Monday, March 27, 2017

What we're reading: New realistic fiction

The Sun Is Also A Star
by Nicola Yoon
Realistic fiction for high school students
348 pages

Reviewed by Anarda, teen librarian

Natasha, an undocumented Jamaican girl, is brilliant and beautiful. She is also, along with her family, about 12 hours away from being deported to Jamaica, and the quest to stay in this country is all she cares about at the moment. She doesn't have time to think about anything as trivial as a cute boy.

David, a Korean-American boy, is on his way to an interview that may lock in an early acceptance to Yale to study to be a doctor (something that is very important to his immigrant parents but less so to him). He is more naive than Natasha, and somewhat less of a brainiac (but still both gorgeous and well-spoken), so he is connected to his heart in a way Natasha simply can't afford in these troubled times. 

They meet in a New York City record store, and spend a day together that will change both of them.

What a wonderfully surprising book. The two protagonists are memorable, able to listen to each other and to grow in compassion and understanding, able to learn from each other and consider alternatives. And of course there is a strong mutual attraction, but there is so much more at stake in this budding relationship, so the teen lust seems funny, endearing, and plausible. 
And the immigrant experience that Yoon capably explores feels completely authentic. A satisfying read that will appeal to teens who love relationship stories.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

What we're reading...dealing with strong emotions

The Sharp Time
by Mary O'Connell
Realistic fiction for high school students
228 pages

Reviewed by Anarda, teen librarian

Sandinista Jones is grieving, and she's angry. Still suffering from losing her single mother in an accident a few months earlier, Sandinista walked out of her Algebra 2 class last Friday, infuriated and humiliated by the bullying tactics of her math teacher, Catherine Bennett. 
Monday morning finds the 18-year-old in front of her favorite vintage shop, Pale Circus, ready to beg for a job and vowing never to return to high school.

Surprisingly, the owner does hire her, and for the next week Sandinista has a foot in two worlds. She's finding unexpected understanding in her new relationships with the denizens of the various shops on this slightly rough block (including the owner of an erotic bakery and a gunship owner), down the street from a contemplative monastery from which sandal-clad monks emerge to slip and slide on the icy sidewalks. She finds an especially kindred spirit in her co-worker, college student Bradley, who not only shares sharp (and funny!) observations with her, but listens with a generous (if slightly stoned) heart. 

But there is silence from her high school administration over the cruelty of her teacher; silence, too from her one-time friends who she has alienated in her rage; and Sandinista is indulging in increasingly elaborate revenge fantasies of destroying Mrs. Bennett. She carries the pink and cream pistol the neighborhood gun shop owner handed to her on her first day of work, and starts to drive by her algebra teacher's home. For the rest of the week, we see her grow more and more convinced that something must be done to stop Catherine Bennett from torturing another teen, a "slow" girl, weak in ways Ms. Bennett knows how to abuse.

Funny, irreverent, and with an edge of nail-biting anxiety for this witty, troubled young woman on the verge of a mistake that will truly destroy her life, this is a book I can recommend to those seeking a fresh look into grief and helplessness.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

6+7 Book Club Report

The 6+7 Book Club meeting Tuesday night featured a lively and enthusiastic discussion of Steelheart, by Brandon Sanderson. The consensus was that everyone (except maybe one?) enjoyed it more than The Rithmatists, another book by Sanderson that we had previously read, and some liked it so much that they had already gone on to read the two other books in the trilogy. We finished up our discussion by going around the room and naming the super power that each of us would like to have, if we were Epics, with some interesting and creative results! The rating for the book was 8.65.

Next month's book has been on our list for a while, but some have already expressed disappointment with the size of the book (small/thin); we will have to see if Margaret Peterson Haddix can win them over in 150-some pages of Among the Hidden.

We had a pretty long list of things to consider when choosing our book for May, but after a couple of run-offs we finally settled on The Graveyard Book, by Neil Gaiman, a particular favorite of Anarda's, and an award winner!

