Archive | August, 2010


31 Aug

Ah, if only my former job had had a book club; this would have been the first book. I spent the last eight years teaching media literacy to kids – empowering them to think critically about the media messages that they consume each day and teaching them how to create counter-media. With dystopian fiction, part of the power comes in showing a potential future world which is recognizable to the extent that it makes the fictional future seem plausible. With Feed, M.T. Anderson explores the idea of what could come to pass if consumerism, addiction to (reliance on) technology, and the power of corporations continues to grow.

Feed follows Titus and friends through life in a futuristic society where people are installed with the feed, an implant that allows them to access information and entertainment (sort of a combination of radio, Internet, TV) in their heads. On a Spring Break trip to the Moon, Titus meets Violet, a young woman who has experienced life without the feed (she was implanted at around seven years old rather than as a baby) and has been home-schooled by her Feed-pack toting father rather than attending the corporate run schools. While on the moon, their feeds are hacked into and they lose access to it for a while. During this downtime, Titus and Violet grow closer and he learns more about what life is like without the feed and how different their experiences of the world are.

Feed explores the symbiotic relationship between media and youth and asks the question, when does the relationship cross the line from being mutually beneficial to parasitic? Corporations use the feed to market products to consumers based on their communications (reminiscent of how facebook and gmail etc. include advertisements in their programs that attempt to match one’s emails and profiles). With the feed, youth don’t even have to verbalize conversations – they can just chat via the feed; one of the things that stands out about Violet is that she prefers to speak with her mouth. These internal chats are of course a corporation’s best friend as they are able to listen in and sell accordingly. Along with the interpersonal effects of the feed, the environmental devastation resulting from the consumerist society is horrific. Forests are knocked down to make room for air factories (because we need air, and trees are inefficient air-makers) and whole areas of the planet are just disappearing. The effects of a poisoned environment on humans include lesions which the feed makes fashionable through ads and TV shows, convincing consumers to hold true to the belief in the worthiness of consumerism at all costs. And Feed shows human apathy at its worst. The following quote hit me hard because I’ve heard these arguments time and time again:

Of course, everyone is like, da da da, evil corporations, oh they’re so bad, we all say that, and we all know they control everything. I mean, it’s not great, because who knows what evil shit they’re up to. Everyone feels bad about that. But they’re the only way to get all this stuff, and it’s no good getting pissy about it, because they’re going to control everything whether you like it or not. Plus, they keep like everyone in the world employed, so it’s not like we could do without them. And it’s really great to know everything about everything whenever we want, to have it just like, in our brain, just sitting there. (pp.47-48)

Feed also addresses the issue of the digital divide, though very briefly and somewhat indirectly. The feed has a price and there are different versions of the implant, presumably the more expensive the implant, the better functioning the chip. 70% of the population has one, which makes you wonder, who are the other 30%? It would be interesting to hear their stories.

The only aspects that didn’t work for me so much with Feed and the audiobook version were the upcars (flying cars are overused in sci-fi) and the vocal performance for a few of the youth characters (M.T. Anderson wrote the words, but I don’t remember it ever specifying that characters should sound like Hollywood’s interpretation of stoner teenagers – very Bill & Ted’s). The best part of the audio recording is the production of the feed media (advertisements, TV shows, etc); they are often very funny or reminiscent of the worst of the worst in mass media (in a good way).

Em’s rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Author: M.T. Anderson
Reader: David Aaron Baker
Publisher: Listening Library Unabridged Edition (March 2008)

For more reviews of dystopian fiction check out fellow blogger Presenting Lenore’s Dystopian August page!


31 Aug

Everyone over the age of 15 disappears in a poof.  Everyone under the age of 15 must fend for themselves.  Most of the story focuses on Sam, a reluctant hero, and his smart and resourceful friend Astrid.  Astrid’s main concern is taking care of her autistic brother, but she also wants to solve the mystery of why there is a giant dome covering their adult-less town.  Of course, a cruel and twisted boy from the private school on the hill wants to be in control, and he sees Sam and Astrid as major threats to be taken down.

There is a lot of violence and gruesome imagery, and because of radiation, the kids develop lots of creepy mutations and special powers.  The special powers contribute to the growing panic, and also intensify the Lord of the Flies atmosphere.

I couldn’t stop reading the book, but looking back, it was a bit unsatisfying.  Like Hunger Games, but with flat characters.  Also, while the content is 14 and up (death, violence, etc…) the writing feels suited for lower level readers.  Since no character can be above the age of fifteen, there is the added feeling that most of the characters are extremely immature and inexperienced. 

I know I am only giving it two stars, but it is still worth reading if you want something easy and entertaining.

