Friday, January 28, 2011

Literary Feast Discussion: Ship Breaker (Chapters Seven to Twelve)

Well friends, the eagle-eyed among you will note that it is several days past when we planned on posting. Our illustrious leader, Shel, has been going quietly insane in the confines of her condo (ooh, alliteration!) whilst she struggles to complete her education by... May? Are you trying to finish by May, sweetie? I personally have no excuse whatsoever save for the fact that Library School is kicking my butt -- who on earth decided that statistics were necessary for doing research!?

But anyway. I digress.

On to Ship Breaker! Have you been enjoying it so far, few but dear readers? Is it everything you would hope for and more, in a Printz winner?

Shel: What do you think of Lucky Strike? Good guy or villain? Somewhere in between?

Monica: Somewhere in between, for sure. I don't think he's being painted as a villain, necessarily, but he's definitely scheme-y enough to not be good. Which, honestly, is probably more authentic. Just because you suddenly become wealthy doesn't mean you turn evil... but neither does it mean you are all philanthropic, either. He's obviously keeping what's his, and trying to add to it.

Shel: I love how Pima is so dismissive of the new new clothes on the wreckage of the ship. So practical.

Monica: But she does like the pretties, give the girl some credit.

Shel: I also think Pima's reaction to the realization that the supposed dead girl is not so dead: "That's some creepy shit," she said (p. 95). Yes, I agree. But imagine how creepy it is for the supposed dead girl, waking up to two people trying to cut off your fingers and discussing your state as a dead person.

Monica: Um, yes? Yes. The part where they were hauling on her hand and trying to just wiggle the rings off was gross enough. When they actually decided to just hack off her fingers, I felt vaguely like throwing up.....

Shel: I really like that Dead Girl/Lucky Girl/Whatever her real name will be... Nita has some real skills. She's not just some helpless damsel. I'm pretty serious now about wanting her perspective of this story. You hear that, Bacigalupi? Fan fiction writers?

Monica: YES! Fanfiction writers will carry her plot, even if the book fails miserably....

Shel: Although, all of this "blood with blood" stuff is just too unhygienic for my liking. There have got to be blood born diseases in this world. Nita TELL THEM!

Monica: I think they're more worried about how they don't have water. ;)

That's it for now, kids! Join us next time (I'm going to throw out Next Saturday as a date, and cross my fingers that we make the deadline) for a discussion of chapters thirteen through nineteen. As always, feel free to toss out your own thoughts in the comment section!

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

REVIEW: Temping Fate I Want a Job at the D.R. Temp Agency! (To be honest, I think I'd make more money there)

Friesner, E.  (2006).  Temping Fate.  New York:  Speak.

279 pages.

Appetizer:  Ilana Newhouse is desperate for a summer job.  But when she first arrive at the D.R. Temp agency, it sets off a few alarms, like, why isn't anyone else working in the building?  But it turns out the Divine Relief Temp Agency isn't a typical work place and it may be the perfect place for a teenage with such "attitude."

On her first day of work, Ilana discovers that she and the other temps actually work for the gods of myth (mostly those from Greek mythology) and Ilana has been assigned to work for The Fates, seeing the strings of human lives.  Can she handle the pressure of such an unusual job and come to terms with her perfect sister, Dyllin who was a temp before her.

At first I really enjoyed Temping Fate.  It's a very fun twist on dealing with the tensions and power issues of being the new employee at a job.  There's a lot of fun off the cuff humor and sarcasm and a touch of feminism.  All of these things should be a recipe for me to fall irreversibly in love with a book.  There's also lots of fun, realistic dialogue (as realistic as can be when characters are dialoguing about their bosses, The Fates or gods of myth).  

While I initially liked Ilana's characterization as a bit of a fantasy and sci-fi nerd and how tough and sarcastic she could be, I started to get annoyed with her about one-third of the way into the book.  She made a lot of decisions I didn't like.  The kind where you want to yell, "Don't go in there, you idiot!!!!!!"  But she would do it.  Then I would have to spend the next two chapters reading the fall-out of her less than stellar choices.  Then I started to get annoyed with the book.  What had at first had fun light joking dialogue became a time-waste.  I just wanted something to happen!  Then, about fifty pages from the end of the novel, BAM! there was a threat to the world as the characters know it.  And I was left wishing that the plot and threats had made themselves obvious just a liiiiiiiiittle sooner.

Overall, despite some moments of frustration, I did enjoy Temping Fate.  It was a fun approach to presenting myth in the modern world.  I'm not ashamed to admit that I would love to work at that temp agency.  I think I'd work harder than Ilana did.  Jut tell me where to send my resume!

Also, when I first picked up this book, I drove myself crazy trying to figure out where I knew Esther Friesner's name from.  Well, not too crazy.  But crazy enough that I did have to figure out what else she had written.  Friesner has published numerous feminist retellings of ancient myth and history in her Nobody's Princess and Sphinx series.  They've been on my to-read lists for a while.  It's good not to be crazy.

(No matter the time, one thing is clear, these rebellious ladies will give you the cold shoulder.)

And apparently she's also authored a Star Trek:  Deep Space Nine novel.  Ahahaha!  Amused!

Dinner Conversation:

"Ilana Newhouse checked the business card in her hand one more time, then looked at the gleaming office door in front of her.  The letters on the frosted-glass panel--big, black, outlined with gold--left no room for doubt.  This was the place.
Ilana glanced at her wristwatch:  10:45 A.M.  Her appointment was at eleven o'clock.  She nibbled her lower lip and sighed.  Dad said it was good to arrive early for a job interview.  It showed your prospective employer that you were a willing worker, eager to be hired, eager to please.
Willing?  Eager?  More like last-ditch, all-other-bridges-burned desperate.  So pathetically desperate to get this summer job that she wondered if maybe she should have shown up for this eleven o'clock even earlier.  Like, oh, say, nine o'clock.  Yesterday."  (pp. 3-4).

