Tuesday, February 21, 2012

REVIEW: Where Things Come Back

Whaley, J.C.  (2011).  Where Things Come Back.  New York:  Atheneum Books for Young Readers.

228 pages.

Appetizer:  My first thought when first hearing of this book:  "Why isn't it called Where Things Return?  Why?!"  Why use two words when you could use one?

My first thought after hearing that this book won both the 2012 Morris Award for debut authors and the Printz Award for young adult literature:  "I must read this NOW.  Wordy titles work!"

My first thought after learning that the author, John Corey Whaley, is a Louisiana teacher:  "Yay!  I can't wait to show my students."

My first thought after reading the book:  "Meh.  Alas, alack, oh dear.  I wanted to enjoy it more."

Where Things Come Back is the story of seventeen-year-old Cullen Witter, whose cousin recently died and who has a crush on the tragic Ada Taylor (her previous boyfriends have a tendency to die....).  Cullen's brother has gone missing.  There's no evidence or reason for Gabriel's disappearance and the grief is hurting every member of Cullen's family.  On top of that, Cullen is stuck in Lily, Arkansas just like all of his other friends, and knows he will never leave until he knows what has happened to his brother.  As Cullen searches for a way to bring Gabriel back, the town of Lily searches for the elusive Lazarus Woodpecker which has been seen for the first time in sixty years.

Every-other-chapter is devoted to sharing the story of Benton Sage, a missionary who works in Ethiopia and then his roommate after Benton returned to the U.S. to attend college.  These seemingly unrelated stories eventually come together in striking ways.  (Although, these chapters never really won me over.  I found the narration to be too telling.)

Throughout the novel, there are paragraphs which begin "When one..." to describe the way Cullen reacts to things.  At first I found this subject change from the first person to be very off-putting, but I have to admit, it grew on me.  I also liked the way that Cullen invented book title names throughout the narrative.  It reminded me a lot of the novel King Dork and the attention its protagonist paid to creating band names and album covers.

Nonetheless, Where Things Come Back never really captured my imagination or interest.  I never desired to pick it up and read it.  However, when I did bring myself to read the book, it was the type of narrative where it was easy to just keep reading.  (To get through as opposed to enjoy)  I can appreciate and respect what Whaley has written.  He pushes away from the way many YA narratives are told.  But I never really connected with Cullen, his friends or the story.

Dinner Conversation:

"I was seventeen years old when I saw my first dead body.  It wasn't my cousin Olso's.  It was a woman who looked to have been around fifty or at least in her late forties.  She didn't have any visible bullet holes or scratches, cuts, or bruises, so I assumed that she had just died of some disease or something; her body barely hidden by the thin white sheet as it awaited its placement in the lockers.  The second dead body I ever saw was my cousin Oslo's.  I recognized his dirty brown shoes immediately as the woman wearing the bright white coat grasped the metallic handle and yanked hard to slide the body out from the silvery wall."  (p. 1)

"Being seventeen and bored in a small town, I like to pretend sometimes that I'm a pessimist.  This is the way it is and nothing can sway me from that.  Life sucks most of the time.  Everything is bullshit.  High school sucks.  You go to school, work for fifty years, then you die.  Only I can't seem to keep that up for too long before my natural urge to idealize goes into effect.  I can't seem to be a pessimist long enough to overlook the possibility of things being overwhelmingly good."  (p. 5)

"You see, Ada Taylor had a grim history.  As a sophomore in high school, when I was just a freshman, Ada was dating this ass-hat by the name of Conner Bolton.  Conner was a senior and made it his personal mission to make every freshman in the school terrified to be caught walking alone or near the bathrooms, lockers, or trash cans.  But alas, he died before Christmas break in a car accident.  Ada was the only other passenger.  She walked away without a scratch.  Then, the next year, Ada was dating this okay guy who I used to play G.I. Joes with on the floor of my mom's hair salon.  His name was Aaron Lancaster.  He didn't even make it to Thanksgiving before he up and drowned int he White River during a thunderstorm.  His dad found his empty fishing boat.  A search party found his body four days later.  I heard it looked like he had been microwaved.
After that, it almost seemed like a ridiculous thing to date Ada Taylor, or even go near her.  But that didn't matter much to the young men of Lily, even me.  The unspoken philosophy of all those in love with Ada was something like this:  If I have to die to get that, then death it is."  (pp. 6-7)

