Thursday, May 30, 2013

Travis' Book Review: The Rithmatist by Brandon Sanderson

Armedius Academy is the most renowned school in the American Isles, but it is more than a typical school. Armedius is a boarding school for the privileged, but more importantly, it is also a training ground for Rithmatists, an elite warrior-class with the ability to turn lines into magical shields and give life to two-dimensional chalk drawings known as chalklings. Only a select few are chosen to become a Rithmatist, and all of the chosen are meant to be soldiers in the war against the wild chalklings of Nebrask - uncontrollable creatures that tirelessly ravage and mangle any person in their path.  Only the Rithmatists have the strength to fight them, and 16-year-old Joel wants nothing more than to become one. The only problem is that Joel wasn’t chosen, and he has no Rithmatic power.

 

Joel is just a regular student. He is the son of a lowly chalkmaker, only allowed to attend the school as a favor to his deceased father. Joel is incredibly bright and observational, but he is not allowed to formally study Rithmatics. Even if he could, he would never be able to give life to his lines. Like his non-Rithmatist father before him, Joel is obsessed with the idea of Rithmatics. He knows all of the circular defenses, the bind points, the lines of vigor and forbiddance, and he can draw them with depth and precision beyond that of most Rithmatic students his age. Unfortunately, all of that means nothing, especially now that Professor Fitch has been defeated in a Rithmatist duel to Nalizar, a menacing new teacher with radical ideas about Rithmatics. Fitch was kindly towards Joel, often allowing him to sit in on lectures, and Joel held on to the hope that Fitch would help him study to be a Rithmatic scholar. Losing the duel means that Fitch loses his tenure and position to the new-comer, and Nalizar would never allow a non-Rithmatist to study Rithmatics! Opportunity arises from tragedy, however, when Armedius students begin disappearing, leaving strange rithmatic lines and trails of blood in their wake. When Fitch, who now has lots of time on his hands, is given the task of investigating the incidents, Joel earns the opportunity to be his assistant, opening a new world of possibilities.

 

Brandon Sanderson is one of today’s most revered fantasy writers, but The Rithmatist is his first attempt at writing for a YA audience – and it is a good one. Initially, though, the concept of the novel is a bit overwhelming and unfamiliar. Rithmatics, the magical elements of the novel, are seeded in geometry, so the writer has to give a number of in-depth explanations. Sanderson is very thorough and does a nice job incorporating the explanations into the storytelling, though. Each chapter of the book also opens with a descriptive diagram to ensure that by the time the story reaches its point of attack, the reader has enough information to dissect what is going on. Unfortunately, this can sometimes feel like a lecture, and casual readers or readers not willing to fully engage themselves in the world may shy away within the first half.

 

The world of The Rithmatist is a Victorian-styled America in which the country is actually a series of islands with familiar names like Georgiabama, New Britannia, and the infamously dark territory of Nebrask. Nearly the entire story takes place on the campus of Armedius, however, and the wonders of the world are only experienced for the first time as they are experienced by the main protagonist, Joel, who rarely leaves the campus. Actually, most of the world outside of Armedius is only alluded to in dialogue. Sanderson also incorporates a number of steampunk elements into the work, including springwork trains and metal horses. The concept fits the Victorian style and dialogue, but the steampunk elements are very minor. Since Sanderson is introducing the readers into a world of alternate history and steampunk, along with magical chalk-wielding warriors, it’s probably best that the work doesn’t spend a lot of time elaborating on those details. Hopefully, the writer will return to these elements in the proposed sequels, but The Rithmatist actually has very concise storytelling – after spending much of the first half of the book getting the reader accustomed to Rithmatic jargon, that is. Once the plot actually begins to form, the novel quickly turns into a legitimate mystery, complete with puzzles, plot-twists, and a sense of urgency. It becomes quite enthralling, even for an adult reader, but still maintains the feel of a teen adventure.

 

I like that the main protagonist, Joel, is immersed into a magical world where he is oft considered an outsider because he is able to play off his strengths while using his weaknesses as motivation. The main female protagonist, Melody, is an actual Rithmatist, but unlike Joel, she has little talent at drawing the lines. When Melody is introduced, the writer could have easily turned Joel’s motivation into affection, but Joel and Melody stay true to their characters by complementing each other without taking the romantic path.  Combined with the wizened, old professor, Fitch, the three make for an interesting team. Each are maladjusted to each other, but in a way that works to their advantage. Part of the book’s appeal is actually giving voices to these characters! Sanderson does such a great job with the dialogue and character interactions that their voices and inflections easily come to mind. Some of the characterization, however, feels a bit forced because it relies on Joel’s disposition. The writer really wants to push the reader into feeling certain ways about characters in order to push his plot devices. For a mystery, it’s a weakness that strong readers will see through but one that younger readers may actually adhere to.

