Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Avalanche Dance

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:

Schwartz, Ellen. Avalanche Dance. Toronto: Tundra Books, 2010. Print.
[Book cover credit: librarything.com/work/9679604]

Gwen has always been a dancer, flitting about through her childhood making up movements. She's always known that she will always be a dancer, but her dream is to become a choreographer. The three-week Dancemakers workshop in the city would give her everything she'd need to realize that dream. But it's expensive and it's far away from the tiny mountain town that she lives in with her family. Her father doesn't want her to go. When their argument about the workshop is cut short by a late spring avalanche, Gwen could lose so much more than her dream to be a choreographer. She could lose the ability to dance, or even walk, at all. And she could lose her father.

Following the avalanche, Gwen isolates herself entirely. She feels responsible, and she doesn't feel like she can tell anyone. This is partly because she's had a major falling out with her best friend (of forever), Molly, over Molly's new found fascination with alcohol and pot (and yes, these are 13yr olds).

Even though there are some more mature issues brought up in this book, particularly the drinking and substance abuse, Avalanche Dance never lost that tweener feel. Though both girls are dealing with things that they shouldn't have to deal with until they are older (the possible loss of a parent, drug abuse), they both still handle it like the 13 year olds that they are. That said, this is not a book for every 9-12 year old. The parties Molly attends are important to the story and her actions there are described in detail. And her post-Gwen friends are much more hard-core than she is. But more than Molly's actions (which are never portrayed preachily), the way that Gwen links her own actions to her father's injuries might be too much for some younger readers. Knowing very little about avalanches, it was very easy for me to think, like Gwen, that if she hadn't argued with her father, they both would have made it home from their impromptu ski trip just fine.* Clearly the way that Gwen deals with these feelings of guilt is not ideal, but I completely understood why she felt the way that she did. The cause and effect is so much more believable than your average misplaced guilt about a parents’ divorce or something similar.

Told in their alternating viewpoints, Avalanche Dance is really about Gwen and Molly’s relationship to each other. Throughout the book, both Molly and Gwen reflect on the relationship that they used to have, how it fell apart, and how much (if they'd only admit it) they miss it. When Molly is sentenced to community service, to be served at Gwen's house, the two are forced to face each other and their problems. This is the real the meat of the story. Molly can see that Gwen is dying inside and Gwen, though still hurt, is very protective of Molly. Even though their friendship is mostly seen in the girls’ memories, this qualifies as another great girl friendship book. Even when neither wants to talk to the other, I loved the way that they miss and worry about each other.

For the readers who want a book about a dancer:
I always go into fiction books and movies about dancers very warily,** especially those about kids and teens dancing. I'm not delusional enough to think that my experiences as a very committed young dancer are the only experiences that are authentic, but I'm always worried that something will be said or portrayed in a way that will ring so untrue to me that I won't be able to let it go. Things as small as how the ribbons on shoes are tied have ruined what are probably very good stories for me. I braced myself to read Avalanche Dance, waiting as I was reading for something to go wrong. Nothing did. Instead, I was sucked into Gwen's story and Gwen's life.

The way that she dances, with her whole self, and the way she feels about dance, like it is her life force, felt very real to me. They way she grieves over it when she thinks she has to put it aside, also felt heartbreakingly authentic. For example, after Gwen experiences debilitating, but unexplained, pain in her leg, she cuts her hair:
Gwen picked up the scissor. She lifted a hank of hair. Tears rolling down her cheeks, she cut. A clump of hair fell into the sink. She lifted the next piece of hair.
I remember that feeling from the first time I got my hair cut without explaining to the hairdresser that my hair needed to be able to be gathered into a ponytail with enough left over to attach a hair piece. It was terrifying. It was also a life changing moment for me: I was no longer a dancer. It's the same for Gwen; that haircut is her proof. But Gwen's story does have an uplifting end. And though Molly is eventually the one who saves her, it's dancing that brings her completely back to herself in the end.

Book source: Review copy provided by the publisher through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program.

*Disney has taught me, hopefully among other folks, that yelling on the side of a snowy mountain has clear and immediate consequences.

**That new Black Swan movie? It looks awesome and I'm definitely going to see it, but I'll be watching all the dancing scenes through my fingers. I mean, Natalie Portman as a ballerina I can almost accept (she carries herself well), but how will she do the dancing scenes? They're going to use a double, right? And what about Winona Ryder and Mila Kunis?!? The queens of the all-time slouchers? Are they kidding? They couldn't find any ACTUAL dancers who want to make a break into the movie biz? Really?

