Skulduggery Pleasant: Playing with Fire: A Review

Skulduggery Pleasant Playing with Fire by Derek LandyEveryone’s favorite skeleton detective/wizard (and snappy dresser) Skulduggery Pleasant and the precocious Stephanie Edgley are back in Playing with Fire (2008) the action packed follow up to Derek Landy’s debut novel Skulduggery Pleasant.

Find it on Bookshop.

Playing with Fire picks up about a year after the first novel. Stephanie is officially apprenticed to Skulduggery Pleasant, learning more elemental magic, and helping Skulduggery fight crime under her taken name, Valkyrie Cain. Throughout the novel, it was impressive to see how deftly Landy handled the unusual name change of his main character as well as her negotiation of people who know her as both Valkyrie and Stephanie.

Skulduggery and Valkyrie are dealing with the usual mayhem and misfits when news of something really unpleasant comes their way. Baron Vengeous, one of Skulduggery’s old enemies, is back in town and dead set on bringing a monster called the Grotesquery back to life to wreak some havoc. Cobbled together from pieces of the most feared, not to mention brutal, monsters ever seen the Grotesquery has to be stopped before it becomes invincible. Oh and before it calls the Faceless Ones back to Earth to destroy everything.

With the help of Tanith Low, the two detectives set out to find and destroy the Grotesquery. But, as often happens, complications get in the way. In addition to possible corruption in the Council of Elders, Valkyrie and Skulduggery have to deal with Billy-Ray Sanguine–simultaneously one of the most likable and most horrifying villains of the series thus far.

On top of that, Valkyrie is beginning to feel like a stranger in her normal life as Stephanie Edgley. Using an enchanted reflection to go to school and otherwise act as her proxy, Valkyrie keeps telling herself that is the price for a life of adventure and magic. Still, as the problems mount and Valkyrie finds more twists and danger, it starts to seem like there will be a higher price to pay.

The important thing to remember about this series is that Skulduggery Pleasant was an insanely awesome, utterly original book. Given the high bar set by its predecessor, it was perhaps unavoidable that Playing with Fire would not be as good.

There is an old adage that before leaving the house a person should take off one accessory; if this book were a person, it would instead add one more. Landy piles villains on top of villains so that names begin to blend together and necessitate rereading. This novel is also rife with battle scenes–too many, really, in relation to the plot. Finally, and this one can be fixed, the end of the book left a lot of questions unanswered.

Taken together, these things lead to the possibility that Playing with Fire is a bridge book which serves more to transition from the first book and pave the way for the third book in the series than to stand on its own. (Clarifying example: Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest was a bridge movie.) Thus, while much of this book was not as marvelous as the first it is still entirely possible and even likely that the third book The Faceless Ones (due out in August 2009) will be another powerhouse of a book.

The emblematic banter and humor were still present, but not often enough. Ironically, given the name of the series, Skulduggery Pleasant really did not have enough page time in this book.

Possible Pairings: The Demon’s Lexicon by Sarah Rees Brennan, Gideon the Cutpurse by Linda Buckley-Archer, A Taste for Red by Lewis Harris, Jackaby by William Ritter, The Amulet of Samarkand by Jonathan Stroud

“Do you have any AV holds?”

While “Lisa” was shelving reserves when myself and my fellow clerk “Ephraim” were on desk:

Lisa: “Do you have any AV holds?”

Ephraim: “Huh?”

Lisa: “Movie or CD reserves.”

Miss Print: “Audio visual holds.”

Lisa: “Yeah. I just nerded out. It’s cool that you didn’t know what I was talking about.”

Miss Print: “I liked it.”

Lisa: “Thanks. I’m kind of a nerd sometimes.”

Suite Scarlett: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Maureen JohnsonSuite Scarlett by Maureen Johnson‘s novel Suite Scarlett (2008) (find it on Bookshop) focuses on Scarlett Martin and her family who live in the Hopewell Hotel in the heart of New York City*. That might sound like a dream come true but just ask Scarlett about her fifteenth birthday and it’s easy to see the sometimes harsh realities that owning and running a hotel can really entail.

The Hopewell hotel has been around since 1929 and has belonged to the Hopewell family for just as long. While the hotel can’t compete with some of its ritzier neighbors in terms of luxuries on offer, the Hopewell does have some unique benefits including custom furnishings by a prestigious (fictional) Jazz Age designer, connections to the history of the city and its ever-glamorous theater life. In order to lower maintenance costs for the hotel, the Martins have come up with a unique tradition. On their fifteenth birthday every child receives a hotel suite thereby also inheriting the housekeeping duties and guest services connected to said suite.

