Tuesday, February 24, 2015

On The Beach for a New Generation

Author:  Tommy Wallach
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers (3/24/15)

The plot of We All Looked Up may seem familiar.  An asteroid is headed towards Earth.  While it's possible that it won't hit, the probability is that it will hit and the world will end in about two month's time. 

Now, I loved this book, but for some reason, publishers keep comparing this to The Stand.  Wipe any thought of The Stand out of your mind. That's an awful comparison because it's got nothing in common with it. The one book that did keep running through my head was On the Beach by Nevil Shute . It's not a story about the apocalypse so much as it is about the philosophy of life. What would you do if you knew with almost absolute certainty that you would die within two months?

The teens in this book are vibrantly, brilliantly alive. They love and hate. They smoke out, they play music, they have sex, they adore each other and betray each other, and they do every day ordinary teen things. They are young and feel immortal. They've got their entire lives ahead of them.

Until they don't.

While the story focuses on one school and one group of kids, the story feels more global than that. You get to witness both the good and the bad of the way society deals with impending destruction.

At its heart, though, the book is about dreams, about learning what's most important, and about living life to the fullest. It manages to be both hopeful and heartbreaking all at once.

The writing is beautiful, the characters more authentic than you would expect, and the story keeps your attention to the last page.

Have you seen it before? Sure, but it's a new generation and it works.

*ARC Provided via Amazon Vine Program

Monday, February 23, 2015

And the 2015 Newbery Award Goes To...

Awards are popularity contests.  The Newbery Medal, given to the author whose book is considered to be the most distinguished in children’s literature out of a year’s worth of books aimed at young readers, is no different.  I have never been on an awards committee.  I have spoken to and taken classes from library professionals who have been on awards committees including the Newbery.  They all are in some level of agreement that the most passionate voice often holds sway.  This is not to say that book awards are without merit and that what goes on behind closed doors is not important.

If you look at the winners of the most prestigious award in American literature for young readers from the inception of award the Newbery Medal in 1922, it’s rather obvious that the books selected have not been chosen by children for children.  The list of winners is plagued by works that have gone out of print (or should have if not for the award designation), been loved by adults but not children, and are often difficult to sell to the target audience.

To say a revolution is afoot might be a false claim, but there does seem to be a sense of change coming, slow as it is.  In 2008 the committees were chastised for selecting books that are not universally loved by young readers or even read by them or the people who regularly work with children.  However, the 2009 selection of Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book not only connected with adults but, surprisingly is enjoyed by the target audience and a rare genre (science fiction, fantasy, mystery, and so on) selection.   (Nonfiction as winner is just as rare in case we're counting.)

Realistic fiction is awards bait between the dead or absent parents, children having to face the harsh realities of life such as the death of a loved one including but not limited to pets and family members, being misfits, being on a book long guilt trip, and just suffering in general.  Orphans and dead pets in particular have long been overused to create drama and force a coming of age moment in realistic children’s fiction.  So, for a book that has some of the previously listed elements but was also about friendship and family in a nontraditional way and a happened paranormal variety fantasy to be given the highest distinction, it was a sign that the times might be a changing.  Or Neil Gaiman's just that brilliant and most librarians love him and he just plain deserved the award that year.

Not all the winners and honors since then have broken the mold.  There is still plenty of favoritism in play and authors who, as well written and accomplished as they are, seem to simply awarded for publishing something in a given year.  All it takes is one voice, one person with a deep seated passion for one book to push a book to medal winning status.  It should be noted that any number of honor books can be designated from none to infinity, though in a given year there has never been more than four, though there are some years where none have been selected.

Below are the 2015 selections for the Newbery Medal and honors including a brief description of each and what might be some of the reasons why they were selected.

Alexander, Kwame.  The Crossover.  Boston: HMH Books for Young Readers, 2014.

Someone suggested to me that this novel in verse was not a story but unconnected poetry about basketball.  That person obviously did not read this book correctly.  Alexander's medal deserving book is, actual, a strong narrative. Twelve year old Josh Bell discusses the highs and lows of his last basketball season through a variety of poems.  What the book does well is make you feel the game even if you are not familiar with it.  Josh also has to tackle some big changes including the different path he is taking from his twin brother Jordan who is more interested in girls than sports.

