29 October 2010

Hand Over the Maple Candies, and Nobody Gets Hurt

Fixing Delilah by Sarah Ockler (Publish Date: December 1, 2010; Little, Brown Books for Young Readers)
A review, by Laura Beutler

Guess what? Lately, I’ve had Christmas once a month—at least. I mean it. Honest-to-goodness Christmas, right here in Indiana. And all because I happened to respond to an e-mail from Little, Brown and Company offering ARCs (Advanced Review Copies) to book-obsessed YA librarians like me. I leapt at the chance. What? Would you say no to free books delivered to your door? Would you say no to reading books before anyone else gets to read them? I didn’t think so. Still, I was sure they’d filled the quota of librarians before they reached my miserable, pathetic, needy little e-mail.

But I was wrong.

The latest shipment? Fixing Delilah by Sarah Ockler. I had just reread Ockler’s Twenty Boy Summer after it was challenged in Republic, MO. The timing was perfect. I promise to tread a careful, spoiler-free line, because this book has not yet hit shelves (thus making me feel all-powerful and fueling my Drive to Acquire ARCs).

I was fated to love Fixing Delilah. It has the best things a book can have: family secrets; old, forgotten diaries; maple sugar candy; and knitting! What could be better? Sure, the knitting part is with dog hair—but it’s knitting all the same. Just…don’t walk around in the rain wearing a dog-hair sweater, is all I’m saying.

Delilah Hannaford won me over in the first chapter. She has a wicked sense of humor: her quips about the little town she’s thrown into for the summer made me laugh throughout the book. When you get to the FOO NASTY part, you’ll understand. I think the fact that I’m from a very, very small town makes the FOO NASTY all the funnier, because I can understand what might lead a business to never, ever replace the burnt-out lights in their storefront sign. If the whole town knows the name of your business, why waste money on electricity? You laugh, but this happens.

Despite my instant Delilah-love, her life is an utter wreck. She’s angry at her workaholic mother; angry at her father for dying before she was born (complicated by the fact he never knew she existed); angry at her school “friends” who choose to humiliate her under the banner of free-press; angry at her non-boyfriend, who is a total sleaze. Often I found myself yelling advice at her through the pages, which is complicated by the fact that I work in a library (And yes, Bailey. I was really yelling. Bailey thinks convention hinders me, forcing me to be quiet in libraries. That’s just because she hasn’t come to visit my library. Yet). People stared. Still, I think Delilah heard me.

After Delilah’s estranged grandmother dies, she and her mother travel to Red Falls, Vermont (home of the glorious maple sugar candies you can’t get in Indiana unless you have black market connections) to settle the estate. Delilah’s mother and Aunt Rachel resolve to sell their family home, and Delilah’s mother enlists Delilah’s help in preparing the house for sale, and yes, that includes cleaning the gutters. Delilah is trapped in Red Falls for her entire summer, which doesn’t turn out half bad, despite her initial reluctance (I think the maple candies won her over).

Of course, as we all know from reality television, nothing brings people together faster than marathon home renovation (and forcing estranged family members to live in close quarters can’t hurt).

As Delilah’s mother and aunt grow closer, Delilah becomes reacquainted with her childhood friend, Patrick. Whom I adore. Because he is a guy who reads—IN PUBLIC. This is a big deal where I come from (Is it a big deal everywhere? Do parts of the world exist where men buy books? If so, tell me where you live and I will move there.) Once, my dad was buying a book at our local “bookstore,” and the cashier stared at him in a mixture of awe and disbelief, saying, “You’re the first man I’ve ever seen buy a book!” (Seriously, that is where I live. You can’t make this stuff up.)

With Patrick’s help, Delilah begins to explore the secrets from her mother’s past, finally learning that family is harder to tear apart than she once thought. Fixing Delilah is a captivating story of loss and love that I couldn’t put down.

(Want to read an excerpt now? Sarah Ockler has posted one on her website—Go read!)

22 October 2010

Girls Kick Ass. Literally.

Fearless by Francine Pascal  (Published 1999, Pocket Pulse) 
A review, by Bailey Kelsey

I got a little story for you, readers!

