Saturday, May 31, 2008

Another Kind of Cowboy by Susan Juby

Alex loves dressage. I mean really loves it. So much so that when he was a kid he leashed up his bike, aka Magnifico le Noir, pretended Magnifico was a horse, and drove around the driveway yelling out movements. His mom thinks horses are dirty and nasty, but his dad brings home a horse one day anyway (he won him in a poker game). Alex loves his horse, even if his dad forces him into western riding because dressage is too girly.

Susan Juby's writing is understated and I think the book ends up all the funnier for it. She slips in these incredibly observant and witty comments that you start taking for granted. It is written in alternating perspectives. Alex (who is in third person) and Cleo (who is in first). It is interesting to see how the characters view each other, situations, and how they react. Alex is incredibly earnest, hardworking, and quiet. Cleo is a spoiled rich girl, somewhat delusional, and is outspoken.

The secondary characters are superb. Alex's younger twin sisters are into martial arts and have a running commentary where they imagine scenarios where they must come to the rescue. His aunt is a beautician who fails spectacularly at her cooking attempts. His dad is a drunk who lives in an RV in the front driveway and has a girlfriend who in a desperate attempt to hide her increasing baldness has died her hair bright orangey red.

Alex is a another kind of cowboy for two reasons. The first is because he prefers dressage, the second because he is gay. Its something he's always known - or at least suspected - because he's always felt different. The way in which his sexuality fits into the plot is deftly handled. Alex has sort of retreated into himself in an attempt to deal with a myriad of things, not least being gay. Instead of a big reveal where everything is resolved the author lets him grow and expand as a character very organically. Its a wonderful thing to read.

This one almost missed me. It was published in 2007. I highly recommend it.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Ain't Nothing but a Man: My Quest to Find the Real John Henry

I don't read much non-fiction. Nothing against it, but it doesn't often make it on my radar. I'll thumb through what I receive at the library, but only rarely do I seek one out.*

This one I sought.

Ain't Nothing But a Man: My Quest to Find the Real John Henry by Scott Reynolds Nelson with Marc Aronson appealed to me in so many ways. First, it's kind of a mystery. Who was John Henry? Was he a real person or the stuff of tall tales? Can he go to the places mentioned in the songs and find out more? Are songs just entertainment or are they much more than that? I don't know where I first heard the song "John Henry" (one of many, many versions I learned), but I do know it. I have know it. For years!

Ain't Nothing But a Man is based on Nelson's "adult" book that came out a few years ago. In the youth book, we get the short & sweet version that is fast-paced and compelling. The chapters are brief with big images. Most of the chapters end with a question or a problem that the author seeks out in the next chapter. I loved this detective work.

I cannot review this book without getting into the great mystery of John Henry. But what I will say is that as many questions are answered, or addressed, more arise. The author challenges the reader to seek his or her own answers and talks quite a bit about the process of historical research. The story still lingers on my mind. Check this one out for an interesting book club discussion. There's plenty to talk about.

Review from the NYT that has a link to an MP3 of the song "John Henry".

*Okay, I do really like Susan Campbell Bartoletti's NF books.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Peeled by Joan Bauer

Peeled, the latest from Newbery Honor winner Joan Bauer, just hit shelves three weeks ago. When I got the ARC at TLA, I couldn't wait to read it. The cover drew me in.

Hildy lives in a small town in upstate New York with an apple-based economy. Hildy fits in her ambitions to be a journalist between her duties on the family farm- baking, picking and giving tours to elementary school kids. The big festival every year is around harvest time. She is the best writer for her high school newspaper, The Core (see the theme here?). When freaky things start happening at the old Ludlow house in town, Hildy knows it's bunk, but isn't sure how to prove it.

Hildy always uses the 5 W's in her questioning (who? what? when? where? why?) and her friends (including cute science geek Zack) to get to the truth, and doesn't skip over the hard parts. She's determined and gutsy, and doesn't even back down when the articles she prints start to make some grown ups in town angry. Hildy is a strong female protagonist and this book would be great for kids interested in journalism or creative writing. There's nothing offensive or romantic in here, so this would work for even upper elementary readers.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Things that came in the mail

So I got to work this morning and some catalogs had come in the mail for me. I’m always excited about catalogs, the colors, the pictures, the pretty…you get the picture. So I’m thumbing through the first one from Tilbury House. The books are mainly picture books with a message, some non-fiction scattered in. Everything is going fine until I hit page 14 and I see the title “Everybody’s Somebody’s Lunch.”

Yes indeedy, the picture book that deals with predators and prey and teaches that although we like to think there are “good” animals and “bad” animals, there really aren’t. So that’s all fine and dandy, and truly this book is probably great – what do I know? I’ve only seen it in the catalog. What really struck me about it is the pretty little girl on the cover. Because if everybody is somebody’s lunch, then I’m left wondering whose lunch is she?

