Saturday, December 12, 2009

Scarecrow by Matthew Reilly

Main character: Shane "Scarecrow" Schofield, marine extraordinaire
Location: all over the world
Time Period: Contemporary
Genre: Fiction, Action/Adventure, Geo-Political Conspiracy Military Thriller
Series: Shane Schofield #3

One of my library patrons recommended this series to me, and was so enthusiastic that she even went to the shelf and fetched it for me. How could I refuse? It is an exciting and fast-paced novel, but this type of book is not really my cup of tea. I will admit that I am at a bit of a disadvantage jumping in to the middle of the series, so I am not very invested in the characters. Because of this, I did not feel the emotion of some of the major losses along the way.

What did strike me was what this book--and others like it--has in common with three other types of entertainment: action-adventure movies, superhero comic books, and shojo manga. I did read a very amusing blog post (which, alas, I did not bookmark and now cannot find again) that talked about the rules of shojo violence. Some of them--the hero has an unlimited supply of blood and therefore cannot bleed to death, vital organs seem to magically shift position to avoid the path of weapons, and the hero cannot defeat the enemy until he has been brought to the brink of defeat--could easily apply here. Shane is beaten, shot, tortured, and nearly exploded, but he manages to shrug off all injury and keep going because to stop would mean death.

Shane discovers that he, along with 11 others, is the prey in an international bounty hunt. What follows is a series of set pieces where he and his allies are attacked by elite squads of bounty hunters and from whom they escape barely by the skin of their teeth, usually at the very last minute. In the infrequent and too short moments of respite between attacks, they have to figure out why the hunt was called, what is the significance of the deadline, who is behind it, and why Shane is included on the list. There is a lot of excitement here, but as with movies which feature a lot of explosions, stunt scenes, and CGI destruction, after a while it just becomes tiring.

I will admit to being moved by the scene where Shane and one of the few surviving members of his team, a tough woman warrior codenamed "Mother", express their grief through a fistfight, and I will also admit that though they won't be at the top of my to-do list, I might just be tempted to seek out the earlier books.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Mysteries Good Enough to Eat

I've mentioned before that my library offers downloadable audiobooks and I have become quite enamored of them. I finished the Max Allan Collins disaster series (the ones that were available, at least) and have moved on to the Joanne Fluke Hannah Swensen mysteries.

Hannah Swensen is a 30-something small business owner (she owns a cookie/coffee shop) in the small town of Lake Eden, Minnesota. Her mother Dolores is urging her to marry before it's too late, and keeps setting her up on dates. One of these is Norman Rhodes, the town's dentist, who is a very nice man and one of the few who really gets Hannah's sense of humor.

On the other hand, the new sherrif's deputy, Mike Kingston, gets Hannah's heart racing. If Norman is a warm, comfortable log fire on a winter's night, Mike is a wildfire racing through the woods. Mike's kisses make Hannah melt, but sometimes he can make Hannah's temper really flare.

Norman and Mike are friendly rivals for Hannah' attentions--they can be comfortable with each other, even to the point of excluding Hannah from a guys' conversation during a 4th of July picnic. This is good, because in a town this small, it would be hard for them to avoid each other.

Hannah's family also includes her sister Andrea (a "real estate professional"), Andrea's husband Bill (elected sheriff a few books in), their daughters Tracy and Bethany, plus people close enough to be family such as Lisa, Hannah's partner at the Cookie Jarp. Beyond that is a host of wonderful characters that make Lake Eden come alive and sound like a wonderful place to visit.

This is one of those mystery series where the mysteries themselves are not the most important thing; what keep me reading is the characters and their relationships (no, not just romantic relationships.) In such a small town, everyone knows everyone else; Joanne Fluke should be complimented on how she handles the murders, the victims, and the perpetrators. Many times, the victim is someone that has been encountered (or at least mentioned) in a previous book; the very first victim is someone that Hannah knew well, and her main reason for solving the crime is her need seek justice--not vengeance.

I have mentioned before that I am on Team Jacob in the Twilight series, and Team Simon in the Mortal Instruments series. Here, I am on Team Norman. He is not as good-looking or as exciting as Mike, but I believe he is a better in the long run. After all, Hannah's cat, Moishe, loves Norman where he merely likes Mike. I just don't like the way Mike treats Hannah; he's always objecting to her helping out with the investigation and urges her to "leave it to the professionals" without acknowledging that she and her team (including Norman) are many times able to learn things that the police can't.

One of the great things about listening to books is that you can multi-task. I find myself listening while walking, while cooking, and while doing laundry--times when I would otherwise have to put a book down. I have even taken to listening before bedtime--the danger is that I tend to fall asleep before turning off the MP3 player. Fortunately, it has a rechargeable battery.

The main disadvantage of listening to this series instead of reading the printed version is that there are wonderful recipes scattered throughout. It would be a lot easier to copy them from a page than to have to listen, pause, scribble, listen, pause, scribble. Yummy!

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Sequels and Shakespeare

The Ask and the Answer by Patrick Ness
Main character: Todd and Viola
Location: New Prentisstown on New Earth
Time period: Sometime in the future
Genre: YA Fiction, Science Fiction, Dystopian Fiction
Series: Chaos Walking #2

When I read The Knife of Never Letting Go this spring, I was reduced to babbling incoherency. What an incredible, brain-exploding book that was. It laid out the rules of the world and then turned them over again and again, keeping you (and Todd) off-balance.

This book doesn't have the mind-blowing aspects of the first one, but there are parts that are heart-rending. Todd is captured by Mayor Prestiss--actually newly self-styled President Prentiss, but Todd still thinks of him as the Mayor. Viola is taken to a house of healing and falls under the sway of Mistress Coyle. It is so tempting to see Mistress Coyle as a good guy; as the one saying goes "the enemy of my enemy is my friend" and Mayor Prentiss is definitely Todd's enemy. But the other saying is "war makes monsters of me" and it makes monsters of women, too.

In the midst of all the chaos and carnage, Todd is the one bright spot. He has a core of goodness, of innocence, that remains despite what is done to him and what he is forced to do. The Mayor recognizes this and knows that it makes Todd a natural leader; he even puts Todd and Davy together, hoping that their characters will influence each other. Who would expect that I would actually feel some sympathy for Davy, and even see in him a faint echo of Manchee? Todd is only broken when he believes that Viola has abandoned him.

I would recommend this series highly for more mature readers--the depictions of terrorist activities, torture, and the genocide of the Spackles are not pleasant to read, but neither are they gratuitous. I cannot wait for the third book and the conclusion of this trilogy.

The Siege of Macindaw by John Flanagan
Main character: Will, Horace, and Alyss
Location: The Castle Macindaw, near the Scotti border
Time period: Medieval-like period
Genre: YA Fiction, Fantasy
Series: The Ranger's Apprentice #6

Book #5, The Sorcerer of the North, ended on an almost literal cliffhanger. Okay, so Will was hanging off of a castle wall, not a cliff, and he did get down before the last page, but it was awfully close. Now Alyss is a prisoner in a tower room and Will is hiding out with Malcolm and his refugees in the woods outside the castle. But hope comes in the form of Horace, as well as a band of shipwrecked Skandians.

This series has gotten to the point, for me at least, where the adventures are not as important as the central characters an their relationships with each other. I especially enjoy that Will and Horace are such close friends--Horace was a bit of a bully in the first book and they could have so easily have fallen into a cliched antagonism. Instead, they have a true respect for each other and for each other's talents. Horace is a straight-forward warrior, Will is a devious Ranger. When they work together, combining their styles, they are unbeatable. I especially loved (spoiler alert!) when Will was agonizing over his feelings for Alyss, and Horace's advice is to stop thinking and just tell her!

I've just seen that the next book will come out next year. I wonder if it will follow the established pattern of taking two books to complete the adventure.

Sent by Margaret Peterson Haddix
Main character: Jonah, Katherine, Chip and Alex
Location: London
Time period: Fifteenth century
Genre: YA Fiction, Time Travel, Historical Fiction
Series: The Missing #2

In the first volume, Found, Jonah, chip and Alex, along with a group of other adopted children, learned that they had been snatched from various points in history and now to heal the rifts in time that resulted, they must be restored. When Chip and Alex are sent back, Jonah and Katherine jump along with them back to 1400s England. It turns out that Chip and Alex are the two Princes in the Tower, the sons of King Edward IV who, according to Shakespeare, were murdered by their usurping uncle, Richard III.

