The Compulsive Reader: June 2014

Monday, June 30, 2014

Some Recent Non-YA and MG Reading

Typically, the end of one's school semester is looked upon with excitement for lazy days and light reading. In this peculiar limbo of graduate school, I've looked forward to the brief (three week) break between my second and third semesters because I could finally read "adult" books without feeling guilty. Is this my life?

While I did manage to sneak a few adult books into my school reading lists this past semester, the majority of my reading these past two weeks has been focused on catching up on all of those adults titles I've had stacked on my nightstand since January. I never thought I'd be so happy to pick up an adult book before this month. Here's what I've been reading:

Attachments by Rainbow Rowell

Of course I had to pick up Rowell's first book. I mean, this is pretty self-explanatory, right? While this feels more like a rom-com in book form, it's imitable Rowell and I could not put it down. Bonus points for it being set in 1999. Also, I love Lincoln.

In the Woods, The Likeness, and Faithful Place by Tana French

The first Tana French book I read was Broken Harbor, which turns out is actually the fourth book in her Dublin Murder Squad mysteries. So naturally I had to go back and re-read these first three, which pretty much rocked my world. I'm not certain which is my favorite--it's a close tie between The Likeness and Faithful Place--but every single one of these books is dark, thoughtful, and expertly written. I tell every unsuspecting customer I find in the Mystery section at work to buy them. And I cannot wait for The Secret Place this fall! Sadly, I'll probably be down the rabbit hole of thesis-land, so I might forget. Someone remind me in December?

Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyemi

I had never read a book by Oyemi before, but I saw this novel features in BookPage a few months ago, and the interview with her fascinated me. A couple of weeks later, it was my impulse buy at the fabulous Literati Bookstore in Ann Arbor, MI and when I started it, I was immediately hooked. It's a literary retelling of Snow White that explores gender, identity, sexuality, and race in some really fascinating ways. I could read it again and again.

The From-Aways by C.J. Hauser

I picked this one up on the recommendation of a friend. I'll be honest, the cover doesn't immediately hook me, but I am so glad I read this! It's about two young women who move to a small town in Maine for two very different reasons; Leah is a newlywed and excited to be living in her husband's hometown and Quinn has just lost her mother and has come looking for her father. Both end up working at the local newspaper, and as they fall in love with their new home, they uncover a secret that could have massive repercussions for everyone in the town. Wonderfully depicted characters, a tangible setting, and such great emotional arcs--ignore the beach read cover and pick this one up!

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin

This is pretty much required reading for all booksellers in the world, and I loved it. My friend Amy Rose said it best--this is an unapologetically charming book. I loved the book cameos and the bookstore stories, and I loved the curmudgeonly bookseller A.J. Fikry. If you ever wonder what it's like working in a small, struggling bookstore, Zevin nails it.

Orange is the New Black by Piper Kerman

Full disclosure: I have not seen the TV show. I think I might possibly be the only person in the universe besides my mother, but SCHOOL. (Also, a Netflix account would be the kiss of death for me right now.) But I was fascinated to hear that the show was a fictionalized account of a true story and I picked up this memoir and within 50 pages I was utterly hooked. I devoured this book in one afternoon. Kerman is an excellent writer and her account is horrifying and sad and compelling and insightful.

Now that my adult book palate is sated, on to semester three of grad school, aka my thesis semester. I'm hoping the somewhat sporadic updates will continue, but in the meantime, thanks for the patience!

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

We Were Liars by E. Lockhart

Every summer, Cady and her privileged family retreat to their private island. During her fifteenth summer, an accident leaves Cady with holes in her memory and crippling migraines. When she finally returns to the island her seventeenth summer, the island has changed, the adults are keeping secrets, her cousins won’t answer her questions, and Cady must finally confront the truth.

