Thursday, February 27, 2014

Throwback Thursday - Kissing the Dead: A Cautionary Tale

*Originally posted on cj's bookshelf on July 1, 2011*

Title: I Kissed a Zombie, and I Liked It
Author: Adam Selzer
Publisher: Delacourt Press
Publication Date: January 2010
Reading Level: 16 and up

Synopsis (from Goodreads) -
Algonquin “Alley” Rhodes, the high school newspaper’s music critic, meets an intriguing singer, Doug, while reviewing a gig. He’s a weird-looking guy—goth, but he seems sincere about it, like maybe he was into it back before it was cool. She introduces herself after the set, asking if he lives in Cornersville, and he replies, in his slow, quiet murmur, “Well, I don’t really live there, exactly. . . .”

When Alley and Doug start dating, Alley is falling so hard she doesn't notice a few odd signs: he never changes clothes, his head is a funny shape, and he says practically nothing out loud. Finally Marie, the school paper’s fashion editor, points out the obvious: Doug isn't just a really sincere goth. He’s a zombie. Horrified that her feelings could have allowed her to overlook such a flaw, Alley breaks up with Doug, but learns that zombies are awfully hard to get rid of—at the same time she learns that vampires, a group as tightly-knit as the mafia, don’t think much of music critics who make fun of vampires in reviews. . . .

My Review:
First and foremost - "I Kissed a Zombie" is a parody of "Twilight." Now, I've made no secret that I severely dislike the "Twilight" books (for many reasons, not the least of which it offers up a perverted version of one of my - and the author's - core religious beliefs and that didn't sit well with me at all. Again, another rant for another day), so this sounded intriguing. Anything that pokes fun at "Twilight," I like to give it a shot. I actually met Adam Selzer briefly when he was on a teen author panel at the Utah Library Association Conference back in May [2011]. I didn't get to speak with him for very long, but it was long enough that I wanted to fork out $8 for his book and read it.

Alley Rhodes is no Bella Swan (or any other main female character from a paranormal romance novel, for that matter). Alley is witty, sarcastic and she constantly makes fun of all the girls in her high school who are dating vampires. Did I mention that, in this world, all the vampires have come out and made themselves a regular part of society? Which means, of course there are going to be tons of high school girls falling over themselves to get a piece of that undead action. [SARCASM WARNING!] Because, as we all know, high school girls are entirely that stupid. That's the kind of sarcasm Alley and her friends, the Vicious Circle (who also run the school newspaper), employ on a constant basis. And I have to admit, it's actually quite funny.

Then Alley becomes enamored with Doug, a guest singer for a band Alley is reviewing for her column in the school paper. He sings all her favorite songs and actually sings them well (Alley has a thing for dead gay singers from the 1930s) and she thinks that he's actually sincere about being a goth - not just these pseudo-goths that are just goth because it's suddenly cool on account of all the smokin' hot vampires around.

Another thing I found hilarious was, after Alley discovers Doug is a zombie, her debate with herself whether or not to become a zombie. She contemplates things like the fact that she'd have to drink embalming fluid every four hours (she decides that she could acquire a taste for it) and how long she and Doug could last as zombies before crumbling into dust (well, if they're careful, there are billions of years before the sun expands and the earth explodes. Then, they'll just be zombies floating around in space).

It helps when you read a book to know that it's a parody. If that had not been in the forefront of my mind as I read this, I would have hated it. But as it is a commentary on some of the more absurd premises in paranormal teen romance, it makes a lot of sense. It was a quick little read and one you might enjoy if you're looking for a fluffy piece of beach reading this summer.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

The World's Cutest Whovian!

I just found this today and since I couldn't make it to Gallifrey One this year, I thought I'd post it. I adore Lindalee and her Doctor Who videos! If you can contain your SQUEE long enough to click "Play," enjoy!

(I would love to meet this little lady - she's going to go far in life!)

Saturday, February 22, 2014

May It Be A Light in Dark Places

Title: Shadow and Bone
Author: Leigh Bardugo
Publisher: Henry Holt and Co.
Publication Date: June 5, 2012

Synopsis (from Goodreads) -
The Shadow Fold, a swathe of impenetrable darkness, crawling with monsters that feast on human flesh, is slowly destroying the once-great nation of Ravka.

Alina, a pale, lonely orphan, discovers a unique power that thrusts her into the lavish world of the kingdom’s magical elite—the Grisha. Could she be the key to unravelling the dark fabric of the Shadow Fold and setting Ravka free?

