Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Cover Trend: The Almost-Kiss

So here's a 2012 cover trend that can be shelved beside girls hanging out under water and getting up close and personal with shoes and that's the almost-kiss. It's by no means a new trend, but it's one that the more I see it, the less I can distinguish the books from one another -- and some are even the same teens in the picture. For me as an adult reader (and I know I'm not the target demographic), these covers aren't the kind I like being seen in public with. In fact, I'll take off the dust jacket for hardcover books that have the almost-kiss on the cover. But more frustrating, I think, is not all of these books are about the romance. Some are, but not all of them are, and I think in depicting the cover image as the almost-kiss, the book is being branded as only one thing. It'll automatically turn off many readers -- the Vivian cover I linked to above? My teens really don't like it because it makes the book look like it's a romance when in fact, it's a story with a lot of great feminist messages in it.

Here's a sample of this year's almost-kiss covers. Are there others? What are your thoughts? All descriptions are from WorldCat.

When You Were Mine by Rebecca Serle (May 1, 2012): Seniors Rosaline Caplet and Rob Monteg, neighbors and best friends, have finally become a couple at their Southern California high school, but when Rosie's estranged cousin Juliet moves back into town and pursues Rob in an unstable, needy, and vindictive manner, Rosie starts to worry not just about Rob's emotions, but about his very life.

Something Like Normal by Trish Doller (June 19, 2012): When Travis returns home from Afghanistan, his parents are splitting up, his brother has stolen his girlfriend and car, and he has nightmares of his best friend getting killed but when he runs into Harper, a girl who has despised him since middle school, life actually starts looking up.

Try Not to Breathe by Jennifer R Hubbard (available now):  The summer Ryan is released from a mental hospital following his suicide attempt, he meets Nicki, who gets him to share his darkest secrets while hiding secrets of her own.

First Comes Love by Katie Kacvinsky (May 8, 2012): Ten months after his twin sister dies, with his family falling apart, Gray Thomas meets an unusual girl at the community college who makes him think life is interesting again.

The Thing About the Truth by Lauren Barnholdt (July 10, 2012): In this story told from alternating viewpoints, seventeen-year-old Kelsey seeks to redeem her formerly flawless reputation with the help of a senator's sexy but arrogant son, who has ulterior motives.

I'm not entirely sure how fitting the covers are for the books, though some of them hint at the romance that'll emerge in the story. It's a bonus we get the windswept hair in one of them, too.

Continue reading...

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Wanderlove by Kirsten Hubbard

Bria's just graduated high school, and the future lies open ahead of her. Except, she doesn't quite see it. She feels stuck. Lost, even. Everything she's ever felt passionate about is no longer making her feel what she once felt; that excitement has faded. Then one day she runs across a brochure advertising the Global Vagabonds and decides this no strings attached adventure to Central America is exactly what she needs.

When she gets there, though, the Global Vagabonds aren't what she expected at all. It's guided group tours -- not what Bria wants at all. Not to mention, Bria's decades younger than anyone else on the trip. She wants what the girl she sat beside on the plane has ahead of her: a trip of backpacking, adventuring, exploring, and without set agendas. After a trip to one of Central America's most famous market places, Bria takes up a boy on an offer to visit their camp (away from the Global Vagabonds's reserved housing).

Turns out, throwing caution to the wind and leaving the pre-planned activities of the group was the best thing that could happen to Bria.

Wanderlove is a story about travel, but more than that, it's a story about finding yourself. As readers, we know something's going on with Bria to make her lose her passion in art and in the open future ahead of her, but we're not told what happened. It's not until she's ditched her tour group and hooks up with Rowan (and his sister) we get to know what's going on. Bria's boyfriend, the one who encouraged her to apply to one of Southern California's most renowned art schools, dumped her. And he didn't just dump her; he left her high and dry after she was accepted to the art school and he wasn't. Art school was his idea, and she applied so she could stay close to him. Bria explains these things to Rowan and the reader slowly, and as she does, we begin to understand why she's lost so much of her passion. When Toby dumped her, she lost her sense of self and her plans for the future. All of the things she'd planned -- all the things revolving around him because she'd given so much for him -- just fell apart.

Wanderlove focuses primarily on Bria and Rowan, and both characters are private, reserved, and quite thoughtful. The thing is, those characteristics manifest so differently in each of them. Bria is afraid to make commitments, while Rowan refuses to make commitments because he's been burned in the past. In traveling together, though, they learn to trust one another and they come to understand the baggage one another carries. There's a real breaking down to build back up again, and it's vital to both characters. What I liked so much was that both were hurting, and neither of them took it upon themselves to say they were hurting. They didn't lay their problems out for one another left and right. It's a very gradual process of learning to trust and learning to work through. Moreover, it's also a very gradual process of learning to love themselves and learning that maybe, it's okay to love one another, too. Yes, there's romance and yearning in both Bria and Rowan -- something you'd expect because of their isolation and their shared interest in traveling -- but it's by no means an instant chemistry. Instead, they have to work toward it, and both characters are reluctant to make any moves with one another. It's careful and tenuous, and in being that way, I found myself rooting for them to end up together.

I think the line in the whole book that stood out to me, and one that I think will stand out to most readers is one Bria utters: "My problems might be superficial on a global scale, but they're real to me." In a field of contemporary YA literature with heavy issues, it was refreshing to read a story where the main character's biggest problem is simply feeling lost and sad after a relationship she'd invested so much time into. Rowan's baggage is a bit heavier, but this isn't really his story. It's Bria's. So many readers will relate to her because she's real and she's having a hard time dealing with issues that face typical teen readers.

Setting is one of the defining characteristics of Wanderlove. Hubbard writes Central America with expertise, and it was easy to fall into and love the world. It's lush and vibrant, and it's the ideal setting to allow Bria to grow. It inspired Bria to reconnect not only with herself, but also with her art. She brought a sketchbook with her on her trip, and it's not until she's in the landscape that she's able to finally pick up her pencil again and sketch. Her eyes are open to the world around her and she realizes she can grasp it with the artistic talent she has inside her -- the experiences here and the art she can make belong wholly to her. At the onset of her time with Rowan, Bria is warned by Rowan's sister that he can experience bouts of wanderlove. While this worries Bria, the truth is that she discovers she and Rowan share this sense of desire to love and appreciate the world around them.

There's a great metaphor in the setting, as well: Bria's breaking away from her group and the comfort and security of a planned out route is, of course, symbolic of learning how to explore. It's important for her to have this time to figure it out on her own, and she does. Even though she spends much of the story with Rowan, she retreats to her sketch book to have this exploration. She still has something wholly her own, and when this is compromised, we get to not only see her true colors, but Rowan's, as well. Although it could be easy for Bria to become a girl dependent on a boy -- remember, the story starts because Toby breaks up with her and suddenly, her plans for the future that was once developed around him are shaken -- she's not. She's an independent spirit, and she never strays from it. I think that's what made the romance so satisfying. It was on her own accord the entire time.

One more element worth mentioning is that this book also includes sketches. Bria's got her sketchbook, but we actually get to see it. Hubbard provides not only the story in the book, but also the illustrations. There aren't a lot, so it's hardly a graphic novel, but the illustrations gave the setting and the story that much more impact. I feel like I got to know Bria even better because of the sketches. It was like peeking right into her private thoughts.

Wanderlove will appeal to readers who love travel stories, as well as those who appreciate contemporary ya stories but don't necessarily want to read one dealing with heavy issues. Bria is an average girl, and never once is that a bad thing. Readers who like character-driven stories will find Bria's one worth watching. Kirsten Hubbard impressed me with her debut novel, Like Mandarin, and I have to say she impressed me just as much with Wanderlove. She's one to keep an eye on, as her writing and her story telling are compelling, engaging, and easy to relate to, both as a teen and as a female. Will this story work for male readers? Some, maybe. But I don't think there's anything wrong in saying Hubbard has a knack for tapping into the female mind and tinkering with some of the issues girls feel they're alone in having. She does it well.

