March 31, 2015

March 2015 Round-up

It's the end of March, and here in Kansas (at least) it's finally spring. My hyacinths are blooming, I actually need to mow the lawn, and I'm finally coming out of my winter-induced depression. (It was worse this year than in the past. Gah.) And what contributed to this happiness was the knowledge that I can now share the new Penderwicks book with you. If you haven't read them, DO. So, so wonderful.

The Penderwicks in Spring
As for the rest, I read:

Middle Grade:
Fish in a Tree

Mark of the Thief

Monstrous

The Red Butterfly

YA:
Gabi a Girl in Pieces

Rebel Belle

The Red Queen

Shadow Scale
The Winner's Crime

Non-fiction
Small Victories (audio book)

Adult:
The Calligrapher's Daughter
Funny Girl (audio book)
Graphic Novel
Ms. Marvel, Volume 1

What was your favorite this month?

March 30, 2015

Red Queen

by Victoria Aveyard
First sentence: "I hate First Friday."
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy brought back from the ABA Winter Institute for me by a co-worker.
Content: There's a lot -- a LOT -- of violence, some of it gruesome. It's in the teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore, and I'm going to leave it there, but I wouldn't be adverse to giving it to a kid who could stomach Maze Runner or The Hunger Games.

This one is getting All the Buzz (at least in the bookselling circles). It's got a great cover (seriously), and it's another one of those vaguely apocalyptic books and so I think publishers are expecting it to do Great Things. I don't know if that raised my expectations -- it is a debut novel, so I don't know how high they could have been -- but this fell flat for me.

Mare Barrow is a Red. Which means, in this world (it was never clear if it's Earth or a different world entirely), that she's considered low. Base. A slave. Because her blood bleeds red. See, in this world, the people who have all the power are the ones whose blood is Silver (perhaps because they were aliens that invaded the planet hundreds of years ago? It was never clear.) and because they have powers that give them an advantage over those low Reds. Mare figures she's going to spend her short life stealing to get by until she gets conscripted into the war that's been going on for a hundred years, in which she will die.

And then her life changes: she meets Cal, a Silver, who gets her a job in the palace, and then during the Queenstrial (in which Silvers from the noble houses compete to become the prince's bride), she discovers (quite by accident) that she has powers, like a Silver.

All this sets in motion political intrigue, betrayal, and a lot of fighting that will ultimately be Mare's downfall. Maybe.

The plot doesn't sound half bad: there's a bit of a forced love triangle, and a twist at the end that wasn't entirely unexpected. But the thing that kept pulling me out of the book was two simple words: smirk and sneer. EVERYONE smirked. EVERYONE sneered. And after the first 15 times, I noticed every time someone did. Then after the next 30, I lost patience with the book and skipped to the end. I did go back and fill in the middle, just to see how we got to the end, but I ended up loathing the book for two simple words. I couldn't get past it. That's just lazy writing and lazy editing (and the book would have been 20 pages shorter if they were all deleted). Sure, there were some interesting ideas about class and race and bias, but I couldn't rise above the writing level to appreciate them.

Definitely for someone less picky than me.

March 27, 2015

Audiobook: Funny Girl

by Nick Hornby
Read by Emma Fielding
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: Aside from the dozen f-bombs (entirely from 2 characters), this one is relatively tame. And because it deals with a character in her early 20s, it probably will have some good teen crossover. It's in the adult fiction section of the library.

Several things conspired to actually get me to read an adult book (shock!). One, I had just finished my previous audiobook and was looking for something new. Two, the Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast (which I have come to love) announced that they were doing a book group discussion of this one in March. And three, I figured I should read Nick Hornby sometime, and this seemed like a good place to start.

It's 1964, and Barbara Parker is looking at a bleak future. Sure, she just won the Miss Blackpool title but she wants MORE out of life. She wants to be like her heroine, Lucille Ball. So she returns the title, and takes off for the big city, hoping for her break. And, after some bad scrapes and name change -- she's Sophie Straw now -- it eventually comes in the form of a BBC TV sitcom, Barbara [and Jim]. She becomes famous, with all the strings that are attached to that, as well as the ups and downs.

On the one hand, I have to admit that I found this a very male-centric, sexist, chauvinistic book. Barbara/Sophie is reduced to her looks (blonde, curvy, busty), as are all of the women in the book. The men drive the action, and Sophie is just reacting to them, much of the time. It's also incredibly homophobic, even though one of the characters -- Bill, a writer on the series -- is definitely gay, and another -- Tony, Bill's writing partner -- is probably bisexual. This really bothered me, until I realized that Hornby was being true to the time period. The 1960s, especially the mid-1960s when it's set, was incredibly sexist and homophobic. This proved true by the end of the book, when the characters (and Hornby) were much less annoying.

