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Yay for YA: Five Flavors of Dumb

I read this novel, Five Flavors of Dumb by Antony John, back in March, before I’d decided to start reviewing books here.  In an effort to keep posting every weekday in these last two weeks of the year, and in order to share a good book with you, I present to you a review.

Statistics
Checkouts: I probably should donate it to the library.
Typical reader: Teens with interest in music or disabilities
Source: Personally purchased from Snowbound Books

Synopsis: Piper is witness to a hot new band’s impromptu performance on her high school’s front steps, and later has the guts to tell them they’re crap. The three-person band decides to challenge her in return – become their manager and get them a paying gig within a month. She accepts this potentially impossible task. It’s not just hard because they’re a new band that needs improvement – it’s hard because Piper is deaf.

My Goodreads rating: 4 stars

I couldn’t be in the same room as the book if I wanted to do something besides pick it up and continue reading.  This book is an intriguing compilation of hard rock history, the story of a band, teen romance and friendships in many forms, family dynamics, and a tale of coping with what many would consider a disability. Piper is an excellent, strong protagonist who brings together an eclectic band of five very different flavors of people (hence the title) while dealing with a family that doesn’t always support her – her parents dip into her college savings, earmarked for a university for the hearing impaired, to buy her deaf little sister a cochlear implant.

The characters are excellent, for the most part.  Piper and her brother Finn have an interesting, complex relationship of sibling love, rivalry, and dependance – while Piper can read lips and speak, it’s much easier to communicate with sign language while he serves as an interpreter.  The one character that I felt was a bit flat was the father.  While he does become more supportive as the story progresses, he comes across mostly as obtuse.

I picked up this entertaining book from a sea of teen fiction that was mostly either paranormal/paranormal romance or catty clique novels. It stood out as different, and it was.  If you’re looking for an antidote for the common teen novel, this is it.

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OMG, it’s a post on a Wednesday!  Today was the last day of school before winter vacation, and I survived not only the library times with wired students and a few class parties, but also got done checking in and cataloging books in a timely enough manner to read a book, get home, and write this review before 9 p.m.  Be amazed.

My elementary students adore the Magic Tree House series.  It’s written for about a second grade reading level, but the Kindergarten teacher introduced her class to them and her students just love to check these books out and bring them home to read with a parent.  Bless her heart, she got a bunch of the series from Scholastic, let the students choose one book for Christmas, and gave me the rest for the library!  What an awesome present.

With all that in mind, I decided to take ten minutes and read the first in the series.  Here’s my review before I end up typing more words than are in the book!

Statistics
Checkouts, Dinosaurs Before Dark: 7
Series checkouts: 49 (over ten books, before the new additions)
Typical reader: Any elementary student, especially K-3
Sources: Various

Synopsis: Jack and his little sister Annie discover a tree house full of books.  When they point to a picture in a book, they find themselves in a new place!  Good thing there’s a book with a picture of their hometown, so they can return.  In the first adventure, they go back to the Cretaceous Era.

My Goodreads rating: 5 stars

This series really is cute, and appropriate for all elementary students!  Jack and Annie are curious adventurers, with distinct personalities that I could get a feel for in just the first book.  The use of a brother and sister helps to appeal to both boys and girls, which is great.

There are two awesome things about these books.  First, they’re educational.  Jack and Annie learn about what they encounter, with both their experiences and the books from the tree house.  Second, the books don’t pander like some at this reading level do.  You’re not going to have an explanation in every story about how Jack and Annie found the tree house, and what it does, blah blah blah.  There’s a simple page or so in every subsequent volume with a quick explanation about what happens in this series.  The Magic Tree House series lacks the boring repetition I’ve found in series like Junie B. Jones or the Baby-Sitters Club: Little Sister.  You’re not wasting any of the story itself on a recap of “last week’s episode,” or whatever.

There are even Magic Tree House Research Guide volumes that complement many of the chapter books, full of facts about the topics mentioned in the matching novel.  Fabulous.