Review copy received from the publisher. Wanderlove will be available March 13.

Continue reading...

Monday, February 27, 2012

So You Want to Read YA?: Kelly's Picks

One of the reasons I wanted to start a blog -- and one of the reasons I wanted to make it a group blog -- was not just because I love talking about books, but because I like learning about new books from other readers. And I think anyone who has spent a little time here knows that Kim, Jen, and I have some similarities in our reading preferences, but we also have a lot of differences. I'm able to be a better reader and a better librarian because of them and because of the other great bloggers who dedicate time and effort into talking about books.

Over the course of blogging and being a librarian, one of the questions that I think about and one of the questions I get asked a lot is the question that prompted this series: where do you start when you want to start reading young adult fiction? It sounds like a daunting question, but for the most part, I feel my librarian background has helped me think about how to best answer it. You ask the person asking what sorts of books they like reading, and from there, you can figure out whether they're genre readers or they want contemporary reads or if they just want a good book, regardless of category.

I feel like I've talked at length about books I really like and about books I recommend, especially when it comes to contemporary ya fiction. As I thought about this question, I thought about how I could answer it a little bit differently.

So I focused in on the last group of new-to-ya fiction readers. The ones who just want a good book. But rather than give a list of "good books," I'm breaking it down by specific writing or story elements which make the book stand out, and I'm keeping my list fairly short. You're getting eight titles in four categories.

And not only will some of these authors be sharing their answers to this question over the course of this series, but I will also be giving away a half of these titles at the end of this post.

I'm hoping some of these might be off-the-beaten-path answers.

Knock-out voice:

The biggest, most powerful element of a good YA story for me is voice. You hear the character and you feel the character through it. It's a distinct style and manner of writing, and when it's good, you just know it is good. A book with voice sticks with you well after you finish the story, and you think more about that character than the story itself. I've got two memorable titles for this category that I think are must-reads for anyone looking to see an example of true voice in a YA novel. 

The Sky Always Hears Me (And The Hills Don't Mind) by Kirstin Cronn-Mills: I've talked about how much Morgan's voice stands out in my review from earlier this year. Even months after reading this one, I'm impressed with how much I remember of the story, of the emotional tug inside of it, simply because I can hear Morgan's voice in my head.

Split by Swati Avasthi: There's a reason this book made the Cybils short list, and there's a reason it wont the Cybils last year, and that reason is that Jace has an amazing voice. It's raw and wry, and it's honest. He's in a desperate and painful situation, and while the story is about this pain, it's Jace's voice that makes it palpable and searing.

Classics still holding strong:

We all know YA fiction has changed a lot over the last few years and the last few decades. But there are classics that still hit all the right notes.

Celine by Brock Cole: Barring the cover, this book is nothing short of what a YA book should be and it's one that stands the test of time. First, this book could have fallen right into my great voice category because 16-year-old Celine has a memorable one. More than that, though, this is the story of a girl who wants to become an artist, and through her art she discovers who she is. Her family's not the most stable, and she's unsure of the relationship she's in -- but the thing that trumps all that is a friendship she forges with a boy in her apartment complex. Celine is snarky and funny without being too smart or too self-aware and even twenty-some years after being published, it is still a must-read and relevant.

The Pigman by Paul Zindel: This was a book I remembered reading and loving in middle school, and I revisited it recently and it's still one that stands up. Zindel develops two fully-realized characters in John and Lorraine and he makes use of first-person multiple points of view well. But more than that, this is a story about friendship inside and outside of high school and it cuts to the meat of what it means to have relationships. What I didn't remember about the book that I appreciated a lot more on my recent reread? These kids make bad decisions, and these kids drink and swear and party. They have crummy home lives. John and Lorraine are also lower middle class kids, and they're well aware they don't always fit in because of this. This book explores self-realization, and while there is a tiny bit of dating to the story -- it begins with a prank phone call in the age before caller ID -- that won't change the fact it's a must read.

Physically-chilling stories:

I think a hallmark of really good novel is it impacts you emotionally. You can have a great action-driven novel for sure, but the reason it is great is because it's tapped something emotionally. You find yourself caring either about the character or the story.

An element that's begun to stand out for me more and more as a reader, though, is the physical impact of a book. I'm not talking about the tears, though that happened in both of these books for me. I'm talking about books that tear apart your insides and that make you feel like you're going to be sick. It's part the author's ability to write well, and it's part the author's ability to tackle a situation that demands that sort of reaction, too. These stories transcend genre, but both books that left me feeling physically weak happen to be (surprise) contemporary and both happen to tackle bullying. And as much as we want to pretend it's the extreme, these are stories teens today are living daily. As far as I'm concerned, these are must-reads for anyone who works with teens because they shed light into what's often unseen by adults.

Some Girls Are by Courtney Summers: When Regina's knocked out of her clique, the girls she once called friends are out for revenge. And it won't be pretty. Whenever I sell this book to someone, I tell them it's like "Mean Girls," but with actual mean girls. This novel is relentless and it's brutal, and it left me sick to my stomach both times I read it. As much as I'd like to think this sort of story is just that -- story -- the fact is, it's not. Knowing this happens made the pain in reading it even stronger. Bonus points to Summers for not wrapping this book up tidily, either. There's not a firm resolution and that uncertainty adds another layer to the physical experience of the story.

Leverage by Joshua Cohen: Taking it from the male perspective is Cohen, who manages to tackle not only bullying, but hazing (which is a whole different form of bullying). This is the guy's locker room. It's dirty, it's gritty, and it's painful to read. The two main characters in the story have powerful voices, but it's the situations into which they're thrown that are the physically tough parts to read. This is one that requires a few breaks while reading to catch some relief and it does not shy away from depicting cruelty.

Setting as character

Something I pay attention while reading is setting. Setting can give so much insight into character and into the story, and sometimes, setting becomes a character in and of itself. There are a ton of books for me that fall into the great settings category, but in keeping with the tradition, here are two that do it very, very well.

Stolen by Lucy Christopher: When people think of this book, the first thing they tend to think about or associate with it is that it's the book about Stockholm Syndrome. And while that's certainly true and the bulk of the story, for me, one of the most memorable aspects of the story is the setting. It's set in the desolate and desperate Australian desert, and that setting only further enhances the struggle in the story. I can't see this story working as well in any setting other than the one it's in and I don't want to separate setting from story here, either.

Ten Cents a Dance by Christine Fletcher: I gravitate to stories set in Chicago, since I'm familiar with the city and am familiar with its history and development. It's the historical time frame coupled with the gritty, working-class Back of the Yards neighborhood in Chicago that makes this book's setting sing. Ruby, the main character, lives with her mother and they are poor, just like the bulk of families living in the neighborhood. Her solution? To become a taxi dancer and make the money they need to live better lives. Fletcher's story gives us not only the incredible setting of the Yards neighborhood (if you didn't click the link above -- think Upton Sinclair's The Jungle) with the rich neighborhood where taxi dancing brings in the bucks.

There you have it -- eight titles I think answer the bill of where to start in YA if you're looking for something specific to read in the YA realm. I know I left out big names. I know I left out perennials. But I've got an inkling those titles will make their way into this series.

Because I want other people to experience some of these titles, I'm going to give a few of these away! Up for grabs are finished copies of The Sky Always Hears Me (And the Hills Don't Mind), Some Girls Are, and The Pigman, as well as an advanced reader's copy of Leverage. I like to think of it as a starter kit for the good stuff in YA lit. One person will win all four titles, and I'll draw a winner March 25.

Continue reading...

Saturday, February 25, 2012

When you aren't allowed in the building

This isn't usually a topic I'd talk about on STACKED -- I'd take it over to my library-related blog -- but this is such an important issue and one that impacts anyone who loves and advocates for ya books, so I'm going to talk about it here.

You know I am fired up this year about making sure books I care about are nominated for any of YALSA's award and selection lists. And you know I've talked about how anyone can nominate books they think are worthy of consideration for those award and selection lists. That's a huge deal and something not many people knew about. I think I've beat this horse pretty well.