 

Sadly, the book is going to find it tough to avoid comparisons to Harry Potter, since it is about a magical school. That’s just how the post-Hogwarts world we live in is going to be. I do consider Melody to be an anti-Hermione, and the handling of Nalizar does seem to juxtapose that of Severus Snape, but the world, its characters, and its devices are still different enough to forgive any similarities. The Rithmatist is its own book and a quality YA entry. Casual readers and readers not willing to fully engage themselves into the complex nature of Sanderson’s world may shy away from the tedious first half of the novel, but those willing to see the journey to its end will be rewarded with a quality fantasy-mystery. Even I had reservations at first, but by the end, I was very engrossed and looking forward to the sequels. I would especially recommend this book for teenage guys that like fantasy adventures, but the book is simple enough for middle-grade readers with sufficient reading comprehension skills.   

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Summer at the Library!

The school year is almost over, which means that it’s time for summer fun at Spartanburg County Public Libraries! :D

Sign up for Teen Summer Reading, and make the minutes count!

 

Every hour you read and every teen event you attend gets you one step closer to earning an official TSR T-Shirt and possibly winning awesome weekly prizes like gift cards to Barnes & Noble, Amazon.com, GameStop, Target, QT, and more! Every completed game card will be entered to win one of two grand prizes—a PSP Vita or a flatscreen TV! Get started ASAP (once summer starts), because the more you read, the more chances you have to win!

 

Teen Summer Reading runs from May 31st-July 31st and is for teens ages 12-18 or entering grades 7-12.

 

When you’re taking a break from reading, you can take some photos for Photobook!

 

 

Photobook is a fun annual project in which 50 teens are asked to photograph Spartanburg as they see it. They’re challenged to explore the county and take the best photos they possibly can with the disposable cameras provided. To make it even more fun, there are multiple ways to win prizes!

 

The Best Overall Photo will win a $100 Barnes & Noble gift card. The Best Spartanburg-specific Photo and Most Unusual Photo will win $75 Barnes & Noble gift cards. We’ll also give a $25 Barnes & Noble gift card to the teen who turns in the Best Decorated Camera!

 

Photobook runs from May 31st-June 30th, and we have 50 cameras to give out on a first-come, first-served basis. For more information and to request a camera online, visit this page: http://www.infodepot.org/zTeen/SCPLteen-Photo2013.asp 

 

Each branch will also host fun summer programs just for teens! To learn more about these, check out our events calendar.

 

We hope to see you at the library this summer!

Friday, May 24, 2013

Susan's Book Review: Wild Boy by Mary Losure

Wild Boy tells the true story of a child found living in the woods of France around 1800. I’ve heard of several such children, sometimes raised by animals, and have always been fascinated by them. He’s first spotted around age 7 and captured a year later. He escapes and is captured (this happens a few times), until finally around age 12 he walks into town on his own. Word spread of the feral boy and scientists of the day were very keen to study him. Early on, he was treated more like a specimen than a human, and several scientists took turns poking, prodding, and observing him. His body was covered in scars, most notably a large one on his neck that made them wonder if he’d been left for dead in the woods after having his throat slashed. Based on his scars and physical condition, they guessed he’d been living on his own since age 5. He went naked and barefoot and didn’t seem to be sensitive to the cold. He loved potatoes, couldn’t speak, hated clothes and shoes, and sometimes walked on all fours. He also had to be closely supervised or he’d escape.

 

It was common in those days to imprison the mute and feeble-minded with criminals in very poor conditions. After being studied by several scientists who concluded he was most likely an imbecile, he was recommended to be placed in an insane asylum. A young doctor named Jean Marc Gaspard Itard had been watching the boy and believed he could be taught. He spoke up and offered to teach him at a school for the deaf and mute. After working with Victor, as he’d finally been named, from age 13 to 18 on the government’s dime, the experiment was deemed a failure and the lessons stopped. They did make progress in his education, but he never learned to speak. He communicated in his own way using a series of hand gestures. Itard is given credit for keeping Victor out of the madhouse, but his housekeeper, a lady named Madame Guerin, actually cared for him for over 20 years and doesn’t seem to get enough credit for that. Victor died at age 40 at her house, but it’s not recorded how.

