Category Archives: Young adult book review

Slogging along

Not much of an entry today, since I’m still slogging through Wintersmith.  And I don’t mean slogging in a derogatory way; it’s just a thick, dense, meaty book, and I haven’t been able to skim through it.  But I do love it, and recommend it highly.  (Just don’t expect to read it quickly.)

Wintersmith by Terry Pratchett

Christmas is on a Tuesday this year, and Tuesday is book group day, so I’m having to double up on book groups this week.  The third grade book group will be meeting from 4:00 to 4:30, then the teen book group takes over from 4:30 to 5:30.  A lot like teaching school, and also a lot like the year I tutored a student at the high school first block of the day, then hurried over to the elementary school for my “real” job, and started right in with a third and fourth grader who I taught each morning.  It’s actually kind of fun to have two such different age groups right next to each other: breaks up the day, and keeps you on your toes mentally.

Clementine, which I butchered in my last post, is the third grade book, and Wintersmith by Terry Pratchett is the teen book.  As of this writing (I’m writing this on Sunday afternoon – one of the secrets of blogging is writing posts ahead), I’ve only gotten one third of the way into Wintersmith, so all opinions appearing here are subject to change upon completion of reading.  The initial chapter of Wintersmith was a real struggle for me; I was turned off by the language, the obtuseness, and the Feegle Glossary that appears on page three.  “Grumble, grumble, grumble,” I thought to myself, “clearly I’m going to hate this one, and it’s a lot harder to skim than Clementine.  Grumble, grumble, grumble.”  I’ve changed my tune, though, after reading more without allowing myself to think of my available reading time.  Pratchett uses a lot of subtle humor, and once I got into the rhythm of his words I could actually hear the Feegles and the witches speaking.  Yes, it’s a dense book, but it’s also masterfully written fantasy in the manner of The Owl Service or The Hobbit or any other great piece of fantasy. 

Looking at the two-page “Also by Terry Pratchett” list, I’m rather astounded that I’ve never read anything by him before.  We’ve purchased several of his books recently for the library, both for the young adult room and for the children’s room, yet I’ve never looked past the book reviews to the actual books.  One definite down side of my job is that I simply don’t have enough time to do all my required duties AND read the new books.  Any reading of books that I do has to be completed at home, and being a slow reader and generally busy person, that limits me to one, maybe two books a week, which works out to be the book group book for each week.  And maybe a New Yorker article, too, if I’m lucky.  Though having too much to read is a better fate than too little to read.

The teens who are in the book group have just as many demands on their free time, if not even more demands, than I, so I do hope that they’ll all have time to read at least part of Wintersmith.  I’ll post their reactions to the book after we meet on Tuesday.

Sherman Alexie

My current book-in-progress (the one I’m reading just because I want to, not because it’s for one of my book groups) is The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie, and I was so pleased to see yesterday that it won the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature.  I love this book: it’s deeply funny, and by that I mean that the humor is intermixed with the deep realities of a teenage life.  And the depth extends beyond Junior’s observations on his own life; as I read it, I’m finding myself more and more baffled by the continued marginalization of Native Americans in US society.  How can things still be so bad?  How is that possible???  I’m only half-way through the novel, which I’ll try to finish today, and I’ll be interested to see how the novel progresses, and what thoughts Alexie leaves us with at the end.

And one last thought on the National Book Award:  I do wish that they would establish two new categories in place of the “Young People’s Literature” category.  Wouldn’t it make more sense to have one award for Young Adult Literature and another for Children’s Literature?  They are kinda different, after all…

The White Darkness ~ Geraldine McCaughrean

The teen book group discussed The White Darkness by Geraldine McCaughrean today, and are sitting in as guest bloggers to give you their opinions on the book:

Attendee #1:  I thiught that The White Darkness  had a good plot and some amazing descriptions of Antartica. There were some parts of the book that I just had to keep reading. The narrator was a very interesting character who displayed a very different point of view than those of many narrators that I’ve read before. The one complaint that I had was that the main characters were all very complex and hard to predict. Though that made the story very interesting, It also caused me some confusion, and there were some times that I had to go back and reread. All in all, The White Darkness was an interesting and informative book that created a very good discussion.

Attendee #2:  

The White Darkness was in all a very good book. Although the characters were strange, they also contributed to the overall story because it wouldn’t have been the same if they were all completely sane. Sym was a character I could relate to very well, especially during the first part during which Sym is at school. I was always a shy, weird girl with few friends, so that part brought back memories. Another part of the book I really liked was the idea of travelling. I seem to like books set in different or unusual places right now. Your book really did make me think about what it would be like to travel in Antartica, as I have often wondered what it would be like–it was very thought inspiring. I’d reccomend it to my friends who are more creative and open-minded.

