Sunday, July 31, 2011

In My Mailbox: Literally!

Book Blogger Trade: These are all books that have been on my wishlist and a couple of people have told me that Sorta Like A Rockstar reminded them of me. So I'm jazzed about that. Plus, After the Moment is something I've been wanting t read for literally years. You should say literally like Chris Traeger from Parks & Rec if at all possible. (Note that the video link does not include the word "literally," but it does create the LOLs.)

Friday, July 29, 2011

Review: A Friday Night Lights Companion

edited by Leah Wilson
Smart Pop Books
Writing about A Friday Night Lights Companion is going to be difficult for a variety of reasons, not least of which is the fact that I completely, totally, 100% love this book and it's difficult to put that kind of love in words. But I'll try. The book is a collection of essays on the television show Friday Night Lights. It includes Why We Love... essays on each of the characters, an essay on Coach and Tami's marriage, and an essay on how the unique deal with DirecTV saved the world's best show. And a bunch of other really excellent essays on various aspects of the show.

Typically, this is how it works with anthologies: the pieces within them are a bit hit and miss. Some I won't like, a couple I might love, and the rest will fall somewhere in the meh range. This wasn't like that. This book, from start to finish, whether or not I agreed with everything, was absolutely brilliant. As the one lone Friday Night Lights fan who actually liked the murder plot, of course my opinions didn't always fit with the essays collected, but that's hardly the point. The contributing writers really know their stuff and have written brilliant, in-depth essays on the various aspects of Friday Night Lights. From the heartfelt introduction that made me cry to the role economics and class plays in the show to a look at how DirecTV saved the sinking ship, there's some real insight here. And while much of it (the DirecTV discussion, for instance) is applicable to more than just Friday Night Lights, a lot of it is immersed in the show itself. The marriage of Coach and Tami Taylor, the discussion of the reality of the show, and an essay on its lack of teenage viewers are all very specific to Friday Night Lights. (On a side note, as someone who actually started watching this show as a teenager, I loved the essay on why it never garnered a teenage audience.)

The shorter essays on each of the characters (including Herc!) are funny and mostly spot-on. I say mostly only because we don't all see the characters the same way. However, no matter what you think of certain characters, reading a list of Herc's best quotes and the various reasons we love to hate Joe McCoy is awesome.

For all of my diehard FNL fans, this book is a must-read. Trust me when I say you will not be disappointed. Not even a little bit. The thoughtful reflections on life in Dillon, Texas are not only interesting and compulsively readable, but in many cases thought-provoking. (I want to talk about this book with everyone, but I'm the only one I know who's read it. So, problem. GO READ IT SO WE CAN TALK.) I think you've gathered by now that, like the show itself, I kind of can't recommend this book strongly enough.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Review: The Book Thief

Markus Zusak
Knopf Books for Young Readers
Narrated by Death, The Book Thief is the story of Liesel Meminger, a young girl living with foster parents in Nazi Germany. Liesel, who watches her younger brother die on a train at the start of the novel, steals books (hence the title) and has an affinity for words, prompted in part by her loving foster father who teaches her to read late at night. The book takes place during the Holocaust however since the focus is on a German girl living in a small town, it has a decidedly different feel than most Holocaust fiction I've read.

To be honest, this is one book I almost didn't finish. At the fifty page mark I was still pretty uninterested and was finding the narration of Death a bit confusing. Luckily a Twitter friend told me to stick it out, and I'm glad I did as it quickly became apparent that Death is the most appropriate narrator for this story that takes place during World War 2. The third-person, sort-of-omniscient point of view allows for a wider story than we'd otherwise get. Leisel's foster father is one of the few men who doesn't belong to the Nazi Party and because of this he finds it difficult to get work as a painter, making their family one of the poorest in an already-poor neighborhood. The war and the realities of the Nazi regime hit close to home when Liesel and her foster family hide a Jewish man in their basement. This divides Leisel's life into two distinct parts: the part she plays outside of the home as she attends Hitler Youth, plays soccer with the neighborhood friends, and occasionally steals books from the mayor's house, and the life she has at home as she makes friends with the Jew and reads her stolen books to him.

For me the story arc involving the hidden Jew was the real heart of this book and as the story widened to include Liesel's friends and neighbors, their various histories, and the war itself it became obvious why Death was an actual character in this book and why it was chosen to be the narrator. For even at the happiest, brightest moments in Liesel's life there's a sense of dread as the reader knows -- even if the characters don't -- that there are many unseen horrors happening and that they will, as we are repeatedly told, eventually come to Munich Street. There's a legitimate sense of dread and foreboding in this incredibly powerful book. 

And it is both powerful and beautiful as a story not only of the Holocaust, but of the extraordinary feats -- both terrible and amazingly good -- that humans are capable of. Liesel, her foster parents (especially her father), and her best friend Rudy are the primary characters whose capacity for goodness is extraordinary, and I feel odd voicing the problems with this book because it is, for the most part, one of the best books I've read on this period of history.

However, things started to fall apart for me about 400 pages into this 550 page tome. Whereas previously there had been a great focus on story and characters, which conveyed the ideas and -- dare I say it? -- morals of the story very well, the narration started to seem overly verbose, almost wandering into "purple prose" territory. We are told, instead of shown, the power that words have. There's a romanticism of words, the narrator's own words in particular, that doesn't quite fit the rest of the book and had me feeling as if the book were going on much longer than it should have. The story, as its narrater drifted into the future and continually reminded us what was going to happen, seemed to drift away and I kept waiting for the narration and story to meet up again. This did happen, but not until the very end of the book -- at which point, despite all the spoilers Death had given us, I still cried.

This book is incredibly powerful. For the most part it's amazing. However, there's a romanticism and idealization of words within it that doesn't sit well with me considering the subject matter. I felt that it was almost too beautiful and too concerned with its own beauty considering all of the horrific stories it contained.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

thousands of words!


*glares at novel*


Monday, July 25, 2011

My Average Stars

One of the comments on my post about Goodreads reviews was really interesting to me. In it, Anonymous said...
...I generally don't trust anyone whose average rating isn't between 3.25 - 3.75 stars. Any less, you're hating too much. Any more, you're constantly spewing love.
This interested me for many reasons, one of them being that, if you go by Goodreads' "guidelines" for their stars (which I use), three stars means that you liked a book and it's not until you get down to one star that you're saying you didn't like a book. And also I wanted to see where my reviews fell.

