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.