Thursday, August 28, 2008

Review: Feathered

Laura Kasischke
2008; HarperTeen; 978-0-06-081317-8 (hardback)

Summary: It was the trip of a lifetime. Just not in the way they thought it would be.

Anne, Michelle, and Terri leave the drabness of Illinois in March for the sun and fun of Cancun during spring break. But questions of trust and friendship cause Anne and Michelle to enter into a nightmare.

Four Things to Know About Feathered

#1: Point of view matters.

Not only is this novel told in the alternating voices of Anne and Michelle, but the point of view shifts, with Anne's chapters in first person and Michelle's in third person. This choice by Kasischke pays large dividends; while Anne's struggles and concerns are vividly presented, Michelle's are less so. Yet due to the plot, this increases the tension and keeps the reader invested in the story. Admittedly, I haven't read every novel in existence, but I don't recall any other novel in multiple voices that also uses different POVs to underscore the different voices.

#2: Metaphors are not anvils.

Sadly, a major flaw in this work is how obvious Kasischke's central metaphor is: feathers/birds. It seems like every few pages, a reference is made to feathers, birds, plumage, etc.; I certainly grew tired of these references long before the end of the book. Given that two major dramatic moments in this book rely upon this metaphor, the over-use makes those moments less dramatic and more expected. If the author had referred to birds or feathers less often, or referred to them in a more impressionistic manner, perhaps those moments would have delivered the desired shock.

#3: Magic vs. realism

Where Kasischke's metaphor does work is to add a touch of magical realism to the work. A juxtaposition between reality and fantasy occurrs at various moments in the novel, such as when Michelle climbs to the top of a Mayan pyramid and becomes overcome with the beauty and emotion of the experience--so much so that she bursts into song. The bird metaphor allows for a poetic explanation as well as a scientific reason for Michelle's behavior in the later half of the novel. The magical realism aspects are subtle, but lend an evocative note to this novel.

#4: There are different ways to set boundaries.

Both Michelle and Anne's parents have instilled many rules within their daughters. Yet these rules do not protect them. Anne's worries about those rules, and the sensationalistic media reports about cases like Natalee Holloway, convince her to trust a group of teenage boys over a middle-aged man. This choice turns out to be horribly wrong. Instead of trusting her instincts and trusting Michelle, Anne follows the rules. This could lead to an interesting discussion about whether parents are actually giving girls the skills they need to make the right choices, or if they're just giving girls rules to follow. Such a thought puts larger issues than this novel--feminism, for example--into a new perspective.

Feathered will certainly be well-received by older teens. Less dramatic and more evocative than Acceleration by Graham McNamee, this is an intriguing mystery with much to recommend it.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Review: Chains

Laurie Halse Anderson
2008; Simon & Schuster; 978-1-4169-0585-1 (hardback)

Summary: As a slave, Isabel has no rights, no options. She has to accept being tricked out of her promised freedom. She has to accept being sold to Loyalists and moved to New York. And worst of all, she has to accept being separated from her little sister. What can one slave do to change her life, in the middle of the Patriot rebellion against King George III?

Three Things to Know about Chains

#1: See the American Revolution in a different way.

Choosing to set her novel in Revolutionary War-era New York City pays off for Laurie Halse Anderson. By giving us a different perspective on the American Revolution, eyes are opened to the reality of this climactic struggle: no one knew who was going to win. In fact, during the years of 1776-1777 when Chains is set, the smart money was on the British to crush the rebellion. When writing historical fiction, an author has to counter the knowledge the reader brings and pull them into the story, so the reader forgets what they already know. Anderson achieves this feat.

#2: Slaves weren't just involved in the Civil War.

As Anderson notes at the end of the novel, nearly twenty percent of the population of New York in 1771 was African-American. So often, the issue of slavery is examined in the context of the Civil War. Yet slaves played a large role in American life, throughout the colonies and the states, before the Civil War was even considered. What Isabel suffers--separation from her family, trickery and abuse from whites--is not unique to her story. And while Isabel is able to gain her freedom at the end of the book, her fellow slaves would have to wait decades for release from slavery.

#3: Spies could be everywhere.

Against her better judgment, Isabel performs acts of espionage, passing information to the Patriots about Loyalist plots. As a slave, she's ignored while her master talks with other Loyalists about a plot to assassinate George Washington and plans to bribe Patriot soldiers. Yet when a Patriot colonel doesn't live through on his promise to help her in exchange for her information, Isabel stops her out-and-out spying. She tries to stay out of this tug-of-war between the sides. But gradually, she begins to perform less dramatic spy work: passing messages, doing errands, helping people like her friend Curzon and the prisoner of war Captain Morse. By the end of the novel, these actions, along with other events, have helped prepare Isabel so she can undertake the most risky mission of all: gaining her freedom.

