Monday, December 7, 2009

Good at Being Skinny

Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson is the story of Lia, a high school girl who is good at being skinny. So good, in fact, that she has been hospitalized several times and has had to be in outpatient therapy to deal with her weight and the issues she has with being thin. Lia's best friend Cassie, with whom she had a falling out over the fact that she was in therapy, has just died alone in a motel room after calling Lia 33 times. The novel begins when Lia hears the news.
It seems that I usually hear about people with anorexia and bulimia as having issues with control, and possibly as having a tumultuous family life. Lia is no different. Lia's parents were divorced after her surgeon mother discovered that her professor father was having an affair. Her father married the other woman, and together they had a daughter, a little sister who Lia adores. Lia and her mother don't get along, so after Lia's most recent hospitalization, she goes to live with her father's new family. Her stepmother weighs her every day and tries to ensure that she is eating properly, but Lia has tampered with the scale, only pretends to eat, often goes to the basement during the night and spends hours on the treadmill, and uses razor blades to cut herself.
The crux of the novel is that Lia is haunted by Cassie's ghost. She sees her in her bedroom at night and throughout the day, and she can tell that Cassie wants Lia to join her on the other side, so Cassie encourages Lia to "stay strong" in her fight to keep skinny. On the other side, however, is Lia's little sister, who desperately wants her to be healthy, and who later in the novel is witness to something pretty horrific.
I loved Wintergirls for the beauty of its writing, especially. Anderson does more than tell a story; she evokes mood through language, and uses metaphor to powerful effect. If you liked Speak, also by Anderson, then you will love Wintergirls.
4 out of 4 Bananas!

Thursday, November 19, 2009

What If There Are No Right Answers?

I recently read Jodi Picoult's My Sister's Keeper for the Bulldog Book Club. It was a novel I've avoided reading for years, even though I enjoy Jodi Picoult's writing, but the subject matter just seemed too depressing. Childhood cancer is not a subject that I really want to read about in my free time, especially since I have two little girls who are about the age that the characters in the novel are when the oldest sister's cancer is diagnosed. But, ever the supportive Book Club sponsor, I dutifully checked it out and read it. I liked it, for the most part. Maybe I haven't read Picoult in a while, but this one seemed more rambling and not quite as tight as my memory of some of her others. The one thing I really liked is that each chapter is told from a different character's perspective, including: the younger sister who is suing for medical emancipation, her mother, her father, her lawyer, her court-appointed juvenile representative, and her older brother. The glaringly obvious omission is the point of view of her older sister Kate, for whom Anna has been undergoing medical procedures since birth. Kate was diagnosed with cancer when she was a toddler, but no one in her family was a perfect match for bone marrow, etc., and the likelihood of finding an unrelated person who was a match was almost impossible. Kate's doctor had mentioned that a sibling who was a perfect match would be the best option, so Kate's parents decided to have a third child. They were able to choose an embryo that was a perfect match for Kate, had it implanted in her mother, who then gave birth to Anna, Kate's perfect match. This meant that Anna was Kate's default provider of blood, bone marrow, and other bodily tissues and fluids for most of Anna's young life. At the novel's beginning, Anna is faced with donating a kidney, and she finally has had enough and decides to sue her parents for medical emancipation. This of course causes great anguish and heartache for everyone in the family, as the likelihood of Kate's death looms large in the absence of a kidney donation. Anna, however, remains steadfast in her refusal to donate. The questions involved in this often-riveting family drama include: when does the individual become more important than the family? To what lengths would you go to preserve control over your own body? How can families recover from devastating events which might tear them apart? Are all family members equal? At what age should you be allowed to control your destiny?
Jodi Picoult is a master of the "grey area", where black and white do not exist. By the end of the novel I had come to terms with what I thought was going to happen, but I was blown out of the water by the mega-twist that came instead. I felt really outraged at first because it all seemed too unlikely, but then when I read the "Author's Note" at the end, and had time to think about the point Picoult was trying to make with this conclusion, I realized that it really could not have ended any other way and been as satisfying (after my initial outrage had subsided).
So, here's a long and rambling post about a sometimes-long-and-rambling book, but because of its overall message and the intriguing questions posed within its story, I'm giving it 3 out of 4 Bananas.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Look Me in the Eye: My Life With Asperger's

