Friday, May 30, 2014

Review: My Best Friend, Maybe

My Best Friend, Maybe
By Caela Carter
Expected publication June 3, 2014 by Bloomsbury Childrens

Colette tries hard to be perfect, but, honestly, perfect is lonely. In fact, she's been lonely for years, since a falling-out with her best friend Sadie. So, when Sadie asks Colette to go to Greece with her, saying she needs her, how can Coley say no?

Bloomsbury is one of my favorite publisher booths to visit at conferences. The staff is always friendly and knowledgeable about their titles, eager to let me know what they're most excited about and what they think has the biggest potential. This was one the titles they handed to me at the ALA Midwinter conference. With its pub date rapidly approaching, I finally picked it up.

I'm always pleased to see new titles dealing with sexuality, so I had high hopes for this one. Unfortunately, it didn't quite live up to my expectations. From the beginning, I had a hard time relating to Coley. She comes from a very conservative, religious household and she is struggling with trying to be a perfect child under that roof. This was not my own teen experience, though I did struggle with a perfect child complex (though for very different reasons). I'm not trying to suggest that one's personal experience must mirror a character's in order for one to relate to that character. However, there was something about Coley (and, really, all the characters) that felt both disingenuous and simplistic. Throughout my reading of  this book, I had a hard time believing any of the characters and it's hard for me to explain exactly why. It's not that I didn't think there are real teens dealing with the same issues and feeling the same feelings. I think it has more to do with the second word I used to describe them: simplistic. To me, all the characters and, thus, the novel as a whole, lacked the complexity I've come to expect from solidly written YA lit. Everything felt very surface level, even the moments when Coley is struggling to understand her hidden feelings about the plot developments.

My other big issue with this book was the pacing. The blurb gives a clear indication that there is going to be something about sexuality in this book, which, unfortunately, usually only means a character coming out. So, that's what I was expecting. I was probably two-thirds of the way through this book before the issue of sexuality was explored in that way. To be fair to the book, though, there is quite a bit of discussion of heterosexual sexuality, particularly as it relates to one's religious beliefs. Coley is indeed struggling with her sexuality throughout this book, though perhaps not in the way I expected. Additionally, the reason for Coley and Sadie's estrangement is not revealed until extremely late in the book, mostly leading to me being frustrated with the slow reveal of information here. Finally, I felt the ending was too pat and unrealistic. Overall, this book and I just didn't work.

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

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Review: Say What You Will

Say What You Will
By Cammie McGovern
Expected publication June 3, 2014 by HarperTeen

Amy has cerebral palsy - she walks with a walker, talks through a computer, and needs an aide to help her with tasks like using the bathroom and carrying her books between classes. Her senior year, she decides to hire other students as aides - mostly because of something Matthew said to her. Amy practically begs Matthew to sign up - he is one of the only people she thinks has ever been really honest with her. But Matthew has issues of his own. Will they get in the way of their blossoming friendship?

This book was getting a ton of push from the publisher at ALA Midwinter and I was happy to be handed a copy. I'm always interested in contemporary YA and this sounded like it had a really interesting premise. I suppose I should also note that this book is being marketed as John Green meets Rainbow Rowell (which, nearly every contemporary YA romance is these days) and I think that does this book a huge disservice because, really, it doesn't have much in common with those authors. I have to stop before I get on my soapbox but, if you're getting tired of that marketing plan, you should probably look past it and give this book a shot.

I really, really liked this book. The characters - oh my gosh, I just love them. Amy and Matthew - they feel real and lovely and heartbreaking and complicated and I loved getting to know them. The relationship that develops between them felt genuine and difficult and hopeful. Though this book is told in the third-person, it alternates between Amy and Matthew's point of view. I think it works really well here. I didn't feel any less connected to the characters because of the third-person narration and I loved getting to know each of them equally well. These two characters work really well together; in fact, they seem to be best with each other. Secondary characters seem only to complicate things for them, which, surprisingly, felt very realistic.

One of the things I really liked about this book is that it's about characters with disabilities but it's not exclusively about their disabilities. This is, to me, precisely what the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign is all about. Most frequently, books that feature characters with disabilities focus on the disability - how the character copes with it, how others perceive that character because of it, etc. This book is not like that because, at its heart, this book is a love story. This book shows that people with disabilities are more than just their disabilities, that they have myriad stories to tell and these stories may include their disabilities and they may not. This book shows that teens with disabilities can fall in love and have sex and make bad decisions, just like teens without disabilities. This book just tells a beautiful love story - and I love it for that.

Though it's not really a difficult task to accomplish, this book did indeed get me right in the feels. Any teen looking for an emotionally engaging book experience should definitely give this book a try. I completely loved the ending of this book as well, though I'll fully admit that I rolled my eyes at first (when the big plot twist first appears). I'll definitely be recommending this to teens all summer long.

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

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Release Day Review: We Are the Goldens

We Are the Goldens
By Dana Reinhardt
Expected publication May 27, 2014 by Wendy Lamb Books

Nell and Layla are so close in are that when they were younger, Nell didn't think of herself as a person separate from her sister. But, they've grown older and further apart. And now,  Nell knows a secret about Layla, one that could change their lives if she tells. So...will she?

It's kind of amazing to me that this is the first book by Reinhardt that I've read - she's been on my radar for a while but I just haven't gotten around to her. When I spotted the galley of this available on Edelweiss, I downloaded it, thinking I'd get to it if I found the time. Well, on a recent weekend of binge reading, I did.

