Friday, May 27, 2011

A Tale of Two Castles by Gail Carson Levine

What You Need To Know: This charming middle grade fantasy combines unique characters with Levine's trademark world-building skill.

Summary:  Elodie is a poor farmer's daughter, who leaves her impoverished, but loving,  home for the city of Two Castles.  Under orders to become an apprentice weaver, Elodie instead seeks to become a mansioner, or actor.  Broke, unused to city life and desperate, Elodie soon attracts the attention of Mastress Meenore, the dragon who lives in Two Castles.  Meenore makes her living selling roasted skewers, but is also a master of deductive reasoning, and solves all types of problems.  Having few other options, Elodie apprentices to Meenore, and soon makes the acquaintance of the ogre Count Jonty Um.  The Count is kind and gentle, but greatly feared. When Jonty Um seeks Meenore's help, Elodie finds herself in the thick of of a mystery. 

What Worked:  This book is so unique, I can think of few other things to compare it too. It crosses genres, plays with fairytale tropes and introduces flawed, but likeable characters.  a It's a fantasy, with dragons, ogres, wicked kings and magic.   It is a mystery, as someone wants to be rid of the Ogre Count, and no-one is what they seem.  It is a coming of age novel, as Elodie learns what work she is best suited for.  

One of my favorite things about this book is how it twists the rules of a fairy tale.  Count Jonty Um, the ogre, seems monstrous. However, he is generous, loves animals, and is kind to Elodie.     The dragon Meenore, although wise, is not beautiful and all powerful.  Instead, Meenore smells like rotten eggs and makes a living heating water and cooking food.   There is a handsome lad, and a princess, but nothing and no-one is as they seem.  

Elodie is a great character, naive but not foolish, head strong, clever and willing to learn from her mistakes.  ITself, Meenore, is also a fantastic character.  Dragons do not reveal their gender, and the Mastress is no exception.  Brilliant but petulant, Meenore teaches Elodie far more than the girl first realizes.  

What Didn't:  Honestly, I think this book was just about perfect.  However, if you were looking for a more traditional fairy tale, this book would just seem odd to you.  

Who Would I Give This Book To: This title skews a little younger than what I normally review, and would best suit a middle grade audience.  Fans of fractured fairy tales, strong girls, and Levine's other books will eat this up.  

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Putting Makeup On Dead People by Jen Violi

What You Need to Know:   This is a well-done, quirky coming of age story with an appealing main character that struggles under too many divergent themes.

Summary:  Donna’s dad died her freshman year of high school.  Now getting ready to graduate, Donna realilzes that she’s walked through the last four years in a fog, just getting by, not making any connections or feeling much of anything.   She goes to school, goes to church and doesn’t do much else.  The death of a classmate wakes her up to possibilities, specifically, the possibilities of a career in mortuary science.  Investigating at a local funeral home, Donna discovers a talent for working with the dead and bereaved, and spurred on by the new girl at school, she starts to let go of her past and build a future.  However, letting go is easier said than done.

What Works:  Donna is a very likeable girl.  She is a little closed off, but as you come to understand her life, her distance seems reasonable (if sad).  Donna’s quirky voice and unique POV brings a lot of humor and tenderness to what could be a very bleak story.   The funeral home setting is unique, and the staff that works there nicely humanized.   Many unconventional characters populate Donna’s world, and they are convincingly portrayed, with warmth and understanding.  Also, Donna’s battles with her mom – about religion, life choices and boys -- felt very real, and the blame is equally spread on both sides.   

What Doesn’t: Whenever Donna begins to doubt herself, up pops another eccentric character to remind her of her choices and reaffirm her purpose.  It stretches credulity just a tad.  Also, the discussions of alternative religions and the role the church plays in Donna’s life aren’t as fleshed out as they could be. 

However:  I was not raised in a religious family, and have a very “whatever works, brah”  attitude towards faith.  Someone with a background similar to Donna’s might find more meaning here.  

