Thursday, September 29, 2011

Who are "Them" and "Us"?

Away (The Line, Book 2)
Rachel has crossed into Away with the Others to bring medicine to save the son of the woman her mother works for. What she isn't letting on is that she hopes to find her father too. In a fallen United States, now the Unified States, something irrevocable happened- war and fear caused the country to tighten its borders with an impenetrable border that cut off a huge population of the country, leaving them to fend for themselves. In Teri Hall's sequel Away, we see the other side of this post-war dystopia- the people forgotten on the other side of the border.

Rachel feels safe with Pathik, Ms. Moore's grandson, but she isn't so sure about the rest of the Others. Some of them have developed gifts, such as Pathik's ability to read people's minds and moods. Some of the gifts aren't nice, like Jab who can give you pain without even touching you. But Rachel is willing to risk her own life to bring medicine to Malgam, Pathik's father, and to find information about her own father, Daniel. She brings with her to Away an ideal of who these Others are, but what she wasn't expecting was the fact that the Others don't trust the people from her side of the border either. These are the people who abandoned them, and they have never looked back.

Ms. Moore's medicine works, and Rachel finds out her father is alive... possibly. He has been taken by a group of very bad Others who want to trade him back to the government for supplies. When they rescue him, he can't believe he is seeing his daughter, his grown up daughter who risked her life to cross the border. Now all the group can think about is getting Rachel's mom and Ms. Moore to the right side of the line, the side with their families. Can they succeed, or will they lose everything?

With a dystopia like this, you always wonder about both sides and the first book, The Line, didn't have much information about the other side. This follow-up was a brilliant balance to that information. I loved the idea that both sides have misinformation about the other side, and neither trusts one another. It was a good example of propaganda, fear, and an oppressive government. This would be an excellent series to accompany a history lesson on divided Germany. You would be able to directly correlate sides of the book with sides of Germany and discuss the distrust and misinformation thanks to the government. This aid of a work of fiction could put real life situations into perspective for students who are 40-50 years removed from the events you are trying to teach them about.

The beauty of this story is that it is a very simply written story that is perfect for any middle reader, but the interest level would appeal to older students as well. It might not be the most sophisticated book for kids who read a lot of dystopian literature, but could be a good balance to a kid who is new to the genre but is low skilled. And since the books are relatively short, they can enjoy the success of reading two books with relative ease. I love this story both for its simplicity and its complexity- a great series for anyone and everyone!

Sunday, September 25, 2011

An Investigation that Will Haunt You

Fade (Wake Series, Book 2)
Dream catcher. Knowing a person's most intimate thoughts and dreams. It might be interesting if it didn't control and possibly ruin your life. In Wake, by Lisa McMann, we saw how dreams were controlling Janie's life, but in Fade, the sequel, we see Janie learn to control the dreams.

Now that Janie knows Cabe isn't a drug dealer and is actually an undercover narc, she trusts him completely. She even begins working for the same department he does, trying to find leads in their small town. When a tip comes into a hotline that a teacher might be sexually assaulting students, the Captain sends in Janie as bait, much to Cabe's horror. Through her investigation, Janie suspects one of her teachers, but she can't prove anything. When the teacher invites the whole class to a Chem party at his house, she is nominated to go in and make sure nothing happens. Armed with her ability to read dreams and test strips to tell if there are drugs in any of the drinks, Janie feels safe enough to go to the party. What she doesn't know is that what she suspected was happening is really only the tip of the iceberg. In reality, the situation is much more terrifying and she walks willingly into a situation she might not find her way out of.

This was a much more disturbing follow up to the first story. With Wake, I thought the series bordered on the line of a middle reader series- very innocent paranormal series, but interesting enough to keep a kid's attention. With this sequel, it is clear this series is meant for young adults. The truth Janie uncovers is so terrifying it made me horrified just thinking about it. And the descriptions of how everything unfolded at the party will make you start homeschooling your children immediately. That all being said, this is a good book for a mature student who has low reading skills. It is a short, simple book but the material is anything but innocent.

