Summer Days and Summer Nights

A couple of years ago, I read My True Love Gave to Me, a collection of twelve holiday-themed love stories by popular YA authors. It was wonderful. So, when I found out that there would be another anthology, this one devoted to summer romances, I knew I had to read it. I did just that this week.

With authors like Leigh Bardugo, Libba Bray, Cassandra Clare, Tim Federle, Stephanie Perkins, Veronica Roth, and others featured in Summer Days and Summer Nights, I figured that I would be getting some outstanding stories in this book. To a certain extent, I was right. Most of the stories were great. Would I describe all of them as love stories? Not really. Many of them had a certain romantic element in them, but, at least in my opinion, that wasn’t always the central focus of the story, and the whole romance thing worked better in some stories than in others. In a few, it felt kind of forced to me.

That being said, there were some stories that did stand out for me. The first, In Ninety Minutes, Turn North, comes to us from the anthology’s editor, Stephanie Perkins. In this story, we are reintroduced to the characters we first saw in Perkins’ contribution to My True Love Gave to Me, North and Marigold. The two have grown apart, and this tale brings them back together atop Mount Mitchell in North Carolina. This story is charming, funny, heart-breaking, and heart-warming, all at once. I honestly think this is the strongest–and most romantic–of all the stories in this book.

I also enjoyed Libba Bray’s story, Last Stand at the Cinegore. I think that this one is more of a horror story with a bit of romance thrown in. This tale brings us some teenagers, Kevin, Dani, and Dave, working in a horror movie house, and they’re showing a movie that is allegedly cursed. Well, that whole “allegedly” thing is about to be proven to be absolutely true. As it turns out, this movie is a portal to Hell, and Kevin and Dani (with an assist from Dave) have to figure out how to stop the madness this movie is creating while dealing with their own budding romance.

Finally–and this will shock no one–I liked Cassandra Clare’s contribution, Brand New Attraction. It like Bray’s story, is a horror/love story. It focuses on Lulu, a girl trying to keep her father’s dark carnival going. Things are about to go belly up when her Uncle Walter and his stepson, Lucas, come along to–apparently–save the day. But Walter’s plans take the carnival from dark to downright evil, and it’s up to Lulu and Lucas to figure out what’s going on and save the day.

The three stories mentioned above may be my favorites, but most of the others are good in their own right. There’s a nice mix of gay and straight relationships featured, we encounter characters from many different backgrounds, several genres are represented, and nothing is especially graphic. I can honestly say I’m relatively happy with all of the stories…except one. Francesca Lia Block’s story, Sick Pleasure, is, in my opinion, pretty far from a love story. I guess it stays true to its title, though, since it left me feeling kind of sick at the end.

I’d love to hear others’ thoughts on the stories in this anthology. Am I way off base in my feelings on Block’s story? What are your favorites and why? And what do you think makes a good love story? Let me know in the comments!

My True Love Gave to Me

When I heard the author lineup for My True Love Gave to Me, an anthology of YA holiday stories, I immediately knew that I would have to read what I was sure would be an outstanding collection. With favorite authors like Ally Carter, Gayle Forman, David Levithan, Stephanie Perkins, Rainbow Rowell, Laini Taylor, and Kiersten White–among others–contributing short stories, I was hooked before I even started reading. And when I didn’t think anything was ever going to get me in the holiday spirit this year (Humbug!), this book managed to fill me with a bit of cheer.

My True Love Gave to Me is a collection of twelve holiday stories that kind of touch on everything: New Year’s, winter solstice, Hanukkah, Christmas, and even Krampuslauf (something I’d never heard of before). There’s really something for everyone (except Festivus for the rest of us), and I think this would be a perfect gift for any teen reader…or adult reader who loves YA lit.

Now, I’m not going to go through each and every story here. That would take forever, and, honestly, it would probably spoil a couple of the stories for you. Instead, I’ll briefly highlight a few of my favorite stories from this collection.

