Saturday, May 29, 2010


I try not to let "real" life affect this blog, but sometimes real life is very insistent that it have all of my attention.

A couple of weeks ago the girlfriend had emergency surgery. She's fine now and the procedure was so non-invasive that she was even sent home the next day, but it was still out of nowhere and there were some pretty scary days leading up to it. The whole thing was very emotionally draining for me, not to mention that she never needs to go to the ER in the daytime. She always manages to have her ER visits in the evening, making them last into the wee hours of the morning. Since I work at a Catholic college and she is my girlfriend, not my boyfriend, I can't miss work after these visits because according to HR, she's not my family. That is a whole other issue for a whole other post, but here's the short version:

Books with positive LGTBQ portrayals are vitally important to queer kids who read them and are surrounded by less than accepting peers and adults; we all know this. BUT they are also very important for the straight kids who read them because they normalize the queer experience, take away the ick factor, and make queer people more like you and me (the collective you and me, clearly). We want this because these kids may later be in positions to make decisions affecting queer folks on the large scale or even for the 3 whole people they supervise, one of whom might be queer. Love the sinner, hate the sin doesn't go all that far when you need the day off to take care of your post-surgery partner.

Well, that didn't end up all that short, but that's okay because it brought me to my next point. Out-patient surgery really is great for the patient. Convalescing at home is more comfortable and relaxing. You can sleep in your own bed, watch your favorite movies on repeat, pet the cat, etc. But it's a lot of work for those taking care of the patient. Even with the help of friends, who came over to "babysit" the girlfriend while I was at work and did secret nice things like clean the kitty litter, do all the dishes, or cook enough food for the rest of the week, it's been a rough couple of weeks. Now that the girlfriend is pretty much back to normal, I can catch up on things, like my reviews! Except that I don't want to. I want to sleep, watch movies, pet the cat, etc.

I've been trying to avoid this, but now that I've run out of my reserve of finished reviews, I guess it's time. I'm taking a little break so that I can catch up on things, blog and not, without the added time-pressure. But I'll be back and raring to go for the 48 Hour Book Challenge next weekend! I'm probably going to be using my allotted networking time to catch up on reading blogs more than writing reviews, so get ready for comments on some older posts. See you all in a week.

 - Lawral

Monday, May 24, 2010

The Full Spectrum for Nonfiction Monday

Levithan, David, and Billy Merrell, eds. The Full Spectrum: A New Generation of Writing About Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, Questioning, and Other Identities. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006. Print.
[Book cover credit:]

Lambda Literary Award (Children's/Young Adult, 2006)
ALA Rainbow List (Young Adult Nonfiction, 2008)

"This book would have been very different if it had been compiled fifteen years ago, when I [David Levithan] was in high school It would have been different ten years ago, or even five years ago. I have faith that in five years, times will have changed enough to alter our snapshot here. And in ten years. And in fifteen years. This is a remarkable time to be young and queer in America. There is progress, and there is backlash. There is love, and there is hate. There is hope, and there is despair. Things are changing fast, and they're not changing fast enough. ... But change is going to come. Maybe in five years. Maybe in ten. Maybe longer. Maybe sooner.

One way to effect change is to share truths. To tell our stories. To make our hears and minds heard."
Notes to the Reader

So David Levithan and Billy Merrell began collecting pieces written by queer youth under the age of 23. All the pieces are non-fiction (with some name changes). All of them represent the author's unique perspective on the queer youth experience. Together the submissions create a vast array of colors and light, The Full Spectrum.

The pieces in this anthology tackle a myriad of topics: coming out, religion, first love, unaccepting parents/peers, religion, supportive parents/peers, the Boy Scouts, the military, religion(!); in a variety of settings: high school, New Your City, college, junior high, Egypt. They are written by young people who fall under the umbrella term "queer," but identify as gay, bi, trans, lesbian, gender-variant, and more. Some of the pieces are positive and affirming, some speak of overcoming unbearable hardship and hate, some end as hopeless as they began. All of them are important and valid, just like the young people who wrote them.

As a collection, The Full Spectrum is ambitious. It strives to present a multitude of experiences and identities, and it does. The mix of guys and girls, trans or not, is great. The mix of topics is also expansive, and given how much religion is mentioned, the mix of opinions on it is also widely variant. Also the mix of poetry, prose, letters, and diary entries was great. I never felt bogged down in too much angsty poetry or journal writing; all was in balance. This mix of writing styles will, hopefully, make this book accessible and attractive to readers of all stripes.

