Friday, December 30, 2011

The Kick-Butt Girl Sleuth in 2011: A Rare Fictional Creature

I'm a huge fan of mystery novels.  I read my first Nancy Drew in 4th grade; once I had exhausted that all local libraries' supplies of that eternal series, I moved on to Agatha Christie and Martha Grimes.  But while I love these more complex mysteries (with murder and mayhem included), I missed seeing a teenage girl as the investigator.  There were a few short-lived possibilities on television (anyone remember The Mystery Files of Shelby Woo?) but nothing really caught on.  Then Veronica Mars was born.  Although the show struggled to last even three seasons (and the last two seasons hit some bumps), Veronica Mars stands out as one of the few recent attempts to create a true teen girl sleuth for the 21st century.  And I for one was absolutely thrilled.  I loved the show and love Veronica even more.  She was a great female protagonist, complex, conflicted, angry, vulnerable, brave, sexy, and flawed.  And she was a great detective.

In my library's most recent book orders, there have been a few young adult novels that heavily incorporate a mystery and an investigation of that mystery by the female protagonist.  In my constant search for the next literary Veronica Mars, I read each of them--but was generally a little disappointed.

The first mystery that I snagged after cataloguing was Rosebush by Michele Jaffe.  As it's striking cover demonstrates, this particular novel kicks off with a dramatic and mystery image: a few blocks away from a big Memorial Weekend party, popular and pretty Jane is found tangled and unconscious in a rosebush, the apparently the victim of hit and run.  As Jane, lying paralyzed in the hospital, attempts to regain her memories of the accident, she begins to understand that the truth--about that night, her friends, her boyfriend, and her past--is much more complicated than she thought.  And soon it appears that Jane's accident wasn't an accident at all and everyone in her life is a suspect.  Now Jane must unravel the mysteries surrounding her before the killer strikes again.  While this novel had a promising premise and great opening image, it was a disappointing reading experience for me.  The slow revelations of complexities through flashbacks and the inside view of the pretty, popular clique of girls reminded me a bit of Lauren Oliver's Before I Fall and the setting among the seamy underside of the rich and privileged was reminiscent of Veronica Mars. But frankly, Jane is a less interesting character than either Sam or Veronica and the mystery here has almost too many twists and turns to remain believable.  So while I think that Rosebush might be a hit with some of my younger teens who like mysteries featuring the dark side of rich, pretty, and popular cliques, I was left unsatisfied in my quest for a solid teen girl detective.

Next, I snagged our new copy of The Liar Society, a debut novel written by Lisa and Laura Roecker.  When Kate gets an email from her best friend Grace, she's shocked and deeply confused--because Grace died a few months ago in a mysterious fire.  But when the messages begin to imply that Grace's death was not merely a tragic accident but the result of the tangled conspiracy of secrets filling the hallowed halls of their elite private school, Kate plunges into a dangerous investigation with the help of two new allies: her nerdy neighbor and the cute bad boy from school.  Firstly, this novel came much closer to the kind of teen mystery novel I was craving.  Kate is much more likable protagonist than Jane and a more effective detective.  The mystery was exciting and built well as more and more secrets and clues were revealed as the plot progressed.  I'm also a big sucker for secret society tales and this novel fits that bill very nicely.  Overall, it was a well-paced and fun mystery; The Liar Society reminded me a bit of both Veronica Mars and The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks, although it didn't quite reach the level of complexity of either.

The last recently release young adult mystery featuring a teen girl sleuth I read this fall was my favorite, although it might be the most challenging to sell initially to teen readers.  The Girl Is Murder is delightful historical mystery by Kathryn Haines Miller set in 1942 New York City featuring plenty of juicy historical details, a solid mystery, and a determined young female detective.  15 year old Iris Anderson never used to lie--not about big things anyway.  Then her mother's suicide and her father's return from war missing a leg changed everything.  Suddenly, Iris has left her comfortable private school life far behind and entered the very different world of the Lower East Side, where she starts at a public school while her Pop struggles to get his private investigation business going again.  Money is tight and Iris knows that Pop could use her help--even if he doesn't know it yet.  So when his newest case involves a boy from Iris's school, she decides to do some investigating of her own.  Suddenly Iris is lying all the time, inventing identities and excuses as she tails her former private school classmates and sneaks out to Harlem club to dance until 3am.  Iris is a stubborn and smart young detective; she makes mistakes of inexperience and arrogance but overall she proves her skills as an beginning investigator.   The historical setting is solidly fleshed out with everything from slang to fashion to cultural tensions.  However, while both the mystery and the characters' developments are clearly tied to the time period, they remain interesting for a modern audience.  Iris is a great candidate to join the ranks of Nancy and Veronica and I hope Kathryn Miller Haines brings her back in at least one sequel so we can watch her investigative skills grow.

Here's hoping that 2012 brings us a new crop of teen mysteries and kick-butt girl sleuths!

Friday, December 2, 2011

A Kitchen Interlude: Sugar Cookie Bars

As a new librarian working with teens, I have been reading constantly to keep up with booktalks, book reviews, and general reader's advisory.  I have also been baking on a nearly weekly basis.  As my blog title and username might indicate, I have both a big sweet tooth and a huge love of baking.  And since I fully believe in the power of baked good bribery, my job has given the ideal opportunity to bake a lot and then get the yummy results out my apartment as quickly as possible (thus saving me from myself).

