Friday, December 30, 2011

Inside Out & Back Again

Book talk: Ha's mother says that it's luckier for a boy to be the first one to walk around the house on New Year's day so that honor always goes to one of her brothers, but she can't resist secretly waking up just after midnight to touch one toe to the ground.  Perhaps she shouldn't have, because this year everything seems to have gone wrong.  The war is spreading and Ha's family is fleeing to America for safety. Ha was happy with her family in Vietnam but now everything seems inside-out.  She wonders if things will ever go back to the way they were again or if her family will be cursed forever.

Rocks in my socks: The entire novel is written in verse that is sparse and beautiful, and yet conveys so much.  The plot moves along and the reader gets to know Ha and everyone around her through her poems.  Many of her experiences will be new to readers who do not know much about Vietnam, but at the same time there are plenty of familiar situations for readers to relate to, like the way her brothers twist her name around to tease her or some of her birthday wishes: "Wish I could lose my chubby cheeks./Wish I could stay calm/ no matter what/ my brothers say./ Wish Mother would stop/ chiding me to stay calm,/ which makes it worse."  Each poem has a clear subject and could stand on its own, but together they form a bigger picture.  For example, she writes a poem about her mother making shoulder bags to describe their decision to leave Vietnam.  I also loved her takes on learning English, described in a series of poems where she talks about adding 's's to make plurals and concludes that "Whoever invented/ English/ must have loved/ snakes."  A bit further into her English education she echoes a thought I'm sure anyone who has ever had to learn English can sympathize with: "Whoever invented English/ should be bitten/ by a snake."  I love the perspective that this book brings to Americans.  At one point she learns that a friend of hers had a son who died in Vietnam.  She writes "I never thought/ the name of my country/ could sound so sad."  The novel is semi-autobiographical so naturally it felt very authentic, not just in the details, but in the emotions that were captured so perfectly by the poems.  Above all I loved the spunky protagonist and the fact that she couldn't resist touching that toe to the ground first thing on New Year's day.

Rocks in my socks: Nothing comes to mind.

Every book its reader: Fans of poetry will enjoy this book, but those aren't the only ones.  The book reads very similarly to a regular novel so anyone interested in learning about other cultures, and Vietnam in particular will be able to enjoy this book.  Anyone who has ever felt like a fish out of water or who has had to deal with older brothers will be able to relate to Ha.  The war isn't discussed in detail and the story itself is so sweet and touching I'd say it's fine for third and up.

Insisde Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai 

Buy it or check it out today!

Year in Review

This has been a busy year for me.  During the school year I worked full time and attended grad school online.  This summer I was all over visiting friends and family in Scotland, Amsterdam, Oregon, and Southern California as well as attending a wedding here in the Bay Area.  I hope next year my summer will be just as busy but my school year will be a bit calmer because I have finished grad school.

That's right I have finished my last classes to get my MLIS from San Jose State and will hopefully get a letter verifying this soon because I will be paranoid that I forgot something until then.  I am very excited about finally being an official librarian so I no longer have to correct people when they act as if everyone who works in a library is a librarian and say that I'm actually a library clerk.  Also, not going to grad school any more will be nice.  I've been going to school with no breaks other than summer since I was in preschool and have been working at the same time since my senior year in high school so only working forty hours a week seems like semi-retirement to me. 

I have plenty of plans to fill my new-found free time though.  I'll finally have time to do more sewing and crafting and hopefully I'll be able to exercise and cook more as well.   Perhaps I'll even be able to keep up with my languages or even learn a new one.  Maybe I'll learn guitar.  Maybe I'll go rockclimbing.  I'll be able to do all the things I said I would when I had free time.  Or at least some of them. It's all very exciting and a bit intimidating.  

I'm also thinking about doing a bit of an overhaul on the blog.  I like the Sassy Shelver name but now that I can actually call myself a librarian I'm tempted to take advantage of the fact.  Plus, I don't actually do much shelving any more.  We'll see.

I've also, of course, done a lot of reading this year.  And I hope to do even more next year now that I don't have homework sucking up my time.  Here's a review of the books I read in 2011.  I am proud to say that I reviewed all of them, although some of these reviews will not come out until next year because I developed a bit of a back log as I was busy wrapping up grad school. 

I read 85 books in 2011.  I've broken it down into audience so I can see how well I'm balancing reading for work and reading for pleasure, genre to see if I'm successfully reading widely so I can recommend different kinds of books, and nationality of author (for the fiction books) to see if I'm reading a diverse mix.  I then whipped up not terribly attractive but very easy to make excel charts of them because it's the holiday season and I've been busy. Without further ado, the stats:

I think I did a good job balancing audience, although with my juvenile and tween fiction classes to take care of I didn't do as much adult reading as I would have liked and I definitely felt it by the end of the year.  I was craving some nice complex adult narratives (and this craving was thoroughly satisfied by Sea of Poppies, which I'll post about later.)

I did an okay job reading widely although it's clear what my favorite genre is.  

I would like to have better percentages on this chart next year.  I read 35% non-American authors, but  I mostly did this by birthplace so some of those authors were born elsewhere and came to America later.  Additionally many of those were from other English-speaking countries.  Only 7 or 9.3% of the authors originated from non-English speaking countries and only 4 of the books I read were originally written in another language.  

I won't make any resolutions for the next year here because it's usually a futile process for me.  My feelings are summed up pretty well by the webcomic sheldon.  I will say that I am excited for the new year though and I hope you are too.  To quote Neil Gaiman: 

"May your coming year be filled with magic and dreams and good madness. I hope you read some fine books and kiss someone who thinks you're wonderful, and don't forget to make some art -- write or draw or build or sing or live as only you can. And I hope, somewhere in the next year, you surprise yourself."

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Wild Girls Review

Book talk: Before Joan moved to California she only read stories.  After she moved to California, Joan began to live them.  It all started when she was exploring in the woods near her house and she found what looked like a troll's living room.  It turned out that it belonged to a girl named Sarah who called herself the Queen of Foxes.  Joan soon became newt in turn and newt and fox explored secret grottoes, defended their fort from invaders, and hid in the woods.  Their real life mixed with a fantasy life and they turned their story in to a writing competition.  But eventually they had to return to reality, and the cold hard truths they could not avoid.

Rocks my socks: I would have loved to have been friends with these girls when I was their age!  As it was my friends and I came up with some pretty elaborate fantasies playing in the park on my street.  Reading this novel took me back on a pleasant trip to those days and many readers their age will be able to easily relate.  The novel is set in the early 70s and they go to Berkeley at one point, which was amusing to read about as well.    The novel could have just stayed at this level and been enjoyable but it goes beyond that.  Fox's mother left her when she was a child and Joan's parents are separated by the end of the novel.  It deals with both of these family situations with compassion and thoughtfulness and doesn't try to provide any easy answers, which I liked.  I also appreciated how the characters got to know their parents better and understand them and their motives and that they had lives before they were born. Plus, they bond over throwing rocks at boys and write stories where they save themselves without any princes needing to intervene, what's not to love?

Rocks in my socks: "'She's a librarian,' Fox said, as if being a librarian were a crime."  Clearly this line was meant as a personal affront to me and I took it as such.  At least it gave me something to put in this section because otherwise it would be blank.

Every book its reader: This would be a great book to read at the beginning of a unit on writing.  Fox's dad is a science fiction author and both girls end up taking a class on writing with a great teacher and so a lot about the craft is mentioned in the novel.  Anyone with a lot of imagination and especially those who try to hold on to it when their peers are trying to look more grown up will enjoy this book.  Fifth grade and up.

Bonus quotes: 
"The tough thing about being a mockingbird is figuring out your own song...Too many songs to sing.  How do you know which one is your own?"

"Any liar can make things up.  But a good writer is more than just a clever liar.  A good writer tells the truth by telling lies."

The Wild Girls  by Pat Murphy

Buy it or check it out today!

