Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The Watch that Ends the Night by Allan Wolf

I'm not going to lie. When I pick up a book that starts with a cast list, I get nervous. Really nervous. I know the book is going to ask a lot of me and I'm going to have to remember who these people are.

Fortunately, Allan Wolf's The Watch that Ends the Night proved me wrong in my worry, which was a huge relief, given this book is written entirely in verse, and the idea of having to suss out multiple characters within a verse novel seemed incredibly daunting.

If the title wasn't enough of a clue, Wolf's novel is a fictionalized account of the sailing of the Titanic in 1912. As much as this is a fictional story, the voices Wolf uses are actually based on real people who were aboard the ship; he offers a really great guide in the back of the novel talking about the personal histories and stories upon which he based his characters, and having been so engrossed in the story, I found myself eager to read the back matter and learn more about the real histories of these people. I note this because it's rare I want to read the back matter. In this case, though, I couldn't get enough because Wolf's book was so well done, he left me desiring more.

I'm not going to offer a summary of this book because it should be fairly obvious what happens and how it all ends. But what's worth noting is how Wolf manages to take a story that's been done and make it entirely new and fresh while also providing some of the strongest written verse I've read in a long time and simultaneously rounding out fully-fleshed characters in a multi-voiced novel. There are 24 characters in this novel, two of which are non-human, including a mouse and the ice burg. The characters range all social classes and statuses, as well as run the range of immigrant experiences. There are those making the trip because they want to get back to America, while there are those making the trip because they're trying to escape to America and freedom from their past in Europe. There are businessmen and there are third-class children, and each of them has a voice and a story they add. Their individual voices each add a layer to the ship and to what the Titanic really was -- much more than a vessel of movement but an entire place and an entire historical moment.

As much as hearing from all the layers of the social landscape was valuable in constructing the story, what I think I liked best was that we also get the entire social stratus of the ship's crew. We have the captain and the navigator (who will tell you their jobs are very, very different), and we also have the shipbuilder, the cook, and the postman. We're going from first class in jobs to third class in jobs, and the parallels to those aboard the ship for their personal reasons are smartly crafted. Since each of these 24 characters gets a chance to talk, as readers, we see how vast the stories and struggles are, and we are momentarily removed from what we know is going to happen to them all. They each speak up and offer the good and the bad, and as readers, we're poised to feel certain things -- we're happy for those on their way for a new opportunity in America and we're disgruntled at the inequality at accommodations, as swindlers get their time in swanky first class and those who so deserve a better life live below decks. Of course, on the Titanic, even third class isn't that awful. At least, that's kind of what we're lead to believe from the characters. We also get the same perspectives from the crew, as the ship builder marvels at what he's done, the captain talks about his vital role in the success of the trip, and the postman and cook offer us the below decks view.

Wolf pulls us into the story immediately, and the story really is that there are 24 stories here. It's not that the ship's going down. At least, it's not in the moments we're not reading from the point of view of the iceberg or reading the voice of the undertaker. In those moments, we're pulled from the drama aboard the Titanic and reminded that indeed, this isn't going to have the resolution we're hoping for as readers. It doesn't take us out of the story but further insists that the story has a multitude of ways it could be told. As action picks up, so does the intensity of the varied voices.

Here's where I point out the biggest problem of the book for me and, I think, for a lot of readers: of the 24 voices, only one is a teenager. She's a refugee, and while her story is compelling, it's a tiny fraction of the entire book. This book features primarily adults, which makes sense, but it leaves me questioning why this is for the young adult audience, aside from the fact this feels like one of those books that would make for an excellent classroom read. That's not a comment meant to denigrate the work, but rather, it's a comment on the strength of the writing and discussion-worthy merit. As a reader, I would have loved more of the teen voices here, as I do think there is a large readership for Titanic-based stories for teenagers, and I think that's only going to be furthered in the next year with the 100th anniversary and re-release of the film.

While I could see how this book might be a slower read for many, I was glued and found myself reading it in just a couple of sittings. The verse propels the action forward because it's tight and varied. Each of the characters has their own style, and it's evident through the way the verse is crafted. I love good poetry, and this was good poetry. It should be obvious this book will appeal to readers who love stories of the Titanic, as well as those who like a good novel in verse. This is an investment, and it's one that pays off in the end. I also think this book has sort of flown under the radar this year in the ya field, and it's one I see having strong Printz potential.

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Tuesday, November 29, 2011

I Am Half Sick of Shadows by Alan Bradley

In order to save Buckshaw, the de Luce family home, Flavia de Luce's father, the perennially broke Haviland de Luce, has agreed to host a movie filming. The production company was looking for a grand but somewhat gloomy home, and Buckshaw fit the bill. The film crew arrives for the holidays, and with it comes Phyllis Wyvern, the beautiful star of stage and screen. Flavia is at once enchanted, but it quickly becomes clear that the other members of the crew may not be so taken with the famous diva. Naturally, Phyllis winds up dead, and Flavia takes it upon herself to determine the culprit.

I'm a big fan of the Flavia de Luce novels. She's got one of the best voices I've read in a protagonist lately, and the ancillary characters are well drawn. Flavia's relationships with her family members (both immediate and extended) are written particularly well, and they're expanded upon with each novel, which gives the series a cohesive feel. While each mystery can stand alone, the relationships build upon each other.

The mysteries themselves are generally good, but I was a bit let down by this most recent one. Firstly, it seems pretty similar in concept to one of its predecessors, The Weed that Strings the Hangman's Bag. In both, a famous entertainer comes to stay at Bishop's Lacey and ends up murdered. But while the mystery in Hangman's Bag is multi-layered with interesting subplots and red herrings, the mystery in Flavia's most recent adventure is pretty simplistic with almost no subplots and a solution that's puzzling due to the lack of clues.

This is not to say the book is bad. I certainly enjoyed it quite a lot, but it seemed a bit like Bradley chopped out about 75 pages somewhere 2/3 of the way through. In that missing section, he would have included more clues that eventually led the reader to the culprit as well as explanations of the red herrings he introduced and then dropped.

I get so frustrated when an author seems to just drop a storyline, however small, with no explanation. There's nothing wrong with a continuing arc for series books, but when the mystery is supposed to be wrapped up in a single installment, I expect all clues to be explained. I also expect to be able to re-read the book and pick up on clues I may have missed before. That's almost impossible here - I'm still a bit befuddled at how Flavia figured it all out.

Flavia's voice is as good as ever, of course, and the family drama aspect continues to shine. I still motored through the book in under 24 hours and I'll be eagerly awaiting the next. Part of the problem is I have rather high expectations, so when they aren't met, it's more disappointing.

Book borrowed from my local library. I Am Half Sick of Shadows is available now.

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Monday, November 28, 2011

Three historical novels, quick review style

I've read a ton of books for Cybils lately, and there is no possible way I could get through all of the reading and write up full reviews for each of the titles. But I can offer shorter reviews of a number of titles -- and I'm going to quit calling them Twitter-style because, well, I can't even pretend they're that short. Alas, here are three historical novels, covering three vastly different time periods.

Purple Daze by Sherry Shahan follows six teens growing up in the suburbs of Los Angeles during 1965, a year of war, civil unrest, and much more. Told through verse, the book reads quickly, but left me wanting a lot. The characters are underdeveloped figments of what they could be -- they each become a representation of an issue, down to a girl giving herself a coat hanger abortion, a boy being drafted to war in Vietnam, a boy choosing to drop out and join the Marines, and so forth. The thing is, they could have been full and powerful, but instead, things stand in for development.