Wednesday night, I went to go look at a book list on YALSA's site and came across something that bothered me (click to enlarge):

What was once an open and freely accessible resource of YALSA book award and book list information was suddenly requiring me to log in to my YALSA account to access. I clicked around for quite a while without logging into my account and realized that not only could I not see any of the award or selection lists without signing in, but I couldn't even see what the award or book lists were without logging in. That means, I had no idea how many awards there were, what they were called, what the criteria were for books to be considered for any of the lists, nor anything else related to any of YALSA's award or book lists. There was nothing, absolutely nothing, accessible about the award nor book lists without logging into my account.

Part of my professional responsibility as a librarian, at least in my head, is belonging to my professional association. It's very pricey, especially since I pay for the membership on my own and don't have an organization that pays it for me. To be a member of YALSA, you must also be a member of ALA -- you can't just be a member of YALSA. Yearly membership into ALA for me costs $100, and my membership into YALSA costs $50 (I'm also a member of PLA and ALSC, which are also additional costs). I think it's a steep price to pay each year, but it's one I make. Paying means I'm a member and I help support the creation and development of these award and selection lists, among a host of other things. It gives me the ability to have a say in the organization, as well. It's $150 I spend because it supports many things I am passionate about and allows me to have a say in many of these arenas.

When I hit the fire walled screen on Wednesday night and found out I needed to log in to my account to access, I was at first confused. Why would my professional organization hide information about one of the biggest things they do? Why would they require me to log in to see something that's always been openly accessible and available? I passed along the link to a non-member to see whether it was just me, and I came to find out that no, it wasn't just me.

No one could access these lists from YALSA's site without logging into an account of some sort. 

For me, this means another couple of clicks on the screen to log in to my account. It's not the biggest deal in the world on a practical level. And non-YALSA members can also access the lists and information about the awards by filling out a short form that asks for a name, email address, and what products or services they might be interested in from YALSA. It also opts them into being signed up for YALSA email.

Let's step back a second here. To access even information about what awards or selection lists YALSA makes each year, you have to log into either your YALSA account or provide your personal information to the organization and be opted in to an email list. No longer can you access these freely from the YALSA site without information being collected about you. No longer can you hop onto YALSA's site to look at what books were Alex Award winners last year. No longer can you look at the criteria for Printz Award books. No longer do you even know how many award or selection lists there are without logging into some kind of account. No longer can you nominate a book for a list without breaking through the fire wall.

I'm disturbed by this because it chokes access to information. More than that, though, I'm bothered that nothing was said about this change in access. Librarians strive to prove access to information and our goal is always to make it as painless as possible. But here, YALSA, the biggest professional organization for young adult library services, has put up a barrier to information about the biggest honors they bestow upon ya literature each year.

And they did it without telling anyone.

After a little investigation, it was discovered that there was a Board of Directors document discussing a potential change in access to information about these award and selection lists. The document suggests that there should be a change in access so that due-paying YALSA members can access privileged information. More specifically, annotated lists would be put behind a fire wall and made members only, but general information about the award and selection lists, as well as the non-annotated lists, would still be freely accessible for anyone. This change makes sense to me -- as someone who pays the dues, getting the benefit of an annotated list, one that not everyone can access, seems fair. It's a small perk for paying the money each year to keep the organization going.

However, that is not what happened. Rather than hide simply the annotated lists behind a log in screen, YALSA has hidden everything behind a log in screen, and this change in policy was never discussed. It is not in any Board document, it was not discussed with membership, it was not put to vote, and it was certainly not shared on their website nor in any of their communications. This was a decision made behind closed doors somewhere.

Accessing any information about book award and selection lists is now a privilege. 

For me, this means another couple of clicks on the screen to log in to my account. It's not a big deal, but it's an extra step in accessing information I need. And people who aren't members of YALSA can still access the lists by filling out a small form on the website. The problem is, YALSA's now collecting your information and it's now forcing you into their email list. This isn't an opt-out situation but an opt-in. You can't choose not to be forced into their mailing list. 

Think about it this way: say you're a library patron whose library has always allowed anyone to use the computers in the building. You don't need to log into them with a library card, since you can just use one if it's open. One day, though, there's a change in the policy. It's not written down anywhere but you find out when you go sit at a computer and discover you need some kind of ID number and password to sign in. You're a little frustrated because no one told you there was a change, but you go to the librarian and sign up for a library card to get your log in information. Not a huge deal, but an extra step in the process.

Except in this scenario -- with the YALSA list access -- you aren't even allowed in the building without some sort of ID. You aren't even allowed to see what the library can offer you because you have to have the log in information before you walk inside.

I'm deeply bothered by this change in access to information by YALSA, and I am frustrated that as a member, I wasn't told about this change. When YALSA was asked about this, their response was that the choking of access to all of this information was a technical glitch and that the Board's decision about what information would be privileged would be the information fire walled when the glitch was solved.

But in my mind, besides sounding like a really bad excuse, the damage has already been done.

If we're advocating for books and reading, if we're advocating for the best of the best, and if the goal in having these awards and selection lists is to provide information, then there is no excuse for cutting it all out of public reach. Yes, I believe there is value in member's only content -- especially for something like annotated lists -- but there is no value in blocking off everything about these award lists. What is the value in not letting anyone even see what the award and selection lists ARE? It's locking out not only information, but valuable promotional opportunities. It puts barriers up to advocacy. Everything I told you about nominating books for awards because it's important still stands, but now there are extra steps involved in making those nominations. How many people will go through the extra hassle? I know I wouldn't.

Whether or not you are a YALSA member, you should have access to at least the basic information about these awards. That's one of the reasons you'd consider joining the organization in the first place -- you want to know what your money will be supporting. It shouldn't be a surprise to anyone that the reason YALSA took these steps was so it could collect information about non-member behavior in hopes of growing their membership. And it makes sense. There's money to be made through growing membership, but this is not the way to achieve it. In fact, by developing this fire wall and not telling anyone about it, YALSA's pushing people away. It's making it an exclusive club.

Fortunately, there are workarounds to this situation that allow you access to the information without logging in or creating an account with YALSA. The first? Google the lists. You'd have to know what lists you're looking for, but a Google search of "YALSA Alex Awards" will take you to the information without forcing you to log in.

Now I don't know about you, but it seems backwards that you should be able to access information available on YALSA's site without restriction by going through Google, rather than YALSA, but I digress. You can do it this way.

The second means of accessing this information is by asking someone who is a YALSA member to log in and share the link to the list with you. I guess if you're given a link from a logged in member, you can go directly to it. Again, it doesn't make a whole lot of sense to me, but it works.

What this long post is about is this: YALSA screwed up big time, and they didn't bother telling any of us about it. Instead, we're finding out when we're being locked out of information that's always been freely available. Information that's always been freely available and accessible. We're being forced to share our information with YALSA. We're being forced to figure out workarounds so we can access and share this information with others.

We're being pushed away from advocating and promoting these awards, these selection lists, and we're being pushed away from spreading the information about why these things are important. 

The organization which supports freedom of information and spreading of knowledge is breaking down those very ideas.

This is not okay.

Edited to add this: Liz has also blogged on the topic, and her post is worth thinking about as well.

Later edited to add that YALSA has responded to this issue. For the record, I do not equate collecting email addresses to access this information as any sort of nod toward value but rather a nod toward needing to access the information. I'm a little disappointed this wasn't addressed with the membership nor was it in any Board documents, but there it is.

Continue reading...

Friday, February 24, 2012

So You Want To Read YA?: An Intro To Our Series

There's no question we're passionate young adult fiction readers here at STACKED, and we like to think we offer up a nice mix of genres and styles in our reviews. We have pretty diverse interests and tastes, but more importantly, we are open minded and like to give new things a try.

One of the questions we're most often asked -- both as bloggers and as librarians -- comes from those who are new to YA, and it's simply "Where do I start?" It can be daunting to point out a title or two as starting points to the YA world. You can't possibly pick one or two titles as essential starting points. You have to know what your reader likes and wants to read in order to feel like you can give them their correct starting point. Yes, I wrote that right: THEIR correct starting point.

