Thursday, October 29, 2009

Review: Into the Wild Nerd Yonder by Julie Halpern

Into the Wild Nerd Yonder by Julie Halpern is one of the cutest stories I've read this year. Just a nice, feel good story which can be few and far between sometimes in the midst of all the more dramatic or traumatic YA that is published. Here's the synopsis:

When high school sophomore Jessie's long-term best friend transforms herself into a punk and goes after Jessie's would-be boyfriend, Jessie decides to visit "the wild nerd yonder" and seek true friends among classmates who play Dungeons and Dragons.

Jessie is an utterly fabulous and sweet character, but with a backbone thank goodness! She is trying to figure out who she is and coming to some harsh realizations about her friendships with her two best friends, Bizza and Char. Jessie has had a great example of being your own person all her life, with her older brother Barrett taking the lead, and now Jessie is starting to realize she cannot be a bystander or a little lamb to Bizza's "queen" anymore. Here's a great, great example!

"Great?What the frick is so great about this? You sucked a guy off--a guy I liked--who won't even talk to you anymore. He gave you a sexually transmitted disease because you were too friggin' 'in the moment' to use a condom, not to mention the fact that the only thin you got out of your bedroom visit with Van was gonorrhea! Was it good for you, Bizza? Was it worth trading your best friend for an asshole and some antibiotics?

This book doesn't shy away from real life either. STDs, sex in high school, guys being assholes, girls being mean. I really liked that this felt like a real high school, even as Jessie started to realize she is not a typical high school student.

Jessie isn't sure where she is going to fit in in the social strata of high school but she finds herself leaning towards the "nerds." Particularly, the D&D nerds. Her contemplation of this social change is amusing and serious at the same time. After all, in high school being in the right group is important.

This book is also very humorous and I found myself laughing at several points in the story, or just agreeing with Jessie. Jessie was so me in high school, though I still can't sew. Her description of preparing for the first day of school: spot on me!

The excitement of new classes, seeing people who I like in an everyday way but not an outside-of-school way, and organizing my locker always springs me to life. Not to mention the joy of finally getting to legitimately use all of the school supplies that I've been hoarding for weeks. I follow every back-to-school sale in the Sunday paper, compare prices, highlight the ads, visit all of the necessary stories, and then hide the supplies in my genuinely worn, not faux-distressed, red backpack. I love opening the backpack on First Day of School Eve and--surprise!--there's all of my new stuff.

Yep, that was so me!

In addition, there is a really healthy family relationship in this book. The parents are present and involved, Barrett is a normal older brother, teasing Jessie but also being a person she can rely on for help. It was really nice to see a nice, normal family in a YA book, especially after the last few stories I've read where the parents definitely have some bad issues that affect their kids. There are healthy families out there still!

My one minor complaint is that at times, Jessie's voice felt too grownup and experienced. It's like she already had this inside wisdom about high school. It wasn't constant, but in certain parts of the story I didn't feel like she was acting like a true high school sophomore.

However, that's a very minor quibble. I really enjoyed this story. The writing is strong, Jessie is a fabulous character to get to know and understand, and I learned quite a bit about D&D which I've never played before. It was nice to see the nerds in not a nerdy way, but rather, as unique kids with their own passions too, who make up languages, and just want to have fun with their friends on a Friday night. If you're looking for a story that is humorous but not all lightness and fluff, with a very interesting protagonist, you won't go wrong with this story. I think it may have be written for teens, say 14+, but I think tweens will really enjoy this book too and the content isn't that provocative or explicit that it would be too objectionable.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Review: Rage: A Love Story by Julie Anne Peters

Rage: A Love Story by Julie Anne Peters rings all too true with the teenagers I see day in and day out on my job. Not all of them, but way too many are involved in some sort of abusive relationship. If you don't know yet, here is what Rage is about:

Johanna is steadfast, patient, reliable; the go-to girl, the one everyone can count on. But always being there for others can’t give Johanna everything she needs—it can’t give her Reeve Hartt.

Reeve is fierce, beautiful, wounded, elusive; a flame that draws Johanna’s fluttering moth. Johanna is determined to get her, against all advice, and to help her, against all reason. But love isn’t always reasonable, right?

In the precarious place where attraction and need collide, a teenager experiences the dark side of a first love, and struggles to find her way into a new light.

I will readily admit to having a very emotional reaction to this book because of some abusive relationships in my own life, in my parents' marriage, and in other ways.

Johanna is looking for love anywhere she can find it, and where she really wants to find it is with Reeve Hartt, the girl of her dreams. Unfortunately, Reeve has a lot of problems. So does Johanna. She has very deep abandonment issues, though I'm not sure if that's the right term I want to use. Everyone she has loved has left her and it's damaged her in some ways. When Johanna finally gets her chance with Reeve, she is not going to let anyone stop her, including her sister, her best friend, or the terrible family situation she sees Reeve living in. Johanna is sure she can save Reeve, that she can help her. Instead, what happens is she gets cut off from her family and friends, from her job, from the hospice she loves visiting and takes comfort in. Her entire world is whittled down to Reeve, and it's not good or healthy in anyway.

