Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Serving Patrons of a Digital Generation

While browsing through my daily stack of blogs, I found mention of George Lucas' latest educational project, Digital Generation. I quickly navigated over there, and I was impressed with the array of content, especially the youth portraits. A lot of older librarians don't always see how young people are using the richness of media around them. These portraits profile some very tech-savvy "born digital" kids - and I think they're representative of many young library users.

The website describes itself in the following terms:

Today's kids are born digital -- born into a media-rich, networked world of infinite possibilities. But their digital lifestyle is about more than just cool gadgets; it's about engagement, self-directed learning, creativity, and empowerment. The Digital Generation Project tells their stories so that educators and parents can understand how kids learn, communicate, and socialize in very different ways than any previous generation.

I haven't had the chance to browse through all of the content of the site, but it's bookmarked for further exploration. I see a lot of potential for incorporating some of the content into library educational programs, especially for those who focus on YA or "tweens." Video editing, social networking, digital modeling, and the like can make for interesting (and fun) activities for patrons. Plus, there are good curriculum tie-ins located on the site, ready for educators (and librarians) to use. Not too shabby.

Note: I learned about this website from Henry Jenkins' blog. I highly recommend reading his breakdown of the Digital Generation website - and his blog is fascinating for those interested in digital media, cultural exchange, and gaming. His book, Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide, is at the top of my "academic" reading list.

Continue reading...

Monday, June 29, 2009

The Best Casserole Cookbook Ever by Beatrice Ojakangas

As a cookbook lover, I've been overwhelmed by the sheer selection in my local branch. However, when the 2009 James Beard Award nominees for cookbooks were announced, I braved the catalog to order Beatrice Ojakangas' latest venture, appropriately called The Best Casserole Cookbook Ever: With More Than 500 Recipes! The tagline contains all that you really need to know about this massive book - it's huge. Utterly teaming with delectable recipes. And really, they all sound good.

Ojakangas is known for her Scandanavian cookery. A native of Duluth, Minnesota, her ancestry is entirely Finnish. Her first writing venture, The Finnish Cookbook, is still in print - a marvel for a cookbook published in 1964. The Best Casserole Cookbook is her 27th published cookbook. In a recent interview with the Toledo Blade, Ojakangas says the publication of this book is ""very timely," offering "economical meals that are simply made with ingredients that you won't spend a fortune to buy, or that you already have on hand. It's comfort food."

The day I received this tome, I sat down and started reading it like a book. Normally, I like cookbooks with full-color pictures for each recipe; I've been spoiled by the gorgeous cookbooks published by Clarkson Potter. The Best Casserole Cookbook lacks the excessive photography of my favorite volumes, but it does have a few lovely inserts with some mouth-watering photographs. Ojakangas divides the book into several categories, starting with the basics. I loved this section, especially seeing that my early casserole attempts centered around cream of mushroom soup that always seems too salty. One Christmas, I made cream of mushroom soup purely for use in the green bean casserole. Ojakangas shares my disdain for the sodium-packed, overly processed stuff, so she explains how to make different sauces that can act as healthier substitutes for Campbell's. In the following chapters, she details appetizers, meats, vegetarian, grains, desserts, and even breads that one can make in a casserole dish. I especially enjoyed the "Casseroles for Two" chapter - as a single person, it's sometimes difficult to justify making a casserole intended for 12 people, but Ojakangas' smaller portion sizes are spot-on.

Of course, I had to try a number of these recipes. My favorite? I made the Broccoli and Chicken Casserole for Two for a friend of mine one weekday night. The recipe was insanely simple, made with sour cream and parmesan instead of a heavy cheese sauce. I assembled it in less than 20 minutes, popped in the fridge, then put it in the oven when I came home from work the next day. My friend had never eaten a casserole before, so he was surprised to find that he liked it so much!

Next week, I'm making a Southwestern Breakfast Casserole with chorizo, queso fresco, and eggs for a work meeting. We have another potluck the following week - I know that Moussaka with Lots of Vegetables will be my contribution. And I'm sure I can find an audience for Spicy Cheese and Green Chile Dip. When I (reluctantly) returned the book to the library, I forced my co-workers to browse... and I saw several people making copies of the pages to try for dinner later. I may have to buy myself a copy of this book; it will look beautiful next to my worn copy of Mark Bittman's How To Cook Everything.

