Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Yay for YA: Z by Michael Thomas Ford

Ever read a book, get to the end, and instantly want to know if there's a sequel?  That's how I felt about Z by Michael Thomas Ford.
Checkouts: Not owned by the library
Typical reader: Zombie-apocalypse fans and gamers

Synopsis: Before Josh was born, humanity faced a zombie epidemic.  Now, zombies are the stuff of history lessons, and virtual-reality hunting games.  Josh is an excellent player as a "Torcher," fighting against the "z" with a flamethrower in the holographic world.  One day, he gets a message inviting him to meet Charlie, an even higher-ranked player, and become part of an underground live-action zombie-hunting game.

My Goodreads rating: 5 stars

"OMG!  Is there a sequel?!" were my thoughts as I finished the last sentence of the last page of this novel.  As with the previous zombie novel I reviewed, Rot & Ruin, I read this as fast as life allowed.  This post-apocalyptic tale really held my interest.

The plot is good, with plenty of complexity and a healthy dose of "not all is as it seems."  The action will capture the interest of teen boys, gamers, zombie-apocalypse fans.  And there's plenty of it throughout this book!  The gory descriptions will also tantalize those that like zombies for their grotesqueness.

The main characters, Josh and Charlie, are interesting and believable.  Josh has plenty of drama in his family and social lives, and much of it is stuff teens can relate to.  The pacing of his realizations about the "meatbags" he's fighting in both the VR and live-action games is excellent and realistic.  Maybe you can figure out what all is going on before he does, but the narrative offers an intriguing ride as he gets a clue.

The explanation of the zombie outbreak was something I found to be different and worth pondering.  A flu virus mutation altered the composition of the brains of its victims, rendering them into something akin to primitive beasts running on pure instinct.  It's a diversion from the pop-culture undead zombie motif.  There is a slight plot hole between the eradication via vaccine explanation, and the fact that (minor spoiler alert!) zombies show up later in the book.  On the other hand, A) the virus could have mutated again, and B) in our own real world smallpox still exists in laboratories and could feasibly be spread again.  (Or maybe there was an explanation and my brain is omitting it while I write this review.  Ha.)

The title of this book stands for two elements of the story: lowercase "z" is the slang for the zombies themselves, while uppercase "Z" is a recreational drug some of the gamers use to feel like they're one of the monsters.  The use of Z gave me some pause, especially as it is not shown to have lasting negative effects or consequences, but there are plenty of other YA books that have drugs in them.  Just take that into account if you're thinking about this for the teenager or school library in your life.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Guilty Pleasure: A Review of The Adventure of the Princess and Mr. Whiffle

Patrick Rothfuss was in the area this weekend, doing an interview, reading and book signing hosted by the wonderful indie bookstore Snowbound Books.  My boyfriend has a copy of his first book and got it signed; I tagged along for the heck of it.  I'm glad I did!  The reading was of The Adventure of the Princess and Mr. Whiffle, a picture book that is -not- for children.  This book deserves to be highlighted as a "guilty pleasure," because I sure can't justify getting it for a school library collection!
Checkouts: This isn't appropriate for a school library!
Typical reader: Unsupervised children

Synopsis: The Princess lives in a marzipan castle with her stuffed bear companion, Mr. Whiffle.  They have adventures, and the story has three endings.

My Goodreads rating: 4 stars

Oh my, what a book!  The story to the first ending would be appropriate for children.  The second is kind of creepy.  And the third ... well, it's quite the shock!  I heard Mr. Rothfuss read it, I saw it on the pages with the pictures to accompany the words, and I looked between the man and the book several times in disbelief.  It could not sink in for a while.  But if you read through the book again and look more carefully at the pictures, you'll find that the outcome was foreshadowed.

To have seen this in the presence of the genius behind this, and to have heard him read this book, was a real treat.  But woe onto the parent who doesn't notice the warning on the book.  Your child will probably have nightmares from this one.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Yay for YA: My Big Mouth review

As requested by a reader back on my entry about all the new books I got from the Superiorland Preview Center, I have perused My Big Mouth by Peter Hannan for review.
Checkouts: new to the library, courtesy of the Superiorland Preview Center
Typical reader: Students who have read the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series (first book reviewed) will greatly enjoy this!

Synopsis: Davis Delaware moves with his father after his mother's death and starts a new school in the spring of his freshman year.  He meets a beautiful girl named Molly, and overhears her say that it would be cool to start a band - so he invites her and another student to do just that.  He also constantly enrages the school bully - who happens to be Molly's boyfriend.

My Goodreads rating: 4 stars (It was almost 5 ...)

