Review: Picture the Dead

Picture the Dead by Adele Griffin & Lisa Brown. Sourcebooks. 2010. Paperback, 2012. Review copy from publisher.

The Plot: Jennie Lovell’s loved ones left to fight in the Civil War: her twin brother, Tobias; her fiance and cousin, Will Pritchett; and her other cousin, Quinn, Will’s brother. She knew the moment Toby died: could feel it. She never suspected Will’s death, not until a wounded Quinn came home and told them his brother Will had died. Jennie wishes she could feel Will’s presence the way she does Toby’s

Will’s grieving parents, Jennie’s Aunt and Uncle, seek out a photographer who can capture the images of departed spirits. Jennie begins getting strange messages – is it Will? What is he trying to tell her?

As Jennie struggles with the loss of Toby and Will, she also struggles for her future. Her Aunt and Uncle had never looked kindly or generously on their orphaned niece, and now her position is even more precarious. To make matters even more confusing, Quinn has returned from war a changed man. It’s not just that he’s physically injured: he seems almost a different person. War changes a man, he explains. Would falling in love with Quinn be a betrayal of Will?

The Good: “A ghost will always find his way home.”

So, so good! I love when historical fiction is about something I didn’t know, or is set during a unique time. Picture the Dead is set in Massachusetts during the last days of the Civil War. In addition to taking a look at spiritualism and the use of photography to capture spirit images, it also takes a frank look at the soldiers who fought, revealing details about their lives and survival I’d never heard before.

Jennie’s position in the family is unique: she is the orphaned niece they have to take in, and neither aunt nor uncle is really happy to do so. Aunt Clara is hideous, and at first I thought Uncle Henry’s flaw was weakness that tolerated, thus allowing, his wife’s nastiness. The further I read, the more I realized that Aunt Clara was at least honest in her dislike of her niece.

Gradually, Jennie’s role becomes more and more servant-like. As someone with no education, money, or connections, someone whose only male protectors (Toby and Will) have died, she has few options. “I must find a way to rescue myself,” she realizes early on, but what, exactly, can she do? Is she truly feeling an attraction to Quinn, or is she looking at him for security?

Jennie may hate her situation, but I adored this look at someone who is caught between upstairs and downstairs. Jennie sensed when her brother died; it’s because of this that she is open to the possibility of spiritualism connecting her with Will. She doesn’t understand what she’s being told, but she believes it’s messages from beyond and she’s resolved to follow them. Jennie’s beliefs are wonderfully shown: “For if memory is the wave that buoys our grief, haunting is the undertow that drags us to its troubled source.”

Picture the Dead is told in part scrapbook format; specifically, Jennie’s scrapbook. Lisa Brown’s illustrations show the photographs, drawings, even newspaper clippings that make up Jennie’s scrapbook. I love how Jennie puts together the scrapbook, how she gathers what to put in it.

Picture the Dead is also a mystery. I won’t say, exactly, what the mystery turns out to be, because that is part of the fun of this book — trying to figure out what is going on, what people’s motivations are, and what type of future Jennie can create for herself.

Other reviews: GalleySmith; Librarian By Day; Small Review. Also, check out the ghost stories at the Picture the Dead website.


Reading Alone Together

I confess, part of me laughs when people talk about social reading.

There are, no doubt, things that are social that take place after reading. The discussions that arise about the books we read, whether in a real-life book discussion group or GoodReads, at a blog or in Twitter — that’s all social.

But, to be incredibly literal, reading itself is not a social act. It’s me and my book, and given I’m the type of person who likes my solitude and alone time, I’m perfectly happy with that, to be honest. Not only happy; my back gets up when I’m told that my reading now also has to be social, that my solitariness is not respected. We’re not all people persons. Some of us like that pleasure of reading — not writing, not creating, but falling into another’s worlds without interruption or distraction. Reading alone with a book is not sexy or shiny or new or loud, so it doesn’t always get respect.

