Thursday, January 27, 2011

The Haunting of Charles Dickens--Lewis Buzbee

Title: The Haunting of Charles Dickens
Author: Lewis Buzbee
Publisher: Fiewel & Friends, 2010
Pages: 309
Source: ARC through VOYA

This review was written in November 2010 and published to coincide with the February edition of VOYA. 

Yet another reason why I love reviewing for VOYA and am so glad I am doing it again. I would never have picked this book up. I'm more of a fantasy girl (as you can see from the blog) and not so interested in mysteries or period pieces or books like this. I would have missed out on a seriously good book had VOYA not sent this to me to review.

The story opens with a young girl, Meg, lamenting the absence of her older brother. For 6 months she wondered what had happened to him, until finally she can't take it anymore and she decides to go find him. She climbs to the roof and jumps to other roofs and notices an eerie light coming from an abandoned building. While peering in a skylight she can see a séance taking place, but she's not the only one out walking the roofs and spying on the building. The famous author Charles Dickens, who happens to be a family friend, crouches next to Meg and witnesses the séance as well. She tells him of her brother's disappearance and is certain that he is participating in the séance below. Dickens and Meg decide to investigate as a team and search for both brother Orion and inspiration for Dickens' next novel.

Buzbee draws a realistic vivid picture of 19th century London and manages to capture the "feel" of a Dickens book. He has made the fictional Dickens into an interesting and likable character. The importance of the written word, the printed word, and the authors behind them shines through in this novel. In 19th century London the printed word has power and Dickens is treated like a celebrity and recognized as a Great Man. He uses that celebrity to help the plight of children (a trait based in fact as explained in an addendum to the novel called "Children and Charles Dickens"). Although the book starts with a séance, this is not a supernatural read. The haunting in the title refers to Dickens' writer's block and not being able to connect with the people of London to create a new novel. It also refers to Dickens' concern for the children of London and the harsh conditions they lived in.

I am not a big Dickens fan and have only read the novels of his I needed to read in high school. And I LOVED this book. It piqued my curiosity and I wound up researching Dickens (a little). I discovered that sure enough Buzbee had done HIS homework and events he created in his book as inspiration for Dickens appeared in Dickens' novel Our Mutual Friend. In another nod to Dickens, names of secondary characters in the book were taken from Our Mutual Friend as well.

The main story, the disappearance of Orion, is a good one, the writing is engaging and the characters are well-written. Although Dickens fans will get the most enjoyment from this book (recognizing names and places) I highly recommend The Haunting of Charles Dickens to all readers, young and old.

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Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Five Flavors of Dumb--Antony John

Title: Five Flavors of Dumb
Author: Antony John
Publisher: Dial Books, November 2010.
Pages: 352 p.
Source: ARC through VOYA

This book marks my return to reviewing for VOYA. I'm writing the review in late October, but it won't be published until the VOYA review comes out sometime after that despite today's publication date (January 26, 2011). I'm sure my VOYA review will have fancier words so if you have access to VOYA you should go ahead and read that too.

Piper enters school and stumbles on a rock band trio--Dumb--playing an impromptu set on the school steps. Not wanting to be rude she stays and watches the performance. Lead singer Josh Cooke is animated, his bass playing brother Will sedated and lead guitarist Tash Hartley is the tough girl. They all do their own thing on stage and even Piper can see that they're not really playing together as a band. When it's over she winds up giving the band some unsolicited advice and they make her a deal--if she can find them a paying gig within the month she can be their new manager and share in the profits. She needs the money since her parents raided her college fund so she agrees. There's only one problem--she's deaf.

Dumb becomes a band of five when Piper recruits her classically trained percussionist friend to help the band learn to play together and the lead singer recruits the "hot girl" of the school to be eye candy and the face of the band. Kallie--the hot girl--thinks she's there to play guitar, even though she doesn't play well enough for live performances. All together they become what Piper refers to as the five flavors of dumb and it's up to her to help them mix up the flavors and become a solid band. With the help of her music-loving brother and a washed-up musician she sets out to do just that.

