Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Where the Mountain Meets the Moon

Title: Where the Mountain Meets the Moon
Author: Grace Lin
Genre: Middle Grade Fiction
Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Publication date: Available now in paperback

Where the Mountain Meets the Moon is the story of Minli, a young girl who has grown up in the shadow of Fruitless Mountain in rural China. She has spent her life listening to her father's stories, fantastical tales of old China that take her mind away from the poverty in which she lives. Minli's mother, however, can't escape into the stories and her discontent eventually drives Minli to leave in the middle of the night to find The Old Man of the Moon.

Minli's story is interspersed with Chinese folklore and gorgeous color pictures. Grace Lin has told a story that is at once fanciful and full of the realities of poverty. 

I chose this book for the fourth graders in my summer book club. I chose it because the town where they live is very small and sheltered--there are only about 20 kids per grade, and almost all of them are white. In my after-school art classes with these kids, I've observed a significant amount of racist behavior toward the Chinese, which is weird because we have two students of Chinese descent and the kids are perfectly accepting of them. Most of the racism takes the form of off-color jokes that the kids probably learned from their parents.

This book is steeped in Chinese folklore. It shows the poverty and culture richness that is so prevalent, even today, and it portrays these things with a perfect balance of realism and fantasy. I know that reading one novel, no matter how good it is, can't reverse ten years of entrenched racism, but I'm hoping that the book will help me open a dialogue about jokes at another culture's expense. At the very least, maybe I'll be able to ask, "How would Minli feel about that?" the next time I hear a racist joke.

Friday, June 8, 2012

A More Specific Hatred

So, in my last post I talked about a book I hated. I talked about it in a very diplomatic, namby-pamby, I-hope-this-doesn't-get-me-in-trouble kind of way. I didn't even name it, although I dropped enough hints that a dedicated Google search could turn up its title.

This is not that kind of post.

I'm going to come right out and say it: I hate FIFTY SHADES OF GREY.

I am late to the party in expressing my opinion about this book, mostly because of the aforementioned namby-pambitude. I wanted to let people have their own opinions about it without forcing them to consider mine. Also, I didn't want to read it. But then I got curious. I was given an opportunity to read the original published work--MASTER OF THE UNIVERSE--and see where it all started. It's not every day that I get to chance to read what is essentially the first draft of a bestselling novel.

For those of you who aren't familiar, E.L. James is a British television executive whose noveling career began with a work of fanfiction. Twilight fanfiction. In other words, she took a cast of well-known characters and imagined what their lives would be like in a different setting. In other other words, she borrowed those characters wholesale and wrote a story about them. Then she changed the names and sold that story to a publishing house, who in turn sold millions of copies.

Okay, I'm not speaking out against fanfiction here. I've written some myself. But I did not steal someone else's characters and then make a million dollars off of them. That would be shitty. And the worst part is that MASTER OF THE UNIVERSE is pretty much unreadable due to the complete lack of punctuation. Also, E.L. James seems not to have gotten the memo about "write what you know"--her 21-year-old American character is actually a middle-aged Englishwoman in Kristen Stewart's body.

I could go on for days about these books. Years, even. But instead I'll leave you with this dire warning, courtesy of Ray Bradbury:

"Remember the firemen 
are rarely necessary. 
The people stopped reading 
of its own accord."

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

The Worst Book I've Ever Read

Lately I've had a question burning a hole in my brain:

What's the worst book you've ever read?

I hate negative publicity. Usually, if I don't have something nice to say about a book, I don't say anything at all, for reasons that I've talked about before. I would rather use my influence to promote good books, not to shoot down bad ones. One man's trash is another man's treasure. It's not for me to decide which is which for everyone.

However. Lately I read a book that was just awful. I mean, I was filled with rage every time I turned the page, it was that bad. Then I looked it up on Goodreads to find that it had really good ratings! Lots of five-star reviews.

That got me thinking about what exactly I hated so much about it.

It didn't take me long.

Let's call the book "The Travesty." The author is branching out after finishing a pretty popular series on a trendy topic. The Travesty is a departure from that topic and her first high fantasy novel. She doesn't pull it off. Her characters are straight out of a modern high school, her dialogue is all wrong, and the pacing skips over everything that is usually given precedence in a fantasy novel: the world, the magic, and the Bad Guy. Instead, we are given a love triangle that seems to be just for show. One of the guys is clearly The One, while the other is flat and colorless.

