Thursday, January 31, 2013

Dissatisfaction Breeds Success

I'm still thinking about Julie's post about gender, recognition, and other tricky issues. I am thinking of it now in light of Val Forrestal's brave post about how she was almost named a Library Journal Mover & Shaker.

Last night I read this post, also over at Library Journal, about enduring recognition, which seems like it's a commentary on everything in Julie's post and those posts which then were inspired by hers, but it doesn't have any sort of attribution or crediting. The LJ post linked to a piece over at the New York Times about the secret ingredient to success that I'm not entirely sold on but have appreciated thinking about quite a bit.

Over the last few weeks, these posts have continued to pop up, and people have written their own responses, especially to Julie's thoughts. Read the comments on her post to get a sense of what people are walking away with. More than that, look at how she's being responded to.

What I've pulled away from this entire discussion of recognition and of gender in a grander sense is that many people are uncomfortable with dissatisfaction. Dissatisfaction sounds like sour grapes, like you'll never be happy until you get what it is you want. And while it's true that dissatisfaction is about not being satisfied (until you get what you want), it's not about sour grapes at all, especially in terms of this discussion.

Rather, it's composed of a couple of things: it's expression of a desire for things to change, whether from the inside or from the outside, and through that desire for change, dissatisfaction breeds motivation.

The responses to Julie's post have fascinated me because many of them have been bits of wisdom and advice from those in the field with more experience or who have had success in achieving their own goals. There's an entire comment to her post about how to structure a web presence for maximum visibility and how to then leverage that to achieve more recognition.

That's not what is at the heart of her post, nor is it at the heart of the larger discussion. I think people are not okay with someone expressing dissatisfaction.

People are not okay with a woman expressing dissatisfaction and doing so without apology. Maybe a large part of this has to do with the fact women are told to be nice, and because, well, it's always been a man's world so ladies should man up and deal. Women already are told they can't dress how they want to because they're inviting certain things by the mere act of dressing a certain way. So, to express dissatisfaction in the work place is to further push back against the norms of what is and isn't okay within this gendered sphere.

It's through those sorts of responses -- the "just do it this way" or other pieces of advice born out of a genuine place for wanting to help someone -- that I see this discomfort with another's dissatisfaction. It's not that the responses aren't from a place of kindness or from a place of truly wanting to help someone else. I do think many of them are. But lost in that is the fact that sometimes it's simply okay to be unhappy. 

Seeing that this is a discussion that's permeated social media for weeks now, it's clear that there isn't just one person or two people who are dissatisfied with how things are in the field of librarianship. Of course it's not just librarianship, either: this discussion is relevant to so many fields and interests: reading, blogging, writing . . . whatever the arena, if people are at the heart of the work, then there are going to be feelings and thoughts involved.

What's at the center of all of this and what is being overlooked in light of talking about things like better tailoring a resume or choosing another path on which to go is that these posts are discussing larger, more problematic issues in the system as a whole. Why does there need to be help through the holes? Or rather, why is it people continue to give tips and tricks for getting through the system rather than stepping back and considering that maybe the greater system is itself broken? Why is dissatisfaction and frustration, especially when expressed thoughtfully and without malice, so uncomfortable to read and think about?

We want things to go smoothly, we want to achieve each of our own goals on our own terms and through our own merits. We also want everyone to be happy and we want everyone to have a chance to achieve what it is that they set out to achieve. But it's impossible. There will always be people left out and there will always be ways of improving an organization or a system or an institution. It's by having these very uncomfortable and very open discussions through which change can occur.

There's nothing wrong with saying that the system is wrong, that it wronged me personally, and that maybe it's time to reevaluate the whole of it. These discussions aren't actually about the individual writing them. They're about a grander problem that needs to be discussed, dismantled, and changed from the inside by those who have a stake in it.

Dissatisfaction and frustration aren't things that require any sort of apology. It's when you're unapologetic in what it is you want and what it is you think should be different that you can be instrumental in getting the ball rolling. Being critical isn't ever wrong. It's being critical. Being a voice for change, you're being an advocate for not only yourself and your goals, but you're being an advocate for making the goals and dreams of other people in similar situations achievable, too.

Thinking about Bell's LJ post and in the NYT piece he points to, it sure sounds like the way to success is through changing your own goals. But I disagree completely -- why is it when a bigger system is broken that it is the individual who has to suck it up and change what it is she wants?

Unsolicited advice and suggestions are ways of quelling dissatisfaction. And when we quell dissatisfaction or allow others to do it for us, we allow the system NOT to change. We inadvertently validate the system itself and the ways others have identified as "getting through." "Getting through" is not the same as changing the system. Learning the tricks doesn't allow for thorough examination of the grander problems at hand. Rather, they allow the system to continue running as it has.

If you are dissatisfied, it's because you're thinking. You're considering the means of how to get from the point you're at to the point you want to be. Expressing dissatisfaction is okay and it never requires apology. Sometimes it's not about a solution or a helpful list of methods to try to make things happen. Sometimes, it's simply through dissatisfaction the motivation to change emerges.

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Fox Forever by Mary E. Pearson

The events of Fox Forever follow closely on the heels of The Fox Inheritance. Having accepted a Favor from the Network, the resistance group working to combat the corruption and rights infringements in the future world Locke has found himself in, Locke must now return the Favor - and it won't be one of his choosing.

The Network sends him undercover into the home of a high-ranking government official, a man who has ties to a long-missing, presumed dead member of the Network (and not the pleasant, friendly kind of ties). His means of entry: the official's seventeen year old daughter Raine. As Locke befriends Raine, and then begins to romance her, he discovers a web of secrets, lies, and conspiracies. 

This is my kind of book (I'm sure this surprises no one). Pearson has continued her series begun with The Adoration of Jenna Fox admirably, and this is a worthy conclusion. She's succeeded partly because she's kept Jenna's story in the background for the sequels, allowing Locke's story to be informed, but not ruled, by it. I find that this technique is successful for many authors (Marissa Meyer is a good example); it keeps the stories fresh while still giving the reader something of the familiar.

All of the elements that made the previous books so good are here too: fast pace, interesting world-building, complex thematic ideas about humanity and morality. But this is actually a much larger story than Inheritance, which mainly focused on Kara's and Locke's struggles to come to terms with their long imprisonment, subsequent release, and possible non-humanness. The final volume tackles these ideas, but it's much more focused on the incipient revolution, which was ancillary in the second book. And the events that occur have far-reaching and long-lasting consequences for many, many people.

Some years ago, I had a conversation with someone who told me they rarely, if ever, read epilogues. I was so shocked at learning this, and even more shocked when I learned it was hardly a rare condition (and yes, not reading epilogues is a condition). Let me tell you all now, if you read this book, you must read its epilogue. Yes, the main events of the book are resolved without it, but the epilogue brings all three books together and provides a proper ending, a fitting and moving one. This may be a complete book without the epilogue, but the series is not a complete series without it.

Review copy provided by the publisher. Fox Forever will be published March 19.

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Wednesday, January 30, 2013

ALA Midwinter in Seattle: A Recap

This last week's trip to Seattle for ALA Midwinter was my third trip to Seattle and solidified for me that Seattle is an excellent place for a conference. Also, Seattle has some of the best food around, is easy to navigate, and I think it's affordable. The photo above is from Pike's Market at the fish throwing place -- they welcomed the librarians with not only this, but one of the throwers stopped me and told me all about how much he knew about librarians (he knew there were tech people, archivists, school librarians, public librarians, and so forth).

I can't think of a cohesive way to sort of talk about what happened at Midwinter, so here's a day by day look at the excitement of sitting in meetings, of eating good food, and of celebrating good books and friends.