Alexander gets to the heart of what it's like to grow up without needing a plethora of words or resorting to cheap tricks.  There's an honesty to the book and Josh as a character that is relatable regardless of one's age or background.  That the poetry feels natural and each one leads nicely into the next without a break in flow makes The Crossover stand out even more.  It so easily could have been a device, but Alexander's ability to foreshadow deftly means you're eased into even the most emotional moments without feeling you've been cheated.  Truly a masterful work and an example of how to craft a poetic novel that kids will enjoy. 

Honor Books
Bell, Cece.  El Deafo.  New York: Amulet Books, 2014.

The most interesting aspect of this book's selection for a Newbery honor is that it is, in fact, a graphic novel.  The Newbery awards writing.  The Caldecott is awarded to illustrators for book illustrations.  I don't think Bell's book would be exactly high up the list for the illustration award, but I can say that the writing is quite strong.  El Deafo is the author's mostly autobiographical account of growing up with hearing loss.  As a result of a meningitis infection at the age of four, she lost most of her ability to hear.  The story is as much about fitting in as it is about the author finding her own self worth and not letting others opinions rule her life.  Bell's writing of her own story appears to be of a no nonsense simplicity, but it still hits home as a coming into one's self story, made up alter egos and all.  Young readers will love the format and relate to the story, hijinks and all. Adults will appreciate the bunny ears used throughout even characters without hearing loss.

Woodson, Jacqueline.  Brown Girl Dreaming.  New York: Nancy Paulsen Books, 2014.

Woodson discusses what it was like to grow up essentially in two worlds and of finding her calling to writing through free verse poems.  She writes about complex topics such as having to grow up and navigate the different ways of life in the south and in New York City.  Family, religion, politics, and location are all recurring topics.  Woodson is an excellent writer of free verse contemporary novels, but the inclusion of this book also feels a bit like an oft honored author getting another nod for doing something a little different.  It's a different sort of autobiographical effort and the message of following one's dreams and believing in something including oneself are important parts of the narrative and worth consideration even if adults undoubtedly will get more from this book than children. 

The 2015 Newbery selections have the feel of a diversity that has not always been present in the awarding in the past, but still have a sense of similarity between them.  Two books are written in verse, one is a graphic novel, two are by women, two by writers of color, one by are biographical in nature, one by a person with hearing loss.  None are traditional narratives.  This may be progress, but at the same time an oft honored but never winner is among the group.  One thing is clear, though.  The award and awarding of the Newbery Medal and its honors has changed since 1922.  The times truly are a changing and it is only right that the writer to whom the Newbery Medal is awarded reflects the times.  I, at least, can say that the winner, Kwame Alexander, is getting well deserved recognition for crafting a book I not only enjoyed experiencing but enjoy giving to young readers who feel the same after reading it.

Monday, February 16, 2015

And Now for Something Completely Different: Why YA Love Triangles Need to Go

The love triangle.  We've all read one or hundreds in our lives.  One character gets involved with another and then a third person shows up who is more interesting or cares more or is just more and the world will end if our main character does not anguish over who to choose.  Below are two examples of books I recently read that include the love triangle cliche.

Example 1
Book one is styled as a fantasy, derivative fairy tale meets bizarre but true history and a romantic subplot.  The main character, aka first person narrator, is a seventeen-year-old and unsurprisingly naive girl who is betrothed to the prince.  Their relationship can be called distanced but amicable despite not having seen each other or really spoken to each other in the two years since their betrothal.  No sparks fly between them but there is nothing to say they couldn't make it work.

In comes the foreigner to unravel everything and be love interest number two.  The narrator has led a sheltered life and knows little of the world, so, of course, our worldly introduction will be interesting to her.  However, she almost instantly goes along with what he says and bam!  She's 'in love' to quote her from several times in the book.  Here is someone who has had zero references in her life to what true love and being in love is like, but she knows she's in love with someone who is still basically a stranger.  Their chemistry on page is worse than the chilly relationship between the narrator and her betrothed.  Dramatics ensue in which her loyalties to both are tested for various reasons including 'doing the right thing' and 'saving the kingdom.'