The Darkling, a creature of seductive charm and terrifying power, leader of the Grisha. If Alina is to fulfill her destiny, she must discover how to unlock her gift and face up to her dangerous attraction to him.

But what of Mal, Alina’s childhood best friend? As Alina contemplates her dazzling new future, why can’t she ever quite forget him?

Glorious. Epic. Irresistible. Romance.

My Review:
Oh, Shadow and Bone... what can I say about you?

Well, for starters -

(I suppose I ought to elaborate)

I initially read this back in 2012 when I was on the reading committee for CLAU when the short list for the Beehive Awards was being compiled for the 2013-14 season (which is being voted on right now). And my vote was YES! YES! A THOUSAND TIMES YES!!! I even harbor a slight hope that it will win this year, even up against the likes of The Fault in Our Stars by John Green (side note: I read that one. I don’t see what the big deal is about it. For reasons I put in my Goodreads review. But I realize I am in the vast minority on that opinion. You may now proceed to take away my bookworm cred).

Anyway - Shadow and Bone. You know that quote about writing that goes something like "If the book you want to read doesn't exist, you must write that book"? In this case, I'm going to have to turn that statement around a bit and say that this is the book I have wanted to write for years, but I just haven't been able to make it work (I'm still gonna try, though - in my own way). But I was thrilled beyond words to discover this book the first time around and I have no idea why I never wrote a proper review of it before now.  But I re-read this recently and I got up the gumption to write about it, so here we go -

Alina Starkov is an orphan girl with one friend who has been there for her and that is Mal Oretsev. They end up in the army for the kingdom of Ravka when Alina discovers that she has the power of the legendary Sun Summoner.  The Sun Summoner has been looked for over the centuries by the Grisha, a powerful order of mages who are only beneath the king in terms of power in Ravka. The Grisha are both beautiful and terrifying to the ordinary people, being an order separate and apart from the rest of the country, but they are necessary in combating the volcra, which are creatures that live in the Unsea which divides Ravka and threatens to consume the entire country. And then, you have the usual political enemies and antagonistic neighboring countries making war with Ravka all the time - so someone like the Sun Summoner would be pretty great to have around.

Alina, however, doesn't want to be the Sun Summoner. She doesn't fit in Grisha culture (it's much like the Jedi Order, where young children are identified and taken from their families and trained in the Jedi Temple and that's the only culture they know for a long time) and it's hard for her to adhere to traditions.  She befriends Genya, a Grisha girl who is a servant of the queen (and when you find out why, you kind of want to punch something), which is truly remarkable to the other Grisha.  And the leader of the Grisha, the Darkling, basically puts himself in Alina's back pocket for reasons that I don't want to spoil because that's part of the FEELS. But really, all Alina wants to do is go back to being Mal's best friend and back to being an ordinary girl.

What makes this story work so well rests within Alina and Mal's relationship - and this is a HUGE reason why I adore this book so much.  From the start, it is established that Alina and Mal are all each other really has in this world. They grew up in the orphanage and they left the orphanage together. Alina's power is discovered when Mal's life is threatened.  In terms of love stories in YA fiction, this is honestly one of the best ones there is anywhere.  It feels real and sincere and like it could happen to anyone.  Even as Alina learns about her powers and finds out a lot of really marvelous things about herself - Mal is always that central touchstone in her life.  And it goes both ways, which is absolutely fantastic. In fact, the only reason that there is any conflict between them at all is because Alina’s powers as the Sun Summoner come out into the open and the Grisha pull them apart because that’s just how things are done with the Grisha.  You don't tell the Grisha "No." You just don't.

That kind of dovetails into my next subject - but I also love how Alina has been thrown into this new culture and she doesn’t feel like she fits in. Not because the people are bad or mean to her, necessarily. But because the Grisha are typically found as very young children and they don’t have time to learn any other way to live. In fact, the Grisha characters - particularly Genya - are so multi-faceted and multidimensional. It could have been easy to write all Grisha as narrow-minded and villainous - but they aren’t. They all have distinct personalities, even if they aren’t “on-screen” (as it were) for very long (my favorite of these minor characters is David - read the book and find out).

