Monday, November 17, 2014

Isn't it Ironic???

The irony of the school librarian’s life is that the activity she loves the most – namely, reading books – becomes an impossibility once school actually starts. I do manage to read, of course, but not nearly as much as I’d like.  Given the environment in which I work, where I am completely surrounded by good books, it’s like someone with a gluten allergy working in a bakery. My job actually requires me to read children’s books regularly – I have to know what it is I’m giving the kids, after all. Picture books are no problem, since I can whip through one in less than five minutes. I can even manage to get through a kids chapter book in a week or so, and I know a lot of people would scoff at reading kiddy lit, but many of them are really excellent. In fact, I generally enjoy reading kids books more than grown-up ones. Where I suffer, though, is in the young adult books that are my bread and butter. They are longer and take more time and attention. I’ve only managed one since school started three months ago. It is that lone book which is the focus of this blog.

“The Infinite Sea,” by Rick Yancey, is the second part of a planned trilogy, which began in the bleak, yet strangely hopeful, “The 5th Wave.” The second book in a trilogy is often considered a “bridging” book, where the third book is set up, and relationships are explored, but nothing much happens. There is a small sense of that in “The Infinite Sea,” that sense that we are biding our time and the real resolution of the story is still to come, but there is still plenty going on. In fact, the action rarely lets up, and the reader is pushed breathlessly on to the next chapter and the next. Despite my lack of reading time, I managed to plow through this book in just a few days time, because there was no resting place.

As always, I will attempt to plant no real spoilers, but if you haven’t read the first book, I am inevitably going to. At the beginning of “The Infinite Sea,” Cassie,  Zombie, Ringer and the rest of their small band of survivors are holed up in an abandoned hotel following the destruction of Camp Haven. Cassie waits hopefully for Evan to meet up with them, though they all feel certain there was no way he lived through the explosions. Winter has set in, and they know they will not last the season in the hotel. Ringer sets off to explore some nearby caves they have read about in an old brochure, and things do not go well along the way. She and Teacup end up back in the hands of an old enemy. Naturally, Evan shows up, but he was so badly injured that somehow he has lost the super-human abilities that his alien-enhanced body had given him up until then.

Where the first book was really Cassie’s story, this book focuses mainly on Ringer. We find out her background – where she came from, what she hides, what drives her. A new character, Razor, acts as a foil to bring out this information. She becomes more personal and more human, even as Vosch’s experiments attempt to stamp out her very humanity.

There are a couple themes in this book that Yancey returns to frequently.  Cassie regularly refers to the time that they are living in as sort of an in-between time; a resetting of the clock back to zero, before people were on the earth. She comes to see it as a sort of natural progression, which was demonstrated by the problem of the rats that infest the abandoned hotel.  Though no one likes them, Teacup is particularly disturbed by the rats in the hotel. They chew and gnaw and scamper inside the walls, and she can scarcely sleep at night for the noise. Ringer doesn’t understand why she hates them so much, and Teacup explains that their very gnawing will eventually destroy the home they live in. Ringer sees the parallel between what the rats are doing to the hotel, and what humans had been doing to their planet; their very existence means destruction.

More is revealed about the aliens’ plan, and the even more insidious ways that they are using humanity to destroy itself. There are questions left unanswered though, like what the aliens want with the planet in the first place, and why they are using such personal and vindictive means to eliminate the human race. When they could have destroyed the entire population with any of the previous waves, why do they seem intent on drawing it out and prolonging human suffering?

Like “The 5th Wave,” this installment is a peculiar combination of hope and despair. Though most of the world’s population is gone, the ragtag remnants of humanity are resilient. Cassie’s pluckiness and fierce temper, Ringer’s cold determination, Ben’s goofy humor, and even Poundcake’s self-imposed solitude are so much more complex than the alien’s give them credit for. The aliens believe that humanity has no chance, and the humans know it to be true, but they aren’t willing to just give up. Cassie says in the first book that if she is going to die, it will be in trying to fulfill the promise she made to her brother, not curling up in a hole and waiting for death. That senseless heroism gives the reader hope as we head in to the final book. It seems that somehow, these few individuals, with the help of Evan, who knows details of the alien plan, might somehow prevail.

There is a third book currently in the works, and I can only hope that Yancey doesn't leave us all hanging too long.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Waiting for Sequels - The Agony and, Well, the Agony

YA authors just love to write series'. Most of the realistic fiction manages to resolve itself in one book, but all of the adventures and fantasies seem to require at least three books to wrap everything up. It's clever marketing; write a fabulous book, and end it at a logical point that resolves much, but leaves enough questions unanswered that fans will just be stumbling over themselves to buy the next book. Yes, that was me last Tuesday, high-tailing it to Barnes and Noble to buy Rick Yancey's "The Infinite Sea." Give me some credit; I did attempt to buy it at a local bookstore (they need me as their buyer!), but they didn't have it yet, so I bowed at the corporate alter and gave them my $18.99.

