Thursday, April 01, 2010

But I Did Like It


I used the above title because I can recall years ago reading long, long reviews that went on for a column and a half before the reviewer began to say anything about the book. Ah, those were the good old days, when newsprint was cheap and a reviewer could drone on and on, showing the world how clever she was.

Anyway, Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld--To cut to the chase, it's set in an alternative, steampunk just barely pre-WWI world in which the German-type folks, or Clankers, are into machines like no machines the German-type folks of that real era ever knew,and the British-type folks, known as Darwinists, are into "fabricated animals" that do all kinds of things for them, including serving as dirigibles. (Fabricating animals to function as machines seems like a great deal of work to me, but then science was never my strong suit. I am, in fact, still waiting to find my strong suit.)

The New York Times, where I used to read a lot of those long-winded reviews I was talking about earlier, carried a review for Leviathan in which the reviewer said there was "something a little mechanical (or bioengineered?)" about the two main characters. I would go further and say there was something a little mechanical about the whole book. You've got one storyline about Aleck, the classic royal refugee on the run with loyal retainers. You've got Deryn the classic girl disguised as a boy so she can follow her bliss in a line of work not open to women in the Victorian era. Deryn's bliss is flying on those fabricated beasties the Darwinists use to get around on, much as Matt in Airborn (another steampunk novel) is into gadding about on dirigibles. You've got a character here, Dr. Barlow, who reminded me of Europe in Monster Blood Tattoo. In fact, you have illustrations in this book that reminded me of those in Monster Blood Tattoo.

The book seemed to be manufactured of parts that would be recognizable to someone who had done much reading. It's well done, nonetheless. And less experienced readers won't have read a lot of books about girls going undercover as boys and royalty having to run for their lives. Leviathan won't sound as familiar to them. And I did like it--until I got twenty or thirty pages from the end, when I realized that this story wasn't going to be wrapped up in this volume and that I was reading a hardcore serial. Then I began to feel a little testy.

Scott Westerfeld has redone his website with a Leviathan theme. I thought the Leviathan trailer looked as if it was made by the same folks who did the trailer for Monster Blood Tattoo. Leviathan's had a neat ending, though. "Do you oil your war machines or do you feed them?"

And since steampunk deals with technology, this seems like a good time to refer you to Science Fiction and the Frame of Technology by Paul Woodlin, which I found a while back through Cynsations.

Plot Project: I almost forgot about the plotting project, in which I'm supposed to determine whether or not a plot was generated by a character wanting something and the author creating obstacles to the character getting it. Well, one thing I'm learning from thinking about the plots of the books I read is that you can't read authors' minds. You can only guess how a plot came about. I'm also becoming less and less entranced with the "find out what your character wants and then keep her from getting it" plot plan. If you go to Holly Lisle's Create Your Professional Plot Outline (thank you Procrastinating Writers), you'll see that she says you can develop a plot starting from a number of points, including world building. My guess is that even if a book like Leviathan began with its two traditional characters who can take off from traditional jumping off points--prince escaping, girl disguising herself as boy in order to gain entry into a male world--because it is steampunk, the world building would be crucial to plot development. It seems as if a lot of world building would have to come before the writer could do much with the plot. But that's just speculation.

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Monday, March 29, 2010

Margo Lanagan. Short Stories. Margo Lanagan And Short Stories.

Margo Lanagan did a guest post at Cynsations relating to writing short stories. And writing Tender Morsels. She did a blog tour last week, which I hope to read this week.

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My Own Nominees For YA Books With Adult Appeal

Earlier this month, The Spectacle did a post on YA books with special appeal to adult readers. When I say "earlier this month," I mean much earlier this month. Since I didn't see the post until yesterday, I felt I was way too late to add my two cents. So I decided to do it here.

YA books I think would be good reading choices for so-called grown-ups:

The Night Road

Tender Morsels

Corbenic

Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation

How the Hangman Lost His Heart

Ptolemy's Gate

What I Saw and How I Lied

Criss Cross

Other titles readers would like to nominate?

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Friday, March 26, 2010

Hey, Man! Kosher!


So Punk Rock by Micol Ostow with illustrations by David Ostow may be, when all is said and done, a bit of a generic, "Let's start a band!" book. Main character wants to be cool, pulls a group of kids together, finds a little success, has the big gig, realizes that the things he thought he wanted are not what he wanted at all. What makes the book different is that it is so...Jewish. And if you're not Jewish, it is such a pleasure to read about a contemporary real teen world you don't know a whole lot about.

If there are dozens of YA books out there about the teenage Jewish punk rock scene, please let me know. I'm sure not aware of them.

Our narrator, Ari Abramson, has a very laid back, dry wit. He is into irony. He's a junior at Leo R. Gittleman Jewish Day School where around sixty-four percent of the student body is "religious enough to find ourselves in a school where learning Hebrew, Torah, and Rabbinics is valued as much as learning English, history, and math--but not, you know, hard core about it." Since something similar can be said about the Christian church I sort of attend ("We're Christians, but let's not get ridiculous about it."), I definitely felt some common ground with this boy.

I don't see a lot of kids' or YA books that recognize the fact that many, many young people are involved in religious practice. I'm not even talking about what kids believe, just the fact that they attend services, receive religious instruction, etc. I found that here in a book with the words "Punk Rock" in the title.

While I enjoyed the graphic elements, I didn't pick up on their significance (a character was creating them), until the end. I may have stumbled with my reading (which has happened before) or they may not have been integrated into the story as well as they might have been.

Nonetheless, an enjoyable read.

Check out an interview with the author and illustrator at Cynsations.

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Thursday, March 25, 2010

"Teen Angel, Teen Angel, Teen Angel, Ooooooh"

The author of Teenage Fiction's Death Wishes asks why teenagers are into reading about buying the farm. I don't think this is a particularly new interest. I can recall my high school creative writing teacher telling us that he was sure he was going to hear from parents regarding a morbid piece written by a student for the school literary magazine because he'd been in that situation before. And this may be tipping my hand regarding my seriously advanced age, but I can just barely remember when dying adolescents were a Top 40 staple.

I guess it's a sign of improved literacy if teenagers are reading books about dying instead of dancing to music about it.

Link from Cynsations.

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Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Eternity Stinks


I picked up Night Road at the library for one reason--A.M. Jenkins wrote it. Jenkins is the author of Repossessed, a book I liked a great deal.

Night Road is terrific, too. It involves a hemovore named Cole. Hemovores are humans--and Cole does consider himself a human--who live on blood. Though Cole looks like a teenager and always will, he is worn down by life experience. Lots of it. He's been walking the Earth for over a hundred years. He's pretty much a broken man, burdened by the knowledge of what he failed to do for his brother over a century ago and what he did to the woman he loved a few decades back.

Think some kind of lone noir hero, adhering to a code that keeps him alive but not really living.

Cole is contacted by the leader of the hemovore community because a new heme was "accidentally" created by the funny, kind Sandor. Sandor and Cole take the newby, a real teenager, out on a road trip to help him acclimate to his new existence. If the kid can't make the transition, Cole is charged with seeing to it that he meets a fate that Cole believes will be worse than death since he believes people like them can't be killed.

The journey provides Cole for a chance at redemption, a redemption he wasn't looking for.

This is a great book, but, as often happens with me, I don't see why it's YA. Cole may look like a teenager, but he sure isn't one. This guy is world weary. He isn't trying to separate himself from family. He isn't trying to determine his path in life. This poor guy isn't trying to do anything when we first meet him. In my post on Repossessed, I said that while that book was definitely YA (imho), it could just as easily have been an adult book if the devil had been placed in an adult body. With Night Road if Cole had become a heme at twenty-five or thirty or thirty-five or...you get my drift...the book could have worked just as well without changing anything.

