Staff Picks: Books
Staff-recommended reading from the
Michigan author Laura Ellen's Blind Spot left me emotional and confused. For me, Blind Spot is one of those unique novels that gains power over the reader by causing intense emotional turmoil and frustration. Basically, this book made me so angry and frustrated that I haven't been able to banish it from my thoughts.
The main character, Roz, suffers from macular degeneration, leaving her legally blind. She constantly struggles to make up for this deficit as she maneuvers her way through high school, but her eyesight is, unsurprisingly, always on her mind, making her self-conscious and lowering her self-esteem. Constantly frustrated from feeling helpless and out of her element in many situation while still wanting to be able to handle everything herself and without help, Roz has a tendency to jump to conclusions and snap at those around her, even those with the best intentions. This aspect of the novel felt very realistic to me. My younger sister was born with glaucoma and I think she'd identify closely with Roz. I can't say what goes on inside my sister's head, but I do know how she reacted to things when she was in high school and, from my point of view, Roz had similar reactions and thoughts. In the novel, Roz points out that people don't realize how poor her vision is and are constantly asking why she doesn't just get glasses. She can't drive and isn't able to play sports because she's a liability. These are all things my sister struggled with. Also like Roz, my sister could be a bit angry. She didn't like wearing her glasses, which improved her vision but left her feeling dorky and unattractive (which is not fun for anyone, let alone a high school-aged girl), and new situations were extremely stressful because she couldn't see to figure things out.
This is where the similarities between my sister and Roz end, right along with my positive feelings regarding Blind Spot. My biggest issue? I absolutely loathed all of the characters. The teachers, the police, Roz's friends, her mother, her boyfriend: all horrible, mean people motivated by self-interest and unwilling to see things from any point of view other than their own. I know it's a strong word, but I was truly disgusted. Realistically, I know that there are people like this in real life, people that let power go to their head and exploit others, but to have an entire novel populated with them was sometimes overwhelming.
I will say that I actually did enjoy the character Tricia, but she's dead from the first page (the focus of the book is, primarily, her disappearance and murder). Tricia, however, was the only character who, though monumentally messed up, actually seemed to do some genuinely nice, even protective, things for Roz without expecting anything in return.
So, despite feeling extremely frustrated with the characters as I read Blind Spot, I can't really say my strong negative feelings were necessarily a bad thing. Yes, I was disgusted and unhappy and wanted to stop reading because I felt like what was happening on the page was terribly unfair, BUT I didn't. And I can't help but talk about about this book and the messed up characters to anyone who will listen... so disliking the characters of this book isn't the worst thing that could have happened. Having no opinion of the characters or easily forgetting them would be even worse than hating them. In this case, hating the characters is a good thing.
Despite being very unhappy with pretty much all of the characters, I kept reading because I really wanted to know what happened to Tricia. It really bothered me that the one person who wasn't completely horrible ended up dead and I had to know what happened to her.
From the moment I finished Blind Spot, it hasn't been far from mind and I'm still trying to sort out all of my feelings about it. In the end, I want you to read this book. It isn't long and it clips along at a quick pace, but it isn't an easy read. I think it's good to challenge your perceptions and ideas though and Blind Spot allows for this in very interesting ways.
My goodness, where should I even start when talking about Megan Shepherd's debut, The Madman's Daughter...
I suppose I could start by saying that I picked it up while reading Ann Radcliffe's The Italian, which was published in 1797 and is considered one of the very first Gothic thrillers. Reading these two novels, while simultaneously researching the Gothic novel as a genre, gave me an interesting vantage point from which to view The Madman's Daughter as a Gothic novel and, I think, in the end, it may have deepened my love for Shepherd's debut (and for The Italian, which was boring me to tears at the time)!
The setting and atmosphere of a Gothic novel is of utmost importance. In fact, the setting is so important it must act as a character itself. For me, the island where Juliet's father has been secretly living and conducting his "research" more than fulfills this requirement. From the moment Juliet learns of the island (and meets the islander accompanying Montgomery, her father's assistant), the reader knows this isn't going to be an island with gorgeous white-sand beaches and hammocks casually strung between trees. While the island's history isn't explored in extreme depth, the reader knows that it is no stranger to misfortune and, perhaps, even sinister death. Plus, it's the home of a mad scientist who was run out of London after performing horrid experiments on living subjects... it's hard to imagine such a man living in a bright, sunshine-y place.
