Book Review: Shut Out, by Kody Keplinger

August 31, 2011 at 11:07 am (Book Reviews) (, , , , )

At Hamilton High, the boys’ football and soccer teams have gone well beyond rivalry into all-out war, and Lissa is sick of it. Sick of getting egged in her boyfriend’s car, sick of her boyfriend abandoning her to retaliate, and sick of the injuries that happen as things escalate.
Lissa has a plan.
With the help of the girlfriends from both teams, Lissa stages a strike- a sex strike- to force the boys to come to peace. What ripples out is beyond anything she could have imagined.

If you’ve ever read Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, you’ll be on familiar ground here, and that’s not at all a bad thing. Kody takes the original content (even references it within the book!) and updates it with grace and a keen eye for commentary. This is one of those books that everyone should read, not just because of what it says but because of what it can leads other to say. As difficult as it can be to get this kind of book in boys’ hands, between the cover and the story, it’s still one they should read too.

Sex would seem to be at the heart of the story, but really it’s perception and standards and identity and learning your own self-worth. Sex, or the lack thereof, is just the vehicle. When Lissa starts the strike, it’s based on the assumption that without any sex or sex acts, her boyfriend, randy Randy (I don’t know if that was intended to be a pun or not, but either way, I love it), will have to make peace with the soccer team in the name of getting some. Particularly high moral ground? Not really. On either side. But it’s based on a personal principle that, for various reasons, these girls share. And it’s a broad group of girls, ranging from Mary- who’s never done more than kiss- to Chloe, who forgoes the relationships for the uncomplicated sex.

As the girls band together, they have slumber parties that double as a support group- after all, boys aren’t the only ones who want to play. For some of the girls, saying no is just as difficult as being told no. During these parties, a lot of perceptions are challenged. Is it okay for a girl to like sex, or does that make her a whore? Is it okay to be a virgin? Is it abnormal to not enjoy sex? How do you know you’re ready for it? And more, it addresses the double standards that exist in how our society thinks about sex. Why is a boy who sleeps around a player and a girl who sleeps around a slut?

If you read Kody’s blog, you know she takes a strong stance on some feminist issues, and isn’t shy about sharing them. Those reflections come out in the story, and they’re necessary questions. As a society, we have such polarizing views of sex, opinions that we take as fact, and we assign labels that may or may not even be close to true. We look at sex as being very different for males and females, but it’s the same act- why doesn’t it have the same consequences?

More importantly, it raises the point of how essential it is to talk about it. Putting stigmas on it doesn’t keep it from happening but it does keep people from talking about it, which leaves them prey to a whole host of insecurities and questions. There isn’t really a normal when it comes to sex, but how do you know that unless you can talk to others about it without fear or reprisal or condemnation?

To that end, one of the things I wish I would have seen within the book was one adult taken into confidence. One of the more open-minded mothers or a gold-hearted teacher or a cool guidance counselor or something, some adult brought into their plan so that the girls knew they could talk to adults about this stuff as well. Being able to talk to other girls is important, but so it knowing there are more experienced people to go to also. Teens aren’t necessarily the best about taking adults up on those offers to talk- especially if we feel they’re not able to handle what we need to talk about- but if the offer is genuine and the need is great, it’s important to know that we can do it without everything being marked in permanent record somewhere.

Only other thing I really wish I could have seen is for Lissa be on her own a little bit more. Sounds strange after the last comment, I know, but I don’t mean in the sense of literally isolating herself from those trying to help. She’s with Randy, she finds herself attracted to Cash, but I wish I could have seen more of her where she was just Lissa, rather than being someone’s girlfriend, so that she could feel more secure in her choices and in who she chooses to be, neuroses and all. It’s good that she has Chloe to both egg her on and call her on going too far, and it’s good that she Ellen to be this all-encompassing compassion and support and forgiveness, but I really wanted to see her stand on her own feet for a while without tying her name- and some part of her identity- to someone else.

Sex can be a very scary thing to talk about, especially if you’re a teacher or parent. This book can make that a lot easier. What we don’t like to admit is that sex is very much a part of our culture at just about any age, whether it’s simply being exposed to it through media, avoiding it like the plague, or actually participating in it, sex is present. And it’s not going to go away or not become an issue by ignoring it or refusing to talk about it. If kids have questions they’re hesitant to ask, point them to this book, and then let them know you’re there to talk on the other side if they’d like. Teens? It’s okay to ask questions. Maybe not every adult is able to handle them, but there are those who are, and they’re around.

Shut Out by Kody Keplinger is a must read for all ages, for anyone who has ever had to deal with questions or standards or insecurities connected to sex and dating. Its release date is September 5th, but it’s out in the wild in some stores a bit early.

Want more Kody? Check out her previous title The DUFF (reviewed here), or follow her on twitter- @kodykeplinger . And for today and tomorrow (ending 1 September) tweet with the hashtag #shutouttrailer for a chance to win an ARC of the book AND a print from the trailer!

Until next time~

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And the Winner Is…

August 28, 2011 at 11:20 am (Giveaway) (, , , )

Congratulations to Vivien!!! did its magic and selected our winner. Thank you so much to all of you for entering- had to laugh, a lot of the covers you mentioned (Hourglass, Unbecoming of Mara Dyer) were also covers that continually catch my eye, especially Mara Dyer.

Vivien, I have sent you an email, so once you ping me back I can send off the book!

Until next time~

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Book Review: Bloodlines, by Richelle Mead

August 24, 2011 at 6:35 pm (Book Reviews) (, , , , )

Sydney Sage has spent her entire life in training to the Alchemists, a sect of humans dedicated to the task of keeping the vampire and human worlds separate. What she’d never considered was the cost, and she isn’t out of hot water for the assistance she rendered then-renegade-murder-suspect Rose Hathaway. When she’s roused from bed in the dead of night for a meeting, she’s certain it can’t be anything good.
And she’s right. To protect her younger sister, who hasn’t yet been inked with the Alchemist’s golden lily, Sydney forces her way into an assignment that involves, among other things, Palm Springs, a moroi roommate, a duplicitous asshole of a supervisor, and the staggering realization that a lot of what she’s been raised to believe may not be true.

