Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Review: The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp

The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp
By Kathi Appelt, illustrated by Jennifer Bricking
Published 2013 by Atheneum Books for Young Readers

Chap Brayburn is reeling after the death of his beloved grandfather, Audie. Not only that, but Sonny Boy Beaucoup has plans to level Chap's house - and the family business - to make an alligator wrestling arena and theme park. Meanwhile, Bingo and J'miah, two of the famous Scouts, begin to hear some rumbles and know they must undertake a mission to wake up the Sugar Man and protect the swamp.

I know I have mentioned a time or two (or twenty) that talking animals are not my favorite type of fantasy. Despite that, however, I continue to try reading them because, every once in a while, I am pleasantly surprised (just wait for my forthcoming review of Mr. and Mrs. Bunny - Detectives Extraordinaire!). In addition to my willingness to continue to subject myself to this kind of fantasy, I had previously listened to Appelt's first book, The Underneath, and, despite my misgivings about the subgenre, thoroughly enjoyed it. Coupled with the buzz surrounding this one (new releases by Newbery winners and honorees always get some buzz), I requested the e-galley of this one and gave it a try.

There is no denying that Appelt truly has a talent for storytelling. The short chapters and the various story threads work well in this novel and in a way that I think will be appealing for young readers. Appelt's writing also succeeds in establishing place - I'm a relatively new Texan and can't say I've ever visited the swampy parts of Texas, but everything about Appelt's description of the land and creatures seemed spot-on to me. I truly enjoyed nearly everything about the way this story was written.

One area that I thought not as strong as the rest was the characterization. For a novel of this length, I expect some deeper characterization. In this case, the good guys come off as exceedingly good (Chap, Bingo, J'miah), while the bad guys come off as over-the-top villains (Sonny Boy, Jaeger, the hogs). I'd have appreciated a bit more nuance with the characters.

The story itself is interesting and relatively lighthearted. It's a fairly typical look at a boy dealing with his grief and reconfiguring his role in the family. What makes it atypical are the coincidences and strange happenings, as well as the long and involved backstory that brings the characters to where they are in the present. As I mentioned, Appelt is clearly a very skilled storyteller and she weaves everything together nicely.

I didn't love this as much as The Underneath, but it was still a lighthearted and fun fantasy, imbued with Southern charm.

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

Monday, July 29, 2013

Review: Black Spring

Black Spring
By Alison Croggon
Expected publication August 27, 2013 by Candlewick

An unsuspecting traveller stumbles upon a tale of witchcraft, violence, and obsessive love when he visits the desolate northern lands. Will he be captured by the magic himself?

This was an ARC I picked up on a whim at TLA - the ladies at the Candlewick both are always so lovely and willing to chat with me that I end up walking away with a lot of titles from their booth. I've never read Croggon before, though I've heard of The Books of Pellinor - they were released before I rediscovered my love of fantasy novels. This is billed as a magical retelling of Wuthering Heights - which I think I've read, many many moons ago. So, I cannot really speak to how closely or not this story hews to that one. Apologies!

What I can speak about is how this book stands on its own. I have to say, my initial impressions of this book were not terribly favorable. Right from the start, readers can tell that this is not going to be your typical YA read. The narrative begins with Hammel, the aforementioned visitor. He is renting a house and endeavors to meet the man from whom he is renting. Unfortunately, his encounter with Damek, the landlord, is anything but pleasant. When he returns to his rental, the narrative switches to Anna, the housekeeper, who begins to relate Damek's tragic history. I really enjoyed this narrative style - Hammel frames the story, with the opening section and the epilogue, while the majority of the story is told as Anna tells Hammel the story of her master and former mistress. There is a brief section in the middle of Anna's narration pulled from Lina's journal that gives further insight into the complicated and magical past. The structure is really interesting and it keeps the story moving along. The book clocks in at less than 300 pages; however, it's a very dense read. The language is complicated and literary and the explanation of the magic found in this land is also incredibly complex. For me, the narrative style and the way this book is written highlight an author of exceptional skill and become the strength of this book.

On the other hand, the story itself felt a bit flat for me. As I mentioned, the explanation of the magic, particularly the vendetta, is very complex - in a way that made me question its logic. Additionally, I had no sympathy for Lina or Damek, making it difficult to care about the terrible things that may have befallen them. Additionally, the book seemed a bit unevenly paced. The story of Lina, Damek, and Anna's childhood seems to fill up a greater portion of the book than the tragedy that leads to their current situation. I found the ending to be supremely dissatisfying for all the build-up in the first part of the novel.

Overall, I'm ambivalent about the book. I think Croggon clearly shows her skills as a writer but the story itself didn't particularly work for me. Thanks to the publisher for an advance reader's copy.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Program: Family Racetrack

The last few months have been a bit tumultuous at work - we've had quite a few staff members leave. Some retiring, some moving on to other places, etc. Basically, we have a new staff. Some of these staff changes occurred after we already had summer programming planned. This means that new staff had to fill in for programs already scheduled that they weren't originally attached to. This, our first Saturday morning program of the summer, was one of those programs. Originally scheduled and planned by a different staff member, I volunteered to take charge of it after she left the library. I offered because I already knew I'd be working that Saturday (being one of only two Saturdays in the month of June that I could work) and I knew that the program wouldn't really take a lot of planning on my part. This was the second time we'd run this program, so I had an idea of what it would be like. The only aspect of the program I was truly nervous about was the attendance number. As I mentioned, it was our first Saturday morning program of the summer, so I wasn't sure what to expect. Saturdays are usually not as busy during the summer but would it be a different story if we were offering a program? Since I wasn't sure how many people would show up, I began to get worried about our supplies. Would we have enough?

