Thursday, March 31, 2011

March 2011 on the Blog

This month was so exciting!!!

For one thing I came back to the blog after over a month away.

I reviewed:
The Running Dream
Purple Daze
Sean Griswold's Head
Strings Attached
The Real Real
Human .4
Like Mandarin
Between Shades of Gray (with a giveaway that ends Apr. 2nd)
and and and

I listed books I didn't expect to like, some of the best romance in YA, and authors that I wish everyone knew of. I talked about YA book covers and how post-high school is portrayed in the genre.

Also also also I talked about teenagedom and YA novels, which is a post I extra-special love so GO CLICKY!!

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

A Few Small Reviews

There are a few books I've read recently that, for one reason or another, I'm not going to be writing full reviews of. I did want to share them with you guys though, so I'll be doing a couple of mini-review posts to give some idea of what these books are about and who might be the right readers for them.

Andrea Seigel
Bloomsbury USA Children's Books
After Ingrid's cousin manages to convince her extended family that she's a budding psychopath, Ingrid Bell has to find a way to not only convince them that she actually has emotions but also figure out what to do about her growing attraction to one cousin's boyfriend while helping another cousin with the problems in her life. Though Ingrid may have been a somewhat unreliable narrator (it's really hard to tell), I really enjoyed this book. The extended family aspect, especially the closeness between Ingrid and her five cousins, really appealed to me and I loved the format of the book as it's written around five big family events. This is Andrea Seigel's first young adult novel and I recommend it especially to those readers who like offbeat protagonists and family-centered stories.

Gwendolyn Heasley
When the recession hits Corrinne's rich New York City family in a big way, she's pulled out of her exclusive private school and sent to live with her grandparents in rural Texas. This is your classic fish-out-of-water tale featuring a character who is, at least at first, ridiculously spoiled, superficial, and selfish. However, Corrinne grows up a lot through out the story; she develops a healthy attitude and a new perspective. In short, she's a character worth rooting for. The story itself is told with humor and I really like that the book reflects the current economic climate of the United States as this is something I haven't seen in many books before. It's a great lighthearted read for those looking for a fast and fun story.

Kimberly Marcus
Random House Books for Young Readers
After a horrible fight one night, Liz Grayson's forever-best friend will barely look at her and Liz isn't sure how to fix things. When it comes out that something much worse may have happened to her friend, Liz's loyalty to both her family and her friend is tested. The protagonist here is a photographer and the verse style of the writing reflects moments captured as if in a snapshot. I'm a fan of novels written in verse, but I was looking for a bit more details to this story. However, in spite of that this is an emotional book that I recommend to readers interested in a book that deals with family loyalty and issues of trust and friendship. I'm deliberately leaving out a huge plot point so as not to spoil anything but this book definitely deals with a heavy issue.

Jenny Moss
Walker Books for Young Readers
Set against the backdrop of the 1986 Challenger explosion, this book tells the story of a girl struggling to find her own way in life. When she meets Christa McAullife, the schoolteacher going into space, Annie is inspired to find a way to go after her own dreams. This is a beautifully-written book that was so different from what I expected; Annie is a wonderful and inspiring main character and her journey is both universal and personal. This book is especially great for readers interested in the Challenger space shuttle and that period in time, but really I recommend it for anyone who might want to read a book about someone finding their way in life.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Tuesday Ten - Authors That Deserve More Recognition

This meme is hosted over at The Broke and the Bookish.

Amidst the big author names in YA, such as Maureen Johnson, Suzanne Collin, and Sarah Dessen, are dozens of other authors I love that notably less people know about. Whether I've read two or a dozen of their books, here are ten authors that I would sincerely love to see get more recognition. (The reason I'm not including authors I've only read one book of -- or that only have one out so far -- is because this list would end up looking more like a list of 10 books that need more recognition instead of authors. Trust me, there are so many debut authors and novels that I love.)

Also, for those of us that regularly read YA and MG and are fairly involved in the online community, a lot of these are no-brainers, but they are the authors that I'd love to see get more recognition out there in the real world. In short, these are ten under-recognized authors that I wish everyone knew about.

In no particular order...
  1. Sara Zarr (Story of a Girl, Sweethearts, Once Was Lost) -- I could talk for ages about the depth of my love for Sweethearts. It's one of my all-time favorite books, contains my absolute favorite quote, and is just so incredible. Sara Zarr is a brilliant writer and storyteller. Her characters and their relationships (in Sweethearts and Once Was Lost especially) are amazingly real and well-written. 
  2. Kristina Springer (The Espressologist, My Fake Boyfriend is Better Than Yours) -- Springer's middle grade novel, My Fake Boyfriend is Better Than Yours, is honestly one of the cutest, funniest, and refreshing books I've read. Though I generally have a harder time finding great MG than I do YA, this one was a slam dunk. Additionally, her YA novel The Espressologist is also so cute and awww-worthy.
  3. Courtney Summers (Cracked Up to Be, Some Girls Are, Fall for Anything) -- There's a part of me that doesn't even know what to say about Courtney Summers. Her books are amazing, of course, and Some Girls Are is one of those books that has affected me more than many many other books. But more than that is the fact that Courtney Summer manages to write so well about anger and emotions and the different ways that girls can be messed up. Her books are dark but hopeful with dysfunctional characters that you (or at least I) just can't help but root for.
  4. Gayle Forman (If I Stay, Where She Went) -- Gayle Forman has such a way with words. She writes about trauma, loss, heartbreak, and the most difficult choices ever with such beauty and ease that you'd think the words just fell onto the page. Any author with that kind of skill is one who deserves recognition.
  5. Lynne Rae Perkins (All Alone in the Universe, Criss Cross) -- Like so many of the writers on this list, I just don't even have the words for how great these books are. All Alone in the Universe is quite possibly the one book ever that I've wished I was the one to write. And Newbery Winner Criss Cross has such searing moments of truth in it that it's amazing. Perkins also has a recent YA out (As Easy As Falling Off the Face of the Earth) that I really want to read but haven't yet.
  6. Robin Palmer (Geek Charming, Cindy Ella) -- I don't like Cinderella and I never have, but I absolutely adore Robin Palmer's retellings of fairytales. They're so cute! And the characters have winfaces! And I really want her to write more and more and then everyone know about them and read them and sorry for devolving into total spasms, but Disney Channel is making a movie of Geek Charming. This is incredibly exciting.
  7. Wendelin Van Draanen (Sammy Keyes, Runaway, Flipped, The Running Dream) -- I thought that Flipped was one of those middle grade books that just everyone had read, but I've asked quite a few people and apparently it's not nearly as popular as I thought. Most people know Draanen as the writer behind the Sammy Keyes mysteries, but her stand alone novels are just fabulous. Flipped in particular holds a very special place in my heart, but The Running Dream is her new book and I also definitely recommend it.
  8. Dana Reinhardt (How to Build A House, Harmless, A Brief Chapter in My Impossible Life) -- It's been a while since I've read any of Reinhardt's novels, but her writing has a simplicity that I really love and though How to Build A House is a "quiet" book without a jump-out-and-grab-you hook, the story is wonderful. And I remember Harmless being a page-turner, though I haven't read it in years and years.
  9. Sarah Ockler (Twenty Boy Summer, Fixing Delilah) -- Just the premise of Ockler's debut novel, Twenty Boy Summer, inspired me. Eighteen pages in I was crying. Sarah Ockler is such a great author; she writes the sad-but-real stories with both hope and bittersweetness; I can't wait to see what she comes up with next.
*Gavin Volure, 30 Rock.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Review - Rival