So after thinking about this question, we decided we'd address it here at STACKED. But we're not just addressing it ourselves; we've invited 20 (yes, 20) guests to write us a post answering the question "Someone who has never read YA Fiction before is interested in getting their feet wet. Where would you tell them to start?" We told our guest posters the question is open to interpretation, since we wanted to cast as wide a net of answers as possible. The answers we got to this question are fascinating and even for seasoned YA readers, there will be new books to discover.

You might be wondering who our guests are. You're in for a treat. Our guests range from bloggers who blog because they love YA lit, bloggers who work as teachers and bloggers who work as librarians. We also have posts from a variety of YA authors, as well as folks who edit YA novels, and those who market YA novels. It's a diverse and exciting group of experts who span the YA book world and every time we got a "yes" response back to our invitation, we were shocked and eager to see what thoughts they had and share them with our readers.

Our response was so phenomenal that our original plan to kick off the series in April changed a little bit.

Starting Monday and running through the end of July, we'll be posting a "So You Want To Read YA?" response to kick off each week. They'll range in focus and in length and in recommendations, and some will even include a giveaway or two. Kimberly, Jen, and I will kick it off for the first three weeks, and then we'll dive into what our brilliant, witty, and insightful guests have to say.

We hope you enjoy! We have certainly loved seeing how our guests answered this question, and we are excited to give new (and veteran) YA readers new books to explore.

Continue reading...

Thursday, February 23, 2012

A Pair of Cybils Reviews

Anna Dressed in Blood by Kendare Blake
Cas Lowood kills ghosts for a living. Well, he doesn't really make money at it, so I suppose you'd call it more of a hobby, or a compulsion. His father was a ghost-killer when he was alive, and since his death, Cas carries his deadly athame, the tool used to kill the dead. Cas and his mother have just moved to a new town, and Cas is determined to kill the local ghost, Anna dressed in blood, a teenage girl who was murdered many years ago. Only things with Anna aren't quite what they seem, and Cas slowly begins to not only sympathize with her, but to fall in love with her as well. He also picks up a couple of good friends who learn about his unusual vocation, and they serve the dual purpose of assisting Cas in his quest to kill Anna as well as adding some interest to the story.

I've discovered that I'm not the audience for ghost stories, but Kendare Blake's book made a valiant effort to change my mind. I thought the pseudo-romantic relationship between Cas and Anna was intriguing, and I appreciated that Blake didn't shy away from high stakes (there's a nice body count). The climax was unexpected, but made sense in retrospect. It's a different sort of ghost story than the norm, and it mostly worked for me.

My main problem with the book was pacing: some parts just really dragged. For these chunks of the novel, it seemed like the troupe of characters wasn't doing anything in particular, just kind of flailing about. It gets a bit dull to read about after a couple of pages. But then it would pick up nicely and I'd be hooked for another twenty pages, until it got a bit dull again. So overall, it's a good book, but not an outstanding one.

Angelfall by Susan Ee
The angels of the apocalypse have descended on Earth, and teenage Penryn has become caught in the middle of it. Her wheelchair-bound younger sister has been kidnapped by the angels. She must team up with another angel, Raffe, in order to rescue her. Along the way, the duo experience a significant amount of peril and intrigue, plus some romance (naturally).

I'm kind of flabbergasted by all of the positive feedback Angelfall has received, because I was very unimpressed. I think the skeleton of a good story is there, and I dug how gruesome Ee dared to be near the end of the book. But for most of the book, I was doing some serious mental eye-rolling, and it's mostly due to the writing - it doesn't pass muster. The book is full of awkward phrasing, clunky sentences, and cliched dialogue. Part of the reason I had a hard time getting through most of it is because it felt like a romance novel with some fantasy trappings for the first three quarters (rather than a fantasy novel with some romance). The dialogue between Penryn and Raffe tries to be clever repartee, but it just comes across as ridiculous. And I say this as a reader of romance. 

Aside from the writing, I had problems with the world-building and development of ancillary characters. Put all of these lacking elements together and you quickly realize that no amount of fast-paced action can save this book.

Continue reading...

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Help a librarian out: a survey on teen/ya library services

I don't like to talk too much librarian shop over here, but I know we reach a big librarian readership, so I'm taking the opportunity to tap that.

I've got a survey about teen/young adult library services on my other blog, and it's focused on providing reader's advisory and collection development. If you're a librarian, can you spare a few minutes and fill it out? And whether you're a librarian or not, if you know someone who could fill it out for me, please spread the word! 

I appreciate your help so much!

Here it is.

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Drowning Instinct by Ilsa J Bick

Jenna Lord's given a voice recorder by the detective working on her case. She's just woken up in the hospital, and he wants her to tell the truth of the story about what happened. Why she's there. Why and how she almost died. Again.

She agrees, and we're thrust into something much, much darker than expected.

Jenna's family life is anything but pretty. Her father's a surgeon and he's exceptionally controlling and demanding. Jenna's mother works long hours at the bookstore she's in charge of, so she's not around much. That may or may not have to do with the fact she's also an alcoholic and avoids her husband. Then there's Matt -- Jenna's brother -- who enlisted in the military to get away from the mess of a family. She and he are close, and she turns to him when she needs an escape. Then there's grandpa, who is in an institution because he's unstable, too. That may or may not have something to do with the fire in his house, the one which caused Jenna many of the scars and skin grafts covering her body.

The rest of the scars, though, are her own doing.

It's those scars which put her into therapy and which eventually lead to her being sent to Turing for school. Her father believes putting her in a new environment like Turing would be good for her and help her adjust to being a normal girl again, whatever that is. But when she starts school, things only become more complicated. She meets Mr. Anderson -- Mitch -- near immediately on her first day, and she meets him when he's wearing close to nothing.

It's the start of a relationship between a teacher and a student that should have clear cut answers. That should be about right and wrong. But it's so, so not.

Drowning Instinct is the kind of novel I love: it's character driven, it's dark, and there are no right or wrong answers. It's not a clear cut story, and just when I thought I had an idea of how things would progress, I'm not given the break. Because the characters -- Jenna, especially -- gets absolutely no breaks in this story. Her only break comes in the form of self-mutilation. That's why she was getting therapy in the first place (or at least that's how it's explained and the truth is, that's not necessarily the whole truth). Jenna cuts to escape the pain from her home, and because it gives her a sense of ownership.

And cuts heal.

The relationship between Jenna and Mitch, one which should cause the reader discomfort because of what it is, challenges expectations. Mitch is so good to Jenna and he's the first adult who has given Jenna any reason to feel safe and secure. He also gives her opportunities and responsibility, and he believes in her not only as a student, but also as a runner. She'd given up running, but he wants her to go out for the team. He wants her to be his teaching assistant. He goes out of his way to keep an eye on her. While Jenna is at times skeptical about him, she eventually allows herself to see he is being genuinely concerned for her, and that he genuinely cares about her well-being -- something she's never experienced before outside of a therapy office. He knows a lot about her, and he happens to have this knowledge because he's done his research (and he tells her that much) but also because he stumbles upon some of the same messes she does. He sees how unstable her family is first hand.

Then Mitch maybe delivers the biggest blow Jenna's ever felt and the one that rattles her awake. He knows the truth to her biggest secret. One she doesn't believe he could possibly know. But he does.  It almost seals her to him now. He's ripped open one of her scars and lets it bleed. 

Even though Jenna decides he's worth trusting, she's wondering where the faults in his story are, and the closer she gets to him, the more time she spends with him in and outside the classroom, the more cracks she's finding. His wife is never around and he never talks about her. Then there's a picture in Mitch's house that haunts Jenna. And then the time she called his house and his wife -- supposedly away taking care of a sick family member -- answers. It's not just the wife situation that makes Jenna nervous though: it's the fact Mitch appears to have had a relationship with another high school girl, Danielle, and she's not exactly friendly with Jenna. Then there's Danielle's comment about how Mitch always liked the broken girls. These words rub Jenna wrong. They feel like knives on her flesh.

