Monday, April 27, 2015

Brown Girl Dreaming Review

Brown Girl Dreaming

Book talk: I'd just read some of the poems aloud.  No description of this book can sell it half as well as a sample from it.  

Rave:  It's hard to write anything about this book that will do it justice.  On the surface it's a memoir about an African American author growing up during the Civil Rights Movement.  But it's not really about any one thing just as a person's life isn't about any one thing.  There are parts about her family, her struggles with learning to read, and how she eventually found her voice as an author. The poems taken together tell a coherent story of her life, but they could just as easily be read separately and stand on their own.  The things Woodson chooses to describe are just as interesting as the way she chooses to describe them.  Above all the language is simply gorgeous.  I'd read about anything and enjoy it if done with this level of beauty and skill.

Every book its reader:  I'd give this to fans of poetry and aspiring authors as well as anyone looking for a story that takes place during the Civil Rights Movement.

Topics, Themes, and Trends: Diversity, Poetry, Authors, Writing, Reading difficulties, The Civil Rights Movement


You can learn lots of fun facts about Woodson over at her website including "I can only write with my notebook turned sideways. When I was a kid, I wrote with it turned upside down." and
"I know the lyrics to about a thousand bad songs from the 1970s, including songs from tv commercials and television shows."

Bonus Quotes:

“I believe in one day and someday and this perfect moment called Now.”

“Even the silence
has a story to tell you.
Just listen. Listen.”

"The empty swing set reminds us of this--
that bad won't be bad forever,
and what is good can sometimes last
a long, long time.”

"My mother has a gap between
her two front teeth. So does Daddy Gunnar.
Each child in this family has the same space
connecting us."

"On paper, things can live forever.
On paper, a butterfly
never dies."

Source: ebook from the public library

Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson: buy it or check it out today!

Sunday, April 5, 2015

The Night Gardener Review

The Night Gardener

Book talk:
"On this March-morning-that-felt-like-October, a horse and cart rattled down the road. It was a fish cart with a broken back wheel and no fish. riding atop the bench were two children, a girl and a boy, both with striking red hair. The girl was named Molly, and the boy, her brother, was Kip. And they were riding to their deaths."

When the Great Famine drives them out of Ireland and separates them from their parents, Molly and Kip are forced to take whatever work they can find.  At first Molly is relieved to find a placement for both of them at a house in the English countryside.  But her relief quickly turns to suspicion when the locals refuse to point her in the direction of the sourwoods where the mansion is located.  From the moment Molly lays eyes on the estate where she is to live and work she can tell that something isn't right:

"At the far end of the lawn stood the Windsor mansion. The house had obviously been left vacant for some years, and in that time it seemed to have become one with the landscape. Weeds swallowed the base. Ivy choked the walls and windows. The roof was sagging and covered in black moss. But strangest of all was the tree. The tree was enormous and looked very, very old. Most trees cast an air of quiet dignity over their surroundings. This one did not. Most trees invite you to climb up into their canopy. This one did not. Most trees make you want to carve your initials into the trunk. This one did not. To stand in the shadow of this tree was to feel a chill run through your whole body."

Soon Molly learns of the strange visitor that always comes at night and leaves muddy footprints behind.  She can tell that the family who lives there knows more about it than they let on, but stranded in the countryside with her brother and nowhere else to go she has little choice but to stay or face homelessness and starvation.  As she uncovers more of the mansion's secrets she starts to think that no home would be far better than one haunted by the Night Gardener--if only she can make it out alive.  

This book is deliciously atmospheric in the style of the very best Gothic literature.  Everything is a little off from the beginning and the sense of unease grows steadily as the story progresses.  The final reveal of what holds the family in thrall to the Night Gardener and keeps them there is insidious and brilliant not to mention an excellent moral.  On top of all the top notch fantastic elements it's a great work of historical fiction.  The author explains in a note at the end that he is married to a Victorian scholar which means he spends a lot of time "learning interesting facts about the nineteenth century--and by interesting I mean horrifying."  He finds great ways to work these real-life horrifying facts in among all the fantasy horror elements.

