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

Monday, April 9, 2018

The Smell of Other People's Houses vs. Scythe

Image result for the smell of other people's houses cover vs. Image result for scythe novel cover

**Posted on behalf of TD Baker's Stephen E.**

The Smell of Other People's Houses, a young adult novel, has all the feels. As a first-person narrative, it alternates between four teens: Ruth who lives with her strict grandmother and younger sister; Dora who is staying at a friend's house to avoid her own parents; Alice struggling to escape the confines of the town; and Hank, running away from the darkness with his two younger brothers.

The symbolic landscape of the Alaskan terrain, the lyrical writing, and the interweaving of the characters’ lives explores the many struggles these characters face. Although the topics of teen pregnancy and domestic abuse are skimmed over, Hitchcock’s ability to develop the sincerity, witty, and tender voices of the teens engrosses the reader.

Overall, The Smell of Other People’s Houses by Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock leaves the reader with a lemon-fresh scent- not too powerful, but just right.

Smell of Other People's Houses Gleans Scythe

The Smell of Other People’s Houses
Something about this novel really stuck with a couple of us, and really think this would be a great fit for any Div 3 or 4 classroom. Sure, the happy ending  with everything tied up in a neat bow may b e  tiring, however,  the “searching for love and acceptance” narrative will resonate with many students. It was a quick and enjoyable read for all of us. The supernatural aspects, the religious undertones, and universal experiences of loneliness and loss offer a lot to young readers looking for a place in the world.

Unfortunately, only 2 of our team read Scythe fully, the other two couldn’t get through it!  I was the only one who loved Scythe!  I am a fan of Dystopian fiction and found this book compelling and facsincating and really spoke to the good and bad of human nature.  In our digital world, increasingly supported by technology like Google Home, I found the sentient Thunderhead a fascinating concept.  The idea of hunder, poverty and disease being eradictated, but the population still needing to be controlled through gleaning speaks to the data based nature of computer decisions.  I think junior high students who are fans of books like Hunger Games, and Unwind will love this book/series!

Saturday, April 7, 2018

Blue Coats of the Universe

I was ready to be won over by Girl in the Blue Coat, as I typically enjoy "WWII/Holocaust" novels, and I was satisfied by it.  It was plot-twisty enough to be unique in its character development, and it seemed more a mystery that happened to be set during WWII where politics took a bit of a background to the central mystery.  Hanneke did frustrate me as she waxed melancholic from time to time or, alternatively, seemed reluctant to help others, but I did warm up to her as she warmed up to saving a girl she had never met.  I also enjoy reading anything having to do with the resistance movements of the time so I liked the history that was portrayed through the characters she encountered.

That said, I chose to read it first knowing I would prefer it - only to be bowled over by Holding Up the Universe.  I'm not a "romance" reader on a good day, so teen romance makes my palms sweat and I feel carsick.  Usually.  However, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed meeting Libby and Jack, and how much I was rooting for both of them as they worked through their own struggles, yet found each other and ended up being the extra bit of strength the other needed.  I liked the book - go figure!

So, my vote goes to Holding Up the Universe, even though I will put Girl in the Blue Coat in a book club for students, because I truly enjoyed the characters.  They were warm, funny, and resilient, and they had a humanity that I just didn't feel with Hanneke.

Smell Is Too Nice to Glean, but . . . Scythe Moves On

If the biggest challenge in the early stages of the Smackdown is so frequently being asked to make decisions about books that are fundamentally different, at this stage of the tournament we often have the good problem of deciding between two really good books. This is problematic for me, because part of my blogging shtick is to get all up in some book’s face about it’s real or imagined flaws. I just don't think I can do it here, though.The Smell of Other People’s House’s may not be a perfect book, and as with any book, it wouldn’t be for everyone, but there is a kindness at its heart that makes me wish that everyone would spend a little time with it. I’ve noticed that both in our discussions here at the school, and in some of the previous comments on the blog, there was a sense that some of the characters could have been developed in greater depth and I think that’s fair, but it also speaks to the fact that these were characters that, by and large, we wanted to spend more time with. There was a sparseness to the text that at times seemed very lyrical and poetic, but at other times I found myself really wanting to read a really great, meaty short story about each of these characters. That’s probably not fair and, ultimately, the novel is successful and I think it would actually speak to a lot of students and would be an interesting book to teach, both for structure and content.

