Friday, August 31, 2012

Personal Effects by EM Kokie

It's been over six months since Matt's brother TJ died in Iraq. Now more than ever, Matt wants to make sense of what happened to his brother, but he hasn't had the opportunity. With the return of his personal effects in the form of a few footlockers, he's got the chance. The only thing standing between him and rifling through his brother's things, though, his is father. Dad wants to do away with the things completely and move forward from TJ's death. He doesn't want Matt meddling with TJ's things either. He wants Matt to pull himself together, get his grades up, and follow the path he's meant to follow.

When Matt gets the chance to escape his father's watchful eye, he goes through those footlockers and discovers that his brother was a lot more complicated than he ever knew. After finding a pile of letters from someone named Celia who lives half a country away, along with pictures of her and her daughter (with whom TJ has posed more than once), Matt's convinced he needs to go find this girl. He's going to get to the bottom of the millions of questions now popping up in his mind: did TJ have a girlfriend no one knew about? Did TJ have a child? Do those people know TJ isn't alive any longer? Thanks to his friend Shauna, Matt gets the chance to have those questions answered -- and have many more raised in the mean time.

Personal Effects tackles the topic of grief head on, and it does so while developing a believable male protagonist in Matt. Matt is aching; even though he and TJ were never close, Matt is incredibly proud of his brother. He wears that pride loudly, too. When one of his classmates openly defends his anti-war stance and wears a shirt bearing the names of those who had died in combat, Matt becomes very angry. To the point he swings his fist and earns himself punishment. Aside from being sensitive about what other people say, he's also letting his grief impact his education. He's getting terrible grades. The thing is, he doesn't care. He has bigger worries, and where he ends up in the future isn't one of them.

For the most part, I found Matt a good character. My problem with him, though, unraveled later on in the story. It's impossible at this point not to spoil a big plot point, so if you don't want it ruined for you, skip on down to the next paragraph. When Matt heads to Madison from his home in Pittsburgh, he's expecting to meet Celia and expecting to learn that his brother may have had a child he told no one about. Except that's not at all what Matt learns. Instead, he discovers that the "C" signing off in all of the letters he read was from Celia's brother Curtis. Matt had been gay, and because he was in the military, he kept it completely secret. He didn't feel safe telling anyone, due to don't ask, don't tell. More than that though, he didn't feel safe revealing that to his family, either, especially given his father's abusive streak. Where this pertains to Matt, though, is this: Matt is angry about this, maybe even a little bit repulsed his brother was homosexual. I don't have a problem with him having his feelings -- and frankly, I found them rendered believably -- but I did have a problem with this being the problem Matt finds. He'd developed an entire fantasy involving his brother being married and having a child. Matt never has a problem with this. In fact, he seems almost excited by the idea. But the second Matt learns his bother was gay, that's when he flips a switch. It was hard for me to believe he'd be excited by one thing and so disappointed in another, especially as it seems knowing his brother had an entire family in secret would somehow be more angering than him being gay. Each person decides their own views on these issues, of course, and Matt can believe what he wants. The thing is, I need to understand Matt's thinking to believe it, and I never felt I got the opportunity to know him well enough for this to happen. He'd felt very protective of his brother, and in these moments, he felt cold and angry with him instead. The switch flip didn't work for me, and I had a hard time through the rest of the novel buying Matt's reactions to different events.

Through the story, Matt attempts to take his friendship with Shauna to more of a romantic relationship. While I believed his feelings, I found them to be a little bit boring. Shauna wasn't interested in him, and it was obvious. He spent a long time offering us physical reactions to being in the same room with her and for the most part, I found this didn't advance either character and it dragged the pacing. Shauna, for me, was a well-developed character and she was the kind of person Matt needed in his life. She was an advocate for him, even when his mind sometimes went elsewhere. She was, if you will, the exact opposite of what Matt's father was: where dad wanted to continue holding Matt back and continue hurting him, Shauna offered him the tools to move forward, even if it meant getting herself in trouble.

My biggest holdup with the story -- and this is a personal issue, not something most readers will struggle with -- was that TJ was an automatic hero. Because he's dead, we don't ever get the chance to evaluate him for who he is. We're instead in Matt's shoes and we're forced to judge him through Matt's eyes. And Matt, despite some of his feelings and reactions while in Madison, sees his brother as a hero. I don't ever doubt that TJ was brave and deserved the sort of respect he was given, but I have a hard time with books where a dead character is the central device in moving a plot forward and he's got some sort of status that keeps him from being a full or flawed character. More than that, though, the fact his death came through war, which is such a heavy topic and one which readers bring their own experiences to the story with, furthered this. The responsibility of judging TJ comes on the reader, since it's not there in the story. It's tricky then to look at a character who doesn't get the chance to tell his story or offer himself completely, knowing his life ended during the Iraq war, and make a judgment about him. It makes the reader feel either good or bad about themselves in that assessment. That said, the secret TJ harbored didn't make him flawed. It made him more respectable in my mind. But I felt a little led into believing only that about him. I couldn't get beyond what he had against him.

Despite the flaws, I really enjoyed Personal Effects -- Matt's story kept me engaged, and the writing itself worked with the story, rather than against it. While I felt myself emotionally distanced, I definitely see other readers finding this the kind of book they connect with on that level. This book has great guy appeal, but it certainly will work for female readers, too. I've talked before about Dana Reinhardt's The Things a Brother Knows before, and I think for readers who may not be ready for that story, Kokie's book will be a great starting point. That's not to say it's weaker, but it's a bit of an easier read and a little easier to digest. The pacing is faster, too. As more teens deal with the reality of having a brother or sister in combat, these sorts of books take on greater importance and I am glad that they're less about sending a message about war itself and more about the after effects and emotional, human issues around war. Aside from working well for teen readers, Kokie's novel will have great adult appeal. This is a strong and believable portrayal of grief and loss without ever focusing on those as key elements of the story. Matt never sets out to tell us how he grieves. He just does it.

Review copy provided by the publisher. Personal Effects will be available September 11.

