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1. Review: A Little Something Different

A Little Something Different: Fourteen Viewpoints, One Love Story by Sandy Hall. Swoon Reads, an imprint of Feiwel and Friends. 2014. Review copy from publisher.

The Plot: Lea and Gabe meet in creative writing class. It's going to take more than sharing a college class to get these two together, even though they sit side by side.

What's keeping them apart? And what will it take to get them together? Well, Lea and Gabe won't tell you, but their friends, family, and others around them, from the bus drive to the waitress, will.

The Good: I just loved the narrative device of fourteen people (including those who don't like Lea and Gabe, as well as a squirrel and a bench) telling the romance of Lea and Gabe.

I loved this -- both because I've always been a fan of large casts and multiple viewpoints, and because it strengthens this particular story. While we don't see what Lea sees or Gabe sees, we see what those around them do, and it's like putting together a jigsaw puzzle. We see more of their world than they do.

Admittedly, fourteen voices is a lot to keep track of, as a reader, even when some are as unique as 'Squirrel!" The book design helps make this easier for those who, unlike me, don't keep a notebook with a running list of characters as they read. Instead of simply saying "Casey" or "Danny" or "Bob," it always says "Casey (Gabe's friend)" or "Danny (Lea's friend)" or "Bob (a bus driver)". It's just that little bit extra to help keep track of who is who.

I've written before (both when talking about New Adult and just in general) that when I was in high school I looked for books set in college out of curiosity about what college would be like; and when I was in college, I wanted books with a college setting to reflect the reality I was living. A Little Something Different meets that reading need, because it's not just about Lea and Gabe's slow road to romance; it's also about the things, small and big, that make up college life: parties, cafeteria food, overlapping friends, ordering take-out.

I would call this New Adult; but -- in part because of who is telling the story, and because it does take a while for Lea and Gabe together -- this isn't a sexytimes romance. What it is a sweet, funny glimpse into the lives of Lea and Gabe and those around them. This is more for those whose search for New Adult is more about setting than romance -- but the romance is so great! It's just not a hot and heavy romance, it's a slow burn of missed opportunities by two of the shyest people on the planet.

Another thing I liked about A Little Something Different is how Hall wove in diversity into the narrative. For example, Lea's friend Danny is gay; the creative writing professor is a woman married to another woman; Lea is Chinese-American. Gabe had been in a car accident the year before, and it -- and the physical after effects of the accident -- are something he doesn't easily share (it's a bit of a spoiler even saying that here), and those things have an effect on how he interacts with others and how others see him.

Note: Sandy Hall is a fellow New Jersey librarian.

Other reviews: Wondrous Reads reviews; Good Books & Good Wine

Amazon Affiliate. If you click from here to Amazon and buy something, I receive a percentage of the purchase price.

© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy

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2. YALSA YA Lit Symposium 2015

This Thursday I will be heading out to the 2015 YALSA YA Lit Symposium in Austin, Texas!



Part of the reason I will be there is because I'll be presenting. I'm part of a panel, Whose Reality Gets Written?, on Sunday, 10:30am-12:00pm. Panelists are Svati Avasthi, Steve Brezenoff, Elizabeth Burns, E. M. Kokie, Andrew Karre, Blythe Woolston.

The full description: "The formula for YA fiction is no secret: Wrap a load of dysfunction in a layer of bleak despair and spice it up with little romantic angst. Problem is, that formula is a fantasy. Writers, editors, and readers are all making personal, particular choices. This panel will tackle these questions: Are certain realities over-represented? Are others under-represented? If so, why are some privileged while others are neglected? Does YA entail a different set of responsibilities than "adult" fiction? Who defines those responsibilities? Does narrow focus on a particular "here and now" doom books to irrelevance or rapid obsolescence?"

The hashtag, for those talking about this online, is #yalit14.

I haven't made up my mind about what programs I'll be attending, because they all look good.

I'll have some free time in Austin on Friday and Sunday afternoon. So, any suggestions for a first-time visitor in Austin?

And any dining recommendations?

I hope to see you there!






Amazon Affiliate. If you click from here to Amazon and buy something, I receive a percentage of the purchase price.

© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy

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3. Review: The Fall

The Fall by Bethany Griffin. Greenwillow Books, an imprint of HarperCollins. 2014.

The Plot: A retelling of The Fall of the House of Usher by Edgar Allan Poe.

The Good: Did you not see what I said? A retelling! Of The Fall of the House of Usher!

OK, it's true that not every retelling or re-imaging is done well. And it's also true that there are many ways to revisit a story. So you need more from me, to let you know that this one is well worth the read.

The Fall is an emotional, character driven retelling, making the doomed Madeline Usher the main character.

It is Madeline telling the story, and it is fragmented. Madeline at eighteen, trapped, buried alive; Madeline at nine, when her family is strange but still together and alive. The story jumps back and forth in time, ending, as it began, with Madeline at eighteen. Along the way, the reader, along with Madeline, learns of the curse of the Ushers -- a curse on both the physical house and the bloodline. A curse that allows the family to continue, yes, but attacks each generation, physically and mentally attacking family members. They remain rich and well off and with a grand house -- but they are doomed and the house is decaying, as the family decays. As Madeline decays.

And let me say how much I loved that the telling is non-linear, because it makes the reader as unsure as Madeline is, as unaware of what is really going on. Doubting and believing, uncertain and sure.

And what is really going on? Madeline and her family are cursed, of course. Along with Madeline, the reader learn about the origins of the curse, and how it touches each generation, with hints of abuse and madness and incest, and how it twists and turns the people living in the house.

Or, maybe not.

One thing I liked about The Fall, and I hope I'm not alone in this, is that it may all be in Madeline's head. That she may be mad, yes, but not because of a curse. That Madeline sees things and interprets things because of both her own madness, but also because those around her are convinced there is a curse so she chooses to see the world, and herself, as victims of that curse. That some things may be things she made up, or she believes because her parents believed and she's been isolated with no one to balance anything.

Or, maybe yes, and there's a curse and even when Madeline seems mad it's the proper reaction to the situation she is in.

Another thing I liked was that The Fall doesn't veer far from Poe's story. OK, I admit, I haven't read the story in years and years. So I'm going more on memory of the story and the Vincent Price movie. But The Fall kept the focus tight: Madeline, her twin brother Roderick, his friend from school. There are also doctors treating Madeline and that may be new but if it is, it makes sense and it kept the story and plot tight.

And, finally, The Fall stays within the confines and setting of the original story, which was written in 1839. A year is never given, but there are coaches and servants and the time period is clearly "long ago" and "not now." What I love is how this setting is shown and created without much detail. Ask each reader of The Fall to sketch the house and its gardens and rooms, and each drawing will be different from each other. Madeline is telling the story and she is showing us her emotional truth. I love that Griffin trusts us, the reader, to not need those extra bits and doesn't give into the temptation of unneeded details.

And yes . . .  I do plan on rereading The Fall of the House of Usher! So I'll revisit this review once I've done so.

Assorted links: Guest Post by Bethany Griffin at Uncorked Thoughts, talking Gender; review at The Book Smugglers; review at Wondrous Reads; review at Bookish.




 Amazon Affiliate. If you click from here to Amazon and buy something, I receive a percentage of the purchase price.

© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy

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4. Review: How We Fall

How We Fall by Kate Brauning. Merit Press. 2014. Reviewed from ARC.

The Plot:  Jackie's feelings for Marcus are intense, but she tries to hide it. Oh, they flirt, and yes, there are stolen kisses. So why can't they just both admit that it's more than flirtation, why not go on a real date?

Jackie's afraid, afraid of what people will think. Marcus is her cousin. And, to make matters more sensitive, or at least Jackie more sensitive to what people will think, their families share one home. They live under the same roof.

Jackie has few people she can trust or turn to. Her older sister is at college; her parents wouldn't understand, or worse, would over react. Her best friend, Ellie, has disappeared and it's beginning to look like Ellie didn't run away but was kidnapped, or worse.

Breaking up with Marcus, or, rather, stopping things, doesn't help. Her feelings don't just go away, and seeing him with a new girl,, Sylvia, makes things worse. So Jackie tries seeing someone new, Will.

Jackie begins to pore over all emails and messages from Ellie, hoping to figure out what happened to Ellie. And she's surprised when a name turns up in an old email: Sylvia. Could Marcus's new friend have a connection to Ellie and her disappearance?

The Good: How We Fall looks at love and lust and desire. Jackie knows full well what other people are going to think about her and Marcus being together, and I'm sure there are readers who won't be able to get over the first cousin romance. As Jackie points out, though, it's not illegal; and at most, it means that in some states they wouldn't be able to marry. There was something so sweet, and heart-breaking, to have Jackie both trying to deny her feelings and love for Marcus, while doing searches to find colleges in states where marriage is possible. Add to it that Jackie is keeping her emotions and thoughts so close, from fear, that she hasn't shared this with Marcus.

Jackie's attraction to and love for Marcus is clear, and while the story is told from Jackie's point of view, it also becomes clear that what he feels for Jackie is true. On one level, How We Fall is, simply, about star-crossed lovers.

The star-crossed is made more complicated by the unique housing situation. About two or three years earlier (Jackie is now 16, Marcus a year older), the two families decided, for several reasons, to combine households and move in together. For Jackie and her older sister, that meant moving from California to rural Missouri. Her father, a lawyer, now does legal consulting from home; her mother works at the library. Her uncle works in a lawn and garden shop and her aunt takes care of the home, which also involves a working farm.

To use Jackie's words to describe her aunt and uncle: "Uncle Ward's opinions were a junk drawer combination of conservative family values, generous interpretations of self-restraint and normalcy, and questionable ideas Aunt Shelly found on the internet." Ward and Shelly have six children, ranging from twin toddlers to Marcus, the eldest.

The families share a home -- this isn't sharing land, or a building. It's using the same kitchen, the same living spaces, and trying to balance their values. It's not always easy; you can tell that sometimes Jackie's mother (Ward's sister) is biting her tongue about Shelley's judgments and rules. (Let's just say that Shelley isn't a fan of TV or movies while Jackie is looking to major in film in college.) Jackie has also gone from youngest child of two to an eldest child helping not only with chores, and selling their farm produce, and helping in the gardens and with the animals, but also babysitting her younger cousins.

