Thursday, June 30, 2011

Review: Get Well Soon

Get Well Soon
By Julie Halpern
Published 2007 by Feiwel & Friends

Having read Halpern's second novel and finding nothing at the library that caught my eye (in the 10 minutes I felt like browsing), I picked up this, her first novel. This is the story of Anna, who has been hospitalized for depression by her parents. There is an indication that much of this story is based on Halpern's own experiences. For me, having read a later novel of hers first, it's pretty clear that she is struggling to find her voice in this one. It feels a little frenetic and a little all over the place - but that could also be partly due to the situation that's taking place within the novel's pages. That being said, this book has its moments. Anna is a likable main character - she doesn't really understand why she's there or what's wrong with her but even she can admit that she hasn't felt right lately. I think she is someone a lot of teens could relate to. She struggles with her self-image and doesn't realize that it's okay to feel overwhelmed, but you should talk to someone about those feelings. There are moments of laugh-out-loud humor throughout the book - some of the situations that arise in a psych ward are just plain funny. There is a sweet building of friendship and romance and the book moves along at a good pace. A sweet and interesting read, but I preferred her other title.

Review: Evernight

By Claudia Gray
Published 2009 by HarperTeen

The last ALA preparation book that I managed to sneak in before I left for the conference, I was hesitant about this one. I knew it was about vampires. I have always loved vampires and the supernatural, but I don't think I'm alone in saying it's not hard to get burned out on teen supernatural novels nowadays. But I remember being intrigued by this when it first came out. I have to say - I didn't think it was possible for a vampire book to surprise me anymore. But I was wrong! About halfway through this one, I can honestly say I didn't see the vampires coming. I was totally surprised by the twist in this and thought it worked wonderfully. I don't think the world Gray has created with the vampires is necessarily all that original, so I'll be excited to see how the series progresses now that the big secret has been revealed. I think I like the secondary characters, like Bianca's parents, more than the primary ones so far. But Bianca is not nearly as boring or whiny as she could be and Lucas is a nice hero for her. I'll definitely be reading the next one in the series!

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Review: Shine, Coconut Moon

Shine, Coconut Moon
By Neesha Meminger
Published 2009 by Margaret K. McElderry

Oh, I so don't want to write this review. Because I feel terrible about it. Really. Truly. I feel bad about how I felt about this book. Meminger is another author that popped onto my radar because of the upcoming ALA conference. And I should preface this by saying that I actually wanted to read her other title (Jazz in Love) but couldn't find a copy at my local libraries. The premise of that book sounded more up my alley and had been well-reviewed on a book blog I follow (actually, they loved both of her titles). But I got this book instead. And I sort of wish I hadn't.

See, I really wanted to like this book. This feels like one of those "important" books - it takes place very shortly after September 11th and touches on many issues of xenophobia, race relations, and fitting in as a "brown" American after the attacks. It really seemed like good things should have been happening in this novel. BUT unfortunately, this novel is a big pile of crap. Sam is perhaps the worst female protagonist I have read in a long time. I understand she has some issues - she was raised by a single parent and her mother has cut her off from her extended family. But these pre-existing conditions, if you will, do not explain why Sam is totally unsympathetic to her mother's feelings, full of crazy mood swings, and a complete moron. Sam can best be described as reactionary - she takes every single happening and has an insanely overblown reaction to it - except for the things that she should be really reacting to. Oh, your boyfriend has turned into a semi-racist jerk who decides to stalk you after you dump him? Well, that's not as big of a deal as the fact that some girl you barely know called you a "coconut". In what world does that make sense? Not in mine. The main drive of this book is that Sam's estranged uncle Sandeep, a traditional Sikh man, reappears in her life after the terrorist attacks, compelling Sam to learn more about her Indian heritage. That is great - everyone should know about where they come from, I think. But Sam sort of gets obsessive and unreasonable - demanding her mother let her get in touch with her grandparents, who have clearly scarred Sam's mom in some way. The way Sam goes about learning her heritage is essentially through force and seems like the entirely wrong way to me. Additionally, I feel like Sam goes to the high school of the United Nations. This is an incredibly diverse school. I'm sure schools like this exist; they are just out of my realm of experience. However, what bothers me most about this is that I can tell how diverse this school is because of the names Meminger has given her characters. Every ethnic character has a name that matches their ethnicity. Now, I hope I'm not coming off wrong here by saying this. I understand that lots of people of color have names that represent their heritage. But I also know that lots of people of color have Biblical names, or European names, or names from other heritages. You would never know that from reading Meminger's novel. I don't know. It's just a small thing that, when added to every other terrible thing about this book, really bothered me. Finally, the ludicrous plot developments that occur. Sam's boyfriend, for example. And then the finale of the novel, Uncle Sandeep's accident. These things just seemed a bit much. I feel like the point Meminger was trying to make could have been accomplished without going to such extremes.