I had read the first book, "The 5th Wave," when it first came out. Which means that I have been waiting for some kind of resolution for months and months. When I got "The Infinite Sea," I read past page 100 in the first 24 hours, but since I have a husband, five kids, and a full-time job, I don't have the luxury of just sitting and reading as much as I want.

This is me!
There were also two other books I was actively reading at the time, and two more I was dabbling in, so I am not going to finish it as quickly as I'd like. Here I am at the weekend and you would think I would have the time. But no. There are the potatoes and carrots to pull before the ground freezes, a house that has been neglected all week, and always, always, there is wood to split. Not complaining, mind you; Jack just got me a new splitting maul and it splits wood like it's going through butter. Good clean fun!

Suffice to say, I won't have time to finish and review "The Infinite Sea" just yet, so to tantalize you, I am going to share my review of "The 5th Wave" that I wrote just after reading it for the first time. Yes, I've read it more than once. I liked it so much, and knew my husband would like it too, so I read it out loud to him. The whole thing. But not in one sitting. He loved it! I think you, my loyal readers, would love it too. So, without further ado, here is my initial review of "The 5th Wave," by Rick Yancey.

Aliens have invaded earth in four different waves, obliterating 97% of the earth's population in six short months. Cassie Sullivan is one of the few desperate survivors. She has been separated from her five year old brother, Sam, and her only aim is to get him back. She knows that a 5th wave is probably coming, and that they are all as good as dead, but she promised her brother she would find him, and she wants to fulfill that promise or die in the attempt. When she meets Evan Walker on his isolated farm, she is unsure if he is the answer to her prayers or an enemy in disguise. Meanwhile, we are following another character named Zombie, as he is trained by the ragtag remnants of the U.S. military in a sort of children's army. Questions arise . . . Is Evan for real? Will she find Sam? What is the connection between Cassie and Zombie? And what, exactly, is the 5th Wave?

"The 5th Wave" was painful, heart-wrenching and bleak, yet because of the great development of the characters, it is not a despairing book. Cassie is so sarcastic and self-deprecating, I found myself laughing at her miseries. The occasional flashbacks to her former life show her to be just an ordinary, average teenage girl. She is not as traumatized by events as she could be, because she still has Sam to live for. Zombie, by comparison, has more emotional baggage. His story is darker and more fatalistic. He goes by the name Zombie because he knows he is the walking dead. He only wants to exact as much revenge as possible before he dies for real. The big question becomes, on whom should he be seeking revenge? There are snippets of viewpoints from Sam, and from another character named Silencer as well, which help to flesh out the story.

The scenes involving the children's army, and Sam's experiences at Camp Haven, are the most affecting to me. As a mom, my heart was aching for these children who would never have a childhood. As in most YA books, there is an element of young love and romance, but given the circumstances, that storyline remains very secondary compared with the problem of survival. Most YA books have me all taken in by the romantic angle, but with "The 5th Wave", my main concern was, will Cassie ever find Sam? She must find Sam!!!

Does she find him? I'll never tell. I may be a lot of things, but I am not someone who gives spoilers! Read it yourself. You won't regret it. And if you live in my town, I've got a copy I can loan you!

Sunday, September 7, 2014

So Many Books . . . So Little Time

I love my job. Really, I do. But once the students come back, every spare minute of my day is suddenly sucked into an abyss. Combine this with my own five children who have to be shuttled about, and I suddenly have zero time to read or blog! I'm sure I could improve my time management skills somewhat, but unless I forego sleep, there's just not much wiggle room.

My workouts are also suffering, since it's too freaking dark to run at 5:30 a.m. anymore. The logical thing would be to run in the late afternoon, but by the time kids have been shuttled to their various things, and I get dinner on the table, it's just too late. Homework needs to be done, lunches made, and bedtime enforced!

So, here it is, nearly midnight on a Saturday, and I'm finally able to sit down and do a little blogging. This time I am reviewing the second and third Newbery books I read this summer. They were, "The Cat Who Went to Heaven" by Elizabeth Coatsworth, and "Crispin and the Cross of Lead," by Avi.

