Sunday, December 30, 2012

REVIEW: The Karma Club

Brody, J.  (2010).  The Karma Club.  New York:  Farrar Straus Giroux.

258 pages.

Appetizer:  It all begins when seventeen-year-old Maddy Kasparkova receives a phone call from her best friend that a profile of her boyfriend has been published in Contempo Girl.  Maddy hopes this will increase their popularity and that she's finally obtain her goal of becoming a member of the in-crowd.

Her dreams are shattered, however, when her she discovers her boyfriend in another girl's arms, those of the popular and perfect Heather Campbell.  Seeking a way to balance the scales, not only for herself, but for her two best friends, Jade and Angie, Maddy becomes interested in Karma.  Unwilling to wait decades for the universe to sort out those who have done wrong, she and her friends form a Karma Club in an effort to find balance now.

I was really excited to read this book.  As of late, I've been interested in books that explore religious and spiritual concepts in a deep, honest, and meaningful way.  Because of that goal, I found Karma Club to be very disappointing.  Essentially, Maddy forms a revenge club.  As you might imagine, Maddy's approach is a huge misinterpretation of the nature of karma.  Although she does eventually gain some wisdom about it, I wouldn't say she ever gains a real understanding of the concept.

Although some of Maddy, Angie, and Jade's adventures are amusing to escape into, I found a couple of them were hard to believe, including the quick resolution at the end of the novel.  Nonetheless, Karma Club does end on a very hopeful note.

As a character, Maddy was believable.  Despite the fact that she was a senior approaching graduation, she felt much younger, making me think I'd most likely recommend this book for 13 to 15-year-olds interested in some light and fun reading.

Dinner Conversation:

"I can tell you right now, it's all karma's fault.
Yes, karma.  You know, that unmistakable force in the universe that makes sure good deeds are rewarded and bad deeds are punished.
Like when I stole my little sister's lunch in the seventh grade because I woke up too late to make my own.  When I got to school, I found that the meat in the sandwich was actually moldy and I had to spend the very last of my allowance money on the disgusting, unrecognizable cafeteria food.
Karma." (p. 3)

"Good deeds are rewarded while bad deeds are punished.  Good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people.  That's just how Karma works.
Well, at least that's how I thought it worked.
But that was before I entered the second half of my senior year.  When everything changed.  Everything I thought I knew and everything I thought I could count on suddenly went right out the window.
I think I can trace it back to one day.
That fateful day when Angie called me up with the news.
Yes, that was definitely the day it all began.  Before my simple, little world--where up was up and down was down, and right and wrong were as different as night and day--was flipped upside down.  And from that point on, there was absolutely nothing in my life that could be described as simple." (p. 4)

"I stand in complete astonishment as I try to grasp everything that has happened in the last five minutes.  My boyfriend, Mason Brooks, featured in Contempo Girl magazine!  They even called him a "hunky dough boy."  Well, yeah, it's a bit cheesy, but so what?  This is huge!  Every girl in the country is going to see this.  Every girl in the country is going to be pining for my boyfriend." (p. 10)

"Maybe my fantasy wasn't that fare off after all.  Maybe this one little article would make us the most popular couple in school.  Maybe Heather Campbell would eventually start calling me up for advice about the new spring fashions and where she should go to get her nails done and how to snag a boyfriend as wonderful as Mason.  I really wouldn't blame her.  I mean, I'm pretty much a published magazine writer now.  Who wouldn't want advice from someone whose words are in Contempo Girl magazine?" (p. 16)

"All my life I've wanted to be popular.
I don't know where the obsession came from, but from the time I was a little girl, the life of the high school "it" crowd always seemed more glamorous than anything else I could ever imagine.
Then in the sixth grade, I met Heather Campbell and from the moment I saw her, I knew I wanted to be like her." (p. 17)

Tasty Rating: !!.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Personal Post: Turns Out I Do Live in a Winter Wonderland

A few days ago, I had some visiters enjoy brunch right outside my bedroom window at my parents' house:

I hope you enjoyed the show.

The turkeys also stopped by a little later:

Happy holidays!

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Late Review: Let It Snow (Not quite in time for Christmas)

Green, J., Johnson, M., & Myracle, L.  (2008).  Let It Snow.  New York:  Speak.

352 pages.

