Thursday, October 6, 2011

Beauty Queens by Libba Bray

The Book Talk:

The Review:

Beauty Queens was actually a really polarizing book for me.  I absolutely adored some things about it, and there were other aspects that I really kind of hated.  Overall, I will definitely recommend it to people because the parts I loved were REALLY well done, but I think in order to accurately depict my thoughts on the book, I'm going to split this review into two parts.

Things I adored:

What I think Libba Bray does very well is characterization and stereotype subversion.  At the beginning of this book, I felt pretty meh about every character. I'm not exactly a pageant type of girl, and I was worried these characters were going to annoy me.  Needless to say, my own expectations were exactly what Libba Bray was trying to prove wrong.  Every character in this book has an interesting back story.  Not just interesting, but surprising and realistic and funny and smart.  I don't want to ruin these surprises for you as a reader, so I won't be specific -- I'll just say that all of these beauty queens could be real people who I might actually be friends with.  Libba Bray knows how to write for and about girls.

Another thing Libba Bray knows how to do is write about sexuality.  She puts her female characters in situations every teenage girl has found themselves in at one time or another.  The dude wants to have sex but there's no condom around.  The girl has a crush on her best friend but doesn't know if she likes girls.  The girl really wants to have sex but everyone around her has told her that it's wrong and immoral.  She not only puts her characters into these situations, but she has them deal with them in realistic and smart ways.  Modelling intelligent sexual decision-making is SO much more interesting and effective than not broaching the subject, so well done there Ms. Bray.

Things I abhored:

I have to say that the attempt at humor and political satire in this book DID NOT WORK.  It was just.  Too.  Over the top.  The consistent "commercial breaks" and scripted interviews with obvious Sarah Palin and George Bush spoofs were just forced and not subtle and ...unnecessary.  The heart of the story was about the characters, and when Libba Bray tried to force political commentary down my throat, I just found myself getting annoyed instead of laughing.  I'm not sure how teenage readers feel about this aspect of the book, but I'd love to hear their opinions.  In some ways, the obviousness of the humor felt degrading -- as if teens need it to be REALLY spelled out that "look here, this is some political humor!"  I think teens are smarter than that, and deserve some finessed subtlety to their humor.

I also had a similar problem with this book that I had with Going Bovine.  It is just too long.  If Ms. Bray had edited out some of the politics and made the book a more manageable size and a quicker pace, she may have had a girl power masterpiece on her hands.

So there we go -- I recommend this for older teens (esp. girls, and guys who want to know what girls are REALLY like) due to the sexuality and some drug use/drinking.  Anyone else read this and have thoughts?

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Anya's Ghost by Vera Brosgol

The Book Talk:

The Review:

First of all, I apologize for the long break between my last post and this one!  I went on multiple vacations in August and basically haven't had a free day since the last time I blogged.  Hopefully from now on I'll be back to my usual once-a-week posting schedule, and hopefully all of your Augusts were as awesome as mine.  Back to your regularly scheduled programming.

So, Anya's Ghost.  I've been awaiting this one for awhile actually -- it's been out for a long time, but my library system JUST got it in, and I read it as soon as my hold showed up.  I had read good things about it, and this is JUST my type of graphic novel (I.  Love.  Ghost stories.).  In many ways, this is a very classic ghost story.  Girl falls down well (The Ring), meets ghost.  Ghost and girl become friends (Caspar?).  Ghost is more sinister than previously thought, and gets scaaary.

For me, though, what makes a scary story good is when it has more substance than just being scary.  I think Vera Brosgol did this very well.  Before the ghost even shows up, she sets up her main character to have some problems.  Anya won't accept her Russian heritage and isn't very respectful to her family, she doesn't think very highly of herself, and of course she likes the unattainable guy who is supposed to be kind of a douchebag.  What Vera does a great job of is tying Anya's personal problems into the ghost story.  In fact, at its core, this isn't really a ghost story at all.  It's a story about a teenager coming to terms with who she is, and realizing that maybe her real self isn't so bad after all.

But the spooky parts are really well done.  A lot of this is a credit to the art -- the images of Emily the ghost slowly becoming unhinged are SPOT ON.  A girl who at first seems innocent and innocuous very gradually and slowly becomes more and more creepy and menacing, and Brosgol definitely takes advantage of the medium she chose to tell her story in.