So I looked at the books I've read in 2011.

79 books, not including a couple of ones I didn't rate and another that was a reread. My average rating for those 79 books is 3.3 stars. Well within this prescribed range.

But then I started to break it up by genre. Adult, Young Adult, Middle Grade, Children's, and Non Fiction. And this is where the ratings started to get a little funny, to not accurately reflect how much I like each genre.

Children's: 3.7
Middle Grade: 3.2
Young Adult: 2.8
Adult: 2.3Non Fiction: 4.8

I know. YOUR MIND IS BOGGLED. Honestly, so was mine. How could my average rating for non fiction be nearly perfect when the rating for YA wasn't even a solid 3.0?

Here's how:

Children's: The Children's books were six picture books and of course they were all adorable, so it was easy to give them high ratings.
Middle Grade: Again, there weren't many books. Only six and this is because I find it incredibly easy to not finish middle grade novels. Many of them are slow-moving and easily lose my interest. Typically if I finish one, it's because I really enjoyed it.
Young Adult: I read a ton of YA novels. The vast majority of the books I've read this year are YA and in a paradoxical way, because I love the genre so much and I'm less likely to not finish a book, I end up reading a lot more so-so YA compared to other genres.
Non Fiction: I've only read four Non Fiction books and with only one exception they were pretty light books. More importantly, they were books I really really wanted to read. For the most part I became enthralled with these books, absolutely amazed. None of them were books I picked up on a whim. So it's no wonder the score was so high.

Aside from the 3.7 average for children's books, none of these are within the range of 3.25-3.75. And now I'm wondering if this does mean I hate too much, or if it's just that I use the star ratings a bit differently than the person who left the comment. Or if maybe the only average that counts is that of all books, not just each individual genre.

I'd love to hear what others think of average ratings, so... thoughts on this?

Sunday, July 24, 2011

In My Mailbox: Featuring Comic-Con Books =)

For Review: You guys, I have definitely been stalking the mailbox in anticipation of this book. A bajillion thanks to Jennifer at Smart Pop Books for sending me a copy for review. I couldn't wait to start reading it and YOU GUYS IT IS AMAZING TRULY AMAZING I LOVE IT SO MUCH!!!

Book Blogger Trade: Thanks so much to Cade for sending me these -- they're both books that I've had on my wishlist for a while. I've heard Khy raving about Mostly Good Girls forever and Hourglass is the type of sci-fi I'm really excited to read. I basically just keep staring at these books on my shelves and feeling really really happy that I get to read them. 

ARCs from Comic-Con: Yes! I went to Comic-Con on Thursday! It was stellar except for the fact that I didn't get into the Psych panel. ALL OF THE LINES ARE SO INSANE!!! But anyway, about the books. I absolutely loved loved loved Matched and am thrilled to have an advance copy of Crossed. I also got to meet Marie Lu, author of upcoming Legend, and get a signed ARC. She was super-nice and gracious and I can't wait to read both of these books.

Bought at Comic-Con: DINOSAUR COMICS!!! SIGNED!!! And it's called Dudes Already Know About Chickens!

Saturday, July 23, 2011

YA and Age

One of the main marks of a Young Adult novel is the age of the protagonist - somewhere between 13 and 18. Sometimes, but rarely, is the main character as young as 12 (these books often fall into the Middle Grade genre). But what about those YAs with protagonists who are older than 18, either at the book's start or by its end. I can think of three books off the top of my head where this happens.

Hooked, by Catherine Greenman - Though not out yet, this book follows Thea Galehouse as she becomes pregnant as a teenager (18) and moves in with her college boyfriend to raise the baby. A mother's love for her child is one of the biggest themes here and, let's face it, this isn't a teenage theme. Thea's identity becomes that of a mom before she really has a chance to develop her own identity as a person. A few times during the course of the book I wondered if it really fit as a YA novel or if the story is better suited to that broad category of general fiction. While some of the themes are the adolescent issues of first love and relationships with parents as well as changing friendships, others - like the motherhood issue - are more adult. Thea starts the story as an eighteen year old but ends years later as a young 20-ish woman.

Other Words for Love, by Lorraine Zago Rosenthal - This novel, in most ways, fits age and theme-wise into the loose guidelines of YA. It covers first love, friendships, and identity. Still, by the end of the story Ari is looking back on her teen years and the events that helped change her, which is decidedly different from most YA novels that take place in the present, not past, of a character's life.

I Now Pronounce You Someone Else, by Erin McCahan - Like Hooked this book also tackles themes and events that aren't typically teenage. Bronwen doesn't have a baby, but she does get engaged during her senior year of high school. Marriage, or at least the time leading up to marriage, isn't something most YA novels tackle. (Because, really, why would they?) And, like Other Words for Love, it ends by giving us a glimpse of Bronwen's life post-high school. Tying up the loose ends, if you will.

Are these novels YA?

Yes. And no. Really it depends on how we're defining YA (which is a conversation I find endlessly fascinating). Hooked takes the most liberty with the protagonist's age, which is often the guideline most talked about when it comes to "defining" the genre. But I think it's more complicated than just age. Or even than age and themes discussed. There's a certain feeling to YA stories that, though impossible to explain, is very different from general fiction. There's an immediacy, no matter what tense or person the story is told in. Even Other Words for Love, with its hazy atmosphere and post-teenage ending has that kind of feeling throughout Ari's story.

So are these books YA? In some ways they aren't, maybe, but overall... yes. I think so. But, if you've read either of these books... what do you think? Do you think there are YA novels that really aren't YA? Why? What's your "definition" of YA? (My own definition - of sorts - is over here.)

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Goodreads and the Review

Though it took me a while to see the value in it, I now use Goodreads constantly. I love the website but have seen many authors who definitely don't love the site and it's not hard to see why. While Goodreads is essentially a book-centric Facebook that's great for browsing books, keeping track of what you've read, and seeing what your friends are reading, there's a decidedly uncool downside to it that's been apparent to me for a while now.

And that is this: Goodreads, for some reason, lends itself to reviewers being absolutely ruthless. Not ruthless in the brutal, honest way but in a needlessly negative and mean-spirited way. While most bloggers are, if not nice, at least tactful in the reviews they post to their blogs, some are less so on Goodreads. It's not uncommon to see Goodreads reviews that bash not only the book, but also the author -- as a writer and, sometimes, as a person.

