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

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

To begin, a caveat; I'm going rogue here.  I haven't discussed this round with my group, so I speak only for myself...

The reasons why I preferred The Gospel Truth, by Caroline Pignat, over One, by Sarah Crossan, can be condensed to this:

  1. I found the plot of the former more plausible, it had a natural inertia, whereas the latter seemed to need 'a push'.  It was contrived.
  2. The free-verse format was employed more skillfully by Pignat.  Phoebe's voice rises from the page, replete with a Southern drawl; not bad for an Irish-Canadian author.
  3. It spoke to me...
Feminism is alive and well in much of what I read, and why not?  Is there any debate that girls and women are generally better-read than their counterparts?  *shame*  Counting myself among the latter -- though at forty-something my House of Testosterone is descendant -- I find valuable insight in the fears and desires secreted in these pages, but I'm troubled by what I read (think Beloved, Secret Daughter, The Glass Castle).  This old-hat, yes, but it still smarts to read in print.

And what to do about my young brethren, whose self-imposed illiteracy robs them of this much-needed perspective?  Coming back to The Gospel Truth, at one point Phoebe's den-mother Bea proffers the following: "white men are all want and nothing but trouble."  Ouch.  But in fairness, how far have we come since those Antebellum days, given the new POTUS's plans to grab his female constituents'... attention?  Sigh.  Forgive my belated outrage, I know more that half of you are all too familiar with this conundrum.

But, here's a thought!  Perhaps GTA should be bundled with a paperback copy of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn?

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Wolf by Wolf beats Bone Gap

I enjoyed Bone Gap. The characters were all interesting and there was a twist I wasn't expecting that involved the main character, Finn, that I loved. It's biggest flaw was that it just wasn't enough...I wanted to know more about the characters, the other world that Roza was taken to, and who the kidnapper really was. I am not a fan of fantasy and I didn't really get the point of the other "magical" world.

Wolf by Wolf is the better book of the two. The premise of the story (what if Hitler won the war?) is intriguing on its own, but the characters are well-developed and I can tell from reading the few teaser chapters of the sequel that the next book will be just as engaging. I had many questions about Felix and Luka. Where did their allegiances truly lie? Who could Yael actually trust? It seems those questions may be answered in the sequel, along with the answer to the BIG cliffhanger left at the end of the story! This will be a great addition to my classroom library. 

Wolf by Wolf Over Bone Gap

wolfbywolf.jpgBone Gap.jpg

Longtime readers of my long-winded blog posts will recall that I’m often a little (and maybe overly) critical of those YA books that have just too much going on and there is a bit of that feeling for me with Bone Gap, despite the fact that for big stretches it was a pretty entertaining ride. I’m right there with you on the burgeoning Finn and Petey romance; I like the eclectic small town touches; I’m moderately interested in somewhat sullen, almost too good to be true, Sean; and Roza - beautiful and mysterious Roza - yeah, I guess I was kind of into her story(ies) too, but there comes a point where it all seemed a bit forced to me and that was exacerbated when these mythic elements and what E. Lockhart calls “magic realism at its most magical” begin to dominate the show and when the big connect the dots moment turns out to be (wait for it) prosopagnosia (only look that up if you don’t plan to read this book, as it will be a major spoiler) I found it all a bit much.. Ok, you know how you felt reading that last sentence? That was kind of how I felt reading Bone Gap, at times: a little confused, waiting for things to gel and then kind of intermittently disappointed. It has some really interesting moments, but I don’t think the whole is as intriguing as its individual parts. I could live with that, though. It’s an ambitious book with lots going on and I’d take that any day over an author that doesn’t take any chances and doesn’t try to say anything. I do, however, have a big issue with this book and for me it is a deal breaker. I can see that the book is intended to be a critique of the over arching damage caused by the ubiquitous male gaze. Here’s Roza’s initial impression of Sean: “He didn’t stare at her face or her breasts or her legs the way other men had. He was looking directly into her eyes, seeming to see straight into her, as if he knew something about her already and was not that surprised.” So, I get it: Roza’s life has been an allegory of objectification and that sucks. For me, though, the book ultimately seemed to betray its own ideals in the way it lingers on the physical. An obsessive focus on Roza’s beauty; a slightly less, but still pronounced, focus on how attractive Finn is and most disturbingly, an unrelenting focus on Petey’s “ugliness”, really made me feel yucky throughout the book. Is this simply an author painting in broad strokes for a younger audience? Maybe, but I don’t think she should discount the profound impact of the authorial gaze within the universe of a novel. Just because everyone sees that true beauty is within at the end of the novel doesn’t undo the hours we’ve spent reading where even the good guys are just as fixated on physical beauty as the over-the-top bad guy. My concern is that the book may actually be entrenching a beauty-obsessed mindset, rather than challenging it. For me, this was  a big enough flaw that it unraveled the structure of the novel. I’m genuinely eager to hear some dissenting voices on this, as it seems from those shiny faux medallions on the cover that this is a well-respected novel. Maybe I’m missing something.