The Madman's Daughter might remind readers of Frankenstein as it deals with themes of science versus nature, experimentation for the purpose of creation and life, the meaning of humanity and life, and features a scientist that believes he is doing something good, but whose opinion may be a tad (or a lot) biased. One of the things that I absolutely loved about this novel was how often it made me question: is this wrong? Some of the experimentation itself is wrong, but, after Juliet learns what her father is doing, essentially merging and manipulating different parts of animals to create humanoid creatures, she refers to them as monsters. While I do see how such creatures could be viewed as monstrous, I also grew to care deeply about many of them as the novel progressed. At more than one point, I was actually moved to tears as these creatures suffered. I get a little bit weepy just thinking about it now, weeks after reading.
As far as Juliet's father is concerned, I have very strong negative feelings. Though, as a product of the 21st century, I'm not sure that I see his scientific mind and quest for innovation as mad, I definitely still see him as a madman on many other levels. He may have begun as a scientist searching for truth and knowledge, but, by the time the reader meets him, he's off-his-rocker-crazy. The power has gone to his head and, for someone who is obsessed with the secret of creating life, he cares very little about preserving life. Still, after some secrets from Juliet's past are revealed, I couldn't help but take a longer look at Dr. Moreau and consider what he might have been like before.
The Madman's Daughter also incorporates some very pro-feminist vibes as Juliet fights against a very anti-woman world, culture, and father. She strong, determined, and courageous despite nearly everything being stacked against her. She rebels against her father who sees her primarily as something to use and manipulate and secondly as a burden to marry off. She doesn't take no for an answer when Montgomery tries to prevent her from going to the island nor does she accept the simple answers she's given when she knows there's much more to be learned. I can't imagine any reader calling Juliet Moreau weak.
And, to round out an already fantastic plot, there's more than enough romance to satisfy readers who like their heroine's distracted by a guy while fighting their mad father and considering philosophical questions about humanity. In fact, there's a rather intense love triangle featuring two very unique men... but following this tangent would require multiple paragraphs and more than a few spoilers.
I could go on and on about The Madman's Daughter, but I'd say it's in your best interest to read this fantastic novel yourself. Luckily, you'll find a copy downstairs at Central and another at our Oshtemo Branch! And, while The Madman's Daughter might technically be classified as Young Adult, I feel adults will fully enjoy it as well!
The Madman's Daughter
There’s been a lot of talk in the book world about this teen title: Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein. This is the summary from the library catalog: “In 1943, a British fighter plane crashes in Nazi-occupied France and the survivor tells a tale of friendship, war, espionage, and great courage as she relates what she must do to survive while keeping secret all that she can.” It’s a complex, poignant, horrific, and deeply moving story, told from the perspectives of two incredible characters.
Code Name Verity
Teens and zombie fans will love this look at the lighter side of the cannibalistic undead in Michigan author Carrie Harris's debut Bad Taste in Boys.
Kate Grable is a smart, butt-kicking heroine who spends her days focused on getting into an awesome school and making medical history as Kate Grable, M.D., dreaming of catching the eye of her quarterback crush, Aaron, and making hilarious observations about the world around her. Little does she know, a virus is about to sweep through her school, leaving many of her peers with zombie-like tendencies. With all the limbs and body parts people keep losing, she'll be lucky if she doesn't end up literally catching Aaron's eye.
It seems impossible that a book could make a reader gag and laugh within the space of a paragraph, but Bad Taste in Boys proves it's entirely possible... and surprisingly likely. Kate's life might be a complete - and often gory mess - during the novel (ya know, zombies and all), but the reader can't help but laugh as Kate describes the ridiculous things happening around her.
Kate has just the right amounts of confidence and insecurity to make relating to her easy. She's obviously got a lot going for her, but she doesn't see it herself. She's smart and, though she's sure of her abilities, she's not cocky. She doesn't realize she's got beauty in addition to brains, but Carrie Harris doesn't portray this in an annoying, false way. Kate doesn't put herself down about not being conventionally beautiful. I was thankful that I never once thought to myself: I feel like this character is constantly talking about how ugly she is just so I'll think in my head, "no silly, you look great!" Kate might sometimes feel self conscious when she considers her looks, but she doesn't dwell - she's got way more important things to worry about. Like that zombie over there.