"We're not so different from you mortals, you know," Tabby [one of the fates] told Ilana.  "When you get tired on the job, you get careless and make all sorts of little mistakes."
"What's a 'little' mistake for you three?  The Black Death?" Ilana asked.  "I'm not going to pretend I understand everything that's going on here.  I don't know why three of the most powerful beings in the universe chose a flyspeck town like Porlock's Landing to set up shop, and I don't care.  All I wanted was a summer job.  I got this one, and Mrs. Atatosk gave me my pay in advance, so I promise I'm going to earn it."  (p. 42)

"Well, well, I see someone's got an attitude problem."  The spider tried to stay angry, but its scowl twisted into a smirk.  "Get you mad enough and you forget about everything else.  Attitude like that, maybe it'll help you do this job.  On the other leg, it could blow up in your face."  (p.47)

Tasty Rating:  !!!

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Yes, Yes, I know, I'm Being Crazy...Another Challenge Accepted: 2011 Bloody Jack Challenge! Arr!

So, Few But Dear Readers, I can hear your voice.  You're saying something to the effect of:

Shel, what the frak are you thinking?!  Accepting another challenge?!  Have you even started reading for the 2011 historical fiction challenge?  And what about the debut author challenge?  AND the Wish I'd Read That challenge?  And WHAT ABOUT YOUR DISSERTATION?!  You need to finish that to and get a *real* job.  

While these are all excellent points, Few But Dear Readers, I'll have you know that when you pretend-rant at me like that, you sound even worse than a mother.  (All that is missing is the "It's about time you became a productive member of society.  Your father and I can't support you forever.  We want to retire, you heartless selfish beast!" on the end of that imaginary rant.)

And, imagined or not, I will never listen to or obey the rants of pseudo-internet mothers.

And so, I stick out my tongue at you few but dear readers and would like you to know that I have accepted yet another 2011 reading challenge.

Before you judge me too harshly, know that I have chosen the pansy-a$$ed level for the challenge, better known as the *crow's nest* level in the official challenge announcement over at Bookworming in the 21st Century's site.

To meet the challenge, I will have to read one book from the Bloody Jack series by L.A. Meyer.  Yes, that's right, one book.

Powers that be, let's hope that I can manage that much.

I haven't read any of the Bloody Jack series previously.  But when I stumbled upon the announcement, I read that the series is about an orphan girl who disguises herself as a boy and signs on to work on a British sailing ship.

I could get into that.

So, with the first book, Bloody Jack:  Being an account of the curious adventures of Mary "Jacky" Faber, ship's boy already on it's way to me from Amazon Marketplace, how could I refuse?

(I couldn't!)

Friday, January 14, 2011


Delsol, W.  (2010).  Stork.  Somerville, MA:  Candlewick Press.

357 pages.

Appetizer:  Sixteen-year-old Kat is still the new girl at Norse Falls High School in Minnesota.  The fashion savvy girl moved there with her mom over the summer, after her mom's divorce and to help her grandfather with his store.  Kat is still far from excited about her new town, especially after she had a drunken make-out session with the king of school, Wade, only to discover the next day that he has a girlfriend.  She loves the thought of downtown Norse Falls being torn down to make room for a Starbucks, which angers this boy Jack, who seems to have a special dislike for Kat.

But the way Kat sees her new home could change after a strange meeting with a secret organization of older ladies.  The group of women are Storks.  They have dreams of babies who are yet to be born and must decide which potential women will raise the children.

As Kat must decide the fate of the baby girl she keeps dreaming of, she also must deal with the fact that maybe Jack doesn't hate her and maybe they have a strange childhood connection.  Do they have a future too?  That may depend, because Kat keeps finding herself in life threatening situations.

Few But Dear Readers, I heart first.  Kat's voice was wonderful.  She has a great way of describing her situations with wonderful pop culture and folklore similes and metaphors.  One of my favorites was when Kat describes the old stork ladies (my term for them) meeting as a "Knights of the Round Table meets Golden Girls Reunion" (p. 8).  She had a wonderful way of saying this, which, I'll admit, didn't always feel like they were coming from a sixteen-year-old girl, but were still incredibly funny.  Another one of my favorite comments appeared when Kat is invited to go hiking:

"It's a hiking trail about an hour north of here," Pedro answered.  "It's a little punishing, but worth the climb."
Punishing meant painful, and climb meant up, neither of which sounded good to me.  (p. 127)

Oooh, and then there's, "When things get bad, the bad go to bed."  (p. 191).  I like that.  I may have to repeat that to myself whenever I go to take naps.  Which is often.

Another aspect of the book that I absolutely loved was the tension between tradition and innovation and the choices to cling to the past or to flow with change.  Most of the characters and much of the magical dimension of the story is infused with Icelandic ancestry and Norse mythology.  Norse Falls is a small older town and a developer wants to level the downtown.  Also, there's debate about combining the high school with another town's and deciding with building to use.  I loved the way the author, Wendy Delsol, dealt with this tension and I'm currently finding a way that I can work it into my dissertation.

While the book had a lot of great lines and tensions and I'll probably pick up the sequel Frost when it come out in September, as hinted at earlier, there were some aspects I was less fond of.  About midway through the book, I started to have problems with some aspects of the plot...

*Spoilers for the middle of the book will follow!* 

When things start to go well for Jack and Kat romantically, it seemed like Kat's emotions shifted too quickly to being crazy about him.  I didn't get why she liked him so much.  Thus far, he'd refused to talk to her, except to ask her to a dance, and then was late to their first pseudo-date.  Plus, they're only happy for one day (which I actually find incredibly believable.  When I was in high school, I had a relationship that lasted one week.  So, this bit of drama rang true for me personally.)  I took issue with the pot hole in the relationship road...the wind that sent them off course...the spot where the Kat-Jack train derailed.  Wade reveals his drunken night with Kat to Jack.  I was less than excited by Jack's reaction to the news:

"What happened?" he asked, his voice tense.
I looked at my shoes.  "He took me out to the quarry.  We drank beer."  I paused, not wanting to own up to my behavior, not to Jack, anyway.  "And some hard alcohol.  There's a portion of the evening I don't remember."
Jack jumped up as if hit.  For the tiniest moment, he frightened me.  The rain was pelting us now.  I could hear it drumming over the cars and rooftops.  I saw every taut muscle in his jaw, neck, and shoulders ripple through his T-shirt, now drenched with rain.  This had to be anger.  What else would set him off like that?
"He's been accused by girls before.  Why would you put yourself in such a dangerous position?  You barely knew him."
"It was stupid.  I know," I said.  There really was no good way to defend my behavior.  I'd gone willingly with a creep like Wade.  And being duped by a bullish charm was no excuse for recklessness.  I worried Jack would think I was that kind of girl.  (p. 189)