Continue reading...

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Destroy All Cars by Blake Nelson

In the last couple of weeks, I've read two books that were very guy-friendly and one thing that both of them had in common was how darn funny they were. First, I read Steven Goldman's Two Parties, One Tux, and a Very Short Film about the Grapes of Wrath, which had me laughing out loud at a couple of places. Then, I got to a book that made me laugh way more than a few times out loud: Blake Nelson's Destroy All Cars.

When I began Nelson's book, I was a little worried. I'd read a number of reviews that claimed it was nothing but a "liberal agenda set forth in teen fiction." While I don't mind a book with a political bent in any direction, this particular one had me a bit worried. Fortunately, Destroy All Cars was so not just an agenda.

James Hoff is a very angry teen, but not in the manner you'd suspect. Hoff spends his time railing against the factors that are destroying our planet, and more specifically, he spends significant time pointing out how much cars are ruining the planet with their emissions and their gas consumption. At 17, he is acutely aware of how important it is to cherish the environment and make strides against seeing it destroyed. How fitting, too, he lives in suburban Portland, Oregon, which allows this entire aspect of the plot to manifest quite well.

But James's story is not just about his anger at environmental destruction. Rather, this is a story about losing the first girl he ever had real feelings for: Sadie. She was his first real girlfriend for him he had real feelings, and the break up was hard for him. James spends a lot of time in his junior year thinking about other girls and who he can potentially have relationships with post-Sadie. Although we're briefly introduced to a few girls, it is quite clear he's not interested in anyone but Sadie. And why Sadie, you ask? Well, she, too, is quite concerned about the world and rallies for any number of causes.

The story chronicles James's interest in lambasting consumerist America and his interest in getting back together with Sadie.

Although the story itself sounds like something that's been done again and again, Nelson does something very unique with the structure of the book itself. It's told through James's point of view, but it's done so through a number of lenses. First, James shares his essay assignments for Mr. Cogweiller's English class and subsequent remarks from Cogweiller; throughout the book, we'll see that some essays are more successful than others and we'll see that some don't even get turned in. In addition to these very funny essays are James's journal entries, which in some cases include the dialog between himself and other characters. Splitting the story into different mediums of writing like this is very successful in this book, and it does a fantastic job of building James's character. We are also able to watch James develop in his writing and thinking, and we develop our own relationship with Cogweiller.

Perhaps what I liked most about Destroy All Cars was that the messages were valuable, but they were put in such a way that they were very, very funny. James and Sadie are both fighting for something valuable and important and understand how necessary it is to be aware of our environment. But, in James's case, his awareness manifests in anger and outrage that are so spot-on for his character. While I don't believe all 17-year-olds operate with his mindset, I think that a lot of how he acts and thinks is on par with that age group. He's not ridiculous nor is he stupid. He's passionate and inexperienced at the same time. James would be an easy character to dislike but as a reader, I really liked him and wanted to see him succeed. Nelson did a fantastic job of delineating him.

I think this is a book that guys would definitely like. It's not overly emotional, and the format makes it a very quick and easy read. It helps that James is relatable and very funny. Admittedly, I can see people being turned off by what they might see as an agenda in the book, but I don't think that's Nelson's point at all. In fact, I think that Destroy All Cars conveys the message that people in this age group are already aware of and concerned about, making it more appealing. Most of the book is clean, with little foul language, though about 3/4 through the book, things get a little sexual. It's not risque nor unexpected and it fits with the story.

One of the other reasons I liked this book so much was because it allowed me to think about myself and my own development. This book captures a 17-year-old so well, and it allowed me to think about who I was at that age and who I am now.

Continue reading...

Saturday, June 27, 2009

The Eternal Smile, by Gene Luen Yang and Derek Kirk Kim

Yang and Kim team up for The Eternal Smile, a graphic novel that uses three different stories to explore fantasy versus reality, and the ways in which the two overlap. It's a fascinating theme that carries with it layers of potential meaning. While I believe both Yang and Kim collaborated on the storylines, the words in the book are by Yang and the illustrations are by Kim.

