Sunday, July 31, 2011

Tara's Book Review: How They Croaked: The Awful Ends of the Awfully Famous by Georgia Bragg

When we got this new book (with such a great title), I knew it was something I’d need to read. It tells about the deaths of nineteen historical figures including Napoleon, King Tut, and Marie Curie, focusing more on the details of how they died rather than their lives and contributions. As someone fascinated by gross medical stuff, I could definitely appreciate the gory details, but this book probably isn’t for the squeamish. It talks about outdated medical practices (like using leeches to bleed sick people or sticking fingers into bullet wounds), nasty diseases (gout, anyone?) and all kinds of unpleasant things. However, it’s also incredibly informative. How They Croaked gives little mini-biographies of each person before delving into the specifics of their demise, and it serves as an interesting look at medical history. The thing I loved the most about this book, though, is how it’s written. It’s incredibly cheeky and lighthearted for a book about such a dark subject, and it makes learning about dead famous people fun! There are also some great fun facts—did you know that both czar and kaiser are derived from Julius Casear’s name? I’d recommend this book to anyone interested in gross stuff, dead people, or fun nonfiction—check it out!

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Lisa's Book Review: Beauty Queens by Libba Bray

After a plane crash, a group of teenage beauty pageant contestants are stranded on what appears to be an uninhabited tropical island. So begins Libba Bray’s newest book, Beauty Queens, a zany cross between Lord of the Flies and Miss Congeniality. Readers can approach this story on many levels. At first glance, it appears to be a madcap, comic attack on our culture’s obsession with youth, beauty, and beauty pageants. Further into the book, readers will encounter large doses of allegory. This book is more chock-full of themes than a tenth-grade English class! Bray’s characters, ideas and events represent survival, individuality, morality vs. immorality, power, greed, feminism, sexuality, and war, among others. Self-discovery is a central message within this novel, and hot topics also abound (truth in advertising, consumerism, materialism, fame, competition, dysfunctionality, eating disorders, self esteem, GLBT issues, government outsourcing, friendships, and romantic relationships).

Comparisons to William Golding’s novel, Lord of the Flies, are discussed among the characters in regard to their current situation. Though, unlike the dark, savage themes found in Golding’s novel, Bray’s motifs are much more hopeful. Her teenage characters discover new strengths and reveal their true selves as a result of the challenges they encounter on the island. As one of the characters puts it: “Maybe girls need an island to find themselves. Maybe they need a place where no one’s watching them so they can be who they really are.”

Bray liberally sprinkles a number of literary devices throughout the book to keep the story’s tone comic and entertaining, including irreverent and mocking footnotes, sarcastic and revealing profiles of the surviving pageant competitors titled Miss Teen Dream Fun Facts Page[s], bizarre Commercial Breaks, and amusing blurbs titled A Word From Your Sponsor. Without spoiling the plot, I will mention that the author also includes Classified sections that allow the reader a glimpse into the dealings of the story’s top-secret antagonists – political tyrants in league with corporate espionage agents bent on world domination. Due to the many mature topics and language in this novel, it should definitely be recommended for older teens only.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Susan's Book Review: Page by Paige by Laura Lee Gulledge

Page by Paige is a graphic novel that tells the story of Paige Turner (haha, her parents are writers), a (secret) teen artist who moves from Virginia to New York City with her parents. She buys a sketchbook to encourage herself to draw and she uses it as a visual journal of sorts, processing her new city, friends, and life. Paige reminds me of myself as a teen and—for what I’m sure won’t be the last time—I wish I could’ve read this book, along with so many others, when I was a teen. I love the illustrations throughout; they do a fantastic job of showing how Paige feels as a teen and grows as an artist. They are black and white, but so rich and layered you barely notice. The author employs many different tricks and styles to tell Paige’s story and I was continually impressed by her cleverness. She also does a wonderful job getting into the mindset of a teenager and the insecurities they feel, the problems they have with their parents, the crush they have on a guy friend, and the struggles they encounter becoming who they are. Page by Paige is a beautiful coming-of-age story that is modern, relevant and realistic. I loved reading about Paige and wouldn’t mind a Paige Turner series, not one little bit. I’ll be suggesting this title to aspiring artists and girls who want to read female-driven graphic novels!

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Heather's Book Review: The Boneshaker by Kate Milford

On one of my many visits to Scott Westerfeld’s wonderful blog, I came across a mention of the book Boneshaker, a title that he personally praised and recommended to fans of his own Leviathan and steampunk in general. Being a huge fan of Leviathan and anything even remotely steampunk, I naturally wanted to give this book a try.

