Friday, August 31, 2012

Starry River of the Sky review

Book talk:  What would you do if the moon went missing and you were the only one who could hear its cries?  Rendi is surprised that no one else seems to mind the missing moon or hear its moans at night--but what can he possibly do about it?  Maybe once he could have got someone to help, but now he's on his own.  After being caught as a stowaway he's stuck working as a chore boy at a small inn in the middle of nowhere.  He doesn't want the inn's guests to think he's crazy and the inn keeper's daughter doesn't like him anymore than he likes her.  But when a mysterious new guest arrives and starts telling stories suddenly the sleepy town turns into a bed of action.  With mysterious toads, kidnappers, and fights over snails, Rendi realizes that he is in the middle of an exciting story of his own--and it's up to him to make sure it ends happily.

Rocks my socks:  Much like Lin's Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, this novel has short stories placed throughout the main narrative.  They are set apart by a different font and special headers and they are positively enchanting.   The main narrative in this story has more meat to it though and I loved the way all the characters' separate stories were revealed and connected.  Each character has lessons to learn before the moon can be restored to its rightful place and they are all touchingly portrayed.  The character who makes the biggest progress however is, as it should be, the protagonist Rendi.  He doesn't start out as a like-able character but through the course of the novel he finds himself letting his guard down and changing in spite of himself.  This sets the novel apart, especially for one aimed at such a young audience, and I admire Lin for making Rendi the lead.  The novel is illustrated throughout and even the rough versions in my advance reading copy are beautiful.  I can't wait to see the final versions when the book is published--I'm sure they'll be a real treat.  Of course the language is as beautiful as the illustrations--this a book to own and store proudly on your shelf and take down for multiple re-readings at bedtime.  

Rocks in my socks: none

Every book its reader: I'd recommend this to fans of fairy tales looking for a chapter book to read.  Those with an interest in Chinese culture and folklore will be particularly interested in this book.  Fans of Where the Mountain Meets the Moon will be delighted by Lin's latest.  It would make a good read aloud for younger children but for independent reading I'd save it for 3rd graders and up.  


Grace Lin has a charming blog with a lot of extras including the process of making the illustrations I'm so excited about--how could this frog picture not intrigue you?

This video tells the story of the Chinese mooncake festival which plays an important part in the novel

Source: free advance reading copy at #ALA12

Starry River of the Sky by Grace Lin: Buy it or check it out today!

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

This Dark Endeavor Review

Book talk: Victor thought he had discovered all the secret passages in the Frankenstein estate.  But there are always more secrets to be uncovered--although sometimes they are best left in darkness.  When they stumbled across the Dark Library it almost killed them, as it had the last unfortunate person who had been trapped inside.  Yet Victor felt its strange allure as he scanned the forbidden titles, and even as he promised his father he'd never return, he doubted he'd be able to resist them.  Now his twin brother is sick and all the doctors and science that his parents enlist cannot cure him.  But there is a recipe for an elixir in one of the alchemical titles that might.  Gathering the ingredients will be dangerous and there's no guarantee the potion will work, but there's no guarantee that it won't either.   Would you stand by and hope for the best--or would you risk it all on a long shot?  For Victor, the answer is clear--and dark.

