Friday, December 30, 2011

My 10 Favorite YA Books of 2011

This is not - NOT - a list of the "best" YA books of 2011, because there are so many I did not read! There are a whole bunch I really wanted to get to and just didn't manage: Daughter of Smoke and Bone, Anna Dressed in Blood, Shine, many more. I'm a book behind on both of Cassie Clare's series. Beautiful Chaos has been on my nightstand since the day it was released but I haven't managed to open it. I think I'm two or three books behind on Sarah Dessen. I have a whole list of books I didn't manage to read. Maybe I'll do a midyear update of my favorite 2011 books I read in the first half of 2012, or something. And I've compensated for this issue in past years below the main list, with lists of pre-2011 books I read and loved this year.

And a disclaimer - I know almost all these authors to some extent. I work for one, obviously. I've worked with others at conferences. I've chatted with some on Twitter. I think the only one on the main list with whom I've had no contact is Deb Caletti (probably because she isn't on Twitter). I won't pretend that I managed to keep my feelings about the books completely isolated from my impressions of the authors, but none of them asked for good reviews or anything, and I would NEVER tell you I liked a book I didn't like.

So! Here we go! Instead of trying to write whole reviews of each book, because then I'd never finish, I will instead just give you a short list of elements that made me particularly like it.

1. The Demon's Surrender by Sarah Rees Brennan - Amazing sibling relationships, a hot lying older brother, urban fantasy, humor, the Goblin Market, a bookish boy, girls who are strong in different ways and both awesome and don't hate each other, and one of my favorite fictional couples EVER.

2. Lola and the Boy Next Door by Stephanie Perkins - A geeky love interest, GLBT characters whose sexuality isn't An Issue, boy next door love interest, basically PERFECT romance.

3. Where She Went by Gayle Forman - Classical music, a hot but angsty rock star, a perfect mix of heartbreak and tragedy and romance and hope.

4. The Name of the Star by Maureen Johnson - London, boarding school, humor, a really hot ghost, lots of murder.

5. Red Glove by Holly Black - A hot lying older brother (yes it's a theme), fascinating magical politics, organized crime, family drama, and a wonderfully conflicted, complex hero.

6. Stay by Deb Caletti - The ocean, sailor boys, a well-drawn father/daughter relationship, family secrets, and the best portrayal I've read of loving someone with mental illness.

7. The Unbecoming of Mara Dyer by Michelle Hodkin - Mystery, a ridiculously hot love interest, and so much total insanity (in a good way) that I can't say more without ruining it.

8. The Last Little Blue Envelope by Maureen Johnson - Traveling around Europe, a mysterious hot guy, a nicely drawn portrayal of grief, non-hokey personal growth.

9. The Near Witch by Victoria Schwab - Enchanting language, fairy tales, sibling love, a mysterious stranger, subtle social messages.

10. Past Perfect by Leila Sales - Historical reenactment villages, forbidden romance, imperfect but loving family relationships, lots of ice cream.

My Favorite 2010 YA Books I Read in 2011:
1. The Demon's Covenant by Sarah Rees Brennan
2. Jane by April Lindner
3. Dash and Lily's Book of Dares by David Levithan and Rachel Cohn
4. White Cat by Holly Black
5. Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins
6. Clockwork Angel by Cassandra Clare

Earlier YA Books I Read for the First Time & Loved in 2011:
1. The Changeover by Margaret Mahy
2. If I Stay by Gayle Forman
3. The Forest of Hands and Teeth by Carrie Ryan
4. Silver Phoenix by Cindy Pon

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Fortnightly Book Recommendations: Holiday Stories

Hello! Christmas is only a week away, so I thought you might need some ideas for books and stories to get you in the mood. Here are some of my all-time favorites!

Let It Snow by Maureen Johnson, John Green, and Lauren Myracle: Well, I had to start with this one, and obviously I'm biased, but I read and loved this well before I ever talked to Maureen (or John). These interconnected novellas detail what happens when one small town is hit with a Christmas snowstorm and a stuck train. It's the perfect read for when things in your life aren't going according to plan but you want a warm and fuzzy Christmas feeling anyway.

Dash & Lily's Book of Dares by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan: I just read this for the first time this year, and it's another good one for when your Christmas feelings are a little mixed - especially because of the way the point of view alternates between the two characters. Lily's always been pretty into Christmas, Dash hasn't, and this year they're both at loose ends. There's some bonus awesome bookstore stuff, a lot of humor, and a nice dash - hah, I crack myself up - of romance.

This Year It Will Be Different by Maeve Binchy: Binchy is often a bit treacly for my taste, but this collection of short stories is shockingly un-treacly. Everyone's lives are messed up, and Christmas doesn't magically fix everything, but people get by and life goes on. It's sort of refreshing, really.

Once Upon a Winter's Eve by Tessa Dare: This Regency Christmas romance novella has spies and spinsters and a practical heroine and people who learn languages for the fun of it. It's a good time.