I feel pretty ambivalent about this book and I feel a little bad about that, though I couldn't tell you why. Obviously not every book is for every reader and I think this will have its readers; I just don't appear to be one of them. That's not to say I didn't like the book. As I said, I feel pretty ambivalent about it, but I did finish it in one afternoon, so there must be something there. What I think this book has going for it is the perspective. Choosing to tell the story from Nell's perspective and as a letter to Layla gives the whole story a greater sense of urgency and immediacy than it would have had otherwise. Additionally, the relationship between the sisters leads to an interesting take on the story. I appreciated that, while the story with Layla is clearly the bigger of the two, Nell also had things of her own to figure out throughout the novel's course. She wasn't simply an observer to Layla's actions; she was living her own life. It's also interesting to think about how Nell's choices and missteps may have impacted her reactions to Layla's secret - I think teens will appreciate the nuance of this.

However, for me, the secret wasn't much of a secret. It was obvious very early on what direction the story was going in and, while I was still interested to see how it would play out, I couldn't help thinking "this story has been told better in other books." Maybe that's why I feel badly about my ambivalence - it seems kind of harsh when I put it that way. Frankly, though, it's true. Other than its unique perspective, I'm not sure this book has much going for it that hasn't been done better in other books that deal with the same topic.

Unfortunately, I was mostly underwhelmed with this book. It does have an interesting voice to it, one that I think will drive readers to pick it up. Hopefully they will be more pleased with the results than I was. Thanks to the publisher for a digital advance reader's copy, provided via Edelweiss.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Review: Guy in Real Life

Guy in Real Life
By Steve Brezenoff
Expected publication May 27, 2014 by Balzer + Bray

When they collide on the street at 2:30 a.m., Lesh and Svetlana don't know each other. But they will. Little do they know what's in store for them after their fateful meeting, but they're about to find out.
I downloaded this galley because I like finding new contemporary YA. Sure, fantasy may be the majority of what I read, but I like a good contemporary story, too. Then, some bloggers whose opinions I trust started heaping praise on this title, so I became even more excited to read it.

What I love most about this is the dual narrative structure. I really liked seeing the story develop through both Lesh and Svetlana's eyes (I just have to take a moment and roll my eyes at their names - I'm sorry), though, interestingly, I feel we get to know Lesh much more deeply than Svetlana. Part of that may be due to Lesh's greater willingness to open up - I think it's fair to say that Svetlana is pretty closed off to letting other people in and it seems to translate to the reader as well. Additionally, I think there are more chapters from Lesh's point of view, if we include the chapters of the characters he creates. The book is called GUY in real life, so I imagine it's intentional that this feels more like Lesh's story than Svetlana's. Regardless, I think all the characters in this book felt very authentic and I particularly enjoyed the development of the relationship between Lesh and Svetlana - it felt very much like my own high school days, full of awkwardness and worry.

Here's where I struggle a bit with this book: I loved the premise and I loved the incorporation of gaming and roleplaying into the story. I think it's great that this stuff is becoming more forefront in pop culture (and not just as a scapegoat or humor device). I loved the complexity of Lesh creating a "toon" based on Svetlana and what that might mean for him - why does he like roleplaying as a girl so much more than as a hypermasculine warrior? I love how the whole story feels tense with anticipation for the moment when Lesh's Svvetlana avatar becomes known and impacts his relationship with the real Svetlana. This is all really great stuff - stuff I think teens will easily relate to as well as be able to think and talk about in a meaningful way. But, for me personally, the chapters that take place in Lesh's RPG were tedious and boring. I've never played an RPG - tabletop or online - so I can't exactly speak to authenticity, but they certainly read as very believable to me. Unfortunately, I just didn't like them. There is a reason I've never played an RPG and these chapters highlighted it for me - I was bored reading them. Obviously, your mileage may vary, and they are, of course, invaluable to the plot of the story; I just didn't like reading them.

What I didn't expect is the ending. I would have liked a bit more closure with the story. Yes, it's nice to imagine for myself what might happen next for these characters, but I had a lot of questions when I got to the last sentence that I wish would have been answered.

Ultimately, I think this book will definitely appeal to contemporary YA fans. Thanks to the publisher for a digital advance reader's copy, provided via Edelweiss.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Program: American Girl Club

For our December installment of American Girl Club, we chose to focus on Rebecca. She is the only Jewish character so far, and her story takes place in 1914. We scheduled the program to coincide with Hanukkah, to add an extra layer to our presentation.

As usual with these programs, we began with a presentation about Rebecca and the times she lived in. We talked about World War I, silent movies, vaudeville, and immigration (particularly that of Russian Jews). We taught them about Hanukkah, and what a mitzvah is.

For our craft, we had the girls make dreidels, folded out of cardstock and with a pencil acting as the point to spin upon. After everyone had made their dreidels, we split into groups, passed out gelt and played! The girls loved it! They wanted to keep playing over and over again!

While we played dreidel, we showed the girls a couple of silent movie clips and they were fascinated. I love introducing them to things they hadn't thought of before. Seeing their reactions to the entertainment of the time is quite interesting.

As usual, I prepared a snack for them and this time, I made challah. It was my first ever time making challah from scratch and I was a little intimidated, but the girls raved about it. As a side note, I also made the best ever french toast casserole with the leftovers, so I think the challah was definitely a success.

The girls had a great time learning about Rebecca, and I love seeing what their favorite part of the program is (though, it's usually the food!).

