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.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

2014 YALSA Hub Reading Challenge Check-in #6

It's been an emotional roller coaster of a reading week, from dystopian thrillers to zombie cows to kids obsessed with Broadway musicals to boys kissing boys. You go, YALSA. I've loved every minute!

Killer of Enemies by Joseph Bruchac

Lozen, an Apache hunter struggling to survive in a dystopian future where all technology has failed, is the strong, silent type. Unlike many YA heroines, she is a total badass. A combination of physical and mental toughness, the Apache lore she has learned from her family, and a certain mystical element makes Lozen a formidable fighter.

The Ones are holding her family hostage. Her mother, sister, and brother will be safe only as long as Lozen continues to successfully kill the gemods (genetically-engineered "pets" that escaped their cages when the electricity failed). She has a plan to escape with her family, but will she survive long enough to make it happen?

I loved Lozen. Not only is she tough, but she also stays true to her Apache background and to her role as protector. The action is pretty nonstop and kept me turning pages. On the downside, I wanted more of an understanding of her world. I also wanted some of the other characters to be fleshed out a bit more. Maybe this is nitpicky, but I wished that this book would have been edited better. In several places, awkward wording and grammatical errors slowed me down quite a bit.

I would actually rate this closer to a 3.5 and would recommend it to action fans. Even though the main character is a girl, she's tough and no-nonsense enough to appeal to even the manliest of readers. Here's my favorite quote:

"Yea, though I walk through the Valley of Death
I will fear no evil
for I am the meanest son of a bitch
in this whole damn valley."

Zombie Baseball Beatdown by Paolo Bacigalupi

When some bullying teammates chase them off of their normal practice field, Rabi, Miguel, and Joe head over to a park next to the local meatpacking plant to play baseball. However, the stink is worse than usual, and before the boys know what's going on, workers are running out of the plant and their baseball coach is trying to eat their brains.

When the local police dismiss the boys' story, they take matters into their own hands. By relying on each other and their trusty bats, the boys unravel the mystery, but will they be too late to stop a zombie apocalypse?

This is a quick, easy page-turner that uses humor to tackle tough issues like bullying, racism, immigration, and exactly where our burgers come from.

The audiobook is a must-listen for the zombie cows alone!

Better Nate Than Ever by Tim Federle

Nate Foster is a slightly overweight 13-year old who lives in a small town and loves Broadway musicals. To make matters worse, his perfect older brother is athletic and gets all of their parents' approval. When Nate's best friend, Libby, tells him about an audition for E.T. the Musical in New York, they hatch a daring plot to get him there. 

Like any starry-eyed kid who doesn't quite fit in, Nate is absolutely convinced that this one big chance is going to help his dreams come true. He sees busy, crowded New York through an innocent's eyes and compares himself to Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz.

"...I don't see any horses changing colors yet. But hey, I'm still indoors. And besides, it's Manhattan City and I think anything's possible at this point.  I peek down, just in case I'm in ruby slippers. Nope. Nikes. But still."

Nate has plenty of ups and downs in the city. Against the backdrop of his quest, he deals with some issues of identity and family. Is Nate gay? Possibly, but he's not quite sure yet. At this point in his life, Nate feels different (and the bullies who call him a fag and drop him in trash cans know he's different) but he doesn't have it all figured out. 

All Nate knows for sure is that he's not an a-hole: "Sometimes people are just a-holes, and you have to decide, every day, which kind of kid you are."

Good advice, Nate.

Two Boys Kissing by David Levithan

Do you know that feeling when you've just finished a book that is so marvelous, so beautiful, and so full of meaning that you sit motionless except for the tears streaming down your face?  And then you try to write a review, to "sell" it to other readers, but the words just won't come? That's how I'm feeling now, so bear with me.

Seemingly disparate elements come together in this breathtakingly beautiful story narrated by a Greek Chorus of gay men lost to AIDS. Craig and Harry, inspired by a classmate beaten for being gay, intend to set a Guinness World Record for the longest kiss. It has to be two boys kissing, they believe, because "...maybe it'll make people a little less scared of two boys kissing than they were before, and a little more welcoming to the idea that all people are, in fact, born equal, no matter who they kiss or screw, no matter what dreams they have or love they give.” 