Somehow I doubt the book touches on that. If it did, it might be kind of awesome, because it would probably have zombies in it.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Leap of Faith by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

Abby has been kicked out of public middle school for assaulting a classmate; now she is enrolling in Catholic school, where religion is a required class and she is a stranger in a land of people who knows just how to act. Not only that, but her parents are too involved in their own lives to notice the problems with hers, unless it causes them trouble. So she decides to take drama and become a Catholic just to upset them. But there is a lot more to this Catholic thing than she realized...

I'll admit, I was a bit skeptical about this book. Generally I avoid books that address the religion question. Too many of those I've come across are either heavy-handed or overly didactic. This one manages to explain a lot about Catholicism and the individual search for God without being overwhelming. I definitely think the Catholic church will like it, but so will those who are not Catholic or even Christian. It's a quick read and an interesting one.
I love the part where she asks the priest how to become Catholic and he tells her to start by reading the Bible. She is so disappointed, expecting a Catholic decoder ring or secret handshake. That is so funny!

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

Another book that has a great author note. This one is right at the beginning letting the reader know that she drew on her childhood love of mythology, in particular the story of how Athens was punished and had to send their children year after year to the labyrinth in Crete where they'd be eaten by the Minotaur. Combine that basic idea with reality tv ala survivor and you've got yourself a kick ass premise.

Every year a boy and a girl between the ages of 12 to 18 are drawn randomly to fight in the Hunger Games from each of the twelve districts. This is a televised event and unfortunately for those drawn to participate there can only be one winner. And the only way to win is to be the last person in the only person left alive. You might make alliances, you might try to avoid killing, but if you want to win you know that all twenty three other people will have to die.


This novel is set in a dystopian future earth. The author manages to pack in a lot of social commentary without it ever feeling heavy handed or didactic. There is a reason the games are called the Hunger Games, in fact more than one. This future that Suzanne Collins has created is bleak. At one point there was an uprising against the capital and it failed. The result was continual military presence, strict rules, and widespread poverty. The capital is very much interesting in squashing any sort of unrest or rebellion and so the districts are continually punished year after year by having to have their children join the draw. You can even have your name put in more than once if you'd like to earn more food for your family (reason #1), the more family members you keep alive the more entries you have. Entries that compound over time. This means that the poorer you are, the hungrier you are, and the more entries you're likely to have (reason #2). If you are so unlucky as to participate in the games you'll soon find that food is scarce and difficult to come by (reason #3). And finally, if you're lucky or unlucky enough, depending on how you look at it, to actually win the games you'll win your entire district more food alleviating everyone's hunger until the next year's games begin (reason #4). Of course you'll be a murderer and might not have all your faculties anymore...but what can you do?

This book starts with a bang and never lets up. You've got drama, action, violence, surprising kindnesses, betrayals, and more. It is the first book in what promises to be an awesomely awesome series.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Eleven by Patricia Reilly Giff

Sam McKenzie lives in western New York with his grandfather, Mack, in an apartment above Mack’s woodworking shop. They share the building with two kind-hearted family friends: deli owner Onji and Indian Restaurant owner Anima. Sam, who cannot read words but has a gift for “reading wood,” is already on his way to becoming an expert woodworker. Sam is content with a life filled with delicious hot pastrami sandwiches and spicy chicken curry, but he is inexplicably afraid of the number 11. He is haunted nightly by dreams in which the number 11 appears in addresses and symbolically in castle turrets and brick chimneys. The day before his eleventh birthday, he sneaks into the attic to find his birthday presents, and instead finds a newspaper article with his photo as a toddler that reads “Sam Bell: Missing.” Unable to read the clipping himself, he seeks out the new girl at school, Caroline, who always has her face in a book and lipstick on her braces. They get paired up to create a castle for their classroom’s medieval feast, and together they begin building the castle that haunts Sam’s dreams. When Mack steps out to deliver furniture, they sneak into the attic to find more clues about who Sam really is. Caroline, whose family of artists move every few months, reminds Sam that they have to hurry. She quickly proves herself to be a good detective as well as a loyal friend. As clues pile up, time runs short, and Caroline’s mother announces they will move one last time as her father takes a teaching position at a college. Will they figure out the secrets of Sam’s origin in time? Is Mack really Sam’s grandfather? Can you only have one gift in life, or can Sam have the other gifts he longs for, like a true friend, to stay with Mack forever, and the ability to read?

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Generation Dead by Daniel Waters

In the not-too-distant future, American teenagers are coming back to life after they die. Zombies, or the pc "differently biotic" or "living impaired," are now a part of daily life, going to high school and trying out for football. For Phoebe the livItalicing impaired are especially intriguing since she loves death metal, goth fashions and poetry. When Tommy Williams, an especially functional dead kid, tries out for the football team, Phoebe's not the only one interested.
This is a unique take on civil rights issues, as well as what exactly it means to be alive. Generation Dead even tackles the meaning of friendship and still has time for angsty goodness like a love triangle and teen rebellion. Lovers of zombie movies will enjoy the references and discussions about what makes a zombie.

I was struck at the beginning by how much it reminded me of Twilight. Creepy, outcast girl likes strange, beautiful but dead boy--strangeness ensues.....So, maybe this could be a read-alike, although the ending is very different and in some ways this is a much more grown-up and realistic story. Either way, it is worth checking out.