My main problem was with the editing. Some of these pieces are beautiful bits of polished writing.* Some of them are not. I imagine this has a lot to do with the state they were in when they were submitted. Many of these pieces were written by young people about the most traumatic periods of their lives! Everything is in their writing and everything is raw. Everything. It is completely understandable that some of them lack polish. These pieces could have used the guidance of a good editor, and it is a shame that they didn't get it. That said, these stories are compelling, each and every one. If I, an almost-30-year-old, engaged, queer woman had such a strong reaction to this book, I cannot even begin to imagine how much solace and revelation this book could provide for someone still going through the experiences described there in. I saw myself in these stories. I saw my friends. Everyone deserves to be able to see themselves in stories like these too (even kids in New Jersey).

Book source: I bought it at a signing with some of the contributors when it first came out.
Full disclosure: One of my favorite people in the world has a poem in this book (it's awesome). There is also a piece by one of my least favorite people (not so great). Not only do these two biased opinions cancel each other out, but I also skipped both pieces when re-reading The Full Spectrum for this review.

*Jovencio d la Paz, I have the HUGEST literary crush on you. Please decide to spend the rest of your life writing stories so heartbreakingly beautiful that they make me cry!

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Janes in Love

Castellucci, Cecil and Jim Rugg. Janes in Love. Lettering by Rob Clark Jr. and gray tones by Jasen Lex. New York: Minx - DC Comics, 2008. Print.
[Book cover credit:]

Almost a year since the attack that sent Jane and her parents to the 'burbs, Jane is still having dreams about the garbage can bomb in Metro City. As she tries to deal with these flashback, the P.L.A.I.N. Janes try to keep up their art attacks around town ... and get dates for a non-Valentine's Day dance.

Again, this is a cute top story with some seriousness underneath. All the Janes are secretly pining after someone, and a girls-ask-the-guys dance prompts them to act on their feelings. Main Jane is crushing on Damon, but afraid to talk to him after his arrest for her art attack. Miroslaw (formerly John Doe) is awake, and he and Jane exchange letters and care packages. He inspires Jane to apply for an art grant to make the P.L.A.I.N. Janes legit. Meanwhile another attack in Metro City scares Jane's mom into never leaving the house. In an effort to get her to come out, Jane's dad refuses to go in. Neither seems to notice that Jane isn't fairing well. And then Jane hears back from the grant people and has to sneak into Metro City to present her portfolio. Da da dum.

In this installment, the Janes are joined by James, the lone gay guy who was a walking stereotype in the last book. He gets to be a much more complete character here with interests beyond being uber-gay. Still, he bemoans the lack of gay guys in Kent Waters as the rest of the Janes set their sights on their dream guys. He doesn't get the happily ever after that some of the Janes do, but he does get to ogle the whole (hot) guys' basketball team. And no one thinks it's gross! James also plays a very important role when Main Jane starts to receive letters from a Secret Admirer. SPOILER: When it turns out that these letters might be from a girl, James has a little talk with Jane about how to let Secret Admirer down easy, emphasizing that Jane should do everything in her power to not make Secret Admirer feel weird for crushing on another girl. This little tidbit is added in without making any kind of a big deal or turning into too much of a "teaching moment." James' concern is genuine and natural. End Spoiler.

The Janes all deal with a little heartbreak, being in love will do that, and it brings them closer. Example:
"The thing about having a good true friend is that it's ok if you cry so hard that snot runs down your face. Because their arms are strong and their heartbeat is loud ... and you can be your smallest and ugliest in front of them."
Initially they were friends because they had no one else, then because they shared their passion for the P.L.A.I.N. Janes. Now they're just friends, who still sit together for lunch and sometimes dress in all black to put in a midnight art installation.

Book 1: The Plain Janes
Book source: Philly Free Library

Friday, May 14, 2010

Amiri & Odette

Myers, Walter Dean. Amiri & Odette: A Love Story. Illustrations by Javaka Steptoe. New York: Scholastic Press, 2009. Print.
[Book cover credit:]

I asked myself if there were modern dangers to young people similar to magic spells of folklore. The answer, of course, was a resounding yes, and I began to craft a modern, urban retelling of the Swan Lake ballet.
from "How I Came to Write This Poem"

Amiri is the basketball playing "prince" of the Swan Lake Projects, destined to fall in love with Odette, a woman "cursed" and owned by her dealer, Big Red.