Shakespeare's Richard III is the wickedest villain in English Literature, but historians have debated whether the historical Richard really was guilty of all the murders laid at his feet. It is true that the "Princes in the Tower" were never seen after Richard's coronation--at least not in recorded history. But there are accounts that Richard was an able administrator, a loving husband, and a doting father--a good man and a good king.

Haddix plays with the gaps in history and comes up with a plot that does not villify Richard--though it doesn't exonerate him completely. Jonah and Katherine are able to allow history to play out the way it should without sacrificing Chip and Alex. Because of this, JD admits that they have an ability which the other time agents are lacking. It looks like they will be crucial in helping the other children restore time.

In a set-up for the next volume, JD tells them that they will next be helping Andrea Crowell, the "quiet girl with braids" as Jonah calls her. They will also be taking a dog with them; his name is "Dare." Are we going to find out what happened to the lost colony of Roanoke?

Wondrous Strange by Lesley Livingston
Main character: 17-year old Kelley, an aspiring actress
Location: Manhattan
Time period: Contemporary
Genre: YA Fiction, Fantasy, Faerie Tale

Sent has a slight Shakespeare connection, but Wondrous Strange dives right in to one of his most popular romantic comedies, A Midsummer Night's Dream.

Kelley has been cast as an understudy in a production of Midsummer in a small, shabby, off-Broadway theater. She is happy to do a lot of work backstage, little dreaming that the lead actress will literally break a leg and that Kelley will be required to step into the role of Titania, Queen of the Faeries.

What Kelley does not know--what most mortals do not know--is that there is a lot of truth in the Shakespeare play. The worlds of mortals and of faerie used to intermingle until Auberon closed the gates and forbid any travel between the worlds. But he left a gap, a gate in Central Park where faeries can slip through around Halloween. To guard the gap, he created the Janus Guard, made up of changeling children--children who had been born mortal but had been stolen by faeries before the worlds were sealed.

Sonny is the newest of the Janus Guards and is patrolling in Central Park when he hears Kelley rehearing her lines. He recognizes the spell she is advertantly casting and knows that she is not all that she appears to be. He falls in love with her and tries to watch over her; she decides he is a stalker.

I don't think that it is necessary to be familiar with A Midsummer Night's Dream in order to enjoy this book, but it does help. I especially liked the fact that Puck is now an actor and goes by the name "Bob." The kelpie that takes up residence in her bathtub is quite fun, too.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Halloween Zombie-fest

I really enjoy zombie books. My mantra is "Zombies are the new vampires." But I'm noticing something a little odd. A lot of my kids (that is, the kids who regularly come to my library and talk to me about books), who had little or no trouble with vampire variations (sparkling in the sunlight? Fine! caused by parasites? No problem!), are zombie fundamentalists! They are adamantly opposed to zombies being anything but mindless, rotting undead in search of brains to eat. Fortunately, others are more open-minded, and these books are for them.

Kiss of Life by Daniel Waters
Main Character: Traditionally biotic Phoebe, and her different biotic (zombie) friends
Location: Connecticut
Time period: Contemporary
Genre: YA Fiction, Zombies
Series: Generation Dead #2

I really enjoyed Generation Dead, the first book in the series, which established a world in which teens who had died suddenly have the ability to come back to life. That book ended with the shocking murder of Adam, who jumped in front of a bullet meant for Paige, and his equally shocking ressurrection. This book starts up shortly afterwards. Adam is slowly adjusting to his new state of existence; his stepfather is suddenly very caring while his little brother is not coping well.

While the first book was very focused on Oakvale, the high school, and a small group of friends, Kiss of Life spreads out both thematically and geographically. Paige's attention is on school and on Adam. Her tenuous relationship with Tommy is broken--when choosing between two boys, how can you not choose the one who died for you?--and she spends most of her time and energy on healing Adam. Tommy decides to leave, travelling the country to fight for zombie rights, keeping in touch through his website. Collette and Melissa take Paige to New York to check out the big zombie nightclub, and Collette falls in love with one of the band members. Some of the boys from the Haunted House decide to fight for zombie rights in a more "in-your-face" way, which shows some humor and creativity, and Karen begins hanging out with them more. But the anti-zombie movement is growing and Pete, the boy who killed Adam, is rapidly rising in their ranks. Oh, and the Hunter Foundation? I don't trust them anymore.

Things are leading to a big confrontation, so I assume there will be a third book, and I am waiting with varying degrees of patience for Mr. Waters to write it.

Zombie Queen of Newbury High by Amanda Ashby
Main Character: Mia, a bookworm in love with a football player (who has finally noticed her!)
Location: not specified
Time period: Contemporary prom season
Genre: YA Fiction, Zombies

This is a light a frothy approach to zombies. Mia is your typical studious wallflower who has managed to catch the eye of Rob ("super hot football god") and he has actually asked her to prom (!) which goes against the plans of cheerleader queen Samantha. Knowing that she will never beat Samantha at the popularity game, Mia decides to purchase a love potion. But something goes wrong and instead of making Rob fall madly in love with her, she unleashes a zombie virus which is rapidly infecting the whole school! She thought it was strange that people started bringing her food--turns out that they're just trying to fatten her up for the upcoming feast! Eeeek!

With enough pop culture references to rival a Meg Cabot novel, Zombie Queen is a fast and fun read.

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith
Main Character: Elizabeth Bennett
Location: An alternative England cursed by a zombie plague
Time period: 1800s
Genre: Fiction, Literary and zombie mash-up

Okay, this one is not specifically a YA novel, and I'm not sure that it could be enjoyed by someone who hasn't already read Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice. The concept is almost irresistable--it is the actual, full text of the original novel but with added scenes of zombie mayhem. A sequel (of sorts) called Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters is coming soon.

I have to admit that I did not enjoy this quite as much as I wanted to. (High expectations are rarely a good thing.) There were parts that were very successful. I loved the small, subtle details, such as when Elizabeth is at Netherfield caring for an ill Jane. In the evening, while others converse or play cards, Lizzie sits by the fire sharpening her sword. Mr. Bennett took his daughters to China to learn martial arts, which just gives Lady Catherine de Bourgh, convinced of the superiority of the Japanese arts, one more reason to look down on Lizzie. The ball where Mr. Darcy first encounters (and insults) Lizzie is interrupted when zombies crash though the windows and begin eating the guests. (At least my traditionalist kids can't possibly object to the way zombies are depicted here.)

But there were a few things that disappointed me in this book, mainly in the character of Lizzie. We know that she is strong-willed and intelligent, but she is not cruel; she is finally convinced that Wickham is not worthy of her consideration when she learns of his treatment of a stableboy. So it really disturbed me when, having been manuvered into a martial arts demonstration against Lady de Bourgh's ninjas, she kills them without turning a hair.

Still, a fun way of looking at a classic novel, and one that sent me to re-read the original afterwards.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins

Main character: 17-year-old Katniss
Location: District 12, the Capitol, and the games arena
Time period: some unknown future
Genre: YA Fiction, Dystopian future
Series: The Hunger Games #2

I've seen some reviews of Catching Fire that were disappointed, seeing this book as a letdown after The Hunger Games, as just putting pieces into place for the exciting conclusion that will come in the next book. I disagree. I loved this book just as much as I loved the first one, and I wait anxiously for the next.

Katniss has survived the Hunger Games, and now should be living a life of relative ease in the victor's village near Haymitch and Peeta. For once in their lives, she, her mother and Prim have enough food to eat and she will not need to work down in the mines. Of course, she will need to mentor future tributes in the upcoming games but she herself will be free from the reapings for the rest of her life. Or at least that's the way it's supposed to be.

But Katniss's act of defiance has sparked rebellion in the districts, and President Snow himself comes District 12 to threaten Katniss in person--keep up the pretence of the romance with Peeta or everyone you love will be destroyed.

