Saturday, July 28, 2012

Friends with Boys

I recently discovered Faith Erin Hicks when I picked up a copy of The War at Ellsmere from the library.  And what a delightful discovery it was!  I so enjoyed that book and its quirky combination of humor, suspense, engaging characters and relationships - along with a dash of the supernatural - that I knew I had to read more. I was pleased to discover an additional book in my library's collection - her latest, Friends with Boys.  And I have to say, I enjoyed this one even more.

Our heroine is Maggie who, after years of being home-schooled by her mom, is on the brink of starting high school.  Her older brothers, who have gone through the same process, understand a bit how she is feeling, but for Maggie the change is more complicated and distressing: her mother has decided to take a leave of absence from the family, leaving Maggie on her own with her dad and older brothers.  Maggie finds the first day of school extremely daunting, and to heighten her stress, she discovers that a ghost is haunting her.

It is interesting and a bit confusing to Maggie to see her brothers interacting with other kids at school.  Clearly there are back stories and relationship issues her that she doesn't understand.  Maggie has never really had other friends before, aside from her brothers, and when she does finally click with Lucy, another girl at school, she realizes that there are some issues between Lucy's brother and her own.

Again I was struck by the wonderful balance between humor and drama, the mysterious and the mundane, that Hicks manages to strike in her graphic novels.  Maggie is a delightful character, discovering things for the first time that will be all too familiar to many teen readers, but who will, thanks to Maggie's enthusiasm and sensitivity, view them in a new light.  I love when books do that.  Zombie fans will delight in Maggie's school musical, and fans of Alien will find Maggie's Halloween trip to the movies making them laugh out loud.

As with The War at Ellsmere, Hicks could easily have fallen into plot predictability, but she never does, deftly maneuvering the story into unexpected - and unexpectedly moving - directions, without ever being heavy-handed or maudlin.  This is one of my favorite reads of the year, and I have broken down and purchased her first book, Zombies Calling, because my library does not own it.  I will see if I can remedy that, too, but I was too impatient to read it to wait out the possible purchasing process.  This would be an excellent choice for readers curious to try out graphic novels - great characters, interesting story, and expressive, energetic artwork.  What's not to like?

Friends with Boys by Faith Erin Hicks (First Second, 2012)

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Sucks to Be Me

Sixteen-year-old Mina has a huge decision to make.  Her parents, who are vampires, have hidden her existence from the vampire community - it's not exactly legal for them to have a living child.  They were turned into vampires when Mina was just a baby, and they couldn't bear to part with her, so their transgression, Mina supposes, is understandable.  But now that the vampire council has become aware of Mina's existence, she needs to decide whether or not she wants to join the ranks of the undead, in which case she can stay with her parents, or if she wants to stay human, in which case she'll lose her parents - and all memory of them.

The story is told from Mina's humorous, snarky point of view, and while the premise really never felt  at all believable to this reader, Mina is charming enough that I couldn't bring myself to care.  She includes lots of fun lists in her narration, including "Why It Sucks to Have Parents Who Are Vampires," along with vampire myths and truths that are sure to enlighten readers.

This is a fun, light read, fast-paced and humorous, that is likely to engage even reluctant readers.  I know I'll be recommending it to teens at my library, and I look forward to finding out what happens in the sequel.  I won't let on what she decides, but I was glad that there are no cliffhangers here; Mina does make her decision by the end of the book.

Books in the the All-true Confessions of Mina Smith, Teen Vampire series:

1. Sucks to Be Me
2. Still Sucks to Be Me

Sucks to Be Me (#1 in the All-True Confessions of Mina Smith, Teen Vampire series) by Kimberly Pauley (Wizards of the Coast Publishing, 2010)

Also reviewed at:
Confessions of a Bibliovore:  "Light-hearted and sweet-natured, this book is a sure hit with those kids that prefer laughs over angst with their blood-suckers."
Em's Bookshelf"It was a quick, easy read and, though the characters were somewhat two-dimensional, it was still a good read."
Love Vampires:  "There is no vampire angst in this story - in fact the vampires themselves are slightly dull. This isn't a bad thing (and it's not often you'll hear me say that!) so don't let it put you off the book. "

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Guardian of the Dead

I picked this book at random from my library's digital media catalog when I was about to do some traveling, and I wanted to load a few things onto my Nook before I left.  I did this with five or six books, and of them all, this was my favorite.

