Bad Book Blues

19 Dec

Don’t you love that feeling when you finish a book that was just great? Maybe it caught you by surprise, like Jennifer Castle’s You Look Different In Real Life did when I finished it yesterday, or maybe it fit the ticket for exactly what you needed. Either way, it leads to a warm feeling when you read the last page and reverently close the book, sitting there and just being for a few minutes before snapping out of that world that the book had you caught in.

Then you dive into another book, hoping for the same wonderful experience, and the book is mediocre, or subpar, or just plain bad. That’s what’s happening with me right now. The good news is, life is too short to read books that you hate (unless they’re assigned for school, in which case, suck it up and make the best of it), and there are far more great books out there that you have time to read.

So. On to skimming Lauren Conrad’s Infamous so I can read and review better things– and hopefully I’ll get a review up of You Look Different In Real Life soon!

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Review: His Dark Assassins Series

17 Dec

I love historical fiction, but a common problem that I find is that the author rewrites history to suit our modern sensibilities, giving characters modern thoughts or behaving in ways inappropriate to their historical context. This is especially tricky when trying to write strong female characters; how do you create awesome, strong female characters which still fit in the context of their times? I am in no way saying that there were not strong females throughout history, but understanding their strength often requires some social context of the times, which can be a lot to cram into a novel.

This issue can be resolved by impressive writers, but there is yet another solution! Alternate histories offer the best of both worlds; a rich historical background (to the extent that it serves the story), and the flexibility to create culture as one would in a fantasy world. This means the author can pick and choose what they want to use in their world, which can create a fantastic yarn without the worries of accurately portraying the social context.

The first two books of Robin LaFevers’ His Fair Assassins trilogy uses this genre to its best possible use, using the backdrop of 15th century Brittany (more or less keeping the political history and adding some interesting religion twists) for her story of empowered female assassins. I’ll give a brief rundown of the two books that are out so far, Grave Mercy and Dark TriumphMild Spoilers Ahead.

url Grave Mercy- First off, let me do my obligatory whine about the asinine Pretty White Girl cover art. Ugh. Why. Why. The art turned me off of the book right away, but I am so grateful that I got past the cover and kept reading, because LaFevers’ writing is gripping and lovely. She immediately plunges us into the world and mind of Ismae, who begins as a turnip farmer’s daughter doomed to be married off to a lecherous man. She is soon sent to a convent where daughters of Mortaine (aka Death Himself) train to become assassins. As one of his daughters, Ismae can see marks on people that Mortaine has chosen for death, and she carries out his will. This soon plunges her into a political intrigue involving a 12-year-old duchess inheriting a duchy of Brittany (which is historically-based), and into an unexpected romance. Ismae also begins questioning the motives of the convent where she trained after she sees Mortaine and finds a whole new understanding of her destiny. In the end she chooses to use death and the freeing of the soul as an act of mercy to those suffering, instead of as vengeance, a clear departure from how she was trained. This plants the idea that institutions can veer away from their original intent, and also demonstrates how groups that seem good can still be flawed or make wrong decisions.

url-1Dark Triumph continues this theme, and it follows a completely different character from Grave Mercy‘s Ismae. Sybella was also convent-trained, but her similarities to Ismae end there. When we readers are first introduced to Sybella’s thoughts, she is a dark-minded and very troubled woman, wishing for death. Whereas Ismae did her assassinations as duties, Sybella loves seeking vengeance. Throughout the book we learn why she is so troubled and cynical; she is raised by a monstrous nobleman, sought after by an incestuous brother, and has seen terrible death and gone through loss and pain. She is more blatantly rebellious against the convent than Ismae is in the first novel, and as the political plot of the young duchess continues to unfold, Sybella begins to heal and starts a romance with Beast, the ugly, strong warrior who also appeared in the first book. They’re oddly perfect together, and it’s refreshing to see two books in a series that approach romance so well, and yet so differently from each other. The growth that Sybella goes through from beginning to end is organic and realistic, and the ending will make the reader be scrambling for the third book, which will feature yet another of Mortaine’s daughters.

7 Podcasts for Story-Loving Teens

2 Dec

If you haven’t made much use of podcasts yet, you need to get on it. As a multi-tasker and a sponge for information, I’m a huge fan. They allow me to catch up on news or hear good selections of music or funny stories while I’m busy cleaning my room, cooking dinner, or just procrastinating. There are thousands of these free, downloadable programs available on just about every subject imaginable, and there are hundreds of podcasts that are geared specifically for story-lovers and book geeks.

This is especially great considering what a solitary past-time reading typically is. Podcasts create community through stories and books, as well as creation and interpretation of stories new and old.