The first story features Duncan, a stereotypical hero in a sword-and-sorcery land who must save the kingdom (and the princess) from a terrible villain. It's a great story to start off this trio of stories where things are never what they appear, since it seems at first that Duncan's tale is simply one of those by-the-numbers fantasy tales we see so often. In fact, it's not one of those at all, and the ending turns this little tale into a powerful story with a powerful meaning.

The second story is about an avaricious frog named Gran'pa Greenbax and his obsession with money. One day, Gran'pa Greenbax finds a smile up in the sky (from which the title of the book is derived), and his life is changed forever. Again, thing are not what they appear.

These first two stories are clever and thoughtful, but it is the final story, about a cubicle worker named Janet Oh, that really makes the book a worthwhile read. Janet works in an unrewarding job with a boss who degrades her. One day, she gets an email from Henry, a Nigerian prince, who desperately needs her help. All she has to do is give him her banking information, and he will give her a large cut of his family's wealth and carry her away to Nigeria. What you think you know about Janet's motivations is wrong. This last story is my runaway favorite - it's so deceptively deep, and sweet too.

Unlike Yang's Printz-winning novel American-Born Chinese, the three stories in The Eternal Smile do not all coalesce at the end. They are related only by their emphasis on a common theme. Their exploration of this theme is so well-done that I went back and re-read them the same night I picked up the book. This book especially lends itself to re-reading because of its emphasis on how we use fantasy in our lives - to escape from reality, to enhance our lives, to empower ourselves. Each story is more than just a fun romp - there is meaning there. This is what makes the book a good read, and one I'd recommend. While I feel I can safely recommend books that are fun but pretty devoid of meaning, I do try to attach a disclaimer to them ("Well, I enjoyed it, BUT..."). No disclaimer necessary for this one.

I admit that I'm a late adopter of graphic novels. I wrote them off as glorified comic books when they first started to make their mark in libraries, and when I had to read one for a school assignment, I dreaded the fact that I'd actually have to pay attention to the pictures in order to understand the story. I quickly got over this bias. I read Linda Medley's lovely and clever Castle Waiting, and then I read Watchmen, and my prejudice against graphic novels was erased. In these two novels I read before The Eternal Smile, the illustrations were wonderful and creative and expressive and interesting. The same goes for the illustrations by Kim in The Eternal Smile. His illustrations for each story are so different in flavor that I initially thought they must each have been drawn by a different person. The drawings for the third story are particularly lovely, with each frame washed in a light blueish-gray hue - until, that is, Janet visits Nigeria, and the frames come alive with color (reminiscent of The Wizard of Oz film in more ways than one).

I still don't see much of a difference between graphic novels and comic books, except graphic novels have the requisite beginning, middle, and end, whereas comic books are serial in nature (this is not a hard and fast rule, but it seems to be the main distinguishing factor). I've just come to realize that graphic novels can vary as much in quality as novels without pictures do.

Aside from clever stories and beautiful illustrations, the book itself is also a work of art. I read one reviewer describe the physical feel of the book as "solid," and I agree with that description. It's a surprisingly heavy book for its size, with thick paper that just feels wonderful in your hands. And it has that smell - you know, the "new book" smell that accompanies books with heavy, glossy pages and bright ink. It really belies my initial assumption of graphic novels as "comic books with a fancier name." This book does not at all resemble the flimsy, thin-paged Archie comics I sometimes read as a kid. I've read some authors describe the difference between a graphic novel and a comic book as "the binding," and that's not totally wrong. But the binding makes a difference. This book is well-made, and I think that will go a long way in making kids want to pick it up. While younger kids may have a harder time understanding the levels of meaning in the book (the satirical nature of the second story in particular may go unnoticed), older kids and teens will likely get more out of it. Fans of fantasy stories may also come to see their favorite genre in a new light.

Continue reading...