John Elder Robison's younger brother is Augusten Burroughs, author of the acclaimed memoir Running With Scissors. Burroughs' memoir details his father's descent into alcoholism and his mother's increasingly debilitating mental illness. John Elder Robison, the author of Look Me in the Eye, was absent for most of Augusten's childhood, as he was older and had fled the family for a life of independence and adventure. He always had trouble relating to people, however, and was considered by others to be strange and sometimes rude, yet brilliant in electronics and automotives. Look Me in the Eye details Robison's amazing life, including stints designing custom guitars for heavy metal band KISS, electronic toys for Milton Bradley, and finally running his own luxury car repair service. Robison also describes his difficulty with people, his inability to look people in the eye (hence the memoir's title), and his habit of giving people names (he calls his wife Unit Two). Robison was finally diagnosed with Asperger's when we was forty years old, and he describes it as a lightbulb going off in his head, giving him a name for the condition he'd been struggling with his entire life. There is no cure for Asperger's, but he has learned the social skills necessary for maintaining friendships and other relationships. This makes it much easier for him to deal with people, even though he says he still comes off as a little strange. One of the most illuminating comments for me was that he emphasizes that although people on the autism spectrum seem to want to be alone all the time, when he was a child he wanted desperately to be with others: he just didn't know how. Look Me in the Eye is an invaluable addition to the repertoire of literature on Asperger's and autism because, since it is actually written by someone with the disability, it provides great insight into the hearts and minds of people who may not be able to speak out on their own. Although a bit long in parts, Look Me in the Eye is engaging and original. 3 1/2 out of 4 Bananas!

Abraham Lincoln Illinois High School Book Award 2010 Nominee

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Zombies in Plain English

Ever wonder how to survive a zombie attack? is well-known for their 3-minute videos explaining a variety of topics including Twitter, Blogging, Podcasting, etc., and they've also produced this highly informative video on how to survive zombie attacks. Protect yourself and your loved ones this Halloween season!

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Leaving Paradise Left Me Behind

Leaving Paradise by Simone Elkeles has an intriguing premise: a year before the novel begins, Caleb Becker admitted to driving drunk, hitting his neighbor Maggie Armstrong, and then leaving the scene of the crime. Caleb was sentenced to serve a year in the Department of Corrections' juvenile jail, where he lived with gang members, was subjected to full body searches, and spent his time hardening both his body and his mind. The novel begins with Caleb's release from jail, and the reception he receives from his family and from the kids at school. One of the best aspects of the novel is that it is told in alternating chapters, going back and forth between Caleb's and Maggie's perspectives. Maggie has spent the previous year undergoing numerous surgeries and physical therapy to help heal the leg that was ruined by the accident. She is angry that Caleb is released and can go back to what she perceives as his "normal life", while she has been forever damaged by his reckless behavior. Both Caleb's and Maggie's families have been changed by the accident, and both have unreasonable expectations of how their children should act in the accident's aftermath. Caleb's mother wants him to pretend to be a cleancut, preppy kid for the sake of outward appearances, while his sister has become totally goth and largely unrecognizable. The reasons for this are revealed later in the novel. Maggie's mother (her father has left the family and holds Maggie at arm's length) desperately wants her to be happy and to feel like she fits in with the rest of the kids at school, which is far from reality. Maggie and Caleb are forced to confront one another when they begin helping an elderly woman after school, Maggie to make money for a trip to Spain, and Caleb to fulfill his community servicement requirements for parole. They begin to fall in love, but have to keep that love secret because how could anyone possibly understand why Maggie, the victim could forgive Caleb, much less fall in love with him? And how could anyone understand how Caleb can love damaged Maggie, when his ex-girlfriend Kendra is the hottest girl in school?
Leaving Paradise is a gentle romance which many students may enjoy. For me, Elkeles' writing and dialogue fell flat, and her adult characters were way over-the-top caricatures of "out-of-it parents". Also, the ending! What was up with the ending? If you can overlook the abrupt ending and the (IMHO) bad writing, you just may find paradise. 2 out of 4 Bananas.

Abraham Lincoln Illinois High School Book Award 2010 Nominee

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Love Love Love Love Love LOVE This Book!

