Friday, June 29, 2012

The Realm of Possibility

When I'm reading a book that I plan on reviewing, I turn down the corners of pages with lines I particularly enjoy. With David Levithan's novel in verse, The Realm of Possibility, I wasn't able to do this because every single page would be dog-eared. He is such a talented writer.

In a series of interrelated poems, twenty teenagers from the same high school give brief insights into their lives and the other characters. The chart on the book's wikipedia entry is very useful for making the connections between the characters; I found myself flipping back often to see who was who. Levithan expertly threads the stories together. With long poems and beautiful writing, I felt that I knew all of the characters well and wanted more. This is what I was hoping for when I read Helen Frost's Keesha's House.

While I loved all of the narratives, I particularly enjoyed "Tinder Heart" which was written from the perspective of Mary, an anorexic. It is the only poem in the book which features only a few words per line, as if even Mary's poem wants to be thinner. This section features moving imagery:

"why won't they
leave me
alone?
don't they
realize i
have a
tinder heart
and a
paper body
and that
any spark
will turn me
straight to
ash?"

Another excellent writing decision was to have Jamie's chapter, "The Day" be written with the lines all beginning with the same letter. Jamie takes us alphabetically through the first day after his girlfriend breaks his heart, over the course of sixteen pages. I admit, I didn't realize this was the format until all the lines were starting with the letter "L".

There are so many other wonderful things I could write about, although part of Levithan's magic is discovering what you love for yourself. While the book is too mature for my middle school students, I will be adding it to my personal library shelf and seeking out other books by the author.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

The Selection (Audiobook)

I listened to Kiera Cass' The Selection as I drove across South Carolina after graduating with my master's degree, and it was the perfect diversion, as frothy as the blue gown on the book's cover.

In an alternate future (I wouldn't call it dystopian), society has been divided into eight castes, which dictate everything about the citizen's lives. When a royal male comes of age, they hold The Selection: a lottery which brings thirty-five girls from around the country to compete to become the country's next princess. America Singer (yup) is from the artist caste, five, which is looked down upon, but not nearly as much as her secret boyfriend, Aspen, who is a servant from caste six. When she is chosen for The Selection after Aspen breaks her heart, it seems like the perfect escape, because she knows she won't really end up with the stiff Prince Maxon. Yet life in the castle is not what she expected, and she finds herself becoming friendly with Maxon. Could she become the princess and could she ever really forget Aspen?

I found myself enjoying this novel far more than expected. The plot and cover made me roll my eyes slightly; was I really interested in listening to an eight hour love triangle? Apparently I was, when it entails a lot of makeovers! I am a sucker for makeover montages and was a bit sad when the film version of The Hunger Games edited down that part of the novel. I've never seen "The Bachelor", but there are bound to be comparisons between the show and the plot, yet it was absorbing and fun (maybe "The Bachelor" is, too?)

I listened to The Selection right after finishing Insurgent, and was a bit jarred by how different the two protagonists are. The Selection's America is as open, innocent, and friendly as Insurgent's Tris is difficult, secretive, and strong. Much like the citizens who watched the competition on television, I found myself liking America for her basic goodness. Some of her characteristics don't match up: at one point she wishes to just be alone with a violin, yet in the next scene she is alone in a room full of instruments and can't be bothered to play. It felt like Cass only occasionally remembered that America is a musician instead of having that be one of her passions. America also marvels at how another contender is able to start conversations with people, yet several chapters earlier it was America who spent the longest time at the airport, greeting fans and speaking to them personally. I hope that her character becomes more fleshed out in the second book.

I was surprised by how the novel ended. I don't think it's a spoiler to say that Prince Maxon has not made his decision by the end of the book. I wonder if the competition will continue throughout the remaining books in the trilogy. I am rooting for Prince Maxon and America to end up together. He is such a well-developed character while Aspen remains a sketch of a "good guy from back home."