That said, one of the pleasures of life is finding other people who “get” that about reading and respect it. Sharing time with such people? A blessing.

The answer: Reading Alone (Together) at by @helgagrace. In a nutshell: shared quiet reading time. The idea here addresses both the personal reading experience that is “alone” with the shared community of fellow readers: “That’s right, I am talking about reading as a social activity. Imagine spending a few hours at a friend’s house, reading on comfortable furniture and occasionally going for more snacks. One friend chuckles as she hits a particularly delectable passage. Another is completely absorbed in her book, which she is reading on her e-reader. A third has finished his book and moved on to one of his backups. The predominating sounds are pages turning and cats purring (it’s my fantasy, so there are cats).”

Before you laugh, let me tell you a story. You know how people have viewing parties — for sports events, season finales, award shows? I know someone who once complained about such parties because people attending actually wanted to watch what was on the TV and so what was the point of that party? The person didn’t get it; that shared viewing and sharing of the event WAS the point of the party, and carrying on non-event conversations in the room with TV was not the point.

These parties, in a way, are shared viewing time. So why not shared quiet reading time, as long as people respect the quiet and reading parts?

And yes, I realize some would say that communities used to have dedicated spaces for Reading Alone (Together) . They were called libraries. (Actually, not quite the same — friends, comfy furniture, food, but I knew if I didn’t say it here someone would in the comments!)

Interview: Kirsten Hubbard

I read Wanderlove by Kirsten Hubbard (Delacorte Press, an imprint of Random House Children’s Books, a division of Random House, Inc. 2012) (my review) and fell in love, with the book, the writing, the characters, and travelling. I’ve always like going places, but Wanderlove just reinvigorated that love, as well as reminding me to open my eyes to the pleasures and wonders around me.  

I was happy to learn that Kirsten would be happy to answer a few questions!

So, here, an interview with the author of one of my Favorite Books of 2012:

Liz B: What was your inspiration for Wanderlove?

Kirsten: I wanted to write this epic backpacking book, featuring some of my favorite places. That’s really about it. I’d already written the first version of Like Mandarin, and shelved it; I’d traveled once through Central America, and was heading back again with two of my best friends. I fell for the backpacking lifestyle hard, and couldn’t believe there wasn’t much out there in the way of YA books that featured it. So I decided to write one myself.

Liz B: I know from your blog you’re a backpacker; was there a particular moment or trip when you realized you were “traveler” and no longer a “tourist”?

Kirsten: I love this question. I wish I had a great answer for it. Maybe when we decided to go to Guatemala on a whim. It was my first backpacking trip at age 20: six weeks in Central America with my then-boyfriend/now-husband. I’d planned out the whole trip in advance, with only minor flexibility.

But on the boat to Belize, we met a Swedish guy who’d been traveling from Colombia up the Central America isthmus. He told us his all-time favorite destination was Guatemala – specifically, a place called Lake Atitlan – and couldn’t believe we weren’t going there. We realized we had a few extra days, and decided, why not? It turned out to be one of our favorite places, too. I still think many of the most serendipitous travel tips come from strangers in passing.

Liz B: What three must-haves does a backpacker need to have with them? What three things do people think they need, but really don’t?

Kirsten: Everybody needs several pairs of earplugs, because you never know when there will be roosters. A blank sketchbook or journal; because even if you don’t draw or write, there will be things you want to jot down. And a daypack, or smaller backpack, for hiking, day trips, and keeping important stuff close when your main backpack is riding on top of a chicken bus.

As for what travelers don’t need: I usually recommend travelers bring an underclothes moneybelt, and I often do, but I haven’t really used the thing in years. Nowadays, Traveler’s Checks are pretty much obsolete. Lastly, I despise those synthetic chamois travel towels. They’re just silly, as are a lot of the bells and whistles travel stores try to sell you.

Liz B: What is your favorite location in Wanderlove?