Monday, December 26, 2011

Hurt Go Happy Review

Book talk: Joey can understand some people with ease.  Her mother's words are always clear to her, sometimes it even seems as if they can read each other's minds.  Other people, like her step father, she can't really understand at all: it's very hard to lip-read through facial hair.  Joey wants to learn sign language to express herself, but her mother refuses to let her.  Then one day as Joey is gathering mushrooms she runs into an old man.  At first he yells at her for trespassing, but when he realizes that she can't hear his shouts he calms down and introduces her to a new friend.  Sukari knows more signs than Joey does and they get along well.  Sukari likes raisins and tickles but hates dogs and time-out.  Sukari is playful and mischievous and likes being the center of attention.  Sukari is also a chimpanzee.

Rocks my socks: As I mentioned in my Half Brother review, I have a special place in my heart for the great apes.  I have an interest in American Sign Language as well and even studied it in high school. So, right off the bat I was set to like this book.  It didn't disappoint either.  I loved watching Joey as she went from her mother's insistence that she stay entirely in the hearing world to becoming part of the Deaf community. Several communication styles are used in the book, but they are clearly differentiated with bold itallics for written notes and all caps for sign language.  There were times when I could tell this book and Half Brother drew from similar source, like that they both made a point of talking about how the chimpanzees liked washing dishes, but overall the books are very different with different tones and focuses.  The book does show some of human cruelty, especially in the animal testing scene, but Rorby is always careful to remind the reader that the world is mostly full of compassionate people so it doesn't get too dark and it's never cynical.  Both books are more about the main characters than the chimpanzees and Hurt Go Happy had more of a focus on sign language and deafness and Deaf culture while Half Brother had more of a focus on the experimental side of teaching a chimpanzee and the effects of and ethical questions around raising one as a human.

Rocks in my socks: The narrative goes along at a pretty fast clip which meant that sometimes a character would disappear just as you got to know them.  There's a love interest and I was enjoying watching their relationship blossom when suddenly the narrative jumped and he was written out with a brief passage.  They have images of hands forming the signs for the numbers 1-9 at the appropriate chapters which is nice until it got to ten and the pictures showed 'one' and 'zero' instead of just showing the sign for ten.  It looked so wrong to me and it drove me crazy.

Every book its reader: Anyone with an interest in ASL, Deaf culture, or chimpanzees (or all three!) will enjoy this novel.  People who like stories with the broader theme of an outsider finding her place will enjoy it as well. I'd give it to fifth grade and up.

Hurt Go Happy by Ginny Rorby

Buy it or check it out today!

Friday, December 23, 2011

Goliath Review

Book talk: It's the conclusion to the Leviathan Trilogy.  The same whale airship and clanker devices you know and love but this time they visit Hearst Castle, drop in on Mexican revolutionaries, and save Tesla.  And oh yeah, Alek finds out Deryn is a girl, finally!  If you've read the other two books you'll need no incentive to read this one and if you haven't read the first two you should really start with them.

Rocks my socks: I read this book in one sitting when I probably should have been doing homework, but no regrets.  I love the world, I love the characters, I love the narration style, and I love the pictures.  And I've been waiting for Deryn's big reveal for far too long (although thankfully Westerfeld is no Coville when it comes to making you wait for sequels!)  This conclusion was worth waiting for, though.  It was very satisfying both on a gut level and a brain level, which can be hard to accomplish.  "'We save each other,' Deryn whispered. 'That's how it works'"  and that is precisely the way it should be.  I also appreciate the fact that Westerfeld can laugh at himself.  When Alek is introduced to the idea of a cliff-hanger he thinks it "an underhanded scheme" which I thought rich coming from Westerfeld at first, but then in the afterward he awknowledges that he owes a great debt to the man who invented cliff-hangers.  It almost makes up for the end of book one...almost *shakes fist*

Rocks in my socks:  I was super excited when I found out Tesla was in the novel because he is one of my favorites, but I was a bit disappointed with the portrayal of him.  It was like how the portrayal of Victoria and Albert let me down in Prisoners in the Palace.  It's probably more accurate than my romantic imaginings of history but still he was not the most sympathetic character and I wanted him to be.  Also, it talks about him being a great showman and good at pulling people into his schemes for financial support and I do believe this goes against what I have heard. I was under the impression that it was Edison who was the great showman and that's why Tesla almost lost the ac/dc battle.

Every book its reader:  It's really for those who have read the first two books already.  For those who haven't, see my review of the first one.

For those who have already read it, check out the bonus chapter on Westerfeld's blog:

Goliath by Scott Westerfeld

Buy it or check it out today!

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Akata Witch Review

Book talk:  "Akata Witch!" Sunny was used to the taunt, but that didn't make it sting any less. As an albino who spent the first nine years of her life in America, Sunny was used to not fitting in with her Nigerian classmates, but she had no idea how different she was until she saw the end of the world in a candle's flame and discovered  that she really did have magical powers.  In Nigeria, those with magical abilities are called Leopard People and at first Sunny doesn't know what to make of their world.  Among Leopard People what sets you apart is what gives you strength and because Sunny is so different she is also very powerful.  At first her abilities and the new world they show her are thrilling, but before long she realizes that with her powers come a price and for every benefit the Leopard People have to offer there is a hidden danger lurking as well.

Rocks my socks: I have always been drawn to tales of outsiders and this is a story that any outsider will love.  In the world Okorafor creates when Sunny's friend Orlu's parents were informed that their son was dyslexic, they rejoiced because it meant that he would be powerful. Wisdom is also highly valued: when you learn something chittim, the Leopard People currency, rains down from the sky.  The most powerful Leopard Person in town is the head librarian--what's not to love about that? Books are powerful, but they can also be biased and I appreciated that little lesson in information literacy as well.  While valuing wisdom and oddities are the ideals of this world, Okorafor avoids unrealistic utopian imagery by showing that it is not always the case.  Nature plays a big part in the world but it's still clear that the story takes place in modern times: when Sunny has to make a blood pact her first thought is of HIV and when she is first initiated into the society of Leopard People her teacher explains it to her by saying that she was like a computer that came with programs pre-installed that just needed to be activated.  There are several strong females characters and a great scene where Sunny negotiates her way into a soccer match that is usually all-boys and proves her ability to play.  There are many great, imaginative pieces throughout.  My favorite is the artist wasp that stings you if you don't praise its work enough, which briefly paralyzes you so you are forced to watch as it creates a final masterpiece and dies dramatically. This novel is best summed up by the passage "Sunny couldn't stop grinning. Life was getting weirder and weirder.  But this weirdness she really  liked."

Rocks in my socks: Sunny spends the first part of the novel confused from a lack of information about the magical world and the reader shares her confusion.  There are also occasional details that don't add up.  For example at one point Sunny says to Orlu "you and I have been going to the same school since we were about five" but at several other points in the novel she says she did not return to Nigeria until she was nine.  They often say that chittim can only be earned through knowledge but though that is how it initially appears it is also used as currency--it is exchanged for goods and services so clearly you can earn it the usual way as well.  Learning things just seems to be the way inflation is created.  The villain of the novel is often mentioned in passing but never interacts with the protagonists until the end and when they finally do confront him it is very brief and anti-climatic.

Every book its reader: Those who feel different or like they don't belong will find a welcome waiting for them in Okorafor's world. Fans of fantasy who are looking for something beyond the usual fare will delight in this unique world of imagination and magic.  The novel can get a dark at times (the villain regularly appears in the newspaper for killing and maiming children) but it is not particularly violent and violence is not glorified.  In fact any injuries made with their magical knives are reflected on their own bodies.  I'd say it's good for 5th grade and up.

Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor

Buy it or check it out today!

Monday, November 21, 2011

Witches! Review

Book talk: In the winter of 1692 two girls began to twitch and choke and twist their bodies into odd configurations on the floor as snow piled high outside their home.  Their parents tried every remedy, but the symptoms prevailed.  When a doctor was finally called to examine them, his diagnosis was that the girls were bewitched.  The original cause of the girls’ symptoms remains unknown to this day.  What is known is that the girls’ strange behavior set off a case of witch-hunt fever that would turn neighbors against each other and result in the loss of innocent lives and ruin many others.    The Salem Witch Trials are an iconic chapter of American history and its name has been evoked in modern times to point out our folly when suspicions cause us to turn against each other.  But what really happened in Salem in 1692?  Will we ever be able to learn the lessons this dark period of history has to teach us, or will we be forever doomed to repeat it?

