At conferences, I always like to ask the publicists what their favorite book of the upcoming season is. I always feel like I get a peak at something I may not have otherwise gotten just wandering the floor. This year at ALA, Without Tess by Marcella Pixley was the title recommended highly at the Macmillan booth and touted as an in-house favorite.
The story opens with Liz talking about feeling guilt for the death of her sister Tess. We're in the present but we're taken to the past near immediately, to a time when both girls were younger. The girls, who were three years apart in age, were close. Liz idolized her bigger sister, who was a believer in all things magic. She believed in werewolves and selkies and magic passionately -- all her games revolved around these ideas. It was these beliefs that ultimately caused Tess's death, and it's Liz who feels responsible for it.
While Without Tess sounds like a fairly cut-and-dry story of grief and loss, it's a lot more complex as it delves into a few big issues that a number of other books looking at these issues don't. There's an interesting play of religion here, as Liz and Tess are Jewish. They practice, and their beliefs are challenged repeatedly by their neighbors and friends Niccolo and Isabelle. They are practicing Catholics, and Pixley smartly juxtaposes the ideas of formal religion with the fantastical beliefs held by Tess.
It's those fantastical beliefs that offers readers another layer to the story, and that's mental wellness. The second half of the book opens the doors to this storyline, as Liz expounds upon her sister's diminishing stability. Her sister talked of turning into a water princess with earnestness, and she goes as far as to attack Liz when she believes she has werewolf abilities. Although it sounds somewhat funny, in the context of the story it's quite scary. As readers, we're on to the fact something isn't quite right with Liz, but we aren't able to put our finger on it exactly. I've read a number of books broaching the issue of mental health this year, but I didn't quite find the storyline here compelling enough to be believable, especially since Liz focuses so little on it. She's too self-absorbed, honestly, and eager to make sure she's the center of attention when it comes to the downfall of her sister. But it's worth noting -- Pixley offers an interesting question to readers about whether Tess's beliefs are child's play, since she's only 12, or whether they really are signs of deeper mental issues.
I didn't care for Liz as a narrator in this story, and I don't know if I bought the greater premise of the story because of her. She's depressed, even years later, by the loss of her sister, and over the course of time she has to heal from this wound, she's made it become a part of who she is. She wears dark clothes and acts as though she carries the weight of the world on her; she makes herself out to be a stereotype, and while I could picture this to be true, I thought it worked more as a way to make herself feel self-important. Liz is obsessed with the idea of her sister and more so with the idea that she was responsible for her sister's death. She strings together these flashbacks during counseling sessions, and in doing so, there is a lot of build up to finding out what exactly happened to Tess (there's no surprise Tess is dead, since that's known upfront). The problem is that these build ups ultimately lead to a disappointing conclusion, furthering the fact that Liz is more interested in telling a story about herself than about her sister. For me, this didn't settle well, as I hoped for something greater and something that would give me a reason to sympathize more with Liz. I couldn't even say I'd necessarily sympathized with Tess, except for the fact no one helped her when she needed it -- though perhaps they did. Again, getting the story from Liz's perspective means only getting part of the story.
One of the other elements of this story worth mentioning is the poetry. One of the things Tess left behind in her death was her Pegasus Journal. It was where she drew her fantastical pictures and wrote poems that talked about other worlds and this world, to good readers. Liz actually stole it from her sister's coffin at her funeral (need I mention her selfishness again?) and used it for class assignments. It's this little plot point that brings the book full circle, though I'm not sure how necessary it is. It feels like a thin string to hold the story together, given the time passage between Tess's death and the revelations Liz makes in therapy. But more than that, I found the poetry didn't quite work well to further the story. Many of the poems preceded chapters that explained them further, and I felt like the chapters would have been enough. Although it was meant to give Tess a voice in the story, I felt it did more to take away from her voice. This is a technique that was used more effectively in Jandy Nelson's The Sky is Everywhere, which was also a story of sister grief.
Although I found a lot of this book to be kind of a let down, one of the things that made me keep reading with interest was how interesting a mirror this book was for one of my favorite books this year, Nova Ren Suma's Imaginary Girls. This book features an interesting sister relationship, much of it based in the supernatural, and I thought that what Liz and Tess went through was quite reminiscent of Chloe and Ruby's story. Where Ruby had a magical vibe to her throughout Suma's book, build through the observations and idolization of Chloe, Tess earns her magical vibe through Liz's determination to react against the diagnosis of instability others gave Tess. The parallels didn't end there, either: water plays a huge role in this book, much as it does in Suma's. I think these two books could be read as a conversation with one another, and despite the fact they don't have a relationship to one another, reading Pixley's book gave more insight into what may have been going on in Suma's, and vice versa.
Without Tess was worth the time, but I think in the end, this book might be forgettable. It's not that it's bad -- it's not -- but there are other books that feature a lot of these elements and do it just a little more strongly. The writing itself is fine, but it's not sparkling; it felt like the poetry was meant to aid in giving it a stronger literary quality, though I didn't buy the poetry nor think it was that strong (and thinking about it now, it seemed like pretty mature poetry for a 12-year-old to write). That said, I think this book could work for a younger teen readership, as it's fairly clean, and it is less creepy and eerie than Suma's book. It also offers more answers than questions, which is something many readers prefer in a story. I'd classify this as a contemporary read, and it's one that those who like to think about issues of mental health, belief, grief and loss, or even family relationships.
Book received from the publisher. Without Tess will be published October 11.
Friday, September 30, 2011
At conferences, I always like to ask the publicists what their favorite book of the upcoming season is. I always feel like I get a peak at something I may not have otherwise gotten just wandering the floor. This year at ALA, Without Tess by Marcella Pixley was the title recommended highly at the Macmillan booth and touted as an in-house favorite.
Thursday, September 29, 2011
Wednesday, September 28, 2011
I've caught a lot of changes in book covers when they go from hardcover to paperback, as well as a number of general repackaging looks. As usual, some of these are excellent and some are not. Covers sell a book, as it's often what draws a reader in who may otherwise not be familiar with the story, so when the cover changes, it's always interesting to see what elements are being played up. Here's a look at a few of the recent changes I've found that are worth stopping to think about, both in terms of design and in terms of marketing.
