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Someday My Printz Will Come
Inside Someday My Printz Will Come

Literary Fiction

There was a time, undergrad degree clenched tightly in my fist, literary criticism terms floating untethered through my every thought, when I loved literary fiction.

I don’t mean fiction that is literature, I mean Literary in the postmodern, smugly self-aware, consciously playing with literature and language sense.

Somewhere along the way, I lost all patience with this style of writing. Especially the self-aware bit.

So those of you who have already read Jenny Hubbard’s Paper Covers Rock will not be surprised that I had some difficulty with the novel.

I’ve tried. Oh, how I’ve tried. For two months, this is the book I’ve been reading between and in the midst of other, less aggravating books. I want to like it: it’s a boy’s boarding school story, and I often love that designation (A Separate Peace was a long time favorite). It’s short, and I’ve had the kind of fall where short books are a joy because I get to read them fast, so I can usually finish them before the flaws catch up to me. It’s got the tantalizing possibility of a teacher-student love story, which has held an icky sort of fascination since I came of age singing “Don’t Stand so Close to Me.”

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The Scorpio Races

Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising series haunted me as I read The Scorpio Races. Not because the two are really that similar; more because they are linked by Celtic mythology. And also partly because that series and this book are rooted in a recognizable world that suddenly and delightfully reveals  mythological roots (well, Scorpio Races is sort of an alternate world that doesn’t actually exist, but still. It feels the same).

I think I also connected the two because of the water horses, the capall uisce. [Read more…]

Date Rape, Siblings, and the New Problem Novel

You Against Me is a fine novel, in the non-pejorative sense of fine. It is finely detailed, even nuanced, story about family and what happens when bad things derail the complacency and blindness of a family.

It’s also the second book I’ve read in 2011 alone in which a sibling response to an alleged date rape is a central component: back in February, verse novel Exposed by Kimberly Marcus hit the stands.

Exposed hasn’t been mentioned over here before, although it too is a fine novel, this time admittedly in the damning with faint praise sense. It did quite well in my library, because it’s short and tight and while it has nothing hugely remarkable to recommend itself, it does what it sets out to do very well. Because really, what it is is a problem novel. Like Ellen Hopkins’s books, or Sarah Dessen’s, or Patty McCormick’s, it provides palatable (not sweetened) access to a difficult subject, and it’s fairly straightforward (verse format notwithstanding.)

You Against Me covers much of the same territory, except that in addition to the rapist’s sister, we also get the victim’s brother, a double whammy treatise on masculinity, and a star-crossed love (between the two siblings). And I found myself thinking that this seemed like trying to make a silk purse from a sow’s ear. In many ways, this passes as a silk purse. Downham has an astounding ear for dialogue (caveat: I speak American, the characters speak English. So it might play differently across the pond). She has a deft touch with her examination of gender and class. But in the end, it read a little too much like a problem novel gussied up, and I’m not sure that dressing up is enough to make this stand out in the year. [Read more…]

Round Up, Part Two

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

YALSA’s final nomination lists were posted last week.

We thought it’d be interesting to see what we are looking at here versus what Best Fiction for Young Adults and Great Graphic Novels will be checking out in January. (I am leaving Quick Picks off because the QP charge is so dissimilar to the Printz charge. And since Popular Paperbacks is retrospective, we can safely leave that list out, too. And until the short lists for the Morris and Nonfiction awards come out, there’s nothing we can say about those.) [Read more…]

The Thin Line between Love and Criticism

Oh, Daughter of Smoke and Bone, how I love thee.

And how it wounds me that I must now talk about all the ways in which you are not a Printz contender after all (says I, and won’t I be eating crow, with some pleasure, if the actual committee comes to entirely the opposite conclusion about that). [Read more…]

Kirkus Children’s!

Usually, I am annoyed/aggravated/inclined to roll my eyes at the casual way we use “children’s” to mean birth to 18 (see: most publishing houses). Also, the cavalier dismissal of differences between science fiction and fantasy (they’re not the same. Really. But that’s immaterial right now). Today, however, I was instead sad to find that the tweet (see right) that had me all excited to click through really did mean children’s in the sense of up to age 12 (we won’t get the teen list until 11/28).

Boo.

But!

I did notice that three titles that have come up as stuff we should/might/could talk about in the context of a mock Printz or at least teen readers are on the list: The Floating Islands by Rachel Neumeier, Dead End in Norvelt by Jack Gantos, and Okay for Now by Gary Schmidt.

So, did Kirkus put these in the right place? Would they be better served on the teen list? Are these contendas in any way? And did you even read The Floating Islands, which I loved and didn’t find particularly young at all?

Anthologies, or Why Mixed Author Works Never Get Any Lovin’

This year, we have two excellent anthologies on the market for teens.

I’m not talking “pretty good, you know, a few gems in there”: I’m talking consistently excellent, with some flights of genius. And I’m predicting not a whit of attention on either of them come January.

The first one is Steampunk!

(Don’t you just love the exclamation in the title? It’s so excited. I kind of want to do a dance move every time I say it.)

Steampunk (the genre/zeitgeist/fashion/attitude) is hot hot hot. So hot that it’s probably almost over, in fact, but hopefully not. Because really, doesn’t everyone need some goggles and automatons in their life?

Notably, however, the anthology doesn’t feel like pandering. Each of the stories is it’s own unique little gem (is it officially a cliche to call short stories gems? I think it might be. But what else conveys glitter and richness and something small but precious? Because that’s what I mean, even if the phrasing has gotten a bit stale.) And none of them take place in the conventional spaces of steampunk (Victorian London, that is).

