Monday, February 28, 2011

Subject Seven by James A. Moore

What You Need to Know: Despite some compelling action sequences, this overlong, confusing Jekyll and Hyde retread will frustrate the reluctant readers it seems designed for. 

Summary:  Years ago, a top secret project aimed to create the ultimate solider.  Genetic experiments resulted in a group of "failures" who nonetheless have unbelievable strength, speed and a taste for violence.   These failures, blind to their unusual abilities, live their lives as normal teenagers.  One of these experiments escaped and is now looking for the other teens who are like him.  Subject Seven has the ability to awaken the killers inside these five normal teens, but his agenda is not clear.  

What Worked:  Moore knows how to put together a fight scene.  When this book moves, it really moves, and the descriptions of carnage are vivid and brutal.   The physicality of the transformations of the teen sleeper agents is arresting, calling to mind Gothic horror stories.    

What Didn't:  Moore takes forever, or at least half of the 336 pages, to get to the point.  Each of the 5 characters has a protracted, and ultimately meaningless, introduction.   Moore changes the viewpoint character frequently,  not just among the teens and their alter-egos, but to the scientist in charge of the experiment.  Instead of building suspense, these shifts merely drag the narrative down, confuse reader and slow the pace to a crawl.  The characters themselves are little more than clich├ęs , with the "Jersey Mafia daughter" being the worst of the lot.  

Who would I give this book to: Honestly, I can't see recommending this book anybody.  The readers who would gravitate to this book's violent action would not wade through the lengthy and confusing first half of the book.  Teens who would be willing to stick with the protracted introduction would be put off by the stock characters.   

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Mother and Daughter Book Review: Hereville: How Mirka Got Her Sword

I'd like to introduce a new feature on the Merideth Says blog: Mother and Daughter Book Reviews. 

My daughter Mari is 9 years old, and a 3rd grade student.  She is very interested in this reviewing thing that eats up so much of Mom's time, and wants to try it.  So, here is our first joint review, of Hereville: How Mirka Got Her Sword by Barry Deutsch.  

Note: Mari and I tried to record this as a podcast, but had some technical issues, so for this one, we just have the transcript! 

Me:  O.K. -- it's our first book review together, and we're going to talk about Hereville: How Mirka Got Her Sword. So, if you had to describe this book in just a few sentences, how would you? 

Mari:  It was amazing and the artwork was wonderful.  It had a good storyline and I liked how she produced it.  

Me:  I would say it was a good adventure story with an unusual lead character and setting.   Can you tell me what the book was about? 

Mari:  It's about an Orthodox Jewish girl named Mirka, who has a stepsister named Rachel, and an older sister named Gittel, who is always talking about getting married, and she has a little brother.  They live in Hereville.  One day, Mirka sees a woman floating, cutting wood, and she takes her friends to see her.  When they're there, she eats a grape and a big pig chases her.  The pig won't leave her alone until she ropes it and rides it underwater.  Then she saves the pig from bullies so the witch tells her where to find a wonderful sword as a reward.  

Me:  Why does Mirka want a sword?

Mari: Mirka dreams about fighting dragons.  She has a book of monsters, which isn't a Jewish book, and she's not supposed to have it.   She needs the sword to fight. 

Me:  Well, that makes sense.  What did you like best about this book? 

Mari:  Well, that's hard!  There are three things:  the artwork, the storyline, and her stepmother.   I liked the artwork because it was realistic without being like "oh, this line is two millimeters too long, arghghghghg!"  and it wasn't "oh, I'm sorry that I didn't draw noses or mouths on anybody".  It was the perfect balance.  My goal when I grow up is to be a comics artist and win an Eisner award, so I always look at the art first.  

Me:  I liked the artwork too, but I thought that it was a little distracting because some of the closeups were more realistic than the far away scenes.  

Mari:  That's bad? 

Me:  No, but it did take me out of the story a little bit.  What did you like about the story. 

Mari:  I liked Mirka!  I liked that she was "spunky" but not "grrr...kill kill kill".  I liked that she was a Jewish girl, because my dad is Jewish, and you don't see many Jewish girls in fantasy books. 

Me:  I liked that she was Jewish too, and a Orthodox Jew at that. It was interesting to see a different way of life.  But she had to break some rules to have her adventures though, didn't she? 

Mari:  Oh, yeah.
Me:  You said that you liked her stepmother, why?

Mari:  Well, she was argumentative, feisty and liked to fight.  She's just like me!  

