Showing posts with label Reviews. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Reviews. Show all posts

Thursday, October 9, 2014

In Real Life by Cory Doctorow and Jen Wang + 3 Questions with Cory

Cory Doctorow is known for exploring big social issues within his fiction for young adults, and his latest, the YA graphic novel In Real Life, is no different.

When Anda's class has a female gamer come in and speak to them, Anda becomes fascinated with the idea of playing the game about which the guest spoke: Coarsegold Online. It's a massive multiplayer roleplaying game, and it's an opportunity for her to be a hero and it's a place where she gets the opportunity to meet new people and make friends from around the world.

Gold farmers are exceptionally controversial in the game, as they are people who illegally collect valuable objects within the game, then sell them off to players in rich countries who can afford to purchase them. This, of course, gives those who are rich a mega advantage at the game. It's an industry and an occupation, gold farming, but things get challenging when Anda befriends a gold farmer, who happens to be a poor boy from China. Suddenly, what seemed like a black-and-white/right-or-wrong situation with gold farming becomes a lot more complicated, as her friend's life depends upon making money doing this job.

Doctorow's story is complex and complicated, and while I think his introduction does a great job of offering an explanation for why what happens in the story isn't just about the in-game world, I found myself needing to flip back more than once to better understand what was happening and what the gravity of the situation was. Part of this is being a non-gamer -- and perhaps I'd have grasped some of these things better were this a world in which I was familiar -- but part of it was that at times, the message overpowered the story and the development of Anda.

The story, being about how people buy and sell levels and powers in-world and how others want to rid the game world of the people who are in the business of helping others cheat for the right price, parallels the non-gaming world in terms of how people climb the ladder and how they can cheat social systems and structures in place for the right price. But beneath that, and what I think was harder to come across because of the graphic novel format, are the really human reasons and aspects behind why someone would want to work a job that's purpose is to buck the system for others. We're only ever privy to Anda's perspective here, and, as noted, it's one of privilege. That's not a problem of her telling the story, but it's a bigger problem of the overall impact of the story. She almost grew too quickly, and because of the privilege she has in her own life, she was able to pursue solutions that carried the story's message almost too conveniently. There were other things that happened in the story that felt convenient or almost strange and difficult to believe, including small things like a gaming expert coming into a high school classroom and recruiting teens for her game, which includes a monthly fee.

That said, I still liked In Real Life, and a big reason for liking it was how wonderful Jen Wang's art is throughout. This is a lushly illustrated work, and I give Wang major kudos for how Anda was rendered. This is a fat girl, and she was never once ashamed of being so. Her body is depicted realistically, and I can see so many girls seeing themselves in her. While there was one part of the story that made me cringe when it came to the dialog of body shaming, it was easy enough to let go because of how Anda carried herself. In many ways, that slip fit the bigger issues of this book being imperfect about how it depicted and explored social and political issues in the real, rather than virtual, world. This is a full-color graphic novel with an appealing color palate. I'm going to keep an eye on Wang because I hope to see a lot more from her.

In Real Life should appeal to teen graphic novel enthusiasts, and I especially think teen gamers will find a lot to enjoy here -- and I think maybe more importantly, they'll find a lot worth talking about and debating. This could make for a really solid book discussion title. This is a time-relevant title, but it doesn't run the risk of becoming the kind of book that will become time-sensitive. What Doctorow did in Little Brother for the last generation of teens, he does here with In Real Life, serving up a meaty topic in a form that doesn't talk down to its readers but encourages them to think, discuss, and act. This would be a great book to pair with Steve Brezenoff's Guy In Real Life, which also delves into social issues through gaming -- both virtual and real-world.


In addition to talking about the book today, I was able to ask Cory a few questions about the book and some of the bigger issues broached in the story. Rather than talk about these within the review, I thought taking them straight to the source would be more interesting. I highly recommend checking out the other blogs who are taking part in asking Doctorow questions about In Real Life, and you can get the full list of other participants here. These might make discussing this book with teens even more interesting! 

What capacity do you believe gaming has for educating people about social/political challenges throughout the world? 

I think that games are an art form, and that art does lots of stuff, including education. But the primary thing that art does is make you feel irreducible, numinous aesthetic effects.
Some games, like some art, can teach you just about anything, but that’s not what games are for.

It would be impossible to ignore the hostility that the gaming world has toward women. Yet, gaming has the capacity to be a tool of social mobility and change. How can girls and women navigate this disconnect? 
I wish I knew. My wife is a retired professional gamer -- she played Quake for England -- and through her I know a huge circle of hardcore, badass gamers and gaming professionals.
Gender-based hatred and harrassment in games is an epiphenomenon of wider social factors, obviously. It’s not like women get a great deal everywhere *except* games -- and while ending games-based harassment (by making it socially unacceptable to admit or evince misogyny as it is in many other circles) would be a huge accomplishment, it would still leave the underlying problem intact.

Your books, including IN REAL LIFE, focus on teens making a difference. Why teens? What is it about teenagers that you believe will cause social and political change? 
I think we start out with well-developed senses of justice and fairness -- you see it in daycare classes -- but circumstances cause us to compromise a little at a time. Each compromise resets your vision of a “normal” level of fairness, so the next compromise is only perceived as a small variance on normal, as opposed to a deeper cut into justice.

Teenagers exist at the intersection of uncompromising justice and the capacity to act on it -- old enough to do stuff, young enough not to be convinced that nothing can be done.

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Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Audio Review: Cleopatra's Moon by Vicky Alvear Shecter

Though the title may lead some readers to think it, Cleopatra's Moon is not, in fact, about Cleopatra VII, the most well-known Cleopatra of history who was famously portrayed by Elizabeth Taylor. Instead, it's about her daughter, Cleopatra Selene, whose name is not nearly as well-known. In fact, in her author interview at the end of the book, Shecter mentions that many people didn't even realize Cleopatra had a daughter - the romanticized stories aren't particularly interested in Cleopatra's children.

"Selene" means "moon" in ancient Greek, hence the title. Cleopatra Selene had a twin brother named Alexandros Helios; the second part of his name comes from the ancient Greek word for sun. People with names like these cry out for a story.

Unlike most YA novels, this one starts off with Cleopatra Selene at a pretty young age and keeps her there for a big portion of the book. It opens with her parents crowning her queen of a few Egypt-controlled territories and I believe she's around 4 or 5 at that point. The story then progresses a few years, through her parents' deaths and her time in Rome in the household of Octavia, Octavianus' (Caesar's) sister. When she first goes to Rome, she's a pre-teen, and much of her growth as a character happens during this time. It's only during the last third that she is old enough to be called what we think of as a "young adult" (a teenager). Despite her various ages, this is a young adult novel throughout - its themes are more complex than a middle grade novel, and the narrative voice is more mature and reflective.

This is a treat for fans of ancient Egyptian history. Do you know a reader who would have loved Mara, Daughter of the Nile if this were 1985? This book is the 21st century's Mara. It's got romance, political intrigue, murder, thievery, and a fantastic setting - two of them, actually, since the first portion is set in Egypt and the second portion in Rome. The fact that Cleopatra's Moon is about an actual person, who lived and breathed and interacted with these people who seem right out of legend, only adds to the book's allure. By the end of the book, Cleopatra Selene seems like a legend herself.

In her author interview at the end of the audiobook, Shecter talks about historical fiction as an exercise in "filling in the gaps." This is especially true for ancient historical fiction, where most readers can only find out very basic information from a casual perusal of Wikipedia or their public library. There are a lot of gaps for an author to work with and a lot of creative license she can take. Shecter sticks close to what historians know of Cleopatra Selene, including her siblings' lives, her move to Rome as a captive of Octavianus, and her eventual marriage. But even if you read up on the history before diving into the book, meaning you know just where Cleopatra Selene ends up as an adult, there's plenty of narrative tension - there's a lot to explore in the gaps.

Shecter's writing is strong. Cleopatra Selene has so much to handle at so young an age (her parents' suicides, attempted assassinations in Rome, and her own desires to reclaim Egypt), but never do we believe she won't be a match for it, even if it may take her a while to figure things out. Above all, Shecter writes her characters and their story with respect. This is especially evident in her treatment of Cleopatra Selene's religious beliefs. This is Cleopatra Selene's story and her faith is as true to the author as it is to her. The characters and their cultures never feel exoticized.

