Sunday, September 30, 2012

Third quarter reading roundup

I've been having fun this year looking at my reading patterns by the quarter. It's interesting to see where I did a lot of reading -- and what kinds of reading I did -- and it's interesting to see where things started to slump.

You could call quarter three the slump quarter. In quarter one, I read over 50 books and in quarter  two, I read over 50, too. This quarter? I read 22. To be fair, I read 5 or 6 manuscripts, too, but that still clocks me in under 30. I'm planning on picking up the pace in this final stretch of the year. I'd love to read another 50 or so to at least top 200 books this year.

Here's what these last three months looked like. Links go to reviews, if posted, and I've starred those titles that stood out to me just a little more than others. Some titles may be reviewed more fully in the future:

* 1.  Through to You by Emily Hainsworth (YA): A debut about parallel worlds, choices, the past and the future, with one great male voice in Cam. Review forthcoming.

2. The Right & The Real by Joelle Anthony: A cult story! Reviewed here.

3. The Waiting Sky by Lara Zeilin (YA): I really dug into this story about family, with the great metaphor of natural disaster woven into it. Reviewed here.

4. Holier Than Thou by Laura Buzo (Adult): A kind friend lent me this Aussie adult title aimed for 20-something readers. While I liked this tale of grief and growth, it didn't quite hit the same notes that CK Kelly Martin's comparable Come See About Me did.

5. Ten by Gretchen McNeil (YA): A revisioning of Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None. It was okay -- nothing to write home about -- and I felt there were a lot of missteps in terms of the author holding the reader's hand through the fear too much.

6. Speechless by Hannah Harrington (YA): I didn't care for this as much as Harrington's first book, though I enjoyed it well enough. Reviewed here.

7. Lullabies for Little Heathens by Heather O'Neill (Adult): This was a dark and literary story about a little girl who never gets to be one. I quite liked the styling -- it's somewhat told in vignettes -- though it is also quite sad.

8. Broxo by Zach Giallongo (YA graphic novel): I don't think this knew what it wanted to be. It was sort of an adventure tale but also a zombie story but also told through flashbacks and legends. I didn't get it.

9. Spark by Amy Kathleen Ryan (YA): When I got to this point, I knew my reading slump was on. I liked this story still, but it's one I'll need to revisit when the third book comes out. I am still invested in the characters and their journey. That's a good sign for a second book in a trilogy.

10. What Happens Next by Colleen Clayton (YA): A contemporary title about a date rape. It was fine, but it didn't knock it out of the park for me. Some of the main character's actions didn't seem as authentic as I'd hoped.

11. My Book of Life By Angel by Martine Leavitt (YA): A verse novel about a girl who gets trapped into child prostitution. Dark and gritty, but the verse didn't work for me against such a weighty topic.

12. Skinny by Donna Cooner (YA): I found myself frustrated by this Cinderella story of a teen getting gastric bypass surgery. Reviewed here.

* 13. My Big Fat Manifesto by Susan Vaught (YA): Hallelujah, a fat girl who doesn't hate herself or her body. Also tackles gastric bypass but at a different angle than Cooner's book. Reviewed here.

* 14. Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell (YA): This 2013 title might be one of my favorite reads of this year AND next year already. So sweet but so much longing, angst, and pain to get there. You will be hearing more about this one next year.

15. If You Find Me by Emily Murdoch (YA): Another 2013 title, and this one is a debut. The storyline is fresh and unlike anything I've read before -- two girls who were kidnapped by their mother and forced to grow up in the literal back woods are rescued and reintroduced to a more traditional world. There'll be a longer review in the next year, but where the story was strong, there were some holes and some writing/voice things I didn't quite buy.

16. The Turning by Francine Prose (YA): A twist on the classic The Turn of the Screw but I felt it was much less successful than Adele Griffin's Tighter from last year. There's a review coming of this one soon.

17. Forget Me Not by Carolee Dean (YA): Another verse novel, and this one is more successful than most. It's a dual voice, too, which is impressive, and it makes you question whether one of the narrators is or is not alive. I may review this one soon because it was unique. I'd label is contemporary but others may not!

18. A Certain October by Angela Johnson (YA): Johnson's stories are so sad for me, and this one was no different. The problem is I never find myself attached to the characters nor the story and, well, this one was no different. I can see many others enjoying this very literary tale of loss and grief.

19. Life After God by Douglas Coupland (Adult): I've read and reread this one a number of times and decided it was time again. I liked it less than I did before but it's still good. Also, very sad. I guess this quarter was about sad books on some level.

20. Try Not to Breathe by Jennifer R Hubbard (YA): Did I mention the sad stories bit? This one is a quiet story about the implications of suicide.

21. Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn (Adult): I was taken by the story because I loved how terrible the characters were. Did I love the story though? Not like most readers. But it was good, and I think Flynn is an exceptional writer.

22. If I Lie by Corrine Jackson (YA): A little over-the-top on the drama/tension, as in there's too much going on, but I genuinely enjoyed Jackson's writing. It's about a girl who keeps a secret and the implications therein (spoiler alert -- they're not good for her). I may review this one soon.

23. Attachments by Rainbow Rowell (Adult): I think Rowell writes my kind of romances. I love her style, her slight wit, but her all together grounded and authentic stories.      

I didn't ditch any novels this month, and I read a few more adult titles than usual (at least given the number of books I did read). I also knocked out a few debuts for not only 2012, but also for 2013. I think part of my slow down was tackling a number of other things blogging wise -- I feel like I wrote a novel or two worth of blog posts this quarter!

I'm writing this post before heading to New York for Kid Lit Con, where I'm packing a couple of books to finish. I'll likely have more than 23 books for this quarter, but I'll add them to my end-of-fourth-quarter round up. Maybe this won't look as sad as it does then! And yes, there will be a Kid Lit Con update coming soon. Promise!

Anyone playing along -- what's been your favorite 2012 read to this point? Anything I need to get my hands on in the final stretch of the year?




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Saturday, September 29, 2012

Getting Series-ous: How Blog Series Can Engage, Inspire, and Grow Your Audience

I thought I'd share the Prezi Nova and I made for our presentation at the start of our presentation for anyone who wants to check it out or follow along. My caveat to this is that there's not a whole lot of information on the Prezi. But I promise to write up a fuller report with our notes after Kid Lit Con this year so those who want to know more about putting together a blog series have the information available to them.

In the mean time, enjoy! You can navigate with the play button and your forward and backward arrow keys (that's easier than trying to keep hit the play button): 






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Friday, September 28, 2012

Blood Roses by Francesca Lia Block

I’ve actually only ever read one other book by Francesca Lia Block – Pretty Dead, a slim vampire novel that was published in 2009. In anyone else’s hands, the story may well have been a generic vampire romance, but in Block’s, it was something else entirely.

Several reviews of Blood Roses, a collection of nine (very) short stories first published in 2008, call Block’s writing “prose poetry,” which I think is a good descriptor. The stories, which each take under five minutes to read, are loosely connected to each other and focus on teenage girls undergoing some sort of transformation – physical, sexual, magical. There’s a thread of fantasy that connects them all, sometimes dark, sometimes restorative, sometimes both. Block’s fantasy in these stories is a metaphor for adolescence and coming of age, and I loved nearly all of them.

In one story, a girl tells the reader that her boyfriend is an alien and explains how she knows. In another, a girl suddenly develops tattoos all over her body after becoming infatuated with a tattoo artist. In another, a girl meets a centaur and takes him home with her. Many of them are sexual in some way, and many involve other mature topics like drugs or family violence. While all of the stories are fantastical, Block doesn’t let her characters dwell on the fantasy aspects – the fantasy is simply a part of their world. (One review claimed that the characters may not all be quite sane, which is possible, I suppose, but it’s not how I prefer to think of it. It’s too literal an interpretation for me.)

Block’s use of language is always imaginative and always beautiful. She’s a fan of short, impactful sentences, unusual story structure, and interesting metaphors. The result is very moody, atmospheric writing you can get lost in. It can also result in some confusion as to what really happened, but that seems purposeful, and it doesn’t detract from the stories, which straddle the line between fantasy and reality anyway.