After making it to Seattle on a very long flight, I took the afternoon to just veg in the hotel room. Liz, Sophie, and I had made plans to go to a tea shop and do a tasting, but Sophie's flight was delayed and Liz felt similarly to me when she got in and just wanted to relax. We did that until we got a call from Jackie to join her and Colleen for dinner up near Jackie's house. After seeing her adorable new house, we went to The Bottlehouse for a dinner of cheese, cheese, and a lot more cheese. And everything was delicious. To go along with cheese, Liz and I split a red wine flight, and then we each enjoyed a dessert. I picked a trio of small cheesecakes:


The first real day of conference began with a long chat between my roommates and myself about issues in librarianship and with gender -- a lot of the things that Julie expressed in her blog post got us thinking about things we want to do in our own careers/lives. After that brainstorming, we made our way over to registration at the convention center bright and early.

After registration, we once again met up with Jackie and Colleen, and this time we took a hike up the hill to have lunch at a burger place that everyone was excited about (they had a veggie burger option for those of you playing along at home knowing I don't do beef). We not only each had a burger, but we ended up enjoying french fries with milkshake to dip them in. And it was absolutely delightful.

My first committee meetings were on Friday from 1 until 5:30 pm. As admin on the Alex committee, I really didn't contribute much to the meeting, and in fact, the first day I had nothing I could really do, so my chair kindly let me leave early. It's tough to be in a committee meeting where the committee is talking about the books in depth and you can't say a word because you're not actually a member of it. But what I can say is I absolutely loved seeing the process on the inside -- this meeting involved nothing more than talking about half of the committee's nominated titles. They'd discuss merits, the appeal of the book, and all of the other elements that made them nominate it in the first place. I felt like in hearing a lot of their discussions, I added a bunch of titles to my own to-read list that weren't ones that caught my eye when they showed up here through the last year.

I snuck out early to meet Liz, Colleen, Sophie, and Jackie for the opening night of the exhibits, and in the process, I ran into Lenore. I'm not going to lie: I was anxious about how the exhibits would be, especially on opening night. They're always a bit of a madhouse then, since it's about the only time everyone is free TO go, but I worried about other things to. Fortunately, even though it was busy, it felt sane, too. Lenore and I wandered around together, and then I decided to cut out after about 20 minutes. I think I picked up maybe 7 ARCs, and I asked about another one and was told it would be out Sunday (which made me then arrange to have Lenore pick it up for me since I'd be in committee meetings in the morning then, too).

There was indeed a dinner planned after exhibits, and the same group of us who'd gone out for lunch went out for Vietnamese food at Long. I didn't have a lot of time before the YA Blogger meetup, and when the waiter knew about this, he did an amazing job getting my drink and meal out to me very quickly. I enjoyed a chicken satay and a fizzy rum drink of some variety before wandering down to the hotel for the meetup.

The blogger meetup was GREAT -- I know people came and went, but all told, I think we had an easy 40 people over the course of the night, if not more. I'm really not great at mingling (to the point someone even came over and gave me grief about it . . . even though she didn't even know who I was) but I was thrilled to finally meet Flannery of The Readventurer -- we are pretty sure we've met before through a mutual friend we have, but it was nice to spend the evening chatting about books. There were a few other people I was finally able to put a face to who I knew through blogging or Twitter and overall, it was a nice, low-key event, with a mix of bloggers and authors.


Saturday morning began really freaking early with a breakfast preview for Little, Brown. I love these previews because they not only give a good idea of what's coming up in the next season (and beyond), but also because they always bring a guest to talk. This time it was Darren Shan. I've never read any of Shan's books, but since I began working in libraries, he's been a huge favorite of teens. Hearing about his series was fun, hearing about the horror movies that inspired him was fun, and he had a delightful accent.

After the preview, I wandered the exhibits briefly with Katie. And by briefly, I mean maybe 10 minutes. I asked again about the book I was curious about at one of the publisher's booths, and was told again, Sunday morning it'd be out. I ended up going back to my room and picking up my computer and a few other items before heading to another hotel a few blocks away for a Simon & Schuster Luncheon featuring . . . Lenore! Can I tell you how neat it is when a person you're friends with is the guest of honor? The only downside to the luncheon was that because it ran from noon until 2, and I had a committee meeting beginning at 1, I could only stay for about 30 minutes. But I got to eat and hear Lenore speak, which made it great.

The committee meeting on Saturday was even longer than the one on Friday, running for five hours. Like the meeting on Friday, it began with a discussion of all the remaining nominated books. But this time, when the session came into the final half an hour, I got to do the big and important role of tallying up the straw poll results. Everyone on the committee voted on their top ten books for the Alex, and I counted up and figured out what were the titles -- at that point -- which were the ten favorites. When that was calculated and shared, the committee members went home to think about the titles that didn't make it so they could make last minute pitches for our meeting on Sunday, if necessary. I tried to tweet a little bit from the committee meeting on Saturday because I was so impressed with how impassioned people became when talking about their favorite books. Not only were committee members using appropriate vulgarity when necessary, but one committee member came near tears in defending her book. If anyone ever dares question the process behind these awards or selection lists, it's a slap in the face for how hard these people work and how much they've invested in really thinking about, discussing, and fighting for books that represent The Best in whatever arena they're looking at.

I had plans to attend a dinner with Little Brown on Saturday night, but after getting up early and spending a long time inside, in a small room in committee, I ended up going back to my room and . . . crashing. Hard. I was trying to do some catch up on email but literally fell asleep in the middle of doing that. I knew going out was not going to happen, so I ended up just laying low for the evening. The conference wall of exhaustion hit and hard.


Like Saturday, Sunday began with an early morning breakfast. This time, I met with Victoria and Liz for a calm breakfast in our hotel diner. I can't even express how delicious that spinach/bacon/avocado omelet was. Between that and loading up on high-caffeine tea (they brought me a basket to choose my poison from), I was feeling pretty ready for the day, which began with another round of committee meetings.

So this round of meetings was where I got to play a bigger role! This time I got to count things again, and then my chair was nice enough to let me get a little power hungry on some other things. The meetings began with everyone making last-ditch pitches for the books they wanted to see on the top 10 list, and then they took one final poll. It was my job to do the counting and tallying of this final poll -- these would be the books that would make the final Alex list. As I tallied, I had a little problem: the final results came up with 11 titles. There was a tie. When everyone came back into the conference room, I had to break the news that they now needed to hear 11 titles and come up with one from their lists to eliminate. When that was done, I tallied again, and this time we had a solid 10 Alex titles. You can read that list here.

But it wasn't over for committee work yet! Once that list was made, the committee had to write annotations for each of the titles. And even when that was done? They had more work. The Alex awards also involves a vetted list of nominated titles that the committee members feel fit the criteria of the Alex but weren't quite top 10 titles. This is where I got to have my power: I read the titles and told them it was simple majority. The votes happened pretty quick and the vetted list ended up with a little over 20 titles on it. But it wasn't over then, either. They still had to go through and write annotations for those titles as well. As of writing this post, the list isn't up on YALSA's website, but it should be shortly.

As a thank you for my work, the chair gave me this really freaking awesome necklace.

Because the committee meeting ran super late this time around, I didn't get a chance to eat lunch before meeting Lenore over at the exhibits again. She said she'd pick up the one ARC I was looking for from the publisher who'd assured me it'd be out Sunday. But . . . it wasn't. Because the publisher actually put the books out on Saturday afternoon, as I was told somewhat rudely by the booth person. I was a little disappointed about this, especially since I was informed twice it would be out Sunday and I made arrangements to have someone pick it up for me since I was in meetings and unable to do it myself. I left disappointed, especially as I felt like the booth person was not kind about the manner.

