So Yesterday: A Review

“We are all around you.

“You don’t think about us much because we are invisible. Well, not exactly invisible. A lot of us have hair dyed in four colors, or wear five-inch platform sneakers, or carry enough metal in our skin that it’s a hassle getting on an airplane. Quite visible, actually, come to think of it.

“But we don’t wear signs saying what we are. After all, if you knew what we were up to, we couldn’t work our magic. We have to observe carefully and push and prompt you in ways you don’t notice. Like good teachers, we let you think you discovered the truth on your own.

“And you need us. Someone has to guide you, to mold you, to make sure that today turns to yesterday on schedule. Because frankly, without us to monitor the situation, who knows what would get crammed down your throats?

“It’s not like you can just start making your own decisions, after all.”

So Yesterday by Scott WesterfeldHunter Braque is always on top of the latest trends. Mostly because he helps make sure they become trends. As a seventeen-year-old with his own background in the whirlwind world of innovation and style, Hunter knows exactly how to spot Innovators–the people who do something before it’s cool. The people who define cool.

When Hunter’s best client disappears it will take all of his connections to track her down as he teams up with an Innovator, uncovers a mystery surrounding the coolest sneakers he’s ever seen and gets to the bottom of the shadowy world that lurks behind all of the trends and innovations in So Yesterday (2004) by Scott Westerfeld.

So Yesterday is generally grouped into Westerfeld’s New York Trilogy which is not actually a trilogy. It’s one of his earlier novels, set in New York City and also a rare non-fantasy title. (The other books in this “trilogy” are the vampire-apocalyptic books Peeps and The Last Days.)

Although this book is a departure for Westerfeld’s usual fare of science fiction and fantasy adventures, the prose is still decidedly his with the expected blend of wit and trivia along with excellent turns of phrase. (True story: One of my all-time favorite quotes is from this book!)

Hunter is understandably interested in trends so the book is filled with odd bits of information about the origins of ties, or more specifically cravats, among other things. And don’t let the realistic setting fool you–there is still tons of action to be had as Hunter chases down sneakers, avoids thugs and seeks help from shady figures with names like Futura Garamond (another true story: This book introduced me to both of those font faces which I now use all the time!).

So Yesterday is a fast, strange book that readers who enjoy sardonic humor, New York City, or the stories behind the latest It Thing (or all of those at the same time!) is sure to enjoy.

Possible Pairings: The Brokenhearted by Amelia Kahaney, New York City: A Short History by George J. Lankevich, Proxy by Alex London, Kiki Strike: Inside the Shadow City by Kirsten Miller, Vicious by V. E. Schwab

Fat Kid Rules the World: A Banned Book Review

Fat Kid Rules the World by K. L. GoingTroy Billings is seventeen years old. He weighs 296 pounds. He’s six foot one. And he has a crew cut. Yeah, that’s right, a crew cut. He is a sweating fat kid standing on the edge of the subway platform over the yellow line and looking down.

And, if you think about it right, there’s something funny about it, there really is.

At least until Curt MacCrae, the wily blonde ferret of a boy–sometimes student, sometimes dropout, all-the-time legend (and all-the-time homeless) boy/guitar genius, saves Troy’s life.

Suddenly, instead of jumping in front of the F train Troy is the new drummer in Curt’s band. Even though he can’t actually play the drums.

As Troy learns the ins and outs of Punk Rock and being Curt’s friend, he also finds that hitting it big as a drummer and in life might have a lot more to do with his attitude than is weight in Fat Kid Rules the World (2004) by K. L. Going.

I didn’t realize it until just now when I was writing up the summary part of the review (I write those all myself, did you all know that?), but this is actually one of my favorite books.

It’s not easy being the outsider because you can’t shop at the same stores as the skinny kids or because you’re plain old bigger than everyone else.* It’s not easy having a brother who thinks you’re a loser or a father who pretty much knows you’re a waste of space. Troy has all of those things bringing him down.

