Friday, May 31, 2013

When You Were Here by Daisy Whitney

You may remember I talked about this book a long time ago over at Word for Teens. I wrote about how sometimes, there are romantic male leads in novels that just work so, so well. Danny, in Daisy Whitney's When You Were Here, is one I talked about specifically. He's stayed with me in the months since I finished this book, and I have a feeling he'll remain on my list of favorite male characters in YA for a long time. 

Danny's mom, who has toughed out five years of cancer, wants to make it just long enough to see him graduate valedictorian from high school. But before that date comes, his mom dies. Devastated by the loss, as well as the loss of his father a few years before and the loss of his adopted sister who chose to move to China to rediscover her roots, Danny is angry, broken, and confused about what the future could possibly hold. And there's also another complication, too: Holland. She's the girl he'd been in love with forever and the girl who was in every way perfect for him. But their relationship ended much too soon and without any resolution. Danny was left in the dark when she suddenly disappeared from his life. 

Faced with big decisions about where to go from here, Danny chooses to figure out what it is that kept his mom going for so long. Why she continued to be hopeful and happy, even though her life was near the end. To do this, Danny decides he's going to fly to the apartment they owned in Tokyo, meet the doctor who meant so much to his mother. This is also his chance to really think about what he wants out of his life. 

Along the way, Danny meets Kana, who helped take care of the apartment before his mom died. She's quirky, she's energetic, and she's invested in making sure Danny makes the most of his time in Tokyo. It's not at all romantic -- which is a huge plus in my book -- but rather, it's Danny's opportunity to rediscover the value and importance of friendship. 

Maybe most important was the twist in the story. That's Holland's story. If you don't want to be spoiled, skip down to the next paragraph. The reason Holland disappeared from Danny's life was that she got pregnant. Since Danny had been the only boy she'd been with and their relationship hadn't been going on that long and she had been on the pill, it was a reality she hadn't quite wrapped her head around. What made it worse was when she went into early labor and when baby Sarah died. Danny is the only person not in the loop on this, and he learns about his daughter when going through his mom's things in Tokyo. His mom had known about the baby, but she and Holland both chose not to tell Danny. It wasn't a choice out of cruelty. It was done to protect him because he had already lost so much in his life. And the truth of it was that the entire situation was scary and heartbreaking for everyone involved. 

When Danny does get to meet the doctor his mother had invested so much in, not only does he understand the value and purpose of his mom's life, but he has a moment and realizes what value his own is worth.

Whitney handles all of the topics in this book delicately and powerfully in equal measure. Danny's voice is knock out, authentic, and it is pained. Danny is a boy of action -- his feelings play out in the way he acts and the words he chooses to use. They're not always kind and he's not always rational. But these things happen the way they do because it's how Danny works through his pain and his grief. It's the way he begins to make sense of the world. This is why he chooses to get on that plane and go to Tokyo. It's why he doesn't simply DWELL in the anguish but rather, he works and walks through it, step by tortured step. Where the twist element came in, another author could have pushed the envelope too much, adding simply one more thing to the list of horrible things going on in a character's life. But Whitney introduces and weaves this in so carefully and thoughtfully that it instead amplifies the core of who Danny, his mother, and Holland really are as people. 

Danny's understanding of his mother's fight -- and his mother's desire to quit the fight -- comes to a head when he meets with the doctor to whom she claimed saved her and to whom she dedicated so much energy and belief. And boy, did I cry. Danny learns that choosing the time one lives and the time one dies was the central force of his mother's hope, even in her battle with cancer. It's philosophical without being pandering, and it's spiritual without being spiritual (if that even makes sense). Whitney excels are imbuing the narrative with the Eastern and Western philosophy not only in how she structures the story and Danny's journey, but even in the way that death and life are explored.

The writing in When You Were Here is sharp, searing, and noteworthy. It doesn't take a back seat to the complexities of the story nor the complexities of the characters. I give huge credit, too, for how well-done the sex scenes in this book are. There is a great contrast in the sort of sexual relationship Danny has with Trina -- it's one where she is in control, where she calls the shots, and where she gets what she wants and he takes it because he feels so empty and broken from all of the loss in his life. It's not Holland, and it's not an emotional and deeply satisfying act of intimacy. When Danny and Holland reconnect in Tokyo, after laying bare all of the things that were keeping them at a distance, their intimacy is raw, powerful, and healthy. Danny is in it not just physically, but emotionally and mentally. And maybe what made it so good in that moment was that almost nothing is said at all about the mechanics. Because that didn't matter.

I've read a lot of grief books, but without doubt, this one stands out. It's so good it hurts to think about. My one qualm, and it's something I didn't spend a lot of time thinking about, is that Danny does come from privilege. He's able to head to Tokyo to a private and paid-for condo without issue. He has a home back in California that's taken care of, too. These all make sense contextually, but they do require the reader to suspend belief a little. But the freedom Danny has -- he's done with high school and in that "what do I do now?" stage of life before making decisions about going to college or traveling -- is completely believable, especially with all he's been thrown in the recent months and years. 

