The view from my reading pile.

Book Review: Come Fall, By A.C.E. Bauer February 5, 2010

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I’ve always loved Midsummer Night’s Dream, so when Random House told us about Come Fall by A.C.E. Bauer, I was in from the beginning. Disclaimer: this is one of the ARCs that Random House passed out at their Spring Preview at ALA Midwinter for reviewing purposes (really gotta get on that disclaimer page. . .).

Remember in Midsummer Night’s Dream, the whole reason Titania and Oberon are fighting is because of a human boy Titania likes? Ever wonder what happened to him? I sure didn’t, partly because he’s described in the play, but never in the stage directions, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen a production with him on stage at any point. But Bauer did wonder and uses that idea as a starting place for this book.

Salman was a foundling and has gone from foster home to foster home, hoping to find one where he can stay. When he starts 7th grade at another new school, he meets two kids who quickly become his friends. Lu is a little shy and missing her best friend, and Blos is somewhere on the Asperger’s scale and tends to be very literal about everything. The three of them work through their various personal problems together and each of them changes. Meanwhile, the Fairy Court is once again in uproar over the Queen’s affection for Salman, and both Titania and Oberon force Puck to spy on the kids and occasionally interfere on their behalf .

I liked this book, and would definitely recommend it to younger tweens, especially if they just read Midsummer in English class. I thought the characters were charming and realistic, and I liked the way the story treats Blos. It’s sometimes hard to find characters with Aspergers or other neurological disorders that aren’t just treated as comic relief or a tragic figure, and while kids at school do make fun of Blos, I don’t think the story does. Lu and Salman are good to him without pretending they don’t get exasperated sometimes, and Salman appreciates Blos’s direct nature and lack of guile.

There are a couple of things that dissapoint me about the book, however, the main one being that I sort of felt cheated by the story. If you aren’t familiar with Chekhov’s Gun in theatre, the writer once said that “a pistol on the wall in the first act must be fired by the last act.” In this story, Fairyland was the gun on the wall. Fairy is always just beyond the human realm, and although there are several points in the story that seem to foreshadow one side breaking through to the other, it never actually happens. Puck is spying on the kids for both monarchs, and we get his perspective on what’s going on, but he doesn’t directly intervene. The kids never find out about Fairy, never cross over, and I really expected them to. Every time someone got lost in the woods (I think they all do at some point) I kept thinking that now they would look up and be in Fairy. Oberon and Titania call each other’s bluffs and say they’re going to bring Salman to Fairy, and at one point Oberon hints that he will bring Lu over, but it never happens. It should be noted that when I compared this to Midsummer, the only human that ever interacts with Fairy directly is Bottom, so the choice makes sense in Come Fall. It still felt, however, like my expectations were brought to the brink and then sent back, and having that happen multiple times in a book gets frustrating.

I said that Puck never intervenes directly, but that sort of depends on what you consider to be direct. Apparently, the fairies have some influence or control over humans who share similar names. So Salman’s foster-mother Tina grows an amazing garden because her full name is Titania, and Puck is able to use a boy in Salman’s class named Robin Puckett to cause trouble. Which, ok, that’s kinda cool, except that one of the main three kids is named Blos Pease. And Peaseblossom is never mentioned. Again it just feels like a tease, why give a character such a specific name with this setup if you aren’t going to use it for something? I don’t know, this is part of what made me feel like maybe some things got edited out.

Overall I think younger readers may not be bothered by these issues the way I am, and I would definitely recommend it to a lot of them. Especially kids reading Midsummer in school, whether they love it or are indifferent to it, since this story will give them a different angle to view Shakespeare’s work.


Book Review: Beastly, by Alex Flinn February 4, 2010

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I picked up an Advanced Reader’s Copy of this (for a dollar, but I did pay for it) at Wiscon last year, and hadn’t gotten around to it because yet another modern-day retelling of a fairy tale just didn’t seem that interesting to me right then. Then the other day someone told me it was being made into a movie, and I’ll be honest, the description of the movie sounded. . .kinda dumb. A little like they’re trying to make the Beauty and the Beast story the new Twilight, an impression that is not helped by the black cover with a single white rose. Still, my curiosity was piqued and I pulled it off the shelf.

