Saturday, March 31, 2012

First quarter reading roundup

Today's the last day of the first quarter of 2012, and I always like to check in on my reading at the end of a quarter. I've been using GoodReads to record what I'm reading for a few years now, but I've been hand writing every book I've read since I started high school. I like to think of what and when I read as somehow related to my own growth and development. So far this year, I've read over 50 books, which includes a number of manuscripts/to-be-published titles I can't quite talk about yet.

Here's a look at the books I've read, with a quick comment on each (or links to reviews as applicable). Some of these I haven't posted the reviews of yet but will closer to pub date. I've gone ahead and starred those reads that were particularly stand out to me.

battle royale
* 1. Battle Royale by Koushan Takami (adult): I've seen the movie countless times, and I finally read the book. Got through it in one day because I loved it. I refuse to live in a world where Takami's book is hailed as the "better" version of The Hunger Games because they cover two different things entirely. This is brutal and heartbreaking, and I enjoyed every second of it.

2. Unraveling Isobel by Eileen Cook (ya): A fun thriller/ghost story, but the premise overall was kind of thin. Kimberly reviewed this in depth.

3. The Girls of No Return by Erin Saldin (ya debut): A darkish mean girls tale set in the wilderness. I liked it, and even though it won't end up being a favorite, I am still thinking about this months later which tells me quite a bit. Longer review here.

* 4.  Catch & Release by Blythe Woolston (ya): Woolston not only nails this story, but she develops such great, unique characters. I liked her first novel a lot, but this one made me a full believer in Woolston. Full review here.

5. May B by Caroline Starr Rose (mg debut): I enjoyed this historical novel-in-verse set on the Kansas prairie. Definitely nice appeal on this one, and I loved the setting. Full review here

wanderlove, kirsten hubbard6. Blood Bound by Rachel Vincent (adult): Not my usual fair, but I enjoyed it because of that. It's the start of an urban fantasy series about secrets and loyalty, trust and betrayal. Dark, gritty, and bloody.

7. Life is But a Dream by Brian James (ya): The schizophrenia storyline brought me in, but ultimately, this one left me kind of disappointed. It felt a little bit preachy, even if that wasn't the intent. Longer review here.

8. Wanderlove by Kirstin Hubbard (ya): Complicated characters in a fresh setting reeled me in and kept me hooked. Full review here.

* 9. Crazy by Amy Reed (ya): One of the best portrayals of bipolar disorder I've ever read.

10. Me & Early & The Dying Girl by Jesse Andrews (ya debut): I'm not usually a fan of cancer stories, but the humor in this one made this stand out. Longer review here.

11. Beginner's Guide to Living by Lia Hills (ya): Recommended to me by so many people! I enjoyed this lyrical story about grief and living through it. There's a nice romance in this one. Reminded me a lot of CK Kelly Martin's I Know It's Over in terms of voice.

12. Graffiti Moon by Cath Crowley (ya): Secret identities are at play in this "one last night" story. I liked it when I read it, but I'm struggling to remember much about it now, months later, other than the writing and relationships in the story were the strengths.

this is not a test, courtney summers, summers,
13. Never Eighteen by Megan Bostic (ya debut): Problematic story about having your last words before you die. Longer review here.

* 14. This is Not a Test by Courtney Summers (ya): This zombie novel is much less about the zombie apocalypse and much more about what it means to live when you really have nothing to live for. Months later, I'm still thinking about this one. Summers's best yet.

15. Jersey Angel by Beth Ann Bauman (ya): A book about sex and nothing else. No characters, no real story.

16. The Disenchantments by Nina LaCour (ya): Road trip novel about life after high school. I wasn't completely enthralled, but it wasn't entirely disappointing. Review here.

17. The Miseducation of Cameron Post by Emily Danforth (ya debut): A lesbian coming-of-age story. Good but not mind-blowing for me. Longer review.

18. The Knife and the Butterfly by Ashley Hope Perez (ya): Not up my alley, but fills a much-needed niche in the ya world. Longer review.

drowning instinct, ilsa j bick* 19. Amelia Anne is Dead and Gone by Kat Rosenfield (ya debut): Despite being a realistic mystery, this one reminded me a LOT of Imaginary Girls and I mean that in a great way. Beautifully written with a compelling storyline and characters.

20. Thou Shalt Not Road Trip by Antony John (ya): Another road trip book, but this one features a great brother relationship.

21. MWF Seeking BFF by Rachel Bertsche (adult nf): An okay memoir about what friendship means when you're an adult. Longer view here.    

* 22. Drowning Instinct by Ilsa J Bick (ya): Jenna's got one of the best and most memorable voices I've read in ya. This book is challenging in the best way. Full review here.

23. Waiting by Carol Lynch Williams (ya): Underdeveloped storyline and weak characters led to a disappointing read. The verse didn't work.

24. The Pigman by Paul Zindel (ya): Rereading this one still left me loving it.

25. The Year of the Beasts by Cecil Castellucci (ya): I like Castellucci's writing style, but this graphic novel hybrid didn't work for me. The story wasn't strong enough.

springsweet, saundra mitchell26. Darling Meat Angel by Kate Robinson (adult poetry): Kate's one of my friends from college, and I adored her first book of poetry. It's raw and gritty.

27. Purity by Jackson Pearce (ya): Interesting premise but weakly executed with a wealth of mixed messages about sex, religion, and, maybe most problematic, female-male dynamics.

28. The Springsweet by Saundra Mitchell (ya): Second book in the series worked well. Lush language, great setting, and an aching character.

* 29. Pieces of Us by Margie Gelbwasser (ya): Complicated story about people who just aren't nice. Loved how challenging it was. Full review here.

30. Black Boy, White School by Brian Walker (ya debut): Weak writing, interesting story, with definite appeal to more reluctant boy readers. Longer review.

31. The Complete Lockpick Pornography by Joey Comeau (adult): Comeau treads a fine line with humor, violence, and honesty. Two stories that explore identity and social norms.

32. One Lonely Degree by CK Kelly Martin (ya): Read this in one sitting. I have no reason to believe Martin will ever steer me wrong in her writing. I related a LOT to Finn and her insecurities and self-doubt.

something like normal, trish doller, doller, trish33. Girlchild by Tupelo Hassman (adult): Rory's story wasn't easy to read and I never found myself connecting to it because it was written in fragments, flashbacks, documents, and other elements.

34. Kiss the Morning Star by Elissa Janine Hoole (ya debut): Road trip story about two girls learning to love each other and themselves. Longer review.

35. Wanted by Heidi Ayarbe (ya): Bonnie and Clyde meets Robin Hood. A modern western novel that had some great parts and some not-so-great parts.

* 36. Something Like Normal by Trish Doller (ya debut):  When a marine returns and he's not a hero but rather a fully flawed (and interesting) character. Loved this book and cried some ugly, ugly tears.

37. Perfect Escape by Jennifer Brown (ya): Yet another road trip book, and this one looks at what it means to be brother and sister. Good, but not my favorite.

38. Unbreak My Heart by Melissa Walker (ya): A sweet and light romance story that has definite appeal for the Dessen crowd. It fit my mood perfectly when I read it.

39. Survive by Alex Morel (ya debut): A girl wants to die and finds the chance to, but then when her plan backfires and she's a survivor, does she want to? Kind of like Hatchett but ultimately, not as good as it could have been.

yesterday, ck kelly martin, martin
* 40. Yesterday by CK Kelly Martin (ya): A scifi adventure story with time travel, a dystopian future, and maybe even a tiny bit of romance. This was a crazy read but I loved every second of it (and I'm particularly pleased my review is 2063 words long since that's when the future happens).

