Friday, December 21, 2012

Mini Reviews: November 2012


I found the chiastic structure of this novel fascinating and I admired Mitchell's ability to switch so seamlessly between genres and eras.  I appreciated that he was willing to make bold choices, like leaving a story off in the middle of a sentence.  Reading the book gave me a pleasure similar to unraveling a puzzle.  My favorite stories were "Letters from Zedelghem" and "An Orison of Sonmi~451" (stories of rakes and android/clone/etc rights are particular weaknesses of mine) but I enjoyed all of them.  What I didn't enjoy were the bits were Mitchell decided to lose his faith in the reader and suddenly explicitly state what he'd been artfully dancing around or tell us what lessons we should be learning.  My least favorite bit was his explanation of the title that came 3/5ths of the way through the novel.  You know, in case the reader had somehow made it that far without knowing what the heck was going on.  The end with its saccharine and explicit call to arms didn't exactly delight me either.  Instead of trusting readers to pick up on the lessons clearly presented by the course of the narrative Mitchell suddenly turns into Aesop and tells the reader what they should have learned from the story.  I'm sure readers capable of puzzling their way through what is not an altogether easy read are more than capable of drawing their own conclusions.  At least Mitchell is also capable of making fun of himself for these same tendencies: at one point a character who is reading a manuscript describing the story of another character says "One or two things will have to go: the insinuation that Luisa Rey is this Robert Frobisher chap reincarnated, for example. Far too hippie-druggy-new age."  It can't be denied that Mitchell has a way with words and is eminently quotable.  Here are a few of my favorites:

"Implausible truth can serve one better than plausible fiction."

"How vulgar, this hankering after immortality, how vain, how false. Composers are merely scribblers of cave paintings. One writes music because winter is eternal and because, if one didn’t the wolves and blizzards would be at one’s throat all the sooner."

"Anger sparked in Timothy Cavendish like forks in microwaves."

"Sometimes the fluffy bunny of incredulity zooms round the bend so rapidly that the greyhound of language is left, agog, in the starting cage."

"Humor is the ovum of dissent"

"Prejudice is permafrost"

"All the woe of the words 'I am' seemed dissolved there, painlessly, peacefully" [on first seeing the ocean]

"Rights are susceptible to subversion, as even granite is susceptible to erosion."

"Nothing is as eloquent as nothing."

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell: Buy it or check it out today!

At a time when everyone seems up in arms about e-books and corporations versus the physical and local, it is refreshing to see a book that combines the two sides to such charming effect.  On the one hand, the main character works in an independent bookstore that "is the kind of store that makes you want to be a teenage wizard."  There, he discovers a secret society founded in the last publishing revolution that had everyone freaking out, back in Gutenberg's time.  On the other hand, his love interest works for Google and they investigate this society using the power of modern technology.  The conflict between those who revere the traditional way of doing things and those who are obsessed with the latest technology permeates the entire novel.  Sloan refrains from advocating one over the other and seems to value aspects of each, a very middle-of-road approach--which is perhaps why he decided to name the font at the heart of the intrigue Gerritszoon.  (Gerrit Gerritszoon is the birth name of Erasmus, a scholar who was known for his balanced approach.)  Sloan walks the line between opposing sides with the skill and playfulness of a tight-rope walker.  Even the emblem of Aldus Manutius, the historical printer at the center of the fictional secret society, is an illustration of a famous oxymoron: festina lente or 'make haste slowly' and the characters repeat this phrase to each other throughout the novel.  (Incidentally the dolphin and anchor emblem of Manutius has also been adopted by Beta Phi Mu, the library and information studies honor society that I was just inducted into this summer.)  In addition to writing with passion about technologies old and new in a fascinating fashion, Sloan also succeeds in creating quirky characters that instantly won me over.  Sloan is particularly skilled at introducing these characters in a way that made them instantly recognizable and endearing, like "Oliver daydreams about Ionian columns," or "[Matt] works with crazy intensity, feeding hours like dry twigs into the fire." I know I'm more or less the exact demographic Robin Sloan was aiming for, I even read much of this in a teahouse in San Francisco, but I absolutely loved this novel.  I hope that other bibliophiles can stop writing alarmist articles about the death of books long enough to read and enjoy this one and see what can be accomplished if we work together with all the tools, both old and new, at our disposal.  Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan: Buy it or check it out today!

Copper is an absolutely absurd and downright delightful comic collection.  It takes place in a post-apocalyptic landscape, but the bleak background just makes copper's optimism shine brighter.  His faithful yet jaded dog Fred is never far behind though, and he balances things out.  The comics have a wide range of themes and tones from absurdly silly to quietly introspective.  You never know what you're going to get, and that's part of the charm. Most of the comics are one-offs but there are a few longer story lines as well that help to establish more of the universe.  Fred is now one of my all time favorite comic characters with his insecurities, worries, and tendency toward existential crises.  The writing is almost poetic in the way it conveys complex  ideas with sparing word use yet it never loses its sense of humour.  The artwork is exquisite as well and I particularly enjoyed Kibuishi's use of color with the different palettes always perfectly matched to the various tones of the comics.  The overall effect of art, color, and words combined to convey the message of each story is an example of how powerful comics can be.  I'm sure my students will also enjoy the interview with the author at the end where he describes his process in detail and with plenty of pictures to inspire and advise children who want to make their own comics.  Copper by Kazu Kibuishi: Buy it or check it out today!

I have been a fan of Orhan Pamuk since high school because he always opens up new worlds to me in an interesting way.  His latest novel was no exception.  The Museum of Innocence is tale of love and obsession.  Kemal is engaged to the rich and beautiful Sibel, but ends up falling for Fusun, a poor shop girl.  When he realizes that he has lost her his love turns into an obsession that completely takes over his life.  He relieves his pain by collecting objects that she has touched or that remind him of her, and it is through these objects that his story is told.  The book is written as if addressing a visitor to the museum that he eventually creates to house all these objects.  The narration has a ruminative quality as it bounces back and forth between describing the moment and what is to follow.  It sounds very natural, like the narrator is having a conversation with the reader.  After all when people set out to tell a story of importance to their lives they rarely do so in a completely linear fashion.    That's what I enjoyed most about this novel: the way Pamuk captured these tricks of memory:  The way it is possible to pass years in seemingly untenable situations because they are lived not in years but in a series of moments, the way our happiest moments can only be recognized in retrospect, the way objects can bring up memoires you might have otherwise forgotten, the way they can seem infused with the presence of a person who once handled them, the way memories of a person can prevent you from seeing someone as they really are.

The novel isn't just a portrait of Kemal and Fusun, but of the time and place they were together.  The novel includes many descriptions of Istanbul and its society from the parties of the elite to quiet nights spent in front of televisions by families barely scraping by.  Because the novel is told from the perspective of someone looking back on past events, the action of the novel always seemed a bit distant. Even when the romance came to its inevitably tragic end, it didn't have a strong emotional impact on me.  Instead the novel had a ruminative quality that left me thinking about the objects in my life, the stories they tell, the people that have left their mark on me, and the times and places that I've lived in. This is a novel to savor, not gulp. If want to travel but can't leave home this novel can make another place come alive for you. The Museum of Innocence by Orhan Pamuk: buy it or check it out today!


