Sunday, January 25, 2015

2015 YALSA Morris/Nonfiction Reading Challenge, Update #3

I have officially finished the books from both the fiction and nonfiction lists, with the exception of Ida M. Tarbell. My library has ordered it, but I don't know if I'll even get it before this part of the challenge ends. I'll read it for the full Hub Challenge when it comes in, but I think I have clear favorites so far for both the Morris and Nonfiction Awards.  This week, I read the last two Morris Award Finalists. Both were excellent!

The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender by Leslye Walton

Upon finishing this strange and lovely book, my first thought was, "Wow. That was beautiful."

I was immediately hooked by Ava's first words in the Prologue:

"To many, I was myth incarnate, the embodiment of a most superb legend, a fairy tale. Some considered me a monster, a mutation. To my great misfortune, I was once mistaken for an angel. To my mother, I was everything. To my father, nothing at all. To my grandmother, I was a daily reminder of loves long lost. But I knew the truth--deep down, I always did.

I was just a girl."

Chapter One was difficult to swallow and I kept getting jarred out of the story with thoughts like, "What am I reading? This is some freaky sh@#t!" I wondered if this might be one of those rare books that I would not be able to finish. I read on, thinking that I'd give it until page 50. The next thing I knew, I was on page 136 and utterly entranced by Ava and her family. I have a weakness for poetic language and this story was so beautifully crafted that it left me breathless. Truly a feast for the senses.

Ava's story starts long before she is born. Her ancestors experience the loves and tragedies that set the stage for her birth--this girl with wings who nobody quite understands. I loved the large cast of characters and the way their stories intertwined. They felt complex and sometimes painfully real, even in the context of the magical elements. What is love? Is it all about fate, or do we have the power to influence and direct its course?

This is a story about love, but it's bittersweet--heartbreakingly lovely, dark and violent, and, ultimately, hopeful.

The Story of Owen, Dragon Slayer of Trondheim by E.K. Johnston

This is Siobhan McQuaid's story just as much as it is Owen's. I loved that she gets to put her spin on events as they happen. There are benefits to being a bard, after all. I also enjoyed the theme that revolved around storytelling and its power to influence the world around us.

Their story is set in a world very much like our own, but populated by various species of destructive dragons that have influenced the course of history. I enjoyed the way the alternate history was presented, with familiar events and historical figures entwined with and influenced by dragons. Readers will recognize Hadrian, Dracula, the Beatles, Buddy Holly, and Queen Victoria, to name a few. The dragons are drawn to carbon emissions, so over the years, dragon slayers have been lured to big cities by corporations who are willing to pay big bucks to protect their factories and mines. This has left rural areas unprotected from ever-increasing dragon attacks.

When rockstar dragon slayer Lottie Thorskard suffers a career-ending injury, she moves to the small town of Trondheim with her wife (Hannah), brother (Aodhan), and nephew (Owen). Owen and Siobhan meet on his first day of school when they are both late to class. They quickly become friends. Siobhan is slightly socially awkward, but she has a wonderful wit and the ability to notice the music flowing through her life. All too quickly, Owen and Lottie approach her about being Owen's bard. Her role is not only to write songs about Owen's historic deeds, but also to put a spin on events that will teach the populace how to conduct themselves during a dragon attack--get in your darn shelter; don't stand there with your iPhone, distracting the dragon slayer while you try to get some good video.

When dragon attacks in this rural area start to noticeably increase in frequency, Siobhan and her friends discover that the dragons are expanding their hatching grounds. Their solution was pretty obvious and I actually wondered why it took a bunch of high school kids to figure it out. This was a part of the story that stretched credibility a bit. I wondered why their solution wasn't already a normal part of the dragon slayers' repertoire. Another small thing that bothered me was that I noticed several typos as I read; I hate getting thrown out of the story and having to go back and reread a sentence that doesn't make sense because of a missing word or a mismatched verb tense. The manuscript could have used another proofreading pass before going to print. This made me sad because the writing is so good overall. The cover art is also gorgeous.

