Sunday, March 28, 2010

The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency

Title: The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency
Author: Alexander McCall Smith
Publisher: Pantheon Books
Pages: 235

The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency is classified as a "gentle read." Generally, these types of novels are considered "nice stories," or as Joyce Saricks calls them, warm milk. In many ways, Smith's novel fits right in. The story focuses mostly on the relationships between Precious Ramotswe, the private detective heroine and the only lady detective in Botswana, and the people in her life from both her past and present: her father, her ex-husband, her best friend, her clients, etc. For the most part, this novel leisurely moves through the story from one client's case to another without many twists. That is not to say that there is no story arc. There is one case that serves as the main motivator for action in the novel: a missing eleven-year-old boy believed to have been kidnapped by witch doctors. However, her interactions with her best friend, auto mechanic J.L.B. Matekoni, and his feelings for her are the true center of the story.

For me, the pacing was too gentle. I would actually call it plodding. I don't mind slow reads as long as I feel I'm reading something I can sink my teeth into. This was not to case for The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency. Also, while the characters were charming enough, I found myself bored with the fact that there is so little story and so much focus on personal relationships. To be fair, the gentle read is not a genre that I particularly enjoy and this novel is about as close to the perfect example of a gentle read as one can get.

Having said that, if anyone came to me asking for a gentle read, I could recommend this one without hesitation. It is the type of book that one could pick up and put down at their leisure. There is very little upsetting material and it does emphasize traditional values in many circumstances. The ending is happy and upbeat and, as I said before, the main characters are charming and likable. Precious Ramotswe is a character that readers can really root for and those who enjoy gentle reads will find her story to be quite satisfying.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Freedom to Read

Perhaps this blog post will be the biggest insight into just how scattered my mind can actually be. As you can probably tell by my last few entries, I have fallen in love with The Hunger Games series. I read both The Hunger Games and Catching Fire several times while we were on Spring Break. So, the idea of dystopic societies have been really prevalent in my mind. One evening I was settling into bed to read The Hunger Games for probably the fifth time and I started thinking about Fahrenheit 451 and the idea of books being outlawed. While we have Constitutional rights that protect our freedom of speech and the ALA fights for our Right to Read, my mind still ran to the idea that if our society fell apart and was replaced with an extremely oppressive government similar to those in The Hunger Games and Fahrenheit 451, then perhaps we would see books become illegal because they are considered "dangerous."

After thinking about that for awhile, I realized that I was clutching my copy of The Hunger Games to my chest as if I were protecting it from someone trying to take it away from me. What would happen if books were made illegal? How would people react to some government officials coming into our homes and taking our books or sending out a public notice that we must turn all of our books over to the government so they can be "disposed"? I can't imagine my life without books. I personally can't see myself giving my books over to someone to "dispose" of them. I would fight for my books regardless of how futile it may seem. I'm sure these thoughts are not uncommon among librarians, which is probably why we celebrate Banned Books Week.

Then the thought of a list of banned books got me thinking about something else. What if, all of sudden, we were only allowed to read certain genres? What if say Fantasy and Science Fiction were suddenly deemed as not necessary or even dangerous to society? What if Political Thrillers were banned because they might plant bad ideas in people's minds about the ruling government? What if mysteries were banned because they could possibly encourage people to start lives of crime or commit murder? What if we were only allowed to read government sanctioned books? What then? Chances are Fahrenheit 451 would not be on the approved list. The Hunger Games, with its unflattering portrait of government, probably wouldn't be either. Even books as seemingly innocuous as the Twilight series might end up on a banned list because the protagonists dared to challenge the ruling class of vampires. Actually, an argument can be made to ban any book if one argues hard enough. It's really quite a scary prospect that makes me glad that we have ALA. On a more base level, it makes me realize just how important the freedom to read really is to me.

