Saturday, June 26, 2010

Book Review: A Conspiracy of Kings by Megan Whalen Turner

Book: A Conspiracy of Kings
Author: Megan Whalen Turner
Published: 2010
Source: Review Copy from Publisher

Sophos never really wanted to be king. But due to an agreement his father made with his uncle, he doesn't have any choice in the matter. He also never wanted to be a slave. But after being kidnapped and pressed into service on the estate of the king's worst enemy, he doesn't see any way out. When he finally escapes slavery, it's a case of out of the frying pan and into the fire. He's got enemies on all sides in a country exploding into war, and nobody's making the decisions for him anymore. All his life, things have just sort of happened to Sophos. It's time for him to take control and for once to be the one who makes things happen, for himself and for his country.

Honestly? I squeed and danced my fangirl dance when I heard this book was coming out, because, hey, Megan Whalen Turner. But underneath that, I went, "Really? Sophos?" Because he didn't impress me all that much in The Thief. He was sort of a naive little boy, looking on goggle-eyed at Eugenides's antics. He wasn't even present in The Queen of Attolia or The King of Attolia. Suffice it to say, I could think of a few other characters I'd rather read about. A lot of other characters I'd rather read about.

Oh, MWT. I will never doubt you again.

She started from the very thing that made me doubt--Sophos' passivity and naivete--and threw this untested boy into all manner of trouble. This had a character arc like you wouldn't believe. I literally felt as if I were reading about a different person at the end than at the beginning. From a boy who flailed and scrambled and, all right, whined, to a young king doing what he had to do

I loved the clear line of demarcation she drew between being a king and being a man, and how hard Sophos had to learn that lesson. At one point, he goes to Eugenides for help, knowing that their countries are at war. He is a young man turning to a friend, but what he must learn is that both he and Eugenides are kings first--must be kings first. They have to be men, with friendships and loyalties and acts of mercy and aid, second.

In this book, it is not good to be king. Being royalty means doing a lot of things you don't want to do. Like, really don't want to do. But there's a difference in the way you approach them. You can be like beginning-of-the-book Sophos, dragged along unwilling but passive, or you can examine all your options and then do what you gotta do. It's more subtle, but even Gen is struggling with the balance between friendship and kingly duty. For a short time, he reacts by pulling away, hard, trying to snap the bond so it's not so difficult to be the total bastard he has to be. Sophos eventually gets annoyed with Gen's aloofness and literally dumps him on his ass to catch his attention. Hysterically funny, but also a mark of how much Sophos has learned to take an active role in his life and relationships.

Honestly, this wasn't my favorite of the series, but it's amazing in its own specific way. And it's Megan Whalen Turner, who joins a fairly select club of authors whose books I intend to own, no question.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

GLTB YA (and Libraries) in the New Yorker

Via E. Lockhart's Facebook feed, I found this article in the New Yorker, Books With Gay Themes for Young Readers Take Off.

Libraries didn't come off very well: the article interviews one teen who got a flat-out "No way," when asking for GLBT books at his middle school library, only found books for adults at his public library, and had to go to a bookstore to find the real stuff. Ouch. He's not alone, either:
Recent research in Texas, for instance, indicated a strong ''I don't serve those teens'' attitude among librarians.

''It's the argument that drives me crazy,'' said Teri Lesesne, who teaches young adult lit in the Department of Library Science at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas.

''It's like, `Yeah, you do.' They might not be coming in and saying, `Hi, I'm gay or I'm bi or I'm transgender or I'm questioning my own identity,' because they're afraid,'' she said. ''But they're there and they're looking for these books.''
Now, I know not all libraries or librarians are like that. Couldn't they have found one example of a public or school librarian who said, "Oh, yeah, I recommend those books all the time. Wanna see my display?" Sigh.

Still, it's a good article, with mentions of the recent John Green/David Levithin collaboration Will Grayson, Will Grayson and the book that peeked around closet doors the same year that man landed on the moon, John Donovan's I'll Get There, It Better Be Worth the Trip.

Things I wish they'd included? A booklist. They did mention some great authors (Julie Anne Peters! Woot!) but would it have killed 'em to go, "Check out these awesome books too!"?

Still, they did get a wonderful quote in there:
''I see the [gay] characters trickling into the mainstream genres. I really like that,'' Brent said. ''It makes being gay feel natural, which it is, of course. Books give you hope.''

Show Cybil Some Love, Baby

The Cybils are the Kidlitosphere's much-loved literary awards, coming up on their fifth year. Right now, they're running a fund drive in order to fund the good work they do.

Now, the Cybils are all-volunteer all the time, but webspace ain't free, people. Neither are awards, printing of bookmarks and shortlists, and all the other things produced by these wonderful volunteers. If you've participated in, been inspired by, or utilized the Cybils in any way, here's your chance to give a little of that love back.

You can donate outright through PayPal or hit their CafePress store for some nifty swag. C'mon, you know you want to.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Kidlitosphere Conference 10 Info!

The next Kidlitosphere Conference has been set for October 23 in Minneapolis, Minnesota! Click through to the official KidLitCon10 blog (hello, of course there's a blog!) for all the details.

