A Handful of Stars

Each month for a previous job, I wrote a maximum 150 word review of a new book that came into the library during the month. I’ve expanded that idea to the blog in a feature I’m calling To the Point Tuesdays. If you want to play along, just post a link in the comments and I’ll add them to the post.

Handful of StarsTitle: A Handful of Stars
Author: Cynthia Lord
ISBN: 9780545700276
Pages: 184 pages
Publisher/Date: Scholastic Press, an imprint of Scholastic Inc., c2015.

The only reason I ever spoke to Salma Santiago was because my dog ate her lunch. (1)

Lily’s runaway blind dog Lucky is stopped not by frantic pleas, but by migrant worker Salma’s peanut butter sandwich. Lily and Salma develop a fast friendship over their mutual love for dogs, with Salma even helping Lily fundraise to fix Lucky’s eyes. Lily can repay the favor by helping Salma prepare for the local Blueberry Queen pageant, and hopefully winning the scholarship prize. But no migrant workers have ever entered, and Lily isn’t blind to the fact that change is hard. Will either girl get what they want, or will they help each other (as the saying goes) “accept the things they cannot change”? Peppered with blueberry facts, Lord presents a story of a minor migrant worker. Didactic but not overly so due to an unexpected turn of events leading to the inevitable happy ending, it’s a simple friendship story that’s light on the details, making for a fast read.

Got Milked?

Got MilkedTitle: Got Milked?: The Great Dairy Deception and Why You’ll Thrive Without Milk
Author: Alissa Hamilton
ISBN: 9780062362056
Pages: 319 pages
Publisher/Date: William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, c2015.

Upon closer examination, the North American preoccupation with milk as vital betrays something more worrisome than a mere buy-in to dairy industry advertising. It signals a nationwide surrendering to fuzzy logic. (3) […]

True, milk is convenient. It’s everywhere. You won’t find bushels of kale or broccoli at the corner Stop n’ Go. You are guaranteed to find cartons of milk, from nonfat to full fat, from strawberry to chocolate flavored, from single-serve chugs to gallon-size jugs. True, milk is high in calcium, but it’s also high in sugar, cholesterol, calories, and saturated fat. Just because milk is readily available, just because you can get it anywhere, doesn’t mean you should. What we don’t hear so much about is that milk is one of the most allergenic foods; the majority of American adults can’t digest it; animal studies have shown that the major type of protein in milk, casein, also promotes cancer; and lactose, the sugar in milk, breaks down during digestion into the highly inflammatory sugar, D-galactose, which has been proven to promote aging and disease in mice. Even milk’s high calcium content, a seemingly incontrovertible good, may not in fact be doing our bodies good. (6-7)

It’s obvious that author Hamilton is going to milk the misconceptions about milk for as long as possible, She does a relatively thorough job of disproving it’s importance both in the food industry and in our diets. The JD mentioned in her jacket author biography shows in her methodical evaluation of claims made by the milk industry, sometimes reading like closing arguments as she puts milk on trial. Chapters include comparisons of the minerals in other foods to those claimed to be in milk (I say claimed because Hamilton argues they are misrepresented), the ineffectiveness of the minerals and vitamins milk actually does have due to the processing, the prevalence of an inability to digest milk in the general population, and the prominence of publicity and marketing efforts by not only the industry but also the government and food associations to convince the public otherwise.

As you can see by the summary, even though it’s surprisingly coherent for the lay person to understand,  it’s a dense read due to the amount of specifics and concepts that are being thrown at one time to readers. For instant, when discussing the nutritional benefits of calcium substitutes, she writes “My 300-gram bag of black, organic chia seeds says each 2-tablespoon serving contains 77 calories; 15 percent of the Daily Value (DV) for calcium, which equals 150 milligrams; and 24 percent of the DV for magnesium, which equals 96 milligrams.” (182) Whole paragraphs are devoted to this kind of language, which is important to prove the point but also makes for a circuitous and detailed read. It’s made even more taxing as she bounces between units from multiple measuring systems, possibly in an attempt to make it understandable for both Canadian and American readers.