Bloodlines is the first book of a series that stands as sequel to the six books of the Vampire Academy series; I suppose you don’t have to have read the first series, but really, you want to read the first series before you start this one. There’s a decent amoung of given backstory but the characters and all of the events that serve as a foundation for this are there. Besides, the first series is amazing! Why on earth why would you want to miss out? (But seriously, if you haven’t read the series, you may or may not want to keep reading below, as there will be spoilers for VA)

Our narrator for this tour is Sydney, nineteen years old with an uncertain future given the assistance she gave Rose. Her time in Russia, even before meeting Hurricane Rose, gave her more direct involvement with vampires of any sort than most of her colleagues; after Rose, she has enough experience with strigoi, moroi, and dhampirs to last a lifetime. Helping the dhampir accused of killing the previous moroi queen makes a lot of her own people distrust her. The moroi are to be tolerated because at least they’re not as bad as the strigoi, but they’re certainly not acceptable friends, even if friend isn’t quite the word Sydney choose.

It’s that same distrust that makes her superiors- and her father- wonder if she wouldn’t be best off in a re-education center where she can learn proper duty and distance- and most likely come out brainwashed and half-lobotomized as a shell of her former self. Still, that same familiarity that’s gotten her in trouble is also the reason she’s the best one for the assignment: Jill, the recently discovered half-sister of Queen Vasilisa Dragomir and new princess of the Dragomirs, has been attacked at the Court in an effort to remove Vasilisa from power. If Jill dies, the Dragomirs no longer have the necessary number of family members to sustain the throne. To that end, Jill is being hidden in a Palm Springs boarding school with a single Guardian, and an Alchemist is needed to help with the protection effort and make sure everything stays off the humans’ radar. Sydney’s younger sister Zoe is also being considered for the assignment- has been specifically requested- but Sydney’s come to realize that the life of an Alchemist has a higher cost than she was ever told, and she desperately needs to protect her sister from that life. Despite her own misgivings about the assignment- roommates with a moroi?!- she takes the assignment.

Even though it means reporting to mega-douche Keith Darnell, an Alchemist golden boy with a dark secret and far too many faces. She gets all the responsibility, he gets all the glory and the power to send her straight to one of the re-education centers.

Along with Jill there’s not-entirely-official Guardian Eddie and thoroughly-drunk spirit-user Adrian Ivashkov, and their moroi hosts (in charge of the feeding situation) Clarence and Lee. Clarence is a little off his rocker, absorbed by the murder five years before of his beloved niece, while his son Lee is spending more time with his father around classes in LA to help ease his grief.

Between trying to navigate the bewildering world of high school (Sydney was homeschooled the first time round); serving as research aide and all-around go-fer for a scatterbrained teacher; dealing with a stressed and secret-keeping Moroi princess, a persistently drunk and complaining Aidan, a Guardian with a painful past, Clarence’s ravings, and Keith; a strange spate of murders; and the unsettling appearance of pricey tattoos that bear a striking resemblance to secret Alchemist methods, Sydney’s got more than enough to be dealing with.

It’s a good story, and Sydney as a narrator is an intriguing switch from ultra-confident, ready to take on the world with a clenched fist Rose. Sydney is cautious. She analyzes everything, thinks before she acts, and doesn’t get close to people. She notices things in a different way and along the way she learns a lot. She realizes that she doesn’t really understand people. Like at all. Having to deal with non-Alchemists is baffling to her, a full society that seems even more alien that the Court of the moroi. The basic structures of school- as in having classes and homework- make sense, reassure her in some ways with her endless pursuit of knowledge, but the people? No clue.

I wish the other characters had been as well drawn as Sydney. It’s symptomatic of first-person narrations that we get to know the narrator very well, but with the possible exception of Adrian, the other characters don’t really come alive the way they did in the first series. Part of that comes from switching narrators, I think; it takes time to settle into a new voice, a new mindset. And, for all her vaunted skills of observation, readers will put things together long before Syndey does. Given how incredibly well the mysteries were laid out through the previous books, the progression here hints of heavy handedness and a lack of subtlety. Don’t get me wrong, I really enjoyed the book, but I was rather frustrated to be waiting for Sydney to catch up to clues and connected that seemed not only obvious, but logical- which should have put it squarely within her left-brained capabilities.

While some of the puzzles and obstacles are solved by the end, others are left to carry us into the next book, The Golden Lily. I’m hoping that the handful of things that irked me through this book will get smoothed out with the next; transitioning to the same world, and many of the same characters, through an incredibly different voice, can be difficult, and is bound to cause some bumps in the road.

Bloodlines, by Richelle Mead, out in stores now!

Until next time~

(and don’t forget, the giveaway for Lauren Oliver’s upcoming Middle Grade Liesl & Po goes through Saturday, August 27th! Only a few days left, so check here for details!)

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Ask Your Booksellers

August 21, 2011 at 9:00 am (Industry) (, , , , , )

I come from a rather specific viewpoint when it comes to books and the book industry. I’m an enthusiastic reader, I’m a hopeful writer, and I’m a bookseller. It looks a little bit like this:

The one thing that marks all three of these is passion. As a reader, as a writer, as a bookseller, I bring passion to what I do. The thing is, that same passion marks a lot of people within our industry, no matter what part of it they’re in. From the writer’s mind through so many other hands until it finally reaches the reader, it isn’t just a job. It’s a life. Even where there’s the coldly practical element of needing a job to pay the bills, we’re there because we want to be there, because we want to be working with books and the people who love to read them.