If you've never been, consider it! If you have, I don't need to convince you.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Book Review: The Demon's Lexicon by Sarah Rees Brennan

Book: The Demon's Lexicon
Author: Sarah Rees Brennan
Published: 2009
Source: Review Copy from Publisher

Nick and his brother Alan have never spent the whole school year in one place. It's a hazard of being a target for every evil magician in England, who are chasing them in order to get a charm that keeps their mother alive. Nick's used to sudden magical attacks, pitched battles, and hitting the road as fast as they possibly can. In fact, he can barely remember anything else.

Then Mae and her brother Jamie come into their lives. Jamie's fallen prey to an incubus and needs help to escape death at its hands. Against Nick's better judgment, Alan insists on helping the pair. But the problem starts to look bigger and bigger the more they work at it. This is something more than a simple incubus event. There's something big underneath it all. Lies untangle, only to reveal more lies within, until Nick can't be sure of anything, even himself. But no matter what, he can always trust that Alan will be there for him.

Can't he?

I was partway through the book when I set it down, thought for a moment, and realized that Nick was basically a sociopath. Not in the serial-killer sense, but in the sense that other people simply don't matter to him. There is a good reason for this, but you don't find that out until the very end. There's only one person in the world that Nick truly loves, and that's Alan. Everyone else can go up in a puff of smoke as far as he's concerned, even his mother (although to be fair, she feels the same about him). This makes him a fascinating character, although fascinating =/= nice. In fact, that's a pretty good rule of thumb for characters period. You can have nice or you can have fascinating, but it's hard to do both. Ahem. Where was I?

The other thing about Nick is how he functions in terms of the plot. He's the viewpoint character, and while it takes awhile for you to realize it, he's What It's All About. While he seems to be a bystander, the narrative gradually pushes him more and more inward until the climax reveals that everything that's happened can be traced back to him and the secrets of his past. Brennan is marvelously good at sprinkling hints throughout the novel. There are all sorts of secrets revealed in the climax, and I kept flashing back to earlier events and going, "Oh! OH!"

One of my all-time favorite TV shows is "Supernatural," and this book reminded me forcibly of that show. A certain businesslike attitude toward the occult and heapin' helpings of brotherly snark and brotherly love create the appeal of both. There are other similarities that I can't get into without mega-spoilers, but this is perfect for fans of that show and anything else occult. I can't wait to go back to this world, but I'm a little glad that the next few books are going to be from Mae's point of view. Nick may be fascinating, but he's not the easiest person to spend an entire book with.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Dooooooooooom . . . or not

So I hear that the TV show "Glee" is going to be releasing prequel novels in August, just to whip us all into a musical-theatre frenzy before the show's return in the fall. And normally, I would put my Cynical Hat on at the news of another cheap TV tie-in. (AHEM Hannah Montana AHEM.) 

But I'm going to confess that I love Glee. And my Cynical Hat is appalled to learn that I actually think the events and characters in this show would translate to reasonably decent YA novels, in the hands of the right writers. I mean, we're probably not going to get the singing and dancing. But Rachel, Finn, Quinn, Kurt, Mercedes, Artie, and Tina, with all their drama, dreams, and identity struggles, would not be out of place in my YA section.

What do you think? Is your Cynical Hat on? And what does it look like? Mine is a large black stovepipe with foghorns, by the way.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Book Review: The Buddha's Diamonds by Carolyn Marsden and Thay Phap Niem

Authors: Carolyn Marsden and Thay Phap Niem
Published: 2008
Source: Local Library
At ten years old, Tinh is no longer a child. He helps his father every day, going out in the beautiful new family boat to catch the fish that will feed his mother and sister. But he is still only ten years old, and when he fails to secure the boat during a catastrophic storm, it seems that all is lost. As his family and his village start to rebuild, Tinh realizes that the world is still beautiful, even when things are at their worst.
I love books about faith, any faith. Kids can be losing, finding, or living with their faith and I'm all over it. Books with Christian characters dominate the field, although there's a fiesty subgenre of Jewish stories, and books on Islam are as rare as hen's teeth. Buddhism? This is the first one I've found, and it's an eye-opening first exposure to a religion that's about 180 degrees removed from the God/YHWH/Allah-centered religions that dominate the Western world. Given that the copyright is attributed to Carolyn Marsden and the United Buddhist Church, I shouldn't be surprised that the Buddhist storyline is so strong. I'm just glad Marsden managed not to preach. Of course, I may be revealing my ignorance, since preaching and conversion themselves are such strong elements in Western religion.
The Vietnamese setting is also new to me. Everyone mentions "the war," and it took me about half the book to realize that they were talking about the Vietnam War. For some reason, I was thinking of World War II. While Tinh never lived through it, he has lived with the aftermath all his life: an uncle whose leg was blown off, landmines that lurk under the sand.

Unfortunately, the cover is terrible. You can see it up there: not exactly the stuff that leaps off the shelf and into a kid's hand. Still, I hope that with some handselling, the right kids will find this quiet novel a window into a world and a faith that they may have never known, or that may be part of their own story.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Belated Donation Total

Okay, so I did a finish line post but I didn't say how much money I raised for First Book.

13 reviews posted x $10/review = 130 dollars
28 comments x $1/comment = 28 dollars
1 "like" on Facebook x .50/like = .50

For a grand total of . . . . 158.50. Woohoo! I'm going to round that up to 160 dollars for the sake of not donating a totally random amount of money.

I'm ready to do this again. Just give me about a year.