Friday, June 26, 2009

The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner's Semester at America's Holiest University, Kevin Roose

One of my favorite reads in the last couple of years was A.J. Jacobs' A Year of Living Biblically, published in late 2007. Jacobs, who admits to not being the most religious person, spent a year living as close to the Bible as possible. While it sounded like it could get out of hand real fast -- at least in my opinion -- I found the book did a great job of treating a touchy subject like religion well. I learned a lot and gained a sense of respect for very devout people. I'd say his book changed my mind about many things.

Suffice to say, I was excited to pick up Kevin Roose's The Unlikely Disciple, which came out this year. Roose's book is an exploration into a semester at Liberty University, also known as Jerry Falwell's dream evangelical liberal arts university. Roose took a semester off school from the ultra liberal Brown University to become a student at Liberty and understand who attends the school and exactly what the educational and social life is like at such a conservative institution.

Because this is a work of non-fiction, there's not a lot to discuss plot-wise in a review. I found a lot of what Roose learned in his adventure to be entirely new to me, too. My perceptions and ideas of such a place were skewed much as Roose's were and it was enjoyable to read about a lot of those perceptions being just flat out wrong. Perhaps it's my background in psychology, but there is something fascinating for me in learning my ideas are actually far off the mark about things like this. Moreover, I loved seeing Roose change as a person, too. He made good friends with many people at Liberty, and I found the conclusion of his time at Liberty to be just....sweet. I won't go into details about that aspect nor about the huge event that happened at the end of his semester which I had not even remembered to think about until he reported it.

This is a book that people who liked Jacobs' work will like, as well as people interested in how a facility like Liberty runs [less on the administrative side and more on the social/student side]. The Unlikely Disciple is written in a journalistic style that makes it easy to skip around when parts get dull or are just not of interest to you as a reader. I appreciated that as some parts did a little dragging. Roose is respectful, attentive to detail, and does a good job of telling a story.

Throughout the book, I did have an ethical question that did not arise out of what Roose was doing. Roose admitted in the first chapter of his book that he interned for Jacobs while at Brown. Considering the time frame in which Jacobs did his experiment and published a book and the internship and subsequent experiment by Roose, it seems almost certain to me this entire story is ingenuine in its goals. I dislike speaking ill of a good story, but I do have a problem with the notion that Roose either a. did this because his mentor did it, b. did it at the suggestion of his mentor, c. got himself the book deal before embarking on the experiment, or d. some combination therein. There is a lot of discussion in the reading world about Elizabeth Gilbert's Eat, Pray, Love because she got her book deal before embarking on her life changing journey. Well, it seems to me that Roose got his book deal before deciding to do this experiment.

How geniune are the lessons then? Does it impact how you read the book? I'm curious because I really did enjoy the concept and the way the story comes together, but there is a lingering feeling of disingenuity in this book that makes me question both Roose and Jacobs and makes me a bit hesitant to want to read more from either of them. It seems more about the money than about the story, in a manner that most journalists seems to rail against.

Should we not read or promote the books? Nah, I think people will enjoy them and I enjoyed them. But there's a point where you need to take it with a grain of salt and constantly question your author. Perhaps the real value is in enjoying the story while also being able to think critically about the source and the spin -- something invaluable in navigating a world fraught with information and disinformation.

Continue reading...

Monday, June 22, 2009

Genesis by Bernard Beckett

Genesis by Bernard Beckett was STACKED's first round-robin review choice. Each of us read the book and offer our takes on this new title. We took something different, so enjoy and if you've read it, PLEASE share your takes!


I've mentioned before that I love dystopias. "Love" may not even be a strong enough word for the way I feel about them. It began with The Giver in middle school and was solidified when I read Biting the Sun as a teenager. (These two books, plus Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake, form the pinnacle of great dystopias, in my oh so humble opinion.) Since then, I've followed a steady diet of dystopian fiction, reading mostly everything I could get my hands on. There have been some duds, some gems, and some in-between.

So is Genesis a dud or a gem? Easy answer - definitely a gem.

