Monday, October 22, 2012

Review: No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy

I enjoy stories with villians. A good villain is a fully developed character and not just a background entity, not just an obscure presence prompting the “good” characters onward. While Chigurh is obviously the bad character, it is less clear if Llewelyn Moss is the good character. The voice of peacekeeper, Sheriff Ed Tom Bell, is conflicted as well.

Llewelyn finds the remains of a drug deal gone wrong. He grabs the cash and makes a dash. Chigurh pursues relentlessly with the passion of a zealot who believes in what he’s doing. Others give chase including the law and the lawless. In the end, it is not money that drives the characters. It is principle and will.  

McCarthy has a way of exploring good and evil that is only possible by exploring violence -- minds that are violent by nature and violent acts that lie dormant in any average person and erupt given the right circumstances.

Chigurh is unusual because he is morally demented as opposed to morally corrupt. He does not necessarily take pleasure in violence but he is committed to violence nonetheless. He is not altogether illogical either which is the scary part. His mind is functioning properly. He is not “insane” in the sense that he lacks the ability to reason. He has reasoned and found himself at odds with traditional views of morality and the sacredness of life.

The novel is sparse in language and, while I found it easier to read than All the Pretty Horses or The Road, No Country for Old Men is less linguistically beautiful. It is also significantly less violent than The Road (which won the Pulitzer) and moves much faster than All the Pretty Horses.  It’s a good middle-of-the-road McCarthy read so if you’re new to his novels I would say start with No Country for Old Men and see if you can handle forays into dark psyches and violent behaviors.

Publisher: Vintage, 2005.     Pages 309
Rating: 3 Stars     Source: used bookstore

Friday, September 21, 2012

Review: Nation by Terry Pratchett

The beginning of Nation gripped me. I loved the alternate-reality Victorian setting that’s introduced. The narrative quickly shifts to an alternate-reality Pacific island. Mau is on a quest to prove his manhood when the tsunami strikes and obliterates his village and the prim and proper Daphne is stranded on his island. I enjoyed Daphne’s sea voyage and the entire crash scene.

Together, Mau and Daphne rebuild the Nation as they overcome their fears of one another, take in refugees and learn to work with each other. The novel became increasingly introspective as Mau reconsiders all the old ways and worship of the old gods. As the new leader, he must decide how to direct his people and as truths are uncovered he learns that letting go of the past is not the same as disrespecting it.

My interest waned significantly in the middle. I just wasn’t interested in the story anymore and the underlying ideological message of questioning “the way things have always been done” and “the things we’ve always believed” was so transparent that I just got bored. However, the serious minded teen may enjoy this thought-provoking YA novel. This book counts towards the POC Reading Challenge!

Publisher: HarperCollins, 2009    Pages: 384
Rating: 3 Stars     Source: Public Library

Friday, July 13, 2012

Owly: The Way Home and the Bittersweet Return by Andy Runton

Owly is a popular graphic novel at my library. I had to place a hold on it and I took that as a good sign, that kids must really like this book. I was not disappointed.

An unlikely friendship forms between an owl and a worm. Together, they search for Wormy's home and parents. In the second adventure, they befriend a pair of hummingbirds. Both stories focus on friendship as they help each other out of tough situations. Owly is particularly sensitive to his friends' needs. It's impossible not to love him.

Owly is nearly wordless but I was impressed with how Runton conveyed conversations and emotions. I "heard" their conversations in my head even though there weren't any words on the page. Instead of text, the speech bubbles hold pictures and other symbols. The artwork is skillful in conveying meaning. The simplest strokes, like the arch of an eyebrow, tell readers if Owly is thinking, scared, happy, etc. So, while there isn't much traditional text, I found I was scrutinizing the pictures and reading everything -- expressions, gestures, background and the "speech" bubbles. I'm not used to paying so much attention to the pictures but I really enjoyed doing so with Owly.

Owly is a great book to read with a young child to ask him/her "What's going on in this picture?" or "What are they saying now?" to help encourage a child's narration skills and to draw on their vocabulary to describe what's happening on the page. 

The artwork is as cute as the story. Runton's cartoon-like style and the brief use of text will appeal to reluctant readers and graphic novel readers. An innocent tale of friendship, I thoroughly enjoyed Owly.

Publisher: Top Shelf Productions, 2004.     Pages: 160
Rating: 4 Stars     Source: Public Library

Friday, June 22, 2012

Review: Breakfast at Tiffany's by Truman Capote

I love the movie Breakfast at Tiffany's and I enjoyed the movie Capote with Philip Seymour Hoffman. So, I figured I needed to read Capote's novella that inspired Breakfast at Tiffany's. And I loved it. If you need a plot summary click here.

Fantastic prose. First person narration doesn't really describe it. It's chock full of conversation which is not what I tend to associate with "literature." But this is the good stuff. The conversations are interesting because they reveal the way Holly's world works -- the way she works, the way 1950s New York society works and how people perceive other people. Also, they're funny conversations -- unusual and witty.