There's an overwhelming sense of nostalgia at play in the story and it chokes any potential rise and fall in character arc. We know what kind of razors one of the girl uses (Lady Schick), but that's about it. Given that verse is a challenging format to develop strong, definitive characters within -- let alone six -- I felt really let down when the sparse words were to brand names.

Moreover, the use of other voices choked the narrative. Not only were there six underdeveloped characters, but then there were interludes of presidential addresses, along with briefings about Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. It took me out of the story and further distanced my emotional connection with the key characters in the story. What could have been an emotional knock out given the era became one note: flat.

It felt like the point of the book was to educate and little more. A good story, especially a good historical, does that without being obvious. This one made it obvious to the point of leaving me curious why there needed to be six characters in the first place. The writing left much to be desired, and the nostalgia factor won't win over the intended teen readership. Other books do this better, stronger, and without sacrificing story for sentiment.

The Year We Were Famous by Carole Estby Dagg follows mother-daughter duo Helga and Clara (who is the 17-year-old daughter) as they embark on a cross-country walk from their small town in western Washington state to New York City, all of which is based on a true story from the author's family. It's 1896 and the family farm is in trouble; money is hard to come by, and the family doesn't want to give up what they have. After trying to come up with a solution, Helga decides to respond to a publisher's advertisement offering a $10,000 prize for someone who could make the journey across country, by foot, in months.

The time period for the novel is spot on, and the journey is enjoyable. I think I found this novel so fascinating because it was based on true events, and it's a road trip before the concept of the road trip existed. Dagg's novel works well in its diary format, as Clara depicts the journey well and in a believable teen voice. One of the challenges I had with this format though was the interspersing of letters inside. Clara kept postal communication with her family and with a reporter she met in Utah, and when those sneak into her diary, the story slows to a crawl. It takes the reader out of the adventure; even though it's not info dumping, per se, it has a similar effect in providing too much tell and not enough show.

My biggest challenge with the book, though, was there wasn't enough character development. We get the adventure and the weariness of walking (imagine walking that far - my mind still spins thinking about that and how there weren't the road conveniences we had so they had to rely on the kindness of strangers), but we don't really get enough of who Clara is. I wanted to know more about her; it's here I fault the format because the diary doesn't quite offer enough opportunity for internal thought here. It's instead a record of events.

That said, this book was an enjoyable read, and it's one I can see having huge appeal to younger teens and even for those tween readers who read up. Content isn't really an issue here. An interesting time period, as well, and one I don't think there is much about, especially when it comes to American events and experiences. Plus, it's reverse what you'd expect -- rather than a movement west, it's a movement east.

Taking Off by Jenny Moss takes place in 1986, right before the launching of the Challenger, where we find 18-year-old Annie struggling to decide what it is she wants to do with her life. She lives near Houston and the space center, and her entire life has sort of amid this bubble of people who are career-driven and are eager to get out in the world and do Big Things. Annie isn't sure she wants that though. She loves writing poetry (and this is sort of a secret, actually, since no one would ever take that seriously as an ambition), and she really likes her boyfriend Mark. Why leave a place that's good for her?

Then she meets Christa McCuliffe at a friend's dinner party, and her mind starts shifting. Suddenly, she's looking at this ambitious teacher who is so down to earth and friendly, and Annie begins to realize that maybe getting outside of her comfort zone is something she needs to do. Not just that, but Annie is determined to watch Christa launch into space, and she convinces her father to take her to Florida to watch the launch. Despite knowing how that story ends, it's still sort of surprising, and that's a huge credit to Moss. She captures what I presume the emotions surrounding the launch well; I say presume because I was a baby when it happened, but I experienced every emotion Annie did in those moments following lift off.

For me, this book was all about Annie. She was such an interesting character to me, and I related to her in a lot of ways. I feel like a lot of what I thought about as a high school senior were the things she was thinking about, and Moss captured the emotions of feeling lost and clueless spot on, without making Annie sound like a wimp or like she was hopeless. In fact, I felt Annie had a lot more to offer than she gave herself credit for, and when she has her moment of realizing what her dreams really were, I felt the journey to get there paid off.

My biggest problem with the novel, though, came down to not believing how quickly Annie could attach herself to Christa's story. They met by chance at a dinner party, though Annie had read about her in a magazine. I expected more of a fascination with Christa pre-party to make the post-party obsession more believable; Annie makes a journey half way across the country to see her launch into space, yet I didn't quite buy the emotional ties here. Pushing this a little more would have made the story tighter and more powerful. Teens fixate on those they admire, and given how much Annie found herself fixating internally, I was a little let down how quickly and radically she connects to Christa.

The romance is sweet, and the story itself is one you could hand over to teens of any age. Although I question why so many novels lately have been set in the 1980s (a combination of a lack of technological conveniences and the fact it's probably a time period a lot of authors are familiar with because of their own experiences), this one works because it's actually about a historical event.

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Friday, November 25, 2011

Making an Exit by Sarah Murray

It's been a while since I've talked about a non-fiction book, and admittedly, it's because little has struck my interest lately. I'm not a huge memoir reader, and I'm not a reader of celebrity biographies, and it seems to me that's where a lot of the push has been lately. I've found fewer of the sorts of things that work well for me. But when I stumbled upon Sarah Murray's Making an Exit, I knew I stumbled upon something that was right up my alley.

Murray's book is an exploration of a topic most people don't like to talk about: death. But it's not a grim book by any means. Rather, it's a book about the different means of celebrating or mourning the deceased that span the globe. This aspect of the book is paired with a small narrative thread that talks through the experience of Murray losing her father. Her father -- who she refers to only as Fa throughout -- was not a religious man, and he believed heavily in the idea that the physical body was merely "organic manner," an idea that emerges over and over throughout the book. So for Murray, the burial aspect of his death is really quite absent, and it's the precise reason she finds herself curious how other cultures approach grief and loss.

The two lines of the book don't get overwhelming, and more specifically, the secondary thread about the loss of Fa is small enough that it never detracts from the greater purpose of Murray's book. It's rather a means of comparison and discussion, and it works as breathing room after reading about some of the heavier methods other cultures have in burial rituals. Moreover, what works so well in this book is that the chapters are not dependent upon one another, and I bring this up because it's an important reason why this book worked for me -- I love non-fiction, but sometimes, I am not always interested in the entire book. If I can skip around and not feel I'm missing out, it gives the book that much more power. That's not to say there's not merit in non-fiction that builds upon itself, but rather to say, a book like this one is strong because it doesn't employ that tactic. Reading this never felt like work. Though this isn't a fast paced book by any means, the set up permits readers to go at it leisurely. It's the kind of book you can pick up and put down for periods of time without missing out on anything.

Perhaps most importantly, this book is never morbid. Where it could have tread that world, it didn't. Murray skillfully explores without exploiting either the topic nor the reader.

The more interesting rituals I found included, first and foremost, the tradition in Ghana for the dead to be buried in elaborate coffins. That means instead of thinking about death like we do in America, which involves somewhat stuffy and standard coffins, Ghana tradition allows people to decide what sort of bright, elaborate or symbolic coffin they'd like to be buried in. We're shown this in a picture at the start of the chapter, where there is a coffin made in the shape of an airplane. Murray commissions one of the top coffin makers in the country to build her a coffin in the shape of the Empire State Building. While she muses about how many could think this a strange piece of furniture to store in her living room in New York, she offers a lot of interesting insight into the idea that Ghanaians are celebrating life in death through these cheerful caskets.