Molly is a first rate protagonist both in her bravery and in her story-telling abilities.  A lot of the book deals with this issue of how to tell a good story and the difference between fiction and lies.  There's even a character who makes her living as a storyteller.  Auxier himself choose his words carefully and is great at weaving truths and lessons into his fiction, for example Kip uses a crutch which his Dad names Courage  "saying that all good tools deserved a good title. Kip had always liked the idea that courage was a thing a person could hold on to and use.”

Every book its reader:  I'd give this to students looking for a good scary story and aspiring storytellers.  Obviously some kids can handle horror better than others but for students that like to be frightened I'd say it's fine for 4th grade and up.

Themes, Topics, & Trends: Victorian Era, Great Famine, Horror, Stories and Storytellers, Greed, Dark, Atmospheric, Diversity (physical ability)


You can find a soundtrack for the book over at Jonathan Auxier's site

Bonus Quotes:

"A story helps folks face the world, even when it frightens ‘em. And a lie does the opposite. it helps you to hide."

"It’s a bad tale that tells all the answers."

“Stories come in all different kinds...There's tales, which are light and fluffy. Good for a smile on a sad day. Then you got yarns, which are showy--yarns reveal more about the teller than the story. After that there's myths, which are stories made up by whole groups of people. And last of all, there's legends...Legends are different from the rest on account no one knows where they start. Folks don't tell legends; they repeat them. Over and over again through history.”

Source: ebook from public library

The Night Gardener by Jonathan Auxier: buy it or check it out today!

Sunday, March 8, 2015

School Library Journal's 2015 Battle of the Books

I always love following School Library Journal's battle of the books, but this is the first year I got my act together in time to read all the books before the judging began.  I made it in just under the deadline with the first round posted tomorrow and my final 3 books finished this weekend.  To see the brackets yourself and follow along, check out the official Battle of the Books blog.  I haven't had time to write reviews of them all, but here's how I hope the battles will go down.  Be warned: in order to discuss why I chose each book I have to occasionally venture into spoiler territory.  

The Children of the KingBrown Girl Dreaming
Brown Girl Dreaming V. Children of the King
Both of these books are beautifully written and have wonderful examples of figurative language in particular.  When it comes down to it though, I read stories for the characters, and while I was completely absorbed by Jacqueline Woodson's story I didn't really care about the characters in Children of the King.  I found the plot of Children of the King rather meandering as well and I will confess to an anti-ghost bias.   This one is no contest for me: Brown Girl Dreaming.

The CrossoverEgg & Spoon

The Crossover V. Egg & Spoon
I don't think I have ever seen a full basketball game in my life and most of my memories of the sport involve getting smacked full in the face with the ball.  And yet I loved Crossover.  It had me laughing and crying and caught up in the movement of the words.  On the other hand Baba Yaga is one of my favorite folk characters so I thought I would love Egg & Spoon, but it felt more like an American story that just happened to take place in Russia than a truly Russian story (for one thing all the names made sense--and what's a Russian story without puzzling out the dozen names everyone seems to have?) I did not like the way Baba Yaga was portrayed at all.  Make her evil or make her a misunderstood grandma but don't make her a pathetic creature rattling off unfunny jokes full of references to everything but Russia.  Her knowledge of modern pop culture is never really explained and while we are probably supposed to assume that she has powers to see the future or even time travel it felt like she was just an excuse for Maguire to make jokes he otherwise wouldn't have been able to.  Besides if she did have all that power why should she have to go to the Tsar to solve a problem with magic?  He didn't help and I'm not sure why she thought he would except that Maguire needed a way to get Cat to St. Petersburg.  Nothing Baba Yaga did made any sense except as a way to move the plot along. There were some great lines in Egg & Spoon and I enjoyed aspects of it, but let's break the Newbery curse and move The Crossover to the next round.

