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.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Review: Scowler

By Daniel Kraus, read by Kirby Heyborne
Published 2013 by Listening Library

Ry and his family are still struggling. Marvin, their abusive father and husband, is locked up for now, but things are still not easy for them. Then a meteorite falls, bringing with it big change - and danger. Will Ry be able to protect his family? Or, deep down, does he share some evil with his father?

So. I've come to this review. You know, I write down books as I read them so I remember to go back and review them later (I really need to be better about reviewing immediately after finishing). When I saw that it was time to review this one, I rolled my eyes and contemplated skipping it. Because I don't want to write this review. It feels like admitting a major failure as a human being, because many people I respect absolutely love Daniel Kraus' books. And I do not.

I listened to Rotters after it won the Odyssey award and it didn't go well. I wasn't very surprised when this book won the Odyssey as well. Never one to write off an author after just one go, I decided to give this one a shot as well. Daniel Kraus and I are just not meant to be.

You know, it makes me feel terrible that I really did not enjoy these books, like I'm just not smart enough or paying enough attention to "get" them. I mean, I don't think that's actually true, but I feel like I must be missing something essential, since it seems pretty much everyone else has been blown away by Kraus and his writing.

Once again, I felt like Kraus was trying really hard to write a deep, complicated, philosophical, poetic book about something horrific and disturbing. As a whole, this book doesn't have quite as much disturbing imagery as the first, but it does feature a few very particular, very grotesque scenes. Most of the other less-than-positive reviews I've read have focused on the gore - those reviewers seem quite disturbed by it. If only I could explain my distaste for these books that easily. But I was raised on a steady diet of horror - I watched Jason and Freddy from a young age and grew into the horror of Hostel and Saw in later years. I wrote a thesis about horror films. I continually seek out new horror novels, hoping to find something that actually scares me. I'm not disturbed by gore. Kraus and I should be made for each other. But we're just not, and I don't know how else to say it.

Yet again, the audio production is pretty brilliant. Heyborne is enchanting as a narrator here, perfectly embodying the weirdness that runs through this novel. It's easy to see why this won the Odyssey. Unfortunately, I just can't get behind this book, and I don't think I'll be giving Kraus another try.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Summer Program Recap Bonanza: Family Events

Yes, I am still woefully behind on pretty much everything - book reviews and program recaps. So, I'm going to try to lump some programs together and recap them quickly!

Summer Reading Kick-Off Carnival: for the first time, we decided to do a big kick-off event for our summer reading program. We hit the schools hard in the last few weeks to do some serious promotion and scheduled our carnival for the day after school ended, making it easier to remember. To say it was a success would be an understatement. We had over 500 people come to the carnival! It was crazy, hot, and tiring, but we'll definitely be doing it again next summer! What we did: football toss (with a sticker prize), glitter tattoos (OMG so popular!), summer reading club sign-up (in an attempt to make things easier on families, we convinced our adult services department to let us sign parents up at the same table as their kids), visit from the fire department (they came late and left early, but everyone was excited to see the fire truck), petting zoo (always have animals if you can!), duck pond (rubber ducks with numbers on the bottom for prizes), free Italian ice (thank you, Rita's!), therapy dogs (yes, more animals), free books (we gave a book to every child in attendance!), a simple craft (decorating a treat bag for their prizes using stamps), and sidewalk chalk (for creating artwork). PHEW! I'm tired just looking at that list! It was chaotic and we could not have done it without the full cooperation of our department and our teen volunteers!

Life-Sized Candyland: halfway through the summer, I apparently decided that we hadn't been crazy enough, so we held another gigantic program, once again utilizing our full department and our wonderful teen volunteers. Over 300 people came to visit our life-sized version of Candyland. Staff participated by costuming themselves as the beloved characters and manning stations inspired by each one. When families arrived, they checked in at our desk and received a gingerbread man (he would be stamped at each station) and a goodie bag (for all the treats they'd get while playing). They also drew their first card to see what station to start with (my ultimately pitiful attempt to prevent congestion at any one station). Each station had a set of oversize cards with pictures of the other stations on them. In my vision, this would make the "game" move much more quickly than if everyone followed the same order. However, my vision did not account for more than 300 players, so it didn't work out quite that way. The stations we had were: Queen Frostine (decorating a wand and receiving a sticker - and yes, I know she's a princess in the new version but she'll always be a queen to me!), Lord Licorice (tossing a giant licorice stick through a hoop and winning a miniature piece of licorice), Duchess of Swirl (balancing oversized pompoms on an ice cream cone and winning an ice cream pencil), Princess Lolly (putting together a simple puzzle and winning a lollipop from our lollipop tree), and Queen Candy (completing an obstacle course and winning a candy bar). Once again, it was chaotic and hot and tiring, but we got a ton of compliments on the program, so I imagine it'll make an appearance again in the future!

If you'd like more information, let me know in the comments!

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Picture Book Saturday

The Most Magnificent Thing
By Ashley Spires
Published 2014 by Kids Can Press
I love Ashley Spires, so no big surprise that I loved this book as well. A girl and her dog set out to make the most magnificent thing ever. She knows exactly what it will look like and how it will work. All she has to do is make it. This turns out to be much more difficult than anticipated. This book is just lovely with vocabulary and showcases a great lesson on persevering in spite of difficulties. This book also shows the importance of creativity and how, sometimes, setting a project aside and coming back to it later can make a world of difference. Delightful.