First off, the book hadn't previously hinted that Kat had been date-raped.  She didn't seem particularly worried about that in her narration.  She just seemed more embarrassed and ashamed for not realizing Wade was a jerk sooner.  And the real problem here is that Jack is blaming her.  How exactly could Kat realize she was putting herself in danger?  Wade had been the first person to be nice to her since she'd moved to town weeks before.  While I certainly don't support the fact that Kat got drunk with a strange boy, I absolutely hate Jack's reaction.  If a guy reacts to a revelation that his girlfriend may have been raped the way he does, I totally think that guy should be dumped immediately.  Alas, that's not what happens in Stork.  Kat instead agrees that she was wrong and Jack storms off.


I do not approve.  I do not approve at all.  Aaaaaaand, what went from originally being a book I loved and was planning to give five stars, I now have to judge harshly.

Eventually, when Kat finally sees Jack again several days later, he does apologize for his reaction:

"...And I just couldn't stand the thought of him touching you, hurting you.  I lost it.  I'm sorry, but I did.  I snapped."
"I thought you were mad at me.  For lying."
He spun wildly to face me.  "Mad at you?  No.  I was mad at him, and myself, but not you."
"But you just took off.  You could have called or something."
"He placed a hand over mine and traced light circles with his thumb.  "I was in a bad place.  I needed to sort some things out.  Besides, I'm not really a phone guy."  (p. 256).

Dear Boytoy-Jack, perhaps when you learn that your new girlfriend was manipulated and possibly sexually assaulted by your former best friend and current enemy you should consider asking her how she is instead of hinting at blaming her, and then going off for several days to deal with your own issues.  And maybe, just maybe, you should have gotten over your phone issues to give her a call.

Just saying.

Dinner Conversation:

"One moment I was fine, and the next it felt like an army of fire ants was marching across my head.  Seriously.  Fire ants wearing combat boots--heavy, cleated combat boots.  I'd never experienced anything like it.  I scratched at my scalp until my hand cramped.  It didn't help.  I turned, and the mirror behind the cash register confirmed my suspicions:  along with the crazy rash creeping from under my hairline, I also had claw marks.  Any other head or hair would conceal such blemishes.  Not mine.  My towheaded, sun-fearing ancestors had seen to that" (p. 1).

"All of a sudden, something Hulda had said previously clicked.  "Did you say Storkur Society?" As in stork?" I asked.  "As in big white bird?  As in baby delivery service?"
Hulda nodded.  "Yes.  Aslendigas Storkur Society.  Icelandic Stork Society, Local 414."
"You guys are joking, right?" I said.  "This is some kind of prank.  Am I being punked by someone?" My friends in California were capable, but no way they'd go to this kind of trouble.  And I didn't have friends here in Minnesota." (p. 17).

"You will be contacted."
"By the essence awaiting birth."
"Could you be a little more specific?  Contacted how?  Phone?  Text?  FedEx?"
"The child always comes as a dream."
I rubbed my cheeks.  "I've pretty much convinced myself that you are a sickness-induced dream.  So that would be a dream within a dream."  (p. 53)

"The Asking Fire, I remembered with a jolt.  "There's something I need to tell you, Penny.  Two things, actually.  Your paper, it flew out of the fire.  You had already walked away, so I picked it up and put it back in for you."
"What?" Penny looked startled.
"There's more," I said.  "Jack asked me to the dance, and I kind of said yes.  I don't know what I was thinking."
"You fed my paper to the fire?" Penny asked.
"Well, yeah, but..."
"So, then the dire thought you asked for him."
"It was your writing."
"How would the fire know that?" Penny asked.
I couldn't believe I was having this conversation.  (pp. 122-123).

Tasty Rating:  !!!

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

REVIEW: Matilda

Dahl, R.  (1988).  Matilda.  New York:  Puffin Books.

240 pages.

Appetizer:  Ooh, sweet, sweet enjoyment and childhood memories.  I remember absolutely loooving this book when I was a second-third-fourth-no-definitely-second-or-third grade-ish age.

I remember that this book kept me up late, reading into the night and that I fell asleep with my cheek on the page.  I felt insanely jealous of Matilda because she was younger than me and a genius.  I wanted her ability to move objects with her eyes and would practice, hoping to feel the hands extend from my eyes too.

*Sigh.*  Memories....

So, having all these lovey-dovey feelings for this book made it hard to reread as an adult and look at the book critically (but was still a great experience, since I recommend my students do such an exercise if they are interested).  Now it turns out, Matilda stands up to the test of time (one of the greatest tests out there).  But it was strange, because I still found things to be critical of (like having more of a hint that magical powers were possible earlier in the story...but then, there are already many other aspects of the book that involve suspension of disbelief.  Plus, a sudden turn to fantasy is kind of Dahl's thing.)  The British vocabulary could throw some young American readers for a loop.  I don't remember having a problem with it when I was a kid.  But when I discussed the book with some of my undergrads, they said they had trouble with the language difference.

For those of you who missed this novel, five-year-old Matilda doesn't really fit in with the rest of her family.  Her father, a used-car salesman, mother, a bingo player, and brother all love to watch TV, and Matilda--who taught herself to read and do math--prefers spending her afternoons in the library, where she has already gone through all of the children's books.  When Matilda finally gets to start school, it becomes clear to her wonderful new teacher, the aptly named Miss Honey, that Matilda is special, put the Headmistress, Miss Trunchbull, won't let Matilda learn at her own level.  In fact, Miss Trunchbull is unjust toward many of the students.  As with her family, Matilda takes it upon herself to get back at those who wrong her and the people she cares about.

