Monday, February 27, 2012

What we're reading: Guest Blog

Putting Makeup on the Fat Boy, by Bil Wright, is the winner of the American Library Association’s 2012 Stonewall Book Award for Children’s and Young Adult Literature. The Stonewall Book Awards are given annually to English-language works of exceptional merit for children or teens relating to the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender experience.

Carlos (or Carrrlos as he prefers) Duarte is a slightly overweight Hispanic teenage high school student from a poor family in New York City. He’s always been “different.” He tells us that he enrolled in the Fresh Air Camp program of his city school when he was 10 years old and was hosted by a family that lived in the Connecticut countryside.

“The mother had on this smoky silver eye shadow that was probably the most exciting thing in the whole room. I got nuts about it and asked her right there at the dinner table if I could try some on.”

The next morning he was sent back to his family in New York. Carlos has an afterschool job at the Eastside Day Care Center, but what he dreams of is a chance to show the world his talent as a makeup artist, a craft he has been practicing (mostly on himself) since he was a child. He gets his big opportunity at Macy’s, but his big break comes at the same time that he must learn to navigate jealousies on the job, deal with a confusing crush on a classmate, and protect his sister from a physically abusive boyfriend by being the “man” of the family.

This is a story about growing up, learning about adult responsibilities, and finding out how to get along in the larger world. The thing I liked about it, however, is that while Carlos learns to balance his self-concerns with those of friendship and family, he remains true to his own personality and voice. Carlos is the fabulous star of his own world, a great believer in his own remarkable talent and prospects, an optimist by will, and a character with little self doubt. If the room lights up when he walks in, well, that’s the way it should be. We meet here an unforgettable character, one who makes the world a more fascinating spectacle, and you won’t pass the Macy’s counter again without looking for him. And maybe discussing the foundation that’s right for you.

Reviewed by Hubert Kozak

A new theme in teen lit?

I guess it's not really new...but there are definitely some new takes on the theme of pregnancy, both realistic and fantastical. The trend towards dystopic novels--books set in the near or far future, usually a bleak one with problems for the human race--has spawned a bunch of books with pregnancy (or lack of) as either a main or subsidiary theme.

I just read one in which it is THE theme--Bumped, by Megan McCafferty. In this future, people tend to become infertile (due to a virus) by age 20, so young girls have started "pregging" for dollars, for infertile couples who want a baby. Bumped revolves around identical twins, Melody and Harmony, who were separated at birth and adopted into two very different backgrounds. Melody's progressive professorial parents encouraged her to become the very first girl at her school to sign a pregnancy contract, while Harmony was raised in a religious commune in which girls are committed to arranged marriages by age 12 or 13. The premise was interesting, but the book was kind of silly and improbable (twins = mistaken identities), and was also an obvious set-up for a sequel, which is disappointing when you reach the end only to realize it isn't.

I recently reviewed another book here, with a future world view that made early pregnancies a must--Wither, by Lauren DeStefano. That one was a more serious (and better written) example, and also a more complete story (though sequels are pending for that one, too).

But my favorite so far is a present-day, realistic treatment of the topic by writer Han Nolan, who specializes in stories about teens in difficult situations. Pregnant Pause is about Eleanor (Elly), who at age 16 had sex exactly once with her (loser) boyfriend, Lamont (Lam), got pregnant, tried to pretend it wasn't happening, and ended up confessing the pregnancy to her missionary parents at five months. They are on track to go back to Kenya, where they have a mission (ironically) to care for AIDS babies, so they pressure Elly and Lam into marriage, and then dump her with her in-laws for the summer until she delivers. The MIL and FIL (mother-in-law and father-in-law) run a fat camp for kids, and while Lam does a desultory job as a lifeguard, Elly is detailed to assist with crafts and teach a dance class, even though she knows nothing about either and is also seven months pregnant. Nolan does a masterful job of writing this from the viewpoint of a 16-year-old, and Elly's thoughts and plans jump around from giving up the baby to her barren sister or to her in-laws (when things are going badly) to keeping the baby and moving to Boston (when things are going well). The story builds nicely to the resolution, and I'm happy to say this is a stand-alone book that stands alone quite well!