Katniss is now 17 years old, but she still operates on instinct, on the need to not only survive but to make sure that those she cares about also survive. She is not one for long-term strategies, or to recognize the effects that he actions have on anyone beyond her immediate circle. She is no Joan of Arc, determined to lead an army, but something about her has captured the imagination of the world and the more the Capitol tries to control her (even with her reluctant co-operation) the less control they have. ("The more you tighten your grip, Lord Tarkin, the more star systems will slip through your fingers." Sorry. Slight geek-out there.)

In many ways, Peeta is the opposite of Katniss. As the son of the baker, he never had to worry as much about keeping his family from starving as Katniss did so he's not as stuck in survival mode. Outwardly calmer and more introspective than Katniss, he still shows himself capable of deep, passionate feelings. He's more clued in to the bigger picture and somehow knows just the right thing to say, whether to comfort Katniss, garner audience support, or subtly twist the knife in the Capitol's side.

The prep team from the first book makes a repeat appearance, though their part is not as big as it was in the first book. Still, Cinna manages to style costumes for Katniss that make it clear where his allegiances lie whatever the cost.

Don't want to say more than that, except to repeat that this was a wonderful book that stands up well to the first book, sets up the showdown of the next book, and is a very enjoyable read on its own.

Friday, September 18, 2009

City of Glass by Cassandra Clare

Main character: teens Clary, Jace, and Simon
Location: the otherworldly home of the Shadowhunters
Time period: Contemporary
Genre: YA Fiction, Fantasy, Supernatural
Series: The Mortal Instruments #3

I have really enjoyed this series and the vivid world it depicts. We leave New York City behind to go to the City of Glass, the ancestral homeworld of the Shadowhunters and witness the final battle between Clary and her father, Valentine.

There are some things that struck me as I was reading this, and I am walking a fine line between vagueness and spoilers here so read at your own risk. All through the series, one of Clary's main motivations has been to find a cure for her mother, lying in a coma in a hospital. When she finally appears, I expected Clary to fly to her arms and have a touching reunion. Instead, Clary flies into a rage that took me (and her) totally by surprise. It took a few beats, but then I realized that though it has taken three years for all the books to come out, the story itself takes place over a very short time. (This might be a case where people who start the series now and read the books one after another will have a better feel for the time span than those of us who waited a year between each book.) Clary is still overwhelmed by everything she has learned, including the discovery that her mother has lied to her all her life and even has gone so far as to drug her to supress her powers. (I had actually forgotten that detail from the first book.)

One of the aspects that disturbed me from the beginning is the potentially incestuous relationship between Clary and Jace. When they meet in the first book, there is an immediate and powerful attraction between them but they then discover that they are brother and sister. Clary does not seem to be bothered by this, but Jace strives mightily to deny his feelings for her even though it makes him seem moody, distant, and (let's face it) a bit of a jerk. The situation is resolved, and that resolution felt to me a bit contrived, a bit too simple. But related to that resolution is the wonderful irony that Valentine, in trying to create an uber-Shadowhunter, actually created his own defeat.

And then there's Simon. Dear, wonderful Simon who stole my heart. I am finding that in these series with a romantic triangle, I always fall for the boy who gets left behind. In the Twilight series, I am firmly on Team Jacob; here I am on Team Simon. Now, I am not rooting for them to win the girl--Clary belongs with Jace just as Bella belongs with Edward--but Jacob and Simon are the ones I prefer.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

The Hindenburg Murders by Max Allan Collins

The Hindenburg Murder by Max Allan Collins

Main character: Mystery writer Leslie Charteris
Location: In flight from Frankfurt, Germany to Lakehurst, New Jersey
Time period: 1937
Genre: Fiction, Historical Mystery
Series: The Disaster Series #2

Some time ago, our library added downloadable eAudiobooks from NetLibrary to our collection. At that time, I had dial-up service and knew that attempts to download such good-sized files would be exercises in frustration. But now I have graduated to high-speed internet and have a little Sony Walkman MP3 player, so I have plunged into audiobooks with a vengeance. One of the first books I've listened to is The Hindenburg Murder by Max Allan Collins, part of his Disaster series which places famous writers at the scene of famous disasters--in this case, Leslie Charteris, author of The Saint series, on the final voyage of the doomed dirigible Hindenburg.

Leslie Charteris actually flew on the maiden voyage of the Hindenburg, but Collins takes some literary license and puts him on this flight as well. Because he is traveling solo and space is limited, Charteris is assigned a cabin-mate, a personable young man who is (Charteris discovers) an SS officer seeking evidence of anti-Nazi sentiment among the passengers--and finding plenty of it. On the second morning of the flight, Charteris finds that his roommate has disappeared--and a small piece of an orange silk tie caught in a window indicates that he was tossed off the ship in mid-flight.

I enjoyed the story, which spends more time on the ambiance and characters than it does on investigating the murder. Collins has researched his subject well, and that research is obvious throughout. Who knew that the Hindenburg had a smoking room that could only be entered through an airlock in the bar? And of course there is always the knowledge in the back of the mind that disaster is looming and many of the characters we encounter will not survive the voyage.

Since I listened, rather than read, this book, I must mention the reader, Jeff Woodman. He has a very pleasant voice and did an excellent job with the many accents in the story--British, German, Texan, New York Jewish. I found it interesting that when his German characters were speaking in German, they spoke without an accent--which makes sense when you think about it.

I enjoyed this recording so much that I have downloaded the two others available--The Titanic Murders and The Pearl Harbor Murders. I am happy to note that Jeff Woodman narrates those as well. There are three other books in the series--set during the London Blitz, the Orson Welles War of the Worlds broadcast, and the final voyage of the Lusitania.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

The Door of No Return by Sarah Mussi

Main character: 16-year-old Zac Baxter
Location: England and Ghana
Time period: Contemporary, with references to events in the 1700's
Genre: YA Fiction, Suspense, Slavery

The Door of No Return is a exciting, suspenseful story that deal with that approaches the familiar topic of African Slavery from a totally different angle--at least it's a different angle for those of us living in the United States. Instead of focusing on slavery in the American South before the Civil War, it looks at the complicity of the British government in the slave trade.

Zac has grown up hearing his grandfather telling stories about how he is the last descendant of an African king who was tricked out of a golden treasure intended to ransom his youngest son who had been captured by slave traders. Though the ransom was paid, the boy was never returned to his father but was instead sent to a plantation in Jamaica. Zac's grandfather was adamant that his family, and all families descended from slaves, deserved compensation from the British government and claimed to have documents that verified his story. Zac didn't really believe in his grandfather's stories--at least not until the night that they were mugged and his grandfather was murdered. Then Zac's house is robbed. And Zac is attacked on the street. Then Zac is removed from the foster house he was sent to when his foster father begins to ask too many questions.

There are a number of things that I like about this book. Zac is a very appealing kid, even in his most angry and sullen moments. After reading a number of suspense books in which the main character is betrayed by someone he trusts too much, I was glad to see that Zac developed a healthy dose of paranoia. Of course, he still winds up trusting the wrong person, but I give him points for the many people he is wary of. I really liked that his foster parents were genuinely concerned about him, even after he was taken from their care and they no longer had an official duty toward him. He makes some friends along the way, patricularly Ashley, Mina, and Badu--young people like himself whose own life experiences and family stories give him the clues he needs to solve the mystery and fulfill his destiny.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Antsy Does Time by Neal Shusterman

Main character: 8th-grader Antsy
Location: Brooklyn
Time period: Contemporary
Genre: YA Fiction

This is a sequel, of sorts, to Shusterman's "The Schwa Was Here." And as in that book, the secondary character is named for a Diacritical mark--in this case Gunnar Umlaut (A+220). (What's in store for his next Antsy book? Francois Cedille? Jose Tilde?) But I digress. This is yet another Shusterman book that uses humor to mask a very serious subject.

Antsy is paired up with Gunnar to do a project based on John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath. When Antsy goes over to Gunnar's house, he discovers that Gunnar is carving his own headstone--he has an extremely rare, incurable disease and only has about six months to live. Stunned, Antsy offers Gunnar a month of his own life. He even writes up a contract to formalize his gift. The next day at school, word begins to creep around and before he knows it, Antsy is speaheading a movement to extend Gunnar's life a day or a month at a time.