November is apparently the month I read about failed romance.  First Tiger Lily, then The Museum of Innocence, and now Stag's Leap--even my faculty and staff book club picked Feed for November.  Perhaps there's something about watching leaves slowly change color, fall off branches, and wither up that reminds me of love fading away.  Whatever the reason, this collection fit my mood well as Olds told the story of her marriage floundering, her divorce, and the years that followed.  In painfully honest poems she describes moments when she remembers the good times and moments when she tries to forget them.  Moments when being alone is terrifying and moments when it's freeing.  Every poem is very personal but they're also so honest that anyone who has ever loved and lost will be able to find themselves somewhere in one of them.  I think Tiger Lily would enjoy the collection.  Stag's Leap by Sharon Olds: Buy it or check it out today!

This novel is particularly well-suited to a manga-style adaptation.  It easily seems like it could have been its original format.  In fact, I think I might have enjoyed this adaptation more than the original novel. The source material is very visual with its fantastic creatures and fight scenes and I enjoyed seeing Baek's depictions of the scenes and characters (and their pretty, period costumes!) I like Clare's novels more for their plot than their prose anyway so I didn't mind the clipped version of the text.  If anything it eliminates some of the aspects that annoyed me about the original book.  I enjoyed the excuse to re-live my favorite scenes as well.   I don't think reading the original novel is necessary to enjoy this version (although I think fans of the novel will like it.)  I'd recommend it to fans of other period fantasy manga like The Earl and the Fairy  whether they've read the original or not.  The Infernal Devices by Cassandra Clare, art by HyeKyung Baek: buy it or check it out today!

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Assassin's Curse review



Book talk:  Ananna did not have a typical childhood.  She grew up on her parents' pirate ship learning how to fight and sail.  Her bedtime stories were the ones swapped by the crew and they were full of murder and mischief.  But the most terrifying of them all were about the assassins: magical, ruthless, and inescapable.  If an assassin came after you, you wouldn't live to tell the tale.  Even to a pirate princess they sounded too terrifying to be real, so she decided they must be nothing more than boogeymen that only exist in stories.  Until the day she ran away from an arranged marriage and an assassin was sent after her.  Now she's inextricably bound to one of these heartless killers and her dreams of the future are dashed on the rocks.   Her only chance is to find an impossible cure for an impossible curse.  And how can she do the impossible?

Rocks my socks:  The story is about a pirate princess who falls in love with an assassin with a scarred face but a surprisingly vulnerable heart.  It's basically beauty and the beast with pirates and that has always been one of my favorite fairy tales.  There's magic and mystery,  sailing and sword fights, and female characters that kick butt and save their would-be protectors instead of constantly waiting around to be saved themselves.  What's not to love?  It isn't a philosophical treatise or full of constant surprises but it's perfect if you want to be swept away on an adventure on a lazy afternoon.  Perhaps too good for that: I picked it up before getting out of bed one Saturday morning and ended up staying in bed until I finished it that afternoon.  When the sequel comes out I'll make sure I have some breakfast in me before allowing myself to be swept away!

Rocks in my socks:  none

Every book its reader:  I'd give this to anyone 6th grade and up looking for a classic fantasy adventure novel with a strong female lead. Fans of pirates will be particularly pleased.

Extras:

The author has her own website, twitter, and facebook page

The publisher, Strange Chemistry, has a page for the book with an excerpt and reviews

Source: School library

The Assassin's Curse by Cassandra Rose Clarke: Buy it or check it out today!

Monday, December 17, 2012

Cheshire Cheese Cat Review



Book talk:  Skilley is a cat with a big secret and Pip is a mouse with a hidden talent.  When they meet under the roof of the Cheshire Cheese Inn, they form an unlikely friendship.  But they're not the only strange characters with close-guarded secrets in the inn.  When they fall in with the inn's in-crowd they find themselves in hot water.  The intrigue at this inn is insanely hilarious, insistently  entertaining, and inspiring.  Don't let this one squeak by--let the cat out of the book and dive in to the cheesy goodness!

Rocks my socks:  This was the purrfect novel to read after I got home from the Dickens Fair (on an outing with the local Forever Young Adult book club.)  Though it is billed as a Dickens of a tale it was a fun and quick read and even children who have no idea who Charles Dickens was will love reading about the unlikely friendship between a word-loving mouse and a cheese-loving cat.  Despite my bias towards cats, I must admit preferring the mouse in this novel. And how could I not when he collects words like trading cards and slips them into his conversations?  The authors clearly have a passion for words as well which leads to such clever observations as "Cat....a small, mean word, one that began harshly and ended crossly."  The plot becomes increasingly absurd as it continues, but this is not a novel meant to be taken seriously.  With its puns and word-play it's clear that the authors had a lot of fun writing it and that sense of enjoyment is infectious and makes it fun to read.  The illustrations throughout are excellent as well.

Rocks in my socks: none

Every book its reader:  I'd give this fans of A Tale of Despereaux, Malcolm at Midnight, or Charlotte's Web.  Students in 3rd grade and up looking for a heart-warming anthropomorphic animal tale will enjoy this novel.  While a knowledge of Charles Dickens isn't necessary to enjoy the novel, adult fans of puns, word-play, and Charles Dickens will love finding the references hidden in this light-hearted story.

Extras:

The Cheshire Cheese Cat has its own website that is absolutely loaded with extras like a history of the inn and the literary figures who frequented it, word games, facts about the Victorian Era, and more.  It's a great site, definitely worth checking out.

Carmen Agra Deedy also has her own website

Source: copy purchased at #ALA12

The Cheshire Cheese Cat: A Dickens of a Tale by Carmen Agra Deedy & Randall Wright illus. by Barry Moser: Buy it or check it out today!

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Cardboard Review



 Book talk:  When Mike brings home a cardboard box for his son's birthday the neighborhood kids tease him, but once they find out what the cardboard can make they'll do anything to get their hands on some.  This isn't just any cardboard--things made out of it come to life and can talk, think, and move on their own.  Which is great, until they start thinking that maybe they don't need the humans who made them...

Rocks my socks:  I love the idea for this comic: that a father who can't afford to buy a present for his son's birthday ends up getting him a cardboard box that they use to make a man who comes to life.  Like most golem stories, things get out of hand and soon there's an impending cardboardpocalypse. The story reminds me of Calvin and his cardboard creations and perhaps this modern comic about the fun to be had from an empty cardboard box will spark some creativity in the children reading it.  I also appreciate that they brush on the issue of free will and whether it's all right to make beings to do your bidding without giving them any choice in the matter.  The original cardboard man, Bill, decides that instead of doing chores he wants to get an education (which he achieves, much to my delight, by reading Plato and Star Trek novels.) The artwork is great as well and I enjoyed looking at the depictions of the fantastic things that were created with the cardboard.

