book review: in the shadow of blackbirds

In the Shadow of Blackbirds, by Cat Winters, was a “holy fuck that was great” YA historical/sf novel. It’s set in San Diego in October 1918 with fresh-faced teenage boys heading off to die in the war and the Spanish Influenza killing everyone else.

Mary Shelley Black is a 16-year-old girl who’s just fled to her aunt’s home because her father’d been arrested back in Portland for helping young men escape the draft. Down in San Diego, where Mary Shelley’s childhood friend (and first kiss) was a young photographer before heading off to France, she gets caught up in a world of superstition, spirit photography and death. She’s got a scientific mind and hates all these frauds that surround her, until something happens. Which I won’t spoil.

I loved this book so much. I think what I loved most was that it kept knocking my expectations off-kilter. I thought it was going to be a story about this practical skeptical girl staying steadfast in her belief in facts and waiting for her true love to come home from the war and her father to get out of jail. Then I thought it was going to become a story of rebellion against her young widowed aunt (who works building battleships and is distraught she had to cut her hair and lose so much of her femininity for going to séances) who believes too much in what other people say. Then I was scared it was going to turn into a wide-eyed ghost story, and then I was happy to see it become a mystery. It didn’t settle into a pattern early.

One of the things they say about writing is to start as late as you can. Have the most interesting thing happen right at the beginning and then you can fill in backstory later. Though Mary Shelley’s father is arrested pretty much on the first page, there are other later parts where the story maybe could have started. But I’m so glad it didn’t. The way this skeptical heroine was set up in the beginning would not have worked as well as backstory. Seeing her before and after for ourselves was, in my mind, integral to the layers of shifting belief and the scientific mindset on display throughout what is to be honest a ghost story.

Along with being a historical ghost story, it also feels apocalyptic with the flu and all that death and folk-remedy hanging over everything. Plus it’s got this great anti-war activist stance running through it. It’s not anti-heroism, but it calls out so much of the adventure story bullshit. The heroes in this story are all about these basic acts of decency in a world that’s sick.

So yes, this is highly recommended. I’m bringing it to my Teen Book Club meeting next week even though our library won’t be getting it for a while (it was just released last week, I think).

book review: the demon trapper’s daughter

I read Jana Oliver’s The Demon Trapper’s Daughter for our teen book club’s Paranormal Creatures session because I hadn’t really read much in the Demons and Angels subset of YA Urban Fantasy (I am sighing at myself for using these marketing pigeonholes, just so you know).

The story follows Riley, a 17-year-old Atlanta girl who is an apprentice demon trapper, following in the family trade. Usually apprentices deal with tiny vandals and thieving demons (grade 1 demons), but there are far more powerful ones out there, the machinations of which she gets caught up in. She’s a resourceful active likable heroine, even as she has a lot to learn about her chosen profession.

The setting of the book was interesting. It’s 2018 Atlanta and demons and angels are very out in the open, making nuisances of themselves/being aloof and inscrutable respectively. It’s kind of weird metaphysically because the angels and demons are tied very very firmly to a pop-Roman Catholic kind of worldview that’s treated as almost scientifically accurate (a lot of the plot rests on the nature of Holy Water, which is mass-produced and certified and taxed specially), yet the pagans are also becoming a stronger voting-bloc in Georgia. There are also necromancers who can reanimate corpses as servants for a year after their deaths.

The economy has been spiralling downwards, which gives the economic incentive to the characters. There’s conflict over the taxes and paperwork you have to fill out as a demon trapper doing things the right way. Also, I appreciate that these are demon trappers not demon hunters. Demon hunters are the Vatican big-firepower badasses who get the (wildly inaccurate) TV shows made about them. The demon trappers aren’t dilettantes, or supernatural navy SEALs, but working stiffs trying to control the supernatural pest population, and dealing with paying rent.

