Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Alchemy of the Soul

The Alchemy of Forever: An Incarnation Novel
How does the soul connect to our body? Is it possible to still be you if you lost a limb? A heart? A head? So what makes us who we are? And if we answer that question, what keeps our souls connected to our bodies? In The Alchemy of Forever by Avery Williams, alchemy has answered those questions, and corrupted the very meaning of life.

Seraphina has been alive for 600 years, but she must change bodies every ten years or so. That is how long it takes for her soul to burn out the host body. Seraphina was made an Incarnate by Cyrus, an alchemist who brought her back to life after she had been attacked. At the time, it seemed like the natural thing to do, save your own life, but now she knows being an Incarnate is anything but natural. In fact, it makes her and the rest of the coven into cold-blooded murderers and she can't take it anymore. She is ready to end her life, permanently. 

But cyrus would stop her if he knew what she was planning. He enjoys controlling their coven and wouldn't appreciate Sera leaving them. She has a plan to escape, complete with a get-away vehicle and a way to finish her life for the last time. But nothing goes as plan. And a final act of kindness leads to her demise where a young girl gets into a horrific car accident right in front of her. Sera tries to save her, but the pull f the dying body is too much and Sera's soul takes over Kailey's body. Now stuck inside a 16 year old girl, Sera must find a way to live Kailey's life and stay hidden from Cyrus. What she doesn't expect is for Cyrus to find her so easily and for Sera to truly love the family who took in the woman who ended their daughter's life.

The idea of what makes us who we are has always intrigued me, and it is a question you can mull forever and never truly come to a conclusion for. In this book, we have a lot of questions, some unanswerable, some with necessary answers, but many go unanswered. I was surprised how many loose ends there were throughout this book. In fact, the ending felt more like the end of the first part of one volume rather than the end of an entire installment. There was so much left unsaid and unresolved, it felt unfinished and incomplete. I assume there is a second book since it just *ENDS*, but I haven't checked it out yet. I understand the idea of keeping the reader interested, but too many loose ends can be discouraging.

I did like the story, however, I just wished things were more complete. I liked the idea of jumping bodies and the moral issues attached to ended a life to further your own. It was a great moral dilemma that could encourage great discussions. I hope the next book has more explanations and answers, but fewer questions, of course. And I hope Kailey/Sera gets some resolution. The idea of her trapped between a man she desperately needs to escape and a family she has grown to love is quite an emotional roller coaster. 

Monday, July 30, 2012

Don't Forsake the Dystopia

The Forsaken (Forsaken - Trilogy)
Do you believe in nature or nurture? I ask my students this all the time. Fate vs. Free Will. Nature vs. Nurture. Can our choices determine who we become? Or are we destined for a specific future? In The Forsaken by Lisa M. Stasse, kids are all subjected to a test to determine whether they will become future criminals. And you don't want to fail this test.

Alenna watched her parents taken from their home by force. She was put in foster care, but even as an orphan, you don't escape the test that determines your possible criminal future. She can't imagine she would fail, but when she is put under for the test, she wakes up on the island, known as The Wheel to the residents of the penal colony. She knows the life expectancy on the wheel is only a few years, but she has no idea how to protect herself. She wakes up next to a boy she hopes she can trust, but when he gets injured, she has no choice but to abandon him and run away with the girl who saved them from the lunatic drones (other kids who follow the Monk). The Monk owns most of the island, but the other kids are struggling to hold on to their last piece of the wheel. 

They know their days are numbered, so they plan to find a way into the Gray area of the wheel- the only inaccessible piece that is protected by a strange bubble. But their plan to escape is delayed by attacks from the Monk's drones, sickness, and the feelers- creepy unmanned flying crafts that suck kids up into them. Those kids are never seen again once the feeler takes them. And the Gray area is the only place the feelers could be kept, so the kids know this mission would most likely mean a swifter death for anyone who goes. But that doesn't stop Alenna. She wants to find a way off the island... and she doesn't want to be left behind by Liam. Liam, the strong, fearless hunter, is leading the trip to the Gray area and nothing will stop them from getting there... but what about the Monk, the drones, the illness, and the feelers? How could they possibly make it?

This was a really interesting dystopia. The idea of screening kids for criminal futures and dumping them to survive on their own at a penal colony is terrifying and would be a real eye opener to any young adult. It also brings about the big question of Fate vs. Free Will. I love having this conversation with my students because they can never pick one side and stick with it. It is one of the ultimate unanswerable questions, and I enjoy the discussions it creates. Alenna wasn't my favorite character, though. I found her a little *meh*, and preferred Gadya, the girl who saved her in the beginning. She was feisty and angry, and I appreciated that. I was also confused by David, who just floated in and out of the story with no real purpose, explanation, or conclusion. Even by the end, I had no idea what his real purpose was.

But the rest of the story was really exciting and interesting. It was a dystopia that will appeal both to dystopia junkies like myself and the general population. There is even a little "Love of My Life" action in case you couldn't imagine a dystopia without an insta-love (rolling my eyes). I will definitely read the next book, but I wish there was a little more explanation by the end of this first book. Instead it opens up a whole new can of worms... and then just ENDS. So, if you can't handle the year+ wait, I suggest holding off for the next book, because you are gonna be ticked off by the ending!

A Savage Conclusion

The Savage Grace: A Dark Divine Novel
Werewolves are tricky business. They are right up there with vampires in the "played out" category. But Bree Despain got in before the market was flooded and gave us a different kind of werewolf book. She gave us one full of mythology and faith and curses and real wolves. In The Savage Grace, her Dark Divine series comes to a thrilling and bittersweet conclusion.

Grace has sacrificed everything for Daniel. She has been infected with the Urbat curse (werewolfiness),  she has forsaken her family (granted her brother just tried to kill her), and she was forced to kill Daniel, the man she loves. Of course she only killed his wolfie, evil half, but now he has transformed into a giant white wolf and he can't shift back into a human. As each day passes, Daniel, the pack's true alpha, loses more and more of his connection to humanity and gets farther away from Grace. Not to mention he has left her with the "Lost Boys", the boys from Grace and Daniel's pack, now that Daniel has claimed Grace as his mate (a fact her father was NOT thrilled to learn about).

Grace throws herself into finding a way to bring Daniel back to the two-legged, less furry kind of boyfriend, but she is so concerned with saving Daniel, she doesn't realize how much danger she could be putting her friends and family in. Not to mention, she has two crazy packs after her for two very different reasons. Caleb, Daniel's insane father, has a pack of Urbats, demons and vampires ready to overthrow the pack and kill as many people as he can. That doesn't even consider Sirhan's ancient pack, who want Grace because they think she is the Divine One. But Grace feels like anything but Divine. She feels like she has failed everyone she has ever loved. Is redemption even a possibility at this point?

I am always a little skeptical about a book that has religion as a backdrop and not the focus. If it is the focus, I know what I am getting myself into and what to expect. If religion is a backdrop, it can either be handled very well, or it can become too preachy where it feels like a sneaky way to shame and guilt. I hate that. So I know I was skeptical at first that there was a religious element to this book, but it wasn't preachy or obnoxious in any way. In fact, it was so much a part of Grace and her family that a beautiful and faithful acceptance came out of all of them. It was the type of faith you can respect and appreciate rather than feel lectured by. I loved this part of Grace, and in the end, it was her compassion that set her and Daniel apart from the rest of the Urbats out there. In a world of hurt and viciousness, Grace is a healer with the compassion to care about even the people who want to kill or enslave her. That is a beautiful underlying moral in this story.

