Thursday, September 30, 2010

Review of Living Hell by Catherine Jinks

Jinks, Catherine. Living Hell. Houghton Mifflin, 2010.

It's hard to find YA SF these days that isn't about some hideous dystopian near-future. I like reading about nuclear winter, nasty dictatorships, and hungry zombies as much as the next person, but for me, true SF means outer space. Like most folks hooked at an early age by Heinlein and his ilk, tales of aliens, space travel, and distant planets make my heart beat faster.

Living Hell's cover art, with its swashbuckling space suit-clad teen and waving alien tentacles, promises a riproaring space adventure, and to a certain extent it delivers. This is a nail-biting adventure in the old-fashioned SF tradition with a classic setting - the generation ship, taking colonists on a decades-long trip to find a habitable planet that they can settle. 16-year-old Cheney is one of them, having been born during the voyage. The ship Plexus is the only world he has ever known, and even as he tells us about how life as he knew it changed, his narrative voice is filled with nostalgia for those days of long ship corridors made of metal and plastic.

Change it does, and pretty drastically. After flying through a mysterious force, the ship begins to alter, becoming a living entity. Not in any kind of sterile "Hal" way - that's been done too often. No, the physical ship itself turns from metal and plastic into sinew, muscle, and tissue. Imagine living in someone's guts, a la Fantastic Voyage, except that they don't have a space ship to zoom around in. Instead, they have to venture through the now spongy, slimy, lumpy, stringy pink hallways and corridors on foot. Oh, and as in Fantastic Voyage, there is a rather active immune system that sees the humans as intruders who must be destroyed.

This is not a light-hearted SF romp. The body count is high, the deaths are gruesome, and the outlook is grim. This was somewhat unexpected for me, as Catherine Jinks' previous books, not to mention the corny retro jacket art, led me to believe there would be some kind of tongue-in-cheek levity. And while the idea of everyday objects like shuttles and laundry detergent discs transforming into internal body parts is sort of amusing at first, the reality is quite horrifying.

Cheney, our narrator, describes all this in vivid and visceral terms. The reaction of everyone from children to adults to this terrifying situation is absolutely authentic. Faced with a new hideous sight or discovery, the first reaction is often a panicked wail of "Oh no! Oh NO!" But then folks rally and do what they need to do to survive, successfully or otherwise. No one does anything that seems super-heroish or out of character, so the reader stays fully immersed in the intensity of the action.

Amidst the action, we do learn a lot about the culture aboard a relatively small generation ship. Loyalty and a sense of team spirit are clearly indoctrinated from an early age - Cheney's intense admiration for his "big brother" or mentor is balanced by his fierce and unquestioned need to keep the younger children safe. The fact that his "little brother" is such a wild and unpredictable person disturbs him greatly, as ship life is all about harmony and control - but that disruptive spirit might well be needed to deal with this new situation they all find themselves in.

The denoument is abrupt and somewhat predictable, and the reader will be left with lots of questions. We know from the beginning that Cheney, at least, will survive this encounter - but the details of his existence must be guessed at, as we only get hints. One thing I love about dystopian books is all that gritty detail about daily life under duress, but we don't get that here. How does one ever get clean if one lives in something's slimy guts? Inquiring minds want to know (but would rather not spend to much time imagining - bleah!).

All in all, good scary gooey slimy deadly fun - in outer space! Recommended for ages 13 and up.

Monday, September 27, 2010

It wiggled and jiggled and tickled inside her

Have you ever swallowed a fly? I have, a time or two. The nasty thing about flies (and I'm talking the real deal, not those insubstantial no-see-'ums, dozens of which I probably inhaled during my run this morning) is that they don't just go straight down.

First, they stick in your throat. Flies are astonishingly spiky, so they feel like particularly bristly burrs, and your first reaction is to hack and cough and spit and hack again. To no avail, usually. And meanwhile, you're certain that this fly may emit some kind of corrosive poison, which will cause your throat to close up. Death by Fly is NOT what you want your death certificate to say.

Because the fly won't come up, and because its presence in your throat is intolerable, you decide to swallow it down. This is not a decision lightly made, as the thought of a fly buzzing in your stomach is only slightly less horrifying than the reality of 6 sharp little legs and 2 wings lodged in your throat, but in desperation, you swallow convulsively. And swallow, and hack, and swallow - and is your throat closing up? Is a poison even now coursing through your bloodstream? Could that have been a bee??

