Thursday, May 31, 2012

Farewell for Now

Well, all good things come to an end. I just wanted to let everyone know that this will be my last time blogging at Stacked Books. I've absolutely loved being a part of this wonderful endeavor with Kelly and Kim and am so grateful for the spectacular readership that we get here and the brilliant comments that people leave every day.

However, what with a new baby, summer reading coming up, and lots of other things competing for my attention, I've been quite pressed for time, and am thus ending my time as a contributor here.

However, I'll still be around on Twitter (@jpetroroy) occasionally and will be often posting short reviews on Goodreads.

Yours in book blogging,

Continue reading...

Ashfall by Mike Mullin

I've been pleasantly surprised by a lot of books lately. I don't know why I set the bar low for these particular books - maybe it's because I had come off a rash of mediocrity and just expected more of the same - but I am always glad to be proven wrong in this respect.

In Mike Mullin's debut Ashfall, the supervolcano at Yellowstone has erupted. Teenage Alex is home alone when it occurs. His parents and sister have gone to visit family 100 miles away - not such a long way if you have a car and plenty of gasoline, but quite a ways when you're on foot and have to deal with hostile people prone to violence, ash coming down in sheets, and the onset of an early, and perhaps neverending, winter. Still, Alex is determined to find them, hoping they survived where so many others didn't. It's not an easy journey, obviously, but it is a gripping one. The book is long and the pages fly by.

Ashfall is best described as a survival story. I'd also categorize it as an apocalyptic (and post-apocalyptic) tale, at least on a small scale - there are hints of worldwide catastrophe as a result of the eruption, but the bad stuff is mostly kept to the United States - but it's not a dystopia. I think that's an important distinction to make for this book. While there's widespread chaos and many people act horribly, there's no repressive society at work here. And that's a strength. Often the dystopian societies that form in books such as these - sometimes following a natural catastrophe - are chilling but unbelievable. The fact that no such society forms here makes the book, in my mind, more genuine. Couple that with the fact that many scientists do say the supervolcano at Yellowstone is "overdue" for an eruption, and you have a pretty darn believable story. And it's all the more engaging for it.

I loved reading about survival during the ashfall from a boy's point of view. I also loved that Alex's survival wouldn't have been possible without the assistance of Darla, an extremely capable and non-traditional girl he meets partway through the book. Darla's a farmer and knows how to skin rabbits and jimmy farm equipment. She's abrasive and not always pleasant to be around, but she's got a good heart and isn't always the strong one. She's also a bit older than Alex, and watching their relationship develop is quite interesting.

I never thought anything would make me say this, but I enjoyed Ashfall so much that it's making me want to go back and re-read that classic survival story for kids, Hatchet, a book I never liked as a child. I wonder if my reading tastes have changed enough in the ~15 years since I last read it that I would like it now. I haven't ever bothered going back and re-reading books I disliked as a youth, always assuming I'd dislike them now, but Ashfall makes me wonder.

Book borrowed from my local library.

Continue reading...

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Blogging as professional experience

Blogging takes a lot of time and effort and for some, it becomes almost a second job. But as much as blogging comes from a place of passion, the skills required to be a good blogger are pretty marketable. They're the kinds of skills that schools and employers (and others!) look for. Because so many see blogging as a hobby though, they don't consider what the tangibles of it are, and they don't talk about it as part of their professional experience.

I've been asked before and I'll say it as someone who has been on the hiring side of the table: if you are a blogger and it's something you work at -- something that you invest your time and energy into -- you absolutely should include it on your resume, in job applications, in your cover letters, in your interviews, or in any other capacity where you are discussing your relevant skills. Your blog is probably the biggest portfolio you can show off.

It can be challenging to step back from the act of blogging and translate into words what you're doing and what skills are being employed. Blogging can be intensely personal, so thinking about it as something professional and marketable can be a little tricky. But you can!


Whether you're blogging by writing or blogging via video, you're communicating your thoughts. You're editing your words into coherent sentences and organizing your ideas into ways that make sense. Blogging is practicing effective communication skills and doing so for a readership outside yourself.

Blogging also enhances your ability to describe and distill complex information. How do you explain what happened in a 300 page book? How do you point out what made the point of the book work or not work? This requires a lot of logic and a lot of higher-level thinking to do. Whether or not you write a good review or a critical review, you're putting a lot of thinking into the content and expression of those thoughts.

In addition to being able to point to the actual writing (or video), those who blog also have an opportunity to talk about communication via readers. You respond to comments and follow up. You also maintain communication with those who you work with, if you're working with publishers or authors on different promotions. These seem like little things when you’re doing them, but they’re evidence of understanding the importance of two-way conversation and engagement.


Whatever it is you're blogging about, the longer you do it, the more you become knowledgeable about the topic, whether or not it's your actual background. It helps I've got experience as a librarian and my education is in teen services, but that doesn't make someone whose education is something entirely different but who spends free time investing in something like YA lit less knowledgeable on the topic. The expertise is just through a bit of a different lens.

The more work you put into blogging about a topic, the more you're educating yourself. If you're researching post ideas, staying on top of trends and influences in the field, making contacts with people in your interest area and allowing them to share their expertise, attending industry events, you're furthering your knowledge on a topic area.

For book bloggers specifically, expertise is demonstrated through review writing, too. The more you're able to discuss why a book did or didn't succeed, the more you're expressing expertise and knowledge of writing and story telling. If you talk about a book's appeal factors or what similar books in the field are, you're also showing off your understanding of the field.

Expertise sets you apart because it's knowledge that isn't always easily trained, and if it's something you're learning about because you're passionate, then it will show through by virtue of your blogging about it. But more specifically, by being knowledgeable on a specific topic such as YA books (or picture books or middle grade books or adult books -- you get the idea), you're acquiring reader's advisory skills, sales skills, and pitching skills.


A big aspect of blogging is networking. Good networking skills come through strong and effective communication and they play a huge role in developing expertise. When you attend industry events or make contact with people who are important in your world, you're growing your expertise.

While the notion of networking can feel a little cold, it doesn't have to be. I like to think of it less in the sense of trading business cards in hopes of getting somewhere and more in the sense of getting to know people and establishing actual connections with other people. It's not about acquiring or achieving influence but rather sharing and interacting in meaningful ways that leave you and the other person with something you didn't have before you conversed.

