Saturday, October 12, 2013

Cover-to-Cover Commuting: Burned, and Smoke, by Ellen Hopkins

I had intended to review these two books during Banned Books Week, or shortly thereafter.  It's now two weeks later.  Good heavens, I hope my readers don't actually expect me to be timely, or if you do, you forgive me.  I'm a library director, and I have a second library job.  Both jobs are a lot of work, and consume a lot of time and energy.  Much as I'd love to blog more regularly, that's not going to happen.

Librarians are like teachers.  Overworked and underpaid.

 Enough of that, though.  Let me tell you about these audiobooks!  Burned was published in 2006, while its sequel, Smoke, came out last month.

Checkouts: Both owned in print and audio format at the small public library
Typical reader: Teens, fans of the author
Source: Burned was interlibrary loaned; Smoke was cataloged and checked out to me the day it arrived, hehe

Synopses: In Burned, Pattyn von Stratten is the eldest daughter in a fundamentalist home with an abusive father and useless mother.  Enraged by her really fairly typical teen actions, her father sends her away to his sister's ranch in rural Nevada.  There, she finds happiness and hope - which she must leave when the school year begins.  Smoke picks up not long after the cliffhanger ending of Burned, with Pattyn on the run and her sister Jackie picking up the pieces of their lives.  Can they rebuild, despite the lies and pain?

My Goodreads ratings: 5 stars for Burned, 4 stars for Smoke

Pattyn (named for General Patton; her father named all his children for generals) is likely the sweetest protagonist you could possibly find in one of Ms. Hopkins' novels.  The poor girl has a rough life, though, with a father who rules with an iron fist - which he often uses against his wife - and a fundamentalist church that looks the other way when its women need help.

When Pattyn gets into trouble with her father and at school due to a boy, she is shipped off to live with an aunt who has a ranch in rural Nevada.  This is meant as punishment, but it turns out to be the exact opposite.  There, she learns how it feels to be loved, both by her kind aunt and by a nice neighbor boy.  Love is a double-edged sword, however, which she learns when she returns home to face reality.  And man, can the consequences of love be disastrous.

The second book is narrated by both Pattyn and her sister, Jackie.  Pattyn is on the run after a horrific series of events, and tries to rebuild her life posing as an illegal immigrant worker to become a nanny on a rural Californian ranch.  (And that didn't come across as ridiculously in the book as it does when I type it.)  Meanwhile, Jackie has her own demons to face, and must help her mother and sisters cope with all that's happened.  It's a lot for a young teen girl.

Smoke is different from any other novel by Ms. Hopkins that I've read.  It's filled with so much hope.  Fans may find themselves torn between grabbing onto that hope and expecting everything to turn out okay for Pattyn and Jackie, and being cynical and waiting for it to all come crashing down, especially for Pattyn in her new life.  Can there be a happy ending?

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Banned Books Week: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

I must say, I am shocked at how well Banned Books Week went over at my library.  Pleasantly shocked, certainly.  But still, I am in awe of just how positively the community responded to it.  People were curious, and asked questions.  And they checked out the books.  Of the Top Ten Banned Books of 2012, only The Kite Runner and Beloved were left on the shelf when I closed up this afternoon.  There seems to have been a reluctance to take the books with the pink slips on them, but hopefully those will go out next year.  Hopefully by then, the library will be in its new home (just down the street) and I'll have more room to make displays.

I also celebrated Banned Books Week by listening to book number two on the 2012 list, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie.  The author himself read the book.

Checkouts: audiobook not owned by either library
Typical reader: teens, Native Americans, fans of the author, fans of banned books
Source: my hometown library

Synopsis: Arnold "Junior" Spirit is a 14-year-old Spokane boy who lives on a reservation.  At the encouragement of a teacher, he transfers to a better school 22 miles away, where the only non-Caucasian is its Indian mascot.

My Goodreads rating: 4 stars

Banned/challenged for: offensive language, racism, sexually explicit, unsuited for age group

This is a slice-of-life story of a teen boy who changes his own life by upsetting all norms of his tribe and going to a school off the "rez."  It follows roughly a year of Junior's life, as he navigates his freshman year, friendships, racism and ostracism, loss, and basketball.