"The Cat Who Went to Heaven" is the second of my Newbery books . . . . loved this little story. I'm not sure if Coatsworth invented the story entirely, or if it's based on a Japanese folktale, but it has that dreamy, timeless quality of folklore. The main character in the story, a nameless Japanese artist, muses on the life and death of Buddha, thereby relating many traditional Buddhist stories. Many animals came to pay respects to Buddha as he lay dying, but the cat was not welcome, because the cat, alone of all animals, refused Buddha's teachings. This saddens the artist, who believes his beloved cat has brought him good fortune in life. The cat has even been named Good Fortune.

Compassion is the main theme of this book, and it takes many forms. The old housekeeper has compassion for her master, and he for her. He has compassion for his pet, and finally, Buddha exhibits compassion to Good Fortune, and to all cats.

This book is something more than a picture book, though it has lovely ink illustrations, and something less than a chapter book. It would be a quick read for most kids, though again, as with the last Newbery book I reviewed, it has a limited appeal to modern children.

As of yesterday, the final puzzle piece of my quest to read three Newbery books over the summer is in place! It took me a while to finish "Crispin and the Cross
of Lead," mostly because of a lack of reading time.

It wasn't a slow read because I didn't like it. On the contrary, this was a rich and wonderful adventure, with complex characterizations, and an engaging plot. Historical fiction isn't a big seller with kids nowadays. I think they see it as boring, old-fashioned, and lacking in action. Granted, the language and style is a bit different than in contemporary realistic fiction, but there is plenty of action and intrigue available if you find the right book.

Crispin had been brought up by his mother as a peasant in the small 14th century village of Stromford. He was called only "Asta's Son," and didn't discover his true name until his mother's untimely death. When she dies, mysteries concerning Crispin are suddenly brought to light. He is falsely accused of a crime and is forced to flee for his life. He escapes with only his mother's lead cross, upon which something is written. Like most peasants, he is illiterate, and doesn't know what it says, but he knows that it's important. Soon after hitting the road, Crispin becomes apprentice and surrogate son to Bear, a traveling entertainer. But even Bear's protection is not enough as Crispin's past comes back to haunt him.

I enjoyed Crispin's growth from shy, stuttering outcast to confident and courageous young man. The setting of the story was at a time when the lands were owned by lords, and the majority of the people worked for them, barely scraping by. People were wretchedly unhappy, and Crispin's new master, Bear, is involved in the struggle for change. He encourages Crispin to think for himself and speak truthfully. I also liked the spiritual element of the book; Crispin has a deep and profound faith, but learns from Bear that you can love and trust God without trusting the church, which was horribly corrupt at the time. When Crispin makes a vow, he considers it holy, and that to break such a vow would be mortal sin. That kind of conviction and integrity are in short supply these days!

This story continues in two more books. Though I have heard they aren't as good as the first, I've found the story intriguing enough to want to know what happens next.

I'm really enjoying the old Newbery books, and I'm going to continue trying to read one a month during the school year.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Kids Everywhere!

Today was the second day the students were back at school. So far all has gone smoothly, and I'm finding my second year to be much easier. I know the names and personalities, and can head off problems before they occur. Not that there are too many problems. By and large, our student population is pretty well-behaved and pleasant.

There is this one sweet second grader. I'll call him Robert, but obviously, that's not his real name. I saw him several times over the summer, and a couple of times around the school before the first day. Every time, without fail, he runs up to me as if he's spotted a celebrity and gives me a big hug. He is simply overflowing with enthusiasm for life, and I hope that never changes. I don't know what kind of student he is, but I'll tell you this, he is one of those kids that can just light up your day.

I've set up a few displays; my "LEAF Summer Behind and FALL in to a Good Book" ensemble is taking up the ginormous shadow box outside the library, and inside is my new book display, and a display of the books I read over the summer. One of those on my summer reads display is "Caddy's World," the most recent of Hilary McKay's books about the eccentric Casson family of London.

Let me start by saying I love McKay's Casson books. They are just the perfect blend of funny and serious, and all the strange happenings of this little family unit will keep you guessing constantly. This was the only one of them I hadn't read, and though it departs from the others in terms of it's timeline, it has the same spirit, and made me smile just as much.

In this offering, McKay takes us back in time to when Caddy was twelve, and baby sister Rose was about to come into her life. Even then, the Casson household was turbulent and topsy-turvy, although Caddy can remember a time when it was just her, Eve and Bill. She loves her family and home, and doesn't envy her friends, except perhaps for their stability and normalcy.

Caddy has three best friends. Ruby, the smart one, is being raised by her four grandparents together, in a quiet, scholarly home with an enormous pet cat. Beth, the perfect one, has a perfect home, a less-than-perfect little sister, and a beloved pony. Alison, who hates everyone, is all about image. Caddy is the bravest of the brave, but if I had to label her, I would call her selfless. She wants the best for her friends, and encourages them to be their best selves, even if it impacts her own life negatively. Each of these girls has problems in their seemingly idyllic lives, but none of them quite measure up to Caddy's.

