Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Book Review: Nothing Could Possibly Go Wrong

 In this graphic novel, Charlie is along for the ride in more ways than one.  The first page finds him hanging on for dear life as his friend Nate weaves in and out of traffic while driving home from school, but Charlie only meekly expresses his fear.  He also doesn't have any kind of comeback when his cheerleader girlfriend, Holly, breaks up with him via text message in the book's first frame.  This kind of non-response is pretty much what we can expect from Charlie for most of book.  He is NOT the kind of guy that stands up for himself--he pretty much lets everyone in his life walk all over him.... which is how he ends up letting the cheerleaders manipulate him into running for student body president.
Nate, on the other hand, actually WANTS to be student body president--but only to ensure that the Robotics Team gets the funding to finish building The Beast.  But when Nate and the cheerleaders take their rivalry a bit too far, the principal pulls funding for both of their clubs... which leads to an uneasy (and unlikely) partnership between the two groups, as they team up to find an alternate source of funding.  The plan?  To turn The Beast into a robot-killing machine in time to win the Robot Rumble and secure the $10,000 of prize money.

This graphic novel was a quick read; I knocked it out in a little over an hour.  It leaned heavily on high school stereotypes (cheerleaders vs. nerds), but Charlie was a refreshing departure from the norm.  He and Nate were thrown together by their parents as kids because of their proximity as neighbors, but as high school students, Nate was the one kid that actually cared about and understood Charlie as a person instead of consigning him to the "jock" stereotype.  Nate was there for Charlie when no one else was and even took care of him when his parents weren't around.  Their friendship was a very cool thing, and I think it was Nate's loyalty to Charlie that finally enabled Charlie to stand up for himself.  This story was both fun and funny, and there's a nice little lesson about friendship in there to boot.  Thumbs up.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Book Review: Parallel

I checked out Lauren Miller's debut novel, Parallel, from my library last week.  I read it--devoured it--in less than two days and have not been able to stop thinking about it since.  It reminded me vaguely of Lauren Oliver's Before I Fall, in that it was a story of a girl with a chance at a do-over to get her life right.  Thankfully, I was very pleased with the end of Parallel, whereas Before I Fall was doomed to a sad ending before it started (since Sam was dead by the first page....).  Anyway, I digress.  This is really going to be one of those reviews where I tell you up front that you need to stop reading the review and and just go check out the book.  It's that good.

But for those of you who choose to stick around for the review, I will try to do it justice.

The novel opens on the night before Abby Barnes's 18th birthday.  She is NOT where she always thought she'd be.  According to her carefully crafted Plan for her life, she figured she'd be attending Northwestern University, enrolled in the journalism program.  But a scheduling snafu in her senior year of high school landed her in a drama class. . . . which led to her unexpectedly landing the lead in her school play. . . . which led to a talent scout "discovering" her. . . . which led to her being cast as a minor role in a movie (which she only agreed to do to enhance her Northwestern application). . . . which led to her spending the night before her 18th birthday at an elite restaurant in LA with the star-studded cast of her movie.

The second chapter of the novel is a flashback to Abby's 17th birthday.  Interestingly, it does NOT go as Abby remembered it in the first chapter.  She awakens... to an earthquake.  In Atlanta.  And is consequently late for school.  And because she is late for school, that aforementioned scheduling snafu becomes a little more complicated, and she ends up in astronomy class instead of drama.  In astronomy, she meets two very important people.  First, her professor, Dr. Mann: a Nobel Prize winner with a theory about parallel universes.  Secondly, a very cute boy, Josh: a new student who loves astronomy and rows for the crew team.

In the third chapter, Abby awakens on the morning of her 18th birthday.  But she's not in LA anymore.  Somehow, her entire life has changed overnight.  She's in a dorm room at Yale.  And she has no idea how she got there.  She has all the memories of the last year of her own life--the one that landed her in LA.  But as she reaches back, she has two alternate memories of that day a year before: her 17th birthday.  One day on which she took drama, which launched her on the path to LA.  And one day on which she took astronomy, which apparently launched her on the path to Yale--but how?  And how is this possible?