In listening to the audiobook version of this novel, I missed out on the art.  However, I gained the hilarious narration of Mr. Alexie.  I stuck the first CD in my car's player before I left the library parking lot, and proceeded to laugh all the way home.  The humor is deadpan and dry, a lot of the time.  But also, the voice the author uses for Junior's voice and internal monologue has an amazingly familiar accent.  Apparently, a brain-damaged teen Spokane boy from a reservation in Washington State sounds like a Finlander Yooper.  Seriously.  He sounds like my dad's Uncle Reino.  If you don't know what a thick Yooper accent sounds like, watch the movie Fargo and listen, particularly to the women in the bar ... or listen to this audiobook.

I loved this book.  It covers a wide range of emotions and life experiences.  Pretty much any teen could read it and recognize something for his or her life.  It's humorous, and it also has plenty of hyperbole.  Many of the stories remind me of American tall tales.

Does this book deserve its negative acclaim?  Let's break it down.
  1. Offensive language.  Everyone has a different definition of this.  But yes, there is a sentence where a character not only drops the F-bomb, but also uses the N-word.  It's a pretty knockout use, too, that really covers ...
  2. Racism.  Yup.  The sentence with the aforementioned words was definitely racist.  And there's also racism between Native Americans and Caucasians.  There's also a sort of racism within an ethnic people, as demonstrated by how other reservation inhabitants called Junior an "apple:" red on the outside, white on the inside.  But it's intrinsic to the story.  If everybody got along, if the US government had not discriminated against Native Americans and pushed many onto reservations, if ethnic groups did not stick together and create out-groups and outcasts, then maybe we wouldn't need stories that deal with racism.  People that complain about racism in this book need a reality check.
  3. Sexually explicit.  This isn't 50 Shades.  The most Junior does with a girl is kiss.  There are "gay" jokes.  The most sexually explicit thing would have to be his admissions that he masturbates.
  4. Unsuited for age group.  Because teens don't read about teens?  Sure, it's not what you might want to hand to a child in elementary school, but that's not its intended audience.  Teens are.  And teens can and should read it, and they can and should handle the book just fine.
In sum, beyond one over-the-top sentence that was important to a plot element (white guy insults Junior, Junior punches him, they become friends), this book is tame and appropriate for its intended audience.

What did you read for Banned Books Week?

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Banned Books Week!

It's my favorite library time of year again: Banned Books Week!  This year, it's going amazingly well for me.  On Monday, before the small public library opened, I created a book display.  It had the Top Ten Banned Books of 2012, each with the rationale for banning and challenging.  Impressively, the library has nine out of ten; only And Tango Makes Three is not owned.  I also put together various books for the rest of the display shelving, and some face-out books above the shelves and on some tables.  The face-out books had slips of paper on them, with information about their challenges.

On Tuesday, my staff told me what a hit the display was.  I was shocked, because I honestly didn't know how it would go over in a small, rural town with an aged service population.  But a high school teacher checked out two young adult books to discuss censorship, and the books themselves, with his classes.  Patrons - and staff members - were intrigued by the reasons on the books, and wanted more!  So I labeled the rest of the books on display.

Here are some pictures of Banned Books Week in my little library.  I'm so pleased at the reception it's received.

Top Ten Banned Books of 2012
Several are checked out!
The key to a successful Banned Books Week is to celebrate the freedom to read.
The note on The Witches declares that Roald Dahl is a misogynist.

Classics are often banned and challenged.
The Call of the Wild
The Call of the Wild was burned in 1929 in Italy and Yugoslavia for being "too radical."

There are some wild women in books.
Harriet will teach your children to spy, lie, and swear, while Scarlett behaved immorally.

Children's and young adults' books are frequently called into question.
Remember, read freely and responsibly, and you and you alone are responsible for what you read.  Not other people.  And you have no right to tell other people what they can and cannot read, either.  Only minors in your care are subject to your views.

I have been reading some books greatly appropriate for this week, and will have to review them by the end of Saturday!  Stay tuned for a double feature of Burned and its recently published sequel, Smoke, by Ellen Hopkins, and a review of the audio version of The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (one of 2012's top ten), written and read by Sherman Alexie.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Yay for YA: Fire & Ash

At last, Jonathan Maberry's fourth installment in the Rot & Ruin quartet has been released!  After Flesh & Bone, I really wasn't sure where this series was going to go.  I'm glad I stuck around to find out.

I've reviewed the previous three books on this blog.
Rot & Ruin
Dust & Decay
Flesh & Bone

Checkouts: Coming soon to the school library; has one hold.
Series checkouts: 29
Typical reader: Fans of the series
Source: Snowbound Books

Synopsis: It's the conclusion of Rot & Ruin!  If you've read the previous three books, you'll need to find out how it's wrapped up.  And that's all I have to say on that.

