Monday, February 28, 2011

Book Review: The Last Little Blue Envelope, by Maureen Johnson

,Johnson, Maureen. The Last Little Blue Envelope. 304 p. HarperTeen. 2011. Hardcover $16.99. ISBN 9780061976797.

When I heard that Maureen Johnson was writing a sequel to 13 Little Blue Envelopes, I was like: OOH! And then I was like: HUH? I mean, I thought the original book wrapped up pretty well in the end, with the idea that it's more about the journey than the destination, and that sort of thing. So... a sequel? Really?

I didn't doubt that it would be awesome. Maureen Johnson books generally are very awesome. But I was curious how she would pull it off.

And? She totally, totally pulled it off. I liked the sequel even more than I liked the first book. I LOVED it, in fact. Johnson deftly revisits the first book just enough to give the reader what they want: more charming European travel adventures, more wacky and endearing characters, and reappearances by some of the wacky and endearing characters we already know. Yay! But this sequel is by no means a simple retread of its predecessor. Brilliantly, one of the themes of this one is about revisiting a place or experience from a new perspective, and the idea that nothing is ever the same. There is definitely enough new content in the sequel to feel fresh and inspired.

I don't want to give away too much of the book's plot, especially since it seems like the publisher is being a bit hush-hush on the details for the moment. So I'll just say that the way in which the 13th envelope makes its way back into the story is very clever and actually plausible, and sets the story up for some fantastic conflict. There are laugh-out-loud funny moments, emotionally affecting moments, and satisfying moments of self-discovery. This book is an engaging and thoroughly enjoyable read. Once I started, I couldn't put it down.

Mark your calendars for The Last Little Blue Envelope's release date of April 26. ARC for review provided by the publisher via NetGalley.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Book Review: Subway Girl, by P.J. Converse

Converse, P.J. Subway Girl. 256 p. Harper Teen. 2011. Hardcover $16.99. ISBN 9780061575143.

Two isolated teens meet on a Hong Kong subway: Amy, a Chinese-American transplant who hardly speaks any Chinese and has a scandalous reputation, and Simon, who is failing English and is about to drop out of school. The two face considerable barriers in forging a relationship, but somehow, they'll make it work.
Subway Girl is a novel about meeting someone who changes your whole perspective on life, and in some ways, this theme comes through beautifully. Amy and Simon give each other unexpected confidence in the areas where they're most vulnerable. On the other hand, I felt like there was no resolution on how their relationship really changed either of them in the long term. I wasn't left with a strong sense of where either of these characters were going.

Despite its weaknesses, however, I found this book to be a quick and engaging read, with a curiously un-put-downable quality. I liked the book's Hong Kong setting, and I liked Simon's adorably earnest character. I found myself really wanting to know what would happen to these two teens who were just trying to figure out how to connect with each other.

So often, young adult books set in other countries tend to be historical fiction. As if teens all over the world right now aren't going through all of the same struggles and emotions? It's refreshing to find a contemporary novel set in an intriguing location like Hong Kong, so I will be buying this book for my library.

Subway Girl will be available in stores on March 15. ARC for review received from the publisher.

Monday, February 21, 2011

The Vespertine, by Saundra Mitchell

Mitchell, Saundra. The Vespertine. 293 p. Harcourt Children's Books. 2011. Hardcover $16.99. ISBN 9780547482477.

In the summer of 1889, Amelia travels from her home in rural Maine to visit her relatives in Baltimore, with the task of securing a proper marriage prospect. However, she quickly becomes enamored of an intriguing young artist who isn't a suitable match at all, and begins having visions of the future that only appear at sunset. While her mysterious power is entertaining at first, it brings horrifying consequences.

The lush first-person prose in this novel effectively evokes the Victorian era. Tension is sustained throughout the narrative, as the story opens in the autumn after Amelia's ill-fated summer in Baltimore, making the reader immediately aware that something terrible has happened. Set in flashbacks, the plot proceeds toward its dramatic climax at a leisurely pace, with quite a lot about calling cards and dances in between Amelia's visions. Although I wouldn't describe this book as action-packed, it does deliver on the promised tragedy in the end.