Example 2
In book two, this time a 'realistic' fiction, the narrator main character (again, seventeen-ish and female) is torn between jock perfection who she knows gets around but doesn't really know other than he's the hottest thing in school and that guy blindly devoted to her since childhood who her friends think is weird and kind of a loser.  One insists he can help solve her problems and the other basically just wants to hookup or something.

Both of the example books are being released by big publishing houses this year.  One senses the continuing of a trend.  The trend being the love triangle that drives teen angst.  Here's why it needs a break or to just disappear for a while:

Totes cliche
Everyone is doing it!  All you need to think about are some of the most popular YA series.  It's difficult to find one that doesn't triangle at some point and a number of none genre one offs pull the same tricks to apparently make the story more interesting.  There are authors (John Green whom I don't heart but respect for not triangling his romances) of works for teens capable of crafting realistic teen works without resorting to: 

Forced melodrama
Consider the usual love triangle plot.  Now take out one of those characters (preferably the least believable or most unsuited to the main character).  Yes, it changes the story - sometimes a lot - but it also shows that there might be a more interesting plot that comes to the fore.  Example 1 is a case where the melodrama of the romantic triangle distracted from what was interesting about the book.  I almost missed the good bits at the end because I had to wade through unnecessary relationships.  The main reason for the drama factor?  This:

The relationships themselves are implausible
When I think of most real-life teenage relationships including my own, they don't usually involve someone being forced to constantly pledge allegiance to one person or another romantically over the course of a predetermined amount of time.  I don't think my experience in this is singular, either, which might explain why the love triangle is most present in implausible or genre (fantasy, science fiction) scenarios.  The audience is already tuned to world being different, so why not make expectations of relationships that way? 
This is really a fault of the forced 'do I love him or do I love him' aspect of these type of books.  The romantic interest characters in question (usually hims) are often diametrically opposed.  One's the good guy, the other bad, so you get a whole other cliche can of fish.  The main character (usually hers) is always put in a situation where she doesn't wish to choose one or the other but one of them handles the problem better and thus must be the victor.  Except:

Nobody really wins
The love triangle is a game of cat and mouse where they're all chasing each other for the prized cheese, no exceptions.  It's an angstfest to 'create interest' or 'flesh out the characters' or, as is most often the case, 'show the main character who she really is.'  There are enough coming of age tales available that don't need romantic interests to be relatable to the target audience much less the people who read them for fun outside the target. 
In the end, the main character has always been through the emotional wringer, the love interests usually have gotten into a brawl with each other (sometimes fatally so), and none of them are truly happy despite the pretext that it can end happily ever after even in realistic fiction.  Katniss is a good example of being torn between loyalties and ending up content but not truly happy as well as being a victim of forced triangulation to intensify drama. 

Now, I'm not saying I expect the publishers and authors to completely do away with the triangle or even the rare love square.  They can be done well, but the problem lies in everything I just said above and some ideas I didn't even touch on.  Ideally the romantic interest, one singular interest, would have qualities of both the usual bad and good boys that bring out the best in the main character.  I scoff at the idea that a plausible relationship between two attracted characters can't be interesting without introducing a third (John Green, again, does this well even though I still don't particularly care for his books.)  Yes, the triangles sell and create marketing opportunities.  Yes, it is easier to say you're team whatevs versus team whatnots.  But just because those things are good for selling doesn't mean they're good to read all the time.  So, for a change now and then, let's try something completely different and not force love triangles into all our book.  I suspect the results will be much more interesting and certainly something different.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Does a book have to be good to be enjoyable? Red Queen as a case study.

Several of our contributors have recently read Victoria Aveyard's Red Queen, a new and heavily hyped YA novel.

As a group, we were wary, as most of us have also read (and loved) Pierce Brown's Red Rising. The commonalities in the plot are hard to miss. Both feature a society with a color-based class system, with Reds at the bottom and Golds or Silvers at the top. Both feature a plucky young Red who, through no particular plan of their own, infiltrates the most elite circle of the upper class, and if their true nature is exposed they risk death. Both intend to upend the rigid social heirarchy by working from the inside.