Kirsten: It’s a toss-up between Lake Atitlan and Laughingbird Caye. The latter is based on a real-life island called Caye Caulker, which is where I married my husband a few years ago.

Liz B: And was there a place you love that you wished you could have included but had to leave out?

Kirsten: To be honest, Bria’s journey didn’t really vary from my original plan for her. In the first version of Wanderlove, she hiked a Guatemalan volcano, which is where she first saw Rowan and Starling. That’s about it. However, there are so many other destinations in Central America I would love to write about. Sharing places I adore with readers – and having them fall in love too (and start Googling airfares!) – has been both magical and humbling.

Liz B: Thanks so much!

Photo of author from author. In Central America, of course!

Fictional Band at Your Library

My friend, super librarian Justin the Librarian, told me about Fictional Band at Your Library.

There’s a new book coming out this summer, Reunited by Hilary Weisman Graham (Simon & Schuster, 2012): “3 ex-best friends drive from Boston to Austin to catch the reunion concert of Indie band, Level3.  Is Level3 a real band?  They do have 2 songs, band photos, and a website, but they are entirely fictional.”

Fiction becomes real — have the band at your library!

As Justin explains, he’s “helping put together a book/music traveling roadshow with Kirsten Cappy of Curious City to promote the new book Reunited by Hilary Weisman Graham (out June 2012). What it all boils down to is this: libraries need summer reading programs, and what we’ve put together is a summer reading program in a box.  You get music, free stuff for your teens, and more and here’s the kicker…it all ties back together to an awesome book.”

All details are at the Fictional Band at Your Library website, from cost, available dates, what is provided, etc.

You know how I love books, and book related programs! Contact them to make arrangements, but check back here to let me know if they end up appearing at your library!

Flashback April 2005

In April 2005, I had exactly one review! The review that started it all!

Unexpected Development by Marlene Perez. From my review: “Perez’s novel is funny, touching, and serious. The book’s framing device is an essay she’s writing in Senior Honors English: “How I Spent My Summer Vacation.” (Megan agrees with you that it is a very lame assignment, particularly for an Honors class.) Since this is entirely in first person, the humor comes not from situations but from Megan’s voice (sarcastic, funny, insightful) and her view of things. Body image is central to this book: Megan has big breasts; since fifth grade, guys don’t look above the collarbone. Megan deals with this by using humor, oversized clothing, and saving for breast reduction surgery. It was hurtful to read how many guys thought that Megan’s chest size invited rude comments and allowed for touching. Her belief that guys are interested in her physical developments is shown as having some basis (freshman year started with an unwanted groping), but this summer her crush, Jake, is showing interest. Can Megan trust him? Can she trust her own feelings?”

Flashback April 2007

A look at what books I reviewed in April 2007:

Over A Thousand Hills I Walk With You by Hanna Jansen, Jeanne d’Arc Umubyeyi. Translated by Elizabeth D. Crawford. Young Adult. My review:A work of fiction about the Rwandan Genocide; based on what happened to the author’s adopted daughter, who at age eight survived the Rwandan Genocide. My immediate reaction to this book is best summed up: Horrible, horrible, horrible. Where to hide? Nowhere. Jeanne is eight at the time of the genocide; the book begins with Jeanne at age six, and while at first I thought “this is slow, why,” I soon realized that this served several purposes, including as a memorial to a way of life and an extended family that was brutally ended. When the slaughter starts we “know” Jeanne’s family. And the loss and horror is much more than if the book had begun on the day the killings started, with the family members only names. Eight. Think about that. You know an eight year old; protected, perhaps spoiled, watched, loved, supervised. Just like Jeanne. Think about the kids you know who are eight; and watching mother, sister, brother, murdered, yet somehow getting up, walking, searching, going on.”