The book I ended up reading was not the Boneshaker I expected. Literally. The Boneshaker mentioned by Westerfeld is written by Cherie Priest (and has been added to my reading list). The Boneshaker—by Kate Milford—is another novel entirely, but I’m intensely glad that I stumbled upon it.

The Boneshaker is about a young girl named Natalie Minks who is fascinated by all things mechanical, inspired by her dad’s own work as a mechanic. Her main interest lies in the realm of bicycles, however, and her current project with her father involves restoring and improving a Chesterlane Eidolon, a rare form of bicycle built with a hinge in the middle so that the bike can bend if the rider desires it to. An experienced Eidolon rider, that is. At the moment, Natalie struggles with simply getting the thing to stand upright—which is why she is fascinated to see another Eidolon arrive in her small town of Arcane.  But something dark surrounds its arrival. It comes with Dr. Jake Limberleg’s Nostrum Fair and Technological Medicine Show; this traveling company, with its unusual physicians-slash-entertainers, claims that its sciences can diagnose and cure any ailment, a claim that Natalie and her family don’t quite trust. It doesn’t help, either, that Limberleg himself seems to have an almost magical control over machines, which makes Natalie even more uneasy. After all, the workings of machines are supposed to be, for an experienced mechanic, easy to figure out, but the workings of Limberleg’s machines can hardly be explained.

These elements combine to create a book that is part small-town adventure, part magical realism, part fictionalized rural Americana, and it is easily one of the best books that I’ve read in years.

The Boneshaker has many strengths, but one of its major strengths is simply the world in which it takes place. The setting and characters are both subtly and impressively crafted. Natalie’s appropriately-named hometown of Arcane is saturated with an air of folkloric mystery, but it doesn’t overwhelm the characters or the reader so much that it becomes the most important thing in the story. It is merely a fascinating quirk, the kind possessed by any small town that likes to tell stories about itself in the hopes of livening things up a bit. The characters are quirky, too, though not so quirky that they become too distant from the reader. Natalie certainly has a stronger interest in machines than most girls her age—and really, most girls in general—but even though her interest in machines is largely what defines her identity, she never becomes The Bicycles and Only Bicycles Girl. She is rounded out by a growing willingness to assert herself in situations where she previously wouldn’t and by the experience of problems that no machine can ever solve for her.

Most of the true quirks in the story are found in the members of the Nostrum Fair and Technological Medicine Show, who often seem the physical manifestations of the very sciences that they practice and have unusual names to show for it. Still, even these characters do not become so odd that they couldn’t exist in the world outside the story (until, perhaps, you reach the end of the book, that is).

Also interesting in this story is the importance of storytelling itself to the central narrative. Natalie’s mother has a profound talent for storytelling, and it seems that everything Natalie knows about her hometown—and everything that makes it unique and mysterious—was transmitted by story. This is cleverly in keeping with the folkloric sensibility of the entire novel, which itself evokes a sense of rustic, American nostalgia, passed down from parent to child, storyteller to storyteller-to-be.

The Boneshaker is a rare story, one that possesses several qualities of a classic while, at this point, being barely a year old. A prequel, The Broken Lands, is set to release in Spring of 2012, and I will zip to my local bookstore as soon as it does.

Sunday, July 03, 2011

Tara's Book Review: Ten Things We Did (and Probably Shouldn’t Have) by Sarah Mlynowski

Sarah Mlynowski wrote some adult books I enjoyed, so when we got this one (with an excellent title), I decided to give it a shot—and I’m glad I did! April, formerly a Good Girl, narrates this novel, structured by the ten things she shouldn’t have done. Some of them seem innocuous enough—like lying to her parents—but things quickly spiral out of control. When April’s dad and stepmom decide to move to Cleveland, April has to pull out all the tricks in her bag to get them to let her stay, and ends up living (unattended) with her friend Vi. Meanwhile, April is considering taking her relationship with her boyfriend to the next level, realizing how difficult it is to live on your own, struggling to take care of a new kitten, and coming to terms with her relationship with both her parents. The book starts with a post-party disaster scene, then rewinds to show how things got to that point. I loved reading this—it was light but still full of heart, funny but not too fluffy, and showed that sometimes, even when you think you have all the answers, life can throw you a curveball (or a whole lot of them).