Tuesday, January 24, 2012
Sunday, January 15, 2012
Wednesday, January 11, 2012
Fantasy vs. Historical fiction = neither I would pick off a shelf to read. Although, I will have to say that in the past year I have found several fantasy books I have actually enjoyed. Not that I have begun to read many but it is a start...
Wither - As with many books, my first impression came from the cover. Young girl, long blonde hair (a bit frizzy in my opinion!), bird cage, fancy dress....I didn't like it already! When I actually started reading the concept was interesting - what if you knew when you would die? - but in the beginning the story line was a bit of Hunger Games contestants meets Cinderella meets Sister Wives! I wasn't sure which way it was going to go....then, I realized it actually was the survival of Cinderella and her sister wives! As the story continued, I fell into the trap of any good book and wanted to know what happened in the end. When I got to the end I was a bit confused. I looked it up only to discover I will only find out what happens if I read the entire trilogy! UGHHH! I didn't love it but didn't hate it either. Teenage girls will be all over it looking for the happy ending with romance and the search for love.
Out of Shadows - After reading Bamboo People last year I had high hopes for my next historical fiction read. I have done some reading and work in my SS 8 classes with regards to Robert Mugabe and his rule in Zimbabwe and was hopeful this YA novel would prove to be another resource representing the Worldview of a teenage boy. It is. However, even though the events are disturbing and true to real life events, the overall writing left something to be desired. In many cases I felt the author was beating me over the head with the repetitive events of bullying and race relations. I am not by any means making light of historical atrocities but I can't imagine a teenage boy or girl wanting to read until the end. Everyone knows how it ends. The other bothersome part of the book was the author’s insistence on commenting on the later / adult life of the other characters early on in the story. This was disturbing to me as it took away the suspense of what could be to come. It was not even close to foreshadowing when he states when and how they ended up or what his role was. Teens will get some thought provoking questions from the book but not to the level it has been reviewed by others.
The decision -In the beginning I predicted the historical fiction story would win out, but, both Andrew and I agree that although we wouldn't pick either one as exceptional, in the spirit of competition we will choose Wither to last another round!
Team DA (Donna and Andrew)
Tuesday, January 10, 2012
Remember December 23rd? Do you? Round about 3:30 p.m., when sixteen days languorously sprawled ahead of you, days where you saw yourself spending endless hours under the Christmas tree, reading countless books off your Shelf of Shame, catching up on every movie that you’ve put off for the last four months? When you thought to yourself, “there is no way I’m going to be hunched over my computer at two in the morning on January 10th writing blogs about books that I just finished minutes ago”? Do you?
December 23rd. That was a good day.
This Dark Endeavour by Kenneth Oppel
Nutshell: Teenaged Victor Frankenstein, Elizabeth, and Henry must undertake a supernatural/spiritual journey to discover the Elixir of Life in an attempt to save the life of Konrad, Victor’s twin brother. The kind of book that contains sentences such as “ I remembered how he had talked about the myth of the lynx, the Keeper of the Secrets of the Forest, harvesting gemstones from its own urine,” and you don’t burst out laughing because you’re too busy flipping to the next page.
I kind of love Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, in all of its incarnations: the James Whale movies, the Groovie Goolies, Blade Runner--man, I still special order Frankenberry cereal from the States (I’m not kidding). Kenneth Oppel also loves Frankenstein; his book is peppered with lines of dialogue that foreshadow events to come in Shelley’s novel, moments that are almost inside jokes with the reader who comes armed with the knowledge of Shelley’s classic. All of the key motifs of Frankenstein are very much present in Oppel’s novel: science versus faith, doppelgangers, questioning who/what is the “monstrous,” etc. This is a man who has done his homework, and one of the chief pleasures of the novel is Oppel’s ingenuity in writing a YA adventure prequel to a literary classic for which he obviously has a great deal of passion.
This Dark Endeavour is a lot of fun. In one word, rollicking. There are plenty of hidden passages and secret libraries, mysterious traps, and moments of squeamish sacrifice. If you’re about the same age as I am, you might remember the breathless thrill of reading The Hardy Boys novels, truly believing that Joe and Frank were in real, honest to God peril, when you thought that they might not actually be able to escape Dr. MacGregor’s hidden lair on some Greek island, even though you were reading Book 53, and Books 54 - 86 were still awaiting you on your bookshelf. This Dark Endeavour conjured in me those nostalgic feelings with its double-crosses and narrow escapes.
