Monday, December 30, 2013

Book Review: Drama


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Raina Telgemeier's second graphic novel, Drama, is sure to bring a wry chuckle from anyone who remembers their own middle school years.

The main character, Callie, is in the seventh grade and deeply involved in the stage crew for her school musical.  She's determined to build the best set ever on a shoestring budget... and also determined that this set will include a working cannon!

Callie lives and breathes theater.  The only thing that can distract her from the drama on-stage is drama off-stage!  She begins the book with a huge crush on a friend's older brother, who first kisses and then snubs her.  She rebounds when she meets a handsome set of twins who then go out for the play.  She understands why Justin isn't interested in her, but surely Jesse will ask her to the eighth grade dance....

The story of this book will have you both laughing and wincing as you enjoy Callie's middle school drama and probably remember a bit of your own.  The illustrations are colorful, fun, and easy to follow.  While I haven't read many graphic novels, I simply love Telgemeier's (see my blurb on Smile here) because they take simple situations and make them into such fun, relatable stories.  Drama is definitely a treat that shouldn't be missed.

Book Review: If I Stay


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If I Stay by Gayle Forman is one of those books that it's hard to decide to pick up.... and even harder to put down.

The basic premise of the book is kind of hard to stomach.  Seventeen-year-old Mia and her family are in a terrible car crash.  They die, and she lives--but barely.  She's in a coma, but somehow her spirit is separated from her body.  She cannot feel her own physical pain, but she is able to travel around the hospital in ethereal form and see what her family and friends are experiencing as they wait for her to wake up.  As she watches her loved ones, she relives some of her memories with them--the rocky start of her friendship with Kim, her first date with Adam, the birth of her brother Teddy.  And she comes to realize that she has a decision to make--whether to stay, or whether to go.

While the storyline sounds depressing, and I will admit that I shed quite a few tears while reading it, Gayle Forman's writing is so beautiful that the entire book becomes something lovely.  Mia is an accomplished cellist, and the reader can practically hear the strains of her music on every page.  As we travel deeper into Mia's story, we realize that the question she struggles to answer--to stay or to go--was one that she was asking herself even before the accident.  Should she go to Julliard and pursue her music?  Or should she stay at home and in her relationship with Adam?  My heart just ached for Mia throughout this book, not just for the loss of her family, but because of all the decisions that she faced.

Even though the story was sad from beginning to end, it was also utterly beautiful.  This was the first book I had read by Gayle Forman, and I am now anxious to read more.  Every word seems to be placed just right, and the overall effect is so musical, so lovely and haunting that it stayed with me long after the story was done.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Book Review: The Wishing Spell


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I must confess: I am a huge fan of all things Glee.  And one of my very favorite things about Glee is the character of Kurt Hummel, who is played by the wonderful and talented Chris Colfer.  So when I learned that Colfer was not only a actor, singer, and dancer, but also an author, I simply couldn't wait to get my hands on his first children's book, The Land of Stories: The Wishing Spell.

In this imaginative tale, twelve-year-old twins Alex and Conner Bailey have had a rough year.  Their beloved father has passed away, and their now-single mother is having a hard time making ends meet.  Both twins are struggling at school--Conner academically and Alex socially.  For their twelfth birthday, their grandmother visits and gives them the most well-loved symbol of their childhoods: a large book called The Land of Stories, full of all the fairy tales that their grandmother and parents read them nightly when they were young.  These stories were not the "Disney" versions of the fairy tales, but rather the original Brothers Grimm versions, with the "real" endings that few of their peers knew about.

Shortly after the twins receive the book, it begins to hum mysteriously, becoming louder and more insistent as the days go on.... until when examining it, the twins fall through its pages and are transported into the Land of Stories, which turns out to be a very real place.

They are fortunate enough to begin their travels by meeting a frog-man with a kind heart, who offers them shelter and fills them in on the basics of the world into which they have fallen.  He also tells them about the Wishing Spell, which will require them to go on a difficult quest to collect a list of famous fairy-tale items (including one of Cinderella's glass slippers, a lock of Rapunzel's hair, the spindle on which Sleeping Beauty pricked her finger, etc.).  Once assembled, these items will activate a powerful spell that will grant them the desire of their hearts--which, in the twins' case, is to go home.  Conveniently, the Wishing Spell has been used once before, and Froggy is possession of the journal of the man who used it.  He gives the twins the journal to guide them on their quest, and he also supplies them with other useful items, such as a map of the local kingdoms, gold coins, blankets, and food.  And thus the twins set off on their quest.

Along the way, they run into many dangers, such as being pursued by the Big Bad Wolf Pack, being captured by trolls and goblins, and having to make multiple quick escapes after stealing collecting the famous items for the Wishing Spell.  They also get to meet many of the fairy tale heroes and heroines they've heard about for their entire lives and tour some amazing sites.  Throughout these adventures, they prove themselves to be kind, honest, noble, and pure of heart.

Unfortunately for the twins, they have a competitor in collecting the items for the Wishing Spell.  The Evil Queen (Snow White's stepmother) has recently escaped from prison and is also collecting items, aided by her Huntsman and his daughter, her Huntress.  The Wishing Spell can only be used twice ever (and remember, it's already been used once), so not only is it bad enough that the Evil Queen is trying to eliminate the twins.... but if she succeeds in activating the Spell first, the twins will be stuck in the Land of Stories forever.