Almost 100 pages of the book is devoted to four days of recipes, a detailed list of references, and an index. Hamilton takes great pains to stress that the nutritional information is based on estimates and not lab-tested. It’s also strikes me as somewhat odd that after spending almost an entire chapter on the sugar content in milks, the amount of sugar in the recipes isn’t mentioned. Throughout the book she digresses into waxing poetically over kale, seeds, and other food alternatives. However, the directions are broken down into easy to understand steps, to the point where she explains how to bake a potato, which will help beginning chefs. I haven’t had an opportunity to test the recipes, but they sound good, if a little overly seasoned/spiced compared to my normal cooking routine. Overall, it’s an eye-opening assessment of the world’s adoration of milk, which after reading Hamilton’s book you might think it doesn’t deserve.

nonfiction mondayThis review is posted in honor of Nonfiction Monday. Take a look at what everyone else is reading in nonfiction this week.

Lailah’s Lunchbox

Lailah's LunchboxTitle: Lailah’s Lunchbox
Author: Reem Faruqi
Illustrator: Lea Lyon
ISBN: 9780884484318
Pages: unpaged
Publisher/Date: Tilbury House Publishers, c2015.

”Lailah, did you forget your lunch?” asked Mrs. Penworth.
Lailah opened her mouth to speak, but no words came out.
Samantha volunteered, “I’ll share my lunch with Lailah!” (unpaged)

Last year, when she lived in Abu Dhabi, Lailah watched jealously when her friends were allowed to fast for Ramadan. A year later she’s living in Georgia with her family, and her mother is finally letting her participate. But a note to her teacher makes her realize she’ll be the only one, and is afraid of looking weird. How is she supposed to avoid eating and explain her fast to her classmates and teacher?

This is a very simplistic way of explaining fasting to a child. I wish there was slightly more explanation behind the meaning of Ramadan, the reason they fast, and/or the religious significance of the holiday, but that also would have made the book much more didactic. The beauty of this book is its simplicity. It’s also important that the book explicitly shows that Lailah is doing this with the supervision and support of her family, which distinguishes it for children who might be tempted to try it themselves. Notable for its focus on Ramadan, as non-religious stories are few and far between, but not something I would find myself recommending if it didn’t include that diversity element.

The Graveyard Book Graphic Novel

Graveyard Book Vol. 1Title: The Graveyard Book Volume 1
Author: Neil Gaiman
Adaptation by: P. Craig Russell
Illustrators: Kevin Nowlan, P. Craig Russell, Tony Harris, Scott Hampton, Galen Showman, Jill Thompson, and Stephen B. Scott
ISBN: 9780062194817
Pages: 188 pages
Publisher/Date: Harper, an imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers, c2008 (text), c2014 (illustrations).








Graveyard Book Vol. 2Title: The Graveyard Book Volume 2
Author: Neil Gaiman
Adaptation by: P. Craig Russell
Illustrators: David Lafuente, Scott Hampton, P. Craig Russell, Kevin Nowlan, and Galen Showman
ISBN: 9780062194831
Pages: 164 pages
Publisher/Date: Harper, an imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers, c2008 (text), c2014 (illustrations).

If you are familiar with the Newbery Winning title from 2008, your familiar with the plot of the graphic novel adaptation of The Graveyard Book, originally written by Neil Gaiman. It’s been a few years since I’ve read the original, so I don’t trust to comment on the accuracy or thoroughness of the adaptation. However, from what I remember, it seems to be true to the source material.

The opening pages of volume one could be disturbing to young readers. While in the original, the first page only shows the knife used in the murder, subsequent pages in the graphic novel show the bodies, with throats slit and blood gushing from the wounds. It’s appropriate for the tale, but it may affect readers more than the words in the original would have affected them. The same could be said about Silas, where allusions of his origin are made much more obvious in the illustrations than in the original.

The division point between the end of volume one and the beginning of volume two was well chosen, with the dance of Macabray happening at the end. There is an interlude though that I think would have been better served at the beginning of volume one, providing a symmetry between the volumes. Then each would have opened with a reference to the killings (as you see the knives on the first pages of each) and ending with references to Nobody Owen’s interactions with the living and the real world. It’s an interesting decision overall to have multiple artists do the illustrations and divide it into two volumes. Some artists contributing chapters to both volumes, and the shift in styles can be somewhat jarring, especially chapter three in volume one, where both Tony Harris and Scott Hampton contribute noticeably different drawings. The coloring is excellent though, with the moody graveyard in dark blues at night, and bright green and yellows during the daytime and in the outside world. The ghosts are portrayed in monochromatic blue-gray, further distinguishing them from the land of the living and allowing readers to tell when Nobody is invoking his freedom of the graveyard.

