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.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

"The Anatomy of Peace: Resolving the Heart of Conflict" by the Arbinger Institute

I really liked this.  One thing bugged me a bit but overall the book made the kind of impact that has had me thinking a good week after finishing it.  Presented as a nonfiction work, it seeks to help people see their role in negative interactions by finding a "peaceful heart" which allows them to see others with understanding and empathy.  The lessons are right on and easy to grasp.  The format is hugely readable as it is set in the framework of a kind of group encounter -- parents spending two days working with facilitators after dropping their addicted children off at a treatment center.  The format is where the book excels and stumbles.  By putting the points into a story, a narrative, it makes it infinitely readable and, in some ways, a page turner.  The problem is, this isn't a real encounter group.  It couldn't be, given the specificity of each character's inner voice.  It may have been cobbled together from various counseling sessions but it is inherently unreal and therefore comes off feeling a bit staged.  Nonetheless it mostly worked for me.  I was going through a significantly negative event while reading it and I actually felt myself becoming calmer, breathing more deeply, just by taking it in.  Bordering on Pop Pysch without being too saccharine, there were many take-aways with lasting impact.  A short, worthwhile book.

Tuesday, September 05, 2017

"Bright Lights, Dark Nights" by Stephen Emond

Much like "Winter Town", another book of Mr. Emond's which I read four years back, I was kind of so-so on this.  There are two storylines.  One is a love story between Walter Wilcox and his best friend's sister, Naomi.  The other is the tale of Walter's father, a struggling divorcee cop who is accused of racial profiling.  The love story feels real.  Walter's inner voice is compelling and powerful.  The cop story feels more like something the author read about and it comes off didactic and moralistic.  As with his other book, this is clearly drawing from the author's own life.  The screaming dissonance of teens buying music CDs, Facebook use and "Instant Messaging" distracts in a tale supposedly set in the modern age.  The story is equally messy with threads which don't go anywhere.  Dad has an emotional bounce when he begins a friendship with a nice neighbor lady but it doesn't develop.  Walter's sister drifts in and out of the narrative but doesn't seem to have a purpose.  Unlike "Winter Town" the drawings don't really add to the story.  While they contribute a sense of darkness they sometimes clash with the narrative.  A picture of the high school party looks like a kid's birthday celebration, the set of the hospital looks like an elegant hotel lobby.  The characters in the artwork are mostly faceless leaving only a sense of despair and loneliness, which is odd for a love story.  In any case, it ain't bad but it ain't great.  Fans of angst will continue to enjoy the work of Stephen Emond but I'm ready to move on.

Monday, August 28, 2017

"Me and Marvin Gardens" by Amy Sarig King

In a major departure from her high school level novels, Ms. King writes a sweet little book about a boy named Obe who is losing much but gains a friend in the form of an unusual creature. (And a girl.  And a teacher.)  Obe's voice is strong and the story has enough levels to be interesting.  Obe feels the loss of his family land, is bullied by his former best friend and is obsessed with the Science facts recited daily at his school about the loss of habitat.  It is readable and engaging but, for readers of Ms. King's other books, somewhat simplistic.  No matter.  The intended audience will enjoy it.  As an adult reader my only beef was that, once again, we have clear biography disguised as fiction.  While the story is supposedly set today, it reads somewhat like it was set in the 1970s or 1980s.  The author's voice comes through more often than it should and the parents are somewhat under-drawn.  Those complaints are minor and will not stand out to an Elementary reader.  A solid ecological tale which will touch the heart of any animal lover, I finished it in record time. 

