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).