Let's start with a change I think is really beneficial:
The Half Life of Planets by Emily Franklin and Brendan Halpin: The original cover gives a way vintage feel to the story. It dates it, and I don't think it does so in a good way. I read this book quite a while ago, but I don't remember it being a historical fiction, which is what the cover here seems to suggest. The LP and the style of dress of the two characters don't feel contemporary, and I think that does a bit of a disservice, unfortunately. The font for the title and the author name also don't work and only serve to further the vintage feel. Frankly, I don't know many teens who would get this cover, especially the album aspect of it.
This paperback makeover is fantastic. I love the fact it doesn't have an aged feel to it, but instead, it's incredibly contemporary. The font is fun and has a definite teen vibe to it. The perspective of the guitar against the black and starry background is a bit reminiscent of Star Wars and that's a good thing. More than that though, the red guitar really pops on the cover; despite there being a number of covers that feature guitars, this one jumps from the shelves. I think the cover fits the story much more, and I think that it has much more appeal to the intended audience than the original. No faded vintage feel here!
Lisa McMann's Cryer's Cross has such a great cover. Although it might be considered a bit of a spoiler, it's such a knock out -- the desk in the darkened room gives the horror feel that the pages inside work with, rather than against. The desk features graffiti, but beyond that, it's worn and old and the vibe that emerges is perfectly suited to the story. I love that the title isn't separate from the image, but instead, it is part of the image itself. It's creative and it fits, too, with Lisa's Wake series in the font and placement of her name. Check out the tag line, too: "The smaller the town, the bigger the secrets." It's perfect for the book.
But oh, I do not like the paperback make over:
Let's start with the tag line change: "Some secrets have the power to bury you." The story is set in a small town, and that plays a huge part in the creepy factor of the book; the change in tag line makes the story sound so generic and like every other book out there. Swap this one with any of the paranormal romances out there. It's unfortunate because this book is not a paranormal romance in the least. It's a horror story. Now, for the trope I am so sick of in covers: the girl on the ground being saved by a boy. Guess what doesn't play a big role in the story? Romance. Yet, this cover plays into the idea of romance, and the tag line only enhances it. Frankly, this cover is a disservice to readers, as it makes the book like every other book on the market when in fact, it's quite different. The trees in the background make this look paranormal, right? Take those out and put in a pink or purple background and the cover could then become one for a Lurlene McDaniels book. And don't get me started on the fact the girl looks stiff and the male looks much too old to be a teenager. The whole set up devalues the role of the female in the book, too, which is probably part of why it bothers me so much -- the main thrust of the book hinges upon one girl who uncovers an ages-old mystery in the story, yet this cover makes it look like the girl is being saved from some secret that will "bury her." Enter suave looking male to save her.
Let me step back and talk about the problem here on a greater level. The trend I've been seeing more and more in young adult books and in young adult book trailers is the one to play up the romance in a book, and this is especially true in books that aren't contemporary romances. That is to say, books that feature a paranormal, horror, fantasy, or science fiction story line seem to be falling victim to this a lot more than what you'd expect. This cover/trailer treatment, in my mind, devalues females as lead characters. It sends the message that girls can't be strong in worlds outside our own and ones that make sense to us. Whether the story says that or not -- and often, as is the case in the McMann book, the story says precisely the opposite of what the cover says -- it's playing into a trend that's not healthy. It's not okay to suggest that a male is always a saving force and that the female needs to be saved or loved to be strong. Moreover, it's always a female in a submissive position. Notice above that the male is on the top and the girl is on the bottom. Notice, too, that the male has his arm above the girl's head -- he is dominating her not only physically, but intellectually, too. She doesn't have a finger on him, and her body language suggests that she's open to be taken and saved. This makes me so uncomfortable, especially knowing what I do about this particular book. Moreover, can we please have stronger females on the cover of non-contemporary books? Less girl lying in submissive positions and more girls being strong and powerful, please. Girls in worlds other than our own can be just as strong as those here. And get this -- the more we show that on covers, the more female readers we can entice to genres like science fiction and fantasy, where often, there is a stigma about reading those sorts of books.
This cover does nothing at all for the book, and it's especially disheartening given the fantastic hardcover version of this novel and how well it fits the story. This one feels a bit like a meme.
It's so rare that a young adult novel gets an illustrated cover treatment, but Laini Taylor's Lips Touch Three Times got it, and it works so well. This is one of my favorite covers, despite having a lot of elements I don't like to it. It's the illustration that makes it work, and the colors play perfectly into the content, as well. The novel features Jim Di Bartolo's illustrations, and they use the same color schemes. What works, I think, is the contrasting use of colors -- the red flames against the light blue font and eerily icy eyes. The red lips pop against the pale skin of the girl, and I love how the curls in the hair flow with the curl of the flames. There's a lot of flow and a nice echo effect throughout.
As much as I like the cover, I don't necessarily know if it's got the right appeal to it. It's less that it's not appealing, but more that it is an illustrated cover and that makes it read like it's geared toward a younger readership (despite the flames).
And I'm sure it'll be pretty clear how I stand on the change for this cover. It feels like an adult romance -- the kind that come in a smaller package that you can pick up at the grocery store. By that I don't mean trashy; I mean it's something I've seen so many times that it's not distinguishable from anything else on the market. It does also feel very adult, versus the original cover. Maybe it's the way the colors really contrast and the way the red lip is shiny in less of a symbolic manner but in more of a come hither manner. This cover doesn't give a fantasy vibe, but instead, it gives a romance vibe, and I think that's a disservice to the incredible fantasy worlds inside the story (that yes, do involve kisses, but not in the romance sense). Moreover, I think it's sad that Jim Di Bartolo's illustration isn't the cover image anymore; instead, we get a headless model, which is my favorite kind. I'm not sure this cover hit the mark with audience appeal either. It's misleading.
Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi is a cover that doesn't speak to me one way or the other. It kind of blends into everything else, and I don't necessarily mean that in a bad way or a good way. There's not a striking image on the cover that's memorable, aside from the cover font, which takes up the bulk of the cover. I like the font and placement, and I think that it sort of speaks to the story inside. However, the rusty-colored background doesn't add much; it doesn't tell a story itself. I understand it to be the side of a ship, given the title, but otherwise, it sort of exists and doesn't do much more. Again, it's not bad or good. It just is. It's a bit of a sleeper in terms of covers.