The program itself is tremendously simple. We provided flat pieces of cardboard and a variety of cardboard tubes (toilet paper, paper towel, wrapping paper, etc.), as well as glue, tape, scissors, checkered paper and stickers for decoration. Then we just let everyone go crazy. This is a family program, so parents stay with their kids and everyone helps to build the racetrack together. I was excited to be in charge of this program because I really wanted to see how families worked together and the different kinds of racetracks they would build.

So, how many people showed up? And did we have enough supplies? Nearly 100 people came to the program and we used up every flat piece of cardboard we had - I even had to cannibalize some cardboard boxes to get the last few pieces for some late coming families. I saw circular tracks and tracks with intense drops and jumps as well as some monster truck courses. I loved watching the families working together - it was incredibly entertaining to see how into building the perfect racetrack the parents got. The program lasted 90 minutes and most families stayed the entire time. Everyone cleaned up after themselves, an unexpected bonus, so this really was a program that required minimal effort on my part. I definitely recommend this type of program for public libraries!

Friday, July 26, 2013

Review: Over Sea, Under Stone

Over Sea, Under Stone (The Dark is Rising, book one)
By Susan Cooper
Published 1965 by Harcourt Children's Books

While on holiday visiting their great-uncle Merry, the three Drew children discover a crumbling map in the attic of the house in which they're staying. Determined to solve the mystery and thinking that perhaps treasure will await them at the end of the map, the children try to piece together the clues and follow the map's journey. What they don't know is that the map is the key to an ancient battle between good and evil - and now the kids are involved whether they wanted to be or not.

Here is another installment of Sarah is a Bad Librarian - this is the first Susan Cooper book I've ever read. I don't know if I mentioned this before, but I really didn't read much fantasy when I was a kid or teen - I stuck to horror and realistic fiction and, by the time I was in high school, I was reading adult contemporary novels (and my assigned reading, of course). So, there are a lot of fantasy classics that I missed out on. Recently, I've become more interested in Arthurian mythology - and definitely in fantasy in general - so when I put two and two together and realized that, hey, this book might have some Arthurian legend in it, I decided to give it a shot.

Here is the Sarah is an Even Worse Librarian - I hated this book. It is short, especially in comparison to middle-grade/teen novels of today, clocking in right around 200 pages. But I promise you - those 200 pages felt pretty much like the longest 200 pages of my life. I thought for sure this book would be exciting. I expected it to grip me right from the beginning and not let me go. I was wrong. This is not that sort of book. Yes, the Drew kids go an incredible adventure, but it's not action-packed and it's not a mile a minute. There are quite a few action scenes - after all, the Drews are not the only ones on the map's trail - but they never read as particularly exciting to me. While I think Cooper did a good job with characterization of the Drews, I never found myself all that interested in them. In fact, I found them rather annoying. This may be a quality of the British-ness of the story or of the age or of me, the reader. Additionally, I expected a lot more Arthurian-ness to the story. I can see how it will develop more as the series continues; unfortunately, I didn't like this book enough to want to read more.

And, yes, that is the first edition cover up there. Very blue. And pensive.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Review: Sleepless

By Cyn Balog
Published 2010 by Delacorte Books for Young Readers

Eron is a Sandman, watching over humans and seducing them to sleep and dream. He is not supposed to have feelings for the humans he is responsible for, but he does. He cannot deny that Julia holds a special sway over him. As he comes to the end of his time as a Sandman and transitions back to the human world, can he find a way to be with Julia? And can he save her from the menace that she doesn't even realize is following her?

I'm pretty sure the notion of an actual Sandman, falling in love with his human charge, is what caught my eye about this book. Even though I don't really remember being told stories about the Sandman when I was a kid, I'm always fascinated by legends and mystical beings. This one caught my eye from the shelf again recently, and I figured it would be a quick read so I took it home. I like the lore of the Sandmen that Balog has created in the story - though, honestly, she may not have created it and may just be repeating bits and pieces of different Sandmen lore, as I'm not too familiar with it. Either way, I liked the way she put it together here. While I found Eron an interesting character who I liked reading about, I thought Julia was a pretty flat character. This was made more frustrating because Eron couldn't really seem to articulate what it was about Julia that drew him to her above all his other charges. I suppose readers are to believe that Eron sees something of himself in her, as well as being reminded of the girl he loved before he became a Sandman. Overall, though, Julia never struck me as a noteworthy character. The whole of the novel pretty much hinges on the fact that Eron is in love with Julia, though he shouldn't be, and will do anything to protect her, particularly once a menacing presence arrives in her life. Surprisingly, the fact that I did not care much about Julia did not entirely ruin the book for me. As I said, I liked the mythology that Balog put together here and I did enjoy Eron. I liked the ending as well, melodramatic as it may have been. I would be interested to read some of Balog's other work, as it all seems to be inspired by fairy lore and mythical beings. Recommended for a quick suspenseful read.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Review: A Curse Dark as Gold

A Curse Dark as Gold
By Elizabeth C. Bunce
Published 2008 by Arthur A. Levine Books

Charlotte Miller is not particularly superstitious - she may even scoff at the belief that her family and their mill is cursed. But, after her father's death, misfortunes await her at every turn. Is there more to the curse than just talk? And when Charlotte accepts the help of a strange man named Jack Spinner, is she setting herself up for even more misfortune and darkness?