In the meantime, Antsy is also dealing with his workaholic father, a rapidly growing crush on Gunnar's sister, and the fact that their attempt to turn Gunnar's back yard into a recreation of the Dust Bowl has worked a little too well and is killing all the neighboring lawns as well. There is also the very strained feeling in the Umlaut household whenever Mr. Umlaut is at home.

Antsy is a great character. He is impulsive but good hearted. Even when things come tumbling down on top of him, you can't help but root for him.

Antsy Does Time is on the 2009-2010 Lone Star Reading List.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Diamond Willow by Helen Frost

Main Character: 12-year-old Willow
Location: Alaska
Time period: Contemporary
Genre: YA Fiction, Books in Verse

This was a really lovely book about a young girl struggling to grow up, and making mistakes along the way.

Willow lives in a remote part of Alaska and spends most of her time with her dad's sled dog team. She desperately wants her parents to see that she is grown up and responsible enough to drive a small sled with one dog by herself for an overnight trip to her grandparents' home. She is finally allowed to do so, and arrives safely there. In high spirits on her return trip, she allows the dogs to run fast and doesn't see the fallen tree until it is too late. Her beloved Roxy runs into one of the branches and seriously injures her eye. Willow takes care of her as best she can, but is wracked by guilt and the fear that her parents will have Roxy put to sleep.

The story is told in different voices. When Willow is speaking, the text is written in verse that takes a diamond shape. In the center of the diamond are certain words in bold print--a hidden message revealing Willow's deepest thoughts. Other sections are narrated by the various animals who witness the events, and who are actually the spirits of Willow's Athapascan ancestors watching over her.

This is a slender book that doesn't take long to read, but it touched me deeply and at times brought me to tears.

Diamond Willow is on the 2009-2010 Lone Star Reading list.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

The Liar Cover Controversy

I don't know how many of you have been reading about the controversy over the cover of Justine Larbalestier's new book Liar. In case you've missed it, let me briefly catch you up. Justine is an Australian author who has written a number of highly regarded books. I have come late to the Justine party--the only one of her books that I've read is How to Ditch Your Fairy--so I didn't realize until this controversy erupted that she makes a point of writing about nonwhite characters. Her new book, which will come out at the end of September, is called Liar and the main character is a black teen who is proud of her short nappy hair. She is also a compulsive liar who is trying to break that habit.

The Australian cover for the book uses the letters L, I, A, R in different configurations. The American cover uses a black-and-white photograph of a white girl with long hair which crosses over the bottom of her face, covering her mouth. The controversy erupted over the disconnect between the cover image and the actual character described in the book. This more than putting a blonde on a cover when the text specifically describes a brunette (seriously--don't you sometimes wonder if the publisher/designer/artist has even read the book?) Many bloggers have seen this as an egregious example of whitewashing books that feature characters of color. In a very thoughtful blog post, Justine discusses the controversy and gives some insight into the designing of books. She does not like the American cover and fought against it, but authors have little say in such matters. One thing in that post that really struck me was that the attitude that pictures of black people on book covers do not sell--which just seems to confirm the whitewashing accusation.

Now as librarian, I very rarely buy books based on their covers. I make my selections based on reviews (both from professional journals and blogs) and patron requests. Most of the time, I do not even see what a book looks like until it has been purchased, cataloged, and put on my shelves. But this discussion has got me wondering about the covers of the books in my J and my YA section. How many do I have with people of color on the cover? How many with white people? How many with no human figures at all? Well, I don't have time right now to go back to the shelves, pull every book off, and analyze its cover, but I did just get eight new books in from the cataloging department--so let's look at those:

12 Brown Boys by Omar Tyree. Graphic illustration using silhouettes, but they are recognizably black. A photo of the author is included on the back cover. From the back cover: 12 Brown Boys by Omar Tyree is a collection of short stories that focuses on the lives of Black pre-teen boys. Readers will connect with Tyree's engaging characters including: Red Head Mike who hates his nickname, but hates his red hair even more. Chestnut, who is sent to live with relatives down south to keep him out of trouble in his Brooklyn neighborhood. William the Santa Monica super kid whose status as a scholar and entrepreneur has even his best friends hating him. Wayne, who resents his role as the oldest child until a tragedy strikes the family. Tyree has assembled a wide range of characters that reflect the diversity of experiences of Black boys - characters that are funny, serious, edgy, street-wise, studious, and all unforgettable.

Absolutely Maybe by Lisa Yee. Photograph of white girl with pink hair lying on a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Summary: When living with her mother, an alcoholic ex-beauty queen, becomes unbearable, almost seventeen-year-old Maybelline "Maybe" Chestnut runs away to California, where she finds work on a taco truck and tries to track down her birth father.

Best Friends by Jacqueline Wilson. Cartoon-like illustrations of the two white girls who are the main characters, though the human figures are just a small part of the cover. Summary: Rambunctious and irrepressible Gemma has been best friends with Alice ever since they were born on the same day, so when Alice moves miles away to Scotland, Gemma is distraught over the idea that Alice might find a new best friend.

The Calder Game by Blue Balliett. Illustrations of the three main characters--two boys and a girl--all 3 white Though the illustrations take up most of the cover, the two lower pictures are rather small. Summary: When seventh-grader Calder Pillay disappears from a remote English village--along with an Alexander Calder sculpture to which he has felt strangely drawn--his friends Petra and Tommy fly from Chicago to help his father find him.

The Door of No Return by Sarah Mussi. Photograph of young (and very nice looking) black man. Summary: Sixteen-year-old Zac never believed his grandfather's tales about their enslaved ancestors being descended from an African king, but when his grandfather is murdered and the villains come after Zac, he sets out for Ghana to find King Baktu's long-lost treasure before the murderers do.

Dragon Flight by Jessica Day George. Large purple dragon with a young boy and girl, both white The image of the dragon dominates, with the humans rather small. Summary: Young seamstress Creel finds herself strategizing with the dragon king Shardas once again when a renegade dragon in a distant country launches a war against their country, bringing an entire army of dragons into the mix.

Max by James Patterson. The title takes up most of the space on this cover. At the top is a small photo-realistic illustration of a girl mostly silhouetted by shadows but hair and arms indicate she is white. Summary: When millions of fish start dying off the coast of Hawaii and something is destroying hundreds of ships, the government enlists the Flock--a band of genetically modified children who can fly--to help get to the bottom of the disaster before it is too late.

Starclimber by Kenneth Oppel. Silhouetted figures of a boy and girl, both white. (This cover strongly reminds me of Patrick Ness's great novel The Knife of Never Letting Go.) Summary: As members of the first crew of astralnauts, Matt Cruse and Kate De Vries journey into outer space on the Starclimber and face a series of catastrophes that threaten the survival of all on board.

So how can we sort these covers? Let's see--we have 2 photographs and 6 illustrations. We have 3 that feature a single character while 5 feature multiple characters. Half of them use character illustrations so small that they are barely noticeable; only two use a human image that dominates the cover. Three covers use silhouettes. Two covers feature black characters while 6 are white. Which ones will wind up being the most popular? That is a question that I won't be able to answer until my next inventory/circulation survey.

It's an interesting issue to ponder. How much does the cover picture really influence whether or not you pick up a book? I'm more likely to pick up a book because I like the author or the book is part of a series I enjoy. A cover illustration might catch my eye, but a clever title will do that too, even on a plain or dull background. It's the the text on the jacket flap (for a hardback) or the back cover (for a paperback) will determine whether I decide to read it or put it back on the shelf.

And here's another thought--do you select books differently when you're in a bookstore than you do in a library? Are you more likely to give a library book a try when you know that you don't have to pay for it? Are covers more important when selling a book than they are in checking out a book?

What do you think?

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Evolution, Me & Other Freaks of Nature by Robin Brande

Main character: High school freshman Mena Reece
Location: Not defined
Time period: Contemporary
Genre: YA Fiction

Evolution, Me & Other Freaks of Nature is the first YA novel I've read that deals with the debate between evolution and intelligent design or, as some might frame it, science vs. religion. It is a pleasant enough read, though ultimately disappointing.