When I read that Kate's crush is a popular football player and her best friends are equally popular, I was worried that Bad Taste in Boys would suffer from Horrible Best Friends and This Guy Is Way Too Good For Me Syndrome, but I was wrong! Instead, Kate's friends, though they didn't play a super huge role in the novel, were pretty fantastic, and Aaron was adorable. Plus, he's a super fantastic guy that doesn't suffer from an overly inflated ego. Big shoutout to supportive secondary characters!
In conclusion, don't be a bad, be good! And by good, I mean read Bad Taste in Boys sooner than later!
Bad Taste in Boys
The summer of 1962 in a small town Norvelt, PA is off to an iffy start for 11 year old Jack in Dead End in Norvelt. He accidentally fires off his father’s World War II Japanese rifle, and, Jack’s mother “grounds him for life” (or at least the summer.) The one exception to his not leaving the house is to help Miss Volker, whose arthritic hands make it impossible for her to type the newspaper obituaries. She can’t drive, either, so she gives Jack driving lessons and with Jack at the wheel, they careen around town trying to discover if a Hell’s Angel really put a curse on the town, or if the Girl Scout cookies are laced with rat poison. Eccentric and colorful characters abound in this book. It also provides a glimpse into actual historical events, an added plus. (There really was a town called Norvelt, created by Eleanor Roosevelt, and based on communal land ownership.)
A wonderfully readable book with non-stop action for older children, Dead End in Norvelt won the Newbery Award for 2012. It joins a long list of other great titles by popular author Jack Gantos, including the Joey Pigza chapter book series and the Rotten Ralph picture books.
Dead End in Norvelt
Some say that prostitution is a “victimless crime,” because presumably everyone involved participates willingly. Rachel Lloyd, in Girls Like Us, demonstrates that many girls and young women recruited and trafficked into the commercial sex industry are clearly victims of the system.
Lloyd, the executive director of GEMS, Girls Educational and Mentoring Services, was once a victim of commercial sexual exploitation (CSE.) She was eventually able to escape, through the support of a caring church community and some adults—surrogate parents, in essence-- who reached out to her, offering her a chance for educational and professional success, beyond the life she knew.
In Girls Like Us: Fighting for a World where Girls are not for Sale, an Activist Finds her Calling and Heals Herself, Lloyd breaks it all down: how the neglect and abuse most girls experience prior to exploitation sets them up to become victims of CSE; the methods pimps use to keep the girls from leaving; the stigma that surrounds girls, once they’ve become commercially sexually exploited. She also describes in detail what factors must be present to support someone leaving and successfully thriving, after living ‘in the life.’
Lloyd, along with several of the girls served by GEMS, successfully persuaded the New York State legislature to enact the Safe Harbor for Exploited Children Act, which aims to protect –rather than prosecute—children subjected to sex trafficking.
Girls like us: fighting for a world where girls are not for sale an activist finds her calling and heals herself
Drumming, by Ian Adams, is a good introduction to playing drum set. This new nonfiction title for beginning drummers shows the different kinds of equipment used to get started playing the drums along with good advice on safe drumming (ear plugs) and finding a teacher. An explanation of musical notation specific to drums, grooves and styles, inspiring highlights on influential rhythmic creators like Stewart Copeland, Cindy Blackman, and DJ Afrika Bambaataa plus great images of drummers from a wide variety of musical genres make this a great read for upper elementary, middle school, and teen readers.
Most of the time I’m waiting for one book or another to come out. Knowing forthcoming publication dates is part of this profession but I think I’d be this way regardless. Most of the time, I think the anticipation is fun and I even add reminders to my online calendar so that I don’t forget to put the book on hold.
The hardest part of reading a good series is waiting for the next book. Sometimes I’m so anxious to read it, I have to work hard to distract myself with other good books. Other times I forget about a series for awhile and then am pleasantly surprised when a new book comes out. A few times in my life, I’ve purposely waited until the whole series was available before reading because I just new it would be so good that I’d want to read it all at once. It’s hard to avoid spoilers but it’s pretty great to not have to wait for the next book. I read the Harry Potter series this way, start to finish. That was a great two weeks!