Rocks my socks:  The atmosphere is deliciously gothic and the pacing relentless.  The cast worked wonderfully together and had individual voices that were allowed to shine.  Henry had me cracking up with his various phobias and his poetic spirit while I admired Elizabeth's strong will, wit, and courage.  Polidori is an excellent creepy alchemist who both guides them in their ventures in the dark arts and warns them of the consequences of the practice.   I'd be remiss if I didn't mention his pet lynx--I'm always a sucker for intelligent cat characters.  I loved the idea of Victor having a twin that spurred his competitive spirit as he constantly tries to out-do his slightly older brother.  Konrad would be frustrating to have as a twin--intelligent, athletic, kind, level-headed, a favorite of everyone.  Plenty of novels would have him as the main character, or perhaps the strong-willed Elizabeth, or even the frightened Henry.  But not this novel.  Which is what makes it so wonderfully refreshing.  Victor is deeply flawed and not in a romantic way or due to some past hardship--he grew up in the same environment as his twin.  Yes, he is willing to sacrifice for his brother, but it remains unclear to both the reader and Victor himself whether the stronger motivation is his brother's health or his own desire to look like a hero by saving him.  He's obsessive and selfish and a bad influence as he leads his friends into danger on a regular basis.  I'm not sure I'd like to have him as a friend, but I enjoyed reading about him.  Although perhaps what sets him apart from other YA leads isn't so much his unheroic thoughts as much as the fact that Oppel allows him to voice them.  This makes him more realistic and relatable than many noble leads out there.  Perhaps this will allow readers to learn more from Victor's mistakes than they do from the good example of other characters.  At the very least it will be sure to entertain them.

Rocks in my socks: none

Every book its reader:  I'd give this to readers looking for a good gothic tale or just a fast-paced story with supernatural undercurrents.  The story is, as the title suggests, dark and at times violent.  Still I'd say it's fine for 6th grade and up.


There's a great book trailer at the publisher's YouTube page

Kenneth Oppel has a great webpage with several video interviews about the book, pages from Victor's sketchbook, a reading group guide, a blog, and more.

The original trailer for the Boris Karloff version will grab attention at the beginning of a book talk and could start a discussion on what versions of Frankenstein students have seen

Source: Free copy at #ALA12

This Dark Endeavor by Kenneth Oppel: buy it or check it out today!

Monday, August 27, 2012

Incarnations of Frankenstein

File:Frankenstein's monster (Boris Karloff).jpg
public domain image
via Wikipedia

I was never particularly interested in Frankenstein.  I am obsessed with language and words, so monsters that don't speak have never held much appeal for me.  I didn't like Frankenstein for many of the same reasons that I don't particularly like zombies: they're speechless, lumbering, dull-witted creatures.  Or at least that's how they're generally depicted in the media and that's how I thought of them.  Of course, I hung out with enough smarmy English majors to know that Frankenstein was actually the name of the doctor and not the monster but I had never read the book and the only movie version I had seen was Young Frankenstein, so I didn't know much beyond that.

It took a combination of Benedict Cumberbatch and Danny Boyle to finally interest me enough to overcome my bias and go see a non-parody version of the story.  I'm glad I did.

Frankenstein directed by Danny Boyle at the Olivier Theatre Royal National Theatre.
Picture by Nigel Norrington
via the Daily Mail
About a year and a half ago, a local movie theatre broadcast the National Theatre Live version of Frankenstein directed by Danny Boyle and starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Johnny Lee Miller.  The version I saw had Cumberbatch as the creature and Miller as the doctor.  I was a fan of Cumberbatch from season 1 of Sherlock so I bought a ticket to see it.  I'll admit to being surprised when the creature actually started talking. This was a side of the creature that I was completely unfamiliar with and the production took me on a roller coaster of emotion as I discovered the humanity of this classic monster, probably assisted by the affection I already had for Cumberbatch.  I left the matinee showing and walked home in the bright California sun and yet I still carried an arctic chill with me as I contemplated how we can make monsters out of ourselves and others.  Clearly I had to re-evaluate my opinion of Frankenstein's creature.

After that I noticed Frankenstein crop up again and again.  Partly because I now sought out things like the Branagh movie version and partly because it turned up on its own in sources I already followed such as the Stuff You Missed in History podcast.  When I realized that Kenneth Oppel (who wrote the novel Half Brother that I love so much) had come out with a novel exploring Victor Frankenstein's teen life I knew that it was finally time for me to cave in and read the original.  I wanted to make sure I had some context so that I could appreciate the novel, though.  Luckily the good people at the New York Public Library had noticed the Frankenstein trend as well and produced a Biblion app focused around it.