How people perceive other people... I think this is why I enjoyed "Fred's" narration so much. He's not really telling us a story about himself like most first person narrators do. He doesn't droll on about his own feelings (interesting though they are). He's telling us Holly's story -- she's the main character and "Fred" is just the one to tell us about her. The fact that we never know "Fred's" real name drives home this point for me. "Fred's" perspective is limited to his direct and indirect encounters with Holly and information passed through the grape vine. As a result, Holly is something more than a character in a book. She's that person we all knew once or maybe catch glimpses of in ourselves. "Fred's" narration makes me wonder: Am I who I think I am or, am I who others think am I? Which is the truer perspective? The narration works well in establishing both "Fred" and Holly's characters and their relationship and is a technique I haven't really encountered before (or noticed if I have).

On the surface, Breakfast at Tiffany's is about a quirky girl who obeys her own ambiguous set of rules. But I found this book is really about getting to know someone -- encountering a person who is special, unusual and magnetizing but also evanescent, elusive and fragile. That's Holly Golightly. The reader goes through this social experience with "Fred," getting to know Holly with him.

I'll leave you with one of my favorite passages with O.J. and "Fred" talking, O.J. speaking first...

"So," he said, "what do you think: is she or ain't she?"
"Ain't she what?"
"A phony."
"I wouldn't have thought so."
"You're wrong. She is a phony. But on the other hand you're right. She isn't a phony because she's a real phony. She believes all this crap she believes" (28-29).

Publisher: Modern Library, 1994 (originally, 1958)     Pages: 3-105 (of 161)
Full Title: Breakfast at Tiffany's: A Short Novel and Three Stories
Rating: 5 Stars     Source: Public Library

Friday, June 15, 2012

Review: Deadlocked by Charlaine Harris

I discovered the Sookie Stackhouse series (Southern Vampire Mysteries) last fall and whizzed through 11 of the novels. They were pure fun to read and not my usual fare. I recall I was in "the curve" of the semester, where the newness had worn off, and I needed a mental snack break. The Sookie Stackhouse series was just the pick-me-up I needed.

Heretofore, the mystery in each story has held my attention. But in Deadlocked the mystery lagged a bit. The who-done-it was obvious and the suspense of watching the culprit outed wasn't as suspenseful as I'd liked. Sookie's relationship status didn't help much either. She's waiting for him to commit. He's waiting for her to commit. Lots of distrust. The novel is aptly named -- Deadlocked. Everyone is waiting for someone else to make the first move.

Several story lines fizzle out in this novel which makes for a downer read. Many of my favorite characters do put in appearances so that was nice. And Harris' writing style is fluid and makes for an easy, fun reading experience. There were answers in this novel but few conclusions...I guess that's why it's a series!

If you like Southern Vampire stories I recommend the series. Neither romance nor mystery are my usual reading choices but I have enjoyed Harris' characters and sense of humor and have picked up a few books  from her other mystery series (non-vampire related) to read.

Publisher: Ace, 2012     Pages: 336
Rating: 3 Stars     Source: public library

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Review: A Confusion of Princes by Garth Nix

Taken from his parents as a toddler, Khemri was groomed to be a Prince of the Empire -- a biologically, technologically and psychologically upgraded human, one of thousands who rule the Empire, governed only by the Imperial Mind. Having come of age, Khemri is elated to take a post as Prince. But the Empire is a more dangerous place than he was lead to believe and power and glory more elusive and less thrilling than he expected.

The book begins with a great hook: “I have died three times, and three times been reborn...” (1). Nix quickly introduces the technologically advanced world via Khemri’s voice. He tells his story of transformation from an obnoxious and egotistical teen (an gross exaggeration of teenagers generally?) to a more thoughtful, mature adult. As with Nix’s Abhorsen series, I enjoyed how the protagonist deals with real coming-of-age issues, albeit in a sci-fi setting here. Khemri’s transformation is that of many teens’. While Khemri may fight his battles in a spaceship, his transformation from identity/thrill-seeking teen to a more mature adult is relatable.

I was excited to read A Confusion of Princes as I am a fan of Nix’s Abhorsen/Old Kingdom series. I’m re-listening to Lirael now. I enjoyed the hierarchy within the Empire with its unique system of mental communication. Yet, the novel could have used another hundred pages. The plot moved too swiftly and didn’t leave time to explore this interesting world and its characters. As a survival story, A Confusion of Princes did not disappoint. But more character development was needed.

On an aside, Khemri’s character is repeatedly defined as being brown-skinned with dark eyes. Yet, the character on the cover, though hard to see clearly, looks to be white. I like the cover on its own but would have liked it more if the guy on the cover clearly represented the character in the book.

Nix fans won’t want to miss A Confusion of Princes with its unique, technologically advanced world. Khemri’s story will please teens who enjoy Star Wars, space operas and survival stories. Overall, I think I’m more of a fantasy fan than science fiction fan but I still enjoyed this story. This book counts towards the POC Challenge. Favorite Quote: "'There is always a choice,' said Morojal. 'Even if the alternatives don't appear to be equal'" (134). Publisher: HarperCollins, 2012 Pages: 337 Rating: 3 Stars Source: Public Library

Friday, June 8, 2012

Review: Dead End in Norvelt by Jack Gantos

For a book about a kid being grounded all summer, Dead End in Norvelt by Jack Gantos, is surprisingly touching and funny. Jack Gantos’ character in the book (yes, he writes about himself), while mischievous, maintained an honest voice throughout the novel, enduring him to me, making me laugh.

