Sunday, April 20, 2014

Brief Reviews: Winter 2013

The Woman in White
I became interested in this book while reading Dan Simmons's Drood this summer.  Considering how much I grew to dislike the fictional version of Wilkie Collins that narrated Drood, I was surprised at how much I enjoyed The Woman in White.  I was also surprised by how modern the pacing of the novel felt considering that it was written over a hundred and fifty years ago.  This is an early work of detection fiction, and it is easy to see its influence in modern mystery novels.  The novel is told as a series of journal entries and testimonials from various people and Collins does a wonderful job of switching between them and capturing each character's voice.  My favorite was naturally Marian with her sparkling wit and surprising bravery.  She is a capable heroine and sets herself apart in many ways, including her apparent disinterest in finding romance for herself.  I'm glad that I was able to get to know her! The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins: buy it or check it out today!

Freedom! Miss Annie is a kitten who is ready for adventure, if only they'd open up a window to let her outside!  She's still young, but she knows the ways of her house pretty well by now.  There's the dad who is a writer "That means he gets back his own stories in the mail and yells, 'Oh no! They didn't want it!' What a funny job."  Then there's the mom who works for a literary journal and is gone during the day.  Finally there's Sarah who spends hours talking to her best friend Keshia.  Miss Annie knows just who to ask for food, how to use her cute looks to her advantage, and has befriended the mouse that lives with them.  But what more adventures will await her when she finally gets her freedom?  This is an adorable, light-hearted comic that is sure to appeal to children who love cats.  Miss Annie: Freedom! by Frank Le Gall, illus. by Flore Balthazar, color by Robin Doo: buy it or check it out today!

The Grand Sophy When they heard that cousin Sophy was coming to stay everyone expected a pitiable creature.  The poor girl was raised without a mother and forced to travel all over the continent under the negligent eye of her diplomat father.  So when Sophy arrived with a menagerie in tow, dressed to the nines, and clearly capable to taking care of herself they were completely shocked.  It's hard to resist Sophy's charms for long, though and soon she would leave an indelible mark on the whole family.  My mother gave me this book to read, and it just shows how well she knows me.  This book has it all: Regency dresses, balls, witty repartee, a headstrong woman, even a monkey!  Sophy's quick rejoinders had me laughing and the light-hearted drama as everyone settled down into their proper matches kept me entertained.   This a perfect frothy read for when you just want something fun to distract you and pass the time.   The Grand Sophy by Georgette Heyer: buy it or check it out today!

I'll Be ThereEveryone I've talked to that has read this book absolutely loved it.  It's the story of two teens, Sam and Emily, who fall in love at first sight.  The only problem is that Sam has a tendency to leave town quickly.  He has an abusive and schizophrenic father who keeps them on the run and living in dismal circumstances. Sam's younger brother is intensely involved in his drawings, but is unhealthy and usually stays silent.  I can see why so many people like it.  It's fast-paced and knows how to pull on the heart-strings.  It reminds me of a  Lifetime movie.  I really wanted to like it too, but I didn't. I don't remember a single character showing any sign of having a sense of humor.  The only even vaguely humorous scene was the physical comedy that ensued when one of the book's antagonists was getting his just desserts.  But I couldn't share in the schadenfreude.  It felt almost cruel and I didn't like how two dimensional his character was.  In fact all of the characters felt flat to me.  The good characters were unfailingly good and practically perfect except for circumstances beyond their control.  The bad characters were bad all the way through and not portrayed with a hint of sympathy, even the father who was clearly suffering from serious mental illness. I like my characters to exist in shades of grey and my plots to have complexities that resist easy fixes.  The end of this book was full of circumstances that conveniently lined up to provide everyone with what they deserved in the last couple of chapters.  Even the plots of minor characters were wrapped up with a neat bow that almost always involved them finding love.  If you want a clear-cut, heartwarming story of good triumphing over evil then this is the book for you. But if you prefer stories with humor and moral ambiguity, then you can skip this one.  I'll Be There by Holly Goldberg Sloan: buy it or check it out today!

