Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Top Ten Tuesday - Top Ten Book Characters That Would Be Sitting At My Lunch Table

Top Ten Tuesday is hosted at The Broke and the Bookish.

This week's topic is Top Ten Book Characters That Would Be Sitting At My Lunch Table.  Ten characters?  That is one big table... and one potentially volatile situation, if all those personalities clash.  Okay... here goes:

Enzo from The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein - If you've never had a dog, you're probably not aware of this, but they make efficient cleaner-uppers.  Not crazy about that meatloaf the cafeteria just served you?  Feed it to the dog.

Sam from Before I Fall by Lauren Oliver - Every lunch table needs a mean girl!  Actually, I'd prefer to have the version of Sam after the events in the story.  I like it when people can learn from their mistakes.

Hazael and Ziri from the Daughter of Smoke & Bone trilogy by Laini Taylor - Here are two characters who, historically, should be mortal enemies (hey, we might as well make lunch interesting).  I think these two were my favourite characters in the whole series.

Howl from Howl's Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones - He can be a bit of a diva... but, so what?  The dude can do magic.  He'd come in especially handy if one of us were cursed by someone from that dodgy-looking table of witches over in the corner of the cafeteria...

Lucius from Jessica's Guide to Dating on the Dark Side by Beth Fantaskey - He'd have definite opinions on our food choices... especially if we brought lentils.

Jack from Room by Emma Donoghue - He's a little young to be sitting with the rest of these characters, but maybe the presence of a child would help keep some of the others in line.  You don't want to go ballistic on your enemies when there's a kid watching.

Gen from The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner - Okay, so he might end up pilfering your lunch money, but he's such a character.  He seems like he'd be a fun guy to have around.

Farhad from Tiger Moon by Antonia Michaelis - I kind of wanted to put Nitish, Farhad's talking white tiger companion, at the lunch table, but I wasn't sure how he'd react to having to sit next to a dog.  So I'll go with Farhad, who's courageous and intelligent and willing to risk everything to help a girl he's never even met.  Sounds like a cool person to eat with, doesn't he?

R from Warm Bodies by Isaac Marion - A zombie?  Why not?  You wouldn't need to buy him lunch.  Of course, the sight of some random body part dropping off might make the rest of us lose our appetites...

What are some characters that would be sitting at your lunch table?

Monday, September 1, 2014

Review - The Grumpy Guide to Life

The Grumpy Guide to Life
by Grumpy Cat
Date: 2014
Publisher: Chronicle Books LLC
Reading level: A
Book type: picture book
Pages: 112
Format: e-book
Source: library

In a world filled with inspirational know-it-alls and quotable blowhards, only one figure is indifferent enough to tell the cranky truth: Grumpy Cat. Following the success of her New York Times bestselling debut, everyone's favorite disgruntled feline is back with this demotivational guide to everyday life, love, friendship, and more. Featuring many new photos of Grumpy Cat's famous frown and packed with uninspiring observations, The Grumpy Guide to Life will help anyone get in touch with their inner grouch.

(synopsis from Goodreads)

If you're not familiar with Grumpy Cat, you must have been living under a rock for the last year or so.  She's popped up in many an Internet meme with her trademark scowling face and crabby observations.  In small doses, the schtick is funny.  After over a hundred pages of the same thing... it's not.  After a while, I stopped smiling and began to feel quite depressed.  The sentiments are downright misanthropic, very negative, and often mean-spirited.  It starts to wear on you after a while.
Added to that were numerous badly Photoshopped images of the cat that made me wonder if the book had been put together by a bunch of beginner graphic design students.  It wasn't that impressive, and it made the book seem like little more than an attempt to jump on the bandwagon and cash in on the popularity of this ugly little cat.

And maybe it's really overthinking things, but I feel distinctly uncomfortable with the whole Grumpy Cat phenomenon after reading this book.  The cat can't help how she looks.  She may be perfectly sweet and not at all grumpy (her real name, after all, is not Grumpy Cat, but Tardar Sauce), but the whole meme just endorses the idea that how we look is all we are... and that's an idea I think we should be moving away from, not reinforcing.

Okay, off the soapbox.  In short, this book stopped being funny after a few pages, and unless you like looking at badly Photoshopped snapshots of cats, your time is probably better spent elsewhere.

Quotable moment:

The tide is a great reminder that whatever you do doesn't really matter because it will just get washed away and forgotten.