I really enjoyed this app and was delighted to find even more fascinating facets to the story.  Mary Shelley has an interesting family history: her mother was an early feminist and her father was a political philosopher.  She met her future husband and poet Percy Bysshe Shelley at 16.  During their courtship they regularly met at her mother's grave.  They eloped and honeymooned in Europe and spent a summer with fellow poet and an early celebrity Lord Byron.  It was the "year without a summer" with abnormally cold and rainy weather worldwide caused by a volcanic eruption, so to keep themselves entertained indoors they proposed that they should each write a ghost story.  Which is how Frankenstein was born.

I express my opinion of Byron in a
cafe in Vegas.   That's right, when I go
to Vegas I read about Bryon in cafes--
do you have a problem with that?
In addition to historical background, the app provides modern perspectives with essays about the various adaptations of the story and opinions from modern readers with a unique perspective.  There's one about the opinion of blind people on the blind character in the story and another about how a reading group of prisoners related to the story.  I absolutely loved the app and found the facts surrounding Frankenstein as fascinating as the fiction narrative.  I was particularly surprised to learn of the scandals surrounding Byron.

When I finished the Biblion app, it was finally time for me to get started on the original novel.  I downloaded the text from Project Gutenberg and seeing as how I generally prefer to read novels on a printed page, it took me most of the summer to get through it. I turned to it when I didn't have a traditional book at hand.  Trust me, the irony of reading a book exploring the dangers of scientific progress on a new tech gadget did not escape me.  I liked the extra layer it added, and I liked taking my time reading what is after all such a sprawling narrative.  I found it particularly interesting that much like Frankenstein and his monster, I travelled as I read it from Vegas to Southern California to London to Scotland (where I actually read the bit that takes place in Scotland) and finally finishing it at my aunt and uncle's house back in Southern California while my sister, cousins, their friends, and I played the Vampire Masquerade role playing game (Though I'm not sure Bela Lugosi would have approved of my bringing Frankenstein to a Vampire game.)

I'm glad I read the original version, and I can see why Mary Shelley's story has remained so firmly rooted in society's imagination.  Much like the creature it centers around, the story gains its strength from joining many disparate facets--yet it is more than the sum of its parts.  For those wanting a horror story the creature is certainly a formidable foe.  For those craving an adventure tale the story starts with an arctic explorer and involves travels all over the globe.  It is a classic outsider story that anyone who has ever felt cast out can relate to.  It is a tale of the power of science and yet it also cautions us to use that power wisely.  It is a tale of family, friendship, love, betrayal, murder, vengeance, and remorse.  As the fears of society changes, different aspects of the novel can be highlighted to reflect those changing dangers.

The story has become so widespread and ingrained in our culture that it's hard to read it fresh--without any previous knowledge of it.  That means that modern readers each bring their own set of biases and preconceived notions of what Frankenstein is to the story.  Personally, I kept getting angry with Frankenstein for being so mean to Benedict Cumberbatch!  Someone reading the original after having read Oppel's new stories about the young Victor Frankenstein might have more sympathy for his character, though.  Perhaps the strongest aspect of the story and part of why it has survived for so long is that it does remain ambiguous in many areas and reserve judgement of its characters.  By setting up the framework of a story within a story within a story it makes it very clear that the narrators each have their own biased perspectives and none are entirely trustworthy.  That means that the story can be different for each reader, which is part of why it has been such a rich vein for adaptations.  Much like Frankenstein's creature, what you get out of the story depends on what you put in.

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley: buy it or check it out today!