Yay for YA: Cleopatra’s Moon review

I’d originally started reading this book, Cleopatra’s Moon by Vicky Alvear Shecter, back in September.  Then my own Queen Cleo got really sick and died, and I had to put it down.  Last week, I finally picked it back up.  Here’s my review.

Statistics
Checkouts: New to the library
Typical reader: Students forced to do book reports on historical fiction.  And hopefully girls who like history and strong female figures.
Source: Superiorland Preview Center

Synopsis: Cleopatra Selene, daughter of the last queen of Egypt and the Roman Marcus Antonius, tells of her life from her idyllic days as a child, through her captivity in Rome in the household of her conqueror, to arriving in Mauritania to marry the client-king of that country.

My Goodreads rating: 4 stars

What’s the nice thing about reviewing a book about a historical figure’s life?  No spoilers!  Unless you’re picking up this book or reading my review of it with no prior knowledge of the life of Cleopatra Selene, you probably know the basic facts.

  • Cleopatra Selene was the only daughter of Queen Cleopatra VII, the last monarch of Egypt
  • Her father was Marcus Antonius, otherwise known as Mark Antony (the Roman triumvir who features in two of Shakespeare’s works, not the Latin pop singer)
  • She had a twin brother, Alexandros Helios, and a younger brother, Ptolemy Philadelphus
  • They had an older half-brother, Caesarion, whose father was Julius Caesar
  • She, Alexandros, and Ptolemy were taken after their parents’ defeat and deaths to Rome and marched in Octavian’s Triumph
  • Little or nothing is written about her brothers after that
  • She married Juba, the king of Mauritania, who was also raised in Rome by his people’s conquerors

This book fills in the gaps, from Cleopatra Selene’s point-of-view.  It is a richly-woven tale of a princess who started life happily and then had her world come crashing done around her.  Much of this blurs the line between historical and speculative fiction, but Ms. Shecter spins a pretty good yarn.  There’s intrigue, a dash of romance, Egyptian mythology, and one very smart heroine who manages to survive everything life throws at her.

One thing I particularly liked about the novel was how Rome was portrayed.  Roman history was most often written by the Romans, since they were the victors.  As this is from Selene’s perspective, we get a view of Rome that was probably just as accurate as the grand records of the likes of Plutarch and Seneca.  To Selene, Rome is filthy, abhorrent, and barbaric in comparison to her fair Alexandria, with its Library and Great Lighthouse.  We’re also treated to a view of the most famous and infamous queen of the ancient world from her daughter’s adoring perspective.  Today we know that Queen Cleopatra VII was extremely intelligent, and had written many treatises on a variety of matters; she was not just the cunning seductress both Rome and Hollywood made her out to be.  Cleopatra Selene’s account offers a view of just how awesome the queen likely was, but with a touch of motherly love.

I will say that the beginning of the book was slow.  Some of the Egyptian mythology that she learned is interesting, but for the most part, Celopatra Selene’s placid life was … dull.  The pace really does not pick up until Marcus Antonius kills himself.  But the novel after that is quite worth a read.

Oh, and the cats included in the novel are awesome.  As well they should be.


My cat had been named Cleocatra, after Cleopatra Selene’s mother.  My dog is named Jubatus, as in the genus name for a cheetah; he looked a bit like a baby cheetah when we adopted him, and I’m a nerd like that.  We call him Juba for short.

A couple years after getting Juba, I read a biography on Cleopatra … and learned that Cleopatra Selene married a King Juba.  This is really a great joke in the household.  King Juba of Mauritania was a scholar king.  Juba the dog is not particularly bright.

Also,

unlike in the novel and likely in real history, my Cleo and Juba were better off ignoring each other.

Last week I got a comment requesting that I review a book, complete with an offer to send me a PDF file of the book so that I could do so.  From an author.  After flailing around excitedly, I accepted my very first book review request.

So here is my review of Ugly to Start With by John Michael Cummings.  I’d prefer to be nicer, but honesty is the best policy; it’s not a five-star book.