Jack helps his elderly neighbor, Miss Volker, write obituaries as she is physically incapable of doing so. An unlikely relationship forms between them. Having an older person in a child’s life is such a gift. Though Jack is skeptical of Miss Volker at first, he comes to realize his great fortune at having her for a mentor. Miss Volker shows Jack what he’s truly capable of and what it means to be a friend.  

Somewhat tedious are the history lessons that accompany the obits Jack and Miss Volker write. It wasn’t that the histories weren’t interesting but I wanted to get back to the story and having so many obits written so closely got slow. The history lessons felt like just that -- history lessons. As a kid, I probably wouldn’t have finished the book because of these history bits.

As an adult, I forged through the histories and was rewarded with a satisfying if somewhat far-fetched ending. I enjoyed the caught-in-the-middle relationship Jack has with his parents. He can’t please one without getting in serious trouble with the other. One sympathizes. The town's citizens were colorful and Jack's interactions with them humorous. I laughed out loud several times and recommend this book be read aloud (as it was to me to my great enjoyment).

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011     Pages: 352
Rating: 4 Stars     Source: Public Library

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Review: North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell

I recently re-watched BBC’s North and South miniseries (2004) and liked it so well I downloaded the book to my kindle and began reading. This is one of the few times I felt the film adaptation was better than the book.

North and South tells the story of the Margaret Hale whose father, because of his conscience, leaves the ministry and relocates his family to the northern manufacturing town of Milton. Margaret languishes in Milton’s smog, missing friends while caring for an ailing parent. The only society to be found is with Milton’s elite tradesmen of whom Margaret thinks little. Meanwhile, Milton’s workmen go on strike (relatively novel in the mid 1800s as factory work was fairly new), causing trouble and unrest for the entire town.

Where Gaskell lost me is with the general characterization of Margaret. She’s too perfect. For instance, she tells one lie (to ensure someone’s safety) and, because she was caught in her lie by the man she cares about, she hates herself. With 20/20 hindsight, Margaret feels her lie was unnecessary and totally wrong and can’t get over the fact that her love interest thinks ill of her because he knows she lied. The self-loathing went on for far too many pages (and months in the story). Margaret: Girl, an innocent life was at stake so you told a lie. So what if that guy knows you lied. If he doesn’t care to understand the whole story, and you can’t bare to tell him, then move on.

Margaret Hale: misunderstood angel. Blah.

Where the novel was interesting was in the class conflict. Interactions between Margaret’s (demoted) family, the elite tradesmen and the workmen fueled the plot. I enjoyed the fiery conversations between Mr. Thornton (factory owner/love interest) and Margaret. I liked her spunk in speaking her opinion about the treatment of workmen as well as Mr. Thornton’s personal story. I’m not sure if they ever agree completely but they do influence each other enough to consider the other’s point of view.

Despite my frequent frustration with Margaret, I enjoyed Gaskell’s writing and her ability to weave a multi-layered story. It has a recognizable pattern (romance) but creates enough tension between characters to keep one reading to see their reactions. Though a friend of Charlotte Bronte’s, Gaskell’s writing lacks the darker shades of her friend’s writing. North and South does not explore the power struggle between Margaret and Mr. Thornton as well as it could have and like we see between Bronte’s Jane Eyre and Mr. Rochester. Yet, North and South was not a light book as it took the manufacturing strike seriously. There was really no humor at all (missing Jane Austen’s wit) and so this novel fizzled out for me.

Give me passion and action or at least some intelligent humor (shoot, any humor) but not  this “oh, no. He thinks me a fallen woman!” crap. The miniseries is excellent. The book is for die-hard Victorian novel lovers who, like myself, will find some level of enjoyment in the cultural aspect of the story as much or more than the supposed romance. It was a struggle to finish but I’m glad I did.

Have you seen the movie or read the book? Both? What do think?

Publisher: Kindle Edition, 2009 (First published: 1855)     Pages: 499
Rating: 3 Stars     Source: free on Amazon

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Outlander Read-A-Long Participation Post

I've wanted to participate in another read-a-long for some time (my last being Northanger Abbey). And I've wanted to read Outlander by Diana Gabaldon for some time. Now's my chance to do both! I started Outlander long ago and read about 50 pages (where she time travels) before returning the book to the library. Since then, I've picked up the first two books in the series from the library's discard shelf. So, I'm ready to read!

Sign up at The Reading House Wives if you'd like to participate. The read-a-long runs June 11th to July 23rd and I'll be posting, as instructed, every Monday about the book.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Review: Toning the Sweep by Angela Johnson

I am surprised I liked this book. Toning the Sweep is a non-plot driven story. Not a whole lot happens. It focuses more on character development and relationships than the rising action/climax/ resolution of a traditional story arch. Yet, I loved the characters. They felt real. Johnson presents common ground between reader and character which made it easy to empathize which, in my opinion, is one of the most important reasons to read -- to learn about people and see ourselves in their shoes for a moment.

