail of Doyle studies, Moore tells the tale of what happened to Arthur Conan Doyle himself in the months the diary is said to document. After a mysterious package appears on his desk, Doyle, with the aid of his friend Bram Stoker (author of Dracula), sets out to solve the mystery of a trio of murdered suffragettes that takes him into the seedier sections of Victorian London.

The Sherlockian flits back and forth between these two stories, attempting to present two simultaneously satisfying mysteries while feeding out a number of scholarly nuggets on Sherlock Holmes, Victorian London, The Baker Street Irregulars and Doyle himself.

It sounds like a cool concept, is a cool concept, especially if you’re a fan of The Great Detective, but despite having a killer (pun intended) hook, a dynamic setting and the weight of one of mystery literature’s great icons in its corner, The Sherlockian falls flat.

Good thrillers, especially the kind that attempt to juggle two storylines, have to be fast. They have to be lightning fast, so hot in your hands that you can’t think about sleep, even when it’s 4 a.m. The Sherlockian’s premise achieves that, but its pacing does not. Once the initial fire of the early chapters wears off, it’s a stiff trudge to the next plot milestone, and when you get there the result is often underwhelming. Moore’s overuse of detail when his characters begin to lecture on Holmes, Doyle, Victorian London and the like, is part of the problem, but it’s not the only problem. Neither mystery is tight, or threatening, or even particularly complex. Both plot lines seem to meander along from clue to clue, often clumsily hitting on what are supposed to be huge revelations, but turn out to be either red herrings of flat-out disappointments.

Even the most flawed of plot-heavy fiction can be saved by the addition of a few intriguing, amusing or even disgusting characters, but everyone in The Sherlockian, even the towering figure of Arthur Conan Doyle, seems like a grayscale sketch of a person rather than anything real. Harold is little more than a talking encyclopedia most of the time, and the intended sexual tension between him and Sarah ends up as little more than weak banter. Every chapter seems to bring a new predictable archetype, no one seems to have any real face, and that means that the things they’re after mean even less as the book wears on.

Moore is an able enough writer, even a good writer, but The Sherlockian is a debut novel that reeks of timidity and second guessing. There are moments – a discussion between Doyle and Stoker on the changing world in front of them comes to mind – that soar with a kind of insight that makes your hands tighten around the book, but they are few and far between. The rest is a mass of almost-good, shrug-worthy storytelling of the kind that almost makes you angry; angry that you can see the potential, but not the follow-through.

Galley obtained at BEA.




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Monday, November 29, 2010

Ten truths about blogging

In the last couple of weeks, we've read a lot of posts in the blogosphere about reviewing and about blogging in general. While we have a *lot* to say on the topic, we decided as a team to offer something a little different -- our ten truths about blogging. This is a collaborative post, the three of us spending a long time discussing many of these issues and feeling the need to put them out there. We would love your feedback and thoughts. Feel free to share widely.

#1: This isn't our job.

We do not get paid to blog. We do not participate in Amazon Associates or Adsense to bring in spare change. We all work as full time librarians and do this out of a love of reading and sharing books.

An easy 60-70% of the giveaways we do are paid for out of our own pocket. As in, we buy the books and pay the shipping. We are lucky to work with a few companies that help us out along the way, but the bulk we do out of the love of getting books into readers' hands.

We spend a couple hours a week writing our posts, and sometimes we're able to produce a few weeks' worth of content in a day. But we certainly aren't blogging every day, though it seems like it. We work around our schedules to make this work.

We bring this one up in the case of authors or publicists who insist on deadlines for reading or reviewing titles. It simply can't happen. We read what we want to read and what we love to read. Much of what we read we don't even end up reviewing, but is just read for fun or to help us in our jobs. Want to know everything we read? You can see the good, the bad, and the ugly on our GoodReads accounts.

We are open to many pitches, but those with strings attached and tight time lines make us itchy. If you want your book reviewed, let us do it on our own or give us enough head time to do it (2-3 months is pretty reasonable).
The caveat to this is that we 100% follow requests for holding off on reviews until pub date. If you tell us this, you can expect we will follow without question.

This is our passion, not our job.

#2: There are jerks out there. Some of them are even authors or other bloggers.

Some people see authors as celebrities, and it's easy to understand why. But a jerk's a jerk, no matter what way they fall. There are authors who don't know how to use tact or style and some who are downright creepy in how they approach you.

