Friday, October 31, 2014

Review: How We Fall

How We Fall by Kate Brauning. Merit Press. 2014. Reviewed from ARC.

The Plot:  Jackie's feelings for Marcus are intense, but she tries to hide it. Oh, they flirt, and yes, there are stolen kisses. So why can't they just both admit that it's more than flirtation, why not go on a real date?

Jackie's afraid, afraid of what people will think. Marcus is her cousin. And, to make matters more sensitive, or at least Jackie more sensitive to what people will think, their families share one home. They live under the same roof.

Jackie has few people she can trust or turn to. Her older sister is at college; her parents wouldn't understand, or worse, would over react. Her best friend, Ellie, has disappeared and it's beginning to look like Ellie didn't run away but was kidnapped, or worse.

Breaking up with Marcus, or, rather, stopping things, doesn't help. Her feelings don't just go away, and seeing him with a new girl,, Sylvia, makes things worse. So Jackie tries seeing someone new, Will.

Jackie begins to pore over all emails and messages from Ellie, hoping to figure out what happened to Ellie. And she's surprised when a name turns up in an old email: Sylvia. Could Marcus's new friend have a connection to Ellie and her disappearance?

The Good: How We Fall looks at love and lust and desire. Jackie knows full well what other people are going to think about her and Marcus being together, and I'm sure there are readers who won't be able to get over the first cousin romance. As Jackie points out, though, it's not illegal; and at most, it means that in some states they wouldn't be able to marry. There was something so sweet, and heart-breaking, to have Jackie both trying to deny her feelings and love for Marcus, while doing searches to find colleges in states where marriage is possible. Add to it that Jackie is keeping her emotions and thoughts so close, from fear, that she hasn't shared this with Marcus.

Jackie's attraction to and love for Marcus is clear, and while the story is told from Jackie's point of view, it also becomes clear that what he feels for Jackie is true. On one level, How We Fall is, simply, about star-crossed lovers.

The star-crossed is made more complicated by the unique housing situation. About two or three years earlier (Jackie is now 16, Marcus a year older), the two families decided, for several reasons, to combine households and move in together. For Jackie and her older sister, that meant moving from California to rural Missouri. Her father, a lawyer, now does legal consulting from home; her mother works at the library. Her uncle works in a lawn and garden shop and her aunt takes care of the home, which also involves a working farm.

To use Jackie's words to describe her aunt and uncle: "Uncle Ward's opinions were a junk drawer combination of conservative family values, generous interpretations of self-restraint and normalcy, and questionable ideas Aunt Shelly found on the internet." Ward and Shelly have six children, ranging from twin toddlers to Marcus, the eldest.

The families share a home -- this isn't sharing land, or a building. It's using the same kitchen, the same living spaces, and trying to balance their values. It's not always easy; you can tell that sometimes Jackie's mother (Ward's sister) is biting her tongue about Shelley's judgments and rules. (Let's just say that Shelley isn't a fan of TV or movies while Jackie is looking to major in film in college.) Jackie has also gone from youngest child of two to an eldest child helping not only with chores, and selling their farm produce, and helping in the gardens and with the animals, but also babysitting her younger cousins.

Still, the families make it work. They are happy and functional; but it's also a financial decision. They are living a lifestyle, and in a home, that requires four adults working. But, to be honest, working "less", with a better quality of life, if that makes sense. Look at the father: he can return to law, but he's happier being a consultant. Jackie's mother is happy working at the library, but if the families split, she'd need to get a better paying job. I really loved that this book included this non-typical living argument, and that the arrangement works. And, I also think that more and more readers are going to identify with teens in home situations that are non-traditional.

As you can tell, the love story and the setting is what really captured my attention. There is also a mystery going on, the mystery of Ellie's disappearance, and I liked how this was handled. Jackie is not Veronica Mars; her friend lurks in the background, something that Ellie thinks about but, especially at first, doesn't obsess over. It's as time goes by, and it turns into a murder investigation, and Marcus's new girlfriend is revealed to have a link, that Jackie finds herself actively trying to learn more about Ellie's life to figure out what happened.

There is also Jackie's own new boyfriend, Will. One of the reasons I like Will is he ends up being such a good, understanding guy. Seriously, whether in real life or a book, when a person is confronted with a situation when they can be cruel or they can be kind -- when they can be judgmental or understanding -- when they be angry and lash out,or listen and be a friend? And they choose kind? It just makes my day; it reaffirms that people are good. And that was Will. Someone who is good.

Also, Will is cute. I said that How We Fall is also about desire, and that's true of Jackie and Marcus and Jackie and Will. Jackie is trying to figure out what she wants, and what she feels, and what is love, and what is love -- and it's a bit messy, made messier but the awkwardness of the situation and her thinking she is protecting everyone by not admitting to her feelings for Marcus. And then here is Will and yes he's fun to kiss cause he's older and hot and even with all this he is just such a good guy. And I love that this book shows the complexity of feeling, emotion, and desire that a teen girl feels.



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© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Review: Gracefully Grayson

Gracefully Grayson by Ami Polonsky. Hyperion, an imprint of Disney Book Group. 2014. Reviewed from ARC.

The Plot: Grayson Sender is twelve years old.

Grayson is lonely, even surrounded by classmates, even at home, living with cousins, an aunt and uncle.

Grayson is lonely in part because of Grayson's parents death years ago, leading to Grayson being the odd child out at home.

Grayson is lonely because Grayson cannot connect with others because Grayson is hiding the most important part of who Grayson is.

In Gracefully Grayson, Grayson gradually gains trust and friends until Grayson can reveal the truth: that Grayson is a girl inside. Grayson is a transgender girl.

The Good: I'll be honest Grayson broke my heart, because of how lonely she is. Of how unable to connect with those around her.