What that also means is that we have a tendency to get very excited when people attack a perceived flaw in our happy little world. Back in early June, the Wall Street Journal (always a dubious source when it comes to YA) published an article saying that YA was too dark. There were some excellent rebuttals, including that of Maureen Johnson , as well as an impromptu #YAsaves on twitter, wherein thousands of people, within the course of just a few hours, sent in personal, impassioned, brutally honest confessions of how reading YA has helped them in their lives. (To be fair, the WSJ did collect some of these to present as a slideshow on their site.)

When I read that article, I was pissed. Not at the writer- though I certainly had a few choice words about her opinion- because I’ve gotten used to the misconceptions most people have about YA. Even people who read YA sometimes voice the most appalling, ill-informed inanities until it’s all I can do to nod and smile and bite my tongue. It was actually the bookseller that really got me pissed. It isn’t remotely reasonable to expect that booksellers will know every book on the shelves. We all have certain types of books that we prefer to read.

The thing is, any bookseller worth his or her salt also knows what the other employees read. Everyone on staff knows that I’m the one to ask for anything kids, and they know I also read in Sci-fi/Fantasy, History, Science, writing reference, and skim through mystery, fiction, and some others. I don’t read horror but I know who does. I don’t read current events or business, but I know who does. If a customer asks me about something I don’t read, I know who to take them to. If that person isn’t there, I can pass along books I’ve heard them mention, and I give the customer their name so they can come back for more recs. My co-workers know to pass customers to me for middle grade or teen questions.

So why didn’t that bookseller do the same thing? When Amy Freeman of Bethesda, Maryland walked into her bookstore, why did the bookseller- who admitted she didn’t know the section- sit and pass uninformed judgments rather than handing the Ms. Freeman over to an employee who did know the section?

But the thing was done, and the furor eventually died down.

And then there’s a new article. It’s the New York Times this time. I made a post a while back talking about the difference between boys and girls where reading is concerned. By the time they become teenagers, boys are reading substantially less than girls. It’s largely a function of how reading is perceived by society as a whole and the fact that boys aren’t encouraged to read the way girls are. Can part of it be blamed on packaging? Absolutely. Girls don’t mind reading a book with a boy on the cover.

Most boys wouldn’t be caught dead reading a book with a girl on the cover, because to be seen with such a thing would, of course *insert sarcasm here*, be a grave insult to their masculinity and be the equivalent of committing social suicide. Saundra Mitchell has some great things to say about that.

To paraphrase probably more than I should, the new article basically says that boys aren’t reading YA because there are too many girls in it. Editors are purposefully seeking female-centric manuscripts at the expense of books that boys would read, publishers are marketing too much to girls at the expense of boys who might otherwise buy books, etc etc.

To which I say: SHENANIGANS.

Maureen Johnson – who really is an amazing person, and if you don’t follow her on twitter you should (the passionate defenses of reading are balanced by sheer insanity, it’s lovely)- pulled out a post from her blog archives that answered that beautifully. It speaks to the way we’re educated, the overwhelming mindset that forms the way we view books and reading and gender.

But this also goes back somewhat to the bookseller mentioned in the WSJ article. What this really highlights is the amount of people talking about the books in the teen section that have no idea what’s actually in the teen section.

Are there dark books in YA? Yes.

Are there a lot of female-centric books in YA? Yes.



What about Anthony Horowitz’s Alex Rider series? Or Charles Higson’s Young Bond? Or the Cherub series? All high-octane, high-action spy thrillers aimed towards teenage boys. Anything Orson Scott Card, John Green, David Levithan. How about Scott Westerfeld? How about Suzanne Collins? Boys are devouring The Hunger Games, and the fact that it’s written by a female doesn’t factor into that at all- her MG series, Gregor the Overlander, is also a boy favorite. How about Hannah Moskowitz’s books, which are by the way narrated by boys? Catherine Fisher’s books? Too many books about vampires? Vladimir Tod is a vampire, and his story has certainly sold- TO BOYS. He mentions Walter Dean Myers, but what about Christopher Paolini and Christopher Pike and Riggs Ransom? What about Sherman Alexie? Markus Zusak? James Dashner? Paolo Bacigalupi? How’s about Michael Scott? Want me to keep going? D.J. MacHale, Neal Shusterman, Joseph Delaney, Michael Grant? And that’s not even continuing the list of female authors who write strong, central male characters.

And you know what? If boys- and their parents and friends and teachers- didn’t get so hung up on what the covers look like, there’d be even more amazing stories for them to discover, books with strong stories and strong guys. Authors like Sarah Rees Brennan, Holly Black, Cassandra Clare offer stories that should not, under any circumstances, be limited to girls. Holly Black’s White Cate? It’s about a boy from a family of magical con artists. IT HAS A BOY ON THE COVER. I wouldn’t call that a female-centric book, never mind that it’s written by a female author or that it includes female characters.

It isn’t about the number of males writing in YA (male writers make up most of the adult fiction ranks and yet it’s mostly women who buy the books), it isn’t about the books that are out there. The books are there.

What we need to change is the attitude that keeps the boys- and the parents- from finding all of the amazing options that are already out there.

Teens, parents, as a bookseller, I am begging you: ASK US. Ask your booksellers. If you’re looking for books for boys, for younger precocious readers, if you’re looking for books that stay away from the magic or the vampires or the sex/drugs/angsty issues, ask your booksellers. Ask your school librarians, who work so hard to keep up to speed on what kids want to read. Ask the blogging community, ask twitter, but ask us. We’re out here. YA isn’t just my passion or hobby, it’s my JOB. Don’t be content with people who don’t actually know the section. If that bookseller doesn’t know, ask if there’s another employee who does, and when they’ll be there. Ask us.

It makes our day as well as yours.

