Booknotized

A place to think, reflect, and talk (mostly to myself) about books I love…and a few that I don't.

Series Review: The 39 Clues February 27, 2012

Publisher: Scholastic
Release Date: 2008 – Present
Series: The 39 Clues 1-10; The 39 Clues: Vespers Rising; The 39 Clues: Cahills vs. Vespers 1-3+
Age Group: 9-12
Genre: Action-Adventure
Pages: various (from 150 – 327)
Source: provided by publisher as reference for freelance work (see below)
Rating Breakdown: Idea 5★; Execution 3.5★

Amy and Dan Cahill are just two regular kids. Amy’s shy and quiet; Dan’s rowdy and hilarious. Except for their grandmother, Grace, they have no family—that they know of—and when she dies, it seems they really are on their own…
 
…until Grace’s will reveals that not only are they part of a larger family, but it’s, well, HUGE! (Not to mention the most powerful in human history.) But before Dan and Amy can get too cuddly, they also find out that there’s a family feud stretching all the way back to Gideon Cahill and his quarrelsome kids in the 1500s that splits the Cahills into four branches. What’s more, they discover that a secret formula lies at the root of the feud—and it’s up to them to find all of the clues before anyone else can.
 
Book 1, The Maze of Bones  by Rick Riordan, sets the siblings off on a globe-trotting trek to uncover Gideon Cahill’s greatest secret. Filled with action, adventure, geographic thrills, and spine-tingling chills, the series continues in the 9 following volumes, each written by a different author (incl. Gordon Korman, Patrick Carman, Jude Watson, Linda Sue Park and several more).
 
Dan and Amy’s story picks up again in series two, Cahills vs. Vespers, with an intermediate novel to bridge the gap, Vespers Rising. I recommend beginning with series one, book one, and working your way up. So far, only two books have been published in the Cahills vs. Vespers series, with book three, The Dead of Night, due out March 6.
 
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I was first introduced to the 39 Clues when I was asked to participate in the creation of some materials for a webcast featuring Ruth Culham—with whom I worked closely on the Scholastic Traits Writing program—and the 39 clues. (You can find the materials I helped generate here.) The webcast and worksheets were designed to get kids examining text and excited about writing by introducing them to the Traits and helping them discover in favorite/familiar books models and mentors for their own work.
 
While I didn’t have to read them all, after book one I found I had quite a fondness for Dan’s quirky character and Amy’s burgeoning sense of self-confidence. Their characters are really lively and well done—and despite the variety of authors, surprisingly consistent. I wound up reading 6 of the 10, and was pleased to revisit their world in the second series this past January when I was asked to participate in another related project.
 
The idea is really stellar and complex (despite some implicit/inadvertent eurocentrism) and the adventures are fun—the pace is nothing if not quick. Historical figures, bits of world cultures and geographic trivia are laced innocuously throughout. I was surprised myself, after the fact, to reflect on how much I had accidentally learned from the series about peope, places, and things I had thought I was quite knowledgable about. Coupled with the interactive website, there’s a lot for unsuspecting reluctant-reading minds to glean.
 
The writing is simple, fairly transparent, and there’s a somewhat “Nancy Drew” quality to Dan and Amy’s sleuthing and often predictable resolutions (which is one reason I didn’t press on to read the final four titles). But the series mixes it up – not always allowing Dan and Amy the spotlight OR the victory outright. Because the Cahill family is so large, there is a vast cast of multicultural characters to meet (though none of them is ever very deeply developed) and the 3rd-person perspective switches up regularly, providing lots of twists and turns.
 
Not deep or heavy by any means, often overly simple for the older reader in me, these are nonetheless fun, light, catching reads that could serve for the kid-at-heart as a good buffer between dark apocalypses and epic fantasies. Something like Spy Kids meets Carmen Sandiego turned print—though generally less cheesy and far more complex. The books had me clue-hunting right along with the Cahills, curious to find out how it would all wrap up in the end.
 