At school, Grayson tries out for the play and takes her first step towards her true self by asking to play the part of a girl. One of the happy-tear moments I had was -- spoilers -- when the cast welcomed Grayson, became her friend, treated her like they'd treat anyone else.

Then there were the sad-tears of those who bullied Grayson, and of Grayson's aunt who believes that Grayson is in part causing the problems by not continuing to hide her truth.

And I cried at all the things Grayson did, in hiding. Doodling pictures of girls, but doing it in such a way that people wouldn't know. "If you draw a a triangle with a circle resting on the top point, nobody will be able to tell that it's a girl in a dress. To add hair, draw kind of a semicircle on top. If you do this, you'll be safe, because it looks like you're just doodling shapes."

Loving glitter pens and being prepared with lies to explain why she has the purple and pink ones.

Wearing a sweatband to pretend it's a hairband.

Pretending basketball pants and a t-shirt are somehow a gown, with the wide pants a full skirt.

And how important it is to Grayson, to anyone, to have their own truth by the truth others see. That it's harmful, the years and the lies of pretending to be something other than who she is.

At the end of Gracefully Grayson, someone tells Grayson that "I know it may feel like there are people who are against you, but I want you to remember that most people in the world are good. Look for the people who extend a hand to you. And when they do take it." This, in a nutshell, sums up the book. There are people against Grayson, for various reasons. But there are just as many good people in Grayson's world.

And the question left to the reader is this: is the reader one of the good ones? Does the reader extend a hand to those around them?

I'm making this one of my Favorite Books of 2014, because it is such a beautiful book and Grayson is such an endearing twelve year old.

Links: author interview at Diversity in YA; Bookfabulous Review; Robert Bittner Review at Gay YA;



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© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Review: Crossover

The Crossover by Kwame Alexander. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 2014. Reviewed from ARC.

The Plot: Twelve year old twin brothers, Josh and Jordan Bell, are basketball players just like their father. And just like their father, they are GOOD.

Josh loves basketball and words; he is the one telling the story, in a sequence of poems organized by sections as if it were a basketball game, starting with Warm Up, moving on to First Quarter, and ultimately ending with Overtime. His father loves music, giving Josh the nickname Filthy McNasty after a favorite song.

His twin, Jordan, is JB, and loves basketball and betting.

The Crossover takes the twins through a basketball season, ending with an important game. And while this is a book about basketball and basketball players, it is also a story about brothers, a father and sons, a family. The two brothers complement each other on the court, a great pair leading their Junior High team to victory after victory. Their parents are loving but strict, with complications because their mother is also their Assistant Principal; their father, who played professional basketball, is a stay at home father who coaches his sons. And then there is a new girl in school, who Josh likes but before he can say a word, it's his brother who is dating her.

The Good: I'm on a roll of reading good books lately!

I loved Josh, his poetry, his love for his dad, his brother, basketball, words. Oh and his hair: he's proud of his locks, just like his dad wore when he played, and conflict with his brother starts when Josh loses a bet to JB -- a bet that allows JB to cut one of those locks off. There is also competition and jealousy, but those feelings are hidden deep inside Josh, only coming out in full force when JB begins dating. The feelings are so hidden, and the parents are so into reinforcing the brother bond, that these emotions are ones that Josh has a hard time understanding. Their father pushes both sons to be good basketball players, but he's individually pushing them: there is no setting one brother against the other.

If I talk more about the twins' father, it's because of the strong basketball bond between the father and sons. The father stopped playing years ago, explaining to his sons that he saved his money and is happy being with them full-time. As the twins learn, it's a bit more complicated than that: an injury ended their father's career. Health issues continue to plague the family; there's a history of hypertension, and their father has a huge distrust of doctors and hospitals so refuses to see one. (And yes there is foreshadowing there.)

One thing I really liked about The Crossover is that it's a book about two typical kids -- readers will see themselves in Josh as he struggles with his love for his brother but also his jealousy; with wanting to play basketball; enjoying being good at something; practicing to become better. Having a father who is loving and caring; a mother who is also kind and loving but knows when to be strict. Parents who value their sons' education as much as their basketball skills. It's a story played out in towns and cities everywhere.

Another Favorite Book Read in 2014!

Other reviews: The New York Times review; Stacked; Clear Eyes, Full Shelves; Bookshelves of Doom.







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© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy

Monday, October 20, 2014

Yes, I Am Afraid

Daily, I do certain things that in the book reviewing world are acts of courage.

I use my own name.

While I omit specifics about my work and family and home, I don't make up alternate facts to create a public persona that will offer me more protection.

I use my own photograph, which means I am recognized in public.


I use my own mailing address with publishers and agents and other professional contacts.

Part of this is because I wanted to use what I do here, online, professionally, for writing and professional activities and programs and workshops.

Part of this is because of cost: being on a tight budget means that I don't want to add the cost of a PO box, plus depending on how something is sent means that a PO box isn't always the answer.

But it means, of course, I'm exposed. My own "it happened to me!" stories are much less than what others have experienced. I'll say it wasn't an author or publisher; it was people who, basically, didn't like what I had to say online and then -- . Well. I'm sitting here, still worried, trying to figure out how to phrase what happened and share it in a way where I feel safe. And, I can't. Trust me: on a scale of 1 to 10, it was probably a 2 at most. No threats; nothing like that. Rather, it was about making me aware that a person could reach through my public online persona to my real life world. That I was vulnerable. Even for something that low on the scale, knowing it's that low on the scale of what happens to others, I'm afraid. I'm afraid that it will start up again, from writing this post.

But those things didn't stop me from writing. Or posting. Or presenting.

And when I read Kathleen Hale writing about tracking down the real-life world and home of a book blogger, of stepping over that line of reviewer/author -- the line of reviewer/reader, even, crossing the line of "this is something you're doing on the internet" to "here I am at your house, calling your work, SHARING YOUR PUBLIC INFORMATION ON AN INTERNATIONAL NEWSPAPER WITH NO CHANGES TO YOUR INFORMATION SO ANYONE CAN DO WHAT I JUST DID" --

Well.