What I’m pretty sure I’m not missing, however, is the fact that Wolf by Wolf is a kick- ass novel that is not getting beat out by Bone Gap at this early stage of the Smackdown. You could give me a whole series of magic realistic weirdness, but you are not taking down a book that features a cross country motorcycle race with an end game of killing a still living Adolf Hitler. Really, I could probably just stop there, but, shockingly, I won’t. When I was a kid and mildly (or some might say, completely) obsessed with Marvel Comics, one of my favorite series was called What If? and each issue was effectively a reimagining of some seminal moment in the Marvel universe. The very premise of this book (What if the Nazi’s won world war two?) kindled the same kind of wonder in me as that series and really surprisingly, the book surpassed my expectations. On one level it is a Hunger Games/Battle Royale adventure with interesting and dangerous teen characters and I’m certain the Hollywood powers that be are already making plans for a string of blockbusters. It’s also, however, a surprisingly meditative exploration of identity. Yael’s backstory is as horrifying and moving as that of any holocaust survivor’s, but her ability to transform her features - itself a result of Nazi medical experiments - adds a surprisingly nuanced layer to the narrative, as Yael’s work for the greater good has her losing her sense of self and struggling with some pretty profound internal issues. Perhaps some of the most intriguing scenes have Yael dealing with the emotional and, often, physical repercussions of navigating relationships while trapped in a body that is essentially not your own. Despite the sci-fi nature of the premise, I found that the dialogue and the internal struggles rang true and were deeply engaging. I’m intrigued enough that I’ve already got the sequel (Blood for Blood) ordered and my ten year old is sacrificing her precious post-Christmas sleep hours to finish this book. There is a lot going on, but I think Graudin has crafted a compelling and cohesive narrative with a good balance of intrigue, action and introspection. Wolf By Wolf moves on to the next round.  

Memory of Things vs. Hour of the Bees

We enjoyed the A Time for Bees - but consensus was that we didn't think it will really capture a lot of our students. The pacing was a little slow; we found ourselves having to reread to catch up once it was put down. This book asks a lot of adolescent readers - while Spanish is a common language in the US, Canadian readers are less likely to have very much experience reading/ recognizing Spanish words in fiction text and will not have the background knowledge in the Spanish culture . I think many students would gloss over this unfamiliar vocabulary, and as a result miss a lot of the character development in the novel. I think many students would even put it down/ abandon A Time for Bees because they aren't really connecting with the characters or what's happening in the story. 

We are voting for the Memory of Things.  Although this was a dark moment that has forever changed our lives across the Western World, the author did a wonderful job of weaving the horror and terror of what happened with the human connection.  We feel this book makes an accurate depiction of mood and setting of 9/11, while exploring the lives of intriguing characters. This is a subject and time that many of the students we teach are not familiar with as they were not old enough to remember, if not born, to know the significance of it. The impact and tragedy of the events demands attention and must be taught in schools. This book is an excellent insight and gateway for teachers to discuss many social issues.
The duel narrative kept the read interesting and relevant. It allows critical thinking and opportunities for class discussion and is as much a coming of age as loss of innocence in the face of terror.   
The ending of the story is bittersweet but effective.  Although it wasn't a lot of history 911, students will be more engaged with this story than a Time for Bees.  

Ellerslie Readers
Lisa, Brianne, Mike, Kathleen

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Image result for more happy than notImage result for the war that saved my life
The War That Saved My Life wins over  More Happy Than Not
                             Reviewed by Team 3

This round was kind of difficult.  I thought 'More Happy than Not' was going to be the winner but 'The War That Saved My Life' was equally good; although a lot simpler in concept.

There was a lot more going on in Happy  than was obvious at first and was really twisty at the end.  So much so that I had to go back and reread.  Although the ending is sort of positive, it does reinforce that old saying, 'Be careful what you wish for'.  Imagine not being able to form any new memories.

