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Beauty Queens (Audio CD)Beauty Queens by Libba Bray

Beauty Queens is equally awesome and awful. Awesome: the premise of a plane full of beauty pageant contestants crashing on a deserted (or is it?) island, and a narrative structure full of commercial breaks, footnotes explaining fictional pop-culture references, and Libba Bray’s wicked sense of humor.

Not as awesome is the (thin and ridiculous) plot that sags under the weight of too much time spent on flat characters and shoved-in-your-face issues. While flat characters and a ridiculous plot might be exactly what the book calls for, they can’t sustain the bloat of the book. What is laughing-so-hard-you-cry funny can quickly turn to disinterest and annoyance when there’s just too much of everything.

Libba Bray narrates the book herself, which is mostly fantastic (not so much her accents, which she does enthusiastically but terribly). The humor comes across perfect in her voice, and the sound effects that accompany the extras (footnotes, commercials, etc.) help distinguish them, along with her incredible ranges of inflections. A small detail that I particularly loved were the introductions to each disc (I’m not sure what form these take, if any, in the print version) – a high, ditzy voice saying things like “Beauty Queens, disc 5. Oh my gosh, now I’ve used all the fingers on one hand!” or “Beauty Queens, disc 12. I got my period when I was 12…I think.”

In short, if one can be short when talking about a book like Beauty Queens, you might think this is the best book ever. Or you might throw it down in disgust. Or you might be constantly tempted to ditch it, like me, until you suddenly realize that your hatred has turned to respect (mostly). The interview section with the author at the end helped finish things on a sweet note.

I didn’t give this one a star rating because it would either be 1 or 4 stars and anything in between felt wishy-washy.

Source: my public library

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The Girl of Fire and Thorns (Fire and Thorns #1)The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is an absorbing fantasy that really shows off its excellent world-building. It’s the kind of story where the landscape, buildings, culture, food, clothing, language, religious traditions, even the weather all come together to create a place that the reader feels should actually exist someplace. Add onto that some excellent plotting and pacing, and things are looking good.

Carson gives you a familiar enough plot – a girl marked from infancy as someone special, but who lacks the confidence and determination to fulfill that promise until circumstances force her to grow up and come into her own. But there enough unpredictable plot elements and enough flawed and complex characters to keep you on your toes. The romantic subplots, in particular, were pleasantly outside of the usual pattern for fantasy.

Another strength of the book is that it treats Elisa’s spiritual life in a complex and believable way. The religion of the book is its own thing, although parallels can of course be made between it and real religions. It adds texture to the world of the story, in the way characters are and are not observant of it, as well as the role it plays in Elisa’s growth and ability to become a stronger person.

As other reviewers have pointed out, it is a little problematic that Elisa doesn’t begin the bulk of her character transformation (from intelligent but passive) until after she begins her physical transformation (from overweight and lazy to more active, but never skinny). I did see some character development before the events-beyond-her-control that lead to her weight loss – she’s begun conversations with the priest, she begins to befriend her stepson and tries to make inroads with her husband and his council. So it’s not as if she does nothing until she’s skinnier – but the majority of her personality development comes later in the book. So I’m inbetween on this one – I found her a compelling character because of her flaws, although I still think the main strength of the book is in world-building and plotting.

I’d recommend this for middle-schoolers and up – especially fans of Robin McKinley, Kristin Cashore, Tamora Pierce and the like. Also, although this is the first in a series, apparantly, and there are still questions to be answered, the main plot points are resolved by the end of the book so you aren’t left hanging. I’d read more books in this series, especially to see what other world-building details are added.

Source: my public library

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How to Save a LifeHow to Save a Life by Sara Zarr

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Sara Zarr writes the sort of books that are populated with characters who feel so real, you know you’d recognize them if you met them on the street. I couldn’t put this one down – I felt desperate for the characters to get to some emotional resolution. The good news is that the ending is satisfying but not too tidy. Just enough is left to your imagination.

The viewpoint alternates between Mandy, a pregant teen, and Jill, a high school senior whose widowed mother wants to adopt Mandy’s baby. Yeah, it sounds like an after-school special – and I kept waiting to dislike Robin for what seemed like an impulsive decision, but I never did. Jill got angsty and annoying, but in a realistic teenagery way. Mandy seemed a little air-headed, but again, it worked. They all came together. They figured it out – how to get along with each other. How to try a little tenderness, how to listen to what Mac would have told them if he were still alive.

There are a few messy romantic storylines, although “romantic” is not really the way to describe how Jill and her on-and-off boyfriend act around each other. But they’re not the central part of the story. It’s about family, yes, but also about trying to find the best part of yourself to show other people, even when being shut-off and hard is a lot easier.

Definitely recommended to fans of character-driven stories – and to adults as well as teens, I think. Obviously teen pregnancy is part of the story, and Mandy has a pretty awful past, but nothing is explicit.

Source: review copy from publisher

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Geektastic: Stories from the Nerd HerdGeektastic: Stories from the Nerd Herd by Holly Black

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As with all short story collections, there are some stories that hit you harder than others. Here, part of that depends on your style of geekiness and part depends on the types of stories you enjoy. Overall, this is a solid collection, but a few of the stories suffer if you’re not up on the terminology that goes with that particular world.

In (I think – I already returned the book) “Definitional Chaos” by Scott Westerfeld, it took a while to get into the story because I was so distracted trying to figure out the terminology. Some stories, though, feel more universal to experiences of nerdiness – in Wendy Mass’ “The Stars at the Finish Line,” not being a space geek didn’t detract from my enjoyment of the story. Quite the opposite – it made me want to head out to the middle of nowhere on a clear night and do some star gazing.