Early 2012 seemed to be a busy reading time for me with new additions to some of my favorite series for children and teens coming out. I really enjoyed Trenton Lee Stewart’s new book, The Extraordinary Education of Nicholas Benedict, a companion to his Mysterious Benedict Society series. This series is great for elementary aged kids but I know a fair number of adults who like it too. I think it’d be great for reading as a family or listening to on a road trip. Suspenseful and touching with lots of mystery and problem-solving. Funny, engaging characters. This latest book was easily my favorite of all four.
Now I’m moving on to Bitterblue by Kristin Cashore. It’s a companion book to “Graceling” and “Fire” and I’m hoping it’s just as wonderful. I've been waiting a long time to read more about Bitterblue, Po, and Katsa!
So what books are you marking your calendar for? Anything I should be looking out for too?
If you enjoy listening to Australian accents and if you like stories written with an ingenious idea, then listen to I Am the Messenger, written by Markus Zusak and read by Marc Aden Gray.
The summary, as listed in the KPL catalog, reads: “After capturing a bank robber, nineteen-year old cabdriver Ed Kennedy begins receiving mysterious messages that direct him to addresses where people need help, and he begins getting over his lifelong feeling of worthlessness.” Ed Kennedy’s ordinariness and common desires keep this story fresh. Ed lives in a self-described shack with his stinky old dog named “the Doorman.” Who is sending these playing cards with cryptic messages written on them anyway? Messages that demand Ed to seek justice by entering the lives of various townsfolk, ie: an abused wife, a lonely old woman with dementia, an athletic teenage girl who runs barefoot, a priest with dwindling attendance at his run-down neighborhood church, a poor mother of three children, two battling brothers, Ed’s own condemning mother, and lastly, his three best friends with hidden agendas: Ritchie, Marv, and Audrey.
This intriguing, thought-provoking story is certain to satisfy both teen and adult readers.
I Am the Messenger
Dead End in Norvelt, by Jack Gantos, is the 2012 Newbery Medal winner for the most distinguished American children’s book published the previous year. Gantos has written many excellent children’s books including the naughty cat “Rotten Ralph” series and the troubled kid “Joey Pigza” series. Dead End in Norvelt is a semi-autobiographical story that mixes fact and fiction, the main character is named Jack Gantos... It is the summer of 1962. Jackie is twelve years old and is grounded for the summer for firing a shot from his father’s WWII Japanese sniper rifle AND for mowing down his mother’s corn patch intended to feed the needy inhabitants of her beloved town of Norvelt, Pennsylvania. Why did he mow down the corn? His dad, a navy veteran, told him to mow it, said he needed the land to build a bomb shelter from the Commies and a runway for his J-3 airplane, hoping to eventually fly away his family to a new life in Florida.
Jackie’s mother is devoted and loyal to the concept of neighbor-helping-neighbor. She’s forever grateful to the memory of and indebted to the social programs of Eleanor Roosevelt for whom the town is named, (“Nor” from Eleanor and “velt” from Roosevelt). Eleanor Roosevelt was instrumental in getting indoor plumbing and electricity in their New Deal homestead project built in 1934. When Jackie’s mother gives him permission to help their neighbor Miss Volker, he jumps at the chance to throw down his shovel and pick up a pencil to write obituaries with Volker. She’s old, arthritic-handed, and is the town nurse and medical examiner. Jackie writes the obits as the excited Volker dictates, never missing a beat about the importance and thoroughness of including everything, ie, the family part and, the important ideas to keep alive, and the importance of history. Volker gets worked up, pacing back and forth, swinging her arms like a windmill. Jackie types, then delivers the obits to Mr. Greene, Editor of the Norvelt News. Volker also writes: “This Day in History” for the newspaper. Volker is adamant with Jack about learning the importance of History… and don’t you forget it!
Sometimes the underage Jackie drives Volker around in her Valiant to visit the dead old ladies who are officially declared dead by Volker, the medical examiner. Why are so many of the original female inhabitants of Norvelt dying? Is it really just old age? What if Norvelt doesn’t get new inhabitants, what will become of the beloved town of Norvelt? Read this book for the surprise ending of this Newbery Award Winner!
Dead End in Norvelt