Realistic Reading

What? You mean there are no fairies, no ghosts, no vampires, no angels, no otherworldly beings of ANY KIND? No end-of-the-world scenarios, no mysterious super-powered heroes, no trips into outer space? Yes, that's right, occasionally a young adult author DOES write unadorned fiction about real people going about their real lives in the present day! One of the better ones is Deb Caletti, and I just read her newest book, Stay.

Clara and Christian lock eyes at a basketball game (they go to different high schools), and are irresistibly drawn to one another. Clara, who has always been a bit shy around guys, finds herself being bold enough to seek him out and initiate a relationship, which at first is wonderful in every way. But when this book begins, about two years later, Clara and her father are on their way out of town for the summer, and they're telling no one--not their friends, not their relatives, and especially no one who knows Christian--where they're going, because, well, can you say stalker? The rest of the book is told partly in the present (will he find them? will Clara gain back her self-esteem and lose her fear? and will she be able to connect with anyone in the same way ever again?) and in the past (the story of how we got to this place with Clara and Christian).

I really liked this book. The relationships felt genuine, and I like that Caletti makes room in her book for others besides those of the teen protagonists--Clara's dad's back story and present entanglements add to the suspense surrounding the whole summer.

I also liked that this was a stand-alone book, with a beginning, a middle and an end--no sequels needed, no obvious loose ends dangling, and with a satisfying conclusion! Read it and see what you think...

Intriguing New Fantasy

I just finished The Girl of Fire and Thorns, by Rae Carson, which is on the new book shelves at the Central Library. I liked it so much, I told Anarda she should order a copy for Buena Vista too! What I liked...

First of all, the heroine is a BIG GIRL. The opening scene is of Elisa being fitted for her wedding dress, but she barely fits into it--let's just say muffin top everywhere, and let it go at that. She's also a princess, but she's the younger, less confident sister of her father's poised and perfect darling, and she's being bargained away at age 16 to a neighboring kingdom in a complicated deal for troops in a war against a common enemy. She gets married to the gorgeous King Alexander, but he's passive and indecisive, and once she gets to his kingdom, he asks her to keep the marriage secret, so there she is--alone except for her one lady in waiting, uncomfortable and out of place, and she sublimates her feelings with food. Oh, the one thing I've forgottent to mention about her that makes her important/special is, she is the bearer of the Godstone (a faceted jewel that appeared in her navel at her christening). This is apparently a big deal (there's only one bearer per generation), and she has some kind of destiny in which she is supposed to perform a service, but she doesn't know what it is or when it will be required of her, and no one will tell her anything. Then, rebels who are interested in her because of the Godstone KIDNAP HER and everything changes...

There are parts of the book that really needed further explanation, but while I was reading it, I didn't even notice them, because I was so caught up in the story. The writing is great, and the evolution of Elisa's character is so well done that I was sad for the book to end. What a great fantasy read! Check it out...

Here is the author's website, if you want to know more:

Melissa's Best of 2011

I'm nominating the long-awaited Beka Cooper: Mastiff, by Tamora Pierce. We read the first book in this trilogy, Beka Cooper: Terrier, in middle school book club a couple of years ago, and I was so taken with it that I recommended it on the main library blog; the sequel, Bloodhound, came out pretty quickly after that (and was even better than the first), and then it was a looong wait for #3, as Pierce decided to publish a book of short stories--Tortall and Other Lands--set in her same mythical universe, in between. But finally the book is here, and I enjoyed it every bit as much as the other two.

Pierce has many books (at least four series of four, a series of two, and maybe some free-standing ones) set in Tortall, and I like all that I've read, but I think these three featuring Beka Cooper are my favorites. That's because all the others are about royals, nobles, and mages, but these are about a girl from a disadvantaged background who makes her way into the local police force (the officers are called "Dogs," thus the nicknames applied to Beka) and works hard in the Lower City (slum) neighborhood in which she grew up. So although the background and some elements are fantasy (she has a magical cat, hears the voices of the dead, and picks up gossip by standing in the middle of dust devils on the street), the details feel more realistic due to the day-to-day dealings of she and her partners with the common folk, and in addition you have the police procedural element--the best combination, therefore, of fantasy and mystery, two of my favorite genres.