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Linkity Linkity Loo

Yes, kiddies, it's time for me to clean out my Google Reader once again. Aren't you lucky!
  • This is an older Booklights post, but one worth re-reading: When I Was Your Age . . . Susan talks about her experience with parents who can't understand why their second-grader isn't interested in Nancy Drew or other classics. After all, the parent loved them when they were a kid! As Susan points out, when did you love them? In second grade? Or in fifth? She gently explains why the Hardy Boys might be daunting to a kid fresh off Magic Tree House and gives suggestions as to what to explore next.
  • When I heard that Hope Larson, author of Chiggers and Mercury, was adapting A Wrinkle in Time in graphic form, I went, "Hmmm!" I'm cautiously intrigued. The lady's good at translating inner turmoil into graphic novel form, and who's more tumultuous than Meg Murray?
  • Oh, did you know Dan Gutman corrupted America? All by himself? Quite an accomplishment, if you ask me. Especially considering his weapon of choice was "depraved, acrimonious dribble." Seriously, this is a marvelous response to a parent's indignation over content in his "Weird School" books.
  • On her blog, Shannon Hale has a similar response to an objection to Jeff Smith's "Bone" series. Always interesting to see this stuff from the authors' point of view.
That's all you get for today!

    Sunday, June 06, 2010

    48-Hour Book Challenge Finish Line!

    Time Stats

    Total reading time: 16 hours, 7 minutes
    Total blogging time (including this post): 5 hours, 38 minutes
    Total networking time: 2 hours, 50 minutes

    For a total time of: 24 hours, 35 minutes

    Some other statistics

    Books finished: 13 (including one audiobook which was partially done at the beginning)
    Books given up on: 1

    My experience
    I had a harder time this year than last (or I forgot how hard it was). I think this was due to a few different factors. One, last year I read all books that I was insanely excited to read, which really helped with my energy level. This year, I had a good smattering of books that I was excited to read, but about half of them were obligations.

    They also tended to be shorter, so I didn't get the momentum that I did last year. Only one paper book took me more than two hours, and there were a number that took less than an hour. You'd think that would make it easier, but it was actually harder. How weird. I had the same number of books this year as last, but a much lower time spent reading.

    I also exercised both days, which was good to get out of the house and moving, but it tired me out so that I didn't have the stamina to stay up late and read. Of course, I prize my sleep, so I was never going to be one of the 48-hour readers.

    Still, I had fun. I always do. There's something about doing this and communicating with a whole group of people who are also doing it at the same time that's just exhilarating. I noticed there were more adult-book bloggers this year, so it was neat to visit their blogs and see what they were up to. And the tweets flew thick and fast!

    I'll wait to make my final donation count until Monday evening. Thanks for another great year, Pam, and congrats to everyone who entered this marathon!

    Book Review: The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper

    Book: The Dark is Rising
    Author: Susan Cooper
    Published: 1973
    Source: library

    Who I Told I’d Read It: nobody really; this was the audiobook I was listening to while cooking and exercising and doing all the other things it's inadvisable to do with your eyes otherwise occupied.
    Time: 2:40:06 (during the 48HBC)

    Will Stanton is used to being overlooked and left behind. He's not bitter about it; that's just the way life is for the youngest of a very large family. But on the morning of his eleventh birthday, he wakes into a strange, still world. Inside his house, none of his brothers or sisters will wake up. Outside is not the familiar Thames Valley he's always known, but a snow-blanketed landscape from long ago.

    When he ventures out into it, his true nature is revealed to him. He's an Old One, servant of the Light, last in a long line of immortal beings pledged to fight the Dark. And throughout the coming Christmas season, he alone must seek out the six Signs of the Light, that will aid them in their battle. Because if the Dark gets them first, there's no telling what evil will swamp the world.

    I read this for the first time in fourth grade, and I can clearly remember the experience. I've never been a high fantasy girl, but The Dark is Rising was my exception. I marinated in this book and its sequels, soaking up the glorious language, the firm anchoring in the English, Cornish, and Welsh countrysides, and the underpinnings of Arthurian myth. It's probably the reason for my persistent Anglophilia. Returning to it, I wondered how the book itself would measure up to my memories.

    This is a story of growing up fast and brutal, no question. At a time of year when everyone is permitted to be a child, Will must be an adult, making hard choices for himself and for the family that has always nurtured and protected him. Cooper is almost systematic about stripping away his protection. At different times, he sees almost every member of his family affected by his quest, turned from steady dependable anchors into fearful, helpless human beings in various situations that Will must then handle. It's something we all learn, but not in the space of three weeks. Caught between being an eleven-year-old boy and an immortal Old One, Will yearns to be one or the other, knowing that to fulfill his quest, he must balance both. His humanity is as important to the story as his magical powers, and Cooper keeps him (and us) from arrogance by inserting reminders of old, wild magic that are beyond either.

    For sure, this is a book that couldn't have been written today. The Light is good and the Dark is bad and there's an end to it. Post-Watergate (which scandal was probably just beginning to break as Cooper was writing), we require a little more in the way of proof, and we also like to see a little more internal conflict in a person called to a great and terrible destiny. Will sees his duty and falls in line, without question. He has moments of weakness and doubt, but he doubts himself, never the Light nor Merriman Lyon, its representative. Additionally, I had problems with the women in the story, who all tend to be either silly (Will's sisters), evil (a neighbor girl who seduces a human ally away from the Light), or iconic (Miss Greythorne and the Lady). Finally, it's more than a little unlikely that the Six Signs would all turn up so handily close to Will's home.