Rocks in my socks:  Unfortunately the flesh-and-bone characters might as well be cardboard for all the depth that they have.  The protagonists, Cam and his father Mike, are hardworking but down on their luck and nice to the point of being pushovers.  The antagonist, Marcus, is rich and spoiled with long black hair and fingernails.  He even has an idiotic yes-man sidekick with a physical deformity to match his twisted mind.  Perhaps most worrying is when Marcus justifies his actions by saying "The doctor says I'm bipolar.  It's a genetic problem so my outbursts aren't really my fault" to get Cam's forgiveness, then uses Cam's pity to take advantage of him.  It's never mentioned again so it's not clear if he really is bipolar or if he was lying to get into Cam's house, but either way it's not a sympathetic portrayal of those with the disorder.  It isn't something that should be thrown about carelessly. If you're going to mention it in a story, you should follow up with it more.

Marcus eventually sees the error of his ways when attacked by his own creations and makes a completely unrealistic hairpin turn in personality.  The portrayal of this new Marcus is just as troubling to me as the old Marcus.  I suppose because comics are so visual they are particularly prone to perpetuating stereotypes, but that doesn't means comic creators shouldn't work to avoid it.  The moment Marcus changes his personality he also trims his hair, takes off the nail polish, and his skin magically gains a healthy tan, even though he was regularly depicted as being outside when he was sickly pale and evil so it's not like he was never exposed to the sun before the change of heart. And as everyone knows, boys with long hair and nail polish are not to be trusted so he had to give that up if he was going to be good.

As long as I'm on my soapbox let me talk about the female presence in this comic, or should I say the lack thereof.  First we have Tina, the neighbor who is inexplicably in love with Mike despite his treating her like a jerk.  She bakes cookies when Mike looks down and is ready to drop everything to watch Cam when Mike has to leave.  Once at their house she says "you men live like complete animals" as she notices the gunk on their burners and is quick to clean and cook for them while she's over because the menfolk clearly can't handle that (at least Bill learns how to bake despite being cardboard)  She then uses her feminine wiles and flowery perfume to try and seduce Mike when he gets back, and yells at him because he's not over his dead wife yet.

That brings us to the second female character: the dead mother who is re-created in cardboard and whose only purpose seems to be to tell Mike to move on and date the lovely Tina because "Cam needs a father--and a mother!"  While I appreciate her message of 'move on with your life' I resent the implication that single fathers are incapable of raising a child properly.  After she nags her husband and yells at him to keep fighting to save their son she literally runs away instead of actually, you know trying to save her son herself.  Bill has proven that cardboard characters are more than capable of saving the day and affecting human lives, after all.  But clearly the only thing dead mothers are good for is nagging their husbands and spouting propaganda for 50's-style nuclear families.

Which brings us to the last female character, the one with the smallest role: Marcus's living mother.  Her purpose is to nag Marcus.  She only has a few lines and she speaks almost exclusively in cliches: "Marcus!  How many times have I asked you not to slam your door?!" and "That's no way to talk to your mother!" and "Look at the dark circles under your eyes! Were you up all night again?" and my personal favorite, as her husband helps pull their son out of their collapsing house,  thereby saving his life, she stands back from the action and cries "My beautiful house!"

I don't know what mothers TenNapel has been hanging around but I can tell you that if some monster was trying to eat me even a cardboard simulacrum of my mom wouldn't run away and leave me to its mercy and if I saw a child, even one with no relation to me, pulled from a collapsing building my first concern would not be property damage.   I doubt TenNapel set out with the intention of writing weak female characters or that he has a low opinion of mothers' strength and love of their children, he probably just didn't think about his portrayal of women at all.   Which is why they ended up so sloppy and unrealistic.  But perhaps if reviewers comment on this type of thing instead of just accepting it authors will start to pay more attention and we'll have better female role models for girls who read comics.  I really did enjoy the idea behind this story and I'll look out for TenNapel's next comic, I just hope next time he puts as much careful attention into his characterization as he puts into his beautiful artwork.

Every book its readers:  I think the idea of cardboard creatures coming to life will appeal to a lot of kids and the pacing and imaginative, action-filled artwork is sure to keep them engaged.  Its characterization isn't as strong as its plot, however.  I'd give it to kids grades 4 and up looking for a quick, action-packed comic.

Extras:  

The author has his own website.

The publisher has a page for the book as well.

Source: school library

Cardboard by Doug TenNapel: Buy it or check it out today!

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Tiger Lily Review



Book talk:  Neverland is not the fantasy you know it as.  It's an island in the Atlantic that few know how to visit.  Because of its isolation, there are creatures there that cannot be found anywhere else, creatures like mermaids and fairies.  It's one of those creatures, Tinkerbell, who tells us the story of Tiger Lily as she saw it.  Her story is not one of childhood dreams and happy endings.  Neverland can be a dangerous place, and if you're not careful the island will eat you alive.  But for Tiger Lily the most dangerous things on the island are not the native hazards, but the foreigners who wash-up and make the island their home.  Foreigners like the infamous Peter Pan.

Rocks my socks:  This is one of the best re-tellings of a story that I've read.  All of the familiar characters are there, but what were two dimensional archetypes in the original story have been transformed into layered characters with interesting new histories that inform their every move.  Even Captain Hook gets a new back story that lends him some human interest and sympathy: his hand was not eaten by a crocodile "it came off in an assembly line...I was staying up nights to study. I thought I could study my way into being a gentleman. Well, I fell asleep. My hand went in instead of the leather."  Smee, on the other hand, is transformed from a bumbling idiot into a psychopath who literally gets away with murder because he looks so innocuous.

The story is full of outsiders with Tiger Lily and her best friend described as "both misfits or, as I liked to think of them, strange exotic birds, one too fierce to be hemmed in as a girl, and the other too hesitant to be respected as a boy."  My favorite of the new characters introduced in this book is Tik Tok, the medicine man who adopted Tiger Lily as a child.  He wears dresses, grows his hair long, and engages in women's activities instead of hunting with the men.  Everyone in the island accepts him for who he is without a second-thought--that is until an Englishman washes ashore and begins to convert the islanders.  His story is the most heart-wrenching in a novel that is ultimately about heartbreak.  Tinkerbell loves Peter Pan, but she cannot communicate with him even if the difference in their size could be overcome. Tiger Lily is torn between her love of her father and her tribe and her growing affection for Peter, but knows that she can't have both.  Peter senses these difficulties but ignores all his problems in hopes that they'll go away.

Wendy is one of the few characters that isn't presented as vulnerable and broken:  "She had the blissful confidence of someone who had never been put in a pot of turkey broth to die." I think the quote that best describes her though is "She held her skirts against her legs as they walked, making sure to slowly avoid this tiny briar and that muddy boggy spot, for out of all the things in the forest, she noticed her dress the most."  Perhaps this is why she is so attractive to Peter: in an island of misfits she stubbornly insists on molding her surroundings to suit her so that she always belongs.  For the rest of the characters things do not work out as well.  The emotions of the novel are as raw and wild as the Neverland forest: characters act in haste, they make mistakes, they betray each other.  That is precisely why I loved this novel so much.  There are enough stories about people who can do no wrong and love that conquers all.  But unfortunately we are not all Wendys and life doesn't always work like that.  This is a story is for the misfits, for the failed romances, for the voices that are silenced.  This is Tiger Lily's story so it doesn't take Peter's advice and ignore things that are difficult or unpleasant.  I loved it for that, even if it made bawl harder than I have in a long time.

