Thursday, November 27, 2014

Review: The Finisher

The Finisher
By David Baldacci
Published 2014 by Scholastic

No one has ever left Wormwood - at least, no one has ever left and survived. But Vega Jane sees something disturbing one night and soon, she's discovering that there may be more to Wormwood than anyone knows. In fact, there may be a way out. Can Vega Jane solve the mystery once and for all?

So, Baldacci is a big deal in the adult publishing world - I'm not really a suspense reader, so I've never read him. But I'm always interested when adult authors make the leap into publishing for kids and teens, particularly when they diverge from their typical genre, as Baldacci does here. Is it really a good book? Or did the name attached sell itself?

In this case, I think it's the latter. I had several problems with this book and most of them I think come from Baldacci's lack of understanding about writing for kids and fantasy in general. This book is riddled with nonsense words - words that are either made up or familiar words that are given new meanings in the context of the story. This wouldn't necessarily bother me - in fact, much good fantasy includes its own language. In this case, though, the nonsense words are simply standing in for regular words, thus rendering them completely unnecessary. Does it really make sense to say a sliver when you mean a minute? Session when you mean a year? It just comes off as silly. It reads as if Baldacci thought, "well, I'm writing a fantasy, I better make up some words!" Nonsense I tell you.

Additionally, this book is bloated. It's around 500 pages and it feels every bit of that. Once again, it feels like Baldacci thought to himself, "well, Harry Potter was long and successful, so I better write lots of pages." Once again, I'm perfectly okay with a long book IF THE STORY CALLS FOR IT. Unfortunately, many these 500 pages felt like added weight to drag the story out more and give the book more heft.

Vega, too, felt torn from a manual on creating a successful fantasy novel - orphan (well, close enough), outsider (seriously, where are all the females in this world? How are babies being born??), gifted, blah, blah, blah. I just didn't care. I didn't care about her or any of the other characters. The plot never really grabbed me either - it may have been interesting, but it gets lost in all that clunky and absurd language that Baldacci is using. Finally, the book has an open ending. It seems there may be sequels in the works, which just adds to my disappointment. I won't be be back for future installments.

Thanks to the publisher for an advance reader's copy.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Review: Absolutely Truly

Absolutely Truly: A Pumpkin Falls Mystery
By Heather Vogel Frederick
Published 2014 by Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers

Truly Lovejoy's life is facing a major change. Her father, injured in Afghanistan, has decided to move the family halfway across the country to his hometown - Pumpkin Falls, New Hampshire. For Truly, who had finally felt like her life was settling down, this move couldn't be more frustrating. Add to that the worries about her father (who hasn't been the same since his injury), the possibility that they will lose the family business (the bookstore is struggling financially), and a mystery that cries out to be solved and Truly is in for some big changes.

I downloaded this e-galley because I thought it sounded cute - a small-town mystery, a family experiencing some crisis, and set in New England. I had never read a book by the author before but I've seen her stuff around and it all sounds pretty cute. I figured this was as good a time as any to check her out.

I've said it before and I'll say it again - I appreciate books with realistic and complicated family relationships. I think that may have been one of my favorite aspects of this novel - the Lovejoys are a large, loving, and complex family unit. Frederick does an excellent job depicting the family fallout of a parent injured in a combat situation - Truly's father is clearly not the same person he was before the explosion and the family is learning how to accommodate his changes. The love among the family members is abundant and apparent and heartwarming. Truly has a great relationship with both her parents as well as with her brothers and sisters. It's not always easy being a part of the Lovejoy clan but they always make it work.

Another thing I appreciated about this book was the setting. Being from New England myself (though not New Hampshire specifically), I thought Frederick did a great job evoking the small-town feel that permeates much of New England and makes it such a tourist destination. No, every town is not picturesque and idyllic, but a lot of them are. Frederick did a great job showcasing the charm of a small-town - the interesting characters you'll find (for better or worse since usually it's impossible to keep a secret in a small town), the unique history, and the beauty of nature that can frequently be found. Pumpkin Falls is not a real town, but it reminded me very much of many small towns I've visited throughout New England - and definitely made me homesick for the place I come from.

I thought the mystery was really well-done also. It was interesting, full of literary elements, and I definitely couldn't wait to see it solved. It's not a super-complicated mystery and an astute reader may be able to solve at least part of the mystery before the characters do. But I found it very charming (which I would say about the book as a whole as well) and I'm looking forward to what Frederick might do in the next installment (because, yes, this is first in a series).