Rocks my socks: I thought I knew a lot about the Salem witch trials, but really most of what I knew came from watching too many performances of The Crucible.  This book takes the facts and presents them clearly and concisely.  It describes what happened without sensationalizing it or trying to use those events to serve modern ends.  Schanzer presents the questions the events pose and the various attempts to answer them at the end, but does not take any one side (other than the fact that they were no actual witches involved.)  Instead she takes the rather sensible path of proposing that it was probably a ‘perfect storm’ of many factors that caused it and that we will never know exactly what happened.  The last part of the book is devoted to summaries of what happened to those involved after the trials, which provided a nice perspective.  A bibliography and index are included at the back, which always makes me happy.   My favorite part of the book is the woodcut illustrations throughout.  They are in black and white with touches of red added later on the computer that really cause elements to pop.  There are many interesting images involved with the trails and this book is worth it for these illustrations alone. 

Rocks in my socks: My only complaint is that I wish the book was longer and had more detail.  I found all of the information presented fascinating and craved more. Schanzer quotes from the trial transcripts and other historical documents occasionally, but I wish she used more direct quotes.  She did note her souces in the end matter, however so interested readers can find the whole documents to read.

Every book its reader: Even though Schanzer doesn’t sensationalize the story or emphasize the violence, the story is inherently violent and this can’t be avoided.  I’d save it for fourth grade and up.  The spectacular illustrations and clear narration will entertain adults as well.

Witches! The Absolutely True Tale of Disaster in Salem by Rosalyn Schanzer

Buy it or check it out today!

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Nick of Time Review

Book Talk: Nick MacIver loves reading tales of adventure in the lighthouse where his family lives.  But when a mysterious old chest washes ashore and pirates appear on his island, he finds himself in the middle of his own adventure.  The infamous Billy Blood takes his dog hostage to get his hands on the contents of the chest.  Now Nick must travel back in time and fight on the high seas if he ever wants to see his dog alive again.

Rocks my socks: The use of time travel allows Nick to fight Napoleon's army while his younger sister helps the British gather essential intelligence on the Nazis.  All the while time-traveling pirates fight them in both eras.  The combination of these two pivotal moments in history allow the stakes to remain high and the pace to move quickly along.  I enjoyed Nick's sister in particular and her quick-thinking.  I appreciate that the younger sister got to have her own adventure.

Rocks in my socks: The book was all about what it means to be a hero, and I'm not sure I agree with Bell's definition.  Other than the fact that his definition seems to be pretty narrow and connected entirely with the military, he also defines it as being without fear.  At one point Nick is in the middle of battle and he loses all fear and thinks to himself that that is what it means to be a hero.  I always thought of fear as being an essential part of courage.  Courage to me is doing what you believe in despite fear.  I particularly wouldn't want readers to walk away with the lesson that if they feel fear they are cowards.

Every book its reader: I'd give this to anyone interested in either the Napoleonic Wars or the lead-up to World War II or anyone looking for a classic style adventure novel.   I listened to the audiobook, which was well read and the fact that both a Nick and his sister are followed would make this a good book to listen to as a family on a road trip.

Nick of Time  by Ted Bell

Buy it or check it out today!

Monday, November 7, 2011

Book Masks

I tried a new activity with the 3rd, 4th, and 5th grade students in my library last week and they really enjoyed it.  I call it book masks and it was inspired by an advertising campaign I saw online with people's heads in books arranged in such a way that the cover image seemed to extend to the person reading the book.

The first step is the hardest: find some books where the cover had  a large head on it.  Unfortunately this isn't a subject heading so to find them we mostly went to sections that would be popular like pets and browsed through the books until we found some that worked.  We found the face to face series very helpful.  Then find an "I am" poem template on line that you like.  There are a lot to choose from.  We ended up modifying one so that it would be age-appropriate and short enough to be able to do in a thirty minute class period.  Then we did some examples to show the kids what we were talking about, I like that the way I posed gives the green knight has a cute braided bun.

Then we made a template with the prompt for each line and enough space for the kids to write their poems in.  Before each class came in we arranged the books facing up around the edge of the room so that they could choose one.  Then we introduced the activity to them, showed them the examples, handed out the templates and let them go wild.  When they finished their poems they brought it up to us and we took their picture.  I think they showed a lot of creativity in their poems and I found it interesting seeing what they thought others would wonder, hope, etc. The best part was that if they got stuck writing the poem the mask was a book so they could open it up and read it to find out more about their creature and get inspiration.  Some of the kids even made multiple poems and asked to take some templates home so they could do more.  It was a great activity for Halloween when they were all antsy and I think I'll do it again next year.  I've included examples of the student poems below:

Monday, October 10, 2011

The Girl Who Could Fly Review

Book talk: Mrs. McCloud knew there was something wrong with her daughter the day she rolled off of a table and floated in the air instead of falling.  She did her best to protect Piper from gossip by keeping her at home and encouraging her to keep her feet on the ground, but Piper was born to fly.  When she finally gets to play with kids her age she soars in the air to catch a fly ball and the next morning the McClouds' farm is swarmed by reporters.  They are saved from the media circus by an elegant woman who whisks Piper away to a special school for those with extraordinary abilities.  Piper is excited for the chance to interact with kids like her and she is provided with clothes and meals customized to her tastes.  But soon the paradise of the school starts to feel like a prison.  Piper dreams of the sky from thirteen floors below ground and makes plans for an escape.

Rocks my socks: Piper is a lovable character with a folksy farm-girl charm and the narration has an old-fashioned storytelling charm about it as well.  The ability to fly isn't anything new in works of fiction but Forester shows a lot of imagination in the abilities of the other children and especially in the animals and plants at the institution.  Watching Piper's parents slowly learn to accept Piper's uniqueness is heart-warming and reminds me of Marilla and Matthew Cuthbert from Anne of Green Gables (which Forester cited as a favorite of hers in the interview at the back.)  I liked the novel's overall message that you should embrace what makes you unique and use your talents to try to make the world a better place.

Rocks in my socks: Sometimes the folksy sayings and overly earnest narration became a bit much for me and at times it seems to cross a line and make fun of the farm life it is depicting.  Piper's parents eventually come around but the rest of the town never accepts Piper and a lot of focus is placed on the mean-spirited ways of the town gossip.  In contrast everyone associated with the institute outside of the small town is portrayed as sympathetic, with even the main villain revealing a history that softens the reader's attitude twoard her at the end.  The children at the institution have great names that show diverse origins and sound nice but all the town children other than Piper have alliterative double names like Billy Bob, Piggy Pooh, and Lizzie Lee. Some of the characterization is a bit sloppy with the twin characters presented as interchangeable and even Piper lacking dimension with her unfailing optimism and constant commitment to do what she believes right.  I appreciate the fact that the school bully ended up being Piper's ally but this change in his character came from nowhere and was completely inconsistent with the way he was previously portrayed in the novel.  The plot is full of holes as well: from the basic premise of a government facility spending ridiculous amounts of money trying to make abnormal things normal instead of trying to use their abilities to their advantage, to the details like the torture scene where one moment she is in so much pain she can hardly breathe and the next, with the same conditions, she is making defiant quips.

Every book its reader: This book is great for those looking for an old-fashioned narrative with folksy charm.  Fans of superhero stories will enjoy reading about the kids' abilities and unlike most superhero stories the protagonist is female.  There is a torture scene and descriptions of the way the institute is mistreating its subjects, but these scenes are so unrealistic and the resolution is so neat that it is still appropriate for younger children.  I'd give it to fourth through seventh grade.

The Girl Who Could Fly by Victoria Forester

Buy it or check it out!

Monday, October 3, 2011

Half Brother Review

Book talk: Ben's father can talk anyone into anything.  He even made a cross-country road trip to their new house sound like fun.  But a few days in he ran out of things to talk about and Ben was left bored, staring out the window as the countryside passed in a blur.  Now Ben's dad is trying to convince him that the baby chimpanzee his mom brought home is his brother.  He says it's an important part of their research to treat him like a part of their family while they try to teach him sign language.  Babysitting is no fun when your little brother is a mischievous chimp.  Ben learns a lot from him, though.  Like how to act like an alpha male to become popular in his new school, and how to study Jennifer's behavior to get her to like him.  Eventually Ben fins himself convinced once again and grows to love his half brother Zan.  But when his parents' experiment turns sour and his father says that Zan is really just a test subject after all, Ben refuses to be convinced and for the first time in his life he decides to fight back, no matter the cost.