I run our middle school book club that meets a few times a month and I, of course, provide homemade goodies at each meeting.  We had a meeting scheduled for this Tuesday and since I was traveling all day Sunday, I needed something I could make quickly and easily with minimal shopping Monday evening after work.  Cookie bars immediately sprung to mind and after surfing around on that most beautiful of time-wasters, Foodgawker, I discovered several similar versions of these basic sugar cookie bars.  And they turned out to be the perfect last minute treats!

Sugar Cookie Bars with Basic Buttercream Frosting
Cookie Bars
1 cup butter, room temperature
2 cups sugar
4 eggs
2 tsp. pure vanilla extract
5 cups flour
1 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. baking soda
*based on recipes and directions from Une Gamine dans la Cuisine & lisa is cooking 

1.) preheat the oven to 315 degrees F and grease either a 13 x 18 jelly roll pan OR an approximately 10 x 15 cookie sheet with raised edges.  I used a cookie sheet with raised edges and it worked just fine.

2.) In one large bowl, whisk together the flour, baking soda, and salt.

3.) In a different large bowl, beat the butter and sugar together until fluffy.  Then add the eggs one at a time, beating the batter after each egg.

4.) Add the vanilla and mix in.

5.) Add the flour mixture into this batter.  I find that it works best to add the flour mixture in small increments (such as a 1/2 cup or so at a time), mixing after each addition.

6.) Spread dough on the pan, making it as even as possible.

7.) Bake for about 10-15 minutes until a toothpick (or knife or cake-taster) come out of the center clean.  If you're not sure, don't be afraid to pop it back in the oven for a few minutes longer; I was worried about the edges burning so I took the tray out a tad earlier and the upper part of the center pieces was a little doughy.

8.) Cool completely before frosting

Basic Buttercream Frosting
1 lb. confectionary sugar
1 tsp. pure vanilla extract
1/2 cup unsalted butter
3-4 tbsp. milk

1.) Mix butter, sugar, and vanilla together until well blended.

2.) Add 2 tbsp. of milk and mix.

3.) Add another tbsp. of milk and mix.

4.) Add a fourth tbsp. of milk only if needed texturally.

5.) Dye the frosting with food coloring if you wish!

These cookie bars were both simple to create and delicious to eat, making them an ideal party treat! 

Thursday, December 1, 2011

The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson

I work at an independent girls' school in the library that serves the 7-12 graders and some of the most popular books are exciting fantasy novels with interesting and strong heroines.  This specific sub-category of books encompasses several key authors, such as Tamora Pierce (the Tortall sequences and the Magic Circle series), Kristen Cashore (Graceling, Fire), Garth Nix (the Abhorsen trilogy), Suzanne Collins (The Hunger Games trilogy), and Robin McKinley (The Blue SwordThe Hero and the Crown).  Because I have a few very voracious readers who especially love these kinds of books and keep appearing at my desk requesting recommendations,  I am always looking for new fantasies with kick-butt heroines!  When I read the summary for Rae Carson's debut novel, The Girl of Fire and Thorns, I was interested and hopeful that I had found another book to give to lovers of Tamora Pierce's and Kristen Cashore's adventures.  And once I started reading, I was delighted to see that my instincts were right!

Lucero-Elisa de Riqueza is the chosen one--the bearer of the Godstone and marked for special and sacred service.  But Elisa is also the younger, less attractive, and more ignored of two princesses.  She can't imagine ever doing anything remarkable.  Then, on her sixteenth birthday, Elisa becomes the secret wife of a handsome king who is desperate for the political aid and unknown power that Elisa can bring to his tumultuous nation.  Now Elisa, who is more comfortable reading religious texts in the library or snacking on pastries in the kitchen, must enter into a new court as her husband's secret ally.  The kingdom is on the verge of war and leaders on all sides are very interested in the mystical bearer of the sacred Godstone--including a daring young revolutionary convinced that Elisa can save his people.  Soon Elisa has left her sheltered life far behind as she enters into a dangerous adventure full of political intrigue and magical battles.   But in order to save a nation and its people, Elisa must learn to understand and use the power deep within herself, risking her life and her heart in process.

The Girl of Fire and Thorns brings us into a rich, new magical world with fully developed cultures and religion.  Unlike many other fantasy adventures, this world appears to be physically and culturally inspired by Spanish and Mediterraean societies.  Elisa is a wonderful protagonist, whose unique strengths grow and develop visibly as the story enfolds.  She is highly intelligent and is a both a skilled military stratagist and a perceptive religious scholar.  When the novel begins, she lacks a great deal of self-confidence and has spent much of her life doing very little physical activity and eating when upset or nervous.  However, when forced into strenuous physical activity by necessity, Elisa grits her teeth and refuses to give up;  as a result, she gains better health, new survival skills, and a more positive attitude towards her body and her abilities. 

In The Girl of Fire and Thorns, Carson creates an action-packed story filled with three-dimensional characters and uniquely interesting settings.  This novel is definite must-read for fans of Tamora Pierce, Kristin Cashore, and Robin McKinley!