Really the only complaint I have with this book is that I felt like the whole thing was a little rushed.  I wanted it to go on longer, I wanted Anya to go just a little deeper into her own psyche, and I wanted the scary parts to be more well paced.  This is a short book (you could probably read it in one sitting in an hour or so), and I really wanted it to take me longer to read!  I will definitely recommend this to kids who come in and tell me they loved Raina Telgemeier's Smile (after making sure they're OK with a little bit of scary added in, of course), and Neil Gaiman's Coraline.  Probably best for middle school and up, just because it is about a high schooler and there's some smoking and partying and general teenage debauchery.  I hope Vera Brosgol writes another graphic novel soon!

Monday, August 1, 2011

Un Lun Dun by China Miéville

The Book Talk:

The Review:

It almost seems redundant to write a review of this book after the book talk, because I loved it so much that I think all of my opinions come across pretty clearly in the video.  However, I'll try to add a little more to this written review to express why it was that I loved Un Lun Dun so much (seriously, probably the best book I've read this year so far).

I am not quite sure how the author managed to cram every page so chock-full of imagination.  If anyone else had tried, I think it would have seemed cluttered and disorganized, but Miéville somehow manages to fit imaginative world-building, over-the-top characters, and wordplay onto every page without it seeming forced or overdone.  Whether he's writing about the silly Slaterunners, the fearless race of Binja (garbage cans who also happen to be ninjas), or his sassy main character Deeba, Miéville's genius and wit and creativity shines through.

One criticism I have seen of this book is that the villain/environmental message seems a bit heavy-handed.  I actually completely disagree with this -- while there is an environmental message (the villain is a giant cloud of Smog), this book isn't about environmentalism really at all.  It's about taking the real world and its problems, and turning them on their heads.  Miéville uses the Smog not in a preachy way, but as a way to get the most of his characters and teach them that that the real world does not work in a fantastic way.  Of course it would be nice if we had a hero who had been destined to come to power and thwart the evil in our world, but that's not how it works!  In the REAL world (as in Miéville's fantasy world), REAL PEOPLE have to STEP UP and DECLARE themselves heroes.  Take responsibility and march into action, instead of waiting for someone the world has "decided" is going to save everything.  That's the real message of this book, not that pollution is bad.

I could go on and on about the characters and the wordplay and the world, but I think that everyone should just pick this book up right now and go read it, instead.  For fans of steam punk and Alice in Wonderland and The Phantom Tollbooth and The Chronicles of Narnia who want to be blown away by the power of the human imagination.

Anyone else read this?  What do you think?

Monday, July 18, 2011

Epitaph Road by David Patneaude

The Book Talk:

The Review:  

I'm a sucker for dystopian literature.  If a book is about a futuristic/alternate society where things aren't perfect, I'm probably going to read it no matter what it's about.  Epitaph Road is the book I chose for the middle school book group I'm running at the library I work for, because I wanted to choose a good middle school appropriate dystopia that could get them talking.

One of the most important aspects of a dystopian novel, for me, is the world-building.  In order for an oppressive society to believable, the world in which it is set has to be well constructed and vividly imagined.  I enjoyed the basic concept of the world in this book.  It was an interesting idea to play with a society that is mostly run by women (one that I thought was very well done in the adult graphic novel Y: The Last Man).  There are glimpses of great world building in Epitaph Road, but overall it was less vivid than I wanted it to be.   There's a little history lesson embedded in the story that gives some background on the way the world came to be, but I never really felt immersed.   It also felt a little odd to me that the main character, a male, did generally seem to agree with the fact that a society with only 5% men was better than one with a 50/50 gender ratio (women can live safely, FINALLY!).  Basically, the idea was interesting, but the world and its concept could have been better and more clearly executed.

I felt kind of the same way about everything else in this book, actually -- like it was about halfway to where it needed to be.  The action and the setting was a little muddy (I just had a hard time picturing what was happening), and the characters were just not that interesting.  A lot of terrible things happen to people in this book, and I never really felt like I got to know any of them well enough to care about their well-being and their relationships with each other.  I did enjoy the voice of the main character (David Patneaude does not dumb down the text, which is nice), but I to know more about the differences in personality between Tia and Sunday, the two main female characters (to me, they really seemed like the same person).

Overall, not a bad dystopia, but not one of my favorites either.  I wanted more clear realization of the world and its characters, but the overall sad mood of the book really did take me in and make me think.  I would recommend this book  for 6th graders and older who like books like Gone and The Hunger Games.   I know a lot of other people enjoyed this book, so I'd love to hear other opinions!

Random side note:  David Patneaude is actually coming to my middle school book group at the library tomorrow, and I'm looking forward to what he says about his novel.  Maybe my opinion'll change a bit once I've heard him speak!