So we’ve got well written short fiction (ranging from good to excellent, barring one story, but that one is in graphic novel format and there might be bias in my assessment, since I am not the best reader of visual texts). We’ve got a unique twist on the organizing principle of the collection. It’s even pretty well ordered for reading start to finish. There’s an emotional flow to the read for the most part; stories with thematic resonances are spread across rather than clumped together, but the flow isn’t so schizophrenic as to disrupt the reader’s experience with abrupt about faces, and faster paced stories give way to slower paced and back again. The design (which we never really talk about in Printz speculation but actually is specifically cited in the criteria) is lovely, from the font choices for titles and text alike to the little flourishes and blots on each page. Also, the trim size is just a bit wider than usual, which feels suitably old-fashioned but modern.

I’m not going to analyze each story independently, but in case you wondered, yes, I have favorites. Cassie Clare’s opener is really creepy. Libba Bray’s selection takes place in the Old West and has Pinkertons and a girl gang, which wins the cool factor award. Delia Sherman’s comic romance made me laugh out loud. And Elizabeth Knox goes back to the world of the Dreamhunter duet with her usual skill and depth. This is not to say that the other stories aren’t fantastic–and for sheer literary grace, M.T. Anderson and Kelly Link really can’t be beat. But those four stuck with me a bit more than some of the others, and some of the stories might not fare as well under really close scrutiny.

The other stellar anthology this year is Welcome to Bordertown. I might lack some objectivity here, though: I grew up on the first iteration of this shared world, and have all the original anthologies and the novels too. I was one of those adolescents who would have fled for Bordertown in a heartbeat. So there might be an element of my assessment that is tied up in my personal baggage. But the collection did receive two stars as well as some lauds in the mainstream and fantasy worlds (all helpfully collected on the Bordertown Press page), which indicates my love is not just a me thing.

The brilliant: this is a shared-world anthology. And it’s done well: these stories all feel totally different from one another but the setting is consistent, and not just in details. It feels like a cohesive whole. And the opening piece, which is both effective writing on it’s own and also genuinely teen-aged in voice: it spoofs travel guides in a way that reminds me of the travel brochures to planets our Astonomy class has done in the past. It’s attempting to be serious, but the writer is 16 or 17 and you can tell. When my students do that, we ask them to work harder on their voice maturity; when an author (or group–no author is listed for “Bordertown Basics”) pulls it off, we look on in awe. As with Steampunk!, it’s clear that thought went into the ordering of the stories, especially the bookending opening and closing selections and the seeding of songs between prose pieces.

Bordertown, although it pains me to admit it, also has a few flaws. The songs, for instance. As poems, I found them only so-so. As songs they might be great, but since no music is provided, it’s hard to assess them effectively. Cory Doctorow’s story struck me as a clumsy attempt to bring him (the author, personality, pundit) into Bordertown, and I found it problematic on an individual level (lots of authorial voice, but maybe this is comparative because I am aware of his larger body of work?) and on an anthology level (it isn’t entirely seamless to have this one glaringly computer-driven tale in this collection. Why would a kid like that want to live in Bordertown anyway?)

It also has some standouts. Two in particular have stuck with me. Charles De Lint’s closer choked me up: love, loss, and hope packaged beautifully. There is something graceful about his prose when it is at it’s best, and this is it’s best. Alaya Dawn Johnson once again proves that she has a flair for short fiction (see Zombies v. Unicorns for another example). Her writing is vivid: this was a story where Bordertown came to life even without the added color borrowed from the fact that every story deepens the world.

And finally, Bordertown does something that’s hard to do in fiction in general, much less in a collection: it meditates on adolescence and growth. Woven through the entire book is a meta conversation about the perils and pleasures of being a teen and what it means to be lost and lonely and on the cusp of something. This is where it rises way beyond the sum of it’s parts and becomes richer for it.

So, with all this good, why do I think no award loving?

Mixed-author anthologies are hard. Even the great ones are uneven. It’s hard to focus on literary quality when you need to assess every story individually and as part of a whole. They feel like neither fish nor fowl, and so they end up pushed aside. Maybe this is the correct call: in both collections, there are some duddy stories, so they aren’t consistently excellent. Then again, in lots of novels there are small flaws we can cite if we dig deep enough, but we still consider these serious contenders.

I think one or the other will end up on best-of-the-year lists (I predict Steampunk! more than Welcome to Bordertown, although BFYA is only considering Bordertown, much to my surprise). But they will likely get lost in the shuffle, like so many collections, and that’s a darn shame.

Maybe we need another award, for the best story (not anthology or collection) published for the YA market. That way these little gems would have a chance to really shine. What could we call it, and what might the criteria look like? (I’m totally serious here, and comments are open. Go crazy!)

Let the Games Begin!

Not those games, although every other conversation I had today was about the Hunger Games trailer.

Image by Kasaa, used under Creative Commons licensing. Some rights reserved.

No, I mean the annual best books game. The lists! The awards! The moments of truth! And (my favorite), the Monday morning quarterbacking.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. We’re just at the very beginning of the process.

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Recovery Road

This is the first book that I’ve stopped reading for this blog. I am sure this has been covered in other places, in fact I bet you’re sick of me talking about it…but just to obsessively, nervously explain, I am on infant care leave. My son is nearly 7 months old, and all the reading I’m doing is happening at a frantic pace as I flail around, playing catch up because I have mostly been reading books on sleep issues and watching youtube videos on how to take a temperature from a baby’s bottom. (I am sorry, google searcher/frantic parent, I am not actually here to explain how to do so, but I did find this video very helpful and surprisingly calming. Enjoy!)

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Tom, Tom, the Piper’s Son

Tom, Tom, he was a piper’s son,
He learned to play when he was young.
And all the tune that he could play
Was over the hills and far away
(Nursery Rhyme; this text from Wikipedia)

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