Friday, December 20, 2013

Job Openings! (and a promotion)

If you follow me on facebook/twitter, then you know that recently I was promoted to my dream position: youth services coordinator at the Anchorage Public Library. That promotion took me away from my beloved Mountain View Branch Library. Unfortunately it happened to coincide with the MV youth services librarian receiving a job back in her home state.

Sometimes timing isn't ideal. But onward we go! I'm mostly telling everyone why the only two librarians at a branch left at the same time so no one thinks something BIG and BAD happened. As a result, I would like to tell you about two job openings. And I'm going to be shameless in asking you to promote this to your contacts. Tweet, retweet, post, please! This library has a a huge place in my heart and I want to see the right people there.

It can be scary to have two new people in one location at once, but rest assured they will have support from the rest of the system to help with adjustments and transitions. And the paraprofessional staff at that location are the best in the system. (I'm biased but it's true.) I can also promise you that I will not be interfering or armchair managering you from my new position - this will be your chance to manage and help shape a library!

Later on I will tell you about my new job, and everything with that, but for now here is a more official announcement:

Job Openings!

The Anchorage Public Library is recruiting two librarians for the Mountain View branch library. Mountain View is the most diverse census district in the United States and the library has become a strong neighborhood partner with agencies and community groups serving the diverse residents and helping to revitalize the neighborhood.  The library itself is only three years old, LEED certified and a welcoming and friendly environment. While Mountain View Library welcomes and provides programming and services for all patrons, the library shares a parking lot with a middle school and is in walking distance of two elementary schools. As a result the library has a large number of thriving youth and teen programs.
Currently we are recruiting a youth services librarian to plan, present, and evaluate programming for youth from birth to age 18. The YS librarian will also assist with system wide collection development, do outreach to local schools, work on the reference desk, and manage the library in the branch manager’s absence.

We are also recruiting a branch manager who will manage the library staff, facility, and adult collections. The manager also plans and presents programs for adults, builds partnerships with local agencies and community groups, and participates as needed with system-wide initiatives.

For general information about Anchorage Public Library jobs:

For the youth services librarian job:

For the branch manager librarian job:

Both positions will be open until January 7th. If you have any questions about life in Anchorage, Alaska, or the Anchorage Public Library system, I would be happy to answer them!

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Armchair Managering

One of my favorite blogs to read is Ask A Manager. She's non-profit which is a great perspective, but she also answers lots of questions from the for-profit sector. A lot of her columns are answers to job hunters, but a good portion are HR and managerial issues.

My favorite recurring theme is how often people ask "is this legal?" Things are often bad practice, but rarely illegal. She actually did an entire column listing all the things she and another blogger have been queried on as to legal status. Read it, it's amazing.

Earlier this week she posted a great question that I've been thinking about a lot. And making my husband discuss. And my mother. And various other people in my life. I'm going to go ahead and quote the letter, but not the AAM answer or her reader comments. Her readers are intelligent and insightful and the comments are one of the highlights of her blog. I firmly encourage you to go read her answer and the readers comments.

I am a manager of a small HVAC service company. One of our service technicians is refusing to enter any residence where a teenager is home alone, even though we have scheduled this appointment with the parent, and although they can’t be there, their 14-year-old will let him in. This will be the second time in a week that this technician has left the residence without fixing the problem, causing me to get an irate customer on the phone. When our scheduler asks him why he left, his response is that he feels uncomfortable being alone in the house with a female teenager. This technician has three daughters, and I think he is letting his paranoia about his daughters interfere with his judgment.

Our company has protocol in place that if a customer is not home, a technician isn’t to enter a residence, without prior approval by the customer. Our service techs are licensed by the state, with background checks performed annually. In the 9 years I have managed this company, I have never run across this before.

I am having a meeting with this technician next week, and I want to make sure I say the right thing. Several times he has commented that the company cannot hold it against him if he doesn’t want to do something that makes him uncomfortable (this includes not working overtime on occasion if asked, going into any home with mold, and now the above reason.)

I know that we can certainly let him go, but we are a small company and he has been with us for three years now. I’m not willing to do this, until I have addressed these problems, and try to come up with something that will make us both “comfortable.” If this cannot be achieved, then I guess I’ll have no other choice but to let him go.

Any help you you can provide in the way of things I might say to him will be greatly appreciated.

Okay, the way I see it there are two distinct issues here.

1. There are some legitimate policy and safety concerns.

2. The employee believes they can dictate the terms of their job.

Let's start with number one. A lot of the commenters said, and I agree, that it seems odd to allow an adult serviceman into the house with only a minor present. Beyond the obvious false accusation fears (which even if disproved can effectively ruin your life), if there is a change in service needed, more work, additional charges, you usually need the signature of an adult to authorize it and any payments. Some companies want payment immediately and some will bill later.

The last time I let an HVAC guy repair our furnace he wanted my signature twice. First I signed to authorize him to work. Second I signed to authorize the payment on the credit card. A few years ago (in 2006 actually), my grandma sent me into town to pick up some food she ordered for a family dinner. She sent me with her checkbook with the top three checks signed. That worked because it is a town of about 200 people and my grandmother was their queen. I'm thinking that won't work with your average HVAC guy.

The AAM commenters indicate that a number of major companies (like cable companies) have hard and fast policies requiring an adult to be in the residence for service. I'm not sure since I have no minor children to foist repair duties onto, but if I was told that, I wouldn't blink. Instituting a policy like this would be a completely reasonable choice for this company.

I have never been a service person fixing up people's homes, but I would imagine that they are often exposed to various toxins. Having masks available to your techs to use at their disposal would seem appropriate.

Second issue: the employee believes they can dictate the terms of their job. This to me is a MUCH bigger issue. Employers should be amenable to talking to employees about difficulties they're having and adjusting policies where appropriate, but at the end of the day if you're told something is your job, do it. If you can't, quit or be fired. You don't get to not do things because they make you "uncomfortable" and then expect your employer to not penalize you. That isn't the way the world works.

Also HVAC is kinda a big deal. I've had to call in for an emergency repair on a Sunday in January in Alaska when it was -8 and the heater stopped working. (Side note: I had to call 3 companies before I got one that had a free tech to send to my house. He spent 20 minutes working, charged $180, and was on the phone the entire time scheduling techs for other calls. Librarians, we are in the wrong field.) If I was not told that there was a requirement to have an adult home (and it sounds like this company is already emphasizing that someone must be home when they do the scheduling) and then the work was refused I would be really upset.

Let's look at this conversation could have been handled.

Tech: I'm uncomfortable going into this house because the only one home is a 15 year-old girl.
Boss: Really? No one's ever mentioned that before.
Tech: Yeah, a false accusation could ruin my life and your company.
Boss: Fair point. But I talked to her mom when she scheduled the call and she said that only her daughter could be home. It's your last call on a Saturday, go ahead and do it since the mother authorized you to be there with her daughter, we'll talk about it on Monday.

Then on Monday there would be a discussion and a potential change in policy to be emphasized to customers when scheduling appointments. Or perhaps all your company wants to do is get confirmation from the parents that it is okay to work in the house alone with a minor. I think that's a risky policy, but a company could do it and require a tech to do so. However if the tech had still walked away from those jobs, write it up. Hopefully you have a policy about how many write ups = disciplinary issues or termination.

Ideally you create an environment where management is responsive to concerns from employees and employees feel free to bring them to management.

Another potential conversation:

Tech: The last home I was called out to had some really nasty black mold all over the place. I can't do that.
Boss: Yeah, we see all sorts of stuff in people's houses. (Shakes head sympathetically). But we still have to do a job. I'm going to get you some protective masks to wear whenever you feel they are necessary.