Into her already eccentric home, the new baby has arrived early and clings precariously to life. Caddy, who has unsuccessfully nursed a succession of orphaned animals, has the feeling her fragile little sister will suffer the same fate. Father Bill is much more present in this book than he was in any of the others, and ends up being quite likeable, though Saffron refers to him even then as "Bloody Daddy."

I especially enjoyed how the book ended by flashing forward to the time of Caddy's fateful driving lesson, where, with little Rose in attendance, she meets darling Michael for the first time.

Though this is part of a series, this book could easily stand alone. It was equally as enjoyable as the others. These are books I would like to own, because I could read them over and over. Good thing they are on my library shelf; I can grab one any time I want. They never fail to put a smile on my face.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Being Professional

Well, the Tanana Valley State Fair is over, heralding the end of summer in Fairbanks.  Every year I say I wouldn’t even go if it weren’t for the annual photo magnet we get taken, but I always end up having a good time. The absence of cheese curds was a matter of sorrow for me, but a couple smoked turkey legs and some bear claws helped take the edge off the pain.

This year, the kids were big enough we could split up into smaller groups. Emma was off with her friends. Gabe took Henry on a couple of rides. Jack and I even got to go off alone and ride the Octopus. Over the years, I have convinced myself that I don’t really like rides anymore, but it was so much fun. I had forgotten about the thrill that adrenaline can give you.

I’ve been back at work for a week now, and most of what I’ve been doing is purging old files and supplies, and general reorganization. Furniture has been moved, book sets relocated, and the entire look of my office and circulation desk has changed.  My home tends to exist in a state of barely organized chaos, while my workplace has always been a quieter and more orderly haven. Now it’s even more so. Tomorrow, I’ll be able to do some actual library tasks, like processing new books.

Giddy with Anticipation!
Today’s review is one I have been avoiding, because it is one of those books that reduces me to a gibbering, juvenile fangirl. Yes, that’s right, today I am reviewing “Four: A Divergent Collection,” by Veronica Roth. The emotional part of me wants to just gush, “ohmigosh, ohmigosh, it was sooooo good!!!” The professional in me needs to come up with something better; I need to explain why it was so good. Let me begin by explaining the premise of the book. If you’ve read the Divergent trilogy, or even just the first book, you will be familiar with the character of Four/Tobias. This book is a collection of short stories told in Four’s voice, covering the time between his and Tris’ initiations, and including much of the same time period as “Divergent.” This is not the first time we have heard his voice; half of “Allegiant,” the third book, is written from his point of view as well. 

Four’s voice is similar to Tris’, but there is an additional spareness that gives it a more masculine sense. Seeing the happenings of the book from his eye gives a more complete vision of the story. Four differs from Tris in that he seems to have a better understanding of himself, but they are the same in that they both see through the veneer of Dauntless and the faction system to what lies beneath. Before he joins Dauntless, while he is still Tobias, he has an encounter with a factionless man, and thinks “there is something appealing about it here, too, a freedom, a refusal to belong to these arbitrary categories we’ve made for ourselves.” Even before he has made it, Tobias understands the rigidness and limits of the choice he has to make.

The bulk of the plot is like “Divergent,” naturally, but the story is fleshed out with details we don’t get in the original. More information emerges about Tobias’ childhood, and Marcus’ monstrous behavior. It’s amazing to me that Marcus would expect Tobias to stay in Abnegation and continue to subject himself to abuse, when escape was just a drop of blood away. It’s hard to reconcile the skinny, self-conscious boy with the more masculine and confident Four we know from the trilogy, but the transformation is logical. It’s a matter of harnessing the inner core of strength that enabled him to survive his horrific childhood.

We learn some things that are complete surprises – that Four knew his mother was alive long before Tris joined Dauntless, and that he attempted to warn Marcus about the attack on Abnegation. Seeing Tris from his point of view is interesting; he cares about her and hates to see her suffering in the simulations, but his compassion never descends to pity. He is awed by her strength and capability; “I’m hard on her because I know she can handle it. And also because I don’t know any other way to be.” Later, when he posts the scores after the simulation training, he worries that her high score might make her a target for jealous competitors. He realizes though, “This girl would never want to be tucked safely in the middle of the pack, never.”

I have been professional. I have been logical. Now I get to gush a little! One of the reasons I loved this book so much is that it fulfilled a desire I often have after reading a good story that is told in a first person perspective. It’s the desire to understand the other person’s view. When I read the Hunger Games trilogy, I thought, “wouldn’t it be awesome if she wrote another series that related the same events, but told by Peeta?” I always wondered what Peeta really thought and felt; we get an idea, but we don’t’ really knowWhen the ebooks about Four started to come out, well, I was ecstatic! At last, we get to hear the other side of the story!