The Plot Project: Is this a book that's plot was generated by a character wanting something and meeting obstacles to getting it? I don't think so, because Cole doesn't seem to want anything at the beginning of the book. Yes, he seems to have moved on to a better situation by the end, but it wasn't one he was seeking. This book might have begun with a situation--the classic road trip on which older characters guide a younger one. As with any situation, the author would then have to decide which character her book would be about. It sure isn't the real teenager who truly does have something he wants--to go back to his old life.

A marvelous book, whatever it is.

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Tuesday, February 23, 2010

A Lot To Think About


I know that a lot of blog writers like to write about books they love. I have to say I'm at least as interested in books like Big Fat Manifesto by Susan Vaught. I can't say I loved it, but there's a lot to think about here, making the book worthy of attention.

I have a lot of trouble reading books about boyfriends and shopping. When a book starts out with the female main character getting together with her girlfriends to go shopping and talk about boyfriends, I have to throw in the towel right away. I know YA is for YAs, and if YA girls, God love them, want to read about boyfriends and shopping, they should most definitely do it. I, however, should most definitely not do it. I have only so many reading years left, and I need to ration them carefully.

Big Fat Manifesto starts out with shopping and a boyfriend, but I got excited about it because there was something more there. Jamie, our female main character, is fat. (Her term, not mine. I definitely prefer obese, which she rejects as too clinicial.) Three hundred plus pounds fat, and she doesn't care who knows it. The shopping trip that begins the book is an undercover operation to research shopping problems for people of weight, research she will use in her column for her high school paper. The column is called Fat Girl, and in it she speaks for all fat girls and fat boys for that matter. Now, as a general rule, devices like letters, journals, newspaper columns, seem sort of forced in books. However, the logic behind this one works. Jamie wants to submit these columns to an agency that awards scholarships.

Jamie/Fat Girl comes across as very strident, one of those people who see weight as a political or social issue. And that was interesting. But I found it sort of odd that this is a book about the hardships faced by the quite seriously obese, but it also maintains some of the boyfriend and shopping stereotypes you find in teen books about...well, boyfriends and shopping. Jamie is part of a three-girlfriend set, which is the mandatory friendship circle in YA, and she is torn between two lovers, which appears so often in books that it must be some kind of fundamental fantasy among human females. I can see why author Vaught wanted to create a set-up in which the so-called fat girl has a normal teenage life. (Yeah, I know. All normal teenage girls have two guys panting after them.) But the basic point of this book is that this girl doesn't have a normal teenage life. She has trouble buying clothes, traveling, even getting her blood pressure taken. I don't think the she's-normal/she's-not-normal thing quite worked.

What's more, I kept wondering why Jamie never tried to lose weight. Toward the end of the book we finally learn that she had tried in the past, but why her attempts all failed was never addressed. I understood why she's heavy. Overeating is part of her family's culture. But I never understood why another character, Burke, was so heavy that he was considered a candidate for bariatric surgery. How did he get into that shape, and why didn't his affluent, highly educated, loving parents try other options for weight loss before allowing him to subject himself to surgery?

The end of the book was a little problematic for me, too. We're told there's a change in Jamie's character, which is always a good thing in a book...dynamic character and all that... But it's hard to see how that character change is going to make any real difference.

I may have been thinking way too much while I was reading this thing, but I wondered if some people would consider Big Fat Manifesto a "problem" novel, one of those how-do-I-deal-with-this-situation books. Did I feel that way about it? If so, are problem books far more readable if you have a dog in the race, so to speak? Because while I have always been within spitting distance of a normal weight, myself, I come from a family that has been marked by obesity and the many, many, many problems that accompany it for four generations. Probably more, but my memory only goes back to the great-aunts and uncle. I will spare you the details, but I could go on at quite some length on the subject.

Thus, while I suspect some readers might find Jamie's Fat Girl columns to be something of a soapbox, I was glued to them. I had to skim the boyfriend sections of the book because, as a general rule, adolescent romance is lost on me. But bring out the fitness discussion, whether I agree with what's said or not, and I am there.

All in all, I'd have to say that for those readers who like their boyfriend and shopping stories to have something a bit more thought provoking going for them, Big Fat Manifesto has quite a bit to offer.

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Tuesday, November 10, 2009

A Sweet Natured Little Devil


I have to say that if I had a gun pointed to my head and was told to choose a book from any book award list, I'd choose something from the Printz. I've had a lot more luck with finding enjoyable reads from those winners and honor books than with any other award.

Repossessed by A.M. Jenkins was a Printz Honor Book in 2008. It's marvelously witty but also very moral. In fact, at some points the book teeters on becoming a bit instructive--"girls with big butts are worthy of love," for instance. I think the sophistication of the moral issues saves it from going over the edge into preachiness. The book is too serious--in a funny way--to be a sermon.

Repossessed is the story of a demon who has had all he can take of hell for a while and steps into the body of a teenage boy who was about to step in front of a truck and buy the farm, as we used to say back in college. The kid wasn't going to have a use for the body in a couple of minutes, so our demonic friend, Kiriel, hasn't really done any harm. He's hell bent on experiencing material life, though he doesn't think he's going to get to do it for very long. He will be missed.

But not by the Creator, who has never noticed him. Kiriel clearly is suffering--or at least has an attitude--because of his separation from God. For those of us who taught Sunday school for years and years...and years...this suffering because of separation from God will sound very familiar. Jenkins is dealing with what appears to me to be a very Christian concept. (Though I can't guarantee it doesn't occur in other faiths, too.)

Hell is interesting in Repossessed. The damneds' eternal torment is due to the guilt they, themselves, feel for their human behavior.

One of the many things I liked about this book was the treatment of Jason, the younger brother of the boy Kiriel has replaced. Jason clearly has ADHD, but the term is never used. ADHD books often involve some of that instructive stuff I was talking about earlier, so that we all know what's going on. In this one we're just shown this poor boy whose behavioral problems have led him to a sad, solitary life.

A thought I had while reading this book--This is definitely YA, dealing with the theme of what will I do with myself? (Kiriel wants to make a difference, wants to have a hand in shaping things, which is what led to his becoming a fallen angel in the first place.) But if Jenkins had placed her demon in an adult's body and given him adult concerns, she could have easily turned this into an adult book. Not that I'm saying she should have. It was just something I thought about as I was reading.

You can catch an interview and question and answer session (in the comments) with A.M. Jenkins at YA Authors Cafe and another interview at Cynsations.

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Monday, September 21, 2009

Mary Pearson's Thoughts On YA

Mary Pearson (The Adoration of Jenna Fox) has a post at Tor.com called What YA Lit Is and Isn't. It doesn't definitively pin down the subject, but she has some interesting thoughts.

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Sunday, August 30, 2009

Great Character, But...

Marcelo in the Real World by Francisco X. Stork is the third autism novel I've read. A few years ago, Anonymous and I had a brief discussion on how many books on the same subject you needed to create a genre. Is autism getting there?

I loved Marcelo, himself, but I may be the only reader of this well-starred book who wasn't all that taken with the story. It seemed heavy on lesson for my taste. All the good characters work for the poor and sick, and all the bad characters are corporate lawyers or their secretaries. (Okay, okay. You're going to say that's just like real life, aren't you?) As I read this book, I felt as if I was supposed to be learning to do good.

There's nothing wrong with wanting to teach readers to do good, of course. I'm just one of those who believe that in fiction, you need to be really subtle about it.

I also didn't get the side trip to Vermont to visit the coarse, beer-swilling farmers. And why include a coarse, beer-swilling farmer with Alzheimer's? If it was necessary to get Marcelo to Vermont so he could be exposed to the restorative aspects of nature or something, it would have kept the story more on task to somehow send him to the Weston Priory. Marcelo did have a special interest in theology, after all, which included a desire to say the rosary. Instead of being friendly with a rabbi, Marcelo could have been friendly with a monk.

Maybe there will be a sequel.

Marcelo in the Real World has a lovely cover, which Blogger won't let me upload for some reason.

