"Outside a dog a book is man's best friend, inside a dog it is too dark to read!" -Groucho Marx

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Tender Morsels by Margo Lanagan


Last week when Hurt Locker won the Academy Award Oscar for Best Picture I had to groan. Now to be fair I haven't seen this movie but I know its type. It is artistic, thoughtful, and well-acted. I'm guessing it is also horrifying and depressing, the type of film that people see and think to themselves, "well, that was good but I'll never watch it again." That is exactly the way I feel about this Printz Honor book, Tender Morsels. It is artistic, thoughtful, and extremely well-written. It is also horrifying in parts and I cannot get teens to read it, let alone reread it. Obviously the Printz Award committee members, like the Academy members, are concerned about literary (artistic) merit when making their selections of the best-of-best or each year the most popular book (movie) would win. But shouldn't general appeal factor somehow into the selection decisions? I'm not saying I think that Twilight should have won a Printz Award, but I do think the winners should be books that teens will read when coaxed.

Tender Morsels is based on the Grimm's Fairy Tale, "Snow White and Rose Red". I wasn't familiar with this tale but didn't take the time to look into it until I was nearly done reading the book. I recommend that you start with the fairy tale. It will inform you as to the direction and tone of the book. Try this link to read the story. The title comes directly from a quote in the tale, "Come, take these two wicked girls, they are tender morsels for you, fat as young quails, for mercy's sake eat them."

I was not prepared for the opening chapters of this book. They were full of incest, miscarriages, rape and later sodomy- though never graphically described, I was repelled nonetheless. Surely the actual fairy tale wasn't so graphic!? Perhaps is was. I only read the sanitized, family-friendly version. I know that Grimm's Fairy Tales were often racy.

About the tale the book jacket says it is , "a vivid, dark story, set in two worlds and worrying at the border between them." Liga, a young mother as a result of incest and rape is so distraught that is is just about to kill herself and the children when, by magic, is she transported to her heaven- where everyone and everything lives in harmony. In this world it seems a little like everyone is on lithium- no highs, no lows, just calm serenity. But is that any way to live? And what if one persons heaven isn't an others? As the book jacket implies, heaven is broached, again by magic, allowing a greedy dwarf and men in the body of bears to enter. It is at these moments of disharmony that the book is at its best. Liga and her daughters are eventually forced out of "heaven" and have to learn to cope with the real world.

Imaginative? Yes. At times confusing? Yes-particularly when the narrator shifts and it takes a while to figure out who is talking. Well-written? Yes. Will I recommend this book to teen readers? Unlikely, unless the reader has already proven to be willing to struggle through difficult books to get at the gems within. I actually feel guilty about saying this- as if I think that kids should only read books that are easy to "get into". That is not the case. I just think the faults outweigh the merits of this book. Enough said.

Older teens to adults. 2.5 stars out of 5.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Repossessed by A.M. Jenkins


I was at Borders Books a few months ago looking for this book. When I couldn't find it, I asked for help. The clerk told me that the store didn't carry that type of book. I have wondered ever since what kind of book she thought this book was. It certainly isn't whatever she thought. It makes me smile to think about how easily we can all find ourselves expressing inaccurate opinions out of ignorance.

Repossessed, a Printz Honor book for 2008, is actually a clever tale about a minor demon, Kiriel, who is in search of a short break from the fires of hell. He inhabits the body of Shaun, age 17, who is just about to meet his end by stepping into the path of an oncoming truck. Kiriel just wants to know what it is like to experience various aspects of humanness. Since Shaun was going to die early anyway, what was the harm of taking over his body for a while?

While reading the first half I found the book to be both funny and tedious, alternating. Shaun (now Kiriel) is experiencing his body and world anew. Many of the scenes are quiet humorous (and sometimes crass) while at other times I felt I was just reading through a checklist of experiences: wind on skin-check; taste of food-check; comforts of a warm bath-check; sneeze-check; aroused by girl-check. However the second half of the book becomes quite poignant as the demon comes to understand love and the connections between people. The ending poses the thought that perhaps we bind ourselves in our own personal "hells" by decisions that we continue to make on a daily basis.