And the overtime thing: it's legal to require overtime. It's legal to hire a person for two years and never require overtime and then when your company grows start requiring overtime in the third year. (I don't know that is the case here, just making a point.) If the employee doesn't like it, they can find another job. Lots of people work schedules that aren't ideal, it's life. This presumes of course that you are paying them any legally required overtime pay.

For years my mother was in charge of payroll at a major company and I didn't see her as often as I liked (or she probably liked) during January/W-2 season, but on the other side her company offered her the flexibility to be a room mom and take off in the middle of the day to throw parties for our classes.

So this is my last example conversation, presuming everyone is a reasonable person:
Boss: Okay I have three more calls for you to go to. I'm authorizing overtime pay.
Tech: WHOA! I'm done for the day. I've promised to take my wife out for a date.
Boss: Sorry about this, but it's the first bad cold snap of the year and everyone's heater is breaking. I need you to work these three calls.
Tech: Fine. I can use the overtime money to take my wife out to that B&B she likes next weekend instead.

I think this entry really resonated with me because it is a management issue I've struggled with a lot. I want to be open and accommodating. I ABSOLUTELY want to hear my employees concerns and work with them towards solutions. And every now and then it just comes down to "I'm the boss and you need to do this" but it's always better to try to talk it out and not have to flat out say that. I'm not perfect at this, still working at it.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Halloween Reading Recommendations

I'm going to go a little bit out of the norm here for some Halloween choices (also I'm barely squeaking this in under the wire). All of these books are frightening and upsetting in their own way, but none of them are the typical Stephen King style choice. (This also kills 3 review birds with one stone and slightly shortens my queue of read but not reviewed books.)

The Raven's Gift by Don Rearden. 288 pages. Published June 2013 by Pintail. (First published in 2011 in Canada).

Confession: I "know" Don through twitter, he is an Anchorage resident and University of Anchorage-Alaska professor. I'd been meaning to read his book for a while, but sped it up after he agreed to participate in an Alaska Book Week event at the library.

John Morgan and his wife Anna know life will be hard as teachers in a primarily Yup'ik village in rural Alaska. That challenge turns to a nightmare when a plague hits and much of the population is wiped out. Faced with trying to hike his way over thousands of miles of tundra, John finds unlikely alliances and horrors waiting among the other survivors.

My husband is Yup'ik and travels to rural Alaska for work and family reasons. He didn't read the book before the author event, but loved hearing Rearden talk and started it the next day. Since then he has been enthusiastically recommending this book to everyone (a few friends, his coworkers) and lending out our copy left and right. He knows far more about rural Alaska than me and says Rearden has it spot-on.

The thing about rural in Alaska is they mean no roads. The only way in is often a boat, snow machine, or usually a small plane. There are no easy fixes or quick resources when trouble happens. It is one of the most isolated environments on Earth. And that alone is scary.

There is a lot of historical groundwork for the devastating consequences of a plague/illness/flu epidemic in remote Alaska. Locals still refer to "The Great Death", a flu epidemic in the early 20th century. It is absolutely one of the most realistic horror books I have read in a long time.

Rearden does an excellent job of portraying the isolation and fear of any survival situation and compounding that with the extremes of the arctic tundra. His narrative switches between three timelines, weaves in traditional Yup'ik stories, and incredibly portrays a place that seems surreal to the modern city dweller. The book was descriptive enough that I felt cold reading it.

And it's creepy. So creepy. I can't tell you about the creepy parts without ruining it for you. But I will say what I expected to be the HORROR was not the scare that I had by the end of the book.

If you want a good survival story, a creepy look at an all too realistic situation, or a really good portrayal of rural Alaska, I urge you to pick up this book.

The Never List by Koethi Zan. 303 pages. Published July 2013 by Pamela Dorman Books.

Here we have a "pulled from the headlines" style thriller. After years of keeping a "never list" of actions to be avoided to stay safe, Sarah and Jennifer think they have beaten the odds. But one night they get into a car and wake up in a basement. For the next three years they and other young female captives are sadistically tortured in their basement prison. But it is when they escape and must deal with the consequences of those years and their choices, that contain the true horror.

There are far far far too many of these types of cases in the news. 2010's Room was another novelization of such a horrible case.

Here the story is told in flashbacks between an adult "free" Sarah and the scared college girl in the basement. The horror here lies in not a monster or zombie lurking in the shadows, but within the hearts of man. (And yes I'm humming the old Shadow theme song while I type that cliche).

I don't normally go for thrillers or crime novels, but this one appealed to me because of the psychological aspects of the story. Much of it is about the breaking down, and rebuilding of Sarah's mind. Overall, captivating page turner and fairly well written. There were a few characters I wish I had more development on, but ultimately it was quite a good book.

Escape from Camp 14: One Man's Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West by Blaine Harden.

Published March 2012 by Viking. 205 pages. (I listened to an audio version.)

Unlike my other choices for Halloween, this book is non-fiction. Sometimes the scariest things in this world are all too real. Shin Dong-hyuk was the first North Korean to escape from a "total control zone" (prison/work camp) to life in the West. He was born and raised in the prison camp under the Kim policy of punishing the families of offenders to the "third generation". Because his father's brothers had escaped during the Korean war, he and his family were destined to always live in prison. Shin was himself the product of a "reward marriage" arranged by the guards between his parents.

Most of us can not fathom what it is to grow up in an environment without even knowing the meaning of love, to view your mother only as competition for food, your father and brother as virtual strangers.

The view into a closed world offered here is both horrifying and honest. Shin opens up about some of his own actions aware that he might be judged harshly.

One interesting thing I learned, South Koreans are in favor of unification but not right now. Unification with North Korea would be very costly and the extremely robust South Korean economy would bear the brunt of it. Projections show that it would raise taxes for 60 years. (In comparison that is like if we were still paying off my grandfather's fight in WWII when I graduated college.)

If you want a true life horror this Halloween, it doesn't get scarier then life in a North Korean prison camp.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Review - Burial Rites

Lately in Anchorage, it has been gray and rainy. This typical fall weather in Alaska always makes me want to curl up in a chair with a cup of tea and a book that helps me forget the rest of the world. I had an advanced ecopy courtesy of NetGalley that perfectly fit the bill. The weather in the book was also often cold and overcast: perfect match!

Burial Rites by Hannah Kent. Published September 2013 by Little, Brown and Company, 336 pages.

Bottom Line: Highly recommended. A melancholy look at life in early 19th century Iceland and the last person to be executed in that country. Really good at exploring themes of loneliness, relationships, redemption, and society. Fascinating glimpse into Icelandic society. Should be picked up by most public libraries. Will appeal to historical fiction fans and literary fiction readers.

In 1829 in Iceland, two men have died horrible deaths and three people are tried for the crime. Two are sentenced to death and one to life in prison. While they await confirmation of the sentence from the ruling Danish officials, Agnes is moved to a farm in the valley where she grew up to be held prisoner in the home of a minor government official.

Of course the official and his family have no prison on their land, so Agnes lives with the family as a servant, gradually revealing her own story and becoming part of that family's story.

Utterly fascinating. I didn't know much about life in Iceland and I loved this peek at how it worked. For example I didn't know that Iceland was ruled over by the Denmark (and the Danish King) from the 13th century until the end of WWII. All the little details about life in such a harsh Northern climate, on farms where people were barely surviving were beautifully woven into the story. At no point did you feel like you were receiving a history and sociology lesson, but rather that you were seeing into their society. (It should be noted that the author is an Australian who has spent considerable time in Iceland.)