After Lenore and I met up, we wandered over to my favorite thing about ALA: the teen feedback session at the Best Fiction for Young Adults committee meeting. These teens are brutal and honest and I love every second of it. It's proof that teens do like a wide variety of books and that even among the different teens, titles can be hits or misses. I do think my favorite part of the entire BFYA session, though, was getting to go tell one of the teens that the author was so thankful for what she had said (I'd tweeted it and the author responded to me). The look on that teen's face and her accompanying "IS SHE HERE RIGHT NOW?" were awesome.

Since I'd missed a real lunch, Lenore and I grabbed a slice of pizza in the convention center following the teen session and had our goodbye, since she was flying home early the next morning. But fortunately for me, it isn't a long goodbye since she's going to be doing a program for my teens at my library in the spring (how lucky are they?).

I went back to my hotel to relax after a super long day, but rather than do that as planned, I went out with Jackie and Sophie to Cupcake Royale. I'm not a cake or cupcake person, but they had the most delicious ice cream sandwiches. . . that I decided I couldn't choose just one kind to try. I got myself a red velvet and a pumpkin cardamom one, and both were delicious.

It was an early night because of the Youth Media Awards in the morning, but Sophie and I spent a good chunk of our Sunday night discussing late 90s/early 2000s rap artists and critiquing the music videos from such legends.


You want to know what the best thing about being a part of an awards committee is? Reserved seating at the Youth Media Awards (YMAs). I got to sit front and center for the announcements. The picture on the right here gives you an idea of what 1/3 of the crowd looks like.

Of course, the energy in the awards room is crazy, and everyone's nervous/excited/apprehensive about what books will walk away winners. I love the YMAs but they do stress me out just a little bit. It's less from the perspective of what won and more from the perspective of, as soon as an announcement is made about an award, there is a flurry of "but WHY didn't THIS book get picked?" rather than allowing for the celebration and surprise (the why can come later, privately). I think this is something that really came to me a lot as I sat in and watched a committee make their choices. I can't articulate it as well as Marge can, so do go read her post.

There were celebrations. There were surprises. But that's how it goes. The best part of the awards is what comes after: when you go out with your friends and talk about them privately, away from the event itself. I went with a handful of people to Pikes Market to enjoy tea and a crumpet and to chat awards. After our chatter, I wandered around the Market with Jackie and Sophie.

Gorgeous fruits and vegetables

House blend tea, along with a lemon curd and ricotta crumpet

We then finally got around to the tea shop, where the owner was able to give us a bunch of amazing tea tastings. I've never done anything like this before, and it was such a fun experience. I ended up bringing home a bag of Lichee tea, which might be one of my all-time favorite teas.

Once tea tasting was over, I wandered back to my hotel to drop off some stuff, and then I met with a friend I do some work for at the convention center. We were doing lunch plans, and we ended up actually coming back to the Market and eating so much food. We enjoyed grilled cheese and mac and cheese at the cheese store, Russian pastries, a sit down meal at a restaurant overlooking the water (wherein I had a delicious risotto with squash and zucchini), and then we went to the crumpet shop where, yes, I had another crumpet and cup of tea. It was fantastic.

So now stuffed to the gills on delicious lunch, I thought I'd be done. Done. Done. But no. Because I couldn't stop enjoying how great Seattle was and how great the company was and how damn good the food was, I went out for one more dinner, this time at Tango, a tapas place. It was a great crew, including Jackie, Liz, Barry Goldblatt, and Sara Ryan. It involved a couple bottles of red wine, dinner I didn't eat because I was full, and then my insistence on eating dessert (which was delicious, as seen to the left). A laugh or two may have happened.

I think without much doubt. this year's ALA Midwinter was my favorite event so far. It was also so different from other ones I've been to because of how much time was spent in committee meetings. I think in total I spent maybe 45 minutes in the exhibits, and I got to do very little for myself, aside from the meals out with friends. And it was that time I really enjoyed because these are people I talk to all the time but only get to see once or twice a year. It's the in-person stuff where real ideas are spun and discussed in a way that's not quite the same via the internet.

I'm eager to see what Chicago has to offer this summer.

Some other things. . .

* Because I was unable to visit the exhibits for any length of time, there won't be any sort of rundown of what's coming out. But I am really excited to have had Lenore pick up both of Algonquin Young Readers first titles for their teen line for me. I wish I'd had a second to talk with them but it happens.

* The book I'm most excited about that I did get to pick up was the third and final book in Geoff Herbach's Stupid Fast series, titled I'm with Stupid. The second most exciting book I picked up was Bill Konigsberg's sophomore novel Openly Straight. I LOVED his first book so I'm eager to see where this goes.

* I thought it was pretty interesting that Amazon Publishing had a way better booth placement than Little Brown did. We're talking entrance to exhibits row and can-hardly-find-it-because-it-was-shoved-in-a-corner row.

* It is AMAZING the amount I learned about committee work not just from being an admin, but also from hearing the stories of my friends who were also on committees. With that, I have really come to respect the process and have not come to judge what I may have in the past perceived as odd ball choices or left field choices on any award list. Likewise, the way that people have reacted to certain awards and certain books either being present or not present has made me a little indignant on behalf of those hardworking committees. No book DESERVES anything on principle, and those committee members are reading like mad and reading with a very critical eye.

* I learned a couple interesting things about a couple of the awards I did not know beforehand. First, the Batchelder Award, which is for best translations of a novel into English, ONLY takes into account books that are published for the under age 14 market. I thought that Antonia Michaelis's The Storyteller would have no problem garnering this honor, but when I learned this fact, it made sense why the book did not. Second: the Stonewall Award is for books published between October 1 and September 30 of a given year -- that means this year's awards honored books published between October 1, 2011 and September 30, 2012. That means certain books that seemed to have been "shut out" or "overlooked" for this award were not, in fact, overlooked or shut out. They weren't eligible yet.

* YALSA has decided to sunset both the Reader's Choice Award and the Fab Film Committee. They're also going to revisit the award/selection list being behind a login issue in March.

* Also, the best thing I purchased and packed for this trip is something everyone at the BFYA session was envious of: my backup battery charger. Here's the one I bought, for those of you who want one for yourself.

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Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Unremembered by Jessica Brody

A plane crashes in the middle of the ocean, and a sixteen year old girl is the only survivor. She could tell everyone what happened - if she remembered it. Not only does she not know how she ended up floating in the ocean, she can't remember her family, her friends, or her own name. And she seems to have abilities that no one else does - like being able to understand and speak all languages without even knowing it.

Called Violet by the hospital staff due to the unusual color of her eyes, the girl also discovers that many of the everyday objects others can identify with ease - a television, a car - are foreign to her. And then a boy arrives, who claims he knows her - her name, her past, and the way to restore her memories. He tells her they were in love, and he tells her she is in danger.

Unremembered was a really odd read for me. It has so many elements that I generally love in a book (*SPOILERS* time travel, secrets, futuristic technology *END SPOILERS*), but it never felt as thrilling as it should have. 

I think most of that is due to the pretty pedestrian writing, which tells the story but doesn't go much beyond that. For example, I knew that Violet was confused and didn't recognize her surroundings, but I didn't feel it. I contrast this with Tucker in The Obsidian Blade, who was presented with confusing event after confusing event and I felt that confusion right along with him.

While I didn't necessarily guess the big twist in Unremembered, it didn't exactly take me by surprise either. Which is a shame, because it featured a plot element I normally love (see above). I just couldn't get behind it here. Other elements in the book felt a bit thin, too: characterization wasn't as great as I wanted it to be, and the world-building in particular felt lacking. 