I definitely recommend these book for the 9-12-ers—who I’ve witnessed can get really NUTS for these things!—as well as for the adventurous 13+(+++)-er.
 

 

Book Review: Bumped by Megan McCafferty February 13, 2012

Publisher: Balzer + Bray
Release Date: April 26, 2011
Series: Duo (Thumped out April 24, 2012)
Age Group: Solid YA (strong, though not graphic, sexual content)
Genre: Post-apocalyptic
Pages: 336
Source: personal purchase – $.99 January Epic Reads, Kindle Edition
Rating Breakdown: Idea 3.5★; Execution 3★

★★★

Melody has her life all planned out—or, well, technically her parents do, but she’s ok with that. Really, who wouldn’t give their left ovary for a chance at a 6-figure signing bonus, college tuition, and a few moments with one of the most “fertilicious” sperm donors around? All she has to do is cook up a kid for the wealthy, childless Jaydens who’ve hired out her womb. Being a professional surrogate isn’t just the right thing to do, you know, for humanity and all—since the HPSV (human progressive sterility virus) started sterilizing everyone over 18. Without teen surrogates, humanity would go extinct in a matter of years. No, it’s also very hip—at least so say Melody’s parents, all the ads, and the people at Babies R U, who sell prosthetic “FunBumps” to get flat bellies in the mood. And, so says Melody, who was the first to turn pro at her school and make it OK for everyone else to capitalize on their most valuable assets…before they go bad, that is. Even though she has yet to get bumped (the Jayden’s have taken way too long selecting a boy toy), she’s still as excited as she was when this all began—isnt’ she?
 
Not if her twin sister, Harmony—who arrives from her sect’s compound in Goodside unannounced and unwanted—can help it. Harmony’s sole mission in life is to spread the Truth (or so she says), and that includes bringing Melody back from the brink of sinful disaster. Harmony certainly doesn’t intend to bump with anyone. No, sir. Why would anyone want to do a thing like that??
________________________________________________________________________________________
 
[So, be forewarned: this book is all about sexuality, as you may well have guessed. Though there aren’t any overly graphic scenes, sex is nonetheless very present throughout. Teenage pregnancy is a topic of ambiguous debate, and neither protection nor abstinence is considered seriously, nor is any perspective really committed to at the end. Perhaps some of those topics will be fleshed out (no pun intended..,) in Book 2, but were not in Book 1.]
 
For the first few chapters, I found this book rather annoying. A combination of heavy, heavy use of unexplained, world-specific slang from Melody, a wad of over-the-top fundamentalism from Harmony, and slow progress resulting from the alternating perspectives caused me to put it down several times. However, about halfway through, I began to get used to the slang. Harmony either softened up or I accepted her as a complex character (and not just an allegorical subject molded specifically to be mocked). The plot finally picked up, and I was surprised to find myself enjoying the last 150-or-so pages.
 
As for the world, it’s rather thin and flat. Fleshed out predominantly through the slang, it doesn’t ever really differentiate itself from “today.” High schools are high schools; hospitals are hospitals. The only discernable nuances are the virus and an internalized blink-driven fusion of the Internet/Facebook called the “MiNet” (clever phonetics for “ME” net?) that we’ve seen 1000 times already (The Uglies…). However, the virus and its repercussions are intriguing enough to consider (for a more structured exploration of the same, see P. D. James’ novel and the movie loosely based on it, Children on Men). The idea of gametes and uterus being commodities, and young girls being pressured to have not only sex, but babies, by peers and parents is an interesting and complex conflict. With the number of women experiencing fertility problems today and signs of a sperm count decrease being linked to water-borne hormones from oral contraceptives, it’s not even that far-fetched an apocalypse.
 