If I were to describe this book in one word, it would be "Fun."  This was a genuinely enjoyable novel to read.  Davis' voice is clear and real, and the drawings are great.  Peter Hannan, also known for the show "Catdog," is a great illustrator for a book like this.  The sketches come across as something a high school student really would draw.  They're more sophisticated than the drawings in Diary of a Wimpy Kid, but definitely something I could imagine being idly sketched in a teen's notebook.

The format of the book is that of the popular "diary" genre that kids are loving these days.  With a more complex story and a higher word count, My Big Mouth is a natural pick for students that have graduated from the well-known Diary of a Wimpy Kid series.  While the book is aimed at the teen/YA crowd, there is no reason why an older elementary student shouldn't read this.  There's no language problem or sexual situations.

The story is pretty good.  Davis moves to a new school, makes some friends, and tries not to be destroyed by the school bully.  He gets noticed for his poetry skills by his English teacher and becomes a bit of a celebrity.  He starts a band to get close to Molly, the object of his secret interest.  The book's climax comes in the form of a band concert, where his band "The Amazing Dweebs" is competing against "The Butchers," which consists of the bully Gerald "the Butcher" Boggs and his goons.  And there's a twist, which left me blinking in confusion by the end of the book.  I'm really not sure what to make of it!  That's why the rating for this is 4 stars.  I don't want to give anything away, but the outcome seemed a bit out of left field.  Your mileage may vary.

Monday, August 22, 2011

No-nonsense Nonfiction: "The Girl's Guide to Everything Unexplained" reviews

I'm introducing a new feature today with a double billing!  As a school librarian, I have to make sure that the students have plenty of nonfiction material as well as fun novels and picture books.  I need to select books that support curriculum standards and classroom lessons.  From folklore to history, from dinosaurs to poetry, nonfiction can sometimes be the most challenging to select and circulate.  These books need accuracy and currency along with accessibility, and I need to keep in mind that this is a K-12 school: I'm serving a wide age group.

As I said, I'm highlighting two books today.  These are from The Girl's Guide to Everything Unexplained series by Jen Jones.  One is The Girl's Guide to Vampires and the other is The Girl's Guide to Zombies.

Checkouts: new to the library, courtesy of the Superiorland Preview Center
Typical reader: Alas, while I've got students of both genders who would love these topics, boys won't pick up books labeled for girls.  Ironically, there's hardly anything in the books that make them girl-oriented.
Do the Dewey: 398.4 (398 is folklore/fairy tales)

My Goodreads ratings: 3 for vampires, 4 for zombies

I was only able to get half the series, which is a bit unfortunate.  (The other two books are on werewolves and wizards.)  These are pretty easy to read but not too watered down, making them great for elementary students grades 2-6.  The format is great, with the books introducing the lore and history of these creatures, how they feature in pop culture, how to recognize them (Is your BFF a zombie?  Is your crush a vampire?), and their strengths and weaknesses.

The zombie book was particularly good because it covered the wide scope that modern zombies do.  There's a bit about the origin of the word, and what Haitian zombies are, as well as what movies like Night of the Living Dead have given us.  I liked the bit about the movie Pathogen, which was written and directed by a 12-year-old girl.  Wow!

The vampire book ... I wish it were as good.  While the textual information is relatively on par with the zombie edition, the scope was too narrow.  Apparently, all vampires are of the Twilight ilk!  Books actually meant for kids, like the Bunnicula series of my youth or the more recent My Sister the Vampire get a little blurb at best.  I'm trying to stay off my soapbox regarding the series, but Twilight is not appropriate for elementary students - or really anyone who can't tell the difference between a good relationship and an abusive one.  Sneaking into your girlfriend's bedroom to watch her sleep is called stalking.  Throwing her through a glass coffee table because she has a papercut is physical abuse.  But, this book has an overwhelming amount of photos from the movies of the same name.  More Bela Lugosi, less Bella Swan, please!

I'd like to see how the other two books in this series compare.  I think the two that I received will be hits in the library this fall, at least.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Yay for YA: Where the Streets Had a Name review

Today I would like to tell you about Where the Streets Had a Name by Randa Abdel-Fattah.
Checkouts: Not owned by the library
Typical reader: Serious readers interested in other cultures, and fans of Ms. Abdel-Fattah's work

Synopsis: Thirteen-year-old Hayaat lives in Bethlehem, where her family was forced to move after their home was destroyed to make way for the Wall the occupying Israelis built through their hometown.  Her grandmother becomes ill, and her confession of wishing to touch the soil of her old home in West Jerusalem before she dies inspires Hayaat and her Christian friend Samy to courageously - and a bit recklessly - journey to the city to scoop up a jar of the soil.

