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On my must-read books of 2013: Christa Desir’s Fault Line

January 4, 2013

Fault LineFrom On Steubenville and where we go from here… (Trigger warning)

Months later, I was speaking about this experience and one of the guys in the audience came up to me afterwards and said he was a high school teacher and he was quite certain that if I told that story to his classroom, most of the guys would just laugh and call the girl stupid.

Background reading: “Rape Case Unfolds on Web and Splits City” in the New York Times, updates at the Atlantic Wire.

A belated* list of my notable reads of 2012

January 4, 2013

* because I thought I scheduled this post to publish earlier, but I guess not.

As you can probably tell by the lack of posts, I’ve been in a major reading—and blogging—slump for most of this year. Well, to be more specific, the reading slump has been very YA fiction-centric (though I haven’t read many adult mysteries this year, either), since it hasn’t affected how many adult romances I’ve read and I’ve also read a lot of nonfiction, both YA and adult.

So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that when the YALSA Nonfiction Award and Morris Award shortlists were announced, I’d read all of the Nonfiction finalists (and reviewed two of them, Titanic: Voices from the Disaster by Deborah Hopkinson and We’ve Got a Job: The 1963 Birmingham Children’s March by Cynthia Levinson) and read all of…1/3 of 1 Morris finalist. To me, the only shocker on the Nonfiction shortlist is Karen Blumenthal’s Steve Jobs bio. It’s solidly written, but I didn’t think it was outstanding.

cinderThere were some YA novels this year that I did like and which I should have reviewed, including Cinder by Marissa Meyer (though I did mention it over at Stacked), Black Heart by Holly Black (on the to do list, assuming I get back in the habit of blogging: a Cassel Sharpe/Jazz Dent comparison), Bitterblue by Kristin Cashore (though Janine discussed some of the same things that stood out to me—namely regarding reconciliation and South Africa—in her review at Dear Author), and A Midsummer’s Nightmare by Kody Keplinger (because in a year in which so many people raved about YA romances that did nothing for me—on the rare occasion I even made it through the book—this was about the only one I really liked).

The only recent YA novel that truly hooked me was Speechless by Hannah Harrington. (It also broke through Sarah’s reading slump, so you know, if you’re also struggling to find something to read that you just can’t put down…) It’s told in the first person by Chelsea, an inveterate gossip, who stumbles upon a secret at a party and drunkenly announces it to her friends. The consequences are disastrous and, knowing she made a huge mistake, Chelsea takes a vow of silence. And remains silent, even as all her friends turn on her. It kind of struck me as a cross between Some Girls Are (though much less visceral) and Just Listen, with a bit of Kody Keplinger thrown in, along with more caring parents (compared to all three). Harrington made me care about Chelsea—who is not always likable, especially at the beginning of the book—and convinced me of her determination to change. While, objectively, I can pick out aspects of Speechless that could have (maybe should have) detracted from my enjoyment of it, they ultimately didn’t matter.

My top non-YA books? Sherry Thomas’s Tempting the Bride. Loved it, even though I usually don’t care for amnesia plotlines. Which again goes to show that in the right hands, trite or clichéd plot elements can be turned into great books. AND, Thomas packs so much emotion into only 278 pages that it made so many YA books seem even more bloated and overlong in comparison. (Yes, The Diviners, I’m looking about you.) So I’m really hoping that her upcoming YA trilogy (!) retains these same traits that made Tempting the Bride so good.

What else?

The Mighty Mars Rovers: The Incredible Adventures of Spirit and Opportunity by Elizabeth Rusch

December 24, 2012

mighty mars roversMore than eight years before the Curiosity rover landed in Gale Crater, two rovers named Spirit and Opportunity landed on opposite sides of Mars. While previous NASA missions to Mars, such as the Viking landers, had carried scientific instruments, their capabilities were limited. To Steve Squyres, then a college student, it was obvious that the Viking landers were not the ideal way of studying the geology of Mars. True, valuable pictures and information had been collected, but so much more could be discovered—if only it could move around the planet and crush rocks or dig things up.

