Tuesday, January 31, 2012

On ARCs, Ethics, & Speaking Up

I've talked this week about how I use ARCs, and the reaction was about what I expected. Most librarians who come in contact with ARCs tend to do similar things. Over the last couple of days, though, the lid's been lifted on how other people use their ARCs, too.

Before I go on, I've pulled up an example of what an ARC looks like, for those who might not be entirely familiar with them. The picture on the left is a good example of what an ARC from a publisher may look like. It's usually paperback (though there are electronic ARCs too) and each of these ARCs comes with a disclaimer right on the cover -- and on the back flap and usually inside, too -- that these books are not for sale. That's not to say they're not to be shared, but that they're not meant to be sold. There should be absolutely no monetary exchange with an ARC, either between the publisher and the reviewer, the reviewer and other reviews, or reviewers and, say, teens who may get a copy as a prize during a summer reading club.

Let me repeat: there is no monetary value in ARCs at all at any level. This means that the publisher makes no money off them (and in fact, they're more costly to produce than a finished copy of a book). Authors make no money off them. Reviewers make no money off them. And they are not, not, not to be sold.

However, they are sold. Regularly.

Hop onto Ebay and do a search for ARC under the "Books" category (or just click here). These things are being sold left and right -- some are books that aren't available yet and they're truly advanced copies of the book and sometimes, the books have been out and the ARCs are still being sold, often at some really discounted price or because they have a signature or any other number of reasons. It seems after big industry conventions or meetings like ALA or BEA, the number of books making their way onto Ebay increases and a lot of times, they're books people are really looking forward to or that were perceived as hard-to-get ARCs at the convention. Just this week, I saw an ARC of Bitterblue up on Ebay for a cool $51 (you can pre-order the same book -- one that'll in fact be a finished, complete copy in hard cover and without error -- for about $14 right now). That's not to say that ARCs aren't sold via Ebay and other similar sites all the time nor that they aren't sometimes sold in indie bookstores, but the fact becomes more apparent and appalling following these events.

It's questionable whether selling and buying ARCs is a legal issue, but that's not what I want to delve into. I want to talk about ethics.

Selling and buying ARCs -- when there is money exchanged -- is unethical at any and every level.

Now that's not to say doing an ARC trade or giveaway or donation is unethical. I don't think it is. There are, in fact, ARC tours meant to help bloggers and librarians get their hands on ARCs to read and review, and the only requirements are time frames for reading and posting a review, as well as paying for shipping of the ARC to the next person in line. The problem emerges when ARCs show up with a price tag attached. When one person puts a price tag on a book that's clearly an unfinished copy, that clearly has a note on it saying the item is not meant for sale, they're practicing something that is unethical.

But the blame isn't just on the person who sells the ARC. It's also on the person who buys it, especially if it's someone who knows better than that. It sort of sounds like a no duh moment, but the fact is, it happens, and it's not as hidden as people think it is. Buying and selling of ARCs is much more common than we like to believe it is.

When someone purchases an ARC, rather than a finished copy of the book, they rob the book of a sale. The author and the publisher and the agent and the editor and everyone else involved in the production of a book sees nothing. The money spent on the ARC goes to the person unethically selling it, rather than to those who worked hard to put together the best finished version of that story.

Something that scares me a little bit about this practice, aside from the unethical nature of it and the fact it takes profit away from those who deserve it for their art, is how easy it is to track down those who are doing it. When I saw the Bitterblue ARC up on Ebay, I was also able to see other ARCs that particular seller had sold, as well as those people who'd purchased ARCs from that seller. One of those who purchased from the seller happened to be a book blogger, whose blog I was able to track down by their user name.  The ease of being able to do that is itself scary, but it's scarier that the very people working toward promoting reading and books are participating in something they know is unethical.

Let me step back a second and return to a couple earlier points I've made here and in my post about how I use ARCs -- though it's not entirely easy to gauge the impact on actually selling copies, my giving the book to a kid doesn't rob the book of a sale. It's entirely possible the book is being sold in some way. More importantly, though, I'm not making a profit from giving the book away. No one loses money in this exchange, and there is only opportunity for it to be made (see: purchasing a finished copy for my library to lend).

When a blogger borrows an ARC from another blogger or participates in an ARC tour, they presumably review and build buzz for it. Again, impossible to gauge sales on this, but that's sort of moot. The blogger isn't profiting, though, in the exchange and sharing.

But when a blogger buys an ARC, they're participating in an unethical exchange of cash for goods. They're not helping spread the word. They're taking away a potential sale. And when a blogger sells an ARC, they're profiting from someone else's work, too.

It sounds extremely hokey to say, but the fact is, books are exciting, and there are times when it feels impossible to wait to read something. When someone unethically lists such a coveted book on a site like Ebay, the temptation to purchase it -- especially at what can sometimes be a really, really cheap price -- may be huge. If the true goal of blogging, though, is to spread the word about books, to help promote those books worth promoting, to help sell books, the only way to be taken seriously is to behave ethically. That means not only holding off on purchasing an ARC unethically, selling an ARC unethically, and it means doing your part in reporting these things when you see them. It means holding fellow bloggers to a high standard of ethics, and it means calling them out when necessary. It's a scary idea, to call someone out, but the fact is, people who do these things aren't necessarily covering their tracks.

You can report these sales via Ebay, and you can forward on these sorts of links on to the marketing folks at relevant pubs.

I don't have a whole lot more to talk about on the topic, other than to say the value in an ARC is the value in what it does for the book. An ARC and a book aren't the same thing -- the ARC precedes the book, and the ARC can help push sales of the book through early buzz. That's why they exist and why bloggers have become part of the publicity machine. If you're truly invested in helping promote books and reading, then you promote the purchase of the book, and you work toward halting the buying and selling of ARCs.

For what it's worth, bloggers who practice the unethical buying and selling of ARCs are harming, rather than helping, everything that bloggers are working toward doing. They're tarnishing the image of the role a blogger can play in sales and in promotion and in buzz. They're also stealing from those who work to produce the content, narrowing, rather than expanding, the experiences the book world can bring.

Anyone curious to learn more about ARCs and the role they play, please take the time to read through Liz Burns's posts here, here, and here.

Continue reading...

Monday, January 30, 2012

Catch & Release by Blythe Woolston

Polly had her life planned out. She had been dating Bridger for a long time, and she was eager to marry him when they finished high school. She'd go to college, get a good job, then she'd settle into having kids. Sounds pretty cut and dry, but it was a life she was happy to prepare for. It was safe and it made her comfortable.

Of course, there's a wrench in the plan, and that wrench went by the name of MRSA -- the flesh-eating infection which somehow, Polly came in contact with. As did many other people in her community. A few people died. But Polly was lucky because she was able to live and she walked away with just a disfigured face.

While being treated for MRSA, Polly meets Odd, one of the football players from her school. She didn't know him before they ended up in the same facility being treated for the same infection. But now that they've had some time to bond, they've grown close. Two people from opposite sides of high school, together, because they're both now trying to figure out where they fit into the world which has turned them both into physical outcasts.

Catch & Release is one part story of survival and one part road trip, sprinkled with a healthy dose of science, an unlikely friendship, and fishing. Woolston's sophomore release, following on the heels of her Morris Award winning The Freak Observer proves she's one to keep an eye on in the young adult world.

