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.

Friday, August 19, 2016

"Fish in a Tree" by Lynda Mullaly Hunt

Flashback, 1970s.  Ally can't read, doesn't have friends, and hates school.  She falls in with other oddballs, Keisha, the only black girl in the class, and Albert, who is obsessed with Star Trek, the original series.  The problem with this problem novel?  It's not set in the 1970s.  The true problem?  This is yet another one of those books where the author is exercising some personal demons by writing a "fictional" novel which is clearly autobiographical (which Ms. Hunt openly admits to in the end-notes).  This is a personal beef, but I really dislike it when real life is disguised as fiction.  In my mind, it creates stories which are flat, or idealized, or simply unrealistic.  "Fish in a Tree" hit the trifecta.  First, it goes through chapter after chapter of Ally, the main character, feeling awful.  At first, you want to have sympathy, but after a while, I really wanted the story to move forward (at 266 pages, it is far longer, IMHO, than it needs to be).  The mean girls are mean, the oddball kids are odd, but there is little fleshing out -- the author may have seen these characters in her mind because she experienced them, but it didn't translate onto the page.  Shay, the ultimate mean girl, has all the dimension of a mustachioed villain from a 1920s silent film.  Or any character from a CW TV show.  The one Asian character, Suki, is as stereotypical as it comes, right down to "honoring Grandfather" and her pigeon English.  The ending is all flower and roses, like any after-school special from 1973 -- everything works out just great and goodness wins.  The biggest distraction for me, however, was the setting.  There are brief references to technology -- information is occasionally Googled and, in the end, Dad is Skyped, but by and large, this didn't feel like a contemporary story.  No one has a cellphone and cyberbullying doesn't make any kind of showing.  There is Albert's obsession -- it's hard to believe a kid with few resources would know of Star Trek, the original series, much less be watching it on television (as a confirmed Trekkie, I can promise you it only came back to cable very, very recently, thanks to the new films, and would be hard to find in a small-town setting) and the whole school structure seems dated.  A kid shows up with bruises every day and Social Services isn't called immediately?  Lastly, every mention of Albert's black t-shirt with white lettering saying "Flint" confused me.  He explains it as a Star Trek reference, and it is eventually used as as a Science gag, but how could you have a character in 2016 wear a shirt like that and not be referencing Flint, Michigan, and the racial struggles epitomized there?

Here is what I wish -- that Ms. Hunt, Mr. Gantos, and all the other authors who have written these pseudo fiction tales would just own up and write a real memoir -- for kids.  Who says that young people can only digest a story if it is fictionalized?  Who says young people can't understand the power of a personal narrative when it comes to life struggles?  The issues Dyslexic kids face is very real, and haven't we learned that being open and honest with people is the best way to tell a story?  This is another one of those books written for adults, who, with our bleeding hearts, will hand it out to every kid we think "needs" it.  Sadly, most of those kids who might benefit from the story won't be able to read this lengthy tome.  Maybe next time, authors like this can write something real.

"The Terrible Two" by Jory John and Mac Barnett, illustrated by Kevin Cornell

What an absolute blast to read this fun, smart, unexpected book!  A real refresher after some long/serious stuff.  It is easy to see why kids are flocking to this title, by popular author Mac Barnett and up-and-comer Jory John (author of "All My Friends are Dead" books).  The tale of a prankster who is out-pranked by a mysterious visionary when he transfers schools, the kids here take on Peanuts-like personas with very adult reflections on the world around them.  It works.  The humor functions on all levels, from laugh-out-loud to more subtle snickering.  The drawings add to the Charlie Brown-esque feeling of our protagonist, Miles Murphy.  The cows were a constant giggle.  A definite winner.  Read, smile, enjoy.

Tuesday, August 09, 2016

McCormick's "Sold" may have been devastating to read, but this one was viscerally painful -- getting inside the head of a young black man beaten by a police officer.  While Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely may have known how topical their award-winning book would be as they were writing it, the impact of the story in yet another summer of police shootings of black men was stunning as a read.  Taking place in a ubiquitous "Springfield, USA" we have the tale of two high school students.  One is Rashad, a black ROTC kid with a stern father.  He goes into a store to buy some chips before heading to a party, collides with a white woman and is beaten by a police officer who believes he was trying to steal from the store and assaulted the woman.  The other is Quinn, a white basketball player whose military father died in service, heading to the same party, when he sees the cop pounding Rashad into the pavement.  Problem -- the cop is the older brother of Quinn's best friend, and has been a mentor to Quinn after his father's death.  Told in alternating chapters, with each section being a day in a single week, the changing perspectives bring the entire national conversation front and center, covering all perspectives.  In the case of Rashad, this works.  His tale is personal, real, and far more complex than I ever imagined.  For instance, it never occured to me that members of black families might have different takes on an incident like this, or that the victims of police brutality might feel, well, like victims -- ashamed and embarrassed.  In the case of Quinn, however, the book stumbles a bit.  Quinn's "voice" is not consistent.  At times, he reads like an uneducated hick, and other times, he comes off as erudite.  The author voice is clearly inserted from time to time to "make a point" which is a huge pet peeve for me.  On the other hand, Quinn's swings may be part of the teenage male mind.  Having no idea what may be in a teenage male mind (or a few adult male minds) I tried to give Mr. Kiely credit that this is a young man trying to make sense of something which is very hard to make sense of.  The one big regret I had with the story was that Rashad creates a piece of art to work through his pain.  While it is well described, words do not do justice to art, and I would have liked to see a finished version of what Mr. Reynolds had in mind.