It's disconcerting on a few levels.

For one thing, I get now why so many authors seem to be anti-Goodreads. Though I think it's a great tool as a reader and will probably never stop using it as a reader, I also know how easy it is to stumble upon absolutely cringeworthy reviews and/or comments. And I know if those were my books getting the beat down I'd definitely want to hide under the blankets with lots of loud music to distract me from the outside world. There's nothing wrong, as a reader, with disliking a book, negatively reviewing it or even giving a scathing, bashing review. There's nothing inherently wrong with any of this, I think. It could be seen as mean or it could be seen as critical analysis of books that (at least in the reviewer's opinion) aren't very good.

The problem -- and it's nobody's fault -- is that Goodreads is a strange little cross-section of the internet. It's reader-centric, but not reader-exclusive. Many authors have profiles and the meeting of authors, readers, and books makes it incredibly easy both for authors to find their negative reviews (either accidentally or accidentally-on-purpose) or for readers to complain and commiserate about a particular book or author's failings. In some ways I feel like the culture of Goodreads lends itself to more negativity than you'd find on book blogs or even Amazon reviews. On Goodreads it's as much about the readers as it is the book. And since readers are people and people sometimes like to complain together... well, you see what happens.

On another level there's a trend I've seen for a while that, as a reader, saddens me. It's reviewers who seem to be habitually unhappy with the books they read. Usually these are people who stick with a few genres or subgenres (fantasy, for instance, or dystopian) and -- seemingly without fail -- find the books they read horribly lacking. Either the characters were flat and cliche or the writing was subpar or details of the world-building just didn't work. These are all legitimate issues in books and I've complained about them myself in certain books. But with some readers there's a sense of superiority and the underlying message that they're better than the authors they're reading, the books being published today, the books they choose to read. It often culminates in bashing of the author or the entire genre in the review itself or comments below.

Even if I haven't read the book in question it often leaves me feeling a bit upset and I can't help but think if you're finding these huge, overwhelming problems in every single book in a certain genre, maybe you don't actually like the genre. Maybe the books just aren't a good fit for you. Maybe you used to like it and now you don't. Maybe it's time to find books you're going to enjoy, even if they're outside of your comfort zone. It makes me feel like readers are needlessly and consistently exposing themselves to books it's obvious they hate and then what's the point? After eighteen years of reading I don't know what the aim of this activity should be, but I know it shouldn't make you angry and hateful towards others.

Authors work hard on their words that, sadly, end up being a "product." It's one thing to critically review a book, point out its flaws, even rip it a new one if you think the book deserves it. But it's something else entirely to also bash the author and infuse your words with what comes off as disgust and a spiteful, superior attitude. There's something to be said for honesty delivered in a thoughtful way.

Opinions? Have you found that there's a negative atmosphere to Goodreads?

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Tuesday Ten: Teenage Required Reading

This week's topic from The Broke and the Bookish is "ten books you believe should be required reading for teens." While trying to come up with the books for this post I realized that the books tackling the "important topics" weren't always the ones that were the best or that I thought people would like most. I've focused instead on, instead of books that kids usually read in school, ones that I either think are super-important must-reads or (usually) books that I feel fit with the time of adolescence or that teenagers especially will connect with. Because of this there's a lot of YA on here. And, as always, the list is in no particular order.

1. To Kill A Mockingbird
Harper Lee
Okay, this is probably going to end up on every single must-read list I ever make. It's the Great American Novel defined. Great characters, incredible setting, everything about this book is just so perfect. I absolutely love it and am not sure I've ever encountered someone who read the book and didn't like it. As much as it is an American novel, I think it would be great no matter what country you're reading from; so many of the themes are universal.

2. The Mockingbirds
Daisy Whitney
Yes, it pays tribute to To Kill A Mockingbird, but it's definitely not the same book. The Mockingbirds brings up the same important themes of right vs. wrong and justice but puts a very modern spin on it. I think the topic of date-rape is a very important one and not just for teenagers. This seems like the ideal book, with its straightforward writing mixed with the very serious subject matter, for high school students to read.

3. The Little Prince
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
This is kind of the perfect book to read in that time between childhood and being a grown up... in that it reminds you to never really be a grown-up. 

4. Bloomability
Sharon Creech
This book, about the possibility that exists in each of us, is one of the best books I've ever read. Without a doubt. It's middle grade so the characters are young, but I think it's a book that would really be great for anyone to read. Especially teenagers as there's just so much adventure and possibility and incredible themes explored. Just writing this is making me want to reread it.

5. The Disreputable HIstory of Frankie Landau-Banks
E. Lockhart
Such a great book about growing up and being totally awesome. I was going to say it's especially good for girls, but I don't want to make it sound like it's not a great book for guys to read as well. I think the more people read this book, the better. It's great and thoughtful.

6. Sweethearts
Sara Zarr
My love for this book knows no bounds. I think it's amazing, incredible, beautifully written, and something that pretty much everything should read. And I think teen years in particular are a time of change and maybe you're not so close to the people who were your childhood friends... I think there's a lot of not-often-talked-about emotion that comes with this and the theme of a very specific, hard-to-define love is at the heart of this book. Wonderful.

7. If I Stay
Gayle Forman
Aside from being beautiful, this is just such an interesting book. It attacks a very difficult and dark situation in a really great way. I just think it should be read. By you and you and you and you.

Strangely I don't want to add any more books to this list. There are so many that I think teens (and everyone) should read, but reading tastes are so subjective and for "required reading" I just don't feel like adding books just because I personally love them. What about you -- do you agree with my list? Disagree? What books did you have to read as a teen?

Monday, July 18, 2011

YA in the UK: Guest Post by Keris Stainton

A while back I asked Keris Stainton, a UK YA writer, to do a guest post on how the YA genre differs across the pond. Keris Stainton is the author of Della Says: OMG! (like to my review) and the recently-published (but only in the UK) Jessie <3 NYC. As someone who hasn't read a ton of fiction hailing from the UK, I was interested to see what Stainton had to say about the genre.

When Jordyn asked me to write about UK YA and how it differs from US YA I thought "piece of cake". And then sat down to write it and found myself a bit flummoxed.