If you liked Harry Potter because of J.K. Rowling's creatively imagined world of sorcery, private schools, and hilarious hijinks, then you will LOVE (note the title of this post) I'd Tell You I Love You, But Then I'd Have to Kill You by Ally Carter. It's set in a top-secret, all-girls school for spies, where girls from spy families, girls with genius IQs, or girls who have shown a talent for espionage are educated in Covert Operations, hand-to-hand combat, garbology (the study of trash), conversational Swahili and other non-traditional subject areas. As far as the town knows, however, the Gallagher Academy is simply a private school for spoiled rich girls. What happens, then, when Cammie Morgan falls for a cute townie named Josh? She can't let him know that she's a Gallagher Girl (he'll just think she's a stuck-up snob), but she also can't tell him that she's been trained to kill someone with a piece of uncooked spaghetti, because, let's face, that's just a little weird. Cammie's friends are also suspicious that Josh may be a "honeypot" (someone who uses romance to trick an enemy agent), so they convince Cammie to conduct a covert operation to spy on Josh and find out his true motives for dating her. Can she trust him? Should she? What's a spy girl to do in this dangerous day and age?? I LOVED this book because of its fresh and humorous writing style, creativity, and fast pace and unhesitatingly award it 4 out of 4 Bananas!

Abraham Lincoln Illinois High School Book Award 2010 Nominee

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Gym Candy is Pretty Sweet

Finally! A book for people who like sports and enjoy reading descriptions of games and football plays, like you would read in the sports pages or in Sports Illustrated magazine. So many "sports books" are really about other issues altogether, but with Gym Candy I feel that I can unreservedly recommend this to people who just want "a book about sports."
Mick Johnson is a good football player, maybe even a great one. His father was also a great player, but blew his chances in the NFL due to some poor choices he had made. Mick feels pressure from his dad to achieve greatness, but he also personally wants the glory of being the strongest and fastest player on the field. When his dad buys him a membership to a local gym, Mick meets Peter, his new trainer. Peter casually mentions to him that, if he were interested, Peter could give him a trial dose of some popular steroids that would help Mick quickly achieve his goal of becoming a bigger and stronger player. Mick resists at first, but is eventually lured into the world of performance enhancing drugs, including the more powerful injectible drugs popular with other buff guys at his gym. Although the drugs do give Mick the edge he's been looking for, he experiences many of steroids' negative side effects, including depression, rage, swollen breasts and acne.
I liked Gym Candy because it deals with the issue of performance enhancing drugs in an honest and realistic fashion, and because it really and truly a book about SPORTS for people who like to read about sports. Don't be scared away if you're not really a sports fan (like myself), because it's a GREAT book about a fascinating and timely issue! 4 out of 4 Bananas!

Abraham Lincoln Illinois High School Book Award 2010 Nominee

Friday, September 18, 2009

Could You Cut Off Your Own Arm?

Aron Ralston is an avid rock climber, canyoneer and extreme adventure junkie. He climbs the highest peaks in North America in the dead of winter, bike rides solo through deep and desolate canyons, and skiis the avalanche-ridden Colorado backcountry without batting an eye. And, in the spring of 2003, he cut off his own arm when it became trapped between a boulder and a rock wall while hiking in a Utah canyon.

Now, I personally am not much of a hiker, and I have no desire to climb an actual mountain, particularly in the dead of winter, but I am fascinated by stories about people who are and who do test the limits of human survival in such outrageous ways. I've read a lot in this genre, including Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer (Mt. Everest), The Climb (Mt. Everest), Touching the Void (Peruvian Andes), and now Between a Rock and a Hard Place (Utah canyons), and I'm always amazed by the drive, courage, and good luck these explorers experience during their ordeals. In Between a Rock and a Hard Place, Ralston describes many of his wintertime mountaineering adventures, some close calls he's had, and also how he is usually very diligent about leaving detailed explanations of his hiking and biking plans with friends or family. In the spring of 2003, however, Ralston decided at the last minute to take a quick trip into the canyons of Utah, leaving no information about his itinerary behind for roommates or friends at his home in Colorado. He parked his car in a remote lot at the trailhead for a little-used path and set off for a day's hike into the canyons. After a few hours of enjoyable canyoneering, a boulder dislodged above Ralston, crushing his forearm and pinning him against the wall of the canyon for five agonizing days before he finally took the last deperate measure available to him and cut off his arm with the dull blade he'd brought along on his hike. Believe me, this makes for a fast-paced and UNBELIEVABLE read! If like extreme adventure or even if you're an armchair adventurer like me, you will love Between a Rock and Hard Place by Aron Ralston. 4 out of 4 Bananas!

Friday, September 11, 2009

Leo DiCaprio stars in this soon-to-be-released psychological thriller!