"When Benton Sage found out that he would be going on a mission for his church that year, he was overwhelmed with excitement and panic.  His stomach felt a sort of queasy rumble as he stood with his sisters and Reverend Hughes, and watched as the entire church circled around them, clasped hands, and began to pray.  Ethiopia, he thought, would be the first place he could truly exert his faith.  It was his fear of travel, of leaving his comfortable life in Atlanta, of floating mysteriously thirty thousand feet in the air, that made eighteen-year-old Benton feel as if he would collapse onto the church's soft, green carpet as he heard the choir begin to chant amens and hallelujahs behind him."  (p. 16)

"'Did you hear about that bird?' Lucas asked me, still staring toward the house.
Lucas was one of the smartest and strangest people I knew, and so I wasn't very surprised by his choice of topic.
"What bird?" I asked.
"There's this woodpecker that's been extinct for, like, sixty hears.  Only, this guy from Oregon or something was down here and he thinks he saw one."
"In Lily?"
"Right outside of town.  I think he was canoeing down the river and saw it fly by or something.
"Weird."  (pp. 29-30)

"It was one of those moments when you're waiting on someone to say something important or funny or just do anything to break you away from the sad thoughts that overwhelm your mind.  Thoughts like never having enough money to move away or not getting into college.  Thoughts like having to come back to take care of a sick parent and getting stuck here all over again.  That's what happened in Lily.  People dreamed.  People left.  And they all came back.  It was like Arkansas's version of a black hole; nothing could escape it." (p. 35)

"It was three hours later and after calling everyone we knew and driving around town twice that we decided to call the police.  It was a Thursday when my brother, the Left Hand of God, disappeared.  It was on this same Thursday that John Barling appeared on national television to talk about the Lazarus woodpecker and how it had come back from the dead." (p. 55)

"Here's the problem with a fifteen-year-old boy going missing:  No one thinks he has been taken.  Especially Gabriel, who looked to be my age.  Everyone in town, though they didn't say it, was thinking the same thing:  Gabriel Witter has finally run away from his family.  That, or he went hiking through the woods and either got lost or got eaten by a bear.  Here's what I knew:  My brother was taken from me.  He did not run away, because he wouldn't.  He couldn't.  He would never.  And he'd never gotten lost in his life."  (pp. 58-59)

Tasty Rating:  !!

Friday, February 17, 2012

The 2011 Cybiles Award: My perspective on Frost

Appetizer:  The last of the Cybils realistic young adult novels that I'll be featuring is Frost.  The novel is the story of

Opening Line:  "Before I lived there, before any of this happened, I imagined Frost House as a sanctuary.  It crouches on the northern edge of Barcroft Academy in a tangle of lilac and evergreen bushes, shadowed by oaks and sugar maples.  Hidden enough that I didn't even know it existed until junior year, when I chased a field hockey ball through the underbrush into its backyard.  I assumed the white-clapboard cottage was a faculty member's house.  Most Barcroft dorms are three-story brick buildings' this was a weathered old Victorian, small and squat, with a wraparound porch and a mansard roof hugging the second floor.  The kind of place a family would life.  The first time I saw it, I could almost hear a whispered call mingling with the soft rattle of leaves:  Come inside, come inside...  (p. 3)

My Thoughts of the Nominee:  Frost a wonderful haunting novel.  Baer does a wonderful job of bringing the house and setting to life and of slowly revealing Leena to be an unreliable narrator.

I did have some trouble engaging with Frost though.  I wasn't too crazy about Leena, Celeste or any of the other characters.

The one aspect I really loved were the descriptions of Frost House.  It really came alive...and became the coolest character in the book.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

The 2011 Cybils Awards: My perspective on the nominee Everybody Sees the Ants

Appetizer:  As a freshman, Lucky Linderman took a vow to stop smiling.  Since the age of seven, he has been bullied.  His tormentor, a boy named Nader, has always gotten away with his pranks, bullying and threats.

