Archives for posts with tag: YA lit


Did you have a chance to read Maggie Stiefvater’s The Raven Boys? If not, please do so immediately. That way you can then enjoy the second installment: The Dream Thieves (Scholastic, $18.99, out today). The Dream Thieves is written like a dream. I found myself moving out of this state of unearthliness, trying to figure out what what was real and what wasn’t. In the context of the book, magic exists. And the characters and the setting are so realistic, I become convinced that their reality is my reality and that magic must exist in this world, too. The Dream Thieves is slightly darker than The Raven Boys, but darker in a way that is entirely appropriate. Even happy dreams are bizarre and twisted. Dreams turn you up-side-down and in-side-out. They mess with you in delightfully terrifying ways. How many times have you woken up with the thought, ‘thank god, it was just a dream’, but then later you can’t remember — was it a dream or wasn’t it? Stiefvater’s second volume of the Raven Cycle brings up all of these confusing emotions. And it is brilliant. Like dreams, I can’t quite explain the book either. I know that if I start to describe it, that the description won’t do the book justice. Or I’ll get caught up trying to clarify a point that isn’t really important. I’ll just say that this book focuses more on Ronan and Adam. Like dreams, it all makes sense when you’re reading the book. But yes, it is absolutely vital that you read The Raven Boys first. In fact, I wish I had read it again right before I read the second book. I’m looking forward to when all the volumes are out and I can read them all in one go.
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On a car trip to a workshop in April, I got into a conversation with another bookseller about how great Rainbow Rowell’s book Eleanor & Park is. I must have mentioned several times how much I enjoyed writing the review for that book. At that same workshop another bookseller was talking about reading Rowell’s new book, Fangirl (St. Martin’s, $18.99, out today). What?!?! A new book by Rowell? Why did I not know about this? Where’s my copy? Well I went to request a digital reading copy (booksellers can do that and it’s awesome). It wasn’t available. I logged in on our store owner’s account and it wasn’t available to her either. I emailed our rep. She put in a request. It didn’t go through. I emailed again. We spoke on the phone. I check both my and the store owner’s accounts daily. Nothing. Then the ARC arrived in the mail. I almost had to throw down with a co-worker for right to first read. Lucky for me, my name was on the package. I don’t know that I’ve ever worked so hard to get an ARC before. And it was totally worth it. In a lot of ways, Eleanor & Park is better. There is something about that book that just works. The almost glacial evolution of their relationship is bizarrely satisfying. Fangirl also contains a slow moving relationship, but this book is more about Cath and saying that Eleanor & Park is better in no way reflects on how interesting Fangirl really is.

Cath is a first year at university. She’s unhappy with the direction her life is taking, especially since a lot of those directions are outside of her control. She doesn’t like not living with her twin sister. She doesn’t like that her dad is living alone. She doesn’t like that she feels forced to expand her horizons and meet new people. What Cath really wants to do is write fan fiction shipping Simon Snow and Baz from her (and everyone else’s) favorite Simon Snow series. And she’s good at it. She has thousands of followers. Her fiction has spawned crafts on Etsy. She’s been noted as one of THE fan fiction writers to read. Simon Snow is an homage to Harry Potter with a little Twilight thrown in, and Rowell really excels at penetrating important and engaging concepts within fandom: plagiarism, ownership, the god-like act of writing, sub-culture, finding your own writing voice, and even the juxtaposition between living online and living real life. Are they your friends, if you’ve never met them? Fangirl is a fantastically fun book and the layers of fiction writing that exist in this novel are impressive. Intertextual scholars are going to have a field day with this one. As for me, I’ll be watching for Rowell’s next book.

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We look back and identify ground breaking books: Alice in Wonderland, Where the Wild Things Are, Snowy Day. Do we know they are groundbreaking when they first come out? In some ways, yes. The immediate audience was aware that these books did something different; they changed something in publishing. To me, David Levithan’s newest book, Two Boys Kissing (Knopf, $18.99, out today), feels groundbreaking. The book is about two boys kissing. The title is Two Boys Kissing, and even the cover image shows two boys kissing. This book does not blink. It does not compromise. Don’t like it? Avert your eyes, because this book is. And it’s phenomenal. Like the books listed above, Two Boys Kissing is groundbreaking not because it has an agenda. Not because it’s trying to prove something or change anything. But because it is so well written and is an amazing story. Inspired by true events, the story centers on two boys who are trying to set a new record for the longest kiss — upwards of 32 hours. But there are several other stories woven throughout and they all deal with boys at various stages of their relationships. The novel is narrated by a Greek chorus of gay men who died from AIDS in the 1980s and this is where things really start to get interesting.