Rocks my socks: Full disclosure: I am a sucker for this type of story.  My favorite animal is the gorilla and I have been fascinated by the great apes ever since my 4th grade class did a unit on Jane Goodall, Diane Fossey, and Birute Galdikas.  That said, I truly believe that even if I wasn't predisposed to like this novel I would have loved it anyway.  Watching Ben and Zan's relationship develop is touching as it goes from resentment to a vague feeling of concern for his well-being to his confession that "I wasn't good at a lot of things...But I was good at loving Zan." At the end the issue of animal experimentation comes up but it never gets preachy.  Some tough questions are posed and no easy answers are given.  Zan is an extremely sympathetic character, but these kinds of experiments did take place and based on all I've read of them his behavior is realistic for a chimpanzee. Oppel weaves the question of what it means to be a person throughout the book from the consequences of trying to make chimpanzees act like humans to consequences of treating humans like chimpanzees as Ben tries to imitate an alpha male to fit in at his new school and keeps a logbook on his crush because he believes "If I could teach a chimp sign language, I could probably teach Jennifer Godwin to fall for me." Oppel also mirrors the relationship between Ben and his father and Zan and Ben's father cleverly and describes how Ben begins to over identify with Zan and feel like a test subject himself so that when his father rejects Zan, Ben feels rejected as well.  When Ben reaches the point where he looks back and realizes how when he thought everything was going well it was really heading for disaster I couldn't help but remember times when I had been through the same thing.  By the end, while I naturally felt sorry for Zan and his fate I was just as concerned about the effect that had on Ben.  Which is really saying something for for me because I normally care far more about the fate of the animals than the humans in these stories (By the end of the Chaos Walking trilogy I was so sick of animals sacrificing themselves for the protagonists that I no longer cared about their fate and if anything wished ill upon them.)  I picked up this book to read about a chimpanzee, but what kept me turning the pages all night ended up being the human interest story.

Rocks in my socks: The only thing I wish was different about this book is the publication date.  I would have gone absolutely crazy for this when I was in school.

Every book its reader: The premise of this book makes it an easy sell for animal lovers and they will certainly enjoy it, but I think anyone looking for a good realistic fiction story about what it's like to be thirteen will enjoy it as well.  Pre-teens and teens will be able to relate to it best so I'd give it to 6th grade and up.

Half Brother by Kenneth Oppel

Buy it or check it out today!

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Prisoners in the Palace Review

Book talk: A week ago Liza's biggest concern was what dress flattered her figure best as she planned her first season in London with her mother.  Now she is a penniless orphan working as a lady's maid.  It could be worse--at least she is working for princess Victoria.  But for a future Queen, Victoria's palace looks pretty shabby and she hardly has any power.  Her mother treats her as if she is still a child and never allows her to be alone.  She plots with Sir John to take over Victoria's power as a regent and keeps Victoria hidden from view so that people will believe the rumors that she cannot handle the position herself.  Before she knows what's happening Liza finds herself spying for Victoria and making deals with newsmen on fleet street.  Victoria may be Queen some day, but until that day comes she is trapped by her mother--a prisoner in her own palace.

Rocked my socks: Liza was a resourceful, intelligent protagonist and I appreciated that.  She thinks on her feet and she isn't afraid to risk herself for what she thinks is right.  She suffers a huge fall in status but accepts her lot and adapts pretty well.  I enjoyed seeing young Victoria and the intrigue behind the scenes.  At first she behaves in a rather immature and thoughtless manner, but as more was revealed about how she was raised it was easy to understand how she became the way she was and all the more exciting when she found the strength to fight back.  Real excerpts from Victoria's diary (which was reviewed by her mom before she could commit it to ink) and letters from her mother are included throughout the text as well as diary entries from the fictional Liza, which provided a nice balance between fact and fiction.  There were some parts that would have been too outrageous to include if they hadn't been based on historical fact, such as the boy that was found living inside Victoria's nursery at Buckingham Palace (although his presence was moved up earlier to her time at Kensington to fit into the timeline of the novel).  I also enjoyed the purely fictional interludes between Liza and her handsome newspaper contact.  There is an author's note with information on the characters and a list of further reading at the back as well, which I appreciated.

Rocks in my socks: The dialogue felt a bit clunky to me at times ("Miss Elizabeth Hastings, you know I am smitten with you.") and while the narration was smooth in general there points where MacColl took time out to wink at the reader that felt forced (Victoria expresses a dislike for studying Queen Elizabeth and her mother replies "They named an entire age after her...You should be so fortunate!")  The way MacColl represented the dialect of the lower class characters drove me crazy as well.  Even with the same character it was inconsistent.  Sometimes when Nell spoke it was 'your' and sometimes it was 'yer.' MacColl seems interested by strange figures of speech and uses the flash patter slang, but she doesn't have a great ear for pronunciation.

Every book its reader: I'd give this to anyone 6th grade and up who is looking for a good historical romance or anyone with an interest in Queen Victoria.  Be warned, however that the romance is Liza's and not Victoria's.  Anyone looking to swoon over Victoria and Albert will be sorely disappointed.  Fans of the noble woman become destitute only to rise once more to success through hard work and high morals story line (I'm looking at you Jane Eyre and Margaret Hale) will also enjoy this novel.

Buy it or check it out today!

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Wedding Napkins

When my friends got married this summer, I wanted to make them something extra-special and unique.  They have four adorable pet chinchillas and are very fond of squirrels, so I decided to make them these napkins:

To make them I used a sketch by my uber talented friend Amber as a template for the squirrels and a  random image I found on Google for the chinchillas.  I was visiting my friends in Scotland when I made them so I went to a local charity shop and bought clothes off the 50 pence rack in the colors I needed and then cut them  up.  I traced the designs onto freezer paper, which I ironed onto the fabric.  I ironed fusible interfacing onto the other side and cut out the sandwich to make my appliques.  I ironed the appliques onto the napkins and did some extra stitching for details.  

The backs of my stitches looked messy so I embroidered their names onto more fabric scraps which I appliqued on using more fusible interfacing to cover it up.  I think they turned out pretty well, although it's the first time I made anything like this so I'm nervous about how it will hold up over time.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The Fantastic Secret of Owen Jester Review

Book talk:  Tooley is the biggest, slimiest bullfrog in Graham pond and he belongs to Owen Jester.  It took him weeks, but Owen finally caught him and after all that effort little miss know-it-all Viola wants him to let Tooley go.  Who does she think she is?  Viola may think she knows everything, but she doesn't.  She doesn't know how Owen is going to build the perfect cage for Tooley so he will be happy.  She doesn't know that Owen and his friends have a code word to use when they want to get away from her.  Most importantly, she doesn't know that one night as Owen was listening to the clack-clack-clack of the train tracks he heard something else: a thud, followed by a tumble, tumble, tumble.  Owen doesn't know what it is, but he and Travis and Stumpy are going to find it.  And one thing's for sure--when they do find whatever fantastic thing fell off that train they are NOT going to share it with Viola.

 Rocks my socks: I love how Owen's relationship with Viola develops from hating her for always being right to recognizing what she has to offer and collaborating with her and eventually growing to respect and value her.  The voice of the narrator sounds authentic and he has a way of personifying his emotions that I love: For example "Owen's disappointment swirled around inside him and then settled with a heavy thunk in the pit of his stomach." He also describes his concern for Tooley as something 'niggling' him throughout the story until he is finally moved to do what he thinks is right.  The narration is tight and makes frequent use of paragraph and chapter breaks to mark the passing of time and speed the story along.  This occasionally leads to wonderful combinations like chapter 17 ending with "There is now way she's going to go down there in those woods and help us." and chapter 18 beginning with "'I got Jarvis's hacksaw,' Viola said when she stepped out of the woods into the clearing. 'I decided to come help y'all, after all.'"

