Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Review: Ten Cents a Dance

Ten Cents a Dance
Christine Fletcher
2008; Bloomsbury; 978-1-59990-164-0 (hardcover)

Summary: Ruby's family is barely making ends meet. Her mother's arthritis is so bad she can't work. Her sister Betty is too young to work. And Ruby's job at the packinghouse is utter misery. Then, she hears about a taxi dance hall called the Starlight: a place where she can dance all night and make fifty bucks a week. It might sound too good to be true . . . but Ruby will take that chance.

Three Things to Know About Ten Cents a Dance

#1: The past wasn't always a simpler time.

On the surface, a taxi dance hall seems very quaint, perhaps almost innocent. A man paying "ten cents a dance"--and getting just a dance--doesn't seem to be very tawdry. But as Ruby sees, it's mostly older, lonely men at the Starlight. Many of these men just want to dance with a pretty girl, to not be alone, and maybe just pinch the girl's bottom. But there's also plenty of men, the younger ones, with wandering hands and low opinions. For these men, Ruby's little better than a prostitute; that opinion is quite in line with our modern sensibilities, even if a taxi dance hall was mostly about the dancing.

#2: It's the details that matter.

Christine Fletcher's novel truly puts the reader down in the middle of 1941 Chicago. The language, the clothes, the music--those are easy to accomplish. It's things like the smells that truly allow you to experience this time. The stink of the slaughterhouse, the powder and sweat of the dressing room, the moldy rankness of a bathroom shared by several apartments: these odors infuse this novel, going the extra mile in order to show the full picture of Ruby's life in the Back of the Yards.

#3: Social class goes beyond color.

One major aspect of this novel is the question of racial segregation and integration. Some girls at the Starlight won't dance with "Flips" or Philipinos. Ruby is introduced to nightclubs called black and tans, where African-Americans and whites can mix more freely than in normal society. Yet beyond the color lines, there's still prejudice and insults. Ruby's mother is Irish while her father was Polish, and this opened her parents to stereotyping from both communities. While Ruby doesn't suffer from this problem much, it still indicates that matters of class and prejudice were not just about race--it was just as much about ethnicity.

Ten Cents a Dance is an insightful look into a practice of which many teens--and just as many adults--were not aware. Tracing the coming-of-age of a stubborn, determined, street-smart teen, this book is a great option for those who want some grit in their historical fiction.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Crosspost: All Kinds of Time-Spenders

Friday Fun: All Kinds of Time-Spenders
This post originally appeared at Pop Goes the Library.

Note how I don't call any of these sites "time-wasters". All of us here at PGTL would never advocate that you spend some time on this Friday looking at frivolous websites!

[removes her tongue from her cheek]

Woot!: This site is for all of you who don't want the tension of eBay, who'd rather have a relative bird in the hand. Each day, Woot posts a new product, one that is available at typically substantially reduced prices. And once they're gone, they're gone! Although most items are electronics or appliances, there's certainly some whimsical choices. How about a toilet paper dispenser with a built-in FM radio?

Fine Lines: Reminiscing about those books you read when you were a teen? So is Jezebel, in their weekly feature where, in their own words, they "give a sentimental, sometimes-critical, far more wizened look at the children's and YA books we loved in our youth." I particularly liked the recent look at Cheaper by the Dozen/Belles on Their Toes, by noted mystery author Laura Lippman.

Firefox News: No, this has nothing to do with the browser--although they'd certainly recommend it to you. Firefox News is a site for tv discussion, articles about fandom topics, and even info about technology and the paranormal. It's a nice little niche site, and is mostly free from the frenzied politics of fandom at large. I really like their coverage of Supernatural.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Review: The Ghosts of Kerfol

The Ghosts of Kerfol
Deborah Noyes
2008; Candlewick; 978-0-7636-3000-3 (hardcover)

After seeing a discussion thread on YALSA-BK about Deborah Noyes' newest work, I moved The Ghosts of Kerfol towards the top of my to-be-read pile. When I read it, I found an atmospheric blend of ghost story and historical fiction.

Inspired by a ghost story written by Edith Wharton, this intense novel of connected short stories begins in 1613, when a mysterious death occurs at the Breton estate of Kerfol. The master has died and suspicion falls on his beautiful young wife, who was preparing to run away with another man. And when the wife claims that it was the ghosts of her dogs that murdered her husband--the dogs that her husband killed--it's little wonder that she is convicted of murder and shut up in a tower at Kerfol.

But these deaths create a stain on the already-forbidding residence, a stain that remains into the present day. There are strange connections between past, present, and future at Kerfol. Through the centuries, several people will meet their ends, discover unhappy truths, or simply see strange things when they step onto the grounds.

Noyes, well-known for her Gothic and horror stories, shows she is equally talented at historical fiction. Tackling periods ranging from post-Revolution France to the Roaring Twenties, the details and flavor of these times are fully realized. While the more modern stories lack this same immediacy--in particular the story set in 1982--all five works combine to fully engage the reader.

