May 25, 2017

Shelf Help: Are You Organized?

I found this delightful post via Scholastic talking about where and how their bloggers organize their bookshelves: alphabetically, by color (!!!), in a bookcase, in the nightstand, etc. That inspired me to take a picture of one of my bookcases and think about how I generally "organize" (ha ha) my book collection.

When I'm NOT otherwise too swamped to organize (and to be honest, most of the time I'm too swamped to organize--not pictured are the ancillary book piles on the floor), I seem to have come up with a system where I first group the books by overarching category, then within that category I alphabetize them. I have category groups for literary stuff, poetry, plays, old textbooks, children's/MG/YA (all one group), grown-up fiction, nonfiction, writing books, language books, and graphic novels. Within each of those, I usually try to keep them alphabetized by author's last name.

Oh, and I have one special stash of books right by my desk which are Frequently Used Titles such as the AP Stylebook and a Welsh dictionary.

Unfortunately (well, not for me, but unfortunately for anyone else), the groups themselves aren't in any particular order--but I did try to group together categories that make sense together. The children's/MG/YA books are in the same bookcase as the grown-up fiction books. Literary, poetry, and plays are in the same bookcase. And graphic novels and nonfiction are in the same case. Buuuut...old textbooks are crammed in with all the fiction, and writing books actually live in a couple of different spots. And then there's the pile of Books What People Done Lent Me That I Haven't Read Yet and the pile of Review Copies I Was Supposed to Read An Embarrassingly Long Time Ago and the box of Stuff to Donate.

And that's just the stuff in my office. Elsewhere in the house are other groupings for art books and travel books and random crap like old high school yearbooks, and stacks of books my husband bought for the purposes of prepping classes or going to seminars. We're definitely book people!

May 22, 2017

Monday Review: DREAMLAND BURNING by Jennifer Latham

Synopsis: I haven't read Jennifer Latham's first book Scarlett Undercover, about a teen Muslim girl detective, but after reading and enjoying Dreamland Burning, I plan to look for it. Dreamland Burning is really two parallel intertwining stories, one in the past and one in the present (a device which, I'll admit, I tend to really gravitate towards).

The historical narrative in this book concerns the Tulsa Race Riots of 1921, a tragic and horrifying incident which I freely admit I hadn't really known about before in which the prosperous, bustling black side of Tulsa—Greenwood—was burned, its residents rounded up by a white mob, many of them killed. Caught up in the violence is a young man named Will Tillman, trying to figure out right and wrong in a Jim Crow world that largely teaches him black people are to be feared and resented.

In the present, the story is told by teenage mixed-race girl Rowan Chase, who lives in present-day Tulsa. When a building crew doing renovations on their guest house discovers a skeleton under the floor, Rowan launches herself into solving the mystery of the body and how it got there. In the process, she realizes the extent to which the troubled racial history of Tulsa is still an ongoing legacy—one that intertwines with her own family's history.

Observations: With alternating chapters between past and present, both in first person, this is a fast-moving page turner. The often stomach-turning realities of being a black person in the 1920s South are juxtaposed with the still-problematic experience of being mixed race in the present day, with plenty of food for thought as a result. While I thought that part of the story could have been pushed a bit more, the focus on the mystery plot kept things moving forward and probably also kept the book from being obviously didactic. In fact, there were plenty of seeds planted here for readers to think about in terms of social and racial justice, from Rowan's best friend James's tutoring English to immigrants at the library, to the uneasy facts of Rowan's own racial identity and history.

Because so much conversation has been going on about Own Voices, I feel compelled to point out that this is not (to my knowledge) an Own Voices book, but from my personal perspective, it was sensitively written and focused on characters of color and the history of people of color in this country. It's a book that received a lot of positive reviews and starred reviews, and one can only hope that doesn't occur at the cost of any equally well written and researched Own Voices narratives. If you follow our blog, you already know we try to read and review as widely as possible within our areas of interest, so in our little corner of the blogosphere I don't think we're ignoring or slighting Own Voices—in fact, it's always been a focus of ours even before there was a hashtag. So. There you go. Disclaimer-y thing over.

Conclusion: If you enjoyed Ashley Hope Perez's Out of Darkness and other gripping novels that bring to life some of our most troubling historical moments—and leave you with hope as well as the desire to change our world for the better—check this one out.

