Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Harmony in a Harsh New World

Restoring Harmony
When the world changes drastically, one expects hardship and struggle. While this book is certainly not without hardship and struggle, its focus is on family and making do in hard times. Not to mention the main character plays a fiddle! I love fiddles! If I had even a smidge of musical talent, I might even want to learn to play a fiddle!

Molly McClure is only 16, but she is the only logical choice to pilgrimage from Canada to California in order to find her grandparents. Molly's parents received word that her grandmother was in the hospital after a stroke, but the communications systems are so bad, they were never able to find out if she survived. Molly's mother is also pregnant, but when the only doctor in many miles is killed, her complicated pregnancy desperately needs a doctor, and Molly's grandfather is a doctor. So Molly must make the difficult, illegal journey across the border to find her grandfather, in whatever state he may be in.

After the long trip, Molly finds her grandparent's house and learns her grandmother indeed survived the stroke, but is not in the best of health. Her grandfather reluctantly lets her in the house, but his long-standing feud with Molly's mother keeps him from opening up to Molly too quickly. Molly expects to see her grandfather doing well, but quickly realizes any money he had before the Collapse is gone and he is barely scraping by. When she sees his neighbor's garden, strangled and full of weeds, she can't resist getting into it and taking care of the vegetables. Although the neighbor doesn't trust Molly at first, he quickly realizes she is just trying to help. Together with his niece and nephew who he reluctantly takes care of, they help the garden get back on its feet enough to keep them all from starving.

When Molly made the trek to her grandparent's house, she met a young man who seemed to know the lay of the land well. Now that she is desperately trying to find a way to get her grandparents home, she must take advantage of Spill's knowledge, even when she realizes he is dangerously connected to The Boss and the organized crime family that controls the area. Can Spill help them get away when The Boss wants Molly to stay put? Can they get back to Canafa before Molly's mom has the baby?

Among some serious doom and gloom in the post-apocalyptic genre, this is the nicest, most beautiful story. The backdrop of the Collapse is not overwhelming. the story focuses on a family, whether by blood or circumstance, that come together to survive against all odds. Molly, the main character, is so nice and caring. When she plays her fiddles, Jewels, she not only makes herself forget all the hardship around her, she makes others forget as well. She is also the type of person who refuses to accept the "Every man for himself" notion. Molly is the type of person who will always do the right thing, even if it involves hard work and tough decisions. When it becomes clear her neighbor Doug is not fit to take care of his niece and nephew, she doesn't hesitate to take them in and be sure they are fed and housed. Molly is the type of person we all hope we could be!

The reading level is moderate without any adult or mature language. The situations aren't overly mature, and would be well-suited to a middle school or junior high student. There is enough action to keep a student's attention, but the real story is the characters and their lives. They are good people who are just trying to live in a hard world, and you find yourself hoping for the best for all of them. You won't be disappointed with this story!

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Looking for a Good Read? Look No Further!

By Guest Author, Taylor

Looking for Alaska, by John Green, is about a boy named Pudge. Pudge goes to boarding school where he meets The Colonel, Alaska, Takumi and Lara. Pudge picks up numerous bad habits, such as drinking and smoking, which are all social behaviors. The Colonel is a short built boy who doesn’t associate with many people except his close knit group of friends. Takumi is from Taiwan and is a friend of The Colonel. He often feels left out of plans that Pudge, The Colonel, and Alaska organize. Alaska is a bundle of cute, and Pudge sees her as a goddess. Alaska reads books and spends quality time with Pudge. Just as Pudge is getting used to life on campus something terrible happens. Alaska dies in a car crash. So The Colonel and Pudge try to look for clues about Alaska’s death. They try to figure out what was going through her mind and whether her death was a suicide or fate?
In this story, I fell in love with the characters. They felt real to me, and I truly think that they could be real people. In this book there is always a new twist or turn that will keep you engaged throughout the entire book.  It’s almost as if you can put it down. One thing that stood out to me was how they referred to their room as room 43, but they never said what any other person’s door number was. This book was so graphic it was almost like a picture that plays in your head while you’re reading it.  It could have been a movie. In this book John Green describes boarding school in a very false light. He describes it as if it is almost the promised land for drugs, sex, and alcohol. I would recommend this book to any teenager or young adult who needs to get out of their head. Also I would not suggest this book to any first-time high school boarding students. They will get their hopes up and be sadly disappointed.  Also, I thought this was going to be an underdog story, but it wasn’t.  Even in John Greene’s world, Alaska would never go out with Pudge.  Overall, however, I thought the book was really good.  I thoroughly enjoyed it.  
If you want to feel anything at all, any human emotion, this book will bring you on the verge of tears.  