Mena Reece is not looking forward to her first day of high school. She has done something which has turned her entire conservative Christian church community against her. Her minister has denounced her from the pulpit, and even her parents are barely speaking to her because their insurance business is so closely tied to the church and they are worried that she will cost them customers. Since she is being shunned by her former friends, she begins to interact with other classmates that she never would have otherwise, including brainy Casey, her science lab partner. Casey introduces her to science fiction and fantasy, which is not as evil as she has been told.

When her science teacher, Ms. Shepherd, begins to teach a unit on evolution, Mena's church organizes a protest and demands that she also teach intelligent design. Ms. Shepherd steadfastly refuses to do so. The classroom becomes a battleground of strong wills, with Ms. Sherherd continuing to teach the unit and the protesting students turning their backs the moment the word evolution is mentioned. Then the unit is over and the class moves on to another subject.

Let me say that I am fully on the evolution side of this debate. But I have to say that this book came off as one-sided. I liked the portrayal of the teacher and her calm but firm way of dealing with the protesters. Mena and Casey are also appealing characters. I like their growing friendship and how Mena's world opens up because of him and his family. But the Christian students are portrayed as horrid, close-minded puppets who just parrot the hateful rantings of their preacher. The only one that that is not a vindictive "mean girl" is the minister's daughter who is so meek and mild that she is totally ineffectual. In the end, Mena and her parents join another church--one which (shock!) the science teacher Ms. Shepherd attends--which is much more accepting of different opinions. (And just where were these people during the rest of the book?)

In the end, I don't think that this book is going to persuade anyone to change their minds.

Evolution, Me & Other Freaks of Nature is on the 2009-2010 Lone Star Reading List.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Listen! by Stephanie S. Tolan

Main character: 12-year-old Charley (that's short for Charlene)
Location: rural North Carolina
Time period: Contemporary
Genre: J Fiction, Dog stories

This is a loving and gentle book about a broken girl and a lost dog, and how they save each other over a summer.

Charley is recovering from a car accident in which she broke her leg. More than that, she is still recovering from her mother's death a few years ago. Charley has a tendency to avoid her pain--when her best friend Amy announced she was going away to a tennis camp for the summer, Charley deleted all of the pictures of the two of them off of her computer. When her mother, a famous nature photographer, was killed in a plane crash in Brazil, Charley took down all of her mother's photographs that were hanging in her room. Since then, she has avoided her mother's office and her mother's favorite places in the woods around the lake where they live.

So now Charley is facing a lonely summer with little to do beyond taking long walks to strengthen her leg. As she walks around the lake, she notices a feral dog who seems to appear and disappear like a ghost. Talking to some of her neighbors, she learns that the dog has been around for almost a year and has survived a cold winter on its own. Charley takes it into her head that she needs to help this dog--to try to tame it and give it food and shelter. She shows a great deal of patience in this exercise, for the dog is very skittish and shy of people. Slowly she gets the dog, whom she names Coyote, to trust her and to eat the food she puts out, but she doubts that she'll ever get the dog to accept a collar and leash and submit to a trip to the vet--two conditions her father places on her project.

As she heals Coyote's skittishness and fear of people, he begins to heal her. Walking in the woods exercises and strengthens her leg, and visiting some of the quiet places she has avoided since her mother's death finally allows her to face her loss and grieve. Have a box of kleenex handy--this scene brought tears to my eyes.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

The Great Wide Sea by M.H. Herlong

Main character: 16-year-old Ben, and his younger brothers Dylan and Gerry
Location: the Caribbean
Time period: Contemporary
Genre: YA Fiction, Survival, Grief

You know how some books have a short one or two sentence summary? You usually see in on the back of the title page, and in library catalogs. The summary for this book says: "Still mourning the death of their mother, three brothers go with their father on an extended sailing trip off the Florida Keys and have a harrowing adventure at sea." While that is factually correct, it does nothing to prepare you for this book. Much better is the paragraph on the second page of the prologue:

"I don't tell about the morning when we woke up and Dad was gone. I don't talk about the storm. Or when we wrecked on the coral reef. I don't talk about--I never will talk about--when I left Gerry alone, standing there on the empty beach of that desert island with Dylan dying at his feet."

With THAT as in introduction, you start off the book with a deep sense of foreboding, alert for the coming disasters.

After their mom dies in a car accident, Dad goes off the deep end. Without telling the boys, he puts the house up for sale and purchases a sailboat which they will pick up down in the Florida Keys and then sail around the Caribbean for a year. He gives a book to Ben on small engine repair because Ben will be the engineer and a book on navigating by the stars to Dylan since he will be the navigator. They have a very short time to pack what they want to keep, but only what will fit in a duffel bag. Ben is especially upset when his dad packs up everything that belonged to his mom; it's as if his dad had already forgotten her and wants to wipe every trace of her away. On board he becomes a tyrant, never discussing things with the boys, only telling them that this is the way things will be done. Every day, Ben's anger grows until he is barely able to speak to his dad.

Harrowing is a good word for what happens to the three boys. After their father disappears, Ben is forced to make decisions that have life or death consequences not only for him, but for his brothers as well.

The Great Wide Sea is on the 2009-2010 Texas Lone Star Book List.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Streams of Babel by Carol Plum-Ucci

Main characters: An ensemble cast, including American teens Cora, Scott, Owen and Rain, Pakistani Shahzad, and Korean immigrant Tyler Ping
Location: mostly New Jersey but also a small village in Pakistan
Time period: Spring 2002
Genre: YA Fiction, Suspense, Thriller, Espionage

I started this book in a "now" mind-set and as such it seemed especially timely given the current swine flu concerns. It took me a little while to pay attention to the date headings on each chapter and realize that it is set in 2002, just a few months after the Towers fell. It is a 2008 release, and I wonder if the author started it in 2002 but it has taken this long to be released or if it was a conscious decision to set it in the recent past, when concerns about terrorism were still fresh and raw.

In a suburban town in New Jersey called Trinity Hills, two women living on the same street die of brain aneurysms within a 24 hour period. Their teen-aged children along with another neighbor display symptoms that seem like the flu and yet are not the flu. Halfway across the world, a teenage computer genius working in his uncle's internet cafe eavesdrops on terrorists in chat rooms and reports to US Intelligence what he learns--that someone has mutated a virus into something undetectable and incurable, and it has been released into the water supply in such a way as to affect only a five-block section of a place code-named Colony One.

The story is told from multiple POVs, through the voices of the six teenagers caught up in events far beyond them. This is a very effective way to tell the story, since no one character has the whole story--something that Shahzad finds increasingly frustrating and causes him to take serious risks. I really liked this narration technique in the first half of the book as you get to know the four neighbors through their own eyes and as others see them. Cora is ashamed of her morphine-addicted mother who abandoned her as a child and only came home a few years ago. Believing herself unloved, she has kept to herself, rigid against any hurt. The others, especially the boys, see her as beautiful but aloof, somehow above them all. Owen thinks of himself as selfish and moody; his mother and brother see him as selfless, giving, and possibly destined for a religious life. Scott, as a paramedic, sees their growing illness and tries to isolate them from the healthy which allows them, the ill, to come together and form the bonds of friendship.

Are teenaged computer geniuses in danger of becoming a cliche? I'm thinking of some recent books I've read--Little Brother by Cory Doctorow, Icecore by Matt Whyman, Rash by Peter Hautman--and they all feature computer geniuses/hackers. This book has two--Shahzad and Tyler. They worked well in this story, and I loved the line (repeated a few times) "Computers have blurred the line between child and adult, because in the land of computers, children are the men, and the men are the children." Who hasn't felt that way sometimes?

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Revolution is Not a Dinner Party by Ying Chang Compestine

Main Character: Ling, who ages from 9 years old to 13 years old

Friday, March 20, 2009

Unfinished books

I once read, in a list of dos and don'ts for bloggers, that one should never post a blog entry apologizing for not having posted lately. So this isn't an apology--just wanting to check-in, touch base, and explain why I haven't posted lately. Long story short--I haven't read any books. Well, I haven't finished any books.

Things suddenly got very busy at work in February. We started two new programs--a science club and a Texas Bluebonnet Award book discussion club with accompanying blog--lost a couple of employees, got a booth at the annual Taste and Trade event, and worked on a grant application. With all that going on, I have found myself unable to focus on reading and now have a stack of unfinished books on my bedstand.

