Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Thoughts: The Spoils of Midwinter

I might have gotten my Morris prediction wrong, but I'm satisfied with the results. And while I only read one of the five Printz winners, I'm thrilled that The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks won a Printz Honor. Congrats to Liz and the whole Printz committee for their hard work.

Books I've already read: Envy by Anna Godbersen and The Summer I Turned Pretty by Jenny Han. Major props to HarperTeen for giving out hardcover copies of the third book in The Luxe series on Friday night. And even better, it was a rewarding read, full of both twists and turns and expected outcomes. It definitely leaves me wanting the fourth (and last?) book in this series. Sadly, The Summer I Turned Pretty left me a bit cold. I thought the structure was a bit confusing and all over the place. And honestly, the main character picked the boy that I found the least appealing out of her three choices. (And talk about an embarrassment of riches there!)

Books I'm currently reading: Betraying Season by Marissa Doyle and Along for the Ride by Sarah Dessen. Many thanks to Holt for giving me an ARC of the sequel to Bewitching Season, a book I really enjoyed. Betraying Season is just as enjoyable, too--I'll definitely be reviewing this closer to its publication. I've only read a few chapters of Along for the Ride, but already I was struck by Sarah Dessen's ability to shape her character's voice to her personality. Full of big words and deep concepts, Auden sounds like the smart, driven girl that you're told she is.

Books I'm looking forward to: Penguin Harcourt Dial/Penguin (once I got my box o' books, I could confirm my initial statement that it was Penguin) was fantastic and offered up ARCs of Fire, the companion novel/sequel to Graceling. I really can't wait to read it, considering how much I enjoyed Graceling. As others have commented, vampire novels seem to be getting edged out by werewolf and other supernatural creature books--and I got a few of them that I'm excited about. I'm also pleased to have copies of Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson and Perfect Chemistry by Simone Elkeles.

I have a great big box of books on its way to me, so once I get it, I'll be able to really dive in and start reading. And of course, there's also reading the Printz winners that I haven't read yet--happily, I have an ARC of Jellicoe Road that I'm hoping to get started soon. What are you looking forward to reading this spring?

Edited to Add: Liz recommends that anyone who's looking to read Jellicoe Road should get the final copy, since the ARC has some sloppy mistakes that might take you out of the book. Since that's been known to happen to me, I'm gonna follow this advice!

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Morris Shortlist: A Curse Dark as Gold

A Curse Dark as Gold
Elizabeth C. Bunce
2008; Arthur Levine Books (Scholastic); 978-0-439-89576-7 (hardcover)

Summary: With the death of her father, Charlotte is now the miller of Stirwaters. For years, strange mischief has troubled the mill: machines stop working for no cause, accidents strike the people that are needed most, cloth is damaged or destroyed days before it is to be sold. Charlotte doesn't believe in superstitions or hexes or curses. But what if there is a curse on Stirwaters? And could it have something to do with the mysterious Jack Spinner, the man who has rescued Charlotte from disaster by spinning gold from straw or making fabric from scraps?

My Humble Thoughts on Why This Book Was Shortlisted for the Morris Award

#1: A blending of history and folktale.

In A Curse Dark as Gold, Bunce admirably combines two seemingly unrelated concepts: historical fact and oral fantasy. Based on the Name the Helper folktale concept, the most well-known version being Rumpelstiltskin, this novel sees to tell the story of the miller's daughter who manages to break the curse placed upon her. By setting the story at the dawning of the Industrial Revolution, we see a world where science is starting to overcome superstitions. Charlotte is a very practical woman, with little regard for the protection charms and talismans practiced in her village. But disregarding these methods, even though they make no scientific sense, nearly leads Charlotte to her doom. She gets drawn into the cycle that has repeated itself over and over through the years, ever since the incidents that caused the curse to be placed on Stirwaters. Yet it is still Charlotte's sense and practicality that allows her to break the curse, in a fusion of science and nature.

#2: The relentless pounding of doomsday.