Monday, December 13, 2010

When Life becomes a Big, Hot Mess.

Hothouse: A Novel
Sometimes there are books that deceptively seem like they are for younger readers, but in reality they are much deeper than they appear (kind of like the puddle you thought was shallow until you got wet up to your knees). Hothouse by Chris Lynch is much like that puddle. You know it is going to be wet and messy, but you had no idea just what you were getting yourself into.

Russell's dad is a firefighter. A hero. DJ's dad is a firefighter in the same house- The Hothouse. Growing up, DJ and Russell's families were so close, DJ was named after Russell's dad and Russell was named after DJ's dad. Since childhood, DJ and Russell have grown apart, but their father's chosen profession has always left them connected in a way no one can understand unless they lived in a firefighter's household.

The story begins with the funerals of DJ and Russell's fathers. They were killed in a horrible fire while saving an elderly woman. The town is anxious to memorialize both men. DJ and Russell find themselves local heroes by association: no one takes their money for anything, everyone wants to be near them, and people can't stop telling them how wonderful their fathers were. While Russell seems to revel in this attention and feels special for having the father he did, DJ seems to shun the attention. He wants to move on and desperately wants the town to stop glorifying everything his father ever did.

When an investigation begins over the deaths of their fathers, both boys are confused, but they are assured it is all routine to investigate any death in the line of duty. It quickly becomes apparent, though, that their fathers weren't as saintly as the town wanted them to be. Haunted by their lives and what they had seen, both men may have entered that fire intoxicated and with drugs in their system. Russell doesn't know how to deal with this information. He still loves and respects his father, but the news and the harassing phone calls make him doubt his father and his love for his father. DJ isn't quite as surprised, though.

This book is not only difficult, it's heartbreaking. You really want to just let both men be heroes without the investigation, especially after they lost their lives, but the fallen hero is a compelling story. The story shows that even the heroes can have flaws and even the flawed can be heroes. This is a great story to elicit some thought-provoking opinions, assignments, and discussions.

The writing is fairly low-leveled, but their are some adult situations and adult language throughout the story. I would think this story would be good for an older student who has low skills, but needs a more mature story. Since it is primary character driven, it isn't the best story for a kid who needs a lot of action. It is also a more abstract story, so the concrete thinkers might not appreciate it as much as others. In all, this is a great story for a specific niche within your student population. It is very hard to find mature books with lower reading levels, so this book is certainly a gem. Beware, however, that there are no easy answers from this book- it is a hard one to digest, but worth the necessary Tums to get it down!

Crescendo or Flat Tone?

Crescendo (Hush, Hush)
I really liked Becca Fitzpatrick's first novel, Hush, Hush. I read it cover to cover during my Christmas break last year, and was looking forward to the sequel, Crescendo. Sequels have a funny lot in life though. They are plagued by the opinions on the original book, are derivative by pure nature, and expected still to take a stand of its own and wow the reader into continuing the series. The sad sequel is just like the middle child- never first and never final. It is just a bridge between the two most important parts of a trilogy. So did Crescendo elevate Hush, Hush or disgrace the series?

We last left Nora Grey and Patch in a strange and forbidden relationship. Nora is the descendant of Patch's Nephilim- the child of a fallen angel- and as a fallen angel himself, Patch must kill the vassal or child of Nephilim in order to gain a human body. Instead he fell in love with Norah and not only didn't kill Nora himself, but protected her from another who was trying to do her in- Chauncey. Now Patch has been elevated to a guardian angels for his selfless act and is forbidden to love Nora, something he and Nora can't bear to admit.