I felt sick to my stomach, for the person who is now being doubly victimized, first by what Hale did, and now by a newspaper upping that exposure by 1000. I feel sick to my stomach for myself and other bloggers who are being told by this, by the people embracing or championing what Hale did, that "hey, we can find out where you live and where you work and anything else we want and intimidate the hell out of you and try to use your personal hobby as something that will have consequences other than online disagreement."

Even for someone like me -- who has leveraged blogging for some professional benefits, doing presentations and programs and workshops and writing -- the blogging remains personal. Done at my home, on my own time. Unlike, say, an author like Hale who is getting paid for her writing. And while I have friends and blogging colleagues, I am much more alone than someone who has publicists, agents, editors, etc. like Hale. There are no layers of protection for bloggers.

Reviewing, whether it's on a blog or GoodReads or whatever, is very much about an individual and the book. It can run the gamut from pure reader response to deep, footnoted criticism. One thing I love about reading bloggers and book blogs is that one blogger can encompass that whole range -- sometimes in the same review, but other times it changes depending on the book. Reading these posts and reviews requires the reader to understand that "review" covers a lot of different things -- and that people read and use those reviews for a bunch of different reasons. I read them to see different opinions of books I've read; to find what to read next; to enjoy a blogger's writing style; to have a laugh.

And, of course, what's going on at blogs and websites and social media is beyond reviews. It's discussing other things that are book and publishing related, from what is happening with Amazon to self-publishing to book banning to advances to diversity and on and on and on. All of those are areas that, well, can lead to disagreements of opinions. And that's fine. I love having good conversations online about things.

But here's the thing: no one is making you read anything. You don't like a style, format, tone? Don't read that person. The answer is not to track them down in their real life to tell them that.

You disagree with what was said? As an author, that's what your real-life friends and non-public avenues of communication are for. The answer is not to track them down in real life to tell them you think they're wrong.

Even as another reader -- there's a level of conversation that can be had online. But even then? No one owes you a conversation; no one owes you to "listen" to you, especially if you are talking under the belief that "if someone listens to me, that means they will end up agreeing with me." They especially don't owe that to you in real life so again: the answer is not to track them down in real life.

For anyone -- authors or just general readers -- to go from disagreement in comments or tweets to reaching into the blogger's life is just wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong. As I said, what happened to me was so much less than what Hale has done -- hell, now I'm going to mark it down to a 1 when I think of what Hale did and continued to do, with this article using real names -- and yet it left a mark. I can't imagine how bad it is for that person Hale went after, for daring to not like Hale's book.





**********************************

If you're wondering what the heck I'm talking about, I'm not giving her any more clicks. Google Kathleen Hale, you'll find it soon enough.

That said, I will link to two responses and one roundup I find very valuable:

Dear Author: On the Importance of Pseudonymous Activity - because part of Hale's justification for what she did is that the reviewer in question chose not to use her real name online.

Smart Bitches, On the Choices of Kathleen Hale - because everything Hale did was her choice.

Kathleen Hale has written other essays. It's a bit interesting to see how much she does or doesn't share online, yet it still doesn't justify what she did to that blogger, both by stalking her and by then sharing all that via a newspaper article.

So, what about you? Have you had a negative experience with someone reading your blog? Do you think Hale sharing her story is going to change how people write or how much they share online?






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© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy

Thursday, October 16, 2014

New Post: Bling Ring

The Bling Ring: How a Gang of Fame-Obsessed Teens Ripped Off Hollywood and Shocked the World by Nancy Jo Sales. It Books. 2013. Library copy. Inspired film by the same name.
The Bling Ring.

It's About: The true story of how, in 2008 - 2009, a bunch of teens broke into the homes of their favorite celebrities and stole clothes and jewelry. The Bling Ring explores who those teens were, how they planned the crimes, and how they were caught.

The Good: Both the film and the movie view this series of home robberies as an opportunity to examine entitlement celebrity fan culture. The teens targeted those people they liked, not those they didn't. They wanted to be in those homes, go through their closets, wear their clothes. It was part celebrity worship, but it was also part entitlement. Why shouldn't they do this?

The reader is as much a voyeur as those teens, reading about the robberies and the celebrities, laughing at those rich people with poor security. The movie ups that aspect by filming in the actual locations, including some of the homes.

I found it helpful to read the book before the film: the film changes some things to the make the story more linear, less messy, so consolidates and shifts some events. In simplifying the story, some of the nuance and depth is lost. That the "ring" was messy is part of the point of the underlining story.

A book like this is dependent on who talks to the writer, and not all of the teens spoke with Sales. While understandable, it also means that the reader is left with not enough understanding of just exactly what happened, who was involved, how involved they were, etc. Still, it's a pretty valuable examination of a certain type of teenager as well as a look at what happens when they get caught.




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© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea CozyThi

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Review: Complicit

Complicit by Stephanie Kuehn. St. Martin's Griffin. 2014. Reviewed from ARC from publishers.

The Plot: Two years ago, Jamie's older sister was sent to juvenile detention. She'd burnt down a neighbor's barn, killing several horses and injuring a young girl who'd tried to save those horses.

Rumors have always swirled around Cate: she was that type of personality, that attracted and repelled and fascinated. And now... now she's been released.

Jamie is afraid, to be honest. He's put that all behind him, what happened with Cate. What she did. He's been seeing someone to help. He lost his best friend but he's rebuilt his life, flirting with a cute girl at school, continuing to get good grades.

What will Cate do, now that's back?

The Good: This is the type of book that is so hard to write about!

Jamie tells the story. He tells what he knows and what he remembers. And that is the sticking point. Jamie is an unreliable narrator.