My favorite story in the collection comes from the book’s editor herself, Stephanie Perkins. Her story is titled “It’s a Yuletide Miracle, Charlie Brown.” This short story, like Perkins’ longer works, introduces readers to a true gem of a guy. North Drummond, like Étienne St. Clair, Cricket Bell, and Josh Wasserstein, is almost too good to be true, but that just makes me–and Marigold, his “love interest”–adore him more. He seems to really “get” Marigold, even though her life is less than traditional. He works to make her world a better one after knowing her only a short while. Every girl should be so lucky. (I’m militantly single, and even I felt my cold heart melting for North.) If you enjoyed Stephanie Perkins’ enchanting novels, you’ll likely feel the same way about this lovely story.

One of my other top picks from this collection was “Midnights” by Rainbow Rowell. (If you follow this blog at all, this should come as no surprise.) This story involves two best friends who seem to just miss being together at midnight each New Year’s Eve. This year, though, things might just be a little different. (Since this is essentially a YA holiday romance anthology, you can probably guess what will happen. Even so, the story is heart-warming and brings on the feels.)

Finally, I have to talk a bit about “Star of Bethlehem” by Ally Carter. This was the only story in the book that actually made me cry. The basic premise is this: Mysterious girl exchanges plane tickets with someone else, pretends to be someone she’s not (in order to hide from her own life), gets found out, and ultimately finds something she never knew she needed. Such a moving story that I had to grab a couple of tissues. There was a romantic element to this one, but, at least for me, this particular story was about the love that can be found with friends, family (not always blood relatives), and people who deeply care about what’s really best for those they love.

Those were just three of the stories that really spoke to me. Truthfully, there’s not a stinker in the bunch, and every story resonated with me in some way.

Whether you celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah, Yule, Krampuslauf, or no holiday at all, this collection is an outstanding, moving, entertaining read for anyone who believes in the power of love…in all of its many forms.

Love Is Hell

No, this is not my standard anti-Valentine’s Day message. For the month of February, my book club decided to read books with “love” in the title. I didn’t want to trot out a book I’d already read, so I dove into my sizable to-read pile and pulled this anthology out.

Don’t let the title fool you or turn you away. Love Is Hell features five short stories from some pretty wonderful authors: Laurie Faria Stolarz, Scott Westerfeld, Justine Larbalestier, Gabrielle Zevin, and Melissa Marr. I kind of expected some light-hearted love stories with paranormal twists, but I got so much more than that.  Each of the stories explored the darker sides of love, and they were so well-told that I found myself wanting more. (Scott Westerfeld’s story, in particular, would be great fleshed out into a full-length novel…or series.)

The first story in this anthology is Sleeping with the Spirit by Laurie Faria Stolarz, and, as the title suggests, this is something of a ghost story. Brenda, the main character, is experiencing some fairly intense nightmares that leave her with mysterious bruises.

Brenda later learns that her house is haunted, and her bruises are being caused by a ghost, Travis, who is trying to hold onto her. Brenda, then, must determine just what this ghost wants and how it will impact her own life and past. As you would expect in a supernatural love story, romance is brewing between Brenda and the ghostly Travis…which creates some interesting situations for Brenda, especially when she finally helps Travis with his “unfinished business.”

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Scott Westerfeld’s Stupid Perfect World is probably my favorite story in this book. I think it can best be desribed as a futuristic tale. (When I described it to my friends, they said it sounded sort of dystopian, but I don’t think I totally agree with that.) In this story, teleportation is a common mode of transportation, research is done in something called “headspace,” sleep is unheard of, and most diseases have been wiped from the earth. Young people learn about what life was like in the past in a class called “Scarcity.”

A big project is coming up in this class, and each person will have to pick just one thing from the past to experience for two weeks. Some choose to experience diseases (which is no big deal, really, since they can have procedures to correct everything when the project is over), some choose to do without teleportation, but two students are doing something a bit different.  Maria decides to do without the standard hormone regulators. She wants to experience teen angst and all that it entails.  Kieran doesn’t know what his project will be at first, but, with a little help from William Shakespeare, he decides to allow himself to sleep. He’ll have to learn about the cycles of sleep, how the body prepares for sleep, and all that other wonderful stuff…but it’s not as easy as he thought it would be. At least not until Maria helps him a bit.

