Thursday, February 28, 2008

The Luxe by Anna Godbersen

Anyone who knows me knows that Gossip Girl and similar fare is just not my thing. So I don't know why I even picked this up since I haven't heard it described anyway except for Gossip Girl meets 1900 New York. The only think I can come up with is that I thought the cover was so incredibly pretty I wanted to open it up.

I'm glad I did.

There are definitely similarities to Gossip Girl. The characters are part of New York elite. They compete with each other, there isn't very much character development, every chapter begins with a quote/letter/note just like GG's emails. But with the exception of mentioning Lord & Taylor, there isn't one other brand name mentioned. Which makes a whole world of difference. And, you know, makes sense since who would recognize the brands anyway. It would have totally detracted from the story (not that it doesn't anyway, but that's a whole other ball of wax). Since that is the thing that bothers me most about GG, I was able to get over my bias towards this type of book and actually enjoy the story.

So we have beautiful girls, handsome men, illicit affairs, lost fortunes, backstabbing, regret, and redemption all set within the upper crust of New York City circa 1900. As I said, there isn't much character development, the characters are a bit stock and act pretty much the way you would expect them to, and there aren't any plot twists that are going to blow you out of the water. Even so, it is a fun read and you're drawn into the story and will want to follow it to what you know will be a satisfying conclusion.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

a question about good reads/librarything/the others

So, with all the discussion of personal library organizers going on, I have a question. Well, a couple of questions. How do you assign stars to things? Do you ever look back and think "What was I thinking?" when you see how you rated things? Do you change ratings, or figure you should listen to your previous self?

I ask, obviously, because I just did that. I was looking through my LibraryThing, trying to find stuff to recommend to my awesome father-in-law* who has been asking for good YA books to read and kept thinking "I gave THAT four stars?!" "I gave ______ and ______ the same rating? And I wanted to change things, but then thought, "No, no, don't confuse things. Stick with what you gave it in the first place, even if it was crazy. ... But what if someone sees that I gave ______ that many stars and judges me for it?"**

So, what about you? Do you have an official policy?

*Seriously. He's awesome. He read Twilight after I told him about a vampire prom we had at our library, then said that he was in the school library (he teaches high school science) and saw one of his cooler-than-thou students there checking out New Moon. He said something to her about Bella and Edward and then watched her jaw drop. "You've read Twilight?" After that, he thought it would be fun to freak out more of his students, so he read Uglies, The Lightning Thief, and some of the sequels.

** Clearly, I have some book-related self esteem issues.

La Perdida by Jessica Abel

La Perdida has been hovering around in my to-read pile for a loooong time and I finally read it this week. (I’m a little embarrassed it has taken me so long, I almost didn’t want to post about it so no one would know.) While I was reading, I was thinking “Man, this is good! I think I’ll title my post about it Wanderlust, Vol. 3 to go along with French Milk and Japan Ai.” Hrm. I was wrong. Well, only about the second part. It was good. Really, really good.

Twenty-something Carla is disillusioned with American politics and lifestyle and heads for Mexico City to “get in touch with her roots.” She plans to visit an ex-boyfriend, though she knows pretty much all along that she will stay longer than just a vacation. She spends the first part of the book visiting Frida Kahlo’s house, Teotihuacán, and other touristy places. (This is the part that made me think Arghthisissocool,IwanttogotoMexiconoww... , and I read later that a lot of it was based on Jessica Abel’s time in Mexico.) Carla wants to see the “real” Mexico, too, though, and is frustrated that the ex-boyfriend doesn’t seem to do anything but hang around with other American expats. She falls in with a group of Mexican Communists who show her a more authentic experience, but the reader knows from fairly early on that this isn’t going to turn out well. Memo, the leader of the new group, seems sleazy all the way through, and Carla’s insisting that he’s really a good guy, just misunderstood, only makes him seem sleazy and manipulative.

Things go along pretty well for a while, though; Carla gets a job teaching at an English school and starts dating one of the guys in the group. They hang out, go to parties, and Carla doesn’t seem too concerned that the boyfriend pays his rent (or rather, fails to pay his rent) by selling pot. Some big red flags go up for the reader, though, when the local drug lord starts asking questions about Carla’s ex-boyfriend - who knows he’s there, where he works, and just how much that trust fund kid is worth. The ex-boyfriend disappears and it’s clear to everyone but Carla exactly what happened. What’s not clear, though, is how in the world she’ll get out of this.

