Wednesday, December 28, 2011

REVIEW: Sweet Venom

Childs, T.L.  (2011).  Sweet Venom.  New York:  Katherine Tegan Books.

345 pages.

Appetizer:  It's her first day at a new elite school in San Francisco and Grace wants nothing more than to be a better version of herself; someone who stands up to bullies.  With her first encounter with a girl named Miranda, it's clear it's going to take some supernatural power to make her tougher.

Gretchen, in contrast, cares nothing for her classmates and just slips by in school to avoid notice.  Oh, and she spends her nights hunting monsters from Greek mythology who have escaped into the human realm.  As a descendant of Medusa with an important destiny, she has been battling and biting the monsters since she was twelve.  But she can't seem to handle the boy in her biology class who seems to have a crush on her.  Plus, over the past few weeks, things have been a little strange.  More monsters are slipping into the human realm.  On top of that, her mentor, Ursula, is missing.  On top of that other on top of that, when Gretchen sees Grace for the first time, she realizes that she may not be alone.  She may have a sister to go with that destiny.

So, I really enjoyed one Tera Lynn Childs's other books, Oh.My.Gods, and I was very excited when I'd heard she was doing a series based on the descendants of Medusa.  There's so much fun gender issues to work with.  And Childs does a good job of including a Buffy the Vampire Slayer vibe (There's also a Charmed vibe and a Sisters Red feel).  She also does a good job of creating different experiences for her characters (providing a fun argument and discussion on the influence of nurture over nature in terms of personality development).  But, overall, I wasn't that crazy about Sweet Venom.

The way that Childs switched point of view among the protagonists really unnerved me.  I'd be fine if it were consistent, but sometimes she switched between Grace and Gretchen every other chapter, then suddenly Grace would narrate for two chapters in a row.  *Potential spoiler--although the information in the next sentence is mentioned in the book blurb*  Don't even get me started that a third sister's point-of-view that was added over 200-pages into the story.  If this were an epic fantasy, it'd be okay.  But given my vaguely OCD-nature, I needed more consistency in the narration throughout the story.

I also feel like Childs went a little overboard with trying to make Grace unhappy about who she was:  I can't stand up to bullies, I can't do exercise, I can't take classes with the mean girl (who, by the way, had no discernible motive for being so mean), I can't talk to boys, I'm a coward.  Obviously the character was going to change and get over these things throughout the novel.  And it would be fine if Grace was nervous or struggled with some of these issues, but it was a little over the top and Grace wound up seeming whiney and annoying.

On top of these issues, Sweet Venom had very little resolution in the end.  It's pretty much a "To be continued" moment.  So, be prepared for that if you pick up this book.

Dinner Conversation:

"Hydras have a distinctive odor.  It's somewhere between the acid tang of burning hair and a boat full of rotting fish.  You can smell them from miles away.
Well, you can't.  But I can." (p. 1)

"I take a deep breath.  Am I ready?  New home, new city, new school, new friends.  Hopefully.  New life.  New me.
I feel equal parts fear and anticipation.  But one look in Ms. West's sharp eyes and I feel a jolt of confidence.  I feel strong and invincible.  How can I let myself be afraid of change, when it's what I want?  The chance to become the strong, confident young woman I've always dreamed of being.
This is the first step." (p. 14)

"I suck down an entire pudding, trying to pretend I'm not disappointed that he's giving up.  It's not like I want him to pursue me.  I can't want him to pursue me.  My own ego liked the attention, I suppose, the interest in me as nothing more than an average girl.
Don't be dumb, I tell myself.  You're not average.  You don't get the normal life with the BFF and the boy.  You're destined for more than that.  and your destiny is a solo adventure.
Still, I allow myself a brief moment of sadness when I stand to take my empty tray to the dish line and Nick doesn't move.  Doesn't even react.  And like that, poof, I'm forgotten."  (p. 54-55).

"Standing there, in the middle of a dance floor surrounded by dozens of ordinary teens, is a girl who looks exactly like me.  I mean exactly like me.  And, I realize as we blink at each other, she saw the lizard's tail." (pp. 90-91)

"If we're twins, like I have to believe we are, then her heritage is also mine.  Her duty to hunt monsters is also mine.  Is it fair to let her continue to carry that responsibility all on her own?" (p. 109)

Tasty Rating:  !!

Monday, December 26, 2011

REVIEW: Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children

Riggs, R.  (2011).  Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children.  Philadelphia:  Quirk Books.

348 pages.

Appetizer:  When Jacob is 15 years old, something happens to divide his life into "before" and "after."  As a child, Jacob had grown up his grandfather's stories; tales of monsters and extraordinary people (and he had the old pictures to prove it!).  As many kids would, Jacob grew older and began to see his grandfather's tales as exaggerations.  But, on a fateful day, Jacob gets a call from his grandfather and learns that there may be some truth to what his grandfather said.  This realization will lead Jacob to counseling, and eventually to a Welsh island and an abandoned orphanage where he searches for the truth in his grandfather's words and the truth behind the strange old photos of peculiar children doing extraordinary things.

What a great read!  The old photos scattered throughout the novel were wonderful and would make this story a great model for writing in response to pictures.  I loved the humor early in the story, the peculiarities of the children (some of them give the story a bit of an X-Men feel) and the descriptions of setting that Ransom Riggs used throughout.

I think I'm going to use this one as an in-class writing prompt!

The before and after structure reminded me heavily of John Green's Looking for Alaska.  (Plus there was a mention of multiethnic Santas, characters rapping, etc.)

My one big critique would be of the mystery; if you want to call it that.  There wasn't enough of one.  I found it also easy to figure out who the villain was.  Also, *spoiler for page 130-ish*  I wished there had been a little more set-up of the time loop.  It being introduced really threw me for a loop (haha).

Nonetheless, Riggs's writing is wonderful and I plan to recommend this book often.  In fact, I'd say this book was probably one of my favorites of 2011.  It's fitting that I ended the year with it

Dinner Conversation:

"I had just come to accept that my life would be ordinary when extraordinary things began to happen.  The first of these came as a terrible shock and, like anything that changes you forever, split my life into halves:  Before and After.  Like many of the extraordinary things to come, it involved my grandfather, Abraham Portman" (p. 8).

"More fantastic still, were [Grandpa Portman's] stories about life in the Welsh children's home.  It was an enchanted place, he said, designed to keep kids safe from the monsters, on an island where the sun shined every day and nobody ever got sick or died.  Everyone lived together in a big house that was protected by a wise old bird--or so the story went.  As I got older, though, I began to have doubts" (p. 9).

"It wasn't until a few years later that my dad explained it to me:  Grandpa had told him some of the same stories when he was a kid, and they weren't lies, exactly, but exaggerated versions of the truth--because the story of Grandpa Portman's childhood wasn't a fairy tale at all.  It was a horror story" (p. 17).

