Review: Gone Girl

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. Crown Publishing Group. 2012. Personal copy. Part of my “vacation reads” series; that is, when I review a book for the grown ups instead of teen books.

The Plot: On the morning of their fifth wedding anniversary, Nick Dunne’s wife Amy goes missing. He tells us how he comes home from work to find the door open, the living room showing signs of a struggle and Amy gone. Nick is telling us the story, his story, about two New Yorkers who lost their jobs and so moved back to his home town in Missouri to take care of his sick mother. Nick tells his story, and it’s not pretty. He’s honest about his emotions and resentment and it’s not pretty.

Then Amy speaks up, or, rather, Amy from years ago, her diary from when she first met Nick, and back and forth this married couple go, telling their story, not realizing how their words interact and create a rhythm and a whole story. A story of two people in an unhappy marriage, he telling it now, she going through the history of courtship and marriage, not realizing she is leading us to the day. The fifth anniversary. The day she goes missing.

The Good: Sorry, but this is another one of those books where I gush about loving it yet cannot tell to much about it.

Nick and Amy, Amy and Nick. When they were both writing and in New York, half living off Amy’s trust fund, things were easy and happy and wonderful. Then the trust fund disappeared, their jobs writing for magazines were gone, and they were in Missouri renting a McMansion while Nick runs a local bar with his twin sister and Amy. . . . Amy sits at home, getting older, no longer the cool, pretty, rich young girl she once was.

Here is Nick, on renting their home in a failed development: “It was a compromise, but Amy didn’t see it that way, not in the least. To Amy, it was a punishing whim on my part, a nasty, selfish twist of the knife. I would drag her, caveman-style, to a town she had aggressively avoided, and make her live in the kind of house she used to mock. I suppose it’s not a compromise if only one of you considers it as such, but that was what our compromises tended to look like. One of us was always angry. Amy, usually.” Only page eleven, and Nick’s own words, and already I don’t like him.

Pages later, Amy, and Amy from seven years ago: “I met a boy! . . . I met a boy, a great, gorgeous dude, a funny, cool-ass guy.” The enthusiasm! Of course, I like Amy. And yet… and yet. There are things she says, like when she talks about how other couples are not as cool as she and Nick: “Nick and I, we sometimes laugh, laugh out loud, at the horrible things women make their husbands do to prove their love. The pointless tasks, the myriad sacrifices, the endless small surrenders. We call these men the dancing monkeys. . . . I don’t need pathetic dancing-monkey scenarios to repeat to my friends; I am content with letting  him be himself.” The situation this comes up in is Amy describing a night out for drinks with her friends and their husbands. Nick never shows, because he is not some “dancing monkey” and if he wants to do something different, he does, and aren’t Amy and Nick wonderful for not being overly demanding of each other? It’s as if Amy doesn’t realize she is painting Nick as incredibly self-centered and selfish, in not showing up or even calling about meeting for drinks. It’s as if Amy doesn’t realize it’s also making her look judgmental and cruel.

And so Gone Girl continues, showing us all their warts, all the deep, dark bad places in a person’s heart. Is Amy missing? Or did Nick kill her? Nick killing her almost seems like too easy an answer, even though at times it seemed like he was quite capable of hurting her. As for Amy, yes, we have her diary. But who is Amy, really?

And just when you think you have figured out the story, the kaleidoscope shifts, and everything you thought changes. And then changes again. This is wonderful storytelling, layered, complex, and deep, about two very flawed people. Gone Girl is about the way we see ourselves, and how we treat others, but told using two people who — well. After this book, I wanted to take a hot shower, to scrub my brain clean, to erase them from my brain. Some books show me the best in people; this showed me the worst. Yet, I want everyone to read it, because, whether as mystery or psychological character study, this is a brilliant book. I had to know what happened next, and kept turning pages, until it was two in the morning.

There is an interesting children’s literature tie-in: Amy’s parents write children’s books. Not just any books, but a series about Amazing Amy, slightly modeled on their only child. Amy ages and grows up, and she’s popular with readers. Amy’s relationship with her parents and with her  literary-other is fascinating. What does it do to someone whose childhood is fodder for books? Is it the ultimate gift to a child or the ultimate punishment?

Do I think teens would like this book? Well,  honestly, this is more for the grown ups. I’m not saying teens shouldn’t read it; I just don’t see it having teen appeal. Yes, they may find the Amazing Amy aspect interesting, but that is only a part of the book.