Thursday, November 25, 2010


Cranberry sauce1

I hope you are all enjoying a happy day with your family and friends. 
May you have much to be thankful for.

Image By Rick Kimpel from Spring, TX, USA 
(cranberry sauce) 
[CC-BY-SA-2.0 (www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], 
via Wikimedia Commons

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Buddha Boy

Koja, Kathe. Buddha Boy. New York: Frances Foster Books - Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003. Print.
[Book cover credit: librarything.com/work/91406]

BCCB Blue Ribbon Book (2003)
Book Sense Summer Pick Teen Readers (2003)
ALA Best Books for Young Adults (2004)
ALA Popular Paperbacks for Young Adults - Religion: Relationship with the Divine (2007)

"What is that?" from Megan in her usual drama-queen way: but it was a sight, really, this skinny bald-headed kid in a size million T-shirt, backpack humped and lumpy as a turtle's shell, making his way across the cafeteria like a rabbit crossing the freeway: this way, that way, looking all around. "An exchange student? From Mars?"
But Jinsen is no alien. He's just a new kid with an outlook on life that differs from everyone else at Rucher High. Associating with Jinsen, quickly dubbed "Buddha Boy," would be social suicide, which is why Justin is dreading their new group assignment, the one that requires him to meet Jinsen at his house after school. But  Justin and Jinsen have more in common than they think and, social suicide or not, Justin finds himself standing up for Jinsen, even when he won't stand up for himself.

Buddha Boy reminded me a lot of What Happened to Lani Garver. It has that same feeling of hurtling towards disaster running along in the backgroun of the whole thing. In the forefront, however, there is a great story about Jinsen and Justin. Jinsen seems not to care what anyone thinks of or does to him. Good thing, too, since he dresses, looks and acts odd, none of which gets him a bunch of friends. He practically invites kids to bully him when he starts to beg for lunch money in the cafeteria. Most of the kids do just that, either actively by throwing pennies or worse or passively by ignoring Jinsen altogether. Justin, instead, asks him why he's different.

The two boys have more in common than Justin had originally thought; they are both artists. Koja's use of language, especially when describing the boys' artwork, is beautiful. You can really see the works of art that Justin and Jinsen are creating as you're reading. Stemming from that, the rest of the book is simply lyrical. The story, even though it is set in a contemporary high school and deals with some pointedly cruel bullying, has the far away feel of a fairytale. Justin tells this story and it somehow manages to feel like it's happening in the present tense and like it's already happened at the same time. Regardless of the subject matter, it's beautiful. When you add Jinsen's attitude and actions, and the way he affects and changes Justin, the whole thing is really breathtaking.

I only had one complaint, and it's not exactly a deal-breaker. During the course of Justin and Jinsen's growing friendship, Jinsen explains a few things about Buddhism, but mostly smiles and lets Justin figure things out for himself. Jinsen lives by example. This is great and fits well with his reaction to the bullying in the story, but I did wish every once in a while that Jinsen would give a straight answer to Justin's questions. There doesn't seem to be a lot of young adult fiction dealing with Buddhism,* so it would have been nice for this one to be a bit more informative.

I loved Koja's writing and have since picked up a few of her adult books from the library just to get more of it (in addition to special ordering Under the Poppy).

Book source: Philly Free Library

*Or at least I couldn't find very many. I really wish librarything or goodreads allowed boolean searching...

Friday, November 19, 2010

Five Flavors of Dumb

John, Antony. Five Flavors of Dumb. New York: Dial Books - The Penguin Group, 2010. Print
[Book cover credit: librarything.com/work/9872355]

Schneider Family Book Award, Teen (2011)

Have you ever had one of those moments where you fly off the handle a little and tell everyone just how dumb they are, how they're doing everything wrong, and how you could do it better? Piper has. But instead of being told to shove it after telling off the lead singer of Dumb, the most recent winner of a Battle of the Bands competition no one's ever heard of, she's offered the position of band manager. Now Piper, who knows nothing of rock music having lost most of her hearing at an early age, is in charge of promoting and controlling the bands' members, so different that they amount to Five Flavors of Dumb.