Polly and Odd are a strange pair, but they need one another to survive. Sure, they weathered MRSA and came out on the other side with scars to prove they've made it, but the truth is, their real survival story begins where their hospital stay ends. Everything either of them knew about their lives and everything they planned for changed. Bridger and Polly broke up -- even though Bridger claimed he wouldn't do something like that to Polly, he did -- and Odd's got no chance of being back on the football team. Except, for Odd, it's much less about the football team and more about the fact his family is falling apart, and he desperately wants to keep them together as best he can. His grandmother's become more and more mentally unstable, and Odd isn't comfortable with how his parents have brushed her life off as more or less done and gone. When MRSA enters the picture for both Polly and Odd, it's not only representative of dealing with disease; it's about dealing with the fact something out of human control can ravage everything. It causes both not only physical changes that turn them into disfigured outcasts, but it also causes them larger life changes.

Polly and Odd are life's cast offs now, and they don't shy away from expressing that they feel this way. That's part of why they decide to take a trip together. The other part of why they decide to take this trip to Portland is because that's where Bridger's gone. Polly wants desperately to know why he left her, and Odd, who is protective of Polly, wants to have a talk with him too (probably not a talk with nice words). They set off, and along the way, they really connect not only with one another, but with nature. Woolston weaves a smart metaphor within the story about fishing. Polly loves to fish, but she's of the "catch and release" mindset, while Odd believes in catching and taking. Even though we already know how different the two of them are, this metaphor plays big into the final ending of the story and it plays big into how both Polly and Odd come to understand themselves in their post-MRSA lives. Not only that, though, fishing reminds Polly and Odd of who they are on the outside, too: none of the fish they're after are the pretty ones.

Woolston's story is strong, but the writing itself stands out. It's literary and not afraid to be so. Woolston's got a knack for offering what feel like disparate pieces of story and tangents that, when read initially, don't make much sense. As the story progresses, each of these moments comes together into something bigger and maybe even more bizarre. But the beauty is this bizarre quality makes sense; it may make even more sense than books which come together smoothly and flawlessly. I don't want to say the writing is ugly, because it's not, but there's something unique and disturbing in the writing that just works. There is a lot of science in this book, not to be confused with science fiction. One of the things I loved about the writing is I feel I not only got a great story, but I learned something (maybe even too much) about the world. Woolston sinks nature into the plot, and she offers moments of scientific wonder that we get to experience right along with the characters. It's a short book, and it reads a bit jarring, but it couldn't be any other way. The challenge becomes a pay off. The writing captures and reflects Polly and Odd's experiences -- these aren't the smart kids nor the pretty kids. These are real kids, and their dialog, their experiences, and their conclusions are honest and ring true to who they are.

My favorite part of this book was one of the most subtle. There's a subplot about the idea of life and conception, and about how things coming to be is itself a scientific marvel. This ties into a story about antelope and about Polly and her existence. She wasn't born of her parents traditionally, but rather, she was artificially conceived. Woolston is clever in delivering what ends up being one of the most profound moments in the entire story (to both the reader and the characters).

Catch & Release is a story about how life throws curve balls, and there are a million ways to handle them. It's not a quick paced story, despite the length, nor is it one that's necessarily easy to read. It's a challenge, with a pay off that's entirely worth it. Polly and Odd will stick with readers long after finishing the book. Hand this book off to fans of books that are a little bit different, to fans of stories that incorporate science right into the plot line, and to those who love fully-fleshed characters (though I make no promises on how literal that is for either Polly nor Odd). This story will resonate with anyone who has ever felt like an outcast. Without doubt, Woolston is one of the freshest and most startling voices in young adult fiction today with appeal not only to teens, but to adults as well.

Review copy received from the publisher. Catch & Release is available tomorrow (Feb 1).

Continue reading...

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Librarians, Bloggers, & The Lines Between

Before diving into the heavy stuff, a glimpse at the books I picked up at ALA. I used "picked up" loosely because I've become a big believer in talking with publicists at conventions. I love hearing what their favorites are and why (because it's not always the book getting the big publisher push and often it can lead you to a real gem). But yes -- this pile is everything I picked up at Midwinter. It fit into my carry on luggage.

Over the last few conventions, I've posted the titles of books I've picked up, their release dates, and a link to GoodReads for more details. I'm not going to stray from that, but it'll wait a couple of days. I've been told by librarians, teachers, and readers how nice it is to know about what's coming out from the different publishers, so they have it on their radar. I like doing it because it helps keep me organized too.

Something that's come up is blogger behavior at industry conventions like ALA and BEA. In fact, I've talked about it before, been cited about it before. Whenever this conversation comes up, I have to take a step back. The anxiety gets overwhelming. There seems to be some sort of belief there are only black and whites and not shades of gray everywhere. That there are, say, bloggers and there are librarians.

I tread a fine, fine line. I'm a librarian and I'm a blogger. I do both and I love doing both. I don't think they're necessarily different identities nor ones I need to keep separate. And in fact, the more I have become involved in blogging, the more I see them as things that cannot be separated. Being a librarian has made me a better blogger because it's given me deep perspective on the idea of audience and readership. The more I've blogged, the better I've become as a librarian because I've forced myself to read well and read with the idea of audience.

These things just aren't separate for me.

When I go to a conference where there is an exhibit hall, where there will be publicists and opportunities to pick up ARCs, of course I go in with a wish list of some sort. There are books I'm excited about personally and I'd love to get a crack at. Books I'd love to read and fall in love with so I can talk about how much I love the book and why I love the book. Books that in my job as a librarian I'd love to bring back to my teens because they're excited to read them. 

But I don't go into the exhibits with expectations of anything, either as a blogger nor as a librarian nor as a reader nor as a person who has red hair. It's an experience, and it's one best enjoyed by interacting, be it with publicists, colleagues, strangers. When I'm able to take home a book that is on my wish list, it's a plus. When I don't, it's not a minus. It just is! I'll still be able to purchase the book or borrow it from the library when it publishes a few months down the road.

I've never walked away from a convention thinking I didn't get enough. Because the thing is, I don't expect to get anything. Being a librarian and/or a blogger doesn't entitle me to anything. Being a librarian and/or a blogger, though, does come with a set of expectations. A set of standards.

But this is something I've talked about before.

No matter what your title is, no matter what your goal is in attending an industry convention, the only expectation there is is for classy, professional, courteous, kind behavior. It means being thoughtful and considerate. It means behaving in a way that would make whatever you're representing proud to call you a part of that organization (if it's your blog, then it's your blog; if it's your library, then it's your library; if you're there representing yourself, well then that's a pretty big role to make proud, too).

I'm not of the belief that we should close off cool experiences like ALA from non-industry members if it's not necessary. But I am of the belief that there should never be bullying, there should never be swarming, there should never be name calling or teasing or stealing or rule breaking. Treating one another with respect is the only expectation, and that goes for not only attendees, but for attendees toward publicists, publishers, the industry as a whole.

I like to think of the book world as a type of eco-system. We all grow and thrive when we allow one another to do so. This means feeding and keeping one another in check. It means being respectful and thoughtful every step of the way. When you're contributing the good, you get the good back. When you're not, you're only harming your environment.