Due to the nature of Block’s writing, which is very different from most everything else, her books won’t be for everyone. Personally, I love them. She takes risks with language and trusts that her readers are mature enough to understand her. I often have a hard time with short stories, but these were a treat, and I think other readers interested in unusual, edgy fantasy writing will enjoy them too.

Book purchased.




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Thursday, September 27, 2012

Cover Doubles


I ran across this double-take while browsing Goodreads the other day. On the left is Loose Girl, a memoir by Kerry Cohen chronicling her years as a promiscuous young woman - using sex as a stand-in for attention, love, and intimacy - and her ensuing recovery. On the right is Kirsty Eagar's YA novel Raw Blue, a book about a surfer girl who experienced something terrible in college, dropped out, and must confront it a couple of years later.

While I have read neither, I'm struck by the parallels between the two books, represented by the girl on the covers. Both books seem to deal somewhat strongly in feelings of shame and regret, and the girl shows this - her downward look, her hair obscuring most of her face, her passive expression. I don't think either of the two covers are particularly striking, but the girl does communicate a certain tone.

It also seems like the model's shirt has been edited to be a little less revealing in the Eagar title, which is interesting to me.




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Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Four cover changes to consider

Ready for another round of book covers that have or will be changing their appearance when they move from hardcover to paperback? As usual, some of the changes are for the better and some leave quite a bit to be desired.


Meg Rosoff's There is No Dog came out in hardcover -- the one on the left -- early this year. I'm pretty into this cover. It's bright, and I like how the dog is made from the clouds themselves (which is pretty fitting given the book's topic). The font for both the author's name and the title are simple, and I think that the slight touches of color with red and white in them make them stand out just enough. The blurb on the front from Anthony Horowitz is simple and to the point. Rosoff doesn't really need a huge blurb, given her acclaim as a YA author.

In March 2013, there will be a new paperback edition of Roseoff's title. I think the cover change is interesting. It's still simplistic, and it's still bright -- even brighter than the hardcover edition. Like the hardcover, the only colors on the cover are red, white, yellow, blue, and black. Primaries with the black and white to contrast. What's different though is that the last word in the title is in a different font and lives inside the image of the dog. I like the effect quite a bit, actually. But what is maybe most interesting to me in terms of the cover change is that the blurb is different now. Rather than Horowitz's single word, the blurb is now from People Magazine and a whole two words. I'm not sure whether it's the case or not, but this cover may be aimed more toward an adult audience than a teen audience. At least that's the impression I get, given the blurb and the very simplistic look (and interesting to note, at least to me, is the Horowitz blurb almost reads down from YA for me -- his books are middle grade in my library).

I think both of these covers are pretty good. If I were to pick one, I'd probably go paperback just because I like the yellow and blue contrast.


On the left is the hardcover rendition of William Richter's thriller Dark Eyes, which came out earlier this year as well. It's gotten a number of comparisons to Steig Larsson's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo though I haven't read it and can't confirm that (and I'm suspicious since I think that's an easy label to toss on any thriller featuring a female character). The cover is pretty vanilla, and it reminds me of another similar book, though I can't put my finger on which one because it's so generic. I am not saying it's problematic that it's generic because I think that's one of the appeal factors for the cover of a thriller like this one, but it doesn't have much that makes it stand apart, either. One kind of weird thing to me is that the girl's hands look really big for her body. She has a toughness about her in the way she's situated, though it looks to me like she's got something in her eye...other than her hair, that is.

The paperback, due out in February 2013, takes on an entirely different look, despite being just as generic as the hardcover is. It's a bunch of tall buildings in a city! They're all tinted in various shades of purple. There is a girl reflecting off the side of one of those buildings, and I think it's the same girl from the hardcover (or pretty darn close to it). And then, there is that blurb. Can you read it? Do you see who it is from? Pittacus Lore blurbs this book! Pittacus Lore who is a product of the James Frey fiction factor (maybe, maybe not) thought pretty highly of Richter's work to blurb it. Except this gets me wondering: what does it mean if an author who doesn't really exist blurbs your book? Could you not get a real blurb? Is it a message about the value of blurbs (that there is none)? Or was this some sort of marketing point for the Pittacus Lore machine? And then I start wondering when I see that blurb if this book isn't really what it claims to be. Is it a real author who wrote this? So really, the paperback cover here has lost my interest entirely because I'm way more fascinated by this blurb and what the implications of it are.

Neither of those covers quite do it for me, but hardcover might be a little stronger, despite lacking the crucial Pittacus Lore blurb.



It seems like a lot of times when covers go from hardcover to paperback, the change includes the addition of a person. But in the case of Jessica Brody's My Life Undecided, the switchover goes from using a model to using an object. As far as the hardcover is concerned, it's nothing mind-boggling. Actually, I'd say it fits the book pretty well. This is mostly lighthearted and the girl on the cover reminds me of the main character pretty well. The way the title and author's name appear on the cover fits the look of Brody's first book, The Karma Club.

The paperback is quite different from the hardcover, and I kind of dig it. I love how it's a mouse, which is extremely fitting for the book itself (which is about a girl who gets all of her life advice via her blog). It's cute and plays into the lightheartedness of the story itself. What I don't care for is the curly style of the title font around some of the letters -- it's a small thing, but actually, I really dislike it and can't stop looking at it.

There's not really a better cover in this case since I think both play into the content of the book pretty well. It's curious there was a change, though, especially since the new paperback takes away from the branded-look for Brody's books that started with her first title. The paperback edition of My Life Undecided will be available November 13.



When this book first came out, the cover image killed me. In fact, it still kills me. Here's the thing: the cover for The Second Base Club has immense boy appeal, doesn't it? I mean, that's a bra made to look like baseballs. However, no boy I know would ever check out a book with a bra on the cover, made to look like baseballs or not. I can pretty safely say the same thing about girls. I mean -- putting a bra on the cover of a book just seems like a bad idea, unless it's romance and aimed at adults, and even then, I can't say it's necessarily going to be what draws people to pick up the book. Think about what it looks like to read a book with that cover in public. Especially if you're a boy. Also, that tag line is pretty terrible. Although it seems to get to the heart of it all.

The paperback edition of The Second Base Club -- due out in February 2013 -- eliminates the bra issue, but now it brings in a creeper guy. Seriously, the guy is reaching over the girl and she's definitely not into it. But what scares me a little more is the expression on his face. Is it me or is his head over sized? It looks almost Photoshopped onto the body. As weird as the positioning and the modeling are with the male in this image, the cover itself is much more appealing than the original, and I think it maintains a lot of guy appeal. It sort of reminds me of the covers of the "Carter" series, actually, and I don't think that is a bad thing. Of interest is the change in tag lines, too. What originally only read "we're not talking about baseball here" becomes a little more clarified and a little less sexual by adding that the character's goals aren't only about baseball.

I think the paperback cover wins this one hands down, though I really dislike the male model and the way he's definitely taking advantage of the girl who is so not into him. But oh it's better than that bra cover.

Any opinions about which books have a better hardcover or paperback edition? Anything you love or dislike in any of these? What do you make of the Pittacus Lore blurb? I hope it's clear I'm not getting over that one for a little while. 




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Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Send Me A Sign by Tiffany Schmidt

Cancer books don't work for me. There's an artificiality in the plot and there burden of the story falls upon the reader, rather than on the story teller: because we all have something we can associate with cancer in our own lives, we bring that to the novel. That emotional baggage then carries through the story. More than that, though, characters in the story become victims and heroes simultaneously, without any particular reason other than they're faced with a horrific illness. The writing floats on the diagnoses rather than on character development or on a story arc beyond the cancer, and the emotional investment is inauthentic. It's reader manipulation.

That's not the case with Send Me A Sign, Tiffany Schmidt's debut novel. In fact, this pushes against the books in the cancer genre that do that.

