Stackscene

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.

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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.

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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.

 

Five Links Makes a Post September 14, 2009

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I’ve been collecting interesting library links for a week or two now, thinking I’d make posts about each one. But they’re building up, and I don’t always have enough to say about them to merit a whole post anyway, so I’m just going to go ahead and dump them and talk a little about each.

1. Isn’t actually about libraries at all, it’s about women in tech from the Geek Feminism Blog, and I decided to go ahead and post it here because so much of librarianship these days involves technology, but I’m not sure how our numbers stack up for women in actual technical positions. Anybody know?

2. Next up we have Karen Springen at Publisher’s Weekly letting us know that the new hot thing in YA literature this Fall is going to be Angels. YA librarians, if your vampire readers are looking for the next thing, make sure to take a look at these titles!

3. Cory Doctorow at Boing Boing is asking for YA authors to send electronic copies of their books to a Detroit teacher so she can print them in Braille for her blind students. If you have a YA novel or know someone who does, please pass this along, accessibility is one of my big issues in librarianship, and this is a fantastic project she’s doing. In Massachusetts we’re lucky to have the Perkins School for the Blind and their amazing library serving the entire state, but I understand that not everyone has access to the same resources.

4. This is just tragic. Philadelphia is closing their entire library system due to budget cuts. I’m not sure I even have words for how sad that makes me. Here’s hoping things turn around there and libraries are able to re-open.

5. And finally, you’ve probably already heard about this, but a MA prep school has gotten rid of all their books. They’re going completely digital this year, and I’m torn. It really bothers me that they’re getting Kindles for some students but not all, for one thing. I’ve also already heard rumblings from many of my friends and peers that they wouldn’t send their kids to a school with no books in the library. So if nothing else, it’s a pretty bold and gutsy move, and I’m going to be interested to see how it works out for them. I really disapprove of getting rid of the reference desk in favor of a coffee shop as well. Just because they’re going digital doesn’t mean the students won’t need help with research, and in many cases it may mean they need more help navigating new databases and other electronic resources. To be fair, the article says they’re getting rid of the desk, but I’m not sure if it means that the library will not have reference services available. I also think the circulation numbers mentioned in the article are interesting, and the move to digital could turn out to be a really good thing for them. It looks like a lot of the success will depend on how the school sells the change to the parents who send their kids there. Definitely something to keep an eye on.

So that’s my link roundup for today, feel free to leave me other interesting library or book related links in the comments!

 

Books: Uglies, by Scott Westerfield September 9, 2009

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I’d been hearing good things about this book for quite a while before I got around to reading it, but I hadn’t heard much about the plot, which was kind of nice, for a change. The thing that kicked me into finally reading it was the publisher (Pulse, the teen imprint from Simon & Schuster) doing a promotion allowing a free e-book download of the book, partly as publicity for Westerfeld’s next book, Leviathan, and probably also to keep people interested in this series. A note on e-books: I don’t actually have a Kindle or any of the other cute e-book readers, I read e-books on my computer (as God intended!), and don’t read them very often. I occasionally get into sort of an e-book jag though, because I love reading on my laptop and knitting away. So yes, I was pleased when there was a hand knit sweater in the book, presented as something nearly sacred in the world of easy and disposable things, and yes, the irony was not lost on me that I was reading it as an e-book on a screen.

ANYWAY. Now that I’ve said all that I should maybe fill you in on this book, so you’ll know if maybe you’d like to read it too (oh, and the free e-book download ended September 5, sorry. Thought I’d better say that before people go looking for it.)

In the not-too-distant future of Uglies, beauty has been perfected, and society has been segregated into three sections. Children live with their parents (Crumblies or Middle Pretties) until they turn 12, at which point they are moved into a town of their own. It’s a pretty sweet set-up in some aspects. The kids all live together in big dorms, and they still have to go to school and have electronic minders keeping tabs on them, but they’re afforded a lot of freedom too. Science has fixed a lot of the problems of our current world, with pollution being pretty much a thing of the past, and poverty and hunger are completely eradicated, thanks to some interesting tech, which is glossed over more than a hardcore science fiction fan might appreciate, but I was ok with it. Learning how the maker technology works isn’t really the point of the book, you really just have to understand enough about how this society works to contrast it with our current world, and with an outside world that comes along later in the book.