Genesis is still a weird book, even by dystopia standards. The story is set sometime in the nebulous future on what used to be New Zealand. The world has been devastated by a plague, and the island is the only place left inhabited. Anax, our protagonist, wants to enter the prestigious Academy, and in order to do so, she must pass a grueling four-hour oral test. This book is the record of that test, and through the test, the reader learns about the world in which Anax lives.

Genesis is a short novel - a novella, really - and its length is one of its strengths. The format of the book is mostly a sustained conversation between Anax and her examiners. Due to this format, most of what happens is told rather than shown, which is usually considered a major taboo when writing fiction. Beckett makes it work. Coming in at just over a hundred pages, the conversation could become tedious or frustrating if it went on for much longer. As it is, the book is just long enough to keep the reader in suspense, and just short enough to prevent the reader from being so frustrated as to give up.

Dystopias are always better when you don't know much about the plot, so I'm not going to go into it any further here. Most dystopias have a grand twist - or several twists - at the end that try their best to rip your heart out and shake up your world, making you question everything you just read. I like to believe that predicting these twists has become old hat for me, but often I am still surprised. Genesis surprised me. After I had finished the book, I had to open it back up to re-read several sections. I'm still thinking about it many days later. The twist makes the book, but that's not the only thing that recommends it as a good read. Beckett presents some enduring questions about the nature of humanity (that have admittedly been asked before), and his writing is excellent.

I think Genesis will appeal to fans of the subgenre who are eager for something new and fresh. While Beckett certainly uses tropes that have been used before (the four levels of society are particularly reminiscent of Brave New World), the story is told in a unique way, and the ending is surprising and deceptive in its simplicity. It was hugely fun to go back through the book and pick up the seemingly innocuous clues that would have given away the secret, if only I had paid closer attention. Despite its brevity, Beckett's book is deep. For those readers who may not be quite as familiar with the dystopia canon, this book may seem really "out there." I don't think it's something they can't handle, though, and because of their ignorance of the subgenre, the book may be all the more exciting and make that much more of an impact.

Bonuses: When you're done reading, take another glance at the cover. Something there will have a different meaning than when you first looked. Also, the book's Amazon page has a simple, but cool, trailer.


This book flew! When I began and throughout the first three hours of the interview, I kept thinking about books that delve into philosophical arguments like Ishmael and Sophie's World. Though Genesis is based on a dystopian society and the history and philosophies underpinning the story are entirely fictitious, it was saddled in such a way to be almost realistic in a future world.

I'm being purposely vague in my review because that is how a reader should approach this title. You'll read it and be both thoroughly confused and understand exactly what is going on -- Anax's exam is about sharing her beliefs in what happened during the history of her society, so there is a lot of history and postulation that the reader is in on and which leaves the reader out. This is okay.

Though there were times I wanted to reread and try to understand the history as intimately as possible, I did not and recommend not doing so. Getting the idea of what is happening and focusing on Anax, rather than what she's saying, will pay off heavily in the end. This is the sort of book that kept me wanting to read. I kept thinking about it when I put it down, and I kept thinking to myself that I knew what was going to happen.

But the ending? What a twist! I was convinced I knew what was going to happen, but then I was thrown off kilter and felt like Beckett did a real service to me for that. Genesis was not the book I was expecting, and for that reason, I really felt like this was one of the best I've read this year.

Genesis will appeal to those who love dystopias, philosophically-driven books, or something "just different," if you will.

Although we're round robin reviewing this one, I have to say that keeping the story vague is important; to really get the pleasure of reading this one, you have to go in knowing very little and build your own expectations and conclusions. Likewise, this very fast read is one I wanted to open again as soon as I finished it. I'm pretty excited with how much exposure this one is getting. I received it as an advanced reading copy but just as I got it in the mail, I noticed it all over the airport, too. I think this is one of those titles that can appeal to so many readers, but it will require the reader put aside their biases -- those who have been turned off to "harder" reading (think of those I mentioned before, as well as other titles like Candide) might not be willing to invest in this one. I think it could help shift those biases, though.


I'm going to be the lone dissenter in this love-fest for Genesis. I agree, this is a well-written, interesting book containing an unusual dystopia within its pages. But after reading, I can't say that I liked this novella.