I can't unknow the story of Swan Lake, so I am not a good judge of how clear that story in in Amiri & Odette to the non-balletomane. I can, however, say that there are a lot of little touches that hark back to the ballet in beautiful ways, such as Odile's (who is never actually named in the book) black mask at Amiri's party, but nifty connections to the ballet are not the strongest part of this telling. What Myers does fantastically is really make this a story that isn't about princes and magic; he makes it real. The curse is drug addiction and the evil wizard, a dealer. This makes the cause and effect of Amiri's profession of love for Odile a bit nonsensical (Odette's addiction and debt to Big Red will not magically go away if Amiri loves her and only her, nor will she be trapped in that life with no possible means of escape if Amiri doesn't love her), but it also leaves room for non-magical consequences. There is no but-the-spell-said moment that makes Amiri's mistake irreparable. Just because the deal is broken, doesn't mean that the curse is everlasting or that Odette is doomed. Myers' telling makes way for a change in the ending.

The artwork in Amiri & Odette is fabulous. It is dark and gritty and portends doom in a way that dozens of classical white tutus never could.* The artist's note says that the collages that make up the illustrations were painted on slabs on asphalt. They are large and hardcore; each a complete work of art on its own. The texture of the asphalt shows through and Chinese food menus, feathers, pieces of jewelry and other street flotsam are used throughout. The feathers surrounding Odette as she tells Amiri about her entrapment make her look like both an angel and a beast, much like the swan-woman Prince Siegfried is initially afraid of in the original story, even if all the audience sees is a ballerina in white. Or a girl watching a basketball game.

There have been countless stagings of Swan Lake, and all but the most traditional performances (the ones that dance four full acts) are showing some kind of adaptation for the modern audience. I can't embed the videos here, but I can give you links to a few versions of Swan Lake:
Classic Odette Variation by Svetlana Zakharova (2:43)
Classic Odile Variation by Svetlana Zakharova (2:40)
Matthew Bourne's staging of the pas de deux between Odette and Prince Siegfried (5:58)
Parody of the "Baby Swans" pas de quatre by Ballet Trockadero (1:37)

Book source: Philly Free Library

*Romantic white tutus (the long ones), on the other hand, suggest doom quite nicely. In the midst of this trend of YA paranormal romances, where is the modern day adaptation of Giselle?!?

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

To Dance - for Tween Tuesday

Tween Tuesday was started over at Green Bean Teen Queen as away to highlight awesome books for the 9-12 yr olds or Tweens. Any book highlighted on Tween Tuesday also counts for the In the Middle Reading Challenge!* This week's book is:

Siegel, Siena Cherson. To Dance: A Ballerina's Graphic Novel. Illustrations by Mark Siegel. New York: Aladdin Paperbacks - Simon & Schuster, 2006. Print.
[Book cover credit:]

NPR's Complete Holiday Book Recommendations (2006)
School Library Journal Best Book of the Year (2006)
ALA Great Graphic Novels for Teens (2007)
ALA Notable Children's Book (2007)
Booklist's Top 10 Graphic Novels for Youth (2007)
Sibert Honor (2007)

Big empty spaces always made me dance. A long hallway or a parking lot just begged for dance ... like it wanted to be filled ... and I wanted to put dance in it.

So young Siena decides, like so many others, that she wants to be a ballerina. And then, for a time, she is.

To Dance tells the familiar story of a young girl, in this case Siena when she was a child, who wants to grow up to be a ballerina. She starts ballet lessons, shows a real talent, and makes it to New York City where she trains in a feeder school for a big ballet company, in this case New York City Ballet’s School of American Ballet, where she is discovered. Mark Siegel’s illustrations allow the reader to share in Siena’s wonder and sometimes confusion with this whole new world in which she finds herself. He is also a kind of translator for the “uninitiated” in ballet lore and jargon, providing illustrations and examples of being en pointe and or dancing a pas de deux to name a few. For this reason, the format of the graphic novel works very well here. It elevates the reading level beyond that of a picture book without wordy explanations that detract from the story. Those who are more familiar with ballet will find the illustrations amusing and beautiful with gorgeous renditions of the varying levels of ballet classes and some “cameo appearances” of the big names of the New York City Ballet in the 1970’s to early 1980’s.

This basic story has been told many times. Two examples that jump out from my reading history are Ballerina Dreams, an easy reader by New York City Ballet’s Diana White and Gelsey Kirkland’s only-for-grown-ups memoir, Dancing on My Grave. The big difference between these books and To Dance, aside from format, is that even those well-versed in the recent and current ballet world will not recognize the name Siena Cherson Siegel; she is not a ballerina. As chronicled in this graphic novel, Siegel dances in a few performances with the New York City Ballet in pre-professional roles, but then goes on to attend college at Brown and dance for her own enjoyment rather than dance professionally. The ending to this story is very rarely told, though much more common. To Dance emphasizes how dance can mold one’s life while at the same time, showing how Siena takes the time to be a “normal” kid as well as positively showing her choice not to dance professionally. By sharing her story in To Dance, Siegel is affirming anyone who wants to use anything that they are talented at or simply enjoy as a hobby, an enjoyment, rather than a career choice. For this reason, along with the beauty of the illustrations and Siegel’s writing, I highly recommend this book.

