FINAL ROUND!: Battle of the Author Last Names that I Can’t Pronounce

The plots of both titles have been summed up in previous posts, so I’ll spare you a couple of paragraphs.
Charm & Strange.

 
Charm & Strange tackles a common theme in YA fiction with a new slant and I applaud Keuhn’s approach to the subject charm and strangematter.  The protagonist, Drew, is a compelling character that grows immensely by the end of the novel.  I found Charm & Strange dark and remarkably peculiar.  I did, however, have several issues with this book.

The writing was a bit weak and the story had some major holes. With the exception of Drew, most of the other characters were particularly special or relevant to the plot.  The female friend could have been a great character; however, if her character was nonexistent; it wouldn’t affect the plot.  The ex-roommate, once again, could have been great but he was extremely underdeveloped.  Kevin and the cousins were flat and I didn’t care about them.

Out of the Easy
Girl power in teen fiction is the romantic comedy of movies. There are so many and in order to make it stand out, the writing has to be impeccable, the characters have to compelling, and the story has to be slightly different from the norm.  In Out of the Easy, Sepetys takes a different approach by introducing us to a strong girl who grew up in a brothel with a prostitute for a mother in 1950’s New Orleans.
Many authors have tried to write this story and have failed. Sepetys, however, manages to write wonderful round characters that are essential to the plot and Josie’s struggle to get out of the Easy.  She writes a relatable heroine who wants the educated boy who symbolizes hope as opposed to the hustler with seemingly no opportunities.  She writes a flawed girl who has been strong her entire life and finds it difficult to accept help.  She writes a role model who has a clear goal and works hard to achieve it.

index.aspxThe winner of this final battle is Out of the Easy.
Charm & Strange takes on a serious and familiar subject with a new approach. Out of the Easy also takes on a familiar subject but in a familiar approach. Out of the Easy stands out because of the writing and the characters. From the nasty brothel floor that Josie has to scrub to the streets of the French Quarter; Sepetys takes the reader to Josie’s life in 1950’s New Orleans.  Sepetys’s characters are beautiful people that you want to be friends with, including Willie.  It’s an engaging story of a girl with an unconventional family and an unconventional life who fights for her dreams.

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In the Shadow of Blackbirds VS Out of the Easy

Which one will be the winner? Both of these books were stories I had been looking forward to reading. I decided not to read the previous bracket reviews of both and just start with the basic knowledge I had of both stories. So, on with the fun!

In the Shadow of Blackbirds by Cat Winters is set during the influenza outbreak of 1918. Mary Shelley lives in a in the shadow of blackbirdsworld where everyone’s nerves are frayed and on edge. Between not trusting neighbors for fear they could be spies and the flu pandemic that is striking down healthy young men and women, the country is gripped by terror. Mary Shelley is on run to San Diego to live with her aunt after her father was arrested for being a traitor. One solace Mary Shelley has is thinking of her love Stephen, who is off in Europe fighting in the war. Soon word of Stephen’s death reaches her. Voices and mysterious happenings make Mary Shelley believe Stephen is reaching out from beyond the grave to tell her something. Is it real or is it fake? And if it is real—what does he want her to know?

Out of the Easy by Ruta Sepetys is also a historical novel, this time set during 1950 in New Orleans. Josie has essentially raised herself since she was 12. She has a mom, but her mom doesn’t care at all for her. Josie works mornings at a brothel for Willie. Willie might be a madam but she’s also a savvy businesswoman, well-connected in the community, and Josie’s mom’s boss. Josie second job is as a shopgirl at a bookstore. Between these two jobs and taking care of Charlie (the owner of the shop who’s suffering from a brain injury), Josie dreams of a life away from New Orleans and away from the life she associates with her mom. She’s inspired to apply to Smith after meeting an out-of-town Smith student as well as a bookstore customer who mistakes her for a college student. When the customer dies mysteriously, Josie’s world starts to falter as her mother is suspected of murder.