I was eleven when I realized that, potentially, a girl could kick a boy's ass.  This did not end well for me, or for the boy whom I tested this theory on.  Though, I didn't actually kick his ass.  I slapped him when he broke up with me, and punched his best friend in the nose when he tried to prevent me from running into the girls' locker room in humiliation.  This is really NOT a course of action I recommend; in fact, I would really rather you young girls, or my-age women, or older women avoid violence. (When possible.)

And before you readers jump to conclusions about the book I'm reviewing and the lead-in paragraph, these actions were not in any way prompted or encouraged or spawned by Francine Pascal's Fearless series.  They were, in fact, curbed and better understood because of Pascal's Fearless series.

While Gaia (Guy. Uh.) Moore was my literary introduction to girls who kick ass (she does beat quite a lot of people up in these books), she was also the force that quelled my raging and confused pre-teen hormones and aggression.

Gaia is an angry girl of seventeen who has had a particularly complicated life, being the daughter of a disappearing, ex-CIA agent father and a never-in-the-picture mother.  She has been left in the care of her father's CIA mentor, the fifty-something George Niven, and his thirty-something wife, Ella.  She is starting a new school in New York City.  And, oh yeah, she was born without the fear gene.  Life is just made exceptionally complicated when you aren't afraid of anything.

For instance, if you weren't afraid of muggers, rapists, or murderers, you might be inclined to hunt them down, to tempt them into a crime, and then to teach them a lesson. The lesson being that all pretty women are NOT prey.  Or you might not.  But that's what Gaia Moore would do, and does do.  (Thank goodness her father had the mindset to teach her innumerable methods of martial arts, combat skills, and weaponry tactics before he disappeared.)

But beyond all of those extreme complications and an intense cliff-hanger that drives the reader straight into Book Two (Sam), the lesson is very clear: violence is a dark, twisted thing. And violence has many facets, many forms, and not all of them are so easy to see coming or to prevent. Violence can be physical, mental, emotional, and all violence is tricky.

Then there is the Thing that is true of all Things:  violence has two sides. There is violence for protection and there is violence for aggression.  Oh, and let's not forget (because Pascal doesn't let Gaia forget it), with violence comes guilt.

Of course, the series is not focused solely on violence.  Later books delve into Love, and Trust, and Faith, and Friendship, and Forgiveness.  All those integral aspects of the HUMAN CONDITION.   And the human condition is an integral part of a good story, a relatable story.  A story that, as a reader, you want to be involved in.

Gaia Moore was the heroine that introduced me to heroines that could be strong physically.  But she was also the first heroine that made me realize that I, as a person, need to be strong on all the levels: physically, mentally, and emotionally.  Like all eleven year olds, I was coming into being my own self, learning about who I could be.  Gaia Moore taught me a lot about the type of woman I wanted to be (physical prowess, the ability to protect my own, is a huge part of my identity), and a lot more about the type of woman I didn't want to be (the kind who slaps the boy who dumps her rather publicly during Gym class).

15 October 2010

Zombies vs Unicorns -- Ed. Holly Black and Justine Larbalestier

Dear reader, Bailey and Laura absolutely, positively promise to never ever ever subject you to a review of this shocking length ever again. Bailey and Laura felt that the magnitude of this fiction Anthology warranted a longer review, so that each story could be given its due. We solemnly vow never to expect , force, encourage, or bribe you to read a review of this length again. Unless Laura gets her way and writes reviews of double this length every week.

Laura: Should we ask the obvious question? Yeah, I think we should. We kind of have to. So…

Bailey: Which are you…a Zombie or a Unicorn?

Laura: I told you I would reserve comment until you’d finished the book…and now you FINALLY have. Despite my utter and complete respect for Team Zombie, my adoration of Maureen Johnson, my near-obsession with Carrie Ryan’s story…I am TEAM UNICORN.

If I were stuck in an elevator with a zombie or a unicorn, I would pick unicorn. It would smell better, there would be less rotting flesh on the floor, I wouldn’t be worried about pressing buttons that the zombie had already pressed that would be ooze-covered...I have thought this through. Picking a side was really hard, but the way the book is set up, you must pick a side. Just look at the cover. This is a war!

You haven’t told me which side you’re on, not since you finished the book—Team Zombie or Team Unicorn?

Bailey: I feel I should make the statement here that I finished ZvU a whole 4 days later than scheduled. Much to Laura’s chagrin. That being said...