I received my copy of this book courtesy of my library's ebook collection. You can find DREAMLAND BURNING by Jennifer Latham at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

May 15, 2017

Monday Review: STRANGE THE DREAMER by Laini Taylor

I LOVE this cover. It's gorgeous.
Synopsis: Lazlo Strange is a librarian, a former monk, and an orphan—his last name, "Strange," is simply the one given to any child of unknown origin, and not necessarily a descriptor. His colleagues at the library think he's a bit odd, though, mainly because of his obsession with the lost, possibly mythical city known only as Weep. He hoards information about Weep; dreams about it and theorizes on its existence and its fate; learns its forgotten language; imagines himself as one of its fabled warriors. He is, indeed, a dreamer.

But Weep lies across an impassable desert, if it exists at all. Most people believe that it's simply a legend—until the day a hero called the Godslayer appears, and Lazlo embarks on the adventure of a lifetime, one that he alone is uniquely poised to inhabit…

Observations: There isn't much more I can share in terms of the plot of this story, lest I ruin the sense of awe and wonder with which it unfolds. Laini Taylor has an affinity for this type of dreamlike story of gods and humans, replete with mystery and imagination and a fully developed mythology of its own. Lush sensory descriptions make Lazlo's world feel real, and the fact of his ordinariness (aside from his unusual scholarly interests) makes him an easy character to relate to and root for. This is the type of story that clutches at your heart, moves in, and subtly changes you—it's Neil Gaiman-esque in that respect, though the storytelling is very much Taylor's own.

Conclusion: Strange the Dreamer is epic and ambitious, and if you're a fan of fantasy and/or magical realism, you should read it now. Also, it appears there will be a sequel, which I'm already excited about. This one's my favorite Laini Taylor book yet!

I received my copy of this book courtesy of my library's ebook collection. You can find STRANGE THE DREAMER by Laini Taylor at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

May 09, 2017

Turning Pages Reads: MAUD by MELANIE FISHBANE

Welcome to another session of Turning Pages!

Synopsis: Maud has been left behind by her father, who has gone away to make a success of himself after the death of Maud's mother so long ago. Maud has been with her strict grandparents ever since, sweating away the muggy summers, longing to strip off her stockings and run down to the shore. Trouble at school found her sent away from her grandparents to act as live-in nanny and help raise her cousins for a while. Now she's back with her grandparents and meant to prove to them that she can be a good girl.

Unfortunately, trouble seems to find Maud wherever she goes. A friendship with the Baptist minister's son is seen as a signal that her morals are in question; regular girlish hijinks are reported on as being "just like her Mother." Maud has no idea what her mother was like -- she died when Maud was only a toddler, and no one will speak of her. Her grandparents clearly disapprove of Maud's father -- and now rumors are wafting about which confuse her even more. fortunately, Maud's father at long last sends for her. It's a treat to leave behind Price Edward Island and see the rest of the country, but when Maud arrives at her father's household, it's not quite as she expected. Her stepmother doesn't seem to like her very much, and it seems she'll be closest to the maid, instead of her new step-siblings. It seems that at every turn, Maud faces disappointments -- not truly feeling wanted within her own family, feeling tremendous pressure to have a beau, be the perfectly poised and ladylike person expected, to do her "duty" for her family at home and not go to school, to take care of others, and bite her tongue. It's a triumph when Maud finally does get a break, but it's a bittersweet story that a girl whose tales transported others lived such a sad story herself.

Observations: Not every classic stands the test of time. If I go back and read ANNE OF GREEN GABLES, the book is still a lovely memory of childhood, of kindred spirits and bosom friends, but Anne herself isn't as clear a favorite (EMILY OF NEW MOON, published fifteen years after Anne, shows Montgomery's skills to a much better advantage, but for some reason, the rabid fave is still Anne). Her constant imagination-induced scrapes and good-hearted sweetness can be a little much if one is unprepared, and reading now I see some of the narrowness and racism of Edwardian era British life reflected in Anne's eyes. Still, L.M. Montgomery's gifts somehow never lose their appeal, even over a hundred years later.

The voice in this book has a reserved and less immediate feel to it, reminiscent of Montgomery's books, but somehow not quite. I felt that the author had pulled a screen between me and the emotions of Maud as a character, whereas with any of L.M. Montgomery's work, its trademark is that the reader practically weeps and laughs with the character; somehow Montgomery's characterizations are that sharply felt. The story itself is a bit depressing; I knew a bit about Montgomery's life, and knew it had been an unhappy one, but found it difficult to connect this Maud in the historical fiction to the facts about her life. Many readers might find that this novel opens slowly, but it moves more quickly after Anne leaves Cavendish behind and heads to her father's house. Subsequent developments in her life feel a bit more energetic, as the author leaves the focus on Maud alone, instead of writing with more detail on the immense cast of secondary characters. It was fun finding out that Maud had a nickname with also had a particular spelling upon which she insisted ("With An E!") and to discover how much Anne and Maud were a lot alike, in some charming and vexing ways.