With the help of her science-savvy best friend Caitlin, as well as several scientific consultations with Dr. Mann, Abby comes to understand that she is living in a parallel universe.  And every time her parallel (the 17-year-old Abby) makes a decision, her own reality shifts again.

This book was beautifully, beautifully done.  This wasn't the first time that the idea of parallel dimensions has been touched (think "Sliding Doors with Gwyneth Paltrow in 1998), but in my opinion, it's the best.  I loved how Abby's reality shifted every time her parallel made a choice--so she had multiple reality shifts to deal with instead of just one.  But what I especially loved was largely summed up in this statement from Dr. Mann:

"That's the beauty of it.  There is no way to know how her choices will manifest in your life until she has already made them.  A decision that appears 'life-altering' might ultimately not be.  Often it is the choices that seem inconsequential that uproot us." (page 90)

Following on this sentiment, all of the choices that chance the trajectory of Abby's life seem like very small things at the time: an inconsequential elective to plug in to an otherwise academically perfect schedule; a silly way to spend a few more minutes with a boy she likes; a slight fib told told to a friend with the greater good in mind.  For a senior in high school, none of these seem like game-changers.  Abby's worried about picking a college.  But in fact, circumstances seem to pick the college for her; it's the small things that determine the outcome of her life far more.

Looking back on my own life, I thought this was a fascinating concept.  How often have I been worried about what I thought were "the big things"--picking the right college, or the right job, or making the right "big decision," when in fact it was the the small things that were steering my direction far more?  Where might I have ended up if it hadn't been for that chance conversation, or one decision that set me on a new path?  Reading Parallel started me contemplating all kinds of interesting questions along these lines.

The other thing that I just loved about Abby as a character was the way she grew as a character and developed a strong sense of self.  She draws a very strong line between herself and her parallel, and she eventually decides, "No, this isn't the life I would haven't chosen--it's the life my parallel chose."  And then she makes the hard choices to go about changing her life to make it what she wants.  I think that pretty much everyone hits a point in their lives where they look around and think, "You know, this is not what I wanted" about something or other in their lives--although most of us do not have parallels to blame for our predicaments.  :)  The question is whether we, like Abby, are willing to do the hard work of turning our lives upside down to get back to the people that we are supposed to be.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Book Review: The Vast Fields of Ordinary


I saw this one on my library's YA shelves, read the summary inside the front flap, and decided that I desperately wanted to read it.  Now that I'm done, though, I can't for the life of me remember why I was so convinced that it was going to be awesome.

The front flap reads: "It's Dade Hamilton's last summer before college. He has a crappy job at Food World, a 'boyfriend' who won't publicly acknowledge his existence (maybe because Pablo also has a girlfriend, one of the most popular girls in school), and parents on the verge of a break-up."  All of this is accurate.  Except that I never felt like Pablo was actually Dade's "boyfriend;" they never had an actual emotional connection at all--they just fooled around a lot.  And that definitely cheapened the story.  And Dade's parents truly were a hot mess.  But Dade was apparently emotionally stunted by a lifetime of living with them or something, because he seemed completely incapable of working up any kind of emotion (other than annoyance) about their situation--which did NOT make him a very likable character.

Front flap continued: "Add to all this the case of Jenny Moore, a nine-year-old whose disappearance has gripped his Iowa town, and Dade's main goal is just to survive until he leaves for school."  The Jenny Moore thing could have been really intriguing.  But it only popped up at random moments throughout the book and never turned into an actual storyline or major plot point of its own.  Instead it largely functioned as a symbol--and a poorly done one at that.