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Saturday, August 22, 2009

Not Bad For A Death Book


Ryan's life has gone down the toilet since the death of his younger sister two years ago. He's numbed up on drugs that he gets from a sad but funny loser headed for trouble who has become his best friend. Everything starts to turn around, though, when Ryan becomes obsessed with a shallow, popular girl he barely knows after she becomes a coma patient in the hospital where his sister was treated for cancer.

That makes the book sound sappy, and it's not, though it does teeter on the brink of being one of those "learn-something-profound-from-death" stories. There's sly humor and likable characters here. Putting a teen queen stereotype into a coma is a neat idea. And I actually believed the basic premise, that this boy becomes obsessed with someone he barely knows who's hospitalized where a family member died. While trying not to give anything away, I particularly like how things turn out for her. I also thought the parents were treated both realistically and sympathetically, which is always unique in a teen novel.

So, all in all, Deadville by Ron Koertge is a good read.

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Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Why Don't We Go After The Adult Market?

While I was at that Margo Lanagan talk, I learned that Tender Morsels was published as an adult book in Australia. There will be a YA edition down under, but it isn't out yet. There are also adult and YA editions of the book in England.

England also did an adult and kid version of the Harry Potter books.

I think adult readers would be very interested in Tender Morsels. I think they'd be interested in Octavian Nothing, too. Same with The Book Thief. Fortunately, we live in a free country here in the U.S. of A., so they can read them if they want to.

But they'll never want to if they don't know about them. Sure these books are famous in kidlit circles. But most adult readers are not part of our circle. They have to know these books exist. I hate to say it, but they need to be marketed to.

I know I'm a lone voice on the subject of adults and picture books and will probably remain so. But, come on! They market YA to adults in other countries. I'm not suggesting something revolutionary.

Or do we Americans figure adults over here bought Harry Potter and Twilight without anyone having to make a special effort so we just aren't going to?

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Monday, July 27, 2009

Bears Are So Much Better Than Fairies. And Dragons.


I should have hated Tender Morsels by Margo Lanagan. It's set in one of these fantasy worlds where everyone has made-up sounding names (possibly because they are). It seems as if it might be an allegory, which try my patience. And the characters address each other in contrived ways, referring to mams and babbies and suchlike. (Oops. It's catching.)

But I didn't hate Tender Morsels. Not at all. Reading Tender Morsels is an experience. It's a dense, meaty book, chuck full of stuff, and it took me close to a week to get through it. All the time I was reading it, I felt I was being exposed to something very unique, that I was most fortunate to have stumbled upon this title.

And there were no fairies or dragons! The bears, on the other hand, were quite riveting.

And to think I'd been looking at this book at my library for months and would never have picked it up (it being a fantasy), if not for the Brits getting all in a lather over it.

If you missed Meg Rosoff's take on Tender Morsels back in April when she was serving as a judge for the Battle of the Kids' Books, check it out. "I knew almost immediately that I was reading something utterly astonishing."

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Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Will I Meet Margo Lanagan Next Week?

I picked up Tender Morsels by Margo Lanagan at the library today. The library has had it since February, and I'm the first person to take it out. (We still use stamped sheets attached to the book covers, which I love because I like to see what kind of action the book has been seeing.) This is not a comment on Tender Morsels by any means. I can't tell you how many times big name YA books--often big name YA books that are very good--don't move much at our library. We're not what you'd call a literary town, as I may have mentioned before.

After I got home, I learned that Margo Lanagan will be appearing next week at the Groton Public Library. That's the Groton Public Library, Groton, Connecticut. And she'll be speaking from 7:00 to 8:30 PM.

That's actually doable for me. And you did notice that the event lasts less than three hours, right? Custom made for moi, whose attention hits the wall at the three-hour point. Probably before, if the truth be known.

Training Report: I had hoped to finish something and get it into the mail today, but I never finish things and get them into the mail when I think I will. In fact, I usually plan for that. It's been so long since I've finished anything and tried to mail it that I forgot, though.

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Monday, July 13, 2009

A Good Book To Give Kids Making Their First Train Trips


Jump the Cracks by Stacy DeKeyser has what I think is an intriguing premise--a fifteen-year-old girl on the train from Hartford to New York sees a toddler she believes to be in danger. So she takes him. What starts out as a responsible act turns into a sort of kidnapping. Victoria and her young charge end up on the lam, heading down the east coast while Victoria tries to negotiate the little one's safe return over the phone in calls to her own father who had been expecting to meet her at the station in New York and the police officer assigned to her case.

DeKeyser shows a lot of control of her material and her plot. As I was reading, I'd think, Why doesn't Victoria do X? Sure enough, she did. Why doesn't Y happen? And it did. Victoria almost spends too much time dwelling on her dad's failings, but her angst over her parents' divorce and her father's absence from her life is motivation for some of her action.

A better adjusted teenager from an intact family might have left that poor little boy on the train.

For a long time Jump the Cracks walks a fine line between thriller and unique problem novel. Some readers might feel let down with the ending. Others will find themselves a step closer to experiencing adult mainstream fiction.

Jump the Cracks is published by Flux, which has a blog called Eye On Flux. That's got to be a play on Aeon Flux, don't ya think?

Training Report: I'm plugging away on agent research. I love research because it's like working but different. Here's something I didn't need to know about, though.

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Monday, June 08, 2009

Where's The Dancing Candlestick?


Last week, we were talking about fairy tales (or I was, anyway), which was far more appropriate than any of you knew because last week I also read Beastly by Alex Finn. Beastly is a modern take on Beauty and the Beast with the beast starting out as a stereotypical, handsome teen s.o.b. who is turned into a beast as punishment for being a stereotypical, handsome teen s.o.b..

Beastly is a very interesting book because it's filled with stereotypical characters, and, as I said, it's Beauty and the Beast. If you know the story--and presumably readers are expected to, since the book includes "Ever wonder what it was like for the Beast?" on the cover--you know what's going to happen. And, yet, it's an engaging read. If nothing else, you can have fun trying to figure out the fairy tale references. And while poor old Kyle, prebeast, is a stereotypically awful teen stud, he does end up getting more sympathetic treatment here than his type usually does in YA novels. Or anywhere else, for that matter. (Dairy Queen and its sequel also provides us with a more rounded teen heartbreaker.)

Someone at one of my listservs brought to our attention that Beastly is going to be a movie. Mary-Kate Olsen has joined the cast (as the witch, I've heard), as has Neil Patrick Harris (as the tutor, according to my source). Hey, we hear everything first on the kidlit listservs!

If you like these modern interpretations of fairy tales, you can check out a whole page of modern versions of Beauty and the Beast.

Training Report: Two segments! Essay work! E-mails! Research!

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Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Not A Bad Sequel, But Still...


I am a big fan of Catherine Gilbert Murdock's Dairy Queen. I wasn't that excited when I heard there was going to be a sequel, though. Dairy Queen seemed so complete. What more was there to say?

The Off Season still has D.J. Schwenk's marvelous voice. But the story seems a lot less focused this time around. D.J. just seems to be going from thing to thing here. While an argument can be made that that's life, I missed the narrative drive of the first novel.

This isn't a bad book, by any means. D.J.'s fans will still enjoy it. It's just not Dairy Queen.

According to the author's website, a third D.J. book is in the works.

Training Report: Not my worst day. Worked on an essay and did two 365 Story Project segments. I felt as if I was beginning to get into a flow-like thing, but it will be shot tomorrow when I am back to doing good works.

I'm not very good at doing good works. It's a struggle, let me tell you.

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Friday, May 08, 2009

Noir Mom


I kept stumbling upon father books this spring. Now I've stumbled upon a book just in time for Mother's Day weekend that may not be a "mother book" but certainly has a strong mom.

What I Saw and How I Lied takes a long time to get going. The first person narrator often speaks in a noir manner, but it seemed odd to me that she doesn't have a noir voice when she's narrating.

But those are my only objections to this tale of the femme fatale's daughter.