41. Zoe Letting Go by Nora Price (ya debut): This one reminded me a lot of The Girls of No Return meets Wintergirls and will definitely appeal to both. A contemporary delving into dark issues, though it's not perfect.

* 42. Nothing Special by Geoff Herbach (ya): The follow up to Stupid Fast made me so, so happy. Felton is so great, even if he himself never feels that way. Voice! Voice! Voice!

43. Happy Families by Tanita S. Davis (ya): A story of twins dealing with their father's coming out as a transexual. Great concept, but I didn't find the story or characters strong enough.

all these lives, sarah wylie
44. All These Lives by Sarah Wylie (ya debut): Another cancer book and another book about twins, but this one is not about the twin dealing with the disease, but the one who is not. This was a really unexpected surprise in a good way and the writing was great.

45. Breaking Beautiful by Jennifer Shaw Wolf (ya debut): Mystery about why the main character's abusive boyfriend died in a car wreck and she didn't. Disappointing mystery with an uninteresting lead character.

46. Are You My Mother by Alison Bechdel (adult gn): Much less about Bechdel's mother and much more about herself. Art and life, with a lot of psychoanalysis going on. Not an easy read.

47. Various Positions by Martha Schabas (ya debut): What seemed like a story about competitive dance turned into a weird story about sex that was never believable and really uncomfortable. Longer review.

48. 172 Hours on the Moon by Johan Harstad (ya): Technically, I'm not finished with this as I write this post, but I think I'll be done soon enough to call it a first quarter read. Scifi adventure with a tinge of horror.

I've had two books I didn't finish, which were Welcome Caller, This is Chloe by Shelley Corielle (ya debut) and Railsea (ya) by China Mieville.

I've read 14 debut novels, too, which is great progress toward my goal of reading 32. I don't think I'll have a problem at this rate. I've also been keeping my database of contemporary reads up-to-date as I finish each title.

Phew! It's hard to visualize WHAT you're reading looks like when you're doing it, but now looking at this list, maybe I've done more reading than I thought I have.

Now I ask (if you made it this far): what have been your favorite reads so far this year? Doesn't matter whether or not they've been published in 2012, as long as you've read it in the last three months.

Continue reading...

Friday, March 30, 2012

Competition, Envy, & The Fine Print

The last day or so has brought a great amount of fodder for blogging. The more that came up, the more these things felt connected and the more I knew I had to say something.

I'm a fine print reader. I'm one of those people that does read the contest rules and regulations for anything. I read through all 100-some pages of my mortgage before signing the dotted line, and I had no problem calling my realtor and lender for every single question I had. I like to know what I'm getting myself into.

So last night, when I checked out the contest going on by GoodReads and the Independent Book Bloggers that gives book bloggers the chance to win a free trip to BEA (including airfare, hotel, and convention access), I read the fine print. And I tweeted about being a little nervous reading the fine print for this contest because it mentioned that the sponsors could use my entry, including my post content, without credit or compensation. There are any number of reasons this makes me nervous, but I ran the wording by someone who is savvier about legalese than myself, and I was informed this was fairly standard wording. Except -- she couldn't see what I was seeing. The terms I copy/pasted to her weren't the ones on the website. In the few minutes between mentioning something on Twitter (and having a couple other people mention it), the terms changed. I'm not going to talk about what they say because that's been addressed right here.

Honestly, they're not that different than any other contest terms. The thing is, so few people READ the terms that when you do read them and see something like that, it's jarring and makes you stop and think a little bit.

After thinking about the way the terms were now laid out, I decided to go ahead and enter the contest. I'd love to head to New York City and BEA for free. I love the networking aspect of the event, even if the show floor does little to nothing for me. As soon as I hit "submit" on the entry, though, I began to feel weird about doing it. I scrolled through a number of the other entries, and I began doubting more and more my decision to enter.

The contest is set up in two rounds: the first allows anyone to vote through their favorite blogs. Starting April 10, bloggers can campaign to earn votes, and the top 15 entries in each of the four categories will then be judged by a panel on a number of criteria, including writing quality, analysis quality, design, tone, and reader impact.

In short: it's a popularity contest to start, followed by a real evaluation.

I sat on my entry for a few more hours, thinking about the work involved in promoting my blog among the other hundreds of YA blogs that entered. I sat on my entry thinking about having to spam my readers and my Twitter followers and whoever the heck else I could think about to vote for me. I sat on my entry looking at the other bloggers who have far greater followings than I do.

I took my entry out of the contest.

The only thing I could think about was the impending drama to come from this sort of set up. I've mentioned before that I don't think that the things which come up in the blogging world are necessarily drama, and addressing it that way belittles some of the legitimate issues worth talking about when it comes to blogging. But I'm not going to lie: my chest got tense thinking about how my Twitter and my Google Reader will look starting April 10 as people begin begging for votes in this contest. And why wouldn't people try to get them? It's a free trip to BEA and to NYC.

This leads me to talking about the bigger issue, which is envy. I sort of addressed this in my post about blogging stats and how it's important to remember you're doing what you're doing because you're passionate about it, whatever the reason behind it is. It's hard to remember that sometimes, though, especially when you're so eager to be a part of something big.

Being a part of a big promotional event is neat. It feels like you've been chosen because of something that makes your blog special and unique (even if sometimes it's simply stats). When you're not selected to be a part of something, it feels like you're not good enough. It's easy to find yourself envious of those who were picked, and it's way too easy with social media to not only find yourself obsessing over who did get to be a part of something, but to also find yourself lamenting and devaluing your own work because you weren't. Where one blogger gets something exciting -- whether they asked for it or it just happened -- another one doesn't. It's not fair, and there are going to be feelings on both sides of the equation.

I invited everyone to read Sarah's post about this topic where it comes to the In My Mailbox meme because she hits it perfectly. While I do think In My Mailbox has a genuine and good purpose behind it, it does get people worked up quite a bit.

I'm not comfortable begging people to choose STACKED over another, equally worthy blog. I'm not comfortable, either, when we're given an opportunity -- one we may not have chosen to be a part of but were instead selected to be part of by some reasoning beyond our knowledge -- and people find themselves judging us or themselves as more or less worthy. Because the truth is, we're all here doing something good and we're all doing something different.

Even though I've pulled my entry for the BEA contest, the anxiety of it hasn't left me because I know there will be hurt feelings all over the place. It's the same kind of hurt people have when they don't get the latest ARC or promotion. What makes it challenging to keep doing what we're doing with camaraderie and without the hurt feelings is that we ARE all working toward a common goal (spreading the word of great books) and sometimes, the rules and decisions are ones completely out of our hands. The decision makers don't always take the implications of their contests or their promotions into consideration before they put them out there.

And the thing is, they don't have to.

It's our responsibility as bloggers to stand up and choose whether or not we participate. It's our responsibility to decide whether or not we're going to let ourselves get anxious or nervous about them, too. It's our responsibility to speak up and speak out.

We blog because of the freedom it allows us. The only way to keep it free is to remember we have the right to say no thanks and we have the right to step out when we're not comfortable with how things are going.

That's the fine print, and we get to write it ourselves.

Continue reading...

Same Difference by Derek Kirk Kim

I've resisted picking up Derek Kirk Kim's Same Difference for a while for what might be a silly reason: the illustrations are in black and white. Ever since I started reading graphic novels, I've been more than a little prejudiced against black and white art, no matter how good that art may be. But I've pretty much read through my entire library's small collection of full color graphic novels whose stories seemed remotely interesting to me, so it was time to buckle down and move on.

