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Friday, December 30, 2011

Yay for YA: Legend, by Marie Lu, review

I had the pleasure of finding a first edition, signed, copy of this at my local bookstore.  I debated about getting it so close to Christmas, but it was the last one in stock.  (My boyfriend can attest, I danced around with it in the aisle before buying it.)  So, thanks to this little splurge, I actually read this in a somewhat timely manner and you get a review in the month the book came out.

Statistics
Checkouts: Coming soon to the library
Typical reader: Late elementary/middle school boys and girls alike should be able to pick up this thriller
Source: Personally purchased from Snowbound Books

Synopsis: In Los Angeles, two lives collide after a heinous crime.  Day is at 15 years old the Republic's most wanted criminal, and has been accused of murder.  June is the Republic's groomed prodigy who must track down Day, who allegedly killed her brother.  This is the story of a game of cat and mouse, told from the perspective of both.  And after a shocking turn of events, it is the story of uncovering the truth of what really happened, and what is really going on in the city.

My Goodreads rating: 4 stars

This has a great cover that has appealed to me since I first saw it on other bloggers' reviews.  It's shiny!  It's also very gender-neutral, which is perfect for a book told from the perspectives of a young man and a young woman.  Anyone can pick it up and not be ashamed to be seen with it.

Day and June were destined for their lives by standardized testing, we learn early in the story.  While each has family history that plays into their status in life, the main determinant is the Trial that all children must take on their tenth birthdays.  Day flunked his, and escaped with his life to become a criminal.  June scored a perfect 1500 and is the darling of the Republic, head of her classes in university and destined for greatness.  But Day is certainly smarter and more physically fit than his Trial score indicated.  There's perhaps a bit of social commentary here.

The narrative style is excellent.  Day and June alternate chapters, each with a different font style and color in the physical copy of the book.  It's very easy to always know who you're reading!  I love how the two stories came together.  The scene where they met was great - as was the scene where she finally figures out who, in fact, she's been hanging out with on the streets.  As the story progresses past a certain turning point, the action really heats up, and you get so much more with both narratives than you would from a single point-of-view.

I felt that the first half was paced well, but things got so intense halfway through the book that I could hardly put it down after that.  The first half of the novel sets the characters, setting, and mood, and gives us an interesting game of cat and mouse.  But the second half!  That really is a suspenseful thriller that will keep you on the edge of your seat.

This is pretty lightly dystopian, very slightly science fiction.  It's set in the future, but feels like it isn't that far off.  The technology is somewhat advanced but very recognizable.  LA has a lake and a lot of flooding issues, and a lot more slums.  There's also not much in the way of gory violence or adult themes.  If you're not terribly into dystopias, this can still appeal to you.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Best Blogging Experiences of 2011

Five Best Blogging Experiences of 2011
  1. Finding this blog's niche in life.  I'd originally started this blog to document putting together a library from scratch, but got so busy with actually doing that, that the writing never happened.  Then last summer, I started writing reviews of what my students enjoyed reading.  This endeavor blossomed from there.
  2. Finding a use for Twitter.  This amuses me.  I've actually been on Twitter for several years, but completely forgot about it, including the fact that it was connected to my Goodreads account.  Then my email notified me that I had a new follower.  Confused, since I hadn't posted to Twitter in ages, I logged in ... and found that Goodreads updates my Twitter feed when I note what page I'm on, or rate a book.  The proverbial light bulb when on above my head, and I realized that Twitter is an awesome way to do social media advertising for this blog.  It also leads to ...
  3. Connecting with authors.  This is pure awesome-sauce.  Authors are the biggest celebrities to librarians, and that some have sought me out through Twitter is simply amazing.  With some, it's as simple as hoping that I like their book that I've marked "to-read" on Goodreads, or re-tweeting my links to reviews of their books.  Others follow my blog.  And some offer my really cool things, like free Skype visits to my school library (I should think about scheduling that - my sixth graders suddenly took an interest in the books by the author that offered this), to links to free prequel/sequel scenes, to free review copies of books.
  4. Getting free review copies of books.  This is pretty epic.  I was already able to get free uncorrected proofs from Snowbound Books when I'd stop by.  And as a librarian with a meager book budget, I could get some new books for free from the Superiorland Preview Center, many of which have been reviewed here.  But lately authors have begun to contact me.  I was offered a PDF copy of Ugly to Start With in exchange for a review, which was posted last week Monday.  Yesterday I received in the mail a copy of The Jinson Twins, Science Detectives, and the Mystery of Echo Lake from the author, who had contacted me through Goodreads due to an overbooked giveaway he was hosting.  (Here's a link to the Goodreads description, until I review the book.)  In 2012, I'm hoping to start contacting publishing companies for advanced reading copies; that will probably be in this item's place this time next year.
  5. Connecting with other bloggers.  No man (or woman) is an island when it comes to blogging, especially when writing book reviews.  A librarian also relies on book reviews to know what to select for the library collection; we cannot read every book under the sun (nor do we want to, believe it or not).  There's no reason to stick to the "expert" opinions of the New York Times Book Reviews, or Publishers Weekly, or the School Library Journal.  Book bloggers could well be our patrons.  Often, they are other librarians.  Beyond the practicality, though, there's quite the community out there.  I haven't featured any memes on my blog (yet), but there's a ton available to help bloggers to connect with each other.
    Besides, I wouldn't have started blogging book reviews if not for my friend Michelle over at Never Gonna Grow Up!  Happy birthday, by the way.  ;)

Happy New Year!  I should have at least one more review up before the end of 2011.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Most Disappointing Books of 2011

Life's too short to read bad books.  They're sometimes unavoidable; we've all had to read a book for a class at some point that we absolutely couldn't stand.  But once you get past the requirements, there's no reason to waste your time on books that aren't worth reading.

Here are the books I simply could not finish in 2011.

It's Elementary: When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead
This book won the Newbery Medal in 2010.  Normally, that's a sure sign of quality.  You can typically rely on books that win the medal, or honor (runners-up), to be excellent.  When You Reach Me just bored me, though.  I put it down at about page 39.

No-Nonsense Nonfiction: In the Company of Cheetahs by S. K. Niel
Oh, I wanted to like this book!  I love cheetahs, and practically did a happy dance in the public library when I found this on the shelves.  Unfortunately, I couldn't get even ten pages into this book.  I really wanted to read about the Cheetah Conservation Fund and its work.  This is badly in need of proofreading!  I could not get past the horrible writing or the overuse/misuse of italics.

Guilty Pleasures: Hit List by Laurell K. Hamilton
(Sorry, this one gets a little long and rant-y.)

I put up with the Anita Blake series as long as I could.  (Granted, I started reading the series only a couple years ago, but I read 19 and a half books.)  The first several books, written before 2000, were really good.  Anita was an interesting character - a strong heroine that could really kick butt, and had high morals.  Back then, she was a good necromancer who had a lot of plots surrounding her job for a company that helps settles wills and the like by raising zombies to answer questions and such.  She was a love interest to a powerful vampire in her hometown of St. Louis, Jean-Claude, who she inadvertently helped into power in the excellent first book, Guilty Pleasures.  A few books in, a hot new guy by the name of Richard Zeeman entered the picture.  He was not only hot, but also a closeted werewolf who was powerful enough that Anita didn't realize for most of the book that he was a werewolf.  A love triangle emerges, then a power triangle, bonding the necromancer, werewolf, and vampire together.

Then around 2000, Laurell K. Hamilton went nuts.  There's an interesting obsession with rape that crops up in both this series (despite the author's insistence to the contrary, we fans know that when Micah didn't take "no" for an answer in Narcissus in Chains, it was rape) and in the first book of the Meredith Gentry series.  The series took a turn from good plots and enjoyable writing to erotica with a dash of plot.  One or two books after this were okay to good, such as Skin Trade.

I kept holding out hope for the series because I liked Anita Blake so much as a character, despite how much I hated what the author was doing to her.  After the nineteenth book (Bullet), I was fed up with the lack of plot - or in that book, the recycling of old plot - and the lack of proofreading/fact-checking against previous novels.  But then I read good reviews of this year's release, Hit List.  It features Edward, the all-human, mostly-psychopath, bounty hunter that trained Anita and would love nothing more than to have a fight to the death with her someday.  I gave it a shot.

