Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Review: Not Otherwise Specified

Not Otherwise Specified
By Hannah Moskowitz
Expected publication March 3, 2015 by Simon Pulse

Etta doesn't exactly fit in any of the boxes people want to put her. She longs to find a place where she belongs, but she's pretty sure it's somewhere in New York City, not small-town Nebraska. She's finally trying to be an Etta that she likes, but she's not sure if anyone else will like this version of Etta. Then she meets Bianca. Could she help Etta live up to her potential? Or does Bianca need saving of her own?

I was thrilled when I discovered this book. I've read a couple of Moskowitz's previous titles and really enjoyed them, so I was first simply excited to discover a new book by her. Then I read the description and became even more excited. Etta is a black, bisexual, recovering anorexic ballerina. THANK YOU, HANNAH MOSKOWITZ, FOR WRITING A CHARACTER LIKE ETTA!

Now, excited as I was, that doesn't mean I didn't struggle with this book. Because, honestly, I really did. Until probably halfway through, I struggled. And it's because of Etta's voice. I don't think this is really a criticism, though. Etta rambles. She jumps from one thought to another at the speed of light. She's bold and also unsure of herself. She wants to fit in but she wants to find out who she's really meant to be. Moskowitz has created such a unique voice with Etta; I just struggled to keep up with her. Once I finally just let myself get lost in her rambles and stopped trying to follow them word for word, things were much easier for me. And then I just got lost in the story.

I loved that Moskowitz was unafraid to create a character that is all the things Etta is - black, bisexual, ballerina, recovering from an eating disorder - and more. I think a lot of times, authors would be afraid of the dreaded "trying to cram too much into one book" criticism. Yes, there is a lot going on here. But I can't imagine Etta without all these pieces. People are complicated. They're not just one thing. They are also not strictly defined by their labels, an argument which Etta makes repeatedly throughout this book. I think this will really resonate with teen readers - it certainly made me think about the ways I label myself and how perhaps I should be more cognizant of my personal associations with labels.

While I think Etta is a phenomenal character who is greater than the sum of her parts, it is difficult for me not to focus on one part in particular, simply because it's the part to which I most relate. I don't think it's a stretch to say that bisexuality is almost an invisible identity. We don't see a lot of bisexual characters in books or in media, and when we do, they often play into stereotypes about bisexual people. I loved how perfectly Etta addressed the struggle of identifying as bisexual - not gay enough but not straight enough either. A traitor no matter who you end up with. If you're a bisexual woman and you end up marrying a man, will you still be accepted by the queer community? For that matter, do you have to shut off half your identity when you choose a life partner? Etta's struggle as a bisexually-identified person is not emphasized more than any of her other struggles; it's just the one that I felt the most deeply.

As for the story itself, it's a great look at the complicated intricacies of friendship and how one is a good friend without losing their own identity. While I think the plot mostly plays out pretty predictably, the ride is so enjoyable that I didn't mind at all. Another great book from Moskowitz, which once again leaves me waiting for more.

Thanks to the publisher for a digital advance reader's copy, provided via Edelweiss.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Review: The Memory Key

The Memory Key
By Liana Liu
Expected publication March 3, 2015 by HarperTeen

A heroic incident causes damage to Lora's memory key and she starts remembering things she never has before. These new memories seem to suggest that something other than a car accident happened to her mother, that perhaps it wasn't an accident after all. Now, Lora will stop at nothing to uncover the truth, no matter how dangerous it may be.

Sometimes I think I read too much speculative fiction. Sometimes I wonder if that makes me too picky about my speculative fiction particularly for middle-grade or teen audiences. And sometimes I wonder if that makes me dislike books that I might not otherwise have problems with or if the books just sometimes aren't that good.

Obviously, I know that not all books are winners. But let's take this book. This is a book that I wonder if I might have enjoyed more if I didn't read quite so much speculative fiction. It's got an interesting premise: set in a future version of our world overrun with an Alzheimer's-like disease, people are implanted with memory keys which help them retain all their memories. Science such as this leads to interesting questions about privacy - where are those memories being stored? Who has access to them? Who decides if and when a memory should be altered? Would we really want to allow the government or a private corporation access to our brains like this?

Aside from these interesting questions, though, this book doesn't have much going for it, at least not to my speculative fiction-addled brain. Though it's clear this book is set in the future, there is very minimal world-building. Readers are given the basics of the Vergets epidemic and the history of the scientists working to combat it. But the setting is very vague otherwise - how far in the future are we looking? I'm pretty sure it takes place in the United States, but I'm not sure of anything more specific than that.

