Monday, August 30, 2010

If I Stay by Gayle Forman

If I StayIf I Stay

Gayle Forman

SUMMARY: When Mia came down to breakfast that morning, snow flakes were still fluttering down outside and the voice on the radio was announcing the cancellation of school.  With her beloved cello stuck at school, Mia can't practice.  Her parents decide to use the day off to visit friends; Mia and her brother Teddy willingly pile into the car with them and the four set off as the snow already begins to melt.  As they finally shift the radio back to the classical music station and Beethoven's Cello Sonata no. 3 begins to play, a truck comes out of nowhere and crashes into the car.  Suddenly Mia is standing beside her broken body in the snow as the sonata miraculously plays on from the destroyed vehicle's intact radio. Her parents are dead.  Before Mia can find Teddy, the paramedics arrive to take her severely injured body to the hospital.  Compelled by the utter strangeness of her situation, Mia follows. Over the next few days, Mia must make the ultimate choice: will she let herself go or will she stay?

ONESMARTCUPCAKE THINKS:  I first began reading this book several months ago, when I picked it up in a store and then couldn't put it down for several minutes. I forced myself to place it back on the shelf, however, because at that point I was deep into senior paper land and had to spend my spare reading time on literary criticism about Victorian novels.  But I picked it up again at the library this summer and sped through it in about a day.  If I Stay is lovely and evocative work which delves into the delicate and difficult questions of mortality: what control do we have over our death and what is worth staying alive for?  

The novel shifts between Mia's current state after the accident and the significant and insignificant moments of her past that have shaped her relationships with her family, friends, and boyfriend.  Mia's voice is distinctive and recognizably realistic.  Her quiet but powerful passion for music, her occasional sense of separation from her former rock 'n roll parents and punk rocker boyfriend Adam, and her concerns about life after high school-all these basic facets build together through the shifting narrative to illustrate Mia in her complexity and humanity.  The details of Mia's reactions and experiences in both time frames allow the reader to become intimately connected to Mia and the circle of people surrounding her.  Even only a few pages into the novel, I felt as though I knew the characters, especially Mia, and so I felt every pain and twist in her brief but intense journey along with her. 

The relationships between Mia and her parents, her best friend, her grandparents, her brother, and her boyfriend are well-drawn and realistic in their complexity.  Mia and Adam's relationship in particular was enjoyable to follow; it grew organically and went beyond the flush of first love to the complications of mature affection. Forman's lyrical language beautifully evokes the genuine passion between the two without shifting into melodrama or overwrought teen romance.  

If I Stay is a short novel but its brevity contributes to its emotional impact. Forman's spare but poetic prose expresses a wide range of emotions and experiences with honesty and frankness.  Through her elegant writing, the reader is immediately drawn into the frightened and confused mind of a seventeen-year-old girl on the verge of losing everything.  The lyricism of the text seems to echo the large role music plays throughout the narrative, emphasizing that while the decision Mia faces is universal, the story remains that of an individual-a vital young woman for whom music represents all the pain and joy of life.  

Gayle Forman has written a small book that packs a big punch.  Her characters could step off the page and her beautiful writing is a pleasure to read.  Moreover, If I Stay marries serious questions about mortality with the concrete reality of human relationships and emotions.


Sunday, August 29, 2010

In My Mailbox #1

Welcome to my first ever In My Mailbox post! Yay! IMM is a fabulous meme begun and hosted by The Story Siren at her wonderful blog in which bloggers post about the books they have received that week via mail/library/book-store. For more info, go here.  My post this week will be larger than usual because I am starting grad school classes on Monday and so several more books for my Children's Resources class came in :) 

So here's what I got this week: 

So I bought and received in the mail the following:
The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins
Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins
Home by Jeannie Baker
When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead
Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key by Jack Gantos
The Higher Power of Lucky by Susan Patron

The Hunger Games trilogy was a long desired personal buy and receiving Mockingjay Friday afternoon was one of the highlights of my summer! The review will be up soon but I'll give you a clue now: I really, really liked it :) The other four books are for grad school but I hope to review some of them as well as the other 'school' books I read over the coming months. 