The one person who seems to help Lucky is his grandfather.  A prisoner of war in Vietnam who visits with Lucky in his dreams.

When Nader's bullying grows worse, Lucky's mom uproots them both for a vacation and Lucky finds himself guided by his uncle and maybe even facing a romance.

Opening Quotation:

"All I did was ask a stupid question.
Six months ago I was assigned the standard second-semester freshman social studies project at Freddy High:  Create a survey, evaluate data, graph data, express conclusion in a two-hundred-word paper.  This was an easy A.  I thought up my question and printed out 120 copies.
The question was:  If you were going to commit suicide, what method would you choose? (p. 3)

My Thoughts:  I really liked that Everybody Sees the Ants took on the issue of bullying.  I also liked that it would lend itself to discussing the Vietnam War.

A.S. King's writing was clear.  She created a great voice for Lucky.

However, the magical realism of Lucky's conversations with his grandfather did not work for me at all.

Nonetheless, check this one out!  I was glad the Cybils Award gave me an excuse to pick it up.

In case you hadn't heard, the Cybils 2011-2012 winners were announced!!!

You can look over the complete post about the winners at the Cybils website, but here's a quick breakdown of the winners:

Elementary and Middle Grade

Book Apps
The Monster at the End of This Book
by Callaway Digital Arts, Inc

(Just bought it!)

Fiction Picture Books
Me . . . Jane
by Patrick McDonnell

(got it!)

Nonfiction Picture Books

Easy Readers

(Got it!)

Early Chapter Books


(Added to my cart...and I'm hovering over the "buy now" button)

Graphic Novels
Zita the Spacegirl
by Ben Hatke

(Added to my wishlist)

Fantasy & Science Fiction
The Cheshire Cheese Cat: A Dickens of a Tale
by Carmen Agra Deedy and Randall Wright

(Also added to my wishlist)

Middle Grade Fiction
Nerd Camp
by Elissa Brent Weissman

Young Adult

Nonfiction Books

Graphic Novels
Anya's Ghost
by Vera Brosgol

(Already on my wishlist)

Fantasy and Science Fiction
Blood Red Road
by Moira Young

Already on my wishlist)

Young Adult Fiction

Stupid Fast
by Geoff Herbach

(YAY!  This is the book I helped select!!!!!!!!  Read it readitREADIT!)

Over the next week or so, I'll post some of my personal comments on some of the books I looked over as one of the YA fiction judges.

Which of these winners have you already read?  Which books are you going to pick up soon?  (I already downloaded the There's A Monster at the End of This Book app and I'm eyeing a copy of Zita the Spacegirl to start my reading of this collection.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Audiobook Review: The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight

Happy Valentine's Day!

Here's a review of a romantic read in honor of the holiday.

Smith, J.E.  (2012)  The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight.  New York:  Poppy.

5 hours and 17 minutes of listening or 256 pages.

Appetizer:  Hadley missed her flight to London by four minutes.  FOUR MINUTES!  Forced to wait several hours for the next flight, she risks being late to her father's wedding to a woman whom Hadley has never met and hates on principle.

As Hadley waits, she meets and befriends a British boy named Oliver--a freshman at Yale--who is scheduled to fly to London on Hadley's new flight.  They are even to sit in the same row.  Their conversations at a cafe near their gate and on the airplane put Hadley at ease.  She is amazed at how comfortable she feels talking to Oliver, even discussing the difficulties she's been having with her father who left her and her mom for the woman he is now marrying.

After just spending several hours with Oliver, Hadley knows that she wants to see him again.  But she doesn't know if the crazy circumstances that first allowed her to meet him will fall into place again; especially after she realizes that his reason for flying home to London may not have been a cheerful one.

I really enjoyed The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight.  I loved the title, cover and premise of this book.  As for the actual story, I found it to be a refreshing break from some of the heavier reading I've been doing recently, yet it still had enough depth of themes and character development that it felt real and went beyond "a happy bit of escapism."  (Although, some of Hadley's realizations about her family members did feel a little forced...but also necessary.)

Smith did a good job of capturing the feeling of being on a plane and--to an extent--being in London.  I do have an odd complaint though...since the title is so "math" oriented, I found myself wishing that Hadley were a math genius throughout the story.  There are one or two moments where she thinks in terms of math, but I found myself wanting more.