Rocks in my socks: The characters other than Viola and Owen aren't really developed and there's occasional hints of an interesting story around characters like Owen's sick grandfather and Viola's mother that are never explored.  Although the plot does move at a fast pace there isn't much that actually happens which leads to a rather flat climax and an ending that was a bit too neat for my liking.

Every book its reader: This lazy summer book makes a perfect lazy summer read.  Kids who spend their summers playing outside will find it easy to relate to these characters and kids who spend the summer indoors will enjoy living vicariously through Owen.  It's not action-packed, but it is a quick, easy read with a light, easy tone and a hint of humor that keeps you reading.  I'd say the reading level puts it at 3rd and 4th grade but the content has appeal to and would be appropriate for younger audiences as a read aloud.

The Fantastic Secret of Owen Jester by Barbara O'Connor

Buy it or check it out today

Monday, September 19, 2011

Liar, Liar Review

Book talk: Kevin is a liar, but who isn't?  Most people lie every day.  It's just good manners if you think about it.  The only difference between Kevin and most people is that he's really good at it.  So good in fact that he convinces his social studies partner Katie that he's come down with a deadly disease so that she volunteers to do their project by herself.  Sure it's a lie, but Katie prefers to work on her own anyway, so who is he hurting?  Besides Kevin has better things to focus his attention on, like Katrina.  Kevin is determined to find out what kind of guy she likes and then become that guy--or at least tell enough lies to convince Katrina that he has.

Rocks my socks: The reason that Kevin gets away with so much is because he is so charming, and he charms the reader just like anyone else.  Paulsen's sense of humor as he depicts the world of 8th grade boys was amusing as well and I couldn't help laughing at Kevin's favorite band, Bucket o' Puke n' Snot, and their hit songs "I Could Kill and Eat You," "You Suck, but Let's Hook Up Anyway," and the classic "Loving You Is a Pit of Death."  Kevin's interaction with the boy he babysits is endearing as well.

Rocks in my socks: As you might expect from a story about a liar, the plot isn't really believable.  The fact that so many people including his teachers believe his outlandish stories stretched my credulity.  The characters themselves aren't really believable either and Kevin is the only one with any dimensions.  At times the novel felt a bit insensitive to me as well with Kevin describing himself as "socially retarded" and another character as "husky, I guess you'd call it if you were looking fora  nice way to say that she's got a great future ahead of her as a load-bearing wall."   He feigns an interest in this girl while really ignoring everything she says because she's his crush's best friend and he justifies his actions to himself by saying they're "allies, not buddies."  In general he treats a lot of people like a real jerk and even when he tries to make amends in the end it didn't feel entirely genuine to me.

Every book its reader: They say you're not supposed to judge a book by its cover, but we all do.  This one's small size, short length, and cartoony cover image make it look like something that belongs in the easy chapter section.  But the characters are in 8th grade and I certainly wouldn't feel comfortable giving it to anyone younger than 5th.  At the same time the narrator sounded younger than that at times and I'm not sure older kids would pick up a book that looks like this one.  Still, as long as you don't take the novel seriously it is pretty funny and that combined with the short length would make it good for middle school kids with low reading levels.

Liar, Liar by Gary Paulsen

Buy it or check it out

Incarceron Review

Book talk: It seemed like a good idea at the time.  Take all the criminals and put them somewhere out of the way.  Give them a whole new world--vast and varied and equipped with everything they could ever need, including an all-seeing intelligence to watch over them and keep them in line.  It was a great experiment, and a failed one.  Now the prisoners struggle to survive knowing that at any moment they might be killed or disfigured at Incarceron's whim.  Meanwhile those in power on the outside have done their best to stop all progress and trap the world in the past--forcing everyone to act and dress in Era.  Not everyone is happy with these restrictions though, including the daughter of the warden of Incarceron.  When she makes contact with a boy in her father's prison they are determined to change both worlds.  There's only one problem--no one can enter or leave Incarceron, and no one but the warden even knows where it is.

Rocks my socks: I love the way the novel is set in a future that is trapped in the past so that we can enjoy extrapolated technologies as well as drama at court.  The prison also makes a deliciously dark and formidable opponent for our intrepid protagonists to face.  Speaking of which the characters are very well developed with shades of grey and multiple dimensions and unique voices.  I don't know which I love more--Finn, the boy who hangs onto hope even while living in the depths of evil; Claudia, the defiant, intelligent girl who risks her life in period attire; her tutor Jared who is inspired by Claudia to face the dangerous world beyond his books; or perhaps Kerio, the self-described "artist of theft.  Devastatingly handsome, utterly ruthless, totally fearless." On top of all that the pacing is superb with meaty bits to ponder peppered in lightly to keep the reader's mind engaged while maintaining a fast paced adventure.

Rocks in my socks: At points it became a bit heavy-handed--especially towards the end.  It was a too much for me when the prison said "They torment each other.  There is no system that can stop that, no place that can wall out evil, because men bring it in with them, even in the children." I'm pretty sure even young readers could have figured out that something was wrong with the prison's correctional philosophy without Incarceron explicitly stating it.  I also felt a bit uncomfortable when a scholar, upon finding what was really a good source of information says "This is a place where dust gathers and doubt enters the heart...This is not a refuge.  It's a trap."  He was right that they should go, but his reason for wanting to leave concerns me.  What kind of a scholar flees at the sign of information that might challenge his views?  A true scholar should embrace a source like that.  Overall there was a bit too much emphasis on blind faith in dubious stories for my liking.  And I can't go into it without revealing too much, but the ghost of Marley moment at the end was overwrought for my tastes as well.

Every book its reader: I think this book has wide appeal.  It has a science-fiction feel with the sentient prison and a fantasy feel with the parts set in period.  Fisher does a great job creating a compelling cast for those who enjoy character-driven plots but she also keeps the pacing up for those who prefer action.  There aren't long passages of philosophical debate in the narration to turn readers off, but there are bits worth considering for those who enjoy a novel they can debate and discuss.  And everything is woven in well enough together that I'd give it to anyone who enjoys any of the traits I've mentioned.  Alternating between protagonists of either gender helps widen the audience as well.  It can be violent and dark at times though so I'd save it for 7th grade and up.

Incarceron by Catherine Fisher

Buy it or check it out today

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Evil Genius Review

Book talk: Cadel's slight build and curls may make him seem harmless, but beneath those innocent blue eyes lurks the mind of an evil genius.  When he is only seven he gets in trouble with the police for hacking into computer systems and by the time he is thirteen he is attending the Axis Institute.  Axis is not your average college.  Instead of courses in biology, physics, and cultural appreciation they have courses in contagion, explosives, and forgery.  Cadel is getting his degree in infiltration so he can follow in the steps of his father, the infamous Dr. Darkkon.  At first Cadel loves the challenge, but as the student body starts dying off he begins to question the techniques used by his teachers.  Soon Cadel starts planning an escape, but whatever he does he must follow the university's first and only rule--don't get caught!

Rocks my socks: Jinks somehow managed to take a character with a genius IQ who delights in destroying the lives of others and make me not only relate to him, but pity him.  Cadel's youthful transgressions are easily forgiven when the full scale of the manipulation he has suffered is revealed.  I loved the way Cadel's act of showing interest in others and being nice to them, originally designed to disguise his own evil intent, eventually became a genuine habit which ends up saving him.  Just when I cared more about Cadel than ever, Jinks skillfully threw him headlong into danger and picked up the pace to keep me turning pages to discover Cadel's fate. Intellectually Cadel may be able to outwit most adults, but emotionally he is believably young and fragile as he tries to navigate social relationships. I appreciated the humor of the novel and I found the tidbits from his classes interesting, but what really touched me was Cadel's realization that there are good people and that the Earth isn't a lost cause.

Rocks in my socks: The pacing of the novel was uneven.  Cadel whips through elementary through high school with only a few key incidents highlighted over the years and even fewer characters worth remembering.  Once he reaches the Axis institute, however, a whole slew of classmates and teachers are introduced and it was difficult for me to keep track of them at first, although this naturally became easier as they died off.  At Axis time is taken out of the narration to describe the lessons the children are being taught which I found interesting but did slow things down considerably. The first half had a leisurely, often humorous feel to it. Then the novel makes an unexpected turn for the serious and begins to speed down a twisty path that kept me up late turning pages and left me a bit exhausted.