The winner is Out of the Easy. I really enjoyed In the Shadows of Blackbirds’s atmosphere and the contrast between Mary Shelley’s scientific mind and what is happening to her. I felt on edge during the whole story—would anyone survive? However, Out of the Easy captured my heart from the beginning. Josie was an amazing character to spend time with. The people who made up Josie’s world were an eclectic mix and I liked the family that she had found in them. A mix of mystery, coming-of-age, romance, and historical fiction—I felt like I could feel the steamy air of New Orleans around me. The feelings of not fitting in and wanting more are so universal that I found myself hoping that Josie would win out over New Orleans.

Winner: Out of the Easy

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Reality Boy vs. Out of the Easy: AKA the “You Think Your Life Sucks” challenge

It is very clear that the committee that worked on these brackets were spot on in their selection of the best books of 2013.  Like others before me, I enter this challenge without a clear idea of which of the books is my favorite.  Both are books that were on my radar but I hadn’t yet read so I was able to go into this challenge without any preconceived notions.

index.aspxI had wanted to read Out of the Easy when it came out but when I read the first line of the novel (My mother’s a prostitute.) I knew that I wouldn’t be able to booktalk this novel to the middle schools and that put it on my “to read when I’m not reading for booklists” pile.  I’m really glad that this challenge forced this book into my hands.  This story takes place in 1950’s New Orleans where 17-year-old Josie Moraine, the daughter of a prostitute, is trying to remove herself from the life that her mom has created.  She moved out of her mom’s “house” at 12 and got her own apartment.  She works in a bookstore and cleans the Madame’s house for a living.  She has aspirations of college and becoming something more than just a girl from the Quarter.  Unfortunately, her past and her mother’s bad decisions keep pulling her down.  She has to decide if she is going to keep fighting to pull herself up and out.  Part Historical Fiction, part Mystery, part romance – this is a very satisfying read.  Ruta Sepetys is a wonderful writer and her second novel doesn’t disappoint.

Reality Boy is another book that I really wanted to read but was put on the “later” pile.  Gerald “The Crapper” Faust is so filled with anger, it overwhelms him.  He is in anger management counseling and fights the need to fight every day.  All of the anger stems from when he was five and his parents put his family on a reality television “Super Nanny” like show.  To show hindex.aspx1is disgust for the whole situation, Gerald did what his five-year-old self thought would best get his point across – he pooped on the dining room table.  It got such a reaction that he continued to do it to show his displeasure.  His five-year-old self never would have imagined that it would be something that he would have to carry around with him forever.  He really didn’t think that he would have to face life alone without a his family backing him up.  Unfortunately, his mom is distant (at best), his dad is a workaholic, his sister Lisi moved to Scotland and Tasha is so self-consumed that she only makes everything worse.  This is a really powerful novel and makes you look at the world of reality TV in a totally different light.  As you read it, you are angry for Gerald so it is no surprise that he is so mad himself. As the reader, hope that he can move beyond “The Crapper” and find a support system. That is exactly what a great book is supposed to do; give you a protagonist that you can support and cheer on and hope that they will come out ahead in the end.

At first it might seem difficult to compare these two books but at their heart is the same basic concept – teens who are dealing with the really difficult lives as a result of poor decisions made by their parents.  The guidance they receive comes outside sources and they are (understandably) hesitant to accept it on any terms but their own.  Because they’ve both been fighting their whole lives, they are kind of selfish because there has never been anyone else to look out for them.  Both Gerald and Josie find love and support from people outside their family and ultimately it is those people who help them find their true selves and help to propel them forward.

I think I have to give this challenge to Out of the Easy by Ruta Sepetys.  Only because there were a couple things in Reality Boy that seemed a little incongruous (particularly he talked a lot about made up postal abbreviations and zip codes that didn’t really flow with the rest of the story).  Nothing that would keep me from reading or recommending the book – just that I had to choose a winner and that was the only nitpicky thing I can come up with.  I highly recommend that you read both books.

Winner:  Out of the Easy by Ruta Sepetys

Just One Day vs. Rose Under Fire

Just One Day by Gayle Forman

Just-One-Day-cover-682x1024This story takes place in a world that might be a stretch for some readers; it begins with a main character meeting a guy at a Shakespeare play and deciding to throw all caution to the wind in the name of adventure. No, that’s not the entire plot…that’s just the first day. Allyson Healy lives a life of order and obedience up until that point, complete with a life that’s been mapped out based on a decision she made in middle school. Her parents are loving but controlling, and she never knew she craved freedom from those things until she had the chance to run. The allure of Paris and a beautiful person named Willem draw her temporarily away. After Allyson returns home, she tries to adapt back to her old life sans adventure. Allyson starts college and her relationships in life begin to change while she feels more stuck than ever. Slowly, she begins to figure out that in order to move forward with her life that she’s got to make changes by going backward a bit.

