Thursday, March 31, 2011

Wither (Chemical Garden Trilogy #1) by Lauren DeStefano

What You Need to Know:  This is an unique, imperfect, take on the current YA Dystopia trend, that raises some interesting questions about safety and gender.

Summary:  Having been kidnapped, 16 year old Rhine is now a sister wife.  Forced into a polygamous marriage with a wealthy man's son, Rhine does not care about the luxury of her new surroundings.  She only wants to get free and get home to her twin brother in the time she has left.   Like all children, Rhine has only 4 years left to live,  her brother 9.   However, Rhine can't help but care for her "sister wives", her child servants, even (a little) for her husband.  She cares more than a little for Gabriel, a house servant.  Overshadowing those feelings is her father-in-law, a geneticist obessed with finding a way to prolong his son's life.  When Rhine sees the depth of his obsession, she knows she must escape.

What Worked:  This is a very fast moving story.  Wisely, DeStefano doesn't give too much background on the cause of the early deaths, doling that information out as the narrative progresses.  She also doesn't back away from the less savory aspects of a world where young girls are truely commodified.  Rhine is kidnapped while looking for work.  Girls are sold into prostitution or shot if they are not purchased to be wives.   Sister wives are expected to pump out babies, fast. 

Most interestingly, DeStefano shows the effects of a world without adults through the three different sister wives.  The viewpoint character, Rhine, is fairly ordinary, having had a reasonably "normal" life.  Jenna, a street kid, turned to prostitution and looks at her forced marriage as a nice place to die.  Finally, the youngest, Cecily, raised in a orphanage, sees mariage and motherhood as her joyful destiny.  Each of these girls brings their own experinces to their "marriage" and their reactions and choices are believable.

What Didn't:  The world is apparently in a crisis beyond the early mortality rate, but DeStefano doesn't elaborate.  There's some mention of a war, but this is not expanded on.  Also, there is apparently a huge gap between the wealthy and the poor, but again, this is not fully explained.   A little more world building would have made the circumstances clearer. 

The big bad in the story, Rhine's father in law, Housemaster Vaughn, is little more than a shadowy grin and a sense of evil.  We know he's performing genetic experiments, and hear about them, but we don't see or hear them.  He obviously menaces Rhine, but his purpose remains doubtful.

Like all YA dystopias, this one has a love story, but the relationship between Gabriel and Rhine feels very tacked on.  Yes, Rhine is 16 and emotional, and yes, Gabriel seems like a nice guy, but their romance gets in the way of the more interesting aspects of the book. 

Who Would I Give This Book To?  I can see this book having a wide audience, as it plugs into a number of current trends -- dystopias, polygamy, genetics, strong girls.  It's less actiony than the Hunger Games, and less romancy than Twilight, but would probably appeal to both those audiences. 

Also Note:  This book has a really great cover, that plays up a lot of the symbolism of the story. 

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Tortall and Other Lands by Tamora Pierce

What you need to know:  This collection of short stories, some previously published, expands the Tortall universe, visits some familiar characters, and gives an intriguing look at what else this popular writer is capable of.  

Summary:  In many of these 9 short stories, Pierce revisits Tortall, setting for the Song of the Lioness, The Immortals, and the Protector of the Small.   Some major characters, such as Kitten from The Immortals and Nawat from Trickster's Choice are expanded on, and other characters, such as the Shang Unicorn and the Darklings get spotlight stories. 

What worked:  Although many of these stories have appeared in previous anthologies, it is nice to have them all collected.  There were stories here that I was not aware of, even as a Pierce fan.  

In the Tortall tales, "The Dragon's Tale" told from the POV of the orphan dragon Skysong, was the most surprising story, but fans will probably gravitate to "Nawat", as it continue's Aly's saga from the Trickster books.  Other fantasy stories are set outside of Tortall,  of these,  "Mimic" and "Plain Magic", are particularly well done.  Plain Magic, Pierce's first published story, picks up on the theme of "practical" magic  that she would revisit in the Circle of Magic books and "Mimic" is an engaging take on dragonlore.  

For me, the most intriguing story was "Huntress",  an urban fantasy.  Pierce is so strongly affiliated (in my mind at least) with the high fantasy of Alanna the Lioness that it was shocking to see her take on a contemporary setting.   The story is not perfect, but it does raise interesting questions of faith and answered prayers. 

What Didn't:  The stories "Elder Brother,"and  "The Hidden Girl,"  set in a part of Tortall that has a Taliban-like religion felt a little preachy.  "Testing",  a contemporary story set in a group home, is a fascinating look at Pierce's prior experiences, but says very little new about the setting or the girls who live there.  

Who would I give this book to?  Because more than half of the stories deal with Tortall and its environs, the audience for this book may be limited to Pierce's fans.  

