Who Doesn’t Love Dogs?

Or at least books about dogs? This year’s Hub Challenge list included two great dog books, the nonfiction title, How to Speak Dog by Aline Alexander Newman and Gary Weitzman, D.V.M. and the graphic novel, Dogs of War by Sheila Keenan and Nathan Fox.

Cover of How to Speak Dog by Newman and WeitzmanHow to Speak Dog: A Guide to Decoding Dog Language by Aline Alexander Newman and Gary Weitzman, D.V.M. Washington, D.C.: National Geographic, 2013.

Dog language is, of course, much more than just the sounds they make. Posture, ear position, and how a dog is holding its tail are essential parts of canine communication. Most dog owners will be familiar with at least some of these poses, like the play bow. But this book also addresses problem behavior like why dogs chew things or chase their tails. This is a great introduction to dog behavior that may tempt animal-loving reluctant readers.

Dogs of War by Keenan and FoxDogs of War by Sheila Keenan and Nathan Fox. New York: Graphix, 2013.

This graphic novel is a collection of three adventure stories about amazing dogs based on real military history. These brave war dogs saved the lives of many young soldiers. Boots is a mercy dog in World War I, leading medics to wounded soldiers. Loki is a rescue sled dog in Greenland. The final story is about Sheba, a scout dog during the Vietnam War. This story focuses on the returned soldier remembering his time serving with Sheba. It is by far the most moving of the three stories, capturing both the terrible effects of war on those fighting and the incredibly strong bonds between the handlers and their dogs. Fox’s illustrations capture the unique environments of each story, from the dark, enclosed trenches contrasted with open no man’s land where so much of World War I was fought, to the blinding snowstorms of rescue operations in the Arctic during World War II, to the nearly impenetrable jungles of Vietnam where soldiers fought an enemy they couldn’t see. A good pick for fans of war stories, action, dogs, and graphic novels.

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A Supernatural Mystery Across the Ages

Cover of Midwinterblood by Marcus SedgwickMidwinterblood by Marcus Sedgwick. New York : Roaring Brook Press, 2013.

When Eric Seven, a journalist, visits Blessed Island in the year 2073, he feels an instant connection to Merle. Is it love at first sight, or something more mysterious? Told in a series of seven short stories progressing backwards through time, the mysteries of Blessed Island and Merle and Eric’s relationship deepen, until the final story explains all.

Midwinterblood is a layered and complex novel that will reward careful reading and re-reading. The interrelationships between all of the characters and situations aren’t immediately clear. But the symbolism is rich and the island is a beguiling setting. The changing name of the island through time hints at the underlying theme of sacrifice and renewal. In fact, the book could be read as a series of sacrifices for the good of others.

This dark romance left me thinking about it long after I had finished. I completely understand the urge expressed by some reviewers to re-read it in reverse. I actually felt like I should take notes as I went back through it. I know I didn’t completely follow who was who the first time through. Midwinterblood is a perfect book for someone who likes a bit of depth to their supernatural romance. In fact, it would probably be a good fit for analysis in a high school literature class.

4 1/2 stars

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The Hub Reading Challenge As Professional Development

2014 Hub Reading Challenge Participant BadgeI can be a pretty competitive person. Just ask anyone who has played a board or card game with me. I also like a good challenge. So when I first saw the Hub Reading Challenge in Spring of 2012, I couldn’t resist. What could be more fun than a challenge revolving around reading excellent YA books? Count me in! But over time, the Hub Reading Challenge has become much more than that for me.

First, that graphic novels list looked like it would be useful. I’d been thinking that I needed to learn more about GNs, but never knew where to start. So the fun challenge now had a professional benefit. May I could use it to expand my Reader’s Advisory knowledge in other ways. I decided on a mini-challenge of reading at least one title from every award category. If I was going to read outside my usual comfort zone, here was a ready-made set of recommendations from other librarians. I couldn’t think of a better starting point.

So I’ve known for quite a while that participating in the Challenge was good professional development for me in terms of my knowledge of YA literature and Reader’s Advisory skills. I didn’t realize until this year, my third participating, how it has affected the way I evaluate books.

I first started writing book reviews on a very small scale while in grad school. It was a requirement in my Children’s Services class, one I enjoyed since I liked to write. (Yes, I can tell you’re shocked.) I followed the standard format and tried to be objective. Soon I was writing reviews for the library website as well as this blog. But I shied away from reviewing any books I didn’t really like. After all, the library’s goal was to promote the books, so I focused on positives.

