Sunday, February 24, 2013

REVIEW: Boy 21 (A #Cybils Award Finalist!)

Quick, M.  (2011).  Boy 21.  New York:  Little, Brown and Company.

250 pages.

Appetizer:  Finley doesn't say much.  The two things he's passionate about are basketball and his girlfriend, Erin.  He and Erin live in Bellmont, PA.  Gang wars and the Irish mob impact all aspects of life there.  All Erin and Finley want to do is escape and a basketball scholarship would save them both.

When his coach asks Finley to help convince a new boy to try to join the basketball team, Finley will have to choose between the team and his own future as he finds his starting position in danger of going to Russ, the new boy.  Russ has experienced a trauma recently, one that has left him broken and believing that he is from space, with the name Boy21, and destined to leave the planet to soon.  Despite Russ's break with reality, Finley may have more in common with the new basketball player than he can imagine and their developing friendship may bring up memories he has long refused to speak of.

When I first started reading Boy21, I was a little worried.  I'm not a big sports novel person, but after Russ/Boy21 was introduced, the book appealed more.  I loved the tension that Finley felt about wanting to help Russ and maintain his spot on the team.  I also initially liked the gang tensions and how it impacted the daily lives of characters who wanted nothing to do with that lifestyle.

I liked Finley's voice.  There are a lot of wonderfully rich descriptions throughout the novel that I really liked.

There's also a Harry Potter sub-plot that amused me.

But having said that, about 2/3 or 3/4ths of the way through the story, the plot took a turn that I wasn't crazy about.  And from that point forward, the book pretty much lost me.

I am very excited to have a book recommendation for my students who play basketball.

Dinner Conversation:

"Sometimes I pretend that shooting hoops in my backyard is my earliest memory." (p. 1)

"And then one day a girl appeared in my backyard.  She had blond hair and a smile that seemed to last forever.
"I live down the street," she said.  "I'm in your class."
I kept shooting and hoped she'd go away.  Her name was Erin and she seemed really nice, but I didn't want to make friends with anyone.  I only wanted to shoot hoops alone for the rest of my life."  (pp. 2-3)

"In my memory, she hits dozens of shots before I get the ball back, but she doesn't ever leave my backyard--the two of us keep shooting for years and years." (p. 3)

"'My friend Russell and his wife were murdered last February.'  The word murdered gets stuck in my ear and suddenly it feels like someone is jabbing a finger into my throat.  I begin to cough a little, but Coach keeps talking.  It takes a few minutes for my mind to process the rest of his words.  "The details aren't important right now.  But the event has had a dramatic effect on Russell junior.  He's spent some time in a group home for kids who suffer from post-traumatic stress.  The Allens here in town are his closest relatives and even though they don't feel quite up to taking on a troubled teenage boy, because Russell requested it, they have agreed to care for him until he goes to college next year."
I suddenly realize that Russell will be eligible to play for our basketball team.  And even though Coach is talking about the aftereffects of a murder, I'm ashamed to admit that Immediately begin worrying about my starting position." (p. 27)

"'Russell isn't exactly going by the name Russell at this moment in his life.' Coach glances out the windshield with this vacant look on his face.  "Russell now likes to be called Boy21."  He nods a few times, as if to say he isn't joking.
"Why?" I say, noting that twenty-one is my basketball number.  Could this night possibly get any weirder?
"The people at his group home and his local therapist have both recommended that we all call him Boy21 out of respect for his wishes.  They say he now needs to exert control over his environment in some small way, or something like that.  I don't know anything about therapy, but I think after all that's happened the boy could sure use a kindhearted friend.  That's what this is about. We'll call him Boy21 tonight and work on getting him back to Russ before school starts." (pp. 30-31)

"'You are an Earthling?' Boy21 says to me.
I swallow and nod.
"I am programmed to treat all Earthlings with kindness.  Greetings.  I am Boy21 from the cosmos.  I am stranded here on Earth, but I will be leaving soon.  Enter into my domestic living pod." (p. 37)

"'You don't talk much, do you?' Boy21 asks, looking over his shoulder.
"Did something happen to you?" he asks.
Truth is, many things have happened to me, both good and bad, stuff that would take a lot of words to explain, too many words for me.
There's part of me that wants to discuss my past, why I don't talk much, outer space even, everything, but it's like my mind is a fist and it's always clenched tight, trying to keep the words in." (p. 41)

Tasty Rating:  !!!

