Sunday, December 20, 2009

My pile of Kindle-ing

It happens to the best of us. We hear about a shiny new product, figure our lives are still okay without it, and go on with things. Then we get said product and wonder how we ever lived.

Such is the case with my Kindle.

(Disclaimer: Though I am an Amazon Affiliate because I like being able to get a new DVD every now and again, in this case I am just a satisfied customer.)

When you live in an apartment and own a lot of books, space becomes a major issue. When your husband threatens to divorce you if he has to move any more of your books, that's also a major issue. For me, the Kindle solved both those major problems; I can fit my entire library on there with room to spare, and I can carry it in my purse. And since I've had a lot of questions about it, here are my answers:

  • No, not every book is available for the Kindle, and the Kindle cannot read e-pub format books. But I figure that Amazon has 400,000+ books available for the Kindle. I'm not going to get bored anytime soon.
  • You have to read your Kindle under the same conditions you'd read a paper book, in terms of lighting. The Kindle is not backlit, because reading on a backlit screen for long periods of time is very hard on the eyes. I'm also a loyal iPhone user, and believe me, I spent the first 24 hours of my Kindle ownership poking the screen and listening to Mr. Carlie yell, "It's not an iPod! It doesn't have a touch screen!" Of course, there is a Kindle for iPhone app, which allows me to read my downloaded books on my phone and then sync the two so my Kindle catches up to where I've read on my phone. I heart technology.
  • I can hold a drink in one hand and read on my Kindle in the other and not worry about getting food on the pages. This is important!
  • Yes, Kindle books are $9.99. Sometimes they're more, sometimes less. Lots of classics are available for free.
  • You don't have to have internet at home to use the Kindle. In fact, you don't even need to own a computer. It works over a 3G network, just like cell phones.
  • No, I don't think the Kindle, or any other e-book reader, is going to kill the publishing industry because...
Let's think about this for a minute. THE hot new electronic toy to have is a device dedicated to reading. When was the last time that happened? Sure, the Kindle plays MP3s, but it's way too small in terms of capacity to hold a music collection. One significant person in my life who travels a lot adores his Kindle because it means he doesn't have to pack heavy books in his luggage. I like that I can read one-handed if I have to ride the subway standing up. People who love to read but have limited space don't have to worry about their volume of book ownership. Since the font size on the Kindle is adjustable (though the Kindle only has one font), people who are visually impaired don't have to wait for large-print versions of books. And those who like to mark their books (not I, but there are some) can still make notes and bookmarks via the keyboard.

There's even a discussion about the Kindle at Jezebel here.

I know lots of people have found various faults with the Kindle, but I personally love mine. Like Urban Decay Primer Potion and the Tide pen, it's changed my life for the better.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

The Help: You need it

I know it probably makes me uncool to blog about a huge bestseller, but I was never one of the cool kids, anyway.

The Help by Kathryn Stockett is a book that I might normally pass up. It's historical fiction, set in the early 1960s in Jackson, Mississippi. It's also most definitely women's fiction, which I've never thought was my thing. What got me to pick it up? First, I got it as a gift. Thanks, Mom! Second, the people I talked to who had read it said that what made The Help stand out were the voices. I'm a sucker for a great voice, so I picked up the book and now there's a day missing from my life (in a good way).

To be precise, the book has three voices: Skeeter, a white recent college graduate who is living at home in Jackson with no boyfriend and no job; Minny, an outspoken black maid with a talent for cooking; and Aibileen, also a black maid, who is devout and kind. When Skeeter is rejected for a job at Harper & Row, she is advised to work on her writing and really think about the stories she wants to tell. This leads to Skeeter investigating what happened to her beloved maid, Constantine, who stopped writing to Skeeter while she was away at college. In the course of finding out what happened to Constantine, Skeeter grows closer to Aibileen and decides that the stories she wants to tell are the stories of black maids who work for white families in Jackson. In the era of Jim Crow laws, just getting the maids together to tell these stories for the book endangers their livelihood. The women must meet in secret and when Skeeter's best friend Hilly gets wind of Skeeter's writing the book, she sets out to make things miserable for Skeeter. While Skeeter and Aibileen work hard to keep the book a secret, Minny is keeping a secret of her own: Her employer, Miss Celia, will do anything to keep her husband from knowing that she's hired Minny.

The voices make this book unforgettable, definitely, but I think there's another aspect to it, and that is that Stockett treats great human kindness as well as cruelty with equal care. She also stays far away from two of my biggest pet peeves in historical fiction, which are characters who rebel with twenty-first century sensibility in a time when they knew full well what the consequences could be for doing so, and forgetting that not everyone is super affected by every major historical event that comes along. Stockett always keeps her focus on the people, which I feel should be the focus of all good works of fiction. She gave her characters fascinating yet real lives, so they only needed each other to make for a great book. The setting is just as vivid as the characters, and it made me very glad to live in a time of air conditioning. No breakneck adventure, no zombie apocalypse, no torrid doomed romance, just an absorbing, thought-provoking story of three lives.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Holes Goes to Hell

Know how much I wanted to read this book? I bought it. (Alas, my local library system doesn't own it and I never got an advance copy.) Not only that, I paid retail for it. I don't remember the last time I paid retail for a book. I have to say, this was well worth every cent.

Lockdown: Escape from Furnace by Alexander Gordon Smith (FSG, 2009)

The premise: Fourteen-year-old Alex has led a life of petty crime for the past two years, stealing money and valuables from empty houses. Stealing gives him a thrill, until the night he and his friend Toby break into the wrong house. Alex and Toby are caught not by the cops, but by three men who seem to be right out of a sci-fi movie. To Alex's horror, they kill Toby and frame Alex for his murder. And there's no standard juvenile detention facility for Alex, either. He's sent to serve his sentence in Furnace, the worst correctional facility since Camp Green Lake. It's a state-of-the-art prison built a mile underground into solid rock. No sunlight, minimal air, no fresh water.

The worst part of Furnace isn't the heat, or the tiny cell, or even the prison gangs. It's the monster skinless dogs who can rip you to shreds in about five seconds. Or maybe it's the wheezers, who come during the night. Once they mark you, you're in for a fate worse than death. You won't find any senior citizen inmates in Furnace. No one lasts that long.

Alex refuses to give up on himself, no matter how bleak Furnace is. He clings to his innocence and he's determined to find a way out.

My personal thoughts: This book hits all of my favorite book buttons. First, an institutional setting. I don't know why, but I love books that take place in prisons and hospitals. Second, the action is bloody and unforgiving. Many Darren Shan references are made by both the author and the characters. Darren Shan is the first author I thought of when reading this book. Both authors use breakneck speed and incredibly creepy half-sized creatures, and neither shies away from describing every gory detail and injury. (Translation: This book is not for the faint of stomach.) They also both remember that a book can have all the blood and gore of all the Saw movies put together, but no reader is going to get past page ten if the protagonist doesn't have some heart and charm. No matter how frightened he is by the prison, Alex retains his sense of right and wrong. He is a thief, yes, but not a violent criminal. Nor is he someone who wishes ill on his fellow inmates or harm them without provocation. I wanted to see Alex succeed, but I also couldn't wait to see what kind of prison atrocity Smith would spring on us next. It's a page-turner, no doubt, and I almost wish I'd waited to read this until book 2 was out.