When I started reading this book, I was immediately drawn in by the Prologue, in which Snow White pleads with the Evil Queen for some kind of explanation for her cruelty.  But then, in Chapter 1, the story switches to Conner and Alex, and my attention soon waned.  But when my eight-year-old daughter asked me what I was reading and I started describing the story to her, she was captivated, and I found myself getting excited at the description. 

While rearranging some shelves at work at the library one day, I also listened to two chapters of the audio version of The Land of Stories.  I'm so glad that I did this--it definitely increased my appreciation of the book.  Chris Colfer, the author, narrates his own work, and it is definitely an experience not to miss.  Colfer originally achieved fame as a television actor, and he is at his best when providing the voices of this wide cast of characters.  I loved hearing the difference in personalities that he brought out between Alex and Conner, not to mention the inflections that he gave to Bobblewart the Troll, Trix the Fairy, and others.

Chris Colfer's Land of Stories displays a vivid imagination.  The traditional fairy tale characters take on lives beyond what we've always known; for example, Goldilocks has become a tough, sword-wielding outlaw, while Little Red Riding Hood has become a scantily-clad, self-absorbed, self-styled queen.  Cinderella did not have an easy time adjusting to monarchy, but she now looks forward to the birth of her first child.  I loved the descriptions of the layout of world; the inclusion of details like Mother Duck Pond and Jack's rapidly-growing beanstalk are evidence of both Colfer's imagination and attention to detail.  I also liked the relationships that created between the characters.  How was it that Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, and Snow White all married Prince Charming?  Why did Goldilocks go into the three bears' house in the first place?  How did the Little Mermaid's story really end?  And, of course, what made the Evil Queen so evil?

In short, huge kudos to Chris Colfer for his fantastic imagination, development of detail, and child-appropriate plotline that was also clever enough to interest an adult.  There was nothing questionable or risqué in this book; it was an nice read and I would not hesitate at all to recommend it to a young reader.  But--and I really hate to say this because of my deep love for Chris Colfer, but I cannot tell a lie--I was really not impressed at all with the writing.  The style itself was very simplistic.  There was a lot of "he said, she said, and then."  An actual child reading the book might not be slowed down by this, but as an adult reader, I found that the clunky style really impaired my enjoyment of the book as a whole.  Colfer clearly has fantastic ideas, but I think The Wishing Spell would have benefited from some writing workshop courses or some heavy editing.  Of course, how Colfer found time to write a novel with the breakneck pace he keeps for Glee is a mystery to me, so I'm frankly impressed that he pulled it off at all.... but that being said, I also don't think I'll be rushing out to pick up the sequel.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Book Review: Let It Snow


I first stumbled across the existence of Let It Snow during my Christmas shopping last year.  I was in Barnes and Noble, purchasing a few novels as gifts to spread the John Green love, when much to my surprise, I saw this book that I'd never heard of tucked in between copies of The Fault in Our Stars and Looking for Alaska.  Obviously, my first thought was, "How could I possibly have missed this??"  When I picked it up and realized that it was co-authored by Maureen Johnson and Lauren Myracle (neither of whom I had ever read but both of whom I really wanted to), it immediately moved to the top of my "to read" list.

My holiday budget was tight, so I didn't buy a copy that night, but I figured I'd go back for a copy right after the holidays.  However, I had failed to notice the publication date.  I had just assumed that Let It Snow must be a new book... after all, clearly anything by those three greats must be flying off the shelves!  So you can imagine my great confusion when the Christmas craziness passed and I was utterly unable to find a copy of this book.  I eventually looked it up online and realized that it had been published in 2008--but still, c'mon people, this is JOHN GREEN we're talking about here.

At any rate, it was taken me almost an entire year, but I have finally managed to track down a copy of this book through the wonders of interlibrary loan.  It was absolutely worth the wait, and I highly recommend that you all drop what you're doing right now and run out this second to track down a copy for yourselves.  The magic of John Green meets the magic of Christmas.... how can you possibly go wrong??

Let It Snow is actually three intertwining short stories, one written by each author.  All three are set in Gracetown, beginning during a record-breaking blizzard the day before Christmas.  While each story has its own distinct plot and cast of characters, some characters and plot points do overlap, pulling the book together as a whole.

******

The first story is "The Jubilee Express" by Maureen Johnson.  Its main character, Jubilee Dougal (who is NOT a stripper, thank you very much), is all set to spend Christmas Eve celebrating her one-year anniversary with her everybody-knows-he's-perfect boyfriend Noah at his annual Family Smorgasbord.... but then her parents get arrested in a riot while trying to secure one of the limited supply of collectible Elf Hotels that have been released for the Flobie Christmas Village, and next thing she knows, Jubilee is alone on a train, en route to spend Christmas with her grandparents in faraway Florida.  Unfortunately, a storm of record-breaking proportions hits, and Jubilee's train crashes into a snowbank just outside of Gracetown, a mere 2 hours from her hometown.

