Wild Librarian Bookspot

Welcome, book-lover types and interested others! After years of running a bookclub, it's clear that folks need to spread the word about good books ... and bad ones. I'll be uploading as many titles as I can. Read on.

Tuesday, January 03, 2017

"The Revolution of Evelyn Serrano" by Sonia Marzano

This award-winner was, in my opinion, not bad, but not great.  It is a disagreement with SLJ and other sources, which have given the book stars and high recommendations.  Personally, I found the writing flat, and the sequencing more like slices of life than a narrative.  In a typical novel, events build to a specific conclusion.  This book has a disjointed quality, as if you were looking at a photo album and each chapter was a grouping of sequential stories about those pictures.  In the first half, Evelyn, nee "Rosa", is working to Americanize herself, choosing to work at a store some distance from her family's Puerto Rican Bodega, during a hot New York summer in 1969.  The signs of discontent and change are all around her, but Evelyn's biggest issues are with her mother, who she sees as a doormat.  Younger readers will identify with the culture clash, friendship dramas and need to define oneself.  In the second half, the "revolution" begins, with Evelyn's church being taken over by a group of activists determined to bring social justice to the barrio.  Once she can't ignore what is going on around her, she becomes involved with the efforts, but it is at this point the book becomes even more disconnected, reading like some sort of "If You Were There" history textbook.  There are history lessons, speeches, a poet.  For me, it came off as didactic and preachy.  The timeline gets shot, and it is nearing New Years, then back before Christmas, then back at New Years.  Evelyn magically knows that the protest will last 11 days, then she talks about it going for "weeks" then they are on "day four".  An event happens to Evelyn near the end which has no context, and no reasoning, as if it is just dropped in.  In a similar vein, Ms. Marzano, a well-known Sesame Street actor, makes an unabashed plug for her show in the story, which I found jarring.

As blog readers know, I really dislike books with a "POINT" and this one is about nothing other than "THE POINT."  In any case, it's a nice introduction of Puerto Rican culture for those who know nothing more than "West Side Story", but if you want some slightly different takes, I think Meg Medina did it better in "Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass" and Kekla Magoon had more lyricism in "The Rock and the River".  They aren't the same, of course.  This is about Puerto Ricans, and Ms. Medina's story is about Cubans.  Kekla Magoon writes about revolution, but her stories are about blacks, and often focuses on Chicago, not New York.  Nonetheless, there are similar themes in the books, and of the three, this wasn't my favorite.  Overall, I give it a "meh."

PS -- I am always dissing poor covers, so I should say something about how excellent this cover is.  Not only does it capture every aspect of the book, physically and symbolically, but the red highlights in "Revolution" (evolution) perfectly emphasize the overall theme.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

"Raymie Nightingale" by Kate DiCamillo

Kate DiCamillo hits it out of the park again, in my humble opinion, with this very odd little book, which is about everything and nothing all at once.  Raymie Clarke's father has just taken off, leaving her mother depressed and Raymie with a plan.  She will win a local beauty contest, get her picture in the paper, and her father will see the picture and call her.  First, however, she needs to learn how to twirl a baton.  The funny thing is, at the baton class, which goes bizarrely astray, she meets two other girls and they end up having a journey or two -- physically and psychologically.  As part of her application for the contest, Raymie needs to do a good deed, and that is where the story really lies.  "Why were good deeds such murky things?" she cries at one point.  Leave it to Kate DiCamillo to write a book which is innocent, simple and accessible but also layered, complex, symbolic and spiritual.  I sped through the short chapters, listening to Raymie's plaintive voice throughout, reaching for something she cannot name and feeling her soul rise and fall with each triumph and loss.  At ten, the character is at a magical age where she is still a child, but a growing awareness of the world is beginning to intrude.  It all actually ties together, but it isn't what you might expect.  A gentle, refreshing, quiet book which will make you think.  Brava.

"It Ain't So Awful, Falafel" by Firoozeh Dumas

Sigh.  Here we go.  Again.  Another "fictionalized memoir".  As readers know, I don't like these.  An author who writes a fictionalized version of themselves in a teen book does everything a good writer should not.  The events are idealized, the plot pat, the characters two-dimensional.  And so it is with this book.  Zomorod, a sixth grade Iranian transplant to Newport Beach in 1978, wants to be American so badly that she tells everyone her name is Cindy -- like Cindy Brady.  She is embarrassed by her parents, her culture, the family's poverty, and this is the overriding theme for 300 of the 377 pages.  She whines.  And whines.  She doesn't get the puka shell necklace she wants, and she whines.  Not much happens, with each chapter being a little vignette of Cindy/Zomorod's life as time passes.  The Iranian revolution, under Khomeni, is just irritating at first, as it draws attention to Cindy/Zomorod's differences.  Eventually, we get a teensy bit of character growth.  People start being mean to the family because they are Iranian, and Cindy/Zomorod tunes into the fact that she is lucky to have her family, and grateful that things (of course) work out okay.  Young girls will love the book.  It's a fun, shallow read and reflects all the desires of your average middle school student to fit in and make friends, but "real" didn't even cross my mind while reading it.  If you want a "real" book about a young girl dealing with the struggles of Iran in the late 1970s, read Marjane Satrapi's "Persepolis."