Another reason that I loved the book is just because, it’s Four, man! My old co-worker, Julie, an English teacher, coined a phrase for me that has stuck in my vocabulary ever since. She referred to the male leads in books as her “book boyfriends.” They aren’t real, after all, so they are harmless to crush on, and they are so attractive and appealing. Who didn’t want to be Katniss to “book boyfriend” Peeta? Who didn’t want to be Clary to “book boyfriend” Jace? Who doesn’t want to be Tris to “book boyfriend” Four? I never read the Twilight books, but I’m sure the Bella-Edward thing is the same. It’s the classic appeal of the romantic hero, and Four has that charisma in spades. I can analyze books and enjoy the story and the characters, but what really hooks me in is always the romance. My husband doesn't get it. We are watching the old "Burn Notice" seasons on DVD right now, and while I love the action and plot twists, really, it's all about the love story between Michael and Fiona.  I am such a girl, that way, but I have a feeling I am not alone in this. 

So thank you, Veronica Roth, for an amazing series. I know you have other things to write, but if you ever wanted to write more about Four, I would buy it. I loved it all, except, you know, for that little part in the third book that I (and pretty much the rest of the world) absolutely hated. But still, I own them all, and they have a place of honor on my shelf with my other favorite YA books - The Hunger Games trilogy, the Matched trilogy, the Mortal Instruments and Infernal Devices series'. Dear readers, the bottom line is this:  "Four - A Divergent Collection" is a must-read for anyone who enjoyed the Divergent trilogy. Do yourself a favor, just go out and buy it.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Do as I Say, Not as I do!!!

In my last blog, I extolled the virtues of writing even when you don't feel like it. So naturally, it has been nearly two weeks since I've written anything - unless you count the occasional tweet, Facebook status, or grocery list - which I don't.

Life sneaks up on you. I realized that I had managed to procrastinate all summer on getting my kids their dental appointments and check-ups. With only a couple weeks until starting back to work, I was suddenly under some deadlines! I've managed to get all the kids in, but there are now cavities, wisdom tooth extractions, and orthodontic consultations to plan for. Not one, not two, but three orthodontic consultations! Let me tell you this, boys and girls, do NOT neglect your teeth!!! We are regrettably lax in our household about our daily dental care, and it has caught up with us!

Emma as "Rich Person"
And our Emma is now home after a fabulous fun-filled and dance-heavy month in Anaheim. She met lots of people from all over the country and even the world, and most importantly, she feels she has become a better dancer. Here she is in one of the costumes she wore for their final show. There were a number of costumes, but this is my favorite. Isn't she lovely? Isn't she wonderful? She is off this morning to a job interview of sorts. Best part; she's driving herself! Now, we just need to get her a vehicle of her own, so Mom and the rest of the kids aren't stranded when she goes somewhere.

There have been a few nice days sprinkled in, but the rain continues for the most part. While the housework beckons, I decided to sneak in a book review before the kids get up. Today's book is "The Fourth Stall," by Chris Rylander. This book was a bit of a sleeper for me. I picked it off the shelf at my library because I knew it was popular with boys from the middle grades. It didn't grab me right away. I was not instantly struck with an intense desire to find out what happens next. But it had a sneaky way of building up, and by about six chapters in, I was hooked. I kept finding time to slip off to my room to read another chapter or two.

The whole concept of the book is clever and imaginative. Mac is a 6th grader, a little on the small side, not much of an athlete, not much to look at, but he more or less runs his school. You see, Mac and his bestie, Vince, operate a business out of the fourth stall of an unused restroom. Mac is the problem solver. Vince is the manager. Together they make peoples troubles go away in exchange for money or favors. Generally, it's nothing illegal; Mac and Vince are nice guys, and they don't want to see anyone get hurt. But then someone else moves in on Mac's territory, and starts an all-out war.

I expected to dislike Mac. Given the premise of the book, I thought he would be one of those thoroughly smart-mouthed kids who are too big for their britches. Surprisingly, Mac is a thoroughly likeable guy. He is smart and resourceful, but also compassionate and intuitive. And in Staples, Rylander manages to create a villain who is at once detestable and sympathetic. Some of the funniest moments in the book come when Vince quotes metaphors from his senile grandma, such as "Don't wash the cat until the raccoon eats his glue stick."