"As you can imagine, convincing my parents to let me spend part of my summer on a tiny island off the coast of Wales was no easy task.  They--particularly my mother--had many compelling reasons why this was a wretched idea, including the cost, the fact that I was supposed to spend the summer with Uncle Bobby learning how to run a drug empire, and that I had no one to accompany me, since neither of my parents had any interest in going and I certainly couldn't go alone.  I had no effective rebuttals, and my reason for wanting to make the trip--I think I'm supposed to--wasn't something I could explain without sounding even crazier than they already feared I was." (p. 61)

"If Cairnholm's only phone connected to some den of iniquity called the "piss hole," how did that bode for the rest of the island?  Would my first trip to Europe be spent evading drunken maniacs and watching birds evacuate their bowels on rocky beaches?  Maybe so.  But if it meant that I'd finally be able to put my grandfather's mystery to rest and get on with my unextraordinary life, anything I had to endure would be worth it." (p. 64)

"And that is how someone who is unusually susceptible to nightmares, night terrors, the Creeps, the Willies, and Seeing Things That Aren't Really There talks himself into making one last trip to the abandoned, almost-certainly-haunted house where a dozen or more children met their untimely end." (p. 99)

Tasty Rating:  !!!!


Cashore, K.  (2009).  Fire.  New York:  Firebird.

461 pages.

Appetizer:  After her father's death, Fire is the only human monster left in the Dells.  She hates to look at herself in a mirror, for fear of being shocked by her own striking appearance.  Wherever she goes, everyone looks upon her with some combination of lust or jealousy.  Guards must follow her everywhere to protect her from people who would attack her out of lust or out of anger.

After she is shot by an archer who is motivated by neither of these feelings, Fire and her allies begin to suspect there is some conspiracy at work in the kingdom.

The beginning of Fire reminded me a little too much of the start of Graceling, the companion novel:  Both protagonists are ostracized--granted, Katsa is an outsider due to everyone fearing her, as opposed to being stunningly beautiful--and both have friends who are in love with them who the girls must refuse to marry.

But despite these parallels and Cashore's consistent commitment to writing strong female characters who must spend lengthy amounts of time traveling within the fantasy world she has created, Fire is very different from Graceling in that Fire (the character) spends much more time dealing with the power dynamics of the court.  I really liked her romantic relationship with a certain prince and military commander.

I did find that Fire wasn't a book a book that gripped my attention and refused to let me go.  Rather, there were a lot of points in the book when time just passed and Fire sat around...not...doing much.  Meh.

I also think this book complimented Graceling well in terms of creating two different worlds that are connected and can also be compared.

A third companion novel is coming out within the next few months:  Bitterblue.  Despite it being named for a familiar character from Graceling, I look forward to seeing how it is placed within Cashore's expanding world.

Dinner Conversation:

"It did not surprise Fire that the man in the forest shot her.  What surprised her was that he shot her by accident" (p.19).

"Her nightmares were always worse on days when she'd spent time down among the cages, for that was where her father had died.
Cansrel, her beautiful monster father.  Monsters in the Dells came from monsters.  A monster could breed with a non-monster of its species--her mother had not been a monster--but the progeny was always monstrous." (p. 28)

"This was something Fire knew about herself:  Her mind made mistakes sometimes, but the real traitor was her body" (p. 78).

Tasty Rating:  !!!

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

REVIEW: The Son of Neptune

Riordan, R.  (2011).  The Son of Neptune.  New York:  Hyperion Books.

513 pages.

Appetizer:  Percy has spent the last two months with almost no memories of who he is.  He has been evading two gorgons who just won't stay in the Underworld.  By arriving at a camp for demigods in San Francisco, he seems to have finally found a place he can rest.  Kinda.

Percy has found the camp of the Roman demigods, the Greek demigods and Percy's natural enemies.  But he'll have to join with them if he ever wants to restore his memory and find the one person whose name he remembers--Annabeth.

Stunned by Percy's arrival, two Roman demigods, who are outsiders among the ranks, find themselves on a quest with Percy. Hazel is a cursed daughter of Pluto. She keeps many secrets, including the fact that she has died before.  Frank has a few secrets of his own as well. But after learning who his true father is, he finds himself leading a quest which he knows will most likely lead to his own death. Uncertain and understandably frightened, the three new friends must travel to Alaska, the land beyond the gods, to try and prevent the next phase in Gaia's awakening and to restore the balance of life and death.

So, if you read the first book in this series, The Lost Hero and any or aaaaaaaaaaall of the Percy Jackson or Kane Chronicles, then you pretty much know what to expect of The Son of Neptune:  A bit of humor, a lot of action and a fun take on the Greek and Roman gods.  It is worth noting, that this particular addition to Riordan's does include several major references to the original Percy Jackson series.  (So, it might be good to have read them...or to at least vaguely remember the events.)

The beginning of The Son of Neptune did feel a little slow.  Since several new characters were introduced, it felt more like a novel beginning a series as opposed to a middle novel.  It also felt like a bit of a slow start since Percy had to befriend Hazel and Frank before the adventure could even begin and play war games at Camp Jupiter.  (But having said that, the last 100 pages are action PACKED.  Like, beyond packed...the action box is overflowing and cannot be properly closed.)

Nonetheless, the way that Riordan has changed up this series to both include and grow beyond Percy is very interesting.  I like that he has continued to expand the states and lands that the characters visit as well as expand the racial and national representation of the demigods.  Plus, the inclusions of the Amazons as the owners of the company Amazon was particularly fun.

Dinner Conversation:

"The snake-haired ladies were starting to annoy Percy.
They should have died three days ago when he dropped a crate of bowling balls on them at the Napa Bargain Mart.  They should have died two days ago when he ran over them with a police car in Martinez.  They definitely should have died this morning when he cut off their heads in Tilden Park.
No matter how many times Percy killed them and watched them crumble to powder, they just kept re-forming like large evil dust bunnies.  He couldn't even seem to outrun them.  (p. 3).

"A chill went down Percy's back.  "The Feast of Fortune...The gorgons mentioned that.  So did Juno.  They said the camp was going to be attacked on that day, something about a big bad goddess named Gaea, and an army, and Death being unleashed.  You're telling me that day is this week?"
Reyna's fingers tightened around the hilt of her dagger.  "You will say nothing about that outside this room," she ordered.  "I will not have you spreading more panic in the camp."
"So it's true," Percy said.  "Do you know what's going to happen?  Can we stop it?"
Percy had just met these people.  He wasn't sure he even liked Reyna.  But he wanted to help.  They were demigods, the same as him.  They had the same enemies.  Besides, Percy remembered what Juno had told him:  it wasn't just this camp at risk.  His old life, the gods, and the entire world might be destroyed.  Whatever was coming down, it was huge."  (pp. 41-42)

"Um, what exactly does it mean--you standing for me?"
"I guarantee your good behavior," Hazel explained.  "I teach you the rules, answer you questions, make sure you don't disgrace the legion."
"And...if I do something wrong?"
"Then i get killed along with you," Hazel said.  "Hungry?  Let's eat."  (p. 90)

"'Thanatos has been chained,' Mars announced.  "The Doors of Death have been forced open, and no one is policing them--at least, not impartially.  Gaea allows our enemies to pour forth into the world of mortals.  Her sons the giants are mustering armies against you--armies that you will not be able to kill.  Unless Death is unleashed to return to his duties, you will be overrun.  You must find Thanatos and free him from the giants.  Only he can reverse the tide." (p. 146)