Yes, this book sounds as though it’s got lots of room for fluffy teen-angst moments. But, it’s completely the opposite. Forman has crafted a story that will resonate with your teen readers and adults alike. Forman’s writing style makes you overlook any unbelievable parts in the plot. The reader isn’t being told the story of a sad kid; rather, readers are living the doubts, fears and questions that come along with being eighteen, and actually becoming a functioning adult. The reader can feel the new friendships forming and taste the sense of living on the cusp of teenage child and young adult. Forman’s descriptions of Allyson’s European destinations and travels paint a scene that will make you yearn to visit these sites again and again—with or without Willem at your side. For this reader, the story definitely began as one thing and turned out as another—from finding love to learning how to love yourself in the process.

Rose Under Fire by Elizabeth Wein

17262236You know Elizabeth Wein’s voice from last year’s Printz honor title, Code Name Verity. This book is not a sequel; it is a companion title. The story is told in a similar writing style through Rose’s journal. We’re still experiencing the life of a female ATA pilot in Rose Justice and her compatriots. Rose takes some risks result in time as a political prisoner in Ravensbruck concentration camp in Nazi Germany. There, the descriptive nature of Wein’s writing kicks in. Wein definitely has a way with scenery. Akin to Forman, Wein’s writing style creates images that are powerful and meaningful to the reader—it is impossible to be unmoved by the themes in this book. The stories of the individual women that Rose meets while in the concentration camp are the biggest draw for the reader; this diverse group of women (even some who were defined as Rabbits by the Nazis and used as human experiment subjects) provide a face and a personality to those forced to endure such atrocity.

While I found value in reading Wein’s title, and I truly believe that this story is a win for fans of historical fiction, I didn’t find myself engrossed in the actual plot. And, I should have been, as Wein had a plethora of elements in her favor. The idea is fascinating, and kudos to Wein on using real historical figures to base her characters upon. The setting is one that, at the mere mention of the word Holocaust, evokes a powerful emotion. Wein had all of the elements of a winner here, but all of them just didn’t mix well for me. The journal writing style is not my favorite to read (I got through it with Verity only because I listened to it on audio). The story was interspersed with Rose’s poetry, too, which added another disruption to the flow. I can say that I was definitely connected to the emotion and the pain of the women (and Rose’s, too) in the story, I don’t know that I ever felt connected to Rose herself. She didn’t express the depth that would have moved me to call this book a complete win.

So, I’m calling Forman’s emotional connection the winning element. I think if Wein could have brought this to the table, things might have been different, but for now, I’m travelling with Allyson.

WINNER: Just One Day by Gayle Forman

Boxers & Saints vs. Far Far Away

As I write this up, I have a confession: Like Brandi before me in her decision regarding Fangirl vs. In the Shadow of Blackbirds, I don’t know which book I will pick yet. I’ve always been someone who has to talk things out before I can come to a decision and until I finish this post, I will be in as much suspense as you are right now reading this – except I can’t scroll down to the last paragraph to peek at the final answer! Enough delay, on to the analysis.

