Saturday, July 31, 2010

Will Leave you Battered and Bruised

This review is harder to write than most, because this book is not only difficult to classify, but it will defy all your preconceived notions. I had an idea what the book was about when I first started it, but I was quickly aware how wrong I really was. This book was not only something completely different than I though it was- it never ceased to surprise and amaze me. Each turn, twist, or plot element was a surprise.

Bronte and Tennyson are twins whose parents are both literary professors. Tension in the house hasn't been good ever since their father had an "indiscretion" last year. Now their parents tolerate one another with thinly veiled hostility from mom and humble guilt from their father. One thing is always constant, however; Tennyson is always protective of Bronte. When Bronte starts dating Brewster, known around school as Bruiser, he is not pleased his sister is going out with the boy voted Most Likely to Get the Death Penalty. But there is more to Brewster than meets the eye.

When a simple threat doesn't keep Brewster from seeing Bronte, Tennyson takes it upon himself to go to his house and scare him. When he gets to the house, he find a scene he didn't expect. Brewster's precocious brother Cody sobbing over their dead bull and their uncle Hoyt screaming at the two of them and ripping his belt off to whip Cody. Tennyson stands up to Hoyt and begins to see the real Brewster. However, there is more to Brewster than any of them truly understood. It begins to become obvious that Brewster gets hurt a lot. His back is full of bruises and scars, and Bronte and Tennyson assume Hoyt is abusive. The real reason for the scars, however, is one even the reader can't imagine. The real reason is one that will leave you surprised and sad for poor Brewster Rawlins.

This is a book that really examines pain and suffering- both physical and emotional. The bizarre situation surrounding Brewster is just the beginning. From the pain of infidelity and divorce of Bronte and Tennyson's parents, to the pain of bullying and teenage tormentors seeking their target, to true betrayal, love, and devotion. This is a story that starts like any other young adult novel and quickly emerges as so much more than that. The saddest part of this story is how much Brewster wants friends and family and people to love him, but how dangerous all that caring can truly be for Brewster.

This is a very clean story where the conflict is mostly emotional rather than physical. The story can be heavy at times, but is appropriate for a wide range of ages. It would be appropriate for any high skilled middle school student all the way through high school. The story might be a bit too complex for younger students when Brewster's secret is revealed, and would be best for those students if read with an adult who can answer any comprehension questions about the plot. Otherwise, this is a bittersweet tale that is both beautiful and horrifying. While I can imagine we will all take something different from the story, I know it will be hard for anyone to forget.

Fire this one UP!

Fire (Graceling)
Companion novels don't usually do it for me. If I am picking up the next book the author has written, and it is related to the first book, I want a sequel! I want the same characters, the same world, and a continuation of the story I loved so much in the first book. Fire by Kristin Cashore is not a sequel, and has almost no characters in common with Graceling, but it is an amazing new tale in a familiar, but still surprising world.

While Graceling was about the seven kingdoms, Fire is set 35 years before Graceling in a kingdom called the Dells to the West of the seven kingdoms. The two areas are separated from a great range of mountains that leads to two very different lands and two very exciting stories. In the Dells, there are no Gracelings, but there are monsters. Monsters are a telepathic, beautiful version of any kind of animal or human. Their most distinctive features include brilliant, unnatural colorings, and a vicious craving for other monster flesh. Many households keep monster cats in shades of brilliant greens and blues that hunt monster mice is bright golds and shocking reds and pinks. Monster raptors are the biggest danger, as they don't just stick to the forests like the monster leopards and monster bears. They hunt everywhere and can pick a grown man right off his horse.

Fire is the last of the monster humans. Her father, Cansrel, was a man who exploited his ability to explore and alter people's minds. In fact, he nearly ruined the kingdom of Dell before his untimely demise by controlling former King Nax and sending him down a cruel and drug induced path. While Fire loved her father, and knew she was the only person he ever loved, she was also well aware of his cruelty and the horrors he caused amongst the Dells. Now Fire lives with her former neighbor, Brocker, and his son Archer. Brocker raised her and taught Fire to only use her gift to protect herself- never as a weapon or a tool for pleasure or control.