But she hasn't pressed down yet.

The relationship between Jenna and Mitch is tortured. But it's also safe. When they're together, when he's holding onto her with love and affection she so desperately needs and deserves, everything feels right. And yes, things get sexual. There is something so tender in those moments though that as readers, we almost forget they're teacher and student. That Mitch is her superior. That he's married. When they're apart though, when Jenna's left alone with her thoughts, that's when things don't seem right. That's when she questions who Mitch is and whether or not he's good for her. The thing is, she can't stop herself from staying close to him.

He's become her new method of cutting.

Bick's talent is not only in drawing these incredibly complex characters. It's the fact she has developed a pair of characters who aren't clear cut on whether they're victim or predator. It goes both ways. They feed off one another, and their secrets (and the secret of their relationship itself) tread a morally ambiguous line because the way it's presented makes it feel so right and so wrong at the same time. Jenna deserves this kind of love and even though we aren't entirely clear what's going on in Mitch's life, it just seems like he does too. And the way he treats Jenna makes it feel that way, too. They're safety nets for one another time and time again. Even if there are suspicious things afloat. Jenna and Mitch are very broken people, as are the other characters in the story. Each character carries immense pain and sadness but never once does it come off as melodramatic. It's drawn realistically, with a rawness that slices through what could/should be morally straight-forward territory for readers. None of these characters, even the ones with little page time, feels wasted and none of their struggles feel like shortcuts through the story.

What also stood out to me in this book was the use of place and space to tell the story. Bick is a Wisconsin author, and she's not afraid to set her books here. Drowning Instinct is neat in being set both in suburban Milwaukee (where Jenna attends school) and in the more rural areas outside the suburbs. The rural settings add a haunting feel to the story and they mimic the relationship between Jenna and Mitch well: there's the safety of the suburban setting but then there's the questionable nature of nature itself in those more remote areas. In places like the cabin on Mitch's quiet property. For me, the setting was a crucial layer to developing the story and the characters.

The book is well-paced, starting slower at the beginning as Jenna comes to in the hospital, but it eventually picks up speed until the very end. I had become so invested in the characters and unraveling the truths of these characters that I read through the bulk of it in one sitting. The reveals make use of subtle details woven into the story, but maybe the real power of the reveals is that they're not necessarily all that settling. They add further shades of gray to the story and to the characters. There are no real answers here, but the feeling I walked away with when I finished the book was worth the uncertainty. I took away what I needed to take away, and I like to think it's the same take away Jenna has. I also found myself crying near the end of the story, as well. I'd fallen so in love with the characters, their flaws and mistakes and all, that I couldn't help but feel the full weight of everything crashing around them. Bick made me care enough to not only love the story but also emotionally connect with these hurting and aching characters, despite the endless stream of mistakes they made.

Drowning Instinct will appeal to readers who like their stories dark, realistic, and raw and who like their stories to have real voice behind them. These characters are desperate and broken, and the book is relentless. It's wholly contemporary, and it'll appeal to fans of Amy Reed and Courtney Summers with content and character execution, and the set up of the book -- the short chapters, the great pacing -- will make it quite appealing to fans of Ellen Hopkins, as well. I could also see this novel working for fans of Lucy Christopher's Stolen and Tabitha Suzuma's Forbidden for readers interested in novels about elicit and taboo relationships. I've read two other novels this year, neither of which I've had a chance to review, but it reminded me of a mash up of the two of them, and I've found it fascinated how this year's novels are playing around with the norms of family, of safety, of security, of what it means to love and be loved, and just what survival takes. I have respect and admiration for authors who go for it full out, giving their characters challenge upon challenge, and Bick offers exactly that. 

I wouldn't say this book doesn't appeal to reluctant readers because it does, but I think more mature readers will walk away with a lot from this book, especially as it comes to issues of right and wrong. Those who appreciate Laurie Halse Anderson will want to give this one a shot, too. I didn't touch on the metaphor here, the whole idea of the drowning instinct, but it's a huge one smartly thread through the story, and readers who want a more literary read will find it here. The back cover summary sums it up really well, I think: this is a fairy tale with teeth and a novel about pain, deception, desperation and love. Without doubt, this book will stick with me for a long time, and it will be one of my 2012 favorites.

Review copy received from the publisher. This book also has one of the best covers around, doesn't it?

Continue reading...

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Misfit by Jon Skovron

I think I've mentioned before that one of the best things I got out of being a Cybils judge this year is that I read good books I never would have picked up otherwise. Misfit by Jon Skovron is a prime example of this. It's everything I normally avoid in a book: paranormal, present tense, and...well, that's usually enough. I'm so glad the Cybils were around to change my mind.

Jael's mother - many years dead now - was a demoness. She's known this for years and had to keep it a secret from all the other normal humans. You'd probably expect that being half-demon would mean Jael has all sorts of cool powers, but she doesn't. She just has to move around a lot, thanks to her paranoid father. Then Jael turns 16, her father gives her a shiny necklace that belonged to her mother, and everything changes. Now she has those cool powers, but it's brought her to the attention of some very dangerous types. Jael must learn how to harness these powers so she can fight off the bad guys. She has the help of her mother's brother (a demon himself) and her unwilling father, but really, is that enough when all of Hell wants you dead?

There's more to it than that. Skovron has created a wonderfully rich mythology, weaving together elements of Christianity with almost every other religion (living or dead) you could think of. And he's given us a terrific love story between Jael's parents, which is swoony and romantic and dangerous and badass and completely outshines the love story between Jael and her skater crush.

I've mentioned about a hundred thousand times before how important Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy was to me as a tween/teen. Aside from being beautifully written, fantastic stories, I loved how incredibly daring those books were. I don't mean daring by employing foul language or sex or putting its characters in risky situations or supporting an unpopular social or political stance. I mean daring in its treatment of Christianity. Pullman took one of the most enduring stories of our culture and completely turned it on its head. He plumbed the religion's richness and color to create a hell of a good story.

Misfit doesn't go as far as Pullman's books do. Skovron isn't trying to re-write the Bible or impart any atheistic message (Pullman certainly was imparting this message, at least in part, and those who deny it cheapen the books, in my opinion). What he does is similar to what Pullman did, though, and that is to use these incredibly powerful stories in a new and interesting way. I think that novelists as a whole tend to stay away from using Christianity as a fictional tool because it might lead their readers to think they believe Christianity is a fiction. (I should point out that there is a big difference between what Skovron does here and what "Christian fiction" writers do.) But there is so much material for really, really good stories there, and Misfit proves that.

I could be all wrong about why we see so few novels that twist Christianity in a really obvious way, but the fact remains that I'm glad to see it when it does appear. Not because of any disrespect towards the religion, but because the religion as a whole really does have so many good stories. Yes, there are books about angels everywhere now, but it's just not the same as what Skovron has done with Misfit. He's taken Christianity and treated it all - not just the angels or the demons or one other single aspect - as a mythology to be worked with, just as Riordan does with his books. True, millions of people believe in Christianity and very, very few believe in Zeus. What makes Misfit daring is that Skovron weaves in elements of Christianity with Greek mythology, and so many other religions, past and present, putting them on the same footing. So in that way, he treats them all as equally mythological.

So, I appreciated that Misfit was a little bit daring in this way. (Look out for a review of Pete Hautman's The Obsidian Blade in a couple months. Daring is an understatement for that title.) I also appreciated Jael's parents' story, which we get in past-tense flashbacks and is frequently more engrossing than Jael's. Other hallmarks of a good book are here too: a protagonist who grows believably over the course of the story; fascinating ancillary characters; an action-packed, albeit brief and a bit slapdash, climax.

Obviously, I was impressed. I'll be looking for the sequel. There's no news of one that I could find yet, and the book does have a firm ending (thanks Jon Skovron!), but it's open enough for many more books. Here's hoping.

Continue reading...