I love What I Saw's 1940's setting. I love the idea of a YA noir novel. I love that this thriller is actually a historical novel. I love that while the adults are such powerful characters here, it is the young, innocent daughter who takes control of them.

I love that the ending of this story is not particularly uplifting and definitely leaves readers dangling. (The same could be said of Octavian Nothing, by the way.) Some descriptions of YA insist that such books need to have a hopeful ending. In What I Saw, our main character becomes a much more powerful person and we believe she'll turn out okay, but she's not particularly happy. And there's not much hope that she ever will be in terms of her relationship to her parents.

Earlier this month, I wondered if there were any YA books that covered the situation used in The Go-Between, in which a young character gets enmeshed in an adult couple's romantic relationship. Well, we do have something similar in What I Saw and How I Lied.

And we also have one spectacular mom. Beverly's that hard-boiled blonde babe from every noir movie you ever saw. What's so very fascinating about her is that she is a woman with nothing in a world where women still are pretty much just wives. If they're lucky. But she has great personal power because of her sexuality. She wields a lipstick and a cigarette as if they were sophisticated weapons. At the same time, she realizes exactly how precarious her situation in life is, and she tries to keep her daughter young and innocent so she'll have to use her brains instead of her looks.

While we're taking about moms, Grandma Glad is no slouch, either. She may be a harpy, but if you find yourself facing a possible murder indictment, you may be grateful to have a mom like Gladys flying in from Queens with a bag of money.

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Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Thinking About Octavian


Reading Octavian Nothing Traitor to the Nation, Volume II, The Kingdom on the Waves by M. T. Anderson made me understand why some readers love serials. While I don't know if I could have read Volume II without having read Volume I first, I definitely could have read about Octavian for months. For years.

I love that the two volumes of Octavian Nothing were a historical fiction serial rather than the more common fantasy serial. Though in an author's note, Anderson says that these books resemble a fantasy novel. I think that's true in that historical novels and fantasies require extensive world building.

The first Octavian Nothing had an incredible premise. It was about a carefully nutured boy who slowly comes to realize he's a slave. The second book is about Octavian's war exploits. The story does slow down, which I find to be the case with a lot of books that deal with war and battles. There's a lot of hurry up and wait. But during the slow times Octavian is moving on. He is searching for and finding the personal history that had been denied him in the first book.

Book II has a feature that is almost as intriguing as the enslaved child in the first book. The Colonial revolutionaries are not heroic or noble by a long shot. No, we do not come off looking good here.

And the book even has a father/son thing going on! Octavian's tutor, Dr. Trefusis, ends up serving as a father(or grandfather--both terms are used)figure to him. This is not a role that he accepts out of the goodness of his heart, but one he seeks out. He wants this young man for his child. "Send my boys back. Send them back to me, save and sound, and I shall grant anything," he writes in a letter when Octavian doesn't return from a foraging trip.

This book has been out for a while and others have already written about the quality of the writing, the incredible characters, and Anderson's accomplishment in writing it. I can't add anything new. I will say that a lot of well-regarded historical fiction is very lop-sided. A great deal of effort is obviously put into the historical setting while the plot is something you've seen before and the characterization is barely there. That is not the case with the Octavian Nothing books. They have everything--setting, plot, character, voice (in abundance), point of view...You name it, it's there.

Training Report: Bad day. I did only one part of one segment. And I only did that because I wanted to be able to say I did something.

Yesterday, by the way, I prepared some materials for one of the Bridget Zinn fundraisers. I'll be contributing books to the middle grade book basket for the silent auction and raffle in Portland, Oregon on May 29th. An on-line auction is underway now.

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Monday, March 30, 2009

Werlin World

I spent an interesting week and a half reading Nancy Werlin novels. The three books I read might be described as thrillers with troubled teen protagonists. The troubled teens bring gravitas to the thrillers and the thrillers bring narrative drive to the troubled teen stories. It's a good combination.

The first one I knocked off was Double Helix, which was, you might say, serendipitous because it played right into my father fixation. Nancy says of the book at her website, "In particular, it's a father-son story. And that, rather than in news stories about genetics, is where the novel had its start...Originally, I imagined a triangle in which two men, Jonathan Samuels and Dr. Quincy Wyatt, struggle for the soul of the novelís hero, eighteen-year old Eli Samuels. Which manís influence will form Eli? I wondered. To whom will he pledge his future and his loyalty?"

Yes! Yes! I originally saw the triangle as two father figures fighting for a young guy. At one point, I was finishing up doing something so I could go back to reading to see which Dad won. But that's oversimplifying because as Nancy also says, one dad had it all over the other one.

At various points while reading this book, I thought I knew what was going to happen next. And I did. But not entirely. Every time there was something just a little different and unexpected.

Next I whipped through Black Mirror. While reading this one, I wondered if the main character wasn't a little too troubled. Her personal problems seemed to keep her from understanding what was going on for way too long. But that may have been the point. She's not Nancy Drew. What was going on around her was apart from her. In fact, she doesn't have anything to do with ending the criminal activity. In terms of her personal story, the real climax comes from the revelation that occurs after the thriller storyline is done. And the really important revelation isn't whodunnit (though we learn that) but who the victim really was.

Black Mirror included an interesting secondary character whose identity I figured out early on. I liked him and his relationship with the main character, but while I was focusing on him, I totally missed what was really going on with two other characters. What was going on with them was realistic and worked, it was just a pleasant surprise to me.

While I'm not fond of what I'll call locked-inside scenarios, Locked Inside includes my favorite main character of the three books. The book included the same abrupt (in the good sense of the word) surprises I'd come to expect after reading the two earlier ones. I started reading and thought, Oh. This is going to be a gaming story. But, then, wham! It wasn't. This is also the book that made me say, "Holy #@!!" right out loud.

As I was reading these books, I kept thinking of Ruth Rendell's stand alone novels. (She also does a series of police procedurals.) The New York Times said of Rendell's books, "Ms. Rendell's central characters are frequently in a state of intense anxiety." In the three Werlin books I read, the central characters are anxious. They are, in fact, close to being traumatized by loss, whether recent, expected, or in the past. The NYTimes also said that "Rendell's books depend on precision of detail." Each of these Werlin books involved a completely different character background--science, Buddhism, gaming--requiring entirely new material to provide details.

Rendell fans talk about looking for the "new Rendell" or "picking up a Rendell." I imagine YA readers some day talking about Nancy Werlin's work in the same way.

Today's Training Report: Two entries for the 365 Story Project. Began charting story arcs for same. Two manuscript submissions, along with a little submission research. A little work on cleaning my desk.

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Thursday, March 19, 2009

Island Of The Blue Dolphins Meets The Admirable Crichton


Nation by Terry Pratchett is set in an alternative nineteenth century world where an enormous wave washes away all the residents of an island except for a young boy, Mau, who had been about to pass his manhood ritual. He is now alone. Until, that is, he finds Ermintrude (who, quite understandably, decides to rename herself Daphne). She is a young member of the British royal family who is washed onto Mau's island home, the only survivor of a ship that was destroyed by that same wave. Daphne brings with her orderly so-called civilization. She is well-mannered and ladylike, as one would expect from someone of her station, but she also has a trained, scientific mind. She is familiar with both Darwin and Agassiz.

Mau's tremendous loss triggers a crisis of faith. You could say that Daphne helps him find another belief system.

This is a novel about the place of religious belief, something I don't think I've seen a lot of in YA fiction. (That might be what His Dark Materials is about, but I couldn't understand the second two books in the trilogy.) Occasionally Mau's spiritual quest got a little deep for me, too, but the humor and terrific characters got me past those points.

For a while I was concerned that this was going to be a rant against evil Europeans destroying other societies. Not that there isn't plenty of historic precedent for that, but it is a subject that has been done before. Pratchett, however, goes in another direction.

