Monday, December 28, 2009

Morris Shortlist: Flash Burnout

Flash Burnout
L.K. Madigan
2009; Houghton Mifflin; ISBN 978-0-547-19489-9

Summary: Who knew what a simple picture could lead to? For a photo assignment, Blake takes a picture of a passed-out woman. When his friend Marissa sees the photo, she recognized the woman as her missing mother, a meth addict. Blake wants to help Marissa, but that doesn't sit well with his girlfriend, the beautiful Shannon. As the aspiring comic Blake starts to get serious, he finds that what looks clear through a camera gets blurry in real life.

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

#1: A storyline that never fully comes together.

Good novels balance plot and character to create a compelling story. Even the most character-driven books have to have some kind of action or forward momentum, to capture a reader. Flash Burnout unfortunately has a plot that features too many contrivances and coincidences, making the reader go far beyond the normal suspension of disbelief. What are the chances that Blake's picture of a drug addict would happen to be his friend's mother? How likely is it that Shannon's grandmother would die on the same day that Blake sleeps with Marissa?

Beyond this, the novel seems to just come to a stop, rather than to a natural ending. Marissa's disappearance and the breakup of Shannon and Blake seem to be two separate events that occur at the end of the book, rather than a story drawing itself to a close. While some novels with an open-ended narrative have this structure, Flash Burnout does not seem to be focused on leaving things unresolved, so this lack of resolution is frustrating.

Also troubling are some of the unanswered questions. Marissa has a black eye and bruises during the novel; she blames them on participating in Hurtle, a high-speed bike ride, but they could equally have been signs of abuse. Yet this question is never even hinted at. Blake's parents are so worried about him acting responsibly when it comes to sex with Shannon that they don't seem to spend any time asking him about the relationship itself. And finally, what mother is going to take off her top due to a hot flash in front of her teenage son?

#2: Characters that are well-rounded but still two-dimensional.

L.K. Madigan has, on the surface, created a slate of three-dimensional characters. Blake cracks jokes but takes gritty photographs. Garrett, Blake's older brother, is a football player and a jock. Shannon is not the hottest girl in school, but Blake thinks she's beautiful. Yet if you go deeper, most of these characters are quickly reduced to stereotypes, never acting like anything more than a cardboard cutout. Shannon becomes the jealous girlfriend, Blake becomes the immature, overreacting boy, Marissa becomes a victim who needs rescuing. Being able to see these stereotypes this easily reduces the reader's sympathy for what happens to these characters. Blake himself veers from worrying about Marissa to losing his temper because Shannon's mother didn't give him enough help picking out a gift for Shannon. While we expect some volatility in teen characters, Blake seems designed to run through a gamut of teenage experiences without learning anything or even acting believably. This lack of control, of anything that appears like normal teenage behavior for a boy who's described as such, makes the characterization seem shallow. Adding in useless characters like Cappie and you see a novel that does not have a good grasp on how people act.

"Too bad about the flash burnout on this one."
I look over at the shot she's indicating. "The what?"
"The flash burnout. You got too close to the subject. So the flash overexposed her. Well,
me, I mean."
It's the last shot I took at Marissa's house. It's the only one I took of Marissa and her mom together. I was in such a hurry to leave that I didn't take enough time to frame them. I was too close and the flash overexposed Marissa's face, turning it bright and blurry.

"Yeah, it would have been a good shot otherwise," I agree. (page 213-214)
While Blake's voice does have some appeal as a coming-of-age story, Flash Burnout reads like a first novel, without enough successes to make up for its misfires. The frustration of reading Flash Burnout is like looking at a bad photo of an interesting subject, one that has been framed poorly. The struggle between your girlfriend and your girl friend isn't one that's been explored much in YA fiction, and this novel could have filled that niche. There are good points to this novel, like the way Garrett acts towards his younger brother. But with poor plotting and lackluster characterization, it seems like Flash Burnout won't appeal to many teens.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Crosspost: Nonfiction Award Interview

For the YALSA blog, I'm interviewing some of the authors who have been shortlisted for the Nonfiction Award. First up is Sally Walker, the author of Written in Bone: Buried Lives of Jamestown and Colonial Maryland. Find out what it was like visiting archeological digs, the five words Sally would use to describe her book, and what she thought about being shortlisted for this new award!

