Sunday, October 18, 2009

Peeps, by Scott Westerfeld: Candy coated...vampires?

Dear Imaginary Readers,
Tomorrow I get to meet Scott Westerfeld. He is coming to my work. Yes, this is true. I am one lucky librarian! Badass that I am, I will be skipping out on my class early to do so (even grown ups like to play hooky!). Mwahahaha. In gleeful anticipation, please read my review of one of my favorite Westerfelds. And miscellaneous thoughts on the horror that is his 2nd edition paperback cove
Be jealous.

Peeps. Westerfeld, Scott (2005).
NY: Razorbill. ISBN: 1-59514-031-X

Oh sexy books, how I love thee. Peeps is a medical horror thiller. Subjective? Yes, definitely. But also, Peeps is totally and completely about sex, sex, and more sex. It is on our protagonists mind, as hard as he tries to ignore it, which means it permeates the entire book, sexily seeping out of the pages and into our minds, infecting us parasitically with dirty sex thoughts. However, while Peeps begins by playing into the YA cliché of sex as a honey-pot, bound to doubly screw you, Westerfeld deftly turns this cliché on its ear by the end of the story. Double props go to him for taking another overplayed YA staple, the vampire, and managing to give readers something new to chew on (teeheehee, read on). The story is gripping, a mysterious thriller from start to finish, interspersing the chapters of the story with chapters of true gross-out medical facts about different types of parasites. Kudos to whomever insisted upon including an appendix with a list of the top 10 ways to avoid getting a parasite. The hipness of the city of NY and all its gritty underground glory radiates and helps keep this story modern; it is not a story that would work in any other setting.

Peeps begins with our young studly hero, Cal, in pursuit of an ex-girlfriend he unintentionally infected with a deadly STD. However, this STD isn't deadly for her, it's deadly for everyone around her, as this STD is a parasite that turns its host into a crazed "vampire." Those who are parasite positive are known of as Peeps for short, and have an aversion to sunlight and a crazed desire to consume human flesh. Yum. Cal, it turns out, is a carrier Peep, meaning he's somehow resistant, but carries the parasite, making him quicker, hungrier, and way hornier than your average 18 year old dude. After moving from Texas to NYC for college, Cal managed to get crazy drunk and loose his virginity in a one-night stand to a strange girl he met in a bar (herein lies the cliché). Now that he's a Peep, he can never have sex again, or even kiss a girl, since the slightest swap of body fluid can infect someone with the rascally parasite. Cal has been recruited to join the Night Watch, an underground organization that tracks and contains outbreaks. In Cal's hunt to find the girl who infected him, he unintentionally creates some challenges for his enforced celibacy when he meets Lacy, a true to form very curious and cute journalism student. He reveals his secret identity to her, and the story here morphs into a mystery when crazy stuff starts to happen, including the discovery of Morgan, the girl who infected him. Turns out that bumping uglies and swapping spit aren't the only way for the parasite to be transferred, and that Peeps might not be so out of control after-all.

As a side note, I was super disappointed with the end of the story. It was all excitement, all tension, all gross-out medical stories to weather, all buildup…and then nothing but a sort of happy ending, marred by the lack of any other conclusions to late plot relevations. If I may use a secondary character reference from Judy Blume's Forever, the ending was a bit of a Ralph, if you catch my drift. I felt short changed and pissed. And then I found out there is a sequel, The Last Days. And now I feel much better about Peeps. The end. (Except now, months after I originally wrote this review, I have taken the liberty of reading The Last Days. And it is no Peeps.)

Best for: High school aged YA's. I'd say boys and girls, but the sort of sparkly, sexy, mascara
heavy cover art on my copy totally precludes your average teenage boy picking this up on a lark, and is even more targeted in the lipstick heavy paperback version…why must you always market to girls, publishers of America? Woe to you, losing readers on this one.

This brings me to the following point. Someday, I will write a long an lengthy rant about how publishers occasionally ruin a perfectly delightful cover in the hopes of selling more books to teenage girls, who they presume are daft magpies. But I'll save it for another day. Behold the cover directly to your right-o'clock. Now, I have never been nor will I ever have the displeasure of being a teenage boy. But I can pretty safely say that walking around with a book covered in hot pink print, hot chicks, and male models is something no average teen boy will willingly do before pigs have the opportunity to evolve and grow those wings they've always been meaing to do.

PUBLISHER, I believe I make my point when I say this is a book that a lot of teen boys would actually identify with given the opportunity to not look like a tool carrying it around! Cal has rampant hormones and sexy urges! Many teen boys have rampant hormones and sexy urges! There are lots of gross true medical facts! Teen boys love a gross true medical fact...? Cal is always ravenously hungry! Teen boys are often ravenously hungry! Cal has serious relationship problems! Teen boys have serious relationship problems! And did I mention that this entire book is about sex? SEX. Epic fail, target marketer. Way to aim for a specific audience and miss a whole other one. Now that I've wound myself back down, I just stumbled upon a new edition paperback cover. I think it moves leaps and bounds in a less alienating and way grittier direction, so I choose to overlook what I think are the rose petals...yay for acknowledging that this isn't a shiny happy pod people book!