Other books we considered:

Two Summers, by Amy Friedman
The Unwanteds, by Lisa McMann
Leviathan, by Scott Westerfeld
Uglies, by Scott Westerfeld
A Long Walk to Water, by Linda Sue Park
The Wee Free Men, by Terry Pratchett

This club meets next on April 11.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

10-12 Book Club Report

Last Tuesday, 19 members of the 10-12 Book Club met to discuss Side Effects May Vary, by Julie Murphy, and it was quite the discussion!

This book has been on our "we're considering" list for some months now; we were all intrigued by its description, and finally picked it for this month's read. The way the book is described, Alice gets leukemia, decides hey, if I'm on my way out, no more "miss nice guy," and gets revenge on a bunch of people for a bunch of stuff they did to her before she was sick. And then, surprise! she goes into remission. Now what?

It sounded like a humorous treatment of a not-so-humorous subject, and like kind of a fun read. But in reality, the book is quite different. As she goes through chemotherapy with ever-worsening results, Alice's best friend Harvey, who has wanted more than friendship from her for years, is her constant support and companion. Before all of this happened, Alice had a boyfriend, and she had a friend from ballet class (really more of a competitor), and the two of them did Alice wrong, together and separately. Now, before she goes, Alice wants revenge, and Harvey helps her get it. Then, after going into remission, she has to face the wrath of these two people, plus she also has to figure out what to do about Harvey, because although he expects that their relationship will continue, Alice isn't so sure.

In other words, it turns out to be a lot more about Harvey and Alice than about the supposedly humorous tone set by the book's description...and Alice turns out to be not a very nice person. Out of the 19 members at book club, 18 of them really disliked Alice, and either felt sorry for or lost all respect for Harvey as the book went forward. The pranks were kind of awesome, but there were only a couple, and they were not the primary focus of the book.

Ratings were predictably harsh, and ranged from a high of 7 out of 10 to a low of 1, with the final rating being 5.75. It might be that if members had had a more realistic expectation of what the book was actually about from the beginning, some might have enjoyed it more; but most felt duped, which added to the negative effect. Blurb writers, take note!

Next month's book is Illuminae, the hefty science fiction thriller cobbled together from memos, emails, classified documents, interviews, and all kinds of tech stuff, by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff.

For our final book club meeting in May (last meeting of the school year, and then on to teen summer reading!), we will (finally! yay!) read I'll Give You the Sun, by Jandy Nelson.

Other books we considered, in order of preference, were:

Simon vs the Homo Sapiens Agenda, by Becky Albertalli
Neverwhere, by Neil Gaiman
Conjured, by Sarah Beth Durst
Graceling, by Kristin Cashore
The Boy Most Likely To, by Huntley Fitzpatrick
Enclave, by Anne Aguirre
Bumped, by Megan McCaffery

This club meets next on April 4.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Lagging sequels

Some books get lost in the shuffle because the author, for whatever reason, waited a long time to write the sequel, and by the time he or she did, readers had moved on. Some extreme examples of this would be Nancy Farmer's sequel to her dystopian novel, House of the Scorpion; there was an 11-year gap between that and The Lord of Opium, her follow-up book about Matthew Alarcon. Another example would be the books that came after The Giver, by Lois Lowry: there was a seven-year gap between books one and two; "only" four years between books two and three (Gathering Blue and Messenger); but then she waited another eight years before finishing up the series with book number four, Son!

And of course there is one of my favorites, the obscure (in America) dystopian series Obernewtyn, by Isobelle Carmody, that has either eight or 11 books in it depending on whether you read it in Australia or here; she began writing the first book while in college (in 1987) and still hasn't quite finished! (They're awesome, by the way.)