Mia has cancer -- leukemia, in fact. But when she receives the diagnosis, she doesn't want anyone to know. She hides it from her best girl friends, knowing that it would make her a victim/hero. Knowing it would mean that they would change how they treat her. It's not just that she's hiding it from them to protect herself, though; she does it because her mother pressures her to do so. It would shatter the illusion of perfect. Mia's popular, well-liked, and admired. Cancer would change that. 

The thing is, Mia can't hide her illness from everyone. After a night out at a party, on the drive home and after hearing one of those songs -- a sign -- Mia asks her best guy friend Gyver to pull the car over. And she tells him. Where she finally allows herself to feel something about it, to shed a few tears, Gyver is strong and steadfast. He wants to know the details and how they can get through this. Yes, they. He's committed himself right there to fight with her to ensure she comes back stronger than she was before.

She checks into the hospital the following day for chemotherapy, but not before she covers all her bases with her friends. They all believe she's going to a family member's house for an extended vacation, though Gyver knows the truth.While building this story for her friends, it becomes clear that there is another guy in Mia's life: Ryan. The athletic stud who all the girls would love to date but who has a less-than-stunning reputation for how he treats the ladies he dates. Mia's not sure she's ready for him, given this reputation. And given the cancer. It's something she thinks about briefly but doesn't put a whole lot of stock in, at least prior to her time in the hospital.

It's a tough chapter to read as Mia's body reacts to the treatment; at times, she's lucid and thorough in reporting how she feels and what's going on. Other times, there are very short blurbs of dialog and little else. Rather than give a blow-by-blow of the technical aspects of the chemo, we're given the experience first-hand with Mia. We know when she's feeling okay and when she's feeling horrible. We're getting it too. But what Schmidt excels in by writing the treatment this way is that it's one chapter and it's over. We aren't subjected to any more or any less of the hospital experience than necessary. Once Mia is done with treatment, so are we. Because the thing is, this is a story about what happens outside of that.

Now that the chemo is over, Mia and Ryan become closer. As their relationship grows, Mia begins to understand the reputation Ryan had about being a bit of a player may not be true. That in fact, he's invested in her and their relationship. But she's not ready, particularly because she doesn't want his sympathy due to her cancer. She's gun shy and worried about him finding out the truth. Yet, he still wants her, still cares about her. And there's also Gyver, her best friend. He is Mia's rock through all of this, and not just because she has cancer and confided that in him. It's because he's always been her rock. He's always been there for her through good and bad things. I wouldn't say it took cancer for her to come to this realization -- I think Mia's a hell of a lot stronger of a character than that -- but it was through her ability to confide such a huge thing in him where she realizes what he is to her.

What made Send Me A Sign work for me and stand apart from the crowd of cancer lit is that it never once felt like a cancer story, and that's due in part to the fact Mia chooses to hide it. Even if it feels like it's for selfish reasons and an effort to protect her reputation, the truth is, Mia doesn't feel human anymore. She's so far removed from herself, from her body, and from the experience all together, that she refuses to think about what this all means for her on a grander scale. There's a real loss of control in her life and in her choices. Where it could be easy to dislike her because she's lying so much and because, well, she's at times simply hard to handle, it's not the cancer that manipulates the reader into finding her sympathetic. It's the fact she's gained our trust because we are in on the secret. We know the inner world of Mia more than anyone. We know how complicated it is and how little she finds herself caring for and loving herself. This came to a head for me during a conversation Mia has with her father, something I'm still thinking about months after reading the book. He says to her quite simply: "Sick or not, you're a person to be respected." In this moment, she has a wake up call. She realizes how much value she has as a person, a whole person, and not just as an unfortunate victim of circumstances. As a victim of cancer.  

While I shy away from the love triangle story line, that's not what I saw here. Instead, Schmidt develops a great metaphor between the relationships Mia has with these two boys and her relationship to her own body as it fights leukemia. Gyver, the steady constant in her life, is the thing that's always been there. That's her determination and strength and strong-will. Ryan, the new thing, is the experience of dealing with cancer and navigating something different. He himself isn't a cancer; far from it. But he and the cancer share the qualities of being new challenges to face. There's one scene in the book where this metaphor sings, and it involves Mia's cat. Although I felt a tiny bit manipulated by it (I think anyone with this sort of experience would feel that way), it ultimately drives home the powerful friendship between Mia and Gyver. They're rock solid, even if sometimes Mia doesn't feel that way. Schmidt nailed romantic tension throughout the story in a way that worked for me, even though I'm not a romantic. It was reminiscent of Jenny Han's "Summer" series, the way the main character has complete agency but still wants to satisfy her heart and both of her choices have their positive aspects and their negative aspects. There is no perfect person in Schmidt's story, which is precisely why this works.

Another side of Mia I haven't touched on yet but I think a lot of readers will dig: there's a weaving of superstition throughout. Mia believes in these signs, believes that if she listens to the right song at the right moment, she needs to act a certain way. That if she does things in a certain order, it will give her control. This, of course, all relates right back to the notion of control and illusion of control. But more than that, Schmidt's use of this character trait ties into what may be the biggest take away of this story -- what it means to choose. Mia has to make so many choices, and none of them are easy. She has to consider who she lets in and who she doesn't let in. What she is to herself and what she is to others. Whether or not she's strong enough to go this alone or whether she needs support. Following those signs is a choice Mia makes. It's never about a right choice or a wrong choice; it's about choice, period.

There were a couple of minor issues I had with the story. The first is that I felt that Mia's friends were forgettable and interchangeable. They don't play a huge role in the story, and that's because Mia chooses that as her way of handling them. It makes sense they aren't fully-developed, and it makes sense I found them annoying when they were around. My other quibble was that I wish I had known Mia a little more prior to the diagnosis. I didn't wish to know what led to her seeking out a doctor for feeling ill; rather, I wish I had gotten to know her on an emotional and relationship-interaction level a little more. For me, that would have made the already-strong character arc even stronger. If anything, it's a sign of how much I cared about Mia and how much I wanted to know her even more.  

Send Me A Sign isn't a book about a girl who becomes wiser, more insightful, more worldly, or more well-loved because she's tackling cancer. It's a book about a girl who figures out what it means to respect herself and understand the fact she has a choice in how she lives her own life. Mia's a teen girl dealing with teen girl problems -- boys, friends, family -- and it so happens that leukemia throws her for a loop when she thinks she has those things under control. Because that's how it works. In no way would I consider Tiffany Schmidt's book a "cancer book." I have no doubt Mia would feel the same way.

Hand Schmidt's debut to fans of Jenny Han, particularly for the romantic elements, the strong and determined lead female character, and for the great writing (because the writing in Send Me A Sign -- even though I haven't spent a long time talking about it -- is one of the book's strengths). I think this book will appeal to fans of Sarah Dessen, as well as Siobhan Vivian.

Oh, and if you're curious: Mia makes the right choice at the end of the book. I never flip to the end to find these things out, but I was so invested in the story I needed to know. The conclusion was beyond satisfying to my heart. I guess that's a spoiler, isn't it? Mia doesn't die. She doesn't need to to get us to pay attention though.

She's a hell of a lot more interesting than that.

Review copy received from the publisher. Send Me A Sign will be available October 2. You will hear more about this book from the author here later on this year. Also, Tiffany is donating $1 to cancer charities for each copy of her book pre-ordered through the end of the month. You can read about why and order through her website.




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Monday, September 24, 2012

Titles of Familiar Tunes

I don't know about you, but there are certain book titles that when I read them, a song pops into my head and will not go away. It doesn't matter how different the book is from the song -- and most of the time they're not at all related -- the tune sticks in my head.

Here's a handful of YA books that share their titles with a song. Of course, this wouldn't be a complete post without including the song, would it? All book descriptions come from WorldCat.

Please chime in with your favorites because I know we have missed quite a few!

With or Without You by Brian Farrey (2011)

When eighteen-year-old best friends Evan and Davis of Madison, Wisconsin, join a community center group called "chasers" to gain acceptance and knowledge of gay history, there may be fatal consequences.

I went through a huge U2 phase in high school, and With or Without You (1987) is one of their classics.