Me: I have some things in common with the stepmother too.  I think she was my favorite character.  Is there anything you didn't like about this book, or thought the book could have done better? 

Mari: No, not really.  It was pretty close to perfect.  There's just one thing. The witch didn't really look like a witch, I liked that she didn't look cheesy, like a Halloween witch, but she really just looked like a creepy old lady. 

Me:  I don't think I would change anything either.  I do wish it had been in color, because I think it would attract more readers, but I think the kind of brown, sepia tones work for Mirka's kind of old fashioned way of life.   So, who would you give this book to? 

Mari:  I would give it to kids my age, mostly girls, but boys too.  Boys need to read about spunky girls.  I would give it to people who like fantasy books.  

Me:  I think it's a good book for grade school kids, but I also think it would be a good book for adults too.  Maybe even adults who don't know much about comics. 

Mari:  That's a great idea!  Because comics are good books.  A lot of grownups don't realize that.  

Me:  Yes, comics are good books.  And a lot of grownups don't understand that.  Maybe we should talk about that next time.  Are we going to do this again? 

Mari:  Hopefully.  

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Books I Couldn't Finish: Slice of Cherry by Dia Reeves

Total Pages: 86 out of 505

Why Didn't You Finish It:  As much as I hate to admit it, this book was too gross for me. 

Look, I'm a big girl, I don't expect a book about serial killing sisters to be all sweetness and light.  Gore comes with the subject.

Reeves is a great writer, her characters are interesting, Portero is a great setting.  However, when the two sisters eviscerate a man and leave him, alive, and watch while animals eat his entrails.... I'm done. 

What?  I read at lunch a lot.

Dissenting Opinions? As always

Page Turners
Novel Thoughts

Bottom Line:  This book is a good read for the strong of stomach stomach and the open of mind.  While I have plenty of the latter, I failed to measure up on the former.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Finnikin of the Rock by Melina Marchetta

What You Need To Know:  This is a beautifully written epic fantasy with an interesting take on gender roles that suffers slightly from being overcomplicated and a bit too long.

Summary:  Years ago, the Kingdom of Lumatere was placed under a curse.  Now, half of its population lives as exiles in other kingdoms, while the other half is trapped inside the dark realm.  Finnikin, who was close to the royal family of Lumatere as a child, now travels the world seeking assistance for the exiles.  When a mysterious young woman claims to have the key to lifting the curse and reclaiming their home, Finnikin must assume a role he has both coveted and feared. 

What worked:  Marchetta is an amazing writer, with a gift for creating compelling characters.  Finnikin, the girl Evanjalin, the adults who surround them -- all are clearly drawn and interesting.  Marchetta also juggles the various elements of a complex plot well.  My favorite aspect of this book was its use of femininity, and the benefits and perils therein.  Femaleness (for lack of a better word) is a key issue in this book, and Marchetta trades on her characters and readers expectations of women and their roles to good effect. 

What didn't:  As interesting as the various characters are, there are a LOT of them, and not all of them are neccessary to the plot.  The plot itself is a bit over designed, and a casual reader might lose track of the all of the comings and goings, backstory and foreshadowing.  Also, the last 50 pages of the book are a letdown, as the climatic event has taken place, and its all over but the shouting.

However:  My tolerance for the conventions of "high fantasy" is notoriously low.  I don't need to know about everybody's ancestors and homelands, but some readers enjoy that type of worldbuilding.

Who would I give this book to?  Teen readers who are ready to move on from the strong female characters of Garth Nix and Tamora Pierce.  Guys with a taste for epic fantasy a la LOTR. 

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Almost Perfect by Brian Katcher

What you need to know:  This is a beautiful, winsome romance that just happens to feature a trans-gender character.  

Summary: Logan, a small town boy in the flyover state of Missouri, is in a slump.  After finding out that his long-term girlfriend cheated on him, he can't seem to find any motivation.  But things change when Sage moves to town.  New people are a novelty in Boyer, and a new girl like Sage is revolutionary.  Tall, beautiful and fashionable, Logan crushes hard on Sage.  But when Sage reveals that she is a male-to-female transsexual, Logan must reevaluate his entire world view.  Does finding Sage attractive make him gay?  And in the end, what are his feelings for her? 