Nation is one of this year's Printz Honor Books

Today's Training Report: I fell behind on the 365 Story Project so I could immerse myself in the never-ending story. So today I tried to bring myself back up to speed with that by trying to track a character I want to do something with soon. I also made a hard copy of the draft I finished yesterday. I always edit a hard copy. I'll leave that for next week because drafts should sit like stews and sauces.

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Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Coming Next Month

One of my more interesting reading experiences from my first year as a Cybils panelist involved Hellbent by Anthony McGowan. McGowan's second book, Henry Tumour won the Booktrust Teenage Prize in England. In April, the book will be published in this country as Jack Tumor.

Now, I can understand a U.S. publisher changing the spelling of "tumour" to "tumor." We are a Puritan nation, after all, and we are offended by the profligate use of vowels. But what's with changing "Henry" to "Jack?"

Today's Training Report: Finished that last chapter, in spite of doing a six-mile hike that left me with no buzz at all. I started revising this book a year ago, started two drafts before finally finishing this third one.

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Tuesday, March 17, 2009

I See Father Books...And They Don't Know They're Father Books

Read Roger has a post today in which he briefly questionsthe difference between books for youth and books for grownups: is there a difference and what is its nature? Since I've done some writing about that here lately, I thought I'd mention it.

Plus, Roger talks about listening to To Kill a Mockingbird. I've been thinking about that book recently because there's a lot of buzz about it here in central Connecticut. A stage adaptation is playing in Hartford.

I read Mockingbird twice, once in my early teens and again as an adult. When I read it as an adult, I saw it as a father worship book. So much so, that when I was writing The Hero of Ticonderoga, I physically modeled the attorney father of one of Tess's friends on Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch. Deborah's dad was Tess's fantasy father, and I see Atticus as being a fantasy as well.

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Friday, March 13, 2009

Adult Books For YA Readers: Plot And Summing Up

We do love plot. A cliche regarding plot goes that genre fiction is plot driven while so-called literary or mainstream fiction (which some people now contend is a genre, itself) is character driven. In the Gauthier world view, all the traditional elements of fiction (plot, character, point of view, setting, and theme) should be balanced. Integrated even.

Easier said than done, of course. But what isn't?

An important point to remember about plot: There should be a cause and effect relationship between each plot point. A causes B to happen and B causes C, etc. so that once the climactic moment arrives, readers feel that, of course! What else could have happened! If there is no causal relationship between events, you don't have a plot. You have a list of random things happening.

Plot thoughts about this week's study subjects:

Toward the middle of The Dead Father's Club I felt things had slowed down a bit. I'm not talking obvious gaps or leaps in logic. I just felt, Kill him or don't, kid. But by the end of the book, I was sneaking time from work to keep reading.

I think this was a case of the plot, as well as character, supporting one of the book's themes--determining a correct course of action. A character contemplating murder should linger over the decision.

You have to read fifty pages of The Beekeeper's Apprentice before Sherlock Holmes and his young partner, Mary Russell, take on their first case. That seems like a long time for a "plot" to get going in a traditional mystery. And right in the midst of the book's most serious case, the main characters take a detour to Palestine. What? They're going to Palestine now? I thought. Or at all, for that matter, since it seemed totally unrelated to what was going on in that plot.

But The Beekeeper's Apprentice has a great deal to do with character. Those first fifty pages are all about creating Holmes and Russell. As for the trip to Palestine, that's all about defining Russell both as a young Jewish woman and as a woman who is committed to memory. While leaving Jerusalem she recites part of Psalm 137, including the lines, "If I forget you, Jerusalem, may my right hand wither, May my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth, if I do not remember you." This book is supposed to be an account by an elderly woman who does, indeed, remember not only Jerusalem but the companion/father/partner of her youth.

Some of my commenters have suggested that they associate strong plot with kids' fiction. That could very well be why adult mysteries often serve as gateway books for teenagers moving on to adult books. Plot is important to mystery. Neither The Dead Father's Club nor The Beekeeper's Apprentice are slaves to plot. But plot is woven in with other fictional elements, particularly theme and point of view, which should help young readers dipping their toes into adult works appreciate their balance.

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Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Adult Books For YA Readers: Theme

Ah, theme. Theme is a gnarly thing to discuss because so many people think it is a moral lesson. Bah! I spit on moral lessons. Theme, in the Gauthier world view, is an abstract idea about how people live their lives around which a writer constructs a concrete story. That abstract idea doesn't necessarily involve telling readers how to live. It may just raise questions about how we live.

Some themes occur more frequently in books written for specific age groups. Common YA themes, for instance, will often involve: How we separate ourselves from our families; how we are like/different from our families/peer groups; what will we do with our lives; what do we believe in; what will become of us--Pretty much anything that relates to setting out on our lives and moving toward adulthood without actually being adults.

So adult books that include but are not necessarily limited to YA themes may be of interest to YA readers. At least, that's my argument.

Determining theme, of course, is more of an art than a science. For instance, in one of this week's study subjects, The Dead Father's Club, a possible theme could be how we determine a correct course of action, since young Philip isn't really all that keen on offing Uncle Alan but feels he ought to because Dad's ghost is insisting upon it. That definitely fits into the YA theme scheme of determing what we will do with our lives. But another theme could certainly be children's responsibilities toward parents. When is enough enough? Again, this would fit in with YA themes relating to how we separate ourselves from our families.

Yesterday I was talking about Mary Russell in The Beekeeper's Apprentice, who is a nonYA narrator because she is, technically, an old woman recalling her late adolescence, with adult knowledge of what is going to happen. Though Russell has a great voice, it's not the YA voice teen readers are accustomed to. I suggested this might not be a deal breaker because of theme.

In The Beekeeper's Apprentice, Mary Russell's family is dead. This is what you might call the ultimate separation from family. She accepts a new family in the form of her chosen father, Sherlock Holmes. She "chooses" a father (or falls over him on the first page of the book) who is her intellectual equal. Thus we're dealing with a character who is working out how she is like her "family." As Holmes' protege and an Oxford student she is determining what she will become and moving toward what she will do with her life. At the same time, as a theology student and a Jew who embraces her culture, she differentiates herself from chosen dad. Then, of course, since The Beekeeper's Apprentice is a true mystery (The Dead Father's Club isn't), one of its themes deals with the restoration of order, a love of which crosses over between young and adult readers.

Does theme trump voice when considering crossover potential for young readers of adult books? My guess is that it will depend on the reader.

Off the subject note: It has occurred to me that an adult reading this book who couldn't care less about Young Adult literature, might see themes relating to accepting parental responsibilities, parental love enhancing the parent's life, etc. As I said, determining theme is an art, not a science, and themes might be like communists in the 1950s--under every bush.

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Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Adult Books For YA Readers: Point Of View, Voice, And Distance

The kidlit publishing world loves, them, their first-person narrators. They're all over the place in children's and YA books. I can tell you from first-hand experience that a first-person point of view is a quick and dirty way of creating a strong voice, something that's also liked in kidlit. Not that there's anything wrong with that. Who doesn't enjoy reading a book with a strong voice, whatever your age? In kidlit, first-person narrators sometimes sound a lot alike, though. You've got your smart girls, your wise-ass boys, your angst-ridden teens, your smart, wise-ass girls, your wise-ass, angst-ridden teens, your precocious smart, angst-ridden kids of either gender.

To be fair, it's hard to come up with anyone who hasn't been done before--a lot.

Related to point of view and voice, at least in my mind, is distance. One of the defining elements of a children's or YA book (to my knowledge, anyway) is that the action is taking place now. Those first-person narrators are living their experiences as they are relating them to us. Adult characters recalling their childhoods usually appear in adult books because there is an adult sensibility at work. These adults are now distant from their childhood selves. The adult narrator has knowledge of what happened after the events in the story, which child narrators living in the moment do not.

All of this relates to the adult books I'm talking about this week. They both use a first-person narrator with a strong voice. Their narrators are quite different in terms of their distance from the events they're relating to us, though.