Friday, March 25, 2011

Books I Didn't Finish: Inside Out by Maria V. Snyder

Note: This not-a-review contains spoilers.  They are blacked out.  To read them, highlight the text in black. 

Total Finished:  25% (my e-reader doesn't always do page counts, but it did tell me 25%) 

So, why didn't you finish it? 
Trella is a scrub, she lives in an overcrowded, over controlled area, known as inside.  Trella's position as a duct cleaner gives her access to areas scrubs don't usually get to go, and her best friend gets her involved with a "prophet" preaching of "Outside".  Which gets her in trouble with the powers that be. 

Trella's life is boring.  She cleans duct work.  And describes it, seemingly endlessly.  Duct work is boring. Add in an overly complicated time system and flat characters, and the fact that nobody can figure out that they're on a freakin' spaceship, and my interest was gone. 

Dissenting Opinions? Always. 

Final Word:  There are better "girl-takes-on-the-dystopic-world" books out there.  

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Trickster's Choice by Tamora Pierce

What you need to know: Pierce returns to Tortall, but opens new lands in this exciting, well written fantasy.

Summary: Aly, daughter of Alanna the Lioness and former rogue George Cooper, has a reputation as an empty-headed flirt. In truth, Aly is smart and determined, but the work she's best suited for -- espionage -- is forbidden to her by her parents. Sailing off in a fit of pique, Aly is taken captive by pirates and sold as a slave in the Copper Isles. While planning her escape, Aly makes a wager with Kyrpioth, the trickster god of the Isles. If Aly can keep her master's charges safe for the summer, Kyrpioth will return Aly to her home. Taking the wager, Aly discovers that the Balitang daughters, Dove and Sarai, are at the heart of a rebellion, where the dark skinned natives will overthrow their conquerers.

What worked: Full disclosure time -- I love Tamora Pierce. I love everything she's ever written. All of it. She and Neil Gaiman are tied as my favorite writer of all time. So, in my opinion, this book is nearly perfect.

But, you probably want anyalsis. Fine. Aly is a great feminist heroine. She's smart and strong and detemined to make her own choices. However, she's not perfect. She makes mistakes, she gets distracted.  She might be god chosen, but she's still human.   

An interesting aspect of this book is how it looks at power dynamics.  Aly choses to be a slave so that she may go unnoticed by the enemies of the Balitang family.  The native raka are thought to be sub-human by their luarin conquerers, which allows the raka to plot without fear of discovery.    

Aly also has a unique romance, as her suitor is a crow-turned-man.  This gives the book some welcome humor, as Aly's swain tries to court her by feeding her bugs and giving her sparkly stones.  

What Didn't:  O.K. -- raging fangirl, remember? 
However,  there are a LOT of characters in this book.  It can be difficult to keep them all straight. Also, without a prior knowledge of the women of Tortall, I'm not sure if this book works as well. 

However:  There's a cast of characters listing.  And if you haven't read the Tortall books, shame on you.  

Who would I give this book too:  I recommend Pierce's books all the time.  To everybody.  However, this one would work best for readers who've enjoyed Pierce's other books.  

Friday, March 11, 2011

The Iron Duke by Meljean Brook

What You Need to Know:  This fast paced, complex romance combines top-notch world building and genre elements for a compelling read. 

Summary:  England is free of Horde rule.  The Eastern invaders were defeated when Rhys Trahaearn destroyed the technology used to communicate with the nanotech present in every Brit.  Now a national hero, the Iron Duke has used his fame and position to create a merchant empire.   Years after the Horde have left Britain,  the Buggers (those with the nanotechnology) and the Bounders (those Englishmen who fled to the new world before the Horde) live in an uneasy mix of cultures.   Detective Inspector Mina Wentworth sees this from her position as an officer of the law and an outsider with Horde blood.  When a dead body shows up on Trahaearn's front lawn, the former pirate becomes obsessed with the Detective.  But Mina knows that she cannot allow the Duke to claim her, no matter how much she might wish to.   

What Worked:  This book has one of the most original premises I have ever seen.  Steampunk nanotech -- simply awesome.  The way that Brook creates her universe, explaining in some places, letting the reader wonder in others,  is masterful.  Brook also has a deft hand with her characters.  Mina is intelligent, beautiful and brave -- but not perfect.  She is believable, and it is easy to see why Rhys wants her so badly.  Rhys is equally well drawn, and shows a great deal of growth throughout the book.   

What is most impressive to me is the way that Brook juggles her genre elements.  This is a romance book, and a sexy one at that, with all of the thrusting and heaving that is common in the genre.  It's also an adventure, and a mystery and a science fiction novel.   Grafting these varied components together is a feat in itself, doing it as seamlessly as this is nearly miraculous.  

What Didn't:  The final quarter of this book felt a tad expected, with some Deux ex machina (literally!) moments.  Also, some characters' roles could have been reduced or eliminated altogether.  