The paperback makeover, though? Fantastic. Although it has the creepy half face in the background, I quite love how evocative this recovered book looks. We finally get an image to the story, and though the cover font changed, I like this one as much as I like the original. This cover reminds me greatly of the Kenneth Oppel Airborn series covers, and I think that is a huge benefit to this particular novel. Although I admit to not having read either the Oppel series nor this book, I do think there is readership crossover, so this sort of cover pairing makes perfect sense, whether it was intentional or not. This cover has a rusty look to it, but it's used in a much more effective manner than it is in the hardback cover; this time it's used to develop a sense of place and time, rather than simply as the backdrop. Rather than being a pass over cover now, this one really pops and I think it has mega boy appeal. It's nice to have something that doesn't look embarrassing to read, too.
I'm a huge believer in the idea that covers can be an easy means of reader's advisory (that for non-librarians is the term for helping people find a book to read based on what else they've read and enjoyed). Whenever a cover can play into that, it makes for happier readers, I think. Teens and adults do often pick up their books on the covers, and the more reminiscent a new read is to one that has been enjoyed before, the more trust a reader builds into new reading experiences, whether that's fair or not.
What do you think? Do any of these covers better serve the reader than others? And please: I want your feedback on the romance on the cover issue. It's one that strikes me as something people aren't talking about, yet it's something that is incredibly important to think about and talk about.
Tuesday, September 27, 2011
Wade Watts is eighteen years old, socially awkward, a little overweight, and a whole lot geeky. Like most of humanity, he spends his time logged into the OASIS, a massive virtual world that has practically replaced reality. And why shouldn't it? It's the year 2044, and the Earth has gone to seed. After the deaths of his parents, Wade (alliteratively named by his father for the superhero connotations) is forced to live with his aunt, who only uses him for the additional food vouchers he can buy her, and her rotating string of boyfriends. They reside in the stacks, trailer park lots where stacks of mobile homes and RVs are piled onto each another in mountains of rickety steel in order to maximize space in prime locations near cities. Food is scarce and an energy crisis is threatening. No wonder everyone escapes to the OASIS, a land where individuals become avatars and can transform into anyone and anything they could possibly imagine being. A land composed of thousands of planets utilizing details from any number of fictional fantasy and science-fiction universes: "The Firefly universe was anchored in a sector adjacent to the Star Wars galaxy, with a detailed re-creation of the Star Trek universe in the sector adjacent to that. Users could now teleport back and forth between their favorite fictional worlds. Middle Earth. Vulcan. Pern. Arrakis. Magrathea. Disc-world, Mid-World, Riverworld, Ringworld. Worlds upon worlds" (p. 49).
But the OASIS isn't just a place to play, battle, find magic items, and attend school (yes, Wade is a senior in the OASIS public school system). It's also the location for the greatest contest ever imagined, the search for James Halliday's Easter Egg. When Halliday, the creator of the OASIS, died, he set into motion a massive treasure hunt for three keys and three gates. The first avatar to successfully locate these items will win an unimaginable fortune and ultimate control over the OASIS. This contest, composed of riddles based upon Halliday's obsession with 80's pop culture and the history of videogames, comes to consume the life of these egg hunters, who eventually come to be known as "gunters." The 80's are back, and exhaustive knowledge of that decade will pay off big for someone.
When Parzival (the name of Wade's avatar), discovers the location of the first key, he shoots to the top of the virtual scoreboard, instantly becoming an instant celebrity and the object of media attention, death threats, and adulation. He must carefully navigate the web of clues he is faced with, evade the attention of Innovative Online Industries, a corrupt corporation looking to purchase and take control of the OASIS, and figure out how to manage his virtual relationships with the other gunters in contention for the top prize: his best friend Aech, the brotherly team of Daito and Shoto, and Art3mis, the female avatar he is slowly falling in love with. All this while keeping his gaming and pop-culture skills honed to perfection.
Ready Player One was a rollicking, fast-paced, absolutely engrossing read. I was born in 1982, so I probably fall at the early end of this book's target audience. Regardless, I picked up on most of the pop culture references in the novel and was fascinated by the reverence with which Parzival, Halliday, and by extension the author, feel for this decade. Mastering videogames, movie references, and song lyrics is a way of life for the people of Ready Player One, and, in fact, this way of life mirrors the way many obsessive fans feel for the objects of their obsessions nowadays. Who hasn't encountered someone who has scoured every screencap of Lost for hidden clues? Or who watches and rewatches the entire series of Doctor Who, new and old? Or who spends hours updating a spreadsheet of weapons and their capabilities for their favorite video game? We know them all, and they are brought to vivid and extreme life in Ready Player One. However, here, this is their entire world. Glory and fortune depend upon this knowledge, and the stakes are high.
Although the dystopian aspects aren't dwelled upon in Ready Player One, the novel is clearly rooted in a society gone wrong. Wade's home environment is proof enough of that, along with the unemployment rate that has multiplied over the years. If she wins, Art3mis want to use the prize money to feed the world, while Parzival just wants to pack up, buy a spaceship and flee Earth forever. But these horrific aspects aren't pounded into the reader's head. They're just background noise for the OASIS, the great escape, where humans transform into avatars, able to escape their bleak lives. And that's the creepy part. All of this is way too familiar. The unemployment, the overcrowding of cities, the energy crisis. The alienation and the obsession with technology to the neglect of everything else. The world of the OASIS seems so foreign to us on the surface. Who could imagine spending every waking moment inside a virtual world? But then we remember that this is possible. This could happen, and is closer and more real than many of the post-apocalyptic novels that haunt us.
The pace of this book was absolutely perfect, and it rarely dragged. Even when Parzival was in the middle of a quest, Cline made sure not to dwell on each and every action his avatar took, something that could have made the key scenes laborious. Many people might find joy in reading about every sword thrust or feint, but I am not one of them. The action moved, and things happened. One quibble I did have with this book (after having this pointed out to me by a friend), was how long it took for the first key to be found. In this world of crowd-sourced knowledge and with the amount of obsession over Halliday's interests, it seems a bit of a stretch that solving the first riddle would take years. I've participated in the MIT Mystery Hunt and know how quickly an obscure puzzle can be solved when there are ten heads crowded over the laptop. However, this complaint of mine could be explained by the highly secretive nature of the contest. When a prize that big is on the line, who wants to share knowledge? Also, some of the major scenes, along with the ending, seemed to be wrapped up a bit too neatly. I almost expected more twists and turns at some points.