 
Unbreak My Heart by Melissa Walker (2012)

Taking the family sailboat on a summer-long trip excites everyone except sixteen-year-old Clementine, who feels stranded with her parents and younger sister and guilty over a falling-out with her best friend.

Let's listen to Toni Braxton's take on Unbreak My Heart (1996)

 


Don't Turn Around by Michelle Gagnon (2012)

After waking up on an operating table with no memory of how she got there, Noa must team up with computer hacker Peter to stop a corrupt corporation with a deadly secret. Kimberly reviewed this title earlier this summer.


Who could forget that Ace of Base told us Don't Turn Around in 1994?

   


Take a Bow by Elizabeth Eulberg (2012)

Emme, Sophie, Ethan, and Carter are seniors at a performing arts high school in New York City, preparing for the senior recital and feeling the pressure to perform well and take the next step in their careers and their lives--whether they want to or not.

Madonna's Take a Bow (1994) is one of my favorite of her songs and videos.


 


Across the Universe by Beth Revis (2011)

Seventeen-year-old Amy joins her parents as frozen cargo aboard the vast spaceship Godspeed and expects to awaken on a new planet 300 years in the future, but 50 years before the ship's scheduled landing, Amy is violently woken from her frozen slumber. Kim's reviewed this title, too.

Of course, the Beatles also told us what's up Across the Universe in 1968.




Let me indulge on this for a second and also share one of my favorite covers of this song by Fiona Apple, recorded for the movie Pleasantville in 1998.


 


Never is a Promise by Emily Hainsworth (2013)

Because this is a fall 2013 release -- a year from now -- there's not a description yet. But since we were on the topic of Fiona Apple, I had to include this title so you could get the ear worm going.

Fiona Apple's rendition of Never is a Promise (1998):





 Inside Out by Maria Snyder (2010)

"...I'm Trella. I'm a scrub. A nobody. One of thousands who work the lower levels, keeping inside clean for the Uppers. I've got one friend, do my job, and try to avoid the Pop Cops. So what if I occasionally use the pipes to sneak around the Upper levels. The only neck at risk is my own...until I accidentally start a rebellion and become the go-to-girl to lead a revolution"

Did anyone else love Eve 6's Inside Out (1998) as much as Kim and I did?


 

I Swear by Lane Davis (2012)

After Leslie Gatlin kills herself, her bullies reflect on how things got so far. This looks like it might make an interesting read-alike to Butter, even though they tackle slightly different issues surrounding bullying.

Here's another two-for-one song for you. First, here are Boyz 2 Men singing I Swear with a little rhythm in 1994:




Let us not forget that at the same time, John Michael Montgomery offered us the country version of I Swear.


 


Fall for Anything by Courtney Summers (2010)

As she searches for clues that would explain the suicide of her successful photographer father, Eddie Reeves meets the strangely compelling Culler Evans who seems to know a great deal about her father and could hold the key to the mystery surrounding his death.  I reviewed this title.




The Script reminds us we shouldn't Fall for Anything in 2008.




Courtney pointed out Jeremy Fisher's Fall for Anything, too (I hadn't heard this one):



Cruel Summer by Alyson Noel (2008)

Ditching her best friend to become a member of the popular clique in high school, Colby's priorities change after spending the summer on a Greek island and sharing an intense relationship with a local boy. Told through letters, postcards, e-mails, and journal and blog entries.

Much as I want to embed Ace of Base's rendition of this song, I'm resisting. Enjoy Bananarama's 1983 Cruel Summer




It appears that 1994 was quite a rich year for titles, and it looks like 2012 is the year for borrowing titles, too. One of my goals some day is to blog about another interesting song trend that I think is fitting in some way to YA books, and that's the number of songs that are about being 17 or the meaning of being 17.

Hit us with your best YA title sharing its name with a song we can find on YouTube in the comments.




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Saturday, September 22, 2012

Links of Note

Ready for this biweekly edition of Links of Note? It seems like there are lots of interesting and provocative pieces about libraries this go around. Also a lot of great groan-worthy stories!


  • The year is 1937. Do you know the rules of the library? Check out the gallery of images of expected behavior in the reading room from this period in time on Galleycat. I think a lot of these images are actually still relevant -- especially the rules on the left here. 

  • I'm really fascinated by this piece -- how do you make a book disappear completely? Can you? The Atlantic talks about how Jonah Lehrer's Imagine seemingly disappeared, even with all the technology available to us now.  
  • I like this book list of novels in verse by the topics they delve into. I'm stuck on the notion that these are controversial topics -- simply because something is a part of reality, I have a hard time labeling it as controversial -- but the list is pretty darn good and current. 
  • One of the perks of living in a world where anyone can start a book review blog, can post a review on Goodreads or Amazon or B&N, is that we can get a wide range of review styles. But over at The Millions, there's an interesting essay about the anatomy of a book review, and I like the points about how reviewers sometimes need to step back and figure out if it is the book or if it is them personally. Like I said though, the nice thing about online reviews is you can choose which ones you read based on the person writing them if you want.
  • Over at the Christchurch City Libraries blog, there's an interesting recap of a book event that raises the question of whether or not the term YA is creating a barrier for teen readers. I pretty much think this is a big nothing, but it's an interesting read nonetheless.  
    • Hey, is young adult fiction the new chick lit? Good grief, people. Can we move on from labeling everything? Or how about more importantly, this doesn't matter. I shouldn't even link this because it's nothing but bait, but it's just so dumb I can't help myself. 
    • The Huffington Post Books section muses about what your favorite book says about you. I guess if your favorite book is one of the eight they feature, then you can learn a lot. And if not, you pick the closest one. They acknowledge their sweeping generalizations, by the way. 
    • YALSA wants feedback from members AND non-members about how they can be better. Go answer their survey. It was painless.     
    • I took part in a science book club in college, where we read non-fiction titles that had some basis in science/health/medicine, and one of the titles I remember reading and enjoying was The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down. The New York Times reports that Lia Lee, who was the center of the story, has died from her illness. I hope this book gets another update because I want to know more of her story.
    • The articles over at The Atlantic Wire about YA are getting more and more obnoxious. This week's installment was on why adults are reading YA books. I keep linking these and I don't know why. Their YA expert is just not. 
    I'm so excited about this upcoming week, I can hardly stand it. Kid Lit Con is Friday and Saturday, and aside from the presentation (which is coming together so well!), I'm excited to touch base with people I rarely get to see. I've made dates for tea and for gelato, and I am eager to experience New York City outside of Book Expo America. If you're going to Kid Lit Con, I can't wait to meet you, and if you're not -- I'll definitely have a post or two to share with take aways. 




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    Friday, September 21, 2012

    Diverse Energies edited by Tobias S. Buckell and Joe Monti

    The concept behind Diverse Energies, a YA science fiction (mostly dystopian-esque) short story collection from Lee and Low, is admirable: all stories feature a person of color, something often lacking in the SFF world. The result, however, is a bit uneven. While some stories are interesting and well written, some are duds in either the plot or writing aspect (and sometimes both). I find that this is my normal reaction to short story collections on the whole, so it's not unique to this anthology.

    The Highs
    Good Girl by Malinda Lo
    This was my favorite of the stories. It's difficult to squeeze in significant character development in a short story while also keeping the plot interesting, but Lo manages it with aplomb. In her vision of the future, the government rules the everyday lives of normal people, even mandating what job they will work at. They're also obsessed with racial purity, mandating sterilization for anyone who gives birth to a mixed-race baby. Lo's protagonist is one of these children. Her older brother has gone missing, and she travels to the tunnels beneath the city for clues to his whereabouts. There, she finds a group of people who may be willing to help her - or may just want to hurt her. She also uncovers secrets, which I always love in my dystopias.  

    Gods of Dimming Light by Greg van Eekhout
    This story gets major points for creativity. In van Eekhout's future, permanent winter has descended upon the world, bringing with it poverty and starvation. His teenage protagonist, desperate for money and work, answers an advertisement for a paid medical study. Naturally, he gets much more than he bargained for, including a forced fight with an ancient Norse god. The storytelling is terrific and the concept is very cool. (You may all laugh at my pun now.)

