Who knows where the time goes? A review of The New Policeman

The New Policeman by Kate ThompsonJ.J. Liddy, the main character of Kate Thompson’s novel The New Policeman (2005), has a problem: there never seems to be enough time in the day. In fact, there seems to be decidedly less time. With barely enough hours in the day for school and his music, J.J. has no time left over to contemplate the shocking revelation that his grandfather may have been a murderer. To make matters worse, this time problem seems to affect everyone in Kinvara.

When J.J.’s mother reveals that she wants more time for her birthday, J.J. decides to go and find some. A task, at first, that seems like an impossible undertaking for a fifteen-year-old. That is until a neighbor shows J.J. an unlikely place to look for everyone’s lost time.

Even though he doesn’t believe in fairies, J.J. finds himself in Tir na n’Og, the land of eternal youth, and the home of Irish fairies. So begins J.J.’s search of Tir na n’Og to figure out where the time has gone and, more importantly, how to get it back. Along the way J.J. meets a variety of memorable characters including Aengus Og (a personal favorite after finishing the novel).

The narration shifts throughout the book alternating between J.J. in his search for the county’s lost time and the wanderings of the new policeman in Kinvara, Garda Larry O’Dwyer. Like J.J. (and most of Kinvara it seems), the new policeman has a love for music. The new policeman is also almost certain he used to have a good reason for becoming a policeman—if only he could remember what it was.

Thompson expertly entwines these two seemingly disconnected narratives throughout the novel. The common thread between them remains the music that literally runs through the novel. Chapter breaks are denoted by sheet music for traditional Irish songs whose titles relate to the story in addition to the strong affinity all of the characters have for music. By the end of the novel, Thompson ties together both stories creating a sensational end to a truly enjoyable book.

At the same time, The New Policeman is irresistibly Irish, as if you can hear an Irish accent in the narration (or hear a jig or two in the background). The book’s “Irish-ness” is enhanced by Thompson’s integration of Irish mythology and folklore; a glossary in the back explains the pronunciation and origin of especially Irish words like ceili (a dance) or craic (fun).

Thompson’s novel has already received a variety of critical acclaim on the other side of the Atlantic. In addition it is the winner of the Whitbread Children’s Book Award and the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize. Even better, though, is the fact that this book is a great choice for readers of any age. Thompson takes her time arriving at the crux of the plot, but the richness or her writing more than makes up for that. A good book is one that can transport the reader to the place within its pages: The New Policeman does that and more.

Originally published in Great Britain in 2005, this is the first year that The New Policeman was published in the United States. All this reviewer can say to that is it’s better late than never.

Possible Pairings: The Shadows by Megan Chance, The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde, Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones, Thomas the Rhymer by Ellen Kushner, Finnikin of the Rock by Melina Marchetta, Wildwood Dancing by Juliet Marillier, The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan, The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner

Fix: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Fix by Leslie MargolisFix (2006) by Leslie Margolis is one of those books every girl should read. Furthermore, it should be required reading for anyone who even thinks about visiting a plastic surgeon.

Fix follows the Beekman sisters, Cameron and Allie who are the alternate protagonists of the novel. When the book begins, Cameron has already had a nose job and is enjoying a better life thanks to the surgery and a school transfer. No more mean nicknames, no more bullies, no more feeling like an outcast.

Getting ready to go to college, Cameron begins to wonder if she “needs” more cosmetic surgery in order to fit in on campus at UC “Santa Barbie.” Meanwhile, Allie is getting ready for her own nose job and has to decide if being “pretty” is worth such drastic measures. No matter where you stand on the subject, the book will probably feature something you can agree with.

Margolis really looks at the plastic surgery issue from all sides. The book is interesting but also informative. By the end of the novel, it’s clear that there is no right answer about getting (or not getting) cosmetic surgery. But Margolis intelligently examines all sides of the issue highlighting the risks and the motivations that can lead a girl to the operating table.

The writing style is clear. Margolis presents a lot of information about the risks of surgery without getting excessively gory or boring. Ally and Cameron look at the surgery issue very differently and Margolis does a good job of showing that. This fact is what elevates the book from a commentary on cosmetic surgery to a character study of how a girl can define and shape her own sense of beauty.