The Dead Gentleman When Jezebel first sees Tommy, she thinks he's a ghost.  When she finds out the truth, it's even stranger.  Tommy is a member of the Explorers' Society, a group that knows how to unlock hidden portals to other worlds.  But sometimes when they go to these other worlds, something dark follows them back to Earth.  The Dead Gentleman is building an army and preparing to take over.  After he attacks the headquarters of the Explorers' Society, Tommy and Jezebel are all that stand between humanity and the apocalypse.  This book was great fun with references to many of my favorite things: Tesla, Lemuria, H.G. Wells...the list goes on.  Despite being about a Dead Gentleman that destroys everything in his path, there aren't many gory details making it solid middle-grade fiction fare.  However the plot doesn't hold up to close scrutiny and there were many cliched elements that left me with a sense of déjà lu.  Many of the characters were two dimensional and the villains were evil incarnate putting considerable energy into destroying worlds for no discernible reason other than to cause suffering.  It was a quick and entertaining read though.  If you're looking for a fast-paced fantastical adventure, this is a solid choice.  The Dead Gentleman by Matthew Cody: buy it or check it out today!

Discovering Media Literacy: Teaching Digital Media and Popular Culture in Elementary School This is an excellent read for elementary school teachers and librarians.  Hobbs and Moore define media literacy, discuss why it is so important to teach it our students, and describe how they have gone about doing this.  There is a nice balance between philosophy and practical examples of lessons they have done with students.  My only quibble is that I wish the example lessons had listed which grades they had actually tried them with.  With the increase of digital tools in our classrooms and the ever-present influence of the media on our students it is imperative that we teach them how to become thoughtful media consumers, recognize how others use media to deliver messages, and learn how to use digital tools to make their voices heard.  I'll be attending a workshop on the topic this summer to better integrate media literacy with my students and I am looking forward to it!   Discovering Media Literacy: Teaching Digital Media and Popular Culture in Elementary School by Renee Hobbs and David Cooper Moore: buy it or check it out today!

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Dust Girl Review

Dust Girl

Book talk:  Callie never knew her father.  He was a travelling musician and according to her mother he will be back any day now.  Despite all the years that have passed her mother keeps waiting and refuses to leave. Even though the town is almost deserted.  Even though they have no customers and no money left.  Even though Callie has the dust in her lungs and the doctor is worried.  While the whole dust bowl heads out West to California, Callie is stuck in Kansas waiting for a man she's never even met.  She thinks she'll die there waiting for him.  Until one day when everything changes.  The worst duster she's ever seen buries the town and she loses her mother in the storm.  Everything she thought she knew turns out to be wrong.  Fairies are real, and her father is one of them.  But they're not tiny, winged creatures and they're not all friendly.  Her mother's refusal to leave suddenly make sense: all this time she was trying to hide and protect Callie.  Now that they've found her, Callie has to run for her life in search of the mother she lost and the father she never met.

Rocks my socks:  This book takes so many usually disparate threads and weaves them together wonderfully.  It's historical fiction about life for those who stayed in the Dust Bowl.   There are fascinating details of life in that era from riding the rails to dance marathons.  It's an intriguing twist on fairy stories.  The politics of this fairy court and how it interacts with the human world will provide plenty of fodder for the later books in this series.  It's a novel about pouring your wishes into song.  Callie learns how to do that literally and work magic through singing, but actual songs from the era are omnipresent in the story.  Every chapter title is from song lyrics.  After I finished the novel I spent the rest of the day listening to a Woody Guthrie Pandora station.  It's about race relations and the practice of passing for white.  Even as they're fleeing supernatural forces, the characters have to face problems from the mortal world that stem from race.  It's about people who are navigating the rocky waters of identity.  Callie's mother is a mortal white woman and her father a black fairy.  The fact that she's biracial and half fairy comes into play as she encounters prejudice from humans and fairies and struggles to find a place where she feels like she belongs.  It's a story about the American Dream.  Callie's companion, Jack is a charming fast-talker who remains optimistic that he can reach wealth and fame despite his humble circumstances and troubled past: the kind of rags-to-riches dreamer American fiction is built on.  Finally the book is just a great adventure tale as Callie and Jack flee forces natural and supernatural including one enemy that is practically a zombie.

Rocks in my socks:  zip

Every book its reader:  Whether you're looking for historical fiction, fantasy, or adventure this book has something for you!  Fans of the Depression Era, music, fairies, and themes of race and identity will all have particular reasons to pick up this book, but anyone looking for a good story will enjoy it.  6th grade and up.


