Speed Reviews

Soul Enchilada by David Macinnis Gill – A story that sometimes got a little bit goofy, but in a very self-aware way that I enjoyed.  And I am completely in love with these characters – Bug and Pesto are too much fun.

The Dead-Tossed Waves by Carrie Ryan – While this one didn’t pack quite as much of an emotional punch as The Forest of Hands and Teeth, I thought that it was really well-plotted and absolutely terrifying.  And that’s exactly what I want from a zombie book.  Loved the connections between the two stories. (Review copy provided by publisher at ALA Midwinter)

Hex Hall by Rachel Hawkins – Cute but predictable story set in a(nother) school for kids with magic.  I did think that the mean girls side of the story was handled well, but I didn’t find this novel especially memorable. (Review copy provided by publisher at ALA Midwinter)

The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place by Maryrose Wood – I was completely won over by this rollicking old-time story that has tongue firmly planted in cheek.  I didn’t think that the conceit was going to hold through a full novel – was pretty sure that it would feel one-note and boring by the end – but I’m happy to say that wasn’t the case.  I think it worked because Miss Lumley and the Incorrigibles are such winning characters. (Review copy provided by publisher.)

The Color of Earth and The Color of Water by Kim Dong Hwa – While I realize that these books are about a young girl’s developing sexuality, it sure would be nice if we were ever privy to a single one of her thoughts that doesn’t center on boys and sex.  Diversify, please!  On the good side, the art is absolutely gorgeous.

She Thief by Daniel Finn – Interesting story, but suffered from some pacing issues, and the slangy sort-of-Cockney dialect was distracting.  I did like the setting a lot –  a future London that sometimes feels a lot like the past until a cell phone shows up in somebody’s pocket.  (Review copy provided by publisher at ALA Midwinter)

The Maze Runner by James Dashner – Are we in the golden age of YA dystopia or what?  I keep thinking “oh man, another depressing dystopian novel, here we go again” and then I keep getting blown away.  This was taut and exciting and surprising and exactly what you would want from this type of story.  I handed it directly to one of my library kids when I was finished, and he came back the next day gushing and asking for the sequel.  Which I need.  Right now.

The Devil’s Kiss by Sarwat Chadda – Great beginning – the first chapter definitely brings the intrigue.  And the whole things move quick and draws the reader along.  And Billi is a bona-fide ass-kicker.  And yet…  just didn’t make me care as much as I wanted to.  Can’t put my finger on why.

The Queen’s Thief series by Megan Whalen Turner – Ok, confession time: I read The Thief and liked it fine.  But I didn’t love it, and so I never got around to the rest of this series.  Go ahead and berate me for a couple of minutes – I totally deserve it.  This series is AMAZING.  Eugenides is THE AWESOMEST.  I need to talk about these books in ALL CAPS.  The Thief improves on re-reading, and the rest of the series is so full of intrigue by people who are smarter and craftier than I could ever be – I can’t get enough.  Read the whole series in three days.  (Review copy of A Conspiracy of Kings provided by the publisher.)

Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – This is a book that you will feel intensely.  Just stunning – and a good crossover adult/YA title.  Kambili’s story is a necessary read.

Borderline by Allan Stratton

Borderline starts out as a coming of age story about Sami Sabiri, a Muslim-American teen who is struggling to balance his family with his school and social life in a very white suburb.  It turns in to a taut thriller that explores safety in the Homeland Security era, race, and terrorism. 

Now, if those were descriptions of two different books, I would probably pick up book #2.  And if I did, I would be missing out.  While the issues of justice, fear, and racial profiling that are addressed in the story of the arrest of Sami’s father are extremely interesting and the author does a nice job of carefully weaving them into the text, I did find the situations sometimes past my point of belief.  And I was genuinely more invested in Sami’s story before he is thrust into extraordinary circumstances – not my usual reaction to a book. 

Sami is such a likable kid, and his isolation from friends and schoolmates and his frustration with his strict father are shown in a way that make you really feel for him.  Sami’s easy sense of humor when he is with his best friends Andy and Marty contrasts with his insecurity at school, where he is the only Muslim student.  But as Sami tries to navigate a path between the usual small teenage rebellions and his desire to please his parents, and especially his strict and distant father, Sami begins to drift away even from his friends, who don’t understand the pressures that Sami feels.  Sami’s uneasy navigation of those relationships are this book’s greatest strength.