Lockdown is the first in a planned five-part series. I don't know if I can take the suspense!

Lockdown's page at Macmillan US || Alexander Gordon Smith's website || author interview at The Discriminating Fangirl || Jen Robinson's review

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Listen up: Tender Morsels

Now that I'm finally caught up on my Printz Honor books from last year, I will say this: Not only is the world of YA literature a better place because Margo Lanagan is in it, but I want to know what goes on in her head all day.

<--- Australian cover, because I like it British cover, because it rocks and says, "This girl lost her pearl earring while she was kicking ass and taking names." --->

Tender Morsels (that's a link to the print book, but this review is of the audio version) is a retelling of one of my favorite fairy tales, "Snow White and Rose Red." Only you know that when Margo Lanagan touches a story, it turns to gold. She roots the story in brutality; the Snow White character, Branza, and her Rose Red sister, Urdda, are conceived via incest and rape, respectively. Despite the violence others visit on her, Liga, their mother, is kind and wants a peaceful life for Branza and Urda. With the help of a little magic, she wakes up one morning in a brighter, gentler version of her town, and raises her girls to their teen years. Then Urdda passes through a portal to an alternate version of her town. Time flows differently in this new world, and when Urda comes back, she finds that years have passed in the life she knew.

Since the Snow White and Rose Red story wouldn't be complete without the bear and the dwarf, Lanagan tells their stories and makes them so much more than just the cranky man and the cursed prince. There's a witch involved, but she's not the evil witch of most fairy tales. These are complex people with lives and loves whose stories are told with the most amazing turns of phrase. It's a book that's not afraid to address all of the emotions that make us human, even the ugly ones.

Listen to a clip here.

The readers, Anne Flosnik and Michael Page, alternate the male and female voices with accents that make you feel like you're lost in a fairy tale land, wandering forests and fields. There's such a huge range of emotion in this book that it really speaks to their talents that these readers kept me captivated through both the dark and light parts of the tale. They convey wisdom from the older characters and love and wonder from the younger ones. It's a long book, 12 CDs around 45-60 minutes each, but I'm glad I listened to it. When listening, we can't help but substitute our own voices, and the audio version of Tender Morsels really helped me imagine the brutal, amazing world Lanagan created.

Review copy courtesy of Brilliance Audio.

Friday, October 23, 2009

I read bad books so you don't have to

For the past few weeks, I've had to cut back on blogging because I've been busy with, among other things, an internship at a well-known NYC literary agency. It's an agency where I'd love to work someday, and I love the intern work. Getting my first "job" in publishing, though, has really changed the way I think about and read YA literature and how it gets into the hands of readers, and also why librarians ask the questions they do about publishers' mindsets.

On an average day at my internship, I might read 8 query letters. Queries, in short, are a one-page letter from an author to a potential agent selling the agent the idea of the book. A query's job is to make the agent say, "This sounds intriguing. I'd like to read this book." Now, do some math. If the average agent gets 8 queries a day, multiplied by the number of agents at the agency (let's say there are 5), that's 40 queries a day, multiplied by 7 days a week = 280 queries a week, 14,560 queries a year. It takes a lot to stand out among 14,000+ other book ideas. If there's one thing I've learned here, it's that good writing can make any plot or character appealing. I've also learned that a query and the first fifty pages of the novel it describes aren't always equal. Some queries that seemed so-so to me have turned into 50 pages that made me hassle the author (not really, but I wanted to) for more. In short, I get to see a lot of ideas both good and bad, and trust me, those who complain that "there are no good books anymore" need to see the slush pile. I'll SHOW them where the no-good books end up.

In order to be good at your publishing job, you do have to read, but because I'm now enjoying a longer commute and longer hours, I'm not reading as much unless the author is a client of the agency. I'm still reviewing for Kirkus and VOYA but I'm not going to print those reviews here, obviously. Future reviews will include Tender Morsels by Margo Lanagan and How to Say Goodbye in Robot by Natalie Standiford. After I get some much-needed sleep.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Listen up: Carter Finally Gets It

Brilliance Audio has this cool new program where they send out review copies of their audiobooks, and when I got the box of Fall 2009 titles, I didn't know what to listen to first. With the help of my to-read list and a recommendation from my good friend Liz B, I picked up Carter Finally Gets It by Brent Crawford, which on the surface sounds like everything no one wants right now.

Besides being realistic fiction, Carter is set in the suburbs where the weather varies. The main character is from a white, middle-class family with two happily married parents and an older sister who sometimes antagonizes him, but generally isn't too bad. Carter is not the smartest or dumbest or handsomest or ugliest kid in the class. He has friends, but he's not super-popular. If you press me, I'll tell you that the book doesn't even have a plot; it's just a series of events and mishaps in Carter's freshman year. No vampires. No zombies. Nothing hi-tech. It's everything that could make for a boring book, but as Miss Snark always said: Good writing trumps all. In this case, good writing plus a great voice performance trump all.

Reader Nick Podehl's calling in life is to be a fourteen-year-old boy. Carter is a boy with a rich, dynamic inner monologue, and Podehl beautifully captures Carter's highs as well as his lows. Podehl also brings delight when he reads in the voices of Carter's friends and family, particularly the girls. Crawford's characters are real and recognizable to any reader, and when Podehl reads through the speech of fourteen-year-old girls caught up in fourteen-year-old boy/girl politics, you'll feel like you're in the hallway at a high school.

Carter reminded me a lot of another favorite guy-centered realistic book: Sleeping Freshmen Never Lie by David Lubar. It's got that sort of appeal where teens will read it and laugh, and adults will read it and laugh...and then cringe.

retailer info page at Brilliance Audio
|| Brent Crawford's website || The New York Post finally gets it || audiobook review at Green Bean Teen Queen

Review copy courtesy of Brilliance Audio.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Refresh, Refresh: The waiting is the hardest part

I don't review a lot of graphic novels because my knowledge of art can generously be described as "lacking," but when I heard about Danica Novgorodoff's graphic retelling of Benjamin Percy's short story "Refresh, Refresh," I knew it was one I wanted to read.

Refresh, Refresh follows three teen boys, Cody, Josh, and Gordon, whose fathers are serving in the Marines. Stuck in their small Oregon town, they form a fight club so they can strengthen themselves against their enemies. They party, they go camping, they cause more trouble than they solve, and they refresh, refresh their email, hoping for a message from their fathers. Seasons pass and the boys, seniors in high school, make important decisions about their futures. Cody is sure he wants to become a Marine and fight terrorists, and Josh takes flak from his friends when he confesses that he'd rather go to college than join the armed forces. All three boys also feel stress at home, because they've become the men of their respective houses.

