Saturday, September 29, 2012

Book review: "My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece" by Annabel Pitcher

Title: My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece
Author: Annabel Pitcher
Publisher: Little, Brown & Company, 2011

Though his sister Rose died five years earlier in a terrorist bombing, Jamie's family can't seem to get past it. His mother has abandoned him, his older sister Jas, also Rose's twin, and their father for another man; his father has descended into alcoholism, drinking heavily in the morning and passing out for most of the day. The only person he has is Jas, despite his hopes that his mother will come back to them some day soon. As he begins school in a new place after they move to the Lake District, Jamie soon meets Sunya, the only Muslim in his class and the only person who seems to want to be his friend. His father hates Muslims because they killed Rose, but Sunya throws Jamie off balance with her kindness, when she sticks up for him at school, and with her attempts at friendship. Though this all confuses him, he tries his best to figure out the best way to act, how to get through each day, and how he can get his family to be a family again.

This is quite a heavy book. We start with the specter of a dead, and therefore perfect, sister who is basically worshipped by a grieving father, leaving his other two children ultimately invisible. It's really a story about a broken family, bad parenting, and the effects they have. Jamie and Jas must learn to live on their own and take care of themselves, as their dad cannot seem to function and certainly can't take care of his family in the constantly drunk state he lives in. For most of the book Jamie stays in the same Spider-Man T-shirt, and I could not believe no one made him change or at least take a shower. And poor Jas must live with being the remaining twin, unable to make a change in her appearance without getting hell for it from her parents who feel the need to cling to whatever part of Rose they can.

There is so much to this novel. Racism, eating disorders, bullying, alcoholism, abandonment, grief, loss. Yet all of it comes from Jamie, a 10-year-old boy who doesn't even remember the sister that is gone. He doesn't grieve for Rose, but rather for the mother he has lost and the father who can't make himself get out of bed in the morning as a result. Jamie can't even feel comfortable being friends with Sunya for a long time because of the incredible hatred his father feels toward every Muslim no matter who they truly are inside.

The characters are all really well developed. I loved Sunya, who is incredibly strong for going up against every kid in their Catholic school with a spark of mischief in her eye and a way at getting back at people for their misdeeds. Jamie, our narrator, is complex and has complex emotions about what has happened to his family, showing himself to be a victim of terrible circumstance and the grief of others. Jas is a wonderful sister, though not perfect. She takes care of Jamie as best as a 15-year-old can, but she still wants her own life and not one that she must share with a dead girl. Even Jamie's father, deadbeat that he is, has depth.

One thing I am unsure of is how middle grade readers will respond to this. Some will race through the pages once Jamie's forbidden friendship with Sunya begins, as I did, but I'm sure some will find it too heavy to stick with for long. Maybe I'm selling the intended audience short on this, but I guess I just feel like this wouldn't have been something I would have picked up when I was 12.

Has anyone else read this? What were your thoughts? How do you think middle grade readers will respond?

Disclosure: I got this book from the library.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Book review: "Guitar Notes" by Mary Amato

Title: Guitar Notes
Author: Mary Amato
Publisher: Egmont, 2012

Tripp Broody and Lyla Marks have both been assigned to Practice Room B during lunch. Tripp has the odd days, Lyla the even. Their friendship begins when Lyla writes a note asking the "Odd Day Musician" to please throw away his trash he left on the music stand. What follows is a note exchange that turns into a friendship with a guitar at the center of it.

Lyla is under enormous pressure as a classical cello player, taking after her mother, a professional player who died in a plane crash when Lyla was little. She doesn't really enjoy playing anymore, but puts on a smile and does what she's expected to do.

Tripp has had his guitar confiscated by his mother, who worries he's isolating himself and that his guitar has become his obsession. Tripp hasn't made any friends since his father died a few years ago and his best friend moved to Schenectady, and his grades have been suffering. In an effort to get back to the one thing that keeps him sane, he signs up for a practice room, provided the school can loan him a guitar, which they do but under the stipulation that it must stay in the practice room.

Both Lyla and Tripp have to deal with the loss of a parent, though they don't necessarily connect with this similarity. Lyla was very young when her mother died, so she doesn't grieve like Tripp or her father does. Instead, she is living in her mother's shadow and trying to fill her shoes, an enormous task that is almost oppressive. Because her father is so invested in Lyla's success as a cello player, she never has any room to be who she wants to be. Tripp, on the other hand, only lost his father a few years earlier after he suffers a brain aneurism. His father was the more involved of the two parents, and every year they went camping on a plot of land they owned. In fact, it was the last camping trip that led Tripp to start playing guitar, making the guitar one of the last connections he has with his father. I love that each character is affected very differently by their losses, and that they don't come together because of their loss, but instead because of their love for music.