Maria’s hormones start messing with her pretty quickly. She starts feeling “twirly” and noticing Kieran in a very special way. Poetry seems to explode from her brain, and it’s this poetry that brings Maria and Kieran together. Maria reads Kieran to sleep every night, and, before long, Kieran starts to dream about Maria, a girl he never would have noticed before this project.

All is not moonlight and roses for these two, however. Maria is becoming rather emotional, and those raging hormones don’t exactly make her rational all the time. This leads to some problems with Kieran. I’ll let you discover if these two make it and what will happen to them when this project ends.

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The third story, Thinner Than Water by Justine Larbalestier, was rather disturbing. It revolves around a girl, Jeannie, who lives in a very primitive culture…a culture that puts on a show for tourists who come to town. Jeannie lives in a family of bakers, and that’s basically all they focus on. They expect Jeannie, who is only sixteen, to marry soon and begin having children.

Jeannie wants to run away from her family, but something–or someone–stops her. Robbie, the town outcast, expresses interest in Jeannie and promises that he’ll “handfast” with her during the coming Lammas Day celebration. (Essentially, they’ll get engaged and live with each other for a year before they decide to commit to marriage.) Jeannie agrees and sees this as a way out of her family (made up of truly horrible people).

Well, that’s what happens…but Jeannie’s family isn’t exactly eager to let her go to Robbie, a boy they believe to be one of the “fair folk.” They think he is evil and is spreading his curse to Jeannie.  Jeannie doesn’t really believe in all that stuff, but she knows her family is serious about this…especially when they take Robbie from her in the most brutal way possible. And when Robbie inexplicably returns just when Jeannie is rebuilding her life, what will happen? Will Jeannie take Robbie as he is now, or will she try to build a life for herself?

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Gabrielle Zevin’s story, Fan Fictions, is probably every fangirl’s deepest nightmare. I know we all joke about having “book boyfriends,” but this story takes things a bit further. It’s a rather uncomfortable read, and I honestly don’t know what to do with how the story unfolds.

Paige is the epitome of an average girl. She often goes unnoticed, she sits in the middle of the classroom, and she waits for someone to really see her. One day, it actually happens. After spending some time in the school library (and getting a book recommendation from the new librarian), Paige feels someone looking at her. She turns and sees a gorgeous guy, Aaron, who doesn’t seem to fit into her neat little world.

Aaron is everything that Paige could want in a guy. He’s mysterious, he dotes on her, and, most importantly, he notices her in a way that no one else ever has. But there are some things that don’t add up. Aaron never talks about his family, he doesn’t eat, he’s always absent from school. Paige really knows very little about him or his past. None of her friends have met or even seen him. Paige wants things to change, but Aaron is resistant, and Paige soon learns why. Aaron is not totally human (of course).

Soon enough, things begin to unravel for Paige and Aaron. And when Paige learns that everything she believed about this “relationship” is contrived, she will come totally unhinged (if she wasn’t before). The lines between fantasy and reality will become blurred, and Paige will be unable to deal with the fallout. (It’s easy enough to relate to this. I felt sort of similar Sunday night when I thought my beloved Sherlock had a girlfriend. Sigh.)

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The final story in this anthology, Love Struck by Melissa Marr, involves selchies (or selkies, if you prefer). These creatures live as seals in the sea and shed their skin to live on land as humans. In this story, Alana (a human) is seemingly entrapped by a selchie, Murrin, who wants to make her his beloved.

Alana wants none of it, and she definitely expresses this to Murrin. Murrin, though, is sure he’s found the love of his life, and he does everything in his power to convince Alana to stay with him. But Murrin does not figure on his brother, Veikko, using Alana–and her growing feelings for Murrin–to settle an old score.