As a conclusion, this story had it all: action, fighting, redemption, and a bittersweet finale. It was an ending you don't totally expect, but are completely satisfied with. There are some losses, of course, but there are also some beautiful connections. The first half of the book is all about saving Daniel, and the second half is all about the threat of the other packs, so the book is very divided from one end to the other. But this doesn't feel forced or stretched at any point; it is just the evolution of Grace in this final installment. If you loved the rest of the series, this is a graceful (pun intended) way to say goodbye to your beloved characters. You won't be sorry, except to see them go.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

The Future With Facebook

The Future of Us
When I tell my students there were no real cell phones (remember the car phone in a bag??) and Facebook hadn't been created yet when I was in high school, they look at me like I was alive when dinosaurs roamed the earth. But what they don't realize is that their iPhones and Facebook and wireless internet are very young in the grad scheme of things. Jay Asher and Carolyn Mackler examine what a teenager in the 1990's would do if they stumbled upon their future selves as is represented in Facebook in The Future of Us

It's 1996 and Emma's father got her a brand new computer as a consolation prize when he got remarried and started his replacement family. When Josh Templeton stops by, she is surprised since things have been awkward between them since he admitted he liked her. They are still friends, just not the kind of friends who hang out at each other's houses regularly anymore. So when he comes over, she is shocked, but excited by the AOL disc he is carrying. His mother got it in the mail and thought she might like it for her new computer since Josh's mother doesn't believe in the internet. when Emma pops the disc in, something strange happens. A screen called Facebook pops up. Emma checks it out and realizes the woman named Emma Nelson Jones is her... in the future.

She calls Josh over because she just can't believe what she is seeing. Married to a man who doesn't come home at nights and might be cheating on her is not how Emma hoped her future would turn out. But Josh is convinced this is all an elaborate joke. Until he sees his own Facebook page and he is married to the hottest girl in school. But every time they open up the program, their lives have changed. They begin to realize every choice they make changes their future in small ripples. Emma, sad about her depressing future, starts to do things to purposely change her future, but Josh is worried about ruining what seems like an awesome future. What they quickly realize, though, is that the future is something you can't predict or control. Or can you?

I loved Asher's book 13 Reasons Why. It rocked my literary world. So I had high hopes for this book. I liked this book, but it wasn't as good as 13. I think it had a much younger feel than the first book. Even though the characters are thinking about college and talking about graduation, their reactions and actions feel very young- almost middle school-like. Also, I LOVED the nostalgic nods to life in the 1990's (when I was in high school- yep. I'm that old). The music (Dave Matthews and Green Day) and the greeting when you first open AOL, instant messenger, etc. It was like I was back in high school again! Oh wait, I hated high school. Never mind! But seriously, the references were fun, but they would be totally lost on kids of today. The references to old technology would be interesting in an anthropological sense, but I don't think they would enjoy the pop culture references.

Still, the book was interesting and fun to read. The way small things changed their futures was something that makes you really think, especially about fate vs. free will. How can your choices change what you become in the future? This would be fun to talk with your students about, maybe even plan out how some choices could lead them to different future possibilities. I think the characters might seem to young for more mature students, but middle school through youngish high school students would appreciate this fun story. And most important moral of the entire book? When Josh asks, "Why would anyone say this stuff about themselves on the Internet? It's crazy!" (although this was a close second: "Why does it say she had three hundred and twenty friends? Who has that many friends?").

Such a Romantic Rush

Such a Rush
High School is a battlefield and the kids are at war. What side would you be on? In Jennifer Echols' Such a Rush, we get the story of Leah Jones, a girl whose trailer park home and absentee mother have branded her, but she doesn't want to live up to that brand. In fact, she will take unbelievable risks to break out of that mold.

Leah's mother moves every time she gets a new boyfriend. Always a trailer park, which is almost always by an airport. When they moved to Heaven Beach, Leah decided to take control of her life and got a job as a receptionist at a small private airport. But receptionist wasn't enough for Leah; she wanted to fly. Forging her mother's signature, she gave Mr. Hall the money for a lesson (all the money she had) and demanded a lesson. Seeing the fire and love for flying in Leah, Mr. Hall took her under his wing and taught her to fly. Mr. Hall's sons, however, didn't think their father's generosity was as charitable as it sounded. They assumed Leah was paying for the lessons in a less than appropriate way. Why else would their old man be helping this girl?

When Mr. Hall dies suddenly, Leah's hope of becoming a pilot is gone along with him. No one else would take an almost 18 year old girl seriously as a pilot. She assumes Mr. Hall's business is gone, but when the twin sons, Alec and Grayson, return to Heaven Beach, they announce they are keeping the banner business going. Grayson wants Leah to continue on as a pilot, but she doesn't trust him or the longevity of his business. When Grayson blackmails her to not only fly for him, but to also date his brother Alec, she can't figure out what his motives are. But flying is more important to Leah than anything else in her life. So how far would she go to make sure she could fly?

Jennifer Echols has written books under the MTV imprint, and they are edgy, mature, and fun. They fall in the older realm of Young Adult books, and are best left for older teens in high school. There are some intimate scenes and graphic language, but none of it is filthy. But what Echols does best is appeal to those older teens who can smell BS a mile away. We all know teens are BS detectors of the most critical kind, so they require a book that doesn't patronize them or treat them as a children. They might not be "adults" yet, but they sure don't want to be treated like children. Echols' books are upfront, no nonsense, callin' it like it is, whether you want it or not. And this book is no different.

Leah's life with her flighty, always unemployed, leech of a mother in the trailer parks is a sad one. She is labeled the slut because of the way she dresses and her mother invited Leah's boyfriend to move in pretty much sealed the deal. But you know Leah is a proud, bright young woman. She takes the insults in stride and holds her head high. But internally, she struggles to see past how others define her. And she certainly doesn't take any crap from Grayson. I am going to say that I had a tough time with another female YA character falling for the absolute jerk, but I have come to expect it now. Of course, they always have a reason for acting like a toad, and the reason can be healed or fixed, but it doesn't change the fact that they treat these girls like crap and then the girls want them desperately. I wish we could have a romantic story that doesn't start with a verbally abusive male lead... ahhh... if only....

But Grayson's cantankerousness aside, this was an interesting story. I loved Leah and everything she stood for, even in the face of a world where the only person who ever cared about her was basically a stranger and who passed away. The grief Leah suffered at his loss was touching and quiet, as she felt she didn't really have a right to grieve the same way his sons did, even though she spent more time with him than they did. This is still a mature book better left to older teens. It is fairly romantic and emotional and would probably appeal to older girls most. But the best thing about Echols? She is a BS free zone!

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

City of Secrets and Lies

The City of Ember: The First Book of Ember (Books of Ember)
How many of us believe what our government, our bosses, or our parents tell us? We tend to believe and trust what people in positions of power tell us without questioning their motives. In Jeanne DuPrau's City of Ember: Books of Ember, Book One, she takes a world of darkness and shows how far a little light can really go. 

Lina Mayfleet has been given her job in the City of Ember. She is to report to Pipeworks, the worst, dirtiest, wettest job in the city of Ember that works underground keeping the city's pipes patched and running. Doon Harrow got the coveted position of Messenger, but he offers to trade Lina for Pipeworks. She is baffled by his choice but won't pass up a chance to be a messenger. Doon is determined to find a way to save Ember, and he thinks the answer might be the generator which is underground. 

The City of Ember is in trouble. The electricity is failing more frequently, the good canned goods are gone, leaving behind the ones people suffer through, and materials are becoming more and more scarce. The reason is the Builders of Ember never intended for the people of Ember to stay this long. They had a plan, complete with an exit route, mapped out, but through greed and selfishness and mishap, the box with the plans has been lost in Lina's house for generations, set to pop open at the appropriate time. When her little sister Poppy finds it and begins to eat it, Lina saves it before it is totally destroyed, but not before Poppy's drool erased some important parts. Lina goes to Doon and together they try to uncover the secrets that lie within the City of Ember. What they don't expect is that not everyone wants to hear about what they have found.