Janie's character development really intrigued me in this sequel. At first, we knew she was an independent young woman who dealt with her mother's debilitating alcoholism with stoic determination. She wanted to do anything to go to college, and worked her butt off to save for it. Her dream hopping was hidden the best she could, and she kept everything to herself (before Cabe of course). But in this story we see a different side of her, and a lot of that comes from the more she learns about the dream catching. Through a deceased dream catcher's journals, Janie learns the terrifying fate that awaits her thanks to the dreams. The dreams not only take a lot out of her emotionally, but they literally drain the life right out of her. Now she must find a way to steel herself against the horrible truth of what awaits her. Do you think she will be able to live with the truth?

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

A Plague Will Bring Them Together

The Eleventh Plague
Just thinking about what could go horribly wrong in the world will make you crazy, so why would someone want to read (so many) books about the apocalypse, you might ask? Well, because they always have an underlying positive message (well, except The Road, of course). The world may have ended, but somewhere out there is a community, a new life, a new start. The Eleventh Plague by Jeff Hirsch is a story about a boy who had nothing to lose, until he almost lost everything.

Stephen and his father just buried Stephen's grandfather, but they aren't sad. In fact, they feel relieved to have lost the burden of his grandfather's cynical, dog-eat-dog mentality. Not even 24 hours after his death, they are caught in a situation where they could either walk away and save themselves or help a person in need. They know Grandfather would make them walk away, but he isn't there anymore. Unfortunately, the very first time they take a chance to help someone, it goes horribly awry and Stephen's father is seriously hurt. With a number of broken bones and sunken into a coma, Stephen has no idea what to do, until some people stumble upon them.

At first Stephen thinks they might be the slavers returned for revenge, but after a few wide shots and a crack to the head, Stephen wakes up and finds friendly people- something he didn't think existed anymore in the world after wars, plagues, starvation, and pollution made it only a shell of what it used to be. So when he is taken to their village and they treat his father with precious medicines- a stranger they didn't even know- Stephen feels wildly out of place. He doesn't know how to react to such kind people. In the village is another person who bucks the idea of community- Jenny, the lone Chinese girl a family took in years ago. As the Chinese were responsible for releasing the Eleventh Plague which decimated the population, it is no wonder why Jenny seems to be constantly at war with the idea of a community that expects her to act and react a certain way. When Jenny and Stephen band together to seek innocent revenge on a bully, they release a band of aggression that will show the true and sometimes evil nature of human beings. What they don't realize until it's too late is that their harmless pranks could risk the lives of the only people who have ever cared about them- the people of Settler's Landing.

This was a short read, but it wasn't a disappointing one. I read a lot of post-apocalyptic and dystopia stories, as well as a lot of young adult stories (with plenty of crossover), and I was very impressed with this story. It dealt with many of the common PA themes of survival and community while still appealing to the younger crowd. Stephens character is a boy forced to grow up quickly in order to survive who is both terrified to be alone and terrified to belong to and be responsible to a community. When he sees the kids playing baseball and going to school, he can't help but yearn for a life where things were simpler and life or death wasn't a daily concern. This perspective might be nice for kids who trudge to high school begrudgingly and complain about every single homework assignment.

The story is appropriate for a wide range of students from lower middle school through high school students. In particular, it would be good for low-skilled high school students who need an easier book to read but want mature subjects. The subject matter is deep, but still appropriate for younger students. This book would also be good for any post-apocalyptic fans who also like YA! The world might have ended, but the people who survived have a good story to tell!

Sunday, September 18, 2011

When Your House Holds You Hostage

Ghost stories have been forgotten about in the world of zombies, cyborgs and other creepy creepers. But ghost stories are the ones we can't forget. Ever go into a creepy old farmhouse? A friend of mine grew up in one and I am still creeped out in that house! Why, you ask? Ghosts of course! And those people who tell you the house is just "settling" are clearly delusional. Talk about creepy! Frost by Marianna Baer delivers the quintessential ghost story with boarding school twist.

Leena knows her final year at Barcroft is going to be amazing because she and her two friends got into Frost House- the tiny dorm for four students that can finally be the home Leena hasn't had since her parents got divorced. Unfortunately, their plans of a cozy home together go awry when Celeste Lazar is moved in. She broke her leg and needed a first floor apartment, but she is weird. The other girls tolerate her presence, but Leena has to share a room with her. Fortunately, Celeste comes with a hunky brother, David, who is around the dorm a lot. But with strange Celeste comes some strange activities. Things on Celeste's side of the room are turning up broken, thrown, or destroyed. She is always cold in the room and turns up with strange bruises all over her body.

