Friday, May 22, 2015

The Friday Four, Part 119


The Whitney Awards winners were announced last Saturday and I did pretty well with my predictions! Of  the four categories, I guessed two completely right and my pick for the third won the fourth instead.  Not bad!


Ardis Parshall runs a fabulous website called Keepapitchinin dedicated to bringing Mormon history to a wider audience. She recently started a series of posts called "She Shall Be an Ensign" about how women are portrayed in Church history. So far she has four posts (edited to add: five as of this morning!):

Women as Actors in Church History (and an addendum)
Wicked Witches
Damsels in Distress
The Princess in the Tower
The Heroine's Journey (added this morning!)

Photo credit

Ardis points out the dearth of women in the official Church histories, especially of women who are active participants rather than bystanders or caricatures, and then looks at some of the ways women who are included are portrayed as less than fully realized human beings. I'm really looking forward to the rest of the series!


Check out these maps of the most popular books, movies, and TV shows set in each state. Kind of silly, but fun!


I've never watched an episode of Mad Men, but I found this article - "How Mad Men Helped Me Understand the Anger in My Mother's Feminism" - fascinating. Some people have a stereotypical image of the "angry feminist" stuck in their heads and dismiss all of feminism without trying to understand why that anger might have been - might still be - justified.
I called my mother to talk to her about the show recently. She didn’t like it, she told me. It harkened back to an unpleasant and familiar time. It was then that I realized, this was what my mother came from. No wonder she was so angry. I was born 25 years later, by then, my mother and the women who joined her at the feminist retreats on the weekends had already accomplished much of the bitterly hard work to change the parameters for women. I was born into a time that felt so different precisely because of all that their mode of chest-beating feminism had achieved. I was lucky, I realized, that my mother’s breed of feminism felt so remote.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

2014 Whitney Award Predictions

I only discovered the Whitney Awards last year, but I'm thrilled to have a tool for finding interesting new LDS authors across different genres.  For whatever reason, my local libraries didn't have as many of the finalists this year as they did last year, so I limited my reading to the Middle Grade and YA categories - and even then didn't get to all the books in any group except Middle Grade! So here are my predictions in those three categories:

Middle Grade
Almost Super by Marion Jensen
The Shadow Throne by Jennifer Nielsen
The Time of the Fireflies by Kimberley Griffiths Little

As with last year, I was thoroughly impressed by the quality of all of the Middle Grade finalists, including two that were sequels to previous year's finalists. The one that stood out from the pack, though, is The Scandalous Sisterhood of Prickwillow Place. The delightful, tongue-in-cheek tone, the play on Victorian cliches, and the girl-power message set it apart.  The final installment of Jennifer Nielsen's Ascendance Trilogy, The Shadow Throne, is a very close second for me.

YA General
Death Coming up the Hill by Chris Crowe
Forbidden by Kimberley Griffiths Little
Kiss Kill Vanish by Jessica Martinez
Not in the Script by Amy Finnegan
On the Fence by Kasie West

First of all, I missed out on reading Amy Finnegan's Not in the Script. Of the other four finalists, Chris Crowe's Death Coming up the Hill, grounded in gritty history of the Vietnam War and all the tumult of 1968, is the most unique. The others were solid engaging stories - the exotic setting of Forbidden and the psychological depth of Kiss Kill Vanish in particular - but Death Coming up the Hill has had the most staying power in my brain despite its brevity.

YA Speculative
Cured by Bethany Wiggins
Dangerous by Shannon Hale
Illusions of Fate by Kiersten White
Remake by Ilima Todd
The Glass Magician by Charlie N. Holmberg

Again, I wasn't able to read one of the finalists in this category: The Glass Magician. The books I did read all excelled in world-building, in creating believable societies that differed from ours in important ways, but held enough familiarity to draw readers in. Illusions of Fate wins this category for me. The characters, the relationships, the depth of the historical, political, social and cultural world-creation without bogging down the story or making the narrative serve the message bring it to the top of the heap.

While I only read 13 of the 15 books eligible for Best Youth Novel my vote would go to Death Coming up the Hill. The haunting, affecting story of a teen struggling to make sense of a "world...gone nuts" packs a powerful emotional punch. The unique structure - being told in haikus - serves to highlight and focus the raw emotion, while still allowing room for character and relationship development.