Love and lies collide in this tale filled with longing, deception, and overcoming obstacles. What will Alana and Murrin ultimately do to remain true to all that they hold dear?

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It should be obvious that I thoroughly enjoyed this anthology. (I really didn’t expect to.) I was prepared for fluff, but I’m pleased to say that I got some real meat here. I fully intend to explore the other Short Stories from Hell anthologies, and I can only hope that those stories live up to those I found in this installment.

Let It Snow

What’s a single gal to do when she feels like crap and has so much to do that she can’t see straight?  If you guessed “watch a Snapped marathon, feel sorry for herself, and read a YA holiday romance anthology,” you’re right (and you probably have my house bugged and are now bored to death).  Yep, that’s my Sunday in a nutshell.  I had a short break when my mom brought me some ginger ale and sang “Soft Kitty,” but that’s it.  At least I can add another finished book to my list.  (For those who are wondering, this latest book brings my yearly total to 346.  Only 20 to go before I reach my goal for 2012!)

Let It Snow, a holiday romance anthology by John Green, Maureen Johnson, and Lauren Myracle, has been in my to-read pile for quite some time.  (I don’t know why I didn’t get to it before now.  You’d think that I would have devoured it immediately with this selection of authors.  Alas, you would be wrong.)  I guess I was in the mood for something kind of light this weekend because it suddenly seemed like I absolutely had to read this book.  It could have had something to do with the holiday theme of the book.  (I doubt it, though.  I’m kind of a Scrooge this year.)  At any rate, I finished reading Let It Snow earlier today, and I must say that it is a delightful, romantic holiday read.  Each of the three stories in this book are interwoven, and each author brings their trademark humor to the tales.  I found myself laughing out loud on several occasions (which only made my tummy hurt more, but that’s okay).  I love Maureen Johnson, John Green, and Lauren Myracle, and, if it’s even possible, this light-hearted book made me love them even more.  They may have even succeeded where my family and friends have failed thus far.  I may now–gasp–have a little Christmas spirit.

The first story in this anthology is The Jubilee Express by Maureen Johnson, and it involves a girl who is being forced to take a train to Florida because her parents have been arrested.  (Not for murder, robbery, or anything like that.  It’s actually pretty funny.)  Unfortunately, a freak snowstorm stops the train in its tracks somewhere in the mountains of North Carolina.  Jubilee–who is not an aspiring stripper despite her name–just has to get off this train, or she will likely strangle the fourteen cheerleaders stranded with her.  She sets off on her own and ends up at a Waffle House, of all places.  It is here that she meets Stuart, another kind of lost soul who convinces Jubilee to take a close look at her relationship with her seemingly perfect boyfriend back home.  She does, and she doesn’t really like what she discovers.  But will she discover something else–perhaps the guy of her dreams–in this massive storm?

In John Green’s A Cheertastic Christmas Miracle, Tobin, JP, and the Duke (who is actually a girl named Angie) are on a quest to get to the Waffle House.  It seems that fourteen cheerleaders have made their way to the establishment, and the first group of people who make it to the restaurant will be invited to play Twister with the girls.  As you might imagine, the Duke (again, a girl) is not enthused by this idea (even though her love for hash browns is well-known), but Tobin and JP seem to be all for it, so off they go to the Waffle House.  The snowstorm that has hit town threatens to put a damper on their adventures, but the trio is determined to party with cheerleaders.  Actually, JP is determined.  Tobin and the Duke are getting kind of resigned to the idea…until they begin to realize that they don’t need a bunch of cheerleaders to make them happy this Christmas.  Maybe what they’ve needed all along is…each other.

