Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Guilty Pleasure: A review of Heartless, by Gail Carriger

I am in need of another category of reviews, for today I finished a book that I greatly enjoyed, but does not fall into the realm of school library material.  A school librarian cannot always restrict herself to books for a younger audience, and needs to indulge in a little guilty pleasure now and then.  Thus, I bring you the first installment of "Guilty Pleasures," with Gail Carriger's fourth Parasol Protectorate novel, Heartless.

Synopsis: Lady Alexia Maccon, soulless, is back for a fourth adventure in the supernatural/steampunk series, the Parasol Protectorate.  This time, she must investigate and hopefully stop a threat to the queen, while dealing with a suffragette sister, zombie porcupines, a werewolf pup who cannot grasp his new life, and much more, including being eight months pregnant.

My Goodreads rating: 5 stars (4.5 really, but there aren't half-stars there)

This book could almost be considered for my "Yay for YA" reviews.  My local public library does in fact shelve the series in the teen/YA section.  Frankly, though, there's just too much bodice-ripping in the first novel in the saga for it to be in a school library.

That said, I adore this series!  It is incredibly witty, in a proper Victorian British manner.  And it is appropriately witty too, perfectly capable of being serious in tone as needed.  The humor in the descriptions are probably the biggest attraction the Parasol Protectorate offers.  I often find myself tittering over some passage or other as I indulge in these tomes.

The mythology of the supernatural/preternatural beings is great.  Ms. Carriger put a lot of effort into planning what exactly vampires, werewolves, and ghosts are in her world, as well as that special being called a preternatural that the heroine Alexia Maccon, nee Tarabotti, is.  To sum it up, vampires and werewolves are undead creatures that had enough excess of soul to survive the transformation upon death.  Ghosts are the spirits of the deceased who also had an excess of soul, and whose bodies are reasonably preserved (or newly dead).  Preternatural beings are born, on the other hand, and are soulless.  Alexia, like her father before her, is apparently nature's way of balancing out the supernatural - at her touch, vampires and werewolves are made human and ghosts are exorcised.

This well-concocted mythology is a deep spring, flowing with potential plot lines for the series.  And the depths are plumbed with fantastic results, ranging from little side-plots with clavigers and drones (werewolf and vampire servants, respectively, who wish to be eventually changed) to the running metaplot of what happens when a preternatural and a werewolf marry.  It may be a bit of a series spoiler to have already mentioned the fact that our heroine is eight months pregnant in this book, but believe me, there's a lot of drama surrounding that little "infant-inconvenience" than just impeding movement.

The characters are enjoyable and well-rounded.  In this fourth book, we learn more about several characters who had previously been minor, including Alexia's half-sister Felicity - who is quite not the blonde airhead Alexia thought she grew up with.  I enjoyed learning more about the indefatigable butler, Floote, and the werewolf pack's Beta, Professor Lyall.

This episode of the life of Alexia (Tarabotti) Maccon is my favorite!  There is so much going on, with ample doses of mystery, intrigue, action scenes, and tea-drinking.  A couple little points seemed far too nicely tied up, but otherwise it was a wonderful yarn.

Now if only the covers matched the books!  The backdrops are lovely, but the damsel as pictured above is obviously not eight months pregnant and in possession of a healthy appetite.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Yay for YA: Wildthorn

Today I would like to discuss a recent YA historical fiction by Jane Eagland, titled Wildthorn.
Checkouts: Not owned by the school
Typical reader: Teens and young adult women

Synopsis: Louisa Cosgrove just wanted to become a doctor like her father.  Instead, she finds herself locked away in an asylum called Wildthorn Hall, stripped of her dignity and name.  How did she come to be here?  Will she ever be free?

My Goodreads rating: 4 stars

This novel is set in Victorian England, when young women were supposed to be content with learning no more than what was needed for being a good wife and mother, and were supposed to be happy with that lot in life.  However, it was also the time of Florence Nightengale, and the period that saw the first medical schools for women opening in place like London.

This book is the story of Louisa Cosgrove, a 17-year-old young lady who has her sights set on becoming a doctor like her father.  Through the bolded, past-tense narratives, we learn about her childhood, her friendship with her cousin Grace, and her idolization of her father.  However, they also show us the loss of her father to typhoid and what happens to her dreams after his passing.  These are intermixed with sections of present-tense prose as Louisa is taken to Wildthorn Hall, an asylum, where she is given a new identity and cruel treatment.  She tries to piece together what happened.  Was she kidnapped?  Did someone in her family commit her?

That's the first part of the novel.  After that, with the knowledge of how she came to be at the asylum, she copes with the awful life within its walls and dreams of escaping.  Can she?  Will the friendly young staff member named Eliza help her?