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Book Review: The Near Witch, by Victoria Schwab

August 17, 2011 at 9:00 am (Book Reviews) (, , , )

“The wind on the moors is a tricky thing. It whispers and it howls and it sings. It can bend its voice and cast it into any shape, long and thin enough to slide benath the door, stout enough to seem a thing of weight and breath and bone.”
Lexi has grown up falling asleep to the voice of the wind over the moors, sure of the language that speaks just beyond her ability to comprehend. Isolated within the barren expanse, Near has forgotten too much of its own history, consigned it to legend that should never have been left behind. But then a stranger comes to town, an unheard of event that heralds a string of disappearances. As Near tracks down the stranger to blame him for the missing children, Lexi seeks answers within the moors themselves.

There are some books that come off as much poetry as prose, where the descriptions linger in our minds long after the page is turned or the cover is closed. This is absolutely one of those books. Lexi’s words are a love song to the moor, full of the caution afforded to any living thing with a myriad of dangers, full of an exquisite awareness of the beauty and the fear and the admiration the moor evokes. She has her father’s appreciation for the half-incomprehensible language of the moor, for the tracks that whisper secrets for those with the eyes and ears to know them. The moor comes alive within the words, more than mere atmosphere or setting. There are times when the description, lovely as it is, bogs things down, but this book is a tribute to the beauty of language, and leaves haunting images that whisper in your ears as you fall asleep and paint stark pictures across your dreams.

The relationship between Lexi, her little sister Wren, and their mother owes a great deal to the relationship of the Everdeen women in The Hunger Games albeit with some softer edges. The sisterhood between Lexi and Wren is a beautiful thing, full of devotion and cute rituals, and most of all a sense of trust and protectiveness. I think it would have been better served if Wren had been just a little bit older- at the age of five, she seems just a little young for some of her insights. She’s sweet and all things worth protecting, but sometimes a little too wise for a five-year-old. At first their mother seems as much a ghost from her husband’s death as Mrs. Everdeen, but slowly- carefully- she shows her hidden strength and her willingness to protect her daughters. She just has to do it in a way that doesn’t promptly put them in danger from her brother-in-law’s boorishness.

Speaking of the brother-in-law, Otto Harris was, for me, an incredibly interesting character. Our perception is colored by Lexi’s, given the first person narration, but there are flashes that she doesn’t particularly pay attention to, flashes that speak to much more of Otto than she’s been willing to see. He’s definitely a boor. He’s chauvanistic, domineering, over-protective, dismissive, contemptuous, but– sometimes you can see the genuine need to protect the family his brother left behind, the need to make sure they’re taken care of. Every now and then, you can actually see how much he cares for Lexi, even as she infuriates him. With just a few more fine-drawn lines in his character, he could easily have stolen the show for me.

Tyler? Tyler’s a douche. Enough said.

I love the Thorne sisters. They complement each other beautifully, with Magda’s softness and Dreska’s prickly sharp edges. Their speech patterns overlap, an overlapping, eerie rhythm that somehow stays more comforting than creepy, the spoken version of the Near Witch’s song and the endless, shifting murmur of the moor. They’re a piece of things, as much so as the wind and the barren soil and the rocks and heather that surround the town. The more we learn about them- a slow process, given the sedentary nature of those within the town- the more interesting and dynamic they become.

I would have loved to know more of Cole. He’s intriguing, someone as fascinating and capricious as the winds over the moor, someone we slowly fall in love with. I would have loved to know more about him, more about his history, but to speak more about him threatens some spoilers, so we’ll just leave it as: Cole is an amazing foil to Lexi’s.

By far my favorite character was the wind, and it absolutely is its own living force and personality. It reflects every aspect of human nature, wraps through the thoughts of the readers and shivers down the spine. It grows on its own, forces the other characters to interact and grow, both creates and eases the obstacles towards finding the missing children. It haunts and it whispers and it teases and it seduces, beautiful and mysterious. I love books that allow specific pieces of the setting to become breathing characters in their own right (like the town of Olive in Nova Ren Suma’s Imaginary Girls)because it twines the story and characters through the atmosphere until it becomes genuinely inextricable.

There’s a peculiar sense of timelessness with this, as well as a disorientation. We don’t know when or where this is happening, which sometimes adds to it- increases the overall claustrophobic feeling of just how isolated and tradition-bound Near is- but also sometime distracts, given that we have absolutely no idea how to anchor it to anything. Near is the only indicator of location. We hear of the town Cole came from but not its name, and that’s the only indication that anything at all exists beyond the town of Near and its moors. Like I said, sometimes I really liked it, thought it added a great deal, but I would have wished for just one or two hints so I could dismiss the question (Then again, I’m a somewhat strange person).

This is a book to savor. I think I would have had a very hard time picking it up and putting it down for little things like stages of cooking or parts of a string of errands. This is a book to take with you to bed. Turn out all the lights but one, so the darkness presses against the windows, and feel the drafts from the ceiling fan or air conditioner and wonder in the pauses as you turn the pages whether it’s the wind trying to speak to you. This is a book that keeps you up long past your bedtime and folds around you with the comforting, slightly unsettling knowledge that sweeps over the moors.

The Near Witch, by Victoria Schwab, out in stores now.

Until next time~

(Don’t forget, check out my Cover Love post to win a copy of Lauren Oliver’s Liesl & Po)

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Trust Your Research

August 14, 2011 at 9:00 am (Writing) (, , , )

I’ve talked about research before, but this won’t be the last time I’ll mention it either. No matter what you’re writing- whether it’s fantasy or mystery or historical or contemporary- you’re going to be doing research. I guarantee it. Maybe it’s just fact-checking a few things you’re already fairly comfortable with, maybe it’s learning about a sport your character plays, maybe you’re studying the basic structures of military naval tactics of the 18th Century. No matter how close the subject is to your own experience, you will be doing some basic research.