From the library, I got:
No and Me by Delphine de Vigan
Devilish by Maureen Johnson

I'll be reading and reviewing both of those books this week, baring natural disaster or academic overload :)

Saturday, August 28, 2010

A Love Story Starring My Dead Best Friend by Emily Horner

A Love Story Starring My Dead Best FriendA Love Story Starring My Dead Best Friend

Emily Horner

SUMMARY: Cass and Julia had been best friends since they were kids; even Julia discovering her theatrical destiny at drama camp and getting a boyfriend hadn't changed that.  Throughout their junior year, Julia claimed to be at work on a secret project.  But before she could reveal it to Cass or her drama club friends, Julia was killed in a car accident.  Still reeling from the unexpected tragedy, they discover that the secret project was in fact a musical titled "Totally Sweet Ninja Death Squads" and led by Julia's devastated boyfriend Oliver, the group decides to make Julia's dream come true by producing the musical.  But Cass has never felt like she truly fit in with Julia's theater crowd.  And she doesn't think she can take a summer of painting sets and hearing Julia in every line of the play. Especially when Heather, the girl who bullied her in middle school, has somehow been cast in the lead role. So, Cass sets out to undertake the cross-country trip she and Julia had planned--alone on her touring bike with Julia's ashes in tow.  When Cass returns in August, she realizes that she's changed in big ways. But then so has Heather. But through all the drama, the show must go on.

ONESMARTCUPCAKE THINKS: This book has been on my 'to read' list for quite some time.  The title intrigued me and then seeing that it could work towards my Debut Authors Challenge pushed it way up on my list.  Overall, I enjoyed A Love Story.  The novel is divided into two distinct alternating settings: the recent past of Cass' bike journey and the current events since her return.  While I normally don't mind such a format, I felt it worked less effectively in this novel.  Although both sections were significant in exploring Cass's development through the course of the story, the shifts between them occasionally felt awkward and sudden.  However, I did enjoy the gradual revelations about Cass's growth as the two portions of the story played out simultaneously.  The concept of a solo cross country trip on a bike is a bit of a unique take on the classic road trip story and Horner utilizes details about this style of the travel to tie the reader into Cass's experience more closely.  Also, the solo and self-reliant aspects of biking allows for an extra emphasis on self-discovery and reflection on Cass's part.  The obvious connection between Cass' physical actions and her emotional journey shines strongly with the more transparently physical bike as well.   

I liked that Cass's process of understanding and embracing her sexuality worked hand in hand with her coming to terms with Julia's death.  The difficulties of grief and identity development are interconnected in the story of Cass' entrance to the complex adult world.  I also enjoyed the romance between Cass and Heather.  Their rehabilitated friendship blossoms into a new chance at a happy, open relationship for each girl.  Also, their contrasting pasts reveal two different but equally challenging paths to self-acceptance.  

Overall, A Love Story Starring My Dead Best Friend was an enjoyable and touching read about the sometimes painful process of growing up. 


Thursday, August 12, 2010

Boy Toy by Barry Lyga

Boy ToyBoy Toy  

Barry Lyga

SUMMARY: For the past five years, Josh Mendel has worked hard to be invisible by doing the easy things: being the best hitter on the baseball team, continuing his streak of straight A's, and hanging out with his best friend Zik.  However, as hard as he tried, Josh knows that he will never be invisible because he has a secret: when he was twelve, his seventh-grade history teacher Evelyn Sherman sexually abused him.  But, after the trial and the online leak of Mrs. Sherman's detailed confession, Josh's secret is far from truly hidden or private.  All Josh needs to do is survive long enough to escape town on a college scholarship.  On top of his recent college worries and his long-term anger control issues, he has to deal with the sudden reemergence of Rachel, an old friend he thought he'd lost forever ad the most important baseball game of his life.  Worst of all, Eve has been freed from prison early.  Can Josh ever find a way to understand the events from five years ago and so start running towards his future instead of away from his past?

ONESMARTCUPCAKE THINKS: Holy moly, did this book blow me away! Boy Toy is a powerful, upsetting, and compelling force of a novel.  I assumed from the subject matter (sexual abuse between a teacher and a student) that it would be emotional and intense book but I was not prepared for the reality.  Boy Toy is a very well crafted novel from its construction to its excellent writing.  It manages to pack a big emotional and intellectual punch without ever becoming melodramatic or maudlin.  The novel makes a great attempt to deal honestly with the tangled and complex reality of sexual abuse, from a perspective that frequently remains unheard: that of a young male victim.

Why is Boy Toy so great?  One huge reason is that Josh is such a wonderfully formed character.  He combines intense anger and cynicism with vulnerability; his narration contains sarcastic bite and wit as well as deep unhappiness, fear, and joy.  Josh's three-dimensionality makes his story even more heart-breaking and powerful for a reader.  From the first chapter, I felt as though I knew Josh; his complexity makes him real and knowable in such a way that I felt as though I was experiencing the emotional roller coaster with him.  His confusion, fear, and desire all come through with clarity and potency.  The secondary characters were equally well-crafted, especially the two pivotal women in Josh's life: Rachel and Eve.  