The Dells is in danger, however, from two militias that want the kingdom for themselves. These militias, led by Mydogg and Gentian, are threatening to kill King Nash and his brother, Prince Brigan, and take the kingdom by force. Despite Nash's obsession with Fire's beauty and Brigan's mistrust of the monster girl, they enlist her psychic help to ferret out the Kingdom's traitors. Even though Fire has managed for years to stay out of the spotlight due the obsession and rage her presence creates, she feels compelled to help the kingdom with her gift. Now it is a race to see if Fire can find out enough information before the kingdom is lost forever.

I would like to rephrase the term "companion novel"... Fire needs to be referred to as the "Holy butt-kicking novel from the same fantastic world". This was a great story that not only held its own with the awesome Graceling, it might have surpassed the killer breakout novel! The characters are dynamic and full of surprises. The world is just as interesting as the seven kingdoms in Graceling, but there are new twists, surprises, and abilities around every corner. As much as I would have loved to see a sequel to the first book, I am thrilled to have this companion novel. While the genre is definitely "fantasy", the fantastic elements are not too far from reality to lose the less fantastic-minded readers.

Like the first novel, the language and writing style is a bit mature. It would be best for grades 9-12. There is some intimacy and of course some violence and fighting, but none of it is overwhelming or gratuitously placed. It is all tactfully and delicately placed and described, but might make the story too mature for much younger readers. The story itself is not overly complicated, but some of the names can be confusing. it will, however, appeal to both young adults and adults. Fire lives in a world that not only fascinates me, but more accurately enthralled me! Now I can't wait for the third companion, Bitterblue...

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

A Graceful Fantasy

If you combined King Arthur's mysticism with the most exciting, realistic parts of Lord of the Rings, you would get Graceling, by Kristin Cashore. A new fantasy world complete with the Graced, or people born with special abilities, this book pulls you in from the very first page.

In the land of seven kingdoms run by seven very different kings, there are people called Gracelings. Gracelings are Graced with an ability. All Gracelings, once they are identified, become property of the Kings. If their Grace is useful to the King, they are kept and used for the Kingdom (special fighting ability, mind reading, controlling the weather, etc.). If it is a useless Grace (ability to swim, dancing, etc.), they are returned to their parents. Katsa, King Randa of Middluns's niece, has been most useful to his forceful control over his kingdom thanks to her Grace for Killing. Even though Katsa is under the King's control and carries out most of his dirty work, she still refuses to allow the people of any kingdom to suffer, and she formed the Council to fight against injustice. It was the secret Council work that led Katsa to Murgon City in Sunder to rescue Tealiff, the father of Lienid's King Ror. As she did so, however, she came across a very interesting Lienid Graceling, Prince Po.

Po knows Katsa rescued his grandfather, and together they set off to get to the bottom of his kidnapping. This journey leads Katsa to the truth behind her Grace, Po's Grace, and the very dangerous Grace of King Leck of Monsea. Katsa also comes to the conclusion that Po is more than the other men she has known. Po could be the one man she could trust enough to love, but will he be interested in a woman who never wants to marry or have children?

This is a captivating story. Everything from the world of the seven kingdoms, to the different kings and how they run their kingdoms, to the Gracelings makes this story phenomenal. This is a fantasy with just enough realism to keep both feet on the ground and just enough mysticism to entice the fantasy-minded readers. The characters are dynamic, and Katsa and Po worm their way into your heart immediately.

Graceling has a strong story that can be a little mature and complicated at times. It might be best saved for grades 9-12, and while the protagonist is female, the story would appeal to both male and female students. There is some violence and a few brief pages of intimacy, but the majority of the story is appropriate for all ages. It is beautifully written, and almost seems poetic at times. If you need a beautiful story in a beautiful and harsh world, Graceling is your story!