Now that makes it sound very Ghostbusters, and to a large extent it is, but it’s also got its requisite love-triangle between Riley and the gruff young man who’s like a brother to her and the delicate apprentice who sets her heart aflutter. There are misreadings of character motives that are annoying in their desire to keep the triangle going. Also, because it’s the first book of a series, there’s no real resolution at the end of the book (though there is a lot of denouement from the final set-piece).

I liked it better than the bits of Cassandra Clare’s angel books I’ve read, and will be recommending it to fans of her work (and of Buffy).

tumbleweed on the wii

I did my last teen program at the branch last night. And when I say “did” I mean “prepped” because nobody showed up. This was one of our “Teen Program in a Box” programs that our YA librarian for the system (we have one for 20 branches) got a grant to put together. In the box was a Wii and a projector and Super Smash Bros. Brawl. Our branch head was sure that’d get the kids coming. Nope. Not a one.

There are a number of reasons why no one showed up.

One: I am not a natural-born promoter. We had a bunch of posters that I put up but it’s not like I accosted every teenaged person entering the library and told them about the program and how amazing it was going to be and got them to sign up right then. It’s possible that many of the teens wandering through our library had no idea it was happening.

Two: Timing. This was the first week after school was officially out, so people probably are in “I don’t want to do anything” mode. I know I was when I was in high school. Also, it was scheduled for 5pm-6pm. That’s a fine time for a book club during the school year, since they can come by between school and supper, but probably not the most natural time to go play video games. Also, it being on a Tuesday meant that the one boy who regularly comes to YA programming couldn’t show up.

Three: The Wii itself. I mean, yes our branch is in a low-income neighbourhood so it’s possible that teens who’d want a Wii wouldn’t have easy access to one. But you can find them in pawnshops now. A Wii isn’t some crazy new thing that people just have to try anymore. And playing videogames with strangers isn’t a de facto awesome thing. It would be if the program was for 9-12 year olds. They would be excited just to play. For teens I think you need something extra, like a bunch of friends that people don’t see all the time (like they go to different schools or whatever), or some connection to the wider world. I had a bunch of library books about gaming and stuff ready to go, but really the draw was supposed to be “Hey! Play Wii games! In the library!”

So yeah. My experiments with teen programming come to a whimpering end. Selah. Maybe I’ll learn a whole bunch of secret techniques for doing better at library school.

so today we got a security guard

Last night after my shift was done excitement occurred at the branch. Two boys, who’d been on the computers suddenly got into a fight. Not a fight, a beating. My coworkers tried to hold the beating one back but a rage filled 12 year old can often shake off us bookish folk. So they were kicked out. Evidently they’re cousins and the beatee had “stolen” the beater’s PIN for the computers. So there was that.

And then one of the 11 year olds who’s banned from the branch till October came in and wouldn’t leave when my coworkers told her to. And then she was running and yelling and throwing books on the floor and hanging up the phone as our branch head phoned the cops.

As us staff understand it, we can’t physically remove a person from the premises. We can’t even touch a kid. I’m not sure if that’s actual policy or just our individual fears of assault charges. I know there’s no policy saying I should leave the door open for Teen Book Club; it’s my awareness of the power of allegations that make me leave that door open, and the rest of the patrons can fuck off if we’re too loud. It seems like the employees could use some sort of guidance instead of ad-hoc word of mouth ideas. But that’s not how our library system works. Selah.

The security guard we got today (and who’ll be with us being bored out of his skull for a couple of weeks) has been given express permission to keep the banned girl out “using any means necessary.” It’s true. That’s what the head of security told him, right in front of me. It was kind of action-movie awesome. The guard was kind of “I’ve never really had to do any physical restraining” and his boss was all “She’s 12. You can take her.” I didn’t butt in and tell them she’s actually 11.

book review: the forest of hands and teeth

Isn’t The Forest of Hands and Teeth an awesome title? Carrie Ryan deserves any praise this book’s received for the title alone. I love it. The book’s pretty good too.