The winners will be announced tonight at the Whitney Awards Gala in Provo, and when they've posted the results I'll link to them. Writing can be a thankless job, and well-deserved recognition slow in coming, so best of luck to all these authors!

Friday, May 15, 2015

The Friday Four, Part 118


I just discovered a new series on Netflix: Turn.  It's set in a small town on Long Island during the American Revolution and follows the intrigues of a handful of rebels each fighting for freedom in their own way. Having spent several of my formative years near Colonial Williamsburg, Mount Vernon, and other historical sites, I love that aspect of the show, as well as the reminder that people who lived long ago really weren't all that different from people today. They loved, hated, fought, laughed, cried, and lived through it all just as we do today.


Anita Sakreesian released a new video in her Tropes Vs. Women in Video Games series, and her second one focused on Positive Female Characters in Video Games.  Not being much of a gamer (at least of video games) I'd never heard of Jade from Beyond Good and Evil, but I appreciate a more rounded character who doesn't simply embody the stereotypes Anita's discussed in her earlier videos.

Jade dresses relatively practically, is from an economically disadvantaged background, uses her various talents to make her way toward her goals, and works as a partner with her companions to fulfill her altruistic desire to save her world.  Anita sums it up:
...we definitely need more games with warm, compassionate, multitalented characters who have realistic and relatable concerns, and more narratives in which taking a stand against corrupt systems of power is more important than personal gain or revenge.

A couple of weeks ago we got a new batch of baby chicks.  Here they are at about two weeks old, right after we got them:

Cute little fuzzy balls of fluff!

And here they are now, at about five weeks old:

Adolescence is an awkward stage no matter the species.
They're about half fluffy fuzz, half feathers, and all adorably awkward. And man, their little chirps are getting loud!


This cute video, from the same folks that did those hair and makeup styles by decade videos, tracks the reaction of an engaged couple to what they might look like 30, 40, or 50 years down the road.  It's awfully sweet.  I even got a little teary-eyed.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Book Review: On the Fence by Kasie West

Last year I read three books by Kasie West and was particularly drawn to her characters and the relationships she created between them.  While On the Fence is most similar to The Distance between Us, instead of starting with two main characters from completely disparate worlds, West starts this story with two main characters who are literally next door neighbors and have been friends since childhood.

Charlotte, or Charlie for short, is the youngest in a family with three older brothers, Jerom, Nathan, and Gage.  Their father, a police officer, has raised them as a single dad since their mother died when Charlie was about six and so Charlie has always been just "one of the boys." Braden, the next door neighbor, is as close as a brother, constantly coming over and hanging out with the four of them, at least partially to avoid his drunk jerk of a father.

Charlie's second speeding ticket in a month leads Charlie's dad to lay down the law - get a job to pay for the fine and the increased car insurance - so Charlie finds a job at a small boutique owned by an eccentric woman named Linda. This job requires that she start dressing in something other than sweats and crew-neck t-shirts, her standard "uniform" as "one of the guys", so knowing nothing about "girly" stuff, she simply takes Linda's advice on clothes. Then Linda asks her to be the makeup model for a demonstration of a new makeup line the store will be carrying - and of course, Charlie never wears makeup - so Linda convinces her to try it by offering her part of the profit from the makeup sales.

And then Charlie actually starts hanging out with *gasp* other girls! And discovers they're not totally shallow creatures she has nothing in common with. And maybe she might actually like some of this "girly" stuff.

Along the way, Charlie starts to realize she has strong feelings for Braden that go beyond friendship. Late at night, they'll often meet on either side of the fence that separates their properties to talk. The fence provides a sense of a "different reality" that allows them to open up and talk more freely than if they were face to face.

The ultimate message of the book is a great one: be yourself; if a guy doesn't like you for who you are he's not worth your time; it's okay to be open to new things. Linda says point blank at one point, "we can't let boys define how we feel about ourselves." All good, empowering messages for anyone to hear. But I have to admit to some annoyance in how the story worked through the process of getting that message across.

For example, at one point, Charlie, an avid A's fan, goes to a baseball game with this really cute guy and plays completely dumb as he explains the game to her in very simple terms.  You see, she's "letting him feel useful" because "guys don't want a competitor, they want a cheerleader." Now, one of the other characters tells her off for it, which I appreciate, but I have a hard time believing after hanging around her brothers that much that she's really that clueless about what guys want in a girl.