As strong as The Smell of Other People’s Houses was, however, it was Scythe that really took hold of us. The Hunger Games vibes loomed large for me in the first part of the book, but I - and I know this may be sacrilege to some, including my own daughter - enjoyed it more than that novel. I wouldn’t say the characters we’re all that much more fully fleshed out than those in Smell - which may be rectified as we move forward in the series - but in a novel that is driven by large concept and then realized through a cascading series of ideas stemming from that concept, I don’t think we necessarily need depth of character in order to fully engage with this book. At least we didn’t. In saying that, I don't want to diminish the characters - who were generally interesting, and at times, nuanced - and Shusterman has done a good job of constructing the narrative to make space for sometimes dynamic drama, as well as more reflective moments. As one of our groups noted, the journal entries embedded within worked surprisingly well. Of the books that we’ve read this year in the Smackdown, this is the one that I read the most compulsively, and not in that “I have to finish a whole novel tonight to make the deadline” way, that is my norm. It is also the book that I likely though the most about, not only because of the interesting premise of a world without natural death, but because of some of the parallels that exist in our own world that has also grappled with almost incomprehensible social change in the recent past. Is adjusting to a world without death on a different level than adjusting to a world where a push of a button can effectively end humanity, or a world where the internet has fundamentally changed what it means to connect? I’m not so sure, and while I’m not suggesting that the author intended this as an allegory, I think the novel offers us something profound as we see these intriguing young characters grappling with both the internal and external changes that they have to deal with in their brave, new world. I could really see this as a book that a very diverse readership could connect with in a number of ways. It would draw in kids who already like sci-fi and fantasy, but there is also meditative quality to the novel - even with the gory violence -that may speak to kids and adults that may not, at first glance, think this may be their thing. I can think of a lot of different people I’d like to discuss this book with.

As for Zombie picks, I think most of our previous round winners were still kicking last time we checked. We’re going to hedge our bets a bit. One of our group really would like to bring back Holding Up the Universe if that goes out and while I was initially leaning towards bringing back The Smell . . . if it, indeed does get gleaned here by the larger group, The Girl in the Blue Coat is, perhaps surprisingly, a book that keeps resonating with me and I think I’d like to see it come back. So, we’re not very firmly on the side of whoever loses over in the other bracket.

Friday, April 6, 2018

That House Stunk


Trust me.  We entered into Bonnie-Sue's house thinking that the beautiful cover and original storyline we're going to make our Smackdown dreams come true.  Better yet, we were hopeful.  I mean the author's last name was Hitchcock?  The back of the book painted a scene of danger and escape.  But we didn't know we were the ones in danger in need of an escape route.  Maybe we read the synopsis with dark tinted lenses, but even if we hadn't, this fresh premise quickly began to stink of cliches.  What an underdeveloped mess.  How can you have four characters tell their stories and expect it to go anywhere believable in 250 pages?  The audio guide did breathe a little bit of fresh air into this smelly house, but it definitely didn't mask the lingering scent of our butchered hope for The Smell of Other People's Houses.

On the other hand, Scythe was a wickedly dark treat.  It weaved a world where humans can't die, even if they wanted to.   In this gripping setting, brave souls are tasked with slaying the innocent to stave off overpopulation.  What can we say?  We loved watching Cia and Rowan negotiate the moral ambiguities of their society.  Just as they struggled to understand what is right and what is wrong, we were too.  This book kept throwing twists until the very end.  Beyond the action, the journal entries of the scythe's left questions in our minds too.  Where would our morals lie?

Now we have two authors waiting for their fate, looking at one another, knowing only one will survive.  We'll make it quick...

Sorry, Bonnie-Sue but you've been chosen for Gleaning.

In her place we nominate Angie Thomas with the book, The Hate U Give. (Our Zombie Pick)

Tristin and Lindsay
Holding Up the Universe vs. The Girl in the Blue Coat

Holding Up the Universe wins this round over Girl in the Blue Coat.  I always say it is not what is on the outside that counts in life but what comes from the heart and soul.  An engaging book which made me laugh and cry but so true to life. We should all remember each and every one of us is struggling with something.  It is said, "Don't judge a book by its cover!" and this story is exactly about that.  I love the strength of the characters (especially Libby) and how they persevere and adapt to the conditions around them in order to survive one day at a time.  Teenage years are hard at the best of times and this book gives hope to those who are struggling. (Judy P.)

It seems each round this year I find myself agreeing with Judy. Holding Up the Universe is the book I believe my students would find the most engaging and that’s what I’m basing my decision on this round. (Suanne W.)

Holding Up the Universe wins this round over Girl in the Blue Coat. Libby and Jack are rich and sympathetic characters. Their individual struggles speak to the universal struggles of teens everywhere: What if nobody sees me? What if others only see what they want to see? Why does everyone work so hard to be the same? Fitting in is so much work! What if I don’t ‘recognize’ who is most important to me? How DO I recognize who is important to me? Who do I want to be? The story-telling is engaging, even if the plot structure is well worn, and predictable. The appeal of this round’s winner will, undoubtedly, have a greater reach than its counterpart. (Miriam B.)