"'There!' Mars finished writing and threw the scroll at Octavian.  "A prophecy.  You can add it to your books, engrave it on your floor, whatever."
Octavian read the scroll.  "This says, 'Go to Alaska.  Find Thanatos and free him.  Come back by sundown on June twenty-fourth or die."
"Yes," Mars said.  "Is that not clear?"
"Well, my lord...usually prophecies are unclear.  They're wrapped in riddles.  They rhyme, and..."
Mars casually popped another grenade off his belt.  "Yes?"
"The prophecy is clear!  Octavian announced.  "A quest!" (p. 149)

"'First things first." Percy tried to sound confident, though he could feel the level of panic rising in the room.  "I don't know who the seven are, or what that old prophecy means, exactly.  But first we have to free Thanatos.  Mars told us we only needed three people for the quest to Alaska.  Let's concentrate on succeeding with that and getting back before the Feast of Fortuna.  Then we can worry about the Doors of Death."
"Yeah, Frank said in a small voice.  "That's probably enough for one week."  (pp. 173-174)

Tasty Rating:  !!!

Sunday, December 18, 2011

REVIEW: Live Writing: Breathing life into your words

Fletcher, R.  (1999).  Live Writing:  Breathing life into your words.  New York:  Avon Books, Inc.

131 pages.

Appetizer:  As part of his series on writing, in Live Writing Ralph Fletcher describes tools to help middle grade readers bring their writing to life.

With accessible terms, examples and writing from his own, other published authors as well as the writings of third to seventh graders, Fletcher describes ways to bring stories to life, focusing on character, voice, conflict and setting.  He also discusses having a strong beginning or lead, a satisfying end, vivid details and golden lines.  In culmination, Fletcher unpacks a 7th grader's writing sample for all of these aspects.

This writing guide also include advice from some other authors related to the concepts Fletcher highlighted.  (Alas, since this book was published in 1999, some of the authors, while excellent, are not as commonly referred to as those included in some other writing guides for children (like Rip This Page.)  Along those same lines, Fletcher references some picturebooks and middle grade novels that, while classic, also felt a little dated.

Overall, there is some excellent advice in Live Writing.  This is a great resource to have in a classroom to help middle grade authors improve their creative writing.

Dinner Conversation:

"This book is based on the simple idea that every writer has a toolbox.  Instead of awls and hammers, a writer's toolbox contains words, imagination, a love of books, a sense of story, and ideas for how to make the writing live and breathe" (p. 2).

"By "live writing" I mean the kind of writing that has a current running through it--energy, electricity, juice.  When we read live writing, the words seem to lift off the page and burrow deep inside us.  My goal in writing this book is to help you make your writing come alive" (p. 3).

"Writers don't read like other people.  Writers are interested in what's going to happen, of course, but they are also keenly interested in finding out how the author created the effect." (p. 10)

"Your writing voice is like a handshake; it makes the connection with the reader" (p. 42)

"Setting does matter.  Stories (history) happen in a particular place.  Martin Luther King, Jr., got locked in a jail in Selma, Alabama.  That place will be forever linked with this event.  Wilbur and Charlotte became friends in that dusty old barn.  Describing the setting is more than just a necessary chore--it's a crucial element in making your writing deeper and richer."  (p. 67)

Tasty Rating:  !!!

Thursday, December 15, 2011

REVIEW: Stitches

Small, D.  (2009).  Stitches.  New York:  W.W. Norton & Company.

329 pages.

So, you're looking for some nice, speedy, light reading over the winter break?

Stitches is a speedy read, that much is true.  But it is by no means light or nice.  Unless "nice" can be interpreted to mean riveting in a horrified and traumatized-by-proxy kind of way.


My reading buddy, Monica, tackled this graphic novel during a readathon a couple of years ago.  Here's her reaction.

Appetizer:  In this memoir, amazing children's illustrator David Small shares about his dysfunctional childhood.  At six, he and his mother visited his maternal grandmother.  The woman would prove to be unstable.  At eleven, David would begin to develop a growth on his neck that would not be operated on until he was 14-years-old.  The series of surgeries would leave David with only a single vocal chord.  Silenced and living in a house with people who barely speak, Stitches is the story of David finding his voice and avoiding the insanity his mother and grandfather could easily drive him towards.

This memoir is both stunning and moving.  I am forever impressed by Small's illustrations and ability to capture perspective.  But seeing the familiar style of his drawings was that much more disturbing, because as I read, I was repeatedly reminded of Imogene's Antlers, a childhood favorite of mine that is also by him.

The graphic novel repeatedly references Lolita and Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.  The allusions to Alice and the white rabbit are particularly wonderful.

Dinner Conversation:

Tasty Rating:  !!!!

Wow, I'm off to find a something with some humor now.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

REVIEW: The Future of Us

Asher, J. & Mackler, C.  (2011).  The Future of Us.  New York:  Razorbill.

356 pages.

Appetizer:  It's 1996 and Emma's father just bought her a new computer with Windows 95 to buy her love.  Josh brings her an AOL CD-Rom (100 free online hours!  OMG!!!!).  When Emma logs on for the first time, she discovers a strange website listed in the favorites bar:  Facebook.  The site seems to be devoted to a woman in her thirties with Emma's name and birthday.  The picture of the woman looks eerily like Emma.  But this woman is married, jobless and seems unhappy as she shares WAY too much personal information on the website.

Emma shares the secret of the strange 'Facebook' with her neighbor and former-best friend Josh.  As they become aware of their futures, they slowly realize that their behavior now changes who they will become.  For better or for worse.

I was really excited about The Future of Us.  Not so much because of the premise, but because I loved Asher's 13 Reasons Why and Mackler's The Earth, My Butt and Other Big Round Things and Vegan Virgin Valentine.  Combine two awesome authors and you can't go wrong, right?  Eeeeeeeeh.  From page one, I was a little disappointed.  The first chapter from Emma's perspective felt rushed and like a long joke about the way the internet used to be.  The premise of the story just didn't feel like it would be sustainable and nothing about Emma or Josh's characterizations really sparked my interest.  They were just blah.

I did love the way the characters struggled with how the small (and big) decisions they made impacted their realities fifteen years in the future.  It's a very powerful look at the idea that there are consequences, even for some seemingly small decisions.  This is best embodied when Emma does a little addition and realizes someone close to her may conceive a child within the next few months.  There's a wonderful analysis on choices and consequences waiting to be written about this book (and there's even a cross-curriculum connection to the concept of the domino effect during the Vietnam War).

Without being too preachy, The Future of Us could cause some readers to think a little more critically about their online relationships and behaviors, but mostly I think readers will pick it up as a fun read (a fun read without nearly the oomph that Thirteen Reason Why had).