I remember hearing about this book when it won the Morris Award and I kept it in the back of my mind, wanting to pick it up when I had a chance. I'm a big fan of fairy tales and retellings, so clearly, this book was right up my alley. I finally picked it up recently, no longer able to resist the siren call of it sitting on our library shelves. I have to admit that this book was not quite what I expected. Yes, this is a very interesting and unique retelling of "Rumpelstiltskin." What I really liked about it is how much agency Charlotte, the miller's daughter, is truly given in this version. I also liked that she had a sister, and I loved seeing their relationship changing throughout the course of the novel. I appreciated Charlotte's reluctance to romance, as it increased her vulnerability to the alleged curse. I thought her struggle with conflicting emotions regarding the curse was exceptionally well-wrought. There is no doubt that this book is beautifully written - it feels fully immersed in its time and place and truly feels like a real-life fairy tale. Despite all this, though, I didn't enjoy this as much as I had hoped. It's nearly 400 pages and, at times, I had to really push myself to keep reading. There are definitely some slow moments during the book, especially with all the descriptive and abundant prose. I couldn't help but feel disappointed while reading - I wanted to be completely swept up in the story and fall in love with it and I just didn't. There were parts I liked - obviously - but, as a whole, I was left wanting. I can certainly see this book's strengths; I just didn't connect with it emotionally.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Event: ALA Annual Conference

It's been a couple weeks now and I'm terrible because I've said diddly about my recent trip to ALA Annual Conference at the end of June. Partly that is because I've been pretty much non-stop busy since then (it is the middle of summer programming, after all) and partly because I've still been digesting my experience and thinking about what I wanted to write. I still haven't figured out that second part, but I figured I'd better get something down before my ramblings become completely obsolete.

I was nervous about this conference. I've never been to Chicago, despite going to grad school in Indiana. I'm not really a big city person and Chicago was a place I never wanted to visit on my own (as in, I wanted a buddy to travel with me). Unfortunately, that's the situation I found myself in. While I knew a few people going to the conference, there was no one I was terribly close with. Additionally, I had a really hard time finding a roommate for this conference and I was paying for the whole thing out of pocket, plus using vacation time to be there, so it was all in all a bit of a stressful experience (can we talk about the fact that I had to use vacation time to go to a conference for my profession? No, because I will just get angry). Moving on...

I attended the conference Friday through Monday and I'm really just going to provide the highlights here, expanding on sessions that I found particularly interesting or relevant. Friday was the official start of the conference, with preconferences scheduled during the day before the opening session in the late afternoon, though, since I was paying out of my own funds, I didn't attend a preconference. I did make my way down to the opening session, given by Steven D. Levitt. I don't have any particular interest in economics and have never read his book, but it figured it wouldn't hurt anything to listen. He was an interesting person to hear and actually raised my interest in checking out the book sometime. After the opening session, the exhibits opened. And the librarians bumrushed. Well, not really, but exhibits can be fierce on opening night. Unlike previous conferences, this was the first time I had to fly to attend, so I wasn't planning on taking many ARCs (as I didn't want to pay for extra baggage). It was a different experience for me, as I've definitely been caught up in the frenzy at conferences before.It was interesting to sort of stand back and watch the madness happening. Being a victim of the book need, I, of course, ended up grabbing a few things that interested me and shipping them home, but I definitely restrained myself. One thing I don't like about ALA is that authors do their signings in the publisher booths, leading to even more congestion as people line up for the signings while others are simply trying to browse the booth. I understand the reasoning for it, but it just leads to huge traffic snarls and can be frustrating.

After browsing, I headed to one of the conference hotels for a panel on dystopian YA lit, featuring Lois Lowry, Veronica Roth, Patrick Ness, and Cory Doctorow. It was a packed (actually, overcrowded) room and it was definitely a very interesting panel. My main reason for attending was to see Patrick Ness - and after the panel, I am unequivocally in love with him. He was charming and smart and funny and adorable. And he was followed by Cory Doctorow, who I'm not ashamed to admit scared the poop out of me.

Saturday I got a bit of a late start, so I hit the Scholastic Book Buzz. Honestly, I don't know why I bother going to the Book Buzz sessions - I'm so hyper-vigilant about upcoming releases that I generally know about every book they mention before I attend the session. Still, I suppose it's something to do when I don't have any other sessions I'm interested in. After that, I saw Kelly Jensen (of Stacked) and Liz Burns (of A Chair, A Fireplace, & a Tea Cozy) give a presentation on ARCs, along with two publishing reps. I found it a really interesting panel, and I really liked hearing from the publishing folks. As a librarian who does collection development and readers' advisory, I find ARCs very useful for my job, letting me preview things before I decide to add them to the collection and letting me familiarize myself with more titles I can suggest to patrons. I also then use them as giveaways at programs and for summer reading prizes (print ARCs, of course). I don't necessarily have easy access to them, though - I don't work directly with any publishing reps and we never get them sent to our library. I'm glad that publishers are offering digital ARCs now, as I can still use them for my collection development and readers' advisory, but sad that I don't have those print ARCs to give away to my readers. I understand it, of course, and I'm glad to have easier access to pre-release titles. It's definitely an interesting topic.

Saturday afternoon I headed to another conference hotel for my committee meeting. Oh, did I forget to mention? I'm currently serving on a YALSA selection committee! I was both nervous and excited before my meeting - this is my first time serving and I wasn't entirely sure what to expect, but I was excited to meet my fellow committee members and have some discussions. This was a pretty quick meeting as we are all still getting our hands on what's been nominated - I imagine the meetings during Midwinter will be a bit more intense and lengthy. But I left with a really good feeling about doing this committee work.

I ventured back into the exhibits to snag a signed ARC of Patrick Ness' forthcoming book, More Than This. One of the Candlewick reps had already sold me on it back at the TLA conference, so it was one of the few ARCs I definitely wanted to get my hands on. After getting my signed copy, I rushed to try to get a signed ARC of Tamora Pierce's next book for a colleague. Unfortunately, they cut the line right as I approached the end of it. Boo! I called it an early night after that, still feeling beat from my travels (yeah, I didn't tell you I had a 6 a.m. flight on Thursday morning and then trekked all around Chicago with my bags all day since I couldn't check into my hotel yet).