However, as a whole, Ready Player One was fantastic. Fun, informative, geeky, and utterly compelling, appealing to young adults as well as adults, its intended audience. The effort and passion author Ernest Cline put into his debut novel shows on every page. I fully expect to see this show up on YALSA's Alex Awards list this coming year.
Monday, September 26, 2011
And then there’s the problem of disagreements. If someone who read my review rushes out, gets the book, reads it, and doesn’t enjoy it, I’m a little bit crushed. Maybe that person will think my taste in fiction is too silly or juvenile or “girly,” or that what I see as beautiful writing is just overwriting. When I review a book I dislike and a person tells me that they, in fact, liked it a lot, I’m good with that. Different books for different readers. But it doesn’t work as well the other way around for me.
Anyway, all of that is to say that I loved Laini Taylor’s Daughter of Smoke and Bone – loved it so much I knew when I read it in June it would be my favorite book of the year – and I hope you will too. But if you don’t, you can tell me, and I’ll try not to feel like you’re judging me.
I went into the book not knowing much about it at all, having chosen to read it based on my enjoyment of Taylor’s previous book Lips Touch: Three Times. The blurb on the ARC is not particularly descriptive. I’m glad it wasn’t – if I had known more about the plot, I may have chosen not to read it. I still believe the best way to go into the book is in ignorance, but if you want to know more, read on.
Folks, this is a paranormal romance. I’m going to be straight up about that. (Sidenote: The last paranormal romance I enjoyed I probably read as an actual teen.) But it’s a paranormal romance that deliberately eschews the traditions of the genre that is still so popular. It can’t be called a knock-off of anything else you’ve read, and trying to describe it as “a cross between Super Popular Book and Even More Popular Book” (as so many marketing teams do) doesn’t work. It doesn’t coast on the success of its forebears – it succeeds due to the quality of its writing, the careful development of its characters, and the richness of its setting.
In modern Prague, we are introduced to seventeen year old Karou. Karou has blue hair, studies art, and tries to get over her jerky ex-boyfriend (there’s a particularly funny line about this that made me laugh out loud in public). She has a good friend named Zuzana, also studying art at the same school, and seems to be doing well. But she has a secret – she’s an orphan raised from birth by four creatures called chimaera – strange-looking animal/human hybrids. The father figure among these creatures, Brimstone, sends Karou on errands to collect teeth (human and animal) for reasons he won’t reveal. Despite its oddness and subtle creepiness, Karou is mostly content with the situation, and she loves her strange little family.
While out on a teeth-collecting errand, Karou runs into Akiva, a beautiful angelic-looking creature who sees the tattoos on her hands – tattoos she’s had since birth – and promptly tries to kill her. (Later, Akiva will be Karou’s love interest. It works, I promise.) After making a narrow escape, Karou learns about a centuries-old war, still ongoing, between the demonic-looking chimaera and the universally beautiful angels. She becomes caught up in this war and learns more about her past and her part in the war than she could have dreamed.
There are so many ways Daughter of Smoke and Bone could have stumbled. The angel love interest is impossibly beautiful and initially tries to kill Karou – both elements that would have made me stamp a big imaginary “NO THANKS” on the book if I had learned about it from an outside source instead of by reading the book itself. Taylor could have taken the book down its predictable path, but her plotting decisions are always surprising. She could have stuck with the commonly-accepted angel/demon lore and only added a minor twist or two, as so many authors do, but she’s thrown it all out the window and created something entirely unique.
Once I started reading, there was no way I could stop. I cannot emphasize this fact enough: Taylor’s writing sucks you in. When people talk about a book being “captivating,” this is what they mean. In most books I read, the writing is merely serviceable. It’s sufficient to communicate the story and usually makes me care at least a little about the characters. Taylor’s writing makes that kind of writing look just plain bad. It’s beautiful, lush, detailed and descriptive, but never once brings the reader out of the story. All words are carefully chosen and transport the reader’s mind to this other place Taylor has created – whether that place is Prague, New York City, or the other-world where the angels and chimaera live.
Friday, September 23, 2011
Ready for a fun display idea? Let's look at birthdays -- mine is this weekend, and it got me to thinking about how they sort of become less important once you're past your teen years. All of these stories have something to do with birthdays and the events or consequences therein. I've included a couple of middle grade titles, but the bulk are young adult. All covers and copy come from WorldCat.org. This is a small list, so if you have a favorite birthday related book, drop a note so I can add them. I'm a little surprised how this particular topic isn't as widely prevalent in young adult novels as it is in younger novels -- just think about the 15th, 16th, and 18th birthday milestones -- and I'm particularly surprised how few address this from a male perspective (think about what it means when a guy turns 18).
You Wish by Mandy Hubbard: Kayla McHenry's life is transformed when a wish on her sixteenth birthday comes true--along with all of her previous birthday wishes, beginning with the appearance of a pink pony.
11 Birthdays by Wendy Mass: After celebrating their first nine same-day birthdays together, Amanda and Leo, having fallen out on their tenth and not speaking to each other for the last year, prepare to celebrate their eleventh birthday separately but peculiar things begin to happen as the day of their birthday begins to repeat itself over and over again.
Amigas: Lights, Camera, Quince by Veronica Chambers: Carmen is turning fifteen and her friends Sarita, Alicia, Jamie, and Gaz plan to throw her a quinceañera; but when the group decides to join a reality show competition, Carmen feels like her party is becoming less important.
Leap Day by Wendy Mass: On her fourth Leap birthday, when she turns sixteen, Josie has a number of momentous experiences, including taking her driver's test, auditioning for a school play, and celebrating with her family and friends.
Sweet 16 Princess by Meg Cabot: During the days before her sixteenth birthday, Mia records in her diary her fear that her grandmother and friends may be planning to throw an extravagant Sweet Sixteen party.
Bittersweet 16 by Carrie Karasyov: A student at New York's most exclusive preparatory school for girls deals with the mayhem of "Sweet Sixteen" birthday parties given by the ultra-wealthy.
Sweet 16 by Kate Brian: On the night of her sweet sixteen birthday party, self-centered snob Teagan Phillips receives a visit from a special person who tries to convince the teenager to change the way she lives her life.