In order to conserve power, the train cuts down on power and heat.  Jubilee finds herself huddled into a train car with a good guy named Jeb, who is desperate to get to Gracetown to see his girlfriend.... she cheated on him, but he really wants to work it out with her.  Unfortunately, Jubilee and Jeb are also sharing the train car with 14 cheerleaders (most of whom are named either Amber or Madison), who are on their way to a cheer competition and are determined to practice their stunts at any cost.

In order to get away from the cheerleaders, Jubilee leaves the safety of the train and ventures through the snow to a Waffle House that she can see from the train.  There she meets the cook and acting manager, Don-Keun, and a strange man named Travis who dresses head-to-toe in tinfoil.  Then a guy named Stuart blows through the door, and in spite of the fact that his hands, feet, and head are wrapped in plastic Target bags to protect against the cold, he seems to be pretty normal.  He crashed his car in the snow and is walking home (thus the plastic bags as an emergency warmth measure).  At this point, the door bursts open again and all 14 cheerleaders invade, wanting to know if they can practice their pyramids in the Waffle House.  Stuart sees Jubilee's agony at the idea of being trapped for who-knows-how-long with an entire squad of overenthusiastic cheerleaders and offers to let her join him for the walk to his house, explaining that his mom has "a real thing about Christmas" and would never forgive him if he didn't help someone in need at the holidays.  Though Jubilee's brain screams "stranger danger!," the cheerleaders scream louder, and she and Stuart head out into the cold.

As you might imagine from a book that declares itself to be "three holiday romances," Stuart does NOT turn out to be a "stranger danger," but instead an absolutely sweet guy, and in spite of some laugh-out-loud foibles, he and Jubilee work their way toward a happy ending.

"The Jubilee Express" was the first thing I've read by Maureen Johnson, and I absolutely LOVED it.  I've had several of her other things on my "to read" list for quite a while now, but they will definitely be getting bumped to the top after this.  In fact (please don't hate me, John Green--I still love you dearly, but I have to tell the truth), I have to admit that "The Jubilee Express" was actually my favorite story in this book.  While I loved Let It Snow as a whole, Jubilee's voice was definitely my favorite, and her story had me both laughing and sympathizing at all the right parts.

******

The second story is "A Cheertastic Christmas Miracle" by (my favorite!) John Green.  It begins on the same night as the train crash in "The Jubilee Express."  As the story opens, a guy named Tobin (the narrator) is hanging out in his basement, enjoying a James Bond movie marathon with his friends JP (a guy) and the Duke (a girl).  His mother calls to let him know that she and his father won't (sob!) be able to make it home for Christmas because their flight has been cancelled due to the terrible storm.  She is deeply distressed; Tobin isn't too worked up.

Shortly thereafter, Tobin receives another call, this one from his friend Keun, who is a cook at the Waffle House.  Yes, this is where the stories collide.  It seems that Keun's waffle house has been invaded by 14 cheerleaders from a crashed train.  And in spite of the fact that the worst blizzard in history is occurring and the streets are virtually impassible, Keun is inviting JP and Tobin to join him at the Waffle House for what he assures them will be "the greatest night of their lives."  (Because apparently the mere presence of cheerleaders is destined to make it great.  Or so at least these guys think.)

The catch?  The other two employees at the Waffle House have also each invited two friends.... and only the first carload to arrive will be allowed in the doors (because otherwise it will be "too crowded").  Oh, and also Tobin needs to bring the game Twister.  Because Keun really, really wants to play Twister with the cheerleaders.

Completely throwing caution to the wind, Tobin and JP run around the house, changing clothes and locating the board game.  They hit a slight snag when the Duke (whose real name is Angie) flatly refuses to go, pointing out that going out into a horrible blizzard at midnight to play a game designed for six-year-olds with cheerleaders that you've never met before is a really dumb idea.  But Tobin manages to convince her to come along by tempting her with the delicious allure of Waffle House hash browns.

After a dramatic, snowy, near-death experience just trying to get out of their subdivision, Tobin, JP, and the Duke are off on a night of adventures as they race some nameless college guys and the violently aggressive Reston twins toward the Waffle House.  Along the way, they too encounter Jeb (who is still trying to make his way through the blizzard to reunite with his girlfriend) and Travis (who is still dressed in tinfoil).  After many epic (and cold) adventures, they do eventually reach the promised hash browns, and Tobin simultaneously reaches a conclusion that he did not see coming (though the reader probably did).

*******

The final story, "The Patron Saint of Pigs" by Lauren Myracle, begins at the same time as the other stories, but its main action takes place two days later, on the day after Christmas.  Its main character, Addie, is stuck in a deep depression because she and her boyfriend Jeb (remember him??) have broken up, all due to her own stupid mistake of kissing another boy after she and Jeb had a fight.  She wants nothing more in the world than to get back together with Jeb, and she sent him a desperate email saying so.  She begged him to meet her at Starbucks at 3:00 on Christmas Eve--which just happens to be exactly where and when they first got together a year before.  But not only did he not show up, he didn't even call to explain!  Which explains why she then, in a fit of depression, went across the parking lot to Fantastic Sams, cut off all her blond hair, and dyed the short, pitiful remains a shocking pink.

