Sunday, December 29, 2013

The UnWholly Unwind

The Akron AWOL is infamous. The other whollies worship him and the Unwind Culture despises everything he stands for. But behind the moniker is Connor. Connor is just a boy who made it to 17 and can't be unwound, but the weight of the world rests on his shoulders in Unwholly, the second Unwind book by Neal Shusterman.

Connor is in charge of the entire plane Graveyard. He has hidden over 800 AWOLs there, but the fact that missing kids slated for unwinding are hiding there is no secret. He isn't sure why the authorities haven't come to get them yet, but he takes each and every day as a gift. While he and Risa can't be unwound anymore, there are a lot of kids whose lives are in his hands. He can barely feed the kids he has, but that doesn't stop them from the constant rescue missions to save more. Of course, not every kid is as grateful as they should be, and some, like Starkey, have only their interests in mind. When a bunch of kids are barely holding it together in the face of imminent unwinding, all it takes is one very smart, very devious rabble rouser.

Meanwhile, Camus Comprix tries to find his way in a world where he shouldn't exist. The product of dozens of unwound kids, he is made of the parts of others. He was created, not born. When he struggles to find his way in the world with so many conflicting thoughts and memories swirling around his head, his handler feels a companion will keep him on the right track as the most revolutionary advance for humans in their existence. The only problem is the girl Cam wants is an unwilling participant in the experiment. When Risa is captured and blackmailed into joining Cam, she is forced to support the Unwinding movement, the single thing she hates the most. While everyone at the Graveyard thinks she has betrayed them, Risa is trying everything to hold them together. For a group of kids who no one cares if they exist or not, the responsibility sitting on their shoulders is overwhelming.

This was such an interesting follow up to Unwind for a number of reasons. First, it was a book that came out after a significant hiatus. Shusterman took a while to get this book together, so if you followed the series from its inception, you needed a refresher at the beginning of this sequel before you started the new story. But who wants to read an info dump or a recap? So Shusterman created a really ingenious "index" that catches you up quickly and efficiently at the beginning of the story so you know where you are without some silly recap. I also really liked how he balanced the story between the main characters from the last book, Lev, Connor, and Risa, and the new characters Starkey, Cam and Miracolina. The addition of the focus on new characters made it more interesting while still keeping me connected to the previous book.

On a whole, this is one of the creepiest premises I have ever read. I mean, seriously, unwinding kids?? People fighting to preserve the unwinding? The public service notices to convince people what a wonderful solution to abortion? CRAZY! But a brilliant fictional examination of just how far people can go and how blinded they can be in the face of fear and propaganda. It is the kind of series that can be related to everything from the Holocaust to the battle over same sex marriage or abortion. I love a book that is going to elicit passionate discussions from my students, and unwinding is definitely one that will get them fired up. But in addition to the infinite discussions, you will get wrapped up in a really crazy, really interesting story. Shusterman always does that to me!

Sunday, December 22, 2013

It's Always a Trap

I am sure you all think there is nothing original about a vampire story. Well then, my friends, you haven't taken a chance on Andrew Fukuda and his The Hunt series! These vampires will terrify you and surprise you with each page. It started with The Hunt and it ends with The Trap, but you won't be ready to let go!

Gene, Sissy, David and Epap made it out of the "sanctuary" but they had no idea they were headed to the palace full of vampires. When the train arrives, there are too many kids to fit into the elevator. Those left behind get to know first hand what happens when you don't follow the rules of the Palace. And it is vicious. Those in the elevator fly upwards to a space full of human children just waiting for their time to be called. When the alarm goes off, they have a few short seconds to get into an enclave before the vampires are allowed in. If they are caught outside, their fate is swift but vicious. When the alarm blows, they all make it into Enclaves, but the ruler is clearly interested in Sissy. Then he notices Gene: the boy who masqueraded as a vampire for years and proved them all fools. 

When Gene's enclave goes shooting through the walls, he is sure he is being sent to the ruler's rooms to be devoured, but what he doesn't expect is to be taken to a secret laboratory where he is informed of the true nature of his and Sissy's lives. As the Origin, their blood combined cures the vampire plague, turning any vampire back into a human. But Ashley June, the former human who sacrificed her humanity to save Gene is stopping them from working on a widespread cure. Having survived the scorching trek from the mission, she has called a press conference to tell the city about the Palace's secret stash of Hepers. Now the ruler wants Ashley June gone, but his first assassin wasn't so successful. When Gene learns Epap was sent first, he refuses to stay in the Palace in relative safety. Instead, he and Sissy head to a city full of vampires to save their friend, because friends never leave a man behind. Even if they are the only cure to the plague that took over the world. 

