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Divergent (Divergent, #1)Divergent by Veronica Roth

This was one of those books that I enjoyed reading and would easily recommend to teens looking for dystopian fiction, but that doesn’t quite hold up to close inspection. Maybe it’s not supposed to be examined that closely, but there are other dystopian worlds that do hold up, or that never caused me to doubt the premise (The Hunger Games, of course, but also books like The Knife of Never Letting Go or Feed). So this falls squarely into the category of ‘entertainment’ rather than ‘distinguished literature.’

But what holds it back? Tris is an interesting enough character, with a compelling journey. She’s dealing with both day to day issues – surviving her initation into a new faction, the possibility of friendships and maybe even romance in a cut-throat world – and big picture issues, like the fact that she’s different and her differences are dangerous.

Okay, here’s where I start to unsuspend my disbelief. I buy the everday stuff – it’s gripping and keeps you on your toes because, like Tris, you never quite know what’s around the corner. But the whole concept of the factions and of being Divergent felt a bit forced. I could buy the idea that society gradually moved towards the factions – that there were ideological differences that led to the splintering of society, but that each group still relied on the others in some way, so they continued to coexist.

I don’t buy that things got so extreme that people agreed to radically shift to the faction model of living. I don’t buy that most people fit easily into one faction. I don’t buy that being Divergent is this special, rare thing. Being Divergent seems to me just like being a normal human being, a person who might lean towards one trait but also encompasses the others. That is humanity, people.

Perhaps these issues get ironed out more in the rest of the series. Maybe it will be revealed that being Divergent is more normal than it seemed in this book, that most people really do struggle with fitting into the single ideals of their faction. Roth certainly leaves herself a lot of room to explore the history of this world, as well as what’s happening outside Chicago, so she might tackle this, too.

I also wish, on a style level, that she trusted her readers more, that there was more showing and less telling. I noticed a few sections of dialogue where I felt like the subtext was already in the spoken words, but then Tris went on to explain what she was feeling and how the other person was reacting. Less is more.

All that said, the world of the book is fascinating, and I’d be curious to see how things play out in later books. I’d recommend this to middle school & up – so far the romance is very tame, but there is a fair amount of violence.

Source: my public library

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A Monster CallsA Monster Calls by Patrick Ness

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I was expecting emotional intensity and some brilliance (remember this is the man who brought us The Knife of Never Letting Go, which is also emotionally intense and absolutely brilliant) but I wasn’t quite sure what form it would take. This is a much sparer story than the Chaos Walking trilogy, which was actually a relief and, I think, one of the story’s strengths.

The dialogue is also perfectly spare – the characters leave so much out and say so much more by doing so. The mythological and fairy tale aspects felt suited to the story on a real gut level, which is something I rarely see. The first two stories the monster tells, in particular, had so much wonderful gray area in them. I didn’t get the same punch from the third story, but by then I was past really caring.

And the illustrations! I would say they set the mood for the story, but the words have already done that. Maybe one could say that they magnify the mood. The style isn’t one I’d normally be drawn to, but it’s right for this story.

If you’re anything like me, have a hanky handy at the end. Family members may express concern about your well-being. That said, I never felt like Ness went for the cheap, easy, tug-on-your-heartstrings moments, instead hitting much deeper notes.

Somebody needs to slap an award sticker on this one – I don’t care if it’s Newbery, Printz or both.

Source: my public library (where I stuck it in the Young Teen, ie middle school, section but it could just as easily be shelved in Young Adult/Teen).

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I wrote this review before ALA’s award announcements on January 23rd…and I was sad that it wasn’t honored by the awards committees. It did make ALSC’s list of Notable Children’s Books.

When I was in library school, if someone had asked me what my dream job would be, I’d have answered “being a children’s librarian in the Portland area.” If pressed to be more specific, I would’ve said “being a children’s librarian at the library where I grew up, ordering fiction and doing storytime and recommending books to kids.” The miracle, the insane-that-it-would-ever-come-true miracle, is that this is exactly the job I have now. While I was still in school, I basically despaired of ever getting a job in the metro area, let alone one that was my preferred field, let alone one at my favorite library. So that all came true and I’ve been merrily working along for the past two and a half years doing exactly that.

Two weeks ago, if someone had asked “is there some task you’re not doing now that you would enthusiastically take on?” I’m pretty sure my answer would’ve been “order young adult books.” And then, out of the blue, I was asked if I wanted to take over ordering YA. I pretended to think about it for about half a second before saying yes.

Ever since then, I’ve had this feeling that I’m taking over the world…

The coworker who passed off the task didn’t quite share my enthusiasm, so there’s a lot of ways to make my enthusiasm productive. I’ve already made several read-alike and genre lists and making lists of what I need to buy to fill gaps in the collection. The budget it okay but doesn’t feel as generous as my children’s fiction budget. I placed my first order on Tuesday and am impatiently tapping my toes till it comes in. I found myself wanting to place another order on Thursday, but resisted. I typically order once a month in each category (children’s fiction and audiobooks) but I might take a page from my coworker who orders adult fiction and non-fiction and switch to weekly orders – as long as I manage not to blow the budget in one week. I like the idea of meeting demand more quickly, and having a constant steady trickle of books into the collection.

The best part (apart from world domination!) is that I feel like I finally have a tangible way to use all stored up knowledge about YA. Sure, I’d occasionally field a request for recommendations, but now I feel a great sense of ownership over that part of the library. And pleasantly industrious. I want to weed! Make read-alike lists! Create displays! Add more YA-related content to the library website! Spend some quality time just rearranging things and seeing what’s on the shelves.

Life: An Exploded DiagramLife: An Exploded Diagram by Mal Peet

Mal Peet can write like nobody’s business. He can make the Cuban missile crisis compelling, for crying out loud. He can make the world’ most annoying characters readable. He can also write an ending (a non-ending?) that makes me want to throw the book across the room.

I didn’t actually throw it – it was a library book – but I did toss it onto the coffee table in disgust. I would also argue that maybe this shouldn’t have been published as a young adult book in the US – although the main characters are teens for a book portion of the book, and I know there are teens who would find the book compelling (the slightly brainy ones who don’t mind bleakness and love Honors English), the book as a whole felt more adult.

All that aside, this is a carefully crafted, well-constructed, brilliant piece of bleakness. I can admire it but I cannot love it. If that’s your cup of tea, I recommend it.

Source: my public library

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Previously: Tamar by Mal Peet, which I loved.

The Last Little Blue Envelope (Little Blue Envelope, #2)The Last Little Blue Envelope by Maureen Johnson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

13 Little Blue Envelopes already made me want to book a flight to Europe…the sequel made it worse – they go to IRELAND.* If you haven’t read the first book, start there – Johnson catches you up pretty well, but there’s a lot of context from the first book, especially about Aunt Peg, that makes the story more meaningful.

Maureen Johnson’s books always (at least the ones I’ve read) have a great sense of fun – there’s some substance to ground things, and her characters are nuanced, but you come away feeling like you’ve just spent time with someone with a great sense of humor. The car scenes (and any mention of the tabletop) had me howling, plus there’s something inherently funny about throwing together a girl, her sort-of-ex-boyfriend, his new girlfriend, and a mysterious extortionist. And then having them go on a whirlwind, bizarro tour of Europe. Plus, the pace is great and it’s the kind of story you zip through because you’re having so much fun.

*I once spent two months in Ireland with a friend, living in a rented room, living on a meager budget, and having the time of our lives. This time may or may not have featured prominently in the toast she gave at my wedding. If Ginny’s trips to Europe were her prime college essay material, this would have been mine (except I was already in college).

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February 2012

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