Still, the families make it work. They are happy and functional; but it's also a financial decision. They are living a lifestyle, and in a home, that requires four adults working. But, to be honest, working "less", with a better quality of life, if that makes sense. Look at the father: he can return to law, but he's happier being a consultant. Jackie's mother is happy working at the library, but if the families split, she'd need to get a better paying job. I really loved that this book included this non-typical living argument, and that the arrangement works. And, I also think that more and more readers are going to identify with teens in home situations that are non-traditional.

As you can tell, the love story and the setting is what really captured my attention. There is also a mystery going on, the mystery of Ellie's disappearance, and I liked how this was handled. Jackie is not Veronica Mars; her friend lurks in the background, something that Ellie thinks about but, especially at first, doesn't obsess over. It's as time goes by, and it turns into a murder investigation, and Marcus's new girlfriend is revealed to have a link, that Jackie finds herself actively trying to learn more about Ellie's life to figure out what happened.

There is also Jackie's own new boyfriend, Will. One of the reasons I like Will is he ends up being such a good, understanding guy. Seriously, whether in real life or a book, when a person is confronted with a situation when they can be cruel or they can be kind -- when they can be judgmental or understanding -- when they be angry and lash out,or listen and be a friend? And they choose kind? It just makes my day; it reaffirms that people are good. And that was Will. Someone who is good.

Also, Will is cute. I said that How We Fall is also about desire, and that's true of Jackie and Marcus and Jackie and Will. Jackie is trying to figure out what she wants, and what she feels, and what is love, and what is love -- and it's a bit messy, made messier but the awkwardness of the situation and her thinking she is protecting everyone by not admitting to her feelings for Marcus. And then here is Will and yes he's fun to kiss cause he's older and hot and even with all this he is just such a good guy. And I love that this book shows the complexity of feeling, emotion, and desire that a teen girl feels.



Amazon Affiliate. If you click from here to Amazon and buy something, I receive a percentage of the purchase price.

© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy

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5. Review: Gracefully Grayson

Gracefully Grayson by Ami Polonsky. Hyperion, an imprint of Disney Book Group. 2014. Reviewed from ARC.

The Plot: Grayson Sender is twelve years old.

Grayson is lonely, even surrounded by classmates, even at home, living with cousins, an aunt and uncle.

Grayson is lonely in part because of Grayson's parents death years ago, leading to Grayson being the odd child out at home.

Grayson is lonely because Grayson cannot connect with others because Grayson is hiding the most important part of who Grayson is.

In Gracefully Grayson, Grayson gradually gains trust and friends until Grayson can reveal the truth: that Grayson is a girl inside. Grayson is a transgender girl.

The Good: I'll be honest Grayson broke my heart, because of how lonely she is. Of how unable to connect with those around her.

At school, Grayson tries out for the play and takes her first step towards her true self by asking to play the part of a girl. One of the happy-tear moments I had was -- spoilers -- when the cast welcomed Grayson, became her friend, treated her like they'd treat anyone else.

Then there were the sad-tears of those who bullied Grayson, and of Grayson's aunt who believes that Grayson is in part causing the problems by not continuing to hide her truth.

And I cried at all the things Grayson did, in hiding. Doodling pictures of girls, but doing it in such a way that people wouldn't know. "If you draw a a triangle with a circle resting on the top point, nobody will be able to tell that it's a girl in a dress. To add hair, draw kind of a semicircle on top. If you do this, you'll be safe, because it looks like you're just doodling shapes."

Loving glitter pens and being prepared with lies to explain why she has the purple and pink ones.

Wearing a sweatband to pretend it's a hairband.

Pretending basketball pants and a t-shirt are somehow a gown, with the wide pants a full skirt.

And how important it is to Grayson, to anyone, to have their own truth by the truth others see. That it's harmful, the years and the lies of pretending to be something other than who she is.

At the end of Gracefully Grayson, someone tells Grayson that "I know it may feel like there are people who are against you, but I want you to remember that most people in the world are good. Look for the people who extend a hand to you. And when they do take it." This, in a nutshell, sums up the book. There are people against Grayson, for various reasons. But there are just as many good people in Grayson's world.

And the question left to the reader is this: is the reader one of the good ones? Does the reader extend a hand to those around them?

I'm making this one of my Favorite Books of 2014, because it is such a beautiful book and Grayson is such an endearing twelve year old.

Links: author interview at Diversity in YA; Bookfabulous Review; Robert Bittner Review at Gay YA;



Amazon Affiliate. If you click from here to Amazon and buy something, I receive a percentage of the purchase price.

© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy

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6. Review: Crossover

The Crossover by Kwame Alexander. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 2014. Reviewed from ARC.

The Plot: Twelve year old twin brothers, Josh and Jordan Bell, are basketball players just like their father. And just like their father, they are GOOD.

Josh loves basketball and words; he is the one telling the story, in a sequence of poems organized by sections as if it were a basketball game, starting with Warm Up, moving on to First Quarter, and ultimately ending with Overtime. His father loves music, giving Josh the nickname Filthy McNasty after a favorite song.

His twin, Jordan, is JB, and loves basketball and betting.

The Crossover takes the twins through a basketball season, ending with an important game. And while this is a book about basketball and basketball players, it is also a story about brothers, a father and sons, a family. The two brothers complement each other on the court, a great pair leading their Junior High team to victory after victory. Their parents are loving but strict, with complications because their mother is also their Assistant Principal; their father, who played professional basketball, is a stay at home father who coaches his sons. And then there is a new girl in school, who Josh likes but before he can say a word, it's his brother who is dating her.

The Good: I'm on a roll of reading good books lately!

I loved Josh, his poetry, his love for his dad, his brother, basketball, words. Oh and his hair: he's proud of his locks, just like his dad wore when he played, and conflict with his brother starts when Josh loses a bet to JB -- a bet that allows JB to cut one of those locks off. There is also competition and jealousy, but those feelings are hidden deep inside Josh, only coming out in full force when JB begins dating. The feelings are so hidden, and the parents are so into reinforcing the brother bond, that these emotions are ones that Josh has a hard time understanding. Their father pushes both sons to be good basketball players, but he's individually pushing them: there is no setting one brother against the other.

If I talk more about the twins' father, it's because of the strong basketball bond between the father and sons. The father stopped playing years ago, explaining to his sons that he saved his money and is happy being with them full-time. As the twins learn, it's a bit more complicated than that: an injury ended their father's career. Health issues continue to plague the family; there's a history of hypertension, and their father has a huge distrust of doctors and hospitals so refuses to see one. (And yes there is foreshadowing there.)

One thing I really liked about The Crossover is that it's a book about two typical kids -- readers will see themselves in Josh as he struggles with his love for his brother but also his jealousy; with wanting to play basketball; enjoying being good at something; practicing to become better. Having a father who is loving and caring; a mother who is also kind and loving but knows when to be strict. Parents who value their sons' education as much as their basketball skills. It's a story played out in towns and cities everywhere.

Another Favorite Book Read in 2014!

Other reviews: The New York Times review; Stacked; Clear Eyes, Full Shelves; Bookshelves of Doom.







Amazon Affiliate. If you click from here to Amazon and buy something, I receive a percentage of the purchase price.

© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy

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7. Yes, I Am Afraid

Daily, I do certain things that in the book reviewing world are acts of courage.

I use my own name.

While I omit specifics about my work and family and home, I don't make up alternate facts to create a public persona that will offer me more protection.

I use my own photograph, which means I am recognized in public.


I use my own mailing address with publishers and agents and other professional contacts.

Part of this is because I wanted to use what I do here, online, professionally, for writing and professional activities and programs and workshops.

Part of this is because of cost: being on a tight budget means that I don't want to add the cost of a PO box, plus depending on how something is sent means that a PO box isn't always the answer.

But it means, of course, I'm exposed. My own "it happened to me!" stories are much less than what others have experienced. I'll say it wasn't an author or publisher; it was people who, basically, didn't like what I had to say online and then -- . Well. I'm sitting here, still worried, trying to figure out how to phrase what happened and share it in a way where I feel safe. And, I can't. Trust me: on a scale of 1 to 10, it was probably a 2 at most. No threats; nothing like that. Rather, it was about making me aware that a person could reach through my public online persona to my real life world. That I was vulnerable. Even for something that low on the scale, knowing it's that low on the scale of what happens to others, I'm afraid. I'm afraid that it will start up again, from writing this post.

But those things didn't stop me from writing. Or posting. Or presenting.

And when I read Kathleen Hale writing about tracking down the real-life world and home of a book blogger, of stepping over that line of reviewer/author -- the line of reviewer/reader, even, crossing the line of "this is something you're doing on the internet" to "here I am at your house, calling your work, SHARING YOUR PUBLIC INFORMATION ON AN INTERNATIONAL NEWSPAPER WITH NO CHANGES TO YOUR INFORMATION SO ANYONE CAN DO WHAT I JUST DID" --

Well.

I felt sick to my stomach, for the person who is now being doubly victimized, first by what Hale did, and now by a newspaper upping that exposure by 1000. I feel sick to my stomach for myself and other bloggers who are being told by this, by the people embracing or championing what Hale did, that "hey, we can find out where you live and where you work and anything else we want and intimidate the hell out of you and try to use your personal hobby as something that will have consequences other than online disagreement."

Even for someone like me -- who has leveraged blogging for some professional benefits, doing presentations and programs and workshops and writing -- the blogging remains personal. Done at my home, on my own time. Unlike, say, an author like Hale who is getting paid for her writing. And while I have friends and blogging colleagues, I am much more alone than someone who has publicists, agents, editors, etc. like Hale. There are no layers of protection for bloggers.

Reviewing, whether it's on a blog or GoodReads or whatever, is very much about an individual and the book. It can run the gamut from pure reader response to deep, footnoted criticism. One thing I love about reading bloggers and book blogs is that one blogger can encompass that whole range -- sometimes in the same review, but other times it changes depending on the book. Reading these posts and reviews requires the reader to understand that "review" covers a lot of different things -- and that people read and use those reviews for a bunch of different reasons. I read them to see different opinions of books I've read; to find what to read next; to enjoy a blogger's writing style; to have a laugh.

And, of course, what's going on at blogs and websites and social media is beyond reviews. It's discussing other things that are book and publishing related, from what is happening with Amazon to self-publishing to book banning to advances to diversity and on and on and on. All of those are areas that, well, can lead to disagreements of opinions. And that's fine. I love having good conversations online about things.

But here's the thing: no one is making you read anything. You don't like a style, format, tone? Don't read that person. The answer is not to track them down in their real life to tell them that.

You disagree with what was said? As an author, that's what your real-life friends and non-public avenues of communication are for. The answer is not to track them down in real life to tell them you think they're wrong.

