48HBC Update # 3

48HBC update 3I can hardly believe it’s already my last day of the 48 Hour Book Challenge.  I’ve done my reading and blogging in shorter increments than last year but so far I’ve still managed to get a lot of reading done–and been reminded how nice it is to just sink into a novel for an uninterrupted hour or more at a time.

Since my last update, I snuck in some reading time before bed last night, a little more early this morning, and then another extended period this afternoon.  And happily, I’ve also finished two more books!

gumazing gum girlLast night, I sped through The Gumazing Gum Girl: Chews Your Destiny by Rhode Montijo and throughly enjoyed its fun take on illustrated chapter books and superhero narratives.  It’s great to see some more diversity in the worlds of both early elementary fiction–especially in a format similar to popular fiction such as Babymouse and Captain Underpants.  It’s a pretty standard story with bright, fun illustrations and relatable characters–that just happens to feature a Latina heroine.  I give it a solid 3 out of 5 stars!

Then this morning I dove into Breadcrumbs by Anne Ursu and wow, I can’t believe I let so much time pass before I finally read this middle grade fantasy!

breadcrumbsEven when she can’t see to fit anywhere else–not with her crumbling family or at her new school–Hazel has a place where she feels right: being beside her best friend Jack.  While other kids in 5th grade thinks it’s weird that a boy and a girl are still best friend, Hazel and Jack know that their friendship is something special–they understand each other in ways that no one else does–or could.  Then one day Jack simply stops speaking to Hazel and she feels her world and heart begin to freeze over.   But when Hazel learns that Jack might have been stolen away by a strange woman who looks like she’s made of snow, she decides that it is her duty to rescue him–no matter what strange and dangerous beings she must face in the dark, unknown woods behind their houses.

From its opening pages, Anne Ursu’s multilayered and haunting Snow Queen retelling will grab by the heart and throat and refuse to let you go until you reach its sad, hopeful conclusion.  The prose is just gorgeous and Hazel is such an excellently complicated & human protagonist.  This elegant novel has the rich insight of the best coming of age tales, the careful & resonant details about childhood, difference, and identity (especially in terms of gender, race, and ethnicity) of great realistic fiction, and the twisty enchantment of fabulous fantasy.  Finally, I personally very much enjoyed the references to classic and well-loved children’s fantasy novels throughout the novel.  It’s just awesome–you should read it right now! I want to try to write up a lengthier review after I’ve had to digest but for now I’ll just say that I am totally in love with Breadcrumbs and highly recommend it to a variety of readers.  I also think that this novel would make an excellent read-aloud for younger middle school students (and older middle school students if you had the right setting!).

5 out of 5 stars for me!

48HBC Stats Update

Hours read: 6.5 hours

Hours blogged: 2.25 hours

Books Read: 4 books + 2 short stories

Pages Read: 1,042 pages

Total Challenge Hours: 8.75 hours

 

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48HBC Update #2

48HBC update 2Whew! It’s been a fairly disjointed reading day–I had to take breaks for everyday activities like showering and cooking as well as attendance at my school’s commencement ceremony.  However, I did complete another novel and read a couple short stories in Diverse Energies.  

Every year, there are certain books that I start to hear about months in advance of their publication.  When I finally get my hands on these books, I’m both incredibly excited and nervous.  What is the novel doesn’t live up to the hype? So, it’s always incredibly satisfying to read one of these anticipated novels and find that it absolutely lives up to the hype.  Pointe by Brandy Colbert is absolutely one of these novels.

Theo is finally starting to get her life in order again.  Her ballet instructor has singled her out as one of her top students and told her to seriously consider auditioning for specialized summer programs.  She’s eating again, she’s got some great friends, and she might be on the verge of something special with an almost appropriate guy.  Then Donovan Pratt comes back.  Before he disappeared a few years ago, Donovan was Theo’s best friend.  And now Theo has all sorts of long buried memories bubbling back up.

This novel is heart-wrenching, raw, and ultimately hopeful.  Theo is a fabulously complex character; in Theo, Colbert has crafted a truly human protagonist.  The novel explores a range of issues and topics but it never feels melodramatic or disjointed.  Instead, Colbert has illustrated the complicated reality that trauma and healing can affect an individual’s life in many different but interconnected ways.  The secondary characters are also equally sympathetic and three-dimensional.  Additionally, race and social class are acknowledged and explored as natural and significant aspects of Theo’s identity and world.