La Perdida was a 2006 Cybils finalist, but our library has it in adult, which seems like a wise move. Very, very good, though.

Ordinary Ghosts by Eireann Corrigan

"understand I didn't earn the key. I wouldn't have even been considered. That key is something a guy like me would only hear about twenty years later, at some craptastic reunion, long after the secret currents running under the surface of Caramoor Academy stopped dragging past me. We'd all be back, hunched over the same pocked tables in the dining hall, cutting boiled chicken with plastic knives, and someone would start asking, 'who held the key our year? who was it?' The way we interrogate each other now: 'who did Mr. Kirkman catch jerking off in the music building bathroom?' 'Isaiah did how many hits?' Mischievously. Or sinisterly. I've rarely been close enough to tell."

And so starts Emil's story. His mother has died recently after a short seriously debilitating bout with cancer. His brother has run off and the only way they know he's still alive is that he sends the occasional postcard through the mail. Emil's father is emotionally distant, also trying to work his way out of the funk that life has dealt them. Then Emil discovers the key to his private school in his brother's coin jar and he decides that he has to check it out. If nothing else because he wants a private retreat. And so begins his nightly journeys to the school to poke around in offices where he reads the counselor's files on him, steals books from the library, and drinks the staff's supply of hot chocolate. Even Emil can see that he wasn't cut out for holding the key to the school - he's nowhere cool enough to think up a legendary key prank before he passes the key onto someone else.

It took me awhile to get into this book. At first I was overwhelmed with Emil's underlying depression. I could tell that much of his commentary was meant to come out sarcastic, but it fell a bit flat. It wasn't until he met Jade, the daughter of one of his teachers who is also using the school at night as a private retreat, that his voice started working for me. It changed from crushing depression, to a teen boy who was crushingly depressed, but with full awareness that this made him a total sad sack and he needed to hide it somehow. He won me over. It could be that it was at that point that he began to recover emotionally and so the comments were actually lighter - or it could be all in the reading. I'm not sure. All I do know is that at a certain point I started to laugh at his observations and really started to root for him.

He's got a lot against him - the dead mother that he's still grieving for him, a brother he idealized that ran off, and a dad that has been withholding some very important life-altering facts about why his brother left. But he's also got a lot of things going for him. A best friend that sticks around while also giving him space to work things out, the ability to reach out and make a connection with Jade, and the growing knowledge that he'll be ok in the end.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Books on Terror

In the Name of God by Paula Jolin

Nadia is a 17 year old Syrian girl who has plans to become a doctor. She is also very religious and concerned with living a proper Islamic life in a world where, as she sees it, it is becoming increasingly difficult to be Islamic. Her cousins are becoming increasingly westernized, some even emigrating to the United States, others are dressing western and refusing to cover their heads. This at the same time Nadia is becoming increasingly angry at the USA for every ill in the Muslim world and ever more radical in her thoughts about what should be done about it.

After her favorite cousin Fowzi is arrested for his radical Islamic political views, Nadia begins to encounter his handsome friend Walid. Although she won't admit it to herself, her infatuation with Walid and her willingness to become a martyr for the cause are closely entwined. So much so that she is unable to see how she's been manipulated into a course of action she may not have taken on her own until it is almost too late.

This book takes the perspective of a Muslim girl who is willing to become a martyr for Islam because of her hatred of the United States, Jews, and all things western that are "ruining" the world. It is interesting to see her character become increasingly radicalized, although one wonders why she would become so radical surrounded by a family that are religious, but not fanatical in their views (granted Fowzi, the cousin she fantasized about marrying was a fanatic, but the rest were not).

I would have appreciated more background information about Syria and Syrian culture. Nadia and her female cousins seemed to have quite a few freedoms like education, the ability to go to university, and were even able to go out in the city unchaperoned that one doesn't expect when reading about the Muslim world. More background information would have gone a long way. An interesting book that is sure to spark discussion amongst its readers.

