cybils


This year, I was on the nominating panel for the Cybils in the YA Fiction category. It was an amazing experience. I read some fantastic books, and I discussed them with some wonderful people. Discussing and debating books with intelligent people like my co-panelists makes me feel smarter, and it sharpens my brain, and I love it. It makes me really think about the merits and appeal of the books I’ve read, rather than simply, did I love it or not, which, when I’m not at my best, is what my critical skills are reduced to. I had to be on top of my game to defend books that I loved and reject books that I didn’t feel deserved a place on our short list. I had to think, and I love thinking! I love it when critical thinking is demanded of me. And I love the Cybils.  Even though the short list we came up with isn’t my personal short list, I was forced to rethink some of my choices, and to either back off or come out with stronger arguments than ever. I believe that if you can’t defend your position, you either need to rethink your position or rethink your reasoning, and the Cybils force me to do that with books. Have I mentioned how much I love that?

A shout out to my fellow panelists:

Leila Roy of  Bookshelves of Doom
Rebecca Laney of Becky’s Book Reviews
Amanda Snow of A Patchwork of Books
Trisha Murakami of The Ya Ya Yas
Kate Fall of Author2Author
Abby Johnson of Abby (the) Librarian

They all rock, and their blogs are awesome. Add them to your must-read list if you haven’t already!

And now, what you’ve all been waiting for–the finalists! Out of all the nominees, the YA fiction panel (me and those mentioned above) chose seven books that will go on to be read by the judges. The finalists are:

Check out the lists for all categories, including blurbs from the panelists about why particular books were chosen:

Easy Readers
Fantasy & Science Fiction
Fiction Picture Books
Graphic Novels
Middle Grade Fiction
Non-Fiction MG/YA
Non-Fiction Picture Books
Poetry
Young Adult Fiction

I also wanted to mention a few favorites of mine that didn’t make our shortlist. I read a lot of great books for the Cybils, but these really stood out: I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone by Stephanie Kuehnert, Opposite of Invisible by Liz Gallagher, The Fortunes of Indigo Skye by Deb Caletti, The Comeback Season by Jennifer E. Smith, Good Enough by Paula Yoo, How They Met, and Other Stories by David Levithan, and Everything You Want by Barbara Shoup. I loved a lot of the books on the list, though, and many are definitely worth reading.

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Sister Wife takes place in Unity, home to The Movement, a conservative religious group that lives apart from mainstream, modern society. It follows three very different girls coming of age in Unity, with the title referring to the fact that the community practices polygamy (referred to as “celestial marriage”), where young girls are married off to older men, whose other wives are their “sister wives.”

Celeste has grown up in Unity, but she is beginning to question the ways of The Movement as the day nears when she will be assigned to a husband. She is fifteen and doesn’t feel ready to be married, especially not to a man old enough to be her father. However, she also doesn’t feel ready to fight the traditions of her community, not when it will bring shame to the family she loves so dearly. 

Nanette, Celeste’s younger sister, is far more content with their way of life. She can’t wait until the Prophet assigns her to a husband. She can’t wait to be a sister wife, and a mother. She believes completely, with her whole heart, and can’t understand Celeste’s reluctance and doubts. 

Taviana is not from Unity, and her life before coming to the community was very, very different from the modest, religious way of things in the Movement. She feels safe in Unity, but she’s not dedicated to the lifestyle. 

Sister Wife is very much ripped from the headlines, and I don’t love that. Inspiration from the real world and the news, as Laura Wiess cites, is all well and good, but I feel like Shelley Hrdlitschka carried it too far for my taste. It also didn’t have much besides being ripped from the headlines. It was very much an issue book, and I am not a fan of the issue book. A skilled author can deal with an issue very well without actually writing an issue book. Shelley Hrdlitschka is not that author. A book can be about real people and life and what goes on and that can have issues in it, and that is a much better type of book. A book never has to be an issue book, but this was an issue book.

I liked, though, that it was relatively unbiased; it wasn’t a tirade against polygamy or an indoctrination. However, that balance felt a little forced with the alternating viewpoints. Three sides of the story were well represented, but the way it was written and structured felt almost unnecessary. I didn’t feel like we needed equal representation and first person narration from all three girls. Their voices were indistinct, and I often had to flip pages to see which girl’s point of view I was reading. Books don’t need to be democratic. I actually think a third person narration would have sufficed. I didn’t care enough about the individual characters to want all of them to tell the story.

I think that’s it, really; I was interested enough in this book, but I never really cared about any of it. I never once felt personally invested. Part of what a good book does is make the reader care, and Sister Wife never did that for me. 

It didn’t feel real, despite its foundation in real life and current events. It didn’t feel like something that was actually happening. It felt like a book, and great books don’t, if that makes any sense. Great books captivate the reader and sweep them away into the story. This book does not do that. It is not well-written enough to do that. It is sometimes boring, sometimes awkward, and only sometimes very readable. I did finish this book, and I enjoyed it well enough while reading, but it’s not something that I’d recommend very highly unless you have a particular interest in the issue at hand. 