Saturday, November 26, 2011

Entwined by Heather Dixon

As I've said on before, I'm a huge fan of fairytale retells and reinterpretations.  So when Entwined arrived as part of the September book order, I was immediately intrigued.  The tale of the Twelve Dancing Princesses has not been adapted very often; Jessica Day George's Princess of the Midnight Ball is the only one that stands out immediately.

From the very beginning, Entwined did not feel like many other fairytale retellings I've read; in that way it reminded me of A Curse Dark As Gold.  Although their settings and styles are quite different, both take the skeleton of the original tale and transport it to a very rich and distinct new setting utilizing pieces and aspects of actual (mostly West European) history.  The world Heather Dixon creates is a distinctly foreign and magic-infused world with the feel of late 19th and early 20th century Britain.  In Eathesbury, there are formal balls, a vaguely parliamentary monarchy,  street lamps, distinct social traditions, and bits of leftover magic haunting the palace (such as a rather grumpy silver tea set).

Azalea is the eldest of the eleven princesses of Eathesbury.  She adores her mother, affectionately protects and manages her sisters (even when they're driving her crazy), and absolutely loves to dance.  But when her mother dies giving birth to the twelfth princess, the color seems to drain out of Azalea's world.  As she tries to control her own grief, Azalea works to hold her family together, caring for her sisters and struggling with the strained relationship with their distant father, the King--whose insistance on following all formal mourning traditions bars the princesses from their one source of emotional release and connection with the late mother: dancing.  So when the girls discover a passageway leading down into a secret chamber inside the palace's walls, they enter it eagerly.  Inside Azalea and her sisters meet the strange enchanted man who calls himself the Keeper who offers them a safe place to dance their grief away.  But, the Keeper's intentions are far from pure.  As his web of dark power pulls tighter,  even Azalea's very nimble feet and unwavering determination might not be enough dance her family away from the Keeper's trap.

Entwined is a lovely debut, by turns whimsical, action-packed, and romantic.  Azalea is a greatly appealing protagonist, strong and determined as well as vulnerable and authentic.  She is devoted to her family and very aware of her political and personal responsibilities as the oldest princess.  Also, Dixon (smartly) does not attempt to fully develop each of the twelve princesses equally; Azalea and the second and third oldest sisters are the most three-dimensional of the girls while the others are given a few, less fully explored identifiable characteristics.  Their interactions as a family ring very true and the shifting relationship the princesses have with their distant father develops organically.  The romances are lovely and the Keeper is a delightfully sinister antagonist.  The magical elements work well in a elegant and whimsical fantasy world.  However, Entwined (like all good fantasy novels) is successful because it remains grounded in more universal human emotions and experiences, such as the confusion and pain of grief, the tight bonds between siblings, and the complex relationships between children and parents.

Overall, Heather Dixon's Entwined is a great debut novel and a lovely, enjoyable fantasy story that will appeal to a wide age range.  Definitely pass it off to fans of fairytale retells and romantic fantasy novels!


Saturday, November 5, 2011

Life and Love After Loss: The Sky Is Everywhere by Jandy Nelson

Love triangles of some kind seem to be popping up more and more frequently in young adult fiction--a trend that could be connected to the extreme popularity of a certain series featuring a vampire and a werewolf battling for a single human's love.  In general, I am a bit sick of love triangles; they aren't my favorite romantic cliche.  On the very surface, The Sky is Everywhere had the potential to be yet another love triangle story--albeit one touching on some larger issues of grief and recovery from loss.  Under the title on the front cover of the paperback edition, it reads: "One boy helps her remember.  The other lets her forget."  Delightfully, Jandy Nelson's debut novel is much more than this catchy tagline.

One month ago, Lennie's brilliant sister Bailey died unexpectedly while rehearsing Romeo and Juliet.  Bookish clarinetist Lennie feels completely unmoored and lost.  Although their mother left when Lennie and Bailey were extremely young, they've never truly felt alone or abandoned; raised by their garden guru and artist grandmother and sweet marriage addict Uncle Big, the Walker sisters have never lacked for family.  But now there's only one Walker sister and after a lifetime of being the companion pony to Bailey's racehorse, Lennie has no idea of who she is or what she wants without Bailey.  She's disconnected from her best friend Sarah and from her family but she feels drawn strongly to two very different boys: Bailey's quiet and heartbroken boyfriend Toby and quirky new boy and musical genius Joe.

Lennie is an endearing and sympathetic character; her grief for Bailey is intense and complex, fluctuating between confusion, anger, and despair.  Her attraction to and contrasting interactions with Toby and Joe feel equally believable; Nelson has created a genuine picture of a young woman's confusing and intense emotional and sexual development, demonstrating that the definitions of love, lust, and romance can be much more blurry than we sometimes assume and that human connection can be unexpected and diverse.  Additionally, while the romance plays a large role in the plot, The Sky is Everywhere remains very much about Lennie's larger story as she works to develop a new understanding of her identity and place in the world separate from Bailey.  Also, this novel has a lovely sense of place; the gentle and lyrical atmosphere of the small hippie-rich town of Clover, CA permeates Lennie's story.

Nelson might be trying to pack a bit too much into a single novel (Lennie's romance confusions, Bailey's secrets, the mystery of their mother's disappearance, etc.) and her writing might be a bit too metaphor-rich for some readers.  However, The Sky is Everywhere remains a stand-out debut novel packing a great emotional punch.