Even as another reader -- there's a level of conversation that can be had online. But even then? No one owes you a conversation; no one owes you to "listen" to you, especially if you are talking under the belief that "if someone listens to me, that means they will end up agreeing with me." They especially don't owe that to you in real life so again: the answer is not to track them down in real life.

For anyone -- authors or just general readers -- to go from disagreement in comments or tweets to reaching into the blogger's life is just wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong. As I said, what happened to me was so much less than what Hale has done -- hell, now I'm going to mark it down to a 1 when I think of what Hale did and continued to do, with this article using real names -- and yet it left a mark. I can't imagine how bad it is for that person Hale went after, for daring to not like Hale's book.





**********************************

If you're wondering what the heck I'm talking about, I'm not giving her any more clicks. Google Kathleen Hale, you'll find it soon enough.

That said, I will link to two responses and one roundup I find very valuable:

Dear Author: On the Importance of Pseudonymous Activity - because part of Hale's justification for what she did is that the reviewer in question chose not to use her real name online.

Smart Bitches, On the Choices of Kathleen Hale - because everything Hale did was her choice.

Kathleen Hale has written other essays. It's a bit interesting to see how much she does or doesn't share online, yet it still doesn't justify what she did to that blogger, both by stalking her and by then sharing all that via a newspaper article.

So, what about you? Have you had a negative experience with someone reading your blog? Do you think Hale sharing her story is going to change how people write or how much they share online?






Amazon Affiliate. If you click from here to Amazon and buy something, I receive a percentage of the purchase price.

© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy

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8. New Post: Bling Ring

The Bling Ring: How a Gang of Fame-Obsessed Teens Ripped Off Hollywood and Shocked the World by Nancy Jo Sales. It Books. 2013. Library copy. Inspired film by the same name.
The Bling Ring.

It's About: The true story of how, in 2008 - 2009, a bunch of teens broke into the homes of their favorite celebrities and stole clothes and jewelry. The Bling Ring explores who those teens were, how they planned the crimes, and how they were caught.

The Good: Both the film and the movie view this series of home robberies as an opportunity to examine entitlement celebrity fan culture. The teens targeted those people they liked, not those they didn't. They wanted to be in those homes, go through their closets, wear their clothes. It was part celebrity worship, but it was also part entitlement. Why shouldn't they do this?

The reader is as much a voyeur as those teens, reading about the robberies and the celebrities, laughing at those rich people with poor security. The movie ups that aspect by filming in the actual locations, including some of the homes.

I found it helpful to read the book before the film: the film changes some things to the make the story more linear, less messy, so consolidates and shifts some events. In simplifying the story, some of the nuance and depth is lost. That the "ring" was messy is part of the point of the underlining story.

A book like this is dependent on who talks to the writer, and not all of the teens spoke with Sales. While understandable, it also means that the reader is left with not enough understanding of just exactly what happened, who was involved, how involved they were, etc. Still, it's a pretty valuable examination of a certain type of teenager as well as a look at what happens when they get caught.




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© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea CozyThi

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9. Review: Complicit

Complicit by Stephanie Kuehn. St. Martin's Griffin. 2014. Reviewed from ARC from publishers.

The Plot: Two years ago, Jamie's older sister was sent to juvenile detention. She'd burnt down a neighbor's barn, killing several horses and injuring a young girl who'd tried to save those horses.

Rumors have always swirled around Cate: she was that type of personality, that attracted and repelled and fascinated. And now... now she's been released.

Jamie is afraid, to be honest. He's put that all behind him, what happened with Cate. What she did. He's been seeing someone to help. He lost his best friend but he's rebuilt his life, flirting with a cute girl at school, continuing to get good grades.

What will Cate do, now that's back?

The Good: This is the type of book that is so hard to write about!

Jamie tells the story. He tells what he knows and what he remembers. And that is the sticking point. Jamie is an unreliable narrator.

The story as he knows it, the story as he tells it: Cate and Jamie were the children of a teen mother, struggling to make ends meet. When they were little, about six and eight, she was murdered. Jamie has little memories of his mother, or her death -- just hazy details, of their small basement apartment, of her living on the edge, the type of life that led to her death.

And then the miracle: after months in the foster system, Cate and Jamie were adopted, kept together, by a rich couple who were looking for older children to replace the ones they had lost. At first, young Cate is the one who seems to adjust easily, being happy, taking riding lessons. It's Jamie who is lost and sullen and doesn't quite connect, until he's sent to a therapist and things get better and Jamie gets better. Like the lost son, he takes piano, He calls his adoptive mother "Mom."

When Cate enters her teen years, things change. Jamie, the younger brother, looking on, doesn't understand why but suddenly Cate is the trouble maker, pushing boundaries, drinking, smoking, boys, and then, of course, the barn fire. And now she's back, reaching out to Jamie, and acting as if there's more to the story. That there's more that Jamie knows.

Jamie wants to know what she knows.

That's the story Jamie is telling us. Between the lines, though, the reader sees another story. Of a lost child. Of someone who has learned to act the right way, to give the right responses. Of the growing concern that part of Jamie's acting the right way includes what he is, or is not, telling the reader. Of trying to figure out how much of what he is saying about Cate is real. And of trying to understand Jamie, and who he is, and what he's done.

This is a suspenseful, psychological drama about a mentally ill teen. Who that teen is, and what they do, is a question that will leave the reader guessing.

A bit of a disclaimer: this is the type of book that I only like when done well. Unreliable narrator, unlikable characters, questions left for the reader to answer -- I am so picky about these things that usually my short-form response is that I don't like these things when the truth is that I do like them, I'm just very particular about how such books are crafted and written. And Kuehn in Complicit? Does it so well it's a Favorite Book of 2014.

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10. Review: Longbourn

Longbourn by Jo Baker. Vintage Reprint, 2014. Personal copy.

The Plot: The story of Pride and Prejudice, told from the point of view of the servants.

Sarah, one of the housemaids, is the main character -- and as she works long days, doing the laundry, cleaning the house, doing whatever is required -- she has her own dreams, her own hopes, and her own loves.

The Good: I was lucky enough to "discover" Pride and Prejudice on my own. I was in high school, it was a book on the shelf at home, I was bored with nothing to read. (Seriously, you want your kids to read? Have plenty of books at home and let them be bored.) Like many others, I fell hard for Elizabeth and Darcy and Elizabeth and Darcy together.

You may remember I was disappointed in the Pride and Prejudice mystery, Death Comes to Pemberley (yet I'm still looking forward to the upcoming TV program.) I am so happy to say that I had the exact opposite reaction to Longbourn: it was everything I wanted, and more, and I cannot recommend it highly enough.

One thing I find interested, now, as an older, adult reader, is how often books written long ago, books like Pride and Prejudice, don't show certain aspects of life at the time. It reveals, of course, both what the characters would (and wouldn't) think as well as what the author thinks the reader does and doesn't want to know. In other words, the servants in Pride and Prejudice are barely mentioned, even though, of course, they are there because these homes and houses needed staff to run.

Longbourn looks at those servants -- and I loved, actually, how little we see the Bennets, because how often would they interact with each other? And even though we know Elizabeth sees herself and her family as not being well off -- still, they did have servants even if they don't have many. And they had the privilege that having servants meant. Or, as Sarah puts it: "If Elizabeth had the washing of her own petticoats, Sarah often thought, she'd most likely be a sight more careful with them." In that one sentence we see a different side of Elizabeth's behavior, which in Pride and Prejudice is strictly shown as her independence and non-conformity. It also shows a disregard for the people who have to clean her clothes. It's careless and rude.

Sarah is one of two housemaids, and that's another thing -- this is no Downton Abbey. There are a couple other servants, yes, but altogether there are very few, expected to do very much, with very little pay or free time, and from a very young age. Yet, it's shown that these servants are lucky because they have jobs, a place to sleep, food. It's shown just how few options these workers had -- especially the women. This is one of those books that makes me value, all the more, the servants and serving class of the past -- the workers, the people making the best of their worlds, the people who strive to be happy with what they have. And makes me thankful for all the laws we have, against child labor, for minimum wage, for overtime.

The source of the fortunes of the wealthy is explored, especially just what it meant to be "in sugar." Ptolemy Bingley, one of the Bingley servants, was born a slave. I loved that Longbourn showed that England wasn't all white in the nineteenth century, and how others would interact with Ptolemy.

The risky position of women, love, and sex is also shown (and I won't go into more because spoilers.) I will say this: Longbourn, surprisingly, made me much more sympathetic to Mrs. Bennet and the pressure she was under to have a son and how precarious the family was without sons. She was no longer a silly woman, but rather a desperate one who had few options other than trying to have a male heir and then wanting security for her own daughters -- a security her husband was reluctant, or unable, to think about.

Of course, this is a Favorite Book of 2014!




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11. There Is Nothing Wrong With Writing Nonfiction Books For Children

So, today's critical response essay is in response to an article in The New York Times that talks about writing non fiction for children: To Lure Young Readers, Nonfiction Writers Sanitize and Simplify.



I read the title, cringed, read the article. While there are some good things in the article (notably quotes from librarians and authors and publishing folk I know and respect), there are some things that left me frustrated enough that I vented a bit on Twitter (thank you, friends, for indulging!) and wanted to round up here, the problems I have with the article.

In a nutshell, my response:

There is nothing wrong, and actually much right, with writing age-appropriate nonfiction books for children and teens. When and how subject matter is introduced and discussed is, well, the reason fifth graders aren't sent to university classes (unless they're Doogie Howser, of course.)

The long version:

1. What is right for an eight year old, a ten year old, a twelve year old, a fourteen year old, is different. It is not sanitizing, simplifying, nor dumbing down to recognize that a ten year old is not a thirty year old; and they learn and process things differently. It is actually respecting the audience to recognize that in writing and presenting information.

2. Common Core is driving the increased use and purchasing of nonfiction in schools and public libraries.

3. Schools are increasing their purchasing of nonfiction at a time when the resources to do so have been reduced. Funding for books is decreased; and professional librarians, who evaluate and find books, have reduced hours, increased responsibilities, or have been eliminated all together.

4. Like any author, an adult nonfiction author may or may not be someone who can also write for teens and children.

5. If an author has spent time -- meaning years and years -- researching, interviewing, and writing an adult nonfiction book, I think it's not a stretch to say that author now has knowledge and expertise in that area. Why not have them use that knowledge and research to write another book on that topic, only now for a different audience?