Monday, February 20, 2012

(P)reviews: A Sampling of What's to Come

I've been reading well ahead of publish dates lately. I like to post reviews as close to publication date as possible, even if I read the book months beforehand, because I like to think it helps put the book on the radar when it's actually possible to buy it. So while I've been reading and writing out my posts, I was thinking it might be worthwhile to give a preview to some of the titles I've been reading lately. You'll get the longer reviews closer to pub date, but for now, a sampling of titles to whet your appetite now (and surprise -- a couple of these titles I'll be giving away when the time gets closer and one of them may be up for grabs as part of Lenore's Dystopian February this week, too). Interestingly, all of these covers feature girls on the front.

Crazy by Amy Reed (June 12, 2012): This is probably the most realistic and painful portrayal of bipolar disorder I think I've read in YA lit. The book's told through two voices -- both Conner and Izzy get to have their say -- and it's told entirely through email messages. They've become friends and confidants to one another after a summer camp where they bonded, and while it's never blatant, it's sort of hinted that Conner wants something more than friendship from Izzy but she's not receptive. And for good reason. Izzy's home life is hurting her, and it's only contributing to the debilitating depression building inside her. Both voices are strong, well-defined, and the feelings readers walk away with, having both sides of depression (the person falling into it and the person on the outside watching it happen) will resonate with anyone who has ever experienced depression. Reed's writing works for me as a reader, and this, her third book, is her strongest.

The List by Siobhan Vivian (April 1): I got to read this book back in September (I know -- lucky me!) and I'm still thinking about it now. Every year on the week of homecoming, a list containing the names of 8 girls is posted at Mount Washington High; the prettiest girl and the ugliest girl in each class is listed. What Vivian does in The List is let us into the minds and lives of each of the eight girls selected this year, challenging our expectations and understandings of popularity, beauty, and ugliness through each of their eyes. There are eight voices in this story, but the third-person present tense style really allows each of their voices to stand out -- I didn't have any trouble keeping them apart. Vivian's got a way of writing stories that empower girls, and this is no exception. It's the kind of book I can't wait to hand off to high school girls; not only will they find themselves relating to one (or all!) of the girls, but they will want to talk about it, too.

This is Not a Test by Courtney Summers (June 19, 2012): Sloane Price has nothing going for her -- at least in her mind, there's no point in continuing living if her home life continues to be an abusive place and her sister, the one constant in her life, has left her to fend for herself. So when Sloane selects today to commit suicide and she's thwarted before she can, it's a huge relief that is when the zombie outbreak happens. Her death wouldn't even be on her own hands. Except she survives, and now she's stuck, trapped inside Cortege High with five other students who are eager to live, and all she wants to do is die. Sloane doesn't want to be here, and she doesn't want to fight for anything, but she has little choice in the matter. And the zombies keep knocking at the door. This is a book that, while about zombies, is much more about character and relationships and just what it means to survive, period. If you're wary of a zombie story, do not let that be the hangup in giving this one a try because it is much more a book about what it means to be human. I've never left a book so physically aching before (maybe even emotionally aching, too).

Amelia Anne is Dead and Gone by Kat Rosenfield (July 5, 2012): Graduation night was a big one in Becca's hometown. Not only did she have some pretty memorable celebration sex in her boyfriend's car, but then he had the nerve to dump her right then and there, leaving her empty in more ways than one. Oh, and that happened to be the same night the body of a strange girl was found on the side of the road, rag dolled and mangled. No one knows how she got there or who she was. Rosenfield's debut novel is a mystery story, but it's also a story about growing up and figuring out where you belong. Becca's being toyed with when it comes to her boyfriend; she wanted nothing but to get out of town and away from everything it is, and she made herself the promise that he wouldn't be the reason she stays. Despite breaking up, he's still stringing her along for the summer and she's unable to make an easy decision about staying or leaving. And when the story of the dead girl comes to light, it's not at all what Becca -- nor the town -- expected. The writing and many of the threads about small town life reminded me of Nova Ren Suma's Imaginary Girls; it is lush and a story you can't help but fall completely into.

Jersey Angel by Beth Anne Bauman: Lest you think I've found everything I've read lately exceptional, I'll talk about a book that was a real disappointment. This one was sold to me by the publicist at ALA Midwinter as a book all about sex and sexuality. And it was. Unfortunately, there is a real lack of character or story development at all. Angel, the main character, really spends a year having a lot of sex...and it's pretty boring sex, to be honest. I think because she's underdeveloped and doesn't give me any compelling reasons to care about her and because she doesn't have any real moments of growth or change, I found myself disinterested in her and what happened to her -- and honestly, nothing DOES happen to her. I don't buy the idea that because she was detached from herself (obvious from the meaningless sex) then she can have a thinly developed character and no arc to her. It wasn't just Angel I felt this way about either; her friends and family are just as flat and lifeless. Angel's friend finds herself in a pretty terrible situation in the story, and it should have been an emotionally packed moment, but I couldn't connect and I didn't care. It was a heavy, heavy topic and should have conjured up something from me, but it didn't. Though I found this book a let down because it really was nothing other than a lot of (uninteresting) sex, I don't think this is a book that'll be too hard to sell to teen readers because of the sex.

Review copies of each title received from the publishers. 

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Sunday, February 19, 2012

Links of interest

I've been saving up a bunch of interesting book and reading related links worth sharing, so why not on Sunday afternoon before the dawn of a new week -- though I guess some folks have tomorrow off for a holiday.

  • Naomi Bates, a librarian down in Texas, has created this really neat road trip of books. She's put books set in different states together in a list, complete with book trailers. They're all current titles (pubbed in the last couple of years) and it is worth checking out. They're not road trip books, but rather books set in specific areas. She's developed the "road trip" portion. 
  • Author Nova Ren Suma has been running a fantastic series over the last few weeks called Turning Points, and if you haven't been checking in on it periodically, you are missing out. A wide range of authors have written up guest posts talking about what was the moment that changed their careers or their mindsets about pursuing their dreams. Some of these have moved me to tears because as much as they're about writing, they're about much, much more. If you're looking for a little inspiration, spend a little time reading these. 
  • At the YA Blogger Meetup in Dallas, I met a librarian from Pittsburgh named Tessa and she started telling me about a blog project she and a friend were working on. Well their blog launched and I have to say I am impressed. I love their post from Valentine's Day that is a book list featuring sweet romance (the innocent kind) and heavy romance (the sultry kind). 
  • Love Dystopian YA? Then make sure you're spending time this month over at Lenore's Dystopian February celebration. She's got a ton of reviews, interviews, and title previews for dystopian titles that are out or coming out in the next year.

Continue reading...

Friday, February 17, 2012

The Knife and the Butterfly by Ashley Hope Perez

Azael wakes up in a prison cell and has no idea how he got there nor why he's there. It's not the first time he's ended up in prison either but it is the first time he can't quite figure out what did him in. He remembers a fight between his gang, the MS13, faced off against the Crazy Crew, but he can't help think this prison sentence feels wrong. He doesn't get a phone call, and he isn't getting news about his family. He's also without a lawyer.

Things are even more complicated because Azael is forced to share a cell with Lexi, a white girl, with whom he has no interest. She's not opening up, and he can't help but wonder why she's in prison and what she has to do with him.

The Knife and the Butterfly (TKTB) is Perez's sophomore novel, and before delving into talking about what worked well in the story, I have to say I hope she continues writing the sorts of books she's writing for a long time. This story, as well as her first What Can('t) Wait, feature Latino/a main characters and they're both set in Houston. TKTB features a main character from El Salvador, and it's a story not only about gang culture, but also about broken homes, poverty, and the challenges of being a minority. There aren't a lot of stories tackling one -- let alone all -- of these issues, and these are the stories that when I read them, I know there is an eager audience for them. Never once do any of the issues come across as inauthentic or pandering. These aren't issue-driven books but involve characters and situations that are relatable to audiences who often don't have these sorts of stories written for them. Many times these stories are instead written at them.