Because I am haunted by Nick and Amy. Because as god made them, he matched them. Because of the unreliable narrators. Because of the puzzle like structure. This is a Favorite Book Read in 2012.

Other reviews: EW’s Shelf Life author interview; S. Krishna’s Books.

Review: Team Human

Team Human by Justine Larbalestier and Sarah Rees Brennan. HarperTeen. 2012. Reviewed from ARC from publisher.

The Plot: Mel Duan has lived in the vampire town of New Whitby, Maine her whole life. She is not a fan of the vampires, and is happy that they stay in their part of town. Mel is not happy to find out that vampire Francis Duvarnery (turned in 1867) is going to be attending high school as a Senior. She is especially not happy that her best friend, Cathy, is entranced by Francis.

Vampires may follow strict laws about not killing or turning people, but that hardly makes things safe for humans. Take, for example, her friend Anna. One moment, she has blissfully married parents. The next, Anna’s father has run off with a vampire, barely remembering to text his daughter.

Mel is Team Human, and she’s going to make sure her friends stay that way.

The Good: Team Human is part supernatural (vampires are real), part mystery (why did Anna’s father leave), part romance (that would be telling), part social commentary (vampire / human interactions and prejudices), with humor woven throughout. It’s also dusted with pop culture references, such as Whitby from Bram Stoker’s Dracula and the Bathory River (for Elizabeth Bathory). Team Human is smart; or, rather, expects the reader to be smart. It doesn’t explain the sources of these names.

New Whitby is a vampire town. In Mel’s world, vampires are real and people know about them. “New Whitby was founded by people escaping persecution because they were the blood-drinking undead.” In the present day, vampires keep to their side of town, humans to theirs, except, of course, for things like human tourists seeing the vampire sites or vampires visiting the still-living relatives.

A full world has been created; and along with that, some of the things that happen in current vampire books and films are gently mocked. Why, for example, would a vampire want to attend high school? Why would someone so old (and dead) be interested in someone so much younger (and alive)? Just how cold is a vampire, what with them being dead? For example, “most vampires claimed to have been royalty or one of the Astors or something equally snotty. Astonishing how few peasants and regular people got vamped back in the olden days, when it wasn’t regulated.”

Even before Cathy meets Francis, Mel worries about Cathy’s fondness for vampires: “She likes history more than the news and likes books better than most people. Of course she thinks vampires, since many of them are older than dirt and thus basically history books with legs and fangs, are totally fascinating.” Team Human sets up Mel’s biases very clearly, and the reader is inclined to agree with Mel, because, well, human! Who wouldn’t be Team Human? As the story continues, though, Mel begins to realize that just as humans are a mix of good and bad, so, too, are vampires.

The writing, dialogue and plotting reminded me, in the best possible way, of Joss Whedon. (Is there anything other than good in making a Joss comparison?) People are smart; there are surprises along the way (and no, I’m not going to tell, but wowza on the person who turns out to be Mel’s romantic interest); there is more than one first expects; and, one minute I’m laughing and the next …. I’m crying. I have to say, since this is in part a book poking gentle, loving, we mock because we care fun at the whole vampire genre, I expected to laugh. I expected to see interesting references. Based on the other books I’ve read by the authors, I expected action and good plotting. I did not think I was going to cry; I didn’t think this would be that kind of book. It was. I cried. And it was that — the tears — that made me think most of Joss, who can make someone laugh and cry.

Joss can also make someone think: and Team Human does that. Yes, it’s about vampires. But more importantly, it’s about prejudices and fear and learning to overcome those initial biases. It’s also about, well, balance. For example, the process of being vamped. Mel is shown to be very against the process of a human becoming a vampire, and part of it is because of the changes it makes to a person: the not going out in the sun anymore, frozen in time, losing ones sense of humor (no, really). Part of it is also because sometimes the process doesn’t work, and the consequences of a failed vamping are very real. Mel’s feelings have a factual basis, yes, but should fear be how one lives ones life? How one judges others?

One last part, and it’s an important part. Team Human has a great, diverse group of teens. Mel is Chinese American; one of her friends is black; a couple of characters are gay. Since all to often the “default setting” of books is all white, all straight, it’s refreshing when a book reflects a broader world view.

Other reviews: The Book Smugglers; Joelene Reviews; io9.

Review: The Stone Girl

Welcome to The Stone Girl blog tour!

