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Plus Two

Mom,

Beth Fama is not only a frequent commenter on this blog, but a good friend, so I will preface this post by saying that I make absolutely no claim to objectivity.

Given that, I loved this book. Here are some highlights for me:

1) The prose.  As you know, this is always first for me. The prose here is excellent – I don’t think I noticed an infelicitous phrase throughout (although SLJ found one – but I sure didn’t notice the one they mention on my read). Sol’s voice is strong and distinct, and never unduly calls attention to itself.
1a) The slang/jargon. I loved “smudge” in particular. “CircaDiem” as the name of the drug the smudges take was perfect: a) exactly what a pharma company would name that drug and b) transparent enough to understand its purpose.
1b) The French. I might have missed something, but I didn’t notice an explanation anywhere for all the French, which I thought was fine. The French (and the one mention of Latin) gave it a nice alternate-history feel without having to overexplain anything.
2) Characters. D’Arcy in particular was very well done. His tentativeness at the beginning – unable to understand why exactly he’s helping this smudge. his conflicted feelings about turning her in. His slow growth into an equal partner with her. Great stuff. Sol, of course, was amazing. Side characters: Jean, Helene, Ciel, Gigi – everyone popped. They all (including Sol and D’Arcy) had clearly delineated agendas (and hinted back stories) of their own, which organically led to their alliances or conflicts. Very well done, in a genre where characters often exist for the purpose of advancing the plot.
3) Structure. I quite enjoyed the bi-partite structure: the first half–interweaving the “desk” story with the present, the stealing of the baby leading to the show down with Poppu’s kidnappers–is what the reader expects the entire book to be. Then Beth throws Ciel out there, everyone scatters, and we get a whole new second half with renewed motivations and questions.
4)  I think Beth  writes incredible love scenes (there was some great stuff in Monstrous Beauty as well)–in Plus One, the sex scene, for sure, but even more so D’Arcy and Sol’s first kiss – wow.
5) Poppu’s death scene is another great set piece – really moving.
6) The ending. Well played with no cop-outs.
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Poor, neglected blog

Mark,

I would apologize for not writing any blog posts in a while, except that you haven’t either, so I think I’m off the hook!

But, there is good stuff to come. I’m working on my own Completist post, and I have some comments on some new books that I have been reading.

So–if we still have any readers out there–keep checking this space; I promise, there will be something here in the not-too-distant future!

– Mom

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What’s Coming in February

Mom,

I’m very excited about the books you mentioned in your last post, and we’ll definitely be talking about these, plus more on the ALA awards (I still need to have my annual breakdown of the BFYA list).

But first! Next week is all Robert Cormier all the time. In response to a comment from Jonathan Hunt, I wrote a Completist post on Cormier that ballooned to five posts. So that’s what we’re doing next week.  See you on the other side!

Mark

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Winger

Mom,

You gave Andrew Smith’s Winger 5 Stars on Goodreads, and seemed pretty enthusiastic about it several months ago, but you seem to have cooled on it a bit recently, writing that you think there are better Contemporary titles out there.  I finally got around to reading it, and I have to say that while I acknowledge the book has several superficial strengths, I found it to be deeply lacking.

Characters and Voice

Ryan Dean was a fairly well drawn character with a strong narrative voice (although I thought he was kind of a horrible human being, but that’s beside the point), but every other character was either a stereotype or a two-dimensional cardboard cut-out:

  • Chas the jock/jerk (who, incidentally, seemed like a perfectly good guy, and I would have thought his jerkiness was all in Ryan’s head, except that Smith went out of his way to have both Joey and the rugby coach note that Chas was a jerk)
  • Seanie the “techie” with the weird sense of humor
  • Joey the magical, perfect, gay friend, who then became a glorious martyr
  • Casey the closeted homophobe
  • Megan, the sexual object. I mean seriously:  she was never given any reason for being attracted to Ryan except a vague “she liked smart guys.”  And she wasn’t just using him to get to Chas because she is shown to be genuinely crushed when Ryan Dean breaks it off.  I found that whole plotline and character immensely implausible, and maybe slightly sexist since Megan was given no other characteristics besides “sex object for Ryan.”
  • Annie. Well, maybe Annie was a bit more fleshed out, but I still can’t tell you much about her beyond that she likes to run, is “creative”, and is in love with Ryan Dean.

Back to Ryan Dean, though. Although he certainly is well characterized, such that you know who he is, there are still some problems in terms of how he changes throughout the novel. First, there is the annoying repetition. “I’m such a fucking loser” gets old – actually it grated on me the first time he said it. Same goes for his not terribly funny takes on Mrs. Singer.  Next, although his behaviors change a bit by the end of the novel–the long string of apologies at the dance; his commitment to Annie and refusal of Megan–I didn’t really pick up on anything within his narration that gave me reason to believe in these changes as part of his character rather than just trying to get what he wanted.