Sara Bennett Wealer
The rich and popular Brooke Dempsey and shy outcast Kathryn Pease have two things in common: their love of music and the turbulent, complicated history they share. A year ago they had a close friendship that unravelled and spiraled out of control, resulting in a huge rift between the two. Now  in their senior year of high school, there's a bitter rivalry that sits between them, prompted by hurt feelings on both sides and spurred on by the important Blackmore singing competition that both girls are determined to win. As the year progresses and the competition draws closer, both girls are dealing with their own personal issues as well as bruised feelings in the aftermath of all that happened between them the year before.

Both Kathryn and Brooke are well-developed main characters who can hold their own; the two are perfectly balanced and the dual narrative of the story allows us to see both of their viewpoints. Kathryn, the outcast and loner, spent her Junior year trying to be popular and is spending her senior year dealing with all that happened after. Brooke, on the other hand, inherited the position of Miss Popularity from her older brothers, both of whom are high school legends. For her, popularity and all that goes with it is something she doesn't want anymore and this conflict - between who she sees herself as and who her friends see her as - comes through in a great way.

There's a theme of envy and admiration here that shines though and feels so real. Each of these girls envies something about the other's life: Kathryn wants Brooke's popularity and money while Brooke wishes she were as pretty as Kathryn and had her stable family life. These jealousies are written perfectly and ring so true, as is the rift that occurs and tears them apart. This is such a bittersweet story because of the fact that it is so incredibly authentic. It explores every aspect of friendship - the before, during, after, and after-after - in a very real way. So real it hurts.

This isn't a book about a singing competition. Or, it is but it's not. Though the story is set up around Kathryn and Brooke's aspirations and the approaching Blackmore competition, it's really a story very tightly focused on the hurt feelings both girls have as a result of their imploded friendship. Though there are very few scenes where the girls actually interact, you wouldn't know it unless you paid attention because the fact is that both of their stories are all about the other person. They're focused on each other in that way that you can become focused on someone who was once such a huge part of your life and then just... isn't anymore.

Aside from each other, Brooke and Kathryn both had very involved lives and worries. I've been wanting to find a book that explores the father-daughter dynamic for a while now and while that definitely wasn't the focus of Brooke's story, her absentee father does play a big role in her story as well as her as a character. As for Kathryn, her worries over money for college were, I felt, very realistic and this, along with the glimpses we get of her backstory pre-Brooke, helped to color the parts of her personality that were harder for me to relate to (for instance, her quasi-obsession with being popular even at the expense of her oldest and best friend).

I loved this book. It's well-written with an amazing cast of characters, completely bittersweet, and all too relatable for me. I said this on Twitter earlier but now I'm saying it here: If you're a girl and you've ever had a friend ever, this is the book you should read. 

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Review/Giveaway - Between Shades of Gray

Ruta Sepetys
Philomel Books (An Imprint of Penguin, USA)
In 1941, when Josef Stalin wiped Lithuania off the map, 15-year-old Lina's family is taken from their home. Separated from their father, Lina, her brother Jonas, and their mother are sent to work camps in Siberia. Under incredibly harsh conditions, the Lithuanians must fight for their survival against the uncaring and callous NKVD (later known as the KGB).

Before reading this I had heard from others how powerful the story is, and they were right. Lina is an incredibly kind, caring, compassionate, and artistic character. She's also stubborn and struggles to hide her hatred of the NKVD in order to keep her and those with her safe. Lina is an artist and her drawings are a constant part of the narrative as she draws both what she sees and how she sees it, which means that if her drawings are found she could be killed. Instead she hides these drawings between book pages and in letters that she tries to get to her father. It's in part because of Lina's artistic and kind nature that the narrative is as beautiful as it is. These are characters that, despite undergoing incredible hardships, are still able to find hope and hold onto it. Lina's mother especially is one that is constantly hopeful and giving to others.

There is a strength of spirit here that is undeniable. These characters -- and this story -- are a triumph of the human spirit. It's a tale of not only physical, but also mental and emotional survival.

That said, the events of this book are gruesome and difficult to read. Inspired by the artist Munch, Lina's drawings are often grotesque or disturbing because they reflect her surroundings and the things she's going through. After being taken from their home, her family is forced to work on a beet farm in Siberia. They are given a very small ration of bread each day as "payment" for their work and when someone gets sick and is unable to work they aren't given rations. Lina watches as the people she lives with get sick and die. She watches a young woman who has lost her infant be shot in the head right in front of her. She sees her younger brother become incredibly sick with scurvy. The mother of Andrius, a boy she has feelings for, is forced to prostitute herself to the NKVD officers in order to save the life of her son. These are a short list of the atrocities Lina and her fellow Lithuanians face in exile and they are all portrayed in a starkly honest way. This is, as others have said, a very powerful book. It's beautiful and sad and all the more important because of how incredibly real it is. Through the characters are fictional, the events and many of the experiences are real -- things that actually happened to Lithuanians who were exiled and that the author, Ruta Sepetys, found out about through her extensive research.