Sami’s father’s strange actions begin to arouse Sami’s suspicions, and shortly after Sami launches his own investigation of his father’s activities, Mr. Sabiri is suddenly arrested and accused of being part of a terrorist plot.  Not only is Sami ostracized and sometimes threatened by neighbors, classmates, and even school officials, but he is also desperate to learn the truth about his father.  Whlie his mother works closely with a lawyer to fight a justice system that seems to ignore the idea that a person is innocent until proven guilty in the face of potential terrorism, Sami becomes convinced that he is the only person who will be able to reach the accused leader of the terror plot and prove his father’s guilt or innocence.  He and his buddies race off on a poorly-planned mission to seek out a possible terrorist. 

This is the part of the story that I had some mixed feelings about.  Maybe if Sami hadn’t been such a vividly drawn character, I might have been more willing to gloss over some of the tremendously stupid decisions that were made by someone who seemed like a smart kid, if a little bit impulsive.   If this book had started as a legal thriller, I probably would never have questioned Sami’s actions in his quest to save his dad.  But because Sami was so real to me, I had a little trouble reconciling the two parts of the book, which sometimes pulled me out of the action of the story.

I don’t want to give anything away, but I will say that the true story behind Sami’s father’s arrest is much more interesting and convincing than I ever would have guessed.  I may have drifted away a little bit, but the conclusion really grabbed my interest and pulled me back into the plot of the book.  And I never drifted away from the characters – Sami and his friends and family had a grip on me from beginning to end.

Allan Stratton on the web

A review copy of this book was provided by the publisher.

April 2010 Reading Log

YA

Middle Grade

Kids and YA Nonfiction

Graphic Novels

Adult Fiction

Currently Reading

(Side note: I am a reading machine!  23 books: my best month ever!  And in a month where I had houseguests three weekends in a row!  I am feeling a) very accomplished and b) like I should probably get out more.)

Marathon Monday Links

  • First things first: it’s not too late!  You can still donate books to schools serving Navajo and Apache teens.  I gave Chameleon by Charles R. Smith to one school, and Fallen Angels by Walter Dean Myers to the other.  What did you send?
  • Liz B reacts to a recent article on “problem parents” in YA lit.  I don’t really have anything to add beyond “You tell ’em, Liz!”
  • A school district in Illinois is requiring that every student get a public library card.  This really shouldn’t be a new and exciting idea, but I know how tough meaningful collaborations can be, and hooray for School District U-46 for going for it.
  • Book Aunt has put together an exceptional annotated booklist on Tricksters in kids’ and YA lit.  So much good stuff on here – and so much I’ve yet to read!
  • I enjoyed The Horn Book’s short conversation with Rita Garcia-Williams.  I especially liked hearing her first answer on how she kept the tight focus in her recent historical novel One Crazy Summer – she would repeat the phrase “Through Delphine’s eyes” every time she felt herself straying off into an interesting tangent.  I think that tight focus is a big part of what makes One Crazy Summer such a wonderful middle-grade read.
  • The lovely Edi at Crazy Quilts recently asked me a few questions as part of her celebration of school libraries – it was a pleasure chatting with such a dedicated school librarian!
  • Shannon Hale always does an exceptional job of articulating why graphic novels are good and important for kids – and this time she ties it into a love of libraries, so I enjoyed reading it even more than usual.
  • A look at a few of the early kids-book ipad apps.  I hope that this is just the beginning of the creativity that we’ll see on the first popular e-book platform that is really kidsbook-friendly. (Hat tip to Mitali Perkins)
  • Totally sweet website design AND excellent tips for making your library genuinely patron-friendly?  Oh yeah!
  • Some statistics that refute the notion that certain sections of the population don’t have regular internet access because they don’t want it.  (Do people actually think that in this day and age?  Goodness, I hope not.)  Also includes some interesting quotes on how dial-up is worse than no internet at all, and a very sad quote about families using the library for internet access.
  • Great article on Henry Jenkins, who makes connections between fannish-ness and important literacy and learning skills.   I can’t believe I’ve never heard of this guy before!  This is a gap in my knowledge that I plan to fix, pronto.  (Hat tip to Libraries and Transliteracy)
  • I have loved reading  Laini Taylor‘s recent series of posts on plot and plotting.  She’s a smart lady – listen up, writers!  I especially enjoyed the third post on the connections between plot and structure.