The setting is dramatically described as both culturally and physically harsh. Flashes of Agnes' life are revealed as we see how hard it was to be an unwanted child, a servant, in a time where survival was not guaranteed even for the wanted children of well off farmers.

Writing is lyric and melancholy. Haunting and mesmerizing are adjectives used to describe books so often as to become meaningless cliches, but they apply.

What I loved about this book that I didn't realize how much I enjoyed it until after a few weeks of deliberation was the lack of didactic moralizing. This isn't a story against the death penalty. It is just a story, just a thing that happened. Steinbeck did the same type of storytelling with Of Mice and Men. These are the tales of how people live, how horrible things can happen without horrible intentions, how life can be hard, survival a challenge and beauty still exist.

As a funny note, I read this as an ebook advanced copy from NetGalley. The library's copy arrived on Wednesday. On Thursday a high schooler arrived with an assignment to read any book more than 250 pages not by an American author. I book talked this one to her and she left with it very happily. Fortuitous timing.

Saturday, September 07, 2013

Review - The Returned

Please don't let the fact that this is published by Harlequin dissuade you. There's nary a heaving breast or throbbing member to be found. Instead you have some very well written speculative fiction.

The Returned by Jason Mott. Published by Harlequin, August 27th, 2013. 352 pages.

Bottom Line: Not a flawless book, but a very good book. Focusing more on human nature and relationships than supernatural, it is a nonetheless eerie book that succeeds in getting under the skin of the reader. Recommended for purchase by most librarians. Will appeal to fans of China Mieville and Carlos Ruiz Zafon.

All around the world, the dead are returning. They're not coming back as zombies or ghosts or vampires (not that type of novel), they're just coming back. Thousands of miles from home, with no memories of the afterlife, just returning in much the same condition they were when they died. This presents problems when, for example, a group of Nazi soldiers comes back in a small town in rural America. At first the Bureau tries to reunite the returned with their families, but not every returned is welcomed back. They bring out a lot of complicated feelings. And the problems grow as the numbers of returned grow.

At the heart of the novel is the small town where the Hargraves live. They face complicated feelings when their young son, drowned nearly 50 years earlier, is returned. And then their town is taken over for a detention center for the returned. As tensions burn between the returned, the soldiers, and the "True Living" townsfolk, no one is ready for the chaos.

The concept is fascinating. The dead returning as almost but not quite living with no explanation. The reader receives no more explanation than did the people of the novel allowing us to share in the mystery and frustration.

The setting is incredible. You see this small town, a bit run down by the economy, filled with people who aren't good or bad but just people, and you feel like you could live there. Or that you do. Because it is every small town, but it is also its own place.

Characterization was fantastic. Even the "villains" are fully developed complex characters. No one was predictable. Some of the characters I thought I knew the best managed to surprise me right at the end, but surprise me in a way that was consistent with their character and shed light on every previous action. In other words, some of the best characterizations I have ever felt.

Great premise. Fantastic setting. Incredible characterization. Mediocre plot. The plot pacing was uneven. And that kept everything from entirely gelling together. This book was very good, but just short of great.

Between the chapters about the main characters, there are interludes written from the point of view of a returned. These are some of the most beautiful and haunting, little glimpses into the confusion. They were some of my favorite parts of this novel. I think I would really have enjoyed seeing this novel as a series of short stories set in the world dealing with this returning of the dead.

But I can't wish for a book that doesn't exist. And I did really enjoy this book. I do recommend it. It's speculative fiction without being hardcore, returning from the dead without being zombies, paranormal but not frightening, it does what great literature does, it makes us look within ourselves to ask how we and our neighbors would handle a situation.

Tuesday, September 03, 2013

Change is Hard

One of my new goals is to read at least one book that might help me be a better librarian or manager a month. They don't all have to be actually aimed at librarians, but I will be reviewing them under the tag "professional lit". To that end my first book was about change. It was the August book, but I am a bit delayed on the blogging.

Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard by Chip Heath and Dan Heath. Published in 2010 by Crown Business. 320 pages.

Change is ever present in our personal and work lives. A lot is being written about how libraries are facing a crisis/ebook revolution/time of change. And yeah. But that was also true when we went to computers and integrated library systems (ILS for the acronym geeks out there). It was true when we dumped the card catalog and went to OPACs (online public access catalogs). It was true when we racially integrated libraries. Back in the 16th century there was probably a librarian grousing that switching to the Gregorian calendar would really mess up the acquisition records.

Okay a lot of those things happened before my time in librarianship. But my point is that we have always been a profession who faced change.

My library system has been going through a lot of change. As a middle manager, I've been responsible for helping to implement some of that change, but I have not always been in on the meetings or decisions to make that change. And of course my personal life has had a lot of change lately, some good some not so good. Thus change and change management are of special interest to me.

Bottom Line: This book is really good. You should read it if you are interested in change or management. It has a good basic framework that is supported with practical examples from business, social work, non profits, and personal life. It avoids the trap of speaking too much in scholarly jargon and produces an approachable book that doesn't feel dumbed down.

Basic framework: To make change happen, balance the rational and emotional parts of people's minds. Give motivation to their emotional part of the brain and clear direction to their rational part.

I'm not going to quote the entire book verbatim, but here are a few relevant examples.

Clear direction to the rational part of the mind. For example we could say "be more friendly and welcoming to the patrons". That's really vague. Most staff think they are friendly and welcoming, regardless of how they are perceived. A few years ago we heard a good framework at a customer service training. It's the 10-4 rule. When a patron is within 10 feet of you, make eye contact and smile. Acknowledge them non-verbally. The patron feels welcomed and is more likely to approach you if they need help. When a patron is within 4 feet of you, verbally greet them. Super easy and works like a charm. This very clear directive makes a world of difference in customer service.

Another great piece of advice. Shrink the change. Don't make people change the world all at once, give them small achievable steps.

Give people a head start. The example in the book was of a car wash that gave some customers a loyalty 8 punch card (and then the 9th was free) and other customers a 10 punch card to earn a free wash. The customers with the 10 punch card were told they were given two free punches for loyalty. So both groups had to earn 8 punches for the free wash. The customers who thought they had a two punch head start were more likely to complete their punch card.

We did something very similar with summer reading this system. When our youth services librarians visited schools, they gave out a large bookmark style summer reading promo that also had the first few lines of the summer reading chart so kids could start tracking the time they were reading. They were really excited to get a "head start" on their reading and were already invested in the program and (hopefully) more likely to come in and sign up.

Last crumb from the book: tweak the environment. To make change work, to make it easier and more likely to stick, change the environment in favor of the change. Years ago I worked at a library that wanted more people to use self check machines (staff cuts, staff reduced by attrition, more effective). Rather than just putting up a self check and hoping for the best, they totally redid the circulation desk. Instead of 3 clerk stations and one self check, you had to walk past four self checks to get to the only clerk station. That, and friendly staff members offering to help them use the self check, really helped people convert to self checks.

My favorite comment of that system, when someone worried that seniors wouldn't be able to deal with the new machines, was from my branch manager. He replied that those same seniors had been using ATMs happily for 20 years. And it really wasn't a problem.

In summary: this is a great book for librarians and managers and I highly recommend it. It has given me a lot to think about in terms of change in our system and in my own life personally.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Review - The Wicked Girls

Published first in the UK (last year) and in the United States this summer, I got an advanced copy of the US edition Wicked Girls from the Early Word program. This is not a book I would have normally picked up, but I could not put it down. Perhaps I like mysteries/thrillers more than I thought I did or perhaps this book is just THAT GOOD.