Rocks in my socks:  The only thing that nagged at me was that despite beginning with a warning that things will not end well, Anderson takes a lot of time at the end of the novel describing the rest of the lives of the characters and tying up loose ends to show that everyone was ultimately more or less happy.  I wish some of that had been edited down.  I'm not a fan of lengthy goodbyes in real life or bloated denouements in fiction.

Every book its reader:  I'd give this to people who like darker retellings of classic stories.  Fans of Wicked Lovely and Tender Morsels should enjoy this modern perspective on Peter Pan.  It's definitely more character than plot-driven though so those looking for action scenes with pirate fights should look elsewhere.  There's plenty for adults to enjoy but because it is so dark I'd save it for at least 7th grade and up.

Quotes: 
"Let me tell you something straight off. This is a love story, but not like any you’ve heard. The boy and the girl are far from innocent. Dear lives are lost. And good doesn’t win. In some places, there is something ultimately good about endings. In Neverland, that is not the case."

"Peter gave her a crooked smile. 'The way I see it, ignoring things is important.'”

"Every kind of love, it seems, is the only one. It doesn’t happen twice."

"Sometimes love means not being able to bear seeing the one you love the way they are, when they’re not what you hoped for them."

Extras:

There's an official trailer, but it's pretty short.

The publisher has a webpage for the book that includes a discussion guide.

Jodi Lynn Anderson has an official facebook page.

Source: school library

Tiger Lily by Jodi Lynn Anderson: Buy it or check it out today!

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Mini Reviews: Comics

I can see why this comic is so popular.  Naruto has a lot of action and humor and a rich setting.  Watching Naruto's antics, the fight scenes, and immersing yourself in the mythology and ways of the world it's set it is a lot of fun.  Plus, it's about ninjas. The story has a lot of heart as well though.  Naruto has the spirit of a demon that tormented the town trapped inside him and as a result the villagers have never really accepted him.  He acts out to get them to notice him and has big goals to prove them wrong--that he does have what it takes to lead the town and be a force of good.  As he learns the ways of ninjitsu he also learns about teamwork and discipline.  He refuses to sink to the level of his bullies and defends the town even when it's tempting to do otherwise.  There's a lot of good lessons for the real world to be learned in this manga.  Due to the ample and bloody fight scenes and Naruto's famous Ninja centerfold move I'd save this for teenage manga fans.  Naruto: Volume 1 &2 by Masashi Kishimoto: Buy it or check it out today!

This manga is about a girl who can see fairies who ends up on a quest to find a lost artifact in the service of a handsome man with a mysterious and dangerous past.  She has to solve riddles and uncover clues while unraveling layers of deception and deciding who to trust.  Did I mention she has a talking cat who isn't really a cat but a fairy?  What more could I ask for?  Gorgeous costumes stemming from a setting in 19th Century England?  Wait, it has that too.  It's certainly not the most thought-provoking thing I've ever read but darn is it diverting!  I'm looking forward to breezing through the rest of the volumes in this series.  The Earl & the Fairy Story and art by Auyko, Original Concept by Mizue Tani: Buy it or check it out today!

This nearly wordless, surreal gem is exquisitely strange and absolutely delightful.  It stars a little girl who literally eats herself out of house and home as she consumes everything in sight and is sent to the market.  There she finds an egg that hatches into a shapeshifter and leads her on a series of strange journeys including one seemingly meta-fictional one where she calls a time-out and asks that Forsythe alter his drawing.  Being nearly wordless it would be great to give to a child and ask them to describe what's happening in the story.  Adult fans of the surreal are sure to enjoy it as well.  Jinchalo by Matthew Forsythe: Buy it or check it out today!

I enjoyed this manga about two middle school kids who team up to make manga together.  It has a nice quiet plot, but it takes time to develop the characters so that I really wanted them to succeed in their plans.  I think their struggle of whether they should do what is expected of them or follow their dreams is one that many middle school students will be able to relate to.  It was interesting to get a glimpse into the world of how manga gets made as well.  I have mixed feelings on the romantic subplot though.  On the one hand I like that the main character is a romantic and wants to exchange e-mails with the girl he has a crush on instead of seeing her in person.  On the other hand I am not okay with the way gender roles are portrayed.  One of the male main characters describes the female lead by saying "Azuki naturally knows that a girl should be graceful and polite...and because she is a girl, she should be earnest about things and get average grades.  She knows by instinct that a girl won't look cute if she's overly smart."  While they are serious about their goal of making manga "'the reason she's thinking about becoming a voice actress is she naturally chose a dream that many girls have nowadays, and she's just trying to fully enjoy her life as a girl.  She doesn't feel any pressure like we do about our future and whatnot.'  'Because she's a girl?' 'That's right.  She knows what it means to be a girl she knows by instinct that the best thing for a girl is to get married and become somebody's wife...and until then--no, even after she's married, she'll remain graceful and polite.'"  Excuse me!  I'm really hoping that this is just an example of how the characters are clueless about girls and that in later issues they learn how wrong they are because I enjoyed this comic otherwise.  If they don't join the rest of us in the 21st century though I'd be hesitant to recommend it.  Bakuman by Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata: Buy it or check it out today!

I absolutely loved this irreverent, Scheherazade-esque take on American history.  Nathan Hale is about to be hanged when he utters his famous last words and the Big Huge Book of American History swallows him up.  This infuses him with knowledge beyond his life and allows him to stay the hand of the executioner as he regales him with historical tales.  This first volume is all about Nathan Hale and the Revolutionary War and despite wars being my least favorite part of history to study I was just as rapt as the executioner, and learned a lot that I had either never learned or forgotten due to lack of interest.   I particularly enjoyed reading about Henry Knox, the kick-butt bookseller.  The book definitely has an American bias, but it doesn't view American history as sacred.  When Nathan Hale encounters the ghost of Crispus Attucks and they tell the hangman that they're in the brotherhood of American Martyrs the hangman asks "What's a martyr?" their response: "Nothing. What's a martyr with you?"  It takes a special kind of person to make puns about martyrs, and that is a kind of person whose work I want to follow.  Even the notes at the end of the book were entertaining: Nathan (the author) introduces us to the people who helped make the book and the team of adorable babies that he put in charge of research.  He has a panel with all of his references arranged in two stacks with the title, author, and pub year showing on the spines.  Perhaps not MLA formatting, but very attractive.  Nothing about it is conventional but it is actually something that kids will read as opposed to most backmatter which I'm sure is entirely passed over even by adults.    Nathan Hale's Hazardous Tales: One Dead Spy by Nathan Hale: Buy it or check it out today!



Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Geeks, Girls, and Secret Identities Review



Book talk:  Vincent Wu knows Captain Stupendous like no one else.  Sure everyone in the city loves their caped crusader and there's four separate fan clubs devoted to him, but the one that Vincent is president of is the only one that's the real deal-even if it only has three members.  Still, Vincent takes his responsibilities seriously--he writes about Captain Stupendous for every school report, he knows all his moves, and he watches and re-watches footage of his fights.  But when he finally meets Captain Stupendous he's nothing like Vincent imagined him.  On the outside he's big, strong, and super fast but on the inside he's...a girl?  Something's gone terribly wrong and Captain Stupendous's stupendous powers have been passed on to a surly girl who doesn't even want to be a superhero.  Will Vincent and his friends be able to change her mind and whip her into shape or will Professor Mayhem take over the town?

Rocks my socks:  I love that the superman-esque hero of the story ends up being a sassy teenage girl who isn't thrilled about suddenly changing form into a burly man.  Just because she doesn't want to be a superhero doesn't mean that she can't kick butt though.  And she will kick Vincent's and his friends' butts if they don't watch what they say.  The awkward tensions that ensue among them are comedy gold and while Jung is clearly a fan of the superhero comic genre he isn't afraid to make fun of it either.  I enjoyed watching him play with superhero cliches and turn them on their heads.  I also appreciated that while there was a mad scientist there were good scientists as well.  In fact they use science to fight him and without their knowledge and quick-thinking Captain Stupendous would never be able to fight Mayhem.  I enjoyed the romantic subplot as well and the unconventional path it takes.

Rocks in my socks:  The plot is riddled with holes that nagged at me, but I was enjoying myself so much I was mostly able to ignore them.  I would have also preferred it if a bit more time was spent on character development. Hopefully we'll find out more about them in the next novel.

Every book its reader:  I'd give this to anyone 3rd grade and up looking for a humorous story.  Fans of superhero comics will enjoy the novel in particular.  The fast pacing and ample pictures make it great for those just starting to read full chapter books.  I'd also give it to anyone interested in stories that play with gender stereotypes and strong female leads.

Extras:
So there's this video of Mike Jung performing a hilarious song he wrote, just watch it:


Mike Jung also has a website with a blog, information about him, and "contact the galactic emperor" feature

Scholastic has a page for the book as well

Source: Free ARC from #ALA12

Geeks, Girls, and Secret Identities by Mike Jung: Buy it or check it out today!

Sunday, November 11, 2012

These go to 11!

I was working on a gift for a friend recently when it dawned on me that much like the famous amps from This is Spinal Tap, Doctor Who's doctors also go up to eleven.  I whipped up this little graphic to amuse myself and other fans of both the famous satirical movie and the excellent British science-fiction show:


Here's a clip from the movie for those who don't know what I'm talking about:



And for those who don't know what Doctor Who is, a 6 minute recap of a show that's been running for decades:

Rules Review



Book talk: Have you ever had to explain something that you thought was obvious?  Well, Catherine is an expert in that field.  Simple rules like "Don't stand in front of the TV when other people are watching" or "You can yell on a playground, but not during dinner" or even "Flush!" need to be spelled out for David.  Younger brothers can be embarrassing enough without them taking off their pants in public.  Catherine loves David, but sometimes she wishes her life were a bit more normal.  That's why she's so excited about the new girl moving in next-door.  With her best friend gone for the summer, this is her chance to make a new friend who can do all the normal best friend things: she already has the tin cans and flashlights ready for secret messages.  Will this be the summer she's always dreamed of?  Or will it turn out to be another disaster?

Rocks my socks: I enjoyed the way Cynthia Lord worked the various rules Catherine has created into the narrative.  Catherine with all of her hopes, dreams, and insecurities seemed very real to me and one of the people in my reading group who is the parent of an autistic child said that those aspects of the story rang true as well.  This would be a great book to get a discussion started about what normal really means and how we treat those who we perceive as different.  My favorite character in the novel was Jason.  He  is unable to speak and communicates by pointing to cards with words on them contained in a binder.  Catherine volunteers to make some new cards for him and I found it interesting to see how she decided what cards to make.  I don't know how he lived so long without the card 'joke' to indicate sarcasm!

Rocks in my socks:  The novel has a pretty laid-back pace with not much happening for most of it, then the conflict that leads to the climax seems to come out of nowhere and be over very quickly.  I felt like characters overreacted to produce an inflated climax and then made up again in ways that seemed off to me. The other people in my book club were also a bit confused about what exactly was supposed to have happened between some of the characters and what their real feelings on the situation were.  Perhaps this is because the other characters weren't fleshed out as well as Catherine so we weren't able to infer what tone, etc they were using to say certain things and we weren't clear on all of their backgrounds that effected how they responded.

Every book its reader: I'd give it to readers 4th grade and up looking for a school story with a lot of heart.  It would make a particularly good class read to give students the chance to discuss the themes raised in the novel.  

Extras:

Cynthia Lord has her own site with a page for the book as well as extras and a discussion guide

Scholastic has a page for the book as well

You can find fan-made book trailers for the book on YouTube including these two

Source:  Copy received as part of faculty & staff book club

Rules by Cynthia Lord: Buy it or check it out today!

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Urban Cowboy outfit

The annual fundraiser for my work had the theme of "urban cowboy" this year.  I wasn't thrilled when I originally heard this, but after thinking it over for a while I came up with an idea for an outfit that made me excited for the event.  After looking up some inspiration I decided to create a jean skirt that featured the San Francisco skyline.  I used tutorials from Stitch 7 and Rustique Art to convert an old pair of jeans into a skirt. Then I started cutting out rectangles from the bottom in the shape of skyscrapers.  I used the piece of jeans that I cut out as a template for cutting out the piece of sparkly fabric I was using to represent the buildings.

The sparkles in the fabric are supposed to represent the lights at the windows of the buildings, in related news I over-think things
 Then I pinned the fabric into place along with white piping to emphasize the outlines of the buildings.  I noticed a lot of piping in the cowboy outfits I looked at, so I thought it would be appropriate.

Also, buildings have pipes
 After it was all pinned satisfactorily I sewed it into place.  I went around once close to the edge and once a bit farther out to make it extra secure.

I'd make an excellent head of building security
In addition to generic sky scrapers I added a slit up the side to represent the iconic Transamerica Pyramid

A bit of SF flare
Finally, I added some beads above the buildings to represent a starry sky and hemmed the skirt to finish it up.
A sparkly, I mean starry, night
  The finished product:
a skirt for an urban cowboy
 To add the finishing touches to the outfit I sewed some black fringe onto an otherwise normal vest and put it over a striped black button-up to play with the juxtaposition between cowboy and urban aesthetics.  I borrowed a pair of red cowboy boots to add a splash of color and topped it all off with a black bandanna.

Off to the party--now where did I park my horse?
 The people in charge of the event did a great job of adding a cowboy flair to the urban club we met in.  Although I didn't envy the person in charge of vacuuming the hay out of the carpet when it was all over.