OK. I am NOT going to give you any spoilers, but I have to tell you that the ending of this series will leave you reeling! It is such a shocker but then it isn't, but then it is, and it left me staring at the last page like, "Oh NO you didn't!!" It was ridiculous! I can honestly say this ending was nothing I could have expected. So shocking! I think any kid who read this series would find themselves stunned and searching for their next set of books when they were done because it is Just. That. Good! I don't get surprised often, so when I do, it is flabbergasting! And let me tell you, this book totally caught me unaware. That ending was phenomenal!!

So you should all definitely use this series for any struggle or disinterested readers you come across. It is so novel and new that it will keep any reader hooked right to the last page. I see every boy who ever told me, "I hate all books" finally picking this series up and never putting it down until the end of this final book. This is the series that could make them lifelong readers! And we owe it all to Andrew Fukuda and his brilliant series (and that brilliant ending!). So if you need a new kind of vampire story full of action, suspense, and insanity, Go on The Hunt. You will love every minute of it!

She May B. Dyslexic

Our children very often don't have an understanding of the kinds of lives people their age lived 100 or more years ago. In Caroline Starr Rose's beautiful little book, May B., we see a young girl who sounds very much like my own students today in 2013. But May's life is very, very different in many ways, and I can't help but think how special it would be for our students to read this book.

May's parents tell her she is going to have to travel 15 miles to live with another homesteader and his new wife. They need help around the homestead, and he is willing to pay May's parents to have her stay with them and help for the next few months. May knows it isn't permanent, but she also isn't ready to move away from her parents for so long with no way to be in contact with them. 15 miles across rough land in a horse and buggy is nothing to take lightly. To make matters worse, May is going to have to stop going to school when she moves in with them. School is hard enough for May, but with such a long time away from it, she knows she is never going to move out of the little kid side of the schoolhouse. It is embarrassing enough to have to sit with the little kids at her age because she can't read. After months away, she knows it will be worse and she will suffer the wrath of her teacher even more than she does now.

At the homestead, it is clear the homesteader's wife doesn't want to be there. She doesn't intend to do any chores herself, but it seems like May's very presence bothers her. When she picks up and leaves, her new husband chases after her, leaving May behind in the homestead. May assumes they will be back, but days and days pass and no one returns. Left to tend to the home herself with no new food, she has enough to survive a while, but not until her father comes for her at Christmas. Just a child, May B. does the bravest thing she could do. She survives.

May B. is my newest love. This book is told in short free verse that is very readable and easy to understand. It also makes the book incredible accessible for students who struggle with reading. Do they look at a page full of text the same way May describes? You bet they do! So having these short, powerful snippets are an amazing way to tell the story of a dyslexic girl while simultaneously not alienating the dyslexic young adults who the story would mean the most to. Pure brilliance. And while May isn't actually stated as being dyslexic, her struggles with reading are so spot on, you can't deny her obvious dyslexia. I loved this. Our students are lucky enough to live in a modern world where dyslexia is known and can receive remediation. What if they lived 150 years ago and you were just considered unintelligent if you couldn't read? This book really gives them a moment of perspective, and I really believe that is invaluable.

In addition, May is a young dyslexic girl who is SO brave she is able to take care of herself and survive through enormous winter storms all by herself. We so often now see kids who passively let everyone do things for them- teachers, parents, etc., but they never learn to handle difficult situations themselves. In fact, the Washington Post did an interesting article on these "Snow Plow" parents. So to watch May survive and figure things out herself was truly inspiring. I love this little story, and I think it would be great for any kid to read. It is simple enough for super low-skilled students, but it is also appropriate for older students as a supplement to history or a quick connection to the times. I think parents and teachers will enjoy this quick little story too. It was just so wonderful in ever possible way!

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

I Wish I Could Unread it to Experience it for the First Time All Over Again

When we got Noah and Echo's story, we thought we couldn't love anyone more than the two of them. Then we got Beth's story and realized our love for each character is different, but equally as devoted. And then there was Isaiah's story and I thought to myself, "Katie McGarry! You tricky little devil! How on EARTH do you do this to me with every single book?!" In the third companion novel of the Pushing the Limits series, McGarry brings Isaiah what we always wanted for him: the perfect girl for him. But nothing comes easy for Isaiah. 