The Wicked Girls by Alex Marwood. 378 pages. UK version published by Sphere in 2012, US version published July 30, 2013 by Penguin.

Bottom Line: Recommended for most all public libraries. Great summer read. Would appeal either to mystery fans of sociological issues fans (ie Jodi Piccoult).
Two 11 year-old girls suffering from different and very similar lives of neglect meet for one summer day. At the end of that day, they are murderers. Their subsequent prosecution, imprisonment, and release under a protection program that changes their identities all come to a head 25 years later. Kristy is a journalist covering a serial killer and Amber is a cleaning supervisor who has found one of the victims. Switching between the current series of murders and their fears for the lives they've established should their secret be revealed.

When a child commits a terrible crime, there is a lot of speculation in the media on why (bad parenting, violent video games, natural sociopath, pick your disorder du jour). This book can not and does not try to give an overarching reason. Instead it tells a very plausible story of two girls, one awful day, and the adults they become.

At no point is this an apologetic tale, the horror of what happened and the culpability of all involved is never sugarcoated. However for those of you like your thriller with a healthy dose of psychological introspection, Marwood has written a fantastic tale for you.

Setting: an economically depressed, working class town on a cold rainy coast in Britain. It is perfectly described. Have you read The Working Poor or Nickel and Dimed? What I love here, beyond the obvious thriller/mystery, was the contrasts of the recession on Kristy (solidly middle class but struggling with her husband out of work) and Amber and her working class/minimum wage colleagues. Fantastically done, insightful societal portraits. Ultimately, that is why this appeals so much more to me than your average mystery. The vivid characters, detailed setting, and multifaceted look at a society's larger issues are incredibly compelling. More than the mystery, that keeps the reader turning the pages and thinking about it long after you have finished reading.

Oh yeah and the mystery is good and fast paced. You will want to know what precisely happened on the day when they were children and who is killing people now. I had called out the red herring and the real murderer pretty early though. But it wasn't enough to stop me from reading the rest of this book as it usually does with mysteries. Seeing how Marwood would get us to the end kept me reading. Overall this is just a fantastic book.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Orson Scott Card, censorship, and questionable morality

Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game is finally going to be made into a movie. I could not be more excited. I might have had a barely contained squeal in the theater the first time I saw a trailer. Love those books. I've loved most everything I've read by Orson Scott Card and I've read most of his works that aren't barely disguised allegories for Mormon theology.

Oh yeah, Orson Scott Card is a member of the church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, a religion not known for its tolerance. And he was a board member of the National Organization for Marriage until very recently. And by marriage, that group means only heterosexual marriage.

For this and similar reasons, a group of LGBTQ geeks has organized a boycott of Ender's Game called Skip Ender's Game.

I agree with their sentiments, mostly. The New York Times has an editorial that explains it better than I probably will. Basically this is a bit different than the Chik-Fil-A boycott. Their profits were being directly funneled into anti-gay causes. And creators have throughout history had crazy opinions separate from their creations.

That said, it is possible I am making excuses because I really want to see this movie. I don't know. Perhaps the best reason to boycott it is the likelihood it will be a disappointment. I should keep Petra, Ender, Bean, and all my other battleschool friends the way they look in my head.

I could not watch it in theaters and grab the DVD from the library (the library will buy the number of copies it does based on other factors, not my borrowing habits) for free instead of giving it money directly at the theater or indirectly through Netflix.

And it wouldn't end my life to skip it entirely. I'm just not sure that it will make any difference. Do you know what makes a difference in these types of social issues? For every loud mouth bigot, that there are 10 or 100 people quietly living their lives. Because when you know a couple who has been together, committed and in love for years but able to have any legal protections, your mind starts to change. When you realize that it is fine for your church to not perform the marriage, but that has nothing to do with the state defined contract of marriage and those protections, your mind changes. (For example the Catholic church wouldn't marry my husband and I because neither of us are Catholic or willing to raise children Catholic, but they have no problem with the state of Alaska recognizing our marriage.) And when people in the public eye, quietly come out, newscasters and sports figures, actors, child stars, and singers, that is when mind changes. Honestly, I'm not sure Card has as much influence here.

Orson Scott Card has a vivid imagination. Too bad he doesn't stick to science fiction, but instead uses it to imagine that Obama is recruiting an army of urban gang members. Too bad he has some views that I hate. But does that invalidate all of his contributions in terms of artistic merit? As the Times article linked above is this a form of blacklisting because we don't like his politics? Didn't we (rightfully) hate on McCarthy for doing the same thing? Ender's Game has nothing to do with gay marriage, so why can't we enjoy it for what it is?

What is a socially conscious geek girl to do?

Saturday, August 03, 2013

Body-Positive Self-Esteem Storytime

This is a very quick blog post started by a conversation on Twitter. MagpieLibrarian (aka Ingrid) whom I've never met, but I saw once at ALA and was too shy to say hi, put up a very cool body-positive display in her tween/teen area. You can read all about it here. Also apparently, I am the only person who is hyphenating body positive so I'll stop that.

Then I mentioned that I used to do body positive/self-esteem storytimes as part of my regular rotation of storytimes. There's a million studies out there about negative self-esteem, especially in girls, and how young it starts. We've all seen the articles about the sexualization of Strawberry Shortcake and even My Little Pony. If the marketers are starting that early, anyone who wants to be on the other side of this fight should too. Lest the parents believe I'm pushing an agenda, I call it "I Like Me" storytime.

I first got the idea for this story from Nancy Carlson's classic book I Like Me where a vivacious pig lists all the things she likes about herself including her round little tummy. She lists all the great stuff she can do, including ride her bike fast, how she keeps trying after she makes a mistake, and the ways she takes care of herself. But my favorite page is where the pig in her pajamas (admittedly a retro baby doll pajama set but not at all a sexualized look) greets herself every morning with "Hi, good-looking!" It usually makes all the moms laugh, but that is in the tone of voice you read, I camp it up.

There are a whole host of great books available for preschoolers to do a storytime. Many of them are short enough that it is possible (I've done it) to use as a lapsit/toddler program. I'm publishing my list from the last time I did this storytime in 2011. And even then I remember not putting all the books in the packet. Clearly we read 3-4 books at storytime, but we made packets for the entire system that had more books so each librarian could choose their favorites.

While I try to keep up with children's literature, I've fallen a bit behind on picture books since I'm now a branch manager. Please comment on if you know any more.

Possible Picture Books to use:
Incredible Me by Kathi Appelt
I Like Myself! by Karen Beaumont
Nobody Laughs at a Lion by Paul Bright
I Like Me by Nancy Carlson
I'm Gonna Like Me by Jamie Lee Curtis
Alfred's Nose by Vivienne Flescher
Dog Eared by Amanda Harvey
Happy to Be Nappy by Bell Hooks
Leo the Late Bloomer by Robert Kraus
Good Thing You're Not an Octopus by Julie Markes
I'm A Pig by Sarah Weeks
Unlovable by Dan Yaccarino

Flannel board/told stories:
I like to do one flannel or magnet board story at each storytime. It's fun, breaks the rhythm, and helps kids who learn differently. The Ugly Duckling is a really good choice out there. If you're in one of those libraries that has a huge filing cabinet full of flannel boards (man I love those things), odds are better than even that you have one for The Ugly Duckling already.