So what have I been trying to read but haven't finished? Here are a few examples:

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne. I had been hearing a lot about the book even before the movie came out, but the trailers for the movie are what spurred me to check it out. I thought I would enjoy it, but I found it rather off-putting. The narrator's misunderstanding and mispelling of words ("Out-with" for Auschwitz) made him seem much younger than he was. The word that kept coming to my mind was "twee." I just could not keep reading it and don't think I'll pick it up again.

Living Dead Girl by Elizabeth Scott. This is a good book. This is a very well-written book. This is a heart-wrenching book. This book takes more thought than I can give it right now. If you're not familiar with it, it's told from the point of view of a girl who was abducted several years earlier and has lived with her abusive captor ever since. Now that she is getting too old for him, he wants her to find him his next victim. An episode of Flashpoint on CBS had a similar plotline at about the same time I started reading this but the episode paled in comparison to the book. I fully intend to finish this book, but I need to wait until I have the time and the focus to give it the attention it deserves.

Walkaway by Alden Carter. Andy is fed up with his alcoholic father and his dysfunctional family. He had a psychotic break last year and spent some time in the hospital. This year he just wants to walk away from it all. I was enjoying it, especially since it is set in Wisconsin, where my parents were from, but I put it down somewhere and can't remember where. This is not saying anything about the book's merits--merely showing how scattered my thoughts are.

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman. I had barely started this book when a patron requested it. When it came back it, I tried again, but another patron requested it. It has come back again, and again I have checked it out. I am so looking forward to reading it this weekend (as long as I don't have to give it up to another patron before then.)

Fortunately, things are calming down now. The grant deadline was met, Taste and Trade was a big success, and the science club has turned out to be one of the more popular programs that I've done. The Bluebonnet Book Club is struggling a bit, but I'm hoping it will start to pick up during the summer. I need to finish these books (well, not the striped pajamas, but the other ones) and then there are so many new books coming in. I need to catch up with the Diversity Rocks! challenge, and my own self-imposed non-fiction challenge. I need a vacation to get this all done!

Saturday, February 7, 2009

The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness

Main character: almost 13-year-old Todd Hewitt
Location: another planet known as New World
Time period: hard to say
Genre: YA Fiction, Science Fiction
Series: Chaos Walking #1

OH. MY. GOD! Seriously, oh my god. Omigod omigod omigod omigod omigod.

I'm having a hard time organizing any coherent thought about this book right now, because I think my brain has exploded. Oh. My. God.

(Takes a deep breath. okay.) Here are the facts as Todd Hewitt knows them and tells them to us. He is the youngest person in Prentisstown. When he is 13 years old he will become a man--that's just one month a way. (BTW, there are 13 months to a year on this world.) Prentisstown is a dying colony on New World. It is dying because there are no women and therefore no chance of repopulating. The colonists left Old World (which was overcrowded and decaying) in search of a simpler, better, purer life. They thought they found the perfect place when they landed on New World twenty years ago. But the native population, the Spackles, began a war. They unleashed a virus which killed all the women. The virus also caused all the men to begin broadcasting their thoughts constantly without any way to silence or filter them. This is called Noise and it is ever-present. But just because everyone can hear everyone else's thoughts doesn't mean that they are all truthful and above-board. Men can still lie in their thoughts, or create louder Noise to hide inconvenient thoughts. Oh, and the Noise includes all the thoughts of all the animals too--though their thoughts are not usually very interesting.

Then one day Todd is sent out to the swamp to pick apples with his dog, Manchee. And while he is there, he comes across silence. It's like a hole in the Noise, and it is overwhelming. Then he comes across a girl where no girl--no females--have been for almost as long as he's been alive. For his own safety and the safety of this girl, whom he insticntively wants to protect, he must leave his home and everything he knows behind. And he discovers along the way that everything he knows is untrue.

With every step, with every discovery that what he knows is wrong, Todd's world shatters a bit more. This was an incredible book and I cannot wait for the second part to come out. (According to the author's blog, it should come out in September 2009.)

Hint of a spoiler coming: Many years ago, I got to hear Jim Trelease, author of The Read-Aloud Handbook, tell a story of reading Where the Red Fern Grows to his teenaged son. He made the comment that if you find a book that has a picture of a boy and his dog on the front cover, you will be crying by the end. (Where the Red Fern Grows has two dogs on the cover.) I just want to point out that the cover of The Knife of Never Letting Go has Todd, Viola, and the dog Manchee on the cover, and you will be crying by the end.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Two Miserable Presidents by Steve Sheinkin

Main characters: Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis
Location: United States
Time period: the American Civil War
Genre: J Non-Fiction, History

How has February already started? Where did January go? It just slipped by and I did not get a non-fiction book done--and after I had challenged myself and everything! (At least I started this book in January--does that count?)

In a forward to this book, the author explains that he once wrote textbooks and he knows why they are so boring--they leave all the good stuff out! As far as quotes go, they avoid any "that are at all funny, amazing, surprising, disgusting, confusing, stupid, mean, or anything else interesting." So in this book, he puts in all the stuff that textbooks leave out.

The two miserable presidents of the title are, of course, Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis, but the book includes many more people than just those two. It is a very readable overview of the Civil War, told in short segments which focus as much on the people on the home front as it does on the soldiers and battles.

There are so many books on the Civil War and--with the Lincoln bicentennial coming up--on Abraham Lincoln that you'd almost imagine that there's nothing new to say. Yet there were incidents in this book that I had not come across before. My favorite was the story John Burns, a seventy-one-year-old War of 1812 veteran who lived in Gettysburg and, when the battle started, went out with his old gun and joined up with the Seventh Wisconsin. Wounded three times, he survived the battle and met with Abraham Lincoln when he came to deliver the Gettysburg Address.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Something Rotten: A Horatio Wilkes Mystery by Alan Gratz

Main character: Horatio Wilkes
Location: Denmark, Tennessee
Time period: Contemporary
Genre: YA Fiction, Mystery, Shakespeare

I had heard of this book earlier this summer and have been looking forward to reading it. It's a modern-day retelling of Shakespeare's Hamlet set as a murder mystery and I must say I found it more appealing in its concept than in its execution.

Horatio Wilkes spends his summer at the home of Hamilton Prince, a school friend who has been deeply shaken by the unexpected death of his father and his mother's quick remarriage to his uncle. Hamilton's family owns the Elsinore Paper mill which is the mainstay of Denmark's economy, but which is also polluting the town's river. Hamilton takes Horatio on a tour of the plant, where a couple of the security guards show Hamilton a video they discovered--Hamilton's father, looking older and frailer than he had when Horatio last saw him, revealing that he has been poisoned and there is no cure. Hamilton is convinced that his uncle is his father's murderer and asks Horatio to help him prove it. Well, I'm sure you can figure out where the plot goes from here.

There are some nice touches in here--the best of which is the environmental subplot. Olivia, a beautiful young woman who used to date Hamilton until he dumped her, is campaigning to force the paper plant to clean up the water. At one point, she even drinks the filthy water while filming a news story--the toxic sludge causes her to collapse and she is dramatically rushed to the hospital. Not only does this act as a nice counterpart to Ophelia's drowning, but it gives a hint as to what poison was used to kill Hamilton's father.

But the novel also strains to make the parallels, including a hostile takeover of Elsinore by Ford N. Branff (Fortinbras), and the idiot pair of Roscoe and Gilbert who add little to the story. Then there is the community theater, putting on the Tom Stoppard play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead--you can just see the author waggling his eyebrows at you over that one.

There is a sequel, Something Wicked, in which Horatio solves a mystery with strong parallels to Macbeth, which I will read, but not with the excited anticipation that I had for this book.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Black-Eyed Suzie by Susan Shaw

Main character: 12-year-old Suzie
Location: undefined
Time period: Contemporary
Genre: YA Fiction, Abuse, Mental Illness

Suzie has stopped talking. She has drawn herself into a box that no one else can see, but which is getting ever smaller. When she begins crying, to the point that nothing can stop her, her uncle finally insists that she get professional help.