PS -- Odd note here.  Ms. Dumas spells out her parent's speech phonetically throughout the book, highlighting their accents.  If anyone else did this, they would get called on for stereotyping or worse.  Why is it that people from a given culture are allowed to diss that culture?  Sorry, this one doesn't go into my file of "diverse books".

"My Life With the Liars" by Caela Carter

In your average YA novel, the parents are either absent or evil, and the teen protagonist has to learn to rise above and find a way out.  This book turns that narrative on its head, with Zylynn, an "almost 13 year old" starting out with a great family -- one she rejects at every turn, since they took her away from her home, a limited existence in an Arizona cult.  Told in first person narrative, Zylynn's voice is strong and compelling.  Her natural confusion at a world turned upside down is aching for the reader, and gave the book a page-turning quotient.  I read the whole thing in one day, hoping that Zylynn would learn to accept the love and healing directed at her.  Think the story is improbable?  Think again.  Look at recent news stories of failed attempts by the US Government to remove children in a very similar compound.  The lines between religious freedom and child protection are fragile, and sadly, they allow many children like the fictional Zylynn to be abused.  This isn't a dark tale, however, it is one of promise, and of family.  Enjoy.

"A Chance in the World: An Orphan Boy, A Mysterious Past, and How He Found a Place Called Home" by Steve Pemberton

Another one of those memoirs about a horrific childhood, this one is both well-written and engaging.  A video of Mr. Pemberton speaking (http://frontrow.bc.edu/program/pemberton/) illustrates an interesting point ... the abuse he suffered as a child in the foster care system isn't actually his main story.  For him, as a biracial child with no knowledge of his past, the more compelling part of his personal narrative was to find out where he belonged.  The answers, which take up the second half of the book, are more complex than he ever imagined.  In an era where we talk a lot about "resilience" this is a story of a young man who had his focus on the right things.  He was determined and a survivor.  The tale unfolds with a certain amount of humbleness.  Mr. Pemberton realizes, along his path, that he was "graced" in some ways that those around him were not.  In the end, one might say he finds home within himself. 

While satisfying and a good read, I have some minor bones to pick.  The publisher is the Christian publishing arm of HarperCollins, and, while it is not an evangelical novel, in the final chapters there is a significant emphasis on God, and that may make some readers somewhat uncomfortable.  Also, even though it is a major publisher, the quality of the book is poor -- the pages thin, the typeface old-school.  Editing, also, could be improved, as there are occasional jumps from chapter to chapter, a break in flow that seems clunky. 

All that being said, this was another one of those books which was a difficult read on a personal level, as I recognized much of what he said, having experiences similar, at times, to his.  Unhappy homes are far more frequent than many think.  A book like this does what I always wanted to do as an adult -- it lets people who live through this know they are not alone. 

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

"The Red Pencil" by Andrea Davis Pinkney, Illustrated by Shane W. Evans

This powerful verse novel is evocative of both "Caminar" and "Sold", with a young child in a different culture growing up in a simple, gentle world, then that is ripped away by various circumstances.  In this case, author Pinkney chronicles the genocide of Darfur in southern Sudan in 2003 and 2004.  The poems are delicious and flow beautifully from one to another.  Ms. Pinkney's ability to capture everyday life is obvious from the get-go in a couplet from one of the first pieces: "Words flap from her/like giddy chickens escaping their pen."  Later in the book, the images and words mingle to create a strong feeling of grief as Amira's world collapses.  The images, too, are smart, in that they are not overdrawn.  The idea is that these pictures are ones created by Amira, not a professional artist, and they help to convey her tale without overwhelming the story.  Like in "Caminar" the words begin to fall apart, drifting away from each other, as war enters the village of the young girl.  Amira is hugely dimensional, and it is in this that she jumps off the page as a real person, even though she is a fiction.  It was a lovely book, and one that would have had me reaching for tissues if I hadn't been reading it in public (the "Sudan Flowers" are, in actuality, plastic garbage bags -- which is heart-wrenching in the telling of it), but there was one thing that bugged, a bit.  The ending was abrupt, and circumspect.  It came in a matter of pages and I can't tell you exactly what it meant, or what happened.  Aside from this, the book is a treasure which should touch students who read it, and Ms. Pinkney is successful, I think, in her stated goal of helping kids understand this tragedy without overwhelming them.  The afterword and notes are very helpful to those who wish to learn more about the story, and this culture.  A "human", touching tale, overall.