The War...moved along quite quickly and I really wanted to smack that true mom.  It was a pretty positive read once the kids got moved into the country.  It touches on depression and a lot on abuse.  The ending was a little too tidy in my opinion but you wonder what they will do next and will there be another book?

I think I will stick with More Happy than Not because of the twistiness.  

I enjoyed both books and found them to be very quick reads. The War that Saved My Life was not as captivating for me though. I preferred More Happy than Not because of its unusual plot. I was very surprised at the end. Although More Happy than Not had more swearing than I would like for a book that I would offer to my junior high students, I felt that the ‘strong’ language even had a place in helping us make a connection.

I enjoyed both of these very different novels, and they were hard to compare. I don't usually enjoy historical fiction like The War, and I really liked the 'unravelling' moment in More Happy. But, in the end, I enjoyed getting to know Ada more than Aaron. I liked Ada's voice and how her struggle to come to terms with her abusive childhood was dealt with realistically - she didn't magically accept her new happy life. My vote is for The War

I so agree with Haley. Both books were great but my engagement stayed with The War.  I thought perhaps it might have been somewhat influenced by the fact that War was more suitable to grade 6 (my class) but all in all it was more captivating!

More Happy than Not, was a very emotional read for me. Having recently dealt with some of the issues in the book like suicide and depression, I had a hard time getting though some of the parts without crying. 

I agree with Dianne, that this book was very twisty and I found myself having to go back and re-read some parts to try and make sense of it. It reminded me very much of the movie, Eternal Sunshine for the Spotless Mind. 

I thought it was a very diverse book, bringing attention to hard and uncomfortable issues. However, I think it might be a little hard for junior high students to fully understand and grasp some of the ideas/themes being written about. 

For that reason, my pick would have to go to the "War that Saved my Life". I really enjoyed this book.

It was a feel good story that really pulled me in. I was impressed by the depth of emotions I felt for each character in this book. I felt as if I was on the side lines rooting for Ada and Jamie and getting so angry and wanting to call CPS on that pitiful excuse for a mother! I think the relationship between Becky and Susan could have been explained a bit better. 

I believe that this book would be better suited for the junior high age bracket so therefore my choice will be "The War that Saved my Life." 

Also voting War. I found it very compelling and readable. I enjoyed Happy but I found it hard to get into.

Challenger Deep vs. Simon vs the Homo Sapiens Agenda

A good read for a coming out love story. The trial and tribulations of electronic conversations in today's society when it gets into the wrong hands and also the detached way to communicate without knowing who you are talking to.  Falling in love with words and imagining what the person behind them looks like.  A sign of today's young society who are not afraid to take a chance. The highs and lows of life through the eyes of a teenager. All of these points make for a good book, an easy read that can be recommended to students, but alas a somewhat forgettable book.  No where near as complex and beautifully written as Challenger Deep. 

Caden is slowly losing touch with reality but finds ways to cover and adjust to it in his own way as he spirals out of touch with reality.  Sad, funny but realistic read of what people with mental illness go through and how families cope with it.  Yes, the beginning of the book can be confusing but it all ties in in the end in a touching and beautiful way. Our vote is for Challenger Deep to move on.  

Where We Are Divided and a Nickname is Given

Image result for One the book                                   Image result for blackthorn key

We definitely had time to read...the meeting in person is more difficult on the first day back. This is mainly due to something called breakanesia whereby you lose all memory of roles and responsibilities when you return to work after extended time away. Instead you wander around introducing yourself and muttering the phrase: that rings a bell over and over again until someone gently guides you to your car at the end of the day.

It was in this frame of mind that ABM voted and commented via email throughout the day.  I began by saying that I enjoyed both books and could find a wide audience for both.  I simply had to pick between angsty teen (conjoining left double the angst) in One and boy who likes trouble and can find it regardless of the era in Blackthorn Key.  Because it is Suckuary I voted for a little trouble.  Annabel quickly chimed in for Blackthorn Key as well though she said she was swayed by Holly’s remark that One was National Enquirer-esque. Annabel like both books as well.

You would think, then, that Holly would also vote for Blackthorn Key. Have you met Holly? So no. She found severed fingers, mysterious doors, shooting off stuffed bear genitalia the key to falling asleep fast. What goes on at her house? One was a page turner for her and even though a student wrote over the break to say how much they were enjoying Blackthorn Key the vote was now 2-1.

Arlene jumped in to vote for One and found it a book that was spreading like wildfire through her grade nine class - both girls and boys like it (never underestimate the power of angst). Arlene could not get through Blackthorn Key though she tried a number of formats.