The accelerated pace of the adaptation also means that readers loose some of the suspense of the original. For fans of graphic novels or for readers who need an introduction to the format, this would be a good pick because it’s an adaptation, but I think there are works that impressed me more, including the original 2008 publication.

Better Nate Than Ever

Better Nate Than EverTitle: Better Nate Than Ever
Author: Tim Federle
Narrator: Tim Federle
ISBN: 9781442374157
Discs/CDs: 5 CDs, 5 hours 54 minutes
Pages: 288 pages
Publisher/Date: Simon & Schuster Inc, c2013.
Awards: Odyssey Award Honor (2014), Stonewall Book Award Honor (2014)
Series: #1 (there is a sequel, titled Five, Six, Seven, Nate)

Thirteen-year-old Nate Foster has a dream of being on Broadway which is difficult to fulfill when you are one of two Broadway geeks in the entire town of Jankburg, Pennsylvania. His best friend Libby has taught him everything he knows (everything he thinks he needs to know anyways) and Nate is confident in his acting ability, even though he’s never had formal lessons. So confident that when his parents head out of town for the night and leave Nate’s brother in charge, Nate and Libby hatch a plan. Nate’s going to take the bus to New York, audition for the newly scripted E.T. The Musical, wow the producers, the directors, the choreographers, and whoever else he needs to, and prove once and for all that his true place in life is on Broadway. Nothing could possibly go wrong, right?

Things definitely go wrong for Nate, including underestimating his budget and his time frame, not having directions before his arrival in NYC, and believing everything everyone says and that everyone is his friend. I found myself comparing him to Jack from the television show Will and Grace; over the top (he swears using the names of Broadway flops) and unable to take care of himself (he’s miraculously saved from both homelessness and an uncharged phone multiple times). His awkward “monologue” explanation for why he’s out alone is completely unrealistic, and the author forces him to “perform” not just once or twice but multiple times, getting more awkward each time. A lot of the plot seems to be on repeat, as Nate’s experiences are a push and pull of emotions as his hopes and reams are real, then dashed, then restored, then dashed, and readers are left with no resolution to the “Does he or doesn’t he” million dollar question. This roller coaster continues for much too long and I started to loose interest in the plot, which seems to place me in a minority among the multitudes of fans this book has garnered. My sympathies towards Nate were the only thing that grew because I felt his overly-enthusiastic antics were being used as entertainment for the mean-spirited adults who relished his peculiarities rather then  as an opportunity to teach the craft and profession.

This straight read through by author Federle was campy and over the top, just like his character Nate Foster, although it is difficult for me several weeks later to remember anything remarkable about the narration specifically. Nate is a laughably naive person, from his clothes choices to his interactions with children and adults. For someone who so desperately wants to be involved in a Broadway show, it’s unbelievable that he would know so little about how the industry works and how optimistic he is regarding his chances of making it big. In this way I guess one of the values of this book is that it teaches readers how the industry work, but at the expense of poor Nate. While his antics remind me of book characters geared towards younger readers, similar to maybe Ramona or Wimpy Kid, the content is skewed much older, with Nate not “choosing a sexuality” yet, drunkenness (both adult and teen drinking), and several homophobic slurs being repeatedly dropped. I’m usually pretty open-minded regarding book content (I was reading teen fiction alongside my Animorphs books in 5th grade), but if a library has a tween section it would make sense to put it there. The 13-year-old character is too young for most teens in young adult areas but the content limits it’s appropriateness to readers under 13 and I think adults may find more enjoyment from this book than children. Case in point: Our copy has been checked out only 6 times in two years

Rocket Girl

Rocket GirlTitle: Rocket Girl Volume One: Times Squared
Author: Brandon Montclare
Illustrator: Amy Reeder
ISBN: 9781632150554
Pages: unpaged
Publisher/Date: Image Comics, Inc., c2014.

In 1986 a bunch of scientists at Quintum Mechanics made history. Their discovery would change everything, forever. But they didn’t know what they were doing. It was never meant to be. So someone had to go back in time to stop it. I volunteered.

Detective Dayoung Johansson is a fifteen-year-old NYPD Detective in 2013, and expects people to respond to her position and experience with the force. Except she’s no longer in 2013 but has been sent back to 1986 to prevent a corporation from seizing control. But as the company responsible for the technology that enables time travel in the first place, Dayoung may just be playing into their plan. Is she really saving the past, or creating the future?

