Friday, April 24, 2009

Review: The Maze of Bones

The Maze of Bones (39 Clues, book 1) by Rick Riordan
3.5 stars

Reasons for reading: This is a hot series for kids right now, so I wanted to see what the fuss was about

Description: "Minutes before she died Grace Cahill changed her will, leaving her descendants an impossible decision: "You have a choice - one million dollars or a clue." Grace is the last matriarch of the Cahills, the world's most powerful family. Everyone from Napoleon to Houdini is related to the Cahills, yet the source of the family power is lost. 39 Clues hidden around the world will reveal the family's secret, but no one has been able to assemble them. Now the clues race is on, and young Amy and Dan must decide what's important: hunting clues or uncovering what REALLY happened to their parents."

First line: "Five minutes before she died, Grace Cahill changed her will."

My thoughts: This was a quick-paced, interesting adventure story with a liberal sprinkling of educational facts, to boot! I liked librarian-loving, tongue-tied Amy and math-whiz, collector of many things, daredevil Dan. The history lessons in this volume focus mainly on Benjamin Franklin, who is even more interesting than I realized!

The evil relatives who are plaguing the Cahill siblings are suitably sinister - a former Russian spy wields poison-tiped fingernails, a dapper elderly Korean man wears brightly-coloured suits and ascots, there's a trio of triplets and a muscle-headed family who all bear the names of presidents.

I'm not entirely sure about the huge multi-media marketing campaign behind the books - there are trading cards with each book (problematic for libraries!), a website and prizes to be won online. But I like the use-your-brain/history facts slant and the books seem to be written by great authors - 10 different ones, which is neat - so the quality is there. If kids are online anyway, they might as well be solving a book-based puzzle.

The verdict: A worldwide scavenger hunt makes a really cool premise for a series. The sequel was written by my beloved Gordon Korman, so I might have to follow the Cahills to Vienna to find clues about a certain famous composer.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Review: Grounds for Murder

Grounds for Murder by Sandra Balzo
3 stars

Reasons for reading: I enjoyed Balzo's first book, Uncommon Grounds, last year; Seconds Challenge

Description: "Set in Milwaukee at a scaldingly competitive trade show for the coffee industry, events reach a head when coffeehouse-owner Maggy Thorsen discovers a body under a table at the conference centre. As the reluctant conference coordinator and a potential suspect Maggy must track the murderer, save her coffeehouse, and hopefully put some froth in her love life. . . "

First line: "Slut in a cup!"

My thoughts: One review of this book describes it as "lukewarm" - I wouldn't go quite that far, but I definitely preferred the first book. This one felt a bit rushed and hard to believe. Most of the secondary characters are quite caricature-ish - an uber-enviro-earth mother and her money-grubbing egotistical husband, for example. Fortunately, one of one them - Maggy's chain-smoking friend Sarah who decides to "quit" by breathing in second-hand smoke and cracks the whip on the conference exhibitors -adds some spark to the story. Balzo's humour is still there (as you can see from the first line!), but I'd have liked better characters and more development of Maggy's budding relationship with hunky detective Jake Pavlik.

The verdict: Not a bad little cozy but not the sequel I was hoping for.

Review: Slam

Slam by Nick Hornby
3.5 stars

Reasons for reading: Nick Hornby's great - I'm using his April 17, 1957 birthday for the Celebrate the Author Challenge

Description: "Just when everything is coming together for Sam, his girlfriend Alicia drops a bombshell. Make that ex-girlfriend-- because by the time she tells him she's pregnant, they've already called it quits. Sam does not want to be a teenage dad. His mom had him at sixteen and has made it very clear how having a baby so young interrupted her life. There's only one person Sam can turn to--his hero, skating legend Tony Hawk. Sam believes the answers to life's hurdles can be found in Hawk's autobiography. But even Tony Hawk isn't offering answers this time--or is he? Inexplicably, Sam finds himself whizzed into the future, for a quick glimpse of what will be . . . or what could be. In this wonderfully witty, poignant story about a teenage boy unexpectedly thrust into fatherhood, it's up to Sam to make the right decisions so the bad things that could happen, well, don't."

First line: "So things were ticking along quite nicely."

My thoughts: Funny and laddish as always! Sam is a great character and the story is very much from his point of view. He's a very real-feeling character - scared, smart, stupid, caring, cranky, and confused. And funny! He sort of tries to do the right thing, but doesn't always succeed. And the talking to the Tony Hawk poster parts are a hoot when Tony "responds" with quotes from his autobiography that are often not particularly useful.

I found the whole "whizzed into the future" thing a bit weird, though. I suppose that it added novelty, but I don't know that it provided a whole lot more than if the story had just been told straight. Sam's narration was enjoyable enough without that added element, I thought.

