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Liar's Moon (Thief Errant, #2)Liar’s Moon by Elizabeth C. Bunce

The good news is that you don’t need to have Starcrossed fresh in your mind to enjoy this one, although if you haven’t read it, I highly recommend it. The (slightly) bad news is that this one didn’t feel as tight as the first.

The good! Bunce creates a fantasicaly realized world, complete with complex politics and religions and social structures. Nothing startlingly original, but well-crafted. The large cast of characters is fantastic and nuanced, with plenty of people you love and plenty of people who are flawed and potential suspects. The story is a combination of fantasy and mystery, with a flavoring of historical fiction.

The not-so-good – despite my interest in the world and the characters and the plot, things slowed down majorly in the middle. I enjoyed reading it but had a hard time really sinking in and losing large chunks of time with the book. It’s a smart book, and I love that, but it needed a tad more zip. Nonetheless, the ending has a nice zinger.

Source: my public library

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Why We Broke UpWhy We Broke Up by Daniel Handler

If you’re incapable of suspending your disbelief long enough to believe people can write novel-length letters, then this is not the book for you. Flip through to look at the pictures and then step away. If, like me, you were raised on a steady diet of novels pretending to be letters or diaries, complete with detailed recreations of dialogue, you just might enjoy the ride.

Everybody thinks that Min is ‘arty’ or ‘different’ (well, she thinks they think ‘arty,’ but they always say ‘different’) and she is a bit different – she’s obsessed with old movies that you’ve never heard of (because Daniel Handler made them up) and she doesn’t buy in to mainstream high school culture. But a lot of these ‘different’ things about Min are surface, and as the story goes along I got more and more tired, as did Min, that people looked at her that way.

The story felt believable as a brief, slightly disastrous high school romance. What I just didn’t see (and maybe this is adult perspective) was why Min loved Ed so much, at least at first. In the middle part of their relationship, I began to see his appeal to her. The ending, sadly, felt inevitable – not sad because they broke up, but slightly predictable.

I enjoyed Min’s somewhat run-on style, her constant references, and the combination of images and text. I loved the way she ended each chapter with a variation on “and that’s why we broke up.”

Source: my public library

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EntwinedEntwined by Heather Dixon

An absolutely fun read that I’d recommend to fans of fairy tale retellings – although was more of the Princess of the Midnight Ball variety (read: fun and a bit fluffy) than of the Beauty: A Retelling of the Story of Beauty and the Beast variety (read: emotionally complex and all-around awesome). It’s a retelling of The Twelve Dancing Princesses, and one of the great things about this version is that it really conveys their love of dance, mentioning specific dances and steps and what it means to the girls.

With fairy tale retellings, it’s always fun to see which bits of the story are emphasized in the plot. Here, the subplot of wanna-be suitors trying to solve the mystery is a relatively minor part of the story. What really shines are the family dynamics, the relationships between the girls and their difficult bond with their father.

As far as setting, giving the kingdom and the castle a small, slightly run-down feel helps establish a sense of place and make the princesses less stereotypically royal. Which is all to say that the cover is completely wrong for the story – there are swirling crinolines aplenty, but the characters go through most of the story in much-mended mourning black, with much more of a Victorian feel than modern runway.

My only issue with the book is length – it could have been much tighter and shorter, since much of the middle is repetitious. However, I was still having fun and whizzed through the story.

Another plus is the relative innocence of the story – there’s some magical violence and a bit of action, but the romances are sweet and innocent in a way that makes the story great for middle school on up with no worries about content. Recommended if you’re in the mood for frothy fun.

Source: my public library

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I stopped beating myself up about writing something about everything I read (quality over quantity being the idea) and instead I’ve been writing…nothing much. So here’s an attempt to dip my toes back into the water and make it fun again. These are all February reads that I haven’t already blogged about, but wanted to put out there as well worth picking up:

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green. This one hardly needs more buzz, and books with buzz often end up being disappointing – but this is the exception. The buzz is not wrong, but it’s still best if you can set it aside and enjoy the book on its own merits. It’s funny and raw. Some readers have accused the book of doing exactly what the characters hate – somehow romanticizing kids with cancer or turning into entertainment – while others wonder whether teens actually talk and think this way. The second question bugs me because I want to see more characters like these – smart, intelligent teens who also act like teens. While I can’t claim to being this smart or well-read in high school, I would’ve eaten these characters up with a spoon because I would’ve wanted to read and think and discuss like them. There is nothing wrong with a high standard. The first question is trickier, and I won’t try to answer it except to say that it didn’t prevent me from finding the book emotionally and intellectually stimulating. Also, I started this on a dinner break at work, but for the love of dignity, read the second half alone, or around people who understand crying over books.

