About Me

Here at the Watauga County Public Library we like to read books (weird, right?). As it turns out, we also like to talk about books. And you, O internet wanderer, are our lucky audience! Here's the deal: We read books. We write up what we thought about them. You read the review. You comment. If it looks good (it probably will, our judgment is impeccable), you read the book yourself, and let us know what you thought!

Monday, August 23, 2010

The Storm in the Barn by Matt Phelan

OK, so the cover for this book is not so attractive. It has a number of things working against it. The colors are very bland, mostly blues and browns, and therefore don't really catch your eye. And there's not much going on other than the fact that the boy is holding a flashlight and looking very concerned. Also the title is a little dull for attracting the interest of kids (and kid librarians, apparently). Barns are not usually the location of exciting events in the world (I think Charlotte's Web pretty much maxed out their potential). So initially, I admit, I was not really drawn to this book despite the fact that it had received a number of accolades from book reviewers and sites I trust like Graphic Novel Reporter and Good Comics for Kids.
Then one day I was putting recently returned graphic novels on the display shelf and this was in the pile. As I placed it out on the shelf I noticed, for the first time, the shadowy figure standing behind the boy and the hand poised to grab the poor, unsuspecting child. Suddenly, I was intrigued, and began flipping through the pages immediately so I could garner a little more of the story's plot. Who was that sinister figure? What malicious plan did he have in store for the boy? A while later I looked up and realized that I had been engrossed in the story for the past half hour. Not wanting to appear like too much of a slacker while at work, I returned to the desk and set the book aside for later. I finished it before the day was out.
The story itself is a kind-of Jack Tale that is set in the Kansas Dust Bowl during 1937. The people in the area are plagued by drought (some children in the story have never even seen rain) and cannot grow any food for their livelihood. They are thus forced to survive by the barest means and the town itself seems to slowly be losing its mind as people are haunted by dust storms, afflicted with diseases like 'dust pneumonia', and growing suspicious of each other- they start to accuse people of having 'dust dementia'.
The protagonist, a young boy named JackClark, is one of those people. Because of his inability to fit in, he is eyed warily by the entire town and tormented by a group of local ruffians (oh yeah, I used the word ruffians, what about it?). Even his father sees Jack as somewhat of a nuisance, a child who is unable to help out around the house or do anything that a young man should, despite Jack's constant efforts to prove that he can.
Then one day, when Jack sneaks into his neighbor's abandoned barn, he finds a way to potentially turn his life, and the lives of everyone else in town, around. But only if he's able to face down a terrifying enemy (creepy shadow dude on the cover) and do it alone, because to tell anyone else what he's seen means they'll lock him in the loony bin for good.
So, obviously, I was glad I cracked the cover on this story. I was engaged from page one, especially by Jack's plight and by the bleak, desperate, atmosphere that envelops the entire book. When Jack discovers his foe in the barn, and finds out that maybe the drought isn't just nature gone wrong, the book is impossible to put down.
The story is truly enhanced by the simplistic and beautiful art of Matt Phelan. The book is almost entirely wordless and so it is Phelan's drawings, sketch-like in nature, that compel you to turn each page. He says in the Afterword that he based the art for the story on the work of photographers like Dorothea Lange, Arthur Rothstein, Walker Evans, and others from the time period and this is apparent in the stark, worn faces of the characters and the barren landscape surrounding them.
Again, my only problem with this book is the poor cover choice. Even with the mysterious lurking figure, it still isn't really that eye-catching and probably gets passed over for flashier graphic novels. Which is a shame, because everything on the inside is worth a look (or twenty four). If you can convince people to read it, you have my word that they won't be sorry.
P.S. Storm in the Barn recently won the Scott O'Dell award for Historical Fiction. Here is the link for the book trailer, which is worth a look.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Before I Fall, by Lauren Oliver

This book, as I keep telling people when I'm trying to rouse interest, is like a combination of Groundhog Day and Mean Girls. This comparison hasn't garnered quite the level of excitement I'd hoped, but it's accurate, so I'm sticking with it. Samantha (Sam) Kingston is in a car accident, and instead of waking up in a hospital room or atop a cloud, she wakes up at home, poised to relive the same day over again. Throughout the different takes of this same day, she makes some realizations about her life and the decisions she makes, slowly understanding that her clique of friends might not be all they were cracked up to be.

It's got all the elements that a classic YA teenage girl drama book should have: popular kids, the outcast who has been estranged and belittled by the popular kids, cutting class, eating lunch in the bathroom all by yourself, the cute-but-thick boy the main character is dating, the weird boy the character should be dating, etc.