Obviously there's the language issue - Jordyn found the language in my first novel, Della Says: OMG! "fancy" which made me laugh because it's not fancy at all - it's just the way I speak (with a bit of how I think teenagers might think thrown in). But I know what Jordyn means, because when I was growing up and reading a lot of Sweet Dreams books, I loved the language differences. I learned that "bangs" was a fringe, "barrettes" were hair combs and a "pocketbook" or "purse" was a handbag. (The less said about "fanny" the better.) In my second book, Jessie Hearts NYC, one of the main character is American and it was really important to me that I got his language right. (Twitter was very helpful in this regard.)

Language aside, one basic difference between US and UK YA is that you're unlikely to get a road trip in a UK YA novel. Teenagers can't start learning to drive until 17 and even once they do, they're unlikely to own their own car (the insurance is much too expensive). So my characters are more likely to spend time on buses or trains (or walking).

Also teens can drink younger in the UK too and approximately 25% of teen girls smoke regularly, so it was important to me to show this in the book. Jordyn asked me about Maddy's smoking in the book - Maddy likes to think of herself as a bit of a rebel, pushing the boundaries, so it seemed reasonable to me that she would smoke.

Jordyn also asked me about Della's parents' relaxed attitude to sex. I specifically wanted the book to be sex-positive. I didn't have that term in mind when I was writing it, but the wonderful YA author Susie Day called it that post-publication and I loved it so I've been using it ever since. My original idea for the book was to show three "firsts" from three different points of view: first love, first sex and first heartbreak. I then ended up focussing on just one point of view - Della's - and finding that her first love inevitably led to first sex. And I wanted it to be a good experience for Della. We hear so much about how horrifying teen sex is and how it leads to STDs and pregnancy and ruined lives and, yes, sometimes it does, but not every time. Sometimes it's just... nice. I didn't want Della to angst about it or have to hide it from her parents - I wanted it to be all about her (and Dan) and so I knew her parents would have to be slightly unusual, which is why they're younger and had a more arty, bohemian lifestyle and career. I figured someone who'd been a model in the eighties would have a more relaxed attitude to sex!

When I was desperately casting around for ideas for this post, I was directed to an article that suggested that American teens are more innocent than British teens. I don't know enough American teenagers to know if that's true (and if it is then things have changed since I was a teen - when some distant American cousins came over to visit in the 80s, they were much cooler and more worldly than me and my sister). Perhaps American publishers and parents would prefer to believe that they're more innocent? Whereas in the UK we like to think we're reflecting the reality of teen life? I have no idea, to be honest. But this, for me, is one of the joys of reading and writing YA: how people the same age may life differently but often have many of the same - or at least similar - problems. I really hope that comes across in my books.

Keris Stainton can be found on her blog and Twitter.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

In My Mailbox: Books! With the best covers!

Bookswap: Alright, so I got some books from Bookswap that I either already had or at least had the ARC of. This is only because I'm not a fan of the paperback version of The Hunger Games and also that reversible Across the Universe cover? I adore it muchly and am definitely using the blue spaceship side. The third book, however, I haven't read but have heard great things about and am really excited for. And the cover, omg.

Review: Not gonna lie, I'm ridiculously excited about the books I got this week. All of them really and that most definitely includes this one, which has been on my wishlist ever since I heard about it. It sounds terribly similar to a story I've always wanted to write (and started writing like five times) and instead of being upset that someone else wrote it I'm just crazy excited to read it. Also, can we just take a moment to appreciate this wonderful cover? I'm in love with it a little bit. I think this is the week of beautiful covers.

Gift: Thanks a million to Clementine for sending me this book, one I've heard mixed reviews on but that I've been wanting and that sounds really interesting in the best sort of way. It's a story I don't think I've seen before.

Such lovely books! Also I have a trade list over here of books I'm hoping to send to good homes if you want to check that out. :)

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Books for Trade List

I've been meaning to do a post like this for a while and now - finally - I've actually sort of gone through my shelves to make the list. I have a bunch of books - mostly older ARCs - that I don't want to keep and would love to trade for books I want.

Unless otherwise indicated the books are in great condition; I'm a bit of a perfectionist when it comes to taking care of my books, if nothing else. There are a few titles on this list (indicated with a star*) that I want to go to book bloggers since they're newer or unreleased titles I received for review. I'll cross books out as they're taken.

Advanced Reader/Review Copies (ARCs)
MISSION UNPOPULAR, by Anna Humphrey (MG)
HUMAN .4, by Mike Lancaster (YA)
*FALLING FOR HAMLET, by Michelle Ray (YA)
CROSSING LINES, by Paul Volponi (YA)
HEAD GAMES, by Keri Mikulski (YA)
BIRD IN A BOX, by Andrea Davis Pinkney (MG)
ALL ABOUT VEE, by C. Leigh Purtill (YA)
MAKING WAVES, by Randi Reisfeld and H.B. Gilmour (MG)
DREAMLAND SOCIAL CLUB, by Tara Altebrando (YA)
DELIRIUM, by Lauren Oliver (YA)
PAPER COVERS ROCK, by Jenny Hubbard (YA) - this one has a small tear on the cover for some reason
*SHELTER, by Harlan Coban (YA)
*THE NAME OF THE STAR, by Maureen Johnson (YA)
TRUTH & DARE, by Liz Miles (YA anthology)

Trade Paperbacks
VANISHING ACTS, by Jodi Picoult (Adult) - this is one that I bought second-hand so the cover is a little ratty and the spine is cracked, but it's still in acceptable condition
THE HUNGER GAMES, by Suzanne Collins (YA)
MOMZILLAS, by Jill Kargman (Adult)


*BLOOD RED ROAD, by Moira Young (YA)

If you're interested in trading for any of these books you can email me ( my wishlist is here. A bit of warning: I have published books mixed in with not-yet-published books because I don't care to separate the two. And because of shipping costs I'll only be trading with those within the US.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Clear Eyes and Full Hearts

I am easily involved in the lives of fictional people and their worlds. Give me a character to love or hate and I will. Give me an almost-couple to root for and I will. Give me something to laugh at or cry about. I like fiction not because it's less messy or complicated than real life but because it can be just as messy, just as complicated. Because it brings you out of yourself and into something else, a life or a world or a view that's not your own. It introduces you to people you'd never speak to in your everyday life and places you'd never visit.