Stepping back from this a second now, since I really cannot say anything more on that particular subject without sounding like a broken record, I thought I'd talk a little bit about what picking up ARCs means for me. Since I tread that slippery line of blogger and librarian, it means a couple of things.

As a blogger, I like to think my role in the ARC process is one of reading, blogging, and helping build buzz. I like to think, too, that by being a librarian, I reach a certain audience of readers who have a budget behind them -- they actually purchase some of the books I talk about, either for themselves or their organization. And if they don't have the funds, I like to think I'm able to offer to readers books they can talk about with readers in their lives. Either way, my role as a blogger is spreading the word.

Did you know for a lot of teenagers, owning a book is something they will never get to do?

Did you know for a lot of teenagers, the ARC a librarian brings them from a conference may be the only book they actually, truly own?

This was something I never thought about, never knew, until I actually worked with teenagers. Until I had teenagers tell me they'd bring the book right back to me because they didn't want to lose something that belonged to me (an adult). Telling those kids they could keep that book illuminated something inside them. Disbelief. Shock.


I can't even tell you what it feels like to hand a teenager a book you picked up for them at a convention. It's what makes me LOVE being a librarian. Putting that book into their hands. Knowing it will change a life, even if it's in a small, small way.

Moreover, many of the ARCs end up as prizes for various programs at the library, including the summer reading club. Most libraries -- especially smaller ones -- don't have prize budgets. They don't have money to give teens books to keep. After working on the Cybils and attending a couple of conventions, I can amass a lot of ARCs (and finished copies). For what it's worth, I pay for shipping on everything I bring home from a convention. Sometimes upwards of $50, $100, often for books I'm not necessarily keen on myself but that I know will mean a lot to a reader at the library. No, I don't get reimbursed.

But I get to bring books to the library in stacks this tall to give away to teenagers. Books they'll get to peruse and pick from and keep. Books that will mean the world to them because it's something they get to own. I reiterate -- for many of these teens, this is the only time they may actually get to own a book.

The other thing I do with ARCs as a librarian is this:

I cannot possibly read everything being published for teens, so I often go directly to the teens and ask them to write up book reviews for me. In exchange, they get to keep the book (if they want) or they can trade with another teen (which they often do). My teen above writes excellent reviews which I use to promote the books when they've been purchased, and they help me decide whether it's a book worth reading so I can book talk it. And often, I can book talk the book based on the teen's review alone. I get feedback on what the book reminded the teen of (I can't possibly know what all of their experiences are in their world and in their age, and this feedback is priceless to me as a librarian and, as you'd guess, a blogger, too!).

Let me say, I've never felt guilt about picking up an ARC I could put in the hands of a teen.

If you've ever wondered why we don't do a lot of giveaways here at STACKED, this is just one of the reasons. Most ARCs never stick around long enough to give away. I'd rather spend my own money to buy a finished copy of a book I read in ARC form for someone else (and that is why if you've entered and won a giveaway here, the book often comes straight from Amazon or Book Depository).

All of this is to say one thing and one thing only, really: let's be courteous, please. We are all part of the same eco-system, even if our end goals differ. Whether you're a blogger whose goal is to build your readership and build buzz around books or whether your goal as a librarian is to pick up books for your own reading/collection development planning/prizes. What you pick up, what you take, what you demand. You can pollute or you can recycle. Either way, it reflects back upon not just you, but the environment as a whole.

I like a world that keeps spinning.

Continue reading...

Friday, January 27, 2012

Double Take (Actually a Triple-Take)

While looking up the US cover for 172 Hours on the Moon for my Midwinter post earlier this week, I came across the UK cover and immediately knew I had seen it before.

If you're a long-time reader of STACKED (and I hope you are!), you've seen it before too...not once, but twice.

After the Moment by Garret Freymann-Weyr and The Sky Isn't Visible From Here by Felicia C. Sullivan, which Kelly wrote about back in 2009.

That's certainly a popular image.

Continue reading...

Thursday, January 26, 2012

When we fail to do our part

I mentioned in yesterday's wrap-up that I was feeling tremendous guilt post-awards ceremony, but it was something that crept up far before the ceremony began and far before listening in on the Best Fiction for Young Adults session. I should be fair and say that actually, my initial feelings on the subject were of frustration and anger and disappointment. But those are ultimately unfair emotions for what amounts to guilt.

See, one of my favorite books of 2011 -- and one of the most well-written, engaging, exciting, and fresh books of the year for young adults -- was one I had hopes could earn a little Printz sticker. I thought early on it had good potential, as so many of the reviews were positive, and there was a lot of excitement about how daring the book was. The book earned 4 starred reviews, and it showed up on numerous Mock Printz contender lists. Without doubt, this book had something to it that made it stand out.

But this isn't a post about why Imaginary Girls didn't garner a Printz nod.

Every year, the American Library Association's Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA) selects books not only for prestigious awards like the Printz, Morris, Excellence in Non-Fiction, Alex, and Odyssey, but the numerous, hard-working committees also develop a number of "best of" recognition lists, including Amazing Audiobooks for Young Adults, Fabulous Films, Great Graphic Novels, Popular Paperbacks, Quick Picks for Reluctant Readers, and Best Fiction for Young Adults (BFYA). These lists serve a number of purposes, including assisting librarians and other youth advocates in collection development and reader's advisory.

The last list I linked to -- BFYA -- is especially important because it helps whittle down what can be an overwhelming number of books published over the course of a 16-month period (September 1 of the previous calendar year through December 31 of the current calendar year, so for this year's BFYA, titles were published between September 1, 2010 and December 31, 2011). This list recognizes the best of that huge number of books.

So how do these list and award committees get their pool of potentials? It's kind of straight forward: those who serve on the committees work hard all year round to keep on top of the materials being published (or that have been published). Committee members do receive copies from publishers to consider, but the bulk of responsibility falls upon them to keep an eye out for other eligible titles, then they read or watch or listen to the materials and discuss them at length. For a long time, I was under the impression all of the work falls upon the committee; many of the committees even posted their current pool of contenders for everyone else to check out. It felt like one of those worlds those who weren't serving on committees were sort of removed from all together. I'm not sure why I thought that, but it's not true.

All of the linked-to awards and selection lists above also allow for field nominations.

Did you read that?

Anyone -- teachers, librarians, authors, publishers, you, me, a teenager, any average reader -- can field nominate a title for consideration to any of the above lists. As long as you're not the author of that particular book or the publisher of that book, it's fair game. Each of the awards and lists has a link to a form to complete, and once it's filled out completely and correctly, it's sent on to the committee for consideration. Of course, the field nomination needs to actually be eligible for consideration for that particular award or list, and the eligibility information is also available on the individual award/list websites.

While each and every award and selection list committee works differently, the rules are generally about the same. Here's what the rules are about titles being considered for the Printz Award:

Field nominations are encouraged. To be eligible, they must be submitted on the official nomination form. All field nominations must then be seconded by a committee member, and periodically the chair will send a list of field nominations to committee members for this purpose. If, within thirty days, no second is forthcoming, the title will be dropped from consideration. Only those titles that have been nominated (and seconded if field nominations) may be discussed at Midwinter and Annual Conference meetings. Furthermore, all nominated titles must be discussed. Publishers, authors, or editors may not nominate their own titles.