In this book, Beka is sent on a top secret mission: Enemies have invaded the palace where King Roger and Queen Jessamine and their family and court are summering, and have stolen their son and heir, four-year-old Gareth. Circumstances seem to indicate that it was an inside job, collaborated on by nobles, mages, and slave traders, so with no one else to trust, Beka's boss and mentor, Lord Gershom, assigns Beka and her partners, Tunstall (the human one) and Achoo (the scent hound with whom she works), plus Tunstall's lady love, the knight Sabine, and an unknown mage who goes by the name Farmer, to track the kidnappers and get the prince back. It's an exciting chase, with lots of perils both natural and supernatural, and the interaction of the characters while they do their jobs is, as usual, a big part of the element of enjoyment for me. (There's also a love interest for Beka--yay!) I hope you will check out this wonderful trilogy for yourself. We also have the first two in audiobook, and will be receiving the third shortly, if you prefer listening to the tale of Beka Cooper.

(I have one negative thing to say, which echoes Anarda's complaint about Chime: I really dislike the cover artwork for this series! No way does this girl with her pale skin and skinny little arms look like Beka. She's pretty...but could she run behind a hound all day, fight off thieves with a baton or a knife or her bare hands, or stare down a criminal? I don't think so...)

Anarda's Best of 2011

I will mention three books in particular that seemed to break the too-familiar YA mold. The first is an import from France, and it is, indeed, very, very FRENCH. Gary Ghislain’s How I Stole Johnny Depp’s Alien Girlfriend is a caper romance begging to be placed on the big screen, but it works beautifully on the page, or--even better--read aloud with a French accent (you know you want to try this!) especially for the character of Zelda, the so-called Alien Girlfriend. It’s a funny, fast read, with Fashion, Action and a little bit of, hmm, shall we say, Spicy Traction? And, hey, maybe even some aliens! Bon Appetit!

The second book is Chime, by Franny Billingsley, and I long for a repeat of our Summer Reading Program contest, “Judge A Book By Its Cover,” because the cover for this book stinks! Oh, it’s not that bad, it just has a vapid, lounging blonde on the cover, whereas our corn-silk-haired heroine, Briony, is electrifyingly sharp, opinionated, and deserves to be hanged--or so she tells us on page one. This is a story that appears to take place in a vaguely familiar English countryside village, pre-World War I, replete with clergymen, farmers, city folk and country folk, but also inhabited by witches, spirits, the Boggy Mun who brings disease to the weak from his swamp, and Old Ones, as well as another odd person called the Chime Child. Is this the familiar paranormal ground? Ye-es, but what a difference a good author makes! This is an unusual book, with an inner mystery that gnaws disquietingly away within an entertaining, well-written yarn, touching oh-so-gently on the mistaken “known truths”of adolescence; ah, Know Thyself! And it’s a standalone book! There could be a sequel, but it doesn’t need one. What a relief. 

My third choice for favorite of the year is The Marbury Lens by Andrew Smith, and it was deuced difficult for me to read because it was so very dark in its depiction of an alternate reality. After surviving a hideous kidnapping and its equally hideous consequences (known only to himself and his best friend), young Jack travels to England in order to check out a boarding school he and his friend will attend for their last year of high school. Still shaken up by his recent brush with mortality and torture, he is accosted by a young stranger in a pub who claims to know him from “Marbury,” a place Jack knows nothing about. After the stranger leaves, Jack finds a pair of spectacles, or lenses, the stranger has left behind; once he has returned to his hotel room, he looks through them and finds himself transported to a primitive world where he is being hunted like an animal by others who seem vaguely familiar. When he realizes that the young man who was just skewered in front of him looks like the young man who approached him in the pub, Jack’s sense of reality slips another notch, and so does ours. What nightmare world, whose nightmare world has he entered? In what seems like days he finds himself back in his hotel room, terrified--and curious to put the Marbury lens back on. And when his best friend joins him in the strange world of Marbury, the nightmare only gets darker. Can Jack’s kidnapper be far behind him, with vengeance on his mind? This fast-paced horror novel will have you on edge--and there does appear to be a sequel in the works--eek! So much more to read, so little year to read it in!