I said earlier that beauty has been perfected, and it’s a pretty interesting concept. When the kids turn 16, they’re taken away from the Uglyville, given extensive plastic surgery, and turned into a “Pretty,” then sent to live in New Pretty Town until they get a bit older, are given another surgery, and become Middle Pretties. Everyone looks pretty much the same, with giant anime eyes and the most symmetrical features possible, bones are smoothed and shaped, eye color is enhanced, hair is made as glossy and lovely as possible, etc. Creepy as hell, right? But here was where it really got interesting for me. When I started the book and began to understand the system Westerfeld has set up, I was a little bit bored. It feels like territory that’s been covered many times before, and I think even with our intensely appearance-based society most teens would still be pretty freaked out by the idea of looking like everyone else. So instead of hammering home why it’s bad to look like everyone else, Westerfeld gives us some pretty compelling reasons why it might be good to make everyone look the same. The children are taught from a pretty early age that only by having everyone be beautiful in the same way can society have true equality, and the idea is basically that because they’ve perfected these surgeries and now give them to everyone, society has moved forward and can stop worrying about appearance so much. It’s clearly a pretty false system, but through the eyes of our main character, Tally Youngblood, it’s easy to see why it’s such a seductive system as well. One sticking point I have with the book is that race really doesn’t come up. It’s briefly mentioned by Tally that people used to kill each other and go to war over differences in skin color, and her teachers have impressed on her that this is stupid and insane, but it’s not made clear whether those different skin tones still exist or if they’ve been eradicated as part of the surgery as well. There’s a fairly typical science fiction trope that in the future, there will be enough inter-racial marriage and breeding that we’ll all be sort of taupy-beige, and a lot of times that’s presented as an awesome way to get past racial inequality. In this book it’s pretty clear that if that is the case, it’s not necessarily a good thing.

Tally spends most of the part being very much a part of this system. It’s another thing Westerfeld does to make us uncomfortable with our assumptions about the system being bad, because Tally’s pretty likeable, and a good kid with a nice rebellious streak in her. As the book continues and Tally is given more reason to question the current system, and maybe even question whether or not she really wants to be pretty, I almost felt a sigh of relief. Of course the system is secretly evil, thank goodness it is! Even here though, the way the Westerfeld reveals the problems within the set up is done really nicely, and the way that Tally is forced to abandon her comfort zone is pretty believable. I don’t want to say too much beyond that for fear of spoilers.

One other issue I have with the book is the fact that it ends on a cliffhanger. Like really really, OMG WHAT HAPPENS NEXT kind of cliffhanger. I know there’s going to be a second book, and I almost can’t imagine any way around the cliffhanger, but if that sort of thing bugs you, be aware of it here. It bugs me, but that’s totally a personal preference, of course.

The bottom line here is that I really enjoyed this book. I like the way Westerfeld has set up his world, and I like the way that the outside comes in, subtly at first and then in a way that our protagonist can’t ignore anymore. I think it’s a pretty fantastic read and great for kids and teens, especially those going through their awkward phase and wishing they could just be pretty.

 

Books to movies and back again, with Hayao Miyazaki September 7, 2009

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I love my Google reader. More specifically, I love how my friends share things that make me think. Honestly, I could do a whole post about how having good people sharing with you on your Google Reader is almost like having a do-it-yourself reference section. Maybe another day.

TODAY, what I want to talk about, on this lovely holiday, is this post from the io9 blog about Hayao Miyazaki’s films and the genres they inhabit, sort of. If you don’t recognize Miyazaki’s name right away, you’ve almost certainly heard of his films, Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away, and the latest, Ponyo, are some of his better known titles here in the States. Let me just say, I love most of the movies Miyazaki makes (I say most because there’s a couple I still haven’t seen). He does seem to inhabit a genre all his own though, which is what the io9 post is getting at.

I really enjoy the way they try to fit the movies into specific genres, noting at the same time the places the movie breaks out of the genre norms and expectations.

Now, though, the real reason this post piqued my interest so quickly: most of Miyazaki’s movies are also books. I love being able to tie popular movies into the books that inspired them. I also love the quick synopses of the stories in the movies given by the blog post. I’m not saying copy them for book/movie talks, but I am saying they’d be a great place to start writing a talk about Miyazaki movies and books. Not all of the movies started as books, but many of them are published as manga after the movie is released. Thing is though, they’re usually really, really good. In the case of Nausicca of the Valley of the Wind, Miyazaki actually did an entire manga series himself, then based the movie off the first few books in the series. Howl’s Moving Castle, on the other hand, was based on the Diana Wynne Jones novel of the same name. Both book and movie are excellent, but must be enjoyed on their own terms, as they are quite different. Still, I think a booktalk that begins with a movie and then moves into the book the movie is based on could be a lot of fun. Double bonus if they’ve already seen the movie, because then you don’t have to worry about spoilers, and can still let them be surprised by some of the turns the book takes.

And obviously, this is not a new idea to me, but more of a reminder that displays of books that correspond to popular movies are always a good idea, as well as book/movie clubs. Watch the movie, read the book, have discussion, ??? profit? Ok maybe not that last part, but the book and movie discussion club seems like it could be a lot of fun.

After all, as XKCD reminds us, Hollywood will never stop making movies from books, so we’ll have plenty to choose from for the displays and discussion groups. But some people still think books are dead. Oh well!