Smackdown Books 2019

Piecing Me Together
We Are Okay
Hello, Universe
Nevermoor: The Trials of Morrigan Crow
The Marrow Thieves
The 57 Bus: A True Story of Two Teenagers and the Crime That Changed Their Lives
The Poet X
Children of Blood and Bone
Far from the Tree
Long Way Down
The Goat
Amina's Voice
Macy McMillan and the Rainbow Goddess
The First Rule of Punk
24 Hours in Nowhere
The Astonishing Color of After
Obsessed: : A Memoir of My Life with OCD
Train I Ride

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Silence of Murder vs. Everybody Sees the Ants

The moment I saw the sticky note on “Silence of Murder” saying that it was the winner of the 2012 Edgar Award, I was sold.  I’ll admit I was biased towards this book considering I’d be Edgar Allan’s groupie if he were alive today.  Donna didn’t put up much of a fight for “Everybody Sees the Ants” due to the fact that ant dreams are too weird, so I guess it was fate that I was paired with her.  The book is about a sixteen year old Hope, who is desperately trying to help her eighteen year old brother Jeremy who is accused of murdering his baseball coach.   When we learn that Jeremy has spoken a word since he was eight, we realize this book has a different twist on a classic storyline.   Hope takes it upon herself to find out what really happened that morning and in the process she questions her brother’s sanity, the relationships in her life and the possible motives of everybody in the town.  As she gets closer to the truth she finds that there are people who are willing to do anything to stop her from finding out what really happened.  The story flips back and forth in time, to allow us to witness the tender relationship between Jeremy and his sister.  They depend on each other, because the only parent in their life is their abusive, alcoholic mother.  The part that won me over was that “Silence of Murder” had me thinking about it all day.  There aren’t many books that can make you lie awake at night wondering if someone is watching you or make you lock your bedroom door.  Then again, maybe I’m just a sissy.  I live off of books that you have to read closely to catch the author’s hints about the story’s outcome.  Overall, “Silence of Murder”, had more of what I like in a book than “Everybody Sees the Ants”.  Would I say it’ll be the last book standing?  Not if Donna has anything to say about it…


Ants? Really? Everybody Sees the Ants? I don’t! Tristin doesn’t either! Maybe we are both “insectophobes”, ok the real term is entomophobia but I like the first one better.
The Good: I did enjoy the main character and his believability as a teen male being bullied. Does it happen the way it was described? You bet!... In the hallways of all of our schools even though we work sooo hard to prevent it. The bullying story itself would be beneficial to all teens who read it as is the storyline of Lucky Linderman having an absent father and dysfunctional family (even though they live together). Lucky’s father  hides at work to not have to deal with the loss of his own father as a POW to the Vietnam War and the recent loss of his mother. Both of these storylines are real and believable and the messages of torture, bullying and emotional imprisonment are common themes associated with teens worldwide and important messages to spread….BUT….
The Bad: Part of the storyline takes place in Vietnam with Lucky speaking to his lost Grandfather. He becomes part of the action and is his escape from the day to day reality of his brutal life. Although I get the necessary escape and the need to be free and strong, with the characters being so real and the storylines being so plausible I didn’t enjoy this part of the story at all! He talks to his POW Grandfather and has ants on his shoulder telling him what to do? Nope doesn’t do it for me. I would have preferred an alternate escape so as not to mix the magical deportation to the jungles of Vietnam with the reality of teen bullying and a young boys search to find himself and the strength to continue in the world.
The Ugly (or itchy if bitten by the ants):  The ANTS! Maybe I’m old school and prefer the angel and devil on my shoulders!
The Result:  Fry the ants! Use that jumbo magnifying glass and keep searching for a better read.


Island's End

I am choosing Island's End to move on instead of Under the Mesquite. Island's End received numerous starred reviews and was chosen as a YALSA Best Books for Young Adults. "Drawing on firsthand experience from her travels to the Andaman Islands, Padma Venkatreman was inspired to write this story after meeting with natives who overcame a natural disaster and preserved their unique way of life despite several threats to their survival." Island's End is set on a remote island untouched by time. Uido, the story's protagonist, is chosen to be her island tribe's spiritual leader. She shows strength, courage and a generosity of spirit and kindness towards her tribe and her circumstances throughout the novel. Strangers on a nearby and more modern island wish to challenge the culture, beliefs and ways of life of Uido's people. Life on this other island may be more efficient and seen more lavish; however, Uido learns that this advancement comes with costs. Her challenge is to help her people continue to see and respect and value their way of life, their beliefs in the spirit world, their respect for the land and nature, and their strong sense of community. 