Ellie Spencer, seventeen, is attending boarding school, and things are going perfectly well - perfectly normally, until she has a chance encounter with a boy she's been secretly fascinated with but hasn't really talked to.  Following that encounter, things are suddenly subtly different, and before long Ellie finds herself plunged into a new, scary world where beings from Maori mythology are all too real.

There were so many things I enjoyed about this book. The New Zealand setting was such a great backdrop for the story, and the way Healey has woven the strands of Maori legends through the novel gives it a lot more depth than I expected. I loved reading a YA fantasy story that wasn't rehashing the same old, same old themes and fantastical elements.  Ellie is an engaging, sympathetic character, flawed but with her heart in the right place.  This one would appeal to fans of Charles de Lint and Pamela Dean.  I look forward to reading more of Healey's work.

Guardian of the Dead by Karen Healey (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 2010)

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

To Kill a Mockingbird

My daughter's seventh-grade English teacher read this book to her class this past spring.  I had to read this in the seventh grade, too, and while I didn't hate it, I certainly didn't enjoy it.  When my daughter came home talking about the book and asking questions, I found I had very little recollection of the book other than the fate of Tom Robinson and the shooting of the mad dog.  I have always detested the death of dogs in fiction as a cheap shot, emotionally manipulative, an all-around despicable literary maneuver.  As a twelve-year-old, I completely missed the point of that entire scene.

So I decided that I would reread the book so I could discuss it with my daughter.  I brought home a a copy from the library, and one for my husband, too, who joined us in our group read.

This book knocked my socks off.

Clearly I read this book when I was too young to pick up on the many things that are hinted at through Scout's narration - things that she is too young to truly understand, but that an adult, or more experienced teen reader, would get.  Also, the book was very upsetting to me at that age.  A twelve-year-old can read a book about an innocent black man on trial for the rape of a white woman and believe that it just might turn out okay.  Particularly with a man like Atticus representing him.  An older reader would go in with much more cynicism and be more prepared for a more negative outcome.  This difference in reading experiences makes me wonder how many other books were assigned reading that I think I read, but should probably go back and take another look at.

There are so many things I loved about this book.  Scout, first and foremost.  Although she was a likable kid to me when I first read the book, reading it this time with the awareness of the time in which she was growing up, and the fact that her mother is dead and her father is raising her with the help of Calpurnia - and later on, his sister - made me just adore her.  I remember hating her aunt, but this time I could see where she was coming from, and how her motivation was simply to help Scout have a more secure future.  And Atticus - oh, where do I start?  Suffice it to say he is on my top-five literary crush list.  What a man.

I'm so glad I reread this novel, and that my husband I read it along with my daughter, so we were able to discuss it and, I hope, help her to enjoy it and understand things about it that totally flew over my head when I read it at her age.  I love the fact that her teacher took the time to read the book out loud to her class, so they could stop and discuss tricky elements of the book together, and talk about the historical perspective.  When we had all finished reading it, we watched the movie together, and had a lot of fun talking about the film adaptation, what was the same, what was different, and why they may have made those choices.  It was a lot of fun.

If you think you read this novel but read it years ago, take the time to give it another read.  You won't be sorry.  And if you've never read it but think you know the story, give it a try.  It's a captivating read, one that I know I'll be picking up again.

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (HarperCollins, 1960)

Wednesday, July 18, 2012


Following the sudden death of his mother, Sixteen-year-old Joey Crouch moves from Chicago to Iowa to live with his father, a man he's never met. In Chicago he had a best friend, musical ambitions, and straight As.  In Iowa, Joey lives in a filthy, stinky, decrepit house with a man who barely speaks to him, sleeps on the floor it the kitchen, and is bullied by teachers and students at school. When he discovers his father makes his living by robbing graves, it seems like things couldn't possibly get worse.  Oh, but they can.

I am still not sure how I feel about this book.  I went into it knowing very little about the story, but I think I was expecting supernatural horror.  There is horror in this book, all right, but it's the horror of how cruel people can be to each other, which I personally find a lot harder to take than zombies and such - and while there are extremely graphic descriptions of moldering corpses and the contents of unearthed graves, those were less disturbing than the abuse Joey undergoes throughout the novel.

