Jenny's Library

Archive for June 2014

(Both titles listed below are available separately as ebooks – they were also available at one time as a single volume titled: The Steerswoman’s Road.)

cover image for The SteerswomanThe Steerswoman
by Rosemary Kirstein

Some books are so unique and memorable and unexpected and so good that you wish you could read them again for the first time.

And then there are the stories that you want to reread over and over again like comfort food.   Because they have all the tropes and character types that you always love.  Including the kind that are depressingly hard to find.

Rosemary Kirstein’s The Steerswoman (and sequels) manages to be both of these at the same time, and has therefore ruined me for all other books. Ever.

Rowan is a Steerswoman. Wikipedia says this means that she’s a “traveling scholar” – but that’s not really doing her role in her culture justice. Because scholars, as much as I love them, tend to produce work that’s packaged in a way that’s hard for people outside of academia to access – and accessing academia often costs money.  Steerswomen, on the other hand, usually spend a large portion of their time traveling from town to town, sharing the knowledge they’ve gained, as well as acquiring new information.  One of their most sacred rules is that they have to truthfully  answer any question anyone poses to them.  In return, others must do the same, or be put under a ban and never have any Steerswoman answer any of their questions ever again.  This may seem trivial, but Steerswomen were originally navigators – thus their name – and much of the information they collect is practical.  Refusing to answer a Steerswoman’s question could mean they never warn you of the blight that’s spreading, and how to to guard against it.

There are, indeed, academies and halls where all the journals that Steerswomen keep on their journeys eventually go, and where some of the Steerswomen stay and maintain records and work on more theoretical pursuits.  But Steerswomen are like modern public librarians as much as they are like modern scholars – their purpose is to provide access to knowledge as much as it is to collect knowledge.

You can already see a big part of why I like this book, I’m sure.

I love not only that Rowan is a scholar/librarian but also that her role as librarian is more than just a nod and a wink about how awesome books and libraries are; The Steerswoman asks much deeper questions than that.  It repeatedly deals with the ethics of providing information – what it means to do so, or to withhold it – and how Steerwomen navigate issues like privacy, respect, and distrust.

AND – it gets even better.

Rowan isn’t simply wandering aimlessly about.  Like most Steerwomen, she has a particular topic that she’s researching.  In her case, she’s looking for the origins and purpose of some very strange jewels that have come into her possession.  Like any good interdisciplinary scholar, she’s using science – yes, SCIENCE – as well as interviews, research, and deductive reasoning in order to achieve her goal.

Very early on in the book, two things happen.   First, Rowan acquires a companion, the wonderfully competent and clever Bel. Who, unlike Rowan, does not come from the agricultural towns and villages of the Inner Lands, but rather from the harsh landscape of the Outskirts.  Secondly, someone tries to kill Rowan, and she suspects it’s because of the questions she’s been asking about the jewels.

In lesser hands, the mystery of the jewels could have been merely interesting, but what Kirstein does instead is nothing short of amazing.  Rowans’ scholarly search is as fundamental to the worldbuilding of the story as it is to our understanding of her as a character. Rather than just a princess in a tower to help move the plot along, Rowan’s search for answers leads her to bigger mysteries.  Even more than that, the gap between what Rowan doesn’t understand  but we do about science and the world around us means that every new clue that Rowan finds out about the jewels gives us new clues about the world she lives in.  Yet Kirstein does this all without Rowan (or Bel) ever coming across as stupid or incompetent; quite the opposite, in fact, as it’s often very clear just how clever and imaginative both need to be in order to make as much progress as they do.

Also, Bel is awesome and Rowan and Bel’s friendship and working relationship is so wonderful and fun and functional.

And that’s all just within the first few chapters. Did I mention it just gets even better from there?


cover image for The Steerswoman's RoadThe Outskirter’s Secret by Rosemary Kirstein

Explaining the set up for this novel in detail will reveal too much of the plot of the first book.  WHICH YOU SHOULD READ RIGHT NOW IF YOU HAVEN’T ALREADY.

