Monday, December 15, 2014

Book Review: "Zac & Mia" by A.J. Betts

They met in the most unlikely of places - the cancer ward while Zac was actually being kept in isolation following a bone marrow transplant.  It started with a knock on the wall, something to let the other know that someone was there, listening.  This was Mia's first time on the cancer ward though and she wasn't dealing with her diagnosis very well.  They made a strange sort of connection - one that would have never happened had they met anywhere else - and this friendship became more important than either could have imagined.

So, yes, this is a 'cancer book'.  If that is an instant turn-off for you, then there you go.  This is told from the perspective of each character, but in a different way.  The first third is told from Zac's point of view, the middle third switches back and forth between Zac and Mia, and then we finish the last section in Mia's voice.  I thought this was a interesting way to tell the story.  But since I got to know Zac first, I liked him immediately... and could not wrap my head around Mia at all.  So by the time I was given the chance to get to know her - it was going to be a tough sell.

As one who really loves YA contemporary fiction, I really wanted to like this book more than I did.  In the end, it was really just okay for me.  I did love that this is set in Australia and is by an Australian author and this is reflected in the language used.  But really, this is a quick read for someone who just loves realistic fiction that has to do with illness and finding strength within yourself with a side of romance.

*****
Zac & Mia
by A.J. Betts
HMH for Young Readers, 2014
289 pages
Source:  Purchased New
*****

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Thursday, December 11, 2014

Book Review: "Half Bad" by Sally Green

Nathan has lived his whole sixteen years being treated as less-than or hated by everyone outside his family (and even by some of his family).  His is a half code because his mother was a White Witch and his father is a Black Witch.  Not just any Black Witch mind you, just the deadliest, most dangerous, most hated Black Witch who ever was - Marcus.  The Council of White Witches would love to get him for once and all, and Nathan is convinced the only reason that he himself hasn't been killed yet is because the Council wants to use him as bait to get Marcus.  As Nathan becomes increasingly tormented and tortured, the White Witches plan becomes clear - Nathan isn't to be bait, he is being trained to kill Marcus.

Oh WOW.  This book is SO GOOD!  I was hooked instantly and had trouble putting this down.  Nathan is just such a perfectly imperfect main character.  He is flawed and vulnerable and I cannot wait for the next book in this series to come out so I can see what happens next!

Nathan is not the only great character here - he comes across a few others that are interesting in their own right.  The whole world that has been created here is familiar but curiously strange at the same time.  I mean, it is set in contemporary England, but the rules made for the existence of witches make sense in our world. even though it is set apart.  Its hard to explain, mostly because I'm still figuring out what I like in the fantasy genre and I don't really know how to talk intelligently about it yet.  In simple words, I really liked how this was constructed, loved the characters, and the pacing worked well for me.  So glad I read this!

Embarrassing side note:  I have loved this cover from first time I saw it, but let's not talk about how long it took for me to see the face.

*****
Half Bad
by Sally Green
Viking, 2014
394 pages
Series:  Half Bad #1
Source:  Purchased New
*****

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Monday, December 8, 2014

Graphic Novel Review: "Sex Criminals Volume 1: One Weird Trick" by Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky

Susie has an interesting "problem".  So does Jon.  And boy are they amazed when they figure out that the same thing happens to both of them.  What exactly is this problem?  Basically when they orgasm, time stops.

This is the first volume of collected comics (clearly intended for an adult audience) is presented as 5 chapters.  We get their back stories, and then get to see what they do together.  This means that they basically have lots of sex and then have fun while time has stopped.  Since Susie is a librarian whose library is being foreclosed on by the big bank... and Jon works at the big bank... they decide that they'd like to rob that bank and save the library.  Of course, someone comes along to stop them from robbing the bank because, well, stealing things is wrong.

So many things to like here - the humor, the art, the characters (mostly - there was one set of panels with Susie that kind of threw me a little) and the mystery.  Like, who is this sex policewoman?  How many others are there who can do this?  Let's just take a moment and revel in the outrageous absurdity of the premise to begin with!  I love it.  This is a majorly fun comic, and I'm looking forward to the next volume due in February 2015.

*****
Sex Criminals Volume 1:  One Weird Trick
by Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky
Image Comics, 2014
128 pages
Source:  Library
*****


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Thursday, December 4, 2014

Book Review: "Don't Make Me Think, Revisited" by Steve Krug

Oh, the beauty of web design.  With all of the web sites that we see on daily basis, we each know what we like and what we don't like pretty much immediately.  If you are designing a website, you pretty much want to steer clear of what people don't like.  Some of that is in the initial design, or pretty side of the web site.  But quite a bit is the usability, or how a user is able to use the website.

Usability includes things like - does the layout make sense?  can the user find/do what they set out to do without frustration?  does the user understand what you/your site is about?  It is not as easy to accomplish as you would think.  Personal bias and preference can come into play.  Not to mention that you know your site and you may assume that all you know of it and its purpose is obvious to everyone when in truth, it isn't that obvious.