Attendee #3:  I didn’t actually finish the book, but I did find the half I did read very…strange. I don’t know, I guess it was beacause all of the major characters seemed to have internal or mental issues that caused them to act in random ways. I never really understood Sym, or Victor, or anyone else. I also found it weird that Sym would have a friend/lover that is probably imaginary, but no one really knows. And he died 90 years ago! Imaginary friends are fine when you’re little, even if you’re shy and alone they’re understandable at an older age, but the relationship Sym had with Titus seemed very odd to me. Maybe I didn’t appreciate it because I am unable to relate to any of these characters, but I wasn’t really sure what to make of the story.

Summer update

As I’m typing this, Pippa is trying to jump into my lap – not noticing that there is already a laptop in my lap.   So do forgive any typos.  They’ll be purely cat-produced.

The summer is going well.  Very well.  Predictably, I’m exhausted, but that’s really my own fault: if I were less of a perfectionist my life would be simpler.  But the summer really isn’t about me and how tired I am, it’s about how much fun the kids in town are having at the library, and how much they’re enjoying their summer reading.  There have been so many happy kids coming in to collect prizes, enter raffles, and grin when I tell them that surely they’ll earn a bookplate this year (you have to read at least thirty hours to earn a bookplate in a library book).  And lots and lots of happy kids and parents at library events.

Last Thursday night we had another family movie night, with Happy Feet as our feature presentation.  94 people were signed up (!), and 72 actually showed.  Incredible.  Unfortunately, I couldn’t stay for the whole movie, since the children’s room was unstaffed, and Roy was covering the movie staffing, but the bit that I stayed for was so much fun.  These movie nights are a true community event, with dozens of kids clustered on carpet squares on the floor at the front of the room (by request – the kids prefer the floor to the chairs) and parents sitting in sociable groups in the comfortable chairs at the back of the room.  No one stays truly quiet for these movies, which makes them a million times more enjoyable than watching a DVD with just a few people in your living room.  The kids roar in abundant group laughter at the sight gags, and the parents gossip quietly and enjoy each other’s company while they delight in the fun that their children are having. 

Today was the July meeting of the teen book group, and our discussion centered on Monsoon Summer by Mitali Perkins.  We had a really productive discussion, and decided as a group that there are parts of the book that we all really liked, namely the portrayal of Indian culture, but those bits are negatively counter-balanced by the weaker aspects of the book, including the predictable plot and the lack of careful editing.  The girls in the group noticed many instances where the book disagrees with itself, which made us all feel that the author didn’t take enough care to check her own work.   Personally, I feel that Mitali Perkins has an admirable goal in her writing – to address young readers who are “between cultures” – but that the goal does not a great book make.  On her website and in interviews she comes across as erudite and lucid, but I just didn’t really enjoy the actual book.  If I were to rank it on a scale of 1 to 5, I would give it a 3.  And I think the teen book group members would probably agree with that ranking.  For our next book, I chose one of my absolute favorite newish books, Elsewhere by Gabrielle Zevin.  I hope the group loves it as much as I do, but if they don’t, I’ll be very interested to hear their opinions.

And that’s the news for now.  Poor Jim just arrived home and showed me his battle scars from a nasty bike spill that he took on his way home from work tonight.  Major wipe-out, major need for some TLC.

The White Darkness, part 2

After attending the Picnic in the Park on the 4th of July, Jim and I went home to relax – so of course I pulled out Geraldine McCaughrean’s The White Darkness and spent the rest of the day reading.  It’s hardly a relaxing book, though – definitely a thriller of the best sort.  And I couldn’t put it down until I had finished it.  For me, there are two obvious signs that I’ve read an excellent book:  1) I can’t put it down, and 2) I don’t cheat and read the ending first.  The White Darkness meets both criteria, and then some.

I’ve been trying to figure out how to write about this book without giving away the plot or the ending, because this is a book that ALL of you should definitely read.  A quick summary, which really doesn’t begin to describe the book, is that Sym Wates is a British fourteen-year-old who has an obsession with Titus Oates, a man who died years earlier as part of Scott’s South Pole expedition.  Oates lives in her head, and serves as her friend, confidante, and chaste lover.  Needless to say, Sym’s obsession sets her apart from her peers, and causes her some social trauma.