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Thursday, August 30, 2012

The Hero's Guide to Saving Your Kingdom by Christopher Healy

I'm really picky about the middle grade books I will read. They need to be smart, not talk down to the reader, and - perhaps above all else - funny. While the YA books I read and love can all be sorts of dark and depressing, I have found that I require humor in middle grade novels. The Hero's Guide to Saving Your Kingdom has it in spades, plus it's smart and well-written, so it's no surprise that I loved it.

The premise is pretty simple: we all know a lot about the princesses from our favorite fairy tales, but how much do we know about the princes? You know, those guys so vaguely-described that we just refer to them all collectively as "Prince Charming." Healy's book tells us the stories of four of these Princes Charming (note how the term is pluralized), and it should come as no surprise to you that they don't all live happily ever with their princesses. Some of them don't even live with their princesses, period.

The book begins by describing just what scrapes the princes have gotten into that have won them their princesses' disfavor. These events get all the princes cast out of their homes in disparate kingdoms and, naturally, they eventually run into each other. That's a good thing, too, since they soon discover that the bards of the various kingdoms have been kidnapped, and it's up to them to rescue the bards (and their own kingdoms in the process). 

The standout feature here is, obviously, the humor. The princes are all goofballs of different varieties, and their characteristics are clearly exaggerated, but not so much that they become caricatures. The princesses, although they don't occupy a starring role, are also easy to differentiate and run the gamut from nasty to, well, charming. All the characters have large personalities, and when they collide, it creates an explosion of adventure.

Healy has a lot of fun with traditional fairy tale tropes, poking fun at what we as readers blithely accept in a fairy tale, even though it's patently ridiculous. He's also full of some great puns. A certain professional review felt that the premise grew thin and the humor old, but I couldn't disagree more. This is not a short book and I laughed my way through the entire thing - it's so clever and fun. It's a great read for kids who enjoy twisted or re-told fairy tales, particularly those told from "the other guy's" point of view. It's also a much-needed bit of levity in a fantasy field that is crowded with the dark and depressing.

Continue reading...

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Starry River of the Sky by Grace Lin

I adored Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, Grace Lin's Newbery honoree, when I read it in 2010. I loved the stories within a story and I especially loved the artwork. Reading the ARC of Starry River of the Sky, its companion book, is both wonderful and sad - wonderful because I get to experience it that much sooner, and sad because the artwork is almost completely missing. I will be sure to pick up a finished copy of the book to pore over the art when it's released in October.

Rendi is a runaway, but we don't know from what he runs until much later in the story. He ends up in the Village of Clear Sky and is taken in by an innkeeper as a chore boy, though Rendi is far from grateful for it. At the inn, he meets a motley group of individuals: the innkeeper's daughter, whom he loves to taunt; the widow next door, who is always arguing with the innkeeper; crazy Mr. Shan, who dines at the inn every day but never stays the night; and the regal Madame Chang, who is much more than what she seems. Of course, in this book, everyone is much more than what they seem.

Each of these characters has stories to tell, which means the style of River mimics that of Mountain - the mostly realistic main story is broken up by fantastical folklore-ish stories. As the book progresses, these shorter tales turn out to have greater meaning for the larger story than initially thought. I love this idea, and I especially love how important it makes the simple act of telling a story. Rendi initially holds back, not wanting to tell stories as the others have. Eventually, though, after a bit of coercion from Madame Chang, he opens up, and that's when his world begins to change.

Starry River of the Sky is a much quieter book than Mountain. Unlike Mountain, which followed Minli across a country, the main story in River takes place all in one village - and mostly all in one building within that village. This doesn't make it less interesting, but it's much less of an adventure story because of it.

I also found the story to be a bit preachier. The lessons Rendi is meant to learn are pretty obvious. It's not a bad thing for the protagonist to learn something in a novel, I just thought it was more subtly done in Mountain than in River. The lessons Rendi learns in River are more overt,  more obvious. This could just be because I had read Mountain and therefore knew the style going in, but I don't think that can account for all of what I noticed.

A difference that I did appreciate was Rendi's attitude at the beginning of the book. Wow, that boy is a brat, and it was very refreshing to read. Usually the true brats are relegated to supporting characters or villains in books, but not here. As the story progresses, we see where the brattiness comes from, and we also see him change gradually. Rendi follows a true character arc.

Despite the differences, fans of the first book will be delighted at this offering, which is entirely Grace Lin and therefore wonderful. I myself am eager to get my hands on the finished copy - this is the kind of book that is so beautiful, it's worth having your own personal copy.

Review copy received from the publisher. Starry River of the Sky will be released October 2.

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Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Authenticity, Paying for Play & The Core of Libraries

Liz raises a number of vital questions in her post from this weekend, Buying Your Way Into Libraries. Go read it if you haven't.

I've been thinking about these two pieces she cites since both popped up. The second article caught my attention a couple of weeks ago with it first emerged: three library systems have recently purchased an agreement with Smashwords, one of the leading ebook/self-publishing services, wherein for about $100,000, each of the systems will acquire roughly 10,000 of the best-selling titles. Note that there are over 45,000 authors who use Smashwords and they do not know whether or not they are part of the Library Direct program until it shows up on their sales/payment report.

For anyone out of the loop, a number of the big publishers do not sell or license ebooks to libraries. Or, in the rare case one of these publishers does allow library ebook acquisition, there are either restrictions (such as no more than 26 total borrows) or the prices are inflated to the point that purchasing an agreement for them makes a huge financial strain on the library budget. That means the stock of ebooks available for libraries is limited, and with the demand going up, libraries are looking for ways to meet it. It's not that they do not want to offer ebooks; it's that their hands are tied and they can't.

The Smashwords agreement looks like a fantastic option for libraries. It's access to ten thousand ebooks for readers to choose from, fulfilling patron demand while also fleshing out a collection of books that are best-sellers. It also has the added benefit of not restricting usage and the cost spread out among each of the titles is low. The downside to this agreement, though, is that libraries don't have control over what titles they're purchasing. They're relying instead on whatever best-selling titles are according to Smashwords (and as I mentioned above, even the authors who have books through Smashwords don't know they're part of that program either).

