Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Guilty Pleasure: The Millennium Trilogy

For our two-year anniversary last month, my boyfriend gave me Steig Larsson's Millennium trilogy in hardcover.  He's so sweet.  :)  I flew through one book after another in about three weeks, and am happy to review the trilogy here.

Checkouts: Not owned by the library, nor will it be due to content
Typical reader: Fans of thrillers, conspiracy theories, and particularly for the second book, the Kill Bill movies
Source: An awesome gift from an awesome boyfriend

Synopsis: Millennium journalist Mikael Blomkvist and antisocial hacker Lisbeth Salander find themselves in interesting situations with big stories to unravel.  The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo tackles skeletons in the closet of a business mogul's family.  The Girl Who Played with Fire sees the murders of a journalist and his doctoral candidate girlfriend as they work on a sensational expose of prostitution and human trafficking; we also learn a lot about Lisbeth's past.  The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest picks up where the second book left off, and explores a heinous government conspiracy.

My Goodreads ratings: 4 stars for the first and third; 5 stars for the second

Since I'm reviewing roughly 1,500 pages worth of material, I'm going to stick to the highlights.

I really, really enjoyed Lisbeth Salander's character. She's one of the best anti-heroines I've come across in quite a while.  Highly misunderstood and antisocial, her intelligence is superb and her sense of justice is ruthless.  Her back-story is deeply hinted at in the first book; the second book delivered that which I thirsted for in spades.  And then the third book picks up right where the second one finished, so I just had to know the rest of her story.  While each book has a distinct plot with many side-stories, the driving force is the strange, tattooed young woman at the center of the maelstrom.

The prose is solid and full.  It's thick, informative, detail-oriented.  I learned more about various aspects of Swedish culture and government, as well as the mathematician Fermat and his last theorem, than I might have otherwise.  Sometimes it seems to go off on strange tangents, it's true; I have in my notes that the rant about construction prices in Hornet's Nest was a bit ... interesting.

There are two plot elements I particularly found attractive: investigative journalism, and revenge.  The former is an old interest of mine; back in high school I wanted to be a journalist, and even covered a few of the more interesting stories for my high school newspaper.  Investigative journalism also can uncover society's flaws and put them under a microscope.  It can also lead to wanting to read more about a subject: Played with Fire could lead a curious reader to an excellent book such as Half the Sky, which (among other things) discusses how prostitution and prostitutes are treated in Sweden.  The latter plot element, revenge, makes for exciting storytelling.  It rages throughout the trilogy, especially late in the second novel.  It's no "roaring rampage of revenge" a la the Kill Bill movies, but there are some satisfying scenes if that's your cup of tea.

A third overarching theme is the Swedish title of the first book: Men Who Hate Women.  I'm a little hesitant to touch on this, because it seems to be a bit of a spoiler, especially in the first tome.  But it's too large a plot element to ignore in this review; it compels Lisbeth to act against these men who hate women.  And there are plenty of males that fill the bill.

Which brings me to a man in the series who did not hate women: Mikael Blomkvist.  Mikael is the other protagonist of the trilogy, who did not pique my interest as much as his co-protagonist did.  He's the journalist, and a ladies' man; while he's intelligent and a nice guy, he just falls a bit flat for me.  There's nothing wrong with him, per say, but his character doesn't grow at all.  He is, in a word, blah.  What he does can be interesting, particularly his dogged pursuit of the truth in his career, but he's just a milquetoast.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Graphic novels: a word, and a review of "Anya's Ghost"

I would like to address an issue that comes up periodically at the school library, and probably in libraries of all varieties across the globe.  That issue is graphic novels.  Should they be available?  Are they worthwhile?  My answer to both these questions is a firm "Yes."

Should graphic novels (which includes Japanese manga and other sequential art, for my purposes today) be available to children?  That depends.  Last year, a group of parents at my school took up the issue with the CEO.  There was concern over such manga series as Bleach and Naruto, two popular series that offer a bit of violence and perhaps a little distasteful fashion sense regarding female characters.  The end results was the retention of all the books, with the caveat that parental permission would be required below a certain grade.  I had never allowed younger children to check these out; starting in third grade they can check out select comic books and child-oriented graphic novels such as the popular series Amelia Rules.

