Monthly Archives: February 2013

Uses for Boys

Mark,

I just finished reading Uses for Boys, by Erica Lorraine Scheidt. This book has gotten three starred reviews (Kirkus, PW, Booklist), and a bunch of very mixed reviews on Goodreads. And I get why. I didn’t really want to read it myself. It’s one of those books that make us uncomfortable. It’s unhappy. It’s disturbing. It’s depressing. It’s sordid. Yet, somehow it works. Scheidt

Anna lives with her single mother. Anna remembers when she was young, and was everything to her mother. Anna loves hearing the story about how her mother was all alone and just wanted a little girl, and then there was Anna. But as Anna gets older, her mother starts going out with men, even marrying some of them, but they all go away eventually. “‘Men leave,” she says. ‘Just like my father,’ she says. ‘Just like yours.'” But Anna wants a family, and she tries to make a family: with her stuffed animals, with her new stepbrothers, with her friend at school. But somehow it is never the family she wants. By the time she is thirteen, she is finding her family with boys. But somehow, it never works out. By the time she is sixteen, she has left school and moved in with Josh, but that doesn’t last long, either. By the time she meets Sam, who has two parents, two siblings, and a real family life, Anna is already pretty damaged, but she is still longing for that family.

Pretty much everyone in this book fails Anna in some way or another. Her mother, certainly. The parade of stepfathers. Her supposed friends at school. Her good friend Toy. Her teachers. Society. The nurse at the abortion clinic, who is probably the most sympathetic character in the whole book. And definitely the boys.

But there is at least some hope at the end of the book. Anna’s relationship with Sam holds out the possibility for some real future for Anna–although not, really, because of Sam, but because of his family, especially his mother.

I think one of the most interesting things about the book is Anna’s own narrative of her life. It begins with the stories her mother tells her, and the stories she tells her stuffed animals. But even as she grows older and boys start to fill the gaping emptiness she feels in her life, she sees herself as if from the outside. When she is with a boy, she is constantly narrating the scene, imagining how she will tell the story to Toy, or even to her mother. She wants it all to fit into an image she has of who she is and what love is, and what family means.

This is definitely not a book for everyone, but I think it is a book worth talking about.

Oh, and just one more thing: that cover. I have no idea why this boy and girl are draped in fairy lights. It kind of implies to me that this is a lovely, romantic story, which is most certainly isn’t. It’s about the most incongruous cover I’ve seen in a while.

– Mom

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The Nebulas

Mom,

I was actually just looking at the Nebula nominations a few hours before you put your post up, and I have to say I’m pretty underwhelmed.  Before I get to the Andre Norton award, here’s the list of movie nominations:

Ray Bradbury Award for Outstanding Dramatic Presentation

  • The Avengers
  • Beasts of the Southern Wild
  • The Cabin in the Woods
  • The Hunger Games
  • John Carter
  • Looper

Now, I don’t get out as much as I’d like (two kids and all) and the only one of these I’ve seen is The Hunger Games, but based on previews and reviews you literally could not pay me to watch any of these movies, except maybe Beasts of the Southern Wild.

Anyway, back to books. I’ve read half of the 12 titles the SFWA members nominated, and find it a pretty perplexing list of titles.  Most importantly to me are the omissions: somehow Margo Lanagan is yet again denied a major award for Brides of Rollrock Island.  And besides Brides, I would have dearly liked to have seen Monstrous Beauty and The Drowned Cities on this list, clearly two of the best pieces of SF/Fantasy written last year, and certainly much better than many of the titles that did make the Andre Norton list.  