I'm sure this is a book that will be mentioned when the inevitable, "Do you know any books about teens whose fathers have gone off to war?" readers' advisory question is asked, but Refresh, Refresh is not just a book about a parent at war. It's about grieving someone who may or may not be dead, and it's about three boys trying to move forward with their lives when uncertainty holds them back. In trying to become strong, Cody, Josh, and Gordon show their biggest weaknesses and how isolated they feel in their own families and among their peers. Novogodoff uses a fair amount of dialogue at the beginning of the book, but the last ten pages are almost entirely wordless. It doesn't end on the happiest note, but it does end realistically, something this reader appreciated.

review at Pop Candy || Danica Novgorodoff's Refresh, Refresh site || Author interview at Comic Book Resources || review at Reading Rants!

review copy courtesy of First Second Books

Friday, September 18, 2009

A fabulous Orlando vacation

Completely off the topic of book reviews, has anyone else wondered lately what's become of everyone's favorite blond elf-boy, Orlando Bloom? For about 5 years there he was everywhere, from Extras:

to invading the daily comic strip FoxTrot in the collection Orlando Bloom Has Ruined Everything.

In my neverending serendipity, it looks like the Huffington Post wondered the same thing today, and they've got a very interesting explanation as to the trajectory of Bloom's career: The surprising and unfair cinematic demise of Orlando Bloom.

(I disagree about Troy, though. The overarching problem in Troy is that it is a movie best watched with the sound off. Bloom was just one cog in that wheel.)

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Kissed by the Devil

It wasn't supposed to work.

When I heard about The Devil's Kiss by Sarwat Chadda (Hyperion, 2009) during Book Expo, I had my doubts. A book about a girl Templar? I'd already read three Templar books this year and none of them were terribly appealing. A girl who spends her days training to hunt ghuls, as the job of the modern Templar is to protect humanity from the supernatural? Eh, I'd seen Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It sounded like a recipe for disaster, but I was so very wrong.

It works. Oh my, does it work. It's absolute proof that good writing can conquer all.

The premise: Billi (short for Bilquis) SanGreal has trained all her life to be a member of the Knights Templar, who work underground in the 20th century as demon hunters. Billi is nearing the point where she will swear fealty to the Templars forever. Despite the Templar training, she is still completely recognizable as a teenage girl at odds with her strict father after her mother's death. Billi's oldest friend is Kay, a powerful Oracle who couldn't fistfight his way out of a paper bag. For the past year, Kay has been honing his psychic powers in Jerusalem, and he's come back with some pretty annoying abilities. Billi, frustrated with Kay and wanting to get away from the Templars, falls for Michael. Michael is smart, hot, and interested in Billi. In fact, he's almost too good to be true.

Kay and Billi discover that Kay has drawn the Angel of Death to earth via a cursed mirror, and that means trouble for humanity. Kay is a great psychic, no doubt, but we're talking the Angel of Death, bringer of everyone's favorite of the Ten Plagues. It's the biggest, most evil thing Billi and the Templars have ever fought, and they don't know if this is a battle they can win.

Why you'll love it: With a girl who can kick some serious demon booty at the center of the plot, it would have been easy for this to be another sassy supernatural book with a pink cover. Chadda instead takes a more serious tone, crafting a stubborn and admirable character in Billi. There's barely a technology reference to be found; there are mentions of a cell phone but this book could take place anytime after 1999 or so. I was very impressed by Chadda's use of language, too. He's foregone slang in favor of plain yet effective dialogue, classic plot lines, and well-paced action scenes. The names of the Templars are a tribute to Arthurian legends: Gwaine, Percival, Kay, Arthur, etc. Templar history is covered without being dumped on the reader, and it's delivered in a way that might even inspire readers to learn more about the Templars. In terms of topic this is a timely book, but it's one that's going to last. Diversity, adventure, sexual tension, some pretty good insults, and family angst never go out of literary style.

Sarwat Chadda's website || Liz B's review ||

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

The Librarilly Blonde Authorcrush Series, Part 2: Tim Tharp

Welcome to the second in an indeterminate number of installments in the Librarilly Blonde Authorcrush Series. What constitutes an authorcrush? See this post.

Today's honoree: Tim Tharp

The attraction: Southern settings and first-person narration that will blow you away.

The books:

Knights of the Hill Country (Knopf, 2006). I didn't read this until it was nominated for a spot on Popular Paperbacks for Young Adults, and then I couldn't shut up about it. I can take or leave sports books, generally. I figured this would be another football hero story, maybe with some girl angst. There is a football hero story and girl angst, but to label this book with only those words would do it a great injustice. Using slow pacing and subtle details, Tharp lays out the story of Hampton Green, whose greatest successes come on the football field. He's part of the five-time championship Kennisaw Knights and has a talent and instinct for the game. Everyone in town expects that Kennisaw will win another state championship, but Hampton knows something they don't: His best friend and fellow teammate, Blaine, is fighting an injury that could end his football career. This knowledge and the pain make Blaine increasingly bitter, to the point where he's not afraid to get in fights and engage in behavior unbecoming of a Knight. Blaine means the world to Hampton, who is also trying to deal with his mother's new boyfriend, but Hampton doesn't know how much longer he can rein Blaine in.

The Spectacular Now (Knopf, 2008) is...spectacular. I reviewed this last December and you can read my thoughts here.

What draws Tharp's books together, and what makes me squee in my authorcrush, is the way Tharp captures everyday emotions and the subtleties of boys who participate in seriously un-subtle behaviors. Hampton, for all he can do on the football field, is insecure in his academic and social abilities. Sutter tries to hide his insecurities in loud, drunken behavior. Both characters, however, think and feel deeply about their friends and families. These are the type of books I'm absolutely dying to see more of: Emotionally invested stories with male main characters. Tharp's books (somewhat like Christopher Krovatin's) understand that teenage boys, crude and stinky as they may be, also feel a range of emotions that deserve to appear in YA fiction. Emotions are not things to be afraid of in guy-centric YA, and Tharp understands that. He knows that for a book to make an impact and stay there, it has to hit the heart. So, basically, if I wanted to be a writer when I grew up, I'd want to write like Tim Tharp.

Previous authors in the Authorcrush Series:

Christopher Krovatin

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Peer pressure potato peel pie

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows (Dial, 2008) is a book I only read because of peer pressure. Everywhere I went, it seemed that people were talking about it. It's not the sort of book I seek out: epistolary, historical, some romance...those are three of my strikes. Because I am a literary lemming, I got out my library card and requested it. Skipping the flap copy, I dove right in.

Picture it: London, 1946. Juliet Ashton is a writer who made a name for herself writing columns under a pen name for the London Spectator. She's proud of her success, but a series of letters to her editor, Sidney Stark, show that she's at a crossroads. What should she write next? While Juliet ponders this, she receives a letter from a Mr. Dawsey Adams of St. Martin's Parish, Guernsey. Dawsey has a book of Juliet's, a collection of essays by Charles Lamb, and he just had to write to see if she knew where he could get more of Mr. Lamb's work.

A book that revolves around people who love books has to be good, right?