Efrain’s Secret by Sofia Quintero

“Being brown and broke has been a seventeen-year-test in just how badly I want an average life…  Why does the valedictorian have to choose between my class ring and this SAT prep class?  Why does a clean-cut teenager have to decide between showing up to my minimum-wage job and going to the movies with the most popular girl in school?  Why do I have to fight so hard just for the mere chance to have it all?” (pg. 52.   Quotes taken from ARC – language is subject to change.)

Efrain Rodriguez is the highest-achieving student at his high school in the South Bronx, and despite lots of people telling him that he will never get in (and couldn’t pay for it even if he did), he has his heart set on the Ivy Leagues.  But money weighs heavily on his mind – his mom is working long hours just to get by, and his dad hasn’t exactly taken a strong interest in Efrain’s life since having a baby with his new girlfriend.  Efrain feels like he needs to take his financial situation into his own hands, and his afterschool tutoring job doesn’t cut it anymore.  So when an old friend who deals drugs approaches him with a chance to make a lot of money fast, Efrain thinks about all those choices he is forced to make in his life because of money.  He surprises himself by saying yes.

As Efrain is drawn deeper into the world of dealing, and as his lies to friends and family multiply, the reader can feel the moment when everything falls apart looming over Efrain.  You know that it’s coming, and that the fallout is going to be awful – it’s just a matter of when.  And if that reader is me, the reader will be banging her head against a wall and shouting “No Efrain Stop Stop Stop No!”  Because he genuinely doesn’t want this life, and he really doesn’t need this life if he will allow himself to rely on the people around him.  But when Efrain starts to list the things that are stacked against him, you can feel his desperation and start to understand how he could possibly make this decision that goes against every part of his judgment and his sense of morality.

Efrain’s relationships with his girlfriend, mother, and sister, are well drawn, but his relationships with the men in his life are especially complex.  Efrain grew up with two best friends, Chingy and Nestor, but the group split when Nestor started dealing drugs.  Chingy will no longer have anything to do with Nestor, and his changing relationships with these two boys over the course of the book are one of the most compelling parts of the story.  Nestor, who brings Efrain in to the drug trade, could easily have been a stereotype of the bad drug-dealing kid.  At first glance that is all you see.  But as the story digs down a little bit deeper into his life, he becomes a genuinely sympathetic character – a choice that makes the story much more interesting and less reductive.  Efrain’s relationship with his absentee father follows a similar arc.

I did find the dialogue uneven, especially between Efrain and Chingy – sometimes it flowed freely and genuinely, and other times it sounded a little bit like a skit written by a guidance counselor about getting in to college.  Efrain and Chingy go from slangy, loose conversations to this:

“In order to be as accurate as possible, I couldn’t just develop one code.  I had to create a unique algorithm for each and every college.”

It takes me a second to grasp his point. “Because Hunter College may place more emphasis on your SAT score than, say, Harvard might?”

“Exactly!  And there’s no way to assess that unless you talk to someone at every admissiosn office or, better yet, compile statistics on incoming freshmen.” (pg. 81.  Quotes taken from ARC – language is subject to change.)

Suddenly we’re inside some kind of college admissions manual.  I appreciate that the author is trying to get some information on college admissions into the hands of teens who pick up this book, but it could have been done a little bit more organically.  And honestly, I’m a big fan of letting a story be a story.

While I found that I did have to suspend my belief a couple of times during the course of the novel, Efrain’s voice and his struggles were enough to pull me into the story.

Sofia Quintero on the web

Review copy provided by publisher at ALA Midwinter

Read-a-thon!

8 a.m.

Let’s get this thing going! I’m going to start with Ron Koertge’s Shakespeare Makes the Playoffs.  Nothing like a novel in verse to get you through that oh-so-important first book.  I’ll be updating this post with check-ins through the day.  Happy reading, everybody!

10:40 a.m.