At first, Leena thinks Celeste is acting strange because she is mad at her for dating David. Then she learns David and Celeste's father is mentally ill, and Leena starts to think Celeste might be hurting herself. When Celeste admits to Leena she thinks the house is trying to kill her, Leena is convinced Celeste suffers from the same paranoid delusions her father does. What she hasn't considered, though, is what is happening to her in that house as well. She might not be showing up with bruises and burns out of nowhere, but the house is somehow controlling her. Can they get out of Frost house before someone gets hurt?

In terms of creepy, I would give this story a 4 out of 10. It wasn't "hide in the shower with a bat" kind of scary, but rather of the mysterious and creepy sort. That doesn't mean it wasn't interesting, though. When Leena doubts Celeste's story, you aren't sure which to believe. Celeste can certainly seem unstable, and might be hurting herself, but things in the house just don't add up. It took me a while to find out where exactly the book was going. I have to say the ending wasn't entirely satisfactory, but it wasn't unpleasant either. It felt a little rushed, especially after so much leading up to the actual finale.

The book is appropriate for strong middle school readers through high school students who might prefer to read more mild mannered stories. The mental illness angle creates plenty of room for discussion. If you check out the book and want to know more, Baer is going to be at Oblong Books in Rhinebeck, NY next month. Check out the details on Oblong's website for the Hudson Valley YA Society for the appearance with 2 other authors! There is nothing cooler than meeting the authors of your favorite books (well, not for me at least!).

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Pause for This One

Pregnant Pause
When you start a book, you generally get a feel for if you are going to like a character or not. With Elly, from Han Nolan's Pregnant Pause, I thought I knew her for the first 200 pages. And I wasn't so sure I liked her. By the end of the book, I loved this girl. I am pretty sure you will too.

Elly is pregnant. Elly is 16. Elly is a mess. Her boyfriend Lam is a stoner, just like she was before she got pregnant. But now Elly is pregnant, so she doesn't do that stuff anymore. Unfortunately, her missionary parents and Lam's Fat Camp running parents aren't so thrilled with the fact that she wants to have the baby. They decide to make Lam and Elly get married and when her parents return to Kenya, Elly will move in with Lam to the camp his parents run. They have to lie about her age, of course, but at least they'll be together.

The problem is Elly knows nothing about camp, about kids, or about being a wife. She also doesn't like Lam so much now that she's sober. When a counselor gets sick, Elly has to take over her classes and her cabin. She is annoyed by one girl who clearly thinks she is the princess of the group and simply doesn't know what to do with Banner, a girl who seems like everyone's doormat and is too scared of doing something wrong to do anything. Elly gives in to her fears and just tries to get the girls to have some fun. She is constantly under the scrutiny of her in-laws and her husband has been mysteriously absent most nights. Elly knows her life isn't perfect, but there is something about her baby that keeps her going on. But when tragedy strikes the camp and Elly's baby isn't quite what everyone expected, her fight to be a mother to her child consumes her life... even though everyone else tells her she would be the worst mother possible.

Elly started out a bratty, obnoxious kid. In fact, it annoyed me for a long time. I liked the story well enough, but she really ticked me off. Some of her observations and reactions were just so... so... childish! Then it hit me about 2/3 through the book- she was a child. A child having a child. It was terrifying. For me, the book was the perfect reason kids shouldn't have kids. Then I got to the end where her baby was born and no one wanted to help her. Here was this girl, abandoned by everyone and you know what she did? She refused to give in. She wasn't going to run away just because it was going to be tough. She wasn't going to take the easy way out. Elly was going to do what she believed was right. She was stubborn. She was bratty. She was a mother. An amazing mother. By the end of this story I absolutely loved this girl. My heart broke for her.

The tough part about this book, in retrospect, is the parents. Her parents are off doing what they want to do and have completely forgotten they have a child. They treat Elly as an inconvenience that ruined their plans. And Lam's parents are worse. They blame Elly for everything, and by extension, blame her for "putting Lam in this position". They are horrible. And when things get tough after the baby is born, everyone is ready to just forget a baby ever existed. I am not going to lie, I wanted to climb through this book and beat these people. But without their neglect, Elly's decisions wouldn't have been quite as powerful. Because of them, she became one of the strongest characters I have ever read about, even if I originally thought she was a brat!