4.5/5 STARS  

Friday, October 28, 2011

Wither by Lauren DeStefano

There is no denying that dystopian or speculative fiction are very popular areas of writing and publication right now; since the explosion of The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins over the last year, fiction set in some potential (and usually frightening) future has been filling the bookshelves at a nearly unprecedented rate.  However, since much of this fiction is both thrilling and thought-provoking, I cannot complain!

Wither by debut author Lauren DeStefano may be one of many new entries into this subgenre but it still stands out from the masses of recently published dystopian sagas.  The best speculative fiction usually grounds itself in issues and questions of the present day and Wither is no exception.  For this novel, the potential devastation of the human race comes from our own attempts to improve the world--in this case through medical and scientific engineering and manipulation of human biology. 

About 70 years ago, science at last succeeded in creating perfect children; a generation of babies were born to be nearly indestructable, immune to diseases and with unpredicatably long life spans.  However a development that seemed to be a marvel of genetic research has turned out to be the downfall of the humanity.  Every generation since that first, miraculous one is stricken with an inexplicable flaw; females die of a mysterious virus at age 20 and male die of the same illness at age 25.  Most of the globe has been destroyed by war and the United States has become a nation of desperate people.  While scientists work to discover a cure and orphans flood the country, young women are frequently snatched from the streets and sold into polygomous marriages with weathly men in an attempt to prevent the population from dying out. 

Sixteen year old Rhine Ellery is unlucky enough to be one of these unwilling brides.  Suddenly Rhine finds herself in an unfamiliar world of luxury as one of Linden Ashby's three new wives.  Athough she now wear custom designed gowns and never goes hungry, Rhine remains entirely focused on escaping her beautiful prison and finding her way back to her twin brother.  Even as she connects with her sister wives and begins to feel pity and affection for their equally imprisoned husband, Rhine never fully allows her determination to waver; she will live her last four years in freedom or die trying. 

The premise is intriguing and DeStefano's prose is lovely and evocative; however, the real strength of this novel lies in the characters.  Rhine's conflicting emotions and increasing complex relationships with the people surrounding her are the core of the novel.  Her changing emotional connections with her husband, her sister wives, and the servant Gabriel are fully fleshed out and delicately developed over the course of the plot.  There are no simplistic 'good guys' and 'bad guys'.  The most obvious villain is Rhine's father-in-law, a First Generation scientist whose obsession to find a cure that will save Linden before his twenty-fifth birthday has pushed him into very murky ethical territory.  However, even he is a three dimensional character whose motives remain sympathetic and understandable even as his actions become more and more terrifying.  Wither provides us with a chilling peek at our possible future.  The novel reminds us how easily those in power will dehumanize others in the rush to survive and how quickly the greater good might overpower the rights and freedoms of the individual masses in such a situation.     


Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Book Bites: Keeping Reviews Short and Sweet

Whew! As the infrequent updates here indicate, life became increasingly busy again these last couple months--for very happy reasons!  I began my first grown-up job as a real librarian mid-August and while that means I've been consuming young adult books at an insane pace, it also means I've been busy getting adjusted to my new job and updating our official library blog instead updating this one! So, I am again making use of this little blog feature I call "Book Bites" where I post a bunch short mini reviews for several books I've read recently.  This batch is mix of recent and not so recent releases in a variety of genres.

How To Rock Braces and Glasses by Meg Haston

Aspiring journalist Kacey Simon rules Marquette Middle School based on one idea: she always tells the truth, even when it hurts.  As host of her own show on the school's tv channel, Kacey hands out extremely honest advice to her classmates--without worrying about other people's feelings.  Then she gets an eye infection and falls flat on her face at the roller rink, landing her with thick glasses, braces, and a lisp.  Suddenly Kacey drops from the top of the social pyramid down to the bottom.  But it turns out that life as a loser is a lot more fun than Kacey ever guessed.

 A generally fun story of almost romance, friendship , and growing self-awareness, How To Rock is likely to be a good sell to middle schoolers interested in contemporary fiction.  While it is a little formulaic and cliche, the story remains enjoyable--and quite marketable, as Nickelodeon's recent purchase of the rights and plans to adapt it into a series called "How To Rock" illustrates.

Wings by Aprilynne Pike

Laurel has always felt different from other kids her age; but she's always assumed it had something to do with the way she's been raised.  Her sweet hippie parents have homeschooled her and treated any health problems with her mom's natural treatments.  Now that she's starting at a real school, Laurel is realizing that she is unusual in a lot more ways.  She can only really eat fruits and vegetables and too much time inside makes her feel trapped.  Then Laurel grows a pair of flower-like wings between her shoulder blades. 

I heard a lot of good buzz about this opening novel in Pike's romantic fairy trilogy.  And some of that hype is deserved; Pike's writing has almost ethereal quality and she crafts her sentences and the story's plot clearly.  Laurel is a sweet but strong heroine and her two love interests, the kind human David and the mysterious fairy Tamani, are both attractive characters.  Did it set me on fire to grab the next two novels, Spells and Illusions? Not really.  But will younger teen fans of supernatural romances snatch it up? For sure.    