I’m still in the first research phase for my new project. (Yes, first, I’ll get to that in a bit.) I always do a fair amount of research for my stuff, but usually it stays on the surface of a broad range of subjects. Bits and pieces here and there. Average lifespan of a certain breed of horse here, best choice for a quickly metabolizing and completely incapacitating chemical agent there, number of layers of clothing for a woman of a certain time period over here…you get the picture.

I wrote a novel for my thesis (which will never, ever be seen), a fantasy that was built off a Lego block world. (A Lego block world is one that’s built upon distinct cultures in our world but altered slightly or embellished, and given different names that may or many be all that different. A prime example of this is Jacqueline Carey’s D’Angeline cycle, built upon the borders, cultures, and languages of our own world.) I had countries based on Imperial Rome, Tudor England, Medieval France, and Victorian England, so I needed to be able to talk about clothing, food, music, political structure, social hierarchies, etc without sounding like a complete idiot. That being said, I had to get the gist, not the exact details. Broad range of subjects, but not too deep, even when I added in horses, architecture, weapons, and sailing. Research just didn’t take that long because I could skim along the surface of the topics.

Then there’s the current project. I realized when I was jotting down notes for the idea that this was going to involve a LOT more research. I’ve never tried to write a true historical before.

I’m starting to understand why.

No joke, I love research. As tedious as it can be (and trust me, no matter how interesting the overall subject, there will be some damnably tedious sources) I really just love the craft of research. I love seeing the information, taking it in and processing it in my own way, even seeing how the phrasing of my notes reflects what I took from the original data. I love looking back over stacks of notes and rather than just seeing raw information, seeing instead how it’s going to be shaping the world of my book. The thing is, as much as I love it, it can get very overwhelming. That’s the point I call information overload.

When you reach that point, it can be terrifying, can cause absolute panic that swamps over you, because you already have so much information and there’s so much more information yet to retrieve and process and you want to get it right but you don’t want to overwhelm your readers with details but at the same time you want the atmosphere and the facts to be right and you’re starting to need notes for your notes because there are just so many and…STOP. Deep breath. Let it go…and now another deep breath. Keep going until it becomes a habit again.

Then, close your source, put down the pen, and take a moment.

Information overload is a very scary place, but it isn’t the end of the world, nor is it the end of your project. This is why heavy duty research is best done in stages. (See? I said I’d get back to the whole first phase thing) It isn’t just the overload- doing a ton of research all at once can burn you out, too, make you sick of your subject long before you’ve got the finish line in sight. The ability to pace yourself is definitely one to cultivate. Prioritize your research list. That sounds ridiculously anal retentive, but bear with me for a moment.

There are some things you absolutely have to know before you start your writing. List those out. That’s what you start with. That’s what’s going to give your world its framework, and it also shows you where your research needs to take you next. Take breaks between books. Switch up the mediums- if there are documentaries available, take notes from there. It makes for a nice change of pace from books and maps, and with good narrators, they can actually be pretty compelling. If you’re planning a series, figure out what you need for the first book and start with that. Then, after you’ve finished writing that, you can do another phase of research for the things you’ll need for the second book. This accomplishes a couple of things- first, you don’t burn out; second, you keep the information fresh for when you need it; and third, (yes, I said a couple, maybe I actually meant a couple-three) it keeps your mind churning on the project between books. Revision is good. Revision is necessary. But it’s definitely not hard to obsess over it, in which case it’s good to keep moving forward- but at the same time, you don’t want to push forward so fast that you overwhelm yourself.

There’s one more thing that can make your job as a researcher so much easier: a sounding board.

My sister (Hi, Llama!) is invaluable in many, many ways, but I am profoundly grateful that she doesn’t seem to mind operating as my sounding board for stuff like this. I’m still within the fairly general starting research but I’ve already started fringing on that overload panic attack. There is just SO MUCH MATERIAL, and I have so much more yet to approach. And then my sister swoops in and saves my skin, or at least my sanity. We talk about the fun stuff of what I’ve been learning, but more importantly, we talk about how it relates directly to the story and the characters.

That’s the saving grace.

By talking it through, by her asking questions that force me to put the information in precise context, I can process the research material. I’m finding the things that are relevant, the things that should probably be included but don’t have to be highlighted or supremely important, and- HUGELY important- the things that I don’t need to include at all. Details are important, especially when you’re doing a historical, but you don’t want to bog things down by giving us so much detail we feel like we’re reading a textbook rather than a novel. Atmosphere is a big thing, you need to be able to make us feel like we’re there, but it’s easy to do too much. Really, really easy. So. Finding the places you can discard information that doesn’t directly impact your story or the atmosphere you want to create will help not just your story, but your sanity.

Just make sure you thank your sounding board, with hugs, booze, sweets, or other applicable expressions of gratitude.

What are your thoughts on research? Have any tips? Methods? Share with us below!

Until next time~

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Book Review: Liesl & Po, by Lauren Oliver

August 10, 2011 at 2:57 pm (Book Reviews, Giveaway) (, , , , )

Liesl, like many others, barely remembers the sun. Unlike many others, Liesl barely remembers what it feels like to be out of the attic, where her stepmother has locked her for months beyond counting. Every night, she sits up in the window with a bare lamp and draws and dreams. Then she meets Po and Bundle, a ghost and its sort-of-pet from the Other Side, and finds the first company she’s had since her father got sick.
Will does remember the orphanage, as well as the crippling, killing mine labor the boys get sent to if they’re not adopted; some days he’s not sure that isn’t preferable to being adopted by the cruel, slave-driving alchemist. Always cold and hungry, answering to endless variations of Useless rather than his name, the one bright point in his life is stopping by a house and watching a girl sit in a halo of light at the attic window.
What brings them together is a mistaken delivery, a message from the Other Side, a hope of magic and rest, of murder and good intentions, of running away and maybe, if you’re lucky, finding home.