The audiobook is narrated by Kirsten Potter, who isn't one of my favorite narrators for a first person YA novel. Her voice sounds very mature, not like a teen's. She also narrates the Hattie Big Sky audiobook, and that's one reason I didn't much care for it. (This is a case of personal preference; I know many listeners who enjoy Potter's narration.) It's a credit to Shecter's storytelling skills that I was completely entranced regardless. Chapter breaks include haunting music which I quite liked and definitely help create the appropriate mood.      

This is another frustrating audiobook which does not include the historical note. It does include an interview with Shecter, which is fine, but doesn't answer the nagging questions any historical fiction reader will want to know: What really happened and what did the author create? For that, you'll have to find the ebook or the print book. It's especially important for books like these, which are set in a time most people don't know much about. If you do listen to the audio, and I recommend it, do yourself a favor and hunt down the ebook or print book so you can read the historical note as well.

Audiobook borrowed from my local library.

Continue reading...

Monday, October 6, 2014

The Crossover by Kwame Alexander

Josh Bell, aka Filthy McNasty, is a solid basketball player. His brother, Jordan, isn't too bad himself. The twin boys, both middle schoolers, have been playing for a long time. Their dad wasn't too bad a ball player himself back in the day either -- in fact, he played professionally and earned some good money and good jewelry. But he quit playing, and when Josh tries to broach the question about why his dad stopped and why his dad doesn't take up coaching, dad dodges the questions.

On the surface, Kwame Alexander's verse novel The Crossover looks simple. It's about a boy and his brother who play basketball. But it's a much deeper, more complex novel about the challenges that exceptionally "average" characters can have. Josh is a relatable character, with two parents who are happily married. He and his brother get along. They're passionate about the game.

But things become more complex.

Josh and Jordan make a bet with one another relating to the game, and when Josh loses the bet, his brother has earned the privilege of cutting off one of his beloved locks. A misstep, though, leaves Josh with more than one lock cut, and the resulting look is something his mother isn't too happy with. She tells him that he'll have to cut them all off. He's not thrilled about it, but he goes along with it, and when he's sent to look for a box in which he can put those cut locks, he stumbles upon a box containing not just one of his father's precious rings from his time as a ball player, but he uncovers why his father quit the game. This revelation about his father opens up a whole new world to Josh and Jordan about their father and his deep-seeded fears.

As the season progresses, Jordan becomes enamored with a new girl at school. She reciprocates, and the two of them become boyfriend and girlfriend (in the way that middle schoolers are boyfriend and girlfriend -- there's no physical action and nothing happens on page here at all if there is). When this relationship begins to bud, suddenly Josh feels left out. His best friend and twin brother has entered into a new phase of life and a new experience that Josh hasn't. They spend less time together as a team and more time apart. It's a huge change for Josh, and at times, it comes across as jealousy and at other times, it comes across as grieving how his relationship with his brother once was.

There's more though. The little secret about their father's future in basketball was just the tip of what Josh discovers. As he's spending more time alone, he's been keeping an eye on his parents and learns that his dad hasn't been feeling well. In one instance, he fainted after not feeling well. While his mother keeps telling his dad to see a doctor, since his other father died young of heart disease, his father won't listen.

He's afraid of doctors.

Between explosive scenes on the court, rendered visually in the text, are the moments of quiet sadness and fear that linger in Josh's mind about his dad and the condition his dad may or may not be in. Spoiler: it's not good condition, and when the basketball season comes to its final game, one that's tense and important, Josh's dad's heart doesn't stay strong enough for him to witness it. The last few pages of this book are tough to read.

The Crossover makes exceptionally smart use of the verse format, without once feeling overdone or leaving the reader with the feeling a lot was lost because of the style. Alexander plays with the format visually in tense action scenes, and Josh's voice comes through. He loves rap and he plays around with rap himself, so the poetry and the beat of this story are authentic, natural, and memorable. This is the kind of story you'd read out loud because it lends itself to that. The speed and intensity of the game pair with the rhythm of the text.

The little details of this book stand out because of the format, and those little details tell us so much about Josh and the rest of his family. His mom is the assistant principal at his school, and he feels more pressure for himself and on the court because of that. Of course, dad's former role as a player doesn't help that. Both mom and dad are supportive in his and his brother's lives and in their passion for the game. Josh is also an average student, and even when things start getting tough for him, what's sacrificed is his behavior, not his intellect or his capacity to do well. Those behavioral changes are done in a way that make you want to hug him and tell him it's going to be all right. He's a great kid, with a great head on his shoulders, and passions that are worth pursuing.

Being that this book is about 7th graders, this "it's going to be all right" sentiment is important because it taps into what so many middle schoolers feel at that age. It's a rough transition period for even the most "average" kid. People are growing and changing in ways that do and don't make sense. What seems like a natural thing -- Josh's brother getting a girlfriend -- is something much more than that. It's a crisis of Josh's identity since he's no longer half of the Josh and Jordan pair. He's an entirely independent being, and being jolted into that awareness is tough because it's new.

Alexander's book falls into a weird area, though. This book is perfectly appropriate for middle grade readers, and it's also going to have appeal for both young YA readers and more reluctant YA readers. The challenge on that end, though, is that teens who read YA will likely be less willing to read about 7th graders than middle grade readers would be. I suspect The Crossover may fall between the cracks because of this, and I sure hope it doesn't. Alexander's book is about this "crossover" period, and it's going to speak deeply to teens (especially boys and especially black boys who don't see enough of themselves in realistic fiction) who are in that "crossover" period themselves. This is a book you sell to readers based on their maturity and interest, rather than on the grade or reading level they're at. The Crossover will make a great bridge to books like Matthew Quick's Boy21, too, both because of the content and the well-drawn, dynamic, and memorable characters.

You know exactly the kid who needs this book, who will fall in love with this book, and most important, who will see himself in this book. There is a gut punch at the end, but it's not a story without hope to it.

Pass this book along to those readers.

The Crossover is available now. Review copy picked up from the library. 

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Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Audio Review: Prisoner of Night and Fog by Anne Blankman

I always think it's more than a little daring for an author to attempt writing historical fiction featuring real people whose lives are heavily documented. Yet that's exactly what Anne Blankman does in her novel, Prisoner of Night and Fog, which is also a debut - and all the more impressive for it. Her efforts are resoundingly successful and make for a gripping, devastating audiobook, narrated excellently by Heather Wilds.

The risks in writing this kind of historical novel are many. Because the characters' lives are so well-known, there could be little room for embellishment or imagination on the part of the author. Yet it's the embellishment - the filling in of the blanks - that makes historical fiction so enticing to many readers. What can an author do when there aren't many blanks to fill in? By sticking strictly to the historical record, she tells a story the reader could find by browsing the nonfiction section of the library - and that's not what historical fiction readers are looking for. But by creating something new, she risks making the story unbelievable for the reader, who would know for a fact that events did not unfold as described.

Blankman's strategy is to create a wholly fictional character in her protagonist, Gretchen Muller, and surround her with real people from history, most prominently Adolf Hitler. Hitler is not merely a person seen from afar, as happens in many historical novels set in this time and place; he is a vital, terrifying secondary character, one who interacts regularly with Gretchen and helps propel the story forward. To Gretchen, Hitler is her "Uncle Dolf," a man revered by her whole family. Several years ago, Gretchen's father died as a martyr to the National Socialists when he jumped in front of a bullet meant for Hitler. Since then, "Uncle Dolf" has looked out for Gretchen and her family, giving them a position of social prominence and a measure of safety in uncertain 1931 Munich.

One day, Gretchen is approached by a young man named Daniel Cohen who tells her that her father's murder is not what it seems. Initially, Gretchen resists the idea, both because she believes in her father's sacrifice and because Daniel is a Jew. She is, after all, a good little National Socialist in training.

But her hesitancy doesn't last long. Gretchen is a sympathetic character, so naturally her aversion to Jewish people erodes until it's gone completely, and she and Daniel begin a sweet romance that provides a nice subplot to the main story. This puts her in conflict with her "Uncle Dolf" as well as her many friends among the Nazis, but most particularly her older brother, Reinhard, a sadist and sociopath. Reinhart is perhaps even more terrifying than Hitler is, partly because his crimes are more readily apparent (at this point) and partly because he is closer to her. Reinhard's actions spur Gretchen to learn more about pyschology while investigating her father's death, and this subplot dovetails nicely with Gretchen's revelations about her Uncle Dolf.