The thing that makes this book better than Groundhog Day and Mean Girls combined (and I'm a pretty decent Bill Murray fan, so that's saying something), and waaaaay better than any sort of teenage chick lit (sorry, Meg Cabot) is the strength of the prose that narrates Sam's introspection as she deals with the consequences of her decisions. It's just so smart. None of the characters are flat. It doesn't paint the popular girls Sam is originally friends with as beautiful soulless princesses, and the girl whose life they spend a lot of time trying to ruin doesn't come off as an innocent victim. In the face of her own death, Sam continually recognizes the small parts of everyone, both good and bad, that make us worthwhile human beings, which is a pretty difficult thing for anyone to grasp, even when we're not facing death.

As a preview:

"It amazes me how easy it is for things to change, how easy it is to start off down the same road you always take and wind up somewhere new. Just one false step, one pause, one detour, and you end up with new friends or a bad reputation or a boyfriend or a breakup. It's never occurred to me before; I've never been able to see it. And it makes me feel, weirdly, like maybe all of these possibilities exist at the same time, like each moment we live has a thousand other moments layered underneath it that look different... I wonder if it's ever possible to know the truth about someone else, or if the best we can do is just stumble into each other, heads down, hoping to avoid collision...I wonder how many people are clutching secrets like little fists, like rocks sitting in the pits of their stomachs. All of them, maybe."

It's this deeply honest assessment of the people around her that propels her through this day so many times, and keeps the reader turning pages madly. We struggle with her, as she searches for her footing, and, when she finally finds it in what winds up to be a pretty daring conclusion, we sigh with agony and relief along with her.

This was much more than the teenage drama it seems to be on the surface. It is a complex story about the meaning of life and death and the subtle significance of all the tiny parts in between. It's about being human, so, if you are one of those, you should probably like it.


Monday, April 19, 2010

Reviewing Molly Fyde

Well let’s see. I’ve never really reviewed anything officially before, so this is a first. I suppose, however, that I am a fairly opinionated guy. I just hope that I can coalesce all of these opinions into a functioning review that makes sense for the two of you who will read this.

For my first attempt at reviewing, I will discuss Molly Fyde and the Parsona Rescue, by Hugh Howey- the first in a new trilogy.

This book was, interestingly enough, brought to my attention by the author himself. He popped in here one rainy (this adjective is open to debate) Thursday morning and said, “Hi, I’m Hugh Howey, I’ve just come in from sailing around the world- island hopping, if you will- and I was wondering if you could tell me where the High Country Writer’s meeting will be held.” I’m not kidding, he said this exact sentence. So I told him where the meeting was and then, curious as to why a world traveler would pop in to Boone one supposedly rainy Thursday and want to attend a writer’s club meeting, asked him if he was a writer himself. Well, it turned out that he was and that, lo and behold, he had published a book! Not only that, he had signed a contract for the other two in the trilogy! Yes, lady and gentleman, I was in the presence of semi-halfway-kinda-sorta fame (who was also a decent and extremely likeable chap, which, I’m sorry to say, is not something that can often be said about published, semi-halfway-kinda-sorta famous authors, who generally have a bad case of nose-in-the-air syndrome). After the meeting he brought me a copy of the first Molly Fyde book (signed!) and being an endeavoring sort, and a supporter of underground children’s literature, I agreed to give it a read.

O.K., enough blather, on to the review. Let me start by saying that after the first few pages, I completely forgot that I was reading a book by someone I knew. The story sucks you in that quick. It opens in a distant future where Molly and her best friend/training partner Cole Mendonça are in a flight simulator at the Naval Academy, engaged in a mock interstellar battle. Things go haywire, their weapons systems go down, and after some fancy flying that showcases the raw talent of Miss Fyde, they make it out of the simulation by the skin of their teeth. It turns out, however, that fancy flying that saves lives equals simple showboating at this Academy, something that Molly has apparently developed a reputation for. After being dressed down by a boorish commander and given an abysmal score, Molly is then booted from the Academy and sent off to regular high school, wondering if she will fit in with the regular, non-military kids.

Her exile is short-lived, however, in that a loving, father type figure, otherwise known as Admiral Lucin comes calling. He informs her that the ship Parsona, which belonged to her parents, who have been missing/presumed dead for a long time, has been located in some distant part of the galaxy. Molly, not one to sit idly by while other, less talented pilots retrieve her ship, volunteers to go and get it along with help from a Naval escort who turns out to be, drum roll please, her best friend Cole. So, with giddy adventure hormones coursing through their veins, the two of them set off on a galaxy-reaching quest to retrieve her parents' ship.