I loved this book. Piper is realistically written; she's not a perfect person. She's flawed. She's bitter about her baby sister's new implant that allows her to hear when Piper is stuck with old hearing aids and moderately severe hearing loss. She doesn't want to be treated differently because she's deaf, but she's often the one bringing it up to other people and thinking the worst of them. She's so fixated on making money that she misses the true spirit of making music. But she's still a likable character and we want her to succeed. We root for her as she makes one mistake after the next and cheer for her when she finally gets it right.

There's some romance in "Five Flavors of Dumb" but it's not overwhelming or a turnoff for boys. There's also family issues--Piper's relationship with her father is strained-- but mostly this book is about discovering the joy of making music. Even someone who can't hear all the notes can still feel the emotions when the right music is played. The cover might make boys think this is a girl book, but if they can get past it and focus on the music of the story it'll all be worth it.

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Thursday, January 20, 2011

Rose Sees Red--Cecil Castellucci

Title: Rose Sees Red
Author: Cecil Castellucci
Publisher: Scholastic Press, 2010
197 pages

Rose is a dancer at the school of Performing Arts and like most teenage girls she's struggling to find her way. She's never been very good at making friends mostly because she's been under the control of her best friend Daisy for years. But when Rose offends Daisy in the worst possible way--by having her own opinion and making a decision without her--Rose is left alone and friendless. She doesn't know how friendships work because she never really had one with Daisy. She was Daisy's puppet, not really her friend. All of that changes one fateful day when Rose smiles at the neighbor she has seen for years but never talked to. That one smile snowballs into a tentative friendship, solidified during the course of one crazy night in NYC. Unfortunately this is NYC in 1982 during the height of the Cold War and Rose's neighbor is the daughter of a Russian diplomat.

Castellucci's characterization of Rose is spot-on. Rose is a realistic floundering girl. The description of Rose's emptiness and blackness because she doesn't have a true friend and feels like she doesn't belong is heartbreaking and genuine as is the shy hopeful joy she feels when the hole within her chest begins to heal and close with each new connection she makes. It's not just Yrena (the neighbor), but also a few school friends, who see Rose as she can be and help her out of the dark.

I managed to read this in one sitting, during a particularly pleasant nap/quiet time. I couldn't stop reading. Seeing Rose, well, blossom (no pun intended) was beautiful and poignant. I've read many books about teenage girls looking for acceptance and friendship, but Castellucci has really nailed the description of just how dark and depressing it can feel and how all it takes is for someone else to make a little extra effort to completely change things. I also love the title--Rose is stuck in her black friendless world and then sees the color red, a color not only associated with roses but also with communism and Russia. This is definitely a girl book, I don't see many boys (unless they are really thoughtful sensitive types) picking it up, but I heartily recommend it.

(not related--this is my first review typed up on my new iPad!)

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Friday, January 14, 2011

Goddesslibrarian is on the eBook bandwagon

FYI, I couldn't wait anymore. We bought an iPad so I can facebook twitter goof off read eBooks! I've downloaded Bluefire so I can read library eBooks and I've signed up for NetGalley so I can start requesting galleys. I'm trying to finish up my current library reads before I request anything though.

If you are a publisher who has been just waiting for me to get in the eBook game, I'm in it.

No, I'm not reading Treasure Island.

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Thursday, January 13, 2011

Rats Saw God--Rob Thomas

From the Vault
This review was originally written--handwritten no less--in December 1999 before the Age of Blogs. I'm not editing it at all because I don't believe in tampering with history. For other old reviews, click on the "From the Vault" tag.

Title: Rats Saw God
Author: Rob Thomas
Genre: realistic; problem novel
Subjects: high school, adolescence; fitting in; divorce; fathers and sons

Summary: In order to graduate, Steve York must complete a 100-page writing assignment. Although he balks at first, he ultimately comes to a better understanding of himself and his life. 

Critique: Thomas has a good understanding of teens and their dialogue. His writing is effective and makes the story more interesting than it first appears to be. 

Recommendation: Yes

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Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Half Brother--Kenneth Oppel

Title: Half Brother
Author: Kenneth Oppel
Publisher: Scholastic Press, 2010
375 pages

I'm a fan of Kenneth Oppel's fantasy series Airborn, so I was curious to read his new realistic fiction novel. The cover shows a typical stick figure family, Dad, Mom, Son and then an outline of a chimp. When I first picked it up I thought maybe there would be a little Eva-action (Peter Dickinson) with some sci-fi, but this is purely realistic.