Recommended to: cat-crazy people who are impervious to constant negativity

Premise: 2/5
Meter: n/a
Writing: 2/5
Illustrations: 2/5
Originality: 2/5

Enjoyment: 1/5

Overall: 1.67 out of 5

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Review - Of Thee I Sing: A Letter to My Daughters

Of Thee I Sing: A Letter to My Daughters
by Barack Obama
illustrated by Loren Long
Date: 2010
Publisher: Knopf Books for Young Readers
Reading level: C
Book type: picture book
Pages: 40
Format: e-book
Source: library

In this tender, beautiful letter to his daughters, President Barack Obama has written a moving tribute to thirteen groundbreaking Americans and the ideals that have shaped our nation. From the artistry of Georgia O'Keeffe, to the courage of Jackie Robinson, to the patriotism of George Washington, President Obama sees the traits of these heroes within his own children, and within all of America’s children.

Breathtaking, evocative illustrations by award-winning artist Loren Long at once capture the personalities and achievements of these great Americans and the innocence and promise of childhood.

This beautiful book celebrates the characteristics that unite all Americans, from our nation’s founders to generations to come. It is about the potential within each of us to pursue our dreams and forge our own paths. It is a treasure to cherish with your family forever.

(synopsis from Goodreads)

I saw this book at the library, and I was curious.  President Obama as a children's book author?  It was only forty pages, so I decided to give it a shot.

This is a sweet little book that celebrates a father's love for his daughters while imparting a sense of history and national pride.  Since I'm not an American, I was a little nervous, wondering if it would have an overly patriotic vibe.  But it didn't.  It manages to proudly share the stories of some of the country's most notable historical figures while not going overboard with the patriotism.

I absolutely loved the illustrations in this book.  They're adorable, yet not cutesy, which makes the book suitable for boys as well as girls.  There are even a couple of illustrations of the first family's dog, Bo, which are super cute.

There is a section at the end that gives a little more information about each of the historical figures, so kids who are interested in one or more of these people could use this book as a starting point for learning more.  All in all, it's a nice little book that imparts some information and helps American kids learn about their history... with beautiful illustrations to highlight the experience.

Quotable moment:

Have I told you lately how wonderful you are?
How the sound of your feet
running from afar
brings dancing rhythms to my day?
How you laugh
and sunshine spills into the room?

Recommended to: kids who are interested in historical figures; anyone who appreciates well-illustrated children's books

Premise: 4/5
Meter: n/a
Writing: 4/5
Illustrations: 4/5
Originality: 3/5

Enjoyment: 4/5

Overall: 3.83 out of 5

Review - A Time to Dance

A Time to Dance
by Padma Venkatraman
Date: 2014
Publisher: Penguin Books
Reading level: YA
Book type: verse novel
Pages: 320
Format: e-book
Source: library

Padma Venkatraman’s inspiring story of a young girl’s struggle to regain her passion and find a new peace is told lyrically through verse that captures the beauty and mystery of India and the ancient bharatanatyam dance form. This is a stunning novel about spiritual awakening, the power of art, and above all, the courage and resilience of the human spirit.

Veda, a classical dance prodigy in India, lives and breathes dance—so when an accident leaves her a below-knee amputee, her dreams are shattered. For a girl who’s grown used to receiving applause for her dance prowess and flexibility, adjusting to a prosthetic leg is painful and humbling. But Veda refuses to let her disability rob her of her dreams, and she starts all over again, taking beginner classes with the youngest dancers. Then Veda meets Govinda, a young man who approaches dance as a spiritual pursuit. As their relationship deepens, Veda reconnects with the world around her, and begins to discover who she is and what dance truly means to her.

(synopsis from Goodreads)

Well, it had to happen sometime: I found a verse novel that I dislike.  And it's funny because I think I might have liked this book more if it had been written in prose instead.  The verse format just didn't work here.  Actually, quite a few things didn't work... but the format may have been part of the reason for those as well.

I thought the story sounded interesting, and I hoped that the Indian setting would be beautiful and evocative.  Unfortunately, the story was barely there -- this was more of a character study than anything -- and the setting wasn't described well enough for me to really get a sense of the place.  There were moments when the Indian setting came alive, but those moments weren't consistent.  As a result, large chunks of the book felt like they could have taken place anywhere.

I can overlook a lackluster plot if the characters make up for it.  In this case, they didn't.  The story is told by a teenager named Veda, who is a bharatanatyam dancer.  At the beginning of the story, she is focused on being the best and winning competitions.  We really don't know much about her, other than that.  So when she loses her right leg in a bus crash (on the way home from her triumphant win at a dance competition, no less) it quickly becomes obvious just what kind of character Veda is... and that is, not much of one.  For most of the rest of the book, there is little in the way of character development; instead, Veda becomes defined by her disability.  Strangers ask inappropriate questions in the street.  Her classmates make stump jokes.  Her old dance teacher kicks her out because she can't dance like she used to.  And Veda spends a lot of time floating through her life, feeling sorry for herself at times, but often not showing much emotion at all.