The story as he knows it, the story as he tells it: Cate and Jamie were the children of a teen mother, struggling to make ends meet. When they were little, about six and eight, she was murdered. Jamie has little memories of his mother, or her death -- just hazy details, of their small basement apartment, of her living on the edge, the type of life that led to her death.

And then the miracle: after months in the foster system, Cate and Jamie were adopted, kept together, by a rich couple who were looking for older children to replace the ones they had lost. At first, young Cate is the one who seems to adjust easily, being happy, taking riding lessons. It's Jamie who is lost and sullen and doesn't quite connect, until he's sent to a therapist and things get better and Jamie gets better. Like the lost son, he takes piano, He calls his adoptive mother "Mom."

When Cate enters her teen years, things change. Jamie, the younger brother, looking on, doesn't understand why but suddenly Cate is the trouble maker, pushing boundaries, drinking, smoking, boys, and then, of course, the barn fire. And now she's back, reaching out to Jamie, and acting as if there's more to the story. That there's more that Jamie knows.

Jamie wants to know what she knows.

That's the story Jamie is telling us. Between the lines, though, the reader sees another story. Of a lost child. Of someone who has learned to act the right way, to give the right responses. Of the growing concern that part of Jamie's acting the right way includes what he is, or is not, telling the reader. Of trying to figure out how much of what he is saying about Cate is real. And of trying to understand Jamie, and who he is, and what he's done.

This is a suspenseful, psychological drama about a mentally ill teen. Who that teen is, and what they do, is a question that will leave the reader guessing.

A bit of a disclaimer: this is the type of book that I only like when done well. Unreliable narrator, unlikable characters, questions left for the reader to answer -- I am so picky about these things that usually my short-form response is that I don't like these things when the truth is that I do like them, I'm just very particular about how such books are crafted and written. And Kuehn in Complicit? Does it so well it's a Favorite Book of 2014.

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© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy

Friday, October 10, 2014

Review: Longbourn

Longbourn by Jo Baker. Vintage Reprint, 2014. Personal copy.

The Plot: The story of Pride and Prejudice, told from the point of view of the servants.

Sarah, one of the housemaids, is the main character -- and as she works long days, doing the laundry, cleaning the house, doing whatever is required -- she has her own dreams, her own hopes, and her own loves.

The Good: I was lucky enough to "discover" Pride and Prejudice on my own. I was in high school, it was a book on the shelf at home, I was bored with nothing to read. (Seriously, you want your kids to read? Have plenty of books at home and let them be bored.) Like many others, I fell hard for Elizabeth and Darcy and Elizabeth and Darcy together.

You may remember I was disappointed in the Pride and Prejudice mystery, Death Comes to Pemberley (yet I'm still looking forward to the upcoming TV program.) I am so happy to say that I had the exact opposite reaction to Longbourn: it was everything I wanted, and more, and I cannot recommend it highly enough.

One thing I find interested, now, as an older, adult reader, is how often books written long ago, books like Pride and Prejudice, don't show certain aspects of life at the time. It reveals, of course, both what the characters would (and wouldn't) think as well as what the author thinks the reader does and doesn't want to know. In other words, the servants in Pride and Prejudice are barely mentioned, even though, of course, they are there because these homes and houses needed staff to run.

Longbourn looks at those servants -- and I loved, actually, how little we see the Bennets, because how often would they interact with each other? And even though we know Elizabeth sees herself and her family as not being well off -- still, they did have servants even if they don't have many. And they had the privilege that having servants meant. Or, as Sarah puts it: "If Elizabeth had the washing of her own petticoats, Sarah often thought, she'd most likely be a sight more careful with them." In that one sentence we see a different side of Elizabeth's behavior, which in Pride and Prejudice is strictly shown as her independence and non-conformity. It also shows a disregard for the people who have to clean her clothes. It's careless and rude.

Sarah is one of two housemaids, and that's another thing -- this is no Downton Abbey. There are a couple other servants, yes, but altogether there are very few, expected to do very much, with very little pay or free time, and from a very young age. Yet, it's shown that these servants are lucky because they have jobs, a place to sleep, food. It's shown just how few options these workers had -- especially the women. This is one of those books that makes me value, all the more, the servants and serving class of the past -- the workers, the people making the best of their worlds, the people who strive to be happy with what they have. And makes me thankful for all the laws we have, against child labor, for minimum wage, for overtime.

The source of the fortunes of the wealthy is explored, especially just what it meant to be "in sugar." Ptolemy Bingley, one of the Bingley servants, was born a slave. I loved that Longbourn showed that England wasn't all white in the nineteenth century, and how others would interact with Ptolemy.

The risky position of women, love, and sex is also shown (and I won't go into more because spoilers.) I will say this: Longbourn, surprisingly, made me much more sympathetic to Mrs. Bennet and the pressure she was under to have a son and how precarious the family was without sons. She was no longer a silly woman, but rather a desperate one who had few options other than trying to have a male heir and then wanting security for her own daughters -- a security her husband was reluctant, or unable, to think about.

Of course, this is a Favorite Book of 2014!




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© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy

Thursday, October 09, 2014

There Is Nothing Wrong With Writing Nonfiction Books For Children

So, today's critical response essay is in response to an article in The New York Times that talks about writing non fiction for children: To Lure Young Readers, Nonfiction Writers Sanitize and Simplify.



I read the title, cringed, read the article. While there are some good things in the article (notably quotes from librarians and authors and publishing folk I know and respect), there are some things that left me frustrated enough that I vented a bit on Twitter (thank you, friends, for indulging!) and wanted to round up here, the problems I have with the article.

In a nutshell, my response:

There is nothing wrong, and actually much right, with writing age-appropriate nonfiction books for children and teens. When and how subject matter is introduced and discussed is, well, the reason fifth graders aren't sent to university classes (unless they're Doogie Howser, of course.)