The following is a list of some recommended podcasts for teenagers. Keep in mind that this is only a starting point. There are TONS more. Go onto the iTunes store and let the exploring begin!

ep424-biographical-fragments-life-julian-princeFor the Sci-Fi Junkie: Escape Pod

Deemed the “Science Fiction Podcast Magazine,” Escape Pod regularly puts out readings of contemporary short science fiction stories, some mind-bending, some spooky, some thought-provoking. It’s a production of Escape Artists, Inc., who also put out Pseudopod, which showcases horror stories, and PodCastle, a fantasy fiction podcast.

Time Length: Anywhere from 20 min-80 min

Also Recommended: Relic Radio Sci-Fi

9781570613814For the Aspiring Author: Book Lust with Nancy Pearl

Some may be familiar with Nancy Pearl’s Book Lust, a book with hundreds of book recommendations for everyone. Nancy Pearl is one well-read lady, and in her podcast, she interviews authors from all over, including some notable writers of YA and children’s literature like M.T. Anderson, Sherman Alexie, Tamora Pierce, and Chris van Allsburg. Aspiring writers will find it fascinating to hear these notable authors talk about their process, inspirations, and viewpoints.

Time Length: Roughly 30 min

Also Recommended: Books on the Nightstand

imgresFor the Craver of True Tales: The Moth

The Moth is a showcase of true stories told in front of a live audience. It’s been going on since 1997, and many of the performances–some by writers and professional performers, but others by regular people who went through an experience and have a story to tell about it. The stories can be profound, funny, painful, or heartbreaking, but all of them showcase what good oral storytelling is all about.

Time Length: 15-20 min for regular episodes, roughly 55 min for “Moth Radio Hour” episodes

Also Recommended: This American Life

nightvalelogo-webFor the Lovecraft Enthusiast: Welcome to Night Vale

Welcome to Night Vale has gained a lot of popularity over the past few months, and it’s easy to see why. Set up like community radio broadcasts of the strange town Night Vale, this podcast was described to me as “Prairie Home Companion meets Lovecraft.” The town’s mysteries, including a dog park that must never be entered and a gigantic glow cloud, are absurdly funny, and the show announcer Cecil’s gravitas makes everything all the more delightful. Fans of the weird and strange will eat this up.

Time Length: Roughly 30 min

Also Recommended: Darker Projects: Night Terrors

Poetry Off the ShelfFor the Poetry Fan: Poetry Off the Shelf

This Poetry Foundation podcast leads listeners through readings by poets, interviews with critics, and short poetry documentaries. This podcast focuses on contemporary American poetry, but there’s a wide range to be found here. And, with the commentary and interviews, the episodes can be surprisingly fun–no intimidation required.

Time Length: Roughly 15 min

Also Recommended: Poem of the Day (Also from the Poetry Foundation)

imgres-1For the Literary Connoisseur: Selected Shorts

Selected Shorts is the creme de la creme of short story readings. Great performers read aloud stories by classic and contemporary authors in front of a live audience. This podcast demonstrates the magic that can happen when written words are transformed into a great performance. If the thought of Leonard Nimoy reading Ray Bradbury or Neil Gaiman hosting an episode around the concept of illusions makes you perk up, give this one a listen.

Time Length: Roughly 60 min

Also Recommended: The Classic Tales Podcast

imgres-2For the Comic Buff: 11 O’Clock Comics

Vince, Chris, David and Jason know comics. Like, really, really well. Prepare to be astounded by their in-depth discussions about everything new and happening in the comics world. They focus mainly on Marvel comics, but there is a treasure trove of material out there to discuss and to cover. Anyone curious about comics is bound to learn a lot from listening to these guys, and they’ll probably convince you to start making a list of comics that you want to check out on your own. The episodes are long, but you can always chunk them up into sections. Some episodes contain explicit language.

Time Length: 2-3 hours

Also Recommended: The Comicology Podcast

Phew! I hope one or two of these piqued your interest. Now go download a couple episodes and start listening!

Oh Great, Another Pretty White Girl: The YA Cover Art Conundrum

17 Nov

Your mission, should you choose to accept it: Go into your local library or bookstore and briefly browse the young adult section. Do you see a trend in the cover art? Are you finding yourself wondering if you’re in the magazine section as you stare at each different white, airbrushed face?

I can’t blame you. The trend of putting photographs and illustrations of impossibly beautiful white girls on the covers of YA books started quite a while ago and is still going strong. And perhaps this shouldn’t be a surprise. Predominately Caucasian beauties decorate advertisements, TV shows, movies, CD covers and magazines–why stop at books?

