Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Almost Perfect

Katcher, Brian. Almost Perfect. New York: Delacorte Press - Random House Children's Books, 2009. Print.
[Book cover credit:]

ALA Best Books for Young Adults (2010)
ALA Quick Picks for Young Adult Readers (2010)ALA Rainbow List (Fiction, 2010)
ALA Stonewall Book Award (Children's and Young Adult Literature, 2010)

     She turned to me. "Hi," she said. "I'm Sage Hendricks."
     Sage had a deep but sexy, feminine voice, the kind you hear on ads for 900 numbers. I waited for her to say something else.
     "Dude," whispered Tim, jabbing me with a chocolaty finger. "Your line."
As soon as she walked through the classroom door, Logan became enamored with Sage. But love is seldom without complications, and Sage's hard-to-get act is hiding a doozy of one.

Almost Perfect, how do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thine characters in their complexity and their completeness,
From their talk of motorboating to their genuine concern for each other
They make me think of actual teenagers rather than teen-aged "types."
I love Tammi's fierce love for her sister, masquerading as aloofness:
Most quiet need to protect and hope at the same time.
I love Logan's mother, who has done her best in trying circumstances.
I love Logan's cool and supportive older sister (who tries to help him get laid).
Logan, I love thee. Insecurities and bravery and insecurities again
In situations never expected, and with grace unmatched by peers.
I love every characters' flaws; none is the pinnacle of righteousness or political correctness.
Sage, the object of Logan's affection and mine, shines as brightly as her braces.
She lives in the belief that the world can be better and love worth the risk;
And, if God choose, she is right.*

Seriously guys, this is an amazing book, and Brian Katcher is an amazing author.** That might explain why I've been waiting for my turn to read it from the library since it was announced as the winner of the Stonewall in January. It was more than worth the wait. Everyone has talked about the Big Issue that Almost Perfect addresses, but I have yet to see someone talk about how the issues (more than one, even) are in perfect balance with the flirting and the humor and the sexiness and the teenage-guy-ness of the book as a whole.

I loved it. You probably will too.

Book source: Philly Free Library (but I'm gonna go buy my own asap)

*  To Elizabeth Barrett Browning, I extend my greatest thanks for the inspiration. And my apologies.

** And also a practical genius! The standard has been set, folks, any author's note containing lists of websites that offer support to queer or genderqueer or drug addicted or suicidal or [insert thing you don't want your parents to know about here] kids should also contain detailed instructions for how to clear your cache history.

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Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The Lost Art of Reading

Ulin, David L. The Lost Art of Reading: Why Books Matter in a Distracted Time. Seattle: Sasquatch Books, 2010. Print.
[Book cover credit:]

Sometime in the last few years -- I don't remember when, exactly -- I noticed I was having trouble sitting down to read. That's a problem if you read, as I do, for a living, but it's an even bigger problem if you read as a way of life.

"I write entirely to find out what I'm thinking, what I'm looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear," Joan Didion notes in her essay "Why I Write," and it's no understatement to suggest that this is what the dynamic between a writer and a reader offers from the other side as well. Or it was, at any rate, until the moment I became aware, in an apartment full of books, that I could no longer find within myself the quiet necessary to read.

The Lost Art of Reading, which is really a long essay more than a book, chronicles Ulin's realization that he can't find the quiet to read in our plugged in, always on world. With all of the tweets and blogs and google searches and links leading to links leading to more links all with music playing the background, it's an understandable dilemma. It's also not that original. What makes Ulin's account different is the way he draws a parallel between his own inability to concentrate enough to just read and his son's inability to do the same because of classroom mandated annotations. Granted, this is not the main focus of the book, though his son's Great Gatsby assignment is what starts Ulin evaluating his own reading problems. Still, it is what really hit home for me. Two of the five articles I've linked to above are about over-"wired" kids who are so plugged into technology that they can't focus. Everything is an exercise in multitasking. When we finally sit these kids down in front of a great book like The Great Gatsby, why do we make them stop reading on a regular basis? I know, I know, it's so we can force them to analyze all of the similes and metaphors and tone and allusions. And so the kids can prove that they did the reading assignment. But really, why don't we let them just read?