There's no better place to start than Same Difference, a much-lauded book featuring characters in their twenties, which First Second re-released in a "deluxe edition" in 2011. By much-lauded, I mean that it garnered Kim three major comics awards when it was first published in 2003: the Eisner, the Harvey, and the Ignatz award for new talent. Pretty impressive, yes? Plus, I really dug Kim's illustrations in The Eternal Smile, so I hoped I would like them equally in black and white.

I needn't have worried - Same Difference deserves the accolades. By saying that, I realize this review won't add much of anything new, since the world has had almost ten years to figure this out on its own, but for the two of you who hadn't heard of this book until now, this is for you. 

Simon and Nancy are two friends going through a quarter-life crisis. They're in their mid-twenties, a bit directionless, past high school but not quite settled into adulthood yet. They're eating lunch together when Simon gets a blast from his past: he sees Irene, a former high school friend of his, waiting at a bus stop. Rather than go and talk to her, he instead recounts to Nancy the story of their friendship, a story that still makes Simon feel deeply ashamed of his actions.

Later, the two are at Nancy's apartment and Nancy admits to Simon that she's been receiving letters in the mail addressed to a former tenant from a lovesick man named Ben - and she's been writing back, pretending to be Ben's object of affection. Ben lives in Pacifica, which just happens to be Simon's hometown, and the two decide to go to Pacifica, hoping to get a glimpse of the man Nancy's been stringing along. Not only is Ben not what they expected, Simon also runs into Irene - and he can't avoid speaking to her this time.

The best thing about Same Difference is the way it manages to be both funny and poignant at the same time. I laughed out loud at so many moments. At one point, after high school Simon realizes what a giant...jerk...he's been, he's depicted as just that in the panel. There might not be anything funnier than a picture of a giant sad-faced...jerk. (Three guesses: What do you think my favorite part of Superbad was?) And Simon and Nancy are great wise-crackers, constantly ribbing each other like good friends do. Often, the humor is a lead-in for something a bit deeper: reflections on life, past experiences that haunt us, and mistakes we continue to make into adulthood. It's never heavy-handed, though, and it's done in only 80 pages with black and white artwork that perfectly captures both the humor and the poignancy.

The only thing I wish First Second had done differently with the re-release is to include the "Other Stories" that were published alongside the original story.

Continue reading...

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Covers Change the Story: More Hardcover-Paperback Swaps

Sometimes I wonder if I spend more time thinking about cover art on books than reading the books themselves. But then I look over at my to-review pile and remind myself it's all part of the process. Covers are so important to selling books -- especially YA books -- I can't help think about how and why they change when they go from their hardcover originals to their paperback incarnations. Here's a bunch of recent and forthcoming cover changes. Some are good, some are bad, and some don't elicit much from me at all in terms of being good or bad.

I'll Be There by Holly Goldberg Sloan is getting a makeover. The original hardcover is on the left and the paperback (due out June 12) is on the right. I think both of these covers are pretty good -- the original is illustrated, which is a rare thing to find in a YA cover, and it works well. I've read this book, and it's a quieter novel, and the original cover fits the tone, without overshadowing or overselling the quiet nature of the story. One of the other things I like about this cover is that because it's illustrated, rather than a stock photo, it will appeal to younger YA readers, and it's a story that would be appropriate for those just starting in YA books. That's not to say it's a gentle or easy read, but rather, it's inviting.

As much as I like the hardcover, I really like the paperback. It's a photograph, but there's something in the muted blue tone that works and makes it stand out. I like the sense of isolation and loneliness the pair of boots has, and it's nicely contrasted with the monarch butterfly by not only the spot of color, but also the sense of hope it symbolizes. I'm also a fan of the font for the title and author.

Both of the covers for Ruta Sepetys's Between Shades of Gray are quiet, muted, and almost too easy to look at, since the book is anything but easy to read. I find it interesting that neither of these covers screams historical fiction -- they're both very contemporary looking, and I can't decide whether that's a strength (wider readership) or a weakness (missing target readership). The original hardcover (left) is the one I prefer to the paperback for a number of reasons. First, and maybe most importantly, it's not a photograph of a person. Because this story is so much about human nature, I think the fact it's a faceless cover is important and a chilling contrast. Not to mention, the nature here fits the setting inside the book. I dig the font treatment on the title and author byline, though her name almost gets lost in the snow on the ground.

I'm not feeling the paperback cover because it features the face on it. Not just any face, but a very pale, very perfect face. More than that, though. there's something about the way the snowflakes are caught in the girl's eyelash that bothers me. What I do like about this treatment is the font for the title and the fact the author's name is bigger and not fading into the image itself. In fact, I think the title font might be smaller than the author's name even (though it's a slight difference). It's interesting that the paperback includes a tag line to it that the hard cover does not that reads "One girl's voice breaks the silence of history." I can't say it's the greatest or catchiest. For me, the hardcover wins this round.

Kimberly Marcus's 2011 debut novel-in-verse Exposed does it so much better in hardcover, even though I find the hardcover pretty unmemorable itself. I've reviewed this book before and one of the elements running through the story is photography. So as much as I don't care for the hard cover on the left, it fits the story pretty well, and it's a nice play on the title. I do appreciate the title font on the hardcover, and how it is spaced out and, well, exposed.

The paperback cover is a downgrade, though. First, it's a close up of a girl's face, which tells absolutely nothing about the story. It's nice it's a close up of a girl with freckles, since there aren't a lot of those, but that still tells nothing of the story. But worse: these covers of a close up of a girl's face all look exactly the same. Maybe it's helpful in a sense for reader's advisory or it could be an interesting book display, but I tend to think it's a little insulting to readers AND the the authors. It's giving readers the same thing over and over and it's making the author's work blend into everything else that's out there. With the paperback, there was a font change on the title and it's probably my least-favorite font choice. It's weak and looks cheap. And maybe the thing that's most interesting about the change, though it certainly isn't telling of much, is that the girl on the hardcover version has long, dark hair and the girl in the paperback has blond hair. I guess both girls do have their eyes shut.

Nomansland by Lesley Hauge came out in 2010 in hardcover, and it just released in paperback a couple of months ago, with a cover change. This is an interesting one to look at because both of the covers are really similar -- they use the same color palette and both appear to have the same artistic technique of using a stock image and illustrating on top of it (to be fair, I'm not sure if that's the case or if these are actual illustrations, but I believe it's the first). In the hardcover on the left, we have the girl shooting her bow and arrow away from the reader. We've got no sense of what she's thinking, though we can tell from her stance she's strong and determined. The girl is in control of the situation, and it's clear in the image that the horse is just a tool (and I like that). My one complaint in the girl is that she's almost made a little too sexy with the way her clothes are sticking/fluttering on her body. That's not to say she can't be that way, but it almost feels a little over the top to me, given how much power there is in her stance and in her aim. Note, too, her hair is flying in her face.

In the paperback version, we have the girl facing the reader, and we can read intent in her eyes perfectly. We don't have a body to judge, but we have a set of eyes and a gaze that gives the same feeling of determination and badassery that the first cover gives. It's interesting this girl's hair is flying out of her face, rather than in it, giving the reader an even stronger view of her expression. It's sort of a refreshing change of pace from the covers with the windswept hair (especially where you know the girl is strong and powerful). I like the font treatment on the paperback cover and I appreciate how the red pops against the otherwise gray and toneless background. I don't have a favorite between these two covers, but I do think they're in an interesting conversation with one another.