On the flip side, a colleague who teaches an upper elementary grade recently challenged whether we should allow his students to continue checking out what he derisively termed "Pokey-mans."  To him, graphic novels are synonymous with comic books, no more challenging than picture books and offering no literary value.  I argued the point with him a bit, then decided that the best way to change his mind is to loan him the 1992 Pulitzer Prize winner, Maus, the biographical graphic novel about the Holocaust.  Literary value?  Check.  Not for children?  Check.
Personally, I greatly enjoy a well-written, well-illustrated graphic novel.  It's a quick read, but offers mental stimulation.  Many works are aimed at older readers and explore societal issues, such as the violent dystopian series Battle Royale, which I've previously reviewed in conjunction with The Hunger Games, or the aforementioned Maus.  A graphic novel can literally illustrate a scene in ways which might not be conferred as clearly in text.  Compare it to reading a book and then watching a movie based on the book - except with a graphic novel, you're getting the text and the picture simultaneously.

What do you think of graphic novels?

In light of all this, I figure it's about time to add another feature to my blog, to showcase graphic novels.  I haven't come up with a pithy title for it yet; I'm open to suggestions.  Today, I am featuring Anya's Ghost by Vera Brosgol.
Checkouts: New to the library
Typical reader: Any of my older graphic novel fans
Source: Scholastic book fair

Synopsis: Anya, a Russian teen immigrant, cuts class and falls down an old, abandoned well.  There, she encounters a skeleton from 100 years ago - and the ghost to go with it.  When she's rescued, a finger bone accidentally comes with, and she finds herself with a spectral friend tagging along to school and parties.  But is having a ghost as a friend really such a good thing?

My Goodreads rating: 5 stars

The art style in this graphic novel reminded me a lot of those in Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis: stark and to the point, yet visually appealing.  The illustrations are simplistic, yet all characters are easily identifiable and the almost grayscale coloration sets the mood quite well.

Anya is a complex protagonist who many teen girls could relate to.  She must deal with issues at home, fitting in with her peers, how she views her body, and the highs and lows of a crush.  As an added bonus, she's smart, witty, and a bit snarky.  Through both the words and pictures, we get a similar feel for those around her, from her delinquent friend Siobhan to the pretty girl dating Anya's crush.  Everybody is portrayed very realistically.

Emily is the ghost that moves the plot along.  That's not to say that she's merely a plot device, but the story does center around her, how she affects Anya's life, and what really led to her death in the old well.  She starts off meek and lonely, then helpful and friendly as she aids Anya in school and offers a unique companionship.  Her motives start to become questionable, though, in dealing with Anya's crush.  And what will Anya uncover about Emily's past?

With a bit of librarian geekiness, I must offer Kudos to Ms. Brosgol for including the scene where Anya and a classmate not only go to the public library to do research, but also use the microfilm reader to look at old newspapers.  That's seriously awesome.

In sum, this is a good ghost story as well as a coming-of-age tale, aided by illustrations that really suit it well.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

How to make a librarian happy (Part 3.2)

Here are more books the library got from the Scholastic book fair.  Again, photos were taken by me; informational links are to Goodreads where available.

Picture puzzles
I Spy Spectacular
Can You See What I See? Toyland Express

Picture books
Mouse & Lion
Pinkalicious: The Princess of Pink Treasury
Interrupting Chicken
Tony Baloney
Pig Kahuna

It's an audiobook player in the shape of a school bus! It plays the following four titles:
I Love You Because You're You
How Do Dinosaurs Say Good Night?
Is Your Mama a Llama?

Every Day on Earth
Hidden Army
A Little Book of Slime

Diary-style books
Big Nate: In a Class by Himself
The Loser List and The Loser List: Revenge of the Loser

 Girly chapter books
Unicorn School: The Surprise Party
Princess Posey and the Next-door Dog

Popular series
Fear Street: All-Night Party
Goosebumps Hall of Horrors 2-book pack
The Puppy Place: Bandit
Junie B, First Grader: Aloha-ha-ha!
Magic Tree House: Abe Lincoln at Last! and Winter of the Ice Wizard
Judy Moody: Girl Detective

Chillers and thrillers
The Clone Codes
Double Identity

Realistic fiction
Confectionately Yours: Save the Cupcake!