I reread one such book a couple of weeks ago; I had included one of Maggie Stiefvater's "Wolves of Mercy Falls" series (Shiver) in a paranormal fiction list for my students in library school to read, and in order to discuss it with them, I needed to refresh my memory, since I last read it five years ago. And of course, having read book one, I wanted to keep reading! I made sure to remind those who expressed a similar desire to finish the series that there is indeed a fourth book, because after Stiefvater wrote Shiver, Linger, and Forever, she took a three-year "break" to write The Scorpio Races and two books in the "Raven Cycle" (The Raven Boys, and The Dream Thieves) before returning to the Mercy Falls characters in 2014.

Sinner is something of a departure from the series; in fact, some readers describe it as a "standalone companion" rather than a sequel. Although the two main characters of Sinner appeared extensively in the three previous books, now they have (each independently) relocated away from the others, and this is solely their story.

Isabel Culpeper was presumably hauled off to California by her parents, who stated their intention in book #3 to get far away from the town where their son died and back to their west coast lifestyle; but now her parents are divorcing, and Isabel feels likewise divorced from reality. She's trying to build a life for herself, working in an exclusive clothing boutique and still shutting down her feelings, but then one day Cole St. Clair, the former rock star (and part-time wolf), shows up in her shop and tells her he's there for her. She doesn't even know how to describe the hopeful feelings this engenders, but in short order she finds out that this statement may not be entirely true; Cole has also come to California because he has agreed to be the subject of a reality show that documents his every move, as a vehicle to get his musical career back on track. The people who make this show specialize in focusing their cameras on those who already have a tendency to self-destruct, and when Isabel finds out Cole has signed on for this, she wants nothing to do with it--or him. But somehow, Cole is as irresistible as ever, and he's also determined to be the one "celebrity" who proves the show wrong.

Isabel and Cole's on-again off-again relationship is fascinating to watch--these are some great, dynamic characters Stiefvater has written. The situations created by the people who are filming Cole, too, are so realistic that I almost expected to be able to go to and see the show, streaming live! Los Angeles, good and bad--the Hollywood hype rife with social climbers and wannabes, set next to the beautiful weather and more relaxed lifestyle--is likewise almost a character. This book, although containing paranormal elements, reads a lot more like reality than like fantasy. If you have read the trilogy and always wondered what happened to Cole and Isabel, you owe it to yourself to go back and check this one out, especially if you are a hardcore Stiefvater fan!

We own copies of this book in the young adult section at all three Burbank Public Library locations, and also carry it as an audio book for those who prefer to listen.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

February Book Club Report

As mentioned in my review of Every Day, by David Levithan a few posts back, the 10-12 Book Club read that book for the month of February, and 17 of us discussed it three weeks ago.

Next month's book is Side Effects May Vary, by Julie Murphy, a sad tale of a girl at death's door who decides to say exactly what she wants to everyone she knows, and then, surprisingly, recovers, and has to deal with the fallout.

And for April's book, the club chose the sci fi thriller Illuminae, by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff.

Other books the club considered:

Graceling, by Kristin Cashore
I'll Give You the Sun, by Jandy Nelson
Neverwhere, by Neil Gaiman
Bumped, by Megan McCaffery
The Boy Most Likely To, by Huntley Fitzpatrick
The Handmaid's Tale, by Margaret Atwood
I'll Meet You There, by Heather Demetrios

This club meets next Tuesday, March 7.

Fourteen members of the 6+7 Book Club met two weeks ago to discuss The Rithmatist, by Brandon Sanderson. They read this the month after the 8+9 Club did, but were not nearly as impressed by it, and much more puzzled or annoyed by some of its questions and inconsistencies. The votes ranged from a 10 down to a 2, and the final rating was 6.85, a far cry from the other club's rating of 9, and only a few were excited for the sequel, also in contrast to the other club.

Next month, this club will read and discuss Steelheart, also by Brandon Sanderson--we hope they like this one better!

For the month of April, the club chose Among the Hidden, a dystopian novel by Margaret Peterson Haddix. Other books we considered, in descending order:

Rules, by Cynthia Lord
Wishing Day, by Lauren Myracle
A Mango Shaped Space, by Wendy Mass
Eragon, by Christopher Paolini
Star Girl, by Jerry Spinelli

Two books to hold for future (they don't come out soon enough in paperback):
The Warden's Daughter, by Jerry Spinelli
Magnus Chase, by Rick Riordan

This club meets next on Tuesday, March 14.