Easily, the most engaging chapter for me was the one set in the Czech Republic and looked at the tradition of the ossuary. If that's an unfamiliar term, I suppose the image might be helpful a bit -- an ossuary is a cathedral of bones. The idea has always fascinated me, but I've never quite thought about why these things exist. Murray though has, and it turns out these were developed out of necessity of space. Centuries ago, space in burial grounds was at a premium, and rather than bury the dead as whole, it made more sense for bodies to be separated bone from flesh. The decomposition of flesh is quicker than bone, and it was easier to bury flesh, as it's smaller than bone. The bones were put into these "cathedrals," and the reason sometimes they're not whole but instead are in interesting or unique displays had to do with the person in charge. It makes sense that when you're surrounded by death, sometimes you have to have a sense of humor, right? I could have easily read an entire book on this topic because Murray approached it in such an engaging manner.

Other chapters that stuck out to me included the one about Mexico's Day of the Dead -- perhaps what struck me most about this was less the topic at hand and more the complete fascination with which Murray approaches it. I'm quite familiar with the rituals of this day, but Murray herself was unfamiliar, and the curiosity in her writing and exploration was simply fun to read. There is a respect in her tone that resonated with me as a reader, and it strengthened my trust in everything she was doing. This is the sort of experience I desire when reading a non-fiction book because it's key to what makes the book work. If I don't trust the authority, I can't trust the book. Reading Making an Exit reminded me a lot of my experience in reading Eric Weiner's The Geography of Bliss -- there is a balance of respect and curiosity in the topic, and never once does the reader feel cheated or belittled in the process. These two books have an interesting conversation with one another, as both explore a heavy topic through a cross-cultural lens.

My only complaint about the book is the photography: there are black and white photos that open each chapter, and they relate to something of the ritual in the country in which the chapter's set. However, the photos are small and only in black and white, and I found them to sort of be a lost opportunity, especially in the chapter about Ghana. I would have loved seeing the full color image, and more photos throughout would have made this book just that much stronger.

Hand this book off to readers of non-fiction, those interested in other cultures, and those who love reading about social rituals. As I mentioned earlier, it's not at all a morbid book, despite the topic at hand, and I would have no problem handing this off to teen readers of non-fiction, even though it's technically an adult non-fiction publication. It's the kind of book I would have devoured in my teens, and because of the set up, it keeps the readers interested by allowing them to cherry pick what they want to read (and also has a payoff for those who read cover to cover).

Making an Exit is available now. Review copy received from the publisher.

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Thursday, November 24, 2011

A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness

In the dark of night, a monster calls at Conor's home. He wants to tell Conor three stories, and in return, once the monster finishes his last story, Conor must tell the monster a story of his own. Something true. Conor knows what story the monster wants him to tell, but it terrifies him much more than the monster terrifies him.  

You see, Conor's mother has cancer. She's been ill for a while, but she reassures him constantly that she will be alright. Conor's grandmother, his mother's mother, has come to stay and has been trying to prepare Conor, however clumsily, for the fact that soon it will be necessary for him to live with her. She tries to make Conor see the truth, whereas his mother doesn't believe he is ready for it. She is in denial herself.

A Monster Calls is basically an extended metaphor for loss. It's well-written and engaging but oh so sad. So, so sad. The metaphor is built through the monster's three stories and driven home by Conor's own story at the end, although there is more to the book than their conversations. The monster's three stories were far and away my favorite parts of the book. They have a fable-like quality, but they're deceptive in that way. Just as Conor - and the reader - thinks he has figured out the message or meaning behind a story, the monster throws it on its head. The story is not what it appears, and any message it contains is more difficult to parse than Conor thought. 

Conor's story he eventually tells is also not what you'd initially expect, but once it's told, it's just as true and moving as it should be.

Siobhan Dowd, who originated the concept for the book (novella, really), was prevented from writing it herself because she died of cancer before she could. Knowing that, it's impossible to read A Monster Calls without thinking of how Dowd's own story is weaved throughout its pages.

A Monster Calls will appeal to readers who crave something more literary. It will also certainly appeal to fans of Siobhan Dowd's thoughtful and moving stories, but it's very different in style and tone from Ness' Chaos Walking. It does a credit to Ness, showing he's capable of action-driven stories as well as quieter (but no less meaningful) tales. (Of course, both Chaos Walking and A Monster Calls are pretty depressing, but in different ways.) 

I've been fortunate in that I have yet to experience the loss of someone as close to me as my mother, so I wasn't as affected by the book as someone else might be. I encourage you to read this review on Goodreads for a really moving depiction of how A Monster Calls can affect someone who's experienced a loss like Conor's.

Jim Kay's dark illustrations are a good addition to the book, particularly his depictions of the monster. The monster seems to be made out of shadow, but he's well-defined enough - with his jagged edges and looming size - to be very firmly there and not a figment of Conor's imagination. While the book would have been good on its own, Kay's illustrations really enhance the mood and add another level of meaning that would not have existed otherwise.

Review copy received from the publisher. A Monster Calls is available now.    

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Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Double Take: Long flowing hair and a strong eye

I had every intention of putting together another trends in 2012 post, but while browsing through covers, I came across a double take. This one made me look more than twice. I'm about as certain as I can be they're the same image, just with different treatments.

Coming out in March next year from Orion Books (a UK publisher) is the second book in Mia James's paranormal romance series, Darkness Falls. Stop and study this one a second. At first glance, the model's eyes look closed to me. But a closer inspection reveals they're open. They're just the same color as her skin, making them eerie. We know something is up with this girl. The cover on the whole is dark and fitting for the paranormal genre. It's not entirely unexpected or noteworthy.

Suzanne Young's A Want So Wicked will come out from Balzer + Bray (Harper Collins) in June of next year. I'm not a big girl-on-the-cover fan, but I love the bluish purple treatment on this one a lot. It's stand out to me, even if the girl herself isn't necessarily memorable. But look at her closely. It's the same girl as the cover above, but the treatment is vastly different. Rather than have the haunting eyes, this pair of eyes looks strong and powerful in a different way. I think she looks slightly wicked in a different way, and I get that from not only the gaze itself, but how pronounced her eyebrows are.

Both covers feature the same face, the same make up, and the same hair, but it's incredible to me how different these are, simply by the use of color and light on the model and on the background. There's a softness to Young's cover treatment that doesn't undermine the power in the girl, as much as the darkness intensifies the power in the James cover.

That said, I prefer Young's cover because of the lightness it has to it. The color stands out on shelves, and the slight glitter sheen to it only helps. The James cover, for me, is almost cliche within the genre; for many readers, though, that's its selling point.

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Tuesday, November 22, 2011

A Couple of Good, But Not Great, Dystopias

If you've been following me at STACKED for any amount of time, you know how much I love dystopias. Even the ones that I know will be terrible, I gobble up. Even when they're written in first person present tense and don't appear to offer anything new, I will read them.

The two books I talk about briefly here are a far cry from terrible. I went into them thinking I would enjoy them a great deal, and I did, but they fell short of my (admittedly lofty) expectations. I'll probably read the sequels, but they didn't blow me away like I wanted them to. Sometimes when a book is within a genre I love, it's more disappointing that it's not spectacular than when it's in a genre I don't love, if that makes sense. Kelly has actually reviewed both of these books before, and I encourage you to hop on over and read her reviews if you haven't already.

Bumped by Megan McCafferty
There are so many funny things about Bumped. I think people who outright dislike it take it much too seriously. In a way, I don't blame them. Most dystopias are so grim they can make the reader depressed, and they're generally short on laughs. So when that's what you expect going in to a book, it can be hard to shake it. Luckily, Kelly told me beforehand it was a dystopian satire, although I like to think I would have figured it out on my own soon enough. It's refreshing to be able to poke fun at a genre you enjoy while still appreciating the aspects that make that genre so alluring in the first place.