Other real people make appearances in the story. Eva Braun is Gretchen's best friend, and Hitler's real-life niece Geli Raubal is another acquaintance of hers. Hitler's allies also make frequent appearances and interact with Gretchen, including Ernst Rohm and Rudolf Hess.

This is a dark, moody, and mostly humorless story. It's frequently terrifying, both overtly when Reinhard commits acts of violence against Jews and against his sister, and less visibly, during Gretchen's conversations with Hitler, where much is intimated but never spoken plainly. Much of the terror comes from the fact that we as readers know what Gretchen does not: that soon Hitler will conquer much of Europe and act as the catalyst for the massacre of millions of people. Wilds narrates the book's dialogue with a German accent, which lends authenticity to the story and makes for a truly immersive listening experience.

I was so looking forward to the author's note at the end of the book, which I hoped would explain exactly where fact met fiction (so essential in historical fiction featuring real people). Alas, the audiobook version did not include it, though I know the print version does. Sure, I can look the people up on Wikipedia, but that's no match for the research done by the author, which is more in-depth, interesting, and specific to the story being told than an encyclopedia article could ever be. Audiobook producers: We want the author's note. There's no harm in including it; if other readers are bored by it, they'll simply stop the recording and move on with their lives. But I'm certain that would be rare. Readers who seek out historical fiction - teens included - want that extra information, believe me.

Audiobook borrowed from my local library.

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Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Belzhar by Meg Wolitzer

I won't name names, but some adult authors just shouldn't write books for teens. Thankfully, Meg Wolitzer doesn't appear to be one of them. Her first YA novel is strong and (almost) never writes down to its audience.

Belzhar is one of the books the people at the TLA Penguin booth talked about in glowing terms, and since I'm a sucker and fall for pitches like that (especially the ones that seem personal like this one did), I gave this one a shot - though it's not normally up my alley. I'm not a huge fan of magical realism and tend to shy away from the label (usually I think it's a way to call something fantasy without using that word; just call a spade a spade, please). But I liked this one.

Jam Gallahue has been sent to a special boarding school for highly intelligent, damaged teenagers. Her boyfriend, Reeve, died some months ago, and Jam hasn't been able to come to terms with her grief and move on with her life. At the school, she discovers she's been signed up for a class called Special Topics in English. This class only takes a few students each year and it's known to be more than a bit mysterious - for good reason.

When Jam and her classmates go to the first class, they learn they'll be studying Sylvia Plath's writing exclusively. Part of their assignment is to write in a journal each night, but the journals are far from ordinary. Each time Jam writes in hers, she finds herself transported for a short while to a place where Reeve is still alive, giving her the opportunity to experience being with him again in a place where time doesn't seem to exist. Jam quickly learns that her classmates experience something similar, too - they all travel to a place before their respective traumas. They nickname this place "Belzhar" after Plath's semi-autobiographical novel The Bell Jar, which they've been studying in class.

This is a book about grief, depression, and mental illness in general. It's about how people - and teenagers specifically - deal with the things life throws at them, and how they heal - or don't. The book follows Jam's journey most closely, but through Jam, we also learn about what her classmates have experienced and how these experiences have affected them. The students form bonds with each other, but thankfully it's never a forced kumbaya moment. Each of the students' stories are full of pain and grief; they're all in the class together because they're battling depression, and sometimes more. Wolitzer's depiction of the illness is individual to each student and there's very little moralizing for most of the book.

It's clear from the beginning that Jam is a slightly unreliable narrator. She's the last to share her story with her classmates and the story she relates to the reader doesn't exactly seem right, either. The savvy (and perhaps not so savvy) reader will be able to predict a twist that happens close to the end. It's not hugely telegraphed, but I did realize most of what was going on. I didn't feel cheated by it, though. The fact that Jam lies to the reader is tied up with her own mental illness. The story is stronger for the deception because Jam has deceived herself as well.

The metaphor with Plath's life and writing is obvious, even for teens who haven't read anything of hers. Wolitzer does take the time to explain a bit about Plath's life and how it parallels The Bell Jar, but this portion doesn't feel overly didactic. It's interesting, actually, particularly for a reader who hasn't read the source (such as myself). I anticipate it will create a lot of interest in teen readers for Plath and her work.

This is a moving novel that should resonate with sensitive teens - perhaps those who keep journals or write poetry, who know that words are a powerful conduit for self-expression and healing. Wolitzer does falter a bit in the final chapters, writing down just a touch to her audience and misjudging their intelligence, I think, but it doesn't ruin what is otherwise a nuanced and satisfying story.

Review copy received from the publisher. Belzhar will be available September 30.

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Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Firebug by Lish McBride

I've heard a lot of great things about Lish McBride. Her first book, Hold Me Closer Necromancer, won the Morris Award in 2011, and practically every librarian acquaintance I have raves about her writing (in particular her sense of humor). So naturally, when Firebug showed up at my door, I knew I'd have to give it a shot.

Ava is a firebug, meaning she can start fires with her mind. Cool, right? (When I was a teen I would have thought this was so freaking badass. Now it would terrify me.) It's actually not that awesome for Ava, since she sometimes has a hard time controlling the power. What's even less cool is that it brought her to the attention of the Coterie, a mafia-type organization (teens seem to be getting involved with the mob in all sorts of ways in YA lately) that forcibly recruits teens like Ava to work for them - or else.

So Ava is under the thumb of the Coterie, led by an evil vampire named Venus. She doesn't just do petty criminal acts for them; she's an assassin, and she tries not to think too hard about the people she kills, who are usually not very nice anyway. But then Venus tells her that she has to kill a friend. For no apparent reason. And that's where Ava draws the line, despite the fact that it means Venus will be after her, despite the fact that it puts her friends in danger, despite the fact that it's pretty much a death sentence.

Except if it were, we wouldn't have much of a story. And Ava does have allies - the two boys who work with her in the Coterie who have their own odd powers (one is a werefox and the other is half-dryad), her pseudo-father figure, and a few others who are intent upon bringing Venus down. So perhaps Ava's refusal isn't a lost cause after all. Perhaps she and her friends can actually topple the Coterie, ending its threat against herself and other magical beings forever.

I really wanted to like Firebug more than I did. McBride's writing is very good, as I hoped it would be. There's a lot of fun repartee between Ava and the other characters. She has a sharp tongue and employs it against friends and enemies alike. Her two closest friends - Ezra the werefox and Lock the half-dryad - were well-drawn and their friendship with Ava was deep and believable. There's a smattering of romance, too, plus a betrayal that really does tug on the heartstrings, even if you see it coming (I saw it coming and hoped up until the end that I was wrong). And it's funny, as promised.

So why did I merely like it instead of love it? I wanted more from the plot. Despite how well-developed the characters and their relationships were, the storyline was still very basic. I felt like I had read this story a dozen times before (group of teens with powers take on The Man who has exploited them for years), and no amount of wisecracks would make it fresh for me. There's a big reveal at the end that was telegraphed too strongly, removing a lot of the tension. The storyline just wasn't terribly creative.

But hey, I've read a heck of a lot of teen fantasy, more of it than most teens (simply because I haven't been a teen in almost 10 years). I love to champion the stuff that breaks new ground, but there's definitely space for books that tread the same ground and do it well. This should appeal to teens who like contemporary/urban fantasy and don't yet feel like they've exhausted all the genre has to offer. And there's something comforting in a familiar story peopled with characters who feel like friends.

Review copy received from the publisher. Firebug is available today!

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Monday, September 22, 2014

Two Contemporary Reviews: WILDLIFE by Fiona Wood and DON'T TOUCH by Rachel M. Wilson

These two books don't have a common thread to them, except that they both explore themes of friendship, of being the new kid at school, and they're both books that hit shelves this month. I highly recommend both, as they're strong, solid additions to the contemporary realistic YA shelves.

Fiona Wood's novel isn't her debut, but it's her first US publication -- it's the second book in a very loose duology, and the first book, Six Impossible Things, will hit shelves next spring here. Rachel M. Wilson's Don't Touch is her debut novel.

In Wildlife by Fiona Wood, Sib begins the wilderness term with her classmates, she's best friends still with Holly, and on the brink of a relationship with Ben, who she kissed at a party. Sib's gotten a lot of attention lately, thanks to her face being plastered on a billboard. It was a modeling gig she did for a little cash, on the suggestion of her aunt. This stint with "fame" changed how her classmates -- and Holly -- interact with her, even if it doesn't change Sib in the least.