We understand how hard it is to have your work out there and have it judged. It's your baby. But attacking a blogger for sharing an opinion of the work -- and remember, they write their reviews of the work and not you personally -- is downright classless. In a world that grows smaller and smaller thanks to the Internet, your words will come back to haunt you.

And for bloggers, take note: anyone can sniff out a phony. It's easy to see who does this for free stuff. It's easy to see who just tries to gain followers with no substance. We know and we talk.


#3: Respect privacy.

We do not, under any circumstances, share the emails or the private conversations that go on between ourselves and authors, publishers, or other bloggers. We have received some real hoots, but we don't post them. We don't make these things accessible for just anyone. We respect the privacy of those who choose to communicate with us. Many of these relationships are meant to be private, and private they should stay. As much as it's tempting to pull up a post and paste into it some of the ridiculous pitches or share a conversation with an author, we don't.

You shouldn't either.


#4: There are a lot of bad books out there.

Bad books are published all the time, and not just by vanity presses. We've all read our fair share of bad books. Some we give up on at the fifty page mark, some we struggle through to the end, hoping the book will magically transform itself into something worthwhile.

While we've noticed that some bloggers choose to only review those books they enjoy, that's not how we do it at STACKED. Our blog isn't a place for us to list only the latest and greatest. It's also a place to discuss the books that let us down and why. It's never a personal attack against the author, but we're honest and upfront. Some books are just bad. That doesn't mean they won't have an audience, and we do our best to identify that audience. Crappy books do still get lots of love from some people (and sometimes a lot of people). But we'll still call a spade a spade.


#5: It doesn't happen over night.

Blogging isn't easy. Getting readers isn't easy. But it gets easier with time. Your reviews get smoother, your style more refined, and you realize you do have a lot to say that's insightful or different from what else is being said.

We began STACKED in April 2009, a year and a half ago. We talked to a void. We got emails from our parents saying they read our blog thing. We were lucky to remember to post once a week.

Here we are in December 2010, and we have posts and plans for posts well on through June of next year. We have nearly 10,000 unique page views a month. That doesn't count the hundreds of subscribers we have or people who are kind enough to come back more than once. We plan our posts on a weekly basis, making sure we have something running Monday through Friday.

Keep working. It's hard. Sometimes it feels thankless, and sometimes it feels like you are literally writing in a void. But get your name out there. And see #6 and #7 for what really works.


#6: Being engaged with books and the book community is essential.

It's important not to restrict your discussion of books and reading to your blog. Other online social avenues - such as Goodreads and Twitter - are excellent places to promote your blog, but they're also a great way to get involved and become more fully immersed in the reading world. Don't just link to your most recent posts (but do be sure to do this). Link to other posts you see and like, comment on other blogs, re-tweet another reader's insightful one-liner.

Your blog will benefit from both your increased exposure in the online reading world as well as your expanded knowledge of the subject. You'll find new topics to discuss, new viewpoints to consider, new books to laud or lambaste. Your blog will be more current and relevant and you'll enjoy the writing of it more. And as always happens when one reads, your writing and reviewing skills will improve.


#7: Don't be just a self-promoter.

In order to be engaged and in order to develop real opinions and thoughts, you have to share. Don't just share your stuff. Share what other people say. It is okay to comment on other people's blogs. It is good to do that. It's good to retweet and relink things (with proper credit).

Share books between bloggers, too. We've exchanged ARC copies, both within ourselves and between other book bloggers that we've become friends with. Don't hog the spotlight. Collaborate and discuss. It makes for a sharper review and a deeper community.


#8: People will steal.

It's a common phrase that mimicry is the highest form of flattery, but it's also annoying and often infuriating. The first time it happens, it can be a shock. Unfortunately, ideas, sentences, and even entire passages or entries are stolen within the blogosphere all the time. Often there's no recourse other than shouting about it online, as the recent Cook's Source episode shows. Sometimes this can actually produce results.

What this theft shows is how vital it is to credit our sources as bloggers. If a summary comes from Amazon or Goodreads, we say so. If we participate in a meme, we make sure to state where the idea for the meme originated. If another blogger's post provided the seed for one of our entries, we credit them. It's not just a courtesy - it's the only right way to do it.

As for the times when theft occurs? Don't be silent about it. If you've fully engaged yourself in the online book community (see #6), you may find yourself with a surprising number of supporters who are willing to do a good bit of the fighting and shouting for you. If someone's using your identity, say something. If your review shows up uncredited, post something. This community protects its members, but the only way to get protection is to speak up.