Finally, the fly can no longer be felt in your throat, having quietly dropped down into your stomach during all the panic and uproar.

By that time, you're so relieved at not being able to feel that prickly lump in your throat that you go on with your day. Unless, of course, you're the Old Lady. And really, I can't really blame her for her unorthodox and ultimately deadly cure for a swallowed fly. A desperate situation calls for desperate measures.

Friday, September 24, 2010

"This is my refuge"

Hector Tobar has a poignant column in the LA Times about the LA Public Library's new "closed on Mondays" hours, while schools languish and the newest Halo installment had a midnight launch on a school night.

He writes "Game publishers make millions. School systems cut millions. Libraries lock their doors. Obviously, there's something wrong with this equation."

If plastic bottles were horses...

Being stuck behind a desk all day makes one forget that the City of Los Angeles is a veritable hive of creative activity, full of people busily spinning miracles out of thin air.

And then earlier this month, all manner of fascinating objects appeared in the Youth Services office, made of discarded paper and plastic and cardboard and other found or recyclable materials. Colorful and eye-poppingly creative, these were the regional finalists of our Teen Reading Club "Trash to Art" contest. To ensure that the judging was both objective and expert, we recruited staff from Central Library's Art and Recreation department to choose the top 4 winners.

Not only were these art pieces fabulous in themselves, but most of them were accompanied by touching explanations by the teen artists. Crystal, who created a violin out of cardboard, toilet paper rolls, plastic spoons, and newspaper, writes, "...Think of the amount of trees on this earth that are diminishing by the second...Imagine, instead of using wood to make instruments like violins, pianos, and guitars, we use things like plastic or even old cardboard!" Jacqueline, who created a lovely strapless dress from newspaper, make-ready sheets, packing tape, and velcro, assures us that the dress is "surprisingly lightweight and comfortable!" And Grace, who was not a top winner but whose plastic bottle/caps/newspaper/sand "Flower of the Future" is perky and charming, writes, "I created a flower because I see trash in nature everywhere."

1st Place Winner: Carousel Horse
Lisa R and Isabelo L, Memorial Branch
This life-sized horse made from bottles, straws, plastic bags, and clear packing tape, is a jaw-dropper. These two teens are accomplished artists.

2nd Place Winner: Violin
Crystal T, Age 14, Westwood Branch
This violin looks like the real thing from a distance. Don't you love the plastic spoons?

3rd Place Winner: Dress
Jacqueline G, age 16, Sherman Oaks Branch
Really, I should have modeled this so you can get the full effect, but it shows a bit too much leg for my comfort.

Honorable Mention: Purse
Anais M, 8th grade, Venice Branch

Plenty of staff members expressed an interest in purchasing this handbag, which is knitted from 20 plastic bags and is pretty much guaranteed to last forever.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Review of Boom! by Mark Haddon

Haddon, Mark. Boom! David Fickling Books, 2010.

One of the defining moments of my first trip to England (besides nearly getting creamed by a double-decker bus near Trafalgar Square because I looked left, not right, before jaywalking) was discovering that the "cheese and pickle" sandwich I bought from a small shop was not in fact a cheese sandwich with bright green slices of pickled cucumber, but rather a cheese sandwich slathered with a brownish sweetish chutney-like substance. Ah! Toto, I've a feeling we're not in the United States any more.

And so it is with Boom! Here are the first two sentences of the book: "I was on the balcony eating a sandwich. Red Leicester and gooseberry jam." Wham, the reader is transported to merry old Great Britain. Here are some other exotic words one encounters during this breezy and often hilarious SF novel: garibaldi biscuits, secateurs, flat, paracetamol, articulated lorry, noughts and crosses, and tarmac. As someone who is offended by the word "flashlight" being substituted for "torch" in books that clearly take place in England, I find this refreshing indeed. American kids aren't so dumb and provincial that they can't figure out and even relish some good British lingo. So hats off to Boom!'s editor, who left the language intact in the American edition.

As for the plot, it's got two intrepid lads, plenty of sinister aliens disguised as teachers and other innocuous folks, a brave and reckless big sister, a wild ride through Scotland, a space station, and a loch - in other words, plenty of good stuff, even if it doesn't hang together very well. Let's say there are just a few loose ends. But it's the sheer funniness of the book, both its tone and its tossed-off one-liners, that is its huge selling point. Oh, and the bright orange cover and the exclamation point in the title.