In her note to the reader that fronts the book (or at least fronts it in the ARC; its position in the final text may differ), Lauren Oliver reveals that this book is extremely personal for her, a confession and a journey from her own experience with the death of a loved one. It shows. In every page, in nearly every sentence, that journey shows through, but don’t mistake this for a book about grieving, or even about facing death and moving on. Through its utter simplicity, it is far, far more complex than that.

This is a book without a time or place. It’s definitely in our world- there’s a passing reference to New York City, and to countries with which we’re familiar- but it’s not really stationed in one place or another. I’ll admit that, for me, the book had a very English feel, but that’s also because the setting and the manners and the voice all came together to create a sort of dreary Victorian feel. There are trains and carriages and alchemists, and certainly the illustrations (though not yet final in the ARC) add to that impression with the style of clothing worn by the characters, but it’s not pinned solely to that era, and it’s never pinned down to a specific country either. Its cities are Dirge and Gainsville and Cloverstown, cities of smoke and fire and grey skies where the sun hasn’t shone in 1,728 days. It’s part of our world and yet somehow outside of it as well, floating outside of a precise time in a way that makes it quite timeless.

The voice contributes to that timelessness in a significant way. At first, it seems to teeter a bit. There’s a difference in voice between Young Adult and Middle Grade, and authors who go between the two, especially on their first trip to the other side, can have a hard time finding that voice. Sometimes it came off a little too YA (please don’t ask me to explain that, we could be here all day and I still wouldn’t feel like I’d done an adequate job), sometimes it came off as squarely MG, but- and these were my favorite moments, and increasingly the norm as the book progressed- sometimes it came across as an old-fashioned Victorian fairy tale that speaks directly to the reader with bits and pieces of a lesson or something a character “might have seen” if they weren’t rushing past. It’s a difficult voice to capture well and it took a few chapters, but once it founds its niche, it flourished.

This book is an exquisite display of balance in so many ways. Its characters are a careful balance of sympathetic and horrible, its tone is a balance of darkness and beauty, and even the tug and swirl of locations are balanced between Living Side and Other Side. There’s a high degree of slapstick in the story, especially when it comes to chance meetings and intersections and coincidences, but it all comes neatly together so that, while incredibly funny, it never feels contrived, but the slapstick weighs into a story that, all things told, is fairly dark. The slapstick keeps it lighter for the younger readers, but through all of it, there’s a very fragile thread of hope that stretches up towards the missing sun, just as Will stands on the street and basks in the sight of Liesl’s face in the lamp at the attic window.

Liesl is an amazing little girl, strong in ways she hasn’t understood yet- and even still doesn’t understand fully when the book is done- but her perspective on things is simultaneously world-weary and simplistically trusting. She has a child’s lack of patience with things she sees as unimportant or generally accepted, can be thoughtlessly offensive and not over-apologetic about it even if she later realizes it, but she has a boundless imagination and deeply rooted love that overwrite all the rest of her character. She’s a child who has been cruelly treated but it’s neither broken her nor left her cruel in turn. Her friendship with Po and Bundle is that of a child- nearly instantaneous, not particularly graceful at times, but cherished and strong enough to survive misunderstandings and small offenses.

Po is rather more complicated. It can’t remember the name it was born with- it died a very long time ago, and things get rather blurry on the Other Side- nor can it remember whether it was a boy or girl. Whenever I saw the name I thought of Edgar Allen Poe and loved it a little bit more. Po is the strangest blend of a child’s limitless curiosity and the bone-deep weariness that comes from having been dead for so very long. It doesn’t really understand the Living Side anymore, finds it exhausting, and yet it finds itself drawn to Liesl for reasons it can’t understand. Bundle, a blurred hybrid somewhere between a cat and a dog, is just plain adorable. I wants one.

The adult characters are more types than individuals, but just as in a fairy tale, it’s put to incredibly good use here. The Lady Premiere is mysterious and terrifying, with a heavily veiled past; the stepmother (Augusta Varice- A. Varice, I LOVE IT) is cruel and simpering in turns; the alchemist is greedy, grasping, firmly convinced of his own superiority; the old lady with the cane and the cat allergy cracks me up; and then there’s Mo. I love Mo. He is such an amazing man and in a sense of both his innate goodness and his mental status, I’d probably rank him with the children. He isn’t very smart, no (Mo is short for Molasses, as in slow as or thick as molasses) but his kindness is bone-deep. He doesn’t always do things the right way, and sometimes it causes trouble for himself or others, but his intentions are so good it actually makes your heart ache.

Laced through the Victorian fairy-tale quality of the voice comes some of the most beautiful writing I’ve ever seen. Any time spent within the Other Side is gorgeously conveyed, and there were some sentences that had me scrambling for a pen and paper so I could copy them down and go over them at my leisure because I didn’t want to pull myself away from the story long enough to do them full justice. At its heart, this is a story of hope and of not being alone. Liesl is alone in the attic, Will is alone with the alchemist or on the streets, Po and Bundle are alone on the Other Side, and home is a sort of nebulous thing for them both. Only Liesl’s father had a strong sense of home and the driving need to return there, and his sense infects Liesl with a deep longing for the place she used to know as home but can barely remember. The most beautiful moments in this book are realizations that tie around loneliness and belonging, where home is a magic- and at times mythical- concept.

“People need other people to feel things for them. It gets lonely to feel things all by yourself.”

“She understood then, too, that everyone drowns differently, and that for everyone- even ghosts- there is a different kind of air.”

“She belonged to the world but the world did not belong to her; seh was only the smallest, sprouting part of it”

I could meditate on those sentiments for hours, perhaps even days, and still feel I hadn’t explored them fully.

Skirting around a few things that happen too near the end of the book to include in a review, there were so many moments in this book to love, even within a story that I enjoyed and savored from start to finish. I look forward to seeing the finalized artwork in the published version- they have almost a sketch quality that uniquely suits not only Liesl’s drawing abilities but also the unending grey of the sunless world and the nature of Po and Bundle and the Other Side.