Lisa also voted for One and was thrilled to be on the same side as Holly She found Blackthorn Key: fine but not her kind of book and the student from her class who read Key did not rave about it. 2-3.

Andrew found the story in Blackthorn Key one he wanted to finish and know what would happen next.  I don’t know if he meant to be punny but he said he couldn’t “connect” with the characters in One.

That leaves us tied with two votes to go. Tammy votes One who was surprised by her engagement but liked the characters and the family dynamics. By 250 in the Key she was bored and abandoned ship.

Last one in could end the whole debate or put us in a tie. Andrea Smith found this position intense. She also liked both books but chose Key. The sequel, the friendship and the mystery were all deciding factors for her.

Of course we tied, of course Arlene and I had already lined up on opposite sides so we could not break it. Holly suggested since One was about conjoined twins each vote should count for two...tempting. Also it earned her the title of Book Bully (thank you Andrew). She has indicated for short you can call her BB.  Instead we drew randomly and picked One.  To this Holly proclaimed she smelled victory….to me, anyone who reads either of these books and liked them is the real winner….so that’s Dia, Annabel, Lisa, Andrea. History, you know, is written by the victors!

Monday, January 9, 2017

Farewell to Goodbye Stranger

Goodbye Stranger takes on the complexities of junior high. Bridge is in seventh grade, and she vows to never fight with her two best friends, Emily and Tab. Intermixed in this saga (okay saga is a bit strong) are plot lines of teen romance, the woes of social media and the difficulties of making strong moral choices.  For some of our group (Mighty Team Seven - an eclectic group of readers) we found Goodbye Stranger an intriguing read but for some the magic to continue to finish the book was not there.  We could see how teen readers would be interested but worthy of a strong recommendation we think "maybe not".

Gospel Truth, written in free verse, interweaves the narratives of six separate characters.  Phoebe has strength and compassion in her soul. Many readers will experience disbelief, tears, and outrage as she takes us on a journey that few can imagine.  This story is elegantly written and shines a light on the power of inner strengths, the will to survive and a portrayal of a time that deserves our attention.  Team Seven is unanimous in our decision Gospel Truth moves on to the next round!

Submitted by: Team Seven (Lisa, Chris, Shelley, Chelsea and Maureen)

Echo vs Trouble

Echo vs Trouble is a Friend of Mine


Vanessa and Debbie:  Ok, I’ll start things off....Trouble is a little Veronica Mars mixed in with your favourite misfit movie.  And who doesn’t enjoy the weirdos?  Like the last reviewers stated, it was tad slow in the middle but I was sufficiently interested to keep reading.  And the end was great so I am glad I finished it!  Echo was just different.  A tale told over time, woven together through music and beautifully told.  Want a treat? Download the audio version so you can also hear the music as the story unfolds.  They were both really good books, ones I would recommend but Echo has more depth and felt completely immersed in the stories.  For me, it’s Echo.. What? Echooo, Echooo, Echoooo…

Shelley Kunicki: Totally agree. “Trouble…” seems so familiar as if  I have read it before. I think my grade 8 and 9 students would enjoy the quirky characters and the action though.. My favourite though is Echo. Beautifully written, and the stories connect together so well.  I really enjoyed it and would love to use it in class.

Brad:  Definitely Echo.  No contest, really.

Chandra: Agreed, no contest!  I loved Echo. I loved the characters and the sensitive ways they interpreted and acted within each of the different time periods depicted.  I loved the way the author portrayed the beauty and potential of music and creative expression - even from a humble harmonica.  I appreciated that the historical aspects never didactically overwhelmed the characters or plot.  I’m getting happy and hopeful feels just thinking about it again.

The trouble with Trouble, on the other hand, was that the author tried to cram in too many young adult tropes, I think. There’s the divorced parents, the horrible stepmom, the new school, the mean girls, the complicated boy feelings (do I smell a love triangle in the works?!), the prom, the missing kids, the drug ring, the absent parents, the friend who’s been hiding his dire living situation from everyone… ETC.  I enjoyed the story at times, and Digby was a fun character (if entirely unbelievable), but Trouble… doesn’t stand out from the YA crowd.  I was also definitely more than a little annoyed about the cliched portrayal of “downtown.”  Sketchy motels, sketchy business dealings, sketchy characters around every corner… please. Not one, but two of the girls have to fight off attempted kidnappings/molestations in the span of a few minutes? And the group of emo girls? Is anyone even “emo” anymore?  Anyway, I didn’t appreciate the pathologization (is that a word?) of the “inner city.”