However, I felt the book’s handling of the topic was a bit too ambiguous. The focus was put more on the freedom to keep one’s own child, with adoption treated as somewhat undesirable. (I understood that it was forced adoption that was being looked down upon, but awkward, superficial handling of the subject didn’t really leave room for other considerations.) Because of the social situation, romance isn’t a driving force of the novel, which was quite refreshing. But, again, like the idea of teen pregnancy, the concept of sex outside of affection wasn’t well handled—though you do get a basic hint that the narrator feels one should be a prerequisite for the other. In the end, the story becomes more of an answer to the question, What would happen if extremist views that sex should only be procreative took over? than an exploration of the potential fallout from a debilitating virus or a even a promotion of sex’s other uses.
 
In addition, the reasons why in vitro fertilization isn’t more widely used is not satisfactorily explained at all. This was one of my biggest gripes. As an obvious alternative that’s medically available today, not to give any real reason it isn’t being used in such a future as this is just sloppy world-building. Additionally, though young people are having rampant sex (orgies included) STDs are never even mentioned. A cure has been found for AIDS, the reader is informed at one point, but no other mention of the hazards of unprotected sex are discussed, which I found rather irresponsible, given the age of the characters and the book’s target audience.
 
Finally, the ending was soooo incredibly forced. It was an unexpected cliff-hanger that was obviously manufactured to extend the brand. I usually hate those types of endings. I didn’t so much this time, but that may be due to the fact that I was reading an e-book, and thus unable to get outraged that the remaining pages were far less than needed to wrap up the plot (until it was already upon me!). Or, it simply might have been because I was so ambivalent about the characters and their story in general.
 
That said, I can’t deny that I did enjoy it, though I can’t really pinpoint why. While I am not sure I can say exactly what was good about it (nor sure it’s worth spending the time to craft such thoughts…), I can say what wasn’t bad: It wasn’t full of awkward phrases or overly simplified lines—that is, it wasn’t badly written on a line-by-line basis. The characters weren’t utterly odious, annoying, or flat. The plot didn’t completely stagnate. The idea wasn’t totally cliché. It wasn’t a cotton-candy read since, thankfully, it did have some thought-provoking substance. Oh, and it wasn’t romance-driven. (Perhaps its best quality.)
 
I will surprise myself by giving it a thumbs up on the jargon, which so turned me off at the beginning. Though hard to get used to, it was quite clever. If as much time had been spent developing the themes and plot as was spent on the slang, it would have been much better book.
 
All in all, I would be flat out wrong if I said it didn’t have something. I’ve spent a lot of time lately contemplating the idea that we are often judging books by too-narrow standards. Where literary criticism doesn’t always turn up any merit (case and point: Harry Potter!), popular opinion belies qualities that the ivory tower is overlooking. It reminds me of the idea of differentiated learning styles—you know, visual, auditory, and kinesthetic. Whatever the literary equivalents of those are, this book has some of them. More on that topic to come.

 

Book Review: Rotters by Daniel Kraus February 9, 2012

Publisher: Delacorte
Release Date: April 5, 2011
Series: stand-alone
Age Group: Solidly YA (warning: violence, gore, language, sexual content)
Pages: 464
Source: purchase
Genre: (macabre) Realistic Fiction (some say “horror” but there’s no real fear angle, so I don’t think that truly fits)
Rating Breakdown: Idea 4★; Execution 3.5★

 

★★★★

Joey lives a sheltered life. His mother fulfills all of his needs, and it seems Chicago fulfills all of hers—they never, ever leave the city. But when a tragic accident sends Joey to a remote town to live with his father, he finds he has a lot to learn about life…and death.

Before he knows it, he’s been drawn into a macabre underworld that thrives on decay: a secret society of graverobbers. And, as much as his own accumulating stench and his father’s mysterious reputation as a “garbage man” isolate him from the insular, closed-minded society of Bloughton High, they might eventually be the very things that draw him back in.

___________________________________________________________________
 
The pros…
 
This book starts with much promise. I didn’t realize just how long it had been since I had sunk my mental teeth into truly high-quality writing, until I finished the first few pages of this book. I was immediately hooked.
 