Sunday I had kind of a quiet day. I dropped by the Bloomsbury Book Buzz and then, for my own interest, popped into the Random House Adult Fall Preview. I grabbed some lunch and then attended the PLA President's Program, which included a talk by Ann Patchett. I kind of went on a whim - Patchett is another author I've never read, but one I've actually wanted to, and that only increased after seeing her speak. She was engaging and delightful and she definitely won me over. I liked her so much that I stuck around to get a signed copy of her next book. I swung through the exhibits again, just to see if I had missed anything awesome, then headed to my last session of the day, Late Nights at the Library. The teen librarian and I have been talking about doing an after-hours program, either with teens or tweens, so I wanted to hear more about what other libraries have done. Unfortunately, this program focused exclusively on after-hours programming for adults, so it wasn't really relevant to my line of work. However, it was still interesting to hear about what other libraries are doing for adults and I definitely got some ideas I want to share with my colleagues.

Sunday night was my big splurge - a ticket to the Newbery-Caldecott banquet. It was my first time attending and, while I had a good time, I don't think I'd pay for a ticket again. It was difficult to find a table - they really should have had a map of the reserved tables when you first walked into the room because the reserved signs were not terribly large. Additionally, all you're really paying for when you buy a ticket is the meal, which, while pretty good, was not worth the price of my ticket. I suppose you're also paying for the privilege of sitting during the speeches, but, once again, I don't think that was worth what I paid. However, it was a good experience. Jon Klassen's speech was great - heartwarming and humorous and it definitely made me cry. It was just so obvious how much this award meant to him and really made me feel thrilled for him. Katherine Applegate was a delight - she kicked off her speech by reading a passage from a Harlequin novel she had ghostwritten at the beginning of her career, likely the only time that's ever happened in the banquet's history. I've seen her speak before and I think she is just such a lovely person. I'm thrilled for her as well. This year's banquet also included a speech from Katherine Paterson, who was the recipient of the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award for a "substantial and lasting contribution to literature for children." Confession time again: I do not like Paterson's books. I've read three of them now - yes, a small fraction of what she's written - but I have not enjoyed any of them. However, I thought Paterson herself was a pleasure to listen to and I'm really glad I got to hear her speech as well.

Monday was my last day at the conference. I kicked things off with the New Adult Fiction Conversation Starter, once again featuring Kelly and Liz and this time including Sophie Brookover. This was a completely overflowing room and a really interesting discussion. As I'm a tween librarian, I don't deal much with people looking for New Adult books, but I find the whole topic incredibly fascinating. Additionally, I think all three of these librarian ladies are pretty awesome (if you're not participating in the #readadv chat on alternating Thursday nights, you are missing out) so it was great to hear their thoughts on the subject. I made one final loop of the exhibits and sent a final box home, then listened to Alice Walker. The final session I attended before making what turned out to be a never-ending journey home was on Unprogramming. I liked it, but it didn't really break any new ground for me, as most of our library programs follow the "stations of stuff" model, but I am always open to hearing about programs at other libraries.

And that was my ALA Annual conference! How was your experience? I'm looking forward to Midwinter (though not necessarily Philadelphia in January). Hope to see you there!

Friday, July 19, 2013

Review: Of Beast and Beauty

Of Beast and Beauty
By Stacey Jay
Expected publication July 23, 2013 by Delacorte Press

In Yuan, one of only three domed cities left, blind Princess Isra has been raised, knowing she will one day sacrifice herself to ensure her city continues to thrive. In the desert outside the dome, Gem - one of the people known as the Monstrous - has been raised, knowing that he must discover the secret of Yuan's magic to save his people from dying. Neither has been prepared for what will happen when they meet.

So, I know I've sworn up and down that I am trying to read more middle-grade books - and I am, I promise you! But then pretties like this pop up on Edelweiss and I just can't resist clicking that "Request this title" button. I'm only human, right?

I first fell in love with Stacey Jay's books with the Megan Berry series - they were smart, fun, funny, and featured an awesome cast of characters, including one of my favorite heroines. Then, I read Juliet Immortal. I didn't love it as much as Megan Berry and I haven't yet picked up the sequel, but I was still pretty sure that Jay was an awesome author. That brings me to Of Beast and Beauty. Y'all know that I'm a sucker for a fairy tale retelling, so this had my name all over it. And let me tell you, it did not disappoint.

I loved pretty much everything about this story. I loved how the elements of "Beauty and the Beast" were sometimes obvious and sometimes more subtle. I loved that Jay really highlights the beautiful and the beastly in both her main characters. I loved the alternating viewpoints, and I even loved that Bo narrated some chapters, though I felt like his character suffered an unnecessary end. I loved the struggles of both Isra and Gem as they uncover the truths about themselves and their people and begin to wonder what their feelings for each other truly are.

Did I mention that I loved the interpretation of the fairy tale? Because it is truly fantastic. Seeing as I love retellings, I've read my fair share of them, and this one has quickly moved up on my list as one of my favorites. I mean, I find it literally astounding that authors can still find something fresh and new to do with these stories that are centuries old and have been retold countless times. Not every retelling is as successful as the next and Jay proves that she can deftly handle it and make it an awesome story. I loved that Isra and Gem take turns playing the beast and the beauty. I loved the incorporation of the roses and the dark magic. I loved the curse on the women. I loved the history of Yuan and its people. This is a truly magical and imaginative novel and I loved it to bits.

That's not to say I didn't find flaws. While it makes me feel like a bad person to say this, I found Gem's son to be unnecessary to the overall story, only seeming to play a true part at the end. As I mentioned, I also felt that Bo didn't quite get the ending he deserved. And Junjie may have been a bit too hardcore villain in a novel otherwise populated with more shades of grey.

Overall, however, this is a truly beautiful book. It's stunningly written, with characters I cared about and a story I couldn't tear myself away from. Highly recommended.

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

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Review: Worse Things Happen at Sea!