    But those are things you think about away from the grip of the story. Returning to this book after many years dropped me right back into my love affair with it. Maybe it's something about being so devoted to it when I was young, or maybe it's simply the power of Cooper's writing, but I felt all the old prickles of awe and meloncholy that it evoked in me twenty years ago.

    Book Review: The Brain Finds a Leg by Martin Chatterton

    Book: The Brain Finds a Leg
    Author: Martin Chatterton
    Published: 2009
    Source: review copy from publisher

    Who I Told I’d Read It: the publisher
    Time: 1:17:52

    It all started with the highly unexpected humpback whale attack. Not  to mention the killer koalas, the organized lorikeet poop-strafing, and the SUV-stealing possums. For sure, there are strange things afoot in Sheldon McGlone's sleepy little town of Farrago Bay. Luckily, Sheldon crosses paths with The Brain, a middle-schooler with the mindpower of a Harvard professor. Coincidentally, the Brain has just found a leg, unattached to a body, which might have something to do with the death of local surfer punk Biff Manley, a crime that Sheldon's brother Sean is being blamed for.

    Now if The Brain and his new sidekick can figure out what Biff, his leg, the crazed animals, and the local toothpaste manufacturer have to do with each other, they might just get to the bottom of this. That's if they can convince the crocodile that thinks it's a puppy dog to let go of the local police sergeant.

    If Sherlock Holmes hijacked a Carl Hiaasen novel and made off with it to Australia, you might get something like The Brain Finds a Leg. Illogical, ridiculous, and all-around-unlikely? Clearly. Loads of fun? Christ, yes.

    The Brain has that annoying literary genius trait of giving Sheldon (and by extension, us) barely 1/10th of the real story, so this is not really the book for someone who needs to know what's going on at all times. But this isn't the kind of book you read for the plot. You read for the twisted humor, the oddball situations, and the desire to see just how strange it can get before the end. And the answer? Very strange indeed.

    Saturday, June 05, 2010

    Book Review: Nieve by Terry Griggs

    Book: Nieve
    Author: Terry Griggs
    Published: 2010
    Source: LibraryThing Early Reviewer program

    Who I Told I’d Read It: LibraryThing
    Time: 1:39:14

    Weird things have been happening lately. Some of them, Nieve doesn't mind so much, like her parents getting more work as professional weepers. But some things, like the sudden uptick in the number of spiders, the creepy new apothecaries in town, and the nasty candy that the new substitute gives to the whole class, are just worrisome.

    Before long, Nieve and her strange new friend Lias are off to the Black City, and it's there she'll discover what's really going on, and what she has to do with it.

    This book started out as interestingly weird and quickly spiraled down into totally horrific. It's marked 10-15, but I wouldn't give this to anybody under 12, and even then only if they have a strong tolerance for disturbing stuff. What else can you call scenes of people being twisted into furniture?

    A lot of the things seemed to be random details instead of feeding back into the story, too. Certain creepy characters that loom up at the beginning are never explained or positioned within the rest of the narrative, and the motivations of the Big Bad are fuzzy at best. Of course, this is the first book in a trilogy, but I got the feeling that it really didn't have to be.

    Book Review: Emma-Jean Lazarus Fell in Love by Lauren Tarshis

    Book: Emma-Jean Lazarus Fell in Love
    Author: Lauren Tarshis
    Published: 2009
    Source: swapped

    Who I Told I’d Read It: the little girl at work who checked out the first Emma Jean book. Okay, that's a stretch. The truth is, I really felt like reading a quick book I was sure to enjoy.
    Time: 0:38:51

    It's spring at William Gladstone Middle School, and everyone is showing the effects. With the school dance coming up, nobody can discuss any topic but who is going with whom. Colleen Pomerantz even has a secret admirer, and she's called on super-logical Emma-Jean Lazarus to figure out who it is.

    While she is most pleased to assist her friend, Emma-Jean has problems of her own. Every time she sees Will Keeler, her heart has taken to fluttering in the most distracting and puzzling way. Is it possible that Emma-Jean is--gulp--in love?

    This is another book that I'd love to read aloud. Emma-Jean's detached and quizzical way of looking at the world, specifically the world of WGMS, just begs to be repeated. ("A chickpea fell off Emma-Jean's fork, as though Vikram's suggestion had caused it to faint." That one almost made me snort chili out my nose, which is exactly as pleasant as it sounds.) But Tarshis is just as adept at capturing the ups and downs of a middle-school girl's life in Colleen's narration, as her secret admirer lends her courage and confidence in the daunting face of seventh grade.

    Hilarious, sweet, and quirky, Emma-Jean Lazarus Fell in Love is a worthy successor to Emma-Jean Lazarus Fell Out of a Tree. Here's hoping Lauren Tarshis keeps supplying us with more Emma-Jean for quite some time.

    Book Review: Gone by Lisa McMann

    Book: Gone
    Author: Lisa McMann
    Published: 2010
    Source: purchased

    Who I Told I’d Read It: the author, when I bought it at a book signing
    Time: 0:51:38

    Janie's on vacation, trying to escape the aftereffects of a traumatic police investigation and the news that her dream-catching abilities will eventually leave her blind and crippled. Even in the sun and sand, though, neither she nor her beloved Cabe can quite dismiss it from their minds.