Wednesday, December 19, 2012

And...after much gnashing of teeth, I can post again!!!!...

Daybreak vs. My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece:

Two Books That Will Eradicate Any Sense of Christmas Joy That You Have Managed to Muster Up

Well, this is sort of a tricky one right off the bat, as both books are...well…kind of m’eh.

Daybreak by Brian Ralph

My love of all things zombie is unfettered.  Movies, books, graphic novels—if there are zombies in it, I’ve read it or seen it.  From a remarkably young age, I have had a “Zombie Plan” for every room that I have ever had to spend any amount of time in (my bedroom, apartment buildings, classrooms, etc.).  Any student I’ve ever taught could attest to this (mainly because I have to answer questions, at some point in the year, like “why is there a hammer and a stepladder in the back of the room, Mr. Smilanich?”). 

There are, to be sure, some interesting variations on zombie tropes that have entered the zeitgeist, due primarily to the popularity of The Walking Dead (such as Ralph’s take on the eternal slow-moving zombies vs. fast-moving zombies debate:  in Daybreak, zombies are slow-moving during the day but become fast at night).  The graphic novel is violent and gruesome at times (ameliorated by the cartoonish drawings and the fact that it is black and white), and nihilistic and depressing throughout (with healthy doses of dark humour).

But the most disconcerting element of this text is the fact that it is written in second person point of view; that’s right, YOU are in the graphic novel.  Curiously, though, it had the opposite of the (presumed) desired effect for me; rather than involving me in the story, it had this strange, distancing effect.  I was never really that emotionally invested; perhaps this is due to “the reader,” thick in the events of the novel, never having any control of his or her actions.  “I” make some thunderously poor choices.  Ultimately, the choice of point of view actually creates this sense of almost existential passivity rather than generating any sense of putting the reader in a position of agency.

I can see me putting this in the hands of some students, but it really is, disappointingly, m’eh.

My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece by Annabel Pitcher

Well, you can tell from the title that this is going to be a real laugh riot.

Here’s what is great about the book; there is a real sense of time and place generated, mainly through Pitcher’s at times remarkable capacity to capture the voice of a ten year old boy, the ten-year old mind filled with the buoyancy of hope and innocent optimism.  Jamie is a great, complex, cleverly-written character, and deals with the issues of the novel realistically as a ten-year-old would, with some laugh-out-loud moments of guilelessness. 

But, oh, those issues.  None of them unrealistic or “over-the-top,” I suppose, as grief often begets grief, as a traumatic event systematically dissembles a family.  Jamie’s elder sister was killed in a London terrorist attack, leading to his father’s deeply-felt racist views against Muslims.  And his alcoholism.  Jamie’s mother, unable to cope, leaves the family, and her absence hangs over the novel, a metaphor for absent compassionate parenting.  And there’s bullying.  And more death.

The grief, throughout the novel, is palpable.  And honest.  And entirely realistic.  And periodically moving.

Which leads to some of the problems of the novel.  There are a few late stage moments where ridiculously “happy” events occur and, amidst all the genuine grief, they come across as more than a little clichéd—dare I say, schmaltzy.  To the point where this reader, who bursts into tears on a regular basis while reading, was rolling his eyes rather than dabbing them (this is not to say there weren’t other moments where the room wasn’t very dusty).  The very definition of bathos.  And I’m the World’s Biggest Sucker.

Also problematic?  I’m not really sure who the audience is for this book.  It doesn’t really feel like a YA book, so steeped in the time and place of the London bombings. And so steeped in Britishisms; I think a student would require some coaching through this.  And there is a lot of sadness.  A lot.  It feels more like a book for adults with a child protagonist.  And yet I’m not sure there is the “meatiness” expected to make this a great novel for adults either.

But, for the voice and the character and the sensitive handling of some contentious issues, I begrudgingly move My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece onward!

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Rotters wins hansdown!