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Picture Book Saturday

Bella's Rules
By Elissa Haden Guest, illustrated by Abigail Halpin
Published 2013 by Dial
Bella likes to follow rules - but only the ones she makes herself. However, when a spirited puppy enters her life with its own set of rules, Bella begins to learn the value of the rules of others. I think this is a book that will really appeal to kids - how many of them wish they could make their own rules? I'm not sure if the youngest listeners will get the message at the end of the story, but it's a fun book either way. The illustrations are quite nice as well.
Zoe's Room (No Sisters Allowed)
By Bethanie Deeney Murguia
Published 2013 by Arthur A. Levine Books
I really enjoyed Zoe Gets Ready, the first book starring the spunky Zoe. Zoe likes her room the way it is - it's full of places where she has wild adventures. When her parents tell her that her little sister will be moving into her room with her, Zoe is very upset. Her little sister is going to ruin everything - or is she? This is a great book for capturing the relationship between siblings and I think a lot of kids will be able to relate to this. A very cute story.
Super Hair-o and the Barber of Doom
By John Rocco
Published 2013 by Disney-Hyperion
I loved Rocco's Blackout so I was excited to see a new title from him this year, though, admittedly, I found the title a bit odd. This is kind of a strange book, about a boy who believes his crazy hair gives him wild superpowers, but it's also silly and fun and kids will definitely like that about it. As expected Super Hair-o and his posse of friends discover that they don't need their crazy hair to do super deeds. The illustrations are perfect for this story - over the top and retro style. I'm even more fascinated by Rocco than I was before I read this one.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Review: A Creature of Moonlight

A Creature of Moonlight
By Rebecca Hahn
Published 2014 by HMH Books for Young Readers

Sometimes, a girl runs to the woods, never to be seen again. Now, the woods seem to be moving closer and closer to the castle. Can it somehow be Marni's fault? The king believes so, and he will do everything in his power to save his kingdom, no matter what sacrifice that might require.

I downloaded this galley because, hello, dragons! Quite honestly, the cover is lovely and the comparison to Seraphina caught my eye. Unfortunately, I found this book to be quite a let-down.

Much is made in the blurb of this being the story of a mysterious half-dragon girl and how her dragon father might be coming to claim her, causing all sorts of strange happenings in the woods. She is also the princess and must decide if she should fight for the kingdom that is rightfully hers. That is the story I was geared up to read.

I don't think Marni's story is actually that story. Yes, it has all those pieces - Marni is indeed the princess and, if she wanted, she could make a claim to the throne that her uncle inhabits. But she never really wants to, so this doesn't feel nearly as pressing as the blurb led me to believe. And yes, she is, in fact, half dragon, but whether or not her dragon father actually wants to claim her doesn't become clear until further in the book. I felt like the blurb attempted to create an air of mystery and suspense that the book just completely lacked. Nothing about the story's development felt urgent and I never really questioned what the ultimate outcome would be.

What I can give the book is its writing - but with a caveat. This book is indeed beautifully written - it's clear that Hahn has an enormous skill set at her disposal to craft this lyrical story. The caveat is this: I found it boring. Unlike other books that I find achingly beautifully written (see: everything by Laini Taylor and The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater), I felt like, in this case, that beautiful prose was a distraction from a rather boring story. I don't think we ever got to know Marni in a real way and the promise of dragons was, in my opinion, completely false (he barely reads as a dragon once we finally meet him).

Ultimately, this book just did not work for me. Judging by the other reviews I've seen, I appear to be in the minority on this one, so take that as you will. Thanks to the publisher for a digital advance reader's copy, provided via Edelweiss.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Review: There Will Come a Time

There Will Come a Time
By Carrie Arcos
Published 2014 by Simon Pulse

Mark has been suffering since the accident that killed his twin sister Grace. He has turned himself into a porcupine, prickly and angry, someone no one really knows how to deal with. His sister's best friend, Hanna, tries to offer him comfort and understanding, but Mark isn't sure what to want, especially when he feels so guilty. So when Hanna suggests they complete a list of Five Things I Want to Do This Year, written by Grace, Mark agrees begrudgingly. But checking those things off the list may just help him figure some things out.

I grabbed an ARC of this at ALA Midwinter on the author's name alone. I haven't read anything by her, but I know her 2013 release was a National Book Award finalist. That's enough to pique my interest in the new title. I'm really glad I picked this up.

This book is an astoundingly well-written portrait of grief. I've never lost a twin, but I have lost a sibling, and I am always interested in books that deal explicitly with this kind of loss, something that is not that common to see. Arcos does a fantastic job here, detailing the generalities of grief and the peculiarities of losing a sibling. As I said, I didn't lose a twin, so I don't know exactly what that feels like, but I feel pretty safe in saying that Arcos writes it accurately. The complex swirl of emotions is certainly accurate and Arcos did a fantastic job capturing many of the emotions I felt (and still feel to this day). Perhaps the two things I loved most Mark's grief were his difficulty understanding that he wasn't the only one to lose Grace and his insistence on remembering Grace as an imperfect person. I spent and still spend a lot of time trying to comprehend how my grief is different than that of my parents. Yes, we lost the same person, but we lost them in different ways. What does it mean to lose a sibling? What does it mean to lose a child? And this is just the tip of the iceberg. Mark has to slowly realize that he doesn't own the market on grief for Grace. She had many people in her life and she meant something different to all of them and they are all grieving differently for their unique losses.