The Beekman sisters are great protagonists for this novel. Even if they sometimes come off a bit flat. At times the characters seem more like archetypes than real people but that might be inherent to the nature of the book–since it is so clearly trying to start a conversation about this important issue. Secondary characters, in particular, often seem to lack dimension–appearing merely to make some important point: At times it seems like the characters are preaching their respective messages/opinions rather than taking part in a plot.

Nonetheless, Fix is a quick, enjoyable and above all interesting read.

Possible Pairings: Catalyst by Laurie Halse Anderson, North of Beautiful by Justina Chen Headley, Skinny by Donna Crooner, The Fold by An Na, My Big Nose and Other Natural Disasters by Sydney Salter

Stargirl: A Review

Stargirl by Jerry SpinelliOkay, I’m going to say it: Stargirl (2000) by Jerry Spinelli is a young adult classic (maybe even a children’s classic but that’s really a cataloguing issue that I am ill-equipped to discuss). (Find it on Bookshop.)

This designation raises the question: What makes a book (any book) a classic? For me it means a book that is timeless; something you can read years and years after it was written without the book losing its vibrancy. A classic also needs to have memorable writing and characters. It needs to speak to the reader. It needs to be a book that you enjoy more every time you read it or talk about it. Classics are the books you want to immerse yourself in: the books you wish you could live in with the characters that you wish were your friends.

I’ll say it again: Stargirl is a classic.

The story starts with Leo Borlock, who moved to Mica, Arizona at the age of twelve. Around the time of his move, Leo decided to start collecting porcupine neckties–no easy task, especially in Mica. For two years, Leo’s collection stood at one tie. Until his fourteenth birthday when an unknown someone presented Leo with his second tie, someone who was watching from the sidelines.

Mica’s unusual events don’t stop there. The story continues when Leo is a junior in high school. On the first day the name on everyone’s lips is Stargirl. Formerly home-schooled, Stargirl is a sophomore like no one Leo (or any of the other Mica students) has ever met before:

“She was elusive. She was today. She was tomorrow. She was the faintest scent of a cactus flower, the flitting shadow of an elf owl. We did not know what to make of her. In our minds we tried to pin her to corkboard like a butterfly, but the pin merely went through and away she flew.”

After finishing this book and recently reading Love, Stargirl (Spinelli’s newly released sequel), I have my own explanation: Stargirl is magical. She represents the kind of magic more people need in their lives: to appreciate the little things, to dare to be different, to be kind to strangers. The kind of magic where you still believe things can be wondrous.

In the story, Leo soon realizes that Stargirl might be someone he could love.

Unfortunately, high school students don’t always believe in (or appreciate) magic like Stargirl’s. As the school moves from fascination to adoration and, finally, to disdain Leo finds himself in an impossible position: forced to choose between the girl he loves and his entire lifestyle.

Technically speaking I love everything about this book: the characters, the story, the cover art. This one has the full package. Spinelli’s writing throughout the story is perfect. He captures Leo’s fascination with Stargirl as well as his equivocation as he is forced to choose between Stargirl and “the crowd.”

Stargirl is not a long book. The writing is cogent, sentences brief. Nonetheless, the text is rich. This book never gets old or boring. Spinelli creates a compelling, utterly new narrative here (with a charmingly memorable heroine).

Possible Pairings: Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt, A Little Wanting Song by Cath Crowley, The Blue Girl by Charles De Lint, Paper Towns by John Green, The Summer of Chasing Mermaids by Sarah Ockler, Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell, Love, Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli, Holes by Louis Sachar

Fun in the Children’s Room

I should be doing reading for Seminar in Feminist Theory or, at the very least, a book review I pitched to the school paper. But instead I decided to use this valuable half-hour before prime time to write about some of the silly children I talk to at work.

• There is a class of pre-schoolers that comes in every week or so. There are maybe ten children and three teachers. The kids are four years old and are barely taller than the child-sized counter of the children’s circulation area. Every time they come in, the kids each get to pick out a book which they then check out themselves before handing to one of the teachers. Usually, I try to call the children by their names just because it’s easier to get/keep their attention that way than by saying “hey you.”