Isaiah has only loved two people unconditionally in his life: Noah and Beth. Noah has Echo and is torn between his past and loyalty to Isaiah and the future he wants to start with Echo. Beth just destroyed Isaiah. Now Isaiah finds himself alone again and hanging on by a thread. Barely able to make rent with Noah, he faces losing his freedom from the system if Noah moves to the dorms with Echo. In an effort to make a little money and keep Noah with him, he does something he never does: he decides to drag for a little extra cash. When he goes to Eric's illegal races, he expects meet some rough characters, Eric being the most deceptively terrifying. What he doesn't expect is to meet an angel in a Mustang. 

Rachel has always been protected. Born as a replacement for her sister who died of leukemia, Rachel has never lived up to the vibrant, outgoing Colleen. Instead, her desire to work on cars, irritation with the colors pink and purple, and anxiety attacks have been the ever present source of sadness for her mother. Add to that an overprotective father and four overprotective older brothers, and you have a girl who barely leaves the house. Except to drive her mustang. Her baby. After a rough night, Rachel's twin, Ethan, covers for her while she goes for a ride. She doesn't expect to end up at a drag race, but even less does she expect to be so taken by a guy full of earrings and tattoos. But when Isaiah strides up to her car to approve of its engine for her to race, she can't pull her eyes away from him. And she isn't afraid to tell him to get his hands off her car. 

When the race goes bad and the police show up, Isaiah refuses to leave Rachel behind. In a new kind of race, they manage to get away, but they aren't free and clear. While the police didn't catch them, Eric thinks Rachel had something to do with the anonymous tip that was sent into the police about the race which led to a couple of guys ribbing him. Now he is hunting Rachel to make her pay. But Isaiah has no intentions on letting anyone get anywhere near Rachel. He will do anything he can to protect her, even if it means not calling her when she is the only thing he can think about. But when Eric finds her, Isaiah gives up his exile. Now nothing can keep Isaiah from his angel. Not her brothers, not her father, not even a homicidal criminal like Eric. 

Oh boy. Boy, oh boy. I cannot tell you how MUCH I loved this book. I really did not think it was possible to love a couple more than I loved Echo and Noah, but you know what? Isaiah and Rachel's story is now my absolute favorite. There is something so deep and so tormented about that boy that you just needed for him to find his perfect complement. And that complement was Rachel. She wasn't perfect- far from it- but she was perfect for Isaiah. Not only because of her love for cars, but because she was as damaged as he was. While her life might have appeared to be charmed, it was actually a complete mess. Together, Rachel and Isaiah made a whole. Apart, they were in pieces. That is the stuff of a beautiful (and complicated) romance, and I loved Every. Single. Page. Of. It.

When I describe these stories, I just don't do them justice, though. They appear to be your standard, run-of-the-mill romances, but they are anything but average. McGarry has this uncanny ability to make you love her characters as if they were really in your life. It sounds silly, but I felt like I knew Isaiah and Rachel by the time I finished with this book! She also has the ability to introduce supporting characters new to each book who are just as fantastic as the regulars. When you meet Abby, the snarky, tough as nails, drug dealing con artist, you are going to fall in love with her. You think I am wrong, right? How could you ever love a girl like that? Well, read this book and tell me you don't. I bet you will be begging for a book about Abby the same way I am!!

So here is my plea to Ms. McGarry. PLEASE don't stop writing these stories. They make me so happy and consume my life from the first page to the last. My husband tried to talk to me in the middle of Crash Into Me for about 20 minutes before he realized I hadn't heard a word he said. Luckily the boy understands what happens when I love a book this much! I am so excited for West's story, but the next one should be Abby's story! And by the time you are done with those two, I am sure I will find another supporting character to love just as much as I loved Isaiah and Ryan and Abby and West. I need more! Don't stop! Keep 'em coming! These are some of the best books I have read! I can't get enough!!

To Study or Not to Study: Is There a Question?

Cia made it through the Testing, but that doesn't mean her life is easy. In Independent Study, Joelle Charbonneau takes Cia's accomplishments to the next level: her studies. 

After the Testing, the people who passed had their memories wiped. The people who didn't... disappeared. But Cia managed to hold onto her memories through the recording device she has hidden. Her memories were wiped, but from the recordings and the flashes of memories that weren't erased, she knows the government is doing dangerous things with the testing. Now, a University student, she must go through initiation. Just when she thought she had survived the worst ordeal of her life, she is forced to join forces with people she doesn't know and doesn't trust and go on an expedition for her initiation. Whenever the government gives them a test, it is clear they aren't afraid to risk their lives as well. 