"Slowly, as we watched, he drew out the straw and spun it -- spun it! As if it were a roving of wool! As the spindle bobbed and twirled, something -- I could not quite see what -- pulled out from the brown straw and through his knobby fingers, and where it should have gone onto the spindle, the finest strands of gleaming golden threads appeared. Around and around the spindle went, and the glitter of gold turned with it. I could not take my eyes away." (pg 97-98)
With Jack Spinner's first offer of assistance, the reader knows the eventual outcome of this story. Yet even before this moment, Charlotte has seemed set on the path towards a deep darkness. The novel, beginning with the death of her father, features calamity after catastrophe; moments of safety seem like the calm before the storm. Bunce achieves a pacing that never lets up, that keeps the reader turning the pages, wonder what strange fate will befall Charlotte and Stirwaters next. It's the kind of pacing that you typically see in horror movies, not in a historical fiction/fantasy novel. But it's this aspect of the novel that lends it an intriguing, contemporary feel. Fairy-tale retellings are quite common, but this one feels very modern thanks to its timing.

#3: The richness of village life and its people.

A Curse Dark as Gold features a vast array of supporting characters, from Mrs. Tom and Uncle Wheeler to Jack Spinner and Bill Penny. These people have various motives and actions that impact the story, helping Charlotte or crossing her. For a small village, Shearing is lively and active; one feels that even if the mill did fail, the people who live in Shearing would find a way to stay together, to preserve their homes. Yet for most of the novel, it's only the reader who senses this; Charlotte doesn't seem to realize just how strong people are when they stand together. She tries to take everything on her shoulders, keeping secrets from her sister, her husband, and as best she can from the village. Yet at the climax of the novel, Charlotte realizes that these people give her the strength to face Jack Spinner and save her son. Richly-drawn characters help make this realization seem honest and obvious, not contrived or cliched.

A Curse Dark as Gold is a novel that is not for the faint-hearted. Full of danger and disappointment, it fully presents how our lives hover on the point of disaster. Yet it also makes clear how much hope there really is in life. Bunce portrays this dark, scary world with a great degree of historical accuracy, yet also infuses it with a simple, strong aspect of support and courage. For teens interested in historical fiction, fairy-tale retellings, or "sad books", this novel will draw them in.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Thoughts: Reading Post-Gossip Girl YA Literature

As someone who tends to look back, not forward, it's always interesting to me to look back and see how trends begin, and how they go in unexpected directions. I was reminded of this when I finished reading Rumors, the second book in The Luxe series, in preparation for book three, Envy, which is being published later this month. I remember picking up the ARC for The Luxe, looking at the cover, and then turning it over to the read the blurb. As I read, I thought to myself, "It's Edith Wharton meets Gossip Girl."

I was pleasantly surprised at the end of the blurb when it said The Luxe was "The Age of Innocence meets Gossip Girl." It's not often I get things so very right.

Yet what's more interesting to me is how Gossip Girl has become more than just one series; it's touched off ripples throughout young adult literature that goes beyond similar series like The A-List or The Clique. You have The Luxe, a historical twist on Gossip Girl, which is going so strong that it seems to have inspired it's own lookalike imitator, La Petite Four. And that's just one example of how Gossip Girl changed publishing.

I've been equally intrigued by how the Gossip Girl series has changed series publishing, as well. Those of us who grew up on Sweet Valley High know that paperback series never changed for the long-term. Yet Gossip Girl drew its original storyline to a close, and then did a reset, starting over with a new group of characters. It's a risky proposition, and I felt that Gossip Girl: The Carlyles was a shaky start. Happily, You Just Can't Get Enough, book #2 in the Carlyles series, was much stronger, and I feel that the Carlyles series will turn out to be just as addictive as the original series. I'm now waiting with baited breath to see how the reboot of The A-List turns out, as The A-List was my personal favorite of all these series.

What are your thoughts on Gossip Girl? For good or for worse, it's changed YA literature, in ways we're still figuring out. Do you think Twilight will have the same impact? Or is there something waiting in the wings that will surpass anything else?

(My apologies for the radio silence last week . . . life got in the way of blogging!)

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Review Roundup: The Morris Award Edition

After I've posted my review of one of the titles shortlisted for the Morris Award, I'll present a collection of reviews of the title, so you can get some other perspectives on the book in question. I hope you enjoy this feature--and I'll just be scratching the surface, so if you're looking for more, give Google Blog Search a try.