Sixteen: Stories About that Sweet and Bitter Birthday edited by Megan McCafferty: Dating! Drama! Driving! Remember what it was like to be sixteen? Whether it was the year your teeth were finally free of braces or the year you were discovered by the opposite sex, that magical, mystical age is something you will never forget.
The Secret Language of Birthdays for Teens by Alicia Thompson: Offers astrological insights into birthday profiles, sharing quizzes and personality descriptions that reveal such qualities as a reader's most compatible pets, dates, and shopping styles.
Estrella's Quinceanera by Malin Alegria: Estrella's mother and aunt are planning a gaudy, traditional quinceañera for her, even though it is the last thing she wants.
Good As Lily by Derek Kirk Kim: Following a strange mishap on her 18th birthday, Grace Kwon is confronted with herself at three different periods in her life. The timing couldn't be worse as Grace and her friends desperately try to save a crumbling school play. Will her other selves wreak havoc on her present life or illuminate her uncertain future?
Thursday, September 22, 2011
At the end of Rot and Ruin, Benny and Tom and the rest of the crew have defeated Charlie Pink-Eye, rescued Nix, and made it back home safely. But they spotted something incredible while out in the Rot and Ruin: a flying jet headed somewhere unknown. In the six months since they saw it, Benny, Nix, Lilah, and Chong have been training hard with Tom, learning how to fight zoms and survive in the Rot and Ruin. Once Tom deems them ready, they intend to find the jet, and hopefully the society that comes with it.
I was excited for this sequel because I’m always interested in seeing how a society handles a cataclysm – and how different societies clash during the aftermath. The question haunting Benny’s mind (and the minds of his friends) is “Is there anyone else out there?” Naturally, I have this question too.
Unfortunately, while Benny and his crew set out to find the jet, the story is not about that journey. Instead, at almost the very moment they step into the Rot and Ruin, Chong is kidnapped by a group of bad guys who plan to take him to Gameland. What’s more, they think they spot Charlie Pink-Eye in the midst of a group of zombies. Is Charlie Pink-Eye really dead? Is he a zom? Will they have to kill him all over again?
I’m sad to say that I was pretty let down by Dust and Decay because its plot is so similar to Rot and Ruin: rescue a friend from Gameland, defeat Charlie Pink-Eye, make it back home safely. The two books even end the same, with the survivors vowing to finally find that jet.
Maberry’s writing is as good as ever, with plenty of wisecracking and a nice bit of character development with Nix, who was mostly overshadowed in the first book. But Dust and Decay is too much of a re-hash of the first book to be satisfying. I felt a little betrayed by it, since I was so looking forward to seeing where the hunt for the jet would take Benny – and as it turns out, it takes him nowhere.
This is not to say that Dust and Decay isn’t worth reading. If you enjoyed the first, give it a shot: it’s fast reading despite its length, and the facets of Nix, Lilah, and Chong that Maberry reveals here are solid and interesting. I feel like I know all three of them so much better, and they moved from being ancillary characters that simply back up Benny to being characters I really care about. It’s too bad about the carbon copy plot.
Review copy received from the publisher. Dust and Decay is available now.
Wednesday, September 21, 2011
I couldn't possibly hit on everything I wanted to in my recap on Kid Lit Con, and I thought it would be worthwhile to talk about some of the really cool things I learned about at the conference that others might be interested in checking out. These range from books about critical reviewing to collaborative blogs to a site working to raise awareness of issues of diversity in our daily lives.
Microaggressions -- This website, built upon a Tumblr set up, examines the small instances of everyday discrimination. It's a fascinating website of experiences, and it highlights a lot of what the conference's diversity panel aimed to talk about.
Stages on Pages -- This is not only a website devoted to young adult books that feature performing arts, but it's also an actual author tour. Unfortunately for those of us who don't reside on a coast, the tour won't be visiting us, but the resources on the website will be invaluable for many. There will also soon be a teacher's guide available.
Transmedia Experiences -- I'm sad I didn't get the chance to attend this session which explored the idea of transmedia. For those who aren't familiar, transmedia, in its most basic form, takes something that's static (like a book) and opens up possibilities for further world exploration and involvement via digital means. Easy examples are projects like Pottermore. At KidLitCon, one of the presentations on transmedia was Angelpunk, which is worth exploring to get an idea of what this melding of technology into literacy can look like.
Authors are Rockstars -- Like podcasts? Like author interviews? Check out this fabulous podcast by two librarians in southern California. I'm not a podcast listener, but these ladies have certainly piqued my interest in listening.
Streamlining Your Presence -- I'm obsessed with streamlining and with knowledge management (which is a fancy term for keeping your non-tangible things in order). During one of the sessions, NetVibes was mentioned as a tool for bringing together all your social networking interests together in one dashboard. I haven't tried it, but it looks like it'd be worth exploring.
Altruism and Literacy -- I think what this year's KidLitCon organizers did to team up with Reading Is Fundamental (RIF) is perhaps one of the smartest moves they could make. Through donations and a small percentage of book sales at the convention, RIF earned $1,700. That, I believe they said, would go toward purchasing nearly 800 books for needy kids. During the conference, I learned about a list of causes devoted to literacy and putting books into the hands of children, including Books for Kids, First Book, and more. As advocates for reading as bloggers and librarians are, these are resources worth knowing and worth supporting.
Critical Reviews -- Admittedly, I haven't had the chance to delve into some of the post-panel feedback I got through the #KidLitCon tag on Twitter, but I did find a couple of comments about places where one can learn more about the art of the critical review. There's an essay here about the value of the critical exploration of text, and someone dropped a comment about K. T. Horning's From Cover to Cover. These look like fantastic resources and I'm eager to dive into them both.
Tuesday, September 20, 2011
The first test of her courage is her marriage: her parents have arranged for her to marry the king of Joya D’Arena, a neighboring kingdom, and Elisa is petrified that he won’t like her. Then the wedding party is attacked on the journey to her new home, and after that…well, I can’t say. There’s plenty of action and lots of juicy material for a hero journey, which is essentially what Elisa is on. Through the events of the story, Elisa learns how to be self-reliant, develops some respect for herself and her abilities, and learns just what her particular act of service may be.