It’s better than I expected, I’ll say that. I think this is the first time on this blog that I’m reviewing something I’m not sure I recommend, although there are some really interesting things going for the novel. So I’m going to try to discuss what the book made me think about. This got long, so follow the jump if you want to see me think too much.



Book Review: In the Garden of Iden, by Kage Baker February 1, 2010

I went into this book really not knowing what to expect. It had been sitting in a stack of books next to the recliner in our living room for months, since my fiance had picked it up on a whim and left it there, to be read at some point. So when I came across a news item a week or two ago that the author, Kage Baker, was very ill, I went and picked up the novel and started to read. Time travel Science Fiction, to be honest, is not usually my thing, so I’m not sure I would have read it on my own. This would have been a huge mistake.

I guess I’m trying to give some context to my feelings about the book, because I whole-heartedly loved it from page one, had trouble putting it down, and almost didn’t sleep a few nights for wanting to read more.

In the Garden of Iden is Baker’s first novel, and the first in a series about The Company; scientists who discover the process of immortality and time travel, and create immortal agents from history and use them to preserve antiquities that would have otherwise been lost. Baker’s writing brings humor and sweetness to the drama of immortal agents and the tricky moral questions about the Company’s purpose. I liked the romance and didn’t feel like the science or the reality of the situation ever took a backseat once it was introduced, rather it fit in with the story and added another dimension to the dilemmas of Mendoza, the main character. I am so excited that there are more books for me to read in this series.

I wrote most of this post on Friday, and left it over the weekend while I continued to think about the book and what I liked. Yesterday morning, Kage Baker passed away. I am so sorry for the loss to her friends and family, and to her fans.

I consider myself incredibly lucky to have finally read this book, knowing that there are more Company novels for me to devour, but at the same time I am so incredibly sad that there will be no more when I am done. 15 novels, short story collections, and novellas in this story, plus Baker’s other works, will certainly keep me reading for quite a while, and yet I am still feeling bereft: there should have been more. Thank you, Kage Baker, for what there is.


Review: Kiki Magazine January 25, 2010

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Wandering through the exhibit hall at ALA can be incredibly overwhelming. People everywhere, booths crammed full of exciting looking books and posters, and yet the publishers of Kiki still managed to stand out with their mannequin clothed in a giant pink tutu and green jacket. After chatting with the editor in chief of the magazine, Jamie Bryant, I may have asked her to be my mom, it’s a little hazy at that point. What I was hearing about this magazine was kind of making me dizzy, and we can file this under: WHY DIDN’T THIS EXIST WHEN I WAS A KID?

Kiki is a fashion magazine for young girls (I’d say probably as young as 7 would enjoy it, up to around the 13 year-old range) that completely breaks the mold and has a blast doing it. There are no ads in the mag, no articles about dating or boys (which ok, some people feel is a detriment, but I agree with the editors that girls are getting that stuff thrown at them so early and from so many sources that I don’t think they’re going to miss it here), and the models are real girls, not older models made to look young. One of the cover models even has *gasp* braces! I picked up two issues to look through, and completely fell in love with Kiki’s fun, intelligent voice. The mag doesn’t talk down to its readers, and the fashion is a way to talk about a variety of topics like science, business, interesting careers, and more.

I especially loved that in one of the issues I looked at, there was a spread on some pretty extreme couture designers like Alexander McQueen, and then at the end was a page with a girl wearing some outfits put together from McQueen’s line for Target. I thought it was really cool to see the wild high fashion, and then have the magazine say “ok, clearly that is not what you, a young girl, are probably going to wear to school. Here are some things that are actually reasonable for you to wear, that just about anyone can probably find without living in a big city, and without making your parents go broke. Also, you do not have to look like a fashion model to wear this.” So very yes.