Buying into an agreement without control over titles isn't necessarily earth shattering, but it does raise questions in my mind about collection development and what libraries are willing to give up in the name of providing a resource. In other words, to meet the demands and interest in pursuing ebooks, libraries are giving up the ability to build and sustain a collection built to suit the interests of their communities in the best way possible. More than that, libraries buying into agreements like this undermine the core skills and knowledge set the librarians have. It bypasses human knowledge -- both of the classroom-gained kind and the touchy-feely kind acquired by being on the front lines of public service in a library -- in favor of giving it over to a company who is interested more in making a deal than in connecting a person to a resource. They're a business, not a public service.

One of the challenges about collection development that's becoming a bigger issue is that of self-published works. There's no doubt there are great self-published books out there, just as there's little doubt there is a host of crap out there, too. Those who self-pub do so for any number of reasons. The problem, though, is that there are very few reputable review sources. Librarians who practice good collection development rely on trade reviews for purchasing decisions (as well as other factors, including awards or personal reading/knowledge, as well as blogs, consumer reviews on sites like Amazon, and other media sources).  They read Kirkus, Library Journal, Publishers Weekly, and other big name journals, depending on their specialty, and those reviews help them determine whether an item is a good fit for their collection. It's true -- a bad review in a trade journal can keep a librarian from acquiring a book, just like a good review can convince them to purchase more than one copy.

When it comes to self-pubbed books, there are few, if any, places to turn to for reviews. At this point, the only trade publication involved with reviewing self-pubbed books is Kirkus; however, it's vital to note that Kirkus's self-pub review model is based on the author paying for a review and then choosing whether or not that review may be published through the traditional journal (though they will make that review available on and other sites, including Kirkus's website). You can read the way it works here. There are blogs that also review self-pubbed books, but again, it's not easy to determine which are best resources for librarians to use for collection development. And the truth of the matter is, there is so much being published through traditional means that even delving into the self-publishing world in libraries is more than overwhelming.

Backtracking to the first article Liz mentions that popped up this weekend. Todd Rutherford created a system wherein authors -- self-pubbed, primarily -- could pay to have him and his team write glowing reviews of their books. Those reviews would then flood the internet, on big sales sites and more. As the article notes and Liz pulls out, "One of Mr. Rutherford’s clients, who confidently commissioned hundreds of reviews and didn’t even require them to be favorable, subsequently became a best seller. This is proof, Mr. Rutherford said, that his notion was correct. Attention, despite being contrived, draws more attention."

Through developing these fake reviews and flooding consumer sites with them, buyers were left with the idea that these books were worth purchasing. And they were not only purchased, but they were purchased at times in such quantities that those books became best sellers. The article goes on further to talk about how these sorts of pay-for-review situations have shed a light on consumer reviews all together, with some questioning whether they can believe any sorts of reviews they read outside of a traditional source, including blogs and sites like Amazon,, and others.

By paying for fake reviews, authors were seeing sales.

By paying for fake reviews, authors were becoming best sellers.

By starting a way for authors to do this, Rutherford made a lot of money.

What Rutherford did was remove the middle man, that human-knowledge aspect of reviewing and promoting. It became a business, rather than a service. Through this business, many saw themselves achieving their publishing dreams, and, as has been rumored, it helped at least one self-pubbed author gain a traditional publisher and make their way to the NYT Bestsellers list.

Smashwords, in the business of making money in the self-publishing industry, is taking away the control from libraries of collection development by offering them books that are best sellers. Best sellers that may or may not fit a community's needs or interests. Best sellers that may or may not be well-written, of merit, or, hell, even edited. A self-pubbed ebook priced at pennies over the course of a few days could sell hundreds of copies and become a best seller. A self-pubbed ebook priced at what would be a standard price could also sell hundreds of copies and become a best seller -- through the services of people like Rutherford.

The more we want to reach out and provide, the more we're giving up. I think in the cases of some libraries, it's less about providing a true service to readers and instead, it's about "sticking it to the man," as it were. In other words, they're entering agreements like this in order to show big publishers they're not needed anyway.

Except, in doing that, they're also removing any control over quality, over content, and over authenticity.

Beyond being frustrating and beyond overlooking the library's greatest resource, the question arises again over reviews and what a valuable review is. For self-pubbed authors interested in getting their name out there, doing it quickly and in the best possible light, there are two options: work hard and hope for the best or pay someone like Rutherford to stroke your ego and get your buck.

As a reviewer and as a librarian, both of these stories made me stop and consider the purpose of both of these activities. The first because it's clear that there are people making this a business and doing it at the expense of those like myself and so many others who make reviewing a thing of blood, sweat, and tears; the second because it's unfortunate that there are other people in the field who undermine what it is that individuals bring to a library: their knowledge, their critical judgment, and their interest in serving their communities to the best of their ability.

Services, not businesses.

Continue reading...

Monday, August 27, 2012

Paula Danziger: A Cover Retrospective

It's been a long time since I did one of these posts, but the So You Want to Read YA? series got me thinking about classic/timeless YA titles, and I thought it about time to talk about vintage covers and their more modern incarnations. While looking around for the right cover to post of Paula Danziger's The Cat Ate My Gymsuit, I knew I had to share what her style has looked like past and present.

I can't find the exact dates for each of these covers, so I didn't include that information. I haven't read any of these books, so my comments are based solely on the cover. Also, there's no way I can hit all of her books, so these are a handful of my favorite titles and cover changes. If I'm missing editions you know of, I'd love a link to the image.

First up: The Cat Ate My Gymsuit

The first three covers for The Cat Ate My Gymsuit (and the next batch) feature a girl sporting a long-sleeved pink shirt -- two being sweatshirts. I like how the first two covers give us a girl who has rolled up the bottoms of her jeans and the second one just has her in flood waters. Also there was a change in shoe color from brown to pink. Notice how she went from a long-haired blonde to a medium-haired blonde to a long-haired brunette? In the first two covers, she's not getting up to play at all, but in the last one, she looks like she's straight up annoyed to have to be involved in a game. Actually, the first cover suggests the girl isn't moving for anything, while the second one suggests she's not being allowed to play and she's disappointed. What's consistent across the covers, aside from the pink shirt, is the use of green. There is a lot of it all over the place. Also consistent is that the girl looks like a typical girl -- she's not tiny! She's not overly made up! She looks like any high school girl would look . . . in those time periods, at least.