As these two boys kiss, other boys are dealing with their own relationships (or lack thereof). Neil and Peter have been together for a while, Avery and Ryan are brand new to each other, Tariq struggles to heal from a physical beating, and Cooper tries not to love anyone at all. While these boys all try to find their way, the Greek Chorus is watching from afar, giving advice that drifts, unheard, on the breeze. 

“We gather the things we learned, and they don't nearly add up to fill the space of a life.
You will miss the taste of Froot Loops.
You will miss the sound of traffic.
You will miss your back against his.
You will miss him stealing the sheets.
Do not ignore these things.” 

I feel sadly inadequate to capture the beauty of this story, these words. This is a story that can save lives. Read it and share it with everyone you love.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

2014 YALSA Hub Reading Challenge Check-in #5

Now that I've read most of the graphic novels on the list, my weekly reading lists won't be as impressive from here on out.  I discovered a few gems this week, so my reading time was time well-spent.  Who am I kidding?  It usually is.

The Nazi Hunters: How a Team of Spies and Survivors Captured the World's Most Notorious Nazi by Neal Bascomb

Adolph Eichmann was the Nazi commander in charge of transporting millions of people to their deaths in concentration camps during WWII. After the war, he disappeared without a trace. A team of spies eventually tracked him down and brought him to Israel for a trial. Eichmann's trial gave survivors a chance to tell their stories and made the horrors of the Holocaust a reality for people around the world.

Though the story is an important one, I wonder if something got lost in the adaptation of this book from the adult book Hunting Eichmann. The storytelling itself is not exactly riveting, though the book is obviously well-researched and the story could be exciting. The writing style didn't do much for me.

Help for the Haunted by John Searles

When a middle of the night phone call summons her parents to a deserted church on a snowy night, Sylvie isn't all that surprised. After all, her parents' unusual vocation--helping troubled souls find peace--often takes them to strange places. On this night, Sylvie sleeps in the car until she is awakened by gunshots. Running into the church, she sees...

From here, the story alternates between past and present as Sylvie tries to solve the mystery behind her parents' murder. Lots of creepy moments (but not gory ones) make this a suspenseful read that would be appropriate for middle and upper grade readers. The paranormal aspect of the story was well done and kept me guessing.

Keep the lights on while you read and don't forget to lock the basement door!

Beautiful Music for Ugly Children by Kirstin Cronn-Mills

This book is the reason I participate in the YALSA Hub Reading Challenge. Every year, I pick up a bunch of books that I wouldn't normally read and find a few gems that I would have missed.

Gabe has always known he's a guy. Unfortunately, he is trapped in a girl's body and his family and friends know him as Liz. Gabe's family has a difficult time accepting him, even though they do love him. His best friend is accepting and supportive, but Gabe wants more than friendship, which causes some tension. I loved Gabe's relationship with John, a neighbor and mentor who provides the kind of unconditional support and love that every young adult needs.

Music is a huge part of this novel, from the A side/B side metaphor to the "_____ is the New Elvis" chapter titles to the many song and artist references. I think that most teen readers will relate to Gabe's passion for music and his efforts to be true to himself.

I cheered for Gabe and cried for him and I will enthusiastically recommend this book to my students. However, what kept me from giving this five stars was the one-dimensional bullies and the too-neat ending. That said, this is one of my favorites from the challenge so far.

A few favorite quotes:

"That's what bites about the future--there's no way to predict it. You just have to show up and see what happens."

"Rush Limbaugh can't be the new Elvis; he's too mean."

Strobe Edge, Volumes 1-6 by Io Sakisaka 

I really had to force myself to keep reading these. First of all, I am not a manga fan. Reading left to right is so ingrained in me that I kept reading the panels in the wrong order and having to go back and reread. The whole "I love him/her, but he/she doesn't like me back" got old pretty quickly. Twelve year old girls might like this series, but I did not.

Boxers by Gene Luen Yang

Boxers and Saints #1.

The Boxer Rebellion took place in China during the 1890s. Gene Luen Yang tells the story of this bloody war in two parts, the first from the perspective of Little Bao, a young Chinese boy who learns kung fu and how to use the power of the ancient Chinese gods. He eventually recruits an army (the Boxers) to defend his village and the rest of the countryside from foreign missionaries.

In his quest to free China from these "foreign devils," Little Bao becomes a person he can no longer recognize. This is a war story. It's a violent and not especially hopeful look at what happens when people go to war over culture and religion.

