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

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

2010 Best American Science Writing Review

Book Talk: Have you ever wondered why people sometimes end up doing exactly the thing they've been trying to avoid?  Or whether humans can control the weather?  And what exactly is going on with the bees?  Luckily for you reporters have asked the same questions and presented their research in the highly-readable articles in this collection.

Rocks my socks:  I am a science groupie.  I have always found science fascinating and I am definitely of the camp that believes having nature's mysteries explained only makes them more wonderful.  However, while I kept up with science classes in my younger days, my B.A. in theatre has not prepared me well for deep reading on the subject.  And even though my master's is technically applied science, the MLIS I've almost finished isn't going to help me understand advanced scientific vocabulary either.  That's why I was so excited to read a collection of superb science writing with a style that I can loose myself in.  I loved the variety from the moral conundrums in the article on organ donation ("The Kindest Cut") to the hilarious "A Most Private Evolution" which explores the age-old battle of the sexes.  Some of the articles explain things that are often talked about and almost as often misunderstood so well that I think they should be required readings on the subject.  In particular I wish "An Epidemic of Fear" about the anti-vaccination movement was more widely read.

Rocks in my socks: Just like any collection of stories or articles, I liked some more than I liked others.  In particular the few articles that had a heavy human interest bent got on my nerves because that's not really what I wanted from this particular collection.  Overall though I'd say this has the best ratio of articles I loved to articles I'd leave of any short story or article collection I've read recently.

Every book its reader: The book is aimed at an adult audience, but there's no reason why it couldn't be read by an ambitious teen.  Pulling some articles that relate to topics covered in science classes would be great for the students because the articles are so readable.  I think the articles are so well written it could be enjoyed by anyone, even those who don't usually like science.  But that may be my personal bias showing.

The Best American Science Writing 2010, edited by Jerome Groopman

Buy it at your local indie bookstore or check it out at your local library

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Witch Bag

I embellished this tote for my mom for mother's day this year.  This may seem like an odd theme for mother's day, but my mom is known for her witch impressions and enjoys cultivating the 'miss witch' image so I knew she'd enjoy it.  (see the parody song she wrote last year for Halloween)

I took an old tote I had that was sturdy, but I didn't like the design of.  I looked up some images of black cats and witches online, then I cut up some left over felt and some old clothes to make appliques, which I sewed on either side.

I also embroidered a quote from Roald Dahl's The Witches around the head: “I am not, of course, telling you for one second that your teacher actually is a witch. All I am saying is that she might be one. It is most unlikely. But--and here comes the big ‘but’--it is not impossible."

I did the embroidery freehand, and I think it turned out pretty well considering how awful my handwriting is even with a pencil.  At any rate, my mother liked it--she is, after all, my mother.

Monday, August 22, 2011

The Kneebone Boy review

Book talk: Life for the Hardscrabble children is, well...hard.  Ever since his mother's mysterious disappearance, Otto hasn't removed his black scarf or spoken out loud.  Ever since Otto stopped speaking and started wearing a heavy scarf in hot weather the rest of the town has stopped talking to him, except for his sister Lucia who developed a sign language system to communicate with him.  This has left the youngest Hardscrabble, Max on his own to try, unsuccessfully, to make friends and lead a normal life.  Life is far from average for the Hardscrabbles, but it becomes even more extraordinary when the children go to stay with their aunt, who lives in a miniature castle.  Will they be able to uncover the mystery behind their mother's disappearance, or will they be attacked by the kneebone boy before they even get a chance?

Rocks my socks: I love the quirkiness of the characters.  Potter adds unique details so that even minor characters are entertaining caricatures.  I enjoy the quality of parody the novel has as well as it piles on fantasy cliches to the point of absurdity while keeping it rooted in reality in the end.  That aspect of it reminded me of an episode of Scooby Doo: it flirts with fantastic elements, but in the end everything has a rational explanation.  The novel is narrated by one of the children who persists in addressing the reader directly and going on diversions that annoyed me at first but grew on me as the novel continued.

Rocks in my socks: The Kneebone Boy contains elements of various genres but doesn't fit solidly in any one and that leaves it a bit scattered.  It's a bit too absurd to be a realistic novel, but it's not really fantasy either.  There's a mystery in it, but not a traditional one and the adventure elements are only at intervals which are probably too far between to keep the interest of someone looking for a straight adventure. Because of these interludes with different genres the harshly realistic ending seems to come out of left field and is a bit jarring.

Every book its reader: I can see fans of  A Series of Unfortunate Events enjoying the often dark and sarcastic adventures of the Hardscrabble children.  Fans of multiple genres might enjoy this cross-genre novel but for those who are purists of any one genre it may be too much of a mix.  I'd give it to grades 4 to 7.

Bonus Quote: "People should have all their big adventures while they’re still under the age of fourteen. If you don’t, you start to lose your passion for big adventures. It just begins to fade away bit by bit and then you forget you ever wanted adventures in the first’s criminal the way that happens." Ellen Potter, The Kneebone Boy

The Kneebone Boy by Ellen Potter

Buy it from your local indie bookstore or check it out at your local library