Two days later, Addie still hasn't heard from Jeb and is deep in self-pity.  To make matters worse, her two best friends, Dorrie and Tegan, have accused her of being self-absorbed.  When both her Starbucks manager AND Travis the tinfoil guy then point out that "not everything is about you," she begins to get the uncomfortable message that maybe the universe is trying to send her a much-needed message.

Just as Addie resolves to turn over a  new leaf and do things for others, she realizes that she's already messed up.... by forgetting to pick up Tegan's brand-new, special-order teacup pig from the pet shop.  She rushes over there, but someone else has already bought it--in spite of the store's instructions to hold it for Tegan.  So Addie resolves to find the pig and get it back for Tegan.... and in the process, uncovers the meddlings of an unlikely Christmas angel.

(And don't worry, Jeb does show up for a happy ending.)

******

So in spite of the fact that this book was rather hard to track down, I strongly encourage you to go out and find a copy.  It's absolutely perfect for a feel-good read at this time of year.  I loved the cast of characters, and I particularly enjoyed getting to see different authors' perspectives on them.  The descriptions of the gigantic blizzard were so well-done (and so frequent) that when I did manage to emerge from reading, I was somewhat shocked to realize that I was not, in fact, snowed in.  And as a bonus, I now have John Green (and Lauren Myracle) to thank for the addition of the insult word "asshat" to my vocabulary.  :)

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Book Review: Burned

Ellen Hopkins's Burned is written in the same haunting verse as her more well-known Crank trilogy.  I had often glanced at Burned on the library shelf and considered picking it up, but to be honest, the summary inside the jacket cover scared me off.  It begins, in large, bold type, "I do know things really began to spin out of control after my first sex dream."

Um, not to sound like a prude--but that sounds like an area that I'm better off not knowing about.

Particularly when the cover goes on to state that "Pattyn's father catches her in a compromising position."

So while I absolutely devoured Crank, Glass, and Fallout, I was okay with leaving Burned on the shelf.  But then one of my students told me that I just "HAD" to read it.  And this particular student is an adorable, quiet, well-behaved, sweet girl that would definitely not recommend smut.  And when I gave her an incredulous look and said, "Really?", she responded with, "Oh, you would just love it!  The writing is so good, and Pattyn is such an interesting character, just the kind of kid that you would want to help in real life."  So that hooked me, and I went straight to the library that night to pick up Burned.

And it's true, Pattyn is EXACTLY the kind of girl that I would take a special interest in if she were my student.  Really too bad for her that apparently all of her teachers, not to mention the librarian that she loves so much, are all blind.  Or at least stupid.  Or just uncaring.  Because NONE OF THEM HELPED HER, even though it was obvious that she was being abused.  And even if they somehow managed to miss the abuse, it should have been painfully clear that an otherwise good kid took a sudden and frightening turn downhill.  Why didn't anyone intervene?  See, that's my problem with this book.  Or my problem with reality.  But I digress.

ANYWAY.  Pattyn's "sex dream" was nothing graphic.  It was maybe PG-13.  In fact, the most scandalous part of the entire book was probably the dust jacket.  So I'm really glad that I worked past my initial prudishness and read it.

Pattyn von Stratten (gotta love the rhyming name) is the oldest girl in a large Mormon family.  Her family doesn't exactly do the church proud though.... her father is an alcoholic who beats his wife.  Her mother, in turn, is nothing but a baby factory who submits to the beatings in exchange for being allowed to sit in front of the television the rest of the time, while her daughters do all the housework and raise the newest baby.  The church tells Pattyn that women must submit to men.  Pattyn dares to have other ideas.

In her junior year of high school, Pattyn starts dating a non-Mormon boy named Derek.  Their relationship gets physical.  Gossip gets back to her parents through other kids from her church, and her father confronts Derek and threatens his life.  Derek dumps Pattyn, leaving her heartbroken and confused.  She reacts angrily, earning her the punishment of being banished to her Aunt Jeannette's ranch for the summer.  She goes unwillingly, but it's at Aunt J's that Pattyn finally learns what real love is, first from her aunt and then from a handsome neighbor....

A few thoughts here.... For starters, any strict Mormon who picks up this book is clearly going to HATE it.  (Okay, any actually strict Mormon wouldn't be allowed to pick up this book.  But you get the idea.)  The book is incredibly critical of Mormon culture and beliefs, repeatedly pointing out the negatives and making a case for potential of how the belief system could be destructive if employed in a skewed way.  But Hopkins never says a word about the positives of this faith (and because this is a work of fiction, she certainly doesn't have to).  So just a warning--if you're at all sympathetic to the LDS church, steer clear of this book; it will just make you mad.

Secondly, WOW, for a smart girl, Pattyn made some incredibly self-destructive decisions.  It was almost like she WANTED to self-destruct.  This might be the point to get into a deep discussion about how the children of addicts are prone to addictive behaviors themselves--but I'll spare you the psychoanalysis.  When I was reading the Crank trilogy, I was willing to accept all of Kristina's horrible decisions because, you know, she was a meth addict--obviously she wasn't thinking straight.  But in Burned, Pattyn had no such excuse.  Personally, I think that she should have asked teachers, counselors, and law enforcement officials for help a million times over... and never, ever, EVER touched a drop of alcohol.  At the VERY least, she should have called Aunt J for help when she got into trouble with her dad back at home.  And the last 25 pages contain so many bad choices that I just wanted to throw the book down in disgust.