One of the biggest problems with the characters in this book was the dialogue.  I think the author was trying to make the speech poetic (perhaps to better fit with the verse novel format), but more often than not, it came across as stilted and silly.  Veda, her best friend, and her love interest -- all teenagers -- at times sounded like mature adults using very formal speech.  They spouted off such overly mature dialogue that it was unrealistic and unbelievable.  It was as if all of the characters were following some script where they said what they were supposed to say.  As a result, it came off like a school play that was written by a second grader.  One character would say how they were feeling, another would rattle off some platitude, and the first would acknowledge how right they were and thank them for making them feel better.  I just didn't buy it.

We were also treated to some forced romance.  I say forced because it was quite obvious that the relationships didn't happen organically.  The first quasi love interest was Jim, Veda's prosthetist.  Of course he's much older than her and the reader knows that nothing can come of it, but I thought, at first, that their interaction and Veda's crush were cute.  However, once the second love interest, Govinda, was introduced, I grew worried that something unrealistic or overly convenient would happen to get Jim out of the picture.  I wasn't wrong.  He went from being an altruistic, nice guy who really loved India to a condescending, distant man who couldn't wait to go back to America... and there didn't appear to be any reason for the switch, other than to highlight Govinda as the better love interest.  As for Govinda himself... I didn't like him.  He's a teenaged boy, a dancer and teacher of the beginners' class that Veda takes after her previous teacher rejects her.  Govinda is portrayed as practically perfect: handsome, kind, patient, and respectful of his parents.  He also speaks like an 80-year-old yogi.  It got a bit annoying after a while.  He was just too... nice.  Unrealistically so.

Once Govinda was in the picture, things went from bad to worse.  At one point, in the midst of a bout of phantom pain so strong that it prevented her from sleeping, Veda -- sweating and desperate -- actually prayed to Shiva for romance advice.  This was near the end of the book; had it been earlier, I probably would have laughed and tossed the book into the DNF pile.  Priorities, girl!

Overall, I was disappointed.  Had this book been written as a prose novel, with more room to develop the characters and setting, it might have worked better.  On the other hand, if the dialogue were as silly as it was here, it might not matter.  The best thing about this book is its pretty cover; unfortunately, beyond that, it fails on almost every level.

Quotable moment:

My heels strike the ground fast as fire-sparks.
Streams of sweat trickle down my neck.
My black braid lifts into the air, then whips around my waist.
Nothing else fills me with as much elation
as chasing down soaring music,
catching and pinning rhythms to the ground with my feet,
proud as a hunter rejoicing in his skill.

Recommended to: readers who enjoy foreign settings, though only if they've got good enough imaginations to fill in the gaps themselves

Plot: 2/5
Characters: 2/5
Pace: 2/5
Writing & Editing: 2/5
Originality: 2/5

Enjoyment: 2/5

Overall Rating: 2 out of 5 ladybugs

In My Mailbox (77)

Borrowed from the library:
A Time to Dance
by Padma Venkatraman

Padma Venkatraman’s inspiring story of a young girl’s struggle to regain her passion and find a new peace is told lyrically through verse that captures the beauty and mystery of India and the ancient bharatanatyam dance form. This is a stunning novel about spiritual awakening, the power of art, and above all, the courage and resilience of the human spirit.

Veda, a classical dance prodigy in India, lives and breathes dance—so when an accident leaves her a below-knee amputee, her dreams are shattered. For a girl who’s grown used to receiving applause for her dance prowess and flexibility, adjusting to a prosthetic leg is painful and humbling. But Veda refuses to let her disability rob her of her dreams, and she starts all over again, taking beginner classes with the youngest dancers. Then Veda meets Govinda, a young man who approaches dance as a spiritual pursuit. As their relationship deepens, Veda reconnects with the world around her, and begins to discover who she is and what dance truly means to her.

Bought from Amazon.ca:
A Stone in My Hand
by Cathryn Clinton

The year is 1988 in Gaza City, and it has been a month since eleven-year-old Malaak’s father left to seek work in Israel, only to disappear. Every day Malaak climbs to the roof and waits, speaking little to anyone, preferring the company of the little bird she has tamed. But her twelve-year-old brother, Hamid, has a different way of coping. He feels only anger, stoked by extremists who say violence is the only way to change their fate. Malaak’s mother begs him to stay away from harm, but Malaak lives in fear of losing her brother as well. What will it take for her to find her voice—and the strength to move past the violence that surrounds her?

What was in your "mailbox" this week?  Let me know in the comments!

In My Mailbox was started by Kristi of The Story Siren.

Weekly Recap - August 24-30, 2014

Here's what I blogged about over the last seven days:

Sunday - I shared what I got In My Mailbox.  Two e-book freebies!

Monday - I reviewed Dreams of Gods & Monsters by Laini Taylor and gave it 4.29 ladybugs.  That was one of the best wrap-ups to a YA trilogy that I've ever read!

Tuesday - I participated in the Top Ten Tuesday meme.  This week we talked about the books that we really want to read but don't own yet.