Worse Thing Happen at Sea!: A Tale of Pirates, Poison, and Monsters
By Alan Snow
Published 2013 by Atheneum Books for Young Readers

The residents of Ratbridge are in luck - a new doctor has arrived, promising a medicine that cures all ails. And, the best part - he's giving it away for free! But when a shortage strikes, Arthur and his friends on the Nautical Laundry must take action and set sail. However, they soon discover all is not what it seems...

This is another e-galley I found in my quest to read more tween books. When I discovered it, I recalled that it looked similar to a book I remembered from my bookstore days, Here Be Monsters!, one I kept meaning to read but never got around to. Unfortunately, it turns out that I would have enjoyed and understood this book much more had I read that title.

You see, I'm still not entirely sure if this book is a sequel or simply a companion to Snow's earlier novel but, either way, this book makes a lot less sense if you haven't read the first. That's not to say it can't be done - I did it, after all, and still found this book rather amusing. But your experience with this title will certainly be richer if you've read Here Be Monsters!. The reasons for this are fairly obvious almost as soon as you begin reading Worse Things Happen at Sea!. Snow seems to assume that all readers will be familiar with his first book because there is nothing in the way of character development or world-building/explanation in this book. I mean that - nothing. As you might imagine, this is rather jarring, and I think I was nearly finished with the book before I realized that some of the characters were actually giant talking rats who worked alongside the pirates. That being said, if you're none too worried about character development or understanding the intricacies of Ratbridge, this is a pretty rollicking and action-packed read. There is action and adventure in nearly every chapter, though some kids will surely be confused about the interstitials regarding wild cheeses and their hunting. It would have been nice to know that reading Snow's early book might enhance your enjoyment of this title and it leaves me frustrated as I'd already ordered a copy of this for the library, though we don't own the first one. Now I feel like I need to get a copy of Here Be Monsters! for the kids who want to read this one.

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

Monday, July 15, 2013

Review: Al Capone Shines My Shoes

Al Capone Shines My Shoes (Alcatraz, book two)
By Gennifer Choldenko, read by Kirby Heyborne
Published 2009 by Listening Library

Moose never wanted to move to Alcatraz but his family didn't have a choice. After he maybe gets some help from Al Capone, Moose has even more to worry about. Plus, Jimmy's acting strange about Moose's friendship with Scout, Piper is mad at Moose almost as much as she flirts with him, and the cons who work in the warden's house seem to be acting a bit peculiar, too. And, Natalie is coming home for a visit. Needless to say, Moose's life isn't going to get less complicated any time soon.

I had some issues with book one, but I liked it enough to listen to the second book, too. I think I liked this better than the first. Choldenko is still hitting the nail on the head with her characters and setting - she introduces even more historical information in this title and backs it all up with a lengthy author's note at the end. Piper annoyed me even more in this book than in the first one - but a part of me still wanted her to suddenly become less annoying because there was something so appealing about reading about her.I liked the plot of this one better, though it's still a bit of a struggle for me. I wonder why Choldenko feels she needs to populate these books with multiple storylines - I think any of them would be interesting on their own. In this book, we have changing relationships among the kids of Alcatraz, Natalie returning to the island for her first visit from the special school she's attending, Moose's worry about the "help" he may have received from Al Capone, and a plot involving the cons. It's not that it doesn't all work together - it just feels a little frenetic at times. That being said, I thought these plot lines complemented each other more readily than those of the first book. I still think Moose's narrative is truly the book's shining light - he just feels so wonderfully real. To my surprise, there is a third book coming out later this year - I will definitely pick it up and see what new plot these characters find themselves in. Hand this series to kids looking for adventure-filled historical fiction.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Program: 39 Clues

My first big program of summer was actually a bit of a cheat. Back in March, I planned a program based on the 39 Clues series. Unfortunately, during my planning, I didn't realize that I scheduled the program for Easter weekend. As a result, I had a very low attendance turnout. When it came time to plan summer programming, it made sense to me to try the program again, especially as I had already created all the materials I would need. So, that's exactly what I did.

When the kids first arrived, they all took a quiz to determine in which Cahill branch they belonged. This was mostly to waste a few minutes while we waited for stragglers to show up. After a few minutes, I explained how to score their quiz and figure out which branch was theirs. I think we only had one Janus and one Ekaterina - most everyone was split between Tomas and Lucian. Once we finished the quiz, I explained how the program was going to work. The kids would be split into random teams of three and would try to solve a scavenger hunt. Their clues were numbered, so they had to be sure to find them in the correct numerical order, and they were also color-coded, so they were to only take their clue. Any team caught messing with another team's clues would be disqualified. The clues were hidden around the children's department, and all the information they would need to solve each clue was in the program room. We split up into teams, with some readjusting to make sure each team had three members (I had enough materials for 13 teams of three but didn't have quite that many kids show up), then I handed them their first clues and everyone got started.

Now, we do a lot of scavenger hunts in our children's department and the kids love them. Those hunts are really pretty easy - we hide pictures around the department and the kids just have to find them and cross them off their list. The scavenger hunt that I created for this program was much more difficult. In fact, it took most teams the full two hours of the program to complete the hunt. Each clue was written in a different kind of code - Morse code, Caesar code, Greek box code, hieroglyphics, semaphore, etc. Once they decoded the clue, they had to figure out where it was telling them to find their next clue. For example, one decoded clue said, "Saladin only eats these." Saladin is the pet cat of Amy and Dan in the books and will only eat fresh fish. So that clue was leading them to our aquarium, and so on and so forth. There were nine clues for each team to gather. Once they had all their clues, they had to flip them over and put together a puzzle on the back. It featured a map of the United States with certain states highlighted. They then had to take the first letter of each highlighted state's name and unscramble it to form a word. Once they figured out the word, they had successfully completed the hunt. The first team to finish won copies of the first book for each of its team members and first pick at the trail mix bar. Every other team that finished got to make their own trail mix as they finished the hunt. I was happy that teams kept going with the hunt even after the big prize was gone, but really most teams finished within 15-20 minutes of each other.