 

Since the events in Wild Boy happened so long ago, not a lot of details are known. I think Victor’s story would make a great Wikipedia entry (and indeed it does, I looked it up after reading the book), but it makes for a lame book. The author spends a lot of time speculating about the boy’s life and in a book of non-fiction, that’s kind of annoying. It’s illustrated and a quick read, but the scientists who study Victor are more fleshed out than he is, and I finished the book feeling like I’d read a summary of a story instead of an actual story.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Jennifer's Book Review: Eighth Grade Bites by Heather Brewer

Vladimir Tod lives with his aunt and is still struggling with the loss of his parents, even though it’s been three years since they died in a bizarre fire. He's in eighth grade, dresses like a vampire for Halloween and has a crush on fellow eighth-grader Meredith. Sounds perfectly normal, right? Except in his case he's also figuring out how to be a normal half-vampire kid, which is quite difficult because as far as he knows, he's the only one.

His last year of junior high seems to be progressing along smoothly, other than the normal flack he receives from the principal and school bullies. But when a strange new substitute appears who is throwing some not-so-subtle and vaguely threatening hints about knowing Vlad's secret, Vlad starts to get a bit nervous—and then a bit scared. To further complicate matters, Vlad discovers the existence of a new society, Elysia, from which his father appears to have been hiding, and Vlad’s vampiric powers seem to be expanding.

Eighth Grade Bites by Heather Brewer is a very quick read and a great opening to a middle-grades vampire series. The timeline progresses quickly - beginning at Halloween and scurrying along toward the end of the school year in the blink of an eye - but the tale doesn't suffer too much for it.

I would definitely recommend this series to all readers who love supernatural reads but are tired (or uninterested) in the current crop of paranormal romance flooding the market.

Friday, May 03, 2013

teencentric 2013!

 

Start the countdown! It’s almost time for the next teencentric teen reading festival at the Headquarters Library!

 

Join us on Saturday, June 1st from 7:00-10:00pm (That’s after hours!) as we Skype with authors Michael Grant and Heather Brewer, and meet author Beth Revis in person! We’ll also have a photobooth, a DJ, a caricaturist, games, snacks, prizes—and each teen who attends will receive a free autographed book. Attendance is limited to 200 teens, and the doors will close at 7:15pm, so don’t be late!

 

Want to know a bit more about the authors? Visit their websites!

Michael Grant: http://www.themichaelgrant.com/

Heather Brewer: http://www.heatherbrewer.com/

Beth Revis: http://www.bethrevis.com/

 

Thursday, May 02, 2013

Travis' Book Review: Crap Kingdom by D. C. Pierson

 

Tom Parking is an ordinary teenage guy. He goes to school, hangs out with friends, eats dinner, does his homework, and goes to bed. Rinse and repeat. For Tom, though, his regular, happy life is just a bit too perfect. Kids like Tom are never destined to be the Chosen One” for some magical kingdom. That role is typically reserved for the kids that spend their home-life locked in a closet. At least that’s what Tom thinks until he meets Gark, a strange man sent to reveal Tom’s true destiny – but not until after Gark kidnaps him, forces him into a clothing donation box in front of K-mart, and nearly sets him on fire with a flame spell. To Gark’s credit, the donation box is actually a portal into a magical kingdom. Unfortunately for Tom, the magical kingdom is a nameless land of garbage and despair, where the locals recently discovered the wonders of clothing, live in Earth’s garbage, and have native magic that consists of making people smell farts. Tom holds hope that there may be more to this kingdom, but after learning that the king’s job is simply to keep his subjects in a constant state of pessimism, since tomorrow can’t possibly be better than today, Tom loses hope. He doesn’t think he wants to be the Chosen One of the land he calls “Crap Kingdom.” So, the kingdom chooses his best friend, Kyle, instead. When Tom gets jealous of his friend’s positive efforts and gets banned from the kingdom, he realizes he threw away the chance of a lifetime.

 

Crap Kingdom is filled with laugh out loud moments, mostly because of the way Pierson puts Tom into a number of very relatable (and often awkward) situations. Pierson does a nice job incorporating a realistic adolescent male experience into a fantasy novel. As a guy, and an avid fantasy reader, it’s nice to be able to relate to a male protagonist. Tom isn’t simply tossed into some struggle in a magical kingdom; he fumbles with schoolwork, his crush, jealousy over his best friend, and the moral consequences of his choice. It’s also a genuinely fun spin on the high fantasy clichés. The problem is that the book starts off really slow. The majority of the novel is exposition, and the antagonists are only mentioned in passing until they show up in the last quarter of the novel. Like Tom, the reader doesn’t actually realize what the protagonist’s purpose actually is. Tom’s struggle is with his personal life, not with some dark lord or evil empire – at least not until the end of the book. It’s also a fresh concept to write a fantasy novel about the real-world problems, and Pierson still manages to create a very imaginative universe filled with fantastic elements. It just happens that those elements consist of mustache-wearing princesses, drinking from toilets, and working the nostril probes in the rat-snottery.