Saints by Gene Luen Yang

Boxers and Saints #2.

The Boxer Rebellion took place in China during the 1890s. Gene Luen Yang tells the story of this bloody war in two parts, the second from the perspective of Four Girl/Vibiana, a Chinese girl who converts to Christianity and sees visions of Joan of Arc. Her story intersects with that of Little Bao. 

As he does so well in his other work, the author combines realistic and magical elements that all come together in the end. This bloody and violent war story is not a happy one, but the vibrant artwork and compelling storyline will appeal to young adult readers.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

2014 YALSA Hub Reading Challenge Check-in #4

Hooray for graphic novels! Quick and worthwhile reads helped pump up my total for the challenge. Since the weather is not giving me anything to be joyful about, at least I had some good books to help keep me warm.

Dogs of War by Sheila Keenan and Nathan Fox

I can never get enough books featuring animals to satisfy my students, and this is one that I will certainly add to my collection.

Three short stories inspired by real MWDs (military working dogs) show how dogs helped soldiers survive during wartime. The first story features Boots, a Mercy Dog during WWI.  His job was to locate wounded soldiers who might otherwise be left for dead.  The second story features Loki, a sled dog who protects his trainer's life during WWII.  The third story is the book's emotional center, featuring Lanford, a Vietnam veteran struggling to cope with PTSD.  A young neighbor and his naughty puppy enable Lanford to talk about his experiences in Vietnam and his close relationship with his scout dog, Sheba.

Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass by Meg Medina

When Piddy transfers to a new school, she's not too happy about it. But things quickly go from bad to worse when a school bully threatens to kick her ass for no apparent reason. At first, Piddy doesn't take the threat seriously, but as Yaqui and her friends continue to stalk her, Piddy gradually withdraws from everyone around her.

I enjoyed the Spanish sprinkled throughout the story and I think that teens, especially girls, will be able to relate to Piddy's struggle.

Will & Whit by Laura Lee Gulledge

Will (Wilhelmina) Huckstep is a smart and funny young woman who tries to avoid thinking about a family tragedy. She doesn't talk about her feelings with her aunt or her friends, but she is afraid of the dark and creates lamps out of found objects to try to chase away the shadows she fears. When Hurricane Whitney comes to town, Will has to find a way to keep the darkness at bay.

This is a beautifully done graphic novel with a focus on character development rather than plot. Will gradually learns to face her fears and to deal with her emotions so that she (and her friends) can move n with their lives. Despite a few places where the dialogue was a bit heavy-handed during Will's emotional breakthrough, the story was enjoyable and moving. I would especially recommend this for girls who are dealing with tough issues in their own lives.

March (Book One) by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell

Book one of a planned trilogy about the life of Congressman John Lewis.

Congressman Lewis, an important part of the civil rights movement, started his life on a sharecropper's farm, preaching to his chickens and dreaming of becoming a preacher. He eventually met Dr. Martin Luther King and Jim Lawson and got involved in the non-violent protest movement. The student protesters were non-violent, but their opponents were not. I am in awe of the kind of bravery it took to stand up to violence and unfair treatment without lashing out and returning fire.

This well-done graphic novel chronicles an important period in American history and reminds us what can be accomplished when a group of people is united in a common cause.

The Adventures of Superhero Girl by Faith Erin Hicks

Our kick-ass heroine can leap tall buildings, but being a superhero is not exactly paying the bills.  She's angsty and insecure, and she feels overshadowed by her big brother who is, well, superhero-ier. I loved the artwork and the story.  I look forward to adding this title to my classroom library and sharing it with students far and wide ('cause that's MY superpower).


I read this one for a book club and NOT for the YALSA Challenge.

The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh

Victoria was abandoned as a baby and has spent her childhood in a dizzying array of foster homes and group homes. She is a prickly, unlikable character, but as we see in the glimpses of her childhood, she has some pretty good reasons for refusing to trust the people who profess to care about her. In chapters that alternate between past and present, we gradually learn Victoria's story and how she sabotaged her last chance to be adopted. Her regrets about Elizabeth, who could have been her mother, haunt her.

Her one passion is flowers and their meanings (which she learned from Elizabeth). After turning 18 and being emancipated by the state, she becomes homeless until a chance encounter with a gruff Russian florist leads to a job and a place to live. She meets a guy at the flower market who understands the language of flowers. One of my favorite scenes in the book is their back and forth dialogue, spoken entirely with flowers.