But the funny thing is Friday Night Lights doesn't feel like that. It doesn't feel, to me, like other people and other places. It feels like home and I can't quite say why. The focus on high school football reminds me of the town (Arizona, not Texas) that I grew up in, sure, but that's not enough and trying to explain all the ways and reasons I connect so deeply with this show would be impossible, but I do. From the very first episode I was hooked. I loved it. While many others had to watch the first three or four to really get past the sadness that presents itself in the pilot, I knew from the get-go that this was a show I'd watch each week. I was at first captivated by those first couple seconds -- the landscape shots with Slammin' Sammy Mead's radio voice over -- but quickly grew attached to the characters and their stories.

As much as I know that many people didn't love the pilot - it was incredibly sad and hugely focused on football, which could be off-putting to some - I really think it's one of the best television pilots I've seen in terms of not only writing, acting, and all those other things we love FNL for, but also because it sets the stage for the series so perfectly. Coach's end-of-episode speech/prayer says it all.
Give all of us gathered here tonight the strength to remember that life is so very fragile. We are all vulnerable and we will all, at some point in our lives, fall. We will all fall. We must carry this in our hearts, that what we have is special. That it can be taken from us, and when it is taken from us, we will be tested. We will be tested to our very souls. We will now all be tested. It is these times, it is this pain, that allows us to look inside ourselves. --Coach Taylor, ep. 1.1
Friday Night Lights is a show about football, family, and Texas But more than any of that, I think, it's a show about being tested. About the vulnerability of people and that testing to our very souls. Every character in this show has fallen. With Jason Street it happens early on, when his legs and the future he always thought he'd have is taken away from him. With other characters it comes later. Matt Seracen is tested most notably when his dad dies. This is a show about people falling down and having the courage, one way or another, to get back up again in a very real way. Tim Riggins is one of those characters that seems to have the disadvantage of his entire life being one big test and the show doesn't give him an out when - miraculously - he ends up in college. Nope, for Tim his biggest challenge is still to come. The show never lets up in pushing these characters to the brink. Not in an overdone, melodramatic way, but in a life-like way. Stuff happens in life. Tami's pregnancy with Gracie Bell happening at the same time as Coach had taken the TMU job was so incredibly great and while it would have been so easy to play it like a soap-opera twist, that's not the way Friday Night Lights ever went. (As possibly the one person who loved season two, I stand by that statement.) Everything seemed so authentic. Even when Lyla Garrity drives an ex-convict home from jail I'm like, "oh, yeah, this is definitely something Lyla would do."

I don't like Lyla. For the first couple of seasons I didn't like Tim. I used to like Julie and now I don't. Jess bored me in season four and now I think she's probably one of my favorite - and one of the best - characters. All of this is due to the fact that Friday Night Lights lets their characters grow and change and make mistakes and come back from those mistakes or not. It pushes them into places that you wouldn't imagine but that, when they do it, make perfect sense.

I know that Dillon is fictional. I know that these people don't actually exist. I know that. But in my heart... in my heart they are all very much real and very much a part of me. Friday Night Lights and the town of Dillon, TX, will probably always feel a bit like home to me. I never thought saying goodbye to a show could make me feel so emotional or like I'm saying goodbye to a little bit of myself and my home, but this show. It has such desperation and honesty and hope. It's everything great storytelling should be and I feel confident in saying that for those who love it, football in Dillon, TX, is more than just a game.

clear eyes full hearts can't lose

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Review: Girl Parts

John M. Cusick
Candlewick Press
(SPOILER Note: I try very hard in reviews not to post anything that could be considered a spoiler. However, for this book there were elements I felt important to discuss that happen later in the book and could be considered spoilers by some, so read with caution.)

Rose isn't a real girl. She's a seriously life-like robot, specially calibrated as a "companion" for David, a teenage boy so disassociated from real life that his parents have decided a friendship with a Sakura Doll would be a good idea for him since it would help him become emotionally close to another person. Or in this case, a robot. The problem comes when David's more interested in a physical relationship than an emotional one and Rose finds herself separated from her Boy, saved by Charlie, an outsider who has some reservations about the whole "companion" thing. As much as the girl-is-a-robot idea is an awesome premise, the book's focus on the sexual aspect gives it a very, very weird vibe. And this is sad because underneath that this book - and Rose - has real heart as well as something to say.

David, the Boy that Rose is assigned to, is a hard character to like. He's callous, arrogant, spoiled, entitled, and gives us no reason to empathize with him or care about his situation. Rose though - she's programmed to love him. Even when he does things that frighten her or that she doesn't understand, he's still her main focus. Her everything. And when he's taken away from her, she finds herself lost and heartbroken, with no idea who or how to be without him. This, I think, is the real strength of Girl Parts. There's an exploration of love, heartbreak, companionship, and male-female roles that I absolutely loved. As Rose - with the help of loner-boy Charlie - tries to figure out who she is, who she has any possibility of being without David, she learns that she has interests and ideas outside of what David wanted her to think. She wonders how other girls - real ones - can "switch" boys and how she can ever get over the pain of loving and losing David. As much as David was an unlikable and unsympathetic character, the emotions that Rose exhibits are - regardless of the source - very real and very interesting to view through the scope of programming. Because it turns out a heartbroken Sakura Doll isn't very far off from a heartbroken human, as Rose learns.

I wish this, Rose's heartbreak and personal journey, had been the primary focus of the story, but it wasn't. To be honest I'm not even clear on whether Rose or David and Charlie were the main characters. Instead, there's a huge focus on sex; first with David and later with Rose when she seems to decide that lack of sex organs is what separates her from being not only the girl that David wants but also a "real" girl. The irony here is that Rose is the most realistically human character in the book and robot or not, I found it easy to relate to her. However certain decisions she makes in the last third of the book sent the story in an (even weirder) direction that had me wondering what the heck just happened? From there the book quickly unravels, ending with what doesn't even seem like an ending in that there really is no resolution. As a reader I was left confused and wanted another chapter to tie up the free-floating plot points.

There were elements of this book that I absolutely loved, but then there were elements I didn't understand, didn't like, or just could not get on board with. Unfortunately it's these less-than-stellar elements that make up the majority of the novel and will probably make it difficult for many readers to enjoy. If you're into sci-fi, give it a try, but don't be surprised if it doesn't work for you.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011


I have succeeded in making my mother read The Hunger Games trilogy. By telling her to read them and then shoving them at her. It was really very simple.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Grown Up Reading!