Suffice to say that Rowan and Bel are still as awesome as ever, and still traveling together.  This time their journey takes them out of the Inner Lands and into Bel’s home: the Outskirts.

“The camp was pitched against the edge of the forest, one side nestled beneath overhanging evergreens, the other open to a green, rolling meadow, where the tent shadows now stretched away from the vanishing sun, long fingers indicating the east.”

Since I can’t say much more than that without everything being full of spoilers, I want to instead talk about Kirstein’s prose.  It’s lovely and expertly done in all four books, but this novel in particular is excellent for highlighting just how talented Kirstein is at her craft.  While there were strange goings on in the first book, much of it still took place in a setting that was familiar to Rowan herself.  It was also a setting with a great many similarities to other fantasy novels, and to certain periods in Western history, so it’s familiar to readers as well, in a way.  But in Outskirter’s Secret, we enter into territory that is entirely new to Rowan, and less familiar to many readers as well, and we encounter creatures quite unlike any other we’ve seen before.

“The greengrass vanished.

It was a subtle process as Bel had first described…: first one noticed occasional patches of redgrass, then more, and eventually one realized that for indeterminate length of time no greengrass had been seen at all.”

All of this is told in Rowan’s scientific yet poetic voice, through which Kirstein is able to paint us pictures of the this new world that Rowan finds herself in – images that are as clear, accurate, and detailed as photographs but as lyrical and wistful as watercolors.

“The breeze was in her face, speeding wild lines of brown and red directly toward her; it was sinister, threatening. The colors seemed to hover, sourceless, ineffable.

…Rowan wished it would rain; wished the colors to gray, the grass to dampen and silence. She watched the grass tops dizzily and stumbled along behind the Outskirter.”

This series really deserves to be read and talked about and praised, rather than dwelling half-forgotten in obscurity.  So GO. Get yourself a copy and read it.  And tell other people about it.

Jon Wallace wants us to know that his depiction of Starvie, a female character in his new book, who happens to be a “Pleasure Model….created to do nothing more than have a perfect appearance,” is not at all insulting to women. And that even so, he “promise[s] there are more Real women characters coming [in the following books].”

Isn’t that nice of him?  I think that’s sweet of Jon Wallace to promise us that. So, to return the favor, I’m going to make a promise as well:

Read the rest of this entry »

cover image for Mommy, Mama, and MeMommy, Mama, and Me by Leslea Newman, illustrated by Carol Thompson

I’ve been known to complain about the quality of books like Heather Has Two Mommies in the past.  While the diversity they bring and respect they show are both much needed, their quality in terms of craft isn’t always up to par.  Not so with this lovely book.

Newman’s text is full of catchy rhymes that keep the pages turning and the illustrations are expressive, clear, and skillful.  While Thompson’s style doesn’t quite match my personal taste, there is no denying that her work is well done and engaging. Together they present scenes that are familiar to all families, and yet depict a type of family that is under represented in quality children’s books.

More like this, please!

cover image for Rapunzel's RevengeRapunzel’s Revenge by Shannon and Dean Hale, illustrated by Nathan Hale

For as long as she can remember, Rapunzel has lived in comfort in Mother Gothel’s villa, never knowing what lay beyond.  Until the day she scales the walls and finally begins to understand what the woman she was taught to call mother is really capable of.  Now her curiosity has become a question for the truth, and Rapunzel won’t stop until she, and everyone else, is safe from Mother Gothel.

I so very much wanted to love this book, and there was, indeed, much that I liked about the characters and plot. Unfortunately, the illustration style never grew on me and so ended up being distracting rather than adding to my enjoyment of the story.

cover image for Close to FamousClose to Famous by Joan Bauer

Sonny Kroll dreams of being a baker, a world famous chef with her own television show.  Right now though, she’s sitting in the car with her mom, all their belongings tossed hastily into the trunk and backseat, on their way to a new town, a new place to live, and a new school.  Complete with a new principal that Sonny needs to keep from finding out that she can’t read.