TKTB is a character-driven story, rather than a plot driven one. It's told through Azael's eyes (and his name isn't really Azael, it's his street name -- his real name is Martin, and understanding this distinction is crucial to understanding who he is) as he tries to put the pieces of the event that caused him to be sitting in a jail cell yet again. As he combs through his memories, we're transported back through the events of the last few weeks and years of his life. Immediately, we know he comes from a troubled home. The only true family Azael's had is his brother Eddie, and when he's unable to to talk with Eddie about what happened and why he's sitting in juvie, Azael begins to suspect something has really and truly gone wrong. He's beginning to think maybe he's lost his only family in whatever ensued.

While in his cell, Azael manages to convince one of the staff members to help him piece his story back together. In rummaging through his files, he stumbles upon a news article about the gang fight he vaguely remembers occurring, though much of the information about the whos and whats of the incident are redacted. What Azael realizes, though, is he has to figure out Lexi. Even though she is nothing like him and he has absolutely no interest in her, he has reason to believe that they wouldn't be sharing a cell if there wasn't a reason behind it. But as much as he observes her and as much as he tries to figure her out, he can't.

Until he convinces his guard friend to take the journal she's been writing in. That's when he puts together the pieces of who, exactly, Lexi is.

As readers, we're on the outside of who she is, as well. She's not telling the story at all, and we never get her perspective until Azael gets ahold of her journal. Then we're dropped right into her mind. Slowly, she reveals bits of her life, too. Lexi hasn't had it easy; if anything, her life's been as unstable as Azael's, but in a number of different ways. She wasn't involved in gang life at all, but she'd been shuffled around so much in her life, she never really had any support system nor role models nor the opportunity to truly succeed. Both the reader and Azael come to understand Lexi and we begin to sympathize with her. Because we'd only been in Azael's head for so long, we'd only ever viewed Lexi the way he had, as a privileged white girl. But through her journal, we learn otherwise and we have to reassess our own assumptions about her. If you're at this point and thinking that the story will turn into a romance, well, I'll break the news: it doesn't. Not a lick of romance in this book.

I can't talk too much more about plot or character here, since it'd delve into spoiler territory, but I can say that I didn't see how the two characters were connected through the length of the book. Not only that, but there's a huge twist in the story that I didn't see coming -- and I credit Perez hugely for making it work out. I can usually put the pieces together quickly but this one didn't do that to me, and I didn't felt cheated or tricked, either. It was clever.

Because we're exposed to both a variety of time periods in both Azael and Lexi's lives, as well as a variety of mediums -- the straight-forward narrative, the journal entries, news articles -- there's not a lag in the pacing. This is a relatively short book at just over 200 pages, and not a word nor a scene feels wasted. It's edgy and it's powerful, and it will appeal to reluctant readers. The obvious comparison for this book to me feels like Watt Key's Dirt Road Home, but that may simply be because of the juvenile detention center setting (which will be enough comparison for many readers). To be fair, Perez's story is more mature and treads territory geared toward older teen readers than Key's story, but I think readers who want these types of stories won't think twice about it, and readers who want stories about gang life will certainly want to pick this up. I don't think there's any doubt this book will have mega guy appeal. Azael's voice is believable.

I'll admit, I had a hard time reading this book because this story was not up my alley at all. In fact, I picked this book up right before heading to Dallas for ALA, but I didn't read it on the airplane, nor while I had down time, nor even when I made it back home. I put it aside for a few weeks and came back to it with fresh eyes. This isn't a knock on Perez's writing nor story but rather the fact that I'm not the target audience of this book. But let me reiterate: there IS a target audience for this, and Perez does no disservice in writing a book that not only has this appeal, but it's a story that's also worth reading. This is the world many of the target readership may already be familiar with or one with which they've got fascination.

I'm a reader of author's notes, but I know not everyone is. This is a book that reading the author's note is worthwhile, but make sure you save it until you've finished the story at hand. Reading it beforehand may spoil the story's twist.

 Review copy received from the publisher. The Knife and the Butterfly is available now.

Continue reading...

Thursday, February 16, 2012

A Pair of Contemporary Reviews

As soon as I think I'm caught up on writing reviews, I find myself buried even deeper. Part of it is because I can't write the review as soon as I finish the book -- I need time to think through what points are worth talking about and which resonated -- and part of it is simply because it takes a long time to write a cogent and thorough review. Alas, sometimes I have to remind myself it's okay to write short(er) reviews that get to the key points. Then I think my understanding of what a shorter review is pretty skewed, too. The point of this all is to say that today, I've got two reviews for the price of one!

I heard about Jesse Andrews's debut Me and Earl and the Dying Girl because of Capillya's author thoughts post on the cover. I'm not a big fan of cancer stories, but I bit the bullet on this one because it looked like a much more light hearted approach to the heavy topic. And it was.

Greg's always been sort of a social outcast and fine with it. In fact, he sort of prides himself on it because it means he can blend in and out of all the different cliques in his smallish high school. Plus, he and his best friend Earl like to spend their time making videos. They aren't good at it, and Greg will tell you as much. As the story begins, we know that the story is actually already over and we're being told the "what happened" via a lengthy flashback essay. Not only is the set up immediately engaging because of this, but the essay set up also allows Greg to incorporate film scripting right into the story, and it makes his passion for making films more palpable from the onset.

Greg's always been a little awkward around girls, and he's willing to admit this. Because of his desire to sort of maintain a status-less social standing, he doesn't like to make commitments to girls, either. But then Greg finds out from his mother that Rachel, one of the girls who he knew from a church group, has leukemia. And Greg's mom thinks it is a great idea he befriend her so she feels less alone. He's not thrilled about the prospect -- it messes with his invisibility and, well, he feels weird suddenly befriending someone who could potentially die -- but Greg does it anyway. What Greg and Rachel get out of the relationship is more than either could have expected.

This is a book that does characterization very well. As much as Greg likes to pretend he's a rebel and he's worlds different than anyone else, the truth is, he's an average teen. He is easy to relate to, and he's got a sense of humor that's enjoyable as a reader. Earl, on the other hand, has a much more challenging life and personality than Greg does, but because we're seeing Earl through Greg's eyes, we aren't given the impression that Earl is anything but a pretty good friend to Greg (we learn this isn't necessarily the case the further we get into the book, as Earl is almost a foil to Rachel).

Andrews's story is light-hearted, even up until the end when inevitably, things take a turn for the worse with Rachel. Greg has a good sense of humor, and he's willing to reflect on everything that happened to him with that humor in place. Early on in the book, we hear Greg's given up his film-making aspirations, and as the story unfolds, readers are unsure when or how it happens. This was what kept me compelled -- I had so much invested in Greg because I liked him and wanted to see him pursue his dreams, but when he talks about the last film he makes, I understood why he believes he's done with film making.

There's definite male appeal in this book, and I appreciate how Andrews did not go down the romance path in this book. What emerges between Greg and Rachel is at best friendship and, in my mind, it's not even necessarily friendship. This story was much less about what Rachel needed as she sunk deeper into illness and much more about Greg learning to connect with other people and to connect with himself. Leukemia is sort of the tool, and it's used well and treated fairly without becoming maudlin or being too convenient and easy. Readers who are wary of cancer stories can rest assured that while the outcome in the story won't necessarily be the happy one for Rachel, it doesn't require the reader to bring their own baggage and experiences to the story. This one's about Greg learning about himself.

The voice sings in Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, and that, along with the set-up and execution of the story reminded me a lot of Geoff Herbach's Stupid Fast. This book will appeal to fans of Herbach's, as well as those who love Brent Crawford's Carter series. Andrews's debut will be available March 1.

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 mid-March.

Review copies provided by the publishers.

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Wednesday, February 15, 2012

The Hardcover to Paperback Cover Switch: Six to Consider

I haven't talked about book cover changes lately, and it's something I've been doing a lot of thinking about lately. I'm working on a post about series books and mid-series book cover changes (specifically, about how much they impact libraries and librarians), but in the mean time, I thought looking through some recent cover swaps would be fun. It's always interesting to see how a cover is revisioned when it moves from hardcover to paperback, as sometimes it's spot on, and other times, it's worse.