And then there's Lora. For much of the book, I found her unbelievable and flat. Her reactions to the incredible situations she keeps finding herself in don't seem reasonable. She seems to have very little emotional affect - even when describing a previous crush or an embarrassing moment, she seems distanced from any actual emotions that would be connected to these memories. Worse, even her descriptions of the grief she feels at losing her mother felt flat for me. In addition, her reactions don't seem normal. When her memory key begins to malfunction, she doesn't seem overly concerned. Liu tells me that she's so happy to have memories of her mother that she ignores the urge to fix her key, but she doesn't show me in ways that make me believe her. Lora also seems to have very little sense of logic; her investigations into her new memories and her mother's accident seem haphazard at best, if not just plain lucky.

Because of Lora's flat affect, the romance completely bombed for me. It felt both unnecessary and disingenuous. The twist also wasn't as compelling for me for the same reason. All of these bits add up to a book that I found flawed and uninteresting. I wonder, though, if I didn't read so much excellent speculative fiction if I would have noticed some of these things as much. There are some good action sequences in the book, and it moves along relatively well. Other readers might not see the twists coming, either. Ultimately, this one just didn't really work for me.

Thanks to the publisher for a digital advance reader's copy, provided via Edelweiss.

Monday, March 2, 2015

February Check-In

It's the start of March, so once again, it's time to look back at what I read for the previous month!

Early-chapter: 0

Middle-grade: 8

Teen: 8

Adult: 5

Picture books: 15

Library books: 24

Books owned: 12

A pretty good month, I think, with 21 total novels. I didn't think I was going to read that money - February got off to a slow start - but I guess I kicked it into gear later in the month. I don't know how March will go - I have a pretty wonky work schedule due to some programming and projects, plus I have a few doctor appointments (just routine check-ups) and some major wedding stuff (first dress fitting and our engagement photos!). Hopefully I'll be able to maintain the pace I'm at, but we'll see how it goes!

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Fall Program Recap: Winnie the Pooh Party

When my coworker mentioned the idea of a Winnie the Pooh program, I eagerly signed up to help. How could I not? I love Winnie and his friends and I knew we could come up with some adorable fun for our patrons. Here's what we did!

Tigger tails: a very simple craft with brown construction paper strips as belts and orange construction paper strips attached as tails. Then we provided crayons for coloring on stripes. Voila! Your own Tigger tail. We even had the privilege of a life-size Tigger manning the station (our boss has a tiger costume). I loved seeing the Tigger tails running around the library after the program.

Best Friend picture frames: to represent Piglet, we had diecut foam picture frames that the kids could decorate. We provided a variety of stickers for decorations and magnets for the back of the frames. When they got home, all they had to do was put a picture of their best friend in the frame. They love anything with stickers.

Pooh masks: we pre-cut Winnie the Pooh masks and set them out, along with crayons and popsicle sticks. The kids could color the masks and then attach a stick and then pretend to be Pooh!

Rabbit's Garden: we filled our kiddie pool with beans and stuck in some apple and pumpkin diecut shapes. Once the kids dug through the garden and found a shape, they could turn it in for a delicious fruit snack. Probably the most popular station - the beans are always a big hit!

Obstacle course: we love to do obstacle courses in our programs because we can incorporate a variety of movements into one activity. For this course, the kids first had to flap their wings like Owl, then crawl like Gopher (there's the tunnel again!), and finally hop like Kanga and give Roo a big hug. Our teen volunteer stationed himself at the end of the course with a kangaroo puppet that we called Roo. It was adorable watching the kids make their way through and then shyly hug the puppet. They also got a stamp for participating.

Pin the Tail on Eeyore: I feel like this is a no-brainer! We made a big picture of Eeyore but left off his tail. Then we had the kids close their eyes (usually they are too young to be comfortable with blindfolds) and try to pin his tail on the right spot. Very simple and very adorable.

We had a lot of fun with Winnie the Pooh and friends and we think our patrons did, too!

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Picture Book Saturday

The Tooth Fairy Wars
By Kate Coombs, illustrated by Jake Parker
Published 2014 by Atheneum Books for Young Readers
Nathan has just lost his first tooth. Rather than surrender it to the tooth fairy, though, he'd like to hang on to it. Well, the Tooth Fairy is not okay with that plan. Thus begins the war. Who will win? My experience with tooth fairy books is small - I don't remember reading any as a kid and, not having children of my own, haven't seen much of a need to read them as an adult. This one is not your typical tooth fairy tale, so I wanted to check it out. It's an interesting story, but it ends pretty abruptly and some of the story will likely go over the heads of a preschool audience.

The Problem with Not Being Scared of Monsters
By Dan Richards, illustrated by Robert Neubecker
Published 2014 by Boyds Mills
 Hmm...I'm not remembering much about this one, though it seems like the story is right there in the title. I think it takes the notion of being afraid of monsters and turns it around. But obviously, there's nothing too spectacular about this one.

Baby Bedtime
By Mem Fox, illustrated by Emma Quay
Published 2014 by Beach Lane Books
This is a cute book, combining bedtime with declarations of baby love. The elephants are particularly adorable - the illustrations are perfect for a soothing bedtime story. I think this book would work really well in a baby or toddler bedtime storytime. It would also make a good baby shower gift, as it illuminates the love between a parent and child. A very sweet little book.