The Bride's Farewell

In this book by Meg Rosoff set in 1850s rural England, Pell Ridley leaves her home in the middle of the night to avoid marrying her childhood beau; she can't bear the thought of repeating her mother's life of domestic drudgery and constant child-bearing. Her mute little brother, Bean, refuses to be left behind, so the two ride her white horse, Jack, to the Salisbury Horse Fair, hoping to find work. When she loses everything dear to her, Pell must discover her own resources--inner and outer--and decide what's worth fighting for, clinging to, or surrendering.

I couldn't put this book down--I started it at 7:00 p.m. one night, and finished it at midnight. Wonderful scene-setting as well as compelling characters and situations from this award-winning young adult author. Also try her previous novels: What I Was, Just In Case, and How I Live Now.

What We're Reading: Guest Blog

Judy and Kyle Renneker are brother and sister teenage twins, part of the large and unwieldy Renneker family, where you sometimes seem pretty much on your own in the general confusion and multiple demands for parental affection. Kyle is gay, and out to his family, something he announces formally at what turns out to be an anti-climactic non-event. The problem in his family is not that he is gay; it’s that his twin sister inexplicably hates him, and they are involved in a comically vicious sibling rivalry where one or the other must always be the winner. Things really start to heat up when they learn that their father has arranged for a classmate they barely know to stay with the family for the last month of the school term. Garrett Johnson’s parents have had to leave town to take up his father’s new job assignment in San Diego, and they want Garrett to be able to finish out the school term at his current school.

Garrett dyes his hair black, wears black eyeliner, is aloof and cryptic, and is apparently involved in an apprenticeship to be a vampire. He is also hot, however, and becomes the object of the rival desires of both Judy and Kyle, who doubt Garrett’s vampire pose, but don’t really have a clue as to his sexual orientation. The resulting antics, fueled by sibling rivalry, desire, and stupendously awkward attempts at seduction, is a send-up of vampire books as well as a story about the frailties of young love.

There are generally two kinds of novels written for gay teens. The first is rather serious and focuses on the troubles that come with being gay; it is concerned with the differences between the experiences of gay youth and their heterosexual peers. In these novels, families are usually hostile to gay youth or generally unsupportive. In the other sort of “gay” novel, gay teens are part of families that are accepting and supportive, they have circles of friends their own age and find themselves part of a group that usually contains both gay and heterosexual friends. Their experiences in developing a sense of self identity and making their first romantic moves towards others are shown to be common experiences shared by all youth. The similarity of gay youth to their peers, rather than their differences, is the reassuring message of these types of novels, the kind Patrick Ryan writes. In Gemini Bites, Ryan shows that dishonesty in presenting your true self is sure to make things more difficult and awkward for you than they must inevitably be. But mostly this is just a fun read, in which teens straight and gay (and would-be vampires too!) will recognize themselves.

Reviewed by Hubert Kozak


Over the Thanksgiving weekend, I read Wither, by Lauren DeStefano, the first book in a planned trilogy called The Chemical Garden. It's also DeStefano's first book ever, and I thought it was a great start.

It takes place in a dystopian future in which scientists have genetically engineered the perfect children--they think. But after the first generation, which is not only disease- and cancer-free but also nearly immortal, all subsequent generations have been attacked by a virus that kills all the women at age 20 and all the men at age 25.

This has resulted in an odd social construct: The wealthy have started practicing polygamy, with one man marrying multiple wives and attempting to impregnate them all during their six fertile years before death. The hope is that someone will discover an antidote, but in the meantime, people want to keep their bloodlines going.

The book starts with a bunch of terrified girls in the back of a van, kidnapped from the streets of Manhattan; three of them are chosen to be sister wives in one mansion in Florida. Jenna, Rhine and Cecily will be married to Linden, whose first wife, Rose, has reached the age of 20 and is on the verge of death from the virus.

Rhine, age 16, is the middle wife (Jenna is 19, Cecily is 13) and the central character of the story. Her greatest desire is to escape and get back to Manhattan and her twin brother, Rowan (and freedom), but despite herself she begins to care about her sister wives and even the husband who was forced on her. Her alliance with the servant, Gabriel, is both the most dangerous and the most promising relationship in her story.

The thing I liked about this book is that although a sequel is obviously planned (since it says right on the cover that it's part of a trilogy), the book can stand alone. You do want to know what happens to these people and this world, but DeStefano doesn't do that thing we all hate, where an author just stops on a cliffhanger, instead of ending her book properly. Nice writing and engaging characters--I look forward to the sequels.