Additionally, I really appreciated Mark's desire to remember not only Grace's good qualities, but her flaws as well. This is something I personally have struggled with surrounding the loss of my brother. We did not always have a good relationship, and I think that can be said of many siblings. The sibling relationship seems particularly fraught with complicated feelings. When my brother died, it was hard for me to see people remembering only the good times with him. Those are important, but they're only part of the picture. The good times are tangled up with the bad, and, to accurately remember and grieve a person, you have to look at the whole picture.  Arcos just captures so many pieces of the grief puzzle spot-on.

I though Mark was a great character and I loved his individual complexities. I like that Arcos incorporated his ethnic identity (the family is Filipino) seamlessly into the story, so it didn't become about their identity, but it was still important to creating him as a multi-dimensional character. I liked that he found the courage to reach out to a support group, something I've never done, to seek answers to some of his questions, many of which are similar to my own (i.e., "am I still a twin/am I still someone's sister?"). I loved the complexities of Mark's relationships with the other members of his family, as well as with his friends and his difficulty comprehending his sister's life separate from his own.

This book had me an emotional mess for probably the last 40 pages or so, but it felt good to feel that way. I can't imagine a reader who wouldn't be touched by this story and I hope it finds a wide audience.

My only complaint is that I felt the "bucket list" to be almost unnecessary to the plot. There is so much else happening that pushes the plot along that I frequently forgot Mark and Hanna were even working on the bucket list. But it does lead to some key emotional points in the story, so I can understand it. I just think the book probably would have worked without it also.

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

Monday, May 19, 2014

Review: Northwood

By Brian Falkner, illustrated by Donovan Bixley
Published 2014 by Capstone Young Readers

Cecilia can talk to animals, so it's only natural for her to rescue Rocky, a sad and neglected Samoyed who lives next door. How is she to know that this rescue will set off an unexpected chain of events that will find her lost in the mysterious Northwood forest? What she finds there is an even bigger mystery, one that Cecilia is determined to solve.

I am lucky to be auto-approved for all Capstone Young Readers titles, so when I spotted this one, I thought it sounded interesting enough to download. As I often say, I'm always looking for new titles to recommend to middle-grade readers at my library and I hoped this would fit the bill.

I'm not sure what to think of this book, though, ultimately, I think it's probably not anything too special. Cecilia is a fine, if underdeveloped character (how much we know about her aside from the talking to animals bit, I'm not sure) and the plot moves along nicely. But the story doesn't exactly work for me. It's framed by an unnamed narrator who philosophizes on the nature of truth and fiction and leaves readers to wonder whether the story contained within is true or not. I found this completely unnecessary and quite off-putting. It seemed like Falkner was trying too hard with this bit. Additionally, the story feels quite disjointed. The first part is about Cecilia discovering Rocky and rescuing him, which of course does not sit well with his owner. It seems like the story is going to continue on this path, with some sort of epic war between Cecilia's an Rocky's owner. Until, suddenly, it doesn't seem that way anymore. Now, the story takes Cecilia's to the forest and a mysterious castle, full of people who are trapped there.

This storyline is certainly more interesting than the one the book started with, but I might have enjoyed it more if I hadn't felt like the two were only barely connected. I kept waiting for Mr. Proctor, Rocky's owner, to make a reappearance as the villain of the castle, or to at least have something significant to do with that storyline but, alas, it wasn't to be. Perhaps the tangential development of the story won't matter to some young readers but it makes me more unlikely to recommend this to my patrons. There are better books out there, in my opinion.

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

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Program: Mad Science Monday

For our final Mad Science Monday of the fall, I decided to offer a Marshmallow Challenge. This is a team-building exercise that I've seen discussed all over the place, so I figured we'd give it a shot and see how the tweens would do.

I started with a short presentation introducing the Marshmallow Challenge. I explained that the kids would break into groups (we had groups of four) and that every group would have the exact same materials. I explained their goal: they would have eighteen minutes to try to create the tallest, free-standing structure that would balance a large marshmallow on its top, using only the materials provided. They all got really excited during the presentation, eager to get down to construction. I made them repeat the rules back to me, answered a handful of questions, and then we dove right in.

It was really interesting to watch group dynamics in this program. Groups were pretty much self-chosen, with some random assignments to balance numbers. Perhaps I should have done it entirely randomly (I know that might have eliminated the behavior problems I had between two brothers). What I think made it really interesting was the fact that most of the kids didn't necessarily know each other - they aren't in a classroom where they know all their classmates, or strictly with a group of friends. To see kids that were strangers just a matter of minutes before working together was pretty cool.

For the most part, the kids worked together really well. As I mentioned, I had a set of brothers who were not on their best behavior and who I probably should have separated before the program started. I also had one girl who was a little bossy with her teammates, but she loosened up a bit as the program went on.

Since the challenge only lasts eighteen minutes and the program was scheduled to last an hour, we ran it a couple times, changing groups and letting kids participate as individuals. They seemed to like the trial and error aspect quite a bit, and none of them got overwhelmingly frustrated when their constructions toppled. They had a lot of fun.

This program is turning out to a be a popular addition to my monthly tween programming. However, I myself am not feeling terribly enthusiastic about it. Between this program and other science programs held in the summer and last spring, I'm starting to run out of ideas. We have no budget for equipment and are pretty far behind in technology for programming. I feel like we've done most of the budget-friendly, household material science that can be done without getting repetitive. And, with a science theme for summer reading, I'm starting to scramble. Does anyone have any stellar science ideas for tweens that don't require a lot of equipment and aren't simply variations on a theme (other types of building/engineering challenges, etc.)? I've seen some things I'd love to do (like homemade rock candy), but that require a long period of waiting between experimentation and results or access to equipment we don't have. Any ideas are appreciated!