This isn't to say that the ghost aspect is inadequate. The Ghosts of Kerfol is a genuinely creepy book, full of surprises that keeps the reader turning the pages. Each story sees a slow build in the tension, sometimes resulting in a shocking conclusion, sometimes in an anticlimax. With each supernatural element, the connections between the stories grow stronger. It is only in the final moments of the last story that the ghosts of Kerfol--all of them--finally find peace.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Review: The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks

The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks
E. Lockhart
2008; Hyperion; 978-0-7868-3818-9 (hardback)

Summary: Before, she was Bunny Rabbit. Invisible, small, someone who needed protecting. But when Frankie grows four inches and gains weight in the right places, she starts realizing that she's not invisible . . . but only if she doesn't let herself become so. And Frankie Landau-Banks has no desire to be invisible. Unless it means she's got the control, the power . . .

Four Things to Know About The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks

#1: Words give you power.

Frankie has a grasp on wordplay that is amusing, but that also gives insight into her character. Her physical transformation occurs while she spends the summer reading the short stories of Dorothy Parker, a woman who knew her way around words. Then, Frankie starts reading P.G. Wodehouse, a comic genius who used language in new ways. Inspired, Frankie starts saying she's gruntled (the opposite of disgruntled) when she's happy, and creates her own words like maculate. Yet while this reflects her intelligence, it causes her boyfriend to view her with amusement. Matthew, her geeky-goofy-hot boyfriend, has an inner copy editor, and Frankie's new words hit him the wrong way. Between the two of them, there's a tug-of-war over the right words--a struggle that shows how little they really know each other--and this struggle foreshadows the central action of the novel.

#2: The holder of a secret is in control.

E. Lockhart's novel is roughly divided into two halves: the first, when Frankie is trying to learn Matthew's secret, and the secret of the Loyal Order of the Basset Hound. Then, there is the second half, when no one knows that Frankie is the true leader of the Bassets. Each position gives Frankie a different kind of weapon. Just realizing that Matthew is keeping something from her gives Frankie a level of control over their relationship--control that she needs to prevent things from becoming too unequal. However, having a secret gives you even more power, Frankie believes. Being the one to direct the Bassets creates a sense of delight within her, but it is tinged by the knowledge that no one knows that Frankie is the one responsible. Perhaps not knowing the secret is a bigger weapon than being the secret?

#3: Girls have to learn how to use their weapons.

An intriguing aspect of the novel is Frankie's relationships, particularly with males. She learns that using her intelligence and strategic thinking, she's able to work a situation to her advantage. This might be seen as cold and manipulative, but that's just one aspect of Frankie's personality. As much as she wants Matthew to tell her the truth and spend time with her, it's all because she is attracted to him and likes him, not to mention she enjoys the prestige of having a senior boyfriend. And in getting what she wants, Frankie has her first taste of power. No longer is she her parents' Bunny Rabbit, a little sister who needs guidance. Frankie not only can take care of herself, but she can excel in ways that no one else could have seen.

#4: It's about power.

The crux of this novel seems to be power: how Frankie gains it and rises above being underestimated. Not every girl would want to infiltrate a secret society and create elaborate pranks, but any teen who reads this novel won't help but be inspired to have an impact of their own. Frankie isn't perfect: she's ambitious and strategic, perhaps to a fault. Yet she's also just a girl, who in spite of everything she's gone through, still has friends and likes reading and has a wide-open future ahead of her. The omniscient narrator remarks that Frankie could be one of those ultra-intelligent people who goes mad, and it's certainly possible. But it's just as likely that Frankie will run a major corporation, discover a cure for cancer, or become President. And that, to me, is a fitting comment on Frankie and the role she plays in her own disreputable (but not really) history.

The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks is a truly remarkable novel, well-deserving of the praise it has already received. For a similar story exploring how girls can discover and use their own strength, try Kiki Strike: Inside the Shadow City by Kirsten Miller.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Crosspost: What Are They Reading for Fun?

What Are They Reading for Fun?
This post previously appeared in School Library Journal's Extra Helping.

Melissa Rabey, Frederick County Public Libraries, Frederick, MD:
It was all about Stephenie Meyer’s “Twilight” this summer, with many requests for the first three books in the series, thanks to the August release of Breaking Dawn (Little, Brown, 2008). The upcoming movie is also stoking the fire. Just as eagerly anticipated is Brisingr (Knopf, 2008), the third book in Christopher Paolini’s “Inheritance” cycle. Manga moves swiftly, with demand very high for Tite Kubo’s “Bleach” and Masashi Kishimoto’s “Naruto” series (both Viz Media). Plenty of teens are rereading or discovering series such as J. K. Rowling’s "Harry Potter" (Scholastic), Cecily von Ziegesar’s “It Girl” (Little, Brown), Meg Cabot’s “The Princess Diaries” (HarperCollins), and Mary Hoffman’s “Stravaganza” (Bloomsbury). Finally, the forthcoming movie adaptation of Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist (Knopf, 2006), by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan, has led both teens and adults to this edgy novel.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Review: Unwind

Neal Shusterman
2007; Simon & Schuster; 978-1-4169-1204-0 (hardback)

Summary: There was a second Civil War, called the Heartland War. It was fought over the question of abortion. Finally, the only way to bring peace to both sides was to create an agreement that life is sacred, from the moment of conception to the age of thirteen. But from the ages of thirteen to eighteen, parents could choose to retroactively abort their child. Such children are called Unwinds. And three Unwinds--Connor, Risa, and Lev--are on their way to the harvest camp, until there's an accident . . .