Sarah Zettel has her own website with a page for the book

Here's a video of Callie's favorite song, The Midnight Special:

And here's Do Re Mi by Woody Guthrie (there's other Dust Bowl themed Guthrie songs at this playlist):

Source: school library

Dust Girl by Sarah Zettel: buy it or check it out today!

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Delilah Dirk Review

Delilah Dirk and the Turkish Lieutenant (Delilah Dirk, #1)

Book talk: The daughter of a diplomat and an artist, Delilah grew up travelling the world.  She learned archery in France, acrobatics in Indonesia, how to survive in the jungles of India, and perfected her fighting technique in Japan.  She's a member of several royal courts, owns a flying machine, and is a skilled escape artist.  She is not someone you want to mess with.  So when she winds up in a Turkish prison, she is not concerned.  The question on her mind isn't how she will escape or even when she will escape.  It's where did the Lieutenant in charge of her interrogation learn how to make such a fine cup of tea?

Rocks my socks:  
This comic has everything that I look for in an adventure: a strong protagonist, repartee, gorgeous visuals, and tea!  Okay, so maybe I don't usually look for the last one in adventure tales, but I was pleasantly surprised by its presence.  Delilah is a wonderful, classic action hero complete with an improbable laundry list of skills, moral ambiguity, and foolhardy confidence.  I loved reading about her adventures and narrow escapes.  Selim is an excellent character as well.  He's a perfect foil to Delilah with his lack of adventuring skills, sensible fear in the face of danger, and fondness for quiet and tea.  My favorite part was the relationship between the two.  They remain travelling companions without a romantic plot and Selim realistically decides to part ways with her to return to a quiet life before realizing he's become too used to the excitement of life with Delilah.  Cliff successfully twists conventions of the genre while retaining the tone of a good, old-fashioned rollicking adventure tale.

Rocks in my socks:  It was all over so quickly!  I want more!

Every book its reader:  I'd give this to anyone looking for a good, light-hearted adventure.  I'd say it's fine for 5th grade and up.


Delilah has her own website where you can read the first two chapters of the comic for free!

Just when I thought I couldn't like the comic any more I found a short comic on Tor that Tony Cliff wrote where the part of Delilah Dirk is played by a cat!  A sassy cat!

Source: school library

Delilah Dirk and the Turkish Lieutenant by Tony Cliff: buy it or check it out today!

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Rotten Review


Book talk:  JD comes back from Juvie with only a week left before school starts.  He has a lot to do before then: make up with his girlfriend, deflect all questions about where he spent the summer, and above all else make sure that no one ever finds out what he did to get himself arrested.  He's had a lot of time to plan what he's going to do, but there was one thing he wasn't expecting.  While he was gone, his mom adopted a dog.  Not just any dog either, but a big Rottweiler with a past as shady as JD's.  His mom called the dog Jon-Jon, but JD knows the perfect name for him: Johnny Rotten.

Rocks my socks:  Watching JD and Johnny learn to trust each other and struggle to make things right after their past mistakes was heartwarming.  The book was far from saccharine though.  JD and his friends aren't exactly model citizens and the tone of the story is true to Johnny's punk rock name.  I spent most of the book eagerly flipping the pages because I wanted to find out if Johnny was going to have to be put down.  I grew fond of JD as well.  His voice sounded authentic and his struggles were all realistically drawn.  The supporting characters are well rounded and Northrop avoids facile solutions to the complex problems that arise.

Rocks in my socks: none

Every book its reader:  I'd give this to students looking for a realistic fiction book, especially dog lovers.  It's more relationship than plot driven, but it has an edge and a humor to it that gives it appeal to a crowd beyond those looking for a sweet dog story.  I'd say 7th grade and up.  


Michael Northrop has a website with a blog, bio, and more information about his books.

Here's a video all about Rottweilers for those unfamiliar with the breed (let's face it I'll take any excuse to post animal videos):

Source: school library

Rotten by Michael Northrop: buy it or check it out today!