Unremembered feels very much like a book-of-the-moment. It reads like all the other light (very, very light) sci fi YA books out there now (like Erasing Time or Eve and Adam), doesn't offer anything new, and doesn't distinguish itself in any other aspect such as writing or world-building, where it could have redeemed itself. It's not bad, but it's not great, either. This is not to say it won't find its fans among those who have read others of its ilk and simply want more of the same, but ultimately, Unremembered will go unremembered.

(Please accept my sincerest apologies for the pun. My fingers forced me to type it.)

Review copy provided by the publisher. Unremembered will be published March 5.

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Monday, January 28, 2013

Just One Day by Gayle Forman

As Allyson's time on her trip through Europe comes to an end, she and her long-time best friend Melanie decide to go off-course. Instead of attending the play they're supposed to as part of the tour, they see a street performance of Twelfth Night. It's there where Allyson first sees Willem. It's there where Allyson decides she needs to do something more in her last days of the tour.

It's there where Willem convinces Allyson to join him for one day through Paris.

Allyson, who always sticks to the rules, decides to do it. And the trip is magical. It's imperfect -- her and Willem have an argument, she gets injured from a stranger -- but it sets her heart on fire with possibility. When Allyson wakes up the morning after this adventure and Willem is gone, Allyson's crushed. But she trudges on back to meet Melanie after a teary phone call with the trip coordinator (who helps her navigate Paris since Allyson doesn't speak the language) and then, she's back to America and back to begin her first year at college in Boston.

Just One Day follows Allyson as she adjusts to college life. But it's not her college life. It's the one her mother created for her, and it's the one she dutifully follows. Allyson's not happy, though. She misses Willem. She wants to know what happens. When she gets to chance to see Melanie again -- who is going to college in Manhattan -- Allyson feels so out of sorts. Melanie keeps changing and Allyson, well, she feels like she's in the same place.

That first semester of college is anything but great. Allyson doesn't get good grades, she's unhappy, and yes, there is a lot of moping around on her part. It's when she's called into the guidance counselor's office prior to second semester -- after a disastrous few days with her mom and dad -- that she decides to drop her pre-med track. She takes a risk, and it ends up paying off quite a bit for her.

Although the change is anything but easy, Allyson finds passion. And she knows that she needs to go back to Paris and look for Willem again.

Gayle Forman's new novel is, of course, superbly written. The sights, the sounds, and the tastes come alive through the prose. Likewise, the story itself and what it accomplishes in bringing about the importance of pursuing your passions for yourself and not for someone else -- for taking risks, regardless of the positive or negative outcomes -- is excellent. The thing is, it's not entirely new or fresh, despite the setting. I feel like what this book achieves is what Kirsten Hubbard achieves in her novel Wanderlove and what I feel like Nina LaCour accomplishes in The Disenchantments. That should make it clear this book has a readership, and there will be many fans who fall for the story (and rightly so) and then have additional titles they can then turn to after.

Allyson's character is moody. She's prickly and ornery and I really liked that about her. She's not entirely likable, nor should she be. She's razzed quite a bit by Melanie for being this way, and even Willem gives her a little bit of grief about it. Her roommates in college do the same, and even Dee, the guy she befriends in her Shakespeare class, gives her some thoughts on this. Allyson is just that way, but it's enhanced by the longing she experiences for Willem. To be fair, it took a lot for me to suspend my disbelief that his one day with her could cause an entire year for her to basically be a wash with moping about him -- but Forman's book required this on me as a reader a few times. It wasn't just the longing over the guy from one day, but it was Allyson's all-too-willing agreement to go along with a stranger in the first place (especially since it took her so long to even skip out on watching a performance with her tour group). It was also Allyson's ability to change up her classes at the university without her mother once finding out, until it was too late.

I didn't quite think the characters in this story were consistent. Part of this is because of Allyson: since the story's in her perspective and she's in such a transition in her life, many of those in her life will appear to her as different things at different times. Allyson's mother, though, became problematic. At first, it's clear mom has a big role in who Allyson is. Mom's prescribed a life for Allyson based on her own lost dreams; this isn't speculation, it's actually there in the book. However, knowing how much her mom wanted to keep an eye on her made me question then how it was even possible for Allyson to get away with changing her classes for an entire semester. How she tricked her mom about it when she visited for President's Day. The inconsistency in her mother frustrated me because it was her mother who had had such an impact on Allyson's current life and on her mentality that she simply "couldn't" do what she wanted to do for herself.

My biggest concern came at the end of the book. We know Allyson's moping about losing Willem, and when she makes the choice to go back to Paris and look for him (after, I should add, she takes a job, stands up to her parents, and makes this trip happen for herself), she realizes he's a lost cause. He's been described as a player, and after meeting other people in his life, she's less-than-thrilled with who he is in reality, rather than what she saw of him that one day. Spoiler alert here -- she reunites with Willem at the end of the story. As she's ready to hit the airport and fly home, after she's declared how great it is to be independent and make her own choices for herself and not let anyone stand in her way, after she talks about how she doesn't need Willem anymore because she's happy for herself . . . she hunts him down, knocks on his door, and walks right in. The moment that Allyson shows she has incredible agency, she gives it away. This is not to say that romance cannot win out in a story. It can. The problem is that she'd just learned how he wasn't who she thought he was and she'd just figured out that being on her own was good. So then to give it all up right away? It made me annoyed. Compounding this was the fact in every instance Allyson had to make friends, especially female friends, she throws it away or uses them to find this boy. Wren? A tool. Kelly? A tool. Melanie? Well, she was out of the picture by then anyway. It felt like this solution was too clean and easy. Sure it was the romance, sure it was the chance to start it all again with those feelings, but it was at the expense of the agency she had just fought so hard to earn for herself.

This is a good book, despite the flaws, though be warned there are times the story drags a bit. It's because Allyson's not always the most fun to read about, especially as she becomes weary about never seeing Willem again. But I comment Forman for writing a flawed but realistic character, and a character who is easy to not like. There were numerous times, especially at the beginning of Allyson's college career, where I saw a lot of myself in her and I sympathized for the situation she was in. The pressure pressed upon her by her family and by herself to impress her family was palpable.

Just One Day has great appeal for readers who want a story set abroad, set in college, or a story about a girl struggling to find herself. Again, it will have huge appeal to readers who loved the travel or the plot arc in Hubbard's Wanderlove or LaCour's The Disenchantments. Those who loved Stephanie Perkins's Anna and the French Kiss will eat this one up for not only the setting, but the romantic elements. I'm eager to see where Forman takes this story in the companion, Just One Year. I've got a feeling we'll get Willem's story, which is good since I spent the bulk of the book wondering what was so appealing about him anyway. He's not the kind of guy a reader can easily swoon over. At least, if they're into a romance for more than the fact the love interest is a foreigner.

Just One Day is available now through Penguin/Dutton. Review copy received from the publisher.

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Saturday, January 26, 2013

Links of Note, 1/26/13

While you're reading these interesting links from the last couple of weeks, I'm in the midst of ALA. I'm writing this out beforehand, meaning it's likely I've missed some good reading from the last few days. If you've seen something worthwhile, please feel free to drop a comment and let me know so I can catch up! 
I'm in love with Marc Johns's "Objects Reading Books" drawings.