Thursday, July 7, 2011

How to Grow Up and Rule the World, by Vordak the Incomprehensible

The Book Talk:

The Review:

After I finished reading How to Grow Up and Rule the World, I had this weird feeling that I had experienced it before.  It took me a little bit of thinking, but then I realized -- oh yeah!  This is basically a print version of "Dr. Horrible's Sing-along Blog", but for kids!  But then I thought about it a little more, and I realized that it really is a different idea.  "Dr. Horrible" was a great because it was a great story.  This book is great for a different reason.

While it is classified as fiction, this book is actually kind of an awesome introduction to non-fiction for kids who usually read fiction.  At its core, it's a non-fiction instruction manual on how to become a successful super villain.  The chapters are organized by subject (how to create a lair, how to dress, etc.).  There really is no story to speak of, except for the little tidbits Vordak interjects about his own personal life, and how he may have become a failed super villain himself.  Yet, with minimal narrative to lean on, this book kept my attention.  It is completely riddled with hilarity (Vordak's sense of entitlement and pomposity will surely make anyone giggle), and the illustrations are appropriately comic-like (and also funny).   I really enjoyed the interactive nature of some of the text (you actually get to create your own super villain name, and there are fun charts to help you figure out what your costume should look like).

This is definitely a good boy book, and an excellent book for kids who might love to read but are intimidated by stories without pictures.  I book-talked it to local elementary schools, and I instantly had kids coming to the library and asking me for Vordak left and right -- one of the best things was that I had kids of all ages and both genders requesting it!  Girls want to be super villains too.

The one problem I had with How to Grow Up and Rule the World was that it had some jokes that were a little too current.  Some were current to the point that they were already not that funny any more (The Jonas Brothers faded away pretty should probably already be adjusted to Justin Bieber).  I am hoping that this doesn't mean that the book will be dated and irrelevant really soon, and that the publishers will update the jokes every once in awhile to keep it up-to-date.

Other than that though, this is a great pick for Diary of a Wimpy Kid lovers, humor fanatics, and comic book fiends.

Monday, June 27, 2011

The Grimm Legacy, by Polly Shulman

The Book Talk:

The Review: 

I think this is the first book I've reviewed/talked about that's actually targeted at teens, which I am going to try to do a little more from now on.  The Grimm Legacy, by Polly Shulman, is at its heart a fun summer read, a fantasy with literary allusions and quirky characters.  There are a lot of aspects of this book I really liked, and a few things that bugged me a little, and I'll talk about both.

First, the good.  This book has a great setting.  The idea of a library that lends objects is just fantastic, and the way that Shulman describes the setting is spot on.  There's a feeling of whimsy, but also a little creepy darkness.  Instead of transmitting messages through messengers or e-mail or phone, the Repository uses pneumatic tubes to pass information, which is just awesome.  I've always been a pneumatic tube fan, and this detail added just the right atmosphere to this library, which is set in the modern world but feels just a little mysterious and old fashioned.

Another good thing about this book is the well-researched literary references.  Shulman pays homage to many of the lesser known Grimm fairy tales, and aspects of the stories become important to her own story in ways that make the reader really want to read the original.  After reading this book, I really want to re-read The Twelve Dancing Princesses, and the next book I check out of the library may very well be a collection of the original Grimm stories.

Now, on to the aspects of the book that I didn't like quite as much.  This book is filled with really fun characters.  Elizabeth's friend Anjali and some of the librarians were given interesting personalities and back stories, but Elizabeth herself was really just a little dull.  Shulman tried to give her character traits that made her parallel a fairy-tale character (a "wicked" stepmother and step-sisters, having to do chores all the time), but the end results was that she just didn't have very much personality.  The one personality trait Shulman gave her was a love for and remembrance of fairy tales, and it just wasn't enough to carry the story.  I wished that Anjali had been the main character instead; she was far more interesting person (or at least had the potential for interesting-ness).

Another thing that bothered me was the relationship between Elizabeth and Aaron.  They have a rivalry throughout the book which was actually intriguing (I liked that I never knew whether Aaron was good or bad), but the way their relationship worked out at the end was just kind of...meh.  I don't want to give too much away, but let's just say that the way things worked out did not match the way things were going through the rest of the book.

To summarize, I did enjoy this novel.  It had a great setting and a good forward-propelling mystery, but I just wanted the characters to have a little more depth/personality.  It was a fun summer read (and I do actually hope there's a sequel so the setting's full-potential can be realized!  Not only is there a "Grimm Collection", but an "H.G. Well's Bequest", and both a "Gibson" and "Lovecraft" collection, which I would've loved to see utilized a little more).