Really, I got two-thirds of the way through this before I gave up.  I was probably being far too generous with my time on this one.  But then the book introduces a character for a second time, and when a mixed-color weretiger up and loses one of his established colors, 100 pages after he's been established, I just can't take anymore.  Plus, Edward's been pretty much neutered.  But hey, that's what this series has gone and done with every flipping male in the series.


Don't worry.  Laurell K. Hamilton hates her fans as much as we hate her.  I'm glad I never bought one of her books.  She has nothing but contempt for her readers, and there's proof on her web site.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Yay for YA: Paranormalcy review

I'm writing this with a fever and chills, so I may need to revisit this and revise it when I'm feeling better.  Anyway, here's my review of Paranormalcy by Kiersten White.
Statistics
Checkouts: Coming soon to the library
Typical reader: Middle school to teen girls who like paranormal fantasy/romance
Source: personally purchased at the Scholastic Book Fair

Synopsis: Evie can see things no one else can - she sees beneath the glamour of all sorts of paranormals.  She works for the International Paranormal Containment Agency, bagging and tagging paranormals around the globe.  Life is good with the IPCA; her best friend is a mermaid, she has a pretty pink taser, and she often makes it home in time to watch her favorite teen soap.  But then two things happen to shake up her life: paranormals are mysteriously dying, and a weird shapeshifter breaks into the IPCA.

My Goodreads rating: 4 stars

I do have to grumble a little bit over what probably won't be a concern for the average reader of this book: the binding.  This book is 335 pages in the paperback format, and squished into a width less than two centimeters (at least in the Scholastic edition).  Gah.  Heaven help the librarian that has to rebind this, if it ever has pages come loose.  Also, even if you're as careful with books as I am, you'll probably end up creasing the spine somewhat.

But you're not here to read about the worries of how a book is made, are you?  You're here to learn about what's inside, what the author has to offer with her writing.  Overall, what's available is pretty dang good.

Paranormalcy comes across fluffy on the surface, but really has a lot of depth.  Evie is both a lighthearted girlie-girl who loves pink, fashion, and teen soap operas, and a teen searching for herself without knowing the extent of her powers or what she really is.  She also yearns for a normal life with a locker.  The sum of all parts of Evie is a strong, complex heroine that is both delightful and someone readers can relate to.

My favorite character was Alisha, the mermaid.  (Lish the fish?  Really?)  She lives in a tank in the IPCA, in the central processing room, loving her job and being Evie's best friend.  Since she's in a tank full of water, she talks through a computer, giving her a mechanical voice that will not translate when she swears.  Her reassuring Evie about how her faerie ex-boyfriend is no good in a series of "bleeping" is funny and endearing.  Indeed, the lack of actual swearing and lack of other "adult themes" make this a YA novel that I could comfortably hand to an older elementary student.

There is romance in this novel.  Just because there's an ex-boyfriend in the picture as well as a new hottie attracting Evie's attention doesn't make for a love triangle, though, thank goodness (there's something overdone in YA romance these days).  Reth, the faerie ex, was dumped by Evie after a show of scary violence.  And she still wants nothing to do with him, despite his advances and attempts at following whatever his strange agenda is regarding her.  Smart girl!  No, the romance is between Evie and the weird shapeshifter that breaks into the IPCA, whose name is Lend and comes across as a pretty nice guy.  After all heck breaks loose there, the plot focuses on Evie and Lend in a completely different environment.  It starts to reach the point of "blah" but soon gets back into plot and action.

I had a little problem with the writing/plot.  Multiple times, I guessed what was going to happen, and was proven right.  It was a little too predictable for my tastes.  This is a fun novel, but predictable.  The predictability does not hinder the experience enough to lower my rating, or to keep me from wanting to read the next in the series.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Most Ambivalent Read of 2011: Unwind

It's time to start winding down the reviews for 2011.  I'll get at least one, hopefully two, more fresh reviews up before the ball drops on Times Square, but I'm also going to share highlights from the year.

First up, my most ambivalent read of 2011: Unwind by Neal Shusterman.
Statistics
Checkouts: Not owned
Typical reader: Fans of dystopian fiction
Source: Checked out from local public library

Synopsis (from Goodreads): The Second Civil War was fought over reproductive rights. The chilling resolution: Life is inviolable from the moment of conception until age thirteen. Between the ages of thirteen and eighteen, however, parents can have their child "unwound," whereby all of the child's organs are transplanted into different donors, so life doesn't technically end. Connor is too difficult for his parents to control. Risa, a ward of the state is not enough to be kept alive. And Lev is a tithe, a child conceived and raised to be unwound. Together, they may have a chance to escape and to survive.

My Goodreads rating: Unrated, because I have no idea what to give it.


In the future, the Second Civil War is fought between pro-life and pro-choice. The result is a compromise: The Bill of Life, which protects life from conception to age 13, and from age 18 on. Between 13 and adulthood, parents and guardians can choose to retroactively "abort" or "unwind" their child - but the teen stays alive through a sophisticated form of organ donation. Unwound teens live on in recipients' bodies.

Oh, and if a mother can't wait that long, she can "stork" the child on someone's doorstep. If she's caught in the act, she has to keep it; if the homeowners find the baby, they have to keep it.

The plot focuses on two Unwinds, Connor and Risa, and their unwilling Tithe (parents decided for religious reasons at birth to unwind their child for the greater good) companion, Lev, as they struggle to stay alive in a society that wants 99.44% of their bodies. It's a good plot, with excellent pacing and some outstanding twists. I honestly did not expect the ending.

This book does get recognition for being one of the most disturbing novels I've read. You do get to find out what happens when an Unwind occurs - though it's all the more powerful because of what's left to your imagination. I was nauseous afterward and had to put the book down for a while.

On a meta-reading level, this is one that will make you THINK. Is it pro-life or pro-choice? Is it in favor of organ donations or against? What choices would you make in this society - and would you rather die or be unwound?

That said, I did not like several aspects of the book. The present-tense writing style grated on me. I found the main characters to be somewhat flat and couldn't relate to them; you get more of a feel for the Admiral's personality, background, what makes him tick than you do for the other characters. Connor and Risa are too intent on survival and immediate problems to introduce themselves to the reader very much. The third-person limited narration may be at fault there, and that sort of point-of-view may really irk some, especially since it changes focus with every chapter.

Five stars for being thought-provoking with some incredible twists. Two stars at most for style, characters, and the plot holes regarding the Bill of Life.  This is what makes it my Most Ambivalent Read of 2011.  I'm not going to pick up the next two books in the trilogy when they come out.  This was good for the shock value; what's left for the sequels?

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Yay for YA: Five Flavors of Dumb

I read this novel, Five Flavors of Dumb by Antony John, back in March, before I'd decided to start reviewing books here.  In an effort to keep posting every weekday in these last two weeks of the year, and in order to share a good book with you, I present to you a review.
Statistics
Checkouts: I probably should donate it to the library.
Typical reader: Teens with interest in music or disabilities
Source: Personally purchased from Snowbound Books

Synopsis: Piper is witness to a hot new band's impromptu performance on her high school's front steps, and later has the guts to tell them they're crap. The three-person band decides to challenge her in return - become their manager and get them a paying gig within a month. She accepts this potentially impossible task. It's not just hard because they're a new band that needs improvement - it's hard because Piper is deaf.

My Goodreads rating: 4 stars

I couldn't be in the same room as the book if I wanted to do something besides pick it up and continue reading.  This book is an intriguing compilation of hard rock history, the story of a band, teen romance and friendships in many forms, family dynamics, and a tale of coping with what many would consider a disability. Piper is an excellent, strong protagonist who brings together an eclectic band of five very different flavors of people (hence the title) while dealing with a family that doesn't always support her - her parents dip into her college savings, earmarked for a university for the hearing impaired, to buy her deaf little sister a cochlear implant.

The characters are excellent, for the most part.  Piper and her brother Finn have an interesting, complex relationship of sibling love, rivalry, and dependance - while Piper can read lips and speak, it's much easier to communicate with sign language while he serves as an interpreter.  The one character that I felt was a bit flat was the father.  While he does become more supportive as the story progresses, he comes across mostly as obtuse.

I picked up this entertaining book from a sea of teen fiction that was mostly either paranormal/paranormal romance or catty clique novels. It stood out as different, and it was.  If you're looking for an antidote for the common teen novel, this is it.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Reading what the students read: The Magic Tree House

OMG, it's a post on a Wednesday!  Today was the last day of school before winter vacation, and I survived not only the library times with wired students and a few class parties, but also got done checking in and cataloging books in a timely enough manner to read a book, get home, and write this review before 9 p.m.  Be amazed.