We Were Liars is an intelligent, twisty novel. The structure is fascinating; at a line level, Lockhart breaks up sentences with indentation and repetition, creating the effect that the reader is trying to remember with Cady just what happened two summers ago. The book is divided into five parts, and Lockhart begins with backstory, taking her time to get to the present and build a very tangible world. Lockhart also uses Italian fairy tales, and Cady’s retelling of those fairy tales, to parallel her family story and get closer and closer to the truth. As a mystery, this book is fascinating, fast-paced, and impossible to put down. However, once the reader becomes wiser to the magical realism elements and the truth of what has happened to Cady and how she copes, questions about character motivations to pop up in retrospect. Nonetheless, We Were Liars presents a unique and well-written take on a tricky trope and it will be one to talk about for a long while.

Cover Comments: I love how everything about this cover is blurred around the edges. It captures the summertime feel of the book, but also its murkier aspects. Very nice.

Book purchased at my indie.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Bookselling: A Philosophy and How I Stock Children's + YA Books

I've been asked a lot lately about my job as a bookseller and my duties as the "children's section person" (because I have no official title, but that section is mine and I do the bulk of the buying for it). Mostly, the questions all come down to: Who decides what goes on the shelf? How is it decided?

Unfortunately I don't have any simple, easy answers. This post is my attempt to explain the process as it goes down at my store. (And for the record, this post has turned out to be about three times longer than I thought it would be--so hang in there!)

First, a brief history: I started working at my indie, Great Lakes Book & Supply (GLBS), in 2011. I was hired to work on the trade book floor and behind the front counter. At any given time, I have 1-3 co-workers who work on the trade book floor with me, and another 3 employees work in our textbooks department (we are a small university town). Our summers are quiet and we do brisk business during the school year. We also sell art supplies. We've been in business for over thirty years and we're in an excellent location at the center of town, only a block away from campus.

When I began working in 2011, the large children's section was a bit of a mess. Certain sections had been cultivated, but others had been neglected. The YA section was...well, it just didn't exist. We had contemporary YA in one random corner, and speculative YA fiction was on a shelf with something called "Adolescent Supernatural." Yeah, I don't know what happened there, either. Thinking back to those darks days almost makes me want to cry. Sorting out the children's corner took almost two years. It was not a weekend project, but one undertaken over many weeks and requiring careful attention. It wasn't until last November that I finally got the configuration just about right--a sale wall, spacious picture book section(s), extensive children's nonfiction sections, and designated, clearly delineated chapter book, middle grade, and YA sections. Hooray! The shelves looked a little empty, but it was perfect--room to expand.

One of the hard lessons I've had to learn as a bookseller is that what is popular in the blogosphere, among my friends, in publishing, and with my fellow VCFA students, is not going to automatically be popular at my bookstore. GLBS is its own little microcosm.  It has its quirks and trends. They're mostly lovable. I can't stock everything. So I just have to do my best to understand the system and the people who shop with us. I find the local trends super fascinating. Some surprising hits in my store include the various Darren Shan horror series (and YA horror in general, particularly Brenna Yovanoff and Gretchen McNeil), Michael Grant's Gone series, and Kerstin Gier's time travel trilogy, Ruby Red, Sapphire Blue, and Emerald Green. Surprisingly, contemporary YA fiction continues to be a hard sell unless it's written by John Green. Rainbow Rowell has been doing all right, but dystopian and supernatural fiction still reign supreme--my town is at least a good year behind major publishing trends.

Which brings me to my book selling philosophy:

Booksellers must be well-read and willing to talk to customers of any age. Booksellers must be dynamic in everything they do, and excited to try new things. High energy levels and people skills are extremely important. A love of books is crucial, but it's not enough. That love should extend beyond adoration for book-shaped packages to include a love of good writing and an appreciation for all of the time, effort, and work that goes into creating books. Booksellers should have a compulsive need to share stories. Not having any qualms about talking to strangers is good, too.

An understanding of the market, publishing processes, and traditional literature are arguably important, but I don't think they're essential knowledge for someone just starting out at their first bookstore job. That stuff will come if you are observant and willing to learn, and it can be picked up relatively quickly (and by quickly, I mean two years on the job). Everyone has to start somewhere and knowledge is fantastic, but if you can't talk to readers that knowledge won't do you one bit of good.

So, to that end, here is my book purchasing process. It's messy and complex, and far from a perfect system. It's not without bias, and maybe a lot of errors. I have no idea how other booksellers or other stores goes about this process, so if there are any booksellers reading--share your thoughts with me! Please! Take pity on me. I'm self-taught.