However:  I suspect that the ending is required by the strictures of the romance genre.  And since a sequel is already planned, I imagine those extra characters are there for a reason. 

Who would I give this book to?  My mom.  Seriously, she loves her some paranormal romance.  This is most definitely an adult book, so teens are out, but I can see many an adult PNR fan embracing this book. 

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Mother and Daughter Book Review: The Secret Science Alliance and the Copy Cat Crook.

Note:  This is our second Mother/Daughter book review, and we are still trying to get the podcast up!  So please enjoy another week of the transcript! 

Me:  Hi Everybody, This is Merideth

Mari:  And this is Mari

Me: And we are going to do our second Mother Daughter Book Review.  This week we’re going to review The Secret Science Alliance and the Copy Cat Crook by Eleanor Davis.  
Mari, how would you describe this book to somebody in just a few sentences if you wanted to get them to read it?

Mari:  Fun, but cluttered artwork.

Me:  I would say it’s a fun, but a little predictable story, with bright colored, but slightly cluttered art.  I agree with you about that.

Mari: It’s about a boy named Julian, who was a nerd at his old school, but he and his parents have to move.  He decides he won’t be a nerd at his new school, but he can’t help it.  Then at school there’s this “crazy” girl named Greta and a “dumb” jock named Ben, and it turns out that they’re both science geeks.   And there’s this scientist named Dr. Stringer, who in my experience, is kind of stuck up, and in the end he plays a very important part.

Me: So, they’re all three science geeks and they don’t want anybody to know it?

Mari:  Well, not a lot of people know, except Greta’s dad, who’s a museum owner (important!).  They don’t want their parents getting in their way! 

Me:  So they form a secret society of scientists, huh?  That’s pretty cool.  What did you really like about this book?

Mari:  They were nerds.

Me:  You liked the fact that they were nerdy?

Mari:  (Sings) “White and nerdy!”

Me:  But they’re not all white are they?  Greta’s an African-American girl and Ben looks like he might be Hispanic?

Mari:  I was singing a Weird Al song (sings) “White and Nerdy!  Look at me I’m white and nerdy!”

Me: Oh.  So you liked the fact that the characters were geeky?

Mari:  Geeks rule! 

Me: Anything else you like?

Mari:  (sigh) The way she draws, but not how she placed it.  I like how the characters didn’t look real, but also they weren’t stick figures without mouths or noses.   But, I thought there was too much stuff on the pages, and it looked cluttered.

Me:  So you thought the characters were not too realistic but not too cartoony either?

Mari:  Yes. 

: Anything else you liked about the story?

Mari:  I liked that it was an adventure!  The kids got to do cool things! 

Me:  I liked Greta!  I liked that she was spunky and smart.

Mari: I Liked her too.  I liked her helmet, and that she wasn’t a super girly girl.  Because I’m not always a girly girl (sings) “pink and princess, rainbows and carousels, la la la la la”

Me:  And I felt really sorry for Ben, because he thinks he’s stupid but he’s not.

Mari:  I know!  He just isn’t good at tests.  I think teachers should come up with a different way to find kids’ scores, not just tests.  Because some people get really nervous during tests.  Maybe they could just nonchalantly ask some questions in a conversation, instead of watching you like a sparrow! 

Me:   So, you mentioned that you didn’t like how cluttered some of the artwork was. I would agree with you, I think that some of what librarians like me would call the panel layout was off.  You know, the way the artwork was arranged on the page, there was too much going on, and you didn’t know where to look.

Mari: I would have to agree.

Me:  I also noticed that in some places it’s a very wordy comic.  There’s lots of text.   Lots and lots and lots of words.

Mari:  Yeah, in some places there’s more bubbles than art.

Me: And as much as I like the story, it didn’t really surprise me.

Mari:  Yeah, it was kind of predictable.

Me:  Now I would say this would be a really good book for school age kids.  Kids in 2nd grade up through 6th.  Who would you give it to?

Mari:  Hmmmmmm… ages 8-12 I think.  Not middle school or high school. 

Me:  Well, thank you for reviewing another book with me, maybe next week we’ll review something you pick.

Mari: (evil laugh) Ooooo!  I’ll pick something you won’t like!   

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Unwritten: Tommy Taylor and the Bogus Identity by Mike Carey and Peter Gross

What You Need to Know:  This is a clever, violent take on the power of story that will frustrate readers who want to know more.

Summary:  Tom Taylor's father was the creator of a beloved fantasy book series.  Wilson Taylor's boy wizard was named Tommy Taylor, and Tom (the man) now lives in the shadow of Tommy (the fictional boy).  When scandal erupts around Tom and his missing father, he goes looking for answers, and finds violence and secrets.