I didn't see any farmers at the party though...it's a shame that they're still not friends with the cowmen

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Mini Reviews

I picked this up to read in a park on a rare, sunny Scottish day while visiting my friends this summer.  It was a perfect choice for that moment in time.  The novel itself is a celebration of summer and takes the reader through the summer of 1928 from beginning to end in a series of vignettes.  The novel starts with the young protagonist truly realizing for the first time that he is alive.  The tone of the novel is as changeable as the Scottish weather and the protagonist soon also discovers that to be alive means that one day he must die.  This realization on the part of the semi-autobiographical protagonist felt all the more poignant to me with Bradbury's recent death.  Reading this novel comforted me and reminded me that while everything must end, we can bottle moments up in our memory to uncork and taste again to comfort us in darker days.  Some of the stories made me smile while others led to more serious contemplation and some had me on the edge of my seat.  The copy I was reading was my friend's from when she was a kid and we enjoyed poking fun at which passages she had chosen to underline and laughed at how time had passed and her critical reading skills have, thankfully, improved to the point that she is now an author herself.  But what I will remember most about the book isn't anything that Bradbury actually wrote.  It's the way he reminded me to appreciate the summer while it lasted and the moments I put down the book to do just that.  Whenever I see this book it will remind me of a park in Scotland, and the feel of the sun on my face, the breeze in my hair, the tree at my back, and the friend by my side.  Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury: Buy it or check it out today!

Much Obliged, Jeeves Another example of reading a book with good timing, I picked up this novel in a local shop to read on my plane ride back home.  Of course, as a Wodehouse novel it was light and hilarious and kept my spirits as high as my body.  I've found that after watching the wonderful TV series I can't help picturing Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry while reading.  Normally this type of thing annoys me and is part of why I make such a point of reading a book before seeing an adaptation of it, but Fry and Laurie do such a wonderful job with the characters that in this case I've only found it to enhance my reading experience.  Much Obliged, Jeeves by P.G. Wodehouse: Buy it or check it out today!


Speaking of reading books before seeing movies, this is something I've been meaning to read for a while because I had several friends in high school who listed it among their favorites.  I'm glad the movie opening finally pushed it to the top of my TBR list.  I love the premise of the novel: that our wall-flower lead is writing letters using a disguised identity to someone he barely knows but who he thinks will  understand.  By addressing the reader directly and carefully avoiding giving any details about the letter recipient, it creates a sense of intimacy and puts readers in the middle of difficult situations that most people would normally distance themselves from.  It made me feel complicit in the secrets I was being told and I had to remind myself that this was not a real person whose identity I could puzzle out and try to help.  On the other hand, Charlie admits to using fake names and changing details to remain hidden, which makes it all the easier to imagine that he is someone that you've met in passing.  Charlie may be fictional but his story is true for many people.  Chbosky certainly doesn't shy away from truth, which is why this novel has been banned and challenged so often.  Not because it misinforms teens or tells them things they don't already know, but because it tells the uncomfortable truth that adults would rather ignore and uselessly try to shield their children from, even if this novel may be exactly what they need.  So in trying to protect their children they may harm them by blocking their access to resources that can help.  Ah, the eternal irony of banned books.  Perhaps one day society will be more afraid of ignorance than knowledge, until then I'm proud to be a member of a profession that fights for the right to read. The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky: Buy it or check it out today!

This novel started out slowly, following the life of Shutov, a Russian writer living in Paris who goes back to Russia for the first time in twenty years.  I didn't actually care much about Shutov, so it took me a while to get through his story.  He was amusing at times and it was interesting seeing the changes that have occurred in Russia through his eyes, but I didn't care what happened to him.  Then Shutov gets put in charge of watching over an old Russian man on his last night before he gets sent to live in a retirement home.  The story switches over to the past of this man, Volsky.  He lived through the siege of Leningrad, fought in WWII, was tortured into a false confession and sent to a communist prison camp, the whole nine yards.  Once we got to his part of the story I finished the book in a night.  This might have been related to the fact that at the time I was staying in a questionable motel room with my sister.  I was glad for anything that distracted me from my surroundings--especially something that made them seem downright delightful by comparison.  Sure Holden Caulfield was in the next room screaming at his girlfriend for being a "phony" at midnight and the sheets were stained with what I hope was ink, but at least we weren't boiling shoe leather to eat!  I wish that less time had been spent on the modern-day Russian in the beginning and more time spent describing the past, but overall I enjoyed the novel.  If you're looking for a quick and compelling overview of modern Russian history told through the life of a single man, or if you're having difficulty thinking of something to be thankful for this Thanksgiving, this is the novel for you!  The Life of an Unknown Man by Andrei Makine (translated by Geoffrey Strachan): Buy it or check it out today!

 I like the idea of presenting the research that backs up the utility of mindfulness along with information on how to practice it.  I think it could have been edited down a lot though.  Because it tried to appeal to rational and irrational parts of the mind it included a lot of examples of scientific studies and anecdotes that covered the same ground.  I also felt that there was a bit too much of both.  Studies were often described even if the author admitted that they were not rigorous enough to suggest anything other than the need for further research in that area.  I felt that a lot of these could have been cut--this is for lay people and not a grad paper after all.  The writing also could have been clearer and better worded at times.  For example: "Today the remnants of these readily made fears are evident by the disproportionate number of phobias that people have toward snakes and spiders compared with things to which they are exposed far more often, such as kittens or toothbrushes"  (p.103 in the paperback edition).  I believe the real reason people are more afraid of snakes than toothbrushes is because one is possibly poisonous and one is a freakin' toothbrush!  It would have made far more sense if they had said cars or hamburgers, which both actually have a chance at killing you yet are less likely to scare people.  I suppose it's possible they were trying to be funny, but it really didn't seem like that.  It's disappointing that the book isn't better written because I think it contains a lot of great information and there's several practices from this book that I found helpful and am implementing in my life.  I do recommend this book because it does have great nuggets of information in it, but I'd also recommend skimming through a lot of it and just focusing on the parts that you think will be useful.  Fully Present: The Science, Art, and Practice of Mindfulness by Susan L. Smalley, PhD and Diana Winston: buy it or check it out today!


Tuesday, October 16, 2012

People say that life is the thing...

....but I prefer reading.  I decided that I liked this quote by Logan Pearsall Smith so much that I needed to put it on a headband.  For the basic background I used this tutorial from Sew, Mama, Sew!  I just used scrap fabric I had lying around--some muslin and leftovers from a dress I made.
The blank canvas
 Then I cut up rectangles from other scraps--fabric from old projects, old clothes, etc and ironed these on to some fusible interfacing.
Always keep some interfacing on hand--you never know when you'll run into a robot
Next I cut the pieces into more book-spine shaped rectangles, going back and trimming them until I felt I had a nice variety.  I peeled the backing of the interfacing off and arranged them in a way that looked like a stack of books (hopefully).  When I was satisfied with the way everything looked, I ironed them onto the headband.  
I had plenty of models of book stacks to reference around my apt
 Even though I already fused them on, I sewed them on around the edges using a running stitch in contrasting thread to make the outlines of each book pop.