Lou is the new girl, tossed into this wilderness term without any immersion with these peers prior. She's grieving, deeply grieving, and she's private about what she's going through. She's not ready to open up, and even when pushed to the brink, she won't. 

Until she does with Michael.

It's through her relationship and opening up with Michael that Lou begins to forge a relationship with Sib and helps Sib realize that people like Holly are energy saps. . . not best friend material. That people like Holly are the reason that Sib may become hurtful herself. 

Wildlife is an excellent book about friendships and peer relationships, as well as about sexuality. Wood uses the words to describe what goes on in sexual experiences, through the voices of Sib and Lou, and it never comes off clinical nor does it come off as being too technical for how a teen girl might think. Even though Sib may not be happy with the choices she makes, she empowers herself with the ability to make those choices. In particular, I was impressed with a scene wherein one of the characters says explicitly that sex did not hurt because she'd educated herself with how her body works and feels. This moment was refreshing to read because it's such a rarity in YA -- usually, we have girls who are scared, worried, and fearful of what their bodies can and do do. This is the kind of scene that many teen girls need to read because it offers a refreshing and realistic alternative to the all-too-common narratives of fear and shame associated with sex, especially debut sexual encounters. 

More, I loved the friendship aspects of Wildlife. Wood offers girls who see friendship in very different ways, and it's through these diverging perspectives that there's an opportunity for one girl to see how her "friend" was far from that toward her. The perspective of female friendship as toxic and female friendship as supportive, caring, and loving butting against one another offer up something we don't see enough of in YA. Because it's told through two points of view, we get to see these relationships from the inside and from the outside. 

This is a story about coming into yourself and acting and reacting for yourself, rather than putting on a face or a performance for those around you. This is easily one of the best YA titles published this year in contemporary YA, and it'll appeal to fans of Sarah Dessen, Siobhan Vivian, and perhaps even more so to fans of Melina Marchetta and Sara Zarr. It's literary, with depth, heart, and tremendous respect for the complexities of being a teen girl dealing with teen girl challenges.  

Rachel M. Wilson's debut Don't Touch may be one of the best explorations of OCD I've read in YA. 

Caddie has always wanted to attend Birmingham's high school for artists, but she's never pursued it for a number of family-related reasons. But when her mom gives her the go-ahead and she is accepted, things around her begin to fall apart. Her dad and mom separate, and Caddie begins to think that her actions -- in trying out and getting into the school, in touching or not touching other people -- would change the situation. When those thoughts begin racing, her mind begins to make deals with herself as a means of coping with the stress and change in her situation. And her mind begins to deceive her, convincing her that were she to touch anyone skin-to-skin, things would just get worse. 

On the first day at the academy, Caddie reunited with an old best friend, who convinces her to try out for the school play. They're doing Hamlet, and Caddie's always wanted to play Ophelia. Both girls try out for the part, and it's Caddie who scores it. The problem, of course, is that when she's paired opposite Peter, playing Hamlet, those scenes where the characters may have to touch send her into a state of panic. She can't touch him and she can't let herself touch him. 

It becomes more complex when Peter and Caddie begin to fall for one another romantically. 

Don't Touch renders a side of OCD that's realistic to the illness, rather than what we're shown too frequently in the media. This isn't about overt rituals, though those periodically emerge. This is about what happens internally and the anxiety that irrational thoughts can cause an individual and how that individual has to rationalize those irrational thoughts in a way that allows them to function. Caddie knows her "don't touch" mentality is wrong and that nothing bad will happen if she touches another person. The problem is, her brain doesn't know this and won't shut up unless she listens. Caddie is resistant to telling either Peter or her best friend Mandy about it. She's terrified that by sharing what's going on and naming the illness, she'll lose those connections; anxiety fuels further anxiety which fuels even further anxiety. So rather than tell them, she withdraws when the anxiety becomes overwhelming. That withdrawal concerns both of them, as they think it's a reaction to them or things they've said or done -- and in Peter's case, touching her in a way that shows his sincere affections for her. It's a back-and-forth tug that leaves all parties uncomfortable in a way that's painful and honest. 

There comes a turnaround point in the story, and that may have been where I found Wilson's writing a character with OCD to be the most solid. Caddie does not recover immediately, and in fact, she's not fully recovered in the end. But she learns methods of coping with her illness, and through those tools, she's better able to talk about what's going on with those who love and care about her. She has to face her fears and anxieties and know that doing so may not rid her of the anxiety, but it's a big part of better compartmentalizing it. Through this, she's able to really solidify those relationships that are good to her and good for her. That includes the sweet, budding relationship with Peter.

Don't Touch is the kind of YA novel you can hand to YA readers anywhere along the teen spectrum. This is a longer book, but it never reads long or feels overdone. This would work for those 12-13 year olds ready to wade in, and readers who love stories about theater and art kids will find much to enjoy here, as Wilson brings Shakespeare and acting alive. Readers who love Laurie Halse Anderson's Impossible Knife of Memory will want to pick up this book. 

Both Wildlife and Don't Touch are available now. Wildlife was sent from a friend, and Don't Touch was sent for review from the publisher. 

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Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Romance Roundup

I read almost exclusively historical romances, and these usually come in series that feature a certain family or group of friends who each find love in a different volume. This means that the ancillary characters you grow to love in the first book will be revisited in the subsequent books. It also means that protagonists get their own little continuing episodes in sequels.

This is why I particularly love discovering a new romance author. I fall in love with a whole passel of delightful characters, each with their own personalities. I get to keep up with these characters over time, chronicling not just their grand romances, but also their little life experiences afterward, in the sequels that focus on other characters. It doesn't hurt that romances are usually published in quick succession, meaning the wait for a new novel isn't usually very long.

Over the past few weeks, I've dove into two new authors: Lily Dalton and Courtney Milan. Dalton I picked up quite by accident. She was signing at the Texas Library Association, her book was free, and it was historical romance. That's all the convincing I needed to give it a try. Courtney Milan I've heard talk of for some months now and figured it was finally time to see what all the fuss was about.

Never Entice an Earl by Lily Dalton
Daphne Bevington's maid Kate has gotten herself into a terrible situation. Kate's father took out a huge loan from an unscrupulous lender, and now the lender has come to collect. In order to pay off the loan, Kate has taken a side job as an exotic dancer, but she's fallen ill and can't make it. So Daphne, without Kate's knowledge, takes her place for the evening. Naturally, the situation at the dance hall/bar is a bad one; unsurprisingly, our hero is there to save the day.

This was a pretty typical historical romance, I think. The hero and heroine (both upper class and titled) are thrown together into a ridiculous situation where sparks fly immediately. The setting is generically historical: women wear corsets and have to be chaperoned, but other than that, historical detail is almost nonexistent. The story could be happening at practically any point within a 100 or 150 year time frame. All this is fine, actually - I don't mind any of it when the romance itself is done well. Unfortunately, I never got a real feel for the leads. I have a hard time remembering any of their defining characteristics, and the romance between them happens suddenly and because it's supposed to, not because their personalities are a match. It's not a bad read, but not an outstanding one.

The Duchess War by Courtney Milan
This is the first book in the Brothers Sinister series, which features a few full-length novels as well as a few novellas. Our heroine, Minnie, has a scandalous past. Thanks to the meddling of our hero, Robert, this past may come to light and ruin Minnie's carefully-crafted new life. Of course, Minnie has her own tricks up her sleeve - she has some equally damning dirt on Robert. The stakes here are actually quite high. Milan doesn't write romances where the hero and heroine are kept apart by mere misunderstandings. Both characters have choices to make, but each choice will hurt themselves or someone they love. The tone of the book is pretty serious throughout, though I'm glad it had the requisite happy ending. I wasn't wowed by this one, but I did enjoy it, and it was sufficiently different from other romances to keep me intrigued and reading on.

The Heiress Effect by Courtney Milan
I liked this one even more than The Duchess War. It's a great deal funnier, thanks to a premise that is inherently amusing: the heroine has decided she will never marry, and she's decided to make it happen by being deliberately awful. She dresses in hideous clothing, casually insults lords and aristocrats, and pretends like she doesn't know the first thing about manners or social niceties. There's a dark side to the plot, as was the case with the first book, but I found myself laughing out loud a lot despite the gravity of the heroine's situation. I always appreciate my romances more when they're funny. I also think Milan's writing is a bit better here. The affection between the two leads develops at a believable pace and Milan knows just how long to keep them apart before finally throwing them together.