    Then Janie's dragged back home by the news that the father she never knew is comatose in a local hospital. To her surprise, he's been close all this time, living in a cabin in the woods, isolated from everyone and everything. Furthermore, it seems that he's the source of her dream-catching, but unlike the only other dream-catcher she's ever known, he is neither blind nor crippled. Janie slowly realizes his self-imposed isolation is the key to avoiding this terrible fate.

    So now she must choose--be with Cabe, and become a burden to the person she loves most of all? Or spend the rest of her life whole and healthy, and utterly alone?

    In order to not get totally lost in this book, you have to have read the first two. It took me some time to get mentally caught up, as I read the last one during last year's 48HBC. That aside, I think it's a worthy end to an absorbing and somewhat dark trilogy. We even managed to get a little bit of closure on the difficult alcoholic-mother/caretaker-daughter relationship.

    (From here on in, there be spoilers. You've been warned.)

    Janie's eleventh-hour realization of the true effects of her father's isolation was one I'd come to a long time before. For quite awhile, I really thought that isolation was going to be her choice, and I was all geared up to be mad about it, because the example of her father, comatose and crazy in the hospital, was right there in front of her.

    Certainly the ending is not sunshine and puppies. The whole point of such a difficult choice is that neither outcome is particularly palatable. But Cabel and Janie's relationship has been set up as so sturdy and loving that you feel certain that if any couple can handle the fate that awaits them, they can.

    Book Review: City of Fire by Lawrence Yep

    Book: City of Fire
    Author: Lawrence Yep
    Published: 2009
    Source: Review Copy from publisher

    Who I Told I’d Read It: the publisher
    Time: 2:07:45

    At twelve years old, Scirye feels like she'll never live up to the examples set by her famous diplomat mother or her highly skilled warrior sister. And she's bored, bored, bored accompanying the treasures of the Kushan empire on their visit to a San Francisco museum.

    But suddenly, her dull day at the museum turns chaotic. All within half an hour, the museum has been invaded by dragons, her sister lies dead, and one of the greatest treasures of Scirye's people has been stolen. Scirye vows revenge and goes after the thieves.

    She's joined on her pell-mell pursuit by Koko and Leech, two street-wise kids who lost their own friend in the attack, and Bayang, who looks like a mousy old lady and fights like an Amazon. Together they go from San Francisco to Hawaii in pursuit of the evil Roland, discovering the secrets of friends and enemies alike. One thing's for sure, this is much bigger than it seems.

    I've really liked Yep's work in the past, but I have to say that this is far from my favorite of his novels. The setting--an alternate, magical 1941--is pretty imaginative, which may be part of the problem. The plot is necessarily fast-paced, but every so often, it had to be interrupted for another bit of world-building or character background. Sometimes I would look up from the book and think, "So . . . what's happening again?" It doesn't help that we're bounced from POV to POV, each one having its own background, both personal and cultural, that needed to be explained to the reader. Rather too much information for me, honestly. Kids who are used to dense worldbuilding, though, may sail through this and gobble up the whimsical volcano goddesses and evil shape-shifting dragons.

    I did appreciate that the magical creatures (all the way up to gods and goddesses) were not the traditional Arthurian or Greek models, but Asian, Middle Eastern, and Hawaiian. The next book in the series promises some Scandinavian mythology, but unless I see some really good reviews, I don't think I'll pick it up.

    Book Review: Persephone the Phony

    Book: Persephone the Phony
    Author: Joan Holub and Suzanne Williams
    Published: 2010
    Source: ARC from author

    Who I Told I’d Read It: the author, at KidLitCon 09
    Time: 0:19:35

    Persephone is well-known as a sweet, easy-going girl who never causes trouble. But that's all on the outside. On the inside, she's a seething mass of opinions that she never dares to let out. She feels like a gigantic phony.

    Then she meets Hades. Cute, smart, and he likes her a lot. Persephone likes him back, a lot. Her friends and her overprotective mother all say he's bad news, but this time, Persephone the Phony is just going to have to disagree.

    It's a good time of day to sit out by the pool and attempt to get a little color on my legs, which have been known to blind unwary onlookers. But this being the desert, I picked a book that was short enough I wouldn't turn the color of a stoplight. Remember how I said Persephone the Phony looked more promising than Athena the Brain? I'm glad to report that my instinct held true. This book carried on with all the things I liked about the first book, like the riffs on mythology, the cute puns, and the lighthearted feel, and fixed most of the things I didn't, like the lack of strong conflict and character development.

    That's not to say it's a particularly meaty book. Hades' bad reputation boils down to little more than being from the Underworld and hanging out in the principal's office (which, we discover, is nothing more sinister than it being the only place he feels comfortable eating lunch). Persephone's conflict with her mother and friends is easily smoothed over, and even the bullyboy Ares is defanged after a blink-and-you'll-miss-it confrontation at a school dance. Persephone's final conclusion, that it's best to balance the go-along attitude with standing your ground, seems to fall into place like a math equation.

    Still, if you're looking for an airy snack of a book to feed kids ravenous for more Greek mythology, this book might fit the bill. Just make sure you have something more to toss them in an hour or two.

    ETA: My ARC didn't have the cover for this book, just the first. I can't get over this cover. Look how cute they are! Awwwww.