Whitney gets bonus points for a great sidekick animal with Danny's dog Sandy Koufax, and for those of you worried, the dog does not die. Pass When You Were Here off to readers who like foreign-set contemporary stories, who enjoy grief books, who enjoy romantic male lead characters, and those who want to fall into a story for a long time. This one's been compared to Gayle Forman's Where She Went, and while I don't buy that comparison (besides both feature a male romantic lead), I do see how fans of Forman's writing would dig Whitney's novel. 


Review copy received from the publisher. When You Were Here will be available Tuesday. 




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Thursday, May 30, 2013

Red Handed: The Fine Art of Strange Crimes by Matt Kindt

Detective Gould is the most brilliant detective in the city of Red Wheelbarrow. While he hasn't been successful in actually reducing crime, there are no unsolved cases on his watch. Lately, though, there has been a string of very odd crimes. Gould knows they're connected in some way, but puzzling out just how is proving to be more of a challenge than he anticipated. When he discovers the truth, he finds it hits horrifyingly close to home - and reveals more about his own character than he thought possible.

Red Handed is a weird one. The story is very piecemeal, told in a non-linear way that readers may find confusing (it certainly required more close reading on my part than usual). There's not actually much of the story told from Gould's point of view, which was initially quite confusing for me. Kindt mainly follows the culprits of the strange crimes, who each get their own chapter. We get into their heads, but not quite far enough to really understand what's going on. Interspersed among these small stories are conversations between Gould and a mysterious individual, plus some newspaper pages and a strange, possibly connected story about a woman. It all (mostly) fits together at the end, but getting there is a challenge.

Actually, I'd say that the way the story was told deliberately obfuscated it, contributing to the confusion of the mystery, which would certainly have been easier to understand in a more traditionally-told tale. I think that's what Kindt was going for, though I'm not sure the technique really adds much. I mostly just found it frustrating, and whereas I'm sure others would gladly go back and re-read the book, picking up on the clues that are only understandable after the solution is revealed, I don't have the patience to.

Red Handed reminds me a little of Hannah Berry's Britten and Brulightly, another deliberately strange noir mystery, though Berry's book is told in a much more straightforward way, and the art is quite different.

While I wasn't completely sold on the way Kindt told his story, there's certainly something to be said for experimenting. The book is an interesting study, and I think it shows the potential for creativity in the graphic format. The art in particular is worth poring over. It's lovely in itself, but it's also fun to puzzle out how it brings clarity (or doesn't) to the story. The conversations between Gould and the mystery person are told in white thought bubbles on a plain black background. Other sections are sketchy but mostly realistically portrayed, while others lean more toward abstraction. It's an interesting, attractive, and odd mix.

I'd recommend this to readers who are looking for something that will stretch them a bit, who want something different and challenging. Readers looking for their noir fix would do well to give this a shot too, as Kindt pulls off that particular tone with ease. Though this is an adult book, teens interested in graphic mysteries may also enjoy it, and there's nothing the average parent would find objectionable.

Finished copy received from the publisher. Red Handed is available now.




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Wednesday, May 29, 2013

The Girl Who Was Supposed to Die by April Henry

I wasn't hugely impressed by April Henry's The Night She Disappeared, though I could see its appeal for other readers. The Girl Who Was Supposed to Die is a bit of a step up for me - it's a little more suspenseful, a little more of a genuine mystery, and feels a little more substantial.

Our initially-unnamed protagonist wakes up in an isolated cabin with no memory of who or where she is. (Yes, it's one of those stories.) What she does know is that there are two men who are deciding whether they should kill her. She's tied to a chair. Her hands are in pain and she realizes her fingernails have been pulled out.

The argument between the two men ends: she is to die. The girl is dragged outside the cabin by one of them, but due to some quick thinking and sheer luck, she's able to knock him out and get away. She runs. She doesn't know where to go; she doesn't even know her own name.  

As in The Night She Disappeared, there's a skater boy who believes her wild story and decides to help her out. The two hunt down clues even as the murderers hunt them down, and it makes for quite a suspenseful ride.

The amnesia is a cheat, though. There's no real mystery beyond what is locked in the girl's mind, and when her memories all come rushing back at the end - as you knew they would - all is revealed. It's not my favorite kind of mystery. It feels cheap, like all of the hunting for clues I did as a reader alongside the protagonist during the bulk of the book was pointless.

Still, it's a fun, fast-paced read, and the amnesia aspect didn't ruin it for me. When the memories do come back, at least they're mildly surprising and overall fairly interesting. I appreciated that the details of the story weren't pedestrian as I found those in the The Night She Disappeared to be. Here, we get conspiracies and biological warfare alongside your usual murder and kidnapping.