My main problem with Bumped was the ending. It suffers from series-itis: there's no real resolution and it leaves the reader wanting more (and not in a good way). A lot of good dystopias leave big, important questions unanswered at the end of the first book, but they're good because they still have some sort of climax, falling action, and resolution, however wimpy the resolution may be. With Bumped, I felt like McCafferty just took a pair of scissors and lopped off the book at a random section. It wasn't satisfying, and I was disappointed after it brought me so many chuckles.

Blood Red Road by Moira Young
Blood Red Road has two primary strengths: voice and setting. It's narrated by illiterate protagonist Saba, and therefore uses no quotation marks and only a smattering of other punctuation marks. (She does use periods. If she did not, I would have put it down after the first page. Or probably before that.) It's heavy on dialect and slang. Saba's very imperfect narration provides good insight into Saba's very imperfect character. She's tough but frequently heartless. This was actually what I enjoyed most about Saba. Saba's younger sister is the main ancillary character, and Saba is pretty upfront with the reader about how she resents her and doesn't love her like she does her twin brother. It seems harsh, but it also shoots to pieces all those comparisons with Katniss (and those comparisons are legion).

The other strength is the setting. Saba lives in the Dustlands, and the more you read about it, the more parched you feel. It's a place full of sand and blood and sand and trash heaps and more sand. This is a pretty terrible place to live in, and there's no magical place where it doesn't suck.

So, we've got great voice and great setting. Where were my expectations not met? The action. Blood Red Road is fast-paced and intense, but it was pretty predictable. I knew Saba would be captured, I knew how her fights would go in the cage matches, I knew how she would...well, to say any more would be spoiling it, but if you've read any dystopias (or any action novels, really), it wouldn't be much of a spoiler. It became kind of a game to see how many of my predictions came true (all of them). I need my books to surprise me, and this one didn't do it much.

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Monday, November 21, 2011

Going Underground by Susan Vaught

Three years ago, Del made a mistake that changed the entire course of his teen years. Actually, it'll change the entire course of his life, as he knows that even after he turns 18, what he did will haunt him. It'll keep him from going to college and it'll cement the job he has now as a grave digger as his career. It's the only job he can get.

He's only 17 now, but everything from here on out looks bleak.

Susan Vaught's Going Underground starts with what seems like the most dire of stories, one that prepares readers for a journey into a dark world, and twists it completely. Del, who sounds like the kind of guy you'd want to lack sympathy for (because he's a criminal), is one of the most likable characters I've read.

At the onset of the story, we meet Del when he's 17 and making a living digging graves. He's a loner, and his best friend is a gray parrot named Fred. And while the cards are stacked against him, and while he's put to bed everything that happened when he was 14, these realities begin to catch up to him when he meets Livia, a girl new to town. She's been spending time in the cemetery where he works, and Del can't help but be drawn to her. Yet he knows deep down that making any advances, even so much as reaching out to talk to her, could come back to haunt him. But he takes the chance, and when he does, we're tossed back into the fateful events that changed his life.

Though this book tackles the heavy issue of sexting, Vaught handles it masterfully by offering us Del. We're given this sweet and often romantic male character (who, despite being such, has an authentic and believable male voice). As readers, we feel awful for whatever happened to him because it's obvious he feels bad about it. He wants a future, and I think that's sort of what spins him into such a likable character. Too often, miscreants don't desire a lot for themselves; they make trouble so they can feel a part of life. Del, though, has so much he wants to accomplish and it was one mistake that turned his bright future into little more than a ditch.

What I think worked well in the unraveling of the crime is that it's done carefully. It's not An Issue, but rather, it was a series of typical events. Del and his former girlfriend were having fun, enjoying one another, and they made a mistake. One that involved what the law sees as child pornography and not innocent curiosity. Throughout it all, Del is left almost entirely out of the equation. He's in trouble but he has no idea why. The thought never occurred to him. This is the pivotal moment: Del is a good kid. Del knows he's a good kid. When he's taken as a criminal, he has no idea why because he has done nothing wrong. As a reader, I not only felt bad for him but I agreed with him, and this is where Vaught turns on her writing skills.

Del committed a crime, but I questioned this the entire time I read. Did he deserve punishment for what he and his girlfriend thought was innocent fun? At what point does that natural human instant cross the line into criminal territory? As a reader, I found myself rationalizing both sides of the argument. Del received a lifetime -- LIFETIME -- punishment for one activity he didn't even realize wasn't legal. This good kid can never have a real job (because he's a criminal) nor can he go to college (because he's a criminal) nor can he expect to ever date again or find someone who'll accept him as he is (because he's a criminal). While he's come to terms with the first two things, it's that third thing that sets the story ablaze for both Del and the reader.

Livia herself has suffered a great loss, and Del senses it immediately. He wants to comfort her and yet he doesn't know how. I'm not usually a big root-for-the-romance-to-happen reader, but I could not help myself. I wanted something good to happen for Del and subsequently, for Livia. Even as I wrestled with the consequences of his actions, at the core of it all is a kid who made an innocent mistake that not impacts every single aspect of his life. I was never rooting for a bad guy. I was rooting for a good guy, a really good guy who downright deserved to succeed.

Going Underground has a cast of fully-fleshed characters amid the well-drawn legal issues. This is important because one never undermines the other in the story, and by navigating both successfully, there is a lot to dig into. This is not an easy read, but it shouldn't be. There aren't any cut-and-dry answers, and even at the story's (satisfying) conclusion, things don't wrap themselves up in a pretty little bow. There are more questions to consider and more consequences to ponder. I think this would make a spectacular book discussion title, though it has wide appeal to contemporary fiction fans. There is definite cross-over appeal for adults in this, too, particularly as it explores the ideas of sexting and the life long ramifications therein. Although they tread different territory, I think fans of Matthew Quick's Sorta Like a Rockstar will find themselves falling for Del in the same way they fell for Amber Appleton and the challenge to the story itself will leave them satisfied. In addition, reading this one in conversation with Sarah Darer Littman's Want to Go Private? seems natural; fans of that title should pick this one up as well.

Advanced reader copy received from the publisher.

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Friday, November 18, 2011

A Couple Brief Reviews

Bayou by Jeremy Love

Lee is a young girl living in the American South in the 1930s. As a black girl, she has a lot of prejudice to deal with, and so does her father. One of the first major events of the book involves Lee being sent to retrieve a body from the bayou near her home. The body is that of a young black boy who was lynched for supposedly whistling at a white woman, and it's Lee's job to get it because she's the only one small enough to reach into where it's caught. (This book is not for the very young.) 

Lee has a white friend named Lily. One day, Lily is taken - eaten, really - by a creature that lives in the swamp, and Lee's father is blamed for it. He's arrested and taken away, and Lee knows he's soon to be lynched just like the other black boy was. In order to save him, Lee ventures into the swamp - a sort of horrifyingly magical alternate world - to rescue Lily. Along the way, she meets up with a benevolent giant called Bayou who helps her.

Bayou is one of those rare stories where I enjoyed the realistic aspects more than the fantastical aspects. Once Lee began her journey with Bayou, my interest waned. I think it became a little difficult to follow, and it doesn't help that this is the first installment and is therefore an incomplete story.
While the story lost me after a while, the art is incredible throughout. I admit that part of the reason I loved it so much is that it's heavy on the greens, which always makes my heart go pitter patter. The illustrations are detailed and expressive, but also somewhat soft (without being babyish or overly sweet, since this is certainly not a sweet story). Many of the landscapes look like something I'd like to have hanging in my house. I'm obviously not doing the art justice with my words, but you can take a look at some of the images and see what I mean.