Nora’s rating: 2 out of 5 stars
Author: Michael Grant
Publisher: HarperTeen
Publication date: 2008

For more reviews of dystopian fiction check out fellow blogger Presenting Lenore’s Dystopian August page!

Mockingjay Day (cont.)

26 Aug

Em: All week I have been figuring out the date by how far from August 24th we were. I managed to make it through the week without anything even closely resembling spoilers and now I finally have a copy in my hands! Today, Nora and I headed to Oblong Books & Music in Millerton, NY for a Suzanne Collins event. Suzanne read a chapter from Catching Fire and the first chapter from Mockingjay and graciously stamped books for many many attendees, some wearing Hunger Games shirts – one 12 year old wearing a “Marry Me Peeta” shirt which was at first glance cute and at second thought a little scary (you’re 12). Anyway, well worth the wait if not only for the readings. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed hearing her read from Catching Fire; I appreciated hearing Suzanne’s envisioning of the voice of Katniss Everdeen (futuristic Appalachian accent).

Nora: See, I thought the “Marry Me Peeta” shirt was scary just because who wants to marry Peeta? Seriously, I am team Gale all the way. I just don’t know if bakers can be hot. Maybe like some punk rock, vegan baker-type, but not the average bread maker. Anyway, I can’t believe Em didn’t mention that we got a free Hunger Games bag charm and temporary tattoos. Totally sweet. The real question is why are Em and I watching some show about parasites right now instead of reading Mockingjay.

Em: I get being Team Gale. If I had to pick a team (which I don’t) and the options were only Gale and Peeta (which they aren’t), I would consider going Gale. But I don’t get being anti-Peeta or thinking that bakers (or son’s of bakers) can’t be hot. And parasites are awesome – terrifying and inspiring? Something like that. I frequently think of the Radiolab Parasites episode – extremely memorable, fascinating, creepy.

I try so hard to never use the flash on my camera because it just doesn’t do good things for anyone/anything. Sadly, this often means a trial round of blurry images. And the camera does not discriminate; basically anyone who is not standing perfectly still or benefitting from some nice natural light will be blurrified. Today was no exception and in a way I feel like it could be the bonding force that ties us forever (and ever) to Suzanne Collins (see above). Sorry you were backlit, Suzanne! And sorry about the hand strain! Neither our fault, but still….

Happy Mockingjay Day (John Green)!

24 Aug

It is officially August 24th – that means John Green is a little bit older (happy birthday!) and it’s time for Mockingjay! Some folks read ahead of release (for shame) and spoiled the book for others (for shame squared), but Nora and I are among those who will have to wait an extra couple days until Suzanne Collins makes her way upstate (unless the anticipation is too much and we find other means of reading beforehand). Apologies, fellow bloggers, if we do not visit your sites for a few days in our attempt to avoid spoilers. If you just can’t wait to get the book in your hands, you can watch Suzanne Collins read the first chapter below:

And for all the music-lovers out there, enjoy our Mockingjay 8tracks Mix and then head over to Presenting Lenore to check out her playlists for each of the main characters of the trilogy and Forever Young Adult for their The Hunger Games Survival Mix. For those of legal age, Forever Young Adult also has a Hunger Games Drinking Game complete with drink recipes based on characters.

I am working the desk at the local library tomorrow evening and crossing my fingers that someone will have the book on the hold shelf so that I can read between helping patrons. Wish me luck!

Zetta Elliott

23 Aug

I first came across Zetta Elliott in a Children’s Literature and Language Development class, for which I chose to write about her picture book Bird (with beautiful illustrations by Shadra Strickland) as an example of quality children’s literature that deals with sensitive issues.  The second time I came across Zetta Elliott was in person at the Hudson Children’s Book Festival.  I was excited to talk with her about Bird and even more excited when I saw that she had brought with her her latest book, A Wish After Midnight, a young adult speculative fiction novel that’s back cover text claims it to be in the tradition of Octavia Butler’s Kindred (my favorite) and Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time (yes, please). I interviewed Zetta that day for a community radio station and was lucky enough to have the opportunity to interview her again here for Love YA Lit.

Love YA Lit: You have written poetry, plays, essays, a picture book, a YA novel, and now you are working on a novel for adults, a book of haikus, and a sequel to your first YA novel (phew!). How do you define yourself as an author? Is there a genre in which you feel most at home?

Zetta Elliott: It’s all about hybridity! I’ve always been interested in crossing boundaries—I majored in Humanities in college because taking literature classes just wasn’t enough. I studied languages, religion, drama, history, film—and I think my approach to writing is the same. I’m most comfortable when I feel there aren’t any limits—and that’s tricky because the publishing industry is not all that receptive to experimentation. If you write a picture book story that’s over 2000 words, they insist it can’t work instead of finding a way to make it work. I think my writing is varied enough to appeal to multiple audiences, and I’m drawn to dramatic writing, which increasingly means focusing on dialogue.

