Monday, August 29, 2011

Hunger Games Teaser is a Teaser

Get More: 2011 VMA, Music
Wooohoo! Yes, it's short and teasing. Cuz it's a TEASER, y'all. But you know what I love best? There's nothing about the big luuuuuurve triangle. It's all about our badass Katniss. Which was the focus of the books.

Oh, man, I can't wait.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Book Review: Where the Streets Had a Name by Randa Abdel-Fattah

Book: Where the Streets Had a Name 
Author: Randa Abdel-Fattah
Published: 2010
Source: Local Library

With her beloved grandmother’s health failing fast, Hayyab has decided that what she needs is soil from her home. Luckily, it’s only a few miles away. Unluckily, those miles lie in Jerusalem, across the wall between Palestine and Israel, through bullets and soldiers, riots and checkpoints. But she knows she must face it . . . not only for her grandmother’s sake, but her own.

I knew this wouldn’t be a cute romp when I picked it up. It takes place in a war zone. But what I wasn’t prepared for was the masterful way that Abdel-Fattah shows everyday life in the midst of death and fear. Sisters argue, grandmothers fart in bed, kids cut school.

But the war makes itself felt in everything. A journey of five miles, half my one-way commute to work, takes most of a day, due to various checkpoints, delays, and other artifacts of living on the border of two warring factions. Near the end of the book, a joyous wedding procession is interrupted and the whole wedding party must climb out of the car to be examined by checkpoint soldiers. And Hayyab's journey is not only one of distance, but one through her own fear. A terrible loss in her past is hinted at throughout her quest and it's not until she's ready to confront it that we're allowed to find out what it is ourselves. Fair warning, it's devastating.

My favorite parts were the religious question, or rather the lack of one. Jerusalem is a wild mix of faiths. Hayyab herself is Muslim, but her best friend is Christian. They meet Jewish people that they come to respect and admire. For a conflict so mired in religion, this attitude drives home the basic pointlessness of arguing over God.

Abdel-Fattah wisely stays out of right and wrong, and goes for the human impact. More than an us/them book, Where the Streets Had a Name is a good hard look at the consequences of growing up in an active war zone, and the thorny questions that surround not only this conflict but every war.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Book Review: Okay for Now by Gary Schmidt

Book: Okay for Now
Author: Gary Schmidt
Published: 2011
Source: Review copy from publisher, via NetGalley

Doug Swieteck is moving to a podunk little town in the middle of nowhere and he’s not looking forward to it. For one thing, he doesn’t think his nasty father and brother will be any nicer in upstate New York than they are in Long Island.

He’s right, they're not. But this podunk little town has riches galore for this tough, savvy, yet vulnerable kid. In the local library, he discovers the artwork of John Audobon. In his part-time job, he discovers the joy of being respected and valued as a hard worker, and in his boss’s daughter, he discovers the joys and woes of being friends and possibly (gulp!) more with a girl.

But these new joys in his life don’t mean all the darkness has vanished.

In some ways this is a challenging book. Schmidt doesn’t stop to explain anything, trusting that his readers will keep up. Not only that, what Doug says and what he does and what he really thinks are often three radically different things. We don’t need the words, “I’m a punching bag for my father and brothers” to understand that this is the case. Doug speaks to us directly, as if we are some invisible audience to his changing world, and he’s exactly as prickly and guarded as he is when speaking to the inhabitants of his real life.

In The Wednesday Wars, Schmidt told the story of a boy learning to use Shakespeare as a lens through which to understand the world. He does something similar in Okay for Now, but with art instead of literature. Doug, who lives a life so layered with things he can’t talk about, finds that in the unspoken tragedy and beauty of John Audubon's bird paintings, he can make sense of his senseless world. His brother Lucas, a double amputee back home from Vietnam, is angry and embittered. But Doug, who was struck by the terrible pain of a hopeless and dying bird in one of the Audobon prints, sees the same pain in his brother’s eyes, and finds a way to push through his shell and drag him back to life. Remember that this is one of the same brothers who regularly beat him up. Doug is learning empathy for his tormentors and enemies as well as his friends. People, he is finding, are so much more complex than they seem.

This isn't a book you read for the intricate plotting, unless your definition of plot refers to emotional intricacies and slow revelations. That's why I was so surprised to find myself staying up until after midnight to finish it. But Doug pulled me into his world and wouldn't let me go until he was good and ready. This book has been getting awards chatter ever since the first ARCs started slipping out, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see some kind of shiny sticker on this book come January.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Book Review: This Gorgeous Game by Donna Freitas

Book: This Gorgeous Game
Author: Donna Freitas
Published: 2010
Source: Local Library

Olivia's life is looking pretty good right now. Not only is she the first-ever winner of a prestigious young writer's award, the contest's sponsor has taken a special interest in her. Father Mark, a Catholic priest and a famous novelist, is everything Olivia wants to be, and his attentions make her dizzy. Special meetings to talk about writing, invitations to prestigious literary events, presents chosen just for her.

Then the attention gets to be so marked, and so focused, that Olivia's inner voice starts to whisper that something is wrong. What could be wrong, though? Father Mark is wonderful, kind, generous, a literary genius. He just wants to help her . Everyone loves him. Why can't Olivia? Why do the sight of his letters, his emails, and his texts suddenly make her sick to her stomach? She has to be imagining it.

She just has to be.