This novel is already being made into a television series for the CW, so Cass is doing lots of publicity. Among my favorite finds is her Pinterest page with the images that inspired her while writing the book. I am eager to see where this series goes and watching the television show while I wait for book two.


Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Unwind (Audiobook)

In celebration of National Audiobook Month is Unwind by Neal Shusterman. I am so happy I chose to experience this novel via audiobook because I feel that it added to the suspense of this already thrilling book.

Unwind takes place in the future, after the "Heartland Wars" which were only concluded when the government decided that abortion would be illegal, but parents would have the opportunity to "unwind" their children when they became teenagers. The body parts of these unwound teens would be harvested for parts and sold or donated to those who needed them. They see this as a way for the teens to continue living, just in a divided state.

Unwind is written from multiple perspectives, mainly those of Connor (a troublesome teen), Risa (an aging foster child), and Lev (a "tithe" who is being unwound as a religious offering from his family). The shifts in point of view kept the novel moving at a brisk pace and also allowed Shusterman to give more historical details to this new society. None of the three protagonists' unwinding works out according to plan and their stories weave in and out until coming together in a nerve-racking ending.

I listened to Unwind on a roundtrip excursion across South Carolina; the ten hours of the audiobook perfectly fit the length of the drive and kept me entertained the entire time. It was the fastest that ride has ever felt! At first I wasn't a big fan of Luke Daniels, the reader, but once he began narrating from other perspectives and using more voices, he grew on me. By the end, I was parked in my driveway, riveted to the description of a harvesting.

Some parents may be skittish with the references to a civil war over the issue of abortion, but that aspect is very minimal. I'd encourage parents to read the book (or listen to it) with their child because there are so many rich conversations that it sparks.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Cinder (Audiobook)

Happy Audiobook Week!

I had heard a lot of buzz about Marissa Meyer's Cinder, a retelling of the Cinderella fairy tale featuring a cyborg version of the heroine, so I listened to the audiobook as I packed up my apartment to move. It was such a good decision, as narrator Rebecca Soler was able to make the time speed by.

Linh Cinder is the best mechanic in the futuristic city of New Beijing, toiling away in the local market to support her wicked guardian and her two stepsisters. Looked down upon because she is a cyborg, Cinder spends most of her time with her android friend, Iko. When Prince Kai comes into her shop, asking her to repair his android, he sets off a series of events which change the fate of the entire planet.

Everyone is familiar with the plot of the fairy tale, but Meyer's update is fresh and engrossing. The science fiction aspect was entertaining--I love a world where anything can happen and I never know what to expect. The Asian setting was also appealing; I've lived in Korea and Japan and Meyer perfectly evokes the feeling of a highly populated city and a crowded market. It's safe to assume that Prince Kai is Asian, and I strongly believe that we need more Asian male love interests in YA literature.

Rebecca Soler has a gift for accents which heightened my enjoyment of the book. She convincingly portrays robotic voices, purrs when speaking as the evil Lunar Queen Levana, and imitates the many accents of a variety of world leaders. There are quite a few arguments and technological descriptions in the novel, yet Soler's reading kept me from wanting to skip ahead.

Cinder is the first of four novels in the Lunar Chronicles, with the next one updating Little Red Riding Hood. I am eager to see where this series goes and will be giving that novel a listen as well.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Dreamland (Audiobook)

Happy Audiobook Week! I'll be posting reviews of YA audiobooks all week, to participate in this week of fun, organized by Devourer of Books (cool name!).

I'm a little sad because Dreamland is my last unread Sarah Dessen novel. It's interesting to read her work from eleven years ago and see how her writing has changed. Published in 2000, Dreamland is a much darker Dessen than what we see in her latest novel, What Happened to Goodbye.