April Henry's books remind me of 21st-century versions of Joan Lowery Nixon's mysteries, which I loved as an early teen. Both authors' books tended to feature girls caught in bad (usually violent) situations who rely on their own quick thinking in order to unravel the mystery. There's usually some double-crossing and a few red herrings, but the stories are never long and they're always suspenseful and quick reads.

Review copy received from the publisher. The Girl Who Was Supposed to Die will be published June 11.




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Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Wild Awake by Hilary T. Smith

This summer, Kiri's parents are on an extended vacation, leaving her to her own devices at home. She's poised to spend it hanging out with best friend/bandmate/crush Lukas making music and competing in battle of the bands. She's also made plans to practice piano because she's quiet accomplished and only wants to get better and better. Really, not that awful a summer.

But it's a phone call from a stranger who changes everything. He says he has some of her dead sister's things. 

The sister who died years ago. From an accident. But it wasn't an accident like Kiri was told it was. Sukey died under more mysterious circumstances.

When Kiri goes out of her way to pick up those things, she learns it's not about the things her sister left behind. It's about the people who she runs into on the trip to pick up those things and the people who help her work through the grief she thought she'd packed away so many years ago. 

Wild Awake, Smith's debut novel is fresh, alive, and has a helluva voice. Though at heart this is an exploration of grief, it never once falls into feeling like a "grief novel" (arguably nothing does, but I use this phrase to suggest this isn't a sad story). Kiri is a little bit off kilter, driven not only by wild hormones, but she's driven by freedom. Together, she tries things and acts in odd, erratic, but completely believable ways. She's consistently inconsistent, as anyone grieving would be. She dabbles with drugs and alcohol, which helps her remove herself from her time and place as it is. When she's had the rug pulled out from under her, it's the way she can best cope. All the years of thinking she's processed her sister's death are now up for questioning. Was she lied to? Was her sister hiding something deeper? Why did her parents shield the truth? 

Moreover, Kiri suffers from mania -- it's impossible to diagnose her mental illness because she doesn't diagnose it herself, but she goes through periods of intense highs with intermittent lows, though they're not low lows. The drugs aid in leveling her in many ways, too. 

Even though she believes it to be the case at the beginning of summer, it's not Lukas who ends up capturing Kiri's heart. It's Skunk, the guy who fixed Kiri's bike on that first trip downtown to collect Sukey's things. When she thinks nothing of him then, it's through getting to know him better she discovers he has depths to him that speak to her deeply. He's passionate, he's into music, and he's mentally unstable. The love and acceptance Kiri has for someone like him, who could break at any moment, speaks volumes not only about Kiri and Skunk, but also about the importance of relationships and the things that keep them growing and thriving. Even though the two of them don't bond over their mental states, there is a connection between them relating to this anyway. And maybe that connection is less than the two of them each suffers, but instead, that everyone in the world suffers from something -- for Kiri, it's both grief and it's her mania. Skunk suffers through his illness, in addition to other things. 

In other words, this book is about how there's no singular element that can define and thereby reduce a person into a thing.

Of course, this relates right back to Sukey and what happened to her, as well as what happened to the things that made her who she was when she was alive. 

There is a real beat and infusion of sound to this novel. It's pulsing and bright and alive. This isn't a mystery and it's not a story with great Depth and Seriousness. But because it's none of those things, it speaks volumes about the human experience, about living and loving, and about being present in the moment. In many ways, Kiri reminded me of Felton Reinstein of Stupid Fast -- they've both been thrown for a big loop, they're both navigating change without ever being a Lesson in the values of Change, and they're both alive and active by bike, at night, and through their respective talents. And at the end of the day, both are also about the importance of relationships, whatever way they come. 

I usually don't share quotes from books, but this one had me marking a number of them because they were so good, and they speak to the story: 

"Every disaster, every whim, every seemingly random decision came together to make this night happen. There are no mistakes -- just detours whose significance only become clear when you see the whole picture at once."

"It's amazing how well you can get to know a person if you actually pay attention. People are like cities: we all have alleys and gardens and secret rooftops and places where daisies sprout between the sidewalk cracks, but most of the time all we let each other see is a postcard glimpse of a skyline or a polished square. Love lets you find those hidden places in another person, even the ones they didn't know were there, even the ones they wouldn't have thought to call beautiful themselves."

"The universe, I realize, is full of little torches. Sometimes, for some reason, it's your turn to carry one out of the fire -- because the world needed it, or your family needed it, or you needed it to keep your soul from twisting into a shape that's entirely wrong."