After finishing up this second book, I've found that Milan's books tend to be more socially and politically-conscious than other historicals I've read. Her heroes and heroines are usually part of the movement for social change, such as abolishing the peerage, organizing workers' unions, or expanding the vote to non-landowners. This helps place the books more firmly in a historical context and lends them an air of authenticity that is often missing from other romances of this kind. While the focus is definitely the love story, these historical romances seem almost as much "historical" as they are "romance." The subplots used to hamper the two leads getting together also seem more genuine since they stem from the characters, who are well-rounded and flawed in real ways (rather than "quirky" ways as is often the case - I'm looking at you, heroines who are delightfully clumsy). As a result, the romance is truly swoon-worthy and all the more satisfying at the end.

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Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Trial by Fire by Josephine Angelini

Josephine Angelini's new series has a unique concept, one that marries science fiction and fantasy (into what she calls "sci fantasy"). I've seen the melding of these two genres bandied about the past couple of years as the "next big thing," but I haven't actually seen a lot of published stories that truly fit the description. Usually, the story falls pretty firmly on one side of the SF/F line, so I was really excited to give this one a shot.

Aside from the SFF combo, the concept is unique in other ways: the storyline involves female witches whose magic is derived from the energy within their bodies, activated by certain foods and other stimuli. However, this magic only works the proper way in one of the two parallel worlds featured in the book, which is tough for our protagonist. Lily lives in our world and has suffered terrible allergies most of her life, crippling her socially and ensuring she's always in danger of suffering some life-threatening attack. When she's unwittingly taken into a parallel world where witches rule, she learns that her allergies are actually side effects of her magic, which has been held dormant within her body so long without release that it's causing her harm. In this alternate world, she's immensely powerful. Unfortunately for Lily, this kind of magic doesn't work in our world - but that doesn't stop her from trying to get back to it.

Lily didn't get to this alternate world on her own. She was brought there by Lillian, an alternate version of Lily, also a powerful witch. Because of her power, Lillian rules over Salem, and she's not kind or fair. She's set up magic as the one true way of doing things, meaning that doctors and scientists as we regard them are persecuted. According to Lillian, there is no room for science in a world ruled by magic.

Lily isn't sure why Lillian brought her to this other Salem, but she knows she wants to get back home. She's taken in by Outlanders, a group of people who live outside the walls of Salem. They don't have any of the protections offered by Salem and its ruler, meaning they're at the mercy of the Woven, terrible creatures that started out as animals but have now become something else. The leaders of the Outlanders want Lily to develop her own magic so they can use it to make a better Salem for themselves. Some of the Outlanders have counterparts in our own world (like Tristan, Lily's best friend) and some don't (like Rowan, a boy who once worked for - and loved - Lillian before joining the Outlander cause).

It's difficult for me to communicate how complex the concept and world-building are here. In some ways, the story is set up as a basic good vs. evil tale, with the Outlanders as the righteous rebels and Lillian as the power-hungry despot to be taken down. It's complicated, though, because we get some of the story from Lillian's perspective, and it's clear she has goals that are not entirely selfish. She brought Lily - a person who could theoretically be powerful enough to defeat her - to her world, after all, and she must have had a reason for doing so. The matriarchal society of alt-Salem is also fascinating and something not commonly seen in SFF. What will draw a lot of teens, though, is the idea of Lily meeting herself - Lillian - in this alternate world. They're like and unalike in various ways that fluctuate over the course of the story. At first, Lily believes she's completely different from her alt-self and tries to convince the Outlanders of it; but after some time, she starts to doubt it. This comes at about the same time we as readers start to doubt Lillian's characterization as entirely evil.

I really liked the ideas behind this story. It's so creative and so fresh, even when it's using some common tropes (romance, witches, tearing down a despotic regime). The magic system and world-building in particular are standouts. I don't think the story is entirely successful in its execution, though. Lily as a character is a bit flat. She's immensely powerful in alt-Salem, but her actions are mostly reactive (things happen to her, she doesn't make things happen). That's not a criticism of Lily as a person (I think a lot of us mostly react to things), but it's not great for a character in a novel. For a lot of the book, I felt like I was stuck in exposition, even while the characters battled Woven. Lillian's motivations remained murky up to the end, which is too bad, because she is by far the most fascinating character. This is a series, so perhaps Lily will come into her own a bit more in the sequel - and we'll get to spend more time with Lillian.

My review copy came with a letter from Angelini stating that the magic system she writes about is based on actual science, which is clearly a marketing ploy, but it's also fascinating to consider. This would be a good pick for fans of both science fiction and fantasy who want something new and something that makes them think. It's also a worthy entry into the growing parallel worlds subgenre.

Review copy provided by the publisher. Trial by Fire is available now.

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Monday, September 15, 2014

Falling Into Place by Amy Zhang

Liz Emerson planned it all out. She knew what date she'd crash her car and kill herself. She plotted where it would happen, when it would happen, and then she allowed herself 7 days to change her mind. If she couldn't find a reason to, she'd go through with the plan.

Falling Into Place by Amy Zhang begins when Liz follows through with the plan. But this isn't a story that's told in a linear way. Instead, as Liz lies in the hospital, we're given flashbacks and flash forwards into her life. What could possibly make her want to kill herself? For someone as popular and put together and respected as Liz, it seems like suicide would be the last thing she'd have on her mind.

This story is told through a surprising narrator, though readers will catch on pretty quickly to that. They may not be clear on who the narrator is until the reveal at the end, but this deliberate choice is why Zhang's novel stands out from many others and why the book itself is fresh.

The narrator knows Liz and knows Liz well. And that narrator isn't willing to lie about who or what Liz was in life. Liz, despite appearances as a popular and well-respected girl in her school, is far from a nice girl. She's manipulative. She's mean. And she's persuasive. Those characteristics are precisely why she's respected though -- people don't want to get on the wrong side of her because they know that nothing good could come from it. But even being close to Liz is a problem. Her best friends, Julia and Kennie, can't escape her manipulations.

Thanks to Liz, Julia's found herself with a bit of a drug problem and Kennie has had an abortion. While both girls make those choices for themselves, Liz's persuasive power and the fear that acting against what Liz says they should do would be cause for worse, they follow through. They listen. They're under her control, whether they like it or not.

Then there's Liam. He's a nice guy. A really nice guy. And he's at the hospital almost immediately after Liz's crash. Not because he and Liz are a couple and certainly not because she's ever given him the time of day. In fact, Liz and her friends did something awful to Liam early on in their high school career that marred his reputation forever. But Liam, being a bigger person, saw through her actions and knew that maybe, just maybe, there was something bigger and something better lurking beneath Liz's surface. He was, in fact, the person who knew it was her car that crashed. He recognized it and recognized Liz as the driver from the shirt she was wearing. Rather than allow himself to let her be, he instead decides to follow his own good heart and be there waiting for her, whether she recovered or not.

Liam is good, but Liam was also part of the problem, and not by his own choice.

Falling Into Place is fast paced, but it's nuanced. What seems like a cut-and-dry story of a mean girl isn't that straightforward. It's easy to dislike Liz because she's not likable. But her unlikable characteristics have some explanation. She is exceptionally lonely. With a father who died when she was really young by an accident she witnessed and a mother who travels all the time and finds Liz to be more of a pain than a child to love, she finds herself spending a lot of time in her home alone. Drinking. The mean things she does aren't done as a means of being vindictive but instead, they're ways to keep her entertained. To fill her own life with some kind of meaning, despite the fact that she recognizes and knows there are consequences.

Liz is filled with regret for her actions, but the problem is when you're at the top of the social ladder and people respect you and fear you, admitting your weaknesses is an impossible thing to do.

During the seven days prior to her suicide, Liz tries to change herself. She goes out of her way to try to say the things she's intended to say forever -- she wants to apologize to people and she wants to reach out and ask for help. She tries, and as readers, we see that it's not done as a means of seeking sympathy, but as a way of really, truly trying to change herself. We know she feels bad, and it comes through in little and surprising ways. There's a moment when Liz reflects upon her decision and she notes that she has to kill herself on the same day her dad died to minimize the days per year her mother would have to grieve. She's not doing this to make people feel bad; she's doing this for the exact opposite reason. She wants people to be free of her being a bad influence and a problem.