Emmie has always enjoyed visiting her grandmother Ola in the California desert. But, when Emmie and her mother visit Ola now, they know it is for the last time. Ola has cancer and they have come to pack Ola's things and say goodbye. It is a soul-searching experience for Emmie (14) who strives to understand her care-free grandmother and her care-worn mother.

What could have been a sad and depressing story turned out to be an uplifting read. Reading Toning the Sweep felt like watching an incredibly pivotal moment in a family's life on T.V. -- like I was given an insightful snapshot. Emmie documents her grandma's life with a video camera and so the reader sees much of the story through Emmie's camera lens -- a perspective that I enjoyed and worked well in revealing Emmie's concerns.

Ola is a great character. Her eccentric behavior is a testament to her independent spirit but also her flawed character. Has Ola run away to the desert to hide from the past? Her strength carved out a great life there but at a cost to her daughter's well being. Emmie pieces these things together, uncovering more about her mother and grandmother's relationship, as she helps pack Ola's household, sorting the "keep", "donate" and "throw aways" of a lifetime.

David is Emmie's friend who she sees when visiting Ola. One of the few males in the story, David's character is important. He is exploring his Native American past, embracing it as a part of who he is, and helps Emmie think about her African American heritage.

No character in this story is superfluous. Each character adds something important in showing Emmie who her family is and who she is. For a little book, Toning the Sweep packs a big punch. It is a touching story about how life's tragedies effect people so deeply and how people can touch others deeply as well. It is about family and about inter-generational relationships between women. Johnson's writing blended metaphor and symbolism seamlessly, enhancing but never detracting from the story. This book counts towards the POC Reading Challenge!

Publisher: Scholastic, 1994     Pages: 112
Rating: 4 Stars     Source: borrowed from my teacher     

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Review: I Am Different: Can You Find Me? by Manjula Padmanabhan

I Am Different explores sixteen languages giving kids a glimpse into the many languages spoken in North America. Each spread features one language, giving a pronunciation guide and examples of familiar words which originated from the language. The book tells in which direction the script is read. There is an accompanying puzzle for each language in which the reader must identify what is different from everything else in the picture.

It was fun to try the different languages according to the pronunciation guide. I read the Mandarin aloud to my Chinese classmates and they had a good chuckle at my effort before correcting me. I can imagine kids enjoying the puzzle aspect. The pictures are colorful and the icons in the puzzles taken from the language's culture. For instance, the puzzle accompanying Hebrew uses the Star of David. A celebration of diversity, I Am Different will likely be enjoyed by elementary students reading with others as they speak the languages aloud and solve the puzzles together. This book counts towards the POC Reading Challenge.

Publisher: Charlesbridge Pub, 2011.     Pages: 36
Rating: 3.5 Stars     Source: Public Library

Monday, May 7, 2012

Blog Hop: Intro to Summer Reading

This week's Book Blogger Hop questions is: " What are the next five books in your TBR (to-be-read) pile?" I like this question a lot since I'm nearly graduated and am looking forward to reading anything and everything I want! I just picked up some books from the library and a used bookshop today. I'm currently reading North and South but have several books lined up for when I finish.

These are my "Into to Summer Reading" books. 
  1. Deadlocked by Charlaine Harris. The newest book in the Sookie Stackhouse mystery series. Put myself on the hold list months ago and just got it today. =)
  2. Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin. I've already begun this epic fantasy on my Kindle (about 33% through it) but set it aside in favor of N&S. It's good, though, and I'll get back to it.
  3.  Dead End in Norvelt by Jack Gantos. The 2012 Newbery Medal winner! 
  4. Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed. Thought some nonfiction would be a good idea.
  5. No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy. Saw the movie and loved it. Read two other McCarthy books and liked them. I've read the first 20 pages and know this is a keeper. 
Regular readers may notice I've listed several adult titles. I often review children's and YA titles here (especially as I've taken courses on these types of literature recently) and will continue to do so. However, The Prairie Library has always been an eclectic mix and my summer reading will reflect that. My TBR pile is huge. I could keep listing what I hope to read "next." One page at a time, right? 

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Musings of a Grad Student: Degree Completion Near

I attended my last Library and Information Science (LIS) class yesterday and by this time next week I will have submitted my final paper and therefore completed my master’s degree!

Last month I posted only once -- an all time low -- but I was busy doing the following:

Mid April I completed the poster presentation that is required for graduation. Posters are used by professionals (especially librarians) to showcase their work/research to the public. One’s research topic must grow out of a class assignment. My first semester I wrote about video games in libraries and read what practicing librarians had to say on the subject. The third semester I discovered academics like James Gee and Henry Jenkins who’ve written about video games and literacy. Out of these experiences grew my poster project. I continued to research video games on my own.