Siobhan's voice grabbed me right away. I loved the way she hears music everywhere and is always composing. She even matches people with the instruments that best express their personalities. While some of the minor characters felt a bit flat and generally acted as more of placeholders, the main characters are well-developed and interesting. The dialogue is snappy and often funny, even when circumstances are dire.  Owen and Siobhan are JUST FRIENDS, which was also refreshing. It was nice that they were more concerned with saving the world and finishing high school than with getting married.

After Owen kills his second dragon we get this exchange:

"...when Owen passed me the following note on Monday morning in English, I punched him in the shoulder.

 My part was easy / I slayed it. You need a word / That rhymes with hubcap.

I didn't love the ending, but I could understand it. There is a planned sequel and I'm curious about how this critical loss will affect the ongoing story.

I'll end with Siobhan's words:

"That is the story of Owen, dragon slayer of Trondheim. And it is more or less true, but you can believe whatever you want."

Sunday, January 18, 2015

2015 YALSA Morris/Nonfiction Reading Challenge, Update #2

Having to go through Interlibrary Loan for this week's titles slowed me down quite a bit, but I did finally get a stack of books. I only completed one challenge book this week, but filled in the empty spaces with Dan Brown's latest, as well as the first two Harry Potter books (which I have read so many times that I consider J.K. Rowling to be a close, personal friend).

Laughing at My Nightmare by Shane Burcaw

Shane Burcaw writes with honesty, humor, and often in graphic detail about what it's like to live with spinal muscular atrophy.  

My favorite quote: 

"Every single one of us has problems. That's part of being alive. The beauty begins when you connect with other people and realize that we're all in the same boat. Once we accept the fact that life is inherently difficult, we can move on and focus on having a good time despite the tough stuff."

Sunday, January 11, 2015

2015 YALSA Morris/Nonfiction Reading Challenge, Update #1

The challenge before the challenge started a few weeks ago. I'm a little late to the party, but jumping in anyway. I can get through at least one of the lists before February 2, but I'm shooting for both. I love doing the YALSA Challenge every year because it helps me discover great books that I might otherwise miss. Thanks to a couple of snow days, it was a marvelous week to curl up and read.

Here is the Morris List:

The Carnival at Bray by Jessie Ann Foley
The Story of Owen: Dragon Slayer of Trondheim by E.K. Johnston
Gabi, a Girl in Pieces by Isabel Quintero
The Scar Boys by Len Vlahos
The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender by Leslye Walton

Here is the Nonfiction List:

Laughing at My Nightmare by Shane Burcaw
The Family Romanov: Murder, Rebellion & the Fall of Imperial Russia by Candace Fleming
Ida M. Tarbell: The Woman Who Challenged Big Business--and Won! by Emily Arnold McCully
The Port Chicago 50: Disaster, Mutiny, and the Fight for Civil Rights by Steve Sheinkin
Popular: Vintage Wisdom for a Modern Geek by Maya Van Wagenen



This week's completed books:

The Scar Boys by Len Vlahos 

Growing up is hard enough, even under ideal circumstances. After being horribly burned by a near-miss lightning strike, Harry Jones struggles to deal with the accident and to face himself. Thanks to a caring therapist and, eventually, some good friends, Harry learns to be an active participant in his own life.  There were many times as I read that I wanted to smack Harry upside his fat head. He isn't good at standing up for himself and he makes some dumb decisions. He also has a sly sense of humor that I loved and I rooted for him, even as he learned every lesson in the hardest possible way.

This is a well-done story about the power of music and friendship to help us transcend difficult times and to be better people. 

Gabi, a Girl in Pieces by Isabel Quintero

Gabi, a Mexican-American high school senior with a love for poetry and sopas, deals with all kinds of issues, as do her friends. Through her diary entries, which are fresh and funny, thoughtful and yearning, we join her as she and her peers deal with drug abuse, rape, teen pregnancy, self-esteem and body issues, homosexuality, faith and the lack of it, and sexism. Gabi struggles to come to terms with these issues in her life, and takes the reader along for the ride. The author is obviously trying to teach a few lessons here, but is never too heavy-handed. I love Gabi's sarcastic humor and her good heart. She is definitely a character who readers will care about and root for.

Some favorite quotes:

"Family. Familia. And while familia is the glue that keeps us crazy, it is also the glue that makes us who we are."