Generally, I liked the technique of having Hadley reflect upon her experiences or flashback to events before the 24-hour period that the book is set during, but several of the flashbacks felt unnecessary given the way that some of the information had been alluded to previously.

I did find Hadley's character to be a little whiney at the beginning, but that could have been a product of listening to the book instead of reading the pages.

The audiobook is narrated by Casey Holloway. I thought she did a good job of narrating from Hadley's perspective and I found myself wishing the novel were in first-person so I could have been brought even closer into Hadley's experience.  I wasn't too crazy about Holloway's British accent though, especially for Oliver.  (It was easier to hear when she voiced several women later in the novel.)  But still, it was a fun (and short!) book to listen to.

*Spoiler for the kinda-end*  As a side note, while Smith did a good job of making Oliver's refusal to reveal what he was studying and his misleading her about why he was flying home seem like appealing characterizations, in real life those would have been major red flags.  He repeatedly misleads her.  *End Spoiler/Rant*

Dinner Conversation:

"Airports are torture chambers if you're claustrophobic.
It's not just the looming threat of the ride ahead--being stuffed into the seats like sardines and then catapulted through the air in a narrow metal tube--but also the terminals themselves, the press of people, the blur and spin of the place, a dancing, dizzying hum, all motion and noise, all frenzy and clamor, and the whole thing sealed off by glass windows like some kind of monstrous ant farm."  (p. 5)

Tasty Rating:  !!!!

Monday, February 6, 2012

Audiobook Review: The Fault in Our Stars

Green, J.  (2012).  The Fault in Our Stars.  New York:

313 pages.

So, my signed copy of Green's novel arrived on its release date and it has dutifully sat on my bedside table, begging to be read.  But alas, I lacked the time.

I even had a student who came in to talk to me about the book, but I had to tell her I hadn't read it yet; like a failure.

*Points skyward.*  To the audio book I went (the Kate Rudd version, not the John Green...sorry, Kate's recording was cheaper)!

Appetizer:  Hazel Grace Lancaster is living with cancer.  Worried that she's depressed, her mom makes Hazel regularly attend a support group.  At one meeting, Hazel meets Augustus, a cancer survivor who is there to support his friend Isaac who is having surgery soon.  Augustus and Hazel trade book recommendations that leads to a quest to know what happens to the characters in Hazel's favorite book.  Along with their quest, romantic tensions arise, but with Hazel's terminal diagnosis and Augustus's regular scans to check for more cancer, their future together is uncertain.

So, I loved The Fault in Our Stars.  The audiobook was wonderful.  The way Kate Rudd brought Augustus's voice to life was great.  This was one of those audiobooks that I didn't want to stop listening to even after there was nothing I could think of to do while listening.  (I actually dusted my apartment so I could keep listening!)

Green does a good job of sharing about a realistic romance (which I imagine was one of his many goals with writing this book).  He specifically critiques paranormal romances and "cancer books."  Here's one example:

"AIA is about this girl named Anna (who narrates the story) and er one-eyed mom, who is a professional gardener obsessed with tulips, and they have a normal lower-middle-class life in a central California town until Anna gets this rare blood cancer. 
But it's not a cancer book, because cancer books suck.  Like, in cancer books, the cancer person starts a charity that raises money to fight cancer, right?  And this commitment to charity reminds the cancer person of the essential goodness of humanity and makes him/her feel loved and encouraged because s/he will leave a cancer-curing legacy.  But in AIA, Anna decides that being a person with cancer who starts a cancer charity is a bit narcissistic, so she starts a charity called The Anna Foundation for People with Cancer Who Want to Cure Cholera."  (pp. 48-49)

I absolutely loved Hazel's friend Kaitlyn, who is described as a girl "who just happened to be an extremely sophisticated twenty-five-year-old British socialite stuck inside a sixteen-year-old body in Indianapolis.  Everyone accepted it" (p. 42).  I've been friends with a Kaitlyn sort of girl.  They're fun.

When I teach, I tend to use Looking for Alaska, but I think in the future, I may switch to using The Fault in Our Stars.