More from the front flap: "Then he meets the mysterious Alex Kincaid, a dreamy-eyed misfit with all the wrong friends.  Alex breathes new life into the suburban wasteland that Dade can't wait to escape--"  Okay.  That's a very intriguing description.  I admit, it totally sucked me in.  But after reading the book, I need to make a few corrections.  Alex is not actually "mysterious" or a "misfit." He is a drug dealer.  And he also works at Taco-Taco.  There is nothing "mysterious" about either of those things.  But his life is going nowhere, and apparently that seems attractive to the college-bound Dade.  Also, I don't think that Dade's world is exactly a "suburban wasteland."  It's true that he lives in a very nice upper-class neighborhood and has awkward, conversation-less dinners at the country club with his dad, and that this material-filled life has caused a great chasm in his parents' marriage.  There's plenty of room for commentary on that.  But I think "suburban wasteland" is rather an overstatement.

The end of the front flap: "--but real love, like truth, has consequences, and its power soon sets in motion a tragic chain of events that will change Dade's life forever."  And considering how the novel ends, I think this last line of the teaser is a total load of crap.  I did actually like the relationship between Dade and Alex (in spite of Alex's drug-dealer tendencies, which I did NOT like), but considering how they ended up, I think the "real love" bit is ridiculous.  And secondly, I'm not sure where the reference to "truth" is coming from, because Dade doesn't engage in much of that.... while he tends to think of himself as some self-aware poet, in actuality, he spends the majority of the novel getting drunk and/or high and then passing out in chaise lounges by his pool in order to avoid his problems.  So it's not like he's on a noble quest for truth or something.  He is a master of the avoidance technique from beginning to end and learns absolutely nothing from the struggles he faces in this novel--except, apparently, how to avoid his problems ever more skillfully.  Dade's avoidance techniques do, in fact, set in motion that "tragic chain of events," but I don't think that Dade's life is particularly changed by them.... at the end of the novel, he just up and leaves for college--which was the plan all along.  The last few pages show him at college, totally happy to be starting over and living a brand-new life.  So basically I got the feeling that he learned absolutely nothing from what happened over the summer.

The front flap also makes no mention of Lucy, the lesbian friend who conveniently moves in down the street from Dade for the summer.  She wasn't a terribly convincing lesbian, but she was a good friend and added really the only bright spot to the entire novel.

Aside from not measuring up to its description, my major complaint with this novel was its lack of plot.  I was about halfway through it when I realized that there really was no major plot or action to speak of.  It's just the story of Dade's last summer at home.  Maybe the story of Dade's coming out.  It had the potential to be more--a mystery over Jenny Moore's disappearance, a battle between Pablo and Alex--but it just never developed.

So I didn't like the story, and I didn't like the main character, but you know what I DID like?  Nick Burd's writing.  This was his debut novel, and in spite of its many flaws, I thought that his writing was great.  His dialogue flowed naturally, his descriptions were vivid, and I lost myself in his words.  In spite of my frustrations with this particular story, I hope to see more from him in the future.

Book Review: The One and Only Ivan

I picked up this book after my second grade daughter told me that her class was reading it and that she LOVED it.  It was an extremely quick read, due to the short chapters (most not more than 2 pages) and simple language, but it packed a huge punch.  I'd highly recommend it to any parent who is looking for a great discussion book to share with their elementary student.

Ivan is a silverback gorilla who has been in captivity for 9,855 days, according to his own count.  He lives at the Exit 8 Big Top Mall and Video Arcade, where humans watch him through the glass walls of his domain.  He spends his days eating and watching tv.  His best friends are Stella, the elephant in the domain next to his, and Bob, a stray dog who sneaks in to his domain to share his food.  Stella has a wonderful memory and tells stories of her long life, but Ivan can't remember much of his own life--at least at first.  But as Stella's health fails, a baby elephant named Ruby comes to join the crew at the Big Top Mall, and Ivan is called upon to hone his storytelling skills.  Bit by bit, he begins to remember his own youth and weave it together in stories for Ruby.