Wild Awake tackles so much and does so while maintaining a real voice and perspective that feels new and exciting. When I finished the book, I felt refreshed and happy. Sure, there's heavy stuff here, but Kiri's likable, even if it's imperfect. In fact, I'd argue her imperfections and her willingness to work with those imperfections are what make her so likable. The romance here is sweet and doesn't feel shoehorned in. While there are elements of the story that require suspension of disbelief -- like Kiri's family leaving her alone for the summer when they know she's not entirely stable -- it's okay. There is far more to enjoy here than to nit pick, and Smith's writing stands on its own. 

In terms of voice and style, Kiri reminded me a lot of Juno from the movie Juno, and I think readers will see many similarities with Jandy Nelson's The Sky is Everywhere as the stories pertain to grief -- though Smith's novel is a bit lighter in tone. Wild Awake is contemporary, but it contains elements of mystery, with a strong elements about music, about sibling relationships, mental illness, and what can happen over the course of a single summer in a teen's life. 


Review copy received from the publisher, via the editor. Wild Awake is available today.




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Monday, May 27, 2013

So You Want to Read YA?: Guest Post from Author Kody Keplinger


Today's "So You Want to Read YA?" post comes to us from author Kody Keplinger.


Kody Keplinger is the author of three contemporary YA novels (THE DUFF, SHUT OUT, and A MIDSUMMER'S NIGHTMARE). Her next book, GOLDFISH, will be released in 2014. She lives in New York City, eats a lot of Thai food, and dabbles in improv (also known as: the art of making a fool of yourself).  You can check her out at kodykeplinger.com or follow her on twitter at @Kody_Keplinger.




One of my favorite things is being asked for book recommendations. I get a lot of emails from readers saying things like, “Can you tell me other books I’ll like?” or “I don’t read much, but I want more books like yours.” It’s always very flattering, and I always have a huge, huge list of books to send them.

So when Stacked asked me to contribute to this series, I was really excited. I decided to focus particularly on contemporary YA, since those are the recommendations I most often get asked for. So, without farther ado, here we go!

For a Good Cry






Before I Die by Jenny Downham – this book is easily one of my favorites of all time. On top of being beautifully written, it also features great, well-drawn characters. It’s painful and hopeful at the same time.


The Fault in Our Stars by John Green – I loved this book far more than I expected to. I loved Hazel’s voice and the way it managed to make me smile and break my heart at the same time.


Nobody But Us by Kristin Halbrook – This book is the only one to date to make me Ugly Cry. I was sobbing and clutching my chest by the end. It left me with a wonderful ache, and I really, really fell for both of the narrators. An excellent read.


Dreamland by Sarah Dessen – This book holds a special place in my heart. It deals with abusive relationships in an honest, poignant way. I recommend it to everyone.




For a Good Swoon







Perfect You by Elizabeth Scott – Elizabeth Scott is one of my favorite authors, and this book really sealed the deal for me. It’s a sweet (and swoony) romance with a great family story, too.


The Truth About Forever by Sarah Dessen – There’s something to be said for a slow burning love story. I love all of Sarah Dessen’s books, but this one really got me, though. Wes and Macy forever!


Leaving Paradise by Simone Elkeles – Simone Elkeles knows how to write a romance, but this one is easily my favorite. It’s complicated and angsty in the best possible way.


Wanderlove by Kirsten Hubbard – This book tells two different love stories: a love story between a boy and girl, and a love story between a girl and the beauty around her. It’s possible to read this book and not want to hop on the next plane to a foreign country!




For a Great Character







Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan – Two words: Tiny Cooper.


Like Mandarin by Kirsten Hubbard – Mandarin is one of the richest, most complicated characters I’ve ever read in YA, and the story of her friendship with Grace is incredibly powerful.


Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson – I read this book when I was fourteen, and I remember thinking that I had had all of the same thoughts and feelings as Melinda. The voice in this book is so authentic, and that’s why it’s stayed popular for all these years. I think anyone can relate.


Sorta Like a Rockstar by Matthew Quick – This book took me totally be surprise. It has one of the quirkiest, most endearing voices you’ll find anywhere, and a great story to boot!




For a Darker Turn






Some Girls Are by Courtney Summers – Oh, God, this book. This book will kick you in the gut, that’s for sure. It’s painfully real and really nails the complexity of girl-on- girl bullying.


Ballads of Suburbia by Stephanie Kuehnert – Hands down, this is my favorite contemporary YA. There are a plethora of complicated characters dealing with complicated issues like sex, drugs, and suicide, all set against the 90s grunge era. Really, really wonderful book.


Living Dead Girl by Elizabeth Scott – Warning, this book is brutal. It’s a short, quick read, but it’s haunting in it’s portrayal of a girl living with her abductor. Not for younger readers.


Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson – You can’t go wrong with Laurie Halse Anderson, and Wintergirls is right up there with Speak for me as a favorite. It deals with anorexia in an honest, painful way. The writing is also genius.



I highly recommend all these books, especially if you’re a fan of contemporary YA. They cover a big range of stories and emotions, but I think they are all great books every YA reader, whether you are new to the genre or not.