That being said, I'm still going to read the sequel (Impulse).  I may be good and frustrated with it, but I'm too hooked on Pattyn's story to stop now!



Friday, October 25, 2013

Book Review: My Life Next Door

 

 Last May, I discovered Epic Reads' map of The United States of YA, which recommends a book for every state, and posted about my intention to read the entire list.  While I have not moved through the list as nearly as quickly as I had hoped, I have kept my eyes peeled for the books on the list during my trips to the library.  Last week, I located a copy of My Life Next Door, the novel for Connecticut, at my local library and checked it out.  Once I started reading, I was hooked from the very first chapter--I simply couldn't put it down.  I carried it around in my purse all week, and any time I got a free moment, I dove back into the story.  It was that good.

My Life Next Door is Huntley Fitzpatrick's debut novel.  I went straight to her website after I finished reading the book, and I need to say that not only did I absolutely love her book, but I also think I love her as a person.  Not only is she a darn good writer, she's also a mother of six.  (And let me tell you, as a mother of four, it took me an entire week to READ this book, so I am wowed and amazed by the fact that she was able to WRITE it!)  She also has this great down-to-earth, slightly self-deprecating voice that really resonates with me.  So if you are reading this review and have ever enjoyed my recommendations on chick lit before, do yourself a favor and run out to your local library or bookstore and get your hands on a copy of My Life Next Door--trust me, you will love it.

The story is told from the perspective of 17-year-old Samantha Reed.  She lives in the idyllic town seaside town of Stony Bay, Connecticut.  From the outside, at least, her life seems pretty perfect.  Samantha attends private school and comes from a wealthy family.  Her mother, Grace Reed, is a state senator running for re-election.  But Grace also expects nothing short of perfection from Samantha, and "kindness" and "love" don't seem to be part of her mothering repertoire (which might explain why her husband left her while she was still pregnant with Samantha...).  Grace is also a judgmental snob, and for the past 10 years, the brunt of her superior attitude has been directed at her next-door neighbors, the Garretts.

The Garretts' lives are far from the well-mannered, systematic, orderly days that Samantha is used to.  For starters, there are just so many of them.  The Garretts have eight children, and they always seem to be doing something interesting.  They're loud, they're messy, they're happy, they're real.  Samantha spends years of her quiet life watching them from the roof outside her bedroom window.  And then, one summer night, Jase Garrett climbs the trellis, settles in next to her, and introduces himself.  And she finds that she can actually talk to him, more easily, truthfully, and naturally than she has ever been able to talk to anyone else.

Jase draws Samantha into the world of the Garretts, and its hard to say who Sam falls in love with first--Jase, or the rest of his family.  As the summer goes by, she comes to love them all fiercely.  And as she examines herself as she is with them, she begins to question and then understand who she really is.  But then an accident occurs, and Samantha must choose where her loyalties truly lie.

Completely random commentary:

....Okay, so I just need to say that when the book jacket warned me that "something unthinkable" would happen, that "the bottom drops out of Samantha's world," and that "she's suddenly faced with an impossible decision," I had a couple of guesses as to where the story was headed.  I had two relatively straightforward and one slightly more off-the-beaten track guesses for what was going to happen.  And to Fitzpatrick's credit, I was enjoying to book so much that I didn't even really care that I was pretty sure it was going to end up being a formula novel.  But then, wham!  Not at all what I was expecting.  What ended up happening was not out of the realm of possibility, and after it happened, I could see how the previous scenes had been building toward it..... but it was definitely not what I had been expecting, and it was definitely not formulaic.  So kudos to you, Huntley Fitzpatrick--nicely done!

Also, Grace Reed: She's a truly crappy mom, and also a gigantic b*tch for most of the book.  But you've got to admit, the woman makes some amazingly good lemonade.  Which is why I was REALLY excited that an internet search revealed Huntley Fitzpatrick's recipe for Grace's Lemonade here.  I am definitely going to make some--you know, on a day that I have a LOT of free time, since apparently her recipe is rather more involved than my usual "dump the powder into the water and stir" method.

And finally, Tim Mason.  This dude was like a time bomb waiting to explode.  He was involved in my off-the-beaten track guess for the crisis waiting to strike Samantha.  I was also half-expecting him to declare his undying love for Samantha at some point... but neither of those things happened.  And with the revelations about Nan and her academics toward the end, I definitely wanted to learn more about their weird relationship.  But to be honest, more than anything, I am a sucker for romance and happy endings, and I wanted him to develop an unlikely romance with Alice.  And while Fitzpatrick did throw us romantics a bone with the smile that Tim and Alice shared over the ice cream toward the end, he really didn't get much of a storyline of his own--which is really too bad, considering how fascinating of a character he is.  So all of this explains why I am so, so excited to see that Tim will be getting his own novel, The Boy Most Likely To, coming in June 2015, which will resolve some of those nagging questions.  You can bet I'll be standing in line to get my hands on that one!