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Required Reading for Educators and Parents

By The Time You Read This, I'll Be Dead
YA is a genre designed to give adolescents what they really want to read- book about similar situations and problems they experience every day, or books with characters they can relate to. When writing books for this genre, some authors manage to capture a terrifying part of adolescence all adults wished didn't exist. This happened in Wintergirls, where the story of a girl suffering from an eating disorder was so real and painful, you hurt with her. Julie Ann Peters is an author who doesn't hold anything back, despite the opinions of some that adolescents should be sheltered from such stories. In By the Time You Read This, I'll Be Dead, Peters delivers a cold, hard smack to the face where teen bullying, depression, and suicide are concerned.

Daelyn has been bullied her whole life- first for being overweight, and now for the neck brace she must wear after one of her multiple attempts to commit suicide and her inability to talk. Her parents don't understand her actions, her teachers are often part of the problem, and she has never had any friends. In fact, any time Daelyn let her guard down enough to try making friends, it has backfired in her face as some clever ruse to humiliate her once again. She goes through the daily motions, but doesn't trust anyone, including her helicopter parents who watch her every move anticipating another suicide attempt.

Then one day, as Daelyn is waiting for her mother to pick her up, she meets a persistent young man who lives and is home-schooled next to her school. She tries to ignore Santana, scare him away, and escape him in any way, but he just keeps coming back. Daelyn knows this must be a way for him to either hurt her or humiliate her, but something about Santana makes her crack the rare smile she has kept hidden for years. What Santana doesn't know, however, is that Daelyn intends one last and final suicide attempt, and this time she has enlisted the support and ideas of a website called Through the Light that helps people commit suicide. She has arranged the date of her final attempt and is now just waiting for the days to count down until she can end her torment once and for all. But can Santana give her something to look forward to? Can that be enough to stop her from taking her own life?

Like Wintergirls, By the Time You Read This is a book that should be given carefully to young adults who are mature enough to digest such heavy material, but should be required reading for parents and educators. We all remembered the bullying that took place when we were young, but do we understand its true magnitude and impact? How do we stop such bullying? How can we know it is happening? At one point in the story, Daelyn is lured into the boy's bathroom and sexually assaulted. The boys spread a rumor she was hiding in there to watch them and she is brought to the principal's office. When she tries to defend herself, she can't manage to tell the school administrators or her parents what really happened, leaving the adults thinking she is just being melodramatic about a silly prank.

This book made me terrified of the ignorance adults have towards the monster bullying has become. We can attend conferences, discuss with other adults ways to stop the bullying or teach students it is wrong, but does it work? Isn't the bullying now worse than it has ever been? How do we really attack it and protect our children from such dire circumstances that they would attempt to take their own lives? I hope books such as this one, while fiction, are an eye-opening smack in the face to all adults about just how dangerous adolescence can be.

A-MAZE-ing Story!

The Maze Runner
Holy Moses, Batman! I didn't see this one coming! The Maze Runner, by James Dashner has been talked about and recommended, but for some reason I didn't pick it up until now. maybe it was the mediocre cover? I don't know why it took me so long to pick this one up, but now I am kicking myself, that's for sure! This was butt kicking story full of exciting characters, a crazy prison-like world, and enemies of all kinds.

The Glade is far from perfect, but the Gladers, young boys who all found themselves transported to the Glade in an elevator with no memories of who they were and how they got there, make do with what they have. Every boy works, either taking care of the animals, slaughtering, cooking, basic maintenance, building, or as runners. The Runners are the best of the best- a group of boys who leave the safety of the Glade's walls every day to explore the Maze outside for a way to escape. When Thomas wakes up in the elevator, he is the beginning of many weird things that bring life in the Glade to a new level of terror.