But that’s only the tip of the iceberg, so to speak.  The real bulk of the story occurs not in England, but in Antarctica, with action, drama, danger, bad guys, and Sym’s emerging sense of self.  Oates travels with her to Antarctica, providing one more layer to this intriguing story.

And that’s all I’ll say about the plot, since you really need to read this book.  But it’s not just the plot that makes this a great read; McCaughrean’s vividly descriptive writing style is what really blew me away.  For instance, this passage that describes their travel across a frozen Antarctic plain:

Suddenly, for no apparent reason, the surface would change to sastrugi or a royal icing of frozen snow.  There would be sharp steps up, or one side of the van would lurch over a solidified snowdrift.  For the most part it was a shining lake of platinum puddled with mirror-bright patches of platelet-snowflakes – as if a billion sequins had been squandered over the ice.  Sometimes – the worst times – there would be a sharp step down, and my internal organs would cram together under my rib cage like sheep in a slaughterhouse, terrified.  (pp 158 – 159)

I love that image of the sheep in the slaughterhouse, and the way that McCaughrean’s words made me feel as though I was on this journey, too, in this frozen alien world that I’ve only ever seen in photos or film, but never experienced directly.  That’s no small feat of writing.

Needless to say, I’ll be suggesting to my teen book group that we read this one in the fall.  Hopefully they’ll be intrigued, but if they’re not, I may have to strong-arm them into reading this one; I know they’ll forgive me for the strong-arming once they’ve been sucked into the plot and pace of this terrific book.

The White Darkness

A quick note on my current book:

I’m loving The White Darkness by Geraldine McCaughrean.  I’ve been a fan of McCaughrean’s writing ever since reading  A Pack of Lies years ago, and am finding The White Darkness to be as masterful a piece of literature as A Pack of Lies.  Unexpected, quirky, intelligent, engaging: it’s awesome, and I’ve only just begun it.

Current summer reading hour total, for those of you who have made Heifer pledges based on the hours I read:  4 hours.  🙂


Though I was truly honored to be chosen as a reviewer for that publication I’ve mentioned in the past, I’ve officially submitted my resignation to them.  After writing 15 reviews on 27 books (if you count my audition reviews, it’s really 18 reviews for 30 books) in the last three months, it was time to retire.

If I had no other commitments in my life, I think I’d actually enjoy writing reviews.  But it was just plain TOO much to try to squeeze the reading of the books, the background research, and the writing of the reviews into my already jam-packed days.  With my library and tutoring schedule, I often leave home at 9 in the morning, not to return until 8 at night, hungry for dinner.  Once dinner is in my belly, that leaves an hour or so to read review books (with my exhausted eyes) before bedtime. 

Granted, my tutoring has ended for the summer, so there’s more free time in my schedule now.  But we ARE trying to finish the painting and siding of the house, as well as the installation of the new windows that arrived on Tuesday, and the gardens need some major weeding already.

So what this all comes down to is establishing priorities in one’s life.  Life is short, and I want mine to be about more than just how many hours I can work in a week.  For me, something had to give in order to remain sane, and I chose book reviewing. 

Sad reading

It’s been a yucky weekend.  I’m working on finishing up the five reviews on eight books that I owe – had set aside this entire weekend to finish them – but I’ve ended up doing most of the remaining reading while sitting in the reception area of Animal Emergency Care.

Rudy has had a few instances in the last month and a half of ill health: he’d stop eating for a day or two, and be terribly lethargic, then, just when we started to be worried, he’d bounce back and be his regular hungry active self again.  This past Friday morning Jim woke up to feed the cats and found several puddles of cat-puke on the carpet; he fed the cats breakfast as usual, and Rudy declined to eat.  Then he didn’t eat dinner Friday evening, either, and threw up some more.  Nor did he eat Saturday breakfast.  When I got home from work Saturday afternoon, he was vomiting clear puddles of puke, not a trace of food left in his body.

So Jim and I debated, and finally decided that I’d take Rudy over to Animal Emergency Care.  Rudy and I waited, and waited, and waited, for three hours.  While Rudy slept listlessly in his carrier, I got to know some of the other people and animals waiting their turn.  The funky, personable husband and wife with the 18-year-old cat who was limping.  The mother and little boy with the cat who had peed all over the house.  The young couple  with the Pomeranian puppy who had chewed an electric cord and gotten a shock.  The man and his wife who rushed in and urgently asked for help for their dog.

And I read my young adult novel in the waiting room, hating every sentence and every page. 