Perhaps it is therefore not surprising to learn that Squyres had arrived at college considering a major in geology. An astronomy course taught by a member of the Viking science team inspired Squyres to study planetary science instead, with the dream of exploring Mars. Sending an actual person to Mars seemed impossible, but what about a robot, “a rolling geologist, with the hammers and drills and tools of a human geologist”?

His idea was a tough sell. “Rovers are risky. They are expensive and difficult to do,” he admitted. “And people kept asking, Why do you need a rover when all the rocks on Mars look alike? But all you had to do was look at pictures from orbit and it was obvious that Mars is an incredibly scenic, diverse, and complicated planet.”

For eight years, Steve wrote proposals to NASA for a Mars rover.

For eight years, NASA refused to fund the proposals. (p. 12)

Then, in 2000, Squyres received a call from NASA. They weren’t interested in one rover. They wanted two. Oh, and he only had three years to build the rovers (and rockets and landers) instead of the typical five. Squyres, leading a team of 170 scientists, and Pete Theisinger of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, leading hundreds of engineers, rose to the challenge. Spirit and Opportunity became the centerpieces of Mars Exploration Rover Mission, with the primary goal of “search[ing] for and characterize a wide range of rocks and soils that hold clues to past water activity on Mars.”

The Mighty Mars Rovers by Elizabeth Rusch is part of the the outstanding Scientists in the Field series. Although Squyres is the scientist whom Rusch focuses on, she also emphasizes the teamwork that was essential to overcoming challenges, from the technical difficulties of building the rovers to troubleshooting obstacles on Mars. Rusch keeps readers engaged throughout the book, even in the more technical sections, and especially towards the end, when the rovers have long exceeded their expected three-month life span, and the team must maneuver the rovers in tricky situations during the harsh Martian winter.

The book’s design is effective and inviting, with sidebars that take readers behind the scenes (like brief explanations of how to drive a rover) and captioned full-color images on every page. Back matter includes a source list, chapter notes, a “For Further Exploration” section, glossary, and index.

Readers looking for information about Curiosity should be aware that it is only briefly mentioned at the end of the book (which was written prior to Curiosity landing on Mars), but they—along with many others—will still find much to fascinate, inform, and inspire them in these pages.

Published 2012 by Houghton Mifflin (ISBN 9780547478814).

Book source: public library.

Cross-posted at Guys Lit Wire.

Titanic: Voices from the Disaster by Deborah Hopkinson

September 24, 2012

Here are the numbers:

  • 2,208 people were on board the RMS Titanic on her maiden voyage
  • of these, 891 were crew members and 1,317 were passengers
  • yet she carried just 20 lifeboats that could have held a total of 1,178 people
  • she sank, after hitting an iceberg, on April 15, 1912
  • only 712 people survived

But numbers can only tell us so much. They don’t convey the excitement surrounding the largest and most luxurious ocean liner ever built at the time, the confusion and fear on board when disaster struck, the bravery of many crew members and passengers, or the heartbreak of realizing a loved one did not survive.

As the subtitle of Deborah Hopkinson’s Titanic: Voices from the Disaster implies, this is a human history of the Titanic. After describing the building of the ship and giving readers a sense of its massive scale, Hopkinson introduces some of the crew and passengers (from several countries, and different social backgrounds) who were on board. Their memories add depth and intimacy to events, engaging Titanic buffs as well as readers less familiar with the disaster. Hopkinson does an excellent job weaving multiple voices together—first describing, well, “normal” life on the Titanic for passengers and crew, then the chaos after the iceberg was spotted—with contextual information regarding different aspects of the Titanic (both in terms of what was known or custom at the time, and based on what we know now) into an organically flowing narrative.

Numerous images (photos, reproductions of telegrams, and more) spread throughout the book provide additional atmosphere; it’s one thing to read about some of the amenities on board, but seeing photographs of the gymnasium and a life preserver made of cork give the details even more impact.