Shutter Island by Dennis Lehane is one of the best, most gripping thrillers I've read in a long while. My typical evening routine includes reading until about 11pm or so, then shutting off my nightlight and going to sleep. I started reading Shutter Island around 9pm, read for a while, then turned off my light around 11pm. I COULDN'T STOP THINKING ABOUT IT, however, so I turned my light on again and read until 1:30am! I finished it the next day. This is very atypical behavior for me, and I've spent the last three months trying to convince everyone I know to read it. And now it's your turn to be convinced. It's awesome, awesome, awesome.
The novel begins with U.S. Marshal Teddy Daniels and his new partner arriving at a small island off the coast of Boston, which is home to a federal institution for the criminally insane (and really, who doesn't love a federal institution for the criminally insane?). One of the inmates turned up missing, so the marshals have been brought out to help with the search. Nothing is as it seems, however, and the reader is twisted and turned one chapter after another until, finally, the last chapter is over and you are left in wonderment at the brilliant and bizarre mind of our Mr. Lehane. The mark of a true genius is when, after the final chapter is read, two readers can discuss and DISAGREE about what even happened. This happened to me and my husband; he thought one thing, and I another. As indicated in the title of this post, Leonardo DiCaprio is starring in the film version of Shutter Island, directed by Martin Scorcese. Oh yes, you know it's gonna be good.
One of the best books I've read this year, I'm giving Shutter Island by Dennis Lehane 4 out of 4 Bananas!

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

An Abundance of...?

An Abundance of Katherines, by Printz Medal-winner John Green is the story of teenage prodigy Colin, who, along with his best friend Hassan, takes a summer road trip in the hopes if helping himself get over his latest girlfriend Katherine. Girls named Katherine are the only girls Colin dates, however, and all 19 of his Katherine-relationships ended badly. In addition to Colin's failures at love, he also is frustrated by his inability to achieve greatness. As he points out several times during the novel, prodigies are especially adept at learning things, but not necessarily at making grand discoveries. As he mulls over his lost loves, however, he begins to see a mathematical formula emerge which may just explain the relative success or failure of relationships. While he works out the math involved in his relationship equation, he and Hassan live for the summer in Gutshot, TN with a teenage girl and her mother in a Peptol Bismol-pink mansion. At the request of the mother, Colin and Hassan spend their days interviewing locals for a local history project. That's as far as I got.

Now, because An Abundance of Katherines is on the 2010 Abraham Lincoln Illinois High School Book Award list, I am reluctant to say much more about this title, which has gotten excellent reviews in both respected book review journals as well as in Amazon's customer reviews section. In the interest of honesty, however, here goes: something that bothered me about the novel, which I attribute mostly to personal taste (or distaste, as the case may be) is the main character's constant navel-gazing and whining. "Buck up! Get over it!" was constantly running through my head, which I admit is a bit harsh when it comes to teen romance. I also was extremely annoyed by one of the character's refererring to herself as being "retarded", which she did on several occasions. Finally, I found the footnotes which provided additional information on little known facts which were peppered through the book to be a little show-offy and obnoxious.
So there you have it. I only got halfway through An Abundance of Katherines, but it's very possible that others might enjoy what I could barely slog through. After all, I wasn't a Twilight fan, so what do I know?! For me, An Abundance of Katherines rated a 2 out of 5 Bananas.

Abraham Lincoln Illinois High School Book Award 2010 Nominee

Friday, May 22, 2009

The Newest Newbery: Not Just for Kids!

Neil Gaiman's The Graveyard Book recently won the American Library Association's annual Newbery Medal, an award given to the year's most accomplished writing for children (children are defined as age 12 and younger). I absolutely loved Coraline, also written by Gaiman, for its slightly twisted take on the common childhood wish to have new parents, so I was excited to read this newest, bizarrely-titled children's book.
The novel begins with a man holding a bloody knife that had just been used to murder a family, searching for the family's youngest child. The child, a little boy, had crawled out of his crib and was toddling out the open door at the time of the murders, so he had been fortunate to have escaped his family's tragic fate. Right. Not exactly a traditional children's book opener. The child toddles out the door and ends up walking into a nearby graveyard, where he is found by the resident ghosts. The murderer follows the boy to the graveyard, but is misdirected by the ghosts, who have decided to keep the boy in their protection. After much discussion by the graveyard ghosts, the boy is adopted by a childless spirit couple and named Nobody Owens, or "Bod" for short. Bod spends his childhood in the company of the colorful characters from a variety of historical periods whose bodies had been buried in the cemetery; the host of haunts include a girl who had been burned as a witch, an oafish bully, his own elderly parents, and a variety of other local citizens. He is also under the special watch of his guardian Silas, a man who is not quite dead, but is also not fully human.
As Bod grows older, more of the special nuances of death are revealed, including the horrifying world of ghouls and a bizarre, ancient order of particularly evil entities.
I LOVED this book. I'm not entirely sure to whom I would recommend it, however, which sounds strange after I just said how much I loved it. I think I would recommend it for high schoolers for sure, but they would have to be able to appreciate it for its unique vocabulary and characters, the creativity of the story, and the brilliant weaving of familiar concepts into the fabric of something so totally original. It's certainly not your typical "high school" book. Nor, however, is it your typical children's book. If I were to recommend it to a child, it would have to be for a child who is not disturbed by the idea of ghosts and by the sometimes gruesome descriptions of violent death. I think that I as a child would have liked this book, since I've always loved ghost stories, but it might be too troubling for a gentler soul. Not that my soul isn't gentle, but you know what I mean.
SO. Loved the book, but recommend it with some reservations and advance notifications, and am giving it 4 out of 4 Bananas!