My Goodreads rating: 5 stars

 I had previously read and loved Does My Head Look Big in This? and Ten Things I Hate about Me by the same author, so it was a bit natural for me to be pulled toward another teen novel by this talented writer.  While those two books were set in Australia and featured two Muslim girls coping with and accepting their heritage and religion in different ways, this one is located in the tumultuous area of occupied Palestine.  The average American teen is not going to relate to Hayaat and her life's ordeals as they might to Amal or Jamie, the protagonists of the other books, who are pretty much just like them.

Does that make this book any less accessible?  No.  The writing is awesome, the characters complex, and the adventures will keep you on the edge of your seat, worried about Hayaat and Samy as they navigate the treacherous roads from Bethlehem to Jerusalem, through checkpoints and past Israeli soldiers, without the proper documentation to enter the city that's holy to three major world religions and carved up by politics.  Will they succeed in getting the soil for Hayaat's grandmother?  Will they be caught and imprisoned?

There's definitely an agenda to the book - and that is to educate teens and young adults (and whoever else might pick up the novel) about life in Palestine under the Israeli occupation.  It is also definitely a story about people of different faiths being able to work together.  Hayaat is Muslim; Samy is Christian; they are helped along the way by Israeli-American peace activists David and Mali, as well as other adults of all backgrounds.  Above all, it is a story about hope.  As Hayaat muses at the end of the tale, "I know ... that in the end we are all of us only human beings who laugh the same, and that one day the world will realize that we simply want to live as a free people, with hope and dignity and purpose."

I'd like to see this book paired up with the older novel One More River by Lynne Reid Banks, about a Canadian girl who moves with her parents to Israel and experiences the Six-Day War in the 1960s.  Those two together would make a good literary study for students - say, in middle school - to learn about the Middle Eastern conflict between Israel and its Arab neighbors.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

It's Elementary: Valley Cats review

In late July, there are several annual art fairs that draw tourists, locals and artisans of all sorts to the city of Marquette.  It was at one of these that I ran into Gretchen Preston, who was selling copies of her book, Valley Cats: The Adventures of Boonie and River.  I introduced myself as a school librarian, and the next thing I knew, she was signing a book to my students and giving it to the school for free!  That was a really magical experience, and "magical" could also describe this book.
Checkouts: New to the library
Typical reader: Aimed at upper elementary students but great as a bedtime reader for younger students; cat-lovers are going to enjoy this too.

Synopsis: Boonie and River are two cats that live on Valley Road.  They meet one summer day when their mistresses enter them in a pet parade, become friends, and have all sorts of adventures together.

My Goodreads rating: 5 stars

This book is positively saccharine.  The illustrations by Karin Neumann are lovely, and made me chuckle at times.  They go very well with the stories of the two cats and their adventures.  My favorite might be the one where River falls out of an apple tree onto the dog he was hiding from, as Boonie cowers and covers his eyes in another tree.

The book is broken into chapters, each with a different tale of the mischief Boonie and River get into.  It's a bit reminiscent of books like Frog and Toad.  This format is great, especially if you're looking for a short story to read.  I can easily see this book as one for a young elementary student to take home and have his or her parent read a chapter every evening before bed.  There's also a glossary for words the child might not know.

Some of the adventures are a bit of a stretch of the imagination when one considers these are house-cats - I don't know any cat who would go swimming - but that's okay.  The intended audience is going to love these stories because kids have similar experiences as they explore the world around them.

I would like to note that this is the first book in a planned series of four.  According to the web site for Preston Hill Press, the second is currently going to print.

President Barack Obama visited Marquette in February, and he bought this book for his daughters when he stopped for lunch at Donckers Restaurant.  Valley Cats is available throughout the Upper Peninsula and as far south as Traverse City, but anyone can buy it through the online store.

Thank you for the book, Ms. Preston!

Friday, August 12, 2011

How to make a librarian happy (Part 1?)

Today, I got to visit my old workplace and have lunch with my former coworkers, which was a treat. The real treat, though, was visiting the "preview center," which receives and distributes new books from a variety of vendors to the public and school libraries around the region. That includes even the libraries that are not part of the cooperative, like my own school library. I got to choose 25 beautiful new books! So happy!

Here are pictures of the haul. I've got nonfiction, juvenile fiction, and teen/young adult fiction. I'll review what I can here, too, so if you see any that really jump out at you that you want to hear about, please comment!