He also has the most amazing sense of humor that comes through in every page of the book in his charming narration. Going manages to take a story that could be tragic and make it funny, poignant, hopeful and amazing. It’s short enough to dazzle reluctant readers, deep enough to thrill anyone looking for something more “literary.” In short, Fat Kid Rules the World is just kind of a great book.

But not everyone thinks so . . . *cue dramatic segue music*

For those of you who might not know, we are smack in the middle of Banned Books Week (September 25 to October 2, 2010). Banned Books Week is an annual thing that ALA has been organizing since 1982. It’s a week to raise awareness about books that are challenged in local libraries for reasons ranging from vaguely logical in a skewed-censorship-supporting-way to the completely insane (like this guy who thought Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson was pornographic**).

At its core, Banned Books Week is, quite simply, about celebrating the freedom to read whatever you want. (Possibly also to read whatever you want without remorse.) Thankfully larger library systems, like the one where I work, don’t have a lot of challenges that reach this level. But many libraries do and it’s a serious problem because people should be able to make their own decisions about what they read. And it’s not just modern books either, many popular classics are banned or challenged all the time.

To celebrate Banned Books Week The Rejectionist and T. H. Mafi have proposed that everyone post a review of their favorite banned book on September 30, so here (obviously) is my review of Fat Kid Rules the World by K. L. Going which was the 58th most banned book of the decade (here’s the bonus list for 1990 to 1999) and also one of the sweetest, most optimistic books out there (in a manly, all of the characters are boys, kind of way). Oh and it was a Printz Award honor book in 2004.

Also, because I enjoy sharing links, here also is K. L. Going’s post about a recent challenge to Fat Kid Rules the World.

*I actually had many petite friends in high school who came to my shoulder and it’s really weird being surrounded by people who are smaller than you. Just saying. Moving on . . .

**SPOILER: He thought it was pornographic because of a rape scene. You read that right. You may already have seen a lot of #speakloudly hashtags on Twitter or heard about it through another book blog.

Possible Pairings: Will by Maria Boyd, You Look Different in Real Life by Jennifer Castle, Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan, King of the Screwups by K. L. Going, Geography Club by Brent Hartinger, The Astonishing Adventures of Fanboy and Goth Girl by Barry Lyga, This Song Will Save Your Life by Leila Sales

How to Catch a Star: A Picture Book Review

Once there was a boy and that boy loved stars very much. In fact, he could think of nothing grander than catching his own star to call his friend in How to Catch a Star (2004) by Oliver Jeffers.

Jeffers’s whimsical first picture book blends easy to follow text with sharp, clean illustrations to create something remarkable. Everything about this story invites readers to stop for moment and plan their own scheme to catch that elusive star.

It’s not easy to build suspense into a 32 page picture book, but Jeffers manages it. Will the boy catch the star? Will he find a friend? It’s hard to say in the beginning–but don’t worry, everything works out in the end.

The clear, short sections of text combined with large, often full-page, illustrations make How to Catch a Star ideal for reading aloud or for early readers.

Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy: A Review

Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy by Gary D. Schmidt (Yearling cover)Turner Buckminster has lived in Phippsburg, Maine for almost six whole hours. He has dipped his hands in its waves, smelled the sharp scent of its pine trees. He has looked out at the sea. Turner has even seen the clapboard parsonage beside the church his father will minister now that they are no longer in Boston and the small house beyond whose function he could not yet fathom (and soon enough would not believe).

Six whole hours in Maine.

He didn’t know how much longer he could stand it.

After a dismal arrival, a disastrous baseball game and one too many reminders that he is, in fact, a minister’s son, Turner is just about ready to light out for the territories. Surely, life out west would be better. It would certainly be simpler with no need to remember his manners and always wear those darned starched white shirts that simply do not work in the summer heat.

At least Turner has the sea breeze to keep him company. Being a sneaky, playful breeze it soon leads Turner to Malaga Island and his first friend in Maine.

Lizzie Bright Griffin is Turner’s opposite in almost every way. She has lived on Malaga all her life, just like her parents and her granddaddy. A community founded by former slaves, Malaga is a poor island and largely seen as a blemish on the landscape by Phippsburg’s elite. But to Lizzie it is the most wonderful place in the world. It is home.