Read my earlier review of Written in Bone.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Nonfiction Shortlist: The Great and Only Barnum

The Great and Only Barnum: The Tremendous, Stupendous Life of Showman P.T. Barnum
Candace Fleming
2009; Schwartz & Wade Books (Random House); ISBN 978-0-375-84197-2 (hardcover)

Summary: P.T. Barnum didn't say "There's a sucker born every minute," but there's no denying that never was born anyone like him. As a boy, he would rather think of ways to make money than work for the money. Inheriting a love of practical jokes from his grandfather and Yankee values from his parents, Barnum set out to entertain the world and give them a good value for their money. Through his museums, circus and writings, Barnum became known as the greatest showman on Earth. But there was more to Barnum, as you will see . . .

Balancing fact with entertainment, Candace Fleming creates a readable, rollicking biography of the larger-than-life P.T. Barnum. From his beginnings in a small Connecticut town to his travels through America and Europe, the details of his life will delight readers. For teens used to tabloid journalism and Photoshop fakes, stories about original humbugs like the Feejee Mermaid will open their eyes to simple, entertaining hoaxes. Perhaps in this age where it's easier than ever to be fooled--and to grow angry over being tricked--the story of Barnum will remind us of the art and fun of having the wool drawn over our eyes. The life of Barnum is told with flair and skill by Fleming, enriched with original pen-and-ink illustrations as well as photos and engravings. By reading The Great and Only Barnum, readers can see just how much of today's celebrity culture began with Barnum.

Discover just what Barnum's American Museum was like, thanks to The Lost Museum.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Nonfiction Shortlist: Almost Astronauts

Almost Astronauts: 13 Women Who Dared to Dream
Tanya Lee Stone
2009; Candlewick Press; ISBN 978-0-7636-3611-1 (hardcover)

Summary: A desire to explore, go fast, and have an adventure isn't just a male one. Women too wanted to fly higher and faster--not just on Earth but into space. But in the 1960s, mainstream American society did not accept the idea that any woman would want to be an astronaut. After all, everyone knew that women are weaker then men: mentally, physically, emotionally. Everyone might have known that, but there was no scientific proof of those facts. But what if there was evidence? How would that change the mindset of NASA and Americans? Thirteen women were recruited to undergo tests to gauge woman's ability to handle the pressure of spaceflight. This is the story of those women.

Almost Astronauts brings to life a different time in America, when women were related, even expected, to stay in the home. For today's teens, this mindset is so alien thanks in part to the existence of the Mercury 13--the women who underwent medical and psychological testing that demonstrated their fitness for space exploration. Tanya Lee Stone patiently and meticulously explains just how different a woman's life was just fifty years ago, in order to give the full context to the courage fo the female pilots who wanted more. And their story can still inspire girls and women who are, even now, facing prejudice and barriers to their achievement. By taking a historical event and explaining it, but also showing its continuing importance, Stone has crafted an inspiring story of women who dared.

Accuracy or Agenda? Take a look at this post on School Library Journal's Heavy Medal blog for discussion about the position taken by Stone in this book.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Morris Shortlist: hold still

hold still
Nina LaCour
2009; Dutton (Penguin); ISBN 978-0-525-42155-9 (hardcover)

: The suicide of her best friend has sent Caitlin into an abyss. Three months after Ingrid's death, Caitlin is starting her junior year and trying to carry on. But without Ingrid, Caitlin has to find new ways to define herself. Things she loved, like photography, have no allure; her former favorite teacher barely notices her. Oh-so-slowly, Caitlin begins to create a new life. It will take a year of reading Ingrid's journal, making new friends, and building a tree house, before Caitlin will be ready to let Ingrid go.

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

#1: A journey that's an emotional punch in the gut.
"I have her journal. I have her photographs. But still. There is so much missing. I crawl under my blankets and curl my body as tight as I can. I shiver and rub my feet together. Try os hard to get the cold out." (page 186)
Caitlin and Ingrid had a close friendship. Caitlin knew that sometimes Ingrid seemed a bit out of it, but she had no idea her friend was on medication and seeting a therapist. So Ingrid's suicide is a great shock to her. Losing her best friend much too soon sends Caitlin on a journey to deal with this loss. But how? Should she see a therapist? Bury herself in photography? Find a replacement for Ingrid? None of those options works for Caitlin. She has to find her own way, through starts and stops. It's not an easy process; Caitlin makes mistakes, pushes people away, takes unnecessary risks. But everything she does feels like the right choice in each dilemma. And each choice makes you feel the same things Caitlin is feeling: joy, sorrow, regret.

#2: A universal teen concern.