Dinner Conversation:

"Late in the winter of my seventeenth year, my mother decided I was depressed, presumably because I rarely left the house, spent quite a lot of time in bed, read the same book over and over, ate infrequently, and devoted quite a bit of my abundant free time to thinking about death.
Whenever you read a cancer booklet or website or whatever, they always list depression among the side effects of cancer.  But, in fact, depression is not a side effect of cancer.  Depression is a side effect of dying.  (Cancer is also a side effect of dying.  Almost everything is, really.)" (p. 3)

"'What?' I asked.
"Nothing," [Augustus] said.
"Why are you looking at me like that?"
Augustus half smiled.  "Because you're beautiful.  I enjoy looking at beautiful people, and I decided a while ago not to deny myself the simpler pleasures of existence."  A brief awkward silence ensued.  Augustus plowed through:  "I mean, particularly given that, as you so deliciously pointed out, all of this will end in oblivion and everything."  (p. 16)

"'I'm in love with you, and I'm not in the business of denying myself the simple pleasure of saying true things.  I'm in love with you, and I know that love is just a shout into the void, and that oblivion is inevitable, and that we're all doomed and that there will come a day when all our labor has been returned to dust, and I know the sun will swallow the only earth we'll ever have, and I am in love with you."  (p. 153)

Tasty Rating:  !!!!!

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Audiobook Review: Dead End in Norvert

Gantos, J.  (2011).  Dead End in Norvelt.  New York:  Farrar Straus Giroux.

341 pages.

Appetizer:  Set in 1962, little Jack Gantos (a kinda-sorta-fictional character who is prone to nosebleeds) gets himself grounded forever.  (It was a bit of a crazy situation, although there were other factors, Jack was following his father's orders to plow down his mother's corn to create a runway for the plane he...obtained.)  Practically the only freedom Jack is allowed is to help old Miss Volker, the medical examiner and obituary writer, who roots for the original founders of Norvelt to die.  (When Eleanor Roosevelt founded the town she tasked Miss Volker with watching over the residents and now, decades later, Miss Volker is ready to move on.)

Norvelt itself is a very interesting character of a town; a bit of history brought to life that embodies different political and economic views.   (For example, Jack's mother favors the barter system, a fact that sometimes embarrasses Jack and his father feels that the town--founded on the principal of putting poor people in a position to help themselves--is a failed Communist experiment.)

Several times throughout the historical novel, Jack talks about the way he engages with books--both fiction and nonfiction--demonstrating the value of both history and literacy.  There was one scene in which he and his best friend discuss the way books smell and sniff the gutters of various books.  This reminded me of my father, who judges the quality of a book based on the way it smells.

Overall, a very enjoyable book.  Some of the plot details threw me for a few loops:  The Hell's Angels make a few appearances.  The story turns into a murder mystery.  That made me ponder a little.

Jack Gantos's--AKA the actual author's--reading of the audiobook was great.  He kept the focus on the story (as opposed to some crazy inflections or accents some authors or voice actors use).  The story was fun and hilarious--enough so that I chuckled out loud several times.  In particular, I'm trying to find a way/reason that I could share the dear hunting chapter with my students.  Although I think the book would appeal to both boys and girls, I can't help but think--with the occasional icky detail or bathroom humor--it was written to target boys.

Dinner Conversation:

"School was finally out and I was standing on a picnic table in our backyard getting ready for a great summer vacation when my mother walked up to me and ruined it" (p. 3).

"I was a nosebleeder.  The moment something startled me or whenever I got over-excited or spooked about any little thing blood would spray out of my nose holes like dragon flames" (p. 8).

"'You're looking at the original Norvelt," she said.  "There are two hundred and fifty houses in five sections on this map with the names of the original owners.  If you count up the red pins you'll see that all but nine--eight now that Mrs. Slater has passed--of the original owners have died or left since 1934" (p. 35).

"'Miss Volker," I said about as politely as I knew how, "do you think you will outlast the rest of these original people?"
"I have to," she said.  "I made a promise to Eleanor Roosevelt to see them to their graves, and I can't drop dead on the job--so let's get going" (p. 36).

Tasty Rating:  !!!!


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