Why Isn't There More Southern Gothic Romance Out There?: Beautiful Creatures by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl

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I'm going to admit it.  I have a thing for men named Ethan.  It's SUCH a great name with a lot of power in it (John Wayne realized this when he named his son, Ethan). And I married someone with that name and he's pretty spectacular, so clearly my instincts are good.  Ethan Wate, our narrator and protagonist, is the kind of boy any girl could fall in love with.  He's like so many boys we know - a good, popular kid, great basketball player, and the kind of person who knows he's stuck in a rut.  Ethan lives in Gatlin, a small, Southern town that generations of his family (and everyone else's) has called home.  Gatlin is one of those small towns where everyone knows everyone else's business and the skeletons in people's closets have a name.  The town even has a creepy hermit, old man Ravenwood, who never comes out of his old plantation home and keeps a mysterious black dog.  No surprises seem to exist in Gatlin and Ethan feels almost crushed with the unceasing monotony of his life there.  Add to that the grief over his mother's unexpected death last year, his father's intense depression and emotional absence, and he is just counting the days until he can go away to college and forge a new life away from the home he has known all his life.

But then there are the dreams.  Ethan has been having dreams, vivid ones, in which he knows there is a girl who means so much to him that he would do anything to save her,  a girl who is being pulled away from him as she calls for help, sinking in the murky water as he claws in the mud to find her.  Just a nightmare?  Maybe, but then again he wakes up reeking of river water, his fingernails rimmed with dirt and sheets besmirched with silt.  When Lena Duchannes arrives at school the first week of the year, she is nothing like the bleached blonde, fake tanned cheerleaders he's supposed to date.  Her black glossy hair and green eyes match his dreams, but her quirky style of dress and the fact that her Uncle is that same local Boo Radley character, Mr. Ravenwood, insures her status as a social pariah.  Ethan has to make a choice and, when he sacrifices his social status, the repercussions are greater than either of them can imagine.

This is undoubtedly a supernatural romance.  Ethan and Lena are drawn to one another, yet Lena soon makes it clear that incredible complications exist.  She is a caster, someone who has the ability to cast spells, as is her entire family and her 16th birthday looms on the horizon with the imminent danger that she will be "claimed".  The forces of good or evil take hold of a Ravenwood/Duchannes caster on their birthday and each family member sadly has no choice as to their fate.  Ethan fights the idea that he cannot be part of Lena's life, due to his mortal status, and intriguing subplots are deftly introduced.  Both Ethan and Lena's family have roots in the old South, and a locket that induces visions offers several clues to their intertwined family history.  Family friends hold other pieces of the puzzle, and the fact that Ethan can hear Lena's thoughts when she wants him to, as well as the fact that he can withstand magic circles and help keep Lena safe in a way her closest family members cannot, leads to speculation that he might have powers as yet untapped.  Be warned that with a sequel in the works (the authors sketched out six possible books for the series), many of these tantalizing elements aren't fully explained, yet the book feels complete.  While you'll wait eagerly for the next installment, there is still a feeling of closure, a "that's it for now" sense that ends the book and let's you ponder what is to come.

It astonishes me when a team writes a book yet the material feels so seamless that I would be hard pressed to find the joins of the collaboration (yet they have sketched out in interviews how their collaboration works).  Garcia and Stohl's ability to invoke the South with all its history and speech is wonderful.  Better yet are the full-featured characterizations to be found in even the most minor characters.  Naturally, my favorite character was Marian, Ethan's honorary Aunt and his mother's former best friend and collaborator, who happens to be the librarian (I know, "Marian the Librarian"!) of the local town library and as well as taking on the role of the official Caster Librarian in the catacombs under the DAR Hall on bank holidays.  I heart her.

This book has been getting a LOT of buzz.  There's a killer trailer and official website, and fan sites have been popping up all over.  There's even a Beautiful Creatures ning you can join! I've been reading about it for a couple of months on several book blogs and in the professional magazines and more than one individual has called it "the next Twilight".  That could be a lot to live up to (to say nothing of the fact that I don't think I'd like the comparison if I were these two authors attempting to forge a unique perspective of my own), but this is a terrific book very deserving of an enthusiastic YA audience.  I cannot remember the last time I read a book with such a uniquely Southern perspective and it got me thinking that some of the best YA books are the ones that tie strongly into a given region (Dairy Queen for that Midwest outlook or the Twilight series for the strong ties to the Northwest).  Yet even with Garcia and Stohl drawing this rich picture that is Gatlin, South Carolina, many readers will see their own small community, with its lack of privacy and inherent sense of judgment, clearly defined.

Kami Garcia has a wonderful blog that's worth reading on a regular basis (I've put her in my Google Reader) as does co-writer Margaret Stohl, although she seems to post a little less frequently. Warner Bros. has already acquired the rights to the movie version of the book, but (like Twilight) I'm sure they'll ruin it.  When will the film industry realize that books written from an internal monologue perspective are VERY difficult to translate to film?  I loved being inside Ethan's head and there isn't any way they can transmit that without cheesy voiceover.  There are days I believe the motion picture industry exists to ruin good books for the masses, but then I content myself with how many people buy the book and read it because they've seen the movie.  I'm sure they're happier then.   Anyway, I don't know which editor at Little, Brown & Co. (the publisher) is finding all these great YA authors, but I seriously hope they keep up the good work!

Are Zombies the New Vampires?: Zombie Blondes by Brian James and Generation Dead by Daniel Waters

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I've been hearing a lot of buzz about how zombies are the new vampires, but I'm not totally convinced.  However, two new books (with very compelling covers) are getting pulled off the displays in our library and I think there are some interesting trends to note in how they are marketed, versus what they really are about.

Zombie Blondes by Brian James (do not look at this author link if you are prone to migraines) has a fabulous cover.  She looks like a big kewpie doll, doesn't she?  There is something about that blank stare which is sinister and, as such, is a great match to the book content.  Hannah Sanders is an observant teen who could practically be an adolescent sociologist.  She's been shunted from town to town as her ex-cop dad looks for work (he busted some corrupt officers and became a pariah unable to work in the force) resulting in her becoming all too familiar with the "new kid" syndrome.  They arrive in the quintessential New England town of Maplecrest, but all the "for sale" signs in front of empty, unkempt suburban houses are disturbing.  At the local high school, an astonishingly cruel football team is cheered on by a group of almost identical blond cheerleaders and they might be looking for a new member.

James does an admirable job of getting into the head of an insecure teenage girl desperate to belong - to just once be part of the popular crowd - to the point of ignoring the warnings of the well-meaning, comic book reading outcast, Lucas, who had lost a friend previously to the cheerleaders.  Through Lucas' excellent reference works (graphic novels and comic books about zombies) he's figured out exactly who and what surrounds them and attempts to save Hannah from her fate.

Any truly good young adult novel has a couple of similar elements.  The first, the protagonist who feels like an outcast is a given (most teenagers don't realize that everyone feels like an outcast) and Hannah fits the bill, even as we get hints that other kids find her pretty and intelligent.  The second element, necessary for the protagonist to have adventures, is the absence of an authority figure.  Hannah's dad has to leave her for days in order to take an out-of-town job to put food on the table and with his creditors after him (to say nothing of a town full of zombies) this plot element gives a feeling of true menace.  The big climax of the book at the abandoned warehouse actually made me shiver - and it's been a long time since a book caused that visceral a reaction.  I read a lot of scary books, too!

So Brian James ends up flaunting a considerable amount of writing talent.  In an interview with author Cynthia Leitich Smith, James says that he envisioned Zombie Blondes as a cross between the two iconic movies, Heathers (1989) and The Lost Boys (1987) and anyone who has seen those movies and read this books can see the parallels.  I think it's interesting to note that several reviewers have described this book "lighter" than I would.  I was surprised upon reading it that it wasn't all about the cheerleaders and their clique and that annoyed me a little since I felt the book was much more about Hannah and her desire to really fit in, finally, at yet another high school, to the point where she might be turning a blind eye to the real price of admission to that in crowd.