Chains is an engaging middle-grade novel about a historical period that might seem well-covered at first glance. Yet the choice of setting and narrator lift it above the pack. For readers not ambitious enough to tackle The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing: Traitor to the Nation: The Pox Party, this novel does much to introduce similar ideas.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Thoughts: Reading and Reviewing

As I was thinking about what I've read in the last week, I realized something. I keep reading the same book again and again.

Well, maybe saying "the same book" is an exaggeration. But if you look at my latest reviews, you'll notice a trend: contemporary fiction, featuring a female narrator facing a challenge that usually involves their families, with a sprinkling of romance. And while that probably describes a large chunk of the YA fiction that gets published every year, it does make me realize that I need to shake up my reading habits.

This isn't to say that I only read that kind of book. I've finally started reading Tyrell by Coe Booth, and I'm finding it an engaging, eye-opening read. This past weekend, I read Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games and was completely riveted. When I reached the last page, I practically shrieked in dismay to see that I'd have to wait for the next book. And it took me a little time, but about two weeks ago I finished Little Brother by Cory Doctorow. I've found myself recommending it to both my colleagues and to teens.

Yet I haven't written reviews of these books. Not only do I have to adjust my reading habits, I suspect--I need to change my perspective on reviews. It's just as important to review the books I wouldn't normally read as it is to review the books I gravitate towards.

This was an interesting discovery to make, and I just hope that I can keep this in my mind as I'm selecting books to read and review.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Crosspost: Working on My Feet

Working on My Feet
This post previously appeared at Pop Goes the Library.

Lately, I’ve had to give up on my beloved high heels, because I’m pounding the pavement too much at work.

Well, not literally. For the past four months, my library system has piloted mobile reference service in our main branch. Mobile reference is envisioned as a way to get librarians out in the library itself, rather than stationing them at a desk. In my library’s pilot project, seven librarians, myself included, spend three one-hour shifts a week performing mobile reference. We use ultra light mobile PCs and wireless communication badges to access library resources, ask other staff for assistance, and answer questions for patrons.

As we walk through the library, the computer we use certainly attracts attention. Patrons often stop us to ask what it is, and whether we get the Internet on it. They’re often surprised when we say that the mobile PCs are just as powerful as a desktop computer: the Samsung Q1 that we use measures 10” by 5.5” by 1”, and weighs less than two pounds. The communicator badges, from a company called Vocera, lets us talk to other staff members throughout the building. Maybe the best part, as I demonstrated for some kids recently, was what happens when you press the call button on the badge and say “Beam me up”: a series of beeps that calls to mind the Starship Enterprise.

While it’s been fun to play with all these gadgets, what’s really revolutionary is the way patron attitudes have started to change in our building. Now, any staff member might be stopped when they’re out on the floor, regardless of whether they’re assigned to the desk or to mobile reference at that time. Additionally, we’re helping patrons who might never come to the reference desk, especially those patrons who will wander around in the stacks for an hour before they ask for help. I’ve found that I feel much more aware of what’s going on in the library, since I’m walking around for three hours a week, rather than stationed at a desk. Plus, all that walking is helping my goal of getting in shape!

This pilot is still ongoing, but once it’s done, there will be more information distributed through library journals. In the meantime, feel free to email me with any questions you might have! But sorry--I'm holding onto my heels for the days when I'm not assigned to mobile reference.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Review: Impossible

Nancy Werlin
2008; Dial (Penguin); 978-0-8037-3002-1 (hardback)

Summary: Lucy Scarborough has so much to look forward to: a date to the prom with the guy she likes, a summer with her best friend Sarah and her oldest friend Zach, time spent with her foster parents, Soledad and Leo. And after a disastrous, horrifying prom night, Lucy discovers her family's secret: at seventeen, every Scarborough girl becomes pregnant and goes crazy shortly after delivering a daughter of her own. Only if she breaks the curse placed on her family will Lucy be able to avoid this fate. But how can she make a shirt without seams, without using a needle? Where is an acre of land between the salt water and the sea strand? And how could you sow all that land with just a single grain of corn?

Four Things to Know about Impossible

#1: It's about family.

As I read Impossible, I couldn't help thinking of The Rules of Survival, Nancy Werlin's previous book and a National Book Award finalist to boot. And like that book, Impossible is about the impact of family on a teenager's life. While The Rules of Survival portrayed the negative impacts, this novel shows the positives. Not only do Soledad and Leo completely support Lucy in her quest to break the curse, but Miranda, Lucy's birth mother, gives guidance in her own way. In addition, friends are seen as equally valuable: Sarah, although she's pushed aside somewhat during Lucy's experience, is still there for her friend, at the moment when Lucy most needs a friend--not her mother, not her boyfriend.

