April 23, 2014

Wanderville

by Wendy McClure
First sentence: "Jack didn't notice the smoke until there was far too much of it."
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Content: There's a some bullying and a fire that kills a family member of a main character, but that's about it. It's short enough to be a beginning chapter book, but it might be too challenging for most 1st and 2nd graders. Definitely belongs in the middle grade (3-5th grade) section of the bookstore.

Jack lives in a walk up in New York City in 1904. Their family is poor, but making it. That is, until a fire takes both their building and the life of Jack's older brother. Frances and her younger brother Harold are orphans and living off the charity of one of the many orphanages in the city. Both find themselves on a train headed west, as part of the efforts of the Society for Children's Aid and Relief Office. But, as all three find out, the best intentions of adults don't always translate into good things for kids.

Faced with being separated from her brother, and looking forced labor in the eye, Frances, Harold and Jack decide to jump off the train before they reach their final destination. They're wandering the Kansas prairie when they find Alexander, another orphan train escapee. He's decided to start his own town, called Wanderville, and while it doesn't look like much (or anything, really) it's not his own. Unfortunately they way they get supplies is by "liberating" them from the nearby town. Which, obviously, is going to lead to trouble.

I wanted to like this one. It's got a good idea -- exploring the world of the orphans from the orphan train -- and it's set here in Kansas. I was hoping that it'd be a good contribution to historical/Kansas middle grade fiction. But it's not. Perhaps it was me, but I didn't like the characters, and felt the text itself was too condescending and predictable. I felt that if I had a checklist I would have ticked every single cliche off.  Bully on the train? Check. Evil man exploiting the system for his own gain? Check. Rugged and slow cop? Check. Sisterly figure who always knows better than the boys? Check. Adorable 7-year-old who is Wiser Than His Years? Check.) That's not to say that kids won't like it. I'm sure many will.

I just didn't.

April 21, 2014

Dreams of Gods & Monsters

by Laini Taylor
First sentence: "Nerve thrum and screaming blood, wild and churning and chasing and devouring and terrible and terrible and terrible --"
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Others in the series: Daughter of Smoke & Bone, Days of Blood & Starlight
Content: There's a lot of violence, and some mild swearing. Nothing as dire as the previous book, but it's still hard to take, emotionally. It's in the teen section (grade 9+) at the bookstore, but I would give the series to an 8th grader.

I'm at a loss where to begin. I suppose it's with you reading the other two books before this one. While Taylor refreshed my memory (very eloquently) about the other books, you are missing a ton by not starting at the beginning of this story.

Also, by saying that even though this is a 600 page book, not much is extra. (M disagrees with me: she thinks Taylor could have cut out a couple of the subplots and the Epilogue and it would have been better.) Taylor picks up immediately after the events of Blood & Starlight and gives us the Apocalypse via angels. We're introduced to a new character, Eliza, a PhD student in biology, who is on earth while everything in Eretz is falling apart. There's something about her -- I won't tell you what -- and even though she's new to the book, she fits right into this elaborate and crazy world that Taylor has created.

There's so many threads going on in this book, I couldn't even begin summing up. And Taylor manages them all mostly deftly. She does introduce a new conflict when there's 100 pages left, and it's much too tidily wrapped up (or at least dismissed), but other than that, there's so much too love. Mik is fantastic (there was one point where I was laughing and cheering; he and Zuzana MAKE the book), and Karou is incredible. In fact, that was the one thing I truly came away from this book with: the women rock. Seriously. And in so many different ways. They're villains and tough and tender and loving and hurt and compassionate and just so, so complex. It's fantastic.

The whole series is. The only thing I can say that was truly bad about this is that it's over.

April 19, 2014

Audio book: Dad is Fat

by Jim Gaffigan
read by the author
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Content: Some mild swearing (like, less than a dozen times) and it's all about parenting, so I'm not sure how many kids would be interested. It's in the humor section at the bookstore.

Jim Gaffigan is a comedian (whom I hadn't heard of) and a father of five kids. In New York City. He lives in a two-bedroom apartment in a five-story walk-up. And as you can imagine, all this leads to an immense amount of hilarity, most of which he turns into comic gold. (Well, not gold, really.)

Like most comedians (and humor really), it's really quite subjective. This one tickled my funny bone, partially because I could relate to it (one tweet I sent out: "So true: 'When children see animals in captivity, it makes them want ice cream.' - Jim Gaffigan), perhaps because I have nearly as many kids as he does. And partially because he's honest about himself and his abilities as a parent. I want to sit down with him, swap horror stories, and say, "Yeah, I think I suck at this parenting gig, too."