By Tracey Corderoy, illustrated by Tim Warnes
Published 2014 by Tiger Tales
A very curious rhino wants to know why. Why does toast make crumbs, why do dropped things smash, why. Even though I'm not a parent, this book rang true. I've seen many parents endlessly answer the questions why from their young children. I'm pretty sure I was one of those inquisitive children myself. I particularly enjoyed the questions that were obviously embarrassing to the little rhino's parents - I've witnessed quite a few of these interactions as well. I like the illustrations - they're bright and eye-catching. A cute and funny story.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Review: The Carnival at Bray

The Carnival at Bray
By Jessie Ann Foley
Published 2014 by Elephant Rock Productions, Inc.

When Maggie's mother remarries an Irishman, her life is uprooted to the Irish seaside village of Bray. Life gets even more chaotic when she falls in love and someone she cares about dies unexpectedly. Suddenly, Maggie embarks on a potentially reckless trip to Rome, embracing life over death.

As I imagine is true for a lot of people, I hadn't heard of this book before it was named a Morris Award finalist in December. I'm not sure it would have caught my eye otherwise, but I usually like to read the award winners (and finalists in the case of the Morris and Excellence in Non-fiction). My library didn't own a copy, so I requested it from another area library. It took a long time for my hold to come in, so I just got around to it on my last three-day weekend.

I'm not sure how I feel about this book. On the one hand, I was into the setting - unlike other historical fiction set in the late 1980s/early 1990s, it felt vital that the book be set in this time. Kurt Cobain's life (and death) serve as an important backdrop to Maggie's story. Though Maggie's musical tastes are specific, her feelings about music are universal, particularly to teenagers. I can remember being a teen and how vital music felt to me, how a song I liked could feel as if it was truly written for me. I can remember belting out lyrics to these songs and feeling them in every fiber of my being. That feeling - it really shines in this novel. Additionally, I loved the Irish setting - surprisingly, about halfway through the novel, I realized that I've been to Bray. I think Foley captured it, and County Wicklow in general, quite perfectly.

I also thought the characters were strong - Maggie was genuine and, as I said before, many of her feelings are universal. I thought her struggles with her family were believable and heartbreaking - I completely understand her confusion of emotions surrounding her mother and her undeniable love for her uncle. I really liked Dan Sean as well, and the role his character played in Maggie's story. I found Eoin's character to be the least well-developed; it's easy to see why Maggie falls for him, but I didn't really feel like I got to know him.

So, this is all pretty positive. Why did I say I'm not sure how I feel about it? Well, because, despite all this stuff I liked, I just have an overall feeling of "meh" about the book. Maybe it's the timing of my reading it - I flew through it in a day and a half, without giving it much deep thought. Or maybe I was just a bit underwhelmed with the ending. I didn't love that, after fighting so hard to live life on her own terms and find her one person, Maggie chooses the more responsible path, at least initially. It just didn't feel like her character at that point in the novel.

Overall, having read the Printz winner and one of the Honor books, I'm not sure, for me, that this book stands up on that level.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Review: Blood of My Blood

Blood of My Blood (Jasper Dent, book three)
By Barry Lyga
Published 2014 by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers

WARNING: Spoilers are likely ahead. Read my reviews of books one and two.

Jazz, Connie, and Howie are all in extremely unfortunate positions. Will they be able to rise above their current circumstances and stop the monster that is Billy Dent from destroying everything they love? Or will Jazz cross over to the dark side once and for all?

This was one of the books I was saddest about missing during my year of no library books. Book two ended with a huge cliffhanger, so I was full of anticipation for book three. It's the first library book (outside of Cybils reading and audiobooks) that I picked up in 2015, though actually finding time for its nearly 500 pages was another task altogether. But, it did not disappoint.

I'm not sure what I can say about this series or about Lyga that I haven't said before. He is completely unafraid to push the envelope, to take a book in a direction you don't really want it to go, to make his readers feel uncomfortable. I liked the twists and complications that arose. I liked that this book did make me quite uncomfortable at times - I think it's important to push boundaries. I liked that this book didn't back down from the level that Lyga had reached in the first two.

However, this book was probably my least favorite of the trilogy. At times, it felt a bit long and repetitive. Yes, Jazz is still questioning who he is and how far he will go, but it starts to feel a bit much as some point. The same could be said of Howie - while I thoroughly enjoyed him in the previous volumes, I was a bit sick of his schtick about midway through this one. I also don't think this book made me ask as many questions as the first two. The previous entries had me thinking big thoughts about identity and genetics and nature vs. nurture. This one still touches upon those ideas, but seems to focus more on horrifying the reader than on actually asking those questions.

Overall, though, I was still quite pleased with this conclusion to the trilogy. I still think Lyga is a daring author who I'll happily read whenever he publishes something new. I can't wait to see what he does next.