eye-in-woundI think I will analyze in the order I read these, so let’s begin with Boxers & Saints by Gene Luen Yang with coloring by Lark Pien. I read these for the first time back in October and loved learning about a part of history that I knew next to nothing about (and the little bit I do know is from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, so it doesn’t count, right?). If you can untangle it from the magical realism, Yang has packed a ton of historical detail into both the story and the illustrations. After reading both volumes, I felt I had a fairly clear picture of the causes and course of the rebellion. Yang isn’t just talking history though. Boxers & Saints has a lot to say about faith, loyalty, belonging and compassion. Choosing to make this a duology strengthens every theme Yang explores because we see how those themes thread through both Bao’s and Vibiana’s very different journeys. What struck me the most on this first read through, in fact, were full page spreads that echoed one another in each volume – on pg. 282 of Boxers and pg. 158 of Saints. In each case, that full page spread stops you dead in your tracks. In Boxers, it’s a portrait of “Guan Yin, the Goddess of Compassion – the goddess with one thousand eyes to look for suffering and one thousand hands to relieve it.” In Saints, it’s a portrait of Jesus as he speaks to Vibiana and commands her to “Be mindful of others as I am mindful of you.” Each figure is surrounded by hands that all have an eye in a center of their palm – an image that speaks strongly of compassion – and each portrait is surrounded plotwise by events that lay bare the lack of compassion that war requires.

On my second read, I mostly found myself contemplating two things that Karyn Silverman over at Someday My Printz Will Come (http://blogs.slj.com/printzblog/2013/11/25/boxers-saints-or-what-defines-book-anyway/) commented on. One was whether Bao and Vibiana are actually seeing visions of Gods and Saints or if they are simply a little crazy. Are they just trying to find comfort and direction and, without any reliable adults to turn to, creating their own spirit guides from the corners of their minds? I doubt this reading would ever have occurred to me on my own, but, for me, it deepened the themes of faith and belief. The other think Karyn mentioned was Lark Pien’s coloring and on the second time through – the coloring is brilliant. The majority of the panels in both volumes are done in muted, sepia tones. In Boxers there are pops of color for when the Boxers become Gods, blood, and occasional pivotal panels – one of soldiers in uniform, another of Bao backed by fire. Then comes Saints, and the only color pops are the gold that Pien has used for the spirits Vibiana sees – bringing home the contrast these ghostly visits bring to Vibiana’s cramped, narrow, bleak life.

But enough about Boxers & Saints. What about Far Far Away by Tom McNeal? I faced a bit of a conundrum far far awaywhen reading this one – I had read so much about it online that I already knew major plot points, most importantly, the identity of the villain, the Finder of Occasions. I was worried this would ruin the suspense of the book for me, but it turned out not to bother me in the slightest. In fact, I loved seeing the clues that had been laid to the Finder’s identity all along – piecing together the puzzle of how the Finder came to terrorize Never Better. I had read a lot about how many weren’t sure this was suitable for under a certain age, and, while the Finder’s methods are certainly disturbing, I was relieved that there was not appreciably gory violence involved. Far Far Away contains elements from two of my favorite genres, mystery and fantasy, so I went into this match expecting it to walk away the easy winner. However, fairy tales form the backbone of this book and, in the end, I think that’s why I didn’t connect with it as much as I had hoped. The characters didn’t feel full except for Jacob Grimm and Jeremy and while that wouldn’t bother me so much in fairy tales, which are constructed around archetypes, in a novel it bothers me much more. The women in particular seem to be either perfect (Ginger, Jenny Applegarth) or terrible (Jeremy’s mother). McNeal has written a great book here, but since I have to pick only one winner, the flat characters knock this one out for me.

So, there you go – I’ve talked myself to a winner: Boxers & Saints by Gene Luen Yang for the successful meshing of fantasy and history in service of theme and for that brilliant coloring by Lark Pien.

Winner: Boxers & Saints by Gene Luen Yang, coloring by Lark Pien

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Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock vs. The Coldest Girl in Coldtown

Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock vs. The Coldest Girl in Coldtown

 The Coldest Girl in Coldtown by Holly Black and Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock by Matthew Quick are two very coldest girl in coldtowndark, compelling novels with extremely different plots. The former is a dystopian thriller and the latter an emotionally intense realistic fiction novel.

Holly Black creates a terrifying world in her novel The Coldest Girl in Coldtown where a mother infected by the vampire infection can turn against her own daughter when thirsty for blood.  Vampires are both feared and awed, as they are in many traditional vampire stories.  Unlike many paranormal novels, this one is chilling and bloody with a unique, steadfast heroine named Tana. The story is wildly imaginative and richly detailed with memorable characters, which creates quite the page-turner.