Absolute Brightness

A Patchwork of Books: Too many problems, too much info, took away from a great story.
BookEnvy: Somehow, knowing in advance that it was going to happen made the anticipation while reading the book even stronger.
Kids Lit: It is writing that makes one pause, sometimes gasp, reread and then think for awhile.
Libarilly Blonde: Absolute Brightness is one of the most hyped YA novels of the year so far, and after reading it, I'm sorry to say that I was not impressed.


Two Turtles: I wouldn't recommend this to the masses, but there are certainly a lot of teens who will be fascinated and appreciate something a little different.
Becky's Book Reviews: Weird and sometimes wonderful is how I'd describe Madapple by Christina Meldrum.
Sarah Miller: This is one of those stories that has its own palpable atmosphere, and it feels just like the cover looks: murky, stirring, and intense.
Bookshelves of Doom: It's not an easy-breezy read -- I wouldn't give it to a reluctant reader, for sure -- but teens (and adults) who're interested in exploring the subjects I mentioned shouldn't miss this one.
Stuff As Dreams Are Made On: It was dark and melancholy and philosophical at times and piqued my interests non-stop.


Teen Book Review: I’ve heard nothing but raves about Graceling, so I was unsurprised when I found it to be a wonderful book.
Avid Teen Reader: Graceling has a strong heroine who knows what she wants but isn't exactly sure how to get it, and despite her Grace is a very loving and sensitive person.
YAthenaeum: She tells so much in so little, and I want nothing more than to spend more time in these character's lives.
Sarah Miller: I've read my share of tomboy and feisty princess stories, but Katsa's a cut above the stereotype.
Bookends: Kristin Cashore has created an intensely interesting world and peopled it with characters that sparkle with complexity and life.

Me, the Missing, and the Dead

Bookshelves of Doom: It explores the differences between our memories of people who are gone and the reality of what life with them was really like.
What KT Reads: And, the story itself didn't really sit well with me. There's nothing wrong with it really, it just isn't my kind of story.

General Morris Award

Interactive Reader: I like the whole shortlist concept. I wonder if there would be less shock and controversy for the Newbery and Printz if people had a little warning and time to read the books themselves.
Libarilly Blonde: So, um, may the best Madapple win!
A Chair, A Fireplace, and a Tea Cozy: This is one of the good things about the shortlist; it's not just the buzz for these five books, but it's the opportunity to read these titles with a different perspective and to discuss these books and the award.

Morris Shortlist: Absolute Brightness

Absolute Brightness
James Lecesne
2008; HarperTeen; 978-0-06-125627-1 (hardcover)

Summary: When Leonard Pelkey arrives in Neptune, New Jersey, he stands out. Flamboyant and dramatic, no one really seems to know what to make of him, including Phoebe, his almost-cousin. But when Leonard disappears, and is later found dead, Phoebe is left to wonder at the changes he made in her life.

Fair Warning: I'm breaking my normal review policy--namely, not reviewing books I disliked--in order to complete my series of Morris Award shortlist reviews.

My Humble Thoughts on Why This Book Shouldn't Have Been Shortlisted for the Morris Award

#1: A confusing, meandering plot.

With judicious editing, Absolute Brightness could have been an intriguing exploration of tolerance and how an outsider changes a place. However, this 469 page tome packs in too many unneeded plot threads and digressions to achieve such a goal. It's just far too sprawling with tangents that don't pay off, like the allegations that Deirdre, Phoebe's sister, was abused by their father. In addition, James Lecesne wastes opportunity for natural conflict and drama by having events happen off-screen, like Deirdre's haircut, or by not giving enough structure and lead-up for turning points. When Phoebe, near the end of the novel, says that she sees Leonard all the time, the reader is left scratching their head. Is this a metaphor? Has Phoebe been seeing images of Leonard? Where was Phoebe's reaction to such an unusual occurrence? We don't know because Phoebe's statement about seeing Leonard seems to come out of left field. The extra plot points and a tell not show approach removes much of the power from Lecesne's story.

#2: Factual errors and a muddied setting.