This book would be appropriate for high school teens. It obviously deals with teen pregnancy and sex and drugs, but none are glorified or glamorized. It is a hard, raw story that doesn't hold anything back. It will leave you questioning your own judgments by the end of the story. I didn't think I was going to like Elly for the majority of this book, but by the end, I was rooting for her all the way.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Revolution is Not a Dinner Party

Revolution Is Not a Dinner Party
I have been looking for books for our literature curriculum written by and based on Asian cultures. Unfortunately, it isn't terribly easy to find something that both fits those categories and is a worthwhile book to read in class with middle school students. Oh, there are books out there, but so many of them are written by American or European authors about Asian cultures. I was happy to find Revolution is not a Dinner Party by Ying Chang Compestine, a story about a young girl growing up in China at the end of Mao Ze-dong's Cultural Revolution.

Ling is nine years old and her biggest dream is to see the United States. Her father teaches her English in secret, shows her pictures of the Golden Gate Bridge, and they sing English songs and read English books. But something is happening in China that threatens her family's way of life. Both her parents are doctors- her father of Western medicine and her mother of traditional Chinese medicine. During the Chinese Cultural Revolution, if you weren't working class, you were considered extravagant and wasteful, and Ling's parents fell into that category.

When a Maoist officer moves into their apartment building, everyone in the building is careful because he has the power to make them all disappear if they are thought to be an anti-revolutionist against Mao. When Ling's neighbor, another doctor, disappears, Ling begins to slowly understand the severity of the situation. Then the neighbor's wife is taken and their son moves in with Ling's family. When he is found trying to escape to Hong Kong, he turns on Ling's family and turns them in to save himself. Ling's father is arrested and Ling and her mother must survive on their own with ration dollars becoming fewer and fewer and food in the black market more and more unreliable. Trying to protect her mother, Ling takes over getting food for the family and tries to stay out of trouble. Unfortunately, she has too much of her father in her and can't bear to swallow her pride when confronted by bullies at school and their Maoist parents. Will Ling's fate be any better than the millions of others who were murdered or disappeared during the Cultural Revolution?

This is a fast, small book that really blew me away. It reminded me a lot of Marjane Satrapi's graphic memoir Persepolis in that the main character is a young girl dealing with very mature, life threatening situations she doesn't completely understand. I feel like this perspective is important for students because they can see how the events that unfold are wrong through an innocent child's eyes. It is also interesting to see students critically analyze the naivete of the main character, especially since they are children themselves! It is important for children to relate to a culture they don't know much about, so having a common thread helps make the book more meaningful to them.

I have read some reviews on this book that criticize it for being "historical fiction" rather than a memoir, but I am not sure what is wrong with this. The author grew up in China during the Revolution and based the characters and events off her own experiences. Despite being fiction, the story is steeped in the author's life, making this just as powerful a story even if it isn't a memoir. I still think it is a valuable tool for exposing students to a culture they might not have been exposed to.

This is a perfect book for middle reader students, although the subject matter is serious and it could be used for an older, low-skilled student who likes historical fiction. I imagine this book being appropriate for grades 5-8 for the most part. At the end there is an explanation from the author of how the events in the book relate to her own life. There is also a brief explanation of the historical background, which might be better if read with students first, before the story. This would be a valuable book for any student to read!

Saturday, September 10, 2011

The Zombies are Back in Town

Dust & Decay
Unwilling heroes are probably my favorite characters. They don't want the fame and honor of being people's heroes, but people naturally trust them, look up to them, and expect to be led by them. Tom Imura is that kind of man. He is the bounty hunter who has kept the peace in the Rot and Ruin, even though he wasn't trying. His very presence made people behave and stopped the lawlessness. But when he packs up to leave, people get worried. Death and Decay is Jonathan Maberry's amazing portrayal of an unwilling hero and the people who would put their lives in his hands.