This story is black and white (no pun intended).  Rashad is a good kid, he is unarmed, he is not guilty of what he is accused of.  Did he resist?  Unclear, but unimportant.  It is made obvious that the police officer continues to beat him long after he is capable of resisting.  Unfortunately, many of the incidents which have captured national attention are less clear-cut, making the ongoing conversation in our society critical.  This book has the ability to start that conversation, if we are brave enough to have it.  Another new thing I have become aware of in the past month?  The "conversation" that black parents must have with their black sons regarding what to do when stopped by police.  What an awful lesson to learn as a child.  In a clear, plaintive, and resonating voice, this novel successfully asks the question -- why can't everyone be "All American Boys" regardless of skin color?

Monday, August 01, 2016

"Winter" by Marissa Meyer

Ahh -- the delightful sense of "something" when you finish a series -- particularly when it takes FOREVER for the final book to come out.  I read a lot of "first book in the series" as part of my job, but this was a series which had me reading the whole thing.  That's a good sign.  As mentioned in previous reviews, Ms. Meyer did an outstanding job of world-building in this SciFi/Action/Romance twist on Fairy Tales.  The "Lunar Chronicles" series is inventive, fresh yet familiar, fun and engaging.  This final book, at 823 pages, seemed overwhelming, but, like J.K. Rowling, she writes in an accessible, friendly way, which can draw you in.  The short chapters and changing perspectives had me careening through the novel much faster than expected. 

I sometimes tell people they don't have to read certain series books in order.  That's not the case here, where the back-stories of our previous heroines (Cinder, Scarlet and Cress) weave very heavily into the stories of the new characters, centered around Winter.  Throw in interplanetary war, a ravaging disease and mutants and you have a story which spins from one couple trying desperately to connect to another.  For those afraid of "mush", no need to fear.  The romance is there, but it is more spare than I expected.  This is about battles, and more battles.  There is lots of blood (real and imagined, but for that, you have to read the book).  Even the ending, which is satisfying, didn't exactly wrap up the way I expected, given the fairy-tale underpinnings of the whole thing.  Nonetheless, it was a terrific conclusion to a series which became far more epic and complex than I ever expected when reading "Cinder", the tale of a cyborg Cinderella.  A great escape from a hot summer day, I curled up all day on a Sunday and plowed through half of it.  Enjoy. 

Monday, July 18, 2016

"Start With Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action" by Simon Sinek

First and foremost, this isn't so much a book about leadership as it is a book about marketing.  And, much like the fictional Don Draper, Sinek claims that the greatest leaders are charismatic "vision guys" who inspire.  I couldn't disagree more.  In my mind, good leaders create organizations which can exist beyond their leader.  Sinek highlights corporations which only succeed with one person at the helm. 

The book is dated, hugely repetitive, and highly questionable in its conclusions.  Full of worn aphorisms about Apple, the Wright Brothers, Martin Luther King, Jr., with simplified, dumbed-down (to the point of just being wrong) examples, the whole thing reads like those sickening motivational posters one finds in bland office complexes.  Sinek states (over and over and over and over again) that money making corporations don't do best when they focus on the money, but when they focus on the philosophical goals -- like "changing the world".  He waxes on throughout the book about how wonderful Apple is because it challenged the status quo.  Like any Mac lover who has drunk the Koolaid, he has basically written a book which could be subtitled "Apple, its the best thing ever, and here are 200 pages of text telling you why."  (I did find it hysterical that with all of his Apple genuflecting, he still felt the need to correct the corporation's grammar -- according to Sinek, Apple "thinks differently" instead "Think Different") 

Written in 2009, some of Sinek's proclamations about success no longer hold true.  There have been a plethora of economic impacts which have vastly changed the business landscape in the past seven years, making many of Sinek's points, well, out of touch.  The housing market melt-down?  Not mentioned. The oil crisis impact on airlines?  Happened after publication.  Social media, online shopping?  Nada.  Even Apple's path has changed, and we have learned a lot (some might say too much) about Steve Jobs' leadership style since 2009. 