That's right--I did it for aesthetics, not because I'm paranoid and wanted them extra attached
All that was left was for me to add the words of the quote using embroidery floss.  I typed it up for reference using a decorative font because I didn't want it to be immediately obvious what the quote was.  I was going for a certain look more than anything else.  I probably should have written the quote on using some sort of fabric pen first and embroidered over it but instead I decided to free-hand it.  Because apparently I like driving myself crazy by having to embroider, rip out, and re-embroider things.  
Perhaps I would prefer life to reading if I didn't always insist on making life so difficult for myself
Voila: the finished product! 
A precarious book stack proclaiming a precarious philosophy
 ...and a shot of how it looks like on me to wrap things up.

People say that designer labels are the thing, but I prefer DIY

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Addie on the Inside Review



Book talk:  Who are you?  Are you who they say you are?  Or are you someone else?  Or perhaps a combination of the two: the public and the private you?  Addie has been called many things by many people: to her fellow misfits she's a friend, to her classmates she's a know-it-all, to her boyfriend she's beautiful but infuriating, to her boyfriend's friends she's a loser social-climber, to her ex-best friend Becca she's badly in need of a makeover, to her grandmother she's a reminder of how times have changed, and to herself she's...a  girl who is trying to figure out who she is.

Rocks my socks:  I love the intimacy the format of a novel in verse provided.  I felt like I was reading the journal of a precocious middle-school girl and I got a good look into her psyche   It reminded me of how glad I am not to be in middle-school anymore.  At the same time it gave me some hope by reminding me of how idealistic and passionate youth can be.  Addie worries about her boyfriend and her social status, but she also worries about stories she reads in the newspaper about women who are beaten and written off by society or fellow teens who are bullied and end up committing suicide.  The poems range from haikus about her cats to long, loosely structured ones about her grandmother and each format fit the subject and told me more about it.   A lot of them begged to be read aloud, which I did as I read them, even though I live alone.  I'm sure my cat appreciated the entertainment.

Rocks in my socks:  I felt like the ending wrapped things up a bit too quickly and easily.  Addie goes through a lot and seems to get through it with relative ease.  Perhaps that's just due to the novel in verse structure making it less clear how much time has passed, though.

Every book its reader: Don't let the novel in verse format foll you--this is a quick and easy read and even though it is economical with its words the descriptions of the plot, character, and setting shine through just as strong as in a more conventional novel.  Technically it's the third book in a series but I haven't read the other two and was able to enjoy this one just fine.  I'd give it to fans of poetry, but I'd also give it to anyone looking for an outsider school story grades 5 and up.  I read it as part of a faculty and staff book club and even those who said that they were originally turned off by the poetry format said that they came around to like it.  We all agreed that as adults working at a K-8 school it was a great reminder of what it can be like to be that age.

Extras:

Simon &; Schuster have pages for Addie on the Inside, James Howe, and No Name Calling week that has a video featuring James Howe

The main No Name-Calling Week site is a great resource as well which fans of the book may be interested in

There's an interview with James Howe over at We Are the Youth

Source: copy provided as part of faculty and staff book club

Addie on the Inside by James Howe: Buy it or check it out today!

Saturday, September 29, 2012

The Watsons Go to Birmingham--1963 Review



Book talk: Have you ever had an older sibling who pulled a mean trick on you?  Then you'll understand just how sweet the sight of Byron standing with his lips frozen to the rearview mirror is for Kenny.  Just last week By had clobbered him with a fistful of snow right in the mouth.  But now, as they were supposed to be scraping ice off the windshield, Byron had decided to check himself out in the mirror and kiss his own reflection.  Now, Kenny is free to look on as his parents try to free Byron.  Now Kenny has the upper-hand, and he uses it to give By a new nickname: the Lipless Wonder.  As the weather improved, Bryon's behavior didn't.  There was the flaming parachute incident, the Swedish creme bird tragedy, and a haircut that went a step too far.  Now Byron's got himself exiled to Birmingham for the summer to be straightened out by grandma.   It will be a trip that changes the family forever.

Rocks my socks:  I can't remember the last time I laughed so hard and so long when reading a book.  I saw Christopher Paul Curtis speak this summer and he is just as hilarious in person.  There were so many great surreal moments from Kenny playing war with his friends using American and Nazi dinosaurs to Byron's definition of peon: "them folk what was so poor that the rich folks would just as soon pee on them as anything else."  Not to mention Winnie's evil twin: the wool pooh.  The novel isn't all amusing anecdotes, though.  It has a real heart and purpose to it.  Even for readers who know what happened in Birmingham in 1963, when the attack occurs it's sudden and surprising, and because we've spent the rest of the novel seeing how good-humored our narrator normally is, his reaction is all the more heart-wrenching.

Rocks in my socks: none

Every book its reader: The novel is historical fiction and it does an excellent job taking a reader back to a specific time and place.  But it is also about a boy growing up and the often hilarious hijinks that ensue.  I'd give this to someone looking for a laugh or a book about childhood.  The novel does grapple with some difficult themes, but in an accessible way.  I'd say 4th grade and up.

Extras:

The Fuse #8 top 100 children's novels entry on the book is a great resource

Scholastic has a reading guide for the novel with an interview with the author, activity ideas, and more

There are several fan trailers on YouTube for the video including this one of the more traditional variety and this one reenacting scenes from the novel using rats

Reading Rockets has several video clips of an interview with Christopher Paul Curtis

Random House has a site for Christopher Paul Curtis

Scholastic has a page for the book with a link to the author's note

Last but certainly not least Christopher Paul Curtis has his own website with links to various interviews, news, and more

Source: Free copy from a Scholastic reading summit

The Watsons Go to Birmingham--1963: Buy it or check it out today!

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Wicked Lovely Review



Book talk:  What do you think of when you hear the word 'fairy'?  Well, Faeries are real and they're nothing like the beautiful, bubbly creatures depicted in children's books.  Some faeries hardly even look human.  They all seem to delight in torturing the humans who are blissfully unaware of their existence.  Aislinn wishes they were invisible to her too, but like her mother and grandmother before her she is cursed with the ability to see them.  That means that not only can she see the horrible things that they do, but she has to pretend that she can't.  The other humans would think she was crazy if she admitted to seeing them.  Even worse--if the faeries knew she had the sight it would attract their attention, and a faery's attention is never a good thing.

Rocks my socks:  I always liked faeries but I had grown tired of faery stories because they always seemed to be portrayed in terms of black and white: either the faeries are boringly sweet or remorselessly evil.  It was nice to read about faeries with a complicated society made up of individuals who run the gamut from good to evil and everything in between.  Marr is also a gender studies teacher which brings a refreshing change to the story as she uses creatures that have lived and wooed women for hundreds of years to examine how women's role in society has changed.  Neither of those are what kept me reading until one in the morning on a school night though.  The faeries and gender concerns are really just tools for examining love in all its splendid (and not-so-splendid) variety.  Marr explores the anguish of watching someone you love fall for someone else, the confusion of feeling drawn to someone you know you shouldn't, the phantom pain of feelings that you thought had died long ago rising to the surface, the strength required to move on even when you don't want to, the brief burst of a fling, and the patience required to wait for someone who is worth it.  Of course there's also the standard passion of a long-awaited first kiss and the love-that-conquers-all.  Despite their being faeries the characters seemed very human and nuanced to me and I quickly grew to care for them and became lost in their world.  And a world where the guys woo girls by helping them researching their problems using interlibrary loan is not one that I am eager to leave.