OK. It does go on a bit at times; at least 50 or so pages could have disappeared without me missing a thing. Konrad gets sicker and then better and then even sicker and then still sicker. And there are a few trappings of the modern YA novel that I could have done without. Do we really need another sorta love triangle (“Soon to be a movie by the makers of Twilight!,” the cover shrieks, like this is a good thing)? And I’m a bit weary of the last few pages of YA novels that set everything up for the inevitable sequel, sort of relegating the almost 300 pages before it to antecedent action to the REAL STORY coming soon to a bookstore near you in about a year.
But good, clean fun. Nothing that knocked my socks off, but a zippy read with dastardly villains and moonlit chases.
Seven Axe Body Sprays out of Ten.
Every You, Every Me by David Levithan
Nutshell: Evan is an angst-ridden young man who grieves over the loss of his angst-ridden best friend, Ariel, while recollecting her relationship with Jack, a semi-angsty member of the track team. And then mysterious angst-filled photographs start appearing to Evan, and the fate of the angst-ridden Ariel is called into question, and angsty shenanigans ensue…
So, here’s the deal. Every You, Every Me is a bit of a stunt-novel. Not only are there photographs throughout, photographs that you end up scrutinizing almost as obsessively as the protagonist Evan, but Levithan employs this strange technique where a good third of the novel is crossed out, edited, almost redacted. So you read a sentence, followed by a sentence that is crossed out, and then you read the next sentence (not crossed out), and you have to go back to the preceding sentences to figure out the context. Sometimes entire passages are crossed out.
Irritating, right? Well, at first yes. Initially I found it to be a bit jarring, a little bit excessive, more than a little twee. But there’s really clever stuff going on here, and, as I read on, I sort of got the hang of the crossed out bits, which exist as a metonym for all of the “twinning” and “mirroring” that are thematically so key to the novel. Many of the “revisions” are excised thoughts, those we all purge from memory so that we can continue on. Some are fantasies, replaced by he reality of what is actually said. Other times, Levithan just engages in clever word play and diction. Evan realizes what he is doing is “investing.” Cross out “investing.” “Investigating.” Levithan transforms his usage of the “redaction effect” throughout, in a manner that always reveals character or whispers to theme.
This is a novel that has the courage to wrestle with some big, heady ideas: the intersection between memory and reality, fractals, even a Deleuzian mediation on the ways time and space traverse in a photograph. No joke. And, man, can Levithan ever write. There is periodically real beauty in his minimalist prose, often peppered with philosophical bifurcations, asking his readers to really question the semantic difference between “something” and “anything,” or “void” and “empty,” sometimes in that short-hand dialogue that only two really close friends share. That stuff is hard to capture on a page, but Levithan does so, and so successfully, that I really had no problem “hearing” every character’s voice.
But, OMG, the angst! Again, for the first thirty pages or so, I thought the bleak angstiness of it all would impede any sort of appreciation for the narrative or his writing. But, I would argue, that this is as close to the genuine-angsty (and aren't they all)-brooding-fifteenyearold-boy voice as I've read in a long, long time. It captures, perhaps perfectly, that horrible, dizzying time when the girl that you are pretty much sure you are in fifteenyearold love with loves someone else. But she still, you know, really likes you. But not likes you, likes you. And you, mute in all of your strangled boy rage, go home and listen to The Smiths for six hours straight.
Oh. Yes. Where was I?
This is some pretty good stuff. But here’s the catch. I suspect that this novel will be appreciated more by its male readers. For those of us that felt, and still feel, that Some Kind of Wonderful is better, and better because it's more real and relevant, than Pretty in Pink. Heresy, I know.
Moon Over Manifest by Clare Vanderpool
This is a beautifully written, but slow moving historical fiction which explores the concept of home, family and community. Powerful descriptive writing brings to life the small town of Manifest in both 1918 and 1936 through the eyes, experiences and unravelling of clues by protagonist Abilene Tucker. This plucky young girl has been raised by her father during the Depression but after a close call with death for Abilene he decides to send her to Manifest, Kansas for the summer. Feeling abandoned by her father, Abilene discovers hidden treasures in the floorboards of Pastor Shady's house where she is staying. Using these trinkets she sets out to discover the true meaning of home, family and community while unraveling the identity of her father. The book moves seamlessly between the two time periods as Abilene uncovers the history of Manifest and all that it was and has become. The characters are quirky, meaningful and worthy of further discussion and while the plot twists and turns in interesting ways, it does move more slowly than many young adult readers would like. Those intrigued by historical fiction will find this book fascinating as the description and detail is fabulous but I think it would be a hard sell to those not interested in this genre. As this book was competing with A Monster Calls in this round, it does not move on.