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Sunday, May 26, 2013

BEA at a Glance


I'm not sure when I became a procrastinator about planning for conferences, but I have and I own that. It dawned on me that Book Expo America is this coming week. I've been working on my schedule and think I've figured out a few of my must-see, must-do things.

First and foremost: BEA Blogger Con on Wednesday. I'll be there most of the event, since a number of panels interest me.

If you're going, I sure hope you stop and listen in on the panel I am a part of called "Book Blogging and the Big Niches." You can see who else is on my panel and learn a little more about what our topic of discussion is here. (Also: note the out of date headshot). If you do attend, stop by before or after the panel and say hi.

It's my goal to make it to the Teen Author Carnival on Wednesday, too.

Thursday, I plan on checking out the YA editor's buzz panel in the morning, followed by another panel on book reviews and ethics. I'm thinking I'll wander the floor a little at opening, but my priority is really attending a few interesting sessions since I haven't ever done that a BEA. I've always just wandered the exhibits.

Then on Friday I have a fancy date with Leila if she's not tired of me after spending Wednesday with me, and I want to hit up two panel sessions on tumblarians and one on realistic fiction.

Friday night is an event with the 2013 debut authors that anyone who wants to come to is welcome to attend -- we'll be having a casual meetup at The Library Hotel, in their Bookmarks Bar. The event starts at 7, and it's super laid back. Just show up!

I'm looking forward to seeing old friends and meeting new ones, so feel free to say hi if you see me. And if there's something going on I should know about, let me know.




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The Great YA/Kid Lit Drink Night @ ALA Annual



Join us for this night of drinks and fun!

Usually, I cohost these with YA Highway, and this time, we're also adding the Chicagoland Kidlit Drink Night folks into the mix. It should be a blast.




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Saturday, May 25, 2013

Catch me in VOYA!



Do you get VOYA magazine? You may have noticed I've got an article in the brand new June/July issue on my favorite topic: contemporary YA fiction. This was a really nice warm up to diving deep into my book.

Don't subscribe to VOYA but want to read my piece (along with everything else inside, including a nice story about fringe science fiction)? You can read the journal in full here. My booklist is on pages 10 and 11.




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Friday, May 24, 2013

Mini-trend: Amnesia in YA

Current YA seems to be full of girls who can't remember who they are. Or perhaps if they can remember who they are, they don't remember the past five years, or five weeks, or five hours. Usually, someone is trying to kill them, and the clue to who and why lies in the lost memories.

After reading The Testing and The Program in quick succession, I realized that amnesia is a pretty huge topic right now in YA fiction. I can see the appeal - it adds automatic suspense and a sense of the mysterious. At the same time, it can be a bit of a cheat (memories come rushing back and all problems are solved!), and it often leads to a disappointing reveal.

Below are just a smattering of titles published within the last twelve months, plus a few upcoming ones we'll get later in 2013. I think it's pretty remarkable there are so many in just a little over a calendar year. If I extended the date range to two or three years, there'd be even more (such as Cat Patrick's Forgotten or Elizabeth Scott's As I Wake). So many! Descriptions come from Worldcat.


Don't Turn Around by Michelle Gagnon (August 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's review

All the Broken Pieces by Cindi Madsen (December 2012)
Following a car accident, Liv comes out of a coma with no memory of her past and two distinct, warring voices inside her head. As she stumbles through her junior year, the voices get louder until Liv meets Spencer, whose own mysterious past also has him on the fringe.


Hysteria by Megan Miranda (February 2013)
After stabbing and killing her boyfriend, sixteen-year-old Mallory, who has no memory of the event, is sent away to a boarding school to escape the gossip and threats, but someone or something is following her.


Pretty Girl-13 by Liz Coley (March 2013)
Sixteen-year-old Angie finds herself in her neighborhood with no recollection of her abduction or the three years that have passed since, until alternate personalities start telling her their stories through letters and recordings. Kelly's review

Unremembered by Jessica Brody (March 2013)
A girl, estimated to be sixteen, awakens with amnesia in the wreckage of a plane crash she should not have survived and taken into foster care, and the only clue to her identity is a mysterious boy who claims she was part of a top-secret science experiment. Kimberly's review

The Program by Suzanne Young (April 2013)
When suicide becomes a worldwide epidemic, the only known cure is The Program, a treatment in which painful memories are erased, a fate worse than death to seventeen-year-old Sloane who knows that The Program will steal memories of her dead brother and boyfriend.


Arclight by Josin L. McQuein (April 2013)

The first person to cross the barrier that protects Arclight from the Fade, teenaged Marina has no memory when she is rescued but when one of the Fade infiltrates Arclight, she recognizes it and begins to unlock secrets she never knew she had.
 