Another book that I felt was marketed poorly (in the sense of perhaps misrepresenting what it is) is Daniel Waters' novel, Generation Dead.  The cover art is fabulous (talk about eye catching, right?) but there's one problem - not one of the main characters is cheeleader and certainly not a dead one.  Like Zombie Blondes, several of the PR blurbs and even a few reviews seemed to focus on the lighter aspects of this book (the romance, the unique idea of zombie rights) as if the ideas are so darn funny, while never getting down to what I felt was the overwhelming theme of the novel, namely issues surrounding discrimination.

Phoebe Kendall lives in a world in which she is content to be a goth girl - she dyes her hair jet black, wears long flowing dark clothes, and listens to music about sorrow and death.  She is a kind friend with a warm heart and her next-door neighbor and longtime friend, Adam knows he loves her for more than her beautiful face, but Phoebe remains unaware of his feelings.  Both teens live in a world attempting to adjust to a new and frightening phenomena - American teenagers are occasionally coming back to life.

This naturally causes a host of problems.  In addition to the reaction you might expect from a religious standpoint (with some people being deeply offended or frightened while others begin questioning their religion's promise of an afterlife), some citizens have taken their fear and disgust to a new level by decapitating these undead children or setting them on fire (two ways to actual "kill" a zombie).  Of course, this doesn't qualify as murder when you consider the fact that the law doesn't recognize the legal existence of the undead, so it's open season on this crowd.  Other groups, like the Hunter Foundation for the Advancement and Understanding of Differently Biotic Persons, are attempting to not only help the new zombies (the politically correct term is "differently biotic") but also educate the population about the undead and create legal inroads to protect their rights.

Phoebe and Adam's high school has a great program for the "differently biotic" so there are more and more dead kids coming to class.  Phoebe begins to take an interest in Tommy Williams, a new and "differently biotic" student who seems a little higher functioning than the other zombie kids.  Tommy goes out for the football team and maintains a blog where he shares his thoughts and reflections about his life with all its challenges.

Waters writes minor as well as major characters extremely well.  Phoebe's best friend, Margie, is wrestling with the death and reappearance of the former third member of their friendship group, Collette, who isn't as high functioning as some of the other undead kids.   Adam's former friend (really, bully) Pete Martinsburg is another football player filled with rage and hate at the zombie kids because of his personal loss of a sweet girlfriend who never did come back from the dead.  I wept salty tears when a sweet member of the undead group was brutally murdered and found myself horrified by some of the sinister subplots coiling around the reader's ankles.

Daniel Waters is a talented, insightful writer (who maintains a very nice blog, by the way) who has set up a complex premise that promises an excellent series for readers.  The next book, Kiss of Life, is already out and you can read more about it and the Generation Dead series at the custom website dedicated to it.  Waters recently posted the cover for the third book in the series, Passing Strange, which he says will be out next June.  With so many questions left unanswered, I look forward to reading these sequels.  While I don't agree with some people who have compared the book to Twilight, I do agree with them that this book is a well-written story about not only the inklings of supernatural romance but about the nature of hate and discrimination.

Steampunk is not a sweaty Ramones concert: Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld

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I'm convinced it's not humanly possible for Scott Westerfeld to write a bad book.  I've read almost everything by this author (the Uglies series, Midnighters series, Peeps and its sequel, The Last Days, So Yesterday) and loved it all - he's one of my "go to" authors who will never let me down.  That said, I was REALLY nervous about him writing what was described as an alternate history/steampunk novel.  It sounded like one of those movies where the good young actor goes outside their comfort zone (say, romantic comedy) and ends up with latex facial features to make them look less attractive so we can focus on the story.  Sometimes it works and sometimes you say, "the poor thing - they were trying SO hard, though" as you search through your Junior Mints box because you can't bear to look at the screen one more minute.

Well, no danger of that being the case here!  Westerfeld does not disappoint and in fact takes it a step farther (I really want to explore more steampunk now) enticing the reader into a whole new subgenre.  Steampunk is a fascinating cross-over area - sometimes it's alternate history, sometimes fantasy, sometimes science fiction - and I was floored by how young this movement is (it's only been around since the 1980s/1990s).  The main crux of it appears to be that the world of the book has a Victorian flavor, particularly in the nature of all or part of that world using steam energy as a source of fuel for machinery (some of the art is truly cool and has actually inspired computer cases and clocks that you can actually buy).  Authors often cite classic writers like Jules Verne, H. G. Wells, Mark Twain, and Mary Shelley as inspiration, so chances are if you cut your teeth on this author list, you'll feel pretty comfortable with steampunk.  It's important to note that female characters are often constrained by similar social norms (and usually stuck in a corset) which adds an interesting tension to these stories.  (Some steampunk fans get really, really into the clothing and accessories piece of the genre.)

Leviathan places the reader in a world on the cusp of World War I by focusing on two characters, the young Hapsburg, Prince Aleksander, son of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his commoner wife, Sophie (Aleksander is pure fiction - Franz Ferdinand had three children but none of them were named Aleksander) and Deryn Sharp, a young woman who has disguised herself as a boy in order to enlist in the British Air Service.

But here's the steampunk twist.  Aleksander has grown up in Central Europe surrounded by what the British call "clankers" - complex steam-powered machines whose design is often inspired by biology. Alek is an excellent pilot of these machines and has learned to guide them just as his real-life contemporary might have focused on a fine seat for his horseback riding.  Deryn on the other hand has grown up amid Darwinists who in their history discovered the secret of DNA during the Victorian age with the subsequent ability to manipulate and change biological creatures in order to serve their technological needs.  The ships she "flies" in the Air Service are either small (think jellyfish-like) or large (whale-based airships) all genetically altered to produce hydrogen as a byproduct of their existence - hydrogen which allows them to fly with a crew and serve whatever purpose the military might have in mind.  Each side looks down on the other with a little fear and derision about the source of each technology, so the clash of cultures is as much a part of the book as the espionage and political machinations.

Both characters are well-drawn and compelling although they come across as rather young and innocent (yet plucky and resilient) in this first book of the series.  Alek has suffered the assassination of his parents and, surrounded by a few loyal supporters, sets off with enemies in hot pursuit for the safety of Switzerland.  Deryn, known as the boy Dylan to the Air Service, has a rough first flight as a new recruit placing her over the English channel where she is rescued by Leviathan, a massive biological airship.  With war on the horizon she is quickly incorporated into the crew and begins a truly hands-on education as midshipman.  The two meet when Deryn's ship meets potential disaster not far from Alek's neutral Swiss lair.

I'd be remiss to not mention a few spectacular details about this book - like the ILLUSTRATIONS.  Westerfeld partnered with illustrator Keith Thompson, a fantasy and science fiction artist.  Thompson's work is astonishing in its beauty and detail and seems to spring from this new world as if it had given birth to it.  The other piece I couldn't resist was Westerfeld's compelling ability to create a unique vocabulary to go along with his steampunk world - a popular exclamation is "Barking Spiders!" and I've caught myself yelling it a couple of times when startled, considerably cleaning up my occasional potty mouth.  Anyone who found that "Bubbly" become part of their personal dictionary with the Uglies series, will find themselves tucking away new and fabulous phrases to dazzle and confuse friends and family.

Leviathan is a terrific addition to Westerfeld's oeuvre.  Librarians and teachers will find it has appeal for both middle grades and high school (as well as adults interested in alternate reality or steampunk).  Thankfully, the sequel Behemoth is due out in October of 2010, so we won't have too long to wait for the next installment.

A note for Scott Westerfeld fans.  His website has a lot of video trailers for Leviathan which are excellent and might be a good thing to watch with a friend you're trying to convince to read this book after you've enjoyed it.  His blog (the default main page on the website) is an excellent primer about writing and publishing, so for would-be authors this could be a terrific resource.  Westerfeld is also on Twitter and is one of the BEST and funniest authors (I've actually snorted water out my nose following some of his tweets on the Leviathan book tour) in the medium of 140 characters or less.  If that's not the sign of a talented writer, what is?

