Friday, July 31, 2015

I Survived Camp Nanowrimo!

Camp Nano, July 2015

Yay me! My draft is a shambles and I still have to write several key scenes, as well as make connections between many others so my novel flows like a novel should. But still. I am proud of my story, rough patches and all. More than that, I am proud of myself for digging in and writing, even on the days when words trickled out of the keyboard like teachers walking into a staff development session when they'd rather be doing ANYTHING else. Root canal, anyone? 

Because that is my biggest roadblock to publishing one of my projects. I get all excited about an idea and start. I am a world-class starter. Seriously, I could start shit all day. Then, as the initial inspiration dries up, the blank pages loom like the White Cliffs of Dover. I get scared of never writing another decent word, or worse, of finishing something and having to show it to a reader. Imagining anyone reading the drivel I write is its own special kind of horror.

So, making it to the end of the month with a daily writing habit that I actually look forward to is a tremendous step forward. 

When I participated in Nanowrimo for the first time in 2008, it was a much smaller affair, and it only happened in November. In some ways, it feels more diluted with the multiple writing events every year. Writing 50,000 words in a month is certainly possible, but I find that trying to do that EVERY month while maintaining a more than full time, very stressful job and a family is more than I can handle. 

I won on word count that first year, although I was only about a third of the way through my story at the end of the month. I have worked on that initial manuscript, off and on, ever since. Every time I pick it up, I fix a few more things and then continue writing. The first 50 pages or so are starting to read the way I want them to, but the manuscript gets progressively rougher as it goes on. I have also started several other projects that I treat in the same way. I find that I hate my writing much less if I leave the words alone for a few months or more. Eventually, I would like to try to get something published. 

My goal from here is to maintain a daily writing habit and to keep moving closer to a finished project.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

26 Books Reading Challenge

While browsing Pinterest this morning in order to avoid working on my current writing project, I found this reading challenge. I'm already doing a couple, but this one looks fun and doable (even for people who aren't in the habit of reading the way I am).

I'll be keeping track in the comments. Feel free to join in!

Sunday, April 5, 2015

YALSA 2015 Hub Reading Challenge, Update #4

Yay for Spring Break! Not only have I had a chance to get away from the den of contagion that is a public elementary school, but I have also had a week to kick back and read, read, read. I tried to limit myself to YALSA titles, but I did have to add in a few related reads. It's probably a touch of OCD kicking in, but I couldn't read Carriger's Curtsies and Conspiracies without rereading the first book in the series. And after rereading Lyga's I Hunt Killers, I could not resist going on to book two (and ordering book three) to keep the chills coming.
The Shadow Hero by Gene Yang and Sonny Lieu

This origin story of the first Asian American Superhero (the Green Turtle) is so well done that even people who don't normally read this genre should give it a try.

Hank is a normal boy who loves his dad and enjoys working in the family grocery store. All he wants is to grow up and take over the store, and to eventually train a son of his own to follow after him. His mother, dissatisfied with her life, has other ideas. One day, she meets a superhero and decides that he's got nothing on her son. She pushes Hank to train and even makes him his own superhero suit.

Finally, tragedy strikes and Hank discovers a long-held family secret that leads to some actual super powers.
In Real Life by Cory Doctorow and Jen Wang

Shy Anda starts playing an online role-playing game after a woman comes to her school to talk about the importance of more women and girls getting involved in gaming. Anna starts earning real money by completing missions to kill gold farmers in the game. When she eventually becomes friends with a gold farmer, she feels conflicted about her behavior and tries to help. 

Like Anda herself, there were good intentions behind this story. Sadly, it never really grabbed me. I did enjoy the artwork, though.
We Were Liars by E. Lockhart

I spent about three fourths of this book hating the characters and the writing. It's about a family of privileged, bored, white people. The adults spend all of their time jockeying to be the favorites of the old man who uses his money to control their lives. They fight with each other constantly and sabotage each other. I kept thinking, "If this is how rich people really live, then I'm actually glad to be poor." The kids are all blond and beautiful, bored and boring. I hated them all. Gat, the outsider who never had a hope of realizing his dreams, was the only one I could stomach.

