Review: The Book of Dead Birds, by Gayle Brandeis

The Book of Dead Birds, Gayle Brandeis

I don’t even know. I think that in the end I found this book to have been a waste of my time. Maybe that’s unfair. It’s a pretty contrived novel about a woman who is half-black and half-Korean (guess how), and the author sort of co-opts all of this history in weird and unproductive and clichéd ways, and in the end the book isn’t good enough to justify any of it. I love the Salton Sea, and I was very excited at the prospect of a novel set there, but this is just sort of a mess. There’s too much discussion of race for the book to not be about it, and yet the protagonist’s background only influences her in very, very specific ways, and it gets brushed under the rug at all sorts of points when it seems like it would be rearing its head. Ava is, as a result, a not-very-believable first-person narrator. We don’t get any real sense of who she is apart from her tense relationship with her mother, which might be the point, but I don’t really think so. She’s just not all that interesting. There’s also a romantic subplot that is really painfully dull and trite. I absolutely loathed that entire storyline and cringed whenever the romantic interest showed up.

I did, however, think that the stuff about the birds was neat – Ava’s mother keeps a diary of all the pet birds Ava has accidentally killed, and so Ava goes to the Salton Sea to rescue dying pelicans, as penance. That’s interesting. So are the women Ava meets who live at the Sea. Those scenes were great, and I thought Brandeis did a terrific job of describing that region—her writing is lovely, particularly when she’s describing scenery and wildlife. If the novel had just stuck to the birds, instead of trying way too hard to work in a subplot about the Korean mom who was forced into prostitution, this book might have been okay – the A-plot could have kept it afloat. But Brandeis tries way too hard to make a Serious Statement and spends too much time hitting us over the head with Symbolism, and the story flounders as a result.

In short: Whatever.

Read it if you like: The Salton Sea, Memoirs of a Geisha

Review: Life As We Knew It, by Susan Beth Pfeffer

Life As We Knew It, Susan Beth Pfeffer

This book is a mixed bag. Life As We Knew It deals with the aftermath of a horrific astronomical event, in which a meteor has crashed into the moon, causing its orbit to change drastically. Far-fetched? Yeah, sure, but the science isn’t really the point. (As a warning, though, those of you who are inclined in that direction will find plenty to complain about—there are all kinds of implausibilities in here.)

The novel focuses on a teenage girl, Miranda Evans, and her mother and two brothers. Life As We Knew It is really a survival tale, and so the novel’s target audience – high school students – is likely to think of a lot of things the Evans family should have done. (How is it that no one ever went hunting, or scavenging through dead neighbors’ houses?) That occasionally gets frustrating, but then again, I’m not sure how level-headed I’d be after the apocalypse. And much like the crazy science, the family’s survival skills (or lack thereof) aren’t what makes this book compelling.

And besides, those are pretty minor complaints. Most of the people who really have a beef with this book object to its perceived  “anti-Christian” and “anti-conservative” bias, which frankly is difficult to deny. There are a lot of pointed comments about the president running off to Texas with a stockpile of food, and the religious characters in the book are insane. Then again, that rather dim view of humanity is in keeping with the rest of the book – it’s not as though the Christians are singled out.

See, this book posits, on some level, that humans are pretty nasty creatures. When faced with a global catastrophe, it tells us, people will become terribly selfish. They’ll kill their neighbors, even their families. They’ll kidnap and pillage and murder. They’ll avoid at all costs doing anything generous, and serve only their own self-interest. This is exemplified by the Evans family: when Miranda tells the boy she likes about some available canned food, for example, her mother goes berserk. There’s a mantra here – family first, family first, family first – that is echoed by pretty much every character we meet, and it makes this book a little hard to swallow. It bears pointing out, of course, that in past global catastrophes, there have been an awful lot of incredible, heroic, generous humans, and in Pfeffer’s apocalypse there are absolutely none. Even Miranda’s mother, who is supposed to be more-or-less a good person and a good parent, eventually asks Miranda to make an enormous and kind of horrific sacrifice.

In the end, it’s Miranda who makes this book worth reading. This is told in the first person, in diary format, which more than anything highlights the surprising monotony of a post-apocalyptic Pennsylvania. She spends most of her time chopping wood, re-reading the same books, and fighting with her family. Towards the end of the novel, she devotes all of her time to keeping herself and her family alive, but until that point, she mostly just seems bored, and her diary very effectively blends Miranda’s mundane experiences with the harsh realities of her new world. Her very human, very teenage reactions to a devastating event are what make this novel plausible enough, and engaging enough, to finish: whatever else, you want to know that so resilient a girl can make it, even through the end of the world.