I have known about this series for quite some time, but never got around to reading it. I am really glad I finally did because it is quite phenomenal! It is most certainly a middle reader series, as the writing is very young and in particular, the characters are incredibly naive. There were times when Lina and Doon were reporting misdeeds they had encountered to the very people reaping the benefits (who clearly wouldn't be happy about a couple of kids revealing their thievery) and I was screaming, "No! Don't Do it! ARRGGHHH!" But, as very, very sheltered kids stuck in this little city where the only light is manufactured (and quickly running out), I guess I can see why they were so naive. They have never known anything other than following what their leaders tell them to do (in fact, they don't even know what a boat is). But while that naivete made me a little frustrated at times, it would be perfect for a younger reader, maybe a strong 3rd grader through low-skilled 7th grader who is themselves fairly naive. An older, more worldly student would be annoyed by the kids' lack of skepticism. 

The youngness of this series would make it a perfect addition to any middle reader shelves. All those kids whose parents were worried Hunger Games was too violent while the kids just want to read what is popular, might like this very different, yet very good dystopia. There is also a movie made of the first book! So keep this great story around for your younger readers intrigued by strange places and you will get them hooked, because the end of this book leaves off with the reader dying for more! You won't be able to resist!

Monday, July 23, 2012

A Tragedy Like No Other

Dead to You
You don't have to actually be a parent to know the most terrifying thing is the loss of your child. Whether it be illness or violence or kidnapping, the idea of a losing a child is terrifying to anyone and everyone. In Lisa McMann's Dead to You, the reader experiences the confusing and emotional return of a child who was kidnaped years earlier.

Nine years ago Ethan was abducted from his front yard when he was just 7 years old. Now he is a 16 year old about to be reunited with his family he has pretty much forgotten. He is terrified about meeting his family again, especially since the woman who took care of him all those years, Ellie, (and abandoned him, causing him to live in an orphanage and become homeless eventually), was someone he truly loved. As he returns, everyone wants to hear about the horrible woman who abducted him and the awful things she did to him, but he really doesn't have any stories like that. He loved Ellie.

But the transition back into the family isn't the worst for Ethan. He has a crush on his childhood best friend and she is very protective of him. He is overwhelmed at first by all the attention, but eventually, he settles into his new life. But Ethan's return is hardest on his younger brother Blake who was just four and in the front yard when Ethan was abducted. Blake is convinced Ethan is not really Ethan, that another boy has come to their home pretending to be Ethan. Ethan's father contemplates a DNA test, but Ethan's mother will not doubt her son. She knows if she asks him to take a DNA test, she will always be the mother who doubted her son. But why can't he remember anything from his life before the abduction? Is he really Ethan? Can the family survive losing another son?

OK. I am gonna put this out there with as few spoiler-ish hints as possible. The ending is one of those, "What the H-E-double hockey sticks just HAPPENED" kind of moments. The last ten pages are the kind of ending that readers want to believe they hate, but really it accomplishes what the author was going for- you are still thinking about it and talking about it for WEEKS after you finished the book! I know a lot of people want a sequel to find out how things were resolved, but I hope McMann leaves this story alone. The ending is unresolved, but that is what makes it so powerful. Uncertainty fills the book, so why not end it with uncertainty too? I know I usually hate unresolved endings, but with this book, I actually love it. I think it makes the book that much better.

The story itself is pretty complex and disturbing. Imagine getting your son back after nine years and then people start to question whether he is the real deal or not. That has to be devastating. The mother is such a wonderful character. She never doubts Ethan. She fights for her son tooth and nail, and I loved her for that. But Blake's character was the most interesting for me. It had to be so hard for him, always the one who was there when Ethan was abducted. Not that they blame him, but that guilt that still surrounds him all his life about BEING there when his brother was taken. Then his suspicions about Ethan and how vehemently he tries to prove this isn't the real Ethan, but how much everyone ignores him, assuming jealousy is the cause. It felt so realistic and terrifying, but sad and heartbreaking. This book is written in simple language (with minor profanity), but the story is quite deep and provocative. It would be perfect for an older, low-skilled student who wants a mature book but needs a lower reading level. It would be perfect for papers, discussions, and "What if" assignments where you could really question the fabric of family, suspicion, and the unresolved ending. I will definitely be keeping this on my shelves for a variety of students. But a warning... if you can't handle unresolved endings, this book is going to tick you off!

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Threw a Curveball into my Day

Curveball: The Year I Lost My Grip
Jordan Sonnenblick has this uncanny ability to take a serious subject, battle the dramatic situation with bittersweet class, and inject the funny that makes such a serious topic digestible. I don't know how he does it, but I keep coming back for more. So when Curveball: The Year I Lost My Grip was released, I knew it was going to hit the ball out of the park (pun intended!).

Peter always assumed he would enter 9th grade with his best friend AJ and their dynamic pitcher/catcher combo would land them on varsity. What he didn't expect that ignoring that clicking pain in his elbow would cause his elbow to actually fall apart and never go back together again. After much surgery and recovery time, Peter gets the life-altering news that his baseball career is over. Just over. He can't bring himself to tell AJ the truth, so he starts spending time with his grandfather over the summer. His grandfather has always been a photographer and has taught Peter a lot over the years. But with all the time he is spending with Grampa leads him to believe something isn't quite right.

Grampa is forgetting things and spacing out a lot. Peter tries to talk to his mother about it, but she doesn't want to admit anything is wrong. When Grampa gives Peter all his camera, Peter shakes off the feeling that something is really wrong. Without baseball in his life, he needs a new focus and begins to enjoy his new elective: Photography. Of course it doesn't hurt that the only other freshman in the class is a girl Peter finds whole-heartedly intriguing named Angelika. Peter and Angelika begin photographing the sports teams for the school newspaper, but despite his great year at school, something is still tugging on Peter's conscience about his grandfather. But will anyone realize how bad it has gotten before it is too late?

Oh, dear, dear Sonnenblick. I don't know how you do it. Life-altering injury combined with Alzheimer's Disease and light-hearted humor? Should be absurd or tactless, right? Well, it isn't. It's beautiful. It is bitter-sweet and realistic and beautiful. All hard situations in life are peppered with a little laughter where you just have to look at how crappy things have gotten and laugh. I remember going to a break out session in a conference about Finding the Funny with LD. In the session, the presenter explained how she got her epileptic brother a dog to lift his spirits after he lost his job and his wife left him. Know what happened next? Her brother's lab had a seizure and was diagnosed with epilepsy. She said she and her brother stood at the vet's office laughing. Because, really, what else can you do at that point? Is the epilepsy funny? Of course not, but the irony of the epileptic dog to make the epileptic brother feel better is so bitter you just have to laugh at the situation. This story always reminds me of Sonnenblick. He knows the fine balance between lightening up a sad situation with some witty remarks and situation irony and the tacky fun-poking at a serious topic. And with Sonnenblick, it is never tacky.

He creates a story where Peter is suffering his own life-altering trauma, but in the midst of healing and moving on with his life, he must acknowledge that the man who has always been such a huge part of Peter's life has irrevocably changed. This seems like a double whammy, and by gods it is. This is also a beautifully handled story about a family fighting the knowledge that their father/grandfather is suffering from an incurable disease, a disease that always tends to be harder on the family than the victim itself. When Grampa starts to forget things and space out, nobody wants to admit aloud when they are pretty sure is happening. They ignore the signs or explain them away until they find themselves in a situation where their loved one could seriously hurt themselves. As a granddaughter and great-granddaughter, I have experienced this denial first hand. It isn't neglectful, it is actually steeped in unconditional love where you can't imagine the strong family member you know and love slipping away. Peter and his family are the embodiment of this struggle, and it was written beautifully. 