Seriously, what is it with Every Day?  How is that book getting so much critical affection?  I didn’t finish Railsea, and I know it is very beloved by many, but I found the 2/3 or so that I forced myself through to be pretentious even beyond my (very broad) standards of pretention.  And speaking of BFYA Top Ten titles (which Every Day is), I just read Alethea Kontis’s Enchanted, which made the Andre Norton nominations, because it was on the BFYA list.  While I like it better than Every Day (not saying much), and while I think “Aletha Kontis” is pretty much the greatest name of all time, I found it to be virtually incoherent.  It started off promising enough as a kind of fairy tale mash-up, but as Kontis started having to figure out a real plot for it, and figure out how the magic was going to work in her world, it swiftly went off the rails.  Also, I’m probably the only person in the world who cares about this, but I really dislike it when true fairy tales (meaning folk stories based on an oral tradition) are indiscriminately lumped together the literary tales of H.C. Andersen.  I’m not even too keen on blended the European stories with English tales like “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” and “Jack and the Beanstalk,” but even I realize that’s probably going a bit too far.

On the positive side of things, I am absolutely thrilled to see Holly Black’s Curse Workers series getting some love.  I can’t remember now how I got turned on to this series, but it is really fantastic.  As to whether you need to start with the first one, I’m not totally sure, but I’d say: there’s no real rush to get to Black Heart, so you might as well start at the beginning.  The other two bright spots on the list are The Diviners and Seraphina (although I am beginning to waver on my devotion to these two–I still think both are fabulous books, but whereas a month ago I would have easily classed both above Monstrous Beauty and The Drowned Cities, I’m starting to think that the flaws in them–especially Seraphina–pull them below those two titles). 

So, that’s my cranky take on the Nebulas–basically: where are Lanagan, Fama, and Bacigalupi?  It occurs to me as I finish this post that I may not know something about the eligibility requirements for the award, but I know it is not limited to Americans (which would exclude Lanagan), because I see many Brits on the list of winners.  Is there something else I’m missing?

– Mark

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Book Awards

Mark,

I thought you might get more comments in response to your Aristotle and Dante post. I’m not the one to defend it, since I didn’t manage to finish it, either–but I will, in fact, read it in its entirety before ALA Annual, so perhaps I’ll have something to say about it then.

Meanwhile, the shortlists for two other major awards were announced this week, and I have a few observations. The Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA) have announced their shortlists for the Nebula Awards, which includes the Andre Norton Award for Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy. The nominees are:

Iron Hearted Violet, Kelly Barnhill (Little, Brown)

Black Heart, Holly Black (S&S/McElderry; Gollancz)

Above, Leah Bobet (Levine)

The Diviners, Libba Bray (Little, Brown; Atom)

Vessel, Sarah Beth Durst (S&S/McElderry)

Seraphina, Rachel Hartman (Random House Children’s Books; Doubleday UK)

Enchanted, Alethea Kontis (Harcourt)

Every Day, David Levithan (Knopf Books for Young Readers)

Summer of the Mariposas, Guadalupe Garcia McCall (Tu Books)

Railsea, China Miéville (Del Rey; Macmillan)

Fair Coin, E.C. Myers (Pyr)

Above World, Jenn Reese (Candlewick)Holly Black

The Diviners, Seraphina, Every Day, and Railsea are books that were talked about in various circles as possible Printz contenders. And, of course, Seraphina won YALSA’s Morris Award for a debut YA work.  I also read Summer of the Mariposas, which I supposed could be classified as a fantasy, although I would call it magical realism. I have never read any of Holly Black’s books, but I keep thinking I should. I know you’re a fan. Do I need to read other ones before I read this one? Continue reading

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Aristotle and Dante, Chapter One: A Completely Unfair Annotation

Mom,

Benjamin Alire Saenz’s Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe seems to have impressed more people on more committees than any other YA book last year.  It got a Printz Honor, made the BFYA Top Ten, and won both the Stonewall Award and the Pura Belpre Award.  And yet, I’m not going to read it.  Why? Because I read the first chapter of it and was totally turned off.  This isn’t a particularly fair way to judge a book, and obviously I would never do this if I was reviewing a book for a journal, but with all the books out there to catch up on and all the new books from 2013 to get to, I’m just not going to go on with it.  What follows is my entirely unfair annotations to the first chapter of the book.  I read no further and make no claims as to the quality of the book as a whole.  At the same time, I think this is a pretty good peek into the way a lot of us (me, at least) read books, especially the beginnings of books.  A bad beginning can really poison a book.  With those disclaimers out of the way, here it is (Saenz’s words are in italics, my notes in bold):

Continue reading

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Not Another Dead Girl Book

Mark,

Like you, I was very impressed with 17 & Gone. It managed to keep surprising me throughout. Early on, I made a note that said, “Interesting new take on the ‘dead girl narrator’ genre.” But, no, it was so not that, and so much more than that. Then, for a while, I thought it was more of a mystery–a story about what happened to the missing girls. But again, it wasn’t exactly that, and it was so much more than that.