Caitlin O'Koren has become invisible. Her perfect older sister left home and created a void in her family. While her parents cope with Cassie's absence, Caitlin is swept into a relationship with handsome and rebellious Rogerson Biscoe. (This name kills me.) Apparently, dreadlocks were a much bigger deal in 2000, because all reactions to Rogerson, both positive and negative, are attributed to "the hair". Rogerson deals marijuana and most of their relationship involved driving around, delivering pot. That is, until he starts hitting her and then the relationship revolves around Caitlin anticipating Rogerson's moods.

In the past, I have found it challenging to relate to characters that are victims of domestic violence. Dessen beautifully describes the conditions which cause Caitlin to continue in the relationship: not only are her parents ignoring her, she feels like there is nothing unique about her, Rogerson is the first person to make her feel special, and even negative attention is better than walking through life as a ghost. The descriptions of Rogerson's aggression were heartbreaking, perhaps even moreso on audiobook.

I also appreciate Dessen's deft handling of Caitlin's marijuana use. It didn't glorify it, nor was it vilified. I feel that sometimes young adult authors feel a responsibility to show how dangerous drug use can be by including a car crash or another dramatic event. Caitlin's situation seems much more realistic: she withdraws from those she loves and gradually becomes more listless and apathetic. The reader gets the message in a subtle way (apart from the rehab at the end but I am pretending that is solely for her relationship issues).

I loved that I listened to Dreamland. It is a long audiobook--8.5 hours--and took me all the way across South Carolina and halfway back. I apologize to anyone on the road with me at the time; I could have been driving 45 or 85 and wouldn't have known it because I was so engrossed in the story. Narrator Liz Morton's distinction between the characters was excellent. I truly felt like Caitlin's mother and Caitlin were voiced by different people.

When reviewing What Happened to Goodbye, I complained that it felt like Sarah Dessen may be stuck in a rut. I'd love for her to go back to her darker roots because Dreamland was excellent and important.

Friday, June 22, 2012

One of Those Hideous Books Where the Mother Dies

We meet Ruby at the airport, where she is flying across the country to meet and live with her father after her mother's death. Oh yeah, her father is a Hollywood star (think Tom Cruise) and Ruby is furious with him for never contacting her before her mother's death.

This is the only one of Sonya Sones' novels in verse that I haven't read and it held up to the high standard I have come to expect from her. Although the tone is light in the book, it features some lines that I will be pondering long after finishing the book. One is, "Worry is negative prayer." I am a big worrier, so this is a quote for that side of me. Another is:
"And I flat out refuse
to have one of those lives
that I wouldn't even want
to read about."
I want to hang that quote up in my classroom to inspire students (and me) to dream bigger and do more.

Despite the title, this isn't really One of Those Hideous Books Where the Mother Dies. First, the mother has died before the book began. Second, although Ruby misses her mother and is devastated by the loss, she expresses it in a unique way: she continues to email her mother's old address, with messages full of "LOLs" and "How are things in the casket? Not too damp, I hope." This is the aspect of the novel that I liked least. Since Ruby is still early in the grieving process, I don't think she would be at the place where she could make crass jokes.

I also found it a bit difficult to pity Ruby, moving into a gorgeous mansion with a man who is bending over backwards to make her happy. She may be upset at him for missing such a large chunk of her life, but her father so obviously cares about her and wants to make her happy that it just ends up reflecting poorly on Ruby.

Despite these nitpicks, I enjoyed One of Those Hideous Books Where the Mother Dies. Simply put, Sonya Sones writes what I want to read.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Grave Mercy

Grave Mercy is an example of why I love reviewing books. For the past few years, I've tried to broaden the genres I read, which opened me up to this historical fiction set in Brittany in the 1400s.

Ismae is rescued from an abusive arranged marriage and taken in to a convent of nuns who have been sired by Death. (See how far I've come? I just used the word "sired"!) Trained as assassins, the nuns are sent into the world to kill people who wear Death's marques--a black smudge that shows how they are supposed to die. Ismae is placed in the court of Duchess Anne under the guise of being her half-brother's cousin (read: mistress), charged with protecting Anne from the many who would betray her for the throne.