Scarlett is pretty sure such duties will not do much to alleviate the dullness of her summer vacation since the Hopewell is always chronically under-booked. Unlike Scarlett, her siblings have a lot to manage this summer: Eighteen-year-old Lola is busy juggling family obligations, a job she loves, and a high maintenance boyfriend with an equally high balance in his bank account; eleven-year-old Marlene, the youngest Martin, does not share Scarlett’s summer doldrums since her survivor’s club keep her social calendar plenty full (have you been on a morning TV show yet?); meanwhile nineteen-year-old Spencer, a talented actor with a fondness for physical comedy is faced with an ultimatum that could end his acting career before it’s even started.

Everything changes when the larger-than-life Mrs. Amberson checks into the Empire Suite (Scarlett’s suite) and takes her on an assistant in everything from running errands to getting reacquainted with the City and writing the biography of her life. Already swept up in Mrs. Amberson’s whirlwind, Scarlett also finds herself swept off her feet when she meets Eric the gorgeous fellow actor in a production of Hamlet that might just save Spencer’s career–if the show ever opens.

Suite Scarlett holds a lot of appeal for a variety of readers. Being a book by Maureen Johnson it is, of course, very funny. It also has many tidbits about New York that will interest anyone who has a special place for that big apple in their hearts. Most of all, this book has a lot of appeal for theater lovers. Before becoming a published novelist Johnson worked as a dramaturg in the theater world (a dramaturg basically being the person who makes sure every single aspect of a show runs smoothly while directors and other theater types focus less on the big picture). Johnson brings all of that knowledge to this book to really bring the theatrical world that Spencer and, by extension, Scarlett come to inhabit as the plot progresses.

While this story has a bit of romance and humor and excitement, it is really a novel about family, specifically siblings. Each of the Martin children are vibrantly described on the page. Spencer in particular is a character that readers will love to love. In fact, the only problem with Suite Scarlett is that with such an awesome brother as Spencer, Scarlett’s love interest Eric pales by comparison. All the same, this book has something for everyone and is sure to leave readers with a smile on their face.

*If you want to see New York City the way Scarlett lives it, you can check out Johnson’s interactive map of Scarlett’s New York.

Possible Pairings: Strings Attached by Judy Blundell, City Love by Susane Colasanti,  Take a Bow by Elizabeth Eulberg, The Year My Sister Got Lucky by Aimee Friedman, King of the Screwups by K. L. Going, Bad Kitty by Michele Jaffe, Alice, I Think by Susan Juby, New York City: A Short History by George J. Lankevich, Saving Francesca by Melina Marchetta, Since You’ve Been Gone by Morgan Matson, The Statistical Probability of True Love at First Sight by Jennifer E. Smith, Drama by Raina Telgemeier

What Video Games Have to Teach Us: A Non-Fiction Book Review

What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Literacy and Learning by James Paul GeeWhat Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy (2007) by James Paul Gee might be one of the most valuable and timely titles I have read in recent years. Coming to video games late in life, initially to “help” his son with gaming, Gee began to see connections to his professional life as an educator in the virtual worlds created by video games.

Specifically, Gee identified 36 learning principles often found in the best (most challenging, most fun, best designed, most popular) video games that are often lacking in contemporary schools that favor the skill-and-drill approach to deeper, more immersive learning. In discrete chapters, Gee identifies individual games (Tomb Raider, Half-Life, World of Warcraft, Sonic the Hedgehog to name a few) and the principles found in those games that could be applied to school learning.

The ideas Gee outlines in What Video Games Have to Teach Us will not be shocking or revolutionary to anyone who already plays video games. Gamers know that it takes more to play a video game than hand-eye coordination. As Gee underscores throughout this book, gaming is a multifaceted process that requires planning, reflection, strategizing, and even community interaction. In other words, it’s impossible to play a video game without learning how to do so.

The key difference in learning a video game is that the learning is more strategic and immersive. Gamers learn by doing and through experimentation. They also learn in strategically effective ways. Instead of having adjust to the difficulty level of a game, the game–through its very design–often adjusts to the competency of the gamer. Schools have not found an effective way to do that yet. The main argument of this book is that video games create active, critical learners while schools often create passive learners.