Every night the walls to the Glade close to protect the boys from the horrors of the Maze, the Grievers in particular. Grievers are giant monsters that are part creature, part machine. They look like giant blobs with mechanical arms wielding saws, needles, claws, and other mechanical terrors. When Alby, the leader, and Minho, Keeper of the Runners, get stuck in the Maze just as the doors are closing, Thomas runs to help them and they all get stuck in the Maze. No boy has ever survived a night in the Maze with the Grievers. But Thomas' quick thinking and bravery keep both an injured Alby safe and allow him and Minho to kill Grievers- something the boys never thought was possible.

When a girl, the first girl ever, comes up the elevator barely alive, the Gladers begin to suspect things are changing. When the sun disappears and the walls don't close, they know they must find an exit immediately or they Grievers will kill them one by one. But what lies outside the Glade and the Maze is something none of the boys could have expected.

This is a GREAT book for anyone who loved the Hunger Games series and is waiting (impatiently) for Mockingjay to hit the stores. The books are very, very different dystopias, but they have the sense of excitement and fervor you can't help yourself from being sucked into. This book is so dangerous and exciting, it would be a great way to suck a student into reading. I would suggest the book for high-skilled middle schoolers to high school students. The world of the Glade is intricate, but not confusing. This is also a wonderful book for male and female readers alike.

Even if you aren't into the recent dystopia boom that has rocked the YA genre, you should give this book a chance. It is just as good as Hunger Games, but it contains a world that stands on its own with a vengeance. The Gladers, while still trying to maintain order and live their lives, NEVER give up on the hope that they can escape the Maze. This hope is the backbone of this story and will keep you wanting more. The ending is a little abrupt and opens up so many more questions than it answers, but the sequel, The Scorch Trials, is due out in October, and I am willing to bet it will be just as powerful as the first book. So if you need some adventure and an all-consuming read, pick up The Maze Runner. You won't be sorry!

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Here Lies a Break Out Dystopia!

Ship Breaker
Dystopias are just making my summer! Is that weird? Oh well, weird or not, I have read some awesome YA dystopias, and Nebula winner Paolo Bacigalupi doesn't disappoint with Ship Breaker. You might not be able to pronounce the author's last name, but you won't forget this story once you've finished it.

Nailer is just one of many kids who work the Light Crew on the beach. Light Crew are small kids who can climb into the old rusting hulks of abandoned ships on the beach from a time long gone. They scavenge anything they can, especially copper, from old ships, but hitting the Lucky Strike of an oil pocket is the dream of any scavenge crew. The worst fate is to be thrown from your blood-oath crew for betraying your oath. If you betray your crew, there isn't much hope for you on the beach.

Nailer's mom died long ago and his father waivers between drug-induced hazes and violent abusive rages. His life on Light Crew is the only thing that keeps them fed. His Crew leader, Pima, and her mother are the closest thing to family Nailer has known. When he and Pima discover a shipwreck after a huge "city killer" (hurricane), they decide to scavenge for their own Lucky Strike before anyone else gets there. During their scavenge, however, they find a young girl pinned. If they don't rescue her, she will surely die. Pima wants to kill her and continue the Strike, but Nailer insists on saving the girl they dub Lucky Girl. In doing so, Nailer's very scary father finds them and is determined to sell Lucky Girl to the highest bidder.

Pima and Nailer know they have to get away from Nailer's dad and his psychotic crew, but they underestimate the strength of the crew. During their getaway, they are saved by Pima's mom and a half-man (men genetically engineered with dog/hyena/etc. DNA as "loyal" servants). Tool, the half-man, helps Nailer and Lucky Girl escape to Orleans (part of the old New Orleans and Orleans II) where she can find a ship to save her. The reason she shipwrecked in the first place was because she was outrunning a traitor in her father's company who wanted to use her as leverage for power in his company. Now they don't know which ship and captain can be trusted, but Nailer's dad is hunting them as well. Nailer and Tool must find a way to get Lucky Girl back to her family.