This blog post IS NOT meant to start a debate as to whether or not this could actually happen. Nor is it a paranoid rant about how all books are in danger of being made illegal. I've merely been thinking about what life would be like if they WERE made illegal. Realistically, where would that leave us (both as librarians and as people)? What does everyone else think?

Monday, March 22, 2010

Catching Fire

Title: Catching Fire
Author: Suzanne Collins
Publisher: Scholastic Press
Pages: 391

Since I enjoyed The Hunger Games so much and had chosen Fantasy as one of my genres, I decided to read Catching Fire as my Fantasy choice. I am warning everyone right now, if you haven't read either of these books and don't want to be spoiled on anything, STOP READING NOW!!!!

For everyone who is still reading, Catching Fire continues the story of Katniss Everdeen after she and her fellow tribute, Peeta Mellark, miraculously won The Hunger Games. While their lives are supposed to involve absolute luxury and fame, The Capitol is angry with Katniss for her bold act in the arena that forced the Gamesmaker to save both her and Peeta instead of one of them killing the other. This act, along with Katniss herself, has come to symbolize rebellion throughout the districts. Even President Snow, the cruel leader of Panem, has taken notice and made it clear to Katniss that she must stop the rebelling citizens by portraying her actions in the arena as those of a girl madly in love and not those of a rebel. But, she can't stop them. This time, the rebellion will not be quashed and the consequences for this failure lead to a cruel twist in the upcoming Hunger Games that no one was prepared for.

Catching Fire is an enjoyable sequel to the brilliant The Hunger Games. Readers are allowed to learn more about secondary characters, such as Haymitch Abernathy, and meet new ones, such as past victors of The Hunger Games. I plowed through this novel almost as fervently as I did the first one. Yet, I also felt a little bit of frustration with this one. Collins spent a little too much time recapping the events in the first book, so it took longer than I would have liked for the action to really begin in this book. I also found myself a bit frustrated with Katniss in this book as I thought that she was quite dense at times. Yet, once the action began, it was full-throttle all the way to the end with a great cliff-hanger.

Readers who enjoyed the first novel will definitely enjoy this one as well. Also, those who like reading books about futuristic or dystopic societies will probably enjoy this series. Those who have read the Uglies series would also probably enjoy these novels. Neither this book nor The Hunger Games would be advisable to those who have problems with violence or anything involving harm to children. That is unfortunately just the nature of this series. I don't recommend reading this book without having read The Hunger Games first. They definitely need to be read in order. But, since there are only two of them, that shouldn't be too difficult.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Interesting, very interesting

I did my secret shopper assignment last night and was both pleased and disappointed. I approached the information desk with the story that I had read all of Suzanne Collins' novels and was particularly fond of her Hunger Games series. Since the next book in that series isn't coming out until August, I asked the librarian if she could recommend anything to tide me over until the book was available. I figured it was a bit of a softball request because I gave her a specific author and a specific type of book that I was looking for. What happened next shocked me.

The first thing the librarian said to me was: "I'm not familiar with Suzanne Collins' novels. I haven't read The Hunger Games." At first, I thought that this was a dismissal and was about to be really upset, but I think she was telling me that by way of an apology (albeit prematurely) if she couldn't find the type of book that I needed because she immediately started searching for some read-alikes for me. Her computer screen was tilted to her left so she and I could both see what she was doing (points for that) and what tools she was using. I watched her type into Google (yes, Google) the phrase: "If you like Suzanne Collins." Of course, all she got were results about Suzanne Collins, not read-alikes. She then went to Amazon and typed in The Hunger Games, but only got recommendations for Collins' other books. I confessed that I had read all of her other books including her children's series. I guess I must have seemed embarrassed by that because she reassured me that there was nothing wrong with that and that she, too, loves many children's books. Again, points for her for reassuring me that there is nothing wrong with my reading habits. Not that I needed it, but I appreciated it nonetheless.