Appetizer:  In three interconnected stories, Jubilee Dougal is stranded in a snow storm after her parents were arrested due to a dispute at a Flobie Santa Village ceramic collectibles convention and is less than excited to be separated from her boyfriend on their one-year anniversary.  When her train is stranded in Gracetown due to the worst snowstorm in 50 years, Jubilee decides to leave it try to stay warm in a Waffle House.  She has no idea what the night has in store for her.  This novella is "The Jubilee Express" and was written by Maureen Johnson.

Next up, is John Green's addition, "A Cheertastic Christmas Miracle."  In another part of Gracetown, it looks like Tobin's parents won't be able to make it home for the holiday.  Instead, he and his friends JP and Duke receive a call that they must brave the snowy and icy streets to visit the Waffle House for a chance to hook-up with cheerleaders who are stranded there.

In the final story, "The Patron Saint of Pigs" by Lauren Myracle, Addie is struggling over her break-up with Jeb, realizing that she may be a little too self-absorbed, and trying desperately to hunt down a teacup pig that she was supposed to give to one of her best friends for Christmas, all while serving on the opening shift for Starbucks the day after Christmas.

The only story that I'd read previously was John Green's.  It stuck in my mind as an enjoyable wintery tale.  (I think I'd originally read it during the spring, and it had made me excited for the wintery season.)  For several years, I'd been meaning to re-read it and finally enjoy the other two stories in Let it Snow.  This Christmas was finally the time to do it.

Sadly, after having read the book on and off over the holiday, I have to report that I was left feeling "meh," about the whole thing.

I did like the way the stories overlapped and how characters were in multiple stories.  It reminded me of Love Actually.  But some of the references and dialogue have already started to feel more than a little dated.  Plus I can't say that I actually liked all of the characters.  Johnson's "Jubilee Express" was enjoyable enough.  The parents being arrested at a Flobie riot was great.  There were a lot of wonderful metaphors and writing throughout the story, my favorite being Jubilee's narration of having fallen through the ice of a stream:

"Maybe you've never fallen into a frozen stream.  Here's what happens.
1.  It is cold.  So cold that the Department of Temperature acknowledgment and regulation in your brain gets the readings and says, "I can't deal with this.  I'm out of here."  It puts up the OUT TO LUNCH sign and passes all responsibility to the...
2.  Department of Pain and the Processing Thereof, which gets all this gobbledygook from the temperature department that it can't understand.  "This is not our job," it says.  So it just starts hitting random buttons, filling you with strange and unpleasant sensations, and calls the...
3.  Office of Confusion and Panic, where this is always someone ready to hop on the phone the moment it rings." (p. 55)

I wasn't crazy about all of Jubilee's choices though.  She struck me as being more than a  *Vague Spoiler*  I had some trouble with the fact that she was starting a new relationship with someone only hours after ending a year-long one...which she'd only realized was tragically flawed a few minutes before that.  In essence, the romance felt forced.  *End Vague Spoiler*

I still enjoyed Green's "A Cheertastic Christmas Miracle."  It stood up to the test of time, with only a few unbelievable moments and what felt like a rushed ending.

Myracle's "The Patron Saint of Pigs" on the other hand, I had a lot of trouble with.  While the character of Addie was believable, I found her to be really annoying.  The story included some hints at fantastic elements, which just didn't work in light of the fact that both of the other stories remained grounded in reality.  This story also included a bit of a quick and forced resolution as well.  By the end, I was left wishing that these were just separate novels and the authors were given more space to write whole and complete stories.

Alas, I have to declare, "Bah humbug" to "The Patron Saint of Pigs."

Off to drink hot chocolate!

Dinner Conversation:

"It was the night before Christmas.
Well, to be more precise, it was the afternoon before Christmas.  But before I take you into the beating heart of the action, let's get one thing out of the way.  I know from experience that if it comes up later, it will distract you so much that you won't be able to concentrate on anything else I tell you.
My name is Jubilee Dougal.  Take a moment and let it sink in." (p. 1)

"[Noah] promised me there would be time just for us.  He had made sure of it by helping out in advance.  If we put in two hours at the party, he promised, we could escape to the back room and exchange our gifts and watch The Grinch Who Stole Christmas together.  He would drive me home, and we would stop for a while....
And then, of course, my parents got arrested and all of that went to hell." (p. 6)

"I could stay here in the cold, dark, stranded train or I could actually do something.  I could take charge of this day that had run away from me too many times.  It wouldn't be hard to get across the road and over to the Waffle House.  They probably had heat and lots of food." (p. 26)