Another Fine Faerie Fable

Extraordinary, by Nancy Werlin, follows in the tradition of her earlier book, Impossible, wherein the faerie realm intrudes upon the real world and a human girl is challenged to effect a change in herself that will reverberate in this parallel place.

This book centers around Phoebe, a many-generations-distant descendent of Mayer Rothschild, founder of the great banking empire and, as it transpires, beneficiary of extraordinary favors from the queen of the faeries. The bargain he made for his family is about to impact Phoebe, who bonds with a strange girl named Mallory in middle school, only to discover a few years later that her best friend (and the friend's enigmatic but strangely compelling older brother, Ryland) have ulterior motives. After having been manipulated and betrayed by them both, Phoebe has to dig deep to find her inner resources and decide whether she is to be the one to pay the family's debt to the faeries--will she be ordinary, or will she be extraordinary?

You can find out more about the author, Nancy Werlin, and her books, by going here:

Also, her book The Killer's Cousin (which won a LOT of awards) is a great spooky read for this time of year!

Slightly Creepy Reads

Here are a couple of books with the goosebump factor for October:

The Midnight Twins is by Jacquelyn Mitchard, who wrote The Deep End of the Ocean (and a lot of other books, of course), and it's the first of a series about sisters named Meredith and Mallory, who come from a long line of psychic twins. Born two minutes before midnight and two minutes after on New Year's Eve, one sees the past and one the future. In this book, they discover their powers and have to solve a mystery and foil a bad guy. The sequel is Look Both Ways. I always like books about the secret worlds created by twins, and this one has a nice mix of reality and fantasy.

The Replacement falls into a category with a lot of recent teen fiction about the world of faerie, but I think this one's special. It's the first novel by Brenna Yovanoff, and I look forward to seeing what she comes up with next. The protagonist is one of those changelings left behind when the faeries steal the human child from the cradle. This changeling, however, has parents and a loving sister who know what he is and raise him as if he was their real child anyway. The book opens when Malcolm is a teenager, struggling with his health in a world full of iron and blood (both poisonous to his kind). A little girl has just died in their town, but her older sister, a classmate of Malcolm's, insists that the child they buried wasn't her sister Natalie, and Malcolm, who has a good idea who (or what) the child was, struggles with his emotions as he tries to stay under the radar of the suspicious townsfolk while helping the girl he likes get her sister back before it's too late.

Heading for the Stars

More teen titles with similar themes--is the "next big thing" in teen lit going to be space travel? Could be...judging from two new books about settler ships (and their resident teenagers) heading out from Earth to make a new home for humans. They are Glow, by Amy Kathleen Ryan, and Across the Universe, by Beth Revis. Just like the dystopian societies imagined in Matched and Delirium, these books start with a central (and familiar) premise and resolve it in different ways.
In Across the Universe, there is one ship with two populations, and the story is told alternately by two protagonists, a representative from each group. Elder is from among the people who stayed awake for the entire 300-year trip to Centauri--or rather, he is the most recently born from the generations of people who have lived and died on the ship Godspeed as it hurtles through space. Amy and her parents--valued experts on gene splicing and military matters--were cryogenically frozen and were supposed to sleep in suspension and be awakened just in time to land on their new planet. But 50 years before the end of the trip, Amy's pod is unplugged, and after barely surviving her abrupt awakening, she has to come to terms with shipboard life under a slightly mad tyrant, and work with Elder to discover who is murdering the other frozen passengers.
There are two ships in the version told in Ryan's Glow--the Empyrean and the New Horizon. These ships are in the nature of arks (as in Noah's Ark), sending out the few survivors of a violent battle on Earth to start over on a "New Earth" lightyears away. Waverly and Kieran are 15-year-olds on the Empyrean, and are part of the first generation of people successfully born in space. When the book opens, they are tentatively planning their marriage, as all are required to procreate at a young age to provide children who can carry on the mission. But their predetermined life on Empyrean is disastrously interrupted when the crew of the New Horizon, desperate to arrive on and populate the new planet first (to continue their ideology, which is radically different from that of the crew of the Empyrean), make a move that disrupts the plan and throws everything and everyone into chaos.
These stories took me back to the early writings of sci-fi greats Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein (and so many more). Although these are intended specifically for teens, while their predecessors' books were written for a general audience, these two books owe premise, trappings, and mythology to generations of writers before them. I enjoyed these new writers' "take" on space travel, and look forward to the sequels continuing their tales.