I might try to write a longer review later but for now, I’ll just say: go out and read Pointe immediately, especially if you are invested in realistic young adult fiction, the creation of complex female characters, and the ongoing cultural conversation about girls, sex, and consent.

5 out of 5 stars

48HBC Stats Update

Hours read: 4.5 hours

Hours blogged: 1.25 hours

Books Read: 2 book + 2 short stories

Pages Read: 602 pages

Total Challenge Hours: 5.75 hours

 

48HBC Update #1 : First Book Read!

48HBC update 1 graphic.jpgAlthough I technically started the challenge yesterday evening, I’m only just over 2 hours in now;  I fell asleep after only an hour of reading last night!  But I woke up and jumped right back in this morning around 7:45am over coffee and oatmeal.  And now I’ve finished my first book of the challenge: The Garden of My Imaan by Farhana Zia.  Working with 7-12 grade students, I don’t get to catch up on the great fiction being published for the younger end of middle grade as often as I’d like.  However, whenever I can I sneak some titles in, especially over the summer.  I enjoy getting an idea about what some of my new middle school students might have encountered before they arrived in my library, occasionally discovering titles with appeal for my 7th graders, and the novels are often fabulous!

the garden of my imaan

In her first middle grade novel, Farhana Zia has crafted a sweet and appealing coming of age story focused on Aliya, an Indian-American fifth grader who deals with ordinary middle school struggles while trying to come to terms with her Muslim identity.  Like many middle schoolers, Aliya simply wants to fit in.  She wants to liked, to blend in, and to avoid her school’s bullies.  As Ramadan approaches, a new girls arrives at school.  Marwa is also Muslim (although her family is from Morocco) and she wears the hijab & responds to mocking or teasing with a calm confidence.  Between Marwa’s frustrating example and her newest Sunday school assignment to find a way to improve herself during Ramadan, Aliya begins to reconsider her desperate need to blend in and discovers that she too can be a little more fearless in the face of unkindness & a little more willing to stand out in the crowd.

While the characters can occasionally feel a little flat and the dialogue has stilted moments, The Garden of My Imaan is overall an accessible and gently amusing middle grade tale.  Aliya’s letters to Allah–obviously an homage to Judy Blume’s Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret–are a familiar but effective device.  Aliya’s narration possesses both humor and honesty and her individual growth through the course of the story is clearly portrayed without reading as preachy.  Additionally, the novel realistically portrays the contemporary U.S. as a global and multicultural society.  The story emphasizes the fact that Muslims come from many different countries and illustrates the variety within the Muslim community as well as the sense of connection shared religious traditions can initiate.  I also enjoyed seeing a multigenerational family portrayed with such humor and ease.

A solid 3.5 out of 5 stars from me!

Next, I plan to read a story or two from Diverse Energies and begin Pointe by Brandy Colbert. 

48HBC Stats Update

Hours read: 2 hours

Hours blogged: .75 hours

Books Read: 1 book

Pages Read: 225 pages

Total Challenge Hours: 2.75 hours

Personal Best 2013: Top 2013 Published Titles

personal best 2013 iconWhew! 2013 has come to a close–and I still feel as though it just began! It’s been an exciting and eventful year, especially in reading and writing about reading! Sadly this excitement hasn’t been reflected on this blog for the last few months–balancing a busy beginning to my third year as a full-time librarian and the start of my tenure as a contributor to the amazing YALSA young adult lit blog, The Hub has proved a challenge! However, I hope to improved my balancing act in the new year. But if you’re curious to see where I’ve been focusing all my blogging energy this fall, head over there to check out my posts–and then read all the other wonderful posts written by far more brilliant librarians and writers!

As we enter the new year, many of us try to reflect on the past twelve months.  What important events shaped our lives? What milestones passed? Which resolutions did we keep–or forget?  And for some of us–what did you read? It’s been a good year for book lovers of all ages.  For 2013, I set an ambitious goal to read 150 books.  And amazingly, I actually beat my goal by over 10 books!  Even more importantly, I read a large number of really great books this year.  So I tried to gather together some of my favorites into my own personal best of 2013 list.   For this list, I limited myself to books I read in 2013 that were also published in 2013.  I’m hoping write up an additional post of less recently published titles that I read and loved this year as well.