This book is designed to help with the usability part of this.  It is a very accessible, easy to read "common sense approach" to evaluating and creating a better website for your visitors.  Krug goes through his talking points in a way that is easy to understand and with plenty of visual examples.  There were quite a few times where I thought to myself that "well, yeah - that makes sense, I knew that" but it is always good to have these kind of reminders when you are muddling through a huge project like web site design or redesign.  This is a quick read that will help you inform your process when tackling this kind of project from a known expert on this topic.

*****
Don't Make Me Think, Revisited
by Steve Krug
New Riders Publishing, 2013
200 pages
Source:  Library
*****

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Monday, December 1, 2014

Audio Book Review: "Okay for Now" by Gary D. Schmidt

Doug Swieteck is trying to find his way.  His family is a mess - his father is an abusive drunk, his older brother is a bully and his oldest brother is over fighting in the Vietnam War.  The only saving grace is his mother.  The family has just moved to a tiny town upstate, and things get off to a poor start, of course.  Doug is instantly characterized as a "thug" and his brother being accused of theft doesn't help...  but Doug does the best he can with the help of his only friend, one of the town librarian and John James Audubon's Birds of America.

This is such a surprisingly good story!  I was immediately drawn to Doug.  He just seemed like a good kid in a bad situation who just needed to catch a break.  I guess I didn't see from the beginning that Doug would find the strength and power to create his own breaks.  I really enjoyed seeing the different ways in which he interacted with people, and the realistic ways in which his overall emotional state affected his actions.  There are some very lighthearted and funny moments balanced by some incredibly intense and dark moments that had me close to tears.

The audio is fantastic.  The narrator, Lincoln Hoppe, is easy to listen to and adds wonderful emotion to his performance.  I truly believed he was Doug Swieteck, and was completely shaken when he started to read the end credits.

This is an upcoming book for my younger-teens book group at the library, and as that group is mostly boys - I am looking forward to their reactions.  I would also recommend this to someone interested in historical fiction from the 60s/Vietnam War because the second half of the book deals with the older brother's return which could be a book in itself.  This book also has strong themes of friendship, of the relationships (good and bad) between adults of authority (teachers, police, parents) and teens.

*****
Okay For Now
by Gary D. Schmidt
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011
Audio by Listening Library, 2011
360 pages; 9 1/2 hours
Source:  Library
*****

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Thursday, November 27, 2014

Book Review: "If Ever I Return Again" by Corinne Demas

It is 1856 and twelve year old Celia Snow has somehow managed to convince her whaling Captain father and mother to allow her to come along on this next trip.  Her younger brother will stay behind in Massachusetts with family, but she will have her spot on the whaling ship with her dog, Toby.  It doesn't take her long to realize that life on the open sea is rough - literally and figuratively.  Celia is constantly torn between the life she's chosen and missing the life she left behind.

This story is told in letters that Celie writes to her cousin back home.  I liked that it wasn't a straight up diary and allowed for someone to write back, though clearly not on a regular basis.  It also showed how delayed news from "back home" was for these whalers, especially as they were generally out to sea for a couple years at a time.  And I think that is the biggest take away here - this is a good historical fiction story that will introduce 5th-8th grade readers to the life of the New England whaling culture and experience.

Historical fiction isn't really my cup of tea, so it took me a bit to warm up to this (I was encouraged to read something by this author for class, and this was at my library).  Celie annoyed me from the start as I thought she was pretty whiny and annoying.  But I did warm up to her and enjoyed watching her evolve throughout her journey.  I also became fascinated with the life and treachery found on a whaling ship - something I knew nothing about despite having lived in New England for the past 14 almost 15 years.

I would give this to a middle grade reader who likes historical fiction, especially in the New England area.  I would also consider this to one who likes adventure stories as whaling was certainly a dangerous endeavor.

*****
If Ever I Return Again
by Corinne Demas
HarperCollins, 2000
197 pages
Source:  Library
*****

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Monday, November 24, 2014

Graphic Novel Review: "Tomboy" by Liz Prince

Liz is born female, but it was clear very early on that she was definitely not a girly-girl who loved to play princess and wear pink everything all the time.  Or ever.  This is her memoir of growing up as a tomboy, and how she dealt with the bullying, the gender identity confusion, and everything else that comes along with just growing up.

The first thing I quickly realized was that this memoir was something I could easily relate to.  I did not have the same experience as Liz, but I always have found it easier to be friends with boys, and though I was never an athlete - I enjoyed playing kickball and getting dirty on the playground with the boys as opposed to sitting around on the swings with the girls at recess.  I just didn't have much in common with the girls and never (to this day) understood the cliques and social rules that came with the girl culture in my elementary schools.  To this day, I far prefer jeans and funky sneakers to dressing up and I very rarely wear make up.  But I really don't mind dressing up and do have a skirt or dress or two in my closet and do actually own makeup for special occasions.  I definitely was never bullied in the ways that Liz was, and I never questioned my gender identity.  But I think that she makes an excellent point of highlighting that it wasn't so much of being a girl that she didn't like, but more that she was always fundamentally opposed to the way that society and cultural "norms" defined what being a girl is supposed to look and act like.