Every book its reader: It's hard to put this novel into one neat box. Fans of humor will enjoy it when  Dr. Darkkon hides his communication device  by placing it in a toilet and acting as if he's sick when he's making a video call to Cadel.  Fans of thrillers will enjoy seeing how Cadel escapes from his kidnappers.  Fans of superheros will enjoy reading about the aspiring villains at the Institute and their budding powers.  Fans of Harry Potter will enjoy reading about the unique classes Cadel attends.  And computer and science geeks will enjoy the jokes and riddles like the code Cadel uses with his pen pal involving the periodic table of elements.  But because the humor is mostly at the beginning, the school story mostly in the middle, and the fast-paced thriller scenes are mostly at the end it might be hard to sell it to one person unless they enjoy a variety of genres. I'd give it to 7th grade and up.

Evil Genius by Catherine Jinks

Buy it or check it out today

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Okay for Now Review

Book talk: Doug Swieteck once played catch with Joe Pepitone of the New York Yankees and he gave him his signed baseball cap.  It was the first thing Doug ever owned that didn't belong to another Swieteck before him, and like most good things, it didn't last.  His brother took his cap and his father lost his temper and his job and now they have to move to stupid Marysville where everyone looks at him like he doesn't belong.  But Marysville isn't all bad.  There's Lil Spicer who can burp louder than anyone he's ever heard, and the library has these Audubon prints on display with birds that look like they're about to fly off the page.  But the town needs money and the prints are being sold off and just when his life starts going okay things get messed up again.  Still, maybe Doug can put the prints back in the book where they belong and pick up the pieces of his own life.  His science teacher says that man is about to walk on the moon--if that's possible then who knows what other impossible things may come true.

Rocks my socks: Things start off bad for Doug, then they get worse.  Then they start to get better but that glimmer is stamped out and he's thrown ever farther into the abyss.  But then things start to improve again and the complicated knots his life has been tied up in start to get unraveled.  This unraveling is done masterfully in a believable way and avoiding saccharine scenes.  Things will never be perfect for Doug, but they will be okay.  This novel gets very dark but it left me uplifted with a sense that no matter how bad things get, there is always a way to make them okay again.  Each chapter is named after an Audubon print that appears at the beginning of it and these paintings are woven throughout the book in the artful way that they deserve.  There are many people who do bad things throughout the novel but there are no villains.  The narrative voice is compelling and believable and adds humor to the dark corners of the novel.  He's a type of kid that is underrepresented in young adult fiction and  I think many will be able to relate to him (and his desire to punch Percy Bysshe Shelley in the face).  He starts off not wanting to draw because only chumps draw and ends up not only becoming an excellent artist but enjoying Jane Eyre and providing the off-stage scream of Rochester's deranged wife in Broadway production of it.  This book made me cry several times, but it also made me laugh and when I turned the last page I felt happier and wiser than before I turned the first.

Rocks in my socks: None! There wasn't a single thing I'd change about this book.  Plus the cover is great!  It even gives me an idea as to how I could improve the cover of the last book I reviewed (Death Cloud).

Every book its reader:  I'd give this to fans of Catcher in the Rye because Doug's voice reminded me a lot of Holden's (although I like Doug better).  This novel however, while dark isn't really violent and there's no hookers, so I think it can be enjoyed by a much larger age range.  I'd give it to kids as young as 5th grade and I think adults could get just as much from it.  For certain kids who have a lot in common with Doug I think this book could have a huge impact.  But really this book could be enjoyed by anyone who has ever felt like they didn't belong somewhere--and who hasn't felt that?

Okay for Now by Gary D. Schmidt

Buy it or check it out today!

Monday, September 12, 2011

Death Cloud Review

Book talk: It's the summer of 1868 and Sherlock Holmes is about to encounter his first murder victim.  At first he doesn't believe Matty when he says that a black cloud rose from the dead man's body and moved against the wind, but then Sherlock finds another corpse and sees the same death cloud with his own eyes.  The local doctor thinks it's the plague--but Sherlock knows better.  Nobody will listen to a fourteen year old boy, so Sherlock starts his own investigations.  But soon he learns too much and although the local officials don't take him seriously, the criminals he's investigating think he's a serious threat--one that needs to be eliminated.

Rocks my socks: I enjoyed seeing such a famously confident man as an awkward young boy.  While it may be entertaining to imagine young Sherlock as a shorter version of the adult we're familiar with, I think there's much more to be gained from seeing him portrayed as more of an average teen.  Of course Sherlock could never be entirely average and he's still very intelligent in this  incarnation, but he hasn't yet mastered the application of that intelligence.  It makes it easier to relate to him as well as providing the valuable lesson that raw talent is not enough.  I enjoyed the elements that seemed supernatural but ended up having rational explanations.  The villain ended up being highly entertaining as well, but I won't spoil it by saying why.

Rocks in my socks: Just look at that cover--look at it!  Why in the world would they cast Justin Bieber in the role of Sherlock?  It may be a marketing ploy but I don't know who they think they're marketing this book to anyway.  There's a lot of action with very little romance and even less character development.  It's a much more classically male book than female and most teenage boys I know hate Beiber.  Yeah, I'm going to spell his name two different ways because I really don't care enough about him to look up the proper spelling.  Cover issues aside, the characters are pretty flat and the dialogue and narration felt a bit clunky at times.  Lane clearly spent a lot of time researching for the novel but sometimes these researched tidbits seem forced in and slow down the action.

Every book its reader: I'd give this to 6th grade and up looking for a fast-paced mystery.  Fans of Sherlock Holmes will also enjoy seeing this fairly faithful younger version that is the first of its kind to have the endorsement of the Conan Doyle estate.

Death Cloud by Andrew Lane.

Buy it or check it out today!

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Reckless Review

Book talk: Of the two Reckless brothers, Jacob was always the one who lived up to the family name.  Ever since he discovered the world behind the mirror he's practically made Reckless into his job description as he travels the fairy-tale world hunting for treasures.  A comb that turns you into a crow will fetch a high price, if you can escape the witch that  it belongs to and live to collect your reward.  But Will never knew about the world his brother disappeared to, he only knew that he was often left alone.  Until one day when Will discovers his secret and follows him in, only to fall victim to a fairy's curse that is slowly turning him to stone.  Now the clock is ticking and Jacob will have to use everything he's learned in his travels if he wants to save Will.  He never imagined that his own brother's life would end up being the most dangerous treasure he's ever sought.

Rocks my socks: I love a good fairy tale retold and these Grimmer versions (pardon the pun) are a particular weakness of mine.  There's enough of the familiar fairy tales in this world to please readers with recognition and enough new elements to intrigue them.  There are love interests, but the romantic side plots don't detract from the main plot of the story.  The main characters are boys, which doesn't often happen in these fairy tale retellings, so I found it to be a refreshing change.  The illustrations throughout are beautiful.

Rocks in my socks: There is some weak characterization in the novel.  Jacob Reckless is a bit distant, which makes it hard for readers to connect with him.  His brother is a bit overly weak at first to make for more of a contrast as he turns into stone.  We don't get to find out much about Clara except that she loves Will, which seems to be most of her purpose.  The same can be said for the shape-shifter girl who spends most of her time in the shape of a fox but acting like a love-sick puppy following her man to the ends of the Earth.  Hopefully these characters will get fleshed out more in the next installment of the series.

Every book its reader: Don't fall into the trap of thinking that because it's about fairy tales and heavily illustrated this is for kids--it's not.  This isn't a Disney fairy tale of happily ever after, this is a fairy tale world where sleeping beauty never woke up to true love's kiss and her castle is covered in the corpses of those who tried to give it to her.  There's nothing explicit in the novels, but the general tone is very dark and Jacob does spend the night with a fairy at one point.  The darkness will appeal to teens though and the fast-pacing and stronger male presence will appeal to many who might not otherwise pick up fairy tale novels.  I'd focus on the adventure aspect more than the fairy tale aspect when recommending it and I'd save it for 7th grade and up.