My Goodreads rating: 5 stars

Hmm, that cover.  It's my one little quibble.  The first three covers are awesome.  This one?  I'm not sure what the artist was going for.  The guy on the left looks too old, really, to be Benny.  The ... woman? ... on the right is a mystery.  Is that a zombie?  While grey skin makes sense, the clown-like accents are weird.

But anyway.  We're not here to judge a book by its cover, right?

The conclusion of a series is hard to critique, and remain spoiler-free.  Therefore, this will be a short review.  Let's make bullet points.

  • The excellent storytelling still holds up.
  • The action had me on the edge of my seat.
  • Most story threads get tied up.  (Hey, it's not an omniscient narration; not everything can be known.  That's fine.)
  • If you were missing the rogue's gallery of the Rot & Ruin, particularly old friends, you'll probably be satisfied with what this installment offers.
  • Grimm is an awesome dog.
  • And Joe Ledger in this series makes me curious about Mr. Maberry's other books.  If the other Ledger books of the same continuity, I'll definitely have to read them at some point.
  • As with many science fiction and dystopian series, there's a bit of social commentary.  I particularly liked this quote, and what else Ledger had to say: "Sure, governments need to keep some secrets, but too often the people inside the government create for themselves the illusion that because they know things nobody else does, it makes them more powerful. That kind of thinking creates a kind of contempt for anyone on the outside." (Page 275, hardcover edition)
In sum, this is a most satisfying conclusion to a series I really enjoyed.  Now, I must get this book cataloged, because after only one library day, I have a waiting list for it.  :)  My preteen boys love the Rot & Ruin!

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Yay for YA: Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe

I've gushed over books that have received the Michael L. Printz Award, or have been honor winners of the award, before, so I'll spare you the swooning with this review.  On the other hand, this book (a Printz honor recipient) won a Stonewall Book Award, as well as the Pura Belpre Award, and probably others but the copy I had access to only had so much cover space for award stickers.  And it has a great title.

Today I shall tell you about Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe.  Doesn't it just sound grand?

Checkouts: 1 at the small public library
Typical reader: Teens drawn to literature that isn't heteronormative (I'm not trying for the acronym that keeps growing ...), fans of the author and/or award-winning books
Source: My small public library

Synopsis: In this slice-of-life tale set in the late 1980s, two Mexican-American teen boys become friends and try to find their places in life.

My Goodreads rating: 4 stars

For having such a grandiose name harkening back to a well-known Ancient Greek philosopher, Aristotle (Ari) does not have many far-reaching ambitions.  He feels like his life is someone else's idea.  And in the summer of 1987, he was not aspiring to much beyond lazing about for the summer, perhaps at the pool despite not knowing how to swim.  But at the pool, he meets Dante, another Mexican-American teen boy with a lofty name, who offers to teach him how to swim and thus ignites a friendship.

This is a pretty pedestrian story, very slice-of-life, without goals.  Nothing exciting or thrilling happens for the first hundred pages.  (Then something potentially life-changing does.  But you know me, I don't do spoilers.)  Yet it has so much heart.  Plot is secondary to character and relationship growth and development.  Self-discovery and the complexities of friendships are the key elements of this book, and they really shine.

One part I had problem with was the resolution of the story.  I didn't particularly believe it.  Since I don't give away spoilers, it's hard to explain, but it didn't ring true for me.  While I've been known to be a poor judge of a certain characteristic pivotal to the end of the book, I also don't believe I was led as a reader to reach the conclusion that Ari did.  Your mileage may vary.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

No-Nonsense Nonfiction: Death at the Lighthouse

Reading local books is always cool because the reader can recognize the places mentioned or alluded to, or perhaps knows the people in the book (when nonfiction) or people that inspired characters (when fiction).

The book I would like to tell you about today, Death at the Lighthouse by Loren Graham, is set on Grand Island, near Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore and the small town of Munising.  While I have not visited Grand Island, I saw it six days a week during the past year.  Now that I am no longer working there, I will tell you that I was a library assistant at the library in Munising.  So there were locations in this book that I knew, and family names that I recognized.  I admit, that makes it more interesting.