The letters between Juliet and Dawsey evolve into Juliet's correspondence with the members of the Guernsey Potato Peel Pie and Literary Society, which formed not as a literary society but as a cover for a group of people being out after curfew on their German-occupied island. Through their letters, Juliet learns that the people of Guernsey survived near-starvation and being cut off from the news during the war. In much the way that people form friendships over the internet today, Juliet forms bonds with the readers (and writers) of Guernsey. Her letters to her publisher and best friend are observant, funny, and inspiring. Guernsey goes on to become the idea for Juliet's next book, and the people are the kind of friends she's wanted all her life.

Before I read this book I couldn't have found Guernsey on a map, but now I'm intrigued by its story. For me, this was a "good writing trumps all" book, because even though I'm not the average reader of women's fiction or historical fiction, I stayed with this book because of the voices. The way Juliet fell in love with the people of Guernsey reinforces the power of the written word. The peripheral characters were most interesting for what they didn't relate to Juliet as much as what they did. (And I loved the character who wanted to be Miss Marple and decided she would knit and observe the world.) Books brought these people together, and books are how they relate to each other. That is something anyone who loves to read, librarian or not, can understand.

Monday, September 14, 2009

The Unnameables: Thinking the unthinkable

Sometimes a book just walks into your life at the right time.

First, I saw this tweet on the Kirkus Twitter. The most tragically overlooked book of 2008? If Vicky Smith says it is so, then it's probably true.

Second, my husband was working from home one day and over lunch we got into a discussion of Project Runway. Though I can't sew a stitch, I love clothes and I always enjoy seeing the PR challenges. He, being, well, a guy, can't understand the PR allure.

"Why make these crazy clothes that aren't even practical?" he asked.

"I like to think of the PR challenges more as art, and art doesn't always have to be wearable."

"But what's the point of clothing that isn't wearable?"

The Unnameables by Ellen Booraem (Harcourt, 2008) tackles just this kind of question. It's set on an island in a time that is, well, right about now. The people of the island formed their government and society around a book: A Frugal Compendium of Home Arts and Farme Chores by Capability C. Craft (1680) as Amended and Annotated by the Island Council of Names (1718-1809). On the island, occupation and name are the two most important things in the world. Your surname comes from your occupation, hence the island has names like Carpenter and Glazer and Potter, but no Weasley, Malfoy or Chang. Things in nature are named for their function, too. A bee, for example, is a Honeybug, and a maple tree is a Sap Tree.

In the midst of all this practicality is Medford Runyuin, who was rescued from a shipwreck as a baby and raised by Boyce Carver. Boyce has taught Medford the carving occupation, which Medford enjoys. His talent at carving, however, is also Medford's biggest shame: He's using his carving talents to make things that have no purpose. Useless Objects, they're called on the island. Useless Objects cannot have names, and making Unnameable things is grounds for exile.

Enter the Goatman. (Come on, do I really have to say anything else? There's a Goatman!) Thanks to his wanderings, Medford knows that this is not the first time a Goatman has come to the island. Revealing this knowledge guessed it, a really good way for Medford to get kicked out of the only home he's ever known. Only it's not so easy to hide a Goatman who can control the wind.

Kirkus was totally right about The Unnameables. I hadn't heard of it before I read that tweet, and it was tragically overlooked. Booream's characters live in modern years but they speak, for the most part, like they're still in 1809. It's a third-person MG allegory, a look at what can happen if we all forget that the arts are just as important a part of life as the practical things. The language can be a little hard to get through at first, but readers who stick with it will enjoy Medford's company and his sense of humor. It reminded me a lot of The Giver, with the adolescent transition into a career and the one boy who is separated from his peers by his simply having emotions.

Don't overlook this one. To do so is simply Unnameable.

Ellen Booraem's website
|| Kirkus review

Monday, September 7, 2009

Just take those old books off the shelf

Though I might be the last person on the planet to read Shelf Discovery: The Teen Classics We Never Stopped Reading by Lizzie Skurnick, I've been a fan of Skurnick's Fine Lines feature at Jezebel almost since it debuted. Fine Lines is one of those terrific ideas where you read it, kick yourself, and say, "Why didn't I think of that?" For non-Jezebel readers, Fine Lines is a weekly feature that recaps a classic YA novel from the 1960's, '70's, or '80's (I know, right? Genius!), and Shelf Discovery is the book of recaps. It also has guest contributions from authors including Meg Cabot, Cecily von Ziegesar, Jennifer Weiner, and Margo Rabb.

Skurnick, the original Book Thief, writes from her personal collection of vintage YA novels, dividing the book into chapters like "She's at that Age: Girls on the Verge" and "You Heard it Here First: Very Afterschool Specials," highlighting ten books per chapter, give or take. Because this book is a memoir and not an analysis of reading, Skurnick recaps the books that are near and dear to her heart...which are also books that are near and dear to the hearts of many Gen X women. Those are the people Skurnick speaks to, rather than the librarians and academics of YA literature. Reading her writing makes me feel like I'm talking to a really cool, smart friend who understands how much these books formed our worlds when we were teens (and younger). We're older and wiser now, and we can look at things like Harriet Welsch's growing empathy in Harriet the Spy and the ultimately bleak endings of Blubber and The Cat Ate My Gymsuit with an eye for literary technique, but ultimately, we are still ten years old and reading these books, reacting to them viscerally and re-reading with hunger. Reading Skurnick makes me unafraid to giggle and gasp and OMG as I read Go Ask Alice and Flowers in the Attic. I confess I've only read about half the books in Shelf Discovery, but Skurnick's writing makes me want to go pick up many more. (Except Island of the Blue Dolphins. No force on this earth will ever make me believe that book is anything but deathly boring.)

After I read, I got to thinking about the roles that parents, friends, and imagination play in these novels of decades past. The part of me newly indoctrinated into the children's publishing business wonders how many of these books could be published today, just as they are save for a few technology and fashion updates. Then again, in some of these books, technology updates would wreck the plot. A lot has changed in terms of pop culture, technology, parenting, and the idea of independence, which are all things that govern the background of YA literature. The books in Shelf Discovery all give indication as to some of the people who are writing, editing, and selling YA today. Which gives me hope for the genre. Well, not just hope...knowledge that a passion for books will pass on to future generations.

Now what I'd really love to see a the version of Shelf Discovery in 2020.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Methland by Nick Reding

Lately I have this crazy way of picking out books to review: If it looks interesting, I pick it up. I'm a bit of a crime buff and I usually read nonfiction when reading adult books. That brings me to today's review, for Methland by Nick Reding.

For four years, Reding tracked the effects of meth in Oelwein, Iowa, which has been referred to as the meth capital of the world. Of course, about 70 other towns have this distinction, too, but this is Oelwein's story. Many of Oelwein's residents work in agriculture, and came to meth because it gave them the stamina to last through multiple shifts in agriculture factories, shifts they needed to stay afloat financially. Meth has two properties that make it a problem that can swallow a small, economically disadvantaged town: It's easy to make and one of the most addictive substances on the planet. Reding doesn't spare a lot of details about meth's effects on the body and what can happen when meth manufacturing goes terribly wrong. (Given that meth manufacturers make meth from cold pills and hazardous chemicals with highly flammable residue, this occurrence is not uncommon.) Reding's protagonist is Nathan Lein, a county prosecutor who deals with the fallout from local -- which becomes national and international -- drug use and trafficking.