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Leftovers chronicles the transformation of two best friends from kids to people who have done something. Something unforgivable, but, they believe, not for unforgivable reasons. We don’t know what when the book starts. All we know is that they are taking turns confessing on tape. They start with the backstory. They start with how they got to where they are, how they became people who could do what they did. 

Blair’s mother is all about image. She doesn’t care about Blair, and when they do see each other, it’s mostly in the company of other people who need to believe that their family is close. Blair’s father is having an affair. They are not the family they once were.

Ardith’s family is what it’s always been. Ardith’s house is the party house, full of drinking and sex and all sorts of things that wouldn’t go on in a place with normal parents. Ardith keeps padlocks on her door to keep out what goes on in the rest of her house. 

Blair and Ardith are best friends. They turn to each other when everyone else in their world fails them. The unfortunate circumstances and cruel people in their lives try to rip them apart, but their bond can’t be broken that easily; just changed, as they change, as does everything around them.

Leftovers is a very intense story. Horrible things happen to Blair and Ardith, and in the end, it’s simultaneously unsurprising and horrifying. Blair and Ardith are very real characters, and their story is disturbingly believable. Blair and Ardith are interesting to the reader, because, to me at least, they still managed to be sympathetic characters. They did something unforgivable, but they were also the victims in this story, in another way. As I read, I could not turn the pages fast enough (and thus have no idea what’s been going on in Chemistry for the past two days). It’s well-written, suspenseful, and kind of like watching two cars go toward each other, toward a head-on collision; you know something horrible is going to happen, but you can’t look away. The format of this novel is interesting, as Blair and Ardith alternate talking, sometimes talking in the present tense to the person they’re confessing to, and sometimes telling the story of what happened. Sometimes it’s in second person, too, which is an interesting effect with disastrous potential, but Laura Wiess pulls it off nicely. This is a powerful book that certainly lives up to the high standards set by Laura Wiess’s first novel, Such A Pretty Girl

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Kat is not afraid of being herself. She’s an artist, an athlete, a receptionist at her mom Abra’s midwifery, and does yoga in the hallways at school to center herself. Kat’s not “original” in that cliche, unoriginal way; she’s just herself, and that’s a little different from most people. Sure, she might have self-esteem issues sometimes (don’t we all?), and she pays a little too much attention to the popular crowd at school, but she’s still Kat, and that’s why I love her. 

Kat’s life is imperfect, just like anyone’s. She’s crushing on popular Manny Cruz(who seemed sleazy, but…wasn’t? I didn’t feel like his character made complete sense). She has some problems with her best friend, Christy. Her relationship with her mother isn’t great; Abra pays more attention to her clients than her children. Fact of Life #31 is about all aspects of Kat’s life (friends, school, guys, family–just life), but her relationship with her mother is the big one. 

In Fact of Life #31, Denise Vega takes on a lot. A lot of characters, a lot of issues, a lot of stuff happening in Kat’s life, just like the crazy-hectic lives of most teenagers (not in content but in volume of stuff we have to deal with). And she does it really well. I absolutely loved Kat, and most of the other characters. This was a funny, honest, well-written book that I really enjoyed reading. Kat’s quirky without being a stereotype, and while she has the same issues as a lot of teenagers, she’s unique enough to make reading about it through her eyes interesting. This is a solidly good book. 

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I Know It’s Over is not an issue book. It may seem odd that I feel the need to preface my review with this, but teen pregnancy is pretty much the premise of this book, and that definitely makes it sound like a typical issue book, and it’s not. Yes, the charcters deal with the issue, but it’s not about the “issue,” or the cold generalizations that implies; it’s about the people. It’s about something that could really happen to almost anyone, and about two people who do have to handle this problem, and an unplanned pregnancy at sixteen is a huge problem.

Nick and Sasha are over by the time Sasha tells Nick, on Christmas Eve, that she’s pregnant. While it lasted, though, it was a good relationship, and Nick’s still holding on to what he and Sasha had. Now, that’s difficult and impossible as he tries to let Sasha make her own decisions, but still can’t help but be involved. That’s not the whole story, though; part of this book is also flashbacks to the beginning and duration of Nick and Sasha’s relationship. 

This book isn’t just about Nick and his relationship with and feelings for Sasha, or how they deal with the pregnancy. It’s also about Nick’s whole life, including the issues he has with his friends and family. 

C.K. Kelly Martin’s debut novel is a believable, readable, intense, and captivating story. It’s layered and complex and scarily relatable. To the reader, it feels like a story about real people, people who could be your friends or siblings or neighbors, not a book about an issue or a book with a lesson to teach, and that is truly impressive. The author does an amazing job with Nick, her protagonist, painting a vivid portrait of him and his life, and also capturing his voice perfectly–and it’s a feat, the way a grown woman is able to capture the voice of a sixteen-year-old boy! Martin’s writing style is honest and perfect for this story and character. I Know It’s Over is very, very good, and highly recommended. I can’t wait to read this author’s next book.

Make sure to check out C.K. Kelly Martin’s guest post on Reviewer X.