What I do at the beginning of each season:

Once our book distributor, Ingram, has posted the next season's catalog of new books (Ingram Advance), I throw the proverbial confetti and get ready for some serious list-making. I love lists. I make my first list of books, marking new books that I know will be popular or will sell (next in series, paperback releases of hardcovers we've sold many copies of), and of books that I am pretty certain will sell (new books by popular authors in the store, debuts who have been getting a ton of buzz, paperback releases of hardcovers that have been doing reasonably well, or anything that I think I can handsell).

Books that I think will make up for a lack of coverage or representation or debuts that I think look good go on a maybe list. I then will do my absolute best to follow up on these maybe books--whether it's talking to other bloggers or booksellers or friends from VCFA, looking up reviews (I read Publisher's Weekly magazine and BookPage regularly), or reading ARCs (usually provided to me on behalf of this blog). I then sort these books into MORE lists, organized by release month.

So, we go from having a YES list and a MAYBE list, to January, February, March, etc., lists that may be adjusted before I submit them. Which leads me to...

What I do on the 15th of every month:

Time to prepare next month's ordering for submission! (This is probably one of my most favorite tasks.) I do this two weeks before the release month because we are such a small store that our ordering needs to be really precise and as accurate as possible. I can't afford to order everything I like or hope will sell and then see how it does for a month or so and readjust. (And for the record, if this is your process, it shows when the books are on the shelves, and not in a good way. Have you ever walked into a bookstore and felt like there were so many books that you couldn't find what you wanted, or you had trouble seeing everything, or you couldn't find anything that looked good, or that browsing was a chore? It's because no one is curating the selection!)

So, I go through my next month's list of books (created from the season's catalogs) and I make decisions. Books I know will sell go on the list first, and I evaluate the sales of hardcovers before I put the paperbacks on that list. This requires going through our inventory system and checking sales history on every title. Paperbacks don't automatically go on the list, but if I only sell one hardcover (or none), they aren't automatically disqualified either. Keeping in mind the age level (MG hardcovers are a super hard sell, I'll always want to give paperbacks a chance), how well the book had been received, and if there has been a cover redesign, I'm likely to put the paperback on the order list.

This is where personal taste and bias sort of come into play. If a hardcover hasn't sold, it's not because it's unsellable--it's likely that someone isn't willing to take a risk on a pricier book. If I liked the book, and I can talk someone into buying it, then having it on hand in paperback means it's a lot likelier to sell.

Conversely, if we stocked a hardcover because it got a ton of buzz in the publishing world/on the internet, and it didn't sell, and no one I know has liked it or read, I'm more likely to just send it back and not get the paperback. Once again, these aren't rules. I can be swayed pretty easily. I like getting and keeping books in stock. It's not that I never want a book on my shelf (except maybe 50 Shades), but the question I am always asking myself is: Can I find a reader for this book? That really is the driving force behind this all. I want to match books and readers.

Another reason I wait until two weeks before release month to submit my list is that initial release dates sometimes change between reading the season catalog and ordering. Not often, but it happens, and I need to get accurate information.

What I do at the end of every month:

I run through the list of books I submitted and make sure that they've been put on order. I make note of any back orders or delays, and I check pre-orders to make sure that we've got enough copies of a book for stock and for the customer. I worry. I get excited about new releases. I matchmake certain books and certain customers in my head. I get to be a dork about new books for a day. (Okay, more than a day.)

What I do at the beginning of every month:

I run reports on the YA and Adolescent (middle grade) fiction sections for sales in the previous month. I then go through each section alphabetically to assess whether or not books not in stock should be re-ordered, note how many copies of each book has moved, and what's on the shelf that didn't move. I also use this opportunity to make sure that we have enough popular books on hand and to make sure that everything that needs to be re-ordered goes on the weekly order list. It's also a great way to make sure that I haven't dropped the ball on re-stocking or other projects, and I get a lot of display ideas while doing this. It's sort of like a monthly health check-up on the section.