She reaches out. During those last few days, she tries to change. She goes to her school counselor and asks for help, but the counselor unintentionally turns her away. She speaks up about feeling depressed, and she's turned away. Not because the counselor doesn't care, but because the counselor can't do anything for her and, unfortunately, her reputation precedes her. Liam sees through her. But Liam also knows he can't reach her. Kenna and Julia, despite what Liz believes, care deeply about her. They know her. But, as Liz notes, they might not be as perceptive to her inner turmoil as she wishes they could be, and reaching out, she thinks, would be an incredible sign of weakness. Would they care? With how she's hurt them, why wouldn't they hurt her back?

Worth noting that readers get to make the choice on whether or not Liz is redeemed in the story. Zhang doesn't give us a solid answer, and because of who the narrator is, it's further complicated. This was a smart, savvy narrative choice because it's the kind of story that has no good answers at the end. It can only lay out the facts, and those facts are inextricably tied to the narrator sharing them, and that narrator shows both the good and the downright ugly. The narrator loved Liz, but the narrator didn't love everything Liz did.

Falling Into Place is tightly written, and the complex structure works. This book is a fast-paced read, and it's one that could easily be done in one sitting. Personally, I appreciated walking away a few times because there was a lot to sift through -- Liz is anything but one-dimensional and holding the contradictory thoughts of her meanness with the sadness she felt inside required some away-from-the-page reflection. The writing is solid and at times really lovely, and while some of the renderings of high school and secondary characters can feel a little bit flat, it's forgivable because of who the narrator is, how long that narrator has followed Liz, and, perhaps the thing worth noting but not lingering on, the author wrote this book when she was 18. Without being beyond her own high school experience, it'd be impossible to see the wider world. Which isn't to say it's bad -- it's far from that -- but instead, some of the depictions read a little young and yet, they show really huge promise.

Zhang's debut is a memorable one, and I can see this being a title getting some Morris discussion. It hadn't been one I paid a lot of attention to, but I'm really glad I picked it up because it far exceeded my expectations and left me eager for what Zhang will write next. This book could be called If I Stay meets Before I Fall and that would be an accurate description, though I liked Falling Into Place more than either of those titles. There are shades of Thirteen Reasons Why in this book, too. While a mash-up of the three books may make this sound like it's the kind of book that's been done before, it's not. Falling Into Place is new, different, and it will have huge appeal to readers who liked any of those prior titles without it ever feeling like it's trying to be any of those titles. This is a book for your realistic YA readers who like complex characters.

Falling Into Place is available now. Review copy received from the publisher. 

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Thursday, September 4, 2014

Girls Like Us by Gail Giles

Biddy and Quincy are two special education students. Or at least, they were special education students until they graduated from high school. Now, they've been placed together in an apartment that sits behind a home of an older woman who they're responsible for helping out. She's almost like their overseer, but she's really not (or at least, she's not hugely invested in that role).

The two girls were placed together following graduation for legal reasons, but the caseworker who paired them together did so for very specific reasons. Ones which Quincy can't make sense of and ones which leave her more frustrated than content.

See, Quincy is a rough-around-the-edges kind of girl. She's got a facial scar, thanks to a horrific young home life, and she wears her hurt, her anger, and her defenses like armor. When she's moved into this apartment, she's given a job to work outside the home, at a local store. She's capable of doing it, despite what others might think of or perceive of her skills because of her education. Though Quincy's told she and Biddy are to share their home responsibilities -- it's a way for the two of them to both acquire new skills -- Quincy is a good cook and takes on the cooking for all meals, rather than splitting the task with Biddy. In return, Biddy cleans.

Biddy is almost the polar opposite of Quincy. She's exceptionally sweet and kind, with a large heart. This is despite her own rough past, one which comes through periodically in the story but isn't fully exposed until it needs to be. Unlike Quincy, Biddy wears her scars internally, and her external persona is that gentle nature. She's not rough. She's not tough. She mothers a duck and ducklings that appear in her garden, taking extreme efforts to protect and nurture them, to ensure that the babies and mom survive in their out-of-place home. But Biddy is scared, and that scared comes out in somewhat unexpected ways.

Girls Like Us by Gail Giles is a dual-voiced novel, written with short chapters and in a style that reflects the authentic voices of these two girls. They don't speak or think in entirely perfect sentences or use proper grammar -- but it's never once distracting nor is it belittling. In many ways, this choice in style is exceptionally respectful of these girls, how they think, and why seeing how they think this way matters. Never does it feel like the girls are being made fun of nor that their special education status makes them anything less than fully human.

This isn't an easy read, though, despite the fact it is fast paced. It's engaging, but the horrors both girls experience are unbelievable. Biddy, who is sweet on the outside, has been raped in the past. Not only had she been raped, but she had become pregnant and her caretaker at the time forced her to give up the baby for adoption. Though Quincy thinks of her as a slutty kind of girl initially -- and Quincy is quick to judge the fact she's fat to seeing her once with candy and snacks tucked inside her clothes -- but as Biddy opens up to Quincy following something horrific that happens to her (spoiler: Quincy is also a victim of sexual violence, at the hands of a coworker who we know early on is suspicious), Quincy begins to see that Biddy's exterior isn't the whole of her.

There's a lot to mine here in terms of armor and how we wear our scars. This is a realization Quincy comes to, too: she's biting and tough in her words, and her scar becomes quite representative of how she feels on the inside. Biddy wears her wounds with her body. She eats -- or did eat -- for comfort and solace. While many times this character trait can be problematic in books, as it's such an easy way to explain why a character is fat, rather than allowing them to be fat, Giles does a great job not doing that here. She's giving an explanation, but she's not making Biddy's life about her body. Where it once was what Quincy saw as what defined Biddy, Quincy is the one who realizes what a crummy way it is to judge someone. She knows she wouldn't want people to judge her by her exterior. Perhaps, too, it's worth mentioning here that Quincy is a person of color, and that becomes a topic she broaches in her side of the story.

Girls Like Us isn't perfect, despite how many things it does right. At times the format and the pacing mean that huge plot points are rushed over or shoehorned in in a way that doesn't feel authentic. There's a moment when -- spoiler -- the woman who Biddy and Quincy work for tries to reunite Biddy with the child she'd given up for adoption. This entire scene felt uncomfortable because it wasn't fleshed out well, and while that is part of the point (Lizabeth hadn't thought this through when she decided to pursue this), it felt like one thing too many in a story that had been handling a lot of issues very well.

That said, one of the best parts of this book, and why I keep thinking about it long after finishing it, is that Giles wrote a book about girls. There's not a romance here, and even when boys become a problem within the story, they're not turned into enemies -- Biddy's fearful of them, but she's not hateful toward them. More importantly, girls aren't enemies, either. There aren't "other girls" in this book. There aren't girls who are special or more valuable or more different than others. These are two girls who learn how to work with one another and who come to love one another for their strengths and for their flaws. These are two girls who, despite being so different, have a shared core to them. Quincy and Biddy build one another up and they are there for one another through some really tough stuff in a way that empowers their relationship and in a way that empowers them individually. They're not saved and they're not saving. They're respecting each other and learning how to grow and become individuals. This is a powerful and all-too-rare message in YA. Though these girls have been a part of special education, they aren't any less human than anyone else.

Giles respects these girls so much, and it's through Quincy and Biddy's voices that we begin to understand how labels such as "differently abled" and "special education" or any other euphemism can be useful and can be hurtful. As Quincy says to one of her coworkers, she's not dumb. She's just been given a different education because some things are hard for her to grasp. It doesn't mean she's unable to function in the world; she just has to adjust her functioning to suit her strengths and accommodate her weaknesses.

Pass Girls Like Us off to readers who like gritty novels, as well as those who like a fast-paced book. This will appeal to reluctant readers, as well as more advanced readers, and it certainly should be given to those who are seeking stories set after high school and not in college. These girls are part of the working class, and Giles knocks the economics of this out of the park. Likewise, readers who are looking for books about girls, about friendship, about tolerance, and about how those with learning challenges operate in the real world will find so much to enjoy here. By far, my favorite Gail Giles read.

Girls Like Us is available now. Copy picked up from the library. 