The 8+9 Book Club, with 16 in attendance, met this past week to discuss Jackaby, by William Ritter. Most enjoyed this paranormal mystery set in 1892 New England (except for Megan, who moaned "NOT another mystery..."), although some thought the bad guy was too easy to guess, while others thought Jackaby was a little snooty about being the only one to possess his special powers. But everyone liked Abigail, plus the hint of a love interest with the mysterious police officer Charlie Case, and quite a few intend to go check out the sequels. The final rating was 7.3.

Next month, this club will read and discuss Crash, by Lisa McMann, also the first book in a trilogy, and also kind of a mystery, although there's a lot more interpersonal stuff in this one (and it's about contemporary teenagers).

For April's selection, the club was going to go old school with And Then There Were None, by Agatha Christie, but we can't get the book in sufficient quantity for the right price, so we will instead read Dorothy Must Die, by Danielle Paige. There was a long list of books from which it was chosen, and we had two runoff votes! The other books, in descending order, were:

And Then There Were None, by Agatha Christie
The Reformed Vampire Support Group, by Catherine Jinks
Trouble Is A Friend of Mine, by Stephanie Tromly
Beka Cooper: Terrier, by Tamora Pierce
How It Went Down, by Kekla Magoon
Sabriel, by Garth Nix
The Accident Season, by Moira Fowley-Doyle
The Wonder of All Things, by Jason Mott
Little Women, by Louisa May Alcott
A Study in Charlotte, by Brittany Cavallaro
Throne of Glass, by Sarah Maas

This club meets again on Tuesday, March 28.

Friday, March 3, 2017

What we're reading: Entertaining nonfiction!

I am not a reader of nonfiction. Give me a good novel, and I'm up all night; present me with nonfiction and I nod off within a few pages (or sentences!).

I know, however, that there are people out there, including teens, who prefer their stories unadorned, who want "just the facts, ma'am" (although that Dragnet reference to Joe Friday trying to get his suspects to just tell him what happened will probably go over the heads of all teens and most adults!). A good fantasy novel gives these readers a pain behind their eyes. They are eager to find out everything there is to know about astronomy, or the physics of flight, or the science behind, I don't know, surfing? and they don't want any distracting make-believe to get in their way.

Some nonfiction books have appeared, in the past six years or so, that will perhaps be attractive to both the fiction junky and the nonfiction purist; one of the slightly unflattering-to-nonfiction names by which they are being called is "readable nonfiction."

One of the encouragements for authors to write more of this kind of book is the prize established by YALSA (the Young Adult Library Services Association), which is the division of the American Library Association devoted to teens. YALSA's Award for Excellence in Nonfiction, established in 2010, honors the best nonfiction book published for young adults (ages 12-18) during a Nov. 1 – Oct. 31 publishing year, and announces an annual winner with a shortlist of up to five titles. This award honors those books that rise to the top in their ability to best communicate their subject factually and truthfully while making that subject interesting and engaging to teen readers.

This past year, the graphic novel March, Volume 3, by Congressman John Lewis, won the prize. The trilogy is a first-hand account of his lifelong struggle for human and civil rights, culminating in the famous march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, in 1965. The fact that a graphic novel could win not just this prize but also the Coretta Scott King Award and the National Book Award tells you just how powerful this nonfiction trilogy must be.

This is just the latest in a trend, though, to take moments in history with which we all think we are completely familiar and turn them into powerful and exciting narratives. One book I recently read that does this is Chasing Lincoln's Killer, by James L. Swanson.