If you don't, you can make one. I promise. I'm not that artistic (I'm crafty but I can't draw) and I've done it. Or you can cheat and do a magnet board. We had a two sided board with flannel on one side and magnetized white board on the other. Go to the craft store, buy the magnets that come in strips and are sticky on one side. Start googling around for duckling and baby swan (cygnet) templates. (I recommend adding the words "coloring page" to your search.) Print them out the appropriate size. Color in brightly with markers (pinch yourself because you're getting paid to color). Laminate them; if you don't have access to a laminating machine I don't know how you can call yourself a youth services librarian; I laminated everything in sight in my YS days. Attach magnets. Take dry erase markers and draw a lake and some weeds and a nest and some eggs. Voila! Storytelling stage set!

Any body song will work here as well any of those rhymes where you "clap your hands, stamp your feet, turn around, take a seat". I'll list a few to get you started.
Heads, Shoulders, Knees and Toes
The Hokey-Pokey (under no circumstances should you ever in your life turn down an opportunity to do the Hokey-Pokey).
Do Your Ears Hang Low?
If You're Happy and You Know It
Shake Your Sillies Out (Raffi)

Here's one of my favorite body movement rhymes (no tune). Make the actions match the words:

Hands on Shoulders
Hands on shoulders
Hands on knees
Hands behind you, if you please
Touch your elbows
Then your nose
Touch your hair
Now touch your toes.
Raise hands up high
Wave hello
Stretch your arms (arms to the side)
And watch you grow
Then bring hands down
Touch the floor
Now clap your hands,
And one song I wrote (use however you want, just give me, Elizabeth Moreau Nicolai, credit if print)
I Like Me
(to the tune of "Three Blind Mice")
I Like Me (point to self)
I Like Me
So Very Much (hug ones self)
So Very Much
I can jump up high and touch the sky (jump up with arms pointing up)
I can jump up high and touch the sky
I Like Me
I Like Me
Following verses, all the same except third stanza which you substitute for other actions. Here are two of my favorites.
I can run faster than a tiger (jog in place)
I can dance and do the twist (dance, twist)
Clearly you need to have outlines of body shapes (the generic could be a girl or boy one) and let the kids color themselves. For more fun, have random shapes of random colors of paper and they can glue them on for clothes. I used to save all my random scraps of paper for this and making monsters. Recycling! Go fancy with yarn to glue on for hair and googly eyes or eye stickers. Best storytime ever: a little girl glued on purple hair because someday she would have purple hair but mommy wouldn't let her now. I hope she got it.
There you go, a super fun, easy storytime to promote body positive thinking! Happy Reading!

Friday, August 02, 2013

Review - Life After Life

Sometimes I like to pair books with audiobooks the way other people pair wines with meals. I paired this with Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell (on audio) and it was a lovely matching. Reincarnation that isn't quite reincarnation in both cases. Beautiful combination.

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson. 529 pages. Published in April 2013 by Reagan Arthur Books.

Bottom Line: I can not say enough good things about this book. It's a wonderful character based relationship drama, beautifully written with a fascinating plot device. Will appeal to fans of Kate Morton. Good choice for book clubs. Recommended for all libraries.
In 1910 Ursula Todd is born and dies due to a cord wrapped around her neck. But then again on that same night she is born and this time the doctor makes it to her house and she lives. So it goes throughout her life, she dies and the next time manages to change events. Vague memories of previous lives haunt her with a constant since of deja vu. But with a life that spans two wars, a depression, and a flu epidemic can she use this to change more than just her own fate and that of the ones she loves?

This is a seriously fantastic concept. I've never seen reincarnation approached in quite this way before (the closest perhaps is The Butterfly Effect but this is much better done). The reliving of lives leaves Ursula able to make different choices as she grows older and as such affect not only if she lives, but those around her. Of course her constant since of deja vu leads to its own problems.

The language Atkinson uses is beautiful, it is as repetitive and circular as is Ursula's life resulting in a melancholy, ethereal quality. Such revisits and repeats of scenes as we relive Ursula's life could be tiresome and redundant, but they aren't. With each return to a scene it is framed slightly differently and we learn something new about the characters. It's brilliant.

The setting is ideal for such a plot device. A girl who watches her father fight in one world war, the entire world set back by a flu epidemic, and then her brothers and friends fight in another world war is uniquely poised to do something if she has a pre-knowledge of history. England of the countryside and London are starkly rendered. I felt as cold and bone-weary as Ursula did as she searched bombed buildings for survivors during the Blitz.

And let's talk about the ending. (No spoilers, promise!) When you have a main character who constantly gets to relive her own life, it would be possible to never end your story and almost impossible to really end it. While everyone of the 529 pages are worth it, I did wonder how she would end it. And how she did still leaves you with a lot of questions, but also a lot of satisfaction. I chose to believe that each time she restarted and changed something she created a new parallel universe, but I read too much scifi. And thus we ended in the universe that the author wanted us to live in.

Please note this book is not scifi by any stretch of the imagination. I'm sure it gets classified as "women's lit" but I hate that term. I'm going with literary fiction because of how wonderfully written and carefully constructed it is. Just go read it.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Review - The Light in the Ruins

Having read a plethora of books about the English, French, American, and German experience in WWII, it was a surprise to me to realize how little I knew about the Italian side of things. Enter The Light in the Ruins which is set alternatively at the end of the Italian fighting in 1943 and over a decate later in 1955 when the country is trying to rebuild.

The Light in the Ruins by Chris Bohjalian. Published July 2013 by Doubleday. 309 pages. I received an advanced ebook copy for the purposes of review.

Bottom Line: An enjoyable summer read that nicely blends elements of relationship based fiction, historical fiction, and murder mystery genres for a lot of cross appeal. Recommended to medium sized and above public libraries. Will appeal to fans of everything from Jodi Picoult to Iris Johansen

In 1955 Italy a serial killer is tracking down and murdering the members of the once noble Rosati family. As the investigation proceeds, the detective realizes it might have something to do with the final days of the German occupation of Italy and her own tortured past as a partisan Italian freedom fighter. Jumping between 1943 and post-war Italy, you learn the story of the Rosati and their villa on top of ancient ruins, Germans, Nazis, partisan rebels, and the impossible choices war forces upon us all.

What if you were 18 and there were no men your age around due to war? No parties? No socialization opportunities? Would you fall in love with a handsome German, even a Nazi soldier? What if you were 18 and you lost your entire family to the Nazis? Could you go back to your "normal" life or would you join us with the rebel factions fighting for freedom? What if that fight meant innocent people would die?

Different women, different choices. And at the heart of the wonderful novel is the choices we make when life is impossible. I found it to be an authentic and heartfelt novel.

The characters, especially that of Cristina Rosati and Serafina Bettini (the partisan/detective) were really well developed. (Insert obligatory note wherein I'm surprised at how well a male author writes female characters.) The supporting characters were also well flushed out. At times only hints of characters and stories were given, and the glimpse of a larger story added to the authenticity of the setting/characters--even if it somewhat frustrated me, but I'm a completionist.

The setting wasn't enough there for me. This book focused so much on character development that I felt the setting was somewhat lacking. There were wonderful descriptions of the villa in the 40s, the ruins, and the countryside, but not much of Italy in 1955. I had a lot of questions. How was the recovery going? Economics? Are there still bomb shattered buildings around or has it mostly been rebuilt? I got much less of a sense of Italy a decade past war and that is too bad because I would have been interested in it. There are a few hints about which tourists have the money to travel, some passing comments about what people were doing during the war and how that affects them now, but it was scarce compared to the war time descriptions. Probably the weakest part of the book.