While I typically keep the books that I really enjoy, this is one that deserves to be passed on and shared, so I'm giving my ARC away to one lucky reader. 
Due to shipping costs, US addresses only please. This giveaway will run until April 2nd.

Friday, March 25, 2011


  1. Anna and the French Kiss - Sure, everybody rave rave raved about this novel when it came out, but I had a strong gut feeling that I'd be the lone blogger to just not like it. Surprisingly just the opposite happened: it was even better than the hype and I loved it more than I ever would have predicted.
  2. Sea - Another novel that I'd heard good things about but was wary going into. However, the fact that I stopped my own writing and spent the entire day curled up with Sea's adventure speaks for itself.
  3. Break - This book just didn't appeal to me at first. It wasn't until Cindy Pon said it seemed like something I'd love that I read it (thank you, Cindy!) and OMG am I ever glad I did. Amazing amazing amazing.
  4. Twilight - I resisted reading Twilight for so long because, like with Break, it just didn't appeal to me. I didn't think I'd like it at all but I picked it up after a friend recommended it so strongly and couldn't believe I hadn't read it yet.
  5. The Luxe - I don't read historical and I'm not a fan of Gossip Girl, which I'd heard this series compared to. In fact, I don't remember what ever compelled me to pick it up (maybe that gorgeous dress on the cover?) but whatever reason, it's now one of my favorite-ever series.
So tell me, what books did you not expect to like only to be surprised when you discovered that you loved them?

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Personal Expectations

I try to go into a book free of expectations. I don't just mean books that are crazy-hyped like Anna and the French Kiss was, but just books that I'm really looking forward to and thinking that I'll enjoy.

I try to get rid of that bias before going into the book. It's so easy to expect one thing from a story (romance, action, family drama, anything) and then be disappointed if you get something slightly different or if, for some reason, it just doesn't live up to the image you have in your mind.

There are certain books that, regardless of any buzz they have or haven't gotten, I just expect to like. Twenty Boy Summer springs to mind, as does Fixing Delilah (both by Sarah Ockler), Beth Revis' Across the Universe, and Ally Condie's Matched. Each of these books sounded amazing to me when I first heard about it and I had to put my personal expectations of what I thought the story would be aside in order to read and review the books.

I was able to do this with three of the four books.
The fourth one was the only one I didn't really enjoy, and I can't even honestly say that I didn't like it because the truth is that it just wasn't what I'd imagined. There was this disconnect between what I thought the book would be and what it actually was. And in that space was a chasm of disappointment that came from me, not the story.

Recently I read another book I was really looking forward to. One that I first heard of long before it was published and that, from the get-go, sounded like my type of book. I really didn't want to be disappointed. I didn't want to go into it with expectations, imagining what the story would be and not being able to enjoy what the story actually was because of those expectations. I won't tell you what the book was or what I thought of it, but I want to know if you've ever experienced this... do you feel like you have to erase your personal expectations of a novel in order to really read and enjoy it for what it is?

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Review - Like Mandarin

Kirsten Hubbard
Random House Children's Books
Fifteen-year-old Grace is living in the suffocating badlands of Wyoming with her pageant-obsessed mother and super-talented younger sister. There's no beauty to be found, except for the beauty of Mandarin Ramey: wild child, town slut, and the one person Grace would most like to be like. Unlike smart and studious Grace, Mandarin is wild and carefree, a girl the whole town talks about but nobody really knows. When Mandarin asks to be partnered with Grace for a school project, the two form an unlikely friendship. Grace changes the way she dresses, walks, and thinks in order to be more like Mandarin, but the girl everybody talks about has secrets that nobody knows, and they make her more vulnerable than Grace expects. As their friendship and plans for escape grows more serious, Grace begins to wonder about the girl she's come to call her best friend and in doing so she discovers a stronger side of herself -- one she never knew existed.

I'm such a sucker for tales of complicated friendships and this one does an excellent job of setting up a friendship that, while far from perfect, is realistic and doesn't unfold in quite the way you'd expect. Grace's feelings for Mandarin are an infatuation of the non-sexual kind -- it's a total girl crush, sure, but this goes beyond that. Her long-standing obsession enters an uncomfortable territory, but luckily this fades as she gets to know Mandarin as a person and not just her ideal. The characters themselves are well-developed, but for a fourteen-going-on-fifteen year old girl, Grace seemed almost too mature for her age. I had a hard time remembering she was only fifteen and not seventeen or eighteen.

The narrative is slow moving and incredibly atmospheric. Grace and Mandarin's hometown of Washokey, Wyoming is a character in itself and the book opens up with one of the most incredible, setting-heavy first lines ever. In the beginning the heavy amount of description made me a little lethargic, but around page 75 the story really begins and though the description remains heavy throughout, the pace picks up. As someone who absolutely adores books with a strong setting, I admit that I had mixed reactions to this one and it may have had something to do with the (very authentic) split between what the main characters said and what they did. Both Grace and Mandarin proclaim to hate their small hometown, but it's obvious that this town is very much a part of them and sometimes their protests have a ring of falseness because of this. On the one hand, this is an incredibly authentic and real thing: where we grow up, love it or hate it, becomes a part of us. On the other hand, however, it did make me a little annoyed with the girls at times.

One of the most important relationships in the book is the one Grace shares with her mother. After quitting pageants as a child, Grace's once-close relationship with her mom was damaged to the point that they now barely speak. However, the deep and conflicting love they have for the other one is always present. Her mother is an incredibly fleshed-out character and to be honest I loved the story of Grace and her mother more than the story of Grace and Mandarin. I'm glad it's such a big part of the novel.