I know this is a YA and MG blog, but I have been trying to make a dent in my adult reads lately. I still have a few "grown up" books to read, but I'm proud that I've gotten through about half of them.

Despite being a fan of Jodi Picoult, her books tend to be hit-and-miss for me. This one centered on a man who confesses to mercy-killing his terminally ill wife. It's not my favorite of Picoult's books -- there were a few characters that were too hard to take -- but I loved the courtroom scenes -- just like I usually do in Picoult's novels.

This is actually the first Picoult novel I haven't finished and the reason I didn't had nothing to do with the story and everything to do with the too-gruesome prison scenes. The book itself is centered around a divorced dad who kidnaps his daughter and lives under a false identity until -- when the girl is an adult -- the truth comes out. I think lots of Picoult fans would enjoy this one, but you have to be a bit tougher than I am.

This one I bought just because it sounded funny -- a California mother moving to New York and trying to fit in with all the fancy-pants moms? Kind of like a grown-up version of every mean girl story out there. And it was funny, just not enough to offset the too-immature and often grating characters. It was funny enough and entertaining enough to finish, but not enough to reread. 

What about you? What books outside of your typical genre/s have you read lately?

Monday, July 11, 2011

Review: Chasing Redbird

Sharon Creech
Macmillan Children's Books
As with Sarah Dessen's novels, I find it difficult to review a Sharon Creech book. There are some books I want to read, dissect, and puzzle out, and there are others I just want to enjoy. Creech's books fall under that second category; they're so wonderful and also so much a part of my childhood that reviewing them seems entirely foreign to me. That said, I think that reviews can help highlight books and even though this is an older book, I really want to talk about it and highlight it.

Zinnia is a thirteen-year-old girl in a family of seven children. Her cousin, who was the same age as her and who she thought of as a sister, died when they were only four years old and now her incredible Aunt Jessie has died, too. Zinny has always been closer to her aunt and uncle than her own parents and now she finds solace in the trail starting in her backyard. She makes it a personal mission to clear the trail by the end of the summer, a project that is complicated both by the length of the trail and the fact that her family doesn't think she'll be able to accomplish it. But for Zinny, this is more than just a project -- finding and clearing the trail feels essential for some reason and she is determined to succeed.

Creech has a knack for spirited, adventurous heroines, and Zinny is no exception. She takes on the project of clearing the trail wholeheartedly, hiking miles there and back in order to work on it. And while this part of the story is incredibly transportive and imaginative, the real heart lies in Zinny's complicated emotions regarding her self, her family, and the older boy who keeps giving her gifts. The portrayal of a large family and one child who feels left out is done so incredibly well, most notably in the moments where, noting Zinny standing up for what she wants more often, the people around her ask, "aren't you supposed to be the quiet one?" Zinny's journey from quiet, unassuming younger sister to confident and adventurous explorer is an unlikely and welcome story.

The farm Zinny lives on, along with her large family, makes for a quirky and almost timeless setting. Though this book was published in the 90s and there are references to computers in the novel, many of the references and language are a quite a bit older. Instead of being alienating, this gives the story a timeless sort of feeling that works so much better in middle grade than, I think, probably any other genre. In fact, this book is the best sort of middle grade novel -- a tale of growing up and discovering yourself, with a nice bit of adventure as well. Definitely recommended for middle grade readers of all ages.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

In My Mailbox: Kindle Books

Won: I won this one from the author herself, which is super-exciting because it's SIGNED. (And it was one of the few Creech novels I hadn't already read.) A review of this one will be up tomorrow because I couldn't help from reading it right away.
Bought: I couldn't stop myself from buying the Kindle versions of these two Smart Pop books -- one about the Joss Whedon show Dollhouse (which, I have to admit, I like a lot more than Firefly, sorry), and one about Scott Westerfeld's Uglies trilogy. I am crazy excited to read the different essays on these series.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Faves of 2011 (so far): The Scenes & the Random

1. Best First Chapter: The first chapter of Across the Universe hooked me like no other. So nail-bitey and scary and visceral and intriguing all at once. I kind of just want to reread that first chapter a couple times; forget the rest of the book, just give me the first chapter and I'll be a happy camper.

2. Best Climactic Scene: Again, it seems awkward and weird to award this category to Leverage, but there you have it. The pivotal scene in this book was horribly gruesome, disturbing, on-the-edge-of-your-seat terrifying, and yet... and yet I've never cheered harder for a book than when I read the sentence "Kurt Brodsky goes apeshit." Best. Sentence. Ever.

3. Best Ending: Other Words for Love. Somehow this ending just hit me. It felt calm and satisfying and right and as someone who identified so much with Ari, I absolutely loved it. I talk about this book less than I do other books, but it's safe to say that you should probably go out and read it. I mean, just take a look at that cover/title combo!

4. Best Plot Twist/Revelation: Popular, hands down. Go grab yourself a copy, read it, and then read it again to catch everything you didn't catch the first time around.

5. Most Disturbing Scene: THAT ONE SCENE IN LEVERAGE. I mean, no contest. You wouldn't think it's possible to read a book with your eyes shielded, but somehow that's how I read that scene. Completely freaked out, totally angry and anxious and disturbed. 

6. Best Kiss Award: So probably in adult fiction writers worry about writing sex scenes, but in YA it's all about kissing scenes and somehow the truth or dare kiss in My Life Undecided was kind of weird and awkward and sweet at the same time. (Also it's the only one other than one moment from Anna & the French Kiss that comes to mind.)

7. Best Swoonworthy Moment: I'm just not a swoony kind of girl because honestly no scenes are coming to mind here. Not even the ones that probably are swoony and what not. It's just kind of... meh. SO INSERT YOUR FAVORITE SWOONWORTHY MOMENT HERE!!! (And then tell me what it is.)

8. Biggest Nail-Biting Moment: Again I have to go with Leverage and there were so many moments, but especially the one where Kurt is looking for his cellphone and then one near the end of the novel. 

9. Most HIlarious Scene: I don't have any one particular scene in mind, but it was definitely one from Flirt Club. There's a line (though not a whole scene) where one of the character's dad comes outside and shouts "No kisses for cads!" that just had me laughing like crazy. There were quite a few moments like that, actually.