  • There has been a lot of talk about brick and mortar bookstores in the last couple of weeks. First, it was the discussion about how Barnes and Noble has been quietly closing its doors over the last couple of years (I don't have the exact article, but here's a less well-written one over at the Daily Beast). Then there was an interesting post by Sarah over at YA Librarian Tales about how she doesn't care if book stores close because she doesn't use them. Some of what she says I take issue with because, well, I'm rural, too, and I don't have a bookstore within 50 miles and yet, what I love about the book store experience isn't the immediacy. It's the serendipity of browsing, of discovery, and of the fact I don't need immediate gratification therein. But I hear and get the argument about the ease of ereading and ability to download ebooks when you want them. Here's a nice guide to supporting your local indies through your ereading habits. You can have it both ways. 
  • Sort of going hand in hand with that are the stories of the bookless libraries popping up. First, it was Bexar (pronounced "Bear" for anyone who hasn't spent time in Texas) County declaring their brilliant idea for an all-digital library to reach their county/rural residents. Then it was a school in Philadelphia which is going to whittle their 47,000 some collection down to a mere 1,000 books. Why is no one calling shenanigans on either of these? Come on. The first is the grand idea of a judge -- A JUDGE, not a LIBRARIAN or EDUCATOR with actual experience and knowledge about literacy -- and the second is the grand scheme of an administrator in a library where there is no librarian (she's retired!). Do we not see the problem here? Going bookless is a privilege, and even if the grand idea is access, how does giving access help literacy? It doesn't. It's simply ACCESS. Yes, these get me incredibly riled up because it undermines all of the work people with actual skills and knowledge in this arena have in favor of something that's "sexy" and "cutting edge." We're doing the future huge disservices when we do this. But maybe I shouldn't say "we," because in every instance, it's someone who is not an expert in literacy pushing for this. In light of all these (crazy) stories is the opening of the Antelope Lending Library in Iowa City. Take a step back and just think about these stories in conjunction with one another. Oh, also, this PEW study said that 80% of Americans say borrowing books is a very important service of libraries.
  • Earlier this week, I talked about how critical reviews are a means of reader advocacy. It was sparked when Sarah asked about resources for those interested in writing critical reviews. Sarah's since rounded up her resources in one place -- so if you've ever wondered about writing critical reviews, here's a great place to find some answers (and not just because she links to me).
  • A couple of weeks ago, I started ranting to Liz about the believability factors in YA books -- especially those which aren't realistic. And while obviously fantasy/scifi books have no obligation to be realistic, there are things I wonder about. We then got on to talking about how female leads deal with things like their periods. So then she blogged about this, and the response has been fantastic. Let's talk about that time of the month and books that bring it up when necessary
  • Maggie Stiefvater wrote a blog post this week about the use of rape in books to create a tragic backstory. It's a worthwhile read, but I do take a few issues with it. First, not knowing the books, it's impossible to know whether part of the commentary in the books is that this sort of abuse and violence towards women is sickening and disgusting. Likewise, she points out something about rape being the worst thing that can happen to a woman but not a man (she words it better than I'm paraphrasing) but I think in light of current politics, her comments here actually make me more curious about how the rape is being used in these books because it may in fact be commentary on that very thing. Either way, this is a must-read piece. 
  • Does YA Lit rely on sexist and misogynistic language too much? A thoughtful post over at crunchings and munchings. My thoughts: sometimes -- and I think especially in the case of the McCafferty book discussed -- it's meant to be there AS a discussion point. But maybe I'm a bit privileged knowing that because I've read everything McCafferty's written and get what she's doing with her writing (which isn't to say that this blog post is wrong, but rather, I don't know if that's the strongest example). 
  • One of my all-time favorite library stories is this one: a branch of the NYPL lends out their American Girls doll. As a kid who grew up envious of my friends who had them (we couldn't afford one!), this is the kind of thing I would have loved. And it's so, so nice to see a librarian getting recognition for doing something so simple and yet so community-minded. Huge kudos to her and to the NYT for writing this up. 

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Friday, January 25, 2013

All You Never Wanted by Adele Griffin

Alex and Thea look like they have everything they could possibly need at their disposal. After all, they live in Camelot, thanks to Prince Arthur, their mother's new husband. He oozes money. But money doesn't buy everything and money maybe doesn't buy anything in Adele Griffin's All You Never Wanted.

Alex always had popularity. She was the IT girl. She was the older sister. The one who always succeeded without trying. But now that she's been thrust into this new life with a new step father and money, she doesn't feel happy. In fact, she feels like she's losing a huge grip on reality. Even though she's privileged to have everything handed to her, she doesn't like it. Her father's connections enabled Alex to take on an amazing internship at a well-known magazine. It bores her to some extent, so when she's given a huge opportunity to do something big at the magazine, she's almost excited. She'd, in a way, earned that opportunity herself.

Except -- and this paragraph is spoiler -- Alex ruins it all when she finds herself so nervous and overwhelmed that she pees herself, right there, in front of so many people. It's a mortifying moment to her, and it's a mortifying moment to readers as they realize how horrifying and painful something like that could be for someone, especially a teenager. More than that, though, to Alex this is somehow proof that she doesn't deserve this internship and that indeed, it is only her stepfather's connections that got it for her. Her own body rejects this. It's after this moment when Alex changes significantly as a person. She becomes very removed from her own life, and she instead fixates her control over her own body's functions by not eating.

Thea, on the other hand, is the younger sister. She's always looked up to Alex, and she's always yearned for part of what Alex has had in terms of popularity. So when her mother and stepdad are out of town, Thea wants to throw the biggest, most talked about party in Greenwich and invite everyone she wants to be friends with to it. This will ensure her a place on the popularity ladder, of course, especially because now that she's rich, she's earned it. Thea also has a little bit of a lying habit. Or maybe lying isn't the right word for it. She's a story teller, and she loves the way that embellishing a tale gets her more attention, even if it's not necessarily for the right reasons. Because, see, money. It will solve anything for her if it has to. But in the midst of this, there's also the boy Thea wants. It's not just any boy, though. It happens to be Josh.

And he's Alex's boyfriend.

All You Never Wanted is told through both Alex's perspective and Thea's. But it's not exactly that straightforward, either. Thea's story is told through first person. We know exactly what she's thinking and what her motivations are. In fact, it's pretty clear the entire reason that Thea's story is in first person is because of how much she is dying to be First Person. Alex's perspective in the story, though, is not told the same way Thea's is. Hers is told through a third person limited point of view, so we actually get very little insight into her. It feels as though Alex's story is removed from the reader's mind all together, and this, too, makes perfect sense. With how much Alex is removed from her own life, it is only natural she's also removed from Thea's and from the reader's. This shift in perspective and point of view is jarring to read, and it takes quite a while to sink into the writing because of this, but Griffin is masterful in what she does on a grander level by choosing this style of story telling.

What looks like a story about power and money and sibling rivalry is even deeper than that, though, which is why I think this book has the potential to get some serious attention -- there's a great post over at the Someday My Printz blog to talk a little more in depth about that. This is a relatively short book, clocking in at about 220 pages, but it is packed. And the longer I let this book settle in my mind, the more there is to unravel.

Thea is a thoroughly unlikable character, but that doesn't mean she's not sympathetic. In fact, I think her unlikable factors are what make her sympathetic all together: she wants what she cannot have, and it comes from being the younger sister to a girl who has always had it. The money factor, for Thea, is the key to overcoming this. Except, we know it's not from the outside and Thea herself seems to know this, too, which is why she develops a story telling alter ego named Gia. I don't toss the word around lightly, but Thea is a bit of a pathetic character, and it's obvious to everyone, including herself and the reader.