The story is about a young woman, Mary, in a tiny village that is beset by zombies (they aren’t called zombies, but they’re zombies), and has been for generations. They’re in the middle of the eponymous zombie-filled forest and have fences and a Sisterhood and Guardians to protect them and keep the people in line. Mary dreams of the stories her mother told her of freedom and a life outside the village. At one point she finds a bit of proof, in the form of New York Times headlines, firmly planting this in the post-apocalyptic subgenre instead of fantasy.

Needless to say everything goes badly when Mary’s mother causes a tiny breach and gets infected and must be killed in the first couple of chapters. Her brother turns on her, Mary gets sent to the nunnery because no boy wants to marry her, and then one does and It’s Complicated. The story moves along, building speed as it goes.

That building pace kind of gets in the way a bit. There are a few convenient big action sequences that push the characters along their paths, making some of their choices feel kind of pointless, since they were about to get forced into action without thinking anyway. But that’s only a minor annoyance. The urgency is always there with these moaning unconsecrated infection vectors surrounding them as they try to escape. The action sequences are really good and tense too, with almost every important character ending up dead (mostly in heroic fashion).

All in all, a good exciting read. Not as bleak as The Road but in kind of the same vein. It’s a YA novel and I’m bringing it to my next Teen Book Club as a (non-vampire!) recommendation.

book review: liar

Justine Larbalestier’s YA book Liar got a lot of press last year for Bloomsbury making the cover a photo of a white girl, when the book is about a black girl. (The version in our library has this cover.) There’s a lot of interesting stuff out there about how books are marketed and how no one wants their books shuffled off into the African Studies ghetto of the bookstore. If you check out the comments on Larbalestier’s first post on the issue there’s a lot of really good discussion before it gets into one person getting offended about the character describing herself as having nappy hair, and someone making Don Imus comparisons. I think it gets decent again, but if you’re interested in the issue, check out that post.

Controversy aside, it’s a damned good book. It’s about a 17 year old girl named Micah who is a liar. She lies about a lot of things and her sort of secret boyfriend is dead. It’s kind of a mystery, but it’s also about tradition and ambition and loads of other good things. She’s an unreliable narrator and there are a bunch of clues as to what’s going on that are laid out really well. The craftsmanship is just about perfect. I like letting myself get swept along in a story and not second-guess it too much on a first read-through, but I knew what the Shyamalan twist was going to be about halfway through, which I thought was pretty cool. But then three pages later she told us what had just solidified in my mind. I felt completely manipulated by the more obvious clues and , well, yeah. It was pretty great.

It’s going on the top of my pile for next Teen Book Club.

programming woes

Not woes exactly, just recognitions of some limitations. I run the Teen Book Club and the Teen Manga Club at our branch. Traditionally there’s been a lot of crossover between the two groups, but since I’ve taken over I’ve had total attendance of one person at Manga club over two sessions (it’s probably going to be phased out after I leave this summer). Book Club has had five people in three sessions (including nobody at all this week). Needless to say, it’s not the most wonderful feeling.

The traditional thing to say at our branch is that it’s the area. In suburban wealthy neighbourhoods there’d be more people interested and attendance would be better. More of those kids’d be hustling for scholarships and volunteer hours so Advisory Council volunteering would be more attractive. That’s true to an extent, but there are teens out in our hood that want scholarships. I don’t think our neighbourhood is the sole reason we don’t get people.

The other easy place to lay blame is a lack of promotion. This I’m guilty of. It would be good to market our services more aggressively. I should be better about phoning up our book club members and encouraging them to come to our meetings. But I hate doing that kind of thing. I hate phones in general and the whole, “Please come! It’ll be fun!” kind of spiel sounds so desperate to my ears.

Ideally I’d do stuff that people would be fools not to come to, but I don’t know how to do that. Library school to the rescue? (I don’t think it works that way.)