I also have to talk about the Darkling. Oh my holy crap, the Darkling. I’m not sure how much I want to spoil, since I want my reviews to encourage people to read these books if they haven’t already... oh, what the hell... it’s kind of obvious if you look hard enough. I love how ambiguous his character is at the beginning, though the hints are there that is is just bad news. And his interactions with Alina are so well-paced and so well-written that you do find yourself wanting them to end up together and you’re almost disgusted with yourself afterward (which makes it easy to sympathize with Alina when what happens happens). If heroes are only as good as their villains - then Alina is shaping up to be an incredible hero.

The world-building in this story is absolutely incredible. It’s more or less based around Russian culture which, between watching the Olympics in Sochi and reading a book I found on NetGalley about the Romanov sisters, has become a bit of an interest for me recently. It’s one of those hidden gems in history that gets overlooked - mostly because so much of Russian history was suppressed until comparatively recently (at least, within the course of my own lifetime - I was six when the Soviet Union fell). Western European culture becomes a template for so many fantasy novels - mostly because that’s kind of a literary touchstone for our own culture and that’s what we know the best. But it’s really cool to see other cultures being mined for ideas for fantastical settings (another excellent example is Avatar: The Last Airbender with its Asian and Inuit influences). And not just being mined for ideas, but being mined well.  In the case of Shadow and Bone, there are points where it's hard to tell where the Russian influence ends and the made-up stuff begins because it's just so seamless within the narrative.  And I appreciate that in the world building.  I like that I can say - "Okay, that part's from Russia, that part's made up, that part... um... I'm not sure..."  Then again, I like to get lost in a book's culture and background, so I like that I can just say "This is all Ravka" and be totally okay with it.

(Also, I can totally pinpoint the moment I realized why the book was called Shadow and Bone. I won't give it away, but I was quite pleased with myself when I figured it out. I'll give a hint: it was the same point I understood the cover art).

In conclusion - Shadow and Bone. Go read it NOW! And then go find the second one, Siege and Storm. And then go preorder Ruin and Rising because the ending promises to be one hell of a finale.  And then go cry because this story is so great we still have a few more months to wait.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Throwback Thursday - Yes Virginia, You Can Have Character Focus in Dystopian Fiction

*Originally posted on cj's bookshelf on June 24, 2011*

Title: The Roar
Author: Emma Clayton
Publisher: The Chicken House
Publication Date: April 1, 2009
Reading Level: Age 12 and up

Synopsis: (from Goodreads) - 
Mika and Ellie live in a future behind a wall: Solid concrete topped with high-voltage razor wire and guarded by a battalion of Ghengis Borgs, it was built to keep out the animals, because animals carry the plague. At least that's what Ellie, who was kidnapped as a child, has always been taught.

But when she comes to suspect the truth behind her captivity, she's ready to risk exposure to the elements and answer the call of the wild. Listen. Can you hear it? She's strapping on her headset, jumpstarting her Pod Fighter, and--with her capuchin monkey at her back--she's breaking out!

My Review: 
I have long since learned not to trust book summaries.  Either they will make a good story sound boring or an awful story sound intriguing.  Such is the case with "The Roar" - I would not have picked this one up had my supervisor not suggested it.

Also - speaking of unreliable summaries - this book is not about Ellie.  It's about her twin brother, Mika, who refuses to believe that Ellie is dead even though his parents, teachers and counselors tell him she is.  But Ellie comes up enough that this is not a deal-breaker for me.

(Suggestion to publishers - WRITE BETTER SUMMARIES!)

The world Emma Clayton has created for her characters is both fascinating and terrifying.  It is a world where everyone has to take what the government says at face value because there simply isn't any other source.  They are told that they must stay behind The Wall surrounding the country because of a devastating Animal Plague that nearly wiped out all of humanity.  The poor people are packed into tiny fold-out apartments and are given glorified mold to eat.  The children are given "Fit Mix," which they are told will give them the necessary nutrition, but it actually turns out to be something more sinister.  Mika's the only one who questions anything this government tells him, to his detriment, but he also succeeds at the beating the government at its own game (and I'm not talking about the arcade game that gets the whole plot in motion).  The moment when Mika discovers the government's BIG SECRET is so satisfying that I didn't care that I had pretty much called it at the start of the book.

This is one book I actually don't want to spoil too much, though it isn't hard to guess where it's going to end up. That doesn't necessarily make it an inferior story.  Far from it, actually.  "The Roar" is a fast-paced, in-the-moment, intriguing and enjoyable read.  The main thing about this was that it was so focused on the characters and how they responded to their situation and didn't focus so much on the situation came to be (which is how dystopian fiction ought to be - I'm lookin' at you "Uglies").