    Book Review: Saving Maddie by Varian Johnson

    Book: Saving Maddie
    Author: Varian Johnson
    Published: 2010
    Source: ARC from KidLitCon

    Who I Told I’d Read It: the author. Actually, I kind of begged for this ARC after reading My Life as a Rhombus. Really shamelessly, too.
    Time: 1:04:10

    Joshua Wynn is a preacher's kid. Since before he could walk, he's known what that means. He's held to a higher standard than other kids. He has to be an example of how to act and speak and think. And so far he's been pretty successful. He visits the elderly instead of going out partying, heads the youth group instead of the basketball team, sings in the choir instead of dancing in bars--in short, he's everyone's idea of a good guy.

    When childhood friend Maddie Smith comes back to town, she's like a walking, talking example of everything Joshua's never allowed himself to be. The years away have changed her, outside and in. But Joshua knows that the girl he once knew--smart and spunky and his best friend in the world--is somewhere inside the slutty-dressing, tequila-drinking, scandalous woman. He's going to find her, and he's going to save her.

    He might even end up saving himself.

    Like I said, I loved My Life as a Rhombus so much that when I met the author at KidLitCon 09, I begged pretty shamelessly for this ARC. Besides being by an author I already knew I enjoyed, I was hoping this would pick up one of my favorite themes in YA, which is how people fit religion and faith into their life.

    It did and it didn't: there's very little of the inner exploration of faith and God that I love. However, what does happen is that Joshua's concept of his own religion, his beliefs about what's right and what's wrong and how his actions make him a good person or not, broadens. In the beginning, he is attempting to fit some robotic mold of the good Christian soldier. There is a line that encapsulates Joshua:
    I was supposed to be a shining example of what was good and righteous and wholesome in the world. (Page 28 of the ARC)
    Y'all, I almost cracked from the pressure just reading that.

    By the end, he's learned to let up on himself a little, understand that if he bends some of the rules that his church and his community have laid down for him, he won't automatically go to hell, or even worse, lose his parents' love. He remains a fundamentally good guy, just one who isn't so rigid about his own goodness.

    So does Joshua save Maddie? It's hard to say. Maddie doesn't turn into a Sunday-hat-wearing, choir-singing Good Girl, but thanks to Joshua's love and friendship, she does finish up the novel in a better emotional place than when she entered it, and maybe that's all you really need for salvation.

    Book Review: Athena the Brain by Joan Holub and Suzanne Williams

    Book: Athena the Brain
    Author: Joan Holub and Suzanne Williams
    Published: 2010
    Source: ARC from author at KidLitCon

    Who I Told I’d Read It: the author
    Time: 0:24:28

    Athena's never felt like she fit in down on earth, so it's no surprise when she gets a letter from Mount Olympus, saying that she's actually a goddess, the daughter of Zeus. Whisked away to Mount Olympus Academy, she now must adjust to her goddess powers and at the same time, deal with bullies like Medusa, pretty boys like Poseidon, and just possibly, make new friends.

    While entertaining in a fluffy sort of way, this is a pretty clear mashup of various currently popular elements from children's literature. From the Harry-Potter-style summoning to a magical school to the Lightning-Thief influence of ancient Greek mythology, there's not a lot that's new or different about Athena the Brain. Also, while we're told that Athena is having difficulties, she seems to sail through them. Even when she has to leave her best friend and foster sister back on Earth, it doesn't seem to penetrate.

    Still, this is cute, and clearly a quick read. For those already in the know about Greek mythology, seeing how the traditional stories get riffed on or adjusted is kind of fun. I particularly liked the way the Trojan War was worked into the plot. But I'd still read the Pandora series by Carolyn Hennessey for mixed-up Grecian fun that's not all surface.

    The ARC I got had the next book in the Goddess Girls series packaged with it, Persephone the Phony, and it looks a little more promising. But since I've read some very short books recently, I'm going to hunt through my stack for something I can really sink my teeth into.

    Friday, June 04, 2010

    Not Really a Review

    Spent about half an hour trying to get into Butterfly by Sonya Hartnett. It did get the sense of a 14-year-old not fitting into their own skin marvelously well, tantrums and turmoil and all. Unfortunately, Hartnett's style is one that's most often described as "lyrical." My experience with lyrical is that they spend so much so much time seeing how pretty they can make the words that they forget that things are supposed to, y'know, happen. This held true for this book, too.

    Also, there was as much of the story devoted to middle-aged neighbors and grown brothers as there was to Plum, the main character. More, possibly. Certainly there is a sense that Plum's agonizing concerns are really meaningless when compared to all these important things are going on around her. It's more an adult novel with a teenaged protagonist than a teen novel, really. Which is okay for some but not my cup of tea.

    Book review: Alison Dare, Little Miss Adventures by J Torres and J Bone

    Book: Alison Dare, Little Miss Adventures
    Author: J. Torres
    Illustrator: J. Bone
    Published: 2002 (original)
    Source: LibraryThing Early Reviewers program

    Who I Told I’d Read It: LibraryThing
    Time: 0:18:44

    Genies that grant every wish as mischievously as possible, a dad with a secret superhero identity, an archaeologist mom with an evil Nazi nemesis. A little too much for most children's books, but business as usual for Alison Dare.