My elementary students adore the Magic Tree House series.  It's written for about a second grade reading level, but the Kindergarten teacher introduced her class to them and her students just love to check these books out and bring them home to read with a parent.  Bless her heart, she got a bunch of the series from Scholastic, let the students choose one book for Christmas, and gave me the rest for the library!  What an awesome present.

With all that in mind, I decided to take ten minutes and read the first in the series.  Here's my review before I end up typing more words than are in the book!
Statistics
Checkouts, Dinosaurs Before Dark: 7
Series checkouts: 49 (over ten books, before the new additions)
Typical reader: Any elementary student, especially K-3
Sources: Various

Synopsis: Jack and his little sister Annie discover a tree house full of books.  When they point to a picture in a book, they find themselves in a new place!  Good thing there's a book with a picture of their hometown, so they can return.  In the first adventure, they go back to the Cretaceous Era.

My Goodreads rating: 5 stars

This series really is cute, and appropriate for all elementary students!  Jack and Annie are curious adventurers, with distinct personalities that I could get a feel for in just the first book.  The use of a brother and sister helps to appeal to both boys and girls, which is great.

There are two awesome things about these books.  First, they're educational.  Jack and Annie learn about what they encounter, with both their experiences and the books from the tree house.  Second, the books don't pander like some at this reading level do.  You're not going to have an explanation in every story about how Jack and Annie found the tree house, and what it does, blah blah blah.  There's a simple page or so in every subsequent volume with a quick explanation about what happens in this series.  The Magic Tree House series lacks the boring repetition I've found in series like Junie B. Jones or the Baby-Sitters Club: Little Sister.  You're not wasting any of the story itself on a recap of "last week's episode," or whatever.

There are even Magic Tree House Research Guide volumes that complement many of the chapter books, full of facts about the topics mentioned in the matching novel.  Fabulous.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Yay for YA: Cleopatra's Moon review

I'd originally started reading this book, Cleopatra's Moon by Vicky Alvear Shecter, back in September.  Then my own Queen Cleo got really sick and died, and I had to put it down.  Last week, I finally picked it back up.  Here's my review.
Statistics
Checkouts: New to the library
Typical reader: Students forced to do book reports on historical fiction.  And hopefully girls who like history and strong female figures.
Source: Superiorland Preview Center

Synopsis: Cleopatra Selene, daughter of the last queen of Egypt and the Roman Marcus Antonius, tells of her life from her idyllic days as a child, through her captivity in Rome in the household of her conqueror, to arriving in Mauritania to marry the client-king of that country.

My Goodreads rating: 4 stars

What's the nice thing about reviewing a book about a historical figure's life?  No spoilers!  Unless you're picking up this book or reading my review of it with no prior knowledge of the life of Cleopatra Selene, you probably know the basic facts.
  • Cleopatra Selene was the only daughter of Queen Cleopatra VII, the last monarch of Egypt
  • Her father was Marcus Antonius, otherwise known as Mark Antony (the Roman triumvir who features in two of Shakespeare's works, not the Latin pop singer)
  • She had a twin brother, Alexandros Helios, and a younger brother, Ptolemy Philadelphus
  • They had an older half-brother, Caesarion, whose father was Julius Caesar
  • She, Alexandros, and Ptolemy were taken after their parents' defeat and deaths to Rome and marched in Octavian's Triumph
  • Little or nothing is written about her brothers after that
  • She married Juba, the king of Mauritania, who was also raised in Rome by his people's conquerors
This book fills in the gaps, from Cleopatra Selene's point-of-view.  It is a richly-woven tale of a princess who started life happily and then had her world come crashing done around her.  Much of this blurs the line between historical and speculative fiction, but Ms. Shecter spins a pretty good yarn.  There's intrigue, a dash of romance, Egyptian mythology, and one very smart heroine who manages to survive everything life throws at her.

One thing I particularly liked about the novel was how Rome was portrayed.  Roman history was most often written by the Romans, since they were the victors.  As this is from Selene's perspective, we get a view of Rome that was probably just as accurate as the grand records of the likes of Plutarch and Seneca.  To Selene, Rome is filthy, abhorrent, and barbaric in comparison to her fair Alexandria, with its Library and Great Lighthouse.  We're also treated to a view of the most famous and infamous queen of the ancient world from her daughter's adoring perspective.  Today we know that Queen Cleopatra VII was extremely intelligent, and had written many treatises on a variety of matters; she was not just the cunning seductress both Rome and Hollywood made her out to be.  Cleopatra Selene's account offers a view of just how awesome the queen likely was, but with a touch of motherly love.

I will say that the beginning of the book was slow.  Some of the Egyptian mythology that she learned is interesting, but for the most part, Celopatra Selene's placid life was ... dull.  The pace really does not pick up until Marcus Antonius kills himself.  But the novel after that is quite worth a read.

Oh, and the cats included in the novel are awesome.  As well they should be.


My cat had been named Cleocatra, after Cleopatra Selene's mother.  My dog is named Jubatus, as in the genus name for a cheetah; he looked a bit like a baby cheetah when we adopted him, and I'm a nerd like that.  We call him Juba for short.

A couple years after getting Juba, I read a biography on Cleopatra ... and learned that Cleopatra Selene married a King Juba.  This is really a great joke in the household.  King Juba of Mauritania was a scholar king.  Juba the dog is not particularly bright.

Also,
unlike in the novel and likely in real history, my Cleo and Juba were better off ignoring each other.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Yay for YA: Ugly to Start With review

Last week I got a comment requesting that I review a book, complete with an offer to send me a PDF file of the book so that I could do so.  From an author.  After flailing around excitedly, I accepted my very first book review request.

So here is my review of Ugly to Start With by John Michael Cummings.  I'd prefer to be nicer, but honesty is the best policy; it's not a five-star book.
Statistics
Checkouts: Not owned by the library
Typical reader: High school boys
Source: Direct from the author via email (Squee!)

Synopsis: Jason Stevens is a teen growing up in historic Harper's Ferry, West Virginia, in the 1970s.  This is a collection of short, fictional stories about his less-than-ideal life.

My Goodreads rating: 3 stars

This book exemplifies the differences between middle-grade novels and those for young adults.  While the writing style and vocabulary are suitable for a younger audience, the subject matter certainly is not.  There are a lot of mature situations in this book, ranging from race relations to infidelity, from exploring sexuality to cruelty to animals.  This book is perfectly acceptable material for a public library, but my school library serves mostly K-8.  It doesn't belong there.

I liked the simple, honest prose.  Jason isn't the greatest person, particularly in the title story (I'll get to that later), but he provides quality narration to his stories.  The short story format left me a bit wanting at times, because some vignettes ended without a sense of conclusion, but that's a drawback to the confines of short stories.  On the other hand, the end of a short story is not the end of Jason's overall tale.  There are pros and cons; your mileage may vary on this.

My favorite story was "The Scratchboard Project."  In this, Jason visits a classmate's house to sketch her for an art assignment.  It's a story that gives a lot of depth to Jason's dream of being an artist, as well as the world in which he lives.  The classmate he visits is a black girl in a different part of town, and both of them, as well as her family, have to deal with prejudices in the fullest sense of the word.  Jason and Shanice have to get past their presuppositions about each other as she poses for him and he sketches her, and their interactions break down the icy barriers.

My least favorite story was the title one.  A little cat comes to Jason's house and his family takes her in, marveling at her soft, beautiful coat.  But in the summer, she gets into fights with other cats in the neighborhood and returns home with bloody sores and scratches.  The family refuses to let her in or care for her.  Jason goes so far to even shoot at her with a BB gun to chase her off.  You can imagine how well this sat with a cat-lover such as myself!  The story does well at illustrating how the family values only that which is beautiful, and has no love for what's ugly - either "to start with" or what becomes so through circumstance.  It also shows their hypocrisy, considering how run-down their house is and how ugly within the father can be.
(To be honest, this story almost made me put the book down completely, but as Mr. Cummings' web site mentions that he has a cat, I gave him the benefit of the doubt and continued.)