I was hoping for more of a fight, really, but Rotters came away on top.  I found Why We Broke Up to be a  diet version of 13 Reasons Why.  The illustrations were cool, but the protagonist's voice drove me nuts!  It had plenty of versimilitude, but when you're dealing with whiny teenagers is that what you want?

Rotters, on the other hand, was totally different.  I've never read anything like it; never heard the protagonist's voice before.  Aside from being well-written, suspenseful, and overflowing with absolutely disgusting imagery (it's about graverobbers, after all), I learned a whole lot about the history of graverobbing.  The ending threw me a bit, but hey, I usually quibble with endings.

It wasn't even a fight, really, more of a slaughter!


Monday, December 17, 2012

Given the fact that Shelley and I spend most of our waking (kind of)  hours in the same building, you'd think we might find a few spare moments to sit down over a cup of coffee, discuss the merits of each  and craft a subtle and eloquent exploration of each text before rendering our judgments. Dream on Smackdownians! We're in a junior high in December, after all. So here some of our still eloquent, if not exactly subtle email exchanges and our final call on these two fine books.

From: Shelley Kunicki
Sent: Friday, December 14, 2012 7:54 AM
To: Brent McKeown
Subject: Mighty Smack Down Blog

Yikes, we need to have this done for Monday.

 My views are as follows:
 The Reluctant Journal of Henry K. Klassen:  While I did enjoy this one more than I thought I would, I still feel that this topic has been done ad nauseam.  It was interesting, however, that the point of view came from the family whose son committed murder and suicide as a result of bullying.   The narrator ‘s reaction to this situation was certainly believable as well; he felt guilty because he was a bystander who did nothing to help, and then he felt angry as his life changed so dramatically. The anger at his parents, I am sure, would be something students would relate to.
 Was this well done?  Yes, it was.  It was a compelling read. 
Is it something students could relate to?  It deals with many issues that are certainly part of their lives.
But... I don’t think it is the “essential” literary work that we are looking for.
No Crystal Staircase:  The more I think about this book and talk about it, the more I like it and think that this is the one we should put forward.   It is a book that is not my usual choice, but I really enjoyed it.  So I think it might appeal to some students too.  I really enjoyed  the “documentary” style to it and I actually visualized each speaker as they told their story.  Historically, I think it is an undiscovered treasure – especially with the whole idea of the “power of the word” and understanding an individual’s history is so important.  All of the important names during this time who dropped by the book store is an eye opener as well.

Hi Shelley,

As we kind of thought in our few hurried conversations about these books over this past month, we are on the same page on this one.

 I was pleasantly surprised with The Reluctant Journal of Henry K. Klassen. I was a little worried in the early going that the narrative voice would become overly cloying, but it really didn't despite a few too many references to Henry's "wobblies" and a couple of other overly precious touches. Overall, though, I really liked Henry and I thought all of the major characters - with the possible exception of the weird male neighbour with the heart of gold (whose name escapes me right now) - were complex characters who moved beyond (maybe not far beyond, but beyond) the simple types that they appear to be when first introduced. If not, perhaps, compulsively readable, I still enjoyed the reading experience and I too though the concept of telling a bullying story through the lens of a school shooting was intriguing, but also, in some ways, overly ambitious. Is it possible to do justice to such a complex web of emotions in such a relatively slim volume? I don't know, but I think that Nielsen probably does as much as she can with it given her target audience. I have read Lionel Shriver's We Need to Talk About Kevin which looks through a mother's eyes as she surveys the damage of wrought by her psychopathic, school shooter son and it was one of the most intellectually rewarding and emotionally devastating reading experiences I've ever had. I don't think we should be looking for something similar here, but because I can seemingly never quite do anything significantly ahead of a deadline, I’m writing this at 7:30 on Monday night after a weekend where I just couldn't quite shake what happened in Connecticut. While in this book, the school shooting is really used more as an expression of how the violence of bullying can beget another type of violence, it will be difficult for anyone to read this book in the coming months without finding some disconcerting resonance with the real world. And, maybe that’s a point to argue for the relevance of this novel in our kids’ lives. I don’t know. Ultimately, this is a book that you could give to most kids in junior high or high school and I think they would enjoy the experience.

