Five Minute Mini Reviews: Sakura Medal 2016 Edition: Picture Book Round 1

It’s almost Sakura Medal season at school! Students start reading and voting in October, but before that, my book bowl team members get an exclusive sneak peek to start reading for the competition. We had our first meeting on Friday, and I think we got a good group together.

This year, it’s my goal to read all of the English-language books for elementary: twenty picture books, twenty chapter books, and twelve graphic novels.

I started with the picture books on a (rare…) slow day. Since the students vote once for every five books, I’ll read five at a time and tell you which book gets my hypothetical vote. (Librarians longlist and shortlist the nominees, but the winners are chosen by students’ votes.)

  • The Book With No Pictures, B.J. Novak  Exactly what it says on the tin: This is a book with no pictures. It starts out looking boring and serious, and then goes over the top with weird noises and funny words and ridiculous sentences.
    I heard so much about this book that I was excited to order it.
    #unpopularopinion: I did not enjoy this book at all.
    My students enjoyed it. They thought it was great. Classes begged me to “trick” their teachers, to go tell them that this was a Very Serious And Important Book About Reading. Talking about the book was fun.
    Reading the book? was not fun.
    Maybe because I don’t do ~voices. A better reader might enjoy it more, but I didn’t even like it when I read it in my head. I gave it two stars, but assumed I’d bump it up after reading it aloud. I actually dropped it down to one star. I love meta books like that, but I’ve read better.
  • Unicorn Thinks He's Pretty GreatUnicorn Thinks He’s Pretty Great, Bob Shea Goat’s life was just fine until annoyingly perfect unicorn showed up and ruined everything. But as Goat gets to know cupcake raining unicorn, he learns that nobody’s perfect.
    Okay.
    That’s how I felt about this book. It was okay. I think my students will like it, but I was neither impressed nor underwhelmed. In fact, it took me awhile to remember, What was the fifth book I read?. The art is okay. The text is okay. The moral is actually pretty interesting, but okay.
    One thing that annoyed me: Unicorn is jealous of Goat’s cloven hooves, but traditionally, unicorns are depicted with cloven hooves, and sometimes even with a goat’s beard. I thought that was a missed opportunity, because 1) it’s wrong, and 2) you could have really played up the commonalities between Unicorn and Goat to greater effect for the moral.
  • Miracle Mud: Lena Blackburne and the Secret Mud that Changed Baseball, David A. Kelly When baseballs are brand new, I guess, they’re too shiny for the batters to see properly. So back in the day, they used to soak them (too soggy) or spit chewing tobacco on them (too stinky) to wear down the shine. Lena Blackburne, wannabe baseball player extraordinaire, discovered some special mud back home that’s still used to this day.
    This book surprised me, in a good way. I’m not “sporty.” The only sport I can stand to watch is baseball, and that’s because you don’t have to pay attention. But I picked this one up because I thought Lena was a woman. (I was wrong.)
    I didn’t know anything about this special mud. This was something completely out of my field (ahem) and I liked it! I learned something new, and the prose and illustrations were nice. I don’t mean to damn it with faint praise. I mean, they were nice; nothing stand-out, but not distracting, either.
  • NesraddineNesraddine, Odile Weulersse A little boy overhears people criticizing his father for riding to town while he walks, and tries to find a solution that will please everybody. First, he rides and his father walks, but people shake their heads about kids these days. Then neither of them walk, or both of them. Spoiler alert: You can’t please everybody.
    I liked this book from the cover. I loved Nesraddine’s curious little face, and I knew I wanted to read his story. (I didn’t know about the real (“real”) Nasraddin, a philosopher, and at first, I thought it was the name of a town or a street because of the cover design.)
    Nesraddine is so gentle. It’s a fable, but it’s not anvilicious. Nesraddine learns an important lesson, but his father’s teaching is kind and he allows Nesraddine to experiment and learn for himself – until he suggests carrying the donkey to town!
    The art was warm and sweet. Even the criticizing characters are given their humanity by the painted illustrations, and Nesraddine and his father are lovingly drawn.
  • Weasles, Elys Dolan When the weasels try to take over the world, nothing goes as planned. A variety of colorful characters scurry through the story, alternately helping and getting underfoot while everyone tries to fix The Machine.
    I remember this one being nominated, and I liked it. I even voted for it’s inclusion in the list, because it looked like fun. It was fun. I enjoyed reading it to myself, but it didn’t work for me as a classroom readaloud. I think it’s better for partner reading, like an I Spy game: What’s this weasel doing? What’s that weasel doing? There are several weasel characters to follow through the story, each one up to something different. (My favorite was the weasel who tries a new flavor of coffee. She does not enjoy it.)
    This could probably be a good book to read before starting a group project, examining how each weasel helps (or hinders) progress.