During the poster defense we were given 2 minutes to make a formal speech about our research while standing with our posters, next to fellow students and in front of the faculty (about 7 if I remember correctly) . After each student in the group spoke (we were in groups of 6), the faculty questioned each of us for 10ish minutes. Afterwards, the session was open to the public for an hour.

Preparing for the poster presentation was nerve-racking. Getting my abstract approved was suspenseful. Preparing my poster (distilling months of research into a small space with bullet points is tricky) and getting it printed was sweat inducing. Crafting my two minute speech was gut twisting. The actual presentation was tons of fun. Sure, I sweat through my three layers of deodorant. But I was READY and talking to the faculty and the public who attended was enjoyable.

Yesterday I gave a presentation/ submitted a project and I’ve already turned in one final paper. So, what’s left? I’m working on analyzing picture books used for storytimes. Albeit, I have a small sample, I’m interested in seeing what types of books are used with preschoolers, toddlers and babies during storytimes. I'm especially looking for multicultural themes but am looking at genre and types of books used (like ABC books or counting books). This project/paper is due next week...and then I’m done!

Now, it’s job hunting time!

Monday, April 2, 2012

Review: Best Shot in the West by Patricia C. McKissack and Fredrick L. McKissack, Jr.

Nat Love, or “Deadwood Dick,” was among the greatest cowboys who ever lived. Daring and dangerous when he needed to be, Nat was a natural at breaking broncs and shooting straight. A freed slave from Tennessee, Nat journeyed west to find work that rewarded his abilities.

A graphic novel, Best Shot in the West, is a dramatized version of Nat’s story mostly adapted from his autobiography. Is this fiction or nonfiction? Nat was a real cowboy. But the author’s note explains they dramatized certain scenes for the sake of the story’s flow. The inside cover describes the book as historical fiction while the Library of Congress subject heading inside says “Biography.” My library has it under Biography as well. It may be that the availability of factual materials on Nat and legends and myths about him make it difficult to create a totally factual story of Nat’s life. Ultimately, I am unsure but still enjoyed the story.

Like comic books, the story and illustrations are broken into panels with speech bubbles and blocks. Illustrator DuBurke’s paintings are muted but dramatically portray cattle stampedes and shootouts. The backgrounds are colorful while people and objects in the foreground are greyish. It’s an interesting technique but sometimes I wanted a clearer picture of people’s faces.

So, we all know that Hollywood tends to skew reality and Wild West films are no exception. But the exact ways that movies skew things may allude us...we know things are inaccurate but we’re not sure how exactly. This is the second book I’ve read about men from the Wild West and they were both African American and had amazing life stories, legends of their time, and  worthy of movies of their own. I would totally watch a movie about Nat Love. While reasons for Indian/Cowboy conflict are alluded to, especially when Nat is captured by an unusual tribe, adults may need to point out the complexities of why Indians conducted raids and why they captured Nat (instead of killing him) as the story is focused only on Nat’s perspective as a loyal cowboy.

Best Shot in the West is a story for kids interested in cowboys, horses, outlaws and crack shots. I recommend this story since it provides an important perspective on what it took to be a cowboy and what type of people cowboys were. This book counts towards the POC Reading Challenge!

Publisher: Chronicle Books, 2012     Pages: 133     
Full Title: Best Shot in the West: The Adventures of Nat Love
Illustrator: Randy DuBurke
Rating: 3.5 Stars     Source: Public Library

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Review: Moon Over Manifest by Clare Vanderpool

Stories. Every day we tell each other stories. We read them, listen to them and share them with others. Stories take many forms: people “catching up,” movies and T.V. shows, music, video games, dirty footprints in the house and, of course, books. Rich in its layers, Moon Over Manifest shows how we are our histories and all our stories are connected.

Can you ever really understand a person or even a place until you know its story?

Abilene and her father, Gideon,  lived the life of hobos, hopping on and off trains until he found work. But now Abilene is too old to be drifting. So, Gideon sends Abilene to stay in Manifest, Kansas with people he knew long ago...

Abilene is looking for stories: a hidden box, with letters and trinkets, reveals a story central to who the townspeople of Manifest are; the story of the Ratler, an unknown townsperson acting as a spy, that Abilene and her friends try to reveal; Miss Sadie the diviner has stories to tell if only someone will listen. Abilene knows these stories are important but the story she most wants to hear is the story of her father who once lived in Manifest. What kind of person is her father? Why did he send her away to live with strangers? Is he coming back for her?

Moon Over Manifest reminds me of the movie Fried Green Tomatos (one of my all-time favorites) in a couple ways. Like the movie, the story is set in the Depression Area. Moon Over Manifest also shifts between the past (in the letters and through Miss Sadie’s stories) and the present as (Abilene narrates her experience in Manifest). The flashbacks take us to the town of Manifest during World War One while Abilene’s story takes place in Manifest during the 1930s. This switching technique worked well and I loved the flashbacks.

Stories are central to the human experience. We can’t always remember raw facts and data. But we can remember stories. They evoke emotion, sympathy and empathy. Stories explain the facts and help us make sense of them. Stories help us remember and help us share memories. Remember when dad did.... Remember when your sister... We’ve all heard stories like these, haven’t we? Stories bind us together and so we tell them over and over.