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

The Plot: Sarah Beth “Sethie” Weiss is a senior at the prestigious Franklin White girl’s school. She gets good grades, has a cute boyfriend, a perfect life. She is a scholarship student who works hard for it all. Working hard includes saying and doing all the right “cool” things around her boyfriend Shaw, whether it’s learning how to smoke a bong, sneaking into the empty apartment next door, or not holding his hand in public because he doesn’t like public displays of affection. Then there’s what Sethie does to make sure she looks the right way, to make sure the scale never goes above 111.

The Good: The Stone Girl is a character study: a portrait of funny, brittle, Sethie, smart in some areas, in others, not so much.

Sethie has — issues. 

Being smart does not change that she is convinced that she is one half bagel away from fat.

Being smart does doe not stop her from being blind to the truth about a boy who doesn’t want to hold her hand in public.

The outside world may see a typical New York City private school girl, thin and pretty and smart and cool. Inside, though, much more is going on.

My heart broke for Sethie; because she is so smart, and so funny, and I just wanted for her to stop her various, escalating, self-destructive behaviours. I’ll be honest: I’m hesitant to put any label on Sethie, such as anorexic or bulimic, depression or low self esteem. In addition, Sethie isn’t the most reliable narrator. There is no simple label to explain what Sethie does, what she is going through, what she feels. It’s why I see this as a detailed, intimate, emotional portrait of one girl; it’s not a problem book about a girl with an issue.

While reading The Stone Girl I dreaded just how bad it would get for Sethie and what it would take for Sethie and those around her to realize what was going on behind the perfect facade. The Stone Girl is Sethie’s descent, day by day, as things get worse and worse, as pounds go, as she discovers new ways to gain feelings of control over her life.

Sheinmel plunges the reader deeply into Sethie’s world view, yet not so deeply that the reader isn’t aware of a bigger picture than Sethie tells. Take Shaw, for instance. Here is Sethie meeting up with him after school, being the “cool” person she thinks he wants: “‘Hey kiddo,’ he says, and she stands next to him. He does not kiss her hello. He does not put an arm around her. To show she is his, she takes his cigarette from him, and takes a long drag from it.” For a few chapters, I confess that I thought she was indeed showing others this, that her friends and classmates did not kiss their significant others on the street. I believed what Sethie told me.

Everything else, particularly his failure to treat her as his girlfriend in public while he sleeps with her, screams to the reader that Shaw is not what Sethie wants him to be. However, there are other things that the reader cannot be sure of, because Sethie is so deep into her illness. Is her mother truly unaware, for instance. Is everything at school as perfect as Sethie says.

Sethie’s boyfriend does one good thing: he introduces her to Janey, who becomes her best friend. Janey may appear to be a Poor Little Rich Girl out of the pages of a gossip girl type book, with neglectful parents and plenty of spending money, but also becomes a good friend to Sethie.

Am I doing Sethie justice? I’m afraid I’m not — that this seems too dark or bleak. That Sethie seems too dark or bleak. It isn’t; there is also humor and laughter. Here is Sethie on August: “It’s the first week of September, but August hasn’t given up yet. Sethie thinks that August is like Summer’s bitter older sister — everyone looks forward to June and July, but by August, they want summer’s refreshing half-brother, September. No one longs for August by the time it rolls around. And then August doesn’t even have the good manners to leave on time. ‘Bitch,’ Sethie thinks with satisfaction.”

 There are friends and people who care about Sethie. Despite that — one of the things I loved about The Stone Girl? There is no saviour for Sethie, no new man or good girlfriend who will Save Her. The only one who can save Sethie is herself, but will she be able to?

One thing I like looking for in books: different realities being shown. Sethie is a private school girl, yes, but like the characters in Sheinmel’s earlier novels (The Beautiful Between and The Lucky Kind), it’s not the uber rich New York City, it’s one of scholarships, working parents, apartments rather than penthouses. Sethie is Jewish; and that’s another thing I like about Sheinmel’s books. They add to the diversity of books about people who are Jewish, books with people are not overly religious but who are culturally Jewish.

Because I worry about Sethie, and hope she is OK. Because Sethie’s head was a hard place to leave. Because I love Sheinmel’s writing. The Stone Girl is a Favorite Book Read in 2012.

Other reviews: New York Times Sunday Book Review; blog tour stops; Kirkus Book Reviews.

Interview: Alyssa B. Sheinmel

Welcome to this stop in Alyssa B. Sheinmel‘s blog tour! There’s two stops here; today, an interview with Alyssa; and tomorrow, a review of The Stone Girl.