Death may be an awfully big adventure, in the words of Peter Pan, but is is a subject that holds a certain lure to teens. It's one of the contradictions of being a teenager: you think you're going to live forever, but you know that you could die any day. Death and dying is such a common topic in teen literature that there was a 2009 Popular Paperbacks list on the subject. Nina LaCour, who in her author's note credits the suicide of a high school classmate as an inspiration, focuses on the repercussions of a suicide. Teen readers are fully exposed to one girl's recovery from her friend's death, getting the chance to safely explore a scary, dangerous subject. But LaCour doesn't patronize or sugar-coat matters. With a true, honest voice, LaCour brings the reader along on Caitlin's journey.

hold still is an accomplished, moving debut. Nina LaCour has written a novel of great power, exploring the nature of friendship and grief. Caitlin is a complex, fully-realized character; it's to LaCour's credit that supporting characters as diverse as Ingrid, Dylan and Taylor are just as well-rounded. With a rich sense of language and a character-driven story, hold still is a great novel, one that will find readers who have read 13 Reasons Why and other similar novels. But Nina LaCour's first novel is able to stand on its own, gracefully meeting the criteria of the Morris Award.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

YALSA Nonfiction Award

The first awarding of YALSA's new Nonfiction Award will occur in 2010. Like the Morris Award, the Nonfiction Award will be selected from a shortlist. The following titles have made that shortlist.

Almost Astronauts: 13 Women Who Dared to Dream by Tanya Lee Stone

Charles and Emma: The Darwins' Leap of Faith by Deborah Heiligman

Claudette Colvin: Twice Towards Justice by Phillip Hoose (my review)

The Great and Only Barnum: The Tremendous and Stupendous Life of the Showman P.T. Barnum by Candace Fleming

Written in Bone: Buried Lives of Jamestown and Colonial Maryland by Sally Walker (my review)

Hopefully, I'll get some of the remaining books reviewed before Midwinter. I think this is a great shortlist: congrats to the nominated authors! And a big round of applause to the committee who created the inaugural shortlist.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Morris Award 2010

The shortlist for the 2010 William C. Morris YA Debut Award has been announced!

Ash by Malinda Lo (my review)

Beautiful Creatures by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl

The Everafter by Amy Huntley

Flash Burnout by L.K. Madigan

hold still by Nina LaCour

Congratulations to the authors, and many thanks to the hard-working Morris committee!

I will hopefully be writing blog posts on all the shortlisted titles in the coming weeks; the only monkey wrench is my feverish work on the reader's advisory guide that I'm writing. My deadline is December 31, so I might not get all my Morris posts done until right before Midwinter. But here's hoping!

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Review: Ash

Malinda Lo
2009; Little, Brown; ISBN 978-0-316-04009-9 (hardcover)

Summary: The death of her mother totally changes the life of Aisling, also known as Ash. They're the best of friends, and the loss of her mother's love leaves Ash bereft. But Ash at least has the fairies to comfort her--as much as fairies can. As her father remarries then dies, leaving her in the care of her stepmother, Ash seeks someone to belong to. She thinks she's found that someone in Sidhean, a remote fairy. Ash hopes that he will carry her away. But then she meets Kaisa, the King's Huntress, and Ash finds herself questioning what she wanted.

Two Things to Know about Ash

#1: Fairy tales are timeless.

Thanks to their roots in oral traditions, fairy tales, myths and legends seem to adapt to any time. You can retell, reinterpret, or reimagine them, and the original message still has power. After all, fairy tales are about rewarding the good and punishing the wicked. That message will always have appeal. In Ash, the fairy tale of Cinderella is adapted in two ways, by heightening and expanding the links between humans and dairies, and by having the love story be between girl and huntress, not girl and prince. These changes, though, still allow Ash's goodness and heart to shine through, while giving her character depth.

#2: A love triangle is partly about the person in the middle.

Ash finds herself torn between two very different people. On the one hand, there is the coldly beautiful Sidhean, the fairy who can give her fantastic jewels, beautiful dresses, and fine horses. As Ash deals with her grief over the loss of her parents, and adapts slowly to serving her stepmother and stepsisters, it's no wonder Sidhean is very attractive. But when Ash meets Kaisa, the wise, warm woman who leads hunts for the King, Ash begins to change. Kaisa teaches her about nature, about the woods and the animals. This knowledge sparks something in Ash, making her see the world with new eyes. The perfect life that Sidhean could give her suddenly begins to pale for Ash. Her choice at the end of the novel reflects how Kaisa has changed Ash, while Sidhean has not sparked such a reaction.

Lyrically told, Ash does not shy away from darkness. Yet this version of Cinderella grounds the story, removing the cliched, cutesy elements and choosing a more grown-up take. Beautiful language and a slowly unfolding plot let us see Ash's world, making us understand her dilemma. Malinda Lo gives us a modern story with old roots, and does it with great talent. Ash will be popular with those readers who enjoy fairy tale retellings, from Beauty by Robin McKinley to Beastly by Alex Flinn.