I loved Everybody Sees the Ants, so I was really looking forward to King's previous novel, which garnered a Printz honor and was a finalist for the Edgar. While I enjoyed it, it didn't live up to my expectations. In a nutshell: Vera's best friend, Charlie, has died in mysterious circumstances. Vera knows what happened - and all about the events leading up to it - but she's not sure she should share it with the police. Before Charlie died, he and Vera had a major falling out, and Vera's still trying to wrap her mind around her feelings for Charlie and how it should impact her actions.

Vera's dealing with a lot of other major issues aside from the death of her best friend - a mother who abandoned her, bullying, alcoholism, a loving but pushy father, etc etc. While her voice always seems authentically teen and Vera isn't really a wallower, there just wasn't enough humor to balance out the darkness of this novel for me. One thing I loved about Everybody Sees the Ants was the dry humor that permeated it - in particular Lucky's voice and the ants' antics (PUN). King tries it here with Vera's father's flow charts and some random sections narrated by the town pagoda, but it fell flat for me. I was also disappointed that this wasn't more of a mystery. I'm really surprised it was a finalist for the Edgar, since the circumstances of Charlie's death are known to the reader and there isn't really a mystery to it.

All those complaints makes it sound like I didn't enjoy the book, but I really did. I just had higher expectations.

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Thursday, November 17, 2011

Do Book Blurbs Say Anything?

I've done a lot of thinking over the last few months about book blurbs. Actually, a lot of the thinking on this topic came up at and following Book Expo America, and it's something I've mulled since.

For those of you who don't know, a book blurb is what you see on the cover of a book (or sometimes on the back or inside), where a publication or an author's comments about the book's contents are summed up in one or two tight sentences. The goal's to entice a reader to pick up the book. It sells the book based on a publication or author's reputation -- and for the sake of simplicity, I plan on talking about the author book blurb here and not a publication's blurb.

As the YA market continues to grow, so has the book blurb. At least, these are my observations in the past few years as a librarian. It seems any new author needs a good blurb by a well-respected author in the field; it's a seal of approval. It's a well-known phenomenon that people trust the opinions of their friends and people they respect over research, so it makes sense that blurbs exist and that they're used as a marketing tool. It's word-of-mouth. It's trust.

But my question is and remains, who is the blurb for?

If you break down the idea of a blurb, it's got a few functions: part of it is the writing/publishing field as a whole. It's one of those things authors do for one another. Those who are established work to help new people establish themselves; it's almost a system of networking and mentoring. It's a formality of work, but it's one (I hope) most authors who choose to do it find pleasure and enjoyment in. They get to discover new voices, just like readers do. For a lot of mid-list authors, I suspect blurbing actually helps them, too. Their names get more exposure the more they blurb. It takes a lot of time away from their own writing, but from the marketing/exposure aspect, it's probably worthwhile, especially if the book they blurb ends up doing really well. See the name enough attached to good books, and there's a good reputation to be had.

Outside the writing world, the blurb serves as a selling point to gatekeepers. First, the biggest gatekeeper of all: booksellers. I mean beyond the indies, too. We're talking your box store (singular). There's only so much room on the physical shelf, and that means decision making. Imagine staring at your catalogs and hearing reps trying to sell you on a particular book to add to your store to sell, knowing your goal line is the bottom line and that's it. You've already purchased your front list titles and your best-selling authors, and now you're choosing one book among three. You've never heard of any of these authors and you've checked your database and see you've never held those authors titles in your store before, so you have no prior sales figures to reference. Reading the descriptions of the books only tells you so much, as do the reviews from your typical sources. But, one of the three books has a blurb from, say, Suzanne Collins. She calls the book suspenseful, praising it as one of her favorites of the year. The other two books don't have a blurb or they come from authors you've never heard of. Take a guess which book has a higher chance of being selected?

Selection for librarians isn't all that different from how book sellers do it, except, of course, their end goal is much different. They're not looking at selling a book and making a buck; they're looking at how they can sell a book to a reader based on content, appeal, and a host of factors, including filling holes in a collection so that it's balanced and meets a community's needs and wants. There's also a budget to watch, and sometimes that means making similarly tough decisions as a book seller (though the issue of balance within a library's collection reigns supreme over a store's). I realize I talk from a bit of a place of privilege since I feel like I have a good command of what's out there in the young adult market, and for the titles I'm not aware of -- usually those outside of my favorite genres -- I pick up enough in the review journals to feel I'm meeting the needs of my library. For me, the blurb never even plays into a purchase decision, and I tend to believe this is the case for most librarians. Those who don't go to trade shows or see advance reader copies of books often have no idea there are even blurbs involved. Review journals don't show enough cover images to even make this a factor.

But blurbs come into play in the library in a different way: they're shelf talkers. Face a book out on a display and there's a Cassandra Clare blurb on the cover, chances are it'll catch the attention of one of her fans. Or maybe one of her fans will remember Clare mentioning reading and loving the book. That one sentence cover blurb? The book's gone from the display into their hands and out the door. For the library, it's almost easy reader's advisory. It's a tool.

In the book seller's case, that's meeting a bottom line.

I looked through a ton of blurbs after BEA out of curiosity, and I noticed two interesting trends. The first was that James Dashner and Lauren Kate both blurbed a LOT of books this year. The second, and maybe the more interesting one, was how blurbs are placed on a book. Scroll back to the top of this post and look at the very first cover for Elevent Plague. Is it just me, or is Suzanne Collins's name as big as Jeff Hirsch's? With the blurb in a big black panel, it almost looks like she's actually the author of the book. Same with the Marion book -- his name looks buried, but Stephenie Meyer's name? It stands out.

One of the things book blurbs helps with, at least from the librarian's perspective, is something I touched on a second ago, and that's reader's advisory. We cannot possibly read everything or know everything, and sometimes, these book blurbs can be helpful. James Dashner blurbs a book? Well, his fans will probably enjoy it. Cassandra Clare blurbs a book? Likely going to work well for fans of paranormal or supernatural books. And the new John Green book? That is a book with CROSSOVER APPEAL. I mean, Jodi Picoult blurbed it, and while she certainly has her teen readers (usually already Green fans, in my experience), she's huge among a certain demographic of adult female readers. If Picoult calls Green's book "electric," well. Seems like it's one her readers should pick up, too.

If you thought I wouldn't say it, well, here it is. This is a marketing game, and publishers are playing it really well. The right blurb sells a book, whether for reading pleasure or for cash. The right blurb can launch a career and a reputation. The right blurb can get an unexpected book into the hands of the right people. Marketing is influential.

Here's the thing: do readers care?

Gatekeepers -- and in here I lump book bloggers, authors, librarians, teachers, book sellers, and anyone beyond a casual reader -- are privileged in their knowledge of a market. Part of it is because we need to be to do our jobs well, but the bigger part of it is because we care about it a lot. Emphasis is important. We choose to be knowledgeable. We care a lot about the field, and we care a lot about who is talking up what books.

Taking gatekeepers out of the equation, do blurbs mean much? Are readers really influenced by them? I mentioned above that hypothetically, seeing a blurb by Cassie Clare could snatch the interest of a reader. But I put that in the context of the reader being familiar with Clare and her reputation and perhaps having read Clare talk about the book via her social media presence (marketing and promotion, mostly because Clare wants to talk about good books with other people who want to know about good books, not because she's in it for any financial gain). A casual reader, though, who isn't engaging with Clare on any basis or maybe who hasn't read any of her books -- would that person even notice the blurb? Does it mean anything to them or is it simply more noise on a cover? We've all read those blurbs on movie trailers or restaurant reviews and product reviews and mostly ignored them because, well, they don't mean anything if we have no connection to the source.

I took my questions to the source: my teens. Granted, my teens are a small group of dedicated readers in one semi-rural community. But I asked them what they thought of book blurbs and what value they place in them.