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Picture Book Saturday

Perfectly Percy
By Paul Schmid
Published 2013 by HarperCollins
I think I've read pretty much all of Schmid's books simply because they are too adorable to resist picking up from our new book cart. This book features another of his lovable porcupines, Percy. Percy loves balloons but, as you can probably guess, balloons and porcupines don't always mix. Intrepid Percy is determined to find a solution, though, and, of course, all ends well. A very sweet little story.

Open This Little Book
By Jesse Klausmeier, illustrated by Suzy Lee
Published 2013 by Chronicle Books
I feel pretty silly saying this, but I'm not sure I get this book. It doesn't seem to have much of a point or a story and I'm hard-pressed to imagine what one might gain from reading it more than once. To me, it sort of just seems like a concept book where once you've seen the concept through, there's really no point in seeing it again. As a matter of fact, I almost think that once you watch the book trailer, you've seen pretty much all this book has to offer. Maybe I am being too cynical here, but I just don't see the appeal of this one.
A Year with Marmalade
By Alison Reynolds, illustrated by Heath McKenzie
Published 2013 by Little Simon
This is a cute little story of a girl whose best friend moves away, leaving her cat Marmalade in her care. At first, as one might expect, the little girl and the little cat do not much get along. But, over the year, their relationship grows and changes, ultimately becoming a comforting thing for them both. I think the illustrations here are absolutely charming and this would work well in a story time about friends. A very sweet story.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Review: The Geography of You and Me

The Geography of You and Me
By Jennifer E. Smith
Published 2014 by Poppy

You don't expect to meet a new love interest while stuck in an elevator during a city-wide blackout but there Lucy and Owen are. They become friends during the blackout but, as life sends them to increasingly far-flung locales, they both wonder if that friendship is actually something more. Will they ever have a chance to find out?

I was a big fan of The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight and have been meaning to read Smith's subsequent books. When this, her latest, was available at ALA Midwinter, I happily snagged a copy and worked it into my reading schedule recently.

As I said in my review of that earlier title, it's always nice to get a lighthearted contemporary read in among all the usual dark and depressing stuff I read. And, I don't really think it's a spoiler to say that everything works out happily in this book, which, though perhaps unbelievable, is still nice to see every once in a while.

My main problem with this book was the first part. The first section of the book takes place during the blackout and introduces both Lucy and Owen. They meet, they start getting to know each other, and they realize they have some sort of connection. It's obviously necessary to the plot of the story for this section to exist. Unfortunately, I found this the least interesting part. I thought it lasted a bit too long and I was ready to move onto the story of how they were going to fall in love and end up together.

Once I got past the first part, I loved the way the story unfolded. The chapters alternate between a view into Lucy's life and one into Owen's and it's nice to see how their lives are unfolding in parallels. I love that they keep in touch through postcards (well, Owen does, at least) and I love that they are both on journeys, both physically and mentally. I love that their journeys are similar as well, of understanding who they are and of understanding their parents and how they relate to them. I liked that this book was about more than the romance between the two leads, but also that the romance developed so slowly. I'm not sure how believable any of it is, but it's still a sweet story to read. This is sure to please romance fans.

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

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Review: The Spy Catchers of Maple Hill

The Spy Catchers of Maple Hill
By Megan Frazer Blakemore
Published 2014 by Bloomsbury Childrens

Hazel Kaplansky is the smartest person in her town, despite the fact that she is only ten years old. But her title may be called into question when Samuel Butler arrives. Add to that Hazel's worry that the new gravedigger her parents hired, Mr. Jones, is a Communist spy and Hazel finds herself in quite a tizzy. She is determined to solve the mystery - and she might let Samuel help her along the way.

I just recently posted my review of Blakemore's previous middle-grade book, The Water Castle, which I found didn't quite live up to my expectations. I spotted her new title at ALA Midwinter and her publisher was very enthusiastic about it, so I happily took home a copy. Plus, this was historical fiction, set in Vermont (another place I love) and focusing on the McCarthy era. Okay, I'm all in for this set-up.

Once again, though, I find myself disappointed with the outcome. As before, I have no qualms with Blakemore's writing and I appreciate the complex emotions and surface level writing she is putting into books for middle-grade readers. It's clear that Blakemore doesn't believe in writing down to her readers. Similarly, I though Blakemore did an absolutely fantastic job with the setting, both geographically and temporally. I've been to Vermont, and I think Blakemore captured the small town feel quite nicely. Though I didn't live during the McCarthy era, it's clear that Blakemore is passionate about research and aiming for historical accuracy in her books. She brought the pervasive sense of suspicion and fear quite clearly to life in this book. I think kids will have an easy time understanding what it meant to be living in an era where no one really trusted their neighbor.

Unlike The Water Castle, though, this book falls down for me on the characters. I realize I am maybe in the minority with this, but I did not find Hazel charming or precocious or endearing at all. Quite frankly, she bothered me and made me wonder why her parents let her behave the way she did. She is cocky and gullible and often downright mean, which makes an unappetizing combination. I enjoyed the secondary characters far more, and wanted to know more of the stories of Maple Hill and its inhabitants.

For the right reader, this book has definite appeal, and there were certainly aspects of it that I enjoyed, but Hazel just did not work for me.