Ivan is also an artist.  He remembers making paintings with mud even when he was a young gorilla.  Now Mack, his keeper, gives him occasional art supplies and then sells his creations for $20 apiece in the gift shop ($25 with frame).  Ivan's best human friend is Julia.  She is the daughter of George, the nighttime custodian at the Big Top Mall, and she is also an artist.  She brings Ivan art supplies that Mack doesn't know about, and these two artists seem to instinctively understand each other.

As Ivan reflects more upon his past, he vows that Ruby will have a better life than he has had.  He uses his art as an outlet to enact a plan that he hopes will lead to a better future for the baby elephant... and for himself.

Katherine Applegate's story is absolutely beautiful--funny in some places, heartbreaking in others, sweet and touching throughout.  What makes it even better is the book was inspired by the true story of an actual gorilla named Ivan, who now lives at Zoo Atlanta (although most of the other characters come from Applegate's imagination).  This is a great read for elementary students, and an especially good one for parents to share with them.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Book Review: Insurgent

While Insurgent picks up right where Divergent left off, I somehow felt that I had missed a beat in between the two stories.  Whereas I couldn't put Divergent down, I found myself having to pause in Insurgent a few times to gather my thoughts and make sure I knew what was going on.  Even then, I still felt overwhelmed.

There's a solid chance that this was all my fault and not Veronica Roth's.  I was coming off a massive three-day migraine bender when I read the bulk of Insurgent, and my system was hyped up on the steriods that my neurologist had prescribed to break the migraine cycle.  Therefore, I found myself in the weird position of experiencing some of hallucinatory effects that Roth's characters suffered right along with them.  This made it very easy to sympathize with them but very difficult to grasp the greater implications of the story.

Overall, though, I think I struggled with Insurgent because the ground kept shifting.  Everyone kept double-crossing everyone else.  Tris lied to pretty much everyone at one point or another--including herself.  Every faction double-crossed every other faction, and every faction fell apart to some extent.  Plans were made and fell apart.  No plan ever went like it was supposed to, and even the back-up plans and double-crossing plans never quite panned out.  And then there were all the simulations and injections and mind-control drugs.  It was overwhelming.  I spent the entire book feeling like I was on a search for solid ground and never found it.  Which is probably exactly how Tris felt--so in that regard, the book was very nicely done; I could absolutely relate to the main character's frustration with her constantly shifting state of reality.

But beyond that, I had a hard time relating to Tris.  Her decisions made absolutely no sense to me.  While some of them were explained satisfactorily after the fact, for the most part, she came off as a completely erratic, irresponsible thrill-seeker.  I understood Tobias even less than her--possibly because he never offered a single word of explanation for what he was doing, yet expected Tris (and everyone else) to be on board with it simply because of who he was.  Clearly I would not have belonged in the Dauntless faction.  But apparently not in Erudite either, because I kind of loathed Caleb.

I was also very confused by the timeline of the novel; I generally thought that only a day or two had passed and then Tris would make mention of several weeks going by.

With all of that being said, I did still find it to be an extremely intriguing story.... but I did have the feeling that Insurgent was somewhat a necessary middle step between Divergent (which was an excellent novel) and Allegient (which I'm hoping will be excellent in its own right).

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Why Adults Read YA Fiction (Thanks, John Green)

Over the years, I have caught a lot of flak for reading primarily YA fiction.  After all, people argue, I'm a smart lady... and I'm in my 30s.  Should I just grow up already?  Read some actual adult books?

I try to explain away my addiction by stating that since I work with teens (first as a high school English teacher, now as a teen librarian), it's important to me professionally to me to keep up with teen literature so I can converse with my students/patrons about what's new and popular and their field of literature.