No Crystal Stair: A Documentary Novel of the Life and Work of Lewis Michaux, Harlem Bookseller by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson is about as different a book fromThe Reluctant Journal of Henry K. Klassen as one can imagine. I don’t know that I’d ever heard the term “documentary novel” before picking up this book and I’m always excited to explore a new text form. I also went through a period in university when I did a lot of reading in black history and I was particularly interested in Malcolm X, so in many ways I am an ideal target audience for this book.  I really enjoyed it, but I’m well aware that it would be a different type of read for a young person . I found it thought-provoking and evocative both in substance and in style, but I’ve struggled with the degree to which I would consider this to be a young adult book. As noted above, I’m pretty confident that I could give The Reluctant . . .  to most kids and they would read it and find something of value. No Crystal Stair would be a tougher sell in terms of immediate appeal and it does require some persistence to work through. We are dealing with an extremely complex period of American history and the print documentary style requires students to synthesize a great deal of information in a variety of forms. 

 So, what I’ve been grappling with here is how to compare a well written, in many ways prototypical YA novel that would be accessible for most (The Reluctant Journal . . .) versus an eclectic hybrid novel that certainly won’t be for everyone. There is no question that No Crystal Stair is a novel that stretches the boundaries of what YA literature can be. I still don’t think I’d recommend it for everyone, but it is a book with some powerful ideas about history, culture and most of all, the power of books to change our perceptions and our space in the world.

 Brent and Shelley Agree! No Crystal Stair goes forward.

Dead Ends for a Dead Head

I feel bad for Andrew that he got snookered into writing the blog response for  the two of us for Blue Fish and Dead End.  We can all be grateful he did so, because all you would be getting from me are disjointed rambles interspersed with stretches of white space.  And he did summarize how I also felt about the two books - it wasn't really a big decision.  We picked the better from two mediocre novels.

So I hereby commit to upholding my share of the smackdownian responsibilities in round two, by not leaving a blog to the last minute, or foisting the writing onto my partner.  Swear on Shakespeare's grave.

Tracy Wright

Paper Covers Rock vs. Never Fall Down


Thoughts on Paper Covers Rock by Jenny Hubbard

Alex Stromm who is 16 years old and living at private prep school, writes the after math of the accidental drowning of a friend. The only female teacher on staff tries to reach out to him to find our what really happened in the death of his friend.

This book, although right sized for adolescent readers, is too deep in the classical literature for most to follow. The plot runs like a jigsaw puzzle that requires considerable focus and time investment that I don't think most readers will do.  The themes are very mature (although not stated are very heavily implied) that should have some sort of discussion afterward.

Best quote pg 89
"Math is just as important as English. Numbers, like language, provide one with a way to arrange the world's chaos."

Thoughts on Never Fall Down

I really enjoyed this book and found it a good follow-up book to Bamboo People by Mitali Perkins which was a semi- finalist (?) in Smackdown two years ago.  Although the two books are based from different countries and different conflicts, the premise of child soldiers and fighting for an army under threats of punishments is common to both.  Never Fall Down is a compelling story that grabs the reader drawing him or her into the world of the Khmer Rouge.  My biggest concern with this book is the voice and grammar in which the author uses for Arn.  It was not until I read the endnotes as to the reason for this that it made sense.  I would suggest in further publications that this endnote be moved to the beginning of the book.  As well, I believe this book is right sized for adolescence and leaves the reader satisfied at the completion rather than of exhausted as is too common from some of the marathon sized novels published for teens today.


We Liked Them Both!!

Keep reading if you are looking for some good reads! We are not picking from the best of the worst but genuinely liked both books. We will start with Bill Wright's book Putting Makeup on the Fat Boy.  

Dia:  I thought this book was a nice light snack. A perfect holiday book that makes you cheer for the main character. Carlos is a high school makeup artist who longs for the day when he will rise above to his position of makeup artisit to the stars. He begins to get his foot on the ladder when he gets the opportunity to work at a New York department store makeup counter. His sexuality is a matter of fact plot point and not the center of the story. It is how Carlos lives his life too and it is up to those around him to choose to be his friend, co-worker and family based on other more important personality points. 

