Sunday, March 31, 2013

2013 YALSA Hub Reading Challenge - Update #7

It's been a girl power week of reading. Hooray! If only Spring Break could happen more often...

The Miseducation of Cameron Post by Emily M. Danforth

Wow. I loved this book. 

First, it's a beautifully told coming-of-age story set in a small town in Montana. The writing is luxurious and brings the setting fully to life. The characters are well-rounded; even the less sympathetic ones aren't all bad. The length might scare some readers away, especially since this is not a Twilight-ish book that a reader can speed through. This is a book to savor, like the unbearably long, hot days of summer that seem to stretch ahead forever, but end all too quickly. 

The fact that Cameron Post is a lesbian is important to the story, but it's not the only aspect of her life that's important to the story. She's a realistically drawn character (faults and all), and her gayness is simply one part of who she is. "I just liked girls because I couldn't help not to." Any young adult, as well as many adults, will be able to relate to Cameron's struggle to find her place in the world around her.

Cameron's parents die in a car accident when she is 12, and her evangelical Aunt Ruth moves in to care for her and her ailing grandmother. For awhile, Cameron pretty much continues to live her life as she wishes, except for church on Sundays and the mandatory youth group. "Being a true believer meant helping others, lots of others, to believe just like me. Rather than convincing me of the righteousness of this kind of believing, rather than making me certain of its correctness, it made me question, and doubt, all the more."

When Ruth finds out about Cam's love affair with a girl in town, she sends Cam to a "pray the gay away" school affiliated with her church. Even as she pretends to play along, Cameron remains skeptical that the staff of God's Promise will be able to cure her of something that is not a disease. Cameron comes to see that the staff really have no idea what they are doing, though she believes that they mean well. She describes Lydia, the head counselor, this way: "...witnessing her administration of ten zillion rules and codes of conduct, all of which she applied to her own life, made her seem fragile and weak, in need of the constant protection of all those rules..." I guess this line resonated with me because it often seems to me that ultra-religious people are obsessed with sin. Like the ONLY thing that keeps one from committing mayhem is the prohibition against doing so. One could argue that truly moral people do not require the threat of punishment to do the right thing. They do the right thing even when no one is watching, judging, or threatening punishment.

While Cameron is not always likable, you'll root for her as she struggles to be true to herself and to live her life according to her own conscience. As she says in a sort of communion with her parents, "Maybe I still haven't become me. I don't know how you tell for sure when you finally have." 

Frank depictions of sex and drug use. Highly recommended for mature readers.

Monstrous Beauty by Elizabeth Fama

Marvelous story. Marvelous, lush writing. Did I mention that this story is marvelous?

Syrenka is a mermaid, but more of the Brothers Grimm variety than the Disneyfied version we've come to know. She is immortal and deadly, but willing to risk everything when she falls in love with Ezra. They are happy for a time, but the consequences of Syrenka's choices prove deadly.

Many generations later, Hester meets a handsome young man on the beach; the two feel an instant connection, like they've known each other forever. Because the women in her family have some unexplained affliction that causes them to die right after giving birth, Hester is determined to remain alone forever. But, still, there is something about Ezra...

Syrenka's and Hester's intertwined stories are told with prose that flows like ocean currents in alternating chapters. The world of mermaids comes alive in this entrancing tale that combines fantasy and folklore, romance, historical fiction, realistic fiction, and mystery.

Prom and Prejudice by Elizabeth Eulberg

"It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single girl of high standing at Longbourn Academy must be in want of a prom date."

Fans (especially younger ones) of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice will enjoy this frothy and fun retelling of the classic novel of manners. It's a quick and easy read.

Lizzie Bennet, one of only two scholarship students at the prestigious Longbourn Academy, is a promising musician who dreams of playing in Carnegie Hall. Aside from Charlotte, the other scholarship student, and her roommate, Jane, no one at Longbourn wants anything to do with Lizzie, unless it's to torment her with mean-girl pranks.

Jane falls in love with Charles Bingley, a student at the equally exclusive boys' school, Pemberley, and Lizzie is partnered up with Charles' friend, the wealthy and pretentious Will Darcy. Misunderstandings and crossed signals abound, but readers familiar with the story will realize that everything is going to turn out all right in the end.