While this is true, it is also somewhat of an excuse.  It's somewhat of a a "chicken and egg" situation.  I kind of chose these professions because they allow me to keep reading YA lit.  Because honestly, I would devour teen lit no matter what I was doing professionally.  And in the times that I've been a SAHM (stay-at-home-mom, for those of you not up on the lingo), I've devoured it in even greater quantities.  Because YA literature is just good stuff.  I love it in a way that I could never, never love adult literature.  And while I receive a lot of mockery for that decision (primarily from my loving husband, because he's the one who sees me curled up on the couch the most often, but also from many other adults who discover my addiction), I stand by my love.  And more than that, I form deep bonds with other adults who share that love.  Because they also have good taste in books, and we can talk for hours about the awesome things we've read.... but also because they, on a gut level, GET what it is that drives me to YA lit in the first place.  That love that I can't quite seem to articulate.

Well, lucky for me and all those other adult YA-lovers out there, the fabulous John Green has just published a quality article on why so many adults love young adult literature.... and why that it is TOTALLY LEGIT.  I knew there was a reason this guy was my favorite author.  I could just provide you with the link (which is, but the article is so stinking good and makes me feel so totally justified that I'm also going to copy and paste it here in its entirety.  No copyright infringement intended, just much praise to JG and his awesomeness.

Can You Get Too Old For YA Novels?

by John Green

The Hunger Games, Divergent, Pretty Little Liars--why do we devour young adult fiction well past our YA-years?  John Green, the best-selling author of The Fault in Our Stars, explains.

For me, writing a book is like a very long version of that childhood game Marco Polo. I sit alone in my basement for a few years saying, "Marco, Marco, Marco, Marco," and then finally the book comes out. And if I'm lucky, people start saying, "Polo!" When writing my novel The Fault in Our Stars, I always imagined those people would be teenagers. My books are for young adults, after all.
But in the weeks after The Fault in Our Stars was published in 2012, I heard from more and more proper adults. They told me their kids had given them the book or they'd read it in book club or their friends had recommended it. Suddenly, the vast majority of my readers were grown-ups.
Ever since, I've been thinking about why stories about teenagers resonate so much with us as adults. I've been a passionate adult reader of YA fiction for a decade, and what I find so compelling about the best YA fiction is its unironic emotional honesty. When you're a teenager, you're often doing so many important things for the first time — everything from falling in love to grappling with heartache and loss. You also begin to ask the big questions of humanness: What, if anything, is the meaning to all this? What are my responsibilities to myself and to others?
My favorite YA stories approach these questions directly and enthusiastically. Author Sarah Dessen writes wonderful love stories, but they also confront issues of abuse and divorce head-on. Laurie Halse Anderson's novels deal compellingly with eating disorders and sexual assault. Series like Veronica Roth's Divergent and Marie Lu's Prodigy may be set in dystopic futures, but they're honest and straightforward in their social analysis. They're not just beautiful stories, they're also useful ones.
It's not like we stop needing the comfort and help that a good story can bring when we graduate from high school. I am still looking for answers to questions about the meaning of life. I am still trying to fathom the wondrous strangeness of love. I am still trying to make my way through life despite heartache and loss. So yes, when I set out to write a novel about two young people living with cancer who fall in love with a book and then with each other, I was writing it for teenagers. But I was also writing it for my adult self — the one who wanted to know whether love really is stronger than death and who wanted to find hope and joy and humor amid hard times. Those desires know no age.
Reader or writer, we love stories about teenagers, because although they can be cynical about many things, they aren't cynical about love, hope, and the stuff that really matters, like the future. While I am profoundly glad I will never be a teen again, I am thrilled to read (and write) about them because, deep down, it's their enthusiasm and curiosity that we can all admire and wish to emulate long after we've reached proper adult status.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

The #WeNeedDiverseBooks Campaign

For those of you who have not been following, Twitter has recently erupted with a campaign for #WeNeedDiverseBooks.  As a librarian, a teacher, a mommy, and a human being, I'm excited about this campaign and all that it has to offer.  Here, I've compiled some of my favorite posts.