    Solitude by Ursula LeGuin
    Buckell and Monti knew what they were doing when they chose to close the anthology with Le Guin's story, which was previously published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in 1994. She puts most of these authors to shame with both writing and concept - but that's not a knock on the other authors, it's simply a testament to Le Guin's skill. She's the master.

    The Lows
    Pattern Recognition by Ken Liu
    Liu has a great concept with his story - poor children who have the ability to recognize patterns in ways that computers can't are taken from their homes and kept as near-slaves, forced to work for a corporation and told the "outside" no longer exists - but it seems to be purposely told out of order, which was an odd choice. The story itself is divided into three sections which I believe skipped around in time some. I'm actually not quite clear, since the jumps aren't explained contextually (at least not thoroughly enough for my liking). The climax of the story is in letter form, which is disappointing - it could have been great as a bit of action, but instead is reduced to telling instead of showing.

    Next Door by Rahul Kanakia
    Parts of Kanakia's story are interesting, but mostly it was too muddled for me to make sense of it. As a result, I got no clear idea of character or meaning. In Kanakia's future, the upper class is so plugged in to their electronics that they don't notice when the lower class move into their homes. Kanakia's protagonist belongs to this lower class, and he's desperate to find a place for his family to live that isn't riddled with bugs. The garage they're currently living in belongs to an upper class family, but this particular family is at least clued-in enough to notice when they try to move in to the main house. So, that's out. What follows is the protag's search for a new home with his boyfriend and a run-in with the upper class family's son, who has goals of his own. I can't explain much beyond that because I didn't quite get it.

    I realize in my reviews of the two previous stories that I may come across as not a very careful reader. I assure you I am, and I assure you I read portions of each of these stories twice in an effort to understand them and ensure I was being fair to them. It's a tricky task to cram a creative, SF concept into a dozen or so pages, and the two authors above just didn't succeed at it. (Insert obligatory ymmv note here.)

    The rest of the stories fell squarely in the middle for me, both in terms of writing and plot. I've yet to read an anthology that satisfied me completely with every story. Moreover, I've yet to read an anthology where I even mildly enjoyed every story, but that's just the nature of anthologies. You read through the mediocre ones to get to the gems, and you hope you're so blown away that it was all worth it. I wouldn't call Diverse Energies a rousing success, but it will definitely appeal to readers interested in SF shorts. The fact that it features a diverse cast of characters is just icing.

    Review copy provided by the publisher. Diverse Energies is available October 1.




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    Thursday, September 20, 2012

    Skinny by Donna Cooner & My Big Fat Manifesto by Susan Vaught

    I wanted to run lengthier reviews of each of these books, but because their themes are overlapping and tackled in such different ways, I thought it was more worthwhile to talk about them together. Both Skinny and My Big Fat Manifesto delve into gastric bypass surgery for teens -- Cooner's title exploring it from the first-hand experience and Vaught's exploring it at a distance. 

    Fifteen year old Ever is fat. Over 300 pounds fat. Everyone knows it. And the reason she is fat is because of losing her mother, combined with the new family acquired through her father's relationship with a new woman (who brought children to the mix). She took up eating for comfort and as a way to grieve the losses and changes in her life.

    It's more than that, though. Ever's struggling with an internal voice named Skinny which constantly reminds her she's fat. That she's not good enough. That she'll never be good enough. It finally reaches a point where Ever can't take it any longer, and she makes the decision to seek out gastric bypass as a means of combating her weight issue. Her dad and step mother are more than supportive of the decision, even if all three of them are worried about what the surgery and future consequences of that surgery may be.

    Post-operation, Ever begins dropping weight immediately. It's not necessarily easy adapting to the new lifestyle, but she's doing what she has to in order to attain the body she's hoped for. And bonus! Now that she's losing weight, she's catching the attention of not only a boy she's always been interested in, but she's also fitting in with the popular kids. They want to make her over, too, and help her become the gorgeous girl she's always wanted to be.

    This is a Cinderella story.

    Skinny did not work for me on many levels. First, there is a problem when as readers, we're asked to simply accept things as they are when those things are the crux of the problem. Ever is fat. She eats because she's grieving. That's just how it is. Except, we never actually see this happen in the story. We're told that she's a chronic over eater and she does so to comfort herself, but we never see it happen. Ever never tells us why she's seeking food for comfort. She never gives us a reason to emotionally invest in her challenge and as readers, we're so far removed from the struggle that there's no reason to buy into it at all. It is what it is and nothing more.

    More troubling, though, was there was no attempt at seeking alternate options for weight loss before the gastric bypass option occurred. There was discussion about things Ever had tried in the past -- dieting, exercising -- but never do readers see this happen. When Ever goes in for a consultation about bypass, there's no discussion about seeing a nutritionist, about getting on a regiment of diet and exercise, of making true lifestyle changes. For all that her family pushed for her to change, there was no action on their part to support a change in lifestyle so that she could change. Instead, it's immediately to surgery. Let's remember that Ever is 15. That's a hell of a solution for someone so young, particularly when the long-term effects of surgery like this aren't clear. And Ever is still in the midst of puberty, too, so her body isn't even fully developed. That the physician and surgeons don't worry about this and neither does anyone else (save Ever's friend who is pretty much a cardboard character throughout anyway) rubs me so wrong as a reader. It suggests this is the solution, rather than a final solution to turn to.

    Cooner's book is full of the stereotypes of fat people that bother me as a reader. Ever is defined as angry -- by other people who see her as that way -- and she's given contradictory messages by friends and family. Her father loves her and wants her to lose weight, but he doesn't actually help her. Her stepsister wants nothing to do with her until she loses weight and post-operation, they're suddenly close. It's when she loses that weight -- when she's almost regaled as a hero for having surgery to rid herself of her fat -- that she becomes human to anyone else around her. When she becomes the hero of the story. When people open up about the horrible stereotypes they had about her fat body defining her. It comes too late for the reader, though, because Ever is nothing but the fat stereotype throughout the story. There's not a payoff in the end when she's thin and well-liked. And even Skinny, that voice in her head, agrees. Skinny reminds her that she's still the same person she was when she was fat. Except now she's not fat.

    Unfortunately, that same person at 185 pounds is just as uninteresting, flat, and frustrating as she was at 300+ pounds. She's still a fat stereotype, albeit dressed better because of her popular friends. And of course -- spoiler -- she "earns" the boyfriend reward.

    Skinny was the most realistic aspect of the story, and I think readers will relate to that voice in their heads. However, the rest of the book fails to deliver. Ever is only ever in this to please everyone else, and the solution is far too easy. There's not depth of character nor is there much story arc. Skinny doesn't get across what it intended too because it relied too hard on social beliefs, rather than on true character motivations and beliefs. It's too easy to accept things here simply because it's what we're told to accept in the world around us. As such, we lose sight of the character and connection readers should make to that character, whatever size she may be.

    While reading Skinny, I was dying to read a book where the fat girl doesn't hate herself. Where she's okay with who she is and how she looks and forget what others think of her. That's when I was directed to Susan Vaught's My Big Fat Manifesto. I'm so glad this book landed in my hands because it was a breath of fresh air.

    Jamie is a fat girl. She's completely fine being that way. So fine, in fact, she chooses to write about her body and her life as a fat girl for the school's newspaper. It's sort of her way of working through her own feelings and a way for other people to understand that the way she looks isn't a reflection of what she is at the core. Jamie is a girl after my own heart.

    However, her life is far from perfect. Jamie is an insecure person, and it's nothing to do with her weight. She's insecure about her future, about what she was to pursue after high school (she wants to get into a tough university which is part of why she's writing the column in the first place), and she's insecure about her relationship with Burke.

    Burke is himself obese, and as a means of trying to combat this in his life, he's choosing to pursue gastric bypass surgery. This, of course, is not something Jamie would want to happen. Jamie is herself secure in her body and she's secure with Burke and his body, too. Except -- this isn't Jamie's choice. It's Burke's alone. And while he pursues this option, she'd finding herself questioning much about what this means for him, what it means for her, and what it means for their relationship in general. Burke's not going to have a Cinderella transformation. He's not doing this to gain popularity or status. He's doing it so he can have a better shot at a healthy future when other means of weight loss have failed him.