Thursday, May 14, 2009

I've been wanting to read A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier by Ishmael Beah for a long time, and I finally found a reason to move it to the top of my reading list now that it's been nominated for the 2010 Abraham Lincoln Illinois High School Book Award. Written as a memoir, Beah tells the story of how his childhood was destroyed by the civil war in Sierra Leone, which began in 1991 and lasted for eleven years. Beah was in a distant village participating in a hip hop dance showcase (!) when he and his friends heard that rebels had invaded their home village. The boys were forced to flee into the forest because the rebels were reportedly headed in their direction. They spent months hiding in forests and as temporary guests in villages along their way, although many villages thought that Beah and his friends were child soldiers fighting for the rebels and refused to allow them shelter. After a year or so of flight, and after seeing the village in which his family was supposedly hiding burned to the ground, Beah was conscripted by the army into military servitude. This wasn't entirely objectionable in Beah's mind, as it at least provided him with food, protection, and the chance to exact revenge for his parents' murders. While in the army, however, Beah became addicted to cocaine and numb to the killings he both witnessed and perpetrated. Beah was eventually rescued by UNICEF and rehabilitated while living in a refugee-style camp for orphans of the civil war. His story continued and ultimately had a somewhat-happy resolution when he makes his way to New York City as a United Nations representative (although his story can't have a truly "feel good ending" due to the tragic nature of his young life).

I really liked this book because it surprised me; I had anticipated a grueling, unpleasant reading experience, but instead found Beah's account to be engaging, honest, and humorous at times without compromising the serious issue of the civil war and his descriptions of child soldiers. I was also mesmerized by Beah and his friends' passion for early '90s American rap and hip hop music: at several time throughout the memoir, Beah includes references to Naughty By Nature, Heavy D and the Boyz, and Tupac Shakur. This inclusion of a world with which I am familiar (not that I claim to be an early '90s hip hop expert by any stretch of the imagination, but I do like the music) brought Beah's foreign experience with war and soldiering into sharp relief for me; it was a jarring juxtaposition of the familiar with the "unknowable-ness" of Beah's life in Sierra Leone.

Having said all that, however, after Googling "Ishmael Beah", I discovered that there has been controversy surrounding A Long Way Gone and Beah's version of the events and chronology he describes. The Slate article I read is linked here. I'm disappointed, but not entirely surprised that Beah may have taken some poetic license with his memoir, the practice of which has been cause for much argument and discussion regarding several recent memoirs (notably A Million Little Pieces by James Frey). So, read A Long Way Gone. Keep in mind that some of the events may not have happened exactly as described, but take from it Beah's voice, and his passion for his country, and the confident knowledge that children ARE having their childhoods snatched away from them, ARE being brutalized, and DO need our help. 4 out of 4 Bananas!
Abraham Lincoln Illinois High School Book Award 2010 Nominee

Monday, April 27, 2009

Do Fashion and Religion Mix?

Does My Head Look Big in This? by Randa Abdel-Fattah is a welcome addition to the realistic teen fiction genre. It is the story of Amal, a 17 year old Australian girl who decides to proclaim her faith publicly by wearing a hijab, or Muslim headcovering. The novel is written in Amal's fresh voice, which is a fun combination of sarcastic wisecracking and earnest religious dialoguing with friends and family. Here's what I liked so much about this novel:
- Amal is a religious teenage protagonist (it seems that religious characters are often used as foils for the main characters)
- Amal is a realistic religious character, who is concerned with the same frienship/guy/family issues as non-religious teens would be, but doesn't act high-and-mighty because of her religion
- It addresses many common misconceptions and fears people have about Islam
- I love the Australian slang! (I have worked with lots of Australians and have always enjoyed the slang terms they use-- lots of creative abbreviations, and adjectives, especially. I mean, who doesn't love the word "dag"?)