Man, I thought that would be a nice quick one to open it up with – but I forgot that Ron Koertge is a genius and I would want to read almost everything two or three times.  Loved this one even more than Shakespeare Bats Cleanup.  Funny and charming and a delight to read.

Next up: Stitches by David Small!

11:30 a.m.

Wow.  I guess I see what all the fuss was about.  Stitches was about as powerful, imagery-wise, as a graphic novel can be.  And what a story he has to tell.

That’s left me pretty haunted, so I’m going with something fun next: The Case of the Case of Mistaken Identity by Mac Barnett!  I’ve been looking forward to this one for a while – held it out as a good read-a-thon choice.

12:20 p.m.

“Every Librarian is a highly trained agent.  An expert in intelligence, counterintelligence, Boolean searching, and hand-to-hand combat.”  Drat!  My cover is blown!  (Also, this book is as awesome as expected.  Which is highly awesome!)

1:30 p.m.

I am on a serious roll here – three five-star books in a row to start out the read-a-thon!  That book cracked me up – and I’m still giggling over the endpapers.

Next book: If You Come Softly by Jacqueline Woodson

3:30 p.m.

At the exact moment that I was reading Miah and Ellie’s breathtaking first kiss, Yadier Molina hit a three-run homerun.  Woohoo!

4:30 p.m.

Well that was a gorgeous, powerful book.  The narrative shifts between Ellie and Miah worked for me, but I did find the perspective shifts from first to third and back kind of jarring.  Other than that, I loooooved it.  (And I had a lovely time reading it sitting at a wide wooden bar with a very tasty spinach, goat cheese, and carmelized onion pizza and a couple of Harpoon IPAs.  That right there plus a great book is the way to spend an afternoon!)

Next: The Strange Case of Origami Yoda by Tom Angleberger

5:40 p.m.

Definitely fun.  We all need an Origami Yoda in our lives.  Now I’m taking a little break to see how far C.C. Sabathia can take this little thing he’s got going on.

Next: The Gardener by S.A. Bodeen

8:45 p.m.

Well, that one was more interesting in concept than in execution.  But well paced – it did keep me reading.

I think it’s time for another graphic novel next – Courtney Crumrin and the Night Things by Ted Naifeh.

9:30 p.m.

Courtney Crumrin just erased any leftover disappointment from my last selection.  Love this kid.  And this is a delightfully ruthless children’s author.  When Courtney arrives at a new school and is shunned by all the cool kids, there is of course one geeky boy who tries to befriend her.  Her new best buddy, right?  Not so fast – he’s eaten by goblins just a few pages in.  Awesome.

Next up – Make Lemonade by Virginia Euwer Wolff

1:10 a.m.

Well now I’m all sad that I didn’t bring the second and third books in the Make Lemonade trilogy home with me.  Have to pick them up at work next week.  What a wonderful book.

I’m going to start The Devil’s Kiss by Sarwat Chadda, but I’m thinking I’m only good for another hour or so.  Hope everyone else’s reading is going well!

2:15 a.m.

Signs that it’s time to call it a night: you get sleepy during a first chapter in which the heroine brutally murders a six-year-old boy.  I got a couple chapters into The Devil’s Kiss, but I’m about ready to curl up under a pile of blankets.

So my total is 8 books, 2 of which were graphic novels, plus part of book number 9.  Didn’t really keep track of time spent reading and I’m much too lazy to calculate pages read, so that’s all the statistics you’re getting out of me.

For those hardy souls who are going for the full 24 hours: I salute you!  And good night.

Poetry Speaks Who I Am edited by Elise Paschen

It’s National Poetry Month, and could there be a better way to celebrate than with a first-rate collection of poems for middle grade readers?  Even better, these poems focus on a topic that weighs heavy on the minds of young readers: personal identity.  The poems come at this broad theme from many angles, sometimes taking it on very directly as in Gwendolyn Brooks’ poem “I Am Black,” sometimes in a more roundabout way. 

I was especially impressed by the diversity of poets and poems that were chosen for inclusion.  The collection presents a well-balanced mix of the old and the new, the serious and the funny, the well-known and the unfamiliar.  But more than that, the poems come from a truly diverse group of poets.  The editor has clearly put thought into the gender, race, class, and religious backgrounds of the contributors, and because of this careful selection every reader is likely to find a poem that will speak to who he or she is.   Despite being well outside the target age of this anthology, the dog-eared pages of my copy show that I made my own connections to many selections.