Rocks in my socks:  none

Every book its reader:  I'd give this to anyone looking for a dark fantasy novel that's focused on characters and their relationships.  The novel does explore various aspects of relationships including the faery king's harem and has violence of several varieties although these aspects are more alluded to than described in graphic detail.  I'd probably save it for teenagers.

Extras:  

Melissa Marr has a general website as well as one specifically for the series complete with official songs, character and discussion guides, and a map of the town

There's an excellent trailer for the novel

There's an entire wiki devoted to the serires

Wicked Lovely has a Facebook fan page

Source: #ALA12

Wicked Lovely by Melissa Marr: Buy it or check it out today!

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Breaking Stalin's Nose Review



Book talk: Have you ever felt on top of the world one day only to have the ground fall out from beneath your feet, leaving you lower than you've ever felt before? Tomorrow Sasha will become a Young Pioneer.  It's a day he's been waiting for for a long time. He'll be one step closer to becoming like his father, the great communist hero who helps unmask enemies hiding in their own country.  His father will even be the guest of honor at the ceremony.  Sasha goes to bed thinking that tomorrow couldn't get any better.  But when he wakes up, he will find out that it could easily get a lot worse.

Rocks my socks:  I love the perspective this book provides.  Sasha starts out as a gung-ho communist and even writes a letter to Stalin about how he pities children who have to grow up in other countries.  Then his world slowly comes crashing down around him as he discovers the web of lies he's been caught in his entire life.  The novel is an exercise in dramatic irony as the reader waits for Sasha to realize what it means to live in Stalinist Russia.  Of course the novel is aimed at a pretty young crowd so they might not know that much about the era.  I'd be interested in knowing what it's like to read for someone who doesn't know any more than Sasha does at the beginning and makes all these discoveries along with him.

Rocks in my socks:  One of the great strengths of this novel is how accessible it is with its easy chapters and plentiful pictures, but it felt like a weakness to me as well.  There were a lot of great scenes and moments to explore, but they were all passed over too quickly to do so.  I never got enough of a feel for any of the characters, including Sasha, to really become invested in them.

Every book its reader:  I'd give this to 4th grade and up looking for a quick historical fiction to read.

Extras:  

MacMillan's has a trailer for the book on their YouTube page

ALA has a video with Yelchin talking about his background and winning the Newbery Honor

MacMillan's has a page for the book with the trailer, pictures from the novel, excerpts, reviews, and a discussion guide

Eugene Yelchin has a site dedicated to the book packed full of extras and more information about the setting of the novel

Yelchin's main website has information about his other books, his exhibitions, his life, and a portfolio of his work

Source: #ALA12

Breaking Stalin's Nose by Eugene Yelchin: Buy it or check it out today!

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Ashes Review



Book talk:  The past few years have not been kind to Alex.  First both of her parents die, then she gets diagnosed with cancer.  Alex is sick of chemotherapy and sick of doctors and she's sick of getting sick.  So she ditches the new experimental treatment her aunt signed her up for to go for a solo hike while she still can to spread her parents' ashes. Aunt Hannah isn't happy about it, but there's not much she can do.  Her aunt should have been worrying about her own imminent death instead, but there wasn't anything she could do about that either.  Alex never suspected that she'd outlive so many people.  But now she has to fight for survival in a whole new way: find food, weapons, and shelter, protect those supplies from bandits, and avoid becoming a meal for the Changed.

Rocks my socks: Despite this not being the type of book I'd normally pick up, once I did I kept reading until past midnight when I finished it.  Alex is a realistic and strong protagonist and I enjoyed reading about her.  The other characters she encounters are layered and believable as well--even the minor ones.  Bick is a child psychiatrist and former Air Force major which lends an unique perspective and expertise to the story.  For what is essentially a zombie thriller there is a fair amount of time spent considering moral questions and delving into the characters' emotions.  She accomplishes this without letting the pace lag.

Rocks in my socks:  Bick repeatedly uses a structure that is a bit of a pet peeve of mine.  She'll set up a scenario in a paragraph and then contradict the sentiment with a short line.  Almost like she's afraid the reader will stop reading if she ends the chapter on a happy note so she sneaks an extra line in saying 'hey--don't worry it'll pick back up in a second!' Of course there's also some sketchy science involved with how the zombie apocalypse occurs, but I doubt it's possible to write an entirely realistic and scientifically accurate zombie apocalypse novel so that didn't bother me too much.

Every book its reader:  I'd give this to teens looking for a fast-paced novel.  Fans of zombies and/or wilderness survival will enjoy it in particular.  There's an endorsement from James Dashner on the cover so it should be easy to convince the legions of Maze Runner fans to pick it up as well.

Extras:

Ilsa Bick has her own website with the usual blog news updates as well as articles about film and television

There's a decent fan-made book trailer over at YouTube

Edgmont has a video up of Ilsa Bick talking about what she'd put in her survival pack

There's an interview with Bick over at Random Acts of Reading

Source: school library

Ashes by Ilsa J. Bick: Buy it or check it out today!

Monday, September 10, 2012

Smile Review



Book talk:  Braces were going to be bad enough, but when Raina trips and knocks out her two front teeth she's in for an even longer journey full of pain and trips to various -dontists.  It will take years to get her mouth looking normal again.  While she waits she has to deal with friends who are acting less and less friendly, decide who she wants to be, and cope with all the other usual pains of growing up.  Sometimes it seems like nothing will ever be right again and she's finding it more and more difficult to find reasons to smile.

Rocks my socks:  I went through braces, an expander, retainers, and headgear when I was growing up, but that was all nothing compared to Raina.  It was cathartic to read about experiences that were similar to and even worse than my own (I remember customizing my retainer and nearly spit out my drink when one of Raina's friends shows her the picture of Joey McIntyre on hers.)  I love the way Raina illustrates concepts--for example to show how she was always thinking of her crush she draws a thought bubble reading "15...16...Sean" as she enters the combination for her locker.  My favorite part by far though was when she finally stood up to her mean friends.  She ends up finding new ones that she gets along with better and I think it will be a great example for other students.

I love the way Raina depicts the Loma Prieta earthquake
I found her description of growing up particularly apt--it's funny because it's true!
Rocks in my socks: none

Every book its reader:  I'd give this to anyone who has had any major dental or orthodontic work done or who soon will.  Despite all she goes through Raina says in an end note that she is actually not afraid of dentists and believes that they can do a lot of good.  This will give students an idea of what to expect without being too negative.  Of course anyone looking for a good comic about middle school will enjoy it as well.  I'd give it to 5th graders and up.

Extras:

Raina has her own website with some illustrationsfree webcomics, and more

Scholastic has a trailer for the book over on YouTube

Scholastic has a comics creator game for it as well that allows you to make your own comic using images from the comic

Source: #ALA12

Smile by Raina Telgemeier: Buy it or check it out today!