I've known more than my share of garage bands and "artistic" types in my life (Hi guys!), and I loved how John showed off the different types of high school musicians (I'd say stereotypes, but these folks are real, dude). First there is Will, the bass player. Like all bass players, he's an enigma unto himself. There's Tasha, the angry grrl guitar player who is in love with Will. Ed, a classical musician, plays the drums and basically adds the stability of years of musical training to the group. Kallie's hot. Girls want to be her and guys want to do her, and every band needs someone like that, right? And then there's Josh, the lead singer. He's all ego and jumping around and hogging the spotlight. And wanting to do Kallie. He also hires Piper, who is in way over her head, in the hopes of getting a paying gig for the band.

John could have made that set-up a whole book in and of itself, albeit a much less satisfying one. Instead of being a book all about the band, this is a book all about how Piper deals with them. But it's also a book about Piper and her life at school and at home. Woven through her parents reactions to Dumb are Piper's reactions to her family. Her maternal grandparents (now deceased) were both deaf and very into deaf culture. They instilled a sense of pride in Piper, along with the sense that she has the ability to do anything she wants to do regardless of her lack of hearing. Piper's mother and brother are both fluent in ASL (American Sign Language), but her father does not sign at all. Her infant sister was born deaf. In her, Piper saw a kind of ally. Or, she did until her parents raided Piper's college fund to get her sister a cochlear implant (a surgically implanted device that can restore hearing to severely deaf persons). Betrayal and closing doors all in one. She hopes Dumb will be her ticket out of town and to the college of her dreams.

The juxtaposition of why Dumb's different members, Piper included, are in the band, money, fame, the music (said very seriously), and various crushes on other band members, cause problems. All the band drama keeps this from turning into a problem novel about a moderately severe deaf girl in a hearing family and high school. Though the fact that Piper is deaf comes up over and over and over again in her dealings with various people in the music business as well as with the band itself (and, sadly, her family), it is never Piper's defining characteristic, just as Kallie's skin color is never hers (though she is proud of her mother's self-proclaimed status as "the first African American to go grunge" (p160)*).

The best part about Five Flavors of Dumb really is Piper herself. She has such a strong voice, sense of herself, and talent for sarcasm. I also loved her developing relationship with the girls of Dumb, Tasha and Kallie. I LOVE great girl friendship books, and by the end this one totally fit the bill. And watching Piper's rock music education was fabulous (the Seattle setting helped a bit). I grew up listening to Hendrix and other musicians of that era (thanks Dad), and I was in middle school and just getting into Nirvana when Kurt Cobain killed himself (thanks Johanna). I can't imagine coming to these musicians as a senior in high school. Seeing them through Piper and the rest of Dumb was like "meeting" them all over again.

Five Flavors of Dumb came out earlier this month!

Book source: ARC picked up at ALA

*Quotes and page numbers are from an uncorrected proof and may not match the published copy.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The Lost Hero - 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:

Riordan, Rick. The Lost Hero. New York: Disney - Hyperion Books for Children, 2010. Print. The Heroes of Olympus 1.
[Book cover credit: librarything.com/work/9822197]

Camp Half-Blood is packed, even in the winter. With the addition of new cabins for all the minor gods' children and everyone being claimed by the time they're 13, there are a ton more Heroes roaming around. But things still aren't going swimmingly. Zeus has closed Olympus and is not allowing the gods to talk to their mortal children. Artemis, even, is cut off from her huntresses. And Percy's missing. No matter where Rachel's predictions send Annabeth looking, she can't find him.

But this story isn't about all that, not really. It's about Piper, Leo and Jason. Three half-bloods with special gifts: Piper can convince anyone to do just about anything, Leo is amazingly good with his hands and can make an engine out of just about anything, and Jason, well, at the moment Jason can't remember anything. They've been hidden away at a school for delinquents, all unclaimed even though they're well beyond 13, but chosen by the gods since birth for what they must do now.

The Lost Hero totally fulfilled all my wishes and desires for it. It's still Camp Half-Blood (even if Chiron is especially cranky and unhelpful in this go-round), but it's not just more of the same. We're not so far into the future that Percy and Annabeth are former legends, nor are we so close to the end of the last Percy book that we have to sit around and watch them make out all the time. They're not even main characters in this story, just cameo characters. The addition of the children of all the minor gods makes everything a bit more hectic and crowded and crazy, but the explanations of the various gods and their traits are still there. Not only do we get Piper, Leo and Jason as new characters, but there are a bunch of new potentially important folks back at camp as well. And (this is a bit spoilery, so highlight to read) San Francisco was never really evil! But that last one is probably only important to me.