Rules for the Excellence in Non-Fiction Award are similar:

Field suggestions are encouraged. To be eligible, they must be submitted on the official suggestion form. The form will allow for both a rationale and summary of nominated titles. Committee members will be notified of all field suggestions, which are eligible to be considered for nomination by members. Nominated titles must also have a second from a committee member. Only those titles that have been nominated will be discussed at Midwinter and Annual Conference meetings, as well as phone meetings, though a committee member may request that a suggested title be moved to the discussion list and thus treated as a nominated title. Furthermore, all nominated titles must be discussed. To prevent a conflict of interest, publishers, authors, or editors may not nominate titles in which they have a vested interest.

For both of these awards, field nominations are encouraged. As long as the book's eligible, it will be moved to discussion, and if a committee member feels it's worthy of consideration, it moves on.

Now, field nominations for the Best Fiction for Young Adults isn't much different. Again, it's encouraged, and like the awards above, titles nominated from the populous require a committee second:

Field nominations, which are nominations that come from someone who is not a member of the committee, require a second from a BFYA committee member. The chair informs the committee of field nominations, which remain active until all nominations are closed. If no committee member seconds the field nomination, the title is dropped from consideration.

As long as books are properly nominated from the field -- the form's filled out correctly and submitted correctly and the title is eligible per listed requirements -- the books will be considered by the committee. There's not a wall up that separates the committee's considerations from those at large. Rather, the field nominations help populate the pool of contenders for awards and lists. When a field nomination comes in, the committee receives an email. If someone has read it, they'll either second it or discuss why it shouldn't be considered. There are legitimate reasons a book might not be seconded, and once a book is seconded, every member of the committee must read it, as with any nominated title. But thoughtful, smart nominations are always welcome.

There's a caveat to this, but it's one that I've laid out here and that's laid out in the rules. The field nominations need to be thoughtful. The forms that read simply "this is the best book ever" as reason why it should be considered are meaningless. A good nomination will give concrete reasons for why a book should be considered for the list. Talking about the book's appeal and what makes it better than average are important, as is discussing why and how it fits in the context of the award or list. Likewise, the books need to be within the appropriate eligibility time frame. 

Now, going back to my very original comments on this post. I feel extremely guilty this year. Even though I fell in love with Imaginary Girls, even though I thought it was one of the most thought-provoking and enjoyable YA reads this year, I didn't nominate it for anything. It didn't occur to me to do it. I thought to myself, surely someone will nominate this book because how could they not?

And yet, when I saw the final list of BFYA titles under consideration, guess which book was not on that list?

As I mentioned earlier, my first reaction to not seeing it on the list was shock and a bit of outrage. There's no way it didn't meet the criteria. But when I left the auditorium after the announcements of the Youth Media Awards, I felt nothing but guilt. I read that book and I loved that book. But I didn't do anything about putting it into the minds of those serving on the BFYA committee. I assumed someone else had this book on their radar already.

But now, it's too late.

The reason I wanted to write this post was because I wanted to encourage everyone who reads something they like this year to take the time to nominate it if it's eligible for a particular YALSA award or list. These hard-working committees can miss something simply because of how overwhelming their tasks are. They can miss something because they miss something. Human error happens. But anyone who reads can pitch in and do their part, too, so books like Imaginary Girls don't unfairly slip between the cracks.

As of today, nomination forms for the 2013 awards and lists aren't yet open, but they will be starting in February, and I will write up a post when they come out. I've made it a personal goal to spend an hour or two once a month going through every book I've read that has merit and writing up the nomination forms, even if it's for a title that seems obvious it'd be considered. The worst that happens is my field nomination is read and considered a duplicate. The best that happens is a book like Imaginary Girls doesn't miss its chance at consideration for something like the BFYA. I encourage you to do this too -- even if it's not at the same time frame I've made for myself, do take the time to fill out a nomination form for a book you love and that fits the criteria. For the five minutes it takes to complete the form, you are doing your part.

Remember -- anyone can do this.

* A huge thank you to my experts Liz Burns, Sophie Brookover, and Karyn Silverman for their help in the research and fact-checking in this post.

Continue reading...

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

ALA Midwinter 2012: A Wrap-up

Last year, I talked about how I thought that that ALA Midwinter was my favorite conference, but I'm pretty sure this year's ALA Midwinter might top last year's. I've got another post planned for the weekend to talk about some of the books I picked up (which, to be honest, is much smaller than in year's past since I've really come to be selective in what I decide to take). For now, a glimpse at what went down in Dallas.


I got into town late on Thursday and headed to my room, where I was staying with Liz, Stacy, and Sophie. Since all three ladies had committee assignments, they went to bed shortly after I got in. I, however, stayed up quite late instead and had a very long (but fun) Friday.

I hopped down to the convention center in the early afternoon to pick up all the registration stuff, and then went back to the hotel to read for a while before meeting up with a bunch of my favorite librarians for a late lunch. We got a recommendation for a little diner about half a mile from the convention center, so we walked over there and proceeded to not only enjoy delicious sandwiches, but we had an excellent conversation about recent blogging drama, what we've been up to, and more importantly, book talk. We had lengthy chats about recent favorites and not-so-favorites, as well as talked about what we hoped would be seeing new seals on the covers come Monday. As much as we all talk online, it's never quite the same as when we get together in person because in person, the passion is so much greater. Likewise, it's easier to have maybe more pointed and honest discussions.

Following lunch, we went back to a hotel and chatted even further at length about recent book releases and what we're looking forward to reading over the next few months. We talked about the titles we're excited about not only for ourselves, but that we're excited to sell to other readers.

Then we headed over to the convention center, where the exhibits were about to open. As you can see to the left, we had a second to even snap a picture before chaos ensued (not our chaos, but other chaos). We split up when exhibits opened, and I spent most of the time catching up with Janssen. One of the best things about the opening night was running into Siobhan Vivian. Siobhan is one of my buddies, as I brought her out to my library to do a program for the teens this summer. When she said she'd be at Midwinter promoting The List (which I will review closer to pub date in April), we said we'd meet up and sure enough, we literally ran into one another.

After maybe an hour or so wandering the floor, Janssen and I decided we were more interested in relaxing for a while before our big Friday night event, so we went back to my hotel and read for a bit. I like to think that good friends can do that, just spend quiet time together reading. As I've really come to learn over the last few conferences, I feel best when I'm not on the go the entire time; taking breaks is essential to not burning out.

We made our way back to the convention center at 8 for YALSA's first annual trivia night. Liz and I had been scheming for a while about this, and we managed to put together a team of ten ladies to dominate the program. After asking Twitter what we should call ourselves, we ended up becoming Judy and the Blooms (thanks to my college friend Becky, also a librarian). And because my team apparently loved me so much, they designated me as the captain. Not a small thing, mind you, because it meant not only did I have to write down the answers to the questions but in the event of a tie, I would have to answer the tie-breaking question. THE PRESSURE!

We went five rounds, and each of the rounds included questions about YALSA and the YALSA awards -- some were dates, some were books themselves, and some were straight up history of the association. Given we had a pretty rock star team, a lot of the answers could be figured out because someone knew from either having served on a committee or because we had enough reading variety on the team to succeed. After a few rounds of offering nothing to my team except my terrible handwriting skills, I was pleased with myself that the one right answer I did contribute was about Lucy Christopher's book Stolen.