The ending here seems incredibly fitting to me and though at times this book seemed to drag on or I got annoyed with Grace, the positives here far outweigh the negatives. For readers looking for a complex story of friendship and family with a hefty dose of western setting, this is your book. It's a strong, multi-layered debut novel that deserves a spot on your shelves.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Stay Young, YA.

(via weheartit.)

The recent posts (mine included) on YA book covers have brought up quite a few good points and possible issues, but the one I find most interesting is a thought that keeps being repeated. The idea here is that YA covers might not be appealing to adult readers, that they might be downright embarrassing or appalling in some cases. I've seen this in quite a few comments and even thought it myself, but the question is...

Why do we care if YA covers appeal to adults? 
I mean, YA books are for teens, right?

YES. Yes, yes, yes, a million times yes. There are a lot of non-teens who read YA and I think this is great. Though I definitely don't feel like a grown up yet, I'm not a teenager anymore and readily admit that I am not the target audience for YA novels. And, in my mind, I shouldn't be.

YA books should be about teens. The stories, the characters, and the covers. Right now this is a genre about and for teens; if the concern becomes "will this appeal to adult readers?" then the genre becomes one that might still be about teens, but is for adults. I don't know about anyone else, but I don't want that. I don't want the decisions of YA -- both how it's written, what's published, and how it looks -- to be made with adult readers in mind.

Being a teenager is hard. I don't want to undermine the trials of adulthood or childhood by saying this, but it's absolutely true. It's hard navigating junior high and high school. It's terrible to not know who your friends are, to be in love with a boy who's in love with someone else. It sucks to not feel okay in your own skin, to have that horrible push and pull of wanting to be both older and younger at the same time. It's hard to fight nonstop with your mother or do things you don't want to just because your friends are. It's difficult to figure out who you are and who you want to be.

These problems, I promise you, do not end when you turn twenty; they continue into adulthood and you might deal with them your entire life. But they start in adolescence and, I might argue, they're stronger in adolescence than at any other time. We have a tendency to romanticize things... like our past. I'm one of those weirdos who actually really really enjoyed being a teenager, no lie. But it's too easy to forget the heart-wrenchingly difficult parts.

It's hard to remember that there was a period of time when I didn't like talking, not even casually, to my mother because in one second we could go from perfectly civil to perfectly horrible. Now my mom is my friend, and it's too easy to forget that this wasn't always the case.

It's also hard to remember that when I was younger I considered my younger sister as, frankly, a bit of a pest and not the lovely-beautiful-brilliant best friend that she is to me now.

It's easy to let myself forget how much it hurt to move away from all my friends, my whole world, and come to a place where I was incredibly different and weird and nobody liked me. The pain of that time has, to a certain degree, faded and it's difficult to remember exactly how much it sucked to think that everybody thought I was a freak.

I don't like to remember myself as awkward or mean or pathetic or any of those things I was at one point during my teenage years. And even though I'm -- trust me on this -- still fully capable of all of that, it's not as ever-present as it used to be. There's a distance that dulls the memories and the emotions that go along with them and sometimes it's wonderful and sometimes it sucks and it's a different degree of distance and dulling for everybody, but it's there.

I don't want YA to become dulled or distanced. I don't want us to skip over the horrible fights, the difficult relationships with mothers, the awkwardness and pain and sometimes-pathetic behavior or feelings that happen. I don't want YA to be the grown-ups' version of what fifteen (or fourteen, sixteen, etc.) is like. I WANT YA TO BE PRESENT. I want it to be about the highs and the lows; the earth-shattering, my-world-is-ending heartbreak and the euphoric, we-are-infinite happiness. Because these things matter. As an adult, the heartbreaks and happiness from those years is still there. Sometimes, the world as you know it does end. And sometimes there are moments where anything is possible: those things are real, and I would hate so much for YA to forget this in favor of appealing to adult readers and adult sensibilities.

What's your opinion on YA appealing to adults v. teens? What is the genre to you?

Monday, March 21, 2011

Review - Human .4

Mike A. Lancaster
Egmont USA
Kyle only volunteered to be hypnotized at the local talent show to save his friend some embarrassment, but during the time that he's out, something happens. Not to him or to the other three volunteers on stage with him, but to everybody else. When Kyle wakes up his parents might look the same and sound the same, but there's definitely something inexplicably off about them, as well as everyone else in town. Add to this the fact that phones, televisions, computers -- nothing -- works anymore, and there's a definitely threat of something dangerous looming larger. As Kyle and the others who were hypnotized wonder if the problem might be with them and not everybody around them, they head out of town to find out just what happened to the world -- or to them -- while they were under hypnosis.

The narrative style of this book is one I haven't seen since Jay Asher's Thirteen Reasons Why. Kyle's account of what happened to him is transcribed from old cassette tapes with asides from a future society to explain parts of his story as well as the "primitive" human society of the early 21st century. These "academic notes" are easily some of the best parts of the book, offering a glimpse into parts of the big picture of this story that we know little to nothing about through Kyle's narration.

In terms of plot, I'm hesitant to say too much as this book is very much a mystery and a lot of what actually happens during and after the hypnosis isn't revealed until the end of the book. While this definitely makes for a story you want to keep reading, it also means that there's a lot of questions without answers. As the story is told from Kyle's POV (point-of-view) and there's a lot he doesn't know, this makes sense but it does leave a lot to the imagination.

For readers looking for more science fiction in YA, this is definitely a story we haven't seen before. It's not dystopian, but it is suspenseful and plot-driven, a welcome addition to sci-fi in YA.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Thoughts on YA Book Covers

Sean Willis says that YA covers are embarrassing to the genre. Phoebe North points out that they're targeting a certain demographic and, hopefully, making promises about the content within. As a reader who is highly influenced by covers (way. too. much. seriously.), this conversation is super-interesting to me and I wanted to join in.