Christmas with Anne by L.M. Montgomery: If you grew up with Anne of Green Gables, you'll love this collection of Christmas stories (plus Christmas chapters from the Anne books) by the same author. Some were originally written for Sunday school magazines, so lay on the moral a bit thick, but they're sweet, old-fashioned stories that I, for one, find really delightful.

"The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle" by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle: Christmas and Sherlock Holmes: Two great tastes that taste great together! It's in the public domain, so you can read the whole thing right here, and it's a pretty good entry point to the original stories.

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens: The obvious choice, yes, and you've probably seen a million adaptations and may be a little sick of the whole thing, but if you haven't actually read it, do yourself a favor and give it a try. This should go without saying, I guess, but what sometimes gets lost in the innumerable adaptations and variations and homages and spoofs is the actual writing, and Dickens is really freaking good. You can download the free ebook here.

Merry Christmas and happy reading!

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Holiday Cards Spreading Cheer

Hello! I've been trying to think of a way to send holiday cards to some of you, because, unfortunately, I do not have the time or money to send cards to everyone. So! I decided to send cards to people who are embracing the spirit of the season and spreading CHEER by doing something awesome for someone else. So if you'd like a card, you should tell me about something you have done for others this holiday season. And to make things interesting, I'd like photographic proof! Here are the details:

First, your something awesome can be either:
1) A monetary donation to a worthy charity. It can be whatever you like, but if you need ideas, I suggest ShelterBox or Reach Out and Read. (Mother Disco works with them. They're great.)
2) A donation of your time and energy to something that helps others. It can either be an official volunteer thing - like working at a soup kitchen or animal shelter - or something you just DO to help someone in your life, like free babysitting for a busy mom or shoveling for an elderly neighbor. It could even be HOLIDAY-SPECIFIC, like saving your mom a bunch of work by wrapping all your siblings' gifts. I'm not going to say it has to have taken a certain amount of time, but it should be a substantial thing. We're talking about some degree of sacrifice and selflessness here.

TO GET YOUR CARD, email me the following:
1) Your name and mailing address
2) A short description of what you did or where you donated
3) A photo to go along with this - if it's not something that obviously lends itself to being photographed, feel free to get creative!
4) Whether I can use your photo in a Collage of Awesomeness
5) Your card preference: Christmas, Hanukkah, non-specific winter cheer

Does that make sense? Does it seem FAIR? Any questions?

Go do something awesome!

Love and cheer,

Friday, November 25, 2011

Fortnightly Book Recommendations: Hush, Mara Dyer, Lola, & The Near Witch

I have four YA books to recommend for you this time, and they're all pretty different, so I'm not going to pretend there's a theme or something. The theme is: Books I have recently read and liked! (There may be some spoilers below, but I've tried to avoid major stuff, especially in regards to the more mystery-like plots.)

(Disclaimers: I know Steph Perkins and sometimes chat with Victoria Schwab and Michelle Hodkin on Twitter. But I would not recommend their books if I didn't really like them!)

Lola and the Boy Next Door by Stephanie Perkins
I liked Anna and the French Kiss a lot, but I love love LOVED Lola. It's quite possibly the best YA romance I've read . . . ever? I can't think of a better one offhand, anyway. I loved that Lola had her own interests and strong personality completely apart from any relationship. I loved that her family situation was complicated but the fact that she had two dads was the simplest, most normal thing about it. I loved that it wasn't about falling for her first boyfriend, that she spent a good chunk of the novel with the wrong guy. I loved that the fact that she was with the wrong guy made perfect sense and was completely in character, but it made even more sense for her to be with the right guy. I loved that Cricket was a geek and a little awkward. I loved that he was so obviously a good guy, in the moral sense of the word. I loved that he had his own family and personal problems, aside from the romance. I loved that the girl was more sexually experienced than the boy and it wasn't A Big Deal at all. I loved that Cricket and Lola had history but that it also made sense that they liked each other in the present. I loved that Anna and Etienne were around so much. I loved it ALL.

The Unbecoming of Mara Dyer by Michelle Hodkin
This book was way different from practically anything I've ever read, and I don't say that lightly. And while there are probably books I love better, I can't recall being so gosh darn fascinated by one in recent memory. My friend Hermione is very picky about books, but after many years of friendship I know her tastes, so she relies on me to tell her if she'll like things.* As I read this one, she kept asking if she should read it, and I kept saying "I don't know! I can't figure out if you'd like it! I can't even figure out what it IS!" I knew I liked it from the start, though, partially because I had no idea what was going on - but in a very controlled way. I wasn't confused because it was badly written, but rather the opposite: I was confused because Hodkin did such a masterful job of deliberately confusing me. And I've just realized I haven't told you anything about the plot, so: Mara (not her real name) survives an accident in which her friends die, but she can't remember what happened. And she suspects there's more going on than everyone thinks, so (with the help of a really hot guy) she sets out to recover her memories and figure out what's going on. And that made it sound a million times more boring and normal than it is. I just can't find the words to describe how awesome and insane this book actually is, clearly. (An aside about the romance: I have seen reviewers complain that there was too much time devoted to the love story, and that some things about the relationship Set A Bad Example For The Dumb Impressionable Girls or whatever, and I just want to say that I disagree wholeheartedly with both of those objections, but alas, I can't say why without ruining a big part of the plot.) Oh, and if you were wondering, yes, I wound up telling Hermione she should give this one a try. So should you. Really.