This is an awesome dystopia, with all the bells and whistles. Hard, gruesome work for the majority of they barely-scraping by masses while the leaders live with extravagant pleasures. The disenchanted masses dream of a better life while trudging through the short, painful lives they lead. It makes you love Nailer and Pima and all the others stuck on the beach, but also frustrated with Lucky Girl and her ignorance to their lives. Lucky Girl isn't without redemption, of course. She has a quality that makes people who haven't even met her want to help her. When Nailer sees how many crew members on one of her father's ships would risk their lives to save her, he knows Lucky Girl is a special kind of "swank".

This is a moderately difficult book, in terms of reading level. I would save this story for high skilled junior high through high school. The story is very exciting and interesting. It has some familiar landmarks and cities to keep a student's interest while still exploring a whole new world. The only thing that might be a little confusing is the nicknames and slang the characters use. You get used to the new terms quickly, but when they are first introduced, they can be a little confusing. This is a really great story by a newly acclaimed Sci-Fi author. It is nice when we drag the talented "adult" authors to the YA fun- they never knew what they were missing until they start writing for young adults!

You Won't Linger Over this One!

Who said a sequel can't be better? If so, they clearly haven't read Maggie Stiefvater's Linger, a sequel to her werewolf bestseller, Shiver. This story not only makes me like the first book better, it makes me want to move to Minnesota! Now I have never been to Minnesota, so please excuse the judgment, but it takes quite an author to convince me to move to the tundra!

Where the first book was told from the perspective of Sam, the werewolf, and Grace, the average good girl, Linger is told from four different perspectives: Sam, Grace, their friend Isabel (whose new wolf brother died in the last book), and Cole, a new wolf who was specially chosen to be turned by Beck, Sam's adoptive father. Last season, when it looked like Sam and Beck weren't going to change back into humans anymore, Beck made sure there would be new wolves to take over the pack. Sam's cure worked, though, and he is no longer shifting; he got his wish to permanently stay a human and be with Grace as much as possible.

So when two new wolves surface, Cole and Victor, Sam has to act as pack leader and take care of them. Unfortunately, something is wrong. Cole is shifting into a human too often for such cold weather, and Victor is violently shifting back and forth, without any control over either form. Things continue to go south when Grace's parents, who are no longer thrilled with her relationship with Sam, find the two of them in bed in the middle of the night. Now they don't want Grace to be around Sam, but Grace is growing weaker and sicker each and every day. With no idea what is wrong with her, but a clear idea it has something to do with the wolves, Sam, Isabel, and Cole must come together to help her.

This was a wonderful follow up to the first book. With more characters for the first-person narrative, it can be a bit confusing at times. I sometimes found myself wondering who was talking and had to flip back a few pages to be sure of the narrator, but otherwise I liked hearing from Isabel and Cole. In Shiver, it sometimes got annoying to only hear from Grace and Sam, especially when they spent pages and pages mooning over one another. But Cole is a warped character who wants nothing more than to totally lose his human half. And Isabel is just as interesting. She blames herself for her brother's death, and she has no one she can talk to about it other than Cole. The tenuous relationship struck by these two is one you wish would blossom but are worried that both parties are just too damaged for any real trust to happen. Their sarcasm and troubled pasts keep the story interesting and give the story more impact.

The writing is the same level as the first book, and the material is very tame, even for YA. There is very little mature content if any. The only snag a student might find with this series is its character driven nature. Any action that takes place is secondary to the character development. I find this to be its most redeeming quality, but for a struggling, insecure reader, the lack of packed action might not keep them reading. This is a great book for middle school through high school and beyond, depending on the reading strength of the student. The story clearly sets up for a third installment, but it ends in a mostly satisfying way. I wasn't angry it ended, but I am definitely waiting for the next book!