Part of what makes Matilda so fun is how horrible the villains of the book are to her.  They're so vile toward the seemingly-powerless children, that as young readers (or child-like adults, in my particular case) you immediately empathize with Matilda.  I had the same reaction to the Dursleys in the first Harry Potter book.  These young protagonists' families are just so mean to them that as a reader I feel so super frustrated by their situations that I'm completely drawn into the story.  And so, it's that much more satisfying when the kids gain the upper-hand and take back power from the horrible, evil, vile adults.

I assigned Matilda as the first reading assignment to my undergrads.  While I usually go more old school with Grimm tales and Aesop's fables, I thought Matilda opens up the discussion on literacy, love of reading, perception of teachers, feeling powerless, gender in children's literature, etc.  My students seemed to like the story (aside from the pesky British spellings).  When I turned the discussion to the way gender was presented, they acknowledged that the way femininity was presented wasn't exactly ideal.  And while the guys in the class admitted to liking the story, they also admitted that if they were still in grade school, there would have been no way they would have picked up the edition of the book with the pink cover.  No way.

Dinner Conversation:

"It's a funny thing about mothers and fathers.  Even when their own child is the most disgusting little blister you could ever imagine, they still think that he or she is wonderful.
Some parents go further.  They become so blinded by adoration they manage to convince themselves their child has qualities of genius.
Well, there is nothing very wrong with all this.  It's the way of the world.  It is only when parents begin telling us about the brilliance of their own revolting offspring, that we start shouting, "Bring us a basin!  We're going to be sick!" (p. 7).

"It was pleasant to take a hot drink up to her room and have it beside her as she sat in her silent room reading in the empty house in the afternoons.  The books transported her into new worlds and introduced her to amazing people who lived exciting lives.  She went on olden-day sailing ships with Joseph Conrad.  She went to Africa with Ernest Hemingway and to India and Rudyard Kipling.  She travelled all over the world while sitting in her little room in an English village."  (p. 21)

"She resented being told constantly that she was ignorant and stupid when she knew she wasn't.  The anger inside her went on boiling and boiling, and as she lay in bed that night she made a decision.  She decided that every time her father or her mother was beastly to her, she would get her own back in some way or another.  A small victory or two would help her to tolerate their idiocies and would stop her from going crazy.  You might remember that she was still hardly five years old and it is not easy for somebody as small as that to score points against an all-powerful grown-up.  Even so, she was determined to have a go.  Her father, after what had happened in front of the telly that evening, was first on her list."  (p. 29).

"The village school for younger children was a bleak brick building called Crunchem Hall Primary School.  It had about two hundred and fifty pupils aged from five to just under twelve years old.  The head teacher, the boss, the supreme commander of this establishment was a formidable middle-aged lady whose name was Miss Trunchbull.
Naturally Matilda was put in the bottom class, where there were eighteen other small boys and girls about the same age as her.  Their teacher was called Miss Honey, and she could not have been more than twenty-three or twenty-four."  (p. 66).

Tasty Rating:  !!!!!

Monday, January 10, 2011

Literary Feast Discussion: Ship Breaker (Chapters One through Six)

Okay, so instead of getting this posted on ThursFriday, it's officially going up on Monday.  A time that is solidly and squarely three days late....

But that's okay!!!!!!  Because Ship Breaker just won the American Library Association's Printz Award, which is for young adult literature.  YAAAAAAY!  So this timing works out, right?  Right.

Comments on the first six chapters are below.  We'd love to hear your thoughts as well!

Monica: Oooh. The book may disappoint us, but I'm LOVING the opening! I feel all gritty and disgusting and cramped, just like poor Nailer. Brava for the imagery, author!

 Shel: It's official, I could never be a scavenger like Nailer. I wouldn't say I'm *actually* claustrophobic, but once as a kid I climbed under a huge, low deck in a park for some secret club meeting. I had to wiggle my way out, my back against the deck, my front scratched by wood chips. That day I learned that small spaces are not fun. I was a bit of a slow seven-year-old.

 Shel:  I like all of the religious elements.  I'm curious to see where they lead.
Monica: I'm wondering how far in the future this takes place. Has that been established yet? It would be interesting to see what "old" versions of religions remain in the new... and now long it apparently took to shift over. ;)

Shel:  Poor Jackson Boy...even if he was a little licebiter, that's a bad way to go.  (See above comment and the fact that this book is reminding me of my possible claustrophobia.)  
Monica: Best. Ghost story. Ever. Seriously, can you even imagine? "Hear that thumping, tiny child? That's the ghost of JACKSON BOY! He haunts these bulkheads...."

 Shel:  So far, all of the detailed descriptions and analogies are impressing me.  But I have to say what *truly* drew me in was the ending of chapter two.  Yikes!  You?
Monica: Like I mentioned above, I was sold from the opening. He writes like we're actually there... and since I would never, ever ever ever want to BE there, I'm finding it fascinating to read from the warm, clean safety of my living room couch, with a nice glass of clean water next to me.

Shel:  I like all this talk of luck and fate on page 41.  I'm with Pima's mom.  The fates have big plans for Nailer.  BIG PLANS, I say!  (And I don't feel that way just because I read the jacket flap.)
Monica: I hope so -- I don't know if I could take an entire book of Nailer: Copper Scavenger. Or, honestly, Nailer: Abused Child with Terrible, Terrible Father.

 Shel:  With hurricanes and oil spills, this dystopia feels much more immediate than a lot of the other ones out there.
Monica: Yes! Which is both awesome and teeeeeeeeerrible. I usually only like dystopian fiction when it seems far enough away that I don't need to worry about it.

Shel:  And now the book was just announced as winning the 2011 Printz!!!!!  Victory to Paolo Bagi...Bacigad...Bacigalupi!!!!!!!  YAY!

So, now that you know what Monica and I thought of the beginning, we'd love to hear your thoughts.  And stay tuned, will be back on Fri-Saturday with comments on chapters 7 through 12.  Of course, by Fri-Saturday, I could possibly mean next Tuesday.  We'll have to see.

REVIEW: My Life as a Book

Tashjian, J.  (2010)  My Life as a Book.  New York:  Christy Ottaviano Books.

211 pages.