What changes? As I reflected on titles for the Challenge weekly check-ins (both on The Hub blog and here), I found myself looking for why the books I didn’t care for were on these lists. What objective criteria was I missing? Just because I don’t like it doesn’t mean it doesn’t have merit.

**Before I go on, let me be clear. There is nothing wrong with rating and reviewing a book based on how well you liked it! Or didn’t. All I’m saying is that I’ve gradually begun to take a different course, one rooted in my view of the Hub Challenge as a professional development tool. **

I try to determine what it is that I didn’t like and how that is integral in the appeal of that book for a certain audience. Maybe it was too violent for my taste, but that contributed to making it an exciting adventure story that iwll appeal to fans of books like The Maze Runner. Or, for example, I’m really struggling with listening to Crap Kingdom. If not for the Challenge, I wouldn’t finish it. (The competitive side is still there.) If I rate it on how I like it, I’d give it 2 stars. But this story is well-suited to its audience. I can see seventh, eighth, and ninth graders loving this, probably more boys than girls. I’ll probably give it four stars in the end because of how suited it is for the audience for which it was written. It wasn’t written for me. And I’m thrilled to have this book to recommend to boys in that age group. I’ll probably book talk it at Middle Schools this Spring,

Since I’ve transitioned into a professional library position last year, I find it harder to find time for Challenge reading. I’ve got ARCs begging for reviews and books to read for my Teen Book Group. So I’ll be happy just to complete my 25 this year (not counting the 10 Nonfiction and Morris short-listed titles from the Winter Challenge). But I do take some pride in the fact that each year I have read more of the Challenge titles before the award lists were published, or at least made mental notes that I needed to read them. That tells me that I am getting more in tune with YA literature all the time. Of course, that also means that next year’s Challenge will probably force me to range even further from my comfort zone. That can only benefit my teen patrons!

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A Worthy Re-telling of Phantom of the Opera

Cover for Of Metal and Wishes by Sarah FineOf Metal and Wishes by Sarah Fine, Margaret Mcelderry Bks, 2014.

Sixteen-year-old Wen is the daughter of the doctor for a slaughter house. After her mother’s death, she moves into the factory housing with him, acting as his assistant. The abusive factory manager brings in outsiders, the Noor, as cheap, disposable labor for the busy season. One of the new workers humiliates Wen in the company cafeteria. Angry and feeling shamed, she leaves a wish for Ghost, the spirit of a factory worker who died on the slaughterhouse floor. Her anger turns to guilt when her wish is fulfilled in a violent way. It seems the Ghost is watching over her, but his protection begins to take on sinister and obsessive overtones. Meanwhile tensions between the native workers and the foreign Noor escalate and intertwine with the workers’ grievances against the factory management’s exploitations.

There are lots of things to like about this book. Wen is a very capable young woman who, if there were money for tuition, would almost certainly be studying to become a doctor herself. She also is able to think critically and independently. She questions things she has always been taught based on her own experiences. But she’s a real person, too. She makes mistakes, mistakes that land her in some dangerous situations. This is a brutal, intense, and violent story. The Ghost begins to act in ways that help him possess Wen rather than following her wishes, with drastic consequences. I also liked the way Fine contrasted the restrictive attitudes of Wen’s culture towards women with those of the Noor who grant women greater respect and freedom. The Ghost’s obsessive behavior is presented in such a way as to be both terrifying and understandable.

Much as I enjoyed this book when I read it, looking back after a few weeks has only increased my respect for it. Not only is this a worthy re-telling of a classic story. But Fine has managed to tackle some very serious issues without interfering with the overall narrative. This book confronts issues of racism and prejudice, sexual abuse, the abuse of power, and social justice. The factory manager contrives to drive his workers ever deeper into debt so that they can never escape from their servitude to the factory. When they are no longer able to work to his standard, they are sent to a Labor Camp where they will surely die within months. The threat of the camps is enough to stop protests and keep workers in line. That same fear allows the manager to force himself on his female secretaries. The level of complexity in this book is impressive without bogging down the story.

Of Metal and Wishes won’t be published until August 5. (I was fortunate to receive a digital advanced copy from Edelweiss.) But put that date on your calendar because you need to read this book!

Rating: 4.5 stars. I may revise that up to 5. . . .

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Romance, Magic, & Royalty

Cover of The Ring & the Crown by Melissa De La CruzThe Ring & the Crown by Melissa De La Cruz. New York: Hyperion, 2014.

