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.

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

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).
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.
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.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Reading what the students read: Hoot

It's been a while since I did a "Reading what the students read" column.  There have just been too many eye-catching new books available!  But here is my review of Hoot by Carl Hiaasen.
Checkouts: 11 between two copies
Checkouts for Hoot/Flush/Scat: 42*
Typical reader: Upper elementary, both genders

Synopsis: Mother Paula's All-American Pancake House is coming to Coconut Cove, Florida.  But someone has been pulling up the stakes, putting alligators in the portable toilets, and committing other acts of vandalism.  Meanwhile, newcomer Roy Eberhardt, a middle school student, notices a barefoot boy running through town and takes interest.

My Goodreads rating: 4 stars

I'll be honest.  Carl Hiaasen is known for being a very funny mystery writer, and his children's books are supposed to be just as humorous.  This book just didn't hit my funny bone, though.  The kids love these books however, so it's probably just my sense of humor that didn't connect.

That said, this is a very engaging read.  It reminded me of my all-time favorite book from my childhood, Maniac Magee by Jerry Spinelli, in both the adventures the characters have and in the social commentary.  There are two excellent reasons to read this book: the outstanding characters and the plot.

Roy is one of the best characters I've read this summer.  He's got a lot of spunk, and stands up for himself and his beliefs.  He takes on a bully, stands up to an intimidating soccer star and then befriends her, and questions the legality of a corporation's actions.  Supporting characters such as Officer David Delinko, Beatrice Leep, and Beatrice's stepbrother "Mullet Fingers" (so nicknamed for his fishing abilities) are sympathetic and well-written.  "Mullet Fingers" contributes to the Maniac Magee air, running everywhere and living as a vagabond, doing what he feels is right.

What he feels is right is protecting the burrowing owls that live in the lot where the pancake house is scheduled to be built.  He is willing to do that through any means necessary.  Can he and the others somehow save the owls' habitat?  Or will the cute little birds be buried by the bulldozers?  These are awesome plot hooks for budding environmentalists and animal-lovers, as well as readers who like kids that take initiative to change their world.

*: The author's book Scat has the most checkouts of the three books, but I'd picked up this one since I thought the books were part of a series.  They are not.  You can read any of them without any knowledge of the others.  Whoops.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

It's Elementary: Zombie Winter review

Yesterday was the first library day of the new school year.  Wow, was it busy!  There were scheduling mishaps, library etiquette to teach, shelves to straighten throughout the day, and a Scholastic order to catalog and shelve.  What happens on the shelf with R. L. Stine's Goosebumps series is usually a good indicator of my day, and at one point, it was a complete mess, with the series going every which way and partially in a heap.  Yup, the new 2nd graders were excited to be able to check those previously taboo (by teacher ruling) spooky books that have remained popular since my youth.

A new book is also on that shelf as of yesterday.  I read it before the big day, and now that I have some breathing room, here's my review!  This is Zombie Winter, by Jason Strange.
Checkouts: New to the library, courtesy of the Superiorland Preview Center
Typical reader: Elementary students who also like Goosebumps

Synopsis: Kane goes to school one winter's day, and ends up being the sole human in a zombie-infested town.

My Goodreads rating: 4 stars

I was never a reader of scary stories as a child.  I can recognize their lasting popularity, though, and not just by how messy the shelf with all the Goosebumps novels is by the end of a library day.  Kids like things that spook them.  This is such a book.  It's a quick read, aimed at children aged 8-11.  The sentences are simple, and the plot is pretty easy to follow.  It's a chapter book with illustrations scattered throughout; the artist behind these did a good, realistic job.

I enjoyed it for its different zombie background.  These zombies were chocolate zombies, of all things!  Kane is allergic to chocolate and doesn't partake of the lunch lady's hot cocoa, unlike the rest of his friends and classmates.  This saves him from becoming a mind-controlled zombie, and the burden of curing the town falls on his shoulders.  The zombies were not undead, but more along the classic Haitian voodoo zombies - alive but under a spell that saps their free will.  I liked that.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

No-nonsense Nonfiction: "Unexplained Phenomena" reviews

Selecting nonfiction for a school library takes a critical eye.  However, I want to gush about the two books I read from the Unexplained Phenomena series by Capstone Press!  These books are pretty much the epitome of what I like to see in a nonfiction children's book.