Alex, on the other hand, despite being so hard to read, is easier to like. Beyond the fact she rejects the privilege and beyond the fact she's carrying this horrifically embarrassing secret as her shame, Alex is a volunteer for a local organization that helps other people get through tough times. It's here she meets Xander, a boy who shows her that she can enjoy herself (and her body) for no other reason than it's what she's allowed to do as a person. As good as Xander is for Alex on that level, he shows her something else, too: that sometimes people are just jerks and that's how it goes. See, Alex has been mentoring someone at the organization whose dream is to become a weatherman. All she wants to do is let this boy meet his hero, the local weatherman. But despite how much Alex tries to get in touch with this guy, he keeps rejecting her. And Alex refuses to pull her connections to make this meeting happen, knowing that those connections left her feeling empty herself. She wants so much to help another person and to make them happy for no other reason than she wants to do it.

I haven't talked much about Josh and his role in the sibling rivalry because for me, it was one of the less interesting elements of the story. Griffin's book is really a study in character, and while he's an impetus for this, there's not really a romantic flavor to the story as a whole. Rather, he's a tool to see how far Thea will go to get what she wants and he's a tool for Alex to realize that there are better people out there who will love her for her and her flaws. I also have talked a whole lot about the ways that Alex and Thea work through their own challenges with one another. That's because, well, it's a sibling story and the way it's resolved is, I think, very smart. One of these girls is driving the car and the other isn't, but it's not necessarily the way it's written down in the book (oh the metaphor of the car and the driver and the five minutes here and afar here are so, so smart).

All You Never Wanted is not necessarily a fast-paced read, despite being short. The changing in perspective and the writing itself are literary markers. But, being literary doesn't detract from how much teen appeal there is in this title. What Griffin does that few seem to be doing anymore is posing this novel around really teen problems. There's nothing huge that happens, nothing superbly earth-shattering. There is a shift in family. There is a gain of status through wealth. But this story isn't necessarily about that. It's about sisters and about popularity and about what it means when you don't feel like you fit in anymore. More than that, the way this book zooms in on a one-time embarrassing moment like Alex's at the internship is absolutely authentic and realistic to the teen experience. This is Alex's biggest shame in her life -- as adults, we look at something like this and think shake it off, but for a teenager, it's absolutely the worst thing in the world that could happen to them. And that it's then wrapped up in the privilege, in the way your body can betray you and at times feel like a foreign object.  Then there is the entire party subplot and what Thea does that sends Alex reeling. Again, it's a small detail but it has huge consequences for the story and their relationship on a grander level.

This is a smart little book. I'm disappointed it hasn't gotten more attention because this is one that will stick with readers long past its conclusion.

Pass All You Never Wanted off to readers who like stories of power and privilege, but who are looking for something literary and thought-provoking. The patience pays off in this read. Readers who love Sara Zarr or Siobhan Vivian's complex and challenging characters will be rewarded here.

All You Never Wanted is available now. Reviewed from a library copy. 

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Thursday, January 24, 2013

A Million Suns by Beth Revis

I am on a roll with second books in a trilogy! First Asunder and now A Million Suns have surprised me with their superior plotting and characterization, far surpassing their predecessors. (OK, perhaps two examples don't constitute being on a roll, but it is nice nonetheless.)

A Million Suns brings us a chaotic society on the ship. The inhabitants have been brought off phydus, the drug that kept them placated and mindless. Many people have fallen into deep depression, others are refusing to work, others are declaring that those who don't work shouldn't be fed. And almost everyone looks on Amy as a freak, some even making her fear for her safety. Under it all, rebellion simmers, and it's all Elder (who has refused to take the title of Eldest) can do to keep everything under control. And of course, he has to try and find a way to get the ship to Centauri-Earth before it all boils over.

Meanwhile, Amy has discovered a message from Orion, left for her before he was frozen for his crimes. It starts her on a trail of clues that lead to single shocking revelation near the end of the story. And of course, Amy is also reeling from the events of the first book, fearing for her life among a hostile society, and visiting her parents every day, coming closer and closer to waking them up each time.

Chapters alternate between Amy and Elder, but I found Elder to be a much more interesting character here than in the first installment. We get a much better sense of his personality and his struggles to make a unique identity for himself with the knowledge that he's a genetic clone of Eldest and Orion, men whom he both admired and despised. And because Elder's character is better developed, the romance between Amy and Elder works better, too.

I found the writing a bit smoother, too, with fewer choppy sentences and better transitions from one perspective to another. What really made me enjoy this book so much, though, was the plot. The twists were more unpredictable, and I really loved the puzzle aspect - Amy and Elder working together to figure out Orion's clues and what they mean, with a terrific payoff at the end. And I have to admit that I am very, very excited to dive into Shades of Earth, since it means we'll be reading about *SPOILER* the people landing on the new planet! I am excited to see what Revis imagines for this planet. What will the aliens (if any) be like? What about the plants and animals? The climate? What surprises will Revis throw at her characters that I never could have seen coming? I love stories about people from our Earth landing on a new, unfamiliar but life-supporting planet, because the possibilities are so broad and exciting. *END SPOILER*

If you were tepid about the first book for any of the same reasons as me, I think you'll enjoy A Million Suns far more. It's more exciting, better written, and a great read for those of us who enjoy a killer plot. Readers who have enjoyed other recently-published accessible science fiction, such as Marissa Meyer's Cinder or Amy Kathleen Ryan's Glow (another space opera), should find this very much to their liking.

Book borrowed from my local library.

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Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Cinders and Sapphires by Leila Rasheed

It's 1910, and the aristocratic Averleys have just returned to England from many years in India, fleeing scandal. They've come home to magnificent Somerton, their ancestral estate, bringing with them a new set of family members, thanks to Lord Averley's sudden marriage. The arrival of not one, but TWO families has thrown the house's servants into a tizzy, too, and the whole place is rife with gossip about what happened in India, what the grown-up children will look like, and whether the new additions to the Averley family will be cruel or kind.

Cinders and Sapphires touches on at least a dozen characters, but its main focal points are teenagers Lady Ada Averley, the aristocratic daughter about to make her society debut, and Rose Cliffe, her freshly-promoted lady's maid with muddy parentage. Ada wants to go to Oxford and get an education, but her family expects her to marry well (meaning rich) instead. Rose is thrilled with her new position, but she dreams of more, even while worried that such dreams may make it look like she's putting on airs.

The perspectives shift from character to character, the omniscient narrator giving us a little voyeuristic peek into nearly everyone on the page. The comparison to Downton Abbey is apt. It's wonderfully soapy with a large cast of characters who all have a huge number of problems, making for some terrific melodrama. Great literature this is not, but it is certainly great fun, with terrific plotting and characters who have some interesting personality quirks.

Many of the plot twists are easy to see coming, but some aren't, and even those telegraphed from a mile away are seriously fun to read. A fun game to play as you read is to think of everything that was majorly scandalous in 1910 and only minorly scandalous now (if at all), and see how many of those things you end up reading about in the pages of Cinders and Sapphires.

This is prime entertainment. There's romance, intrigue, scandal, betrayal, secrets, shattered dreams - all the good stuff. There are also some fine historical details that ground the novel a bit and give the reader some idea of the relationship between Britain and India at this point in time. This is very accessible historical fiction, the kind that delivers a relatable story without being too anachronistic about it. I turned the last page and wished I had the sequel.

Review copy provided by the publisher. Cinders and Sapphires is available now.

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Tuesday, January 22, 2013

ALA Midwinter Plans

Heading to ALA Midwinter in Seattle this week? I'm having a mild panic attack about how much I need to get done beforehand and how much I need to get organized before hopping on a plane super early on Thursday (yes, I am one of those people who takes the 6 am flight all the time). I'm really excited about going and I'm maybe more excited this year as I get to see how the committee I'm an admin to chooses their final list of best books.