I enjoyed this book more than I thought I would. We have books two and three at our library, and while I won't be beating down the door to get to them, I will probably read them eventually. Even if these are books that don't pique my own personal interest, they are well done, and their appeal to middle grade boys is obvious and undeniable.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Rainy Day Musings

Maybe a rainy day can inspire great ideas!
On this dark and gloomy morning I thought I should sit down and work on a blog, but then I thought "I don't really feel like it." Which in turn got me thinking about the craft of writing. If you are serious about being fit, you have to work out regularly. If you are serious about getting a job, you have to look for one and fill out applications. If you want to get a college degree, you have to go out there and work for it. They don't just hand you one! So what would make me think that writing is any different? If you are serious about writing, which I am, then you have to simply sit down and write. Sometimes, even when you don't feel like it.

What I've noticed, is that even when I'm not feeling inspired, simply sitting down and starting is often all I need. It's not that I'm writing Shakespeare every day, but I am doing the important task of making it a habit. It's also therapeutic for me. I have a busy mind. I am a list-maker, and there is always a lot going on up there. Very often I am writing in my head even as I'm going about my day to day tasks. Sitting down and getting all those thoughts out onto paper, or the computer, as it may be, is like doing a big cognitive download, freeing up my brain for other activities. It slows down the spinning, whirling thoughts and allows me to focus.

So, why don't I feel like writing today, in particular? Maybe it's the endless cool and rainy days that are making up our alleged "summer." Maybe it's the pressure I feel to accomplish certain tasks before I head back to work in exactly two weeks. Whatever the reason, I was certainly not feeling the muse this morning. But look! I sat down at the computer and here I have already written three paragraphs that make sense, and have a point!

One of the most important things to consider is, why am I writing? And who am I writing for? If you are writing because you have to, and writing for other people, chances are your inspiration will wane. Writing will then feel like a job instead of a creative outlet. But if you are writing because you enjoy it, and mostly just to please yourself, it will be a joy. Not always, but hopefully, more often than not. So I asked myself these questions this morning. Why am I writing? Who am I writing for? Perhaps my answers would be different another day, but today I am writing because I have thoughts and ideas that need to be expressed. This blog is for public consumption, but I figure I have perhaps five loyal readers, so essentially I am writing for myself. Because I want to. Because I need to. If others enjoy what I write, that's just icing on the cake. So, if you are one of those loyal readers, thank you! But even if you abandon me, I will keep at it!

Of course, there is a book to be reviewed, and today it is "A Crooked Kind of Perfect," by Linda Urban. This is not a new book; it came out in 2007. This is one of the middle grade books I pulled off the shelf at the end of the school year because it just looked interesting. Isn't that a great cover? And those socks actually figure into the story.

Zoe Elias is a great protagonist. She deals with the unusual aspects of her life in a matter of fact and upbeat way. So, you wanted to play the piano and ended up with a wheezy old organ? Master that organ and enter a competition! Perhaps your Dad is a severe agoraphobe incapable of holding a job or driving you places you need to go? Accept him for who he is, embrace his good qualities, and hope for the best! And when your overtired, workaholic Mom forgets your birthday entirely? Even though you're mad, you don't bring it up or hold it against her, and you accept her apology later.

When you finally get invited to the popular girls birthday party and end up feeling completely out of place? Well, you realize those shallow girls aren't worth it and find better friends. Such as the class bully, who keeps following you home and eating your Dad's cookies. What do you do about that? Talk to him, get to know him, and realize he's really a pretty nice kid, who happens to have a rough life. (And maybe that crooked smile and floppy hair of his are kind of cute.)

You'll find yourself cheering for Zoe. And the musical exclamations of her eccentric organ teacher (Handel's Aunt Hannah!!!) will make you chuckle. This little book is a reminder that everyone has problems. Nobody's life is perfect, and everyone, no matter how flawed, has something positive to offer.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Summer Reads for Big and Small People

Last night was a really strange one in our house. Emma is still in California, and the two younger girls slept over at a friend's house. So the only kids home were the two boys. It was so quiet it was almost unsettling. Tonight everyone but Emma will be home, plus Gabe will have a friend staying over, so it will be more like normal with a full house.

I only have a little more than two weeks before I start back to work, so I am holding on tightly to summer. Unfortunately, the summer weather seems to have deserted us. I went out for a run this morning and it was downright cold. I hate to even say it, but the air felt fall-like. I am hoping this is just a brief cold front, but August is fast approaching, and I've got a bad feeling about things! People everywhere else are still roasting, so today I am going to review not one, but two summer books. One is an early chapter book for 7-10 year olds, and the other is a young adult book.  

"The Year of the Book" is a very short, easy-reading book that I bought for my library because it was a special value book from Junior Library Guild (JLG's books are all great). I also really liked the cover, and this book qualifies for my effort to incorporate more multi-cultural books into the collection.