Turner and Lizzie have every reason to hate each other. Instead they become fast friends. Soon enough Turner can’t imagine his life without knowing Lizzie or Malaga. Meanwhile, change is coming. Phippsburg is plotting to force the islander’s off Malaga to pave the way for a lucrative tourist industry that will lead Phippsburg into the future.

The change seems inevitable. Still Turner feels he and Lizzie have to try and fight this horrible injustice. Only time will tell if it will be enough to save Malaga in Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy (2004) by Gary D. Schmidt.

This story is based on the real life destruction of Malaga island in 1912 and (spoiler alert, insofar as a real event can be considered a spoiler) the island is not saved. Schmidt has created a stunning novel about a real story that is shocking but also needs to be told and remembered.

The writing here is charming and surprisingly appealing given the narrow focus of the narrative. Biblical references Turner acquired from his minister’s-son-upbringing are interwoven seamlessly in a way that works even if the source behind the references is not always clear to readers with a different knowledge set.

Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy is also the only book I know of that is both a Newbery and Printz award honor book (both honors received in 2005). This never happens. It’s kind of as amazing as Sandra Bullock’s recent awards sweep winning the Golden Globe for best actress in a comedy and a drama and winning the Oscar for best actress besides. It’s just really rare and a real sign of overall awesomeness for a book written for young people.

Despite a very clearly defined plot (as is the way when a story is based on real events), this book is not easy to make sense of just based on a blurb or the cover, more on those in a minute. That’s because Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy is a very subtle, smart book. It really needs to be read before you can fully appreciate its magic. Phippsburg and its inhabitants are fully realized as characters. Even the sea breeze has its own special place as a character of sorts moving the story along.

Some historical novels relate detailed accounts of real events. Schmidt does that to an extent here, but even better is the full immersion of this story. You don’t read this one, you live it. A detailed author’s note at the end of the book also details the real story that inspired this fictional one.

Now a bit more about those covers. As far as I can tell, Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy has three covers. The middle one here, the one with the primitive style artwork, was the original 2004 cover. In 2006 Yearling repackaged the book as a paperback with the top cover, the one split in half between Lizzie/Turner in the boat, and the whale. Finally in 2008 the book was reprinted again (I believe by Powell) as a mass market paperback which can be seen in the last image here, the smallest one that is predominantly yellow hued in the background.

I might be wrong here, but my suspicion is that the book was repackaged to try and make it more appealing to young readers since its 2005 honors already made it clear that the book had literary appeal. Personally, my favorite is the Yearling cover (the top one here) because it’s exactly how I pictured Turner and Lizzie in my own imagination. I can see the skill in the original cover’s artwork and how it fits with the story. On the other hand, it seems very off-putting to a young person looking for a book (again this could be me, but my colleague “Lynn” agreed with me)–I know it was off-putting for me before I got into the story. Whatever cover you prefer, this book is definitely well worth reading.

Possible Pairings: Lucky Strikes by Louis Bayard, The Game of Love and Death by Martha Brockenbrough, Origin of Species by Charles Darwin, The Voyage of the Beagle by Charles Darwin, Someone to Run With by David Grossman, Charles and Emma: The Darwins’ Leap of Faith by Deborah Heiligman, Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice by Phillip Hoose, Holes by Louis Sachar, Maniac Magee by Jerry Spinelli, The Aeneid by Virgil, Generation Dead by Daniel Waters, Black Dove, White Raven by Elizabeth Wein

Strapless: A Non-Fiction Review

Strapless by Deobarah DavisI read this book in August 2008 and have been meaning to review it ever since. For shame.

Most people know John Singer Sargent’s infamous painting “Madame X” even if they don’t know the name and have never heard of the artist because this painting has quite the sensational story attached to it.

According to surrounding lore, Sargent initially painted “Madame X” with the right strap of her black gown slipping off of her shoulder. When the painting debuted at the 1884 Salon in Paris (the place to have a painting displayed at the time and a good signifier of current or future artistic success) it created an uproar, so scandalous was the pose. Indeed, facing numerous charges of the painting’s indecency, Sargent eventually repainted the strap sitting firmly, and properly, on Madame’s shoulder.