6. "Young readers" and "teens" are two different age groups. In the article, the new books mentioned are specifically for the age group "under thirteen." Of the five individual titles mentioned, the intended new audiences are given as ages 12 and up; ages 10 and up; 5th to 9th grade; ages 10 and up; and ages 8 to 12. While some of these do veer into the younger teen audience, for the most part, this is children: under 13.

7. If nonfiction is being purchased to support education, which means texts to use for class, well, let's just say that I wouldn't want to be the teacher assigning a roomful of students multiple books of the lengths given in the article: specifically 759, 750, 877 pages. And even though most of these books are talked about for the under 13s, because of the size and educational needs, I can easily the "younger" versions being used in teen classroom settings. Because time. Those readers who want more can always seek out the other books.

8. The quotes from Angela Frederick and Chris Shoemaker are spot on. Why teen librarians are being asked for quotes about self-selected teen reading in an article about materials for the under thirteen set, I'm not sure. I would have liked to hear from school librarians and children's librarians, given the target age and that the audience is beyond public libraries. (Again, respect to Angela and Chris and their quotes.)

9. Blanket statements or assumptions about the differences between the books an author writes for a teen audience, an under thirteen audience, and an adult audience serve no one. Talk about the individual books. For example, I've read both books that Michael Capuzzo wrote on the Jersey Shore shark attacks, one for adults, one for teens. The teen version (Close to Shore: The Terrifying Shark Attacks of 1916) simply streamlined the book, removing some historical explanations and details not really needed to get to the heart of the story, and also included a wealth of photographs, illustrations, and maps not found in the original. (Seriously, I will always be Team Show Me The Photo of Anne Boleyn's Jewelry Don't Just Describe It).

10. And a yay to Steve Sheinkin, also quoted, who writes a lot of original work for children and teens. And yes, kids and teens love nonfiction, and yay to publishers for creating the books kids want and libraries buying them, because they can be hard to find in bookstores.

11. I refer again to point 5: what's wrong when an author with the research writes a second book on the same subject? Nothing, I say. Review the individual titles and let us know: is this book good on its own? Is it good compared to what else is out there for that age group? Don't just assume that the younger edition is not needed, dumbed down, and a quick way to squeeze out sales. I'd argue that it can be harder to get a point across in fewer words. That said, with the reduction of resources in schools, yes, it's easier for schools to purchase a "known brand" -- a book by a well reviewed author. But that is equally about budget cuts and the schools not having the professional staff to search out the breadth and depth of other titles.

12. Another point about cost. And time. If an author already has the research done, the book they will write will be published quicker than the new-to-the-subject author. And that means a quicker turnaround time for publishing a book that is needed by a school who wants books to support the Common Core. And they want the books now, not four years from now.

13. In case you're missing it: Common Core, Common Core, Common Core. Budgets, budgets, budgets. School librarians, school librarians, school librarians.

14. If loving photos, illustrations, maps, etc in a nonfiction book mean you don't respect me as a nonfiction reader, so be it. Perhaps the adult nonfiction should include more of those resources instead of sending us who like those visuals to the younger books that have them.

15. By the end of this article, I had tremendous, over the top respect for Laura Hillenbrand, who obviously respects her readers, her subject matter, and the new readers. Who sees a need for readers and wants to meet it.

16. Given the way books are challenged in schools, and given how school boards and states are trying to control book content, for authors and publishers to be aware of how to present materials for age groups is responsible, not sanitizing. Wanting to have children's books instead of adult nonfiction in an elementary school library is responsible.

So, what are your thoughts?



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© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy

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12. Review: The Timothy Wilde Novels

The Gods of Gotham (A Timothy Wilde Novel) and Seven for a Secret (A Timothy Wilde Novel) by Lyndsay Faye. Berkley Paperback 2013, Berkley Paperback 2014. Personal copies.

The Plot: The Timothy Wilde novels are mysteries set in 1840s New York City, at the very start of New York City's police force.

The Good: There are few things I like better than a historical mystery. Faye both recreates 1840s New York, full of details and interesting tidbits; yet also creates something that is a mirror to our own time. For example, the formation of the police force is far from simple. Part of it is need, with the growing size of the city and population. Then there is the mix of altruism and nepotism. Wilde, for example, gets a job on the new force not because he wants it or has any particular skill set -- he's a bartender. Rather, it's because of his politically connected brother.

Timothy Wilde is reluctant to even take the job, because he and his brother don't get along but for various reasons he needs the job. And, it turns out being a bartender is a pretty good skill set: observation, talking, listening, crowd management. Oh, and another thing: many regular people were opposed to a formation of the police, in part because they feared it was militarization. So.... 1840s questions that have parallels today.

The Gods of Gotham is the first in the series, and gives as much room to Timothy's own origin story as it does to the start of the police. He'd been left orphaned as a child, raised by his older brother, befriended by a local minister. Timothy isn't desperate enough to accept his brother's job until he loses everything in the Great New York Fire of 1845. And here is why I love fiction that accurately incorporates history: learning not just about fire but also the just how scary a fire was -- how it was fought -- and the devastating losses, both in terms of lives, injuries (Timothy's face is burnt, leaving scars), and property. Timothy's savings, all his property, is lost.

And Faye's writing! I loved it. Here, an example of showing the bias of the times and where Timothy stands in terms of that prejudice: "Popery is widely considered to be a sick corruption of Christianity ruled by the Antichrist, the spread of which will quash the Second Coming like an ant. I don't bother responding to this brand of insanity for two reasons: idiots treasure their facts like newborns, and the entire topic makes my shoulders ache."

The Gods of Gotham, as that quote hints at, is about the immigration as a result of the Irish Potato Famine, how those Irish Catholics were treated in New York City, as well as missing children, prostitution, child prostitutes, private efforts at addressing the problems of poverty, women's rights, religion  -- and, of course, the politics of the 1840s. And as I read it, I thought of all those historical fiction children's books, set in Ireland, set in other European countries, were the happy ending, the solution to poverty or discrimination, is emigration to America; and how often that was just the start of a new nightmare.

In Seven for a Secret, Timothy Wilde is still with the New York City police force. How the police worked, what actually it meant to be a member, was fascinating -- Timothy's role as detective, investigating and solving crimes, is almost as revolutionary as the force itself.

Seven for a Secret centers around a different group of New Yorkers than the one shown in the first book: the world of free blacks and runaway slaves. Without giving too much away -- don't worry. Timothy is not the Great White Hope that saves the day. The mystery involves that community, and so Timothy becomes involved, and at times he is ignorant of the laws and social mores and risks -- but the community itself has leaders, and Timothy works with them or for them. The African American characters are multifaceted and complex.

My favorite quote from Seven for a Secret: "He likes who he is in the story because it's the wrong story he's telling."

What else? I adore Timothy's older brother, Val. Yes, Timothy is often at odds with him; yes, Timothy is judgmental about Val's choices, from Val's politics to his substance abuse to his womanizing. But what captured me is that Val was a teen when his parents died; the two books show just how brutal and cold their world was, and just how indifferent it was to two orphaned boys. Timothy doesn't quite realize or appreciate just what Val did, was willing to do, to take care of him. Val, in some ways, has earned his right to drink or drug or romance too much. He's my 1840s Bad Boyfriend.

I also like how Faye portrays the female characters, including how Timothy views them. They are whole; more than tropes. (And having watched and/or read one too many historical fiction shows, where it's either the virginal wife (hey, you know what I mean) or the whore - -well, it was nice to see more than that, and to see Timothy himself seeing the disservice society does by viewing women as being either one or the other.)

Finally -- Timothy himself. He's in his mid-twenties, and while he's great at observations and putting the pieces of a puzzle together, he's not brilliant. He makes mistakes, mistakes that arise from his youth, his inexperience, his own biases (such as the ones he has about his brother), and his own stubbornness.

Good news: a third book is on its way! The Fatal Flame is scheduled for May 2015.

And yes -- these are some of my Favorite Books Read in 2014.


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© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy

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13. Speedy Reviews

I prefer writer longer reviews, but for several reasons I find myself way, way, way behind were I'd like to be on book reviews.

So, rather than forever being because of how far I've gotten behind, I'm going to do a bunch of short ones. Hope you enjoy them!



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14. Flashback July 2012

A look back at what I reviewed in July 2012:



One Moment by Kristina McBride. From my review: "If you could change one moment in your life . . .  That’s how Maggie feels. She wants to change one moment so that it doesn’t end with her boyfriend Joey dead, floating in the water below the cliff. Only thing is, she doesn’t remember what happened at the top of the cliff; she remembers agreeing to jump off the cliff into the cool water below, something Joey and her other friends have done countless times over countless summers. But after that, she remembers nothing. So what is the one moment to change? Something at the top of the cliff? Earlier, when she agreed to jump? If they all hadn’t gone to the party the night before, would things have ended up differently?"

Dark Companion by Marta Acosta. From my review: "Jane is a terrific mix of tough and vulnerable, smart and naive. Here she is on why she is at school: “It was rage that got me to Birch Grove Academy for Girls and out of Hellsdale. I nestled into my bed, knowing that rage would help me survive here, too.” Jane may know the way of the streets, but families are alien territory. What I liked about Jane is how her background impacts her; for example, one of the first thing she does when she settles into her own home (which is a cute little cottage I would love to live in!), is to find a place to hide those things that are important to her. When Mrs. Radcliffe takes her on a shopping trip so that Jane is ready for school, Jane returns half the clothes and pockets the money, putting it in with her secret stash. She’s a foster child who has to hide what is important to her, and who has to be always ready to run."

A Confusion of Princes by Garth Nix. From my review: "Prince Khemri is one of the ten million Princes who rule the Empire. To “ordinary folk,” these Princes seem immortal. And, it’s true, that they can be reborn in certain situations; and that they are augmented in what may appear to be super-human ways. . . . The sixteenth anniversary of his selection as a Prince-candidate is Khemri’s day of investiture as full Prince. He even gets assigned a Master of Assassins! Khemri has big plans, based on his grooming as a Prince and the things he’s been taught. He’s going to get a warship, go explore, make his mark, and become the next Emperor. Turns out, his education wasn’t complete. Some details were left out. Like the competition between Princes can be deadly. Instead of sitting back and living out the adventures lived in his favorite Psitek experience, The Achievement of Prince Garikm, he finds himself being saved from assassinations attempts and enrolled as a Naval candidate because the Academy is one of the few safe places. That’s all in the first thirty pages. That doesn’t even cover Khemri’s three deaths. Action, suspense, space pirates, and, yes, even a touch of romance in this intergalactic adventure."