Next up: my review of This Dark Endeavor by Kenneth Oppel--a story of a young Victor Frankenstein

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Colin Fisher Review

****Disclaimer: I am writing this review based on an advance reading copy****

Book talk: Some people believe that when sharks attack humans it is because they mistake them for seals.  This is not correct.  Scientists now know that when sharks bite humans it's usually with only a fraction of their jaw strength.  The sharks aren't attacking humans at all--they're investigating these strange creatures with test bites.  Luckily for the students of West Valley High, Colin Fischer's investigative techniques are closer those of Sherlock Holmes. It will take all of Colin's observational skills and ingenuity to get to the bottom of this case.  Someone has brought a gun to school and Colin knows that their main suspect is innocent. He's determined to find out who really did it--even if that means saving his bully.

Rocks my socks: I saw the duo that wrote this at ALA and it left me really excited to read it.  I was not let down.  Miller and Stentz are better known as screenwriters and co-wrote X-Men: First Class and Thor (which will certainly help me sell it to students).  You can see the influence of this in the fast pacing of the novel and the dialogue.  But the story is one that is clearly suited to novel form and Stentz and Miller took advantage of the more unique techniques this affords them, such as including what looks like pages torn from Colin's notebook and adding interesting and entertaining footnotes throughout (I'm such a sucker for footnotes!)  The mystery is engaging, but what really kept me turning the pages was Colin.  He has Asperger's syndrome so he's used to studying his peers and looking for clues just to read their emotions.  Colin has pictures of Sherlock Holmes, Spock and Data from Star Trek, and Grissom from CSI above his bed (clearly he has excellent taste.)  He tries to emulate these heroes and uses reason to discover the truth--even if it means clearing the name of his bully. On top of all that Stentz and Miller have a great sense of humor that left me cracking up throughout the novel.

Rocks in my socks: Due to the fast pacing of the story there were some aspects of the book that I would have liked to see explored further, although I can understand why they didn't want to slow down the narrative to do so.  For example, I was disappointed that they didn't explore the Moriarty-like character more.  I suppose this is actually in keeping with him being a Moriarty-like character, but it's so rare to see a teenage character who seems psychopathic in his lack of emotion and desire to create chaos that it felt odd to me that he was such a minor character.  I wanted to hear more to see if he really is a psychopath or if there's more to his motivations.  With the way the novel ended it appears that I may get my wish in future novels though.

Every book its reader:  I'd recommend this to people who enjoyed The London Eye Mystery or The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime.  I think this is a great novel to get people who don't usually read for fun reading too though so I'd also recommend it to fans of Miller and Stentz's other work and to people who share Colin's interest in Star Trek, Sherlock, or CSI.  Of course those looking for a mystery set in a high school will also enjoy this novel.  Even though the mystery revolves around a gun being brought to school no one is actually shot so there's not that much violence beyond the bullying Colin experiences.  I'd say it's fine for students as young as 5th grade and up.

Colin Fischer has his own Facebook page 

Source: Advance reading copy from #ALA12

Colin Fischer by Ashley Edward Miller & Zack Stentz

Buy it or check it out today!

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Adaptation Review

****Disclaimer: I am writing this review based on an advance reading copy****

Book talk: Reese was waiting in the airport when it began.  First, she noticed birds plummeting out of the sky and splattering on the tarmac below.  Then the news reports began to come in: bird strikes causing plane crashes all over the continent.  It ended up being lucky that her flight was delayed.  But with all the planes grounded while the crashes were investigated Reese had to find another way home, through now-panicked towns and across the desert.   It's a trip that would change her forever--and she can't even remember what happened.

Rocks my socks: Malinda Lo is a local author and the novel has a distinct San Francisco flare that I love, although living in the area as I do I may be a bit biased.  Most of the novel takes place in San Francisco and the cast is as diverse and quirky as the city itself.  I found the premise interesting but what I really loved was the characters and how each of their individual and unique voices come through.  As a librarian I also appreciated the lesson in critical consumption of the media and the importance of sharing information.

Rocks in my socks: The pacing is a bit uneven.  The beginning and end read like a taut, action-packed thriller while the middle is more focused on character development and relationships, which leads to a much slower pace.  The end was too abrupt for my taste, but I like the way the conflict was resolved.