I really was not expecting the descent into psychosis, and I thought Suma treated it so carefully, and so beautifully. Watching Lauren struggle with her own perceptions was harrowing. She knew what she was seeing and hearing, but she also knew that there was somehow something wrong with it. I loved the way that even with Lauren as narrator, some things were hidden from us: we learn of her trip to see Abby’s grandparents, for example, but not (until the end) about all the letters she writes to the other families. Was she somehow hiding that even from herself? Did she realize that doing that made her a bit crazy, and she wasn’t willing to admit that?

I was thinking about the characters of Lauren’s boyfriend Jamie and Lauren’s mother. The mother was an intriguing character, with her past, her tattoos (which played such an interesting part in Lauren’s thoughts about her), and, of course, her study of psychology. We sometimes see portrayals of evil characters who are well aware of the psychology behind their actions, but not so often a character like Lauren, who knows just enough to sometimes hide what she is thinking and feeling, knowing how her mother–or the doctors–will interpret it. I also found it heart-wrenching when Lauren’s mother, who has posited her whole relationship with her daughter on trust, is stricken with uncertainty about how to deal with her when she starts acting strangely.

Jamie is one character I would like to have known just a bit more about. He’s so solid, and so caring and loving to Lauren, and I loved that about him. Perhaps it would have been too much to have delved into how he was dealing with her reality–and certainly, since the story was told from Lauren’s perspective, it wouldn’t really have been appropriate–but I just kind of wanted a little more Jamie in the story.

And then there’s the ending, where some things are settled, but others, particularly the whole Fiona situation, are left ambiguous. We’ve talked about ambiguous endings before, and I know that unlike many readers, you and I can both find them satisfying. I thought the ambiguities of the ending of 17 & Gone were masterful. Lauren herself says that it is too early even for a diagnosis, and while she talks about getting better, she also talks about the fact that Fiona is always going to be there. Those last few pages were beautiful, heartbreaking, and really, really scary.

So much to discuss in this book, and I look forward to its publication next month when more readers will have a chance to read and discuss it. If this is a good example of what we’re going to see in 2013, it could be quite an exciting year.

– Mom

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17 & Gone

Mom,

17 and goneWe don’t usually post formal reviews on this blog, but I found out after I wrote this review of Nova Ren Suma’s 17 & Gone for VOYA that they had already assigned the book to another reviewer.  So I figured I wouldn’t let my time go to waste, and I’d post my review here.  If it isn’t obvious, I think this is one of the best books of the year so far, and I’d be very surprised if it doesn’t make our Mock Printz shortlist at the end of the year (so for those of you playing along at home, you can start reading!).  Since I wrote the review with VOYA in mind, I avoided spoilers, but since I know you’ve read the book already, if you want to chime in with thoughts about the ending, I’d love to talk about it.  Here’s the review:

Suma, who was introduced to the YA world with the stunningly beautiful, if somewhat flawed Imaginary Girls, has outdone herself with another gorgeously evocative story of grief and loss.  Shortly before her seventeenth birthday, Lauren begins to see the spirits of first one, but soon dozens of 17-year-old girls who have gone missing and are assumed runaways; she is particularly obsessed with the first girl she encounters, who Lauren is sure did not run away but was kidnapped.  As her obsession with “her girls” grows, she grows increasingly distant from friends and family.  Do her visions mean that the girls have all died?  Or that they are somehow able to cry out to Lauren to save them?  Or, as the reader comes to suspect, do they mean that Lauren is in the grip of a diseased mind?  The ambiguous intersection of ghosts and mental illness has been a literary trope at least as far back as James’s Turn of the Screw and as recently as Poblocki’s Ghost of Graylock (Scholastic, 2012), but few writers (even James himself) have dug so deeply and poignantly into the specific psychological reasons for this intersection as Suma does here. Lauren is a deep, intriguing character who readers will not be able to forget.  Suma’s writing is ethereally beautiful throughout, and she has overcome the flaws in plot and balance that plagued Imaginary Girls to create a thoroughly engaging story to hold her magnificent words.

