Monday, September 29, 2014

Review: Dr. Bird's Advice for Sad Poets

Dr. Bird's Advice for Sad Poets
By Evan Roskos
Published 2013 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
James is struggling with depression. He is also struggling to understand why his older sister, Jorie, was kicked out of their house. His abusive father obviously had something to do with it, but there must have been something that made this time the last time. In the meantime, James will just have to talk to Dr. Bird - his pigeon therapist - to get some perspective.
I had heard buzz about this one last year and was definitely interested but probably wouldn't have picked it up for quite some time if it hadn't made the Morris Award shortlist. It was one of the last books I read this year before kicking my "no library books" resolution into high gear.

I guess I expected more from this book. It wasn't bad, but it also wasn't quite as amazing as I'd expected. What I liked best was the character of James and the humor that Roskos uses throughout the book. A teen dealing with depression is not an easy thing to read about, but Roskos uses the right amount of humor to make the story easier to get through. He never uses the humor to undermine the seriousness of James' depression, however; it's a delicate balance, and I think Roskos pretty well nails it. James is a great character, one that I think many teens will easily relate to. He deals with some pretty typical teenage stuff - parties, school problems, girls - while also dealing with some slightly more atypical stuff - parents (whom he has named "The Brute" and "The Banshee") not worth much, his sister's exile, his own inner turmoil.

What I'm less sold on is the conclusion. On the one hand, I appreciate that Roskos shows that sometimes, it's not any big thing that is the final straw - a lesson I think many teens would do well to learn. But it's also frustrating in the sense that there is a lot of buildup in the book that suggests James is going to uncover something truly awful and epic in the end. And he doesn't. It's a bit of a disappointment, but I also understand why Roskos did it.
So, actually, I think I liked this book a bit more than I initially believed. Funny how writing your thoughts out can change your mind a bit.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Review: Rose

Rose (Rose, book one)
By Holly Webb
Published 2013 by Sourcebooks Jabberwocky

Rose is not your typical orphan. She doesn't spend her time daydreaming of finding parents. She wants to make her own path, so she gets a job as a maid for Mr. Fountain, a famed alchemist. Rose is fascinated by the magic she discovers in his home and soon, she begins to see signs that she may have a little magic of her own.

Finally - the last of my Cybils finalists to review! It was the last one I read, as my library did not own a copy, so I had to wait for the publisher to send me one for review. Thank you!

I will fully admit that I had little to no interest in this one prior to reading; in fact, I may have even rolled my eyes when I saw it on our shortlist. As much as I love fantasy, this one seemed to be playing a little too hard into familiar tropes. However, I was delighted to discover that this book was far better than I could have imagined it to be. Rose is a very endearing character and I was completely charmed by her. I rooted so hard for her to discover her own magical potential and was enchanted as she did. One of this book's biggest strengths is in crafting a believable magical world without getting mired down in all the details. There is enough information for readers to go along for the ride but not so much that one gets tuckered out trying to keep it all straight. There are still a lot of things left unexplained, but for this book, it works.

I've seen a number of reviews objecting to the darkness of the end, but I don't think it's anymore dark than many other tween books. It works exceptionally well in this context and, ultimately, I think the book leaves you with a hopeful feeling. I was surprised to find myself so charmed by this book, but I am looking forward to picking up the rest of the series as it becomes available here in the states.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Review: Lark Rising

Lark Rising (Guardians of Tarnec, book one)
By Sandra Waugh
Expected publication September 23, 2014 by Random House Books for Young Readers

Lark has the Sight and it has shown her many things. Recently, though, it's shown her that her village is in danger. It's also shown her a handsome stranger who she'll love - but who will also kill her. When Lark sets out to find help for her village, has she set herself on the path that will also lead to her doom?

It's pretty hard for me to resist a fantasy novel - I think I request most of the e-galleys that I see pop up on Edelweiss. I know I shouldn't - they can't all be amazing, obviously, and I should probably be a bit more discerning about what I request. But, almost as soon as a blurb suggests fantasy ahead, I'm sucked in. That's how I ended up with this one.