… and this round’s winner is: Nesraddine! (If you couldn’t guess from my review.)
I just love this book so much. I finished it and immediately read it again so I could take my time to linger on the pictures, the flow of words.

Advertisements

Irregular Review: The Darkest Part of the Forest

The Darkest Part of the Forest The Darkest Part of the Forest
Holly Black
★★★★☆ (I really liked it.)

Goodreads summary:

Hazel lives with her brother, Ben, in the strange town of Fairfold where humans and fae exist side by side. The faeries’ seemingly harmless magic attracts tourists, but Hazel knows how dangerous they can be, and she knows how to stop them. Or she did, once.

At the center of it all, there is a glass coffin in the woods. It rests right on the ground and in it sleeps a boy with horns on his head and ears as pointed as knives. Hazel and Ben were both in love with him as children. The boy has slept there for generations, never waking.

Until one day, he does…

I was so excited to finally get a chance to read this. I was not disappointed.

The Good

I’ve mentioned before that Holly Black’s Tithe was life changing for me as a sixteen-year-old. It introduced me to urban fantasy, and I spent the next several years reading everything I could find. All because this one book turned me onto this genre and I couldn’t get enough.

The Darkest Part of the Forest is Tithe, if Holly Black wrote Tithe ten more years into her writing career. I’m not saying she’s recycling ideas or characters, and this isn’t a reboot of the Modern Tales of Faerie series. It’s a return to themes and concepts of those books, by a more mature writer: conflicted family relationships, trying to protect the ones you love by lying to them, a childhood (mis)spent with faeries, a town on the edge between reality and fairy land. There’s even a faerie revel like in Tithe, but instead of just being about Kaye and Kaye’s problems, Hazel has to worry about her whole town – and that was better handled than when the courtless fairies run amok over Kaye’s town in Tithe. The diversity felt more authentic and less weirdly Mary Sue-ish, and the realities of growing up with irresponsible bohemian artist parents were more realistically addressed.

I’m not putting down Tithe at all here. I loved Tithe. I just think The Darkest Part of the Forest is better, at least, technically.

The Bad

The Darkest Part of the Forest is a the better book, but I think Tithe is more fun. Maybe just because Roiben is so dreamy. Swoon.

My only other criticism? Why, at least in the books by Holly Black that I’ve read, which is not all of them, is the main character a straight girl and the secondary character a gay boy? Although, once again, even that was better handled than Tithe‘s Kaye and Corny; Ben was much more fleshed out and interesting as a person.

The Verdict

This is a good book, and you should read it – especially if you liked Tithe in particular or urban fantasy in general. The Darkest Part of the Forest weaves together a contemporary, character-driven novel with an urban fantasy adventure story, and it was very well done.

I really liked the shout out/potential future tie-in to Tithe, and Roiben’s old queen and the new king on the East Coast.

Irregular Review: Virgin: The Untouched History

Virgin: The Untouched HistoryVirgin: The Untouched History
Hanne Blank
★★☆☆☆ (It was OK.)

Goodreads summary:

Why has an indefinable state of being commanded the attention and fascination of the human race since the dawn of time? In Virgin, Hanne Blank brings us a revolutionary, rich and entertaining survey of an astonishing untouched history.

From the simple task of determining what constitutes its loss to why it matters to us in the first place, Blank gets to the heart of why we even care about it in the first place. She tackles the reality of what we do and don’t know about virginity and provides a sweeping tour of virgins in history–from virgin martyrs to Queen Elizabeth to billboards in downtown Baltimore telling young women it’s not a “dirty word.” Virgin proves, as well, how utterly contemporary the topic is–the butt of innumerable jokes, center of spiritual mysteries, locus of teenage angst, popular genre for pornography and nucleus around which the world’s most powerful government has created an unprecedented abstinence policy. In this fascinating work, Hanne Blank shows for the first time why this is, and why everything we think we know about virginity is wrong.

While I was reading, a friend stopped by on my personal blog to ask how I was liking Virgin: The Untouched History. I told her, truthfully, that it was okay.