I’ve seen a lot of raves for The Girl of Fire and Thorns across the Internet. I actually read it many months ago before there were any reviews for it on Goodreads, so I didn’t go into it with any expectations. I’m sorry to say that I was underwhelmed. The first third of the book was a slog – it didn’t grip me and I found the pace tedious. The second and third parts picked up nicely, but I never felt that “wow” factor that so many other readers did.
I never felt pulled into the world. Those who have read my reviews of other fantasies know I love me some good world-building. Reflecting back on the book a few months after reading it, I had to look up what the three main countries were and exactly why they were fighting and how they were different from each other. I compare this to Kristin Cashore’s Graceling, where many months after I first read it, I was able to recall the names of countries and their rulers and cultures and even their precise location in the world.
There were certainly elements of the story that I did like: the inclusion of an overweight protagonist (although she slims down during the story), the Spanish-flavored elements of the story reflected in people’s names and appearances, the mythology surrounding the Godstone, and Elisa’s surprising relationship with the king.
I’m torn on the religion in Elisa’s world. It seems similar to Catholicism (I am not Catholic, so take that with a grain of salt), but there are enough differences (the Godstone) for it be jarring. Most fantasy novels that make religion a central element of the story do so with a Pagan or Earth-centered religion, or they do it with a completely made-up religion that doesn’t bear quite so much resemblance to one so many real-life people adhere to. I can’t decide if I like what Carson has done with the religion here or not, but it certainly makes the book different from the usual fantasy fare.
I’ve seen this book compared to those by Tamora Pierce and Robin McKinley. It’s got a lot of the same fantasy elements – magic and war and kingdoms (and it’s light on elves and other magical non-humans) – but Pierce’s and McKinley’s writing and characterization are so much better, it almost hurts my heart to see the comparison. But, you know, your mileage may vary.
Monday, September 19, 2011
This is the second year in a row I've been fortunate enough to attend the Kid Lit Con, and I have to say, I'm impressed with how much I walk away with after this particular conference. There's a renewal in passion for blogging, but more importantly, I find it's a drive to make myself a better member of the community in that I want to continue to meet and develop relationships with new people.
Rather than give a blow-by-blow of the two-day conference, I did a lot of thinking about the sorts of conversations that happened at the event. It was interesting to sit in a session and see the same topics creep up again and again, simply because there was so much interest in them. Here is what I walked away with as the big ideas pervading the kid lit world, along with a dose of the moments that were enjoyable for me.
I think on the whole, four things stuck out to me as big takeaways from KidLitCon, and they aren't necessarily mutually exclusive: partnerships, presence, dialog, and the idea of critical reviews.
I think anyone who has been to a conference sort of knows that the big thing about them is less the sessions and more the connections you make with other attendees. That's where the idea of partnerships sort of emerges as one of the big things I took away. When people are working toward a common goal -- like spreading the word about kid lit, be it through blogging or publishing -- building strength upon strength is essential. I had the opportunity to meet people at KidLitCon that I would never have otherwise met, but beyond that, I had the opportunity to discover people who had been thinking a lot of the things I'd been thinking about. When you make those sorts of connections, you find that there are cool opportunities that can emerge, too.
One of the sessions I went to was all about partnerships, and rather than follow what she had planned, the presenter (Stasia Ward Kehoe) talked about what she had overheard and been thinking about at the conference. What I think I found most enjoyable about the session was that a lot of her observations were strikingly similar to mine. The community only gets stronger when we look to one another to build each other up. One of the exercises she made us do (and trust me when I say that nothing strikes fear into me more than the moment a presenter is making us do something interactive) was to pair up with the person beside us, introduce ourselves and what we do, then talk about ideas for strengthening or adding fresh content to our blogs. As silly as my partner and I had been throughout that session -- which I'll talk about in the next section -- Suzanne actually gave me some thoughtful and creative ideas for blog features. Had we not talked shop, I'd never think about some of the ideas she dropped.
Speaking of Suzanne, her panel with Sara of Novel Novice, really got me thinking about ways I can work with authors to help promotion books. And not only did it get me thinking about it from the blogger perspective, but also through my channels as a librarian. Living in a small town in Wisconsin does make it challenging to reach out to local authors, since there are few, but it's also an opportunity to seek out those who are around. Of course, I don't have to stick to my local literary world, either. This goes back to some of the things I was thinking about at BEA, and as I embark on a new chapter in my career, this feels like an opportunity now I need to capitalize on.
Presence was the second big takeaway from KidLitCon. It sounds like a big word, but really it's simple: how you present yourself and where you have a presence matters. I went to a panel that included a number of authors who talked about their online presence and how they keep up their writing while balancing the need to be on Facebook, Twitter, Google+, and so forth. Likewise, I went to a panel about marketing and how using social networks really made an impact on the launch of a debut author's presence online. It comes down to the simple idea that where you are and how you present yourself matters.
I did a lot of thinking about this topic during a session on podcasting and vlogging, which is something that you'll likely never see here. I speak on behalf of myself, not Kim or Jen, when I say that for me, these sorts of technologies feel too personal for me. I don't listen to or watch them, as I feel like it's somewhat an invasive means of communication and presence. That's not to say it's wrong; it just doesn't work for me. I don't like that sort of exposure, as I feel that writing and blogging itself is such an intensely personal activity, especially when it comes down to writing about books and why something did or didn't work. Here's the thing: it's all okay. Everyone chooses how they want to make their presence, and for some, it's via these technologies, and for others, it's maintaining a Twitter account, a Facebook page, and a blog.
Moreover, another key component for me in the idea of presence was that it's important to get yourself out there. Whereas I say that vlogging/podcasting feels too invasive, I'm not the sort of person who is afraid to get out and meet people. This sort of presence is as valid as the online one. You make connections that become important and invaluable and -- wait for it -- you develop the sorts of partnerships that make you a stronger community member. Over the course of this weekend, I did a lot of thinking about where I can strengthen my presence online and off, and the ability to always reevaluate and renegotiate these parts of my life is always invigorating.
The third big takeaway was dialog. This is, I think, the key to what makes us all better as members of the kidlit world, be it a role as a blogger, as a reader, or as an author. It's important to be having the tricky conversations, and it's important to tread tricky territory (which I'll hit on next). Here's the thing though: dialog isn't necessarily always clean. It gets messy, and it gets confusing, and the fact of the matter is, sometimes it does little more than muddy ideas. But that is what the point is. Nothing is ever cut and dry, nor should it be.