Alanna: The First Adventure by Tamora Pierce

Tortall Universe, Song of the Lioness #1.

Alanna and her twin brother, Thom, are about to go their separate ways--Alanna to a convent to learn magic, and Thom to the castle to learn to be a knight. Of course, Thom would rather learn magic and Alanna would rather be a knight. Surprise, surprise...they switch places.

We don't hear much from Thom, but Alanna (aka Alan) discovers that the life of a page is harder than she had expected. At times, Alanna seems a little to good to be believable, but she's a strong female character. She finds a well of strength inside herself that will help her be the hero she has always dreamed of. 

A fight between good and evil perfect for middle level readers.

First Test by Tamora Pierce

Tortall Universe, Protector of the Small, #1.

Since I read Alanna: The First Adventure in the same weekend, First Test felt very similar.  Like Alanna, Keladry of Mindalen longs to be a knight. She comes to the castle to become a page, but she does so openly, without concealing her gender. Of course, this opens her up to almost constant abuse from the other pages. Despite the challenges, Keladry refuses to give up and proves herself the equal, and in many cases the better knight, than the other pages.

Keladry, even more than Alanna, is a character to admire. She doesn't strive to become a knight simply to escape her fate as a proper court lady; she believes wholeheartedly in chivalry and protecting those who need protection. She stands up for others and calls the other boys to the carpet when they don't want to follow her lead.

Another excellent fantasy for middle level readers.

These weren't on the YALSA list, but worth a look.

Beauty Queens by Libba Bray

This review refers to the audiobook, read by the author. The footnotes that may have annoyed me had I read this instead of listened to it, came to wonderful, hilarious life.

Of the 50 young women and their chaperones who crash land on a deserted tropical island, only 12 teens survive. Imagine Lord of the Flies, but with more mascara and push-up bras.

I wasn't too sure about this concept at first, as I generally prefer Libba Bray when she's doing historical fiction. However, once I got drawn in, I loved the satire about our consumer culture and unrealistic expectations for women. Bray's beauty queens begin by seeing each other as obstacles; once they get to know each other, they realize they can only succeed together.

The thing I love most about satire is that it makes you laugh, even as it makes you think. However, misogynists beware: feminism abounds. If you like your women quiet, obedient, and pregnant, you'll probably hate this book. I thought it was hilarious and empowering.

Viral Storm: The Dawn of a New Pandemic Age by Nathan Wolfe

There were several things I liked about this book, even though it's not the type of thing I usually read. First, as a science novice, I appreciated the simple explanations of how viruses evolve and function. Learning how viruses jump from animals to humans was fascinating. Wolfe's assertion that perhaps we are overspending on stopping terrorist attacks and would be better served (in terms of protecting human life) by funding more scientific research makes perfect sense. Although his name-dropping goes a bit overboard at times, I get that he's doing it to highlight the useful research that is happening around the world and to remind us to keep funding it.

It's funny that some people view this book as "alarmist." I didn't feel that way at all. On the contrary, I felt that Wolfe was giving both sides about viruses. They aren't all trying to kill us. Many viruses are beneficial, or at least do no harm, and can be harnessed to help fight disease. His assertion is that we should not be trying to eradicate all viruses. Instead, we should be focused on the truly harmful ones that have the ability to cause pandemics.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Camp Nanowrimo 2013

Once upon a time, I was a Brownie and then a Girl Scout. My favorite part of the whole experience was not the summer camp (ugh...camping...mosquitoes, wet socks, AND mean girls). It was the badges. I remember being so proud of my sash filled with badges; oh, how I loved them. They were tangible proof that I was strong and capable. I could do stuff, all kinds of stuff. I felt like a superhero.

So, now that I'm getting ready to embark on yet another crazy month of novel writing, what am I most excited about? The satisfaction of finally finishing that novel I've been yammering on about for years and years? Well, that would be nice, but what I really want are some cool badges to display my awesomeness to the world. Where, oh where, did I put that sash?

Seriously, though, I would love to finally finish my novel. I've been working on it for years and still have less than half of a book. But I'm torn about whether it's better to keep trying to tell a story that doesn't seem to want to come together, or to start something brand new. One more week to do some brainstorming, and hopefully, a few character sketches and a rough plot outline.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

2013 YALSA Hub Reading Challenge - Update #6

It was a good week for reading; however, I only managed to finish one book from the challenge list.