And on the plot? The plot was page turning (to use a cliche). The back and forth between time frames, while often overused, worked to build suspense and gradually reveal the next necessary details. I'm more ambivalent about the two pages in between each chapter that were told in first person from the point of view of the serial killer. It didn't do much to reveal his identity or add to his character development once his identity was revealed. And it didn't add to the overall tension of the book. Those interludes were just there. Perhaps what the author was trying to do with them could have (or actually was) done by the rest of the text and that is why they felt superfluous.

In general, I enjoyed this book. Great choice for a summer read and it quite nicely bridges the line between historical fiction/women's literature and murder mystery. I didn't think of it as a murder mystery, but it would appeal to mystery fans.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Now I Need to Learn Romanian

Here's a little story that might amuse you on a Saturday.

Once upon a time, when I was a younger librarian, I noticed that Hilary Mantel had won the 2009 Man Booker Prize for Wolf Hall. A historical novel based on the life of Thomas Cromwell? Exactly up my alley, my very boring, geeky alley. I made a note to read it, but promptly forgot about it for the next shiny novel.

Then Hilary Mantel got into hot water for some comments she made about Kate Middleton. And I noted she had a new book, Bring Up the Bodies, a continuation of her series about Thomas Cromwell. (Honestly I had forgotten about the first book, but when I looked up the second it all came flooding back.)

The second book had also won the Man Booker Prize. At this point I double checked that the Man Booker prize was what I thought it was and they weren't just giving it out like candy. It is the prize for the best full length original novel in the English language by a citizen of the Commonwealth of Nations won it twice in the last five years. That's crazy.

Clearly I have to read those books. They're between 400 and 700 pages each. That's a lot of weight in a hardcover novel. And my days of lugging around huge hardcovers are over. So I logged online to check it out as an ebook or downloadable audio from the library's system.

No audio. Bummer, that's my preferred method for long books - it got me through Atlas Shrugged and Middlemarch. Hey we have the ebook! Click on it and in that split second before I check it out I notice I can't read the description.

Closer inspection, it's in Romanian. We only own the ebook of the best English language novel of 2009 in Romanian.

Quick google to make sure I haven't missed a large Romanian population lurking around Alaska. Nope.

Email the librarian in charge of buying ebooks (through Overdrive if you're curious about those things). It's only available for purchase in Romanian. Someone (not this librarian but we're not investigating too closely who since we are partners with about 20 other libraries in our ebook system) didn't look too closely and bought the only listing of the ebook without noticing it was in Romanian.

One more quick search. It's published by Macmillan which doesn't allow its ebooks to be bought by libraries. (That's an entire other discussion.) But they have started a new project allowing ebooks to go to libraries through Overdrive (and other vendors). So far it is mostly crime novels, but I am holding out hope. I can wait until they decide to offer it, even though that might be a few years.

Or should I get over my lazy self and just carry around the huge hardbacks? Or get over my cheap self and buy either the paperbacks or ebooks? (For a librarian, I don't own a ton of books. That's what I use the library for.)

Moral of the story: check the language before you buy ebooks.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Review - The Testing

It will come as no great surprise that post-Hunger Games success there are a flood of teen lit books set in a dystopian future. Some will be good on their own and others will not. I was initially skeptical that this book would be too similar, but I found it enjoyable.

The Testing by Joelle Charbonneau. 336 pages. Published in June 2013 by Houghton Mifflin. (An advanced copy used for this review)

Bottom Line:
Not great lit, not as good as The Hunger Games, but it will work for the kids who've already read that (and Divergent). Above average teen dystopian novel and a good choice for a summer read. Less likely to have cross over appeal to adults. Recommend that most medium or larger public libraries pick this up.

Living in a colony trying to reclaim the ground that has been destroyed by years of chemical warfare, Cia wants nothing more than to be chosen for "the testing" and earn the chance to compete for a spot in University. When she is chosen, she doesn't understand why her father and the other University grads are not happy for her. But Cia has underestimated the horrors of what she will face at the Testing. And then there is Tomas, a classmate for years, who seems to want more. But is romance the right decision when they are fighting for their lives? Can she trust anyone or anything?

A group of teens from a variety of different settlements thrown by their merciless government (post major disaster world) into a series of challenges and battles for their lives. Yeah that seems familiar. The difference between this and The Hunger Games is that the teens don't know (at first) how high the stakes are. Part of the suspense is watching the teens realize exactly how bad their situation is. Also the teens aren't being required to kill each other. It's different enough to be worth a read.

This is the first of a trilogy (isn't everything a trilogy now?) and I probably will read the second book. But I don't feel the HAVETOREADNOW that I have with other series. So by reading this first book, you are not necessarily committing yourself to a three book series. It really would work as a standalone story.

The characters themselves are well developed and distinct. Some behave precisely as you expect (including inevitable betrayals) while others are a complete surprise. I wish we had a bit longer with Cia and her family in the beginning so we were more invested in her emotionally (and the steps she takes to protect them).

The plot is fast moving enough that even when they were taking written tests, I was engrossed. There's enough mystery to keep you guessing (and will probably get me to read the second book). Much as Cia does not know what is coming, neither do you. The first written tests seem normal enough, and the setting up of a lab for some experiments not unexpected, but gradually each challenge becomes a little more surreal and the reader finds themselves as scared and bewildered as the students trying to survive. It is as we slip farther into the madness of testing that the book really begins to shine.

The setting was my favorite part of the novel. I'm a sucker for post-apocalyptic worlds. Judging by geographic clues this world's capital was in or near Kansas City so it gets some hometown love for me. What I really loved were the descriptions of the settlers trying to reclaim the land from the effects of chemical warfare and the mutilation of plants, animals, and ground water. I'm hoping we see more of that in future books.

There's not a lot more to say on this book. It is exactly what it purports to be, a pretty good teen dystopian novel. Solid on plot, concept, characters, setting. While it is not extraordinary, it is unusual to find a book that hits so solidly across the board. It will definitely find its fans.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Urban Fiction (Street Lit) Thoughts and a Review

Recently I used a portion of some grant funds to increase the size of our urban fiction collection. It circulates well here and we get a lot of requests for it. There are some core lists and resources for ordering urban/street lit, but not a lot. And those that do exist are often out of date. I relied heavily on Amazon best seller lists (and the "customer who bought this item also bought") feature.

This week as I pulled books that were no longer new from the new books into the general collection, I decided to read an urban lit book. The last one I read was The Coldest Winter Ever by Sister Souljah. That bestselling book is one of the best known of the genre. I suppose it would be like someone reading Outlander by Diana Gabaldon and declaring themselves done with romance novels. In other words, as an urban librarian, it was time for me to revisit the genre.

Let's talk about urban lit or street lit. Both terms are used frequently. I prefer the term street lit, but always seem to find myself typing urban lit. There are many ways to be urban and the lifestyle reflected in this books is only one choice, hence I prefer street lit. Some of my patrons ask for the "black books" and they don't mean Alice Walker and Toni Morrison. That bugs me and I'd rather not think too hard about it. So Street Lit it is!

For me there are several barriers to street lit. I'm not the intended audience and I know that. However exaggerated and extreme the storylines are, there is some basis in truth and that truth makes me uncomfortable. I have worked with urban and economically disadvantaged populations for over a decade. I comprehend the challenges they face, but I don't understand. Though I read all the articles, all the studies, talk to people, work with families, and even do home visits, I still go home to a nice place to live and a pantry full of food. I don't go home to a government subsidized apartment wondering how to make food stamps stretch through the end of the month while I divert my minimum wage paycheck to gas to get to that job. Comprehending is not knowing and I've never lived that life.

