“A YA tip, from me to you.”

Lisa: “Here’s a tip, from me to you. You can tell if a teen has done something bad if they’re looking right at you.”

Miss Print: “Good to know. Reverse psychology?”

Lisa: “They’re looking at you to see if you know, if they’ve been caught.”

What I Saw and How I Lied: A (noir) Chick Lit Wednesday Review

What I Saw and How I Lied by Judy BlundellEvery good book should start with a good story. In the case of What I Saw and How I Lied (2008) by Judy Blundell, it actually starts with two. This is Blundell’s debut novel although, under pen names, she has written many other titles. In a School Library Journal article, Blundell said that this was the first book that felt like it was hers. How wonderful then to also have it win the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature and receive accolades from all over. (Plus, the book was edited by David Levithan, himself a YA author/editor extraordinaire).

But that’s just the backstory. What I Saw and How I Lied also has an excellent actual story.

The year is 1947, the place Queens, New York. For fifteen-year-old Evie Spooner, it feels like life has gone back to normal. Her step-father Joe is back from the War, Evie’s blonde bombshell mother Barb is back to playing housewife, and Joe’s mother is annoying everyone. All everyday, mundane things.

That changes when Joe announces suddenly that the family is going to take a trip to Florida. When Peter Coleridge, a dashing ex-GI who served with Joe, finds the family, Evie knows that things will never be mundane again. The close Evie gets to Peter, the more secrets she finds–not only Peter’s but also secrets surrounding her own family.

As the events of the novel come to a head Evie has to face these secrets and the lies told to keep them. The more she learns about the truth, and the lies, the more Evie wonders if truth has anything to do with loyalty.

The first thing that drew me to this book was the cover with its heroine steeped in shadows. It is the epitome of film noir (hardboiled fiction when in written form), a fitting choice since this novel is nothing if not noir.

The writing here is taut, fraught with tension and even a bit of suspense right from the beginning. Every word here matters. If ever I met someone who suggested that writing was not an art, this book would be part of my argument to the contrary.

Sometimes novels told in retrospect, which is basically the case here, can be boring because the narrator keeps complaining about the things they didn’t know. Evie is made of stronger stuff. Instead of bemoaning the things she missed the first time around, she simply lays out the events as they happened. This makes Evie’s perspective on things look a bit naive. At the same time it also gives the book a certain honesty because, like Evie, we learn that everything is not as it seems as the story progresses.

Blundell also uses a lot of foreshadowing in her novel. In the wrong hands foreshadow is another writing technique that can go horribly wrong. In What I Saw and How I Lied it only adds to the suspense and complexity of the writing–writing that is both poignant and beautiful (while evoking the atmosphere and mood of 1947 in both New York and Florida).

Possible Pairings: White Cat by Holly Black, Heist Society by Ally Carter, Ten Cents a Dance by Christine Fletcher, The Midnight Dress by Karen Foxlee, Paper Towns by John Green, Suite Scarlett by Maureen Johnson, New York City: A Short History by George J. Lankevich, Vixen by Jillian Larkin, The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks by E. Lockhart, Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta, Mad Apple by Christina Meldrum, The Disappearances by Emily Bain Murphy, Pretending to Be Erica by Michelle Painchaud, The Wessex Papers by Daniel Parker, The Book of Blood and Shadow by Robin Wasserman, The Space Between Trees by Katie Williams, Double Indemnity (movie)

“A book a week keeps the doctor away. Or something.”

Bear: “Remind me to read it in a couple of weeks.”

Miss Print: “Okay.”

Bear: “Usually it takes me a week to read a book. Unless it’s really long, then it takes a couple weeks.”

Miss Print: “I can do that sometimes. But right now I’m reading five books at once so they’re all just taking forever.”

The Teashop Girls: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Teashop Girls by Laura SchaeferIs it possible to fall in love with a book? If it is, The Teashop Girls (2008 ) by Laura Schaefer, with illustrations by Sujean Rim, now holds my heart. I wasn’t sure what to expect from this book, especially since I am not actually much of a tea drinker, but as soon as I  saw the cover and the illustration of The Steeping Leaf I knew this book would have my undying devotion. I know I keep banging readers over the head with what I’m trying to point out with my Chick Lit Wednesday Reviews, but really this book embodies what a CLW book should be.

But that doesn’t tell you what it’s actually about.

Annie Green and her best friends Genna and Zoe have been drinking tea at the Steeping Leaf since grade school when they founded an exclusive group called The Teashop Girls. More than a fondness of tea is required in order to be a proper Teashop Girl, there are rules:

1) Teashop Girls are best friends forever.