The repetition, too, is beyond irritating.  Take this section, from page 120:  "This is because the early majority, according to Rogers, will not try something until someone else has tried it first.  The early majority, indeed the entire majority, need the recommendation of someone else who has already sampled the product or service.  They need to know someone else has tested it."  So, he repeats his point three times in the first paragraph.  And, in case you missed it, from paragraph two, "...the early majority won't try something new until someone else has tried it first."  Yup.  He repeats not only the same idea, but the same phrase, throughout the chapter.  If that wasn't grating enough, the words "WHY" "HOW" and "WHAT" are capitalized throughout, overemphasizing the points, making it clear that the reader is stupid.

Near the end of the book, Sinek refers to the Battle of Agincourt.  Not only does he suggest the absolutely wrong lessons from this historic battle, but it only tangentially connects to what he is talking about in that chapter (maybe he saw the Henry V movie ...).  This kind of thing is evident throughout the book, which reads like so much stream of consciousness.  He leaps from one statement to the other with little supporting evidence, and the evidence he does use is tertiary to his arguments.  On page 218, he makes it clear that this whole idea came from a random conversation with a marketer at a convention, and says the next part of his inspiration was something he, in his own words, "tripped over."  I gagged when he stated that a failing entreprenurial effort left him so depressed he was "beyond suicidal" -- that he realized he would "have to get a job".  Perhaps meant as a joke, it came off as entitlement at its worst.  The final blow came near the end, when he said "I'm not better connected than everyone else.  I don't have a better work ethic.  I don't have an Ivy League education and my grades in college were average.  The funniest part is, I still don't know how to build a business."  Sinek counts himself as a success because he has made money as a motivational speaker.  That's it.  He came up with this flimsy excuse of an idea and managed to market it.  It's the ultimate snake-oil play -- he is a success at nothing other than marketing an idea for marketing.

A quick look around the internet for Simon Sinek, however, leads to to the fact that this book was a best-seller, and that Mr. Sinek is appreciated, if, for nothing else, the TED Talk he did in conjunction with the release of this book.  So as not to be the kid jumping up and down yelling "The Emperor has no clothes", I watched the infamous TED Talk.  For others who hate the book -- this is what you should do.  In 18 minutes, he gives you a summary of everything in the book -- in a far more succinct manner.   

As to the TED Talk?  I can see why it was a hit.  Simon Sinek is young, handsome, earnest and successful (not to mention having a hint of that UK accent every American loves).  I do wonder -- if this talk had been delivered by a middle-aged, overweight woman with a lisp, would it have been nearly as successful?  Sinek denies that the medium is the message, but I'm betting the message coming from him is different than if it were delivered by someone else.  My bottom line?  The only "Why" I came away with was "Why" I had to read this inane book.

Monday, June 20, 2016

"Sold" by Patricia McCormick

This 2008 National Book Award finalist has been on my list for a very, very long time.  A local high school selected it as their number one book this year, which was the impetus to finally get around to it.  A verse novel (blank verse), it was a quick read, but it was not an easy one.  The story is that of Lakshmi, a thirteen year-old girl from a mountain village in Nepal, who thinks she is going to the city as a house-maid to earn money for her impoverished family.  Instead, she is taken across the border to Calcutta, and is kept in a brothel from which there is no escape.  I could have read the book in a single sitting or two, but I spread it out over a week, as I had to "take a break" now and then.  There are not words for how devastating this is.  Lakshmi is a girl with a spark, and that spark is all but put out.  She is a child, and, throughout it all, she craves the things a child would -- a friend, a hug, a kind word, but in the end, there is a part of her which is forever changed.  What makes this especially hard is that Lakshmi is fiction, but her story is not.  End notes say that this happens to some 12,000 Nepalese children a year, and more than 500,000 girls worldwide.  The novel made me ache in much the same way as when I watched the film "Beasts of No Nation".  We know these kinds of things happen in the world -- why can't we stop it?  The difficulty of the subject matter is mitigated, somewhat, by the verse style, and by Lakshmi's spirit.  It is this inner voice which calls to the reader and undoubtably made this a top pick for the students who selected it.  It is what makes this book great.  But seriously, get some kleenex.  Then, find a charity that addresses this horror, and give some money to it.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

"Uglies" by Scott Westerfeld

Sometimes, I get to read a book "just for me."  This was one of those times. 

