Book reviews & writing tips from a wannabe YA writer

Which Book Will Win? Alligator Bayou vs. Evil?

Jul 14, 2010 Posted by: Kelly | Filed under: 2 Stars, 3 Stars, Reviews
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For the second year, I signed up to help judge the Nerds Heart YA tournament because:

  1. I am a nerd, and
  2. I heart YA.

The books I had to decide between were worlds apart this year—one historical fiction and the other a fantasy. I’ll start with reviews of each one, but if you can’t bear the suspense any longer feel free to skip to the end of this post for the decision…

Can you trust me? Compare our taste!

Alligator Bayou

Author: Donna Jo Napoli
Summary: 14-year-old Calogero is a Sicilian boy who’s lost his mother, so he’s sent to work with other Sicilians in a small Louisiana town during the late 1890s. At that time, Italians weren’t accepted as equals by whites, and being friends with blacks was frowned upon. But that doesn’t stop Calogero from having a crush on a beautiful girl who happens to be black.

What I Loved: This would be an excellent choice for kids who are studying this time period in their history class. Early on, a feeling of what life was like in that world settles into your bones. Kids would learn way more from one good piece of fiction like this than from memorizing important dates and names for weeks on end.

So what I loved most about this book is that it takes an obscure slice of America’s history—how five Italian immigrants were brutally murdered—and serves it up for us to mull over.

The language was spare throughout—not too flowery or overly descriptive, but just enough to get a vivid image across. Here’s a snippet for you, from a scene with Calogero and the girl he has a crush on:

She sets down the lantern glass and puts her hands lightly on my cheeks.

I touch the center of her back at the waist. Just a hint. She moves to me, natural as water running downhill.

What I Didn’t Love: The story gets off to a slow start, or at least slower than I prefer. I didn’t really get a sense that the true stakes were life and death until about halfway through the book. More hinting in the beginning about those high stakes would have helped pique my interest.

But I’m glad I stuck with it and finished.

One more minor issue that tripped up my reading was the way that background information was sometimes delivered through dialogue. In some places, that dialogue came off a little too speech-y for my taste. As in: “Ahem. Now listen to me, while I will tell you everything I know about that topic.”

Borrow: Your local library | Swap
Buy: Your local bookstore | Powell’s | Amazon


Author: Timothy Carter
Summary: Stu is a gay teen living in a devoutly religious small town. He also summons a demon on occasion to chat. But none of that is why everyone in town hates him. The trouble all started after Stu’s little brother caught Stu in the act of pleasuring himself and announced it at church.

What I Loved: I wish there were more YA books that explore the nature of religion, so I was glad to read such a playful attempt at doing that.

I also loved that what gets Stu in trouble had nothing to do with him being gay. The townspeople were actually surprisingly okay with his orientation—that is, surprising for a small religious town.

What I Didn’t Love: I don’t have a problem with fantasy or absurd storylines. (In fact, I have a fond place in my weird little heart for books like Lips Touch and Pretty Monsters and Jack Tumor.)

But the fantastical twists and turns in this book did not make a believer out of me.

The humor didn’t exactly convert me to fandom, either. Instead of laughing or even smiling at the jokes, I groaned. Like with this one:

I did think I was better than most people in this town. When you’re a gay teenager with a brain among a community that expects God to “Rapture” them at any given moment, you can’t help but feel that way. If that makes me a snob, then say hello to my upturned nostrils!

I like my humor fresh and original. To me, the humor in this book was not either of those things.

Borrow: Your local library | Swap
Buy: Your local bookstore | Powell’s | Amazon

The Decision

The book that will continue to the next round is…


Alligator Bayou

If you’re a numbers sort of person, here’s the ratings breakdown:

Alligator Bayou: 3/5
Evil?: 2/5

To see how Alligator Bayou fares in the next round of the tournament, keep an eye on There’s a Book for Danielle’s decision.

The Perfect Writing Retreat

Jun 10, 2010 Posted by: Kelly | Filed under: Writing

Ever since I let a couple large projects at work disrupt my writing routine, I’ve been in a bit of a slump. For example—and it physically hurts me to admit this to the world—I am still working on revising my most recent novel so I can cash in on that agent referral I got in late January.

Yesterday, my husband offered to take care of our daughter one weekend so I can take off for a writing retreat.

Best. Husband. Ever.

But planning my writing retreat has proven to be yet another effective distraction from actually writing. So to get it out of my system, here’s a peek into my daydreams:

  • A turret. I’ve always wanted my very own writing turret. Preferably with a wrap-around balcony.
  • Room service. I don’t want to change out of my jammies. This is a must.
  • No temptations. TV, Internet access, a comfortable bed—all no-nos at my writing retreat.
  • Ingrid. I’ve never been the type to write with music playing in the background, but lately I’ve made an exception for Ingrid Michaelson. Give her a listen, you’ll see why.

Your Turn

What would your most perfect writing retreat look like?

Photo by ChicagoGeek.

Review: Going Bovine

May 22, 2010 Posted by: Kelly | Filed under: 3 Stars, Reviews
Tags: ,

Can you trust me? Compare our taste!

Title: Going Bovine
Author: Libba Bray
Category: Fiction, Young Adult
Rating: 3/5
Why I Read It: I have a track record of loving Printz winners and honor books, and Going Bovine is the 2010 winner.