I liked the use of fairy tales to frame some of the story elements, but the e.e. cummings style of writing was more off-putting than captivating for me. The ending was pretty powerful, and could have been better if I'd felt any connection with these characters.
The Young Elites by Marie Lu

The Young Elites, book one.

Can I first say that I'm so happy that this is going to be a series? Wow! I LOVED everything about this book.

Adelina survived a mysterious fever as a child and has grown up scarred and tormented. She is a malfetto, a survivor who has been irrevocably marked by the disease and who may potentially have some kind of power as a result. Her father torments her throughout her childhood in an effort to bring out her powers and, in turn, profit from them. 

She is such a complex character--just brilliantly portrayed.

When her powers finally emerge, her situation gets even worse. She is plucked from the fire (literally) and thrown into the frying pan (figuratively). She joins up with the Young Elites, but unless she can learn to focus and control her newfound power, she is no safer with them than she was with her father.

The best part of this book is the complex, interesting characters. No one is good or bad. They are all damaged, secretive, and trapped by their own choices.
Skink--No Surrender by Carl Hiaasen

When Richard's cousin leaves town, he is sure that she's in some kind of trouble. Did she run away? Was she kidnapped? He mets the crazy ex-governor/eco-warrior, Skink, and they set off on a road trip to locate Malley. This book was uneven. I absolutely love Skink, but at times the story dragged and the environmental messages were a bit heavy-handed. Overall, an entertaining read, but not Hiaasen's best.
Curtsies and Conspiracies by Gail Carriger

Finishing School, book 2.

Sophronia is back, this time attempting to discover who keeps trying to kidnap her best friend. The fight for control of the prototype continues, although the players remain in the shadows. Another fun and fluffy mystery from Carriger. The world-building is creative and tons of fun, and the characters are witty. That said, they are pretty flat and lack the complexity that would really make them interesting.

This was a fun read, but not much about the characters or the plot was especially memorable. 


Related to the challenge books, but not on this year's list:

Game by Barry Lyga

Jasper Dent trilogy, #2.

When a serial killer known as the Dog-Hat Killer begins terrorizing New York City, an officer from the NYPD comes to Lobo's Nod to ask for Jazz's help with the case.  Jazz, still struggling not to give in to his darker impulses, joins the hunt for this new killer, all the while looking over his shoulder for Dear Old Dad, who is newly escaped from prison and sure to be in touch--sooner or later.

I read most of this 500-ish page book in one sitting. It was taut, suspenseful, and just very well done. The body count is high and the murders are gory (penectomies and enucleations abound). Connie and Howie are more fully developed in this one and have bigger parts to play as well. Unfortunately, this also ups their peril. 

This book ends on a HUGE cliffhanger, with several lives hanging in the balance, so have the third one (Blood of my Blood) queued up and ready to go.
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. The audiobook is marvelously well-done and I enjoyed it much more than when I read the hardcover version for last year's challenge.

My favorite quote:

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

Sunday, March 22, 2015

YALSA 2015 Hub Reading Challenge, Update #3

It was another week for rereads, mostly because these books are already in my personal library, so they were easy to get.  After rereading I Hunt Killers Last week, I had to read the sequel, Game, even though it's not on this year's list. And of course, it ends on an unbearable cliffhanger, so I'll be reading book three as soon as I can get my hands on it!

Maus: A Survivor's Tale by Art Spiegelman

Art Spiegelman interviewed his father, Vladek, a Holocaust survivor.  Vladek's story is told in comic book format, with the Jews as mice and the Nazis as cats.  