Book source: Birthday present, years ago, from Nanna. :)

*Except that I'm not counting this one, as it's a re-read. I'm posting this review so that I'll have a complete list of reviews for my Unsung YA Heroes post.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Tender Morsels

Lanagan, Margo. Tender Morsels. New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 2008. Print.
[Book cover credit:]

Awards: Best Books (Science Fiction & Fantasy, 2008)
BCCB Blue Ribbon Book (2008)
A Horn Book Fanfare Best Book (2008)
Locus Recommended Reading (Young Adult, 2008)
Publisher's Weekly Best Book (Children's Fiction, 2008)
School Library Journal Best Book of the Year (2008)
ALA Best Books for Young Adults (2009)
Printz Honor (2009)
World Fantasy Award (Novel, 2009)
And many more...

Liga's life is a brutal one. She lost her mother long ago and is now confined to life with her father. He won't let her go into town, where jeers of "the poacher's daughter" follow her. Instead he confines Liga to their home, where she is made to take up her late mother's role as wife, fulfilling wifely duties in the upkeep of their household and her father's marriage bed. When this life becomes too much to bear, Liga decides to end it. When she tries to throw herself and her daughter by her father over a cliff, she is rescued and taken to her personal heaven. Everyone is kind, and life is safe. Lisa raises her, now two, daughters in this place, but her heaven was not made for them. It begins to crack, letting elements of the real world in, until, finally, it becomes clear that they all must get out.

Brutal does not even begin to cover it. Liga's life with her father is a nightmare. It is clear that she is repeatedly raped by her father. It is not graphically described in the text, but is in the forefront of Liga's thoughts often and so often "discussed." The miscarriages he forces her to have through the use of teas and herbs, on the other hand, are described in graphic detail. The fact that Liga has no idea what is happening to her when she miscarries is, I think, part of why they are described in such detail. Even though she thinks about it often, her mind shies away from the acts her father performs on her. Her shame and self-preservation together keep the detail out of these account. As she slowly comes to realize that the rapes, teas, miscarriages, her monthly blood, and babies are all related, each of these acts in her past are revisited. And things don't even get better after Liga's father dies! Left alone in their cottage with only her infant daughter for company, Liga is gang-raped (again, not graphically described, but not exactly glossed over either) by a group of town boys. This is what finally makes her want to end her own, and her baby's, life.

That's the opening of the book. It's hard to read.

The first time I checked this book out of the library, I couldn't read the whole thing. Long before the gang-rape and attempted suicide, I returned the book. I didn't decide to check it out again until the Common Sense debacle with Barnes and Noble came out (see the comments for where Tender Morsels is mentioned). Still, I didn't get around to actually checking it out until a few weeks ago. I was determined to get through the horrible parts so that I could see Liga in her heaven, and after reading all of that, I needed to see Liga in her heaven. So many other readers had said that the wretched beginning is worth it once you get to the rest of the story , not to mention that I figured the whole book couldn't be ruined by the opening, given its many awards.

It is worth it.

The rest of the story is a fairytale. It is actually based on Snow White and Rose Red. Once Liga's daughters are old enough to have personalities, Tender Morsels becomes their story. It is about Branza and Urdda learning who they are as people and learning how to make their own way in what is, literally, their mother's world. Their story is beautiful, and I think the ugliness that preceeds it helps to make it so. Urdda grows up to be the awesomely headstrong and smart young woman that I always look for in book. I want a whole other book full of her, especially once she leaves her mother's heaven. Branza's nice too, but I clearly have my favorite.

But here is my dilemma: By the end, I really liked this book and I would love to recommend it, but to whom? I don't agree with the Common Sense rating at Barnes and Noble, that Tender Morsels is not appropriate for anyone under 18, but I do think that I may hesitate to recommend it to young adults that I do not know extremely well. What do you think? For those of you who have read this, to whom do you recommend it? Those of you who haven't, knowing all of the horrible things that happen, do you think you ever will?

Book source: Philly Free Library

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Worldless Wednesday

Fish tank remnants.