Finally, The Patron Saint of Pigs by Lauren Myracle, follows Addie, who may or may not be a bit self-absorbed.  She did something horrible, and it led to the breakup of the most important relationship she’s ever–or will ever–have.  Her beloved boyfriend, Jeb, seems to have given up on her, and Addie’s supposed friends have let it be known that they think Addie is a drama queen who only cares about herself.  Now Addie has to prove everyone wrong.  Surely she’s not as bad as everyone’s making her out to be, right?  If only she could prove that she’s at least trying to change…Well, she may get her chance, and it may involve angels, Starbucks, and teacup piglets (which are just about the cutest things I’ve ever seen).  Will Addie get her own Christmas miracle, or is she doomed to be wrapped up in her own problems forever?

I’ve probably told you too much about the stories in this anthology (which might explain why I don’t review many anthologies).  These stories just made me sort of happy, and I wanted to share that.  With authors like the ones featured in this book, you know you’re getting loads of humor and excellent writing, but even I wasn’t prepared for how mushy-gushy I felt after reading these stories.  They also helped me forget about feeling like crap for a while.  When a book has the ability to make a reader forget about a truly horrible stomach bug, you know it’s a good one!

If you love YA fiction and are looking for an excellent holiday read, you should definitely give Let It Snow a try.  (And yes, it’s totally appropriate for middle grade readers.)

Fallen in Love

If you’re as enamored of Lauren Kate’s Fallen series as I am, you’ve got to check out Fallen in Love, an anthology of stories featuring beloved characters from Fallen, Torment, and Passion.  If you haven’t read these books yet, please do so before diving into Fallen in Love.

Fallen in Love contains four very different stories, but they all share the same basic theme–love, and how it can ultimately save or destroy a person (or angel, demon, whatever).  Each story intersects and takes place in medieval England, and the action centers around a Valentine’s Day Faire. 

The first story, Love Where You Least Expect It, explores the budding relationship between Shelby and Miles.  Roland’s story, Love Lessons, delves into what a being is willing to sacrifice if it means preserving the happiness of his love.  The third story (and quite possibly my favorite), Burning Love, tells of the forbidden love between Arriane and someone whose very blood could destroy her.  When her lover asks the impossible, Arriane must decide if love is worth giving up everything she believes in.  Finally, in Endless Love, Daniel and Luce are (sort of) reunited for a Valentine’s Day to remember. 

The stories in Fallen in Love provide some insight into some of the complicated relationships in Lauren Kate’s Fallen series. I especially enjoyed the stories of Roland and Arriane. Those two tales emphasized the dark side of love, and how heartache often accompanies it.

This book also gives readers a first look at the final book in the Fallen series, Rapture. I finished reading the prologue and first chapter last night, and I cannot wait to get my hands on the rest of what is sure to be a gripping end to a fantastic series!  (Thankfully, the wait is not too terribly long.  Rapture is expected to be released on June 12th.)

Beautiful cover. I love the transition from the black dress of the previous covers to the white of the finale. I wonder what it could mean...

If you’d like more information on Lauren Kate and her amazing Fallen series, visit her website at http://laurenkatebooks.net/.

Angry Management

Any time I hear that a book has been challenged in a school library, I do two things.  First, I wonder if the person(s) making the challenge have read the book and understand its message.  Second, I pick up the book and read it for myself.  I think a lot of readers are with me on this, especially my teenage readers.  What’s the first thing that happens when you tell a teenager–or anyone, for that matter–that they shouldn’t do something?  They do it, of course!  So, this summer, when I heard that Chris Crutcher’s Angry Management (a nominee for the 2011-12 South Carolina Young Adult Book Award) had been challenged and pulled off the shelves in one South Carolina county, I knew that the controversy surrounding this book would only make sure that teens would read it.   I don’t even know that I would have read this book if some goofball hadn’t tried to remove it from his kid’s school library.  (I’m an elementary school librarian now.  This book was barely even on my radar.)  But I did pick up Angry Management, and I did read it in its entirety–which is more than I can say for the parent who tried to have it banned.  If he had read the whole book, maybe he would have learned a little about how the censoring of ideas only leads to trouble.  No one wins when we try to trample on the First Amendment.  (For more on this controversy, visit http://www.chriscrutcher.com/south-carolina-2011.html.)