Annabel: So, I finished the makeup book and to be honest it is more my type of book. I felt it addressed topics like homosexuality, homophobia, abuse, individual appearance, relationships etc which are important to be discussed but it did this in a very natural way and without coming to a 'neat and tidy' conclusion.  I was also very absorbed in Carlos' desire to make it big and I really felt this was the plot line which was front and centre.  But, I would suggest this is more of a high school book and probably a holiday book at that too, I whipped through it and thoroughly enjoyed it and I think high school teens looking for a 'non sensationalist' good read would love it. I think for some it would provide valuable characters to identify with. 

Now onto Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater:

Annabel: I have not finished Raven Boys and it is not the type of book I generally enjoy.  However, I think that it is appealing. I like the creepiness of it and I also like all the different characters although I don't think I am supposed to like them!  In the first half of the book I feel like I have not got enough of a grasp on the 'quest' I think the two groups will be engaging in but I do feel like this is a plot with a lot of background info needed.  I think it is a stand out in its genre as I think there is a lot of cleverness to it, which leads me to wonder if your average junior high reader would persevere with it?  The characters are also clearly junior high age and i wonder if that perhaps also limits the appeal to younger readers?  This is a tough choice for me as my heart leads me to the Makeup book as I feel it is important to adolescent literature but I see the potential in Raven Boys and I know I personally struggle with the type of book Raven Boys is, I also feel bad that I have not yet finished it...!  

Dia: I read her previous book Scorpio Races and loved it so was quite excited to read this one next. Raven Boys also has Welch mythology in it but is placed in Virgina and follows the story of Blue. Blue is the daughter of a psychic and all of the psychic's in her life (and there are a lot of them) have predicted that Blue will cause her true love to die if she ever kisses them. So no hanky panky. Sounds like a fun spooky romp eh? It's actually pretty freaky. I can usually whip through most YA titles but this was slow going because Annabel is right you don't get much information as the book chugs along and I couldn't seem to make myself read was like I was creeping around reading corners cautiously but I never wanted to stop.In the book time is manipulated and freak alert here - I felt like that when I was reading.  As the book moves along and reveals more the creep factor continues and Blue begins to join the Raven Boys (boy's private school nickname) as they search for a myth who can promise them the world. I'll tell you this people - when the sequel comes out clear my calendar...I'll have more cautious reading ahead.  What moves on? Duh! Anything that slows me down and keeps me reading - Raven Boys.

Bluefish vs. Dead End in Norvelt

The good folks here at Vimy had themselves a fairly easy decision when it came to the first round of this year's Smackdown... a book we both enjoyed (yet left us with many questions), or a book that neither of us were able to finish. 

Dead End in Norvelt simply did not grab either of us. It is a Newberry-winning novel about a kid who is grounded for life and essentially forced to write obituaries about the people who founded his idyllic little town. The idea seems interesting enough, and of course leads to a series of humorous adventures uncovering the past of the town. I felt that this book was too young for our focus group of readers, as it came across as a book more designed for upper elementary. Of course, not having finished the novel, both Tracy and I could have missed out on the best novel ever written. That being said, we are aware that a reader needs to be engaged as quickly as possible, and this book did not do it for us. 

Our winner for round one is Bluefish, and not only because the title comes from one of my all-time favorite stories as a child. Bluefish tells the story of a loner teen who has recently moved from his ideal home in the country to the city with his alcoholic grandfather. Our protagonist, Travis, wants nothing more than to hide in the crowd, to not be noticed by anyone at his school. Until he develops an awkward friendship with the awfully named Velveeta. Travis has a secret, and of course there are the good people who want to help him out, including the teacher who spends a lot of extra time with him in order to get him to where he needs to be. 

Bluefish has many allusions to the fantastic novel, The Book Thief. So many, in fact, that I wonder if the author was not just writing a light version of the novel. Or a beginners version of it. Maybe The Book Thief is too advanced for a lot of readers, so Bluefish is The Book Thief For Dummies? It gets to the point where plot points from the mentioned book play key roles in the "newer" version. Yet, I can't really decide if this was annoying, or a really good idea. 

By no means was Bluefish a perfect novel. I felt that the plot in general was kind of lacking. But I liked the characters enough that I think it warrants another read in the competition. And I'm curious to see what other people think about The Book Thief tie-ins. 

