Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Heather's Book Review: The Possibility of Fireflies by Dominique Paul

 

Ellie is a girl living in a world she never wanted. Her father has left. Her mother is depressed and careless with both her own life and her children’s. Even her sister, the person to whom she is closest, is in every way a firecracker waiting to explode. Because of this, her entire life is unstable. She doesn’t even know if and when someone will be home to let her into her house. About the only distinct pleasure she gets in life is watching fireflies come out at night because, in their glow, they represent hope to her. She is fourteen years old, trying to find her way in life around an unstable mother who, herself, years too late, is trying to find her own way, at the expense of her daughters. She needs all the hope she can get.

The bright pink and punkish, tattoo-like text of the cover suggest a book that is going to be simultaneously happy and edgy. The book achieves that balance, but it does it in an often uncomfortable way.

As a main character, Ellie is likable and sympathetic. Fourteen is a delicate and yet still daring age, and she feels all of its emotional swings with all the intensity that any fourteen-year-old does. When she likes something, she likes it with every bit of feeling she can muster, and when it disappoints her, she falls hard—which is why the situation with her mother is such a painful one. Ellie’s mother at first appears to be the typical Irresponsible Mom that so often shows up in teen problem novels. As the novel continues, however, the depth of her nastiness becomes plain. She never wanted to be a mother, hates her children and, on drunken nights, tells them so, and then in her deep, tragic desire to be meaningful to someone—to fill the place left by her husband (and various boyfriends that have followed)—wonders why her girls don’t return that love. Ellie returns it to a certain extent, preferring to be passive and wait out her mother’s angry fits, but her sister Gwen is less understanding. A sneaky, partying, boozing punk-rocker of a girl, she is every bit her mother’s creation, railing against her mother for love ungiven—and yet the first to save her mother from drowning in a bathtub after she drinks herself so insensible that she can’t even keep herself above water.

Scenes featuring Ellie, Gwen, and their mother as a unit are often painful to read, sometimes disturbing. In one scene, Gwen is accused of burning down a local building. Her mother, knowing very well that Gwen is responsible, lies to the police to keep her out of trouble—only to reveal later that she did this not out of maternal defense, but so that she could have a secret to hang over Gwen’s head, ammunition for blackmail. The dynamic here is one that should not exist between a mother and child, which is why the end, though still something that should never have to happen in a family, is a satisfying, if emotionally wrenching one.

Readers may easily be misled by the perkiness of the cover and synopsis on the back, though. The cover description emphasizes the presence of Leo, who is “handsome, older, and on his way to becoming a rock star”—everything that makes a male character in a YA book an inevitable love interest. As it would suggest, he does become Ellie’s love interest, but in a far less pronounced way than the blurb would have readers assume. It doesn’t matter how pink its cover is; this is not a bubbly romance novel. It is a novel of a family torn apart, and even the book’s happiest moments are tempered with reminders of that.

This book’s emotional core is its main strength. While it is not as moving as other books in the genre, it can be recommended to those readers who want an emotional dysfunctional family read but don’t want their heart entirely broken by it. A similar book (with a less despicable mom and happier ending) is Lucy Unstrung by Carole Lazar.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Susan's Book Review: Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys

Between Shades of Gray is set in 1941 and tells the story of fifteen year-old Lina, a budding artist who lives in Lithuania with her mother, father and younger brother, Jonas. I’d never given too much thought to what the rest of the world was doing during WWII. I thought the Jews were the only ones who suffered (not that soldiers and families left behind, etc. didn’t suffer, but you know what I mean), but it turns out bad stuff was happening places other than Germany. Lina’s dad is sent to a prison camp and the rest of the family are arrested (for no real reason) and shipped like cattle on a train (they go to the bathroom through a hole in the floor) for six weeks. SIX WEEKS. Then they are forced to live with villagers in a small town in Siberia and work for just a little bit of bread a day. They are starving and freezing and basically miserable all over. They think it can’t get any worse. Then they are put on another train and then a ship and eventually land in a more remote part of Siberia where they don’t even have shelter and the polar night (where it’s dark for 180 days) is just around the corner. Reading stories like this puts my life and problems into perspective, and that’s a valuable thing. There might not be any food I want to eat in my house, but I’m just being picky, because I have food. I might have a bad hair day, but at least I don’t have lice and I get to wash my clothes and bathe regularly. I also like learning history through fictional stories, especially history that’s been overshadowed or mostly forgotten. Before I read this, I couldn’t have located Lithuania on a map, but now I can, AND I know that Estonia and Latvia are its neighbors.