Abandon by Meg Cabot

Pierce died.  She got tangled in her pool cover trying to rescue a bird, hit her head, and woke up in a strange place she now knows as the Underworld.  But she escaped and now she is trying to get on with life,  moving to her mom's old hometown and starting at a new school.  However life is much more complicated when you know what it's like to die.  The fact that the tall dark and handsome guy she met in the Underworld keeps showing up whenever Pierce is in trouble is not helping.  Escaping death once was lucky but can Pierce be that lucky a second time?

I was excited about this book.  Meg Cabot, Greek mythology, dark romance--sounds like a winning combination.  But I was personally somewhat disappointed.  Abandon functions mostly as set up for the next novel in this new series, being high on flashbacks and brooding yet generally unbelievable romance and low on action or character development.  However, it sold like hotcakes among my 8th graders.

Heist Society by Ally Carter

When Katarina Bishop was three, her parents took her to Paris.  Of course in between buying Kat ballons and croissants, her mom and dad were busy casing the Louvre so they could rob it later.  But being an art thief without a real home has become exhausting and so at 15 she pulls her biggest con yet: acceptance into a prestigious boarding school and a normal life.  However it turns out the family business is a lot trickier to get out of than Kat thought.  Suddenly her friend and fellow con artist Hale bounds into her normal life to tell Kat that her dad is in big trouble--international, life-threatening kind of trouble--and only Kat can get him out of it.

How fun is this book?!  Non-stop action, globe-trotting adventure, smart teens, a kick-butt heroine, and a touch of art history all in one delightful read.  Kat is a great protagonist, being both glamourous and reassuringly down to earth, and the plot moves at a great clip.  I had dozens of 7th graders battling for this one before I even finished my booktalk! 

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Star Crossed by Elizabeth C. Bunce

Recently, I've noticed that more and more novels with magical or supernatural elements have been set in some version of our world rather than in very different, completely invented universe.  For example, paranormal romances such as Maggie Stiefvater's Wolves of Mercy Falls trilogy (Shiver, Linger, and Forever) have magical elements but are grounded in present day America while popular fantasy adventures such as J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series create a magical world existing as a hidden part of the ordinary world.  Even most dystopian novels such as The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins or Matched by Ally Condie take place in a potential future of Earth and the United States as we know them.  Now don't get me wrong--I love these types of stories and find them exciting and intriguing, frequently because they tie into our world in such clever ways.  However, I first fell into love with the fantasy genre through books that fit into a specific type of "high fantasy": stories in which our known world does not exist and instead the author creates an entirely new universe for the novel.  Some of my favorites in this subgenre include Tamora Pierce's Tortall books, Sherwood Smith's Crown Duel, and Malinda Lo's Ash and Huntress.  So, I was very excited to enter a new magical world with Elizabeth C. Bunce's Star Crossedan imaginative novel that Tamora Pierce has listed as one of her "Picks for Cool New Books" on her website.     

As a thief and spy for hire on the street of the busy city Gerse, Digger knows the rules of survival.  When a job goes horribly wrong, Digger is desperate to obey the first two rules to the letter: stay alive and don't get caught.  Through street smarts and luck Digger falls in with a group of young nobles leaving the city and so Digger the criminal becomes Celyn Contrare the lady's maid.  Along with her new identity, Digger gains new friends and new home with the generous Nemair family.  However, the peaceful mountain estate turns out to be full of hidden passages, illegal magic, and high stakes secrets--including Digger's own.  Suddenly Digger finds herself breaking her last and most important rule: don't get involved.  Now this professional liar must try to handle her most dangerous job yet: deciding where her loyalties truly lie.

Since I greatly enjoyed and admired Bunce's first novel, A Curse As Dark As Gold, I was very excited to read Star Crossed.  Bunce brings the same rich character development and elegant plot creation that she displayed in Curse to her second novel.  The world of this novel is fully developed and exciting to inhabit as a reader; drawing on diverse aspects of the Western European Renaissance, the fictional world has an established culture and complex political and religious structure that intensifies the drama and the suspense of the story's plot.  Digger is a great main character; she is a strong and smart survivor with a complex past and hidden vulnerabilities. Also, as a sneak thief and an outsider, she is a perceptive observer and interesting narrator.  However, the supporting characters are also strongly developed and equally complicated, a fact that makes the novel even more enjoyable.  The story is exciting and Bunce reveals the intriguing complications slowly, pulling the reader in more and more as the plot enfolds.   Occasionally, the complexities of the plot and cast of characters can become a little confusing and, while the novel has plenty of suspense and action, it might feel slow at times to readers who might be used to the more non-stop pace of sci-fi/fantasy adventures like The Hunger Games. 

Overall, Star Crossed is well-crafted and enjoyable entrance into a new fantasy universe.  I was very pleased to see that the sequel, Liar's Moonwill be published in November; I can't wait to see where Digger's adventures take her next! Star Crossed will pair well with other rich fantasy adventures featuring strong heroines such as those written by Tamora Pierce, Sherwood Smith, Malinda Lo, or Shannon Hale.