If nothing else, read this one first:
#WeNeedDiverseBooks because over 200 girls are missing in Nigeria and it took 2 weeks for us to care
This article was written by the Teen Librarian Toolbox, which is one of my very favorite websites to peruse professionally (and ok, personally as well).  Karen, who runs it, is just all kinds of amazing.  Please consider what she has to say in this post.

Then take a look at these awesome images and posts from Twitter.  Well said.


Friday, May 2, 2014

Book Review: Sixteen

I have recently read and enjoyed Sloppy Firsts and Second Helpings (the first two of the five books in the Jessica Darling series) by Megan McCafferty.  While perusing her biography on a fan site, I learned that a short story about Jessica Darling and her best friend Hope was published in an anthology called Sixteen: Stories About That Sweet and Bitter Birthday, which was also edited by McCafferty.  "Awesome!" I thought, "I need to read that right away!"  And I immediately hunted it down through interlibrary loan.

McCafferty's forward to the book really resonated with me.  It begins, "Many readers have asked me why I wrote my debut novel about a sixteen-year-old girl rather than a character closer to my own age.  There are a lot of answers to that question, from my obsession with books, movies, music, and TV targeted at audiences half my age, to the distinct possibility that I might have some (ahem!) unresolved issues about my high-school years."  Yes, yes, and yes.  I think I'm just going to memorize that answer and spit it back every time some asks me why I taught high school for 10 years, or why I constantly volunteer in teen-centered activities, or why I am now a teen librarian, or why I read mostly YA literature.

She goes on to explain why sixteen is "the make-or-break age" for many people, and to prove it, she quotes from many of the over 500 responses she received when she asked her fan list, "What does being 16 mean to you?"  Sixteen eventually grew out of her inquiries.  It is a collection of short stories from sixteen well-known young adult authors (Sarah Dessen, David Levithan, Sarah Mlynowki, and M.T. Anderson, just to name a few), all contemplating what that age means.  McCafferty suggests that the work as a whole is useful to teens on the cusp of the age, but also to the adults who struggle to understand them.

With all of this in mind, I was prepared to LOVE this book.  But much to my surprise, I found myself hating it.  It did contain a couple of gems.  Thankfully, McCafferty's "Fifteen Going On..." (the reason I got the book in the first place) was one of them.  I also particularly enjoyed Sarah Mlynowki's "The Perfect Kiss" and Sonya Sones "Cat Got Your Tongue?" (which was written entirely in verse).  But the rest of the stories, as a whole, left me feeling deeply disturbed.

I would never say that being sixteen--or being a teenager at all--is easy.  But as I read this book, I felt like the authors were trying to one-up each other in the tales of teenage angst and horror.  From the boy in the Wild West whose father forced him to go to a brothel to celebrate his sixteenth birthday ("Rutford Becomes A Man" by Ned Vizzini), to the anorexic girl who engages in sexual acts with both her drugged-out best friend and the friend's father (and makes allusions to having done the same with her own father before his death) ("The Grief Diet" by Emma Forrest), to the glorification of promiscuity and the criticism of Christianity ("Mona Lisa, Jesus, Chad, and Me" by Carolyn Mackler), to romance with a "dangerous" man three times her own age ("Venetian Fan" by Cat Bauer), to a group of deeply depressed teenage mothers with little disregard for their own future ("Nebraska 99" by Jacqueline Woodson).... well, there was very little hope to be found in this collection.  Indeed, Jessica Darling's misery over her best friend's moving away is definitely as tame as it comes.

Frankly, I would NOT recommend this book to an actual teenager.  While I realize that the teen years are, indeed, full of angst and many dark places, I felt that the collection of so many dark places in one slim volume was rather overwhelming.  While I deeply respect these authors and their craft, the overall product is definitely not what one would expect from the cheerful, polka-dotted, car-key decorated cover.  Readers proceed with caution.