I'm not sure I would have liked it if I had read it, but Gaffigan is a terrific narrator of his own material (see: stand-up comedian), and I often found myself guffawing (yes, I do guffaw) along with his hilarious and often ridiculous (see: five kids in NYC) stories. As I was telling a friend of mine: there's nothing like listening to the war stories of someone who's got it more challenging than you to make you feel good about your life.

And this was a thoroughly diverting ego boost.

April 18, 2014

Fangirl

by Rainbow Rowell
First sentence: "There was a boy in her room."
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Content: There's quite a few f-bombs, and some insinuations of sex. Plus a lot of underage (and overage) drinking. Also, it's about college freshmen, a subject which I'm not sure younger readers want to read about. It's rightly in the teen section (grades 9 and up) of the bookstore.

Cath and Wren are twins. Wren is the outgoing one, the pretty one, the fun one. And Cath stays home and writes Simon Snow (think Harry Potter) fanfiction. She's really good at it: her stories get thousands of hits, and are widely talked about on the fanfiction sites.

But none of that is going to matter now that they're freshmen at the University of Nebraska. Cath wanted to go the safe route by rooming with Wren. But, for Wren, that wasn't an option. So Cath is forced to branch out. Experience things. Actually have a life.

In many ways, this is a love story to those who write fanfiction. Yes, Cath is an introvert, and no she doesn't want to engage in what most people call "living", but in no way does Rowel make Cath seem pathetic. She puts her in contrast to Wren, who spends weekends (and some weeknight) partying until we hours (the "normal" college experience) and lets us choose on our own. Perhaps some readers will see Cath as pathetic and without a life, but I never did. (Perhaps, too, that's because I'm an introvert and I have a nerdy family who actually read -- and write -- fanfiction.)

It's also a traditional love story. Cath's roommate, Reagan, has a boy, Levi, kicking around. Cath thinks they're dating, but eventually realizes that it's really her Levi is interested in. And it's their romance that made the book for me. Levi is so danged good and it was a pleasure watching the good guy get the girl. (So often it's the "bad" one.) I loved the banter, I loved the push and pull, and I loved watching Levi draw Cath out of her shell, while simultaneously wholly accepting her for who she is.

The ending was a bit pat, I thought, and all the drama with her parents (dad's a bit on the manic side; mom walked out on The 9/11, and Cath is understandably resistant to her attempts to reconnect) was a bit over-the-top. And while I appreciated that Rowell was reaching out to those who immerse themselves in a fandom, including pages and pages of Cath's fanfiction was a little boring for me.

Even with the quibbles, though, I thoroughly enjoyed reading this one.

April 16, 2014

Under the Egg

by Laura Marx Fitzgerald
First sentence: "It was the find of the century."
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Content: There some descriptions of horrible events, but nothing graphic. I think younger readers might have problems with the languages -- there's French and Latin, though translations are provided -- and some of the names, but it's in the middle grade (grades 3-5) of the bookstore, and I think it fits there.

Theodora (call her Theo) Tenpenny is the granddaughter of an artist and the daughter of an extreme introvert. She lives in what was once a grand old New York City house, but over the years has become neglected. Her grandpa Jack has kept everything reasonably in shape over the years and has managed to keep the family afloat by being mostly self-reliant. But since he was hit by a car and died (which seems overly gruesome for a guy in his mid-80s), Theo's been in charge. And she's struggling.

That is, until she takes her grandfather's last words -- "Look under the egg" -- literally, and discovers that he's been hiding a very old painting underneath the one of an egg that's been hanging over their mantelpiece for years. Because she's spent her life in her grandfather's shadow, going to the Met and other art museums, Theo has a good eye, and realizes at once that this painting is something special. Something, perhaps, worth a lot of money.

However, as she and her new friend, Bodhi, find out, declaring a painting a lost work by a master is easy. Proving it is another matter. Especially when it turns out that this could be looted Nazi treasure.

On the one hand, there's a lot of information to be had in this slim book. Both art history as well as WWII history play a major role in the plot. But I think that Fitzgerald handles it well, even if all the information and history might make it harder for younger readers to get into the book. But, she gave us a couple of great characters in Bodhi and Theo; they really are a team that works well together. I enjoyed the old-fashioned sleuthing to solve the mystery of the painting, and I liked how the history fit into the larger picture. I did find the ending to be a bit convenient, but even that was explained in a reasonable (if somewhat implausible) manner.

In the end, a highly enjoyable book.