Appetizer:  Derek's mom, dad and teacher are always trying to force him to read and to make vocabulary lists (although, he prefers to create images using stick-figures to represent the words.  These decorate the margins of My Life as a Book.)  He is less than excited about this.  He's okay with reading, he just likes to read comic books and collections of Calvin and Hobbes (Sidenote--the book is dedicated to Calvin and Hobbes author Bill Watterson, how nice of a touch is that?).  Why won't adults just understand that?

When Derek discovers an old newspaper article about the death of a teenage girl on Martha's Vineyard in the attic, he can't help but be curious as to why his parents have kept it.  Especially after his mom refuses to talk about it.  All Derek wants to do is have an adventure over the summer, but his best friend, Matt, is set to go to Martha's Vineyard to solve the mystery without him.  His mom won't stop bugging Derek about reading his assigned books and she even enrolls him for an educational day camp.  How can he have an adventure now?

There's a lot of heart to this story, especially as Derek struggles with the way that he is connected to the dead teenage girl.  Plus, when he's stuck at an educational day camp with his class know-it-all, Carly, he is forced to get to know her better and discovers that they just might have interests in common and that his parents just might have some good reasons for wanting Derek to excel at school.

My Life as a Book is the kind of middle grade novel that teachers absolutely love.  It speaks to the experience of being a reluctant reader and uses a lot of humor.  As Derek learns to appreciate literature, he's guided by various people through the process of visualizing stories, engaging with the characters emotionally and predicting what will happen.  *Does a dance*  Yay for a book helping to teach kids how to engage with a story!!!!!!!

I'm so excited about the literacy dimensions of this book that, even though I talked about visualization with my undergraduates last week, I created a new class discussion so I could bring up the book with them later today.

The doodles in the margins, (done by the author's own teenage son, I believe), will appeal to kids who love to draw and kids who had previously taken a chance on reading for enjoyment and gotten hooked on The Diary of a Wimpy Kid series.

I'd previously read Tashjian's young adult novel, The Gospel According to Larry and actually found myself enjoying this book a bit more.  I think it was my teacher perspective that made the difference.

The one aspect of the story that had me going, "hmm," was the fact that Derek is twelve-years-old.  He feels much younger, like nine years old, perhaps.  Making Greg behave that young actually makes a lot of sense though.  Since many reluctant readers will probably refuse to read about characters who are younger than them, by aging Derek to be twelve it means a wider range of kids can try to pick up the book.  Plus, even with the pictures of vocabulary words, there is some advanced vocabulary, even with some of the words that aren't defined with pictures.

There's also a nice touch about companion animals who help people with physical disabilities, and training and fostering them.  Derek's mom is a vet, so he gets to meet a companion monkey.  And in his words,  "I now have a new and exciting mission:  talking my mother into letting us raise a monkey" (p. 138).

Dinner Conversation:

Page 1, My Life as a Book

"The teacher places the reading list squarely in front of me.  "I'm afraid you'll have to try and fit in three of these books during all that fun."
I like Ms. Williams, but I wouldn't complain if she was kidnapped by crazed bank robbers in need of a getaway car.
The reading list--unfortunately--isn't going away either.  I stare at it and wonder what I've gotten myself into.  One of the books is about a kid and his dog over summer vacation and all the exciting things they do together and the lessons the boy learns.
I have a dog and--trust me--that stuff only happens in books."  (pp. 8-9)

"I still would rather be home, but I suppose there are worse things than doing sports all summer.  I tell her I'll look through some camp Web sites and find a good one tonight.
She shakes her head.
"Skateboard camp?" I ask.
"Not this time."
"Rock climbing camp?"
"Karate camp?"
"No again."
I suddenly fear for my life.
"You have too much time on your hands," she says.  "You're going to Learning Camp." (p. 63)

Page 83, My Life as a Book

Tasty Rating:  !!!!!

Friday, January 7, 2011

REVIEW: Eight Days of Luke

Jones, D.W.  (1975).  Eight Days of Luke.  New York:  Greenwillow Books.

226 pages.

Appetizer:  David Allard is on break from school and instead of being sent of on an educational tour, his relatives have forgotten he was supposed to come home and so he is stuck with them and their criticisms of him.

At first it seems like it will be a complete torture, but after chanting a random mix of words, a strange boy named Luke appears.  Luke claims that David released him from his prison and is indebted to him.  David just thinks Luke is one of the kids from the neighborhood, but when it becomes clear that Luke has a magical talent with fire and strangers appear looking for Luke, another each day.  David makes a deal with one of the strange men to try to keep Luke out of his prison for good, if only David can prevent the strangers from finding Luke for one week.

Although the actual story is subtle and readers who aren't already familiar with Norse mythology may not even notice that all of the strangers who visit David trying to find Luke are gods from Norse myth (and Luke himself is also one of the gods).  It becomes a little more obvious by the end, but I feel like this is one of those books where a teacher has to explain some of the details to get the broader significance.  Otherwise it's just this boy who helps this other boy.  And there are weird adults.  Unhappy relatives.  Unexplained magic.  People unsurprised by unexplained magic.  And lots of talk about cricket.

I've met dozens of readers who are in love with Diana Wynne Jones's books.  Literally.  They want to marry her despite the age difference.  But I have to say, when I had read some of her young adult books in the past, I had trouble getting into them.  Her characters just don't draw me in.  I had less trouble with this as I read Eight Days of Luke.  I think I had an easier time because this is more of a middle grade book and because, after Luke was introduced, it was a pretty fast-paced read.

I still felt the book lacked tension though.  It's one of those older fantasy novels in which a character only has a limited time to, say, save the world, perhaps.  And instead of immediately running off to save said world, the protagonist has tea.  Or runs off to play cricket.  And I'm left wondering if this is proper day-saving behavior.

Because if I were ever tasked with saving the world, I'd make sure that that bit of work would be my number one priority.  I'd be on top of it.  Probably, I'd even make a check list on a sticky note to make sure I didn't forget any of the world-saving steps.  You hear that, fates/hero-audition-panel?  I would devote all my efforts to saving the world.  No tea or cricket for me.  Just full-time world saving effort.  Now, I wouldn't say the world is actually at stake in Eight Days of Luke, but David also delayed his efforts to save Luke because he feared he'd be inconveniencing his aunt who would have to give him a ride.  Or something.