The only issue I had with the novel is that it could have used a little more editing for clarity and brevity; it seemed that the author had a lot to say, and used Amal as a vehicle for getting across her point of view. I think it's an extremely important and relevant read, however, so I'm giving it 3 1/2 out of 4 Bananas!

Abraham Lincoln Illinois High School Book Award 2010 Nominee

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

CSI for the High School Set

If you like CSI and other forensic mystery TV shows and movies, you should enjoy The Christopher Killer, by Alane Ferguson. Cassie is a high school student whose father is the town's coroner (the guy who picks up dead bodies and then, if necessary, performs an autopsy to find out cause of death). Cassie wants to be a forensic scientist, so she is always reading about how the police use clues from murder scenes to catch the killers. In the beginning of the novel, Cassie's father is beginning to get swamped at work, so he asks Cassie to be his assistant, much to her delight. She struggles a bit with her first dead body, but is interested in the work and enjoys using what she's learned from her extracurricular studying. She and the town are shocked to the core, however, when one of her high school friends is found dead in the woods. It's determined that the girl is the latest victim of the Christopher Killer, a serial killer who has been murdering girls across the country, always placing a small St. Christopher medallion somewhere on their bodies. Can Cassie get beyond her personal grief and help avenge the death of her friend by finding the killer, without becoming a victim herself? I liked this book a lot because of Cassie's strength as the protagonist, and for its combination of science, suspense, and teenage relationships and friendships. I was also pretty satisfied with the ending. 3 1/2 out of 4 Bananas!

Friday, April 3, 2009

What is Moral Responsibility?

I read The Reader by German author Bernhard Schlink while I was in Mexico during Spring Break. It's not exactly a vacation read, but I enjoyed it all the same. It's a very different sort of book from what I've been reading lately, which have mostly been mysteries and thrillers (love those!). Since Kate Winslet won an Oscar for her role as Hannah Schmitz in the movie version of The Reader, though, I thought that this novel translated from the German was worth a look. It's the story of Michael Berg, a teenage boy in the years following World War II, who begins an affair with an older woman (Hannah Schmitz, the Kate Winslet role). The affair is very erotic and exciting, but soon begins to have a dark side when Hannah avoids questions about her past and shows some troubling sides to her personality. And then, one day, she is gone. Michael does not see her again for years, after he has been married, had a child, and then divorced. The circumstances in which he sees Hannah again force Michael himself as well as the reader to ask certain moral questions about the nature of responsibility, guilt, redemption and forgiveness. These questions are not easy to answer, particularly when dealing with a subject like the Holocaust, which is the time period after which The Reader takes place. I liked this book and felt that it was an important read because it filled a gap in my own consciousness and provided food for my own thought and personal moral development. It's not a technically difficult book to read, as it is fairly slim and straightforward, but the themes are certainly sophisticated and require a patient, thoughtful mind. 3 1/2 out of 4 Bananas.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Inexcusable's Main Character is, well, Inexcusable

Have you read Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson? If you did, and loved it, then you should give Chris Lynch's Inexcusable a try. This is a gripping, fast-paced novel from the viewpoint of an unreliable, potentially unstable, narrator. Keir Sarafian is a good guy, everybody says so. So, if he's such a stand-up, admirable person, it's impossible that he would rape a girl that he's totally in love with...right? That's what Keir is trying to convince the reader of during the course of this novel, which opens with a scene where the girl, Gigi, is screaming, crying, and accusing him of raping her. Now I would say that usually in a novel, the reader likes or identifies with the main character or narrator. In Inexcusable, however, I never felt comfortable with Keir. I was always on edge with him, and was suspicious of what he was telling me. Were my suspicions justified? Is Keir really who he thinks he is, or is there a dark side to him? I loved this book, partly because I was uncomfortable while I was reading it, and also because it was fun to question the truthfulness of the narrator. 4 out of 4 Bananas!
Abraham Lincoln Illinois High School Book Award 2010 Nominee

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Murdery Mystery: What a Genre!