Heist Society
Sleuth or Dare

School of Fear series
School of Fear and School of Fear: Class Is Not Dismissed!

One Crazy Summer

Previously reviewed on this blog!
Goddess Girls: Athena the Brain
My review can be found here.

In other news, I've been reading and greatly enjoying the Millennium trilogy by Steig Larsson.  I just started the third book today.  The review of the series will be the next feature, in the near future.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

How to make a librarian happy (Part 3.1)

Last week was the Scholastic book fair at the school.  After all the parent-teacher conferences were done and nearly everyone had left for the weekend, I shopped with our previously earned Scholastic Dollars.  The library has benefited well from these fundraisers.  It's enough of a haul that I'm going to break this into at least two posts, to not completely bog down page loading times.

(All photos are by me. Most links are to Goodreads; some are to Amazon.)

Replacements for lost items

Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Dog Days and The Last Straw
Dork Diaries: Tales from a Not-So-Popular Party Girl

Dinosaur Record Breakers
Splish, Splash, Splat!

Girly books for teens and tweens
Top row:
I So Don't Do Mysteries
Wishful Thinking
Green Heart
The Pale Assassin
Bottom row:
What Happened to Goodbye
Tomorrow Girls #1-4

Graphic novels
Excalibur: The Legend of King Arthur
Anya's Ghost

  Books for boys
Sasquatch (by Roland Smith, whose books get read a lot in my library)

Ocean and Sea
Pierre the Penguin
The World's Strangest Animals
Sharks & Underwater Monsters
Mythical Monsters
(Some of these are Scholastic exclusives.)

Fairly Fairy Tales
A Value Tales Treasury

Assorted nonfiction
Monster Trucks
Ripley's Believe It or Not: Strikingly True
T Is for Titanic
Stay tuned for more children's books!

Monday, February 6, 2012

Guilty Pleasure: A Zombie's History of the United States

I was in the mood for a zombie book recently, and browsed my local library's catalog for such things. A Zombie's History of the United States by Dr. Worm Miller (I hope that's a pseudonym) came up, and I decided to give it a try.  Here's my review.
Checkouts: Not available at the school library.
Typical reader: Zombie fans with some knowledge of, and interest in, history
Do the Dewey: Shelved at 973 MI (American history) at my local library
Source: My local library

My Goodreads rating: 3 stars

This parody offers an alternative history of several events throughout American history with the presence of zombies.  Sounds interesting, right?  Well ... once you get past the first couple vignettes, it is.  The preface had me skeptical, though I did enjoy pondering how zombies may have come to North America via the land bridge in the Bering Straits with the early peoples who would become Native Americans.  The colonial pieces were dull.  I might actually recommend skipping them.

My interest was firmly piqued with the story of Lewis and Clark, which offered a story where Lewis was extremely interested in studying the undead and experimenting with a cure.  Eventually he was bitten and experimented on himself - and became an undead hybrid, with his human wits about him but the hunger for flesh and the lack of a pulse of a zombie.  Creative?  Oh, yes.

The value of this book lies within that creativity.  Miller takes various famous events and sticks zombies into the fray, sometimes even altering famous quotes slightly to include references to the undead.  There are zombies at the Alamo, zombies interfering with the Transcontinental Railroad, zombies being wrestled by Teddy Roosevelt, and zombies fighting Nazis.  I'd endorse the passages regarding the 1800s the most.

Parodies often seem to be for those who don't worry about political correctness.  This book is no different - but may cross the line in a few places.  It's a little uncomfortable to read a book that glosses over history so that the real issues are hidden.  Zombies are the target of Jim Crow laws and the Ku Klux Klan.  They are the beings that would be rounded up to exist in the Oklahoma Territory.  Agent Orange is replaced by zombification spray in the Vietnam conflict.