The Dead Father's Club's eleven-year-old first-person narrator, Philip, uses a very strong voice that speaks to us in a sort of stream-of-consciousness manner. We're not talking Virginia Woolf To the Lighthouse stream-of-consciousness here. But Philip doesn't waste any effort on quotation marks for dialogue or apostrophes for contractions, and his mind does tend to jump from one thing to another. This appeared to me to be an attempt to duplicate the thinking of a child. I'm not sure how successful the author was with this, because I can't recall how eleven-year-olds think. Does this narrator sound like a child or does he sound the way adults think children sound? Don't know.

Philip is, though, both funny and tragic. It seems to me that he could serve as a gateway narrator, a child leading teenage readers, particularly students of Hamlet, into the world of adult mainstream fiction.

Mary Russell of The Beekeeper's Apprentice also has a very powerful, first-person voice. She is very distant from the World War I era story she tells, though, since in an "Author's Note" she indicates that she is now in her nineties. She makes it clear that she is dealing with memories. The very first words of the first real chapter--"I was fifteen when I first met Sherlock Holmes"--indicate that this story is not happening now. And her knowledge of what is going to happen definitely has an impact on what she tells us, as when she says when introducing a case she and Holmes take on, "...had Holmes...not allowed me to participate, God alone knows what we would have done when December's cold hit us, unprepared and unsupported." Russell knows what's coming, and it's bad.

Mary Russell, whether the elderly story teller or the teenage protege of Sherlock Holmes, is an extremely intelligent and highly educated individual who speaks in the elegant, sophisticated manner of another age. She is no Georgia Nicholson or Holden Caulfield wannabe, that's for sure. Why would the book she narrates be of interest to young readers?

Because point of view, voice, and distance are not the only things that attract readers to books. You also have to consider theme. And tomorrow we will.

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Monday, March 09, 2009

Adult Books For YA Readers: What's With Mysteries?

The Beekeeper's Apprentice, one of the two books I'm stuck on this week, is as much a character study as it is a mystery. But it most defintely is classified as a mystery. It is spun off from the Sherlock Holmes mystery classics, after all. While my second book, The Dead Father's Club, is main stream fiction (its original material is Hamlet, remember), for me it developed a mysterious element. While I accepted the truth of what dead dad had to say at the beginning of the story, I began to wonder if he was all that reliable. Did Uncle Alan really do him in? Is he really a bad guy?

Child readers are notorious mystery lovers, and adult mysteries are often bridge books into adult reading, as Jen Robinson has said. (I kind of like the expression "gateway books," myself.)

Why the attraction to mysteries?

I think kids find mysteries comforting. At the beginning of very traditional mystery novels, the social order has been disrupted. A body has been found in the library. Jewels have been stolen. Someone has disappeared. At the end, the social order has been restored. The perp has been tracked down. Justice has been done. Things go back to the way they are supposed to be. What a relief.

Kids are instructed to stay in line. To be fair. To follow the rules. They have been taught to maintain order. They're comfortable with order. This may be a factor in tattling. What, exactly, is wrong with tattling? Why do we dislike it so much? All the tale bearers are trying to do is restore the order we've taught them to maintain.

With a mystery novel, kids can safely explore a disordered world because it's not the world they actually live in. The detective restoring order at the end of the story provides a satisfying conclusion. The world goes back to the way kids have been taught it should be.

An adult mystery that follows that pattern provides young readers with familiarity--the pattern itself. It also gives them the impression that the adult world is orderly like theirs. Grown-ups aren't supposed to do certain things, just as children aren't supposed to do certain things. If adults do them, justice will be done, and the adult world will go back to the way it's supposed to be.

A lie, of course, but that's beside the point.

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Monday, February 09, 2009

A High Class Mystery


I like a British YA voice. I think it's because of the novelty of hearing someone talk about a "bloke fancying my mum" and "tenners." So I was taken with Me, the Missing, and the Dead by Jenny Valentine right away. I did wonder if there is a first-person British YA voice that sounds similar in many British YA books the way there's a first-person YA voice over here that most definitely makes a lot of YA books sound alike. But I decided I didn't care.

Lucas, our first-person British YA voice in Me, the Missing, and the Dead, could easily have ended up as the protagonist in a traditional problem novel. Dad is missing. Mum is depressed. Older sister is behaving badly. Younger, fatherless brother never knew Dad, having been born after he disappeared. Grandpa has dementia. Grandma's a corker but falls and breaks something so you know how that's going to go. Family friend is an alcoholic. Girlfriend's mother has cancer.

I mean, seriously, this is the kind of book I usually find laughable because of the problem pile on. Let's not miss anything.

But Lucas has that great voice, and he has a mystery to solve. The problem-ridden characters are just that--characters and not set-ups for some kind of coming-of-age learning experience. The adult characters, in fact, are so incredibly multi-layered that Me, the Missing, and the Dead could easily serve as a crossover book, a great title for an adult/teen reading group.

Right off the bat Lucas stumbles upon an urn of ashes that has been abandoned in a taxi company's office. Feeling for the neglected occupant, he manages to get custody and becomes obsessed with it. And, slowly, he realizes that the ashes that were once an elderly woman have a connection to his own father's disappearance.

There's a little twist of what might be called magical realism in this otherwise dark, deep mystery told with attitude. And Lucas could be said to have evolved as a result of his experience solving the puzzle of the urn. But the mystery is the point here, not some story of a child learning to live with a sorry state of affairs.
Jenny Valentine has another book coming out next month, Broken Soup.

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Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Vacation Reading: Book One, An Adult Mystery With YA Appeal

I took a sabbatic from reading kids' books while I was on vacation. And, yet, three of the books I finished have a kid connection of one sort or another.

For instance, On the Wrong Track by Steve Hockensmith has what I would call a thematic connection to YA. On the Wrong Track is the second in the Holmes on the Range series, Western mysteries set in the 1890s. Our narrator is twenty-year-old Otto "Big Red" Amlingmeyer, a cowboy who wanders with his twenty-seven-year-old brother Gustav "Old Red."

Seems pretty remote from twenty-first century YA readers, doesn't it? Well, the thing is, Gustav wants to be more than an illiterate cowpoke of few words. He wants to be a deducifier like his hero, Sherlock Holmes. And his little (though physically quite enormous) brother, Otto, wants to write up their adventures and publish them like Dr. Watson did Holmes'.

Though these two red-headed brothers are twenty-somethings, they seem younger (to the extent that people who are handy with guns and foul language can seem young) because they're trying to determine who and what they're going to be. In this book, they run into a burned out, dime novel hero who is not what he once was and maybe never was. They have to deal, each in his own way, with a young, very intertriguing, woman. They are confronted with disappointment and all kinds of road blocks in pursuing their goals.

I'm not saying that On the Wrong Track is a YA book, but it deals with issues that are common in YA novels and that should have appeal for YA readers.

I also think that On the Wrong Track is a good historical novel. Many historical novels for younger readers are what I'd describe as unbalanced. A lot of attention has been given to the historical setting but characters are often underdeveloped or cliched and plots are weak. My own guess is that children's and YA historical fiction is viewed as being educational. Such books are supposed to teach something about the period and are given a pass on other elements.

The Holmes on the Range books, however, provide a strong setting, terrific characters who are at home in that setting, and real plots. Okay, a lot of those terrific characters use realisitic, coarse language, so you might not want to be the adult who hands off one of these things to a delicate twelve year old. But mid-teens will have heard it all before, and a good historical mystery could open their minds to the opportunities historical novels offer.

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Monday, December 29, 2008

There's Nothing Wrong With Being Thrilling


I am definitely a Suzanne Collins fan. I liked all but the last of her Underland books. And I found the actual game portion of her The Hunger Games exciting, an excellent thriller.

However, this book has been discussed on listservs all year. It's being talked about as having award potential. I just don't see it.