I had a good turnout for the program and I loved seeing the kids work together in teams. One team really impressed me - they set themselves up in a corner and they stuck together, all working hard trying to solve every clue. Everyone seemed to be having fun, though at first many of them were complaining that it was too hard. Most everyone struggled at the beginning, but they all seemed to get the hang of it once they got started. It was a relatively easy program for me once it got underway; I was mostly on hand to help them if they got stuck with the clues. I had trivia ready if we had any time left over, but we definitely did not, so I'll be saving it for another program. This program definitely started the summer off right!

Friday, July 12, 2013

Review: Dance of the Red Death

Dance of the Red Death (Masque of the Red Death, book two)
By Bethany Griffin
Published 2013 by Greenwillow Books

WARNING: There may be spoilers for book one. To read my review of that title, go here.

Much has changed in Araby's world but what hasn't is her fierce desire to protect the things she loves. To do this, she must search for the people who've hurt her and destroy them if necessary. At the same time, she must choose which path is right for her.

I had mixed to positive feelings about book one, but I was intrigued enough to want to continue the series, so when I spotted the e-galley, I requested and started reading. I'm a bit underwhelmed by this entry in the series. Some of the things I enjoyed in the first book fell apart a bit in the second, while the things I disliked about the first continued to bother me in the second. I still find Araby a difficult character with which to empathize, making it harder for me to keep wanting to read the story. I found her especially irritating here, as she seemed to spend the majority of her time vacillating between uncontrollable crying and fierce heroine butt-kicking. It just made her character seem even more of a mess than I already found her to be. For me, the strength of this book continues to be the world that Griffin has created - it is messy and harsh and I want to know more about it. This entry in the series gives us more information on how Araby's world got to be such a shambles and I found the developing backstory the most interesting part of this novel. I like that everything is such a mess that it makes me wonder how it will ever be fixed, a problem I'm sure Griffin plans to tackle in book three (if there is even a book three in the works; anyone know how many books are planned for this series?). Actually, I suppose I can see the start of reconstruction at the end, and I wonder if Griffin will end the series here; I think it would work fine that way.

As I mentioned, some of the things I enjoyed in the first book didn't work well for me here in the second. The largest of these was the romantic storyline. While I found it intriguing in book one, leaving me curious about which path Araby would follow, I found it tedious and unnecessarily drawn out here in book two. It's fairly obvious early on in this volume which way Araby is going to go, so most of the speculation and teasing just seems like a waste of time.

In the end, I found this sequel to be disappointing and messy. I think Griffin may have lost her focus with this one.

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

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Review: The Thing About Luck

The Thing About Luck
By Cynthia Kadohata, illustrated by Julia Kuo
Published 2013 by Atheneum Books for Young Readers

Summer's family is not having much luck. Her parents have to travel to Japan to care for aging relatives right before the start of the harvest season. This means that Summer, her brother, and her grandparents will have to do the harvest work, because without the money from working, the family might lose their house. Can Summer find a way to change her luck?

I am really making an effort to read more middle-grade books, both because I love them and because selecting them is part of my job. Additionally, this book was getting some Newbery buzz, so hitting two birds with one stone. I requested an e-galley when I spotted it available and hoped I'd discover a great realistic read.

I'm not sure how I feel about this one. If you're looking for excitement while you read, I would not recommend this. That doesn't mean it's not a good story, just that it's more of a subtle one. While telling the tale of Summer's harvest season, Kadohata is also telling the story of Summer's coming of age and of her relationship with her various family members. One thing I found both interesting and frustrating about this book was the absence of Summer's parents. In their absence, we are greater able to explore the relationships between Summer and her grandparents, particularly her grandmother. However, we are left with an incomplete picture of Summer's family as a whole and, for me, that was frustrating. I wanted to understand how the dynamics all worked together, not just in bits and pieces. Yes, Summer does talk about her parents from time to time, but it's not the same as if they were there. Of course, absent parents are nothing new in books for kids, so I'm not sure why it bothered me so much here. Perhaps it's because this book wants so much to be about family and I found it confusing to eliminate the parents from the picture if that's the case. Who knows?

Aside from the absent parents, what did I think? Well, I found Summer alternately annoying and endearing. Her paralyzing fear of mosquitoes (admittedly, she had contracted malaria previously, but I found that whole storyline unnecessary) was a bit tedious as well as her stubbornness regarding her grandmother. But her worries about her brother and her honest attempts at doing the right thing for her family were heartening. I like that we readers get a glimpse of Summer's life just as she is truly becoming aware of the situations of others - she is just beginning to understand that what her family can or can't accomplish on the harvest will directly impact the lives of others, of which she may know very little. It is fascinating to watch her just figure this out.

Overall, though, I found that this book didn't really live up to its promise. I expected a lot more; Kadohata has won a Newbery Medal after all. There were good ideas in place; I just didn't find them to be fully developed. A bit of a disappointment for me.

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

Monday, July 8, 2013

Review: Tiger Lily

Tiger Lily
By Jodi Lynn Anderson
Published 2012 by HarperTeen

Before there was Wendy, there was Tiger Lily - a headstrong Native girl who'd been warned to beware of Peter Pan. But then, they met and Tiger Lily felt something she'd never felt with her tribe mates before - acceptance and, perhaps, love. What will this mean for her future? And what about Wendy Darling?

This book has been on my radar for quite some time - I'm a big fan of retold tales, or books that offer new insights into lesser-known characters from other books. I remember hearing about this one prior to its release and ogling when it came into the library and wishing I had time right at that moment to just devour it. Well, I didn't want to put it off any longer and picked it up over the Memorial Day weekend. I don't feel quite as enthusiastic about it as I did prior to reading, but I still found some things to like.