A.M. Jenkins has created a very readable and enjoyable little book. I will definitely recommend it to my teen readers, especially boys. There are quite a few sexual references which I think boys in particular will appreciate.

Young Adult Lit.; 3.5 stars out of 5.

Friday, March 19, 2010

How to Say Goodbye in Robot by Natalie Standiford


I enjoyed this quirky, coming-of-age novel immensely and I think it would work for all teen readers. However, the hot pink book jacket and pink chapter dividers certainly give the wrong impression of this book. I'd guess by the cover that the book was going to be some frilly "girl" book or some teen romance novel when in actuality it is a sensitive book about two people, Jonah--aka Ghost Boy, and Bea--Robot Girl, who are simpatico in nearly every respect.

Bea, a recent high school transplant from New York, finds herself drawn to Jonah, a misfit in her new school. Jonah introduces her to the bizarre but engaging Night Light, a midnight radio show haunted by some of Baltimore’s loneliest weirdos. As much as I wanted them to become a couple, their relationship isn't meant for romance, but is a tumultuous, deep friendship. "The heart of this novel is neither cold and metallic nor full of romance and delusion. Instead, it’s very human." (Booklist)

Like Jonah's and Bea's friendship the reviews on this book are very hot and cold. I fall on the hot side. I found the book engaging. I liked the characters and the unconventional storyline. I look forward to recommending it to my teen readers.

Young Adults; 4 out of 5 stars.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

These books are screaming my name...

I have piles of books everywhere. Books that are screaming (or whimpering) at me to be read. My piles seem to grow larger every year rather than diminishing. For every book I read at least another three are added to my stockpile. If I act rather unhappy or ungrateful when I receive a book as a gift, or a book I suggest we read for book club isn't selected, it is only because I am either picturing that book on a pile or because I know that I won't be able to take a book off the mountain of books accumulating next to my bed.

In the above photo you see me pondering over which book I should read next from one of the three mounds of books I have at home alone. But since I am a librarian I am surrounded by heaps and heaps of books all day long with hundreds of them calling out to me. The books that are upright are the books I am currently reading. I always have three or four books going at a time, sometimes even more. The books in the shortest stack are all books I have started but never found the time to finish. The books in the other two stacks were gifts or purchased by me and I really do want to read them...but when?

"Anne, pick me. Pick me. Read me next." Did you hear that? The books are calling out to me. Here's what they are saying...

Helene Cooper's The House at Sugar Beach is set in Liberia. "You lived in Liberia. Your whole family has read it. Must finish."

Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver. "You know you love everything written by Kingsolver."

Angels and Demons by Dan Brown. "Everyone talks about this book. You are half way done. Come on, finish it!"

Emma by Jane Austen. "You purport to love Austen so much yet you can't even remember the last time you read Emma."

Stones into Schools by Greg Mortensen. "You were completely inspired by Mortensen's first book, Three Cups of Tea."

Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman by Jon Krakauer. "Krakauer. Need I say more? Did you notice, by the way, that you have two copies of this book in your piles? That has got to be a sign."

How to Read Literature Like a Professor by Thomas Foster. "You know you want to... read lit like an English teacher, that is."

The Girl Who Played with Fire by Stieg Larsson. "Argh. Why is this book in the pile? You didn't even like the first book in the series?"

John Barnes' Tales from a Madman Underground. "Printz Honor book for 2009."

Rosewater and Soda Bread by Marsha Mehran. "Ha-ha. I know you will read me next because I am a book club selection and you are leading the discussion. Gotcha!"

So many books. So little time.

What books are in your piles or are screaming your name to be read? Please add a comment to this blog. Let me know I am not the only one who has books talk (or talk back) to me. If you've never entered a comment before, it it easy. Just use your gmail account to enter. If you don't have a gmail account, it is super easy to create one and they are free. You can post a comment as anonymous or use your first name. Don't worry if the comment doesn't show up right away because I have to "approve" them first. I look forward to hearing from you. I sure hope some of my teen readers join in the discussion. I'd love to know what books are in your piles.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Discussing books with teens

OK. I admit it. I am shamelessly promoting a product for a company without an endorsement. The product is called Table Topics: Book Club Edition and I used them this past week to get teenagers in my Library Club to talk about the books they are reading. They worked really well.