Lyla and Tripp don't have a blossoming romance, or a fated connection. They just both need a friend who understands them and is willing to actually listen and share music. It is quite a blessing for both of them, since Tripp really doesn't have any friends and Lyla's only friend, Annie, is constantly in competition with her (she's a violinist) and never really seems to understand she needs time away from her. The duo begin to write songs together and separately, challenging themselves to become better musicians and better writers, and in the process become better friends.

The book itself is full of the notes, song lyric brainstorms, and text messages. I loved this addition. For someone who has never written a song or a poem, it's nice to see the thought process behind it. And I do love this new way to show dialogue in literature (yes, I know texting isn't that new, but it's not often that you see a whole conversation in a novel). Oh, and bonus: If you play guitar, there's an appendix that has all the songs, both the music and the lyrics.

This is a book about friendship, music, and the pressures of living up to the standards parents place on their children whether they realize it or not. It's a fast read, and a refreshing gem in teen lit.

Disclosure: I got this book from the library.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Top Ten Series I Haven't Finished

Top Ten Tuesday is hosted by The Broke and the Bookish

There are always those series that you start with the best of intentions to continue, but somehow other books come up first, or you're not in the mood, or whatever reason that keeps you from picking up the next one. Today's Top Ten Tuesday gives us all a chance to admit which series we've yet to finish.

1. The Chaos Walking trilogy by Patrick Ness

I love these books very much, but I have yet to pick up the third book, Monsters of Men.

2. Divergent series by Veronica Roth

I just haven't gotten around to picking up Insurgent yet. But I am on the waiting list at the library!

3. The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis

I got as far as Voyage of the Dawn Treader and stopped about halfway through. I'm guessing someday I'll finish this, but maybe not sometime soon.

4. Anne of Green Gables series by L.M. Montgomery

I got pretty far in this series, I think up to Anne of Ingleside, but not farther than that. I would really like to finish the series someday; I love Anne and her stories.

5. The Kane Chronicles by Rick Riordan

There's a story behind this one. I started listening to this on CD two years ago, right around the time I got my car. When I tried to load the CDs into the player, somehow they got stuck—turns out my car doesn't like it when CDs have labels on them. To make matters worse this was a library book, so I had to get them out of there. I ended up taking it back to the dealer, who got them out for me. I have finally started listening to this first in the series again and am almost done.

6. The Bartimaeus Trilogy by Jonathan Stroud

I loved the first book in this series, which I read at the beginning of the summer this year. It's funny and full of magic and dynamic characters. I own the second one on my nook, but I have not yet had the chance to start it.

7. Confessions of Georgia Nicolson series by Louise Rennison

Hilarious books, I just never got around to reading the later sequels. I did quite enjoy her newest, Withering Tights, too.

8. The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series by Douglas Adams

I don't know if the humor is just not for me, or if two books were enough, but I really have no desire to finish this. I feel like I read enough.

9. The Monstrumologist series by Rick Yancey

I won the first two books in the series in some giveaway and read the first one last Halloween. It is incredibly well written, with language that reminded me of Victorian literature. Plus it's horror at its best. It's so much a horror book that I'm having trouble picking up book two—I really have to psych myself up if I'm going to read another of these.

10. The Parasol Protectorate series by Gail Carriger

Great paranormal steampunk series. I borrowed book 2 from a friend two years ago. TWO YEARS. I'm sorry Krista! I'll get it back to you someday.

Head on over to The Broke and the Bookish to add your top ten.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Book review: "52 Reasons to Hate My Father" by Jessica Brody

Title: 52 Reasons to Hate My Father
Author: Jessica Brody
Publisher: Farrar Straus Giroux, 2012

Lexington Larrabee has grown up with everything she could possibly want: custom-made cars, private jets, mansions across the United States and Europe, designer clothing, the works. She just hasn't had much of a father, since her dad is the CEO and founder of Larrabee Media, one of the biggest media corporations in the world. She is counting down the days until her 18th birthday, when she will be given access to the $25 million trust fund in her name, allowing her to have her freedom from her father's estate and rules. But after a particularly bad car crash into a convenience store, Lexi's father decides she needs a bit more time and effort to earn her trust fund. He picks out 52 jobs for her, one per week for a year, before she can get that check. Jobs like being a maid, digging graves, working in a fast-food restaurant, and working at a caterer's. Lexi is horrified, and things are only made worse when one of her father's interns, Luke, has been assigned as her "liaison," or as Lexi calls it, her babysitter. She's going to have to figure out how to get through this next year without having things done for her or handed to her without question, and without going crazy.

This whole premise reminded me a little bit of that "reality" show with Nicole Richie and Paris Hilton, The Simple Life (remember that?). Except there are no cameras, no script, just Lexi, Luke, and each job. Along with each supervisor who has signed a NDA too, of course. Basically Lexi needs to let go of her pride and get down to the dirty work, most of the time literally. So, think The Simple Life crossed with Dirty Jobs.