The development of Ismae's relationship with Gavriel Duval is expected, yet enjoyable. We know that their mutual scorn is going to turn into love, but it feels organic and eventually we are rooting for them to get together. My favorite thing about Ismae and Duval is that they speak plainly to each other. When they have suspicions or learn something about the other, instead of fretting over it for several chapters as would happen in most novels, they confront the issue and work through it.

There is also dark humor threaded through the book. Ismae says, "'I do not care for needlework.' I pause. 'Unless it involves the base of the skull.'" These jokes are welcome among all the court intrigue, which had me genuinely wondering who were the traitors. Author Robin LaFevers kept the novel fairly historically accurate; a history of the time period is available on her website. I read that the second novel in the series will focus on another assassin, Sybella, who briefly appears several times, memorably asking, "Is there a poison that will make a man's member shrivel and fall off?" This is a character I want to know more about!

Monday, June 18, 2012

Never Fall Down

Arn Chorn-Pond had the typical life of a Cambodian child, until a Communist group called the Khmer Rouge took control of the government and forced all the citizens into work camps. In Never Fall Down, Patricia McCormick takes Arn's account of his life in "the Killing Fields" and writes it as a gripping and unforgettable novel.

Following novels about a soldier in Iraq, a child sold into sexual slavery in India, and an American girl who can't stop cutting herself, McCormick proves that she can write in any voice and about any subject. Never Fall Down is an unflinching record of how Arn managed to survive when one quarter of the Cambodian population perished. As a bedtime reader, I found myself haunted by Arn's recollections and trying to read it earlier in the day. The descriptions of violence are too graphic for my middle school students, but this should be required reading for high school students.

There are so many discussion points in this book. Apart from the violence, the brutality of starvation, disease, and the grueling work conditions are detailed. Arn says, "New schedule announced at meeting tonight. Work from 1 a.m. to 7 a.m., 7:30 a.m. to 1 p.m., 7:30 p.m. to 11 p.m. Now, day and night, the same thing. Also the word sleep, it's not allowed anymore. Okay to say rest, but not sleep. Forget this word." My heart hurts to think that this was Arn and many others' reality for years; I want to talk with other readers about the gratitude they felt, I was humbled by his story.


Friday, June 15, 2012

Keesha's House

In my search for lists of novels in verse, the name Helen Frost continued to pop up as an author to watch. My library had a copy of Keesha's House, a Printz Honor book. Through poetry, it tells the stories of seven high school students who end up with no place to go due to pregnancy, substance abuse, homosexuality, and family issues. They somehow all manage to find their way to a house run by a man named Joe, who keeps it open to kids who don't have a proper home. Fourteen-year-old Keesha is the linchpin, inviting them to come and stay. In the words of one character, "It looks to me like the kids at Keesha's house are wearing lives designed for people twice their age."

Of all the novels in verse I've read, Keesha's House stays truest  to its poetic roots. The poems are either sestinas or sonnets, and their density is welcome after pages that are too light on actual content. Best of all, none of the rhymes felt forced. At times, it felt more like reading paragraphs than poetry, which will be a relief to adolescent readers who are intimidated by the genre.

I enjoyed Keesha's House, although wouldn't consider it a "must read". Perhaps it is the sheer number of narrators (we also get poems from the perspectives of key adults in the teens' lives), but I didn't get to know any of the characters well enough to get attached. Although the book is named for her, Keesha is the character whom I connected with the least. I appreciate that it is grittier and tackles more urban issues than many of the novels in verse I've read. For that reason, I would keep it on my bookshelf for students to browse.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Thumped

In the eight and a half months since we left them in Bumped, Harmony and Melody have become the most famous teens in the world, known as The Hotties. As twins who are pregnant with twins, they are swamped with endorsement deals for perfumes and energy bars, hounded by paparazzi, and copied by everyone who follows them on the MiVu. Yet they both are hiding secrets and stand to lose everything if they face up to their lies.