The book opens with “Eternity” by Jason Shinder, which is a lovely introduction to the bond that can form between a reader and a writer of poetry, despite differences of time and culture.  By highlighting a strong personal connection to poetry from the very first selection, the editor encourages young readers to make their own connections to the featured poems.  Several more poems are specifically about the act of reading or writing poetry, and the book ends with a section of blank lined pages that encourage the reader to become a writer of poetry.  I liked the sense of progression that these selections seem to encourage, starting as a reader of poetry, moving on to a person who makes a personal connection with poetry, and ending as a poet. 

The selections move easily from one poem to the next, especially considering the wide variety of poetry that is included.  The collection flows from theme to theme,  and makes some nice connections along the way.  Putting a poem in which John Keats addresses his fear of death next to the wonderful “Fears of the Eighth Grade” by Toi Derricotte, a modern poem about the fears of a middle school class, shows very starkly how the most universal themes stay the same.  A few very explicit connections like this one will catch the attention of even a less-than-careful reader and will encourage them to make other connections between the poems. 

I did find the artwork, which is on every page, a little bit distracting – particularly because much of it looks very pixelated and it covers words in two poems.  I have a feeling that some of this will be fixed in the final book – I will be looking forward to seeing how it all comes together.  A cd of the poets reading their work is included, and it makes a nice supplement to the collection.  Molly Peacock’s audio segment addresses her personal identity and how it relates to her poem – including some word play that relates to ientity within the poem.  It’s a nice way to add content, and will also help some readers who are not familiar to poetry get a feel for the rhythms of the poems they read. 

Review copy provided by the publisher.

March 2010 Reading Log

YA

Middle Grade

Kids and YA Nonfiction

Graphic Novels

Adult Nonfiction

Currently Reading

End of March Links

  • Have you played book review cliche bingo yet?  I’m a little bit afraid to try this on my own reviews – I have a bad habit of calling books “compelling.”
  • Who wants to roadtrip to SXYA?  That’s right, Forever YA has put together a (sadly, imaginary) festival of their favorite bands from YA novels.  I’d have to add a couple bands to this list – I’ve got to see Rage/Tectonic from Fat Kid Rules the World, and speaking of bands from K.L. Going books, how about Aunt Pete’s awesome glam rock band from King of the Screwups?  And we need a little queercore – The Jerk Offs from Nick and Norah’s Ultimate Playlist!  Of course no list of YA bands is complete without the band-with-an-ever-changing-name from King Dork.  Who else would you add to the lineup?
  • Peachtree Publishers shares an in-depth look at how many changes can go into a book’s cover design.  I love the final result, and it’s even better after reading a behind-the-scenes look at how they got there.
  • An oh-so-heartwarming story from the New York Times about a father and daughter who read out loud together every night for 3,218 nights, all the way up until she started college.  Just goes to show – reading aloud can be valuable at any age.  (Hat tip to Mitali Perkins)
  • Things I already knew about Oliver Jeffers: he writes wonderful picture books.  Things I learned about Oliver Jeffers from this fantastic interview: 1. Oliver Jeffers is writing a new book about the boy and the penguin (hooray!) 2. Oliver Jeffers has a truly excellent mustache 3. I would very much like to buy Oliver Jeffers a beer.  I get the feeling that he wants one.
  • A look at the length of novels and what factors contributed to novels coming in somewhere around a standard size, and how that might be changing. (Hat tip to Andrew Sullivan)
  • This dad has had enough of five picture book plots.  I’m going to go a little bit less generic with my choice of least favorite picture book plot cliche – polar bears who teach us an important lesson about global warming.  If I have to read another picture book about global warming, can’t I at least learn my important lesson about global warming from an arctic fox or something?   What’s your least favorite overused picture book plot? (Hat tip to Mitali Perkins)
  • A couple of interviews with the awesome Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich have turned up recently, and they’re both well worth a read.  Here’s one at Edith Cohen’s blog, and the other is a two-parter at Neesha Meminger’s blog that starts right here.
  • Hooray for the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore, which is starting a new partnership to bring affordable, healthy food into urban neighborhoods that don’t have access to local supermarkets.  This is such a wonderful example of a library addressing a true community need in an innovative way.  Three cheers!  (Hat tip to PC Sweeney)
  • A very cool video and accompanying article looking at how the advent of eye-tracking software in e-readers could change the ways in which we interact with texts.  I can imagine this capability being used in some really innovative ways.
  • Take a look at how 10 different libraries are using iphone apps to connect with their patrons.  I was interested to see the wide range of services that are offered.
  • Finally, Mitali Perkins shares a heartfelt plea from an eighth-grader about the importance of school librarians.  It’s so important to share these stories.