Liesl has a love for the word ineffable, a word her father taught her that he explains as a feeling so big or vast that it could not be expressed in words, and yet they came up with a word to express it anyway. The word comforts her, calms her when she’s upset, reminds her of her father and happier times. From start to finish, through the darkest times and the worst fears and the most slapstick ridiculosity, this is a story of beauty and ineffable hope.

Liesl & Po, by Lauren Oliver, out in stores 4 October 2011.

Want to get your hands on a copy early? I got an extra ARC, and I am giving it away! Check out my Cover Love post for a dissection of the cover and for giveaway details- giveaway runs through Saturday August 27th.

Until next time~

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Cover Love: August Edition (and Giveaway!)

August 7, 2011 at 10:40 pm (General) (, , )

One of my favorite things to do during the lulls at work- especially if I’m at the cash register and all the calls have been made- is to play through the upcoming releases in the computer. I’ll get lulled in by a title or author, and I’ll read the description, but sometimes- even if I have absolutely no intention of reading the book- I get sucked in by the cover. So much time and thought and effort and attention goes into designing these covers, and their purpose is to get people intrigued enough to want to pull them off the shelf and take a closer look. Say whatever you want about don’t judge a book by its cover, but let’s be honest: the cover is the barker outside a faire show. If someone isn’t doing something to catch your attention, you’re not going to head that way unless that was your purposed destination.

So today I’ve gathered some of the interesting covers I’ve seen lately. Some of these will be out in the next three months or so, a couple won’t be out until next spring.

Out of Sight, Out of Time by Ally Carter, due out March 2012.

I don’t think it’s been any secret that I adore the Gallagher Girls series. I rec them all the time at work, especially to girls whose parents are concerned about the level of violence/language/angst/smut of some of the other selections on the teen wall. I’m not saying the teen wall in inundated but I don’t think anyone would deny that there are certainly books that fit that bill. Especially for the younger teens and tweens who are just bridging onto the teen wall, the parents like to know there’s an employee who can steer them towards the books they (the parents) are most comfortable with. The GG books aren’t completely fluff, but they definitely start out light-hearted and ease the characters and readers into the heavier issues that come along with the pulse-pounding action of the later books. And I love the covers. We get basic descrptions of Cammie, so what we see of the girl of the covers fits that well enough, but I love that we don’t see her entire face. It’s not just that it lets us keep the image in our mind but that it also fits with her nature as the Chameleon. The titles are fantastically punny but also applicable (and an absolute bear to come up with, if you follow her Twitter feed), and the ransom note letters keep some of the light-heartededness out in the open. They’re unique, they fit well as a series, and it makes them easy to find and recognize on a shelf.

A Million Suns by Beth Revis, due out January 2012.

True science-fiction is fairly rare in teens, and this cover puts it out there immediately: THIS IS SPACE. The colors are soft, true, but it’s the blurred edges of a nebula cluster or Oort cloud, the shifting pinks and purples and lighter blues of birthing suns through gaseous fogs. We have two people standing close together but with a slight gap between them, and a strategically placed reflection that makes it difficult to determine for certain whether or not they’re holding hands. They’re standing in a bubble, looking out at the vast endlessness of space- but a bubble, no matter the material, will always appear as an inherently fragile object, so despite the wonder and the beauty of looking directly out into the uncharted expanses, there’s also a clear warning of danger. This cover takes everything intriguing and promising about the book and puts it out there to lure you in deeper. It also fits really, really well with its previous title. I know there are some people who couldn’t care less, but it really bothers me when the books of a series don’t look like they belong together in a series. It’s not just a personal thing, either- when the covers look like they’re all along the same theme, or at least the same style, customers can recognize them as belonging together. This does a fantastic job of being easily identifiable with its predecessor.

Fever, by Lauren DeStefano, due out Marchish 2012.

Wither has an amazing cover, one that- if you examine it very closely- actually tells a lot of the story. Its sequel does much the same. The cover is lighter- not just in content but in color- and the girl isn’t slumped down in her own misery surrounded by the cages, but rather looking upward, loose in the body and relaxed in stance. The things that surround her still tell an alluring story, but their symbolism is different. The carousel horse, the card, they bring you in to something entirely different than the previous book, but still along a cohesive story. The sharp lines and circle that cross and intersect are eye-catching but they’re also intriguing- there are sharp lines in Rhine’s world, but lines can be crossed. The cover makes you promises without giving you the immediate explanation.

So Silver Bright by Lisa Mantchev, out September 2011.

I love the covers for this series. They’re gorgeous and fun and this one reminds you right where the previous one left off: Bertie is somehow married to two guys, which is a problem that Must Be Fixed. You have the fairies in there (the fairies are my favorite characters, no lie), you have the hint of stage curtains, and frankly, I just think it’s gorgeous. It’s something that wouldn’t be out of place on a canvas on someone’s wall and that appeals to me. There’s not as much analysis in this one, I just love this cover.

After Obsession by Carrie Jones and Steven E. Wedel, out September 2011.

I’ll be honest, I know nothing about this book, because every time I almost get a chance to read the description, someone comes up and needs something, so now it’s gotten to the point where it’s a game for me to come up with theories. I’ve pretty much decided to wait until the book comes in so I can read the jacket and see how many of my theories, if any, are correct. It’s the little things. But this cover caught my attention immediately and continues to hold it. In some ways, it’s a very simple cover. The fanciest thing about it is the font, which stands out not just for its ornate and intertwined aspects, but for the fact that it’s the only true color on the cover. It’s a dusky robin’s egg blue, which stands out sharply against the greys, black, brown, and white of the rest of the cover. The title sends chills down your spine- there are a number of things that can come after obsession, but none of them seem particularly comforting- and the girl floating perfectly horizontal? Clearly something paranormal going on, but the possibilities are endless. I love the way the black shreds and spatters at the edges of the dress, like it’s shadows and ink rather than fabric. It’s a tiny detail, but it’s intriguing. I have no idea what this story is about, but when I see the image on the shelf, I’m definitely pulling it down to take a closer look.