A Girl, A Boy And A Monster Cat by Gail Gauthier, illustrated by Joe Cepeda. 2007. Easy chapter book. My review: “Brandon’s ideal afterschool activity? Watching TV. Hannah’s ideal afterschool activity? Hunting dinosaurs (aka turkeys) in the backyard, sailing a pirate ship (tree in the backyard), saving the world from her monster cat (aka Buttercup.) Hannah’s mom babysits for Brandon after school three days a week. So Brandon gets dragged into Hannah’s school games. With surprising and amusing results. Gauthier brings the funny. The humor is often very dry; for example, when Brandon describes Hannah he says “Her games are like really bad TV shows. Only you can’t turn the channel to something better because you’re part of the show.”

Austenland by Shannon Hale. 2007. Adult. My review: “Jane Hayes is in love with Mr. Darcy. Not just any Mr. Darcy; but the BBC Pride & Prejudice Colin Firth Mr. Darcy. Yes, we all know how that is. But it’s just a fantasy; until her great-aunt gives her a very unique gift. A trip to England. To Pembroke Park. Where you get to dress up and act as if it’s Regency England (well, Regency England with modern plumbing). Jane goes determined to use this trip to conquer her Mr. Darcy fantasy; but will total immersion just make the fantasy more real?”

World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War by Max Brooks. My review: “Zombies. They attack. They almost win. Now, a decade later, an oral history has been assembled, from the doctor who treated “Patient Zero” (the first documented Zombie) to the American soldier who fought at the Battle of Yonkers, from the feral child who survived on her own to the South African who invented the notorious plan that ensured human survival at the cost of millions of lives.”

Teaser: The Stone Girl

The Stone Girl by Alyssa B. Sheinmel. Knopf Books for Younger Readers, an imprint of Random House. 2012. Reviewed from eArc from NetGalley.

The Stone Girl’s scheduled publication date is this summer, but I just finished reading it and I cannot wait to share some of my love here. Hence, a teaser for the full review!

Sethie Weiss is a high school senior at a private all girls school in Manhattan. Outside, her life looks perfect. Inside, she is a “stone girl,” descending further and further into self destructive behaviours.

She looks at the thin girls around her and wishes she was as easily thin as they are: “Tomorrow, perhaps she will wake up the kind of girl who doesn’t get hungry for a snack after school, who simply forgets to eat lunch because she is so busy. Tomorrow she might wake up thinner than she woke up today.”

There is also humor, biting, sarcastic, and arrogant: “‘They’re amazing pants,’ [the saleswoman] says. ‘Very unique.’ Walking behind her, Sethie and Janey exchange a smile. They are girls who know that something cannot be very unique, and the sound of the error is like nails on a chalkboard to them. And no matter how grateful they are, later, when the saleswoman finds the pants in Janey’s size, they both believe that this separates her from them. Because they know something cannot be very unique, they will never be saleswomen at Saks.”

My review will be posted in August, closer to the publication date!

Fab Films: Criteria

What should committee members be thinking about when watching the films?

From the YALSA Website,

Suggested Selection Criteria

Technical Qualities

  • Is the photography effective and imaginative? (e.g. choice and handling of visuals, composition, color, focus, exposure, special effects).
  • Is the sound acceptable? (e.g. good fidelity and synchronization, realistic sound effects, relevant interplay between sound track and image).
  • Is the editing satisfactory: (e.g. continuity, matching, rhythm, pacing, length).
  • Do the actors have good voice quality, diction and timing?
  • Is the acting believable and convincing?
  • Does the narrator have good voice quality, style, diction and timing?

Next week: More Criteria

Review: Fire and Hemlock

Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones. Firebird, an imprint of Penguin Group (USA). Reissue 2012. Original publication date: 1985 (Greenwillow Books). Personal copy. Part of the Diana Wynne Jones Blog Tour. The Celebrate Diana Wynne Jones Tumblr. The full tour schedule.

The Plot: Polly Whittacker, 19, is packing for college when she begins to read a book that she thought she had already read. Only the stories are different — something is missing — it doesn’t seem quite right. One of the stories, one of the ones she remembers, is about a man with two sets of memories.