A Monster Calls A novel by Patrick Ness, inspired by an idea from Siobhan Dowd
This British book is sharp, thoughtful, desperately sad, but perhaps brutally honest and comforting all at the same time. It is based on an idea conceived by Siobhan Dowd before she died of cancer at the age of 47 but is written by Patrick Ness. In his words in the introduction to the book he writes, "I had only a single guideline:to write a book I think Siobhan would have liked. No other criteria could really matter." This book is hauntingly illustrated by Jim Kay in black and white and his illustrations bring to life the fabulous but terrifying monster and the overwhelming emotions thirteen year old Connor experiences as his mother bravely fights her battle against cancer. The monster visits Conner at the same time each night - a wonderful element of foreshadowing - and tells Connor three tales, he then waits for Connor to tell his own.
You will tell me a fourth, the monster repeated, and it will be the truth.
Not just any truth. Your truth.
"O-kay," Connor said, "but you said I'd be scared before the end of all this, and that doesn't sound scary at all."
You know that is not true, the monster said. You know that your truth, the one that you hide, Connor O'Malley, is the thing you are most afraid of.
Connor stopped squirming.
It couldn't mean -
There was no way it could mean -
There was no way it could know that.
Throughout the novel Connor must come to terms with living with his grandmother, with whom he has very little in common, and must spend time with his father who has begun an unrecognizable new life in America complete with a new wife and baby. He must deal with school bullies, compassionate teachers and friends desperate to reach him as he battles against himself and alongside his mother.
I found this book gripping, haunting, delicate, thoughtful, indescribably sad and intricate. Would I hesitate before giving it or recommending it to students, certainly yes a thousand times. Would I say it is a book you must read yourself before you pass it on or recommend it, definitely. It is heavy matter indeed but important, maybe even essential matter, in the right reading hands, with the right guidance at the right time. I think the reading experience with this novel will always be tinged with our own experiences with loss and will colour our view of this novel. However, I move it on in this competition in the spirit of truly excellent, and challenging, literature.
Monday, January 9, 2012
Beautifully animated, and laden with inside jokes and a smart storyline, this graphic novel is a great way to while away an hour with your favourite Shakespearean heroes and villains. But its virtues are, however, what would cause most young readers to give this book a miss. If you aren't familiar with the bard's plays, and the all of the little nuances of the characters - I mean, was I surprised when Lady Macbeth killed her husband by bricking him up alive behind a wall a' la "The Cask of the Amontillado", because she felt Macbeth was being to namby pamby in his negotiations with Richard - interest would wane quickly.
In a heartbeat I would bring this book into my grade eleven or twelve classroom and show it off to my kids. A few, who by this point have studied two or three plays, would likely take great pleasure in supporting Richard and Lady M.'s quest to kill Shakespeare. However, I think an average junior high reader would be left non-plussed. Me, I want the Kill Shakespeare t-shirt from the creators' website.
My second read, The Dark Days of Hamburger Halpin, read much like it punning namesake tastes. Conventional, predictable, and ultimately, nothing you want to base an entire diet on. Selling itself as a murder mystery, the real mystery to me was why author Josh Berk spent the first third of the novel describing how the main character, Will Halpin, is over-weight, deaf, and a misfit at his new school, Coaler High. No surprise, Will can only find friendship with another misfit.
If the plot is supposed to turn on who killed the popular quarterback, then make that your story. Instead, we are subjected to a number of stereotypical characters (all teachers are rather inept, ignorant, or desperate to win the approval of the cool kids), contrived subplots (is Will Halpin related to "Dummy" Halpin, a deaf miner who died in a mining accident over 50 years ago), and a predictable outcome.
Will kids read this book? Sure. Hamburger Halpin reads easily and quickly, and many kids will enjoy Will's self-deprecating humour and the value the book places on friendship. But your more sophisticated readers, the ones who don't just want packaged goods, may finish the book still hungry for a richer serving of story-telling.
Having said this, I am putting The Dark Days of Hamburger Halpin forward for the next level of Smackdown. I want to read what someone else has to say about this book, and if we are looking for a book kids will read, despite my love of Lady Macbeth, a second "Halpin" of Will is in order.