The Good

I like this kind of book, that examines, in detail, something everyday that we take for granted: cupcakes, harsh language, virginity, whatever. Virgin was a quick history of Western civilization from ancient Greek and Roman through Judaism and the rise Christianity, and then then advent of capitalism and urbanization through the lens of virginity. Interesting!

I also have a personal interest in this topic. I’m asexual; I’ve never been kissed. I wanted to read this and contextualize it in history. Blank covers it a bit towards the end, but virginity today gets a bad rap as “repressed” and associated with the heavy handed ideology of “abstinence-only education.” So what about holy virgins, Vestals and nuns?

The Bad

Virgin: The Untouched History was interesting, but not quite as interesting as I hope. Blank failed to strike an either properly academic tone (no footnotes, a casual writing style) or the jocular, chatty style of Mary Roach (Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex) or Melissa Mohr (Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing). The attempts at humor fell flat, and detracted from the text as authoritative. (I’m not questioning her research, only her presentation.)

My other concern with this book was the hetero- and cis-sexism. I understand that the historical record might be thin about gay, lesbian, and bisexual virginities, and the virginities of trans people, but it can’t be empty. Even so, there is more recent writing on these subjects that warranted inclusion in the later chapters. There was a brief mention of a lesbian woman who sold her (penis-in-vagina) virginity, which would have benefitted from some exploration. Then at the end was a quote about stone butch lesbians, but it wasn’t explored, either. There was no mention of asexuality.

The Verdict

All I can say about Virgin: The Untouched History is “it’s okay.” If this is a topic that interests you, check it out. (I wouldn’t recommend spending money on it.) Otherwise, there are other, better popular nonfiction books that I’d recommend unless you have a particular interest in virginity. If you are, you’re in good company: virginity has been with humanity since the dawn of time.

If you’re not, I would suggest Holy Sh*t or Bonk instead.

Irregular Review: Let’s Eat Ramen, Nagumo + Aji-ichi

Let's Eat Ramen

Let’s Eat Ramen
Nagumo + Aji-ichi
★★★☆☆ (I liked it.)

Goodreads summary:
Doujinshi, otherwise known as independent manga in Japan, is rarely published in English. In fact, it’s considered underground and quite exclusive in its home country of Japan as well. Let’s Eat Ramen and Other Doujinshi Short Stories finally gives western readers an exclusive look at the elusive world of contemporary Japanese doujinshi manga. Let’s East Ramen is a three-part tale of Saeki, a girl who loves ramen noodles. At last, she thinks that she has finally found the perfect ramen shop, but the problem is the shop is completely full of old regulars and she can’t get in. Will the timid Saeki ever summon the willpower to reach out and get the ramen that she desperately wants?

The summary on Goodreads only covers the first story, which lends the collection its title. After Saeki’s story, there’s “Plastic Blue,” the story of an ill-timed, unrequited first love, that works out in the end for the two girls; Urameshiya, a ghost story with a twist that, again, works out well for the two girls in the end; and You Make Me Dizzy, a schoolgirl maybe romance that works out pretty well for the two girls in the end.

The Good

Did I mention there are a lot of girls in this anthology? And while “Plastic Blue” is the most forthrightly queer, the others have girl/girl undertones, or focus on the friendship between girls. (Manga, in my reading experience, is sometimes very ambiguous about this. I like that ambiguity.)

Although Saeki does get a little crush on her ramen partner, her true love seems to be ramen – which is why I jumped at the opportunity to read this when it came up on NetGalley. I love ramen. (Unlike Saeki, I have no worries about walking into a ramen shop full of besuited businessmen and slurping with the best of ’em.) So you could say, “Let’s Eat Ramen” spoke to me – and made me really hungry. (My mouth is watering…)

The sweetness (savoryness?) of “Let’s Eat Ramen” was followed by the melancholy of “Plastic Blue.” Minato confesses (i.e., her crush) to Shizuku, but Shizuku shoots her down, saying, “I like you as a friend.” We can only assume it’s internalized homophobia or a fear of coming out that makes Shizuku turn down her friend’s confession, because a year later, Shizuku is still kicking herself. In the end, Minato dumps her boyfriend and the two girls get together and the story ends with Shizuku and Minato flirting, smiling, and holding hands, which is pretty much exactly how I like my girl/girl stories to end.