I also felt like it went on too long, especially the ending. I didn't really feel a need for the huge epilogue-y ending chapters; I felt the book could have ended when the series ended, and I wouldn't have missed a whole lot.

That said, I did find it entertaining. I wonder if that had a lot to do with Fielding's narration. She was a brilliant narrator, working in regional accents and speech affectations so I could get a sense not only of who was speaking but of their character. Sophie's Blackpool accent, especially, endeared me to her in a way I don't think would have come through on the page. And it was sometimes laugh-aloud funny. Not consistently, and not enough, but it was there.

I'm not sure I liked it enough to read another Hornby (unless there's one that you strongly recommend?) but it wasn't an unpleasant experience either.

March 25, 2015

Ms. Marvel, Volume 1: No Normal

by G. Willow Wilson and Adrian Alphona
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: There's some talk of teen drinking and some violence, but I'd hand it to anyone who loves superheroes and is willing to sit through the Avengers movie. It's in the adult graphic novel section, but I wonder if it'd get more traction in the teen?

I'm sold. Seriously. I've heard the buzz (thanks to Leila and others) and I caved, and THEY WERE RIGHT. It's worth it: you should read it.

(Do I need to say more?)

Kamala Kahn is a 16-year-old daughter of Pakistani immigrants, and she's basically chafing against her life. She doesn't like being Muslim. She doesn't like having overprotective parents. She doesn't like not being "pretty" and "blonde". And so when Captain Marvel appears to Kamala (after a party she snuck out to) and gives Kamala an opportunity to reboot her life, Kamala wishes to be like Captain Marvel. Her wish is granted: she has super-powers. (And is tall and blonde.) Eventually, she figures out that the tall and blonde and "non-politically correct" costume isn't all it's cracked up to be. She accepts that she -- Ms. Marvel, as she dubs herself -- is Pakistani and goes with it, embracing (albeit reluctantly) her new superpowers.

Why did I love it? First: it's a Pakistani girl superhero! She's Muslim, and while she chafes against her parents' rules, she's faithful, which I appreciated. Which also means she's a character of color: not all superheroes need to be white. (Or drawn with super-skimpy costumes, so yay for that as well.) But it's more than that: Kamala is smart and funny, and the writing and art reflect that. I loved Kamala's ordinary-ness, and her devotion to her friends (and parents), and her struggle to figure out what all this means and to accept who she is.

It's completely worth the buzz. Fantastic.

March 23, 2015

Mark of the Thief

by Jennifer Nielsen
First sentence: "In Rome, nothing mattered more than the gods, and nothing mattered less than its slaves."
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy snagged from the ARC shelves at my place of employment.
Content: There's violence, since it's set in ancient Rome, but it's not graphic. It's basically on the level of the Percy Jackson books, so I put it in the middle grade (grades 3-5, though it probably skews to the upper end of that) section of the bookstore.

Nicholas Calva is a slave in the mines, digging up stones and jewels for the wealthy of Ancient Rome. This is not something he chose to do; his family was captured in one of Rome's many invasions of other, smaller countries. Or sRomething he wants to do: he would much rather be a free man. But, because his mother was sold away, and because he needs to watch after his sister, Livia, he sticks around and is (mostly) obedient. Then, one day, his master sends him down to find and fetch Julias Ceasar's bulla, a medallion that he carried with him that was supposedly given to him by Venus. Nic finds it, of course, and fights the griffin guarding it, and is endowed with magical powers.

Which gets him in to all sorts of trouble.

See, the current emperor is weak, and there's a war brewing between the Praetors and the general of the army, and Nic seems to be caught in the middle. The question is, will he even survive long enough to pick a side?

I loved this one. Seriously. Nielsen knows how to create a world, and I was happy to immerse myself in an ancient Rome that had magic. (And pretty cool magic, at that.) Nic, much like Sage, is a impulsive character, one is more than willing to go out on a limb to do what he thinks he should, which makes him a lot of fun to read about. I enjoyed getting to know Aurelia -- his friend/pseudo romantic interest -- and thought she was a great foil for Nic impulsiveness. My only regret was that Livia was more an idea than a character; I never really felt the connection that Nic did for her, and was never really upset when her life was dangled before Nic as motivation.

But there are some nice twisty moments, especially at the end, and it's a solid first book in a series.