I'm in my twenties. I read YA. Like, all the time. And am I embarrassed about carrying around, say, Elizabeth Rudnick's Tweet Heart? Well... it depends. It depends on where I am, who I'm with, and how I happen to be feeling that day. Covers give a certain message about the story underneath and while, as Phoebe points out, that message is intended to be something of a promise about what is contained in the story, one snapshot can't capture 60 thousand words. The incredibly complex The Hunger Games is not summed up by that gold-on-black image of a mythical bird. The cover gives one idea. In the case of Tweet Heart, it promises a cute love story. In the case of The Hunger Games it promises something decidedly darker -- if I had to guess I'd say a science fiction story set in a future world. And I wouldn't be far off, but is that how you describe The Hunger Games to somebody? Uh, no. Because while there are plenty of science fiction/dystopian novels set in a future world, only one of them is The Hunger Games. And Tweet Heart? I'm not going to tell someone it's a cute, light love story. No, I'm going to tell them IT'S A NOVEL WRITTEN IN TWEETS!!! AND ONE OF THE CHARACTERS LOVES STAR TREK!! (Obviously I'm trying to sell the book to... myself.) But you get the point. Cover does not equal story. It's a representation, sure, but it's the rare cover that actually captures the essence of a novel.

The cover's job isn't to sum up the book. It's to get you to look closer, to pick up the book, to buy the book. It's an advertisement for a product that is, essentially, black marks on white paper. While the best covers pick up on a particular part of the story, that's not a requirement and, in fact, it doesn't always help. Until you've read The Hunger Games, you don't know how significant the cover image of that bird really is. Sometimes it's only after you've read a novel that the cover becomes amazing.

All of this is maybe (definitely) getting away from the question if are YA covers embarrassing? Really though, there's not one answer for that. Maybe you cringe when you walk into the YA section and see all those glossy, shiny covers with girls in pretty dresses. Maybe you love covers that are a big more ambiguous, a bit abstract or artsy or have illustrations instead of photographs or any one of a dozen other cover styles out there. Personally I love YA covers. Sure, there are a few that make me shake my head but for the most part I think they're the best covers out there. But then, I'm partial to the genre in the first place, and that plays a big part, I think, in our reactions to a cover.

So what do you guys think? Are YA covers embarrassing? Do they do the books justice? Love them or hate them? 

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Review - The Real Real

Emma McLaughlin & Nicola Kraus
HarperCollins Publishers
When XTV (a fictionalized MTV) comes to Jesse's high school to shoot their first-ever teenage reality show about living in the Hamptons (The Real Hamptons Beach), Jesse is uninterested, knowing the show will be -- of course -- a spotlight on the popular, uber-wealthy students. She's surprised when the producers want her to be one of the main cast, but with a hefty scholarship attached to the show, the Georgetown-bound senior can't pass it up. Unfortunately, being a part of the show means being filmed all day, every day. It also means being forced to hang out with the super-popular Nico and Melanie instead of her best friend. It doesn't take long for the show to overtake her life as the producers stage scenes and pull the puppet strings of their casts lives; it might make for riveting television, but living it sucks. Soon, it's hard for Jesse to tell what's real and what's not as weekends end up as planned scenes and a date with her crush ends up being completely staged by the show's producers. And if Jesse's "life" was hard to manage during shooting, it gets complicated in a whole new way when the show actually airs. Suddenly everyone has an opinion (most not-so-nice) about her and her parents think she has a secret life she hasn't told them about, all because of a few edited-beyond-recognition episodes.

Wallflower-turned-famous stories are always a bit hit and miss with me, but The Real Real was definitely a hit. The storyline plays off of the reality show scenes we've seen again and again -- the short conversation that, thanks to a fitting soundtrack, seems so important, or the rivaling groups that seem to be fighting over absolutely nothing -- while giving a "behind the scenes" story that's so much more complicated and interesting than the one on screen. Jesse is intelligent and mostly level-headed, but it's her humor and go-with-the-flow attitude that makes her so relatable. Sure, the show isn't exactly her idea and she does think about quitting early on, but despite this she doesn't spend her time whining about how unfair everything is, even as the show seems to be ruining all the good things in her life. Instead, she takes control of the few things she can control and views her fellow cast members as allies instead of enemies. Though some of the characters here are fairly stereotypical, they're interesting and entertaining stereotypes. This book earnestly touches on a few themes: friendship and personal responsibility among them, but it never lingers too long on these themes.

This book is funny as it simultaneously mocks and shows a real affection for reality television shows. I reached the end of the book hoping there would be a sequel; I think originally this was the start of a planned series but I can't find any information on the next book, which is a shame as the ending works so much better as the first in a series than it does as a stand-alone. Despite the lack-of-closure in the form of a second book, The Real Real is one of the best wallflower-turned-famous books I've read. Just like its protagonist, the novel is funny and smart, great for those of us who like to watch reality television and those who like to make fun of it.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

What Happens After High School in YA?

Recently on her blog, Frenetic Reader, my buddy Khyrinthia (jokingly) made a list of things YA novels have/have not prepared her for. Among the "have" was what to do if a supernatural creature is in Bio class with her and among the "have not" was how to handle college talk. While I usually agree with pretty much everything Khy posts, this is one case where I don't. While she's wondering: do YA characters even go to college? I'm wondering: why aren't characters without college aspirations represented?

Seriously. What about the characters going to vocational school? The ones who get married right out of high school and don't go to college? The ones who go to community college and continue living at home? As far as I can tell, a lot of YA protagonists are in one of two camps, post-high-school-wise. They're either going to a well-known (typically Ivy League) university with a large scholarship or they're going to a well-known university that is not the university their parents want them to attend. This is, in my opinion, an extremely limited point of view or experience.

I'm going to assume I'm in the minority here but most of the people I knew well when I was in high school and a lot of the friends I grew up with did not take that path. Many of them didn't go to college, a few (like me) started out at a community college, some went to a vocational school, others started at one college and then transferred or dropped out or... or... or...

there are so many experiences. There are so many perspectives. My thoughts on college aren't the same as yours and that's perfectly okay. What I wish though, were that there were more YA novels showing these differing perspectives. I want the books about Ivy-bound students, sure, but I also want books about students who are going to a community college, entering the workforce right away, taking a gap year, going to vocational school, or doing something totally different. I want characters -- both teenagers and the adults in their lives -- who don't see college as the most important thing. I want both characters who know exactly what they want to do and those who have absolutely no idea.