Monday, September 12, 2011

Putting the Sass and Snark Back Into Supernatural Romance: Paranormalcy by Kiersten White

ParanormalcyFrom the cover (dark clouds, pretty girl in Gothic-esque attire), you might think that Paranormalcy is another supernatural romance full of forbidden love and tragedy.  You would, however, be delightfully wrong.  Paranormalcy is a snarky and fun ride through a world populated by vampires, werewolves, elementals, faeries, and mermaids.  But all these paranormals don't really impress Evie anymore.  The sixteen year old's best friend is a mermaid, her sort-of ex is faerie, and she has grown up working for the International Paranormal Containment Agency, using her unique ability to see through paranormals' glamours to tag and bag rogue paranormals.   But all Evie wants is to be a normal; for her, nothing seems as exotic as the world of high school she sees in her favorite television show, the teen soap Easton Heights.  Knocking out predictable vampires with her favorite pink taser Tasey is great and all but it can't top lockers, driving, or prom in Evie's mind.  But suddenly paranormals are being murdered in huge numbers and a cute shapeshifting boy attempts to break into the IPCA headquarters.  Evie's unexplained abilities might be linked to the deaths, her creepy faerie ex won't leave her alone, and the IPCA seems to have some even darker secrets than Evie ever predicted.  

Paranormalcy is a refreshingly fun take on the popular paranormal/supernatural trend flooding the bookshelves in the YA fiction sections of libraries and bookstores everywhere.  Evie is sassy and snarky and innocent and strong; she's a great kick-butt heroine who remain very much a teenager despite her special talents.    In her review, Abby the Librarian compares the novel and Evie to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which is a brilliant connection.  Like Buffy, Evie possesses great power and must deal with some dark situations but she remains snarky and humorous and she persists in her attempts to carve out a 'normal teenage life' despite the strange reality of her situation.  Similarly, the novel takes on a traditionally dark and sometimes melodramatic genre with a lighter approach.  

The romance between Evie and Lend, a shapeshifter who (like Evie) feels like an outsider, is sweet and fun.  I admit I found it a relief to see that Evie views the dark, brooding faerie who tried to seduce in the past as creepy and dangerously possessive;  it was a nice change from some paranormal romances in which the plot revolves around the innocent girl who can't seem to resist the clearly dangerous dark creature who wants to seduce/hurt her.      

I sped through this novel with ease and can't wait to include in it some booktalks for 7th and 8th graders later this year.  I feel confident that it will fly off the shelves with very little work from me :) And, best of all, Supernaturally, the second book in this trilogy-to-be, was published in July so there's even more of Evie's sassy supernatural adventures to enjoy! 

4/5 STARS 

Monday, September 5, 2011

Huntress by Malinda Lo

I love fantasy, especially an area of fantasy I like to think of as 'awesome kick-butt heroines fantasy,' populated by writers such as Tamora Pierce, Kristin Cashore, Sherwood Smith, Phillip Pullman, Robin McKinley, and so many others.  With the publication of her first novel, Ash, in 2009, I added Malinda Lo to that mental list.  But Malinda Lo's writings bring another important factor to the table in the world of fantasy writing: some diversity.  As I said, I love fantasy; it has always been and will always be one of my favorite sub-genres.  However, I must say that it is, traditionally, a rather white-washed and heteronormative area of fiction.  Inspired by this reality, Lo and fellow young adult author Cindy Pon (Silver Phoenix and Fury of the Phoenix) banded together this year to address the continued lack of diversity in young adult fiction by creating the website and book tour "Diversity in YA," a celebration of diverse stories in the YA fiction world.    

However, Malinda Lo's newest novel Huntress is a gorgeous addition to young adult fantasy not simply because it brings variety; it is a great new fantasy because it is a excellent story with wonderful characters, lovely bittersweet romance, and a beautifully developed world.  Set in the same universe as Ash but centuries earlier, the human kingdom of Huntress is deeply out of balance; the sun has disappeared from the sky, destroying crops and trapping the land in a permanent chilly dullness.  Meanwhile, the bodies of strange creatures are appearing along the human nation's borders.  The king has received a summons from the Fairy Queen-the first in recent memory.  The Council at the Academy of Sages seeks answers and seems to have found a some in the confusing visions of Taisin, a young sage in training.  

Taisin has seen that both she and her classmate Kaede must travel with the king's son to visit the Fairy Queen in her capital city of Tanlili.  But Taisin hasn't told the council everything : although she has never really interacted with Kaede before, Taisin knows that her visions involving the other girl leave her feeling an intense combination of love and despair.  Meanwhile Kaede, who possesses no apparent otherworldly gifts and remains at the Academy only due to her father's political power, chooses to accept this quest out of a desperate need for escape--from her parents' expectations and from a proposed marriage to a nobleman she has never met.  These very different young women do not know what to expect from the strange journey--or from each other.  

From the opening pages, Lo immerses the reader in the story's world and characters.  The world she's crafted is beautifully fleshed out with the exposition woven gradually into the plot so that it enhances the story instead of weighing it down.   As other writers have drawn on historical cultures such as medieval Europe to enrich their invented worlds, Lo has infused her world with aspects of Asian cultures, especially Chinese culture.  The I Ching structures much of the sage studies and selections from that text begin each section of the novel;  Lo also offers a pronunciation guide for the characters' names at the beginning of the book.  By drawing on these less utilized cultures to craft her imagined world, Lo creates a refreshingly unique and beautiful setting for her romantic adventure. 