The back matter is another thing to rave about here. Seriously, it is awesome, especially if you love back matter as much as I do. It’s comprehensive (comprising about a quarter of the book!), including a glossary, timeline, selected bibliography, source notes, additional biographical information about some of the passengers, and an excerpt from the British Wreck Commissioner’s Inquiry Report.

Book details: middle grade nonfiction, published 2012 by Scholastic, ISBN 9780545116749

Book source: public library.

Cross-posted at Guys Lit Wire.

We’ve Got a Job: The 1963 Birmingham Children’s March by Cynthia Y. Levinson

August 27, 2012

cover of We've Got a Job by Cynthia LevinsonAs Cynthia Levinson notes in We’ve Got a Job: The 1963 Birmingham Children’s March,

Segregation in Birmingham wasn’t just a way of life. It was the law. The city’s Racial Segregation Ordinances, adopted in 1951, demanded almost total separation of blacks and whites.

Many southern cities mandated separate drinking fountains, bathrooms, scools, and seats on buses for blacks and whites. But Birmingham’s ordinances went even further… (p. 7)

Even after other Southern cities desegrated, Birmingham resolutely refused to do so. When segregation finally came to an end in Birmingham, it was due to the courage and strength of thousands of children and teens who would not give up despite a faltering plan to fill city jails and, therefore, impede the enforcement of segregation laws. Dwindling numbers of adults marched and were arrested in April. But in early May, thousands of young people protested, marched, and went to jail, bringing the nation’s attention to Birmingham.

We’ve Got a Job is moving and inspiring, with compelling firsthand accounts of the Birmingham Children’s March from several of the participants. Interviews with four people who participated in the march and went to jail form the core of the book. Not only does it give readers personal insights and a strong sense of immediacy into what the time period was like, it’s a great way of organizing information, especially since the four youths Levinson focuses on—Audrey Faye Hendricks (who was 9 years old at the time!), Washington Booker III (14 years old), James W. Stewart (16 years old), and Arnetta Streeter (15 years old)—came from a couple of different neighborhoods, economic backgrounds, and varying levels of family involvement in the Civil Rights movement. It allows Levinson to explain background issues in a natural way, building off of the relationships and experiences of Audrey, Wash, James, and Arnetta. Levinson also covers dissent among black leaders, who disagreed over strategies and methods to use in their push for desegragation, and briefly touches on the beliefs of several white teens living in Birmingham at the time.

The design of We’ve Got a Job is simple but effective. Chapters are broken into clearly delineated sections, and the majority of sidebars are placed in such a way that does not interrupt the flow of the text. The black and white photos, interspersed throughout the book, are not as arresting (no pun intended) as those in Elizabeth Partridge’s Marching for Freedom: Walk Together, Children, and Don’t You Grow Weary but many are still striking and effectively convey the atmosphere and passion of the time.

Back matter includes a brief author’s note, source notes and bibliography, and an index. The notes are adequate, but I have to admit that I would have liked more details about how Levinson conducted her research and found her four informants (a la Marc Aronson—I mean, have you seen the notes in Master of Deceit: J. Edgar Hoover and America in the Age of Lies, which are comprehensive and just as fascinating as the main text itself? Chapter 10 of We’ve Got a Job briefly discusses how many Civil Rights leaders were suspected of being Communists, a subject Aronson covers in more detail in Master of Deceit).

We’ve Got a Job is one of several excellent books for older kids and teens about the Civil Rights movement published in recent years. If We’ve Got a Job piques your interest in the subject, you should definitely take a look at the aforementioned Marching for Freedom by Partridge, as well as Philip Hoose’s Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice.

Book details: upper MG/YA nonfiction, published 2012 by Peachtree, ISBN 9781561456277.

Book source: public library.

Cross-posted at Guys Lit Wire.

I Hunt Killers by Barry Lyga

July 31, 2012

cover of I Hunt Killers by Barry LygaNo one in the town of Lobo’s Nod wants to believe that the dead girl in the field was the victim of a serial killer.

Jazz knows better.