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Goblin Secrets Review

Goblin Secrets (Zombay, #1)

Book talk:  In the city of Zombay clockwork creatures are powered by real hearts, goblins steal small children, and acting is strictly forbidden.  Rownie's brother has been missing ever since he was caught performing, leaving Rownie to fend for himself. That's why Rownie lives with Graba.  She may be a crazy, vengeful witch but at least working for her ensures that no one else messes with him.  Thanks to Graba, Rownie is surviving, but just barely.  He misses his brother fiercely and knows life will be better when he's found him.  So when an acting troupe puts up posters, Rownie has to see them.  Even if they are goblins, and Rownie has to steal the money from Graba to do so.  Soon Rownie has both the city guards and Graba's gang after him and if the goblins are right the whole city will flood. Unless they can find an actor fit to play a very difficult part.

Rocks my socks:  The setting is incredibly imaginative.  From the unique characters to the landscape and history of the city to the magical elements woven throughout the story.  I enjoyed reading about life in a traveling acting troupe with its puppets, masks, and other illusions.  Graba was a great villain reminiscent of Baba Yaga.  The prose was beautiful and I often found myself admiring the way Alexander phrased a sentence.

Rocks in my socks:  I never got my bearings with this book.  There were so many ideas and most of them were never fully explained.  The automatons are powered by something called coal that is made of hearts.  How this process works is still unclear to me.  It took me quite some time to realize that when they were talking about the magic of theatre they weren't being figurative and that the masks they wear really do have special powers.  For a while I thought that the stories about goblins stealing children and turning them into goblins were just fear-mongering rumors but apparently some human children really are turned into goblins although I'm still unclear on the why.  Several events that could have had a big emotional impact didn't because I barely knew the characters involved and had little context for what was happening.  I loved the ideas, characters, and setting, but I wish they had been more fully developed.

Every book its reader:  While I love immersing myself in a world and wading through rich details, many people will probably enjoy the fast-pace that frustrated me so much.  If you're looking for a fast-paced adventure set in an imaginative fantasy world, then look no farther.  Fans of the theatre will especially enjoy all the references to the trade.  I'd give it to 4th grade and up.


There's a website for the book where you can make your own mask.

William Alexander has a website cleverly separated into graphy (blog), bibliography, biography, and webography

The National Book Foundation has a page for the book with videos from the ceremony from the year Goblin Secrets won the National Book Award for young people's literature.

You can find the author reading an excerpt on YouTube:

Bonus Quotes:

“Our selves are are rough and unrehearsed tales we tell the world.”

“Backstage was chaos distilled into a very small space.”

Source: school library

Goblin Secrets by William Alexander: buy it or check it out today!

Friday, February 21, 2014

Useless Adult Syndrome

I recently read an excellent post on a blog that I've enjoyed reading for years.  It got me thinking about a problem I've often complained about that I refer to as "Useless Adult Syndrome."  Elizabeth Burns makes an excellent point about teen books being for teens and not adults wanting to see themselves appear as saviors in a YA story.  I agree that if you're reading Harry Potter or the Hunger Games and wondering why a bunch of children and teens are waging war instead of leaving it to adults, then you are missing the point.  I'm not talking about Harry Potter and the Hunger Games when I complain of Useless Adult Syndrome though.  Both stories have examples of adults that are useless: the Dursleys and Katniss's mother are not exactly parental role models.  But, and this is the key, they are not just useless adults.  They are characters with a bit of depth to them and have reasons for acting the way they do.  Additionally, not all the adults are useless.  Both series have adults that help the young protagonists out while allowing them to take center stage.  It is possible to write stories for kids and teens that are engaging, empowering to youth, and still have well-rounded adult characters.

I don't necessarily mind books where adults are mostly absent.  I joke about the orphan trope, but I can understand why an author would want to get adults out of the way so the children can have their own adventures.  What really annoys me is when there are adult characters and they are universally and unrealistically incompetent, cruel, or just generally useless.

My main problem with this isn't that it sets a bad example or that I'm unsuccessfully looking for a mirror (It's been less than a decade since I was a teenager and I'm still more likely to identify with the teens than the parents.)  My main problem with Useless Adult Syndrome is just that it's sloppy writing.  I complain about two dimensional characters whether they are leads or supports, children or adults, protagonists or villains.  I don't expect every character to be introduced with an exposition-heavy personal history to contextualize their actions.  I do expect every character to make decisions that make sense for that character. If I can't discern a reason a character is acting a certain way other than that it moves the plot along or is convenient for the author, then that is plain bad writing.