If I had been paying a bit more attention beyond the siren call of fantasy, I might have figured out that this was probably not the best book for me. It's being marketed for fans of Shannon Hale, Juliet Marillier, and Kristin Cashore. And now I fess up. The two Shannon Hale books I've read (admittedly, neither of them fantasy), I've not enjoyed, and they haven't made me eager to try out her other books. I've not enjoyed the Marillier I've read either (I know, I know). I did love Cashore's books, but one out of three similar authors does probably not mean a match made in heaven.

And it wasn't. I had a hard time with this book. I had a hard time getting and staying interested in much of anything that was happening. For me, the characterization felt pretty thin - I don't really feel like we get to know much about Lark before we are expected to be on her side as she begins her dangerous quest. I found much of the magic system confusing, perhaps because the information was mostly doled out in big lumps throughout the story. I hated the romance, HATED IT. It just felt awful, forced, completely unreal. It felt pretty much the opposite of romance.

Like I said, nothing about this book grabbed me right away and nothing about it really kept me interested throughout. I finished it, so I suppose that says something, but, I finish most books I start, so maybe that doesn't say too much. This is the first in a series, as Lark is just one of four Guardians waiting to be called upon, so for your fantasy fans that can't get enough of series, this is probably a solid bet. This book and I were just not meant to be - your mileage may vary.

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

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Release Day Review: The Fires of Calderon

The Fires of Calderon (Balance Keepers, book one)
By Lindsay Cummings
Expected publication September 23, 2014 by Katherine Tegen Books

Albert is not exactly looking forward to spending another summer with his dad - his dad isn't actually around that much and he makes Albert work in the dead letter office. But this summer turns out to be very different when Albert follows a strange dog and a strange letter to the Path Hider. He sends Albert to the Core, where Albert learns of his destiny as a Balance Keeper. Has Albert finally found somewhere he can belong?

I requested the e-galley of this because I love me some middle-grade fantasy. Also, the author is a local Texas author, so that piqued my interest just a little bit more.

If you're a fantasy reader, much of this story will be familiar to you. In fact, most of the book feels pretty predictable - Albert discovers his secret destiny and unlocks mysterious powers, makes new friends, and embarks on a dangerous quest to save the world. It's pretty standard fantasy stuff. However, just because it's familiar and a bit predictable doesn't mean it's not fun. Though it's quite easy to figure out how the whole thing is going to turn out in the end, Cummings makes it an enjoyable ride for readers to take.

This is a really small detail but Albert moans about having to work in the dead letter office for his father at the start of the book. I thought this was a really interesting little detail, though, and I wonder how kids will react to it. Really, most of them probably haven't written or received a letter, so to imagine an office full of letters that were never delivered might be a bit beyond them. To me, though, the dead letter office sounds awesome - a bit like being a detective without much danger. I really liked this small detail.

If the structure of the book feels very familiar, the actual fantasy world Cummings has created is decidedly not. It's a very unique world with the Core and the various Realms, only one of which is explored in this volume. The creatures are interesting and the system of the Tiles and their powers quite unique as well. While I am impressed by Cummings' ability to create such a unique world, at times it was almost too strange for me. I had a really hard time visualizing a lot of what she was describing. I'm almost positive that young readers won't have this same problem, but I figured it was worth mentioning. It's not even really a criticism, more just a flaw of my own poor imagination.

One thing that I think Cummings really excelled at were her cliffhangers. Much like Rick Riordan, Cummings really knows how to end the chapter on the perfect note to keep kids turning the pages at a furious pace. The book flies by because these cliffhangers entice you to read just one more chapter, then one more, and so on. For me, the only time this pacing faltered was once Albert and his friends actually entered Calderon. It seemed to have taken them a long time to get to that point, but then the action in Calderon was over relatively quickly. Cummings also did a great job ending the book on a big cliffhanger, sure to leave readers eager for book two.

Overall, an enjoyable middle-grade fantasy that will likely be popular with readers who've enjoyed the Percy Jackson and Gregor series. I'll be interested to see what's in store in book two.

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

Monday, September 22, 2014

Review: Poisoned Apples

Poisoned Apples: Poems for You, My Pretty
By Christine Heppermann
Expected publication September 23, 2014 by Greenwillow Books

Feminist fairy tale inspired poetry, alongside photographs that capture the mood of each poem.