The long version:

1. What is right for an eight year old, a ten year old, a twelve year old, a fourteen year old, is different. It is not sanitizing, simplifying, nor dumbing down to recognize that a ten year old is not a thirty year old; and they learn and process things differently. It is actually respecting the audience to recognize that in writing and presenting information.

2. Common Core is driving the increased use and purchasing of nonfiction in schools and public libraries.

3. Schools are increasing their purchasing of nonfiction at a time when the resources to do so have been reduced. Funding for books is decreased; and professional librarians, who evaluate and find books, have reduced hours, increased responsibilities, or have been eliminated all together.

4. Like any author, an adult nonfiction author may or may not be someone who can also write for teens and children.

5. If an author has spent time -- meaning years and years -- researching, interviewing, and writing an adult nonfiction book, I think it's not a stretch to say that author now has knowledge and expertise in that area. Why not have them use that knowledge and research to write another book on that topic, only now for a different audience?

6. "Young readers" and "teens" are two different age groups. In the article, the new books mentioned are specifically for the age group "under thirteen." Of the five individual titles mentioned, the intended new audiences are given as ages 12 and up; ages 10 and up; 5th to 9th grade; ages 10 and up; and ages 8 to 12. While some of these do veer into the younger teen audience, for the most part, this is children: under 13.

7. If nonfiction is being purchased to support education, which means texts to use for class, well, let's just say that I wouldn't want to be the teacher assigning a roomful of students multiple books of the lengths given in the article: specifically 759, 750, 877 pages. And even though most of these books are talked about for the under 13s, because of the size and educational needs, I can easily the "younger" versions being used in teen classroom settings. Because time. Those readers who want more can always seek out the other books.

8. The quotes from Angela Frederick and Chris Shoemaker are spot on. Why teen librarians are being asked for quotes about self-selected teen reading in an article about materials for the under thirteen set, I'm not sure. I would have liked to hear from school librarians and children's librarians, given the target age and that the audience is beyond public libraries. (Again, respect to Angela and Chris and their quotes.)

9. Blanket statements or assumptions about the differences between the books an author writes for a teen audience, an under thirteen audience, and an adult audience serve no one. Talk about the individual books. For example, I've read both books that Michael Capuzzo wrote on the Jersey Shore shark attacks, one for adults, one for teens. The teen version (Close to Shore: The Terrifying Shark Attacks of 1916) simply streamlined the book, removing some historical explanations and details not really needed to get to the heart of the story, and also included a wealth of photographs, illustrations, and maps not found in the original. (Seriously, I will always be Team Show Me The Photo of Anne Boleyn's Jewelry Don't Just Describe It).

10. And a yay to Steve Sheinkin, also quoted, who writes a lot of original work for children and teens. And yes, kids and teens love nonfiction, and yay to publishers for creating the books kids want and libraries buying them, because they can be hard to find in bookstores.

11. I refer again to point 5: what's wrong when an author with the research writes a second book on the same subject? Nothing, I say. Review the individual titles and let us know: is this book good on its own? Is it good compared to what else is out there for that age group? Don't just assume that the younger edition is not needed, dumbed down, and a quick way to squeeze out sales. I'd argue that it can be harder to get a point across in fewer words. That said, with the reduction of resources in schools, yes, it's easier for schools to purchase a "known brand" -- a book by a well reviewed author. But that is equally about budget cuts and the schools not having the professional staff to search out the breadth and depth of other titles.

12. Another point about cost. And time. If an author already has the research done, the book they will write will be published quicker than the new-to-the-subject author. And that means a quicker turnaround time for publishing a book that is needed by a school who wants books to support the Common Core. And they want the books now, not four years from now.

13. In case you're missing it: Common Core, Common Core, Common Core. Budgets, budgets, budgets. School librarians, school librarians, school librarians.

14. If loving photos, illustrations, maps, etc in a nonfiction book mean you don't respect me as a nonfiction reader, so be it. Perhaps the adult nonfiction should include more of those resources instead of sending us who like those visuals to the younger books that have them.

15. By the end of this article, I had tremendous, over the top respect for Laura Hillenbrand, who obviously respects her readers, her subject matter, and the new readers. Who sees a need for readers and wants to meet it.

16. Given the way books are challenged in schools, and given how school boards and states are trying to control book content, for authors and publishers to be aware of how to present materials for age groups is responsible, not sanitizing. Wanting to have children's books instead of adult nonfiction in an elementary school library is responsible.

So, what are your thoughts?



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© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

Review: The Timothy Wilde Novels

The Gods of Gotham (A Timothy Wilde Novel) and Seven for a Secret (A Timothy Wilde Novel) by Lyndsay Faye. Berkley Paperback 2013, Berkley Paperback 2014. Personal copies.

The Plot: The Timothy Wilde novels are mysteries set in 1840s New York City, at the very start of New York City's police force.

The Good: There are few things I like better than a historical mystery. Faye both recreates 1840s New York, full of details and interesting tidbits; yet also creates something that is a mirror to our own time. For example, the formation of the police force is far from simple. Part of it is need, with the growing size of the city and population. Then there is the mix of altruism and nepotism. Wilde, for example, gets a job on the new force not because he wants it or has any particular skill set -- he's a bartender. Rather, it's because of his politically connected brother.

Timothy Wilde is reluctant to even take the job, because he and his brother don't get along but for various reasons he needs the job. And, it turns out being a bartender is a pretty good skill set: observation, talking, listening, crowd management. Oh, and another thing: many regular people were opposed to a formation of the police, in part because they feared it was militarization. So.... 1840s questions that have parallels today.

The Gods of Gotham is the first in the series, and gives as much room to Timothy's own origin story as it does to the start of the police. He'd been left orphaned as a child, raised by his older brother, befriended by a local minister. Timothy isn't desperate enough to accept his brother's job until he loses everything in the Great New York Fire of 1845. And here is why I love fiction that accurately incorporates history: learning not just about fire but also the just how scary a fire was -- how it was fought -- and the devastating losses, both in terms of lives, injuries (Timothy's face is burnt, leaving scars), and property. Timothy's savings, all his property, is lost.