In short: Dark and thoughtful, Life As We Knew It relies on the spunk of its protagonist to keep the reader from getting too bored or depressed to finish the book. Luckily, Miranda is up to the challenge.

Read it if you like: Z is for Zachariah, post-apocalyptic fic

Review: The Gemma Doyle Trilogy, by Libba Bray

The Gemma Doyle Trilogy: A Great and Terrible Beauty, Rebel Angels, and The Sweet Far Thing, Libba Bray

So these books are good. I can’t really deny that. They’re basically the Harry Potter books, except with an almost-all-female cast, and set at an English boarding school in the 1890s. Plus, Bray throws in some young-adult-novel staples, like eating disorders, questions of sexual orientation, and cutting. (No, I’m not kidding – believe it or not, though, it’s not annoying.) You love all of the characters and want to be their best friends forever. There’s magic and friendship and romance and danger and corsets and conspiracy and patriarchy-fighting. The world Bray creates is detailed and involving, if not especially original. These books will suck you in and adamantly refuse to let you go. I literally could not read anything else while I was reading this trilogy, and these books are long – the last one is something like 850 pages. This trilogy is some glorious combination of Harry Potter, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The Princess Diaries, Wizard’s Hall, and every Jane Austen novel. It’s great. It is fun, well-written, smart, and feminist.

But don’t get me wrong: I wish I’d never started reading them. Why, you ask? You wrote such a glowing review! Here’s why: because I felt really betrayed by certain events in the third book. (I don’t want to spoil things, you know, but if you want to know I’ll tell you. Or you can Google it.) I am not going to go into a lot of detail, for obvious reasons, but the last time I felt this betrayed by a novel was, well, when I read Invincible. I finished this generally uplifting and empowering book feeling absolutely terrible and sobbing my eyes out. Even thinking about it now makes me angry. So, you know. That’s the caveat.

In short: Read at your own peril. Sure, they’re great for the first two-thousand pages, but the fall is devastating. Brace yourself.

Read it if you like: Masochism

Review: Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist, by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan

Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist, Rachel Cohn and David Levithan

Being the great sinner I am, I read this after seeing the movie, which I enjoyed a great deal ( had the movie come out when I was sixteen, it would have been the best movie ever, but now that I’m ancient it was just a very nice evening out). The book, to no one’s surprise, I’m sure, is even better. This is among the best and most honest young adult novels I’ve read in a while, and I endorse it wholeheartedly.

The novel’s chapters alternate between Nick and Norah (written by Levithan and Cohn, respectively), always in the first person. Both characters have distinctive voices. Levithan’s Nick absolutely channels that guy in your high school class who always sat in the corner of the cafeteria with a notebook (and you know you were dying to read what he was writing). Norah is instantly likeable, though her voice isn’t quite as surprising or unique. Both are genuinely good kids who’ve gotten inadvertently mixed up with (ob)noxious people, and you have to be glad that they’ve found each other.

A lot of people commented that the movie was a love letter to New York City, and the same can be said of the book—though really, it’s not all about New York. It’s about how great it is to be young and impetuous, have a driver’s license and no curfew, and spend a night listening to great music and sitting around at an all-night diner with the best person you’ve just met. Nick and Norah’s enthusiasm for music, food, spontaneity, and each other is infectious.

And so, one of the most appealing things about this novel is that it doesn’t try too hard to be cool. Too many novels—particularly novels designed to appeal to the ironic indie-kid set—are overly self-conscious and worried about coming across as genuine, and so they hide behind sarcasm and tongue-in-cheekiness. None of that in Nick & Norah’s. The title characters are vulnerable and charming, and their exploits, though probably clichéd, feel thrilling and new—just like they did to you, however many years ago. If this book doesn’t remind you of the best times you had in high school, then you’re…well, not a former indie kid. But whether this echoes your own history or simply offers you a window into someone else’s, rest assured that you’re experiencing all the best parts.

In short: Whatever, this book is terrific. Buy it in hardcover, read it fifty times, give it to all your friends.

Read it if you like: The Perks of Being a Wallflower, indie music, the movie

Review: All the Sad Young Literary Men, by Keith Gessen

All the Sad Young Literary Men, Keith Gessen

In short: Mediocre. This novel is really a bunch of short stories loosely interwoven, with each of the stories told from one of the three main character’s point of view. Too bad they quickly become indistinguishable: Mark, Sam, and Keith are all jerks, all terrible with women, all Jewish, and possibly all Russian. There’s a lot of whining about the Bush administration, and hey, I whine about that too, but it doesn’t make for much of a novel. The writing is lovely in places, and the chapter in which Sam (whose mission in life is to write the Great Zionist Novel, though he’s not a practicing Jew and knows very little about the situation in Israel) actually goes to Israel and the West Bank is great, full of insight and tension. But too much of the book is concerned with the not-very-interesting characters’ not-very-interesting (and extremely convoluted) love lives, and that just gets dull.