In this story, we meet Anna, an American-born Chinese fourth-grader, who has recently been jilted by her best friend. She is a little embarrassed of her Mom, who is a nursing student with imperfect English skills. To make matters worse, she also cleans an elderly shut-in's apartment to help make ends meet. Anna tries to keep this information from her friends, thinking they will judge her. Anna struggles with Chinese school on Saturday, because her understanding of the language isn't as good as the other kids'. It's at Chinese school where she meets Camille, with whom she has a lot in common, and who helps ease the sting of her friend's betrayal.

She is a quiet girl who likes to sew and often feels that she doesn't fit in. She takes comfort in reading, hence the title of the book. When the former best friend, Laura, discovers that hanging with the popular crowd is not all it's cracked up to be, Anna is cautious about letting her back in. But when Laura's family goes through some domestic difficulties, it is Anna's Mom who steps in to help out, and their friendship becomes stronger.

I took this book home for the summer because it was a new book that I hadn't read, and it hasn't been checked out much. I always feel that if I've personally read a book and can give a first-hand opinion, I am more able to encourage kids to read it. This book was such a pleasant surprise, and I wish I had brought home it's sequel, "The Year of the Baby," in which Anna gets a new baby brother. I will definitely be pushing this book with kids who are early chapter book readers.

Now for a delicious YA read:

I read "My Life Next Door" in spring of 2013, and loved it so much that I went out and bought it, so that I will be able to re-read it every year. To me, this debut novel by Huntley Fitzpatrick is the perfect summer read. Even though this could be categorized as a "summer romance," it is not at all frilly; there is more here than meets the eye. It addresses serious and relevant teen issues, like cheating in school, drugs, drunk driving, and dirty politics. Well, I don't know how relevant dirty politics is to most teens, but it is definitely a serious issue.

Samantha Reed is one of those girls who has it all, or at least appears to. She is beautiful and wealthy, but her mother has kept her grounded. She is not noticeably spoiled, and is expected to hold down two jobs in the summer. She also has a guilty secret; for years she has spied on her next door neighbors, the Garrett's, curious about their large, loud, messy family, so different from her own. One night she is surprised by one of the Garrett boys, Jase, who climbs her trellis and changes her life irrevocably. A passionate summer romance ensues, but Jase and Sam are both such basically good-natured and decent people that it quickly becomes clear that their relationship has staying power.

There are side stories that complicate their relationship. Sam's mother, an up and coming politician, does not approve of Jase or his family. The sleazy political handler who is managing her campaign manages to insinuate himself into their lives. Sam discovers some unpleasant facts about her best friend, Nan. Meanwhile, Nan's twin brother, Tim, who has been spiraling downward, makes a decision to get himself straight and becomes a steadier and truer friend than Nan ever was. Finally, there is an "event" that changes everything for all the characters involved. Of course I won't tell you what it is, but it's a doozy! This event causes Jase, who has up to that point been almost too good to be true, to show his human frailties. This just makes his character more appealing, though, because it shows that he is for real. I figure pretty much every teenage girl who ever reads this book will end up hoping for a Jase of their own, and if he happens to live next door, even better!

The thing that makes this book so great for me, is that Jase and Sam are just so likeable you can't help but root for them. Some of the minor characters, such as the afore-mentioned Tim, and Jase's younger siblings, are fresh and funny, and deserving of books of their own. Jase's brother, George, memorably gives Samantha the nickname "Sailor Supergirl," and tells Sam that she should move in with Jase because "he doesn't pee the bed." Incidentally, I've heard that Fitzpatrick is writing a follow-up that features Tim as the protagonist. I'll be looking out for it.

To me, one of the hallmarks of a good book is how long the characters stay in my head, and several weeks after finishing this, I was still thinking a lot about Samantha and Jase. When I re-read it late this spring (twice), it did the same thing for me. The writer in me has given me the habit of underlining all my favorite lines (if I own the book!), and I have to mention my favorite in this book. This is Sam talking about her childhood, and her image-obsessed single mom:

"The lullaby of my childhood was my mom running the vacuum cleaner, making perfectly symmetrical lines in our beige living room carpet . . . she'd turn on the machine as Tracy and I were eating breakfast, then slowly follow us to the door as we pulled on our coats and backpacks. Then she'd back up, eliminating our trail of footprints, and her own, until we were outside." This line really resonated with me, and made me think about the "music" of my own childhood, and what that might be. I've come up with the sound of the ever-present wind blowing though the trees in my hometown, and the creak of the woodstove doors as my Dad stoked the fire late at night. What is the music of your childhood? Comments welcomed!