Judy and the Blooms fought the good fight, and we made a nice ruckus at the event. In the end, we tied for second place, missing the coveted first spot by only two points. But, we walked away with audiobooks as prizes (I chose a copy of Blythe Woolston's The Freak Observer) and our team walked away with a new tradition: the Paul Zindel fist bump. See, one of the rounds of trivia was visual (and actually, I lied, I was pretty good at this round, seeing covers are one of my things) and we were having a hard time figuring out who the guy in the top row was. After much brain power, we guessed Paul Zindel and when we were right....the PZ fist bump emerged. Because why not?

After trivia, I did a room switcheroo and ended up going a bit away from downtown and stayed with Janssen and my lovely co-blogger Kimberly. The three of us went to UT together, and it was really nice to spend time just with each other since we haven't been all together for a while. It was an early night (for them) and another late one for me because I have this horrible thing about being unable to sleep in new places. On the bright side of it, I got in more reading time.


We were up bright and early on Saturday because we were attending Little, Brown's librarian preview breakfast. First, I thought I'd show off the feast. On the left you'll see my plate, and I want you to see it because as far as I can remember this is one of the few meals I remembered to eat at the conference. It's easy to forget things like this. Also, I mostly wanted to say it was delicious!

What a blast the program was, too -- rather than only talk about the books coming out this season, we got a chance to see the books coming out through the end of the year, including the new Libba Bray and the new AS King. That also means we got to see the covers of those books before anyone else did.

At the end of the preview portion, there was a surprise for us. It was Peter Brown, who talked to us about the process of putting together his picture books. It was fascinating to hear about the behind the scenes stuff, and Peter himself was a really fun and funny speaker.

After the breakfast, I headed back to the exhibits with Kimberly and Janssen, where we roamed for a little while before heading to a buzz session. Almost every publisher and imprint did one of these 45 minute programs where they talked about a handful of their books coming out in the next six or so months. We saw one for Sterling and St Martin's Press, and they billed it as a battle of the books. The two publicists who did the program were really entertaining, and I added a ton of books to my must-read pile afterward. The photo on the left is a shot of one of the screens with a few of the St Martin's books they buzzed. I love these sessions because they put a lot of things on my radar I may have overlooked and because it helps me think about collection development in the longer-term.

Months ago, Kimberly and I were invited out to lunch with an editor who had been reading our blog, and so after the buzz session, we headed out with her. We had a lovely conversation about both sides of the table -- from hers about editing and about what she loves to read and us about blogging and what we love to read. It was really cool to talk to someone in another part of the book industry; so often, we forget the role an editor plays in the entire process. It was a really nice long lunch, and when Kim and I headed back to the convention center, we only had a few minutes to ourselves before heading to another event -- this time, the Scholastic preview.

The Scholastic preview was way different from any of the previews I've been to before. Rather than have the editors or publicists get up and talk about the books, they had the authors there to do reader's theater with them. They selected a scene from their forthcoming books and read them as though they were performances, so each author took shots reading some role from one another's books. We got to hear from Jordan Sonnenblick, Francisco X Stork, and Siobhan Vivian, among others.

When the Scholastic event wrapped up, Janssen took off to head back home, and Kim and I went back to our hotel for the evening. And in due fashion, she managed to go to sleep that night and I couldn't. But in the mean time, I finished a book -- one which already made my favorites of 2012 list and I'll blog about closer to pub date. The suspense will surely kill you.


We took our time this morning, and we got to the convention center a while after the exhibits opened. Picked up a few books, but really not all that much. An hour or so later, we went to another publisher's preview, this time for Random House. Rather than the buzz session which was a quick overview of titles, this preview was longer and went into more depth about spring releases. Lots of exciting titles coming from them, and I'll talk about that when I post about the books I picked up.

I was about ready to crash at this point, so Kim and I went back to the hotel and relaxed, before shuffling back to the convention center to catch the teen feedback session portion of the Best Fiction for Young Adults panel. For anyone who doesn't know what that is, it's when local teens come and talk about the books being considered for the BFYA list and they talk about what they think about the books. It runs for two hours, and as someone said, it's probably the only time teens get 2 hours of undivided adult attention like that (adults aren't allowed to talk at all -- this is only for the teens). The room was packed with teens -- I'd guess 60 or 70 local teens -- and adults -- easily in the hundreds. For me, this is the most interesting conversation to hear. It gives such truth to the idea different books are meant for different readers. One teen will talk about hating a book and the next will talk about the love for it. After having read an immense number of the books on the BFYA consideration list, it was interesting to see what points the teens would make that either I hadn't considered.

Many books I wanted to hear them talk about they did and many more they didn't. But what stood out was how articulate these teenagers are about their books. Some of the comments that I noted were about things I felt, too -- many teens don't want romance in a book just to have it there. One girl commented about a book she was loving because of its strong female lead but said she hated the book at the end because the strong girl gives it all up for a boy. These things matter to teens, and they're passionate about them.

Following BFYA, Kim went home. I was so sad to say goodbye because, as much as we talk to one another and as much as we work together blogging, we never get to see each other (and for anyone who didn't know already, neither Kim nor I have met Jen in person!). When Kim left, I went back to my hotel to decompress before making the somewhat terrifying walk over to The Iron Cactus for our YA Blogger meet up. One of the things about the meeting in Dallas that surprised me was how deserted the downtown area was at any given time. A little eerie, to say the least.

It's been so fun putting these blogger meet ups together because each one has had a completely different tone to it. The first one, at last year's Midwinter, was much bigger than I expected and it was the first time I got to meet a lot of the people I consider my go-tos when I need something professionally. Then in June when we did it at Annual, our turn out was spectacular, thanks to the help of YA Highway. I got to meet many of the ladies behind that blog, who work their butts off putting together what I think is one of the most valuable and insightful ones around (that's your cue to read it if you're not already). This time, we had a much smaller turn out, but the intimacy was awesome. Rather than hang out at the bar, we actually sat down and did a more formal/informal dinner. I had the chance to meet a lot of people who were new to me, and we had the chance to talk about books we love and books we were hoping to see earn some sort of award on Monday.

I got along real well with the bartender, apparently; I note this since I guess it doesn't surprise anyone but myself this kind of thing happens. After he made me the spectacular margarita pictured above (an Elder, with 1800 Silver Tequila, Patron Cinronge, and St Germaine with pineapple and cinnamon), he made me another drink and didn't charge me for it. The food, drinks, and company were wonderful, and I'm always glad these things have allowed me to meet so many new bloggers and book lovers. I had the chance to talk with one of the wonderful publicity/marketing folks about blogging and about good pitches (because she writes some of the best) and then we got to have a long chat about how much we both love the Jersey Shore. Judge all you want.

The event went longer than I thought, which was a good thing. Great conversation and food was consumed (I cannot get good hatch chiles anywhere but Texas). I ended up going back to the hotel after and, as will be a certain surprise, spent most of the night not sleeping.


Getting up early was surprisingly easy when I hadn't really slept and when I was anticipating attending my first Youth Media Awards ceremony. I've tuned in before via the live web cast, but never have I been able to go. And man, what an experience!