Like one of my roommates, Liz, I've been planning out what it is I want to do with my somewhat limited free time. With as many meetings going on as there are, it's hard to pick and choose. Maybe even harder is picking out just where to dine during free time, too. For someone who lives in a food desert, having access to a variety of really great-sounding eateries is beyond exciting (and a little overwhelming).

After an afternoon of committee meetings on Friday, I think I'll brave the exhibit hall when it opens. In looking at my schedule, it appears the only real free time I have to do this is then. I'm not going to lie -- this makes me nervous and anxious, but I do love the fact it is one of the few times at ALA where I get the chance to see people I want to see at the same time. After the exhibits close, of course I'll be attending the YA Blogger Meetup I'm co-hosting with YA Highway.

Saturday is more meetings, but they're all during the middle part of the day. I'm hoping to make it to a YALSA Board Meeting for a while. After reading the board docs, I'm especially interested in the discussion of the Mega Issue of renaming the organization, the idea of folding Fab Films and Reader's Choice lists, and maybe even more than all else, I'm curious to see how YALSA's Board addresses the issues raised in the member survey. Take a while to read those docs linked above because it's fascinating, especially the member feedback regarding their locked down award and selection lists (the member survey allowed members to write in responses, and the bulk are about this issue). On deck for Saturday is a luncheon where Lenore is the guest of honor (!) and a dinner event.

I have a shorter committee meeting slot on Sunday morning, which is great because I think I'll need the downtime before the BFYA Teen Feedback session. If you haven't attended this but love YA books, I think it's one of the most fascinating (and brutal) meetings. Local teens come and talk about the books being considered for this list -- and they aren't afraid to tell you what they really think. I didn't get to attend in person at Annual, so I'm really excited I don't have meetings and can go. The evening has an event I plan on attending, too.

Then Monday! My favorite day! At the bright hour of 8 am Pacific Time (which is great for my Central Time mind) are the Youth Media Awards. I got to attend last year in person for the first time and it was such a great event. I'm looking forward to it maybe even more this year knowing how hard some of my friends have worked on these award and selection committees. There's something even more special about knowing the folks who are making these tough decisions through the year. And after that? I'm looking forward to a business lunch and then an afternoon of downtime. Downtime!

Are you heading to Seattle? What are your plans? Anything you're looking forward to?

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Uses for Boys by Erica Lorraine Scheidt

Erica Lorraine Scheidt's debut Uses for Boys is daring and unafraid -- this book is candid in topic, so if sex in young adult fiction is a topic that interests you, here you go.

Anna, age five, was all her mother needed. She doted upon Anna, and Anna loved it. This was what it meant to be a family. To feel like everything was right and good. Anna never knew her dad, but the love given to her by her mother was more than enough.

Then her mom started dating again. Then her mom got married again. Then divorced. Then started dating again. Then got married again. Then divorced. This cycle defined the relationship between Anna and her mother. No longer was Anna all mom needed. It was the men. It was the husbands. It was the lives those men gave her mother.

Anna gets lost in this life. She falls out of her mother's attention. When she turns thirteen, Anna has the first taste of being the center of attention again, but this time, it comes from a boy on the school bus. He grabs her breast. She likes the way it makes her feel, like she means something to him. But, he does it for show, and he gets a good laugh out of the entire event. Anna loses her only friend because she's labeled easy, because the way she let that boy touch her made her a bad person.

Alone again, Anna seeks out other boys. If it's good for her mother, then it's got to be good for her, too. She finds Joey. He treats her well, and they have a lot of sex. In fact, he is the first boy to teach her how her body can feel sexually. She likes this. But it's not too long before Joey is ripped away from her, either. He moves from Portland to Seattle.

By this point, Anna's in a new home, there's a new stepdad and a new step family. That changes not long after a family trip to a resort. One where -- spoiler -- Anna becomes a rape victim. Where she doesn't stop the boy from taking even more from her. Her sexual independence is, of course, compromised, despite the fact she was never truly sexually independent in the first place. She wasn't owning it. She was submitting to it out of the belief that was how things worked. It was what made her mom the way she was. It was what made Anna no longer a thing needed.

Then, Anna meets Toy. Toy's the girl she runs into at Goodwill while shopping. Toy is the girl Anna wants to be. Toy comes from a broken family, too, but she's got boyfriends who care about her so much. There's the one who buys her all kinds of things. The one who wants to take her traveling. The one who loves her unconditionally. These are all the things Anna wants and just doesn't get with her boys. Anna convinces herself repeatedly that she is good. That what she's getting sexually is what she needs. It makes her wanted. It makes her loved.

There is another boy, Josh. This time, though, Anna is convinced he's the real deal. She loves him so much and he loves her, too. Anna's mom is absent all of the time, and being alone in the big house isn't what she wants. So Anna decides it's time to make some hard choices: she moves out and into Josh's apartment in Portland proper. She also drops out of school and takes a job instead. Then there is a lot of sex. But in reading between the lines, it's clear Anna isn't feeling this relationship. Maybe she's not in love with Josh quite the way she thinks she should be. He's kind of a loser. He has no ambitions. He wants to go no where. The apartment stinks, and he never has the interest in making it better.

Here's a spoiler paragraph, so skip down if you need to. Anna finds out she's pregnant with Josh's baby. And while Josh is an incredible supportive character when she makes the decision to have an abortion, it's here when Anna has her true turnaround. It's a choice she makes to not have the baby. It's a choice she lives with. It's a choice that ultimately forces her to choose to move out of Josh's and into a new place. To let him out of her life completely. Throughout this, Anna has a touch-and-go relationship with Toy. Toy's continually with her own boys who dote on her. With her own boys that take her time away from Anna. With, as it turns out, a fantasy life. That's her escape from her own loneliness.

When Anna moves into her own place, her mom pops back in the picture, but only to criticize her. Why won't she go back to school and make something of herself? Why won't she move back to the house in the suburbs?

If it weren't obvious, there is another boy. Sam. But this boy is the right one. This is the boy who teaches Anna what it means to love, the boy who teaches Anna what a family is and what a family can do for a person. Sam's also a virgin. Sam doesn't push Anna into sex. Instead, he teaches her how to appreciate and respect her body, her sexuality, and most importantly, her own choices. Sam and his family (his mother in particular -- who is a great adult character, despite her short page time) give Anna the gift of learning to love herself and own her choices for herself.

Uses for Boys is not a boy-saves-girl story. The person who saves Anna in this story is Anna alone. She makes questionable choices throughout her entire life, and she loses a lot of herself in doing so. These choices aren't likable ones. She has a lot of meaningless sex, and she ascribes a lot of meaning to the way boys treat her, even when there is no meaning to be ascribed. She does this because this is what she's seen and grown up with. Her mother did exactly this and taught Anna that was how things work. That her life and her choices were dependent upon men. That men came and went. That men were what got you a house, got you a life, and got you a future.

Anna is probably not a likable character. This is because of her choices and because they don't make a lot of sense. But that's the entire point -- choices are choices. They aren't the definition of who you are. Anna's mom made choices. It didn't mean that when she needed to be there for Anna, she wouldn't be (she is, though she herself isn't likable in those moments, either). Anna is a smart, strong female; the trouble and the point is that she's crushed under the models of life she's seen around her, she's lived with, she's befriended, and that she believes the world puts upon her.

Scheidt's writing is short and staccato. The chapters span between a single paragraph and a couple of pages. Though a lot of living and a lot of events happen, the way it's captured through Anna's voice works. There aren't short cuts here, and never do any of the issues feel like they're crushed beneath others. That's because despite the choices, Anna continues to live, to grow, to think, and to hope. This is a brisker read, but there's a lot to tease out.