There is much to enjoy here- the development of Amelia's relationships with others, for example... the endearing friendship with her cousin, and her forbidden romance that sizzles with small improprieties. The author's detailed portrayal of Victorian-era Baltimore is detailed and feels fully realized, and the descriptions of the fashions of the time are particularly lovely.

Although it leans more toward the historical than the paranormal, this book will appeal to fans of Libba Bray's Gemma Doyle trilogy. And now that I've read The Vespertine, I really want to check out Saundra Mitchell's first novel for young adults, Shadowed Summer!

Look for The Vespertine in stores on March 7. ARC for review provided by the publisher via NetGalley.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

So I saw I Am Number Four

It was date night. The date night that only happens once a month. Our toddler would be happily taking part in his preschool's Kids' Night, and the in-laws would be watching the baby, so we were all set. Three hours for just the two of us! Dinner and a movie! And what was the only movie we could tolerate that fit into our limited timeframe?

I Am Number Four.

Yeah. The one based on a book from James Frey's much-criticized "fiction factory." The one that's been getting hilariously terrible reviews.

But whatever, it was okaaaaay. Angsty hot guy who just happens to be an alien rebelling against his father figure. High school bullies. A trustworthy geek sidekick. A loyal animal companion. A pretty girl. Action scenes with monsters.

Totally derivative, but entertaining. If you're not expecting a masterpiece, I mean. And I wasn't.

I felt like I did my duty as a teen services librarian by seeing it, in any case!

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Waiting on Wednesday

"Waiting On" Wednesday is a weekly event, hosted at Breaking the Spine, that spotlights upcoming releases that we're eagerly anticipating. My choice this week:
The Penderwicks at Point Mouette, by Jeanne Birdsall
Publisher: Knopf Books for Young Readers
Release date: May 10, 2011

A new Penderwicks book! That I didn't know about? ARE YOU KIDDING ME?! I'm so excited about this!

I adore the Penderwicks series. They're just perfect for the reader who wistfully closes the last page of a much-beloved Elizabeth Enright and wonders why nobody writes books like that anymore. And yes, I am that reader! I grew up on a healthy diet of charming mid-century books where children, usually siblings, have wholesome adventures and get into scrapes- books that were already decades old when I was discovering them for the first time. That Jeanne Birdsall captures the feeling of those old books in her writing positively fills me with joyful nostalgia. New books that feel like old favorites! What could be better?

I liked the second Penderwicks book even more than the first, and can't wait to curl up with this third volume. According to the book's description on the author's website, the eldest Penderwick will head to the beach while the younger sisters summer at a cozy cottage in Maine. Sounds like the perfect warm weather read!

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Angelfire, by Courtney Allison Moulton

Moulton, Courtney Allison. Angelfire. 464 p. HarperCollins. 2011. Hardcover $17.99. ISBN 9780062002327.

So, you've probably noticed that angels are the new vampires- in YA fiction, anyway. They're all the rage. Somehow I've been missing out on this trend, so I decided to give Angelfire a whirl.

Ellie is a normal girl just trying to enjoy her last year in high school... except that she's been plagued by nightmares lately, where she's wielding two flaming swords and fighting monsters. And she keeps running into this hot guy hanging around. And then the monsters start attacking for real. Before long, her destiny is revealed: she is a reincarnated warrior who has been waging a centuries-long battle against reapers, deadly creatures set on stealing innocent human souls for Hell's army. Oh, and the hot guy? He's her guardian.

With Ellie's conversational first-person narrative chronicling a combination of her day-to-day teen existence, fast-paced action sequences, and a swoony but fairly chaste romance, this book is one that will appeal to the Twilight fans.

Ellie is a far cry from Bella, however. Those who complain about Bella's passivity won't find that same flaw here. When Ellie notices a hot guy sort of stalking her, she totally calls him out on being creepy instead of falling madly in love with him. It's hilarious, actually! I mean, OF COURSE she falls for him later, but hey, it's okay to fall in love with a hot guy after sharing a few conversations and some epic battle scenes, right? I liked the way Ellie and Will's relationship develops.