Reckless by Cornelia Funke

Buy it at your local independent book store or check it out at your local library.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The Mortal Instruments Series Review

Book Talk: It was supposed to be just another night out with her best friend.  But somewhere things went wrong, and ever since that night Clary's life has been turned completely upside-down, and she is starting to fear that it will never be the same again.  She has lived in New York with her mom all her life, but now she's discovering a whole new side of the city. A side that has always been there if you know where, and more importantly how, to look.  This new world is inhabited by vampires, werewolves, and fairies as well as half-angel shadow hunters that are trained to fight demons.  Clary isn't sure she wants to be a part of it, but when her mother is kidnapped by demons, where else does she have to go?

Rocks my socks: To me Cassandra Clare is an itch that I know I shouldn't scratch but I do anyway because it feels so darn good.  I know it's been done to death but I still love the classic urban fantasy premise that even in today's modern society there's a world of magic hidden just beneath the surface.  And for a book about an ongoing battle between the forces of good and evil there are a surprising amount of shades of grey in the characters.  Plus, at least this series has strong women characters and female warriors and the female protagonist saves the male just as often as he saves her.  The love dodecahedron they have going on is deliciously awkward as well, especially in the second and third books.  I can't help it--I love a good forbidden love story, I blame the bit of French blood in me.  They also have some good adult characters that the teens can rely on, which I appreciate.  The cast becomes more diverse as the series goes on as well with characters of different ethnic backgrounds, family situations, and sexual orientation.

Rocks in my socks: I don't enjoy Cassandra Clare for the quality of her prose or her originality.  Her writing is often cliched and full of tropes and the plot is extremely predictable.  There wasn't anything in any of these books that I haven't seen before, but she does know how to manipulate these well-used pieces into a highly entertaining whole.  And based on the prevalence and popularity of things like four chord songs I'd say there's something to be said for well-done variations on popular themes.  Especially after a summer of travelling all over and being constantly confronted by the unfamiliar I found these books extremely comforting.  Some would call these books 'guilty pleasures' but I don't think there's any need to feel guilty about indulging in the safe and familiar, as long as you also leave your comfort zone to seek more challenging books and activities as well.

Every book its reader: I'd give this to fans of urban fantasy and romance.  I think it would appeal to fans of the Twilight series and they even have an endorsement from Stephanie Meyers displayed on the front.  And lord knows they could use some stronger female role models after Bella.  As you would expect in a battle between good and evil, there is some violence in the books and, especially as the series goes on, some implied sexual content but nothing too explicit.  I'd say it's fine for 7th grade and up.

The Moral Instruments series by Cassandra Clare

Buy it at your local indie book store or check it out at your local library

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Summer Reading Snippets

Classes have just begun for my last semester before graduation and it looks like my grad school is going to go out with a bang.  In addition, because I work in a school library I don't need as detailed reviews of adult books for my own purposes.  So, to save time and catch up after my summer full of lots of travelling but little productivity I'm just going to review these books in quick snippets.  Ready, set go!

This was the first book I read during my trip to Scotland as my friends eagerly pushed it into my hands, and I must say that it did not disappoint.  The story follows a 12-year-old who supports himself through selling marijuana (although he doesn't use it himself) and solving crimes.  He seems to specialize in catching pedophiles thanks to part of his own troubled past in the foster care system.  This book does require a healthy suspension of disbelief because the narrative voice doesn't really ring true as being that of a 12-year-old.  The whole plot is much more believable as the fantasy of a 12-year-old with his past than as any sort of reality.  Still, the classic dark, noir style of the narration and its contrast with the age of the protagonist is actually part of why I enjoyed the novel so much.  Is it realistic?  No.  Do I care? No.  Amazon seems to advertise this as for ages 13 and up, but it read like an adult novel to me.  Yes, it's not very graphic in its depiction of violence and pedophilia but there's enough described and hinted at that if I'd only give it to mature, older teens.  Nickel Plated by Aric Davis.  Buy it or check it out

I have always been a fan of the absurd, and as far as I'm concerned Jasper Fforde rivals Dali in his ability to paint absurd landscapes.  This book, set in a world where your status is determined by your ability to see color, is the most unique dystopian premise I have ever read.  Those with high color perception end up in positions of power whether they deserve it or not (the latter being most often the case) while those who perceive the world as nothing but shades of grey are doomed to a life of hard labor.  All the little touches of Fforde's absurd wit delighted me and quite often led me to quote passages aloud to the friends I was staying with (this is I'm sure part of the reason why I usually live alone).  However, as much as I enjoyed the novel I did feel like the end took a rather abrupt turn that threw me off-kilter, and not in a good way.  Still, I look forward to the next installment and seeing what in the world will make its way out of the dark recesses of Fforde's brain and into the light next.  Shades of Grey by Jasper Fforde.  Buy it or check it out.

I feel like writing a review of this novel is a bit pointless because most people have already made their mind up one way or the other about whether or not they are going to read Austen novels and I doubt anything I say will change that.  Still, for what it's worth, I really enjoyed Persuasion.  Emma and Elizabeth are the types of women many like to imagine themselves to be with their ability to boldly exchange witticisms at dances and act with confidence and conviction.  While the protagonist of this novel, Anne, is the type of woman who enjoys imagining herself to be Emma and Elizabeth.  Anne endures trying relationships with silence and patience and tries to content herself with what she has while dreaming of what might be.  She has the wit to think of cutting remarks, but not the boldness to say them aloud.  She entertains herself with her sarcastic portraits of those around her, but she does not entertain others with her sardonic wit except to her closest confidants.  Persuasion was not the most dramatic Austen novel I have read, but it was the most touching.   Persuasion by Jane Austen.  Buy it or check it out.

 This novel is unlike any other detective novel I have ever read.  In many ways the 12-year-old detective mentioned above is a more typical fictional detective than Inspector Imanishi.  I'm used to detectives with a permanent swagger in their walk who throw themselves headlong into danger in their pursuit of justice.  While Inspector Imanishi gets his information through polite requests and quiet determination.  The case occasionally goes cold and he works on other things for a while.  He shows concern over the amount of the police station's resources he is consuming in his trips to track down his leads. But the subdued nature of his investigations did not make it any less gripping.  Instead of unnecessary and unrealistic action sequences there are added details about the lives of the people involved in the case and the fascinating artistic set that they belong to. The details of life in Japan at that time are also interesting.  This was a great vacation read in that it leads you on the kind of trip you'd actually enjoy: exploring another country and observing its culture at a leisurely pace.  I'd recommend it to anyone interested in 1960s Japanese culture or a different take on police procedurals.     Inspector Imanishi Investigates by Seicho Matsumoto.  Buy it or check it out.

Overall I thought that considering the billing of this collection as one for geeks many of the stories seemed surprisingly mainstream. I loved the opening story about a Star Wars and a Star Trek fan who wake up in the same bed after a drunken night at comic con.  I also loved Cassandra Clare's story for showing that while guys like Heathcliff may be entertaining in fiction they're not what you should be looking for in real life.  The tangled romantic webs of the quiz bowl story, the quiet knight LARPer, and Wendy Mass's touching astronomy story were more highlights.   Unfortunately the theatre geek story was a premise I've seen done before and it ended up annoying me, and as much as I love Rocky I could take or leave the story about it.  I'm normally a huge Westerfeld fan, but his story didn't do much for me either and there was at least one story in the collection that I couldn't be bothered finishing.  I didn't much like the comics in-between the stories either.  I'm not sure if they were meant to be funny, but if so they didn't often succeed.  They seemed to mostly reinforce geek stereotypes instead of transcending or subverting them.  While some of the stories could be enjoyed by teens as young as 6th or 7th grade, many of the stories are for much older teens.    I'd say the collection overall is for a high school aged audience at the youngest.  Geektastic edited by Holly Black and Cecil Castellucci.  Buy it or check it out.

 This was the summer reading for my job, and it was very interesting. Unfortunately even though it was the summer reading for my work I doubt they'll be implementing all the recommendations and a lot of the advice consists of things that are beyond most people's control.  For example, I'd love to take a nap every afternoon, but unless my employer allows for nap time that isn't going to happen and it seems a bit mean to have us read a book saying we'd perform better if we did a, b, and c and then not allow us to do a, b, and c.  Still, there are some tips in there that anyone could use about things like the myth of multi-tasking and even if all the content isn't useful it is all interesting.  It is also written in a clear style with many entertaining anecdotes and although it is at times repetitive at least it states its reason for being so.   Brain Rules by John Medina.  Buy it or check it out.