The energy in the room was amazing from start to finish, and if anything, it felt like it grew from the beginning until the end. Getting to be there in the theater with thousands of other people who are as excited and passionate about books as you are is such a neat experience. The picture on the left doesn't do justice to what it was like sitting in the room, which was literally filled from top to bottom. If I had to guess, I'd say there were maybe 2,000 or more folks in the theater.

There's really nothing like it. Being surrounded by some of my favorite people -- the same ones who I'd been making predictions with about potential winners all weekend -- only made it better, as did having an entire back channel via Twitter.

The cheers when books were named -- the cheers especially when John Corey Whaley took not only the Morris but then the Printz -- were unlike anything I'd expected. The silences when books that were long-thought front runners didn't make the list were just as powerful.

When all was said and done, it was interesting to not only think about the titles that did and didn't make it, but also about the tremendous amount of work that goes into making these selections. It's so easy to criticize, but the awards process is much more complicated than anyone knows. I haven't served on a committee, but it was interesting to listen to my roommates who were talk about the process a bit. These folks deserve so much credit for their work.

I did one last walk through the exhibits before heading back to my room on Monday. I debated making it to the Morris/Non-Fiction reception, but I couldn't do it. In retrospect I regret that a little, but I'm eager to see Corey speak at the Printz reception in Anaheim this June. So instead of the reception, I spent most of the day in my hotel room and most of it in the afternoon with the lovely Liz, catching up. Despite rooming together, we probably saw one another a total of ten minutes or so.

All in all, this was a fun and potentially life/career-changing conference. Like last year's ALA and Kid Lit Con, I got so much out of it because it was so much about talking with other people. I have had some really amazing opportunities come out of this conference -- definitely things that were entirely unexpected -- and I'm walking away feeling really re-energized about books and my passion for reading and talking about them.

I'm wrapping up with this as sort of a teaser to a post I have planned for Friday about something that's been bothering me (and something over which I have guilt and angst). I had a really neat reading experience at the same time as this conference, and it all reminded me of the fact books and reading are important. They need to continue being talked about and advocated for. As much as we continue to push for technology, we can't forget the value and power found in reading a book, regardless of format. Words and stories matter immensely.

Continue reading...

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Midwinter 2012

Kelly convinced me to go to Midwinter this year, and I'm so glad she did - it was by far the most enjoyable conference I've been to. Highlights included seeing Kelly and Janssen, who I had not seen in person since BEA in May of 2011, YALSA trivia (where I contributed nothing, but I'm OK with that), chatting with a very cool editor about books over lunch, a fantastic Little Brown preview breakfast (bacon...and books), a terrific Scholastic preview full of reader's theater and genuine syllabub, and meeting a bunch of librarians who I had previously only known through Twitter. (Spoiler: none of them tried to kill me.)

I'm going to leave the more in-depth conference review to Kelly and just discuss a few of the books I picked up. I've learned to be more selective in my choices. The first conference I went to I was just so gobsmacked by the "free books" that I was more than a little grabby. I've learned better, and I'm glad I have. The stack I brought home is made up entirely of books I am excited to read. Links lead to Goodreads.

The List by Siobhan Vivian
The only contemporary on my list! I'm very picky about the contemporary books I read. I need a very strong hook, and this one has it: each year, a list with the "prettiest" and "ugliest" girls in each grade is put up at a high school. Plus, Kelly thinks it's terrific and the author is just so nice. (Yes, I know niceness does not indicate talent, but it does make me feel more favorable about the book anyway.)

Shadows on the Moon by Zoe Marriott
I've become a huge fan of Candlewick lately. I think their selections are almost universally examples of good writing, even if the subject matter is not really up my alley. This one, of course, is perfect for me: an Asian re-telling of Cinderella with a different kind of magic. I like Marriott's blurb on the back: "I never liked Cinderella as a little girl. She seemed like the worst kind of wimp to me, and I hated the fact that she needed someone else to rescue her." Fairy tale re-tellings never go out of style - I would say they are "story templates" and almost all literature owes a debt to them.

I Hunt Killers by Barry Lyga
This is supposed to be "Dexter for teens." It's also my first Barry Lyga. I don't know how I feel about Dexter for teens, but I do like thrillers and murder mysteries, and I certainly like the fact this is in third person past tense.

There Is No Dog by Meg Rosoff
God is a teenage boy named Bob. "Every time he falls in love, Earth erupts in natural disasters." Sounds pretty funny to me.

172 Hours on the Moon by Johan Harstad
Three teens are sent by NASA on a voyage to the moon. Terrifying things ensue. I've heard that this one is scary enough to keep readers up at night. Teen horror novels usually have just the right amount of creepiness for me. Adult horror novels? Too much.

Long Lankin by Lindsey Barraclough
Another creepy title, this time from Candlewick. In case you're unaware, this is where the book gets its title

The Book of Blood and Shadow by Robin Wasserman
A thriller about a girl who sets out to prove her boyfriend is not a murderer. Her quest takes her to Prague and gets her involved with a secret society and conspiracies and lots of other fun stuff. This has been billed as similar to The Da Vinci code, but it seems much darker.

The False Prince by Jennifer A. Nielsen
A fantasy about a kingdom that needs a prince and the boy who auditions to impersonate the king's long-lost son. This sounds like a really fun middle grade.

Winning Team by Dominique Moceanu
Self-explanatory. Regretfully, I could not find an image of this cover online.

Continue reading...

Monday, January 23, 2012

A Pile of Contemporary Reviews

I've blown through a huge number of books in the last couple of weeks, in part due to being able to read anything I want to and part because I'm trying to clear my shelves before the deluge of spring titles come back with me from ALA. A lot of people suffer a mid-winter reading slump, but I'm maybe having the exact opposite right now. As much as I love writing lengthy reviews, it's impossible to do them for every book I read, and I don't want to overlook some of the things worth writing about. Thus, a pile of short(er) reviews -- I'm going to quit calling these things Twitter-style reviews unless they're legitimately 140 characters, which these aren't.

Last year, I read and reviewed Cat Clarke's debut Entangled, so I was really excited to see she had a sophomore novel out at the end of 2011. Torn, much like Entangled, isn't a cut and dry narrative and it features characters you can never be too sure about. This story follows Alice and her classmates as they spend a holiday in the Scottish wilderness. What could have been fun (reluctant fun, that is), turns tragic as Tara -- who we're led to believe is the stereotypical mean girl -- dies after a prank gone terribly wrong. But was it a prank? Alice might have seen what happened and might have buried away the secret truth of why Tara died. Because the thing is, if Alice speaks up, she's only going to get herself in trouble.

Things get trickier, though, as Alice begins a relationship with Tara's brother who is dealing with the heavy grief of losing his sister. As their romance grows, the guilt gnaws away at Alice, and she's left wondering whether speaking up is the right thing or the wrong thing.

Clarke's storytelling left me paranoid for all the right reasons. As much as I got to see what happened, I was also left out of the true intentions behind the prank that killed Tara. Even though Alice told the blow-by-blow of WHAT happened, I knew there was something much more sinister lurking beneath. Moreover, as Alice grew closer to Tara's brother, I couldn't help but rethink my own feelings toward her, too. She made me angry, then guilty, then frustrated, then angry again, then almost sympathetic.