Overall, I found this a lovely read, perfect for winter and charming as all get out with realistic relationships and a fun mystery. Thanks to the publisher for a digital advance reader's copy, provided via Edelweiss.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Review: Grasshopper Jungle

Grasshopper Jungle
By Andrew Smith
Published 2014 by Dutton Juvenile

Austin's life is about to get seriously weird. People in his hometown are somehow turning into giant praying mantises that want to do nothing but eat and mate. But his regular life doesn't just end because the world is going crazy - he's still trying to figure out his sexual orientation but now he has to also worry about escaping the giant praying mantises. Can he figure out a way to save himself - and maybe the world?

I heard about this book a lot before its release and was pleased to snag an ARC at Midwinter. Unfortunately, I didn't manage to read the book before its release date, but I read it over the summer and was blown away.

I've complained a handful of times about books I just don't get (I'm looking at you, Daniel Kraus). I imagine, for some people, this will be that kind of book. For me, though, definitely not. This book is probably one of the best books I read this year and I'm only sad that I can't recommend it highly enough.

This book is absolute insanity - it's about a mish-mash of things, many completely out of this world. It's the inside of a teenage boy's head right out there for everyone to see. It's the end of the world and the chaos that means. It's a B-movie with giant praying mantises and an homage to Porky's. It is probably the weirdest thing most people will read in any given year, but it also absolutely amazing. As usual, it's much more difficult for me to articulate my thoughts when I just full-out love a book than when I don't, so this review will probably not be terribly helpful to anyone.

Perhaps this book was suited to me because I love B-movies. I'm not so crazy about horny teenage boys (in fact, I didn't love Smith's Winger at least partly because of that), but this book is just brilliant. It's extraordinarily well-written - Smith zings from one topic to the next with only the most tangential connections, yet it never feels forced or confusing or pretentious. It just works. Amid all the craziness that is this novel, there are also some tender moments and some regular teenage confusion. It's a balance of the completely weird and the completely normal and I think Smith executes it perfectly (I actually was tempted to swear right there because that's how perfect I think it is). This book is unlike anything else out there right now and it's just good. Really, really flipping good. I loved the characters, I loved the crazy, I loved the mundane, I loved the randomness, I loved the ending. I just loved it.

Thanks to the publisher for an advance reader's copy, which I will treasure for always now.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Review: Like Water on Stone

Like Water on Stone
By Dana Walrath
Published 2014 by Delacorte Press

The Ottoman Empire is falling and Shahen and his family are caught in the rubble. When the plan to eliminate all Armenians is set in motion, can Shahen's family find a way to survive?

I requested this e-galley because I'm a big fan of historical fiction and of novels in verse. I was particularly interested because the story is set in a time and place of which I don't know much. I expect the same will be true for many readers in the target audience. 

I think the verse worked very well for this story. Often, I find myself thinking that true when the subject is a particularly terrible one - in this case, the genocide of a people. Telling such a horrific story in verse often allows readers some small breaks from the terribleness while at the same time using the fewest amount of words to capture a perhaps unimaginable horror. I think Walrath and her choice of narrators makes this even more effective. She includes two older children who are aware of the horrific events surrounding them (one more than the other) and the youngest child who can't comprehend exactly what is happening or why. And, above them all is the eagle, who can see all the events with even more perspective than the children. The eagle's narrative lends a bit of magical realism to the story and, at first, I was a bit unsure about it. By the novel's end, however, I was very glad for his voice's inclusion in the story.

Walrath also did an excellent job with her research. Every bit of this story (save the eagle's narrative voice) feels true and authentic. At times, it was easy to imagine that I was reading a true story of three children in the Armenian genocide. Walrath evokes the landscape vividly - I've never traveled to that part of the world, but Walrath's choice descriptions made it easy to picture the children's journey. Like many good historical fiction books, this one left me wanting to learn more about the period in which it was set. I'm saddened by the fact that I knew almost nothing about the Armenian genocide and, though it won't be pleasant reading, I think it's important to learn something.

My main complaint simply comes from reading the e-galley version - this made it difficult to refer back to the list of characters, so occasionally while reading, I would have a hard time remembering which character was which. With a print version of the book, this problem wouldn't exist, so it's a relatively minor complaint.

Thanks to the publisher for a digital advance reader's copy, provided via Edelweiss.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Summer Program Recap Bonanza: Teen Edition

I decided to try my hand at a few more teen events over the summer, so here's what I did!

DFTBA: with the early summer release of The Fault in Our Stars movie, I knew we needed to have a John Green event. My colleague and I were on the same page and decided to collaborate for this one. All in all, it was a pretty simple program. I made a playlist of Vlogbrothers' videos to watch during the program. We printed out some Green-inspired bookmarks, as well as a Nerdfighter Mad Libs. Our crafts were bracelets (we used letter beads to spell out things like "DFTBA" and "Okay?"), nerdfighter notebooks, and tiny book charms. Overall, it was pretty low-key but fun, though I expected a slightly larger attendance.