Oh, and did i mention one's named Darrow, and one is named Mare Barrow?

Either putting our concerns aside, or holding them tight and making a bowl of popcorn first, we read Red Queen. And a funny thing happened: some of us liked it, and some of us didn't, but we all agree it wasn't very good.

When we disagree on a book, it's often the case that what the low-star camp cites as plot holes, inconsistencies, or just nonsense are details the high-star camp can explain, justify, or otherwise believe. For example, when we disagreed wildly about Winner's Curse, it was the exact same elements that made or broke the book for each group.

However, in this case, both the pro-Red Queen and anti-Red Queen camp agreed: this story is full of plot holes, character inconsistencies, flawed worldbuilding, and, frankly, nonsense. We got together and had a lovely time listing out all the things that Just Plain Didn't Make Sense. It's not a short list. This is not a plot that can withstand even casual scrutiny.

But while some readers refer to The List to justify why they didn't like the book, others acknowledged the list and insist the book is worth reading anyway.

One is reminded, in a way, of Summer Blockbuster Movies, which are often more about spectacle than content. While you can sit down and make a (very long) list of the problems with, say, Die Hard, most people will still agree that it's a fun movie worth watching. So why is it different with a book?

I was one of the readers who, despite my misgivings, ended up enjoying the book. I think the reason i liked it has to do with the fact that it is, in several ways, a Superhero Story. Mare is a bit like an X-Men mutant, and i spent a fair deal of my youth watching the X-Men animated series, collecting the cards, and blowing my allowance on the comic books. Any comic book fan has to have a habit of overlooking the kind of errors that plague Red Queen, otherwise they probably wouldn't enjoy comic books in the first place.

Reading is always going to be a subjective experience. One person's Favorite Book Ever is a stack of pages that another reader couldn't even finish. But it's rare to find a book like this, that everyone seems to agree is deeply flawed while disagreeing about its merit. I invite my fellow bloggers to add their own comments about why they liked or disliked this book.

Disclosure: most, if not all, of us who red Red Queen got the Advance Readers Copy for free through the Amazon Vine program. 

Friday, February 6, 2015

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington -- via Hollywood

If you're a non-fiction fan, you probably already know that university presses are a treasure trove for readers of history, film studies, literary criticism, etc. While a few academic publishers such as Oxford University Press and University of California Press have been targeting general audiences for many years, now many university presses are slapping colorful covers on their books and toning down the academese to appeal to a wider audience.

Just when I was starting to take this bounty for granted, here comes a new development -- audiobook editions. I was able to preview this book, Showbiz Politics: Hollywood in American Political Life (University of North Carolina Press), as an audiobook, courtesy of AudioBook JukeBox (the NetGalley of audiobooks) and Blackstone Audio. It's available to buy from all the usual sources: Audible.com, iTunes, and others as an audio download or as an MP3 CD. AudioBook JukeBox sent me a download via the HighTail app which I was not able to get to work, but I was able to listen to the book on the Scribd audio app (with my subscription). The Scribd audio app is not as slick as Audible.com's audio app, but it's good enough to do the job.

And the book? Splendid. A fine history of the connection between Hollywood and Washington D.C. Not only did that relationship start long before JFK, it began almost as soon as Hollywood did. Hollywood got into politics in the 1920s with California governors' races, but by the presidency of Californian Herbert Hoover, Hollywood was fully involved in national politics.

Author Kathryn Cramer Brownell takes us from those early days up to the Reagan years, and the Clintons, barely mentioning the Carter/Ford race, the Bushes, or Obama. The emphasis is on the war years of FDR and then of Kennedy and Nixon. While I hadn't really thought of Nixon as having been particularly Hollywood-connected, he had plenty of Hollywood supporters and as a native Californian was also well aware that Hollywood could help (or hurt) him and lobbied accordingly.

The downsides of listening to rather than reading this book were that, especially during the section on World War II, the alphabet soup of abbreviations and acronyms was hard to keep track of without a scorecard, and that I didn't have access to the bibliography as I would in the print book. On the plus side, the narration by Pam Ward was clear and easy to listen to for long stretches.

An excellent look at American political history as well as what I hope will be the beginning of a trend in academic press audio publishing. 