The style is what I can only describe as “piecemeal” in a most clever way—each sentence requiring more than your average bit of thought to process. Sometimes information precedes itself—if you know what I mean—and then unravels in the following sentences. For instance, my favorite passage in the book is the description of a girl—only, you’re halfway down the page before you fully understand what or whom it’s talking about. When it finally clicks, however, it’s a truly satisfying sensation.
 
Elements like that, combined with some truly unusual and refreshingly insightful details really put you behind the narrator’s eyes—you’re right there with him and it’s visceral. When it comes to the gory bits—and OH are there some gruesome passages!—it can be shocking, as well it should be. I won’t lie: I found myself on the subway closing my eyes and massaging my temples, or just gaping in horror at the page (and being gaped at in return by my fellow passengers) after happening unawares upon particular moments. And they are well placed for just such effect. Because not all of the related scenes contain descriptions of what Joey sees in the coffins, you never know when one will jump up and gum you to death. And, don’t be surprised if they stick to you for a while, either. (I confess, I eyed my roasted sweet potatoes warily last night when one of the mushier pieces smeared across the pan: unwillingly found myself thinking about how it had once been “alive”…)
 
If you’re like me, it will also be those lingering images that prompt a reconsideration of life, death, and mortality, and not Joey’s haphazard and drawn-out goose chase of the subject. As with the sweet potatoes, I can’t help but be constantly reminded of how dualistic life is. No matter how much we remove it from our everyday sight, package it in cellophane, and smother it with sweet-smelling euphemisms, death and decay are inextricably intertwined with life. They are two inseparable sides of one coin. And, the unabashed promotion of this realization is the true strength of this story.
 
The cons…
 
However, the book’s faults are intertwined with its assets, to some degree. Joey’s character, though the stream of his thoughts are belabored, didn’t ever solidify for me. Dimension was given to the smallest details outside of him, but the inside remained opaque. And similarly throughout the book, the evocative style, while excellent when it had something to focus on, wasn’t pared down enough when it didn’t. When combined with a multitude of meandering (sometimes superfluous) twists of plot, it resulted in a really drawn-out story. I put the book down more than once wondering if it would ever end. Without a doubt, the manuscript could have used a good strong structural edit to scrub some of the excessive prose and unnecessary scenes. (For example, I think more than one run-in with “Baby” wasn’t really necessary. They could have been combined and made more effective. Or, a more willing and resolved embrace of the book’s Jeckyll and Hyde undertones would have made the plot as clever as its metaphors.) Alas, this wasn’t done, and without the masterfully gruesome detail, many of the story’s finer points would have been lost in the overabundance. (I know: pot calling kettle!)
 
Finally—and herein lies my biggest criticism—while this book doesn’t try (or succeed if it did) to be anything other than macabre realistic fiction (despite the fact that the world of the “Diggers” is other, it’s not paranormal), the ultimate villain is absurdly unrealistic. Everything else in the book I could buy, and to strong effect; but that guy’s purported feats—especially his nothing-short-of-miraculous reappearance at the end—were not only surprising and disappointing, but truly irritating.
 
The final word…
 
Overall, however, Rotters is an utterly different, refreshingly nuanced, and excitingly complex read. Though I found the final third of the book lost its way, and am not sure that I gained much from the last 150 pages that I hadn’t gotten from the 300 preceding it, the provocative look at mortality that was offered up so starkly and unapologetically until that point made it worthwhile to finish. Until Hyde took over, I couldn’t help thinking of it as the (less svelt) YA version of Cormac McCarthy’s Child of God.
 
But, if the mark of good literature is that it changes you somehow, alters your perspective in some way, then I’d give this one a solid vote. Whatever my gripes about the wandering plot, I will never look at rotters (the living or the dead…or the vegetable), in quite the same way again.

 

Influential Book of the Month: The Iliad by Homer January 11, 2012

 

 

The Iliad by Homer

 

Written around the 8th Century BC, this epic Greek poem about the
Trojan war has influenced countless classic authors with its tragic
and quintessential tale of hubris, love, and war. With hunks like Achilles
and Odysseus, hotties like Helen, and powers that be like Ares, Apollo,
and Aphrodite, it’s no wonder this book is also prime inspriation for
today’s YA otherworldly writers.