What I do every day I work:

Stock check, keep track of what's sold. Straighten shelves, re-arrange displays. Brainstorm displays and update as needed (usually every 1-2 weeks). Keep track of stock levels, submit changes or requests for re-orders as needed.

I do the above process for both the YA and Adolescent sections because they are fast-moving, dynamic sections. They receive the most foot traffic and they have the highest number of sales in the children's section. In the children's corner, we also have a picture books section, a chapter book section, a Michigan kids' section, a board book section, a children's classic section, children's poetry, seasonal children's books, children's nonfiction, children's mythology, and a sale section. The sale section is pretty self-explanatory, but the other sections receive new books as we (my fantastic co-worker and I) discover new books, new editions of classics, or books we think we can sell and would make great additions to the store. Honestly, we could do a much better job at merchandising these additional sections, but there are only so many hours in a day.

I think I should also note that currently, I share the trade book floor responsibilities with one other employee. The children's corner makes up maybe twenty percent of our trade book department. Not every section in our store gets this level of attention, sadly. YA is always neck-in-neck with General Fiction for the highest number of sales at any given time, so it's easy to justify spending that much time on that section, but there are other sections I would love to devote more time to--Science Fiction, Fantasy, Biography, Poetry. We have a very expansive General fiction section, a great Classics section, and a robust Cooking section. My co-worker and I make suggestions for the buying process, but ultimately all decisions rest with our manager, who makes a lot of buying decisions for the rest of the store. I'm lucky that she takes my suggestions for the children's corner and orders pretty much everything without question--and oftentimes surprises me by ordering things that I am hesitant to ask for, like the $100 boxed set of the Harry Potter books, which is gorgeous and lovely and definitely something that a bookseller would LOVE to receive for Christmas.

I'm concluding with a compilation of questions I get asked a ton. Feel free to add your questions in the comments or email me at thecompulsivereader@gmail.com!

Q: Do you stock diverse children's literature?

A: As much as I possibly can! I created this display for #WeNeedDiverseBooks in May, which helped me highlight where our selection was lacking and lucky for me, I have great customers who are always requesting books and giving me suggestions, not to mention all of the fantastic resources I've found on the internet.

Q: Do you ever buy books that you don't like or don't support on the blog?

A: Absolutely. I think that a lot of people tend to think that I only order books I like or that booksellers only recommend their favorite books--not so. We love books, but we also are a business and we have to make money. There are a lot of books that I don't support or don't care for, but if there is a demand for them, we will carry them. There are also a lot of books that I dislike or disagree with that aren't in the store. Just like the presence of a book on a shelf doesn't imply that I love it, the absence of a book doesn't mean I hate it. (And unless you are a close friend and we're talking over a couple of drinks, I'm not likely to reveal which is which.) My job is to help the reader find books that I think they will enjoy.

Q: How many hours do you think you spend per month researching and ordering new books?

A: This is really tough to answer. In some way, I never stop researching and thinking about my stock. I'd say I spend about 3-4 hours a week while at work specifically on stocking--running reports, stock checks, looking up books, reading about books. I definitely spend more time during the weeks when I am placing an order for the next month or when the season catalogs come out, and that doesn't include the time I spend on processing and shelving new books when they come in.

This also doesn't even begin to include the time I spend reading, which is usually done outside of work. If you ever catch me reading at work, it's likely I'm just reading a chapter here or there or looking something up or seeing, I don't know, what tense the book was written in or something ridiculous. Booksellers don't get much time to read at work, and I'll speak for myself when I say that's okay. I'd rather be talking to readers and you know, selling books.

Q: So basically you just move books around and keep track of them all?

A: Yes, but I have a shiny English degree and half of an MFA, so that makes me extra qualified to do so, don't you think?

If you want to be simple and technical, yes. My job is keeping track of books, counting books, shelving books, selling books, and anticipating what books I should be selling. But to say that is all I do discredits the human interaction that goes into it all--every part of my job is permeated with the desire for human connection with books as a catalyst. I've had deeper conversations with strangers than I have had with some of my closest friends thanks to the books I sell. I am not a machine, I am not an algorithm. I'm a human being who wants every person who walks through the door to connect with a book (or books) and with other people.