This book had the “oh, no, what horrible thing is going to happen next?” factor, which made it a pretty quick read, but I also enjoy thinking whether I could live through whatever horribleness I’m reading about. I’d like to think I could, but a headache or foggy contacts have been known to ruin my day, so it doesn’t seem likely. I love reading about people who don’t lose hope and survive against all odds because it’s so inspiring. This particular story ended a little abruptly with not much in the way of a conclusion. I didn’t expect a happy ending, but I was hoping for more resolution than I got. Overall, I enjoyed this book and liked that it made me want to research Siberia (totally part of Russia and I didn’t know it) and learn more about the plight of other Europeans during WWII.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Heather & Lisa’s Book/Audiobook Review: Entwined by Heather Dixon

June is Audiobook Month, so this week Heather and Lisa have teamed up to review both the book and the audiobook versions of Entwined by Heather Dixon. What’s your favorite audiobook? Let us know in the comments. Don’t have a favorite? Luckily for you, there are tons of audiobooks available at all SCPL locations—check one out!



Heather’s Book Review

Azalea is trapped.   Just when she should feel that everything is before her…beautiful gowns, dashing suitors, balls filled with dancing…it's taken away. All of it. The Keeper understands. He's trapped, too, held for centuries within the walls of the palace. And so he extends an invitation. Every night, Azalea and her eleven sisters may step through the enchanted passage in their room to dance in his silver forest. But there is a cost. The Keeper likes to keep things.  Azalea may not realize how tangled she is in his web until it is too late. 

Dun-dun-DUNNN.

So reads the inner flap of Entwined by Heather Dixon.

I picked up this novel, first, because its cover was beautiful, second, because there is no cover mention of a dashing, mysterious boy for Azalea to fall in love with (always a danger behind pretty girl-in-a-dress covers), and third, because a line on the first page describes someone who “dances like a brick.” As someone who does indeed dance like a brick, I can empathize with that. Also, as far as similes go, that’s a pretty good one, and I am a fan of good similes.

Dancing is wholly important to Entwined, as it is based upon the fairy tale “The Twelve Dancing Princesses.” However, though it has fairy tale roots, it is not entirely the froofy novel that one might expect. Oh, there are plenty of balls and suitors and giggling in poofy dresses and, especially, spinning around to an array of dances that no one but a ballroom dancing aficionado could recognize. Plenty. Beneath its glittery surface, though, Entwined is ultimately a story of loss, recovery, and sisterly girl power, and as fairy tale adaptations go, it’s one of the more satisfying ones out there.

Oddly for a fairy tale novel, Entwined doesn’t give many early hints that it is based upon a fairy tale, which was one of its strengths for me. There are some references to old magic that lingers in the royal family’s palace, as well as the disgustingly evil former king who magicked the place, but most of the pages are devoted to the twelve sisters and their relationships with each other and their father. There is a mother at one point, too, but in classic fairy tale fashion, she’s dead before the story even gets going. (This is not a spoiler. The moment you meet the sweet, loving, sickly mom who smells of cake and baby oil, you know she’s a goner.) 

The interactions between these characters are believable and interesting, often in unanticipated ways. The sisters’ relationship with their father, while precarious—even uncomfortable at first—became one of my favorite parts of this novel. I also liked how the author managed to keep all twelve sisters present in the story. She could have easily chosen to select two or three of them to represent the whole and then shooed the rest to the background, but she didn’t. Readers do see more of oldest sisters Azalea, Bramble and Clover (the sisters are named in alphabetical order, like hurricanes), but the others appear often enough to make the reader feel the largeness and, more importantly, the closeness of the group. 