Here’s why. Books give readers the singular chance to create their own personal image of the character in their head, filling in gaps left by the author. If the story is written well, these characters will feel realistic and relatable, at least in some capacity. When designers slap a pretty white girl on the cover, they set a standard of what these female characters–often strong, flawed, and admirable characters–should look like. Portraying these characters as unattainably beautiful women creates a barrier between the reader and the characters before the readers even open the pages!

It’s not just that these faces are flawless and that the bodies are perfect, though. Whitewashing, which has long been a trend in the magazine world, also seeps into YA cover art. This fantastic article on the ALA website discusses how racially diverse characters are often portrayed as whitewashed on YA covers, or in silhouette, masking their race. You needn’t look far to find examples of these–the article has a thorough rundown of examples. I myself have reviewed several books with art guilty of this (see the cover art in my review of The Lost Girl, which has an Indian protagonist).

YA writer Ellen Oh also wrote about this issue on her blog. She makes an interesting point that fiction aimed toward children and middle school kids doesn’t suffer this problem as often.

The thing about this trend is that it doesn’t have to be this way. There are some beautiful examples of cover art, both minimalist and intricate, that don’t fall into this trap:

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Above, for example, are two uses of silhouettes that aren’t masking race but are rather used to make a visually striking cover. I personally love the way silhouettes look from an aesthetic perspective, but the trend of using them to hide an ethnic protagonist is less than wonderful.

 

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Here are two opposite but engaging covers, one very minimalist and one more elaborate and atmospheric. I’m not here to say that every great book cover should revolve around inanimate objects, but a book doesn’t need an airbrushed model on the cover to pique readers’ interests. 

And let’s talk about the readers for a second. Not only does the “pretty white girl” cover perpetuate distorted ideals for female readers, but it also alienates any potential male readers from becoming interested. Some boys might assume that a female main character means it’s just a “girl’s book,” although this notion is swiftly changing. Take, for example, these two popular and well-marketed books featuring strong female characters:

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These books are marketed to look like the action-packed stories that they are, yet I see far too many books (fantasy in particular) that boys would enjoy if not for the cover art that screams “THIS IS A GIRLS’ BOOK FOR GIRLS ONLY” (I’m looking at you, The Girl of Fire and Thorns.)

Young adult as a genre continues to grow both its market and the age of its readership. As someone who’s not involved in the cover art and marketing scheme of YA, I can only hope that this detrimental “pretty white girl” fad will give way to some beautiful, innovative and appealing book art that celebrates the diversity of the characters and stories found in YA literature.

Review: The Lost Girl

29 Sep

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Sangu Mandanna tells a compelling science fiction tale in The Lost Girl. Amarra is an echo, a being created to replace a real human if that human ever dies. Because of this, she has no life of her own and is regarded as an abomination by many. Amarra the echo has to read the same subjects, eat the same things, and have the same experiences as the real Amarra, a girl living in India.

The echo takes some self-agency, however, rebelling against her constricted life and choosing a name of her own, Eva. When she is sent from London to replace Amarra, however, things become much more complicated.

The Lost Girl has some clever references to Frankenstein, and grapples with some of the same questions Mary Shelley’s classic asks: What does it mean to be human? If man creates a living being, is it an abomination or a miracle? How do humans react to something or someone who is different or other?

This book is far from ponderous, however. The plot moves quickly and Eva proves to be a likeable and resourceful heroine who struggles for her future. And, yes, there is the obligatory love story. Eva is supposed to love Amarra’s boyfriend Ray, but she’s already started to develop forbidden feelings for her tutor in London. The story handles this romance believably and touchingly, however, and it never overrides the main plot. Original, emotional, and tightly-written, The Lost Girl has appeal for science fiction fans and for those less familiar with the genre. Recommended, particularly for grades 8-11.

Incarceron and a look at the 2012-2013 ITA nominations.

12 Mar

 

It’51MscpKKInL._SL500_AA300_s been a while since I sat down and sunk my teeth into a YA novel! This one’s been on my list since last fall–it’s gotten a lot of buzz at the high school and junior high level, and the sequel, Sapphique, is already out.

While this book is technically a science fiction story set in a futuristic world, it often feels like a fantasy novel; there’s a quest narrative and a dose of magical elements, and an ingenious mechanism that allows for both a dystopian, futuristic prison, and an opulent kingdom designed to match “Era” standards, everything fitting into an aesthetic and social system from days gone by, to exist in the same book.

Let me break it down, because this is where things get a bit complicated. Incarceron is a living prison. It is sentient, constantly watching and recording its prisoners, and nobody has ever escaped. Finn is convinced that he was born on the Outside, but the only clue he has is a mysterious mark on his wrist and a crystal key.