One of the biggest and scariest aspects of blogging -- at least for me -- is reaching out to someone new and communicating with them. It's weird to reach out to someone who you do not know and try to open the lines of conversation, be it because you're interested in interviewing them or because you want to talk with them about their book (even if I love a book, rarely do I ever actually reach out to the writer and tell them that because it is hard to put yourself out there like that!). Fortunately, social networking has made networking much easier in some capacities.

Events at places like BEA and ALA are all about networking and establishing and growing relationships. These are networking events, not “book” events. It's through these you get the chance to practice your networking skills and it's through these that networking can end up paying off for you (and the person you've made a connection with -- remember, networking shouldn't be cold and unfeeling).

However, there's a fine line between networking and name dropping. When talking about networking your focus should be a willingness to reach out and meet new people, to establish connections, and create meaningful partnerships with others. Building relationships with other people is huge -- especially in many service-oriented jobs -- so it's a huge asset. But don't name drop, unless you're asked specifically.

Your network is yours and yours alone, and it can be a huge benefit to you. And if you're doing it right, it benefits the people in your network as much as you.

Public Relations and Publicity

If you're doing any sort of blog tour or cover reveal or other publicity-driven promotion on your blog, then you are honing another skill set. But beyond those things, if you're working with publishers or authors or third party marketing/publicity agencies, you're helping out on publicity campaigns. Sometimes this means you have creative control and sometimes it means you're following a specific request.

In either case, you're minding deadlines, following a schedule and routine. But more than that, you're taking part in spreading the word through your blog and through whatever other social mediums you use to publicize your content.

Bloggers who have review, contest, or any other policies are also practicing their PR skills. Writing these requires considering what your blog is about, defining your interests and audience, and delineating what you do and do not do (including things like whether or not you respond to all emails you receive, whether or not you participate in blog tours, and so forth).

Sharing your blog's content, even if it's all your own and not a part of a bigger campaign, is still publicity. You're putting your work out there and spreading the word about what you're doing. This is an important skill. You're thinking beyond your own building (your blog) and finding new ways to reach readers.


Something so obvious but easy to overlook is that blogging requires using and learning technology and tech skills. Aside from becoming familiar with the ins and outs of a particular blogging platform, you're learning how to best use the platform to your advantage. You learn how to tag and organize content, how to present it, how to optimize it for search engines. You also learn how to design for a digital platform and keep an eye to the mobile platforms through which people reach your site. If you pay attention to stats, you know how to use analytics, too. Depending on whether you do your own hosting or not or how much you've put into your blog's appearance, you probably have a handle on a number of different web languages, too, including html and css. If you're a vlogger, you've got a wealth of skills relating to using recording tools, editing tools, and you're learning how to produce good quality video for web consumption.

Then there's anything you do to promote your content online. If you use Twitter or Facebook or Pinterest or any other tool, you're learning how to use the tool and how to use it to spread your content (and hopefully communicate beyond that to include networking). If you host contests, you likely use a third party program to use it and depending on how you write or schedule your posts, you may be an expert at cloud services like Google Docs. There are any number of other ways you're using technology or learning new tech skills while blogging.

Highlighting These Skills

First and foremost, own what you do. Be proud of the fact you put work into a blog and that you invest not only your time, but also your mind and your heart. Once you are confident in who you are and what you’re doing, you’re more willing to talk about it with other people in a way that’s not self-defeating or belittling of it. It’s easy to consider what you’re doing “just a blog.” It’s not -- it’s much more.

This sounds obvious, but it’s not: share your blog address. You can put it on your applications, on your resume, in your cover letters. How you choose to do it varies, but the key is to have it down so that other people can find your work.

When asked about what you do with your blog, talk about it openly and without shame. For whatever reason, many feel shame and embarrassment about being a blogger, but there’s never a reason to feel that way about something you love doing. Especially if it’s something that provides you legitimate marketable skills.

Use professional language when discussing your blog. The words and concepts are all there. You don’t have to invent anything new for what you’re doing -- instead, think of how what you’re doing fits the skills required for a job, for a scholarship, or for other opportunities.

Highlight your achievements. If you’ve served on a Cybils committee, had your content shared on a big-name platform, started a feature that fills a niche in the blogging world, share that information. It says a lot about you as a person if you’re an active, engaged member of a community -- as much, if not more, than if you’re operating in an echo chamber.

Things to Keep in Mind

  • Use your name. If you want to talk about your blog professionally, then look the part.
    • Mind what you say. If you are using your name and talking about your blog professionally, then always think about what you're posting. Never post something you'll regret. Remember that your name is attached to it.
      • Don't be shy. It's easy to hide behind your blog, even if it can be one of the biggest assets in setting you apart. But you do it, and if you're proud of it, show it off. Blogging is a huge undertaking and huge responsibility and it shows a willingness to commit, to engage, and to devote yourself to a passion. 
      • Play fairly. If you don't own something, don't take credit for it. Give credit where it is due and always ask before you simply take. 
        • Sell your skills. I've outlined a ton of things I think about in terms of what blogging brings professionally, but there are plenty more and they can vary by blogger, depending on what you're doing and how you're doing it. Never undersell the knowledge and skills you acquire on your own.
          • Your blog is your portfolio. It is something you can point to, show off, and talk about. It is a tangible product. Make sure you’re producing a quality product. If this is something you want to point to as a professional tool, then make sure your blog works for you and not against you.

            • Believe in yourself. This above all else is what will take you furthest. 
              Make sure you check out the rest of the posts in this week's unconventional blog tour about blogging -- where you'll learn even more about how to be professional with your blog.  

              Continue reading...

              Tuesday, May 29, 2012

              Crazy by Amy Reed

              Connor and Isabel (Izzy) met at camp, and when the summer comes to a close, they promise to keep in touch with one another via email. They're good friends -- though perhaps "friend" is a term Connor wouldn't quite use. He's definitely more interested in Izzy romantically, but he's not the kind of guy to say that.

              Over the course of the following school year, they exchange emails regularly, updating one another on what's going on in their lives. Connor lives on one of the islands outside Seattle and Izzy lives in Seattle proper, so they're not too far apart from one another. They just seem to not get the opportunity to see each other in person.