I came into this anthology knowing zombies and wondering, “What the heck could anyone possibly write about a stupid, shiny, smelly (albeit, good smelly) unicorn?” I am leaving this book--with continued respect for all the Team Zombie authors-- but I am leaving this book firmly on the side of TEAM UNICORN.

But no worries, the hours of debate and review between Laura and I was completely fair and equally judgmental of both sides.

Laura: Especially since we both have our essences trapped in jars and cared for by Maureen Johnson (it’s what happens when you follow her on Twitter). Really, it isn’t creepy at all, and it’s totally painless. Everybody’s doing it.


Laura: I think I will reread Naomi Novik’s Purity Test the most. It was hilarious. I forced my brother to sit through “story time” in which I read most of Purity Test to him. He said, “Laura, I can read it to myself.” I reluctantly handed over the book. But he is 24; if he couldn’t read by now, I would worry about him.

Really, I think it was Purity Test that won me over to Team Unicorn. But Meg Cabot and the rainbow-farting Princess Prettypants and Diana Peterfreund’s venom-dripping flesh-tearing unicorns played a huge part in that too. Goodbye Lisa Frank, hello Flayer.

Bailey: Flayer (the aforementioned venom-dripping flesh-tearing unicorn as imagined by Diana Peterfreund) was the unicorn that tugged on my heart-strings and made me stand firmly with the unicorns. Yes, I sided with the unicorns because of the demon-spawn murder-machine. I think if Justine Larbalestier were here she would tell me this meant my heart was secretly longing to remain sided with the zombies. Not to put words in her mouth, or anything.

However, it was Cabot’s Princess Prettypants that I actually read snippets of out loud OVER the football games last weekend. I told the boys, “You are going to sit here and listen to the hilarious mockery of the iconic unicorn.”

Laura: The only stories that kept me from running right out and buying a Team Unicorn jersey were A Thousand Flowers by Margo Lanagan and The Third Virgin by Kathleen Duey. You know how I feel about The Third Virgin. Nothing like a psychotic unicorn serial killer to make you sleep through the night. That unicorn was an angel of death! It was killing people to feel a rush of power and control—someone put him in a maximum security unicorn PRISON before it is TOO LATE!

I’m stopping myself right now. You don’t want to get either the Serial Killer Unicorn Rant or Bestiality Acorn-Baby-Making Unicorn Rant started.

Bailey: I am actually quite partial to Lanagan's story. I’m just going to say, I have never trusted a unicorn. It has a giant spike coming out of its forehead. What is to trust there? At least with the zombies, you know the evil you’re getting: brain eating.

But don’t doubt the creative genius of the authors on Team Zombie. Those folks did more with brain eating than I would have thought possible. And there is something about brain eating and love stories that go better hand-in-hand.


Bailey: I adored Love Will Tear Us Apart by Alaya Dawn Johnson. It was all the nerdy, science-y goodness that makes zombies. The best part of that story for me is this: my boyfriend always talks about kuru and mad cow disease, and I have NEVER understood what he was saying before. But put these diseases in the context of zombies and human brain cravings? It all clicked.

Laura: I get the science-love. Who wouldn’t love to sit down and have a good chat about Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease? But I don’t think I’ll ever be able to eat macaroni and cheese again in my life after reading that story.

Bailey: I LOVE mac and cheese. I can see why the zombie ate people if they tasted like mac and cheese.

Laura: We’ll just call you Brain-Eatin’ Bailey from now on.

Brain-Eatin’ Bailey: Maybe it’s because your food of choice is not mac and cheese? Maybe if he had described brains as something else?

Laura: Yeah…I don’t see that making a difference. Maureen Johnson used juicy cheeseburger-brains in Children of the Revolution and that didn’t help much either. I haven’t had a cheeseburger since I read MJ’s story.

Brain-Eatin’ Bailey: MJ’s was my favorite zombie story! Because children frighten me anyway and zombie children are kind of how I imagine normal children. It was this moment of, “See! This is what I am afraid a small child IS when I’m not looking at it!”

Laura: How would you even be able to tell if you had zombie kids or regular kids? I mean, sticky child hands could easily be sticky zombie-child hands, and I have been bitten by children before! I could be the first infected librarian! And then I will spread it to every restaurant within a thousand miles.*

Brain-Eatin’ Bailey: Thank goodness I live…wait, do I live more than 1000 miles away from you? I might have to check into whether or not I’m safe from Potentially Zombie Laura.