In The Hunger Games a ruling elite suppresses twelve districts it defeated in war by selecting two teenagers from each one (in a scene very reminiscent of The Lottery) and forcing them to fight to the death in a televised reality show. Seeing their kids murdering each other on television is supposed to show these folks that they have no hope. At the same time, the ruling class in the capitol city finds the games wildly entertaining.

I find this premise very...random. There just doesn't seem to be any compelling reason for anyone to have hit upon this particular device for breaking the will of an opponent.

I think I have trouble accepting the premise because I don't find the world of the book very well defined. The story takes place in North America sometime so far in the future and after so horrendous a war that the United States no longer exists or even seems to be remembered. People no longer use recognizable names. In fact, some names sound very Roman, as if the culture has been thrown into the past.

And yet they still have reality television?

A lot of things in this book just didn't work for me. The government of this society can create entire little worlds for the games to take place in and then turn them into theme parks for the wealthy instead of reusing them for the next games. It can control the weather, for crying out loud. It needs the Hunger Games to control a downtrodden population? I don't think so. The games appear to have been going on for seventy-four years. That's at least three generations. In that time the society hasn't changed in any way? How big are these districts that need to be controlled? What's going on in the rest of the world? What's with the girl who is introduced but never dealt with?

I'm guessing we'll see her in book two of what I've heard is going to be a trilogy.
In spite of all my reservations about the world building in this book, I am more than willing to admit that once the games in The Hunger Games begin, readers are in for a thrill ride. That's plenty of reason to read it.

The Hunger Games has been nominated for a Cybil in the Fantasy and Science Fiction YA category.

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Sunday, November 30, 2008

Trying To Mix Old And New


Does My Head Look Big In This? by Randa Abdel-Fattah is an ambitious book that I think would have been better served with a third-person narrator.

Amal is a stereotypical teenage girl protagonist in a contemporary teen school story. She and her two school friends (one of Japanese descent, the other a voluptuous young woman who believes she's overweight) are a traditional slightly outsider (but not so outcast readers won't want to identify with them) trio. They suffer at the hands of the school mean girl and her posse, obsess about boys, complain about teachers and preparing for standardized tests. You've read all this before.

What makes the book different is that Amal Mohamed Nasrullah Abdel-Hakim is an Australian-Muslim-Palestinian who has just decided to start wearing a hijab, or head scarf. Her personal story is interesting. The story of her second set of sidekicks from her old Islamic school is interesting.

The problem, I think, is that in trying to show that Amal can be Muslim and just like everybody else, we have to read a lot of the same old, same old in which she does, indeed, seem just like everybody else. I think getting rid of the first-person narrator could have helped eliminate that. Sure Amal's voice is often witty, but she's witty just like all those other teen girl main characters hoping to become the next Georgia Nicolson. I started skipping the school girl stuff very early on.

Though the material about Amal's Muslim family and their extended connections was far more interesting, Amal the first-person narrator sometimes told us factual information about her life as if she were part of a documentary. A couple of times while I was reading this book I thought that the material I was reading would have made a great Newsweek article. Again, I think that might have been avoided with a third-person narrator.

Does My Head Look Big In This? has a great concept and some interesting material. I just felt the book would have worked better if the concept and material had been handled differently.

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Wednesday, November 19, 2008

A Very Classy Frankenstein Story


A Frankenstein story is one in which scientists play God, messing with nature to create life. The end result is rarely good. (Think Jurassic Park. Or Alex Award winner Never Let Me Go.)

Like Never Let Me Go, The Adoration of Jenna Fox by Mary E. Pearson is a very high quality Frankenstein story. Its characterization equals its plotting, and it's very elegantly written. The outcome for The Adoration of Jenna Fox is far different than the outcome in Never Let Me Go, though. It's not your run-of-the-mill Frankenstein story ending.

Jenna Fox has just come out of a lengthy coma at the beginning of her story, which is set in a future United States that has suffered your usual futuristic disasters involving disease, earthquake, and economic breakdown. She seems in remarkably good shape, though, and the only medical person she sees is her father, the head of some kind of biotech firm. She has survived a horrendous accident that she can't recall. Things come back to her slowly. Things come to the reader slowly.

Slowly, in this case, is not a bad thing.

This book deals with some big issues, such as what it means to be human (I'm sorry, I kept thinking of Data on STTNG--not that there's anything wrong with that), parental love, rationing health care, and identity. But it doesn't do it in a pretentious, heavy-handed way. The Adoration of Jenna Fox has a scifi/thriller aspect that keeps it from feeling like too much of a problem book and a teen angst problem aspect that keeps it from falling into scifi/thriller cliches.

Personally, I could have done without the epilogue, but I never like epilogues.

I think some might argue that The Adoration of Jenna Fox ends the way it does because it's YA and YA must be hopeful. But I think that doesn't give it credit for asking an interesting question about the traditonal Frankenstein scenario--Is it really wrong to do this?

The Adoration of Jenna Fox is a Cybils nominee in the Young Adult Fantasy and Science Fiction category.

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Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Yes, It Does


Personally, I believe there's an under-the-radar sort of genre involving books about early-twenty-something characters who are coming to terms with the fact that life, well, sucks. That pretty much describes, in a nutshell, the graphic novel Life Sucks by Jessica Abel, Gabe Soria, and Warren Pleece.

The basic set-up for this book is just brilliant. Two years before the start of our story, our hero, Dave Miller, applied for a night job at a convenience store so he could attend community college during the day. The store owner, Radu, (who prefers to be called Lord Arisztidescu) is an immigrant (from some eastern European country, I'd guess)who turns Dave into a vampire. Now Dave must be Radu's...er, Lord Arisztidescu's...low-wage slave--through eternity! As if that isn't bad enough, Dave can't tolerate the idea of blood so he can't go around preying on humans. This means he'll never become a strapping, healthy vampire, just a miserable, little weak one with a job working permanent nights. Really permanent.

Yes! Life does, indeed, suck!

While not necessarily roll-on-the-floor funny, Life Sucks definitely is drole and clever, particularly if, like me, you enjoy dark, subtle humor. There's lots of humorous takes on traditional vampire lore. And, I guess, traditional convenience store lore.

I can't say I loved the art, but it is dark and moody to fit the subject matter, and it carries the narrative very well. I read a rather lame graphic novel a couple of weeks ago that had to use a lot of what I think you might call narrative boxes because the graphics weren't telling the story by themselves. Nothing like that here. The art carries everything but the dialogue.

This book would be a big draw for your older, edgier YAs who are already beginning to suspect that life sucks. While I was reading it, I was wondering who I knew who might like it for Christmas.

Life Sucks is one of this year's graphic novel Cybils nominees.

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Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Is It YA? Is It Adult?

J. L. Bell discusses the graphic novel Flight at Oz and Ends. What's particularly interesting about his post is his question regarding whether or not Flight is Young Adult and the ensuing discussion in the comments.

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Saturday, October 18, 2008

For Adult Readers Looking For YA Titles

School Library Journal carries an article called 35 Going on 13: Teen Books for Adults in which the article discusses...ah...teen books for adults.

I've read three of the titles author Angelina Beneditti mentions and agree grown-up readers would be interested. I wondered if The Love Curse of the Rumbaughs shouldn't have been published for adults in the first place. Yes, Skullduggery Pleasant does have a very sophisticated adult--in a mannner of speaking--for mature readers to relate to. As far as Coraline is concerned, I wasn't crazy about it, myself, but its author, Neil Gaiman, has an enormous fan base that loves anything he does (while I just love some of what he does), so, yes, Gaiman's adult fans will want to read this book.

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Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Science Fiction Short Stories For YA Readers


I haven't responded to any books here in a while because I've been reading The Starry Rift: Tales of New Tomorrows, a rather hefty volume of short stories edited by Jonathan Strahan. The Starry Rift is one of those themed YA anthologies that are often very uneven in the quality of its offerings. I think this one is better than average.