Four Vampire Books Read This Weekend: Vamped by Lucienne Diver, How to Be a Vampire by Amy Gray, Jessica's Guide to Dating on the Dark Side by Beth Fantaskey, and Eternal by Cynthia Leitich Smith

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It was so delicious to not be traveling this weekend and really take the donut off my reading bat.  I attacked "the pile" (actually it's a row of books on my kitchen desk that winks at me when I go in there multiple times a day) and decided I'd focus on all the yummy new books that Cynthia Leitich Smith sent us after I won her fabulous October giveaway.

First up was Lucienne Diver's Vamped, and I think from the cover it's  obvious why I chose it.  Isn't it fabulous?  I think that the cover also does a good job indicating what's inside - Gina, our trusty protagonist, is a former mean girl fashionista who wakes up in her coffin and quickly figures out that her recent make-out session with chess club geek turned suddenly superhunk, Bobby, involved a little more nipping than usually experienced in seven minutes in heaven.  Her annoying neanderthal boyfriend, Chaz (hello, is that a name that just screams "dump me"?) gets them into a car accident with his road rage and she "dies".  Bobby is waiting patiently for Gina as she claws her way out of her coffin (and ruins her manicure) to explain what's happened and she quickly realizes that she just may be, for once in her life, truly in love with someone.

But all is not easy for our young and undead lovers.  Bobby is very coveted and not just by young women impressed by his six pack.  He and Gina are quickly captured by Mellisande, a vampire that makes Gina's high school reign look like a Mother Theresa leper public service announcement.  Mellisande wants Bobby who it turns out has tremendous mental powers now that he is undead (it's always the chess guys, isn't it?).  Gina finds herself in a dungeon with a bunch of other kids that supposedly succumbed to the "why not drink and drive" mentality or other "accidents" and realizes that "Smelly Melli," her pet name for Mellisande, is raising a vampire army to overthrow the council and that Bobby and the rest of the young vampires are pawns in her bid for power.  Can she use her bitchiness for good and save not only the boy she loves, but everyone else?

Diver is a literary agent (check out her blog for a great window into the controversies and discussion in this interesting area of publishing) who has published a few stories and books under another name as well.  She has a great sense of humor and Vamped, written from Gina's point of view, has a breezy style that falls in with her "mean girl with a heart of gold" theme.  The plot moves, let me warn you, and there were times that I felt a little headachey keeping up with everything that was going on.  I wish there was a little less action and more character development of Gina and Bobby - I wanted a little more backstory and definitely more romantic moments between them since the few that existed really sizzled.  There is a sequel, Revamped, coming in 2010 so I'll definitely read that and see if it satisfies the couple of itches she left. 

Next up was Amy Gray's How to Be a Vampire which totally won my "favorite cover" award from the crop Cynthia sent us.  This is a scary image, and you get really creeped out (in the best possible way) with the iridescent eyes that glitter when you move the book and feel the two puncture holes of the neck bite.  This book is exactly what it bills - a how-to guide - and the layout and imagery are fantastic.  I think the best comparison is if a DK book and Cosmopolitan magazine had a vampire baby, this book would be it! You can take quizzes on your vampire style, get advice on how to shop for a coven you might want to belong to, or polish your vampire etiquette.  The great part is that anyone who has read plenty of vampire novels (ahem) will see the references to different authors - Stephenie Meyer, Richelle Mead, Charlaine Harris, Laurell K. Hamilton, Christopher Moore, Anne Rice, and Bram Stoker (as well as others).  Gray does a terrific job directing readers to not only the ouevres of these popular authors but also lists graphic novels and movies and series that readers might enjoy.  I'm going to use this volume for a little collection development work and I'm sure it's going to get picked up again and again in my library.

Jessica's Guide to Dating on the Dark Side by Beth Fantaskey was a total dark horse (no pun on the title intended).  I was so sucked into this book that midway through I got really irritated at how it had been marketed - everything I had read or seen depicted it as a fluffy "girl meets vampire and discovers she's one, too and gets a funny book to guide her!" plot and it was anything but.  Jessica Packwood knows her anthropologist parents adopted her from Romania when her parents died in some weird cult coup but she's startled when a good-looking but bizarre guy shows up at her rural Pennsylvania bus stop and calls her by her real name (which is Antanasia Dragomir - side note: are there only four vampire surnames?  The same ones crop up again and again.  I think authors need to raid a Romanian phone book and think outside the box).  It turns out that the hottie making a BIG impression in her high school is none other than Lucius Vladescu, the heir to the other most powerful vampire clan (besides the Dragomirs) and the vampire to whom she was betrothed as an infant in order to end centuries of vampire/human bloodshed as the families battled one another for power.

Yikes.  Jessica is a kid with a pretty analytical bent who mucks out stalls in her family's boarding stable and tries to stay out of the way of school bullies Faith Crosse and Frank Dormand.  She's worried about her weight, loves being a mathlete and is nervous about her upcoming 4-H jumping competition.  She definitely does NOT believe in vampires and is shocked when her hippie, vegan parents tell her not only do they exist (because that's who they were studying when they adopted Jessica) but that she is one.  Anyone who is a fan of Mr. Darcy (hands up!) will see the appeal of Lucius - he's arrogant, incredibly good-looking, smart, talented, and has a sophisticated European guy aura that makes Jessica's other love interest, Jake the wrestler (don't go there, Jess) look like a muppet.  Lucius gets nowhere with Jessica, who fights her very real attraction to him as much as the knowledge she's a vampire, and just as she begins to come to terms with everything swirling around her, Lucius backs off right when she wants him to get closer.

I was extremely impressed with Fantaskey's ability to not only write such two incredible characters but to seamlessly weave in plenty of vampire history and the tension behind the power struggle between the families.  Lucius' and Jessica's attraction and love for each other are powerfully described and our growing empathy for their situations has readers (or me at least) sniffling over the tough spot these two find themselves in.  I adored her use of the epistolary device of Lucius writing home to his uncle to explain his thought process and the evolution of his feelings - it was spot on and helped develop his voice in the novel extremely well.  My only criticism is the last couple of chapters had a lot going on and seemed pretty brief to me.  I wanted them to go on for much, much longer!  For anyone else with the same feelings, Fantaskey has written an online follow-up story to satisfy us and keep us from turning up on her lawn with pitchforks and burning torches.

Last, but definitely not least, is Eternal by Cynthia Leitich Smith.  A prequel to Tantalize, I was impressed by how different this book was to Tantalize - sometimes you like an author but their narrative voice is very similar between books (and that's okay) but Smith has the ability to really embody her characters and I'm appreciative.  Eternal is told from the two main characters in it - Miranda, a sweet, slightly shy high school student and Zachary, her guardian angel who has watched over her from birth.  Alternating chapters between their perspectives works great here and we quickly discover Miranda's giving nature and the fact that Zachary is in love with her.  When Miranda agrees reluctantly to accompany her best friend, Lucy, to meet a sketchy movie store clerk in the local Dallas cemetery we know nothing good is going to happen, right?  And our instincts are right on the money, as usual.  Lucy manages to escape, Miranda is bitten by the Dracul, essentially the president of the nasty vampire corps of the Midwest, and Zachary, in his attempt to save Miranda, reveals himself to her (wings, light and all) which is a gigantic no-no in the angel world resulting in his immediate demotion to human being and number one person on the archangel s-list.  Miranda meantime wakes up a princess (the Dracul makes her his daughter) and finds herself a celebrity with parties and clothes galore.  The bad news?  She's drinking the blood of runaways and prisoners in her "daddy's" Chicago mansion as her conscience appears to have gone AWOL.