Nothing But Blue by Lisa Jahn-Clough (May 2013)
Aided by a mysterious, possibly magical dog named Shadow and by various strangers, a seventeen-year-old with acute memory loss who calls herself Blue makes a 500-mile trek to her childhood home, unaware of what she has left behind.

The Testing by Joelle Charbonneau (June 2013)
Sixteen-year-old Malencia (Cia) Vale is chosen to participate in The Testing to attend the University; however, Cia is fearful when she figures out her friends who do not pass The Testing are disappearing. Kimberly's review


The Girl Who Was Supposed to Die by April Henry (June 2013)
She doesn't know who she is. She doesn't know where she is, or why. All she knows when she comes to in a ransacked cabin is that there are two men arguing over whether or not to kill her. And that she must run. Follow Cady and Ty (her accidental savior turned companion), as they race against the clock to stay alive.

Another Little Piece by Kate Karyus Quinn (June 2013)
A year after vanishing from a party, screaming and drenched in blood, seventeen-year-old Annaliese Rose Gordon appears hundreds of miles from home with no memory, but a haunting certainty that she is actually another girl trapped in Annaliese's body.




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Thursday, May 23, 2013

The reductive approach to YA

I'm surprised not more people have responded to the link I shared last week to the New York Times Book Review of Andrew Smith's Winger which spends a hefty chunk of the review discussing John Green and "Green Lit."

I've read Winger and I have read Looking for Alaska. Yes, both books are set in boarding schools. Yes, both books are narrated by male protagonists. Yes, both books are contemporary/realistic. Yes, both books are written by male YA authors.

But that's about where their comparisons end.

This post isn't about those two books and comparisons, though. It's about the fact we need to stop being so damn reductive in how we talk about YA books.

It wasn't too long ago when all associations to YA fiction came through Twilight. The joke was that all YA books were bad knock offs or were filled with sparkly vampires. When books like The Hunger Games came out, people took to it a little slower, skeptical because it defied some of the expectations of what YA lit was and wasn't -- Collins's book is no Twilight, so suddenly, the frame of reference shifted.

Now, of course, we're in the hey day of John Green mania. He's racked up almost every accolade possible, and everyone and their mother and their aunt and their uncle has read The Fault in Our Stars. It's GREAT that the world of YA grows as more people read it. And it's great that good, strong books are getting recognition and are getting recognition as books written for a young adult audience. No one is comparing John Green's oeuvre to Twilight because his books are "nothing like that." Even though Green writes for a YA audience and even though this book is being seen as an amazing contribution to YA from readers who'd otherwise eschew these books, many readers only have him as their frame of reference. That then limits their own view of YA and -- in this case -- contemporary realistic YA.

Going back to the New York Times review, AJ Jacobs, who is himself an adult non-fiction writer, talks in depth about all of Green's accomplishments. He's sold out Carnegie Hall. He's never off the NYT Best Sellers List. Even though he didn't "invent" realistic YA (that honor is given to JD Salinger who, I note, didn't even write books for young adults, let alone invent realistic YA), Green's books pretty much define contemporary realistic. Jacobs calls these books "Green Lit," and they're books featuring strong dialog with self-aware narrators who have crushes and deal with twists and disobey authority. Writers of realistic fictions are chasing the Green dream, as they want their books to do what it is his books do.

Here's the thing: not everyone wants to read a John Green book. Not everyone wants to write the John Green book.

Not every book that is set in our world, featuring authentic teen main characters is worth calling "Green Lit." Because the hallmark of good contemporary realistic fiction is authentic teen characters. They can be funny. They can be heart breaking. They can defy authority. They can fall in love or out of it. They can go to boarding school. They can suffer pain. It doesn't mean these characters, the readers who want these books, or the authors who write them, are all aiming for the Green dream.

Reducing an entire genre to one person's books as a source of comparison is limiting and reductive of the nuances, the depth, and the range of voices that exist within it. Believe it or not, John Green is not the be all, end all of contemporary realistic YA fiction. Many amazing authors came before him and wrote with goals to portray real characters in real world situations -- Laurie Halse Anderson, Judy Blume, SE Hinton, Robert Lipsythe, Paul Zindel, Robert Cormier -- and many amazing authors came after him and will continue to come after him. Yes, he has spent a long time on the NYT List. Yes, he's achieved a lot for having such a young career. Yes, he's easily recognized as one of the great YA authors. Yes, he's done a lot for the YA community.

But, he's one person who has written just a few books. He is not the definition of a genre, nor is he the definition of YA.

Comparisons among authors and books are inevitable. They're an important element of reader's advisory and they give grounding to new books and voices for readers who want to get a sense of a book's style. In short reviews, sometimes those comparisons to big, well-known authors is valuable -- it's a quick glance at what readers may like a book. But in an outlet like The New York Times, which is a big space with big readership, why is all of the richness of YA fiction reduced to a single name? And why is the review of Smith's novel really about Green's contributions to YA? Why is it written by someone who hasn't done their homework on the breadth of this field of work?