I have one thing to nitpick about this book.  In one story, Jason is looking at a board in his school with editorials pasted to it, and two phrases jumped out at me.  These were references to "Raiders of the Lost Ark" and "the X-Files."  This book is set in the 1970s.  The movie "Raiders of the Lost Ark" came out in 1981.  "The X-Files" TV show ran from 1993 to 2002.  There's another story that mentions the basketball skills of Magic Johnson, who played for the L.A. Lakers starting in 1979.  Please, fact-check.  I don't appreciate historical inaccuracies.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

It's Elementary: The Wizard of Dark Street review

My little naming scheme for books suitable for children is quite appropriate for this review.  The Wizard of Dark Street by Shawn Thomas Odyssey is a mystery novel.

Statistics
Checkouts: New to the library
Typical reader: Children who enjoy the Harry Potter series, or like mysteries
Source: Superiorland Preview Center

Synopsis: Oona Crate is a Natural Magician, born with the rare gift of being able to cast magic at will, rather than having to learn to do so.  But due to some unfortunate past events surrounding her magic use, she wants to give up being her uncle's apprentice and become a detective like her father was.  The evening she signs the paperwork to give up her apprenticeship and meets the candidates for the position, however, her uncle is stabbed by a magical dagger and disappears.  Whodunit?  Is her uncle, the Wizard of Dark Street, still alive?

My Goodreads rating: 4 stars

I must say, I love this cover.  It actually completely fits the story!  You have Oona and her magical pet raven, Deacon, on her shoulder, in front of the Wizard's house.  The house is pretty much just as the prose describes it, complete with all its eccentricities.

The pace of the book is a bit slow, particularly for the first third of the book, and some young readers may be put off by that.  In place of a fast-paced read is some great world-building.  I'm almost hesitant to describe it, because so much of the effort is put toward the setting that to do so seems like a bit of a spoiler.  The gist of it is that Dark Street is a magical location that for one minute every night, when the clock strikes midnight, a huge set of gates opens to connect Dark Street to the mundane world.

Once you do get into the meat of the plot, it's a pretty good mystery.  Or rather, it's a pretty good set of mysteries, possibly intertwined.  I'm not much of a reader of this sort of novel, but the twists and added information kept me guessing until the caper was solved.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Palate Cleanser: The Not-So-Star-Spangled Life of Sunita Sen

Today I am unveiling a new feature on my blog: Palate Cleansers.  These will be gentle reads that I could hand to anyone capable of reading them, and not worry.  If you're unfamiliar with the concept of a gentle read, it's a term librarians use to describe a genre that contains feel-good books, ones with no strong language, sex, or violence, and typically have happy-endings.  Before you yawn, though, these books can be very interesting without relying on edgy topics or breathtaking action.  They can often offer delightful new worlds.

The Not-So-Star-Spangled Life of Sunita Sen by Mitali Perkins is a book I would consider a gentle read.  Let me tell you about it.
Statistics
Checkouts: Coming soon to the library
Typical reader: Aimed at teen girls, but suitable for anyone capable of reading it
Source: Bought on clearance at Scholastic Book Fair

Synopsis: Sunita Sen was living a normal life in California, attending middle school, becoming closer with one of her male friends, and hanging out with her best friend.  Then her grandparents from India come to visit for a year, and turn her world upside-down as her mother takes leave from her teaching position at a university and tries to be the perfect Indian woman.  How will Sunita ever cope?

My Goodreads rating: 4 stars

This book could be of interest to sociologists studying the lives of second-generation Americans in fiction.  That's what this novel is.  Sunita's parents immigrated to the United States from India, found employment, and are working on raising three children with a mixture of traditional Indian and contemporary American cultures.  Our protagonist, known to classmates as Sunni, is the youngest child, still at home and attending eighth grade.  Her life was what she considered to be normal.  But then she got culture shock when her grandparents came for a visit.  Her mother took a year off from work and started wearing sarees, and forbade Sunita to have any male friends over.  Oh noes!  What ever shall she do?

I was expecting something along those lines when I picked out this novel, and I got what I anticipated.  I enjoy these slice-of-life books that highlight different ethnic lifestyles.  A book about an Indian-American girl also goes well with leftovers from my local Middle Eastern/Indian restaurant.  (Sadly, the Rubaiyat is closing at the end of the year.  Upper Michigan's cuisine scene shall greatly suffer for the loss!)

The characters are fun and believable.  Sunita's best friend Liz is particularly notable.  She's a bespectacled bookworm who Sunni thought wasn't into boys, but has a lot more going on in her head than her best friend realizes.  I liked her a lot.  Sunni also becomes close with her Dadu, or grandfather, with his tales of life in India (particularly the story of how he met his wife) and his hard work in her family's backyard.

This book is older than I thought when I bought it.  The current title was published in 2005.  Originally, it dates back to 1993, under the title The Sunita Experiment.  Still, it's an excellent book, which I could recommend to anyone interested in the immigrant experience or middle school life.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Yay for YA: Ship Breaker, by Paolo Bacigalupi

Isn't it nice when you read a book that has won awards, and you find it really did deserve those awards?  Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi won the 2011 Michael L. Printz Award, which is one of the American Library Association's highest awards for young adult literature, as well as several other distinctions.  And it's well-earned.
Statistics
Checkouts: Not owned by the school library yet
Typical reader: Teen boys
Book source: Personallly bought at the Scholastic Book Fair

Synopsis: Nailer, a teenage boy, lives along America's Gulf Coast, earning a living in a light crew, scavenging old tankers and other boats for copper wiring and other valuables.  He nearly dies after falling from a collapsing duct into a hidden oil pocket in a ship, but his run of luck begins and he manages to free himself.  The next day, a monstrous hurricane blows through the area.  Afterward, he and a crew mate find a beached clipper ship off a nearby island.  There's a lone survivor, and despite losing the privilege of scavenging the boat, he decides to rescue her.  But at what cost?

My Goodreads rating: 5 stars

If I had to sum up this book in one word, it would be: Intense!  This is a book that just won't quit amazing the reader.  The action is nonstop, the dystopian future is believable and expertly designed, and the characters are awesome.  I want to gush about this novel, but am restraining myself for the sake of a coherent review.

Life is tough in the future.  Climate change has apparently occurred, with the polar ice caps gone, shorelines changed around the world, and "city breaker" F6 hurricanes bombarding the Gulf Coast so much that after Orleans 3, the people gave up on trying to have decent cities in the lowlands of Louisiana.  But there are plenty of old abandoned tankers and other metal ships in the vicinity, ready for crews to scavenge everything useful from them.  Oil is a scarce, precious resource, a relic occasionally found on the old gas-guzzling ships of the past.  The book is never preachy, though.  The characters are struggling to survive too much for that.

The characters are perfectly flawed.  Everyone has a hard life in Nailer's world, from the low-life trash that break their oaths to their crew, to the "swank," the members of the upper class with their internal politics and backstabbing.  There are no flat characters here, no black-and-white heroes and villains, no throw-away character filling a stereotype.  Another thing I liked about the characters was that they could grow and learn.  This was particularly true of the protagonist, Nailer, and the swank he saves from the clipper, Nita.  Nita never came across a plot device, despite being a driving force behind much of the story, and her experiences outside her "white-bread world" really added to her character.

There is a companion book, The Drowned Cities, due out next spring.  It features a secondary character that was quite interesting in my opinion: Tool, a genetically engineered half-man, similar to a werewolf minus the shapeshifting, who has no master.  I'll be looking forward to it.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Dystopias and Dead Things: The Forest of Hands and Teeth (Yay for YA)

Yes, yes, it's December 1st, and November is over; therefore my Dystopias and Dead Things should be as well.  In my defense, I read this book in November, and yesterday I might have gotten a review done if the library hadn't gotten in four great boxes of donated books that my boyfriend and I cleaned and cataloged until 11:30 p.m.

Excuses aside, here's my take on The Forest of Hands and Teeth by Carrie Ryan.

Statistics
Checkouts: Personally bought at the Scholastic Book Fair; it will probably end up in the library collection
Typical reader: Teen girls who like the dystopian trend

Synopsis: Mary grew up in a village surrounded by fences through which the Unconsecrated reach, and ruled by the Sisterhood.  Her mother, who is bitten through the fence shortly into the book's story, used to tell her stories of the ocean.  After her mother dies and reanimates, her life is in chaos until her childhood friend Harry asks for her hand.  On the day they are to marry, the Unconsecrated break through the fences.  Will Mary and her friends escape?  If so, can they find the ocean?  Or is there no end to the Forest of Hands and Teeth?