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Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Palace of Spies by Sarah Zettel

I love historical mysteries set in palaces, particularly when the sleuth is a girl spy masquerading as a servant or lady in waiting. I feel like there are enough books fitting this particular mold out now that it can almost be considered its own subgenre within YA: historical female spy palace mysteries? Over the weekend, I read Sarah Zettel's excellent Palace of Spies, which kicks off her series of the same name. I read these sorts of books for the palace intrigue, the historical details of court life, and the intelligence of the amateur sleuth; Zettel's book did not disappoint in any of these aspects.

One of the hallmarks of these stories is the teenage sleuth thrown into a life of espionage through desperation or blackmail - it doesn't usually happen by choice. Such is the case with our protagonist, Peggy Fitzroy, an orphan who decided to refuse marriage to the wealthy jerk her rich uncle had picked our for her. Kicked out of said uncle's home and with nowhere to turn, Peggy decides to accept an offer from the dubiously-named Mr. Tinderflint. He convinces her to pose as Lady Francesca Wallingham, who was very recently a lady in waiting to Princess Catherine (wife of George, the Prince of Wales, who would go on to be George II) - until her unfortunate death of a fever several weeks ago.

As Peggy bears more than a passing resemblance to Francesca, the deception isn't difficult to pull off. She's instated at Hampton Court Palace with no one the wiser, instructed to observe and report back. What precisely she is to look for isn't deemed knowledge she needs to know, though she is told she must pay careful attention to the games of cards that the noble men and women entertain themselves with nightly.

Peggy is a smart girl. It doesn't take her long to realize that not only is Mr. Tinderflint hiding something from her, but so is nearly everyone else at court. But the truly alarming realization is that Francesca did not die of a fever; she was murdered. It only follows that the murderer may come after Peggy next, thinking to finish the job.

As with any good palace mystery, there are a lot of threads to the story. The main mystery involves a Jacobite plot to instate the Stuart King James II to the throne of England, removing the Hanover King George I. It's up to the reader (and Peggy) to puzzle out which subplots are integral to this central mystery and which are distractions (but interesting distractions nonetheless). Mixed up in this is the mystery of Peggy's own past - her mother may have been a spy herself, and her father left them when Peggy was a young child. And of course, there's plenty of court gossip to keep the reader entertained as well.

Peggy's voice makes this an above average mystery. She's sharply observant and learns quickly, making her ideally suited to her deception. She's got a bit of a wry sense of humor, too, and sometimes lets her desire to one-up her court rivals get her into hot water. Watching Peggy try to puzzle out Francesca's life without letting Francesca's acquaintances catch on brings its own share of amusement, too, particularly when Peggy is greeted by what appears to be Francesca's secret paramour in her bedchamber.

Zettel's writing is confident and the story is well-plotted. Mysteries often hinge strongly on the final reveal at the end, and Palace of Spies has a great one, speaking to the way society underestimates the will and intelligence of teenage girls (both in the 1700s and today). Like all good mystery series, it also leaves a few questions about Peggy's family's past unanswered, giving Zettel fodder for future installments.

Hand this to readers who have enjoyed similar books in this historical female spy palace mystery subgenre (I'm gonna go with it) like Jennifer McGowan's Maid of Secrets, Michaela MacColl's Prisoners in the Palace, or Y. S. Lee's The Traitor in the Tunnel. It's also a great choice for readers interested in learning more about this period in England's history - there aren't many books that tackle the early 18th century and I know Jacobitism would fascinate many teen historical fiction junkies.

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Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Tomboy by Liz Prince

In yesterday's post, I wrote about how I enjoy getting my nonfiction via graphic novel, and I read two spectacular ones over this past weekend. Coincidentally (or maybe not), they were both graphic memoirs about growing up as a girl in America.

Liz Prince's Tomboy addresses this topic a bit more bluntly than Telgemeier's Sisters does. Prince characterizes her identity as a tomboy as something she knew from almost the moment of birth, though she didn't know how to articulate it right away. She hates wearing dresses, enjoys playing sports, doesn't play with dolls, and looks down upon the "girly girls" who dress up like princesses and seem obsessed with makeup. The book takes Liz from her infancy up through her adolescence and into her later teen years, tackling friendship, bullying, dating, and other rites of passage. While it focuses primarily on Liz's struggle with her gender identity, the book is also a story about family and art, much like Sisters is.

Liz's preferred method of gender expression didn't make things easy for her. While attending Catholic school, she was forced to wear a dress for monthly mass, and it was tortuous. She was teased a lot, called derogatory names, accused of being a boy or a lesbian (and these were definitely accusations from her tormentors), and never felt she fit in. She wanted so desperately to be "one of the boys," but the boys wouldn't ever allow it, and of course, she never felt like she fit in with the girls.

Savvy readers will pick up on the fact that Liz herself pigeonholes people, buying into the very system that she rails against. At one point, she reads about a girl in a magazine who describes herself as a tomboy, but this girl wears a pretty dress to go on a date with a boy, and Liz instantly decides this makes the girl not a real tomboy. Liz puts boys on a pedestal, believing their interests and values are more worthy of respect than girls' interests and values, and this is part of what drives her desire to not be a girl.

Near the end of the book, Liz meets Harley, a woman who forces her to realize that she's unwittingly become a part of the problem, too. She's placed boys in one homogenous group and girls in another. Through Harley's guidance (plus Harley's encouragement of Liz's artistic skills), Liz learns to see herself as a girl and embrace that identity, even if she doesn't express that identity in traditional ways. This realization opens a door for Liz, allowing her to finally accept herself and settle into a personal identity that brings some happiness rather than discontent.

While both Sisters and Tomboy are about growing up as girls, they're also about growing up as girls who like comics. These kinds of books are especially important for artistic girls who have a passion for these kinds of things that are often relegated to the field of "boys' interests." I can just imagine a pre-teen or teenager becoming inspired by Raina or Liz, seeing them struggle and emerge victorious. After all, the books are proof of the victory!

This should resonate with teens who struggle with gender non-conformity, even in relatively minor ways, and get them to think more deeply about the damage caused when we label people as one thing or another. Fitting in is the perennial topic for teens' books, and for many, it's a struggle that dominates their lives for years. Finding your place, your people, your passion is hard, especially when it seems everyone is out to stop you from doing it. Even those teens who express their gender in traditional ways usually have trouble fitting in elsewhere, and consequently, they should have no trouble relating in some way to Liz's story.

Liz's age through most of the book, the themes addressed, plus some minor swearing and drug use make this a memoir best suited for teens. When Liz finally finds her people near the end and is able to develop her passion for comics, it's a gratifying moment. I think it's a moment that happens to a lot of teens right around the time it happened to Liz. It gives the book a nice coming-of-age arc and provides satisfying closure. This is a stellar example of what the graphic format can do - it's accessible, insightful, and fun to read. Highly recommended.

Finished copy provided by the publisher. Tomboy is available September 2.

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Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Sisters by Raina Telgemeier

I've found that I prefer my nonfiction in unconventional mediums - via audio, in short snippets on the web, or in graphic novel format. This past weekend, I dug into two stellar graphic memoirs, both of which tackled growing up as a girl in America: Sisters by Raina Telgemeier and Tomboy by Liz Prince. I planned to review both in this post, but because I love you, dear readers, I've split them into two posts (I got a little wordy, as often happens). Come back tomorrow for a discussion of Tomboy.

Sisters is a companion book to Smile and tells the story of a summer road trip taken by Raina, her little sister Amara, her little brother Will, and her mother. They drove from California to Colorado to visit aunts, uncles, and cousins when Raina was around 14. Interspersed among the events of the road trip are musings on Raina's initial desire to have a little sister - and the reasons Raina felt this was a terrible mistake once it actually happened.

The book focuses mainly on Raina's relationship with Amara, covering the road trip in a linear way and flashing back to various other moments in time: Amara's birth, Amara as a toddler, Will's birth, and so on. Every girl's relationship with her sister is different, but they almost all share that lovely combination of love and intense dislike. Sometimes your sister will be your best friend; sometimes she'll be your arch enemy. If you're lucky, by the time you're both adults, you're solidly on the friend track most of the time. When you're both kids, though, it's an uneven, rocky trail.

