Archives for the month of: May, 2013

Elizabeth Wein’s Code Name Verity has been receiving a tremendous amount of accolades recently (Hyperion, $9.99). In addition to receiving starred reviews in a number of publications during 2012, it also received a Prinz finalist award at ALA this year. I couldn’t possibly imagine a better book than The Fault in Our Stars last year, so this book has been on my list of must-reads for a while now. I’m ashamed to say that I’ve only recently gotten around to it and I’m kicking myself for not reading it sooner. It makes an excellent cross-over book. I’ll be Maddie is a pilot from England and Verity  (code name) is a spy from Scotland. Both women are actively involved in the war effort and they become friends throughout their various assignments. I don’t want to talk too much about plot,because this is the kind of book that you really want to unfold and explore for yourself. Suffice it to say, the book is set in occupied France in 1943. Verity has been captured by the Gestapo. The rest is up to you to discover. One of the things I love about this book is the reminder that women were constantly underestimated in the 1940s. And yet, it’s so interesting to see what they are able to achieve precisely because no one thinks they can.

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Golden Boy, by Abigail Tarttelin, isn’t the first book to contain a character who is intersex, but books on this topic are few and far between (Simon & Schuster, $24.99, out today). Max Walker is the stereotypical golden boy. On the surface. But Max and his family have a secret. He is intersex: a person that used to be referred to as a hermaphrodite. Within this story, Max’s existence falls perfectly between horror (he has never been shamed or punished by his parents for being who he is as many intersex children have been) and complete acceptance (the parents do not make Max’s situation known to the outside world). Max identifies as a boy, but he is a true intersex: half and half. His family did not put him through reconstructive surgery as a baby. He’s known and understood that he was different his whole life, but it’s never really been a big deal. Just something that the family never discusses. At 16, the one childhood friend (boy) who knows about Max, rapes him. Rape is traumatic for anyone, but Max deals with a whole other layer of trauma. How is he supposed to process what happened? Thankfully he goes to a Doctor, one who is smart and sensitive enough to do some research and help Max find the vocabulary he needs to understand himself. This description might sound clinical, but even trying to talk about this book is a reminder of how inadequate our language is.

The narrative moves between Max, his brother, his mother, the doctor, and the girl he starts to fall for. This movement strengthens the story, because as each person struggles to talk about Max, the reader truly starts to appreciate Max’s inability to articulate himself. I most appreciated the Doctor’s narrative voice. She is professional, and remains at a somewhat critical distance, but truly helps Max and the reader navigate this rather uncharted territory. Max’s mom struck me as way too intelligent to be saying such ridiculous things. I liked her when Max talked about her. I started to despise her when she spoke for her self. I think the book would have been much stronger without her first-person chapters or perhaps if her voice had been introduced towards the end of the story, as Max’s dad’s voice is.

I also particularly liked Max’s younger brother’s commentary. Daniel is significantly younger (about 5 years); he looks up to Max and because Max is his older sibling, he knows nothing different. He is the only character (including Max) who doesn’t perceive Max as an aberration, because, to Daniel, Max is perfectly normal. Daniel’s voice, somewhat young and innocent, provides a strong counter to all the confusion that pervades everyone else’s voice. Golden Boy is not an easy book to read, but it is well worth it. I’m delighted that it has found the support of a major publishing house. This is a story that needs to be told.
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I’ve been alternating between reading upcoming books and catching up with books already out that I’ve missed and recently read ALA William C. Morris Debut Award finalist, The Miseducation of Cameron Post by Emily Danforth (Balzer + Bray, $17.99, paperback coming in May). A customer ordered it, and I decided it was definitely a novel I needed to read. After all, it’s set in the early 90s, which is precisely when I was a teenager. I’ll say up front that it took me a while to get into this book. At close to 500 pages, it is rather hefty and I do think that perhaps the first 100 pages or so could have been edited. But it was worth continuing and the second half of the book was incredibly engaging.