– Mark

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Disappointments

Mom,

I put Frozen in Time on hold and am awaiting it eagerly.  Meanwhile, I just read a couple of highly anticipated 2013 books, one middle grade and one adult, and was deeply disappointed by both, so I thought I’d take the time to air my complaints in case you or anyone else wants to try to prove me wrong.

life after lifeFirst up is Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life.  I first heard about this on Barbara Hoffert’s Prepub column at Library Journal, as one of “Barbara’s Picks.”  It also got a write up in PW as one of the Top 10 books for the Spring.  The gimmick of the novel is not terribly new, but still interesting: Ursula Todd is born on February 11, 1910, and lives out her life until an untimely death, at which point she starts over, never quite understanding that she has lived her life before, but getting strange hints of the future that bleed through from her past lives.  Her lives last from minutes (the first time she is born with her umbilical cord around her neck and suffocates) to a few years, to decades.  She dies of Spanish Flu (a few times), German bombs in London (many, many times), suicide, and more.

Atkinson’s language is gorgeous, and her prose creates a wonderful counterpoint to the story as she freely intertwines character’s memories of prior conversations or quick flashbacks into scenes so that the reader is always slightly off balance as to when each scene is taking place.  Atkinson is also an expert at weaving her ideas and themes into the most commonplace of dialogues.

Unfortunately, structurally, the novel is a shambles.  After the first few times Ursula is reborn, she starts to take some active control and try to prevent bad things that have happened, but then abruptly, this thread is dropped, and the reader is treated to several hundred pages of two or three of Ursula’s lives stretching out into WWII (and sometimes beyond) in which she seems to have no awareness at all of anything that has happened in her past lives.  On top of that, while I noted above Atkinson’s skill at integrating her themes into the novel, she has altogether too many ideas and themes to pursue and none of them seem to cohere.  At least one major component of the novel (in fact, a piece of it is the novel’s prologue) revolves around the fact that in several of Ursula’s lives she moves to Germany in the 1930s and becomes friends with Eva Braun, and therefore Hitler. So we are treated to the hoary old question of “would you go back and kill Hitler”, but that question doesn’t actually seem to pertain to the novel’s main concerns which surround more interior questions of how it is best to live and whether a person’s actions define one or vice versa.  This is all the more frustrating, because Atkinson doesn’t seem to want to grapple with the logistics of her gimmick: the “Hitler-time-travel question” is predicated on the theory that a tiny change in the past would have profound effects in the future.  But Atkinson isn’t willing to spend the necessary time and effort thinking this through as it affects Ursula, because despite all the changes in her many lives, her family seems to always stay the same, and Ursula herself seems to run into the same people over and over.  But there is no logic or consistency to how these encounters are applied.

There is also a major plotline–involving a girl (or sometimes two) who is found murdered in Ursula’s hometown–which is not exactly dropped but certain perfunctorily dealt with at best.

I could go on, but I’ll leave it with the conviction that this is an excellent example of why successful stories should be valued so highly: even with exceptional writing and an ambitious premise, Atkinson was unable to pull off a great story.

one came homeThe second book to discuss is Amy Timberlake’s One Came Home.  This one has four starred reviews already, and several good reviews from people I trust on goodreads, and I am absolutely flummoxed as to what they saw in it.  Actually very much like Life After Life, the primary problem is not prose or character, but plot and structure.  The brief summary: the setting is 1871 Wisconsin.  13-year-old Georgie’s sister Agatha has vanished, and when the Sheriff goes looking for her, he brings back a badly mutilated body with the same color hair and a dress Agatha wore, but otherwise unidentifiable.  Georgie refuses to believe the body is Agatha’s (in part because she blames herself for Agatha running away–she witnessed Agatha kissing her ex-boyfriend Billy, and told Agatha’s fiance, breaking up the engagement).