I guess I missed the memo that this was narrated by Tinkerbell and not Tiger Lily herself. At first, I was not pleased with this discovery - isn't this supposed to be the untold story of Tiger Lily and Peter Pan? Wouldn't it be better told by one of the people directly involved? But, as the story moved on, I really came to appreciate Tinkerbell's narration. I was not ever a particular fan of Tinkerbell - until I read Peter and the Starcatchers. Then, I fell in love with her. Though this incarnation of Tink is not as spunky and daring as that one, I found this version to be insightful and articulate and a joy to hear from. Having finished the book, I actually think the story is stronger from being told by Tinkerbell - Tiger Lily's hardheadedness and wide range of emotions may have presented her and Peter's story in a very different light. In Tinkerbell's voice, the story comes off beautifully - a story of an outsider who finds acceptance only to have it snatched away from her. I loved the hesitancy of Tiger Lily and her confusion in her dealings with Peter - honestly, I don't think Peter is painted in a very flattering light here, and it works really well that way. I can understand the objections to making this into a love story - in the original, Peter and Tiger Lily are too young for this - but I thought it was well-done. Actually, I'm not entirely convinced that it was a love story in the traditional sense - yes, there is kissing and Peter talks of making Tiger Lily his wife, but I think it's fairly obvious that he doesn't really understand any of those things and is simply deeply enamored with the connection he's forged with Tiger Lily. Additionally, the prose in this book is absolutely lovely. This is one of the first books in a long time from which I wanted to copy out beautiful quotes to treasure.

Despite all those positives, this is not a perfect book. Some story lines didn't work well for me - the missionary, Tiger Lily's forced marriage to Giant, the exile of Tik Tok. I had very high expectations for this book and it didn't quite meet them all, but I found it a lovely take on a classic tale.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Program + review: beTWEEN the lines

So, I mentioned before that for the summer edition of beTWEEN the lines, my tween book club, I was planning on changing things up a bit. In the initial incarnation of the book club (which I've been running for about 15 months with a break last summer), everyone read the same book. This was good because we all had the same starting point. We were, in theory, able to have deeper discussions about the issues relevant to that particular book. I did say in theory, though. In actuality, we spent little time discussing the particular book and more time talking about whatever struck our fancy. I'm not complaining, just stating. The bad about running the program this way is that it was expensive - I was buying ten copies of each title so that the kids wouldn't have to fight over copies - they could just borrow one and return it at the meeting. Additionally, I was spending a lot of time coming up with discussion questions that we would either not discuss or discuss very briefly. Overall, it didn't seem like the most effective way to run the program.

So, for summer, I decided to revamp it. The kids were very resistant to the idea, but I'm hoping to make it a permanent change. We will see at the end of the summer how we feel about it. Our first meeting was in June and we entered into our genre book club by discussing mysteries!

I'm not terribly surprised, but I only had one new face for the first summer meeting. I'm hoping I'll get a few more in July or August but since the first book club meeting happened before our Summer Reading Club even kicked off, I expected I'd just get my regulars.

I had us all introduce ourselves again, even though we only had one new face (I'm almost positive the kids still don't remember my name, which should be the easiest since I'm the only one who wears a name tag). Then each kid told us about the book they read before our meeting. Here are our titles:

The Maze of Bones by Rick Riordan (my review)
Walls Within Walls by Maureen Sherry (a Bluebonnet book for the 2013-14 school year)
The Famous Five by Enid Blyton
The Zombie Zone by Ron Roy
No Passengers Beyond This Point by Gennifer Choldenko
Room One: A Mystery by Andrew Clements

I asked each kid a few questions about their chosen book (why did they choose it, did they like it, would they recommend it). I was amazed that only one kid read The 39 Clues, for the meeting or otherwise, so I told them all they should read it. As expected, the kids pretty much couldn't give summaries of the books without ruining the endings, but nobody seemed bothered. In fact, they got mad at me when I wouldn't tell them how my book ended. I told them they'd all have to read for themselves to find out what happened! The book I read was...

The Calder Game
By Blue Balliett
Published 2008 by Scholastic
Petra, Tommy, and Calder have been friends for a while now. In addition to being friends, they've solved a few mysteries together. But this time, things are a little different. Calder and his father are going to England, leaving Petra and Tommy behind. Petra and Tommy are not really friends - they only try to get along for Calder's sake. Without Calder around, what will happen to them? And when a mysterious sculpture appears and is then stolen in the small town where Calder is staying, can Calder solve the mystery? What happens when Calder himself goes missing?

This is the third story of Petra, Tommy and Calder (my reviews of the first two are here and here) and I think this one is my favorite. As much as I enjoy seeing the dynamic between the three friends play out, I liked what Balliett did here - splitting them apart and seeing how that would change their friendships. Additionally, I think the mystery is even more complex in this one - and I loved having no idea what would happen next. I was pleasantly surprised that a couple of my longest-standing members remembered that we had read Chasing Vermeer for an earlier book club and seemed interested to know that there were more adventures they could read. I was very surprised by the inclusion of Banksy in this mystery, but I thought it was great. And as much as I enjoyed reading the Chicago details, I liked that Balliett took the characters to a new place in this mystery. I think these are fantastic mysteries for middle-grade readers, and I definitely will continue to read Balliett.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Review: Game

Game (Jasper Dent, book two)
By Barry Lyga
Published 2013 by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers

WARNING: There may be spoilers ahead, including for book one. If you'd like to read my review of I Hunt Killers, go here.

Jasper may have solved the mystery of the bodies piling up in Lobo's Nod but that doesn't mean the world is all of a sudden a bright and shiny happy place. Bodies are now popping up in New York City and police are struggling to crack the cryptic clues. Enter Jazz and his unique expertise - you don't grow up with a serial killer father without learning a thing or two. Will Jazz be able to uncover the mystery of the Hat Dog Killer? And what exactly is in store for him now that his father has escaped from prison?