Holding Up the Universe wins over Girl in the Blue Coat.  Holding Up the Universe presents two characters who are engaging and pull you into the text. Many ideas are presented in this novel that need further exploring. Niven presents complex characters who are not stereotypical. Both Libby and Jack have experiences that have changed who they are and they are trying to move forward within their circumstances. Niven shows how both Jack and Libby face high school life as outcasts in different ways and how they strive to be true to themselves.  Girl in the Blue Coat resonated with me as I have read many texts in this genre and also being Dutch. I am personally connected to this genre and text as I lived in Amsterdam and my grandparents hid a Jewish family during WWII. This novel did not meet my expectations. The Dutch culture was not accurately developed. The author tried to incorporate the Dutch language early on in the novel, but lacked consistency. The plot was predictable and the plot twist was trite. By far the superior text that would engage readers is Holding Up the Universe. (Linda H.)

I am not sure what to write for the blog, as I, unfortunately, did not get very far in Holding Up the Universe. From what I read, I really enjoyed it! I Love the characterization, the writing style, and that the chapters read from the perspectives of different characters.
I read Girl in the Blue Coat in the first round, and although I enjoyed it, my vote goes to Holding Up the Universe. (Monica B.-E.)

Jan Reimer votes:

The Girl in the Blue Coat vs. Holding up the Universe

Rachel- I chose to start with The Girl in the Blue Coat as I am not a huge fan of historical fiction and wanted to tackle this one first. I was pleasantly surprised with how much I enjoyed the story. I was engaged from the start and interested in Hanneke’s illegal trading. As I continued, I did not connect with Hanneke’s character as much as I thought I would. Her bravery and determination were obvious but I still felt I was missing something. I enjoyed The Girl in the Blue Coat but perhaps reading in the sunshine swayed my vote to Holding Up the Universe. It is a lighter read, despite the two main character’s difficult backgrounds. Both Jack and Libby’s characters are quickly likeable and I found myself  “rooting for them.” I was, however, very thankful that the story did not take on too much of a sappy teen romance twist! Libby’s character sent a powerful message about self-acceptance, confidence and determination. I loved that she tried out for the Damsels Drill Team! I did not connect with Jack’s character as much but I still enjoyed reading from his perspective.

Krystal-Admittedly, I did not make it through either of our reads this round, I did read about half of each one and agree with Rachel on Holding Up the Universe as our win. Perhaps, I too am swayed by the content of both and was looking for a ‘lighter’ read over spring break. Holding Up the Universe was whimsical to a degree in which I related to some of the odd challenges that teens are making for themselves on social media (tide pod challenge comes to mind). The neglect of forethought and consideration of the victim in the cruel game/ challenge that Jack and his friends play and the resulting exploration of teens struggling with their self image and perception was adequately portrayed in a plot that I will return to finish up at a later date.

Once again, historical fiction was thrust upon me with the Girl in the Blue Coat and I enjoyed how the plot followed the perspective of a young woman struggling to accept the loss of her young love and supporting her struggling family in a way that she would never have imagined herself doing before. I found myself reflecting on the story of Anne Frank while reading and often compared the two accounts of a horrific part of our history. Unfortunately I did not connect to Hanneke’s character as much as I would have liked to in order to really encourage this one to go through.  

Zombie Pick:  Nellie Carlson staff want to revive "Salt to Sea" even though it was not one of our official reads.  In a previous blog, we noted that "Salt to Sea" was defeated by "The Hate You Give", a book which we had read.   Good book, not great.  A previous blogger had indicated that they loved "Salt to Sea" but had to pick HYG because of its social relevance.   So... needing some inspiring and inspired literature, some of us chose to read STS.   Wow!

This historical fiction novel is a fast paced thriller.  It is well written, exposing a forgotten chapter in history.   The characters are well developed, believable, and complex.   The plot is compelling, and indeed, is constructed from extensively researched sources.   The author skillfully weaves personal drama with historical fact, to create characters that come to life in the reader's imagination.   The detail, based on research, is realistic and sobering, painting images of the horror of Eastern Europe at the end of WW2.  This is an important, and educational book.   It deserves to be recognized as an influential YA book that will stand the test of time.
Girl in the Blue Coat vs. Holding Up the Universe

I wish we could enthusiastically vote for either of these books.  The heroine, Hanneke, of "Girl in the Blue Coat" captures hopes, courage, fear and the reality of growing up too fast in occupied Holland of WW2.  The secondary characters are also courageous and display the invulnerability of youth.   Less believable is the rapid character changes that occur in the war hardened Hanneke.  Character and plot changes are frequent and sometimes confusing.  Further, there are some historical inaccuracies.  Off putting.