Love YA Lit: What guides you or inspires you in your writing?

Zetta Elliott: My feminist principles definitely guide me—I learned so much from women like Audre Lorde and June Jordan and Barbara Smith, and I try to write in a way that acknowledges and extends the black feminist tradition they helped to found. I try to take people who have been marginalized and move them to the center because everyone has a story to tell.

Rules of Attraction

21 Aug

Carlos is a rebel and a gang member with a bad attitude.  When he has to leave Mexico to live with his formerly bad brother Alex (who we first met in the book Perfect Chemistry), he is angry and determined to not let Alex and his perfect rich, white girlfriend tell him what to do.

When Carlos gets to Colorado, his gang ties follow him, and he gets into trouble.  The solution?  Move in with the nice family of one of Alex’s white professors.  Of course, there just happens to be a hot white girl waiting to fall in love with Carlos living there.  She wears baggy t-shirts, so it is hard to see how hot she is at first, but eventually Carlos notices.  This makes Carlos want to change.

Oh, and there is sex.  There are also condoms.  Of course (spoiler alert) the sex tends to lead to marriage in Elkeles’ books.  Does sex always lead to marriage in YA these days a la Twilight?

I read Perfect Chemistry, and you would think that would be enough.  The two books have almost the same plot: a rich white girl who “saves” a poor Mexican gangster by sharing her wealth, opportunities, and body.

The books are seriously addictive and the romance element is the classic Romeo/Juliet kind.  Only I can’t help but feel that the books are kind of racist, or at least “white man’s burden-esque”.  I think they can be enjoyed on one level, but what exactly is the message?  Even if you take race out of it, they are still pushing the idea that a good girl can save and reform a bad boy.

There is still one brother left in the Fuentes family.  If Elkeles writes another book about Luis finding a nice white girl I am going to be seriously annoyed.  Mostly because I know I will have to read it.

Nora’s rating: 3 out of 5 stars
Author: Simone Elkeles
Publisher: Walker and Company
Publication date: April 2010


20 Aug

My library system holds an annual Battle of the Books where 6th-9th graders representing different member libraries compete as library teams in trivia contests about a shared reading list. I’m volunteering at this year’s Battle and decided that it would be fun to read all of the books ahead of time. The Battle is in just a few weeks and I have read (drumroll please)…one book from the list. And the funny thing is that I picked the book from the list that genre-wise (historical fiction) I am least compatible with. Luckily, the book was impressively written by the wonderful Laurie Halse Anderson and I was pleasantly surprised to find myself enjoying the historical thriller (as Anderson calls historical fiction), Chains.

Reading Chains made me realize how little information about our country’s independence I have retained over the years, even with fabulous US History teachers all throughout high school and visits with my family to just about every national historical park on the East coast. While reading, I found myself asking pretty basic questions about that time in our nation’s history (what was the turning point in the war? how did location, race, gender, age, and class affect one’s experiences during this time?). I also found myself thinking about how US History is taught in our schools and what aspects of our history (whose stories) are overlooked.

Chains tells the story of Isabel and Ruth, two sisters seeking their own freedom from slavery while the country seeks freedom from England. Living in New York City in 1776, with Rebels and Loyalists in her midst, Isabel ponders and explores whether her freedom will come from joining the Rebels, the Loyalists, or forging her own path. Curzon, a young slave with ties to the Patriots, encourages her to spy for the Rebels, but what if the Loyalists win? Isabel is a strong protagonist whose journey is informative, engaging, and thought-provoking. I look forward to the continuation of her story with the upcoming release (October 2010) of Forge which will shift perspective to that of Curzon. Forge features cover illlustration by Chris Silas Neal, who also illustrated the beautiful cover for Chains.

Em’s rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Author: Laurie Halse Anderson
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing (October 2008)

If I Stay

18 Aug

One of my greatest fears is losing loved ones unexpectedly. Perhaps this is why If I Stay has stuck with me so much over the past couple months since I first listened to the audiobook. Heads up: this one’s a tearjerker.

As a teenager, there are so many unknowns and so many choices to make about the future. For 17-year-old Mia, the big question is whether to follow her musical dreams by moving East to attend Julliard or to stay on the West coast near family and friends (including her boyfriend who is super sweet). That is, until the unthinkable happens. If I Stay follows Mia (in an out-of-body experience) after barely surviving a car accident which has claimed the lives of her family, as she weighs whether to stay or to go.