The Near Witch by Victoria Schwab
This is another one that's a little hard to describe - it's fantasy, I guess, but reads like a fairy tale, more specifically. It's about a girl named Lexi in a town where there aren't ever any strangers, and what happens when a stranger shows up around the same time children start going missing. The plot is intriguing, but what really stands out about this book is the beautiful writing and how atmospheric it is. I'm not one to always picture what I'm reading, but I did with this book, especially (for some reason) Lexi's bedroom with its candles and piles of blankets. I kept wanting to cuddle up under lots of blankets while reading. And the wind, oh, the wind - it's practically its own character here, and Schwab did a great job with that. There was also more romance than I expected, which was a delightful surprise! This is the perfect book to curl up with on a cold, windy winter night.

Hush by Eishes Chayil
This semi-autobiographical novel (written under a pseudonym) is about Gittel, an Orthodox Jewish girl who witnessed her friend's brother sexually abusing her friend - and then the friend kills herself and the families and community cover it all up. As Gittel grows up, she tries to forget the whole thing, but can't, and eventually has to decide whether to expose the whole thing to the outside world. It deals with very serious, important subjects, of course, but my main reasons for liking it weren't very different from reasons why I like other books. First of all, I love reading about daily life in other cultures, especially cultures based on or highly involved with religious practice. And second, I liked that Gittel seemed very much a part of her culture. Her childhood rebellions were small and believable - eating a non-kosher candy, say. It drives me crazy when heroines who live in conservative societies (or who are in historical fiction) suddenly become fully-formed feminists without any real reason or explanation of their influences or why they're the one girl around who hates their society's strictures, and that was avoided here. It also had perhaps the best treatment of an arranged marriage I've read - Gittel saw it as a matter of course, because that's how all relationships in her society formed, and it didn't end up being love at first sight or anything, but it was, you know, fine. Perfect middle ground, and probably more common in real life than the usual fictional portrayals of "I will insist on marrying for LOVE even though I've never heard of anyone else doing that!" or "I was iffy about this but oh, look, he is hot! I love him!" or "Because this is an arranged marriage it is obviously ruining my life because how could it not?" The way it was handled in the novel just seemed more realistic.

* No offense intended to any authors or books here: this has nothing to do with the quality of the books. It's kind of . . . idiosyncratic. For example, she has Demon Issues. And issues with anyone who reminds her of Fanny Price. ANYWAY.

Friday, November 11, 2011

New Feature: Fortnightly Book Recommendations!

I've been wanting to recommend things to you all, and I did a little survey of my Twitter followers and most preferred the idea of batched recommendations rather than a short post for each one. I was considering monthly posts until someone suggested fortnightly, and, well, I just love the word "fortnight." So here we are! Every other Friday, I will tell you about some books I like. I'll try to focus on ones I've just read, but sometimes I'll throw in some older things I've never recommended before, or things that go with a certain theme, or something. You can find my previous recommendations here and here and here and here and here, and henceforth I will tag these posts as "fortnightly book recommendations" so you can find them easily.

To this week's recommendations! I have a dark smorgasbord for you: a YA paranormal, a ghost story for kids, a classic horror short story, and a very adult murder mystery.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

The Question of Jane Eyre + More Practical Heroines

After I posted my previous list of practical heroines, a few of you expressed your outrage that Jane Eyre was not included. And I had thought about it! Really! But I wound up deciding that, no matter how much I love Jane Eyre (the character) and Jane Eyre (the book), she is . . . just not very practical. She is brave and independent and stubborn, but that's not the same thing. Standing up for yourself to a cousin even though you know it will get you punished and maybe beaten? Not practical. Running away out into the wilderness with no plan or supplies? Not practical. Turning down a respectable offer of marriage when you're an orphan with no prospects, in that cultural context? Not practical. And that's okay! That's why we love her! I'm not saying she's not awesome, just that she doesn't fit the criteria for this particular list. Like real people, we should allow characters to be awesome in many different ways!

Upon further reflection, though, I am surprised that no one mentioned Hermione or Katniss. Thoughts?