              As these two characters exchange regular messages with one another, not only do we see Connor becoming more infatuated with Izzy, but we see Izzy spiraling into depression big time. It's not pretty nor elegant. It's downright ugly. We see it coming through in each of those emails she writes (or doesn't write), as does Connor. But what will it take for either one of them to get her help?

              Crazy is Reed's third book, and I think it might feature her most fully-developed characters so far. Connor is a romantic kind of guy, but never once does he fall into the idealized male character many male leads can fall into. His life looks pretty good all around, too. His father's not in the picture, but he's got a mother who takes care of him and begs him to give back to his community. He's happy, for the most part. Izzy, on the other hand, isn't as happy. She goes to a good school (of the hippie granola variety), but she feels like she's an outcast. Even in her small school, she doesn't feel like she has any friends. Her parents and her siblings aren't anything worth bragging about, and mostly, she feels like she just doesn't belong anywhere.

              When the story starts off, we get to see Connor and Izzy in their immediate buzzing post-camp state of minds. They're funny and raunchy in their initial email exchanges, but even in the laugh out loud humorous moments, there's something slightly off in the tone with which Izzy writes. In fact, she's almost mean to Connor. But he takes it. He plays off it. Eventually, though, Connor gets tired of letting her treat him that way, and he dishes it right back at her. Their relationship -- which I reiterate is all via email -- is dynamic and painfully realistic. It's a good and a bad thing for both of them, as they treat one another as best friends and confidants, then as bitter enemies. They're loving and destructive toward one another.

              Reed is smart in setting up the book with dual narrators and offering not physical interaction. We're forced to understand Izzy and Connor as individuals and as a pair through only their words. As a reader, I was immediately drawn to Connor, and it was because I thought Izzy used him. She'd made it clear she was lonely, and Connor was an easy person to turn to. But she makes fun of him and she doesn't really talk to him. She talks at him about her problems and doesn't ask how he feels. As the story progressed, though, and as I saw Izzy unraveling mentally, my heart really went out to her and to Connor. It's brilliant because I became Connor in a sense, since I never quite believed Izzy's stories after being mistreated; but when she hits her complete breaking point, suddenly her entire storyline made perfect sense to me. I was now everyone she'd been complaining about, and I was Connor, feeling like I had been a terrible friend in ignoring her cries for help. Moreover, the set up also helps us see why Izzy would feel comfortable telling Connor what she does and why she would feel he really wasn't an ally to her. Aside from the skewed perspective she has because of her mental illness, she's also aware of the screen divide. She's comfortable treating him as she does because there's not a physical repercussion.

              There is no shying away from the details of bipolar disorder in Crazy, so don't expect something watered down. That's what made this book so powerful. Reed isn't afraid to give an honest picture of how consuming this mental disorder is, and anyone who has suffered from depression or knows someone who has will see this hits very close to home. When Izzy hit her lowest points, I found myself choking up, not only because of what she was going through mentally, but also because I had misjudged her the entire time. I felt like I did to her exactly what she said everyone else did to her. I was so, so happy she had someone like Connor in her life at those moments, and since I don't want to spoil it, I'll just say that at the end, those characters got exactly what they needed and deserved. I think Connor and Izzy may be two of my favorite characters in a long time.

              Crazy is a fast-paced read, due in part to the alternative format. It was an uncomfortable book to read, and it was effective because of that. I was never quite sure whether I should be laughing when I was or crying when I was. The emotional tone shifted frequently and needed to. Reed writes with a frankness and honesty, and she's authentic. It's easy to make a comparison to Ellen Hopkins, as fans of Hopkins's storytelling will no doubt find Reed's books appealing, but I think Reed is really carving a niche for herself. Her work appeals to both more reluctant readers because of her set up, execution of story, and pacing, but she also appeals to those who like having something to dig into because of those same reasons. Crazy will appeal to contemporary fans, particularly those who are fascinated with or have experienced depression.

              Review of Amy Reed's Beautiful
              Review of Amy Reed's Clean 

              Review copy received from the publisher. Crazy will be available June 12, and you will get a chance to hear from Amy herself that week as part of our Twitterview series and the summer blog blast coordinated by Colleen Mondor.

              Continue reading...

              Monday, May 28, 2012

              So You Want to Read YA?: Guest Post from Nova Ren Suma

              This week's entry in our "So You Want to Read YA?" series comes from Nova Ren Suma.

              Nova Ren Suma is the author of the YA novel Imaginary Girls (Dutton, 2011) and the middle-grade novel Dani Noir (Aladdin, 2009), which will be released for the YA shelves from Simon Pulse as Fade Out June 5. She has an MFA in fiction from Columbia University, and has been awarded fiction fellowships from the New York Foundation for the Arts, the MacDowell Colony, Yaddo, the Djerassi Resident Artists Program, and the Millay Colony. Her new YA novel, 17 & Gone, is forthcoming from Dutton in Spring 2013.

              I occasionally find myself the lone YA writer in a room full of writers of adult literary fiction. I also occasionally find myself having to deflect comments about my books (I can't count the number of times I've said, "No, I don't write about vampires") and explaining that, in YA, we have the same kinds of books the adult shelves do. We have vampires, sure, and we have science fiction and we have stories about the end of the world. We have fast-paced mysteries and thrillers. We have love stories. We have sad stories. We have funny stories. We have beautifully crafted literary novels, too. We have every kind of book you could imagine.

              I know it shouldn't bother me what other people think, but I can't help but want YA to gain the respect in literary circles that it so deserves, and it frustrates me when our books are dismissed. I mean, I started off writing literary fiction for adults. What changed my mind and inspired my detour and ultimate reinvention as a YA author? I'll tell you: Some amazingly well-crafted YA novels. They opened my eyes to what's possible. And that's the thing: So much is possible in YA.