In Angry Management, we are reintroduced to some of Chris Crutcher’s most memorable characters–Sarah Byrnes, Angus Bethune, John Simet, Montana West, and others–in an anthology about teenagers with reasons to be angry.  Whether it’s an abusive father, an absent mother, homophobia, racism, being overweight, fighting against censorship, or just struggling to survive, these kids are facing a lot, and they have good reason to be angry.  But can they use their anger and turn all of their rage into something positive?  Can they deal with their scars–on the inside and outside–and use their hurt to do something good, be something great?  Will they be able to show everyone that they can’t be broken…no matter what is thrown at them?  It’s not an easy road to travel, and not all of them will be successful, but these beloved characters have a chance to use their anger in a productive way and change their lives forever.  “Not a good chance, maybe.  But a chance.”

Before this book, I had only read one other novel by Chris Crutcher–Whale Talk–so I wasn’t familiar with most of the characters in this anthology.  It didn’t matter.  Even without the background from previous novels, the stories in Angry Management were powerful, and each one taught a lesson.  Yes, there was a bit of language (the reason this book was challenged in SC in the first place), but it was true to the tone of the book and the lives of the teenagers depicted.  Most teenagers aren’t going to say, “Well, phooey,” when they’ve lived with abuse their entire lives.  Sometimes, only an expletive (or five) can convey just how angry someone is.  The message of Angry Management is what we need to focus on.  We–teens and adults alike–should use our anger to make us stronger, and fight against the injustices that try to keep us down.  We need to use our rage to lead us to a better–and more hopeful–future. 

I hope you’ll take the time to read this wonderful book.  It is moving, eye-opening, and heartbreaking, and it serves to remind us that, at the end of the day, we always have hope that things will get better.

For more information on Angry Management and other books by Chris Crutcher, please visit http://www.chriscrutcher.com/index.html.  If you’re a South Carolina school librarian, pay special attention to his upcoming appearances in our state.  Awesome.

Corsets & Clockwork

With books like Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan and Cassandra Clare’s Clockwork Angel, steampunk has arrived in YA literature.  (If you don’t know what steampunk is, you really need to do some research.  It’s pretty cool.)  The combinations of historical fiction, fantasy, romance, and science fiction make for some interesting, brilliant stories that engage the imagination.  Many of these tales give readers the feel of stepping into a music box.  It’s a magical world full alternate realities and sepia-toned dreams.  My latest read, Corsets & Clockwork, is a collection of thirteen steampunk romances, and several of the authors featured in this anthology are among my favorites (particularly Kiersten White, aka The Funniest Woman Ever).  This is a great book for those who would like an introduction into the steampunk world or for those who already love these types of books.

Most of the stories in this collection are the very definition of steampunk.  They take place in the Victorian Era; there are automatons, clockwork, and steam-powered vessels; there are certain magical elements at work; and they provide alternate views of actual events.  There are appearances by such notables as Napoleon, Calamity Jane, Jesse James, and Jack the Ripper.  Some stories contain more interesting characters—a half-mermaid cannibal, an automaton playing Juliet in the theater, Siamese twins (and one of the twins has a vampire boyfriend), thieves, and lots of robots.  It’s a good time.

Teen and adult readers, especially females, will find something to enjoy in this  anthology.  Were there some stories that were less than stellar?  Absolutely.  In fact, there was one—and I won’t say which one—that left me completely baffled.  I still have no idea what was going on in that story.  At the same time, there were a few stories that I think could have potential as novels if things were fleshed out a bit.  Three of my favorites in this collection were Wild Magic by Ann Aguirre, The Clockwork Corset by Adrienne Kress, and Tick, Tick, Boom by Kiersten White—who made steampunk even better when she added some explosives.

If you’re interested in giving steampunk a try, I strongly urge to you check out Corsets & Clockwork: 13 Steampunk Romances edited by Trisha Telep.  It’s a fantastic voyage, and you should really be along for the ride!