I found that Genesis has more in common with a screenplay than a novel. I kept imagining how it would be filmed. The recited dialogues would be flashbacks filmed with soft lighting. The holograms would really just cut away to tense battles of wills reminiscent of 12 Angry Men. Some sort of tricky device would be used to reveal the final twists; I can see an aspiring director filming everything from a first person point of view in order to emphasize the final reveal. With a little reformatting, Beckett's work could easily be turned into a script - just change the spacing, add a couple of sluglines to establish place, and the transformation is complete! The structure lends itself to a future movie deal. Intentional? It's hard to tell.

Maybe I'm a cynical product of my surroundings. I live in Los Angeles, a place where the majority of media consumption is film-related. A frightening number of my friends call themselves aspiring screenwriters; dystopia is a popular topic. I'm reminded of the inordinately large number of student films deal with similar philosophical issues... replete with unexpected turn at the end.

I read through this book thinking, "I've seen this before." I know much is intentional, especially in regards to Beckett's inclusion of classical philosophy and Judeo-Christian theology. Those examples declare themselves loudly, pointing to their sources with little subtlety. Glimpses of modern popular culture rare their heads within this novel as well. Joseph and the young Adam reek of "Maverick" and "Goose" from Top Gun. I could imagine stormtroopers from Star Wars as soldiers in the New Republic. And the first encounter between Pericles and Anax contains much of the simmering sexual chemistry of Sarah and Charles from John Fowles' The French Lieteunant's Woman. It feels like Beckett draws upon familar myths to lull the reader into a sense of understanding of this world and our protagonist.

This is a smart book, going beyond a simple amalgamation of all the ideas presented in Philosophy 101. Beckett seems like he genuinely cares about the nature of humanity. But in the end, something rings false for me. I never full engaged with the history lesson or our historian. Unlike Kelly and Kimberly, I had real problems getting the willpower to struggle through the countless arguments and conversations. I felt manipulated and unwilling to draw my own conclusions from the novel. It just wasn't for me.

I will, however, agree that the cover is exceptionally well-done. I love the additional layers of meaning that develop after reading the novella.

Continue reading...

Friday, June 19, 2009

BBC America Audiobook club

Here at STACKED, we like audiobooks. We also like book clubs. So why not put the two together? That's just what the lovely folks over at BBC Audiobooks America have done. Their June selection is Peter Benchley's Jaws, and they'll be having a discussion at their facebook page from June 24-28. Just become a fan of the group and then dazzle everyone with your insights. As long as you're located in the United States or Canada, you can participate.

It just so happens that June is audiobook month, so this is a good opportunity for those of you who might not have thought about picking one up to get in on the movement. I have yet to enter a library that doesn't have audiobooks for checkout, and Jaws is such a classic, it would surprise me greatly if your own local library didn't have it. Then you can tell us if it's true that the book is always better than the movie. (In my oh so humble opinion, this is not a true adage, but that is a topic for another day...)

Continue reading...

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Double Take, Part VI

This double take comes courtesy of the lovely Janssen. Like many of the other titles that have been featured as double takes, it seems crazy to me that two books can have the same cover and be published so close together.

Remember this title I reviewed? After the Moment features a distinctive cover:

Freymann-Weyr's book was published May 18 of this year by Houghton Mifflin Books for Children. I actually really liked the cover, as it captured a great moment of emotion, had a great color that stood out from the crowd, and, well, I'd never seen anything like it before. A refreshing change of pace, really.

But wait!

Get a look at Felicia C. Sullivan's Sky Isn't Visible from Here, published April 2009 by HarperCollins:

Yep, same cover, same girl, very similar color. The difference, of course, is the cropping of the picture itself.

Although I usually don't have a strong opinion on "who did it better," I think Freymann-Weyr's cover is better because it better captures an emotion. I don't like the cropped face in Sullivan's cover because it shields an emotion in the book, and while I don't believe as readers we should be hand held through character depiction, I do think that that emotional set up is a perfect rendering of the book itself. I haven't read Sullivan's book yet, so I can't say for sure that the decision on cropping is representative of anything within it. Likewise, something else interesting to note with Sullivan's cover is that this is just one of the cover variations -- this cover is quite different and striking in a very different way.