Love and Dystopia

Teen titles with similar themes: One is the second book by Lauren Oliver, and the other is the first book of a planned trilogy by Ally Condie. Each book is set in a future society in which rigid rules govern how people interact and how they live out their lives, but each book has a different center around which they evolved.

In Delirium, by Lauren Oliver, love is considered the most deadly of deadly things: it kills you both when you have it and when you don't. The Consortium has done its best to obliterate both the emotions and outcomes of love, which is thought of as an actual disease, labeled amor deliria nervosa; at age 18, everyone goes through a "procedure" to remove the disease from their mind. After the procedure, the personality becomes calm and even, with no highs or lows, and everyone does their duty and fits into their role. Lena is anxious to get the procedure over with, so she can start feeling secure; her own mother had the procedure performed four times (it didn't work), and eventually committed suicide, so Lena is particularly fearful of the effects of deliria in her own gene pool. Before she reaches her operation date, however, she meets Alex, a dashing, handsome and kind Invalid (not invalid as in "ill and resting on the sofa" but as in "this identification card is invalid") who, of course, reveals the ugly underside of this supposedly perfectly regulated world and tempts her to be a rule-breaker and follow her heart.

In Matched, by Ally Condie, love is tolerated, but waste is not: Society has been remade to eliminate excess, the random factors that cause the depletion of world resources to the harm of humankind. A central government dictates what work you will do, what you will wear, what entertainments you may pursue, who you will marry, and even when you will die. Everything is supposedly equally optimal for all members of society, who want to be good citizens for the betterment of everyone. Cassia is 17, about to be matched with her future husband--only when she puts her microcard into her portscreen, she gets two matches instead of one! Officials assure her that a mistake has been made and her true match is her best friend, Xander, who she loves; but her attention can't help being drawn to the second match, Ky, who is careful on the surface to appear perfectly cooperative but who harbors the soul of an artist and a poet, which he gradually reveals to Cassia. I particularly loved how the author quoted the poetry of Dylan Thomas to influence Cassia.

Oliver's first book was Before I Fall. Condie (right) previously wrote the Yearbook trilogy; the next sequel to Matched (Crossed) is on the "NEW" shelves in the YA section!

Sci Fi Sleeping Beauty

I just finished Anna Sheehan's first book, A Long, Long Sleep. On Amazon, Sheehan says:
"This book came about when I realized that the world didn't stop when Sleeping Beauty was put to sleep. What would have happened while she slept? She would have had to come to terms with a whole new world the moment she opened her eyes."
Rosalinda Fitzroy is the 16-year-old sleeping beauty in this book, but she has been put to sleep, not in a remote castle by a wicked fairy, but in a stasis tube by her billionaire parents, who "stass" Rose whenever their high-powered careers make it inconvenient to parent her. The problem is, the last time they put her to sleep, they never came back for her, and when her stasis tube is discovered and the wake-up sequence is accidentally activated by a boy exploring a forgotten sub-basement, it's been 62 years since she closed her eyes.
In addition to dealing with the sickness brought on by prolonged stasis, Rose has to cope with the loss of everything familiar--including Xavier, the love of her life. She is also the previously unsuspected heiress to her father's interplanetary empire, which adds another layer of awkwardness and intrigue to her recovery and integration into this life. Rose is trying to focus on finishing high school and maybe making a few friends, but someone is apparently unhappy enough about her return to have sent an unstoppable assassin to put her out of commission! It's a lot to take on, but Rose finds some unexpected allies as she figures out how to stop him and also attempts to learn why her parents abandoned her.
I have grown weary of the passive girls in some recent YA novels who sit back and wait for others to take care of them, but in Rose's case, she has ample reasons to be virtually paralyzed by her circumstances! It takes her awhile, but she does make real progress, and at a particular point in the book when she discovers what she can do all on her own, it's doubly triumphant. This is a great sci fi take on an old fairy tale.