All annotations are from WorldCat and each title links to Goodreads. 

A Creepy Double Feature

Despite hearing exciting things about her writing, I shamefully didn’t get around to reading any of Holly Black’s fiction until this year.  But it was a great year to start tuning in!  Holly Black published not one but two fabulous novels in 2013–and they were actually two of my favorite reads of the year.  Both novels illustrate Black’s ability to marry interesting–and genuinely creepy–horror fiction with multi-dimensional characters and an emotionally resonant storyline.  Additionally, each novel was excellently suited for its intended audience.

doll-bonesDoll Bones – Holly Black  Zach, Alice, and Poppy, friends from a Pennsylvania middle school who have long enjoyed acting out imaginary adventures with dolls and action figures, embark on a real-life quest to Ohio to bury a doll made from the ashes of a dead girl.

coldest girl in coldtownThe Coldest Girl in Coldtown – Holly Black   When seventeen-year-old Tana wakes up following a party in the aftermath of a violent vampire attack, she travels to Coldtown, a quarantined Massachusetts city full of vampires, with her ex-boyfriend and a mysterious vampire boy in tow.

Do You Believe In Magic?

As many of my recent posts over at the Hub might indicate, I’m a big fantasy fiction reader.  It’s a genre I have followed and adored essentially my entire life.  So I’m always on the hunt for good fantasy fiction–for me and for my demanding fantasy fan students!  This year was a fairly solid year for fantasy fiction, including some fresh voices and exciting contributions from old favorites.  The first title was marketed as adult fiction but have high teen appeal; the later titles are all young adult fiction.

ocean at the end of laneThe Ocean At The End of the Lane- Neil Gaiman  It began for our narrator forty years ago when the family lodger stole their car and committed suicide in it, stirring up ancient powers best left undisturbed. Dark creatures from beyond the world are on the loose, and it will take everything our narrator has just to stay alive: there is primal horror here, and menace unleashed – within his family and from the forces that have gathered to destroy it. His only defense is three women, on a farm at the end of the lane. The youngest of them claims that her duckpond is ocean. The oldest can remember the Big Bang. 

I’m a big Neil Gaiman fan and never more so than after reading this slim but rich gem of a novel.  Ocean was absolutely one of my top reads of the year;  it’s just a perfect jewel of fantasy novel, exploring the darkness and delight of childhood imagination.

SorrowsKnotCoverSorrow’s Knot- Erin Bow  Otter is a girl of the Shadowed People, a tribe of women, and she is born to be a binder, a woman whose power it is to tie the knots that bind the dead–but she is also destined to remake her world.

This incredibly fresh fantasy novel was the last book I read in 2013–and what a way to end the year! I heard about this novel a while ago, possibly on the fabulous Diversity in YA tumblr and I was initially just excited to see an original high fantasy set in a non-European invented world–especially a world inspired by North American indigenous cultures.  I finally got around to reading the e-galley I gained through Netgalley this week and wow, am I glad I did! Bow’s prose is just gorgeous, the world unique and incredibly well-developed, the plot epic yet intimate, and the characters beautifully complex.

bitter-kingdomThe Bitter Kingdom– Rae Carson  Elisa, a fugitive in her own kingdom, faces great challenges to rescue the man she loves from her enemies, prevent a civil war, and take back her throne but as her magic grows, Elisa discovers the shocking truth about her enemy’s ultimate goal.

dream thievesThe Dream Thieves – Maggie Stiefvater  Now that the ley lines around Cabeswater are awake, magic is swirling around Blue and The Raven boys and Ronan Lynch’s ability to pull objects from his dreams is almost out of control but worst of all, the mysterious Gray Man is stalking the Lynch family, looking for something called the Greywaren.