*Spoiler*  *Spoiler*  *Spoiler for the end*  *Spoiler*  *Spoiler*

I did have some trouble with Emma as a character.  From the beginning of the book I "nothing-ed" her, but about midway through the book, I actively started to dislike her.  I really didn't like the way she jumped from guy to guy in the present and kept playing with her future as though it was a game, judging each potential husband as though they were the cause of all her potential unhappiness.  (There's a little consideration of finding the right career or school, but not enough.)  Eventually, Emma did have a grand realization about her nature:

"I stroll through the grounds, thinking about how ever since we discovered Facebook, I've been changing specific things in an attempt to improve my future.  Jordan Jones was probably cheating on me...But every time I got a new future, I still turned out unhappy. 
For the past five days, I've been trying to understand why this happens to me and how I can tweak things so it won't happen again.  But I'm starting to wonder if it actually has nothing to do with the future.  Maybe it has everything to do with what happens now.
...He never did those things for me because I never gave him the chance.  I never told him what I was reading or what movies made me cry.  I kept enough distance so I would never get hurt.
I've always protected myself when it comes to love.  And maybe that's the problem.  By not letting myself get hurt now, it ripples into much bigger pain later on.  In the future, maybe I never let my husbands see the real me either, so, I never give them the chance to learn what makes me happy." (p. 313-314)
Okay, I'll take that.  It's about time.  This girl needed to be single for awhile.  Heal from your mom's repeated divorces.  Love yourself first girlie, then consider adding a worthy boyfriend into the mix.  Sounds good.  Finally, maybe Emma will be redeemed in my mind.  But hey, that's my crazy feminist perspective.

Of course, fewer than 40 pages later, AKA the same night in the story, Emma gets herself a new man.

Mmm, kay.  Yes, relationships do have to go both ways, okay.  And yes, you do have to take a chance on the right person and be willing to be vulnerable.  But I felt like this girl still needed to figure out who she was and what she wanted first.  By this point, I wasn't convinced this character had much of a soul of her own, let alone one she could share with someone she loved.

*End spoiler*

Dinner Conversation:

"I can't break up with Graham today, even though I told my friends I'd do it the next time I saw him.  So instead, I'm hiding in my bedroom, setting up my new computer while he plays Ultimate Frisbee in the park across the street" (p. 2).

"For about twenty second, my monitor freezes.  Then the white box snaps into a tiny blue dot and a new webpage fades in.  It has a blue banner running across the top that says "Facebook."  A column down the center of the screen is labeled "News Feed" and under that are tiny photos of people I don't recognize.  Each photo is followed by a brief statement.
...I circle the mouse around the screen, confused by the jumble of pictures and words.  I have no idea what any of this means, "Status" and "Friend Request" and "Poke." (pp. 9-10)

"One side of my brain whispers that this could be a website from the future.  The other side of my brain screams at the first side for being an idiot.
On the screen, Emma Nelson Jones, with slight creases at the corners of her eyes, is smiling." (p. 15)

"If it was a prank, nothing would've changed between yesterday and today.  But everything I did differently today sent little ripples of change into the future.  Being in a bad mood this morning, because of this, changed the way I interacted with people when I got to school.  And that, fifteen years down the line--"
I laugh.  "Ripples of change?"
"It's something Kellan told me."
"You told Kellan?"
"Of course not," Emma says.  "I just asked her about time travel from a physics perspective."  (p. 76)

Tasty Rating:  !!!

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

REVIEW: Making Up Megaboy

Walter, V. & Roecoelein K.  (1998).  Making Up Megaboy.  New York:  Delacorte Press.

62 pages.

Appetizer:  Told in many different voices with striking images to match the monologues, Making Up Megaboy tries to understand a thirteen-year-old's motive to kill an elderly shop owner.  Aside from speaking to admit he did kill the old man, Robbie will not speak, except to ask for art supplies so he could draw a comic of his only friend and his creation, Megaboy.

Some of the potential motives surrounding Robbie's actions include his crush on a girl from school, dissatisfaction with his racist father, not having been taught right from wrong, being an outsider, and on and on.

This novella is an interesting experiment.  With no clear answers about what caused Robbie to kill someone, its up to the reader to make connections, make meaning and draw their own conclusions about what was going through the boy's head and what caused him to act the way he did.

Making Up Megaboy would be a good book to have students make arguments about, using support from the text.  Since the book is so short, it would be very easy for students to make connections across the text without getting overwhelmed.  It also would be a good sample project to have students explore voice and different perspectives, all circling around an event or the experience of one character.  I'd also consider pairing the novella with Walter Dean Myers's Monster to show to very different approaches to trying to understand characters who face consequences for the deaths of others.

Due to the sensitive nature of the story, it is probably a book I would want to get parental permission for before sharing with students.

Dinner Conversation:

"It was his birthday, three months ago today.  He just turned thirteen.  He was too old for a birthday party, but we gave him a fancy new mountain bike at breakfast.  I thought he was pleased with it.  He said he liked it.
I didn't think he even knew about my husband's gun.  We never showed it to him.  We never talked about it." (p. 9)

"Robert kept the gun in the dresser, in his sock drawer.  Robbie never had any reason to go in there.
Lord, I will never understand why he did it.  I asked myself every day what went wrong, but I can't find any answers.  He wasn't a bad boy.  He didn't have bad friends, except maybe that Mexican boy who hung around for a while.
Why would Robbie shoot somebody on his birthday?  It should have been a happy day."  (p. 9)

"People in Santa Rosita are in shock about the incident that took place here two days ago, when a thirteen-year-old boy shot and killed Jae Lin Koh, the elderly proprietor of a liquor store on Main Street. The boy who allegedly committed this violent crime has not been identified officially because of his age, but classmates at the Kennedy Middle School know who he is." (p. 19).

"Me and him made up stories all the time about a superhero called Megaboy.  Megaboy is kind of like Popeye in those old comics, you know?  He just looked ordinary until he ate his spinach, and then his muscles popped out all buff?  Megaboy just looks all ordinary until he eats these special chips.  I mean, they look just like regular potato chips or something, but they're really coated with megaspice that made him all strong and everything.  Mostly Megaboy takes care of little kids that are in trouble and finds lost pets and stuff.  We made up stories together.  Then Robbie'd draw the pictures, and I'd write the words" (p. 20).

Tasty Rating:  !!!

Thursday, December 1, 2011


Rainfield, C.  (2010).  Scars.  Lodi, NJ:  WestSide Books.

233 pages.

Appetizer:  Kendra knows she is being followed.  She thinks the man who molested her as a child is back and is trying to keep her silent.  The only person she can really trust to talk to is her therapist, Carolyn.  But since her dad was downsized at work, her parents want her to stop seeing Carolyn.  In fact, they're even talking about moving out of the city.  Kendra's mom just doesn't get what she's going through or what matters to Kendra.  The only ways that Kendra can deal with all of the pains and pressures are by cutting herself and by working on her art.

Despite all of these difficulties, a girl named Meghan has caught her eye.  Meghan has her own problems.  When the two girls are enrolled in the same art therapy course, Kendra begins to see the possibility of finding someone who can love her.