Wednesday - I reviewed Future Flash by Kita Helmetag Murdock and gave it 2.14 ladybugs.  Needless to say, I wasn't that impressed (but at least it was a short book)!

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Review - Future Flash

Future Flash
by Kita Helmetag Murdock
Date: 2014
Publisher: Sky Pony Press
Reading level: MG
Book type: prose novel
Pages: 208
Format: e-book
Source: library

For as long as she can remember, Laney has been having “future flashes”—visions of the future that she sees when she makes physical contact with another person. Left on a doorstep as a baby, Laney’s past has always been cloudy to her, despite the clarity with which she can see the future. Her caretaker, Walt, claims to be her father, but Laney has a nagging suspicion that he isn’t quite telling her the entire truth. And when a new kid, Lyle, moves to her small town, Laney is dreading meeting him—she almost always gets a future flash when first meeting someone new, and the flashes aren’t always good. Unfortunately, her meeting with Lyle isn’t just bad; it’s painful. Engulfed in flames, Lyle’s future flash is the worst Laney’s ever experienced. But what does it mean? Is there anything Laney can do to change the future? And will she be able to save Lyle not only from a fiery death but also from the merciless class bully without becoming a victim of his antics herself?

(synopsis from Goodreads)

This book was so frustrating.  It had the potential to be really good.  Unfortunately, there were a number of things that kept it from being anything more than a bland, preachy, condescending criticism of bullying.

The first thing I noticed was the use of stereotypes instead of well-developed characters.  I nearly stopped reading when I first encountered Ms. Fontane, the gym teacher: the 300-pound, lazy gym teacher who sits in a chair, sweating and panting, while instructing (not demonstrating, of course) her students how to dance.  And that was just the beginning.  We've also got a crazy cat lady with literally dozens of cats, and an irresponsible local shelter that keeps allowing her to take more, even though her house stinks of cat pee; the redheaded boy with freckles who wears a t-shirt with the periodic table on it, who immediately gets picked on by the local bully, and who has allergies that make him sneeze (because a nerd's not a nerd without allergies); the "bad seed" who used to be a nice kid, but who apparently lost his mind when his parents divorced and now goes around violently assaulting his classmates and setting fire to action figures; and the unwashed shut-in who can apparently move house over and over again in the space of three years, but somehow can't muster the energy to change out of her bathrobe and open the front door.  The main character, Laney, isn't much better.  She dresses in black (instead of pink, like the other girls at school) and likes to draw and paint.  I also had a big problem with her character because she was the narrator.  The book is told in first person, present tense.  The problem is that Laney is twelve but her voice sounds more like an adult.  And yet, at times, she comes across as stupid or as if she has a memory impairment; she tends to remember things only when they're convenient, or after the reader has already remembered them.

The writing was also pretty bad.  There were numerous typos, comma splices, said bookisms, and homophone mistakes all over the place (callous/callus, peak/peek, chord/cord).  The author didn't seem to know the difference between lie and lay, and thus had characters "laying" all over the place.  (What were they laying?  Eggs?)  I wondered if perhaps she did this because Laney might not have known the difference... but I kind of doubt it.

But the worst part was that so many things seemed contrived for convenience.  At one point in the story, Laney draws a picture of her classmate on fire, and gets in trouble with the teacher.  The teacher doesn't call home until days later... when it's convenient to the plot.  Then there was the extended conversation in a burning hallway that stretches the limits of credulity, fire behaviour, animal behaviour, and human physiology.  This is when Laney dumps an important piece of information on the reader right at the height of the climax, one that ultimately helps resolve the plot.  When this happens, I pretty much lose all respect for the author.  These sorts of things need to be properly set up, or they come across as contrived.

The final paragraph left me convinced that this was nothing but a preachy little book for middle schoolers with the message that bullying is bad and that you need to tell an adult.  The message is not sophisticated or nuanced at all; it pretty much hits you over the head.  And that's disappointing, because the potential was there for this to be a good story.  I'm not saying the message needed to be done away with completely, but it could have been a little more subtle.  I feel like I was deceived into reading this book, because I expected something quite different.  It was like someone had tricked me into eating broccoli when what I thought I was getting was dessert.

Quotable moment:

I've never seen a dead person before. A tear trickles from Lyle's closed eye down the side of his right cheek. I saw a dead deer last year in the back of a pickup truck at the gas station. Its eyes were unblinking and tear-free. Aside from the slow-moving tear, Lyle is perfectly still.

"Are you dead?" I ask him. He lets out a small snort but doesn't move.

"I wish," he says after a minute.

Recommended to: middle graders who don't mind overly didactic stories

Plot: 2/5
Characters: 2/5
Pace: 3/5
Writing & Editing: 2/5
Originality: 2/5

Enjoyment: 2/5

Overall Rating: 2.14 out of 5 ladybugs