The author lost me in the middle of the novel. Just when Victoria seems to be opening to the possibility of love, she walks away. The plot in this section felt forced and unbelievable. And Victoria made some decisions that were very difficult to either like or understand.

Victoria started to grow up a bit during the final third of the story and I was drawn back in. While the ending wasn't exactly happy, I found it at least hopeful.

Especially in the first third of the novel, I found the language beautiful and poetic. I'm not sure if the writing actually got less polished toward the end or if I noticed more awkward language as I went on because I wasn't as caught up in the story. This book made for a great book club discussion, as opinions ranged all over the map!

Since reading this book, when I'm in a bad mood I want to surround myself with thistles. 

Sunday, February 23, 2014

2014 YALSA Hub Reading Challenge Check-in #3

My reading experience was kind of hit or miss this week. Starting out with something utterly visceral kind of made the other books pale in comparison. I'll start with the star of the week:

Scowler by Daniel Kraus

Nineteen year old Ry is stuck on a dying farm with his mother and younger sister. Through flashbacks, we gradually learn about Ry's abusive father and how he finally ended up in prison.  Thoroughly traumatized by his violent father, Ry survives with the help of three imaginary friends--light-hearted Mr. Furrington, kind and wise Jesus, and bloodthirsty Scowler. Just as Ry's mother, Jo Beth, is finally ready to leave the farm behind, a meteor strike and a very bad man conspire to make sure that no one will ever leave.

The writing is horrifyingly beautiful and utterly atmospheric. These words and images will stay in your head longer than you'll want them to. That said, I had a few issues with the ending, which is why I went with 4 stars rather than 5.

The scariest part of this book was being inside Ry's head. He hates and fears his father, but at the same time seeks his approval. He's afraid to truly live his life; he's so damaged by the events of his childhood that he fears who he is and who he might become.

This is horror at its finest--gritty, realistic, gory, psychologically creepy, and incredibly disturbing. Squeamish readers of any age should step away from this book. Mature readers who like to be scared to death, enter at your own risk.  Try the audiobook for an extra dose of scary--Scowler's scritchy insect noises are even more frightening when you hear them.

William Shakespeare's Star Wars:  Verily, a New Hope by Ian Doescher

Star Wars retold in iambic pentameter with lots of humor and Shakespearean references galore. Never having been a huge fan of Star Wars (I'm definitely more of a Trekkie) there were sections of this book where I lost interest. It was mainly the battle scenes where I found myself skimming or zoning out. That said, this was a clever idea that was, overall, well-executed. I particularly enjoyed the references to Shakespeare's plays and the robot humor. 

A favorite quote:

“A plague on 3PO for action slow,/ A plague upon my quest that led us here,/ A plague on both our circuit boards, I say!" R2-D2

 The Lives of Tao by Wesley Chu

Tao is an extra-terrestrial who has survived on Earth for thousands of years by sharing the bodies of many sentient beings. He and his brethren crashed on Earth during the time of the dinosaurs and can only survive by sharing a host's body. Over the years, they have influenced the development of human society in order to bring these humans to a technological point where they will be able to send the aliens home. Two alien factions are at war because they have different ideas about the best way to accomplish this goal--culture or conflict. 

After his latest host dies, Tao is on the run and desperate for a new host who can help him escape his pursuers. He runs into (literally) Roen, an overweight, angsty IT guy. Tao and Roen end up being good partners, and Roen gradually shapes up and gains confidence. 

There is lots of action here and some good humor sprinkled in amid the fight/chase scenes. I think this story has good potential, but could benefit from an editor to help the author flesh out the characters and to smooth out some rough plot points. I found it moderately entertaining and would probably recommend it to boys who enjoy action.

Monday, February 17, 2014

2014 YALSA Hub Reading Challenge Check-in #2

With the continuing frigid weather this week, there wasn't much too do but hunker down under a blanket with a stack of books. So, the weather sucked, but the reading helped to warm me up a bit.

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

Death narrates the story of Liesel Meminger, AKA the book thief.  Death first encounters Liesel when her younger brother dies while they are on the way to live with foster parents.  Liesel steals her first book, The Gravedigger's Handbook, at her brother's funeral (even though she can't read).  Her foster father, Hans, uses the book to teach Liesel to read.