While I appreciated that Scars didn't feel like a traditional problem novel due to all of the thriller elements, some of those same thriller elements made Kendra's high school experience seem overly dramatic.  (Arguably, this could be because Kendra survived serious trauma, so little conflicts could seem much more threatening.  But as I read, it felt more like a representation of high school that I would have only bought into in middle know, before I knew what high school was like.  For example, on the first day that the novel depicts, Kendra is bullied, kissed, and checked-out by completely random characters.  Also, sometime the dialogue seemed forced cliche or as though a modern teenager wasn't saying the word.  I just didn't believe it.  Not based on the narration and how Kendra described herself.  I do appreciate what the author was aiming for though.)

A huge aspect that I thought was missing from the book was a scene in which Kendra revealed her childhood molestation to her family. The book is set six months after she would have had that discussion with her parents and is only mentioned in peripheral ways. But imagining how difficult such a reveal may be and knowing that some readers may share similar experiences to Kendra, but have yet to speak about it, I really wanted to see a scene with Kendra speaking/writing/drawing about it with or for someone for the first time. I know it's beyond the scope of the story and I know that such a scene would probably make the story a little too reminiscent of Laurie Halse Anderson's masterpiece Speak, (both would feature artistic girls who struggle to find a way to tell someone about the traumas they have experienced--although the individual characterizations are completely different). But still, I wanted that scene. Flashback anyone?

I also wanted it to be clearer from the beginning whether or not Kendra had told her family and classmates that she was a lesbian.  From her narration, it's a clear aspect of her internal characterization, but I couldn't tell for over half the book whether she was firmly "in the closet" or open with her parents and classmates.  (I wanted to know because, again, coming out and revealing this is an important experience and instead it was treated as a part of the mystery that is revealed late in the novel about Kendra's background.

It is also worth noting that the person who molested Kendra as a child and who continues to harass her to try to keep her silent as a teen is pretty much...pure evil.  Like, maybe more evil than Lord Voldemort.  It's not as though I want a fair and balanced account.  But he was evil to the point that I struggled to believe his level of vileness was possible.  The ways he abused and the extent to which he manipulated Kendra as a child was overwhelming.

One of the greatest strengths of Scars was the author's note. In it, Cheryl Rainfield reveals that she has felt similar pains to her character Kendra. She provides one of the most etensive list of resources for help and support that I have seen at the end of a YA novel. And she advises the reader to "be gentle with yourself," a similar idea that some of the helpful adult characters express to Kendra. I found that to be a beautifully said and a wonderful sentiment.

Dinner Conversation:

"'Someone is following me.'  I gulp air, trying to breathe.
Carolyn leans forward, her face worried.  "What makes you say that?"  There's a hesitation in her voice that stings me.
"You don't believe me!"  I spit the words out at her, then look away, twisting my hands together to keep them from trembling.
"I didn't say that.  I don't know enough about this yet to know what to believe.  Why don't you tell me about it?"
So you can go tell my parents?  (p. 7).

"Do you have any idea of who it might be?" Carolyn's voice is soft, like she knows I want to run.
A door snapping shut.  His hand on my wrist.
"The man who molested you?"
"Yes." I wince and clench my trembling hands in my lap, digging my nails into my palms.  But the trifling pain isn't enough to distract me.
"It must be terrifying for you to think he's out there somewhere."
"It is," I whisper.
"But Kendra, pedophiles don't usually come after their victims, especially not years later.  They like easy access and frightened, compliant children who they can manipulate--not active teen girls who might fight back." (p. 9)

"The constant noise makes me want to scream--people slamming their lockers shut, girls giggling with each other, sneakers squeaking down the hall, boys burping as loud as they can--but I know I'm only feeling like this because of the note.
And I can't let myself think about that.
My arm is hot and stiff, every jostle sending pain through me.  But it's not the bright, hard pain that makes everything go away.  It's an annoying, irritating pain that makes me grit my teeth.  I wish I could tear my nails through my flesh like blades.  I don't know if I can go through the whole day without finding a way to cut."  (p. 19)

"Mom's paintings are picturesque views of the world, little postcards of happiness, while mine are all emotion and color.  Mine tap into my pain and grief and sometimes into my happiness, but always into something that comes from deep inside.  No boats in the harbor or sunlit meadows for me.  I do my art because I have to.  Paint or cut--they both help me survive.  But Mom paints for the money--and her art sells.  People want those perfect postcards of the world.  I don't think they want messy emotion.  But I have to try."  (p. 44)

Tasty Rating:  !!!

Friday, November 25, 2011

REVIEW: Revolver (Built with amazing mood, tone and tension since 1910/1899)

Sedgwick, M. (2009).  Revolver. New York: Roaring Brook Press.

201 pages.

Appetizer:  Sig's father is dead. He died in an accident on the arctic ice. He died falling through thin ice that he should have--must have--known better than to cross over. 14-year-old Sig doesn't question the tragedy of his father's death too much until the very next day, when a strange and threatening man arrives at the family's cabin while Sig is there alone with his father's dead body. The man insists Sig's father took something from him and Sig must decide whether or not to use the revolver that his family has kept hidden for ten years.

Goodness gracious, ya'll! What a well-structured and tense little book.

Told in short chapters and in interweaving periods between 1899 when Sig's father first got the revolver and 1910 when Sig must decide whether he's going to use it, Revolver makes wonderful use of allusions, foreshadowing and a stark mood to create a wonderfully tense story as Sig contemplates the moral implications of using his father's gun.

Srsly, everyone, I heart it.

That doesn't mean Revolver is perfect. I wasn't too crazy about the flashbacks to 1899 and the omniscent narration that jumped among characters' perspectives all willy-nilly. But still, bravo. I approve.

Dinner Conversation:

"Even the dead tell stories.
Sig looked across the cabin to where his father lay, waiting for him to speak, but his father said nothing, because he was dead. Einar Andersson lay on the table, his arms half raised above his head, his legs slightly bent at the knee, frozen in the position in which they'd found him; out on the lake, lying on the ice, with the dogs waiting patiently in harness." (p. 1)

The smallest word, whcih raises the biggest questions." (p. 3)

"It was at these times that Einar told Sig important things. The things a son should learn from his father. It was at these times that he told him about the gold days, and the gold lust, or about the revolver, which sat in its original box, like a princess's jewels in a case. And Sig, like a good pupil, would listen, always listen, with maybe a rare question now and again.
"A gun is not a weapon," Einar once said to Sig. "It's an answer. It's an answer to the questions life throws at you when there's no one else to help" (p. 8).

"He'd come for the gold, and he hadn't meant to stay.  These things never lasted long, Einar knew.  Just like the Klondike, by the time the rest of the world got to know about the gold, it would be too late; all the best strikes found, the land claimed, the easy pickings gone.  All that would be left would be the struggle to survive in a world of danger, both natural and man-made, with the occasional speck of gold dust coming his way.  Just enough to keep that stupid dream of easy money alive, the dream of fantastic wealth, of ease and luxury and fine things for the rest of his days, but in reality not enough to live on for even a week."  (p. 45)

"Maria woke and propped herself up.  Her movement disturbed Sig, who woke too, to witness one of the few scenes from his early childhood that he would remember forever, and clearly.
He remembered the look on his mother's face as she saw what Einar had bought.  Only many years later would he finally be able to put a word to that look.  Despair.
"What is it?" Anna repeated.  "Is it food?  Is it for when the food runs out?"
"No," Einar muttered.  "It's something else.  For when the faith runs out."  (p. 50).