This book features a cast of unlikable female characters, the kind that make you want the worst for them. Interestingly, I found the male characters in this one to be likable and I felt sorry for how they'd become accessories in the girls' game. Clarke's writing skills lie in developing full characters who elicit reaction. I couldn't make my decision about what I wanted Alice to do until the very end of the book, and I think the ability to make me question my own ethical and moral ideas of right and wrong is a skill. It's a well-woven story. My only real criticism for this one was I felt at times the narrative went a little lengthy, but for the most part, these moments were necessary to developing that sense of reader paranoia and character motivation. Fans of Courtney Summers will love this one, as will fans of books like Blake Nelson's Paranoid Park (the comparison of paranoia I felt reading Torn reminded me much of the paranoia I felt reading that one, except in Clarke's case, I never quite felt fully sympathetic for Alice).

Torn isn't available in the US and unfortunately, you can't purchase the paperback via Book Depository, either. But if you're an ebook reader, you CAN buy this one for under $7 via the Book Depository.

Brian James's Life is But a Dream is an exploration into the debilitating mental illness of schizophrenia. From the onset, I was impressed with James's ability to not conflate schizophrenia with dissociative identity disorder (multiple personalities). This story follows Sabrina as she becomes sicker and sicker, to the point her parents choose to institutionalize her for treatment. Prior to institutionalization, Sabrina's life was full of color and fantasy, and she lived in what basically amounted to a dream world. Her experiences in the real world paralleled what most people experience in deep sleep. While it doesn't necessarily sound scary, the effects of such distance from reality isn't pretty and it causes Sabrina to act in ways that put her in danger.

While being treated, Sabrina meets Alec, a boy who convinces her the folks in the institution are working against her. Taking the drugs they're giving her is only harming her, he says, and she begins to believe him. She doesn't want to become brain dead, and she becomes convinced her life will be better if she doesn't go along for the treatment. So she and Alex make an escape plan. To save themselves.

This part is spoiler, so feel free to skip down to the following paragraph. As a reader who knows a bit about schizophrenia (and about Sabrina's experiences with it), I was never quite sure whether Alec actually existed or if he was one of those dreams concocted in Sabrina's mind. The evidence to support either argument is in the book -- he could be real or he could be a figment of her dream world telling her to act a certain way. Even in the end, when Sabrina makes a run for it, it's uncertain either way.

The uncertainty, though, might be the greatest strength in the book. I found the writing to be distancing, and while it works for Sabrina's world and her own voice, it kept me far away from her, too. I couldn't connect with her in any way, and because I wanted to, I became frustrated. It makes sense because that's how these illnesses work, but it doesn't necessarily mean it works for readers. It's a dream world.

Moreover, I found it a little disappointing that the person who'd save Sabrina would be a boy, as I find that a trend that won't stop coming. Even if what I said in the previous paragraph were true, it still doesn't settle too well for me. I'd not come to see Sabrina as much of a romantic or one who'd love a relationship with Alec, but it's something I could have bought had Sabrina's voice been stronger and she let me in. Fans of stories about mental illness will want to read this one, especially those who are interested in schizophrenia because James nails it (I'd say textbook nails it, but textbooks can leave out the emotional side of the illness, and James offers that quite well). Life is But a Dream will be available in March.

Girl by Blake Nelson is a classic story, and finally, Nelson's written and published the follow up, answering the question of what happened to Andrea Marr. Dream School follows the infamous, snarky, and intelligent Andrea as she departs her beloved city of Portland to attend Wellington College in Connecticut -- it's a prestigious school, and she's eager for the east coast college experience. She's got idealized notions of what this lifestyle will be, many borne out of things she's seen on tv and read in books and magazines. Except, of course, things aren't as pristine or great as she imagined, and it's challenging for her to come to terms with the truth that what she thought she'd be getting at Wellington and what she really gets are Wellington are two entirely different things.

As much as I loved Andrea in Girl, I think I loved her even more here because she's really developed a great sense of self. Although her voice is still similar, her thinking is much clearer, and it's obvious from the writing alone how much she's grown. Andrea puts herself into foreign experiences at Wellington, many of which she dreamed about and many of which were unexpected. She's meeting new people, taking classes that interest and challenge her, making films, and -- the one thing that's wholly her own -- she's writing. She wants to break into the world, though, even if it kills her. But the thing is, she's not doing all that great at school and fitting in is hard. The more she tries, the more she feels like she's failing. Instead of blaming herself, though, she embraces the fact she is simply different and the things she thought she'd become because of a place aren't the things she'll become. She'll evolve more into herself, rather than an idea of herself.

Dream School takes place in 1994, but I can't say I felt like I was reading a story set in the 90s. It felt contemporary because everything Andrea faces is what teens and early 20-somethings face today. Being at college, she's met with sex and drugs in a way that's shocking to her but it's handled realistically and bluntly (as it would be in the situation). Despite her participation in some of these activities, she doesn't condone them or consider them. She's honest about depicting a lot of these acts as status symbols, rather than enjoyable activities. This all comes to a head, of course, when Andrea and her friend turn to their film making skills. What seems like an inconsequential activity, though, determines the rest of her future at Wellington, and I like to think it impacts her life in a much greater way.

Even though the characters are older than traditional YA book characters, I'd shelve this one beside Girl in the young adult section. There are very visual depictions of drug use, but it's nothing teen readers haven't already seen on television and frankly, Andrea does a good job of giving us her feelings on it. This is a book that is heavy on voice and character development and one I think many readers preparing to go to college will dig. You can read this without having read Girl, but I think the impact would be weaker.

Following on the heels of other ballet books like Sophie Fleck's Bunheads and Stasia Ward Kehoe's Audition, debut author Martha Schabas takes us into the competitive world of ballet school in Various Positions, set in Toronto. Georgia's made the cut to the elite ballet school in the city, and at the same time, her family is falling apart. Falling to shambles, even, and the truths that Georgia learns about how her mother and father came together are hard on her. Ballet is a great distraction, and she's been lucky enough to make friends, despite the air of competition. Then, as Georgia becomes receiving more one-on-one attention Roderick, from one of the harshest (and most talked about) teachers in the academy, she finds herself spiraling into a very sexually-charged world. Her body isn't just for dance.

This was a longer read, and I don't necessarily think the length was a strength, either. Georgia's age is hard to buy into and part of the reason is that her voice sounds mature but her actions are quite immature. The book begins with Georgia trying out for the academy in grade 8, and by the end, she's trying out for grade 10. While reading, I was unable to gauge passage of time because there weren't enough moments invested in performance or practice. What should have been a grounding force in the story -- a goal to read vis a vis the ballet story thread -- instead falls apart early in the book and becomes entangled in a sex scandal.

Georgia's discovered her body is a sexual tool, and she learns via the internet how to use it as such. It's sort of her way to work through the anger and resentment she has toward her parents, but it's also become a way for her to gain the attention of Roderick, who she is convinced has a major crush on her. As a reader, I never got that out of what she told me, nor through Roderick's actions. And seeing how mature Georgia's voice read, it was hard for me to wrap my mind around her perceiving what he was doing professionally as coming on to her.