So Georgie goes off in search of Agatha, with Billy (for unknown reasons) coming along.  The structural problems start right away, in that Timberlake has no sense of pacing.  The reader is led to believe that this is either a mystery story about what happened to Agatha or a roadtrip story about Georgie and Billy.  In either case, it takes far too long to get out onto the road for the roadtrip, and far, far too long for the mystery to begin (over half the novel).  Once the mystery kicks in–it involves another red-headed girl and some counterfeiters–it is peppered with implausibilities and dei ex machina.  I won’t tell the ending (not for spoilers’ sake but because it will take up too much time), but basically, once we realize what has happened, it becomes clear that everything in the book had to happen exactly the way it did in the right order for the book to work, but there was no particular reason for those things to happen in that order.

On top of those concerns, unlike Atkinson, Timberlake doesn’t seem to have any clear idea of what theme or ideas she is trying to get across.  There are a number of half-hearted attempts at finding one, but it is as if she started writing without a clear sense of purpose, and then just kept going.

Life After Life isn’t out until April, but One Came Home is out now.  There are a lot of people who already love both of these titles, so maybe I’m missing something.  But for now, I’m putting these down as failed attempts.

– Mark

**Update: Unbeknownst to me, Betsy Bird was working on a post on One Came Home at the same time as me.  She has very different feelings about it.**

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Frozen in Time

Mark,

Well, I thought I had my list of reading priorities all set out, and then I happened to notice that Mitchell’s Zuckoff’s Frozen in Time was available as an e-galley, so I downloaded it. Then I started reading it, and found myself totally absorbed in it. ZuckoffI basically didn’t want to do anything else but read it–well, that is, except for recounting large portions of the story to your dad, and resisting the urge to stop random people on the street and tell them to read it.

This book is actually two exciting adventure stories wrapped into one. The historical story is of three groups of airmen who went down on the Greenland icecap in late 1942. The modern story is of the group of people who, in 2012, went to Greenland to find one of the planes.

In November 1942, a C-53 cargo plane went down while on a routine trip from Iceland to Greenland’s west coast. All five airmen aboard survived the crash, but unfortunately, they had been on the return trip of a cargo run, so had a limited amount of supplies on board. Flying over Greenland can be treacherous at the best of times, and Zuckoff does a great job of describing the geology and meteorology that the airmen faced. Continue reading

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2012-2013 Nonfiction

Mom,

I’m definitely looking forward to some of the titles you mentioned–Etiquette and Espionage chief among them.  I assume eventually I’ll read the Yancey, since I love his books and it’s been getting great reviews, but I have to admit to being a bit annoyed that he took the time to write a new book instead of working on the final Monstrumologist book.  Oh well.

emancipationYou asked about nonfiction. I haven’t begun to get a great handle on what’s out there yet, but I have a few ideas. Obviously, we’ve already discussed Steve Sheinkin’s new book.  In addition to that, there are new books out by Tanya Lee Stone and Tonya Bolden.  I know Bolden from her excellent FDR’s Alphabet Soup (Knopf, 2010) but it looks like she’s written a ton of nonfiction for young people.  Her newest is called Emancipation Proclamation: Lincoln and the Dawn of Liberty (Abrams).  It got a starred review in this month’s Booklist, and sounds right up my alley, in that it is micro-history.  Let me explain: another book with a Booklist star this month was Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad by David Adler (Holiday House)–I just read this one and it is a perfectly serviceable biography of Tubman, but I really didn’t care much for it because Adler fills up lots of space with canned bits of history about the period: a short bit on the Fugitive Slave Act, a piece on John Brown’s raid, a couple chapters on the Civil War.  The bit on John Brown was actually excellent, but it really had little to do with Tubman, and all of it together didn’t add up to much that a textbook couldn’t do.  I haven’t read the Bolden book yet, but what I’m hoping from the title is that it is much more in depth, analytic look at a smaller piece of history, instead of an attempt to fit 80 years of history into a 140 page book, as Adler does.