*Yawn*  How un-tense is that situation?  It's like getting a myth-y brain massage that, at the end of the massage session, you can't help but wonder of you were cheated because you fell asleep and couldn't properly keep track of the time the massage took.  But on the plus side, you're tension free.

Who else could use a massage right now?

ALSO, also, whenever I read the title of this book in my head, I inevitably wound up with the song Eight Days a Week by the Beatles stuck in my head.  That woke me up a little.  Then I had to sing the song out-loud as I wandered around my place.  My cats did not appreciate the noise.  My neighbors probably didn't either.

Who can't carry a tune?  This girl.

Eeeeeeight DAAAAys a WeeeeEEEEEEK!  I LoooOOOOOOoooOOOOoooove You!

Dinner Conversation:

"Unlike most boys, David dreaded the holidays.  His parents were dead and he lived with his Great-Aunt Dot, Great-Uncle Bernard, their son Cousin Ronald and Cousin Ronald's wife Astrid; and all these four people insisted that he should be grateful for the way they looked after him.
David tried to be grateful.  They sent him to a boarding school which, as schools go, was not bad.  Most holidays they arranged for him to go on an Educational Tour or to a Holiday Camp, and these were usually interesting enough to make up for David's not knowing any of the other boys who went to them. He did feel grateful when Cousin Ronald pointed out that he had opportunities which few other boys were given.  But when he was at home in Ashbury and not on a Tour or at Camp, he found it much harder to be grateful.  And the older he grew, the harder he found it." (p. 1)

"At last he found the best combination of all.  He could really almost believe it was words, fierce, terrible words.  They asked to be said.  And they asked to be said, too, in an important, impressive way, loudly, from somewhere high up.  David climbed to the top of the compost heap, crushing baby marrows underfoot, and, leaning on the handle of the spade, he stretched the other hand skyward and recited his words.  Afterward, he never remembered what they were.  He knew they were magnificent, but he forgot them as soon as he said them.  And when he had spoken them, for good measure, he picked up a handful of compost and bowled it at the wall.
As soon as he did that, the wall started to fall down." (pp. 28-29).

"I'm truly grateful to you.  You let me out of a really horrible prison."  He smiled happily and pointed with one slightly blistered finger to the ground under the wall.
This was too much for David, who, after all, had been there to see that nothing but flames and snakes had come from the ground.  "Pull the other leg," he said.
Luke looked at him with one eyebrow up and a mischievous, calculating look on his filthy face.  He seemed to be deciding just how much nonsense David could be brought to swallow.  Then he laughed.  "Have it your own way," he said.  "But I am grateful, and I'll do anything I can in return."  (p. 37).

"...You have to say that if I can keep Luke safe till the end of the holidays, then you'll stop looking for him and won't punish him or hurt him if you find him after that."
"Agreed," said Mr. Wedding.  "But let's not make it so long.  Let's say that if you can keep Luke safe until next Sunday, then he's safe for good.  All right?"
This shook David a little.  Mr. Wedding must be very sure of winning to set such a short limit.  But he felt he had agreed to too much already to refuse a detail like that.  "All right," he said." (pp. 114-115)

Tasty Rating:  !!!

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

REVIEW: Guardian of the Dead by @kehealey This is my kind of Paranormal (sorta) Romance! (Meaning Ellie kicks bum-bum!) P.S. Ellie is the narrator, just in case you were wondering, "Who's Ellie?"

Healey, K.  (2010).  Guardian of the Dead.  New York:  Little, Brown and Company.

333 pages.

Appetizer:  Seventeen-year-old Ellie Spencer is the new girl at the Mansfield College boarding school in Christchruch on the South Island of New Zealand.  She's only managed to make one friend so far, and that's Kevin, who has just recruited her to help out with some university students' production of A Midsummer Night's Dream, choreographing the fights.  Ellie is a little wary to go outside after dark to make the practices though, since the Eyeslasher killer is murdering people and stealing their eyes and since the cute loner boy, Mark Nolan, cautioned her against it.  Although, Ellie can't quite remember what he said to her....

She's been having several strange encounters lately.  There was that moment when she saw the new actress from the play outside in the fog and it looked like she didn't have any pupils or irises in her eyes at all.  And she seems to have set her eye-less sights on Kevin.  Ellie is going to have to unravel the mystery of who this woman is and what Ellie herself is.

Guardian of the Dead is on the shortlist for the ALA Morris Award (which specifically goes to debut authors).  I can totally see why it is a finalist.  Healey does an excellent job at writing slightly-humorous and pithy language.  Ellie is not only a believable character, but she's also wonderfully strong and empowered, especially when compared to some of the other leading ladies in a lot of the paranormal romances.  (Twilight and Hush, Hush, I am looking in your directions!  It was actually very interesting reading this so soon after finishing Hush, Hush because in both books a male love interest screws with the minds, in Nora's case from Hush, Hush, causing her to see things that then disappear and in Ellie's case to forget her encounters with magic.  But where Nora just starts to seem vaguely crazy and never really calls out her stalker/fella on his disturbing mental powers except to ask which events were real or power induced hallucinations, Ellie kicks Mark's bum-bum for his behavior while interrogating him.  Literally.  Well almost literally, her hits actually land on his head (which is where she was aiming, because she is a black belt in Tae Kwon Do).  YAY!  EMPOWERED ASS-KICKING WOMAN!!!!!!!!!  I loooove yoooouu and I'm not afraid to admit it publicly.  Obviously.

And then! when Ellie later realizes that Mark isn't just a boy she has a crush on, she narrates:

"He looked at me, calm and beautiful in his borrowed clothes, and I saw again the bravery that had first made me love him.
The thought hit me like a hammer between the eyes.  I could not love Mark.  The idea was impossible, even if there wasn't a hidden ware and a horrible disaster fast approaching.  A harmless crush on a handsome loner classmate was one thing; hopeless yearning after someone who'd enchanted and lied to me [was] something entirely different, and much more dangerous."  (p. 209)
So, there is still a wee-bit of stalking and angsty imbalance of power within the couple initially, but at least Ellie is critical of herself, of Mark and of a potential relationship with him.  I feel like Guardian of the Dead is really speaking back to some of the paranormal romances out there.  And that, of course, made me very happy.