And here are some more suggestions for practical heroines that have trickled in:
Ann Aguirre: Sirantha Jaxx series
Cassandra Clare: Clockwork Angel
Karen Cushman: Catherine, Called Birdy
Diana Wynne Jones
Stephanie Perkins: Lola & the Boy Next Door
Diane Setterfield: The Thirteenth Tale

Friday, November 4, 2011

Practical Heroines

Yesterday I asked Twitter for book recommendations that featured Practical Heroines Who Get Things Done, because . . . well, really just because that's what I was in the mood to read. And all of you on Twitter have many good suggestions! So I thought I'd share.

First, a few I'd recommend that no one mentioned: The Spymaster's Lady by Joanna Bourne, Silver Phoenix by Cindy Pon, The Demon's Lexicon trilogy by Sarah Rees Brennan, The Changeover by Margaret Mahy

These are some you suggested and I have read and can vouch that the heroines are indeed practical:
Gail Carriger: The Parasol Protectorate series
Jasper Fforde: The Thursday Next series
Sue Grafton: A Is for Alibi
Laurie R. King: Mary Russell series, starting with The Beekeeper's Apprentice
Veronica Roth: Divergent

These suggestions were popular:
E. Lockhart: The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks
Robin McKinley: Chalice, everything else
Tamora Pierce: Basically everything by her
Terry Pratchett: The Susan Sto Helit books, Tiffany Aching books, Witches series
Patricia Wrede: Enchanted Forest Chronicles, starting with Dealing with Dragons

Others that were suggested:
Libba Bray: Beauty Queens
Emma Bull: War for the Oaks
Kristin Cashore: Graceling & Fire
James Clemens: Wit'ch Fire
Jennifer Crusie, in general
Pamela Dean: Tam Lin
Anita Diamant: The Red Tent
C.S. Friendman: In Conquest Born
Nicola Griffith: The Blue Place
Kim Harrison: The Hollows series
Eva Ibbotson: A Song for Summery
Barbara Kingsolver: The Bean Trees
George R. R. Martin: The Game of Thrones series
Colin Melot: Wildwood
John Jackson Miller: Knight Errant
James Patterson: Maximum Ride
Jackson Pearce: Sisters Red & Sweetly
Maria V. Snyder: Poison Study
Maggie Stiefvater: The Scorpio Races
Jean Webster: Dear Enemy
Scott Westerfeld: Leviathan trilogy

Do you have any more ideas? Let me know!

Saturday, October 15, 2011

ADVICE: Dealing with Homophobic Facebook Posts

Good morning! Those of you who follow me on Twitter may have noticed that I periodically enjoy giving ADVICE. I have been told I am good at it, but I am NOT an expert. I am just observant and think too much and have many opinions. So take all of my advice with a grain of salt! I usually try to answer on Twitter, but this question was an important one so I wanted to give it as many characters as it needed.

@ashfrankie: "A friend posted [on their Facebook page] the video "Jesus Christ Saved me from 27 Years of Homosexuality" & called it great and I am trying to figure out a diplomatic way of saying that they are completely wrong and are being very hurtful."

This is a complicated one! Because first of all, yes, of course, this is very hurtful. And it's completely natural - and good - to want to stand up to this person and say that. I'm just not sure that this is the right place to do that, for a few reasons . . .

If the person was posting this on some sort of public forum, or a group site, or YOUR Facebook page, then I'd say yes, definitely, say something in the comments. But since it's on their OWN page, this is less clear. Posting a video on a Facebook page is sort of like having something on display in your house, and I try to restrain myself from expressing my outrage when I walk into someone's house and they have Sarah Palin's book on their coffee table, you know? And this part is just from my experience, but: I have conservative friends, and when I post something liberal on Facebook or Twitter, they do not usually jump in and say "YOU ARE WRONG," and I appreciate that. Likewise, I don't do that to them. I think civility and respect for others' beliefs are very important things, within certain boundaries. (More on that in a second.) So in this case, I don't think I would make a public comment.

A few caveats here: I am assuming that this person acts like my conservative friends and is not all over YOUR Facebook page telling you your videos are wrong. If this person DOES do that, and that's the kind of dynamic you have, then responding in kind seems okay.

I am ALSO assuming that the video in question is a testimony/conversion story, which is why I categorize it as "personal religious beliefs that are to be respected." On the other hand, if it was saying "God Told Me All Gay People Should Be Killed" or something, then forget respect, because that's an outright threat. For me, I think the distinction lies in the difference between "This is a belief that I have, and I want to tell you about it" (fine) and "This is a belief that I want to impose on others by any means necessary" (not fine). Now, this distinction can be pretty subjective, and I have not seen the actual video in question, so this is more of a general statement.

(Also, I am more likely to respond if someone posts something factually incorrect rather than just opinion. Especially if these facts are easily provable/linkable. For example, a few Christmases ago there was an email going around all "BOYCOTT TARGET because they won't let the Salvation Army collect there and therefore they're anti-Christian," and I actually did respond to people telling them that Target's policy was not to let ANYONE do fundraising, so it wasn't singling out the Salvation Army or Christian groups. And someone actually said "Oh, thank you, that completely changed my mind." I was shocked! Anyway. Moving on.)