Last for this week, but certainly not least, Liesl & Po by Lauren Oliver, out October 2011.

Lauren Oliver’s Middle Grade debut first presents like an old, beloved, and slightly dangerous book, with elaborate scrollwork along the edges and the appearance of a clasp/lock in the middle of the right edge, like the several-centuries old illuminated leatherbounds. In the center, surrounded bya tangle vine of ominous or curious figures, a little girl stands with a strange little creature, almost like a dog, on her shoulder, both of them with a corona of ethereal light as they stare down at a glowing book in the girl’s hands. Right off the bat I’m thinking ghost story and fairy tale rolled into one, along with a thread of danger, but one of the figures in the tangle vine has a kind smile, so I’m relieved that there’ll be some goodness in people, and the boy looks cautious, which makes me worry for him, but the other three adult figures, the ones that surmount the knots, are all threatening in their own way, which tells me there’ll be intrigue and adventure and danger. I haven’t even opened it yet but I’m already hooked.

Want to be hooked on Liesl and Po? I’ve got an extra ARC, and I’m going to give it away to one of you lovely people! For my birthday, one of you gets a present, so you have through Saturday August 27th to leave a comment below. Tell me about a cover that’s really captivated you recently, preferably one that hasn’t come out yet, and what it told you about the book. It doesn’t matter if your theories are proved true or not, just tell me what the cover made you think about the book. Then, on Sunday the 28th, will assist me in choosing a winner and I’ll make a special trip to the post office on my birthday (see how much I love you?) to mail it out! So, leave a comment and spread the word!

Until next time~

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Book Review: The Thief, by Megan Whalen Turner

August 3, 2011 at 3:49 pm (Book Reviews) (, , , )

Gen can steal anything.

Or at least that’s what he tells anyone and everyone who’ll listen, but when he steals the ring of the King of Sounis and shows it off in a wineshop, it lands him squarely in prison. Then the king’s magus comes and says he needs Gen’s unique skills, and takes him on a journey across three lands to to a ravaged place forgotten by all but the gods, and an abandonded temple that holds a prize like no other.

Gen can steal anything- if he doesn’t lose his life in the process.

There’s a rule about narrators: never trust them. First person narratives are filled with bias, deliberate skewing, missed moments, misinterpretations. Narrators get confused. Narrators don’t notice significant details. Narrators lie.

Nowhere is this made more plain than in this book.

We know from the very beginning that Gen is far more than just a thief stupid enough to let bragging get him put into jail. He pays attention to odd things, knows bit and pieces about history that he wouldn’t really be expected to, but more than that, he deliberately baits his companions. He does things a certain way, designs his actions and statements to provoke telling reactions. Granted, that isn’t always the case; if there’s anyone with a more lacking mental censor button, I challenge you to present him/her. He carefully balances obedience against expectation, as well as his own natural defiance, so we as the reader are waiting breathlessly for the reveal, even as his companions become more and more secure in their assumptions of him.

I first read this book years ago and loved it, but when I went back to look for it at the library again, I couldn’t remember the title or author, and giving the cover and the story didn’t ring any bells with the librarian. Over time, I more or less forgot about it, until suddenly I saw the cover again! (I know it’s had at least one reissue, but I was so SO glad it was the same cover). Suddenly there were two more books to be read, and another to be out in a few months. Upon rereading this book, with so much more experience as both a reader and a writer, I’m still in love with it.

This isn’t a book that lets you make assumptions. We know, from the very beginning, that the main character is both a thief and a liar, that he deliberately exaggerates things to provoke a reaction or specific result, and that he has secrets. We know all of that nearly from page one.

But watching that all play out through the rest of the pages? Brilliant.

The political maneuvering is beautifully-written, full of people who are not necessarily good or evil, but who have different motives and means. Where some seek personal glory, others seek national power, or a unified front against a greater threat, or prosperity, or the well-being of a population. There are some who exude that sense of power, but some do it in a distinctly menacing fashion while others radiate a higher quality. We meet those who are unceasingly loyal, those who are traitors, those who are utter innocents, those who have a job and do it well no matter the obstacles. We see the danger of assumptions and how others can so easily play into them- or against them.

More than anything, this novel is based on both perspective and perception. It’s a bold move, having the narrator lie to the readers for so long, but because everything is spun off of those two principles, it works. It also gives us a rather interesting spin on the question of religion.

Eddis, the mountain country in a tenuous position between the strongholds of Sounis and Attolia, still follows the old gods. The lowland countries, conquered years before by invaders from across the sea and semi-recently reclaimed, follow newer gods, introduced by the invaders, though some still honor or remember the old gods. Then there are those who doubt them entirely, who believe in myth and superstition and old stories and leave it at that.

So what do we do when suddenly the gods become visibly active in our lives?

Gen finds out.

And it scares him witless.

Which I loved. Not to get into a tangent on religion, but it’s amusing to me how many religious phrases have become such a part of our linguistic culture that a self-professed atheist will still use the phrase “Oh my God” without a shred of irony. It’s simply part of the lingo. We’re very casual with such things, as well as with promises/prayers/bargains, but what would happen if every time we said “Oh, God please (fill in the blank here)” we got an answer? Maybe not the answer we expect or want, but a genuine answer as solid and real as your mother texting you with an invitation to dinner? For someone who doesn’t believe, that moment when he realizes his gods are paying attention to him can’t be anything but terrifying, but Gen is far too much of a pragmatist not to find a middle ground. The fun is in watching him struggle to find that middle ground.

This book is a masterclass of misdirection, and if you like it, check out the rest of the series: The Queen of Attolia, The King of Attolia, and A Conspiracy of Kings.

Until next time~

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