The next two incarnations of the cover also bring us a girl in a pink shirt, but this time they're both illustrated. The girl on the left gets the long-sleeve sweatshirt effect while the one on the right gets the short-sleeve treatment. Both are doing something with paper or a petition and neither of them seems to have anything athletic on their minds at all. Both are brunette, but the girl on the left has the shorter look while the one on the right gets the long hair. And interestingly, here's where it seems to me the shape of the girl changes: she's average on the left, but she sure looks tiny on the right. I know it's illustrated, but it's still noteworthy given how these two covers are definitely later versions than the ones above. We also only get half of their bodies in the image, so I can't tell if they're rolling the bottoms of their pants or what color their shoes are. Also interesting is the cover on the right is our first visit by a cat.  

More half-body shots! I think all three of the girls in these covers look pretty similar to one another, despite being quite different looking from the girls in the prior covers. All three are donning glasses (how often do we see that on covers anymore?) and they've all got long blonde hair going on. Likewise, all three girls appear to be sitting in some sort of classroom or school setting -- the girl on the far right might be in a cafeteria or library, I can't quite tell -- and none of them look even close to being on an athletic field. None of them are wearing pink and in fact, they're all sporting very different looking shirts. I dig how all three have very round faces and they all look like typical girls of the time, though maybe the girl on the left looks like she might be really young. Note, too, how Danziger's name is so much larger on the left and right covers than on the one in the middle, as well as the ones further up. There are no cats to be found in any of these covers.

The last two covers don't feature a girl at all but are illustrated and, I believe, the two most current renditions. I like the one on the right -- yes it has a cat, but I really like the use of the chalk-style font for the title. It's simplistic but it stands out to me because of that. On the right, we get another cat, as well as paw prints, and we're given an image of gym shorts. Another step up from the rolled up jeans and the flood waters. The girl has disappeared, though, and in both instances, she's been replaced by an object. More notable, though, is that both covers seem to appeal to a much younger readership than the prior ones. These covers scream middle grade to me, and even though I haven't read this book, I'd classify it as much more middle grade than YA. This better reaches that readership and it gives a more timeless look than the covers featuring a girl (because all of those girls were showing their age).  

Did you know there was a companion to this book, too? It's called There's a Bat in Bunk Five (which also has some amazing covers worth looking up).

Next up: The Divorce Express

Let's start with the series of covers that have something similar in common: they feature a white character and a character of color. Also common among all of these covers is that the characters are either waiting for or are on a bus. Beyond that, let's talk about how many differences there are. How about in the left cover, the girl looks destroyed and upset (presumably about a divorce). Looks like her friend is maybe trying to comfort her, but she is having none of it. And why would she in such awesome cowboy boots? The sign behind them says "Sandwiches." I don't know about you, but that touch really ties everything together for me.

Okay, so that middle cover. I can't tell the gender of the person on the left. It could be a girl or it could be a guy. It's not entirely clear, and that Cosby-era sweater isn't doing him/her any favors. More noteworthy is that s/he is clearly not upset. Just confused (me too, buddy). The closer you look, it seems like they might be smiling, even. And their friend, who is clearly a girl, is really engaging them in conversation; the hands are out and talking. Is the guy/girl wearing a collared shirt under that sweater? All I can say is that cover really has a lot to digest so please, take your time to appreciate it.

The cover on the right is about as far from the other two as possible: just the heads of the girls, and they both look quite delighted to be on that bus, don't they? I dig the blonde girl's headband. For one of them experiencing the effects of a divorce, they sure don't look too upset about it.

This cover stands alone for a reason: here we lose the person of color on the cover and instead get two white girls. It's unclear if they're at a bus stop or just hanging out with some baggage. Check out the girl on the right's vest, too. Classy. 

Then we get these, where we don't have two girls at all anymore. Instead, a lone white girl. In the left hand cover, we get our first stock image, and like the ladies modeling for The Cat Ate My Gymsuit, she gets the long-sleeved sweatshirt treatment AND jeans that are a tad too short. But she's on the bus this time, and she looks pretty reflective about it. Our middle cover and our right cover take away anything real and give us covers that, again, look much more middle grade appealing than teen appealing because of their illustrative style. The cover in the middle is clearly part of the same series as the illustrated cover from Cat above, and I like how the bus is incorporated in this one. Because that girl doesn't have a bag nor does she have a sad look to her, so were it not for that, I'd think she was just hanging out looking cute. The girl on the left at least looks packed and ready to head out. Note what's in her hand: a bus ticket. Smart way to include that.

So I guess if we're going to lose our friend of color, then we're going to lose our friend all together, at least we kept the bus (almost) consistent throughout these covers.

Let's look at It's An Aardvark-Eat-Turtle World, which is the companion to the book above. Also, is it just me or did Danziger get to have the best titles for her books? Worth noting is that most of these covers carry similar trends in their design as Divorce Express since they were repackages or sold together specially with the new look.

So all of the covers for It's an Aardvark-Eat-Turtle World feature two girls and the bulk feature a white girl with her friend of color. But these three stand out to me because they definitely appeal to the younger readers. The cover on the left is definitely of middle school girls, rather than high school girls, and the same can be said about the illustrated girls in the middle. For me, the girls on the right are pretty unremarkable, but they still look young. And doesn't that cover have a very Juno feel to it? Also, long-sleeved sweatshirt on the girl there, even though it's illustrated. Oh, did you notice the vest on the girl in the first cover, too?

It's good to see some things are consistent.