The graphic novel approach brings a new perspective to this moving memoir.  I especially liked the way that Vladek's Holocaust memories were interwoven with the present relationship between the father and son.  Intertwined with the horrifying and vivid personal account of Vladek's experiences during the Holocaust, we also see the troubled relationship between a father and his son as they both deal with the long-term effects of this unforgettable human tragedy.


Tears of a Tiger by Sharon Draper

Hazelwood High, book one.

Andy, a high school basketball star, struggles with his guilt after he got into an accident while drinking and driving.  His friend, Rob, was trapped in the car and died when the gas tank exploded.  

Strong dialogue and realistic characters make this series a home-run for teen readers.  And the non-stop drama will keep the pages turning.

Forged by Fire by Sharon Draper

Hazelwood High, book two.

Gerald's story is like a bad soap opera:  We frist meet Gerald, a battered and neglected child, when he is severely burned in a fire after being left home alone by his addict mother, Monique.  He finds a safe and loving home with his Aunt Queen.  When he is nine, his mother and her abusive new husband take him back into their home.  The only bright spot for Gerald is Angel, his four-year-old half sister.  Gerald finds out that Angel is being sexually abused by her father.  Monique is unwilling or unable to protect her children and Gerald resolves to protect Angel and himself.

Draper tries to cram a bit too much drama into this slim volume.  Poor Gerald; it's one tragedy after another for him.

Darkness before Dawn by Sharon Draper

Hazelwood High, book three.

Keisha, getting ready to give a speech at graduation, reflects on the trials and triumphs of her senior year.  She and her classmates have seen and experienced a lot--death, abuse, divorce, homelessness, rape, abandonment, anorexia, and love.  Whew!  No kidding, it's all in there!

The drama is a bit over the top, but teens who enjoy page-turners will not be able to put this one down.  Reading the first two books will make this one richer, but it can also stand on its own.

Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins

Hunger Games, book two.

Katniss' act of rebellion during the Hunger Games lights a spark that spreads though Panem and makes her the face of the revolution as the Districts look for ways (both large and small) to defy the Capitol.  Katniss and Peeta travel through Panem on their mandatory victory tour, and then, before they even have a chance to settle into the semi-normal lives of Hunger Games survivors, President Snow takes his revenge.  I gasped out loud when the rules of the 75th Hunger Games (the Quarter Quell) were announced.

I found this book even more brutal than the first, perhaps because Katniss is now a familiar character and I feel her pain more than ever.  President Snow is absolutely ruthless in his attempt to punish Katniss, and has a sadist's knack for twisting the knife just when it will hurt the most.  

Like Hunger Games, Catching Fire will keep readers riveted from the very first page.  Excellent and HIGHLY RECOMMENDED. 

Not on the YALSA list, but had to read it:

Game by Barry Lyga

Jasper Dent trilogy, #2.

When a serial killer known as the Dog-Hat Killer begins terrorizing New York City, an officer from the NYPD comes to Lobo's Nod to ask for Jazz's help with the case.  Jazz, still struggling not to give in to his darker impulses, joins the hunt for this new killer, all the while looking over his shoulder for Dear Old Dad, who is newly escaped from prison and sure to be in touch--sooner or later.

I read most of this 500-ish page book in one sitting. It was taut, suspenseful, and just very well done. The body count is high and the murders are gory (penectomies and enucleations abound). Connie and Howie are more fully developed in this one and have bigger parts to play as well. Unfortunately, this also ups their peril. 

This book ends on a HUGE cliffhanger, with several lives hanging in the balance, so have the third one (Blood of my Blood) queued up and ready to go.

Monday, March 16, 2015

YALSA 2015 Hub Reading Challenge, Update #2

I've noticed lots of repeats on the challenge list this year. While I don't mind rereading at all, for a few of these titles, once is definitely enough! Since I do the challenge to discover new stuff, I don't want to spend too much time rereading, especially books I didn't love the first time.