The cover change on Susane Colasanti's So Much Closer baffles me beyond words. The hardcover (left) nails the story perfectly. This is a book about a girl who decides she's giving up her life in New Jersey to move to New York City in hopes of getting with a boy who just moved there himself. It's very much a New York City novel -- the hardcover captures it perfectly, and I think it does a great job of giving a sense of what kind of girl Brooke is. She's wearing something that screams NYC to me, and seeing that her goal is to be an NYC kind of chick, well, this gets it. More than that, I appreciate the body language going on between the girl and the guy. There's a hunt of something, the potential for romance to bloom, but there is not a  guarantee. If anything, it sort of illustrates the fact the girl is more interested than the guy (she is, after all, leaning into him and her leg is close to his). I like the font, and I like that the cover is consistent with other Colasanti covers in that her name is bigger and more prominent than the title. This isn't a knock on the book, but rather, a smart move on the designer's part, since Colasanti readers often read her books because they're written by her. Titles are less important than the author.

The paperback cover gives a totally different impression of Brooke than the hardcover: in this instance, she is very much a girly girl. It's not only because of her dress (which I think makes her look pregnant with the way it's flying up in the front), but it's through her entire body language -- there's the stance with her legs, and there's the way her hair hangs, and maybe the thing standing out to me the most, which is her hands. This cover also plays up the romance much more than it plays up the NYC aspect. I can't put my finger on what does this -- maybe the font of the title and the way it's laid out -- but this cover looks much more like it's targeting an adult readership than a teen readership. The paperback also features a tag line that reads "Follow your heart . . . No matter where it takes you," and it fits the theme of the story. I don't quite get the purpose in changing this cover, though it tells a much different story and gives the book a different slant than the hardcover does. But more importantly, and something I've been trying to figure out for a while now: who is holding up the umbrella? From the way her hand is positioned on the boy's shoulder, there is no way the girl is holding it, unless she has Gumby arms, and from the guy's position, the same deal holds. Isn't his head being whacked on the inside by the way it's positioned? Is there an invisible hand here? An invisible arm? Inquiring minds want to understand the physics behind this one.

Continue reading...

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Sidekicks by Dan Santat

I normally stay away from stories about animals. Even as a kid, they never really did anything for me. BUT. Dan Santat's comic about pets as superhero sidekicks had been calling out to me for a while, mostly because of the artwork, and it's definitely a worthwhile read.

Captain Amazing, superhero extraordinaire, has been getting older, and he's decided it's time for him to get a sidekick. His pets - Fluffy the hamster, Roscoe the dog, and Shifty the chameleon - are all eager for the job, but Captain Amazing (Harry to his pets) is completely oblivious to this. He's also oblivious to the fact that his pets have already begun to develop superpowers - powers that will come in handy when Harry gets into a spot of trouble himself with his old nemesis Dr. Havoc.

In many ways, this is a fairly standard superhero story. The pets are the underdogs who must move past their bickering and learn to work together to save Captain Amazing. Will they emerge victorious? If you're at all in doubt, you haven't read a single graphic novel in your life. 

But Santat makes the book unique enough in other ways to keep it enjoyable. For starters, it's funny, and most of its funny moments come from the art (in glorious, bold full colors). Santat gets a lot of mileage out of Fluffy's buck teeth and bulging eyes (often mismatched in size for greatest impact) and Shifty's changing skin. Facial expressions are frequently hysterical, particularly when a gust of wind (or a sneeze) blows past the animals. Plus, the pets are just plain adorable, and I am a sucker for adorable. The book also benefits from Santat's ability to create distinctions between the pets in personality as well as appearance. Naturally, this makes the story more engaging, even if the reader is never in doubt of its ending. And he includes a couple nice side stories and a clever bit at the end that make the book just that much better.

Fluffy is my favorite. Isn't he adorable?
Sidekicks is solid middle grade entertainment, and it seems like it would have wide appeal to that age group. It feels a little bit like the Incredibles with pets instead of kids, and the outcome is the same. It's got a heartwarming, but not heavy-handed, message about making sure to spend time with the ones you love - not a bad takeaway at all.

Continue reading...

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Hunger Games of the Hunger Games

I saw The Hunger Games this weekend, along with however many other hundreds of thousands of people, and I'm still processing it. I'm not going to post a review of it because I think Kimberly's review is entirely spot on and perfect.

Instead, I thought I'd talk about the response to the movie I've been reading and been thinking a lot about. Two constant criticisms popping up that have rubbed me wrong on so many levels fall squarely on Jennifer Lawrence's portrayal of Katniss. Both are perfect examples of the sorts of criticism people heft onto female actresses, especially in leading performances.

Right before the movie released on Friday, this article popped up via a (male) friend's Facebook page. He asked everyone if they believed Hunger Games was really the first female-lead driven, huge movie, and their responses to the question were interesting. Most said this is probably the biggest wide release film with a female lead, but they pointed out other film/film series that featured female leads, including Twilight (which female commenters in the thread were quick to dismiss since "Bella's worthless"), Tomb Raider, Underworld, and Kill Bill. I think it says a lot there IS a discussion and there ARE articles trying to ferret out which movies were the first to star a female. Because we cannot get past gender.

But more disturbing to me are reviews like this one. I get the reviewers weren't fans of the film, and that's everyone's right to have. I also get the humor they're going for in this review, and it's spot on in being more about the authors than about the film. But the line that struck me was this: "Natasha: Like, I needed a bitch to EMOTE and pretend like her tummy was a little rumbly." 

Let me start with the first part and work into the second part. 

For what it's worth, I thought Jennifer Lawrence was spot-on in her portrayal of Katniss. See, as much as this film was about a desperate situation, it was also a game being televised for everyone to watch. She knew that. Playing into her emotions would be playing into precisely what the Capitol would want. More importantly, though, Katniss isn't an emoter. Katniss is a thinker. She's critically assessing her situations and making strategic decisions about which moves to make and not make. Even in that scene with Rue -- the one where I shed a couple of tears -- she's not emotionally wrought. She's holding back and she's acting with steelness because she has to. Because that is who she is. If you'll remember back to the scenes prior to Katniss's going into the arena, particularly when she is saying her goodbyes to Prim, her mother, and Gale, she's tough. She has no emotional blatant emotional response because she's in a state of utter shock and disbelief, and this response doesn't change when she's fighting, either. It wouldn't. 

Lawrence, as Kimberly pointed out, "frequently remain[s] silent but able to communicate a lot through her face and body language without making it seem like she's emoting." This is where I found Katniss to be most believable and most authentic to everything she was to herself. Had Lawrence emoted or worn her feelings in more visible ways (breaking down in tears, shredding things in anguish, and so forth), she'd be playing the game and losing sight of the end goal (getting out of there, getting home). More than that, though, it'd be playing into what the audience expects from her.

Which takes me to this point: we expect females to emote, don't we? We expect the emotional response and we're almost uncomfortable when it's not there. Like it's not right. I needed a bitch to EMOTE. I probably don't need to go into the connotation there, do I? Bitches need to show their emotions or they're not valid. Remember the earlier comments about Twilight?

The second part of the comment above that got me was about Katniss needing to portray her hunger a little more. Don't worry, this one's been covered, too. Why is it a woman's body is always open for discussion? Why is it when a woman's body IS discussed, it's always leveraged with a subtle jab at any other body type? This article does it, too, intentionally or not, right here: "Her body type may differ ever so slightly from the Hollywood norm—her thighs appear functional rather than merely decorative—but she’s still leaner than the vast majority of the American population."

So your thighs are either functional or they're not, depending on the size? So, very thin people have non-functional thighs? I wholeheartedly agree with what Anderson's trying to say in the piece, but the way it's presented is a little problematic for me because it invariably pits "right" bodies from "not-right" bodies. We ARE fixated on this, and we continue to fixate by making these kind of distinctions.