As I said above, Boy Toy is also brilliant for taking on such difficult material in such a respectful yet honest way.  Lyga does not shrink away from somewhat graphic or harsh scenes but instead uses these situations to place the readers even more firmly in Josh's head.  The unflinching look at the after effects of sexual abuse demonstrates that old writing motto: show, don't tell.  Through Josh's narration, Lyga shows the harsh and unsettling reality of a victim's long recovery process; he does not need to tell us about the many ways in which Josh is struggling because they are clearly illustrated through the plot and Josh's internal commentary.  

So, to conclude: I could not put this book down.  I read for a few hours straight, completely immersed in Josh's world and psyche.  The whole time I was cheering for Josh to overcome his many challenges.  Overall, reading Boy Toy was a powerful experience and I recommend the book to older teens and adults who are looking for a great story with emotional and intellectual impact.  Also, Barry Lyga speaks eloquently about his reasoning behind writing Boy Toy at his website's FAQ page.


Friday, August 6, 2010

2010 Debut Author Challenge

Holy smokes blog-world! Two posts in one day! It's a miracle. Which will likely never happen again. But for now I bask in my momentary sense of accomplishment.

So I am blogging again today because I’m joining yet another challenge extremely late. But I’m going try my darndest to complete it anyway! This challenge is the
2010 Debut Author Challenge hosted by awesome YA book blogger Story Siren! The general guidelines are:

-read at least 12 Young Adult or Middle Grade novels from debut authors (note: these authors may have published adult or children’s books before but these must their first YA or MG novels)

-all are welcome to join in, including non-bloggers

-the challenge runs from January 1, 2010 to December 31, 2010

-the novels should be debuting in 2010

So I’m going to do my best to read at least 12 debut novels in the next few months before the deadline hits! Getting a hold of the books might be a tricky sometimes but I am moving to Pittsburgh in a few weeks for grad school and their awesome public library system should help me out in that part of the mission. Below is my list. I would love to get through all of them by December 31, 2010 but there’s a strong possibility that will not happen. But I will read at least a dozen of these awesome, exciting new books! YAY! I love new books.

Before I Fall
by Lauren Oliver

Brightly Woven
by Alexandra Bracken
Forget-Her-Nots by Amy Brecount White
Amy & Roger's Epic Detour
by Morgan Matson

A Love Story: Starring My Dead Best Friend
by Emily Horner

Boys, Wolves, and Other Things That Might Kill Me
by Kristen Chandler

Three Rivers Rising
by Jame Richards

The Mockingbirds
by Daisy Whitney

by Lee Nichols

by Heidi R. Kling

The Dark Days of Hamburger Halpin
by Josh Berk

by Stephen Emond

by Andrew Xia Fukuda
No and Me by Delphine de Vigan
Tell Me A Secret
by Holly Cupala

by Charles Benoit

Thanks again to Story Siren for hosting this great challenge!

The Bermudez Triangle by Maureen Johnson

The Bermudez Triangle

Maureen Johnson

SUMMARY: Nina Bermudez, Avery Dekker, and Melanie Forrest have been an inseparable trio known as the Bermudez Triangle for years. Now, the summer before their senior year of high school they will be spending a significant amount of time apart for the first time. While Nina goes off to Stanford for a ten-week summer program, Avery and Mel stay at home in upstate New York and begin jobs waitressing at P.J. Mortimer’s Fine Food and Drinks Emporium. Within those ten-weeks, some big events happen in the separate lives of the Triangle. Nina falls for the sweet eco-activist Steve but must also face the fact that he lives in Oregon and so she likely won’t see him after the summer until they hopefully both end up at Stanford the next fall. Meanwhile, Mel has finally had a real kiss—with Avery. When the trio is reunited, relationships will change and the next year will be full of confusion, revelations, and division. Can the Bermudez Triangle survive?

ONESMARTCUPCAKE THINKS: I’ve been planning to read Maureen Johnson for a while. Actually, I feel slightly ashamed that I haven’t been reading her since she first started publishing. But being an English lit major for four years limited my recreational reading time. So I’m still playing catch up on awesome YA fiction.