Summary: 16-year-old Cameron doesn’t care much about anything. But being diagnosed with mad cow disease solves that problem.

Review: Utterly, positively funny. The wit and sarcasm drips off every single page of this book, so much so that I became immune to it after a while. I tend to prefer the brand of funny that hides around the next corner and startles a laugh out of me.

Maybe I would have felt differently if I had started out liking the main character. But he is so incredibly apathetic at the beginning that I didn’t feel compelled to care in return. Then about halfway through, I did start rooting for him.

Because guess what? When Cameron started to care about what was going on around him, I started to care too. And it didn’t hurt that the Don Quixote parallels meant I could relive my English major days.

I enjoyed this book, although it was just alright for me. Could be I wasn’t in the right mood when I read it. Here’s a taste so you can decide whether it’s right for you:

The best day of my life happened when I was five and almost died at Disney World.

I’m sixteen now, so you can imagine that’s left me with quite a few days of major suckage.

Like Career Day? Really? Do we need to devote an entire six hours out of the high school year to having “life counselors” tell you all the jobs you could potentially blow at? Is there a reason for dodgeball? Pep rallies? Rad soda commercials featuring Parker Day’s smug, fake-tanned face? I ask you.

But back to the best day of my life, Disney, and my near-death experience.

I know what you’re thinking: WTF? Who dies at Disney World? It’s full of spinning teacups and magical princesses and big-assed chipmunks walking around waving like it’s absolutely normal for jumbo-sized stuffed animals to come to life and post for photo ops. Like, seriously.

Your Turn: What brand of funny do you go for?

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Buy: Your local bookstore | Powell’s | Amazon

Did You Like This Book? Try:

Review: North of Beautiful

May 15, 2010 Posted by: Kelly | Filed under: 3 Stars, Reviews
Tags: ,

Can you trust me? Compare our taste!

Title: North of Beautiful
Author: Justina Chen Headley
Category: Fiction, Young Adult
Rating: 3/5
Why I Read It: This title was picked by 3 bloggers during Unsung YA Heroes 2010: Biblio File, Write Meg!, and YA Librarian Tales.

Summary: Most people think Terra is beautiful, until they see the port-wine birthmark on her cheek. Surgery won’t remove it, makeup can’t cover it up all the way, and her father certainly won’t let her forget it’s there.

Review: From the first sentence, this story firmly planted me in Terra’s shoes. Terra’s experience will make you realize how focused we are on a single definition of beauty—who has it and who doesn’t. When I was a good ways into the book, I was out at a coffee shop and standing in line. I caught a kid staring at me, and immediately my hand flew to my cheek. There’s no birthmark on my cheek, but the book made me feel for Terra’s situation so completely that for a split second I thought otherwise.

As if dealing with stares and nasty comments from strangers weren’t enough, Terra’s home situation will break your heart. Her dad is verbally abusive and controlling, almost beyond belief. Terra copes well enough by writing him off, but her mom copes by overeating. This subplot, while powerful, felt a little over-the-top at times. In some scenes, Terra’s mom was just a little too pitiful, and I didn’t believe she was really that weak.

The other reason I didn’t connect 100% with this book is the amount of internal dialogue where Terra explains what she’s feeling. When it comes to internal dialogue, I’m in the camp of less is more. Terra would explain the same emotional struggles over and over again, and I found myself skipping over those parts to get to the action.

But the harsh reality of Terra’s struggles kept me grounded in the story, and the romance felt genuine. This was a good read, just not a favorite for me.

Your Turn: Have you ever unintentionally adopted a habit or quirk of the main character’s from the book you’re currently reading? Or “remembered” something that happened to you, when it was actually from the book?

Borrow: Your local library | Swap
Buy: Your local bookstore | Powell’s | Amazon

Did You Like This Book? Try:

Did You Win?

May 4, 2010 Posted by: Kelly | Filed under: Reading
Tags: ,

It took me a little longer than I expected to slot all the winners for the The Great Unsung YA 2010 Giveaway because:

  1. I’ve never done a giveaway with such a huge amount of entrants before, and
  2. I wanted to make sure the winners got one of their top three picks.

After a little game of musical chairs, I was able to accomplish #2 in all except one case!

So without further ado, here are the lucky winners, thanks to

  1. Alexa Nagasue and a BONUS copy for Shesten Melder: Gamma Glamma by Kim Flores
    (A special thanks to the author for sending over an extra copy of an uncorrected proof so Shesten could get the bonus win!)
  2. Annika Dalton: The Secrets of the Cheese Syndicate by Donna St. Cyr
  3. Kat Drennan: My Life from Air-Bras to Zits by Barbara Haworth-Attard
  4. Keira Gillett: The Thirteen Curses by Michelle Harrison
  5. Lisa Gibson: The Puzzle Ring by Kate Forsyth
  6. Mary Bell: Unsigned Hype by Booker T. Mattison
  7. Melanie Goodman: Border Crossing by Jessica Lee Anderson
  8. Sabrina Horande: Trudy by Jessica Lee Anderson
  9. Stacy Walker: Year of the Horse by Justin Allen
  10. Susie Sharp: The Death-Defying Pepper Roux by Geraldine McCaughrean

Congratulations, all! Details are on their way via email.

Photo by A Christmas Story House Gift Shop.

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