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Someday My Printz Will Come
Inside Someday My Printz Will Come

A Creature of Moonlight

creature A Creature of Moonlight

A Creature of Moonlight by Rebecca Hahn
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, May 2014
Reviewed from ARC

This is a book that, I’m pretty sure, was written just for me. I love fantasy, I love courtly politics, I love dragons and willful ladies. Somehow, though, even though my review is due, I have to confess that I’m only about half way through. (Sometimes, reading in short bursts on the subway is not my friend, even though it makes for nice visuals.) [Read more...]

The Winner’s Curse

9780374384678 The Winners CurseThe Winner’s Curse, Marie Rutkoski
Macmillan, March 2014
Reviewed from final copy

Not gonna lie. I loved this book. I loved from the pretty dress cover — I know! But I’m a sucker — to the thoroughly unexpected world. I loved the lack of easy answers and the fact that there is more to come. I loved Kestrel’s brilliance and her stupidity, and Arin’s conflicting desires for freedom and to be a good man, in a world where both are not an option. So much love, really.

But my love does not literary merit confer, sadly, so let’s see if there’s a case to be made.

[Read more...]

Death and Love: Sorrow’s Knot & The Coldest Girl in Coldtown

Today, I’m talking about two books that are in my personal top 10 of the year. And both revolve around death and love, two primal, powerful pieces of life.

And they’re both fantastic.

Other than that, they’re really different, and I suspect neither of them has much chance at a Printz nod, which is sort of a shame.

[Read more...]

A Corner of White

A Corner of White A Corner of WhiteA Corner of White (Book 1 of The Colors of Madeleine), Jaclyn Moriarty
Scholastic, April 2013
Reviewed from ARC and final ebook

This is a doozy of a book. Clair talked about the difficulties summing up a complex book like The Raven Boys, but that would be a breeze compared to this one. It’s crowded and strange and whimsical but sort of deadly serious and heavy too.

Also, four stars, three year-end lists, two turtledoves and one not-a-list.

Well, not the turtledoves. (The not-a-list is the NPR tagged and searchable assemblage of best titles.)

So does it have a chance? Or, as a fellow librarian asked, is this one of those books that gets stars just because the reviewers don’t know what else to do with it?

[Read more...]

Midwinterblood

Midwinterblood 200x300 MidwinterbloodMidwinterblood, Marcus Sedgwick
Roaring Brook Press, February 2013
Reviewed from final copy

Let me start with a provocative question: Can a book be so literary that it fails at being a book?

Midwinterblood is full of the sorts of things I’ve hardly thought about since my days as an English major: tropes, motifs, archetypes, foreshadowing, even an ekphrastic device (ok, I had to look that one up, but it’s there; it’s a work in one medium commenting on a work in another medium, here prose commenting on a painting). It’s also told in reverse chronological order, as a series of short pieces that move back in time and seek to illuminate one another and some deeper thematic scope.

Sometimes it’s so full of these things that they seem to crush any cohesive narrative, but at the same time there’s a nimble literary magic happening here that has garnered five starred reviews* and make this one feel like a serious contender.

I’ve read Midwinterblood twice now. I’ve marveled, I’ve complained, I’ve taken extensive notes, and I still waver between work of art and stinking hot mess.

[Read more...]

Seraphina

Seraphina 199x300 SeraphinaSeraphina, Rachel Hartman
Random House, July 2012
Reviewed from ARC

Gosh golly, but I love rereading.

Books change upon acquaintance. They get deeper (or, sometimes, shallower, but let’s not go there); different aspects bubble to the top; when the reader is no longer at the mercy of the plot’s momentum there is time to really savor all the different elements, even those that were initially subtle notes.

(Also, apparently, books are actually pots of soup. Mmmm, soup.)

Seraphina is one of those books that improves upon acquaintance, and which lingers after consuming reading. Having now read it three times, I find that actually, I love this book. And while love is immaterial, I’m also incredibly impressed at the way it keeps revealing new facets (rather like the moment Seraphina first sees dragons in their dragon forms, and realizes that the initially dull scales are filled with all sorts of color, in fact).

[Read more...]

The Chaos (Epic Post!)

The Chaos The Chaos (Epic Post!)The Chaos, Nalo Hopkinson
Margaret K. McElderry, April 2012
Reviewed from final copy

Over at Heavy Medal a month or so back, in the comments, the question was raised about emotional v intellectual engagement.

In a nutshell: is it fair that we tend to preference books with which we engage emotionally?

In that discussion, Mark Flowers (hi, Mark!) of Cross-Referencing said:

None of this is to say that emotional reaction should be taken out of the equation, but if we are really going to evaluate a book, we need to look at the how and the why of those emotional reactions, not just the fact of them.

I’ve been holding that comment in my head. “I feel” is, after all, invalid in Printz conversations if we leave it as an emotional reaction. But the question of the how and why takes that reaction and allows it to become another path by which to examine facets of writing and assess excellence. How does the author engage the reader? Is the emotional engagement or lack thereof in some way a response to the particulars of the writing? And how do we unpack the writing to get at the heart of the how and why? Because that’s where we find meat worth discussing in the context of the Printz.

[Read more...]

Burning Bleeding Brilliance

girlfirethorns1 198x300 Burning Bleeding BrillianceA big thank you to all who encouraged me to take a second, closer look at The Girl of Fire and Thorns, which I did last week, just before the Morris Shortlist came out.

It’s really pretty marvelous. It’s full on fantasy—no urban or paranormal modifiers needed, no fairy tale retellings or alternate history to be seen. In fact, examined closely, there are tiny hints that this is a Pern sort of fantasy with a science fiction underpinning (this is a new world, one not meant for humans).

So, it’s straight up fantasy (aside from that tantalizing hint about the unknown backstory), but it avoids almost all the tropes: Elisa is not a spunky girl or a badass princess or a typical damsel in distress; she’s smart but lazy; destined for greatness but full of doubts—although also with enough backbone to push through them. She’s lousy at being a princess but she might just be an amazing queen, and the journey she takes from one pole to the other makes for some great reading. It’s also, from the characterization angle, difficult writing: a first person narrator, who needs to tell us all the ways she’s kind of a mess and all the ways she’s becoming fierce and fearsome, without become so telly that it becomes plodding and didactic is no small task to write.

[Read more...]

Just One More

hornbook 225x300 Just One More

CC-licensed image by dougbelshaw

List, that is.

The Horn Book Best of 2011 list posted today.

This means that all of our pre Jan 1 lists are out: BCCB and Booklist should release their lists right around the New Year (so much for a winter break!)

Here’s how it all shakes out:

[Read more...]

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.

steampunk 214x300 Anthologies, or Why Mixed Author Works Never Get Any LovinThe 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.

bordertown 199x300 Anthologies, or Why Mixed Author Works Never Get Any LovinThe 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!)