My Goodreads rating: 3 stars

This book started out with a lot of promise.  And throughout, the writing is excellent, the plot compelling.  But there's something about Mary, and I hated her by the end.

The concept for the book was solid, and I enjoyed the story.  This is a post-apocalyptic zombie tale, set generations after the Return, and only pockets of fenced-in civilization remains.  The religious Sisterhood keeps the village in line, and the Guardians, including Mary's older brother, keep the fences intact and secure.  Mary faces a lot of difficulties in the story, both before and after the fence is breached.  The Sisterhood definitely isn't what it seems, and it would have been great if the author had chosen to explore that aspect of the setting more.  The plot keeps moving with twists that kept Mary's life from ever getting dull.

There's also a love triangle, which initially was a bit interesting.  Mary loves Harry, and his brother Travis.  They both love her.  Aw.  And while Mary is staying in the Cathedral with the Sisterhood, Travis is brought there to be treated for a broken leg, and they become closer during her semi-clandestine visits to his room.  But he doesn't come for her before the day of her wedding to Harry, and is himself betrothed to her best friend Cass.

The story remained intriguing throughout the book, like I said.  But Mary is something of an unreliable narrator.  It shows most in her characterizations of her companions and acquaintances.  All other women are weak and useless, or stone cold shrews.  Harry and Travis love her, a fact that can readily be taken for granted; why they do is never explained.  The truth of the matter is that Mary is selfish and completely self-centered, caring only for herself unless caring for others benefits her.  Seriously, I would have been happy if Mary had been bitten.  Then at least she would have shown some interest in other people.  Her one good trait is that she's actually handy in dealing with zombies and escaping.

Does this make the book bad?  I really have to say no on this, because I couldn't be apathetic about Mary.  She was written well enough to be hated, if that makes any sense.  It just doesn't make it a good book.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

National Novel Writing Month: Success!

If a picture is worth a thousand words, let this say it all:




I wrote 50,206 words in 29 days.  And the novel isn't done.  It's not even properly named.  ("High Fantasy Medieval Zombie Apocalypse" isn't really the title, it's just my synopsis/catch-all phrase.)   There is much writing yet to do.  But someday, this might end up being a published work.

I feel accomplished.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Dystopias and Dead Things: Dust & Decay

Apparently, my month of "dystopias and dead things" could have also been titled "a month of sequels."  99 Coffins, Crossed, and now Dust & Decay are my reviewed books for the month, and all are the second book in their respective series.

Enough about that, though, right?  You're here to read about Dust & Decay, the second book in the Benny Imura series by Jonathan Maberry.  (I've previously reviewed Rot & Ruin, the first in the series.)
Statistics
Checkouts: Soon to be added to the library collection; bought at Snowbound Books
Series checkouts: 1
Typical reader: People who enjoyed Rot & Ruin

Synopsis: Six months have passed since the events of Rot & Ruin.  Benny, Nix and their friends have been training with Benny's brother Tom for months, and are anxious to go east and try to find the airplane they saw flying.  A bit earlier than intended, Tom sets out with Benny, Nix, Lilah the legendary Lost Girl, and Lou Chong on what was supposed to be an overnight camping trip for Chong and the beginning of a journey for the rest.  Things do not go as planned.  At all.

My Goodreads rating: 5 stars

This sequel does not spend as much time in the town of Mountainside as its predecessor.  This time, while we do get to see a bit of relaxing times for the group with apple pies and romantic concerns, the action heats up quickly, with a zombie attack in town.  After that's dealt with, Tom moves the departure date for the trip up.  Chong tags along with permission from his parents for just one night.  They'll go to Brother David's way station, spend the night, send Chong home, and continue on their merry way.

But then a rhinoceros foils their plans.  That's right.  A rhinoceros.  Yes, it makes sense in that animals have escaped from the San Diego Zoo, circuses, and other such venues.  Yes, it's something that the group really was not expecting, and it's a good way to throw everything off.  But, um, wow.  A rhinoceros.  That messed with my suspension of disbelief far more than, you know, zombies do.

That's really my only quibble with the book, though!  The pacing is excellent, the action is awesome, and the characters are incredible.  Every review I've seen of this book talks about some new bounty hunter the reader gets to meet in Dust & Decay, and for good reason.  There are a quirky, dynamic bunch of people that live out in the wild of post-zompacalypse America.  Personally, I loved the Greenman.  He reminded me a lot of Tom Bombadil from The Lord of the Rings.  You'll also come across some really nasty bad guys who have it out for Benny, his brother, and his friends.

Interspersed with the narrative are excerpts from Nix's journal.  These are really a nice addition, adding both general information and a good bit of depth to her character.  I particularly liked how honest her writing was about her feelings about Benny.  "... Benny and I are never going back home.  We may not meet other kids our age.  Do I want to be with him because we don't have a choice or because that was our choice?" (page 247, hardcover edition)  This sort of thing made Benny and Nix's relationship far more believable than nearly anything you'll read in any romance novel.  Massive kudos, Mr. Maberry.

My reviews always aim to be spoiler-free, but I will give you two little vague tidbits about the outcome of this novel.  One, the end battle is epic!  Two, I cried by the end of the book.

If you enjoyed Rot & Ruin, don't miss this.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

How to make a librarian happy (Part 2)

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.  I am thankful for the library job and all my students (especially K-7), for my friends and family, and for all my readers here.

Today seems an appropriate time to share some great donations I received earlier this month, and books I purchased for the library with the Scholastic Dollars at the book fair.

Donations
My dad bought books at the school fairs, read them, and donated them.
From a parent
Dogs in the Dead of Night, Magic Tree House #46
From another person
Legendary: The Unforgettable Career of Brett Favre
(This is Packer country!)

Purchases
 Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Cabin Fever
The Outsiders, and To Kill a Mockingbird, two classics the library didn't have
The Kane Chronicles: Throne of Fire
The Chronicles of Vladimir Tod: Twelfth Grade Kills
Forgive My Fins (Such a pretty cover!)
Guardians of Ga-Hoole 3-volume pack
Star Wars Character Encyclopedia (To take some heat off the most requested item in the library, the Star Wars Visual Dictionary)
National Geographic Kids: Everything Big Cats
An audiobook, because we have so few:
Bites
Dogs of the Drowned City: The Storm
Sugar Plum Ballerinas: Sugar Plums to the Rescue!
Pinkalicious Pinkie Promise

The kids and I are thankful for all these books!

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Dystopias and Dead Things: Crossed, by Ally Condie (Yay for YA)

Back in January, I read Matched by Ally Condie.  I rated it 4 stars on Goodreads; to summarize my thoughts, it's dystopian chick lit with a good story and the ability to put the plot first, ahead of the romance.  I like both love interests of Cassia, the heroine and narrator; Xander is her wonderful best friend and the intended Match for her, while Ky is a brooding rebel who treats her decently and broadens her horizons after appearing as a second Match on the datacard.

So what has Crossed brought us in the second installment of the series?  (Spoilers unavoidable if you haven't read the first book!)
Statistics
Checkouts: 1 (It had a hold on it before I even cataloged it!)
Typical reader: Middle school girls

Synopsis: Cassia has gone to the Outer Provinces in pursuit of Ky, after he was taken by the Society near the end of the first novel.  After a warm surprise meeting with Xander on a Match visit, she is mistakenly taken to a former village with some other girls, and finds that only two days earlier, Ky and two other boys had escaped into the Carving - a desert canyon system beyond the borders.  With another girl, she too runs off into the canyons.  Will she reunite with Ky?  What will they each learn about the Rising, the rebellion against the Society?

My Goodreads rating: 4 stars

First, I would like to compliment the cover art.  The series' covers have been beautiful and fit the stories extremely well.  The first had Cassia in her green Match Banquet dress, trapped in a greenish bubble.  This second book has a blue theme, and she is starting to break out of the bluish bubble.  The third, from the incomplete previews, will have a red theme.  Perfect.  It highlights the colors of the tablets every Citizen of the Society carries, and blue could not be better for the second book, as Cassia and the reader learns what really happens if a blue pill is consumed.