But back to the point: we realize that Lawrence is tiny, right? That her body is thinner than average, but she's got curves. She's got breasts and she's got a butt. Guess what? Females come in all shapes and sizes, and even if Lawrence is "bigger" than the average model, why does it matter in this role? To be entirely honest, I thought the fact she WAS curvy made her an even more inspired choice for the role. It hammered home the desperation and the hunger. While I will admit to the film not necessarily capturing the back story to the Hunger Games particularly well, Lawrence's "average" body didn't make her need any less valid or less believable. The anguish and hunger? It was written on her face. It was written in the way she moved her body, the pacing with which she advanced and retreated in each scene. It was also right there on the faces and in the actions of every other tribute.

Since when does one need to be emaciated to prove they're hungry? And since when does there need to be audible grumbling? We expect certain things because they're what we've come to accept as the right way for things to be. We expect hunger to manifest in moaning and in weakness. If it's presented any other way, it's up for easy criticism. For easy mockery. If our main heroine in a story like The Hunger Games isn't teeny tiny, isn't crying or breaking at the drop of a hat, and if her stomach isn't growling, then she's wrong.

She's wrong.

I've avoided a lot of review reading of the movie because what I have read has presented judgment of Lawrence's performance in a way that's made an assumption of the role a female -- a female teen, no less -- should play. Viewers are spending more time critiquing what is acceptable emotion and body shape against our believed societal norms, rather than analyzing her performance by critiquing it in terms of story. In terms of the world she's been put in. In terms of who Katniss is.

It's become almost a Hunger Games in itself, hasn't it?

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Kiss the Morning Star by Elissa Janine Hoole

Anna and Kat just graduated high school and the world looks totally open to them. Kat suggests that she and Anna take a cross-country road trip and keep the spirit of Jack Kerouac's The Dharma Bums as their guide -- as a way for them to sort of find the meaning of their lives and their purpose.

It sounds like fairly straight forward premise, but it's actually a lot deeper than that. Anna has experienced a huge loss in her life. Multiple losses, actually. Her mother died a year ago and her father's given up all in a higher power, despite having been a pastor prior to his wife's death. She has a lot of mental unpacking to do now that she's free from school, and despite thinking Anna has a fun idea in a road trip, she's a little reluctant. All of this time with Kat has her a little worried -- not just about having to confront what her next plans are and not just about what has happened in her past. Anna's going to have to come to terms with the fact she might be a little in love with Kat, too.

Kiss the Morning Star had so many elements I like in a story: there's a road trip with a solid premise behind it, the potential for a good romance, and Anna's going to have to deal with a lot of emotional baggage from the many changes that have taken place in her life over the last year. Without doubt, the book delivered on a few of these things, but I found the writing and execution of the story to be somewhat weak.

The characters in Hoole's story were great. Anna is a reluctant participant in this road trip, much as she's a reluctant participant in the romance between her and Kat. And her reluctance makes sense. We know from the start something happened to her family, and we know her mother's dead. It's never quite clear why, but loss is heavy on her mind. As the story unfolds and the girls find themselves in some pretty tight spots -- their car breaks down and needs a repair that'll take a couple days, they meet a pair of girls who aren't as kind as they seem, Anna has her wallet stolen, and then there's a near-death incident on a missionary bus trip, just to name a few things -- Anna reveals more about what happened to her mother and her father. The loss was an unexpected one, and Anna's emotions and reactions to thinking about her mother's death were authentic and honest. She's not a hugely emotional girl, and she prefers to keep her thoughts about these things inside herself. Anna also wrestles with the notion of religion and God; her life had a healthy does of spiritual belief in it before her mother's death, given her father's career, but now that she's experienced loss and she's dealing with grief, she's not so sure anymore what, if anything, she believes. This trip causes her to open up more and come to grips with her feelings.

Kat, on the other hand, is wilder. She had the idea for the trip and for the pursuit of all things dharma bum, and she pushes Anna into joining her. She's in control of the vehicle for a good chunk of the story, and she's the one who makes suggestions about wild adventures, then pursues them. She pushes Anna into joining on a missionary trip to Mexico, she pushes Anna into camping in the wilderness, and ultimately, she steers Anna into pursuing a relationship with her. As much as Kat is an enabler and a little pushy, she's not perfect. She's broken inside, and Anna catches those moments more than once. And it's in those instances that Kat becomes more attractive to Anna. She's vulnerable, too. Kat's got a tough exterior, but she's not all concrete.

Hoole develops a great romantic relationship between Anna and Kat. It's sweet while also maintaining a sultry element to it. For both girls, it's not a big deal, despite the fact Anna does question whether or not she's actually a lesbian. She questions the term more than the thing itself, and it's Kat who reminds her the words don't matter. The feelings do. Of course, the relationship isn't perfect, and it's sort of because Anna gets caught up in the newness of it and in the act of defining it, rather than experiencing it.

That's sort of the biggest element of the story worth talking about -- one of the most obvious characteristics Anna has is that she obsesses over definition. Of being sort of removed from everything about her, rather than experiencing it as it happens. She worries a lot about what things mean rather than letting herself take it at face value and appreciating it as that. This ties into the Kerouac aspect of the story, and for that, I applaud Hoole. It's smart and subtle.

Writing-wise, I felt this could have been stronger. I found the use of Anna's internalization at the beginning of each chapter a little jarring and out of context. While there's a difference between the internal and external growth (see the previous paragraph), it didn't work being so separated in the story. Maybe my biggest problem was that the story begins very bumpy; the girls are already in the midst of their trip where we pick up, and there is little time to get to know who the characters are, despite being given an internal moment from Anna immediately. I had a hard time sinking into the story because I didn't get a chance to meet the characters nor the set up in the first couple of chapters. Once I figured the two girls out, the pacing was better, and I was able to suspend belief for some of the more ridiculous moments that occur in the story.

I'm usually a fan of road trip stories, but this one tread close to using the idea as a plot convenience than a hearty, fully-fleshed aspect of the book. I found myself thinking this as the story moved further west, particularly when the girls head to Victoria for a palm reading. There was a big chunk of time that went missing between Wyoming/Colorado and being near the ocean. It was less an issue of pacing and more one of the trip itself being forgotten. In addition to the road trip being sort of lost in the second half of the book, I found the religious aspect of the plot falls out of the story about the same time -- maybe about the point the girls realize being on a missionary bus trip to Mexico wasn't a good idea -- and I don't know if either girl ever came to terms with that struggle. I don't expect clean resolutions in my stories, but I prefer when the elements making up a story do come together at some point or have some sort of closure, even if it's open ended.

The other issue I had will sound a little contradictory with what I talked about enjoying in the story, and that's Anna and Kat's relationship. They go through a lot of wild adventures together, and they're respectful toward one another, despite pointing out one another's flaws periodically. However, I felt that Kat was a bit condescending throughout their relationship, and I do not believe this was at all intentional. The reason I read this into the story, though, was because she continuously (obnoxiously, even) addresses Anna as "Anna babe." The way she uses it and the context she uses it in almost degrades Anna a bit, furthering Anna's swallowing back her emotions. Just when it feels like Anna is making progress toward figuring herself out, Kat calls her by her pet name. It rubbed me wrong, and while I don't necessarily think it impacted Anna, it impacted me and made me question the power dynamics of their relationship.

Kiss the Morning Star will appeal to fans of road trip books. Even with my skepticism of the trip, it succeeds in propelling a story about growth and change forward. Hoole's story does a good job of balancing light-hearted adventure with heavier issues, and the relationship between Anna and Kat is real and intense. Likewise, readers who like stories about teens who are figuring out what to do after high school will find this will fit the bill well.

Review copy received from the publisher. Kiss the Morning Star will be available April 1.