Ms. Eagland did her research into the lives of women incarcerated in asylums in nineteenth century England, and it shows.  This wonderfully paced novel is full of evidence of how awful those institutions were - and how many women within them were not crazy, but merely unwanted by their families.  Other women were committed by well-meaning families who didn't realize that they were only shown the best living areas, and had no idea what their wives, daughters, sisters, and nieces really experienced.

Louisa is a strong narrator throughout.  Her spirit is nearly broken by the horrors she lives through in Wildthorn Hall, but perseveres.  She remains a lady of fine bearing even when she is able to face the truths of what brought her to the terrible place.  Through her eyes we also meet several supporting cast members, to be loved or reviled, or to even be shocked by.

Edited to add: This book really triggered a lot of emotions for me.  You can really get angry, even furious, at what happens to Louisa, and at those who betrayed her trust.  Parts brought tears to my eyes as well.  Kudos to the author for writing something that can strike such strong emotion.

The romance is what drops this otherwise excellent book down to 4 stars rather than a full 5.  I felt that it detracted from the force of the story.  This novel won the Lambda Literary Foundation Award for LGBT Children's/Young Adult (2011).  As you might surmise from that, Louisa falls in love with another woman.  Here are my problems with that.  First, the only men in the story of any circumstance are Louisa's brother and father (and occasionally the owner of the asylum); she has only women to interact with.  If it were not for the occasional kiss, her relationships with other ladies would have all been warmly platonic and nothing more.  It came across as though the author needed to work in some romance to the story, and since Louisa was surrounded by women, well, she had to love a woman.  Second, it comes across as a stereotype.  Louisa is a willful tomboy who wants to pursue a man's profession.  Therefore, she -must- be a lesbian!  ... What?

I hope that doesn't come across as being anti-lesbian.  Truthfully, I picked up the book because it won that award.  Coming-of-age stories with the extra struggle of being different are very appealing, and these days, being different is typically a matter of orientation.  But this book didn't need it.

This is, save for the romance (I could have done without the epilogue), a very good historical fiction that offers both a strong heroine and a hard look at the treatment of women and the social problems that were asylums in the late nineteenth century.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Reading what the students read: Diary of a Wimpy Kid

Today on my segment about what my students are reading, I am featuring the first book in the bestselling series Diary of a Wimpy Kid by Jeff Kinney.
Book checkouts: 12
Series checkouts: 48, with books 2-4 unreturned at the end of the school year *unhappy librarian grumblings*
Typical reader: Elementary students, grades 3-5, as well as some 6th and 7th grade students

Synopsis: Greg Heffley records his experiences with words and pictures in his diary (excuse me, "journal") as he tries to survive sixth grade.

My Goodreads rating: 4 stars

Here's another amazingly popular series that my students just can't give up.  Unfortunately, I mean that a bit literally, since the school year ended with only the first and fifth books on the shelf.  They're all checked out to people, so at least I know who to get after for the books, but they're overdue.  These are three books that are Follett Publishing-bound (hardcover of sorts) with spine labels, barcodes, and the whole nine yards; it's not like they can hide the library book status.  Blah!  *end librarian rant*

Anyway.  This series is a leader in the juvenile fiction trend of diary-style novels.  The books have stylized writing to look like a kid's print, and are full of little illustrations.  A book like Diary of a Wimpy Kid is a quick read for a typical reader, and attractive to reluctant ones.  When I don't have much time but want to read, I enjoy manga and graphic novels.  I can certainly understand the appeal of this format.

This series can also be a parent-pleaser.  There's no foul language, gore or sexual content, hardly any violence, and positive parental role models.  It's aimed at upper elementary to middle school students, but there's nothing objectionable if a child in a lower grade wants to read it.  Maybe a discerning parent won't like the potential for imitative behavior, but along with the little pranks and not always making the right choices, the protagonist does often try to do what's right.

Illustrated tribulation!
What do I think of this book?  Well, I think I shouldn't go straight from a hard-hitting, exciting page-turner of a zombie/dystopian YA novel to a humorous spice-of-life book for kids.  Then again, I might just have a sense of humor that needs a tuneup.  Don't get me wrong: there's nothing wrong with this book!  It is written in an excellent voice, perfect for both making a believable protagonist and reeling in the readers who can relate to him.  The illustrations are amusing and make great accompaniments to the story.  The trials and tribulations Greg goes through are ones the intended audience share as well, and older readers can look back and either smile or cringe as they recall their own middle school experiences.  (Except me.  I was a bookish wallflower who probably missed half of what went on with my peers at that age.  Which might be why I feel like I'm missing something with this book.)