Friday, July 16, 2010

Heartbreaking and Heartwarming in the Same Breath

The Sky Is Everywhere
"Gram is worried about me. It's not just because my sister Bailey died four weeks ago, or because my mother hasn't contacted me in sixteen years, or even because suddenly all I think about is sex. She is worried about me because one of her houseplants has spots. Gram has believed for most of my seventeen years that this particular houseplant, which is of the nondescript variety, reflects my emotional, spiritual, and physical well-being. I've grown to believe it too... This is us since my sister Bailey collapsed one month ago from a fatal arrhythmia while in rehearsal for a local production of Romeo and Juliet. It's as if someone vacuumed up the horizon while we were looking the other way."

That was just the first three pages. My. Heart. Broke. With. Every. Page. This book (I am not afraid to admit) had me sobbing and laughing in rotating intervals all night. I simply could not put it down without finding out what happens next. I even called my sister at 1am to tell her I loved her- this phone call was not exactly met with the warmth and gratefulness I had expected (mostly just a groggy "you are so weird"), but as you can see, this book clocked me in the solar plexus.

Seventeen year old Lennie is an interesting character. She is a clarinet player in the band, has never had a boyfriend, and loves to read emotional classics like Wuthering Heights. In fact, her family is famous in the neighborhood for "road reading"- walking down the road so engrossed in a book they have no idea if they are about to be plowed down in traffic. Despite her quirkiness, Lennie has still always been her sister's shadow, her companion pony to her sister's racehorse. When her sister Bailey dies suddenly, Lennie can't seem to get her life together. It was bad enough her mother left them to live with their grandmother when Lennie was one, but now Bailey has abandoned her too.

Lennie is struggling to stay afloat. When Bailey's boyfriend starts spending time with her and even making out with her, Lennie feels drawn to him. She knows it is wrong and her heart breaks for betraying Bailey every time they get together, but she still can't stop seeing him. Toby is the closest she can get to Bailey. When a new boy moves into town with his musical family and 100 watt smile, Lennie starts to feel about him the way Bailey felt about Toby. Now she has herself caught between the worst betrayal ever and a boy who just likes her for who she is, broken pieces and all.

This book is about a young girl who cannot cope with the loss of her best friend, sister, and confidante. I have to say the grief is so real, I found myself sobbing and couldn't figure out if I was tired, overemotional, or the book was really that good. After finishing, I think the book was really that good. The descriptions of Lennie's shock, how she goes through the motions, loses it when she sees Bailey in the coffin, refuses to pack up Bailey's half of the room, and talks to her sister are so real, I felt like I was grieving with her every step of the way. When the new boy comes into town, Lennie can't believe she deserves such attention at first, and then feels guilty about every happy thought. It feels too soon for Lennie to smile.

This book is obviously geared more toward girls. It is an emotional story, but it is so well written, it would touch the heart of any reader. There is a light amount of sexual activity- mostly making out, but it might make the story inappropriate for younger readers. I think this is a great 10-12 grade book with strong feelings, a wonderful story, and amazing characters. It might be too much for any student who has recently suffered a loss, though, so recommendations should be made with careful consideration. This is a beautiful story, and I plan to call my sister this morning at a more reasonable time and tell her again how much I love her!

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The Deep Sea Never Looked so Good!

Dark Life
With science fiction exploring so many different realms, it is no wonder it has take YA so long to get into the ocean! Who doesn't want to live in an incredible underwater civilization with kelp gardens, fish farms, and other "deeply" exciting adventures!

Dark Life by Kat Falls starts off with a premise that the world has been largely flooded due to global warming, and most of the submerged East Coast has broken off the continent and slipped into a deep underwater ravine. In a world where space is now limited and families are lucky to have one tiny room in a concrete jungle, civilization has found a way to live on the ocean floor. In the Dark, as the underwater civilizations are called, a person can earn huge homesteads in exchange for a few years working the land for food for the Topsiders.