    Vaught handles the topic with sensitivity but she doesn't shy away from graphic detail. Bypass surgery is far from pretty, and the consequences of the surgery include a lot of unsavory things. Burke experiences them, and through Jamie, we do, too. It's through these moments where -- despite feeling like she's an expert on body image and body acceptance -- Jamie really does learn what a body means and what the implications of being fat truly are. It's here where she realizes that everyone accepts and rejects certain aspects of what their bodies are personally and that's just what it is: personal. In other words, she can't judge Burke for his decision to pursue surgery. What he chooses to do with his body and how he chooses to lose weight is something that impacts him, and it impacts him on the superficial, exterior level only. The same goes for her body and what she chooses to believe about it. In other words, as much as Jamie is wise in her columns about accepting and loving herself as a fat person, and as much as she preaches tolerance toward those of different shapes, it's not until she's faced with someone close to her not feeling the way she does that she realizes her words carry a hell of a lot more meaning to them.

    My Big Fat Manifesto is empowering. Jamie is a fantastic character who starts the book strong, but ends it even stronger. This is a book about choices and about growth, about understanding and acceptance and tolerance. It's also about love on a very personal level. Jamie is open about how having a fat body doesn't limit her from doing anything, despite what other people think. She talks about things like sex pretty openly -- just because a person is fat doesn't mean they don't have the same physical needs and or experience physical enjoyment the way anyone else may. She pushes back against the stereotypes that books like Skinny too readily embrace. There's an entire passage where Jamie is confronted about being an angry girl because of her column. Jamie's response is that she's not at all angry. That she's simply putting into words truths of her life. She's fat. That's all it is.

    Even though we don't experience gastric bypass first hand in this book through Burke, we do experience it through Jamie and that's enough to give an idea of how huge an issue it is. It's not an easy or light choice. The consequences are far reaching, and it's not simply consequences of how much a person can or cannot eat anymore. Consequences revolve around body acceptance, tolerance, and appropriateness, too. I appreciate how this book doesn't fall into a trap where Burke's decision comes down to how other people view him; he doesn't choose surgery to fit in. Rather, it's about his health and his future. About how he needs to take charge of his life and decisions now, rather than put them off and suffer consequences other people in his life have. It's about Burke's needs and choice. Just like Jamie's body tolerance and her embracing of her fatness are hers.

    Vaught's book and Simmone Howell's Everything Beautiful are two stand outs when it comes to fat acceptance and tolerance. Both books feature girls who are overweight but don't hate themselves because of it. They feature girls who are overweight but don't let other people's judgments change their perceptions of who they are at the heart. Do all books featuring fat people need to have this message? Absolutely not -- it's unrealistic. But there needs to be a balance between offering up stereotypes and conveniences, of showing an easy out and an easy way to be accepted socially, of playing into what society tells us is wrong and gross about one's body with true portrayals of whole, thoughtful, and feeling characters. There needs to be arc to a story and an arc to a character. Not just an arc to a body.  


    Skinny was received from the publisher and will be available October 1. My Big Fat Manifesto was picked up from the library and is available now. 




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    Wednesday, September 19, 2012

    Erasing Time by C. J. Hill

    The concept of Erasing Time is so cool: teenage twins Sheridan and Taylor are taken from the present day into the far future by mistake and must learn how to survive in a world that is very, very different (and dangerous). The people who brought them to the future were intending to bring forward a brilliant (adult) scientist, but instead got the twins, and they're not sure what to do with them now that they have them. There's no possibility of a return trip.

    The story is told mostly from the perspective of Sheridan, who is the more "average" of the twins. Taylor has always been the brilliant twin, the science whiz who graduated high school at an incredibly early age, went on to college, and is now studying for her PhD at age 18. Sheridan is smart, but no matter how smart she is, she feels that she'll always pale in comparison to Taylor, who is also very outgoing.

    The two girls must learn to work together to manage the situation they find themselves in. They have an ally - maybe - in Echo, a boy from the future whose job it is to translate the future English into the past English and vice versa. When the twins discover that the scientists from the future plan to fix their mistake by giving the girls memory washes, they go on the run, with the help of Echo.
    I love reading books about the future in part because it's always interesting to see what one person thinks that future will look like. Hill's future is curious. People live in isolated cities, basically domes, ostensibly for their own safety, and they have no interaction with the outside world. Everyone has an ID chip implanted in their bodies, almost no buildings have actual walls, religion has been outlawed, and our system of government has been completely eliminated. There are different factions within the city, too - such as the dangerous Dakine, who use violence to achieve their goals, and the more benign "Doctor Worshippers," whose name actually means something very different from what it sounds like.

    The government tells citizens that natural plant and animal life no longer exist, and they're nowhere to be found in the city. One of the most amusing parts of the book is when Echo tells the girls that the reason animals are now extinct is because the people in Sheridan and Taylor's time ate them all. (Taylor is quick to point out to Sheridan that complete extinction of non-human animal life is impossible, since it would make human life impossible as well.) Actually, there are a lot of moments where the future culture has interpreted our current culture incorrectly, and it leads to most of the story's laughs.

    The way Hill uses language is interesting. The gap between future English and current English seems to be about the same as the gap between current English and Middle English - gibberish initially, but understandable once you practice at it. To make telling the story simpler, Hill doesn't actually write out what the future English must sound like - she "translates" it for us via Echo, and once the girls learn to understand it, she "translates" it via them too. Hill also uses current English idioms to great effect, as a way for the twins to talk to each other without the future people knowing what they are really saying. I thought the language issue was an interesting touch, and it's a problem I've always wondered about when reading stories set in the far future.

    I think there are a lot of neat ideas in this book, but they aren't executed terribly well. I'm a little unsure why the scientists from the future wanted to bring a scientist from today forward. It's explained in the book, but not in a completely understandable way. I also think a couple of obvious secrets are withheld too long, making their ultimate revelations underwhelming. 

    Mostly, I wanted more of a story. With the whole future world at her disposal, it seems like Hill told a rather pedestrian, small kind of story - Taylor and Sheridan must elude those who are out to get them, with the help of a boy from the future. I suppose I wanted more intrigue and excitement and less talking and pontificating. I wanted to see more of the future world through Sheridan and Taylor's eyes, know more about the Dakine, and so on. Erasing Time ultimately left me unsatisfied. Still, it held my attention and should appeal to fans of time travel stories.

    Review copy provided by the publisher. Erasing Time is available now.




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    Tuesday, September 18, 2012

    Butter by Erin Jade Lange

    No one would deny that Butter is fat.

    He wouldn't argue against it either. Butter knows. He knows, too, that he's an outcast at his school and even with his parents because of that not-so-little number on the scale. It's impossible to be ignored when you're the biggest kid in school, but being fat makes Butter invisible anyway.

    Over the last year, though, Butter has developed a strong relationship with Anna, who is one of the most popular girls at school. Except, she doesn't know it's Butter with whom she's developed this friendship/near romance. Their relationship is all online, and Butter goes by a nickname on the internet so Anna has no idea with whom she's really communicating. It's through the protection of the computer that Butter feels comfortable being himself and opening himself up to her. He has nothing to hide. At least emotionally.

    After a series of events that prove to Butter how little he is to the rest of the student body -- including Anna -- he decides he's going to make a change. See, it's been hard for Butter to fit in and gain acceptance not just because of his size, but because of how he reacted around a group of popular boys in the past who taunted him because of his size. In hopes of retaliation and in hopes of fitting in, he's going to eat himself to death online for everybody to watch.

    But as the day draws closer to when he's to perform his act, everyone wants to know if Butter will really go through with it or not. That's when the real question emerges: what will killing himself prove, if anything? And will it get him the sort of acceptance he wants in those final days or will he be simply making himself a bigger target of torment than he already is? Will it make Anna accept him as Butter or will she continue pretending he isn't the guy she talks to online?