Also, we didn't have time to work on this post together, but Tracy and I will have a combo post for the next round.

So, Bluefish moves on!

Endangered VS The Fault in our Stars

 Endangered is the 2012 National Book Award Finalist.   The Fault in our Stars is a #1 New York Times Bestseller—both great books for teenagers. 
I think there must be a new genre out there—stories about surviving conflict in Africa.  Last year had to choose between Wonder and Now is the Time for Running— intense North American relatively minor drama vs. intense and moving stories about survival in Africa.  This is the same.  My choices determined by my skin colour?  Hope not but probably by what I can relate to.
 Endangered is the story of a half Congolese/half American child visiting her mother at a her mother’s bonobo sanctuary  in the Congo who finds herself searching for her mother during a conflict involving machetes and guns (think Hotel Rwanda) and choosing to stay and protect her infant bonobo instead of evacuating.  It is a story about that relationship and her choice.   Not too sure if I believe in her choice and not too sure I believe in her survival journey.  This is because I don’t really get to know her in any real way.  I do believe in the relationship.  I do care about the bonobos.  The story introduces war with clarity and honesty and for our junior high readers is not too emotionally devastating.
This is the second read for me of The Fault in Our Stars—and it still managed to grip me and make me bawl.  This is a love story between two teenagers who meet at a cancer group therapy session and fall in love.  The protagonist, Hazel, passes on her love for an imaginary book to her love interest and the rest of the novel revolves around their desire to find out what happens after the book ends in the lives of the fictional characters.   The book they are fixated on, An Imperial Affliction, is a story about a teenager with cancer and ends in the middle of a sentence and nothing in the story is resolved.  The author is a foul mouthed drunk who is dismissive of those who expect fictional characters to have a history beyond the book’s pages and treats our protagonists with contempt.   Confusing metaphors for me--- not sure I understand what he is saying about characters and writing.  This is a book about death and yet the characters stay or live with us beyond our reading????
John Green does not deal with sentimentality.  His characters have a very adult and irreverent understanding of their emotional lives. There is not much sacred here—cancer is a main character and it is understood from the first page that he will win at the end.  We do care about the characters and their relationship but we don’t feel manipulated.
Both strong books.   I think the book that was more emotionally gripping was The Fault in Our Stars.  So I’ll pick it and feel guilty for quite a while. 

- Wendy

Sunday, December 16, 2012


Where Things Come Back vs. Chime 

Let me just begin by saying that I'm one of the most indecisive people you’ll ever meet.  (At least I think I am…?)  This, combined with my overall ambivalent feelings towards both of these novels, made this a difficult choice. 

The feeling of being stuck in limbo was fitting for the first of the two I read - Where Things Come Back by John Corey Whaley.  Alternating narratives tell the story of Cullen, a high school senior stuck in a small town whose family is unraveling after the mysterious disappearance of his brother, and Benton, another young man who is stuck in life and looking for purpose.  These narratives converge, as expected, but not in the way I would have expected.

Parts of this novel were certainly compelling, and it kept me up reading past my bedtime on more than one occasion.  It does have its flaws, however.  All the female characters are pretty one note, and a weak note at that.  Cullen’s narration often breaks off into fantasies, typically involving zombies, that I found to be distancing.  I eventually started skimming through these sections.   The final chapters were riveting, but some readers will definitely find the ending unsatisfactory.  And by that I mean that I found the ending unsatisfactory, but am hesitant to portray myself as a simpleton concerned with such plebeian concerns as tidy endings.

Chime, by Franny Billingsley, is narrated by Briony Larkin, a young woman who lives in Swampsea, a (fictional) community not far from early 20th-century London.  Briony is completely preoccupied with keeping the promises she made to her recently murdered stepmother - to take care of her sister and to conceal the fact that she is a witch.  Then a new boy moves to Swampsea, which (surprise surprise) complicates everything.

Being a witch, Briony can see and talk to all manner supernatural creatures, like Old Ones, Mucky Face, Boggy Mun, Brownie, which the reader is introduced to without any explanation or back story.  No small amount of patience was needed in order to keep reading to figure things out.  Chime was quite beautifully written in parts, but at times I felt like this writing came at the expense of the plot’s clarity.  There were some awkward jumps in the chronology, and Briony’s incessant self-flagellation also got old very quickly.  (We get it. You hate yourself.  Please don’t remind us agai-… Never mind, you just reminded us again.) 