Even the minor characters in this novel are well-used, even though most of them begin the story as either supreme irritations or suspiciously likable in the obvious-romantic-interest way. A character of the latter sort almost derailed my liking of the book early on. At the book’s opening ball, we meet the rumpled, yet dashing Lord Bradford, who has such amazing dexterity that he can catch a falling pudding glass and leave its contents perfectly undisturbed. In my experience, when a character is rumpled, dashing, and named “Lord” anything, when he impresses the ladies with amazing feats of legerdemain, and when he appears less than 30 pages in, you know some sweet, passionate, period novel romance is coming. Usually. Luckily, Entwined does not go down this path, even though it could easily have done so. And though I was initially skeptical of him, Lord Bradford gradually earned the honor of being added to My List of Fictional Guys that I Would Totally Date If They Popped Into the Real World. Another favorite was the unfortunately-named Lord Teddie Haftenravenscher, who despite his initially irritating presence rendered many scenes in which he appeared hilarious. The same is true of other suitors who show up trying to win the princesses’ hands. The cast of characters in this book is large, but each one is handled well for the purposes of the story.

The one main downside to this large cast, though, is that in a book this size, it leaves minimal room for characterization. The characters are likable and well-described, but even the princesses do not change much, except to have momentary spurts of courage or realize that they are in love. In fact, the only person who undergoes any significant change is the King, which is probably why the scenes in which he appears become some of the strongest in the book. The general staticness of the other characters’ development makes for some slow reading in parts. However, the general likability of the characters’ personalities compensates enough for that lack to make the story worth continuing, as does Dixon’s attention to random little details that render the world of her story vivid and entrancing.

Interestingly, I enjoyed most of these little details of the story more than I did the main conflict itself. Oh, yes, the princesses dancing sneakily in a magical hidden clearing with creepy-hot magical fantasy guy Keeper was kind of cool and, if the book is ever made into a film, it will make for some awesome visuals. When it came down to it, though, I was more interested in the sisters and their lives than I was Keeper and his motives. And though by the end of the novel, Keeper is meant to be a truly terrifying figure, I wasn’t as terrified by him as I would have liked to be. However, his evilness does manifest in some visually neat ways at the end, and it does allow for pretty much every character in the story to go out with one big BOO-YA!, which we do not see enough of in books (both all characters having a good send-off and actual use of the word “Boo-ya!” Not that “boo-ya” is actually said in the story, because that would be weird and out of place, but it is totally there in spirit).

Since I am a cover geek, I feel an obligation to comment on Entwined’s cover, too. As I mentioned earlier, Entwined has a beautiful cover, with wonderful curly lettering, shiny leaf-shaped silver detailing, and a back-shot of a girl in a pretty but slightly shabby-looking gown—a perfect fit for the story because silver becomes more important than one would expect, and because the princesses in question are not from a particularly rich kingdom (another element that I liked—when was the last time you saw a poor-ish princess?). As beautiful as it is, though, it is still one among many girl-in-a-dress covers that seem to be gracing the YA shelves these days, and because of that, it risks being lost between Lauren Kate’s Fallen and all of its cousins.

Enter the savior that is Heather Dixon’s blog.

I liked Entwined enough to scour the Internet for the author’s blog, and found it at story-monster.blogspot.com. Dixon was (and still is) a storyboard artist before she became a published author, and as artist-writers tend to do, she produced some art in keeping with her story. My initial reaction upon finishing the book was a positive one, but after visiting the blog and seeing her art, my reaction rocketed from one that I could coherently describe to “OMG AZALEA AND BRAMBLE LOOK LIKE DISNEY PRINCESSES BUT AWESOMERRRRR!!!1!1!!lsfjsklajf jailf :D”  

Yes. Exactly that.

I am totally an animated princess fangirl. Even for princesses that no one cares about anymore (Odette and Amalthea, anyone?). And Entwined’s cover, as beautiful as it is, does not exude that “THIS COULD TOTALLY BE A PRINCESS MOVIE BUT BETTER” vibe that Dixon’s art does, which is a shame. Her art isn’t even featured in the book itself, which is an even greater shame. (Note: You have to search the blog itself to find the art, as much of her blog is refreshingly devoted to other amusing things that are not Entwined.) I know that the publisher is trying to appeal to the masses who can tolerate generically pretty girl-in-dress covers, as well as the audience that likes fairy tale books but shuns the illustrated ones as too childish. Still, as is, the cover and lack of illustrations are causing it to miss that valuable princess-fangirl audience (Don’t laugh—THERE ARE MORE OF US THAN YOU THINK). I’d like to see an edition of the book designed and illustrated by Dixon herself for this very reason. It would do the story better justice.