What's worse is that the writing is similar to something that I would consider a first draft in my own writing--whole scenes are glossed over and made completely boring when they could have been so good. There are all kinds of loose ends and contradictions. Now, granted, I read an ARC of this book, so there was still some editing left to be done. I will be reading the finished copy, despite my utter revulsion, to make sure that I'm giving this book a fair chance. But I don't expect much.

My main complaint about The Travesty is that it is a perfect illustration of the Quantity Over Quality mantra that seems to be circulating through YA publishing houses. Rather than buying quality manuscripts, publishers are looking for a fast buck: anything about vampires, anything dystopian, anything with a love triangle. Publishers don't buy a book any more--they read your manuscript and decide that it's a trilogy, because trilogies are really "in" right now.

The Travesty isn't ready to go to print. It's not good enough yet. But it's hitting shelves now because it has all of the necessary bullet points, regardless of the finer details.

There are plenty of people who are going to love this book. It's got a really promising plot--in fact, the plot is the only reason I read all the way to the end. But even a five-star plot isn't enough to cover up the fact that The Travesty is not a novel that would have been published if the author had written it before her vampire series.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

More on Plagiarism

Since the writing of my last post, new information has come to light about the plagiarism issue. It's been confirmed that Kristi Diehm of the The Story Siren stole content and even, to a certain extent, formatting and wording from two separate blogs and claimed them as her own. You can read more about the situation here and here.

What saddens me most about the hubbub is the blogging community's reaction. The Story Siren has a huge impact, and inspires lots of readers and reviewers. Kristi Diehm is incredibly influential within our community. The most popular reaction seems to be, "Accidents happen; everyone makes mistakes."

Here's the thing, though: accidents and mistakes are not the same.

What Kristi did is undeniably a mistake: she stole someone else's intellectual property and lied about its provenance. She herself admits that it was a poor decision and that she let us down when she did it. She lost a lot of supporters and a lot of credibility.

But it wasn't an accident.

It was a deliberate and calculated decision, and that's not something we can easily forgive or overlook.

When a person writes a blog, she's taking a leap of faith. Her words and thoughts are out there in the ether for anyone to read, and she has to trust her community of readers to honor her ownership of them. When someone as influential as The Story Siren breaks that trust, she's setting an example for future bloggers and readers. With the small act of "borrowing" someone else's ideas, Kristi Diehm has weakened the structure of our entire blogging community. That's not something we should just overlook and forgive. I really hope that this issue doesn't just get swept under the rug--it's something that needs to be discussed and remembered. It's up to us to acknowledge the damage that has been done, and it's up to us to fix it.

Monday, April 23, 2012

On Plagiarism

Today there has been a growing discussion on Twitter about plagiarism as it relates to book review blogs. I'm not going to go into that, because I don't have all the facts and I don't want to get involved in the spread of unsubstantiated rumors, but it made me think: where does plagiarism begin and end?

I've read blogs by reviewers in which the blogger copies the publisher's description of the book and then adds her own comments.

 I've read blogs by authors in which the author is angry that his or her words (from the jacket copy) were rewritten without permission.

 I've read blogs in which other blogs are quoted or copied verbatim in the course of a post.

 In the book blogging industry, it's standard practice to use the jacket copy in lieu of one's own description. Quoting from the book, copying whole passages, and generally borrowing someone else's words are frequent occurrences. It's hard to write about writing without bringing in specific examples--but how much can you copy before it becomes plagiarism? And why don't we ever talk about it?

 A few years ago, during my first Summer Reading Challenge at A Great Good Place for Books, one of my secret bonus tasks was for the kids to write a book review, which I would then post on this blog. I gave the kids a general format but they were expected to read a book and write their review independently. For the most part, they did--but, just to be safe, I typed the first two sentences into Google to see if anything came up.

 And, in one young reviewer's case, the first two sentences were an exact match for the Amazon description.

 The rest of the review was fairly original--although the description hit the same points as the jacket copy, the student had rephrased them enough so that I was almost comfortable posting his review. But three of the sentences were identical to the Amazon description, so I asked the student to rewrite it. 

That's when the shit hit the fan.

 First, his mom approached the bookstore owner--my boss--in tears. I wasn't there that day, so I wasn't a part of the conversation, but she is a very loyal customer and a good friend of the owner's and I almost lost my job over it. I had to call her at home and explain myself at great length. I told her that everything I post on my blog reflects on me as a reviewer, and I pride myself on posting original content that is my intellectual property, or the intellectual property of my guest reviewers. I told her that I wasn't comfortable posting a review that borrowed from someone else's writing. Then I had to have the same conversation with her son, the guest reviewer.