I’ve heard good things about Bauer’s work, but this was another book that wasn’t awful, yet didn’t really impress me either.  It’s the type of book I’d try including in a large library collection, but wouldn’t necessarily recommend.

cover image for Diego Rivera: His World and OursDiego Rivera: His World and Ours by Duncan Tonatiuh

Born in Mexico, Diego Rivera traveled to far off places, like Madrid and Paris, to learn to paint.  But it was back home in Mexico where he made his most celebrated paintings – murals that depicted the lives of the citizens of Mexico.  Ordinary people as well as rulers, workers and warriors, all from both the world around him and from his country’s past.  If Rivera were alive today, what parts of your life do you think would be in his murals?

Diego Rivera does a wonderful job of explaining this artist’s work to children.  While it does include some biographical information in order to give context to his work, that isn’t the focus.  Instead, the book talks about Rivera’s artistic choices and the history and culture that his work brought attention to.  Tonatiuh’s own art is one of the highlight’s of the book; while clearly different from Rivera’s in style, the same influences of history and culture are evident, making it perfect for this topic.  The strong outlines, rich colors, consistent posing, and symmetry make the illustrations easy for children to read, while the depth of textures, the range of expressions, and variety of settings, actions, and clothing styles invite them to look deeper. Tonatiuh also ends the book by asking children to think about what kinds of murals Rivera might paint today, comparing and contrasting luchadores with Aztec warriors, students with factory workers, and malls with street vendors.*  In doing so he emphasizes the impact that Rivera’s work had on ordinary, everyday people, and encourages children to see their own lives through new eyes.

* Also science fiction movies with Aztec gods? I don’t know what that was about, and it came across as rather disrespectful to me, alas.

cover image for Hot Hot Roti for Dada-jiHot, Hot Roti for Dada-ji by F. Zia, illustrated by Ken Min

Aneel love having his grandparents around. Especially when Dada-ji tells him stories about the village he used to live in when he was a boy, and the hot, hot roti he would eat to build up his strength. How else could he wrestle water buffalo or make the earth rumble beneath him? Soon, both Aneel and Dada-ji are both hungry for some hot, hot roti.  But no one will help Aneel make any!  So he decides to make some himself.

There’s a lot to love in this book.  The writing is solid – it works well as a read-aloud and incorporates Hindu words and phrases without breaking the flow of the story or making it seem like we are getting a language lesson.  The plot is complicated for such a short book (with flashbacks and tales within tales and going back and forth between the real and the fantastic) but it’s never confusing or distracting.  The pictures match the story perfectly as well, and Min does a wonderful job of illustrating in such a way as to help younger readers distinguish between the here and now and the tall tales Aneel’s grandfather tells him.

Overall, it’s a sweet story about family, home, and spending time with loved ones.

cover image for The Christmas CoatThe Christmas Coat: Memories of My Sioux Childhood by Virginia Driving Hawk Sneve, illustrated by Ellen Beier

Winter has arrived, and Christmas is on it’s way.  Virginia longs for a new coat to keep her warm, one that fits just right.  Especially when she has to walk through  wind and rain to get to school.  As her community prepares for holidays, Virginia does her best to think of others, but that doesn’t stop her from longing for a coat that’s just right for her.

I’m going to take the fact that this book won an American Indian Youth Literature Award as further proof of just how few books include native american children in them, and how even fewer of those do so respectfully.  This is not a bad book, and would make a good addition to any Christmas display, but it’s not really an example of great children’s literature either.  What it does do, however, is show native american children in true and realistic settings, and that’s depressingly rare.  (Debbie Reese has a review of the book at American Indians in Children’s Literature, and I strongly recommend reading that for a better understanding of what the book does well.)

cover image for Hide and Seekcover image for Wiggle

Hide and Seek by Taro Gomi

A cute and different type of “can you spot the difference?” book.  Can you spot the candles on the giraffe? Very small children may need help finding the objects listed in the rhymes, but the visual repetition and adorable animals will delight children of all ages.