The Nephilim are back and in rare form. They are creating a Blood society whose sole purpose is to keep the fallen angels from taking over their bodies during Cheshvan. Cheshvan is the only time fallen angels are allowed to feel and experience human thoughts and emotions, but it requires them to possess the body of their Nephilim for two weeks. Obviously, this doesn't make the Nephilim- a mean, super strong, immortal group of thugs- very happy. Now Nora is in their cross-hairs as Chauncey was once the leader of the Blood society and they are eager to exact their revenge.

As her guardian angel, Patch should be able to protect her, but when Nora sees him spending time with Marcie, her sworn childhood enemy, she breaks up with him and fires him as her guardian angel. When a guy she knew as a child returns to town (who is also Nephilim) she is oddly drawn to him despite her instinct that something is up with him. Can Nora survive the strange visions, the crazy Nephilim, the sneaky fallen angels, and the elementary school bullies?

As a sequel, this book doesn't surprise me. It's good, but not great. It's interesting but not thrilling. It is the perfect middle child in an eventual trilogy. If a student liked the first book, they might like this second one, but my guess is it might be a bit too stretched out with the meat of the story unceremoniously stuffed into the final 50 pages. I know the first bookw as written similarly, but you would think that by the second book with the characters finally having almost all the information about Angels and Nephilim that the story would be more involved than the first story. Unfortunately, it isn't. I liked the story fine enough, but I have to say I wasn't wowed. I probably wouldn't suggest it for a struggling student unless they had been flattened by the first book and needed more. If they felt lukewarm towards the first book, I certainly wouldn't encourage them to read the second installment. I am interested to see where the third book will go, but I hope Fitzpatrick ups the ante!

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Zombie Dystopia meets Catcher in the Rye

Rot & Ruin
OK, "Zombie Apocalypse meets Catcher in the Rye" may seem like a ridiculous pairing, but in Jonathan Maberry's Rot and Ruin, it just works. This zombie Sci-Fi thriller meets coming-of-age tale is quite simply the best YA zombie story I have ever read! In fact, it might just be one of the best zombie stories, YA or adult fiction, I have ever read!

Benny Imura was just a toddler when his brother, Tom, took him and ran away from their home on the First Night. Benny has never forgiven his brother for running away and not saving his mother from their father who had already become one of the monsters. Even though Tom has since become a bounty hunter who ventures into the Rot and Ruin to kill zombies for money, Benny still thinks Tom is a coward.

Together they live in Mountainside, a small fenced town that works together to survive the zombie apocalypse that started 14 years ago. Benny has just turned 15 and all 15 year olds must find a job or their food rations will be cut in half. Benny and his friend Chong start looking for jobs, but can't find anything that isn't disgusting, terrifying, or simply too much effort than they are willing to give. Chong gets a job as a lookout on the fence tower, but Benny's imperfect eyesight keeps him looking. Finally, without any other options, he must resign himself to apprentice with his brother, and nothing could annoy him more.

When Tom agrees to take Benny into the Ruin and show him what he does, Benny has no idea what he is in for. Benny hates the zoms and has long since idolized the ruthless bounty hunters like Charlie Pink-Eye and Motorcity Hammer. Once in the Ruin, however, he sees Tom's side of the world. While the zoms are certainly to be feared, they aren't to be disrespected. Tom teaches Benny that the zoms were once people, and his job is very different than the other bounty hunters. Instead of bringing back limbless torsos for money like the other hunters, Tom goes on specific missions for family members to give them closure and "quiet" their loved ones. When Benny accompanies him on a quieting, it becomes clear Tom is anything but a coward. When they come upon a group of bounty hunters "having fun" with a bunch of zoms, Benny truly understands Tom's job finally- it isn't about killing monsters, it is about ending someone's suffering.

Things begin to go awry in the superstitious town of Mountainside when the newest Zombie Trading Cards are released. In addition to Benny getting the new hunter card- Tom- he also gets the Lost Girl card. The Lost Girl is a myth of a feral girl who survives in the ruin. She is stunning and Benny instantly feels protective of her. When he begins to investigate the card, however, he finds his brother may be the best source of information about the Lost Girl. Unfortunately, Charlie Pinkeye is also interested, and not for humanitarian reasons. He has much more disturbing reasons for wanting to find the Lost Girl, and when he attacks Benny's friend Nix and her mother, Benny and Tom must go into the Ruin to save Nix before Charlie can put her into the Zombie Games- a twisted gladiator-esque challenge where the hunters pit children against zombies.