After clicking on a few titles, she turned to another librarian and asked her for her advice on what I should read since she was apparently more familiar with the YA fantasy genre. Since the other librarian was more than happy to help me, I switched to her while the first librarian helped other patrons. The second librarian asked me if I had read The Uglies series of novels (without even looking anything up online or using a printed RA tool) and I told her that I had. Still not looking anything up, she sat there thinking for a minute and then got up and walked over to the Teen section. I followed her and she pulled a book off the shelf that belonged in the fantasy genre, but that was really all that it had in common with The Hunger Games. I could tell that she was just going to suggest any YA fantasy novel if I didn't give her more information, so I told her that was really interested me were novels about futuristic, dystopian societies. She thought for another moment and then spent quite a bit of time trying to remember the name of a novel that she thought I might be interested in. After thinking for a bit, she came up with the title The Diary of Pelly D. She described the plot and it definitely sounded like something I would enjoy.
We went back to her computer and discovered that the library's copy had been checked out so she put it on hold for me.

I walked away feeling satisfied that they had found a book I might enjoy and I appreciated the fact that they never once made me feel uncomfortable for asking for recommendations. I also liked how they seemed like they did not want me to walk away without at least one book of interest. However, I was really disappointed with how little use they made of the RA tools available to them. It was all I could do not to say to both of them: "Your library subscribes to Novelist!! Use if for goodness' sake!" If the first librarian had used that instead of Google and Amazon, I think she would have been able to help me out even though she wasn't familiar with the author or the genre. I performed my own RA on Novelist and found that if either of them had used that, they would have seen the key word "dystopias" and I wouldn't have even had to tell them that that was what interested me. Also, on the flip side, if either of them had asked me what I liked about The Hunger Games, then they would have also found out that I was interested in dystopias without my having to offer that information. Granted, Novelist isn't perfect as some of the books recommended were definitely not ones that I would be interested in, but I was given more titles than just the one the librarian recommended to me.

In conclusion, I have to say that I did like the fact that they wanted to help me. I was immediately acknowledged with a smile when I approached the desk. I definitely appreciated that the computers were at an angle so I could see what they were doing. If I didn't know about all of the RA tools available and many of the proper questions to ask, I would have probably felt very satisfied that they were able to find something for me. However, I do know about these things and I really wish one of them would have used at least one tool instead of relying on Google or their own knowledge. While it might seem impressive that one of the librarians could recall the titles that she did to me, I kept thinking about what she would do if someone came to her with a genre she was not familiar with. What then? Again, they need to use the RA tools. However, at least I wasn't just given a list of the top selling fantasy novels and told to go on my merry way.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Kirkus Review - The Hunger Games

Title: The Hunger Games
Author: Suzanne Collins
Publisher: Scholastic Press
Pages: Doesn't matter; you won't put it down!

I have only recently been introduced to Suzanne Collins' work and have thoroughly enjoyed everything of hers I have read. My first experience with her was the YA fantasy novel Gregor the Overlander. While I could easily say I really liked that novel, that is nothing compared to how I feel about The Hunger Games. I finished this book within hours of getting my hands on it. I couldn't put it down even to go to bed!

Set in the future where most of North America has been destroyed, Collins created a dystopia called Panem that consists of The Capitol and its twelve outlying districts. The Capitol is home to all of the affluent and powerful people while the residents of the districts live only to serve The Capitol. As punishment for a rebellion that took place before the events of the book, The Capitol holds an event called The Hunger Games every year. For the game, one boy and one girl are chosen from each district to participate in a televised fight to the death for everyone's "entertainment."

Our heroine the Katniss Everdeen, a brave and resourceful sixteen-year-old from District 12, who volunteers to participate in the games when her twelve-year-old sister's name is called. Having replaced her sister, Katniss travels to The Capitol along with her district's male participant, Peeta Mellark. Once there, she and Peeta work with Haymitch Abernathy, the only living person from their district who has survived the Hunger Games, to develop a strategy to survive and win the games. Once in the arena, Katniss discovers that she has to fear not only her competitors, but The Capitol's antics as well. To make the games more exciting for the viewing audience, The Capitol will create dangers, such as forest fires, for the participants. What makes the audience grow bored? A lack of deaths. It is reality TV at its sickest.