1. Favorite First Sentence: This is an incredibly close one, but I think I'm going to have to go with the first sentence of Imaginary Girls (with Like Mandarin as a runner-up). There's just something so great about the line that tells of a promise from Chloe's older sister.

2. Favorite Book Title: There are so many book titles I've loved this year and I'm finding it a bit impossible to choose one favorite. If I must, though, then I think I have to go with The Kid Table. There's something really wonderful about a simple title that can bring up so many memories, that can conjure up such a picture of the book without even knowing what it's about. Love it.

3. Favorite Reading Experience: Remember that time when I gave up blogging because I had a very strong idea (for very good reasons) that I couldn't both review books and attempt to have my own published? It was a horrible month or so. I felt depressed about the fact that my writing wasn't going anywhere, upset that I couldn't continue in this hobby that I loved, and all around just pretty crappy about the state of affairs of my life. So I figured I'd read a book, just any book I'd been looking forward to, and maybe even if it didn't cheer me up it might be a diversion for a little while. The book I chose was Where She Went and it was the best afternoon and evening I've spent reading in so, so long. The book was amazing and emotional and with my own emotions already a mess it fit me perfectly, not to mention that I have such immense respect and admiration for Gayle Forman. This book was enjoyable and incredible and inspired me to persevere in my own writing at a time when I was really having a tough go of it.

4. Book With the Best Food in It: Oh, this is a toughie. One book has tons of descriptions of delicious French treats and the other has... a diner in the middle of the night, which happens to be right up my alley. However, this category is about food, not atmosphere, so I have to go with Anna & the French Kiss for making me crave croissants and hot chocolate like nothing else.

5. Book With the Most Real/Sensual Weather: I have to go with Like Mandarin on this one for one simple reason: the wind. My goodness the wind. The descriptions of the wind here brought me right back to my hometown where, I kid you not, the wind at one point or another: pushed me off of the road and into a ditch as I was walking home from school, lifted poly carts into the air, knocked over full poly carts, and lifted our mailbox out of the ground and carried it down the driveway. And, um, made our two-story house shake.

6. Most Embarrassing Book Cover: Invincible Summer. For one thing the first time I saw this it took me forever to figure out which end was which (I still get confused, honestly), and for another I just feel weird about carrying around a super-confusing girl-in-a-bikini cover. Especially since, apart from the beach aspect, it really has nothing to do wit the book.

7. Can't Believe I Waited This Long to Read the Book: Speak, obviously.

& with this we come to the end of the Faves of 2011 (so far!) survey. It's been ten tons of fun and here are links to parts one (the books!) and two (the characters!) if you're so inclined.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Review: BFF Breakup

Taylor Morris
Brooke and Madeline have been best friends since the first day they met and they take their BFF status very seriously, sure that nothing will ever tear them apart. At least, until they start middle school and Madeline makes a few new friends -- girls that don't get along with Brooke. And when her new friend Susanna understands the drama in Madeline's family so much better than Brooke ever could, the BFFs find themselves in a fight that threatens to tear their best-friendship in two. This book is told through the POVs of both girls, making it easy to empathize with both of them and difficult to choose sides. Madeline is the more girly of the two and quickly makes popular friends in middle school while tomboy-ish Brooke finds these new friends insipid and annoying. Added to this is the fact that while Brooke has a Leave-It-to-Beaver-esque nuclear family, Madeline's parents fight constantly. While Brooke wants to help her best friend, especially when the fighting in Madeline's house reaches a head, she isn't quite sure how to -- and with Susanna around she really isn't given the chance.

While I was expecting the fight between Brooke and Madeline to be something concrete, over something specific, it's much more of a slow boil that starts at the end of the summer, when Madeline is grounded and can't spend as much time with Brooke. Things get worse after she meets Susanna and when it becomes clear that Brooke doesn't like the new friends, but it's hard to point to one clear incident as a reason for the rift that forms between the two. There are reasons (multiple), but they take place over such a long span of time and increasingly build on one another. Brooke is insulted when Madeline calls her out on being sarcastic while Madeline refuses to stick up for Brooke when Susanna makes fun of her. The fact that Susanna is better able to understand Madeline's home life only adds to her feeling that Brooke isn't the best friend anymore.

Despite a big focus on Madeline's parents, none of the characters aside from Brooke, Madeline, and a few school friends are very fleshed out. Their parents and siblings have a big effect on them, but reading this book I felt like I didn't know Madeline's parents well enough to really have an opinion or feel what she was going through and how their fighting hurt her. While I usually love a family focus in books, for this one it fell flat and when the book really came alive was during the conversations between Brooke and Madeline. The two (at least pre-fight) have the sort of relationship and language that only best friends have; one-word conversations, shared inside jokes and secrets. This makes it easy to root for them and to wish that they would just talk to each other throughout the better part of this book. Because, unfortunately, this was a story (and a fight) that could have been solved so easily with just a little communication on the part of the characters. It was easy to understand why they couldn't or wouldn't just talk to each other, but this didn't make it any less agonizing or annoying to read their many miscommunications. I liked these girls and wanted to see them work things out; honestly I wasn't prepared for the ending. This is to say that in this sweet, cute middle grade novel, I fully expected a happy ending and what I got was bittersweet, an ending almost as full of loss and regret as the rest of the novel. Or at least, that's how it felt to me.

On the whole, this was a cute novel that reminded me somewhat, at least in the basic premise and the way the story was told, of Rival. The minor characters weren't as strong as I wanted and the ending left me sad, but I have a sense that that's more my fault than the book's. I wouldn't hesitate to recommend this to junior high girls, especially since I feel like so many might be able to relate to the story.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

My Favorite Literary YA

(via weheartit.)

So a few weeks back I did this post on literary v. YA and I've been wanting since then to do a post on the crossing of the two genres. I've read a few great literary YA novels lately and I'm starting to feel that there's something really wonderful that happens when literary writing meets a YA novel.

I'm not a plot person. When I started writing my biggest problem was always that not only did I have absolutely no idea what was supposed to happen to these characters, I also didn't really get why anything had to. Couldn't I just write a bunch of kids sitting around shooting the breeze and throwing rocks at things? I mean, really. Now, of course, I realize that everything -- literary or not -- has to have a plot. I still don't quite like it, but I get it.