Stories connect people and I think that’s what Moon Over Manifest shows. No matter how different the townspeople are, no matter their country of origin, their wealth or social class, age or gender, everyone's stories are connected.

While marketed as a children’s book, Moon Over Manifest is nuanced and Vanderpool is an excellent writer. The prose is enjoyable as are the many characters. Adults as well as children will appreciate this work. I highly recommend it!

Publisher: Yearling, 2011 (paperback copy)     Pages: 351
Rating: 5 Stars     Source: purchased copy

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Review: The Firefly Letters by Margarita Engle

Set in Cuba, The Firefly Letters weaves together four voices: Fredrika the foreign traveler, Cecilia the wealthy daughter of the house, Elana the slave girl and Beni, Elana’s husband. It is interesting to watch the dynamics of power between characters and the social structures of Cuba. Those we assume have power are often powerless in certain situations. All the voices represent someone who is or has been enslaved. The idea of freedom is explored. Elana remarks that she is jealous of Elana, a slave, because Elana is free to explore the countryside with Fredrika while she, Cecilia, is not allowed to venture out. Yet, Elana is forced to labor when and where her master commands. The story ends with a struggle wherein the characters work together to find their own freedom.

Fredrika Bremer was a Swedish writer and feminist who visited Cuba in 1851. As part of the aristocracy, her position was a privileged one though not necessarily a happy one as she was often forced to stay indoors and deliberately malnourished to have a “feminine” ballerina-like form. Groomed to be a wife for the aristocracy, Bremer never married but filled her life by writing, traveling and working to help the less fortunate.

As a piece of historical fiction, The Firefly Letters shines. But like fireflies, the illumination is brief as this is a short novel in verse. I found the story interesting but would have liked a longer narrative with a chance for deeper character development. I felt Cecilia's transformation was quick and so rather unlikely. However, the four voices offer distinct and insightful perspectives on freedom and Engle captures Cuba’s landscape to great effect. The Firefly Letters won the Pura Belpré Honor in 2011. This book counts towards the POC Reading Challenge!

Publisher: Henry Holt, 2010     Pages: 160     Full Title: The Firefly Letters: A Suffragette's Journey to Cuba     Rating: 3 Stars     Source: Public Library

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Review: Glory Be by Augusta Scattergood

It's the summer of 1964 in Hanging Moss, Mississippi and things are a changin'.

Town Council Man, James Smith, is against desegregation. So, he shuts down the community pool “for repairs.”

Glory’s birthday is the Fourth of July and she’s always had her party at the community pool...until this year. She unknowingly enters the fray as she outspokenly denounces the decision to close the pool.

Laura Lampert’s a Yankee whose mother is starting a freedom clinic in Hanging Moss. Friends are few for a white girl who drinks from the “coloreds only” drinking fountain.

Frankie Smith is caught between his family’s hatred and his friends’ readiness for change. Bullied into doing what’s wrong separates Frankie from his friends all summer.

Miss Bloom, Hanging Moss Librarian, refuses to be bullied and invites the entire town, black and white, to a celebration at the library. 

Emma is more than Glory’s family’s maid. She’s a “freedom fighter” who shelters activists at her home and bravely attends the library’s celebration as one of the few African Americans who do. 

Glory Be has be likened to The Help and I think it’s a good analogy though the two are different in presentation. In The Help, readers see events through many characters’ eyes with each chapter presenting a different character’s point of view. In Glory Be it is Glory’s voice that is the strongest and the book is written from her point of view. The strength in Glory’s point of view is that readers get a distinct feel for what is was like for a white child to participate in the Civil Rights Movement in the South. The other characters are shown how a child would understand them. Adults’ actions are often confusing to Glory and in her innocence she attempts to set them straight. Slowly, Glory begins to understand the implications of what’s going on around her. 

The story goes beyond the Civil Rights Movement and explores a young girl growing up. The relationship between Glory and her teenage sister, Jesslyn, is in flux and I enjoyed watching that relationship change. Their father is a reverend who is somewhat distant as he deals with professional duties. Emma is a stand-in mother to the girls but not there all day. Glory has learned to turn to her sister for support and friendship but now her sister is distancing herself from Glory, desiring more privacy and "grown-up" activities. 

Change is hard -- even good change. Glory Be was an enjoyable story about friendship and family during the Civil Rights Movement. Though I wished Emma’s voice had been louder this is ultimately a story about a white child’s experience and perspective and one well worth reading. This book counts towards the POC Reading Challenge!

Publisher: Scholastic Press, 2012     Pages: 202
Rating: 4 Stars     Source: Free Uncorrected Proof  (paperback)

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Review: Mockingbird by Kathryn Erskine

I am going to exercise my freedom of speech and declare I did not like this novel. Largely, this is due to personal taste which I will attempt to explain. I feel like this is a book people feel inclined to praise and disinclined to criticize because of it’s subject matter and seal of approval from the National Book Foundation. However, I am at a loss to understand why this book won the National Book Award (2010). I mean no disrespect to the author whose intentions with the book are clearly and admirably stated in the author's note. I just didn't like her book and this is, as always, my honest and subjective opinion.