Telgemeier rounds out the story with a few other elements: Raina's relationship with her cousins (not great), her parents' relationship with each other, her father being laid off, her interest in comics, and so on. There's a great scene between Raina and her older male cousins where Raina expresses her interest in drawing comics, naming some of her favorite strips (For Better or for Worse, Foxtrot), and her cousins laugh it off as "not real comics" (like Batman or Hulk, according to them). This is such a simple and realistic way to address sexism in comics and how difficult finding and advocating for your passion can be when you're a kid. I've no doubt that a conversation much like this actually happened.

As a child who went on numerous summer road trips with a brother and a little sister to visit cousins who weren't always so nice to me, this was instantly relatable. It's also funny. I laughed out loud at the story Telgemeier tells of her little sister's pet snake getting loose in the van and living for days without dying or being caught (Raina is, of course, terrified of snakes, and Amara uses this against her). I have stories like this from my own family's road trips, too. One of my parents' favorite stories of sibling bickering on road trips involves one kid telling a parent about another kid: "Mom, she's looking out my window!" (Apparently, we felt that we not only had our own seats in the minivan, we also had our own specific windows.) It's funny now, but I know we were dead serious then.

Telgemeier has a magical way of making the mundane seem extraordinary. Nothing that happens is fantastical or unusual, but it's riveting anyway. It should speak quite strongly to big sisters who look on their little sisters with equal parts fondness and aggravation (and vice versa!), bringing to light that contradictory fact that you can love someone and hate her at the same time. There are insights about love and kindness, sure, but it's not saccharine and she never hits the reader over the head with a Message.

Telgemeier traffics in nostalgia for adults my age - there are references to battery-run Walkmans and a conspicuous absence of the internet or cell phones - but doesn't allow the book to wallow in it. This is still a book for kids who are kids right now - kids who are forced into close proximity with their siblings who they may not have a lot in common with for a long period of time, whether that's on a road trip or sharing a bedroom or enforced "family game nights." It's about how you get along (or don't) with the people life has thrown at you through no fault of your own. It's a lovely middle grade memoir about family with Telgemeier's trademark expressive, cartoon-style art, and it should find a wide audience.

Review copy provided by the publisher. Sisters is available today.

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Monday, August 11, 2014

Some Boys by Patty Blount

Grace was raped by the town golden boy, Zac. He's a big shot lacrosse player and no one believes he'd ever do anything wrong. Everything Grace says is just an attempt to bring him down and the video that was posted on Facebook seems to show that Grace consented to what happened that night. Why would Zac be a rapist if it looks like she said yes?

Ian, Zac's best friend and teammate, has always had a thing for Grace. At least he did. He knows now that Zac's been with her, she's off limits.

But now, Grace and Ian are both being forced to clean the lockers at the school. Grace because she continues to lash out at those who berate her for what she's saying about Zac and Ian as a means of making amends for some of his own behavior that came out as a result of health issues he's been having (there's a plot line here about athletics and concussions). When the two of them are thrown together in this project, things change for both Grace and Ian. Both of them are tense guarded as a result of their relationships to one another and to Zac, but slowly, that begins to chip away as they talk to one another. And for the first time, perhaps Grace has an ally. Perhaps someone believes what happened to her.

Some Boys by Patty Blount is an exploration of rape culture. This book has a solid basis in reality, with shades of Steubenville echoing throughout. But what makes Blount's approach a bit different is that her story is told from dual points of view. It's an uneasy read, but it does a fair job of looking into the experience through the eyes of a girl who can't be heard and a boy who experiences the effects of rape culture in an entirely different manner -- as a boy and as a boy who happens to be extremely close to the guy who raped. Blount examines how a town can turn against a single girl who dares to say something happened to her and her body, especially when those allegations are against someone who happens to be held in high esteem. This is the other side of the "but those poor boys will have their futures ruined" story that the news loves to feed us, the one where we understand the implications of what it means to have your body violated and to have your story ignored completely because those poor boys and their futures.

There are very few books that look at rape culture in YA, and while this is a solid entry and one absolutely worth reading and discussing (and it should be read and discussed), it never quite cut as deeply as it could have. Sometimes when you read a book and you know it's important, you accept elements of plot or character that are imperfect because you know what the story is doing or saying is enough on its own. But even knowing that the issue of rape culture here was well-done and that it's a book that is more than worthwhile reading, I couldn't help but see these things and feel like they could have been tightened, reconsidered, or not included at all in order to make a much tighter, more well-written book as a whole.

Grace's mother really wants her to leave town and go abroad, to get away from the nightmare she keeps putting herself through by showing up at school and being ridiculed. While Grace chooses not to leave, which garners her mother's support, it felt like it was always an option. It didn't make her situation any easier, obviously, but it made me think about how privilege can be wrapped up in situations like this. That Grace chooses to stay in town and resisted leaving is huge and important -- and it empowers her because she knows she's right and she knows that she needs to continue having her life here -- I wish that the element of possibility had never existed. It seemed unnecessary to even offer that out because it said to me that there was an out. I never got the sense of claustrophobia here because that was always in the back of my mind. It's not blaming her for not leaving; it's instead a question of why that was even offered up as an option. Had it not been there at all, I'd never have put it in my mind. But it was, so I couldn't shake it.

My bigger issue with the book, though, was the fact this was set up as a romance. One of my biggest pet peeves in a big story like this is that a boy comes in and becomes the hero. It seems like an all-too-common response in stories about trauma, but it wasn't until Ian came forth and said he believed Grace that anyone else so much as wanted to listen to her and believe she never gave Zac consent. While I thought Ian's growth was great and while I thought he handled going against his best friend was believable, I so wish it hadn't been a boy -- one who had a crush on Grace, particularly -- who had to be the one to stand up for her. To be the reason her story and her voice was validated. It spoke too easily to how the male voice is the one that's believed and respected, not just in the story, but in our society on a larger level. Why is it girls can't have such powerful allies in other girls? Why does that validation need to come through a boy?

More, I did not care whether Ian and Grace would end up together. The romance felt like a distraction and a way to talk around the bigger issue without addressing it head on. It was uninteresting. I cared so much more about Grace making it through than I did about Ian getting his prize at the end. Because that's what it was: Grace had no romantic inclinations toward him for the bulk of the story. He, however, had plenty toward her. What's maybe most bothersome about the romance in this story, though, is less how it's written and more that it's the selling point of the book. The tagline even tells us that one boy may be able to mend what others have broken.

To me this says a lot about our comfort in listening to a girl's story for the sake of her story. Romance sells, even if it's not the point of the book. Even if it's the weakest and most unnecessary part of the book. I can't help but think that it goes back to what validates a girl's story. Here? It's a boy who can mend the broken girl. Weirder that it's a boy who went too far and broke her heart.

There's more than her heart at stake.

This paragraph is spoiler, so skip down if you don't want it. For me, the ending wasn't believable. The apologies came too quickly in the end. Even when the truth came to pass, the pacing was off. The community's decision to apologize and seek Grace's forgiveness never felt authentic nor real. It could have been stronger had the story ended when the truth emerged, rather than allow Grace's peers to even have the chance to redeem themselves. It would have been a bit more damning and a bit more realistic to how rape culture -- at least how we see it in media -- plays out. The ending here fell into the same trap that the ending in Tease by Amanda Maciel did: too easy, too much a neat bow on a package that deserved better.

Grace as a character worked for me. She's tough, but she's also not entirely silent. She's not willing to be degraded and she refuses to take anything from anyone. At this point, she realizes she has nothing left to lose because no one cares about her anyway. That hardened exterior makes sense, and much of it seems to delve into her interior, too. She was more compelling and engaging for me than Ian, though Ian's development was not lacking or problematic itself.

Although I have a fair share of criticisms for Some Boys, this is an important book for teens and for the adults who work with them. Addressing rape culture head-on is something we don't see enough of, and we certainly don't get the perspective of the girl who has been a victim enough. These voices and stories are important because they're precisely what the media and our broader culture chooses to ignore in light of the poor boys who have their futures ruined because of their crime. We don't hear about the girl who has been violated and who has to live every waking moment knowing that what she says isn't as important as the futures of those boys.

Pass this book along to readers who like realistic fiction and anyone who has read the likes of Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson or similar stories about rape and sexual assault. Although it's not out yet and won't be until next spring, this book will be in excellent conversation with Courtney Summers's All the Rage, which also homes in on rape culture and the way our society protects boys but spits in the faces of girls who are made victims of sexual violence.

Some Boys is available now. Review copy received from the publisher. Patty will be stopping by on Wednesday to talk a bit more about the story's inspirations and how she did her research. 

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