Every book its reader: I'd give this to fans of science fiction who appreciate both action and character development.  Fans of conspiracy theories and (spoiler) aliens will enjoy this novel in particular.


Malinda Lo has a website with a blog and a lot of extras (including an offer to send signed book plates specially made for her novel Huntress to you if you send her a self-addressed, stamped envelope).  She also has an it gets better video and a list of recommended reading with queer female characters.

ETA: There's a new trailer for the book over on Little Brown's YouTube Channel

Source: Advanced reading copy from #ALA12

Adaptation by Malinda Lo: buy it or check it out today!

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Cinder Review

Book talk: Cinder can't believe her luck--the crowned prince at her stall seeking her mechanical expertise!  It's the kind of encounter every girl in New Beijing, especially her step sisters, dreams of.  And he chose to come on the day when she was missing a foot!  Not that a prince would ever date a cyborg anyway.  Still, the way he looked at her with those gorgeous eyes has helped her to understand her sisters' obsession a bit better.  Both her and the prince have bigger problems to occupy their minds, though.  The town is ravaged by a mysterious plague that the King himself has contracted and cyborgs are drafted for testing that is almost always fatal in order to find a cure.  In the midst of the outbreak the mysterious Lunar Queen is threatening war unless her demands are met.  And Cinder is poised to lose everyone she has ever trusted--including herself.

Rocks my socks:  I'm a sucker for fairy tales retold and this is a particularly good one.  It has enough familiar elements to serve as friendly signposts that impressed me with their ingenuity.  Yet it didn't follow the story too closely so that I felt like I always knew what was about to happen.  I love the theme of cyborg rights and what it means to be human (I'm currently working my way through TNG and am apt to burst into tears during any episode where they're mean to Data.)  Cinder herself was a strong heroine as she does what she has to in order to protect herself and those she loves and I appreciated that she is a skilled mechanic as well.  Prince Kai is a worthy love interest for her and goes beyond the bland prince charmings completely lacking personality so common in fairy tales.

Rocks in my socks: The big twist at the end was obvious to me so early on that it was a bit anticlimactic.  I'd have appreciated a few less clues about it.  The lunar queen seems two dimensional so far and obsessed with her beauty in a way that is cliche in female fairy tale villains, but I'm hoping that the next book in the series might flesh her out a bit more.

Every book its reader: I'd recommend this to fans of fairy-tales retold and fans of science fiction 6th grade and up.  Fans of strong female heroines like Katniss will appreciate this reworking of the Cinderella story.


Marissa Meyers has a livejournal blog with lots of extras

An official book trailer with impressive visuals but an unfortunate voiceover

Another book trailer with a peppy soundtrack made with animoto

A round up of this and other Cinderella re-tellings can be found at Pinal County Reads

Source: public library

Cinder by Marissa Meyer: buy it or check it out today!

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Mini Reviews

 After seeing all the fiftieth anniversary hype I finally got around to reading A Wrinkle in Time.  I really enjoyed meeting the character of Meg.  Meg is a character famous for being saved by her faults and they are also what make readers love her.  However, I would have enjoyed seeing more faults in the rest of the cast.  Granted, Charles Wallace does exhibit a bit of hubris, but only when desperation forces him.  Otherwise he is entirely too sweet and perfect for my liking.  Calvin's main fault seems to be his family which isn't really a fault at all. Other than that he's apparently well liked, a good athlete, and rather intelligent.  The mother takes the father's extended absence surprisingly well.  Sure she sometimes lets her emotions show, but only in private and seemingly only sadness at his absence.  If I was her there would be a healthy amount of anger mixed in there as well--justified or not.  In general the characters are too nice for my liking and always seem to do and say exactly the right thing, which annoyed me after a while.  The villains on the other hand are too evil for my tastes.  I like some more shades of grey than the Black Thing or IT could provide being, as they are, pure forces of evil.  I did find the premise of Camazotz wonderfully creepy though.  I enjoyed the ideas that the novel presented and Meg, Mrs. Who, Mrs. Which, and Mrs. Whatsit were delightful. My own personal biases aside, I can see why it won the Newbery.  Most importantly I know I have many students who are passionate about it and books that make kids love reading and also give them something to think about always hold a special place in my heart.
A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle: buy it or check it out today!