The reason I have a name for when this happens to adult characters specifically is because it happens to adults so often.  This is a problem.  Whenever any group of people is routinely portrayed as two dimensional and written off in a certain genre or type of media, it is a problem.  Yes, teens often don't understand adults.  That doesn't give authors of teen fiction free license to ignore them.  If anything it gives them more reason to provide well-rounded adults. Part of the power of fiction is that it allows us to understand each other better.

I admit that part of what annoys me so much about Useless Adult Syndrome is that I want the books that my students read to show them that even if some adults are absent and incompetent, there are also adults who can help them--especially if this is not what they feel to be their reality.  That is why I love books like Bluefish where even though the main characters have parents that are mostly not dependable there are other adults that are helpful.  Bluefish also does an excellent job portraying all of its characters as three dimensional.

I can see why the portrayal of adult characters wouldn't be a concern for a teen reader, but it is a concern for me.  Teen appeal is a very important part of what books I acquire for my library, but it is far from the only consideration.  Several of these factors are not things an average teenager would consider, such as the representation of people of color, whether or not a book ties into the curriculum, and what other similar books we have in the collection.  Yet I feel completely justified in using these criteria. I appreciate reviews that mention these factors as part of a larger review including whether or not a book is appealing to teens because they help me decide what to order.

I'm not saying all books without well-rounded adult characters are awful.  I've enjoyed many books without notable adult characters.  I've even enjoyed and recommended some books that are afflicted with Usesless Adult Syndrome.  Individual titles are not the problem.  The trend across the juvenile and YA genres is.

I'm thankful to Elizabeth Burns for starting a discussion about this topic.  This post was inspired by hers, but is not an argument against it. I think we may agree on several points and I have nothing but respect for her. Still, as one of those adults who reads teens fiction and complains about the adult characters, I felt the need to speak up.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

The Girl With Borrowed Wings Review

The Girl With Borrowed Wings

Book talk: Have you ever wished that you had wings?  Have you ever imagined what it would be like to be able to fly away any time that you wanted, and go anywhere you wished?  Frenenqer has been many places and lived in many countries, but she has never felt free.  Even when her father's not there Frenenqer can feel the pressure of his expectations like a tug on her spine leading her wherever he wants her to go.  So she contents herself with small rebellions like reading books and dreaming of wings while she's trapped in her bedroom in the middle of the desert.  She never thought that she could escape her father until she met a Free person.  Regular laws of the universe do not apply to Free people.  They can shape shift into anything they want and fly all over this world and others.  The moment Frenenqer meets Sangris, she knows that he will only lead to trouble and that her father would want her to turn him away.  But she can't resist the temptation of his wings. For once she ignores the tug on her spine and doesn't do what her father would want, whatever the consequences may be.  

Rocks my socks:  This book has everything that I love in a novel: foreign countries, bookish protagonists, themes of independence and individualism, an "interestingly wicked" love interest,  talking cats, and heaping helpings of sass!  I don't think I could have crafted a book that was better suited to my tastes.  I enjoyed hearing about all the countries Frenenqer had lived in, her best friend was charmingly quirky and supportive, and I love the way she grew over the course of the novel so that she could embrace who she is and stand up for herself.  Her father was the most disturbing antagonist I've seen in a long time as he controlled his household and psychologically abused his wife and daughter.  The man/cat on the other hand was absolutely delightful as he wooed Frenenqer and waited for her to be able to return his affections while patiently enduring her sarcastic barbs.  He reminds me a bit of Spike in the later seasons of Buffy.  I absolutely devoured this book and enjoyed myself immensely while doing so.

Rocks in my socks:  zip

Every book its reader:  I'd give this to urban fantasy fans and those who enjoy books about other cultures.  Fans of literary bad boys will particularly enjoy Sangris.  The romance is pretty conservative and there's little violence although the scenes that describe the emotional abuse Frenenqer receives can be disturbing.  I'd say it's fine for 6th grade and up.


Rinsai Rossetti has a website

Source: school library

The Girl With Borrowed Wings by Rinsai Rossetti: buy it or check it out today!