Friday, May 31, 2013

REVIEW: Fever 1793 by Laurie Halse Anderson

Fever 1793
by Laurie Halse Anderson

“What did it feel like to die? Was it a peaceful sleep? Some thought it was full of either trumpet-blowing angels or angry devils. Perhaps I was already dead.” 

Mattie is a 14 year old girl who helps her mother run a coffeehouse in 1793 Philadelphia, the then capital of the United States and a bustling metropolis. Mattie is your typical teenager, sleeping late, grumbling about chores, crushing on the painter's apprentice down the block. There is faint news of a minor fever causing a few deaths in the city, but no one is really worried. Suddenly, the death toll skyrockets and Mattie finds herself struggling alone in an almost deserted city filled with the sick, dying, and desperate. She must draw upon every ounce of strength she has to survive the terrible plague and save those she loves.

This is another book that went so fast I didn't take any notes. It has a slow start, but I feel all plague or apocalypse books do. You don't want to hear about going to the market, you want to get to the DEATH! And once you get there, the story really picks up. There is danger and despair and loads of horrifying situations, and Mattie must rise up out of her slumpy lazy teenagerness to do what needs to be done. 

The grandfather is a refreshing and excellent character. He is bombastic and strong, friends with everyone, cheerful, silly and brave. While many of the other characters seemed like tropes, Captain William Farnsworth Cook was a delight!

I was happy that this book touched a little on every significant aspect of the Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1793: everyone fleeing the town, people stopped from entering other towns, Bush Hill, the Free African Society, the food shortage, the looters, the debate between doctors, the newspapers, the lack of government. Mattie gets to experience all of those up close and personal. 

Compared to other plague books, it is a bit mild, but it is the first juvenile fiction plague book I have read, so it is certainly a dark kids book! A nice, fast, apocolypsey read with more of a happy ending than most plague books get.

Books Like This
Company of Liars by Karen Maitland
The Doomsday Book by Connie Willis

I'm apparently a sucker for a good plague book. 

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

REVIEW: Personal Effects by E.M. Kokie

Personal Effects
by E.M. Kokie

Matt Foster got into another fight: a peacenik student flaunting his "Bring Our Soldiers Home...Not in Pieces" shirt. Matt is suspended and has to pay for the display case he broke while pummeling the kid's face bloody. His principal wants him to work on anger management. His dad applauds Matt's actions, asserting that the kid deserved it, and he is proud that his son acted like a man. Soon the reader discovers why Matt acted so extremely: Matt's older brother, TJ died in Iraq. Matt's father is dealing with it in his own way, through violent outbursts against his remaining son, and by eradicating any evidence that TJ ever existed. Matt is trying to mourn in his own way and struggling with his father's expectations that he follow TJ into the army, but his life is quickly imploding. When TJ's remaining personal effects are shipped home, Matt sneaks a peek before his father is able to hide them. What he discovers sends him on a journey, discovering who TJ really was, and who Matt will become.

This book is way outside of my wheelhouse, and I wasn't sure if I would be able to relate. Matt and his father are from a conservative military family, and when he beats the kid for flaunting his peace paraphernalia, I was wary. I thought the book might be about hawk vs dove. However, it is really about the deep grieving of a family who was touched by war (picking a fight with a kid who wears peace as a fashion statement).

Matt goes through a crucible in this book, dealing with his anger and sadness, his feelings for his best friend, his father's violence and expectations, and the explosive revelation about TJ that shakes his entire foundation.  In the end, he comes out a stronger, calmer, more self-assured man who may not know where he is going, but he knows what he wants. He is such a compelling character.

John Green and Neil Gaiman both say that we should read books to live lives we never would have lived, to see inside someone else's head. To develop empathy. This book did just that. It gave me a peek into a life I never imagined, and have often put up walls against. I am so happy I branched out.

I don't have much more to say about the book, because I was so engrossed, I didn't really notice style or take any notes. It was kind of refreshing that he wasn't saved by classic art or literature (OK for Now or The Wednesday Wars, the two sons-with-abusive-fathers books I have read previously), but by human interaction. An excellent read.

Books Like This:
Ok for Now Gary D. Schmidt

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

REVIEW: Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore
by Robin Sloan

“Walking the stacks in a library, running your finger down the spines — it’s hard not to feel the presence of sleeping spirits.” 