Anyway, I loved this little book. It's full of readerly quotes from plenty of authors. I made a conscious effort to sit and read it in a day (it's roughly 100 pages), just to prove that I could maintain the concentration that Ulin could not. I know; I'm petty. I had no trouble turning off the TV, not checking status updates or email. I wrote down book titles I wanted to look up later on my due date card. And really, it wasn't that hard. Now, I'll be the first to admit that I do most of my reading on the train to and from work when I don't have an internet connection. At home I generally watch TV and at work, when I'm not actually working, I'm still on the computer. It was nice to know that I still have it in me to sit and read an entire book in a day. It's been a while.

Since reading this book, I have noticed that whenever I sit down at the computer to write (and review) I have all of Ulin's multitask-y symptoms. I check my email, check facebook, read articles, read all of your blogs, all with a blogger window or word document untouched in my taskbar. I'll write a sentence, read an article, format the picture for a blog post, check my email. I can't sustain the concentration to write in the way that I did in school or even the way that I do when I read (I don't know how you authors do it!). Ulin says his need to unplug when reading is part of the reason he hasn't switched to an ereader. If he could surf the web in the same device that he uses to read a book, he'd be doomed! Sometimes I feel that way about writing and reviewing. When I was an undergrad, I almost always wrote papers, or at least the backbone of papers, longhand before sitting down at a computer to type them out. I used to do that for my reviews as well, back when I was posting 2-3 a week. Instead now, I have a backlog of books to review that'll last me at least the rest of the month, and I still only manage to post one a week. If only I knew now what I knew then. :)

So, maybe I'll try to unplug a bit more often and get back to writing while Ulin unplugs and gets back to reading. How about you? Is the information superhighway impeding on your intellectual pursuits?

Book source: checked it out from work

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Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Threads and Flames

Friesner, Esther. Threads and Flames. New York: Viking, 2010. Print.
[Book cover credit:]

Before Raisa even takes her first steps in NYC, she has managed to acquire a younger "sister," and she's managed to lose the older sister with whom she was supposed to live. Through the kindness of strangers, serendipity, and not a little bit of trial and error, she manages to get a great job that allows her to both support Brina, her younger sister, and look for Henda, her older sister. She's lucky; the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory is one of the best places a girl can work in 1911.

I think the best thing about Threads and Flames is that Friesner provides oodles of information and context without ever making me feel that I'm reading a book about the plight of immigrants or factory girls and how the injustices they faced lead to the tragedy of the Triangle fire.* I was simply reading an engaging story about Raisa's new life in America, complete with a little bit of mystery, a little bit of (the cutest without being the least bit saccharine) romance, and a whole lot of my-gumption-is-both-my-greatest-flaw-and-my-greatest-strength. And yet I finished the book knowing a lot about how the ill-treatment of immigrants in general and factory girls in particular created the perfect storm of awfulness that caused so many deaths in the fire.

While the book is undoubtedly about the Triangle fire, Raisa doesn't even start working at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory until at least halfway through the book, maybe more. Usually, this delay of the "point" of the story would drive me batty, but in this instance, I didn't mind the wait. Raisa is such a fun character; she's so headstrong and determined to do what is right for her sisters, both Henda and Brina. It never occurs to her that she shouldn't take responsibility for Brina, even though she can barely take care of herself. I was rooting for her before she even got to Ellis Island. Raisa's little romance with Gavrel is also handled beautifully. When you're reading about Raisa who is on her own and working more than full time to make enough money to cover room and board for two people, it's easy to forget how young she is. Her relationship with Gavrel, however, with all of Raisa's do I or don't I feelings, constantly reminded me that she's just in her early teens. Their romance had all the little flutters of any middle grade romance, but with the added seriousness of two people, no matter how young, who work full time and both immediately start working even more when they "get serious." That's why they're both in the factory on the Saturday when it catches fire.