#9: Don't force a following.

There many blogs out there which require readers to follow their blog in order to enter contests and giveaways, or to gain extra entries. But is this truly a reflection of your following? Or just an extra step that an occasional reader can take in order to profit themselves? True followers will find your blog eventually, if you cultivate and nurture a readership through honest, solid reviews, consistent posting, and engaging content. For many blogs, it may be that the number of 'followers' is not an accurate measure of readership. Because we do not force our following, we are more confident in the truth of our statistics. It's a point of pride and, at times, a total shock to us. We are humbled people read us and interact with us.


#10: Sometimes we write crappy reviews.

Sometimes we have a busy week at work, or things pop up during the weekend, when we were planning to devote a few hours to blogging. Sometimes we're in a hurry and slap our thoughts onto the page/screen a bit more haphazardly than we would prefer to. Sometimes we summarize the books ourselves, sometimes we don't have the time or energy to use more than the summary from Goodreads. Or sometimes we just can't put our finger on what criticism is nagging at the corner of our minds or of what exactly bothers us about a certain character. But we try. We do the best we can. And sometimes it's just crappy.


But that's our whole point. We write crappy reviews sometimes. Our blog isn't perfect. Neither are books. Or authors. Or the blogging community. But we're here every week, because of our love for literature, our desire to share something with others.

And hopefully you all feel the same way.

Remember, too, to always be respectful of those on this side of the blog. The screen is one dimensional, but we are real, breathing humans. We have feelings. Sometimes, what you say can hurt us. There are days we want to quit doing this. Before you click submit or hit the send button on your computer, take a second to think -- REALLY think -- about what you're saying and the impact it might have on some
one else.




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Saturday, November 27, 2010

In My Mailbox (16)

Welcome to the 16th installment of In My Mailbox, hosted by Kristi of The Story Siren. It's a weekly showcase of books received for review, purchased, or picked up from the library.

It's been a week, friends. We went from having a tornado on Monday to snow flurries on Tuesday. Such is life in Wisconsin. Fortunately, there were plenty of wonderful new arrivals this week to temper the weather.

For review:




Paper Daughter by Jeanette Ingold: I know this one kind of, and I'm still convinced the girl on the cover looks way too young for the target audience.

Flying Feet by James McCann: A sports novel. I know what to expect already since it's an Orca title.

Addicted to Her by Janet Lynch: The cover creeps me out. I've heard less-than-amazing things about this one, but my mind can be changed.

When the Stars Go Blue by Caridad Ferrar: I am so excited about this one. A story about performance with a Latina as the main character. I work in an area with a large latino/a population, so anytime a book looks appealing with a poc main character, I'm immediately drawn in.




Swoon at Your Own Risk by Sydney Salter: I read this one already and it didn't really work for me. It's a romance.

Wildthorn by Jane Eagland: A historical fiction.

The Education of Bet by Lauren Baratz-Logsted: Pretty excited for this one. I loved The Twin's Daughter.


Bought:



Bible Camp Bloodbath by Joey Cormeau: Read and LOVED this one. But please do not read it if you have a weak stomach or can't get a good laugh out of a huge body count.


From the library:



Bright Young Things by Anna Godbersen: Loved The Luxe and since I'm a big fan of the 1920s, I'm stoked about this one.

Gunn's Golden Rules by Tim Gunn: Tim Gunn might be one of the coolest people on television. He's fresh and realistic and yet always so darn positive.




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Friday, November 26, 2010

Dash and Lily's Book of Dares by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan

“I’ve left some clues for you.
If you want them, turn the page.
If you don’t, put the book back on the shelf, please.”

So begins the latest whirlwind romance from the New York Times bestselling authors of Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist. Lily has left a red notebook full of challenges on a favorite bookstore shelf, waiting for just the right guy to come along and accept its dares. But is Dash that right guy? Or are Dash and Lily only destined to trade dares, dreams, and desires in the notebook they pass back and forth at locations across New York? Could their in-person selves possibly connect as well as their notebook versions? Or will the be a comic mismatch of disastrous proportions? (Summary from Goodreads)

It's a few days before Christmas, and Dash, a holiday Scrooge who hates the commercialism that strikes New York City every December, has finagled a solo Christmas for himself, telling each of his divorced parents that he is with the other parent. But one day at the Strand, his favorite bookstore in New York (which I am now DYING to visit--18 MILES of books? Yes, please), Dash stumbles upon a red Moleskin notebook, wedged near a copy of Salinger's Franny and Zooey, and filled with instructions that send him throughout the bookstore, following obscure clues. After completing this scavenger hunt, he makes the pivotal choice to send the red notebook back on to its writer, Lily--slightly quirky, slightly lonely, slightly overprotected, and wholly endearing--, which sets into play a unique pen pal correspondence/scavenger hunt/mystery.