Playing off that idea was something I really thrived on during this conference, perhaps for the first time at any conference, and that was the back channel. Given that KidLitCon is a much smaller conference, reading through the hash tags and the digital conversations that happened was manageable and very helpful. There were many simultaneous conversations, and it was fascinating to see what was happening in a session I wasn't in. More than that, though, this back channel helped me tremendously in thinking about my own presentation. I wanted to address the issues others were talking about among themselves, and this was invaluable. Post-presentation, reading what people had to say about what we said was just . . . affirming. And nice. There's really no other way to say it. I can only have so many conversations in person, but I can go back to this hash tag and see what other conversations happened. I walk away with more than I could do on my own (do you see how I tied partnerships and presence into this one?).
The final big take away I have is that of critical reviews. This was a topic that kept being brought up again and again, and frankly, it scared me to see it so openly discussed the day before our presentation on this exact topic. People are opinionated about the topic, though it is obvious they're not always the most informed about what it truly means. Listening to people talk about how they never do "negative" reviews was fascinating because I don't either. I don't know anyone who does negative reviews. Critical reviews look at the host of elements within a story and discuss where the strengths and weaknesses are. They aren't there to pan a book, but rather to be a way to objectively evaluate a book on its own merit.
I'm never going to change how I write my reviews. I don't go into them thinking about what impact they could have on, say, the author or the publisher who may read it. The fact of the matter is, the way I think about a book is the way I think about a book and nothing more. Every book, even those that rank as my absolute favorite books, have flaws. Nothing is ever perfect, and it's not my goal in blogging to tout everything as perfect. It's like we've talked about before in our post here: even we know that our reviews aren't perfect.
Bringing this all back to the idea of the take aways from this conference -- nothing in the blogging world is a pillar. The discussion of critical reviews that pervaded the conference ties in directly to the idea of partnerships, in whether there is a perception that being critical can have a lasting impact on the sorts of partnerships one can form with others; it also connects directly to the idea of presence, as critical reviews set you apart in the blogging world and offer something that gives you a unique presence in the discussion; and finally, critical reviews tie directly into dialog. The fact of the matter is that everything is a conversation, and what you bring to it depends upon your ability to be present, to develop partnerships, to be critical and thoughtful and constructive, and to be willing to engage in dialog.
Obviously, the conference wasn't serious the entire time. I had the opportunity to meet people I've only ever talked to via blogs or Twitter, and I got to listen to a fantastic keynote by Scott Westerfeld. Here's a tiny peek into the fun that happened.
Fantastic lunch and dinner conversations with fellow bloggers. I can't express how fun it was to meet some of the intelligent women who are the brains behind so much of the kidlit community.
I had the chance to meet Scott Westerfeld, who delivered what was one of the most engaging keynotes I've ever heard. His talk focused on the intersection of art and text, and it really raised the question as to why we don't give kids (and ourselves, frankly) permission to enjoy pictures with our stories when we outgrow the picture book age.
I got to hang out with Suzanne Young and cause quite a bit of trouble for a few of the sessions because of it. Suze and I have been talking since I started blogging, as she was just getting ready for the publication of The Naughty List at the same time. She also introduced me to Sara of Novel Novice, and the three of us had a good time enjoying a few adult beverages, drawing fan art, and I was lucky enough to have Suzanne write a story about us. It's an original I will obviously cherish forever.
I don't have photos, but another thing that I found so valuable and enjoyable was the final session of the con, which was the diversity panel. I usually find these sorts of discussions so uncomfortable, but in this instance, I didn't. It really shed light into an important topic of where bloggers fit into the discussions of diversity, as well as where authors fit in. The big boil of it all? There are stories to be told, and they need to be told.
Other little fun moments included having a lovely conversation with Mindi Scott about books and writing (including talking about the very things the diversity panel brought up); meeting folks like Ann Levy of Cybils fame (and discussing a potential panel topic we can do at the next KidLitCon); and seeing all of the incredible work that Jackie and Colleen put into the conference come together and enjoying the amazing food that was in abundance.
Kid Lit Con and Book Blogger Con
What really works for me about KidLitCon (KLC) and what separates it from other similar conventions like Book Blogger Con (BBC) is that the community is much smaller and much more varied. The goals are also different, in that it's much more dialog driven. BBC is much more about learning, in my mind, with panels aimed to teach people; KLC is much more about opening up a dialog about what we're doing and how we can strengthen it.
I won't come out and say one is better than the other, as they aim to reach different audiences. For me personally, KLC hits on the things that help me grow and find passion in what I'm doing. I think a lot of it has to do with being around not only fellow bloggers, but also authors and aspiring authors, and those interactions do give rise to thinking about the whys and hows of blogging. I also feel like KLC is an easier place to mingle and it feels like a place of equal footing. The conversations follow throughout the convention, whereas I felt sometimes BBC's conversations never got started, simply because of the size of the event and the diverse experiences in the room.
I cannot express my gratitude to Julia, Abby, and Janssen for taking the time and energy to put together a session with me on a topic about which I am utterly passionate. When my nerves came to a huge crest on Friday night, it was nice to be talked down from the ledge over and over and assured everything would go fine.
Since people have been asking, yes, the information from our panel will be available, but it won't be immediately. We went into the presentation without a formal plan, and thus, what we'll share is what we've come to find as the key points.
I also have to give both Colleen and Jackie a huge thanks again for such a fantastic event and for being such great hosts. The amount of work that went into such a staggeringly huge and successful conference is mind blowing, and these two handled it like pros.
Friday, September 16, 2011
Once Locke and Kara realize they are merely shelf models for Gatsbro’s illegal money-making venture (and that he will never let them go and make lives of their own), they decide to make a run for it. That’s where the story really begins. Locke and Kara must learn to navigate this new world that they know nothing about and deal with the emotional turmoil that accompanies their existence. Naturally, they decide to find Jenna.
The story is told entirely from Locke’s point of view in a taut, fast-paced first person present tense. I complain constantly about how sick I am of first person present tense, but Pearson used it well in Adoration and she does so again here. The pace is fast and the surprises are many, just how I like my dystopias.