Other books by Alyssa: The Beautiful Between (2010);  The Lucky Kind (2011).

Interview:

Liz B: To begin with, I just have to say how much I adored THE STONE GIRL. Sethie – she is hauntingly real, and I still wonder about how and how things will turn out for her. Also, I am restraining myself from saying, “remember? Remember when you wrote this really awesome bit about August is like Summer’s bitter older sister? Remember that?” I also don’t want to spoil too much for someone who hasn’t yet read THE STONE GIRL.

Alyssa: Thank you, thank you, thank you!

Liz B: THE STONE GIRL is a detailed, intimate look at Sethie. Sethie is smart and bright, and from the outside probably looks like she has it all, an easy life: good school, mother who loves her, boyfriend, friends. But once you look deeper, it’s not easy; it’s not simple; and it’s not even what you think, at first.  I’m hesitant to put any type of label on Sethie, to do any armchair diagnosis. She has a complex relationship with food and body image, for instance. What went into creating Sethie? What type of research did you do?

Alyssa: I often find that I begin researching a book long before I decide to write it.  I was reading about adoption, talking to friends about their experiences with it, just before I got the idea to write The Lucky Kind.  I’ve been fascinated with fairy tales and fantasy worlds my whole life, years before The Beautiful Between was even a hint of an idea. 

Eating disorders have been part of my life for a long time.  Body-obsession was a big part of my own adolescence and young-adulthood, and I spent hour after hour reading books, articles, and essays about eating disorders.  They were so endlessly interesting to me that I even wrote my senior thesis about them. 

I guess I always knew that I might end up writing a book that dealt with body-obsession in one way or another.  Honestly, I didn’t want to.  I didn’t think there was anything to say about eating disorders that hadn’t been said already, by people much more qualified than I am.  But a few years ago, an image of Sethie popped into my head, and suddenly, I knew everything about her.  And just as suddenly, I knew that one way or another, I was going to tell her story.

Liz B: THE STONE GIRL is told in third person, and it pulls the reader into the story – it’s not so much as I feel that I am Sethie, as I feel like I am Sethie’s shadow or ghost, someone there for every step yet unable to stop her. Not only is this telling Sethie’s story in third person, Sethie is an unreliable narrator! It actually took me a while to pick up on that, because it is so subtle and because, well, I liked Sethie and trusted her view. Was third person always your choice for Sethie’s story? In writing an unreliable narrator, was it difficult keeping track of what you, the author knew; what Sethie was telling the reader; and what you wanted the reader to realize before Sethie did, herself?

Alyssa: First of all, thank you so much.  I love hearing that the narrative made you feel like Sethie’s shadow or ghost – what an amazing compliment; that was exactly what I had in mind as I wrote it.  In fact, when that image of Sethie first appeared in my mind’s eye, it felt like I was watching her, floating a few feet above her head.  For me, the third person always felt like the natural way to tell Sethie’s story. 

And, I do think that there are things you can say in the third person that you can’t always say in the first – eating disorders come with some very unpleasant and occasionally graphic aspects, and I don’t know if I would have been able to write about them in the same way had the novel been in the first person.

Liz B: The level of anxiety I had as THE STONE GIRL drew towards an end was unbelievable. Honestly, the concern I felt for Sethie, and wanting her to be all right, yet so afraid for her! Did you always know how THE STONE GIRL would end, and how Sethie would get to that point?

Alyssa: I think I always knew that The Stone Girl’s ending was going to be more of a beginning than an end – in fact, the last word in the novel is actually “start.”  At the close of the novel, Sethie still has a long way to go.  We don’t know what kind of help she’s going to receive, how long it’s going to take for her to recover, whether she’ll relapse – just as she doesn’t know.  She’s still not entirely sure what it is that’s wrong with her, not entirely sure what kind of help she needs – she only knows she needs something more than what she has.

Actually, I think all of my books so far have ended similarly – both The Lucky Kind and The Beautiful Between end when the characters still have a long way to go, and a lot of work left to do.  The stories I told – that is, the novels I wrote – just got them to the point when they were ready to take those next steps.

Liz B: As I think is clear from my questions and my review, I became very invested in Sethie. She was real to me in part because her insecurities were so familiar, as were her doubts and fears. It’s pretty intense. Was it hard to walk away from Sethie and THE STONE GIRL? Do you have anything you do between putting down your pen (or, rather, closing your laptop) and rejoining the “real world”?