In both of these covers, the girls are hanging out on the swing set. Looks like they're having some intense conversation, too. I find it interesting that in the left, the girls are both white and in the right, it's possible the one girl is of color. Possible.  I'm impressed that the girls on the right have pants that appear to fit them, too. Overall, though, these covers aren't that much to write about. Our real winners are the next two.

It appears to me that if you want to be on a Paula Danziger cover, you best own a long-sleeved sweatshirt and only in a solid color. But more importantly, spend a minute checking out the blue shoes on the girl holding the boxes in the left cover. Between those and the orangey-pink pants the other girl is wearing, it's almost as if this cover is modeling today's fashion trends. I love how messy the room is and I love how it looks like one girl is doing all the work while the other is laughing. And is that garbage all over the floor?

I spent a long time thinking about the cover on the right. It's the embodiment of a perfect cover to discuss but the problem is there are so many things worth noting, I'm afraid I'll miss something. Is it the belted dress shirt with magenta leggings? Or that old-style phone? The hair on both the girls? The fact they're doing precisely the opposite of the girls in the cover on the left, since they appear to be decorating, instead of packing? And is it me or do those girls look way older than the girls who are in the first cover I posted of this book?

Last title to look at: Can You Sue Your Parents for Malpractice?

It looks like the covers on the left and the middle are the same image, but if you look carefully, they're slightly different. It's the same couple, but the image is shifted a bit so that you can see more of the school doors behind them. Also, it might just be me, but the girl in the middle image is definitely giving that boy much more of a seductive look than in the first one. Either way, it's a nice looking couple, isn't it? Definitely straight out of the late 1970s or early 1980s. They even coordinated their red-and-white striped shirts. Now check out the cover on the right: looks like our lovely male model got the long-sleeved solid color sweatshirt memo. Which is good seeing the girl has quite the design going on with hers. He balances her for sure. Is it just me or are their legs really weird looking? It's definitely an odd illustration. Of note in all of these covers is that the couples are standing outside the school.

We have couples in both covers this time, and what I find interesting is that even though the cover on the right is illustrated, it makes the pair look like high schoolers. If anything, I'd say the cover on the left makes the couple look older than high school. Maybe it's the outfits, in that they're way more put together and prep looking than the other couples have been. What's got me a little confused though is that neither of these covers even fit the title. Are they the parents? The couple on the right looks downright thrilled, like maybe they just started dating and are still in that stage where they like one another. And the couple on the left are holding hands. How and what does this have to do with their parents? Let alone malpractice.

But just in case you were worried we wouldn't get there, here's this cover:

Here's a couple doing some research in a library, presumably about what it takes to sue your parents. Well, at least she is doing some research. He looks like he might be researching her more than the book. Also: her vest.

And here is where the malpractice comes in. Look at how those teens are treating the books! Look at how loud she is clearly being in the library! I mean, I'm glad they're so happy to have found what they needed, but good grief. Tone it down a bit. Also, is it me or is that desk flush with the stacks? More malpractice, as the ADA wouldn't be too thrilled with that library's set up. Those shelves also look like they're very tall, don't they?

Continue reading...

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Exciting News

Remember how I talked about how I was going to attend Kid Lit Con this year? And how I had submitted a proposal to present with someone who I would love to present with?

If you're planning on going to Kid Lit Con, I hope you consider attending the presentation that I'll be giving with Nova Ren Suma.

Before I share what we'll be presenting, let me give a little back story. When the call for proposals went out, I spent a long time thinking about what I'd learned a lot about over the last year in terms of blogging. I thought about last year's conference and about the things I walked away with that ended up being the most valuable to me. The longer I pondered what would be worth presenting on, the more it became obvious that the topic of collaboration in the blogging world was one worth pursuing. I feel like in the time between last year's Kid Lit Con and this year, I've learned a lot about what does and doesn't work when it comes to working with other bloggers and those who work with bloggers (i.e., authors or publicists or editors who don't necessarily blog for themselves but may have a presence elsewhere on the social web). 

Then it hit me: some of the most successful and exciting projects I've worked on over this last year involved series posts that required extensive collaboration. I loved putting together the So You Want to Read YA? series, as well as the Unconventional Blog Tour, and in the midst of working on it, I figured out many best practices for coordinating such a project. I then thought a bit about other bloggers who are active in putting together series -- especially series posts I love reading and sharing -- and it seemed beyond foolish not to approach Nova about presenting.

We're calling the presentation "Getting Series-ous: How Blog Series Can Engage, Inspire, and Grow Your Audience," and here's the presentation description:

This program will discuss what goes into developing a successful blog series and hopes to inspire others to explore series posts as a means of widening their own blog content. The experiences of an author and a blogger will provide insight from two different sides of the kidlit blogosphere while also showcasing how authors and bloggers can work with and benefit one another through a blog series. 

Did you know KidLit Con is FREE this year? If you can go, you should. I know I've mentioned it time and time again, but it is my favorite conference because it's run entirely by and for kidlit bloggers. It's intimate, meaning you really get to have great conversation with other people who love kid lit as much as you do. All of the details are on Betsy's blog, including how to register. If you're curious what last year's event was like, I blogged about it here (and I know most of the photos are gone -- technology!).

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Saturday, August 25, 2012

Links of Note

Another two weeks, another batch of interesting links. I think I'm lacking an infographic of some sort this time, but perhaps someone could point me to a good one that popped up over the last couple of weeks (and not the one about librarianship). In the mean time:

  • This Tumblr cracks me up. First, the url is amazing; second, the name of the Tumblr is perfect; third, it's an image of donuts and a famous literary quote. Brilliantly simple. 
  • Ever wonder about how the questions they ask on Jeopardy are properly researched and sourced? What happens if there's an incorrect fact? This article covers it all. How cool would it to work for Jeopardy as a question creator? Hello, dream job for Jen! 
  • Lots of (unfortunately necessary) disclaimers on this post, but it's one that you need to bookmark and refer to: YA science fiction and fantasy novels with protagonists of color. I cannot tell you how happy I am this exists and how much I plan on referring to it in the future. What a piece of work and also incredibly important.  
  • Pittacus Lore is my favorite "author." Because he keeps being presented as "an author," rather than a collaborative effort out of the creepy James Frey enterprise. However, this article suggests that maybe there really IS a new guy behind Lore now. I also didn't realize the Rachel Carter book was associated with this fiction factory, either. I need to pay more attention. Related: part of why I hate this Pittacus Lore business (besides the obvious) is because I have had to disappoint a teenager before. He really wanted to find Lore on Facebook and become a fan. Guess what? Couldn't do it (at least then) because, well, fake! 
  • This has nothing to do with books and reading, as well as everything to do with it. Are we becoming a culture of braggers thanks to social media? Honestly, I'd rather listen to people talk about their accomplishments on social media than many other things. Also, really?  Maybe I don't follow enough people who are willing to brag about their good news. 
  • Easily my favorite post in a very, very long time: a professional assessment of Twilight Sparkle as a librarian. What I love about this is everything. It so perfectly encapsulates all of the things librarians actually do in a manner that anyone can grasp. No, it's not a quiet place. Yes, it requires using a brain. No, it involves no reading books at the desk. And so forth. 
  • Actually, I lied twice in this blog post. First, it's not the last history-of-reading-culture link. Second, this is really my favorite link. Let's look back at the legacy of The Babysitter's Club with The Atlantic. It doesn't mention Abby except in passing and -- after Stacey -- she was my favorite of the girls. I know. That's something like sacrilege but it is what it is. Hey, did you know I met Ann M Martin? I was in second grade, and my friend Lauren's mom took us out of school early to go meet her. Photographic evidence to the right. I was so nervous to meet her that I couldn't even ask her to take the picture with me so I just stood close to her and smiled.

This month's Audiosynced will be here at STACKED and it'll likely be a couple days late. I'm in the midst, too, of organizing a really fun series to run at the start of November -- stay tuned (such a tease!)

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Friday, August 24, 2012

Monstrous Beauty by Elizabeth Fama

Monstrous Beauty is a story set in two time periods. In the late 19th century, naturalist Ezra falls in love with mermaid Syrenka. Their romance sets off a chain of events that ends in tragedy. In the present day, 16 year old Hester decides to investigate the curse that has plagued her family for generations – each woman gives birth to a daughter and dies immediately afterward. The book alternates between the two time periods, and it’s slowly revealed how the past story informs the present one.

The paragraph above greatly simplifies what is actually a very complicated novel. Hester’s family’s curse has its roots in Syrenka’s story, which involves her desire to live as a human with Ezra, the prejudice of the local people in the small Massachusetts town, and the other mermaids, who won’t let Syrenka have her happiness without paying a price. (There are also ghosts, but that didn’t negatively impact my enjoyment of the novel.)

The writing in Monstrous Beauty is mature and lovely, making it the book’s standout feature. It’s clear that Fama took great care in deciding which words to use and when. She’s written a moody, immersive story that creates terrific atmosphere without sacrificing plot to do so. When you combine that level of writing with the complex and layered plot, you’ve got a book that is leagues beyond others of its kind in terms of craft.

The mythology here is something to be celebrated. It’s complicated and usually not very pretty. Some of Fama’s mermaids may be beautiful, but they’re also deadly, with immense physical power (plus sharp teeth and fins that kill). The magic they hold is powerful but also frightening and gruesome, with repercussions that echo for decades. It makes for a pretty dark story (and I mean that in a good way).

Syrenka is an especially intriguing character. She is simultaneously gentle and brutal, not adhering completely to either the mermaids' sense of morality or that of the humans. Her story is so beautifully tragic that it sometimes overshadows Hester’s. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it does make Hester’s story the less interesting of the two. Additionally, since the reader gets the past story before Hester figures it out in the present, Hester occasionally seems a bit slow. This is really my only quibble – sometimes Hester’s ignorance went on a bit long and I just wanted her to figure out what I already knew. But otherwise, this is a completely engaging and unique novel.

This book won’t be for everyone. Readers who enjoy fluffy paranormal romances will be disappointed. Monstrous Beauty is not full of happily ever afters, and it’s got some pretty dark stuff in it. But for readers who crave something a little different in their fantasies, who yearn for beautiful writing and a plot that makes them think, Monstrous Beauty is just what they need.

(It is impossible for me to review Monstrous Beauty without mentioning its original cover, which is just a travesty. Suffice to say, Fama’s mermaids would never submit to being photographed for Sports Illustrated. The current cover much more accurately represents the book’s contents.)

Review copy provided by the publisher. Monstrous Beauty will be published September 4.

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Thursday, August 23, 2012

A pile of contemporary reviews

I've hit a weird reading slump this summer. It's been really hard to get into anything, and it's been slow going when I have started something (even if I've liked it). I'd say I average between 10 and 15 books a month, but I think in the last two months combined I've maybe read 10 books. Since I'm not reading at my usual pace, I've also not been reviewing at my usual pace, meaning the things I finished back in early July are still sitting in a pile to be reviewed. Rather than try to write lengthy reviews for each of those titles, I thought I'd tackle a bunch of them at once. All of these are contemporary stories.

Joelle Anthony's sophomore novel, The Right & The Real tackles one of my favorite topics head on: cults. When Jamie's father marries Mira, he signs himself over to the church of The Right & The Real. But when Jamie is faced with the decision to sign herself over, she can't do it -- she's not ready to make the commitment to the church and their beliefs. Even though joining the church was originally her idea, her father's commitment has her worried and for good reason. Now that she has chosen not to commit, he's kicked Jamie out of her house.

Jamie is entirely on her own to figure out her life now without her dad and without the church to back her up. Not to mention her long-time boyfriend Josh, who got her into the church in the first place, has also ditched her. As much as Jamie believes that she can go this on her own and make it work, she also misses her father terribly and worries that the church is ruining all they had as a family.

The Right & The Real was a great premise, though I didn't necessarily find the execution as strong as I wanted it to be. The challenge for me was that the story begins immediately, with little exploration into the cult itself or what makes it such a bad place to be (aside from being a cult, that is). Because I couldn't know what the threat was from within, I couldn't place what the threat was externally, either. It was challenging for me to develop an emotional connection with Jamie or for me to understand her fear and terror. So while I was on her side and worried about her well-being -- particularly because she was in a desperate place figuring out basic means of survival -- it was hard for me to grasp what it was that worried her about her father, about Josh, and about the ramifications of being cast out from the group.