This is a book for a wide variety of students from early middle readers through high school students, because while the language is simple, the story has layers of depth that would appeal to a wide range of students. It is beautifully written, just as all Sonnenblick's books are. I also love how the inclusion of baseball might draw in a boy reader to enjoy a story that is so much more than just a sports story. But sometimes you just need the hook to get them in. And the characters are all wonderful, brilliantly developed, and easily relatable. You will finish this book and be as blown away as I was. Bravo, Mr. Sonnenblick. You have done it again!

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Perfect Egyptian Conclusion

The Serpent's Shadow (The Kane Chronicles, Book 3)
I have always been interested in "things Egypt" so I don't know how I have so little knowledge about Egyptian mythology. And when you want a heavy dose of mythology on a hilarious platter, who do you come to? Why Rick Riordan, of course! The master of repurposed mythological tales has done it again as he wrapped up the Kane Chronicles with The Serpent's Shadow

Sadie and Carter know they must stop Apophis, the God of Chaos, from destroying the world. But how could two teenagers stop the apocalypse? When, when you are a Kane, you always have friends in strange places. With Bast, a cat goddess, to watch over their initiates in the house, they embark on a journey to find the way to stop Apophs, but each day he grows stronger. Add to that the fact that the senile sun god, Ra, who was supposed to help them dances around and has to be babysat, that their best friend Walt is slowly dying from a generations-old curse, and Carter was crushing on a magical clay figurine he thought was a girl. Once the figurine was destroyed and they rescued the real Zia, she had no memory of Carter's time with her shabti. And Bas, the dwarf god, has sacrificed his soul to save them and is now sitting like a shell of himself in the retirement home for the Gods. 

So how are they going to stop this unstoppable God of Chaos now that they have freed him and allowed him to gain more power than any one god or goddess can control, you ask? Well, it might involve a spell that is so powerful, it will destroy the Kanes for good, but when you have the weight and fate of the world resting on your shoulders, you really don't have much of a choice. Sadie and Carter will do anything to save the world, even if it means tough choices and big sacrifices. And with the Kanes against them, even giant serpent gods who thrive on chaos can stop them!

It is no secret that I think Rick Riordan is a god. God of literary brilliance! His Percy Jackson series and the spinoff series are brilliant uses of Greek and Roman Gods, and this series is just as phenomenal. His ability to repurpose mythology brings it into the mainstream and gets our kids involved in stories that might have been too old, too, boring, and too distant for them before. And let's face it, mythology is interesting, but those stories are intricate and dense and those names get seriously confusing. Let's not even mention how ridiculous those tangled webs of relationships can be! But Riordan makes mythology accessible AND more important, absolutely HILARIOUS! The things that come out of these gods and godesses' mouths will leave you in a fit of giggles. And for my students who have read these stories, those gods and goddesses are interesting and the source of future research and reading. I find kids who read these books want to go on and read more about their favorite gods and goddesses, and since Egyptian mythology isn't as well known as Greek mythology, this series is a great way to strike a balance between the two!

The conclusion of the series was whole-heartedly satisfying. I promise you won't think it is going to be until the very end, but it really is. I have to say, I thought this was another 5 book series, so at the very end, when things started winding down, I had to rush to do some research as to whether or not this was the final book in the series. Sadly, because I love this series and wanted it to continue, this is indeed the final book, but it ends beautifully. If there was a perfect way to end everything, The Serpent's Shadow was it. So, I know Riordan is working on the Percy Jackson spin-off, but I really hope he has another series up his sleeve! 

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Pixie Conclusion

Endure (Need)
When you think of the end of the world as we know it, you certainly don't think of pixies as the cause. But when they are Carrie Jones' man-sized blue pixies with shark teeth and murderous tendencies, I guess you can go with it. In the Need Series' final installment, Endure, Zara and the rest of the crew fight the apocalypse with everything they have.

Now that she has become a pixie queen, Nick won't even look at her. Never mind the fact that she became a pixie to save him from Valhalla when he died and went to the warrior's heaven. But Zara has bigger things to worry about. Her position as Astley's queen bought them some time and loyalty from his pixies, but there are worse pixies out there who have no problem usurping their territory. Now kids are going missing from town and people are fleeing. No one is sure what is really happening, but everyone knows it isn't something easily explained.

Zara knows she is the key to stopping the apocalypse, but the extent to which she must go is not easy to digest. She is torn between her love for Nick and for Astley, but the fate of the world is in her hands. When she realizes there isn't much left to do, she does the unthinkable: she begins training the humans to fight the pixie army. After lifetimes of keeping the pixie secret, you would think it would be hard for humans to accept the new boundaries on their world, but with all the crazy things they have witnessed, they are willing to accept anything if it gets them their world back. Even pixies.

Ahhhh. The infamous love triangle. Always life or death, always seemingly unsolvable, and always "undeniable, over-the-moon, love-like-no-other" love that crushes the soul and takes no prisoners. And how convenient that this love triangle is possible with inexperienced teenagers?! (ok, Astley isn't your average teenager...) I don't know why I am ranting about the love triangle in this series since it has existed from the very beginning... No, that's a fib. I do know why. I have a tough time understanding the "OOhhh I love him. No, scratch that, I love the other one. Oh woe is me, they are both beautiful with soul crushing eyes and I can't choose from the two men who love me to the point of obsession!" I have a particularly hard time understanding that IN THE FACE OF AN APOCALYPSE! If the world is falling down around you and you are a key player in the apocalypse, why exactly are you pining over guys? Knock it off girlfriend! Pull yourself together, save the darned world, and THEN you can sort out your love life. Not to mention the probability of preventing the apocalypse is pretty slim (unless you are a YA novel, of course. Then it is pretty much a lock), so why waste your time on this now when you are all most likely going to die anyway?!

But despite the absurd love triangle nonsense, I actually really like this series and really like how it concluded. The books are compact and exciting and appeal to a decent range of kids. I like Carrie Jones as an author, and this series is a good representation of her talent. Plus, blue, shark-toothed pixies? How can you not want to read about them? So if you have followed the Need series, you will be happy with this conclusion. But just be careful, the love triangles are contagious!

Friday, July 13, 2012

Touching MIddle Reader Series

The Mother-Daughter Book Club
All women remember that age. You were about 11 or 12 years old, heading into the stage where boys were cute, brothers were horrid, and parents were embarrassing. It last about until you were 18. And school? Well, school was a battlefield. Essentially they were the hardest years of your life. Now imagine your mother and some other mothers decided to have a Mother-Daughter Book Club with girls you would never speak to in school... unless they were spreading vicious rumors about you, but you can't really call that "speaking", now can you?! In The Mother-Daughter Book Club, Heather Vogel Frederick gives her characters plenty to think about as they survive 6th grade and their mothers.

Cassidy is a tomboy who loves to play hockey and embarrasses her supermodel mother with every burp and outburst. Emma is the poor, pudgy daughter of intellectuals who named her and her brother after Jane Austen characters (Darcy?! No wonder the boy played hockey!). Jess is a shy, sweet farm girl battling her own issues on the home front since her mother moved to NY to be an actress while dealing with issues at school where everyone tells her she stinks and calls her Goat Girl. Megan is one of the popular girls and would sooner die than be caught hanging out with Cassidy, Emma, and Goat Girl. But when their mothers start a book club (sans Jess's mom who is MIA), they have no choice but to all get together once a month. They may have no choice about attendance, but they don't have to pretend they like it.