While I often wondered if this book would be good for high school students, to raise their interest in real American history, there's too much hesitation because of the lackluster passages in some portions of the book, and the way it shrugs off important issues.  There are better-written historical rewrites that don't play as fast and loose with accuracy as this book does.  Interestingly, what comes to mind are the source-books for the old World of Darkness role-playing games, such as Werewolf: the Apocalypse and Vampire: the Masquerade.
Want a good reinterpretation of history? Try an RPG book.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

The Hunger Games v. Battle Royale

I read the manga Battle Royale last summer, and now that I've read the first novel in the hit trilogy The Hunger Games, I can't resist making a bit of a compare-and-contrast review.

Synopsis for both: A cruel government keeps its citizens in check by having a yearly "game" pitting dozens of teens against each other in a battle to the death.  This brutal game is shown on live TV.  There can be only one victor.

Checkouts: 10
Series checkouts (trilogy): 22
Typical reader: This ranges from older elementary boys, to high school girls, to classroom aides. There is no typical reader.
Source: Follett for the school, gift for my copy
Checkouts: Rated M, this does not belong in a school library.
Series checkouts (15 manga): Seriously. This puts "graphic" in graphic novels.
Typical reader: Fans of Japanese gore fests
Source: Local public library
My Goodreads rating: 5 starsMy Goodreads rating: N/A

While reading Battle Royale, I realized that what I'd heard about The Hunger Games sounded a lot like this manga.  That's absolutely true, at least on the surface.  The plot, as shown in the synopsis above, is interchangeable.  What's different, besides the medium used to tell the story and the language/country of origin?

The main characters: Katniss of The Hunger Games is one of those YA heroines that I can really get behind.  She's a survivor, strong and tough.  When her little sister's name is drawn to participate in the Hunger Games, she refuses to let that happen and volunteers in her stead.  She is a skilled huntress and keeps her wits about her throughout the ordeal.  And she remains true to herself!  I don't want to give anything away, but I was proud of how she handled things at the end of the book.

Shuuya of Battle Royale is a student in an ill-fated class that's drugged on a field trip and sent to a deserted island for this story's battle to the death.  He is a musician - which is rebellious in this dystopian Japan - and quite nonviolent; he would prefer to avoid killing his classmates at all costs.  Joined by a female classmate, Noriko, whose wound he dresses after she is shot before the game even begins, Shuuya tries to recruit and save other classmates in an alliance.  Only the transfer student, Shogo, joins them for long.

Perspective and style: The Hunger Games is a novel written in limited third-person, focusing on Katniss.  Most of the deaths occur "off-screen," except for the battle near the end of the Games.  Battle Royale covers every one of the 42 students in the game, including offering back-stories on several of the contestants.  It is one of the most graphic, explicit sequential art pieces I've ever seen.  Most of that is violence, but there's also some nudity and sexual situations.
This is one of the less gory death scenes.
Outside aid and restrictions: The students in Battle Royale each start with a backpack of supplies and one random weapon.  They are equipped with collars that track their movements and transmit their vital statistics to those who run the show.  If no one dies in a 24-hour period, someone's tracking collar will detonate; this will also happen if a student strays into an area announced as being off-limits.

The competitors in The Hunger Games have it easier by far - if they survive the initial rush for supplies, and the bloodbath that ensues.  Katniss grabbed a bag and ran, narrowly escaping death.  After that, those who impressed the audiences in the Capital may be sent gifts via their sponsors.  These can really come in handy.

Movies: Battle Royale was made into a movie before it became a manga; both are based on a novel of the same name.  The movie was released in Japan in 2000.  The Hunger Games movie will be in theaters next month.

Sequels: The Hunger Games is part of a trilogy; I look forward to reading the next two books.  Battle Royale has a sequel manga series, Blitz Royale.  I've seen some art from it, and it's not as good or realistic.

Who I would give the book to: As I said in the statistics, there are older elementary students who read The Hunger Games.  That's pretty acceptable.  Battle Royale, on the other hand, fits well into my "Guilty Pleasures" category and would best go to mature adults who like manga filled with violence and social commentary, and Quentin Tarantino's films.