The other reason why I would probably not make a public comment is because, in my experience, when you comment on someone's Facebook they get worried about defending themselves in front of their friends, and are not in the right frame of mind to actually listen to what you're saying.

This does NOT mean that I would necessarily do nothing, though! I don't know how close you are to this person, but if you are close enough that this is going to bother you, I would try to bring it up in private email or conversation. "Mary, I know you like sharing your beliefs, but I'm not sure whether it's occurred to you that some of the things you post are very hurtful to some of the people who see them - people you care about." Something like that. I think a private dialogue would have a better chance of getting your point across, and maybe making the person think about it, rather than just getting everyone upset for a few minutes, until the next Facebook hubbub comes along.

I hope this helped a little! Good luck!

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Book Recommendation: The Ogre Downstairs

Hello! I did not mean to go away for so long. I will try to be better. Here, have a book recommendation!

I had somehow never read Diana Wynne Jones - I know, I know! - so when Sarah Rees Brennan recommended The Ogre Downstairs I thought I'd give it a try. It's about two families of siblings who are suddenly step-siblings and trying to figure out how to make the new family work, and the new stepfather is horrible (they think), and there are magical chemistry sets wreaking all sorts of havoc. Honestly, it took me a while to get into it. Well, it was a perfectly pleasant reading experience from the start, but I would read a few pages before bed, put it down, and not feel any particular call to pick it up again until the next night. But I think that's more my problem than its, and when I finally got a decent stretch of time when I wasn't falling asleep, I read the last half of it in one go. The magic is very well grounded in the real world, and the way it comes to help the kids recognize that their new family members aren't necessarily as awful as they seem is really well done. My favorites were Malcolm, who comes across as mean but maybe is just shy and lonely and fragile, and the little one, Gwinny, who overcomes her fears with bravery and honesty and open-mindedness, and is much more of a real character than little siblings in YA books often are.

Sadly, this seems to be out of print, but I'm sure your library can get it for you!

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Real Life Is Worrisome So I Talk About Dead Irish Wits Instead

I had big plans for this week. I was going to come home from beach weekend refreshed and inspired, and get a lot of writing done and tell you all about it. The first part went okay - beach weekend was very nice - but the rest did not go according to plan. I came home to find that a long-simmering family crisis had boiled over, and also my refrigerator had broken. So I've been trying to deal with that and have barely gotten anything done this week at all.

Instead, I will distract you and myself by telling you about a new-to-me author I've found! After dinner on Saturday, Cousin Disco and I were sitting out on the porch drinking wine and discussing how to bring down societally imposed gender roles (as you do) when her father Uncle Disco came outside.

Uncle: Since we were talking about books before [as we were, of course] - have you read Myles na gCopaleen?
Felicity: No.
Uncle: You have to.
Felicity: Okay. [I try to be agreeable.]
Uncle: S.J. Perelman called him "the best comic writer I can think of."
Felicity: Well, then. If S.J. Perelman says so.
Uncle: I'll put it on your pillow...
Felicity: I'll read it!
Uncle: ...but you can't take it with you. It can't leave the house. You have to buy your own.
Felicity: ...okay.
And really, I understood. People are funny about their favorite books.

Later, when I went upstairs, I did indeed find the book on my pillow - it turned out to be funny columns from an Irish newspaper from the thirties and forties. (Here it is.) Okay then! That's the sort of thing I would like. I was just looking at it when Cousin Disco knocked at the door. I opened it and she was holding a book:

Cousin: I think this was meant for you.
Felicity: *looks at suspiciously similar book* No, I got one too.
Cousin: Is it...?
Felicity: *fetches book, compares* Yes. Identical.
Cousin: If he has two, why won't he let you borrow one?

And at that point we had to concentrate on keeping our laughing from waking up the rest of the family. Anyway, next morning, Cousin Disco asked her father about the duplicates. "It's my favorite book," he said. "I can't be without it." Totally fair. I may have more than one copy of certain books myself.

I read the first 60 or so pages while I was there, and I would definitely recommend it if you like WWII-era Irish humor that is silly and bitter all at once! And very, very educated and cultured. There are a few other collections, too, and he also wrote novels under the name Flann O'Brien, so I'll be trying to work my way through all of it eventually. Remember: Doesn't leave the house. Buy your own copy. Buy two.

Friday, August 5, 2011

What about not-so-great books?

I know the question of whether to post bad reviews has been discussed to death, but . . . apparently I'm going to make you discuss it again. It's been bothering me since my earlier post, because even though I didn't say a book was bad, I did say I didn't think one book was as good as another book. Which . . . is true. And honest. And everyone makes value judgments about what they read. But. These are my concerns:

1) Well, if a book is REALLY bad, I'll probably not finish it, and I wouldn't review something I didn't read in its entirety. So I guess I'm really asking about "I wasn't crazy about this" books, rather than "OMG this is awful" books.