In a separate part of the world, or perhaps in a separate world altogether, there’s the land where everything is designed to feel like the past; carriages, castles, gowns, and the works. Although there is some cheating on the sly with out-of-era technology, the social system stays dated. Claudia, daughter of Incarceron’s warden, is betrothed to be married, but when she finds a way of communicating with Finn, she begins to learn about the prison, which is entirely different from what she and her people have been told. In return, Finn begins to piece together his mysterious past.

In terms of prose, there’s nothing too exciting going on here, but the world Fisher creates is fascinating, and it gives way to some interesting ideas to chew over. I was particularly fascinated with what these worlds were ideally supposed to be and what they ended up being instead. Both Incarceron and the “Outside” were designed to be paradises, and so either side considers the other side as a paradise. In the beginning, Incarceron was to be a place where criminals were relocated and reformed to be a part of this amazing society with excellent education and technology, but instead factions split up and crime breaks out. And Claudia’s world, too, is far from perfect, even though it was designed to be.  “We will choose an Era from the past and re-create it. We will make a world free from the anxiety of change! It will be Paradise!” reads a decree that opens up an early chapter of the book.

That leads the reader to ask, why do we idealize the past? Is it because we only choose to see the good details and ignore the bad or inconvenient ones? It seems natural to become nostalgic for things gone, to shy away from change and to keep things old. Yet the citizens of this Era-restricted world constantly cheat with modern conveniences; hidden washing machines, secret elevators, carefully-used Skin Wands. It’s interesting that society seems unable to make a comfortable mesh of these old and new things; instead they pretend that everything is old, hiding away new conveniences like some ugly but necessary secret.

The fate of the prison, too, makes the reader wonder, as the characters in the book do, if man automatically reverts to evil. When criminals are given the best resources, will they still return to crime and evil, despite all best efforts? I really don’t think so. I mean, Australia turned out okay.

At 442 pages, this book is rather hefty, but the type is forgivingly large and the book flies by. There are some satisfying twists toward the end, including the very inventive and surprising location of the prison. It’s also a nominee for the 2012-2013 Iowa Teen Awards (ITA). While I wouldn’t deem it as the best book of 2012, it certainly is the most inventive one I’ve read this year, and I’m curious to read the sequel.

Then again, I haven’t gotten around to ANY of the other ITA nominations for the year! I need to get on that. Here’s a look at the other nominees:

  • Artichoke’s Heart, by Suzanne Supplee
  • The Big Field, by Mike Lupica
  • Chains, by Laurie Halse Anderson
  • I Am Number Four, by Pittacus Lore
  • Leviathan, by Scott Westerfeld (my GRANDMOTHER has read this one and I have not. Goodness)
  • Lockdown, by Walter Dean Myers
  • Lost in the River of Grass, by Ginny Rorby
  • Maze Runner, by James Dashner
  • Out of My Mind, by Sharon Draper
  • Payback Time, by Carl Deuker
  • Ruined, by Paula Morris
  • The Running Dream, by Wendelin van Draanen
  • The Truth About Truman School, by Dori Hillestad Butler
  • Virals, by Kathy Reichs.

Have you read Incarceron? If so, what did you think? How about any of the other ITA nominations? Any guesses for which one will or should win?

Readaloudable Books

4 Dec

Some books demand to be read aloud. The importance of reading stories aloud to children has already been explained in far more interesting and factual ways than I could do here, but let me step up on my soapbox for a second and defend the importance of reading aloud with a child even after she has become a confident reader.

No matter what your age, there is a joy to telling and listening to a story aloud, a joy which traces back to before words were written down at all. Reading aloud not only helps with fluency and creating a teacher-student/parent-child/friend-friend bond; it also brings the story alive in a whole new way. My mother and I would read books aloud at night well into my junior high years, taking turns reading alternating chapters (although I’d never admit that to my friends). Even in college, my roommate and I would read each other snippets from our books or little anecdotes before we went to sleep. Reading together is enjoyable in the same way that watching a movie or a TV show with someone else who appreciates it. You laugh together at the jokes, you yell in astonishment, you feel the same sense of awe at a perfectly woven sentence that pulls you both somewhere impossible and wonderful for a few moments.

The following are seven classics that only serve as a starting point. If you haven’t read them, please do. If you have, read them again, this time aloud to someone who will beg to know, “What happens next?”

With the bedtime storyteller in mind, I’ve given an estimate of how many nights the story would take to read, assuming that the reader would be devoting 20-30 minutes a night for reading.

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