In Adoration, Pearson created a future world more advanced than our own, but not entirely different. In The Fox Inheritance, she’s hurtled us much further into the future and let her imagination run with it. In future America, there are two Americas split not on physical lines, but ideological lines, and those who don’t commit to one or the other are outcast. (Texas is also its own country, and while I find it amusing that so many science fiction and fantasy writers decide to do this, I also don’t want to give people here any more ammunition, so can we please place a moratorium on this for awhile?)
There are also robots (“bots”) all over the place that are used to help humans with a variety of everyday operations – driving cabs, shining shoes, serving food, and so on. The bots are so advanced that they seem human, but they’re tightly regulated. Dot, the bot who drives the cab Locke and Kara escape with, isn’t even built with a lower body since it’s not deemed necessary for her function. Naturally, many of these bots seem human in many respects and yearn to be free.
There are also a ton of other little details that make the world seem truly futuristic, like the freeways that automatically direct the cars and the communicator built into each person’s palm. I loved all of these details, even if I felt that not all of them worked completely (the strange split in the country is particularly weak).
There’s a lot more that Pearson does well here. She gives the reader a good sense of the horror Locke and Kara must have felt trapped in limbo for 260 years. Jenna 260 years later is realistically adult and wise, though her body looks as young as ever. And Locke’s and Kara’s anger and confusion and grief over their situation are heart-wrenching.
Sometimes Pearson’s plotting is predictable, but it’s always exciting and well-written. I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend this to fans of the first book and dystopias in general. It’s a fast, fun read that also makes you think a little – what more can you ask for?
Review copy received from the publisher. The Fox Inheritance is on shelves now.
Thursday, September 15, 2011
These three characters all manage to meet up, and the ways in which their lives intersect form the story of Wisdom's Kiss. The book includes all three of their perspectives, as well as the perspectives of five others, such as Tips' trainer Felis el Gato and Ben herself.
And therein lies the problem. There are eight points of view in this book, which for most books is seven POVs too many. Very few authors can pull off two POVs, and even fewer can do three. In my experience, George R. R. Martin is the only author who can successfully write as many POVs as he pleases and still produce a stellar novel.
2. Memoirs of a man
3. A play
4. Memoirs/diary of a duchess
5. Encyclopedia entries
6. Letters from a boy to a girl
7. Letters from a queen to her granddaughter
8. Diary entries of a princess
Wednesday, September 14, 2011
Back by popular demand, more reviews Twitter-style. These are all longer than 140-characters, but they're quick looks at recent reads that didn't necessarily merit a long review on their own.
Jasper Jones by Craig Silvey: This Australian import has been getting quite a bit of buzz because it's earned the most starred reviews this year. But honestly, it was disappointing. I was engaged with the story from the beginning, as the mystery and the mental anguish within Charlie reminded me a lot of Paranoid Park and Gentlemen, but the last third of the book becomes one large information dump, essentially bringing the pace to a dead halt and killing any character growth. Moreover, even though I'm not a big mystery reader, I knew the solution to the story near immediately and never found myself questioning the plot twists -- they weren't really twisted. I'm sort of surprised the acclaim this one is getting. It's not a poorly written book, but I don't get the rave reviews, either. It was simply okay.
Okay for Now by Gary Schmidt: I was a huge fan of The Wednesday Wars, and though I am glad I read the companion (not sequel), I found it falling into some of the middle grade tropes I really dislike. The writing is strong, and Doug's voice is well-done, but there are situations I felt were rushed in the end of the story. Though I've read arguments suggesting the end makes sense in context of the title, that doesn't forgive it for me. The bigger issue I had was with what happens to Lily, as I feel it's almost an eye-rolling cliche at this point. But, I do think Schmidt might earn his redemption with this novel, as I think it's a Newberry potential title. It's clean, though it tackles some challenging issues, and it's perfectly appropriate for middle schoolers and up.
Chain Reaction by Simone Elkeles: This is the third and final book in the Perfect Chemistry series, and I think it is the weakest. That's not to say I didn't enjoy this because there were times I had to put the book down because it gets that steamy. Rather than give us a bad boy this time, Elkeles mixes up the storyline and gives us a good boy and a bad girl. The Fuentes family returns to Illinois, and for me, the setting is what really makes this novel. The manner it deals with gangs and associations has huge appeal to teen readers. The writing itself is not spectacular, but Elkeles's books are less about that and more about the pacing and characters, and with those, she does a good job. Fans of the first books will appreciate this one, and though you could read this book without reading the other two, I'd suggest starting with Perfect Chemistry to become acquainted with the back stories and to see the strongest entry in the series.
Blood Wounds by Susan Beth Pfeffer: I've really come to dislike the reviews of this one that suggest Pfeffer has strayed from her well-loved "Moon" series. I believe an author can branch out wherever they want to, and it's unfair to compare the works cross-genre. That said, I thought this family drama was interesting, and it'll have appeal for many teen readers, I think. There's a fast pace to it, and there are a lot of questions of what if. I felt like I never got a good grip on where the story would take me, and I kind of liked that. However, there are a number of subplots that are underexplored in the story, including ones on social class and on cutting, that are almost unforgivable. There is a huge issue of social class, right within Willa's family, but they're left there unexplored and Willa herself wasn't as emotionally invested in that as I was (wouldn't you hate if your step sisters got everything and you got nothing?) Had these subplots been played upon a little more, this book would have been stronger for me. Also, the cover is terribly unappealing -- there's a house involved in this story, and I kept imagining how cool that could have been as a cover and how it would have been a little truer to the plot. Alas.
Blink & Caution by Tim Wynne-Jones: This has been another book that's gotten a lot of acclaim lately, and while I see it, I don't necessarily think it's the strongest book I've read this year. This thriller will appeal to a lot of readers who stick it out through the clunky beginning of the story, where we're introduced to two characters, Blink and Caution. We're introduced separately, and we're not entirely sure how the two of them will fall into each other's orbits; as soon as we get to that part, though, things speed up. This story of two street kids tackles issues of class and survival quite well, and there's enough twisting and turning to keep the pages moving. That said, I was not into the use of second person. I find that to be a very tricky way of writing, and with the story here being strong as it is, I felt the second person actually slowed the narration down. It wasn't necessary. It was a means of heightening the tension in the story when it didn't really need to be heightened, as there was enough tension without it.