Reading urban lit is an uncomfortable experience as I am forced to confront the privilege afforded to me by my skin color, my education, my socioeconomic class, and my family. I am blessed to have a safety net a mile wide. If I lost my job, my savings, etc., I would not be forced, as the main character in this novel, to prostitute myself or sleep in my car. It's hard for me to evaluate a character's choices (and isn't that why we read literature to evaluate their choices and think what we would do) when her set of circumstances are so widely different than my own. My current book filled with upper and middle class characters making hard choices in Italy during WWII is some how more relatable than that of a lower income urban character in my own country and time. There is something wrong with that or perhaps something wrong with me. As I said, I've worked within those communities, but I've never lived within them. This is why the Vista program (the branch of Americorps that fights poverty) pays their volunteers at the poverty line so they can begin to understand the people they are trying to help.

And of course the most common criticism of street lit is the glorification of guns, drugs, and gang life. That's there. Absolutely. And I haven't read all of street lit, two books is hardly a statistically valid sampling, but the two I have read have had definite moral warnings against all of the vices they spent the first 2/3rds of their books glorifying. A bit of a mixed message or a very classic morality story (I did these things, they were fun, but then I paid for it).

Enough general blathering and on to the review.

Shattered by Kia DuPree. Published in 2012 by Grand Central Publishing. 384 pages.

Bottom Line: Recommended for a library with a street lit collection. Strong female protagonist and likely to appeal to women readers. Definitely will appeal to fans of Sister Souljah. (I don't know enough of this genre to know more of the cross appeal.)

When Kiki's partially deaf mother loses custody of her children, and Kiki enters the foster care system her life begins to crumble. She runs away from the foster home and into the arms of a pedophile, abuse, and prostitution. Even as an adult reunited with her family, those patterns continue for her and her family. As she struggles against a life of pimps, boyfriends, drugs, gangs, and violence, she makes hard choices about her future.

Most obvious thing about this book: it is written in vernacular. To me the grammar feels wrong and it is grating. It is an intentional choice. To the credit of the author, the character and plot was enough to keep me engaged through the first twenty pages. After that the speech patterns and grammatical choices felt natural and organic to those characters and that setting. As such they faded into the background and allowed me to enjoy the book. This is a great triumph for the author since the first 20 pages I was itching to grab a red pen.

Please note I don't have perfect grammar either. So I definitely should not be judging harshly. It is just that this dialect of English is different similar enough to my own that instead of seeing it as a different dialect, I see it as a series of mistakes. That the author brought me past that surprised no one more than me.

Beyond all the general issues mentioned above, my biggest problem with this book is that it is "abuse titillation". "Abuse titillation" is the term I use to refer to the joy we all take in reading of gross misfortune endured by others. This primarily seems to be a female trait. Elementary school girls read about the Holocaust, middle school girls read A Child Called It, high school girls read V.C. Andrews, and adult women read true crime. Even Law & Order had a SVU spinoff just for their "special victims unit", capitalizing on this country's fascination with crimes committed against our most vulnerable.

For me one of the hallmarks of this abuse genre is lingering descriptions of the abuse. Shattered includes rape, pedophilia, prostitution, and consensual sexual acts. All of them are described in blunt, crude terms. However the abusive acts are described in noticeably greater detail than any of the consensual (and supposedly pleasurable) sexual acts. That speaks volumes about which parts the author expects the reader to find interesting.

The last problem I want to discuss with this book is faux feminism. (Warning this paragraph and the next contain a lot of spoilers.) In theory Kiki transitions from weak scared little girl to strong woman capable of handling herself. She almost does. In the pivotal scene where the bad guy is struggling to kill her, her fingers touch the gun (almost) and just as she is about to turn and defend herself, her boyfriend kills him. As she is shaking and crying in the aftermath, she has her great emotional reveal. In one paragraph she tells him and the reader (TELLS NOT SHOWS, one of my pet peeves) just exactly how she has emotionally grown. Her boyfriend's response? He tells her she is really a "grown up girl" now. I almost threw up when I read that. It completely cheapens any emotional growth she had and minimizes her as a character/person. (Also that paragraph of emotional reveal denies the reader any joy of discovery and instead hands them a conclusion on a silver platter. I prefer a more subtle handling of catharsis wherein the reader has to do some of the work and thus shares in the emotional journey instead of being a voyeur watching a completed tableaux.)

At the conclusion, Kiki has her grand moment wherein she tells her story to a group of at risk teen girls at a charity fundraiser. It's always a nice trope for our heroine at the advanced old age of 21 to be a role model to younger teens. However I still can not find any evidence of where she is extremely admirable and strong. There's a great moment at the airport where she breaks away from her captor and that's it. She was strong to survive, and I'm not downplaying that, but only one moment of self-rescue. Even her new suburban life is courtesy of her boyfriend not due to any education or job prospects of her own. She pulls herself out of trouble but can't rise above her circumstances. I felt a little bit that without her boyfriend she would be back to part time shampoo girl and part time call girl. And that hurts the feminist in me, especially because it is subtle enough to be missed in what is trying desperately to be a strong woman story.

That's a lot of overthinking for a book review. If you want to have a street lit collection, this would be a good choice. Overall it looks better than Welfare Wifeys, but I haven't read that tome so I can not really say. It has circulated well at my library.

Friday, July 05, 2013

A Note and a Review - The Runaway King

A lot has happened and I took a blog break. I got married! I am now Elizabeth Moreau Nicolai and am working on getting the blog transferred to my new email. After the wedding, my new husband had knee surgery (I know I got a broken model, but I don't think I can take him back). And then I went to ALA Annual. So while, I'm reading, I'm not doing a great job on reviewing. Nor am I blogging particularly about the many other library issues bubbling in my head. In July I shall settle into a more normal schedule.

To tide you over (anyone who is especially fond of my reviews), I am still posting audiobook reviews over at Goodreads. Also I put a brief review of Let's Explore Diabetes with Owls, the latest offering from David Sedaris up there as well because I didn't have much to say. If you enjoy Sedaris, you'll enjoy this one. If you don't know Sedaris, start with another one of his works. Same for The Prisoner of Heaven by Carlos Ruiz Zafon.

And now let's talk about The Runaway King by Jennifer Nielsen. Only a few of the books from last year's Newbery readings inspired me to want to read their sequels and this is one of them. I greatly enjoyed The False Prince, perhaps it was slightly overrated by most reviewers, but it was still a fun romp.

Note if you have not read the first book DO NOT read this review. Spoilers for the first book are included.

The Runaway King by Jennifer Nielsen. Published in March 2013 by Scholastic. 331 pages.

Bottom Line: Enjoyable, but not as good as the first. Should be in the collections of all libraries that bought the first (which is to say most if not all medium-small and larger public libraries).

Jaron (formerly Sage) has ascended his throne and is almost immediately facing assassination attempts, advisers and a council who want to strip him of all power, and a populace who can't yet trust him. Being Jaron he deals with this in the most reckless way possible, running after the pirates and presumed assassins and away from the political infighting in the palace. There he risks life and limb to learn about friendship, kingship, the cost of power, and a few harsh truths about his family, himself, and his so called friends.

It's a fun book. However, while reading this one, I was struggling to remember who all the characters were. (That alone says something about the first one.) The characters did not have very extensive introductions so you are out of luck if you can't recall them. I did buy that Jaron would take off after the pirates; it is completely in keeping with the character developed over both books and easily the most believable part of this book.

And overall, I just didn't like this one as much. It's hard to pinpoint exactly why. Surely my fuzzy memories of characters didn't help, and the feeling that this book was just more of the same as the last one wearied me. The last one felt fresh and original. I know it isn't easy to keep that going in a sequel with the same characters in the same world, but some spark was lacking.