All in all, this novel was, for me, laughably bad. Poorly executed and flat, I felt terrible hating it because I wanted Meminger to do well. But I just think she failed.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Review: Lament

Lament: The Faerie Queen's Deception
By Maggie Stiefvater
Published 2008 by Flux

So I fell a little bit in love with Stiefvater when I saw a book trailer she had posted (here) on the web one day. Then I had friends raving about her werewolves. But, you know, life gets busy and I didn't get a chance to read her. Now, she is another of my ALA prep authors. I couldn't get my hands on a copy of Shiver in time (because I was looking at the libraries only) but I did manage to find this one, which I believe is her debut novel. This was a bit of a weird experience for me. I really wanted to like it because, as I said, I kind of have a crush on Stiefvater. But this book is weird. There is not a whole lot of explanation as to what's going on initially, and the ease with which the main character just accepts the crazy stuff that starts to happen her is a bit mind-boggling. That being said though, she is a likable protagonist and this book is a nice balance of action, fantasy, romance and realism. I'm intrigued enough by Stiefvater and her writing to want to read more. That being said, I think she would be a blast to be friends with. Hopefully my total inability to make small talk won't inhibit me from being friendly with the authors I'm about to meet this weekend.

Review: Bone Sharps, Cowboys, and Thunder Lizards

Bone Sharps, Cowboys, and Thunder Lizards: A Tale of Edward Drinker Cope, Othniel Charles Marsh, and the Gilded Age of Palenontology
By Jim Ottaviani and Big Time Attic
Published 2005 by G.T. Labs

I'm not sure how I feel about this one. Another ALA prep title, this is a graphic novel about the race for dinosaur bones. I like the style of the illustrations and I like the use of various text forms in different instances (a big-top style font for P.T. Barnum, etc.). However, I found the story itself incredibly confusing. In fact, I'm still not sure what exactly was happening. It was really difficult for me to keep the characters straight and figure out who was working for who, who was sabotaging who, etc. Even after reading the author notes about fact versus fiction, I'm still not entirely clear on how things worked. Maybe it's just me. But I definitely would have benefited from more clarification on matters throughout the book.

Review: Boy Meets Boy

Boy Meets Boy
By David Levithan
Published 2003 by Knopf Books for Young Readers

A little interlude from ALA prep - I picked this up because my local library didn't have any of the books I was actually looking for and I've been trying to read all of Levithan's books. I've somehow managed to get this far without reading his best-known title. But finally, I have fixed that error.

The reason I've been trying to read all of Levithan's books is because he is an incredible talent. He has a great way with words - unique combinations and turns of phrase. He creates fantastic worlds and characters - they are all intricately crafted and surreal yet believable. This book is probably his most fantastical - this world is radically different from the world we live in. But it is a world that is possible and one that many people hope for. Ultimately, that is part of the appeal with this book - you want to believe that things can be this radical, that sexuality will not define and separate individuals and all the other notions that Levithan puts forth in novels like these.

My main criticism with Levithan's love stories (which basically all of his novels boil down to) is that the inevitable conflict that arises between the hero and his love is beginning to seem more and more convoluted to me. I mean, there really was nothing getting in these characters' way and yet they had a hard time getting together. Maybe the reason this irritates me is that it's all too reminiscent of real life - oftentimes the only thing getting in a relationship's way are the people in it.