Statistics
Checkouts: Not owned by the library
Typical reader: High school boys
Source: Direct from the author via email (Squee!)

Synopsis: Jason Stevens is a teen growing up in historic Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia, in the 1970s.  This is a collection of short, fictional stories about his less-than-ideal life.

My Goodreads rating: 3 stars

This book exemplifies the differences between middle-grade novels and those for young adults.  While the writing style and vocabulary are suitable for a younger audience, the subject matter certainly is not.  There are a lot of mature situations in this book, ranging from race relations to infidelity, from exploring sexuality to cruelty to animals.  This book is perfectly acceptable material for a public library, but my school library serves mostly K-8.  It doesn’t belong there.

I liked the simple, honest prose.  Jason isn’t the greatest person, particularly in the title story (I’ll get to that later), but he provides quality narration to his stories.  The short story format left me a bit wanting at times, because some vignettes ended without a sense of conclusion, but that’s a drawback to the confines of short stories.  On the other hand, the end of a short story is not the end of Jason’s overall tale.  There are pros and cons; your mileage may vary on this.

My favorite story was “The Scratchboard Project.”  In this, Jason visits a classmate’s house to sketch her for an art assignment.  It’s a story that gives a lot of depth to Jason’s dream of being an artist, as well as the world in which he lives.  The classmate he visits is a black girl in a different part of town, and both of them, as well as her family, have to deal with prejudices in the fullest sense of the word.  Jason and Shanice have to get past their presuppositions about each other as she poses for him and he sketches her, and their interactions break down the icy barriers.

My least favorite story was the title one.  A little cat comes to Jason’s house and his family takes her in, marveling at her soft, beautiful coat.  But in the summer, she gets into fights with other cats in the neighborhood and returns home with bloody sores and scratches.  The family refuses to let her in or care for her.  Jason goes so far to even shoot at her with a BB gun to chase her off.  You can imagine how well this sat with a cat-lover such as myself!  The story does well at illustrating how the family values only that which is beautiful, and has no love for what’s ugly – either “to start with” or what becomes so through circumstance.  It also shows their hypocrisy, considering how run-down their house is and how ugly within the father can be.
(To be honest, this story almost made me put the book down completely, but as Mr. Cummings’ web site mentions that he has a cat, I gave him the benefit of the doubt and continued.)

I have one thing to nitpick about this book.  In one story, Jason is looking at a board in his school with editorials pasted to it, and two phrases jumped out at me.  These were references to “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and “the X-Files.”  This book is set in the 1970s.  The movie “Raiders of the Lost Ark” came out in 1981.  “The X-Files” TV show ran from 1993 to 2002.  There’s another story that mentions the basketball skills of Magic Johnson, who played for the L.A. Lakers starting in 1979.  Please, fact-check.  I don’t appreciate historical inaccuracies.

My little naming scheme for books suitable for children is quite appropriate for this review.  The Wizard of Dark Street by Shawn Thomas Odyssey is a mystery novel.

Statistics
Checkouts: New to the library
Typical reader: Children who enjoy the Harry Potter series, or like mysteries
Source: Superiorland Preview Center

Synopsis: Oona Crate is a Natural Magician, born with the rare gift of being able to cast magic at will, rather than having to learn to do so.  But due to some unfortunate past events surrounding her magic use, she wants to give up being her uncle’s apprentice and become a detective like her father was.  The evening she signs the paperwork to give up her apprenticeship and meets the candidates for the position, however, her uncle is stabbed by a magical dagger and disappears.  Whodunit?  Is her uncle, the Wizard of Dark Street, still alive?

My Goodreads rating: 4 stars

I must say, I love this cover.  It actually completely fits the story!  You have Oona and her magical pet raven, Deacon, on her shoulder, in front of the Wizard’s house.  The house is pretty much just as the prose describes it, complete with all its eccentricities.