Clay Jannon is desperate for a job after being laid off when the snazzy bagel company he was marketing for went belly up. When he notices a help wanted sign on the door of an independent bookstore, he is ready to try anything. As soon as Mr. Penumbra asks "What do you seek in these shelves?" Clay is hooked. It turns out this book store has secrets. Sure, it carries the the requisite number of unappreciated works of genius Penumbra loves, but in the dark corners of the store, towards the top of the tall shelves, there are books for a special clientele. They come in, return a book, and borrow a new one, all eager to continue with solving the mysteries within those pages. The curious Clay and his friends (a programmer, a CEO, a maker, an anthropologist, and more gathered along the way) follow the trail of breadcrumbs that may lead to the secret of this secret society: the formula for immortality.

I quite enjoyed this book! The structure of Mr. Penumbra comes across as a gentler Murakami or a less overwhelming Stephenson (he actually references both authors). I put it as a more modern G.K. Chesterton, lightly examining complex ideas in a reflective, fun adventure that reveals a comprehensive, heart-warming, humanistic truth. What really is immortality? How important is it?

Sadly, the stakes are rather low. Clay does not have much investment in whether the books of the secret society are decoded or not. He does not believe they hold the secrets to eternal life, but he is doing it for his friend. And the stakes tend to stay at about medium throughout the entire book. However, what it lacks in stakes it makes up for in pure librarian nerdery.

This is the perfect book for library nerds! It mixes everything that is important to us, the old and the new, ancient typography with computer fonts, secret codes with computer codes, ebooks and regular books, CGI with clay models, artifact warehouses with high tech systems, smelly bookstores and shiny Google. Sloan appears to have a great working knowledge of both sides of the information coin, and it is delightful to read.

The surprising thing is, the sides are not pitted against each other, except by the villains of the book. The protagonists are all about integration and collaboration, using new technology to preserve and enhance the old, how "Old Knowledge" (information in books that have not yet been digitized) is the great untapped mystery to Google. And yet, new technology does not replace books. They live in harmony side by side and feed off of each other, just as Clay's team of experts all have special skills (programming, fabrication, graphic design, anthropology, hacking, museum curating, etc) that mix together to create intellectual alchemy. There is a section about "digital archaeology," which blew my mind. I had never thought of it before.

I found it extra delightful that the author/ and Clay, is a NERD nerd. When he was a kid, he and his friend Neal were obsessed with a series called The Dragon-Song Chronicles and played "Rockets and Warlocks" (a tabletop RPG). Questing language is infused throughout the book. It is not uber present, but occasionally you are stumble upon delightful sentences like this: "I explain it like the set up for a Rockets and Warlocks adventure: the backstory, the characters, the quest before us. The party is forming, I say: I have a rogue (that's me) and a wizard (that's Kat). Now I need a warrior. (Why does the typical adventuring group consist of a wizard, a warrior and a rogue anyway? It should really be a wizard, a warrior and a rich guy. Otherwise who's going to pay for all the swords and spells and hotel rooms?" And we find Clay listening to The Dragon-Song Chronicles over and over like an old song he knows very well, much like the way I reread the Chronicles of Narnia.

Two things sealed the deal with this book for me. First, my version glows in the dark. I did not know this until the last night I was reading it and I turned out the lights to go to bed, and BAM! It glowed.

Second was the final paragraph of the book which, as a library nerd, made me cry:

"A man walking fast down a dark lonely street. Quick steps and hard breathing, all wonder and need. A bell above a door and the tinkle it makes. A clerk and a ladder and warm golden light, and then: the right book exactly, at the right time."

Books Like This:
The Man Who Was Thursday by G.K. Chesterton
Hard-Boiled Wonderland by Haruki Murakami
The Bestiary by Nicholas Christopher

Thursday, May 16, 2013

REVIEW: True Grit by Charles Portis

True Grit
by Charles Portis

“People do not give it credence that a fourteen-year-old girl could leave home and go off in the wintertime to avenge her father's blood but it did not seem so strange then, although I will say it did not happen every day. I was just fourteen years of age when a coward going by the name Tom Chaney shot my father down in Fort Smith, Arkansas, and robbed him of his life and his horse and $150 in cash money plus two California gold pieces that he carried in his trouser band.” 

14-year-old Mattie Ross has come to avenge her father's death. She is looking for a man of "true grit" to accompany her into Indian Territory to find Tom Chaney, the man who shot him, and she lights on the trigger-happy Marshall Rooster Cogburn. Together, stubborn, fierce and intelligent little Mattie and the dissolute, fly-by-the-seat-of-his-pants Rooster (and a fancy Texas Ranger named LaBoeuf) face gunmen, snakes, and dangerous conditions to bring Frank Ross' killer to justice.