Beneath a Meth Moon by Jacqueline Woodson

When Hurricane Katrina hits their home in Mississippi, Laurel's mother and grandmother refuse to evacuate with the rest of the family. Her dad takes Laurel and her baby brother to stay with relatives until he finds a job in the Midwest where they can start over. At first, Laurel does okay. She makes a good friend, joins the cheerleading team, and starts dating the captain of the basketball team. But when her boyfriend introduces her to meth, Laurel's life quickly spirals out of control.

Laurel's narration jumps from past to present, sober to high, and back again and is, at times, difficult to follow. Her moments with a street artist named Moses who lost his 
mother to meth are my favorite parts of her story. 

Also read this week, but not part of the challenge:

Saint Iggy by K.L. Going

Iggy Corso is basically a good kid who tries to do the right thing, but he is pretty naive, despite some tragic life experiences. He makes choices without understanding the consequences and this gets him into trouble--like the day he follows a cute girl into a class and argues with the teacher when she asks him to leave. He gets suspended. During his conversation with the principal who calls his actions incomprehensible, Iggy thinks, "I wonder why I am incomprehensible because everything I do makes perfect sense to me."

Iggy's inner dialogue hooked me right away. Though not much actually happens in the story besides Iggy wandering the streets looking for a way to make a difference in the world, I kept turning pages, hoping something good was finally going to happen for him. This is, ultimately, a tragic story, but Iggy is an engaging and often humorous character who deserves a happy ending.

I recommend the audio version of this book, especially for readers bothered by run-on sentences. 

Before I Die by Jenny Downham

Tessa, who is dying of cancer, makes a list of the things she wants to do before she dies and writes it on her bedroom wall. Some things, like having sex and learning to drive, make perfect sense. Other items on her list, like doing drugs and breaking the law, made her a less sympathetic character and didn't make a whole lot of sense to me. Experimenting with drugs in itself wasn't a huge surprise, but as a terminal cancer patient, she would have already had access to strong painkillers. Her relationship with her "best friend" was also a dysfunctional one and neither of the girls was especially sympathetic when they were together. Tessa's story is gritty and feels very real. The sex scenes are explicit and sometimes awkward or uncomfortable.

That said, I did come to care about Tessa by the end of the book. Once she begins to fall in love and to actually live her life, she discovers who she is and what she wants. She says, “I want to die in my own way. It's my illness, my death, my choice. This is what saying yes means.”

I would probably have liked this book better if I hadn't just read of string of books with sad endings and dead main characters. I'm definitely ready for something more upbeat!

Sleeping Freshmen Never Lie by David Lubar

When Scott starts high school, every aspect of his life seems to be in a state of flux. His mom is having a baby, his friends are growing apart, and his old friend Julia turned into a hottie over the summer and doesn't seem to remember him at all. Scott's journey through his freshman year is chronicled in the survival manual he starts writing for his new sibling.

Because I'm an English teacher, I loved Scott's descriptions of his English class and will definitely steal a few examples from the story the next time I sit down to do a little curriculum planning.

Especially after the dark, serious books I've read lately, this one was a breath of fresh air!

Sunday, March 17, 2013

2013 YALSA Hub Reading Challenge - Update #5

Busy with other things this week and only got two books read.

Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein

I debated about my rating for this book. The first part of the book is difficult to read, due to switches in tense and a narrator who talks about herself in third person. I'm not especially interested in aircraft and engine repair, so some of the details, while well-researched and, I'm sure, fascinating to many, didn't always keep my attention. HOWEVER, the story gains momentum as it goes, and the ending is marvelous.

It's difficult to write an accurate review of this particular book without spoilers, but here goes...

Maddie and Queenie, raised in very different social circles, become best friends during WWII. Maddie is a pilot and Queenie a spy. 

When Queenie is captured by Nazis in France and broken by torture, she agrees to cooperate in return for a quick death. Her written confession makes up the first half of the book. Initially, the flow of her narrative is hard to follow because of the switches from present to past tense. Once you get used to it, though, it actually helps keep track of past versus present events. 

The last part of the book is more reliably narrated by another character and sheds light on Queenie's story in some surprising ways. 