These last two fantasy titles are both volumes in existing series by two of my favorite current YA fantasy writers.  The Bitter Kingdom concluded Rae Carson’s break out trilogy begun in The Girl of Fire and Thorns and it was a worthy finale for one of my new favorite high fantasy series.  The Dream Thieves is the second novel in Maggie Stiefvater’s exciting and elegant new Raven Boys series and it was just as thrilling to read as the opening novel–I can’t wait for the next!

The Future Is Now

the-bone-season-cover1The Bone Season– Samantha Shannon  In the mid-21st century major world cities are controlled by a formidable security force and clairvoyant underworld cell member Paige commits acts of psychic treason before being captured by an otherworldly race that would make her a part of their supernatural army.

This futuristic supernatural thriller is already set up for a massive series and possibly a film adaption–and after reading it, I understood why.  It’s definitely a complex and unusual adrenaline-rush of a novel.  The world and story straddle the line between fantasy and science fiction and its futuristic setting might lead one to slot this debut in with the many other dystopian tale filling the shelves.  However, while this novel to be as mind-blowing as hyped, I was intrigued–and I’m excited to see the series continue.

summer princeThe Summer Prince- Alaya Dawn Johnson  In a Brazil of the distant future, June Costa falls in love with Enki, a fellow artist and rebel against the strict limits of the legendary pyramid city of Palmares Três’ matriarchal government, knowing that, like all Summer Kings before him, Enki is destined to die.

I was intrigued by this unusual piece of speculative fiction from the start, at first mainly from a diversity/multicultural perspective.  Then I learned that the author graduated from the school where I work–and I was extra intrigued.  It’s been a few months but I think I’m actually still mulling this one over; there’s just so much going on in here–but the more I think about it, the more I like it.  If I had time, I would love to give this the reread it deserves.  But I can say it’s an exciting book and Johnson is doing some really different and thrilling things here.

Rising From The Ashes

I grouped these next few realistic contemporary novels together because all three focus on girls and young women struggling to deal traumatic pasts and forge a fresh place in the world.  Additionally all three deal with familial relationships in complex ways.  Despite these common themes, these novels are very different but equally highly compelling.

counting by 7sCounting By 7s– Holly Goldberg Sloan Twelve-year-old genius and outsider Willow Chance must figure out how to connect with other people and find a surrogate family for herself after her parents are killed in a car accident.

all the truth that's in meAll The Truth That’s In Me- Julie Berry  Judith can’t speak. But when her close-knit community of Roswell Station is attacked by enemies, Judith is forced to choose: continue to live in silence, or recover her voice.

where the stars still shineWhere The Stars Still Shine- Trish Doller  Abducted at age five, Callie, now seventeen, has spent her life on the run but when her mother is finally arrested and she is returned to her father in small-town Florida, Callie must find a way to leave her past behind, become part of a family again, and learn that love is more than just a possibility.

Another Kind of Survival Story

I am also a lover of historical fiction and two of my recent favorite writers of historical fiction, Elizabeth C. Wein and Ruta Sepetys both published new and very exciting novels this year.  Both deal with young heroines in very different but incredibly difficult situations.  Both young women are determined to survive and each finds a sense of resilience in the unexpected connections she forges with others.

rose under fireRose Under Fire– Elizabeth C. Wein  When young American pilot Rose Justice is captured by Nazis and sent to Ravensbrück, the notorious women’s concentration camp, she finds hope in the impossible through the loyalty, bravery, and friendship of her fellow prisoners.

out-of-the-easyOut of the Easy- Ruta Sepetys  Josie, the seventeen-year-old daughter of a French Quarter prostitute, is striving to escape 1950 New Orleans and enroll at prestigious Smith College when she becomes entangled in a murder investigation.

Love Is A Battlefield

eleanor & parkEleanor & Park- Rainbow Rowell  Set over the course of one school year in 1986, this is the story of two star-crossed misfits–smart enough to know that first love almost never lasts, but brave and desperate enough to try.

Rainbow Rowell’s debut novel for teens has been both a popular and critical darling since its publication earlier this year.  And I can’t deny that I’m among its many fans.  I consumed this book in a single sitting during a train ride; I absolutely couldn’t put it down.  It’s one of those novels that reaches into your chest and grabs you by the heart.  It makes your chest ache, your stomach swoop, and your throat constrict–it packs a very special kind of emotional punch to the gut.  And while I found much to like about her second YA title this year (Fangirl), I found Eleanor and Park a bit more focused and compelling.