Besides having a healthy sense of self-preservation when it comes to strange guys, Ellie is a powerful fighter, despite the fact that she would rather be an ordinary teenage girl. When the situation calls for it, she demonstrates some pretty awesome sword-fighting. Those looking for a strong heroine in their paranormal fantasy reads will enjoy Ellie.

Although the character development is solid, the book's writing is occasionally clumsy and the pacing can be uneven. There's quite a bit of telling instead of showing, and long sections of the narrative devoted to explanations of the book's mythology tend to detract from the reading experience. I felt that the book could have benefited from tighter editing. Also, there are a few loose threads (Like: what was up with Ellie's dad?), but I assume these will be addressed in the next two books of the trilogy.

On the whole, though, this is a fun read for fans of the paranormal romance genre.

Angelfire hits stores today. ARC for review provided by the publisher via NetGalley.

Monday, February 14, 2011

My Picks for Valentine's Day

Romance! Bah, who needs it?

Well... ME!

So in honor of Valentine’s Day, here is a list of books that have many, many excellent qualities, but are seriously worth reading for the romance alone. Squee and enjoy!

The Clearing, by Heather Davis
Time-travel romance! Modern-day girl falls for a 1940s guy, and his old-fashioned speech patterns are downright swoon-worthy. Also, his mother bakes biscuits. This book made me swoony AND hungry.

Forgive My Fins, by Tera Lynn Childs
Despite herself, a half-human, half-mermaid finds herself falling for a total bad boy with a heart of gold when they become inadvertently bound together by mermaid law. Yes!

Graceling, by Kristin Cashore
Oh, the banter- the witty, charming, adorable banter! I could read Katsa and Po dialogue forever and not tire of it.

The Mediator series, by Meg Cabot
He’s a hot cowboy ghost, and he haunts her bedroom. He calls her “querida.” Commence the swooning!

The Goose Girl, by Shannon Hale
The romantic leads in this lyrical fairytale retelling are both hiding their identities and are so obviously MFEO.

he Mortal Instruments series, by Cassandra Clare
Forbidden romance in the most forbidden way possible. But you know it’ll work out somehow- it HAS to!

Friday, February 11, 2011

Jersey Tomatoes Are the Best, by Maria Padian

Padian, Maria. Jersey Tomatoes Are the Best. 352 p. Knopf Books for Young Readers. 2011. Hardcover $16.99. ISBN 9780375865794.

I'm sorry to say that I almost passed up this book on first glance. Can you believe it? I didn’t get the title, and I didn’t like the fact that one of the female main characters has a boy’s name.


I’m so glad I decided to give it a try, because Jersey Tomatoes Are the Best is a thoroughly enjoyable read.

It’s a story about friendship, goals, and deciding what’s really important. Henry (short for Henriette), a rising star in the tennis world, and Eva, a talented young ballet dancer, have been best friends since the age of 6. Now at age 15, the two girls couldn’t be more different, but they share the experience of living under an intense amount of pressure to succeed. Through alternating chapters of dual narration with distinct voices, the girls recount the events of a summer of growth, change, and self-discovery as they apply themselves to their athletic and artistic pursuits, with nearly tragic consequences for one.

I really liked both the bold, headstrong Henry, and the more vulnerable perfectionist Eva. I liked that their personalities are effective contrasts to one another, yet the strength and depth of their friendship is completely believable, with inside jokes and true devotion. Too, I liked the way the author portrays the demanding worlds of competitive sports and ballet. In particular, any reader who thinks ballerinas just twirl around in tutus will come away from this book with a new respect for what dancers go through to achieve their art.

I have to admit, the title of this book still doesn’t grab me. It’s a catch phrase the two protagonists use to express their affection for each other and show pride in their home state, but I'm from California! I don't get it! Plus, I don't like tomatoes. But that's my own issue.