I was also troubled by the characterization of Ryan pre-novel. What exactly was he supposed to have been like and how had he changed? He’s gotten into fights before, but he is in O-Hall for using a cellphone? Does he really love rugby? This was a big tell-not-show aspect of the book for me.

Plot

Those last two characters bring me to plot. Much of the plot was motivated by the “love triangle” between Megan, Annie, and Ryan Dean. I agree with what you said about Ryan Dean being a plausibly immature teen, but I object to the entire concept of this plot on the grounds that it is completely and utterly implausible. Why are these two beautiful, (we’re given to believe) smart, popular girls interested in Ryan Dean, who is two or three years younger than them? I don’t buy it.

Obviously more important is the completely bizarre turn at the very end of novel, with the murder of Joey. What is going on here? If this is supposed to be a major part of the book, why is so little time given to the aftermath? It just seems tacked on to an entirely different novel. Either that, or Smith just decided the book was too long and lost interest in pursuing the ending. Either way, we get no real understanding of how this event affects Ryan Dean or anyone else.

This gets back to Ryan Dean’s characterization, too.  Does he feel guilty for not following up on his feelings of unease the night of the dance? Why didn’t he follow up on them anyway? Wasn’t it exactly in his character to go into the girl’s dorm and find out what was happening, even though he (thought he) knew better? Smith is strangely silent on the issue of Ryan Dean’s guilt–not that I think it is Ryan Dean’s fault, only that it would be an obvious place for a sensitive, smart kid’s mind to go under the circumstances.

Setting

Another boarding school novel. Do we believe it? Is there anything that distinguishes the school from every other boarding school we’ve read about?

OK – that’s enough for now. You and our commenter Lauren both thought much more highly of this book. What’d I miss?

– Mark

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Elsewhere

Mom,

You’re probably having all kinds of fun in Seattle, with no time to work on our little blog, but for our readers who are at work today, I wanted to highlight a couple of pieces from other locations:

1) I interviewed Cynthia Levinson, author of We’ve Got a Job, one of my favorite books of the year.  She was a lovely person to interview, with some very thoughtful answers.  You can find the interview over at the Hub

2) Also at the Hub, there’s a group interview with Steve Sheinkin about Bomb.  A few of the questions there were from me.  But, much more importantly, he has a fascinating answer to the question of sourcing.  Here’s the question and answer in full:

Are you aware of some of the issues that were discussed about your book on the Heavy Medal blog and elsewhere? How do you respond to these who question your narrative style choices and lack of page numbers from your sources?

I actually agree that the source notes could have been more detailed. For my next book, I’m going to make it easier for readers to follow a quote or passage from the book back to the sources I used. In terms of narrative style, you can’t please everyone.

In light of our discussion of Lincoln’s Grave Robbers, obviously that one wasn’t the “next book” he’s referring to.  But I’m now quite interested to see how he changes his sourcing style next time out.

3) I have a feeling many of our readers here drop in on me over on Adult Books 4 Teens at least occassionally.  But in case they didn’t, and since we talk about nonfiction basically all the time on this blog, I thought I’d link to my post from Monday about nonfiction reading habits.  I tried to do some research on how much nonfiction teens read for pleasure, but couldn’t come up with anything very current, so it’s more hints and questions than answers, but I think worth taking a look at before anyone tries to make a claim that teens don’t read nonfiction.

So, that’s what I’ve been working on in my other gigs.  Be sure to bring back plenty of fascinating information for me from ALA.

– Mark

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The Life of a Teen Librarian

Mom,

Some really good questions–I’ll take them slightly out of order. 

1) What makes a book “for my library”?  With my central selection (selecting new YA fiction for all eight branches in the county) my basic premises are two.  First, I try to get a basic foundation of what to my mind consists of books that every library “should” have.  That means all the big buzzy books, along with as many of the highly praised books as I can afford.  I’m looking for starred reviews, books that look to be award contenders, books with big marketing pushes (Baker and Taylor gives me numbers on how many copies they’ve ordered for each region of the country, so I look at that to see how popular they and the publishers think an item is going to be).  To put it in terms of VOYA scores (because I love them), I’m looking for books that rank 4Q or 5Q, and 4P or 5P, hopefully in some combination.  I try to avoid books that score 1Q or 2Q unless they are absolutely no-brainer hits, but I’m a little more lenient on 2P books because often these are niche items, as long as they have high Q scores.  Obviously if a book isn’t reviewed by VOYA, I have to use my own judgement based on the review and other information as to what those scores would look like.