Learning To Listen To Your Drummer

I read a lot of really great contemporary YA fiction this year–so many, in fact, that I’ve divided them into multiple groups on this list.  Here are four strong and distinct coming of age tales with complex, lovable (if not always likable) protagonists and equally complex supporting teen and adult characters.  By chance, this group of novels also happen to share another common theme: the intense role the arts (especially music, poetry, and theatre) can play in our lives.

the lucy variationsThe Lucy Variations– Sara Zarr  Sixteen-year-old San Franciscan Lucy Beck-Moreau once had a promising future as a concert pianist. Her chance at a career has passed, and she decides to help her ten-year-old piano prodigy brother, Gus, map out his own future, even as she explores why she enjoyed piano in the first place.

sweet revengeThe Sweet Revenge of Celia Door- Karen Finneyfrock  Fourteen-year-old Celia, hurt by her parents’ separation, the loss of her only friend, and a classmate’s cruelty, has only her poetry for solace until newcomer Drake Berlin befriends her, comes out to her, and seeks her help in connecting with the boy he left behind.

this song wil save your lifeThis Song Will Save Your Life- Leila Sales  Nearly a year after a failed suicide attempt, sixteen-year-old Elise discovers that she has the passion, and the talent, to be a disc jockey.

just one dayJust One Day- Gayle Forman Sparks fly when American good girl Allyson encounters laid-back Dutch actor Willem, so she follows him on a whirlwind trip to Paris, upending her life in just one day and prompting a year of self-discovery and the search for true love.

Most Likely To Encourage Snacking While Reading

relishRelish: My Life In the Kitchen- Lucy Knisley  Lucy Knisley loves food. The daughter of a chef and a gourmet, this talented young cartoonist comes by her obsession honestly. In her forthright, thoughtful, and funny memoir, Lucy traces key episodes in her life thus far, framed by what she was eating at the time and lessons learned about food, cooking, and life. Each chapter is bookended with an illustrated recipe– many of them treasured family dishes, and a few of them Lucy’s original inventions.

Graphic memoirs seems to be on the rise and I couldn’t be happier, especially if they’re as delicious as Relish!  As an amateur baker & cook (and a passionate eater), I found Lucy Knisley’s memoir to be a totally delightful reading experience and the perfect blend of popular sub-genres, food memoirs and graphic nonfiction.

A Girl On Fire

i am malala I Am Malala- Malala Yousafzai & Christina Lamb  When the Taliban took control of the Swat Valley, one girl spoke out. Malala Yousafzai refused to be silenced and fought for her right to an education. On Tuesday October 9, 2012, she almost paid the ultimate price.

Living in DC is consistently interesting in unexpected ways but it can be especially exciting for a reader.  We have a wealth of great libraries, universities, and bookstores bringing in great authors and speakers constantly.  I was lucky enough to snag a ticket earlier this fall to hear Malala Yousafzai and her father speak at a event hosted by our wonderful independent bookstore Politics and Prose.  It was an inspiring and fascinating evening and I found the book equally compelling.

Then And Now

twoboyskissingcoverTwo Boys Kissing– David Levithan  A chorus of men who died of AIDS observes and yearns to help a cross-section of today’s gay teens who navigate new love, long-term relationships, coming out, self-acceptance, and more in a society that has changed in many ways.

I’m an unabashedly huge David Levithan fan.  I waited in a significant line at the American Library Association conference this summer to grab an advanced readers’ copy of his newest novel and I was not disappointed.  I know that others have found the unusual narration choices and the large cast of characters distracting or difficult to connect with as a reader.  And while I completely understand this concerns, I found the book very emotionally compelling and I found that the unusual narration (especially the Greek chorus of men who died of AIDS) fascinating and quite poetic (in a classic Levithan fashion). It also feels like an appropriate spiritual successor to Levithan’s debut Boy Meets Boy, which celebrated its 10th anniversary this past year.

For a quite different but also delightfully fresh LGBTQ-themed coming of age tale, I also very much liked Openly Straight by Bill Konigsberg this year.

Let’s Hear It For The Boy!