More frustrating, though, was Jamie's insistence upon entering relationships and being saved by someone other than herself. Jamie is a strong female character -- she has to be in order to make such a life-altering choice as to not join the cult -- but she is fixated on the broken relationship she has with Josh. But it's not just that; she quickly develops a relationship with another boy, Trent, who ultimately is the hero in the story. And when they share a moment near the end, it felt to me like it was his ownership of her and of the situation that brought resolution to the story and Jamie herself is secondary.

Anthony's writing in the story is good, as is the pacing and there is no doubt that despite the flaws that kept this from being a knock out for me, there will be a great readership for The Right & The Real. Fans of Holly Cupala, particularly Don't Breathe a Word will enjoy this, as will those readers who enjoy other cult-centric stories, such as Carol Lynch Williams's The Chosen One and Michele Green's Keep Sweet. What was maybe most interesting to me about Anthony's book is that unlike other books that explore the cult culture, The Right & The Real is a story from the outside, rather than from the inside. Even though it made for challenges I talked about earlier, it stands out from the crowd because of this. Anthony's book is available now.

One of my all-time favorite novels is Jenna Blum's The Stormchasers (reviewed here) and when I saw the description for Lara Zielin's The Waiting Sky, I noticed immediate similarities and was sold.

Jane's mother is an alcoholic, and after a particularly horrific incident involving her mother, a car, and Jane's best friend, Jane knows she needs to get out and away, at least for a short time, to reassess what it is she needs in her life. Yes, she's 17 and even though it sounds somewhat absurd for her to have that sort of maturity about her own life, it makes sense. Jane's brother left years ago, moving from their home in Minnesota down to the southern plains to become a tornado chaser. She's going to spend the summer with him, learning the skills of the trade. It's her opportunity to feel like she has some sort of control over her life. I probably don't need to explain the metaphor there, but it is there, and it's not some sort of hypothetical. Jane really becomes a storm chaser, but this is a story that's light on the storm chasing and a lot stronger on the rebuilding a world that's collapsed beneath the weight of a storm.

After a particularly strong tornado in Nebraska, Jane and the crew stick around to help clean up the damage. Of course, there's also a budding relationship between Jane and a guy from a rivaling chasing team, Max. What I appreciated was that their interactions were short, were meaningful, but ultimately, both of them knew there wasn't a whole lot more that could emerge between them. Here's where I can employ another reference to the metaphor of the storm and how it can cause for high emotions in short bursts and leave people with what they need in the end.

As much as I liked Jane in the story -- and let me say that she's likeable but she is a deeply flawed character who makes a lot of questionable choices that really hammer that home -- I found myself more invested in Victor's story. He's one of the fellow storm chasers, but he is terrified of storms. The only reason he keeps doing it is for his brother's sake. Zielin weaves in a nice thread here, in that Victor's dedication to living in fear/worry about storm chasing to make his brother happy is similar to how Jane herself gave up her freedoms and ability to live for herself in dealing with her alcoholic mother. But I do question how the heck Victor can hate the movie Twister. It's a classic.

The Waiting Sky will appeal to readers who love contemporary stories, particularly those delving into families, friendships, and the meaning of each and both. There's a lot to appreciate in this and it felt very different and fresh in approach, though I found some of the writing and references to be a little stilted and dated. For the plot and for Jane as a character, I was willing to overlook those issues. The ending is a little convenient, but it did not kill the rest of what made the book work. Anyone who enjoyed Twister or enjoys the idea of storm chasing will want to track this one down. The Waiting Sky is available now. Readers who dig this one and are looking for something similar and/or something more literary will be eager to then look into Blum's The Stormchasers.

Hannah Harrington's sophomore novel, Speechless, has one of the coolest covers, I think. It's so stark that it ends up being very bold and I think it'll stand out because of that. Apologies for how vague this review is going to be, but I don't want to spoil the big reveal.

Chelsea Knot was part of the popular crowd, and she enjoys her time at the top. But when she stumbles upon a situation at a party and tells her friends, the person at the center of the situation becomes a victim not just of Chelsea opening her mouth, but of an attack initiated via her loose lips. The moment Chelsea realizes her gossiping is the reason for the violence, she takes a vow of silence. Except it's not just a vow of silence she ends up taking -- Chelsea becomes outcast from her popular friends and finds herself completely alone and without anyone to confide in. If she had anything to confide, that is (she does -- she just won't).

Speechless follows as Chelsea learns who she can and cannot trust, and as could be expected, it's not who she thought it was. Everything she thought she knew about the cool and the not-cool kids ends up being untrue and Chelsea finds herself befriending new people who are truly there for her. In the end, she has the chance to face the person whose entire life changed because of her decision to talk at the party and it's then she comes to realize how important those issues of trust and friendship are.

It sounds like a sweet story, but it's not. It's rough and gritty, and Chelsea is subjected to torment and bullying. Relentlessly, even. The problem for me, though, was that this was never once Chelsea's story. It was Noah's -- he's the guy at the center of the secret she divulges. His story is so lost in the book because the focus and attention is on Chelsea, and maybe it's because I'm an adult reading this, I felt like she didn't deserve the attention of the story because she'd already gotten too much attention anyway. In fact, Chelsea's vow of silence and behavior following the horrible thing she did felt like a huge cry for more attention and pity, where I felt like Noah, the real victim here, deserved it way more than she did. That's not to say she ever deserved the bullying she got -- she didn't -- but I was much more invested in Noah's well-being than Chelsea's. For me, she got in the way of the story, despite being the catalyst for it.