This book takes place before Tantalize, which offers a reality in which humans accept the existence of vampires and werepeople (don't call them "shifters" unless you want to be a bigot, fyi) but aren't huge fans.  Media outlets, magazines, spas, you name it, all are all available to the tuned-in vampire and while there are plenty of people buying extra garlic, several also seem to be willing to do anything in order to get eternal life.  Zachary and Miranda must discover if they can each do what they need to in order to restore order and save Miranda, but the question is, can they?

I adored this book - the writing, the plot, the setting, you name it - and cannot wait for the next book, Blessed which will, according to Smith, bring the casts of the two books together.  Go, Cynthia!  P.S. - the angel theme in this book is going to foreshadow several upcoming reviews of books featuring this new supernatural character.  Are angels the new vampires for 2009/2010?

Why Cynthia Leitich Smith Is So Awesome...

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Please note the fabulous picture of one of my lead members of our Library Advisory Board who happens to have  a birthday tomorrow (Happy Birthday, Molly!).  She was listing which new book she was going to read first.  I realized when I put it up that this is actually a pretty good shot of the library floor from our information bar (we think circulation desk is too limiting a term).  I'm sending a different photo to our benefactor to thank her for such a great present. Who is our mystery philanthropist?  Well, we have a favorite author in the library this week, and it's Cynthia Leitich Smith.  Why you ask?  Oh, I don't know - maybe because SHE SENT US AWESOME FREE BOOKS!!!! (Check out her shout of us on her great Spookycyn blog.)

Yes, you read that right, I had participated in a competition on one of Smith's great blogs (she has two, Spookcyn and Cynsations) which she had named the "Spooky Cynsational October Giveaway" and I won!  The library ends up with a terrific crop of books Eternal by Cynthia Leitich Smith (Candlewick, 2009) which she was kind enough to sign for us; an ARC of Coffeehouse Angel by Suzanne Selfors (Walker, 2009); Far From You by Lisa Schroeder (Simon Pulse, 2009); How to Be a Vampire: A Fangs-On Guide for the Newly Undead by Amy Gray (Candlewick, November 2009); Jessica's Guide to Dating on the Dark Side by Beth Fantaskey (Harcourt, 2009); Kissed by an Angel by Elizabeth Chandler (Simon Pulse, 2008); and Vamped by Lucienne Diver (Flux, 2009).  The coolest cover award goes to How to Be a Vampire: A Fangs-On Guide for the Newly Undead by Amy Gray - what must the publisher have gone through to make one so cool?  It's actually embossed so the eyes and puncture wounds are indented and the eyes are all silvery and holographic - very eyecatching.

I look forward to posting the reviews as I read through these delicious novels.  I'm particularly interested in Eternal, Cynthia's latest book (which, please note, is published by Candlewick Press who I always trust to publish high quality young adult titles).  I recently read Tantalize and I really enjoyed the tone of it.  Told in the first person, Quincie Morris lives in a world in which vampires and werewolves exist, but aren't particularly liked.  She has an extremely attractive male best friend who is a werewolf/human hybrid (I love it that Smith uses "hirsute" as an adjective to describe him) and a somewhat negligent uncle who is her guardian.  Her parents are both dead and Quincie is focused on helping her uncle reinvent the family restaurant while finishing high school.  Her uncle is fixated with his somewhat skanky girlfriend, Ruby and it just so happens she is fascinated with vampires (think a hotter, Elvira Queen of the Night vibe).  Result? The restaurant is going to have a vampire theme.

There's only one problem.  The restaurant's head cook (who took better care of Quincie than her bachelor uncle) is dead, murdered in the kitchen, in fact, and it seems like either a werewolf did it or someone wanted the police to think that one did.  And despite the bad karma the restaurant appears to suffer from, a thin, pale head cook with a talent for creating indescribably delicious food shows up.  He seems very taken with Quincie and as she gets to know him, she becomes less and less interested in her friends and the things that used to matter to her.

I was impressed with Smith's writing - there was a real wit to Quincie's inner monologue and the strong sense of place (I could feel the Texas heat and hear the twang of that accent) was extremely compelling and had me fully believing in her world.  Quincie's H-O-T friend, Kieren, produces some serious sexual tension and as we grow to understand why he doesn't think he can have a relationship with Quincie, we also get a window into the world of discrimination against werewolves in this uneven society.  Kieren realizes that something is wrong with the restaurant's new situation but Quincie ignores his warnings and finds herself in a difficult situation from which she may not be able to extricate herself.  Tantalize is a page-turner filled with characters to whom you immediately feel attached.  I can't wait to read Eternal!

Kristin Cashore Hits Another Home Run with her latest book, Fire

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I remember the visceral feeling of how totally wowed I was by Graceling.  I was not so much astonished at Cashore's ability to create a complete and alternate world with such utter certainty that I believed it, hook, line and sinker (I had experienced that with other great fantasy authors like Tamora Pierce).  It was more that her characters left me breathless.  They lived.  I wouldn’t be surprised to see them picking up artichokes at Price Chopper or getting apples at the local farmer’s market.

I’m going to admit that when I read the premise of Fire, I was worried.   The main character wasn’t just a human being with special abilities, she was a monster.  A beautiful monster actually, and I had trouble wrapping my head around that.  Also, author Kristin Cashore was quoted as saying that Fire was more of a “prequel” with some minor crossover in the form of characters or events that would tickle the back of our Graceling minds.

Well, you won’t find me doubting Kristin in the future.  I’ll just wait with open palms for each book as she publishes them.  Fire is a tour-de-force – the main character is emotionally vulnerable as one of the monsters that populate the Dells, monsters which sometimes take on colorful human forms.  Only the very mentally strong can resist the mind-reading (and mind-controlling) ability these monsters have – the majority of residents are inflamed with desire or such hatred that the creatures are in danger of rape or assault constantly with only their mind-reading ability to protect them. 

Fire is the half-monster/half-human offspring of a diabolical monster who seduced her mother (who Fire never knew) and manipulated the former king to the point of bringing the country to near ruin.  Her face and form are so stunning as to empty the minds of the majority of people, but in addition to human predators, she is also at risk from the other monster creatures (the mammals, basically) who find one another delicious.  Her human friends and companions who surround Fire seek to protect her from these threats but the political situation of the country is such that she finds herself called into action by the children of the former king.  Feeling a tremendous amount of guilt for her father’s actions, Fire ends up using her gifts to help others.

Of course there is a love interest and I found a lot of parallels to Graceling in that area as well.  Fire owns her sexuality (she’s no blushing virgin) and while her growing love and respect for one of the leaders of the country is deep and heartfelt, the main crux of the novel is above all Fire’s personal growth and transformation.  I was moved by her feelings about her potential as a mother – on the one hand she is envious at the women around her choosing motherhood (or having it forced upon them) but she also feels so strongly about the potential damage another monster in her world could incur that she is willing to destroy her fertility before endangering others.  She’s an altruistic, deep character continually judged by her beautiful surface and under a constant pressure of personal and mental assault.

I loved this book and it made me feel even more fuzzy when I thought of the two autographed Kristin Cashore posters on my office door!  Some of our fabulous Lower School teachers attended a literature conference over the summer where they met Kristen.  It turns out that she is originally from Center Moreland, Pennsylvania (literally a mile up the road from my house) which is a very, very, very small, rural town and she attended Scranton Prep, a well-regarded Catholic school in our area of Northeast Pennsylvania.  So she had heard of Wyoming Seminary and chatted up my great teachers in a very friendly way.  They LOVED her!  We want to find out about the cost of having her do an author visit or maybe Skype us – the upper school offers a fantasy fiction English elective that could really use her insights into the complexity of writing a detailed world like hers.

The best news?  She’s working on a third book, tentatively entitled Bitterblue, which takes place a few years after Graceling.  Thank heavens.

What DO Teens Want?

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Publisher’s Weekly recently published an article, “What Do Teens Want?” by Carol Fitzgerald that’s been receiving a lot of attention from librarians serving teens.  Fitzgerald names the growth of the Young Adult literary market (a 5.1% projected sales increase) with higher grossing areas for specific genres often fueled by the YA market (like scifi/fantasy which is supposed to experience a 13% increase).