Having lived in New Jersey for a year, I couldn't help but be rattled by the changes from New Jersey geography that were made in Absolute Brightness. While these are trivial changes, they seem unnecessary, made for no clear reason. Referring to the Turnpike when the Parkway would be the actual roadway, having Phoebe visit a department store that is now known as a different chain--they're not important in the bigger picture, I know. But misstatements like a character pumping their own gas (something that has been outlawed in New Jersey since 1949) seem to speak to a carelessness in creating a time period for this novel. The novel is rife with references--Winona Ryder, Save the Whales, platforms--that do not seem consistent with a modern setting. Even more, this story seems like it would have worked much better set in the early to mid 1980s, rather than the late 2000s. Adding in more sloppy editing, like a binder that changes colors twice, both times within the same page, and the reader comes away feeling that a lack of care has been taken with this novel.

#3: Shallow, unconvincing characters.

Leonard is certainly a moving, intriguing character: dynamic, hopeful, and cheerful. Yet with his literal disappearance, much of the character depth is erased. Phoebe is a flat, bland character; with the weight of narrating the novel on her shoulders, the middle of the novel sags dramatically. It's not until the trial of Leonard's killer that the novel regains some momentum. Character motivations often come out of nowhere, like Deirdre's behavior especially at the end of the novel. Coupled with several stock characters--the in-denial mother, the bevy of quirky old ladies, the homewrecking younger woman--the reader quickly misses Leonard and his deeper, yet still somewhat two-dimensional, characterization. The only other character who seems fully-fleshed, in spite of his minor role, is Father Jimbo, and his part is small within the overall novel.

While Absolute Brightness has been well-reviewed, too many problems took me out of this work. With more editing, it could have been a worthwhile selection for the Morris Award shortlist. As is, though, this novel serves as the answer to "What's wrong with this picture?" as one reviews the books included on the shortlist for the Morris Award.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Review: Forever Princess

Forever Princess
Meg Cabot
2009; HarperTeen; 978-0-06-123292-3 (hardcover)
ARC provided by Meg Cabot's publicist via Libarilly Blonde

Summary: Mia Thermopolis, high school senior and princess of Genovia, is juggling many secrets. She's told all her friends she didn't get accepted by any college--but she got accepted by all she applied to. She said her senior project was on the Genovian olive oil industry--but it's really a four-hundred-page romance novel set in medieval England. And even when she tells the truth, like not really wanting to go to the prom, no one seems to believe her. What college will Mia pick? Will she find a publisher for her novel? And how can she deal with the return of Michael, her ex-boyfriend? It's a lot for anyone to handle, but Mia's not just anyone--she's a princess.

Three Things To Know About Forever Princess

#1: The more things change, the more they stay the same?

Forever Princess jumps from where Princess Mia (Book IX in the Princess Diaries series) left off, to the last week of Mia's high school career. During the time when she wasn't writing in her journal, due to writing her romance novel (a clever explanation for the time jump), a lot has changed for Mia. She's been in therapy to deal with her control issues. She's no longer friends with Lilly, while Lana, her former enemy, is now part of her circle of friends. Genovia has become a constiutional monarchy and her father is running for Prime Minister. But with all these things, there's still plenty of turmoil for Mia to face, and the fun of The Princess Diaries is seeing how she confronts these challenges. Happily, Forever Princess is able to walk the line of giving us the same old Mia and a new, more mature Mia. Cabot is to be commended for achieving such a delicate balance, all the while keeping several plot threads progressing.

#2: Opposites really do attract.

Mia and Michael had a messy breakup when Michael chose to go back to Japan to work on an invention. When he returns, now a success, Mia's friends naturally expect her to want Michael again. But Mia won't hear anything about it. After all, she's with J.P., who's perfect for her. He's sweet and affectionate. He always agrees with her. He's every girl's ideal boyfriend. Except . . . he smells like dry-cleaning solution. And he did write a play that's a thinly-disguised version of their relationship. And he didn't ask her to the prom until a week before the event. But that isn't worth breaking up with him, is it? Even though Michael always smells amazing to Mia and makes an incredibly generous gesture that helps Genovia? Mia doesn't know what to do, until an old friend comes through for her.