Alyssa: For many reasons, The Stone Girl was written in fits and spurts – partly because I wrote it while I still had a day-job (in the marketing department of Random House Children’s Books), partly because it was so challenging to write, and partly because I gave up on the story a few times along the way.  So, by the time I finished it, I had gotten used to hopping in and out of the world of the story and the “real” world. 

In the end, though, it was hard to walk away from Sethie, because I was so invested in her myself, and telling her story meant so much to me.  And, I certainly didn’t leave her in the best place – of course, part of me wanted to add that someday, she was going to be fine and happy and her body-obsession would be a memory rather than an active part of her life.  But I think the most honest way to end the novel was to leave Sethie where I did, when she still had such a long way to go, when she still had such a lot of work to do.

And, I have to admit, I was relieved when this book was finished.  Writing The Stone Girl forced me to revisit some difficult parts of my own past, so, as much as I liked Sethie, it was also something of a relief to leave the book behind. 

Liz B: Thank you so much!!

As a reminder, here is the list of other stops on the blog tour.

Author photo from author; used with permission.

Buying Your Way Into Libraries

The New York Times has an article about authors buying reviews: The Best Book Reviews Money Can Buy. “In the fall of 2010, Mr. Rutherford started a Web site, GettingBookReviews.com. At first, he advertised that he would review a book for $99. But some clients wanted a chorus proclaiming their excellence. So, for $499, Mr. Rutherford would do 20 online reviews. A few people needed a whole orchestra. For $999, he would do 50.”

Go, read the whole article. It’s important.

A few things: the article is primarily about self-published works.

Second, it also points out the value of reviews, in that reviews of books lead to purchases. “One of Mr. Rutherford’s clients, who confidently commissioned hundreds of reviews and didn’t even require them to be favorable, subsequently became a best seller. This is proof, Mr. Rutherford said, that his notion was correct. Attention, despite being contrived, draws more attention.”

Let’s be clear: there are many reviewers who are not bought and paid for. One of my concerns after reading this article is that some people’s take away is that no reviews of self published books are legit; or, also, that no reviews are legit, period. I already anticipate seeing such comments, including those masked as “jokes”, on my Twitter feed.

My other concern? Well, what does this mean for libraries if libraries are purchasing self-published books based on sales (that is, top sellers)? Which is always one way libraries purchase books; but it shouldn’t be the only way. (For one example of how some such purchasing decisions are being made, see Smashwords gets more self-published ebooks into libraries (“curation is crowdsourced based on aggregated retail sales data“).

UPDATED SEPTEMBER 1, 2012 TO ADD:

Over at Kirkus, Sarah Wendell of Smart Bitches, Trashy Books has a post called Authors, Please Avoid These Mistakes When You Self-Publish. Something she said made me think about libraries and self published ebooks: “Which leads me to my most important point. The person who improves a book should not be the person who paid for it. To quote Sunita from Dear Author, CUSTOMERS are NOT YOUR BETA READERS. A few months back, I tried to read an older romance that was praised effusively by many romance fans, and I couldn’t get past the spelling and word choice errors in every chapter. I asked for my money back and returned the book to Amazon. Another review request I received noted that most of the typos had been caught by early readers and fixed. Good Lord, people. Stop that. A customer paying for a book to read is not paying for the honor of collaborating with the author, or paying for the responsibility of being a beta-reading, fact-checking copy editor. There is a big difference between reviews and revision suggestions. It’s insulting to presume that a reader looking for a book should help a writer improve that book.”

What does this mean to a library’s ebook collection if the ebook is later revised in this manner? Does the library automatically get the revised book? What about prior readers? What type of notation or tracking is taking place regarding the revised versions?

Only A Month Or So Behind The Times….

J.K. Rowling‘s book for grown ups, The Casual Vacancy, will be published on September 27.

Back in July, the cover of the book was released to some mixed reactions.

The description of the book, from the US publisher, Little Brown: “When Barry Fairbrother dies in his early forties, the town of Pagford is left in shock. Pagford is, seemingly, an English idyll, with a cobbled market square and an ancient abbey, but what lies behind the pretty façade is a town at war. Rich at war with poor, teenagers at war with their parents, wives at war with their husbands, teachers at war with their pupils…Pagford is not what it first seems. And the empty seat left by Barry on the parish council soon becomes the catalyst for the biggest war the town has yet seen. Who will triumph in an election fraught with passion, duplicity, and unexpected revelations? A big novel about a small town, The Casual Vacancy is J. K. Rowling’s first novel for adults. It is the work of a storyteller like no other.”