Ty's parents were two of the scientists and engineers who put together the Dark, and Ty was the first child born undersea. It is rumored that children born undersea were developing special gifts- Dark Gifts- but if they do, none will admit to it. When Gemma, a Topsider, comes barreling down undersea looking for her brother, Ty gets swept into helping her. But the Dark is being terrorized by a group of outlaws who raid shipments, but have recently started attacking homesteads as well. Now the Topside government has told the Dark that they either catch the outlaws themselves, or the undersea homesteaders will be forced to leave their land and move Topside. Ty and Gemma get caught up in the search for the outlaws, the truth of what happened to her brother, and the fight to keep the undersea settlements safe.

This is an immediately interesting book. From the very first page, Falls' world is gripping, exciting, and a very interesting possibility! The technology behind the underwater architecture, travel, and ways of life are really intriguing! The story is also full of adventure and excitement, with multiple conflicts taking place. It has also been described as post-apocalyptic or dystopian, but I think it is more on the adventure/science fiction realm.

The writing is fairly simple, and while the story is full, it isn't overly complex. Therefore, this would be an excellent book for middle readers and early high school students. My first thought as I read the book, was "Yeah! A book for boys!" It is so hard to find books that aren't inherently bent towards teen girls, so it is so exciting when you find one that works for both boys and girls! This book would keep any boy reading. The story is also mature enough for an older teen with a lower reading level. And the exciting part? While it ends with a good conclusion and doesn't leave you hanging, it is slated to be a series! I look forward to reading the next book, and I can't wait to pull my students into this fantastic Underwater Adventure!

Friday, July 9, 2010

Stole My Attention!

Heist Society
What do you get when you cross the Da Vinci Code, National Treasure, and Ocean's Eleven in a Young Adult Stew? Heist Society, by Ally Carter! I won't lie, I was turned off by the title- a bit to corny- but the picture made me think of Audrey Hepburn, so I gave it a shot. This was one instance where judging a book by its cover worked out for me!

Kat has left the life. Her father, her great uncle, her cousins, even her family friends are all thieves: con artists, pickpockets, art thieves, jewel thieves- you name it, they can steal it. But Kat wants to live a straight life, so she enrolls (aka cons) her way into boarding school until her long-time billionaire, friend (also a thief), Hale sets her up for an incident involving the headmaster's car and the school fountain which gets her kicked out. hale didn't do this just for fun, though; Kat's father was in trouble. A very evil man had his five prized paintings stolen, and he is sure Kat's father is responsible. Now Kat, Hale, and a merry band of misfit teenaged crooks must find the paintings to save Kat from a very bad man and his gang of thugs.

This story is very interesting, peppered with hilarious antics of supporting characters. Two of the crew, brothers Hamish and Angus, have me laughing from the moment they hit the stage until the very last page. Kat herself is a strong young woman who will go to great lengths to protect her family- even breaking into the most secure museum ever with only 6 other teens as her crew, despite the explicit instructions not to get involved from her father and her uncle. She isn't sure what she wants anymore in regards to "the life", but she knows how much her family means to her!

This is a great book for middle school and early high school students, but the characters and action-packed fun are perfect for low-skilled older students. They won't be burdened by a high reading level, but won't be insulted by a watered-down, hokey story. This was a fun story that ends well, but has a sequel on the way. If you have a student who needs some action to keep them going and would benefit from a fun story to hook them, this is a great choice! And don't let the cover fool you- this would be a good story for boys or girls!

Everyone needs a Witch Once in a While!

Once a Witch
Now, there are so many supernatural books out there these days, it almost gets hard to tell one from the other. We've got vampires all over the place, some twinkle, some burn, some are downright creepy. We have werewolves, were-lions, even were-eagles! Not to mention witches, warlocks, wiccans, and any number of other kinds of spellcasters. Then add in the fallen angels, ghouls, zombies, etc. and we are so full of the supernatural, we can't tell where one story ends and the next begins. So when you find one that stands out from the pack, like Once a Witch, by Carolyn McCullough, you get excited!