Even though I have never lived in a small town or known anyone affected by meth, I felt the desperation Reding writes about in terms of small-town economies and how the battle against meth is constantly uphill. Oelwein was home to one of the country's first meth empires, built by a woman who couldn't kick meth even after years in federal prison. What makes this book a success is Reding's appeal to the heart rather than to the mind. He shows readers how laws meant to stop the production of meth have done practically nothing. He makes us feel the strain on Oelwein's population and knows that there's no one singular cause for its meth problem. In parts I wanted more, but I also realize that it's hard to fit four years' worth of research into one 275-page book. || NY Times review || Methland page at Bloomsbury USA

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Reading the book is, like, so 2008

I'd like to thank Entertainment Weekly for undoing the work of lots of great book reviewers out there in their review of Catching Fire. Concerning this review, EW's incompetency is simply astounding.

Honestly, I don't care that EW gave the book a "C." The letter grades that EW assigns books, movies, and music are really more a ballpark estimate to me than anything else. What ticks me off is that the reviewer doesn't appear to have read The Hunger Games OR Catching Fire, yet complains that the book lacks "the erotic energy that makes Twilight, for instance, so creepily alluring." (I wish I could make that up. I'm a little skeeved out just reading it.)

Really, EW? That was low. It's a comparison of apples and pineapples. Catching Fire isn't meant to have erotic energy. It's a post-apocalyptic adventure. It's not meant to be "creepily alluring." I'm willing to bet that the reviewer, Jennifer Reese, has never read a YA novel other than TSVB. Of course, she doesnt need to, because TSVB is representative of the entire genre, right? I mean, according to her review standards, I can give Julie and Julia the same letter grade/review that I give Methland because they're both memoirs, right? And I can say that Methland is an inferior book because it's not happy and about food, yes?

I'm all for comparing similar books in a review. That's good reader's advisory and it's an essential part of developing a book's marketing plan. What brings down the quality of a review is expecting one book to be representative of an entire genre, as EW has done, and complaining when books in that genre aren't all the same. It's not fair for to give Catching Fire a bad review because it's not what Ms Reese wanted it to be. You might as well get mad at a pair of pumps for not being a pair of Wellington boots.

Now I need to go shoe shopping.

Monday, August 24, 2009

The Librarilly Blonde Authorcrush Series, Part 1: Christopher Krovatin

Welcome to part 1 of a new, maybe regular feature on Librarilly Blonde: The Authorcrush Series.

Each of the posts in the Authorcrush Series will spotlight a writer who I, well, have a crush on as an author. Authors may be male or female (or neither, or both) and write in any genre, but what they all have in common is some aspect of their writing, their in-personality, or both that makes me swoon like an eighth-grade girl with a crush. Hence the name. Authors who are part of this series also get this endorsement from me: I would pay retail for any of their books.

The first honoree: Christopher Krovatin

The attraction: Raw honesty and male characters with feelings.

The books:

Heavy Metal and You (Scholastic, 2006) is the surprisingly sweet story of Sam, a metalhead who falls in love with straitlaced theater aficionado Melissa. I confess, I was totally late to the Heavy Metal and You party because, well, you know how it is when there are more books than hours in a day. In fact, I didn't read it until after I saw Krovatin speak at the NJLA conference this past spring. I was impressed with how thoughtful yet unpretentious he was about his writing. To make things even more awesome, he liked heavy metal music! To date, I have met exactly one other librarian who likes heavy metal and hard rock as much as I do. We are few and far between in the profession and I couldn't help but admire a well-spoken YA author who also understands the deep need for the existence of Slayer, Celtic Frost, and Iron Maiden. Though the rocky romance was fun to read, I fell hard for the way Krovatin explores boys' feelings and how much he loves heavy metal and its fans. Heavy metal fans, though they look scary, are actually some of the most accepting, laid-back people around. As observed on GraphJam:

song chart memes

Thinking that my authorcrush might have come simply from the joy of finding another person in the YA world who likes their drums fast and their lyrics dark, I picked up Krovatin's second book.

Venomous (Atheneum, 2008) tackles yet another complex male main character, this one with an anger problem. Locke, sixteen, knows that his brand of anger is a little more vicious than everyone else's. He tries to control it but he finds that he's losing more and more of himself to it. It's got graphic interludes, where Locke tries to give a face and backstory to his venom. As he did in Heavy Metal and You, Krovatin did a great job exploring the wide range of emotions contained in one young man who scares the hell out of everyone who doesn't scare the hell out of him first. When the venom starts affecting the people Locke loves, he enlists outside help to keep it in check. Also there's kissing and a Goth girl with a dark past.
I loved Venomous even though "venomous" is one of my Ten Words I Can Never Spell Correctly (and still can't even after writing this book review).

Editing to add: There's going to be a comic book based on Venomous!

As I've read his books, I've developed a crush on the way Krovatin isn't afraid to give emotions to male characters. They fall in love, they fight with their friends, they hurt, they're happy, and sometimes they rock out. We (as in the YA lit community we) hear all the time that boys don't read, boys want adventure, boys don't want feelings in their books, blah blah blah and I love that Krovatin has basically said phooey to all of those. The adventures his male characters have are adventures of the heart and mind, ones that take place over just a few city blocks which are occupied by, you know, boys. Who don't read.

If you ever get the chance to hear Chris Krovatin speak, go do it. When he talks, people listen. I was particularly interested in his work with Revolver Magazine, which I read to keep up on all the metal bands that have actually produced music since 1995. (I'm the Heavy Metal/Old School sort, though I find I'm enjoying Killswitch Engage these days.)

Monday, August 17, 2009

Guest post: Natashya Wilson of Harlequin Teen

Unless you've been living in a cave with no books, you know that paranormal romance has really taken off in the teen market. Of course, what every librarian knows is that romance has been popular with teens since the dawn of time. Every librarian also knows the Harlequin brand, even if he or she doesn't read or buy romance. So when I read articles like this one in USA Today, my personal reaction was, "Harlequin is doing teen books? Excellent." I may not know my romance as well as others, but I did know that Harlequin would take the genre seriously and I was very interested to see what they would come up with.

Normally, I never turn my blog over to guest posters, but it's a little different when that guest is Natashya Wilson, senior editor at Harlequin TEEN. I asked her to talk about some of the questions that librarians are frequently asked about YA romance and new series: What's the content like? What's the audience? What are the imprint's plans for the future? Here is her post. It's long, but worth reading.

Sex, Language and Harlequin TEEN

by Natashya Wilson, senior editor

Harlequin has a new YA imprint, Harlequin TEEN! we announced. And people speculated---what would it be like? Sweet romances? Steamy, sexy teen reads? Would adults buy a YA with the Harlequin name on it for their teens? Would teens pick up something from Harlequin? We at Harlequin TEEN are betting yes, and I would like to tell you more about the type of content you’ll find in our books.