From the other end of the YA spectrum we have a realistic fiction novel, Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock.  Matthew Quick writes stories with some unforgettable characters, Leonard Peacock being one of them.  He is a loner and an outcast who sees himself as worthless. The entire story takes place in one day, in the tortured mind of a self-loathing, darkly humorous boy on his eighteenth birthday.  The story moves quickly, is tense and heartbreaking, yet ultimately hopeful. Quick is a master at using internal dialogue to create a cold and distant character who we eventually see as a troubled, uncertain boy who just needs someone who understands what he is going through.

While The Coldest Girl in Coldtown will be a favorite amongst fans of suspenseful, paranormal thrillers, for me, I have to go with the darkly humorous Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock.  Leonard’s problems are more relatable and even though he isn’t always proactive and he makes bad decisions, his story will still resonate with readers. The book will make you feel angry, and frustrated, and disturbed, and yet still hopeful.  That is the indication of a novel worth reading.  Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock is a story that you will keep thinking about long after you’ve finished reading.

WINNER: Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock by Matthew Quick

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Fangirl vs. In the Shadow of Blackbirds

I’m going to be brutally honest at the beginning of this review.  At this point, I have no idea which book I want to fangirlchoose.  I’m hoping as I write about them, the clear winner will reveal itself to me.  So fingers crossed…here I go!

If there were ever any two books that were on completely opposite ends of the spectrum, they would be Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell and In the Shadow of Blackbirds by Cat Winters.

The first is a splendid, quirky romance that tugs at your heart strings, but adds enough geek culture to grab the attention of readers that normally might shy away from a romance.  Rowell includes humor and drama to create a story that will leave readers debating about how it is to be described.  Cath and her twin sister Wren begin the story at college, away from home for the first time.  It soon becomes obvious that Wren is more willing to succomb to the traditional representation of college life including several parties and a bit too much alcohol.  Cath’s college experiences are quite the opposite.  She would much rather stick to writing her fanfiction about Simon Snow, the main character from the super popular boy wizard book series.  Cath’s roommate, Reagan, is a nightmare and she always has a male visitor, who shows up whether Reagan is home or not.  Fangirl is a story full of truth.  Rowell skirts away from traditional teen romance cliches and encourages the readers to draw their own conclusions before she reveals the reality of situations.  While the Cath story is interesting enough to keep the reader’s attention, the excerpts from the Simon Snow books and Cath’s own interpretation found in sections of her fanfiction really make this book special.

The second title in this battle is In the Shadow of Blackbirds.  This book tells the story of Mary Shelley Black (yes, she was named after the author of Frankenstein).  Mary Shelley’s story takes place in San Diego in 1918.  Two life-changing events were happening simultaneously and both had a largely traumatic affect to Mary Shelley’s life.  The first was World War I.  Mary Shelley had to move to San Diego from Portland to live with her aunt after her father was arrested from treason for helping men avoid the draft.  Secondly, 1918 was the setting of the Spanish flu which killed millions of people.  While a straightly historical novel about the flu and the war would have been interesting, Winters decides to turn it up a notch and includes the growing fad of spirit photography.  With several friends and family dying quickly, spiritualism was on the rise amongst people hoping to communicate with their loved ones.  After a near-death experience, Mary Shelley begins to see and hear her recently-deceased friend and would-have-been lover.  In the Shadow of Blackbirds smoothly transforms from a historical novel into a light paranormal mystery.  In order to not spoil the shocking and unexpected plot points for you, I will not go much further into the story.  I was not expecting to like this novel as much as I did, which sets it apart from Fangirl.  I knew that Fangirl was going to be something that I would fall in love with quite quickly.  I did not expect the same results from In the Shadow of Blackbirds.  Also, as a sufferer of bird phobia, I must state that the title is not merely a metaphor.  There are birds in this story and they are not necessarily friendly.  You’ve been warned.

So, I finished the review and it did help me to make a decision.  I am going to go with In the Shadow of Blackbirds.  The plot is full of twists, the setting is fully realized, and the paranormal aspects are just enough to keep it feeling real without taking it too far.  Finally, In the Shadow of Blackbirds surprised me.  It was a bit of a sleeper hit to me, but it definitely woke me up.  Be sure to read this Morris Award Honor book soon!

Winner: In the Shadow of Blackbirds by Cat Winters

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