"JP and the Duke and I were four movies in to our James Bond marathon when my mother called home for the sixth time in five hours.  I didn't even glance at the caller ID.  I knew it was Mom.  The Duke rolled her eyes and paused the movie.  "Does she think you're going somewhere?  There's a blizzard."
I shrugged and picked up the phone." (p. 121)

"The greatest night of my life has just begun.  And I am inviting you to join me, because I am the best friend ever.  But here's the catch: after I get off the phone with you, Mitchell and Billy will be calling their friends.  And we've agreed in advance that there's only room here for one more carful of guys.  I cannot further dilute the cheerleader-to-guy ratio.  Now, I am making the first call, because I'm acting assistant manager.  So you have a head start.  I know you will not fail.  I know I can count upon you to deliver the Twister.  Gentlemen, may you travel safely and swiftly. But if you die tonight, die in the comfort that you have sacrificed your lives for the noblest of human causes.  The pursuit of cheerleaders."

"Being me sucked.  Being me on this supposedly gorgeous night, with the supposedly gorgeous snow looming in five-foot drifts outside my bedroom window, double-sucked.  Add the fact that today was Christmas, and my score was up to triple-suck.  And add in the sad, aching, devastating lack of Jeb, and ding-ding-ding!  The bell at the top of the Suckage Meter couldn't ring any louder.
Instead of jingle bells, I had suckage bells.  Lovely." (p. 215)

Tasty Rating:  !!!

Monday, December 24, 2012

REVIEW: A Tale Dark & Grimm (Don't miss this one!)

Gidwitz, A.  (2010).  A Take Dark and Grimm.  New York:  Dutton Children's Books.

249 Pages.

Appetizer:  This expansion of the Hansel and Gretel fairy tale features a pushy narrator who uses a lot of false endings (see the pictures below) and who weaves together multiple stories inspired by some of the Grimm originals to share the siblings' complete adventure of betrayal and forgiveness.

The story begins before the birth of the twins Hansel and Gretel to a king and queen.  You see, the king and queen were only able to marry due to the help of a servant named Johannes who helped them to avoid three potential curses upon their wedding by sacrificing himself.

The only way to free Johannes is to behead Hansel and Gretel.

Understandingly upset about their beheadings, Hansel and Gretel decide to leave their parents and the kingdom of Grimm to find parents who will treat them better.  What follows is a journey that will involve sacrifice and a whole lot of courage.

Returning some of the violence and icky-bits to fairy tales, there are passages of A Tale Dark & Grimm that live up to the title and made me cringe.  But the narrator always provided proper/humorous warning to get wee-readers out of the room for those parts, thereby properly preparing any and all older readers for the gruesome bits.

That pushy narrator reminded me strongly of the narrator from The Tale of Despereaux.  I think the books would be wonderful to pair together since the themes of forgiveness and yearning for family run through both books.

What is more, since each chapter of A Tale Dark & Grimm could be read as its own individual fairy tale (beginning with "Once upon a time...," of course), each chapter would lend itself to a read aloud thereby allowing a teacher or parent to help kids manage the ickier passages.

Having taken multiple folklore classes, I thought Gidwitz captured some of the essential elements of traditional folktales:  The pushy narrator help the reader to feel as though he or she is being told this story.  There is a lot of repetition of three's in terms of the structure and events of the story.

A Tale Dark & Grimm also serves as a powerful allegory for trust and forgiveness within a family.  I found that Hansel and Gretel's adventure could be traced onto the experience of children having to go into foster care and being shuffled from place to place, trying to find a sense of home and forgiveness of what their parents had done.

The book itself avoids trying to answer why bad things happen, but still totes the power and capabilities of children.

Dinner Conversation:

"Once upon a time, fairy tales were awesome.  I know, I know.  You don't believe me.  I don't blame you.  A little while ago, I wouldn't have believed it myself.  Little girls in red caps skipping around the forest?  Awesome?  I don't think so.
But then I started to read them.  The real, Grimm ones.  Very few little girls in red caps in those.
Well, there's one.  But she gets eaten." (p. 1)

"You see, there is another story in Grimm's Fairy Tales.  A story that winds all throughout the moldy, mysterious tome--like a trail of bread crumbs winding through a forest.  It appears in tales you may never have heard, like Faithful Johannes and Brother and Sister.  And in some that you have--Hansel and Gretel, for instance.
It is the story of two children--a girl named Gretel and a boy named Hansel--traveling though a magical and terrifying world.  It is the story of two children striving, and failing, and then not failing.  It is the story of two children finding out the meaning of things."  (pp. 2-3)