There is a lot to like about this book. Gee keeps the book grounded in actual anecdotes and experiences and carefully avoids the hypothetical by using his own life as a gamer to explain the principles found within the book. The game play is described as carefully as the learning principles to create a book that gamers and non-gamers will be able to embrace–and understand.

Finally, this book isn’t just about playing video games in isolation or even about schools. Rather Gee also looks at the community aspect of video games through their use of shared knowledge and, especially, through the creation of game related affinity groups (communities of sorts formed organically around shared interests). This multi-faceted approach to the subject creates a well-informed and thorough examination of video games, players, and how the ideas found in good video game play and design can be adapted to traditional learning environments to create a more engaging and enriching learning environment for every student.
Sound good? Find it on Amazon: What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy

Automated Search Suggestion: FAIL

I use Goodreads for many and varied things including pinpointing publication dates and which book cover I want to feature in the book reviews on this blog. Recently I read Wings by Aprilynne Pike and was looking for information about it.

I typed “Wings” into the search box on the site and got back a million hits. I narrowed it by typing “Wings Pike” because Aprilynne seemed too tedious.

The search results came back with the book I was looking for, but it also came back with a question: Did I mean “Penis Pokey“?

My first thought, of course, was why on earth would I mean that when I typed “Wings Pike.” I still, in fact, have no answer to that. All I know now, after looking to see what Goodreads meant when they asked if I meant that, is that I wished I didn’t know. FAIL.

Wings: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Wings by Aprilynne PikeWings (2009) is Aprilynne Pike‘s debut novel. The first thing to know about it is that the idea has been thrown around that Wings might possibly be the next Twilight. I have my own varied and complex issues with Twilight but I can see the connection. The tone, protagonist, and a lot of other things are very different. But the general “vibe” of the two books are strikingly similar. The jacket praise from Stephenie Meyer also helps.* That said, if you loved Twilight, you should read this book. If you hated it, or if you wanted to like it but couldn’t, you should also read this book. Finally, if you are with me in being on Team Jacob, you must read this book for reasons that will become apparent as the story progresses.**

Onward . . .

For the most part Laurel is your average fifteen-year-old girl. Yes she is lithe, agile, and movie star pretty. And yes, she was dropped on her parents’ doorstep in a basket when she was three. And no she does not have an eating disorder, just unique eating habits. Nothing especially exceptional there. At least not until Laurel’s back sprouts a mysterious set of wings.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. The story starts when Laurel and her parents leave their super small town for a small town. In addition to moving, Laurel also has to adjust to going to public school after ten years of homeschooling. Then, of course, there is the issue of the wings to contend with.

Understandably thrown by this development, Laurel turns to her new friend David to figure out what’s going on. Afraid of becoming a walking, talking experiment, Laurel keeps the wings under wraps with David’s help as they try to figure out what exactly is going on. This crisis makes the sale of her family’s homestead seem rather mundane–even if the buyer, Mr. Barnes, seems unaccountably sinister.

However, as Laurel learns more about her wings and her home, it becomes apparent that the two events are intimately linked both to Laurel and Tamani, the mysterious faerie living on her family’s land with his own shocking revelations about Laurel’s current situation . . . and her past.

When I first started Wings, I wasn’t sure how I felt about Laurel. Narrated in the third person, the story mentions early on that Laurel has no problem looking different (really pretty) compared to everyone else–a comment that rubbed me the wrong way. However, as the plot moved forward and I got to know Laurel better, she grew on me. The story, which was slow to get to the action, picked up at around the same time. By the end of the book I was a fan of both the story and Laurel.***

Some reviews have argued that the crux of the plot is slow in coming and tagged on to the end of the novel. I would counter that said readers were merely not paying attention to Pike’s foreshadowing. I will grant that the novel was depopulated of ancillary characters, but Pike does a lot with the characters she does have, providing well-described and authentic companions for Laurel.

I’m a big fan of traditional fairy stories, but I also really enjoyed the spin that Pike takes on the usual fairy lore here. In addition to creating an utterly novel mythology surrounding fairies (and other mythical creatures), Pike explains all of her “facts”–something that is crucial to making a rich, vivid story.

* The praise from Meyer is actually more than strategic marketing. If you read the acknowledgments, Pike gives a special thank you to Stephenie which suggests that the authors do really know each other. Plus, I totally agree with Meyer’s statement about the “ingenuity” and “loveliness” of this book.

** Okay, I’ll give you one hint: Tamani, to me, has a lot in common with everyone’s favorite werewolf.

*** I didn’t love the “love triangle” aspect but for me that was more because there was never any contest to who I would rather hang out with. Maybe that’s me . . .