It becomes apparent very quickly that things are not meant to go their way (surprise, surprise!). Their contact on Palan, the planet where Parsona is located, is missing and when they try to report in to the local Naval base, they barely escape being arrested. From there things spin slowly out of control for Molly and Cole and the ways in which they react to the obstacles placed before them become increasingly drastic.

One of the greatest challenges in writing science fiction is world building. Since the world(s) that your readers will be traipsing through is one that no one has ever seen, it must be built on a solid foundation that is believable and tangible. One we feel comfortable moving around in. The story is almost second-string to the world an author has constructed. A second-rate tale will become that much better if the world is solidly built but an excellent story can fall flat in a world that feels thin and under-developed. That being said, the world that Mr. Howey has built for Molly and Cole is sturdy and I never once found myself questioning its tangibility. I was able to soar along the rim of the Milky Way with our intrepid explorers and delve into each new planet they visit with joyful ease. Plus, there are some really cool aliens. The Glemots, a hyper-intelligent race of anthropomorphic grizzly bears, were my favorite.

The story is also wonderfully crafted. There are a number of sub-plots that fit nicely into the main storyline and the dark theme of an inter-planetary conspiracy is woven nicely with the quest to find out where Parsona is and what really happened to her parents. The relationship between Molly and Cole continues to grow and romantic bonds form as the story progresses. There is just enough tension there to keep our teen fans hooked, I think.

The characters all go through interesting and dynamic changes as the plot moves them along and they react realistically to the problems they face. Many authors are afraid to have their characters make bold decisions and suffer real consequences for their actions, but not Mr. Howey. The decisions that Molly and Cole make are often quite shocking, actually. It might even be said that they tend towards the melodramatic but this is blended in nicely and made believable by some very decent writing on Mr. Howey’s part.

There were only two major qualms I had with the first run of Molly Fyde. For one, the story was a little too episodic for me. Each planet they visit seems to be a separate book entirely and this causes some loss in interest as they transition from one climactic scene on a planet to another climactic scene on a different one. On the other hand, I wanted the book to be longer so that all of these worlds and characters could be developed even more. I think that this issue will be resolved as the series is a trilogy and I don’t think any character introduced was peripheral. It seems to me that they will all eventually play a major role as Molly’s story unfolds.

In the end, I was truly hooked by this story. It may not be the next best thing to happen to kid’s lit, but it is unashamed in attempting its mission, that of telling a great story and providing us with an exciting adventure. On those accounts, it succeeds brilliantly. I also found a comfort in the story that is the mark of a truly good series. Molly, Cole and their entourage seem like old friends now and I am sad to leave them, even if it is just temporary. I look forward to meeting up with them again in the next book: Molly Fyde and the Land of Light.


Wednesday, April 7, 2010

2010 Newbery award winners and a plug for YA lit

The John Newbery award, given to the author of the most distinguished contribution to children's literature for the year, was first given in 1922, and since then it has shone a spotlight on some wonderful works of literature. It's a spotlight, though, that I wonder how many people actually take advantage of. When was the last time you read a Newbery Award winning book? This year? Last? When you were 13? I have noticed, on occasion, a certain reluctance in adults to read so called Young Adult lit. I'll admit that I have, from time to time, when someone asks what I'm reading, respond dismissively, with an "Oh, you know, just a kid's book." I'm not sure what it is that causes some adults to feel slightly ashamed to admit they're reading YA lit, but that particular genre is blossoming these days. Some of the most gripping plotlines, the truest characters, the conclusions which will so powerfully etch themselves in our minds and hearts are from these books. Books for kids (the good ones, anyway, in my opinion) leave you, gracefully and without being heavy handed, with something at the end. The 2010 Newbery books, in my opinion, have joined these ranks.

There is a veritable sea of literature for young people, and it, like any other metaphorical sea, has its share of flotsam, and there is a lot you might be better off avoiding. A perfect place to start, if you are interested (and I hope you are) in beginning to navigate these waters, is the Newbery list. The winner for 2010 was Rebecca Stead's
When You Reach Me. The honor books were The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate, by Jacqueline Kelley; Claudette Colvin: Twice Towards Justice, by Phillip Hoose; The Mostly True Adventures of Homer P. Figg by Rodman Philbrick and Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, by Grace Lin. I've read three of them so far, and am eager to read the other two.