So let's get this out of the way now. Yes, Father Mark is a Catholic priest. Yes, he is abusing his position of power over Olivia. No, this is not a book about the eeeeeevil Catholic church overlooking pedophiles. In fact, everyone that Olivia turns to at the end are staunch Catholics, and they say without blinking, "This ain't right." As a Catholic, I love this because my church has taken enough beatings, and as a reader, I love this because it becomes a much more universal story about a girl in a terrible situation, threatened by someone in power over her.

This is a short book as YA books go these days, only about 200 pages, and yet I had to keep putting it down and walking away for awhile, especially as I got closer to the end. Freitas does a masterful job of slowly twisting Father Mark's behavior from flattering to smothering to ultimately terrifying. There are hints of his darker nature even at the beginning--seriously, who arranges a meet-up with a seventeen-year-old girl at a bar?--but Olivia willfully blinds herself to them because she is so dazzled and flattered.

Father Mark gives Olivia two poems, close to the end of the book, that are such shattering love poems that I wobbled around going, "Wow" after I read them. One is Pablo Neruda's Sonnet XVII, the other a poem from Thomas Merton (that unfortunately I wasn't able to find online, pooey), and they both knocked me flat on my butt. But in this context, from this person, they ratchet up the creepy by a factor of 100, if not 1000. These poems speak of a love that Olivia isn't ready for, and knows she isn't ready for, and yet that Father Mark seems convinced she feels the same as he does.

Like all stalking relationships, it really is about power, not love. Father Mark's positions as a priest to a faithful Catholic, as a professor to a student, as a published and lionized author to a promising novice, and as an adult to a teenager, all make it terribly difficult for Olivia to even admit to herself that what he's doing is terribly wrong and she doesn't want it to continue. Those are also the reasons why she must. I said it in my roundup a few months back and I'll say again now: this is the book for every girl who's ever ignored the little voice inside that says, "This isn't right." This is also the book for every girl who might hear that little voice in the future.

Saturday, August 06, 2011

Book Review: This Girl is Different

Book: This Girl is Different
Author: J.J. Johnson
Published: 2011
Source: Review copy from publisher, via

After eleven years of homeschooling, Evie is looking forward to spending her senior year in a typical public high school. When she meets Jacinda and her gorgeous cousin Rajas just before the first day of school, she’s even more sure that she’s going to love it.

When she gets to school, however, Evie is troubled by the various social inequities that she sees all around her. When a teacher publicly humiliates a student, Evie decides it’s time to do what she’s been taught all her life and speak out. But what started out with pure intentions quickly spirals into a seething mess of hurt feelings and anonymous bullying that ultimately shreds her friendship with Jacinda and her fledgling relationship with Rajas.

Evie wanted to change the world, but never like this.

This girl is different, and so is this book. I went in expecting a wacky tale of a hippie fish out of water that ultimately makes everybody see how wrong they are and clasp hands around the flagpole singing "Kumbaya." Luckily, that wasn't the case. The one who learns and changes the most is Evie herself as she learns that her idealism doesn't really allow for the shades of grey that exist in the real world.

Except in the case of Evie’s mother (a rather standard-issue anti-corporate, anti-authoritarian type) Johnson handily gives the stereotypes a miss and surrounds Evie with complicated people colored in shades of gray. Jacinda is a cheerleader, occasionally ditzy, and involved but she’s also sweet, compassionate. Rajas is cute, charming, but doesn’t want to “label” their relationship, a tendency that sets off my alarm bells. These shades of grey mean that when they learn and change as well, it's more satisfying.

Even the villains aren’t as terribly villainous as they seem at first glance. Johnson scores points with me by not making the school principal an opponent, but a compassionate adult who sympathizes with Evie’s feelings while trying to educate her about the consequences associated with taking a stand, and how facing up to those is as much an act of social activism as taking that stand in the first place.

Monday, August 01, 2011

Reading Roundup: July 2011

By the Numbers
Teen: 11
Tween: 8
Children: 7

Review Copies: 5
Swapped: 1
Purchased: 1
Library: 17

Teen: TIE Flash Burnout by L.K. Madigan AND Say the Word by Jeannine Garsee
While these are two very different stories, for me the reason they stood out was the same: the main characters. One is a boy making all the wrong choices in his first two profound attachments to two different girls. One is a girl struggling with her mother's recent death and all the choices that same mother made in her life. They can both be jaw-droppingly selfish and short-sighted, but still managed to be sympathetic enough to keep me reading. Well done, both authors.
Tween: The Last Invisible Boy by Evan Kuhlman
Don't let the Wimpy-Kid-style drawings fool you. This is a quiet and reflective book on the death of a parent, or more accurately, a boy getting used to the loss of a parent, that really takes the time to explore all the different emotions.
Children: Clover Twig and the Magical Cottage by Kaye Umansky
After that title, I was expecting something so twee my teeth would fall out. What I got was a hilarious and quirky fantasy with a stridently down-to-earth heroine who handles anything comes her way, be it a back-talking front gate, an evil witch, or an incredibly dirty house she's just been hired to clean. I want more Clover Twig!

Because I Want To Awards
Tongue-Firmly-in-Cheek: The Case of the Case of Mistaken Identity by Mac Barnett is an especial treat for people who've read more than their lifetime recommended allowance of Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew mysteries.
Okay, Did They Even Read It?: Luv Ya Bunches by Lauren Myracle, infamous for being excluded from Scholastic Book fairs at schools because a character has two moms, contains more discussion of Islam than it does of lesbians. On the other hand . . . hmm.
Way Too Cool: Where Else in the Wild? by David M. Schwartz is perfect for Where's Waldo lovers who also enjoy science and animals.