2) Tea is held every week, no matter what.

3) All tea and scones must be split equally at all times.

Unfortunately, somewhere between elementary school and the end of eighth grade, the girls lost track of their weekly ritual. Genna is busy trying to start her acting career and Zoe is always practicing for tennis, leaving Annie feeling very alone.

For Annie, the logical solution is to convince her grandmother Louisa to hire Annie as a barista. Just because the Teashop Girls don’t have tea every week anymore, it doesn’t mean Annie can’t spend her spare time there, right?

With a new job, and a new crush on her Barista Boy coworker, Annie finally feels as focused as her friends. It isn’t the same, but Annie is enjoying her time at the Leaf. Until the lights go out. Working with her grandmother, Annie realizes the Leaf’s future is tenuous–an eviction notice could spell the end of the beloved tea shop for good.

Luckily, another Teashop Girl rule is that “A Teashop Girl will always help other Teashop Girls in need.” So, with Zoe and Genna’s help, Annie sets out to save their beloved Steeping Leaf with varying ideas ranging from sheer genius to, well, less than successful.

Aside from saving the Steeping Leaf, this book’s main story is about friendship. Specifically, The Teashop Girls is about how Annie and her friends reconnect and realize that, no matter what else changes in their lives, being a Teashop Girl is forever.n (Just recently I was wishing for a book where romance was not central to the plot, and/or where I did not want it to be, and it wasn’t a big deal. This is that book.)

This is what I would call a middle grade book (the jacket sleeve recommends the book for ages 8 to 14 which seems spot on), which would be comfortably defined as either a children’s or young adult book. It also seemed really authentic. Annie narrates this novel as if she is talking to the reader, an affectation that often fails writers. Here, however, it worked perfectly because Schaefer’s characters were so vibrant and just real.

Another great feature was the book design. The cover was great because, as readers will learn, it totally shows Annie. I also loved the inclusion of Annie’s “handwritten” lists and notes as well as Genna’s illustrations and excerpts from the girls’ tea handbook. It was a feature that made the book feel as unique and charming as The Steeping Leaf sounds. Schaefer also includes some recipes from the girls and tea related quotes/ads that are sure to amuse tea enthusiasts while informing tea novices like myself.

I don’t think I’ve ever called a book both heartwarming and cheerful, but this one was. The Teashop Girls put me in a good mood as soon as I got and kept me in good spirits right to the end. One of the best books for girls that I have read recently.

Maus: A two-for-one graphic novel review

Maus I cover

Maus II cover

During my research last semester on graphic novels three pieces of information kept recurring: (1) Maus by Art Spiegelman is an amazing graphic novel that everyone–even the ones who don’t like graphic novels at all–love. (2) Maus is amazing and, having won a Pulitzer Prize special award in 1992, is one of the main reasons graphic novels have gained so much more mainstream appreciation as a legitimate format for literature. (3) If you read, write, or otherwise enjoy graphic novels you should be profusely thanking Spiegelman and Maus. (In all honesty I did make up that last part, but I think it was really implied in the subtext of all of my sources.)

Find it on Bookshop.

Hearing all of that, of course, I felt like I had to read it. Technically speaking, Maus: A Survivor’s Tale can be seen as two separate books. The first book (Maus I) is titled My Father Bleeds History (1986). The second, Maus II, is called And Here My Troubles Began (1991). Eventually, the two volumes were published together as one book. I had initially planned to review the two books separately however after reading both I decided that, really, the stories are so intertwined it really makes more sense to review the titles together. (Amusing aside: I’m including the covers for both titles in this review, but they’re in German instead of English. Because this is my blog and I can do things like that if I want to.)

The entire Maus saga is very meta (dictionary definition: “referring to itself or to the conventions of its genre”)–very aware that it is a book and willing to make readers aware of that fact. The story begins with Art asking his father to tell him about his youth, specifically his experiences during the Holocaust. The structure here is smart and possibly too complex to have been pulled off with traditional prose. Spiegelman shifts between past and present with ease, deals with time lapses, and tells a compelling story all while illustrating (literally) the process of researching and creating that story.

He also does it all with allegorical animals standing in for people.

In this book the Jews are represented by mice while the Germans are cats (get it?). There are other animals represented in the story as people from different countries. While they are trying to pass as Poles, the Jewish mice are often shown wearing pig masks (Polish citizens are drawn as pigs) in order to blend in. Later in the story, once again creating a meta moment, Spiegelman shows himself wearing a mouse mask while promoting the book in “real life” (as a man). It sounds crazy when you try to explain it, but it also makes a crazy kind of sense.