And Faye's writing! I loved it. Here, an example of showing the bias of the times and where Timothy stands in terms of that prejudice: "Popery is widely considered to be a sick corruption of Christianity ruled by the Antichrist, the spread of which will quash the Second Coming like an ant. I don't bother responding to this brand of insanity for two reasons: idiots treasure their facts like newborns, and the entire topic makes my shoulders ache."

The Gods of Gotham, as that quote hints at, is about the immigration as a result of the Irish Potato Famine, how those Irish Catholics were treated in New York City, as well as missing children, prostitution, child prostitutes, private efforts at addressing the problems of poverty, women's rights, religion  -- and, of course, the politics of the 1840s. And as I read it, I thought of all those historical fiction children's books, set in Ireland, set in other European countries, were the happy ending, the solution to poverty or discrimination, is emigration to America; and how often that was just the start of a new nightmare.

In Seven for a Secret, Timothy Wilde is still with the New York City police force. How the police worked, what actually it meant to be a member, was fascinating -- Timothy's role as detective, investigating and solving crimes, is almost as revolutionary as the force itself.

Seven for a Secret centers around a different group of New Yorkers than the one shown in the first book: the world of free blacks and runaway slaves. Without giving too much away -- don't worry. Timothy is not the Great White Hope that saves the day. The mystery involves that community, and so Timothy becomes involved, and at times he is ignorant of the laws and social mores and risks -- but the community itself has leaders, and Timothy works with them or for them. The African American characters are multifaceted and complex.

My favorite quote from Seven for a Secret: "He likes who he is in the story because it's the wrong story he's telling."

What else? I adore Timothy's older brother, Val. Yes, Timothy is often at odds with him; yes, Timothy is judgmental about Val's choices, from Val's politics to his substance abuse to his womanizing. But what captured me is that Val was a teen when his parents died; the two books show just how brutal and cold their world was, and just how indifferent it was to two orphaned boys. Timothy doesn't quite realize or appreciate just what Val did, was willing to do, to take care of him. Val, in some ways, has earned his right to drink or drug or romance too much. He's my 1840s Bad Boyfriend.

I also like how Faye portrays the female characters, including how Timothy views them. They are whole; more than tropes. (And having watched and/or read one too many historical fiction shows, where it's either the virginal wife (hey, you know what I mean) or the whore - -well, it was nice to see more than that, and to see Timothy himself seeing the disservice society does by viewing women as being either one or the other.)

Finally -- Timothy himself. He's in his mid-twenties, and while he's great at observations and putting the pieces of a puzzle together, he's not brilliant. He makes mistakes, mistakes that arise from his youth, his inexperience, his own biases (such as the ones he has about his brother), and his own stubbornness.

Good news: a third book is on its way! The Fatal Flame is scheduled for May 2015.

And yes -- these are some of my Favorite Books Read in 2014.


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© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy

Monday, October 06, 2014

Speedy Reviews

I prefer writer longer reviews, but for several reasons I find myself way, way, way behind were I'd like to be on book reviews.

So, rather than forever being because of how far I've gotten behind, I'm going to do a bunch of short ones. Hope you enjoy them!



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© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Flashback July 2012

A look back at what I reviewed in July 2012:



One Moment by Kristina McBride. From my review: "If you could change one moment in your life . . .  That’s how Maggie feels. She wants to change one moment so that it doesn’t end with her boyfriend Joey dead, floating in the water below the cliff. Only thing is, she doesn’t remember what happened at the top of the cliff; she remembers agreeing to jump off the cliff into the cool water below, something Joey and her other friends have done countless times over countless summers. But after that, she remembers nothing. So what is the one moment to change? Something at the top of the cliff? Earlier, when she agreed to jump? If they all hadn’t gone to the party the night before, would things have ended up differently?"

Dark Companion by Marta Acosta. From my review: "Jane is a terrific mix of tough and vulnerable, smart and naive. Here she is on why she is at school: “It was rage that got me to Birch Grove Academy for Girls and out of Hellsdale. I nestled into my bed, knowing that rage would help me survive here, too.” Jane may know the way of the streets, but families are alien territory. What I liked about Jane is how her background impacts her; for example, one of the first thing she does when she settles into her own home (which is a cute little cottage I would love to live in!), is to find a place to hide those things that are important to her. When Mrs. Radcliffe takes her on a shopping trip so that Jane is ready for school, Jane returns half the clothes and pockets the money, putting it in with her secret stash. She’s a foster child who has to hide what is important to her, and who has to be always ready to run."

A Confusion of Princes by Garth Nix. From my review: "Prince Khemri is one of the ten million Princes who rule the Empire. To “ordinary folk,” these Princes seem immortal. And, it’s true, that they can be reborn in certain situations; and that they are augmented in what may appear to be super-human ways. . . . The sixteenth anniversary of his selection as a Prince-candidate is Khemri’s day of investiture as full Prince. He even gets assigned a Master of Assassins! Khemri has big plans, based on his grooming as a Prince and the things he’s been taught. He’s going to get a warship, go explore, make his mark, and become the next Emperor. Turns out, his education wasn’t complete. Some details were left out. Like the competition between Princes can be deadly. Instead of sitting back and living out the adventures lived in his favorite Psitek experience, The Achievement of Prince Garikm, he finds himself being saved from assassinations attempts and enrolled as a Naval candidate because the Academy is one of the few safe places. That’s all in the first thirty pages. That doesn’t even cover Khemri’s three deaths. Action, suspense, space pirates, and, yes, even a touch of romance in this intergalactic adventure."