Okay, back when I was a teenager, I thought I was going to be a world-famous poet. I mean, I wrote angsty poetry like my life depended on it. But I also really appreciated poetry - I read a lot of it, and not just the mainstream poets. Poetry was probably one of my first creative loves and I'm a bit sad that I let that love die. As such, my experience with modern poetry is extremely limited. I will occasionally read a new poetry volume in the children's department, but that's about it. However, when I heard about this book and the buzz it was starting to generate, well, a little bit of my old love flared up inside me and I had to read it.

I am so thankful I did. Because this book, you guys, is AWESOME. Since I obviously can't pretend to be any sort of expert on poetry, I can't dissect the finer literary points of this collection. But if your teens are into Ellen Hopkins and the like, hand them this book. If they're into fairy tales, hand them this book. If they're girls dealing with the realities of what that means in our society, hand them this book. Heppermann has crafted completely kick-ass poems that combine the everlasting appeal of fairy tales (and their timeless messages) with modern issues and sensibilities. The result is an amazing collection of poetry that should be required reading for all teens. As I read an advance copy, I can't speak to the full impact of the photos that accompany the poems, but I can say that I think they work extremely well together. At little more than 100 pages, this book packs a punch. And I couldn't help but want it to be longer. Highly recommended and I will be thrusting this into the hands of every teen I can.

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

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Program: Spring Break Bonanza!

As I'm sure is true for most of you out there in library-land, spring break gets a little crazy. We have multiple programs every day for a variety of age groups, trying to keep the masses entertained when school is not in session. Obviously I intended to recap these programs many moons ago, and now, shamefully, you all know just how far behind I am in my recaps and reviews. So, here is my collection of spring break programs from earlier this year!

National Potato Chip Day: I'm not sure if this actually fell during our spring break this year, but this is a program that my colleague has been doing with teens for a few years now. This year, we decided to expand the age range to include tweens. It's a really simple program. We showed a movie (this year, it was Sea of Monsters) and provided a variety of potato chip flavors for the kids to try. At the end, we took an informal survey of which flavors the kids liked and didn't like (though it was pretty obvious just by looking at what flavors were left at the end). And that's it! The kids love it (of course, they love anything with free food) and it's easy for us.

Fabulous Fandoms - Supernatural: at the beginning of this year, my coworker started a monthly fandom program, based partly on the success of a monthly Doctor Who program. With this program, she decided to focus each month on a different kind of fandom. I offered to help whenever my personal tastes combined with what she chose. During spring break, she decided on Supernatural, a show I've watched for the last nine years, so I tagged along. We showed one episode of the show and, while we were watching, made our own salt cellars. We had demon trap symbols and other symbols important on the show, as well as various craft supplies like wire and beads, to decorate the colored glass bottles we were using. When everyone was finished decorating, we filled them with salt, so we'd always be prepared to keep the demons out. Then we did a short game of trivia, with questions focusing on Sam, Dean, Castiel, and various demons of the show. Unfortunately, though both my coworker and I were excited about the program and expected a decent turnout, our actual number of attendance was disappointingly low. It's a shame because I've seen many people on listservs talking about their success with fandom programs, but we just don't seem to have the community for it at my library.

Anime Afternoon: this is another program that my coworker has been running for teens but we decided to include tweens for our spring break edition. We picked an anime movie to watch (well, my coworker picked one since my anime knowledge is very limited) and provided supplies for candy sushi making. We had a great turnout and everyone stayed for the duration of the movie, even after they finished devouring their candy. Definitely something to do again, though with the candy sushi supplies, it can be a little pricey.

Divergent: another collaboration with my coworker, though this program was limited to teens. She relied on me to do the heavy lifting, though, as she'd not read any of the series and I had. I was happy to plan. We had a station for each faction: Abnegation (writing letters to deployed soldiers), Dauntless (temporary tattoos, and we also served Dauntless chocolate cake), Erudite (book lists with suggestions for each faction and readalikes for the series), Amity (the snack table - because I couldn't come up with anything else and Amity provides the food in the books), and Candor (truth or truth - questions we had on slips of paper that we dared them to be completely honest answering). Obviously the Dauntless station was the most popular, though Amity wasn't far behind. For the second half of the program, we had trivia. They were fanatic about it. We were fortunate to have many prizes to hand out, courtesy of some donations. This was a hugely successful program and a lot of fun.