"He ran out of things to say, and Wolff stayed exactly where he was.
"I don't think you understand.  Since your father is no longer with us, that makes you his heir.
"That means my business is with you."  (p. 83)

Tasty Rating:  !!!!!

Sunday, November 20, 2011

REVIEW: Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Cabin Fever

Kinney,  J.  (2011).  Diary of a Wimpy Kid:  Cabin Fever.  New York:  Amulet Books.

217 pages.

Appetizer:  Greg Heffley is back to share his November and December adventures.  In this installment of his diaries, he and his best friend Rowley try to get their own newspaper off the ground.  Greg also tries to make some money to buy clothes and toys for his internet pet--a Net Critterz chihauhua aptly named "Gregory's Little Friend" by his mother.  Most daunting of all, Greg finds himself trapped inside after a blizzard with his mom and two brothers.  And it would seem it's every Heffley for him or herself to survive the storm.

Greg and the other students at his middle school have to find ways to amuse themselves after the school takes all of the playground equipment away due to safety concerns:

Hahaha, those bored kids watching through the window are creepy.

I enjoyed this installment of Diary of a Wimpy Kid.  The very first illustration amused me:

I especially liked that a lot of the things that Greg finds himself in trouble through throughout the novel are things that he did by accident or because he "didn't know any better" as opposed to intentionally doing wrong.  I remember a lot of similar (although usually not as costly *Glances at the sports car that Greg's dad didn't own for very long*) mistakes from my own childhood.

Cabin Fever continues what a reader who has encountered any of the previous Diary of a Wimpy Kid series can expect:  Amusement.  A bit of a child's selfish intentions combined with an honest and funny look at middle school, friendships and family.

Dinner Conversation:

Tasty Rating:  !!!

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Readathon: Updates One and Two


1)Where are you reading from today?

My students' midterms!  And some theory on the teaching of writing.  (It's not quite my usual fun reading, but it must be done.  And if I'm good, I can pick up some fiction later.

2)Three random facts about me…

Erm...1.  I love listening to This American Life.  I'm catching up on old episodes now.
2.  My cat is lying across my feet, trapping me in place.  (I think this will help to keep me reading)
3.  Part of my readathon may involve rocking to the audiobook of Chime.

3)How many books do you have in your TBR pile for the next 24 hours?

More than I can actually read in 24 hours.

4)Do you have any goals for the read-a-thon (i.e. number of books, number of pages, number of hours, or number of comments on blogs)?

Just to do more reading than I've had time for over the last several weeks.

5)If you’re a veteran read-a-thoner, any advice for people doing this for the first time?

Mix in some graphic novels, short stories, articles, picturebooks or other short texts to keep you motivated.  SRSLY!  It helps!



I'm still here and I'm still reading!  So, far I did some reading that was prep-work for the classes I teach next week.  

Part of what I have been preparing for my students is a discussion of young adult fiction book covers and they way certain themes, colors,images seem to trend in and out.  There have been blog posts about this in the past:  how dark covers are, the focus on faces, puffy dresses, flowers, etc.

The cover trend I'm adding to the list is underwater scenes (AKA girls drowning):

Now I'm going to switch directions and focus on some grading.  It's proven to be a VERY slow process.

Wish me luck!

Sunday, October 16, 2011

REVIEW: Saint Training

Fixmer, E.  (2010).  Saint Training.  Grand Rapids, MI:  Zonderkidz.

233 pages.

Appetizer:  It's the spring of 1967 and sixth grader Mary Clare O'Brian has begun to write letters to the Mother Superior of a convent asking for advice.  Mary Clare has the goal of becoming a saint.  But with all the daily complications of having to look after her many brothers and sisters, her mother's fascination with reading The Feminine Mystique and a competition to write an essay on "What a religious vocation means to me...," Mary Clare is having trouble living up to her saintly aspirations.

She starts to realize how complicated life can be.  Not only in terms of being good, but also in terms of her own family.  Her mom, who is pregnant for the umpteenth time, wants to do other work than caring for her many kids at home and Mary Clare is left to do a lot of the work of caring for her siblings and wondering how her family can afford to care for another child.  One of her brothers wants to enlist to go to Vietnam with his best friend, while another older brother wants to get status as a conscientious objector to the war.

The author, Elizabeth Fixmer, does an excellent job of presenting Mary Clare's faith as she goes from blind obedience and making deals with God to questioning aspects of Catholicism, earning "saint points" and beginning to view how complicated issues of faith in the real world can be.

For a reader who might not be very religious, a lot of the Catholicism could be a little overwhelming.  I also felt like an older reader or adult would have to explain a bit about feminism for a younger reader to get the book.  (In fact, the only aspect of this book that might not have to be discussed, is the historical setting.  This book was a little too history--light for my personal tastes.  Especially since the opening paragraph is about racial tensions and how Mary Clare imagined herself providing support to a black student she imagined being integrated at her Catholic school.  I felt like a promise made early in the story was dropped, allowed to roll under a chair and forgotten until the very end.)

My favorite part of Saint Training was the exchange of letters between Mary Clare and Sister Monica.  As the story continued, Mary Clare began to ask a lot of important questions.  I found this very engaging.

But toward the end of the book, this also became frustrating, because Mary Clare revealed major plot developments in her letters without them being mentioned in the narration before.  I found myself flipping back and forth between pages, wondering if I had missed something.

Overall, I liked that Saint Training took on issues of faith and social justice.  I liked Mary Clare's childlike faith and the way that she took on adult concerns and worries over her family.  But I did find some of the religion and jumps in the narrative to be a bit overwhelming at times.

Dinner Conversation:

"March 25, 1967

Dear Reverend Mother.

My name is Mary Clare O'Brian.  I am in sixth grade and I am writing because I want to become a Good Shepherd nun.  I like the Good Shepherd nuns best because you work with unwed mothers and their babies.  I love little babies." (p. 7)

"Mary Clare finished her Social Studies test and turned it upside down to wait for the rest of the class. It was easy, mostly easy, and on the subject that Mary Clare had heard a lot about at home around the dinner table:  civil rights.  She couldn't believe that Negroes had to sit on the back of the bus in the South and even drink from different water fountains.  They were fighting for basic rights, especially the right to vote.  Mary Clare liked to imagine that a Negro girl entered her very class at Saint Maria Goretti School. She would show her around, become her friend, even hold the drinking fountain on for her.
Now her face scrunched into a yawn she fought to control.  She was tired from being up almost all night--first listening to her parents fight, then praying for the perfect plan to make things better for her family.  After she came up with the perfect plan, she couldn't sleep at all.
She was going to become a saint."  (p. 11)

"Lord, help my family.  Please, please give us enough money so Mom and Dad can be happy again.
She stopped.  She was sick of this prayer.  Why wasn't God answering?  HE used to answer her prayers all the time."  (p. 15)