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

I love John Green's writing and I marked lots of great lines as I read that I intended to use in my review. In the end, though, this simple and repeated exchange between Hazel and Augustus says it all. 



They meet at a cancer support group--Hazel is terminal, but her tumors are being kept at bay for the foreseeable future and Augustus is in remission, but missing a leg. As our protagonists fall in love, awkwardly and sweetly, they know that their "forever" will be brief. After all, "[s]ome infinities are bigger than other infinities."

What I loved most about this beautiful, humorous, and heartbreaking story is how real the love story and the friendships feel. Hazel and Augustus fear that their lives will be meaningless, that they will be forgotten when they die. What each finds in the other is a glimpse of what their lives have meant to another. Just like in our real, everyday lives, these ordinary characters find the extraordinary in each other. And that's what love is.




**Reread for the 2015 YALSA Challenge. Still love it.

Glory O'Brien's History of the Future by A.S. King

Glory O'Brien is deeply damaged. Her mother committed suicide by sticking her head in the oven when Glory was just a little girl. She has spent her life eating microwave meals because her dad refuses to use the stove. They love each other, but are mired in the past and unable to move on with their lives. Glory is an outsider. Her only friend, Ellie, lives on a hippie commune (or is it actually a cult?). They seem to be friends out of convenience and habit, rather than because they have anything in common. Glory is Ellie's only link to the outside world. Glory doesn't really know why she is still friends with Ellie. One night, the girls decide to mix the remains of a petrified bat into some warm beer and drink it. This is where things get STRANGE.

The girls start seeing visions--Ellie sees personal details about people's relationships when she meets their eyes and Glory sees flashes of both past and future. Glory records her visions in the hopes that her notes might help to avert the terrifying future to come--a future in which an endless civil war rages, and where women are truly second-class citizens, banned from the workplace and doomed to poverty and abuse. 

I enjoyed the feminist themes, though at times they did feel a bit heavy-handed. While I get that Glory's visions are fragmented, I had a hard time putting all of the fragments together into a coherent whole. My favorite part of the book was Glory's relationship with her father and her struggle to come to terms with her mother's death. I wanted to love this book, but it didn't quite come together for me. Maybe magical realism just isn't my cup of tea. 

Half Bad by Sally Green

Book one in the Half Bad trilogy.

Nathan lives in an alternate-reality England where witches are part of the daily reality. There is a brutal war between the white (good) witches and the black (evil) witches. Nathan is a half code--his mother was a white witch and his father a notorious black witch. 

For a book this long, I was hoping for more world-building. I mean, these witches are at war with each other, but there really isn't a whole lot of distinction made between the two factions and the reason behind the war is never explained. The white witches are supposed to be the good guys, but almost none of them actually demonstrate any goodness through their actions. I liked that many of the characters were multi-faceted; having my initial impressions of certain characters change as the story progressed was a pleasant surprise. 

I Hunt Killers by Barry Lyga

I loved, loved, loved this book. It grabbed me by the throat right away. It was oh-so-believably creepy, with well-drawn characters whose motivations were complex and interesting. I can see mature teen readers gobbling this one up.

Jazz is a teenaged boy whose father, Billy Dent, is a famous and prolific serial killer. Even though Billy is in prison, and will be until he dies, he is a pervasive presence in Jazz's life. As hard as he tries, Jazz is unable to silence his dad's voice, constantly repeating the lessons of how to be a successful killer. 

When dead bodies start piling up in Jazz's small town, he is determined to catch the killer. Thanks to his dear old dad's lessons, Jazz can slip right into the mind of the killer, much to his dismay. The cops, especially the one who put Billy Dent behind bars, aren't too keen on Jazz's input. 