Four Things to Know About Unwind

#1: See the danger of becoming a one-issue electorate.

Set approximiately fifty years in our future, Unwind explores an America where the matter of abortion trumped all other issues, to the point that a war started over the different sides. The war was apparently so divisive, so unable to be settled, that only a shocking option could bring them back to peace. The Bill of Life that is created in the aftermath of the war bears more than a passing resemblance to Jonathan Swift's satire A Modest Proposal, which argued that a solution to the Irish potato famine in the 1800s was to eat babies. Unwind has an equally unusual solution, in determining that parents can retroactively abort their children once they are between the ages of thirteen to eighteen. And all this happened because the abortion debate took over all other challenges facing America.

#2: Human nature can/cannot be changed by laws.

As a result of the Bill of Life, there were other changes in society. Instead of abortion, women with unwanted babies could only stork them: leave the baby on a doorstep and get away without being noticed. The family now has to raise the baby; however, if the woman is caught, the baby is still hers. Same-sex marriage is apparently outlawed, although there seems to be some kind of option available (perhaps civil unions?). Furthermore, the terms white and black seem to have been discarded when talking about race; in Unwind, it's sienna and umber. Laws and cultural mores have been changed, attempting to change human nature. Yet human nature doesn't change that much, and laws sometimes have to bend to it.

#3: Is your soul a body part?

Thanks to scientific developments, 99.44% of an Unwind's body can be used--organs, skin, legs, arms, even the brain itself. The Bill of Life argues that because the whole body is used, it's not murder; an Unwind is not dead. Yet this doesn't answer an essential concern for every Unwind facing the proceedure: what happens to the soul? What happens to your essence? As seen in Unwind, nobody knows, but it appears that in some cases, an echo exists--something that infuses your whole body. Thus, when your body gets unwound, there can be unexpected consequences. A supporting character called CyFi receives half a brain from an Unwound, and finds that he has periods where he acts more like the Unwound than himself.

#4: We can only marginalize the faceless.

As a result of the actions of Connor, Risa, and Lev, a face is put on the Unwound. Before, they were never talked about. Kids would vanish from your class or from your neighborhood without comment. After all, teens that were Unwound were the bad kids, the troublemakers, the rebels. Who would worry about them? But once people begin to realize that not all Unwounds are like that--and even if they were, they don't deserve such a fate--change can happen. Like so many marginalized groups, Unwounds can only be on the fringes when no one sees beyond them as a group. Yet that doesn't mean that there's a sudden change; the characters still have to work to undermine the system. But there's hope for them, and for a group like the Unwounds, hope is necessary--and dangerous.

Unwind is an intriguing novel, and fulfills the basic tenant of science fiction: to explore our world through the clash of science vs. ethics. For teens who are looking for harder questions than those posed in Scott Westerfeld's Uglies, recommend this gripping novel.

Saturday, September 06, 2008

Crosspost: My Infinite Playlist

My Infinite Playlist
This post previously appeared on Pop Goes the Library.

Welcome to new media: I'm posting a music widget that's in support of a movie based on a book, but using music that's inspired by a TV show.

In case you hadn't heard, a movie based on Rachel Cohn and David Levithan's Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist will be in theaters in October. Checking out the official site, I saw that you can design a playlist widget, which I thought was a great idea to promote your movie. (Even though I picked music from Supernatural.)

Considering how much music matters in Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist, the book, this widget would also be a great way to advertise the book, not just the movie. Have you tried this yet in your library? If you're curious, head to the official Nick & Norah site to check it out. You'll need to sign up with imeem to participate.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

On Deck

Thanks to the long holiday weekend, a bit of sickness, and lots of projects at my day job, I haven't had the time to finish reading anything. But I've got a lot waiting for me!

Currently Reading:

Unwind by Neal Shusterman: the idea of a society that allows teenagers to be retroactively aborted? Very creepy, from an ethical point of view. Shusterman is also doing a great job with slowly ratcheting up the tension.

Already Published and Waiting:

The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks by E. Lockhart: I tried to read this a while ago, and I gave up on it. I do that sometimes too quickly, so since I've enjoyed Lockhart's books before, I decided to give this one another try.

The Ghosts of Kerfol by Deborah Noyes: After reading a discussion of this book on YALSA-BK, I got intrigued and found my copy of the ARC. I'll admit that I'm not a huge fan of short stories, but since these are intertwined stories, I'm hopeful that I'll enjoy it.

Not Published Yet and Waiting:

Bliss by Lauren Myracle: The horror-movie aspects of this book, coupled with the fish-out-of-water setting, intrigue me. Plus, it's Lauren Myracle. This one is bound to be popular once it's out there--and a great book to highlight on Books with Bite displays.