And though it sounds weird to say, some of my favorite books are still those that make it seem like there's no plot. Like things are just happening and this is the natural progression. Like people really are just throwing rocks at things, so to speak, just going on, living their lives, being whoever they are, loving and fighting and making up. I like when a book can pull me in so far that I feel like the characters are people I've known forever and their world is a place I've always known.

There are two YA novels that accomplish these things so well. One of them is Nova Ren Suma's Imaginary Girls which, despite me loving so so so very much, I still haven't written a review for. Maybe because I don't quite know how to write a review for this one. It's out of my normal range and I've found it difficult to formulate the right words. But Suma's world, populated by a girl with a magnetic personality, a little sister who practically worships her, and an underwater town, is incredible. I feel like I've been living above the town of Olive, like I've shopped at the gas station and seen the reservoir. The characters are fully YA and the writing is fully, beautifully literary. The best of both worlds, in my opinion.

The second book is John Corey Whaley's debut novel Where Things Come Back. As in Imaginary Girls, the setting here is so incredibly real and the characters feel like kids I've grown up with. Something about the voice of the narrator, a teenage boy whose incredible little brother has disappeared, strikes me as incredibly authentic in that even if people don't talk like that, they sure do feel like that. And sometimes, maybe a lot of times, that's what matters. The writing is a bit high brow and a bit stunted small town, which is a strange mix that works so well in this novel.

And there are others, of course. Some readers have suggested Lauren Oliver's Delirium and Kirsten Hubbard's Like Mandarin as literary novels. There's also Holly Goldberg Sloan's vignette-powered  I'll Be There and Hannah Moskowitz's sophomore novel, Invincible SummerSo, what about you? What are your favorite Literary YA offerings?

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Review: Sass & Serendipity

Jennifer Ziegler
Delacorte Books for Young Readers
In a modern retelling of the classic Jane Austen novel Sense & Sensibility, Daphne and Gabby Rivera  are completely opposite sisters dealing with the financial and emotional struggles that come after their parents' divorce. While Gabby, the headstrong, man-hating, angry-but-responsible older sister puts all she has into helping her mother and scoring a scholarship to pay for college, Daphne is flighty, insanely cheerful, and self-absorbed as she always imagines that her perfect guy is right around the corner. The current object of her affections is Luke, the new boy at school who reads Jane Eyre and saves her from tumbling down a flight of stairs. For Gabby, her younger sister's obsession with boys and "true love" is exhausting at best and madly infuriating at worst. After their parents' divorce, Gabby took her mom's side wholeheartedly and decided that all men are scum and the only person you can really depend on is yourself. Meanwhile, Daphne blames her mother for the divorce and doesn't understand why her sister is so against falling in love -- something Daphne apparently tends to do a lot.

It's been years since I've read Sense & Sensibility, but even so I could tell that this novel followed the basic premise and plot. Gabby and Daphne have the most obvious characteristics of the Dashwood sisters -- namely that one is boring and distrustful while the other is flighty and romantic -- and at least in the beginning these traits overtake the characters. At first it was hard to stomach Gabby, a girl whose one friendship (with a boy called Mule) mostly consists of her complaining about... well, everything. Her studies, the prom-obsessed teens around them, and most of all her irresponsible little sister. As is pointed out rather early in the story, Gabby has a mean streak a mile wide. Typically I have a difficult time empathizing with such a mean character, but with Gabby we eventually discover that her reasons for being so mean and distrustful are actually pretty legit. Not only is her family about to lose their home, but she's relied on to help a good deal with finances as well as putting pressure on herself to get a full scholarship. This, added to the "secret" of Gabby's past made for a character that, while I didn't always like her, I found myself able to understand a bit more. And Daphne, though selfish and flighty, was easier for me to understand. She believes in classic-romance-novel love stories and is just waiting to live out her own. She's a girl with a lot of emotions and though her willingness to be her emotional self means often having a selfish attitude, it also means that she often feels on the outskirts of her sex-obsessed, true-love-shunning peers, even those she considers her best friends. And the thing is, though Daphne's selfishness was huge compared to her sister, she wasn't really that selfish. Aside from constantly promising to try and get a job and then bailing at the chance to hang out with Luke, most of her selfishness just equated to wanting to have a "typical" teenage life. Spending her money on a dress for prom instead of helping to pay the rent, having a crush on a boy even though her sister thought she was being ridiculous and stupid. Like her sister, Daphne was dealing with her own issues -- the disconnect she felt between how she wanted life and love to be and how they actually were, as well as not understanding why her parents got a divorce or why she couldn't see her father more often.

As in the original Sense & Sensibility, much of the plot of Sass & Serendipity is focused on the boys in the Rivera sisters' lives, with the financial troubles and family drama as more of a subplot or even plot device. This isn't to say that either of those things are bad, because I actually think that the way this story comes together works very well. The family history isn't delved into too much, but it's still obvious how their parents' divorce has affected the sisters very differently and deeply. While Daphne runs off in pursuit of love in the form of Luke, who she thinks to be perfect, Gabby runs from the very idea of romance. She changes the subject when her best guy friend repeatedly brings up the subject of Prom and accuses a former classmate of being sexist and thinking her and her family weak when he offers to help them move some boxes. There were many moments when I wanted to yell at both of the sisters as they continued to make iffy decisions in their love lives, but the way the book builds and the way each character (even secondary ones) is written makes it easy to understand why each of the girls acts the way she does, even when it seems to be ridiculous. Part of the reason the book can get away with having some fairly silly personality traits and decisions for these characters is because there really is a character arc here. Both sisters change and grow (for the better!) throughout the course of the novel, and these changes never feel forced or contrived.

Though the sisters' personalities were extreme, they were justified and strongly-felt. However, I can't say the same about the setting. This book is set in a small Texas town that both girls often describe as redneck, but it didn't feel like a small town. There was some Texas-style dialogue ("y'all" comes to mind), but the atmosphere of the novel did not feel as if it took place in a specific small town setting. Instead, I got the feeling that this story and these characters could have just as easily lived in the suburbs or a  sprawling city. They could have been anywhere and for me, a reader who loves strong settings, I kind of wished the book had taken place just anywhere, in some nondescript place. I would have liked for the plot and characters to take over completely, without having the nagging feeling about the setting being not quite right. But I do realize I'm a bit more particular about settings than most are and overall this was a very cute, successful modern retelling of the classic that I love.

Sass & Serendipity comes out July 12th.