(Totally Unrelated: I’m kind of feeling talkative and wanted to say that I really thought the cover by Ray Shappell was a clever, fun tie-in to the actual plot of the book even though my mom didn’t like it.)

“It’s working.”

During my first day back at work after a week’s vacation, I needed answers:

Miss Print: “So, you missed me, right?”

Bear: “Yes. Often I would ask myself. Where is my BFF?”

Miss Print: “Hee. Now you’re just trying to butter me up.”

Bear: “Is it working?”

Miss Print: “Ha. Yeah.”

(When did I become the mini shampoo guy?)

Alice MacLeod, Realist at Last: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Alice MacLeod, Realist at Last by Susan JubyThere are many reasons this review was posted late and backdated which I won’t get into here. Suffice to say I have been meaning to write this review for months but have been putting it off because I knew that once I wrote the review I would have to admit that Alice’s adventures were done–no small task let me assure you.

Onward . . .

Alice MacLeod, Realist at Last (2005) is the stunning conclusion to Susan Juby‘s debut trilogy (preceeded by Alice, I Think and its sequel Miss Smithers). You might recognize Juby’s name from the 2009 Edgar Awards where Getting the Girl was a nominee.

This installment opens with the first scene from Alice’s screenplay “Of Moose and Men”–a creative work loosely based on her own life. Excerpts of the screenplay are sprinkled throughout the novel. The writing is overwrought, exaggerated, and provides hysterical insight into Alice’s psyche throughout the story. In addition to being Alice’s latest career of choice, writing her screenplay also helps this sixteen-year-old heroine make sense of the chaos that has become her life.

At the beginning of the story, Alice’s boyfriend Goose is moving with his family to Glasgow for an entire year only to go away to university on the other end of Canada when he finally returns. Dealing with this heartbreak is bad enough on its own. Then Alice’s mother, a somewhat aggressive environmentalist, is thrown in jail as a result of her activist activities. That leaves Alice, her younger brother, and her father on their own. To say that this development leaves the family less than functional would be a vast understatement.

The one constant in Alice’s life seems, ironically, to be Death Lord Bob–her ineffectual therapist from the Teens in Transition (Not Trouble) Center in town. At least until he too is called away leaving Alice with the surly Ms. Deitrich who doesn’t seem to understand anything about Alice’s life let alone her highly evolved sense of style.

With their matriarch breadwinner in jail Alice and her father find themselves, for the first time, looking for gainful employment. Alice’s job search, and eventual employment, throw her into the paths of two brilliant characters: Wallace and Vince. Negotiating these new romantic waters, Alice finds herself caught between two equally charming suitors–one five years her senior, the other considerably her junior. The dilemma is equally difficult for readers who will likely be as attracted to these guys as Alice herself.

Throughout the series, readers are able to trace Alice’s evolution as a character. The girl we meet in this novel is very different from the Alice entering a traditional school (or a beauty pageant) for the first time. She is more mature, and in some ways  more responsible and engaged with the world at large. More than that, though, Alice’s true depth as a heroine is really apparent in this story as she not only works through but even rises above all of the (screw)balls life throws at her.

Alice MacLeod, Realist at Last doesn’t qualify as truly “realistic” fiction because of the humor and general madness that surrounds Alice. But Alice is still an utterly real and engaging character with a quirky sense of humor (and style) that will leave readers smiling.

(I’d recommend reading the entire trilogy in sequence to fully appreciate how awesome it is, but the stories do stand alone fairly well if you happen upon them out of order.)

Possible Pairings: The Sweetheart of Prosper County by Jill S. Alexander, Don’t Ever Change by M. Beth Bloom, North of Beautiful by Justina Chen, Skinny by Donna Crooner, Friends With Boys by Faith Erin Hicks, The Popularity Papers by Amy Ignatow, Bad Kitty by Michele Jaffe, Suite Scarlett by Maureen Johnson, Don’t Expect Magic by Kathy McCullough,  I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson, Lola and the Boy Next Door by Stephanie Perkins, Define “Normal” by Julie Anne Peters, Angus, Thongs, and Full-Frontal Snogging by Louise Rennison, Absolutely Maybe by Lisa Yee

Mind readers in the machine

So, you know ghosts in the machine? I think there are mind readers in the machine.