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Throwback Thursday: The Bad Things Don't Always Spoil the Good - Review of "The Book Thief"

Throwback Thursday makes a triumphant return after a (unintentional) five-month hiatus! For those who missed it (probably a lot of you), I used to have a blog I used solely for reviewing books. But then I started doing more with this blog and decided to consolidate them both. I didn't want to lose all the work I'd done on cj's bookshelf, so I'm slowly migrating them over here. I started last year, but got distracted and kept forgetting to do it. But it's back for your enjoyment!

**Originally posted on cj's bookshelf on June 17, 2011**

Title: The Book Thief
Author: Markus Zusak
Publisher: Knopf Books for Young Readers
Publication Date: December 2005
Reading Level: Age 14 and up

Synopsis: (from Goodreads)
It is 1939. Nazi Germany. The country is holding its breath. Death has never been busier, and will become busier still.

Liesel Meminger is a foster girl living outside of Munich, who scratches out a meager existence for herself by stealing when she encounters something she can’t resist–books. With the help of her accordion-playing foster father, she learns to read and shares her stolen books with her neighbors during bombing raids as well as with the Jewish man hidden in her basement.

In superbly crafted writing that burns with intensity, award-winning author Markus Zusak, author of I Am the Messenger, has given us one of the most enduring stories of our time.

My Review:

Oh, "The Book Thief" - you wonderful, wonderful piece of writing you.

This book first came to my attention through the Mark Reads blog.  All I knew was that it was set in Nazi Germany and there was a girl who stole books.  How the two connected, I hadn't the foggiest idea.  But the themes connected in one of the most beautiful ways I have ever seen.

So many of the stories about the Holocaust and World War II and Nazi Germany focus on the horrible things human beings are capable of doing to other human beings and "The Book Thief" is no exception.  But what this book does so magnificently is telling the story of Germans who - surprise! - didn't actually buy into the Nazi propaganda.  In fact, there were plenty of Germans who were just trying to take care of their families and follow the rules and do what they thought was right.

The best thing about this story is Liesel Meminger, the titular book thief who finds joy and solace in the books she "steals" from various places (though one of those places is the mayor's wife's library - and the mayor's wife purposely leaves the door open for Liesel).  She is just a little girl who plays with her friends and gets into mischief - just like any other kid in any other time period, but her experiences are set up against the backdrop of Nazi Germany.  Her childhood is peppered with flashbacks of her foster father's experience in World War I, scenes of Death (the narrator) picking up souls killed in the war and scenes of the people in Liesel's neighborhood taking cover in a basement during bombings.

My favorite chapter is when Max Vandenburg - a Jewish man Liesel's family is hiding - illustrates a story as a gift to Liesel to thank her for her kindness.  I don't want to go into details about Max's story because it is so lovely and wonderful, but the whole chapter was a brilliant depiction of the story as a whole.

This entire story is an exceptional tale of the very worst of humanity sitting right next to the best of humanity.  It takes all the black and white morality in storytelling and sits it on the bench and lets the grays of real people shine through.  Nothing is ever straightforward, as much as we try to make things good and right.  But that doesn't mean you stop trying to live a good and moral life the best way you know how.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Reading Only Ever Gave Me Hope

Title:The World's Strongest Librarian
Author: Josh Hanagarne
Publisher: Gotham Books
Publication Date: May 2013

Synopsis (from Goodreads):
Josh Hanagarne couldn't be invisible if he tried. Although he wouldn't officially be diagnosed with Tourette Syndrome until his freshman year of high school, Josh was six years old and onstage in a school Thanksgiving play when he first began exhibiting symptoms. By the time he was twenty, the young Mormon had reached his towering adult height of 6'7" when — while serving on a mission for the Church of Latter Day Saints — his Tourette's tics escalated to nightmarish levels.

Determined to conquer his affliction, Josh underwent everything from quack remedies to lethargy-inducing drug regimes to Botox injections that paralyzed his vocal cords and left him voiceless for three years. Undeterred, Josh persevered to marry and earn a degree in Library Science. At last, an eccentric, autistic strongman — and former Air Force Tech Sergeant and guard at an Iraqi prison — taught Josh how to "throttle" his tics into submission through strength-training.