This book was simply fantastic. It really showed the superstitious nature of the survivors in the small town. Once they had shielded themselves from the zombies, they weren't willing to even consider what happened outside the fences. Like the other townsfolk, Benny only sees the zombies for what they currently are- flesh munching, mindless monsters. Tom sees what they were- people like you and me. It shows the humanity within a pretty scary genre.

The writing is not too mature or too immature. It would be appropriate for stronger junior high readers all the way through high school readers. There isn't an abundance of violence, even though the story centers around zombies and bounty hunters. This book is a great story for the students who are interested in some action but really like a character driven story, as Benny and Tom are the true focus of this incredible book. All I can say is even if you are not a zombie enthusiast, you should give this book a chance- it will really blow your preconceived notions out of the water!

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Boys, Girls, and not Much More...

Boys, Girls and Other Hazardous Materials
I must admit the cover and the title of this book would have immediately turned me off if not for the author. Rosalind Wiseman is the author of Queen Bees and Wannabes, a book that followed in the groundbreaking footsteps of Reviving Ophelia and continued the examination of adolescent girl behavior. We adult women have all known about this elusive behavior since we were young girls ourselves, but Mary Pipher started putting it on paper. Wiseman took the idea and put it in more direct terms so every teacher and parent could use this information to help their daughters through the grueling years of adolescence. So when I saw the author of this book was Wiseman, I thought, "Silly stereotypical, unimaginative cover be darned! This one is going to rock the stereotypes and bring the real life of young women to the table!" Sadly... I wasn't entirely correct...

Charlie has just started ninth grade and chose to go to Harmony Falls high school instead of her neighborhood high school after her horrible experiences with the mean girls as their used and abused sidekick. New school, clean slate. Unfortunately, as soon as she arrives and joins the school newspaper, she see Nadhi, the very girl whose reputation she sat by and watched her "frenemies" destroy. Lucky for Charlie, Nidhi is willing to forgive Charlie for not stepping in to stop the girls and they strike up a great friendship and partnership for the newspaper. Charlie also lucks out by meeting another girl who is just looking to survive high school, Sydney.

Together, the three make a fairly functional group of young women. They crush on boys, then realize their crushes are actually jerks. They deal with girl drama like the frenemies from Charlie's middle school coming to the homecoming dance and making her feel about an inch tall. They deal with jocks and hazing. There are old friends who return as possible love interests, and there are serious questions about how much the "golden few" in high school (lacrosse team) can really get away with. In all, this is a very realistic portrayal of a girl surviving 9th grade.

The problem was there wasn't much other than daily goings on and the occasional mini-crisis involving a boy disrupting Sydney's power point presentation because she rejected him or Sydney storming into the locker room to humiliate the boy in front of the entire varsity lacrosse team (which then leads to Sydney mocking him constantly, Charlie telling her it was getting to be too much, Sydney getting mad at Charlie, and them having a touching heart to heart where they get their frustrations off their chest). Honestly, I felt like I had spent a week in the girls dorm after finishing this book. And while that isn't a problem, of course, and I appreciate the realistic nature of the story, I was kind of waiting for the real story to emerge. If I wanted simple everyday girl world, I could easily spend a day or so in the girls dorm and get a full dose. When I read a book, I want a real conflict and resolution. This book had the hazing prank gone awry when an innocent man is hurt and the lacrosse players might get away with it, but the conflict wasn't really built up to or developed enough to stand out in the middle of all the other girl drama.

In all, this is a fairly immature book with some interesting characters and not much by way of substance. I think it would be too immature for most high school students, but might be good for the odd mature elementary to middle school student who thinks they are more mature than they really are or has become immersed in social politics. It has enough realistic situations with good, moralistic endings to be both entertaining and educational. The subtle lack of a fully developed plot might also not bother this type of student, as it is the type of book you can pick up and put down without any damage to a running plot. There is some mention of parties and alcohol, but the main characters are never involved directly and are more disdainful than interested in joining. In all, this book was just OK, and I wanted so much more from Ms. Wiseman... Maybe next time?