Not only was this book really fun, I enjoyed watching Lexi's character develop throughout the novel. It's predictable that Lexi will change over the course of the book, otherwise there would be no real point, but it was still nice to see the gradual change. I especially liked how she reacted to her friend Rolando and his living situation, and what she took from that experience.

This would be a good read for people who enjoy living vicariously through books like Gossip Girl, without the shallowness. There is depth and growth in the characters, as well as some great dialogue and a plot with both humor and a bit of suspense. It's true there is some name dropping going on in here as well, which I usually can't stand, but fortunately the names being dropped are from more timeless designers and are much less likely to be dated in a few years.

I wholeheartedly recommend this book to people who are looking for a quick, fun read and who enjoy reading about glamourous lifestyles, without having to sacrifice on the quality of the story.

If you're still not convinced, take a look at this book trailer.

And if you're wondering, I'm pretty sure this will be made into a movie sometime soon, if Brody's acknowledgments at the back of the book are anything to go by. Get excited.

Disclosure: I got this book from the library.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Book Review: "Lies, Knives, and Girls in Red Dresses" by Ron Koertge

Title: Lies, Knives, and Girls in Red Dresses
Author: Ron Koertge
Illustrator: Andrea Dezso
Publisher: Candlewick Press, 2012

In this poetry collection, we see familiar fairy tales turned completely upside down and twisted to a barely recognizable transformation. Popular tales like "Cinderella" and "Little Red Riding Hood" coexist with less familiar ones like "The Robber Bridegroom," and "Godfather Death" in very dark modernizations and reimaginations. These are not stories you would want to be told at bedtime.

This is a very short volume, one I finished in under an hour. Unfortunately I feel like Koertge was looking to bring new meaning to the fairy tales, different messages to a modern audience, yet not always succeeding in making it as deep as it felt like he wanted to go. Some of the poems succeed more than others—for example, I found the stories told from the villains' perspectives to be illuminating and well done, like the stepsisters' story in "Cinderella" and the Mole's story in "Thumbelina." Others seem to be just modernizations with nothing new or that interesting to share, like "Bluebeard" and "The Frog Prince," or lack a clear message, like "Bearskin."

I have mixed feelings about this collection of retold fairy tales, but I would say if you are interested in them, you should give the book a shot. It's short and a very fast read. If you end up feeling like the volume is missing something, or want a poetry collection of fairy tale retellings with more substance, pick up Anne Sexton's Transformations, an excellent contribution to American literature and the poetry canon.

Disclosure: I got this book from the library.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Book Review: "Seraphina" by Rachel Hartman

Title: Seraphina
Author: Rachel Hartman
Publisher: Random House Books for Young Readers, 2012

You may have read some rave reviews of this high fantasy novel lately, and all of them were right. This is a wonderfully refreshing return to what fantasy should be, with a fully realized and well-constructed world and dynamite characters.

In Goredd, a tense peace exists between humans and dragons, the latter of whom can transform into human form. Seraphina, the new assistant to the royal music coordinator/conductor/composer, has the most dangerous secret she can have in this world: she is half dragon. Passing as fully human, she must hide what she is, something that is so unthinkable that humans and dragons alike cannot conceive that something like her can exist.

Right at the beginning of the novel, we discover a member of the royal family has been killed in a particularly draconian way. Because of her insight into dragonkind, taught to her by her tutor and relative Orma, she finds herself deep in the intrigue and conspiracy that follows the murder, all while trying to stave off visions and keeping the characters in these visions from driving her insane.

Set in a medieval fantasy world, Seraphina reminds me of the classic fantasy from days of old. It's not only incredibly well written, it seems to be very well researched as well. Hartman did her homework when it comes to instruments, tools, and other aspects of medieval life that she worked into Goredd and the countries surrounding it. I also found her construction of the religion of Goredd fascinating, though I'm not entirely sure I understand it—basically they worship a large number of saints and believe in Heaven, but no one deity. I'm hoping we learn more about it in the next book.

It's clear that dragonkind and humankind pitted up against each other is metaphorical for race relations in our world, and it works very well. Having to hide her parentage affects Seraphina in distressing ways, but it is inspiring and heartening to see how she handles it and uses it for herself and for her people. Again, I'm interested to see where Hartman takes this in the next installment.

Coupled with the carefully built world, we have a thrilling plot, mystery, and a bit of romance. Seraphina and Lucian Kiggs, the captain of the royal guard who is also a prince of the kingdom, investigate the murder of Kiggs's uncle, leading to some very dangerous situations. Seraphina also discovers things about her mother, dragon intrigue, and what she truly is a part of bit by bit through her visions and unexpected meetings at the palace. All through the book I wanted to find out who did what and what would happen next. I still want to know, since it's quite clear there will be a sequel, though the ending here is satisfying and no intense cliffhanger.

One note: There is a glossary and list of characters at the very end, which is nice to have. After reading through them, a few things were a bit clearer to me about the world.

Disclosure: I got this book from the library.
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