Every issue has a theme (the two issues I have are the “Extreme” issue and a History of 20th century fashion issue) with fashion that explores that theme and articles taking the theme into areas I didn’t expect. In the Extreme issue there’s an article on astronaut Sunita Williams, after which readers are encouraged to design their own version of the space suit. The magazine has DIY projects and recipes, and really just feels like something a lot of girls can get into.

I handed one of the issues off to two sisters (13 and 10) to see what they thought, and both girls were pretty enthusiastic about it. They liked the projects and thought they looked like stuff they could probably manage, and said that the writing was interesting. I already said that I’m personally in love with the mission of the magazine and the aesthetic they’ve chosen, and I’d love to see this in magazine racks in public and school libraries, giving girls an alternative to Seventeen and other magazines like it.


Book Review: Little Blog on the Prairie, by Cathleen Davitt Bell January 20, 2010

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This past weekend was the American Library Association’s Annual Midwinter Conference, held this time around in Boston. Since it was local for me, I attended, and had a pretty fantastic time. I have some things to post about from the conference, but today you’re getting a book review, because one of the things about ALA is that publishers give you books. Lots of them. Um, kind of a ridiculous amount, actually. So consider this Standard Disclaimer 1 (am I weird that I am totally considering writing up my standard disclaimers and just linking to them as needed?), which is that the publisher provided this advanced copy free of charge for review. Also this is an uncorrected proof, so I’m going to give them the benefit of the doubt on the typos.

Genevieve Welsh is convinced her summer has been ruined. The 14 year-old is being forced to go on a “Frontier Camp” vacation with her family, where they and several other families will spend the summer pretending to be in the year 1890, with no technology, no swimming pool, and no indoor plumbing. Gen manages to smuggle in a cell phone, and her texts to her friends back home are used as a blog, which turns the girl into a celebrity.

I have to admit, after the first couple of chapters I almost put this book down. I was a fan of the “Little House” books as a kid, but let’s face it: going back to that time would be very uncomfortable for more than just physical reasons. Reading the set up in the book, and the first few days at Frontier Camp just made me annoyed thinking about the realities of life in the 1890s for minorities and women. I did pick the book back up after a day or two, and I’m glad I did.

There’s really a lot going on here about parents and children, and about the choices that parents try to make for their children. Ron and Betsy, the couple that runs the camp, have raised their daughter almost entirely as though it really were 1890. Sure, there are communities that do this for various reasons, but a key word there is “community”. Ron and Betsy’s daughter Nora has grown up almost entirely isolated with her parents, except during the summer when campers come to the camp, hate it all summer, and then claim to be “transformed” at the end of the experience. At the end of the book Nora is chance to leave the frontier behind, and her parents are horrified that she might choose the modern world, when they’ve worked so hard to show her something better. The fact that they did not give her a choice, and have only let her tangentially experience modernity doesn’t seem to occur to her parents, and I thought it was a really interesting parallel with Gen’s conflicts with her own parents. Gen of course has been raised entirely in the modern world, but really wasn’t given a choice about going to the camp for the summer. Gen and her brother do find things they love about this life, and when Gen is offered fame and a book deal, she turns it down rather than hurt the people at the camp. This could have been an incredibly cheesy ending, or felt false, but the perspective from Gen’s narration does ring true with her motivations. The major difference between Gen and Nora is that Gen has been given choices, and Nora has been forced into something she never agreed to.

I said earlier that I the idea of the camp itself annoyed me, and I should also say that I think deals with most of these issues in a fairly satisfying way. A few of the women nearly lead a feminist uprising (which would have been AWESOME), and when there’s a medical crisis and the illusion of 1890 is broken, Ron is honest with the kids about how things would have gone differently if it were actually 1890.

I totally want to do a book club discussion of this someday, to talk about the good and bad aspects of life on the frontier as the characters are experiencing it, finding balance in life (is it ok that Ron and Betsy occasionally take breaks from 1890, even though they so desperately wanted to leave the modern world?), the decisions parents try to make for their kids and the ways that can go wrong, and some of the other issues the book raised.