              I often find myself recommending some of the novels that had an impact on me, both as a reader of YA and as a writer. There's the poetry and imagination in Feathered by Laura Kasischke, which effectively changed my life, and Lips Touch, Three Times by Laini Taylor (which I love all the more for being a short story collection). I’ve been known to read the first page aloud from Paper Towns by John Green to anyone who will listen, and I’ve lent out Good Girls by Laura Ruby to so many friends, I don’t know where my copy is anymore. To show what’s possible with multiple perspectives, I recommend Jumped by Rita Williams-Garcia and Jumping Off Swings by Jo Knowles (title similarity a total coincidence). I wish everyone would read How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff and Brooklyn, Burning by Steve Brezenoff. For a true sense of being a teenager and why I find it so important to write about this intense and confusing period, I’d recommend Beautiful by Amy Reed. To show that YA novels can take huge risks—and do not shy from very dark content—I’d show Living Dead Girl by Elizabeth Scott. I will never be able to keep my eyes dry after reading Sweethearts by Sara Zarr, and I challenge you to try. And for anyone who doubts that YA contains books of true literature that would hold their own on any adult shelf, I insist they read Hold Still by Nina LaCour. My latest discovery—thanks to a recommendation from a certain blogger for this very blog!—is The Girls of No Return by Erin Saldin, which I will probably be running around recommending to teens and adults alike for months.

              I may or may not have been known to leave some of the above books, as well as others I admire, in the communal bookshelves at highly respected, well-known artist colonies that are often peopled with writers of literary fiction for adults—in the hopes that an unsuspecting reader will discover an amazing YA novel there and fall in love with something they might not otherwise.

              But you know what? Even if I can't change any minds about what YA is and how talented so many of the authors writing in our field are, what does it matter? Because we have these books, and so many more. Our eyes are already open.


              Nova Ren Suma is the author of Imaginary Girls, as well as the author of Dani Noir, rereleased and retitled Fade Out -- due out June 5. Her third novel, 17 & Gone, will be released next spring.  

              Continue reading...

              Sunday, May 27, 2012

              On Blogging: An Unconventional Blog Tour

              One of the best parts about blogging is getting to know other bloggers and not only getting to know them, but actually learning from them. Every blogger brings something different to what they do, be it by the way they approach writing or reviewing or by virtue of having a background or experience outside of blogging that influences them.

              It's from that thought where Liz and myself starting thinking: wouldn't it be neat if a bunch of bloggers tackled a topic about blogging -- ethics, politics, practices, etc. -- that allowed them to really share the knowledge or background they have on those topics?

              Welcome to an unconventional week of bloggers talking about blogging! 

              Over the next five days, ten bloggers will be tackling a host of different topics through the lenses of their own expertise. We're hoping this is not only helpful for new bloggers, but also seasoned veterans and anyone who interacts with bloggers or wants to be better about interacting with them. Check out the schedule below for participants and the topics they're talking about. As posts go live this week, I'll come back and link them up here.

              We hope this is an opportunity for an open and honest discourse on blogging, but we also hope it's educational and enlightening. Feel free to jump into discussions this week. We're all eager to talk about these issues and share our knowledge as best we can.

              Monday, May 28

              Pam Coughlin (MotherReader) on Playing Nicely

              Colleen Mondor (Chasing Ray) on Author-Blogger relationships

              Tuesday, May 29

              Liz Burns (A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy) on Audience and Writing for Readers

              Ana and Thea (The Book Smugglers) on Maintaining Independence and Integrity

              Wednesday, May 30

              Sarah Moon (Clear Eyes, Full Shelves) on Finding Your Voice

              Kelly Jensen (STACKED) on Leveraging Your Blog as Professional Experience 

              Thursday, May 31

              Sarah Bean Thompson (Green Bean Teen Queen) on Conference Professionalism

              Kim Ukura (Sophisticated Dorkiness) on Objectivity vs. Transparency 

              Friday, June 1

              Sarah Andersen (YA Love Blog) on Community and Accountability

              Kate Hart (Kate Hart) on Giving Credit Where Credit's Due: Citing Your Sources

              Continue reading...

              Saturday, May 26, 2012

              The Great YA Blogger Meetup @ ALA Annual in Anaheim

              Don't forget to join us at ALA next month (so soon!) for the YA blogger meetup. We had a slight change in time for the event from the original announcement, so note we're starting at 8 pm now. This is a casual meet up, so feel free to drop by for a short time or hang around until it's over.

              Thanks to the amazing and talented Kate Hart for our great and official invite.

              Continue reading...

              Friday, May 25, 2012

              Cracked by K.M. Walton

              Bull doesn't let up on Victor. As his name might suggest, Bull is the bully here and Victor is his target. It's been this way since elementary school: Bull lets out his aggression and Victor lets him. Doesn't fight back. Although KM Walton's debut Cracked sounds like a standard story of bullying, readers learn there is a lot more going on beneath the surfaces of both boys. That both Bull and Victor are the bully and the bullied in their own ways.

              Bull comes from a poor family, with parents who are angry and abusive toward him. When I say he's poor, I mean, he's poor. Unlike many books that try to portray poor characters through simply calling them poor (something which bothers me to no end), Walton actually depicts a boy who is growing up in a lower income bracket. I don't know if I'd characterize him as living in poverty, but his home is infested with insects, there is hardly any food at home for him, and he really has nothing. All of this, along with his award-winning parents who regularly remind him that he was an unwanted child, cause him to seek out a way to feel better about himself. From very early on in his life, Victor was an easy target. Everything that Bull has pent up from home he lets loose on Victor who, rather than fight back, takes it. Because of this, Bull continues being a bully because, well, it helps him feel like he has some sort of power and control in his life.

              Victor is almost the complete opposite of Bull -- or at least, that's what we're lead to believe about him. Victor comes from a home where there is money. Both of his parents work hard and he lives in a big house and has everything he could possibly want at his fingertips. Of course, that's all superficial; his parents are never home and his parents aren't happy he exists at all. He's a burden to them. Victor's lonely and frustrated and while he never wants to be the victim of bullying, it offers him a kind of attention he's not getting anywhere else. There's not a suggestion bullying is good for him because it's not, but as readers, it's easy to see why he doesn't fight back. Aside from being afraid, of course, it's just part of the reality he's accepted and it feels like something he thinks he deserves, given everything else in his life. There is one good thing in Victor's life, though, is his mother's dog Jazzer. But Jazz is really old and, well, I won't spoil what happens, even though it's obvious.