"Never ask the fat girl if she is hungry. She's always hungry. Even if she is not, she is, because food is safe and controllable and soothing and salty and sweet, and it doesn't scream at you or make you feel bad unless you are trying on clothes."

"Cinco de Mayo! Woo! Another holiday where people get to use sombreros and fake mustaches as proof of their understanding and commitment to learning about my heritage."

"...for a lot of people, high school is it--the best time of their life. Oh my God, if high school is supposed to be the best time of my life, I'm going to have the shittiest life ever." 

What kept this from being a five-star book for me was the awkward grammar and the way the Spanish was kind of unevenly integrated into the narrative. While I assume that the author used this style to make sure that Gabi's voice was authentic (and it did work) it brought me back to all the hours I have spent grading poorly edited student papers. I realize that other readers won't be as bothered by the grammar; I'm certainly glad that I read this book and will happily recommend it to teen readers.

Popular: Vintage Wisdom for a Modern Geek by Maya Van Wagenen

Maya is an unpopular, nerdy middle schooler who is inspired by an old book, Betty Cornell's Teen-Age Popularity Guide, to spend her eighth grade year attempting to climb the social ladder.  Each month, Maya follows some of the tips in the book and writes about how her peers react. The results are all over the place--sometimes hilarious, sometimes thought-provoking, and sometimes utterly cringe-worthy. Regardless of the outcome, Maya handles herself with grace and kindness. She is wise beyond her years.  

This is a book that would have helped the shy, lonely teenager I used to be. I can't wait to share it with my students, and the other teens in my life. 

I'll leave you with Maya's final popularity tip: "Popularity is more than looks. It's not clothes, hair, or even possessions. When we let go go these labels, we see how flimsy and relative they actually are. Real popularity is kindness and acceptance. It is about who you are, and how you treat others.

The Port Chicago 50: Disaster, Mutiny, and the Fight for Civil Rights by Steve Sheinkin 

Though I knew a bit about how African American soldiers were treated during WWII before I read this book, I had never heard about the Port Chicago 50. Especially in light of recent events, this is a timely, engaging, and thought-provoking story. 

Without even basic safety training, African American soldiers were given the dangerous job of loading munitions from rail cars onto ships. When the inevitable accident finally occurred, hundreds of people were killed and injured. The navy officers blame the soldiers for the accident, but then expect them to get right back to the same work. The men refuse and are eventually told that if they continue to disobey orders, they will be charged with mutiny. Fifty men end up being charged and put on trial for mutiny. I won't give away the ending, but Thurgood Marshall gets involved. 

Though these men were instrumental in the Navy's decision to integrate, they have never received much recognition. This book left me better informed, but angry. The United States has certainly come a long way, but we're not there yet. 

The Family Romanov: Murder, Rebellion & the Fall of Imperial Russia by Candace Fleming

Russian history has never been all that interesting to me, and I must admit that I had very little background knowledge going into this book. I vaguely remembered reading about "Bloody Nicholas" in high school. Candace Fleming has done a stellar job researching and writing a book that brings  the Romanovs to vivid life. The intimate portrait of their private lives makes them seem much more human, and their ends that much more terrible. She also adds in snippets about the dreary lives of peasants from primary source documents. For them, it didn't matter much who was running the country--their lives were just hard. Finally, other figures who affected the complicated course of Russian history make an appearance--Lenin and Rasputin are highlights.

Even though I knew how the story was going to end, I was riveted nonetheless, a small part of me holding out the hope that Disney got it right about Anastasia after all.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

2014 YALSA Hub Reading Challenge Check-in #10

I've been much more interested in reading the new books that I was able to purchase with my recently acquired Donors Choose funds, so I haven't read much from the challenge list in the past few weeks.   

Star Wars:  Jedi Academy by Jeffrey Brown

Roan has always dreamed of living up to the family legacy and becoming a pilot.  When he doesn't get selected for flight school, he's crushed.  He is surprised and not all that excited to get an invitation to attend Jedi Academy--usually students are recruited at a very young age.  Middle school is awkward at the best of times, but learning to use the force at the same time? Well, let's just say that some embarrassing moments ensue. 