Please Note:  Awesome cover! 

Who would I give this book to?  Teens seeking a different kind of bildungsroman.  Fans of shows like Six Feet Under and Pushing Daisies.  

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Girl Wonder by Alexa Martin

What You Need to Know:  This typical coming of age novel features lots illicit behavior, but ultimately falls flat.

Summary:  Charlotte's life pretty much sucks.  Forced to transfer her senior year, a learning disability keeps her from getting into an exclusive prep school.  That same disability keeps her from getting into the gifted and talented program at her new high school.  Going to a large public high school after years spent in an all girl environment is a culture shock, and Charlotte flounders.  However, she has the good luck to fall into the orbit of Amanda.  Brilliant, beautiful and eager to break every rule, Amanda is clearly the Alpha Girl of Shady Grove.  Charlotte soon becomes her willing flunky.  Following Amanda's lead keeps her from thinking about her perfect little brother, her newly pretentious author dad, and the cracks in her parents' marriage.  However, being Amanda's "friend" may cost Charlotte more than she realizes.

What Works:  Martin nails the voice of a young woman who is completely at sea.  Charlotte has nothing to hold on too -- dad's a jerk, mom's preoccupied and little brother tries, but is a little brother.   In a family of high achievers, she's the odd one out, who has completely internalized her family's (perceived) disappointment with her.    Charlotte's lack of self-worth makes her fixation on and loyalty to Amanda believable, and a little squirm inducing.  Charlotte is such a doormat, that some readers (me) might get annoyed with her, but her actions are realistic and understandable.

What Doesn't:   The secondary characters in this book range from weak to paper-thin.  Even Amanda is little more than a rebellious attitude and a hair color.  This weakness shows up the most with the adult characters, who play a large role in Charlotte's life, but are never fully fleshed out.   Also, there is just a touch of the after-school special about this book.  Charlotte is constantly pushed into situations where she's uncomfortable, substances are ingested and bad choices are made.  The result feels a little judgmental.

Also:  The way that Charlotte's learning disability is handled bugged the hell out of me.  It is hard for me to believe that a family like this wouldn't get Charlotte the help she needs.   However, my husband, who has the same learning disability that Charlotte has, says that his learning problems were ignored until college.  So maybe I'm just super optimistic.

Please Note:  This book has an awesome cover!

Who Would I Give this Book To:  Smart Girls, Stupid Choices books are always popular, and I can see girls looking for coming of age books liking this.  I would not give it to a teen dealing with a learning disability, as Charlotte never really comes to terms with her learning differences.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Divergent by Veronica Roth

What You Need to Know: This dystopian sci-fi tale will find an audience with teens seeking the "next" Hunger Games, but doesn't live up to the pre-release hype.  

Summary:  Beatrice lives in a world of factions.  She has been raised as a Abnegation, trained to value selflessness and service.  But as she turns 16, she must choose a faction, which will supersede all else in her life.  Will she remain in Abnegation or choose Candor, who see truthfulness as the greatest good?  Perhaps she will choose Erudite, and become one who seeks knowledge.  Amity values peace above all, and Dauntless, bravery.  A simulation is supposed to reveal where each teen belongs.  Beatrice however, makes a surprising discovery.  She is Divergent, and has qualities of many of the factions.  Divergence is dangerous, and Beatrice must hide her differences while discovering some uncomfortable truths about her society.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

The Cellar by A.J. Whitten.

What You Need To Know:  This poorly-written Twilight-with-zombies will have fans, but there are far better teen horror books. 

Summary: Meredith lost her dad months ago in a car wreck caused by her sister Heather. Now, Heather has become an emo poster-child and Mom is a shopoholic. But when the amazingly handsome and charismatic Adrien St. Germain moves to town, Heather falls instantly in love. Meredith however, senses something not right about Adrien, and seeks answers in the decrepit house next door. But, can she believe what she sees?