A couple weeks ago I was whining in general and on Twitter about the library not having super new YA books. I read super new YA books in the form of advanced reader’s copies from Amazon Vine, so I know the books won’t be available right away. Still, it stings when months pass and I can’t recommend them or post about them on NYPL. The lack of any copies of Absolutely Maybe by Lisa Yee really rankled because it’s been out since February. It was even more frustrating when I realized that QPL had copies but we did not.

Then, a couple of days ago I decided to search for the titles again. And lo! Every book I had received from Amazon Vine was on order for the library. It was like someone was reading my mind, knew I was unhappy, and fixed it. Fantastic!

My Big Nose and Other Natural Disasters: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

My Big Nose and Other Natural Disasters by Sydney SalterRemember Jennifer Grey from Dirty Dancing? Back then she was a cute young actress with a rather distinct nose that gave her a unique face. In the 1990s she had a nose job that so altered her appearance that she was unrecognizable with the result that her career was arguably over. I found a site with two of the most unflattering pictures of Grey I have ever seen, but they illustrate my point. The change is so great that it’s hard to say what the nose job actually accomplished because the before and after photos look like different people.

While reading My Big Nose and Other Natural Disasters (2009) by Sydney Salter (find it on Bookshop), I kept thinking of one thing. That thing was Jennifer Grey’s nose job and how it totally changed her life in a not-so-great way.

For soon-to-be-senior Jory Michaels, it all comes down to her nose. Good old, Great-Grandpa Lessinger’s famous nose. The one Jory never grew into. The one that makes people ask her beautiful parents if Jory was adopted. It wouldn’t matter so much if Jory was some brilliant scholar who’d written six novels, created her own web-based business, and spoke fluent Chinese.

But Jory doesn’t do any of those things.

No matter how desperately she wants to be one of the beautiful people, or at least one of the smart people, or even just an athletic person; Jory is none of those things. Instead, she is the mediocre sheep in a family of beauty and talent. All, Jory is certain, because of her big nose–another outlier in a family with cute, small noses (except for Great-Grandpa Lessinger).

Like Jennifer Grey, Jory is convinced that a nose job will solve her problems and ultimately make her life better in every possible way. She will be smarter and prettier, her family will appreciate her the way they worship her little brother, and her gorgeous crush will finally realize that she is perfect for him. In other words, with a new nose, Jory will be as perfect as everyone else in her life.

To guarantee that she and “Super Schnoz” will part ways before September, Jory takes a summer job as a cake delivery person to fund her cosmetic surgery. She also begins a nice nose notebook to be ready for the big day.

It seems like everything is going Jory’s way until an unlikely acquaintance, an unfortunate driving mishap or two . . . or three, and other (natural) disasters force Jory to rethink everything she thought she knew about her nose, herself, and the perfect people she wanted so badly to emulate.

Set in Reno, Nevada My Big Nose and Other Natural Disasters offers an interesting perspective on cosmetic surgery. Her hyperbolic fantasies about Super Schnoz and her new dream nose illustrate the irrational hopes Jory has pinned to the possibility of plastic surgery. At the same time, as the story progresses Jory begins to realize that there might be more to reinventing herself than restructuring her nose. That thread, set against the backdrop of friend-drama, and the social-climbing ambitions of her ever-dieting mother, gives this ostensibly quick read a fair amount of depth.

I enjoyed a lot of this book. At times the characters read younger than I would have expected for sixteen and seventeen-year-olds, but that likely says more about who I was at that age than anything else. Jory also reminded me a lot of Georgia Nicholson with her singular focus on boys but in a far less annoying way. I also had issue with the way friendships were treated. It must be the latin in me but I would have held a grudge a lot longer than Jory (and other characters in books I’ve read recently), but again that’s probably just me.

I loved Jory’s humor throughout the narrative, which made her lack of self-esteem at the beginning of the novel bearable. As part of a mother-daughter jewelery making duo, I also loved that beading came up in the story and was handled so realistically. At the start of the novel I will admit that I was not sure I could like Jory as a character, but by the end of the book I not only liked her, I was proud of her. My only disappointment was that the book didn’t go on a little longer so I could spend more time with this new and improved heroine. Beyond that, My Big Nose and Other Natural Disasters is a clever, humorous book about how finding beauty sometimes involves more introspection than anything else.

Possible Pairings: You Look Different in Real Life by Jennifer Castle, Nothing But the Truth (and a Few White Lies) by Justina Chen Headley, Skinny by Donna Crooner, Fly on the Wall by E. Lockhart, Fix by Leslie Margolis, The Book of Love by Lynn Weingarten