This might be one of my favorite books this year. Mattie is the definition of a bad-ass heroine. She is focused and does what needs to be done. She does not hem and haw. She will ask you for what she needs, and she will lean on you and negotiate with you until she gets it. She is unflinching, smart as a whip, straight-shooting and no nonsense. She has an incredibly refreshing voice, and there should be more characters like her.  

I think the best part about her, though is that she has an incredibly open world view. She knows that her way of life is not the only way of life, and her talents and skills are not the only ones to be valued. She has her opinions, but she lets other people have their own, and that is their own business. There is an incredibly touching paragraph early on when Mattie describes her mother: "Mama was never any good at sums and she could hardly spell cat. I do not boast of my own gifts in that direction. Figures and letters are not everything. Like Martha I have always been agitated and troubled by the cares of the day but my mother had a serene and loving heart. She was like Mary and had chosen 'that good part.'" 

The meat of the story, however, lies in her relationship to Rooster. While he is highly reluctant to take her to the Indian Territory, even so far as ditching her at the ferry (she fords the river and chases him), his affection for her grows as she takes him to task for his flexible morals and lax discipline. Her esteem for him grows as he tells her the story of his life, protects her, and is there for her when it matters most. 

Portis writes with deliciously dry wit. He creates highly-complex characters, and then just lets them at each other. Each argument ping-pongs back and forth, and you often end up agreeing with whoever spoke last. His wild west world and the language of the time is straight-forward and yet often times Shakespearean (I found the phrase "something touching her father's death" and conversations about Ophelia that subtly hearkened back to Hamlet and his search for revenge. ) 

I may go out and buy this book and read more of Portis' work. Though technically an adult book, I think its great for YA folks too!

Monday, May 13, 2013

REVIEW: Flygirl by Sherri L. Smith

by Sherri L. Smith
"'Just listen to me. Listen to me!' I all but shout, and Mama stops in her tracks. I've never raised my voice to her and gotten away with it. But I am not a little girl anymore.
'Somebody has got to do something. So I went. I put my name on Daddy's license and I went and got an interview. And you know what? I wasn't hiding anything when I went into that room and sat face-to-face with an actual woman Army Air Forces pilot. And do you know what she saw? Not a Negro woman, not a white woman, not a high yellow. But a pilot, Mama. A good pilot that they need. Don't you see? This is what Daddy used to fly for. The chance to be something other than the color of his skin...'
Mama laughs then, a low chuckle... 'Baby you don't know what you are getting in to. You do not know. But your daddy did. He knew what his mother was asking of him, every day to turn his head away from his people but never really hold his head up with the white folks either... Are you willing to give up your brothers? Grandy? Me?'"
When Ida Mae Jones is denied her pilot's license because she is a woman, she is determined to become a WASP, a Woman's Airforce Service Pilot. Only one problem: they don't accept African Americans. With WWII raging, Ida uses her light skin to pass as white at the WASP training camp in Sweetwater, TX where she could be killed if her lie was revealed. However, as she bonds with the white girls in her camp and gets more and more comfortable entering "whites only" places, she worries that she is betraying her heritage and her family. How can she be true to herself when she must either lie about who she is or deny the part in her that wants to fly?

This book had a bit of a slow start, with some exposition heavy conversations, but once the characters begin to wrestle with racial identity, the story really gets going! Ida Mae's father's family purposefully married up the color scale, getting lighter and lighter children until they could marry white men. Ida Mae's father married a black woman and was disowned. The fears of Ida Mae's mother come to the fore when she sees Ida Mae coming down the sidewalk dressed as a rich white woman. She is afraid her daughter will deny the proud black culture of their  Louisiana community and her family. There is a heart-breaking scene where Ida Mae's mother comes to base to visit her and she must pretend her mother is her family's maid, acting aloof and imperious while receiving some devastating news from home.

While Ida is at the WASP training facility, race only rarely rears it's head, and the main focus is on Ida's efforts to become a pilot and the ensemble of girls with whom she has built strong supportive friendships. The world of the training base is well-researched and rich. Here, she must face prejudice against her as a women in the armed forces and is given challenges far greater than many male soldiers because some officers wish for the women to fail. She also must face personal demons that, if unconquered, could cost her everything.