So this year, I switched things up and read the one that caught my eye first: A Tale Dark and Grimm by Adam Gidwitz. The book trailer is cool and the reference to fairy tales was both interesting seemed readily applicable to a Fractured Fairy Tales unit I already do. The book begins with a teaser, warning, “Read on if you dare” and cautions the reader to make sure that the little children are all in bed because the story we are about to read is a dark one. The story begins, “Once upon a time, fairy tales were awesome.” The narrator laments that the original Grimms’ fairy tales have been watered down, and insists that the original, bloody, gory, nasty stories were better (and who would argue?). This new tale takes the original Grimms’ Hansel and Gretel and spins out their tale to follow them on a journey through eight other fairy tales (on the premise that Hansel and Gretel are really the characters in other tales). What is really engaging about this book, though, is the narrator’s voice. He (or she?) is the one who warns us to put the little kids to bed and reminds us that fairy tales are awesome. He interjects frequently to warn us about upcoming gore and to give us comments on the action. The narrator’s voice is what makes this story fun to read. I think kids will like it a lot, too. I read it quickly because I didn’t want to put it down, but I certainly did not read it out loud to my three-year-old. Junior High students may also enjoy the fact that Hansel and Gretel are definitely the heroes and the adults are largely flawed. This book is my winner for this round.
If you’re still interested in knowing about Stuck on Earth, I’ll let you know that I was much more impressed with it than my second book from last year’s round one. However, unlike the narrator in the Grimm book, I found the narrator in Stuck on Earth to be annoying. I had reservations to begin with. The story is about an alien who comes to earth to determine whether humans have redeeming qualities or if we should all be blown up. The narrator is Ketchvar III, a snail-like alien come to earth to inhabit an earthling’s body to investigate our species. He crawls up fourteen-year-old Tom Filber’s nose to get into his brain and banishes Tom’s consciousness to his colon. I am always leery of books with jokes about snot and poop. I was further annoyed by the tone of the narrator. Some parts of the book were meant to be his correspondence with the mother ship, but the voice falters as he explains things to his commanders in a way that he wouldn’t have to. It’s just there to explain things to the reader. The tone falls apart distractingly. However, I have to admit that, about halfway through, when the mother ship isn’t responding and he has an identity crisis and begins to wonder if he’s really an alien, or if he’s really Tom Filber, going crazy, it gets a bit interesting. The story is fairly predictable, but I think some students might enjoy it. If I was doing an environmental theme, I might recommend it or read it to kids. It was certainly not as bad as Fever Crumb, but not as good as A Tale Dark and Grimm. So, I’ve weeded it out of competition for you. You’re welcome. Send me something good for round two in return, please!
Best beginning ever! Not this blog entry but the beginning of The Mostly True Story of Jack by Kelly Barnhill. I was hooked and could hook every junior high reader in my school after the first page:
“His mother said his face looked like a field of roses. What his mother did not know was that the scars had memories. They knew things. It’s coming, the scars said. It’s back, they whispered. No, Frankie thought, shaking his head. Not it. He. He’s coming. We knew he’d come back.”
Jack’s parents are divorcing and he must go to stay with his Aunt and Uncle while his older brother, mother and father get things sorted out. As soon as Jack’s mom leaves however, Jack finds he can’t make contact with her any longer, his Aunt and Uncle are weird and there seems to be vines creeping into his room. Did I mention the house seems to be breathing? Did I mention that the man in charge of this new town has made a pact that involves his son’s life and Jack’s? And of course there is Frankie who disappeared years ago only to be forgotten by everyone but his twin sister until he returned with the scars. Yep that will do it, sold to the kid who sails across the table first. The story continues with adventure twinning with fable through this mostly true tale. It may lose a few readers as fable takes the upper hand in a don’t piss off Mother Nature ending but I really liked the flow and along with Arlene would move this one on.
Meanwhile while I read Jack, Arlene started Marbury Lens. Each day Arlene would look paler and say this book is disturbing. Excellent I thought bring on the crazy. This book has another Jack and things aren’t going so well with him. He is kidnapped after a drunken party and barely escapes the sexual predator who has him. He chooses not to go to the police but winds up along with his best friend kidnapping the kidnapper who they accidently kill when he falls bound out of the truck. They choose not to call the police. This all happens before page 50. At this point, I figure mature reader but very exciting….then Jack goes to London to check out a boarding school. In a pub he meets Henry, someone who insists he knows Jack. He leaves Jack a pair of purple glasses and disappears. Once Jack tries on the glasses he is flipped into another world where he and two other boys run for their lives from flesh eating beetles and strange men with black and white eyes, purple boils on their bodies and body parts hung around their necks. There are plenty of entrails, death violence and gore. For the Darren Shan crowd they might really like this. The problems is Jack continues to flip through both worlds, promptly vomiting upon return (I swear it happens about 20 times) meets a ghost to start a third story and frankly by this time I’m a little bored. Jack what’s the point? By the end I still don’t know. We're going with the younger Jack.