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

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Release Day Review: We Were Liars

We Were Liars
By e. lockhart
Expected publication May 13, 2014 by Delacorte Press

Cadence is the beautiful eldest grandchild of the powerful and alluring Sinclair family. But Cadence in summer seventeen is not the Cadence she was two years ago. Because something happened that changed her. And no one is talking about it.

I feel as if I've been hearing about this book forever. I follow the author on Twitter, as well as a number of the authors who read the manuscript, so I've been hearing overwhelming praise for this book even before ARCs came out. I was thrilled to get an ARC at ALA Midwinter - it certainly seemed like this book was getting the biggest push for the late spring/early summer.

Can I just say that I feel like a terrible person for not being completely in love with this book? I mean, really, I know I'm entitled to my opinion, and I know, maybe more frequently than I'd like, that opinion is allowed to be different from the norm. But that doesn't mean I still don't feel terrible that I can't quite rave about this book the way I expected to.

You see, not only was I expecting so much from this book because of the buzz, but I also expected a lot because of the author. I only read The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks last year, but it quickly became one of my favorites. And, as Emily Jenkins, lockhart has also written three of my most favorite children's books - the series that begins with Toys Go Out. So my expectations for this new book were extremely high.

And I don't want anyone to take my lack of raving for this book to mean that I don't think it's good. Because it is. This book is a killer. I mean, lockhart is one of the most talented writers I've ever read. I am completely enchanted with the structure of this story - I think it's absolutely brilliant and I am in serious awe of lockhart's ability to construct a meaningful and complex story this way. And, there are many other things I loved about this book - the use of fairy tales and Shakespeare and many other things that, if I felt like searching, I'm sure I'd find some deeper meaning for.

But, you know, it just didn't knock me over like I wanted it to. I never connected emotionally with the story, which made it more difficult for me to throw myself into it. And I thought it was quite easy to figure out what the big secret was. Maybe not all the details, but the general picture. And I'm usually rubbish at solving the mystery before you tell me.

That being said, I think this book is guaranteed to blow some people away and I hope it does excessively well. Because lockhart is a brilliant author and I want everyone to read her. But I choose Frankie over Cadence any day, though I realize that's a completely unfair comparison. I just wanted more of a surprise.

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

Monday, May 12, 2014

Review: After the End

After the End (After the End, book one)
By Amy Plum
Published 2014 by HarperTeen

Juneau's clan has been living off the land in Alaska since the rest of the world was decimated in World War III. But when Juneau returns from hunting to discover her clan has been kidnapped, everything she thought she knew is thrown into question. What is true? What falsehoods has she been told? And how can Miles, a stranger, help her figure it all out?

Once again, either I didn't read the blurb or didn't read it carefully enough or the blurb changed from ARC to final copy because I was not expecting this book to unfold the way it did. I was fully expecting a post-apocalyptic tale of survival and strangers meeting and uniting for a common goal. If you've read the blurb, then it's not a spoiler to say that this is not that book. Instead, this book is like the movie The Village, a movie I actually enjoyed (I know!), wherein a girl who believes one thing comes to discover that the elders of her village have not told the truth and they are actually living in a secluded community in the modern world. I think, had I been expecting this reveal, I might have enjoyed the book slightly better. Since it came as a surprise, I was a bit put off.

However, this book also incorporates some strange earth magic, which I found interesting. I liked the alternating narrative - between Juneau and Miles - and I found them both appealing characters. I didn't find the chemistry between the two of them all that believable, though, and I was frustrated that Juneau doesn't get many of the answers she's searching for. I realize this is book one of a series (which I did know before I started reading), but there is such a thing as leaving too much out in book one. I wanted Juneau to at least find her clan, or at least get answers from Whit, or at least something else, but she got none of that. I felt the ending to be very abrupt, which also bothered me, but I suppose is meant to force you to read book two. I suppose I will, because I want the answers almost as badly as Juneau does. This will definitely appeal to a certain audience of YA readers and we'll see where it goes from here.

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

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Program: Daycare Storytime

Our last daycare visits of the fall were scheduled in November and, with the Thanksgiving holiday, we had to move things around a bit. What this meant for me was that I combined my daycare storytime with a colleague's and we did something a little extra special for them. Here's what we did!

Opening: We Clap and Sing Hello - pretty standard opening song. We clap, stomp, and wave to sing hello at storytime.

Rhyme/Song: Sticky Bubblegum - my coworker had been doing this rhyme (song? not sure which is the more apt descriptor) with her weekly storytime group all fall and so we included it for our daycares. It's a very popular song, and very simple. It goes like this:

Sticky, sticky, sticky bubblegum
Bubblegum, bubblegum
Sticky, sticky, sticky bubblegum
Sticking your hands to your _____
Ready? Un-stick!
You choose a different body part to stick your bubblegum to with each repetition. We limited it to 5, I think, but the kids probably would have kept going.

Book: One Potato, Two Potato by Todd H. Doodler - we chose our storytime theme to be friends at least partly because we wanted to include this book. It is so darn silly and adorable. The kids really liked it, particularly when the potatoes all get mashed.

Song: Head and Shoulders - another typical storytime song, though our version gets faster with each repetition for added fun.

Performance: A Big Guy Took My Ball by Mo Willems - our storytime attendees are always clamoring for a puppet show, so when we decided to make this a special daycare storytime, we planned on doing just that. However, we couldn't find a puppet show we really wanted to do and we both love Elephant and Piggie, so we decided to do a performance of one of their books instead. It wasn't a full-scale skit; we showed the illustrations on our projector while I voiced Gerald and my coworker voiced Piggie. We did bring out a whale puppet to be the big guy, who I also voiced. This was a huge hit with the kids.