The pace of the book is a bit slow, particularly for the first third of the book, and some young readers may be put off by that.  In place of a fast-paced read is some great world-building.  I’m almost hesitant to describe it, because so much of the effort is put toward the setting that to do so seems like a bit of a spoiler.  The gist of it is that Dark Street is a magical location that for one minute every night, when the clock strikes midnight, a huge set of gates opens to connect Dark Street to the mundane world.

Once you do get into the meat of the plot, it’s a pretty good mystery.  Or rather, it’s a pretty good set of mysteries, possibly intertwined.  I’m not much of a reader of this sort of novel, but the twists and added information kept me guessing until the caper was solved.

Today I am unveiling a new feature on my blog: Palate Cleansers.  These will be gentle reads that I could hand to anyone capable of reading them, and not worry.  If you’re unfamiliar with the concept of a gentle read, it’s a term librarians use to describe a genre that contains feel-good books, ones with no strong language, sex, or violence, and typically have happy-endings.  Before you yawn, though, these books can be very interesting without relying on edgy topics or breathtaking action.  They can often offer delightful new worlds.

The Not-So-Star-Spangled Life of Sunita Sen by Mitali Perkins is a book I would consider a gentle read.  Let me tell you about it.

Statistics
Checkouts: Coming soon to the library
Typical reader: Aimed at teen girls, but suitable for anyone capable of reading it
Source: Bought on clearance at Scholastic Book Fair

Synopsis: Sunita Sen was living a normal life in California, attending middle school, becoming closer with one of her male friends, and hanging out with her best friend.  Then her grandparents from India come to visit for a year, and turn her world upside-down as her mother takes leave from her teaching position at a university and tries to be the perfect Indian woman.  How will Sunita ever cope?

My Goodreads rating: 4 stars

This book could be of interest to sociologists studying the lives of second-generation Americans in fiction.  That’s what this novel is.  Sunita’s parents immigrated to the United States from India, found employment, and are working on raising three children with a mixture of traditional Indian and contemporary American cultures.  Our protagonist, known to classmates as Sunni, is the youngest child, still at home and attending eighth grade.  Her life was what she considered to be normal.  But then she got culture shock when her grandparents came for a visit.  Her mother took a year off from work and started wearing sarees, and forbade Sunita to have any male friends over.  Oh noes!  What ever shall she do?

I was expecting something along those lines when I picked out this novel, and I got what I anticipated.  I enjoy these slice-of-life books that highlight different ethnic lifestyles.  A book about an Indian-American girl also goes well with leftovers from my local Middle Eastern/Indian restaurant.  (Sadly, the Rubaiyat is closing at the end of the year.  Upper Michigan’s cuisine scene shall greatly suffer for the loss!)

The characters are fun and believable.  Sunita’s best friend Liz is particularly notable.  She’s a bespectacled bookworm who Sunni thought wasn’t into boys, but has a lot more going on in her head than her best friend realizes.  I liked her a lot.  Sunni also becomes close with her Dadu, or grandfather, with his tales of life in India (particularly the story of how he met his wife) and his hard work in her family’s backyard.

This book is older than I thought when I bought it.  The current title was published in 2005.  Originally, it dates back to 1993, under the title The Sunita Experiment.  Still, it’s an excellent book, which I could recommend to anyone interested in the immigrant experience or middle school life.

Isn’t it nice when you read a book that has won awards, and you find it really did deserve those awards?  Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi won the 2011 Michael L. Printz Award, which is one of the American Library Association’s highest awards for young adult literature, as well as several other distinctions.  And it’s well-earned.

Statistics
Checkouts: Not owned by the school library yet
Typical reader: Teen boys
Book source: Personallly bought at the Scholastic Book Fair

Synopsis: Nailer, a teenage boy, lives along America’s Gulf Coast, earning a living in a light crew, scavenging old tankers and other boats for copper wiring and other valuables.  He nearly dies after falling from a collapsing duct into a hidden oil pocket in a ship, but his run of luck begins and he manages to free himself.  The next day, a monstrous hurricane blows through the area.  Afterward, he and a crew mate find a beached clipper ship off a nearby island.  There’s a lone survivor, and despite losing the privilege of scavenging the boat, he decides to rescue her.  But at what cost?