Ben Tomlin is celebrating his 13th birthday by leaving all of his friends behind and moving to a new house and new school because his father got a new job at a university. There was nothing wrong with his old job except they wouldn't buy him a chimp but his new job comes with his very own chimp. Ben's dad is a behavioral scientist and wants to teach sign language to the chimp, radical thinking back in 1973. Ben's mom picks up the 8 day old baby chimp and brings him home swaddled like a baby. The plan is that they will raise the chimpanzee as a human, treat him like a son, and see if he will communicate with sign language. They tell Ben to treat the chimp like he's a little brother and not a pet and although he's reluctant at first he very quickly falls in love with "Zan." Unfortunately although Ben's dad teaches Zan to call him "Dad" he doesn't actually behave like one and all too soon Ben must choose between his father's scientific process and the brother-chimp he has grown to love.

Do not read this book without a box of tissues close by. Oppel is superb at pulling on one's tender heartstrings as we too begin to see Zan as more than just a chimp, more than an animal test subject, more than a project. We fall in love with Zan as Ben does and when the inevitable separation comes it hurts us as much as it hurts Ben. Ben is an angry young kid, but he has every reason to be. His father is distant and critical, not showing any affection for Ben or Zan unless they are doing something academically smart. He uproots their lives for this project but then leaves the actual care of Zan to Ben's mom and Ben. He is the image of an absentee-dad for both Ben and Zan and it's no wonder that the project "fails" in his eyes.

As angry as Ben is, he is also naive. But it's not entirely his fault. His parents never consulted him about the project, never asked his opinion or how he would feel about treating Zan as a brother. They just told him to do it. And then when he does and he loves his brother--because that's what brothers do--his father tells him he is too attached and not scientific enough. Ben believes that Zan is his brother and they will always have him in their lives, but Zan is NOT his brother. Zan is just a baby chimp who should be living with other chimps.

Half Brother is a gut-wrenching, heartbreaking story of what defines a family and just how far you go to protect the ones you love. There are side stories of Ben's school troubles and girl troubles, but the crux of the story is the project with Zan. It's definitely worth the crumpled pile of tissues you'll have sitting next to you on the couch.

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Saturday, January 08, 2011

Girl Parts--John M. Cusick

Title: Girl Parts
Author: John M. Cusick
Publisher: Candlewick Press, 2010.

David and Charlie attend the same school but couldn't be more different. David has lots of friends, is rich, and spends his time surfing the 'net on his special 3-monitor computer (each monitor feeds off the other one. If he's looking at a website about cars on the first monitor, the second one will show him websites about engines, and the third will show him websites with scantily clad women. It is the definition of information overload.) He's so virtually connected he feels no real connection to people. He witnesses a girl commit suicide on the internet and never once thinks he should try to stop it or feels bad about it at all.  

Charlie doesn't have any friends, is not rich, and spends his time doing puzzles and crosswords and doesn't even have a computer. Charlie is not as callous as David, but he has a hard time talking and relating to people as well. He would rather be alone than try to make small talk. But he's a decent person when it counts. 

Both David and Charlie are diagnosed with "dissociative disorder" by the new school counselor. The treatment is called a "Companion." Companions are robots--all girls--supposed to teach the young boys how to get to know another person. David thinks he's hit the jackpot when a beautiful red haired companion arrives in a box in his driveway, but much to his dismay he is given an electric shock any time he tries to touch her before her "intimacy clock" says it's okay. Charlie refuses the treatment. 

I gobbled this book up. On the surface it's a funny book about a sex-crazed boy (David) who can't score with his robot and unwittingly pushes her into the arms of another boy (Charlie). But there's so much more to the story--today's obsession with the internet and social media and how teens (and adults) can have hundreds of friends online but not have a single person in real life to confide in and talk to; gender identity and how girls are more than just their "girl parts" and not all boys are sex-crazed. Girl Parts is one of those books that can be read for fun, but is also a really important book to be read. It's a logical book group choice because of all of the different discussion points it raises. Boys might initially be turned off by the title and the girl on the cover, but it's an important book for them to read as well. They may need a little more hand-selling, but once they open it up they won't be disappointed.

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