    Erin Jade Lange's debut Butter is one of the best explorations of weight in YA I have ever read. Everything Butter experiences is painful, and he is completely aware of his own problem. Neither the character nor the story exploit the weight issue to make it a Weight Issue; rather, we're allowed to experience humiliation and frustration right along with the main character, and we're forced to see why he chooses to behave in the manner he does. This doesn't excuse it nor does it make it more acceptable -- the entire concept of live casting your death by eating in excess for audience viewing is horrific -- but as readers, we understand the desperation Butter feels in wanting to be accepted for who he is. A fat kid. There aren't cut and dry answers about what weight should or shouldn't be in this story. Rather, we're offered a character who is fat, and that physical attribute of him has become Who He Is, rather than any of his personality or heart.

    The bigger issue undercutting all of the book is that of bullying, including online bullying. Although the bulk of Butter's school experience has been one of mostly being ignored, that wasn't always the case. When he stands up for himself and chooses he to go public with his eating-to-death plan, he's suddenly finding himself gaining attention of the popular crowd. But it's not necessarily because they want to befriend Butter. Rather, they're subtly bullying him by forcing him outside of his comfort zone in a threatening, rather than supportive and encouraging, manner. They're using Butter's fearlessness toward death as their opportunity to get one last jab in at him, even if he's not entirely aware that is the case. Then there's Anna: despite learning the truth about the boy for whom she has fallen hard, she refuses to accept Butter as himself. She's angry that he lied to her and pretended to be someone who he wasn't.

    Of course, he wasn't doing that. At least, he doesn't think that's what he was doing.

    What makes Butter stand out is that there are absolutely no clear cut good and bad sides in the story. While we're sympathetic toward Butter and Anna, as well as even the popular boys and Butter's former best friend Tucker, we can't make solid decisions on whether they're necessarily good characters or not. It's also unclear whether or not they're likable -- as much as I wanted to like Butter, I found myself feeling much more sympathy for him that feeling like he was likable. But that doesn't mean he was entirely unlikeable, either. Lang has created characters who fall into both categories and who make choices that fall into both categories, too. In doing so, the pacing of the story holds up, as does the tension. It's never clear how things will play out because it's never clear whether characters have the guts to go through with their plans. This has a great tempering of emotional highs with emotional lows. And of course it gets to the heart of the story, which is that no one is wholly who they act like and no one can ever truly know the whole of who we are. We all only share so much.

    The knockout aspect of Butter was the voice -- Lang nails it with Butter, and she's not only able to successfully give us a great male narrator, but she does so without coming across as too emotional, despite the meaty topics at hand. Butter's voice reminded me quite a bit of Jace's voice in Swati Avasthi's Split and even though they tackle different topics, this would make an excellent read alike to Avasthi's book. Likewise, I think this book would have appeal to those who read and loved Simmone Howell's Everything Beautiful or maybe even KL Going's Fat Kid Rules the World. This book also reminded me quite a bit of KM Walton's debut Cracked. Butter's voice and experiences are going to resonate with many readers who themselves feel like outcasts or like they're forgotten because of something out of their control. Likewise, the issue of bullying is timely and in particular, online bullying and the notion of online life and reputation are relevant and pertinent. While this book isn't necessarily funny, Butter's voice is thoughtful and the tough topics are handled in a way that won't necessarily leave readers uncomfortable (though it will at times make them feel that way, it is not overwhelming or destructive to the narrative or the characters).

    As much as I thought the characters in the story were well-developed and that the pacing and tension were on, I felt like the book became a bit message-y and heavy-handed at times and particularly at the end. It's not cool to make fun of someone for their physical appearance, and it's not cool to be a bully. It's also not cool to pretend to be who you aren't, and it's not okay to give up everything when you have an opportunity to change it. I felt like some of those message-y aspects could have been pulled back a tiny bit because Butter's voice and the story he lives through would make those things stand much stronger on their own. These didn't ruin his voice or the story itself, but they didn't allow them to shine with the intensity that they could have.

    Lang's writing in the book is great, and I am eager to see where she takes her sophomore novel -- a book which will also tackle the issue of bullying. Butter is available today.

    Review copy received from the publisher.




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    Monday, September 17, 2012

    Cybils 2012


    I'm thrilled to be a Round Two judge in the Graphic Novels category of this year's Cybils awards. Last year, I judged round two in the Young Adult SFF category, so I'm excited to be trying something new this year. I hope to be exposed to more great graphic novels, more great blogs and bloggers, and more great literary discussion!

    While I'm excited to be a part of the Cybils again, I also want to make sure that the books I end up judging are worthy. What I'm getting at is I want YOU to nominate good books for me to read! Submissions open October 1, and I sincerely hope you will ensure that no good title is left out.




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    Weight, Body Image & Body Portrayal in YA Books

    This week, I'm reviewing a few books that tackle a subject that's near and dear to my heart. I thought before delving into those reviews, I'd talk about why these books are tough for me to read and even harder for me to review without bias. I think it's fair to say that when I review a book -- when anyone reviews a book -- there are certain biases that emerge within the review. Certain subjects tend to arouse more feelings or beliefs than others. It would be impossible to be entirely objective in a review. You can get close, but even if you evaluate a book solely on a list of literary standards, your own biases about what makes a standard come into play.

    My touchy subjects are weight and body image. More specifically, the portrayal of characters who aren't thin or of average, non-noteworthy size. In other words, I'm endlessly curious about stories featuring fat or obese characters. If you've spent any time here you know this already, as I've talked about fat girls on book covers and I talked about how annoying it is that bodies are constantly compared to one another in such a way that even thin bodies are somehow improper or less-than worthy of being a body.

    I'm inherently biased against books featuring fat characters because being fat has been a reality of my life since middle school and through high school, college, graduate school, now. Living with a fat body has been my reality. It's been my reality and my existence for as long as I can remember being body-aware.

    Everyone's experience with their own physical body is different. Everyone's bodies are as they are for entirely different reasons, and everyone's level of acceptance of what they look like and how they feel is going to be different. It changes, too: I thought I was huge in high school, thanks in part to what other people would say to me. But when I got to college, I realized I wasn't that big. Until, of course, I gained a lot of weight in college. I'm talking close to 100 pounds over the course of four years -- and why doesn't really matter. The thing is, I didn't feel all that different than I did in high school. I was able to do everything I did in high school physically. I still got out of bed. I could still do the stairs. I could still participate in x, y, and z and not feel like my body was holding me back. Was I happy with how I looked? No. But I was still physically capable of doing everything I wanted to do.

    What left a mark on me was less about my fat and more about what other people thought about fat and then attached to me.  There are a million assumptions about fat people, about how their bodies hold them back and how their bodies are somehow less-than because they are larger. About how because they carry more fat, then they're a part of the problem of the obesity epidemic, of health crises, and so on. About how they're somehow less human because their bodies take up more space. But in my experience, none of these things are true. I'm still as perfectly a valid human as someone who is half or quarter of my size and as perfectly valid as someone who might be three or four or eight times the size of me. Even after shedding a lot of weight and taking better care of myself physically in terms of following a fitness and eating routine, I still consider who I was at my highest weight as essential and important a human as I am now -- and if you're wondering, since likely you are because I think it's part of the human/societal condition at this point to be so, I'm at the smallest I have been since high school right now, even though I probably weigh more than anyone would believe.

    Of course, this is to say that what the scale says means nothing except whatever you believe it says. Do I still find myself excited when I see the number go down? Absolutely. But what matters most to me is how I feel when I get up in the morning and how I'm able to best navigate my world within the body I have. The fat but still absolutely human body.