#3: True friends forgive.

Mia learns a lot about her friends in the last week she'll have with them. She finds that her lies--about her novel, about college--don't really matter to her true friends. Even more important, as Mia has changed, so have her friends. But they're still friends. So Tina can reveal the lie she's told Mia. And Mia can find out the truth about why Lilly stopped being her friend. Perhaps one of the most satisfying moments in the whole novel is when Lilly and Mia talk, really talk, for the first time in two years. The conversation not only lets the characters reconnect but allows Mia to start figuring out her romantic tangle. For long-time readers of the Princess Diaries series, this moment is both the characters' and the reader's nostalgic encounter with an old friend, right before they part ways. And like our truest and best friends, Lilly is able to help Mia get on the right path.

Forever Princess is a fitting conclusion to the Princess Diaries series. Cabot took a chance leaping the action forward, yet this choice allows us to appreciate the changes in Mia that still hasn't really changed her. Amidst a range of celebrations and sadness, we can be grateful that Mia, and all the people she knows, has had a great send-off.

Read the first 80 pages, if you can't wait to get the actual book. And don't forget to buy Ransom My Heart, Mia's romance novel.

Reviews: YABookNerd, Genre Go Round. And an article from last month's Publisher's Weekly covers the end of the Princess Diaries.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Morris Shortlist: Madapple

Christina Meldrum
2008; Knopf; 978-0-375-85176-6 (hardcover)

Summary: Aslaug didn't kill her mother. She didn't kill her aunt or her cousin, either. Aslaug wasn't born to a virgin. She wasn't a virgin when she gave birth to her own daughter. Yet it's hard for Aslaug to know what is real and not, what is true and not. As she sits in a courtroom, accused of killing her relatives, Aslaug starts from the beginning to reap the truth, the Solomon's seal, from amongst the weeds and lies.

My Humble Thoughts on Why This Book Was Shortlisted for the Morris Award

#1: An impressive use of language.

Christina Meldrum bursts onto the YA lit scene with this atmospheric first novel. With carefully chosen words and finely wrought phrases, Madapple is like a rare, exotic plant in a field of daisies.
"This memory stirs my longing for bloodroot, for the blood of the root, that orange-red sap I've used in secret to dye my belly with the likeness of a spotted touch-me-not, as if somehow that golden flower with its splotches of burnt red could protect me from my mother; from her biting words, the stinging rod; her absence. Touch me not. And yet, I want her touch, and I want to hear her words--words that open small passages into the tunnels of her mind, and often seduce me with wonder. "(pages 16-17)
Long sentences and short, dreamy introspection and fast actions, are all combined. While the pacing is slow, a patient reader is rewarded by the last third of the book, as past and present come closer and closer, and questions begin to have answers revealed.

#2: A collection of intriguing, unknowable characters.

To most of us, the characters in Madapple are all crazy. Aslaug, her mother Maren, her aunt and cousins--they're all a little off. Yet this oddness draws in the reader, compelling you to figure out these people. Is Aslaug more than just a girl? Does her preacher aunt have a God-given gift to save the spirit? Are they really crazy, or do they appear that way because of the intoxicating plants they consume, like the madapple of the title? And through it all, Aslaug is trying to find the same answers as the reader, searching to discover who is her father, who is her mother really, and who or what she is.

#3: Probing into what we see and what we believe.

Questions of nature, science and religion dominate in Madapple. From Sanne's devotion to pre-Christian religions, Rune's disbelief and skepticism, and the preacher's reliance on God and schnapps, Aslaug finds herself unprepared for the questions these people raise in her. Her mother put her faith in nature and science, instructing Aslaug to do the same. Yet Maren still searched for answers in religious writings until her death. And Aslaug, as she becomes more adrift in the world of the Charisma Pentecostal Church, also turns to the books, the writings of prophets and holy ones. By the end of the book, Aslaug has found her true faith, has found the things she can believe in and worship. And they're not found in any book.

Madapple is a book like none other. In tone and language, complexity and characters, this book challenges a reader to think and see. And our eyes are opened and our minds are made aware of the many things that are beyond our comprehension.