What Worked: This book is damn near perfect.  Logan, a throughly decent guy, has extreme, but understandable, reactions to Sage.   His cycle of denial, anger and acceptance might seem hackneyed to more sophisticated readers, but Katcher nails the voice of a fatherless teen boy who is both mature and naive.  Also beautifully rendered is Sage, giddy with freedom after years of homeschooling that was more like house arrest, making typical teenage mistakes, but finding the stakes to be much higher.  The sweetness of the romance, as these two work out their unique situation, made my heart melt, just a little.  I think my favorite thing about this book is the ending, which is not "happily-ever-after" perfect, but realistically upbeat.  

What Didn't:  The book is a little long, and might feel repetitive as the couple takes one step forward and two steps back.  Also, Sage makes some very stupid decisions, not the least of which is taking illegal Mexican hormones.  This is not a behavior to be emulated.   

However:  Katcher addresses this in the back matter of the book, warning teens about the danger.  

Who Would I Give This Book To?  Teens who love the weighty romances of Sarah Dessen and Jenny Han.  Fans of David Levithan's books.  Teens with an interest in GLBTQ books and  teens looking for coming of age stories.  

Also Note:  This is an awesome cover!  It perfectly reflects the tone of the book!  

YA Reading Challenge Update!

With my review of Almost Perfect by Brian Katcher (which should go up later tonight!) I have reached the "mini-level" of the YA Reading Challenge!  Go me!  I rule!  

This means I have read 12 YA so far this year.  This is good; but my goal of 2 teen books a week is slipping, as we are in the 8th week of the year.  So I'm four books down.  Blech. 

The Summer I Turned Pretty by Jenny Han

What You Need to Know:  This is a fast, beachy love story,  for girls who like their romance with a little bit of depth.  

Summary:  Belly, her older brother and her mom have spent every summer at the beach with her Mom's best friend, Susannah and her two boys, Jeremiah and Conrad.  Jeremiah, Conrad and Steven formed a trio of boys that Belly (short for Isabel) desperately wants to join.  She is also desperate for Conrad, the boy she will love forever.  While her Mom and Susannah spend time together, and the boys off on their own, Belly has always lived in the spaces between them.   However, this past summer, the summer Belly turned 16, something was different.  Belly isn't a little girl anymore, and everything  changed. 

What worked:  Han perfectly captures the tone of a summer vacation, that magical time that you look forward to all year, when there's nothing to do and you like it that way.  Also perfectly portrayed is Belly's voice, a girl who has grown up (happily) in the shadow of boys, who is just beginning to transition into young womanhood.  It's a testament to the power of Han's writing that I enjoyed this book so much without particularly liking Belly, who is a little whiny and pouty, like all little sisters.  I also adored Cam, the first boy Belly notices who isn't Jeremiah or Conrad.  He's the perfect first boyfriend. 

What Didn't:  Belly spends a lot of time telling the reader how wonderful Conrad is, but doesn't show much of that.  From what we see of him, he's a jerk.  There are reasons for this, but, he's a jerk nevertheless.  Also, I found the tense a little confusing.  Belly is telling the story of her 16th summer from a point in the near future, but also describes times in the more distant past.  Because the voice doesn't really change, it was tricky to figure out what happens when. 

However:  I tore through this book, and if I was taking more time, the tense thing probably wouldn't have bothered me. 

Who Would I Give this Book To?  Girls who are fans of Sarah Dessen or Deb Calletti.  Romance readers.  I might give this one to my mom, if she would ever take a book recommendation from me.  

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Mercury by Hope Larson

What You Need to Know: This is a beautifully drawn, historical romance with a modern twist, that might be a hard sell for some teens.

Summary:  Tara is returning to school, following a fire that destroyed her home, a family farm, forcing her (odd) mother to move away for work.  A strange necklace found in a box unwittingly connects her to Josie, a distant relative of Tara's from 1859.  Josie lives on the same farm, and like Tara, watches over her high-strung mother.  A stranger finds gold on the family farm, but can he be trusted with the gold, much less Josie's heart?  And, hundreds of years later, how can Tara keep her mother from uprooting her and loosing their heritage? 

What Worked: Larson is an amazing artist, and this black and white novel is beautifully illustrated, with expressive characters and a quiet charisma.  Josie's love story is charmingly told, bittersweet and poignant.  Larson also does a great job of involving you in Josie's story -- you desperately want everything to work out for her.  This book also has one of the most arresting and unique covers that I have ever seen.  It becomes more and more interesting the longer that you look at it.  