The fire itself is gruesome. The rush for the elevators after finding all the doors locked, the description of girls jumping from the windows rather than dying the flames, the display of unclaimed bodies that Raisa must search for Gavrel afterwards. The broken families who either found bodies to claim or were left with nothing. It's all so harsh. We see it all through Raisa who is still so determined to do what's right, who finds another job right away, and who becomes the strength and stability that Brina and Gavrel's family need in the fire's aftermath. Watching her continue on was possibly just as, if not more, heartbreaking as the fire itself. Slightly spoilery (highlight away): When the ending was happier than I would have expected, it did not feel like a cop-out on Friesner's part. I was just happy Raisa got a little bit of what she deserved. 

There was recently a request on the yalsa-bk list-serv for fiction books that teach the reader something. I wish I had finished reading this book in time to suggest it! Threads and Flames is so informative, but it's still great fiction too. I highly recommend it!

Book source: Philly Free Library

* This book reminded me very much of Annette Laing's books in that way. I kept wanting to re-read A Different Day to see how Raisa's factory experience differed (or in a lot of ways didn't) from Hannah's experience 50 years earlier and across the pond.

Links to may be affiliate links for the Amazon Associates program. If you buy something through this link, I may receive a referral fee.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011


Billingsley, Franny. Chime. New York: Dial Books - Penguin Books (USA) Inc., 2011. Print.
[Book cover credit:]

I've confessed to everything and I'd like to be hanged.

Now, if you please.
Briony's life consists of two main pursuits. She's spent her whole life trying to hide the fact that she's a witch. Better to keep her neck out of the noose. And since her stepmother died -- correction, since Briony killed her stepmother -- she's been taking care of her twin sister Rose. But lately Briony's been a bit conflicted. When Rose gets the swamp cough, a disease that is slowly killing off the town's children, Briony has a choice: she can let Rose die or she can deliver a message on behalf of the creatures of the swamp in return for Rose's health, revealing her witchy self in the process.

It's not as though she really has a choice.

Chime is an interesting twist on the current paranormal fare. It's set in an unspecified past when England is in a kind of transitional phase. The Old Ones are still around, but they're being pushed back into disappearing wild places, such as the swamp that is being drained behind Briony's home. Her little town with its busy pub across from the gallows and Briony, the beautiful daughter of the town preacher who's being pursued by a handsome but dumb local guy, were comfortably recognizable. The addition of Eldric, the handsome AND charming son of a family friend, made me think I knew what I was in for. In a good way.

But I was wrong. I had no idea what a treat I was in for when I met Briony. She's smart and sarcastic and employs just the right kind of self-depreciating-but-everyone-else-is-annoying-too humor. For example:
Cecil teased me to reveal my worldly knowledge, and I found amusing ways to sidestep his questions, and on we went with this for quite a while until it occurred to me that this is what is called flirting.
It's a tedious exercise.
Underneath her slick veneer, Briony has some real self-hate. She is both a witch and a preacher's kid, after all. Her self-loathing competes pretty heavily with her self-preservation instinct as Briony tries to figure out how to appease the Old Ones in her swamp to save Rose (who not only has done nothing wrong but whose problems Briony also places on her own shoulders) and save her own neck at the same time.

As if a great and fun yet complex main character/narrator weren't enough, there's Eldric who really is very charming and sweet and a worthy book crush. His interactions with Briony, especially their "fraternity," were really cute and fun, though their relationship was not without some very serious complications. Issues with Briony and Rose's father added real emotional depth to the story in ways that an emotionally and physically absent father is usually not able. And, of course, there's Rose. I prefer that you read about and fall in love with her for yourself. In short, Chime is just one good thing after another; I highly recommend it!

Book source: Philly Free Library

Links to may be affiliate links for the Amazon Associates program. If you buy something through this link, I may receive a referral fee.