This chance to offer valuable insight into contemporary realistic fiction -- and insight into the broader spectrum of YA -- was a blown opportunity. It does service to no one.

I don't want to spend too much longer thinking or blogging about this, but I do want to raise a question to anyone willing to weigh in here. When we reduce YA to Twilight, it's meant as a sting and as a means of belittling the field. But when we reduce YA to John Green's books, it's meant as an ultimate compliment? Both authors have done exceptionally well. Both have appealed greatly to readers who are young adults and those who aren't.




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May Debut YA Novels



Can you believe we're already more than five months into 2013? Some of us are still making our checks out to 2012 (how many ways can a person date herself in one sentence -- yes, I still use checks sometimes). We've been keeping track of this year's YA debut novels, and here are May's additions. As usual, all of these are by first time writers within in any genre or category, and all are traditionally published titles. Descriptions come from WorldCat, and as we review any of these titles during the year, we'll come back and link up our reviews.

If you know of other debut novels coming out in May, we'd love to know!




The Color of Rain by Cori McCarthy: If there is one thing that seventeen-year-old Rain knows and knows well, it is survival. Caring for her little brother, Walker, who is "Touched," and losing the rest of her family to the same disease, Rain has long had to fend for herself on the bleak, dangerous streets of Earth City. When she looks to the stars, Rain sees escape and the only possible cure for Walker. And when a darkly handsome and mysterious captain named Johnny offers her passage to the Edge, Rain immediately boards his spaceship. Her only price: her "willingness." Secretly and quickly Rain discovers that Johnny's ship serves as host for an underground slave trade for the Touched . . . and a prostitution ring for Johnny's girls. With hair as red as the bracelet that indicates her status on the ship, the feeling of being a marked target is not helpful in Rain's quest to escape. Even worse, Rain is unsure if she will be able to pay the costs of love, family, hope, and self-preservation. 

Coda by Emma Trevayne: Ever since he was a young boy, music has coursed through the veins of eighteen-year-old Anthem -- the Corp has certainly seen to that. By encoding music with addictive and mind-altering elements, the Corp holds control over all citizens, particularly conduits like Anthem, whose life energy feeds the main power in the Grid. Anthem finds hope and comfort in the twin siblings he cares for, even as he watches the life drain slowly and painfully from his father. Escape is found in his underground rock band, where music sounds free, clear, and unencoded deep in an abandoned basement. But when a band member dies suspiciously from a tracking overdose, Anthem knows that his time has suddenly become limited. Revolution all but sings in the air, and Anthem cannot help but answer the call with the chords of choice and free will. But will the girl he loves help or hinder him?

The End Games T. Michael Martin: In the rural mountains of West Virginia, seventeen-year-old Michael Faris tries to protect his fragile younger brother from the horrors of the zombie apocalypse. 




Nantucket Blue by Leila Howland:  Seventeen-year-old Cricket Thompson is planning on spending a romantic summer on Nantucket Island near her long time crush, Jay--but the death of her best friend's mother, and her own sudden intense attraction to her friend's brother Zach are making this summer complicated.

Reboot by Amy Tintera: Seventeen-year-old Wren rises from the dead as a Reboot and is trained as an elite crime-fighting soldier until she is given an order she refuses to follow. 

Riptide by Lindsey Scheibe: While training for a surfing competition to earn a college scholarship, Grace Parker struggles with her feelings toward her best friend Ford Watson and tries to conceal her family's toxic dynamics. 





Out of This Place by Emma Cameron: Luke divides his time between hanging at the beach, working at the local supermarket, and trying to keep out of trouble. Bongo, his mate, gets wasted to forget about the brother who was taken away from his addict mom and his abusive stepdad. Casey, the girl they love, looks to leave her controlling dad and find her own path. But after they leave and move onto very different lives, can they leave behind the past? And will they ever see each other again? 

Parallel by Lauren Miller: A collision of parallel universes leaves 18-year-old Abby Barnes living in a new version of her life every day, and she must race to control her destiny without losing the future she planned and the boy she loves. 

The Rules for Disappearing by Ashley Elston: High school student "Meg" has changed identities so often that she hardly knows who she is anymore, and her family is falling apart, but she knows that two of the rules of witness protection are be forgettable and do not make friends--but in her new home in Louisiana a boy named Ethan is making that difficult.





Firecracker by David Iserson (from Goodreads): Being Astrid Krieger is absolutely all it's cracked up to be. She lives in a rocket ship in the backyard of her parents' estate. She was kicked out of the elite Bristol Academy and she's intent on her own special kind of revenge to whomever betrayed her. She only loves her grandfather, an incredibly rich politician who makes his money building nuclear warheads. It's all good until..."We think you should go to the public school," Dad said. This was just a horrible, mean thing to say. Just hearing the words "public school" out loud made my mouth taste like urine (which, not coincidentally, is exactly how the public school smells). Will Astrid finally meet her match in the form of public school? Will she find out who betrayed her and got her expelled from Bristol? Is Noah, the sweet and awkward boy she just met, hiding something?