Polly realizes that her memories don’t match up with facts, and begins to recover memories. Memories of a man named Thomas Lynn. Memories of danger from the wealthy Leroy family. People that she thought she’d just met, she’d known for years. Things had happened — unbelievable, fantastical things — that she didn’t remember. People, places, and things come back from age 10, 11, and onward. Thomas Lynn was in danger. The dual memories stop at fifteen.

What did she do that erased Thomas Lynn from her memory? Is it too late to save him?

(Problem: I don’t want to go too much into the plot. Because part of the greatness of Fire and Hemlock is discovering, with Polly, what happened.)

The Good: I’d read Fire and Hemlock before; but wow, I so enjoyed rereading it. Writing this review is hard for two reasons: first, because I kept getting swept into the story and forgetting to take notes to write up a review; and second, because how can anyone else’s words do justice for Diana Wynne Jones?

The layers to Fire and Hemlock, oh the layers. I’m not talking the obvious: the two sets of memories. It’s also that Polly is telling the story, a nineteen year old Polly, but she goes back to herself from age ten onward. What Polly knows and understands, what she doesn’t,  is all filtered through the experience of a child and, later, a young teen.

The complexity is not just the memories, but also Polly and Tom’s lives and the stories being told. There is, of course, as Polly eventually realizes herself, the Tam Lin/ Thomas the Rhymer story, of the young man seduced by and then sacrificed by the Fairy Queen and the young woman who saves him. Even that is not simple, because Tom’s story is his own, not that of prior loves or consorts, just as Polly is her own person, not a reincarnation of Tam Lin’s Janet.

As Garth Nix points out in his Introduction to the 2012 edition, Fire and Hemlock is many stories, not just a fantasy about a young man and the Fairy Queen. As the years tick by to the time when the next tithe is due — in other words, to Tom’s death-date —  life is happening.

There is, for instance, the family story: Polly’s parents divorce, at a time and a place (late 70s/early 80s) when this still causes neighbors and classmates to whisper “broken home” both behind her back and to her face. Even without fairy interference, Polly’s family story is a standalone: a spoiled, charming father, a mother whose attempts to hold love close sends it away; a grandmother who recognizes the harm her parenting did and resolves to do better by her granddaughter than she did by her son. No Fairy Queen influence, yet both Ivy (Polly’s mother) and Joanna (her father’s girlfriend/second wife) are mortal, normal versions of the Fairy Queen in how they treat the men in their lives. Joanna steals Reg away from his family and hometown, and his new life is one of following her rules. Ivy’s relationships self-destruct periodically, as she keeps looking for the new man who will not disappoint her. 

Each thread that weaves together to tell this tale can be so examined: Polly’s school years (“[That first day] seems to go on forever, and it is full of strangeness, and the next day you seem to have been there always“), her friendships, her literary education via the books that Thomas Lynn gives her, etc, etc. What DWJ does brilliantly is that these various threads work together seamlessly and are perfectly balanced. Remove one aspect, and the story would unravel.

Many current fairy stories create an actual fairy world for the main character to visit; or, a full exploration and explanation of how magic/fairy works is given.

Fire and Hemlock tells us only what Polly knows, only what she understands, figures out, and remembers. Polly never moves into the fairy world, and her interactions with the fairy folk are almost no different than meeting with very wealthy, privileged people: multiple homes, private schools, a touch of disdain for the great unwashed. There are just a handful of phrases to tell her something more is happening: for example, a recognition of Polly not eating or drinking when in the home of the Fairy Queen. The magic is light at first, so slight that one may say it’s only coincidence or an overly romantic world view, not fantasy at all. Slowly, though, the frequency and danger escalate until the magic cannot be denied: not by the reader, not by Polly. At times, I almost forgot this was a fantasy until, like Polly, I was reminded violently of the power of the fairy Leroys and pulled back in.