harrietFinally (for now), a third starred review in Booklist (it was their feature on Black History month) was for Tanya Lee Stone’s Courage Has No Color: The True Story of the Triple Nickles : America’s First Black Paratroopers (Candlewick).  Once again, I’m excited about the relative smallness of the story to tell here, and hoping that means Stone has plenty of room to get into some good creative history.

While I’m on the subject of nonfiction (again), I wanted to briefly mention the YALSA Excellence in Nonfiction Award’s vetted nomination list.  They ended up listing only 9 titles on the official nominations (plus the 5 finalists), as opposed to (for example) last year’s 23.  This is sure to lead to some griping, and I am usually one to say more is better, but I have to say that I’m pretty impressed with the committee.  They did leave off Ann Bausum’s Marching to the Mountaintop and Jim Murphy’s The Giant, but the 14 titles the committee came up with are pretty unassailable.  I was especially happy to see Sally M. Walker’s last two couragebooks, Blizzard of Glass and Their Skeletons Speak, on the vetted list.  I felt like both of these titles got a bit ignored, possibly because Blizzard came out too late in 2011 and Skeletons too early in 2012, and I’m very happy to see them get some attention, especially on such a short list of greats.  The only surprise on the list for me was Andrea Warren’s Charles Dickens and the Street Children of London, which I had never heard of, but am now greatly looking forward to reading.  So, congratulations to the 2013 ENYA committee, and I’ll try to keep up with what might be on the radar for this year’s committee.

– Mark

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What to read next?

Mark,

Okay, now that Midwinter is over, we are well and truly into 2013. All those 2012 books I missed? Too bad!  On to the new, shiny ones! Well, actually there are still a few I’m going to read, but anyway, lots more on the horizon.

Here are some new YA books that I got ARCs of at Midwinter. How to prioritize?

Rick Yancey, The 5th Wave. The is the first in a new post-apocalypse series. I’m actually pretty much a sucker forYancey first contact and post-apocalypse stories, plus this one is by Yancey, so it’s going right up near the top of the stack. Due out in May from  Putnam.Winters

Cat Winters, In the Shadow of Blackbirds. This one intrigues me, based on the description. It takes place in 1918, during the post-war Spanish influenza epidemic and it apparently also incorporates the spiritualism that was so prevalent at that time. (Hmm, reminds me of The Diviners . . . ) Anyway, it includes multiple illustrations, including health posters and photographs from the time. Some of the photographs are apparently of ghostly apparitions, so that should be fun. Due out in April from Amulet.

Karen Finneyfrock, The Sweet Revenge of Celia Door. This is a debut novel by a Seattle performance artist and poet. It is, apparently, in fact a novel of revenge. Sherman Alexie blurbs it as “Hilarious, exciting, and as painful as anyone’s teenage years.”FinneyfrockI do enjoy the occasional mean-girl-gets-what’s-coming-to-her” book, so I’m looking forward to this one. And it’s got a great cover. Due out from Viking Penguin this month.

Gail Carriger. Etiquette & Espionage. Today is actually the release day for this book, which Karyn referred to over on Someday in a post I can’t find as a “Mary Poppins” book–practically perfect in every way.Carriger Plus it already appears to have three starred reviews (Kirkus, PW, and Booklist). So that one has to go to the top, too.

So, clearly, I already have too many things to read. And those are just some of the things I have sitting around and/or on hold at the library.

Plus, very soon we have to talk about 17 & Gone, by Nova Ren Suma, and Towering, by Alex Flinn. I know you’ve read both of those.

Oh, and while we’re talking about upcoming books, any great nonfiction titles that you’ve heard about?

– Mom

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