The Book Thief is set during the Holocaust, so Death is definitely feeling overworked.  Liesel steals more books and forms close relationships with the people around her, especially Hans, her foster father, Max, a Jew hiding in her basement, and Rudy, a blond boy who admires Jesse Owens.  Not every German in the book is a Nazi and Zusak brings out the beauty and the horror of humanity in its many forms.

Death jumps around and interrupts himself, which makes the beginning of the book quite confusing.  However, this book is absolutely beautiful and heartbreaking and a must-read for older teens and adults.

One of the best books I've read this year.


Rereading for the 2014 YALSA Hub Reading Challenge. I don't know what else I can add, except that I love this book more every time I read it. And events near the end still make me cry. Every. Single. Time. 

One of many favorite quotes from this book:

“His soul sat up. It met me. Those kinds of souls always do - the best ones. The ones who rise up and say "I know who you are and I am ready. Not that I want to go, of course, but I will come." Those souls are always light because more of them have been put out. More of them have already found their way to other places.”

 I am the Messenger by Markus Zusak

An aimless young man foils a bank robbery and subsequently receives "messages" on playing cards that he is compelled to deliver.  He first receives an ace of diamonds with three addresses on it. He visits the three homes and observes the people in them until he understands what each needs. Some tasks are pretty easy and/or straightforward, and others are downright scary. As he impacts the lives of others, he finds himself more in touch with his own hopes and dreams--and finally, fully alive.  Sophisticated YA literature.


Currently rereading for the 2014 YALSA Hub Reading Challenge. I liked it even better than the first time I read it. I think knowing how it was all going to end let me focus more on the beauty of the words and the themes, rather than being so driven to understand the mystery of the cards and what they mean. 

Favorite quotes:

"Sometimes people are beautiful. Not in looks. Not in what they say. Just in what they are.” 

"It's not a big thing, but I guess it's true--big things are often just small things that are noticed.”

Crap Kingdom by D.C. Pierson

Tom Parking is a completely ordinary teenaged drama geek with the kind of boring life that makes him sure that nothing great will ever happen to him.  He's crushing on Lindsay, but she doesn't seem to know he's alive. When a stranger named Gark takes him to an alternate universe and calls Tom "The Chosen One," Tom thinks his time has come. Finally, something great is about to happen. But then he arrives in the kingdom with no name and finds that everything is made out of garbage from Earth. Plus, the king hates him on sight and assigns him to work in the Rat-Snottery. After very little thought, Tom turns down the gig.  However, he soon finds out that his best friend, Kyle, has taken his place as Chosen One.  Suddenly, Crap Kingdom is more appealing and Tom wants to recapture his lost opportunity.  Conflict and silliness ensue.

I am a huge fan of satire and fantasy, so I thought I'd love this book. While there were moments of genuine hilarity, the plot fell flat for me. Magic Kingdom for Sale--Sold! by Terry Brooks is kind of similar and I liked it better. 

 Dodger by Terry Pratchett

I'm embarrassed to admit it, but I've never read anything by Terry Pratchett.  I keep meaning to read the Discworld series, but there are just so many. And I tend to be obsessive about series--I can't read just one of the books. This stand-alone romp through Victorian England was an enjoyable introduction without all of the commitment.

One stormy night, Dodger rescues a young woman who is being beaten in the street. Determined to keep her safe, Dodger sets out to solve the mystery of who she is and why powerful people want her dead. I love the way Pratchett intertwines fantasy and historical fiction, with Dodger encountering people like Sweeney Todd and Charles Dickens. 

My favorite line:

“Money makes people rich; it is a fallacy to think it makes them better, or even that it makes them worse. People are what they do, and what they leave behind.”

Etiquette and Espionage by Gail Carriger

Finishing School, book one.

Sophronia has no interest in becoming a proper lady.  She'd much rather climb things and fiddle with machines. When she is shipped off to finishing school, she is sure she is going to hate every minute of it. But at Mademoiselle Geraldine's Finishing Academy for Young Ladies of Quality, the learning goes beyond etiquette.  But only the best students will master the fine art of espionage and be truly "finished."

I'm not generally a fan of Steampunk, but I did find this world interesting. As the first in a series, there was more of a focus on world building than plot, but it was a fun, quick read with quite a lot of humor.

My favorite quote:

“Really, Sophronia, it makes me most uncomfortable how you manage to sort everything out every time I faint.”