Read it if you like: Pretension, n+1

Book Club: Marvin Redpost: Kidnapped at Birth?

Marvin Redpost: Kidnapped at Birth?, by Louis Sachar

Discussion Questions
1. Give a short summary of the book.
2. How do you think Marvin’s parents felt when he announced that he thought he was someone else’s kid? Why do you think they agreed to take Marvin for the “prince test”?
3. What do you think about the way Marvin’s friends reacted? Did they believe him?
4. Do you think that making a TV announcement was a good way for the king to find his son? Do you think that he will find Prince Robert?
5. Why did Marvin decide not to take the second test? What do you think he learned from this experience?
6. What would you do if you saw a news story saying that someone who looked like you is a prince or princess? Would you want to find out for sure, or would you want to keep your normal life?

Activity

In groups of three, make a list of five things you would do if you found out that you were a prince or princess. Then, make up a skit (a very short play without a script) about being royal! You can act out a scene from the book if you want, or make up your own story. Use the worksheet to help plan your skit!
(Or, if you don’t want do a skit, you can write a short story – or draw a cartoon – about finding out that you are a prince or princess of a country halfway around the world.)

Worksheet

If I were a prince (or princess), I would…

SKIT CHARACTERS:
1.______________________________
2.______________________________
3.______________________________
4.______________________________ (optional)
5.______________________________ (optional)

PLOT:
Beginning (set-up)
_________________________________________________________________________________
_________________________________________________________________________________
_________________________________________________________________________________
_________________________________________________________________________________
Middle (conflict)
_________________________________________________________________________________
_________________________________________________________________________________
_________________________________________________________________________________
_________________________________________________________________________________
End (resolution)
_________________________________________________________________________________
_________________________________________________________________________________
_________________________________________________________________________________
_________________________________________________________________________________

Book Club: Diary of a Wimpy Kid

One of my co-workers recently left for a full-time position, so I have taken over the Tween Book Club, a group of about 10 kids in grades 3-6. Everyone gets to keep a copy of the book club book, which is awesome.

Wimpy Kid Discussion Questions!

1. Is Greg a good friend to Rowley? Do you have any friends like Greg? Would you even WANT to be friends with Greg? Why do you think Rowley is more popular than Greg? What do you think about the joke Greg plays on Chirag?

2. Do you like the combination of pictures and diary entries? Does it help tell the story better or does it just make the book more fun to read?

3. What do you think Greg will be like when he’s a grown-up? Do you think he’ll become a little nicer? What kind of job will he have? Do you think he’ll get married and have kids?

4. How is Greg’s relationship with his brothers, especially Rodrick? Do you think they might be friends when they are older? Does Greg secretly look up to Rodrick?

5. What do you think about Greg’s secret? Greg thought it was a big deal and the most embarrassing thing ever—do you agree? What do you think about the way the kids at school reacted to the secret?

6. Do you think Mom Bucks are a good way to get Rodrick and Greg to behave? Do your parents do anything like that?

Write a diary/comic book about your Christmas vacation!

Some ideas for things to talk about:
• What is your family like? Did you visit any cousins or grandparents that you don’t usually see?
• What did you eat? Did you have a special dinner?
• Did you play outside? Make snowmen? Go sledding?
• Did you hang out with any of your friends?
You can write a regular journal entry, just draw pictures, or do both like Greg does!

Write a review of Diary of a Wimpy Kid!

Some ideas for things to talk about:
• What did you like about the book? Did you like the characters? Was it funny? Did it remind you of real
life? Do you know any people who are like the characters in the book?
• Was there anything you didn’t like? Did you like the ending? Did you like the way the characters acted?
• What would you change about the story if you were the author?

Program: SpongeBob Christmas party!

We had a great time tonight playing SpongeBob trivia, checking out our (seriously extensive) collection of SpongeBob books and DVDs, and making this awesome SpongeBob Christmas ornament! It’s an inexpensive project and they turned out really cute.