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Book Review: The List

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Every year, on the Monday of Homecoming week, the social order at Mount Washington High is completely recast.  On that morning, the copies of the List appear by the hundreds all over the school.  It identifies the prettiest and ugliest girl in each grade.  They are the extremes; everyone else is the middle ground.  No one knhows who makes the List or how it's distributed, but everyone views its judgments as absolute.

Freshman swimmer Danielle DeMarco is tagged as ugliest.  She didn't even know the List existed before that morning.  Now everyone is calling her "Dan the Man" and her boyfriend's friends are teasing her mercilessly.

Abby Warner, on the other hand, is the prettiest freshman.  Too bad her older sister, brainiac Fern, seems so bent out of shape about it.

Sophomore Candace Kincaid assumed she had a lock on "prettiest" for this year.  So why is she listed as "ugliest" instead?  And what does the mysterious list-maker mean by saying, "Beauty isn't just skin-deep, btw"?

Lauren Finn has been home-schooled for her entire life.  So when she starts at Mount Washington in her sophomore year, she has no idea how to make friends.... until the List names her as prettiest and her classmates seem all too willing to befriend her.

Junior Sarah Singer rejected the typical standards of beauty years ago.  She isn't the slightest bit surprised that her classmates think she's ugly.  She's just suprised to find that beauty might actually matter to her friend Milo.

Bridget Honeycutt won "prettiest junior" with the explanation "what a difference a summer can make."  Too bad it was the hardest summer of her life.

Jennifer Briggis isn't the slightest big surprised to be named the ugliest senior.  After all, it's the fourth year in a row that she's been named ugliest for her class.

As for cheerleading captain Margo Gable, being named prettiest in the senior class is pretty much a guarantee that she'll also be crowned homecoming queen--just like her sister was last year.

This year, Principal Colby immediately calls the girls on the List into her office.  She tells them, "Something terrible has happened to all of you girls.  Someone took it upon himself or herself to single you out, give you a label, and present you has nothing more than the most superficial, subjective version of yourselves.  And there are emotional consequences to that, regardless of which side of the coin you are on."

The girls aren't convinced.  Maybe the ugly girls will suffer, but surely being pretty has its own rewards.

Except that Abby's grades are awful.  And Lauren's relationship with her mother is rapidly deteriorating.  And Bridget is struggling with her own personal demons.  And everyone suspects Margo of making the List herself.

But if Margo didn't make the List, then who did?  Male, female, individual, or group?  Why were these girls chosen, and can the Lists ever be stopped?  And once you're on a List, can your life ever be normal again?

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

This Is How We Do It

Last week, someone asked me, "What method or strategy do you use for teaching children to enjoy reading?"

Well. I don't know if you'd really call this a "method," because in our house, it's as natural as breathing. But this is what we do:

We expose our kids to books, early and often. We let them see us reading, we model the excitement and enjoyment that come from involving yourself in a good book. We keep books easily accessible to them. We have bookshelves in basically every room of our house. For our kids, books aren't anything intimidating; they're a part of the everyday landscape. And in keeping with the idea of making books accessible, we take them to the library regularly. Our local library offers some great children's programs, and because we sell it as such, our kids are completely convinced that library is every bit as much fun as the park.

And most importantly, we read to them. There is just no substitute for curling up together on the couch and sharing a pile of storybooks. We also read before bed every night, and we let our kids take books to bed with them. Even the baby. I mean, he's too young to sleep with a blanket yet, but make no mistake, his crib is full of board books.

So the other night, I was collapsed in bed. It was only 10:30, but it had been a really long day. I had taken all four of my kids on a day-long adventure down to Indianapolis by myself, and the day had included a lengthy trip to the zoo in super-hot weather, among other adventures. So by the time we got home, I was pretty much ready to collapse into some air-conditioned slumber. But not my three-year old. We tucked him into bed with a book, as usual, and a few minutes later, I heard the pitter-patter of little feet at my door.

"Mama, I have a question." Wearily I raised my head and squinted into the hall light. "What was this called again?"

I made out the cover of Bill Martin Jr's classic. "Chicka Chicka Boom Boom?"

"No, not that..."

"Um, coconut?" I asked, remembering how he had been confused about those items the last time we had read the book.

"No!" he said, pointing again. "This!"

At that point, my husband passed through the hall.  "Tooth?" he asked, glancing down at the picture.

"Yes, that's it!  Loose-tooth T!" our son declared.  Then, his memory of the alphabet and their various injuries restored, he went back into his room to "read" himself to sleep.

And that's how we do it.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Book Review: Fade

http://3.bp.blogspot.com/-EuGjnSmnEBc/TZXrwFf_-HI/AAAAAAAABzU/xzNwS9Ap_dw/s320/33639536.jpg  
Blurb from lisamcmann.com: 


For Janie and Cabel, real life is getting tougher than the dreams.  They’re just trying to carve out a little (secret) time together, but no such luck.  Disturbing things are happening at Fieldridge High, yet nobody’s talking.  When Janie taps into a classmate’s violent nightmares, the case finally breaks open—but nothing goes as planned.  Not even close.  Janie’s in way over her head, and Cabe’s shocking behavior has grave consequences for them both.