I couldn't have asked for more, and I doubt other fans of the Percy Jackson books could either.

The Lost Hero is told from the perspectives of Piper, Leo and Jason. While they all kind of sound alike (see my criticism of the alternative viewpoints in Riordan's The Red Pyramid), I never got them mixed up during the story. This may be more because of what is going on in each of their heads rather than distinction of voice. Even though they're all on the same quest and living through the same adventures/dangers, they're not remotely going through the same things. Each of their lives really has been leading up to this quest and they're just now starting to figure out how. Piper is going through all kinds of internal torment because she has been basically told that she'll double-cross the other two (not to mention that all her memories of Jason, who she thought was her boyfriend, are probably a product of some super-potent Mist). Leo is seeing his former babysitter Tia Callida (who encouraged playing with both fire and knives) and is figuring out connections between her, the weird circumstances surrounding his mother's death, and the prophecy he, Piper and Jason are meant to be fulfilling. And poor Jason. He's just trying to grasp hold of his memories: the ones that allow him to be a top-notch fighter, the ones that bring the gods' Roman rather than Greek names to his lips, and the ones that rumble in the back of his mind with every mention of the Titan War.

It's a bit more complicated, a bit more multi-layered, and a bit longer than the Percy books. But then, the characters (and the original Percy fans) are also a bit older. New readers will fare just fine without having read the Percy books (so far), but I have a feeling that won't be the case for much longer. And Percy fans will love the continuation of the Camp Half-Blood story.

Also of note: Leo is Latino and Piper is of Cherokee descent. Leo (very) occasionally uses Spanish words, especially in his memories. Piper reflects on her grandfather's life on the reservation as opposed to the life she's lived in California (her dad's a famous actor). She also bristles at the term "Half-Blood" upon reaching camp (though there is no examination or explanation of why that term bothers her in the text). Riordan doesn't make a big deal about the ethnicities of any of the characters (at least not the mortal half of their ethnicity...), but he still manages to make it matter.

Book source: Philly Free Library where I started out 27th in line for this title a week before its release. :)

Sunday, November 14, 2010

I'm baaack

I didn’t get to as many of the “grown-up” books as I wanted to during my time away. But that’s okay, because I’ve been reading library books!

I realized during my break that lately I’ve been reading books that I feel obligated to read rather than books I want to read. Sometimes these two categories overlap, such as with ExtraordinaryPenny Dreadful, The Mockingbirds, Nightshade City, and The Kneebone Boy, just to name a few. But basically, I’ve been reading a bunch of ARCs. Don’t get me wrong, I love ARCs and I’m grateful for all the ARCs and review copies that come my way. But since ALA, where I picked up BAGS of ARCs and passed out my card to more publishers and publicists than I can remember, I feel like I’ve been drowning in them.

And I don’t even have that many.

But I’ve still been feeling very burnt out on this whole reading boatloads of YA/MG books and writing reviews of them. By giving myself a break from the pile of books I feel like I need to read, I realized that I do still really want to read YA/MG books and I still have a lot to say about them. I just want to pick what I read and when I’m going to read it! So, from a personal standpoint, I’m going to be more particular about what titles I accept for review, even if that means I’m removed from a few people’s pub lists. I’m tired of feeling bogged down by my blog.

From a more “professional,” or at least "blog goals" standpoint, I’m going to be more picky about what I review because I feel like I’ve moved away from what I wanted to do with my blog in the first place, that is to highlight YA/MG books featuring or written by POC and/or positively portraying members of the LGBTQ community. Looking over what I’ve reviewed since ALA, you wouldn’t know that’s supposed to be my focus. Brought to my attention by MissAttitude and further explained by Zetta and the CCBC (Cooperative Children’s Book Center), the publishing statistics for books written by and/or about POC are abysmally low. According to the CCBC numbers, if you add the number of books written by POC to the number of books written about POC (and in reality there is most likely overlap with those numbers), 18% of books for young people are written by or about POC. If the pile o’books I picked up at ALA is any kind of a representative sample, that statistic is a bit high. In the last three months I've read and reviewed a total of three books where the main character is not white, and only one book that positively portrays members of the LGBTQ community (something that is not tracked by the CCBC). It makes me sad.

But, as the title of this post says, I'm back. Back from my blog break and back from a stint of reading what is handed to me rather than what is calling to me from the library or my TBR pile.