Dash and Lily's Book of Dares is the perfect book to read around the holiday season, full of New York landmarks (FAO Schwartz, seeing Santa at Macy's, a holiday lights display) and holiday cheer. Yet Cohn and Levithan spice up these happenings to hilarious effect. While at Macy's for a dare, Dash doesn't just visit Santa--he must push past an age-enforcing Elf and actually feel up Santa in order to receive his next clue. A snowball fight in the park with a group of kids leads to Dash accidentally pelting a boy in the face and having his face splashed upon a wanted poster and being pursued by a vindictive mommy brigade. Lily's fashion statement of choice is a pair of her Great-Aunt's old majorette boots, complete with tassels.

While I am a fan of David Levithan, I haven't read any of Cohn and Levithan's joint works before, although I thoroughly enjoyed the movie version of Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist. The characters speak in an idealized manner, with a wit and vocabulary that normal high school students generally don't use in daily life. However, this novel, filled with the twinkling lights, heightened energy, and first love of the Christmas season, almost seems to exist in a fantasy world of its own, lending a bit more believability to the speech habits of its young protagonists. Dash and Lily are both fully realized characters, with fears, doubts, and flaws, and their eventual realization that they just have to try this out and move forward into a life of their own making, together, is emotional and touching. The supporting characters, most notably Lily's eccentric Great-Aunt and Lily's brother, are also well-fleshed out, and Lily's brother provides a lovely portrayal of a gay teenager in the throes of first love.

However, while there is much to recommend this book, it just didn't strike me as one of my favorites, as something that would stick with me. It was, simply, a holiday treat--full of flavor and charm, but gone all too soon.

Also, let me just say that this is perhaps one of the coziest, most charming covers that I have ever seen. I would hands this to fans of John Green and Maureen Johnson.




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Thursday, November 25, 2010

CSN giveaway!

It's always interesting to me to see how many people enter some of our contests, and without a doubt, the CSN giveaways are some of the well-entered ones around.

So you're in luck. We've got another one for you, just in time for Thanksgiving.

This time, you have the chance to win $75 to anything in the CSN stores. If it were me, I'd be using it to pick up a suitcase for my mid-winter trip to San Diego. But, with over 200 stores, you'll find plenty to keep you happy, including book cases.

To enter, fill out the form below. And yes, I do read your answers to question #3, and fake ones are removed from the contest. This is open to US residents only (sorry guys) and it ends the first week of December, so enter quickly!





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Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The Freak Observer by Blythe Woolston

Loa suffers from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. But it's not from one thing; it's from her life in general. Loa lives in rural Montana and over the course of her young life, she's seen a lot. The younger sister she loved and cared for died young due to a horrible genetic disorder that caused her to never really "grow up." Loa's friend Esther was killed in a freak accident that now haunts her because she was there when it happened. Oh, and when Corey decides to befriend her, he may or may not be backstabbing her when he moves away, on to "bigger and better things." On top of that, dad's lost his job and the family's got no insurance to cover their medical bills.

Loa's got potential and quite a lot of it. She's a math and science genius; the concepts fascinate her, and when she's given the opportunity to catch up on some classwork by her physics teacher, she's eager to discover what he means when he asks her to describe the Freak Observer.

The Freak Observer, despite being a short book, is a powerful one. This is the sort of thing that needs to be read alone, in quiet. Woolston's packed a lot into this book, and a lot of it isn't necessarily easy to read or easy to understand. Loa's story starts with tragedy, but the story isn't told linearly. Rather, the story unravels through moments in the past to moments in the present, and there is use of dreams throughout to tie some things together. Loa is mentally unstable, and as we watch her unpack her life, we begin to understand why she is the way she is.