I’m looking forward to Rowling’s book for two reasons:

One, it’s J.K. Rowling. And I’m a fan.

Two, this sounds like the type of book I like.

As for the cover, I like it. It’s simple; it’s basic.

So, am I the only one looking forward to September 27?

Review: Seraphina

Seraphina by Rachel Hartman. Random House. 2012. Review copy from publisher. Edited to add: Morris Award winner.

The Plot: Prince Rufus has been murdered; not just murdered. His head is missing, which indicates a dragon was involved. It’s been forty years since peace was declared between the dragons and the humans of Goredd, but at best, it’s an uneasy peace. The combination of the Prince’s death and an upcoming visit from the dragons leads to more unrest.

Sixteen year old Seraphina Dombegh is an unlikely person to find herself in the middle of dragon and human intrigue. She is a talented musician who  has recently joined the royal court of the kingdom of Goredd; she is hard-working and while her father is a well-respected lawyer, she is hardly of the same class as the people at court.

Seraphina has a secret. Prince Lucian, nephew of the murdered prince, is perceptive enough to guess it’s about Orma, Seraphina’s dragon tutor who has lived cloaked as a human for years. Lucian believes Seraphina loves Orma. The idea of human-dragon relationships disgusts many. Even when dragons assume human form, one can always tell there is something not quite right about them. They don’t understand human emotion, are overly logical, cold and calculating. Plus, who can forget their true form, or the pre-peace years when dragons hunted humans?

Lucian is right that Seraphina has feelings for Orma; that she doesn’t share the knee-jerk dislike of so many humans. It’s true that Orma has given her insight into the truth about dragons: that they are as complex as humans, just different. He is wrong, though, about Seraphina’s relationship with Orma. This secret may help solve the mystery of Prince Rufus’s murder; and may help preserve the fragile peace.

The Good: Seraphina is an intricately constructed world; and I fell for several things in this book: Seraphina; Seraphina’s world; the dragons; and the royal family.

Seraphina’s secret is quickly revealed (and guessed at); as a matter of fact, the book trailer gives it away, as do other reviews. So, even though I’m usually quite hesitant about spoilers, here goes:

Seraphina is half-dragon. Dragons are indeed dragons in their natural physical form. Dragons in their natural form fly and have treasure hordes. The dragons can shift to human form, and it is in that human form that dragons and humans now interact. (Before the peace, it was much as you’d expect: flying dragons fighting groups of knights).

How to describe dragons, when in human form? Think Vulcans, like Star Trek — individuals who prefer logic and disdain emotion. It’s not that simple, of course. Take, for instance, Seraphina’s own parents, her human father and dragon mother. Such pairings are viewed on both sides with a bit of contempt, so why? Why does it happen? Some dragons are shown to have very little social graces, with the excuse being their failure to fully understand humans. However, other dragons do a much better job of “passing.” Why? The answer is simple: dragons are as much individuals as humans.

Dragons are logical; they are scientists and inventors. Dragons value “ard”, or order, before anything: “Ard was the way the world should be, the imposition of order upon chaos, an ethical and physical rightness.” They are said to appreciate art and music but to be incapable of creating it. Yet, Seraphina, like her mother before her, is a musician. Contradictions, because these two races think they know and understand each other, and themselves, but do not.

Seraphina lives in Goredd; there are other countries, other customs, other peoples. It is a complex world, with each country having their own ways. Hartman shows the layers, from every day people to royalty, their history, the religious beliefs; and how the countries interact with each other. It is a medieval type world, with the scientific dragons giving humans a taste of technology.

Seraphina’s world: What is her world, exactly? The book begins just a few weeks after she joins the royal household, but soon it’s learned that this is Seraphina’s first steps outside her family. Seraphina has tried to keep herself away, hidden, at arm’s length from others to protect her secret. She doesn’t always know how to interact with others. I’m sure I’m not the only one who wondered, while reading, if some of Seraphina’s brusqueness was part of her dragon heritage or the result of a deep seated sense of isolation: “I did not understand that I carried loneliness before me on a plate, and that music would be the light illuminating me from behind.” Whatever the reason, she is also a keen observer of people: “He noticed my eyes upon him and ran a hand through his wheaten hair as if to underscore how handsome he was.”