Fun fact: This series was originally published on the web at

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Yay for YA: Rot & Ruin

I love young adult literature.  I'm not sure I can quantify why it attracts me so much, but I've enjoyed reading it, taking library science classes about it, reading reviews about it, seeking out the award winners and the yet-undiscovered gems.  Maybe it's because it's so accessible, yet unafraid to touch on deep topics.  Whatever the reason, I like to read books from all over this age group.

Except romance novels.  I can't stand those at any level.  If you want some good YA romance reviews, please visit my friend Michelle's book review blog, Never Gonna Grow Up!  They're much more her cup of tea.

Anyway.  Here is a review of Jonathan Maberry's book Rot & Ruin, the first in the Benny Imura series.

Checkouts: Not owned by the school
Typical reader: Aimed at teens and zombie-apocalypse fans

Synopsis: Faced with needing a job at the age of 15 or losing half his food rations, Benny Imura becomes his older brother's apprentice as a zombie bounty hunter or "closure specialist."  In this post-apocalyptic world where "zoms" prowl outside the town walls, Benny learns much about the older brother he's always seen as a coward, the bounty hunters he admires, the world outside the walls that most refuse to discuss, and the true nature of zombies and humans alike.

My Goodreads rating: 5 stars

These zombies eat more time than brains.
I used to be afraid of zombies.  I avoided media related to them in all forms.  And then I started dating a horror and zombie fan.  Slowly, I was introduced to the genre, first with the oddly cute movie "Fido," where zombies are dangerous pets/slaves of sorts in a post-apocalyptic yet retro-1950s community.  I've worked my way up to playing stupid Zacebook applications like "Zombie Lane" and watching the classic George Romero films, most recently "Night of the Living Dead."  To understand the monster is to dispel fear.

My experience actually mirrors Benny's somewhat.  At the beginning of the book, he hated and feared zombies.  He could remember First Night, the time when the initial zombie outbreak occurred and humanity all but lost the war.  Though he was a toddler at the time, he had vivid memories of what happened to his parents - and how his brother Tom had run away with him.  Thirteen years later, he's looking for a job and does not want to work for his detested older sibling, who hunts zombies.  After none of the other jobs in town suit him, Benny accepts his fate and joins Tom in the great Rot & Ruin that used to be America, learning Tom's trade.

And man, does he learn a lot.  Tom teaches him survival skills and the ways of zombies.  These zombies are admittedly less frightening than one might expect, considering they cannot open doors.  As Tom shows his kid brother, they are also very recognizably things that used to be people - they used to be someone's loved one.  Tom isn't like the other bounty hunters who brag at the town store about their grandiose battles against the zombie hoards; he brings closure to the former loved ones of the townsfolk, reading them letters from his employers as the zombie sits tied up in its home, then quickly finishing them off humanely.  While zombies are certainly dangerous, Benny learns how to be smartly cautious and wary rather than fearful.  It's important to know one's enemy.

Then the book heats up, with intrigue, murder and kidnappings, legends and love, and doesn't stop until the quiet epilogue that made me a bit misty-eyed.  There's good reason why I finished this book in two days - and it would have been less time if not for those silly necessities like sleep and work.  The novel is a real page-turner, and the 458 pages in the hardcover edition just flew by.

The prose and plot are excellent.  The delivery is superb, with phenomenal pacing and the right amount of hints that allow an alert reader to predict what's coming, without seeming either forced or too predictable.  Granted, a bit of hope doesn't hurt, especially when things are looking really bleak for our heroes.

The character development is everything you could want in a coming-of-age story, as Benny learns about everyone around him.  Not one lead or supporting role is left flat; everyone from Benny to his friends, from the wickedly cool bounty hunters to the town sketch artist, has depth to their story.  And certainly, not everyone is as they seemed when Benny was young and naive.

For as dark as this book can be, I did find some humor in it.  The adventures in job hunting and the personalities the bounty hunters showed while telling their yarns in the general store were lighthearted.  And calling nomadic zombies "noms"?  That cracked me up.  Zoms and noms!

Overall, this is a fabulous book that I could easily recommend to any zombie-lover or teen looking for an adventurous novel (and who isn't afraid of the massive size of this thing).  It's not overly gory or vulgar, so even a mature middle school student might handle it.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

It's Elementary: Athena the Brain

I tend to read a lot of teen/young adult literature.  However, over half the school population is in the K-6 wing, and the youngsters check out far more books than the older students.  So, welcome to the inaugural segment of my new feature, "It's Elementary," where I will review books aimed at young to middle readers.  First up, I'd like to talk about the premiere book in the Goddess Girls series by Joan Holub, Athena the Brain.