“Urameshiya” is a sweet little ghost story with a twist. (A footnote on the page explains that “urameshiya,” which the girls use to greet each other as an inside joke, means “boo,” like a ghost.)  I don’t want to give it away too much. Suffice to say, it’s a cute story of a girl who likes to garden and a cooler member of the swim team and how they become friends while Hanako tends to the garden (her name means “flower child;” it’s also the name of a ghostly girl in a Japanese urban legend who usually haunts girls’ school bathrooms) and Natsume (“summer”) attends swimming practice – although she seems to spend more time chatting with Hanako than practicing.

The last story (and my least favorite) was “You Make Me Dizzy.” Although this one wasn’t as cute as the others, I liked that the girls’ friendship was founded on stories. Shibahara, deciding she’s “not very smart,” becomes the class clown. She’s never read a novel, until she befriends Kunitachi, a cooler girl who is always reading “books with no pictures.” There’s a classic manga miscommunication, but all’s well that ends well.

The Bad

I thought some of the art was really cute, like “Let’s Eat Ramen.” The weird style of “Urameshiya” grew on me, too. But “Plastic Blue” was so-so, and the style of “You Make Me Dizzy” didn’t do much for me at all. But keeping in mind that this is dojinshi, independently produced comics, it wasn’t too bad. There were a few wonky pages in “Plastic Blue,” but I think that will be fixed in the final print.

My only other minor quibble was that I don’t think it’s possible to recover from a two year coma that quickly. (I won’t say which story.)

The Verdict

The paperback edition is about $10 on Amazon.com; the 2014 digital archive of GEN Manga is $24, including these stories, so, despite the inconsistent art quality, I’d recommend it for someone interested in reading something outside of the manga mainstream, especially with the queer content. (Unlike a lot of BL (“boys’ love”) or GL (“girls’ love”), these stories – especially “Plastic Blue” – felt genuinely like queer stories, not fetishized representations.)

When I was your age, these stories were impossible to find in English, and then when they became available, they were illegal scans. This is a step in the right direction, as is GEN Manga‘s completely reasonable pricing.

I received a free digital copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for my honest review.

Irregular Review: Dragon’s Danger, Edward Branley

When I signed up for Story Cartel, I went straight for the fantasy and kidlit selections because, well, that’s what I read and that’s what I felt most comfortable reviewing. I chose Dragon’s Blood by Edward Branley because it had a nice cover. You know what they say, “never judge a book by it’s cover”? Well, they say it for a reason. Dragon's Blood

Dragon’s Danger
Edward Branley (Blood Bound #1)
☆☆☆☆☆ (No comment.)

Goodreads summary:

Don’t believe everything you read on the Internet!
Joey, Anne Marie, and David are three teens from New Orleans. They’re smart enough to understand this. Imagine their surprise when a “dragon’s egg” they bought online turns out to be from an ancient trading company that sells “collectibles and curiosities”. Suddenly it’s more than just kidding around, as they help their dragon avoid danger and evolve to its full potential!
For over a thousand years, the dragons have used the merchant concern, Hassan’s Collectibles and Curiosities to help identify those worthy of becoming the “Blood Bound” — humans who are willing to hatch dragon eggs and nurture the hatchlings to adulthood. The methods used by Hassan’s have changed over time, but the results are the same. The dragons live!
It’s never been easy to be a teen. Asking a teen to hatch a dragon egg is a big request. That’s why it’s important to choose a teen who has friends to help. Better yet, get three inseparable kids to do the job!

The Good
The cover art, as I mentioned, is what drew me to the story. The premise reminds me of Jeremy Thatcher, Dragon Hatcher, a book I loved when I was a kid, but if Jeremy had internet access.

The Bad
I didn’t finish this. I’m not one of those people who powers through when books get boring. There are only so many hours in the day. I dropped this book partway through the first chapter. Why? I didn’t feel like anyone had taken the time to edit it. So why should I take the time to read?

Sentences like, “Typical of New Orleans in February, it was cold for two days, today’s high would be much warmer,” and “Since most of New Orleans’ Catholic high schools are all-boy or all-girl, the boys ended up at one school, and Ann Marie at another, but regularly re-unite on holidays and in the summer” threw me out of the story while I tried to figure out what they meant. (Those were on facing pages, p7 and p8.)

Look, I don’t demand perfection, but two glaring editorial failures like this, in two pages, in the first chapter is unacceptable. I tried to look up the publisher, but was unsuccessful; if Elysian Fields Press has a website, they’ve done a mighty fine job of hiding it. (Goodreads lists the publisher as Smashwords, but the author’s profile doesn’t list any books.)