Potentially Zombie Laura: I think Bourgainvillea by Carrie Ryan was awesome. It was the one zombie story that terrified me more than any other, because the frightening part wasn’t what the zombies were, it was what the zombie plague made ordinary humans BECOME. Freaky.

Brain-Eatin’ Bailey: I LOVED Carrie Ryan’s story. I had one of the worst nightmares I’ve had because of a story…and that made me love it more. But I also had terrible nightmares after finishing Prom Night by Libba Bray. I have no idea if this has to do with you telling me I’d have terrible nightmares or what, but tunneling zombies? No, thank you.

Potentially Zombie Laura: I told you Carrie Ryan would give you nightmares. The Prom Night-induced nightmares were all you.


Brain-Eatin’ Bailey: Of course, this entire anthology was centered on the metaphors of zombies and unicorns, and both sides did marvelous things with metaphors. The nature of metaphors, though, makes it tough to discuss some of the stories without completely divulging spoilery material.
For Team Zombie, such stories are Cold Hands by Cassandra Clare and Innoculata by Scott Westerfeld. For me, Clare’s zombie story was the most haunting and most blatant metaphor of the entire anthology, while Westerfeld’s was the most intriguing metaphor. Though, I have to be honest and say I expected a lot more from his metaphor than I was given. And on the unicorn side, The Highest Justice by Garth Nix was also pretty straight-forward, but a good beginning to the anthology.

Potentially Zombie Laura: Mmm...I went from thinking that Cold Hands was my favorite ZvU parable to thinking that The Third Virgin by Kathleen Duey was my favorite. It inspired enough of a rant on my part to make me love it. Arguing about literature is my favorite hobby. I could go into literary analysis mode now, or share my Psychotic-Unicorn-Serial-Killer Rant with you, but Bailey told me I need to keep myself under 10,000 words for this review. It’s all her fault. Feel free to tell her what you think about word count limits down below in the comments.

Bailey’s Witty Ending:
Though, if we are both TEAM UNICORN, I just have to ask how, by the end of this review, I have become Brain-Eatin’ Bailey and you have become Potentially Zombie Laura. Perhaps the war continues.

Laura’s Even Wittier Ending:
Yeah, I said it. Even wittier. And if you read along, you can tell exactly how we got our nicknames. See, you were talking about wanting to eat brains because you love them so much, and I was afraid I would perhaps maybe become a zombie because I work in the children’s section of a library. It really makes perfect sense. And it’s our fear of the zombie hordes coming to kill us in our sleep that spawned the nicknames. Aren’t you afraid, Bailey? Aren’t you?

Brain-Eatin’ Bailey: Not with Princess Prettypants and Flayer protecting me, I’m not.
Potentially Zombie Laura: Who says they’re protecting you? I’ve got room for them to live in the woods next to my house and plenty of apples, sweet hay and neighborhood livestock for Princess Prettypants (a.k.a. Gloria) and Flayer to eat. Can two unicorns with violent tendencies live in your apartment?

And in what will surely become an epic battle in the future for the Last Word (and it will probably always go to the final editor) both Brain-Eatin’ Bailey and Potentially Zombie Laura say:
“SPPOOOONNN...We happy.”**


* Laura travels for good food, thus the wide angle of zombie disease spreading. And if she will travel for good Chicken Parmesan now, she will certainly travel for brains later. Mmm...Chicken Parmesan... (Bailey would like to add here that Laura has just discovered what food would induce brain eating for her. Victory.) (Laura would like to add here that she would not eat Chicken Parmesan Brains unless they were cleverly disguised as Normal Chicken Parmesan, like with actual cutlets covered in mozzarella cheese with tomato sauce and actual noodles made from the stuff noodles are made from on the side, preferably covered with garlic Alfredo sauce. Is Brain-Eatin’ Bailey going to cook up some Chicken Parmesan Brains as part of her master plan to make me turn zombie? I don’t think so.)

** Thanks, Maureen Johnson, for THAT creepy sign off line.

Finally, if you made it this far, please click the cover image to go to the awesome publisher promotional site for Zombies v Unicorns. It's totally freaking cool, I promise. It's like a special reward for reaching the bottom of this review!