The boys are blissfully unaware of this chorus in the same way that gay kids today are often unaware of the struggles of previous generations. At the risk of saying “kids today!”, that’s exactly what’s happening here, but it is entirely appropriate. Kids, all kids, don’t always know the past. Why should they? They’re kids. As frustrating as it might be for the chorus to see that they boys don’t really know their stories, that is the way it works. Each generation fights to make things better for the next one and that next generation reaps the benefit without ever knowing there was a fight.

As for the chorus, their nostalgia for their own lost youths, their admiration for the freedom within the gay community today, and their resentment that they never had the chance to experience that freedom is heartbreaking. Levithan elicits empathy and love from the reader for both generations.

As I’ve said before, he is a masterful writer. This book, like his others, is differently amazing. I finally had the chance to meet him for about 45 seconds and was able to say the one thing that I’ve always wanted to tell him, “I wish your books had been around when I was a teenager.”

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After hearing all the Rep Picks for great upcoming books back in February 2013, one title went to the top of my list to read: If You Could Be Mine, by Sara Farizan (Algonquin Young Readers, $16.99, out today). Sahar and her best-friend Nasrin, live in Iran. They have been friends since childhood and Sahar has been in love ever since, at six, Nasrin pulled her hair and said. “Sahar, you will play with me because you belong to me. Only me”. Innocently telling her mother that she would like to marry Nasrin, Sahar learns that such a desire is haraam, a sin. The two girls, now seventeen, keep their relationship a secret. When Nasrin’s parents arrange for her marriage, Sahar is distraught. She begins to look for ways to keep the two of them together. In Iran, homosexuality may be a crime — punishable by death — but being born into the wrong body is regarded as nature’s mistake, a disease that can be cured by corrective surgery, which is sanctioned by the state. As Sahar investigates this option, she struggles with understanding her love for Nasrin and societal definitions of sexuality. Caring only about staying with Nasrin, Sahar is forced to confront the very clear distinction between being a lesbian and being transgender.

The story is infused with Iranian words and customs that will be of interest to readers who enjoy learning about other cultures. It also raises some very challenging questions about sexuality and categorization. But overall, it is a well-written and universal story about a girl growing up and trying to find herself. It’s a story about love and the things we’ll do to hold onto to it and a story about that first discovery when you start to see the world outside of your childhood. If You Could Be Mine is Sara Farizan’s first novel and it is bold. I look forward to seeing more from her in the future.
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Having lived abroad, I get so tchetchy about books (and movies) about people who go abroad and suddenly everything is different and life is amazing. I sound bitter, I know. But living abroad isn’t magical. You still have to go to the grocery store. I don’t think you find yourself abroad; I think that when you step away from everything and everyone that you know, suddenly you are forced to see yourself and depend on yourself in a way that you never have before. And you realize that the world around you might be different, but you’re still you. This isn’t a good thing or a bad thing, it just is. I think traveling can change your perspective. It can open you up to amazing things. It can force you to look closely at your own culture. It can introduce you to new people. It can illuminate trends and patterns. It can push you outside your comfort zone. It can make you marvel at how big the world is, while you simultaneously start to appreciate how small it is. I love traveling. I love moving around. I love discovering things and places that I didn’t even know existed. But one of the things I’ve noticed, is that I’m always still me. I think that’s one of the reasons, I appreciated Maureen Johnson’s 13 Little Blue Envelopes (HarperTeen, $8.99). Ginny Blackstone’s aunt sends her on a trip. Ginny has to follow the directions left to her, one envelope at a time. Ginny has adventures across Europe. She meets interesting people. And yes there is a bit of romance. But she doesn’t suddenly become a different person. There is a lot of space in this book. A lot of silence. It took me a while to figure out that Ginny doesn’t say very much. She seems to be soaking in the views around her. Watching more than participating. I really appreciated that. I liked that she goes on a grand adventure, but fundamentally stays the same person all the way through. It’s the steadiness in this book, as opposed to all the books about Amazing Things That Happen When You Leave The Country, that make 13 Little Blue Envelopes stand out.