The third-person narration shifts its focus between characters, giving the reader a glimpse into most of the main characters' minds and perspectives.  The plot is great adventure fraught with creepy dangers.  But the highlight of the novel is definitely the wonderfully complex relationship between Taisin and Kaede.  The slowly growing attraction and emotional connection between the two young women creates a wonderful tension.  Although their romance might be considered bittersweet, I found it to be achingly lovely and very satisfying to follow.  Both Taisin and Kaede remain true to their established personalities throughout the story and their relationship allows each woman to find greater self-knowledge.  

My only quibble with this otherwise lovely novel is that it suffers from what I think of as 'double climax syndrome.'  The plot reaches its exciting and intense climatic point in a significant confrontation scene that manages to be both action-packed and contemplative; this first climax pulls together thematic concerns and the major plot very well.  But then afterwards there is a strange sort of second climatic point in a smaller confrontation and while I could understand some of the thematic significance for this second climax, it seemed unnecessary; the story had already reached its high point and this little side adventure feels a bit tacked on.  

However, overall, I found Huntress to be a lyrically written and compulsively readable adventure and romance.  I would highly recommend it both to fans of Malinda Lo's first novel, Ash, and to fans of other female-focussed fantasy adventures such as those written by Tamora Pierce or Kristin Cashore.      

4/5 STARS 

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Battle of the Sexes: Shut Out by Kody Keplinger

Shut OutThe battle of the sexes is a theme going back a long time in literature and in her sophomore novel Kody Keplinger draws on one of the classic examples: Aristophanes' Lysistrata.  In this Greek comedy, Lysistrata gathers together the women of the warring cities Athens and Sparta and convinces them to withhold sex from their husbands until a peace treaty is signed.  Keplinger transplants this situation from ancient Greece to high school in small town America, creating a funny romantic comedy that also takes a very honest look at the conflicting and confusing messages young women and men receive about sex today.  

Sunday, August 21, 2011

In My Mailbox #8

IMM is a fantastic meme in which bloggers list the books that they received over the last week via mail/bookstore/library.  It's hosted by the lovely Story Siren over at her awesome blog and you can go here to get more info about joining in!

The books in this week's In My Mailbox actually came in mail a couple weeks ago.  I signed up to get a bunch of ARCs at the Little Brown booth at ALA Annual in June and somewhat forgot about it.  Then a box full of beautiful ARCs showed at my doorstep and here are a few of them!
Hope everyone has a lovely book-filled week! 

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Love In A Controlled Climate: Matched and Crossed by Ally Condie

Sometime I wish my life were more predictable.  For example when I wasn't sure if my grad school plans were going to work out or if I'd get a job after graduation, the appeal of a more securely planned future definitely appealed to me.  Predictability is comforting for us; at times, having our lives planned out for us based on science and research sounds great.  The plethora of dating websites promising better romantic partnerships based on proven matching systems illustrates the appeal of this general idea. 

But where does this comforting predictability cross the line into a sinister disappearance of individual choice? 

Monday, August 8, 2011

From Page to Screen: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2

So here is my first try at a new occasional feature for this blog: short discussions comparing and analyzing books and their movie adaptations.  When I go to see a film based on a book that I read and enjoyed, I am nearly always full of apprehension.  As this blog might illustrate, I feel pretty passionately about novels I love.  So I tend to be somewhat, well, picky and judgmental about the film adaptations of these books.  

As my long-suffering friends could tell you, I have a long history of dissatisfaction with the Harry Potter movies, both as films and as adaptations of the books.  So I entered the movie theatre this past fall with pretty low expectations for Deathly Hallows, Part 1.  However, I was pleasantly surprised; overall, the movie captured the tone of the book as well as the bulk of the actual plot.  So this July I actually the most excited I've been for a Harry Potter in quite a while.  I checked the DVD of Part 1 out of the library to watch in preparation and relistened to several of the last few chapters on my trusty audiobook version of HP7.

For the first half hour or so, I was not disappointed.  The Gringotts scenes and escape via dragon were great: exciting and dangerous while also touching on the sudden moral questions facing Harry, Ron, and Hermione in their pursuit of the Horcruxes.  But then our heroes arrived back at Hogwarts and the film deviates from the book in ways that gave me pause.

When I go to watch a movie adaptation of a novel, I expect a certain number of alterations or cuts; the mediums are very different and so the way a story is told will be different in each.  The kind of changes from book to movie that I take issue with are those that alter the tone or characters significantly or that overly simplify or complicate plot points.  Deathly Hallows, Part 2 makes a few of just these kind of alterations.  

The first issue I had with this adaptation was the portrayal of the current situation at Hogwarts and of the reaction of the Hogwarts community to an oncoming external attack.  In the novel, we learn that Hogwarts has become a kind of prison for wizarding children; parents are being kept in check by the threat of harm to their children and in turn the children are kept in check by harsh rules and punishments that amount to torture.  Neville, Ginny, and Luna have been heading a resistance amongst the students, which has been whittled down as members (such as Ginny and Luna) disappear and punishments have gotten progressively more sadistic.  When the trio returns, Neville has been forced to guide the resistance further underground and literally into hiding within the walls of the castle.  The Room of Requirement has become a combination clubhouse, secret headquarters, and refuge; the rebellious students are living there, off the grid.  In the film, the Room appears just as described in the book with the house banners and hammocks.  However, five minutes after showing their hideaway, the film flashes to a scene in the Great Hall, where all the supposedly exiled students are gathered with the general student populace.  If they are still openly participating in school events, why does it appear that they are living in the Room?  But it is the contents of this particular meeting that bothered me most.  In the novel, when McGonagall learns from Harry that Voldemort is on his way to Hogwarts, she immediately implements a plan--a plan whose basics look to have been in place for a long time.  In contrast, the film's portrayal shows the group to be far less organized--and far less fair.  During the large meeting scene in which Snape is kicked out by McGonagall, the Transfiguration professor also sends the Slytherins to the dungeons--a move that is, to me, utterly out of character.  