Family Minute to Win It: for the last day of spring break, I busted out a program that I'd been thinking about doing for a long time. Minute to Win It is easy, cheap, and fun, and I really wanted to have a family version, with kids competing against parents and siblings. It didn't quite work out that way; most of the parents who came were not interested in trying any of the games out for themselves, even when their kids pleaded with him. It was a bit disheartening to see, actually, but obviously, I can't force anyone's participation. Games offered included Sticky Marbles, Unicorn, Sticky Situation, Suck It Up, Nose Dive, Face the Cookie, Penny Hose, Junk in the Trunk, and Noodling Around. The kids who participated had a great time, and my teen volunteers did as well. I had a disappointing turn-out for this program, so I'm not terribly inclined to try it again. However, with the excitement of my volunteers, I might do a teen version, though teen programs are usually hit or miss here.

And that was my spring break! We had many other programs throughout the week, offered by my coworkers. What fresh ideas should I try next March?

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Review: Unmade

Unmade (Lynburn Legacy, book three)
By Sarah Rees Brennan
Expected publication September 23, 2014 by Random House Books for Young Readers

WARNING: Spoilers ahead. Read my reviews of books one and two.

Things are not looking good for Kami Glass. With the boy she loves missing and presumed dead and an enemy more powerful than she can imagine, an ordinary girl might give up. But Kami is no ordinary girl and, with the help of her friends (non-magical though they may be), she'll do anything she can to end Rob Lynburn's reign of terror. Can she do it before anymore innocent people die?

The first book in this series was one of my favorite reads a couple years ago and, while book two didn't quite live up to my expectations, I was still eagerly anticipating book three. Once again, I was very pleased to receive an e-galley from the publisher ahead of the book's release and I started reading as soon as I could spare a moment.

Despite a few minor quibbles, I'm pleased with this book as the series ender. Truly, and I've said it in both my previous reviews, what I love most about this series is the characters. Brennan has created some very realistic (if you ignore the sorcerer bit about some of them) and enchanting characters. They are complex and I love every minute that I spend with them. As expected from the cliffhanger ending of book two and the simple fact that this is the finale of the series, there are some casualties in this book. I admit to getting emotional a few times while reading, simply because Brennan has made me care about these characters so much. I'm completely in love with Kami - though she does come out a bit of a Mary Sue in this installment (i.e. every male character of similar age that is not a relative of hers professes their love for her). But, like I said, I'm in love with Kami, so I guess I fell for it, too.

The humor that I adored is still present and it works really well to balance the terrible things that happen throughout the story. It helps keep the pace of the novel pleasant as well - I actually had no idea this book was 400 pages long until a few minutes ago when I was double-checking the publication info. It flew by for me and I finished in a few hours.

I suppose I have to get to those minor quibbles at some point so here they are (and, I'm sorry, they're spoiler-y, so look away if you don't want to be spoiled!). First, there comes a point in the story when Rob Lynburn demands a sacrifice but then decides to go after Kami's younger brothers specifically. He's foiled and another character offers themselves as a willing sacrifice, which Rob accepts. To me, it seemed out of character for Rob to just be satisfied with the willing sacrifice - it doesn't hold the same amount of power as one of Kami's brothers would have and, though it definitely effected Kami, it's not quite to the same degree as taking one of her brothers would have. Rob has been characterized as pretty much pure evil, so this seemed just a little less than I was expecting.

Similarly, I found the final battle a disappointment. For a terrible war that's been raging for three books now, it seems to come to a pretty lackluster conclusion. I'm not saying I wanted ultimate carnage and the deaths of more characters, but I guess that's what I expected. Everything does come to a tidy and mostly happy end, which I appreciated, but felt a little too neat.

Even with these minor flaws, I thoroughly enjoyed this book and the series overall. I'm looking forward to reading Brennan's earlier works and already anticipating what she comes out with next.

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