Conclusion: While this book is published in the YA/children's lit category, I feel like this book's best audience is adults. Tweens who read L.M. Montgomery books now can find them a little tough to get into the adventures of an Edwardian era orphan, and so a fictionalized biography of the author might not appeal, but for those of us who cut our teeth on Anne's adventures and her big-hearted emoting, this will have crossover appeal, and echo faintly of Anne.

I received my copy of this book courtesy of the publisher. After May 16th, can find MAUD by Melanie Fishbane at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

May 08, 2017

Monday Review: REAL FRIENDS by Shannon Hale and LeUyen Pham

Synopsis: Shannon Hale is amazing. Just look at the range of YA and MG fantasy she's written, how awesome they all are, how beloved she is. And LeUyen Pham has long been one of our favorite illustrators here at Finding Wonderland. Now they've teamed up (SQUEE) on a heartfelt, hopeful middle-grade graphic novel that also happens to be a memoir of the author's tribulations with sisters and friends throughout elementary school.

Observations: Though some names and identifying details have been changed, at its heart this is still a story about Shannon herself as a girl. Imaginative, anxious, and eager to please, she finds that friendship is a bit more difficult to navigate than it had first appeared: friends move; friends change and grow apart; and sometimes friends become frenemies.

Unfortunately, sometimes bullies aren't only limited to school. This graphic novel tackles the difficult but important topic of bullying by older siblings. Shannon, as the middle sister of five siblings, struggles with finding her place at home as well as school. In the end, though it's not an easy or quick process, she discovers that it is possible to find true friends—and even repair broken relationships that once seemed hopeless. Change, after all, can be for the better.

This story handles tough situations like childhood anxiety and bullying with the gentle touch of someone who is no stranger to these challenges that many children face on a daily basis—but with a minimum of anger and blame. Not that Shannon-the-girl didn't get mad, or sad, or lay blame; but, from a later, wiser perspective, the story shows that patience and self-acceptance and kindness do bear fruit. And, as always, the artwork from LeUyen Pham strikes a perfect tone of charm, humor, and relatability, working seamlessly with the text to tell the story.

Conclusion: This book came out on May 2; this review is based on an advance reader's edition received from the publisher. Any kid who is struggling with friendship and finding their place in the world—and isn't that most kids?—will find a lot to recognize in this story, and hopefully will also find a lot of reasons to take heart, too.

I received my copy of this book courtesy of the publisher, First Second. You can find REAL FRIENDS by Shannon Hale and LeUyen Pham at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

May 04, 2017

Thursday Review: SPILL ZONE by Scott Westerfeld and Alex Puvilland

Synopsis: If you've ever read Scott Westerfeld's early trilogy The Midnighters, you'll know he does scary really, really well. And actually, he does various kinds of scary really well. Spill Zone seems to collect all those different kinds of scary in one graphic novel (which is only Vol. 1, by the way) designed, apparently, to give me nightmares: Creepy talking doll. Creepy NOT-talking kid. Radioactive-mutant-nano-infected monsters. Floating human meat puppets (which sent me off into a temporary YouTube black hole). Oh, and mysteriously plotting North Koreans.

The Spill Zone is what is left of Poughkeepsie, New York after a bizarre accident has left the town a no-go zone of horrors. But the Spill Zone is also how Addison makes her living, selling anonymous photos of the zone's peculiarities to discerning art collectors so she can support herself and her little sister Lexa. The most important rule she follows is: never step off her motorbike. The day she does leave the safety of her bike…is the day things get REALLY weird.

Observations: This is a suspenseful, edgy post-apocalyptic adventure from an accomplished storyteller in the genre—and I was pleased to see that Westerfeld's ability to convey a truly creepy atmosphere also applies to the graphic novel format. The partnership with artist Alex Puvilland (who is married to the incomparable LeUyen Pham, BTW) is a good one: the art has this scratchy, crackly quality that fits well with the tone of the story, and the important details are highlighted with clarity and simplicity.


Conclusion: The plot of this one is gripping, and I can hardly wait for the next installment (talk about a cliffhanger ending).

SPILL ZONE just came out this week! I received my copy of this book courtesy of the publisher, First Second. You can find SPILL ZONE by Scott Westerfeld and Alex Puvilland at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!