Lies, Knives, and Girls in Red Dresses by Ron Koertge, illustrated by Andrea Dezso. From my review: "I love retold fairy tales, especially when they twist and tweak and turn inside out. You may remember that from my post about the TV show Once Upon A Time. Take something you think is familiar, look at it from a new direction, what new truths are there? Most of these tales live in a world that is both modern and fairy tale. The first one is The Stepsisters, from Cinderella, and begins “I write this on a brailler, a kind of typewriter/ for the blind.” Like some (but not all) of these stories, it takes the viewpoint of a secondary character (the stepsisters) and makes references  that are both non-fairy tale (a brailler) and classic (the birds pecking out their eyes.) It gives a different perspective: “Mother turned us against our stepsister,/ belittling her.”"

This Is Not a Test by Courtney Summers. From my review: " I like zombies. Love zombie movies and TV shows and books. I want three things from a zombie book: a new take on the story. A good metaphor for what the zombies represent. And a concrete tip or two on how to survive the zombie apocalypse.
This Is Not A Test is told from the point of view of a depressed, abused teenage girl who wants to die. Sloane was “rescued” by two high school classmates, Rhys and Cary, who didn’t know she wasn’t trying to survive, not like the rest of them. And now she is one of six, huddled up in a school, exits blocked and barricaded. Five teens who want to survive: . . . . And Sloane, whose secret is she’s not like them, never has been. Sloane doesn’t want to live, but she doesn’t want to put the group at risk, won’t do to them what [her sister] Lily did to her, so she finds herself with them, in the high school, where her silence is mistaken for strength."

Long Lankin by Lindsey Barraclough. From my review: "When reading this, I was reminded of three authors: Diana Wynne Jones, because Barraclough’s capturing of childhood reminded me of Jones. When Cora discovers a piano in her aunt’s house and wants to play, she sits down. But what child just sits down on a piano stool? “I sat down on the stool, one of those that whirled around and went up and down, and I must have whizzed round on it for five minutes at least before I cam to a stop, all giddy.” Stephen King and Peter Straub, because Long Lankin is a horror story about cursed generations, missing children, murders, witchcraft, and the supernatural."

And a little blatant self promotion, for the book Sophie Brookover and I wrote, Pop Goes the Library, because in 2012 was when a e-book version became available! Yes, the title is still in print, still for purchase, and still has a lot of valuable information... even if it was written before the Brangelina wedding.




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© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy

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15. Review: Belzhar

Belzhar by Meg Wolitzer. Dutton Children's Books. 2014.

The Plot: Jam Gallahue was in love with Reese Marfield and it was wonderful and magical and all that made life living.

Was.

A year that has passed since she lost Reese, a year of life not being worth living, a year of Jam barely able to leave her bedroom, shattered by his death.

So Jam's parents have done the only thing they can think of: sending her away from her New Jersey home and all the memories, to go to The Wooden Barn, a boarding school in Vermont for those who are "emotionally fragile, highly intelligent."

Jam isn't happy to be there, but then she finds herself in a unique seminar: "Special Topics in English," with five students intensely studying one author for a semester. This year, the author is Sylvia Plath.

Each student is given a journal, to write in. And when Jam puts pen to paper ... something magical happens. She finds herself in a place where time stands still, and Reeve is hers again.

As the semester draws to a close, Jam wonders what will happen when she reaches the last page. Will she figure out a way to stay with Reese? Should she?

The Good: Another one of those books that I love, but part of what I love is the twists and turns and the reveals. It's not just the secrets: it's finding out the secrets.

Jam is at a school for the "emotionally fragile," so everyone has some type of story Hers is Reeve. Her fellow Special Topics members (Sierra, Marc, Griffin, Casey) each has had a loss; each, it turns out, can also use their journals to return to that pre-loss time. Inspired by the title of Plath's novel, The Bell Jar, they call the place they go to Belzhar.

Jam's whirlwind romance with Reeve was meaningful and magical but short: only 41 days. Actually, that is the sum total of the days they knew each other. It was sixteen days before they kissed. So Jam has only a handful of memories stored up and what she finds is in that Belzhar, she is limited to experiencing only what actually happened. Oh, it's not as if she's stepping back in time: Reeve understands that something is happening, something outside time almost, and impatiently worries about the times she isn't with him.

And... I don't want to get into spoilers, about Jam and her friends, or about Jam and Belzhar, and what it is or is not. But wowza; there was a certain deliciousness in reading and figuring out and discovering, much like there was with We Were Liars (but for different reasons.) Belzhar is not just about "emotionally fragile" people, but it's what it means to be emotionally fragile and how that shapes how you see the world and how you act in it. And aside from that, it's about the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, much like The Bell Jar itself is Plath telling her story in a certain way.

And, of course, the language! This, for example -- "to be on the verge of your life, and not to be able to enter it" is just such a good description of someone being held back and knowing they are held back, for whatever reasons.

Or this: "Because when I let go of the story I've been telling myself and just try to think about what's objectively true, I can barely get a grip." And how often is that true, also -- the truth being so frightening that we tell ourselves other things we believe to be true, to get through the day.




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16. Review: Falling Into Place

Falling into Place by Amy Zhang. Greenwillow Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. 2014. Review copy from publisher.

The Plot: Liz Emerson, a high school junior, has crashed her car into a tree.

She planned it, oh so carefully, to look like an accident.

It wasn't.

Now, as she lies in the hospital, hovering between life and death, Falling Into Place examines just what led her to that fateful moment.

The Good: Falling Into Place has some seriously beautiful writing. I dog-eared (yes, dog-eared, don't tell) so many pages to mark passages where the language knocked me off my feet.

"But that afternoon, in the abandoned field by the elementary school, Liz pretended that they were. In love. She lied to herself. Her world was almost beautiful. She didn't care that it was false."

"Had the world always been like this? Why had it seemed so much kinder when she was younger? Why had it ever seemed beautiful?"

In some ways, Falling Into Place is the mirror-image of Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher. In Thirteen Reasons Why, Hannah explains her suicide by naming the people who hurt her, who let her down, her gave her no reason to live. Liz's story, also is a list of the reasons she gives herself for aiming her car at a tree... except her reasons are not things done to her. No, Liz's reasons are the things she did to others.

A small aside: if you don't like any spoilers, go no further. Because my conversation will be mainly about the characters and who they are, and aren't, and for some that may be too much.

I'll be honest: Liz is a difficult person to feel sympathy for. Or, at least, it was difficult for me to feel any sympathy for her. I began liking her, the way you would any character, but as the way Liz treated others piled up, action upon action, I just -- couldn't. I felt sorry for her mother, as her daughter's life hung in the balance, because that is a terrible situation to be in. But Liz herself.....

Liz is the type that hurts people because she can. Because she feels it's better to hurt others first, before they can hurt her. Because she has some own deep childhood wounds -- a father who dies tragically, a distant mother who cannot connect either emotionally or physically with her only child. She is, inside, a hurt and jealous child: "It made her remember that there had once been a time when she was in love with the sunshine and the wind and each brief flight. It was like watching the sky change colors, his playing. And then it made her jealous, because Liz Emerson was never at peace like that. Not really. Not anymore."

Liz both recognizes what she does and hates what she does yet cannot stop herself; she knows she does hateful things but does nothing to stop or make amends. She thinks she cannot fix what she does, so she doesn't even try. Instead, her solution is to end herself. "She looked around and saw all of the broken things in her wake, and then she looked inside herself and saw the spidering cracks from the weight of all the things she had done. She hated what she was and didn't know how to change, and half an hour before she drove her car off the road, she that despite all of that, she didn't have enough force to stop the world from turning. But she had enough to stop her own."

And... despite the glimpse into who Liz is, and seeing those who both love her and forgive her, despite not wanting her dead, I find I cannot feel much for Liz. I feel for those who she breaks: there's at least one suicide, plus a handful of teens whose lives get sidelined with pregnancy, drug use, failures. It's nice that we see at least one of her victims put aside Liz's actions and words, see her vulnerability, forgive her, and get on with his own life instead of letting Liz ruin his whole future -- but it wasn't a real balance. Not to me. And Liz herself had nothing to do with it. One of her good friends thinks, "she doesn't remember when she turned into such an awful human being" and the friend is thinking about herself, but it could be about Liz, and the thing is -- they are awful. And they feel bad about it, when it all comes crashing down....but where do they go after that?

These are the teens who I hope against hope that the real life teens I know never, ever encounter. And that if they do -- they are the type who don't care what the Lizs of the world think or do.

What is frustrating about Liz is the obvious: her world, the world she wants to escape, is her own creation. She sees a cruel world because of who she is; and that Liz has shaped her reality to be her is something she doesn't recognize. She doesn't see that she can stop it by changing how she sees the world: by looking, once more, for the beauty she saw as a child.

But what matters about Falling into Place is not what Liz learns or does not -- it's what the reader figures out. That the reader realizes, like one of Liz's targets, that just because someone like Liz is "never careful with her life or anyone else's, and in her disregard was a coldness, a deep cruelty, a willingness to destroy anyone, everyone", there is no reason to let Liz destroy everything: "he found that there were still beautiful things in the world, and nothing could ever change that." What the reader can also see, as Liz's full life comes into view, that Liz's world is also the sum of her own choices, her own times of going for cruelty and power instead of understanding and kindness.

What also matters about Falling into Place is the language. It's beautiful writing, that makes the ugliness more bearable -- much like Liz herself looks for beauty, yearns for it. I look for the beauty in Falling into Place. And I find it, in how the story was told. In how the pieces fall into place. And how, finally -- I do find, underneath it all, that I have sympathy for Liz, after all. In how she and her world spun so far out of her control that she felt like there was only one answer.



Other reviews: Scott Reads It; The Perpetual Page-Turner; Queen Ella Bee Reads.




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© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy

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17. Review: Poisoned Apples

Poisoned Apples: Poems for You, My Pretty by Christine Heppermann. HarperCollins. 2014. Reviewed from electronic galley.

The Plot: Fairy tale retellings, in poetry and photographs.

The Good: Seriously, I just adore retellings. Whether it's looking into the historical origins of fairy tales, modernizing them, twisting them -- I just love what people can do with the familiar and the unknown, making them new and fresh.

Poisoned Apples approaches fairy tales with a particular question: what do they say about what it means to be a woman? What does it mean in today's world?

"The action's always there
Where are the fairy tales about gym class
or the doctor's office of the back of the bus
where bad things can also happen?"