I'm ranking this up there with Adam Rex's The True Meaning of Smekday, Frank Cottrell Boyce's Cosmic, and K.A. Holt's Mike Stellar: Nerves of Steel as funny and excellent science fiction for middle grade kids.

Highly recommended for grades 4 to 6.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Review of Ostrich Boys by Keith Gray

Gray, Keith. Ostrich Boys. Random House, 2010.

What is it about road trips that is so seductive and compelling? Simply steering my car toward the freeway that will carry me out of town makes my heart beat faster, even if I'm just headed to the San Fernando Valley to visit one of the library branches there. And if I keep going on one of my semi-annual 400-mile trips to visit rellies in Sacramento? Woohoo! Queen of the Road, baby!

Ostrich Boys has a good bit of that adrenalin-fueled excitement, made even spicier by the fact that Blake, Sim, and Kenny are heading out illicitly. In fact, the road trips taken by teens in most books are either accidental (as in Ry's journey in Lynne Rae Perkins' As Easy As Falling Off The Face of the Earth) or a way of running away from something (as in Rachel Ward's Numbers) or to something (Siobhan Dowd's Solace of the Road). Generally, the road trips are not what any adult would consider a Good Idea - but that makes them all the more compelling.

Sensible, stocky Blake is our narrator, and he makes it seem an inevitable result of the trio's true friendship with and understanding of their friend Ross that they steal his cremated ashes (not long after he has been killed by a car while riding his bike) and abscond with them to Ross, Scotland. As it turns out, they didn't understand Ross - or each other, or themselves - as well as they thought, but after a whirlwind trip full of missteps, bonding, quarreling, girls, and bungee jumping, things are much more clear. Not necessarily better, just more clear.

The nature and mystery of male friendship is slowly revealed between madcap bouts of misadventure, and somehow it all feels realistic. Well - there's a wild ride on stolen motorscooters that has more than a touch of Teen Movie about it, but still, the scene is both funny and ludicrous enough to work.

Girls are the ones who know how to be friends, a girl tells Blake at one point. They tell each other everything, give each other presents, and are always there for each other. Boys don't do that! And while Blake feels hotly defensive of his own close friendship with his pals, he doesn't quite know how to convince her; he just knows how important it is. Readers of Ostrich Boys will certainly agree with Blake that Guy Friendship is a deep thing indeed.

A fine road trip/friendship novel for ages 13 - 16.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

LA loves libraries; its politicians don't

Read this LA Weekly article for a thoughtful look at our struggles to provide library service in Los Angeles.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Books for a Penny and more library joy

When my mood plummets, all I have to do is wrest my glazed eyeballs away from the sinister glow of my computer monitor and the overwhelming scrawl of items on my Must Do Immediately list, and instead focus on the Happy Place that is my wonderful library.

Are you in the market for some gently used children's books? Then don't miss the Children's Literature Department's monthly used book sales, held by the indispensable Friends of Children and Literature on the third Saturday of the month from 10 am to noon in the glorious 2nd floor rotunda of Central Library. The next one is this Saturday, September 18. Special - all nonfiction titles only cost one penny each!

Do you like to hobnob with writers? Then Teen Read Week (Oct 17 - 23) at the LA Public Library is your idea of heaven, because we've got 23 YA and middle-grade authors visiting 14 branches. If the names Mark London Williams, Cecil Castellucci, and Janet Tashjian make your fan antennae quiver, then check out the full list of authors, branches, days, and times.

And check out these cool displays, advertising programs and events past and present at the Children's Literature and Teen'scape Departments of Central Library:

There is lots more going on out at the branches, so check here for a children's or teen library event near you.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Review of Hamster Magic by Lynne Jonell

Jonell, Lynne. Hamster Magic. Illustrated by Brandon Dorman. Random House, 2010.

Any reader of fantasy and fairy tales knows that if one is granted a magic wish, one must be very careful what one wishes for! Try to quell the greed (or you might end up with sausages stuck to your nose) and the desperate desire to thwart death (in fact, just don't make wishes with monkeys' paws) - and always, always think before you wish.

The four Willow siblings have just moved to a house in the country for a year and are feeling just a little miffed about it. It might be better if they had a dog, but their parents have made it clear that they can't have a big animal until they can learn to take care of a small one. Unfortunately, their track record is not great, seeing as how the kids are now on their third hamster (Hammy the Third), and he has now escaped only days after they discovered him in their new cellar, chowing down on dog food.