Regardless of this issue, I love reading a Levithan novel and this was no exception. I'll continue to read and hopefully continue to enjoy his work.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Review: My Swordhand is Singing

My Swordhand is Singing
By Marcus Sedgwick
Published 2007 by Wendy Lamb Books

Sedgwick is a fairly prolific author - he had a title on the Printz shortlist earlier this year. Usually, I try to read award winners and honor books, but reading the blurb for Sedgwick's title provoked no interest in me. However, this was another author on my radar for the upcoming ALA conference, so I combed through his backlist and picked this title. I'm glad I did. This is a very well-done and interesting book (I'm starting to think I should get a thesaurus - I feel like I use the word "interesting" in every review). Sedgwick provides a new take on the vampire myth, which I really enjoyed. It's no secret I'm a fan of vampires and the supernatural and Sedgwick definitely gives new life to the vampire tale. This is a short and haunting novel - very atmospheric. I'm definitely going to read the companion novel and perhaps even branch out to his other titles.

Review: Lips Touch: Three Times

Lips Touch: Three Times
By Laini Taylor, illustrated by Jim Di Bartolo
Published 2009 by Arthur A. Levine Books

Wow. What gorgeous prose. This was another one in preparation for ALA, but I'd heard a lot about it so I was pretty excited to read this one. I was not disappointed. Taylor has a beautiful way with words. For me, the first two stories worked better than the last, and the first made the deepest impression on me. But they are all incredibly well-done. Taylor knows how to pack a punch with her words. The characters she creates are well-drawn and interesting and the supernatural elements of the stories are believable and unique. Actually, the more I think about it, the more difficult it is to pick a favorite of the stories. They are all executed very well. Kizzy's infatuation with the new boy is totally understandable. The bargaining for souls in the second story and the twist with the curse is absolutely wonderful. And Mab's pain and confusion for Esme is the story of a mother in the third story. The illustrations, by Taylor's husband, are nice to look at and illustrate the stories well, but for me, there aren't enough of them to really add much. I would have preferred them scattered throughout each story as opposed to bookending them. But still, the prose here is so nice that I forgive this flaw.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Review: Hurricane Song

Hurricane Song
By Paul Volponi
Published 2008 by Viking Juvenile

I had never really even heard of this author until I discovered he would be in attendance at the ALA conference this year. I was pretty reluctant to read his books - I looked over them and didn't see anything that really captured my attention. But then I found this one - about Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath - and it seemed like the obvious choice (since the conference will be in New Orleans this year). After finishing the book, I still can't say it was really my cup of tea but I do recognize that it was a well-written and powerful novel.

Volponi tells the story of Katrina through Miles, who has just relocated to New Orleans from Chicago. He is partly escaping from his mother and her new family and partly hoping to forge a better relationship with his dad, a jazz musician whose appearances in Miles' life have been scattered where his gigs lie. But Miles doesn't get much of a chance to establish a new life in New Orleans - it's the end of August 2005 and THE storm is about to hit.

Volponi does a great job bringing readers into the horror that was Katrina. Miles' story takes him to the Superdome. I don't know what kind of research Volponi did for this story but it's very visceral. If these are the things that actually happened, Katrina is more of a horror story than I even realized. The plot turns are just brutal, but they help Miles grow and figure out who he will be and how his relationship with his father will turn out. While I had a hard time relating to Miles' circumstances, I was moved by his journey. This book packs an emotional punch - it's little more than one hundred pages. It's clear to me from this foray into Volponi's novels that he knows how to write and how to get to the heart of the story without mincing words. His talent is apparent.

Review: Into the Wild Nerd Yonder

Into the Wild Nerd Yonder
By Julie Halpern
Published 2009 by Feiwel & Friends

My second foray into reading an author in preparation for ALA's Coffee Klatch. Halpern tells the story of Jessie, a smart girl with a talent and love for sewing. It's just before her sophomore year of high school and she discovers her two best friends have turned into psuedo-punks, something Jessie just can't get behind. Add to that her best friend's questionably slutty behavior and Jessie finds herself entering her sophomore year without a group of friends to rely on. Enter the "weird" girl from her study hall. Soon, Jessie is thrown into the world of Dungeons & Dragons. But is Jessie ready to be a fully fledged social outcast?