And, because I'm a fan of the varying perspectives on the whole subject of OMG WHAT TO DO AFTER HIGH SCHOOL?? here are some books with characters who make both traditional and non-traditional choices.

I Now Pronounce You Someone Else
Erin McCahan
This story of a high school senior who ends up getting engaged to her perfect boyfriend is absolutely incredible and the choices Bronwen makes along the way are non-traditional and completely believable. I adore this book.

Bitter Melon
Cara Chow
Set in the 1980s, this is the story of a Chinese-American girl with an incredibly strict mother who has her future all planned out for her. However, Frances discovers a love for public speaking that challenges her mother's dreams for her.

Suite Scarlett
Maureen Johnson
In this case it's not the protagonist, but instead her older siblings (especially her brother, Spencer) whose choices are interesting. Spencer, who takes a year after high school to pursue his acting career (with parental support) is especially interesting and hilarious.

The Kid Table
Andrea Seigel
This is one of the few books I've read where the protagonist honestly has no idea what she wants to do after high school. Aside from the fact that I really enjoyed this book, that fact alone makes it realistic in my opinion.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Review - Strings Attached

Judy Blundell Scholastic Press
The year is 1950 and after moving to New York City to pursue her dream of acting, Kit Corrigan quickly realizes that - despite her talent and determination - she's going to need some help in order to be able to stay in the city. This help comes in the form of Nate Benedict, the father of her (ex?)-boyfriend Billy... and a big-time lawyer with mob affiliations. He offers her a nice apartment, new clothes, and a foot in the door at the famous Lido club -- no strings attached, or so he says. The reality, Kit finds out, is that he expects her to be at his beck-and-call: to keep in tough with his estranged son (Billy) for him as well as hold packages for strangers and keep tabs on tough-looking guys that hang out at the Lido. Between the debt she owes Nate and her confusing feelings for Billy as well as family drama going on at home (her aunt has disappeared and her brother has enlisted in the military), Kit's life is a balancing act and it doesn't help that Nate's possible mob involvement is growing more and more sinister.

Strings Attached takes on a lot. Along with the mystery that lies at the center of the novel there's also Kit's complex love life, the unknown story of where her aunt disappeared to, dreams of stage fame, and a few other subplots that are woven together. What this means is that though the book gives a well-rounded view of Kit's life both before and during her move to New York City, it doesn't answer all the questions it raises. Either because of the time period or because of the Corrigan family's habit of brushing big topics under the rug, there are shades of ambiguity in many of the storylines here, including the relationship Kit shares with Billy and the issue of her brother's sexuality. While this ambiguity makes sense for the time period and will undoubtedly work for some readers, I was left wanting just a little bit more answer along with all the questions.

Kit herself is a character I have conflicting feelings about, which is a testament to how three-dimensional she is. Only seventeen years old, Kit is (by choice) already out on her own in "the big city." She's accustomed to dealing with lewd comments from men, knows how to carry herself with confidence and stand up for herself; in many aspects she seems incredibly grown up and mature. Then there are other moments, just as vivid, where she seems to morph back into an actual 17-year-old, laughing with the boy next door and stealing a few carefree moments. I really like this dichotomy and how it's presented.

As I mentioned earlier, this book has more storylines than it manages to tie up and that's where my real problem lies: there were a few plots I was incredibly interested in that seemed, just because of how full this book is, to never be fully explored. Kit and Billy's relationship is one that I feel like I could have read an entire novel about -- and if it had been the focal point of this novel I would have really liked it. Unfortunately, there's just too much here for me. That said, I do think that fans of multi-layered novels and quiet mysteries will enjoy this one.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Writing - It's A Process

(via weheartit.)

I'm on draft 3* of the sister story and things are, maybe, starting to come together. I mean, don't get me wrong, for the most part it still feels like a first draft in how totally lost I am and how I feel like I'm walking further and further into a dark tunnel just hoping that there'll be a light at the end but I'm starting to suspect it's not a tunnel at all but instead a dark and scary cave! Full of monsters! This is how it feels sometimes. But other times I think maybe I see a flicker of light and things are going to come together after all.

It's a process. I have to remind myself of this every day, multiple times. It's a process, and even though today I might not have any idea what I'm doing and why is this scene sooo horrible? really this scene is a stepping stool. Every word -- even the horrible ones that I delete the next day -- are part of the process, helping me to focus in on what the story really is and realize what matters v. what doesn't matter.

It's a process has become my writing mantra. I continually have to remind myself that every word is one word closer to something pretty and shiny, a story I'll want an agent for, a story I'd be proud to have on the shelves. A story I desperately want to be on the shelves, that I want people to buy and read and recommend. The story isn't there yet. But it's getting there.

So I ask you, what is your writing mantra/motto? Do you have one?

*Technically draft 4. More technically draft 2 and 2 halves (not 3). It's super-confusing, I know.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Cover Mini-Trend

I don't typically do cover posts, but in looking at my recent reads I'm noticing a little mini-trend.

The back-of-the-head aspect makes perfect sense for Sean Griswold's Head, but I'm a little surprised to see it on the other covers as well. I typically don't pay a huge amount to cover trends; what I mostly notice is when a cover is particularly striking. However, these covers... I like them. I love being able to imagine what a character looks like and faces on covers can sometimes be distracting or confusing in this case, but the backwards-shot is a nice alternative to covers without people on them or the infamous Headless Girl covers that, thankfully, seem to be becoming more and more rare lately.

What do you think of these covers? As I said, I like them, and Purple Daze is particularly striking in real life. Plus, I love the chalkboard and pie chart of Sean Griswold's Head and the dress/truck (at least, I think it's a truck) combo of Taking Off.

Friday, March 11, 2011

The List - YA Romances

I have a difficult time finding love stories that I really, really like. While I love a romance as a secondary or sub-plot, the book often seems to fall short when romance is the primary focus of the book. That said, I've read quite a few love stories that are absolutely brilliant. These are all novels that could be classified as (YA) Romance in that the love story is the primary focus of the book, and they're all incredible.