This list has been a little female-heavy in its protagonists, a bit inevitable when working at a girls’ school.  But this year was a great year for male characters, especially in middle grade fiction.  I read a few wonderful novels with lovable, unconventional heroes with a lot of heart.  I especially enjoyed seeing young male-identified characters who don’t fit neatly into masculine stereotypes.  Nate in Tim Federle’s delightful debut also happens to be one of those incredibly funny narrators who can make me giggle and snort out loud when reading on public transportation.

better-nate-than-everBetter Nate Than Ever- Tim Federle  An eighth-grader who dreams of performing in a Broadway musical concocts a plan to run away to New York and audition for the role of Elliot in the musical version of “E.T.”

Texting The Underworld by Ellen Booream and Doll Bones by Holly Black also feature complex, brave boys who break many masculine stereotypes (and some equally complex, brave girls!).

No Words Needed

Journey_by_Aaron_BeckerJourney- Aaron Becker  Using a red marker, a young girl draws a door on her bedroom wall and through it enters another world where she experiences many adventures, including being captured by an evil emperor.

While I absolutely love my job working with middle and high schoolers, I sometimes miss my time working with infants, toddlers, and younger elementary kids.  I miss creating storytimes and singing silly song.  But I especially miss the chance to keep up with picture books.  However, I managed to check out at least one of the new standouts this year and if you only look at one picture book this year, make it Aaron Becker’s Journey.  Picture book creation is a unique art and wordless picture books are a special subset.  This is a gorgeous, delightful narrative told entirely in Becker’s beautiful paintings.  As a believer in the power of art and imagination, I found this book especially lovely.    

So those were a few of my favorite 2013 books.  I have a whole other list of favorite reads that don’t fit the ‘published in 2013’ rule and yet another list of 2013 books that I didn’t get a chance to read yet.  But those will have to wait for another post or two later this week.

Which books made your personal 2013 best lists?

Gorgeous, Gory, & Gothic: Review of The Coldest Girl in Coldtown by Holly Black

coldest girl in coldtownOnce vampires were just stories–imaginary menaces lurking in horror novels and films. Sadly, those days are long over; vampires are very real–and very dangerous.  Tana can barely remember a time before the sudden outbreak of vampirism and establishment of Coldtowns–locked down but decadent ghettos where vampires, the recently infected, and vampire groupies live.  So when she wakes up after a wild party surrounded by drained, dead bodies, Tana knows that she is very deep trouble.  Escaping the bloodbath with her  infected ex-boyfriend and a vampire on the run from his own kind, Tana decides to take the only risk left to them: journeying deep into the voluptuous and violent world of the original Coldtown.  

Since their emergence into popular Western literature through Dracula, vampires have risen out of the myths and scary stories of various cultures and gained an extraordinarily strong hold on the human imagination.  While vampire tales seems to ebb in and out of mass popularity, they never quite disappear;  no matter the current trend, there will always be readers on the hunt for new vampire books.  A few years ago, vampires were on the upswing, especially in young adult literature; as with any big trend, the influx of related titles can become overwhelming and so we might assume that there’s nothing fresh to be written about vampires.

Thankfully, Holly Black has demonstrated how very foolish such an assumption would be!  The Coldest Girl in Coldtown is a refreshingly complex take on the contemporary vampire novel.  In her newest novel, Holly Black explores the roots behind humanity’s long standing fascination, obsession, and fear of vampires: Why do we keep wanting to read and/or watch stories about them? Why are they simultaneously objects of desire and terror?

But don’t let me mislead you–this is no dry philosophical treatise on the concept of vampires.  Coldtown is an incredibly compelling story, full of richly crafted characters, gorgeous language, and heart-pounding action.  The world is clearly and specifically imagined, from the history of the unexpected outbreak of vampirism to the simultaneously highly commercialized and chillingly savage Coldtowns.  The use of contemporary technology, especially the internet/social media, is creative and interesting. While such details might eventually date the novel, for now, its inclusion both makes the world more realistic and provokes interesting questions about media and technology’s intense integration into our lives.