In an alternate history where Merlin still protects the English monarchy, Marie-Victoire is heir to the most powerful empire in the world. Aelwyn Myrddyn, her childhood friend, is destined to be Merlin’s successor. Both feel trapped by their circumstances. Aelwyn will always be in the shadows behind the throne, subsuming herself in the service of the kingdom while Marie is set to be married off to a prince she does not even like in order to secure the peace. Then Marie comes up with a plan that will allow her to follow her heart and Aelwyn to move out of the shadows and onto center stage. But to do so would be treason. Add in a dashing younger brother to the despised prince, a social-climbing New York socialite seeking a rich husband, and a spurned French princess and you have a frothy romance set against a backdrop of royal pageantry and magic.

The concept behind this book is fascinating. There’s a lot of potential for exploring rebellion against societal expectations and following one’s dreams. But in the end, the book doesn’t live up to its promise. The pacing is a bit off. Too much time is spent setting up the various characters and their situations so that the end seems rushed. What little action there is takes place very quickly, without detail or elaboration. It felt as if the book spent ages building up to a great climax, which then happened so quickly that if you aren’t paying attention you could almost miss it. Then the explanation for everything seemed to come out of the blue.

While several of the characters have sexual encounters, none are really positive experiences. In fact, one character is not only pressured into sex, but it turns out has also been raped by her guardian. So this light, fluffy romance has decidedly dark undertones. No one gets a truly happy ending, though the two main characters are strong young women intent on facing the demands of their positions on their own terms.

Flawed though this book is, it is certain to have a wide audience. Fans of descriptions of courtly life and gorgeous ball gowns will find much to enjoy. In that respect, this book definitely lives up to its gorgeous cover. Did I mention that the cover is truly amazing?

Rating: three and a half stars

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The Zombie Apocalypse – With Zombie Cows!

Zombie Baseball Beatdown audio bookZombie Baseball Beatdown by Paolo Bacigalupi, read by Sunil Malhotra. New York : Random House/Listening Library, 2013.

Moooo! You may have heard that conditions on factory farms and at meat packing plants can be bad. But this one has turned the cows into zombies, eager to chow down on flesh. And they’re as happy to eat humans as they are to chomp on fellow cows. What will happen if these monsters are slaughtered, packaged, and served to humans? Could it be the zombie apocalypse? Rabi, Miguel, and Joe are about to find themselves using their bats for something other than swinging at fast balls.

This is definitely entry-level horror with a big dose of humor. Don’t get me wrong. There’s plenty of bloodshed and cartoon violence. But it doesn’t have the same intensity level as something like Rot & Ruin by Jonathan Maberry, making it perfect for a slightly younger audience. Bacigalupi doesn’t shy away from controversial social issues either. His other YA books, Ship Breaker and The Drowned Cities, deal with climate change and its effects. Zombie Baseball Beatdown tackles illegal immigration and bigotry in addition to taking on the meat-packing industry and factory farms. The message feels a bit heavy-handed at times. But I don’t think the intended audience will be bothered by that.

All in all, a fun middle grade book. Sunil Malhotra does a fantastic job of bringing the story to life. I will never hear a cow’s moo quite the same way! It’s hard to believe that he is also the voice of Park in Eleanor & Park. He’s got a truly impressive range and I will be looking for other audio books he narrates.

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Hub Challenge Week 3 Update

2014 Hub Reading Challenge Participant BadgeThis week I finished another two books, and they weren’t graphic novels this time. One was I Am the Messenger by Markus Zusak. The other was the audio book of Zombie Baseball Beatdown by Paolo Bacigalupi, read by Sanil Malhotra. That’s six books so far.

As a bonus, each of these titles checked off an Award or List from the Challenge. I like to be sure to read at least one book from each category. So far I’ve read from the Edwards Award, Excellence in Nonfiction, Morris Award, Stonewall Book Award, Top 10 Amazing Audio Books, Top 10 Graphic Novels, and Quick Picks. That leaves the Odyssey Award, the Prinz Award, Schneider Family Book Award, Top 10 Fiction, and Top 10 Popular Paperbacks. Technically I could count Courage Has No Color for the Popular Paperbacks list. But I read it for the Nonfiction Challenge and prefer not to count it again.

I was a bit surprised at how many of the books in the Challenge I had read over the last year. I guess I’m doing a better job of keeping up with new books as they come out. That also means that this year’s Challenge will push me even more outside my normal reading. I won’t re-read a book to be able count it, unless I’m already looking for an excuse to re-read it. That means the choices left are more likely be titles that didn’t immediately appeal to me the first time I encountered them.