Little Brother by Cory Doctorow

Another book about terrorism, but told from an American perspective. There has just been a devastating terrorist attack in the San Francisco area. Marcus and three of his friends who happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time are arrested by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and taken to a secret military prison where they are harshly interrogated and without the ability to let anyone know where they are. Only three of them make it home.

Marcus, to put it simply, is pissed. After he is released he vows to do everything he can to bring down the DHS which has turned San Francisco into a virtual police state. Civil liberties are suspended, his favorite teacher loses her job for leading a current affairs discussion on terror and its implications, people are tracked by various means and stopped when their "patterns" of movement are abnormal.

Marcus and his friends happen to be very talented technofiles. He sets up a system using various technologies to his advantage to stay hidden from the DHS and he spreads the word to others who wish to do the same. Unfortunately, the stakes keep getting raised. No longer is he just a freedom loving American, along the way Marcus gets labeled as the leader of a terrorist cell, and everything he accomplishes that shows the DHS as the fear-mongering power hungry only makes him into more of a government enemy. Clearly, this is not going to end nicely.

Little Brother raises all sorts of interesting questions. One of the most important deals with what personal rights and freedoms would you be willing to give up in the name of protection? And is it worth it? If we are tracked by the government and all are movements are known, are we truly free or have we been transformed into a police state? Are we free if we can't speak openly about our concerns without being told we're abetting terrorism and should be quiet? Doctorow deals with all of this in a fairly even-handed way (not that even-handed - it is very obvious where his opinions on the matters lay). Even though hacking and using technology are romanticized, I appreciated that the author's conclusion was not hacking/innovative technology will save the world. Instead it was that open communication and freedom of information is the real enemy of terror and fear. And it is only in a society where these ideals are protected that citizens can truly be free. Technology can aid this, but it is actual people who must fight for it.

Having said that, this book is chock full of interesting hacking technology. Marcus acts as our guide in explaining it as it is introduced. I do wish that the author had used the same strategy that Scott Westerfeld did in Peeps. In Peeps, explanations were presented in alternating chapters focused on specific parasites. I think Little Brother would have benefited from this strategy because the technological explanations sometimes bogged down the narrative and slowed the action. I also would have liked an afterword similar to Peeps where every technology introduced in the book got a little blurb. There are three afterwords written for Little Brother, including a seemingly comprehensive reading list, but it is a little cumbersome to wade through. It would be more effective as a bullet point list - something easier to scan.

Little Brother is a fun book to read and the galley clocks in at 365 pages. Which for any YA book is getting a bit long. I think this could be edited down to 300 to tighten up the story. Regardless it is an exciting, fun read that will appeal to a wide variety of teenagers and adults. And the people they got to blurb his book: Brian K. Vaughn! Scott Westerfeld! Big name hitters.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

The Poison Apples by Lily Archer

Lily Archer's The Poison Apples pivots on a promising premise- three girls are sent to a Massachusetts boarding school after gaining an evil stepmother. Self-doubting Molly, popular Reena, and hometown smartie Alice take turns narrating their tale.
Unlike some young adult novels, these girls don't immediately become best friends. This take is far more realistic, and after a rough start, the trio eventually band together as the Poison Apples. Throughout the novel, positive teen relationships abound- Reena sticks up for her less popular friends, and Reena's big brother has a similarly strong moral compass. The mean popular kids are interestingly portrayed as boring instead of as local celebrities.
The Poison Apples aren't founded until midway through the book, leaving the reader wondering. As they first convene on their dormitory roof, the title comes into play, giving meaning to the eye-candy cover and red-ink-trimmed pages. This clever cover design will draw the eye of any casual shelf-scanner.
After The Poison Apples' first meeting, the premise falls apart- while the characters are realistic and likeable, their dialogue peppered with just the right amount of pop culture, the Poison Apples cannot physically work together to make sure their respective evil stepmothers get theirs. They function as moral support, which again provides a template for positive teen relationships. Archer's take on teen characters is spot-on, but adult characters, mostly parents, are left as stereotypes until our three protagonists realize their parents are flawed people too, at the very end, hinting at a sequel.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Baby Ryan

Last night as I was lounging on my sofa reading Y:the Last Man, Kerry was giving birth. Hooray! Congratulations, Kerry!

Now about sending us some cute new baby pictures ...