What I liked about this book was the setting and the contemporary reality that pours from it. Woolston's given the character a believable rural life, right down to how her mother and father met. I can feel the desolation and the challenges that come with the setting and I can imagine the difficulties Loa has because of it. Loa couldn't order pizza for delivery, a novelty so many don't think twice about. Obviously, the difficulties were much deeper than that, but those moments ground the story in the setting. Likewise, the issues brought up with the loss of a job and the loss of insurance were incredibly real, and I thought the reactions Loa had to it were authentic. I felt her bitterness and resentment.

While reading this book, I couldn't help but be reminded of Susan Shaw's One of the Survivors. The age groups these are written for are quite different (and the maturity one needs for The Freak Observer is higher than that of the Shaw title) but the exposition was similar: the reader goes in knowing something horrible has happened to the main character, and it is through the character reliving and reflecting upon their experiences that we as readers begin to not only "get" the story, but we also "get" the character. Joey Campbell and Loa Lindgren would probably have gotten along well had they been the same age.

At the end of the book, Loa's life changes dramatically, and because of the character-driven nature of this story, readers will be relieved. For me, this book was draining to read -- emotionally dense and at times physically exhausting. There was so much to grasp at and the pacing felt slow, given the technique of shifting time sequences. While these works, it makes the narrative decelerate; there is a lot to get here. Draining, though, isn't an insult here. It's an essential aspect to experiencing the story.

I have to admit there were things in this book I just didn't get. There's a lot of discussion of math and physics here that were beyond me, but I think that in and of itself will be a huge draw for many readers. It's rare we get a strong book written with those themes.

Hand this one off to readers of edgy, realistic books. There is a lot of language to consider, and the challenges Loa must overcome are not light. The slower pacing and the writing style will not be every teen's cup of tea, but this is the kind of book that when in the right hands, will mean a lot. Give it to fans of One of the Survivors, but maybe give it a shot to your stronger readers and graduates of Ellen Hopkins and Gail Giles. Fans of Steve Brezenoff's Absolute Value of -1 will dig this one, too.

This was a very interesting debut novel -- perhaps the one that made me stop and reflect the most -- and suffice to say, I'm eager to see where Woolston takes me next.




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Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Extraordinary by Nancy Werlin

I was less than impressed with Impossible, Nancy Werlin's first foray into modern-day fantasies.  I really can't tell you why I picked up Extraordinary.  Its plot seemed very similar in tone to Impossible and I worried that I would encounter the same contrived characters and unrealistic dialogue.

I expected to pick up the book, read a couple of chapters, and give up on it immediately.  Surprisingly, that's not what happened - I started reading and before I knew it, I was halfway through the book and very resistant to setting it down until I had finished.

Phoebe Rothschild is the daughter of a very rich and successful woman.  She knows that her parents expect extraordinary things from her, and it can be daunting at times.  Luckily for her, she has a best friend in Mallory Tolliver, and the two girls help each other battle the trials of adolescence.  What Phoebe doesn't know is that Mallory is a fairy, sent by the fairy queen to collect an age-old debt from Phoebe - and the friendship between the girls is a ruse to carry out the fairies' plan.

Things are actually going OK for Phoebe until the fairy queen decides Mallory isn't moving quickly enough and sends Mallory's fairy brother, Ryland, to finish the job.  While Mallory's character is ambiguous in terms of good or evil, Ryland is definitely a villain.  He glamors Phoebe into thinking she has fallen in love with him and commits several acts of psychological torture upon her, attempting to wreck her self esteem and crush her perception of herself.  There's a purpose behind Ryland's cruelty, but we don't find that out until near the end.  Whether Mallory allows Ryland to destroy her friend whom she has grown to love, and whether Phoebe herself can find a way to fight back, is the crux of the story.

Despite my initial misgivings about the book, there were a couple of things that convinced me to give it a shot.  First, the cover is beautiful.  Second and more importantly, I appreciated that Werlin turned the abusive hunk as love interest trend on its head and showed Ryland for the creep he is - it's not ambiguous, and he's never painted as a misunderstood rebel.  Phoebe is glamored by him, and Werlin does a fantastic job portraying Phoebe's inability to resist but also creating a sense of revulsion with the reader.

The writing in Impossible bothered me so much that I'm almost bewildered by the high quality of writing I feel makes up Extraordinary.  All of the dialogue was believable, particularly between Mallory and Phoebe, and I never paused at a moment in the book to wrinkle my nose and say to myself "That doesn't sound right."  Extraordinary is largely a fantasy, but it's grounded in the real world and the relationships that make up the real world: the relationship between Phoebe and Mallory, the relationship between Phoebe and her parents, and the twisted relationship between Phoebe and Ryland.  It's all excellently written and captivating to read.