The friendship between Maddie and Queenie is realistic and moving. They are both strong characters, each a hero in her own way. 

Highly recommended historical fiction. 

The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater

Book one in the Raven Cycle.

Blue comes from a family of psychics, but can't see the future the way the rest of her family does. Her talent is to amplify psychic energy. For the first time ever, while gathering the names of the soon-to-be-dead on St. Mark's Eve, Blue sees a spirit; his name is Gansey and he's a Raven Boy, one of the arrogant rich kids who attend a local private school. 

Gansey is on a quest to find a legendary Welsh king, and he's roped in his friends, Adam, Ronan, and Noah, to help him. The boys and their relationships with each other and with Blue are interesting and well-developed. Blue gradually gets to know the boys and becomes enmeshed in their quest. 

The story is complex and an effective set-up for the new series. I'll be interested to see how the story continues to develop. Stiefvater fans will eat this one up. 

Sunday, March 10, 2013

2013 YALSA Hub Reading Challenge - Update #4

Thanks to pure chance, and what was available at my local library, this week has served up some enjoyable reading. I love it when I read a popular book that actually lives up to the hype.  This week, I listened to two audiobooks, read one novel, and one graphic novel. Of the four, there is one that I'll be recommending to everyone.  Keep reading for details...

The Heist Society by Ally Carter

Heist Society, book 1.

Katarina (Kat) Bishop tries to escape the family business by enrolling herself in a fancy boarding school, but inevitably, she gets pulled back in.  When a dangerous mob-boss type has five paintings stolen from an underground vault and inexplicably accuses Kat's father of the theft, she decides to steal the painting back to get her dad, and the rest of her family, off the hook.

This is a fluffy YA read without much substance, but the audiobook was a fun diversion during my commute and I might read more of the series at some point--possibly poolside or at the beach.

I absolutely love the cover art, which will help convince the teen readers I know to give this series a try.

Trinity:  A Graphic History of the First Atomic Bomb by Jonathan Fetter-Vorm

This nonfiction graphic novel tells the story of how the United States created the first atomic bombs during WWII. Though I'm not normally all that interested in nonfiction, I thought Fetter-Vorm did an excellent job, both in telling the story through words and pictures, and in breaking down some extremely complex scientific concepts into understandable chunks. The book also touches upon the morality of actually using this weapon, without getting preachy. With science, we often come back to this question:  Just because we can, does it mean we should?

I would absolutely recommend this to my students. 

Seraphina by Rachel Hartman

Humans and dragons, thanks to a treaty forged forty years ago, co-exist under an uneasy peace. Dragons can take human form in order to study and teach alongside their human counterparts. However, with the treaty up for renewal, Prince Rufus is brutally murdered, perhaps by a dragon. This ignites a firestorm at the royal court. 

Seraphina Dombegh, the court's new assistant music mistress, is drawn into the investigation of the Prince's death. As she grows nearer to the truth, she is forced to consider her own secret--one she keeps hidden at all cost. Seraphina finds it harder and harder to hide her true self as she forges bonds with those around her.

Although I was definitely drawn into Seraphina's story by the end of the book, it took a loooong time to get its hooks into me. The world-building is phenomenal, but the plot takes about two hundred pages to get going. If you, dear reader, do not require major plot happenings right away, and can be patient with the world-building, you will be rewarded with a satisfying and well-told tale. Seraphina is a wonderful character and I look forward to reading more of her (and her friends') adventures.

Wonder by R.J. Palacio

WOW. I loved this book.

As a teacher, I see both the kindness and the lack of it in my students every day. Most people, in one way or another, can relate to the experience of dealing with bullies. August (Auggie) Pullman feels it on a whole different level.

Because of a severe facial deformity and his resulting health issues, August has been home-schooled by his mother and is used to the loving cocoon of his family who attempt to protect him from the outside world. Despite the best efforts of his father, mother, and older sister, August knows how horrified people are when they see his face. He is a completely normal kid on the inside, but people who only see his face tend to turn away from him before he can let them see what a great kid he really is.  He loves Halloween because it gives him the freedom to wander the world without having to suffer the horrified glances of strangers. He says, "I wish every day could be Halloween. We could all wear masks all the time. Then we could walk around and get to know each other before we got to see what we looked like under the masks."