Where bad things happen. There, right there, it shows that the darkness of the fairy tales is what will be examined.

So many good, tight poems, and each is independent, so it's hard to write about because how to select just one or two.

Some are cynical -- the "Prince Charming" who is charming to parents but says to the girlfriend
"Girl,
you look amazing. That sweater
makes your boobs look
way bigger."

Others are not. "
Retelling" says, "What the miller's daughter should have said
from the start
or at any point down the line is,
no."

And then offers a better solution:
"Once upon a time
there was a miller's daughter
who got a studio apartment
took classes during the day."

"Retelling" may be my favorite because it says, you can say no. You can put yourself first. And that means a happier ending for everyone.

Poisoned Apples is a short book but not a quick read. There is a lot here to discuss; a lot to think about it; a lot to question. And the questions are not just about fairy tales and the poems. It's about what it is to be a woman, what that means, what society and family and friends say it means.

I reviewed this from an electronic galley; and let me say, I want to get my hands on the final print version because I think it's going to be an even more intimate reading.

Other reviews: Sense and Sensibilities and Stories; Kirkus Reviews.

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© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy

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18. Reading - It's Good For You!

Honestly, I don't care.

No, not entirely true -- telling me I should read something because it's good for me is a turn off.

Really.

The New York Times ran a Bookends dialogue asking, Should Literature Be Considered Useful?

And I ask -- why. Why.

As an adult, reading because I want to -- this really pisses me off.

Does everything have to be "useful"? Does everything have to have reason, a point, a higher message?

Listen, it's cool if that is why you read fiction. Or, rather, if that's one of the reasons you read. I think, at different times, we read for different reasons. So that some people are indeed reading for a purpose beyond entertainment, that includes gaining education, information, or enlightenment. That's cool. That's your choice.

But please -- don't frame your choice as being better than mine. Don't frame your choice as meaning that's the only reason to read fiction. Don't frame it as the only way to gain that useful information or education.

I'm afraid that part of the reason literature is looked at as "what can it do for the reader," "what benefit it gives," is that, sadly, is the world we live in - what is valued is not being lost in the book, but the test taken after reading to prove that the message was received and the lesson understood. Reading is literacy and grades, test scores and college applications, jobs and promotions.

Pleasure and enjoyment, escape and relaxation, isn't enough in a world where everything has to be purposeful and achieving and enlightenment.

I actually find I get a bit defensive about it -- like I have to justify reading for fun. That I have to give reasons about how I spend my other time to show my non-reading time is useful and productive enough to prove that I deserve time for fun. I fall into that trap that values the "work" above the "fun." Look at all the hours I worked! Look at all the professional reading I do! Look at all the other things going on in my life! Look at what I already know, that I don't need to read a book to know that "message"! And then I pull back, realizing I'm simply supporting the idea that reading as fun is something that comes in second, has to be earned, isn't good enough.

And I cycle back to my start:

I read for fun. Not for enlightenment, not to be a better person, not to learn about the universal human experience. I read to get scared, I read to fall in love, I read to feel less alone, I read for adventure, I read for so many reasons that all fall under.... because I want to.

And if that's why I read, why shouldn't that be OK for teens and kids?

Oh, I get that just like I have things to read with a purpose for work, they have things they have to read with a purpose for school.

But that's not the only way or reason to read. And, especially outside the school environment, reading for fun, rather than reading "because", should be championed.

It shouldn't be a guilty pleasure.

It should just be ... a pleasure.





Related posts: Libraries - More Than The Common Core


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© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy

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19. Film Review: If I Stay

Saturday morning I decided to cry my eyes out at an early showing of If I Stay.



Any money saved by going to that early show was quickly spent on eating my feelings afterward, and buying a feel-good book to counter all the sad.

That's good, by the way. In case you were wondering.

If I Stay is the film based on Gayle Forman's book of the same name. Earlier this summer I reviewed If I Stay, and it's companion, Where She Went.

If I Stay is the story of a Mia, a seventeen year old girl whose family was in a terrible car accident. She is in a coma, yet can still observe the world around her, including learning what has happened to her parents and baby brother. Should she fight to stay alive?

Here is the thing. I cried at the trailers for this film. I cried when I read the book. I knew all the plot points. There were no surprises. And yet.... I cried through the whole film.

Why?

Because sometimes, it's not what happens. It's the emotional journey. And no matter how many times you go on that journey, it remains heart wrenching. Plus, Chloe Grace Moretz as Mia was stunning -- the perfect portrayal of not just Mia, but of a teenage girl, with insecurities and faults, strengths and passion. She made Mia so real that my heart broke, yet again, as I saw Mia realizing what she had lost and trying to decide if what she had left was enough.

As in the book, If I Stay introduces us to Mia, a teenager who is fairly typical. She has a good family and friends and a boyfriend. She loves them; they love her. That's big. That's huge. And it's a huge thing played out against a life that is not much different from the viewers. That Mia is "just another teen" is the strength of this movie. Oh, yes, she's also a cellist who wants to go to Julliard, and I'm not diminishing her talent or her dream but really -- she's not a superstar. She's not performing in front of crowds from the time she's five.

Even in Mia's music, which yes, matters to her -- it's hers, and it's something she loves and is passionate about, but it's also something that she's not sure of. Is she good enough? It's a question any teen asks themselves, as they try to decide what to do with their life. It's a bit heightened in that Mia's father is in a band, and she's grown up around music and musicians (even if it's not her type of music), so she's well aware -- even if its never outright stated -- that a person can love something and it not mean they are the best at it.

One thing I like about visual storytelling is it can show me things, reveal things, that I may not have picked up in the book. And yes, sometimes this is because of changes in the adaptation, but it's often about staying true to the spirit of the book if not the text. So, for me, the movie made me understand more how Mia viewed her father leaving his band to pursue a job that was more stable as something he did because of her younger brother, Teddy -- never realizing it was also for her.

The movie is true to the book, but something happened at one point where I both feared and hoped that a change had been made and I said to myself, please please please even though there was no way, no way, and it was just like in the book BUT STILL MY FOOLISH HEART, IT HOPED.

There were a couple changes that I thought made the movie stronger. Slight spoilers, here --

In both, Adam and Mia's other friends at first cannot visit her because of hospital rules limiting visitors to immediate family. So, of course, they decide a distraction is needed -- and it's changed in the movie. Personally, the book-one was one that I had eye-rolled at but that's because I found it too over the top for my tastes; and I think the movie-one makes much more sense and is more "real."

My only slight problem with the movie -- and this I think is editing -- also has to do with the visitor rule. (Spoilers, again.) While the viewer can infer that a family friend who works at the hospital stepped in to allow visitors despite the rule, it's not explicitly said, and I can see some viewers thinking "wait, look at all those visitors now? why?" (And if it was explicit and I didn't hear that line in my crying, let me know and I'll remove this paragraph.)

One last personal observation: the book was fresh in my mind. So I cannot write to the experience of someone who has no knowledge of the book -- whether, to them, the movie worked as well as it did for me.

So overall: thumbs up!

Now, on to quibble about other people's reviews. In part because for both of them, I wondered how much it was about teen girls, and films for teen girls, than this particular film.

While The New York Times review is overall good, why the hell does any review of If I Stay need to include a The Fault In Our Stars reference? Maybe I'm being a bit sensitive, but it seems like many other films, for other genres and audiences beyond teen girls, get reviewed without including references to other films for the same audience.

Also calling Adam a bad boy...where in the film does it say he is? Adam is only a "bad boy" for a viewer who assumes, from the start, that any teenage boy in a band is "bad." Which just leaves me annoyed, because "bad" is about actions, not about liking to play punk / rock music; wearing leather; and having a less-than-perfect family. Also, why not just praise Moretz as a good actor? Saying she's good at this role because it somehow reflects something in her own diminishes Moretz's accomplishments, even if its meant as a compliment. It's called ACTING.

I'm also less than a fan of the School Library Journal review, but that's more because I disagree that Moretz's performance made Mia into a girl who was "taciturn and a bit sullen." (Yes, Mia is shown to be a private and quiet, but especially combining taciturn with "sullen" leads me to think this isn't using the tern taciturn in a positive way.) That and other ways the review talks about Mia makes me think "ok, so Moretz is playing a typical teen...and that's somehow not good?" I also have to rewatch the film because I thought the point of their car trip was visiting friends and family, not snowboarding, but I may have missed that reference. And I think paring down Mia's circle of family and friends is necessary for a film; too many people can be too hard to keep track of. But that's just me.











Movie poster from Gayle Forman's Tumblr.

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© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy

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20. Micol Ostow Blog Tour for Amity -- Interview


As you know, I really liked Amity by Micol Ostow. And by "liked" I mean "had the heck scared out of me."

So when I found out about the Blog Tour for Amity, of course I said I wanted in!


You know what I like about doing author interviews, like this? I get to ask questions! Which means that the things I wonder about, I can get the answers to.

I hope they are things that you also find interesting!

First, here's a short bio of Micol Ostow (from her publisher):

Micol Ostow has written dozens of books for children, tweens, and teens, but Amity is her first foray into horror. I turns out, writing a ghost story is almost more terrifying than reading one. (In a good way.) Her novel family was called a “Favorite Book of 2011” by Liz Burns at School Library Journal, and her illustrated novel, So Punk Rock (and Other Ways to Disappoint Your Mother), was a Sydney Taylor Notable Book for Teens.

In her spare time, Ostow blogs with the National Book Award-winning literacy initiative readergirlz.com. She lives in Brooklyn, NY, with her husband, her (utterly fearless) daughter, and a finicky French bulldog named Bridget Jones. Visit her online at www.micolostow.com or follow her on Twitter @micolz.

Liz: I vividly remember the first time I read THE AMITYVILLE HORROR, and the first time I saw the original movie. When were you introduced to the story? The book or one of the movies?

Micol Ostow: Actually, my first introduction to the Amityville legend came via my favorite master of horror, Stephen King. In his early nonfiction treatise on horror, Danse Macabre, he dissected what he felt worked and what didn’t work in the movie, specifically. Ironically, if I recall much of his criticism of the original movie had to do with its focus on the physical manifestations of the house’s evil spirit rather than a build of psychological terror or dread. I didn’t end up seeing the movie until the 2005 remake, which I found really effective. Afterward, when I was kicking around ideas for my follow-up to the novel family, that remake was on tv and sparked something in me. That was when I went back and finally watched the original movie and read the book. So it was a surprisingly long time coming for a horror buff, in addition to my coming at it with a weird amount of preconception and bias given my total ignorance of the original subject matter!