Kind of Wimpy Kid-ish.  Star Wars fans will want to give this one a look.


These are some of the titles that I have been able to share with my students, thanks to the generosity of some wonderful friends (and the kindness of some complete strangers).

Stickman Odyssey, Book One--An Epic Doodle by Christopher Ford

Fans of The Odyssey or other epic tales will recognize some familiar gods and monsters. When Zozimos is banished from Sticatha, he sets out on a hero's quest to find his way home.  I giggled all the way through this book, and it is already very popular with my middle school students.  One of my favorite lines is representative of the humor you'll find:

"I'm so hungry, I'm farting fresh air."

Blood on the Handle by R.A. Montgomery

Choose Your Own Adventure #33.

You are an orphan living with your uncle. You come home one day to discover a bloody knife in the study and hear a car speed away. What do you do?  Depending upon the choices you make as you read, endings will vary.  

The City of Ember:  The Graphic Novel by Jeanne DuPrau

This adaptation might hook a few readers who wouldn't pick up the regular novel, but they'll be missing out on a lot of the story. The suspense while the main characters are figuring out Ember's secret is what makes the book so good.  In this adaptation, the mystery is solved way too quickly.  I was disappointed!

The Strange Case of Origami Yoda by Tom Angleberger

Origami Yoda, book #1.

A class of sixth graders learning to navigate the social world of almost-adulthood are guided by a pair of unlikely advisors--socially awkward Dwight and his origami Yoda finger-puppet.  Written as a case file/journal with contributions from several students who (mostly) benefitted from Yoda's advice.  Funny, but also includes realistic problems that many kids will recognize from their own lives.  Great for Wimpy Kid fans. 

Darth Paper Strikes Back by Tom Angleberger

Origami Yoda, book two.

The kids at McQuarrie Middle school are starting 7th grade and, thanks to Yoda's advice, they are convinced it's going to be a great year.  Unfortunately, Dwight's nemesis, Harvey, has his own finger puppet--Darth Paper.  Are Harvey and Darth Paper drawing on the power of the Dark Side to get Dwight expelled and destroy his friends' whole year?  Read the latest case file to find out!

An excellent choice for middle grade readers looking for a good laugh.

Blankets by Craig Thompson

This beautifully-drawn memoir illustrates both first love and a journey away from religious beliefs. I absolutely loved the artwork, and will keep a lookout for more from this author.  For mature readers.

Stitches by David Small

After his parents take him in for a supposedly routine surgery, David wakes up with a huge scar and no voice. Only later does he discover that he had cancer, probably due to the x-ray treatments prescribed by his radiologist father. 

Memoir is one genre that seems to lend itself especially well to the graphic novel format.  Haunting and powerful, David Small's memoir examines a dysfunctional family destroyed by repression and denial. He also illustrates the way that we all have the power to leave a difficult childhood behind and triumph in the end.

Dying to Meet You by Kate Klise
43 Old Cemetery Road, book one.

Crusty old children's author (who can't stand children) finds an unexpected family when he rents a haunted mansion for the summer.  Told in letters, newspaper clippings, etc. Cute!

Sunday, April 20, 2014

2014 YALSA Hub Reading Challenge Check-in #9

Spring Break, oh how I love you!  I caught up on my sleep this week and read a couple of books that I will happily recommend to my students.  Double win. 

Winger by Andrew Smith

Ryan Dean West is the only fourteen-year-old junior at boarding school. He already feels out of place, but when he's busted for trying to hack a cell phone, he gets stuck in Opportunity Hall, the dorm where all the delinquents live.  His roommate is a bully and Ryan Dean fears for his life. Oh, and he thinks about sex. All. The. Time. Especially with his best friend, Annie, who only sees him as a kid, and definitely NOT as a love interest.

Thankfully, Ryan Dean, though younger than his peers, has a killer sense of humor, a talent for drawing comics, and a fearlessness that he embraces while playing rugby and while facing a multitude of challenges.

This is a great guy book (filled with sports action, raunchy humor, and short chapters) that will surely appeal to reluctant readers.

The twist near the end of the book could have been handled better and didn't seem to fit with the rest of the narrative. Nevertheless, the book will be a great addition to my classroom library.

Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell

Eleanor and Park both feel like they don't fit in, but as they gradually discover each other, they find that they fit together.

Eleanor is all wrong. Her red hair is too much, she's overweight, and her oversized, mismatched clothes don't do anything for her appearance.  She's also the new girl at school and a target for bullies from her first day.

Park is part Korean and worries that his white dad thinks he's too Asian and too effeminate (unlike his brother, who looks more like their dad). 

At first, they can't stand each other, but thanks to their daily bus ride to and from school, they gradually bond over comics and mix tapes. My favorite part of the story is the evolution of their relationship.  It totally brought back memories of the breathlessness of first love and the way that the smallest things can carry huge meaning when you are young and experiencing love for the first time.

I wasn't as thrilled by their families--Eleanor's was dysfunctional on every level, while Park's was portrayed as almost perfect.  I would have found this part of the book more believable if there was more of a balance.  I also wanted to know more about Park's mother and how she felt about leaving Korea and her entire life there.  Living in Omaha couldn't have been easy for her.  And don't get me started on the ending--it was so abrupt that I scrolled back to make sure I hadn't accidentally skipped some pages. 

Overall, an enjoyable read. 

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

2014 YALSA Hub Reading Challenge Check-in #8

It's been a couple of weeks since my last update due to more sloooow reads.  I liked both of these books, but can't think of a single person I'd recommend them to.  

Belle Epoque by Elizabeth Ross

I have mixed feelings about this book and I'm not exactly sure how to verbalize my reaction.

The story is set in 1880s Paris, with the construction of the Eiffel Tower happening in the background. Maude Pichon is a girl from a small town in Brittany. She runs away to Paris when she learns that her father plans to marry her off to the local butcher. She soon learns that the city is not so glamorous for the poor.  Struggling to survive in the big city, she takes a job at an agency that specializes in renting out unattractive girls to wealthy women who want to look more beautiful in comparison.

Maude is hired to be the beauty foil of Isabelle, a wealthy debutante whose mother is determined to get her married off to an aristocrat. The catch is this--Isabelle has no idea that Maude is working for her mother.  As the girls become friends, keeping her secret becomes more and more difficult for Maude.

Overall, I liked the book.  I loved the setting and had lots of personal connections.  I studied in Rennes, France while in college and spent some time in Paris as well. I'm no longer fluent in French due to lack of use, but I had no problem understanding the simple French phrases sprinkled through the book. Readers who are unfamiliar with French might find that these phrases interrupt the narrative. The author doesn't do a great job of incorporating those French phrases in such a way that everyone can understand what they mean.

The descriptions of Paris were beautiful and there were many places where I lingered over lovely sentences as I read. However, the characters didn't really come to life for me until about the middle of the book. I especially loved the way my perception of Isabelle changed as the story progressed.

The message that beauty is in the eye of the beholder was not exactly subtle, but I think it is an important one, especially for the teen girls who are the target audience for this book.

I personally enjoyed this book, but I'm not sure who I'd recommend it to.

The Kingdom of Little Wounds by Susann Cokal

In her afterward (the part called A NOTE ON THE HISTORY), which I strongly suggest you read BEFORE the rest of the book, the author sums up this book way better than I can: "A fairy tale about syphilis."  Yep, that's what it is. And no gross detail of Renaissance medicine or disease is glossed over.  

I was struck by the beauty of the language right away and thought to myself, "Ah, I am going to revel in this lovely language."  A few more pages in and I was thinking, "Ugh, I hate this book. Am I going to be able to finish it?"  I continued to go back and forth between loving and hating the story and the characters until at least midway through. And the descriptions of bodily functions, oozing syphilitic wounds, and the medical treatments that were more poison than cure just went on and on. At one point, I thought that I would have to put the book down if there was one more scene with King Christian on the toilet. 

The story takes place in a Scandinavian city called Skyggehavn during the 1500s and combines historical fiction and fairytale to tell the tale of three women, each trapped by her unique circumstances.  Ava Bingen, a seamstress, Midi Sorte, a slave who cares for the queen's sick children, and Isabel, the queen herself.  Each of these women struggles to survive in a world where men have all the power and don't hesitate to use it to the detriment of those around them.   