Benny Imura used to resent his brother for abandoning their parents on the First Night, the night the dead began to walk again. When he found out his parents were actually infected and Tom saved him, it made him see Tom in a new light. Then when Tom saved his best friend, Nix, and put an end to Gameland- the place where evil men kidnap kids and have gladiator-esque fights between them and zombies- Benny knew Tom was a man to look up to. Now, after seeing a jet fly above them, Tom is determined to leave the Rot and Ruin to find the jet and secure a better life with his brother and their motley crew of friends.

Despite training them, not all are ready to leave Sanctuary. Nix, after seeing her mother murdered by an evil bounty hunter and being thrown in Gameland, is ready to go. So is Lilah, the mythical Lost Girl who lived in the Rot and Ruin and turned out to not be such a myth after all. But Benny, Chong and Morgie aren't so sure. Morgie decides to stay home, and Chong's mother finally agrees to let him go as long as it is only for a few nights and he comes right back instead of going on the full journey. Unfortunately, she couldn't have known the trouble brewing in the Rot and Ruin.

The trip is immediately off on the wrong foot as strange things start to happen. They come across some weird characters, a man who was executed by way of zombie, and the monk and sisters at their first stop are missing. When Chong disappears, Tom goes to find him and leaves Benny, Nix and Lilah to wait for them to return. What he couldn't have known was that things have gotten very dangerous out there and someone doesn't want them to make it out of town. When thousands of zombies overrun the building they are hiding in, Nix, Benny, Lilah barely make it out alive, but they are separated. Now everyone is trying to make it to the next stop- the old hotel and trading post- alive. What they don't know is there are lots of people out there looking for them- some to warn them and some to kill or kidnap them. Can they find each other without falling prey to the zombies... or worse?

This was a phenomenal follow-up to the first book. I simply could not get enough of this story and stayed up way past my bedtime reading it. I absolutely love the characters, all of them. The good characters make you want to scream every time they are in danger and the bad characters make you want to find a sword and take them on yourself. The story is exciting and non-stop action. There are even some unexpected twists that I won't ruin for you, but I will hint that one involves a very surprising animal.

The writing is appropriate for a wide range of ages with no sexual content or inappropriate language. There is a good deal of violence, as one would expect in any zombie story, but it isn't overdone and it isn't the focus of the story- the characters are. I have read Maberry's adult fiction as well, and he tends to follow the same rules- the characters are your biggest investment, not the gore. He wants you to love them or hate them, but either way, you are invested in their lives. The other stuff is just icing on the cake. So even though the premise is violent, the story isn't too much so. Bring the Rot and Ruin into your life and you will never be the same... even if it means you are now a zombie!

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

What's With All This Bloody Magic?!

Blood Magic (The Blood Journals)
Blood is considered powerful, the life source, embodiment of the human soul... magical even. So when a book emerges with blood as the source of magic, we are intrigued, but not terribly surprised by the connection. Tessa Gratton's novel Blood Magic delves into the world of magic, handed down through the generations, curses and all.

Silla is the girl everyone avoids. Especially now. Her parents are dead, her father was ruled to have killed her mother and then himself, and Silla is the one who found them. Then her brother found her, kneeling in their blood and in shock. Now she and her brother Reece live with their grandmother, but life is far from normal. In school, the more mild mannered kids just assume she has been driven crazy from her parents' deaths, but the more mean spirited kids assume she is just as dangerous and murderous as her father.

Nicholas was dragged to this small town from his life in Chicago by his evil stepmother Lilith (actually her name is Mary but he prefers the nickname of the woman who created all monsters- terribly fitting!). He is dreading his new life, but from the moment he sees Silla, he can't think of anything but being with her. When he finds out Silla and Reece have stumbled upon a family legacy- Magic- he begins to realize magic is entwined into his own life from the mother who tried to commit suicide then abandoned him as a child. When they find out Nicholas' mother and Silla's father knew one another, they know there is some connection, but they aren't sure what it is. What they aren't expecting is a centuries old witch who has cheating death and time and wants something Reece, Silla, and Nicholas have- their magic. Can they protect all they have left from their parents from the witch? Can they get to the bottom of who their parents really were?