On the day that Cameron kisses her best friend, Irene, her parents die in a car crash. Although cosmically unrelated, Cameron can’t quite separate the two events in her mind. The arbitrary connection doesn’t stop her from wanting to kiss Irene again, kissing Lindsay a few years later, or falling for Coley  in high school and kissing her. But this is the early 90s, and in the spirit of LBGT lit, someone is bound to find out about Cameron eventually. And the are not going to like it. Cue born-again Christian aunt, who eventually sends Cameron to a religious conversion school for troubled youth (oh god, youths!), much like But I’m a Cheerleader. It’s at this moment, when you’re so angry at the complete ignorance of all the adults in Cameron’s life, that the book actually starts getting interesting. Mostly because Cameron is smart. Despite the loss of her parents, despite her complete lack of role models, and despite the fact that the two friends she cared about the most have both abandoned her, she knows who she is and that this conversion school is crap. Cameron makes an interesting comment about the conflation between the homophobia and psychology that pervades her treatment. She knows that conversion isn’t meant to help her or her peers, it’s meant to make them hate themselves. She pegs it as emotional abuse. The desire to save her soul is intrinsically intertwined with the desire to extinguish her. Reading a book like this makes me grateful for the things that have changed and horrified by what hasn’t. After a tragedy strikes the school, Cameron calls out the minister, “You guys don’t even know what you’re doing here, do you? You’re just like making it up as you go along and then something like this happens and you’re gonna pretend like you have answers that you don’t even have and it’s completely fucking fake. You don’t know how to fix this. You should just say that: We fucked it up.” Wish I could have been that articulate when I was in high school.

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Crystal Allen’s new book, The Laura Linewas another book that I heard about at Winter Institute this year and was extremely excited to read (Balzer + Bray, $16.99). Overall I think this book has a lot of important things to say and for the most part, I appreciated Laura’s narrative voice; however there was one major plot point that didn’t seem right. Laura’s parents leave for two weeks for military duty. The aunt who usually takes care of Laura can’t make it this time, and she has to go live with her grandmother instead. Laura hates visiting her grandmother because she’s inordinately embarrassed by the slave shack that sits on the grounds. Laura doesn’t think that this part of her family history should be glorified in any way and she refuses to step inside or hear the stories about why it’s there. As the narrative continues, Laura finally does open herself up to the shack and it’s significance to American history. She finally recognizes that the shack holds generations of stories about the Lauras in her family who have lived before her and she is proud of their accomplishments.

I love the idea of the shack embodying the horrors from American history and how its physical presence forces Laura to struggle with the past and the shack’s place in her own life. She wants to forget slavery happened and live her own life, which makes a lot of sense and I appreciate Laura’s conflict between ignoring the past and being defined by the past. This conflict is particularly acute in middle school, when kids are simultaneously working to define themselves outside of their families as they also try to figure out their place within their families. What doesn’t make sense to me is that Laura has never engaged with the shack. She’s close to her mother and her mother is close to her grandmother. Surely as a young child, Laura would have wanted to hear the stories, feel connected to her mother, or be curious about the shack. She wouldn’t have yet felt the socio-historical implications of the shack, have been embarrassed by what her classmates think, or have been so afraid of something that her mother and grandmother obviously cherish. Again, there are a lot of excellent attributes to this book and it is a solid introduction to the personal history of slavery, as well as a great companion novel for studying family history. I think, perhaps, I would have enjoyed it just a little more if the story narrated Laura’s return to her family rather than a first discovery.

Laura is a spunky character who loves both fashion and baseball; I fully appreciate this fluctuation between gender norms. She’s smart, capable, and resilient. She cares about what her peers think, but she also stands up for herself and her best friend. She follows her intuition and accepts the consequences when she ignores it. There is a lot of life, character, and history in this book. Teachers and librarians take note.

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When I started this blog, I anticipated more of an overlap between my life at the bookstore and this blog. I envisioned helping customers who make the inevitable “I’m looking for a book . . . ” statement. I thought I would help them find that book and then I could come home and blog about it. Well that’s not exactly how this blog works. For starters I generally only work in the store on the weekends. By the time I come home, I’m exhausted and I don’t really write on the weekends. Also, I sit at my computer a day or two later and cannot ever remember any of the requests that customers made. So I’ve tended to go with common ones that booksellers hear frequently, or, as you might have noticed, create hypothetical requests that would elicit a certain book.