Hand Uses for Boys off to readers who like Amy Reed or Ellen Hopkins. This is a near perfect read alike to Reed's Beautiful, featuring a younger teen female caught up in a number of mature, heart-breaking situations and who struggles to make it through. There is sex in this book, and it is graphic, so readers who shy away from reading it will want to skip this book. But for the readers looking for an honest, aching, and brutal portrayal of teen sex will find Uses for Boys one of the best treatments.

Uses for Boys will be available now from St. Martin's Press. Review copy received from the publisher. 

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Monday, January 21, 2013

Critical Reviews & Critical Advocacy

I've blogged before about being authentic. About being critical. About speaking up and not being afraid to not "be nice." And even though I believe every single one of those things, they're all things I struggle with regularly, especially when it comes to blogging about books.

In the last couple of weeks, there's been discussion about critical reviews again. There's been an interesting phenomenon of people asking how to write them, as well as how to read critically on a broader scale. As new people start blogging and discovering their voices in doing so, it becomes a question of not just the mechanics of writing critical reviews, but a question of how to share that without looking like a jerk or without looking like you're doing it for some ulterior motive. There's also the question of how far is too far, how "mean" is too mean, and how much space to dedicate to reading (and thus reviewing) books that weren't exactly good fits for you as a reader.

This is something I'm still struggling with and maybe something I'm struggling with more now that I've been blogging longer and now that I do have a good sense of what I like and do not like in books. When I write out a critical review and post it, I angst about it the entire process. But why is that?

I've been thinking about this in light of other things I've blogged about. Before delving into that though, maybe it's worth talking a little bit about my process, since I think anyone who wants to or does write critical reviews may be curious about. It's quite complex. When I'm reading a book, I don't take notes. Periodically, I'll open up a draft email or draft blog post and write down some page numbers if something is rubbing me either positively or negatively. But for the most part, my reviews come a few days after shutting the book and letting it settle in my mind. Many times I'll write up initial reactions and thoughts on Goodreads, and a lot of that is so when I do turn to write the lengthier review, I have something to look back at and reflect on in terms of initial thoughts (and sometimes that writing can turn my opinion). For the actual writing itself, it's usually a one draft thing. It takes a couple of hours, since I draft it slowly and edit as I go. I write completely out of order, all of the time (which means that I'll draft it, then I'll move things around -- I write as things come to me which helps me work through them logically as I see them, rather than as I think them). I tend not to read other blogger reviews of titles, but sometimes I'll track down professional reviews once I've drafted something. I usually do this more for books that didn't sit well with me, just to see if maybe I missed something huge. The writing process is the same, regardless of whether I really liked the book or I did not like the book. Maybe the most important part of my process, though, is this: I focus solely on the book at hand. There are no outside influences in terms of who the author is, the story of the book's publication, where it came from, and so forth. Frankly, I don't care. I write about the book as it came to me, and I am forthright in admitting whatever biases I bring to my own reading experience. But when it comes to who wrote it or what their status is (debut or not, male or female, etc.) it doesn't matter one bit. 

I'm in it for the book and the book alone. 

A lot of people don't like writing critical reviews because they don't like to finish or write about a book they didn't like. That's completely fair. But there are also a lot of people who don't like to write critical reviews because they're afraid of hurting feelings. That's where I take some issue. Writing a review isn't about feelings -- we all know there is work involved in the process of writing, revising, and editing a book. There's a lot more bound up in the book than the pages. The thing is, that is not on the side of the reader/reviewer. 

One part of my process that's been a struggle for me lately, though, is the one that comes when I schedule and then post a critical review. I angst about it going up. I angst about where it'll end up. I angst about who will read it and what their response will be. I angst about sharing the post. I angst and angst and angst. 

But why? 

I write reviews for myself and for other readers. I write them for those who are looking for the right book to meet their needs. This is why even in the most critical reviews, I try to offer some sort of read alike or tap into what the reader appeal is. That's supremely important to me because I know there are blogs I read where I always disagree with the reviewer and it's in that disagreement where I find books I want to read. It's also important to me to be critical because that's just how I read. I'm a detail person. I notice little things and I notice bigger ones, and it's in those details where the story can be made or broken for me as a reader. I like to blog about it, in part, to know I'm not alone in reading this way or thinking about things in this way. 

The struggle and angst seem to come, though, from the belief that somehow being critical -- especially if that means being "mean" in a review -- means I'm not advocating for books or reading. And that's simply not true. Being critical is a high form of advocacy: it's advocating on the part of the reader

With as many books as there are being published, with the way that marketing and publicity handle what are and are not their lead titles, with the way that gatekeepers and readers discover titles, I think it's crucial to be critical. It's important to look at every book as simply that: a book. It can be good and it can be bad. That all lies in the taste of the reader. And every single reader approaches and engages with a book at a different level, with different expectations and different biases coloring their reading experience. To think that a critical review isn't somehow advocacy for reading is to say that reading is a singular experience with a singular purpose. 

It's been hard for me to remember this sometimes when I do write a critical review or when I spend time finishing and thinking about a book that I did not like. And I think a lot of my struggle comes from the fact that in the last couple of years, I've really put myself out there personally on the blog. I've talked about things I'm struggling with as an individual, as a blogger/writer, as a librarian, and as a reader. I've talked about these things in a way that, I think, let readers in on who I am a lot more than I ever thought I would when this blog began. So when I do write a critical review, it almost feels like I'm undercutting myself in the process. Or maybe it's not so much undercutting myself but leaving anyone who reads this with the task of separating the personal stuff from the critical reading. The advocate side of me from the actual critical side of me. I have to remember that when I review a book, especially if it's very critical, that I'm reviewing the book at hand. That same thing is what I hope for in return, too: that when I write a critical review, my words are being read through the eyes of a reviewer and not through the eyes of me on a more personal level. Yes, reviews are personal things and yes, I bring baggage to books. But those are things that allow me to objectively critique a book from the eyes of a reader. 

I still get tangled up in the belief I need to be nice about everything. I don't. I need to be fair to myself and to other readers. This means remembering I'm allowed to be critical and sharp. That I don't have to like everything (or anything!). That sometimes the book everyone loves is a book that just doesn't work for me and that is okay. More than that, though -- and this is an interesting trend I've picked up on not only in myself but in other bloggers -- it's important to remember there's no need to apologize for or create excuses for having the opinions that I do. Being critical and having an opinion that may differ from others doesn't mean being against the crowd. Rather, it's another shade on the spectrum. This is something I've been wrestling with for a long time now, but it's pretty simple. Just because I don't agree with something doesn't mean I can't still be an advocate for it. Likewise, enjoying something tremendously doesn't mean that I can't carry opinions about other aspects of the product or creation that are contrary. 

I can severely dislike a book and still advocate for YA fiction. I can also dislike a book and still advocate for it individually. I can and do still pass it to readers who will find much to enjoy in it. Being critical allows me to think about the reader end of things. But the same feelings go the other way, too. I can love a book and find, say, the author or their behavior frustrating and disingenuous. And that's not to say I wouldn't advocate for the book, either. Humans are complex individuals, and one of the biggest benefits of this complexity is the ability to hold and consider differing opinions at the same time and act accordingly.

Because in the end, being critical is about developing the skills necessary to be an advocate. Sometimes, being critical means choosing not to talk about being critical. In my case, though, it means taking the time and effort to advocate for being critical. Being critical, for me, is a means of strengthening my own voice, my own opinions, and my own ability to be clear, direct, and honest. Doing so only helps me be a better advocate for other readers. 

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