Wiggle! by Taro Gomi

With a little imagination, and Gomi’s delightful illustrations, your finger can help make a cat’s tail wiggle, a chameleon’s tongue stick out, or an elephant’s trunk swing.  Not all of the actions quite work (the crocodile flashes his fang?) but all are sure to amuse.

cover image for Zora and MeZora and Me by Victoria Bond and T. R. Simon

Everyone in Eatonville, Florida knows there’s something special about Zora. But no one else in town knows her quite like her two best friends, Carrie and Teddy, do.  Together, the three spend all the spare time they have exploring, getting into one mischief or another, and – of course – listening to Zora’s stories.  When a man turns up dead on railroad tracks not long after Zora talks of seeing an alligator man in the swamp, no one believes her.  Except Carrie and Teddy, of course.  So it’s up to the young trio to get the bottom of the mystery before more people get hurt.

I was skeptical at first of the premise of the story: focusing on the childhood of a famous person; books like that can often be rather generic and present a very standardized and inaccurate view of history.  Instead this lovely, slim novel is full of detail and nuance, of complications and implications.  The language is just absolutely beautiful, a fitting tribute to Hurston’s work, and yet it’s still readable by the middle graders it’s marketed to.  Highly recommended.  This should be in every public library’s collection.

cover image for Pusheen the CatI Am Pusheen the Cat by Claire Belton

Inside this book you will find Pusheen the Cat’s guide to petting, acquiring treats, sleeping, and much more. Round, silly, and adorable, Pusheen is a delightful teacher with personality and opinions to spare.

This is a bit of an odd book in that it doesn’t quite fit into normal categories – it’s the kind of book that would simply be labeled as a “gift” book in most bookstores.  Children may enjoy it, but much of the humor references adult experiences. Many adults may enjoy it too, but the format and illustration style makes it look more like a  children’s book.  Still, it’s entertaining and I’m glad I read – and it would, indeed, make a fun gift a great many cat lovers.

cover image for Cold FireCold Fire by Tamora Pierce

Daja, and her mentor Frostpine, have come to the northern city of Kugisko so that the latter may visit with old friends.  Their restful trip is soon interrupted, of course. In turns out that their hosts’ twin daughters are natural mages, and since it was Daja who discovered their gifts, it’s up to her to make sure that they are trained properly.  Frostpine has troubles of his own to take care of, as he’s asked by the governor to look into counterfeit coins – preferable before the public finds out and panic ensues.  And both mages are worried about the mysterious fires that appear to be accidents, but seem to keep happening more frequently than is normal.

This wasn’t a bad book, in fact I think I liked it best of this second quartet so far.  Daja’s characterization is a good mixture of older-than-before yet-still-very-young and this story has a nice mix of cultures and customs.  Unfortunately, it’s far from Pierce’s best.  Also, I was tired of the plot idea of our four friends discovering natural mages – and being required to become teachers themselves – before I was finished with the first book.


cover image for PinnedPinned by Sharon Flake

Autumn’s learning disability means she struggles in school; Adonis is at the top of the class. Autumn is the star of the wresting team, feared by boys as well as girls; Adonis needs a wheelchair to get around.  Autumn is always surrounded by friends; Adonis is reserved and keeps to himself.  So what happens when Autumn decides that Adonis is the boy for her, but Adonis refuses to say more than the rare hello?

Told in alternating points of view, Pinned explores what it means to respect and care for others, and to understand and empathize with them and their circumstances.  Flake does an excellent job with the two characters different voices.  Autumn’s chapters are particularly well done; Flake manages to stay true to the kind of vocabulary and syntax Autumn would use without making her seem like a stereotype or less intelligent than she is.

cover image for Slimed!Slimed! An Oral History of Nickelodeon’s Golden Age by Matthew Klickstein

Slimed! consists of an exhausting number of interviews with a variety of people who worked for Nickelodeon from it’s inception through the 1990’s, from child actors to adult ones, producers, animators, writers, and everyone in between.