I found that I was ambivalent about Joey as the main character, whose excessive passivity in certain situations made me want to shake him, and then when he finally decided to take action, his actions made no real sense to me.  I never fully understood his motivations for many of the things he did.  It is clear that he is a super smart kid, and there were simple ways he could have extricated himself from the situation, but he never made that attempt.  Still, the story was compelling enough for me to stay with it all the way through.  I found the ending less than satisfying, and wonder if perhaps there is a sequel in the works, but even if there is, I think I would take a pass.  The book is unrelentingly dark and left me with a sense of hopelessness that I'd prefer to avoid if I can.

Rotters by Daniel Kraus (Listening Library, 2011)

Tuesday, July 10, 2012


Seventeen-year-old Emma Vaile is excited to be on her own in her parents' house in New York City.  Her antique-dealer parents are off on vacation, her brother is abroad, and she finds herself planning a big party at their house above the antiques shop.  But things don't go as expected, and she finds herself alone and in trouble, her parents missing.  She leaves New York to go with her guardian to the Thatcher Academy in Massachusetts.

Everything has changed, yet certain things about Emma's new situation seem eerily familiar to her.  She is beset by terrible visions, and she comes to realize she has an ability to interact with ghosts.  And there are others share that ability, including her guardian, her brother's friend that she had a huge crush on when she was younger.  Only Emma's ability is different somehow, different in a way that puts her in particular danger.

This is a promising opening to a teen paranormal series with a splash of romance and plenty of mystery.  What at first seemed like too many contrived coincidences is eventually explained fairly plausibly, leaving open a whole new set of questions that I hope will be addressed in the next book.  It's a fun summer read for teens who enjoy a good ghost story and/or a prep school setting, and the humorous interactions among the characters work well to keep the story light as heavier plot elements are explored.  While I didn't find the book amazingly different or unusual when compared to the many teen paranormal books that are out there, I did enjoy it and plan to continue with the series.

Books in the Haunting Emma series:
1. Deception
2. Betrayal
3. Surrender

Deception (#1 in the Haunting Emma series) by Lee Nichols (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2010)

Monday, July 9, 2012

Small Gods

This thirteenth book in the Discworld series takes on religion, hypocrisy, and the interesting and often disastrous mix of religion and politics.  Although the novel was originally published twenty years ago, the themes are certainly relevant today, and it's nice (particularly as the election year is gearing up to the point that I can barely listen to the radio or watch TV news) to get a laugh instead of wanting to scream and tear my hair out.

In this installment we meet the god Om, whose attempt to physically manifest in the Discworld turns out much differently than he expected.  Instead of a fearsome, powerful being, he finds that he is, in fact, a tortoise with no divine powers to speak of.  The one true believer he finds in the temple turns out to be a simple, honest novice named Brutha.  It takes some convincing for Om to get Brutha to understand that the cranky, bedraggled tortoise speaking in his mind is actually his god, but when Brutha is picked to accompany the powerful (but unbelieving) Vorbis, head of the Quisition, on a diplomatic mission to Ephebe, things really get interesting.

While this book did not feature any of my favorite characters, it was still funny and even moving, without ever being too heavy handed with the satire.  The more I read this series, the more I believe that it will stand the test of time and that Pratchett will list prominently in the ranks of literature's greatest satiric humorists.  The writing is delightful, the characters are believable, with even the most villainous retaining a bit of sympathetic human nature, and the books never fail to make me laugh out loud.

Books in the Discworld series
1. The Color of Magic
2. The Light Fantastic
3. Equal Rites
4. Mort 
5. Sourcery
6. Wyrd Sisters
7. Pyramids 
8. Guards, Guards
9. Eric
10. Moving Pictures
11. Reaper Man
12. Witches Abroad
13. Small Gods
14. Lords and Ladies
15. Men at Arms
16. Soul Music
17. Interesting Times
18. Maskerade
19. Feet of Clay
20. Hogfather
21. Jingo
22. The Last Continent
23. Carpe Jugulum
24. The Fifth Elephant
25. The Truth
26. The Thief of Time
27. The Last Hero
28. The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents
29. Nightwatch
30. The Wee Free Men
31. Monstrous Regiment
32. A Hat Full of Sky
33. Going Postal
34. Thud
37. Unseen Academicals
39. Snuff

Small Gods (#13 in the Discworld series) by Terry Pratchett; narrated by Nigel Planer (Random House Audiobooks, 2007)