At first all the girls hate the idea, but slowly they begin to enjoy reading Little Women, especially since Louisa May Alcott lived and wrote the story in their town! Their mothers have made the club pretty fun and not hard, so they can live through the meetings once a month. But the book club is a constant reminder for Jess that her mother has left her family behind. It also reveals the tensions between the mothers and daughters themselves. But when Megan and her followers pull a prank that went way too far, the whole Book Club is threatened. Now the girls and their mothers must decide whether the Book Club can survive a betrayal as bad as Megans, but if the girls didn't want the club in the first place, what is going to make them try to save it?

I had a feeling this was going to be an adorable story, and I was right! These girls are a wonderful mix of characters from the Queen Bee to the target to the hockey playing tomboy/jock. It explores this mix of girls and how they interact when they must be on their best behavior in front of all their mothers. But more importantly, it explores their interactions when their moms aren't around, and it can get ugly! I think my favorite character had to be Cassidy who knew she could never live up to her model mother and just wanted to play hockey. In fact, when there was no hockey team for girls in the town, she didn't hesitate to hide her identity and try out for the boys' team! She was a real butt-kickin' girl, and she wasn't afraid to stand up to Megan and her cronies. I liked the other girls, even Megan eventually, but I loved Cassidy!

This also explores that sacred yet tenuous relationship between mother and daughter. Any of you daughters out there can admit that this relationship is always a little strained but devoted at the same time. I am 31 and my relationship with my mom is that exactly! So the different girls and their wildly different mothers all came together for one big lesson: mothers and daughters love each other, but sometimes they don't see each other enough to understand each other. I think this would be a great lesson for any young lady struggling at this age to traverse life with her mom (or her mom struggling to deal with a daughter this age!). This book is best for a high skilled 4th grader through about 7th grade. It is written in simple language, but the book is fun and has great characters. I look forward to the other books in the series, and might even have to read Little Women again!

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Trafficking Enlightenment on a Difficult Subject

Slavery is a term all our young people think is something of the past, something that happened before their time. But what too few people realize is the slave trade is still very real and in many capacities. We have hear horror stories about the human trafficking into the sex trade, but the human trafficking into the domestic trade is also very much alive and very much ignored. In Kim Purcell's Trafficked, she fights to stop the ignorance regarding a veritable slave trade that imprisons so many of the world's young people.

Hannah is from Moldova, but the family looking for a nanny wants a Russian girl, so she must watch her dialect if she is to make this work. Her friends and family warn her about trusting anyone willing to take her to the US for a job that seems to good to be true, but Hannah won't listen. She and her grandmother are barely surviving as it is, and she won't sit idle while her grandmother's blindness ruins her life for lack of money for a simple cataracts operation. So Hannah travels under a fake name and fake visa to the States, but she is very wary of her surroundings. She has heard the stories of girls shoved into brothels and sold as sex slaves and has no intention of becoming one of them. When she arrives at a home with children to take care of, she breathes a sigh of relief that she has not become another statistic.

But instantly, something feels off to Hannah. Lillian, the mother, demands to keep Hannah's papers and return plane ticket. Hannah loses the ticket but manages to hang onto her visa and passport. Then, she warns Hannah to stay away from her husband. Hannah finds this disconcerting, but the promise of $400 a week is too much to pass up over a bad feeling. She quickly settles into the absurdly long days raising this woman's children, cleaning up after the family, and even cooking all their meals, but she can't get over the fact that she is clearly a "tool" to the family, not a human being. Forced to stay in the garage instead of a bedroom and given only a few clothes, she is basically at their mercy for anything she needs. When they don't pay her for weeks and weeks, she finally asks about her wages only to find she has to "work off her debt" of the ticket and the agent to get her here. Hannah quickly begins to understand that while this might not be a brothel, she is still a slave to this family. But with no place to go for help and people who threaten to hurt your family if you leave, is there anyway to escape that slavery?

When I first saw this book, I have to say I only scanned the blurb and assumed it was the sex trade, not the domestic trade, that Hannah had been duped into. While the domestic trade seems less harmful that the sex trade, it shouldn't be discounted as less terrifying and dehumanizing, because it is still slavery at its very core.  I was also very happy to see Hannah was wary of the arrangement and on high alert for anything suspicious. I often wondered how these girls, at this point in time, didn't know about human trafficking and remain alert. It was good to see a girl who was indeed aware but whose obligation and love for her family led her to take the risk anyway. I often wonder if our students (or us, for that matter) understand the desperation that a person can reach where they would knowingly put themselves in a potentially life threatening situation in order to save their loved ones. I think Purcell did a great job of illustrating that devotion in Hannah.

My one confusion with this story was the connection of the host family to Hannah's dead parents and missing uncle. I think this story line was only dealt with superficially and detracted from the primary focus of the novel- a young girl can be held as a slave in modern day Los Angeles. With all these ties of the father to her past life, it makes this story more narrow rather than casting the terrifying large net of having this be any girl and any family. And since it wasn't properly explained, developed, and concluded, it was only a distraction in my personal opinion. I would rather have the message be out there that this can happen to any girl from any place, not just a specific girl whose mother rejected some guy who had an issue with rejection.

So I would keep this as a book for students who are old enough and mature enough to have very candid discussions about what the human trafficking situation really is. If you can't read this book with a student and openly discuss the horrifying aspects of rape and brothels and forced prostitution, or you think the student isn't mature enough to handle this accurate part of humanity, pick another book. But this is an important thing for our students to know about. Slavery isn't over. It is alive and well and can be right in our backyards. Trying to ignore it doesn't mean it goes away, it just makes us ignorant and guilty of not doing something about it. 

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

A Vampire Book Immortalized

The Immortal Rules (Blood of Eden)
Sometimes they are elegant but ruthless. At times they are shimmery, but murderous. They can act like rabid animals or the most gentle of gentlemen. But they are everywhere. Vampires are in every culture, every literary tradition, every contemporary culture, and certainly all over the young adult genre. So why should you read yet another young adult vampire book? Because The Immortal Rules: Book One of Blood of Eden by Julie Kagawa is a vampire book like you have never seen before!

Allie refuses to become registered and have blood taken twice a month to feed the bloodsuckers who run her city, even if it means getting a food ration. She and the other Unregistereds scavenge for food even though stealing is a crime punishable by more than just death. Out on a food mission beyond the city wall that protects the humans from the rabids (people turned into zombie-like, mindless vampires who live like animals and would rip a human to shreds), Allie finds a food haul in a house that can't be passed up, even if it is risky. She and her crew go back for the food, but the rabids do what they do best, leaving Allie torn apart and dying. When a passing vampire offers her a choice to die from her injuries or die and become an immortal vampire, everything she despises, she chooses life, even if it is a life as the undead. 

After a brief period of lessons and education into the life of a vampire by her sire, Kanin, Allie is forced to flee the only city she has ever known. She doesn't want to hunt or hurt people, but Kanin warned her that denying the Hunger that can only be sated by human blood will slowly devolve Allie into a furious beast with no control over her own body. She can last about two weeks without human blood, but alone in the desert has left her desperate. Luckily the first people she stumbles upon are ruthless raiders, but shortly thereafter, she rescues a little boy who became separated from his traveling group. Allie is uncertain of the group, but she still hasn't lost her human side. She craves the company of others and is willing to fight the urge to feed in order to protect this rag tag group of travelers who are in search of Eden, a land with no vampires and no rabids. But Allie isn't the only predator out there, and she may have assumed a position she can never succeed at. 