Lies, Knives, and Girls in Red Dresses by Ron Koertge, illustrated by Andrea Dezso. From my review: "I love retold fairy tales, especially when they twist and tweak and turn inside out. You may remember that from my post about the TV show Once Upon A Time. Take something you think is familiar, look at it from a new direction, what new truths are there? Most of these tales live in a world that is both modern and fairy tale. The first one is The Stepsisters, from Cinderella, and begins “I write this on a brailler, a kind of typewriter/ for the blind.” Like some (but not all) of these stories, it takes the viewpoint of a secondary character (the stepsisters) and makes references  that are both non-fairy tale (a brailler) and classic (the birds pecking out their eyes.) It gives a different perspective: “Mother turned us against our stepsister,/ belittling her.”"

This Is Not a Test by Courtney Summers. From my review: " I like zombies. Love zombie movies and TV shows and books. I want three things from a zombie book: a new take on the story. A good metaphor for what the zombies represent. And a concrete tip or two on how to survive the zombie apocalypse.
This Is Not A Test is told from the point of view of a depressed, abused teenage girl who wants to die. Sloane was “rescued” by two high school classmates, Rhys and Cary, who didn’t know she wasn’t trying to survive, not like the rest of them. And now she is one of six, huddled up in a school, exits blocked and barricaded. Five teens who want to survive: . . . . And Sloane, whose secret is she’s not like them, never has been. Sloane doesn’t want to live, but she doesn’t want to put the group at risk, won’t do to them what [her sister] Lily did to her, so she finds herself with them, in the high school, where her silence is mistaken for strength."

Long Lankin by Lindsey Barraclough. From my review: "When reading this, I was reminded of three authors: Diana Wynne Jones, because Barraclough’s capturing of childhood reminded me of Jones. When Cora discovers a piano in her aunt’s house and wants to play, she sits down. But what child just sits down on a piano stool? “I sat down on the stool, one of those that whirled around and went up and down, and I must have whizzed round on it for five minutes at least before I cam to a stop, all giddy.” Stephen King and Peter Straub, because Long Lankin is a horror story about cursed generations, missing children, murders, witchcraft, and the supernatural."

And a little blatant self promotion, for the book Sophie Brookover and I wrote, Pop Goes the Library, because in 2012 was when a e-book version became available! Yes, the title is still in print, still for purchase, and still has a lot of valuable information... even if it was written before the Brangelina wedding.




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© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Review: Belzhar

Belzhar by Meg Wolitzer. Dutton Children's Books. 2014.

The Plot: Jam Gallahue was in love with Reese Marfield and it was wonderful and magical and all that made life living.

Was.

A year that has passed since she lost Reese, a year of life not being worth living, a year of Jam barely able to leave her bedroom, shattered by his death.

So Jam's parents have done the only thing they can think of: sending her away from her New Jersey home and all the memories, to go to The Wooden Barn, a boarding school in Vermont for those who are "emotionally fragile, highly intelligent."

Jam isn't happy to be there, but then she finds herself in a unique seminar: "Special Topics in English," with five students intensely studying one author for a semester. This year, the author is Sylvia Plath.

Each student is given a journal, to write in. And when Jam puts pen to paper ... something magical happens. She finds herself in a place where time stands still, and Reeve is hers again.

As the semester draws to a close, Jam wonders what will happen when she reaches the last page. Will she figure out a way to stay with Reese? Should she?

The Good: Another one of those books that I love, but part of what I love is the twists and turns and the reveals. It's not just the secrets: it's finding out the secrets.

Jam is at a school for the "emotionally fragile," so everyone has some type of story Hers is Reeve. Her fellow Special Topics members (Sierra, Marc, Griffin, Casey) each has had a loss; each, it turns out, can also use their journals to return to that pre-loss time. Inspired by the title of Plath's novel, The Bell Jar, they call the place they go to Belzhar.

Jam's whirlwind romance with Reeve was meaningful and magical but short: only 41 days. Actually, that is the sum total of the days they knew each other. It was sixteen days before they kissed. So Jam has only a handful of memories stored up and what she finds is in that Belzhar, she is limited to experiencing only what actually happened. Oh, it's not as if she's stepping back in time: Reeve understands that something is happening, something outside time almost, and impatiently worries about the times she isn't with him.

And... I don't want to get into spoilers, about Jam and her friends, or about Jam and Belzhar, and what it is or is not. But wowza; there was a certain deliciousness in reading and figuring out and discovering, much like there was with We Were Liars (but for different reasons.) Belzhar is not just about "emotionally fragile" people, but it's what it means to be emotionally fragile and how that shapes how you see the world and how you act in it. And aside from that, it's about the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, much like The Bell Jar itself is Plath telling her story in a certain way.

And, of course, the language! This, for example -- "to be on the verge of your life, and not to be able to enter it" is just such a good description of someone being held back and knowing they are held back, for whatever reasons.

Or this: "Because when I let go of the story I've been telling myself and just try to think about what's objectively true, I can barely get a grip." And how often is that true, also -- the truth being so frightening that we tell ourselves other things we believe to be true, to get through the day.




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© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Review: Falling Into Place

Falling into Place by Amy Zhang. Greenwillow Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. 2014. Review copy from publisher.

The Plot: Liz Emerson, a high school junior, has crashed her car into a tree.

She planned it, oh so carefully, to look like an accident.

It wasn't.

Now, as she lies in the hospital, hovering between life and death, Falling Into Place examines just what led her to that fateful moment.

The Good: Falling Into Place has some seriously beautiful writing. I dog-eared (yes, dog-eared, don't tell) so many pages to mark passages where the language knocked me off my feet.

"But that afternoon, in the abandoned field by the elementary school, Liz pretended that they were. In love. She lied to herself. Her world was almost beautiful. She didn't care that it was false."

"Had the world always been like this? Why had it seemed so much kinder when she was younger? Why had it ever seemed beautiful?"