Thursday, February 21, 2013

REVIEW: The Theory of Everything (A #Cybils Award Finalist)

Johnson, J.J.  (2011).  The Theory of Everything.  Atlanta: Peachtree.

334 pages.

Appetizer:  To say sophomore Sarah Smith is going through a rough patch would be a understatement.  Left reeling from the death of her best friend, Jamie, in the school gymnasium, finding a deer in said gymnasium who needs to be put down, brings out many bad memories and emotions.  Sarah can't seem to turn off her snarkbox or openly share with her loved ones what she is going through.  She's worried she's going to love her long distance boyfriend, Sten, forever.  Her parents are running out of ideas of how to help her and all they can think to do now is prevent Sarah from getting her driver's license, take away her beloved wild dog, Rubie, or continue to ground her.  Jamie's twin brother want nothing more than to hear the story of how his sister died from Sarah's lips.  Sarah alone must find a way out of her tailspin.

The main aspects that drew me into this realistic YA novel was Sarah's voice and the various charts and graphs that were featured at the start of each chapter.  (The latter factor means I'm going to be recommending this book to my many mathematically-inclined students...even though Sarah herself never expresses any preference for the subject matter.  It was still interesting to see her represent her life experiences in such varied ways.)

Since the book is serious, and since Sarah spends much of the novel not expressing herself aloud, I was kind of reminded of Melinda from Anderson's Speak.  Although, the books' conflicts are very different.

My one concern with Sarah's voice was the fact that she made a lot of references and allusions to Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica,  and some movies from the 1980s.  As a mmpha-year-old adult, I can appreciate and enjoy all of these references, but I'm not so certain they'll appeal to some of the teenager readers, who will at best maybe be familiar with two of the shows or movies.  (I know, I know, that gives them a reason to try and see the other shows and movies mentioned.)  I just felt it made the book a little's not the 14 to 16-year-old crowd I hear running around still saying 'frak.'  (Let's be honest it's my group of friends.)

I also wasn't initially crazy about the character Captain Possum/Roy.  Sarah's multiple interactions with him early in the novel seemed a little too convenient to be a coincidence in realistic fiction.  Eventually, his story line won me over.

Aspects of the ending of The Theory of Everything left me unsatisfied, although, one of the scenes (Sarah's prank!) was my favorite in the book and made me laugh out loud.

Overall, I enjoyed The Theory of Everything, but I didn't *love* it.  It was the kind of book I could put down and didn't mind coming back to several days later.

Dinner Conversation:

"Eight years ago, when we were seven, my best friend Jamie gave me a kaleidoscope.  It sounds lame, but I loved that thing.  So did Jamie.  The girl kept stealing it back until I gave her one of her own.  We would just lie there in my backyard, staring up at the sky through them.  Prisms turning, colors changing.  White cloud crystals, blue sky fractals.
Trippy, in a wholesome, Hugs Not Drugs way.
Well.  My whole life is like that now--it's trippy and turny and there are no drugs involved, unless Zoloft counts." (p. 2)

"I sigh.  I'm not really a badass, I'm just pissed off.  I hate Mrs. Cleary being sad and the deer being hurt.  Not to mention that the last time a cop asked me questions like this, my best friend had just died right in front of me." (p. 10)

I want to know what happened.  How Jamie died.
Well.  I have two responses to that.
1.  Holy.
2.  Crap.
Actually, three.
3.  No, frigging way.
Sub-divided into
    A.)  No way could he still not know.
    B.)  No way am I going to tell him.
    C.)  No way is this happening." (p. 18)

"'Mom and Dad were talking about how you're becoming such a deadbeat in school.  You don't care about anything anymore, so they don't have any leverage.'
"Leverage?"  What does that mean?
"Anything to bargain with.  Convince you to turn your crap around."
"You mean like, to threaten me with?"
"I guess you could call it that."  He shrugs.
"But Ruby, and Stenn..." My heart freezes.  "And driving.  They wouldn't take them away from me?  They can't."
"Calm down, Freak Show.  I don't think they're planning on it tomorrow.  And I bet they'd start with driver's ed before moving on to the big guns." (p. 37)

Tasty Rating:  !!!.