While looking at the National Book Award’s description page it is incredibly vague as to guidelines for choosing finalists and winners: “They [the judges] may arrive at these choices using whatever criteria they deem appropriate, as long as they do not conflict with the official Award guidelines.” Those guidelines being that the book is by an American author and that the entrance fee was paid. Yet, the award is known for choosing “high” literature which brings into question the criteria for being literature. That may be another discussion but it’s unavoidable for me when thinking about MockingbirdDoes a book's well-timed and admirable theme determine if it's literature? I should hope it is only one factor among many equally important factors. 

For me, the dominant theme was Caitlyn’s Asberger’s Syndrome and it’s sub theme, school violence (a shooting). It was all too much. A school shooting which killed the sibling of young child with Asperger’s who is already motherless with a father lost in grief required too much willful suspension of disbelief for me. This is realistic fiction and I wanted more realism. I felt Erskine wanted to cover too many big and specific subjects and did the sub themes little justice. 

The prose, the first person narrative, was at times plain and at others too forceful. I never felt moved only informed. I want literature to move me. And not just (attempt) to move me to tears. The text felt self-conscious. I felt Erskine’s intense and anxious desire to be respectful and literary (so many motifs beating me over the head) was thrust at me. I felt manipulated as a reader and that made me resistant to the novel. I felt blatantly asked to feel something that the novel could not naturally draw out.

I appreciate what the novel attempts to do especially in regards to raising children’s awareness (and adults’) to the complexities of Asperger’s Syndrome. I feel if Erskine would have kept to this one subject and left the school shooting and motherlessness out of the picture (and saved for other books) this book would have worked better. There needed to be a better balance of theme, plot and prose. I hope the panel that chose this book as the award winner at least had a lengthy debate over it. It’s too bad the public isn't privy to that conversation. I truly feel that the choice of theme is what made this book win the medal. It's a popular medical topic and little addressed in children's literature. I am of the firm opinion, however, that choice of a popular serious subject matter or new subject matter should not carry so much weight when awarding prizes. 

Mockingbird is bold in its scope and gravity of its subjects. It has been well received and praised, loved by many, and I am happy for those who've had a great reading experience. I just did not. Tell me, have you ever found yourself resistant to a novel? A time when you knew a book wanted a certain response from you as a reader that you just couldn't muster?

Publisher: Philomel Books/Penguin, 2010.     Pages: 235
Rating: 2 Stars     Source: Public Library

Sunday, February 12, 2012

In My Mailbox: Post Graduation Reading

It's certainly not the first time I've gotten books in the mail but it is my first time participating in IMM. I am getting closer to graduation and the anticipation cursed through my veins and prompted me to order books to read when I'm done. Here's what I got last week:

  • Why Does E=mc2 (And Why Should We Care?) by Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw
    • An explanation of Einstein's famous equation. I enjoyed all my hard science classes and think I'll enjoy this book on relativity, gravity, mass, etc. It purports to be in layman terms. We'll see about that.

  •  Keeper by Mal Peet
    • I was first introduced to Paul Faustino, sports reporter, in Exposure. He's an interesting character who's intrigued me despite my utter indifference to sports. 
  • The Abhorsen Trilogy paperback box set with Sabriel, Lirael and Abhorsen by Garth Nix.
    • I've read the first two and they were instant favorites. I know I'll be reading them again and again. I began listening to Abhorsen but got busy. I'm looking forward to finishing the series after school!

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Review: Books: A Living History by Martyn Lyons

Attention Book Lovers! Are you interested in the creation of “the book?” Are you curious about its future at a time when ebooks are gaining popularity? In this fascinating and wonderfully illustrated tome, Martyn Lyons chronicles the development and status of the book.

More than a tribute to the codex (what we recognize as a book with two covers, a spine and paper in between), Lyons looks at how books have come into being -- the reasons people  bothered to write things down, how books were treated and the technological changes that made new formats possible. He covers ancient texts like cuneiform tablets and Chinese bamboo books to the rise of modern publishing houses, genres, the mass marketing of books and finally ebooks.

Lyons creates a flowing account of the book’s history that is easily digested. The photographs of artifacts, rare books, paintings and people that appear on nearly every page make a rich and visually appealing reading experience. If you would like to be a book aficionado as well as book lover then may I suggest Books: A Living History.

Publisher: Getty, 2011     Pages: 224
Rating: 5 Stars     Source: purchased copy

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Review: Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai

Ha is ten when war comes to her home. She and her family leave Saigon on the last ship fleeing the city. Even after they land in the U.S. Ha, her  mother and brothers still feel adrift in a new and often hostile culture.

Inside Out and Back Again addresses war (in Vietnam), immigration, racism, bullying and family with simple verse. In each poem, Ha tells about her day, what went wrong and what went right. She talks about what it's like to learn a new language and what it's like to leave one's home not by choice but by necessity.