Friday, July 18, 2014

Confessions of a Fan Girl

The Haiku Librarian being Fan Girly
I have a confession to make: I am not always the most objective of book reviewers. If I didn't like a book, I can usually point out why. If I merely "liked" a book, again, I can usually pinpoint the reasons. But when it's one of those books that's so well done, it literally transports you into another world, I find it nearly impossible to come up with words to describe the experience. When I love a book, when I adore it, I am reduced to a blathering idiot, with a toddler's vocabulary. I end up gushing inarticulately and sounding like (shudder!) a total Fan Girl. Which is what you are not supposed to sound like when you are reviewing a book. You are supposed to look at it dispassionately, examining the voice, the characters, the plot. You are supposed to give reasons, not emotion.

When you think about it, though, maybe that is the sign of an excellent book; when it comes together so seamlessly and viscerally that there are no words to describe it. You can only experience it. Because that's what I do when I love a book. I recommend it to every friend I have, and even strangers in bookstores, yet I have little to say about it. I give a basic plot outline and then say "You just have to read it yourself, I can't even do it justice. Read it, you won't be sorry! Read it! READ IT!!!" I imagine that at these moments I might even appear a little unbalanced.

The books that really do that to me all seem to be YA series, which makes me think that YA authors have a particular gift for hooking readers into their worlds. They include, of course; The Hunger Games trilogy and Gregor the Overlander books by Suzanne Collins, The Mortal Instruments and Infernal Devices series' by Cassandra Clare, the Matched trilogy by Ally Condie, and The 5th Wave by Rick Yancey. But the particular author that inspired me to make this confession is Veronica Roth. Of course I've read all three of the Divergent books, and right now I am reading "Four," which is the newly released set of short stories written from the character Four/Tobias' point of view. I love this particular device, because when I read a book I often think that I would love to know another character's mind. After reading the closing pages of "Mocking Jay", I wished Collins would do the books again from Peeta's perspective. I loved how Condie expanded the world view in each of her Matched books by including a second narrator in the second book, and adding a third narrator in the final book. In the Divergent books, Roth set this up perfectly by telling the third book partially from Tobias' point of view, which paved the way for the short stories. Perhaps that wasn't her original intent, but it works.

I'm not quite done reading "Four," so I can't review it yet. But it's giving me that Fan Girly feeling. I promise when I do review it, I will endeavor mightily to come up with some actual words to describe it instead of just squealing and grinning. The book I am actually going to review today is the best-selling and popular "Wonder," a middle grade novel by R.J. Palacio. I am reviewing my summer reads in order, and it's interesting that it has fallen on a day when I'm talking so much about perspective, because "Wonder" is told from the point of view of not one or two, but six different characters.

August Pullman was born with serious facial deformities. Despite many surgeries, his face is still far from normal. At the point the story begins, he is ten years old and has been home-schooled his entire life. He has, understandably, been coddled and protected, and is well loved and accepted in his family and his immediate neighborhood. His parents think it's time he ease his way from the nest, and enroll him at a small private school. Naturally, he is initially met there with fear and suspicion, but as people get to know Augie, he slowly gathers a group of loyal friends.

The bulk of the book is told from Augie's perspective. He can be stubborn and immature, but he is also frank and funny, with a self-deprecating sense of humor that quickly puts his classmates at ease. He has developed a pretty thick skin, but he is not above being hurt. We also hear from his sister, Via, who feels overlooked and unimportant, but who also understands that things have to be the way they are. She is not bitter, but as she enters the big high school, she enjoys the relative anonymity, where few people know anything about Augie. She no longer has to be "the deformed boy's" sister, she can finally just be Olivia. Augie's two closest friends, Jack and Summer, also chime in, as does Olivia's friend, Miranda, and her boyfriend, Justin.

The main point of the story to me is that Augie is just a ten year old boy, like any other ten year old boy. He loves Star Wars, he has a beloved dog, he has to do his homework and keep his room clean. He has feelings just like any other boy; he hurts and grieves like anyone else. But people fear things they don't understand, and they don't understand Augie. It's a poignant message to not judge people based on outward appearances, which we all do, despite our best intentions. This is such a real and heart-warming story, and it had me in tears on more than one occasion.

The title of the book is pulled from the Natalie Merchant song, "Wonder," which is quoted in here, along with several other songs. I knew and loved this song before I read the book, and it is so perfect in setting up the story. I "wonder" (pun intended!) if the book was inspired by the song, or if Palacio started writing the story and then realized how well the song fit with the book. I'm including a link so you can hear the song, if you don't know it. This is not the version that was played on the radio, but I like it.

Wonder by Natalie Merchant, YouTube