The Cheshire Cheese Cat by Carmen Agra Deedy and Randall Wright. I listened to this one, as read by the incomparable Katherine Kellgren. It’s full of nods to the works of Charles Dickens, and he features as a character in the story, but they’re more extras than essential to enjoying this fun story of a cheese-loving cat and a band of mice. Fun, and especially recommended to fans of stories told from the perspective of  animal characters.

The Isle of Blood by Rick Yancey. I had this one checked out forever before picking it up, but I’m glad I did because it’s my favorite so far in the series. This one has all the appeal factors of the first two – Victorian style, gore, monsters, fabulous characters – but the relationship between Warthrop and Will Henry deepens in a way that caught me off guard. Will Henry is growing up! Plus, the whole monster chasing bit at the end had some great twists. Recommended to fans of the series, but you should really start with The Monstrumologist and go on from there.

Dead End in Norvelt by Jack Gantos. You’ve got to listen to this one on audio if you’re an audiobook fan, because listening to Jack Gantos read you the story of Jack Gantos is perfection. His voice is quirky and distinctive and serves to highlight all the black humor. The cover does this a disservice, because the story is dark and funny and a bit rambling, but filled with a fascinating sense of history and place and childhood. The whole thing is awash in nosebleeds and dead old ladies, with some fantastic obituaries and an appearance by the Hell’s Angels. Just read it already. This year’s Newbery winner!

Where Things Come Back by John Corey Whaley. After something of a slow set-up (I was puzzled by the alternate chapters from different viewpoints for quite a while) the story gets going. It’s both suspenseful and ordinary, dealing with the disappearance of Cullen’s younger brother and the everyday despair of a dying small town. It’s also frequently funny, enough to keep the whole thing from dragging down, and has brilliantly realistic characters. Recommended for teens & adults who like stories that pack a punch without much action, and for readers who like character-driven stories. This year’s Printz and Morris winner!

I have a few longer reviews that I’ll post separately, and then we can move onto March and (sooner or later) my hesitant embrace of ebooks.

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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Flesh and Blood So CheapFlesh and Blood So Cheap by Albert Marrin

I read this one in two sittings, a week or two apart. Once you pick it up, it’s an aborbing read as much for as its horrors as its way of making history come alive. But it’s not exactly cheerful reading for a lunch break, so it sat around my living room for a while before getting picked up again.

I’d argue that the story isn’t as much about the Triangle Fire as it is about social conditions that led up to the fire and reforms attempted in the aftermath of the fire. The horrifying events of the fire really only take up about a chapter – it was a quick and deadly.

But to explain how something like this happens, Marrin takes us back through history to set up the day of the fire. He talks about why so many southern Italians and Eastern European Jews came to New York at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries, why they worked the jobs they did, and how they lived. He describes changes in the manufacture of clothing, the advent of new technologies and changes in fashion that led to tenement-based sweatshops and later larger operations like the Triangle Waist Factory.

Having set the scene for why there were so many young women working long hours in these factories, he layers in issues like workplace safety – the practice of locking-in workers to deterr late-comers and prevent workers from leaving, the fact that fire-prevention devices had been invented (like overhead sprinklers) but that factory owners weren’t required to use them. In fact, it was more cost-effective to let buildings burn (and the workers in them – there were always more willing to take the jobs) and collect insurance than to take pains to prevent fires. The scene is also set with an account of the garment workers’ strike prior to the fire

Following the fire, Marrin takes us through changes in politics and policies in New York related to the garment industry – some of the immediate aftermath shows the changes brought about by the fire, but the further we get into the 20th century, the less the information seems relevant to the fire (particularly the discussion of organized crime). The final chapter briefly covers how our clothes are made today and the fact that Triangle-like conditions still exist in sweatshops.

These present-day accounts are a chilling footnote to the story, but here Marrin’s tone becomes a bit more opinionated, rather than letting the facts speak for themselves. Throughout the book, in fact, he’s prone to a rather grandiose tone that frequently took me out of the story. The facts he presents are gripping enough without the use of over-wrought language.

Audience is a tricky question for this one – I would say middle school and high school, depending on the reader’s comfort level with occasionally gruesome descriptions. Because the book is so chock-full of different pieces of history, it could be useful to kids researching anything from immigration to working conditions to women’s rights, or for readers interested in the context of the fire.

Source: my public library

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June 2018
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