              Cracked is written from the perspective of both boys, with alternating chapters. In setting up the story this way, Walton shows us that despite the external differences between Bull and Victor, they're actually very similar. They're both hurting and aching, and they're both seeking some sort of validation that their lives are worth something because neither feels like it is. In fact, both boys are so down on their lives that they each end up attempting suicide -- even if it's not through the same means or with the same goals in mind (one is much more direct in his attempt while the other goes about it as a way to protect himself from other harm). When the boys wake up from their hospital treatment, they find themselves in the same room. In the same psych ward. And now, they have to face one another and face their own demons at the same time.

              While both boys are now forced together in space and in time, they do a great job of avoiding talking to one another, even when they're in the same group therapy session. Bull has physical injuries that limit his mobility, and Victor, well, he just hides. Although they do eventually talk and find out the things about one another that we as readers figured out long before, I had a little trouble with the believability here. The therapy/recovery period is very short -- four days -- and in that time, both boys seem to make pretty hard turnarounds. Moreover, and maybe the only real troubling part for me as a reader, is that both boys in the story are "saved" by girls they meet in therapy. The message here about love and sharing love is excellent, and it's what the boys both needed; however, the place from which it's coming -- others who were in the same short treatment/therapy group -- didn't work for me. I didn't quite buy that those girls had themselves gained as much wisdom as they did from such a short recovery period (given they, too, were assumed to be in this psych ward because they, too, had hit rock bottom like Bull and Victor). I hoped for a little more between Victor and Bull, too. The girls almost got in the way of that.

              What I did like, though, was another character who shows up and supports Bull in a way he wasn't expecting. There was another person looking out for him for a long time, and when he realizes who it was, his outlook on life changes a lot. The same could be said for Victor, who has a family member step in and offer him the sort of love he was missing out on from his parents (who, I should note, went on a European vacation and when they heard Victor had tried to kill himself, continued their trip anyway). Although this felt almost a little too happy-ending, particularly when it came to Bull's after-care recovery needs, because I wanted a good ending for both of these boys, I accepted it.

              Cracked is fast-paced, and both boys have great, believable voices. The alternating perspectives work here, and Walton offers up two distinct characters. Even though a lot of their personalities shine through their differences in class and in experience, internally, they're struggling with their own problems in a way that makes them individuals. Walton's novel came out earlier this year and didn't get a whole lot of attention, but I think it's one that deserves a lot more. It doesn't necessarily tread anywhere entirely new, but what it does cover is well-written and engaging and will be a great read alike to a number of other strong contemporary titles (and more stories with authentic male voices never hurt). I was reminded quite a bit of Swati Avasthi's Split, as well as Andrew Smith's Stick. I also think fans of Amy Reed's books -- particularly Clean and her forthcoming Crazy, both of which depict teens struggling with recovery and with pain and mental illness -- will want to check this one out. Walton's debut impressed me, and I'm really looking forward to her sophomore effort, Empty (January 2013), which also explores bullying.

              Finished copy purchased for me from Lenore. Cracked is available now.

              Continue reading...

              Thursday, May 24, 2012

              What I'm Reading Now

              The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater: 
              I received an ARC of this last summer, but never got around to it. When The Scorpio Races won both a Printz Honor and an Odyssey Honor (for outstanding audiobooks) this past year, I figured that I'd try it on audio, especially since I've heard nothing but rave reviews from numerous bloggers and friends that I know and trust. The result so far....meh. I just started Disc 7 out of 10, and so far, it's a bit dull. Maggie's writing is, as usual, stellar, lush and atmospheric, with phrases that linger in the air after being voiced. But that atmospheric quality may be the problem. The gorgeous writing overwhelms the slow-moving plot so far. Regardless, I'm continuing on, as I heard it picks up in the final two discs. 

              Princess Academy: Palace of Stone by Shannon Hale:
              I just started this on my eReader after being approved by NetGalley. I listened to Princess Academy on audio, so it's a bit different reading it in print. I particular liked how the audio sang the traditional chants and songs at the start of each chapter. Miri is as charming as ever, and I'm eager to read more from Shannon Hale, one of my absolute favorite authors. 

              Drop Dead Healthy: One Man's Humble Quest for Bodily Perfection: by A.J. Jacobs:
              I just finished this one, and I absolutely loved it. As in his previous two books, where A. J. basically transforms himself into a lab rat while investigating certain areas of human nature (The Know-it-All and The Year of Living Biblically dealt with reading the entire Encyclopedia Britannica and living according to the Bible for a year, respectively), the author delivers a unique mix of facts, humor, and self-deprecation while attempting to become the "healthiest man alive." Chapter by chapter, he examines health in the context of a specific body part: the lungs, nervous system, stomach, butt, immune system, nose, fingers, etc. Absolutely fascinating, hilarious, and quite a quick read.

              Endlessly by Kiersten White: 
              I got about 100 pages into this when I put it down. I enjoyed the first two in this trilogy, but I just wasn't in the mood for this right now. I usually avoid paranormals, due to the many derivative books flooding the market, but White's characters and plotlines have been unique and carefree enough to let me push past my aversion. What I did read was clever; I've just been leaning more towards contemporary fare lately.

              Continue reading...

              Wednesday, May 23, 2012

              Guest Post: Melissa Walker on Unbreak My Heart

              So we're doing something new and wild today. Something we don't think we've ever done before. Something we probably said we wouldn't do before. But we're doing it.

              We've got a vlog for you.

              It's not us, though. It's Melissa Walker -- she's here to talk about the romantic inspirations behind her latest book, Unbreak My Heart, available now. It's a story about a girl who falls in love with a boy during her family's summer boat trip but it's much more than that. It's a story of a girl who also learns what it means to be a friend and what it means when you maybe screw that up, too. It'll appeal to readers who like sweet romances, and the setting, which is aboard a boat, gives it a unique twist. 

              Now I know what you're thinking about now. I'm a self-professed non-vlog viewer. It's true. For the most part. Once in a while I do watch them, and this one? It's worth it. Melissa will let you in not only on the books that inspired her story, but also some of the music.

              Unbreak My Heart will be a great book to hand off to those readers looking for a summer story full of heart and even a little adventure. 

              Continue reading...

              Giveaway: The Letter Q

              We've got a giveaway today, courtesy of Big Honcho Media and Scholastic's This is Teen campaign. Two readers will win a finished copy of the anthology The Letter Q: Queer Writers' Notes to Their Younger Selves, edited by Sarah Moon.