Book talk hook: Turn the idea of vampires on its head, luring eager young readers in. Describe the symptoms of peeps, maybe using some of Cal's own descriptions and play on the whole "Cal can never kiss anyone again. EVER."

Saturday, October 17, 2009

The Good Thief, by Hannah Tinti: AKA if Charles Dickens and Tim Burton were to breed.

The Good Thief. Hannah Tinti (2009).
NY: The Dial Press. ISBN: 0385337450

If Charles Dickens and Tim Burton could travel through time and space defying laws of physics, logic, even reproductive biology, I’m fairly certain that Hannah Tinti’s The Good Thief would be the resulting lovechild. Filled with rich and colorful down-on-their-luck Dickensonian characters (Mrs. Figg, anyone?) and much of the dark, grimy, grotesque flavor that characterizes Burton’s works, this book has the legs to stand on its own as a beautiful piece of historical fiction. Or at least I think it is historical fiction, as I never seemed to be able to figure out where or when it was taking place. We’ll call it Ficstorical Fiction. I’m pretty sure it might be Colonial America…but Tinti doesn’t need to specify for us to get that it’s a back in the day buffet. It would be wise (and I’ll sound smart/actually use my university degree – thanks Prof. Thompson! – for a hot minute) to identify our protagonist and this novel for exactly who he/what this is: a picaresque novel of the nth degree - in which you never are really quite sure that things will end well for our big-hearted, down-on-his-luck and scraping by on the skin of his teeth protagonist. Irregardless (making it happen, Websters), Tinti is a masterful and beautiful writer, creating a three dimensional world and characters who can command her readers to shiver, shudder, sigh…dance fools, dance!

A one-handed boy baby is abandoned at monastery orphanage. Said one-handed baby boy grows into 12 year old one handed boy – Ren. Ren has no memories of life before the monastery and only a scrap of shirt left with the letters R E and N embroidered on it, hence his quirky name. Ren doesn’t want to be sold to the army and also is an unusually good pick-pocket/thief, despite having only one hand to pillage and plunder with. Not so surprisingly in our ficstorical “two-hands-are-better-than-one” pastoral world, nobody has jumped to adopt him. That is, until one day, a man named Benjamin Nabb appears out of the blue claiming to be Ren’s long lost and charming brother, armed with a cockamamie story Ren doesn’t quite buy but goes along with to the get. the. heck. out. Turns out Benjamin isn’t, in fact, Ren’s brother. He is a smooth criminal who, along with his alcoholic buddy Tom, steal to survive, and have recently clued into a new, lucrative adventure: body snatching. As one can imagine, this leads to a world of shenanigans and trouble, where things are not what they appear to be, where Ren is still hoping to find out who his parents were, and in which everyone’s secrets will be slowly unraveled layer by layer before their very own eyes (and ours), until the very last period on the final page.

Best for: Older readers 16+ This is a work filled with richly hewn, and vibrant but gritty characters. Moreover, while the story is seemingly simple it is actual complex in that it reads as mystery, with clues left strewn throughout for savvy readers (ie. mature) to identify. Because I feel the grittiness of the characters and the dark undertones will alienate younger readers, and because of the cumulative memory required on the part of readers, I feel this book is best suited towards older readers. Younger readers can totally read it – there’s really nothing to quibble about aside from a few murders and body snatching incidents. It may just be a book they read very differently than they will with a few more years under their belt.

Book Talk Hook: Read aloud from the grave-robbing scene in which a character is not quite dead yet. Scary! Supsense!

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Allison, by Allen Say: I like picture books too, mmkay?

Allison. Allen Say (1997).

Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co. ISBN: 978-0618495375

Allen Say does not stray far from his usual topic of Asian-American identities in Allison. This work, like so many of his other books like Grandfather’s Journey or Tea with Milk, is gorgeously rendered with almost creamy life-like watercolors. Each page feels almost like a snapshot of Allison’s life as she realizes out of the blue that she looks more like her doll Mei-Mei than her adoptive parents. Older readers (gr. 1-3) are better equipped to understand Allison’s reaction as she lashes out at her parents while struggling to accept that she is not their biological child. The snapshot quality of the images leads the book to feel almost like a family photo album, which helps to stress the themes of family, identity, and acceptance. Allison’s emotional journey is book ended by the appearance of a stray cat outside her window, a surrogate stand-in for herself who helps her understand what adoption means. This work deals very tastefully and gently with the topic of adoption, not sugarcoating feelings of rejection, but also ending on a positive note. Readers of this work may also enjoy Jin Woo, by Eve Bunting, another work that explores the themes of family identities and adoption.

For the zero of you reading this blog, this review is written in a somewhat more professional way than the was for a class last year. And I totally got an A (self high five). HOWEVER - this blog is not tots profesh, so let me tell you how I really feel. True story, I love Allen Say. He is one of the rare children's book authors/illustrators who has made me cry. At work. In front of children. I am. A big sap. And the pictures are so so pretty, and so so simple. I shake my fist at you and your magic tear producing powers, Senor Say! Shake shake shake! (Keep up the good work.)
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