    I got this from LTER thinking it was a graphic novel in the usual sense (well, usual lately). It turned out to be a collection of three Alison Dare adventures, bundled together in one book. In style, they're more like old-fashioned kiddy adventure comic books. Which was fine, once I got used to the notion. I did feel as if I came in during the middle of the story, and had a hard time sorting out who was who. In spite of that, I think it would be great, especially for reluctant readers who want a rip-roaring time.

    Clearly drawing on the Indiana Jones trope of adventure (even down to the title font and certain lines of dialogue) Alison Dare never pretends to be anything but itself, a farfetched but utterly entertaining romp with over the top villains and equally over the top heroes.

    Book Review: The Mysterious Howling by Maryrose Wood

    Book: The Mysterious Howling (Book 1 of The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place)
    Author: Maryrose Wood
    Published: 2010
    Source: Review copy from publisher

    Who I Told I’d Read It: the publisher
    Time: 1:17:49

    Penelope Lumley is the newest (and youngest) graduate of the Swanburne Academy for Poor Bright Females, and she's delighted to get a governess post so quickly. She fondly envisions a future full of bright, well-behaved children, soaking up the education she provides.

    And in a way, that's what she gets--but first she has to teach Alexander, Beowulf, and Casseopeia not to chew on their own shoes. For it seems almost certain that her new charges were raised by wolves before they were found by Lord Frederick of Ashton Place, and before she teaches them Latin and French, they have to learn how to put on pants the right way up.

    But Penelope is not a Swanburne girl for nothing, and she soon comes to love the three children, quirks and all. Which makes it even more unsettling as she realizes that Lord Frederick might not have the most benevolent of plans for them . . .

    I've enjoyed Maryrose Wood's books before, so when this one was offered to me, I took it. There is something very Lemony Snicket about this book, with the over-the-top situations, the Gothic touches, and the sly asides to the reader. It would be fun to read this aloud, in a classroom or as ongoing bedtime entertainment.

    Penelope totally won me over by her bone-deep practicality. Upon meeting the children for the first time in a barn, wearing only horse blankets and howling like wolves, she does not take to her heels screaming, as might be expected. Instead, she immediately starts working to win their trust, taking the situation exactly as she finds it without hysterics or accusations. She's about the only one in the book who sees the children as children from the first, since everyone else, from hunting-mad Lord Frederick to silly Lady Constance and the servants that eventually become friends, reacts to them as you would to wild animals. At this point in the series, you don't get much sense of their individual personalities, but I'm hoping that will change.

    This is the first in a series, and if the various hints that Wood has provided about the larger story hold true, it will be something very much in the vein of Snicket's multi-volume opus. To which I say, bring it on.

    Book Review: The Secret Year by Jennifer R. Hubbard

    Book: The Secret Year
    Author: Jennifer R. Hubbard
    Published: 2010
    Source: ARC from author at KidlitCon

    Who I Told I’d Read It: the author
    Time: 1:03:33

    Nobody would ever believe that a princess from Black Mountain would ever go out with a guy from the flats. So Colt Morrissey doesn't even try. Besides, he and Julia like being the only two people who know about them.

    When she dies in a car crash, there's only one.

    Colt goes through the first year after Julia's death, trying to get on with his life. At the same time he's also living in the previous year, through a notebook full of letters Julia wrote to him and never sent. He reads them carefully, seeing their relationship through her eyes and trying to make sense of her, of himself, and of what happened between them.

    I feel like I should have loved this book. I knew that Colt was going through grief in a strange and bottled-up way, but it felt like there was a sheet of glass between me and him. I was never quite able to immerse myself in his story.

    One of the things that really kept me from buying into the story was the stated class differences. And that's the problem, it was all stated. Somehow, for all the scenes of big mansions vs. houses with broken-down cars in the yard, I never quite got the us/them mentality. There were some attempted dramatics, some nods at class clashes, but nothing that really illustrated the gulf between Julia's world and Colt's. Since this is what circumscribed the whole relationship, it meant that the secret of Julia and Colt also didn't quite work for me.

    I did like that there is no Magical Healing Power of Love in this book, although I thought there would be at the beginning. Colt gets involved with two other girls in the course of the year, and neither one fixes him. In fact, the secret of Julia is what drives both away, in different ways.

    I also liked that it was told from a male perspective. This is the kind of story that is most often written from a female perspective, so that was something interesting and different.

    In the long run, I'll look out for more of Hubbard's work, because I liked the way she wrote and I think I want to see how she'll do with a different story. But this one just didn't do it for me.

    Book Review: Fat Cat by Robin Brande

    Book: Fat Cat
    Author: Robin Brande
    Published: 2009
    Source: Purchased

    Who I Told I’d Read It: the author, when I bought it at a book signing
    Time: 1:51:14

    Cat knows the Special Topics in Research Science class is going to be a killer. This is the class where students have to make up a year-long research project based on a picture from a magazine, after all. She's desperately hoping for something in her area of expertise--bugs--but instead she gets a picture of cavemen.

    Scrambling for an idea, Cat decides she's going to live like a cavewoman. She's going to give up technology, motor vehicles, all the trappings of modern life. This includes any food items that a cavewoman wouldn't have had access to, like chocolate, high fructose corn syrup, and french fries. For someone like Cat, who loves her Butterfingers, this is going to be pure torture. But she's determined to stick it out, just for the chance to wipe the smirk off classmate/nemesis/ex-best-friend Matt McKinney's face. And hey, if she loses a little of the stubborn poundage along the way, that would be a bonus.