Today, I actually remember some real requests from this weekend. woot! A woman came in on Saturday and said she had “a challenging one”. She wanted to buy a graduation gift for someone who was really interested in biology. She looked at me. I looked at her. And then I went over our Best Sellers section and pulled out Letters to a Young Scientist, which I had just happened to have shelved the day before. She was delighted. I was delighted because I love these moments, the moments when I just *know* the exact perfect book for someone. Saturday was a great day at work, because I had another customer who asked about picture books for her five year old. I showed her a few including Tuesday, Handa’s Surprise, and The Seven Silly Eaters, which I’ve recommended here before. She went with The Seven Silly Eaters and then came back to me and asked, “do you know adult books, too?”. Well, I have a few favorites, but I’m the first to admit that I am not caught up on new releases, so I said, ‘sort of, but I know the back wall better.” The back wall houses our 5th to 7th grade books and our YA section. “Are you interested in a good crossover book?” I asked. To my delight, she said yes, and went home with Grave Mercy

Which brings me to today’s recommendation. Booksellers often recommend books that they haven’t read. I haven’t read Letters to a Young Scientist, but I have read enough of the cover to know that it would be a good fit. Sometimes we get it wrong though, or we misinterpret a customer’s request. We risk a little when we recommend books we don’t know, and often I feel a certain anxiety when I finally do read something I’ve recommended. I know that I’ll know all the times I got it wrong. Today’s request is from a customer who was Christmas shopping for her niece this past December. I had just finished reading The Raven Boys and decided to recommend The Scorpio Races, also by Maggie Stiefvater (Scholastic, $9.99). I had heard it was good. The Raven Boys was good. I figured it was a solid bet. The customer was reluctant, but I explained what I knew about the story and that Stiefvater was a great writer. She bought the book. I have often wondered over the past few months what that teenage girl, who was active and likes adventure, thought of the book. Did she even read it? Did she like it? Did she love it? I don’t know why that particular interaction has stayed with me, but it has. So I decided it was time to read The Scorpio Races for myself. I’ve been reading a lot of ARCs lately, which is great. But you can’t recommend them to customers, which is frustrating. Telling someone, “Hey, I just read the perfect book, but sorry you can’t read it for another few months” does not go down well. I tried it. That customer is still waiting for Elvis and the Underdogs to come out.


Back to The Scorpio Races. It is a realistic fantasy novel about water horse races that take place on November on a tiny, remote island. Stiefvater is excellent at creating crossover stories that hover between fantasy and realism. The term is magical realism, but that doesn’t quite capture what she does in her novels. Celtic realism, maybe? Stories that hover between the realism of an ancient world and the realism of today’s world? The two first person narratives alternate between Sean Kendrick and Kate Connelly. Both are on the edge of survival. Both have reasons why they need to win the race. And both recognize and admire the fierceness and intensity of the other. Stiefvater writes amazing final sentences of each chapter. Rather than driving the reader through cliffhanger endings, which are effective but often overused, Stiefvater drives the reader by creating deeper and deeper connections with the two characters. I felt compelled to keep reading because I’d learn one thing more about Kate or Sean in the final sentence, which made me want to read further, just so I could get to know them better. Such excellent technique demonstrates Steifvater’s keen writing skills. I’m glad to know that I now feel fully confident in that recommendation. But I think I will always wonder whether that unknown girl, who received The Scorpio Races from her aunt because I recommended it, loved the book as much as I did.

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9780316204965Loki’s Wolves by K. L. Armstrong and M. A Marr (Little, Brown, $16.99, out today) is the Nordic answer to any kid clamoring for more books about mortals who find themselves in ancient-god-type situations. Set in North Dakota, which is unusual, but kind of refreshing, Matt Thorson has grown up hearing the Norse myths and sagas as if they were family history, which it turns out they are. Matt is a direct descendent of Thor and his classmates, cousins Fen and Laurie, are the descendants of Loki. The three are somewhat begrudgingly thrown together to prepare for an event called Ragnarök, otherwise known as the apocalypse. In Matt, Fen, and Laurie’s adventures through North Dakota, they encounter Valkyries, trolls, other mortal/god descendants, and the local police. It’s up to them to decide whom to trust and how best to prepare themselves to save the world from the end of the world. The first book in a series, Loki’s Wolves isn’t quite as well-paced as Riordan’s books, or as funny, and there were occasional confusing narrative shifts, but the series has a lot of potential and it’s fun to read about cultural myths that aren’t as well known as the Greeks’. Besides, I don’t think Riordan fans will complain too much. Loki’s Wolves is the perfect book for any reader who thoroughly enjoyed the Kane Chronicles (me).