This sequel is rather different from the first novel in several ways.  Cassia is no longer the sole narrator; now the chapters alternate between her narrative and Ky's.   The prose is still very simple from both of them, befitting the culture of the Society, so it's probably good that each chapter is labeled with the storyteller's name.  I didn't have a problem knowing whose story I was reading, though.  Their experiences throughout life make them so different.  Another difference is the scope of the adventure.  It is much less restricted and mental than Matched.  The Carving is incredibly vast, the action is physical, and while there's still plenty of soul-searching, it's less pronounced.

If you've read my blog before, you know I don't read or like romance novels.  Don't expect this series to give you some great love story where the heroine gets swept off her feet by the man of her dreams.  There's some undertones of romance, but Cassia seems far more interested in finding out more about the Rising than finding Ky to be her everlasting love.  For those who prefer Xander, fear not!  I think the third book -has- to go back to him, because while he's mostly absent from this book, he's seriously tied into the plot of this one.  And that boy has some explaining to do when Cassia sees him.

I look forward to reading that explanation.  It's due out in November 2012.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Dystopias and Dead Things: 99 Coffins (Guilty Pleasure)

Now that the book fair is over, I can get back to book reviews!  I'm also focusing on a particular topic this month for various reasons.  Welcome to "Dystopias and Dead Things," where I will be reviewing books that fall into these categories.  More on this after the book review.

Here is my opinion on 99 Coffins by David Wellington, the second in his in his Vampires series starring Laura Caxton.
Statistics
Checkouts: I own this one; there's no way I'd put this series in a school library.  Actually, you can't find any of this series in -any- U.P. library.
Typical reader: Horror fans, people that like their vampires to actually be scary

Synopsis: After the events of 13 Bullets, Laura Caxton wants nothing more to do with vampires.  Ever.  So of course an archaeology class in Gettysburg finds 100 coffins buried under the famous Civil War battlefield, all with a vampire with its heart removed inside.  When Caxton and the quintessential curmudgeon of a vampire hunter, Jameson Arkeley, investigate, one coffin is destroyed and the vampire from within has vanished.  Caxton must save the historical town from a potential army of the nastiest vampires literature has ever seen.

My Goodreads rating: 5 stars

If you're tired of the dreamy, moody vampires of modern paranormal romance or even the mysterious, villainous vampires of Dracula's ilk, and want vampires that are genuinely scary, you need to read this series.  No ifs, ands, or buts.  There's no sparkle here.  David Wellington's vampires are bald as cue balls, have teeth that are more similar to a shark's than to a human's, are far more likely to rip your head off than to daintily pierce an artery to get a drink, and dissolve into a disgusting soup of mush and maggots during the day.

This is the second book in the series.  The first is 13 Bullets, which is also a great read and I would highly recommend it.  99 Coffins picks up a year later, as Caxton, a Pennsylvania state trooper, is trying to escape the nightmares and avoid fans of the movie that was made about the events of the first book.  (Either Wellington dreams of movie deals for his books, or he likes toying with the fourth wall.)

I was a bit curious about this sequel, as it's billed as a "historical vampire tale."  It works!!  The story goes back and forth between Caxton's investigation and dealings with the vampires and her incorrigible mentor, Arkeley, and accounts from soldiers 150 years earlier during the Civil War.  I was really impressed.

Please do yourself a favor and read this stuff in the right order.  -Do not- touch the third book in the series, Vampire Zero, because the back cover gives away a massive spoiler about what happens in this one.  There was probably a neat twist in this book, but alas, I had accidentally read the spoiler while trying to figure out which was the second book.  For what it's worth, 23 Hours is the fourth book in the series.

If you like high-impact action with a bit of mystery and excellent, flawed characters, this series is second to no other vampire tale.



Now, about this month of dystopias and dead things.  It is my goal to read and review novels that are dystopian fiction, zombie/ghoul/vampire tales, or both.  I've got quite a selection to get through.  Anticipate hearing about the second in the Benny Imura series, Dust & Decay, by Jonathan Maberry.  Bite your nails while you wait for my review of a book I've been looking forward to since January when I read the first in the series - Crossed, the sequel to Matched by Ally Condie.  Await a critique of The Forest of Hands and Teeth, a zombie novel with an awesome title by Carrie Ryan.  And maybe more.

This goes together with my National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) project.  I'm writing a high fantasy medieval zombie apocalypse.  It's day seven and I've got over 10,000 words written!  Maybe some day other book review bloggers will be telling you all about my work.

Happy November!

Thursday, November 3, 2011

No review this week, Scholastic book fair in progress.

Hi!  There's no review this week.  I'm in the middle of a Scholastic book fair.  Forty percent of the proceeds go to the school library, and that's basically my entire book budget.  These fairs are important to me, and the kids love them!

Plus, this should bring me plenty of new books to review here.  Winning all around!

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Guilty Pleasure: The Zombie Combat Manual

Happy Halloween!  I'll try to get another seasonal book review up by the actual date, but I'm really busy these days.  Here's a review of The Zombie Combat Manual by Roger Ma.
Statistics
Checkouts: Definitely not owned by the library (though I could see far too many of my war and weapons obsessed 3rd grade boys wanting it)
Typical reader: Zombie fans
Do the Dewey: 818.607 (miscellaneous modern writing)

My Goodreads rating: 5 stars

According to the back cover of this book, most individuals will have to destroy this undead opponent without the aid of a firearm.  This is logical.  You'll run out of bullets.  Your gun will jam.  You'll wake up to find zombies breaking into your house and your gun will be out of reach.  What should you do?

You should read this book and be prepared to take on zombies with an assortment of melee weapons that are readily available and know how to fight at a variety of distances, as well as how far you need to run to get some down-time, the best infant protection/mobility options, and what's fact and what's fiction about the zombie plague.

I haven't read other zombie survival guides, but this seemed like an excellent, well-rounded manual.  The anecdotes included are far superior to those in Max Brooks' World War Z, because this book actually gives its characters flavor.  I was frustrated while reading World War Z because, while it was interesting for the history, it really lacked any differentiation between speakers.  A Texan would give an account with the exact same lexicon as a South African or a Japanese person.  The Zombie Combat Manual never had that problem.  The survivors' stories were engaging and gave the book a decent plot, despite not being a novel.

The author really put a lot of thought into not only combat systems and survival tips, but also into how his zombies functioned and what happened in the zombie apocalypse.  The first chapter wastes no time in getting into the facts and myths about how zombies work.

If you're worried about zombies, or need a good reference tool for writing your own zombies novels, this book is a must-read.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Yay for YA: Beauty Queens, by Libba Bray

Back when I was in middle school, a cousin won her hometown's beauty pageant.  I wasn't there.  I was watching a glorious fight in a hockey game between Northern Michigan University and Ferris State University, which culminated in police officers breaking up the players amidst all sorts of gear strewn about the ice.  That pretty much sums up my experience with, and the value I put on, beauty pageants.

So what am I doing reviewing Beauty Queens by Libba Bray?
 Statistics
Checkouts: New to the library, courtesy of the Superiorland Preview Center
Typical reader: Teen girls

Synopsis: A plane carrying the 50 contestants in the Miss Teen Dream pageant and the camera crew malfunctions and crashes on an island in the middle of nowhere.  About a dozen girls survive the crash and must survive with little food and water, and nowhere near enough beauty products.  Will they manage?  And what is their sponsor, the Corporation, really up to?

My Goodreads rating: 3 stars, which may be generous

I'm not sure I've ever read a book that I've had such mixed feelings about.  There were times where I probably actually did do a facepalm.  "'I'm Tiara with an A,' said Miss Mississippi."  And there were times when I laughed out loud.  I did not hate this book overall, but I really cannot say that I loved it by any stretch of the imagination.

The book was inconsistent in tone.  Beauty Queens was pretty obviously a satire of beauty pageants, desert island survival (this really felt like it was feeding off the popularity of the TV show Lost), consumerism, and pop culture in general.  I enjoyed the mixed metaphors, similes, and the quirky descriptions.  But it also had serious moments, and I felt that a good chunk of the middle of the book lacked humor.  Like many of the contestants, the book doesn't seem to know what it wants to be when it grows up.

Some characters were great.  I connected to Miss Michigan, despite her being from Flint, almost immediately, and felt that she was a strong, interesting character throughout the book.  Miss Nebraska had a very odd back-story that felt a bit hyperbolic, but her character really grew over the course of the book.  Then there were some characters who were somewhat fleshed out yet still two-dimensional, like Miss New Hampshire, the high school journalist/feminist who was in it just to do an expose, and Miss California, the second generation Indian-American who loved to win but didn't really know who she really was.  I was flummoxed through most of the book over how several of the girls weren't named beyond their states, yet had a bit of personality.  They were finally named with about 40 pages left to go, as if the author finally remembered to address the issue!  Argh.  Did we really need to wait so long to find out that all four were named Caitlin?