This book is based on a collection of archival material, trial manuscripts, interviews with relatives of the conspirators to murder Lincoln, and interviews with those who hunted them down. Rather than the static picture that begins and ends with John Wilkes Booth shooting President Lincoln, then standing on the stage to shout "Sic semper tyrannis! The South is avenged!" before fleeing the theater, this book gives details about the various plots beforehand (including one that never worked out, to kidnap Lincoln and hold him for ransom), the organization and planning of the entire evening's events (which were supposed to include the deaths of Vice President Johnson and Secretary of State Seward as well), the exact details of the assassination, and the fast-paced 12-day pursuit of John Wilkes Booth from D.C. into Maryland and Virginia.

Nothing here has been fictionalized--all has been gleaned from original sources such as letters, trial transcripts, newspapers, broadsides, and other documents of the time. But all of it has been crafted into an exciting narrative that makes you want to read on, as if it were a story in a novel.

I was impressed by this book. Everything about it was done right: the presentation (interesting layouts, fonts, and color choices), the archival materials (lots of great photos, drawings, etchings, posters, etc. to illustrate the text), and the "story." From the planning to the co-conspirators to the act itself to the manhunt afterwards, this was a narrative rather than a dry recitation of facts about the assassination of Lincoln, and included interesting facts like what John Wilkes Booth was carrying in his pockets, the background of those who sheltered him and why they did it (gladly or reluctantly), and so on. If history was always presented this way, many more people would be fans.

If you are one or the other--a nonfiction enthusiast or someone who can't stand it but has to read some for school--take a look at all the winners of the YALSA award for the past six years here. Burbank Public Library owns many of these titles, and we'd be glad to help you locate them, check them out, and perhaps truly appreciate reading nonfiction for the first time!

Here are some sample titles and subjects that may intrigue you:

Bomb: The Race to Build - and Steal - the World's Most Dangerous Weapon, by Steve Sheinkin

Saturday, February 25, 2017

What we're reading: A haunting tale of addiction

I just finished reading Beneath A Meth Moon, by much-awarded author Jacqueline Woodson.

The book is about Laurel, age 15, who has just suffered a devastating tragedy. Hurricane warnings in Pass Christian, Mississippi, cause Laurel's father, a fisherman, to decide to evacuate his family; but Laurel's grandmother refuses to leave her home, and Laurel's mother decides that she must stay with her. Both of them reassure the rest of the family that if things start looking bad, they will leave the house and head for the town's Walmart store, so Laurel's dad reluctantly packs up her and her little brother and heads out to his sister's house, far inland. They speak on the phone with those they left behind a few times, and then the connection is lost as the hurricane moves in. Days later, when residents are finally allowed back into the towns damaged by the hurricane, Laurel and her family return to their home town to discover that their house has disappeared completely, and that the Walmart has been completely leveled.

Eventually, Laurel's dad finds employment further north in a small town in Iowa, and takes Laurel and her brother to make a brand-new start. Although Laurel hasn't recovered from her losses, she does manage to make a friend and even join the cheer squad at her new high school; but then T-Boom, one of the football players, takes a flattering interest in her, and her life changes at that moment. T-Boom asks her if she likes to party; she isn't quite clear on what he means by that, but says yes, and T-Boom offers her a little taste of something that will make her feel good. Indeed, it makes her feel so good--and relieves her lingering pain to such an extent--that soon it is all Laurel can think about. From that point on, Laurel's life is in a descending spiral of meth addiction (she calls the drug "the moon"), with no end in sight.

Although I expected this book to be dark (it is about a 15-year-old girl who is addicted to meth), I didn't entirely expect the lyrical (and disjointed) way it is told. The book gives the reader an inside view of the experience, from top to rock bottom, and although it's told from Laurel's viewpoint, also paints a picture of how others in her life are affected. This book could have been a standard cautionary tale--a scare tactic--but instead Woodson's language sparely and beautifully carries you through one girl's experience and makes it feel both personal and universal.

It's a short book (170 pages) but a powerful one, with a message that's there but that doesn't hit you over the head. It is emotional, realistic, but also hopeful. And the way Woodson deals with the contents, I wouldn't hesitate to hand this book to a middle-schooler to read, even though much older teens would appreciate it as well.