Prince Lucian is a bastard, but still a royal; he is engaged to his cousin, Princess Glisselda. In this apparently matriarchal society, Selda’s grandmother is Queen and she is the one who negotiated the original truce with the dragons. One of Seraphina’s duties is music tutor to Selda, and Selda has taken a liking to Seraphina. Lucian, too, respects and likes Seraphina, and this creates a wonderful triangle: Selda and Lucian, who have a political engagement but also truly like each other, and Seraphina, friend to both, who begins to feel something more for Lucian. Seraphina keeps Lucian at arms length (as she does most people) because she is hiding her mixed heritage. Even if she didn’t have that secret, it would be highly unlikely that someone of her background could have any type of future with a Prince.

All of this weaves together to form both a mystery (who murdered Prince Rufus) as well as a story of politics (the factions working for and against human-dragon peace), with a teenage musician at its center.

Other reviews: The Book Smugglers (and author interview); Omnivoracious review by Tamora Pierce; Confessions of a Bibliovore.

Review: Jasper Jones

Jasper Jones by Craig Silvey. Knopf Books for Young Readers, an imprint of Random House. 2011. Review copy from publisher.

The Plot: 1965 Australia. Charlie Bucktin, 13, is reading a book on a hot summer night when there is a knock on his window. It is Jasper Jones, the town “bad boy,” and he needs Charlie’s help. Charlie climbs out the window, not realizing he is leaving his childhood behind. Jasper’s secret shakes Charlie, yes; and it’s the beginning of Charlie looking at his town, his world, his family and friends with new eyes and seeing what’s hidden.

The Good: A classic coming of age, as Charlie leaves childhood behind him. I don’t want to say all that Charlie discovers, slowly; part of the process for the reader is going with Charlie on that journey. It all begins with Jasper knocking on Charlie’s window, forcing Charlie to leave behind the safety of his books and his parents’ home. Charlie’s awareness doesn’t happen all at once; and some things (the racism against his best friend for being Vietnamese) aren’t new to him. What is new is the way he looks at the world.

Charlie’s world is that of Australia about forty years ago. Jasper Jones creates a strong sense of place and time. A time where kids and teens have certain freedoms to explore and roam. A time when people’s casual and thoughtless and cruel racism and prejudices were open. In many ways, a smaller world than today. Charlie’s father tries to expand his son’s world in the only way his father knows, books. Those books are not the real world, but they prepare Charlie for the real world he realizes is all around him after Jasper knocks at his window.

Based on what Jasper shows Charlie, what he tells him, Charlie becomes a bit obsessed with those who inflict evil and those who let evil happen. He researches true crime in the library, including such then-current cases as Eric Cooke and Gertrude Baniszewski. What is “evil”? Why do people act, or not act?

I reread this book almost immediately; enjoying even more the layered story telling, the strong setting, the varied cast of characters. There is a magnificent chapter about a cricket game, and even though I know less than nothing about cricket, I was on the edge of my seat. There is also a romance. But, most importantly, there is Charlie.

Confession: I didn’t like this book at first. No, really. It was a DNF back in January. For a few reasons, it just didn’t “click” with me. But. But, people I knew and respected had picked this for a Printz Honor. I put it aside, knowing I’d take a second crack at it. And the second time, everything came together and this book really worked for me. Why? What had changed? I’m not sure; I wasn’t even going to mention it, except I think it’s important to note that how a reader reads a book can change. My first read focused on the character of Jasper (for various reasons, not a fan at first) and the mystery element (as a mystery-lover, I guessed the big mystery early on). My second read, I put these aside. I saw the Jasper/Huck Finn connections (one of the authors Charlie and his father read is Mark Twain), which made me appreciate what was happening with Jasper. And, I realized that this wasn’t a mystery book; or, rather, it didn’t matter whether I guessed things about it.

And, that’s all it took. A change of time, a different perspective, and a DNF becomes a Favorite Book Read in 2012.

Other reviews: Leila Roy at Kirkus blog; Professor Nana; Guys Lit Wire; and Jasper Jones Reading Guide.

Live Tweeting History

Remember, back in April, when the History Press live tweeted the Titanic in real time?  So did Real Time Titanic. More info at the History Press.

I have a new “live” tweeting history account I’m following. It’s a bit more ambitious than the Titanic; it’s Real Time World War Two, at Twitter @RealTimeWWII. It’s “Livetweeting the 2nd World War, as it happens on this date & time in 1940, & for 6 years to come.” It was created by Alwyn Collinson, an Oxford graduate (Six Year Project to Tweet the Second World War and Oxford Graduate Tweets World War II In Real Time).