Song: Shake My Sillies Out by Raffi - one final chance to get up and move around before our last special surprise. 

Movies: Red and Yellow by Josh Selig - so, everyone I work with is obsessed with this little video of Red and Yellow and their noisy night. It's from Josh Selig, one of the creators of the Wonderpets, and is part of a series of shorts that aim at promoting peaceful conflict resolution. We showed three of these short videos to close out our storytime. The kids were absolutely enthralled.

Goodbye: Tickle the Clouds - another of my coworker's traditional bits of storytime, this was how we said goodbye to everyone.
Tickle the clouds
Tickle your toes
Turn around
Tickle your nose
Reach down low
Reach up high
The stories are over,

And that was our special daycare storytime to end our fall visits!

Friday, May 9, 2014

Review: Lola and the Boy Next Door

Lola and the Boy Next Door
By Stephanie Perkins, read by Shannon McManus
Published 2011 by Listening Library

Lola is a unique spirit, but she also leads a pretty normal life. Until the Bells move back in next door. Now, Lola is filled with all the doubts that plagued her in the past and must decide if she's ready to finally face the boy next door.

I listened to and adored Anna and the French Kiss, so it was a no-brainer for me to download the audio of Perkins' second novel and give it a whirl. I wasn't disappointed. So far, both of Perkins' books have been exactly what I want them to be - fun, romantic reads, with interesting characters, but also some depth. I liked Lola as much, if not more than, Anna, and I enjoyed Cricket as much as St. Clair. I also loved that Perkins featured Anna and St. Clair in this book in a way that didn't feel gimmicky - it felt natural, and I appreciated getting the chance to revisit those characters. I'm eager to see if she pulls it off again in book three.

I really appreciated how unique the characters in this book are and yet how real they also feel. Lola is the girl I wish I had the courage to be in high school - she's not really afraid to be herself, she has an impeccable sense of style, and she absolutely adores her dads. In fact, the relationship between Lola and her dads was one of my favorite parts of the book. So often, parents are either absent or awful in teen books. It's very refreshing to see a set of parents who worry about their daughter, but also trust and respect her a great deal. And it's very clear that Lola holds her fathers in extremely high regard, yet still recognizes that they are human and will occasionally be a pain to her or make a mistake. I loved this part of the book.

And the romance here? SWOON. I mean, I'm a grown woman and this book had me feeling all dreamy and nostalgic for that crazy way your first love feels, however long it may last. Perkins develops the romance perfectly and Cricket is an absolute stunner of a leading man. I don't often get all pitter-pattery over fictional characters but I'm pretty sure Cricket is a dreamboat I wouldn't mind meeting in real life.

Additionally, the complications throughout the book felt very realistic to me and I think Perkins has really done a fantastic job of capturing the ups and downs of young love. I can't wait to tune into her next book.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Review: The Peculiar

The Peculiar (The Peculiar, book one)
By Stefan Bachmann, read by Peter Altschuler
Published 2012 by Greenwillow Books

Bartholomew and his sister are Peculiars - changelings. They try their best to remain unnoticed. But when a mysterious lady arrives in his neighborhood, seemingly up to no good, it's going to be very difficult for Bartholomew to keep himself away.

It's never a good sign when I start a review by saying I think I would have done better with this one in print rather than audio. I'm really sad that's the case with this one, because I was really looking forward to it.

When it held my attention, I really enjoyed what I was hearing. But that's the problem here - this book did not continuously hold my attention in audio. I've a feeling that, plot-wise, it's not exactly a thrill-a-minute and didn't translate well to audio. However, the story was interesting and well-written. I liked what I heard, but unfortunately, I had a hard time staying completely engaged in the audio. As such, I'm not sure what more I can write in this review. I liked the alternating of the story and, as I said, when it held my interest it was enjoyable. I think I'll read it in print before picking up the sequel, as I'd like to have a better idea of what I missed in audio and I am indeed interested enough to want to pick up the companion novel.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Review: The Islands of Chaldea

The Islands of Chaldea
By Diana Wynne Jones and Ursula Jones
Published 2014 by Greenwillow Books

Aileen comes from a long line of powerful witches. Unfortunately, the magic seems to have skipped her. So, she's a bit perplexed as to why she's accompanying her Aunt Beck on a mission from the king to work some serious magic. As their travels continue, though, it becomes clear this mission is much more than meets the eye. And Aileen may just have the talents they need to succeed.

Bad Librarian confession time: this is the first Diana Wynne Jones book I've read. As I've mentioned before, I pretty much stopped reading fantasy during my formative years, so there's a lot of it that I've yet to go back and revisit. Diana Wynne Jones happens to be one of those authors. This is her final book, completed by her sister (also an author) after her death. I figured my time to read her was long overdue, so I snagged an ARC at ALA Midwinter and set to reading.

This is probably not relevant to anyone not reading this in ARC form but I was really annoyed at the packaging of this book. There was absolutely no blurb or plot description to be found anywhere on the ARC - not on the back cover or inside front cover or the first few pages. The back cover was devoted to the explanation of how the book came into being. So, essentially, I went into this book knowing nothing about the plot. I found that very frustrating.

But, since that probably won't impact readers of the book in finished form, let's move on. I found this to have a pretty slow start. It seemed like there was a bit more introductory information than was altogether necessary, and I didn't find myself caring too much about the book until the main journey was underway. Once the merry band of travelers begins their journey, however, things pick up pace and I found myself quite engaged in their story. I liked exploring the islands and the differences among the lands the characters visited. I think this probably points to at least one reason why Wynne Jones is a respected fantasy author - it's easy to get swept up in the worlds she creates.