One feature that stood out for me was how simple cultural misunderstandings were dealt with by various characters. Some were willing to laugh and learn together while other characters let prejudice fuel cruel actions and prevent learning. Another interesting character interaction (or lack thereof) was between Ha and her teacher who seemed completely unequipped and uninterested in learning about Ha's situation and how best to help her feel comfortable and to learn.

Lai's book of free verse is told narratively, like a story, from Ha's perspective. So, don't let the poetry factor get in your way of reading this significant story which, Lai tells us at the end, is partially based off her personal experience. I tend to be critical of issue-oriented fiction and Inside and Back Again certainly is such a book; yet, I enjoyed it for it's rich description of setting and emotion and for the plain fact that it had a good story to tell. This book counts towards the POC Reading Challenge!

The above video is Lai reading her book. My favorite poem begins at 2:53!

Publisher: Scholastic, 2012     Pages: approximately 200
Rating: 4 Stars     Source: borrowed from my teacher =)

Sunday, February 5, 2012

People of Color Reading Challenge 2012 Sign Up

This challenge was such fun and so interesting last year that I am participating again this year.

What it is: "Any book (by any author) with a main character that is a person of color qualifies for this reading challenge, as well as any book written by an author of color. The goal is to encourage readers [to] have a more diverse reading experience and to support diversity in the publishing industry by reading and reviewing books by or about persons of color."

Why I participate: Last year I was motivated to diversify my own reading. This year, I realize more how important it is to encourage our publishing industry to make books available about and written by people of color. As a would-be children's librarian, I've come to realize how few representations there are of people of color in children's books. We can encourage the publishing industry with our purchasing choices and by highlighting books by and about people of color on our blogs. I am signing up for level 5: 16-25 POC books.

POC Books I Plan/Hope to Read This Year: 
Reviews added as I read.

Children's and YA Titles: 

Adult Titles:

  • Sula by Toni Morrison
  • The Toughest Indian in the World by Sherman Alexie

Review: Just Juice by Karen Hesse

Juice is nine, the middle child in a family with five girls. Times are tough. Pa is out of work. Ma is pregnant. And Juice struggles to hide the fact that she can’t read. When Pa receives a letter announcing their home has been sold for back taxes Juice devises a plan to pay the taxes and keep their home.

This is a story about learning to read. Neither Pa nor Juice can read and it affects the entire family. Juice tries to hide her inability by keeping away from school and “pretend” reading to her younger siblings. Juice is a smart girl, resourceful, proactive and hardworking; yet, this one thing, her struggle with reading, dominates her life.

Little cues tell the reader that Juice is dyslexic which may need to be pointed out and discussed with young readers. When Juice’s sisters make flashcards with letters made of string Juice is able to touch the letters, to feel them, and a breakthrough is made.

This is a story about poverty. Pa and Juice work hard in their shop but sometimes there isn’t any work to be done. A social worker comes to the house to check on Ma and the baby and to bring food.

There is a lot going on in this story. Mini-spoiler alert: Juice even delivers a baby. Juice is lovable and her iron will to succeed kept my interest. But I could have done with more comic relief, fewer issues (for such a short book), and a more complicated ending than the one we’re given.

Published: Scholastic, 1998     Pages: 138
Rating: 3 Stars     Source: purchased copy

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Review: The Mostly True Story of Jack by Kelly Barnhill

“When Jack is sent to Hazelwood, Iowa, to live with his strange aunt and uncle, he expects a summer of boredom. Little does he know that the people of Hazelwood have been waiting for him for a long time...” - from inside the jacket.

Jack is invisible. At least he feels that way. His parents sometimes act like they can’t remember he even exists and then they dump his at his aunt’s. What’s a twelve-year-old to do?

Jack does not believe in fairy tales. But strange happenings force him to reconsider who he is and what he’s capable of.

I loved Barnhill’s writing for two reasons. First, as a native Iowan I know she’s spent time here, listening to the corn grow and cicadas chirping at night, because it’s reflected in her writing. Iowa isn’t flashy -- there aren’t any mountains or big cities -- but it has a quiet beauty which Jack discovers as he investigates the mysteries written in The Secret History of Hazelwood, written by his uncle. Secondly, Barnhill captures the essence of otherness in her writing which makes for good fantasy. I love writing that creates a mysterious atmosphere by leaving room for the imagination.  It makes you go, whoa, what in the world?

There is resolution in the ending but not a “happy ending” in a traditional sense. I found it very satisfying and think children readers will, too. Jack must make a difficult choice and any decision will have its consequences for him and those he cares about. This book shows how the world is not black and white, that good and evil are more complicated concepts than we wish they were. It’s unusual to find a children’s book that is willing to show this. I felt Barnhill’s representation of the ideas of good and evil, sacrifice, bullying and true friendship were masterful. The characters were great though there may have been one too many. That’s my only “complaint.” I loved the bodyguard cats, Gog and Magog. Hysterical! I can’t wait to see what Barnhill writes next!

Publisher: Little Brown, 2011 Pages: 323
Rating: 4.5 Stars Source: Public Library