The truth? They didn't pay attention. They told me I thought too much about them because I was a librarian. They just liked to read a good book, period.

Did the book blurbs matter to them? They didn't notice them unless it was an author they really knew and loved.

I mulled these two simple questions and sets of answers for a long time. My teens didn't notice book blurbs because they said they preferred to notice the cover image and titles. A good cover or interesting title catches them. Once they're hooked at that point, they don't care about the other jacket text.

And then I asked what authors they paid attention to. I waited, but they could really only give me one response:

Ellen Hopkins. Which isn't to say they don't trust other authors, of course, but it was the only one that rolled off their tongues. And I don't know if it's because they had any sort of interaction with Hopkins outside the library (she's hugely active on social media) or because they like Ellen's books a lot and want to read more books like them. The assumption then becomes are they reading books because she blurbed them or because they want to read more books like hers? If it's because they want more books like hers, well, maybe they're heading down the path we want them to.

Here's the humor in it all, though: they couldn't recall any books she had blurbed.

During a later book club discussion, when I showed them Reed's book, it wasn't the blurb they noticed at all. It was the girl on the cover. When I book talked it and said it would appeal to them if they liked Hopkin's edgy, raw writing style, they were sold. It wasn't the blurb that sold it. It was the content within the book.

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Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Twitter-style Reviews

It's probably misleading to call these reviews Twitter-style, but they're inspired by Twitter since they're short and to the point. I love writing a good, in-depth review, but doing that for the amount of reading I've been doing is impossible. Yet, I want to talk about so many of these books. Here's a handful of titles I've read lately. I call this sample the "strong willed girl" sampler.

This Girl is Different by JJ Johnson follows Evie, a former homeschooled student who decides she wants to spend her last year of education in a formal high school. As sort of a social experience. The thing is, it turns out high school isn't as coddling as her homeschool education has been and she finds herself in a heap of trouble as she tries to buck authority.

For me, this book was one homeschool stereotype upon another. Evie is less a character than she is a medley of beliefs and social justice convictions, and throughout the story she doesn't once stop and consider that her ideas might be the problem. Instead, it's everyone else around her who is wrong and ignorant. She sips yerba mate tea and does yoga and drives a 70s hippie mobile, loves nature and the environment and she doesn't get why she should be told how to behave within her environment. Mom isn't much better, either, as she chooses to work at Walmart (big corporation!) as sort of a social experiment, too. Or, really, because she can't hold a job elsewhere since she is too quick to start espousing her beliefs.

I found it hard to believe Evie would be able to so quickly befriend two people when it was clear she had no socialization prior to beginning formal schooling. Her relationships were quite one-dimensional. She got along with these people because she could throw her beliefs upon them and the second they challenged her ideas, the relationships ended. Maybe the most challenging part of the book for me, though, was despite how much of a thorn in everyone's side Evie is throughout the novel, in the end, she's a hero. The message of sticking to your beliefs is fine, but I disagree with how it's presented here. Here it's wrapped under the guise of almost bullying people to believing what you believe. And the stereotypes!

The Girl is Different was well-paced and an easy enough read, despite the problems. It tries too hard to be Stargirl but I can see those who liked Spinelli's successful tale of an off-beat girl finding this a worthwhile read.

Julie Chibbaro's Deadly is a historical novel, set during one of my favorite time periods: the early 1900s, pre-war, right when technology and science and women's rights sort of forged ahead in social consciousness. This novel explores all of those things.

Prudence Galewski takes a job in a science lab as an assistant. Her job was to be mostly secretarial (as women's jobs were then) but her interest in science and learning it from the men she worked drew her to explore that side of the table. When typhoid begins to strike the city, she's invested in figuring out just what the culprit is, and lucky for her, her boss allows her to travel on their investigations. That's when things really amp up, as all fingers point to a housekeeper named Mary. She's been present in home after home where the disease has wiped out families and now she's been sent away to avoid spreading the disease further.

Where the plot to the story worked well and the writing advanced it well enough, I needed more passion from Pru as a character. She talks of her passion for science, but I wanted to see it more. I would have really loved to know more about what she was thinking about herself: she talks about women and the strange place women had in the world at this period in time, and yet, she herself, as a woman being allowed to participate in a huge disease case (one which science men pit the spread of typhoid on A WOMAN) doesn't talk enough about it. She was almost there, but she wasn't there enough for me on the topic. I found myself getting angry reading the book because of these issues and they left me wanting to talk about them, but the thing was, Pru didn't feel the same way I did. Maybe she did, but I couldn't tell from the story. Given it's written in diary form, she had such opportunity to tap into those thoughts but she didn't. And I knew she could because she'd tread close but then retreat. I feel like a little bit more of Pru's internal processing would have taken this from a good read to a knock out for me.

She Loves You, She Loves You Not by Julie Anne Peters begins right where Alyssa's life starts over. She's been kicked out of her house by her father in Virginia and sent to live with her floozy mother in Colorado because he found out she was a lesbian and that was Not Okay. Alyssa works on picking up the pieces by finding herself in a part-time job and...finding Finn, a girl a few years older than her who makes her believe it's possible to overcome the breakup she'd had with Sarah back in Virginia.

Alyssa's a hard-headed character and she's confident in who she is. I liked her more than I thought I would, even if she is a bit overbearing in it. The story is engaging as Alyssa moves from being ostracized for being who she is to embracing it and making it her way of life. She battles, too, the fact that her mom left her hanging when she was younger and now she lives with the same woman. Her mom is a complete stranger to her and she's determined to learn who she is, though when the chips fall and she figures it out, the conclusions are too convenient and contrived. There were a lot of issues in this novel, and while they're handled fairly well, they become repetitive. I found myself paying attention to these patterns in a way I shouldn't have. The abundance of car wrecks and showers mentioned weakened those story moments for me because I fixated on how repetitive it felt.

Perhaps the weakest part of this book for me were the second person interludes. These flashbacks addressed a "you" that, for the first two instances, didn't make sense to me. Were they letters to Sarah? They were actually addressing Alyssa, but that was not evident enough, and I felt that this took me out of the story instead of adding any sort of immediacy or intimacy to it. More than being jarring, though, it never felt resolved. While the tactic revealed the back story of why Alyssa was kicked out of her house, it left open a lot of questions about Alyssa's relationship with Sarah that are never resolved. At the end of the book, I wanted to know more about Sarah, given she ties up many other loose ends (uncomfortably and satisfyingly for me as a reader).

This Girl is Different picked up from the library; Deadly purchased; She Loves You, She Loves You Not received from the publisher for Cybils review.

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Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The Future of Us by Jay Asher and Carolyn Mackler

When I read the synopsis for The Future of Us, I felt like the book had been written for someone like me: I came of age in the 90s and hold a certain fondness for cassette tapes and dial-up Internet. Well, not a fondness for using them, but for reminiscing about them.

Its 1996, and Emma’s dad has just given her a computer. Her friend Josh has received an AOL CD-ROM in the mail with some free hours, so they get together to take a look at this new-fangled thing called the Internet. Only something strange happens. After about five hours (I exaggerate) and lots of beeping, Emma signs on to discover that a website called Facebook is in one of her “favorite places.”

I’m going to break out my shiny English degree and tell you that this is what is called “dramatic irony.” Emma and Josh don’t know what Facebook is, but we do, and therein lies the enjoyment. Facebook reveals the two teens' future lives - about 15 years in the future - to them. Emma is married to some man she hasn’t met yet, and Josh is married to the hottest girl at the school.

As Emma reads more and more of her status updates, she learns more about what Facebook is and decides that she doesn’t like the way her life turned out. So she does things in 1996 to change her life in 2011. Predictably, they backfire, and her status updates don’t really reflect a better life. Josh, on the other hand, is thrilled with how his life appears to turn out, and he’s not pleased that Emma’s choices are affecting his happy future.