Holding up the Universe has a plot that can only be described as "thin".  Characters are flat, uni-dimensional, and have no "shades of character".  The pacing of the book is slow.   Then there is the inevitable "sex-tion" of the book that was awkward and gratuitous.  I am not sure how this contributed to the plot, or enhanced our understanding of the characters.  I won't even get into the believeability of the plot, except to say that, well... it was unbelievable.   Sigh.

Girl in the Blue Coat gets the star, somewhat dull, certainly not gold. 

Scythe for the Win.

Smackdown the 8th - Round 4
By Van, Debbie, Anna

Scythe                vs The Smell of Other People’s Houses

Debbie: We have to make a pick for tomorrow!?!  Eek!

I’m going to make this quick. While I enjoyed "The Smell of Other People's Houses" (actually, I
enjoyed the title more than the book itself...too many underdeveloped characters to keep track of),
my vote is wholeheartedly behind "Scythe"...loved it.

While I'm at vote for the zombie pick is definitely "Wolf Hollow".
Excellent book for grade 4 and up.

Vanessa: Wow - this one snuck up on me - but I had read both books so I’m good to go.  
I gotta be honest, I’m a Scythe fan, tried and true. A little gross at times but I loved the story and
it has stuck with me.  And, I loved the sequel Thunderhead. Neal kept me wanting more and I
listened to it as a audiobook start to finish in one day.
The Smell of Other People’s Houses toyed with me.  The beginning was slow and I thought the story
was disjoint  but then a new chapter would start and it would be beautiful and I would think....this
might beat Scythe.  But the seesaw went back the other way and just as I wanted to know more,
the story would turn. It was good, then it wasn’t, it was good, then... And for me, it would be far fewer
a person I could give TSOOPH’s to that would enjoy as much as they would enjoy Scythe.  I’m
Team Scythe all the way, all day!

Zombie Pick: Yeesh - I love Refugee and The Hate U Give but I got the most feels from
The Hate U Give so that’s my Zombie pick.

Anna: I must say that “Smell of Others People’s Houses” is not my favorite. Each chapter seems promising and then sort of fizzes out. I could not be patient with this novel :(

My zombie pick is “Wolf Hollow”

Thursday, April 5, 2018

Holding Up the Universe vs. Girl in the Blue Coat

I absolutely loved Girl in the Blue Coat. This one gets my vote for sure. I enjoyed reading from an eighteen year old girl's perspective, especially in the midst of WWII. I thought it was neat to get an inside look at Hanneke's life working in the black market. It also made me realize, think about and appreciate the more intricate details of things that were happening during this time period; for example, parents giving up their babies to families that could provide a safer home, even if that meant possibly never seeing each other again after the war. I felt nervous for Hanneke throughout the story and sad for her when she spoke of Sebastian. I also loved the ending; I found it to be the best ending to a book that I have read in a long time.

I have already recommended this book to one of my students who is an avid reader, takes an interest in WWII (she loved reading Wolf by Wolf), and who is a bit of an "old soul" herself. This was a few days ago and she is already halfway done reading. I think there are many other students who would love to read this book as well. I felt so many different emotions while reading; relief, nervousness, happiness, and grief, to name a few. I would highly recommend Girl in the Blue Coat to both students and adults who take an interest in this time period. This read was a nice change from the teenage romance novels I typically read. Although I love a good teenage romance novel (big John Green fan!) especially ones that alternate between two characters, Girl in the Blue Coat was a refreshing switch.

                         Image result for girl in the blue coat                     Image result for holding up the universe

Girl Holding Up the Blue….Holding Up the Girl…Holding Coats?...forget it.

Both were fine.  Maybe even more than fine.

I’m sort of with a few of the others who have weighed in.  I think Girl in the Blue Coat is likely the better book, but Holding Up the Universe knows its audience in a HUGE way; it is far more likely to be devoured by our students.

Both are guilty of abandoning ideas/characters/motifs that are initially so intentionally carefully crafted at the expense of the machinations of plot in a way I didn’t mind until I was finished because both are twisty enough to keep you reading.  But...neither really passes a lot of scrutiny.

I think Hesse’s book wins out, however.  Mainly on the strengths of those last few pages, which, in context, are really something special. (Please note:  whenever I have waxed poetically about the last few remarkable pages of a flawed novel, that novel has been eliminated.  See:  Grasshopper Jungle.  The Bunker Diary.  More Than This. Others.  I shall refrain from writing more.)

I’m not sure that I LOVE either one of them.  I’m sort of surprised that both of them have found their way into the semi-finals.

Is this Zombie Pick time?  Because, whatever it is, it’s going to drive straight up the centre for the win this year.