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If you’ve been following this blog, you’ll know by now that David Levithan is, hands down, my favorite contemporary YA author. So of course I was delighted when I saw that he had a new book coming out this year. Invisibility is co-written with Andrea Cremer (Philomel, $18.99, out today). Levithan has co-written books with author authors including John Green and Rachel Cohn. I think this format suits him and these books generally offer various interpretations of the same event, which teaches something about perspective. However, Levithan’s books have tended more toward realism and in this way Invisibility is a bit of a departure. As I’ve argued before, though, his books are all differently amazing and he is perpetually pushing the boundaries of YA narrative, so I’m not surprised at this new approach. Furthermore, I don’t know Cremer’s work well enough to know whether she tends to write fantasy. To be fair, Every Day also included some fantastic elements, even while maintaining a sense of realism. Nevertheless, Invisibility contains wizards, curses, and a teenager who is invisible. Now as fantastic as this occurrence might be, it still strikes me as an interesting universal metaphor of the teen experience. I certainly remember feeling invisible. Don’t you? And many, if not all, YA books deal at least tangentially with teenagers who are neither heard, listened to, nor understood. Isn’t that one of the tropes of teenagedom? Feeling like no one ‘hears’ you or ‘sees’ you? Trying you damnedest to see yourself and figure out how to present yourself to the world? Another common trope is the jubilation of meeting someone who finally does see you for who you really are. And this book has an interesting twist on that concept, too. When Elizabeth meets Stephen, she has no idea that he’s invisible, because she can see him. It’s kind of brilliant actually. It’s a poignant reminder that what we see isn’t always seen by others. The fantasy part of this book is good. But it’s the parts that feel the most real, the conundrum of invisibility, that make it an amazing story. And per Leviethan’s style, this book leaves so many unanswered questions that it could easily have a sequel. I expect it won’t though and instead it allows the readers space to write the stories themselves. Stories to be heard. And seen.

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In Natalie Kinsey-Warnock’s True Colors (Knopf, $15.99), Blue was found in a kettle on Hannah’s doorstep on December 7, 1941, when she was (probably) 2 days old. Hannah took her in, named her, and raised Blue on a farm in rural Vermont. As one of the few children in the town, Blue has always eagerly awaited the influx of summer visitors, including her best friend Nadine. During Blue’s tenth summer, however, everything changes. First, Nadine doesn’t seem interested in any of their usual summer activities. Second, Blue finds clues about the mother who left her behind and dreams about leaving town to find her family. Third, the editor of the local paper invites Blue to contribute a weekly column. The more she starts to research her town, the more she discovers that everyone is not who she thought they were. When Hannah has an accident, all of the people she has supported over the years step up to help Hannah and Blue. When Blue’s life is endangered, once again the neighbors are there, and Blue discovers that family is closer than she ever realized. Blue is a great character and her frustrations with Nadine are very realistic. Blue is just at the cusp of stepping outside herself, awaking to the existence of her community, and noticing (and appreciating) the people around her. I cried my little eyes out while reading the final few chapters and the quilted cover, which evokes the range of quilt references present in the story, is excellent.

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Naomi Shihab Nye’s Habibi is one of those amazing books that I feel everyone should read, no matter what types of books they normally read (Simon Pulse, $6.99). Liyana was born and raised in the United State, where her mother is from, but her parents have always said that at some point the family would move to Palestine, where her father is from. So when she’s 14 and life is just starting to get interesting, Liyana is bummed, but not surprised, to hear that her family is leaving the US. Liyana’s story of growing up, of discovering a new culture, and of feeling caught between her old life and new, caught between the conflicts raging around her in Jerusalem is told with amazing delicacy and thoughtfulness. Embraced by her family, Liyana loves them all as well as their cultural heritage, especially her grandmother, Sitti. Nevertheless, she also knows that their experiences are not her experiences and that their world-views are not her world-views. Therefore when she meets Omar, and he represents everything that threatens her family, she must find the humanity within the conflicts and demonstrate that each individual is bigger than history.
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I’m not sure if Tom Leveen’s Party is even still readily available (Random House, $8.99), which is too bad because this book really impressed me. Each of the 11 chapters is narrated by one high school student, who is either going or perhaps avoiding going to an end of the year party. I’ve said this before, but I’m always a fan of these types of merry-go-round narrative books, when they are done well, and Leveen’s is. Reading various perspectives about the same events is a reminder of how differently we see the world, even when we’re standing right next to each other. Despite it’s seemingly innocuous theme, Party deals with a lot of complex issues: Islamaphobia, losing a parent to cancer, race, and depression. I definitely cried several times, especially in the first and last chapters. But don’t think that this book is all depressing either. There are a few funny moment, a bit of romance, and a reminder that best friends are always there for you, even if they haven’t been there lately. Furthermore, Leveen really magnifies the variety and multiplicity of teen voices. I’d love to see this book get more attention.

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