If I Stay is a fairly short read (only 208 pages, 4 CDs) told mostly in flashbacks as Mia remembers the family that she has lost and the friends and possible futures that she could choose to live for. The seemingly simple story had potential to be boring, but Gayle Forman wrote such likeable characters and complex emotions that the backstories and present moments kept my interest. I cared for the characters and connected with Mia and her predicament. How does one go on in the face of such loss? What does it mean if she stays? What does it mean if she goes? The book is beautifully written by Forman and expertly performed for audiobook by Kirsten Potter. Their forces joined together are bound to leave you in tears.

(enjoy the above 8tracks mix dedicated to Mia’s mom – one of the few successfully written “cool mom”s ever) In addition to the emotional journey that this book took me on, the way in which music is interwoven throughout the story really added to the experience for me. As a classically trained musician and a lover of alternative rock (particularly music by the “coolest, toughest, hottest rocker girls” out there) I perked up every time a musical reference was made. I also love how we are introduced to Mia’s parents as former rockers; Forman does so in a way that is believable and not-at-all reminiscent of the gag-worthy references to Sonic Youth (love them) made by Rufus and Lily on Gossip Girl. Music is also a connecting force throughout the book, bringing people together whether they prefer Yo-Yo Ma over Bikini Kill or vice versa.

Em’s rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Author: Gayle Forman
Publisher: Penguin Audio (2009)
Reader: Kirsten Potter

Will Grayson, Will Grayson

11 Aug

Will Grayson and Will Grayson share a name, but little else.  However, they become united through their relationships with Tiny Cooper: a very large, very out, football playing, musical-writing force of nature.  One Will Grayson used his straight privilege to stand up for Tiny at a young age, and has been stuck with him ever since.  The Other Will Grayson falls for Tiny after an Internet affair goes all wrong.  My only complaint about this wonderful book is that the descriptions of Tiny’s musical “Tiny Dancer” become a bit lengthy.  Maybe some people like this though.  After all, some people like reading about Quidditch in Harry Potter.

Will Grayson, Will Grayson honestly explores high school friendships and relationships.  I keep finding that John Green writes the most realistic, compelling, and honest YA fiction out there.  Now I just have to check out Levithan’s Boy Meets Boy.

Nora’s rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Authors: John Green and David Levithan
Publisher: Dutton Juvenile
Publication date: April 2010

Ship Breaker

8 Aug

Nora’s review:
Ship Breaker features a near-future dystopia (my favorite genre!) in which the oil has run out and people are forced to scavenge for almost everything.  The book features Nailer, who is a child laborer living in horrific conditions.  He gets his call to adventure (and possible escape from his brutal life) when he comes across a wrecked ship and has to choose which path will bring him his “lucky strike”.  What makes Ship Breaker special is that it is pretty post-racial and seems gender blind as well (but not so blind that there isn’t some good romance).  It deals with class difference and cross-class relationships in an honest and interesting way.  However, it does feature one of my pet-peeve YA things (see end of post – spoiler alert).

Anyway, the characters are compelling, and the book features an insane amount of suspense, action, and tension.  Nothing feels forced, and the relationship Nailer has with his meth-addicted father is fascinating – it really explores the mentality of a child with an abusive parent – how they can hate and fear the parent, but still love and need the parent.

Em’s review:
I loved this book.  Ship Breaker made me want to do nothing but read and made all other tasks and responsibilities seem burdensome.  From the incredibly strong world-building, to the heart-racing action, well-developed characterization, and social commentary, this book never failed me.  While the story is set in a much different time, the settings and scenarios are incredibly believable.  Sadly, with recent devastation in the Gulf Coast (Hurricane Katrina and the BP oil spill), it is no great stretch to imagine a decimated coastline, a city under water, and the powerful force of “city killers” (devastating storms). Similarly, the disparity between the rich and the poor, while clearly more pronounced in this future landscape, is not at all shocking given our present reality.  The believability of this world is part of what makes this story so scary.  Another fear factor is Nailer’s father.  Richard Lopez is one of the most successfully written villains I’ve read in a long time.  Nailer and I both were terrified that he would resurface throughout the story.  Nailer is easy to relate to and is likable without being perfect.  And the supporting characters are strong as well (Pima, Sardna, Sloth, Tool) – each unique and complex.

The story touches upon several issues from the environment, corporate responsibility, poverty, child labor, drug abuse, and domestic violence to questions about the meaning of family, destiny and birthright, and the moral cost of survival.  Bacigalupi does all of this without once coming across as preachy or taking the reader away from the action that propels this story forward.  The only negative thing that I have heard people say about this book had to do with predictability.  Sure, there are parts that are predictable, but for me that didn’t detract from the experience at all.  The moments that I saw coming, I was excited for, so when my predictions came to fruition, I was grateful that the author had made those choices.

Nora’s rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Em’s rating: 5 out of 5 stars
Author: Paolo Bacigalupi
Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers (May 2010)