The main thing is: it’s not always easy to find a sports novel that will appeal to girls, and this is a good one. I was thrilled to buy this one for my library, and look forward to recommending it. Whether the reader is looking for a sports book, or a book about real girls and solid friendship, this book fits the bill.

Jersey Tomatoes Are the Best will be released on March 8, 2011. ARC for review provided by the publisher.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Around the Web

Story of my life as mother to a baby and a toddler: I'm in the middle of three different books right now, but haven't managed to finish one of them yet. So, hey... links!

Simon & Schuster acquires rights to a new trilogy from ghostgirl author, Tonya Hurley. The concept behind this series is intriguing. Contemporary supernatural romance based on the lives of saints? Yes, please! Taking inspiration from saints for a YA trilogy seems refreshingly unique, yet possibly similar enough to the current trend of angels in paranormal fiction that there will be a built-in audience waiting for something sort of like what they've been reading, but not exactly the same.

Keen Readers: a new site aimed at encouraging reluctant readers. There's useful information for parents and mentors, as well as kids, and an ongoing writing contest with winners selected each month.

Name expert Laura Wattenberg discusses invented literary names on The Baby Name Wizard. Spoilers: Vanessa was made up by Jonathan Swift. I never knew!

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Waiting on Wednesday

"Waiting On" Wednesday is a weekly event, hosted at Breaking the Spine, that spotlights upcoming releases that we're eagerly anticipating. My choice this week:

City of Fallen Angels, by Cassandra Clare
Publisher: Margaret K. McElderry
Release date: April 5, 2011

I know, everyone's waiting for this one, right? And with good reason! Cassandra Clare's writing is so much fun to read, with snappy dialogue, fast-paced action, and breathless romance. Something for every reader, really!

I loved The Mortal Instruments series, a contemporary urban fantasy originally conceived as a trilogy, so I'm excited to see Clare expand that world with three more books. Too, it sounds like certain characters from The Infernal Devices, the steampunk prequel series to The Mortal Instruments, will come into play in these next three books, which should be completely awesome. Sign me up!

Monday, February 7, 2011

Book Review: Anya's War, by Andrea Alban

Alban, Andrea. Anya's War. 208 p. Feiwel & Friends. 2011. Hardcover $16.99. ISBN 9780312370930.

In 1937, Odessa, Ukraine, is no longer a safe place for Jews, so fourteen year old Anya and her family have fled to Shanghai in search of a new life, free from persecution. A typical teen, Anya thinks about boys, keeps a journal, and gets fed up with her elders. She's also a girl with ambitions that reach beyond what her mother and strict grandmother have planned, and her determined nature shines through when she finds an abandoned newborn baby girl, and risks the ire of her family in order to save the infant from certain death.

Let me say, this is historical fiction for real lovers of historical fiction. Although there are a few well-crafted sequences of suspense that will appeal even to those who typically shun historical fiction (such as, what on earth is she going to do with that baby?!), most of the narrative is devoted to detailing Anya's daily life in Shanghai, and will be best appreciated by those who truly love to immerse themselves in another time and place. The description of the family's Shabbat ritual is particularly rich and beautiful, and the author paints a vivid picture of Shanghai as a fascinating blend of cultures, filled with expats from every corner of the world.

Personally, I never knew that Jews had fled to Shanghai before World War II, so I found the story's setting and cultural details really interesting. It's always a treat to find a book covering parts of history that don't generally appear in our high school textbooks.

Inspired by true events from the author's family, Anya's War explores feminist issues, such as women's perceived worth, and touches upon race, class, and religion. This book is available in stores now. My review was based on an ARC provided by the publisher.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Ask a librarian. Seriously, ask!

Reader’s advisory is one of my favorite parts of being a librarian. I consider it a privilege and sheer joy to have the chance to connect the right book with the right reader, to really find out what that reader wants. I love to send them home with a stack of books, hoping at least one will be a hit, if not all.

I want the reader to know, though, that they don’t have to like my recommendations. And if they don’t, I really want them to let me know. Honestly! It's all so subjective. Life is too short to read books you don’t like, and I’d rather find the reader something they do like. So while I'm giddily weighing them down with a pile of books, I tell my own, personal reader’s advisory story.