Checkouts: Not owned by the school
Typical reader: Aimed at girls, ages 8-12

Synopsis: Greek middle school student Athena is invited by the father she's never known, Zeus, to be a student at Mount Olympus Academy, where she can learn to be a goddess.

My Goodreads rating: Undetermined; probably a 3 or 4

I picked up this book on a mythology kick, in search of more novels in the Percy Jackson and the Olympians vein.  Also, I've got a bunch of girls moving up from Kindergarten that really need to expand their horizons from just reading princess and Barbie books - what better way than with goddesses, right?

Okay, so I may have fallen flat with both intentions.  Despite claiming to be for ages 8-12, I highly doubt the students that are reading Percy Jackson would stoop to this reading level.  On the other hand, it's probably above what my little princesses can handle on their own.  It might work when they're a bit older, or maybe this series would be a good one to share with their moms and dads at bedtime.  I'll try steering them toward the easier American Girls series first.

The story itself has me baffled as to how to rate it.  If you're a purist when it comes to Greek mythology, stay away!  Zeus is principal at the school, yet his classically older brother Poseidon is a hunky student who most of the "goddessgirls" swoon over.  But if you're looking for some clever rewriting and don't mind playing fast and loose with the Greek myths, this really isn't bad.  Athena the Brain features stories about how the gods influenced the Trojan war (in the "Hero-ology" class) and why Athena has a city named after her (her invention fair debut of olives bested Poseidon's water park).  There's also a nice story of making friends and dealing with mean girls.  And the cover art is fantastic.

I'll keep this series in mind for if the budget allows, but it's not a must-have.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Reading what the students read: Artemis Fowl

Today for "Reading what the students read," I would like to discuss the first book in the Artemis Fowl series by Eoin (pronounced "Owen," for what it's worth) Colfer.
Book checkouts: 12
Series checkouts: 55
Typical reader: Upper elementary or middle school student, approximately 60/40 male/female

Synopsis: To sum it up in a sentence, "Imagine an evil, 12-year-old James Bond exploiting fairies for their treasure."

My Goodreads rating: 4 stars

This series is tremendously popular with the grades 5-7 crowd.  The first book alone garnered a dozen checkouts, even with having to pull it for repairs a couple times.  So I absolutely had to give it a try.

My impression of the eponymous first book of the series is a bit mixed, but positive overall.  I had a little difficulty getting into it at first, but once Captain Holly Short, the protagonist on the fairy side, was introduced, the reading became more to my liking.  It is a genre-defying mix of science fiction, fantasy, folklore, and criminal/espionage thriller.  And it actually works for the most part.  This is a great story.

Artemis Fowl is a rather sinister title character, who brings to mind the "James Bond" and "Mission Impossible" themes and maybe the need for a cat to stroke, Dr. Claw-style, on the arm of his chair.  He is coldly calculating, a young criminal mastermind from a long lineage of such villains.  By his side are his henchman Butler and Butler's little sister, Juliet, ready and willing to do his bidding.  In this story, that bidding is to a) track down the "Book" that all fairies have in their possession that, when decoded, reveals many of their secrets, b) kidnap a fairy when it comes above-ground to complete a magic ritual, and c) obtain the pot of gold ransom in exchange for the prisoner.

On the plus side, the fairy lore is superb and both Artemis and Holly are well-rounded characters.  Artemis comes across as a pretty solid villain, yet he also has soft spots, a touch of childishness that he can't quite shake, and other qualities that make him human.  Holly is a soldier, the first female LEP-recon officer, with both a penchant for screwing up and being tough as nails.  She's rather likable.  Several secondary fairy characters are also nicely fleshed out.

On the negative side, I would prefer to have seen more to Butler and Juliet's personalities.  Juliet especially came across a bit one-dimensional.  There are hints that Butler is more than just a big goon who follows orders without question and cares for his sister, but his character was left wanting.  Mature readers may be turned off by the abundance of toilet humor concerning dwarves - though that can also be a draw for many young readers.  Lastly, your mileage may vary concerning the environmentalism and xenophobia of the fair folk.

Overall, this is a good first adventure that has the potential to draw in readers of many different genres.

Next time on "Reading what the students read": Diary of a Wimpy Kid by Jeff Kinney.  I got it from the library today.  Stay tuned!

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

"Miss Librarian-Teacher" in the summer

School might be out and students and teachers alike might be on vacation, but our identities remain the same.  I've run into several of my students in the past few weeks since the school year ended.

Highlights include:

  • running into my student helper outside the public library and discussing what we're reading.
  • waving to some twins from last year's Kindergarten class as I walked in the Independence Day parade (with my dance troupe and the local arts and culture center) and overhearing them point me out as "Miss Librarian-Teacher."  So cute!