The Future of Us is also a little bit of a relationship story. Josh confessed his like for Emma a little while ago, and Emma did not reciprocate, which has made things between the two friends tense. This drama is played out over Josh and Emma's shared secret of Facebook and their decisions to change - or not change - their futures. The year is firmly 1996, but this part of the story is timeless.

I really enjoyed the concept of The Future of Us, but the execution felt thin. The characters were underdeveloped and the events breezed by so quickly they barely made any impact. Everything was just a bit underdeveloped. I wanted more - more character dimensionality, more meaning, more build-up to the great revelation near the end, more everything. It seemed more like an outline for a very interesting story

I think the book might have a hard time finding an audience of teenagers. It’s pretty heavy on the nostalgia and Asher and Mackler go a little crazy with mid-90s references. Don’t get me wrong, I totally dug all of those references, but I’m not sure teens of nowadays will find them as amusing. (As a parallel, references to Betamax don’t really do it for me.) Those of you who say it will appeal to fans of historical fiction, I SCOFF AT YOU. People my age are not historical figures! Of course, my grandmother scoffs at me when I tell her I’m reading an historical novel set during World War II, so there you go.

It’s definitely going to date itself quickly. Actually, by the time it’s released next week, it will already be dated. Facebook has made some changes, as it is wont to do every few seconds. This reviewer alsohelpfully points out a few historical errors. Such errors are inevitable in a book about a bygone time, but they’re more cringe-worthy when people who lived then are still alive and not senile.

What I’m saying is, The Future of Us has some problems. That doesn’t stop it from being an enjoyable book. There’s some good stuff about learning to balance your wants now with your goals for the future that should have broad appeal. And there’s that perennially popular idea about seeing – and changing – your future life that can only happen in fiction. Some teens may get a kick out of it, and it certainly won’t take them long to read. I think 20-somethings will probably enjoy it more, though.

Review copy received from publisher at BEA. The Future of Us is available November 21.

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Monday, November 14, 2011

Frost by Marianna Baer

I think I've mentioned my penchant for psychological thrillers before. The only problem I really have with them sometimes is the plot itself can be fairly predictable. I expect the unraveling somewhere in the last 50 or so pages, but I know how it'll end far in advance of that. Sometimes within the first five to ten pages I can guess it, even. It's still often a worthwhile ride seeing how it plays out. So when I picked up Marianna Baer's debut Frost and knew it was in this subgenre, I prepared myself to expect what I'd seen done a few times already this year.

But oh, was I wrong.

So, so wrong.

Leena's a senior at a boarding school, and last year, she begged the Dean (with whom she had a very friendly relationship) to let her and her friends live in the small dorm house that sat slightly off campus named Frost House. It'd been an all-boys dorm for years, but she wanted to live there. It was an old Victorian, the kind so many of her dreams and romantic fantasies were wrapped up in. She, along with her three friends, managed to secure rooming there. But when Leena arrives and finds a new boy unpacking belongings into her room, she'd confused. While two of her roommates -- Abby and Vivian -- were already there for the semester and living in the single rooms upstairs, she knew her third roommate, Kate, wouldn't be showing up until second semester, so her double room would be a single, at least for a few months. David, though, informed her there'd been a slight change in plans and his sister Celeste would be rooming with her for a month. Celeste broke her leg and needed to have a first-floor room and didn't Leena know? Plus, it was just for a semester while his sister healed. Kate would be her roommate soon enough.

Leena's unhappy with the arrangement, as she and Celeste weren't always friendly, but even after talking with the Dean about it, Leena realizes she's going to have to live with her. And more than a little disturbed. She's dropped bugs all over Leena's bed. She's convinced the windows in the room are ruining her ability to sleep, and she's unable to find any rest because there is endless knocking around them. Leena doesn't experience any of this. Leena knows Celeste and David's father has a psychological illness, one that's heredity, and she can't help but think Celeste might be tripping down that same road.

Leena herself is no perfect girl, though. She's been hearing voices coming from an old wooden owl she keeps close as sort of a security doll. Oh, and inside that owl is a collection of drugs -- mostly of the anti-anxiety sort -- that Leena takes because she's prone to fits, especially after the divorce of her parents. Leena also finds comfort in the closet in her room -- the one which belongs to Celeste. It's got a comforting feel and smell to it, one which reminds her of the attic in her parents' pre-divorce home.

As Celeste spirals further and further into her thoughts about Frost House, she decides to leave the shared room and move into the tiny desk closet. It didn't have the windows that tormented her. Leena takes this opportunity to spend more time in the closet which now belongs to her, and the more she realizes she needs to confront David about his sister's descent into mental illness, the more prone she is to pop pills. Even ones she may have stolen from David and Celeste's father on a trip to their house to celebrate his birthday.

When she finally confronts David, though, the results are totally unexpected; and then, there's an even greater twist. One which literally left me shocked because I had been so, so wrong about where the story was going.

Frost has all the elements of a book I'm usually not keen on. The boarding school setting is a convenience a lot of times to eliminate parents, and often, I find the stories to be a bit immature or premature. There are notable exceptions, of course, and this is one. Leena, despite being a bit of a do-gooder, feels like an authentic senior in high school, as do the other students with whom she interacts. As can kind of be anticipated, there's romance in the story, and even though Leena wants to stick to her guns about not being sexually active and not taking an interest in boys this year because she needs to focus on college and getting ahead in her life, she finds herself falling for David. Cliche, right? The thing is, as much as she and David begin a relationship, there's something nagging in the back of her mind and in mine as a reader that the romance isn't real. That it's sort of contrived as a means for these two to spend time together and keep a watchful eye on Celeste. Neither would openly admit it, though. Baer is smart in developing this relationship -- something I'd rarely say -- as I think it was crucial to advancing the story without becoming a romantic cliche. Because really, how many boarding school romance stories do we need?

Celeste drove me mad, but only as equally as Leena did. The two of them had deep psychological issues and as a reader, I kept wondering when the shoe would drop. Was one driving the other mad? Were they exacerbating one another's issues themselves? Celeste's madness is much more physical than Leena's, her body showing signs of damage everywhere, and it left Leena mentally tormented. She wanted to tell David, but she couldn't shake the idea David might be the one leaving those bruises.

I found Leena to be an extremely likable character, and the biggest reason why was because she was so not perfect. She had flaws, and she did things she knew she shouldn't. She was a real teen, acting before thinking. But more than that, she accepted the consequences for her actions. In the moments when she did think, that's when things started getting to her (and to me as a reader). That's when cracks began appearing in the story she told, too. Yet I wanted to buy what she was telling me because she admitted to her own faults and even felt guilty for her reliance on (stolen) prescription medications. Also, there's something charming about a 17-year-old who needs a wooden owl named Cubby to fall asleep and to talk to. She was multi-layered and driven, but she wasn't driven in a typical manner. At least, she wasn't as the story moved forward. Obviously this was part of her unraveling, but it felt so realistic, too. Leena could only exert so much control over her life and her choices and then exert it over others, too. Eventually she lets things go she can't hold onto, rather than try to be a hero for herself and everyone else.

Baer's novel is tightly written, and I found myself poring over the language as much as the story. It's lengthy, but it needs to be to develop and deliver the thrill to the reader. The book's a page turner, with a nice speedy pace that kept me engaged from the first word through to the end. The main players in the book are fully fleshed and believable, and the secondary characters, who aren't as well-fleshed, need to be that way. It's integral to the story itself. As much as I wished I got to know Abby and Vivian a little better (they were Leena's best friends, after all), I didn't need to. The descriptions in the story are lush and vivid, and while reading, I could perfectly picture Frost House and I could hear the scratches and bangs within Frost House. I believed myself this place was creepy, but in each of those moments I thought Celeste might be right, I found myself wondering if maybe Leena was the real head case here. Leena had been hearing voices in her head -- well, not her head, but from the owl she'd kept nearby. An owl which told her not only to medicate, but also to do a lot of destructive things.