Long before "Hunger Games" and "Divergent", before "Legend" and "Matched" and "Pandemonium", there was a Dystopian series by Scott Westerfeld called "Uglies".  This four book series was so popular when it came out (and for a good number of years afterwards), that I never got a chance to read it.  Like all Dystopian books for the YA market, this one has a fairly predictable outline.  Tally is an "ugly" -- a child in a society which turns kids into "pretties" when they turn 16, using extreme plastic surgery.  There is, of course, an underground that says the surgeries are not what they seem, and Tally gets drawn into the community of rebels living in the deep dark forest away from the city.  So, if the plot seems familiar, what makes one Dystopian tale work, while another seems formulaic?  I'm not 100% sure, but there are a couple of things that drew me to this book, and some of the other Dystopian fiction novels.  First, for me, is character.  Tally isn't your typical revolutionary type.  She wants the surgery (really, really wants it) and spends a huge percentage of the book deeply conflicted.  When she finally does land on one side of the issue, she has made some tragic mistakes.  The flaws are interesting, given that most Dystopian protagonists are super-hero like in their abilities.  Tally, on the other hand, kind of falls into situations.  The second thing for me is twists.  I know what Dystopia is, I know where the book is heading (I could have predicted most of the plot of Mockingjay before I read it) but this book defied expectations.  Every single time I was sure of where it was going, it went someplace a little unexpected.  And I liked that.  The book is action-packed and a page turner.  It takes the hoverboard concept to the next level in some deeply cool ways.  The only aspect I wasn't overly thrilled with was the romantic storyline.  Tally is as gushy and over-the-top as most almost-16 year old girls are, and her love triangle is pretty generic, but it is tinged with a "Romeo and Juliet" level of angst.  I haven't read the other three books, but that analogy is likely to come close to the mark, given the nature of the society in which these characters live.  In the end, I like Westerfeld's writing, and the new covers are notably more creepy than the original ones.  The book is not literary, per se, but it is engaging, lively, accessible and pulls you in.  Bottom line:  This one is a good choice for anyone who hasn't burned out on this overexposed genre.  May the odds be in your favor.

Monday, June 06, 2016

"Listen, Slowly" by Thanhha Lai

There is a saying in acting -- "find the love, find the humor, find the obstacles".  They also say that good actors need to make the stakes big enough to register, regardless of the subject matter.  Think of it as anti-Seinfeld.  The problem with this book is that the stakes just weren't big enough, the obstacles too small, the humor unfunny and the love -- well, one kind of love (familial) was touching, but the boy crush thing was just irritating.  If you are Sharon Creech, you can get away with a story where not much happens (The Wanderer) but that wasn't the case here, IMHO.  The summary:  Mai (goes by Mia) wants to spend the summer on the beach in Laguna, CA with her best friend, crushing on a boy with her boyfriend-stealing-too-skimpy-bikini best friend.  Instead, her parents send her off to Vietnam with Grandma, trying to find out the end of her Grandfather's story from the Vietnam War.  Mai spends 2/3 of the book whining about the situation, then has a fairly predictable epiphany or two, and, without much of a climax, everything is neatly tied up in a bow.  I could have maybe sort-of put up with that if not for other glaring issues.  The descriptions of Vietnam, the culture, the village life ... is all so specific I feel like I learned a lot.  It was kind of like reading a travelogue with a CW TV teen show subtext.  But it just didn't engage me.  The narrative was pretty bland, with very occasional lyric sections.  I haven't read "Inside Out and Back Again" but have to believe Ms. Lai might be better at poetry than prose?  There was also the age issue, which I could have dismissed, but it kept being repeated, over and over and over again.  Mai is supposedly 12 going on 13, and supposedly 6th grade going on 7th grade.  The age and the grades don't match.  Twelve going on 13 is 7th to 8th, and Mai's behavior throughout is not that of a rising 7th grader.  There is this whole thing about getting the girls in the village to turn their panties into G-strings.  It's a spoiler to mention it, but frankly, the entire section was so pointless to the plot that it doesn't matter.  It was, however, one of many parts of the book that rankled -- it just didn't "fit" the character, IMHO.  It was part of an overarching feeling that the author was TRYING TO MAKE A POINT.  Much of the book felt like an adult immigrant looking at her Americanized kid and trying to (unsuccessfully) write from their point of view.  The parents were beyond stereotypical -- mom is a big-deal lawyer and dad is a Doctors Without Borders type.  The whole thing, ironically, didn't feel authentic.  The ~~setting~~ was authentic, but the characters felt like they were being driven by moralistic efforts of the writer rather than being real people.  The one character I loved, and the one with a real story to tell, is Ba (Grandma).  Perhaps, if the tale had been told from her perspective, it would have made more of an impact on me.  As with all things, this is my opinion.  I read the book because several colleagues really enjoyed it -- different strokes when it comes to literature, yes?