On a personal basis, I just adore these quick news reports from World War II. Warning: every now and then when I quickly scan my Twitter feed, I forget I have a historical news feed and think to myself, “wait, what just happened?”

It’s a mix of military, cultural, and personal history:

London is dark & silent, still blacked-out for fear of bombs. Cars have only 1 headlamp, & pedestrians must carry tissue-wrapped torches.

Myrtle: “Mum has a toasting-fork ready to see off the Nazi invasion. Everyone’s very suspicious of nuns- might be disguised German spies.”

Brazil signed up for $20,000,000 U.S. “loan”. Foreign Minister Aranha: “We should erect a statue to Hitler- he made USA finally notice us”

I imagine that these could be interesting for use in schools, for those who are studying World War II. Or, a class could work together on a similar project (more a short time frame like the Titanic, instead of the multiple year World War II.)

Are there any other live tweeting history accounts?

Review: Okay For Now

Okay For Now by Gary D. Schmidt. Clarion Books, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 2011. My review of the ARC. Audiobook: Listening Library, an imprint of the Random House Audio Publishing Group. Narrated by Lincoln Hoppe. 2011. Listened from copy from publisher.

The Plot: The late 1960s. Doug Swieteck’s father has moved his family to stupid Marysville in upstate New York. Doug is less than happy about this, and it doesn’t help that the locals see Doug and his older brother as thugs. As his eighth grade year progresses, Doug connects with the community around him: the librarian who shows him the plates of John James Audubon’s Birds of America; Lil Spicer, who offers him a cold coke and friendship; Mr. Spicer, who gives Doug a job delivering groceries that lets more people into Doug’s life.

Marysville may not be so stupid; Doug and his brother may not be thugs; and sometimes it’s enough that things are okay for now. “For now” keeps shifting through the book, through good times and bad: for every teacher who sees an easy target in the kid from the wrong side of the tracks, there is a teacher who sees Doug’s potential. His brother may come home from Vietnam with injuries, true; but he came home. It’s okay for now.

The Good: My review from 2011 says all that is good with Okay for Now. Listening to the audiobook emphasised all the strengths. Doug is a wonderful character, and Lincoln Hoppe perfectly captures his nuances and attitude. Over and over, I wanted to go into the pages of Okay for Now and rescue Doug. Rescue him from bullying teachers and abusive and neglectful family; luckily for Doug, he can take care of himself. It isn’t easy; the book begins with Doug having a huge chip on his shoulder. But, slowly, he lets people in and things change for the better.

I marveled at the wonderful structure of Okay for Now. Doug’s imagination is captured by the Audobon birds; he interprets what he sees based on his own life. Is a mother bird worried for her children? Or happy for them? He learns to draw, using the plates and friendly, knowledgeable librarian as guides. This expands his world, and Doug decides on a mission. Marysville has sold plates from the book; Doug will track them down and recover him. He may not be able to make his family whole, but he’ll make this book whole. Of course, along the way, Doug does make his life, including his family, whole. I just love the craft of this.

How reliable is Doug? That’s something I struggled with both in reading and listening. There are some things that I think he is oversensitive about, and I don’t think people are always as mean or rude or dismissive about him as he thinks. I think he both misinterprets things, but also believes some things are about him when they are not. For example, the teacher may simply not be calling on him. Or someone on his delivery route may be a bit distracted so not as attentive. It’s clear that when things are up for Doug, he’s up and sees the world in a positive light; but when things are down, it’s all dark and gray and rainclouds. Hoppe’s narration emphasizes this. As a matter of fact, this time around I was also more understanding of people like Coach Reed, because I’m not sure if Doug was always accurate about how Reed was treating him.

What didn’t change was my view towards Doug’s parents. Doug sees his mother as a lovely saint; and because Doug’s father’s treatment of his children was clearly not Doug misreading a situation, I just could not accept her passive acceptance of the situation. I kept getting angry as I listened. Clearly, though, that is more about me as a reader than the book itself.

But back to happy thoughts: there is a lot of humor in here! And some of it are in type jokes directed at the modern reader, such as a class discussion that ends with everyone agreeing that an actor could never become president.

Some great discussion about this title from Heavy Medal; reviews from Abby the Librarian; 100 Scope Notes.