Finally, Cia is given her course load and an Independent Study location. What she doesn't expect is to be swamped with nine class when everyone else has six, given the hardest independent study, and most importantly, picked by the Government as its only intern. There are people out there who want to see Cia fail because they fear the bravery and will to protect people she harbors. To them, anyone willing to stand up to the establishment, even if in the smallest of ways, such as being able to figure out their tricks too easily, is a threat. And there is nothing more dangerous than being on the threat list of the government. But Cia has bigger things to worry about. With a rebel army amassing and Cia caught in the middle, she doesn't know who she can trust. In order to survive, however, she is going to have to learn to trust someone...

I thought this was a really interesting next step in this series, but I also found the beginning of the story with the initiation to be a lot more exciting than the parts after the initiation. The initiation was very similar to the actual Testing in the first book. They had a small quest with different deadly obstacles and such a desperation to pass that students would do anything to be first- even hurt each other. After that was over, it became more of a psychological thriller. Cia spent a lot of her time pondering the thought processes of the government, ways they were trying to trick her, and how to counter their moves. She also spent a lot of time skulking about campus trying to get information. I found it a little unrealistic that these crazy masterminds would be having these serious conversations full of important details in places where a girl in a hallway could hear them, but oh well! It was interesting!

This is a good series for anyone who likes dystopias and corrupt government stories. Again, I am glad to see a strong female lead who actually wants to do something to stop a corrupt government, not a reluctant hero who just wanted to be left alone. I like a hero who actually fights for what she believes in. There is some obvious brutality and violence in this story, but this one less so than the first book. Still, it isn't a story for young middle readers. More made for young adults. Lucky for all of us Charbonneau is pumping these books out every 6 months! Next one is right around the corner!

Sunday, December 15, 2013

When Gods Get Murderous

The Greek Gods and Goddesses have been portrayed in many different ways in young adult literature lately. From the usually humorous and typically oblivious gods in Rick Riordan's Percy Jackson series, to the modern spin in Meg Cabot's Underworld series, we have seen all sorts of interpretations. But Kendare Blake's Goddess War series has to be the start of the most brutal and bloody of all all the recent mythology based stories. In Antigoddess, you get a new perspective that might just turn your stomach!

The Gods are immortal. They might not be the most popular anymore, but at least they have immortality. Or so they thought... Athena, goddess of wisdom, is being consumed by the feathers of the very owls who serve her. Feathers are sprouting inside her, slowly consuming every bit of her. Soon, they will take her the same way they took Demeter, who was slowly consumed by the earth. Before Demeter died, however, she told Athena and Hermes (who is wasting away) that Cassandra, the oracle, is the key to finding a way to stop their inevitable deaths. With the greater gods like Poseidon being led by crazy Hera to find Athena and the other lesser gods and hunt them down, Athena and Hermes don't have much time before they finally meet their fate. 

Cassandra is a normal girl. If you don't count the fact that she can see into the future, of course! Luckily, her boyfriend Aiden is not only supportive and loving, he knows about the visions and doesn't think she is a freak. But Cassandra's life isn't going to be uncomplicated for long. The gods seem to think she is the key in the upcoming war for survival, and in the process, everything she knows will be upended. 

I knew Kendare Blake didn't mess around after I read Anna Dressed in Blood, but this book was pretty gruesome at times! I was a little surprised! Blake doesn't hold anything back for this one, she just lets it all fly! I don't particularly agree with censoring the books of teens, but I know some people are sensitive to violence, so you might not want to give this book to anyone who can't handle the gore factor. If you don't believe me, just read the first description of Athena's feathers poking through the roof of her mouth, and you will know what I mean. Basically, this is not for your typical Percy Jackson crowd. This is a story for a much older crowd who seeks a pretty dark tale to be spun!

As for the characters, both new and revised, I actually really liked them! I thought they were a fresh new twist on very old tales and characters that made me want to continue with the story. It was certainly action-packed, and the descriptions are masterful. I mean, the description of Demeter, or Poseidon and his madness? Definitely gave me the creeps. Yuck! So if you need a dark, twisted tale or you know someone who likes that kind of story, this is your book. But please don't pass this story onto your 11 year old nephew who loved Percy Jackson. This isn't the next step from there!