Showbiz Politics: Hollywood in American Political Life
by Kathryn Cramer Brownell
Narrated by Pam Ward
11 hours 35 minutes unabridged
University of North Carolina Press 2014
audiobook published by Blackstone Audio 2014

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

A Stunning Voice in SF

Title:  Flex
Author:  Ferrett Steinmetz
Publisher:  Angry Robot

Flex is a wonder drug. 

It flexes the world into whatever your mind can imagine.  Are you a gamer?  Gamermancy will give you life bars and power ups during a gun battle.  Is your perfect world one of lists and paperwork to keep everything organized?  Papermancy will allow anything to happen simply by filling out a form.  Literally everything you can imagine can become reality.

For a price.

With Flex comes Flux.  It's karmic law.  Whatever good you create must be offset by something bad.  It could be a simple as your house burning down.  Or as brutal as hundreds of dead strangers.  It depends on how big the magic you created was.

Paul Tsabo was a cop, but is now simply a bureaucrat.  There are three things he knows with all the certainty in his heart.

1)  He loves his daughter.

2)  He resents his ex-wife.

3)  The only good 'mancer is a dead one.  And if you can't kill them, at least wipe their brains clean.

His world makes perfect sense…until an act of 'mancy disfigures and almost kills his daughter and wakes his own 'mancy.  And whether or not 'mancy is evil, Paul Tsabo is going to use it to find and destroy the 'mancer who hurt his little girl - even if it kills him.

The book is billed as urban fantasy.  If you're like me, that term has been corrupted to mean books featuring girls wearing leather and killing and courting sexy demons.  Ferrett Steinmetz has taken the term Urban Fantasy back!

This is gritty, violent, and sharp.  The magic is both fantastical and yet grounded in reality.  The book is unflinching.

Paul Tsabo is like something straight out of a magical Death Wish or Dirty Harry.  He's a wounded man who turns his need for revenge into something bigger and even more important.  And as for the women in the book, if they do wear leather, it's more because they took it off of your broken corpse than any demon killing dominatrix fantasies.

This is original, strong SF and I can't wait to see what the author does next!

*ARC Provided by Netgalley for review purposes.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Let's Not Get Lost

Title: Let’s Get Lost
Author: Adi Alsaid
Publication Date: 29 July 2014

Note: ARC received via Amazon Vine program

Let’s Get Lost by Adi Alsaid is the story of Leila as told through her brief encounters with four strangers while she is on a road trip of discovery.  Because of the limited nature of these encounters, we only see glimpses of who Leila and her acquaintances really are.  Alsaid’s writing is crisp and somewhat refreshing in its flowing nature and ability to not overcook the descriptors.  You get enough of a picture of the scene to feel like you're there with the characters.  Where the book falls short is the scenarios presented and the way in which the main characters go along with Leila's sudden presence in their lives. 

The first section in which Leila meets mechanic Hudson and they start his journey of discovery feels the most realistically possible, but the following scenarios grow in absurdity.  Runaway Bree encourages Leila to steal and they get tossed in jail for borrowing a sports car which they intend to return.  Elliot nearly gets run over by Leila and then immediately trusts her to help him try to win the girl of his dreams on prom night.  Sonia loses her passport and they need a stoner to smuggle them across the US-Canada border.  In Leila’s final moments of self-discovery, a group of total strangers go along with a little girl's desire to throw Leila a birthday party, but, of course, that all goes wrong, too.

I must admit I felt little to no connection to Leila at the start as she seemed that sage stranger who seems to really be present to guide the other characters through a difficult period of their lives.  The timing is all a bit too perfect and the strangers all too trusting, especially the peripheral characters who really should know better.  By the end you'll find out why Leila is the way she is, a moment that wouldn't make sense earlier but feels like it should have found a way in anyway.  Don't misread that as saying the book isn't without merit.  Alsaid has talent and is an author to keep an eye out for in the future.  Let’s Get Lost is the type of book you can tear through in an afternoon sitting.  The writing itself has something indescribable that pushes you along and makes you care enough to get through to the end.  The characters and scenarios, though, don’t quite have the same spark and make the journey less fun than it ought to be.