I love that she drew her story out in a graphic novel.  I mean, it makes sense as that is her interest and all, but I love that this story is available to others in this format.  I cannot wait to add this into my library collection for teens!

*****
Tomboy
by Liz Prince
Zest Books, 2014
256 pages
Source:  Purchased New
*****


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Thursday, November 20, 2014

Audio Book Review: "A Clash of Kings" by George R.R. Martin

This second book in the Song of Ice and Fire series takes right up where the first left off....  but I started this audio such a long time ago, I kind of already forget where exactly that was.  This is not a bad thing - the story lines flow seamlessly between the two books (and the HBO series is also confusing my memory slightly, though it follows the books pretty closely).  This audio is 30 disks - so, yeah, it is a time investment.  SO WORTH IT.

We are still in Westeros, and the seven kingdoms are still reeling from the deaths of King Robert and Lord Eddard Stark.  Young King Joffrey sits on the throne, though rumors of his parentage are running rampant and argue that he isn't the trueborn king.  Lord Stannis Baratheon and Lord Renly Baratheon are raising their armies to vie for the iron throne, as the King of the North Robb Stark fights Lord Tywin Lannister (and is winning).  Jon Snow is venturing north of the Wall and is discovering the threats from the Wildlings and the Others.  Daenerys Stormborn is creating a name for herself across the Narrow Sea as the Mother of Dragons and is trying to raise an army and passage to Westeros so she may also vie for the Iron Throne.  Arya Stark is becoming quite the chameleon as she escapes King's Landing and tries to keep her true identity secret while also trying to return to Winterfell, not knowing that Winterfell has fallen to Theon Greyjoy.  Sansa Stark is still in King's Landing, betrothed to Joffrey and trying to find her own secret escape.  Tyrion Lannister is in a tough spot as the King's Hand - attempting to uncover secrets and alliances while keeping his own and save the city from rebellious citizens and the advancing armies.

I think I just covered the majority of what is going on here - but I'm sure I forgot quite a bit because there are about 100 characters and every single one adds something to the overall story.  Even if they only appear for a short time, they are significant - whether their significance is shown just yet or not.  It is the beauty of Martin's writing...  yes these books are huge but there really isn't any fluff.  It is a huge story, full of strategies, violence, sex, and motives.  No character is one dimensional.  There are twists that you just do not see coming.

I am completely caught up with the HBO series, but instead of rewatching seasons, I am reading the books.  I am a little surprised with the little changes here and there that the TV production has made.  Though I wonder if the things that I think are changes are really scenes that I didn't fully understand and therefore forgot about (I'm thinking specifically of something that is revealed as a connection between Jon Snow and Bran Stark, and how it is revealed.)  But I love the foreshadowing that is "hidden" in the book but was not necessarily divulged in the show...  something that I don't think happens for another book or two (I'm not sure) but involves a vision that Dany had in the House of the Undead and speaks to something that will happen to Robb in the future (not that she knows that yet).

As for the audio - I did not listen to the first, so I wasn't sure what I was in for.  The huge box of CDs from the library was a little intimidating.  I was also nervous when I saw that only one narrator was listed considering just how many characters there are.  Roy Dotrice did such a phenomenal job though!  I have no idea how he performed all the different voices so that the characters were so easily differentiated in my head - but he did!  It was so fun and enjoyable to listen to this story.  I would not hesitate to continue listening to these books on audio, especially as he continues to narrate.

*****
A Clash of Kings
by George R.R. Martin
Bantam, 2011  First published 1999
761 pages; 30 CDs approx 37 hours
Series:  A Song of Ice and Fire #2
Source:  Purchased print copy new, audio from library
*****

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Monday, November 17, 2014

Graphic Novel Review: "Yummy: The Last Days of a Southside Shorty" by G. Neri

In the summer of 1994, eleven year old Robert "Yummy" Sandifer made the cover of Time magazine:
content.time.com  Cover 9/14/94

Eleven years old.

He had killed a fourteen year old girl, and was killed himself.

Eleven years old.

This graphic novel takes a look at Yummy's life, and how he ended up in the position he was in.  Because, honestly he was only eleven years old.  A child.  A child who found a sense of belonging in one of the neighborhood gangs.  A child with a gun in his hand and something to prove.

This is told from the point of view of a boy around Yummy's age, who grew up in the same neighborhood with Yummy, and who's older brother was in the same gang as Yummy.  This boy, Roger, takes the reader through his inner turmoil over what happened - what it meant, what it means for the future, and how a kid like Yummy got caught up in it all.

The art is stark black and white panels that ooze emotion.  The character's faces - especially their eyes - clearly express their tension and fear with the reader.  This was a tragedy - but have we learned?  Have things changed?  Not really in this neighborhood, according to the author's note.
The events in this book happened twenty years ago, but the story and its themes are still relevant today.

*****
Yummy:  The Last Days of a Southside Shorty
by G. Neri
Illustrated by Randy DuBurke
Lee & Low Books, 2010
96 pages
Source:  Library
*****


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