Thursday, September 23, 2010

Dream or Nightmare?

Janie is a high school student who, ever since she was eight years old, gets pulled into people's dreams if they are sleeping somewhere nearby. This often happens to her in the school library where she spends her study hall, since many students use it as an opportunity to catch up on some sleep. Most of the dreams she experiences involve falling, giving speeches while naked, and fantasies involving various love interests. When she gets pulled into Cabel's dreams, however, she faces a level of frightening violence unlike anything she's ever experienced. As the novel progresses, Janie learns how to control her participation in the dreams, which allows her to learn help the people in them. Although I think Wake's premise is fascinating, McMann's writing style made it difficult for me to enjoy the book. The chapters are very short, and are made up mostly of dialogue, which I felt robs the book of some depth and development. Possibly enjoyable as a very short, fun read, but don't count on much challenge. 1.5 out of 4 Bananas.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Best Sequel Ever!

What an awesome book! Catching Fire is the sequel to The Hunger Games, a semi-dystopian novel about an America divided into 13 Districts, run by the Capitol. The Capitol asserts its authority by forcing each District to send two teenage "tributes" to the annual Hunger Games, which are a Mad Max type of fight to the death. Catching Fire picks up where The Hunger Games left off: Katniss and Peeta have won the Hunger Games and are supposed to be enjoying their victory tour throughout the Districts. They gradually become aware, however, that some of the Districts are in revolt, and that Katniss is somehow connected to the uprisings. There is a sharp turn of events, and Katniss and Peeta find themselves back where they never thought they'd be: in the Hunger Games arena. Super fantastic sequel that I liked even better than the first book! 4 out of 4 Bananas!

Monday, September 13, 2010

Two Stories of Poland

Although it got off to a slow start for me, Brigid Pasulka's A Long, Long Time Ago and Essentially True ended up being an unforgettably beautiful, heartfelt, gorgeously written novel that I will be recommending to everyone I know. It's written as two stories told in alternating chapters which, of course, become interwoven and are really just two parts of one big story. The first story is set in the WWII Poland of a mountain village, and the second is set in modern day Krakow. I love stories that strongly evoke a place and culture (sort of like Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and anything by Lisa See), and Brigid Pasulka (an English teacher at Whitney Young Magnet High School in the Chicago Public School system!) is a master at bringing Poland and its culture, of which I knew nothing, to life. 4 out of 4 Bananas!

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Boot Camp: Check Your Humanity at the Door

Boot Camp by Todd Strasser is a chilling look at real-life army-style bootcamps for troubled teens. I remember seeing old '90s talk shows such as "Jenny Jones" and "Maury" (which I actually just learned is still airing- good for you, Maury!), where desperate parents, with the help of the show, would ambush their out-of-control teenagers and have them carted off to a disciplinary boot camp. Todd Strasser's Boot Camp begins much the same, with main character Garrett on his way to Lake Harmony, a boot camp in upstate New York. Garrett's parents are sending him away because he has been skipping class and continuing a relationship with one of his teachers, who has since been fired from her job. Garrett argues that he does well in school without going every day, and that love knows no age, so why is his relationship wrong? As soon as Garrett arrives at Lake Harmony, however, he is barraged with messages about how worthless he is, how wrong he is to disobey his parents, and that before he can "graduate" from the boot camp, he must accept that he was wrong and be willing to submit fully to his parents. Methods of "education" employed by Lake Harmony include solitary confinement, lying face-down on a cement floor for hours and days at a time, emotional abuse from employees and other students, as well as student-on-student beatings. Although Boot Camp's main character is (I assume) unlike a typical boot camp resident and did not have problems with drugs, alcohol or violence, Strasser did his research on boot camps and paints a disturbing picture of a real-life phenomenon. 3 out of 4 Bananas

Abraham Lincoln Illinois High School Book Award 2011 Nominee

My Summer Reading List

In addition to several "candy bar" reads that I enjoyed this summer, I made a point to read as many Abraham Lincoln Illinois High School Book Award 2011 nominees as I could. Here is a visual tour of my reading list:

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Sherman Alexie: Beloved RB Author

RUN, don't walk, to read this book. Seriously, you won't regret it. I personally can't believe that it's been out for so long and that I'm finally, just now, reading it. Sherman Alexie is a Native American author from Washington state who has written several novels that have been included in the curriculum at RB: Flight, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, and The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. Flight is also this year's Summer Reading requirement for seniors not taking AP Lit.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is the heartbreakingly hilarious (hilariously heartbreaking?) story of Arnold Spirit, Jr., or "Junior" for short. Junior is a 14 year old Native American kid growing up on a reservation just outside of Spokane, WA (just like Alexie himself). The novel is told from Junior's perspective and is accompanied by cartoonist Ellen Forney's fantastic illustrations of characters or events that look like they could have come straight out of a diary:

Like many others on the reservation, several of Junior's family members are alcoholics, live in poverty, and struggle with depression and hopelessness. Junior, however, has managed to hold onto hope for a better life, and with that, he announces that he will no longer be attending the high school on the "rez" but will be transferring to Reardan, the rich, white high school in a nearby farm town. This leads to his ostracism from the tribe, as he is seen as rejecting his Indian family in favor of the white world. The white students, however, also don't fully accept him because he's not like them, either, so Junior ends up being caught between two worlds. He loses a best friend, gains a "translucent semi-girlfriend", and is hit with two family tragedies during his first year at Reardan.

What I loved about this novel is that the tragedies of Junior's life and the real problems faced by Native Americans today are not hidden; in fact, I feel like they are laid bare for all to witness and understand. Alexie's writing style is so witty, however, and and his observations are so poignant, that the story is NOT a downer. It is actually the perfect balance of humor and outrage, hope and despair. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian has absolutely been one of the best books I've read this year. 4 out of 4 Bananas!

Abraham Lincoln Illinois High School Book Award 2011 Nominee

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Sometimes you need people to Just Listen.

Annabel Greene used to be one of those girls who has it all: she's pretty, popular, fashionable, and even works as a model in her spare time. Everything changed last summer, however, and she's now an outcast in her school and among her friends. Annabel sits alone at lunch, along with other kids on the sidelines of school society. One of these other loners happens to be her former best friend Clarke, who Annabel dumped as a friend the previous year when Sophie moved to town. Sophie is gorgeous, edgy, and just a tad dangerous. She can also make someone's life a living hell if you cross her. One of the first scenes of the novel is when Annabel is about to get out of her car on the first day of school, and Sophie walks by, looks at Annabel and says, "Bitch" in front of a parking lot full of students. The reader soon learns that Annabel has been accused of sleeping with Will Cash, Sophie's boyfriend.
As the novel progresses, bits and pieces of what actually happened during the summer are revealed. Annabel also becomes friends with Owen, a huge, threatening-looking kid known for punching people when provoked. Owen actually is a knowledgable music fanatic who helps Annabel get the courage to tell him and, finally, her family what happened that summer.
In addition to her own struggles with school and with the traumatic event of last summer is her older sister Whitney's eating disorder, which threatens to tear Annabel's family apart.
For anyone who enjoyed Laurie Halse Anderson's Speak and likes dramatic tales of friendship and relationships, Just Listen won't disappoint.
3 out of 4 Bananas!
Abraham Lincoln Illinois High School Book Award 2011 Nominee

Monday, May 24, 2010

This Summer's Junior Read: A Slice of Americana

American Rust by Philipp Meyer has been described as a mix of The Grapes of Wrath and The Catcher in the Rye. American Rust, I believe, captures what is best about each of these classic American novels. I was mesmerized by The Grapes of Wrath's description of American life and hardships in the Dust Bowl during the Great Depression and appreciated how powerful it was to learn about that time within the context of fictional characters and their families. American Rust does the same, but in a modern day Pennsylvania steel town caught in the throes of a major economic downtown. The faltering economy has forced the factories to close and the town's unemployment to skyrocket.
Each chapter in American Rust is told from a different character's point of view, which allows the reader to feel the economy's impact on different areas of the population. What I loved about The Catcher in the Rye is Holden Caulfield's voice, and how he deals as a young man with conflicting feelings of anger, love, sexuality, rebellion, responsibility, alienation, etc.. The two protagonists of American Rust are young men who both held a lot of promise: one for his academic abilities and the other for his prowess on the football field. For various reasons, each gave up his dream of a different life in order to stay in the hometown, which holds nothing for them. Throughout the novel, each character undergoes an internal struggle involving some of the same issues that Holden Caulfield deals with in Catcher.
American Rust begins when one of the protagonists decides to leave home after having stolen several thousand dollars from his father and convinces the other boy to join him and start a new life in California. Shortly after their journey begins, however, a traumatic event changes everything for them, forever. These reads like an Important Book, without being inaccessible. A movie adaptation is currently in the works. 4 out of 4 Bananas!