Harlequin TEEN is a single title imprint focused on delivering a variety of entertaining, commercial reads targeted at teen girls, ages 13-18. Because it is not a series in the sense of our traditional romance series, we do not have specific guidelines about sexual and language content, and those elements vary from book to book and author to author. However, we are not seeking shocking, graphic reads, and you’ll find the content of our titles very much in line with many other popular single-title YA releases in the market today.

The majority of our list is relatively “clean,” as in sex and swear-word free. However, we do have the occasional title that includes or mentions sex and/or might contain a few swear words. If a story does include sex, it must be a natural part of plot and character development, not gratuitous, and not described in graphic detail. “Bad” language may appear when using a euphemism or alternate word would sound unnatural or out of character. We don’t seek out books that include profanity or sex, but if it works in context, we won’t insist an author take it out, either. Our goal is to deliver authentic, satisfying stories about memorable characters and situations. Just like most other mainstream YA publishers.

So what are our books about? My Soul to Take by Rachel Vincent (August 2009) features a heroine who discovers she is a banshee. Intertwined by Gena Showalter (September 2009) features a teen hero with four souls trapped in his body. Elphame’s Choice by P. C. Cast (October 2009), a reprint of our 2004 Luna title, features a goddess-blessed heroine destined to leave her home and save a banished people. Elphame does include a sex scene, but it is a natural part of the plot and character progression and the book would be less without it.

Our 2010 lineup includes a girl who discovers she is half-faery, a police chief’s daughter on the trail of a mysterious graffiti artist, and a teen dating expert who gives her peers advice through her Web site. We’ve got a loner-turned-rebel-leader fighting for justice in a future world, more Soul Screamers banshees, a teen witch, the next Intertwined novel, and ghosts. And more! And sex and profanity are almost entirely absent.

The name Harlequin has become synonymous with romance, and we’re aware that many people (including many who have never read a Harlequin!) have preconceived ideas about what a “Harlequin” is. Unfortunately, those who aren’t familiar with our series tend to assume they are all about sex and titillation—I assure you, they are not. We’re proud of the power of our name, and decided to use it for Harlequin TEEN despite the potential challenge of getting past those preconceptions. We are certain our YA editorial will speak for itself, and will soon be as accepted as titles from any other publishing house in the general marketplace.

While all of our titles currently do include romances or romantic elements, all have a wider scope than a traditional relationship-driven plot. As with all books Harlequin publishes, it is important to Harlequin TEEN to publish books that will surprise and delight readers, stories that will resonate and be remembered after the covers are closed.So what about sex and language in YA novels? What do you think is acceptable, how do you gauge the appropriateness of a read for your purposes? How can we at Harlequin TEEN best inform you about the content of our books? We want to hear from you! And we hope to see you at the next stop on our blog tour, In Bed with Books on 8/19!

Harlequin Teen giveaway winners

Henry says:

Kelly J. (commenter #19) and Karen W. (commenter #27) from this post each win a copy of this book.

And his sister Beezus says:

Mark (commenter #1) and Jen P (commenter #3) each win a copy of this book.

Because cats won't wear t-shirts, I (Carlie) will tell you that the t-shirts from this post go to JoAnn (commenter #7) and Lillibeth (commenter #2)

Congratulations to all! I'll be in touch with the winners via email. Because Henry and Beezus were more interested in sitting on windowsills and eating their kibble than picking numbers, winners were chosen by the True Random Number Generator.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Harlequin Teen t-shirt giveaway

Yes, you read that right. I just received an email from Harlequin Teen, and they told me that they will not only send books to the winners of the book giveaway (all you have to do to enter is leave a comment here), but they have one of each of these t-shirts to give away, too.

If you want to win one, just leave a comment on this post (and leave your email address so I can get your address to get you the prize). Henry will choose winners at random. You're welcome to enter to win a book, a shirt, or both, so you can be both well-read and well-dressed.

Harlequin Teen Books Giveaway

How would you like to win free books?

I had the opportunity to meet Natashya Wilson, publisher of Harlequin Teen, at Newark Airport (of all places) after last year's YALSA YA Lit Symposium while we waited for rides home. She's been keeping me up to date on exciting things going on with the Harlequin Teen brand and imprint, things she will tell all of you in person when she makes her guest post here on Monday, August 17.

In the meantime, I have two Harlequin Teen books to give away!

First, there's My Soul to Take by Rachel Vincent. From Harlequin's description:
A scream bursts from her throat, and someone dies. Kaylee Cavanaugh doesn't know why she is compelled to scream—she knows only that she can’t stop it. And now, just as she's started dating the hottest guy in school, classmates are dying—and Kaylee keeps screaming...

Then, I have Intertwined by Gena Showalter. From Harlequin's description:

Aden Stone has friends. They just happen to be the four human souls living inside him. Everyone thinks he's crazy, but he doesn't mind. For months he's been having visions of a beautiful girl—a girl who will either save him or destroy him. Together they'll enter a dark world of intrigue and danger . . . but not everyone will come out alive.

One or both of these can be yours! Here are the rules: Leave a comment saying which book or books you'd like. On Monday, August 17, I will have Henry pick the winners at random from the comments to this post and announce the winners at the same time as Natashya's guest post.

Here is a picture of Henry enjoying a YA novel:

I promise you. He's very fair.

So comment, and one or both of these books can be yours! Stop back here on Monday to see what Natashya has to say about Harlequin Teen and its future in the market. (I also asked her to answer a couple of frequently asked-by-librarians questions.)

Editing to add: Thanks to the very generous people at Harlequin, I now have TWO copies of each book to give away. Very exciting!

Thursday, August 13, 2009

The Magicians: Like Quidditch, only real

Next on the list of Books I Wanted To Review In June But Didn't Get To: The Magicians by Lev Grossman. Everyone in the Columbia course this year got a copy.

If I were Twittering this review, it might go something like this:

Teen boy goes to magic school, graduates, goes to magical land 1st seen in fiction.

Problem: That wouldn't do a very good job of explaining this pretty cool book that, although it's published for adults, I think could easily cross over into the older teen market.

About the book: Angsty high school senior Quentin Coldwater has a most unusual experience when he goes for a college interview. The interview doesn't go as planned, but Quentin soon finds that he's got a college opportunity that's way beyond the Ivy League. After a series of headspinning tests, Quentin is admitted to Brakebills College, a school for magic in upstate New York. Brakebills is ten times as hard as any Ivy League school, and ten times as dangerous. Upon graduation, Quentin and his friends move to Manhattan, where their magical abilities enable them to lead a life of leisure. They also make the most exciting discovery of their lives: The magical land of Fillory, which they all know from the novels they read as children, is real. And they're going there.