    Last week I gave a little girl her book, saying, “Here’s your book Kelly.”

    She looked at me, eyes slightly wider, and asked, “How did you know my name?”

    I told Kelly that her name was on her library card. She nodded; this made sense. Then she looked at me again and asked what my name was. I told her and she said, “Hi.”

    The next little girl in the line came up to the counter and holding her book in front of her face up to her nose whispered, “My name is Viola.”

    How cute is that?

    • Then, yesterday, a little girl and her mother came in. The mother and I had previously discussed her twenty cent fine and agreed that she would pay it another time since she didn’t have any change this time. When they come back to check out, the little girl looks at me and says, “Do we need to pay?” I tell her no. She then asks, “Then how will you get paid?”

    • Another little girl came in and proceeded to conduct the entire checkout process on her own. Except for when she had to turn to her mother (crouching beside the counter) for confirmation of certain answers (like if she liked the movies she was checking out).

    • I also had a nice chat with one little boy about how lousy and slow the library computers are.

          In summary: Kids are awesome. A fact that no one should ever forget.

          Zen Shorts: Inaugural Picture Book Review

          Zen Shorts by Jon J. MuthZen Shorts (2005) is a picture book written and illustrated by Jon J. Muth. But it’s also a short story collection. And it’s also a philosophy book. And it has a giant panda. Oh, and it is a Caldecott Honor book too.

          The story starts when siblings Addy, Michael, and Karl meet Stillwater, a large Panda who wanders into their backyard to retrieve his umbrella. I love the opening scenes of the story. Karl, the youngest sibling, is looking out a window and telling Michael he sees a huge bear. Eventually all of the kids go out and say hello to Stillwater. Addy introduces Karl, who is “shy around bears he doesn’t know.” I find that phrase so enchanting. This kind of charm continues throughout the book.

          The next day Addy meets Stillwater for tea. Then Michael and Stillwater hang out. Then Karl goes swimming with Stillwater.

          Each outing is accompanied by an appropriate short story. The first is about a man (panda) who gives a gift to a robber. Another is about a man who knows that luck is a many-faceted thing. The final story is about a monk carrying an unnecessary burden. I’ll never explain the stories as well as Muth tells them, so you should just read the book.

          The illustrations of Stillwater and the children are beautifully rendered watercolors. The coloring is subtle with quite intricate line work for the drawings. The stories between the “real” story are printed on pastel backgrounds and illustrated with silhouettes so that they have a clearly different look from the rest of the book.

          When you’re finished you should also check out the afterward which explains the underlying philosophy for each story. (Muth has a lot of Buddhist/Taoist influences.)

          This is a great book to read with older children because even if they don’t get the philosophy, the stories are approachable and they’ll get something from it. (Even youngsters will enjoy the pictures.) It’s a great introduction to philosophy, a fact that becomes clear after reading the afterward, for “students” of any age. Muth does an admirable job creating a picture book that children and grownups can enjoy together.

          Speak: A Chick Lit Wednesday review

          Speak by Laurie Halse AndersonIf there is a canon for contemporary teen literature, Speak (1999) by Laurie Halse Anderson is in it. (Find it on Bookshop.) A Printz Award honor book and a National Book Award finalist in 1999, this book is, quite frankly, awesome.

          The story follows Melinda Sordino during her first year in high school. Starting high school is hard enough, but for Melinda it’s even worse. Over the summer, Melinda became a social outcast and now watches the goings at school from the fringe. She also doesn’t talk to anyone if she can avoid it.

          The reasons for Melinda’s shunning by the rest of the school and her reticence are revealed as the novel progresses and Melinda tries to define herself in light of that summer. Along the way, Melinda finds the outlet she needs in an unlikely place: her high school art room.

          Anderson’s writing voice is utterly unique, making this novel a real experience to read. It is one of the few novels out there that is completely conversational while maintaining an absolutely realistic voice. Melinda’s narration is snappy and caustic. Being written in the present tense adds to the immediacy of the novel.

          In addition to dealing with Melinda’s trauma and her healing process, this book addresses a lot of common issues for teens. Anderson aptly portrays what it feels like to be the outcast with no one to  sit with on the first day of school. And how hard it is to realize that sometimes having no friend is better than having a bad one.