The most challenging part of this storyline was that I want to blame Georgia for what happened between her and Roderick because the truth is, she manipulated him. She knows this, too. But Roderick did reciprocate amid the pressure, so the fault is not entirely hers. However, I think many readers will feel the same way I did, which was that Georgia didn't really garner any sympathy for her actions. A few pages after this incident which rattles the entire academy, Georgia is then thrust into another position involving sex and a boy, and while I think it was meant to build our feelings for her, it was too late. Not only was it too late, but I thought the message emerging from this book was an uncomfortable one about how males only look at females as sexual objects. It's a theme that emerged not only in the actual encounters themselves, but also in how obsessed Georgia became in keeping her fellow academy members on top of their own bodies and weight issues. I found the flaws outweighed the potential payoff in the story, particularly in the end. Had the broken family story line played heavier into the plot, and the ballet line hadn't become secondary to the sex scandal, this could have been a much stronger book. Likewise, pulling back the focus to those themes would have made the writing tighter and the story more strongly paced. It'd have likely helped solve the passage of time challenge, as well. Too many things were packed into this one to make any of them succeed in the way they could have.

Various Positions is obviously a double entendre, and readers should know the story is more about sexuality and less about ballet. I don't think it will turn off readers who want ballet in their stories, but this isn't going to strike the same chords as either Fleck or Kehoe's recent titles. Various Positions will publish on February 14.

Review copies of each of the titles were provided by the publisher, except for Torn, which I purchased myself.

Continue reading...

Friday, January 20, 2012

Never Eighteen by Megan Bostic

17-year-old Austin has one last chance to say and do the things he's always wanted to do before he dies. He's got terminal cancer, and he wants to go out on his own terms, so he knows this is one of the last weekends he'll be able to hold himself together enough to go see the people he needs to see. Along with best friend/crush Kaylee, he meets up with a host of people from his life -- both past and present -- to tell them what he thinks about them and what he thinks they should do to seize the most out of their own lives.

Megan Bostic's debut Never Eighteen is a short book, ringing in at about 200 pages, and it's fast-paced. I'm a slower reader and I got through it in about two hours. It starts out immediately -- there's not really an introduction to Austin or why he asks Kaylee to take him around Tacoma and on to Seattle, but as readers, we have an idea why. So does Kaylee, with whom Austin spends a long time, but neither of them are blatant in why they're doing what they're doing.

We're on this trip with Austin and Kaylee as readers, and we're introduced to a host of people almost immediately. Austin goes into their lives, tells them what he needs to tell them, and then he exits, at peace with what he's done. The problem here is that as readers, we have no idea how deep or important these connections to Austin are. These characters are sorely underdeveloped; we only get the apology or advice-giving end via Austin as it happens. Likewise, all of these characters we meet have very heavy problems in their lives. One girl is the victim of an abusive boyfriend (Austin tells her to get out of the relationship because she's worth more than that -- and while that's one of the moments in the book you can't help argue with, there's also no context for why or how or any reason why the reader should believe Austin's assessment of the situation in the scant few pages it runs); one boy he meets is gay but has been hiding it from everyone; one of the people is the mother of his dead best friend; and then there is Austin's father, from whom we learn that the reason he and Austin's mother broke up was because his mother cheated on him (and that is explained away by the father as being an okay thing because Austin's grandmother meddled in their relationship too much) and Austin's grandmother, who Austin begs to have a relationship again with his mother since she'll be lonely soon. This is only the start of the cast of people involved in the story.

While I think the idea of the book is one that's intriguing and engaging, the execution didn't work. Aside from the host of problem-laden, underdeveloped characters, there's also the fact that Austin himself isn't all that likable. I'm a big fan of unlikable characters, but the reason Austin didn't work for me was because he's also underdeveloped. He's a cancer kid and that's about it. We learn through the course of his conversations with other people that he's caring and we learn he has had a long-time crush on Kaylee. But really, what he's doing here in offering people advice into how to live their lives didn't work for me. I don't know enough about him to know how much he cares vs how much he wants people to appreciate their lives because he can't have any more of his. Additionally -- and this is spoiler material, so skip on down to the next paragraph if you don't want it -- it's Austin who makes the decision to not go through another round of chemo because he's ready to die. After telling other people to live their lives to the fullest and after coming off as sort of a hero-type in the story, he gives himself up. I get it, and Austin's explanation for it makes sense, but this was the moment I decided I didn't actually know anything about Austin himself other than his dying wish was to be a hero to everyone else. It made me dislike him because he felt disingenuous. Worse, though, it made me feel guilty for disliking him because he's dying of cancer.

I have a very hard time with books about cancer or other body-ravaging diseases because there is an unfair onus placed upon the reader. Whereas books about terrible events become circumstantial (car crashes happen because of something else, mental illness is part nature and part nurture, drugs and alcohol happen because of choices made, etc.), books about things like cancer are not. That's part of why they're high emotion books. The problem is that readers come to the book with this baggage already. They come with awareness that someone in the book is quite possibly going to die because of something over which they can exert no control. There is an automatic sympathy for a character, whether or not that's fair. In Never Eighteen, I felt immense guilt for not liking Austin because he has cancer. It made me as a reader feel like a bad person, which in turn made me even more frustrated as a reader. Austin should have been able to stand on his own as a character, whether or not he was going to die or live, and I don't feel like he does.

I'm glad that Austin had the chance to connect with Kaylee in a way that meant a lot to him and to her, but I didn't find Kaylee an interesting character, either. She was an accessory to Austin's trip quite literally; he needed a ride, and she was there to offer it. It wasn't until the very end of the book I got why she was so important to him, and it felt too late.

What the lack of development did was distance me from the emotional impact this story could have had. While it could easily be explained as the trip Austin would have wanted because he himself needs that emotional distance to really achieve what he wants to achieve in his final days, it leaves the readers out of the story. The end of the book, which should have elicited certain feelings from me, had me more interested in skimming than investing. I felt frustrated because of how little I really knew about Austin and about how little I knew about his real feelings for Kaylee. It wasn't that I didn't care; it was that I knew what was coming and being so removed from the story and characters that it felt like something happening to a complete stranger, rather than someone I'd come to know.

Despite all of the issues I had with the book, this one will have definite reader appeal. It's fast paced, the writing is serviceable, and the idea of getting the chance to have a final word with everyone you want a final moment with is a unique twist on the genre. This one will have particular appeal to reluctant readers, too. I'm demanding of characters, and reluctant readers are, too, but they're more likely to overlook the challenges I had in exchange for story -- and there's a story here, no doubt. While reading this book, I couldn't help but be somewhat reminded of Jay Asher's 13 Reasons Why -- they're not the same topically, but the idea of having one word with people who have had an impact on your life is the same. Except in Never Eighteen, Austin is alive and getting the chance. I can see fans of Asher's book interested in Bostic's title, as will fans of stories about disease (though it plays a very little role in the book, other than being the catalyst to every other event).

Review copy received from the publisher. Never Eighteen is available now.

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Thursday, January 19, 2012

At the Hub: January Debuts

I'm over at YALSA's The Hub blog today, talking about January debut ya novels. I am impressed with the sheer number of debuts this month. I'd love if you dropped by there and left a comment on which of those books interests you the most, and hopefully, you'll find a new title or two to add to your to-be-read piles.

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