What Works:  Carey is a hell of a writer, and he is on familiar ground here, where the fantastic and the mundane meet.   I was impressed by the strong characterizations on display here.  Tom is an jerk,  but understandably since his "fame" has him trapped.  I also liked the character of Lizzie Hexam, mostly because she reminded me of Thessaly one of my favorite characters of all time. The art works well for the story, being realistic but not overly detailed.  The colorists, Chris Chuckry and Jeanne McGee deserve credit, as the use of shadow in this book is really striking.  

For me, the strongest part of the book is not Tom's story, but the piece at the end "How the Whale Became" detailing Rudyard Kipling's interactions with the same shadowy group who seems to be targeting Tom.  Beautifully written and drawn, this segment really lets letterer Todd Klein shine, as the text, and how it's presented is integral to the story.

What Didn't:  Mostly, this book suffers from being the first in the series.  It has "when are we going to get to the fireworks factory"  syndrome.  I want to know more.  What happened to Tom's dad?  Who are the shadowy figures commanding the killer who shows up in the last act?  What does Lizzie have to do with any of this?  They'll probably tell me in the next book.  While I will continue reading, it was frustrating not to get more answers.

Also, while the art in this book is well done, it pales in comparison to Yuko Shimizu's original series covers, also included here.  Shimizu's artwork is breathtaking, detailed and exquisitely covered.

However:  I know the reasoning behind having a different cover artist.  I just don't like it.

Who Would I Give this Book To:  Given the large amounts of violence and cursing on display here, this is definitely an older teen/adult title.   Harry Potter fans who are ready to move on to more mature books, people who like a modern horror story and fans of long arc fantasy fiction are the most likely to enjoy this book.

Also Note:  The Magicians by Lev Grossman would be an interesting paring with this book, as both involve young men figuring out that the worlds they've always assumed are fictional are actually real.

A New Challenge: The Great Graphic Novels for Teens List

So... Great Graphic Novels for Teens.

This is a YALSA list that I watch with some interest.  Full disclaimer:  I am not active in ALA.  The conference fees are prohibitive, and my library does not subsidize professional development.  I have met many of the librarians who serve on the GGFNT committee and think that they are excellent at what they do.

However, this list puzzles me.  Often, their choices seem off the mark.  I think part of it is that they never define what "great" is.  Is is popularity?  Quality?  Readability?

In an effort to better understand the list, I am making a pledge.  This year, I will (attempt) to read every book nominated for the Great Graphic Novels for Teens list.  Yes, even the non-fiction.  And the manga.

The first batch of nominated titles is now up.  Let's see..... well, I've read Return of the Dapper Men.  And Axe Cop is on my desk.  So I'm 2 for 7.  Oy.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Anna and the French Kiss

What You Need to Know:  This charming teen romance combines a fun Parisian setting and realistic characters in a sweet but believable story.  

Summary:  Anna was all set for her senior year in Atlanta, good job at the multiplex, cute boy to crush on, BFF to hang with.  It got shattered when her dad, a sappy novelist, decided that Anna will spend her senior year in Paris.  Stuck in a country where she doesn't know anybody or speak the language, Anna is miserable, until she meets Etienne St. Clair.  Short, cosmopolitan, and completely adorable, St. Clair would be major boyfriend material -- if not for his long term girlfriend.  So, Anna contents herself with being St. Clair's best friend.  As Anna and Etienne get closer, things get more and more confusing.  

What Worked:  Almost everything!  This book is wonderful -- fun and sweet and romantic without being sappy.  Anna is not happy about being uprooted from her life, but admits that being forced to spend a year in Paris is not the worst thing in the world.  What really sells this book is the realistic characters.  Anna sounds like most teens I know -- not sheltered, but not ready to be on her own just yet.  And even though she doesn't realize it, Anna is a charmer -- smart and fun and a little goofy.  One thing I liked is that Perkins lets you know Anna is attractive, but doesn't go on and on about how beautiful she is.  Etienne could be too perfect, but his exasperating unwillingness to take a risk with Anna makes him more believable.  The supporting cast of Anna's classmates are equally well drawn.  Anna and the reader get to explore Paris together, but this doesn't feel like a travelogue.  The descriptions are really nicely woven into the story.  

What Didn't:  Anna's "back home" subplot really didn't gel for me.  It was realistic, but it dragged the narrative down a little bit.    Anna and Etienne's "will they/won't they" dance gets a tad exasperating, as the reader can clearly see that they are crazy for each other. 

However:  Exasperating is a lot of what romance is about. 

Who Would I Give This Book To?   I plan on giving it to everybody I can!  But seriously, I would give it to girls who read Sarah Dessen or Deb Calletti, kids who want to travel abroad, teens looking for a good realistic fiction read. 

Also note:  This book would make an interesting paring with Revolution by Donnelly.  Anna and Andi are very different, but both of them find something they need in Paris!