While the author acknowledges that certainly there are plenty of adults interested in these books because of the recent phenomenon of books like the Twilight saga, the fact remains that teens are the ones causing that very phenomena, placing a great deal of power in the hands of this specific demographic.  Publishers are naturally very interested in a group of such heavy readers as they are desperate to figure out how to market to them in five and ten years.

Using the readership of teenreads.com (230,000 viewers a month), a survey was given to answer some burning questions.  Naturally, as any librarian knows, the responders were largely female (96%) due to the site’s emphasis on fiction and the fact that most YA fiction is read by girls (at least to the point that they’d want to talk about).  The survey also had a mostly younger teen audience (only 37% were 16 to 18 years of age, the remainder younger than this) so these results might be of particular relevance to middle school librarians.

Because of the fact that it’s obvious to any school librarian how shockingly overscheduled kids are, I was most interested in the number of books respondents reported to read and during what time periods.  Forty-one percent reported reading over 20 books during the summer, with 26% reading 11-20 books and 18% reading six to 10 books.  That’s 85% of these students reading at least six books over the summer.  Granted, the readership of teenreads.com I doubt is comprised of casual readers, but nevertheless it shows how kids will read when more time is available.

But these readers don’t stick to just YA authors.  They listed Mitch Albom, Jane Austen, Meg Cabot (who I actually consider more of a YA author, but whatever), Agatha Christie, Mary Higgins Clark, Suzanne Collins, Michael Crichton, Janet Evanovich, John Grisham, Charlaine Harris, Sophie Kinsella, Dean Koontz, George Orwell, Chuck Palahniuk, James Patterson, Jodi Picoult, David Sedaris, Nicholas Sparks and John Steinbeck as favorite adult authors that they’d consider as well.  Isn’t that an interesting mix?  We have a lot of these folks on the shelf, but I’m going to need to check and make sure we’ve got a complete oeuvre. 

And as for the format (hardcover v. paperback) they prefer, it seems close enough that I don’t need to worry with 79% liking paperbacks and 74% preferring hardcover.  Only 6% like ebooks as their format right now, so I’ll be interested to see if that number grows after Barnes and Noble starts heavily marketing the Nook, aka their version of the Kindle in stores.  All of my teens LOVE hanging out at Barnes & Noble which is the place to see and be seen.

With the publishing industry as the focus of the survey, naturally the book buying habits of these kids were their focus.  Forty-four percent of kids indicated that their book buying habits had changed due to the economy with 54% naming visiting the library as their main habit change.  Sixty-eight percent share the cost of book purchasing with their parents (go parents!).

What really grabbed me was the data on “what would enhance their shopping experience”.  More books to chose from (63% came in first) but check out what was second – 48% wanted more book reviews and recommendations from “experts”.  Isn’t that interesting?  It’s important to be reminded how overwhelming a bookstore is for someone who doesn’t read all the professional journals and can pick out the good presses and know the latest reviews.  Events with favorite authors came in as important to 45% and comfortable places to sit (check!) got 40% of people clicking the radio button.  With any luck, our new “book discussion” group (which has as its mission booktalking books to each other rather than reading the same book, important as 83% of respondents named peer recommendations as the reason they will read a book) will fit this bill but I really need to think about adding in reviews (maybe I can use Titlewave to grab them?) to the display process.  Hmmm…

Tweaking the library webpage also came to mind as well as taking advantage of the MARC record field where we can embed companion websites.  Over 85% of teens reported visiting the websites of their favorite authors for information about upcoming titles and 65% would love to see the author in person at an in store event.  Only 19% utilized social networking sites for author interaction (and I couldn’t help thinking of my AWESOME new Facebook friend, Scott Westerfeld!) so clearly I’m a passé geek or total pioneer in author interaction.  I’m leaning toward the former.

Blogs (I’m guessing author blogs?) and specifically “book and reader blogs” were also named as sources of interaction or information (32% and 31% respectively).  Maybe the author website can go in the MARC record but we could have a section on the website for the blogs that might be the most popular (with a link to a screencast on how to use Google Reader for efficient browsing).  Still 58% of them don’t read author blogs at all, and my curiosity is piqued – is this because they don’t know how awesome they are? Because they don’t read other blogs?  Respondents have great taste in who they do read – authors named were Libba Bray, Meg Cabot, Ally Carter, P.C. Cast, Cassandra Clark, Zoey Dean, Sarah Dessen, John Green, Richelle Mead, Stephenie Meyer, Christopher Paolini, James Patterson, Tamora Pierce, Sarah Shepard, Melissa Walker and Scott Westerfeld.  Considering most of these are in my “Author Blogs” list, I feel that discerning book readers are good blog readers as well!

Tempted by P. C. Cast and Kristen Cast (House of Night Series)

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How many people have the House of Night series as her/his dirty little secret? (Hand up on this end.)  Well, you should be pleased that the latest book in the series, Tempted, came out October 27th.  As usual, events pick up right where the previous book, Hunted, left off.

Since I don't want this whole review to be a spoiler, let's talk about the plot elements that are the same.  More tatoos for our heroine Zoey Redbird, her grandmother is still an awesome support, the evil Kalona is still alluring yet bent on destruction, and Zoey still has boys vying for her attention (and they are all hot, FYI).

But there is some new scariness on the horizon.  Kalona and Neferet are bent on taking over the Vampire High Council and Zoey and her posse of friends and lovers are coming with her.  Except Stevie Rae, who is staying behind to take care of not only her renegade red fledglings but also a little something left over from the battle which is really complicating her life.

As anyone who enjoys the series knows, we don't read these because the writing is literature by any means.  All the slang and pop culture references will date these books in no time flat, the characters don't exactly "develop", and the foreshadowing lets you kinda/sorta know what's going to happen.  All that said, this is yet another delicious potato chip books (tastes good going down but maybe you feel a little dirty afterward and you don't want to tell anyone that you did it).  Do I feel that I've learned more about the characters?  Not particularly.  But I did feel like I was having a fun visit with old friends?  You betcha. :-)

P. C. Cast (the Mom of the two) has her own blog (and her voice sounds a little like Stevie Rae, actually and did you know she teaches freshmen and sophomores and a public school in Oklahoma?!) where she writes about fan reactions and her author visits.  It's pretty good, but the House of Night website (linked at the beginning of this entry) is SO fun to play with.  Stay tuned for the next book in the series, Burned, due to come out in 2010.

Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins

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I know there were so many readers (adult and teen) at our school who loved Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games and I am thrilled to report that they will not be disappointed by Collins' latest work. Its sequel, Catching Fire, is nothing short of fabulous and manages to keep up the momentum Collins established in The Hunger Games. Scholastic has a great trailer hyping Catching Fire that is sure to whet your appetite. Sadly, I usually link to the author website for further information, but that is one area Collins needs to work on - her website looks like it was done in 1994 and doesn't contain a lot of information. I'm sure (and hope) she's busy writing the next book in The Hunger Games series (is it a trilogy?) so I'm going to tell her agent and publisher, "Hey, it's YOUR job to make sure Suzanne has a kick butt website that fits her books and satisfies her fan base!!!" So there. I hope they hear me.

The momentum of the book is excellent. We pick off pretty soon after the games have ended and Katniss and Peeta have returned home to District 12. Tensions abound with Katniss' good friend (and possibly more), Gale, who has been identified as Katniss' "cousin" by the press so as not to cast a pall over her romance with Peeta. Katniss has moved to the section of town reserved for victors (she's Haymitch's neighbor) and her mother and sister, Prim, finally don't lack for food or shelter. But even when Katniss is able to escape under the fence and go hunting in the forest with Gale, she is haunted day and night by images of the games. Collins does a great job describing what's essentially post-traumatic stress disorder (albeit in a dystopian future) and yet peace is not on the horizon for her and Peeta. They just can't catch a break.