Today, Josh is a librarian in the main branch of Salt Lake City's public library and founder of a popular blog about books and weight lifting—and the proud father of four-year-old Max, who has already started to show his own symptoms of Tourette's.

The World's Strongest Librarian illuminates the mysteries of this little-understood disorder, as well as the very different worlds of strongman training and modern libraries. With humor and candor, this unlikely hero traces his journey to overcome his disability — and navigate his wavering Mormon faith — to find love and create a life worth living.

My Review:
I've talked before about Salt Lake County Library's Reader's Choice program - how twice a year the system sets out twenty (or so) books from varying genres that they think will be worth their patrons' time and asks people to read and vote on which of the batch are the best (each library branch does fun things like drawings or games to encourage people to read these books - some patrons are even ambitious enough to read them all).  The last couple of groups of Reader's Choice books have been a little... well... lacking. As least, as far as I'm concerned. I'm certain that someone else found something they liked.

Anyway - I'd heard about The World's Strongest Librarian from an article in the paper last year highlighting Josh Hanagarne when the book was released. I thought it was neat that a guy from Salt Lake City was getting a book published and he worked for the Salt Lake City Library, but I didn't think too much of it at the time.  But then the book came up on Reader's Choice and I decided to give it a shot.

First off - I'm not a non-fiction type of gal. Memoirs especially kind of mess me up emotionally. It's either too sad that I can't finish or it's too happy that it makes me feel bad about my own failings and misfortunes (and then I feel bad for feeling bad because there are starving children in Africa and how dare I think I have it so rough!) I'd rather stick to my world of made-up stories and let the real world get on with the business of continually screwing things up. But this book... actually made me feel like maybe there are other people who have similar doubts about the future.

It helped that Josh's background was a lot like mine - living in small close-knit communities in Utah and Nevada, being the freakishly tall bookworm that's mildly skilled in sports (Josh got better at athletic pursuits - let's be fair here), growing up in the LDS (Mormon) faith. But that's about where the similarities ended. Because I have absolutely no idea what it's like to deal with Tourette's Syndrome. Oh, I've heard people talk about it and I've glanced at articles by medical professionals - but it's never touched my life at all. But reading about Josh's experiences and just how real he made it (especially writing for an audience who may or may not understand) helped put things into perspective.  I also loved the humor he displayed - almost made it feel like I was listening to a dear friend talk about his life (even though I've never met Josh - though I know people who have).

I think this is probably the most candid and real memoir I've ever read.  He doesn't gloss over the really tough stuff - but he also gives so much credit to others where some memoirs probably would make it sound terrible.  I especially loved how he talked about his parents - how they weren't sure how to help their son with Tourettes when they first thought there might have been a problem, but over time they turned to experts (and some not-so-experts) and worked hard to help Josh wherever they could.

Another thing I want to mention is how Josh talks about his faith. Like I said earlier, I'm Mormon and I've grown up in the church and I'm still active in my faith.  Sometimes when Mormons write memoirs meant for a secular crowd, they either go too far into "over-sharing" things that are meant to be sacred or they treat their faith like it's something to be ashamed of or even apologize for it.  But here, Josh actually struck a perfect balance between the two - he treats sacred things with the respect they deserve, while also not being afraid to poke fun at some of the LDS culture's more, shall we say, unique characteristics (being a single LDS female, I particularly appreciated his description of the LDS dating scene. Nothing ever changes).  It was refreshing to see that balance in a book like this (also - his description of the Missionary Training Center and the life of an LDS missionary is bang-on).

Ugh - I feel like I'm not really giving this book a good enough review. Can I just say that I read it in a four-and-a-half hour sitting? (minus the couple of times I got up to switch out the laundry) It was a compelling, interesting, enlightening book and it made me think about some things in my own life and my own challenges. I mean, I'm probably not going to run out and start lifting weights (I have zero upper body strength and I have since I was a kid in gymnastics class) - but I can certainly understand the act of looking for ways to overcome adversity and the acknowledgement in the end that the battle is never really over and moments of clarity come when you least expect them and leave just as quickly as they came.  I really want people to read this book - either just because you enjoy memoirs or because you need a realistic-yet-positive look at what this life is like and that things will be okay in the end. In the end, this book left me feeling positive and hopeful. I can't ask much more of a book, now can I?

In short: Run, don't walk, to your nearest library or bookstore and get this book. You won't be sorry.