It is such a meaty exploration of race, gender and personhood. What makes us who we are? A pilot? A woman? A white, black or "high yellow" person? What is inside, or what is outside? Where we come from or where we are going? What is worth the risk? And if we make a choice, can we ever go back? The story is left open ended. There are no easy answers for Ida Mae, or for us.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

My Thesis Statement through the Lens of Neil Gaiman

"Someone asked me recently how to do something she thought was going to be difficult, in this case recording an audio book, and I suggested she pretend that she was someone who could do it. Not pretend to do it, but pretend she was someone who could. She put up a notice to this effect on the studio wall, and she said it helped.

So be wise, because the world needs more wisdom, and if you cannot be wise, pretend to be someone who is wise, and then just behave like they would."

- Neil Gaiman 

Dear Readers,

I am currently dramaturging (basically research librarianing) for Rorschach Theatre in DC. They are doing a production of Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere and had asked me to write a blog post regarding why I love Neil Gaiman and his work.

I wrote one, and realized after reading it that it was a thesis statement about why I want to be a librarian and what I love about stories in general.

1) I believe in the ability for people to change for the better. To improve. To rise above what is expected of them. This is why I want to give a book to someone that helps them realize something new about who they are, that inspires them to rise above others expectations and do something extraordinary.

2) I believe that the past, present, future and the world of imagination all exist right now, they reverberate back and forth and effect our choices and who we are. This is why I write Palimpsest. The books I write about are all mash-ups, alternate histories, historical re-imaginings, metaliterature, fantasy, scifi and adaptations.

Here is the blog post I wrote, and I hope you watch Neil's commencement address at the end. It is 20 minutes of pure inspiration.

REVIEW: Airborn by Kenneth Oppel

by Kenneth Oppel 
“Why do you need to fly so much?” she asked.
“If I don’t, it’ll catch up with me.” The words just came out.
“What will?”
I took my hands from my face, panting. I stared out at the storm.
Matt Cruse is the cabin boy aboard the airship Aurora and he loves it. When his father died serving on the Aurora, Matt took his place. He feels more at home in the sky than on the ground, and he has earned the reputation of being lighter than air and a smart, capable crew member. When the Aurora rescues a dying old man in a battered hot air balloon who speaks of strange flying creatures, Matt is ensnared in an adventure. Together with the man's granddaughter, Kate, they must sail the skies, battle pirates, and save the ship, all while searching for the elusive creatures her grandfather saw.

This was a fun book! A rollicking high seas adventure, mixing Robert Louis Stevenson with a bit of Jules Verne. It reminded me a bit of the Leviathan trilogy, but lacked the depth of character and scope and detail that made that series so great. While Leviathan was a dirty, gritty, wartime story, the Aurora is a luxury liner. The story is a frivolous peace-time adventure. That is not to say the stakes are not high. Towards the end of the story, after much sneaking off to explore and outwitting authority figures, the danger becomes very real, and Oppel is not afraid to kill a few people to remind you how real it is.

The worldbuilding did feel a little sloppy to me. We had airships lifted by the new element, hyrium, with its own rules, and some exciting cryptozoology, but we don't learn much about the rest of the world. It appears to be simply a steampunk novel with airships and message tubes, with everything else simply Victorian. However, there are subtle name changes that make you wonder what kind of alternate universe we are in: Pacificus and Atlanticus oceans, Angleterre, instead of England.

The characters were a bit surfacey. Kate is the plucky, headstrong Victorian girl who wants to be a scientist and doesn't care if her recklessness causes problems for other people. Matt has the dark undercurrents of pride and jealously that were so successful with Victor in Oppel's His Dark Endeavor  but the flaws did not pay off as significantly in Airborn. He is simply your Everyman with emotional baggage and something to prove. I will say, though, that the captain of the ship, even though he was rather one dimensional, had an excellent management style!

I can picture how amazing this book would be if Oppel delved just a little more. The issues of jealousy between Matt and another crew member. The evil pirate captain and those he loves. Preservation versus public access in regards to a rare species of animal. Trying to rebel and prove yourself even though it endangers those around you. Loyalty to your home versus saving someone you care about. All of these could be mined for so much more emotional gold.

Yet, however superficial the adventures seems at times, everything, even the smallest detail, comes back in a big way, and will either pay off emotionally or  become a linchpin to the plot. It is fascinating to pick up on the clues as you go, or have the "Oh my God! The thing from before!" moment when one has slipped by you.

All in all, a nice, light, fun, easy adventure read for the summer.

Books Like This
Stardust by Neil Gaiman
Leviathan by Scott Westerfield
This Dark Endeavor by Kenneth Oppel