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Monday, March 26, 2012

So You Want to Read YA?: Guest Post from Liz Burns

This week's "So You Want To Read YA?" post comes from one of my favorite bloggers, Liz Burns. Here's how she defines herself:

I blog about young adult books, TV, and other things that capture my fancy at A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy over at School Library Journal. My favorite book is Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta and my favorite TV series is Buffy The Vampire Slayer. I have also been known to enjoy House Hunters International (what's with the granite countertop obsession?) and live-tweeting shows like Toddlers & Tiaras and 19 Kids & Counting. Liz tweets @LizB. 

There weren’t any YA books when I was growing up!”

Yes, there were.

Maybe your local library didn’t have the books, or didn’t shelve them in a way that was easy to find.

Maybe your bookstore didn’t carry the title.

But they were there.

For those who want to take a look at what some of those books may have been, start with Lizzie Skurnick’s Shelf Discovery: The Teen Classics We Never Stopped Reading. I’d also point out two personal favorite authors: Ellen Emerson White and Norma Johnston.

What’s different about today’s YA books? There are more. They are easier to find. There is less shaming with reading YA (that is, less people telling thirteen year olds, implicitly or explicitly, that smart kids skip to adult books and don’t read those YA books). It’s easier to find YA books for older teens. Publishers are more aware that the over-sixteen crowd, in addition to reading adult books that show the world they are part of, also want books that reflect their lives and fears, hopes and dreams. 
So, where to start with YA? To be honest, the books I recommend may be ones that you read and then say, “wait, what? That’s YA? But, well, that’s just a good book that happens to have a teenager as a main character.” Exactly; trying to define YA is actually pretty difficult. Name any factor – teen main character, character growth, coming of age – and you’ll also be able to name an adult book with those factors, also. Name any factor exclusive to adult books – sex, drugs, rock’n’roll – and you’ll quickly find a YA book about those things. It may be a bit of a cop out, but my definition right now is a YA book is a book that has been published YA. Once that simple matter of publication classification is out of the way, does it really matter? What matters is, is it a good story? Is it one I’ll like? Is there something in there I’ll connect with?

So here are the top books and authors I recommend starting with:

Sometimes a good book into YA is one with older characters: try The Piper’s Son by Melina Marchetta. Marchetta is brilliant at writing about real life: messy lives, the complications of family, the love between family and friends. Tom has dropped out of university, disconnected from old friends, ignored his family. When he has no place else to go, he moves in with his Aunt Georgie, who has her own problems to deal with. Tom and Georgie’s world was ripped apart by the death of Tom’s Uncle Joe, Georgie’s younger brother. In the years since his death, both spiraled into isolation and grief, and now, together, they are ready to accept that they can have a future with happiness and not betray the loss they suffered.

OK. Sounds like all YA is serious stuff. Hardly! Spend some time with Ruby Oliver, introduced in Ruby Oliver was first introduced to the world in The Boyfriend List (15 guys, 11 shrink appointments, 4 ceramic frogs and me, Ruby Oliver) by E. Lockhart. Ruby is trying to manage high school, boyfriends, best friends, ex-best friends, ex-boyfriends (and the complication of ex-best friends dating ex-boyfriends) and panic attacks brought on by the stress of it all. Ruby is funny, wry, smart, and OK, maybe a bit boy crazy at times, but hey, who hasn’t been?
Another way into YA is to read present day YA set in a time when the reader was a teen. One of this year’s best books is The Miseducation of Cameron Post by Emily M. Danforth. It’s a coming of age story set in the late 1980s/early 1990s in Montana. Cameron’s parents died the same day she kissed a girl, and those two things become linked; she explores her sexuality in a time and a place where being gay is neither cool nor popular nor accepted, and when her religious aunt finds out about Cam she sends Cam to a religious school to be “fixed.”

Sometimes, YA is called a “genre” and I’m not a fan of that term because I tend to think of genre as things like mystery, horror, or fantasy. YA includes all those genres, and what better way to get into YA than to find something in a genre you already read?
If you like fantasy (especially that of the Games of Thrones variety), read Megan Whalen Turner’s The Thief series, starting with The Thief. Gen is a master thief, in prison not because he was caught stealing the King’s seal but because he was arrogant enough to boast about it publicly. Now he’s offered a deal: help the King’s Magus steal something valuable from another country, get out of jail. Gen says yes, trying to figure out how to make this unlikely offer work for him. Gen finds himself in the middle of three countries on the edge of war; this series is full of politics, fights, battles, and, best of all, The Thief, Gen who is exactly what he says he is – and nothing like he says he is. Once you’ve read through this series, turn to Melina Marchetta’s Lumatere books, starting with Finnikin of the Rock, about exiles trying to recover their country in a world with few allies and fewer resources.

What about horror? Look no further than the Monstrumologist series by Rick Yancey. The Monstrumologist is about horror without vampires or werewolves; it’s set in the 19th century and follows young Will Henry and his mentor/guardian, Dr. Pellinore Warthrop, a “monstrumologist” who seriously studies those creatures others call “monsters”. The problem with studying monsters is, well, they are monsters: the bodies pile up and it’s not pretty. The Monstrumologist series is Stephen King by way of H.P. Lovecraft, and after reading these books you’ll be sleeping with the doors locked and the lights on.

Some like their horror to have more of a supernatural thrill; try Imaginary Girls by Nova Ren Suma. Chloe left town two years ago, following the accidental drowning of a classmate. Chloe’s older sister, the irresistible Ruby, convinces Chloe to return home. Guess who shows up at a party? How can a dead girl still be alive? Does Ruby know? What is going on?

More a fan of literary fiction? YA has that, also. Each year, YALSA (the Young Adult Library Services Assocation) awards the Michael L. Printz Award to the best book written for teens. The entire basis for this award is literary merit. This year, the Printz went to Where Things Come Back by John Corey Whaley. Some things don’t come back; like Cullen’s cousin Oslo, dead from an overdose. Some things may come back, like the woodpecker that people believed was extinct until one self-important and pr-savvy professor came to town. In the town of Lily, Arkansas, eager, dream filled teens leave town, sure of bigger and better things that await them, and return because of heart break or sick parents or accidents. Lily, where things come back . . . . sometimes. Will Cullen’s missing younger brother be one of those things that come back?

Disclaimer: a few years back, I was on the Printz committee. The book we selected? Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta. It is a brilliant book, with multiple narratives, heartbreak, hope, and love. I’ll share the blurb the committee put together for it: “Haunted by the past,Taylor Markham reluctantly leads the students of the Jellicoe School in their secret territory wars against the Townies and the Cadets. Marchetta’s lyrical writing evokes the Australian landscape in a suspenseful tale of raw emotion, romance, humor and tragedy.”

I would go on and on, but I suspect Kelly is already saying “enough! We don’t want a tl:dr post!” But trust me… once you try out these books, you’ll want more!

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Saturday, March 24, 2012

Reminder: The Best Books You Aren't Reading

Don't forget to join Lenore and I this Thursday for our first Twitter book discussion of CK Kelly Martin's My Beating Teenage Heart. Chat with us starting at 6 pm EST, using the hash tag #MBTH.

This was one of my favorite books last year, and I'm eager to not only reread it, but Lenore and I are excited to get other people talking about it.

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Friday, March 23, 2012

The Hunger Games: Movie Review

You may not know this about me, but I have connections. Namely, this guy. Thanks to his press status (he's the movie critic for our local newspaper), he scored two press passes to see The Hunger Games on Wednesday.  I know we usually stick to books here at STACKED, but I figured this film was big enough to merit a review.