Not only does Hammy turn up again, but he turns out to be a talking, wish-granting hamster. And Celia, the youngest Willow, makes a rash wish that turns her into a hamster the size of a large dog. During their night-time visit to the Great Hamster, who just might be able to reverse the spell, the Willow kids learn that the land all around their new house is very unique indeed, as are the burrowing animals that inhabit it.

This is a short and breezy fantasy a la Edward Eager, perfect for kids who have just learned to read with confidence and want a "real" chapter book. The two sisters and two brothers are sketched in with just enough details to be able to distinguish them from one another, and Celia is a most realistic hamster, filled with a zest for life (as long as life is filled with plenty of eating and running).

The illustrations in my advanced reader copy were incomplete, but the sketches are fun and endearing. My only quibble is that the hamsters are always depicting standing up on hind legs, even when moving around. Although hamsters do stand up in order to get a better view or to reach some food, they do their prodigious scurrying on all fours. Yes, I KNOW this is a fantasy! Still, hamsters are much too sensible, even magical ones, to try to walk in such an uncomfortable way.

Below is Tina, snagging some leftover breakfast cereal. That girl does love her vittles.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Hot Hunks of fiction fan art

While I was browsing through fan art while preparing my last post, I noticed that, while there are very few depictions of Sophie from Howl's Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones, there are plenty of the delightfully vain and gorgeous Howl. What artist could resist drawing him?

Howl by *vivianpop12 on deviantART

I'm finally reading Mockingjay, so was pleased to find this illustration of Gale, Peeta, and Finnick - the Men of Mockingjay. Drawing by phennin.

Percy Jackson is a great guy and all, but I've always been a Grover girl. Here he is in all his goatish glory:

Grover Underwood by ~mmassafera on deviantART

Did you picture Keenan of Melissa Marr's Wicked Lovely as being quite this ... lithesome?

Wicked Lovely - Keenan Color by ~xiannustudio on deviantART

No, I refuse absolutely to include any vampires or werewolves!

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Braids, young and old

Wednesday was something of a blur, with our Children's Librarians' Information Meeting in the morning and the Children's Services Advisory Board meeting in the afternoon, and not quite enough time to go through all my emails and eat lunch in between.

Luckily, one of the children's librarians gave me a shot of happy energy early in the day by remarking that I had a "Katniss braid." I did?? I've been continuing to grow it ever longer, and so that it doesn't look entirely disreputable, I've been wrestling it into one braid that hangs down between my shoulder braids.

I didn't ever think about the fact that Katniss has a braid! But sure enough, she does, and it's depicted in much fanart.
Katniss Studies Take 4 by ~Ratgirlstudios on deviantART
And now that I think about it, Beka Cooper has a braid as well, a good long thick one. So that miscreants can't grab her by it, Beka braids a spiked cord into her hair - ouch!
Beka Cooper by ~themoe on deviantART
I can't remember if she is described in the book as having a braid, but in the movie version of Howl's Moving Castle, Sophie has one both as a teen and as an old woman.
That horror Sophie feels as she look at herself is not unknown to me, although I have a few decades to go before I look THAT old. (Sometimes, though, when I look in the mirror when the sun is shining through the windows in a particularly pitiless way, I gasp "Llama Face!" a la Emperor Kuzco.)

One thing for sure, I'm no Katniss or Beka. The thing is, I realize that only when I look in the mirror. Like most folks, I feel ageless inside, and perhaps those of us who read children's and young adult fiction feel even more ageless than most. After all, we inhabit the thoughts, hearts, and minds of young folks on a regular basis. That Katniss is almost 30 years younger than me matters not a bit while I'm reading Mockingjay.

Though I felt compelled to make derogatory remarks about my graying braid to that children's librarian, inside I was thinking "YES!" And I walked around all day with an extra bounce to my step, feeling like a young warrior as my braid swished powerfully behind me.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Review of Spaceheadz by Jon Scieszka

Scieszka, Jon. Spaceheadz. Made extra-strength by Francesco Sedita. Illustrated by Shane Prigmore. Simon & Schuster, 2010.

It's hard to be the new kid in school, but when you're immediately lumped together with the other two new kids, who happen to be weird beyond belief, then you're off to a really bad school year.

Michael K. is a regular sort of 5th grader, but Jennifer (square head, wears a tutu, spouts Wrestlemania slogans, eats pencils and other inappropriate items) and Bob (square head, wears a pink shirt, spouts advertising slogans, hugs fire hydrants and other inappropriate objects) are space aliens. Oh, and so is Fluffy, who looks like a hamster but doesn't act like one.