Spying on the cops and crime scene tech gathering evidence, his father’s words echo in Jazz’s mind.

Most of these guys, they want to get caught. You understand what I’m saying? I’m saying most of the time, they get caught ’cause they want it, not ’cause anyone figures ’em out, not ’cause anyone outthinks ’em.

Anything that slows them down—even if it’s just by a few minutes—is a good thing, Jasper. You want them nice and slow. Slow like a turtle. Slow like ketchup.

Always check the hands and feet. And the mouth and ears. You’d be surprised what gets left behind.

And Jazz is sure that, despite the sheriff’s insistence otherwise, Lobo’s Nod has another serial killer on its hands. After all, Jazz knows the signs, knows how serial killers think—because his father was the most notorious serial killer of the century, and Billy Dent liked to share his wisdom with his young son.

Barry Lyga’s I Hunt Killers is one twisted, yet morbidly compelling, book. (Especially for one that was “accidentally” created!) The mystery aspect of tracking down the serial killer is very good, but what really elevates the book is Jazz and all his contradictions. He has a couple of troubling, misogynistic thoughts, yet it’s easy to see why, with Billy Dent as his father and teacher, he might think in such a way. Jazz knows how to read people and how to manipulate them, and takes advantage of this—just like his father. Even though he fears that most people think he’ll end up like his father. And deep down, he’s afraid they’re right.

Other readers have compared this book to the Dexter series by Jeff Lindsey (which I haven’t read or watched) and Dan Wells’ John Cleaver series (only read the first book), but I really think I Hunt Killers has a ton of appeal to fans of Chelsea Cain’s Archie Sheridan/Gretchen Lowell series. (Speaking of which, Cain’s newest book, Kill You Twice, is coming out next month.) I mean, the charisma of Billy and Gretchen, the grotesqueness of their crimes and their perverse genius, Jazz and Archie’s inner turmoil and the fact that their connection to Billy/Gretchen is public knowledge…

But getting back to I Hunt Killers, many of the crimes are gruesome and disturbing, and described as such. Not in a sensational way, but serving in part to emphasize how Jazz’s childhood—brainwashed into being an assistant of sorts to his serial killer father—continues to affect him.

Book source: public library.

Cross-posted at Guys Lit Wire.

Me! Recommending books!

July 15, 2012

Stacked has been running an awesome So You Want to Read YA series over the last couple of months, with bloggers, authors, and editors writing about the books they’d recommend to readers who are unfamiliar with YA fiction. (Did you see that epic flowchart from the ladies of The Readventurer?) I was invited to contribute and, in what should come as absolutely no surprise to readers of this blog, I think I wrote one of the longest guest posts thus far.

If you’d like to see what books I picked, head on over to Stacked.

A Girl Named Digit by Annabel Monaghan

July 3, 2012

I should probably preface this review by saying that A Girl Named Digit is basically a YA spy thriller with a female lead, and I’m a sucker for those. But even though I’ll automatically pick up this kind of book, I tend to be extremely nitpicky once I actually start reading, probably because my hopes are always so high that it’s easy to be disappointed. While Annabel Monaghan’s debut YA novel includes many elements I adored, there were nearly as many things that didn’t work for me.

Farrah has spent years trying to pass as normal. She’s succeeded so well that now, as a high school senior, her best friends are the four most popular girls at school and no one knows Farrah is a major math genius who was nicknamed, derisively, Digit in middle school. While watching television with her friends one night, Farrah sees a string of numbers on the bottom of the TV screen. The same thing happens the next two weeks, but Farrah, desperate to keep geeky Digit in the past, doesn’t mention it to anyone. Once Farrah realizes it’s a code, however, she is compelled to decode it. The dates encoded seem to point to a terrorist attack. Only, by the time Farrah finishes decoding the message, the attack has already happened.

Farrah goes to the FBI with the message, where she is interviewed by an extremely young agent who initially doesn’t believe a thing she says. Soon it’s obvious that Farrah is on to something and she must work with the John, the FBI agent, to catch the terrorists.