Illustrated in black and white, the panels are on the small side and jump around the page. In other words, Spiegelman plays around with the sequencing to keep things interesting and fill the page in the best possible combination of panels.

Of course, this isn’t always a happy book. Much of the story deals with Vladek and Anja Spiegelman’s time in the Auschwitz concentration camp and what they had to endure there. And it’s depressing. At the same time, watching Vladek keep his head on his shoulders and survive disaster after disaster, the story has uplifting moments. At the risk of sounding trite, it shows that people really can triumph in the face of adversity. Not to say their experiences in Auschwitz had no effect on Vladek’s later life. It does. By extension it also greatly impacts Spiegelman’s life and how he and his father relate to each other.

Maus isn’t the type of book I usually read, largely because its necessarily depressing. I noticed my mood dipping as I worked through the book as I became invested with the characters. I also found myself feeling guilty while reading it. Here I am, half-Jewish (in so far as anyone can be half of a religion), and I know so little about that part of myself or that side of my family. My own ambivalence might explain why I cannot love this book as much as all its praise and supporters suggest I should.

To call Maus an ambitious piece of work is an understatement. Spiegelman takes on a lot in this relatively slim volume and , for the most part, delivers.

Possible Pairings: Alan and Naomi by Myron Levoy, Number the Stars by Lois Lowry, Tamar by Mal Peet, Cures For Heartbreak by Margo Rabb, Hitler’s Canary by Sandi Toksvig

“This is the best day of my life!”

I have been retroactively reading my reference text book and today that activity paid off in dividends. I have found, via my textbook’s Reader Advisory chapter, a webpage from the Kent District Library that features a database called “What’s Next?” And it lists the orders of books in a series. Any series! Every series!

I found about it earlier today but my excitement was renewed upon actually playing with the database for a bit. I have dreamed of a site like this for years. That dream is a reality.

My mom did quite share my enthusiasm after I told her about it:

Miss Print: “It’s so amazing!”

Mom: “What’s the big deal? You only look that stuff up for me anyway.”

Miss Print: “You don’t understand. This is the best day of my life.”

Mom: “You’re such a librarian.”

*Dances happily*

Drawing a Blank: A review

Drawing a Blank by Daniel EhrenhaftDrawing a Blank or How I Tried to Solve a Mystery, End a Feud, and Land the Girl of My Dreams (2006) by Daniel Ehrenhaft has a lot going for it. In addition to having a very straightforward, no holds barred, title Drawing a Blank also includes illustrations by Trevor Ristow.

More surprising (to me) was that I was already familiar with the book’s author, Daniel Ehrenhaft. In 2002 Ehrenhaft, writing under the pseudonym Daniel Parker, published the Wessex Papers trilogy. The three books (Trust Falls, Fallout, Outsmart) won the Edgar Award in 2003 for Best Young Adult Mystery. I didn’t know any of that while reading the Wessex Papers (or this book), but am inclined to agree with the hype. Like the Wessex Papers the writing here is smart both in the sense that it is clever and that it leaves readers thinking.

The story (as the full title explains) follows Carlton Dunne IV as he tries to rescue his father who is embroiled in an age-old family feud with another Scottish clan. In the process, Carlton runs away from his boarding school, visits the comic con from hell, meets a crazy girl who wants to be on “Cops” and continues working on his comic strip that runs in a local paper (thus the illustrations and the comic con debacle). As you might have guessed, Carlton wears many hats.

Carlton is also a really fun character, likably neurotic he brings to mind the protagonist of the Wessex Papers. A fact that makes sense when you realize the novels were written by the same person.

Although the book is a significant length, the chapters are short–averaging about three pages at a run. This is good because you can read them quickly. On the other hand, Ehrenhaft’s preference to end chapters on a cliff hanger becomes redundant after the eightieth time.

The story takes a while to get to the action, a fact Carlton himself acknowledges early on in a note at the front of the book. The time, however, is well-spent introducing memorable characters and explaining Carlton’s personal history. Most of the book understandably takes place in Scotland, but the scenes at Carnegie Mansion–Carlton’s boarding school–are a lot of fun even if they do more to set up the plot than actively set it in motion.

I’d recommend Drawing a Blank for reluctant readers who don’t read for lack of interest (even though the chapters are short with a fairly large font, the presence of footnotes and an involved plot might be daunting for readers who might read below level). Although this book is a bit more zany than any of the Wessex Papers, I’d also recommend it for fans of that series.