Wow. Just Wow. Kagawa created a vampire world like you have never seen before. This post-apocalyptic wasteland combines the desolate PA world with terrifying dystopic societies, and rabid, mindless creatures hunting where you least suspect it. This is an EPIC read that will cut you off from everything you should be doing just so you can plow through the story page by page. Vampires may be old hat for most authors, but Kagawa makes them new and fresh and terrifying again. I loved this story and can NOT wait for the next installment. There is a sense of closure at the end of this story, but it is only a temporary conclusion, with the story open for more of Allie's story. You will be content with the ending but dying for the next book, a perfect conclusion in my opinion!

And Allie is a fantastic main character. She knows what she has to do to survive, but her inability to let go of everything that makes her human is what keeps her going. But her presence in the lives of the ones she wants to protect not only keeps them alive, it also puts them in harms way. This is an inner conflict Allie cannot deny and one that rips her apart. She knows the right thing to do, but she cannot give up her one attachment to her humanity she has left. It is a transformation you will feel right along with Allie from page to page. This is a complex, long novel that would appeal to anyone who likes an exciting story. It is probably best for high school students, but adults would enjoy this vampire tale as well. Kagawa knocked it out of the park with this one!

Monday, July 9, 2012

Clarity in Black and White

My Life in Black and White
In life, there are many circumstances and situations that can give us clarity, or make us see our lives in a way we have never seen ourselves before. Very often, those circumstances are traumatic and life-altering. In My Life in Black and White by Natasha Friend, a young woman's life is changed forever with one bad decision... but it might not be as bad as she thinks it is.

Lexi is beautiful. She is known for her beauty. She is so beautiful a photographer stopped her on the street and wanted to sign her as a model (much to her father's horror). She lives her life conscious of her looks and how they affect everyone around her, including her boyfriend, Ryan, and her best friend, Taylor. But when she walks in on Taylor and Ryan hooking up at a party, she makes a decision she will regret for the rest of her life. She gets in the car with Taylor's brother, and they get into an accident.  They both survive, but not in one piece. Lexi's face is horribly disfigured, bones are crushed, and after many surgeries, she needs a skin graft to cover the hole in her cheek... with skin from her butt. As if being disfigured wasn't traumatizing enough, now Lexi is an actual "butt-face".

Lexi has lost her boyfriend, her best friend, and her entire world is spinning out of control. Her parents are worried about her, she locks herself in her room for weeks, and she even refuses to return to school. Taylor and Ryan keep trying to apologize, but nothing can erase that night from her mind, especially since every glance at a mirror brings it right back to her. While Lexi just wants everything to be over, she finds hope and healing in unexpected places. Her weird band-geek sister is more supportive than Lexi ever gave her credit for being. Her Mother-of-the-Year mom does everything she can to help her daughter, even if she doesn't always say the right thing. And a boy, the kind of boy Lexi never would have considered before the accident, is willing to help her find an outlet for her anger with some boxing gloves. Her life may have been turned upside down, but sometimes that is the best way to head in a totally different direction.

I loved this book. I think the story was really great and the moral was strong but not hokey, but my favorite part about this book was just how real and raw the characters were. I hate to even call them characters because they felt like real flesh and blood people. Lexi suffered a tragedy, yes, but she was also selfish, self-centered, and had a lot of trouble seeing past her own tragedy. Her sister was fabulous. Ruthie marched to the beat of her own drum, did what she wanted, and always scoffed at Lexi's need for popularity. But there was more to her. She loved her sister despite Lexi's selfishness, but she wasn't afraid to call her on her actions. And the way she supported Lexi was so sisterly, the good, the bad, and the ugly, it made me think of the relationship between my sister and I. This is a relationship you can only really understand if you have a sister yourself. And if you do, you will know Natasha Friend did a brilliant job of bringing that tumultuous, loving, devoted relationship to the pages of this book. Lexi's mom was complicated and loving, but oblivious at times, like any teenager would assume their mother to be. Even the friends and the cheating jerk-face of an ex-boyfriend had an unexpected depth. I just couldn't get over the characters in this book. 

But the story itself was just as good. This transformation of Lexi was so complex and really explored the many stages of grief, because when you lose the very thing that defines you, like your appearance, there really is a grieving process. She was a tough, snarky, sassy young woman who wasn't afraid to "use her words" in a way that could make you cringe right along with her. And you travel that journey right along with her. I would love to give this book to any variety of students, although some of the language and intimate scenes might make it best for high school aged students. In particular, this is a great book for any young woman who has a hard time looking past appearances into the actual souls of the people around them. We all know teens can get wrapped up in their own lives and forget about the world at large, so sometimes you need a book like this one to open up a dialogue they might not have in any other situation. Sometimes you have to take a cold, hard look at what you hold dear, at the priorities you have set for yourself. Are you really the best person you can be?

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Young Frankenstein Finds Adventure

This Dark Endeavor: The Apprenticeship of Victor Frankenstein
Have you ever wondered what school was like for Harry before he became a wizard? Or what Hamlet was like as a kid? Do you think George protected other kids when he was young, just like he protected Lennie? Was Bella always so awkward, or was she only awkward in the presence of shimmery bloodsuckers? How did Sonny and Michael grow up so different in the same home and the same family? Sometimes a story doesn't give you the whole picture of the character and what they were like before the story takes place, but if you are lucky, someone got the bright idea to fill in the blanks like Kenneth Oppel did in This Dark Endeavor: The Apprenticeship of Victor Frankenstein. Because before there was a monster, there was a quirky, snarky, punk of a teenager ready to solve the biggest mysteries!

Victor is always just a step behind his twin brother Konrad, even in realizing he has a crush on the distant cousin who was brought to live with their family after her father abandoned her. Except, of course, when it comes to getting in trouble. Victor is a professional at mischief and mayhem, much to his family's dismay. When the kids stumble across a hidden library full of alchemy books, Victor is the first to start snooping around... until their father catches them and forbids them to ever enter the Dark Library again. But when Konrad falls gravely ill and no medicine seems to be making a dent, Victor is willing to try anything to save his brother.

Convinced alchemy is the only way, Victor finds a book that might contain the secret of the Elixir of Life. He tracks down the only alchemist known in the area only to find a man confined to a wheelchair who was forbidden to practice alchemy by Victor's own father. When Victor pleads for his brother's sake, the alchemist agrees to help them at least translate the code for the recipe. But as the code gets cracked and the ingredients are revealed, the alchemist is just as anxious to try the recipe himself. Being confined to the wheelchair, the kids must get the rare ingredients themselves, even if it risks their lives. But with Konrad's life hanging in the balance, no risk is too much for Victor.

Here is the thing about Victor Frankenstein... he is kind of a wise guy. He is an arrogant teen boy who isn't afraid to plod head on into situations despite the possible consequences... actually, without much regard for the possible consequences at all. But he loves his brother. And he is fallible. I liked this fun prequel to the Frankenstein we all read about in high school. I think it was a great way to explain the man he eventually became. It really made me think about Frankenstein differently, which is the reason this would be a fun series to give a young adult who is reading the classic Shelley story. It might also encourage them to write a little fan fiction of their own about their favorite characters from books or movies they have enjoyed! Add to that the beauty in the lesson of different perspectives, and you have quite a fun lesson on your hands!

This book is appropriate for any middle through young adult reader who likes to read about adventure, but it would mostly likely have the most impact on someone who has read Shelley's original. Therefore, an older student would probably get the most, but I wouldn't hold a kid back from this story if they hadn't read the original. In all honesty, other than the name, there isn't much keeping you from understanding this story without the original. It's a fun adventure filled with silly kids, emotions, and a mystery to be solved. You will most likely enjoy it just as much as I have, especially as Victor gets himself in and out of one tough spot to another!