Overall: I really, really liked it. This is one of the better movie adaptations of a novel that I've seen. It stays true enough to the book to please most fans, but it doesn't follow it so closely that it becomes awkward or tedious. Film and paper are two very different media formats, and changes need to be made from one to the other to make a successful adaptation. Luckily, the Hunger Games does it right.

Perhaps the "change" that I most appreciated in the movie is the inclusion of the gamemakers' actions during the Games themselves. Due to Katniss' first-person narration in the novel, we're unable to see what it is exactly that the gamemakers are doing. Sure, Katniss tells us a little bit of what must be going on, but it's not the same as seeing it. In the movie, the camera will often cut away from the Games to show us the gamemakers at work: creating fireballs to hurtle at Katniss, engineering vicious dogs to sic on the tributes, placing a tree in Katniss' path. It gives the moviegoer a chance to see some very cool futuristic technology that isn't as present in the book.

This is a slick production. The sets, costumes, and special effects are all very lavish and very detailed. It all screams "blockbuster" - as it should. The first shots of the Capitol are nearly breathtaking, as Peeta remarks. The costumes on the Capitol's denizens are just the right amount of ridiculous. The "girl on fire" costume that Katniss wears during the tribute parade is perhaps not as amazing as I was hoping, but it was still pretty neat to look at. The arena - filmed in exotic Asheville, North Carolina - is beautiful, too, in a very deadly way. The Hunger Games is a pretty film with much to draw the eye.

I think what most people will be talking about after seeing the film, though, is the acting. The two male leads are kind of duds (mediocre, but inoffensive), but Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss was an inspired casting choice. She channels a bit of her character Ree from Winter's Bone, frequently remaining silent but able to communicate a lot through her face and body language without making it seem like she's emoting. Thanks to the book's first-person POV, we get inside Katniss' head very easily there; Lawrence is able to do the same thing to the viewing audience without the benefit of an inner monologue, which is mighty impressive.

The supporting cast does a terrific job too. The roles of Seneca Crane and President Snow have both been beefed up for the film, which I liked. Crane was almost a nonentity to the me in the book, so much so that I didn't even remember what his role was when I read Catching Fire. Here, he is interesting. He gets a few key scenes with President Snow that help demonstrate his own motivations as well as Snow's.

Effie is mainly there for comic relief, which isn't a bad thing. Elizabeth Banks is a scene-stealer. She's got some really funny lines that keep the movie from being completely depressing, which I always appreciate. I've read some people complain about Haymitch, but I thought he was solidly portrayed as well. Lenny Kravitz as Cinna is equally good. And Stanley Tucci as Caesar Flickerman has the most batshit insane camera smile you will ever see.

And Rue. Oh Rue. She's adorable and easy to like, and her death is wrenching. It hurts to see her die and to see Katniss' reaction to it, but the full impact of it isn't felt until we see District 11 rioting over it, fighting the peacekeepers, prompted by a man whom I assume is Rue's father.

The only thing that I really disliked about the film was its overuse of the "shaky cam" technique. It's used consistently during the Games themselves, and I assume it was done at least in part to keep the rating PG-13. If the camera remained still, the audience would get a much better view of the violence. As it is, though, it was sometimes difficult to tell exactly what was going on. And the technique was also used as the potential tributes walked to the Reaping ceremony - not necessary for rating purposes. It got to the point where I wanted to look away until the camera was steadied again. I am not a fan of this technique.

I have to mention just one more thing that has nothing to do with the film, really, but instead the audience's reaction to it. I was in a packed theater full of fans, and they were all very enthusiastic. So it makes sense that they would cheer when something good happens to Katniss, yes? There were cheers when Thresh saved Katniss by taking out another tribute, when Cato finally kicked it, and when Katniss and Peeta won the Games. Cheering and applauding for the death of children is nice, isn't it? Doesn't it make you think a little bit of the spectators in the Capitol, choosing favorites, making bets, cheering and booing the tributes? Doesn't it make you feel a little bit like the audience is just another pawn in the Games?

(That was your deep thought for the day. I hope you appreciate it.)

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Thursday, March 22, 2012

Famous for Thirty Seconds by P.G. Kain

Twelve-year-old Brittany Rush is the toast of the commercial and print advertising scene. Ever since she was a gurgling baby and was discovered to become the face of Good Baby formula, she hasn't known a life where her face hasn't graced television screens, magazine pages, or massive displays in fast food restaurants. Other girls cower when she walks into auditions and her prestigious agent practically worships the ground she walks on. To Brittany, life is lights, makeup, and pretense. And she loves every minute of it. But when her mother, a journalist, is transferred to Hong Kong for a year, Brittany has no choice but to leave the world she loves. At least she's content in the knowledge that it's just a year. A year can't change much, can't alter her status and fame. Right? Wrong. Because when Brittany returns to New York, her agent tells her that everything has changed. Being thirteen is way different than being twelve, and Phoebe, a girl who previously couldn't even remember her lines, is now booking jobs left and right. Brittany is left in the dust, relegated to "friend" status while Phoebe shines in the limelight. But Brittany soon has a plan to bring Phoebe down. But will her guilt--and a burgeoning interest in both Phoebe's brother Liam and a new art class--get in the way of the career she yearns to regain?

Famous for Thirty Seconds, the first book in P.G. Kain's new Commercial Breaks series, was a cute, fun, fast read that, while quite predictable, still managed to hold my attention. Brittany's determined, bubbly personality will appeal to many readers. and I was quite surprised to discover that P.G. Kain is a male, as the female voice is quite realistic. The behind-the-scene details of the world of commercial and print casting were fascinating and detailed, and you can tell that the author has experience in the field. In fact, a lot of these inside details reminded me a lot of Jen Calonita's Secrets of My Hollywood Life series, if with a younger tone here.

However, something about Brittany's character rubbed me the wrong way. While her transformation from a determined career girl to a more well-adapted and well-rounded tween was the point of the story, this transformation almost seemed too rushed, the conclusion too sudden and pat. Similarly, her "before" side often seemed too ruthless and determined, almost to the detriment of the character's likability.

Nevertheless, I definitely enjoyed this one, and my middle school self would have gobbled up the glamorous details of Brittany's life. Hand this off to fans of Lauren Barnholdt's middle grade books. I can also see fans of Lisa Yee and of Lauren Myracle's middle grade books liking this one.

Disclosure: Copy received from the author for review.

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Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Let's talk about stats, baby

I have been sitting on this topic for a long, long time, and after seeing it become an issue earlier today on Twitter, I thought there was no better time than now!

Stats: we've all got 'em. They tell us all kinds of useful things, like how many people subscribe to our blogs, how many hits our blog gets, how many page views we have, where our viewers are reading from, and so on. They're like circulation numbers in print media: stats give a good idea on how much and how many things are going on on a blog. In addition to stats as useful numbers, there's also commenting numbers that can provide some interesting information.

These numbers can be passed along to publishers in exchange for, say, receiving advanced copies of titles -- those numbers can show your reach and your ability to spread the word about a title -- and they can be used if you're seeking out advertising and revenue for your blog. Stats are important because they help separate out and help file bloggers into different categories. Bloggers who get a lot of comments and a lot of hits appear to have bigger reaches in the blogging world, and they then are more entitled to receiving certain "high interest" galleys and receiving some of the perks and promotional opportunities that can come with working with publishers or publicity agencies. These are the bloggers making bigger impressions, and they're the ones who'll give the most exposure to the most people. It makes sense. Numbers can say a lot!

When bloggers approach publishers seeking ARCs, sometimes they will lay out their stats for the publisher, and sometimes they publisher will ask directly. There are some publishers on Netgalley who have in their requirements that bloggers wishing to receiving an egalley put their information right in their bios, so that the publisher can make an easier decision on whether the blogger's numbers match what their ideal numbers are. If a blogger meets that number, they have a better chance at receiving one of the limited number of ARCs available (it's not guaranteed, but it's a plus point to them).