At St. Dorothy's, a mental hospital, Suzie is treated with kindness and patience by the staff. One patient, Joshua, actually becomes her friend, but another, Karen, is always angry, terrorizing Suzie by yelling at her, tearing her picture, and breaking a mirror Suzie's sister gave her.

Slowly, we learn what happened to Suzie to make her withdraw into her "box" and when she finally leaves St. Dorothy's, it's to a much better situation. What Shaw does that is so amazing in this book is to make us feel sympathy even for the least sympathetic characters. When Suzie witnesses Karen sobbing in the common room, we realize that Karen's anger is not an indication that she is a horrible person, but that she herself has some deep problems. My heart went out to Joshua, in denial about his father's death, to Suzie's sister Deanna who finally has the courage to tell the truth, and to Suzie herself, finally coming out of her box.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

City of Ashes by Cassandra Clare

Main character: 16-year-old Clary who's been raised human but recently discovered she is a Shadowhunter
Location: New York City
Time period: Contemporary
Genre: YA Fiction, Fantasy, Supernatural with vampires, werewolves and other demons
Series: The Mortal Instruments #2

In the previous book, Clary discovered that she was a Shadowhunter; that her father is the evil Valentine; and that Jace, the intriguing guy she has a definite attraction to, is really her brother. All together now--eeewwwwwww!

Things just continue to pile up on Clary and her friends. Valentine managed to get the cup last time--now he is after a sword which will allow him to call upon demons. The trick is that he needs to wash the sword in the blood of four downworlder children--a warlock, a werewolf, a vampire, and a faerie. That small fact doesn't bother him, but the attacks cause the werewolves and the vampires to accuse each other and come to the brink of war.

Jace has his own problems--the Inquisitor of the Shadowhunters has come to examine him. She doesn't believe that he never knew he was really Valentine's son and believes that he is even now spying on them for Valentine. It becomes obvious that her suspicions of Jace are motivated by a purely personal reason--her own son died because of Valentine and she is perfectly willing to use Jace as bait to trap Valentine.

And Simon--poor Simon!--is turned into a vampire, something he has dreaded since he was bitten in the first book.

Once again, Clare has created a densely plotted and populated novel with many twists and turns, but keeps it rooted in this family of characters that we come to care for. Personally, I'm not that interested in Valentine and his quest for world domination, but I do care about Clary and Jace, Simon and Maia and Luke, Alec and Isabelle and Magnus. I loved the visit to the faerie world and learning how they cannot lie but they've lived so long that they can deceive while telling the truth.

I don't know what the third Mortal Instrument will be, but I am psyched because Clary's mom--stuck in a coma in the hospital for much of the last two stories--is finally going to have to wake up.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Double Identity by Margaret Peterson Haddix

Main Character: Twelve-year-old Bethany
Location: One of those I-states--Indiana? Illinois?--in the center of the country
Time period: Contemporary (or slightly in the future)
Genre: J Fiction, Science Fiction, Cloning

When Bethany is almost thirteen, her mother begins crying and cannot stop. Bethany's father packs them into the car and drives until they reach a house in a small town in the middle of the night. There he drops Bethany into the care of her Aunt Mylie, a woman she has never met--or even heard of--until this moment. Then both he and her mother disappear into the night, leaving Bethany alone, confused, and afraid. What is wrong with her mother? Who is the strange man in the dark car who seems to be watching her? And why do so many people in this town seem to recognize her and call her Elizabeth?

As I read this book, it struck me that identity is a recurring theme for Haddix. In her Hidden Children series, third children are denied their identities by law and have to choose between being officially non-existant and hiding in an underground world, or assuming someone else's identity. In her new series, The Missing, 36 children are taken from their own times and given new identities in the future. Here, Bethany learns that she is a clone and begins to question her identity as a human being. Is she her own person, or is she just a photocopy of Elizabeth?

Like Robin Wasserman's Skinned, Meg Cabot's Airhead, and Peter Dickinson's Eva, (and The Adoration of Jenna Fox by Mary Pearson, which I am in the process of reading) we see parents who are not ready to release a child who has died and who grab at any available straws to bring her back to life. (Has anyone read a book where it is a son who is brought back?) But in trying to recreate a life that's been lost, they wind up making things harder for everyone and in some cases are unable to accept the substitute.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

The Wizard Heir by Cinda Williams Chima

Main Character: Seph
Location: Toronto, Maine, and the Sanctuary town of Trinity
Time period: Contemporary
Genre: YA Fiction, Fantasy
Series: sequel to The Warrior Heir

Once again, I am reading a sequel to a book I read long enough ago that the details of the earlier book have faded. However, Chima has done a very clever thing in her storytelling that doesn't leave me feeling lost and confused. (I doubt that she planned it specifically for memory-impaired people like me--but it worked out very nicely.) She shifted focus to a brand-new character who has no knowledge of the events of the first book.

Seph McCauley is a young wizard, but he doesn't know that he is--he just knows that strange things happen around him. After his uncontrolled powers accidentally cause a fire which kills a friend of his, he is sent to a strict boarding school in a secluded part of Maine. There he is told that he is a gifted wizard and that there are others like him at the school who can help him learn to control and use his powers. He just needs to pledge his allegiance to the headmaster, something that Seph is not willing to do. After his refusal, Seph is subjected to systematic bullying and abuse until finally his guardian swoops in to rescue him and take him to Trinity, the sanctuary town that Jack Swift set up in The Warrior Heir.

I really like Seph (short for Joseph) who has a strong moral core despite not having had a lot of parental guidance. As he learns more about the world of the Weirs, it gives us a chance to remember the events of the first book without having a lot of awkward exposition. (Okay, there was one "do you remember what happened last summer?" conversation, but it was handled well and had a natural flow to it.) For those that really liked Jack and Ellen in the first book, don't worry--they are absent from the first part of this book, but they make up for it once they do show up. The more I read in this book, the more details I was able to remember from the first. ("Oh, THAT's who that girl in the nightclub was!" "That's right, that was the doctor who replaced Jack's heartstone.") I just appreciated the way that was done.

There was a climactic battle, but the forces of good have merely won a temporary respite, not a total victory. For that, we will have to wait for the third book, The Dragon Heir.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Getting Even by ReShonda Tate Billingsley

Main Characters: Camille, Alexis, Jasmine, and Angel
Location: Houston, Texas
Time period: Contemporary
Genre: YA Fiction, Girl Power
Series: The Good Girlz #4

I first heard of the Good Girlz series when I read an entry on The Brown Bookshelf blog about African American Christian Fiction for teens. I ordered the series and got this volume first. (One of the rules of ordering series fiction for a library--the books rarely come in at the same time, and never in order.) Once it hit the shelf, it immediately got checked out and has hardly stayed on the shelf since.

Camille has (as usual) fallen in love. Her new boyfriend, Vic, sounds like a paragon. Alexis has met a new guy, too--Anthony. Could these guys be too good to be true?

One interesting thing that the author does is tell the story in alternating chapters from the point of view of Jasmine and Angel. Jasmine is usually with Camille, and witnesses the fight when Vic's jealous and violent ex-girlfriend confronts Camille. Angel becomes Alexis's sounding board. Neither Jasmine nor Angel have current boyfriends--Jasmine's last relationship ended when her guy went off to college and they discovered they couldn't make a long-distance relationship work. Angel is too busy watching her baby to worry about dating. So they are involved, but have a bit of distance.

There is a nice twist about halfway through the book, and I think it's a shame that the twist is revealed in the summary on the back of the book. (And I am trying very hard NOT to reveal the twist, which is why I'm sounding a bit vague here.) Jasmine learns a secret and knows she needs to tell Camille and Alexis but is afraid of hurting them. Instead, she waits too long and they find out another way--and then consider Jasmine a traitor for not telling them.

The main focus of the book, though, is not the boyfriends--it's the friendship shared by these four girls who come from varied backgrounds and were brought together through a church group. Don't think that the church connection makes them a bunch of goody-goodies, though. They struggle, they fall, and they learn.

This is the 4th book in the series. There are references to events that happened in the previous books, but it can stand alone--you don't need to have read the earlier books to follow the story. However, I like these girls enough to go and seek out the earlier books (which we just received in the library yesterday) so that I can spend more time with Camille, Jasmine, Angel and Alexis (and find out why they don't care much for Tameka.)