    When I read a book tackling weight then, I bring my own life experience to the table. I bring all the baggage I've dealt with and all of my experiences living with my body and the experiences of others living with my body. Is it fair? Maybe, maybe not. But often, books tackling overweight teens tend to fall into a number of problematic tropes and stereotypes:

    • Attachment to eating: In so many of the books tackling weight issues -- and I'll say this about both books about overweight teens and books about teens struggling with eating disorders on the other side of the spectrum -- is that food and consumption are inextricably linked to emotion and comfort. Does this happen in real life? Absolutely. We go out and eat to celebrate good news, and sometimes we dive into certain foods for comfort when we're sad or depressed or anxious. But what many of these books do is continuously attach meaning to eating. The fat character can't cope with loss or grief or any other big deal issue, their only solution is to eat. There's not an actual, genuine emotion to ground the reader to the character or to allow the reader to empathize with the character and their situation. Instead, readers are told that the character is just eating again to make themselves feel better about whatever the issue at hand is. The association is that the character is weak and that their bodies are fat because they're too weak to tackle the issue at hand. They turn to comfort, and then they wear that comfort through their fatness. This feels like cheating to me -- it's too simplistic and far too dehumanizing in terms of explaining why someone is fat. It's lazy character development and relies upon societal stereotypes of what does and doesn't make someone fat. Readers are given the explanation they're given everywhere else, furthering the stereotype and further suggesting the connection between a problem and a fat body. 
    • Choice vs. legitimate issue: Many times, the fat character is fat because, well, she or he chose to be that way. The food for comfort issue above plays into it a bit, but more than that, stories about the fat character tend to make the reader assume that said character could be different -- could be thin or of an average size -- if they were better/smarter/less lazy/any other quality that is within their own control. In other words, it's their own fault they're fat so suck it up and deal. That's far too simplistic and again, it's exactly what society says about fat people, isn't it? That change is entirely within their control and the only reason they aren't slim is because they're lazy? The truth is, though, fat people are fat for any number of reasons: genetics, health concerns, and their environment, among other things. Sometimes, very active, athletic people are fat. Sometimes, they're more fit than thin people, too. Fat isn't always about choice. Even if there is choice involved in how one's body appears, making a commitment to change, to start working out or eating "right" or any number of other choices meant to make a fat body less fat doesn't promise the end of fat. That we continue to suggest it's a choice is harmful and ignorant.
    • Changing for someone/something else: I don't think it's unreasonable or unbelievable that sometimes what spurs a person to change their life is someone or something else. Especially teens. Peer pressure and the desire to fit in are cornerstones of teen development. And here is where my adult sensibilities kick in -- it is problematic to me when weight loss, when getting rid of fatness, is the means for a character to suddenly become accepted. When fatness is portrayed as the stumbling block in making a character one worthy of being accepted, of being loved, of capturing the attention of the cute boy or the popular clique. Does it happen in real life? I'd be naive to say no; I also think I'd be naive in suggesting that a book tackling fat issues make itself a happy story where everyone learns to accept one another in whatever shape or size they are. Here's the thing though. At what point are these books simply playing upon social expectations? It's the Cinderella scenario. As soon as the fat character overcomes their fatness and becomes what society wants them to be -- thin and attractive -- they're suddenly going to be accepted and loved. Fat is bad. It's ugly. And often in these books, it is the only reason someone can't get the stud or fit in with a certain crowd. Here's the truth: the only way you can change and sustain change is through making the commitment to yourself. You have to first accept who you are at that very basic level before you can decide to change. Choosing to change to fit other people's molds isn't just unhealthy; it's unrealistic. In real life, when you lose a significant part of your fatness, it doesn't make people like you more. It doesn't get you the star football player. And if it DOES do those things, then that says more about those people than it does about you. So that many of these books showcase weight loss as a means to solve your social problems is in and of itself troubling. 
    • Lack of support: Going along with the changing for other people issue is that in so many of these books, fat characters lack support systems. Even their families lack empathy for their fat compatriots. Mom or dad or brother or sister constantly nag upon the fat character to get on a diet, to lose weight, to make themselves better. Often the characters are portrayed as loners or as people who don't have many friends to whom they can turn. Or if they do have friends, those friends are either struggling with fatness themselves or aren't true friends. They're of the hot and cold variety. It's never about who the person is on the inside. It's about what they look like on the outside. Even if it's explained as coming from a place of concern and love on the part of the family member of friend, it's still troubling that these fat characters aren't accepted wholly for who they are until they lose weight.  
    • Fat fear stereotyping: This one's mileage varies, so understand this is entirely my personal peeve, though I am probably not isolated in this feeling. Many times books tackling fat characters play into horrific stereotypes of what it means to exist in a fat body. What that experience must be like. For starters -- and this particular scenario emerges repeatedly in these books -- there's the character's fear of not fitting into a seat or of a chair breaking beneath them. Is this a legitimate concern? I think so. Except, it's also not a part of one's existence with a fat body at every waking moment. If it were, fat people wouldn't leave their homes. Wouldn't go to school. Wouldn't get on an airplane (where fat people are regularly discriminated against anyway). In other words, a lot of times these books look into the experience of fat with speculation and almost a perverse sense of power in terms of a character's capabilities or lack thereof. These characters live a daily life of fear, to the point it can paralyze them. Fatness is to be feared because by being fat, you might embarrass yourself if you try to sit on the locker room bench. Or in the classroom chair. Or hell, that a fat body can't participate in physical education class because there's no way someone who weighs 300 pounds could ever get through 30 minutes of activity. 
    • Non-acceptance of self: The most troubling issue for me in these books, though, is that a character who is fat rarely gets the opportunity to accept themselves as they are. Because of all the issues outlined above, they're already pinned down AS the fat character and AS the fat character, they're somehow less-than-human. They lack feelings, they lack drive and ambition for non-body related goals, they lack friends and family, and they lack self-care. If adolescence is about growing up and learning about yourself, who you are, and what you're capable of, that should translate into your physical experience, too. I mean, it already does with puberty. I don't quite understand then why these books insist that being fat isn't okay. That it's something needing to be changed. I think it goes back to what I've repeated over and over: social norms. Social beliefs about what it means to have and live inside a fat body. Because a fat body is somehow less able to do the things a normal or thin body is. Because a fat body represents what's wrong with everything in society. Because a fat body represents something to someone who isn't existing within the body that they are judging. 

    I feel like we've come leaps and bounds in terms of accepting people in our world for their lifestyle choices. By no way are we perfect nor do I think we will ever be, but we are far more willing to look at people who are LGBTQ or who are choosing non-traditional means of careers or education or who have maybe become pregnant at a bad time and need to make life-altering choices impacting themselves and that child and accept the choices they make. These are, of course, a small number of examples. But when it comes to choosing to accept fatness, we continue to drown in these stereotypes. I can count on one hand the books that work against one or all of the problems above, and that makes me sad and frustrated. Aside from being that teen -- and now being that adult -- I know scads of kids who are exposed to these beliefs and it damages them early on. It tells them they'll never be good enough. It tells them that their bodies are wrong, are disgusting, are less than capable and that translates into them thinking they aren't worthy of love or acceptance, either.

    We're much more than our bodies, but we exist within a physical shape for our entire lives. We can choose to accept them or we can choose to change them, but that choice is entirely personal. It's disheartening when stories of triumph and of change are instead muddied with simplistic renderings of what it means to be a person.

    So over the next few days, I've scheduled reviews of a few books touching on what it is like to be a fat kid. Some are better than others and some DO absolutely force a character to change -- for themselves. What I've been trying to point out is that sometimes the story is just that, about a fat character who needs or wants to change themselves. But too often, it comes at the price of falling into easy-to-use stereotypes, easy-to-buy scenarios that devalue the character and their journey to that point. Because even if their fatness is the point of the story, they are so much more than what their bodies look like. 

    If you've read a book where you think an overweight character has been particularly well rendered, I'd love to hear the title. I've got a small list, and I've read a handful, but I feel this is an area worth shining more light into. We offer books about the dangers and truths of eating disorders. Why is it we can't offer that sort of array of fiction to those who are fat without falling into a problematic trope? 

    (I'm not the only person thinking about this lately. Funny enough, this is a post I've been working on for a month or so now, and in that space, this is a topic that popped up over at Teen Librarian's Toolbox, and it's well worth reading. Please also read the fantastic blog post by Rae Carson about weight and what it means to have extra weight as a woman. It's one of those pieces I return to again and again.) 




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