And...I don't actually know if I'd recommend this book to a teen boy. The awesomeness quotient provided by Hornby's wit combined with skateboarding is severely downsized by the whole teen pregnancy aspect. I just don't see boys who want to read about Tony Hawk wanting to read about teen dads - most of our skater-boys are young teens or pre-teens - it wouldn't be appropriate for them. It's a shame, because it's a really funny book with lots of guy appeal, but with a big, glaring non-appealing element. Older teen guys would probably like it, though. And so did I.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Herding Cats Picks

I have a feeling this list is going to grow and change, but for now, here's what has caught my eye from the Herding Cats Challenge master list.

The Penderwicks on Gardam Street by Jeanne Birdsall
The Secret Life of CeeCee Wilkes by Diane Chamberlain

Ten Cents A Dance by Christine Fletcher
His Majesty's Dragon by Naomi Novik
The Good Fairies of New York by Martin Millar
Sacred Cows by Karen E. Olson

The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch

If I have time (doubtful): The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Review: Last Night at the Lobster

Last Night at the Lobster by Stewart O'Nan
3 stars

Reasons for reading: had read good things about it; Realistic fiction for the Genre Challenge; Time of day title for the What's in a Name? Challenge II

Description: "The Red Lobster perched in the far corner of a run-down New England mall hasn’t been making its numbers and headquarters has pulled the plug. But manager Manny DeLeon still needs to navigate a tricky last shift with a near-mutinous staff. All the while, he’s wondering how to handle the waitress he’s still in love with, what to do about his pregnant girlfriend, and where to find the present that will make everything better."

First line: "Mall traffic on a winter's day, stalled."

My thoughts: This was an interesting little book. It definitely met the challenge requirement for realistic fiction. O'Nan quotes a poem at the beginning of the novel that ends with the line "All the vatos never in a poem" and that's what Manny is - a regular guy who would never normally be the subject of either poetry or fiction. He's just an ordinary guy trying to do his ordinary job while trying to keep his personal life out of it (hard to do when his ex is one of his waitresses). The story is particularly realistic for this year of economic crisis, given that the Red Lobster is closing down and most of the staff are losing their jobs.

The novel takes place over the course of one day, the last night at the Lobster before it closes and Manny and a handful of his staff have to go and work at an Olive Garden. Most of the staff have refused to come in because they're ticked off that Manny isn't taking them to the pasta joint and a bad snowstorm makes things even worse. But Manny is, in his own workaday world way, a hero - he tries to placate the feuding kitchen staff, he's kind to the boy with special needs who is, in many ways, his best employee, and he tries very hard to keep the walkways clear of snow, even though there are no customers. He gives the Lobster his full managerial best until the last moment, even though headquarters has barely spared a thought for his little family of mostly misfits.

The verdict: A quick read with some poetic moments. I think it would be a great read for anyone who has worked in a a restaurant, particularly as a manager.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Review: Pretties

Pretties by Scott Westerfeld
3.5 stars

Reasons for reading: I read the first book in the series a couple of years ago and wanted to find out what happens; YA novel for the Young Adult Challenge

"Tally has finally become pretty. Now her looks are beyond perfect, her clothes are awesome, her boyfriend is totally hot, and she's completely popular. It's everything she's ever wanted. But beneath all the fun — the nonstop parties, the high-tech luxury, the total freedom — is a nagging sense that something's wrong. Something important. Then a message from Tally's ugly past arrives. Reading it, Tally remembers what's wrong with pretty life, and the fun stops cold. Now she has to choose between fighting to forget what she knows and fighting for her life — because the authorities don't intend to let anyone with this information survive."

First line: "Getting dressed was always the hardest part of the afternoon."

My thoughts: I was sick in bed for almost the whole week and couldn't sleep for coughing for at least three nights, so I managed to burn through a ton of books, this is yet another of them. The one good thing about being sick, lots of time to read!

To me this book felt a little bit thinner plot-wise than Uglies, but I guess that's because Uglies had to do all of the set-up, explaining about pretty-fication and how the world had gotten to think it was a good idea. But I still definitely enjoyed it.

I enjoyed learning more about New Pretty Town. It's quite the astonishing place - everything exists to be amusing. If it didn't require becoming incredibly stupid to live there, it would be paradise. And that Tally's friends wanted to overcome pretty-thinking really felt like a triumph, even if it's a small number. The vulpine mean Pretties from Special Circumstances continue to provide the chilling, controlling force beneath all of the surface glamour and endless parties.

The verdict: I definitely want to see what happens to Tally - if the title of the next book, Specials, isn't a fake-out, then she's in real trouble...