With supernatural books in abundance these days, it is hard to find one that stands out from the pack. While I am not saying this is the best supernatural book ever written, it did indeed catch my attention. I really liked the characters and their weird intertwined relationships with one another. The combined story lines had me guessing as to the connection right up until the time Gratton delivered the real story. That guessing game is the root of the suspense we all want in this kind of story. While I had figured out a few things along the way, I wasn't expecting the final verdict. The characters were also very interesting in and of themselves. They had flaws, inner demons, and loss like no one their age should feel. At times I felt the loss of Silla's parents was handled very well, but Nicholas' mother's disappearance was glossed over. This was the one glaring flaw in my mind. At one point, Silla even mentions his mother and he says something along the lines of "forget her, she is gone, its over" even though she is alive and out there in the world. It seemed odd to me to pay such close attention to one family and gloss over the other family, especially since they were connected in the end.

This book would be appropriate for most junior to senior high school students. There is a lot of bloody gore throughout the story, but it isn't overdone in comparison to the darkness of the story. An aspect of the book that annoyed me a little was the sexual tension and relationship between Silla and Nicholas. Everything happens so fast, yet they cannot break themselves apart from one another. It seemed too forced, too fabricated. I suppose you could use the magic to explain it, but I felt it directly clashed with the time line of the story. There were also long drawn out make-out scenes that were unnecessary compared to the purpose of the story. They didn't go very far, but it left me thinking, "Enough already! Where is the evil witch so we can kick her butt?!" But overall, this was a pretty good story. It will appeal to those supernatural junkies who need magic and spells and hocus pocus in their lives!

Sunday, September 4, 2011

A Book of Monster Proportions

The Monstrumologist
Can you imagine living with a mad scientist? Now imagine living with a mad scientist who studies Monstrumology! That is the life of Will Henry, the young apprentice of Pellinore Warthrop, Monstrumologist of New England. Rick Yancy's first novel in this spunky series, The Monstrumologist, is a great first novel to a fun and intriguing trilogy.

Will Henry isn't exactly happy to live with Dr. Warthrop, but he doesn't have any choice since his parents died in a horrible fire that burned their house. He knows Warthrop has a strange profession, but he doesn't know the extent of his studies until a grave robber brings a horrifying fond to the doctor's doorstep- a young corpse found alongside a large creature that had obviously been feeding on her before it died suddenly. The doctor explained it was an Anthropophagi, a creature that originated from Africa and solely hunts humans. They can be up to 7 feet tall, appear to be headless, have mouths full of thousands of shark-like teeth in their abdomen, and can only be stopped with a brain shot- which is right below their mouths. Did I mention they were vicious and territorial human eaters?

After dissecting the specimen the grave robber gave him, Warthrop convinces him to go to the cemetery looking for the remaining few creatures. When they get there, though, they had clearly underestimated the size of the group and are rushed by 30 or so creatures that wanted nothing more than to eat them. Barely escaping with their lives (the grave robber wasn't quite so lucky), they try to figure out how such a large family group got there without any attacks in the area. Warthrop is concerned his own Mosntrumologist father may have had something to do with their presence there since he studied the Anthropophagi up until his recent death.

When a local family is attacked, all torn apart and mutilated, the local police come to fetch Warthrop and Will Henry for help, knowing they are the only ones who might explain the brutal murders. They arrive to find one lone survivor, a boy so traumatized all he can think about is killing what was responsible for killing his family, even Warthrop when it is revealed he knew about their presence in the town. Now the local law enforcement needs Warthrop's help in trying to get rid of the monsters, even if that means calling in a hunter who has less than ethical means of doing his job. But how far will they all go to get rid of the monsters? How did such a large group get to New England in the first place? Can Will Henry survive the Anthropophagi?

This book wasn't what I expected at first, but I really liked it! It started off a little confusing for the first few pages, but then it grabbed a hold of me and I couldn't put it down! It is a long book, but it feels short because the story is so sordid and engrossing. Will Henry is an interesting character, as he deals with Warthrop's eccentricities with such aplomb. Warthrop is your typical mad scientist who seems almost surprised with Will Henry and his basic needs. They oddly work well together, making a strange dynamic little team to conquer the ugly beastlies of the world.

I think this is a great book for a wide range of readers. Some of the monster encounters are bloody and gory, but most kids encounter worse on regular television or video games- it isn't gratuitous violence. The story is very engaging and any reader would be sucked into Will Henry's world with Dr. Warthrop. And the good news? Two more books!