I love murder mysteries. What I loved about In the Woods by Tana French is that it is a shining example of what mass market murder mysteries could be if only the writing were good, or at least if it resembled something bordering on the literary. Don't get me wrong, I enjoy Patricia Cornwell and Mary Higgins Clark as much as the next person, but they verge more on brain candy than on literary B vitamins. In the Woods, however, is more literary fiction than airport bookstore. It is told from the point of view of Detective Ryan, a detective on Ireland's Murder Squad, who with his partner is investigating the murder of a twelve year old girl. The girl is found dead on an archaeological site outside of Ryan's hometown, which is also the site of the disappearance twenty years earlier of two other children. The twist is that Detective Ryan is the one child who was found when the other children had vanished. He was found with his arms wrapped around a tree, blood filling his shoes. In the Woods is thrilling, suspenseful, and a true page-turner (I had to force myself to put it down and turn off my light every night). However. Mass market murder mysteries always have a satisfying ending, right? If you read In the Woods, just remember that this is no mass market murder mystery. And that's all I'm going to say about that. 3 1/2 out of 4 Bananas!

Monday, March 2, 2009

Great Read About a Terrible Topic

Such a Pretty Girl by Laura Wiess recently won second place in the 2009 Abraham Lincoln Illinois High School Book Award contest. It is the story of Meredith, a fourteen year old girl who was repeatedly raped by her father until he injured her so badly that she had to go to the hospital. Her father was arrested, imprisoned, but was released after having served only three years. The book begins with Meredith's father returning to her life, much to the delight of her mother, who is desperate to hold onto her marriage, even though she knows what he did to Meredith. Incest is a very difficult topic to stomach, even in fiction, but Wiess handles it with an appropriate amount of honesty, outrage, and just enough details to make it wrenching without being too graphic. On her official website, Wiess comments on writing Such a Pretty Girl, and how she extensively researched incest's effects on victims, the way incest crimes are prosecuted, and case studies of various perpetrators of incest. She felt so outraged by what she found that she felt compelled to write this novel so that people could have some sense of what the victims go through. The ending was a little strange for me, but because it is a short, well-written book with a lot of impact, I'm giving it 3 1/2 out of 4 Bananas.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Teenagers Fighting to the Death, Survivor-Style? Cool!

I just finished reading The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins and am already picturing which Hollywood starlet might be cast as Katniss, the novel's spunky heroine who must fight to the death in order to win the Capitol's annual Hunger Games. A Hollywood version of this action-packed Thunderdome for the under-18 set is inevitable, so I'll just have to hope that they get it right. The Hunger Games takes place in a future world, where Armageddon has essentially befallen the United States, and the Capitol is located somewhere west of the Rockies. The country has been divided into twelve districts, which at some point in the past rose up together in a revolt against the Capitol. The Capitol won, however, and as a punishment and warning to the Districts, it holds the Hunger Games, to which each District must send two "tributes." The tributes must fight to the death in order to win the Hunger Games, which are held in a specially-designed arena controlled by the Capitol's gamemakers, who can control the weather, introduce enraged mutant animals, and even hurl fireballs at contestants if things have gotten too calm for the viewing audience. Twisted, yes. Good? For sure! Katniss and Peeta are sent as the tributes from District 12, long known as the weakest and least successful district in Games history. They work together to try and survive, even though there can be only one true winner. The Hunger Games would appeal to anyone and everyone, I think because there it's got a little of everything: action, suspense, a teeny bit of gore, a pinch of romance, and plenty of twists to keep things interesting. I didn't love it, but I really liked it, so I'm giving The Hunger Games 3 out of 4 Bananas!

Friday, February 6, 2009

Riding the Bus With My Sister: What does it mean to have mental retardation?