Extraordinary is a book about what separates ordinary people from extraordinary ones (if anything), and to a lesser extent it's about the meaning of friendship.  It's the mark of a talented writer that the majority of the book centers around these topics but doesn't become mired in pontification upon either point.  There's little real action, but you'd never know by how quickly I read the book.

Some excellent characterization, particularly in the relationship between Mallory and Phoebe, also marks this as a much better effort than Impossible.  The entrance of Ryland and the escalation of the fairies' mission in the human world necessitates the slow disintegration of Mallory and Phoebe's friendship.  The fight that eventually breaks the two apart isn't out of place between a normal human girl and her normal human friend.  It's heartbreaking to read, but that's how I know it's good. 

The motivation behind the fairies' involvement in Phoebe's life concerns what it means to be an extraordinary person, in particular how one regards oneself.  Phoebe struggles with feeling overshadowed by her brilliant mother, her talented father, and her beautiful friend, and it is her perception of herself as extraordinary or ordinary that ultimately determines her fate.  This "magical forces at work to cripple a teenager's self-worth" is an excellent metaphor for the worries of adolescence.  As a teenager, I struggled daily with my own self-esteem and perception of myself, trying to determine if I was special or merely ordinary.  Fairies as the manifestation of the force that tries to break a teenager's self-worth is therefore pretty relatable and a great way to demonstrate the concept.

Extraordinary is a fantasy, but I'm not sure it would appeal to fantasy lovers who tend to avoid contemporary realistic fiction.  I'm also not sure it would appeal to lovers of realistic fiction who avoid fantasy at all costs.  For the reader who appreciates both genres or is willing to give anything new a shot, Extraordinary should hit home.  Obviously, I was pretty impressed with this one.  Nancy Werlin hasn't convinced me that Impossible was an anomaly, but I'll probably pick up her next book and give it a try.




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Monday, November 22, 2010

I Now Pronounce You Someone Else by Erin McCahan

Eighteen-year-old Bronwen Oliver is convinced she was taken home by the wrong parents; she's nothing like the daughter of her mother's dreams, the perky blond go-getting cheerleader. She's gone as far as to make a fake identity for herself, pretending to be Phoebe Lilywhite.

But when she starts hanging out with Jared, a college guy and former friend of her brother, maybe she learns things aren't so bad being Bronwen -- he's a good guy, and their relationship is rock solid. He's respectful of her, listening to her wishes to remain a virgin until marriage. Things just click with them, and as the school year progresses, so does the depth of their romance; he pops her the big marriage question and she says yes. The two of them plan out her post-high school lives together, but, as you'd expect, things don't necessarily work out as planned. This might be precisely what makes Bronwen realize that being herself is the most important thing and that life as Phoebe Lilywhite might not be anything more special.

I Now Pronounce You Someone Else was a breath of fresh air for me amid a lot of depressing reading (and not that depressing reading is bad). Bronwen is a memorable character and one that takes quite a different path through her life than most high school girls do. She's ready to get married young, and she has the blessing of her friends and family. It's just herself that may cause her to rethink this decision and other big things in her future.

The pacing in McCahan's book is spot on. I never found it to lag, even when there were many opportunities for it to do so. The exploration of self and character here is done cleanly and respectfully to the reader -- it never feels like there is a big lesson to be learned or that the decisions Bronwen makes are right or wrong. The reader has to decide for herself. The dialog in this book, both that between the teen characters and that between the teens and parents, felt authentic. The arguments between Bronwen and her mother were realistic, and as a reader, it was easy to see both sides of the argument (despite, of course, pulling for Bronwen to come out ahead in them).

What probably stood out most to me, as I alluded to earlier, was the different paths Bronwen chooses as a character. She's pretty militant about her decision to remain a virgin until marriage, and she doesn't do it because of a religious reason. She's just decided that is what she wants to do, and that belief helps guide her out of a relationship that wasn't working for her (and one that, in the end, will come back in a different way). Likewise, Bronwen is also ready to get married right after high school, a plot point that will strike most readers who are set on the path to go to college immediately after high school and then do the marriage thing later in life.