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Spanking Shapiro by Jake Wizner

Shakespeare Shapiro has always, always, always hated his name. His parents David and Sarah hated their boring names and decided that no child of their's would have a common name. Instead, in one of the many unsubstantiated stories about his naming, they put the names of various great historical figures into a jar and decide that they would use whichever name they pulled out. This, of course led to the bestowing of Shakespeare upon him, and his little brother was similarly named Gandhi.

Shakespeare is a senior at a high school that makes every senior take a writing seminar. The end product is a memoir of their life so far. Its a big deal. There are several finalists, but only one winner and it has become much more prestigious to win the writing award then to be the valedictorian. In past years some winners have even been offered lucrative publishing deals.

The book is set up with alternating chapters. We go back and forth from living vicariously through Shakespeare's view of his current times to chapters that he has written for his memoir. The thing to know is that he doesn't shy away from any topic no matter how embarrassing or incriminating the topic. And that is precisely why it is so incredibly funny. It's filled with the type of observations, bodily functions, things people do (especially teenage boys) that you know people do all the time, but no one ever talks about - the types of things that never get mentioned in polite company. So lots of masterbating, lots of farting, lots of inappropriate thoughts. His best friend keeps a journal of his bowel movements. This is not a high brow book.

I laughed the entire way through it. Shakespeare is probably not the most reliable narrator. He is in the sense of not shying away from the daily embarrassments that make up his life, but I think he exaggerated situations to make them more humorous. The situations Shakespeare finds himself in always seem over the top, but even so, the author writes with such honesty that they still manage to ring true. Quite the accomplishment.

Boys will love this book. It's foul, it is full of teenage boy rites of passage (like being jealous of his younger brother's drug use and finally getting high for the first time...priceless!), and it is absolutely the funniest thing I've read in a long, long time. So, yes they'll love it...if they can get past the cover. I wish it had a flashier cover without the image of the original Shakespeare on the cover. Hopefully the paperback will fix that.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Happy Birthday Alison!

Have a wonderful birthday!
Enjoy your day off!

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Dead High Yearbook by Ivan Velez Jr.

The premise of this graphic novel is that a bunch of dead teens are putting a yearbook together that tells the story of how each of them died. The deaths are all pretty gruesome with half of the kids becoming vampires, zombies or monsters.

Sounds like just the kind of story for a Buffy/zombie fan such as myself, right?

Ehh, not so much. I didn't find many of the short vignettes to be very original in story or artwork. I did think it was funny that all of the teens were forced to work on putting together a yearbook before they could move on to the next stage of their existence though!

I think teens will find Dead High Yearbook visually appealing, but no one's going to be checking this out multiple times!

Friday, February 1, 2008

Skulduggery Pleasant

Okay, I admit it. I picked this book up because of the really cool cover. Plus, Professor NaNa had a lovely review of it on November 22.

The audio also won the an Odyssey honor this year.

When Stephanie's favorite uncle dies suddenly, she finds herself inheriting a large house on the coast of Ireland and a small fortune from his novel-writing royalties. But things are a bit more complicated than she realized. Uncle Gordan had some pretty strange friends and enemies. And now Stephanie must meet them all and decide which is which.

Not only that, she must save the world, of course. Her uncle's old partner, Skulduggery Pleasant, is at her side through the whole adventure. He's the cool, sinister-looking guy on the cover. It's a mix of Artemis Fowl, Harry Potter, and a crime noir movie. Tweens will love it!

Japan Ai by Aimee Major Steinberger

I’m not sure what I have to say about Japan Ai besides that I looooved it. Between it and French Milk, I want to spend the rest of my days reading travelogues by smart girls. So, if you can recommend any others (especially in graphic novel form), please comment.

Japan Ai is a record of the author’s trip to Kyoto and Tokyo with two friends. They visit hot springs, attend a Tazarazuka musical (all female cast), dress up as geisha, shop for anime toys, eat, and explore the cities. The book is packed with interesting tidbits about Japanese culture and pop culture, and made me want to start looking for a Sanrio store. Aimee Major Steinberger is a professional animator and layout artist and kept an art journal on the trip, from which the book material was pulled. Pages from the actual journal and photos from the trip are posted on the publisher’s website.