So, again, I really wanted to like this book. I mentioned the spy thriller thing before, but it’s also about a female math genius. I was never that good at math myself, and didn’t exactly like the subject, but I will read a YA novel about a girl good at/interested in STEM subjects any day. And there were a lot of individual parts that I did like, such as Farrah’s relationship with her family, John’s pride in Farrah’s abilities, the way Farrah realizes she ignored hints about her friends’ real interests. Plus, a couple of sections I really appreciated after reading Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain.

Although there was some infodumping at the beginning and a romance I wasn’t invested in, my biggest problem was that the story required more suspension of disbelief than I was capable of (maybe I shouldn’t have read it immediately after Fake Mustache?). To name just a couple things, I found it hard to believe Farrah was able to keep her past as Digit and all of her mathematical accomplishments a secret, and that a rookie agent would be assigned to protect/assist Farrah instead of someone more experienced. Even trying to read it as a spoof didn’t make suspending my disbelief any easier, or successful.

Despite these criticisms, I’d still recommend A Girl Name Digit, with the caveat that, even for its genre, it’s on the more implausible end of the spectrum. But ultimately for me, the parts that worked made up for the overall shortcomings.

Book details: published 2012 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (ISBN: 9780547668529).

Book source: public library.

Originally read and reviewed during the 48 Hour Book Challenge.

Listen Up

June 25, 2012

Heard any good audiobooks recently?

I didn’t listen to audiobooks when I was a teen, back when they were only available on cassette tapes or CDs. Technology has changed since then, and now there is also much more variety in terms of titles available to listeners.

Basically, it’s a great time to be an audiobook fan.

Audiobooks extend the reading experience. A good narrator can draw you in to a story that you struggled with in print, or highlight nuances that you may have missed while reading the book. A great narration (and production) can make a good book even better, a funny book even funnier.

But maybe you haven’t tried an audiobook before. Maybe you don’t think it really counts as reading. Maybe some free audiobooks will change your mind?

Sync is a FREE promotion, giving away two audiobook downloads (a recent YA book and a classic) each week. This summer’s first set of downloads has already expired, but a full schedule of upcoming titles is available. The Amulet of Samarkand by Jonathan Stroud is coming up later this week, then Kendare Blake’s Anna Dressed in Blood the following week, and Derek Landy’s Skulduggery Pleasant near the end of the summer, to name just three of the books that will be available.

For more audiobook suggestions, try the Audies and the Odyssey Award lists, or the monthly AudioSynced roundups at Stacked and Abby (the) Librarian. And don’t forget to check out your public library’s audiobook collection!

As for what I’ve been listening to, Susan Duerden’s narration of Daniel O’Malley’s The Rook is excellent (I blogged about the print book earlier this year). Also, with the last(!) Artemis Fowl book coming out next month, I’ve been revisiting the audiobooks, read by Nathaniel Parker. Except for his pronuncation of the name Nguyen in the first chapter of book one, I love Parker’s narration. He gives each character a distinctive voice, using a variety of accents, and he really captures both the humor and adventure of Eoin Colfer’s books.

If you already like audiobooks, what have you been listening to?

Cross-posted at Guys Lit Wire.

Summer Blog Blast Tour 2012 wrapup

June 15, 2012

Kate Milford @ Chasing Ray
Randa Abdel-Fattah @ Crazy QuiltEdi
Tim Lebbon @ Bildungsroman
Nalo Hopkinson @ TheHappyNappyBookseller

Timothy Decker @ Chasing Ray
Y. S. Lee here
Tanita Davis @ TheHappyNappyBookseller

Cynthia Levinson@ TheHappyNappybookseller
Amy Reed @ Stacked
Rosemary Clement-Moore @ Finding Wonderland

Dave Roman @ Bildungsroman
L. Divine @ Crazy QuiltEdi
Robin LaFevers @ Finding Wonderland

Jennifer Miller @ Bildungsroman
Ashley Hope Perez @ Crazy QuiltEdi
Benjamin Alire Saenz @ TheHappyNappyBookseller

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