Q: What's the best way to make sure that my book is carried in an independent bookstore?

A: First, all indies are different. All have different buying processes. Don't assume they are all the same, and don't assume that they should carry your book. If you are a local author, then make a point of visiting the store and getting to know it if you can. Approach the manager or ask who makes the buying decisions and if you can set up a time to chat with that person. If you have an ARC or a copy that you can show the bookstore, that's great. It's okay if you can't give your book to the store. If you can't leave a copy with them, leave them your title, name, publisher, ISBN, cover image, and contact info. Offer to be available for a book event or reading. Be humble and gracious, and don't be offended if the bookstore declines. (This isn't likely, but we have declined to order an author's book when the author has been either pushy, rude, inappropriate, or expected us to ship copies to Malaysia.)

Monday, June 16, 2014

Empress of the World by Sara Ryan

Here's a slightly older book (published 2003) that I had the pleasure of reading for the first time this past month for school. I loved it a lot, and I highly recommend it to anyone looking for a very good contemporary novel!

When Nicola sets out to spend her summer at an institute for academically gifted teenagers, she’s hoping to discover if archeology is her calling. What she finds instead is friendship with Isaac, Katrina, and Battle. Friends have always been like extracurricular activities to Nic—they come and go with afterschool activities and classes. Her true connection with Isaac, Katrina, and Battle is surprising and welcome, but even more unexpected to Nic is her electric romance with Battle.

Empress of the World is a smart, incisive book that really captures the rhythms of teenage relationships and interactions. Ryan writes the exchanges between the four friends well; conversations slide from silly to serious in an instant, and the mix of thoughtful expressions and stupid mistakes are so apt for these teenagers, who are free from close adult supervision for the course of the story. Nic’s romance with Battle is sweet and natural, and both girls resist the pressure to acquiesce to any label, and Ryan steers the focus of the story away from Nic’s sexual identity. Instead, Ryan explores Nic’s romance and relationship with her new friends by examining Nic’s need to deconstruct every relationship to understand how it works—her narrative is full of “field note” and analyses of her social group as a way to try to understand friendship and first love. The tendency to read into every situation and try to understand her new friends certainly gives Nic empathy, but Ryan also shows how it can hinder Nic’s relationships. Empress of the World explores the emotions of first love, mistakes, and the bonds of friendship beautifully.

Cover Comments: I'm not wild about this cover--two clasped hands. Okay. Yawn. But, it doesn't do anything to deter me from the book either, so okay. It could be better.

Book purchased from my indie.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Dark Star by Bethany Frenette

Sixteen-year-old Audrey is the daughter of Minneapolis’s resident superhero, Morning Star. Living a double life with her mom is pretty natural to her, and the only thing Audrey has to fear is a too-curious detective who might blow her mom’s cover. But when Audrey is attacked one night and her attack is linked to the murders of teenage girls across the city, she discovers that her mom isn’t just fighting criminals—she’s battling demons.

Dark Star combines superhero tropes with demon wars in an interesting way. The Minneapolis setting is a refreshing change from some of the bigger city settings of other speculative YA fiction, and there is no shortage of strong females characters in this novel. Unfortunately, Frenette’s tendency to slip into telling mode to dispense large amounts of backstory and world-building keep this book from flowing as quickly as it could. Audrey is a pretty flat character who only grows more entitled and justified by her poor decisions as the story unfolds, and her reactions are extreme and puzzling—she goes from crippling fear to blazing courage in the space of about thirty pages without any apparent catalyst. Frenette also neglects to answer pertinent questions about the story, such as, where is Audrey’s father? How is her newfound family connected to her mother? Frenette leaves these answers for later in the narrative, attempting to present them as surprise twists, when really the lack of answers just brings attention to plot gaps. Dark Star starts out very strong, but for a story that is tries to be an action-driven thriller, it could be much tighter.

Cover Comments: I don't mind this cover--I like the colors and the title font. I do think that close inspection of the girl on the cover and her facial expression will be giggle-inducing, but taken as a whole, not a bad cover.

Book purchased from my indie!