 

As fresh and funny as the novel is, however, it’s still not as funny as I initially hoped. Maybe, like Tom seeing the nameless kingdom for the first time, I went into the book with my hopes a bit too high, excited by the positive reviews from some of my favorite stand-up comedians on the back cover. It’s still funny, though, and the payoff is worth it in the end. The novel shows the Pierson has the capacity to write realistic experiences in a humorous manner, as well as imaginative fantasy and well-organized action sequences. Fortunately, the novel is both short and enjoyable enough to merit reading. I would recommend this book to teenage guys and fantasy fans looking for a fun spoof of the average fantasy read. 

Heather's Book Review: The Friday Society by Adrienne Kress

 

Caution: Contains one spoiler.

 

Anyone who has ever spoken to me at length about steampunk will know this:  While I do love steampunk, I’m a bigger fan of the idea of steampunk than I am of most steampunk books. My main complaint against them is that they tend to treat the pseudo-Victorian aesthetic as a decoration, rather than an integral part of the world of the story. Occasionally, though, I happen upon a steampunk novel that takes that decoration and rocks it.

 

The Friday Society by Adrienne Kress rocks hard in all the ways that steampunk should.

 

In the novel, Cora is assistant to a mad scientist, with all the science brains and cool tech knowledge implied; Nellie is assistant to a magician, armed with sparkly dresses, sneak tactics galore, and a parrot sidekick; and Michiko is a Japanese assistant to an English fight instructor, who knows more about katana combat than her present charlatanic master. When heads start rolling in the London streets—the first right at their feet, in fact—they take it upon themselves to solve the mystery with sassy, street-smart girl power and more than a little technological mayhem.

 

These are combinations that could not exist outside a steampunk novel and still make sense.

 

At its heart, The Friday Society reads like Kress said, “OK—I’m going to take everything that is awesome about steampunk, trash the rest, put it in a blender with some glitter and Japanese swordplay and see what happens.” Which is why there is almost no affected fake-Victorian language in this thing, and why the novel foregoes the tedious details of Victorian manners and society to toss an explosion at readers in the first sentence. There are also magical gravity-defying minerals and a super fancy gun that can be worn like armor until an electromagnetic pulse calls its pieces into weapon form.

 

The characters, too, are sneakily developed, looking like stereotypes on the surface—the tomboy, the girly girl, the samurai—but revealing some clever variations on their types as the novel progresses. Michiko, for example, is the stoic, silent, samurai sort one would expect—but only because she doesn’t know enough English to use the language and so stays quiet to avoid making herself look foolish. Cora and Nellie take it upon themselves to teach her the language, and ultimately, it is these three characters and their interactions that make the novel worth the read. Stylistically, it aspires to read like a steampunk cousin of sassy fantasies like The Princess Bride or Stardust, a feat largely accomplished through the girls’ banter. Though they never actually reach Princess Bride levels of wit—though, really, what other than The Princess Bride itself can do that?— its sense of humor was close enough and uncommon enough in steampunk novels that it kept me reading.

 

However, even though the strengths outweighed them for me, the book does have some weaknesses worth mentioning. There’s an attempted romantic storyline that falls absolutely flat—but this is a book about girls kicking butt, so that’s ok. The story also involves a secondary murder mystery that I found completely throwaway once it was solved, and once readers find out the eventual bad guy’s motivation, it is frustratingly feminist. BTW THIS IS THE SPOILER PART. WATCH OUT. This seems odd to say about a book that is unabashedly about girl power, but when the antagonist’s reason for murdering everyone (and then some) comes down to “THE MEN DIDN’T THINK MY IDEAS WERE GOOD BECAUSE I WAS A GIRL SO I’LL SHOW THEM >( ” it’s a bit anticlimactic.

 

Taken as a whole, though, The Friday Society ranks among the best steampunk novels I’ve encountered in the past year. It’s not flawless, but it’s still the most entertaining piece of steampunk quirk that I’ve read since Phil and Kaja Foglio’s classic Girl Genius.