What Didn't:  Larson counts on the parallel structure to do a lot of heavy lifting for her.  We don't ever see Tara's mom, she's just a voice on the phone, and an offhand comment from others.  We see a lot of Josie's mother though, and can extrapolate from there about Tara's mom.  I admire an author who trusts her audience enough to let them connect the dots; however, I'm not sure that it worked as well as it could have.  Tara's romance is a little more obtuse, and didn't add much to the story.  Also, the more overt supernatural elements in this book -- such as the animal spirits --  felt slightly out of place, and a little tacked on.  

However: My tolerance for supernatural flourishes is very low.  Your mileage may vary.  

Who Would I Give This Book To?  Teens looking for a different sort of paranormal romance, and those who like their historical fiction with a twist. 

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Return of the Dapper Men by Jim McCann and Janet Lee.

What You Need to Know:  This is a beautifully produced, magnificently illustrated graphic novel, that suffers slightly from an obtuse story. 

Summary:  In Andorev, where there is no time, robots live above ground, tending tasks that have lost their meaning.  Children live underground, constantly creating, never asking why.  The robots and the children do not mingle, except for Zoe, a silent girl robot and Ayden, a boy child who asks questions even if there are no answers.

Andorev changes forever with the appearance of the Dapper Men, 314 nattily dressed gentlemen who fall from the sky.  One of the Dapper Men, 41, finds Ayden and Zoe, and shows them what they have forgotten.  

What Works:  This book is breathtaking.  Lee's artwork is spectacular, combining hand coloring with decoupage to create a surreal, intricate landscape inhabited by distinct but similar characters.  Archaia has given this book the deluxe hardcover treatment, and the oversized hardcover does justice to the high caliber artwork on display. 

What Doesn't:  McCann, best known as a superhero writer, is attempting to tell a mythic fable here, and doesn't quite achieve it.  The motives of the Dapper Men, what happened to Andorev, the history of the children and robots are more implied than told.  As a result, this fairy tale story of lost time and eternal children will resonate more with adults than with children, making this an all ages title that most kids will struggle with. 

However:  Adults will adore this volume, it is unique in the graphic novel category, and a good example of an independent graphic novel.  

Who Would I Give This Book Too:  Art lovers, adults, fellow librarians.  

Monday, February 14, 2011

Books I Couldn't Finish: Stolen by Lucy Christopher

Total Pages: 94 out of 299

So, Why Didn't You Finish It?  Gemma is kidnapped out of an airport by Ty, and taken to BFE Australia to live in the hot, red land.

It's hot, and red.  Ty's a monster.  But he's not.  But he is.  And it's hot.  And red.  Gemma tries to escape.  It doesn't work.  Its too hot.  And maybe too red.   And Ty's a creep.  But he's not.  But he is.  Gemma wants to get away.  But she can't.  Because it's hot, and red.   Did I mention it was hot?  And red?

Nothing happens!  Except it's hot.  And red.

Theres no plot, no character development, no nothing.  Just heat.  And redness.

Dissenting Opinions?  But of course.

Kids Lit
2011 Printz Honor Books

The Bottom Line:  This book is unique for being written in the second person, and Christopher's descriptions of the hot, red land are beautiful, but ultimately, this book is just plain boring.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Books I Didn't Finish: Delirium by Lauren Oliver

Total Page Count:  ~200 of 441 pages

Why Didn't You Finish It?:  This book has a killer concept -- in the future, love is a disease.  At 18 everybody gets a "procedure" that will cure them of Amor Deliria Nervosa.  Of course the procedure robs them of most other emotions and the ability to question the government.

Pretties, The Giver, The Cure, Bar Code Tattoo -- all of these books have covered similar ground.  And done it in less than 441 pages! 

Dissenting opinions? Sure.
The Compulsive Reader
Dreaming in Books
Reading Rants

The Bottom Line: While Oliver writes beautifully, it just takes her too long to get where she's going for me. A skillful world building and a clever concept doesn't make up for pages and pages of a wishy-washy heroine being wishy-washy.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

White Cat (The Curse Workers) by Holly Black

The Curse Workers by Holly Black

What You Need to Know:  A supernatural/crime mash-up, this is the rare "teen paranormal" from a male POV with guy appeal.

Summary:  Cassel is a normal kid with an abnormal family.  His mother, grandfather and both his brothers are curse workers -- individuals able to do magic with touch.  Curse workers are criminals by nature, as curse work is illegal.  Most curse workers are tied to major crime families, and Cassel's are no exception.  Mom's in jail, both brothers are enforcers.  But family sticks together, even when Cassel is at a boarding school, trying to live down his dark past..  However, Cassel loves the con too much to go completely straight.  When a white cat keeps appearing in his dreams, it leads Cassel down a dangerous path.