Once the evil President Snow arrives from the capital the tension begins to crest and Peeta and Katniss are plunged once again into the public eye with the threat of violence hanging over their respective families if they can't tow the line. Yet as they begin their victory tour, they discover that their act of defiance at the end of the games has sparked a latent powderkeg in the districts that could break any moment into open rebellion.

Collins' writing is excellent and the tension she builds throughout the book is almost unbearable. Her description of Katniss' feelings for Gale yet her confusing connection to Peeta lets the reader understand how she is torn between the two men in her life who each love her and represent different futures. My sole criticism is, like The Hunger Games, this book also ends painfully in the middle of a revelation, so the agony of waiting for the next book is a little brutal. For people who can't handle that, I'd suggest postponing the series, but for everyone else, run out and check out Catching Fire.

Ghost Whisperer - Paranormal Delight, But What's with the Twins?

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Do other people enjoy the CBS show, Ghost Whisperer? I was home baking brownies and vacuuming last night and I wanted something on the telly to keep the kitties and I company. The ScyFy channel (why do they spell it with two "y"s these days? Is it like the feminist wymyn/women thing? I think the ScyFy channel is about women but not about them watching. But I digress.) had a little mini-marathon of some paranormal show called Ghost Whisperer and I usually love paranormal stuff so I was on board.

I got utterly engrossed with the show. The main character, Melinda Gordon, has had a "gift" from childhood to see the dead - spirits trapped among the living. In each episode, she discovers a different ghost unable to go to the "other side" because of something troubling them in this world. She investigates the problem, approaches the living (breaking it to them gently that there is a real ghost involved), and helps resolve the problem. Dust hands off and wait for the next ghost.

It turns out this show has been nominated for a bunch of primetime Emmys (who knew? probably someone who watches the Emmys) and its production value is pretty spiffy. Melinda owns an antiques shop in a quaint small town (the set of Back to the Future done over, actually) and is married to a hunky paramedic/firefighter (who looks like he might later become a doctor on the show) who understands and accepts that she has this gift and tries to help when he can. There is also an unsuspecting (at least in the episodes I watched) widowed coworker, played by Camryn Manheim, who has a son.

I was struck by several things - first, Jennifer Love Hewitt is really stunning. Isn't she a spokesperson for ProActiv? Her skin is flawless - they should seriously have the 800 number periodically for ordering. Her character also seems to enjoy a certain amount of profound affluence. She is always stunningly dressed in designer or vintage togs with great accessories and no outfits repeat. The house she shares with her husband is also designer quality with great antiques and a complicated paint job. More importantly, every other episode involves a confrontation with a ghost in the antiques store after hours which results in the largely breakable items exploding into a million pieces. Yet she never seems troubled by the lack of inventory or the sweeping job she must have to do before Delia comes in the following morning. And Delia never says, "Hey, Melinda, did you really sell all those crystal balls, chandeliers and pricey vases that we had filling a third of the store? After we closed?" What's up with that?

And then there's the elephant in the room, or two of them for that matter. Jennifer Love Hewitt seems to be really really comfortable trotting out the twins. Her breasts are ALWAYS on display, to the point where its downright distracting. Are we sure the ghosts aren't attracted to her cleavage? It's a small town, people, not Housewives of Orange County! What's interesting is that Jennifer has credited her twins with nabbing her a spot on several "sexiest" lists and I can imagine she might have a viewership who waits for her character's occasional disrobing to reveal a lacy bra (although there isn't much difference from the tops to be honest). One of the quotes on the Internet Movie Database biography was from her Playboy interview (natch) in which she commented about her breasts, "I just accepted them as a great accessory to every outfit". Some people like earrings, other people just pop out the girls. Maybe its a California thing?

From Vampires to Werewolves

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I was running out of vampire books (good ones, that is) and remembered that I had read good reviews of Maggie Stiefvater's latest novel, Shiver. Wow. For the first 60 pages or so, I remember thinking, this is interesting, but I'm not sure where it was going and then, WHAM the plot took off and I was rapidly flipping pages eager to see what would happen next.

Stiefvater is a beautiful writer - so lyrical, so poetic at times - and her characters are well-drawn and extremely likable. The chapters alternate between Grace, the teenage girl who had been attacked by wolves when she was small, and Sam, the werewolf who saw his pack take her from her tire swing and ended up saving her life. Years later, she has always looked for "her wolf"- the one with the bright yellow eyes who saved her and has regularly appeared in the dark Minnesota woods behind her home, his distinctive eyes gleaming.

But a classmate has gone missing, turned up dead and then subsequently disappeared from the morgue and his influential family has pressured the local government to shoot the wolf pack since they believe them responsible. Shots are fired and a distressed Grace, worried about her wolf, comes home to find a boy her age shot in the neck on the back porch of her home. A boy with the same yellow eyes as her wolf.

What ensues is a beautifully written romance of the first water - one of the novels I categorize in my head as "true love" story. Sam and Grace fall head over heels for each other, knowing that in reality they have loved one another for years, yet the looming concern of Sam becoming a wolf again and never changing back is ever present. The tension of the missing boy, the other werewolves, the head of the pack, Grace's friends finding out, all contribute to a compelling subplot and are deftly woven into the main plot. I might have to buy this one to reread and sigh over periodically. True love. There's nothing like it.

The Good and Not-So-Good of Series Books...

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Since I'm on a massive vampire kick right now, it's only right for me to write about the latest in two series I've been following. First up, is the ever popular Blue Bloods series by Melissa de la Cruz which recently added the fourth book to its roster, The Van Alen Legacy. The book picks up right where its predecessor, Revelations, left off. Fallout continues from the unleashing of the demon Leviathan when the vampires were in Brazil, the same unleashing that killed Schuyler's grandfather. All readers develop a coping strategy to deal with Mimi, who, while hard-to-like, really is a fallen angel on the side of right and who is working as a venator (with the hot and arrogant Silver Blood turned good, Kingsley) tracking down demons and Bliss' missing sister Jordan, all the while wearing designer boots in South American jungles. Her bonding with Jack is still on, but Jack is desperately trying to help Schuyler who is in Europe on the run with her human familiar and best friend, Oliver. It seems the New York coven doesn't believe she was innocent in the death of her grandfather because they all have their heads in the sand. Bliss meanwhile has disappeared off the face of the earth as she has finally understood that the ultimate fallen angel, Lucifer himself, resides in her body and is attempting to reclaim his power by using her form to manifest himself. She slowly begins to fight back with varying degrees of success.

Whew! Doesn't it sound like I've just described a storyline of a soap opera season? Now, I love these books but this one really seemed much, much more complicated and hard to follow than the previous books which were already approaching the saturation point in terms of detail. I empathize that it's hard when each vampire (except Schuyler) has multiple previous incarnations and their original name that they had in heaven and they often call each other by these names or refer to past lives and the people in past lives by their names then, not now. Sheesh.

BUT. Now we have seven gates guarded by seven families and all the people who existed in Caligula's Rome (guess who was Caligula? Yep. Lucifer, big shocker.) There's a European coven (who knew?) who doesn't like the New York coven, except for Lawrence Van Alen, Schuyler's dead grandfather. Jack and Mimi are going to be bonded but they each really, really like other people and are tempted to chuck off responsibility after a few thousand years of being really, really obedient to the vampire rules. Schuyler's Mom Allegra suddenly decides to wake up and snack on an orderly because she's worried about the situation with Lawrence dying, but she only gives Schuyler a good 10 minutes of loving Mom action before she disappears to do her own work and she never gives Bliss the time of day despite the fact that we found out in the third book that Bliss is her daughter too. They aren't very maternal, are they?