And there are tons of situations in the story that reinforce ridiculous stereotypes. Apparently, naming four types of makeup or two hairstyles is a hard question for boys, and every girl knows the author of Pride and Prejudice. And real girls don't play football with the boys - except that Charlie did until she decided she shouldn't because of what this one particular boy might think.

Oh, and Charlie's dad got all his advice on raising a girl from a book, including buying bras and having "the talk" when her period started. Really? There weren't any aunts or grandmas or cousins who could help out? He couldn't reach out to a friend or neighbor, a teacher at school or a woman at church to help Charlie through some of those sensitive topics?

The subplot about Charlie's mom wasn't very well-developed. Without divulging spoilers, I can't say much except that it deserved a more thorough treatment than it got all the way around: what Charlie's mother was dealing with, her father's decision to withhold the complete truth from Charlie, and how Charlie handled the revelation.

To sum up, great overarching message, characters I liked and solid relationships between them, but On the Fence really had some holes for me.

On the Fence
by Kasie West
ISBN: 9780062235671
Buy it from Amazon here: (paperback, ebook)
Find it at a local independent bookseller.
Look it up on Goodreads.
Check it out at your local library (find the nearest one here).

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Book Review: Death Coming up the Hill by Chris Crowe

At first glance, it seems like such a gimmick. A novel, composed entirely of haikus, exactly 17 syllables each. The text totaling 16,592 syllables in all, the number of American soldiers who died in 1968 due to the Vietnam War. Each chapter, a new week, boldly announcing the number of deaths reported in the past seven days.

But the strict scaffolding allows powerful images and simplicity to take center stage. Every extraneous detail is omitted and the story is stripped down to the barest essentials and the barest emotion.

Ashe is a seventeen-year-old high school student. His parents are complete opposites in every way - she's a anti-war peace activist, he's a conservative dogmatist - who got married when she became pregnant and only stay together out of their love for Ashe.  Ashe befriends a new girl in his history class, "gorgeous without trying" Angela. Angela's brother Kelly is in Vietnam but her "white peace signs and doves cover[ing] her tie-dyed tee shirt" reveal her as a hippie who "oppose[s] the war but support[s] [her brother] as much as [she] possibly could." Ashe sees in Angela's family the love he so desperately wishes existed in his own.

Finally, Ashe's parents' relationship hits the breaking point and Ashe has to make some hard decisions, brave decisions, even heroic decisions.

The constant tension at Ashe's home is mirrored by the tensions in society at large. 1968 is a tumultuous year not only for the deaths and protests related to the war, but also the racism and riots and the upending of so many status quos. "The world had gone nuts," Ashe observes.

It's a short book, and the haiku format makes it even shorter, so you can easily finish it in a single sitting, but I'd encourage you to read it at least twice to catch some clever foreshadowing and thematic repetition, as well as for the opportunity to read it more slowly, maybe even aloud.

In the historical note at the end, Crowe mentions that the title, and the final two haunting stanzas of the book, are based on an excerpt from a letter included in a Life magazine article published June 27, 1969. (The link is in the note as well, though unfortunately, there's a small typo in the edition I read. However, it's pretty easy to figure out that "amercan" is supposed to be "american" with an 'i'.) The Google Books link here takes you directly to the article, full of the minute details that make individual names and photographs of those who died morph into real people. Sobering.

Death Coming up the Hill
by Chris Crowe
ISBN: 9780544302150
Buy it from Amazon here: (hardcover, ebook)
Find it at a local independent bookseller.
Look it up on Goodreads.
Check it out at your local library (find the nearest one here).

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Book Review: Kiss Kill Vanish by Jessica Martinez

Imagine being 17 and being head over heels in love. Valentina Cruz was living a favored life of opulence and ease in Key West. Her father's art dealing business provided them with all the necessities of life and then some, and his new employee, the handsome and charming Emilio, took her breath away, and miraculously (to her) reciprocated her interest. He even chose her over her two beautiful, fashionable, and popular older sisters. Even though her mother left them when Valentina was very young, life just couldn't be better.

Until she watches Emilio murder a man, shoot him in cold blood at point blank range, at her father's order.

Her life completely upended, unsure who she can trust, Valentina runs. Landing in Montreal, she scrapes together a living playing on the street with the mandolin she stole from Emilio. She learns how to do basic things - laundry, cooking, cleaning - that she'd never had to do before and gains pride in her self-sufficiency. She starts modeling for a local painter, befriends a local restaurant owner who allows her to practice her mandolin in the empty bar after closing, and finds a dingy apartment she can afford to share with roommates. "This is a cold, disgusting hellhole, but it's mine. I pay for it with money that nobody was murdered for."