Bloggers work exceptionally hard to make sure they're getting good numbers -- they blog regularly, write features that garner traffic, spread the word about their posts in any social media outlet possible, teach themselves search engine optimization to ensure their posts are among the first results popping up when people Google a book. They check their stats daily, weekly, monthly, and they note trends they're seeing and work to ensure it's an upward, not downward, movement.

Honestly, it's at times mind blowing to see how much work bloggers put into their blog -- they're impassioned, they're loyal, they're dedicated, and they're always looking for the next opportunity. Those who work hard SEE the rewards, through not only stats, but also through commenting, through their posts being spread wide and far, through being asked to take part in a huge promotional push on a big title (which then helps their blog's exposure, the stats, and so on and so forth). But my question is this, and it will continue to be this: what does it even mean? What value does it have? Is there a value at all?

There aren't answers and there never will be. That right there is why stats, in my mind, are not at all a useful means of measuring a blogger's worth.

Here's a screen shot of our stats from the last month (February 20 - March 20), as provided by blogger. As you can see, we've had almost 500 hits today, and we've had over 22,000 hits in the last month. It's pretty astounding, considering these numbers do not take into account our readers who subscribe via RSS (I'll get there in a second). This is only people who go to

And here's a comparative screen grab of what Google Analytics says our stats are in the same time frame. We've had somewhere between 4,100 and 6,800 visitors, and we've had 11,300 page views. As you can see, our traffic patterns vary, depending on the day and depending on the content. I can tell you that the peaks are when we have guest posts and when we have posts that elicit conversation, and our valleys are when we post book reviews (the bread and butter of what we do garners the least amount of traffic - go figure!). We also know we get more hits on weekdays as opposed to weekends, and during holidays and during conference seasons (ALA, etc.) we have declines in our readership. The traffic pattern information is useful to us when we're planning our posts, so that we don't post something we want people to read when we know our readership will be lower.

One more statistical compilation to look at -- this is what sitemeter (the little button at the very bottom of our blog and many other blogs) says about our blog. We have far fewer hits per day and week according to this site than we do account to either Blogger or Analytics's numbers. It also has our overall page views much lower than the other two.

Now those numbers all show the information for how many people are going to our blog directly and interacting with it at stackedbooksblog's worth on these numbers at all. As both Kimberly and Jen can attest to, this is probably the first time they've actually SEEN all of these numbers in one place. Same here. We have them but we never pay attention. We pay attention to writing strong reviews, interesting features, and doing so on a consistent schedule.

So, when we're asked for our stats, we average out the numbers and get a good idea of what our page views are.

In theory.

We have never once been asked to provide our stats for anything. Never. Once.

I mentioned earlier that these numbers do not take into account readers who subscribe by RSS. But that's a number that's always changing and inconsistent, much like the stats listed above. We can, however, get a bit of an idea thanks to Feedburner and thanks to the stats feature in Google Reader (which only gives information about GoogleReader subscribers).

Here's our Feedburner readout:

Here's what Google Reader says for our feed:

These two numbers are reading our feeds by different addresses but I know that FeedReader shows our GoogleReader subscribers as much higher than GoogleReader shows our GoogleReader subscribers. But these are two wildly different numbers! And then there's the complication of numbers of people who are "following," rather than "subscribing" to our blog.

I've talked before about readership and about critical reviews and about different types of bloggers, and that conversation is worth thinking about when we look at stats.  Different bloggers are going to garner different readerships and different stats. They reach different audiences and have different goals. I've believed for a long time this is something people were aware of, but I know the case is that that's not true. There are bloggers who have astronomical stats because they're promoting titles and they're working as publicity for titles, rather than as reviewers for titles. Then there are bloggers who only review popular titles. Then there are bloggers who seek out lesser-known titles or bloggers who work primarily backlist titles. Their stats are going to be much different than those who are, say, doing cover reveals (and racking up hits that way) or those who are the first to review a very popular title (say Bitterblue). And that is okay. It is okay. Everyone reaches a different audience and everyone has different goals, and the entire beauty of the blogging world is that everyone can coexist like this.

One of the things we know about our readership is that the bulk are librarians or educators. It's not our entire audience by any means, but a good chunk are. These are people who are gatekeepers to other readers. They spread information by word of mouth and, often, by opening their budget, too. We have readers who tell us they purchase books because we've given it a positive (or critical!) review. We know we have readers who look to us to find out what book they can next hand to a teen who loved x-titled book and needs something similar.

And that -- that right there -- is exactly why we do this.

We don't do it for the stats, and we don't do it to see our numbers explode. We don't do it so we can get the next greatest promotion nor the next biggest title. We can get them from the library or purchase them ourselves when they're available. Sure, being the first to review an exciting title is neat, but it's never our goal here. That's not to say the folks who do do those things are wrong. It's just that their goals are much different than ours. And that. is. okay.

So why the long and detailed discussion of stats?

Stats tell us NOTHING.

They tell us absolutely NOTHING about a blog.

The truth of the matter is that while blogs certainly have a role in buzz marketing and in helping sell books and in putting books on people's radars, we are only hitting certain audiences. Each blog hits different audiences and different readers, and those readers do different things with that information. They pass it along to colleagues or teens, they use it to buy books or avoid buying books, they use it to keep up-to-date on what's coming out. But do we, as bloggers, know what they're doing?

The answer is no. We don't. We have ideas, and we can be told, but the truth is, unless we're the ones buying a title, we don't know how many titles we're selling of certain books. We don't know our true REACH. We never can and we probably never will.

All these stats do is give us a number. They give us something to look at and to pass along, something that can feel good or feel bad, depending on the day the blogger looks at it. But the truth is, these stats don't tell us about content or quality of content. It just tells us something was looked at a lot or not looked at at all. It tells us when things are looked at more and when they're looked at less. They're a tool for the blogger to plan and think through what they're doing. And if you take our numbers at their value, our biggest days come when we aren't reviewing books, which is what we like doing most here. Which is what publishers provide ARCs for -- the review. Our stats aren't useful except to ourselves and whatever meaning we ascribe to it; they're not useful for publishers because for them, it's a raw number without meaning behind it.

Stats, as interesting as they are, really don't tell us anything. They don't tell us the true impact of what we're doing. They don't tell us whether what we said made someone buy a book. They don't tell us how many people added a book to their GoodReads to-read shelf (sure you could extrapolate, but that's giving yourself a lot of credit). They don't tell us anything about ourselves except that we exist and, in some cases, we should be paid attention to. Because we ARE reaching someone. Just . . . we can't know more than that.

Back to an earlier point: we have never been asked to provide our stats for anything, and I've laid them out right here for you to look at because as much as people are protective of their own, they're also perversely interested in other people's numbers. Publishers often talk about bloggers providing stats but they've not -- as far as I know -- given any indication of what good stats are. They haven't laid out publicly what they're looking for in terms of numbers or reach. At Kid Lit Con in 2010, there was a discussion about this very topic, and the response from the publishers was that they look at quality of work, they look at stats, and they look at comments. To which savvy bloggers cried precisely what I have said -- numbers. mean. nothing. Reviews get the lowest views. Reviews get the fewest comments. But it doesn't make the work any less valued or valuable or worthwhile.

There's a lot of interest in comparing one another in the blogging world (and in the greater book world, too). But the truth is, comparing yourself to anyone else is pointless. Looking at your stats and seeing they're better than or worse than ours says absolutely nothing about the quality of what you're doing nor does it say anything about what your readers are taking away from your work.

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