Amanda:  I echo everyone else!   Pam Muñoz Ryan’s Echo is the clear winner as I will likely never ever read anything by Stephanie Tromly again. (Ugh!) Trouble is a Friend of Mine was so annoyingly familiar that I am still not sure if I had already tried (and failed) to read this formulaic and boring book. While there were a few sections that I found entertaining, the pain of getting to (even remotely) interesting sections wasn’t worth my time.

Echo, on the other hand, wove together fantasy and the heart-wrenching but hopeful stories of three young people directly affected by very adult realities. I loved the tender and tough and vulnerable protagonists and was charmed by the coming together of their stories. I really enjoyed Echo - even though it was a sad and even painful read at times - because the story moved along briskly, the details were rich, and I genuinely enjoyed spending time with Friedrich, Mike, and Ivy.
Prickly Truth of a Drowned City

Book Drowned City: Hurricane Katrina And New Orleans by Don BrownBook The Porcupine of Truth by Bill Konigsberg

Let's play a short game of two truths and a lie.

Truth:  A novel full of witty banter and unique internal dialogue.
Truth:  An original take on the question of religion, sexual orientation and family.
Truth:  An epic road trip.

If you're anything like me, the second one would be the lie.  Maybe I've read too many YA novels and need to flip back to some adult fiction for awhile, but I found myself rolling my eyes a little too much in this novel.  The novel takes off with a mystery of the whereabout of Carson's grandfather, Russell.  Carson sets out on a road trip with his very new friend, which was eye roll #1.  Maybe I'm heartless, but besties in a couple days?  Come on.  I can understand meeting a new friend and hitting it off, but setting out on a road trip after less than a week of knowing each other...

But I'm getting distracted, so let's continue. They set out on an epic road trip to find his grandfather...and not much interesting happens.  Spoiler Alert:  Carson is successful on his quest, and meets his grandfather's love,  Turk.  I do appreciate the history Bill gives to the era about what it meant for someone to come out to his or her family and live as an openly gay individual.  That was probably the best of the novel, but then Bill goes right back to fast tracking relationships.  Turk is all of a sudden "Grandpa" to Caron and Turk becomes the grandfather Carson missed out on.  Que eye roll #42.  It's not that the book is terrible, it's actually decent, but can we come to a point where being gay is normal?  Where students that are gay can pick up a book and sexual orientation is written as normal and not a plight to suffer through?   I'll leave it at that.  Definitely a novel worth reading, but not one to put forward in Smackdown.

Drowned City. in my opinion, is a perfect nonfiction text for teens.  It's a relatively current event that not many people know much about.  I started the novel thinking I knew about the events of Hurricane Katrina, but by the end, I learned an abundant amount of new information.  I was shocked by the US government's reaction to the hurricane.  Didn't they know it was coming?  Shouldn't they have put in more preventative measures to help evacuate and set up shelters?   I couldn't believe that trains left empty when thousands were left in New Orleans to face the wrath of Katrina?  The stadium was another shock for me.  I knew that people were not treated well and that aid came late, but I had no idea how bad the situation was.  I finished the graphic novel in one sitting because it was short and gripping.  It is definitely a graphic novel that I would put on my classroom shelf and recommend to students.  

Thus, my vote is for Drowned City!
From the Westminster Crew-- or at least the part that came back from the Christmas holidays

It is wonderful to have two books that challenge their readers-- 

Simon vs The Homo Sapiens Agenda- by Becky Albertalli - The romance and the youthful longing felt  true though the theme is not new or even really interesting anymore.  But for a book with very little action except the mystery of the identity of one young man wooing another in internet communication-- it kept me interested.  Although some might be repulsed by the hints of masturbation, this book could not exist without it.  It is about a teenage boy exploring his sexuality--- hard to escape.   Well done and I want this book for the library.  I also think it is the most readable for teenagers of the two books-- but the book I choose is Challenger Deep which I think is brilliant.

Challenger Deep by Neal Shusterman was moving and powerful.  Though at the beginning the voyage that parallels and illuminates the decent into madness seems repetitive and dismiss-able, that voyage takes on real importance as it translates for us the protagonists interpretation of events in his life.  I don't know if young students would be inclined to work past the incomprehensible at the start-- but for someone who is watching the incomprehensible in real time, it is a hopeful and loving book.

So we like Challenger Deep.

Wendy Dawson and Laura Johnson