I Hunt Killers was one of my absolute favorite books last year, so I was on tenterhooks waiting for the sequel (I even gave it to my mom to read and she loved it, too). I put my name on the waiting list at the library as soon as I could and danced around with the book when it finally came in for me (no, I'm not exaggerating). I'm so pleased to report that I loved this book as much as the first.

One of the things I love about Lyga will always hearken back to my first experience with him - Boy Toy. That book is a tough read, but it is truly excellent and I can't recommend it enough. It is a book that has stayed with me since I read it and one I think of often. What made me love that book - and, by extension, Lyga - was his unwavering willingness to push boundaries. That book is not an easy book to read, and I don't think the Jasper Dent books are really any easier. But I truly admire Lyga for not shying away from these tough topics and handling them in interesting and exceptionally well-written ways. For me, the strength of this novel still lies with its main character. Jazz (I still hate that name) is so complicated and unique, and yet, as in the first book, his struggles are universal. What kind of person will I become? Why do I love who I love? Am I ready to commit myself to another person and all that entails? I am just completely engrossed with Jazz's character and want to know more. Once again, the secondary characters are as compelling as Jazz and I loved seeing the exploits of Connie and Howie when Jazz wasn't around. The plot of this book reminded me quite a bit of The Following, the TV show that debuted this past season with Kevin Bacon and a cult of serial killers. To be honest, I expected something like this to happen after finishing I Hunt Killers - with Billy's escape and his cryptic message to move the birdbath, it was clear to me that some crazy things were about to go down. I still have some hunches about what's in store (Jazz's long-lost aunt?!) and the end of this book had me practically throwing it across the room (CONNIE!!), but once again, I find myself in the torturous place of waiting for the next installment. I can't wait to see what Lyga does next with this story.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Review: Boy21

By Matthew Quick
Published 2012 by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers

Finley loves basketball - it makes him feel normal. On the court, he doesn't worry about the Irish Mob that runs his town, or taking care of his disabled grandfather, or that he's the only white boy on his team. He just plays and loves it. But basketball is about to get complicated for Finley - with the arrival of Russ, a nationally ranked ball player who has recently suffered a terrible tragedy. Will basketball bring these two together or drive a wedge between them?

I picked up an ARC of this at ALA Midwinter in 2012 and set it aside when I didn't read it ahead of its release date. As the year went on, though, I saw more and more excellent reviews of it, even some discussion on Someday My Printz Will Come. I kept thinking, "Okay, you need to read that one, Sarah," and, inevitably, some other book would come first. When I decided to participate in the Hub Reading Challenge, it was a no-brainer for me to read this one - I already owned a copy, plus it got great reviews. I am so glad I finally got around to it.

This is a relatively short book: it seems like nowadays a good percentage of YA (and even middle-grade) books are pushing 500 pages or more - so, by comparison, Boy21's 250 pages seems slim. But that doesn't mean this book is a lightweight. There are so many things happening in this book - the Irish Mob, race relations, grief and post-traumatic stress, friendship, romance, longing to figure out where your future lies, and finding the balance between the family you're born into and the family you choose. It's a lot of heavy stuff, but it is all handled spectacularly. This is a book that sneaks up on you - when I started reading, I didn't expect to be so completely sucked in by the story. I mean, I really didn't want to put this book down, and I think this is the book that busted me out of my reading slump. On the surface, it doesn't really seem to have the makings of a gripping read but that's exactly what it was for me - I was emotionally engaged throughout the entire novel, connecting with the characters and fiercely needing to know what would happen next. It's a quick read - short chapters and great writing keep you turning the pages as quickly as you can. The characters Quick has created are vivid and realistic - I really felt like I knew these boys, and I loved the development of their friendship over the course of the novel. I really loved the novel's ending - heartbreaking and uplifting at the same time. I shed a few tears while reading this book and will definitely say this is one of the best books I've read so far this year. Highly recommended.

Thanks to the publisher for an advance reader's copy.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Review: Liar & Spy

Liar & Spy
By Rebecca Stead
Published 2012 by Wendy Lamb Books

Georges and his family have just moved into a new apartment and life is not particularly easy. When he meets Safer, another resident of the building, he becomes his newest spy recruit. Soon Georges and Safer are on the trail of the mysterious Mr. X. But everything is not as it seems...or is it?

Here is where I admit another truth about myself: I had decidedly mixed feelings about When You Reach Me, one of Stead's previous novels and winner of the Newbery Medal. Because one of her previous books had won a medal, Liar & Spy, her latest, received a lot of award buzz when it was released last year. Despite my best attempts to read it before the Youth Media Awards were announced, I didn't. I did, however, still want to read it - I wanted to know if I would have a better experience with this title than I did with her previous book.

The answer? Well, I feel much the same way as I did after finishing When You Reach Me, except perhaps not as strongly. I said in my Goodreads review of WYRM, "I sort of liked it, and I sort of didn't." That's probably a pretty accurate summation of my feelings regarding this book as well, except I feel slightly more positive about this one. As much as I hate to say it, I can't help but wonder if Stead's books are just over my head. With the general gushing about both Liar & Spy and When You Reach Me, it makes me feel like there must be a fault within me if I'm not enjoying the books and admiring all the craftiness contained within them. I feel like I "get" this one more clearly, and I am impressed by the layers of metaphor that Stead manages to cram into a novel that doesn't even reach 200 pages. Similarly, I felt a stronger connection with Georges and Safer in this title than with Miranda and Sal. Additionally, I just liked the plot of this one much better. A lot of the time in When You Reach Me I felt as if there wasn't really much happening. At least there is some action in this title. I really enjoyed the ending of this - it brought to light all the layers of the plot that had previously been resting just below the surface. This would be a great book for a discussion group, with children or adults - there is so much to talk about, so many themes to explore.

I guess my final ruling is that I'm impressed with Stead's ability as a writer and I can admire her books from that level, but they are not the kind of books I normally enjoy.