              About the Book: 

              In this anthology, sixty-four award-winning authors and illustrators such as Michael Cunningham, Amy Bloom, Jacqueline, Woodson, Terrence McNally, Gregory Maguire, David Levithan, and Armistead Maupin, make imaginative journeys into their pasts, telling their younger selves what they would have liked to know then about their lives as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender people. Through stories, in pictures, with bracing honesty, these are words of love, messages of understanding, reasons to hold on for the better future ahead. They will tell you things about your favorite authors that you never knew before. And they will tell you about yourself. 

              Here's the trailer:

              You can also find more information about the book on Facebook.

              Want a copy? All you have to do is fill out the form below, and we'll pick two winners for a finished copy of The Letter Q on June 6.

              Continue reading...

              Tuesday, May 22, 2012

              Truth: Blogging is Hard

              This morning I sat down to start writing reviews of a few books I've finished lately that don't come out for a few months. Usually, I try not to read too far ahead of pub dates for books for a number of reasons, but one of the big ones is that I end up sitting on pre-written reviews for months. That isn't a bad thing in and of itself, but sometimes it means that something being published soon or something published not too long ago doesn't get my attention right away.

              I think I've mentioned before that I don't review everything I read. If I did, my reviews would be much shorter. But more than that, I like to write about books that spoke to me in some way -- either because I really liked something about the book or because something really didn't work. I find, too, I get way more satisfaction writing a lengthy, critical review over a few things, rather than writing a bunch of smaller reviews of many more things. So yes, sometimes things get overlooked and yes, sometimes I read something everyone else has read. I just don't feel like blogging about it. I blog for me, first and foremost.

              But as much as blogging is something I do for myself, it is something I also do knowing full well I am blogging for an audience. And let me tell you: I appreciate the fact people actually read this and people care. It's amazing and fulfilling in a way that's not easily expressed. So thank you.

              There are times, though, I find myself wondering why I put in the effort or whether it's worth it. Blogging sometimes feels like work. I sat down today to catch up on a handful of reviews I want (note: want -- not need) to write, but I couldn't make myself do it. I really liked a couple of these books, and I really want to express that here. But I couldn't make myself put words to my thoughts. Instead, I caught myself rereading some of my older reviews and thinking about why I write them in the first place. I put the pressure on myself to write them and I'm pretty adamant about the fact I will review what I want to review and how I want to review them. No one is pressuring me. Even when I take on review copies, I don't force myself to write a review if I don't want to. I don't see a reason to because this is my blog and if it means that someone doesn't want to provide me a review copy in the future, so be it. It doesn't change the fact I can acquire the book when it comes out.

              Writing a review can take me hours. I do it because I like to think about what's at the heart of the book and what makes it work or not work. I've got a mental list of things I go through when I write a review, too, of certain elements I want to touch upon. I don't hit them all in a review, but I do think about each one of them. A good review can take me two or three hours to write, and it can take me another hour to reread, revise, and prepare (and sometimes, to be honest, that is in and of itself draining when you're looking for images, saving them, fighting with Blogger to format them correctly, and so forth). And except for that very last part, I love the process. I love thinking about how to construct a review, how to speak about what the book does or doesn't do well, how I can convey it best with my own words. It's a huge mental challenge. It's writing. I've been writing my whole life. Blogging has just been one of the best means of doing it and doing it regularly.

              I don't compare myself to anyone else who is blogging because it's just not my style. I don't really care what other people "are getting" from blogging. I know what I get out of it, and that's good enough for me. When I write a good review or a good post, it makes me feel good. I get satisfaction knowing I've expressed physically what I've been bouncing around mentally.

              But as I sat down to review today I found myself completely disinterested. And it wasn't just today. I've been putting off some of these reviews for weeks. Over the last couple of months, I've put off writing reviews for books for weeks, too (in one instance, I put off writing the review for 6 months, even though it was a book I loved and wanted to talk about). As much as blogging is for me, I know I blog for a readership and an audience, too.

              There's this competing voice in my head that also reminds me of that when I sit down to write a blog post. It's not just for me, or I'd not use blogging as a platform for my thoughts and then promote it. It's also for readers (of all shapes -- I don't know exactly who reads STACKED). There is a level of interaction and engagement that comes from blogging, and I find myself thinking about this when I do write a review. I've talked before about how I think stats are a load of crap because they don't tell you anything about a blog other than it gets a lot of traffic. It doesn't show or tell you anything about effort or about heart or about passion.

              If you go through the first page of STACKED, you can see what gets people talking. It's not book reviews. That's not to say people aren't reading book reviews or thinking about them. They just don't interact with them the same way they interact with sexier content. And writing that sexier content -- posts about covers, sharing amazing interviews and guest posts, posting the lines I've been reading -- is  fun to do. It only becomes further reinforced as fun, too, when you see people are talking about what you're writing or sharing. Seriously. It's FUN.

              Writing book reviews, as fulfilling as they are, though, sometimes feels like work. Like a job. Even if I'm setting my own limits and making my own decisions about what I am and am not reviewing, it still can feel like work. And I always wonder if they feel like work for readers, too. I know it's not the case. I know intellectually that devoted readers read everything (or at least skim it). The reviews are there for those who are here for book reviews. They're the perennial readers who are going to be there no matter what. These are the same readers who often don't comment. And that's okay.

              But it still sometimes makes sitting down to write a review so, so hard. Because the response sometimes just isn't there. There's not a payoff at the end of it except for whatever it brings me personally. But it doesn't make it any less hard.

              I say all of this but I also own this: I am a terrible blog commenter. I read a lot of blogs, and not just book blogs. I read a number of excellent author blogs, a number of excellent publishing-related blogs, and an excessive number of food blogs. But I'm terrible at commenting or at interacting with them. It's not that I don't care -- I do or I wouldn't read them -- but it's that I don't always think to do it or I mean to do it and click out of the browser or, really, I don't have much to say. But then I have these moments when I'm doing my own blogging and I remember just how much work and effort goes into blogging, no matter what the topic. I know I'm much better at commenting off-blog than I am on-blog: on Goodreads, I can click "like" easily and let someone know I read and appreciated their book review. On Pinterest or on Facebook, I can do the same or I can leave a quick comment with a "thanks." I don't know why it is that when I'm reading a blog, I don't stop to drop a thanks or I don't stop back by and follow up when I've read/cooked something recommended there. I think the internet "like" has made me lazy.