My Goodreads rating: 5 stars

If I had to sum up this book in one word, it would be: Intense!  This is a book that just won’t quit amazing the reader.  The action is nonstop, the dystopian future is believable and expertly designed, and the characters are awesome.  I want to gush about this novel, but am restraining myself for the sake of a coherent review.

Life is tough in the future.  Climate change has apparently occurred, with the polar ice caps gone, shorelines changed around the world, and “city breaker” F6 hurricanes bombarding the Gulf Coast so much that after Orleans 3, the people gave up on trying to have decent cities in the lowlands of Louisiana.  But there are plenty of old abandoned tankers and other metal ships in the vicinity, ready for crews to scavenge everything useful from them.  Oil is a scarce, precious resource, a relic occasionally found on the old gas-guzzling ships of the past.  The book is never preachy, though.  The characters are struggling to survive too much for that.

The characters are perfectly flawed.  Everyone has a hard life in Nailer’s world, from the low-life trash that break their oaths to their crew, to the “swank,” the members of the upper class with their internal politics and backstabbing.  There are no flat characters here, no black-and-white heroes and villains, no throw-away character filling a stereotype.  Another thing I liked about the characters was that they could grow and learn.  This was particularly true of the protagonist, Nailer, and the swank he saves from the clipper, Nita.  Nita never came across a plot device, despite being a driving force behind much of the story, and her experiences outside her “white-bread world” really added to her character.

There is a companion book, The Drowned Cities, due out next spring.  It features a secondary character that was quite interesting in my opinion: Tool, a genetically engineered half-man, similar to a werewolf minus the shapeshifting, who has no master.  I’ll be looking forward to it.

Yes, yes, it’s December 1st, and November is over; therefore my Dystopias and Dead Things should be as well.  In my defense, I read this book in November, and yesterday I might have gotten a review done if the library hadn’t gotten in four great boxes of donated books that my boyfriend and I cleaned and cataloged until 11:30 p.m.

Excuses aside, here’s my take on The Forest of Hands and Teeth by Carrie Ryan.

Statistics
Checkouts: Personally bought at the Scholastic Book Fair; it will probably end up in the library collection
Typical reader: Teen girls who like the dystopian trend

Synopsis: Mary grew up in a village surrounded by fences through which the Unconsecrated reach, and ruled by the Sisterhood.  Her mother, who is bitten through the fence shortly into the book’s story, used to tell her stories of the ocean.  After her mother dies and reanimates, her life is in chaos until her childhood friend Harry asks for her hand.  On the day they are to marry, the Unconsecrated break through the fences.  Will Mary and her friends escape?  If so, can they find the ocean?  Or is there no end to the Forest of Hands and Teeth?

My Goodreads rating: 3 stars

This book started out with a lot of promise.  And throughout, the writing is excellent, the plot compelling.  But there’s something about Mary, and I hated her by the end.

The concept for the book was solid, and I enjoyed the story.  This is a post-apocalyptic zombie tale, set generations after the Return, and only pockets of fenced-in civilization remains.  The religious Sisterhood keeps the village in line, and the Guardians, including Mary’s older brother, keep the fences intact and secure.  Mary faces a lot of difficulties in the story, both before and after the fence is breached.  The Sisterhood definitely isn’t what it seems, and it would have been great if the author had chosen to explore that aspect of the setting more.  The plot keeps moving with twists that kept Mary’s life from ever getting dull.

There’s also a love triangle, which initially was a bit interesting.  Mary loves Harry, and his brother Travis.  They both love her.  Aw.  And while Mary is staying in the Cathedral with the Sisterhood, Travis is brought there to be treated for a broken leg, and they become closer during her semi-clandestine visits to his room.  But he doesn’t come for her before the day of her wedding to Harry, and is himself betrothed to her best friend Cass.