I also quite enjoyed the many characters we meet in this story. Aileen was easy to root for, though she was a bit frustrating and stubborn at times (particularly with regards to Ivar, though it was quite clear early on how that storyline was going to play out). I liked all the other travelers as well, with Aunt Beck most likely being my favorite. I liked meeting more characters along the way and it never felt overwhelming or confusing, which I appreciated.

Though I think the ending was incredibly easy to see coming, I still found it a satisfactory resolution for the story. I'm definitely interested enough to check out some of her other titles. Any advice on where to start?

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

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Program: Adventure Club

In the fall, we finally decided to tackle a topic in Adventure Club that we knew would be a hit: Lego Ninjago. Thankfully, many other brilliant librarians have run Ninjago programs in the past, so we found numerous ideas to use in our program. Additionally, I did spend some time on the Wiki myself, which was helpful the day of the program, as the kids wanted hints for things and liked having an adult they could talk to that actually knew what they were talking about. Here's what we did!

As others have done before, we set our program up in stations, representing the different characters. We like having stations, as they usually keep the program flowing well, and the different talents of the characters made it easy to differentiate between the tasks.

Zane's Villain Knockdown: I printed out a picture of one villain from each of the three main categories and taped the pictures to cardboard tubes. We set them on a table and provided the kids with origami ninja stars and they set to work taking out as many of the villains as they could. Each kid got five stars to throw. Needless to say, they liked throwing them.

Jay's Gadget Station: We definitely took this idea directly from another librarian's Ninjago program, asking the kids to create a new ninja gadget using as few Legos as possible. Our kids seemed to completely ignore the last part of the instructions, but we had plenty of Legos for everyone, so it wasn't really an issue.

Sensei Wu's Brain Training: The obligatory trivia station - but I was surprised by how many kids had never seen the show and still shown up. I suppose I shouldn't be surprised by this anymore, but I find it interesting. I left the answers, covered and clearly marked, on the table so that the station would run itself, but the kids seemed to like it better when I was over there providing them hints before telling them the answers.

Kai's Morning Course: Another idea we borrowed from someone else, we created a pretty basic obstacle course for the kids to navigate. They had to collect bones and retrieve a sword while avoiding lava and balancing on one leg. Pretty hilarious to watch - they really liked this station.

Cole's Building Station: This was the one that I had the hardest time coming up with and it showed in the program - it was the least popular station. I had the kids trying to build houses of cards, since Cole has the ability to move earth and build mountains. A handful of kids tried it, but no one seemed that interested.

In the last few minutes of the program, we had a raffle to give away a couple of the books. Overall, we had a good turnout and the kids seemed to enjoy themselves, so definitely a success. Maybe our more successful Adventure Club to date!

Saturday, May 3, 2014

April Check-In

Once again, it's time to check my stats for the month! Here's what I read!

Middle-grade: 14

Teen: 5

Adult: 7

Picture books: 14

Library books: 25

Books owned: 15

So, here's what happened this month. First, a bunch of new picture books came into the library, so that accounts for a lot of my library book numbers. Also, I read all the Big Nate chapter books in preparation for a program (though each book probably only took me 90 minutes to read). And lastly, of course, are the audiobooks that I continue to power through. I am starting to feel a bit disheartened with my progress on my physical TBR - there are still boxes of books next to my bed and they are not going away as fast as I want them to. I know part of the problem is that I'm still reading a lot of e-galleys so that's cutting into my reading time for the physical books in my house. But I don't want to fall completely behind on what's being published while I try to read down my pile. I guess I still haven't found the perfect balance, but I'll keep trucking along. Of course, any youth services librarian in a public library knows that summer is crazy season, plus my personal schedule for May is pretty jam-packed, so I'm not feeling too optimistic about making much progress in the coming months. Words of encouragement are appreciated!

Friday, May 2, 2014

Review: Always, Emily

Always, Emily
By Michaela MacColl
Published 2014 by Chronicle Books

Emily and Charlotte Bronte are sisters, but they are also quite different. They each have their own unique talents, talents that they will put to use in an attempt to solve a series of mysterious occurrences in their village. Can they figure out what's going on before someone else is harmed?

Almost exactly a year ago, I read my first MacColl novel, a mystery featuring a young Emily Dickinson. I'm tempted to just copy and paste my review of that book here, switching out a few details, because I feel pretty much the same way about this book. I love seeing authors reinvent famous folks, and the Bronte family is a particularly interesting one. Once again, what I enjoyed most about this book was the characters - Emily and Charlotte. As with Emily Dickinson, it's interesting to imagine what these girls were like as teenagers and I think MacColl has done an admirable job bringing them to life. Once again, I find it a bit disheartening to know that neither Bronte sister lived a terribly long life, particularly once you read about them so young and spirited.

As with the previous title I read, I found the mystery in the book interesting enough, particularly with the involvement of the Bronte brother and the Masons. I felt this mystery was a bit more successful in terms of feeling exciting or dangerous, so I think it has slightly more appeal to teens than the previous book might have. I appreciate the author's note at the end, encouraging readers to find out more about the Brontes and particularly to read their works if the reader hasn't done so yet.

Ultimately, while I found this a pleasant enough read with an interesting mystery, I'm not sure how memorable it is. Thanks to the publisher for an advance reader's copy.