There's a healthy dose of diversity in this novel.  Two girls are ethnic minorities, who know that they have extra work to make it big in the pageantry world.  For sexuality, there's a lesbian, a bisexual, and a male-to-female former boy band star transgender in the competition.  I do also have to give the book credit for actually discussing and implementing safe sex in one scene after the reality TV pirates show up and woo some of the girls.  Safe sex doesn't show up much in adult books, much less teen fiction.

I feel the need to address the end of the novel.  In some ways, it highlights how good and bad the book was in its entirety.  The adventure and plot ended satisfactorily.  However, the last few chapters were messy and confusing.  And when did the epilogue happen?  It seems like it's a survivors' reunion somewhat in the future, but maybe the stuff said was just speculation about what they would do in the future.  It was quite unclear and left me scratching my head.


Like a lot of satirical works, I don't see this withstanding the tests of time.  Beauty pageants have been around a long time, but as I mentioned before, this book "works" a bit in part because of the popularity of the TV show Lost.  Boy band references will someday be passe, as will reality TV.  Dictator Momo B. Chacha was similar to Team America's version of Kim Jong Il; the North Korean leader won't be around forever.  But for now, maybe some people will enjoy this fluffy, somewhat snarky novel more than I did.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Yay for YA: StarCrossed, by Elizabeth C. Bunce

Last month, I'd gotten into a good rhythm of posting on Thursdays.  Having a consistent updating schedule for a blog is important, I've heard.  Readers can come to expect a post on a given day.  So of course, October comes and there goes my schedule.  For good reason, though.  I've gotten a new second job, and am working there three days a week.  With training and then actually working at it, I didn't have time to either finish a book or make a post.

On to the book.  I really like fantasy novels, yet tend not to read them.  When one gets to the adult level of fantasy, one finds a plethora of massive tomes that tend to be in trilogies, courtesy of the trend started with how Lord of the Rings was published, or in lengthy series which may outlast the author's life (see the Wheel of Time series).  It's daunting.  And treasures at the YA level like Tamora Pierce's Song of the Lioness series or the more recent Graceling by Kristin Cashore are few and far between, at least in my humble opinion.  So when I find a good fantasy novel, I savor them.  (Another reason why this post is late.)

Without further delay, let me present to you Star Crossed by Elizabeth C. Bunce.
Statistics
Checkouts: New to the library, courtesy of the Superiorland Preview Center
Typical reader: Fans of fantasy literature, upper elementary to higher grades

Synopsis: After a job goes very wrong and Digger is forced to run while her partner in crime and lover, Tegen, is captured and/or killed by the religious guard in Gerse, the capital city, she falls in with some nobles on a joyride on a boat out of the city.  She becomes the young Lady Merista's maid and moves with the girl and her family to a mountainous, fortified castle far from the city and her troubles.  But trouble finds her, and she must not only use her cunning and thieving skills, but also choose sides in matters that could be leading to war.

My Goodreads rating: 5 stars (4.5, really)

This book plops you right down in the middle of the action.  Digger, the protagonist and narrator, has just escaped from the guards who had interrupted a job where she and her partner/lover had been stealing documents.  What happened is slowly patched together while she changes into a disguise and looks to make her way out of the city.  Over the course of the book, you learn more and more about her, the world around her, and the political/religious conditions that are threatening to boil over.  Not every book can just set the reader into the thick of things and make it work.  Star Crossed works well, with plenty of intrigue, mystery, plotting, backstabbing, twists, and changes of heart.  It is, in a word, delicious.

Yeah, I'm one of "those."
Digger is a classic rogue.  She makes me think of characters from Dungeons and Dragons games I've played.  She's intelligent, cunning, dexterous, nimble-fingered, and a bit cocky.  And she has secrets.  Lots of secrets.  But then, apparently so do the rest of the characters, and she is going to do her darnedest to learn them, because she can't help but break her rule of not getting involved - especially after she breaks another one, "Don't get caught," by the slimy Lord Remy Daul, foster brother to her lady's father.  He blackmails her into doing his bidding, and she gets in over her head as he stews over old wrongs and a battle that happened before Digger was even born.

I love the effort Ms. Bunce put into the world.  The religions, politics, culture, and even the oaths and cursing are thought-out.  The realm of Llyvraneth is rich in all these, as well as in strong female characters - something fantasy novels often lack.  Now, if only I knew what this place looked like!  The biggest downfall of the book is the lack of maps.  While one could argue that illustrations of locations were not needed since the story only takes place in a few areas, I feel that it could have been much improved if I knew where the heck things were on a map.  Bryn Shaer, the living quarters of Merista Nemair's family in the mountains, could have also been sketched out, as it's pretty expansive and varied.

Overall, this was a great book.  It's one that I can actually say that I felt like turning back to page 1 and starting over when I finished it.  I'm also greatly looking forward to the sequel, Liar's Moon, due out next month and published by Arthur A. Levine Books, an imprint of Scholastic.  If it shows up in the Scholastic book fair the school is having during parent teacher conferences, I shall dance.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Banned Books Week: Eve, by Anna Carey

Happy Banned Books Week!  The last week of September is the American Library Association's recognition of attempts to inhibit reading and celebration of the First Amendment freedoms of speech and of the press - which backs Americans' right to read.  I spent yesterday, as well as a bit of today, talking to classes at all levels about Banned Books Week and what it means.  This "holiday" is one of my favorites, perhaps second only to Halloween.

For my review this week, I'm taking a bit of a different approach to the celebration.  Rather than reviewing a classic banned/challenged book - and most books considered "classics" have been challenged at some point - or a more recent book that has made the list, I'm reviewing an advanced copy of a book published by HarperCollins.

What's the significance of this?  Earlier this year, HarperCollins decided to change their eBooks from permanent entities to files that disappear after 26 uses.  If a library owns one of their eBooks and it gets checked out every other week, it will no longer be part of the collection after a year.  This is utterly ridiculous in comparison to the shelf-life of the average physical library book.  So, with backing from the digital media service Overdrive - which provides thousands of digital audiobooks and eBooks to libraries around the world - libraries started a boycott against HarperCollins.  "We're not buying your books until this changes," we say.  Sometimes this means only eBooks, sometimes it encompasses all forms of books published by HarperCollins and all of its imprints.  But until HarperCollins changes its policy, many libraries are not buying.

Unfortunately, the company publishes a lot of great teen books.

This week, since I'm banned from buying HarperCollins books, I'm going to be naughty and tell you about a book they have coming out next week.  It's Eve by Anna Carey.  I got an advanced reader's edition for free from Snowbound Books to review.

Statistics
Checkouts: It goes on sale October 4, and it's published by HarperCollins. Unless it's donated, I don't expect this to show up on the shelves.
Typical reader: Teen girls

Synopsis: In a post-apocalyptic future where 98% of the world's population has fallen victim to a plague, an orphan named Eve has done well in her all-girls School and will be graduating valedictorian of her class.  But a fellow senior, Arden, has seen what really awaits them in "trade school" after graduation, and escapes.  Eve finds out that Arden was right, and with the help of a teacher, slips away the night before the graduation ceremony.  Eventually she meets a young man, Caleb, who rescues her from danger and shows her that men are not the horrible monsters she has been taught to fear.  But the King's men are looking for her.  Can she and Arden make it to the safety of Califia?

My Goodreads rating: 5 stars (4.5, really)

If the final version of the cover of this gives the book comparisons the galley's cover offers, it's not going to be a surprise to learn (provided you're familiar with The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood) that what awaits the girls in "trade school" is naught but helping to repopulate the world as demanded by the King of the New America.  Eve sneaks over to see the building where she thought she would pursue her dreams of becoming a muralist and sees girls she'd known from older grades strapped to bed with massive, pregnant bellies and sorrowful faces.  Orphan girls sent to the schools end up as "sows," artificially inseminated and destined to suffer multiple births for the next 20 years of their lives in captivity.  No wonder Arden and Eve run away.