"Now she knew the problem:  God would only listen to her if her soul was pure.  If she was going to make her mother happy again, she would have to be a saint right away.
She made a plan.  She would study, she would practice saint-like behavior, and she would become a nun.  Many of the girl saints had been nuns before being sainted, so she figured becoming a nun was the perfect stepping stone to her real goal.  She'd be so darned good she wouldn't have a thing to confess on Saturdays.
Mary Clare explained the deal to God.  If you take care of my family--give them enough money, make my parents happy...I'll become a saint.  She repeated it several times in case it was hard for God to hear through all of her sins." (p. 16)

"Don't just tell them what you think they want to hear, Mary Clare.  Don't get into the roles everybody expects from a woman--where your identity is what the Church tells you it should be.  'God's servant, and God's bride'...that's all part of the feminine mystique," she said.  "Everybody knows what nuns do and the vows they take.  Go inside your heart and tell them who you are."
Mary Clare was confused.  She didn't know what the feminine mystique was, and she was pretty sure that to win this contest she had to pretty much say what the judges wanted to hear, but she did want to be real."  (p. 79)

Tasty Rating:  !!!

Wednesday, October 12, 2011


Myracle, L.  (2004).  ttyl.  New York:  Amulet Books.

209 pages.

Appetizer:  The first in an often censored series, ttyl chronicles the IM messages between Zoe, Angela and Maddie; three best friends who are trying to navigate the start of their sophomore year.

Zoe is dealing with an overbearing mother as she explores her spirituality by attending church with her favorite teacher, who may have his own intentions by spending time with her.  Angela is navigating a romantic relationship:  whether she can trust her new boyfriend, Rob, and whether he is "the one" to have sex with for the first time.  Maddie, the most pessimistic of the three, battles the frustration of becoming a frenemy of a popular girl named Jana.  Despite their differing concerns, problems and jealousies, the three girls struggle to maintain their friendship.

From page one, I was impressed by how well Myracle managed to present characterization and differing voices among her three protagonists.  This was helped by each of them typing in different fonts and regularly taking online personality quizzes.  (I remember taking similar quizzes throughout high school.  Oh, memories.)

Despite these efforts, it did take me a little bit of extra time to ease into the story and to figure out characterizations.  I did notice there was a little bit of resistance whenever I had to put the book down.  But each time I picked it back up and eased back into the characterizations, it was hard to stop reading.  (Which is about as good as it gets.)

I decided to finally read ttyl because--alas several weeks too late for banned book week--this was the week to discuss censorship in my literature course.  Since the ttyl series topped the 2009 top-ten list of most challenged books, I'd been curious about its content.  I wondered if it was the fact that the story was structured entirely as instant messages that contributed to the trouble.

It turns out the first book takes on a lot of topics that may be sensitive; like underaged drinking, (mild) dirty humor, female characters being critical of each other and referring to girls they don't like as "sluts," and discussion of pubic hair, lubricant, etc.  At various points, characters contemplate losing their virginity, are critical of religion or consider having a romantic (and creepy!) relationship with a teacher.

I firmly believe the vast majority of fourteen or fifteen-year-olds at the very least have contemplated these issues, overheard discussions or jokes like these, if not discussed them with their friends.

The student-teacher romantic relationship did make me more than a little uncomfortable, especially since (vague spoiler!) the teens don't report the situation to the administration.  But still, it was great that the book included discussion of such a concern and showed how a friend can provide support to a conflicted and confused teenager.

While I think ttyl is a great read for the novel's intended audience, Myracle is also famous for writing some younger, middle grade series.  I could see a parent of a ten-year-old girl who just finished reading Myracle's Eleven and going on to read ttyl getting upset.  I say "parent" intentionally.  TTYL is an unlikely book to be assigned to an entire class, because of this, I think any young reader who has a choice to read it, but isn't ready for its subject matter, will self-censor and put the book down if they're uncomfortable.

Dinner Conversation:



  (p. 122)

Tasty Rating:  !!!

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

REVIEW: Shakespeare Bats Cleanup (It's like a better sequel to Love That Dog than Hate That Cat was! Yay sports + poetry!)

Koertge, R.  (2003).  Shakespeare Bats Cleanup.  Cambridge, MA:  Candlewick Press.

116 pages.

Appetizer:  14-year-old Kevin Boland wants nothing more than to play baseball.  But after he is diagnosed with mono, there's no way he'll be able to play ball or go back to school for a looooooooong time.  Stuck in his room and bored, Kevin is anything but excited when his dad (a writer) gives him a blank notebook.  His dad notes:
"You're gonna have a lot of time on your hands.  Maybe you'll feel like writingsomething down" (p. 1).
And from that, a novel in verse is born.

While stuck in bed and later as he starts to attend baseball games again, Kevin works on writing various forms of poetry; from haiku, to blank verse, to elegies, to sonnets.  What's more, he goes back and revises his poems, showing his process and the importance of revision.  (Yay!  Can I hear a cheer for revision!  Wat Wat!)

Also, as Kevin battles mono and misses playing baseball, both he and his dad are dealing with a much larger loss; that of Kevin's mom.  But as they deal with their grief, Kevin begins to see the possibility of another type of joy:  His first real girlfriend.  A girl named Mira notices that Kevin writes poetry.  Torn between wanting to tell her the truth about what he's writing and not wanting to seem like one of those "sensitive" guys, Kevin tries to figure out how to get to know Mira better.

I'll admit, during the first half of the story, I wasn't too crazy about Shakespeare Bats Cleanup.  Kevin was hung-up on missing baseball and he had rigid ideas about masculinity that didn't exactly rock my world.  Then Mira was introduced.  And I loved her character.  She added a lot of humor and brought out a fun dynamic between Kevin and his father as they start to date.  As Kevin and his dad prepare to pick up Mira to go to a poetry reading, Kevin writes:

Dad comes downstairs in shorts  
and Pumas.  I ask him to change.  On the way
to Mira's he says, "Now I'm nervous."  (p. 82) 

Plus, Mira and her family added a multicultural dimension to the story.  Kevin, who is white, begins to entertain thoughts of learning Spanish to better communicate with Mira's extended family, some baseball players and to be able to translate poetry by Octavio Paz.

Overall, I felt like Shakespeare Bats Cleanup is a slightly older version of Love That Dog, that will specifically appeal to boys who *still* aren't completely convinced of the awesomeness of poetry.

Apparently there's a sequel, called Shakespeare Makes the Playoffs.  I'll read it...but I'll probably wait for the paperback version, which should be available by mid-March.

Dinner Conversation:

"Then Dad comes in and says, "The doctor
called.  Your tests came back.  You've got
"So I can't play ball."
He pats my knee.  "You can't even go to
school, Kevin.  You need to take it real easy."
He hands me a journal, one of those marbly
black-and-white ones he likes.
"You're gonna have a lot of time on your
hands.  Maybe you'll feel like writing
something down."  (p. 1)

"Why am I writing down the middle
of the page?
It kind of looks like poetry, but no way
is it poetry.  It's just stuff." (p. 5)

"I'm just going to fool around a little,
see what's what poetry-wise" (p. 5).