 

Known Progeny:

Goddess of Yesterday by Caroline B. Cooney
Nobody’s Princess and Nobody’s Prize by Esther M. Friesner
Troy by Adele Geras
Starcrossed by Josephine Angelini
The Memoirs of Helen of Troy by Amanda Elyot
Achilles: A Novel by Elizabeth Cook
 
 
 
 
 

Check out the IBoTM page for more titles that have helped shape today’s YA landscape.

 

Know of another bit of offspring from any of these books that isn’t listed here? Email it to me at booknotized[at]gmail[dot]com!

 

 

Book Review: Cinder by Marissa Meyer January 9, 2012

 
Publisher: Macmillan
Series: Lunar Chronicles (Book 1)
Age Group: YA (totally clean)
Release Date: January 3, 2012
Pages: 400
Source: NetGalley and Giveaway from Amanda at Diary of a Book Addict
Genre: Scifi + Post-Apocalyptic
Rating Breakdown: Idea 5+★; Execution 3+★
 

★★★★

Cinder is a cyborg—which in her society means barely human. Somewhere in a past she can’t remember, there was an accident that left her parentless and a surgery that gave her a foot and a hand she doesn’t want, but can’t live without. Her one glimmer of hope came in the form of a scientist from the Eastern commonwealth—a conglomerate of countries united by the emperor sometime after the devastating WW4—but was dashed before she even know about him, when he died of the Letumosis epidemic.
 
Now, stuck with a stepmother who hates her, working as a mechanic to pay bills that aren’t her own, in a country swept by plague and threatened by war from the psychotic Lunar queen, Cinder only dreams of escape.
 
And, then the Prince walks in.
 
__________________________________________________________________________________________________
 
First off, you must read this book. It’s great. You’ll enjoy it, I guarantee. It’s overall tightly written, fast paced, and unique. I was drawn to the cover at first sight and couldn’t put it down!
 
But, as a connoisseur (hah!) I am truly on the fence about it. As a reviewer, I feel compelled to tell the whole truth and nothing but. So, while on the one hand it was a thrilling read, it has its flaws.
 
I love the concept—very original. Instead of a technologically backwards future of the sort we’re used to seeing in today’s post-apocalyptic or dystopian novels, this one is very techno-savvy. Reminded me of Westerfeld’s The Uglies in its tenor. Hover cars are all the rage, and human beings survive historically fatal or utterly disfiguring injuries because of extreme advances in surgical prosthetics.
 
Fairly logically-advanced versions of the internet, computers, and televisions are the main form of communication and entertainment, which helps tie nicely into the present-day world.
 
The commonwealth, and its emperor are situated in Asia, in a city called New Beijing, making this the second book to allude to fears of China’s rise to world power. However, unlike some, this book doesn’t see that as a bad thing. The Emperor and his family are just, fair rulers, and peacefully cohabitate with other ruling bodies—except those on the moon (yup!).
 
Instead of climate change, and/or oil shortage being the cause of the apocalypse (both of which have been almost overdone these days…), it’s international conflict that spawned both destruction and peace between Earthen countries. Unchecked greed and power hunger is the reason for the latest threat from the mutated inhabitants of the moon—and their mind-controlling queen.
 
Up until that point, everything was great. But, the mind control was where the book started to get under my skin. I found it to be too convenient, cheesy, inconsistently implemented, and ineffective.
 
Similarly, though I appreciated the attempt to align this with the original Cinderella story, a few of the plot elements at the end were too forced. This is a problem I have with a lot of fairytale re-imaginings: they don’t seem to realize you can pick and choose which elements to include—and even then, you can bend them a little to fit your setting. This book tried too hard to get them all in…and didn’t bend or wield them skillfully enough to fit. For one, the “carriage” (an old rusted out automobile) was a potentially really intriguing twist that just didn’t deliver and faded out as abruptly as it appeared. More importantly, however, the ball was just totally out of place, in my mind. Not only was it a virtual impossibility (all the citizens of one major city invited at once?), but then, why such an outdated ritual in full 17th century style was the one tradition that held over from the old to such a futuristic world wasn’t explained. It wasn’t the right scene for the confrontation, and as a result, the final scenes were just not cathartic enough.
 