Rube Goldberg Machines: so this program was a complete experiment on my part. We'd never really done anything like it and I wasn't sure what to expect, but it was a program that I got in my head and just couldn't get out. I'm sure most of you reading this are familiar with Rube Goldberg and his amazing machines but, in case you're not, check out this video.
I actually showed that video and a couple others at the beginning of the program for anyone who wasn't familiar with the concept (though I was pretty sure if they were showing up to the program, they kind of knew what they were in for). They sorted themselves into small groups and I explained the basic rules (no open flames, etc.). Their goal was to move a ping-pong ball into a cup in at least 4 separate reactions. I had piles of recyclable materials for them to work with and they had about 90 minutes to create. I had about 15 teens show up and they had a great time. They definitely learned a thing or two about trial and error!

Henna: we've done this program multiple times in the years I've worked at the library and it's always a big hit. We require a signed permission slip and we just called the next attendee to the front in the order they arrived. We had some mandala coloring sheets for them to work on while they waited and we listened to Bollywood music. We are very lucky to have a coworker who is always willing to make the henna and then work the program for us and she even brought her mother this time around. We will keep doing this program as long as it's popular! A funny little side story: I debated having the henna done myself this year because letting it dry is a bit of a pain during a regular work day. When the program was over, I was talked into it, but I put it on my left hand, figuring it would be less intrusive as it dried (I'm right-handed). Little did I know that my boyfriend would propose a few weeks later, just as the henna was fading and looking pretty ragged. Needless to say, I didn't have some great first engagement ring photos.

Mini-Weapons: this was one of our combined tween and teen programs of the summer and definitely a popular one. We had four different mini-weapons that the kids could make out of basic supplies and then at the end, we staged a tiny battle with marshmallows. All of the weapons came from the book Mini-Weapons of Mass Destruction. We made crossbows, Viking catapults, throwing stars, and slingshots. We had lots of attendees and they made their own arsenals quite happily.

Anime Con: another program that we've been talking about for a while and finally decided to take the plunge with, this summer we hosted our first Teen Anime Con. It was a big success and we will definitely be making it an annual event, with a few changes for next year. But, this year's event included registration and opening trivia (since we held the con during regular library operating hours, we had the teens register and get a name badge to mark them as attendees. This is also when they signed up for the cosplay contest and we had some trivia going as we allowed for latecomers, then we went over the logistics and rules of how the con would run), anime pictionary (prizes were pieces of Hi-Chew and I tried to assist teens if they drew a card they weren't familiar with), Naruto headbands (really easy craft and very popular), what would you do for Pocky? (Minute-to-Win-It style games with Pocky as the prize - I didn't see for myself but apparently they were quite rabid about the Pocky), make your own tail (a pretty easy but time-consuming craft to make simple cosplay tails out of cheap yarn), learn a J-Pop Dance (we did a very simple dance, but this was easily the least popular session), Cosplay 101 panel (one of my coworkers talked about the basics of cosplaying and answered questions the teens had about the best materials and tips and tricks), drawing workshop with local anime artist (we are very lucky to have a local artist that we've worked with in the past to come and give an hour-long lesson on best techniques for drawing anime), fanart gallery (attendees could display the art they created during their workshop or bring in already created art), anime bingo (more candy as prizes and surprisingly popular), and a cosplay contest (we awarded prizes in several different categories and attendees voted for their favorites in each). The con lasted three hours and was crazy from start to finish. We had about 75 attendees and they all had a fantastic time - most of them wanted it to last longer! I think staff had a great time as well - I know I had fun. I cosplayed as Mei from My Neighbor Totoro (disappointingly, most of the kids didn't recognize me) and am already starting to plan what I'll be next year!

Interactive Movie: I love going to interactive movie events and I wanted to see how something like that would fare at the library. So, we scheduled an interactive showing of Labyrinth - yes, the 80s movie starring David Bowie. We had about a dozen teens show up and I'm happy to say they loved it! They thought the movie was great and they loved the interactive bits. We decorated masks for the masquerade, danced David Bowie puppets for "Magic Dance," ate peaches along with Sarah, blew bubbles, used balloons as substitute Fiery heads, sat on Whoopee cushions in the Bog of Eternal Stench, and popped noisemakers for the party at the end. It was much fun and I loved that the teens actually enjoyed the cheese-fest that is this movie.