When Auggie's mother decides that he should begin attending school for 5th grade, he worries not only about being the new kid, but about being the new kid with a face that scares small children. I'll avoid spoilers here, but let's just say that if this book doesn't make you shed a few tears, from joy and/or sadness, then you are probably a person I would not like to meet.

Most of the story is told by Auggie, but other narrators to crop up to give their insights into his life. The transitions to other voices were smooth and I found it illuminating to flesh out what those characters were actually thinking and feeling. Auggie is pretty perceptive for a 10-year-old, but he doesn't always get it right.

I am constantly on the lookout for books to share with my students. Sometimes I find myself settling for simply tempting a kid to read anything at all. It is truly a joy to find a book that can inspire its readers to strive to be better people.

“Courage. Kindness. Friendship. Character. These are the qualities that define us as human beings, and propel us, on occasion, to greatness.” 

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED for readers of all ages.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

2013 YALSA Hub Reading Challenge - Update #3

I was starting to feel somewhat dispirited about this challenge, as it was feeling like a chore to get through these books. Thankfully, I'm done with Paolini and was able to read books by two authors who are actually skilled in using poetic language (rather than barfing up a thesaurus on every page).

Inheritance by Christopher Paolini

Book four in the Inheritance cycle (audiobook read by Gerard Doyle).

Eragon continues to fight minor battles and to train, but will he be able to defeat Galbatorix in the final battle?

I'm torn about how to review this book. I might have liked it better had I read it instead of listening to the audiobook. Though Gerard Doyle does a fine job with the narration, Paolini is definitely too wordy for my taste and the reader can't skim with an audiobook! I found many of the battle scenes boring, despite the gory descriptions.

This book, and the series as a whole, had much promise. However, it needed a stronger editor to help the author focus on the storylines that were critically important.  Several plotlines started out looking promising and then simply sputtered out with no resolution. Others were added for no obvious reason and did nothing to further the story.

Every Day by David Levithan

"A" wakes up in a different body every day, and experiences the world from within the various realities inhabited by these bodies. "A" has made peace with his existence and does his best to do no harm to the bodies he borrows each day. Everything changes when he meets Rhiannon and falls in love for the first time. Can they find a way to be together?

What I loved about this book was the author's obvious love of language. The writing itself is beautiful and well-crafted. Take this passage as an example:

"There is a part of childhood that is childish, and a part that is sacred. Suddenly we are touching the sacred part--running to the shoreline, feeling the first cold burst of water on our ankles, reaching into the tide to catch at shells before they ebb away from our fingers. We have returned to a world that is capable of glistening, and we are wading deeper within it."

I also enjoyed the major theme of the book, that love is love, wherever you find it. No matter how different people appear on the outside, what we all want is to be loved for who we are. Perhaps if we could focus more on our human similarities, rather than our differences, the world would be a better place. Despite a few things that I didn't like about the book (the Twilight-ish stalker elements, for example) overall, this message of honoring love in all its forms is a good message for teens and adults alike.

The Diviners by Libba Bray

The Diviners (the first in a new series, hooray!) is my favorite type of book--a blend of genres, fun to read and difficult to classify. It's a mix of fantasy, historical fiction, mystery, and suspense, with a dash of romance thrown in for good measure. Bray has painstakingly researched the Roaring Twenties and her gorgeous prose brings the period, and her characters, vividly to life.

After getting in trouble back in Ohio, Evie O'Neill's parents send her to New York to stay with her uncle. An expert in occult matters, he runs The Museum of American Folklore, Superstition, and the Occult--known by the locals as The Museum of the Creepy Crawlies. When Uncle Will is asked to help the police investigate a series of brutal, occult murders, Evie comes along for the ride. Will her ability to "read" objects help her solve the crimes or make her a victim?

Evie is not the only character with a special gift. There's also a pickpocket on a mission to find his mother, a Ziegfeld girl hiding from a dangerous past, a numbers runner with healing powers, and a museum employee who is more (and less) than he seems. Despite the supernatural elements, these characters are well-developed and realistic.

Highly recommended, though you might want to hold off a bit, as book #2 (as yet untitled) isn't due out until the spring of 2014.