2) I know authors Google themselves - everyone Googles themselves - and I don't like the idea of them coming here and finding primarily negative things. I realize this is sort of silly, but . . . still.

3) I assume you all know that these are all MY opinions here, and have nothing to do with my employer, but I am still afraid of someone thinking badly of her because I didn't like their book, or something. Again, I realize this is silly, but I worry. About everything, basically.

4) I don't have infinite blogging time, so I'd rather spend my time and energy telling you about books I love!

But at the same time, I don't want to make it sound like I LOVE EVERYTHING, you know? And I would NEVER say I liked something if I didn't. I would just not mention it. This is what I'm leaning toward - writing book recommendations, rather than reviews, and just not mentioning the books I wouldn't recommend, unless they come up when I'm writing about a certain topic.

Does this make sense? Thoughts?

Edited to add: I also don't mean saying only positive things. "I loved everything about this" isn't really helpful. There's always room for "I wish the author had..." or "I wasn't crazy about this one thing because..." even when a review is generally positive.

Books involving issues don't have to be Issue Books.

Deb Caletti's Stay and Jennifer Brown's Bitter End both came out this year, and I picked them up at the library and read them almost back to back partially because they were reviewed together in the Times. Now, I have plenty of issues with that review - most notably with the idea that most YA books are designed to Teach A Moral - and don't necessarily agree with its assessment of these particular books, either. I do agree with the reviewer that Stay is far better, but I don't think it's particularly light, and I don't think Bitter End is more realistic.

Let's deal with the one I liked less first - and I should emphasize that I didn't think Bitter End was a BAD book, at all. (And I probably would have liked it better had I not just read Stay.) But it read very much like an Issue Book, to the point that I never really got into it as a novel. And after thinking about it for a week or so, I've concluded that most of my problems with it came down to the fact that it felt like Brown was so dedicated to Getting The Issue Across that the characterization suffered for it, and that ended up making the book worse as a book as well as undermining the Teaching Of Issues. Because when you want readers to buy into a story in which the heroine gets into a relationship with an abuser, the reader needs to be able to see at least a hint of why she finds him attractive. And that just wasn't here. From his first entrance, Cole is clearly A Big Jerk. And shortly thereafter, he becomes A Big Jerk Who Is Also Evil. Everyone in Alex's life can see this (and tries to tell her). The reader can see this. I'm not saying that people don't fall for jerks - we've all done it - but the author needs to give us something to go on so we can understand the attraction.

And Alex herself . . . I never really warmed up to her, and I read mostly for the characters, so this was a big problem. And she was . . . a little boring. At first she was Sad About Her Dead Mother, and then she was Sad About Her Dead Mother and also In Love With This Jerk. She complains about her sisters not being focused enough on the fact that their mother is dead, and because I'm a horrible person that kind of made me wonder if books about the sisters would be more interesting.

But let me emphasize that this wasn't BAD! There were some minor characters I loved, who were perhaps more complex than the main characters, and some aspects of the book seemed really promising, and I wished she'd spent more time on them. The whole question of what happened to the mother and how the family could go on living around that big event was fascinating, and I felt somewhat let down by how quickly it was wrapped up, almost as an afterthought. I did wholeheartedly love Alex's best friend Zack, and would happily read a book about him.

On the other hand, Deb Caletti's Stay is one of those books that I loved so much that I have a hard time being coherent about it. But I think the main difference is that it read like it was a novel, first of all, that happened to involve an abusive relationship as part of a larger thing, rather than a Lesson that was pushed into the form of a novel. I adored the main character, Clara, and her flawed but lovable father, and the seaside town where they went to recover from Clara's trauma. I loved the tone and the writing and the whole atmosphere of the thing. I loved it so much that I immediately requested the rest of Caletti's books from the library.

But what really got me was the extremely realistic description of what it's like to love someone who has mental illness. At one point when Clara's talking about dealing with her boyfriend Christian's moods, she says "You anticipate, and when you do that for a long while, it's hard to shake. You get edgy. Like men back from the war who jump when a car backfires." That's one of those lines that made me stop reading and stare at the book because it was so true. I am in no way claiming to understand Clara's specific situation, but I dated someone who had a mental illness (though very different from Christian's and not related to abuse), and Clara's descriptions of what that's like - both while you're in it and the lingering effects afterwards, which is the part people don't usually talk about - were probably the best I've come across in any novel.* Overall, Christian was a much more nuanced character than Cole from Bitter End, so it was much easier to buy into the fact that Clara had ever liked him in the first place. (Of course, this apparently led to Amazon reviews saying he "wasn't abusive enough." Gaaaah.)