The plot, such as it is, involves Jennifer, Bob, and Fluffy trying to enlist Michael K.'s help to unite all humans into one big SPHDZ organism in order to save Earth, while acting inappriately at school and in a grocery store. Meanwhile, Agent Umber of the Anti-Alien Agency is trying to track down and eradicate the aliens.

While I'm all in favor of wacky SF, this was a bit too frenzied and scattered for my personal taste. I'm not sure that the ubiquitous advertising slogans will be recognized by kids (although maybe I'm sadly wrong about that), and certainly they will date this book in just a few years' time. There were some bits that made me laugh, such as when a girl says "See you tomorrow" to the 3 aliens and Fluffy says wonderingly, "Wow, she can see us in the future!"

The illustrations are sassy and hilarious, however, and the little scientific interludes about waves and other scientific phenomena are entertaining if surreal (until one gets to the end and sees the point).

The front jacket advertises "now with websites!" and sure enough, there are indeed websites. I'll have you know that after visiting, I am now a Spaceheadz by the name of Frosted Fabric Softener. Readers can also visit Michael K's teacher's dorky website and also this site that requires a secret code (to be found in chapter 32) in order to see what would have happened if Michael K. hadn't taught the aliens about how to cross the street safely. Best of all is the fabulous official website of the Anti-Alien Agency.

Frothy and filled with silly jokes, this is SF that some kids will love, but that will leave others cold. For ages 9 to 11.

Review of Ashes by Kathryn Lasky

There are plenty of books about the Holocaust, for all ages and from all points of view. In Yann Martel's Beatrice and Virgil, this is problematic for the main character, a writer named Henry, because he has written what he feels is a fresh allegorical look at the Holocaust, only to realize (thanks to his editors) that in fact he has covered the same ground in the same way as countless others.

This is the challenge for any writer covering this intense, fraught, and oft-described subject. Ashes meets it by presenting the story from the point of view of 13-year-old Gaby, who lives with her upper-middle class family in 1932 Berlin. Gaby isn't Jewish, but her family is disgusted and alarmed by the fascist element - most notably Hitler's SS and SA troups - that seems to be gaining power and influence in Germany.

Gaby is a big reader, and so a huge book burning staged by the Nazis is a powerful and horrifying event for her. However, her antennae go up long before this, as the tone of her society changes in ways small and large, banal and menacing. We often ask "How could regular people have allowed such horrors to happen?" and this book will give readers a glimpse at how this might have become possible.

What if the Tea Party folks managed to come to power, along with those who have become stridently anti-Muslim? We have some powerful laws and documents to protect our freedom in the US, but if those laws became eroded, there is a pretty scary fringe element that would be happy to rush in and take over. Not that the US is anything as volatile or horrific as 1930s Germany - but what books like Ashes show us is that we always need to be on our guard against hatred and irrationality.

I sensed bits and pieces of many different books and movies about this time period in Ashes. There is a boyfriend-turned-Nazi, a la "The Sound of Music," and a scene in which a frighteningly blond youth sings a stirring patriotic song in a Biergarten is very similar to a scene in "Cabaret." It's Gaby's thoughtful reactions to the people and events around her that form the core of this novel, so a bit of retreading isn't so terrible.

Ashes is well-written (from the clear-eyed, if occasionally appropriately histrionic point of view of teenaged Gaby), and if it isn't strikingly unique, that's fine. The Holocaust is one of those topics we need to keep thinking, talking, and reading about, in order to ensure that it never happens again.
Ages 11 to 14

Friday, September 3, 2010

More things that cheer me up

1. Candace's series on "52 Ways to Use Your Library Card" on Book, Booker, Bookest. Here's one of my favorites so far.

2. It's Cybils Season! If you blog about children's and/or teen literature, you have until September 15 to apply to be a judge. I was a judge last year for middle-grade SF and fantasy last year, which resulted in reading oodles of great books I might not have even heard of - so it's a great gig for reading addicts.

And keep your eyes peeled for news on nominating titles, which happens in October - 'cause ANYone can recommend books for those hard-working judges to read.

3. It's a Book by Lane Smith. Sometimes I feel sort of out of the loop and far away from the cutting edge because my phone is sweet and durable but not very smart and because I don't tweet or own an MP3 player. But Lane Smith reminds us, in a simple and hilarious way, that it's okay to Love the Book. Especially since the New York Times says that one should really detach one's brain from electronic gadgets once in a while, and perhaps the more, the better.