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When the story starts, it’s been a hundred years since the Cubs won the World Series, and five years since Ryan’s father died in an accident. It’s opening day, and the anniversary of her father’s death, and Ryan’s at Wrigley Field instead of in science class. Her father loved the Cubs.

Ryan is unable to get a ticket, but she meets a boy in her math class who she’s never spoken to before, and the two of them, despite being unable to get into the game, soak up the atmosphere together. It’s one afternoon, but it’s one afternoon that will change everything for Ryan.

The Comeback Season is, yes, a book about baseball. The atmosphere of the Cubs games and Chicago is so wonderfully captured and real and alive; it made me want to move to Chicago and watch baseball. I don’t like baseball, and I’m hoping to move to New York next year. Although perhaps I should be taking the two awesome books I’ve read recently that make me love Chicago (where I’ve never been) as signs from the universe or something. 

It didn’t take me long to be completely absorbed into this story, despite the odd choice of third person limited present-tense. It’s different, but it worked; it wasn’t long before I felt myself fall into the rhythm of it. It’s so present, which sounds weird for a book about a girl who is having trouble moving on to the future, but it most definitely works. And there is rhythm here, and style, and voice, and an eloquence that is just lovely and unique, much like the book itself. 

Ryan is a complex, believable, and likeable main character. Her relationship with Nick is very real–after their initial connection, it ranges from comfortable to painfully awkward, just like any budding teenage relationship. The Cubs brought them together, and baseball is very much a theme that weaves this whole book together, and I love it. It’s a very orignal idea, to take what is otherwise kind of a girly romantic book and use baseball as the backdrop for it, but it works. It’s a very effective metaphorical mirror to what is going on in Ryan’s life. 

Much like any Cubs game, The Comeback Season is both heartbreaking and hopeful. It’s a different sort of book, and it’s amazingly poignant, powerful, and, in the end, breathtaking. It’s both predictable and unexpected, simple and complex, about the past, the present, and the future. It’s courage and faith and disappointment and hope. It’s brilliant. I never expected to love a book about baseball, but I did, and I feel certain that Ryan’s comeback season will stick with me.

In this beautifully crafted piece of historical fiction, fifteen-year-old Ruby is forced to quit school and work to support her family after her father’s death when her mother is no longer able to do so.  She doesn’t have any skills that will help her (she never took typing or shorthand in school), so she takes a job at a meatpacking plant. It’s harsh work, but there are few options for a girl in Chicago in the early 1940s, and she doesn’t see a way out.

All that changes after Paulie Suelze, neighborhood legend and a boy her mother would die to see her with, is impressed with her dancing and directs her to the Starlight Dance Academy. There, Ruby can get paid for dancing all night, as long as her mother never finds out (her cover story is that she’s found work as a telephone operator). Despite what its name suggests, Starlight is a taxi dance hall, where girls like Ruby (taxi dancers) are paid ten cents a dance, and sometimes more for extracurricular activities with the men, which range from casual conversation over dinner to, well, you know.

Soon, Ruby is deep into the world of nighttime Chicago–the music, the clubs, the dancing, the drinking, the gambling–and having trouble reconciling who she’s forced to become with the innocent girl she used to be.

Ten Cents A Dance is gorgeous. The setting comes vividly to life, and I do mean vividly. I felt immersed in Ruby’s world, and 1940s Chicago is certainly a fascinating place to be. I do love a nice setting, and, wow, I honestly can’t think of a better book in terms of the very real sense of time and place and the culture and language that come with it (I loved the 1940s slang!). I can’t even describe how well Christine Fletcher pulled this off–for those words, you’ll need to read the book itself.

It’s not just the setting, though. The characters are very real, and their relationships rung true as well. Ruby is a wonderful heroine, and her character develops nicely over the course of the story. She comes out a different person at the end of it all, in some ways, as would anyone, but she’s still Ruby–just the way it should be. Very believable. Ruby is strong and spirited and I can’t imagine not loving her. Even the minor chracters were well-drawn, and I was quite intrigued by some of them (I’d love to look deeper into the life of Ozzie, who plays in the band at the Starlight, for example).

Ruby’s voice is authentic and a pleasure to read. Christine Fletcher is brilliant in her use of language, and she chose an excellent story to apply it to. I’d never heard of taxi dance halls before, but suffice to say I am plenty interested now and have been doing a bit of my own internet research on them and the culture of the time. I was completely hooked by this story, and not just the story, but also, almost independently, its setting.

Ruby’s visits to the black-and-tans (the clubs where all races are welcomed) also provide an interesting window into another aspect of this time and place. It’s certainly not any kind of an issue book, but I did enjoy the insight into the race relations of the time. I enjoyed all insights into the time and place, honestly. As much as all aspects of this book stand out, it’s the setting and Christine Fletcher’s vivid portrayal of it that really pushes it to over-the-top amazingly brilliant.

I adored the author’s previous book, Tallulah Falls, and expected this one to be amazing as well, and it was even better. They’re very different books, too, and I love Christine Fletcher’s versatility; I can’t wait to see what she writes in the future. She’s an incredibly talented author, and you will be far from sorry for picking up this book.

In six words: 1940s Chicago, great characters, absolutely brilliant.

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