This small moment likely seems minor to most film viewers.  And most people probably think I'm crazy for being so perturbed by it.  However, I find this sort of change to be careless in the worst way: it implies certain things about that character and the defending army of teachers, students, and Order members that directly conflict with their portrayals in the book.  McGonagall is an admirable character because she works so hard to act fairly towards her students; she avoids favoritism and generally does not allow her politics or feelings affect her role as a teacher.  This little moment in the film conflicted completely with her character as portrayed for all seven volumes of the series.  Additionally, the underage students are never sent out; in the books it is made clear that the students who remain to fight in the battle are (mostly) over 17 years old and all are there voluntarily.  Again, a tiny error that bothers a picky viewer like me :) 

But I have to agree with the majority of other viewers: overall the film's last half was quite epic and thrilling.  I felt that the final confrontation between Harry and Voldemort was a little drawn out and actually less dramatic that the way it was structured in the novel.  However, in general, I left the theatre generally pleased--but also with an increased urge to complete my re-listening to the audiobook of the original ;)  And to read some fan essays while jamming to some fabulous wizard rock.  After all, Harry Potter is only over when we fans say it's over, my friends. 

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Book Bites: Keeping Reviews Short and Sweet

I can read fast, especially given extra chunks of free reading time.  However, I do not blog fast. I am still learning how to write up reviews and posts well and within a personal timeline; completing my master's degree in a year did not help matters.  This summer when my homework reading load was down but my work hours were up, I found that I could get back into my more normal pattern of reading at least one to three or more books a week (depending on the book's length and level of interest).  But I could not seem to make my blogging keep up with my reading.  

I thought of the one-minute book talk assignment I had done earlier this year in my children's resources class: could I do the same thing in a blog post and cover a few books all at once? Around the same time that this idea occurred to me, I noticed that the fabulous blogger and librarian GreenBeanTeenQueen had begun doing something similar, calling them 'Flash Reviews.'  So I was inspired by these two ideas to come up with my own new occasional blog feature: Book Bites.  Here's the first edition, a general hodgepodge of titles I read over the past few months.

Rapunzel's RevengeCalamity JackRapunzel's Revenge and Calamity Jack 
by Shannon and Dean Hale, illustrated by Nathan Hale 5/5 STARS

What happens when you combine a feisty heroine with super-powered hair and attitude, a well-meaning trickster, a classically cruel villain, and a magically enhanced Wild West? A rollicking and absolutely delightful adventure, that's what! I love fairytale reboots and this pair of companion graphic novels are now two of my all time favorites.  Shannon and Dean Hale create a fantastical world full of magic and adventure, brought to life by Nathan Hale's bright, active, and elegant illustrations.  Rapunzel and Jack are wonderful characters and I was thrilled to follow them on their personal quests for justice.

Suite Scarlett  Suite Scarlett by Maureen Johnson
  4/5 STARS

Scarlett Martin's life sounds like quirky but popular movie: she grew up in the Hopewell Hotel in the center of NYC with her parents and three siblings, Spencer, Lola, and Marlene.  But so far, the summer of her fifteenth birthday is looking to be far from cinematic: the hotel is falling apart--and so are the Martins.  Between her siblings' problems, a bizarre new guest, and a gorgeous young actor, Scarlett's summer suddenly turns into a wild adventure full of enough drama, subterfuge, and romance to fill several Broadway plays. And like Scarlett, I was thrilled go along for the ride! A classic Maureen Johnson adventure: quirky and madcap with well-drawn characters and delightfully witty writing.     

My Invented Life My Invented Life by Lauren Bjorkman   
3.5/5 STARS

Sisters Eva and Roz have always been in competition but they have also always been incredibly close.  But out of nowhere, Eva cuts Roz out of her life and Roz cannot figure out why. So Roz, for whom all the world is truly a stage, is determined to discover the secrets her sister is keeping from her with a dramatic plot worthy of the Bard himself.  Bjorkman's debut novel takes its inspiration from Shakespeare's 'As You Like It,' one of my favorite plays, and it takes the vitality of that story and applies it to the twenty-first century's diverse world of love.  I'm always looking for novels that present a more flexible and fluid picture of sexuality and this one does so wonderfully.
How To Say Goodbye In Robot How to Say Goodbye in Robot by Natalie Standiford
 4.5/5 STARS

Bea AKA Robot Girl meets Jonah AKA Ghost Boy through the public school system's obsession with alphabetic order.  Despite Jonah's resistance, the two form a unique and deep friendship based on a shared affinity for late-night radio shows and an overwhelming sense of alienation.  As they alternatively heal and push each other away, Bea and Jonah develop a relationship that isn't quite a romance but is definitely full of love.  This story of the deep connection between two people searching for meaning in a confusing world is as lovely and quirky as its excellently drawn characters.  A beautiful book about the complex world of an intense, true friendship.