But it’s the characters that truly make this novel’s world believable.  Tana is brave and smart; she’s a good person but she’s not ‘nice.’  She’s forthright about her attraction to the mysterious Gavriel and she openly acknowledges her choice to to play–and sometimes enjoy– her ex-boyfriend Aidan’s manipulative games.  She is courageous and kind but not innocent or sweet.  It’s refreshing.  The other characters are equally complicated;  nearly none of the characters are purely good or evil–instead each reveals unpredictable complexities of motivation and personality.  Additionally, Black creates a wide range of characters, portraying a fairly realistically diverse cast.  Valentina is a great trans teen character whose gender identity is an important aspect of her story without being her only story.  I also found Aidan’s bi or fluid sexuality interesting.  The characters also seem to be a fairly realistic range of ethnicities and races.

Finally, Coldtown reminded me that vampires can be truly frightening.  As expressed in one character’s contemplative blog post, it’s not their inhumanity that scares us but their magnified humanity (their lust, gluttony, etc).  They are exaggerated versions of ourselves and our most intense desires.  And in Black’s version, they aren’t necessarily soul-less or without memories of their past.  In this world, there are no ‘nice’ vampires–although they are not necessarily purely evil either. Above all, vampires are hungry–they do not have human levels of self control  and Black does not gloss over this reality.  After all, it’s that lack of control which frightens us.  Vampires are us–with our appetites unleashed and unlimited.

The language helps to heighten the scare quotient as well.  Black’s writing is sensual and gothic–full of sharp sentences and rich sensory descriptions of everything from the rusty scent of blood to the lush touch of velvet.  The plot is twisty and well-structured and the shifting points of view work well in this complex but not convoluted story. I especially enjoyed the ending–nothing is tied up in a neat bow but the reader still feels satisfied.

All in all, a perfect Halloween read!

5 out of 5 spooky stars from me–and many of my biggest teen fantasy fans!

Two Boys Kissing by David Levithan

twoboyskissingcoverIt’s Saturday morning and on the lawn in front of a fairly ordinary high school two boys are kissing.  Their names are Harry and Craig.  They aren’t a couple–although they used to be–and their kiss is no spontaneous expression of affection or lust.  Harry and Craig are trying to break the world record for the longest kiss.  

Peter and Neil are boyfriends, navigating the complexities of being a couple.  When they kiss, it’s a reminder of who they are together.  Avery and Ryan just met.  They haven’t kissed yet but they want to–if only each can get over his fears.  Cooper is alone; he has no one to confide in–let alone someone to kiss.  Worst of all, he doesn’t even care–because he stopped caring about anything quite a while ago.

These boys’ stories are threads, woven together into a tapestry imagining the many forms that love can take–and the power of a single kiss.  

Now, I must put a little disclaimer out there: I am a massive David Levithan fan.  He’s one of the few writers of contemporary YA fiction that I read as a teen–and since I was a selective (and, to be honest, pretty snobby) reader who refused to read fiction set anytime in the last few decades, that’s saying something. So, I might be a little bias in my admiration of this novel.

And for me, this novel is classic David Levithan.  Two Boys Kissing incorporates all the elements integral to Levithan’s best work: poetic prose, a diverse cast of characters, unusual narration, and plot focused on emotional (rather than physical) journeys. And above all, his writing continues to demonstrate respect and care for his teenage readership. This novel in particular feels like a love letter to his readers. It’s a story about being young, about being different, about being LGBTQ-identified–and one told with incredible compassion, sincerity, respect, and love.

As in many of his novels, Levithan juggles a large cast of characters in this novel, shifting between their stories and gently connecting them through shared themes, experiences, and explicit plot events (primarily the record-breaking kiss).  Now, I foresee that some readers might find the large cast of characters and the constant movement between their narratives disconcerting or overwhelming.  However, Levithan takes a premise that could feel sprawling and manages to make the collective narrative feel both seamless and intimate. I love getting to know these characters as we slip in and out of their lives over a two or three day period.  While many of the primary characters appear to fit certain identifiable ‘types’ of gay adolescent males through their situations or relationships, Levithan fleshes each one out into fully formed human characters with unique personalities and motivations, avoiding stale stereotypes.