The Family Romanov: Murder, Rebellion, and the Fall of Imperial RussiaEl Deafo
El Deafo V. The Family Romanov
This one is much harder than the previous two matches.  El Deafo is adored by my students and I can see why.  I love everything about this comic from the creative ways Bell depicts concepts like words fading away to the frank way she discusses her hopes and fears and pulls it all off with a light touch.  The Family Romanov  was also excellent and made sense of so much of the Russian history I had glimpsed through novels.  It read almost like a novel and I eagerly followed the characters along as I nervously awaited what I knew would be a bad ending.  I particularly appreciated the way Fleming sprinkled in portrayals of the lives of common Russian citizens during the era and her balanced way of pointing out everyone's flaws as well as their strengths.  I can find no fault with either of them, but for the way El Deafo made one of my students light up in a way that no other book has been able to, I need to pick it.  

The Key That Swallowed Joey Pigza (Joey Pigza, #5)Grasshopper Jungle
Grasshopper Jungle V. The Key That Swallowed Joey Pigza
My decision for this match will not come as a surprise to anyone in my book club who had to listen to me ranting about it at our January meeting.  I really wanted to like this book.  It's so rare to see bisexual characters in literature or any character struggling with their orientation.  But I could not stand Austin.  He's a complete jerk to everyone but especially his girlfriend and he still ends up with everything he wants without seeming to have learned any lesson. Of course we weren't made to feel much sympathy for the other characters because they were all so paper thin that they barely existed--especially the female characters whose main purpose was to make the male characters horny. The only thing that kept me from throwing the book across the room after the 100th time he pointed out he was horny was the fact that I was reading it on my Kobo.  Yes.  Austin is a horny teenager.  We get the point.  It was like a procrastinating student standing at a pencil sharpener grinding away for so long that eventually the pencil is worn to nothing but a point that is no longer even effective for its intended purpose.  I haven't read any of the other Joey Pigza books so I found The Key That Swallowed Joey Pigza a bit confusing but it still beats Grasshopper Jungle as easy as pizza pie.  

Poisoned Apples: Poems for You, My PrettyThe Madman of Piney Woods
The Madman of Piney Woods V. Poisoned Apples
I confess to being a bit confused at the start of this novel because I have a tendency to skip over chapter titles and headings when I get caught up in a story and Christopher Paul Curtis always hooks me in from the start.  As a result it took me a few chapters before I realized that the story was alternating between different perspectives.  That is my own fault though and I can hardly hold it against this excellent story.  Once again Curtis created fully realized characters in a fascinating historical stetting with a plot that has space for both humorous hi-jinks and touching life lessons.  Poisoned Apples has some excellent messages as well involving feminism and body image.  I am 100% behind the messages in her poems and the creative ways she uses fairy tales to describe the plight of modern teenage girls.  The pictures were haunting and lovely.  Still while I loved the ideas behind the poems I wasn't particularly impressed with her use of language.  There weren't any examples of that magical type of poem that says something so perfectly I can never think of that idea or feeling without its words springing to mind.  Perhaps that's a tall order and it's a highly subjective criteria but I have to decide this battle somehow and it's enough for me to give this match's victory to The Madman of Piney Woods.

The Port Chicago 50: Disaster, Mutiny, and the Fight for Civil RightsThe Story of Owen (Dragon Slayer of Trondheim, #1)
The Port Chicago 50 V. The Story of Owen
I had never heard of the Port Chicago 50 before despite it being local history for me.  I'm glad the contest gave me an excuse to read this book because it was a fascinating albeit upsetting read.  Sheinkin did a wonderful job pulling together first person accounts so the reader could get a sense of what it must have been like to go through what they did. The Story of Owen was just fantastic and I have nothing bad to say about it.  Troubadours, dragons, a boy/girl friendship that doesn't turn into a romance: what more could I ask for from a novel?  Plus I love the alternate history aspect of it and how dragon slaying was retrofitted into explanations for everything from major historical events to Lady Gaga and The Beatles.  I found Port Chicago fascinating but not gripping and it took me a few weeks to get through whereas I finished The Story of Owen in one sitting. I enjoyed both, but this round is going to Owen.