Checkouts: 2 at the small public library where I am the director
Typical reader: True crime fans, fans of the author, residents and tourists of the area
Do the Dewey: 364.15 (true crime)
Source: Snowbound Books

Synopsis: In the early 1970s, the author and his wife bought the Old North Light on Grand Island, Michigan, as a summer home.  During the early renovations, they discovered that the lighthouse keeper and his assistant were allegedly murdered in 1908.  Graham spent years researching what had transpired, and this book is the result.

My Goodreads rating: 3 stars

In June 1908, the assistant lighthouse keeper from North Light of Grand Island turned up dead in a battered boat, looking like he'd been beaten to death and set afloat.  The lighthouse keeper himself was missing, and turned up weeks later, dead on a beach.  What happened?

Good question.  The author delves deep into not only the deaths of the men, but also the history of the Upper Peninsula and Munising, the clashing, multi-ethnic cultures of the denizens, and the lives of the imperious tycoons that established industries and towns.  This is a fascinating read, if you like a bit of true crime in your history, rather than the other way around.

But was there a crime, and whodunnit?  The conclusion the author drew took me by surprise.  Maybe it's accurate.  Maybe not.  If you read this book, please let me know what you think.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Manga Monday/Graphic Is Great: Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service

Ah, summer reading programs.  Love them or hate them, anticipate them or fear them, if you're in the business of public library science, they are unavoidable.  Personally, I embrace them, as they get people reading, enhance statistics, and are good publicity.  At the little library where I'm director, the summer reading program has been going great, with more than 100 children signed up to read and earn prizes.  There are smaller programs for high school students and adults, too, with the potential to win prizes from drawings at the end of the program.

My hometown library also has a robust summer reading program for adults, and since I don't work there, I can participate.  Every checkout of books or audiobooks gets me an entry slip that I can fill out and put into a prize box of my choice.

And the easiest way to get in a lot of entry forms is reading manga.  Which brings us to this review.

Checkouts: N/A
Number of volumes available: 13 in English, 17 in Japanese (ongoing)
Typical reader: Adults who like dark, edgy manga
Source: My local library

Summary: Five students at a Buddhist university are united by unique skills - some mundane, some supernatural - involving the dead.  They form a business of getting corpses to wherever they need to go to free the souls.  Sometimes they profit from this.

My Goodreads rating: 4 to 5 stars

As I tend to review books for the school library setting, let me say this right off the bat: This series is not for children, or even most teens.  It is a very adult horror series, with graphically portrayed dead bodies, full frontal nudity (mostly on corpses), violence, and occasional sex.  The last couple of volumes available have "PARENTAL ADVISORY: EXPLICIT CONTENT" stickers on the covers.  Get over the American idea that comic books are for children.

That said, if you're into dark horror with macabre humor and plenty of social commentary, that keeps things fresh and interesting, this is a great series.  Thirteen volumes are available in English, with more to be translated, and the series is ongoing in its home country.  I was a bit sad to finish volume 13, and hope that the fourteenth will soon be ready stateside.

Most volumes are filled with vignettes of cases that the team takes, which are often one to three chapters long.  (Volume two is a single story arc.)  The stories are influenced by a variety of sources, from traditional lore to urban legends, and from cultural quirks to ripped-from-headline sagas.  The manner of storytelling, and the fact that many jobs do not actually lead to money, makes this series a bit reminiscent of the classic anime, Cowboy Bebop.

Don't miss the glossary and notes at the end of each volume!  I had initially just skimmed the one in the first volume, until I got to one peculiar note.  "196.1 FX: PAKIII - sound of a bolt falling through glasses at terminal velocity into eye socket." (Volume 1, page 215)  Whoa, that's pretty specific.  So I read the rest of the notes.  They're worthwhile, for the humorous specificity as in the above quote, and also the interesting trivia they impart about aspects of Japanese culture, history, locations, and lore that I had previously known nothing of.  You can really learn a lot from the notes.

Which brings me to a last aspect I want to bring up.  While it's not to the level of Gantz for dark social commentary, Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service definitely is -not- afraid to touch on taboo subjects.  Not only does the team go searching for suicide victims in Aokigahara Forest, they also deal with the Iraq War, the remnants of the biological weapons research the Japanese committed in Occupied China during World War II, the Japanese justice system, illegal immigration, athlete doping, infanticide, and more.

In sum, if you like dark humor, social commentary, and vengeful reanimated corpses, check out this series.

Manga Mondays is a meme used by many book review blogs, and is sort of hosted by Alison Can Read.