What really killed the book for me, however, was this:  “’Fuck you, Joey!’ she said, without even looking away from the TV.”

Dragon’s Danger is billed on StoryCartel as a “middle grade contemporary fantasy.” SFWA quotes agents and editors as defining MG as for children age 8-12. Dragon’s Danger has a casual F-bomb in the first chapter; searching the e-book pulls up an additional twenty five instances of the F word. His author bio rather defensively states, “he can attest that sixteen-year olds attending Catholic school do swear like the Trio do,” and while I’m sure they do, this is inappropriate language for a MG book. I wouldn’t feel comfortable putting this in my students’ hands.

So why was this a MG book? The characters are rather old for a normal MG protagonist (they’re all sixteen or so) and the language was more suited to a YA audience. This was the real lack of editing that made me decide not to finish this book, more than some awkwardly worded sentences.

I received a free digital copy of this book from StoryCartel.

Irregular Review: Vivian Apple at the End of the World (Vivian Versus the Apocalypse)

Vivian Apple (2)

Vivian Apple at the End of the World
Katie Coyle (Vivian Apple, #1)
★★★☆☆ (I liked it.)

Goodreads summary:

Seventeen-year-old Vivian Apple never believed in the evangelical Church of America, unlike her recently devout parents. But when Vivian returns home the night after the supposed “Rapture,” all that’s left of her parents are two holes in the roof. Suddenly, she doesn’t know who or what to believe. With her best friend Harp and a mysterious ally, Peter, Vivian embarks on a desperate cross-country roadtrip through a paranoid and panic-stricken America to find answers. Because at the end of the world, Vivan Apple isn’t looking for a savior. She’s looking for the truth.

So, Vivian Apple.

The Good

I could not put this book down. It’s one of those things that I would sneak in pages at any opportunity – on the train, during lunch, under my desk, in the middle of a conversation. I needed to know what happened, and I needed to know if the Rapture happened or not. (I won’t say. Spoilers.) Some twists, I sooo called before they were revealed. Others, I didn’t guess. It was a good mix; it shouldn’t be too obvious, or too difficult. This wasn’t a mystery novel, although the mystery of the Rapture is the question Vivian has to answer, and why she goes on her Great American Road Trip out west.

I’m not sure how I felt about the ending, and I think the sequel, Vivian Versus America, will help me decide whether or not I liked it. How things shake down from here will put the end of the first book in perspective.

Vivian felt real to me, and I think a certain kind of goody two shoes will relate to her, although personally, I think reading this as a high schooler, she would have annoyed me. But Vivian was very “likable.” She’s the sort of person you’d want to befriend.

It’s subtle, but there’s an undercurrent of feminism throughout the whole story. Vivian drives the plot, and most of the time, the car. The Rapture happens to her – and her parents disappear, leaving holes in the roof of their home – but after a little bit of wallowing, she takes action to get to the bottom of this mystery. It’s Vivian who decides to leave the New Orphans and Vivian who decided to take this road trip in the first place; Harp and Peter are just along for the ride.

Along the way, she articulates her discomfort with the Believer’s anti-feminism, how women are controlled by Frickism, following “their” men a step or two behind, dressing “modestly,” punished for their sexualities. Frickian homophobia becomes a plot point, but that’s not something that happens to Vivian, but it happens to scare Vivian.

Which brings me to…

The Bad

Vivian is a straight white girl. Her best friend, secondary character Harpreet Janda, is Indian-American. Harp’s brother, Raj, is gay. So, points for inclusion, but this is still Vivian’s story and, given the unsubtle message about the dangers of religious fundamentalism and extremism, it would have been stronger if Vivian had been a person of color, or a queer, or disabled, or something that put her in danger from the remaining Believers.

As a non-Believer, Vivian is an outsider. Most of America has converted, and the “left behind” Believers are focused on a passage from the Book of Frick about how “the road to salvation is overcrowded with the damned” and some have taken that to mean they must exterminate the “sinners” – non-Believers, generally, but in particular, “harlots” and “fags.”

I would have found the story much more compelling if Vivian had more at stake – if Peter, the love interest, were Petra, for example. Even Vivian’s non-Belief isn’t a thoughtful articulation of her theological or even moral qualms with Christianity in general or Frickism in particular, she just floats along, not believing. How would this story go if she did believe, but in something else? What if Viv was Catholic? What if Viv was Muslim?

I don’t want to hate on this book for everything it wasn’t, but I think it could have been stronger if Vivian had more left to lose after the Rapture.