#2: Romance and love can have shades of meaning.

Werlin says in her afterword that she was partly inspired by listening to Simon & Garfunkle's Scarborough Fair with adult ears, and finding the romantic ballad of her youth had a different dimension now. The darkness of the demands expressed in the song are indicative of the Elfin Knight's curse upon the Scarborough women, his revenge upon them for being denied by the first Scarborough. To contrast this dark, twisted feeling, the love of Zach and Lucy is presented as the bright prism through which we read the last third of the novel. At the end, as both Zach and Lucy struggle in their own way with completing the third task, each of them rearrange the words of the song and return the lyrics to the original romantic intent.

#3: Logic can solve any puzzle.

One of the beauties of this novel is giving such prominence to a concept that teachers try so hard to teach their students: analysis of a text. Lucy and her team look at each word in the ballad, trying to determine how they can break the curse by fulfilling each of the demands. Drawing upon their existing knowledge, and through the serendipity of luck, they find answers to each of the riddles in the song. Only with this scrutiny of the ballad does Lucy manage to find the answers, figuring out the loopholes and following the letter of the demand. This process reminded me somewhat of the logic puzzle used in the first Harry Potter book, when Hermione determines which potion will allow Harry to proceed in his quest. But a moment that takes a few pages in Harry Potter is the bulk of this novel.

#4: Some things do live up to the hype.

I heard fellow librarians raving about Impossible months ago. Not being quite as up on teen literature as they are, I contented myself with waiting to read this. Yet once I got an advance copy and started reading, I ravenously consumed it. I just had to finish it--I had to find out what happened. And once I did, I understood the raves for this book. So often, books or anything else can fall short. It's a pleasure to say that Impossible does just as its title says: it's as good as everyone says.

A complementary novel, featuring a male perspective on breaking a fairy-tale curse, is Beastly by Alex Flinn. Impossible is sure to sweep away older teen girls with its romance and drama. This would also be a great fantasy read for those who don't like fantasy.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Debut Roundup: The Patron Saint of Butterflies; Artichoke's Heart

Welcome to Debut Roundup, highlighting first novels from newly-published writers.

The Patron Saint of Butterflies
Cecilia Galante
2008; Bloomsbury; 978-1-59990-249-4 (hardback)

Summary: Life at the commune called Mount Blessing is something like heaven for Agnes . . . and close to hell for Honey. While Agnes listens to the words of the commune's leader, Emmanual, and hopes to be a saint, Honey would rather spend time drawing butterflies and learning more about the outside world. If it wasn't for an unexpected visit and an accident, Agnes and Honey would be at Mount Blessing forever. Will the girls' inner strength and their lifelong friendship be enough to face the dangers--both at Mount Blessing and in the wide world?

Commentary: The alternating voices of Honey and Agnes carry this novel. Both girls have a well-developed personality, with quirks and contrasts. Other characters, like Grandma Pete, are equally compelling. However, there are some definite flaws to this novel. Rather than a smooth, flowing narrative, cliches and coincidences make the story move in a herky-jerky fashion. Factual errors--like a Wal-Mart being located nowhere near the town named in the book--and some dangerous behavior--Honey, despite being only fourteen, is put behind the wheel of a car by Grandma Pete--further blunt the power of the story. The realistic details of living in a commune and the interesting characters make this book an interesting read, yet discerning readers will be able to guess the "surprising twists" too easily.

Artichoke's Heart
Suzanne Supplee
2008; Dutton; 978-0-525-47902-4 (hardback)

Summary: Rosemary is a fat girl. She thinks that's all she'll be, because that's all people see. They don't see the good student, the caring daughter, the girl with a crush. In spite of her size, she's invisible--except for cruel taunts and well-meaning cookies. Yet oh-so-slowly, Rosemary starts to lose weight. And as the pounds come off, so do the blinders: her own, and the ones on the eyes of the people in her life.

Commentary: Full of plot points, this novel is thankfully not overstuffed. Rosemary's struggles with her weight are explored, with both the good (losing weight, exercising with a new friend, wearing new clothes) and the bad (fighting temptation, adjusting the mental outlook). Yet her weight loss is only part of Rosemary's story. Just as important is improving her relationship with her mother, recently diagnosed with cancer, and discovering that her crush likes her, in spite of her weight. This novel features a Southern voice that's just right. This novel is not without flaws--Rosemary starting her diet with shakes and not proper nutrition and some over-the-top, stereotyped minor characters--detract from the positives. Yet there are still much to like in this story. In the crowded ranks of novels about girls losing weight and finding self-esteem, this book stands out.