Friday, July 26, 2013

Susan's Book Review: Fire by Kristin Cashore

Fire is the prequel to Graceling, a fantasy book I read and loved years ago. I was super excited when Fire was first released in 2009, only to start it, recognize none of the characters, and promptly quit. Cut to this summer when I accepted a TSR book review from a teen that loved Fire and convinced me to give it another shot. I didn’t fly through it like I did Graceling, but I did finish it this time!


Fire takes its title from the main character, the last human monster in the Dells. There are monster versions of many animals (monsters=mad colorful and often dangerous) all over the kingdom. Fire is almost too beautiful to look at and must cover her flaming red hair so as to not attract unwanted attention. She can also enter minds and control them if she wishes. Her father did that and was a monster in every sense of the word, so she is very careful with her powers. The story begins in Fire’s hometown where we meet her best friend, Archer, and his father Brocker, who is also a kind of father to her. Fire’s life there has been borderline sleepy, so when King Nash requests her help, she’s anxious to leave and see the big city.


The Dells are mired in a mess of politics that will eventually lead to war. King Nash, his military leader and brother, Brigan, and the rest of the royal family are hopeful that Fire will help them with intelligence gathering so they might be better prepared. Fire resists on principle at first, but eventually sees she has the chance to use her powers for good and relents. The city suits her, so she stays, and Archer and Brocker eventually join her there. Fantastical worlds can be challenging because they have different rules, slang, creatures, countries, races, etc. and it’s so much to remember. I’m sure some of the strategic war talk was lost on me because I couldn’t keep that information straight and as a result didn’t understand (or really care) what was at stake, but I don’t feel like it affected my enjoyment of the book.


In many stories where there is a kingdom, there is pressure to marry (and often not for love), but that’s not the case in Fire. Instead, the characters are free to love whomever they want and even having babies out of wedlock carries no shame. The story develops slowly and meanders, but I liked the characters enough to keep reading and every 100 pages or so there’d be a new revelation (Archer’s true father! Brigan has a secret daughter!). Fire matures over the course of the book and realizes that no one is all good or all bad, including herself, and the war causes her to find a wonderful purpose for her unique skillset. She can enter people’s minds to soothe them and take away their pain, in some instances even bringing them back from the brink of death. I’m also happy to report that while several animals are important to Fire, they all live to see the end of the book (such a relief!). I’ve been told that I’ll enjoy Bitterblue, last year’s sequel to Graceling, more if I’ve read Fire. I’m excited to see if that’s true, because my favorite parts of Fire include the prologue featuring Leck and every other scene involving Leck, who just happens to be Bitterblue’s psychopath father!

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Introducing Olivia!

There’s a new face at the Woodruff Branch! Meet Olivia, our newest Teen Assistant.





THEN WHAT: James F. Byrnes High, McGill University; worked as a clerk at the Woodruff Library before being promoted to Teen Assistant


FAMILY: Parents - David and Donna White


HOBBIES: Reading, reading, and oh - reading; I also enjoy swimming and martial arts.


FAVORITE TEEN BOOKS: I enjoy Veronica Roth’s books as well as manga of any sort.


FAVORITE NON-TEEN BOOKS: I like horror and mysteries of any sort.


RECENTLY READ: Ghost Hunt and The Outsiders by S. E. Hinton

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Heather's Book Review: The Order of Odd-Fish by James Kennedy


In the pre-Adventure Time days, there was no easy way to describe James Kennedy’s The Order of Odd-Fish. After all, how does one simply describe a book that is equal parts the sharp-witted observations of Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett, the snap-quick grotesquerie of Roald Dahl, the cracked-out madness of every late-late-night cartoon, and even the bizarre randomness of a select band of comedy anime? There is no simple way to cover all that. Or at least there wasn’t. Not before Adventure Time. But now I can say this about The Order of Odd-Fish:


This book reads exactly like Adventure Time, and it is a glorious, glorious thing.


From the back cover: Jo Larouche has lived her thirteen years in the California desert with her aunt Lily, ever since she was dropped on Lily’s doorstep with this note: “This is Jo. Please take care of her. But beware. This is a DANGEROUS baby.” Soon worsening circumstances lead Jo and Lily out of California forever—and into the fantastical world of Eldritch City. There Jo learns the scandalous truth about who she really is, and she and Lily join the Order of Odd-Fish, a colorful collection of knights who research useless information. Glamorous cockroach butlers, pointless quests, obsolete weapons, and bizarre festivals fill Jo and Lily’s days, but two villains—one quite silly and one more demonic than you can possibly imagine—control their fate. Jo is inching closer and closer to the day when her destiny will be fulfilled, and no one in Eldritch City will ever be the same.