I loved Bitterblue! Bitterblue is perhaps not strong in the same ways that Katsa of Graceling is, but in many ways she is even stronger. Katsa is Graced with strength while Bitterblue is thrown into a crappy situation at a young age and nevertheless refuses to complacently listen to others and instead struggles to find the truth and to do what is right, no matter how painful it may be. At the same time she is realistic and flawed in her struggles and has no special powers, which makes her the most relatable of Cashore's heroines to date. So many stories end with 'and the villain was defeated and they all lived happily ever after' that it was refreshing to read a novel that explored what 'ever after' would really entail and how a villain can negatively affect a society long after his defeat. The road to recovery is long and complicated and messy. This novel is far darker than any of the previous ones. Bitterblue deals with issues such as corruption, uprisings, betrayals, suicides, self-harm, rape, and torture. It is an intense novel but it deals with these issues capably. Of course it's not all doom and gloom. Bitterblue learns the value of true friends (and one dashing noble thief character in particular) and I found all the work with ciphers fascinating. There's a lot of fun world-building elements too. Mostly though I loved this novel for telling the hard truths well while leaving room for optimism and hope. (scroll over for spoiler) I was particularly pleased to see a romantic storyline that acknowledges that sometimes love does not conquer all. Sure I wanted them to get together, and that they couldn't made me sad, but sometimes that's how life works and stories so rarely admit this that I was impressed with and thankful to Cashore. Next time Cashore releases a book I'll clear out my calendar to be sure I'm not compelled to stay up all night finishing it and have to go to work on three hours sleep again!

Bitterblue by Kristin Cashore: buy it or check it out today!

I went to London for the first time recently with my friend Laura. While we were there we met with her agent Juliet and several authors for dinner and drinks.  Juliet gave us each books at the start of the evening and this was mine.  It's not the type of book I'd usually pick up but I gave it a chance because I know Juliet has impeccable taste (she did sign Laura after all).  The story is narrated by a woman who ends up working for a quadriplegic man.  She has a deliciously sarcastic sense of humor that drew me in right away and had me laughing on the plane ride back to Laura's home in Scotland and pointing out particularly amusing passages to poor Laura, who was trapped in the seat next to me.  As you might imagine from the plot though, the story isn't all laughs.  By the time I was finishing the book the next day I kept bawling my eyes out while trying not to disturb Laura's husband Craig. The book most reminded me of The Fault In Our Stars, but for adults.  It had the same fearlessness in tackling tough issues and gift for making me laugh even as I cried.  I'd recommend it to anyone looking for an easy yet absorbing summer read who has access to a fresh box of tissues.
Me Before You by Jojo Moyes: buy it or check it out today!