Anyway, I’ve finally started reading Maureen Johnson and I’m definitely not going to stop anytime soon! The Bermudez Triangle was a great, fun, and unique read. The characters are all individuals with three-dimensional personalities and emotional lives. Also, it does something I really appreciate; it tells the ‘after’ story. What do I mean by that vague phrase? Well, in many movies and books, the story builds up to an important event; the heroine falls in love or gets her first kiss. But here, Johnson places these big moments at the beginning of the narrative and then spends the majority of the novel exploring what happens afterwards. The story expands on life after that first kiss and the struggles of making summer love work in the real world. Also, she allows the relationships to be messy and imperfect, which I also greatly appreciate.

The Bermudez Triangle also does a wonderful job portraying the complexities of teen sexuality and romantic relationships. The novel’s characters are diverse and the narrative spends equal time on the straight, gay, and questioning characters. Johnson treats each girl’s journey through love, heartbreak, and recovery with balanced details and obvious sympathy. I loved reading a novel where sexual identity plays a role but does not become a single identifier of a character’s role or personality. Also, Johnson works to explore the universal difficulties in maintaining friendships and balancing relationships with friends and lovers. Johnson’s story is a pretty successful attempt to show the lives of three young women with honesty and respect. I felt emotionally invested from the first few pages and thoroughly enjoyed the entire reading experience. Also, Johnson writes with great humor and elegance and so her writing, like all good writing, is a pleasure to read.

4 ½ / 5 STARS

Now, I can’t close this post without noting the controversy that has surrounded this book in recent years. Although I had been planning to pick up at least one of Maureen Johnson’s books this summer, I picked this book first because I heard about the censorship issues it faced in 2007. I first heard about the Bartlesville, Oklahoma challenge to this book via catching up on John and Hank Green’s Brotherhood 2.0/Vlogbrothers videos. On a side note, they’re hilarious and awesome and everyone should watch them; I’m proud to say I am a belated but now devoted Nerdfighter! Anyway, back to The Bermudez Triangle challenge. In April 2007, the Bartlesville school district decided to pull The Bermudez Triangle from the shelves of the Mid-High school library. The objections seem to be primarily that the book “has no moral fiber” and promotes immoral actions, such as homosexuality. It should be also noted that the book contains essentially nothing sexual beyond kissing between girls or between boys and girls. Maureen Johnson recounted the saga that followed in detail here on her blog so I won’t go into all the details—better to hear from the witty author/blogger herself! But if you don’t already know the story and you care about teenagers, books, and our first amendment rights, please go and check it out; you can trace the story through her archives beginning in April 2007. The conclusion to the so-called ‘Battle of Bartlesville’ was that the book was allowed to stay in the library but only on a reserve shelf where it could be checked out for school use with a parent’s permission. So, as Johnson wrote on her blog, the ending was sort of success (in that the book is still on the shelves) but in more significant ways it was almost worst than a full banning. I mean, because this fun and touching novel contains a romantic relationship between two girls, it has been relegated to a separate shelf. What kind of message does that send to a confused and nervous young woman or man who is thinking about her or his sexuality? How would that make even an openly gay teen feel? Situations like this are the reason that I am perhaps very sensitive and a little hard-line about censorship.

In conclusion, if you haven’t read The Bermudez Triangle or any of Maureen Johnson’s other YA fiction, you should remedy that as soon as possible! I for one am glad that I did!

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

GLBT Reading Challenge 2010

So since I’m new to this whole blogging thing, I’m also new to the idea of online reading challenges. I can’t believe the fun I’ve been missing out on! So I’m going to be jumping onto two 2010 challenges very late in the game this week in an attempt to get into the swing and so be ready to go all out next year. The first challenge I’m joining is the GLBT Challenge 2010.

The Challenge is located at the Blog That Dare Not Speak Its Name, which was developed specifically to house this challenge and accompanying informational posts and mini-challenges by Amanda of The Zen Leaf. The challenge began in January 2010 and runs through December 2010. It also has three levels of participation:

-Lambda Level: Read 4 books.

-Pink Triangle Level: Read 8 books.

-Rainbow Level: Read 12 or more books.

Also, overlap with other reading challenges is acceptable.

Because I’m entering late, I’m going to aim at the Pink Triangle Level of 8 books. Because I’m not required to post a list when I begin the challenge, I’m just going to jot down some possibilities here; I promise to post a final list at the end as well as keep track as I go along!

I coincidentally just completed a great YA book with GLBT themes and characters and so it will be my first review for this challenge. Look out for a review of Maureen Johnson’s The Bermudez Triangle likely tomorrow to start this challenge off!