I have decided to accept the Diversity Rocks! challenge issued by Ali. For the year 2009, I will read (at least) one book a month written by an author of color. This is my first entry for this year. For more information about the challenge and links to others participating, check out the Diversity Rocks! page.

And I am giving myself a personal challenge--I will also try to read at least one non-fiction book a month. Let's see how I do with both challenges.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Where I Live by Eileen Spinelli

Main character: Diana, a budding poet and astronomer
Location: A six-hour drive from Pittsburgh
Time period: Contemporary
Genre: J Fiction, Verse

This is such a sweet and charming little book--little in size, but not in heart. Diana is a young girl who loves her yellow house, her best friend Rose, the wren nesting in the wreath on the front door, and the night sky. She writes a poem about the sun and it wins a school contest. She wakes up happy in the morning. Her life is good.

But then her dad loses his job and her parents decide to move to Grandpa Joe's house near Pittsburgh. Diana is heartbroken. She has to say mad-sad goodbyes to her yellow house, her teacher Mrs. Clifford, and Rose, and she knows she will never laugh again.

Since Diana writes poetry, this book is written in a series of poems. In spare language, the author reveals Diana's happy highs to her mad-sad lows. The illustrations are black and white pencil drawings, but I can feel the glowing warmth of the yellow house and the deep softness of Rose's purple floppy hat (or "purpy flopple" as they call it.)

Where I Live is on the 2009-2010 Texas Bluebonnet Award List.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

The Sweet Far Thing by Libba Bray

Main Character: 16-year-old Gemma Doyle
Location: London
Time Period: Victorian Era
Genre: YA Fiction, Fantasy, Supernatural

Finally! I am finished with this series. I still found Gemma to be one of the most exasperating characters I have ever encountered, and there were times that I put this book down in favor of others. I was really hoping for a breakthrough--something that would let me like Gemma before the book was over (rather like I was hoping for a major redemptive moment for Snipe in the Harry Potter books.) I did get one, and that made the ending much more worthwhile for me. Things are heading for disaster when Gemma says "I can't live in fear any longer. I've cursed this power. I've both enjoyed it and misused it. And I've hidden it away. Now I must try to wield it correctly, to marry it to a purpose and hope that that is enough." That is what did it for me--Gemma finally (finally!) understood that she had to stop fighting her power and avoiding her destiny.

Now I don't want to give you the impression that there was a sudden switch--there was a a good deal of laying the groundwork for this declaration, including a very nice scene with her brother, Tom, after she rescued him from the Rakshana. This wound up being Tom's redemptive moment as he was able to drop his superior and supercilious facade and talk with Gemma person to person instead of older brother.

I do have to give Gemma props for one thing. In a number of other books, such as Cory Doctorow's Little Brother or Silenced by James DeVita, I have been bothered by how easily the protagonist trusts new people. Sometimes it has turned out well, but sometimes it leads to inevitable betrayal. Gemma does not have this problem. On the contrary, Gemma doesn't trust anyone (well, except for the Gorgon, who continually tells Gemma that she is untrustworthy.) Now, one could say that Gemma learned not to trust when the one teacher she felt close to turned out to be Circe in disguise, but she was showing this tendency early on. The problem with this is that Gemma doubts her own judgement about people--it's takes merely a passing comment from one person to turn her against someone else--and that greatly contributes to her sense of isolation.

I can't say that I enjoyed this series--if it wasn't for the recommendation of some of my patrons, I would probably have given up on it after the first book. Still, I can see why appeals to other readers.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Surprises According to Humphrey by Betty G. Birney

Main Character: Humphrey, a golden hamster
Location: undefined
Time period: Contemporary
Genre: J Fiction, School

Humphrey the hamster returns in his fourth book of adventures as the classroom pet of room 26. We're coming to the end of the school year and there is plenty going on. I-Heard-That-Kirk brings in a hamster ball so Humphrey can roam around the classroom. (Nobody knows about the lock-that-doesn't-lock and how Humphrey does plenty of roaming on his own when no one is watching.) On his weekend stay at Wait-for-the-Bell-Garth's house, Humphrey goes on an unexpected roll down the hill in his ball and comes face to face with a curious cat. When Aldo the janitor comes to clean the classroom speaking in a language Humphrey doesn't understand and then is replaced by a stranger, Humphrey becomes convinced that Aldo has been kidnapped by aliens. Most worrying, Mrs. Brisbane hasn't decided whether or not she wants to come back to teach next year.

There is a lot of charm in this series of books which looks at classroom activities through the eyes of a classroom pet. I like his use of repetition for emphasis--things aren't just fun, they're FUN-FUN-FUN! I also like his definitions which close each chapter. A suprise is "something totally unexpected and unplanned for...[it] can be both good and bad, like a shiny balloon (a good thing) that suddenly pops and scares you (a bad thing)." Humphrey cares deeply about the children in his classroom and wants to help them with their problems. He also has the opportunity to watch the teacher and get to know her in a way that the students don't.

Surprises for Humphrey is on the 2009-2010 Texas Bluebonnet Award Nominee List.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Little Brother by Cory Doctorow

Main Character: 17-year-old Marcus, aka w1n5t0n, aka M1k3y
Location: San Francisco
Time period: 2011
Genre: Fiction, Dystopian Society, Fight the Power

I was hearing a lot about this book when it first came out--I think I first read about it on Scott Westerfeld's blog back in April--so I've been looking forward to getting hold of it.

Marcus is a smart kid--too smart for his school. The more they try to limit him--like using preprogrammed SchoolBook laptops which track every keystroke users make--the more he finds workarounds. This drives the assistant principal crazy, especially since he knows Marcus is doing something but just can't prove it. (Shades of Ferris Bueller!) One day, Marcus ditches school to meet with his friends Darryl, Van and Jolu; they are playing a game which gives clues online that lead you to a real-world place. They just get to the spot the clues have led them to when there is a rumbling that isn't an earthquake. They don't know it yet, but terrorists have just blown up the Bay Bridge. People panic and run for shelter, but in the crush Darryl is stabbed. Marcus tries to flag down one of the many police or fire vehicles passing to get help, but instead they are stopped by some military-looking personnel who put bags over their heads, tie them up and bundle them into the back of a truck. Marcus and his friends were just in the wrong place at the wrong time, but that was enough to attract the attention of the Department of Homeland Security. They are detained in a Guantanamo-type facility where they are questioned and tortured for several days until they are released (except for Darryl) with the threat not to tell anyone what they have been through.

Now I am going to say something really odd: I found this book utterly delightful. Despite the seriousness of the subject matter, I had a grin on my face through much of it. Marcus, as I said before, is smart and watching his mind work was a joy. He starts talking about the math behind computer encryption and, yes, some of it goes above my head, but how wonderful that the author trusts the reader to follow it. There is a playfulness in some of Marcus's actions that reminded me of Jean Merrill's The Pushcart War. He is an anarchist, but he doesn't use bombs to make his point. Big Brother may be watching you, but Little Brother is watching back and has YouTube on his side.

I like the fact that some adults supported Marcus; his mom, his social studies teacher, and the reporter are all willing to listen to him. I was a little disappointed in his dad's reaction at first, but he came around. I will say that for someone so (rightfully) paranoid, Marcus seemed a little too quick to place his trust in strangers. There was one character in particular that I was quite concerned about though, thankfully, my fears proved to be unfounded.

There was one little thing that my mind started gnawing on late at night: it is mentioned, almost in passing, that the casualty figures from the Bay Bridge bombing are over 4,000. Plot-wise, I know it had to be that high to make this the worst attack on our native soil, but I started wondering if that could be a realistic number. How long is the Bay Bridge? What is the capacity? It's during a school day, not rush hour, so it wouldn't be bumper to bumper, and what percentage of cars would have more than just the driver? (You know, just about anything can be thought of as a math problem--oh no, I've been Math Cursed!) In the clear light of day, I realized that there may not have been 4,000 killed on the bridge, but that the rest were the number of detainees held secretly by the DHS. After all, Marcus's father thought he was dead. Darryl's father thought he was dead. How many of the people reported missing and killed that day were actually being held by their own government? OK, that is a chilling thought.