Pursuing my art history minor in New York City I had the amazing opportunity to see “Madame X” in person at the Metropolitan Museum. The painting has always had a special place in my heart for, if nothing else, the drama associated with its debut. So I was very pleased when a copy of Deborah Davis‘ book Strapless: John Singer Sargent and the Fall of Madame X (2004) fell into my lap.

Part historical research, part biography, part social commentary, part feminist text, Deborah Davis handles a lot of material in a relatively small volume (320 pages with font of average size and relevant pictures included). One of the reasons Davis decided to research this particular painting and its subject is because so little information remains about Virginie Amelie Gautreau, her life, or how Sargent came to paint her scandalous portrait.

While “Madame X” eventually catapulted Sargent into the artistic canon and toward immortality, the portrait likely led to Gautreau’s ruin and her obscurity. In her book, Davis tries to set the record straight, portraying Gautreau as the powerful, savvy woman she was before a bare shoulder changed her social standing forever.

My library system catalogs this book as a biography of John Singer Sargent, which for a lot of reasons is the logical choice. However, really, most of the book is spent looking at the life of Sargent’s subject and patron: Madame Gautreau.

The book traces Gautreau’s family history, her migration from New Orleans to Paris (where she became a quasi-celebrity along the lines of Kim Kardashian or Paris Hilton virtually overnight at the tender age of twenty-three), and perhaps most interestingly just how much work went into being a beautiful woman in Paris in the 1880s. No details escapes Davis’ examination as she looks at the clothing, finances, indeed the very persona Gautreau had to cultivate to live the decadent lifestyle she became accustomed to.

The strong point in Strapless is when Davis sticks to such facts: how Gautreau lived, why Sargent would want to paint her, what happened at the Salon when “Madame X” debuted. Davis also expertly outlines the tenuous, and often stressful, patron-artisan relationships that Sargent and artists like him had to cultivate in order to eke out a living with their brush.

The momentum flags when Davis veers into the hypothetical wondering if Sargent might have been in love with Gautreau, torn between her and one of his young proteges. While the theory is interesting, it does remain a theory very akin to the conspiracy theories so often found in research on the Titanic.

That aside, Strapless is a remarkably well-done book. The thorough research shows through without dulling the writing. Davis’ text is conversational and very accessible–more so, it must be said, than many writings found in the field of art history. An excellent book on art history for enthusiasts and art historians alike.
____
Sound good? Find it on Amazon: Strapless

The Key to the Golden Firebird: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

The Key to the Golden Firebird by Maureen JohnsonI’m embarrassed to say that this book has been on my to read list for almost as long as it has been published. But then I started following the author’s blog and her twitters and they were so amazing that the idea of still not reading any of her books became unbearable, especially since the author is so awesome that I want to write to her and ask if we can be friends. So, last week I put every YA book I could think of that I had been dying to read on hold. The Key to the Golden Firebird (2004)  by Maureen Johnson was at the top of the pile.

May doesn’t always understand her older and younger sisters, she isn’t even sure she looks like them. But even though May lacks their athleticism or general interest in sports, the three Gold sisters were family; they always had each others’ backs.

That was before their father’s death shattered their previously strong family unit.

Brooks, the eldest, is so busy drowning her sorrows that everything else begins to fall to the wayside. Things get even worse as she begins to run with the wrong crowd and her drinking escalates.

Palmer, the youngest of the Gold  sisters, is trying to understand all of the changes at home while being the youngest member of her school softball team. But as the pressure and anxiety build, Palmer begins to wonder if she’ll ever be able to cope with anything ever again.

That leaves May, the smart, responsible middle sister. While her mother is working overtime and her sisters struggle through their own crises, May is left to handle the more quotidian tasks of making dinner and otherwise ensuring the continued (albeit relative) stability of their household. Adrift among a family in crisis, May is putting on a brave face as she balances work, school, and the even more daunting task of learning to drive. When May’s lifelong friend, and sometime nemesis, offers to teach her to drive things get even more complicated. Unlike driving, there are no instructions for grieving . . . or falling for the last person you ever thought you would.