I will admit to a low level irritation as the chapters jumped between Schuyler, Jack, Mimi, and Bliss and all this complicated Lucifer/Rome plot kept getting added. I don't like it when I think I need a flow chart of who was who whenever (there's a small chart in the back of the book, but hardly sufficient). I didn't feel that the characters were further developed, excepting Mimi who really is coming into her own, but Jack comes off as almost a cardboard cutout rather than a hero and lover to Schuyler. I'm really hoping the next book in the series, Misguided Angel, can pull some loose ends together (rather than add new loose ends) and develop the characters a little. I'm still pulling for you, Melissa!

Now for a better series. Richelle Mead doesn't shy away from detail in her carefully drawn vampire world as we follow Rose Hathaway, but that doesn't stop her from developing her characters further. After the epic battle against the Strigoi in Shadow Kissed, Rose is devastated. Dimitri is gone and she's decided to leave her best friend and bondmate, Lissa, behind at the Academy while she goes to hunt him down and fulfill her promise to him. Her journey is needless to say a complicated one, particularly when she takes breaks from her own situation by escaping into Lissa's mind to check on her and realizes something is very wrong back at Vampire Academy, with Lissa acting strange and surrounded by some very suspicious characters.

I don't want to give the plot away, but I was floored as usual by Richelle Mead's writing ability. Her character development is fantastic - Rose continues to grow and change and her time with Dimitri's family is so poignant that you feel your heart tearing a little along with hers. Add in some personal family developments, a great setting in Russia, and us finding out more about other people endowed, like Lissa, with the spirit element and it makes for super reading. That and the small, tiny kernel of hope given to us at the end of the book about a possible resolution to Rose's unhappiness and I'm dying for book #6. What would make my day is if I could get an ARC at ALA Midwinter in Boston this year. I plan on doing quite a bit of begging to see if I can get one.

The Palette Cleansers - Dessen and Anderson

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After the Dan Brown The Lost Symbol debacle (and the Splenda-like aftertaste of Evernight), I realized I needed to pick a new book that would never fail me - an author who could never let me down. Who does a girl turn to? In this case I was lucky enough to have two great books waiting in the wings by two of my favorite authors, Sarah Dessen and Laurie Halse Anderson.

Sarah Dessen (who I have met in person, thank you very much) had published Along for the Ride over the summer and with moving into my new house, I never got to read it. What a great opportunity after a freemason, tatooed villian free for all! Sarah always manages a triple, if not a home run. If I were honest with myself, I'd say that I liked Lock and Key better, but I still absolutely loved it. She is such a talented author with the ability to present really different girls with developed personalities, to describe girl friendship so well and so true, to wiggle inside the ugly yet loving reality of sibling and child/parent relationship. I heart her.

The protagonist, Auden (named after the poet), was like so many girls I've known - hyper focused on academics, mature before their time, overscheduled girls with driven parents who don't understand that each kid is different. When she heads off to spend time with her inherently selfish and oblivious father and seemingly fluffy stepmother to meet their new baby, she gets more than she bargained for. Her stepmother is falling apart at the seams due to lack of help, Auden hooks up with the wrong guy only to find he has an older brother with a lot of appeal, and her stepmother's business is populated by a clack of girls that might just be Auden's first real friends. I love it that Sarah Dessen can write something so hopeful while not making the resolution unrealistic. For anyone on the cusp of college, this book is a must summer read prior to orientation week. FYI, Sarah Dessen has the best blog and you should totally read it.

So you can imagine that I was pretty happy putting Evernight behind me with Sarah Dessen, but to knock Dan Brown's latest drunken dial to his publisher out of the park, it was going to take something else really spectacular. Enter Laurie Halse Anderson's Wintergirls. Most of the kids at Wyoming Seminary know Laurie Halse Anderson from their freshmen reading of her award-winning novel, Speak (I'm a gigantic Catalyst fan, myself, in addition to a huge fan of Fever 1793). If anyone liked Speak, they are going to be blown away by Wintergirls.

I was so stunned by this book - I kept thinking I'm going to have to read it a few times to really get some of the nuances that I was merely lightly grasping the first time around. This isn't a book, it's literature kept running through my head.

Getting into the head of Lia, the protagonist, is a terrifying prospect. Her anorexia is so pronounced that the reader is subject to her devastating self-talk (the font usage is amazing throughout the text) and the utter loathing she has for her body is so well-described, you can see the level of research Anderson did for this book. But it doesn't feel researched, it feels REAL, very real. What's more, despite hearing her revolting habits, hearing her hate toward her body, you are so empathetic that you care about Lia. This girl is so utterly shattered, has no adult in her life who she can really count on to care about her and love her unconditionally, that your heart goes out to how alone and adrift she is. When the story picks up, Lia is hearing from her stepmother that her best friend of years, recently estranged, Cassie (who suffered from bulimia) has been found dead in a motel room. Soon Cassie's ghost enters into Lia's tenuous hold on reality and as her weight drops (with her deceiving everyone around her), Cassie becomes more prominent and suffocating with her presence. Once again, her parents cannot be counted upon to see reality, just the problems before them, and neither they nor Cassie's parents ever understand that the unrealistic expectations and extreme pressure we see put on the girls from such a young age are largely responsible for their medical conditions. I think Wintergirls would be great to have in a required reading list, but it is SO specific in the details of her abuse of her body, both around food and cutting, that I could see teachers hesitant to use the book for fear of being blamed if any students would evince the behaviors described in the book. Go and read Wintergirls.

The Lost Symbol should have stayed lost

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Like many people who enjoyed The Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demons, I was eagerly awaiting The Lost Symbol, Dan Brown's latest thriller starring symbologist Robert Langdon, everyone's favorite turtleneck-clad genius professor with a nice sense of humor and the ability to work under pressure.

Was I disappointed! I crunched through it in a night, snorting in a very unladylike way (I'm glad my mother wasn't there to hear) during the more egregious parts. It felt like either Brown was rushed to press way to soon by an overeager publisher who needed to pay the mortgage on their second home, or he indulgently let the intern write a big part of it. I'm all for culturing new talent, but there wasn't any in here.

Was the book interesting? Kind of. The female characters were shallower than usual, the prose stilted (something I have admired with Brown is his preview ability to smoothly transition into giving the historical background about an object or idea) in the "let's stop the action to talk about the Capitol Building now - oh, action again!". Did the mean female CIA agent have to be Asian, with a mustache, with throat cancer surgery so she sounds like a man? Does that seem misogynist to anyone else, particularly when coupled with the other shallow female characters? The villain was bizarre, even after you find out the plot twist (I gasped and then realized there was no inner shock because I had seen it coming). For someone who likes Washington or is really, really, really into the Freemasons this could be a great stocking-stuffer, but right now it feels more like the Halloween scary gift (because you won't get back those hours of your life that you've wasted reading it).

Because not all vampire books are good...

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With my success of reading the terrific Vampire Academy series (see previous post) I was feeling adventurous and ready to dabble in some other books about vampires. So I picked up Evernight by Claudia Gray which had just come in my latest Follett order (eleven delicious boxes of books in that one, purrrrrr). I didn't remember the plot from the reviews, just that it had something to do with vampires and it was at a boarding school (they always get me with the boarding school thing). Recipe for happiness, check.

And I started. It was okay, the prose was fine, not stellar. I got a little irritated that there were so many Twilight parallels initially (Bianca is a pretty girl who doesn't know she's pretty, the distant Lucas is so handsome she's shocked he seems interested in her). Her parents are nice faculty members, the school is creepy...okay, I get it. But then, literally half-way through the book when Bianca and Lucas are finally kissing at the gazebo, it happens! WE FIND OUT SHE'S A VAMPIRE. A vampire baby, actually, which means that her parents are vampires and she's kinda/sorta one but not fully (she won't be until she kills someone near death at a nursing home - I'm serious, that's what it says). I think it's supposed to be this huge "twist" (and of course, practically everyone else at the school is a vampire - a group of vampires that look like teenagers but come to the school every century or so to have new developments explained to them, like microwaves and iPods), but I was just really pissed off. How could you not mention your mother loves history because she's been living since the 1600s? Or that you "always" have blood in wine glasses from the butcher's at dinner? Isn't this a big thing to breeze over? Particularly if we're supposed to feel that the reason she's ostracized in the first place is because she's human, but then we find out it's just because she's kind of a "loser" vampire? I don't like surprises like this.