While ultimately I think Chime had more inventive ideas and some gorgeous prose, I also think it would have much more of a limited “niche” readership.  Where Things Come Back has more to offer for more readers.  That, combined with my need to discuss the ending with someone, means that Where Things Come Back is moving forward.  

Friday, December 14, 2012

Desert Angel vs Inside Out and Back Again

Neither of us felt we had the ultimate winner in our hands for round one, but both books had merits. 

Once you read the back of the book for Desert Angel, you pretty much know the whole book.  At the very beginning, Angel finds her mother murdered by her latest crazy boyfriend, Scotty, and she fears he’ll come after her, which he does.  The rest of the book is fairly repetitive and predictable as Angel flees from Scotty who is, indeed, looking to wipe out the witness to his crime.  There are probably a fair number of kids who’d read it for the adventure, but it’s not especially profound or original. 

Inside Out and Back Again is the story of a year in the life of Ha, a refugee from Vietnam during the war.  Her family ends up in Alabama.  It is somewhat autobiographical and written in verse (but reads like prose), which makes it a quick read.  While more kids will probably pick up Desert Angel on their own, Inside Out and Back Again is the better book.  The protagonist is lively, hating to be told she can’t do something because she’s a girl.  At times, she can break your heart and at others you will admire her.  Plus, she makes some pretty amusing observations about learning English.  Renae suggested that it might pair well for classroom use with American Born Chinese

Advancing to round two:  Inside Out and Back Again.  
-Laura and Renae

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

No Ordinary Day vs. The Fingertips of Duncan Dorfman

I'd like to begin this review by thanking my newly arrived son, Aaron. Admittedly I was struggling to find the time to really get into my first read, The Fingertips of Duncan Dorfman, until that wonderful December evening that the 5 lbs. 4 oz little man decide to arrive three weeks early.

Being a new blogger to the illustrious Smackdown and the only bracket to be contested at the selection meeting, I felt a great amount of responsibility with these two works. Initially I believed this would be a easy choice - the story of an orphan girl in India written by an acclaimed author vs a nerdy kid from Pennsylvania - and with that I chose to read Wolitzer's novel first.

The Fingertips of Duncan Dorfman  
   This is the story of three young kids from different parts of America all travelling down the Florida for the annual Youth Scrabble Tournament. Each kid (Duncan, April, and Nate) has their own reason for attending the tournament and each one is an interesting character.

   I was surprised with this novel in its somewhat whimsical telling of events and one of the highlights to the novel was that a certain string of events had me thinking back to Fred Savage being chased through Universal Studios in The Wizard. A note to authors out there - if you can get me thinking about such 1989 classics like The Wizard, you're going to do very well in this tournament. Maybe in my next round Sloth will save the day as he rips down the pirate-ship's mast on his way to help Chunk and the gang...I digress. 

   While it is not a 'perfect' story and there were times when I wondered what the purpose of a moment was, overall it was an enjoyable read. Perhaps the strength of the novel stems from the fact that it is not a futuristic post-apocalyptic dystopian vampire-werewolf love story. The heart of The Fingertips of Duncan Dorfman is that it is a nerdy tale of the story of three kids and their adventures at a scrabble tournament.

No Ordinary Day
   I had high expectations for No Ordinary Day. Unfortunately, this novel was not able to deliver on those expectations. I believe that Ellis' novel held the underlying goal of exposing just a brutal way of life in Kolkata and the cruel interactions with with others and, unfortunately, more often than not this came off rather contrived. The moments where the novel was successful and genuinely connects with the reader are too few and far between. I found I spent more time as I read reflecting on my increasing enjoyment of Duncan Dorfman than I did engrossed in Valli's tale.

The novel that will advance is The Fingertips of Duncan Dorfman. 