You can learn more about Daniel Ehrenhaft and his other books at his website DanielEhrenhaft.com.

Blog cleaning

Just a quick note to let regular readers know that, having given the matter some thought, I decided to delete the poems I had written and posted on this blog. It was fun while it lasted, but the posts did not seem to be of interest to anyone but me and maybe two other people. Also, the more I thought about it, the less the posts seemed to fit with the direction this blog has taken. So, for the time being, my poem category has gone the way of my wistful thinking category.

“Blame my inner historian.”

I’ve become obsessed with finding a good fantasy book to recommend to the Bear since it was brought to my attention that he reads fantasies but not sci-fi (suggesting that he might not love Scott Westerfeld’s writing with its emphasis on technology–shocking I know). So far, it hasn’t been going so well.

Miss Print: “Have you read Jasper Fforde?”

Bear: “That’s the one with the book hopper?”

Miss Print: “Yup. The Eyre Affair is the first one.”

Bear: “A friend recommended it to me, but I couldn’t get past the 150 year long Crimean War. I asked her if that was ever really explained and she said not really. If he ever explained that I would read it right away.”

Miss Print: “Bothered your inner historian, huh?”

Bear: “Yes. My inner historian couldn’t get past that.”

Bear was a history major, thus the inner historian. I don’t have an inner historian apparently since it never even occurred to me to be bothered by that point of the plot.

My next recommendation was Skulduggery Pleasant which, after showing it to him, I remembered was about a twelve-year-old girl. While totally awesome, not perhaps something a 32-year-old male librarian–a reference librarian, mind you–would jump to read. I think I’m losing my edge, or just haven’t been reading as many fantasies as previously or something. (Although I am 90% positive he would like the writing. Just saying, you know, to save my ego.)

Extracurricular Activities: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Extracurricular Activities by Maggie BarbieriExtracurricular Activities (2007) is Maggie Barbieri‘s second mystery novel featuring English professor Alison Bergeron. It is the sequel to Barbieri’s debut novel Murder 101.

A few months have passed since Alison was cleared of the murder that ocurred at the small, secluded college where she works. It has been about as long since Alison last saw her married (sort of) boyfriend Detective Bobby Crawford. Everything about Alison’s life seems to be back to normal–leaving her plenty of time to focus on her work and best friend Max’s upcoming nuptials.

That is until Alison finds herself at the center of another murder investigation when her ex-husband’s body is found in Alison’s house. The more Alison learns about the case, the more convinced she is that a local Mobster is responsible, specifically the one that has been harassing Alison since last spring. Alison wants nothing more than to solve the murder for her own sanity and be done with the Mob once and for all, but how do you threaten a Mob boss with no qualms about killing the people who get in his way?

Chronologically this book picks up very close to where the first book left off, making it easy to deal with the loose ends and unresolved issues that carried over from Murder 101. While Alison struggles with her decision that she and Crawford should take a break, she finds herself receiving attentions from another very attractive, and available, man. This creates a moral dilemma as Alison tries to figure out where her heart lies and whether the best route is also the easiest one. This side plot of sorts adds more dimension to Alison’s character and her dynamic with Crawford as well as bringing a lot of humor into the story.

Something that Barbieri has changed in this installment is her narration technique. In the first novel, Alison narrated in traditional first-person, past-tense style. That narration works for the story allowing readers to get inside Alison’s head and hear all of her funny asides during dialogue sequences. Most of Extracurricular Activities is told in the same way. However, interspersed with Alison’s narrations are sequences from Crawford’s point-of-view written in the third-person, past-tense. I liked this addition simply because it helped to flesh out Crawford’s character by showing events from his perspective. In terms of the plot it was also the best way to tell the story since there are events that would be impossible for Alison to witness firsthand. Thus, without Crawford’s segments, the story would have had a lot of talking back and forth about events.

I respect Barbieri for trying something new with her writing in this novel and am intrigued to see what she has in story for her next mystery. That said, the writing in Extracurricular Activities was not as good as its antecedent. This novel came out one year after Barbieri’s first book and, to be blunt, it shows. The writing often felt slapdash with repeated phrases and awkward sentences that were not an issue in the the first novel. That is not to say this is a bad book, it isn’t. Extracurricular Activities was actually a lot of fun, an ultimately cheerful and optimistic mystery. That just didn’t always coincide with the smoothest writing.

Alison’s adventures continue in Quick Study (2008).