Jazz is such a realistic character, with all of the normal teenaged angst, but with the added bonus of trying to stop himself from becoming the man his father has trained him to be. Jazz exhibits many sociopathic tendencies, but he is most human when he's with his wise-cracking best friend, Howie, and his take-no-shit girlfriend, Connie. Howie's hilarious comments provide plenty of comic relief, even in the midst of some pretty gory gruesomeness. Connie keeps Jazz grounded and calls him out when he starts wallowing in self-doubt. There are some well-meaning adults who try to do what's best for Jazz and he respects them, even though he doesn't agree with them. And then there's his crazy grandmother. Whoa. She's hilarious and horrifying all in one racist, wrinkly, gun-waving package. 

I dare you to read this one after dark.

**Reread for the 2015 YALSA Challenge.  I'll be reading the sequel (Game) next, even though it's not part of this year's challenge.

My Friend Dahmer by Derf Backderf

Most of us can relate to the experience of knowing a "weird" kid in high school, that kid who looked or acted differently from other kids and just didn't fit in.  That kid who we lost touch with after high school and who never really crossed our minds again. Backderf tells the story of his acquaintance (I hesitate to call it a friendship, despite the book's title) with Jeffrey Dahmer in high school. As a clueless kid, Derf didn't take the warning signs all that seriously, even when he noticed them. The adults in Jeffrey's life didn't either. 

This memoir tells about Jeffrey Dahmer's life leading up to his first murder, and isn't especially gruesome, graphic, or illuminating.  I was intrigued by the book's premise, but in the end, it wasn't my cup of tea. 

**Reread for the 2015 YALSA Challenge. Still not my cup of tea. I have to admit, I skimmed.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

YALSA 2015 Hub Reading Challenge, Update #1

Even knowing that the YALSA Hub Reading Challenge was coming up, I still managed to get a late start with most of the list. Luckily, I've already read the Morris and Nonfiction selections, so I should be able to catch up. I'm only reviewing one book this week. This book is what set me so far behind! Even though there were many elements that I SHOULD have connected with, I simply couldn't get into it. I checked it out from the library in January and forced myself to finish it today. I'm not sure why it was such a difficult read for me, possibly because I have very little background knowledge about the information presented. Here's my review.  

Ida M. Tarbel: The Woman Who Challenged Big Business--and Won! by Emily Arnold McCully

Ida Tarbell was a successful investigative journalist at a time when most women did not work outside the home. Despite the fact that she herself was not a "typical" woman of the day, she did not support the right of women to vote. Her investigative work helped to shine a light on the dirty business tactics of John D. Rockefeller and Standard Oil.

While this book is well-researched and written, it just never really grabbed me. I think it's because I'm not all that interested in this particular period in history. That said, McCully's book would be an excellent resource for students looking for quality research about the social and political landscape of the early 1900's.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

2015 YALSA Morris/Nonfiction Reading Challenge, Update #3

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

The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender by Leslye Walton

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

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

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

I was just a girl."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

After Owen kills his second dragon we get this exchange:

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

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

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

I'll end with Siobhan's words:

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

Sunday, January 18, 2015

2015 YALSA Morris/Nonfiction Reading Challenge, Update #2

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

Laughing at My Nightmare by Shane Burcaw

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

My favorite quote: 

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

The Carnival at Bray by Jessie Ann Foley

Maggie is torn from her life in Chicago and transplanted in a tiny town in Ireland after her mother remarries. She is lonely and isolated in her unfamiliar surroundings. Just when the new place starts to feel like home, tragedy strikes. Maggie sets out on a risky adventure to fulfill a dying wish. Maggie's coming-of-age story is peppered with observations about love and what it means to live.

My favorite quote:

"...that's what living people do. They shatter and rebuild, shatter and rebuild, shatter and rebuild until they are old and worn and stooped from the work of it."

Sunday, January 11, 2015

2015 YALSA Morris/Nonfiction Reading Challenge, Update #1

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

Here is the Morris List:

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

Here is the Nonfiction List:

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



This week's completed books:

The Scar Boys by Len Vlahos 

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

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

Gabi, a Girl in Pieces by Isabel Quintero

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

Some favorite quotes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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