As for characters, the evil queen wasn’t very believable—her dialogue made me chuckle at some points. And, last but not least, Cinder just wasn’t a decisive or confident enough character for my taste. Why she waited so long to work on the Prince’s robot—meanwhile the dropped hints and reminders of its import were abundant—I just couldn’t figure out. And her two obsessions—her own imperfection and escape—were overdone to the point of threatening the story not only plot-wise, but overall by making her slightly annoying.
 
That said, however, I really enjoyed the concept and the world, and will definitely be looking out for book 2—which I hope will benefit from its freedom from the original story and license to do fantastic things with a fantastic concept.

 

Working With the 100: An Epic Adventure

 
Now, I know how it looks. I’ve been fairly quiet over the last two months.
 
But that’s only because I’ve been consulting on what was probably the most exciting project ever: Scholastic Parent & Child Magazine’s 100 Greatest Books for Kids feature.

I knew when I took the job that it might mean I had to stay quiet on the blogging front for a little while, but, I mean, who could turn it down?
 
For several solid months, I got to spend my nights and weekends reading, thinking and writing about my absolute favorite topic—books for young people (which I would have been doing anyway…shhh!)—as I worked to curate the list with the expert contributors and amazing editorial team at P&C.
 
In short, I had a blast.
 
While this took up most of my extracurricular reading time, I also couldn’t really post about it: it was TOP secret. Well, at least until the website went live! (At which point I collapsed into a heap and was transported unconsciously to the land of turkey and gift wrap.) Hence my (unusually) un-loquacious state.
 
Despite my tardiness in posting, however, I couldn’t be prouder of the final product. Not only does it cover 100 of the best books written and in print for Ages 0-12 (culled from a list of over 500 titles suggested by literacy experts, Scholastic editors, and parents!), but the website is a TON of fun to play with!
 

Check out the interactive website where 10 books will be revealed every week in the countdown to the mysterious #1!

Be sure to investigate all the widgets and enter for a chance to win a copy of 1 of the titles every week.

 

 
 
You can sort by Fiction/Nonfiction (and fiction type), Age Group, Award Winners, and more. Once you have your list, click on the book covers to find out more about each individual title.
 

 
As an added treat, the magazine editors and I chose 10 books throughout the list that grabbed our attention for various reasons, such as “Best Bedtime Book,” “Most Exciting Ending,” and “Favorite Fantastic Setting.”
 
Click here to find out more about the 100 Greatest Books for Kids feature: why we did it, how we did it, what’s up next, and more.
 
Then, be sure to subscribe to P&C asap if you want to receive a print copy of the March issue that will contain all of this and more.
 
 

~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * GIVEAWAY! * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~

 
Now, I want to hear from you. Let me know: what books would YOU have put on the list? What would have been your number one? Be sure to include your email address with your answer! (Or leave a comment on this post.) One lucky winner will get a copy of one of the books from the list in their age group of choice. (Book to be supplied by moi, and this giveaway is in no way affiliated with Parent & Child.)
 

 

 

 

Monday Reads: What are you reading in 2012?!

Filed under: Books,Uncategorized — Booknotized @ 3:00 am
Tags: , , , ,

Everybody needs a little holiday break…

With family 900+ miles away, that’s often imperative for me. And, where they live, internet access is sometimes sketchy.

But I have been ITCHING to post all the reviews that are drafted out in my trusty notebook. I’ve also had the unique opportunity to
read some titles for work lately that I’ve had on my list for YEARS, so you’ll see a few classic names mixed in with the old.

Here’s what my week in reading has been looking like – a preview of what’s to come!

It’s Monday! What Are You Reading? meme by the lovely Shelia at Book Journey.

 

 
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