Other Possibilities includes:

Ash by Malinda Lo

Keeping You A Secret by Julie Anne Peters

The God Box by Alex Sanchez

Hard Love by Ellen Wittlinger

Another Kind of Cowboy by Susan Juby

Almost Perfect by Brian Katcher

Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters

Sprout by Dale Peck

More suggestions are welcome!

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

In Which This Cupcake Gets A Bit Riled About Libraries and Censorship

Today is a very special day. Today is the first day I am actually blogging about something directly library-related! Woohoo! As a passionate library-lover and librarian-in-training, I try to keep up to date on all that is going on in the library world. When I caught the full details on this story via the School Library Journal article last week, I knew would have to blog about it. While I am a generally passionate person who cares a great deal about many issues, there are a few issues that get me particularly riled up. Censorship is definitely one of those especially riling issues.

So what happened? Well, earlier this April the library director of the Burlington County Library System, Gail Sweet, requested the Library Commissioners’ approval in the pulling of Revolutionary Voices: A Multicultural Queer Youth Anthology from the shelves. Apparently this event was prompted by a request for the book’s removal by the 9.12 Project, a conservative group created by Glenn Beck. From emails gathered by the ACLU of New Jersey via a Freedom of Information Act, it appears that a formal request for the book’s removal was never made; Ms. Sweet and a colleague simply decided that the book should be removed from the shelves and were then supported by the library commissioners. When a librarian within the system asked the reason behind the book’s removal, Sweet replied with merely two words: “child pornography.” It might be good to note here that Revolutionary Voices was named one of the best adult books for high school students by School Library Journal in 2001 and has been recognized by the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) as a unique resource that is one of the first to really be applicable to “queer and questioning youth of every color, class, religion, gender, and ability.”

So why does this rile me up? Well, first of all, my decision to pursue library science was based on a combination of factors but one of the main reasons was the American Library Association’s incredibly strong stance on censorship and our first amendment rights. Librarians are ideally the defenders of such rights who aim to work against censorship. So, librarians would ideally be the ones resisting requests for the removal of books rather than those doing the requesting. My librarian idealism is deeply offended by the concept of a librarian giving in to such a challenge in the first place. However, the ALA also recognizes the difficult situations librarians can find themselves in concerning their collections and so recommends that every library have a written policy that details the selection process used in choosing materials for the collection. Also, many libraries use a formal process to handle challenges. These measures protect against allowing a single opinion to determine the content of the library’s collection, which is a shared source of free information for diverse populations. In this situation, the procedures were all ignored; materials were completely removed from the library shelves without any official request and based on the opinions of two people supported by a committee that did no further investigation. Frankly, this behavior just undermines the authority of libraries and librarians around the country and the world to work for free speech and open access to information. And, so it riles me. I mean, not be completely cheesy or anything, but I really believe that free speech, free press, and open access to information are basic human rights and the key building blocks to a successful democracy. Libraries and librarians currently play one of the most important roles in defending these rights. And so it breaks my little idealistic heart to hear about things like this happening.

Well, there was my censorship rant. In other news, I already struggled with WFMAD by forgetting to do my writing yesterday. But I did a make-up this morning and I vow not to forget again! Laurie has posted some great prompts on her blog every day so if you are participating and running low on ideas, check it out! But, to end on a happy note, I received the coolest little gift ever yesterday: my friend sent me a Time Turner from the Wizarding World of Harry Potter! AWESOME! Look how cool it is:

I can be even more like Hermione! YES! It is now one of my great geek treasures, right up there with my Jane Austen bobble-head. Anyone else out there have some favorite geeky possessions? Or an opinion about this NJ censorship business? I promise to respond to comments promptly!

Monday, August 2, 2010

Let's Get Ready to Write!

So I was browsing around on Twitter the other day and I noticed that the authoress of that awesome blog Abby (the) Librarian had tweeted about the amazing YA author Laurie Halse Anderson’s Write Fifteen Minutes A Day challenge. Intrigued, I followed the links to Ms. Anderson’s cool website/blog to find out more. Here’s what I found out: WFMAD is this fun writing challenge in which you commit to write 15 minutes every day for the month of August. You can write fiction or journal entries or blog; you just need to write for 15 minutes every day. I still felt unsure about attempting this challenge when August 1st dawned. But then I opened up Abby (the) Librarian’s blog and she had written a short but encouraging post about her own first fifteen minutes of writing. So I’ve decided to make an attempt! I wrote yesterday about one of my favorite children’s books, Miss Rumphius by Barbara Cooney. Today Laurie has posted a great prompt here on her blog. She also says it’s not too late to join in! Think about it! Is anyone else participating in this cool project? What are you writing about?