In essence, Entwined is unique among fairy tale adaptations in that it’s more interested in its characters than its magic. If you are looking for a subtly-realized book about sisterhood and light romance with a dash of magic thrown in, it’s highly recommended. It’s also recommended if you love Disney princesses and animation in general, because though it does not look it, this book is an animated classic waiting to happen.


 

Lisa’s Audiobook Review

Taking a long car trip to grandmother’s house this summer? Driving to the Grand Canyon to spend your family vacation? Then you most definitely need a good audiobook to help pass the time. Entwined is a suspenseful and fast-paced fairy tale adaptation that makes for entertaining listening. A gothic rendition of “The Twelve Dancing Princesses,” this story is set in a magical otherworld, and revolves around Azalea and her 11 sisters and their attempts to deal with the death of their beloved mother. Their father, the King, is stern and distracted by important affairs of state. Unfortunately, he forbids dancing (the princesses’ most favorite activity) during the family’s year of mourning. When a hidden passage leads the princesses to a mysterious and magical figure named Mr. Keeper, they are presented with an opportunity to dance secretly without their father knowing.

The audio book version of Entwined is read by British actress Mandy Williams who rises to the challenge of portraying each of the 12 princesses with a unique voice. However, her portrayal of one of the princesses’ suitors, the lovestruck Lord Teddy Haftenravenscher, is a highlight that provides outstanding comic relief. By contrast, the narrator also does as excellent job of bringing the spooky Mr. Keeper and the denizens of his eerie silver pavilion to life. This audiobook will make you laugh out loud one minute and shiver with goosebumps the next.

Listening to Entwined will probably whet your appetite for further audiobooks in the fantasy genre. If this is the case, listen to Finnikin of the Rock by Melina Marchetta or the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling; both received rave reviews for their recorded versions. For more suggestions, go to the list of “Amazing Audiobooks for Young Adults” published by the American Library Association at http://www.ala.org/ala/mgrps/divs/yalsa/booklistsawards/amazingaudiobooks/aaya2011.cfm.

Sunday, June 05, 2011

Photobook: Spartanburg 2011

Photobook is a project where 50 Spartanburg County teens are given cameras and asked to photograph Spartanburg as they see it. We challenge teens to explore the county and take the best photos they possibly can with a disposable camera! To make it even more fun, there’s an optional photo scavenger hunt and we’ll have an opening reception to display photos and celebrate in September.

Photobook is open to teens ages 12-18 or entering grades 7-12 and begins June 8th. SCPL will give participating teens a single-use Photobook camera that will be checked out to their library card. Cameras must be returned (with all photos taken) to any SCPL location by July 8th or a $5 replacement fee will be charged to their library card. They can be returned to any Spartanburg County Public Library location.

At least one photo from each camera will be selected for display at the Headquarters Library in the AT&T Exhibition Gallery in September. We’ll have an opening reception to celebrate Photobook photographers and their work, and teens will be given a set of prints from the film in their camera. All photos taken become the property of the Spartanburg County Public Libraries.

We’ll award first, second, and third place based on originality, creativity and composition. First place will win a digital camera, second place a $50 Barnes & Noble gift card, and third place a $25 Barnes & Noble gift card. We’ll also have an optional photo scavenger hunt. The photographer with the most points will win a $25 Barnes & Noble gift card!

To participate and learn more, attend the Photobook kickoff event on Wednesday, June 8th @ 3pm in the Hoechst Celanese Room at the Headquarters Library. Any cameras left after the kickoff event will be at the Teen Services Desk or you can request them by clicking on the Photobook logo on www.infodepot.org. First come, first served!

Call 864-596-3506 or email teens@infodepot.org with questions!

Thursday, June 02, 2011

Teen Summer Reading 2011

Read with us this summer and you could win an iPad or an Xbox 360!

Visit any SCPL location to sign up and get started. Earn points by reading for an hour or attending teen events. Complete a game card by earning 10 points and receive a 2011 Teen Summer Reading t-shirt! You’ll also be entered into drawings for awesome weekly prizes and into grand prize drawings for an iPad or an Xbox 360!

                

Keep earning points and completing additional game cards to earn more entries in all drawings! Completed book reviews are also entered into the weekly drawings for more chances to win! To submit a review online, click here. Good luck and have fun reading!

The first weekly drawing will be tomorrow, and it’s for a $75 Barnes & Noble gift card!