I Now Pronounce You Someone Else will resonate with readers because everyone has felt like an alien in their own skin and family. Many may find themselves a little teary eyed after reading, too, so be prepared for that. Though there is frank discussion of sex in this one, it's through the eyes of Bronwen's decision of not participating in it, and the language here can best be described as your typical teenager's tongue. Hand it off to fans of realistic fiction more along the lines of Sarah Dessen than Ellen Hopkins. I think this book, since it does straddle the line between high school and college life, will have large appeal for the older YA set, including college students and those in their twenties. The points of instability inside Bronwen are relatable to anyone in the stages of making big life-altering decisions and taking the step from childhood to adulthood. There are few books that capture this so accurately.

This excellent debut leaves me excited to see what McCahan will offer next.




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Sunday, November 21, 2010

Not That Kind of Girl giveaway winner


Congrats to Taryn and Becky, the winners of the signed copies of Not That Kind of Girl. Get ready for a great read!

Keep your eyes here on stacked for 3 -- count them 3 -- more giveaways in the next couple of weeks.




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Same Difference by Siobhan Vivian

After reading and really liking Siobhan Vivian's Not That Kind of Girl, I went into her 2009 title, Same Difference, with high expectations. And while it wasn't as knock-out as Not That Kind of Girl, I have to say that I am extremely impressed with Vivian's ability to craft three-dimensional, realistic main characters.

Emily's plans for the summer always revolved around hanging out with her best friend Meg in their suburban town of Cherry Grove. They'd spend their time talking about boys, doing their hair and makeup, laying by the pool, and other lazy activities that best friends forever do. But this year, Emily's taking a bit of a different route. Thanks to an art teacher who thinks she has extreme potential, she's enrolling in a summer program at an arts college in downtown Philadelphia where she'll learn how to draw and make art in ways she never will in her home town.

This will be a summer of extreme change: she'll no longer be a big fish in a small pond. Emily's going into the biggest pond of her life, by herself, and she'll be challenged by another student in her program, Fiona. Fiona's an Artist and lives her life that way. At least, that's what Emily believes as she watches Fiona gain the attention and admiration of other students in the program. When Fiona takes a shine to Emily, though, Emily will begin to turn her back on everything she is and has been. Can she fit in with the cool, artsy crowd or will she always be Emily from Cherry Grove?

What stood out most to me in this novel was Emily. She is a fantastic character because she is one of the most real teen characters I've read in a while. She's secure in who she is and at the same is completely insecure in herself. Taking her out of her comfort zone makes her rethink everything she knows about herself, and put in a world of talented artists, she suddenly feels like she has no confidence and no skill. Emily is every teen girl I've known -- she struggles with figuring out who she is and who she wants to be. She's debating between being best friends with someone with whom she's comfortable and befriending someone wildly different from her who demands she see something different inside herself. There's a clash within her, and the book's thrust comes from Emily's internal struggles and their external manifestation. It's done incredibly well.

I found Meg and Fiona to both be dynamic characters in their own right. Meg's a laid back but reliable friend who's life has changed a little since getting a boyfriend. Fortunately, the boyfriend doesn't make Meg forget about her best friend, and in fact, she goes out of her way to include Emily in everything she does. Fiona is the exact opposite of Meg: she's exclusive, and she herself is completely insecure in who she is. Fiona's made up a lot of the stories she's told Emily, so a lot of what we "know" about her is through the biased perspective of Emily.

The pacing in this book is spot on, as it never feels like it drags nor rushes. It it set over the course of June through the beginning of September, and the experiences that Emily has and the realizations she comes to are realistic in the time frame. Emily's a reliable, though understandably biased, narrator. Were the story not told from her point of view, the pacing wouldn't have worked as well.

What I liked most about this book is that there is a lesson to be picked up, but it never feels like the kind of book written to prove a lesson. Instead, this is the kind of book that so many readers will identify with, and many will find themselves seeing that how Emily acts can help them, too. In addition to the theme of identity and finding oneself, we'll see some romance and the value of discovering passion in one's talents. Emily was a great character to read and compare against Natalie in Not That Kind of Girl. I think it'd be safe to say that I don't think Emily would have gotten along particularly well with Natalie.

Pass this book on to fans of Vivian's other titles, as well as fans of strong contemporary fiction. Well-drawn characters will work for fans of Sarah Dessen, as well.




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Saturday, November 20, 2010

In My Mailbox (15): Or when things get out of hand.


This image makes me miss spring time and the smell of flowers and days before my mailbox broke into two pieces. Also, it makes me want to hole up in a Dutch windmill and do nothing but read.