Friday, April 10, 2009


Husband and I spent a chunk of Good Friday watching 5 hours of VH1's 100 Greatest Hard Rock Songs. I may be a short, roly poly children's librarian, but secretly I wish I was Joan Jett or Rockstar Supernova's Storm Large or a small, round, female Steven Tyler. So I said to Husband, "I need a tattoo to up my bad-ass quotient." He countered, "Yeah, but you'd get a butterfly or a teddy bear or something totally girlie." He was right, he knows me too well. I shamefacedly admitted that I was considering a heart and he rested his case. Then we started to think of bad-ass yet cute tattoos - he came up with Winnie the Pooh giving the finger or "Horton Hears the Bullet With His Name on it."

But it got me thinking and I think I've come up with the perfect one. You should get a tattoo of something that's important to you and children's books are important to me, so why not one from the best children's book ever? And I happen to think it's pretty bad-ass.

BUT I just used Google Images to find a picture from the book and it looks like I'm not the only one with this excellent idea, alas. I was so proud of myself. Oh well, I still think it's cool.

I think "Wild Thing" in fancy script underneath would add to the bad-assedness. Or perhaps "Wild Thang."

And I also think that I should start a children's librarian rock band and call it Wild Rumpus.

Whaddya think - any other children's librarian-appropriate suggestions? :-)

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Review: How I Live Now

How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff
4 stars

Reasons for reading: The Book Awards Challenge - 2005 Michael L. Printz Award winner

Description: "Fifteen-year-old Daisy is sent from Manhattan to England to visit her aunt and cousins she’s never met: three boys near her age, and their little sister. Her aunt goes away on business soon after Daisy arrives. The next day bombs go off as London is attacked and occupied by an unnamed enemy. As power fails, and systems fail, the farm becomes more isolated. Despite the war, it’s a kind of Eden, with no adults in charge and no rules, a place where Daisy’s uncanny bond with her cousins grows into something rare and extraordinary. But the war is everywhere, and Daisy and her cousins must lead each other into a world that is unknown in the scariest, most elemental way."

First line: "My name is Elizabeth but no one’s ever called me that."

My thoughts: I can see why this one won the Printz Award - it's raw and intense and really quite different.

At first, being left alone on the farm is like a jolly old-fashioned British children's book - camping out, taking care of the animals, what larks. In this no-adults zone, Daisy and her cousin Edmond fall in love - sex and all. It's quite shocking, but the strange circumstances as well as the cousins' various spiritual powers (Edmond reads minds, his brother Isaac communes with animals, and little Piper is basically, in Daisy's words, a "mystical creature" that everyone adores) seem to mitigate the shock.

After war breaks out, the cousins are forced to leave the farm and live with other families. Soon everything goes to hell and Piper and Daisy stagger out into the wartorn countryside to try to find the rest of their family.

I don't want to ruin the ending, but it's a bit too quick. After the detailed descriptions of the girls' search for home, things accelerate into warp speed and then there's an epilogue 6 years later. That was a bit jarring.

The verdict: Not for those looking for a light-hearted read, but a very powerful, interesting story about the power of love, family, and finding out where you belong, even after horrific experiences.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Review: Glitter Baby

Glitter Baby by Susan Elizabeth Phillips
3 stars

Reasons for reading: I've really enjoyed Susan Elizabeth Phillips' other books

Description: "Fleur Savagar is the most beautiful woman in the world . . . to everyone but herself. With her oversized hands and paddle-boat feet, her streaky blond hair and funny green eyes, she lives a life filled with secrets that began before she was born. That was when her bewitching mother left home to find James Dean and met Errol Flynn instead. Now Fleur has to grow up quickly, and life won't make that easy. Jake Koranda is both New York's most brilliant playwright and Hollywood's hottest actor. Difficult, talented, and tormented, he has no patience for international glamour girls, not even ones with beautiful bodies and smart-aleck mouths. But there's more to the Glitter Baby than shine, and Fleur's tougher than Jake expects. Even with the odds stacked against her, she's fiercely determined to discover the woman she's destined to be."

My thoughts: From the beginning, I really thought this book felt dated. I figured that was because it was set in the 80's (though I wasn't really sure why it was set then). Partway through, I noticed that it was actually originally published in 1987 and this is a reissue. So that explained it.

It really didn't feel like Phillip's other books - which are usually very American and Southern. This one reminded me of Louise Bagshawe or one of the other British bonkbuster authors - quite European (though it's set in LA and New York as well as France) and revenge-oriented rather than Phillips' usual football-player types being thrust into situations with quirky heroines. I missed that Phillips and I'm glad she evolved into the writer she is now.

Fleur and Jake are good characters, very typical of this type of novel. I liked the Errol Flynn references and the ongoing revenge plot spiced things up a bit, though it was all pretty predictable. Jake being a Vietnam vet really added to the dated feeling of the book, although it was necessary for his character to have gone through it.

This wasn't a bad book, it just wasn't very special, I felt like I'd read it all before. Of course, perhaps in 1987 it was special. She has a new book out now, and I'm looking forward to reading the Susan Elizabeth Phillips of this century.