 Eventually I managed to save my relationship with the customer, but her son was a different story. To this day, he still doesn't like me. He still doesn't want to read anything I recommend, whether he thinks he'll like it or not. That's a price I'm willing to pay to stick to my guns.

 For me, the line is clear: if someone else wrote it, I don't post it--with the occasional exception of a one-sentence quote or a short paragraph (which is always attributed to the source!). On one occasion I copy-and-pasted the jacket copy, and it still preys on my mind. I realize that I've got stricter guidelines than a lot of bloggers, but that's kind of the issue--they're guidelines, not rules. It's one thing if you copy someone else's blog post and tailor it to look like your own. That's plagiarism, plain and simple. But what about less clear-cut examples, like using the jacket copy instead of your own description? I think it's something we as a community need to discuss--and probably sooner rather than later.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Independent Book Blogger Awards

Hello, everyone! I recently entered my blog in the Independent Book Blogger Awards. The winner gets to go to Book Expo America--my FAVORITE industry event--for free!

Sadly, winning the trip is the only was I'm going to be able to go. BEA is a yearly event held at the Javits Center in New York. Most major publishers (and dozens of small presses) set up on the showroom floor to promote their forthcoming titles. There are author breakfasts, signings, and educational events for booksellers. I've gone almost every year since 2007, and I'd love to go again this year!

If you'd like to vote for my blog, you can click here:

Independent Book Blogger Awards

Vote for this blog for the Independent Book Blogger Awards!


Thank you!

Tuesday, March 27, 2012


Title: Croak
Author: Gina Damico
Genre: Young Adult Humor/Fantasy
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date: March 20th, 2012

Once upon a time, during my first week of college, some guys came around my dorm and handed out little quarter-sheets of paper advertising auditions for a Murder Mystery Improv Comedy Group. I was intrigued. I'd been a total theatre junkie in high school, but had decided to steer clear of the theatre department at Boston College for reasons that I no longer remember. The thought of theatre-for-fun appealed to me. On the other hand, the thought of improv-for-fun sounded like an oxymoron. I'm not the improv type. I have enough trouble holding a conversation, much less holding a conversation that's supposed to be funny, in front of a group of legitimately funny people, with some girl who is pretending to be a fat man in a bikini. That's how I (still) picture improv in my head.

And yet I went, I auditioned, I was called back, and I was cast as Gretl (of Hansel and Gretel fame), the young, nerdy detective character in Once Upon a Kill.

To my relief, I discovered that there was actually a script. And I had plenty of actual lines to memorize. No improv required, except at rehearsals.

On the day we did the read-through of the student-written script, I realized how lucky I was to have found this group of people. The script was so funny that I spent most of the read-through with tears streaming down my face. By the end of that day I felt like part of the family. The script had done that. It had taken a group of weird, awkward people, some of whom knew each other, some of whom didn't, and made us a family. That was my first introduction to Gina Damico's writing.

Now I'm going to tell you about the book she wrote.

Here are some things I love:

-people with heterochromia (2 different-colored eyes)
-creative insults
-upstate New York (somewhat against my will)
-cool, badass uncles

CROAK has all of these things IN SPADES. It even has ramen, which, as a foodie, I probably shouldn't love but do.

The book begins with Lex Bartleby being almost-expelled, tied to a chair with jump ropes by her parents, and shipped off to rural upstate New York. Once there, her policy of Punch First, Fire Scathing Insult Later seems to fit in a little better than it did at home. Before she knows it, Lex is absorbed into the town of Croak, population 80. This is probably due to the fact that her uncle is Mort Bartleby, the mayor of Croak and a well-respected Grim Reaper.

It's not a relaxing summer vacation for Lex. She spends long days Killing people, and on top of that there are several unusual circumstances that she feels compelled to investigate with her partner, Driggs, a hot drummer with the aforementioned heterochromia.

The thing I love most about this book is the dialogue. Lex is a spitfire. She's a master insultmonger, and her repartee with Driggs is often hilarious. But the character I love most is Uncle Mort. I'm not sure if this was Gina Damico's intention, but I kind of have a crush on him. This is a relief. Sometimes I feel creepy swooning over the love interest in a YA novel. Gina has thoughtfully provided me with a more age-appropriate target for my readerly affections, which I appreciate.

I loved that college script of Once Upon a Kill, but Gina's writing has grown and matured since then. I can't wait to see what else she has in store for us.

EDIT: If you would like to read that original script, it can be found here. Gina played "BOO," the Wicked Witch of the West. Check out for more information about the group.