Monday, February 18, 2013

REVIEW: Me, Earl, and the Dying Girl (A #Cybils Award Finalist!) "I am like the Joseph Stalin of narrators"

Andrews, J.  (2012).  Me, Earl, and the Dying Girl.  New York:  Abrams.

295 pages.

Appetizer:  Greg Gaines has a difficult goal of surviving high school without any confrontations, enemies, or a group of friends.  He and his friend Earl make videos that they won't allow anyone to see.

This goal is complicated when Greg's mom informs him that a girl Greg has some history with has been diagnosed with Leukemia and that Greg has been recruited to re-befriend her.  This could cause trouble for Greg and Earl's future as filmmakers.

From the first page, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl amused me.  It opens with Greg contemplating how difficult it is to write a good first sentence for a book.  It's a passage I already plan to share with my future "Teaching of Writing" classes.  I love meta-narratives.  I could eat self-aware narratives for breakfast every morning for FOREVER.  So, the book had me amused from the get-go.

Then, THEN, a few more pages in, I realized that the book was set in the area around the Shadyside and Squirrel Hill districts of Pittsburgh.  I spent two years in that area while working on my MFA.  The familiar places and memories were also a nice introduction to the book.

I really enjoyed Me and Earl and the Dying Girl.  It was a "stay up late and read just one more more more...laugh out one more chapter" kind of book for me. 

I also liked the characterizations of Greg's family.  The conflicts within the family were some of the most amusing moments for me.

I also liked the many forms that were included (screenplay, texts, lists of people's comments, etc.)

I did wonder what everyone thought about the way race was depicted.  I did feel like Earl was an original character, but I worried that the way his family was presented could be seen as stereotypical (an angry family...absent step-father...Earl being in a special needs classroom).  I'm still not certain how I feel about these characterizations.

Dinner Conversation:

"I have no idea how to write this stupid book.
Can I just be honest with you for one second?  This is the literal truth.  When I first started writing this book, I tired to start it with the sentence "It was the best of times; it was the worst of times."  I genuinely thought that I could start this book that way.  I just figured, it's a classic book-starting sentence.  But then I couldn't even figure out how you were supposed to follow that up." (p. 1)

"I do actually want to say one other thing before we got started with this horrifyingly inane book. You may have already figured out that it's about a girl who had cancer.  So there's a chance you're thinking, "Awesome!  This is going to be a wise and insightful story about love and death and growing up.  It is probably going to make me cry literally the entire time.  I am so fired up right now."  If that is an accurate representation of your thoughts, you should probably try to smush this book into a garbage disposal and then run away.  Because here's the thing:  I learned absolutely nothing from Rachel's leukemia.  In fact, I probably became stupider about life because of the whole thing." (pp. 2-3)

"So in order to understand everything that happened, you have to start from the premise that high school sucks.  Do you accept that premise?  OF course you do.  It is a universally acknowledged truth that high school sucks.  In fact, high school is where we are first introduced to the basic existential question of life:  How is it possible to exist in a place that sucks so bad?" (p. 5)

"This was the second brain-punchingly insensitive thing I had said in about thirty seconds, and again I considered closing my cell phone and eating it." (p. 45)

"Earl and I are friends.  Sort of.  Actually, Earl and I are more like coworkers.
The first thing to know about Earl Jackson is that if you mention his height, he will windmill-kick you in the head.  Short people are often extremely athletic.  Earl is technically the size of a ten-year-old, but he can kick any object within seven feet of the ground.  Additionally, Earl's default mood is Pissed, and his backup default mood is Mega-Pissed." (pp. 61-62)

Tasty Rating:  !!!!


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