Overall I would absolutely recommend this to teenage girls and boys, especially if they read the Little House books as younger kids.


Book Review: Project Mulberry December 16, 2009

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Project Mulberry by Linda Sue Park (Amazon link for illustration only, please support local bookstores when possible)

First, a tangentially related review. If you’re a librarian, spend a lot of time at you library, know librarians, or maybe a teacher and you aren’t reading Unshelved, well, you should be, is all. On Sundays they do “Book Club” strips which are basically book talks, and that’s how I found out about Project Mulberry. (The strip in question is here.)

Since reading that strip gives a better and more concise overview than I could, I’m just going to jump into my reactions to this book. LOVED it! The characters are all really likeable, and the changing relationship between the main character, Julia, and her younger brother is sweet. Not in a cloying way, just realistic. Not that I had a younger brother, but I remember seeing my friends with siblings go through a similar sea change when we were young. I would definitely recommend this book to kids having trouble getting along with younger siblings. Julia’s friend Patrick not only explains some of the reasons why siblings might have trouble with each other, but models some good coping and redirection tactics for the older sibling to use. I also enjoyed that Julia is amazed by how well her friend handles her younger brother, but also points out that he isn’t able to do the same thing with his younger siblings.

Between chapters Park has included sort of a running commentary, like you might find on a dvd, that takes the form of conversations between herself and Julia, her main character. She explains what she’s doing at the beginning of the book, and makes it clear that these are not at all necessary to the story, and can be entirely skipped if the reader so chooses. The interludes function as a behind the scenes look at how the story was written and what the author and character think about the book. There are also tidbits including where character names came from, and certain character quirks. Many young readers probably will skip these, but any kid who wants to write could learn a lot about story crafting from the way Park interacts with her character.

Another big reason for me to recommend this book is  the discussion of race that comes up. The author and main character are Korean-American, Julia’s best friend is white, and the character of Mr. Dixon is black. Park doesn’t shy away from the topic, nor does she offer an easy solution or fix to the problem. Instead the reader is invited to the discussion and confusion happening in Julia’s head as she works through the problems she sees before her. Is her mom racist because she doesn’t seem to trust Mr. Dixon? Or is she just concerned about her daughter? Is Mr. Dixon racist because he assumes Julia is Chinese? What about Julia’s own issues with being Korean, and not liking the silkworm project because it’s “too Korean?” I felt like the questions were raised in a sensitive manner, giving readers something to think about without telling them what to think, exactly. I appreciated that the main character is a person of color, giving her perspective on such a difficult subject that many young readers will be faced with as they grow and see racism around them.

*Spoiler alert, I am about to discuss the ending for a second.*

I also loved that in the end, the kids had a fantastic project but didn’t actually win in their categories. They still got a triumphant ending without being totally unrealistic, and it’s something I’d like to see more of in childrens’ literature.

Overall this book gets an A+. I really enjoyed reading it and I think the 9-12 age range will get a lot out of it. I may go check out the author’s other books, including her Newberry winner, A Single Shard.


Interfictions 2 Reading and Concert, Friday! Boston! November 11, 2009

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I’m working on about a million book review posts right now, and some should be going up soon, but in the meantime, Boston locals, there is an AWESOME book event happening this Friday!

Boston Interfictions 2 Reading and Concert

That’s right, Friday at 7:30pm at the Lily Pad in Inman Sq, Cambridge, authors will be reading their stories from the Interfictions 2 Anthology, while musicians give us a concert to go with the words! So cool! So much fun! Everyone come! Tell your friends!

And while we’re talking about Interfictions, you should know that the Interstitial Arts Foundation, who put out the book and are sponsoring the event, are also running an auction of art pieces inspired by the stories in the collection. You can see them all here, and, oh, right, this one’s mine.

Thanks for reading!