It get's worse from there. Lucas freaks, she sends him a Christmas email apologizing for not telling, big twist where he's a human vampire hunter (how young do they recruit them, exactly?), scene in church when they are trying to run away together, headmistress is vampire Cruella deVille, blah, blah. Yes, there are two more in the "series"; no, I won't be reading them, but I'll probably get them to complete the set and in case someone likes this one. The characters didn't feel real to me and I didn't feel that I understood their motivation a lot of the time. The only characters I was really interested in were the supporting characters of Patrice and Balthazar, the nicer vampires at the school who actually befriend Bianca. I just found out that Claudia Gray contributed a short story about Patrice to a collection put together by P.C. Cast called Immortal - that I think I'll buy and read.

I wish I was the librarian at Vampire Academy...

10:58 AM 0 Comments A+ a-

There are a decent number of good vampire books out there to keep horror readers happy and occupied between Twilight series readings. I love the Blue Bloods series by Melissa de la Cruz (I can't wait to read the latest, The Van Alen Legacy - check out the trailer on the above author website). And I put up with the gratutious sexual content and quickly dated pop culture references in the House of Night series by mother/daughter team P.C. Cast and Kristen Cast because the plot is so interesting and the Native American element such a great twist and perspective.

But despite my having collected them like any good librarian buying for a high school audience, I had never cracked open the Vampire Academy series by Richelle Mead. I don't know why, maybe the word "Academy" in the title felt like a juvenile knock-off kind of book, but I read an entry from a blogger (with whom I usually agree about books) in which she was RAVING about how much she loves these books and how Richelle Mead really keeps the characters developing throughout the series. (We've all read series where the the third or fourth book tests our loyalty.) So I went the library the next day and picked up the first one - and didn't put it down. In fact, I read the first three in two days (two work days, I might add, which meant I was in the "Sure, honey, I'm going to shut off the light in minute, you get started going to sleep, 'kay?" mode).

And I wasn't disappointed. I was captivated by the complex, and very different world that the author creates with good vampires (the magic-using Moroi) and bad (the immortal and people-killing Strigoi) and the human/vampire hybrids who guard the good Moroi from the Strigoi. Rose Hathaway is a fantastic protagonist with all the necessary qualities for a kick-butt Moroi bodyguard - she's a great best friend, can beat the pants off of most boys in her guarding classes, has a distant and antagonistic relationship with her Mom, doesn't know who her Moroi father is, is drop-dead gorgeous, and has quite the sexual tension with her slightly older and smokin' hot mentor, Dimitri. Her best friend, Lissa, is Moroi royalty and tangled up in plenty of good vampire politics which adds an extra layer of complication as does the magic that Lissa can do - which isn't like anyone else's abilities. Dimitri is my favorite supporting character, however, as his personality is skillfully drawn and has a real depth you don't often see in the romantic foil. That, and the fact that I was surprised that the love scene pages didn't burst into flame while I was reading, really makes this series a page-turner. I might drive to Barnes & Noble to get the latest book, Blood Promise, today.

"Yes, We Have No Bananas...": A Reflection on Cushing Academy

11:02 AM 0 Comments A+ a-

Do you remember that song? I first heard it when I watched the original movie Sabrina with Audrey Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart sang it to her "Yes, we have no bananas/we have no bananas today." Something recently happened that had me singing that tune under my breath, but I was thinking about books, not bananas.

When my excellent friend and librarian, Laura, sent out a note with the original story about Cushing Academy's radical move to give away their book collection right before my opening faculty meeting, I knew I had to mention it. My fellow librarian, Ivy Miller and I, were astonished and a little scandalized. We went through a renovation to update our library just a little over a year ago and we spent a great deal of time with our kids, faculty, administration, and donors explaining to them how we were planning a cutting edge library program that has the perfect balance of print and electronic sources. In our regular classes in the library, we teach how only a small percentage of the world of print is available electronically (you can imagine this is where we are also educating our students about copyright and intellectual property), and then we show them techniques to find what is out there. We also spend a sometimes exorbitant (at least in relation to my budget) amount of money on high-quality college databases, so our students are ready for a college environment and know what the invisible web holds. It's gratifying when our alumni come back and tell us, "Can you believe it? I was the only one who knew how to use the ProQuest Historical Newspapers database! I had to teach the other kids in my class so they wouldn't fail."

When I did my opening of year spiel to the faculty, I mentioned the late-breaking news and was gratified at the collective gasp of horror that rippled through the room. My statement was actually, "I want you to know that my one consoling thought when I read this article was that I was so lucky - all of you would revolt if someone suggested this because you are all such great users of the print and the electronic sources of the library." Teachers were coming up to me afterward with comments like:
"But you said not everything is in print, how are kids going to be familiar with seminal works in a discipline?"
"Who is going to teach them all those research techniques you show them? How will they know about the reference books that aren't electronic?"
"But how are they going to find books to read for fun? They'll have to buy them and not everyone can afford that."

Better yet were the quotes from the kids sitting at our new information bar while Ivy and I were talking over the repercussions of this decision (we gave them the article to read).
"They did WHAT? Are they stupid?"
"I can't take a Kindle in the bathtub."
"Why did the librarians let them do that?"
"Where did the books go? They didn't burn them, did they?"
"Just because these Cushing kids did 95% of their research online, doesn't mean it was good research."
"That is the dumbest thing I've ever heard of a school doing. Did you get the new Tamora Pierce book in, Mrs. Lewis?"

And they were all correct. I was worried about these things, too.

I'm going to be honest here. I know AMAZING independent school librarians and great administrators, but I've also seen that sometimes independent schools become a safe harbor for eccentric personalities. Sometimes the home of these personalities is in the library, sometimes in the headmaster's office, and sometimes in the classroom. And because of the patriarchal nature of independent schools, these people are like your crazy aunt in the family - she's in the TV room and people just avoid her and maybe make little jokes at her expense. In an independent school, these characters are sometimes just ignored and then either make a nutty decision (see above article) or they are trampled on or fired. In this case, all of the above may have happened. I'm thinking that this could be partly what's going on at Cushing - dysfunctional New England boarding school culture at its finest.

So the next thing I know, I get a nice note from my major library donor, Charles, who headed up our campaign for the library renovation (a highly successful campaign, I might add, since people love to say yes to Charles). He lives in Boston and clipped The Boston Globe article adding in his note a very funny caption of Headmaster Tracy in the old library (the headmaster is scratching his head looking at the old library). Charles and his fellow graduates from 1958 all understood that there needed to be a balance between print and electronic sources (this class loves technology). They enjoyed seeing kids whip off the books from our displays with a squeal and equally loved how kids worshipfully opened up the new MacBooks when we had the cart delivered. But they understand, as this educator does not, that kids like to read...a book. (Not all new YA titles are available electronically, BTW - and even if they were, I can imagine what it would be like to have had only 18 Kindles when the new Twilight series books came out. Kids would have been scratching each others' eyes out!)

Kids do read and 18 Kindles are not going to cut it (one per student that they own might be a help), particularly when the terms of use agreement from Amazon.com clearly state that they are not for institutions to own or loan out, but are for personal use only. If you're going to use technology, Cushing Academy, please, please read the terms of use!

So I guess I'm worried about Cushing Academy, I'm worried about kids using technology, but not thoughtfully or well and not empowered with the knowledge of all the print sources they are missing that their college professor is going to expect them to use. I'm worried about the library staff having to learn how to use a $12,000 cappuccino machine and administer a program that may not sync with their values, and I'm worried about kids not being able to browse for a good book to read out on the grass in the bright sun on a Saturday. And I'm worried about Cushing come reaccreditation time when Headmaster Tracy might be spending a lot of time explaining why he did what he did and living with the results.