Of course, there's a lot more to this book than it's kind-of romance.  New Zealand is also in danger because some mythic creatures have a massive scheme to restore their immortality.  The fact that it could cost millions of humans their lives doesn't bother them.  So, it falls to Mark and Ellie to try to stop them.

Ellie was also great because she honestly presents the way she sees her body in comparison to other girls around her.  When she initially describes herself, she says she is tall and due to the "stodgy vegetarian option," she's "gone up two sizes to something that...approached outright fat, without even the consolation of finally developing a decent rack (p. 5)."  She compares her appearance to the girls around her, feeling like they outshine her, but somehow manages to be very...un-annoying about it.  Just realistic.  Plus, when guys do show romantic interest in her, she doesn't doubt their intentions.  She seems to see both the good and bad aspects of being the size that she is.

Despite the fact that my knowledge of New Zealand is limited to sheep, Peter Jackson movies and (more specifically) Lord of the Rings nerdiness, Healey did a great job of welcoming me in as an international reader to the world she was creating (although once or twice I did feel the compulsion to look up a plant name or two to try to picture them).  I especially liked that when she included aspects of the Maori culture and faith that she assumed the reader would know nothing (I know I knew almost nothing...except for some brief images of poi dancing from a TV show or two.  Ooh, and there's the one dance before the final game in the movie Invictus.  Was that an actual dance?  I am naive of these things. If somebody would like to write more books or pay for my trip to New Zealand than I would be happy to learn much more.  I would want a knowledgeable tour guide who can bring history to life with just his or her words.  Takers?)

Focus, brain.  Focus!

Guardian of the Dead proved to be a great, sinister, supernatural mystery that had a lot of great mythological elements.  And I'm not going to lie, I officially fell in love with the book when I hit page 87, when religious beliefs were explored and book officially made it into a section of my dissertation, by presenting Ellie's uncertainty over her own beliefs, which I thought was a more realistic approach to exploring myth and religion than any of the other books I've read for my dissertation have presented.

Dinner Conversation:

"I opened my eyes.
My legs were bound and my head ached.  There was one dark moment of disorientation before the bad-dream fog abruptly lifted and I woke up all the way and rolled to smack the shrilling alarm.  I was exactly where I was supposed to be:  in my tiny room, lumpy pillow over my head and thick maroon comforter wrapped around my legs.  I disentangled myself and kicked the comforter away.  The muffled tinkling as it slithered off the foot of the bed reminded me that Kevin and I had stored the empty beer cans there.
Well, that explained the headache" (pp. 1-2).

"Hey, did you hear there's been another Eyeslasher murder?"
I grimaced.  "Samia said in Geo.  A phone psychic in Tauranga.  God, I hope they catch the bastard soon."
"Me too.  Murder's bad enough, but taking their eyes is sick."
"I think the murder probably matters more."
"Sure, but eyes are tapu, Ellie."
I blinked at him.  Kevin's parents, on the two occasions I'd met them for uncomfortable dinners, had been as stiffly Anglo-Saxon as posh New Zealanders came, but Kevin's light brown skin wasn't the result of a good tan.  I knew that his great-grandmother had been Ngai Tahu, and that he was one of the leading lights of Mansfield's kapu haka performance group, but I hadn't realized his desire to learn more about his roots had meant this much investment in Maori beliefs about the sacred" (pp. 12-13).

"Mark had done something to me, and I couldn't come up with a logical explanation.  So I went with the illogical one.
Magic was real." (p. 91).

"In less than a day, I had been harassed, enchanted, shouted at, cried on, and clawed.  I'd been cold, scared, dirty, exhausted, hungry and miserable.  And up until now, I'd been mildly impressed with my ability to cope" (p. 178).

Tasty Rating:  !!!!!

Sunday, January 2, 2011

REVIEW: I Am Not a Serial Killer by @johncleaver (and hopefully none of us will become one)

Wells, D.  (2010).  I Am Not a Serial Killer.  New York:  Tor.

271 pages.

Appetizer:  John Wayne Cleaver is one of the weird kids at Clayton High School.  A freshman, he's been working at his mom and aunt's mortuary since he was little.  He's obsess--fascinated--with serial killers.  He has weekly sessions with a therapist and he only has one friend at school, a boy named Max, who John doesn't actually like that much, but uses to help him blend in.  He also has rules, things he does or avoids so he won't become a serial killer.  Of course, his mom doesn't appreciate any of his efforts.

But when there is a brutal murder in town, and then another one, John begins to suspect that there is a serial killer in his own town.  He can't help but be drawn into the figure out who the killer, the monster is, even if it means breaking some of his rules.

Few But Dear Readers, if you want a creepy creeeeeeeeepy book, this is the one for you.


John is...John is..., well, John is creepy.  But he struggles against his dark nature, so he is al endearing and as a care about him...while also being creeped-out by him.

Is it just me, or is the corpse finger way
to close to his nostril for comfort?
Yes?  No?  Am I alone in this?
I have no doubt that Dan Wells has heard/read this before and I also have doubt that he is sick of hearing/reading it, but as a character, John is a lot like a young Dexter from the Showtime series.  But instead of trying to just control his dark passenger and follow a code to kill other killers the way Dexter does, John tries to resist his darkness entirely by establishing rules to prevent himself from ever killing.

The one issue I encountered as I read that I wasn't to crazy about it came on page 52.  It's a spoiler for the content up to that point.  So, stop reading if you don't want a spoiler!  (Although I've also read blogs that presented the following information as though it wasn't even a spoiler.  So, don't feel too spoiled.  Also, keep in mind this book begins on page 13.  So, I'm really only spoiling you for 39 pages.)