Mythbusters: this is a program that both my coworker and I had seen discussed all over the Internet and had talked about doing in years past but never actually got around to it. This year, we decided it was probably past time to put it on the calendar. I'll admit, it was actually more difficult to plan than we anticipated and probably one of the programs I felt the least enthusiastic about this summer. We showed several clips of the show in addition to a handful of activities. The myths we tested were: Pop Rocks and soda taken together will burst your stomach (busted - obviously), you can't separate two phone books that have been layered together (confirmed - several of them tried), and you can hold a balloon over open flame without popping it (confirmed - if you fill the balloon with water first). We also had the teens taste test several different foods with name brand and generic product to see if they could taste the difference. I think our attendees had a good time but my coworker and I just felt a bit frazzled, I think.

Cookie Decorating War: exactly what it sounds like, but we always have multiple categories they can try for and the kids vote on their favorites.

Shrinky Dinks: another perpetually popular program and one that is easy and inexpensive. We'll be keeping this on the calendar for years to come.

So, those were the programs I did for teens this summer! Any questions or comments about a specific program? Leave it in the comments!

Friday, November 21, 2014

Review: Tesla's Attic

Tesla's Attic (The Accelerati Trilogy, book one)
By Neal Shusterman and Eric Elfman
Published 2014 by Disney-Hyperion

After a terrible tragedy, Nick and his family move into an old house they've inherited. Of course, it's just their luck that the attic is full of strange old junk. So, they have a garage sale. But Nick soon discovers that the strange old junk is something more - that it may have strange powers and may have once belonged to the great inventor, Nikola Tesla.

Ooh boy, this is the problem with being far behind on reviews - it's been six months since I read this one and I've having trouble recalling all the details. I remember that I was initially excited because it was Neal Shusterman and science fiction for middle grade readers. I'm a big fan of Shusterman's Unwind series and I was excited to see what he would do for the younger set.

Turns out, I had reason to be excited. This book is a fast-paced, exciting adventure that will keep readers on the edge of their seat the whole way through. While some parts of it felt clunky (the way Nick's friendships develop sticks out in my mind), on the whole, the book reads like one action-packed mystery. I think my favorite part was discovering the different properties the various devices had - I loved finding out their secrets and imagining what I would do with them. I also really loved the scene towards the end of the book when one of the characters knows that a tragedy is about to occur. This character wants to stop the tragedy, but when arriving on the scene, it's almost impossible to discern which of the potential catastrophes will turn into the foreseen tragedy. It's a really fascinating piece of writing there and it works incredibly well.

Like many of the middle-grade books I've read more recently, this book taps into the hunger for STEM-focused reads and I think it does it well. I admit that my knowledge of science is terribly limited, but this book definitely had me interested in Tesla and his experiments.

Of course, this is only the first book in a series, so many questions still linger after you reach the final page. I think kids will be eager to get their hands on book two - I know I'm waiting!

Thanks to the publisher for an advance reader's copy.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Review: A Long, Long Sleep

A Long, Long Sleep
By Anna Sheehan, read by Angela Dawe

Published 2011 by Candlewick on Brilliance Audio

Rosalinda has been asleep for a long time before she is unexpectedly awoken by a kiss. And the world in which Rose awakens is markedly different from the one she remembers. No one seems to understand just what Rose is going through, instead looking to her as the heir of an empire. But when things turn dangerous, just who can Rose trust in this unfamiliar world?

Once again, this review is coming at quite a remove from my actual reading (or in this case, listening) of the book. And once again, I find many of the details a bit hazy.

I downloaded this one because it's a retelling of Sleeping Beauty. I'm a sucker for a retelling, particularly when it goes in a completely unexpected direction. This, a science fiction version, was exactly that. It's not a perfect book - Rose is quite frustrating as a heroine and the ending certainly left something to be desired - but it was pretty enjoyable as I listened. What I think this book did best was capture the incredible struggle Rose faces after she is woken. She must process that the world she knows has been gone for over sixty years - everyone she cared about is long gone and she is expected to take her place as the rightful heir to an international empire. As Rose begins to uncover more of her past, it's heartbreaking to discover why she was asleep for so long. I really loved the relationship she developed with Otto. She struggles to relate to people her age and this friendship is clearly a good thing for her.

The pacing of the book is not quite as strong, however - I sometimes lost focus while I listened because it just didn't keep me engaged the entire time. And, as I mentioned, Rose is often quite frustrating. Sure, as the book goes on, we begin to understand her a little more and it helps explain why she might be frustrating, but that doesn't change the fact that she can be a pain to sympathize with. The ending is also not my favorite. Goodreads (for better or worse the website I use most frequently when it comes to books) lists a sequel entitled No Life But This with an expected publication of December 2014. However, in the comments section, the author quite bluntly states that this is probably not accurate because the process of bringing a sequel to light appears to have not gone smoothly. I'd be interested in seeing what a sequel would look like, but I suppose it's the waiting game for now.