Santa SpongeBob Ornament

Supplies (for each kid): Yellow sponges, cut in half

Pipe cleaners (yellow and brown)

Googly eyes

Small white cotton balls

Felt (red, brown, and white, at a minimum)

Ornament hooks and metallic string

Supplies (for the table):

Black Sharpies

Tacky glue

Advance Preparation: Each kid will need one half-sponge, two  pieces of yellow pipe cleaner for arms, two short pieces of brown pipe cleaner for feet, two googly eyes, and felt clothes: a Santa hat, shirt, pants, and tie. (SpongeBob traditionally wears brown pants, but for Christmas, I gave the kids the options of green pants.) I cut and counted all that stuff out in advance, then put the components onto a paper plate (one for each kid).

Instructions: Attach pipe cleaner feet and arms by putting some glue on one end of the pipe cleaner, then sticking it into the sponge. The feet go on the bottom of the sponge, and the arms stick out of the side of the sponge about a third of the way from the top. Bend the feet so that they look like, well, feet. Glue the pants on the bottom part of the sponge (you want them to hang over the edge of the sponge), then glue the shirt on top of the pants, and the tie on top of the shirt. Decorate as desired (some kids drew the line down the middle of the pants, some drew on a shirt collar, etc.). Next, glue the pom-pom to the end of the Santa hat, and glue the Santa hat to the very top of the sponge. Glue the eyes on underneath the hat, then draw SpongeBob’s face!

Finally, make him an ornament. Straighten out the ornament hook, put some glue on both ends, then stick both ends into the top of the sponge (behind the Santa hat) so that the hook looks like an upside-down “U”.  Thread some metallic string or ribbon through the hook and tie it so that it’s long enough to hang from your tree. Done!

Review: Diary of a Wimpy Kid, by Jeff Kinney

Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Jeff Kinney

These books are insanely popular at our library, and with good reason: they’re easy and quick to read; about a third of the story is told in comic format; and they’re very, very funny. Protagonist Greg Heffley is a socially awkward/inept middle-school student, and his diary chronicles his daily missteps, almost all of which are hilarious.

A lot of the humor stems from the bad things Greg does: he’s a jerk to his best friend, his little brother, his teachers, his parents, etc. This seems to concern some parents, who worry that kids will look to Greg for social cues. Well, as long as your kid has a basic sense of right and wrong, he or she isn’t going to look to Greg Heffley as a role model. Plus, the books are only funny if you understand that the things Greg does are wrong, so if your kid doesn’t know the difference between right and wrong, they won’t like these books anyway.

One of the other great things about this series is the wide range of its appeal. The language is simple enough that kids in lower elementary grades can read and enjoy this, but the subject matter will appeal to older kids as well (and, um, me, and probably you too). They’re very, very funny books, and with any luck, they’ll encourage kids to do some journaling (and comic-drawing) of their own.

In short: Though it’s especially good for the reluctant reader (boys in particular love it), this series is fun for anybody who has a sense of humor.

Read it if you like: Things that are funny, Captain Underpants

Review: Sucks to Be Me: The All-True Confessions of Mina Hamilton, Teen Vampire (maybe), by Kimberly Pauley

Sucks to Be Me: The All-True Confessions of Mina Hamilton, Teen Vampire (maybe), Kimberly Pauley

Mina Hamilton (yes, “Mina” is a reference to Dracula, good job!) is the daughter of two vampires. Not cool, sexy vampires, though: her parents are regular, middle-aged dorks: her mother teaches middle school and her father is an accountant. They just get bad sunburns when they go out on the beach.

Pauley’s vampires are endearingly normal (most of the vampires in the story dress and act normally, aside from the blood habit and that whole eternal life thing), which makes this book a refreshing take on vampire lore. At sixteen, Mina has to choose whether or not to become a vampire like her parents, which involves taking vampire classes, doing vampire homework, and going on vampire field trips (to visit a blood bar in one instance, and to talk to a vampire writer—think Anne Rice—in another). Her weird, badly dressed uncle—also a vampire—is her “sponsor”, advising her along the way.

While she’s dealing with that life-changing decision, she’s also busy looking for a prom date (will it be the popular jock, the dark, handsome, brooding vampire wannabe, or the sweet, funny vampire wannabe?) and dealing with the snobby girls at regular school and at vampire school. She’s got a lot on her plate for a junior in high school.

Sucks to Be Me is written in a diary format, and Mina’s voice reminds me a lot of Mia’s in The Princess Diaries: light, funny, and just a little self-conscious. The concept isn’t just clever and inventive, it’s also well-executed, which is a rare combination: Pauley re-writes a lot of the “rules” of vampires, but she’s always consistent, which will please vampire aficionados. (You know who you are.)

In short: This is a quick read, it’s fun, and it has a good message. Way better than some of that other vampire literature I could mention.

Read it if you like: The Princess Diaries, Twilight, Buffy the Vampire Slayer