What do you think? Who did it better?

Continue reading...

Friday, June 12, 2009

Marcelo in the Real World by Francis X Stork

I know when I read book blogs sometimes, I wonder if people ever find a book that they just struggle through because they don't like it, can't get into it, or it just wasn't meant for them. Every review they write seems laudatory, and perhaps they really do just like *everything*. I'm not one of those readers.

Marcelo in the Real World was the most difficult read I've had so far this year. It's not a challenging text, but I found myself not engaging with the characters, not enjoying the storyline, and being frustrated with a theme that has been done a lot recently. Moreover, I found myself questioning the intended audience for the book and unable to really nail it down well.

Marcelo in the Real World is a story about Marcelo's summer living and working "in the real world" of his father's law firm. He had in the past been employed as a helper on a camp that caters to those with autism and aspergers. His father told him he had to take this job to become accustomed to working around every day people, as it was his goal to have Marcelo sent to a traditional high school, rather than the specialized school he attends. The deal between the two was that when Marcelo finished the summer successfully, he could choose where he would go to school the next fall. The book follows Marcelo's adventures in the law firm, as well as some of the important relationships he forges with normally functioning people.

Throughout the blogosphere, there is a lot of praise for this book as a wonderful coverage of a young person handling his aspbergers. However, I found the treatment quite weak; this book seemed like it was another version of one of the many others on the topic or similar topics, and I think it was a much weaker coverage. Marcelo is a character who you don't learn enough about to gain trust of or sympathy for, and I found the auxiliary characters even less enjoyable. The premise of the story seemed interesting enough, but the execution left a lot to be desired for me. Marcelo doesn't seem to allow readers his struggles with aspergers which makes the premise a little tough to really connect to.

Audience-wise, I had a hard time placing this one. I'm not quite sure the intended age group, as I think that the theme is fitting for a younger teen audience -- those who may relate to Marcelo's cognitive age/state -- but the writing itself and Marcelo himself are geared toward older teens who I don't necessarily think would find the story all that engaging. I say this not because the book is poorly written but instead because there are many similar books that are written much stronger, with more developed characters and thicker plot lines.

Although I am a proponent of every book having a reader, I think that this would not be a go-to for me. I would rather offer, for example, Marc Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Siobhan Dowd's The London Eye Mystery, or Nora Raleigh Baskin's Anything But Typical. Each of those titles have better drawn characters and more engaging story lines than Stock's book, but without a doubt, Marcelo falls into this ever-expanding genre of books about the poorly understood autism/aspbergers issues. Certainly, Stork's book has found a good following of readers, as seen from the great reviews and the high ratings in both Amazon and Good Reads. But me? I struggled.

Continue reading...

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Double Take, Part V, Sports Style!

One of my favorite books this year so far has been Bill Konigsberg's Out of the Pocket, and you can read my whole review here. It was an accident to find and read this one since it's a sports story, but I loved it.

The cover is pretty memorable: the football player looking into the dusty distance. The sepia clouds and black ground just look unique and different to me, as does the orange title font. The reason I even found the book was it was faced out and the cover caught my attention (see - it is important!). Out of the Pocket was published September 2008 by Dutton.

Then while browsing books online recently, I found this one:

Tim Tharp's Knights of the Hill Country (and, yes, this is the same Thrap of 2008's The Spectacular Now) was published in 2006 by Laurel Leaf and explores similar themes to Konigsberg''s book, minus the issues surrounding the acceptance of one's sexuality.

Sure the covers aren't identical, but it's remarkable how many similar elements they use, particularly because there are many overlapping themes. There's the football player looking out in the dusty distance, the sepia tones, and the dark ground. Though they aren't the same, the fonts are very similar, right down to the use of orange.

Regardless of how alike they look, I have to say that these covers really strike a chord with me as a revolution in the traditional sports novel. Working in my town's public library in high school, I loathed reshelving the sports novels because they all looked the same (and uninteresting -- sorry Matt Christopher!). These, however, are much more intriguing to me, and I think they would definitely draw readers who may otherwise believe they have no interest in a story revolving around sports.