Friday, July 6, 2012

Mixed Incarnation

If your soul came back time and time again, what would you do with each new lifetime? Would you use it to advance your recurring memories and explore new things, or find yourself a comfortable living to just get by? In Jodi Meadows' Incarnate, a new soul is born into a society where everyone has been reincarnated with centuries of memories. If you have ever felt alone, you cannot imagine being the only NewSoul in a world full of very old souls.

When Ana was born, a returning soul was extinguished. Although Ana had nothing to do with that, she has been blamed and ostracized all her life for being a NewSoul. Life with her "mother" is so bad, Ana decides to set off for the city, Heart, in order to find some answers about how she came into existence. She knows the dangers involved in her trek, but life under Li is so intolerable, it is worth the risk. Not far from Li's home, though, she is attacked by Sylph and forced to fall into icy waters to escape. Without the coincidental meeting with a young man named Sam, Ana would be gone.

Sam saves Ana and takes her to Heart himself, but there is more than just charity in the back of his mind. He is intrigued by Ana and wants to know more about her. But once they arrive in Heart, it is very clear that not everyone is intrigued by the NewSoul. Ana is left with Sam as her guardian and forced to educate herself as much as possible about their world. She is eager to learn everything she can, but in her academic travels, Ana finds more and more things that can't be explained. But every question has to have an answer, right?

I am sad to say I struggled with this story a bit. Talk about one heck of a premise, but then you kill it with little world building (despite hints at such a cool world that I craved more detail about it) and a focus on the awkwardness of the two main characters. Here was a world full of reincarnated souls, dragons, Sylph, centaurs, trolls, etc. and I barely saw any of them. Instead the book centered around the strange relationship between Ana and Sam that could have been more effective in a neutral, modern world where I didn't crave setting description and knowledge. If Meadows wanted a romance, she should have just written a romance, not thought up this amazing world only to ignore it for 90% of the story. Although, I was happy to have romance that didn't involve a darned love triangle! But still, it seemed counterproductive to have such a dynamic world that was barely touched upon. I have to say it ruined my perception of the book quite a bit.

I think I will most likely read the second book just to see if things improve in the series, but I am not expecting much based on this book. I hope Meadows does more with the world around Sam and Ana and leaves their awkward glances and misunderstood advances behind. This is appropriate for junior high to high school students, most likely the female demographic because of the heavy focus on romance (unless you have that rare young man who openly admits to liking romance!). I think this story has a lot of potential, and a stellar sequel could fix my perception, but as it stands, I wasn't over the moon for this story. 

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Cinderella, Cyborgs, and a Plague

Cinder: Book One in the Lunar Chronicles
My brother-in-law went to see Snow White and the Huntsmen a couple of weeks ago, and when he told us about it, he said it was "predictable". My response was, "It's Snow White you goof! What about that story don't  you know already?!" But then I went to see the movie and was blown away by how innovative and unique it was despite being a fairy tale we can all recite by memory. In fact, it was that experience that made me get over my preconceived notions about Marissa Meyer's Cinder: Book One of the Lunar Chronicles and just read it already. I mean, Cinderella and cyborgs? How much more creative can you get?!

Cinder is a cyborg: a person with machine parts. She has more machine than most cyborgs, but she suffers the same second-class citizen status as every cyborg. In fact, the cyborg draft solidifies their status as "non-humans" to the non-cyborg folk. It allows the government to draft cyborgs against their will to be used as guinea pigs in the race against the plague to find a cure. And no one seems to mind that the cyborgs never return from these tests. But the plague is threatening the very existence of the country... almost as much the Lunars are. Luna is the country that conquered life on the moon, but over generations, the Lunars have developed "powers" or the ability to control electro-magnetic pulses that can alter emotions, feelings, and perceptions. Now their crazy Queen wants to make an alliance with the kingdoms on earth and she isn't afraid to bully or blackmail her way in. 

But Cinder's life is a lot less complicated. Not a lovely life by any means, but less complicated. She goes to work, the money she earns goes to support her stepmother and stepsisters (only one of which is awful), and she tries to hide her cyborg parts as carefully as possible. But when the crowned Prince Kai comes to her booth for help with an android, she is more worried than ever about someone learning of her cyborg parts. When the plague hits too close to home, Cinder is sent to the labs for experiments, but the results are nothing she could ever have dreamed of. Now, she is more than just a cyborg outcast, but her lot in life is no easier. Especially when all she wants is Prince Kai, a desire she won't even allow herself to dream about because there is no way a man in line for the throne who could have any girl he wanted would ever want to love a cyborg... or is there?

OK. Let's get this out in the open. Marissa Meyer is a bloody genius! Who would have ever thought to make Cinderella into a cyborg? And if you think you are going to go into this book to find something predictable, you are totally mistaken! This is an old, well-known story that has been taken, stripped to its bare elements, and transformed into something FANTASTIC! It is Cinderella like you have never seen before, and you will love what Meyer has done to the story. Take the fairy tale element away and this is still a phenomenal story. First, I love the twists on the old story Meyer has created. Cinder's character is every bit as lovely as Cinderella, complete with the same issues and troubles, but her situation is even more dire than before. With the plague and the division of the cyborgs, she couldn't be more of an outcast. Then you have the strong science-fiction element with the androids and Cinder's family's droid Iko who has a personality chip that makes her more person than machine but completely unwanted for it. And the prince? Oh Kai is fantastic. He would even submit himself to the most awful of situations to save and protect his people. It is no wonder everyone loves Kai! I know I did!

This is a great story for any strong middle reader through adult reader. It has a brilliant Science Fiction twist on your tried and true fairy tale, and you will be thrilled to have it on your shelves. Don't let yourself be discouraged by "Cyborg Cinderella" like I was. This story is so much more than that. This is a book that would appeal to a wide range of readers from your SF junkies to your dystopian fans to the average modern lit readers. Trust me. This isn't one to ignore! And with the way the story ended, you will be dying to get ahold of the next three books in the Lunar Chronicles!

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

An Abundance of Laughter

An Abundance of Katherines
A child prodigy does not necessarily grow up to be a genius adult. Imagine being studied, challenged, and revered as a child only to slowly grow up as a smart, but not genius level, quirky adult. In John Green's An Abundance of Katherines, Colin Singleton is all too painfully aware that his best years might be long behind him.

Colin was a child prodigy. Now he is just a quirky young adult who remembers inane facts and has a thing for girls named Katherine. In fact, he has had 19 girlfriends named Katherine, all with their own stories and all with their own reasons for dumping Colin. When K19 dumps Colin, he can't bring himself to just go on with life as usual. His wise-cracking Lebanese friend Hassan has a wonderful solution: a road trip! 

The two boys climb into the car and head off into the sunset with no real destination in mind as long as it is not home. When they end up in Gutshot, Tennessee, they realize the small town has more to offer than just the body of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. With a motley crew of people centered around a tampon string factory and the impetus for WWI, Hassan and Colin find jobs, first kisses, another Colin, and a theorem that can predict the longevity of relationships and reveals Colin's life as a Dumpee. 

Have you ever watched a movie where not much happened, but the witty dialogue kept you giggling and hanging on until the end? That is the gist of An Abundance of Katherines. The quirky relationship between Colin and Hassan will have you laughing from start to finish. I can honestly say there isn't much action to this story, but that won't stop you from enjoying the story. Colin's obsession with Katherines and intrigue with Lindsay leads him to develop a mathematical equation that explains the life of a relationship. For a washed up prodigy, his success with the equation is reliant upon his need to feel useful and intelligent again. Both boys are such unique characters, you will wish you knew them in person!