Checkouts: new to the library, courtesy of the Superiorland Preview Center
Typical reader: Middle- to upper-elementary students are going to really enjoy these.
Do the Dewey: 001.942 for Aliens, 398.24 for Legendary Beasts

My Goodreads ratings: 5 for both

As I said, I am very impressed with this series.  The layout for both books is outstanding.  The presentation of information and depth of coverage are fantastic.  There are glossaries as well as in-text definitions of world kids may not understand.  These are age-appropriate books, and can also be "high interest/low level" that will intrigue older students who do best with books that are written for a lower grade level than their own.

Searching for Aliens, UFOs, and Men in Black covers its topics through history, starting with things ancient people saw in the sky and continuing through the United States government's investigations of aliens and UFOs.  It provides rational explanations for sightings when possible, while still allowing readers to believe in the possibility of lifeforms from other planets.

From Wikipedia: an okapi
Tracking Sea Monsters, Bigfoot, and Other Legendary Beasts is more broad in scope, highlighting many well-known and some less familiar cryptids.  The creatures are grouped by where they are found - on land, in the sea, and in the air.  Height or length and features are provided, as well as what is known and speculated about each beast.  It also talks about the kraken, which was proven to be more or less real in the 1870s with the discovery of giant squid, and the okapi, which was initially believed by European explorers to be a myth like the classic unicorn but was proven to be an actual animal.

This series is well-rounded, informative, and highly interesting.  I'm sure that these books will be very popular.  If you're looking for a good paranormal/unsolved phenomena set for a library or a child in your life that loves this stuff, this set (four volumes total - I want the other two!) is an excellent choice.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Yay for YA: Want to Go Private?

I had heard about Want to Go Private? from another blog, YA Librarian Tales, which also hosted an interview with the author, Sarah Darer Littman.  The topic struck me as horrible, and the book as a must-read.  Statistics and data might not dissuade teens from chatting with strangers online and potentially becoming victims of internet predators, but maybe a novel written for them will.  When I found a copy of this at the preview center, I pounced.
Checkouts: New to the library, but already on hold before the school year starts!
Typical reader: Hopefully teens, but nearly every teacher I've mentioned this book to wants to read it

Synopsis: Abby Johnston dreads starting high school.  Then she meets a nice older guy online named Luke, who shares her interests and understands her problems.  As time passes, he wins her trust and they start doing things via webcam she wouldn't dream of doing with a boy she could really meet.  Her grades start to fall, her parents get mad, and Luke suggests that she run away with him for a few days.  She ditches school the next day and gets into his car.

My Goodreads rating: 4 stars

This has to be one of the toughest books I've read in a long time.  There are parts where I just had to put the book down because of how horrible the topic is, and how despicable the actions of Luke are.  Nothing is too graphically spelled out, but that doesn't make it any easier.  Ms. Littman has done a very good job with this, though.  She's obviously done her research into what exactly internet predators do to "groom" their victims into a false sense of security and love, and the legal systems in place to deal with these perpetrators when things go bad.

Abby is an amazing character, who might be incredibly book-smart but is only 14 and lacks the emotional maturity to know that she's being manipulated by this predator pretending to be her perfect friend.  In parts 2 and 3 of the novel, where the narration is picked up by Abby's friends and little sister while she's missing, we get some well-rounded characters in Faith, the best-friend, and Billy, the boy Abby dated once.  They are so torn between their concern and compassion for Abby and dealing with not knowing why she got in the car, what their classmates are saying, and in the case of Billy, coping with the fact that his parents and the police seem to think that he did something to her.  Billy is easily the most sympathetic character in the novel.  He's such a sweet boy, who likes/likes Abby in spite of her actions, and stands up for her against her classmates.  On the flip side, the little sister, Lily, is too immature to be a believable seventh-grader.  She's just so bratty and childish.

I think there's a lot of hope surrounding this book.  While definitely a cautionary tale, there's certainly hope within the story and within the characters.  In the aforementioned interview, the author said that she hopes teenagers gain an understanding - that they're not alone or isolated, and how something like this could happen.  Teachers, librarians, and parents are likely going to hope that this book opens teens' eyes to the issue and how it could easily happen to them.

One neat touch in the marketing of this book is that the site Abby meets Luke on,, is a real site - one promoting the book as well as providing information on internet predators and how to prevent teens from becoming victims.