The decision to group the intervewees’ responses by topic, rather than by person, show, or chronologically was a good one.  It allows readers to get a balanced view of the range of opinions and memories are on various topics, from the the key design and marketing decisions that made the Nickelodeon we came to know and love, to more controversial topics such as the firing of the creator of the Ren and Stimpy Show and questions about about race and representation.

Unfortunately though, we also aren’t given an introduction as to who everyone is, which made following the interview responses fairly confusing at times.  I couldn’t have read this book without the help of google.  There is an index at the back of the book, but (and perhaps this is just my ereader) it’s not always as easy to flip pages on an ereader as it is with hardcopies, and it’s not evident that this index exists unless you read through the table of contents.

If you grew up watching You Can’t Do That on Television and The Adventures of Pete and Pete, as I did, it’s well worth a read, although perhaps not worth paying hardcover prices to do so.

Throne of Glass by Sarah J. Maas

I’m not going to try to give a synopsis the way I usually do, because OMG this book.  Also, the synopsis might make it sound like it may be worth reading, and it’s NOT.  Except to mock it, which is part of how I was bribed into reading it.

There is nothing about this book that makes sense or follows any kind of logic.  It makes me want to laugh and cry and scream all at the same time.

two cover images for Throne of Glass

First, Celaena, the main character, is supposed to be a very skilled assassin, but we pretty much never see her being competent.  She’ll win and defeat her enemies at times (a very few times), but when you read what she does to do it, you’ll wonder how in the world she managed to survive.  Most importantly, she’s still a prisoner during most of the book, and spends very little time plotting her escape. And the time she does spend plotting and planning and preparing, she doesn’t spend well or intelligently.

Secondly, the castle is made of glass. (Some of it anyway.) In a kingdom that has outlawed magic, so sorcery can’t be the reason it hasn’t fallen down. And how do the doors work?  And what about temperature control? The whole idea makes my head hurt.

Third, Celaena likes dresses – A LOT. Which is not something I’m against! I’m not even put out that the character’s appreciation of fashion lacks depth. I’m annoyed by how the book’s presentation of fashion is so incredibly shallow, considering how much time is spent on it.  There’s no world building here, in terms of fashion or textiles, and what they indicate in terms of class, status, and the like.

Fourth, Celaena recovers way too quickly from essentially being tortured via working as a slave in the salt mines.  And I don’t just mean in terms of her body recovering too fast, I mean the fact that this experience only ever seems to affect her physically, mentally, or emotionally when it’s convenient for the plot.  There is no nuance to her experiences, and no understanding of how this kind of harm actually affects people, no recognition of the suffering of real people in similar situations.  It’s all very cartoonish, in a way that minimizes what this kind of injustice and deprivation actually does to people.

Lastly, there is way too much slut-shaming in this book. It’s bad enough that were told rather than shown that Celaena is a skilled assassin.  It’s bad enough that her love of “girly” things is presented so shallowly, rather than with depth.  And it’s particularly bad that she’s given a tortured past that’s dealt with very disrespectfully.  But on top of all that we get Celaena judging other women for doing the same things she does, and the narrative supporting her in this assessment.

I won’t say you shouldn’t read this book, but I do suggest that it be read in small doses, and with lots of alcohol and access to social media for mocking.

cover image for Keeping You A SecretKeeping You A Secret by Julie Anne Peters

As her senior year draws to a close, it looks as though Holland Jaeger has everything going for her.  Good grades, best friends, the perfect boyfriend, a job she loves, and a sometimes trying blended family that she nevertheless loves.  (Well, Holland loves her Mom and baby sister anyway – her stepdad is tolerable and her stepsister lives elsewhere, mostly.)  Then gorgeous, brilliant, and completely Out and Proud Cece shows at school up one morning and Holland begins to question everything she thought she knew about herself.