    Cat knows the class is going to be a killer. But she never expected it would change her life.

    Oh man, what fun.

    I decided to read this first because, like I said, Robin Brande always makes me laugh and I was in the mood for that. This fit the bill--fun, funny, a little poignant as Cat works through the issues that led her to treat herself so badly, and also a great romantic plot.

    As the weight starts to come off, the things the fat insulated start to come to the surface. One nasty little boil that has to be lanced is exactly what happened between herself and Matt. While we're told there was a traumatic incident a few years before, the specifics are held in reserve for about 3/4 of the book. I was afraid it would be one of those Big Misunderstandings--something misheard, some lie told, and everyone's happy again when it's clarified or disproved. Luckily, that wasn't the case.The incident strikes a nice balance between actual wrong-doing that requires actual forgiveness and the kind of thing a 13-year-old would hold onto for several years, long past when it was time to let go.

    Cat's actual weight loss journey also struck a lot of chords with me. I went through a similar transformation myself, if not as drastic. I'm still nowhere near where I want to be, physically. But Cat's awe at her own changing body, her emerging self-confidence, and her delight in her return to the activities she enjoyed in the past (specifically swimming, which is another of my own loves) were all things that I could nod at and go, "Yes, indeed. I hear you, sweetie."

    It's a good thing I live alone, because I kept reading aloud bits of dialogue and narration and giggling to myself. Cat's interactions with her best friend Amanda in particularly were funny and warm, in the way that real best friends have perfected. Brande also has a gift for unexpectedly poignant and on-the-nose turns of phrase. There's a section close to the beginning that brought tears to my eyes because it so perfectly described how I felt:
    "When I wake up in the morning, it's like I'm wearing this giant fat suit, and if only I could find the zipper I could step out of it and finally go start living my real life."
    Nicely done.

    The science aspect of it got a little scrambled. While Cat said that her expertise was in bugs, that's the last we ever heard of it. She never even pauses to read a particularly scintillating article on a new species of insect. Also, in the second half of the book, Cat seemed to be making exceptions to her cavewoman lifestyle right and left. I'm kind of glad she didn't win the science fair because I couldn't see how it all fell together into a national-level project. That's okay, though, because the project was just the impetus, not the story. The real story was about transformation, and where it really begins.

    One last note: I soooo want a Fat Cat cookbook. Cat loves to cook and eventually becomes the chef at a vegetarian cafe with some of the cavewoman recipes she's created. I'm a terrible carnivore, but the food mentioned all sounded amazing.

    Altogether, this was a fun, smart book with plenty of science and laughs mixed in.

    The 48-Hour Book Challenge Begins!

    As you should know by now if you've been reading this blog at all, this weekend is MotherReader's (in)famous 48-Hour Book Challenge. This year my theme is Books I Told Somebody I'd Read. I have a stack of books I've acquired by various means (some devious, muahaha). These are books I told somebody I'd read--authors, publicists, early reviewer programs. I'm reading them all this weekend, or at least giving them all my standard 50 pages. If I perchance finish the whole stack before the 48 hours are up, I'll dive into my regularly scheduled to-read shelf.

    I'm donating to First Book, with a standard rate of 10 dollars per review posted between now and noon on Sunday, and 1 dollar for each comment on a post between now and Monday afternoon. Since my blog feeds onto my Facebook page, I'm also counting comments and "likes" that the blog/FB post generates. 50 cents for a like, 1 dollar for a comment. Plus I'll be Tweeting. My god, you guys, I'm so connected I can't stand it.

    If you want in on the divine madness, pop on over to MotherReader's blog and sign up. You do need a blog to play, but consider this your impetus to finally start one. What's there to lose?

    If you're visiting from MotherReader's starting line post, click this link: 48-Hour Book Challenge to see what I've posted since then. (Also, welcome to Casa de Bibliovore! Have a seat, raid the fridge, but if you drink any of my Code Red I'll be very unhappy.)

    My first book will be Fat Cat by Robin Brande. Just because I feel in the need for something fun, and she always makes me laugh.

    . . . And I'm off!

    Tuesday, June 01, 2010

    Reading Roundup April 2010

    By the Numbers
    Teen: 22
    Tween: 10
    Children: 11

    Purchased: 2
    Library: 37

    Teen: The Secret Life of Prince Charming by Deb Caletti
    Just how many ways can women make romantic mistakes? I think this book covers all of them.
    Tween: The Rock and the River by Kekla Magoon
    A very different and provocative view of the Civil Rights movement, the Black Panthers, and the people caught in the middle of it.
    Children: Animals Up Close by Igor Siqanowicz
    You guys, that lizard is licking his own eyeball. No booktalk is needed.

    Because I Want To Awards
    Most Unsettling Ending: Out of My Mind by Sharon Draper
    Getting It Just Right Again: The Kind of Friends We Used to Be by Frances O'Roark Dowell
    Slavering for the Sequel(s): Eon: Dragoneye Reborn by Alison Goodman AND Incarceron by Catherine Fisher
    Made Me Rethink the Whole Myth, Oh My God, I'm Such a Geek!: Radiant Darkness by Emily Whitman
    Wins the So-Not-Twilight Award: Fairy Tale by Cyn Balog
    Was Thiiiiiiiis Close to Being the Teen Standout: Pure by Terra Elan McVoy