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.