Of course, if that aspect hadn't won me over, the HOT SAILOR BROTHERS would have. Swoon. I love sailor stuff, and hot brothers, and I loved the way these brothers appeared in the role of saviors but wound up being very human at the same time. Finn is definitely one of my new Literary Boyfriends - he's funny and confident and outdoorsy and also caring and perceptive. And his big brother's no slouch, either. Their family as a whole was one of those warm, chaotic fictional families whose house I want to show up at for Sunday dinner.

Another quote from Stay that I loved:
"One of the hardest tasks as a human being is knowing when to keep an open mind. And when not to."
And I think that's another good example of why I preferred this book - that's a Lesson, sure, but it's not a hit-you-over-the-head lesson on one exact topic. It's more general, and it ties into the dating violence plot as well as other situations in the book and plenty of situations in life in general. The point of fiction ISN'T to get a message across, but if it were, such a universal and less-obvious (than "don't stay with the boy who hits you") message is almost certainly more worthwhile - and springs from a more interesting novel.

Summary: Read Stay by Deb Caletti! I loved it! It will make you laugh and cry and think and cheer and want to move to the beach. Bitter End by Jennifer Brown was okay, and reviewers who think the point of YA is to teach morals should just FIND NEW JOBS already.

* This was a long time ago, and there was nothing directed at me and I was never in danger like Clara or anything, so please, no need to call the police or my mother.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Post-birthday thoughts

Yesterday was my birthday, and, perhaps partially because it's conveniently toward the middle of the year, I tend to make some new goals and resolutions at my birthday to replace my abandoned New Year's resolutions. So that means today, the day after my birthday, I shall sit here and eat leftover cake and blather at you about them.

Next year I'll be thirty, and I don't really MIND getting older, but it still feels . . . something. So I thought that this year I should concentrate on just doing things that will make progress toward Big Life Goals, so at least I'll go into my thirties feeling like I'm on the right track. Or something. Anyway, since this blog is mostly about reading and writing, the important thing here is the writing goal: I am determined that by my next birthday, I will at least be at the querying stage with my novel. The rough timeline in my head is that I should have a complete draft by Christmas, and then spend the first half of 2012 revising and rewriting. And I will pledge to put some sort of writing update here once a week, to keep myself accountable. Hold me to it!

My reading goals are mostly in the interests of keeping myself sane, because when I'm busy it's easy to cut back on reading time, but then I go nuts. Really. So. I'm going to start trying to carve out AT LEAST an hour of uninterrupted reading time every night, and see how that goes. I'm hoping this will also mean I FINISH books more often instead of starting lots and leaving them scattered around. (I've long since given up any attempt at actually only reading one book at a time. I can't. I just can't.) And I also want to write about a higher percentage of the books I read, so I will write SOMETHING here about books at least once a week, either a review of one book or a quick "three good mysteries I've read recently" thing or something like that. (One thing I HAVE been managing to do is keep a list of the books I've read so far this year, so that's something.)

My library is having some of its carpets replaced, so the adult stacks are CLOSED at the moment. That, of course, means that all of a sudden I am thinking of dozens of books I DESPERATELY NEED and having to convince myself not to just buy them all. On the other hand, the renovations mean that the borrowing period is longer than usual, so I have a LOT of books out right now. We'll see how many I can actually get through by the time the library reopens and wants their books back.

And on that note . . . I should stop blathering about reading and go actually read.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The Best Books I Read in the First Half of 2011

I am still sick. Did I mention I was sick? Perhaps not. ANYWAY. I returned from LeakyCon feeling horrid and got sicker over about a day, and now I'm finally starting to feel a little better. And at the moment I am fortified with Dimetapp and a Frosty dropped off by a wonderful friend (I'm starting to think I should give my friends fake names like Maureen does. Should I?), so I am going to recommend to you the best books I read between January and June.

I told you about The Name of the Star yesterday, so I won't go into that again.

The Demon's Covenant and The Demon's Surrender by Sarah Rees Brennan - At some point I will write a whole long post about my love for this trilogy (starting with The Demon's Lexicon). But in brief: it's about a group of teenagers in England who have to deal with demons and magic in addition to normal teen things like siblings and school bullying and falling in love for the first time, and there's action and drama and romance and fantasy and OH the humor. These books always take me a while to read because I have to keep putting them down to laugh and/or cry.

The Changeover by Margaret Mahy - More teens and magic and family issues and romance! The two main characters are both completely awesome and their romance is slow and gentle and sort of realistic - it ends with "Hey, I'm going off to college! Let's grow up a little!" But in a hopeful way. And I don't know HOW I had never read Mahy before, but her writing is enchanting and she didn't even lose me in her long descriptions of magic (which often happens) and now I want to read everything she's written.

Jane by April Lindner - This is a modern retelling of Jane Eyre in which Rochester is a rock star. Literally. And it works shockingly well.