Dia and Arlene
Van said “ Both books has pros and cons and I am delighted to say I liked both more than I didn’t like them. Draw the Dark seemed like it had such great potential. It was a real-life story with a slight fantasy-like twist. The problem was that I would read some, enjoy it, put it down then have no desire to pick it up again. The story was good but not deep but it was more like a nice, light snack. I ate it, it tasted OK, I forgot about it. Beauty Queens grabbed me from the beginning. I loved the idea of teenage beauty queens stranded on an island and how the new society would play out. It was light and funny and Libba Bray went after the jocks, the pretties and the nerds equally. The problem I found was the end of the book. It needed some serious editing which is a typical problem in many Libba Bray books. That being said, I still loved it. It is Beauty Queens for me!”
Jaylene said, “While both of these are higher level than Junior High due to language and content, they are very different reads. Draw the Dark was an awesome read until about half way and then it failed to keep my interest. Beauty Queens is full of fun (pirates included) and unusual twists (who owns the island?), yet there was the impression of trying to include absolutely every possible element to the point of being over the top. In the end, Beauty Queens was simply cooler.
Beauty Queens to the next round!
Sunday, January 8, 2012
Now is The ime for Running by Michael Williams is a pretty real look at two brothers fleeing from
Story is timely too as we are not too far from the vuvuzelas of the World Soccer Games in
South Africa . And it’s really neat that the homeless games actually exist—and in too! Canada
So--- I read Now is The Time for Running first
Selznick melds two stories together in a magical way that is all his own
It is deceptive—the pictures take the story in linear and non linear directions so story is complex and still will attract students who don’t like reading
Tuesday, January 3, 2012
There are two distinct ways to review this novel by Blythe Woolston: as a piece of literature intended for mature and close reading audiences; or as a YA book intended for a high school student. And both would produce quite different results.
looking for something about teens are going to connect with the physics aspect of it either, but for those willing to put in the time, the connections are strong.
The novel focuses on a teen girl named Loa (although it took alot of pages before I figured out she was a girl) who is from a poor family that has experienced its share of tragedy, including the death of her younger sister. But we don’t hear too much about that. She has haunting dreams of death, but we only hear about that occasionally. She sort of has a boyfriend for a while, but once he is gone we almost never hear about that again. This novel feels as though Woolston has started several stories and not really finished any of them. This is certainly just my opinion, but the novel felt irritatingly fractured at points. There was very little flow.
I also question how many teen readers will take the time to take in and enjoy the subtlety of this novel. I question if Woolston really hit her target audience here. I can see some students really getting it, but I can see the majority of them becoming frustrated with the story and either giving up on the book, or not enjoying it.
Some people will love this book, and some will hate it. I still can't decide if it is a really great book or if it is just a failed attempt at targeting the pains that teenage girls must deal with.
Down the Mysterly River by Bill Willingham
This book, for me, had the potential to be excellent. A lost Boy Scout, talking animals, an endless series of adventures, and bad guys with mysteriously powerful blue swords. It all sounded good to me, maybe it would bring me back to being a kid and loving the Redwall series. But it didn't.
The story isn't bad, the action sequences are pretty good, and the mystery is alright, but none of it is great. Most of this book is distinctly average. I quite liked the ending (even though I guessed the solution to the main mystery part way through the story), and wonder if it would have been better to know the ending before the end. It could have made the story so much more than it already was. And that is the main issue that I had with Mysterly River: the possibility of greatness, but never truly achieving what it could have been.
There are definitely good parts to this book, including the cast of heroes, who are enjoyable and provide good contrasts to one another. The imagination used to create the invented world is good as well. But for a book that is supposed to be a fun adventure, it just wasn't fun enough.
This novel is definitely for a lower reading level than is The Freak Observer, as I could see kids in grades 7 and 8 liking the book. And it would be useful in finding examples of foreshadowing, as it is possible to figure out what the big surprise at the end will be.
And the Winner is...
I'm going to advance The Freak Observer. It deserves the opportunity to have someone else read it, and see what they think.