The first time I tried reading this book, I didn't get very far.  It starts by establishing a complex frame-within-a-frame structure detailing how the manuscript that makes up the main part of the narrative was found, lost, and translated.  This was a popular narrative technique in the era that Eco is trying to imitate, but as a modern reader it sounded a bit clunky.  This was followed by a vocabulary list in Latin describing how monks split up their days.  Even for a language-lover like myself this was a bit of a turn-off.  Then when the story did finally start the narrative style was difficult to get into.  It has different rhythms and structures than a typical modern narrative.  This was around where I gave up the first time.  I am very glad that I tried again, though.  The second time I kept reading long enough to get used to the narrative style and I could see why Eco wrote it this way.  It really helped immerse me in a period and world that was not familiar to me at all.  It was far more exciting than I thought the setting of a medieval monastery capable of providing.  The better book titles version of this would be called Monks Gone Wild.  If you want to know how to accuse someone of "breaking wind through the mouth" in Latin then this is the book for you!  The monks on these pages say and do things that would make a frat boy blush.  The plot underlying it all is a medieval Sherlock story of supernatural plots demystified and incredible deductions.  The action mostly takes place in a scriptorium and labyrinthine library where monks lust after books like flesh and are quite literally willing to kill for them.  The portrayal of the librarians was a bit disturbing to me, as well as almost everything the book said about women, but it was all accurate for the time period and so extreme as to be laughable now.  It's not an easy read, but it is well worth the effort and I'd recommend it to anyone with a good chunk of time to read far enough into the story to get used to the narrative and a fondness for thought-provoking arguments woven seamlessly in with scatological humor and action sequences.
The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco: Buy it or check it out today!

This quiet, short novel is unlike anything  I've read before.  The story centers around a housekeeper who gets hired to work for a math professor who's been in an accident causing him to have a memory that stops in 1975 and doesn't remember anything short-term for longer than eighty minutes.  This means that every morning the housekeeper introduces herself it is like he is meeting her for the first time.  There isn't much of a plot to speak of and there is a fair amount of time spent in discussing various mathematical principles and eventually baseball (neither of which are my favorite subjects) and yet I found myself gulping the novel down quickly.  I grew attached to the characters so quickly and they seemed so real that even though there weren't any major events happening to them I cared deeply about the everyday things that did occur as if I was hearing an update about a dear friend.  This is a great read for a summer afternoon, especially for teachers on break like myself.
The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa: Buy it or check it out today!

Friday, August 17, 2012

Magisterium Review

****Disclaimer: I am writing this review based on an Advanced Readers Copy****

Book talk: 813: a beautiful planet full of forests and wildlife carefully studied by the resident scienitsts.  And the best part?  It's light years away.  Just to travel there takes 6 years--meaning that when people go there, they don't come back.  They have to say goodbye to everyone and everything they've ever known.  It's not an assignment for everyone, but it sounds like paradise to Glenn.  Ever since her mother disappeared and her father began doggedly pursuing insane ideas Glenn has wanted nothing more than to get away.  She's worked to make herself a good candidate and if she can get her father's signature she could skip a year at school, go to the Academy and be ready to leave with the next departing group in four years.  There's not much she'd miss.  Things have been weird with Kevin since that night at the train station and her cat she could take with her.  Her father is the only thing standing in her way, and he's so distracted that he is an easy obstacle to overcome.  At least until his crazy theories become a dangerous reality and Glenn finds herself leaving everything behind ahead of schedule--and in a completely different way than she had planned.

Rocks my socks: I like the way Hirsch blends the worlds of fantasy and science fiction in this novel and while the YA market is glutted with dystopias at the moment the premise of the novel is unique enough that it still contained some surprises and I felt that it had some interesting things to say.  The characters have some complexity to them, which I always appreciate, and even the government agent that would usually remain a faceless evil is given a family to be fighting for.  Of course my favorite character was (highlight for minor spoiler) Glenn's cat who ends up turning into a cat/human hybrid warrior with a troubled past but a heart of gold--how could I not love this book!?  I appreciated that Hirsch had the big kiss between the two friends happen before the novel started instead of milking it for all it was worth and there doesn't seem to be a love triangle in sight--both of which help set this novel apart.  Glenn also breaks some YA heroine stereotypes by being a computer programming whiz and decidedly uninterested in romantic relationships.  The best friend/love interest Kevin Kapoor was a good character too and had me laughing out loud (in public) several times, although I didn't like him as much in the second half of the novel.  The pacing was deliciously fast and I read it within 48 hours even though I had a lot of previous commitments that weekend and was in fact staying with my cousins and probably should have been socializing with them more.  They're nice, book-loving people though so I'm sure they understood.