It took me a few pages to get back into Megan McCafferty's world where pregnant teens reign. Once I remembered the slang: "pregg", "dose," and "FunBumps," I settled in to enjoy the end of the twins' story. As always, McCafferty's humor is a highlight. In referring to her school bus, Melody says, "The Bumpmobile's horn is notoriously obnoxious. We call it the waterbreaker." The author has considered every detail and how it contributes to the atmosphere.

Surprisingly, Harmony became my favorite character. She spent much of the first novel speaking only in Biblical verse, but her time on the Otherside has changed her. She has begun to question the rules of the devout community she lives in. While she never loses her belief in God, she wonders if the rigid rules are necessary. She says, "I thought maybe, just maybe, I could find someone else here who sought a different relationship with God. I've only recently begun to accept that I'm the sole doubter among us." Her progress throughout the series feels like a realistic (if slightly exaggerated because of circumstances) development of faith.

Thumped is a book you will read in one sitting, urged along by the short chapters and rapidly unfolding plot.

This book was provided by Young Adult Books Central. Read this and more reviews here.


Monday, June 11, 2012

Insurgent

Guys, I consider myself a pretty intelligent person. I just received my graduate degree, I read all the time, and I can discuss a wide range of subjects. But I didn't understand the ending of Veronica Roth's Insurgent. When I finished the book, I had to search on the internet, asking, "What happened at the end of Insurgent?" so I could read a bunch of teenagers' thoughts. Once I realized that I did understand, my question changed to, "Who cares?"

I was disappointed by this sequel to my beloved Divergent. While I know that a series needs to progress, I loved Tris' initiation and learning about the Dauntless, as well as her growing love story with Tobias from the first novel. Insurgent picks up immediately and plunges the reader into a building war between the factions, full of intrigue and miscommunication. Since there are so many reviews which praise this book, please allow me to complain a little:


  • I know they are teenagers, but I wish that Tris and Tobias could just sit still and discuss their issues. Neither listens to the other and they are frequently dishonest, which is frustrating.
  • Nobody is interested in hearing about other people's dreams. Unfortunately, that is what the simulations boil down to, so I wish there weren't as many of them.
  • People keep saying that the end was such a big reveal, but it didn't really phase me. 
I still want to know how the series wraps up, but not as urgently as I was looking forward to this one. It's worth reading, but doesn't compare to the wonder of Divergent

Friday, June 8, 2012

The Day Before

Amber has planned a day to herself, full of things she loves, because tomorrow her entire world will change. Early into her adventure, she meets Cade, who is also on a mission to live this day to the fullest. Both hide secrets about what they're running away from, but it doesn't prevent their attraction from growing. When Amber and Cade finally open about their lives, they are able to see the possibilities that lie before them.

The Day Before is the third novel in verse that I have read by Lisa Schroeder, and the first that does not involve a dead boyfriend. I wonder if that was what was missing for me! While the book wasn't a complete wash, it was what I would consider "bathroom reading". It's entertaining to read as you brush your teeth and dry your hair; it's a book that is easy to put down, but you are happy to pick it back up. The Day Before doesn't leave a residue the way Schroeder's other books do.

It isn't without merit; Amber is a likable protagonist and doesn't fit into the typical mold of a romantic heroine. Unfortunately, with only a day in her life, she isn't as developed as I would have liked. Schroeder develops both Amber and Cade's problems slowly, and it took me a long time to figure out what there problems were. It's always nice to be surprised.

Still, this is a book for Lisa Schroeder's die-hard fans, of which there are many. Everybody else should stick to Chasing Brooklyn.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Lola and the Boy Next Door

After reading Stephanie Perkins' Anna and the French Kiss in Spanish, I knew I wanted to read her writing in English to appreciate her turn of phrase. Almost as soon as finishing that book, I fired up my kindle to download its companion novel, Lola and the Boy Next Door. There is some character overlap (Anna and St. Clair work with Lola) and Perkins' voice is distinctive, but this is a very different novel.