The unusual narrative voice also sets this novel apart.  The omniscient but still achingly human Greek chorus of gay men who died during the height of the American AIDS epidemic tie the novel’s multiple narratives together while also adding a sense of history and cross-generational connection frequently lacking in YA novels.  Additionally, their narration again demonstrates Levithan’s ability to offer incredible insight on the human experience through deceptively simple statements.

In all, I love following these seeming unconnected characters’ lives as they slowly become intertwined through a single, symbolic kiss.  The story illustrates the very powerful defiance & freedom that kiss represents. Even before reading Levithan’s lovely author’s note and acknowledgements, a reader will sense that this particular novel is incredibly personal–and be grateful that Levithan has chosen to write it. Additionally, it can be no mistake that Two Boys Kissing is being published approximately ten years after the appearance of Levithan’s historic debut novel Boy Meets Boy.  Two Boys Kissing feel like a natural companion to that novel. As a reader, I feel honored to be involved in such a personal and universal story–and as a librarian, I am excited to use my signed ARC as a give-away during a (hopefully) repeated resource share with our school’s queer-straight alliance this fall. Watch for the release of Two Boys Kissing on August 27.

5/5 stars for this lovely and loving novel!

*review written based on an advanced reader’s copy received from the publisher at American Library Association’s Annual Conference. 

The House Girl by Tara Conklin

house girlSeparated by over 150 years, two young women struggle to shape their own futures in very different circumstances.  In 1852, seventeen year old house slave Josephine Bell decides to run away from the deteriorating Virginia farm where she acts as nurse and housekeeper for Lu Anne Bell, a sickly amateur artist.  Over a century and a half later in 2004 New York City, ambitious young lawyer Lina Sparrow is handed the case of a lifetime; her boss asks her to find the ideal plaintiff for a monumental class action lawsuit seeking reparations for modern descendants of American slaves.  As she begins her search, Lina’s famous artist father Oscar Sparrow mentions a scandal rocking the art world; evidence has surfaced that renowned Southern antebellum painter Lu Anne Bell’s sympathetic slave portraits might have actually been the work of her house slave Josephine.  Intrigued, Lina dives into research and as she traces Josephine’s long forgotten story through attics and archives, she begins to questions her own family’s secrets–her mother’s mysterious death and her father’s continued silence on the subject.

Moving back and forth between Josephine and Lina’s lives, this layered novel explores  truth, storytelling, and justice through a suspenseful historical art mystery intertwined with intense human drama.  This strong genre-bending debut is filled with three dimensional characters, elegant writing, and a complex plot that gains momentum as it unfolds.  I found  Josephine and Lina’s narratives equally compelling and I was particularly impressed by Conklin’s ability to spin their separate stories into a comprehensive whole, bound together by both plot events and themes.  Additionally, Lina’s search for the truth about Josephine becomes a truly page-turning mystery; Conklin’s pacing and careful construction makes a potential dry history into a thrilling, heart-stopping quest.

As a (currently somewhat rusty) painter, I have always been particularly attracted to fiction featuring visual art.  House Girl explores art from a variety of perspectives, investigating both the power of art in an individual’s life and exploring the ways that art history is human history.  Josephine’s and Oscar’s paintings simultaneously hide and reveal secrets;  their art and their identities as artists directly affect the story’s events.  So it’s disappointing that the novel doesn’t include many scenes explicitly exploring Josephine as a painter from her perspective.  It might be my own background as a painter, but I wanted to hear more about Josephine’s experience as an artist–especially since her painting directly contradicts the dehumanization of slaves enforced by slaveholders, the legal system, and society at large. Creating art is an incredibly human act and one that allows stories to be told across many social and cultural barriers–as this novel ultimately demonstrates.

In all, House Girl is a satisfying and thought-provoking novel likely to attract a range of readers.  While it is published as an adult novel, Tara Conklin’s debut will appeal to both adults and older teens–especially those with an interest in historical fiction and/or art history.  Josephine is a teenager herself and Lina is in her mid-twenties & just beginning her adult life after years of schooling.  Their stories of self-discovery and identity development will resonate with young–and old–readers.  I’m adding The House Girl to my informal list of  2014 Alex Award contenders and look forward to seeing more from Tara Conklin in the future!

A definite 4 out of 5 stars for this lovely debut novel!