Of course, that's not the end of it, and Valentina is dragged back into a criminal world of murder, intrigue, and suspicion.

Despite the rather extreme circumstances, Valentina's character rang true as a teenager who discovers that her entire life is a lie. Just about every time she turns around there's something else she learns that was kept from her, another person who withheld the truth or used her or isn't who she thought. She begins to look back and see the small details she ignored growing up that all pointed to the truth, "but when you've known something forever, you don't see the evidence against it, not even when it's sprouting all around you, blooming and strangling like noxious weeds. Really. You don't. It's only after, looking back, that you see the choking innocents [sic], and then you hate yourself." Confirmation bias is a powerful thing, but man, girl's going to have major trust issues for the rest of her life.

The beginning of the book is pretty slow-paced, more a psychological study than action novel.  The inner workings of Valentina's mind, trying to process the incredible betrayal and falsity of her life, were fascinating and engaging.  Martinez deftly navigated Valentina through a journey of rebuilding from the ground up, deciding who she wants to be and how to get there on her own. Themes of what integrity is worth, wealth and poverty, the ends justifying the means, running away versus facing problems head on, the pain that knowledge and truth can bring compared to the pain that comes from willful blind ignorance, are all dealt with through Valentina's eyes.

The action picks up about half way through, which is where I started liking it less. The plot twists get more and more fantastic and less and less believable, and Valentina starts making some pretty rash and ridiculous decisions, like sneaking across an international border and trying to take down a drug cartel and a corrupt FBI agent all by herself. Well, ok, not completely by herself, but with a recently-cleaned-up druggie she barely knows.

The strength of this book is the tension Martinez writes into the character of Valentina, her struggles to define who she is when everything she has known is ripped away from her and her determination to maintain her integrity on her own terms. I feel the action toward the end distracts from that, though I can see how others would read it as the natural, though far-fetched, progression of her journey.

Kiss Kill Vanish
by Jessica Martinez
ISBN: 9780062274496
Buy it from Amazon here: (hardcoverebook)
Find it at a local independent bookseller.
Look it up on Goodreads.
Check it out at your local library (find the nearest one here).

Monday, May 11, 2015

Book Review: Forbidden by Kimberley Griffiths Little

Sixteen-year-old Kadesh and her family live peacefully in the unforgiving Mesopotamian desert. Kadesh enjoys her life and loves her family. The one dark shadow is her betrothal to Horeb, the heir to a wealthy neighboring tribe. She has watched him become cruel and arrogant, different from the boy she once knew, and does not want to marry him. Unfortunately, their fathers have already agreed and it is a matter of honor, so she braces herself to accept her place, one for which many women in her culture would give anything.

And then everything goes wrong.

Kadesh's beloved mother, who danced at her engagement party only the night before, goes into preterm labor and dies in childbirth. One of the two twins born, her parents' first son, dies as well. The rest of their caravan has already departed for the oasis where they will winter and there is no one to feed her infant sister. Then a handsome stranger appears, badly wounded and wandering the desert, and the course of Kadesh's life alters forever...

Kimberley Griffiths Little did her due diligence researching the culture of Mesopotamia. Her descriptions of the clothes, ceremonies, travels, cities, and life in a desert caravan are detailed and evocative, immersing the reader in the sights, sounds and smells of the setting. Some of my favorite scenes were against the backdrop of religion, both that of the desert dwellers, and that worshiped in the temple in the city. The compare and contrast was fascinating, and I appreciated the balanced recognition of the good and bad to be found in each.

Kadesh is a likable character, one that I think Forbidden's target audience will relate to, but exotic enough to catapult them into another world. She chafes against the confines of her parents' and society's expectations, she falls in love with a mysterious stranger who is both wealthy and honorable, she acts courageously to save herself and those she loves. Her relationship with her sister is loving and supportive, but also fraught with the conflicting views and disagreements that any sibling will recognize.

Solid YA novel, especially recommended for those who prefer exotic historical settings.

by Kimberley Griffiths Little
ISBN: 9780062194976
Buy it from Amazon here: (hardcover, paperback, ebook)
Find it at a local independent bookseller.
Look it up on Goodreads.
Check it out at your local library (find the nearest one here).