"Once upon a time, in a kingdom called Grimm, an old king lay on his deathbed.  He was Hansel and Gretel's grandfather--but he didn't know that, for neither Hansel nor Gretel had been born yet.
No hold on a minute.
I know what you're thinking.
I am well aware that nobody want to hear a story that happens before the main characters show up.  Stories like that are boring, because they all end exactly the same way.  With the main characters showing up.
But don't worry.  This story is like no story you've ever heard." (p. 5)

"Once upon a time, two children left their home and walked out into the wide, wild world.
The land was dark as Hansel and Gretel made their way across the level turf beyond the palace moat.  They had never left the palace by themselves before, and they knew little of the great world beyond its walls." (p. 39)

"For, as you well, know, the baker woman was planning to eat them.
But she wasn't a witch.  The Brothers Grimm call her a witch, but nothing could be further from the truth.  In fact she was just a regular woman who had discovered, sometime around the birth of her second child, that while she liked chicken and she liked beef and she liked pork, what she really, really, liked was child.
I bet you can figure out how this happened." (p. 43)

Tasty Rating:  !!!!!

Friday, December 21, 2012

REVIEW: Anya's Ghost

Brosgol, V.  (2011).  Anya's Ghost.  New York:  First Second.

221 pages.

Appetizer:  Anya isn't exactly excited about the way her life has been going.  Yes, she's managed to lose some weight and her accent after years of ESL classes, but she still has to contend with avoiding her mother's cooking, attending church, and a nerdy boy named Dima, who has also immigrated from Russia.  With only one friend at her school, and not the best of grades in most of her classes, Anya would like a change.

When Anya skips school and goes to a park, she falls down an old unused well.  At the bottom, she finds the skeleton of a girl, a girl whose ghost is still very much present and set on following Anya back into the world.  While, Anya discovers that there are some perks to having a specter for a friend when it comes to test scores and getting the attention of a certain guy, she also learns that there might be more to her new friend then what she initially presents.

I hadn't quite known what to expect from Anya's Ghost.  I'd heard the YA graphic novel described as a good multicultural read.  While there are a few scenes and themes that do explore the tension between assimilation and maintaining one's culture or identity and the immigrant experience, I'd say this book is first and foremost a ghost story with a bit of mystery to it.

I enjoyed this graphic novel.  It reminded me of Gaiman's The Graveyard Book, infused with a little bit of American Born Chinese.  I did feel like the ending was a little rushed.  The message presented to resolve some of the conflict felt forced and like it didn't quite match the themes and content.  But that just means that, in the classroom, I could recommend students write their own endings for the book in a round of one of my favorite activities, "Beat the Author."

Dinner Conversation:

Tasty Rating:  !!!

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

REVIEW: Right Behind You

Giles, G.  (2007).  Right Behind You.  New York:  Little, Brown, and Company.

292 pages.

Appetizer:  When he was nine years old, Kip set another boy on fire.  The boy died several days later due to his injuries.  After years of being institutionalized and therapy, Kip is released to his father's care and hopeful to live a normal life.

But having a normal life may prove impossible.  Kip is consumed by his guilt; not only for killing the boy, but also for the impact his actions have had on his father.

Although his name had never been made public, Kip's arson had become a media sensation, with images of his family's Alaskan cottage being broadcast.  When he is released, Kip and his father must live under assumed names and move to the Midwest.  As Kip struggles to let go of his anger and control his guilt to become a normal boy named Wade, he must navigate the halls of a high school and try to make friends for the first time.  But all of his hopes may prove impossible because the guilt, the consequences, are always RIGHT BEHIND HIM!

Sorry, I couldn't help myself.  I had to press 'caps lock.'

I was really impressed with Right Behind You at first.  I liked how Giles managed to make me feel sympathetic for Kip as he prepared to leave the hospital and try to start a new life.  Some of my engagement faded around midway through the book though.  Giles skips ahead a few years and Kip/Wade both becomes a star athlete and starts to drink.  I started to feel a slight disconnect with the book.  Instead of jumping ahead a few years, I would have preferred to be with Kip's character during his initial day-to-day struggle.  Plus, Kip/Wade describes how swimming "drowned out any thought in" his head (p. 183).  My experience as a swimmer was the opposite--it was a good time to think because it was you in a muffled world.