Truth or Dare by Jacqueline Green: In the affluent seaside town of Echo Bay, Massachusetts, mysterious dares sent to three very different girls--loner Sydney Morgan, Caitlin "Angel" Thomas, and beautiful Tenley Reed--threaten both their reputations and their lives. Kimberly's review

Wild Awake by Hilary T Smith: The discovery of a startling family secret leads seventeen-year-old Kiri Byrd from a protected and naive life into a summer of mental illness, first love, and profound self-discovery. 





How My Summer Went Up in Flames by Jennnifer Salvato Doktorski: Placed under a temporary retstraining order for torching her former boyfriend's car, seventeen-year-old Rosie embarks on a cross-country car trip from New Jersey to Arizona while waiting for her court appearance.

The Summer I Became A Nerd by Leah Rae Miller (from Goodreads): On the outside, seventeen-year-old Madelyne Summers looks like your typical blond cheerleader—perky, popular, and dating the star quarterback. But inside, Maddie spends more time agonizing over what will happen in the next issue of her favorite comic book than planning pep rallies with her squad. That she’s a nerd hiding in a popular girl's body isn’t just unknown, it's anti-known. And she needs to keep it that way. Summer is the only time Maddie lets her real self out to play, but when she slips up and the adorkable guy behind the local comic shop’s counter uncovers her secret, she’s busted. Before she can shake a pom-pom, Maddie’s whisked into Logan’s world of comic conventions, live-action role-playing, and first-person-shooter video games. And she loves it. But the more she denies who she really is, the deeper her lies become…and the more she risks losing Logan forever.  

The Falconer by Elizabeth May (Goodreads): 18-year-old Lady Aileana Kameron, the only daughter of the Marquess of Douglas, was destined to a life carefully planned around Edinburgh’s social events – right up until a faery kills her mother. Now it’s the 1844 winter season. Between a seeming endless number of parties, Aileana slaughters faeries in secret. Armed with modified percussion pistols and explosives, every night she sheds her aristocratic facade and goes hunting. She’s determined to track down the faery who murdered her mother, and to destroy any who prey on humans in the city’s many dark alleyways. But she never even considered that she might become attracted to one. To the magnetic Kiaran MacKay, the faery who trained her to kill his own kind. Nor is she at all prepared for the revelation he’s going to bring. Because Midwinter is approaching, and with it an eclipse that has the ability to unlock a Fae prison and begin the Wild Hunt. A battle looms, and Aileana is going to have to decide how much she’s willing to lose – and just how far she’ll go to avenge her mother’s murder. 





Maid of Secrets by Jennifer McGowan: In 1559 England, Meg, an orphaned thief, is pressed into service and trained as a member of the Maids of Honor, Queen Elizabeth I's secret all-female guard, but her loyalty is tested when she falls in love with a Spanish courtier who may be a threat.

The S-Word by Chelsea Pitcher: Angie's quest for the truth behind her best friend's suicide drives her deeper into the dark, twisted side of Verity High.

Zenn Scarlett by Christian Schoon (from Goodreads): Zenn Scarlett is a resourceful, determined 17-year-old girl working hard to make it through her novice year of exovet training. That means she's learning to care for alien creatures that are mostly large, generally dangerous and profoundly fascinating. Zenn’s all-important end-of-term tests at the Ciscan Cloister Exovet Clinic on Mars are coming up, and, she's feeling confident of acing the exams. But when a series of inexplicable animal escapes and other disturbing events hit the school, Zenn finds herself being blamed for the problems. As if this isn't enough to deal with, her absent father has abruptly stopped communicating with her; Liam Tucker, a local towner boy, is acting unusually, annoyingly friendly; and, strangest of all: Zenn is worried she's started sharing the thoughts of the creatures around her. Which is impossible, of course. Nonetheless, she can't deny what she's feeling. Now, with the help of Liam and Hamish, an eight-foot sentient insectoid also training at the clinic, Zenn must learn what's happened to her father, solve the mystery of who, if anyone, is sabotaging the cloister, and determine if she's actually sensing the consciousness of her alien patients... or just losing her mind. All without failing her novice year.  Kimberly's review





The Beautiful and the Cursed by Page Morgan: Residing in a desolate abbey protected by gargoyles, two beautiful teenaged sisters in turn-of-the-twentieth-century Paris discover deadly and otherworldly truths as they search for their missing brother.

Transparent by Natalie Whipple: Sixteen-year-old Fiona O'Connell is the world's first invisible girl, which makes her the ideal weapon for her crime-lord father. But now, she and her mother have escaped and are hiding out in a small town where they're determined to start a normal life.




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