Odd-Fish is a book unlike any book that I’ve ever read. It shares similarities with the whimsical worlds of Roald Dahl and Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth, but takes the absurdity inherent in such worlds and turns it up to eleven, with hilarious results. It might actually be the most hilarious book I’ve ever read.


The amazing thing about Odd-Fish, though, is not that laugh-out-loud moments occur; it’s that they continue, and they keep continuing until you start wondering how much funny can possibly fit into a book and then realize that you’re still on the same scene, and there’s, blissfully, more to come.  It’s not typical funny, though.  I’ve read humor books that have literally kept me laughing from page to page, but these books all tackle rather normal topics—the humor and quirks of day-to-day activities, for example.  Nothing in The Order of Odd-Fish is remotely normal.  It is totally and utterly nonsensical and absurd and wonderful and I love it.  It is a novel in which the main characters include a Russian colonel with digestion so sensitive it’s semi-conscious, a four-foot-tall talking cockroach who likes fancy purple suits, a Chinese millionaire who wants to be as evil as he can because he’s already done every good thing in the world that he can possibly do and is bored with it, a celebrity prankster terrorist (Just read the book), and a regular girl who is not as regular as she seems—a combination stranger and more eclectic than anything seen even in Eldritch City.  It’s a setup so mad that, by all accounts, it shouldn’t work.  But it does.  Even when it’s using an idea that we’ve already seen (which is rare), it works, and it works brilliantly.

The book’s only significant shortcoming is, fittingly, as odd as the story itself.  Odd-Fish is at its best for the first few hundred pages, when it’s simply a string of bizarre adventures involving Jo and her friends.  Nearing its end, though, it decides that it needs to settle down and grow an actual plot.  The conflict and climax that result are still entertaining, but they don’t have the spirit of the first chunk of the novel, which is disappointing. 


Still, fans of the absurd are bound to find a favorite in this novel. The Order of Odd-Fish has a place of honor on my bookshelf, and I eagerly await James Kennedy’s next work, The Magnificent Moots, whenever it finally releases.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Travis' Book Review: Chillax by Jerry Scott and Jim Borgman


Sixteen-year-old Jeremy is a future rock god. Jeremy’s band practices every Saturday and he’s been learning the guitar part for “Quintuple Amputee.” If he can just figure out that crazy chord the guitar player for Gingivitis, the “best guitar mayhem band since Flatulent Rat,” uses, he would really get a feel for the heart of the song – too bad that chord is so tough to play it’s rumored to have been outlawed in a few southern states. That’s a different story, though. The real story here is that Jeremy’s friend Tim sold him and his best amigo, Hector, a pair of tickets to the Gingivitis concert. His first real concert! Without his parents! It’s going to be epic – if he and Hector can convince their parents to let them go, that is. Jeremy has been responsible, lately; after all, he did put his own ice cream bowl in the dishwasher when his mom had the flu. Surely that kind of maturity is enough to convince them to let them go. They even teamed up to buy their own car, a VW hippie van so vintage that even the cement blocks it sat on looked “retro and cool.” When Jeremy and Hector find out that Tim actually sold them the concert tickets because he has to donate bone marrow to his sick mother, though, the two friends decide they have to make it to that show and have an epic time – for Tim!


Chillax is the first novel based on the popular Zits comic strip, written by Jerry Scott and illustrated by Jim Borgman. Like the comics, Chillax is a lot of fun.  The novel really expands on the characters of the strip, while maintaining the heart and simple comedic nature of a story that is usually told in 3 panels. Scott’s storytelling and writing style stays true to its comic nature, maintaining a casual voice, never overextending itself, and not taking itself too seriously. The boys’ typical day includes engineering a way to start their van by using Hector’s retainer, mistaking piles of dirty clothes for beds, and procrastinating when it comes to writing a paper on some ancient waterbed scandal involving Richard Nixon. What the writing may lack in eloquence, it more than makes up for in both humor and insight into the mind of a 16-year-old teenage rocker – some of the ideas even hit a little too close to home.  


Almost all of the pages are accompanied by Borgman’s simple, yet charming, comic art. Scott and Borgman do a wonderful job transitioning between written and graphic storytelling elements of the book, often using panels to finish a thought or add to the scene – think Diary of a Wimpy Kid, only a little more grown up. The illustrations really capture the characters’ feelings and contribute to the tone of the book. When Tim tells Jeremy why he sold his concert tickets, it’s done on a full page with darkened lines and shadows, highlighting the only words on the page – “My mom has cancer.” It’s a simple, but effective, technique used by a number of comic artists, but it’s a little notion that really adds to the experience of the book and the effectiveness of the storytelling. Some of the artwork is a little distracting, though, and it is often tempting to read the comic panels before actually reading the paragraphs leading up to them. As easy as it is to follow the story, however, this never really becomes an issue.