This story almost completely ignores the time travel element, except for a few obligatory references, like “Your past is my future” and a run in between past and future selves for two secondary characters. The detailed illustrations shine, with dirt on Dayoung’s uniform and graffiti on the brick walls, although the broken glass of the police station window should have fallen out the window if it was broken from the inside. It’s the fight sequences that are all flash, bang, whizz, described in the extra materials in the back of the book as “Marvel Style”. I wish there had been more movement in these sequences, instead of poses and posturing more then actual propulsion. NPR agrees with me (since when did NPR review graphic novels?!), stating “The one area where Reeder’s got real problems, oddly enough, is in capturing motion. That’s quite a weakness when your protagonist spends most of her time airborne. Reeder does OK with the effortless aspects of flight — gliding, spinning, tumbling. When DaYoung soars, so does the book. But when she hauls off and hits somebody, we hit the ground.” It’s an interesting premise and I’d be willing to follow it for a little while longer, but the characters and plot need more development before I’ll fully understand exactly how the past/future is impacting the future/present… see why I’m confused!

The Shadow Hero

Shadow HeroTitle: The Shadow Hero
Author: Gene Luen Yang
Illustrator: Sonny Liew
ISBN: 9781596436978
Pages: 170 pages
Publisher/Date: First Second, c2014

“No no no!”
“But you don’t even know what a superhero is!”
“Of course I know what a superhero is! They’re all over the newspapers!”
“Then why don’t you want to be one?”
“First of all, that costume is ridiculous! What kind of superhero symbol is that?!”
“It’s the character for gold, Hank! Gold is a very, very good symbol! It’s shiny! It’s pretty! It’s worth a lot of money!”
“Nobody’s gonna understand that! And second–”
“You never appreciate anything I do for you!”
“And SECOND, I don’t have any superpowers! I can’t fly or lift a car over my head or anything like that! How am I supposed to be a superhero with no superpowers?!” (25-26)

Some mothers want their children to become doctors or lawyers or teachers. Hank’s mother gets saved from a bank robbery suspect by a superhero, and now she wants her son to be a superhero. Hank’s rational explanation that he has neither an inclination or an ability to become a superhero fall on deaf ears. But when a violent crime hits close to home, it convinces both Hank and his mother to change their minds.

I was especially intrigued by the history behind the story, maybe slightly more than the Gene Luen Yang’s actual story. Yang brings to light a little known superhero, created by an unknown cartoonist (Chu Hing), for an unknown publisher (Rural Home) and starring in just five issues. Speculation apparently abounds at the origins of the superhero but also the relationship between cartoonist and publisher. Never seeing the Green Turtle’s face or discovering his origin, was Hing hiding a Chinese superhero in plain sight against his publisher’s wishes? While we’ll probably never know for sure, Yang gives readers not only a history lesson and a copy of the first full issue, but also a convincing origin story for this nearly forgotten superhero.

Yang mentions stereotypes in his afterward, remarking upon “Hing’s use of racial stereotypes in his depictions of the Japanese” (157). I wonder if Yang (as I suspect) consciously invoked these stereotypes when portraying his characters, especially Hank’s mother as a meddling, overly involved immigrant and Hank’s origin story rings unmistakably similar to Spider-man’s and Batman’s. Don’t miss the cheeky nod towards these counterparts where some characters talk about the new superhero who “dresses up like some sort of owl or vulture or–” (30). But Hank’s character is more Peter Parker than Bruce Wayne, as he muddles through the path to superhero, making his own costume and secret identity name and bumbling his way through fights. I won’t say much about his one special ability, but I enjoyed how Yang incorporated Chinese elements throughout the story. The ending is slightly anti-climatic, but it’s understandable as it doesn’t appear that the original material had many costumed cohorts to battle, but instead fought mortal men in a real world war. Maybe this is another reason it lasted such a short time, since everyone was intrigued and entertained by Joker, Penguin, Lex Luther, and other just as imaginary enemies.

The layout is very similar to comics, with chapters beginning with an expository flashback and ending with the Green Turtle logo. Sound effects are written in brightly colored bubble-letters (Wack, Kick, Smash, Whap, etc.) that contrast against the generally more muted backgrounds. Some of the layouts are unique and very eye-catching, like the wheel-shaped montage of fight sequences found on page 105, making me think of a Zodiac or color wheel. This engaging read could appeal to wide audiences as the superhero genre continues to grow.

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