Liz: While AMITY is a scary haunted house story about the supernatural, it's also a scary haunted house story about a very real haunting: the very real family dynamics that trap people, as well as the evil that people can do even without ghosts or hauntings. What type of research did you outside of the AMITY references and homages?

Micol Ostow: The “research” question is always hard to answer because the answer is slightly embarrassing: I’m very drawn to dark stories and I’m fascinated by the question of evil from within versus evil from without, so much of the research I did both for family and Amity was actually just background reading I’d done before I even had the slightest notion to write either book. Putting aside the obvious Amityville source material, though, I’d say the book’s most clear-cut influences to me are The Shining and The Haunting of Hill House.

To me, Connor is basically Jack Torrance – a flawed character who is driven to evil deed via the energy of the house, the way Torrance is driven mad by the Overlook Hotel. And Gwen is a successor to Hill House’s Eleanor, the fragile, overlooked (no pun intended) woman whose history of madness renders her fear unreliable. Both are to some extent tropes of the genre and there are plenty of examples of each throughout pop culture, but those two are my very favorite iconoclasts. I probably reread The Shining in particular at least twice a year. Does that count as research?

Liz: What was the scariest book you read as a teen?

Micol Ostow: The Shining! (That was a gimme.) I wasn’t quite a teen though, and definitely wasn’t supposed to read it. My mother was a Stephen King fanatic and kept those terrifying 1970’s library hardcovers on her nightstand, perhaps unaware of how they were imprinting on me (or maybe that was her plan all along?...) Pet Sematary made an impression, but The Shining was the one I actually snuck out of the children’s room to read in furtive fifteen-minute increments. I think I was maybe twelve? At most.

Liz: What was the scariest movie you watched as a teen?

Micol Ostow: Again, I wasn’t quite a teen – maybe eleven-ish? – but my younger brother had been home sick with something icky and lingering, and as some kind of pity-bribe thing my mother, I guess, allowed him to rent A Nightmare on Elm St. #s 1-5. I stumbled in as they were queuing up the first movie and got sucked in. TERRIFYING. That one and #4 are the two that still get me, every time.

Liz: Thank you so much!

Check out all the stops on the Amity Blog Tour.

Two stops for tomorrow: readergirlz and Little Willow.







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© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy

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21. Review: Hate To Love You

Hate to Love You by Elise Alden. Carina Press. 2014. Review copy from publisher. New Adult.

The Plot: Paisley has a "slutty reputation" (her words) but is still "technically" a virgin. Technically isn't good enough: Paisley is pregnant.

Paisley meets her sister's fiance, who is as snobby as Paisley's sister. It's mutual annoyance (but also attraction) from the start.

Which is why Paisley pretends to be her sister and sleeps with the fiance, James.

Paisley doesn't have a supportive or loving family. Which may explain why she slept with James. It also explains why Paisley decides to share the truth - she slept with James - at the wedding reception. It also explains why she decides to tell a lie -- that James is her baby's father.

All hell breaks lose, helped along by the cell phone videos of her epic announcement. In the aftermath, Paisley gives her baby to James and leaves.

It's seven years later, and Paisley is back. Determined to establish a relationship with her son. But will James forgive her?

The Good: Let's start with I LOVED THIS BOOK. If the plot sounds like twelve kinds of soap opera meets a Lifetime movie meets a Syfy show, you'd be right and that's what makes it AWESOME and AMAZING.

First, yes, it's a traditional New Adult book which means plenty of sexytimes.

Now, as I get into things, you may be saying, but Liz, you're telling me too much! Spoilers, sweetie. Actually, all the information above? The reader knows that from the start! Part of why I loved this book is even thought I knew what was going to happen, I still had to turn the pages, wanting to know why and how it was going to happen. About half of the book is explaining just how James and Paisley ended up in bed together; and half is Paisley, seven years later, trying to get her life back.

The first half: I won't go into too many details about the epic night, except to say heavy drinking and black out curtains so that the bedroom is total darkness. (I KNOW.) (And if right now you're thinking about things like logic, like "wait, how can he be so drunk that he can't tell this isn't his fiance's body, that's just not making sense," part of the answer is "Caroline is such a good girl that he wasn't getting any action before this so he didn't know.") (I KNOW.)

The kind of middle, the wedding reception where she announces she slept with James and is having his baby, is noteworthy because of the videos people take of her. Not only does the video go viral, but it inspired a lot of people to use important family occasions to announce secrets to their families. Also on video. EPIC.

In a nutshell, first-half Paisley is a bit of a mess. There's a reason why she has a "slutty reputation" (I really hate the word slut, but Paisley uses it, so it's here in quotes), and that is slowly revealed. (Semi spoilery - there is a tragic backstory AND her family is just awful.) (No, seriously, so awful that by the end, any sympathy I had for Caroline was gone.) In a way, the disaster of the wedding reception and losing her son and her family wanting nothing to do with her is the best thing to happen to Paisley. She leaves England and in the seven years (which aren't shown in the book) Paisley sobers up, continues her education, and gets her act together.

Once back in England.... let's just say this is the type of book that the only job in the entire country that Paisley can get is at the place where James works. Working for him. (I KNOW).

So the second half is Paisley trying to prove to James she's changed, yet there's the attraction with James, and FEELINGS and SEXYTIMES.

But Liz, you may be saying. I get the soap opera and Lifetime references, but Syfy?

Did I mention the kind of psychic powers that Paisley has, and the sort of psychic connection she has with James?

Yes, this book had a lot going on. But you know what? I kept turning the pages. I wanted, no, needed, to find out what happened next and why and how. Paisley was working against such a stacked deck, was such an underdog, that I was understanding of her self-destructive behavior and hopeful that she'd have a happy ending. And at the same time... this was a roller coaster of "what the hell just happened" and I really enjoy that type of book!

Other reviews: Dear Author; Harlequin Junkies; Shh Moms Reading; Confessions from Romaholics.







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© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy

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22. Review: Brazen

Brazen by Katherine Longshore. Viking, an imprint of Penguin Group (USA). 2014. Review copy from publisher.

The Plot: England. 1533. Fourteen year old Mary Howard is being married to Henry FitzRoy, also 14 but already the Duke of Richmond and Somerset.

Henry FitzRoy (Fitz to his friends) is the only living son of Henry VIII. That he is a bastard means that he can never inherit his father's throne, but he is important and Mary's marriage to him is important. She, now is important.

Only -- not so much. Henry VIII doesn't want the marriage consummated - both from a belief that it's not healthy for the young teens, as well as knowing that such a marriage can easily be annulled if necessary.

If the king's new bride, Anne Boleyn, delivers the longed for legitimate son, Fitz's role remains the same. But if not.... well, what if Fitz was made legitimate?

What is it that the young and noble do with their time? Mary and Fitz and their friends form a circle of teens whose time is dedicated to sports, and flirtations, and poetry and song and dance. The most important dance being, of course, keeping the King happy.

The Good: I loved the first of Longshore's books set in the court of Harry VIII, Gilt. Gilt, set in 1539, is the story of Henry VIII's wife Catherine Howard, told from the point of view of one of the queen's friends. I didn't read the next book, Tarnish, about Anne Boleyn coming to Henry VIII's court for a very simple reason.

Anne Boleyn breaks my heart. Every time. And I didn't know if I could read about her, young and hopeful. So I avoided Tarnish.

Longshore fooled me, though! When I heard about Brazen, I didn't think about years. I thought, oh, an interesting look at the young Tudor court. And since Reign is one of my current favorite TV series (all about the young Mary Queen of Scots) and because I loved Gilt, I said yes.

I'm glad I did. Even though Anne turns up, a new mother, with all her future yet to come falling apart. Because I loved Brazen. I loved young Mary, wanting to have fun but also knowing the seriousness of her situation, the need to successfully navigate the Tudor Court. And I loved reading this Anne, an Anne who is smart and strong and fights as best she can, having done her own dance of destiny -- and who, despite her best efforts, has it all crashing down on her. Because Henry VIII is a man who is ruined by the power he has; and Anne does not give him a son quickly enough to satisfy him. I love how despite the danger and risks, Anne insists on her own autonomy and personhood.

Early on, Mary overhears an argument between Anne and the King. He tells her, "You should be content with what I've done for you. And remember I made you what you are." She responds, "I am myself! I am Anne Boleyn. You have not made me!"  And he says, "I can make you nothing." And this is where I knew Longshore got Anne, her "I am myself," her belief in herself.

I loved Brazen so much that I'm willing to have Gilt rip out my heart.

But now, back to Mary. I love the friendship she shares with Madge Shelton and Margaret Douglass. I love how Brazen shows the importance at that time of family, titles, money, and access to the king. Or rather, the danger.

Brazen captures the always-moving court and what that means to the members, to never stay in one place, to have their lives be spent in the rooms that are not their own, with rank and location determining where one sleeps for those weeks or months. Each section is titled by where the court is currently: Hampton Court Palace, 26 November 1533; Greenwich, December 1533; Greenwich Palace, 1534; Whitehall, 1534; Hatfield Palace, 1534. And that only brings us to page 72!

Brazen is also about being young. And wanting to be in love. And being in love. And not wanting to repeat the mistakes of parents. And it's also about words: Mary and her friends like songs and poetry, and one way they communicate with each other is by a shared book (based on the Devonshire Manuscript).

And yes.... it's a Favorite Book Read in 2014.

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© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy

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23. Review: Wildlife

Wildlife by Fiona Wood. Poppy, an imprint of Little, Brown. 2014. Reviewed from ARC.

The Plot: It's time for the "dreaded term" that is an "outdoor education camp." Nine weeks away from home, in the middle of nowhere, just you and some classmates and teachers.

Sib -- Sybilla Queen, 16 -- will be going. It's both dreaded and looked forward to, and she'll be going with friends and teens she's known her whole life. And all that time away from home! Things aren't quite what she expects, though, when she starts a romance with popular Ben Capaldi and her best friend Holly veers between jealous and supporting.

Lou, also 16, is new to the school and the group. She stands out, not just for being new, but for also not caring if she makes friends or enemies. Instead she sits back and observes. But if she's not willing to let people into her life, can she really tell others about how they're living theirs?

The Good: Wildlife - first, for the record, every year there is one book whose name I just repeatedly get wrong. This year, whenever I say Wildfire, know I mean Wildlife.