The second consideration is the more geographically specific concerns of my population.  Solano is a bit of a strange county, in that the biggest city, Vallejo, where I work and live, is a major outlier from the rest of the county.  Vallejo is, as you say, economically and ethnically (and, concomittantly, politically) diverse, but the rest of the county is much less so.  So I have to do a bit of a balancing act in terms of purchasing books that appeal to Vallejo’s strong Black and Filipino populations–Urban novels, books published by Kimani Tru–as well as more “conservative” books for some of our outlying communities.  Fortunately for me, we have a floating collection, so I don’t have to make the decisions about which specific branch each book ends up at–I just have to make sure to buy at least some books for each population.

2) Readers’ Advisory.  Honestly, I find that the most important aspect of readers’ advisory for me is display.  I do a fair amount of working with individual teens, but it is such a tiny percentage of the items checked out that I think my time is better spent working on displays.  My most effective one is one that you already know about (I believe you used it as an example in one of your books): my Teen Picks display.  I give my teen customers a chance to recommend books to their fellow teens, then I type up their reviews, round up the books and display the two together in a shelf of 20 or so Teen Picks.  This has been widely popular for about three years now.  Other than that, I do New Books displays, displays for things like Teen Read Week, and just as much face out displaying of books as I can fit on the shelves.

When it comes to specific teens, I’m nowhere near the best booktalker in the world, since I often can’t remember the plots very well, but what I like to do is to walk into the YA section with a teen and start pulling books off the shelf that I’ve read recently or been hearing about.  I basically never get a satisfactory answer to that perennially recommended question “what was the last good book you read?” – so instead I start with something I love and try to read the teen’s face as they look over the cover and flap information, then hone the next book to their responses.  I’m sure there are better approaches, but I’ve had some success with this.

3) Formatting. Honestly, I really have no idea how formatting and trim affect teen response.  When I have two editions of a book on the shelf, I generally offer both to the teen, but I don’t think I’ve ever noticed a pattern to their responses.  In library school, I read quite a bit about the supposed teen preference for mass market paperbacks, but I don’t think I’ve seen a ton of evidence in my own library to that effect, although the data would be skewed because our budget constraints make it so much more cost effective to buy hardbacks that we often only have the hardbound edition of a book.  So, I don’t think I can be of much help on that question.

4) Finally, your question about being a male librarian.  I have heard this question so often, and I have thought about it, but it still leaves me without much to say.  The problem is that even though I’m a man, my reading tastes track much more closely with the “typical” female: fiction over nonfiction; character over plot; emotion over adrenaline, etc.  So in a lot of ways, I think I prefer to work with my female customers, because I feel more comfortable knowing I can find them something they’ll love.  When I get a boy asking for a good mystery or “scary” book, I start to break out in a sweat a little bit.  One more piece of evidence for “biology is not destiny.”  I’m sure my customers themselves respond differently to me, as a man, than they do to my female colleagues, but I would never presume to make any sort of blanket statement about what those responses are, so I’m afraid I’m not a ton of help on this question either.

So, there you go – highly ancedotal, ambiguous answers to your four questions.  Hope I helped!

– Mark

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Nonfiction, Part 3

Mom,

I have a ton of thoughts on your last post, but I want to focus on one thing in particular: your point that librarians are biased towards nonfiction that “reads like fiction.”  Is this something that we (meaning YALSA members) can (or should) try to change?  Obviously, as you point out with the 1962 biography example, nonfiction itself goes through a lot of fads and changes.  Maybe this is just the current trend and we should go with it?  Still, I feel like there are books that are being slighted.

You’ve been on the Printz Committee, and you’ve appointed people to the Printz Committee.  Is this a topic that comes up at all?  Is it possible to change a committee member’s mind about what makes a Printz-worthy nonfiction book?  Or, is it possible to find librarians who have different approaches to nonfiction to appoint in the first place?

– Mark

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More thoughts on nonfiction

Mark,

Interesting questions.

1) My nonfiction books fall into both categories, in a way. My two history books, both part of Lucent’s World History Series (The Reformation, 1995 and The Age of Exploration, 1998) I wrote with the intention of telling the stories behind those interesting times. Nevertheless, because they were part of a series, there were certain constraints I had to meet, including the format (double-column, textbook-style; black and white illustrations; timeline, etc.). I also tried to be as neutral as possible, although I know that some of my biases came through, especially in the Reformation book.  I was always aware as I was writing them that I wanted them to be interesting to read, but also useful for students doing reports.

The other two books, Sports in America (Lucent, 1996) and Space Exploration: A Pro/Con Issue (Enslow, 2000) were definitely written with school reports in mind. In fact, I had some struggles with the editors on both of these books, because I wanted to emphasize my own opinions (of which I have many on these two topics), but they wanted them to be very factual in the “opposing viewpoints” style: “Some people say this, while others say that.” I could see the point, but it was actually hard for me to do.

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