In some ways, Falling Into Place is the mirror-image of Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher. In Thirteen Reasons Why, Hannah explains her suicide by naming the people who hurt her, who let her down, her gave her no reason to live. Liz's story, also is a list of the reasons she gives herself for aiming her car at a tree... except her reasons are not things done to her. No, Liz's reasons are the things she did to others.

A small aside: if you don't like any spoilers, go no further. Because my conversation will be mainly about the characters and who they are, and aren't, and for some that may be too much.

I'll be honest: Liz is a difficult person to feel sympathy for. Or, at least, it was difficult for me to feel any sympathy for her. I began liking her, the way you would any character, but as the way Liz treated others piled up, action upon action, I just -- couldn't. I felt sorry for her mother, as her daughter's life hung in the balance, because that is a terrible situation to be in. But Liz herself.....

Liz is the type that hurts people because she can. Because she feels it's better to hurt others first, before they can hurt her. Because she has some own deep childhood wounds -- a father who dies tragically, a distant mother who cannot connect either emotionally or physically with her only child. She is, inside, a hurt and jealous child: "It made her remember that there had once been a time when she was in love with the sunshine and the wind and each brief flight. It was like watching the sky change colors, his playing. And then it made her jealous, because Liz Emerson was never at peace like that. Not really. Not anymore."

Liz both recognizes what she does and hates what she does yet cannot stop herself; she knows she does hateful things but does nothing to stop or make amends. She thinks she cannot fix what she does, so she doesn't even try. Instead, her solution is to end herself. "She looked around and saw all of the broken things in her wake, and then she looked inside herself and saw the spidering cracks from the weight of all the things she had done. She hated what she was and didn't know how to change, and half an hour before she drove her car off the road, she that despite all of that, she didn't have enough force to stop the world from turning. But she had enough to stop her own."

And... despite the glimpse into who Liz is, and seeing those who both love her and forgive her, despite not wanting her dead, I find I cannot feel much for Liz. I feel for those who she breaks: there's at least one suicide, plus a handful of teens whose lives get sidelined with pregnancy, drug use, failures. It's nice that we see at least one of her victims put aside Liz's actions and words, see her vulnerability, forgive her, and get on with his own life instead of letting Liz ruin his whole future -- but it wasn't a real balance. Not to me. And Liz herself had nothing to do with it. One of her good friends thinks, "she doesn't remember when she turned into such an awful human being" and the friend is thinking about herself, but it could be about Liz, and the thing is -- they are awful. And they feel bad about it, when it all comes crashing down....but where do they go after that?

These are the teens who I hope against hope that the real life teens I know never, ever encounter. And that if they do -- they are the type who don't care what the Lizs of the world think or do.

What is frustrating about Liz is the obvious: her world, the world she wants to escape, is her own creation. She sees a cruel world because of who she is; and that Liz has shaped her reality to be her is something she doesn't recognize. She doesn't see that she can stop it by changing how she sees the world: by looking, once more, for the beauty she saw as a child.

But what matters about Falling into Place is not what Liz learns or does not -- it's what the reader figures out. That the reader realizes, like one of Liz's targets, that just because someone like Liz is "never careful with her life or anyone else's, and in her disregard was a coldness, a deep cruelty, a willingness to destroy anyone, everyone", there is no reason to let Liz destroy everything: "he found that there were still beautiful things in the world, and nothing could ever change that." What the reader can also see, as Liz's full life comes into view, that Liz's world is also the sum of her own choices, her own times of going for cruelty and power instead of understanding and kindness.

What also matters about Falling into Place is the language. It's beautiful writing, that makes the ugliness more bearable -- much like Liz herself looks for beauty, yearns for it. I look for the beauty in Falling into Place. And I find it, in how the story was told. In how the pieces fall into place. And how, finally -- I do find, underneath it all, that I have sympathy for Liz, after all. In how she and her world spun so far out of her control that she felt like there was only one answer.



Other reviews: Scott Reads It; The Perpetual Page-Turner; Queen Ella Bee Reads.




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© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Review: Poisoned Apples

Poisoned Apples: Poems for You, My Pretty by Christine Heppermann. HarperCollins. 2014. Reviewed from electronic galley.

The Plot: Fairy tale retellings, in poetry and photographs.

The Good: Seriously, I just adore retellings. Whether it's looking into the historical origins of fairy tales, modernizing them, twisting them -- I just love what people can do with the familiar and the unknown, making them new and fresh.

Poisoned Apples approaches fairy tales with a particular question: what do they say about what it means to be a woman? What does it mean in today's world?

"The action's always there
Where are the fairy tales about gym class
or the doctor's office of the back of the bus
where bad things can also happen?"

Where bad things happen. There, right there, it shows that the darkness of the fairy tales is what will be examined.

So many good, tight poems, and each is independent, so it's hard to write about because how to select just one or two.

Some are cynical -- the "Prince Charming" who is charming to parents but says to the girlfriend
"Girl,
you look amazing. That sweater
makes your boobs look
way bigger."

Others are not. "
Retelling" says, "What the miller's daughter should have said
from the start
or at any point down the line is,
no."

And then offers a better solution:
"Once upon a time
there was a miller's daughter
who got a studio apartment
took classes during the day."

"Retelling" may be my favorite because it says, you can say no. You can put yourself first. And that means a happier ending for everyone.

Poisoned Apples is a short book but not a quick read. There is a lot here to discuss; a lot to think about it; a lot to question. And the questions are not just about fairy tales and the poems. It's about what it is to be a woman, what that means, what society and family and friends say it means.

I reviewed this from an electronic galley; and let me say, I want to get my hands on the final print version because I think it's going to be an even more intimate reading.

Other reviews: Sense and Sensibilities and Stories; Kirkus Reviews.

Amazon Affiliate. If you click from here to Amazon and buy something, I receive a percentage of the purchase price.

© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy
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