Rocks in my socks: It's certainly not Hirsch's fault but I am feeling a bit burnt out on YA dystopias.  While there were enough new and unique ideas and twists in the novel to keep me reading there were definitely also times when I felt a sense of deja vu.  Some of the plot points felt a bit too convenient for me, especially near the end and I felt that some of the characters and plot points were glossed over but I tend to favor details over pacing.  I'm sure many readers will appreciate the fast pace and not be bothered by the lack of details on certain points.

Every book its reader: The novel is dark even for a dystopia, although not more so than The Hunger Games and that certainly has very young fans.  Still it seems to be aimed at (at the very least) a middle school set.  I'd recommend it to fans of science fiction and fantasy who are looking for more fast-paced dystopian fiction to read.

Jeff Hirsch has a website where you can find a video of him talking about the book

Source: Free ARC I got at #ALA12

Magisterium by Jeff Hirsch

Buy it or check it out today!

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Superman Versus the Ku Klux Klan Review

Book talk: Today Superman is best known for battling Lex Luthor, General Zod, and other super villains.  But before Superman came to stand for "Truth, Justice, and the American Way" he was known as the "Champion of the Oppressed"and he regularly battled dictators, terrorists, and spies.   In the summer of 1946 the Man of Steel even took on the Ku Klux Klan.  Attacking the infamous organization was a dangerous affair for the creators of the show, and it that required careful planning.  Intelligence was gathered from actual spies who had infiltrated the organization so that the details would be accurate.  This is the true story of two outcast kids who grew up to create an iconic American hero, an activist and spy who wasn't afraid to fight for what he believed in, an infamous organization that used hate-filled rhetoric to feed its greed, and an alien separated from his own people who uses his powers to defend the powerless.

Rocks my socks:  This book was a quick and easy read yet  it contained a trove of interesting information and skillfully balanced multiple threads.  In the spirit of full disclosure I've always been a Batman girl myself, but I was pleasantly surprised to learn about Superman's early role as champion of the oppressed before he turned into the purveyor of the American Way that I'm accustomed to thinking of him as.  I enjoyed reading about the real-life people associated with the character as well, including his creators.  I found the part detailing how the influence of their Jewish faith can be seen in Superman particularly fascinating.  Another narrative thread followed Stetson Kennedy who was friends with Woody Guthrie and infiltrated the KKK.  As an educator I found the section detailing how the radio program revolutionized educational programming compelling.  Bowers doesn't shy away from talking about the history of the KKK either and he makes a good point about how avoiding the subject can add mystery to it and make it more attractive.  By detailing how the organization used this incredibly harmful rhetoric to fill their coffers he helps readers recognize how other organizations use these same techniques and teaches them to be skeptical of anyone promoting hate for profit.

Rocks in my socks: There were so many interesting threads and I wished there was more time spent on each of them.  Still, I suppose I shouldn't complain that a book left me wanting to read more.

Every book its reader: This has a little something for everyone and is so informative and quick to read that there's little excuse not to read it.  Naturally it has some appeal for superhero comic fans, but a love or even knowledge of superhero comics isn't necessary to enjoy the book.  I've never read a superman comic and I loved it.  Stetson Kennedy was a folklorist as well as a spy and his connections to Woody Guthrie should be enough to sell those with an interest in folklore and grassroots activism.  The creators represent a classic outsider storyline that is easy for most people to relate to, and anyone interested in American history would certainly enjoy this well-researched book.  It does deal with some intense issues and doesn't pull any punches so I wouldn't give it to young children, but it is something that I think is important for students to learn about.  It depends on the maturity of the child naturally but I wouldn't hesitate giving it to middle schoolers.


You can listen to the radio series at the heart of this book on YouTube.

You can also listen to the song Woody Guthrie wrote about Stetson Kennedy.

You can easily find interviews with the author online.

Source: School Library

Superman Versus the Ku Klux Klan by Rick Bowers

Buy it or check it out today!