          Strangely, for a novel where the narrator doesn’t speak to other characters, one of the best features of this novel is Anderson’s dialogue.  Even though Melinda rarely has anything to say to other characters, the dialogue flows, Anderson making used of ellipsis and asides in the narration to fill in Melinda’s half of the “conversations.”

          Even though Anderson is writing about a narrow experience, this is a book that everyone should read. Even if you don’t usually read “chick lit,” check out Speak for the excellent writing. I have never seen a character that sounds as real as Melinda, or a writing style as fresh as Laurie Halse Anderson’s.

          A couple years ago, this book was made into a movie for the Lifetime network. If you plan on reading the novel, do so before you see the movie. The events of the story are much more powerful if you read it without knowing what’s coming up next.

          Also, after you finish Speak, be sure to check out Catalyst–a novel set a few years after Speak in the same community/high school.

          Possible Pairings: Saints and Misfits by S. K. Ali, Starfish by Akemi Dawn Bowman, Boy Toy by Barry Lyga, Criminal by Terra Elan McVoy, The Summer of Chasing Mermaids by Sarah Ockler, A Map of the Known World by Lisa Ann Sandell

          Cell Phone Do Not Call List

          I don't know how many people have heard about this, 
          but it seemed like something worth mentioning.
          
          Twelve days from today, all cell phone numbers are being released to 
          telemarketing companies and you will start to receive sale calls.
          
          YOU WILL BE CHARGED FOR THESE CALLS
          
          To prevent this, call the following number from your cell phone:
          888-382-1222.
          
          It is the National DO NOT CALL list.
          It blocks your number for five (5) years.
          You must call from the cell phone number you want to have blocked.
          You cannot call from a different phone number. 

          The Last Days: A Review

          The Last Days by Scott WesterfeldMost everyone calls The Last Days (2006) a sequel to Scott Westerfeld’s novel Peeps. I suppose that, loosely, this is true. For my part, I think of this novel as more of a companion to Peeps because the main characters are completely different (don’t worry though, characters from Peeps do turn up), the structure of then novel is different, and because the only way to get the most out of either book is to read the two of them together, back-to-back. So, this is a sequel in the same way that The Two Towers was (trick statement! Tolkien meant the Lord of the Rings trilogy to be one book but it was too long and written before the days of ginormous novels). Suffice it to say, The Last Days is a very different book from its predecessor despite continuing the same story. Most of these differences are structural. Westerfeld again employs first person narration, but this time he has five narrators. Each chapter is labeled with a character’s name and told from his or her point of view. Writing a novel in this way is incredibly difficult because you have to take into account continuity while also making sure you don’t get redundant and trying to make each character sound unique. Westerfeld does all of that. Perfectly.

          In this novel, Westerfeld’s narrators are in the interesting position that they know less than the readers (this is why reading Peeps first is so important). The whole vampire thing is an unknown for everyone. As is the issue of a pending apocalypse.

          But that doesn’t tell you much about the story.

          It all starts with a girl who wants to make a band. Pearl sees the weird things going on in the city. The sanitation crisis. The increasing number of stray cats. Then there are the rats that are slowly taking over the subway system. And Brooklyn. Then there’s Pearl’s friend, Minerva, who’s been acting pretty weird herself. Pearl decides that the best way to help her friend, and maybe get through the craziness, is to start a band.

          Soon Pearl finds the perfect band members. And they’re a great band. But strange things happen when Minerva starts to sing. Making everyone wonder if the band’s music is the one thing that can stop the apocalypse. Or start it.

          There are very few male writers who can convincingly narrate from a female point of view. Scott Westerfeld is one of the few. Instead of making the novel seem choppy, or the characters under-developed, Westerfeld’s split narration makes every character much more dimensional.

          The story is about vampires, of course. And music. But it’s also about friendship and relationships. Westerfeld artfully describes the vicious cycle some friendships have when one friend is always taking whatever the other has to give. He also shows how, sometimes, you have to keep those friends even when it’s the last thing you want to do.

          Like Peeps, parts of this book are a little gross. Raw meat does turn up on several plates. Some narrators are more “unique” than others. But taken as a whole it all kind of works to make a really fun, really exciting book.