Yet I did enjoy the book. And my complaints are coming from a jaded old lady (to the tweens I serve I'm an old lady though at 31 I'm hardly eligible for retirement) place. The tweens who enjoyed the first one will love this. Despite being on a similar reading level to Percy Jackson it reads as slightly more mature and is a great transition choice for those going from juvenile literature who are not quite ready for the scary world of YA.

Saturday, June 01, 2013

Review - Royal Mistress

I suppose it is about time that I posted a negative review if only to prove that I am a real person and not a publishing company puppet. I received an advanced copy of this book, out now in paperback.

The Royal Mistress by Anne Easter Smith. 400 pages. Published by Touchstone in May 2013.

Thing is, I really wanted to like this book. It has a lot of elements of books I enjoy: English royalty, fascinating historical period, lots of descriptions of clothing, outsider perspective (you don't get much more outsider than a commoner mistress), but it never really coalesced for me.

Jane Shore is the "favorite mistress" of King Edward IV, he of the Wars of the Roses. She rose from being a commoner, daughter of a merchant (portrayed here as running a fabric shop) as she gained the attention and affection of a string of very important, very noble and sometimes royal men. It's a great historical story, portrayed often because of the scandal and romance.

I expected to really enjoy this book, at the least to find it a light and fun summer read (ala Philippa Gregory), but the writing was still and awkward. I'd find myself drawn out of the story by the choppy sentences, awkward dialog, and overly stilted narration.

Perhaps a greater crime was that ancient trespass of "telling not showing". Over and over again we are told a characters motivation, back story, experiences, etc., but only rarely are we shown those elements and allowed to draw our own conclusions.

For example, early on in the story, Jane Shore is being berated/punished by her father and wonders at her mother not intervening for her. As she storms off there is a throwaway line to the effect of Jane not having seen the myriad ways in which her mother has been beaten down so far that she will not help her children. That's a good backstory and motivation; it's an important part of her family dynamic and the main character's personality. And it could have been handled better/more subtly/more fully then one throwaway line that gives an easy answer with no work for the reader to do.
Between the writing and the showing not telling I just kept wondering away from this book. After 5 weeks, I am going to admit, that I am not going to finish this book. I made it halfway through and have no desire to finish it.

This might just be me. Since I didn't finish the book, you are free to take my entire review with a grain of salt. The reviews so far on Goodreads are positive, but Amazon has more mixed reviews. Libraries with large paperback collections and/or previous books by this author should probably pick this book up, but I will pass on recommending it to my friends and patrons.

Friday, May 31, 2013

Review - The Yonahlossee Riding Camp For Girls

I received an advanced copy of this book from the Penguin Debut Authors program. This book has a lot of positive buzz, all completely justified. Kirkus (which I've always found to be the most critical and therefore most trustworthy review journal) gave it a starred review.

The Yonahlossee Riding Camp For Girls by Anton diSclafani. 400 pages, publication will be on June 4 by Riverhead Hardcover (a division of Penguin).

Bottom Line: Highly recommended. Should be picked up by all public libraries. Would be a good choice for book clubs. Reminds me a bit of The Secret Life of Bees. (Strong, female relationship centered Southern character driven drama.)

It might be the depression (1930), but wealthy 15 year-old Thea Atwell has been sheltered from that and many harsher other aspects of life in her extremely insular family. However after a family tragedy which Thea can't bear to think about or acknowledge her role in, she has been cast away from her parents and twin brother for the first time in her life.

Specifically they send her to an exclusive girls summer camp/finishing school in the Appalachian mountains. There, for the first time, she must learn to create friendships with those outside her family, and navigate the tricky waters of teenage girl social interactions. All while she denies and then comes to terms with her family situation.

Books like this are a very special type of crack to me. If you love books with A THING, a big unrevealed secret or past event that is hinted at and gradually revealed, you'll like this. The secret is not what I expected and reveals a great deal about the era, her family, and provides an interesting mirror into our own world. In other words, it is the best example of this type of book.
I was worried about this one because I don't like horses and much of this book is centered on the narrator's love of riding and horses. (I think I missed that part of the girl gene that likes horse books.)  However while the horses and riding were expertly used to help portray character growth and as a window into the souls of the girls at school, it was never beat over our heads.

Characters and their growth are at the heart of this novel. For a large cast (and in a girls school none the less), I never got confused as to which girl was which. And more impressively, I never felt like any of the characters was a stock character/stereotype.

Setting and historical element was well developed. The effects of the depression, even upon the wealthy characters at the heart of the novel. It was subtly but wonderfully done to place and then hint at the irony of an enclave of wealth and exclusivity in the heart of crushingly poor Appalachia. A couple of times the author seems a bit prescient in her awareness of the lack of equality and education for women, but those rare and fleeting moments of high handedness are among the few blemishes of this otherwise extraordinary work of fiction.

Overall, I am highly recommending this book. I already passed my copy onto a friend and plan to continue to spread the word about it.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Review - The World's Strongest Librarian

I (and almost everyone there) grabbed this advanced copy at ALA Midwinter because we're all librarians and suckers for books about our kind. However I think there is plenty here to charm the non-librarian as well.

The World's Strongest Librarian by Josh Hanagrne. Published May 2013 by Gotham Books. 288 pages.

Bottom Line: Highly recommended for all libraries to own (duh) and for readers of memoir and inspirational stories and humor.

Josh Hanagarne is a librarian. He's also 6'7", weight trains, and has spent a lifetime coping with Tourette's. And for what it is worth, he was raised as a Mormon. He blogs at

There is a lot here, a lot of really great stuff. We meet Josh's family, get an introduction to Mormonism, watch as his Tourette's becomes more pronounced, and see him find his way through the world.

I love memoir, especially the non-celebrity kind, but a lot of it seems to dwell in the world of the sensational or horrific, exploiting the love of humans to stare at a train wreck. (Think about The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls or Running With Scissors by Augusten Burroughs.) Those books are great and have a wonderful place on our shelves, but a book like this stands as a welcome contrast.

Even at the lowest point of this story, when the Tourette's so overcomes him that he can't go to school or hold down a job and wallows in depression, you as a reader never lose hope. And at the end, hope is the message of this story. Hope is in his family, in his attempts to use weight lifting to combat Tourette's and reclaim his life, and in his work as a librarian.

This memoir is also frank and honest, refreshingly so. Josh (I feel like since we're colleagues I can call him by his first name) discusses his faith and his doubts, his failures and successes equally without self-pity or self-aggrandizement. 

And sprinkled throughout the book are what I call "crazy patrons" stories that will be familiar to any one who has ever worked in a public library. Those stories and Josh's own perspective are humorous, enough so to laugh out loud at times, and to draw in the reader so that we feel as though we are chatting with Josh over a cup of coffee.

This book is funny, heartwarming, inspiring, and such a unique perspective on the world, that I will be recommending it to several people individually.

I don't often quote from books, but this passage so summed up librarianship for me that I thought I would share it:
Those four million circulations represent people taking action. Four million times that someone got something from the library. Even if the circulation simply means that someone requested something on her computer, came in and picked it up, then left right away, she still came. She still used the service. She still took a chance on getting distracted by something else in the building.

The four million small acts lead to members of the community gathering in the same place. People who might never lay eyes on one another elsewhere. In this digital era when human contact sometimes feels quaint to me, this is significant. If libraries themselves become quaint because they house physical objects and require personal interaction at times, so be it. For that reason, I believe physical libraries always need to exist in some form.