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.