Lola lives with her two dads in San Francisco, dressing in wild clothing and dating Max, an older rebel from a rock band. She thought she had completely moved past her crush on her former neighbor, Cricket Bell, until his family moves back in. Suddenly, all the old feelings have returned: her love, Cricket's twin sister's dislike of Lola, and Lola's parents desire for her to be with someone kind and age-appropriate. While there is never a doubt as to how the novel will end, Perkins takes the reader on an entertaining ride through the hills of San Francisco to get there.

Lola is a complex character who is far from perfect, and that is exactly what I liked about her. One of the most interesting aspects of the novel is when she realizes that Cricket is a better person than she is, and that she must earn his love and respect. This isn't presented in a way that slights Lola's character, but rather that everyone deserves to be with someone who brings out the best in them, and that she needs to do a little work to get there.

I was excited to learn that there will be a third companion novel, Isla and the Happily Ever After, to be released some time in 2013. Until then, I will get my Perkins fix by reading Anna and the French Kiss in English. 

Monday, June 4, 2012

Wonder

How can I ensure that everyone reads R.J. Palacio's amazing Wonder? It brings to mind the Marian Wright Edelman quote, "Service is the rent we pay for living on this planet." I want Wonder to be required reading for everyone, it's that good.

Auggie was born with facial anomalies and has spent most of his childhood getting surgeries which kept him out of school. At ten, his parents believe he is finally ready to go to a classroom and meet his peers. Since he describes himself by saying, "I won't describe what I look like. Whatever you're thinking, it's probably worse," everyone knows that his transition into the daily life of a typical adolescent won't be easy.

As a teacher who sees the way that middle school students can teach each other, I wanted to wrap Auggie up and protect him. I could relate to how his parents and older sister Via felt when they took him out in public. Auggie is an incredible character, sweet and hopeful, and above all, courageous. In the annotations section of her website, Palacio writes, "I wasn't born with what he has, and I don't know anyone who was. In that way Auggie is unlike anyone I've ever known. And yet in just about every other way he's like every other child in the world. So while I can't know what it's really like to walk in Auggie's shoes, I can try and put myself in his situation, and that of his sister and his parents and his friends. I've always loved the underdogs of the world. And I've always admired those who can pull themselves up by their bootstraps and march on. I love Auggie's pluck most of all." So do I. 


I love books that are written from multiple perspectives, so I was thrilled when the narrative switched from Auggie to Via, to several classmates and friends of Via's, always shifting back to Auggie. There's so much to learn from this book, about what it means to be a good person, about bravery, and most of all, about kindness. Please read Wonder and then pass it on to everyone you know. 

Friday, June 1, 2012

What My Girlfriend Doesn't Know


I could read Sonya Sones’ novels in verse all day…and I have. What My Girlfriend Doesn’t Know is the sequel to the excellent What My Mother Doesn’t Know, which details Sophia Stein’s romantic travails, ending with her dating the outcast Robin Murphy. What My Girlfriend picks up at the exact moment the previous left off, this time from Robin’s point of view.

I love the character of Robin--he is so sweet and beaten down, to the point that “Murphy” is synonymous with loser. There's a moment when he realizes the insult has gone beyond his school, and it is shattering. People turn on Sophia for dating Robin (including the friends I praised in my previous review) and suddenly "Stein" is an insult as well. Robin agonizes over breaking up with Sophia to save her socially. 

I enjoy reading about life from the outcasts' point of view. As a teacher, it motivates me to look out for potential "Murphys" at my school. Luckily, Robin has a teacher who sets him up with art classes at Harvard (love books set in my hometown), which gives him insight into life beyond high school. In the real world, he is a cool, talented guy that is well-liked. While I don't think this book will appeal to male readers (especially with this cover), I hope that the girls who read this feel comforted by this information, or act kindly towards less popular students in their schools. 

If you like novels in verse, you can't miss these books.