Here's the hardcover of Franny Billingsley's Chime, and it's a cover I've never been a fan of. I haven't read the book, but from everything I know about it, it just doesn't seem like a good fit of a cover. It's the girl, I think -- she detracts from the fantasy aspect of the story for me. I don't care a lot for the color scheme here either, as it's dull and almost lifeless. It's a sleepy cover.

Billingsley's book comes out in paperback in April, and it's getting a makeover. This works for me, and I think it'll attract a new range of readers. Even though I'm not a huge fan of the face-on-the-cover, this girl is much less "dead girl" than the hardcover edition, and she's even got a spark of power to her (I see it in her eyes and the fact her hair isn't blown across her face). Moreover, I'm a fan of the change from a drab color scheme to a brighter one. The cover kind of reminds me of the repackaged Francesca Lia Block books. I find it interesting the paperback features a blurb from Libba Bray, whereas the hardcover edition didn't have a blurb.

The hardcover edition of Cathy Ostlere's Karma is interesting to me because it's so simple. I read this book last year, and it's a lengthy verse novel about 1980s India and the search for heritage. It's a hard sell conceptually for teen readers but I think the cover here does the story some favors in that it might entice otherwise skeptical readers. It's pink with yellow designs that are an homage to Indian culture. The couple on the front (beneath the title and above the author's name) make sense in context of the story, too. I love the title font and how it fits nicely with the font for the author's name, too. Sometimes the simpler, the better.

The paperback of Ostlere's book came out in January, and you know, I think they got it even more right in this cover. Even though both the paperback and cover fail to give the sense of time period (I'm not sure how they could), I feel like both do a good job giving a sense of place. Like the hardcover, the paperback features a great title font, though I do find the font selected for the author's name to be a little distracting. It's not as in sync with the title font as the different fonts on the hardcover edition are. I love, too, that the cover doesn't appear to be whitewashed; while we don't get to see a face, the hands and arms here are brown and not white. For me, the flowers she's holding sort of represent the heritage aspect of the story. Although they're wilting, the girl's holding them with reverence and respect. More generally, I find the color palette works here, and it's all together visually appealing. There is just enough going on to keep an eye engaged without being over-the-top.

Adele Griffin's psychological thriller Tighter is another cover that had a dull color palette going for it, but because of the story, I think it works just fine. I like the shadowy figure against the cover, almost like there's a film over the picture and the person is trying to see through. It's fitting for the story and I think it helps give the book a genre classification. It's reminiscent of a scary film. The title font works fine, as does Griffin's name font. I do find it interesting her name is larger than the title itself.

The paperback edition of Tighter will come out in June, and I think it hits the mark pretty well, too. It's got the sort of drab but haunting feel of the setting with the darker background color, and the girl who is ghostly captures the genre of the story. I note again the fact that the author's name is larger than the title, which I think is an interesting choice. I like that the fonts are the same (or at least very close to the same) as those on the hardcover. They work well, and the slight blur to the title font isn't dizzying nor distracting. My one comment on this one is I think the cover might be more appealing to female readers than the hardcover, simply because it's more obvious it's a girl at the center of the story.

I think that the cover of Julie Chibbaro's Deadly is jarring because it's an uncomfortable color of greenish yellow, but it's a cover that stands out for me because of that (as well as the silhouette-style girl on the cover, her dress crawling with infestation). This book stands out on a shelf, and I think it does a good job reflecting the content inside. It's a story based on the legend of typhoid Mary, and it's heavily vested in the science of disease. I'm a fan of the red font and lower case only lettering on the title, and I like that the tag line shifts its color scheme when it's laid over the girl. One of the themes of this story is the role of females in society and the book challenges what it was to be a female in the early 20th century, especially when it comes to being a female interested in science. I think the cover does an interesting job reflecting that in portraying a girl in a big dress and in the fact the girl's at a full stance. Her head is up and the bugs are moving down and away. She's got some power and defiance to her.

The paperback edition of Deadly will be out at the end of the month, and I'm not feeling it the way I felt the hardcover. It's dark and shadowy, and I don't think it at all gives a sense of time -- though admittedly, it probably gives a decent sense of place, as the story's set in early 1900 New York City. There's a definite mood developed in the image, but I'm not entirely sure it fits the story itself. The girl in the dress is in the shadow on the ground and at full stance, but I don't think it connotes quite the power the girl in the hardcover edition does. I'm not a fan of the title font here, as I think it kind of bleeds right into the image itself. For me, this book looks a lot more like a mystery than a historical fiction, and I'm afraid it'll blend into other books that just look dark on the shelf.

I can't remember if I've talked about not being a fan of Janne Teller's utterly bleak novel Nothing -- but see, the thing is, I wasn't a fan and yet it's a book I think about a lot and think deep down I kind of admired for being so risky and different. The hardcover of the book is spot on in depicting the feeling of hopelessness the book conveys. It's a late fall or early winter setting, with the trees lacking their leaves (need I tell you the symbolism there?). I quite like how the title is in a light box on top of the trees but the title itself almost fades into the background as if it, too, were nothing. I think the single girl in the middle crying into the one spot of color in the cover captures the story so, so well. I'm a little torn on teen appeal of the cover since it is so heavily symbolic and it's not necessarily a stand-out on the shelf; however, the teens that this book would appeal to will so get the cover and appreciate it. It may be what draws them to it in the first place.

The paperback of Teller's novel will be out in March, and it, too, gives a nice sense of the bleakness in the story. But this time, we have two people embracing one another, almost in desperation. I don't read this as romantic at all and I think that it captures the mood of the book well. It's desperate (at least for most of the characters). The coloring of the cover is again dulled, though this time, there's not a symbolic spot of color quite the way there was in the hardcover, unless you count the girl's hair. The title being centered and spread widely across the center of the image works, too, and like the hardcover, I think the simplicity of it helps it sort of blend in all together. 

I have a pile more of cover changes I want to talk about, but I'll save them for another post in the near future -- except one. Most of the changes above haven't elicited a whole lot of reaction from me. I don't think any of them are way off base, even though I've certainly preferred some of the hardcovers over the paperback. But here's one I really don't like. One that I think is a mega disservice.

Gabrielle Zevin's All These Things I've Done has a great hardcover image. I love that the title is in red on graying image, and the only other spot of color is the dripping chocolate heart. There's the back image of the cityscape, and while it's shadowy, there's enough recognition to know it's New York City (even if in the story it's a distant, future NYC -- the shadow effect here gives a bit of the potential for the physical appearance to be different at that time). Aside from the heart, I think this is a cover with appeal to both genders because it's fairly ambiguous. I appreciate there's not a face or a person on the cover, and really, there is something to be said for simplicity in cover design. The other thing I think is neat about this cover is the juxtaposition of the all lower case lettering of the title with the all upper case lettering of the author's name at the top, and yet, neither competes to be the bigger role. They're in harmony.

Enter the paperback edition of the Zevin title and while we still have quite a bit of a blurred city image that works well, we now have a girl face. A girl face that looks a bit vamp-ish and scary. For me, this book is much less about the dystopic future of a city without chocolate or coffee but about a girl who looks like she's going to do some pretty bad things in the city. I can't put my finger on exactly what movie or television show image it reminds me of, but it reads much more action-adventure to me than the story really is. Although the new color palette doesn't bother me, it's the way the girl still manages to jump out from it that doesn't work for me. There may also be a little too much going on in terms of the fonts, the stacking, and the color use in the title and author text.

Now I'm curious -- do you think any of these do it better in one edition or the other? I've heard more than once that the hardcover is the one aimed toward librarians while the paperback is the one aimed at the true teen demographic, though I'm not sure how much I buy that excuse at all if the true goal is to sell a book (there'd be as much emphasis on both then to produce the best possible cover, period). Or have you seen any changes recently -- say the last six months or so -- that have caused you to stop and wonder why the change was made?

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