This One SummerA Volcano Beneath the Snow: John Brown's War Against Slavery
This One Summer V. A Volcano Beneath the Snow
I appreciate the honesty of This One Summer and I think it's an excellent slice-of-life story.  The artwork was well-drawn and I can see why so many people like it.  It's not my cup of tea though.  I prefer more creative uses of panels and artwork in my comics (like in El Deafo) and this one was pretty straight-forward realistic.  I understand that it's supposed to be a slice of life but in the end I just thought "was that all?"  The characters were well rounded and relatable and there were several touching moments but it didn't stay with me.  It took me several sittings to finish and considering how short it is that's saying something.  I finished A Volcano Beneath the Snow in one sitting but that's mostly because I was running out of time to finish all the contenders before the official judging began.  I enjoyed reading all the context provided and I feel like I got a far better understanding of the period from this book than I did from my AP US history class back in school.  I found the chapter explaining the history of the slave trade particularly illuminating and well-written.  I wish Marrin had delved deeper into John Brown's legacy on modern history though.  Still, if my worst complaint is that he left me wanting more then he certainly deserves to win this match.  

West of the MoonWe Were Liars
West of the Moon V. We Were Liars
I have a soft spot for fairy tales retold and I was glad to see a book that explored a less well-known source of folklore in West of the Moon.  I liked the way Preus wove fairy tales and history together with Astri making sense of her upturned life by using the stories she knows so well.  The story was unique and gripping although I'm not sure who I'd give it to.  The plot and characters feel like they'd appeal most to younger grades but the complex language and the 'goatman' make me think it's better suited to older grades.   I still haven't entirely forgiven We Were Liars for differing so wildly from my expectations.  I read it in one sitting and really enjoyed the experience, right up until the climax came out of nowhere to completely shatter me emotionally at a time when I desperately needed a pick-me-up.  Besides, as I previously stated I have a thing about ghosts--especially in otherwise realistic stories.  I think I would have liked it much better if I was prepared for a tear-jerker, but my vote is  still for West of the Moon.  

So that's how I hope round one will work out.  One of the great things about books though is how they're a completely different experience for every reader.  I'm sure other people will feel differently about the contenders and I look forward to seeing what everyone else thinks. For one last summary of my votes:
Brown Girl Dreaming
The Crossover
El Deafo
The Key That Swallowed Joey Pigza
The Madman of Piney Woods
The Story of Owen
A Volcano Beneath the Snow
West of the Moon

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Absolutely Almost Review

Absolutely Almost

Book talk: Albie has always been an 'almost'.  No matter how hard he tries his work is only ever almost good enough.  So he wasn't surprised when he found out that he was only almost good enough for his private school and he had to leave it for a public one.  That means no more school with his best friend, one in a set of two triplets whose family is now starring in their own reality TV show.  But Albie is starting to make new friends at his new school and they have a special math club there that is way better than sitting through regular math class.  Perhaps this new school year will be better after all. Or perhaps it will just turn out to be another 'almost.'

Rave:  I love how heartfelt this novel is without ever becoming saccharine (unless you count all the doughnut references.) I also like that it's a slice of life without any false climax or easy resolution.  Everything about the novel from the way the characters are drawn to the way events plays out seemed realistic to me except perhaps for how awesome his babysitter is but these flukes do happen.  Let me talk for a minute about the babysitter and the way she gets Albie to take his mind of his problems by making a cardboard tv and remote for him that she places in front of the window.  The math club teacher was another favorite of mine with his proclivity for puns ("Why didn’t the quarter roll down the hill with the nickel?...Because it had more cents") Albie's friends, both the camera-shy reality tv star and the new friend he makes, are great characters too.  The way the model airplane pictured on the cover becomes a physical manifestation of his relationship with his dad is at turns clever, heartbreaking, and hopeful.  The book is full of great characters, memorable small moments, and valuable life lessons.  If you're looking for a realistic school story this is an excellent choice.