A couple of the stories are a little preachy. And some might not technically be YA. For instance, is a consciousness that's been alive for hundreds of years but inhabits a body that looks to be in its late teens a YA character or something else? (Infestation by Garth Nix) One story that I liked a lot, The Star Surgeon's Apprentice by Alaistair Reynolds, takes your classic tale of the cabin boy forced onto a pirate ship and moves it into space. The protagonist, though, seems as if he doesn't need to be a teenager.

One of the big pluses with this book is that the stories really are science fiction, something that I think hasn't been getting a lot of attention in young people's fiction since fantasy became king of the hill. In fact, the Nix story I mentioned in the preceding paragraph involves vampires, which usually fall into the fantasy category. But he gives them a nice science fiction twist here. Strahan's introduction provideds a history of science fiction, particularly in the twentieth century, that I think new, young science fiction readers should be able to get a lot out of.

I also like the way some of the authors took classic situations from other genres--or from the headlines--and used them in science fiction scenarios. In addition to the pirate story, we have a story here about kids thinking they've found a spy and spying on him themselves, something that might be described as a whaling story (Whales in Space!), and a tale of illegal immigrants coming from the past.

Then there was the story set in a future, high-tech India. India was ruined as a setting for me after having to read A Passage to India twice when I was in school. The Dust Assassin by Ian McDonald may have opened a new world to me.

Really, reading this book was an experience. I only skipped two stories.

For a much more serious critique of The Starry Rift, check out this post from The Inter-Galactic Playground. The post's author, Farah Mendlesohn, is the author of Rhetorics of Fantasy.

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Thursday, September 18, 2008

Now I'm Doing It, Too


I've seen Maureen Johnson's name bandied about on the Internet a number of times, sometimes in a gushy, adoring way that, if you are a somewhat bitchy person, like myself, can become really grating. However, all that aside, Johnson's most recent book, Suite Scarlett, really is very good.

Scarlett Martin is one of four children whose family has run a New York City hotel for generations. The Hopewell, however, has fallen on hard times. It has so few guests that Scarlett's parents have had to let all the help go. How can the Martin children help with the family business and still live their own lives? This question is of primary significance to Scarlett's older brother, who hopes for a career as an actor.

Then the hotel gets a new, long-term guest with lots of money, lots of theater connections, and lots of demands. And she really clicks with Scarlett. Though the clicking might be said to be primarily on her part.

Suite Scarlett could probably be described as a combination of mainstream fiction and screwball comedy. It's not laugh-out-loud, roll-on-the-floor funny, but it's light while at the same time having an honest-to-God story and well-defined characters.

I was reading--and enjoying--Suite Scarlett, when a love interest appeared for our heroine. Too bad, I thought. Boyfriends usually ruin a good story. But this potential boyfriend has a specific part in the plot. It's a small part, to be sure, but without him things couldn't happen as they do. He definitely isn't just there to throw in some love interest.

Scarlett has a younger sister who is a cancer survivor and a serious pain in the butt. Great character, I thought. But...why? Well, Marlene has a small but pivotal role to play in making this story work, too.

This book works like a very well made machine. It's an enjoyable read that is more than a guilty pleasure.

Johnson is also the author of Devilish, which I described as providing a sense of place. I'll have more to say about sense of place in another post.

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Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Left Me Wanting More


When I was a teenager, I enjoyed reading these enormous historical novels that covered several generations in the same family, sometimes spread over a century or more. So I was attracted to The Snows by Sharelle Byars Moranville because it's about four generations of the same family. It begins during the Depression and ends in 2006.

Each of the four members of the Snow family are caught during a pivotal moment when they are sixteen. These moments are pivotal to them, personally, but definitely relate very strongly to the period in which they live, too.

I had a bizarre experience reading this book. At first, I got kind of excited because I thought I was really going to like it. Each Snow speaks in the first person, though, and I found that disappointing because I felt they sounded a bit too much alike. Then I became intrigued again. Each character's section seems a little weak at first. The author is trying to cover a lot of ground in not much space, so there's a bit too much telling for my taste. However, each section also has a strength. Jim's depressing road trip...Cathy's stay at a place I won't describe so as not to give anything away...Jill's experience with campus activism... Those settings really draw a reader in.

These days I often read books that are far longer than they need to be with lots of drawn out scenes and repetitive information. The Snows is just the opposite. I wanted to know so much more about these people. Though we do get to know some of the young characters in the earlier sections as adults in later sections, I still wanted to know much more about them. I wanted to know more about many of the secondary characters, too, especially many of the women. I felt a little feminist history-thing going on here, which I liked. Was Jill's mother depressed because of the lack of opportunities for her in the 50s and 60s? And what was with Jim's mother who read to the point of neglecting her family? (Who hasn't done that?) Both these women ended up with a female descendant who was a highly successful professional woman.

Hey, and what was with Jim? He grew up with what looked like a mildly depressed, but functioning, father and then went out and married a depressed, and barely functioning, woman.

Of course, it may be that I wanted to know about adult characters and expanding on them would have meant that this wouldn't be a YA book. Still, I think Byars Moranville should treat The Snows as some kind of arty, literary exercise and rewrite this book, expanding on everyone, showing us everything about everybody. What would her storyline be? Well, something relating to the evolution of the Snow women and their connection to their individual time periods would be nice. And she should also give us more of the brother, father, and grandfather who wanted to take care of them all.

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Friday, August 08, 2008

So What Was The Problem?


Can you believe Breaking Dawn by Stephanie Meyer has been out less than a week, and I've already finished reading it? Big book, too.

Okay, so I rushed to read this book because of talk about disappointed fans. I checked out some of the 1,800+ customer reviews at Amazon this afternoon and stopped by a Twilight Moms forum. While there certainly are plenty of unhappy readers, there are plenty of happy ones, too. Plus, some of the negative responses at Amazon seem to come from readers who weren't hardcore fans to begin with.

I think one thing to keep in mind with the Twilight series is that it's what might be called a paranormal romance with a big, big emphasis on romance. Laura Miller in Salon said the Twilight books are "romance novels, and despite their gothic trappings represent a resurrection of the most old-fashioned incarnation of the genre." Many of the negative comments I've seen about Breaking Dawn object to its ending. (I'm trying not to give anything away.) Two other recent series, Harry Potter and The Underland Chronicles, ended with bloodbaths. The Twilight Saga ended differently because it is a romance. I think some readers may have been confused by the vampires and werewolves.

Some readers also objected because they felt that some characters, in particular Bella, behaved out of character in Breaking Dawn. I think Bella remained Bella pretty much right to the end of the book. She is a female who is defined totally by her relationships to others. She has no real "self." When she appears to behave differently in Breaking Dawn, she does so because of her relationship to someone else. For instance, she appears to grow a backbone in this last book, both literally and figuratively. But when she does so, it's because of her relationships with two other characters. She becomes powerful, even, but only because of her love for others. And in the final sentences of the book, the power she's developed she gives away as an act of love.

Love--romantic, familial, maternal, and even sexual--is treated pretty much as a cult here. Some readers objected to a character who had never shown any interest in children suddenly being willing to die for one. But that makes sense if you're into the cult of maternal love. I found an extended section regarding a pregnancy and childbirth sadistic, and it appears that a number of other readers were turned off by its "ick" factor. But, again, when you're talking the cult of maternal love, a woman becomes noble through such suffering. Is this a storyline that's going to be compelling to YA readers, though? I wonder if the whole maternal love thing is an adult interest, not YA.

In fact, The Twilight Saga may have moved out of YA in this final book, which could explain the response from some of its readers. Bella and Edward are no longer in high school. They're dealing with grown-up, family problems, not teen problems. When young readers were reading about people they could relate to in the earlier books, they were willing to ignore the way so many characters roll their eyes, chuckle, and snore, the improbabilities regarding plot, and the scenes that went on way too long. But Bella becomes matronly in Breaking Dawn, and Edward seems as if he ought to be out playing golf.

These characters may have outgrown their readers.

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