Worse yet, Janie learns the truth about herself and her ability.  And it’s bleak.  Seriously, brutally bleak.  Not only is her fate as a Dream Catcher sealed, but what’s to come is way darker than she’d even feared....
  
******

I enjoyed Lisa McMann’s Wake so much that I picked up a copy of its sequel, Fade, just as soon as I could.  I was not disappointed.  I enjoyed Fade every bit as much as Wake, though the story was different in many ways.

In Wake, Janie is largely powerless against her dreams.  She is struggling to understand her own powers.  She has viewed her dream catching as a curse for so long; she is completely shocked at Captain’s revelations that she can learn there are other people like her, that she can learn to control her power, and that can use her power to help others.  That was all during the first semester of her senior year.

Fade takes place during the second semester of her senior year.  Even though only a short amount of calendar time has passed, many things in Janie’s life have shifted subtly.  She is learning to control her dreams, and this gives her a sense of control over her own life that she has never experienced before.  She is now employed undercover by Captain, so she has a regular paycheck and a healthy college scholarship to boot.  The future is no longer as scary as it once was.  Although their employment status as undercover agents prevents Janie and Cabel from going public with their romantic relationship, they connect more deeply with each other than they ever have with anyone else.  Of course, there’s still the matter of Janie’s deadbeat alcoholic mother—and oh yeah, also the paralyzing seizures that Janie experiences as a result of her dreamcatching.   But Janie and Cabe are certain they can work it all out.

At the beginning of the book, Captain calls Janie and Cabel into her office and lets them in on a top-secret assignment.  Over the past year, the help hotline has received two anonymous calls.  While both were garbled, they seem to indicate that there might be a sexual predator on the loose….. more specifically, a teacher who preys on students.  Janie’s assignment is to enter her classmates’ dreams to see if she can discover anything.  Cabel, meanwhile, is to use his charm to talk to classmates and see what he can learn.

At first, they come up with nothing.  But then, through a chance encounter, Janie begins to develop some suspicions.  As she follows her hunch, the pieces start to fall into place.  But the further she becomes involved in the situation, the more upset Cabe becomes.  And when Janie attends a party to help with police make an undercover bust, she learns too late that the situation is much bigger than she realized… and she risks losing Cabe forever.

As if that’s not enough drama for one book, there’s also the matter of a journal left behind for her by a previous Dream Catcher.  It details what Janie can expect out of her life if she continues to use her abilities… and Janie isn’t at all sure that this is a future that she wants.  But does she really have any kind of alternative?

I really love Janie as a character.  She is faced with all kinds of overwhelming problems, and while she has her (understandable) moments of despair, she never gives up.  She is an extremely strong character—and I happen to love her wisecracks as well.  She loves Cabel, but she refuses to just sit back and let him take care of her.  While she definitely has her fair share of moments of nausea at the thought of tracking down a sexual predator, she ultimately does it because she wants to keep other girls safe.  She points out that Cabel took on all kinds of danger in the previous book, so she cannot expect anything less of herself now.  She is smart and tough and vulnerable, all at the same time.  Very real and very well done.  Definitely looking forward to finishing out the trilogy by reading Gone!




Friday, May 10, 2013

Book Review: Requiem

http://www.laurenoliverbooks.com/images/book-requiem.jpg

Description from Amazon.com:
This exciting finale to Lauren Oliver’s New York Times bestselling Delirium trilogy is a riveting blend of nonstop action and forbidden romance in a dystopian United States.

Now an active member of the resistance, Lena has transformed.  The nascent rebellion that was  underway in Pandemonium has ignited into an all-out revolution in Requiem, and Lena is at the center of the fight.

After rescuing Julian from a death sentence, Lena and her friends fled to the Wilds.  But the Wilds are no longer a safe haven.  Pockets of rebellion have opened throughout the country, and the government cannot deny the existence of Invalids.  Regulators infiltrate the borderlands to stamp out the rebels.

As Lena navigates the increasingly dangerous terrain of the Wilds, her best friend, Hana, lives a safe, loveless life in Portland as the fiancée of the young mayor.  Requiem is told from both Lena and Hana’s points of view.  They live side by side in a world that divides them until, at last, their stories converge.

With lyrical writing, Lauren Oliver seamlessly interweaves the peril that Lena faces with the inner tumult she experiences after the reappearance of her first love, Alex, the boy she thought was dead.  Sophisticated and wide-ranging, Requiem brings the Delirium trilogy to a thrilling conclusion.
******

 I have waited anxiously for months to get my hands on Lauren Oliver’s Requiem.  I hate to break up the reading of a series, so I usually try to wait for an entire series to be published before I start reading it.  This means that all too often, I miss out on the excitement and hype of the hottest new releases, particularly those much-anticipated second books in a trilogy.  However, somehow I ended up breaking my own rule and got started on the Delirium series way back at its beginning, so it felt like I’d been waiting for Requiem for a really long time.  I actually intended to re-read Delirium and Pandemonium before picking up Requiem, but then I saw it sitting on the shelf of the teen section of my library (no wait!!) and just couldn’t resist snatching it up.

Unfortunately, I did find myself a little fuzzy on some of the finer points of the earlier books while reading Requiem—not enough to keep me from enjoying the book, but enough to keep me from catching every single well-done nuance.