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

If I Grow Up by Todd Strasser VS All Good Children by Catherine Austen Dear Todd: you are not a young black street kid who grew up in the worst kind of humanity possible.As a result, the way you have Deshawn speak and act feels unnatural and it is really obvious that you have no connection to the character. If you can get past that, it is an incredibly sad story of a kid who ends up joining a gang, despite all good intentions and his gramma's love. What I did like was that in the end (spoiler alert) Deshawn did not find the goodness in his heart and run away, go to a respectable college and make good. He needed money for his family, he joined a gang, he sold some drugs, he killed a man. Don;t get me wrong, I like a Strasser book, Give a Boy a Gun was great, but this one feels like Todd is now reaching to hard and to far away from what he knows. All Good Children - Dear Catherine,pick up the pace girlfriend. It took me a good 100 pages to get hooked into this book and to be frank, Katie, normally I would not give a book that much time. That being said,once hooked, I was hooked. The tale of a a not to future society where some of the rules of civility are broken and Max, a high school student, is attending an academic school so he can be succesful. It turns out that even the academic kids can be a pain sometimes so the schools begin a "vaccination program" that changes the kids into zombie-like students. "Yes, ma'am", "We are all here to succeed", etc.. And they don't need parent permission to do it. Will Max be able to fool everyone that he has received the re-education or will he be get the shot? Bonus - Canadians are the seen as the good guys, which we are! Moving on...All Good Children.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Everyday VS Blood Red Road

Okay, so I've enlisted a student helper this year. She's an AVID reader and will give  feedback/comment on each of the choices...hope that's okay! 

Teacher thoughts on Everyday: This is a way cool book. At first I was just totally confused and thought, Okay, just suspend your disbelief and go with it. And then I thought, This is just going to evolve into some weird ultra weird Harlequin romance. And then I finished, and I thought, Wow. Too cool.  

The basic premise of the book is that this kid wakes up every morning in a different body...s/he has no control over how this happens and it has been happening ever since birth (which did leave me wondering how s/he would be able to form viable attachments or relationships in young adulthood), but remember the suspension of disbelief note above...I think the one thing that I was disappointed in was that there was such tremendous potential within the book to develop empathy by understanding how the world looks through others' eyes - and this did happen to some degree, but I think it could have been more pronounced. The protagonist, "A," is so into himself and his girlfriend that we don't hear as much about the kids whose bodies he inhabits. However, overall, I enjoyed it for its uniqueness.

As for Blood Red Road - don't think it's much of a contest. Although it was rather a page turner, I found too many distasteful aspects for me although lovers of The Hunger Games might enjoy it. It's your standard dystopian fantasy with a dash of romance. Basically it would appear as if the world has declined to a state of decay (both environmentally - a drought - and morally - the majority of the population is hooked on some addictive plant and they get their kicks from watching people kill each other in a Christian-in-a-lion-pit sort of way, only human teen v.s. human teen. I was willing to suspend my disbelief while reading Everyday on the basis that it was an original premise, but in Blood Red Road, I wasn't able to believe that a nasty (as in really, really, really nasty) bad guy wouldn't pull the trigger on the gun he has held to a child's head when he sees that the "gig's up" or that one wouldn't check to make sure aforementioned nasty was dead after he'd been hit so that he wouldn't keep popping up and offing others in your party. Plus, as an English teacher, I can handle dialect when it's done well, but I found the feigned dumbed-down dialect in Blood Red Road just plain annoyin' so's I cain't recommen' this here un to go on no how.

Monday, December 3, 2012

The Year of the Beasts vs. The Big Crunch

The Year of the Beasts combines graphic novel and prose to tell the story of sibling rivalry and jealousy between Tessa and Lulu.  The sisters were close until they both got a crush on the same boy.  Their adventures with friends and family make up the bulk of the story. The prose part of the story moves forward, while the graphic novel seems to move backwards in time.  Upon finishing the book one might feel the need to re-read the beginning of the graphic novel and say 'ah, I get it...'

The Big Crunch is a story of boy meets girl, boy gets girl, boy loses girl, and Spoiler Alert * boy and girl end up together.  If you don't want to read this book, just look at the cover - it tells the whole story.  While it was a decent, light, moderately entertaining read, it was nothing special.  There are certainly girls we would recommend it to at the high school level.
*strange note - the fly leaf lists the names of the characters as Jen and Wes, when they are actually June and Wes.

Even though The Year of the Beasts was somewhat confusing, we couldn't put it down.  It was intriguing and  captivating and we couldn't stop reading. We're sending it through to the next round.
Barb and Mona