Why you'll love it: It's escape-from-the-world fantasy for grownups. Grossman pokes fun at all the great children's lit that takes place in magical lands and incorporates it into Quentin's world. Quentin is hardly the most likeable character around (think Harry from Order of the Phoenix, with fewer caps), but I found myself so caught up in the Brakebills environment that I didn't care. Grossman does an amazing job with setting and imagining fantastic lands and creatures. He also twists the happily-ever-after. After graduation, Quentin and his friends aren't ready to begin adult lives; they're just as lost and confused as ever about what, if anything, to do with their futures. Love and sex are the source of sadness and anger rather than giddy happiness. Magic is not a cure-all for anything, though it does help maintain a certain lifestyle. This blend of urban and traditional fantasy, plus the beautiful cover, gives the book pretty wide appeal. (And you know it's got to be good if it's fantasy and I'm taking the time to recommend it.)

Lev Grossman's website || LA Books Examiner interview || review in the Washington Post Book World

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

And you may ask yourself, well, how did it get there?

Via Roger Williams at the Publish or Perish Literary Agency, here's an article that I found very interesting: The secrets of the Amazon bestseller list. If you wonder how an author's online presence affects book sales (or not), and how important is the Kindle to the bestseller list (or not), check this out.

The article opens:

It's almost a philosophical riddle: Do sales drive the best-seller list, or do best-sellers get all the sales because buyers see them on the list?

As much as we'd like to believe that the crowd picks the best books, a strong presence in retail locations -- front-of-store positioning and tempting discounts -- still counts a great deal in determining how well a title sells.

One of the hardest things for me to reconcile lately is switching my brain from libraryland to retail in terms of how books get into the hands of readers, and seeing that bestsellers are often made, not born. Libraries are unique in that their collections rely heavily on peer reviews of books. I keep forgetting, after my years of library work, that not everyone in the world reads Kirkus, PW, or Booklist to make their buying decisions. This isn't a bad thing; it's just the nature of the beast. Librarians buy books for libraries in much different ways than retail consumers buy books for their personal collections. The question of bestsellers is very chicken-and-egg, and it's one that I think librarians can benefit from understanding. Amazon itself is also a different entity with different buying rules than brick-and-mortar chains. Anyway, read it. It's full of answers to (some of) the questions that keep me up at night.

What I watch now: Make It or Break It

I am the least graceful, least athletically gifted person I know (I did a massive faceplant while running this week...on the sidewalk two blocks from where I live), but I love movies that involve cheerleading, gymnastics, or beauty pageants. I pretty much have Miss Congeniality memorized and I know that the music during Haley's floor routine in Stick It is "Our Lawyer Made Us Change the Name of This Song So We Wouldn't Get Sued" by Fall Out Boy, from their album From Under the Cork Tree.

With no access to regular TV during the Columbia Publishing Course and a schedule that didn't exactly accommodate prime time schedules, I wanted a fluffy summer show that I could watch easily online. I thought the most interesting of the bunch, given my aforementioned affection for fiction involving gymnastics, was ABC Family's Make It or Break It.

Make It or Break It centers on four teenage girls with dreams of national, and perhaps Olympic, medals. Payson Keeler is clearly the best of the lot, the one with the greatest chance to get to the Olympics. She has a lot of determination and focus, but she is also kind and vulnerable where her loved ones are concerned. Lauren Tanner is the one everyone loves to hate. She's got two talents: balance beam and backstabbing. Kaylie Cruz is all heart, flow, and grace, but her coach wonders if she's got the fire to really make it to the top. The newcomer, Emily Kmetko, is mostly self-taught, making her her own worst enemy in the gym. The interaction between all of them is strong, maybe even strongest during Lauren's manipulative frenemy moments. Overall, it's Emily's show, so viewers want to see her come from her background of training on playgrounds to national champion. Question is: Will she be able to get over her inhibitions in time to retrain herself to get to Nationals? The secondary characters, save for their coach and Emily's mom, are not as interesting, but I get the feeling viewers aren't there as much for the parent characters.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The Sweetheart of Prosper County: Do the funky chicken

Back in June, I went to a panel at BEA where editors talked about their lead YA titles for Fall 2009. During a panel that mostly focused on speculative fiction (including the fourth YA book about the Knights Templar published in a year...publishing trends are so interesting!), Liz Szbala of Feiwel and Friends mentioned a book I couldn't wait to get my hands on: The Sweetheart of Prosper County by Jill S. Alexander. Lucky for me, Feiwel had extra copies of the book and gave them out after the panel.

About the book: There's a rooster on the cover. What's not to love?

Kidding. There's more to it. During the annual No-Jesus Christmas Parade, Austin Gray, almost fifteen, decides that she's tired of being a parade watcher. She wants to be a parade participant. Specifically, she wants to be a hood ornament, a local Sweetheart elected by a club like the Rodeo Club or, in Austin's case, the Future Farmers of America. To be a part of the FFA and have the chance to be sweetheart, she'll have to raise a farm animal and learn to hunt or fish. Her farm animal of choice? Poultry. Specifically, a black Bantam Rosecomb rooster who she names Charles Dickens. Austin is convinced that Charles Dickens will help make her into the person she wants to be: popular, beautiful, and independent. When she's sweetheart and riding on top of the car in the parade, bully Dean Ottmer will stop making fun of her and her mother will stop being so strict. Only, you and I know it doesn't always work out that way.

Why you'll love it: Except for a few trips to Disney World, I have never traveled anywhere south of Maryland. Yes, Teri Lesesne, that means I've never been to Texas. But? That didn't matter. Alexander did a wonderful job of describing Austin's small eastern Texas town and the characters who live there. The big theme of this book is independence, which comes in a few forms: Austin's rearing of Charles Dickens, participating in her best friend Maribel's quincineara, figuring out what to do about Dean Ottmer, and getting her mother to finally talk about her father's death. On a personal level, I liked the general lack of romance as a plot. There's some goo-goo eyes and hand-holding with a cute boy, but Austin, her family, and her goals are always the focal point. It is, for want of better words, a sweet book about a girl who is a sister doing it for herself. (Sorry, Annie Lennox.)

Monday, August 10, 2009

They really, really like me!

Back during the Columbia Publishing Course, when my blogging and reading was spotty at best, I was tickled to get an email saying that Librarilly Blonde was highlighted in an article at The article is 100 Best Blogs for School Librarians, and even if I didn't get a mention in it I'd still say, "Go forth and read!" because it's full of great resources. It mentions some blogs I've enjoyed for a while, including Engadget, Paper Cuts, and of course, Unshelved.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Front and Center: It shoots, it scores

Sometimes (but not often) I am wrong about books.

When I first heard about Dairy Queen by Catherine Gilbert Murdock, I was convinced it would be the most boring thing since a drive through Indiana. "The main character is so normal! She goes to the mall!" I was told. So what? Turns out, that normal main character had a hell of a voice and something to talk about other than her love interest. Due to its stellar writing, Dairy Queen ended up as one of my favorite books of 2007. I thought the 2008 sequel, The Off Season, was even better.