For the first time in a long time, I was wrong about the twist. But more than that, I was so satisfied in being wrong. Thinking back on all of the things I'd read and all the clues I'd picked up, it made perfect sense. Even hours later, I sat on the story and the way it wove together and marveled at how I could be that wrong. Perhaps it was obvious, but I think that was a huge part of the story's game, and it's so successful, I can't help think it was one of the smartest twists in a long time. And as I sat there, sitting in front of a hallow owl figurine as I read, I felt the chills. The frost, if you will.

Hand Frost over to your fans of psychological thrillers. It has its horror moments, but it's not on the gruesome side of the horror genre; it's extremely mental, so fans of that side of horror will find this a worthwhile read. Perhaps this is the kind of book, too, that will appeal to paranormal fans (the questions Baer raises in the story DO amount to whether or not other worldly beings are present) or those who are skeptical of paranormal stories (because of the otherworldly beings being present) but want a little of that flavor in their reading. This book was refreshing, surprising, and one that will easily make the list of my 2011 favorites. It's so unexpected and startling, as well as haunting -- but not necessarily in the ways I expected it to be. This was a book about the reader as much as it was a story about the characters.

Finished copy received from the publisher.

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Friday, November 11, 2011

Pathfinder by Orson Scott Card

So, this is my first Orson Scott Card. I know, I need to read Ender's Game. I will eventually. But this book sounded cooler. It involves time travel, and that is always cooler than the competition. 

Pathfinder is actually two stories. The main story follows Rigg, a thirteen year old boy on a planet that seems to be Earth, but has very different government, societies, and religious stories than the Earth we know. Rigg has a unique ability to see the "paths" that others have made. He is the only one he knows who has this ability. When his father is in an accident in the woods, his last words to Rigg before he dies are to instruct him to find his sister. This takes Rigg by surprise since he didn't even know he had a sister.

So Rigg goes off on a quest, picking up a few interesting characters who tag along with him. One of these characters is another boy who has his own special ability. Turns out, his power and Rigg's power work together to allow them to time travel. This comes in handy on their journey, but it must be used carefully since it can also get them in serious trouble.

A lot of the book is fairly standard quest material. Rigg and his crew run into a few bad guys, get captured by soldiers, are robbed, get in fights, have to steal things, and get caught up in royal politics. Along the way, there's serious foreshadowing that there is much more to Rigg's story than just this quest, and of course there is. Which brings me to the second story in the novel.

Each chapter in Pathfinder begins with a few pages about another young man named Ram. Ram is on a space ship on its way to another planet. He is the pilot/commander and the only human awake - the rest are in artificial sleep, and the ship is run by androids called expendables. A lot of these sections are conversations between Ram and an expendable. You'd think that nothing but talk would get a little old, but these sections were by far my favorite of the book. Perceptive readers will figure out how Rigg's and Ram's stories fit together early on, but they'll keep reading to discover the details. I actually found Ram's story more compelling than Rigg's. (I fully admit that this is due in part to the fact that the man who narrated Ram's story had a much more pleasing voice than the one who narrated Rigg's.)

A lot of Pathfinder seems like fantasy initially, but Card has a scientific explanation for everything. Whether these scientific explanations are actually plausible is debatable, but they make for a fascinating read. It's also part of the book's downfall. Pathfinder is explanation-heavy. Don't get me wrong, I like to understand the details of the world the author has created, and science without explanation is just frustrating, but Card takes it a bit far. Every time Rigg time-travels, there is a long explanation of how it works. And the explanations aren't really different at each instance. It becomes repetitive, and it's certainly unnecessary.

It's not just the science that gets tedious. Whenever Rigg attempts to manipulate another character, the narrator goes on to tell the reader exactly how he's doing it and why it works. I suppose what I mean here is that there's plenty of showing, but then there's a lot of telling too. Really, the showing was enough for the reader to understand what's going on. Since I listened to the book on audio, these parts definitely dragged.

Pathfinder is a pretty unique book. Card uses some standard tropes, but he throws in plenty that I haven't read about before anywhere.  It's also smart. Despite the over-explaining, it doesn't talk down to its readers. There's a lot of complex science and multiple story threads that must be weaved together by the reader (or listener). It's refreshing to read a story about a thirteen year old, written for kids/young adults, that is this smart. I would have dug it a lot as a teen. (I liked it a lot as an adult too.)

Audiobook borrowed from my local library.

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Thursday, November 10, 2011

Ultraviolet by R. J. Anderson

It's almost impossible to discuss Ultraviolet by R. J. Anderson in any meaningful way without spoiling it a little, so here is the requisite warning: There are mild spoilers ahead. I won't give away details of major plot points, but I will discuss in a very general way the twist that occurs near the end.

Alison has synesthesia. What this means is that she experiences each of her five senses using a different sense. For example, she can taste words and see sounds. It's bizarre, but the best part about it is this condition/superpower actually exists.

Too bad for Alison that no one recognizes she has it. Instead, Alison thinks she's simply crazy. This feeling is compounded when she witnesses a classmate - a mean girl - disintegrate in front of her. Alison thinks she did it and confesses to it. No one would have believed her, except the mean girl can't be found anywhere, and there's evidence that Alison did something to her. So Alison is promptly taken to a mental institution, where the cops continue to investigate the alleged crime, Alison tries to piece together what actually happened, and the reader tries to figure out if Alison is insane or not. Her synesthesia is finally brought to light by a visiting doctor named Faraday, and Alison starts to believe that she may be able to put her life back together.

And then, a few chapters before the book ends, it takes a serious turn into science fiction territory. I'll be honest and admit that I only picked up Ultraviolet because I knew it would eventually reveal itself as science fiction. I'm not really into psychological dramas, and stories about mental institutions mostly depress me. Therefore I welcomed the twist with open arms. I thought it was clever, made sense in context, and was pretty fascinating.

I know some others don't agree. Lots of readers feel cheated or duped, thinking they were reading a realistic novel only to find out - and right near the end, no less - that it is most definitely not. I can relate. I have a problem with books that do the opposite - make me think I'm reading a science fiction or fantasy novel and then reveal at the end that there's a logical explanation for everything. It rankles most when there's not much set-up for it, or the set-up is so obscure that it might as well not be there. While Anderson's science fiction explanation makes sense here, there really isn't much set-up for it, so I sympathize with readers who were irritated. But I love science fiction, so for me, the twist was terrific.

Of course, readers who enjoy genre-bending novels - and there are plenty of them out there - won't have a problem with Anderson's twist. It's just good to know ahead of time that this book is genre-bending before recommending it to someone.

Overall, Ultraviolet was a solid and enjoyable read. Alison's synesthesia made it unique and will probably be a great draw for readers. There just aren't that many books that talk about this very real condition, and the condition itself is fascinating. Turning Alison's story into science fiction doesn't change the fact that synesthesia truly exists in our own real world.

That said, the book definitely set off my skeeze alarm. Faraday is the romantic interest, and that whole relationship is just... wrong... although I definitely see how he will appeal to certain teenage girls. But he's old enough to have gotten an advanced degree, and he's in a position of power over Alison, and I really didn't like it. Anderson tries to make it sweet, but it just made me feel kind of icky.

Copy borrowed from my local library. Ultraviolet is available now.

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