              The truth of it all is that blogging is hard. It can be fun and fulfilling -- and it is both of those things -- but it is so much work, too. I put the pressure on myself to do what I'm doing, but that's just because I am who I am. That doesn't change the fact, though, it's hard and at times draining. That doesn't change the fact I get burned out or tired or wonder why I put in the effort at all. Because blogging both is and isn't for me at the same time. I stress about little stuff (never the big stuff) and lately, it's been reviews and why I write them or how I write them or if anyone even reads/cares about them at all. Are they for me? Are they not for me? I'm still not sure sometimes.

              Just like an author worries about how their book will do when it's out in the world, I worry about what I write and post right here. It's not the same but it is the same. It's sharing a part of yourself and your thinking and even if it's something you're passionate about and love doing, it's still work. It takes effort and sometimes you wonder and worry about whether it's worth it at all.

              I'm not going to quit blogging or quit writing reviews. I find satisfaction in it. But I know I speak on behalf of a lot of bloggers who get to this point. This burnout, this worry about whether or not it's worth the effort happens, happens to every single person who ever spends the time to write and share what they write. It's just hard to talk about.

              Continue reading...

              All These Lives by Sarah Wylie

              Dani and Jena are fraternal twins, and they spent most of their lives pretty close to one another. When Jena is diagnosed with cancer, her life is turned upside down, right along with Dani's. Dani finds it unfair her sister has to suffer with endless rounds of chemotherapy, with losing her sense of self, with the possibility of losing her life all together. See, Dani feels like she's been granted 9 lives, given that she herself has survived near-death experiences more than once. It's unfair -- beyond unfair -- her sisters one life might end so soon before she's had the chance to live it.

              So Dani makes it her mission to die so her sister doesn't have to suffer.

              All These Lives by Sarah Wylie is the kind of cancer novel I appreciate because this isn't a book about cancer as a disease. It's not a novel about the things cancer does to a body. It's a novel instead about how cancer can be a means for people to find a reason to live and to survive.

              Dani's a sarcastic narrator, and she's hurting deeply because of her sister's illness. At times it feels like she may be a tiny bit envious of her sister because she's getting so much attention and special treatment because she's sick, but the truth is, Dani is grieving heavily. For her, sarcasm, coldness, and distancing herself from the present help her cope with what her sister is going through. She doesn't want to remain close to anyone because she's struggling with guilt in being the sister who is okay. The one who isn't sick. More than that, though, Dani feels like she's been unfairly blessed with the ability to keep on living, despite numerous brushes with death.

              Throughout the book, Dani attempts more than once to die -- having survived more than one near-death experience, Dani believes she's been blessed with nine lives, rather than just one. She sees her own death as her way of letting her sister live. Because they're twins, she believes they have a special sort of connection to one another and by giving up one of her lives, Jena can live. The problem, of course, is that in Dani's attempts to end her life, she only hurts herself more, not to mention she hurts her family more than she could imagine. It would be easy to call what she's doing selfish, but it's not. Dani aches, and this is her release. Each time she made an attempt to die, I hurt for her because she was doing what she thought was good and right. As the reader on the outside, you know it's not the case, but she is unable -- not unwilling, but unable -- to realize that. At least immediately.

              Although this is a novel about Jena's cancer, never once did it feel like a drawn out book about an illness. In fact, very little page time is devoted to the illness and what it was doing to Jena. Instead, the book focused more on what cancer did to the sister who didn't have it. I felt this made the issue of illness more powerful than had the story focused on Jena. Cancer stories have a way of being manipulative sometimes because they put the onus of emotion on the reader, who always brings their own experience to the story. While writing this story from the perspective of the sister dealing with someone else's cancer certainly will pull upon the reader's own experiences, Wylie successfully develops a whole story without requiring the reader to face the cancer and implications head on. We're not forced to feel sympathetic toward a character because they're battling a disease they have no power over. We're allowed instead to develop sympathy toward a complex character who may or may not be all that likable. She's more than a disease. This is a book where illness plays a role in the story, rather than the story playing a role in the illness.

              All These Lives is literary, and the story and characters never falter beneath the prose. They work together, and in doing so, the pace stays steady throughout. But more than being literary, what I loved was the message Dani and the reader walked away with -- that living is the greatest thing you can ever do for someone else. It's a realization that emerges after one of the close brushes with death Dani has, and when she has that moment, I understood just how much pain and grief she'd been dealing with and how heavy it truly weighed on her. It was almost easy to believe Dani's defensiveness and believe that she was sarcastic through and through. The truth was, it was her way of letting herself be dead. That wasn't what Jena would want from her at all. Some of the lines made me a little teary eyed, as Dani wrestled with the pain of knowing how she'd behaved and the pain of knowing it wasn't at all what she should be doing to support her sister.

              This paragraph's spoiler-ridden, so proceed with caution. Maybe the thing I appreciated most about this book was that no one dies, but there's also no miracle cure. Instead, once Dani wakes up and decides she needs to live and to love to the best of her capability, the story comes to a satisfying ending. We're not made to suffer as Jena's life withers, nor are we forced to believe that she's suddenly all better. For me, this was the way a story like this is best handled because it really wasn't Jena's story. It was Dani's through and through.

              All These Lives will appeal to readers who are looking for a good sibling story, and even though this is fully contemporary, I think it'll appeal to readers who loved Imaginary Girls for the sibling relationship aspect. Readers who liked Before I Die or Gayle Forman's If I Stay will find the same emotionally connection with Dani as they did with Tessa and Mia in those two stories. Writing-wise, this one reminded me of Ilsa J. Bick's Drowning Instinct, and despite being less edgy (even though Wylie's book is certainly edgy), All These Lives should appeal to fans of Bick's novel.

              Wylie's debut impressed me more than I thought it would, and I'm eager to see where she goes next. She's earned my trust and respect as a reader by taking a subject and twisting my expectations. I also give bonus points to this book for developing a story without a romance in it, which is a rare find, and I think the story is stronger because of that choice.

              One of the trends I'm noticing in YA this year is that of survival, of living despite feeling like there's reason not to, and it's been fascinating to see how this theme plays out across genres. I'm thinking there's a great potential book list sometime in the future on this very topic.