100 Snowmen
By Jennifer Arena, illustrated by Stephen Gilpin
Published 2013 by Two Lions
For the parents who clamor for counting books that go higher than 10, we present this title! A sly introduction to math (that parents will likely have to help their young ones with), this book introduces 100 snowmen in various numerical groups - 3 snowmen here, 4 over there, etc. They are all having fun with wintry activities and a story could be told through the illustrations alone. I'm not sure I'd share this in a story time but this is a pleasant way to introduce math to young ones. I mean, you can tell it's going to be fun by looking at that guy on the cover - he's having a good time!

The Monkey Goes Bananas
By C.P. Bloom, illustrated by Peter Raymundo
Published 2014 by Harry N. Abrams
A great book for pre-readers who want an interesting story. A monkey spies a banana and wants it, but how can he get to it with that shark in the way? The monkey has some ideas, but will they work? With few words and bright illustrations, this book is great for young kids who crave the storytelling but can't quite read it themselves. The illustrations are reminiscent of children's cartoons, so definitely will catch the eye of young patrons. They will be invested until the last page - will the monkey get the banana??

Friday, November 14, 2014

Review: The Clockwork Scarab

The Clockwork Scarab (Stoker & Holmes, book one)
By Colleen Gleason
Published 2013 by Chronicle Books

Evaline Stoker (sister of Bram) and Mina Holmes (niece of Sherlock) are about to meet - and it's not under the best of circumstances. Society girls have gone missing and, unfortunately, with their pedigrees, Evaline and Mina are the best girls to put on the case. Can they uncover the secret of the mysterious scarab, their only clue?

This book was getting a hard push at ALA Annual last summer and I was disappointed that I didn't make it to the booth in time to snag a copy. I was approved for a digital copy, but it expired before I finished the book, so I had to wait for it to be available at my library before finally finishing it, early into the new year.

This book is just plain fun and it kept me entertained the entire time I was reading. As I've mentioned before, I like books that play with well-known characters, so I liked what Gleason did here, introducing young female versions of Sherlock Holmes and Bram Stoker (not that Stoker is a character, but I think you know what I mean). I'm also a fan of historical fiction, so this book had that going for it as well. The writing is nothing spectacular, but it gets the job done quite nicely. I really liked the characterization of the two girls, though I wasn't thrilled at their initial rivalry (why do girls always have to be in competition?!). There is still more that could be done with the characters, though I imagine that's a good thing since this is supposed to be the first book in a series. I felt them distinct enough to support the dual narration, which is also a good thing.

It's largely plot-driven, which occasionally is exactly what I crave, and I think worked well here. The mystery is involving and intriguing enough (though the random time traveler was a bit of an unexpected element) to keep me engaged the whole way through. I imagine the time traveler might be there to play a bigger role in future volumes (ha, no pun intended), but he was the major element in this book that felt out of place.

Overall, an enjoyable read, published for adults but with lots of teen appeal. I'll be back for book two.

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

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Review: The Walled City

The Walled City
By Ryan Graudin
Published 2014 by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers

Jin keeps her gender a secret - it's safer that way in the Walled City. She must pass as a boy in order to search for her sister, Mei Yee, who was sold by their father. Dai keeps his true identity a secret, too - for him, it's a matter of life or death. But Dai's time in the Walled City is running out. With the help of Jin, can he get what he needs and find a way out? And can Jin use Dai to help find her sister?

I thought the premise of this sounded very interesting - multiple POVs, a walled slum, and a thriller novel. It certainly had my attention. Though I didn't quite get to it before its release date, I sped through it the few days after.

What's interesting is that, though I liked this book (I gave it four stars on my Goodreads), I'm not sure how much I have to say about it. I'll try, but this may be a relatively short review.

For starters, as I said, I'm usually a fan of multiple perspectives in a novel. I like that they provide a variety of insights into the plot happenings and the more characters' heads I can get into, the better. I think Graudin did a great job choosing her narrators - they are all unique characters with very different perspectives on the Walled City and their places within it. I think Jin was my favorite, though - she's a tough kid (though sometimes a bit too unbelievably so), smart and determined. I appreciated that she was using Dai just as much as he was using her. I liked Dai's voice as well, though I felt it took a little too long to explain the source of his self-hatred and the circumstances surrounding his arrival in the Walled City. And, while I thought Mei Yee's perspective was perhaps the most interesting of the three, I did wonder if including her as a narrator undermined some of the novel's suspense.

Similarly, Graudin does an excellent job of bringing the Walled City to life, sometimes disturbingly so. Telling potential readers about the setting will make this a pretty easy sell for dystopian fans. I was both impressed and unsettled to read the author's note at the end, wherein she explains that the Walled City is based on a place that actually existed in Hong Kong. I think this will be new information to many readers, and may inspire them to learn more about the world and find out how a place like this could actually exist. Similarly, I think Graudin does a nice job of handling the notion of human trafficking here, another issue that teens should be aware of.

What I didn't like much was the romance. It comes out of nowhere, happens instantly, and feels completely inappropriate. It's hard not to root for it considering the dire circumstances the characters are in, but it felt manipulative and really out of line with the rest of the book. These teens have bigger things to worry about than falling in love right now.

Overall, I thought this was well-done, and will definitely appeal to dystopian fans even though it's a contemporary thriller.

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