Heading into Requiem, there were plenty of questions to be resolved for Lena and her friends.  What did Alex mean by his cryptic comment (“don’t believe her”) at the end of Pandemonium?  What would Alex’s reappearance mean for Lena and Julian’s budding relationship?  Would Julian be able to handle life in the Wilds, or would he want to return to the DFA?  Had Lena lost her once chance to reconnect with her mother?  What had become of Hana back in Portland—had she been cured?  And most importantly, when would the final and inevitable clash between the Invalids and the Regulators occur—and who would win?  Requiem addresses, but does not answer, all of these questions.  With some, readers are left to draw their own conclusions.

These days, dystopian trilogies seem to be cropping up everywhere.  What sets Requiem apart from many other books in the genre is the split narration between Lena and Hana.  I honestly felt that Hana’s voice was the stronger element of the two.  Thanks to her procedure, she is mostly emotionless, but she still has her memories of her old life, and every now and then, a faint memory of emotion works its way in.  It is this memory of emotion that leads to Hana’s attempt to discharge any lingering responsibility she might have toward Lena’s family.  Most of the time, though, Hana is powered by logic.  And it is logic, not emotion, that tells her something is very wrong with her fiancé, Fred Hargrove.  As Hana subtly begins to investigate her fiance’s secrets, she confirms what she has long suspected—that her society is not nearly as perfect, or as powerful, as it seems.

While trying to stay away from blatant spoilery, I must say that I really admire Lauren Oliver for the ending of this book.  While it left me feeling unsatisfied in many ways, it did so because of Oliver’s refusal to wrap things up with a neat little bow on them.  There were moments where I could see various conflicts heading toward neat, tidy endings, and then Oliver veered away from them.  So while there’s no true resolution to the story, it ends on a hopeful note—perhaps primed for a follow-up novel or series?

While the “are you on Team Alex or Team Julian?” dilemma seems pretty formulaic for young adult dystopian novels by now (okay, for young adult novels in general), the split narration between Lena and Hana and the openended finish kept Lauren Oliver’s Delirium from getting lost in the crowd.  A nice finish to a well-done trilogy.  While I still think that Before I Fall was the strongest of Oliver’s YA novels, I definitely think she’s an author to keep our eyes on—I’m hoping to enjoy many more books from her in the future.

Monday, May 6, 2013

The US of YA - from Epicreads

A friend of mine sent me a link to this website from Epicreads, which provides an awesome map of the United States with each state decorated as a young adult novel that takes place there.  I LOVE this!  I immediately hit up my father (who owns a printing company) to print a huge poster-sized one in full color for my classroom.  Can't wait to get it and put it up!

Of this list, I have read:
* Indiana (my home state!) - The Fault in Our Stars by John Green
* Maine - Delirium by Lauren Oliver
* Michigan - Wake by Lisa McMann
* Minnesota - Shiver by Maggie Stiefvater
* Nevada - Crank by Ellen Hopkins
* New Jersey - White Cat by Holly Black
* Ohio - I Am Number Four by Pittacus Lore
* Washington - The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie

And MANY of the others have been on my TBR list for a good while now.  My new goal is to read all of the books on this poster (and add them to my wall of books) by the beginning of the next school year.

What do you think, fellow readers?  Do you have favorites on this list that I should bump to the top of my pile?  Would you subsitute a different book for any of the states?  Have you read the book from your home state, and did you like it?

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Showing Off

Over the past week, I've been working hard to put together a library-specific resume.  While I like my teaching job and really enjoy spending time with the students and other staff members, my ultimate goal is still to become a librarian.  So I've been going back and looking through the various projects that I've created for my grad classes.  As I was doing this, it occurred to me that I had never posted many of those links here..... So here, the fruits of my librarian labors--enjoy!!  :)

 A pathfinder for The Great Gatsby, aimed at high school students.
https://sites.google.com/site/gatsbyguide/




An information inquiry with collaborative elements for teachers and librarians, focused on a high school study of dystopian novels.
http://dysopiancomparisonproject.wikispaces.com/home


A webquest facilitating an independent novel project for high school students.
https://sites.google.com/site/independentnovelproject/


A transmedia storytelling experience, sharing the lives of my "camp kids."
http://mpcampt.blogspot.com/


A research pathfinder on infant feeding and nutrition.
http://infantfeeding.wordpress.com/



A research-based information inquiry into Hindu wedding ceremonies.
http://amyinquires.weebly.com/index.html


An inquiry-based learning experienced, focused on poetry for grades 5 and 11.
http://poetry5and11.wikispaces.com/


A comic on my daughter's preschool production of "The Wizard of Oz."
(As a side note, if you've never used Comic Life--it's awesome!)
https://docs.google.com/file/d/0B570Z9Lf9dlQUS1vZmJoSk15TUE/edit?usp=sharing







My end-of-semester project answering the question "Why are electronic resources important in today's world?"
https://docs.google.com/file/d/0B570Z9Lf9dlQeVU1cnh2SFNaWkk/edit?usp=sharing


My personal blog.  Warning: It hasn't been updated since I returned to teaching in January!  (but archives go back to July of 2006)
http://meypfan.blogspot.com/