Welcome to this week's installment of In My Mailbox, hosted by Kristi at The Story Siren. It's a weekly look at everything received for review, purchased, or picked up at the library.



The Cybils? Full swing ahead, baby. But I also got a nice box and envelope of 2011 preview titles from Simon and Schuster. I also got my nookcolor, which I am already in love with. More on that later.

For review:



10 Miles Past Normal by Francis O'Roarke Dowell: This is her first teen novel (she's written a number of middle grade titles). The cover of this one is after my own heart.

Choker by Elizabeth Woods: A thriller!

Darkness Becomes Her by Kelly Keaton: A story where New Orleans is rebuilt and reimagined? Yes please.

All three of these came together in an envelope with a cube of paper featuring the covers on four of the sides and a "2011 Debut Titles" logo on the forth. I love it so much I took it to work just to look at it.



Girl Saves Boy by Steph Bowe: This one's out of Australia and it's by a teen author. It's about coincidences and growing up and lawn gnomes. I finished it last week, and I'll be really interested to see how it might be made a little stronger when it launches in the US through Egmont.

Runaway Storm by D. E. Knobbe: A boy takes on his own to kayak the Canadian wilderness.

Survivor's Leave by Robert Sutherland: Looks like a war story of some kind.



Bamboo People by Mitali Perkins: I've been meaning to read this one for a while, so, this was a nice gift.

I Am Nuchu by Brenda Stanley: I don't know much about this one, but I know it's one of Westside Books's later 2010/early 2011 offerings.

Ghosts of Ashbury High by Jaclyn Moriarty: Forth in the series, and it's supposedly a gothic novel...which you know how I feel about.



Rhythm and Blues by Jill Murray: Cecil Castellucci is blurbed on the cover, which already makes me excited.

Scarlett Fever by Maureen Johnson: I didn't like the first one. I know that pretty much makes me satan but I'm pretty okay with that.

8th Grade Super Zero by Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich: This is the longest author name I have ever typed in my life.



After Ever After by Jordan Sonnenblick: Loved the first one so I'm excited to see this story continue.

The Deadly Sister by Eliot Schrefer: A mystery!

Sellout by Ebony Joy Wilkins: A story about race and being "inauthentic."




I Now Pronounce You Someone Else by Erin McCahan: I read this one last week and really, really liked it. Review will be up shortly!

Life, After by Sarah Darer Littman: I know this one has to do with a foreign country in South America.

The Dork Diaries by Rachel Renee Russell: The audiobook! I think this one will be hilarious. You know, for when I'm don reading Cybils titles.



Fallout by Ellen Hopkins: Last book in her Kristina series.

Lulu and the Brontosaurus by Judith Viorst: A funny story, I believe aimed at the middle grade.

Kat, Incorrigible by Stephanie Burgis: A magical story set in London for middle grade.



Freefall by Mindi Scott: I've read this one, and you'll be hearing about it (and Mindi!) soon.

The Unwritten Rule by Elizabeth Scott: I've read this one, and I haven't reviewed it here purposely. I'll leave it to that.

Nothing Like You by Lauren Strasnick: Read and reviewed here.




Crossing the Tracks by Barbara Stuber: A historical fiction that looks pretty good!

Forget You by Jennifer Echols: High intensity romance? Yes please.

Losing Faith by Denise Jaden: Read and reviewed it here.



Nothing by Janne Teller: Read this one, and it made me want to drink.

Every Little Thing in the World by Nina de Gramont: Read and reviewed here.

Sweet, Hereafter by Angela Johnson: This one's gotten a lot of attention. It's the third in her "Heaven" trilogy.



Lifted by Wendy Toliver: Read this one, too!

Glimpse by Carol Lynch Williams: Read this book in verse and reviewed it here.

After the Kiss by Tera McVoy: Read this. Also a book in verse with alternating voices.



Perfect Shot by Debbie Rigaud: One of the Simon Pulse romantic comedies.

Change of Heart by Shari Maurer: This one sounds a bit like In a Heartbeat.

The Girl Next Door by Selene Castrovilla: Something about grown up decisions and I think heartbreak.



Scars by Cheryl Rainfield: Read and reviewed this one here.

Something Terrible Happened on Kenmore by Marci Stillerman: Historical murder in 1930s Chicago.

Stringz by Michael Wenberg: This one's got a backdrop of music and performance.

The Summer I Got a Life by Mark Fink: The main character had a bad summer. It changed his life.




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