When You Reach Me, by Rebecca Stead- Newbery Winner

When You Reach Me is, at first, a story about a sixth grade girl named Miranda growing up in New York City in 1979. She has problems connecting with her mother, she and her best friend aren't on speaking terms, she misses the father she never knew and she can't stop rereading A Wrinkle in Time. As the story goes along, though, it becomes much more than your typical coming of age novel. A mysterious new homeless man starts shouting cryptic yet unintelligible advice to passersby and Miranda starts getting notes from someone with knowledge of the future and a tragedy that can be avoided if she can only figure out how to respond. Every bit of this intricately woven plot is a joy to read, and Stead pulls off the concept of time travel without being silly or cliché. The worry of why her best friend won't walk with her to school and the worry of discovering the meaning of her tiny place in the vast universe go hand in hand in this novel. Anyone who, as a child or an adult, loved A Wrinkle in Time, thought about the physics of time travel until their brain hurt or grappled with where to fit in, either at school or in the cosmos, will enjoy this book.

The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate, by Jacqueline Kelley

Calpurnia Tate, in the unbearably hot summer of 1899, is living with her six brothers, parents and grandfather on a cotton and pecan farm in Texas. Like any upper-class girl, she is expected to learn needlepoint, play piano, be quiet and demure, enter Society and marry well. While there are probably good stories out there about the girl who actually does all those things, it's usually more exciting when she doesn't. There are many books that deal with feeling different, with wanting to do what is forbidden you based on some sort of prejudice. But it is a popular tale because it needs telling. No matter how progressive society may get slowly around to being, we'll always need a hero who defies society's expectations and does something brilliant. Calpurnia is growing up with a turn-of-the-century backdrop and new things like the one Telephone line which gets installed in town and this new "society for the increase and diffusion of geographical knowledge," which is, of course, the National Geographic Society. During all this, she finds herself in an unlikely partnership with her grandfather, who is a naturalist. Together, and despite her mother's wishes, they discover what they hope is a new species of plant, and Calpurnia gets swept up in a new world of discovery. Plato, as her grandfather tells her, said, "All science begins with astonishment." The reader will feel the joy of the process of discovery right along with Calpurnia. Also, each chapter begins with a quote from Darwin's The Origin of the Species. This provides a wonderful and accessible introduction to a text a young adult might not normally read, and at the same time parallels what is happening in her life. This parallel ends up being beautiful- she learns about the living things around her and begins to feel truly alive, she learns about the way life evolves, and through the process, changes significantly herself. While there are not many thrilling plot twists in this book, there is a beautiful sense of the art of nature, and that beauty is found in calmness, because, as Calpurnia says, "it's amazing what you can see when you just sit quietly and look."

Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, by Grace Lin

Minli is a young girl from a poor family in a poor village in China, overshadowed by a mountain where nothing grows. She spends a lot of time (too much, in her mother's opinion) listening to her father's fantastical tales of magic, dragons, and the Old Man of the Moon, whose strings of fate control the fortunes of all. Her mother tells her that stories are a waste of time, and that there is no point in fooling yourself into thinking you can change your circumstances. After one such argument, Minli heeds the advice of a talking goldfish and sets off to find the Old Man of the Moon herself in order to change her fortune. Along the way she speaks to fish, encounters a flightless dragon, a king, an orphan and a pair of crafty twins, finding many friends and foes along the way. Interspersed within the text are stories, taken from Chinese folklore, which she is told as she journeys. The stories, starting with the ones her father told her, aid her as the lines between her mythology and her life become blurred. As she searches for the Old Man in the Moon, and along with him the secret to wealth and happiness, the old stories become her story. The more she travels, the more she realizes that the true keys to happiness are different for everyone, but that they always have a great deal to do with humility and thankfulness. The richness of these folktales give weight to Minli's belief that stories are not only not a waste of time, but actually one of the best things you can do with what time you have.

The fish Minli speaks with only talk to those who will listen. Mostly it is just children who can hear the fish, but an occasional adult, including her father, still remember how to listen to the small things in the world. A story is a small thing, but the significance of what a small story can do is enormous, and it is something people of all ages should be able to appreciate. The kids in these books are growing up, and if the author has done their job, we readers, upon finishing, have learned something alongside these protagonists. And it might just be the optimistic budding librarian in me, but there is never a point at which we need to be done learning, if only we can remember how to listen.


Wednesday, February 24, 2010