Sunday, August 20, 2017

"Air" by Ryan Gattis

Initially, I liked this book more than "The Hate U Give" because it is just better written.  The lead character, Grey, has a story to tell and I found that more compelling than Starr, who has a point to make.  SPOILER ALERT  The tale begins powerfully, with Grey arriving home with his brother and sisters to find his mother murdered, his estranged father covered in blood and being taken away by the police.  The family is split up and Grey is sent to live with his dowager aunt in Baltimore.  Feeling at loose ends he faces neighborhood bullies and finds a soul-mate in a young man who elevates Grey's skills with BMX bikes to illegal street acts on a dirt bike.  From there, the tale actually drags a bit.  Gattis delves into very specific details about the art of dirt bike and BMX stunts without advancing the storyline much.  There are the evil white cops who are out to get them (as black teens) which was one of the plot-points I struggled with.  I'm not saying this isn't an issue.  In Baltimore, it absolutely is (um, the main character is named Grey -- duh, the author is pointing directly at Freddie Gray), but the cops are drawn with such a broad stroke that they seem about as dimensional as the mustachioed villain of a 1920s melodrama.  Grey, who is a bright young man and stellar student, doesn't seem to be the sharpest tool in the box.  He is actually surprised when the cops show up at his school and ID him, despite the fact that his image is all over YouTube.  But the cops don't actually ID him -- they know his alias and what school he goes to but can't seem to figure out his real name or address.  It is one of several places in the book where Gattis relies on the letter of the law (schools can't give out student info to police without a warrant) but is ignorant of the reality.  If a cop shows up on campus and points at a kid and asks what his name is, a student, teacher or administrator is going to tell him the kid's name.  It creates an artificiality to the novel which doesn't need to be there.  There are powerful story-lines to explore but Gattis gets caught up in driving the tale to a specific end which feels more contrived than real.  Grey himself has many issues -- the loss of his siblings, his mother, his father's guilt, his own multiracial heritage and how that makes him feel separate from everyone.  These issues are all touched on but not really addressed in depth.  Instead, we watch Grey spiral down into bigger, more dangerous stunts until he literally risks his life.  At this point, I'm thinking I'm getting too old to be reading YA novels anymore.  Grey is acting like almost every 17 year old boy.  Instead of dealing with his feelings, understanding the repercussions of his actions, he acts on impulse and in the moment.  I found myself agreeing with his Aunt Blue's point of view more than Grey's insistence on "freedom" which seemed like a juvenile version of "I can do whatever I want and screw the laws and the cops and everyone".  I might have been able to live with it if he grew up a little and learned from his experiences at the end but the resolution (which is somewhat vague) seems to be dropping out of school, living on the run and continuing his illegal, dangerous exploits.  The novel gets snaps for heart (Aunt Blue states, several times, that she can love the kid without loving his choices) and most teens will revel in the anarchist message but I just kept wishing the guy would wear a helmet.  Oh well. 

"The Hate U Give" by Angie Thomas

Titled from a Tupac Shakur quote, this novel has been the talk of the town with it's ripped-from-the-headlines tale of a black teen shot and killed by a white police officer.  SPOILER ALERT.  Told from the viewpoint of Starr, a friend of the boy and the only witness, the book is ... complicated.  The essence is excellent.  The characters and setting are tremendously real.  Starr's inner monologue and struggles are engaging and enlightening.  Structurally, however, there are significant issues.  It is clear this is a first novel, is somewhat biographical and could seriously have used a much better editor.  There isn't a lot of flow to the writing, and, from a literary standpoint, the build of the book is at times awkward.  Important parts of the tale (such as the actual shooting) are covered with light strokes while other parts (Starr's interactions with friends and her obsession with sneakers) are drawn out.  For the shooting, covered in a scant four pages, it is like snapshots.  Starr is in the car, her friend is shot, she is outside by his side, she is sitting in an ambulance.  It went by so fast I had to backtrack and re-read it.  Throughout the book, there is a tendency to present a situation which is somewhat unclear and then reveal the details many (many many) pages later.  It gives the whole thing a fuzzy feel.  The lengthy chapters also created some reader fatigue.  In many ways, "All American Boys" felt more organic to me but that book was designed to bring outside readers in.  This story is about Starr -- her choices, her role, her voice.  (I do have to admit that, as a middle-aged white woman, a great number of references were not clear to me.  Yes, I did have to look up "do the Nae-Nae" and the slang term "bougie".)