Front and Center (Houghton, October 2009, many thanks to Laura Sinton at HMH for sending me a copy) is the final book in Murdock's trilogy about small-town sports star D.J. Schwenk. It begins just after the events of The Off Season, so D.J. is gearing up for her favorite sport: basketball. D.J. plays center but knows she's got the athletic skills to play point guard. What's holding her back from the coveted point guard position is her lack of ability to voice what she's thinking. The point guard's job is to act as a sort of director on the court, and D.J. would rather die than shout instructions in front of all her teammates. When her coach calls her into his office for what D.J. thinks will be a talking-to about, well, her lack of talking, he springs a surprise on her: Even though she's only a junior, colleges are already stepping up to recruit her. If she wants a scholarship, which is the only way she knows she can afford to go to college, D.J. will have to make her college decision in the next few weeks.

D.J.'s familiar with the college ball process, having two older brothers who play Division I football. After seeing a disastrous end to a University of Minnesota basketball game, however, she's pretty sure she wants nothing to do with Division I women's basketball. Going to a Division III college will take off a lot of the pressure and that way if she screws up, well, it's just Division III, right?

All of this sounds good on paper, but there's one thing D.J. isn't factoring in: Athletics are her calling. She might not be the most outstanding student, but she has sports in her blood and coaching in her brain. Everyone sees this except D.J. herself, and it takes a lot of nagging, a lot of love, and a physics genius who can't play basketball to make her see what she's worth.

Don't laugh, but I think Front and Center is a perfect readalike for another favorite book of mine from 2007: Dramarama by E. Lockhart. D.J. is the complete opposite of Sadye: an introvert, terrified of being on stage, anything but outspoken. What both books have in common is their message, which is that you have to follow your true talents even if they scare you, even if they take you in a different direction than the one you planned. The best thing about the Dairy Queen series is how meticulous Murdock is about taking us through D.J.'s thoughts and internal processes. She great use of first-person narration and shows us how D.J., who doesn't say anything out loud to anyone if she can help it, grows from someone who does everything she's told without question to someone who thinks not just for, but about, herself and her personal goals.

I'm sad that this series has come to a close, but I'm thrilled with the way it ended and I can't wait to see what Murdock will offer next for YA readers.

Friday, August 7, 2009

The Librarilly Blonde of the Joke

Q: Why are blonde jokes so short?

A: So brunettes can remember them.

Blonde is not just a hair color. It's an identity. Of course, not all blondes are the same, but there is a minor societal fascination with people with blonde hair. Evil people were easy to spot in Harry Potter. Why? Because they were blonde (Fleur Delacour being the exception, but let's not forget how much Ginny disliked her). Kiki Strike stood out in the crowd with her white-blonde hair. Katniss Everdeen is torn between two deserving men, one blond and one brunette. On a personal note, the question I am asked most often, and mostly in hair salons, is "Is that your natural hair color?" (Yes, it is. I am too cheap and lazy to color my hair.)

Given all of this, not reading The Blonde of the Joke by Bennett Madison (HarperCollins, August 2009) was not an option.

About the book: Val is a quiet social nobody until bold Francie Knight, teller of unfunny blonde jokes, blondes her way into Val's life. The two connect instantly, and Francie draws Val into her life of shoplifting and look-at-me clothes. Their goal at the mall is to steal everything and search for the Most Beautiful Thing, the Holy Grail of shoplifted objects. Despite all their time together, Francie always seems to hold Val at arm's length. She disappears for weeks without notice and has some crazy mood swings. Val worries, but she also has other things to worry about in her life, like her dying brother. As the school year progresses and Val and Francie steal more, Val sees that there's more to being the blonde of the relationship than just the color of her hair...which can easily be changed.

Why you'll love it: I'm going to start carrying a copy of this book everywhere I go for the sole purpose of being able to say, "You're wrong," when people (in bookstores, in libraries, online) complain that there's no YA of substance anywhere, and definitely no decent realistic fiction. The Blonde of the Joke is set in the real world but has a just-beyond-reality feeling, with very dark humor and some downright weird peripheral characters. The ways that Francie changes Val will have readers wondering how strong a person Val is on her own and what she's really looking for in all the things she steals from the mall. Val's dysfuctional relationships are heartbreaking, but also telling of the kind of person that she is: dissatisfied and soul-searching. The mall becomes not just a place for Val to steal, but a place to acquire things that can't be bought or stolen. This quirky story is one that will leave you thinking and guessing for days after you finish it.

Catch Fire on your blog

For those of you who are, like me, really excited about the upcoming release of Catching Fire, Scholastic has some cool downloads and widgets you can post in the meantime. Hey, just because I've read the book already doesn't mean I don't want to buy it in hardcover, or that I'm not excited about it coming out. Look at these!

Suzanne Collins reading an excerpt of Catching Fire:

And a countdown clock:

More downloads are available at the Scholastic Hunger Games site. Go forth and adorn your blog!

Thursday, August 6, 2009

A Sweet book: Stella Madison

I confess, I'm not doing too well with this unemployment thing because I'm an ESTJ and there's nothing we like better than structure and plans for the future. I will say this, however: Having the time to catch up on my reading is kind of nice. I'm knocking out a book a day or so, and the next few posts will be reviews. On to today's book!

Disclaimer: I have had the pleasure of calling Lara Zeises my friend for a number of years, so I am a little prejudiced in favor of this book. My prejudices, however, don't change the fact that The Sweet Life of Stella Madison (Delacorte, July 2009, copy courtesy of Delacorte) is a fantastic summer book, and it is the book to sink your teeth into if you just can't read another vampire book right now.

About the book: Back when I reviewed Robin Brande's Fat Cat, I confessed that I really am not a fan of cooking. I'm a fan of eating, sure, but I believe that food always tastes better when someone else cooks it. Stella Madison, almost 18, is a girl after my own heart. The daughter of two foodies, one a world-renowned chef, Stella would rather eat hamburgers than foie gras. Unfortunately, escaping from food is not an option. It's not just that Stella has to eat in order to live, but she's also landed an internship at the local paper, where her editor thinks she's got what it takes to be an ace restaurant reviewer. When she's not eating, writing, hanging out with her two best friends, or working at her mom's restaurant, the Open Kitchen, Stella is trying to figure out her relationships. She's currently dating Max, who is kind, funny, and crazy about her. All is great with Max until Stella meets Jeremy, who is hot, elusive, twenty-one, hot, a chef in training, and...yeah, hot. Max and Jeremy are two different sides of Stella, and she's at an odds on which one to choose.

Why you'll love it: Stella is refreshingly normal and relateable, but she's also well-rounded. She's not the prettiest or thinnest or richest girl in town, but she's smart and has interests outside herself and her boyfriend. I think what I like best about Stella is that in the presence of Jeremy, she often doesn't know what to say or do. She doesn't have a perfect witty comeback for everything, but she doesn't have to. Lara also knows that real life, even if it's a real life that doesn't involve YA literature superdramas like sex and drugs, makes for great reading. Complex family stories are Lara's specialty, and she doesn't disappoint here; Stella has to deal with her parents' dating dilemmas as well as her own. The romance is sexy and there's plenty of making out (Stella *is* 18, after all), but the interpersonal relationships are what really matter, making this a good choice for those younger readers who are dying for romances.

What's the only caveat of this book? Don't read it while you're hungry.

review at Bookends (Booklist blog) || Liz's review