Kid vs. Squid by Greg van Eekhout

This is a book with a lot to live up to. First off, it’s called Kid Vs. Squid.  Is it possible to come up with an awesomer title for a middle grade book?  I’ve tried, and until I’m presented with evidence to the contrary I’m going to assume that this is the awesomest middle grade title of all time.  After considering the title, we move on to the cover.  A young man who looks like he probably has his own show on the Disney Channel leans nonchalantly on a weapon while a giant squid looms in the background giving him the evil eye.  Again, this is a cover with an awesome-factor that is almost off the charts.  So, the big question: can a book possibly live up to all this awesome-ness?

I’m glad to say that somehow this book does it.  Thatcher is spending his summer in Las Huesas, California with his great-uncle.  A summer without parents in a beach town sounds pretty good – until you meet the great-uncle and see the beach town.  Las Huesas is strangely deserted, and Uncle Griswald has a bad habit of forgetting about basic things like food and lives inside Professor Griswald’s Museum of the Strange and Curious – which is even creepier and mustier than it sounds. Phone and internet don’t seem to work in Las Huesas, so the only contact Thatcher has with the outside world is postcards from his parents that say things like “Dear Thatcher, We think we’ve found a great deal on polymer injection molds! Love and huggies.” (pg. 12, quotes taken from ARC and are subject to change.)  Worst of all, the only kids around are a couple of guys on bikes who keep muttering about “flotsam” and look a little bit like squid.  Things take a turn for the exciting when Thatcher catches a burglar in the act of stealing the museum’s prize What-Is-It.  Giving chase, Thatcher finds himself in the middle of the town’s mystery, and he has to battle a curse-happy witch and some seriously nasty sea creatures.  Along the way Thatcher joins forces with Shoal, a princess of the Lost City of Atlantis, and Trudy, who is a hysterical cross between Nancy Drew and Batman.

It all sounds pretty ridiculous.  And it is pretty ridiculous – but the tone is somewhere in between charging into this goofy story with no holds barred and slyly self-aware, and somehow van Eekhout hits that sweet spot that lets you laugh at how silly the story is and genuinely care about what happens at the same time.  And the silliness really is laugh-out-loud funny.  Thatcher, as the narrator, is definitely central to making the tone of this book work.  He is a naturally funny guy, and the kind of person who just starts running his mouth when he gets confused or scared.  As he puts it,

I respond to bullies and teachers with funny comments, sharp little put-downs, and sometimes if my victim shows signs of weakness, I can’t stop myself.  My words are like a cheetah taking down a gazelle by the throat. (pg. 8.)

But Thatcher, a man of words, is tossed into situation after situation where he has to step outside of his comfort zone and take action.  Especially since his words get him into trouble as often as they get him out of it – as it turns out, talking back to a witch is not the best of ideas.  Luckily he has the delightful Trudy to back him up, and to pull a never-ending number of supplies and gadgets out of her backpack.  Trudy is a force of nature, and it’s her enthusiasm that convinces Thatcher to ditch his usual habit of commenting from the sidelines.

The pace of this book is quick, especially as it gets to the climax.  In the last few chapters the action gets a little bit too frantic – the book is at it’s best when Thatcher’s voice and wry sense of humor can really shine through.  But the fast pace and constant action will pull readers along, making this a great choice for reluctant readers.  Between the great action, the sense of humor, and the mythology of the lost City of Atlantis, I would definitely hand this to my younger Percy Jackson fans.

Greg van Eekhout on the web

Reviewed from ARC provided by publisher at ALA Midwinter.