Wildlilfe alternates between two stories: Sib and Lou. Sib's story is about the girl who before school starts gets her braces off and has her acne clear up -- you get the idea. The cosmetic changes are even more amped up, because she posed for her aunt's advertising campaign. A glammed up version of Sib is what introduces her classmates to the "new" Sib -- except it's still the same old Sib, inside.

The New Sib now has a new boyfriend, Ben, and she is both flattered and scared by that. Yes, she likes him, but it's her first real boyfriend and she's just not sure what she wants or how she wants to be. Her best friend, Holly, is there, always being supportive and telling Sib the way she should be treating Ben.

Here is Sib describing Holly: "Maybe I need to explain that Holly's mean is not really meant to be mean -- it's just Holly! And you get used to it!." The reader doesn't need Lou seeing the Sib/Holly friendship to realize the relationship is toxic, and unhealthy, and Sib has no idea that Holly is that mean.

Lou's boyfriend died. It's probably best to get it out there, up front. She is still grieving and isolated, keeping the world at arm's length. Her moms think that the "outdoor education campus", nine weeks in the "wilderness," will somehow help. (While Lou hasn't attended the school before, one of her mothers went as a teen.) Lou's story is one of grief and loss and recovery, and putting together ones life. She's slowly drawn into the world she finds herself in, not through the other girls in her cabin -- Holly has marked her as an enemy, an outsider -- but through Michael, Sib's other best friend.

This is not a book where Lou and Michael fall in love, or where Lou finds new love. No, it respects Lou's loss and the time, the long amount of time, it takes when a loved one dies. What Michael and Lou offer each other is more important: friendship and acceptance. Lou needs that, even if she won't admit it, and Michael needs it, because he has to go through the pain of seeing the person he loves -- Sib -- happy with someone else.

This isn't a book about Sib and Ben falling in love. Sib and Ben's relationship is important, and I loved how Sib sorted out all her own complicated feelings about Ben. She's attracted to him, she wants a relationship, but she's also not quite sure about him or herself. Ben's a decent enough guy, but he's a teenaged boy. He doesn't pursue Sib until after she's glammed up. He and Sib are put together in a heightened time and place, the intensity and isolation of the wilderness experience. Out in the real world, would they have anything in common? And does that matter? One thing I love about Sib is that, when it comes to Ben, part of Sib realizes all this. But part of her is also young and new to relationships so she is unsure just what she wants from Ben and how to proceed, both emotionally and physically. So Wildlife is about their relationship, yes, but Wildlife is about a more important relationship.

Wildlife is a book about the friendship between Holly and Sib. Sib is in some ways a passive girl. It's not the type of passive of someone who doesn't know what they want; it's the passive of someone who is content with what they have. So content that it's not that she lacks strong feelings about things, but that she doesn't care so let Holly take the lead. It's like the old deciding where to go for dinner: it's not that the person who says "I don't care" doesn't care, it's that they have no real strong urge for Italian or pizza or hamburgers or Indian, they just want food, and if you care, find.

It's the type of passive that allows Holly to be the leader, and for Sib to go along with it. It's what some people call "too nice." But here's the thing about that type of "nice." It is genuine. Sib truly loves, and forgives, Holly.

Holly is a wounded girl: from the start, Sib explains that part of her tolerance for what Holly does is that she, Sib, knows the "real" Holly. What the reader (and Lou) sees is a girl who has gone from acting mean to being mean. A girl whose own insecurities and need for popularity and acceptance means that she's not afraid to push others around, and push other's buttons, to get what she wants. Holly is the type of girl you don't want your child to be friends with: not because she's dangerous, but because you know at some point, she's finally going to go too far and hurt your child emotionally. And much as I grew to hate Holly, I have to confess: given her own emotional wounds, I wonder if Holly at some point will "grow up" and stop hurting others to make herself feel better. I wonder if she will ever become self aware. Still, that is just wondering --in the meanwhile, I want those who Holly hurts to stay away from her because they can't fix Holly. Only Holly can.

Wildlife is about Sib and Holly's friendship slowly, messily ending. Just as the boarding situation helps Sib and Ben's relationship progress, it also helps Sib and Holly's friendship implode.

Oh, the reason I put "wilderness" in quotes earlier is that this isn't tents and camping. There are cabins, and meals, and toilets, and showers, and classrooms. It is in the middle of a wilderness area, with opportunities for tents and camping and no toilets or showers. Like many experiences, it's a very controlled "wilderness." It's also a great time for all the teens to practice being grown up and older with a safety net. They are away from home, yes; but there are still rules and teachers and chaperones around.

This is one of my Favorite Reads of 2014, because of the character growth and the dynamics between people.




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© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy

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24. Review: It Happens

It Happens: A Guide to Contemporary Realistic Fiction for the YA Reader by Kelly Jensen. VOYA Press, an imprint of E L Kurdyla Publishing, LLC. 2014. Personal copy.

It's About: Don't you just love non-fiction books? They have the entire pitch in the subtitle.

Disclaimer: I am good friends with the author. I am quoted in It Happens. And I'm in the Acknowledgments.

The Good: It Happens is organized into three sections: Real Tools; Real Reads; and Real Talk.

The first part defines what, exactly, is contemporary YA fiction and why it matters to readers. As a former lawyer, I love that Jensen does this. I believe that it's hard to have conversations and discussions when we aren't beginning from the same place; and the way to know where that same place is by doing what Jensen does in Real Tools. I think even those familiar with YA fiction and contemporary YA fiction will appreciate what Jensen says.

Next is what is the heart of the book: Real Reads, extensive lists of contemporary titles. The lists are broken into fifteen themes. There are tons of books here, including books from 2014. Of course, I did what I always do when given lists . . . quickly skim to mark what I read, then actually it to discover books that I haven't read.

Real Talk, the final part, is basically "lists plus." Now that Jensen has provided the plethora of titles, with themes (so that they can quickly be used for booklists, booktalks, and displays) Jensen provides the "plus" -- how to use the titles to start conversations, especially tough conversations on topics like bullying and sexual assault.

I'll conclude with some reasons about why I think contemporary YA fiction is loved by readers. I believe that YA readers, like adult readers, should have the books they want and need to read. And so that includes contemporary books. I think that sometimes contemporary books can be easier for readers because they go in "knowing" the world and the characters, but the setting and people are familiar. It's the towns they live in, the families they live with, the friends they go to school with. I think that familiarity is very important to readers -- and it's why I think contemporary realistic fiction has to reflect the contemporary world, in terms of race, ethnicity, religion, gender, economics, family -- well, you get the idea.

I think that too long, the default for books have been that anyone can and will identify with the middle class white main character so that it's OK that the majority of books that show only that world. And I think that is a ridiculous reason to not have the diverse books readers want and need. To bring this back to It Happens, Jensen includes diverse books in her lists, not just in her section about The Diverse World but in other sections. Books about sports includes books with characters that have obsessive compulsive disorder; books about best friends include books about people of color. Multiple entry points are included for each book.

Other reviews and links: Jen Robinson's Book Page; Circulating Ideas Podcast interview.

And a bonus -- a giveaway! Kelly Jensen is having a giveaway of her book over at her blog, Stacked. A winner will be picked later this month.




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© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy

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25. TV Review: Happy Valley

Happy Valley, TV series on Netflix, originally created for and shown on BBC One.

The Plot: Catherine Cawood is a Yorkshire police sergeant, divorced, living with her sister, raising her young grandson, Ryan.

She's put together the pieces of her life following the tragedy of eight years before that ended in her daughter dead, Catherine's own divorce, raising her daughter's baby, and her son not talking to her.

And then she finds out that he's back. Tommy Lee Royce, the young man responsible for her daughter Becky's death -- even though there was nothing Catherine can prove. That was then, this is now. Catherine's search for justice is going to take her to unexpected places.

The Good: Sarah Lancashire, Sarah Lancashire, Sarah Lancashire.

I love this show so much, and the actress, that I'm never going to do it justice.

I sat up and took notice of Lancashire in Last Tango in Halifax, a show about two people who meet up again after sixty years, fall back in love, and what that means to themselves and their families. It is a terrific show, and I'll write about it one of these days. Lancashire played one of the adult daughters of the couple who remeet. It was created by Sally Wainwright, who then wrote Happy Valley, creating the role of Catherine for Lancashire. (When I looked up Wainwright on IMDB I also found out she wrote one of my favorite Shakespeare Re(Told) episodes, The Taming of the Shrew.)

Happy Valley is a mystery, a police drama, a family saga. Catherine Cawood is a fabulous character. She's tough and capable and good at her job. She's strong but not superhuman. She has flaws. She's in her late forties, with a complicated family. After having a few drinks with a man (see, I'm being very sparse with details), as they're kissing in the car, she matter of factly tells him "I'm too old to be shagging in cars" so invites him in. And yes - I confess that I loved watching a show about someone my age, being given a full, independent life.

In case you can't tell, half the reason I love this show was the amazing character of Catherine Cawood and how magnificently Sarah Lancashire brought her to life. In Happy Valley, it's not just Catherine who is terrific, but the other characters, also. There is a strong ensemble cast, and the other women are just as nuanced and shaded as Cawood.

The other reason I fell hard for Happy Valley is the story. The mystery is two-fold: first is the one close to Catherine's soul, what happened to Catherine's daughter, the role that Tommy Lee Royce played, and what Catherine will be willing to do to get justice -- or, revenge.

At the same time, the viewer watches another mystery unfold: a man unhappy with his job and his boss sets in motion a kidnapping, not realizing the brutality he sets forth in motion. Because the kidnappers demand silence, the police at first aren't aware so that it takes a bit for Catherine to be directly involved. The viewer knows, though, and watches near-misses and overlapping events with a fuller knowledge than any on0screen character. Eventually, the threads of the stories are braided together into strong, marvelous storytelling.

The setting is West Yorkshire, an area called "Happy Valley" because of high incidence of drug related problems. Catherine's sister is a recovering heroin addict, and drug use and trafficking are always lurking in the background, a vague poison to everyone's life. Happy Valley is not happy.

And yes, I'm not giving many details -- because part of the enjoyment for the first watching, at least, is learning secrets and seeing how all the pieces of the puzzle fit together.

Who will like this? Viewers who have enjoyed Broadchurch, the Fargo series, and True Detective. Like those shows, this is not an easy, happy mystery TV series. The stakes are real; their is violence and death. There are no happy endings. . . . but there are resolutions. And, in some ways, people making peace with their lives.

For those who have watched this -- can you recommend any books that have the same type of setting and characters as Happy Valley?








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© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy

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