Let me know if you've read this, and what you've thought of it, or if it sounds like something you'd like!

Monday, June 20, 2011

Room by Emma Donaghue

The Book Talk:

The Book Review:

I really do mean to make this blog mostly focused on young adult and children's literature, but for some reason I couldn't stay away from this book.  I justified reading it because it's a 2011 Alex Award Winner, which is a prize given to ten adult books with appeal to young adults aged 12 to 18.  So yes, Room is an adult novel, but there are definitely some older teenagers I would recommend it to.

I'm going to do my best to write this review without giving away too much of the story.  It is in many ways a thriller, and I don't want to ruin the page-turning quality for readers.  If you want to hear a little more about what it's about, make sure you watch the book talk I've posted above.

This is one of those books that's not easy.  It's not light or fluffy or fun -- in fact, in many ways it is highly disturbing and very sad.  However, while it's not an easy book, it is an amazingly well realized novel.  In almost every way (plot, pacing, writing style, voice, character), Donaghue's talent as a writer shines through.

Probably the most stand-out of these talents is Donaghue's ability to create her main character's first person voice.  Jack is five-years-old, and I truly believed the entire time that this narrative could be the thought process of a child.  Sometimes when adults write in the voice of children, it feels stilted and dumbed down, but Jack is amazingly well crafted.  He's smart in some ways and ignorant in others, he's sweet and mean and real and everything a five-year-old really is.

I had read some reviews that mentioned that the first half of Room is perfectly paced and emotionally suspenseful, but that it falls short a little in that department in the second half.   I actually have to completely disagree with these reviewers.  Yes, the first half and the second half are different, but they are suspenseful and deliberately paced in different ways.  It's almost like you're reading two different novels that have been placed together as perfect companion pieces.

I could probably go on and on about why I believe this book is worth reading and well done, but I want to end this review with some thoughts about its appeal to teen readers.  At first glance, this seems like a book that's too much for a teen audience (even though it's narrated by a child).  It's gritty and brutal and disturbing, and there is a lot of very adult content.  However, I can think of at least three teenagers who frequent my library who I would hand this book to in a heartbeat.  Kids like to read about things that really happen in the world, and stuff like what happens in Room DOES happen in real life.  This book is for teens (and adults) who love Ellen Hopkin's Crank, Elizabeth Scott's Living Dead Girl, and even Suzanne Collins's The Hunger Games.

Monday, June 13, 2011

The first post: Something Wicked This Way Comes, by Ray Bradbury

Art by Gray Foy
The Book Talk:

The Book Review:

This is the very first Bibliosnack entry, so I decided to discuss a book that is very near and dear to my heart.  In general, I'm going to try to review books as I read them (so there'll be a lot more contemporary stuff, or at least books that are new to me), but to christen this blog, I am going with my favorite.

Ray Bradbury is well known for his books Fahrenheit 451, and The Martian Chronicles, and his science fiction short stories.  Something Wicked This Way Comes is probably one of his more minor works according to most people, but it is a book I truly truly love.

The reason I love this book probably stems from the fact that my mom read it out loud to me when I was about ten-years-old.  I vividly remember the language rolling past my ears bizarrely -- I can't say I understood the story as much then as I understood the feeling of the words.  They felt disturbing and creepy and lovely and dark, and full of nostalgia and beautiful fear.  It was a feeling I just got.  When I read the book again later on my own, I found myself HAVING to just read it out loud.  Something Wicked is more poetry than prose, more mood piece than page turner, and in my opinion it's nearly perfect.

When I was a kid, Halloween was more than just a holiday -- it was a passion.  I loved the feeling in the air, and the dressing up, and the pumpkins, and the spookiness.  This book captures in an absolutely spot-on way what it feels like to be a 12-year-old on Halloween.  What it feels like to have the insatiable desire to both be older, and to stay the same age forever.  What it feels like to have a best friend you feel both completely connected to and disconnected from at the same time.

Now that I'm an adult, Something Wicked has even more meaning for me.  What I didn't get as a kid has come to life for me -- I understand Will's father's desire to be young forever, I understand the magic of a library, I understand how it feels to truly disconnect from a friend, and I understand more of what the words really mean.  Even more, it still reminds me of what it was like to be a kid.  And it still scares me.  Few things are more terrifying than the October People and the Illustrated Man, the hall of mirrors and the backwards-turning carousel.

The combination of the subject matter and the metaphor-dripping language is what makes this Bradbury book so amazing for me.  A good book tells a good story, but a great book both tells that story, and makes you feel it.  Something Wicked This Way Comes is my favorite book for this very reason.