Friday, April 30, 2010

Hold Tight Falls Short

Any reader of this blog knows that I love a good mystery, so I had high hopes for Harlan Coben's Hold Tight, even though I had been disappointed by another of his thrillers Tell No One. Hold Tight begins promisingly enough, with concerned parents installing spyware on their teenage son Adam's computer. They reluctantly decide to spy on Adam because one of his friends had recently committed suicide, and Adam had continued to withdraw from the family. The spyware reveals that he is planning to go to a party with drinking and drugs on Friday night so Mike, Adam's father, buys hockey tickets for that same night and won't let Adam refuse to come. When Adam does not show up at home the night of the game, however, his parents become terrified that something has happened. What follows is an adventure deep into the underground of blackmarket pharmaceuticals, with a healthy dose of revenge, insanity and betrayal to make things more interesting.
Each chapter is told from a different character's point of view, and several seemingly unrelated storylines are brought together for a surprising conclusion. What I liked about this is that Coben's characters use a lot of current cell phone and computer technology, which will probably render the novel outdated in a few years, but makes it seem cutting edge in 2010. What I didn't like is Coben's writing, which is not very interesting (to me, but maybe that's snobbish), or his storyline which seemed contrived. However, this novel received enough student, teacher and librarian votes to land on the 2011 Abraham Lincoln High School Book Award list, so what do I know? 2 out of 4 Bananas

Abraham Lincoln Illinois High School Book Award 2011 Nominee

Monday, April 19, 2010

House Rules: a Memoir of Emotional Abuse

Rachel Sontag's House Rules: A Memoir is a troubling glimpse into the absolute physical and emotional control a parent can exercise over a child's life, and the way that such emotional abuse can have effects that last a lifetime. Sontag, now in her thirties, describes how as a teenager she became the focus of her father's wrath and disturbing brand of mental illness, which prompted him to awaken her in the middle of the night for hours-long diatribes about how she's a disappointment, how he wished she was never born, and how she needs to make amends for all of the imagined wrongs she's committed. Rachel's mother refused to confront her father, however, and instead asked Rachel to go along with him in the interest of keeping the peace, ultimately failing in her role as protector. Once Rachel had left home for college, she began to disentangle herself from her father's control. She also began to sort through and identify many of the personal issues she had when forming and maintaining relationships, issues which she had developed as coping mechanisms. I'm not usually a fan of the "abusive childhood memoir" genre, but I found hope in Rachel's eventual freedom from her father's delusional demands and emotional sabotage. 3 out of 4 Bananas!

Abraham Lincoln Illinois High School Book Award 2011 Nominee

Friday, April 9, 2010

The Help: Race Relations in the 1960s

I was really surprised to like this book as much as I did. I wasn't a big fan of *Secret Life of Bees*, and in my mind I had lumped the two into the same genre due to their historical setting and general subject matter (race relations, 1960s). For me, *The Help* was far superior, even though I started off prepared to dislike it as soon as I started reading the first chapter, which is told in the voice of an African American maid named Aibileen. I struggle with white authors who write using colloquial African American voices, because I think it's almost impossible to get it right without getting it very, very wrong. I think Stockett did a great job with a precarious, yet important topic, and I appreciated her commentary in the Afterword describing her personal family experiences with "the help."

The novel is set in the early 1960s and explores the relationship between black household maids and their affluent white employers, told in alternating chapters from the perspectives of maids, employers, and the white woman who becomes compelled to tell the maids' stories. What I liked about the book was that the African American characters are so vividly and warmly developed, that not all of the white characters are bad, and that the story is fast-paced and compelling. What I didn't like so much was that Skeeter, the white character who writes the maids' stories, is portrayed a little too much like a white savior, assisting the poor and weak black characters. I'm sure a lot of people will reject this assessment and argue that the black characters are NOT weak- they're not, no, but they do rely on Skeeter to gain power over their white employers. Race is a complicated issue in this country, so there are no "safe", comfortable or easy ways to write about race relations. Kathryn Stockett comes fairly close, however, and since I enjoyed the story so much I am giving *The Help*
3 out of 4 Bananas!

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Ever Wish You Were a Robot, So Your Feelings Woudn't Hurt?