What Worked:  Holly Black doesn't back away from the dark stuff.   Something I've always liked about her work is that she doesn't sugar-coat things.  Here, she shows exactly what a life of organized crime is like.  Cassel's family may love him, may even think they're protecting him, but they are not good guys.   

Black also does a lot of really nice, really subtle world building here.  Everybody wears gloves, as touch is dangerous.  There are different types of curse workers, some good, some bad.  Stones can be spelled against the curses.  Black doesn't feel the need to tell you this upfront, but organically weaves the details through the story.  In my opinion, this is what separates a great fantasy book from a good fantasy book.

What also works well is the voice here.  Cassel isn't a terribly reliable narrator (for various spoilery reasons) and he knows he's not one of the good guys.   He tries, but he just loves the con too much.   Also,  Cassel is a guy and sounds like one, which is a nice change in a paranormal focused series.  

Finally, there's the plot.  Like all good con jobs, shows you its cards then pulls a fast one.  I can't say to much for fear of being spoileriffic, but does a fantastic job of ducking and feinting, and ending with a sucker punch.

What Didn't:  There is a lot of plot and world building here, so some of the characters get shoved to the sides.  Particularly Cassel's brother Phillip, who can harm with touch, isn't as fleshed out as he could be.

However:  I honestly didn't care.  I tore through this in one sitting, and am now desperate for the sequel.

Who would I give this book too:  Teens looking for a paranormal with more bite than the crop of Twilight clones; guys who are secret paranormal readers, fans of twisty plots.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Books I Couldn't Finish: The Freak Observer

Total Page Count: 63 pages.

Why didn't you finish it:  Nothing happens!  It's all a sad girl, being sad.  Beautiful and sad.  Sad on the bus.  Sad at home.  Sad. Sad. Sad.  Dead sister. Dead friend.  Sad.

Dissenting Opinion?s: Oh, Yeah.
A Chair, A Fireplace and a Tea Cozy 
ALA Morris Award 

So, what's your verdict?:  Navel Gazing Emo B.S.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

2011 Young Adult Reading Challenge

So -- upon urging from my former boss, I am taking part in the 2011 Young Adult Reading Challenge hosted by For the Love of YA.

This is simple, just pick a target, 12, 20, 40 or 50+ books, and sign up to read that many YA books in the upcoming year.

As I have sworn to read 2 books a week for the ENTIRE year, this will hopefully keep me honest.

See the page on the side for my list of challenge books.

Watch me drop dead of Teen Fatigue sometime around November!

Yummy: The Last Days of a Southside Shorty by G. Neri and Rand DuBurke

What You Need To Know:  This is a fictionalized account of the life (and death) of Robert Sandifer, an 11 year old gang member who shot and killed a neighborhood girl. Although it is beautifully done, this book may struggle to find an audience.

Summary:  Yummy is an 11 year old felon.  A member of the Black Disciples Nation, in the Roseland neighborhood of Chicago, he is well known for stealing cars, strong arming kids for money and having something to prove.  However, he is also known for his love of sweets, his short stature and good manners.  Roger, another 11 year old, tries to unravel the dual nature of this boy after he accidentally kills a 14 year old girl.  While Yummy's gang hides him, Roger listens to the words of his friends, his family, those who knew Yummy, and those who only know him as a symbol or statistic

What Works: This is a powerful story.  The DuBurke's stark black and white artwork manages to convey that power without melodrama.  Neri works hard to give a complete picture of Yummy, a dangerous felon who was still a child.

What Doesn't:  I have some serious questions about the intended audience for this book.  Is it meant for teens?  If so, the choice of a young narrator may turn off readers.  Also, while Yummy's story is indeed powerful, it also happened before most teen readers were born.  Dated slang, dress and cultural references will serve to remove teens from the story.   I can't quite see a younger reader enjoying or understanding this volume, and I think the format will be enough to turn off most adults.  So while the book is arresting and moving, I'm not sure it will reach the intended recipients.

However:  I am a 30+ white girl living in a suburb. While I can't see many of my patrons picking this title up of their own accord, that could be different in a different library.

Who Would I Give This Book To?:  Fans of Walter Dean Myers and urban fiction.  Teens researching gang violence, fans of non-fiction graphic novels.