Harrington knows how to write teens, though, and there's no doubt in my mind this book will appeal to them. While reading Speechless, I was reminded of Courtney Summers's Some Girls Are in terms of the bullying/abuse inflicted upon characters, of Laurie Halse Anderson's Speak, in terms of the hows and whys of Chelsea's silence, and maybe I was reminded most of Molly Backes's The Princesses of Iowa in terms of how the issues of sexuality and popularity and rumor-spreading all interweave. Readers who appreciated those stories will want to check this one out, though I think it pales in comparison to any and all of those. Speechless will be available August 28.

Review copies of all titles provided by the publishers.

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Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Fonts, Color, Page Decor: The Visual Impact of Book Design

I talk a lot about cover designs and what works and doesn't work for me, but lately, I've been thinking a lot more about all of the other elements that can give a book a real visual impact. There are so many little things (and big things) that can go into the design of a book and some work really well for me while others distract me from the reading experience. I'd love to hear any of your thoughts on favorite and not-so-favorite uses of these features in recent (and even not-so-recent) books.

Jackets and Covers

I talk about covers all the time, but one thing I love about hardcover books is when the book designer chooses to make use of both the boards and the jacket to give the book more visual punch. I don't buy a whole lot of hardcover books, and when I do, I tend to take the jacket off because, for me, it's tough to hold on to while reading. So when there are little surprises underneath the jacket, I get really excited.

The Age of Miracles is one of my favorite recent examples: 

It's a fairly unassuming cover, but all of those little circles on the title are actually perforations. So what you're seeing is the board underneath. It looks really neat because you can see the very bright orange and yellow peaking out, and there's a texture to the jacket with the perforations.

But the real fun part is the board itself:

I love the silhouette of the girl. It's a complete surprise, especially after seeing the jacket itself. This is one of those books where not having the jacket on the outside maybe even enhances the visual impact.

Another one of my favorite covers -- and this is a hard cover without a jacket -- is Katie Williams's The Space Between Trees.

Sure it doesn't look all that special. It's a bunch of dark trees and a girl running in the background. But the trees are actually cut out of the board. It's not an image but really a piece of art you can poke your fingers through:

I grabbed this image from a reader on Goodreads. The intricacy and the fine detailing of the cut out trees are unexpected and worth spending time studying. It's not fragile either -- the cutouts are pretty sturdy so you don't have to worry too much about breaking any of the branches as you obsessively run your fingers over them (that can't just be me). Again, it adds an element to the design that makes it stand out just a little bit more.

Colored Font

I feel like this category might make me sound old, but I really dislike colored font in books. I find it challenging to read and distracting unless it's used carefully and purposefully. One that stands out in my mind as a particularly challenging reading experience was Anna Dressed in Blood. The font inside is a rusty red and the pages themselves are not bright white, but a little more cream colored. Although it looked neat and certainly fit with the book itself, I couldn't read straight. I kept finding myself unable to focus because it was hard to read the red-on-cream font. As I look through a lot of other reviews, though, I've noticed others have loved this effect because it's different and adds to the atmospheric element of the story.

I haven't read the Shiver series by Maggie Stiefvater in a finished format, but in the galley for the final entry in the series, Forever, there's another instance of red font (though the paper is whiter than it is for the Blake title):

I'm sure there are other examples in other colored fonts, but I'll be okay in being old and saying I prefer black font because it is the easiest and least distracting to read.

Font Style

Continuing the theme of font selection, I put my foot down very solidly on the fact I prefer my books to have a serif font. I'm not particularly choosey on which serif font is used, but I have a hard time reading sans serif on a print format. I blogged about this way back when STACKED was a baby, but I've noticed it's still popping up once in a while. The most recent example I can think of is SD Crockett's After the Snow and for me, the font detracted entirely from the reading. The book required me to pay attention to a dialect, which is in and of itself challenging, but adding the sans serif font in the mix made it even harder.

It's challenging to read because there's not a visual line connecting the letters to one another as there is in a serif font. I find there's too much space between the letters and in this particular case, the letters themselves are so thin, they're difficult to focus on.

Chapter Designs

I love the little touches that go into the pages themselves, and this usually happens on chapter openings. Which, of course, makes sense since that's where there tends to be more space for designing elements.

Here are two of my recent favorites. The first one is from a galley of Hemlock by Kathleen Peacock. I haven't had the chance to see the finished version of it, but knowing that images are always enhanced when they make it to the final stage, I bet the design looks even better than it does here:

The design is so simple and yet adds a lot to the visual aspect of the book. It brings the entire page together. Bonus points for fitting with the elements present on the cover.

A few of the chapters inside Courtney Summers's This is Not a Test offer us a nice double-page blood splatter. It's minimal enough not to impact the already-strong and stark visual impact of having the chapters start so low on the page (rather than mid-page) and the fact it falls in the gutter of the pages makes it stand out even more. There's another great visual element in this book, but because it's a spoiler, I won't post an image of it.

Deckle Edges

My least favorite of all the design choices in book production: the deckle edge. If you're unfamiliar with what the deckle edge is, think about older books, where the pages are all unevenly cut. It's meant to look fancier, I think, but the uneven cut on the pages makes flipping through them challenging (and let's not even talk about how it's impossible to hold the book open fully because the shorter cuts won't stay open).

I think I might fall into a minority on this opinion, though. If you head over to Asheley's blog, you can see she loves the French flap look (and has some good examples of recent books getting that treatment). Spend a little time looking at some of the other design elements she hits on, too, because they're different than the things I look at -- since I'm a huge contemporary reader, for example, maps never cross my mind as an interesting aspect of a book's design. But I could see how they're crucial for fantasy readers to grasp a sense of place in the new worlds they enter.

I think part of what interests me so much in book design is that with ebooks, you can often see the same elements (like the chapter designs) but some elements are simply not going to be a part of the digital reading experience (like the jacket and cover pieces). I've read a lot about how designers are thinking about this much more now and working to make ebooks as much an art form as they do physical books. But for me, there's somewhat of a disconnect, as the ereading experience feels more like a passive studying of elements, whereas holding the physical book and admiring the artistry in the design is much more active.

What are some of your favorite book design elements? What aren't you a fan of? I'd love to hear more examples of good looking design elements, too, that fit in any of these categories.

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