Thursday, December 08, 2016

"Leviathan" by Scott Westerfeld

Because this is Westerfeld, it is awesome, because he is awesome.  This also may be one of the best of his works I have read (Uglies, Peeps).  But.  It can be hard to get into, and it takes a certain commitment.  Here's the thing -- Scott Westerfeld has created this incredible Steampunk/alternative history version of World War I.  At first, I was like, "WHAT is going on?" but then, as I pushed into it, I started getting it.  Reading the afterward before the book -- not a bad idea, as it gives you some context, and my WWI knowledge was a tad rusty.  But that ain't all.  Westerfeld includes Evolutionary Science, Feminism, a drop of sea-faring adventure, along with warcraft technology, in this complex, layered novel.  As an American, his "dialect English" for one of the main characters was so accurate I had to double-check to see if he really, really wasn't born in the UK.  Westerfeld's writing ability is always strong -- his work is rich, lyric and very visual, but here, his world-building is exquisite.  Nearly everything in this wild tale, told in alternating chapters by two protagonists, is alien.  It got better when I just kind of let go and accepted all the ideas coming at me which I wasn't wholly familiar with (and thank goodness for the detailed and lovely pencil drawings throughout).  Eventually, it all made sense, although it did have me scrambling for Wikipedia to look stuff up by the end.  The first of a trilogy, you WILL want to read the next two.  As far as I am concerned, this guy can't write a bad book.

Monday, November 21, 2016

"Ten Things I Hate About Me" by Randa Abdel-Fattah

You might want to hate this book.  It features the typical whiny teen girl who puts popularity and self-preservation over being real and being honest.  The plot turns are (mostly) predictable and you can't wait for her to figure out what you, the readers, realize early on.  But ... this novel is more complex than it seems, and Jamilah is written so realistically that she feels like you could reach through the pages and talk with her.  Her struggle -- between "faking it" as a run of the mill Australian tenth grader and owning up to her Lebanese Muslim culture, in a country struggling with diversity and stereotypes, resounds as if it were America today.  Jamilah sees her father as a tyrant, but she loves him, and (bless Mrs. Abdel-Fattah) her dad is drawn with dimensions which take the entire book to discover.  The whole family unit is strong, and brings surprises -- her rebellious brother isn't a complete turd, and her activist sister makes a choice you don't see coming.  The book challenges preconceptions about the Muslim faith and makes clear that living as a first generation immigrant in any nation can create a sense of dualism.  There is a boy (of course) and while some of that goes the way I thought it would, some does not.  The ending is both predictable yet refreshing, as Jamilah has to decide whether to own her true self or the bleached blonde persona she has fabricated.  It was a story I thoroughly enjoyed, and one I chose to pick up and read whenever I had a free minute.  Now, if we could only get certain national leaders to understand the concepts layered in this delightful YA novel.  Brava, Randa. 

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

"Because of Mr. Terupt" by Rob Buyea

This fast-read school tale rings about 90% true and has the kind of rich characters students will like, and identify with.  Mr. Buyea does a great job of getting inside the head of 5th graders and makes almost all of these children feel like they can leap off the page.  Told in very short chapters -- reflections from the different students -- this is the tale of a group of kids who get a new teacher, a teacher who has embraced the idea of Personalized Learning!  The connections and dynamics play well in "Part One".  My challenges came with two aspects of the book:  The bully and the crisis.  As to the bully, that was the only voice I didn't buy for a good long time.  The bully delighted in tormenting others.  Here's my guess -- bullies don't see themselves as bullies.  I suspect that their inner motivation is complex, and has something to do with a need to control.  In any case, that didn't work for me, although it did get better by the end, sort-of.  The other issue which nagged was the climax.  It was an event predicted by the foreword, written by John Irving (John Irving!  John Irving!  What is he doing writing a foreword to a YA novel???)  In any case, don't read the foreword, as it is a spoiler, to some degree.  In any case, the big event felt too structured, too deliberate.  Bad things do happen, but it is the randomness with which they happen that often makes them hard to take.  In this case, it felt like the author really had to have things fall out in a very specific way to lead his characters to an ending that he wanted.  I don't particularly like overly crafted resolutions.  For me, books are more enjoyable when they just unfold, and one has a sense the author simply let the story go where it was going to go.  In any case, despite the two things that jumped out at me, it was a great little book, and one that I did enjoy.  For those who really like it, there is a sequel, with a preview in the eBook version I read.  Go for it.

Monday, November 07, 2016

"Tapping the Power of Personalized Learning: A Roadmap for School Leaders" by James Rickabaugh

A fairly typical educational theory book, it's not bad, but it isn't fabulous.  It follows the very typical pattern -- identifying the current educational landscape as problematic, short testimonials about how change is good, a theory, a diagram, a distilling of the parts of the new proposal (which isn't actually that new).  There are lots of little nuggets worth taking away and I agree with the idea of personalized learning, but the book is best read in short bursts.  It is nicely succinct at less than 140 pages, and not particularly dry, but it is not hugely engaging, and takes the concept of "informational" to heart.  I found myself reading and re-reading sections because my mind wandered when I read it.  Having attended a school in the 1970s which was exactly this (students proposing independent research projects and activities to teachers to explore the given curriculum) I feel like I am watching the pendulum swing back again.  Is this a good book to get an overview of the latest undulation in education?  Sure.  It's clear, to the point, and has lots of quotes which can be used in Powerpoint presentations.  Is it the kind of book I'm constantly referring to over the next few months?  Not so much, but it is rare to find that kind of book in this kind of subject matter (see my review of Meeting Wise).