Though it's probably obvious, the three of us at stacked have been a bit swamped the last couple of weeks. But that doesn't mean we're not reading and preparing some fabulous reviews. Personally, I've got three or so books on the docket for this week, and by the end of next week, we'll have up our first round robin review of a very different book (I'd say *awesome* book, but I'll wait to see what the others say first).

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Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Forest Born, by Shannon Hale

I was lucky enough to score a pre-published copy of Shannon Hale's newest Bayern book at the Texas Library Association annual conference this year. I really loved The Goose Girl and enjoyed the sequel, Enna Burning, but I hadn't gotten around to reading River Secrets yet (which is too bad, because Razo is one of my favorite characters). I knew Forest Born would be fun, and I wasn't disappointed.

Forest Born focuses upon Rinna, Razo's younger sister. For many years, Rin has felt like something is wrong with her. She senses some power within her that simultaneously thrills her and repulses her. When she lets her defenses down and uses this power, she is ashamed of herself and vows to never let it happen again. In order to keep this promise, Rin refuses to show her own self to the world and instead mimicks those around her that she finds more admirable than herself. She does it so well that no one in her large and loving family really knows who Rin is on the inside; they call her Ma's shadow. Unsurprisingly, Rin feels trapped at home, and when her brother Razo returns for a visit, she leaves with him to go to the city. She meets up with the "Fire Sisters," - Isi, Enna, and Dasha - and adventure ensues. The main thrust of the book concerns Rin learning who she is and how to be comfortable in her own skin. It's a worthwhile lesson that many adults never learn, and it will resonate with young readers.

The story, which involves Rin setting out with her new companions to prevent a war and face an evil foe, was fun but predictable, which is not necessarily a bad thing. It is Hale's writing that really elevates the book and makes it something special. As I read the first chapter, I was conscious of her skill as a writer. Take this excerpt:

"She listened harder, trembling with a desire to hear. A space inside her opened. Not a sound, not a smell, not even a feeling. If it had been a color, it might have been green. If it had touched her ears, it might have sounded rhythmic, like the creak of a rocking chair or the drone of a bee. If it had a scent, it might have been sweet and drowsy, like fresh pine on the fire. The place in her chest that had ached with panic now felt warbley and sweet, drowsy and green."

The first chapter of Forest Born is one of the best first chapters I've read in any book, and it sets a good pace and tone for the rest of the adventure. I was immediately pulled into Rin's mind and view of the world. After I had set the book down, I found myself unable to recall if Hale had written it in first or third person. I had to check to make sure - third person. A good measure of the depth of the main character, I think, is whether the author can fool you into believing a third person narrative is actually written in first person. So, while I was able to predict most of the events, it didn't erode my enjoyment. The villain - a people speaker - was chillingly evil and reminded me a great deal of the villain in Kristin Cashore's Graceling (a good thing).

In contrast to the previous Books of Bayern that I have read, a large focus of the book is not a love story. In fact, the idea of a beau for Rin doesn't crop up until the very end of the book, and Rin rejects it when it's mentioned. It makes sense - she can't consider entering in to such a union until she has become her own person, comfortable with her power and able to embrace it rather than simply mimicking everyone else. I was pleased by Hale's slight departure from her normal routine in this manner. It brought some freshness to the story, and it lets young girls who live in our world know that it's okay to decide not to date someone. Figuring out who you are needs to come first.

I saw Hale speak at the Texas Book Festival last year, and the many readers in attendance (children and adults!) were so enthusiastic about the Books of Bayern, it was hard not to get caught up in their excitement. (Okay, so I was one of the very excited adults.) I wasn't let down by Forest Born, and I don't think young adults will be either. For fans of Bayern, this book is a treat. Many characters from past books make an appearance, and the world in which Bayern exists is further fleshed out. At the same time, I don't think I was at any disadvantage for not reading River Secrets, so readers new to Bayern shouldn't have a problem. This wasn't my favorite book by Hale, or even my second favorite, but she's just such a good writer that even if it were my least favorite, it would be worth a read.

Forest Born is due out on September 15.

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