Every book its reader:  Albie is in 5th grade but he reads as younger and I'd say it's fine for younger kids curious about older grades.  It would make a great class read-aloud because it's fairly fast paced and easy to understand with plenty of humor but brings up a lot of great discussion points

Bait & Hooks:  
puns, protagonist of color (Albie is half Korean, half Swiss), humor, school story, superstar teacher, learning differences, inspiring artist, bullying, baked goods


Lisa Graff has a great page for the book with interviews, reading guides, and further reading suggestions.

Source: ebook from public library

Absolutely Almost by Lisa Graff: buy it or check it out today!

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Salvage Review


Book talk:  Ava dreams of Earth, but she has never set foot on solid land.  She lives on a Crewe ship where everyone knows their place and there's plenty of work to do.  She longs to learn how to fix things or go down to Earth, but that's men's work.  Women have their own work like tending animals and children or cooking and doing laundry.  The other women tell her that the longing for Earth and other things she can't have will go away once she gets married and starts having children.  As the captain's daughter the odds are good she'll make a fine match--maybe even as a first wife.  But just when everything seems to be coming together disaster strikes, and she has to flee everything she has ever known for the perils of a life on land.  

Rave: How could I not be intrigued by the premise of polygamists in space?  Reading about this society with its mythology and social constructs was fascinating in and of itself.  And that's just the beginning of the fully developed settings Ava lives in. For a while she lives with a single mom in a house on stilts over a giant mass of garbage in the Pacific Ocean and later she spends a good deal of time in India both in the slums and a posh suburb.  Being able to compare and contrast these very different settings and the characters that populate them was one of my favorite parts of reading the novel.  The characters are as richly layered and diverse as the settings and had a way of staying with me.  The overall effect reminded me of the TV show Firefly.  It's set in the future and largely in space and there are aspects that are advanced and shiny but a lot of it is gritty and hasn't changed much from today.  Moreover I loved the unconventional way romance is dealt with in the novel and how long it takes for Ava to come to terms with her past.  Character growth is slow and there are no magic wands to fix her problems (which just keep coming at alarming speed.)

Every book its reader:  I'd give this to fans of gritty space dramas like Firefly and readers drawn to rich settings with well-rounded characters.  The romance gets pretty intense especially at the beginning of the novel and there's a fair amount of violence and disturbing situations Ava finds herself in.  I'd say it's best for 8th grade and up.

Bait & hooks: outer space, competent adults, feminism, protagonist of color, economic diversity, set in a foreign country (India), moral ambiguity, strong characters, strong world building, gritty setting, unconventional romance


Alexandra Duncan has her own website subtitled "Science Fiction. Fantasy. Feminism." love it!

Source: ebook from public library

Salvage by Alexandra Duncan: buy it or check it out today!

Friday, November 28, 2014

The Different Girl Review

The Different Girl

Book talk: Veronika, Caroline, Isobel, and Eleanor have lived on a deserted island for as long as they can remember.  The four girls do everything together and look identical except for their hair color.   Irene and Robbert tell them that their parents all died in a plane crash and do their best to take care of them and provide them with an education.  Despite their tragic circumstances they live a relatively happy and normal life.  Or at least that's what they always believed.  Then one day a very different girl appears on the island who makes them question everything.

I know the language will turn a lot of people off but I absolutely love books that are written in a stylized way or in dialect.  The story is narrated by Veronika and her inability to understand figures of speech and use metaphor is part of what is so intriguing about her character and what makes the narrative so unique.  Her limited knowledge and belief that she is normal creates a delicious tension as little hints are dropped which left me constantly guessing and trying to extrapolate to figure out what was going on.  It's clear from the beginning that something is off both with the world at large and these girls particularly but exactly what is never entirely revealed--even at the end.  It's wonderfully atmospheric and combine that with the science fiction angle and it reminded me of The Twilight Zone.  It makes perfect sense that Veronika talks the way she does and even though it does feel stiff and strange it is hauntingly poetic at times.  What starts as a quiet, introspective novel turns into a tense thriller as the novel approaches its climax and the stakes are raised.  This is not your average YA dystopian thriller.  It is something quiet different and wonderfully refreshing.