Another successful read. Jessie is a delightful character. She is exactly like I imagine myself to have been in high school (except I don't know how to sew) - she's sarcastic and funny and insecure and hyper-aware of what other people think of her (though, who isn't in high school?). She has a very strong voice that is easy to relate to and a breeze to listen to. However, my absolute favorite thing about this book is Jessie's relationship with her brother. They are friends. They actually like each other. To me, this is a revelation in a young adult novel. Most siblings in teen books exist only to antagonize each other. And while that sort of relationship is not uncommon in real life, the other side of the spectrum also exists. I feel like it's very unusual for young adult novels to show siblings who actually support and believe in each other, especially siblings of the opposite sex. So Halpern's depiction of Jessie and Barrett's relationship is refreshing and enjoyable. Everything about this book rings true to adolescence - the trickiness of navigating high school society and the difficulty of trying to find your own place in it. I loved the hint of romance and the real struggles Jessie has as she tries to decide if she's okay being known as a nerd. Wonderfully realistic and funny to boot.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Review: 13 Little Blue Envelopes

13 Little Blue Envelopes
By Maureen Johnson
Published 2006 by HarperTeen

So, I'll be attending my first ALA conference in just a few weeks and one of the special events I registered for as soon as I saw it is the Coffee Klatch, put on by YALSA. It's sort of like an early morning speed dating event - the participant librarians sit at a table and are joined every few minutes by a new YA author. Sounds amazing, right? So obviously I signed up for it. Then I looked at the list of authors and there are quite a few whom I've never read before. My goal is to try to remedy this before the conference, but it's sneaking up on me very quickly, so we'll see how I do.

My first foray into this project was Maureen Johnson. This book sounded right up my alley - Ginny receives 13 mysterious blue envelopes from her recently-deceased aunt that send her traveling alone across Europe. Johnson's writing style is very engaging and easy to relate to - I can clearly see why she's a popular author with teens. Ginny was a very down-to-earth character. There was just the right blend of things in this novel - angst, a touch of romance, adventure, the muddle of emotions teens feel and the right amount of personal growth. It was all executed very well and at a pace that made the book hard to put down. I really enjoyed this. However, I don't know if I think reading the recently released sequel is necessary. Yes, we never discovered what the 13th envelope contained. But our not knowing doesn't take away from the story. Yes, I'm curious. But Ginny's guess as to the contents is a pretty good one. Who knows? Maybe I'll pick it up after the conference. An enjoyable read.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Review: The Graveyard Book

The Graveyard Book
By Neil Gaiman, illustrations by Dave McKean (in my edition)
Published 2008 by HarperCollins

I know, I know - I feel like I'm one of the last people on Earth to read this book. And it's really surprising that it took me this long - I love Neil Gaiman (a lot) and this book won the Newbery. I don't really have any good explanation for why it took me so long to read this other than I got caught up in other stuff. Regardless, I finally got around to reading it and realized how I probably shouldn't have waited so long.

This tells the tale of Nobody Owens, a boy whose entire family was murdered and who was subsequently adopted by the local graveyard. And when I say adopted by the graveyard, I mean the ghosts (and other creatures) that inhabit this plot of land. Bod has learned an interesting mix of living and dead skills from his adopted family. He occasionally gets mixed in amongst the living, but he mostly stays in the graveyard. The graveyard is the only place he is safe. Because the man who murdered his family is still looking for him...

I really, really enjoyed this book. Gaiman has created a wonderfully creepy story for kids. I am a firm believer in exposing kids to creepy and scary things when they are young. There has been a recent controversy over a Wall Street Journal article about the dark subject matter that abounds in recent young adult novels. I agree with a lot of the rebuttals that say most kids know how to self-select: kids who want the dark creepy stuff will find it, whether in the young adult/children's section or the adult section, and kids that don't want to read the scarier stuff will stay away. So, I think very little harm can come from publishing these types of books and making them available to those who want to read them. Anyway, this book isn't overly scary but it is dealing with some heavy stuff - an entire family slaughtered in the first chapter with no explanation until much, much later in the book. Gaiman unravels the story in his usual manner - he's just a great storyteller. Bod is a delightful protagonist. He obviously has a very unusual perspective on life and it makes reading about him fun. His adopted graveyard family is full of interesting characters - I actually would have loved to learn more about them all. Gaiman peppers the story with a great balance of living and dead characters and their comings and goings keep the pace of the novel on point. There is just the right touch of magic/supernatural in the story and I loved the ending. I think Bod will make a fantastic young man. Just a brief note: McKean's illustrations enhance the atmosphere that Gaiman has created with his words. They are obscured and creepy and strategically placed. A great package.

This was a controversial winner of the Newbery but I think it's a wonderful story that would appeal to a great number of readers. Gaiman's execution is excellent as always. A really great read.