 I saw a description on the DVD for the miniseries that was based on this book that called it something along the lines of Pride and Prejudice with a social conscience and I thought it very fitting and well-put.  This novel follows the story of Margaret, the son of a minister whose dissent causes him to quit his profession and move his family from a comfortable country home to an industrialized city in the North of England.  There's the kind of high romance with misguided first impressions that you'd expect from an Austen novel, with additional themes of the effect of industrialization on England as Margaret makes the acquaintance of a family who works in one of the factories and ends up on the front line of a strike trying to reconcile the masters and the workers.  Even though I already saw the miniseries (which I also recommend) and so I knew what was going to happen, I still found myself caught up in the story and eagerly turning the pages to read what would happen next.  I only heard of Elizabeth Gaskell this past year at the recommendation of a friend of mine, and I don't know why she isn't more well-known.  This is the first book of hers I've read, but based on it I think she definitely merits more fans and attention.  North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell.  Buy it or check it out.

 This delightful novel kept me laughing throughout my final, and delayed, flight home  in a way that only Wodehouse can.  If you have read Wodehouse, you will know what I'm talking about and if you haven't, then I suggest you take two Jeeves stories and call me in the morning.  Trust me, you'll feel much better.  This particular novel is missing that character, but he is replaced by a full cast of tangled web-weavers practicing to deceive each other in the most delightful way imaginable.  In addition to the usual bumbling antics of British aristocracy that you'd expect from Wodehouse this novel also contains professional trouble-makers and con-men. If you're a fan of dry, British humor you won't be disappointed.  Hot Water by P.G. Wodehouse.  Buy it or check it out.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Ship Breaker Review

Book talk: Finding oil is supposed to be your lucky strike--not your death warrant.  But Nailer doesn't have much time to contemplate the irony of the situation as the thick black liquid closes slowly over him.  Nailer has been working light crew for years, picking apart the old ship wrecks for anything they can sell to those who can still afford it.  Your crew is supposed to be your family.  Unfortunately for Nailer even family can betray your trust in these harsh times.  Getting out alive after being left for dead can change a person, and soon Nailer will hold another's life in his hands.  Will he leave a girl to die for the chance to buy his way out of the slums?  Or will he risk his life to save hers?  Hard times make for hard decisions and while Nailer's never had an easy life he's never been in this much danger either.

Rocks my socks: I love the world this novel is set in: the oceans have risen, oil has become scarce, and the rift between the rich and the poor has turned into a gaping chasm that has swallowed up the middle-class.  I think the issues of what is family and the value of loyalty are explored in interesting ways.  There are a lot of great characters in the novel as well with even supporting characters with multiple layers and complex motivations.

Rocks in my socks: Just as I was becoming interested in the sea-side shanty town that Nailer grew up in and the characters in it, Nailer ends up going on the lam.  As soon as I became interested in a subject that was being explored an action sequence broke in and interrupted it.  I felt like this novel was fast-paced to a fault.

Every book its reader: Fans of dystopias will enjoy the distressingly realistic future painted by Bacigalupi.  There are some interesting concepts and themes explored that cause the reader to think and lead to good discussions.  But those just looking for fast-paced action won't be disappointed either.  The picture of the future that's painted is pretty grim and at times violent so I'd save it for 7th grade and up.

Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi

Buy it at your local independent book store or check it out from your local library

Friday, August 26, 2011

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie Review

Book talk: Watching a stranger take his dying breath in the cucumber patch in her backyard would scar most eleven year old girls for life.  But Flavia de Luce is not your average eleven year old girl.  Flavia isn't even frightened by the corpse in her backyard, after all the summer had been pretty boring.  A mystery is exactly what she needed.  Without wasting any time she uses her chemical knowledge to see if she can determine the cause of death and takes off on her bike to uncover clues in town.  But as resourceful as Flavia is, she can still get in over her head.  Before long it's her corpse that seems likely to be discovered among vegetables.

Rocks my socks: I'll admit to having a weakness for the precocious child archetype, and this is one of the best uses of it I've ever seen.  It does require a healthy suspension of disbelief, but if you can get beyond that this aspiring chemist with a love of poisons and hatred of being called 'dearie' will worm her way into your heart as surely as a large dose of arsenic will stop it.  The tongue-in-cheek humor had me laughing throughout and the details about stamp collecting were surprisingly interesting.  Overall it was a superb quick, summer read.

Rocks in my socks: I loved Flavia, but the other characters in the story were not particularly well developed or likable.  Even Flavia with her cruel sense of revenge and constant condescension isn't really likable so much as entertaining.  If Flavia is unrealistically intelligent the other characters are at times unrealistically dense and single-minded.

Every book its reader: The book is aimed at an adult audience and occasionally uses some complex vocabulary, but there's minimal violence for a murder mystery and nothing else in it that would make me hesitate giving it to an advanced teen reader.  I know it's not a book but I couldn't help thinking that fans of the cartoon Dexter's Laboratory would love Flavia as well as fans of mysteries.

Bonus Quotes:
If there is a thing I truly despise, it is being addressed as “dearie.”When I write my magnum opus, A Treatise Upon All Poisons, and come to “Cyanide,” I am going to put under “Uses” the phrase “Particularly efficacious in the cure of those who call one ‘Dearie.’”

Heaven must be a place where the library is open twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. No...eight days a week.

Whenever one comes face-to-face with a killer in a novel or in the cinema, his opening words are always dripping with menace, and often from Shakespeare.

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley

Buy it at your local indie book store or check it out at your local library

Thursday, August 25, 2011

The Strange Case of the Origami Yoda Review

Book talk: Dwight has always been strange, but lately he's been acting even stranger than usual. He has made an origami Yoda finger puppet and started talking to people with it.  His Yoda impression isn't even that good!  But all that is pretty typical for Dwight--the really strange thing is that it actually works!  Yoda has predicted a pop quiz, saved a kid from embarrassment at a school dance, and always seems to know what's going to happen.  How can origami Yoda be so smart when Dwight is so dumb?  Before Tommy decides whether or not to take origami Yoda's advice he has to get all the facts straight to see if origami Yoda really can predict the future or if it's just another prank.

Rocks my socks: Of course my favorite character is Dwight.  I enjoyed watching the other kids in the book realize that maybe Dwight actually is a good guy to hang around with even if he does act strangely.  The faux hand-written notebook paper with doodles style is also a good selling point because it's very popular now thanks to Diary of a Wimpy Kid although I remember enjoying it ever since I read Amelia's Notebooks as a kid.  One of my favorite parts was when origami Yoda told kids to learn the twist and they all ended up having fun.  Anything to prevent the painfully awkward swaying so prevalent at middle-school dances!

Rocks in my socks: Tommy gathers the testimony of his friends and he has his friend Harvey add comments at the end as the 'resident skeptic' to provide a balanced view.  I appreciate the attempt to include skepticism here but it is very poorly executed.  Harvey isn't a true skeptic, he's just mean and the way he acts in the story and his comments just reinforce a negative stereotype of skeptics being annoying know-it-alls.  I have a lot of respect for the skeptic movement, so this aspect of the story really disappointed me--especially because even though Tommy does goes about it all wrong he does have a point: origami Yoda clearly is not a sentient being that can see into the future.  The story shouldn't end on the conclusion that Yoda is right, it should end with the realization that Dwight is actually a really cool guy and deserves to be listened to with or without a finger puppet and messed up syntax.

Every book its reader: Fans of Star Wars and humor will enjoy this tale of absurdity.  The cartoon style looks very young, but the characters are in 6th grade and dealing with dating and dances.  I know some 3rd and 4th graders who would enjoy it just for the origami Yoda shtick, but I think it will be better appreciated by 5th or 6th graders who can relate to the high drama of boy/girl dances better.  The text is simple with illustrations throughout so it's a good high-interest/low-reading level pick.

The Strange Case of the Origami Yoda by Tom Angleberger

Buy it at your local indie book store or check it out at your local library