The book itself is gorgeous, with breathtaking cover art and crisp printing within.  It has also been meticulously researched and proofread, which makes me a happy reader.  The language is rich and descriptive. 

I'm a bit on the fence as to whether or not I would consider this YA material.  The reason I would perhaps classify this as more adult is not so much due to the content itself, but because of the language and the pacing.  To me, it read more like literary fiction and most of my students wouldn't have the persistence to stick with it.  

That said, I enjoyed this book (once I got over hating it).  

Saturday, March 29, 2014

2014 YALSA Hub Reading Challenge Check-in #7

War, oppression, and torture, oh my. It was a difficult reading week, with books that were pretty slow reads. Hopefully, I'll get my hands on some lighter reading for next week.

Rose Under Fire by Elizabeth Wein

Code Name Verity, book 2. 

As in the first book, the events take place during WWII.  Rose Justice is an American who comes to England to work as a transport pilot. Though she's not a soldier and carries no weapons, she still ends up as a prisoner of the Nazis. She is taken to the infamous women's concentration camp, Ravensbruck. This book is fiction, but the author obviously did a great deal of research. 

The middle part of the book reads more like a survivor's memoir than a piece of fiction, as the conditions Rose encounters are based on real conditions at the camp during that time. At the camp, Rose meets a group of Polish prisoners called the Rabbits because they were subjected to horrific medical experiments by the doctors on staff at Ravensbruck. The Rabbits are determined to tell the world about their treatment, but Rose doesn't have the heart to tell them that there have been rumors, but that no one believes them (no one WANTS to believe them) because they are too terrible to be true. As her captivity stretches on and the war nears its end, the Nazi death machine revs into high gear as they resolve to cover up their crimes by leaving no witnesses. 

Rose struggles to hold on to her hope of survival. She says, "Hope is the most treacherous thing in the world. It lifts you and lets you plummet. But as long as you're being lifted you don't worry about plummeting.”

Engaging, well-researched YA historical fiction. Recommended for mature readers with an interest in WWII and badass female characters.

If You Could Be Mine by Sara Farizan

Sahar and Nasrin are both 17 and live in Iran. They've been in love for as long as they can remember.  Unfortunately, if anyone finds out, the penalty will be a public hanging.  When Nasrin's mother announces that she will marry a handsome older doctor, Nasrin agrees and assumes that her relationship with Sahar will continue; she'll have a comfortable life and continue to have a clandestine relationship with Sahar. 

Sahar knows Nasrin's plan won't work and she's desperate to find a way to stop the wedding. When she discovers that sex reassignment surgeries are not only legal, but paid for by the government, she decides to become a man and marry Nasrin herself. 

Okay, so here's where the story lost me for a while. Sahar is smart and plans to become a doctor. I found it very hard to believe that she would assume she could just have this major, life-altering surgery without consulting ANYONE about it (even Nasrin) and then be fully recovered in the month before the wedding.  I get that she's blinded by love, but it irked me that she never considered LEAVING FRIGGING OPPRESSIVE IRAN, but instead jumped right to becoming a man. 

I'll avoid spoiling the ending, but let's just say that it was maybe a little hopeful.  


This one was my book club's selection for this month and not on the YALSA list:

The Last Train West by Jean M. Prestbroten

This was a memoir about a German woman who cared for children in occupied Poland during WWII with some of the blanks filled in with fictionalized details.  Gretel Sennhenn started out as an enthusiastic supporter of Hitler, but as the war dragged on and she saw more and more of the suffering of ordinary people, she started to become disillusioned with the Nazi party. When the Allies arrived to liberate Poland, Gretel was forced to flee for her life. 

I've read many stories about the Nazi's victims, but not much has been written about how WWII affected the everyday lives of citizens who may or may not have supported the war in the first place. I found Gretel's story interesting and wasn't at all bothered by the blending of fact and fiction. This, in fact, was the book's greatest strength. What makes history interesting is the stories of the people who lived it, not so much the dates and places.

On the downside, this is a self-published book that could certainly benefit from a competent editor, more research, and the input of an actual German speaker.