Every book its reader:  
Fans of psychological science fiction like the Twilight Zone will love this story.  The difficult language will draw some in and turn others off.  Read the first chapter to get an idea of whether or not you'll like it or see the quotes below for a taste.  Content wise I'd say it's fine for 5th grade but the writing style makes it more likely to be enjoyed by teens.  

Bonus Quotes:

“I hope what I’m telling is what really happened, because if it isn’t--if I’ve forgotten things or lost them--then I’ve lost part of myself. I’m not sure how old I am, mainly because there are so many different ways to tell time--one way with clocks and watches and sunsets, or other ways with how many times a person laughs, or what they forget, or how they change their minds about what they care about, or why, or whom.”

“But we learned she was listening to how we said things, not what, and to what we didn’t talk about as much as what we did. Which was how we realized that a difference between could and did was a thing all by itself, separate from either one alone, and that we were being taught about things that were invisible.’

“I didn’t like everyone looking at me like I was different--because their looking made me different--"

“Her absence extended in lines of numbers made of smoke, backward in memory and forward in futures never to occur.”

Source: ebook from public library

The Different Girl by Gordon Dahlquist: buy it or check it out today!

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

After the End Review

After the End (After the End #1)

Book talk:  When World War III ravaged the world a small group managed to survive in the remote Alaskan wilderness. Juneau is one of the children of these survivors and has learned how to live off the land and tap into the heart of nature to work magic. When her tribe is taken while she's out hunting she ventures out of the safe zone for the first time and what she discovers shakes her to the very core: a whole city, completely untouched. Is everything she was ever told a lie? But her tribe is still missing and she must find them. Now she has to survive in an environment she is completely unprepared for in a world where she has no idea whom to trust.

Rave:  This story is told in the alternating perspectives of Juneau and Miles.  Plum does a great job making Miles unlikable at first.  She contrasts the serious problems Juneau is dealing with to Miles's melodramatic reaction to having to work in a mail room after being caught cheating on a test.  When Juneau first meets him she sizes him up with the quip "a fortunate life, unfortunately for the rest of the world."  At first Miles just plays along with her so he can earn points with his dad for turning her in but as anyone who's ever watched a high school rom-com will be able to predict he soon starts to fall for her.  Despite being a bit cheesy it's nice to watch him gain empathy for Juneau and start to grow as a person and expand his world view (although it would be nice if he could have had empathy for someone without having to fall for them first.)  The pacing is quick and fans of Katniss will enjoy the capable Juneau.  An added supernatural element as Juneau works her nature-based magic will draw additional fans as will Juneau's pets including dogs and a wild bird.  

At one point Miles says "Suddenly, and randomly, I have this flashback to history class, when we learned about how afraid the Native Americans were when they saw the European explorers’ rifles for the first time, calling them magical ‘fire sticks.’" Juneau's group also refers to shoes as 'moccasins' but has no stated connection to any native peoples.  I found it odd and problematic to have these brought up without any commentary or other mention of native peoples.

Juneau uses homeless individuals as a conduit for her magic and I have torn feelings about it.  On the one hand it's clear that Juneau treats them with kindness, values their help, and is saddened by the way society treats them.  On the other hand the author always depicts them as insane, alcoholic, or both: “A hat sits in front of him with coins inside, and empty metal cans with BEER printed on them are scattered around him. I approach. His odor is pungent. Rancid.”

One final warning that the book ends on a complete cliff hanger.  Plum easily could have ended the book a chapter or so earlier and left on a good note while still leaving curiosity over the sequel.  Instead she chose to go on so that it would end on the most dramatic scene possible.

Every book its reader:  I'd recommend this to fans of supernatural and survival stories.


Amy Plum has plenty of extras on her site including a guide to post apocalyptic fashion and interviews with herself and her characters.

Source: ebook from public library

After the End by Amy Plum: buy it or check it out today!