On this year's Illinois Read for a Lifetime list, Riding the Bus With My Sister by Rachel Simon is an inspirational, heartfelt, and brutally honest look at the joys and the pain of one sister reconnecting with another. Rachel Simon is an academic who buries herself in her work and has little time for other people. Her sister, Beth, has mental retardation and spends most of her days riding the buses in Philadelphia, where she lives independently. Rachel and Beth's family has always agonized over Beth and the role that the family should play in her life. They want her to get a job and become a productive member of society, which is something it seems she could certainly do, that is, if that's what she wanted to do. Beth's greatest desire in life is independence to do what she wants, and what she wants to do is ride the buses. While riding, she befriends the drivers and counts on them as friends, confidantes, advisors and, in some cases, objects of affection. Her fixation with the buses and drivers exasperates and embarrasses her family, however, and Rachel finds it easiest to immerse herself in her own life in order to aviod having to visit Beth and be confronted with her lifestyle. The book begins with Rachel finally feeling guilty enough to pay a visit and ride the buses for an afternoon with Beth. By the end of the day, Rachel has agreed to ride the buses with Beth for a year. The rest of the book follows Rachel's journey with her sister, her burgeoning familiarity with the ins and outs of mental retardation, and her growing familiarity with and respect for the labrynth of issues surrounding care and support of people with disabilities. Riding the Bus With My Sister does not disappoint because it does not fall back on the trite notion that people with mental retardation are "God's true angels" (a sentiment which frustrates Rachel) or that they are sweet, happy people who, like children, have no adult hopes or desires. Also, at times Beth can be rude, obnoxious, and self-centered, which challenges Rachel to deal with her feelings of anger toward her sister. I recommend Riding the Bus With My Sister to all readers because of its honesty, its inspiring look at independence, and its examination of what unconditional love can really mean: 4 out of 4 Bananas!

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Desperately Seeking...

The Right Reader. Mature, loves unique characters in unusual circumstances, lyrical prose, and powerful storytelling. Okay, so enough with the personal ad metaphor. The Girls by Lori Lansens is one of the best books I've ever read, and you know I don't say that lightly. I was going to title this post "Best. Book. Ever." but I changed my mind upon reflecting on the fact that this book isn't for every reader. It's not fast-paced, stripped down, and about a gruesomely gripping subject like vampires (see my previous *Peeps* post). The Girls is a thoughtful, beautifully-written novel told in an autobiographical style about the lives of two Canadian sisters, Rose and Ruby Darlen. Each sister takes a turn telling chapters from her own perspective, so events are often described in markedly different ways. Also, the focal point of each girl's life is different, so what is important to one sister is only a blip on the screen of the other. But what about the "unique characters in unusual circumstances" I mentioned earlier? Here's the kicker: the girls are conjoined twins, connected to each other by a dinnerplate-size spot at the head. At 29, Rose and Ruby are the world's oldest living conjoined twins and although their circumstances are remarkable, their lives are lived quietly and comfortably. Quietly and comfortably, that is, until a doctor's diagnosis changes everything. The diagnosis prompts Rose (the literary one) to write her autobiography and Ruby to follow her lead (after all, Ruby says, how can it be Rose's autobiography only, if they're conjoined twins?). I was completely enchanted by this book, and after reading the author's note at the end, I realized why I connected so much to Lansens as an author. She lists her most favorite and influential books as: A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving (my all-time favorite book); Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden (another favorite); and The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck (I read it in 11th grade and was inspired to begin keeping a book of favorite passages, which I still maintain today). Although The Girls is not for everyone, it was most certainly for me, and I'm giving it 4 out of 4 Bananas!!!

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Peeps: It's not about delicious marshmallow chickens

If you like all things vampire, or even if you don't, you should read Peeps by Scott Westerfeld. It is a scary, smart, wickedly funny and totally original re-imagining of what makes a vampire a vampire, and, more importantly, why. In Westerfeld's world, a certain parasite exists which invades a victim's body, infests her brain, and creates in her a voracious appetite for meat and blood. It also gives her superhuman strength, sight, and smell. Over the centuries, according to Westerfeld, people infected with the parasite have been called different things: witches, zombies and, of course vampires. All of the odd-numbered chapters tell the story of Cal, a carrier of the vampire parasite. As a carrier, he has superhuman senses and strength, but he does not become a crazed bloodsucker or cannibal like those with the full-blown parasite. He is employed by the top-secret, centuries-old Night Watch, an organization in New York City which hunts down new vampires and keeps tabs on the rat populations (which also carry the parasite). In the course of his work, Cal meets Lace, a cute, straight-talking journalism student who becomes more and more curious about Cal's occupation. The only problem Cal faces getting to know Lace is that he can't EVER be physically intimate with anyone, not even to kiss, because the parasite is transferred by saliva and other bodily fluids. What's a guy to do? Eventually Cal and Lace strike a deal and begin to dig deeper into the increasingly alarming new strain of vampirism that is affecting the city. What they find will shock them to the core. The even-numbered chapters describe various real-life parasites, how they work, how they infect their hosts, and include a multitude of gory details you'll wish you never knew!
I loved this book. I want everyone to read it and then talk to me about it. Westerfeld has a wry, irrererent sense of humor and wickedly twisted imagination. Hands down 4 out of 4 Bananas!