It's not just the games and Katniss' struggle to survive that captivated me. I was also intrigued during the journey to The Capitol and her time preparing for the games. Collins does an excellent job of presenting The Capitol as both this seemingly ideal world and a scary, corrupt, and twisted nightmare land at the same time. Katniss loves the attention and all of the fine linens, showers, and food The Capitol provides her, but she is also fully aware that The Capitol intends for her to either die a violent death or send all of her competitors to a violent death. They don't care one way or the other as long as it's entertaining. It is this inner struggle between wanting to survive and not wanting to kill that makes Katniss' tale so gripping. It is established at the beginning of the novel that she is a hunter, so she does know how to kill to survive, but she has never before killed a human being. Yet, she doesn't want to die either.

Katniss is not the only interesting character. Peeta, her fellow District 12 competitor, is a wonferfully complex character with seemingly useless talents that come in surprisingly handy. Haymitch, their strategist, reveals himself to be a shrewd and intelligent man who plays an even bigger role in their survival than even Katniss and Peeta would have imagined. Even minor characters such as Cinna, Katniss' stylist (yes, the participants are given stylists before being sent out to kill one another) proved to be interesting characters that I wanted to know more about.

As I said before, I couldn't put this book down. I began reading it one evening around 10:00 PM and imagine my shock when I looked up and saw that it was 5:00 AM! Even more surprising, I didn't care! I wanted to finish the book.

The book is the first part of a series. I will be getting the second book, Catching Fire, this weekend and the third book, Mockingjay, is scheduled to be released August 24, 2010. Guess what I'll be doing that day.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

I don't think that's how it's supposed to be done.

I volunteer every Monday night at Zionsville's library. Mostly I sit at the reference desk and look up call numbers for students. Last night a woman came up to me and asked if the library had Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief. It was checked out and she was about to walk away when I asked her if there was anything else I could look up for her. She then asked what I recommended. I was so excited at the idea of performing my first real reader's advisory that I'm sure I got some weird, maniacal grin on my face, but I at least refrained from jumping up and down in my chair. Anyway, I asked her what she was in the mood for and she said (and I quote): "Anything. My daughter is working on some homework and I just want something to read until she's done." I then asked her if she would like to stay within the Fantasy genre. Again, she said that she didn't care and, honestly, she seemed a little irritated that I was asking her so many questions and not suggesting any books. Since she earlier had said that her daughter had recommended Percy Jackson to her, I decided to stay within the YA collection as I thought maybe she and her daughter often shared books and maybe, if she liked the book she ended up reading, I could introduce both of them to a new book.

Anyway, I quickly scanned through the YA collection for anything by Rick Riordan and, of course, everything was checked out. Since she wasn't giving me any answers about what she wanted to read, I typed in the only other author I could think of who writes YA novels and that was Neil Gaiman. Fortunately, Coraline was checked in and when I suggested it, she seemed really excited about reading it. So, I took her over to the shelf and found it for her.

She walked away looking very satisfied, but I sure wasn't. I wanted to do it right. I was looking forward to performing an interview and using RA tools. She was in no mood for questions. She wanted to know what I thought she should read. It made me think of what Andrea said in our last class about how patrons tend to put us on pedestals and think that what we suggest to them is gospel. This woman seemed to want me to tell her what to read instead of me making suggestions based on her interests. Now, she probably just wasn't in the mood for those suggestions and just wanted me to hand her a book to keep her from getting bored. Perhaps on any other day she would have been a great person to perform readers advisory for. I don't know.

I'm wondering, for those of you who work in a library and handle these kinds of requests frequently, what would you have done in that situation? Is there a way to perform a proper reader's advisory even when the patron isn't really in the mood to answer a bunch of questions? Or is that just a situation where the interview kind of has to go out the window and we just have to flat out tell them what to read?