Our club decided to read two books and hold a small version of a book club during our scheduled club time.
The two books we read were: Song of the Sparrow by Lisa Ann Sandell and Shattering Glass by Gail Giles. The kids really liked both books but I've only read Shattering Glass so I joined the discussion for that book. Only one student in the group had finished the book, yet the cards allowed us to talk about the book, open up the plot, wrestle with the characters, and learn more about the book than we would have had we just done book talks or if I led the discussion. Even the kids who hadn't finished the book had insightful comments to make and everyone decided to finish reading the book based on our discussion. Best of all we had fun together. I was just a member of the group not some know-it-all-librarian in charge.

Here are a few sample questions that really were great conversation starters:
  • Will this book be relevant 30 years from now?
  • What one question would you like to ask the main character?
  • What life lessons are found in this book and do you agree with them?
  • If you were a teacher what question would you ask on the final essay?
I often remind myself how much I enjoy talking about books with other people who have read them. Teens are the same. They enjoy sharing their insights and want to disucss controversial topics from their books.

Shattering Glass had a lot to offer teens looking for a good book to discuss. The main themes of the book were popularity and following the leader. Students could identify with the daily issues of negotiating life at a high school while trying to maintain a clear sense of identity. Things don't go so well for the characters in the book. Hopefully things will go much better for my students now that they've had a chance to discuss the mistakes the characters in the book made. I like to think so anyway.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley


I hope you will allow me a bit of time to gush!

I have fallen in love with an 11-year-old chemist-detective, Flavia de Luce, who has a penchant for poisons. Flavia is the most engaging, precocious, lovable literary heroines to come along in a long time.

Flavia has to make her own excitement in life since her older sisters are not interested in the same things until she discovers a dead man in the cucumber patch. Things get interesting for Flavia as she hurries to solve the murder and free her father of suspicion. The book is as imaginative as Flavia is fearless.

I listened to the audio-book read by Jayne Entwistle. If you've read my blog before you know I am an avid audio-book listener and this reading ranks near the very top of my all-time favorites. Entwistle does the voice of Flavia perfectly. She sounds like a kid, albeit a precocious one, but definitely a kid. I am often shocked that publishers don't consider that most adult voices do not sound like kids voices so their narration just sounds wrong, but that is not the case here. In fact, I am completely charmed by Entwistle's interpretation of Flavia.

Alan Bradley, the author, was the 2007 CWA Crime Debut Dagger competition winner. Bradley a 70+ year old writer from British Columbia submitted the 3,000 words he had completed about Flavia to the "Daggers" because his wife had heard a Debut Dagger runner-up on the radio and thought he should try for it. “And that is how I came to win. It’s all a bit of a blur since, I can’t remember exactly how many countries have bought the book based on that first chapter, but it is a lot,” Alan says. He was offered a three book deal based on one chapter of Sweetness but I understand that it is likely that there will be a least five Flavia de Luce novels in the series. Amazing!

I've included a link to an excerpt of an essay posted on Amazon.com by the author, Alan Bradley, on how Flavia entered his life and positively demanded that she have her own book. I think reading this essay actually sealed the deal between me and Flavia. It was full, unapologetic love after I read it. In a nutshell Bradley talks about Flavia as though she were a real person that he has to negotiate with.

Here are a few of my favorite lines from the book (out of many):

" I still shivered with joy whenever I thought of the autumn day that Chemistry had fallen into my life." p. 8

"...it occurred to me that Heaven must be a place where the library is open twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. No...eight days a week." p. 58

"Directly above me, the sun was a great white zero, blazing down upon my empty head." p. 286

"Wrapped up in the music, I threw myself into an over-stuffed chair and let my legs dangle over the arm, the position in which Nature intended music to be listened to..." p. 263

Re-reading the quotes makes me smile again. I have a feeling that this book will make a lot of people smile. As you can tell my recommendation comes with no reservations.

Adult fiction appropriate for teens. 5 out of 5 stars.