Anna and the French Kiss
Stephanie Perkins
I realize that everyone who has read this book can't hear enough good things about it and anyone who hasn't read it is sick and tired of it, but honestly -- this book is amazing. The only problem with it is that there's no way for me to pull a blue skidoo and jump into it. I would say this is everything a love story should be but the truth is that this is everything a YA novel should be. It's perfect. I'm shocked at how good it is, how much I love it, how much I'm hyping it up without even worrying (that much) about it falling short for somebody. I heart Anna and St. Clair.

Scrambled Eggs at Midnight
Brad Barkley and Heather Hepler
In some books the love between the two protagonists feels, if not fake, at least temporary, and this isn't the case here. This book is adorable, touching, and if it weren't for the personalities of the two characters, absolutely unbelievable. But, because both Calliope and Eliot are so great, this book is fantastic and the love between them rings out as both true and lasting. Not to mention the settings (Christian fat camp and a Renaissance Faire) are incredibly quirky and well-written.

Heidi R. Kling
I hesitate to include this because it doesn't follow the typical formula or path of a romance novel, but it definitely falls under the romance category, so it's staying. Warm, adventurous, and with an emotional connection that most books can only strive for, this is a breathtaking book. I kept reading at the exclusion of everything else not because it was a page-turner, but because the world inside these pages is, in spite of being devastated, also very beautiful in many ways -- and a lot of that is due to the love between Sea and Deni.

I Now Pronounce You Someone Else
Erin McCahan
Again, this is a book that doesn't adhere to the typical path and there's really a lot more here than just the romance, but it is the primary focus of the book. And as far as romances go, this one feels like it should have been pulled from a Jane Austen novel. Not only are there the required mix-ups (though less here than in an actual Austen novel), but more importantly the two protagonists are both incredibly perfect for each other. Bronwen is such a lady and Jared is the definition of a gentleman, which makes this book a very comforting and lovely romance.

This Lullaby
Sarah Dessen
Though all of Dessen's books have a romantic subplot, this is the only one that really could be called a romance. And, like every Dessen novel, it's incredibly well-written. The main character who doesn't believe in love until that special someone comes along is played out nicely here and the characters are ones you can root for, even when they're being stupid. Saying more (like, um, my feelings about the ending) would spoil the book for those who haven't read it, but suffice to say that this is an authentic and wonderful story.

What YA romances are on your list?

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Review - Purple Daze

Sherry Shahan
Perseus Books
Purple Daze, set in the LA of 1965, follows a loosely-knit group of six teenage friends during this time. Written primarily in verse, the book is a combination of their letters, poems, and journal entries interspersed with news headlines and articles from that time period.
As someone who pretty much just thought the cover was awesome-looking, I was thrilled to discover that the story is told in verse. Though I'm a huge fan of novels written in this way, I really think that some stories work better in this format than others and I wasn't sure where this story would fall. Happily, this look at the political and social scene of 1965 works surprisingly well told in verse. I can't explain it any better than to say that, with this book, the style just fits. 

Another thing that works really well here is the split-narrative. Through the eyes of six different teenagers we get a bigger story than we'd get if the book were only from one character's point of view. Unfortunately, there are pitfalls to having so many narrators and with this book one of the pitfalls is that it was hard to tell how the characters were related. Though some were obviously dating and others were best friends, I found myself having to best-guess at the relationships between some other characters (Cheryl and Phil, for instance). Additionally, though I know some people will love this aspect of the book, for me the scattered news excerpts pulled me out of the story.

One of the things this book does best, to its credit, is defining the setting. The time and place of these characters rings out loud and clear, easily pulling even someone who knows very little about this part of history (ie. me) into the story and the narratives. The further into this book I got, the more I cared about the characters and their relationships and individual stories. I found myself cheering for them, hoping for things to turn out a certain way. This is one of those "quiet" books that I fear won't get the attention it should. The writing is honest and at times beautiful, the characters are well-written, and the setting is great. Despite being set in a very turbulent time, the book itself is action-light and character-heavy, which I love and I think through this it manages to paint an incredible picture of the time period.

I especially recommend this book to anyone interested in knowing more about the social and political climate of America in the 1960s, readers who enjoy split narratives, or who want to read a book in verse.
Purple Daze is set to be released March 22, 2011.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Review - Sean Griswold's Head

Lindsey Leavitt
Bloomsbury USA Children's Books
Payton Gritas has been sitting behind Sean Griswold (thank you, alphabetical order) for the past seven years and she doesn't know him at all. Aside from being the boy whose big head blocks her view, he's nothing. But when she finds out that her dad's been diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis (MS) - and that her family's been hiding this info from her for the past six months - that changes. The school counselor thinks Payton needs a focus object to help her cope with the sudden news and her feelings of betrayal that come from being shielded from the news for so long. Payton chooses Sean Griswold's head.

However, in finding out more about his head (where did that scar come from anyway?), Payton also gets to know Sean. How could she have sat behind him for so long and not known that he's a biker? Or that he shares the same television obsession as her? The more she learns about him, the more she likes him, until pretty soon the friendship-bordering-on-more that she shares with Sean seems to be the only thing working in her life. She's not talking to her parents, fighting with her best friend, and scoring her first ever C in Biology.

The character of Payton is a wonderful narrator -- unique, witty, and realistically confused by having to deal with watching her father's health deteriorate. Though the book isn't an in-depth look at MS, it does delve into Payton's feelings and her not-great ways of dealing with them. It also gives a good look at the family dynamics at play, which I love; I have a soft spot for YA novels that show a positive relationship between the main character and her family, which this book does without coming across as fake or saccharine. It's clear that Payton absolutely adores her parents and the fact that her dad is sick is killing her - it's something she has no idea how to deal with, especially since her family seems to have figured out how to deal in those months before she even knew. The betrayal here is a big one, especially since both of Payton's older brothers are in on it. Added to the family relationship is Payton's friendship with her overly-flirtatious and incredibly outgoing best friend. Friendships are hard and confusing sometimes and I love how that aspect of Payton's life is handled here; this is both a realistic and positive portrayal of best-friendship.