When I was a kid, I absolutely devoured Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain Chronicles. It’s still one of my favorite series of all time, in fact! Anyway, my mom urged me to ask the librarian what else I might enjoy, based on my love of Prydain. The librarian recommended Ursula LeGuin’s Earthsea books, and bless her heart, that was a very good recommendation... but it just didn’t work for me. At all. The outcome? Cue the sad music: I NEVER SPOKE TO A LIBRARIAN AGAIN.

Er, until I started working in a library as an adult, I mean.

But that's still pretty sad, right? Just because I was afraid and too embarrassed to tell the librarian that her recommendation didn't quite work for me, I ended up thinking I had to be completely independent at the library. Which is so not true!

So, I always tell kids and teens-- please don't be like me. Talk to us! Librarians want to help. We want to find you a book you'll love, and we won’t take it personally if our first recommendation didn’t work out. Promise!

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Around the Web

Actor and cool geek extraordinaire Wil Wheaton recalls the impact his childhood librarian had on him. Aww, thanks, Wil. This kind of story is why so many of us go into the library profession.

On a less positive note: Bitch Media demonstrates how not to make a book list. The whole kerfuffle is very well explained at Chasing Ray.

Back to the positive! Author Mitali Perkins asks us how we define ourselves in terms of race. I hope more people will contribute to the discussion; it's a thought-provoking topic.

In honor of Lunar New Year, a link to the easiest, best lantern craft ever. It's so simple, but it can be embellished and made as elaborate as you wish by decorating the cut strips of paper that make up the sides of the lantern. I loved this craft when I was a children's librarian- it's always fun to see the kids go crazy with glitter. Happy year of the Cat!

Gale/Cengage is looking for a superhero librarian! So go give your favorite librarian some love, or nominate yourself. We are all superheroes.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Book Review: Okay for Now, by Gary D. Schmidt

Schmidt, Gary D. Okay for Now. 368 p. Clarion. 2011. Hardcover $16.99. ISBN 9780547152608.

I laughed. I cried. I wanted this book to go on forever.

This companion novel to Newbery Honor book, The Wednesday Wars, is just as wonderful as its predecessor, and maybe even better. A slice-of-life coming-of-age story, Okay for Now follows Doug Swieteck through his eventful eighth grade year during 1968-69. Reluctantly uprooted from Long Island with his family, he faces the challenge of adjusting to his new life in "stupid" Marysville, New York- and what a challenge it is. Being the new kid nobody trusts because of his hoodlum older brother, surviving school when the gym teacher hates him, and navigating a tenuous situation at home- it's all part of Doug's day-to-day struggle against a backdrop of events such as the Vietnam War and NASA's moon landing. His refuge becomes the library, where he takes a surprising interest in John James Audubon's bird prints and learns to see the world in new ways.

Doug tells his story in his own distinctive voice, which is conversational and often laugh-out-loud funny, but extremely emotionally affecting as well. There are really high highs and really low lows in this story. When things are going well for Doug, you want to stand up and cheer and thump him proudly on the back. When things are going the other direction, you just want to give him a hug and weep with him- although he might not admit to weeping.

As in The Wednesday Wars, some amazing things happen in this book that may not be likely to happen in real life. But that’s the beauty of Gary D. Schmidt's writing. I want unbelievably good things to happen! I want everything to fall into place in incredible ways. I want a heart of gold to be revealed in every mean or flawed individual. I want for kids to have opportunities to shine, opportunities to love learning, and opportunities to meet their heroes- not once, but twice.

And then, other things happen in this book that are so sad, so awful, you wish with all your heart they would never happen in real life... but you know they do. There are abusive fathers. There are people who will judge you unfairly. There are times when things you love get ruined, and people you love get sick.

This book stands alone and can be enjoyed without having read The Wednesday Wars. (But if you haven't read The Wednesday Wars, you're really missing out!)

Mark your calendars for Okay for Now's publication date of April 18, 2011. ARC for review provided by the publisher via NetGalley.
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