The story begins in a unique way for a family of witches, because the main character, Tamsin, is the only non-magical member of the family. To rub salt in the wound, when she was born, Tamsin's grandmother foretold that Tamsin would be the most powerful witch of them all. So Tamsin tries to live as normal of a life as possible away from her family, and when she is with her family, she must deal with the fact that she is literally powerless in a family full of the most powerful witches of that time.

When Tamsin is watching her grandmother's magic shop, a young man mistakes her for her very powerful sister and asks her help. Enjoying the feeling of someone thinking she was powerful, she doesn't correct him. In fact, she agrees to help him find a clock that was lost from his family long ago. So Tamsin enlists the help of her very talented and newly returned family friend, Gabriel, to find the clock. When they travel back in time, however, they find there is more to this clock than they originally thought. Now her sister is under a powerful love spell, her grandmother is in a coma, and Tamsin the Powerless must fix what she has done.

This is a really fun story with some new twists and powers that we haven't seen lately. Tamsin is a girl who feels like an outsider everywhere she goes- she is powerless in a family of very powerful people and out in the real world, she has to hide the truth of who her family really is. This "outsider" feeling is one that would really hit home with many teenagers. It is a time when so many feel like they don't belong anywhere, and it is nice to read that they are not alone with those feelings- with a supernatural twist of course! I also think Tamsin is a wonderful character full of spunk, frustration, and conflict between wanting her own life and wanting to fit in.

The book is a middle-of-the-road reading level that would be appropriate for high-skilled middle school students to low-skilled high school students. The story might be a bit too juvenile for a mature high school student, and might be best for 10th grade and under. The coolest thing was the author's website. It has a bunch of information about myths and history about witches, especially about witch trials. It also has a little quiz to test how well you know your witches, including questions about witches from "Buffy the Vampire Slayer", Harry Potter, Salem, and even "Sabrina the Teenage Witch". So check out the book, and don't forget to look at the website! You won't be sorry!

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

A Journey Down the Manless Road

Epitaph Road
After reading Nomansland, a dystopian tale about a civilization without men that was written by a woman, I was interested in the comparison of a similar tale written by a man. Epitaph Road, by David Patneaude (pronounced "pat-node"), is a dystopia about life after a plague kills most of the male population on earth and how the world copes with such a rocking change.

Kellen is a young man in a woman's world. A generation ago, a savage virus swept through the world and wiped out 97% of the male population. Whole governments were decimated, leaving the women to pick up all the pieces. Surprisingly, the result was a peaceful existence worldwide, but very limited rights for men. Some men live within the civilizations and are even allowed professions if they score high enough on the gender biased trials. Some men, however, live on the outskirts of society as loners who want nothing to do with the woman-run world.

Kellen's father in a loner who works on his fishing boat, but his mother works for the government. When Kellen overhears a virus is going to be released in the area where his father lives, he and two young female friends take off to save him from the government outbreak that will be made to look like a natural occurrence of the virus, but will actually be the government's way of ridding themselves of conspirators. In their travels to find Kellen's father, the trio find a whole lot more about the original pandemic's origins, what rebels are doing to stop the virus, and a "companion" virus that would wipe out the female population the same way the men were decimated a generation ago.

This is a very interesting story full of feminism and sexism. It was an interesting spin on "women Take Over" compared to Nomansland, but I think this novel was more interesting and more readable. The women in this book were more calculated and ruthless; they even regulated how many men could "contribute" sperm and how many boys would be born through fertility controls. I really liked the idea that while women considered themselves more humane and level-headed compared to the previous generation's male-led governments, and were in many international diplomatic scenarios, they were just as sexist and oppressive to men as men were to women in generations in the past. It was an interesting examination of sociology, gender relations, and humanity.

This was a very readable book with background knowledge of the plague presented in a gripping manner. The action of the plot begins quickly and is gripping enough to hold the reader in. The reading level would be best for high skilled middle-schoolers to high school students. It is a great book to use as an examination of gender and sexism. This story paired with a historical novel about women's suffrage would create some interesting discussions.