The story remained intriguing throughout the book, like I said.  But Mary is something of an unreliable narrator.  It shows most in her characterizations of her companions and acquaintances.  All other women are weak and useless, or stone cold shrews.  Harry and Travis love her, a fact that can readily be taken for granted; why they do is never explained.  The truth of the matter is that Mary is selfish and completely self-centered, caring only for herself unless caring for others benefits her.  Seriously, I would have been happy if Mary had been bitten.  Then at least she would have shown some interest in other people.  Her one good trait is that she’s actually handy in dealing with zombies and escaping.

Does this make the book bad?  I really have to say no on this, because I couldn’t be apathetic about Mary.  She was written well enough to be hated, if that makes any sense.  It just doesn’t make it a good book.

If a picture is worth a thousand words, let this say it all:

I wrote 50,206 words in 29 days.  And the novel isn’t done.  It’s not even properly named.  (“High Fantasy Medieval Zombie Apocalypse” isn’t really the title, it’s just my synopsis/catch-all phrase.)   There is much writing yet to do.  But someday, this might end up being a published work.

I feel accomplished.

Apparently, my month of “dystopias and dead things” could have also been titled “a month of sequels.”  99 Coffins, Crossed, and now Dust & Decay are my reviewed books for the month, and all are the second book in their respective series.

Enough about that, though, right?  You’re here to read about Dust & Decay, the second book in the Benny Imura series by Jonathan Maberry.  (I’ve previously reviewed Rot & Ruin, the first in the series.)

Statistics
Checkouts: Soon to be added to the library collection; bought at Snowbound Books
Series checkouts: 1
Typical reader: People who enjoyed Rot & Ruin

Synopsis: Six months have passed since the events of Rot & Ruin.  Benny, Nix and their friends have been training with Benny’s brother Tom for months, and are anxious to go east and try to find the airplane they saw flying.  A bit earlier than intended, Tom sets out with Benny, Nix, Lilah the legendary Lost Girl, and Lou Chong on what was supposed to be an overnight camping trip for Chong and the beginning of a journey for the rest.  Things do not go as planned.  At all.

My Goodreads rating: 5 stars

This sequel does not spend as much time in the town of Mountainside as its predecessor.  This time, while we do get to see a bit of relaxing times for the group with apple pies and romantic concerns, the action heats up quickly, with a zombie attack in town.  After that’s dealt with, Tom moves the departure date for the trip up.  Chong tags along with permission from his parents for just one night.  They’ll go to Brother David’s way station, spend the night, send Chong home, and continue on their merry way.

But then a rhinoceros foils their plans.  That’s right.  A rhinoceros.  Yes, it makes sense in that animals have escaped from the San Diego Zoo, circuses, and other such venues.  Yes, it’s something that the group really was not expecting, and it’s a good way to throw everything off.  But, um, wow.  A rhinoceros.  That messed with my suspension of disbelief far more than, you know, zombies do.

That’s really my only quibble with the book, though!  The pacing is excellent, the action is awesome, and the characters are incredible.  Every review I’ve seen of this book talks about some new bounty hunter the reader gets to meet in Dust & Decay, and for good reason.  There are a quirky, dynamic bunch of people that live out in the wild of post-zompacalypse America.  Personally, I loved the Greenman.  He reminded me a lot of Tom Bombadil from The Lord of the Rings.  You’ll also come across some really nasty bad guys who have it out for Benny, his brother, and his friends.

Interspersed with the narrative are excerpts from Nix’s journal.  These are really a nice addition, adding both general information and a good bit of depth to her character.  I particularly liked how honest her writing was about her feelings about Benny.  “… Benny and I are never going back home.  We may not meet other kids our age.  Do I want to be with him because we don’t have a choice or because that was our choice?” (page 247, hardcover edition)  This sort of thing made Benny and Nix’s relationship far more believable than nearly anything you’ll read in any romance novel.  Massive kudos, Mr. Maberry.

My reviews always aim to be spoiler-free, but I will give you two little vague tidbits about the outcome of this novel.  One, the end battle is epic!  Two, I cried by the end of the book.

If you enjoyed Rot & Ruin, don’t miss this.