So it's not a perfect book, but I don't want to downgrade the importance of this story.  We are at a point right now when a novel like this can spur some real discussions -- discussions we don't know how to have, conversations we are afraid to have.  It is an uncomfortable book in some ways, challenging ideas that may or may not reside with those who live outside of this culture.  The book is strong enough to start us down a path of understanding and speaks to the teen world well enough (replete with lots of F words) to allow teen readers to get it.  Worth the attention and worth a read.

Monday, August 07, 2017

"The Sun Is Also a Star" by Nicola Yoon

By a chance of fate, this is the second Nicola Yoon book I have read recently.  The woman is seriously making me rethink my hatred of Romance fiction.  I have never liked wimpy whiney gooey Romance stories which have some low self-esteem girl pining for a guy she can't have.  But that isn't what Ms. Yoon writes.  Her romances are passionate, visceral, involve so much more than love and require a kind of courage and strength by her female protagonists to survive an unkind world.  This one was even better than the last, mixing in ripped-from-the-headlines storylines about immigration and the American dream.  The premise is simple, yet not.  Can you fall in love with someone in an instant?  Daniel and Natasha have an unpredictable day where they will find out.  There is also a lot about the complicated dynamics of family, the role of fate over choice and the impact of the people who cross our path ... even briefly, and sometimes only once.  Ms.  Yoon manages a kind of grace in her literary style without being arch.  Her books are both accessible and real, yet filled with metaphor and symbolism.  Another terrific book I couldn't put down and another hearty Brava.

"Ghosts" by Raina Telgemeier

Straying from her autobiographical trilogy, Ms. Telgemeier writes a surprising and touching story.  Cat is not happy about moving to a northern California town which seems to be wrapped in fog.  The reason for the move, her sister's battle with Cystic Fibrosis, makes it even harder to accept.  The town holds a secret, however -- it is stock full of ghosts.  Cat must come to terms with her sister's mortality, facing her fear, anger and sadness in a strange new place.  Telgemeier uses the ghosts and Mexican culture to address Cat's sense of loss, with the culminating event being a huge celebration of Day of the Dead.  The mythical town of Bahia de la Luna is palpable and the artwork manages to evoke both emotion and a sense of "otherwhere".  It is another sweet yet poignant tale by Telgemeier, who seems to have a real knack at portraying the realities of family bonds and growing up.  As popular as her previous graphic novels, this one continues the tradition of making you smile, cry and feel all warm and fuzzy, all at the same time.  Brava.

"Nimona" by Noelle Stevenson

This graphic novel romp is another delightful pick for this year's Books for the Beast conference.  A popular title, I have had difficulty getting it as the book is rarely on school shelves.  It reminds me a little of Saturday Night Live -- a kind of wild improv which gets funnier late at night.  Start with:  a medieval fantasy which includes eponymously named characters in the form of a villain and a hero.  Enter:  A foul-mouthed girl who has a deep desire to be evil.  She also has tremendous powers.  Mix in:  Contemporary technology, alchemy style Science and an evil government corporation.  This isn't so much a book to take seriously as a tale to laugh out loud at (I did, many times).  It's silly and raucous and races to several unexpected places.  There is even a teensy lesson or two embedded in the crazy.  Points to Ms. Stevenson, who writes her lead character with full curves and clothing which doesn't bare, well, anything.  In fact, the only Barbie-like characters here are the men, who are tall, angular, have flowing locks of hair and impossibly thin waists.  In many ways the book feels like a deliberate parody, turning the typical tome of this type on its head.  It is for that reason, the lack of sexism, the real-world diversity, the unexpected twists and the simple yet engaging artwork that this graphic novel well deserved its placement on the National Book Award short list last year.  Thoroughly enjoyable. 

Monday, July 24, 2017

"Intentional Interruption: Breaking Down Learning Barriers to Transform Professional Practice" by Steven Katz and Lisa Ain Dack

This isn't one of those books trying to sell a particular educational idea as much as it is about saying most initiatives don't work.  And they don't.  The slim treatise (93 pages) maintains a few absolutes.  1) Professional Development must create permanent change in order to be considered successful.  2) Human beings are hard-wired not to think deeply and to change how they operate.  3) A significant challenge to PD is that many do not take enough time to understand the problem before jumping into action, which results in a lot of action but not results.