Tom gives Polly gifts as she grows up –books. Let me back up: Tom is an adult, Polly a child when they first meet. Together, they tell stories: she as a child playing make believe, he as an adult happy for the escape from his troubles.  How and when the adult-Tom realizes the child-Polly may rescue him is murky, as is the point when he stops seeing her as a child. His choice of books to send is at first harmless, in that they are the books one would send a child. Later, though, he sends books to give her hints of what is really happening, clues she doesn’t understand. Has anyone done a Fire and Hemlock book challenge, to read all the books mentioned? Part of the joy of the book is the literary references, beyond the obvious Tam Lin. Another level of joy is just how important story is to the lives of Tom and Polly and others: literally stories, but also in how memories and perspectives shape us and how we see the world.

“As you know, Polly” is a bit of info dumping that never happens. (I have an ebook version, so I was able to quickly confirm this!) Never. We are with Polly at 10, 11, 12, figuring out and learning as she does. Some things the reader never truly learns. I wish other authors would have so much faith in their audience: every. little. thing. does not have to be told, explained, shared. It’s enough to know, as here, that a full world exist: the entire wikipedia entry for such a world does not have to be shared. All that matters for this story is told, and that is enough.

In my memory, Fire and Hemlock was a “long” book. It contains so much; it shows Polly from ages 10 to 19; nine years of double memories; it has to be “long.” It’s not, or, rather, not by today’s standards. The formatting on my ebook has Fire and Hemlock clock in at just under 300 pages. (It also contains an Introduction, a text of a speech by DWJ, and a sample chapter from another DWJ book). By today’s standards, it’s on the “short” side!

I’m not surprised that Colleen at Chasing Ray also adores Fire and Hemlock: “[Polly] is Nancy Drew and Harriet the Spy and stubborn in the best way that Mary Lennox could be. She had moments of Buffy-like toughness and Rory Gilmore-like steadfastness and she is Meg Murray when she faces down IT.” I wish I’d said that. Also, her review at Bookslut.

Because reading this book was such a magical experience. Because the fantasy was so realistically woven into the real world. Because it’s a classic coming of age story. Because it’s a book that acknowledges the power of words and story. This is a Favorite Book Read in 2012.

Today’s Blog Blow Up

It’s all rather confusing, actually.

Sarah at Smart Bitches, Trashy Books explains at Plagiarism and The Story Siren allegations of blogger plagiarism. The Story Siren is a very well known blogger; I’ve mentioned one of her most popular series, In My Mailbox.

I’m not going to rehash what Sarah says; she includes links and images, and links to blogs with more details.

Now, read the comments there. Take a look, also, at what is being said on Twitter: I’m not going to link to any particular Tweet, but searching thestorysiren or “story siren” will get most of it.

Some people go beyond the issues at hand: plagiarism, what was or wasn’t done, etc. A further exploration of this “kitchen sinking” is over at Stacked at Who are we and what do we do.

Kristi at The Story Siren responds at An Explanation and An Apology.

I’ll be honest: my head is spinning and I’m not quite sure what to think. Plagiarism matters; it’s significant. But, on the other hand, I’m also bothered by the reactions Stacked refers to. People were waiting for Kristi to to respond; now she has. (People wondered why she didn’t respond sooner. As someone who, like Kristi, works full time and blogs after work, I can imagine that at work she cannot drop everything and blog or tweet. She needed a bit of time.).

Anyway, that’s that. I’ll be glass half full: in a world where bloggers are “everything”, writer, editor, publisher, marketer, these things and how we handle them as bloggers matter. It does need to be talked about and discussed; because if we don’t, who will?

Edited to add: The Story Siren has a second post up, Clarification. Personally, I think its a better apology than the first post, in that there is more ownership.

Edited to add: Leila at Bookshelves of Doom has a great link round up, including the latest posts about this from the fashion blogs who discovered this.

Updated: Smart Bitches, Trashy Books provides an update on the type of vitriol going on as a result of this.