By 7:15, Jim came by to visit Rudy and me, and convinced me that Rudy wasn’t really sick enough to bother waiting anymore.  So we headed home, and fed the cats dinner.  Rudy didn’t eat.  Rudy was lethargic.  We decided to take him back to Animal Emergency Care at about 9:00 PM. 

The funky couple was still in the waiting room, while their cat was being examined.  They filled us in on what had happened in our absence:  the urgent man and wife with the injured dog had left in tears, without their dog.  The Pomeranian had been admitted for observation, after it was discovered that his heartbeat was irregular.  And then the funky couple got the news about their beautiful, aging cat: he had bone cancer, and would need to be put to sleep.  They left in tears, hugging their cat, planning to put him to sleep on Monday. 

A new patient, a sweet 16-year-old dog, and her owners had arrived meanwhile,  and Jim and I had a lovely chat with them.  Two young women, one stunning, one funny, sat with the stunning girl’s lapdog.  The other groups both ordered pizzas and other junk food, while we waited.  And waited.

Finally Rudy got his turn, and was examined and approved for blood tests and x-rays.  He was hustled out back, we went out and got V-8’s and donuts and chatted some more with the owners of the sweet elderly dog. 

Rudy’s blood tests came back: a bad systemic infection, with white blood counts off the chart.  He’d need to stay the night, and we were given a monetary quote for services to be rendered that made us both feel faint.  Through the wall we could hear the diagnosis for the sweet elderly dog:  pancreatitis.

By morning, Rudy had had his x-ray, and it shows a mass in his belly.  Whether the mass is cancerous, or an abcess, we don’t yet know.  Either way, his chances aren’t good.  He’s still at the hospital tonight, and they don’t like him much because he’s cranky and attacking them (they wear gloves that look like chain saw gloves when handling him, and he has a collar around his neck to keep him from trying to remove the IV, and, I think, to protect the staff from his ire); we’ll be moving him tomorrow morning to the animal hospital down the street for a second opinion.  I don’t hold out much hope that the second opinion will be positive.  It’s an unbelievably sad night.  Life without Rudy feels like a pretty crappy prospect.

And I’m still reading that young adult novel.  And still hating it.  I think it’s fair to say that the circumstances of life are affecting my judgement.  I’ve decided to retire from the book review business.

Reading Update

This was a tough week – long exhausting days – and I didn’t get much reading done.  Though I had been excited about it, I finally gave up on Keturah and Lord Death midway into the book.  There is something about Leavitt’s use of language that annoyed and frustrated me: she was aiming to create an atmosphere of lords and ladies and Black Death and the poor farming folk in the village, but the atmosphere became too heavy-handed and self-conscious by about the fiftieth page, and I just had to stop reading.  Blech.  What a disappointment.  [It should be noted that I rarely give up on books; I’m more likely to keep with a bummer of a book through to the bitter end, complaining loudly the whole way about how much I dislike it.]

Tuesday was the fifth grade book group, and we discussed Larklight by Philip Reeve.  I thoroughly enjoyed Larklight, but wasn’t sure how the melding of Victorian England culture and space travel and colonization would sit with the kids.  For the most part, the kids enjoyed the book, but they did struggle with the idea that the British could have had colonies all over the galaxy if they had had the technology to travel through space back in the Victorian era.  We talked a lot about suspension of disbelief, about finding the bits in the plot that work to tie everything together, and about why the prissy, overly feminine character of Myrtle makes sense for the times.  We also discussed whether it’s necessary to always like the characters in a book, or if, in fact, things get more interesting if you don’t like some of the characters.

And surprisingly, the kids in the book group weren’t very impressed with the packet we received from Andrew Clements.  Back in October, each kid in the book group had written Clements a letter, which I packed up and mailed with a cover letter talking about the kids and their discussion of Room One: A Mystery or Two.  Clements very graciously answered back with a personalized form letter complimenting the kids on their letters, a signed and personalized bookmark for each child in the group, a bookmark for me, and even a note to me that says:  “To Abby Kingsbury, a librarian who loves good books almost as much as she loves the children she shares them with.”  I love what Clements sent, and plan on framing my portion of it to hang in my office; hopefully the kids were more excited about it than they let on.  At least they now want to write to some more authors!  (Suzanne Collins probably will be the first choice.)

And that’s the update for this week.  Next Tuesday is the 6th through 8th grade book group, and we’ll be discussing Jennifer Roy’s Yellow Star and Julius Lester’s Day of Tears.