If I Stay by Gayle Forman - Mia is horribly injured in an accident that kills her family, and we learn about her through flashbacks as she decides whether to live or die. I put off reading this one for a while because of the whole "(semi-)dead girl talking" thing, but it was AMAZING.

Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins - This is an awesome YA romance with boarding school! And Paris! And a heroine with actual interests and hobbies and her own life, who isn't totally fixated on the hero!

The Last Little Blue Envelope by Maureen Johnson - This is the sequel to 13 Little Blue Envelopes, but I liked it even better. Ginny has to really Deal With Some Things, and it's moving and funny and has great European settings. And OLIVER. Oliver is my favorite.

White Cat and Red Glove by Holly Black - Cassel is a teen con artist who grew up in the world of the magical mafia, and gets pulled back in by various family things, and there's the most compelling twisted romance ever. And he has an older brother, Barron, whom I love passionately.

Clockwork Angel by Cassandra Clare - This is set in the same universe as Clare's Mortal Instruments series, but in Victorian England. Tessa gets pulled into the world of the shadowhunters while looking for her brother, and there's magic and romance and lots of action and a really fun setting.

Stay by Deb Caletti - I will say more about this one in another post, but I was completely captivated by this story that involves dating violence but doesn't at all read like an "issue book." There's a really relatable heroine and an awesome dad and a nice seaside town and a lighthouse and hot sailor brothers. It's a perfect "rainy summer day" book.

Silver Phoenix by Cindy Pon - This is a fantasy inspired by Chinese mythology and culture, about a girl who ignores societal norms to go on an epic quest to find her father. There's also one of my favorite types of magic, and a wonderful slow-burning romance. Warning: This book will make you hungry.

So! That should keep you busy for a while. What are some of your recent favorites?

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

In which I immediately taunt you with praise of a book you cannot yet read.

Hello out there! I am Felicity Disco, assistant to YA author Maureen Johnson. Some of you may know me from Twitter and/or LeakyCon. I've been wanting a place for thoughts of more than 140 characters, so I thought I'd start a blog where I can talk about books and maybe a little about my own writing process. If you'd like to learn more about me, here's a FAQ. If there are any other questions you think I should include there, please let me know!

It seems only appropriate that I kick things off with a few thoughts on Maureen Johnson's upcoming book The Name of the Star. First of all, let me say that I realize I am in no way impartial when it comes to Maureen's books. I will also point out, though, that the work I do for her is not directly related to the books at all, and that she was basically done with this one before I started working for her. BUT STILL. I am completely acknowledging my bias.

All that said, I have to tell you: The Name of the Star is my favorite of Maureen's books so far. By a lot. As I've been telling people, it has all the awesomeness of her other books, WITH ADDED MURDER. And ghosts. And a British boarding school, and I love boarding school stories. But let me back up and tell you a little about the book, in case you do not know! Our heroine, Rory, is an American girl who arrives for a year at a boarding school in London just as someone begins to mimic the Jack the Ripper murders. Her school happens to be right in the middle of Ripper territory, so she's thrown into the middle of it all. And then the ghost police show up, and things get really interesting.

And now I will give you a list of reasons why I love this book. (You'll find that I often set out to write reviews and wind up writing lists. It's just how I think.)

1. Rory is a great heroine - not annoyingly perfect or The Most Special Girl Ever, but certainly not boring either. She goes through a lot and learns and changes but remains realistic amid all the crazy stuff going on.
2. The setting: London! I love London! And schools! As I've mentioned!
3. There's a guy named Alistair, and I can't tell you much about him without ruining things, but he wears a trench coat and listens to The Smiths and lounges around the literature section of the library and I LOVE HIM MADLY.
4. I also love Rory's roommate Jazza. And some of her other schoolmates. And the folks on the ghost police force, actually.
5. The whole ghost and ghost police thing is really well done. I like my paranormal elements to have rules and be internally consistent and MAKE SENSE in context, and these did.
6. A truly frightening antagonist. I don't need ALL books to scare me, but I like when murder mysteries scare me at least a little.
7. Jack the Ripper was one of the first big cases really covered by the tabloids, and this update of what that sort of media coverage would look like now was really fascinating. (Some of the media reports get rather info-dumpy, and slow things down a bit, but if you have to have an info dump, I guess that's really the best way to do it.)
8. There's a sort of cliffhanger, but it's not the kind that is annoying or makes the book any less satisfying. It's the good kind that just adds a layer of awesomeness and makes you really eager for the next book.

So, have I convinced you? Are you now wondering how you, too, can read this book? Well, the bad news is that The Name of the Star isn't out until September 29. But the good news is that if you pre-order from Books of Wonder, Maureen will sign your copy! (And look how pretty that cover is!)

So! I suppose that's enough for today. Soon, I will tell you about the best books I read in the first half of the year, and my favorite fictional rock stars, and the book that got me over my Zombie Issue. Until then!