Some stories are more about getting the in-jokes (I think “One of Us” by Tracy Lynn would fall flat without knowing at least a handful of the references) and others combine that nicely with emotional resonance. Libba Bray’s “It’s Just a Jump to the Left” had plenty of geekiness and a surprisingly touching ending.

Recommended if you identify as a geek, nerd, etc., or if you’re looking for a smart, funny short story collection.

Source: my public library

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The False PrincessThe False Princess by Eilis O’Neal

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Thoroughly enjoyable. A few things I particularly liked were Sinda’s growth as a character and the way magic was handled. Sometimes the magic in fantasy books feels arbitrary, as though the author constantly changed the rules to suit the action. Here, it felt thought-out in advance and fairly organic. I appreciated that Sinda dealt with the dramatic changes in her position in a realistic way – passive acceptance, then a bit of depression, then floundering around as she tries to figure out what to do next, then a gradual gain in confidence and competence.

I only had one minor quibble, plot-wise, where I expected a plot twist that didn’t come. Otherwise, it felt pleasantly complex without being too convoluted or slow. It’s not quite a page-turner, until the end, but it kept my interest throughout.

This is one of those books hovering between children’s and young adult – the characters are teens and there’s some romance, but it’s all completely appropriate for middle schoolers. It would probably appeal to fans of fairy tale retellings.

Source: my public library

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Anya's GhostAnya’s Ghost by Vera Brosgol

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Here’s a nicely creepy blend of a ghost story, a high school outsider story, and a graphic novel. I loved that Anya as a character doesn’t feel like someone you’ve already met in a young adult book. Her family came to the US from Russia when she was young, and as she puts it, she “served her time in ESL.” She lost the accent but she still feels like an outsider. Things get stirred up when she falls down an old well and meets the ghost of a girl who died there in 1918 – and this ghost is a tricksy character. Emily is lonely and wants out of the well, but she’s tied to her bones – a problem she solves when Anya accidentally removes a tiny bone during her rescue. Emily sets out to prove she’s useful, but her interfering ends up forcing Anya to take a good hard look at who she is and what she values.

Recommended to any high school readers (or adults) who enjoy stories about outsiders with a side of creepy. The story works wonderfully in the graphic format, with facial expressions and settings quickly adding a lot of information that would otherwise slow a story down. Anya – and Emily – ring true as teenagers (I particularly liked Anya’s description of why she doesn’t like going to church with Russians).

Source: my public library

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Dark DudeDark Dude by Oscar Hijuelos

I picked this one up because it was the only book from the Oregon Reader’s Choice Award senior division that I hadn’t already read. It was also a story that I wouldn’t ordinarily be drawn to, and I think it’s important as a librarian to read widely so that I can recommend widely.

I never quite knew where the story was going – it takes place partly in New York and partly in rural Wisconsin – two places where Rico doesn’t quite fit in. I thought the characters were interesting, and Hijuelos has some great observations about being in that strange, in-between place where you belong yet don’t belong. I’d recommend it to teens who are interested in reading about those experiences – either as a reflection of their own lives, in some way, or as a window into what other teens experience.

Source: my public library

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The Cardturner: A Novel about a King, a Queen, and a JokerThe Cardturner: A Novel about a King, a Queen, and a Joker by Louis Sachar

I wish I’d reviewed this closer to actually reading it, because it’s an excellent book and deserves a thoughtful review. In short, I loved it so much more than I expected – I even read the optional bridge sections, although I can’t say I always understood them. I loved the narrative style and thought it was perfect for the story, and the characters were just perfect.

The plot took turns I wouldn’t have predicted, and this was mostly successful – there was one thing in the resolution of the story that I enjoyed at the time, but didn’t quite seem to fit in retrospect, and that one plot element is really the only thing holding me back from giving this five stars.

I picked it up when it made SLJ’s Battle of the Kids’ Books this spring.

Source: my public library system

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Five Flavors of DumbFive Flavors of Dumb by Antony John

I picked this one up after it won the Schneider Family Award in the teen category – for portrayal of the disability experience – and this book is a perfect example of why awards like this are perfect for highlighting books that might not have gotten much buzz but are nonetheless excellent. This one has the hilarious premise of a deaf girl finding herself working as a band’s manager. The first chapter had me hooked – Piper is watching the band play outside her high school, and the descriptions are so fantastic that if you didn’t know the book was about a deaf character, you wouldn’t necessarily notice the absence of auditory descriptions. The set-up provides plenty of tension, as does Piper’s relationship with her family and her baby sister, who’s also deaf but who could have a very different life if her parents can buy her a cochlear implant. Sure, the plot gets a little over the top at points, but the story feels genuine and compelling.

Source: my library system

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RevolutionRevolution by Jennifer Donnelly

Here’s what I had to say about the print version, which I read in November:

“Oh, wow. Jam-packed with musical references, old and new, details of Paris now and Paris during the French Revolution, visits to the catacombs, artifacts ,writing and hearts (literally), with a main character who’s so broken it hurts, yet whose story you can’t put down. Gripping. Totally gripping, and the kind of big YA novel I love to find, and completely different in scope from Donnelly’s other novels.”

Rereading it on audio was no less gripping than the first time around. Even though I knew where the story was going, I still felt suspense and anxiety for the characters. It’s a big book and I sped through it the first time, so it was nice to revisit it and pick up more details and, of course, foreshadowing. The two readers (one for Andi, one for Alex) were great and that made it easy to keep track (especially if you tend to listen in little snippits in the car, like I often do, although with this one I kept taking it inside to listen to while I cooked – a sure sign I’m hooked).

Source: my library system

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