              Review copy received from the publisher. All These Lives will be available June 5.

              Continue reading...

              Monday, May 21, 2012

              So You Want to Read YA?: Guest Post from Sarah Andersen

              This week's "So You Want to Read YA?" guest post comes from Sarah Andersen.

              Sarah teaches high school English in Clio, MI.  She's passionate about reading and hopes to foster this same passion for reading in her students.  You can talk books with Sarah on her blog Y.A. Love  or on Twitter @yaloveblog.  (I'd like to note the lovely photo of Sarah there cuts off the person she's next to, which is Lisa McMann).

              I’ve been avid reader of YA for six years and a high school English teacher for five years. Connecting my students with great books is one of my passions, but I also love introducing YA to teachers, librarians, parents, etc. YA has grown in popularity since I started teaching, which is really exciting because it continues to provide books for every reader. 

              I love reading YA, and I have my favorite topics and genres, but I read it with my students in mind. I’m constantly trying to balance what I read and make sure to include books dealing with sports, problems at home, relationships, fantasy, etc. because I have readers with diverse tastes in my classroom. Since this is how my brain works when I’m picking out books, it made sense to me to focus this post on the most popular titles in my classroom right now. I’m breaking it down according to what the guys and girls are reading. These titles are often big hits with my reluctant readers as well. If you’re a teacher/librarian/parent or even a teen, and you’d like to start reading YA but don’t know where to start, these are the titles I recommend beginning with. 

              What The Girls Are Reading:
              **Many of these books deal with love and relationships, but it’s what my girls are usually looking for.

              Cracked Up to Be by Courtney Summers (Goodreads): I positively love Courtney Summers. Cracked Up to Be and her other books, Some Girls Are and Fall for Anything, have grown in popularity just this year. Parker, the main character, is suffering and feeling responsible for something horrible, but she hasn’t told anyone about it. Consequently, she’s been acting out and her personality has completely changed. Quite a few of my students look for edgy reads about characters with real problems. They also want a character they can connect with emotionally and personally. Almost every single one of my girls that’s read Cracked Up to Be enjoyed it and went on to read the rest of Courtney Summers’ books.

              Twenty Boy Summer by Sarah Ockler (Goodreads): Personally, my favorite book by Sarah Ockler is Fixing Delilah, but my girls (my reluctant girls in particular) love this book. They like the romance, the first love, and the friendship between Anna and her best friend Frankie. Even if readers haven’t experienced a loss like Anna or Frankie, they’ve most likely had a best friend that’s helped them through a problem or that they’ve gotten into a big argument with. The summer atmosphere gives the book a light-hearted feel while dealing with big issues. 

              Forever by Judy Blume (Goodreads): Forever is classic YA originally published in 1975. It’s an excellent example of first love and the ups and downs of relationships. There’s quite a bit of sexual activity in Forever, but my girls always tell me that yes, there’s a lot of sex, but that it teaches girls that relationships don’t always last forever. Many of my girls in class are head over heels in love with someone. I like knowing that there’s a good book out there for them to read after a break up, or if they’re in one of these relationships. I don’t hand them this book to burst their bubbles. I hand them this book because the characters feel the same way they do. Forever by Judy Blume is almost always a winner for my reluctant girls in class.

              I Heart You, You Haunt Me by Lisa Schroeder (Goodreads): Novels in verse are becoming increasingly more popular in my classroom. Many of my students start with Ellen Hopkins, but Lisa Schroeder’s novels are quickly gaining popularity. I Heart You, You Haunt Me is the most popular choice. Many of my girls will walk into my room telling me how quickly they read this book and how much they loved it. One of my students is in my YA Lit class right now because she wants to enjoy reading. She was at a complete loss for where to start and which books to read. I Heart You, You Haunt Me was one of many books I set aside for her, and she ended up reading three of Lisa Schroeder’s four books in a week! The imagery in this novel is beautiful, and for so few words, readers really connect with the characters and the story. 

              **Other Popular Titles: Hold Still by Nina LaCour, Other Words for Love by Lorraine Zago Rosenthal, The Boy Book by E. Lockhart, Exposed by Kimberly Marcus

              What The Guys Are Reading:

              Right Behind You by Gail Giles (Goodreads): This has been a “homerun” book for so many of my boys. It’s usually the first couple pages that hook them because we learn that Kip set another child on fire when he was nine. We don’t know all the specifics right away, but it’s enough to keep my students reading. Kip has lived a rough life after this incident including a name change, moving out of state, etc. He’s a vulnerable character with a tough shell. The boys in class can relate to him for a variety of reasons including being angry for one reason or another, being afraid to open up, living a rough life, and more. also gives readers a chance to understand a character unlike themselves and learn to empathize with people like Kip.

              Trapped by Michael Northrop (Goodreads): Many students have imagined what it would be like to get trapped in school, but Trapped actually allows the reader to experience it. Many of my reluctant boys enjoyed Hatchet by Gary Paulsen, but they haven’t read or enjoyed a book since. Trapped has been a winner for these boys. They enjoy the suspense and wondering whether anyone will survive. Plenty of my girls in class have enjoyed Trapped as well.

              Paranoid Park by Blake Nelson (Goodreads): The mystery in Paranoid Park really grabs my guys in class. I guess it doesn’t hurt that the main character is responsible for killing someone, even though it was self-defense. The story revolves around the character’s guilt and his indecision whether or not he should turn himself in. Paranoid Park has grown in popularity this year because many of my boys in class have been sharing it and discussing it.

              Stupid Fast by Geoff Herbach (Goodreads): I’m always searching for books with humor because I’ve been told that I don’t have enough “funny books” in my class library. Stupid Fast is a gem of a book that’s humorous, but also tackles family issues and fitting in. Felton is authentic and easy to relate to. He’s trying to handle his mom checking out and falling into a deep depression, his annoying little brother, becoming a good football player, and falling in love for the first time. It’s an all-around fantastic book that I can’t recommend enough.

              **Other Popular Titles: Purple Heart by Patricia McCormick, Breathing Underwater by Alex Flinn, Twisted by Laurie Halse Anderson, Gym Candy by Carl Deuker

              Continue reading...
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