As the girls drift apart each gravitates, in their own way, to their father’s 1967 Pontiac Firebird and also the site of his death. The Golden Firebird might be a horrible reminder of everything the Golds lost, but it might also be the key to finally moving on.

This book is written in the third person. Segments are told from each sister’s perspective with the bulk of the story going to May since it is, arguably, her book. Initially the structure was surprising, but it makes sense since a significant amount of this novel is about how the Gold sisters relate to each other–seeing events from each of their perspectives both complicates and clarifies these relationships. The novel artfully traces the healing process of each sister, and the family at large. Although some things remain up in the air the story ends, as it should, with a sense that these characters will make it through.

Johnson became one of my favorite writers before I ever opened one of her books, but The Key to the Golden Firebird showed that my admiration was well-founded. The story here is incredibly compelling and the characters come alive on the page.

Possible Pairings: If I Stay by Gayle Forman, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before by Jenny Han, The Miles Between by Mary E. Pearson, A Map of the Known World by Lisa Ann Sandell, The Edge of Falling by Rebecca Serle, Unbreak My Heart by Melissa C. Walker

Miss Smithers: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Miss Smithers by Susan JubyLong time readers might remember my previous demonstration of fondness for Alice, I Think by Susan Juby. By itself, the book was fantastically funny with some great plot points and characters. So imagine my happiness back in 2005 when I realized a sequel (set a bit after the first novel’s events) had been published and was available from my place of employ.

Like many good stories, Miss Smithers (2004) starts with an offer that Alice can’t refuse–especially if she wants to prove to everyone that she really is a special girl. Being previously home schooled and a bit of a loner, Alice is surprised when the local Rod and Gun Club asks her to be their representative at the Miss Smithers Beauty Pageant. That is until she hears about the four hundred dollar allotment for clothing. At that point, much to her mother’s horror, Alice is prepared to participate in anything.

Unlike higher profile pageants, Miss Smithers has enough events that are varied and vague enough that every participant has a chance of being good at something. Surely that must also include a moderately well-adjusted teen who used to think she was a hobbit, right?

After one botched newsletter distribution and the purchase of questionable attire for a beauty pageant, Alice begins to question her initial (over)confidence at winning Miss Smithers. Of course, it’s only then that Alice really starts to learn and grow from her brief experience as a beauty queen.

Like Alice, I Think before it, Miss Smithers has received some negative reviews from people who argue they can’t connect with Alice. For my part, I can’t understand why as I love Alice who seems to be the embodiment of the simultaneously apathetic and overeager teen found inside everyone.

Other negatives included a review that railed against the discussion of underage sex and drinking found in this book. There are two sides to that issue. As a teen I read a lot of books with characters who had sex and drank. Most of my friends and family will agree these readings had no detriment on my moral code. There are also a lot of books out there that are far more explicit about both topics.

In relation to this novel: yes Alice does get drunk, and yes she does consider sex quite a bit. But she also decides to take a chastity vow and spends a good amount of time contemplating what Jesus really would do. All in the same novel. Like most sixteen-year-old girls, Alice changes her mind a lot. As such, Juby creates a realistic albeit sarcastic protagonist with a well-rounded variety of experiences in this story.

Like the first novel in this trilogy, Miss Smithers does follow a diary format. The “standards” of that genre are adhered to a bit more loosely here with dated entries reading more like the usual prose. Not to worry though, this novel features a different kind of gimmick instead of the diary entries. Interspersed between chapters, Alice includes a handy newsletter (hand typed) detailing pageant events as well as a spreadsheet tallying each entrant’s points and progress toward the win. These newsletters are also a great way to look at Alice’s increasing maturity throughout the story as she begins to take more pride in the competition and becomes more familiar with each of the contestants.

Equal parts humor and sarcasm make this book a great read for anyone who would never usually pay attention to beauty pageants in books or otherwise.

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