"My name is Kevin Boland.
I live in Los Angeles (a suburb, actually).
I'm fourteen years old, I love baseball,
and I haven't got a girlfriend.
I'm just writing because I'm bored.
Thank God nobody's going to read it."  (p. 12)

"That book I've been reading
is big on revision, which means, by
the way, not just doing something over
but seeing it again.  That's kind of cool." (p. 23)

"'I'm a writer.'"  That's a cool thing to say.
I don't mean I am, but I'm not a baseball
player either.
Not anymore."  (p. 28)

Tasty Rating:  !!!

Saturday, October 1, 2011

REVIEW: Jenny Green's Killer Junior Year (I was not impressed)

Belasen, A., &; Osborn, J. (2008). Jenny Green's Killer Junior Year.  New York:  Simon Pulse.

284 pages.

So, when I first started typing this review, I accidentally put 'yar' instead of 'year.' As though 11th grader, Jenny, had become a pirate. (Note: I would read that book. I may be out of high school, but I'm still looking for ways to transition to a career in piracy.)

Appetizer: After a sucky sophomore year, Jewish American Princess (or--I kid you not--'Jap' as she prefers to use *shudders*) Jenny Green decides to leave her Long Island public school in the hope of finding cooler people and "the one" (AKA Prince Charming) at boarding school.  She has a good idea of who her prince will be:  a boy named Josh who had transfered previously.

Jenny settles into Molson Academy, navigates having to live in a house of artists/hippies, finds a friend, orchestrates running into her prince, finds a way to cheat in her AP calc class, considers losing her virginity and flirts with her favorite professor.

But all is not perfect.

She starts to realize that Josh may not be as wonderful as she thought he was and after he drunkenly attacks her, Jenny will have to do things she'd never considered before:  become a killer.

But what starts out as self-defense, quickly evolves to murder as other men wrong her.

I wouldn't say I *hated* this book.  I could say I disliked it.  But, I think saying I didn't get it would be gentler.  From the first page, I hated Jenny.  She was shallow and judgmental.  So, when she started killing other characters, with seemingly almost no regret, I was not inclined to care.

Eventually guilt and potential consequences do present themselves, but by then, I was just reading to get the book done.

On top of that, the book repeatedly refers to 9-11 and a potential school shooting at Molson to explain some of Jenny's choices and to imply that the crazy-screwed-up world is somehow contributing to her choices.  While I appreciate the effort to show the subtle pressures influencing Jenny, my reaction as I was reading was just to say "WTF?!  What the heck is this doing in this book?!"  I felt like Jenny Green's Killer Junior Year was attempting to make some cultural or feminist commentary, but I just failed to follow it.

Oh, and this book is supposedly humorous.

I didn't find it very funny.

Was I missing something?

Also, aside from the killing, there are also a handful of pretty sexually explicit scenes.

Dinner Conversation:

"'Twas the end of a long and bitter sophomore year. 'Twas. I just really wanted to use that word. I promise I won't use it again; this ain't Dickens. Seriously, though, sophomore year totally sucked. I broke my toe and couldn't be in the school production of Grease, Doug Lapidus took a picture of a huge zit on my nose and broadcast it on Facebook, and that bitch Veronica Cohen stole my prom date Mark Leibowitz" (p. 3).

"Still, none of my experiences in high school could have prepared me for the utter lameness of the guys I'd soon meet in boarding school. I repeat, and seriously, feel free to scribble this somewhere while you're reading: None of my experiences in high school could have prepared me for the utter lameness of the guys I'd soon meet in boarding school. Pretty please, keep this in mind before you blame me for everything that happens in the next however many pages" (pp. 5-6).

"It proved fairly easy to track down Josh Beck.  Some random girl knew him and said he was usually at the school gym around five.
Okay, I'm totally gonna sound like a stalker now, but I basically camped outside the gym until I spotted Josh." (p. 41)

"Memories flooded my feeble mind--memories of 9/11.  My family and I were supposed to go into the city the night before to watch a Broadway play and stay at a hotel.  It was a tradition.  We called them "Green Apple Nights," and Daddy let us take off from school and everything.
Anyway, Daddy had a friend in the towers that we were going to visit the morning of 9/11, and the only reason it didn't happen is because Abby got food poisoning and everything was canceled.  Daddy's friend died in the attacks.  It took me years to recover from the fact that I, too, almost died that day.  And here death was again, knocking on the door but not coming inside.  It chilled me to my core.  What the F was up with September?" (p. 53)

"I wanted to get away with it.  Beneath the anger and the self-defense lay something primal, something pleasurable even.  As I'd watched Josh squirm, a feeling came over me I can only describe now as empowerment.  Watching this creep die suddenly filled me with a force I'd never known myself to possess.  It was all mine.  I was Supergirl" (p. 68)

Tasty Rating:  !!

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

REVIEW: Smile (This book did make me smile--and gave me flashbacks to my braces days)

Telgemeier, R.  (2010).  Smile.  New York:  Graphix.

214 pages.

Appetizer:  Set over approximately four years (between 1988 and 1991, through the middle school years and up into the beginning of Sophomore year) in San Francisco, Smile is a memoir of Raina's tween years and her painful quest to shape her teeth into a smile that wouldn't cause her embarrassment.  It begins simply enough:  Raina is to get braces.  This plan is complicated when Raina trips while chasing a friend and lands on her face, damaging her two front teeth.  Complications ensue.

Many complications.

Aside from the issues with finally getting her smile to be the way Raina wants it to be, she's also dealing with acne, having a crush, realizing what she wants to do with her life, needing her first bra, learning that some of her friends are not so much friends as they are frienemies AND getting her ears pierced.  This book kind of reminded me of a puberty book (like Sex, Puberty and All That Stuff or What's Happening to My Body), but would be much less awkward for a young girl to receive or discuss with an adult.

At one point, Raina notes the need to talk about how tweens feel awkward about their bodies:

I feel like that is exactly what Smile does:  starts a conversation to help girls to feel a little less freakish.

This memoir felt so honest and made me reflect on my own memories of being eleven-twelve-thirteen-fourteen-ish (for better or for worse).  (For better...I focused in on the day I got my braces off in eighth grade.  My teeth felt so slimy!  Then, after I went back to school, Mike P., the boy I kinda-sorta had a crush on, was the first person to notice that my braces were gone.  Very exciting.)

I really liked the way Raina's continuing battle to get her teeth problems under control provided a unifying conflict to bring the story together.  The one aspect that weakened the text for me was the narration at the very end.  The equivalent of a voice over, on p. 206 Raina makes comments like "Instead, I threw my passion into things I enjoyed, rather than feeling sorry for myself" and "I realized that I had been letting the way I looked on the outside affect how I felt on the inside."

*Barfs a little.*

I, of course, agree that these are important messages to give to tween (and even some adult!) readers, the way the narration came in to sum-up the message felt a little too overty/teachy-preachy/didacticy for my tastes.

You had me until page 206, Raina Telgemeier.  Page 206.

Dinner Conversation:

Tasty Rating:  !!!!


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