Monday, June 9, 2014

What I Wish the Writer of That Slate Article (and Every Other Article Knocking YA) Would Read

Something big is happening in the YA world, so of course it’s time for another inflammatory, condescending, stuck-up article about YA. In case you missed it, it’s here on Slate. (And this is not the first time I takeissue with snobby Slate article, incidentally.)

As a reader, seller, writer, and student (MFA, bam) of YA lit, this is not news. So much so that it almost makes me want to shrug and move on because, hey, it’ll happen again. I am judged by my love of YA every day, and I’m belittled because my expert knowledge is on children’s books, not “real” books. I won’t lie and say that I haven’t played the “I’m studying for my Master’s degree” card when people ask me why I’m reading kids’ and teens’ books. Academia is an easy way to feel validated about oneself and one’s choice of study, especially when you’re tired or your feet hurt or you just really want to get back to your book rather than take the time to explain that YA is awesome.

But the thing is: I’d still be reading and writing and loving what I do, even without my formal education.

So, no, the fact that someone took it upon herself to tell adults they should be ashamed of reading YA doesn’t particularly bother me or surprise me as much as how the article was written and what the writer chose to focus on. Here’s a rule of thumb: If the writer of an article would like to hinge her argument on The Fault in Our Stars, John Green, Twilight, The Hunger Games, or any other book with a movie adaptation or a slot on a bestseller list, then I think it’s safe to assume that he or she is not very well-read.

I blame a lot of this misconception about what young adult is and isn’t on the fact that most people can’t seem to comprehend what constitutes a genre. Young adult is not a genre. Young adult is a category of literature (that’s right, I said literature) under which many genres exist. Genre is a tricky beast. It’s less defined by boundaries and what things are than it is by the core ideas and tropes at the center of a book and what things are not. Not following me? That’s okay. Genre isn’t easy to grasp, and it should make you think. But here’s something I hold to be true: Dismissing YA as a genre is dangerous because it overlooks the nuances and history of YA books (which is rich and varied and exciting) and opens YA up to the criticism of those who have only read those big books that get made into movies (hence the Slate article and every other negative article about YA on the internet).

The writer of the Slate article refers to YA books, saying, “These are the books that could plausibly be said to be replacing literary fiction in the lives of their adult readers. And that’s a shame.”

What (I think) she is arguing for here is diversity in reading habits. Ignoring the fact that people can choose to read whatever the hell they want without shame, I like that she thinks people need to read widely. I wish she had gone about making this argument a bit better, with a lot less condescension, but reading widely is important and it’s also exciting and a little scary if you’ve never done so. So in the interests of reading widely (ahem), here is a list of YA books that I think maybe she ought to read. You know, books that aren’t The Fault in Our Stars or Twilight or Divergent. Books with endings that might not be so satisfying. With characters who might not be so likable. Books that are complex. Astonishing writing. Weird facts. Unfamiliar characters. All of that. It’s here. It’s in YA. And we are not ashamed.

Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta

How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff

Beauty Queens by Libba Bray

Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

(Interestingly enough, this book was originally published as an adult book in Australia, then as YA in the US. For marketing reasons. We didn’t even talk about marketing, but once we do, this whole YA vs adult argument begins to deconstruct itself.)

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie

Grasshopper Jungle by Andrew Smith

Stolen by Lucy Christopher

A Northern Light by Jennifer Donnelly

Anything by A.S. King, but especially Ask the Passengers

Out of the Easy by Ruta Sepetys

Happy reading!

Monday, June 2, 2014

The Fault in Our Stars Giveaway

Raise your hand if you're going to see The Fault in Our Stars this weekend! Keep your hands raised if you plan on going opening night! It seems like we've been waiting forever, but the release date for the movie adaptation of John Green's The Fault in Our Stars is finally here and I couldn't be more excited.

Take this awesome movie poster:

Then add this tear-inducing trailer:


And this one...

This one.

Come quickly, June 6th! (For more TFIOS movie fun, check out the website.)

To celebrate the release, I'm giving away this:

One winner receives a movie tie-in edition of the novel and a #TFIOS tote bag! All you have to do to enter is fill out the form below! (And maybe prepare yourself by buying a box of tissues.)