The authors aren't wrong.  They make their point in clear, clean points which are interesting if not incredibly engaging.  The book reads like a TED Talk.  Lots of quick, pithy points with a strong example here and there.  Thankfully, because of the nature of the topic there aren't a lot of graphs, charts, etc.  The one drawback is a lot of repetition.  They tell you what they are going to tell you in the Preface, then they tell you again what they are going to tell you in Chapter 1, then repeat the whole thing at the beginning and end of each chapter.  (It made for fast reading when you realize you can kind of skip the opening and closing section of each paragraph).  Worth the time to read it but could also get the gist from a well-crafted Powerpoint. 

"How Kate Warne Saved President Lincoln" by Elizabeth Van Steenwyk, pictures by Valentina Belloni

This picture book was lent to me by a librarian after I told her of a story idea I had about a woman detective in the 19th Century.  A fairly innocuous little tome it covers the virtually unknown first woman to be a detective with the Pinkerton agency, a precursor to today's U.S. Secret Service.  It does a nice job with subtle jabs at the male-dominated society of the time, letting the readers know that women had skill sets men didn't have in this arena and how they didn't get credit when they did succeed.  Apparently Ms. Warne was instrumental in stopping an assassination attempt on then President-Elect Lincoln but history (as it often does) allowed her contributions to fade away.  Like many nonfiction picture books the various plotlines are boiled down a good deal which can create difficulties in having a clean narrative and the inclusion of occasional vocabulary which is not likely to be in the readers' reach.  The assumption is that a librarian (or parent) reading this to a child would put the story in context.  The artwork is somewhat flat, making it difficult to distinguish one character from another, but has bright colors and mimics collage.  An end note provides more details (although some, like her age, are in dispute) and leaves me intrigued to find out more about this woman.  While not a remarkable work it is another important story of the forgotten contributions to our history of the silent majority.

"Scythe" by Neal Shusterman

Like all Shusterman novels this is engaging, unique and accessible.  I flew through the 435 pages in less than a week, a new record for me.  Neal Shusterman begins this series by envisioning a near future where death has been eliminated for humankind.  To keep the population to bearable numbers society tolerates and has codified "Scythes" who randomly select people for permanent death.  The novel has everything from action to romance but most importantly it has really good philosophical underpinnings challenging the reader which are in no way high-falutin' or moralistic.  Mr. Shusterman does a terrific job at simply putting forth the ideas and letting you decide.  What happens to humanity when we no longer fear death?  There is "ultimate power ultimately corrupts" of course but many of the ideas are far more subtle than that.  I really loved this story, as I do with all of Shusterman's writing, which I find fresh and different.  It is nice to see him consistently producing strong books.  So many futuristic books focus on the tech, which can push non-Scifi readers away.  Shusterman gets it right by keeping the focus on the people, and how their world changes who they are (or doesn't).  Bravo.  Worthy of the Printz Honor and other praises heaped upon it.

Monday, July 17, 2017

"The Porcupine of Truth" by Bill Konigsberg

The third of my Books for the Beast books, I haven't hit a clunker yet.  This engaging, heart-wringing book was pure delight.  It was like an Ice Cream Sundae with all the good stuff and some of the bad.  Carson, a loner teen boy, is hauled out to Montana by his psychologist Mom for the summer to be with his dying, alcoholic, estranged Dad.  It is a trip full of emotional minefields.  But that's just the beginning.  Carson meets Aisha, one of those soul-mates who feel like your best friend the first time you talk, and two journeys begin -- one internal and one external.  They weave together beautifully.  The prose is not flowery but it is strong and draws you in.  To say that the characters are multi-dimensional is an understatement.  It is a spiritual tale and the people Carson and Aisha interact with are steps in his journey to understand God.  Powerful and with a turn or two, this one had me sniffling at the end.  It can be faulted for a rosier outcome than one might get -- only because my own family, which had some parallels, didn't end so well -- but the "realness" of the people and the messages just rang so true that they bore their way into my heart.  Bravo, Mr. Konigsberg, for writing a simple story with tremendously complex undertones.  It is the kind of book you can read over and over again.