Books the 2nd/3rd grade boys will go nuts over
Life in Ancient Rome (John Malam)
Cool Pro Wrestling Facts (Angie Peterson Kaelberer)
Gritty, Stinky Ancient Egypt (James A. Corrick)
The Rough, Stormy Age of Vikings (James A. Corrick)

Supernatural - a hit with the middle elementary students
Searching for Aliens, UFOs, and Men in Black (Michael Burgan)
The Girl's Guide to Zombies (Jen Jones)
The Girl's Guide to Vampires (Jen Jones)
Tracking Sea Monsters, Bigfoot, and other Legendary Beasts (Nel Yomtov)

Other nonfiction, for various audiences
I Know Someone with HIV/AIDS (Elizabeth Raum)
Comportamiento y modales en la biblioteca/Manners in the Library (Carrie Finn)
Preening, Painting, and Piercing: Body Art (John Bliss)
Siamese Cats (Joanne Mattern)
Why Do I Need Glasses? (Carol Ballard)

Juvenile fiction:
Doctor Proctor's Fart Powder: Bubble in the Bathtub (Jo Nesbo, ages 8-12)
The Wizard of Dark Street (Shawn Thomas Odyssey, ages 8-12)
Worms for Lunch? (Leonid Gore, picture book)
Zombie Winter (Jason Strange, ages 8-11)

Beauty Queens (Libba Bray)
Star Crossed (Elizabeth C. Bunce)
Abandon (Meg Cabot)
My Big Mouth: 10 Songs I Wrote that Almost Got Me Killed (Peter Hannan)
Want to Go Private? (Sarah Darer Littman - I wanted to read this one anyway after YA Librarian Tales' review )
Cleopatra's Moon (Vicky Alvear Shecter)
Unlocked (Ryan G. Van Cleave)
My Life, the Theater, and Other Tragedies (Allen Zadoff)

The books ought to keep the kids - and me - happily reading for a while!  (Even if I have a tiny book budget for the upcoming school year.)

Friday, August 5, 2011

It's Elementary: A review of Wildfire Run

I'm getting back on task!  Here is a review of Dee Garretson's debut novel, Wildfire Run.
Checkouts: Not owned by the library
Typical reader: Adventurous boys, mid- to upper-elementary

Synopsis: Luke Brockett, the son of the president of the United States of America, is on vacation at Camp David with a friend and his entourage of Secret Service agents when a wildfire spreads, threatening their very lives.  Luke, Theo, and interloper Callie must use their wits to escape after the agents are incapacitated or are on the other side of the security fences.

My Goodreads rating: 3 stars

What brought me to read this book was social networking at its best.  I entered a Goodreads drawing for Dee Garretson's second book, Wolf Storm, which will be published next month.  I haven't won anything yet, but I enter the drawings in hopes of getting books to review and to add to the school library.  My Goodreads account is connected to Twitter (jdholmangldl), and when I added the book to my "to-read" list, this was shared on Twitter.  Ms. Garretson tweeted to me, hoping that I enjoy the book!  So, happily shocked that an author was so personable (Jonathan Maberry is as well), I went and found her first book, Wildfire Run.

There are elements of this book that are really strong.  First, it has a lot of appeal to the target audience.  There's adventure, suspense, science, robots, presidential children, and kids using their wits in a situation where there are no adults to help.  That's all great for the average reluctant reader, or even the average boy.  Second, the pacing is very good, especially in the beginning.  I felt like the lead-up to when the people at Camp David discovered the approaching fire was as good as any adult suspense novel (though definitely aimed at a younger audience).  Third, Luke and his former pal Callie are well-rounded, believable characters.  Fourth, as one can find out from the book jacket and the author's note, Ms. Garretson did her research on everything.  The details of Camp David are fictional, of course, but she and her children actually tested the solutions to obstacles Luke and his companions faced.  Mega kudos!

Unfortunately, there are also parts that fell flat.  The strengths outweigh them, but there was a point in the book where I felt the suspension of disbelief shatter.  There are some things in this novel that just ... no.  I don't want to spoil anything, but some events leading up to Luke's separation from his agents and/or their incapacitation were a bit shaky, and then there's this part where the "perfect storm" just seemed too out there.  The level of incompetence in the adults versus the problem-solving skills is unreal.  And speaking of unreal, Luke's friend Theo is out of this world.  His knowledge is too vast, and too adult.  If you take the different parts of his repertoire separately, it's believable; I have some students obsessed with some of his interests like ancient warfare and robotics.  Taken all together, with a knowledge of Latin phrases and who the heck Virgil was and what can be attributed to him ... no.

The negatives could possibly be chalked up to the fact that I'm roughly 20 years older than the intended audience.  I'm sure at least some kids would think it's cool that Luke and his friends can do so much on their own, and tweens will be approaching that age where adults don't know anything, anyway.  But for me, some of it was just beyond what I could believe.

Would I recommend this book?  To certain audiences, sure.  The writing is solid, the main characters real, and the research put into the book admirable.

Next up: On the subject of Presidential kids, I have a book for the school library that was selected by President Obama for his daughters when he visited this city last winter!  The author generously signed and donated a copy for the library, so I simply must share this book with the world.  Stay tuned for Valley Cats: The Adventures of Boonie and River by Gretchen Preston!