Saturday, April 28, 2012

Still here...

You may have noticed that I've fallen behind in updating my blog. I just posted three back reviews! Things have calmed down a bit, and should get better once I'm finished teaching mid-May. I'm still here, still reviewing. If you'd like me to review your book, either for the News-Gazette or on my blog (I do cross-post to GoodReads and LibraryThing), please shoot me an email. I can't promise a review, but if I like it, I'll do my best!


Let me make one thing perfectly clear: "Rotters," by Daniel Kraus (Delacorte Press, 2011) is not for every YA reader. Well, what book is? But this novel is filled with enough bloated corpses, squirming maggots, predatory rats, severed appendages, and noxious odors to choke even the most jaded fan of the horror genre. You get my drift.

Okay, are you still with me? Good, because you're in for quite a ride.

Sixteen year-old Joey Crouch is a straight-A student living with his single mother in Chicago. He plays the trumpet, has one good friend, and pretty well succeeds at staying under the radar of high school bullies looking for a soft target. That all changes when his mother dies in a tragic accident--a death chillingly foretold in the book's prologue.

He is sent to a small town in Iowa to live with Ken Harnett, the father he never met. Harnett is a surly brute of a man with a rancid stench so bad that the locals have dubbed him The Garbage Man. He is also rumored to be a thief.

The new kid at school soon finds himself burdened not only with his father's noxious odor but his reputation as well. Mercilessly bullied by students and one sadistic teacher in particular, Joey has no choice but to embrace his father--and his father's grisly trade. Harnett is no garbage man, but he is a thief. A grave robber, to be exact.

With that, Joey enters a brotherhood of loosely organized, solitary men who view their calling as noble, in the tradition of the resurrection men--19th century grave robbers hired to steal bodies for use in medical school dissections. It's a shocking premise, but in its heart this book is about the bond between a father and his son, taboos, and most of all, mortality. Perhaps no one but Kraus could bring such lyrical beauty to descriptions of death and decay.

I'd been wanting to read and review this book for a while; I've long been a fan of the macabre, from Edgar Allen Poe to Stephen King. Kraus is a Chicago author, and "Rotters" had generated a good amount of buzz. When I read that the Audio Publishing Association had awarded "Rotters" (Listening Library and Random House Audio) the 2012 Odyssey Award for the producer of the best audiobook for children and YA, I knew I had to give it a listen. I listen to a lot of audio books, and in my experience the reader can make or break a book. This book's reader, Kirby Heyborne, really delivers, giving each character an individual voice and real emotional depth.

If you have a strong stomach and have a taste for books that are dark, creepy, and shocking, you should give a "Rotters" a read--or a listen.  

This review was originally published in the April 15, 2012 edition of The News-Gazette.

New heron chicks at the Cornell Ornithology Lab!

MorningTwoChicksAndMale by chickadee
MorningTwoChicksAndMale, a photo by chickadee on Flickr.
I've been obsessed with the Great Blue Heron nest cam:

Books for March Madness

Are you in the grips of March Madness? Can’t get enough of basketball? Let me suggest some great books to read in between games. “Pick-up Game: A Full Day of Full Court” (Candlewick Press, 2011) is a collection of interlinked short stories and poems written by an all-star team of nine YA authors, including Walter Dean Meyers, Adam Rapp, Robert Lipsyte, and Rita Williams-Garcia. Together, they tell the story of what happens single steamy July day at the The Cage, New York City’s premier amateur basketball court. (Although the stories are fictional, The Cage is a real court, a place legendary for its fast action and tough, physical play; it has been the proving ground of a fair number of players who would go on to become pros.)
            Novels written by a collection of authors are often a mess, but this one really works. Each story picks up where the last one left off, with sifting perspectives and characters that weave in and out of the narratives. Walter Dean Meyers opens the book with Boo, who struggles to guard a weird new guy with dead eyes and freakishly pale skin. Cochise is a Mohawk Indian whose father helped build the World Trade Center; his lungs are shot because the toxic air he breathed while cleaning up in the days following 9/11. Other especially memorable characters include an Iraq War vet who finds peace on the court, a hotshot hoping to attract the attention of the scouts, and a scrappy girl named Dominique who refuses to let the big boys get the best of her. Combining gritty street ball action with terrific characters, this book is a slam-dunk.
             Basketball fans might also like “Boy21,” (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 2012), by Matthew Quick, a story of basketball, friendship, and redemption. Paul Volponi, the author of “Hurricane Song: A Novel of New Orleans,” is back on the court with “The Final Four” (Viking Juvenile, 2012), a book built around a semifinal game in the NCAA tournament.
            If you’d like to learn more about The Cage, check out “Inside the Cage: A Season at West 4th Street’s Legendary Tournament,” (Simon Spotlight Entertainment, 2005), by Wight Martindale Jr. You may also want to check some classic nonfiction titles about the game of street ball, including “The Last Shot: City Streets, Basketball Dreams (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2004), by Darcy Frey; and “Heaven is a Playground,” (Bison Books, 2004), by Rick Telander.

This review was originally published in the Sunday, March 25 edition of The News-Gazette.

Chopsticks: a story of love, mystery, and madness

“Chopsticks” (Penguin/Razorbill, 2012), a multi-media collaboration between author Jessica Anthony and book designer Rodrigo Corral, is a haunting story of love, mystery, and madness.  Told almost entirely through images and links to YouTube videos and online music, the book opens with a breaking news story: world famous piano prodigy Glory Fleming has gone missing from the Golden Hands Rest facility, an institution for musical geniuses. The rest of the book is a flashback that tells the story of the events leading up to her disappearance.
            After Glory’s mother died, she and her father have buried their grief into developing her career as a world-class pianist. Through photographs of playbills and newspaper clippings, we learn that Glory is famous for virtuosic performances of classical music peppered with references to contemporary rock bands. She falls in love with Frank Mendoza, the boy who moves in next door. Photos, instant messages, postcards, letters, mix CDs, and YouTube videos (the reader is provided with links to online media) tell the story of their growing love.
            When Glory’s father books her for an extended European tour—partly to further her career, but mostly to separate her from Frank—she really begins to fall apart. She begins to lapse into the Chopsticks Waltz at her concerts; soon, that is all she can play. As she descends into further into madness, the line between reality and imagination becomes blurred.
            It is possible to read “Chopsticks” very quickly. There are, after all, very few words. To truly understand the story, however, the reader should take the time to linger over the carefully crafted images, listen to the music and watch the videos. All of these elements carry considerable narrative weight.
            “Chopsticks” is also available as an iPad or iPhone app.  If they are available, I definitely recommend the digital version of “Chopsticks.” The images are gorgeous and sharp, and the reader can access the app’s interactive components by clicking on subtle animated musical notes. The interactive features add little additional content, although clicking on the image of a tape recorder opens an audio file of Glory’s mother singing to her as a baby—a poignant touch. The most important feature of the app is that the reader can simply click on a link to access the online media; there’s no need to laboriously type in the URL. And readers can choose to shuffle the pages—something that can open up new interpretations of the mystery of Glory’s disappearance.

This review was originally published in the Sunday, March 4, 2012 edition of the News-Gazette.