Hello…This is Mrs. Narkis, a student teacher in the library and guest blogger. (Thanks, Mrs. Duell!) I just finished How to Say Goodbye in Robot by Natalie Standiford, and I loved it. I was going to describe the book for you, but this review from School Library Journal does an excellent job: “…Beatrice Szabo's family has moved multiple times, most recently…to Baltimore. In order to protect herself from the emotional fallout caused by the constant moves and her parents' troubled relationship, she has invented a cold, emotionless persona for herself called Robot Girl. When she begins her senior year at a small private school, she enters a class where the students have known one another since kindergarten. She finds herself drawn to outcast Jonas Tate, aka Ghost Boy, who introduces her to the Night Light show, a local late-night radio show. They form an intense friendship, complicated by Jonas's obsession with his mentally disabled twin brother, whom his father had told him died in an automobile accident years before. When Jonas discovers that Matthew is actually alive and in a local institution, events gradually spiral out of control as Jonas plots to liberate him. Beatrice begins to realize that her deep love and friendship for Jonas cannot help him overcome all of his emotional difficulties. This is an honest and complex depiction of a meaningful platonic friendship and doesn't gloss over troubling issues…Teens will identify with the intense emotions of Beatrice and Jonas, the reasons they are drawn to each other, and the ups and downs of their relationship. An outstanding choice for a book discussion group.”

Don’t let the pink cover make you think it’s a girly, romance-y book, because it isn’t. The character development was wonderful – you’ll probably love some and despise others – and the balance between humor (Bea and Jonas’s “prom” date) and sadness (their dysfunctional families) was well done. I don’t usually like books that end with my heart aching (okay, I’m a wimp), but it was so appropriate in this case. Two thumbs up!

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Animal Farm: Reading the Classics is Fun!

The student book club here at RB recently selected George Orwell's 1945 classic allegorical novel Animal Farm to read. I like reading the classics, especially when they're so short (gasp! yes, I said that!). If you're not familiar with the story, it's set in the English countryside and is about talking farm animals who overthrow their farmer in order to live free, self-determined, happy lives of abundance. The animals, led by the pigs, establish a set of rules to live by, including such mandates that no animal shall kill another, no animal shall wear clothes, and no animal shall sleep in a bed. The animals also live by the slogan "Four legs good, two legs bad." The idyllic, equal life the animals had imagined for themselves quickly changes, however, as the pigs take over. The pigs become increasingly power hungry, change the farm's rules so that they (and only they) CAN kill other animals, CAN wear clothes, CAN sleep in beds and, perhaps most egregiously, CAN walk on two legs. The story itself is fascinating, but when you add the fact that it's also an allegory of the Russian Revolution, and that the two "head pigs" are actually Lenin and Stalin, Animal Farm because so much cooler! I thoroughly enjoyed Animal Farm on so many levels, and know that you will, too.
4 out of 4 Bananas!

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Soviet-Era Murder Mysteries are Awesome

It's been so long since I've posted! It's good to be back, talking about more great books that I've been reading. I only have a few pages left in Tom Rob Smith's Child 44, but I just couldn't wait to write a post about it and share the awesomeness that is Child 44 with the world!
I'll admit to a fascination with Cold War-era Soviet Union (I even took a college history course about it), but even those with little background knowledge will be fascinated by what it reveals about the Soviet government and the reign of terror it held over its citizenry during the Stalin and post-Stalin years.
The novel's protagonist is Leo Stepanovich Demidov, a resident of Moscow and an agent of the Soviet secret police force. Leo is often obliged to arrest citizens in the dead of night for a variety of "crimes against the State". He doesn't normally consider the validity of these arrests, as his job gives him enormous personal benefits and a comfortable life compared to the vast majority of the population. Leo's unwavering belief in the righteousness of the State is shaken, however, when two events occur: first, he realizes that a man he's just arrested is a completely innocent veterinarian, and second, one of his colleague's children is brutally murdered. Leo is forced to pay the family a visit and essentially threaten them into accepting that their child's death was simply an unfortunate accident, not a murder. Murders and other crimes are not supposed to exist in the Soviet system, which is supposed to breed happy citizens, and happy citizens do not commit murder.
When it's discovered that Leo does not believe that the veterinarian he arrested was guilty, he and his wife are forced into exile, and Leo is demoted to the local militia. He soon discovers that several local children have been murdered in the manner in which his colleague's child was killed. This discovery leads Leo to begin investigating a serial killer who has been murdering children across the Soviet countryside, but he is forced to pursue the killer secretly, for fear of being discovered by the authorities and executed for his illegal investigation.
This book absolutely crackles (I don't think I've ever described a book that way!), but it's an accurate description of how fast-paced and exciting it is. Smith's prose is fluid, and the picture he paints of life under 1950s Soviet control is stark and terrifying.

Child 44 is without a doubt one of the best three books I've read in the past several years. Totally recommended to everyone who enjoys a great story with a ton of dramatic tension. 4 out of 4 Bananas!