This book has some mild intimate content and a decent amount of choice language, but that isn't the reason I would save this book for an older student. The dialogue is so quirky and fast it would most likely be lost on a younger student. It requires a unique sense of humor and appreciation for sarcasm and wit to enjoy this book. If you enjoy those things, you will undoubtedly love this book. If you are looking for a linear story with a beginning, a middle, and a conclusion, this book might not be your cup of tea. The other cool feature of this book is the footnotes. They add to the story in unique ways, giving snarky remarks regarding the story, confirming or denying tidbits of information, and developing the characters further. So don't overlook the footnotes, and if you need a witty book to make you laugh, Katherines is waiting for you!

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

This is Not Just a Zombie Novel

This Is Not a Test
They say "Don't judge a book by its cover," but they should also say, "Don't just a book by its blurb". With publishing houses trying so hard to sell their books, they jump to use anything from the book they think will catch people's attention, but sometimes in doing so, they alter the focus of book, maybe even mislead people. This can be very frustrating sometimes, but other times it can give you a chance to experience the book with a clean slate. Since your preconceived notions don't match up, you have to just let the book do work its magic. This is a pretty rare occurrence these days, but I treasure the experience. And experience I did with Courtney Summers' This is Not a Test

Sloane's idea of hope disappeared when her sister left her to suffer their father's abuse alone. She has never felt so helpless... until the world turns upside down. When the dead begin to rise, no place is safe and hope is a luxury of the past. But somehow Sloane and 5 other kids make it to the only place they could think to close off and fortify, the one place no teenager would want to make their final home... the high school.

Now that they have gotten to the school and barricaded themselves inside, the illusion of safety begins to shatter. The zombies are outside the building eager to get in and the kids inside are all too painfully aware that nothing can keep them out forever. They also know their resources won't last forever, but for the time being, they are eager to accept the relative safety of the school and hope for someone to rescue them. Unfortunately, they can't know whether there are people alive out there or whether they are all alone. But things inside the school are not all peaches and cream, either. The kids' emotions are running high, but for Sloane, the apocalypse has provided the perfect opportunity she needs: the opportunity to end it all.

While this started out like your typical zombie novel, scared people running for shelter, escaping the dead, it quickly became something else entirely for me. While there were zombies outside and the kids were clearly afraid of the world crashing down around them, this was a story of past and present and all too painfully slim future. The kids each had their own baggage and sacrifices they carried into the school building that ate away at them after weeks of hiding from the walking dead. But Sloane's is the worst. While the other kids remember the monsters their friends, family, and even parents became after the apocalypse started, Sloane remembers the monster her father was before the dead started walking. She is a deeply troubled girl whose biggest betrayal was when her sister, the same sister who always swore they were together until the end, left and abandoned Sloane to her father. I loved this character because it really resonated that no matter what happens in your future, it is near impossible to lose the memories of what happened in the past. All too often we read (OK, I read!) apocalyptic books with strong leading characters who also, conveniently, have lovely survival skills. But what about the other people? The less McGuyver-esque people? Do they make it? Or are they the first to get eaten? This book really delved into the fact that survivors will most likely be a motley crew of people, some useful, some not, some cutthroat, some willing to accept the inevitable. 

This was a real testament to the characters Summers' created. All too often in "action" type books, the characters become second string to the main character: the action. Summers remembered that the human aspect of any story is what really affects people, and so she created a story you will think about for a long time after finishing, not a book for cheap thrills. Even though this is a zombie story, the zombies are almost an afterthought or background noise, not the central conflict of the story. With so little zombie influence, this would be a book that could appeal to a variety of readers, even those not into the zombie stories. I might not give it to a really young or naive student because they would lose the subtle intricacies of the characters that make this book so interesting. So even if you aren't a zombie-phile, give this book a chance- there is more out there than just flesh eating and zombie hordes!

Monday, July 2, 2012

Who Survives?

Love Is the Higher Law
I remember having a conversation with a family friend a year or so after 9/11. We were talking about humanity and the good and the seriously ugly that comes out of humanity. And after we talked about some pretty ugly things, one being all the people who died on 9/11, I made a comment that quieted us both. I said (not verbatim), "Well, there wasn't a single call of vengeance or hate or anger that came from those buildings or those planes. They were all of love." I remember him pondering that for a moment and saying, "I guess humans aren't so bad after all." We lived through 9/11. We remember where we were that day. What we were doing. Who we were with. But our children and students don't. I am teaching middle school students who were born after that horrible day. They hear about the horror, but none remember it. So how do we teach them about a day we will never forget? David Levithan has the right idea with Love is the Higher Law. He talks about the people who survived that day. And you didn't have to be in the towers to be a survivor. 

Claire was sitting in homeroom when it happened. When she saw people bustling around and whispering to her teacher, she was scared something had happened to her mother. What she didn't expect was a tragedy that would take so many people's mothers and fathers. Jasper was sleeping. With his parents in Korea, he was using the time to indulge in late nights and later mornings and had disconnected the phone. For a family halfway around the world with their son in the middle of a terrorist attack, nothing can be scarier than him not picking up the phone. Peter is in Tower Records, picking out the next great album and day dreaming about his date that night with a cute boy named... Jasper. When he walks outside, he removes his headphones because any song he heard as he watched the second plane hit the towers would have been forever tainted by the horror he was witnessing. 

When the towers went down in NYC, many people died. But while many people survived, a small piece of them went down with the towers. Everything stopped in the city that never sleeps and certainly never stops. And three young adults all living very different lives found their lives intertwining and never losing sight of what their city lost: the facade of safety and imperviousness. Claire, Jasper, and Peter all survived in very different ways, but they carry the towers and what happened that day with them each and every day. 

The importance of this book is that it is not a dictation of facts of what happened that day. It is a personal, human story of three teenagers living through the scariest day of their lives. I think this is a story that teens today could not only relate to, but also get a better image of what happened that day. But the story doesn't stop with that day. It continues for days and years after, showing the true influence 9/11 made on those kids. What was particularly important for me was how different their reactions are. When we look at the way people deal with tragedy, we have to acknowledge the widely differing reactions and this book chronicled three of those. In particular, Jasper was unable to get it out of his mind while Peter just wanted to move on with his life. 

While this book wouldn't tell the whole story of what happened that day, it would be a great companion to any lesson on the subject for teens. It is very realistic and upfront about the lives of these three teens, a skill Levithan is a master at. He doesn't hide behind stereotypes and fluff, but rather delivers a story that will leave you different by the last page. This is a short story, a little over 150 pages, so it is good for an older reader who struggles to focus on longer books or as a part of a larger unit about this time period. Levithan does it again. He brings the humanity out of the shadows and into the light. 

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Lost Letters = Vital Insight

The Lost Letters of Brother Gabriel (A Dark Divine Original)
Brother Gabriel was Daniel's Urbat (werewolf) mentor, but we never knew the full story of his transformation as an Urbat in the Dark Divine Series by Bree Despain. Not a main character, Gabriel's evolution isn't the primary focus of the series, but it certainly has a lot to do with who he is and how he led Daniel. In these lost letters, we see how he first became an Urbat, how he struggled with the wolf inside him, and how he became the man he is today.

I have to say this was an enlightening little collection of letters. They help you to know the man you thought you knew. I also appreciated how he talked about the wolf inside him as a separate entity, not a real conjoined piece of himself as we would see it from the outside. In particular, the transition from a vengeful beast to an atoning leader was one you won't want to miss. In a swirl of crappy unnecessary eShorts out there from your favorite series, this one is worth the effort!