The world of Zits is modern enough to include social commentary about texting and using Facebook, but the ideas expand across generations. Jeremy dresses like he’s heading to a Pearl Jam show, idolizes a band that could be Motley Crüe, and takes off on a “Detroit Rock City” style adventure. Scott’s writing pays tribute to 40-plus years of hard rock, while simultaneously making fun of it in a way that rock music fans can appreciate. Who wouldn’t want to hear Gingivitis’s hit album Does This Look Infected? The book has a lot of heart, too, exploring different aspects of the relationship between friends and family. For example, while coping with cancer is a major theme in the novel, the subject is dealt with in a positive, uplifting way. Tim’s friends want to find ways to help and support him, and Jeremy is able to learn a lesson about the importance of simply listening to a friend in his time of need. The emotions and revelations are never forced on the reader, but rather feel natural in the progression of the story.


Some of the anecdotes in the story come straight from the comic strip, but fans of Zits will still find plenty of appeal in the novel. For those not familiar with the comic, the novel is still a quality read and nice introduction to the series. Teens, especially guys with an appreciation for rock music and guitar playing, will love the humor, and at nearly 240 illustration-filled pages, Chillax is even easy enough for middle readers. Fast readers can potentially read it in one sitting! To sum things up, Chillax is a quick, funny read that manages to put a little heart into the sleazy world of rock music. So, Dude, why wouldn’t you read it?



Spoiler alert: The acoustic intro to Gingivitis’s “Quintuple Amputee” is actually plucked on the guitar player’s nipple studs! Who knew?

Monday, July 08, 2013

Jennifer's Book Review: Tarnish by Katherine Longshore


Let me begin by saying I am not a history buff. I’m usually not a big reader of historical fiction, although I have made exceptions from time to time. My knowledge of Anne Boleyn is very, very limited, and it’s mostly what I’ve picked up over the years and what little I learned from watching The Tudors (we all know how factual that was). Basically, what I knew could be boiled down to this: Anne Boleyn was one of the many unlucky wives of Henry VIII. She convinced him to divorce his first wife, which caused the king to split with the Catholic Church. She was unable to give birth to a son, and instead she produced a daughter and some miscarriages. Not too long after their marriage began, it ended: She was accused of adultery and incest, and she was subsequently beheaded. There ends my knowledge of Anne Boleyn.

So in reading my review, understand that I am not going to comment on the factual information that lies within the pages of Tarnish, although the author’s after note discusses her research and how she incorporated historic details and speculation into the novel. I won’t discuss anachronisms, because I’m nowhere near familiar enough with the time period to know what’s accurate and what isn’t. Furthermore, I haven’t read Gilt, the first book in Katherine Longshore’s Tudors series, but fortunately it wasn’t necessarily to understand or enjoy Tarnish.

Now that the disclaimers are complete, on to the review!

Tarnish opens not long after Anne Boleyn returns to the English court, after spending some time away. Her sister is mistress to the king, and Anne enters into service for Queen Katherine. Anne initially left court ages ago because of a minor embarrassment that everyone except her own family has forgotten. Now that she’s back, she’s essentially an outcast, known for her sharp tongue and plain looks. However, poet Thomas Wyatt decides to take her under his wing and teach her how to stand out and how to become admired and pursued. Their friendship is laced with flirtation and occasional jealousy as Wyatt’s plan eventually works. Anne becomes noticed by many men in the court, and eventually even draws the interest of the king, who Anne has admired since she was 13 years old.

Tarnish is not a book about the death of Anne Boleyn. (That’ll be left to the final book in the trilogy.) Rather, it’s about the life of Anne Boleyn. Here is a girl who just wants to live. She doesn’t want to be tethered to the odious James Butler, with whom she’s nearly betrothed. She desires a husband who will bring her acceptance in the court, and she wishes to travel and see the world. She wants her father’s approval and for her brother to once again become the boy she loved as a child. Anne wants to believe in love, and ultimately, she craves power – power over her own destiny and power over others.

The Anne portrayed in Longshore’s novel is not totally innocent, but she is also not  as scheming and conniving as some other portrayals make her out to be. She’s young and naïve, but she balances it out with being shrewd and intelligent. No matter what Anne experiences -- turmoil or contentedness, misery or happiness -- the story has an edge of foreboding woven throughout it. Innocuous remarks, such as a comment about Anne’s “little neck,” foreshadow Anne’s ultimate demise. Even though the book ends on a bittersweet, yet upbeat, note, readers will still feel the fear and gloom hanging over her head as she marches toward her unhappy fate.

The tale is beautifully told. Longshore manages to keep readers invested and interested in Anne’s future, despite their knowing its devastating outcome. I absolutely loved this novel, and it makes me want to give more historical fiction books a shot. I cannot recommend it enough.