Right Behind You does come to a satisfactory conclusion and contains wonderful topics and themes to discuss; like the value and burden of guilt, the complex emotions and motives that influenced Kip/Wade, the responsibilities and consequences of choices, the exploration of who were victims in the situations Kip/Wade faced, and, of course, empathy for characters in complex situations, etc.

When it comes to young adult novels that explore the mental states of characters who would kill another character, this book stands out in my mind as one that presents the experience authentically and respectfully.

Dinner Conversation:

"He stood in front of me, soaked by the rain.  It sluiced down his face into his eyes and mouth, but he didn't make a move to wipe it away.
He cradled something wrapped in an olive green poncho.
"There are three things you need to know about me,"
he said.
"First, you don't know my real name.
"Second, I murdered someone once.
"Third...well, maybe this will tell you." (p. 1)

"On the afternoon of his seventh birthday, I set Bobby Clarke on fire.
I was nine.
It was all about Bobby's birthday present.
A baseball glove." (p. 5)

"And Mom.  She went and died.  I was nine years old.  How could she do that to me?"  I picked up the bowl of multicolored candies and flung them across the room.  The plastic bowl made a decent thud against the door.  But...I--I am NOT a monster!"
"You're angry.  You were carrying a lot of weight for someone that young.  All the people that were supposed to protect you seemed to have let you down." (p. 31)

"Change my first name, too?
"I know it's a lot."
"Let's see--no mother, house, home, past, last name, first name?  I won't know who I am."
"It might feel that way at first."
It would feel like erasing myself.  Well, maybe Kip McFarland shouldn't be around anymore.  Bobby Clarke wasn't.  Could I shed Kip's guilt along with his name?" (p. 63)

"I was Wade Madison and had papers to prove it.  Song of Jack and Carrie Madison.  New residents of Whitestone, Indiana.  I had a new backpack and a class schedule and the totally wrong clothes.  Alaska is all about flannel.  Indiana looked to be all about long-sleeved tees.  I had the wrong shoes.  At least I was prepared to be wrong." (p. 81)

Tasty Rating:  !!!!

Sunday, December 16, 2012

REVIEW: Diary of a Wimpy Kid--The Third Wheel

Kinney, J.  (2012).  Diary of a Wimpy Kid:  The Third Wheel.  New York:  Amulet Books.

217 pages.

Appetizer:  Beginning with Greg recounting his life while he was still in utero, the seventh addition to the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series features Greg babysitting, avoiding a Mad Pantser, trying to find a date to go to his school's Valentine's Day dance, a visit from Uncle Gary, an avoidance of Chicken Pox, among other misadventures.

The parts of The Third Wheel that stood out to me the most included Greg's time at the school dance.  Being an NPR-nerd, I was strongly reminded of an episode on Middle School by This American Life that I heard recently.  It also reminded me of my own first middle school dance--wearing a ridiculous shiny shirt, dancing to Pony by Genuwine, and joining a flock of girls to go to the bathroom even though only one or two of them actually needed to go. Good times.

My favorite illustration was on page 186.  Greg's best friend, Rowley, may be sick and Greg fears that he may have had contact with some of Rowley's germs:

Hahaha, oh, germaphobia.

I wouldn't say that The Third Wheel is my favorite of the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series.  Alas, this book doesn't really feature any critiques of children's books that I have come to love so much.  I suppose there is a section or two that I could use as an example of human growth and development, but it's not as much fun.

I did appreciate, however, that the beginning and end of the book compliment one another, giving the book a feel of having come full-circle, a nice conclusive ending that some of the other books in this series are lacking.

Dinner Conversation:

Tasty Rating:  !!!

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Reading Multiculturally

In my reviews, I often comment on the assumptions of class, race, or gender that are present in a book.

Multiple times, commenters have noted that these are non-issues for a text, or that the book wasn't attempting to comment about racial, economic, gender or political issues.

Ah, but my few but dear readers, all texts are always commenting about these things in some ways and we must situate them accordingly.

Scholars Glazier & Seo, and Cai have commented about the need to always read from a multicultural stance.  Here's an excerpt of Glazier & Seo using Cai to make this point:

"'The multicultural stance provides the reader with an instrument, a magnifier if you will, to expose assumptions about race, class, and gender hidden in a story' (Cai, 1998, p. 321).  If students can explore these assumptions in a text, perhaps they can do the same in their own lives and the world in which they live." (2005, p. 698)
And so too must teachers explore these assumptions.

Just thought I'd share that quotation.

As you were.


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