Peters writing is rather rough here, and while the rawness fits the subject matter there’s not enough depth to transform this from a Problem Novel into something more enduring.  It’s not so much the talk of Goths and CDs that date the book as it is the assumption that high school will always be a place where only the Brave are Out, and the accompanying lack of introspection that might help teens, a decade later, better understand Holland’s experience – and better recognize what much hasn’t changed.

cover image for Chasing ShadowsChasing Shadows by Swati Avasthi, illustrated by Craig Phillips

Savitri’s acceptance into Princeton should be good news, not a secret she’s afraid to share.    But attending Princeton means leaving Holly and Corey behind in Chicago.  It means a long distance relationship with Corey, no more hanging out with Holly, and an end to the time the three spend exploring the city as freerunners.  Yet before Sav can make her choice, Corey is taken from them in a random act of violence.  Now Holly’s the one with an impossible choice, and Sav may be the only person who can help her.

I stumbled a bit getting into this book; a trio of friends who do parkour seems to be an increasingly common trope, and while it’s one I would normally enjoy, the previous two books I read with this setup were less than stellar, so I cringed at bit at first to see it again.  Thankfully, this isn’t them.

Chasing Shadows is a book about grief and loyalty, friendship and betrayal.  It tackles often complicated topics: from survivor guilt to cultural appropriation, and it deals with all of them with grace and honesty.  There are no simple answers here, no easy way to make the pain go away.  Instead we get complicated relationships and heartbreaking decisions wrapped up in a deceptively simple story.  Highly recommended.

cover image for Marie Antoinette, Serial KillerMarie Antoinette, Serial Killer by Katie Alender

A class trip to Paris is just the opportunity Colette Iselin needs.  A chance to meet new people, to get away from home, to escape her mother, to hang out with the popular girls, and to explore a new, fabulous city – and her family’s past.   But a serial killer is on the loose in Paris, murdering young men and women about the same age as Colette.  And Colette herself has been seeing strange things – including what may be the ghost of Marie Antoinette.

Needless to say, this particular novel requires a decent suspension of disbelief.  Not so much because of the ghosts, but rather because of the way it plays loose with history.  Still, while not quite as good as the other book by Alender that I’ve read, Bad Girls Don’t Die, this new novel is entertaining enough.

cover image for The Rule of ThirdsThe Rule of Thirds by Chantel Guertin

Preparing for Vantage Point, the photography competition for high school students that Pippa hopes will launch her career, is stressful enough by itself.  But now Pippa also has to deal with rocky friendships, cute boys, and rivals out to sabotage the entry she’s been working on for months.  And because that’s not enough to deal with, Pippa also been assigned to work at the hospital for her community service requirement.  The same hospital where she used to go to visit her Dad, and where she promised herself she’d never have to go to again.

The Rule of Thirds isn’t the type of book to make top ten lists, but it’s a nice, solid, entertaining novel with a good balance of humor and heartbreak and just enough surprises to keep you guessing.  I very much enjoyed reading it, and thought Guertin did a great job explaining the artistic process (when the subject came up) which isn’t something that’s always handled well in books like these.  I very much look forward to reading the sequels.

cover image for The Running DreamThe Running Dream by Wendelin Van Draanen

At night, Jessica dreams of running.  She can feel herself taking her regular morning jog, or racing in another competition, always fast and strong and sure of every step.  But by day, Jessica can no longer walk. The accident that left a teammate dead also left Jessica missing the lower half of one leg.  She doesn’t mind the pain so much – there are drugs for that.  What she’s really afraid to face is the fact that she no longer knows where she’s going, or how she’s going to get there.

I was a little afraid that this book, based on the premise, was going to be maudlin and trite, full of Life Lessons and Inspiration From Unlikely Places.  Fortunately, this book is by the same author who gave us Flipped, so while the story does indeed end on a hopeful and triumphant note, there are no easy solutions here, no universal truths.  Just how one teen girl copes with a dramatic change in both mobility and identity.  Van Draanen does a wonderful job of crafting a nuanced story, and of not only showing us how Jessica changes, but also of letting the tone and mood of the book change along with Jessica.