The wilds outside the City and the sequestered Schools are fraught with dangers - roving gangs, animals, and horror of all horrors, men.  The Schools teach the girls to fear all men, save for the King, and put spins on classic stories ranging from Romeo and Juliet to Lord of the Flies to show the dangerous, depraved ways of the male of the species.  So it's a bit amazing that Eve actually accepts being saved by a young man on horseback from a mother bear.

Thus begins one of the healthiest, most natural romances I've read in young adult literature in a good while.  Seriously.  If you're tired of bad boys, abusive vampires, fallen angels, and all of it, that's reason enough to pick up the book.  Caleb is one of the nicest, sweetest, most devoted love interests available in teen novels today.  He's completely realistic too, with flaws and insecurities that befit his age.

I also really liked the supporting female character, Arden.  In the course of the story, Eve learns that there's much more to her raven-haired former classmate than just all the gags and pranks she used to play.  Arden is tough, smart, determined.  She's a fascinating character that moves in and out of Eve's story as the plot plays out all of its twists and turns.  I don't want to give anything away, but I sincerely hope she shows up in the second book of the trilogy.

The story is pretty solid and interesting.  There are good times and horrific ones as Eve and Arden try to go west to Califia, where their teacher said refuge could be found.  Can they make it?  Will Caleb stay with them, or only help them get there?  Will they be intercepted by the King's men, who are specifically looking to bring Eve back alive to their leader?  When will the second book be released, so I can find out what happens next?

Will HarperCollins relent their position on limiting eBooks, so I can actually buy this series??  (You can follow and learn more about the boycott at http://boycottharpercollins.com/)

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Yay for YA: Abandon, by Meg Cabot

When I hear the name "Meg Cabot," I think "chick lit."  Chick lit is not something I read.  However, as a librarian, I have to keep an open mind and be familiar with a vast expanse of different types of literature.  I picked up a copy of Abandon by Meg Cabot from the Superiorland Preview Center for the library, and gave it a read.  That it's part of the current trend of novels based on mythology helped a bit.  Maybe this could be something I can recommend to girls who liked the Percy Jackson series and want something more advanced (and girlie).
Statistics
Checkouts: New to the library, courtesy of the Superiorland Preview Center
Typical reader: Teen girls

Synopsis: Pierce Oliviera died, and was revived.  After bad things happened at her school a year later, she and her mother move to her mother's hometown on Isla Huesos, Florida, to get a fresh start.  The brooding, dangerous man named John that she encountered in the Underworld can't leave her alone, though.

My Goodreads rating: 3 stars (2.5, really)

Let me start with the good points to this book.  I really enjoyed the story.  Whether Pierce was narrating what was happening in the present time, or reflecting back on all that had happened, I was captivated.  The plot was never dull, and the pace kept things interesting, revealing bits and pieces of the past here and there.  It had a reasonably natural stream of consciousness.  The story was the strongest aspect of the novel.

The use of Greek mythology was pretty good, if a bit tweaked here and there.  The scenes by the river Styx (wide enough to appear to be a lake to Pierce) were excellent.  On the other hand, the Furies are completely different beasts than in Classical myths.  It's not so bad as sparkly, day-walking stalker boyfriends being called vampires, but there's probably a better name for the monsters the Furies in this book were instead of Furies.  On the other hand ... and this might be a slight spoiler ... I can't help but wonder what John really is.  If he's not really Hades and is in fact just a nasty guy, the Furies are doing their time-honored job of tormenting the damned.

Pierce is a mixed bag of a protagonist.  I am loath to call her a heroine, because that would mean that she did something heroic.  Sure, she threw hot tea in John's face and ran to escape him when he brought her to his prisonlike bedroom, but most of the time she was a hapless rich brat that needed rescuing either by her father's money or by John's brute force.  She is simultaneously altruistic and shallow, determined and fragile.

Perhaps it is her shallowness that leads to a major problem I had with the book: the other characters.  Pierce is the narrator, and maybe it's because she's so self-absorbed that the other characters are never really described.  I would be hard-pressed to describe any supporting character with more than a sentence.  Even John could be summed up fairly succinctly.  It would have been nice to know more about any of them, rather than having a cast of people as flat as pancakes.

Then there is the romance.  Don't get me wrong, romance has its place.  This just doesn't seem to be it, especially how sparingly it's used.  John doesn't kiss Pierce until page 260.  The book only has 44 pages to go from there.  If you're looking for a romance novel, I don't think this is it!  Plus, their relationship is so unhealthy.  I get that this is based off Hades and Persephone.  Hades kidnapped Persephone to be his queen, reluctantly giving her back to her mother for half the year after ordered to do so by Zeus.  So the relationship is a bit doomed by the parameters to be a bit one-sided and forced.  Does that make it right for him to show up and severely injure people when he perceives Pierce to be in danger?  No.  Does that make it right for him to kidnap her, whether it's for her protection or not?  No.

This book is the first in a trilogy.  I'm mildly curious to know whether she escapes from him in the next two books, or if she develops Stockholm Syndrome.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Yay for YA: Ordinary Beauty. Also, a memorial.

I feel like I shouldn't be titling this "Yay for YA."  Ordinary Beauty by Laura Wiess is a hard-hitting problem novel that really doesn't inspire a person to make a happy noise (except over the prose).  Furthermore, my reading of this novel was punctuated by a horribly sad tragedy within my family.  Just a few hours after my review of Hoot, my beloved companion of 16 years, Cleocatra (known to most as Cleo), passed away on my lap after a short battle with chronic renal failure.
She always loved Christmas.
Sometimes we read books at just the right times.  I had put down a biographical fiction about my cat's namesake's daughter (Cleopatra Selene, daughter of the famous Queen Cleopatra VII), Cleopatra's Moon by Vicky Alvear Shecter after the point in the book where the queen had died, and picked up Ordinary Beauty, a heart-rending tale about a neglected teenager facing the death of the drug-addicted mother who never wanted her.  In working my way through this novel in the final days before my cherished cat died and afterward during sleepless nights, it seems like life softened the blow of the story - while the story emphasized just how lucky we were.

I suppose I should get to the review.
Statistics
Checkouts: I'll probably donate it to the school library.
Typical reader: Mature teen girls

Synopsis: Sayre (pronounced "Say-er," much thanks to the author for answering my email to clarify that!) Bellavia was unplanned, unwanted, and unloved by her mother.  Now, on New Year's Eve, Sayre gets word that her mother is dying from the effects of all the years of drug abuse and alcoholism, and looks to see her one last time.  The journey is hard, both physically as she nearly gets hit by a car and then tries to rescue the driver when the car swerves off the road, and mentally as she looks back on all the memories of her 17 1/2 years of life.

My Goodreads rating: 4 stars

Like I said earlier, this is a hard-hitting problem novel.  It's hard to not get choked up over all the tragedy in Sayre's life.  Her mother never even tried to give her a good life, and preferred to just get high.  All the good in Sayre's childhood had to be colored by the drama and decadence her mother and her mother's friend Candy brought into it.  She lived with her grandma until she was eight and the grandmother passed away; her mother and Candy squandered everything that was left until the house foreclosed.  After Candy's family farm was raided for its meth lab and the women went into rehab, Sayre enjoyed life with a foster family - then, after she was reunited with a sober mother, the foster mother was murdered.  The happiest time of their lives was when the mother met someone wonderful, a man Sayre had met in foster care, and moved in with him.  Even that had to end in the most horrible way possible.

The prose is solid, and the delivery is never preachy.  This novel would make a good book club or class discussion topic, with all its social and familial problems.  Sayre's mother was a pregnant teenager and high school dropout, a meth addict, an alcoholic, and an abusive/neglectful parent.  Candy dated a sex offender who violated parole by living under the same roof as Sayre, came after Sayre with a hammer when she saw the girl with her boyfriend, was a constant bad influence on Sayre's mother, and left Sayre and the injured driver of the crashed vehicle out in the cold, dark night in the middle of nowhere.  After Sayre walked out on her mother shortly before the start of the story, she was living with a convicted murderer.

Is all that starting to sound a bit unreal?  In Ordinary Beauty, it never felt that way.  Everything came across as believable.  It's a story that some girl like Sayre could well be living out, somewhere in the real world.  Also, for all the thorns that we can easily dwell upon in this tale, there are quite a few roses.  As much as her life was overshadowed by her terrible mother, Sayre did have good people in her life, and good experiences that helped shape her into a decent young woman.