          At its basic level this is a story about a band trying to make it big when everything else is falling apart. Along the path to fame, they just might save the world.

          Possible Pairings: Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime by Mark Haddon, Team Human by Justine Larbalestier and Sarah Rees Brennan, Companions of the Night by Vivian Vande Velde, How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff

          How I wound up working in libraries

          It occurred to me recently that no one I currently speak to actually knows how I wound up going from avid-reader to prospective librarian. (The question of whether or not anyone cares is a different matter.) I decided to use this post to tell the full story.

          It all started with a children’s book. Specifically, with Demeter and Persephone: The Seasons of Time by I. M. Richardson: a picture book adaptation of the Greek myth explaining the changing seasons. In 2002 I was participating in the New York City for the second, and last, time. One level of the competition happened to take place in the auditorium of a public library.

          After I presented my story and everyone started milling around, the Children’s librarian, Susan, came over to me and my mother. She said that she loved my story. My mom started talking to Susan and by the end of the conversation I had agreed to tell my story again that summer and I had an internship lined up for the following school year. (I had previously volunteered at my school library for community service–note the pattern).

          I interned for the 2002-2003 school year. This translated to shelving books and shelving reserves (a lot). For two magical weeks it also meant cutting out paper snowflakes that were used in displays for the Children’s Room and the Young Adult area. When my time at the library was coming to an end, my mom suggested I ask if the library had any openings for summer jobs. They did not (there was a hiring freeze).

          My internship ended and I was, surprisingly, very sad to leave. Later that summer, several things fell into place. The hiring freeze was lifted. One of the Pages at the library had to quit because she was going away to college. Susan suggested my name when the library started trying to fill the position and would eventually call me to ask if I was still interested.

          I started work in August 2003. I stayed at the library for three and a half years. During that time I worked in the children’s room, reference (briefly), adult non-fiction, and in the young adult section (still a favorite). I made displays, weeded books, and decided I wanted to be a librarian during this time.

          In December 2006 I was promoted (part-time clerk) and transferred to a branch in Chinatown. Now I’m back at my original branch and getting ready to apply for library school.

          And all of that happened because Susan and I happened to like the same picture book.

          Eats, Shoots and Leaves: A review

          Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation by Lynn TrussWhen was the last time you read a book where you could literally say, “This book has changed my life.” Eat, Shoots and Leaves (2003) by Lynn Truss is one such book.

          At first I thought a zero tolerance approach to punctuation sounded a bit extreme. That is until Truss mentioned one of my favorite movies (“Two Weeks Notice”), pointing out that the title should be “Two Weeks Notice”. I was shocked. I had always assumed an apostrophe was there. Then I started listening to The Plain White T’s, a band whose name makes no sense with an apostrophe, and I knew things were getting serious.

          Nonetheless I will admit that it was a challenge reading the chapters about the apostrophe and the comma (although I have learned a few new tricks for commas). Then I came to a chapter entitled “Airs and Graces.” From there onward, the book was a revelation.

          I learned my punctuation from my mom and copious reading. I still have a hard time explaining dependent clauses and why it is appropriate to use “well” instead of “good” even though I can tell when a sentence is complete/written correctly if I can read it. I am sharing this background so that when I say Truss explains all of the punctuation rules presented in her book clearly you will know I mean really clearly.

          Truss has illustrated that there is a time and place for the dash and double-dash in all good literature. She has also shown that, to avoid over-using the dash, a colon can easily replace a dash in certain situations. I never knew that!

          What’s nice about Eats, Shoots and Leaves is that it’s not a dry read. Yes, Truss is talking about punctuation. Yes, she is deadly serious about it. But she maintains a sense of humor throughout: including witty examples and poking fun at punctuation (and punctuation sticklers) as much as she explains it. In addition, Truss includes abundant historical information about the punctuation marks she discusses ranging from the first names for parentheses to the first appearance of an apostrophe in printed documents.

          I would recommend this book highly to anyone with an interest in writing. Even if you know the basics, Truss has a few tricks up her sleeve that are sure to give your writing a little extra flair.
          ____
          Sound good? Find it on Amazon: Eats, Shoots & Leaves