Enough rambling, here's the actual spoiler:

So, by page 52, the body of the first serial killer victim has been sent to the family mortuary and John has volunteered to help embalm the body.  As he looks over the torn and autopsied remains, he narrates:

"...I studied the slashes in the body's abdomen.  They were certainly animalistic, and one area on its left side had what looked like a claw mark--four ragged slits, about an inch apart, that extended nearly a foot toward the belly.  This was the work of the demon, of course, though we still didn't know that at the time.  How could we?  Back then, none of us even suspected that demons were real.  I placed my own hand over the marks and guessed that whoever made them had a hand much bigger than mine" (p. 52)

I really didn't like this interruption from future-John to introduce the fantasy (or magical realism to some!) element.  (And who is "we" exactly?  John and his family?  John and lil ol' me?)  There are only a few interruptions like that throughout the book, and while I normally LOVE pseudo-memoirs, it just wasn't working for me in this book.  I prefer subtle hints that there's a fantasy element.  (And that actually happens just a few pages later, when Max suggests that a werewolf is doing the killing.  And even though John dismisses that idea, as readers we still now have that fantasy element in our minds.  So, I would have preferred just to have subtle hints like that one instead of the memoir interruptus.

I'll admit, when I first started reading I Am Not a Serial Killer, I was a little too creeped out by John's voice.  I had to tell myself not to read it before bed, for fear of odd dreams.  But as I eased into the book, I became more comfortable as John outlined more of who he was and as the plot took over.  Then I didn't want to stop reading.

There were a lot of great lines (like "Outside, a November snowstorm raged, but inside we warmed ourselves by the fire of a media frenzy" (p. 82).) and wonderful metaphors insights into John's unique (and dark!) perspective on life.  At one point, while he's outside by a lake in winter, he narrates:

Exposure to nature--cold, heat, water--is the most dehumanizing way to die.  Violence is passionate and real--the final moments as you struggle for your life, firing a guy or wrestling a mugger or screaming for help, your heart pumps loudly and your body tingles and energy; you are alert and awake and, for that brief moment, more alive and human then you've ever been before.  Not so with nature.
At the mercy of the elements the opposite happens:  your body slows, your thoughts grow sluggish, and you realize just how mechanical you really are.  Your body is a machine, full of tubes and valves and motors, of electrical signals and hydraulic pumps, and they function properly only within a certain range of conditions.  As temperatures drop, your machine breaks down.  Cells begin to freeze and shatter; muscles use more energy to do less; blood flows too slowly, and to the wrong places.  Your senses fade, your core temperature plummets, and your brain fires random signals that your body is too weak to interpret or follow.  In that state you are no longer a human being, you are a malfunction--an engine without oil, grinding itself to pieces in its last futile effort to complete its last meaningless task." (p. 99)

If you're not too squeamish, I definitely recommend this book.

Also, Dan Wells is one of the regular contributors to Writing Excuses.  I talked about the writing podcast previously when I reviewed Alcatraz Versus the Shattered Lens by Brandon Sanderson.  An MFA program that only costs you 20 minutes a week friend.  (That and you'll have to work on your craft.)

The start of a trilogy, the second book, Mr. Monster is already out.  Guess who will be picking it up soon?  (But not too soon, I need to forget some of what I Am Not a Serial Killer taught me about embalming first.  It's for my own good.)

Dinner Conversation:

"Mrs. Anderson was dead.
Nothing flashy, just old age--she went to bed one night and never woke up.  They say it was a peaceful, dignified way to die, which I suppose is technically true, but the three days it took for someone to realize they hadn't seen her in a while removed most of the dignity from the situation" (p. 13).

"'I think,' I said, watching his face for a reaction, "that fate wants me to become a serial killer."
He raised an eyebrow, nothing more.  I told you he was calm.
"Well," he said, "you're obviously fascinated by them--you've read more on the subject than probably anyone in town, including me.  Do you want to become a serial killer?"
"Of course not," I said.  "I specifically want to avoid becoming a serial killer.  I just don't know how much chance I have" (p. 31).

"This year, you'd have thought that Halloween would be pretty cool--after all, we had a real demon in town, with fangs and claws and everything.  That ought to count for something.  But none of us knew about it yet, and it had only killed two people so far, so instead of cowering in our basements praying for salvation, we ended up in the high school gym pretending to enjoy a Halloween dance.  I'm actually not sure which is worse" (p. 74).

"The monster behind the wall stirred.  I'd come to think of it as a monster, but it was just me.  Or the darker part of me, at least.  You probably think it would be creepy to have a real monster hiding inside of you, but trust me--it's far, far worse when the monster is really just your own mind.  Calling it a monster seemed to distance it a little, which made me feel better about it.  Not much better, but I take what I can get" (p. 88).

Tasty Rating:  !!!!!

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Literary Feast Invite: Ship Breaker by Paolo Baca...Bacigad...Bacigalupi (One thing is certain: If I had to memorize the spelling of his last name to pass Kindergarten, I'd still be *in* Kindergarten.)

Having felt like we've encountered a few books that we were less than enthused about during our literary feasts in the past, Monica and I have decided to try and play it a little safe for our first literature circle book of 2011.

We've decided to read and discuss the National Book Award Finalist, Ship Breaker.  Our reasons for choosing the book are varied:

1.  We've heard good things about it.
2.  I saw Paolo speak about the book a few months ago and made immediate plans to sit down and read the book.
3.  I read Paolo's portion of The Dark Side of Young Adult Fiction Debate for The New York Times (but let's be honest NYT, a "debate" usually involves more...back and forth...arguments, you know, a debate.) and remembered my no-longer-not-quite-exactly "immediate" plans to read Ship Breaker.
3.  Sometimes being terrified that the world is going to end in a dystopian oily mess may give us the motivation to be planet savers instead of planet haters or planet lazy-ers.
4.  The cover is pretty.  (Sure it's supposed to be the graffitied hull of a rusted, oil tanker-detritus, but the designer managed to add a bit of sparkle to it:


This cautionary dystopia is set in the Gulf Coast, where Nailer scavenges among the oil tankers for copper wiring.  When he "discovers an exquisite clipper ship beached during a recent hurricane, Nailer faces the most important decision of his life:  Strip the ship for all it's worth or rescue its lone survivor, a beautiful and wealthy girl who could lead him to a better life...."

Our first literary feast/literature circle discussion will occur on...*draws a random date out of the air like a fake-psychic* on  So, check back at some point around ThursFriday, and I'm sure Monica and my thoughts about the first six chapters of Ship Breaker will be posted.  Be ready to share your own thoughts in the comments section.  Cool beans?


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