 What Worked: The writing here is atmospheric; the death and decay of Adrien’s world is well communicated.

What Didn’t: (spoilers ahead) Where to start… Although I’m sure this isn’t the worst book I’ve ever read, it is certainly the worst book I’ve read this year. 

 I’ll start with my biggest gripe: halfway through the book, it comes out that Meredith has a condition, Fuchs’ disease, that causes her to “see things that aren’t there”. However, five minutes on Google proved that Fuchs’ doesn’t cause hallucinations. While there are macular diseases that do cause visual hallucinations, it is very unlikely that a healthy 16 year old girl with no other symptoms would start to hallucinate. Basically, the condition is used as a all-too-convenient excuse for why nobody believes Meredith’s suspicions. Sloppy research and bad writing make me Hulk-out.

Honestly, I am a pro at suspending disbelief.  I read a lot of sci-fi and fantasy.  But what this book asks me to swallow is just too much..  Let me count them down. 
  1.  Adrien, the undead guy,  is wicked hot. He’s a sexy zombie. Yes, you heard me.   "Zombie" and "sexy" are two words that should NEVER be put together. 
  2. The undead guy wears sunglasses all the time. Because he has no eyes. Just maggot-infested holes. Nobody really comments on this, or it’s seen as being “hot”.  Yes, rotten parasites are so appealing! 
  3. The undead guy has Cullen-like psychic powers. He can bring people, particularly women, under his spell and make them do whatever he wants. And he does. Repeatedly. 
  4.  The undead guy also has powers over animals. He also has a host of carrion eaters – beetles, vultures, hyenas, piranha, doctor fish, and crows – that obey his commands.   Again, nobody seems to notice this, because hyenas are common in Massachusetts.
  5.  The undead guy doesn’t just rely on his persuasive abilities; he has a whole medieval torture chamber set up in his basement. Which he uses. Repeatedly. 
  6.  The undead guy has a slowly rotting mother with whom he’s engaged in a century long power struggle; however, that doesn’t stop them from feeding on the populace. Together.
  7. The wicked hot eyeless psychic carrion-whisperer torturing brain-eating undead guy is the romantic lead.
Honestly, I could go on, but this whole story is one big contrivance. Obviously, Adrien finds the damaged (literally!) Heather. Naturally, he chooses her as his “forever love”. Certainly, they’re cast as the leads in Romeo and Juliet. And of course, it all comes down to a bloody and unbelievable zombie showdown, including the dead dad.

Who would I give this book to: Nobody. But, I can see it finding an audience.

Monday, May 2, 2011

LITERATURE: Unsuccessfully Competing Against TV Since 1953 by Dave Kellett

What You Need to Know:  This Eisner-nominated collection of webcomics features nerd-humor, literature jokes and a talking duck that would appeal to the geek minded.

Summary: Sheldon, a 10 year old software millionaire, lives with his grandfather, a talking duck, a pet lizard, and a dog.  This group, along with Sheldon's dim best friend, discuss various aspects of culture and literature, including Lord of the Rings, Shakespeare and Robert Frost.  

What worked:  This is a book for English weenies.  If a 10 year old genius recreating the moon landing as Emily Dickinson sounds funny to you, you will adore this book.  Kellett's artwork is simple but fun, with cartoony expressions and a loose feel that makes up for the lack of detail. 

What didn't:  Not an English weenie?  This book isn't that funny.  And, as a web-comic, this is more similar to a collection of newspaper strips than a narrative; most of the gags are done in 3 panels.  As such, this technically isn't a graphic novel.  

Interesting side note:  I became aware of this collection when it was nominated for an Eisner award for Best Humor Publication.  However, I didn't realize it till Kellett made it available for download as a free PDF.  I don't know if that was a good strategy vis-à-vis Eisner voters, but I do know that is part of my daily webcomics check now.  

Who would I give this book to:  Fellow librarians, kids with a strong background in classic lit and geeky interests.  Of course, my English weenie of a husband loves it too.