A positive result from my Challenge reading was that I was able yesterday to put Imprisoned: The Betrayal of Japanese Americans During World War II
by Martin Sandler in the hands of a couple of teens doing a school project. As soon as they asked for books on the internment camps, I knew exactly what to give them.

This week I’m listening to Eleanor and Park, which will check off the Odyssey Award. Otherwise, I’ve got some non-Challenge reading I need to catch up on.

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Sharing Secrets With A Stranger

Cover of Roomies by Sara Zarr and Tara AltebrandoRoomies by Sara Zarr and Tara Altebrando. New York, Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 2013.

Why is it that sometimes it is easier to share difficult secrets virtually with a stranger than to talk about them with your best friends? Whatever the reason, when Elizabeth (EB) gets the contact information for her freshman roommate at college, her initial email is the beginning of a summer of confidences that are both the start and nearly the finish of a new friendship. In some ways EB and Lauren couldn’t be more different. EB is an only child whose father abandoned the family years ago. Lauren has loving parents but a house full of much younger siblings who make her life crazy. Yet both are facing some of the same challenges in life and love as they face leaving home for their first year of college.

Lots of YA books that deal with love and sex actually are horrible examples of relationships. (Read my critique of Unhinged by A. G. Howard for an example.) It is so refreshing to find a book that gets it absolutely right! Both girls struggle with whether or not to have sex with their boyfriends. EB’s boyfriend is pressuring her to have sex with him. The more he pressures her, the more reluctant she is. She’s smart enough to dump him over it. I won’t go into more detail other than to say that both girls make thoughtful, careful choices that are right for them.

Relationships are a big part of this book. The consequences of romantic decisions and a contrast of selfishness with respect are recurring themes. Lauren’s love interest, Keyon, gets wonderful advice from his Dad, advice that emphasizes communication and respect. I thought that this book provided an honest look into the dynamics of negotiating an inter-racial relationship, too. Everybody is OK with the idea of it. But when faced with their child actually in such a relationship, people get nervous. As Lauren put it, “Race. It’s so tricky, even though we’re all supposedly enlightened and color-blind. I don’t want it to be a thing. But it kind of is a Thing, isn’t it?”

Roomies is a great story, one I will have no qualms about recommending. It’s great to see a book that gets so much right while still being a truly entertaining read.

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Robots and Rocket Man Meet Farm Boy

Cover of Royden Lepp's Rust: Visitor in the FieldRoyden Lepp’s Rust: Visitor in the Field by Royden Lepp. Los Angeles: Archaia, 2011.

Roman Taylor is struggling to keep his family farm going. Then, one day, his peaceful world is shattered by the arrival of Jet Jones, a boy with jet pack who is pursued by a giant war robot. Roman has been trying to reconstruct a smaller robot to help with work around the farm. Jet Jones doesn’t seem to think it’s such a good idea. There’s a lot of mystery surrounding these robots. They were created to help fight in a devastating world war. But whose side are they really on. What are they really programmed to do?

This graphic novel is an intriguing start to the series. The setting is unclear, though the sepia illustrations and older-looking machines made it feel as if it’s in the past, perhaps post-WWI. The coloring also contributes to a grim atmosphere where it looks like getting by is a struggle. While it’s an interesting story, with action and adventure, it also raises questions about the role of technology in our lives. Is all technology good? Or is some technology inherently evil? Roman’s attempt to rebuild and reprogram a war robot is a variation on the theme of beating swords into ploughshares. There are also hints that Jet is more than he seems, raising questions of what it means to be human. I see lots of potential here and am looking forward to Volume 2 Rust: Secrets of the Cell.


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Of Oddballs And Miracles

Cover of counting by 7s by Holly Goldberg Sloan

Counting by 7s, by Holly Goldberg Sloan. New York: Dial Books for Young Readers, 2013.

Willow’s life is turned upside down when her adoptive parents are killed in an accident. Willow has never been good at making friends, or connecting with other people at all. Her family has been a self-contained unit. There are no relatives or family friends to take her in. But Willow has a way of touching lives and changing them for the better. Can she learn to open up and make the connections to build a new family for herself.

This book sounds like it should be dark and depressing. After all, it starts with a 12 year old girl being orphaned. But it is actually a hopeful story about small miracles and joy amid the sorrows. It is a story of healing and belonging and the big differences that small actions can make. It should appeal to fans of Wonder by R. J. Palacio.

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