 

On that note, I’m heading to Scotland for a few days. More posts to follow, because there are some amazing new books out. I’ve been remiss lately and look forward to catching up.

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9780062217134Robyn Schneider’s Severed Heads, Broken Hearts (Katherine Teagen Books, $17.99, out today) contains some really horrific and traumatic experiences. The title says it all. There is indeed a severed head, and a multitude of broken hearts. How a book that starts with a decapitation and ends with the death of a dog (via coyote) manages to not be the most depressing books ever is kind of miraculous. Yet the story is a rather light, romantic, and universal quest about how to break away from the facade you’ve somehow created to become the person you really are.

Ezra is a varsity tennis player, slated to become Prom King, with the stereotypical perfect girlfriend. Then the girlfriend cheats on him and he gets hit by a car (see horrific and traumatic). Ezra starts senior year with a cane and a tremendous amount of uncertainty about where he belongs, now that he’s no longer the tennis player/prom king, with a hot girlfriend. Ezra is an interesting character; he’s smarter than anyone (including himself) seems to have realized, he’s witty, he’s more of a leader than he understands, and he’s a defender of children’s playgrounds. He’s a little naive, but that’s where Toby and Cassidy come in. They show him a world beyond the security of his neighborhood and push him outside of his comfort zone. Cassidy is the unique, beautiful girl, who is just out of reach and Toby is the best friend that somewhere in middle school Ezra forgot to be friends with. Ezra sees them as taking him on a new journey. What he doesn’t learn until later is that they are the journey, one he started after the accident with his own first steps.

*** Since the above review was written back in March, the name and cover of this book have changed. I’m of two minds. I liked the title. I can see why it might not be so ‘marketable’, but it was distinctive and true to the story. The new title, The Beginning of Everything, sounds like too many other YA novels. But this title, too, is true to the story. This book isn’t about finding yourself in high school, it’s about figuring out that you need to find yourself. Or discovering that who you’ve been is not necessarily who you are. Or who you will be. And it’s a story about the journey that leads to that journey. I’ve decided to keep the old image in, though along with my original impressions. If nothing else, for a glimpse into the publishing industry, which I find enormously fascinating. But if you walk into your local bookstore and request Robyn Schneider’s new book, be sure to ask for The Beginning of Everything. It still starts with a severed head and it still ends with a dead dog. And there are broken hearts. But that is just the beginning.

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Note: I should have read the marketing materials better! The Beginning of Everything is now due out in September.

In Bill Konigsberg’s Openly Straight (Arthur A. Levine Books, $17.99, out in June), Rafe is tired of being ‘the gay kid’. He lives in a supportive home with parents who are activists on his behalf and for community in general. His school has protected him, and he regularly speaks at organizations about diversity and education. But he needs a break. He needs a change. He needs to feel like he can be himself without constantly working for ‘the cause’. Rafe applies to a boarding school out East and figures that going there will be his chance to not exactly go back into the closet, but maybe not be so publicly out of it. This isn’t the first YA book to deal with an openly gay teenager, who tries to put on a mantle of not being an openly gay teenager. Pink, by  Lili Wilkinson (winner of a Stonewall ALA honor award), tells a similar story about a girl who changes schools for similar reasons. Ava, however, spends more time questioning her sexuality and the ending leaves her story somewhat ambiguous. In Openly Straight, Rafe never doubts that he is gay. It’s not his sexuality that’s in question, it’s his identity. This story will appeal to anyone who has experienced feeling reduced to one facet of themselves, whether ‘good’ or ‘bad’ : ‘the honor student’, ‘the athlete’, ‘the Asian girl’, ‘the popular one’, ‘the band geek’, ‘the fat guy’, ‘the new kid’, ‘the singer’, ‘the . . .’. We are all complex individuals. But as much as Rafe wants to be more than a label, he slowly realizes that denying part of himself turns him in to something else entirely: ‘the liar’.

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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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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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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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