Sean Griswold's Head handles some difficult emotions with plenty of heart and humor. From the Seinfeld references to Sean and Payton's sweet and funny relationship, this book has a lot going for it. I especially recommend it for readers looking for a sweet, clean teenage love story, family dynamics and drama, or Seinfeld references.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Review - The Running Dream

Wendelin Van Draanen
Knopf Books for Young Readers
Jessica is a runner. It's what she does and who she is, but all that comes to an end when the bus carrying her and her track team crashes and Jessica loses a leg. She has to relearn everything. She used to be on her way to a track scholarship, but now she can't even walk. This book is unlike any I've read before. It follows Jessica in the year following her accident, from the time in the hospital when her amputated leg is still in bandages, through learning to walk on crutches and later with her prosthetic leg. It follows her track team as they try to raise money for a "running leg" so that she can run again and eventually rejoin the team. Without running, or her leg, many things in Jessica's life change, most notably her feelings toward others. Suddenly having a disability herself makes her view the girl in math class who has cerebral palsy in a different light and the two become friends. When the guy she's had a crush on forever suddenly starts talking to her she doesn't feel right about it, thinking that he feels sorry for her now that she only has one leg.

Jessica has conflicting and confusing reactions to many of the events in her story and I found this to be very authentic. There are moments here, especially in the more introspective moments of the novel, that are incredibly powerful and thought-provoking. However, some of the other characters were less realistic and I wished that the personality of the boy Jessica had a crush on had came through more clearly in the beginning and middle of the story instead of waiting until the end. I understand that Jessica had trouble trusting him -- or anyone, really -- after she lost her leg, but as a reader it pulled me out of the story and made it difficult to like the characters and their relationships much as I wanted to.

The theme of seeing the person, not the disability is a strong one here and for the most part I loved it. Jessica's journey is shown in a very realistic light (this, of course, coming from someone who knows nothing about prosthetic limbs or amputations), but her growing friendship with a girl who has cerebral palsy seemed a bit heavy-handed at times. While the progression of their friendship was well-written and understandable, the theme of acceptance felt pushed a bit too much at times and there were moments when I wished it would ease up. Because, really, this is a great story that gets the message across strongly enough on its own.

This is definitely a book I'd recommend, not only because it deals with an issue I haven't seen handled in YA before, but also because it's very well-written with moments of incredible power. Especially great for readers who are interested in the subject matter or wanting to read a sports-themed book.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Hello Again!

 I gave up this blog over a month ago. I blogged a bit over at & Story, including a couple of "book love" posts that I just had to write about books that are absolutely brilliant and you must read. But really, I didn't blog much and what I did write was second-, third-, and fourth-guessed before I ever posted it.

The truth is that I miss book blogging, including writing reviews and discussing things in the genre of YA. There are so many great books out there, so many that don't get the recognition they deserve, so many that I read and just want to share with others. There are books I love and books I don't love and books that I think other people would love. THERE ARE SO MANY BOOKS OMG I JUST WANT TO HUG THEM ALL.

I am aware that what I say has consequences, that some people see a big conflict of interest in both writing and reviewing, that I might be hurting myself or insulting others by continuing. This is why I stopped in the first place. But also, I do miss it and I do love it. I'm passionate about books - not just writing them, also talking about them. I like sharing my thoughts. This is something that I enjoy and while it's not the be-all, end-all of my life, it is something that brings me happiness. I've been worried about what if somebody doesn't like me because of my reviews? when the truth is that that might happen. There are plenty of reasons for someone not to like me. We all have someone who just rubs us the wrong way and really, what can you do?

(I know, I know, go on your merry way and keep your head down and keep your thoughts to yourself, duh.)

Really though, I miss the blog. I miss reviewing. I miss talking books. As so many others have pointed out, writing reviews and saying anything negative online is a calculated risk. I've said before that I don't think this blog will stop me from getting published, though I supposed it could stop me from signing with a specific agent or getting a certain author to blurb my books. There's a lot of ifs though, and when it comes down to it reviewing is something I really enjoy. I would choose my writing over it, but for right now... maybe I don't have to. I do have a tendency to over think things, overanalyze, be anxious when I shouldn't.

For now I'm kind of taking it day by day, but I have a few reviews written and scheduled, I have followers/readers that hopefully haven't jumped ship, and... I'm back.

Friday, March 4, 2011

What's the Point of Reviewing?

(Yeah, I know. But I thought this was relevant.)

A few comments on a few different blog posts during this whole mafia kerfuffle have called into question why an aspiring writer would even want to write reviews. Why, as someone who wants to be an author, would you spend your time reviewing books (time that could be spent writing your own stories), why would you be upset if someone tells you that you shouldn't be reviewing or sharing your opinion on the internet? Really, what's the big deal with giving it up and where's the merit in reviewing anyway?

Looking at books critically, thinking about the different aspects of a work and finding out why it did or didn't work for me has always helped with my own writing. When I conscientiously notice how vital and wonderfully-written the setting in Daisy Whitney's The Mockingbirds is, I can also look at how she did that and how I can do the same thing with my novel. It's been said that the only apprenticeship writers have is reading and I would argue that reviewing takes that one step further by looking more deeply at a book. It's like taking a book apart, looking at all the pieces, finding out what makes them fit together the way they do, and then trying to build your own book. For this analogy to work you really must imagine books as clocks.

So yes, reviewing does take time that could be spent writing. However, that time could also be spent eating, watching television, going to the grocery store, doing laundry, or a hundred other things that don't help writing the way reviewing does.

I reviewed books because I love them. It's easy to ask why on earth I'd want to both write and review others' writing, but my love of books doesn't stop at writing them. I love reading them and I love talking about them - blogging and reviewing allowed me to do this. Though my friends and family read, almost nobody reads the same genre as I do and none of them can endlessly discuss books the way I love to. I don't have reader friends and it was nice to be a part of a community (YA bloggers) that are similarly passionate about books, about the YA genre, and like discussing the same things that I do. 

Blogging about books, either through reviews or discussion posts, is something that I loved. Giving up something that you love or being told that you should give up something that you love or that it conflicts with something else that you love -- that's hard. 

*I'm cross-posting this on my blog, & Story.