All images © by Lawral Wornek 2010

Monday, May 3, 2010

Jellicoe Road

Marchetta, Melina. Jellicoe Road: A Novel. New York: HarperTeen - HarperCollins Publishers, 2008. Print.
[Book cover credit:]

ALA Best Books for Young Adults (2009)
Printz Award (2009)

For the first time since they made me leader of the community, I realise why I told Hannah I was thinking of leaving. It's fear. Not of having to negotiate territory, fight a war, and make sure we come out of it with more land than when we started. I can do that blindfolded.
It's this that scares me.
My seniors have left the House.
I'm in charge of fifty kids who don't give a shit about territory wars. They just want to be looked after.
And I have no idea how.
In addition to being in charge of a house of year seven to eleven girls, Taylor is in charge of her school's efforts in a territory war against the Cadets and the Townies, a war that has been going on for years. Personal relationships with enemy factions are not allowed. But Taylor knows the leader of the Cadets; she ran away with him once. Her second-in-command, Raffy, grew up in town and should be, by all rights, a Townie. As she tries to figure out how to use these "complications" as advantages, life goes on, and Taylor's life gets more hectic than most. As her relationships with Jonah, Chaz (the leader of the Townie's), and Raffy become the most important things in Taylor's life, memories of what caused her to run away with Jonah in the first place threaten to push her over the edge, and the other Heads of House try to overthrow her to gain control of Jellicoe School. Because all is fair...

I loved this book. I cannot possibly write a rational and unbiased review of it, but I'll try. Kind of.

There are a lot of things going on in this book, and, for a while, you just kind of have to take it on faith that it will all make sense in the end. Taylor, our heroine, is named the leader of the students of Jellicoe School, against the wishes of just about every other Head of House in her year, for the purpose of territory wars with the Townies and the (visiting) Cadets. She has recurring dreams about a boy in a tree that sometimes leave her crying in her sleep. Her best friend Raffy has some kind of veiled past relationship with the leader of the Townies. Taylor herself has a past relationship, which she wishes were a bit more veiled, with the leader of the Cadets. Taylor's friend/mentor/resident-adult up and leaves with no warning, and we are treated to portions of her manuscript which feature the story of five kids from about 20 years ago. One is a Townie, one is a Cadet and the remaining three are students at Jellicoe school, one of whom likes to hang out in a tree. As you can probably see, everything is connected, as much as Taylor wants to keep everything nice and compartmentalized, and even though hardly any of it makes sense on its own, let alone all together. Marchetta drops you right into the lives of these kids, giving you only the information you need (and sometimes not even that, I thought) to keep going. Eventually, though, it all starts to fall together. There is no aha-moment of clarity (or at least there wasn't for me). I just realized, at some point, that not only did I understand the intricacies of what was going on, but I cared deeply about the people to whom this was all happening.

The strength of Jellicoe Road is the characters and their revelations, not those of the reader, and that is a hard thing to pull off. There is some mystery built into the story, which I solved before Taylor or the other characters did. Normally, I am the person who flips ahead just to see how long it takes the characters to figure out what I already have, and I'm always annoyed when it takes them eons. That was not the case here. Even though I was pretty sure I knew all about who those five kids were twenty years ago and all about Taylor and Raffy's former relationships with the boys, I still felt their pain, amazement, shock, and fear as they figured things out for themselves. I loved these characters. Taylor is so tough and yet so vulnerable at the same time, and Raffy is her perfect compliment, in the way that your best friend in any boarding school (or dorm or first roommate) situation should be. Their friendship reminded me SO MUCH of my freshman year of college, the wonderful women I lived with, and how we all thought we learned to be self-sufficient but because we did it together we really depended on each other for love and support. Their relationships with the guys were equally authentic. They were full of history, hurt feelings and attraction that in no way featured in their former relationships. And while I know nothing about what it is to be a high school guy and make friends with other high school guys, the relationship between Jonah and Chaz (Taylor and Raf's guys, respectively) also felt very real to me.

And the whole thing is just so beautifully written. That's what made me keep reading in the beginning when I didn't feel like I knew what was going on, and that's what made me cry (like whoa) towards the end when everything finally came together and got to be okay. I cannot recommend it enough.

I know I haven't written a review so much as some kind of testament to the everyone-should-read-it-because-it-was-SO-GOOD feeling, so here are some of the reviews that got me to pick up Jellicoe Road:

poshdeluxe's review at forever young adult
Persnickety Snark's list of reasons why she loves this book
a brief review (that still gushes) at bookshelves of doom

Book source: Philly Free Library