This book rang so, so true for me. Johanna seems to be a strong character but she caves in, ignores, and facilitates Reeve's brutality. This book doesn't hide the brutality Johanna faces but at the same time, the book wasn't overly violent. I think the part of the power in the story was because the descriptions of the violence weren't overly dramatized, rather, they were everyday part of Johanna and Reeve's relationship and that made them more frightening.

What added another layer of authenticity to this story is the fantasies Johanna had about Reeve, her trips to Joyland as the titles were named. Those fantasies made the reality of the relationship that much more difficult to bear. Dreams may not always be the same as reality, but they shouldn't be killed by violence.

Rage: A Love Story is a powerful story of abuse. I was captivated, appalled, saddened, and even hopeful.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Flashback Friday!

Wow, I actually remembered to do this for a second week in a row. My second flashback book harks back to my teenage years more so than my childhood. I was reminded of this book when Green Bean Teen Queen posted her sick day favorites.

Anne of Green Gables
by Lucy Maud Montgomery

Marilla and Matthew Cuthbert, unmarried middle-aged siblings who live together at Green Gables, a farm in the town of Avonlea, on Prince Edward Island, decide to adopt a boy from an orphan asylum in Nova Scotia as a helper on their farm. Through a series of mishaps, the person who ends up under their roof is a precocious girl of eleven named Anne Shirley. Anne is bright and quick, eager to please and talkative, but dissatisfied with her name, her pale countenance dotted with freckles, and with her long braids of red hair. Although wishing she was named Cordelia, she insists that if you are to call her Anne, it must be spelt with an 'E', as it is "so much more distinguished." Being a child of imagination, however, Anne takes much joy in life, and adapts quickly, thriving in the environment of Prince Edward Island. She is something of a chatterbox, and drives the prim, duty-driven Marilla to distraction, although shy Matthew falls for her immediately.

I absolutely love Anne. She is everything I wasn't as a kid: wild, outgoing, and a big dreamer. I loved her red braids, the Cuthberts, the world of Prince Edward Island. I think I was about eight or nine when I first attempted to read this series. It didn't work for me at the time. I was too enchanted with The Baby-Sitters Club and the old fashioned language just didn't suit. However, when I tried reading the books again at about thirteen, I quickly fell in deep into this world. There is something so wonderful and fragile about Anne, her friends, and Avonlea.

I also fell madly in love with Gilbert Blythe and was always wondering how Anne couldn't see his adoration of her.

It's one of my travel dreams to eventually go to Prince Edward Island. Hasn't happened yet, but I hope to at some point.

The one book I have never been able to truly enjoy in this series is Anne of Windy Poplars and that is because it is an epistolary novel and I just cannot stand that type of story. It has never worked for me so not even Anne could make me enjoy that book. It's the one I either skim or just skip altogether when I re-read the book series.

But all in all, this is a book series that is good for all ages and at all stages of life. I think there's always going to be something enjoyable and irresistible to find in the Anne of Green Gables series.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Flashback Friday

So, every Friday (as much as I remember!) I'm going to try to touch on books I read a teen myself or as a kid even. Titles that made me happy to read and that still make me happy to re-read. In other words, Flashback Friday! My first title:

Matilda by Roald Dahl

If for some reason you haven't read this book, here is a brief synopsis.

Poor, misunderstood Matilda fights back against an unappreciative world through a hidden talent: Matilda is the world's greatest practical joker! Little effort is needed to put one over on her obnoxious parents, but can shy little Matilda handle the formidable headmistress, Miss Trunchbull, and win the respect of every kid in school? Yes!

What can I say except that to this day this is still one of my very favorite books ever. Matilda was the girl I wanted to be growing up, terrible parents and horrible headmistress and all. She could move things with her mind!! She loved to read!! Did I mention all the brainpower she had?? I wish I had my copy of the book here so I could share a few excerpts but if you've read a Roald Dahl book before, you know just what a wonderful and creative writer he is. In fact, when I first read Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone I was immediately reminded of this book. Both unwanted kids, both kids with strange powers finding adults and friends who finally show them how powerful they are, without magic.

The first time I heard this book was in the third grade when my teacher read it out loud to us. I went home and immediately checked it out from the library so I could read ahead and see what happens next. I mean, how could you not want to read about the scary Miss Trunchbull and how she forces that kid to eat cake? Or how Matilda outwits her and saves the day??

This is a book I try to share with kids and adults of all ages. It is just superb reading. I don't think you could ever be too old for this book. I wasn't a teen when I read it, I was young, but it's a book that, twenty years later, still sticks with me. Talk about formidable storytelling!

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Review: Hate List by Jennifer Brown

Hate List by Jennifer Brown. If you haven't heard about this book yet, well you need to get your hands on it.

Five months ago, Valerie Leftman's boyfriend, Nick, opened fire on their school cafeteria. Shot trying to stop him, Valerie inadvertently saved the life of a classmate, but was implicated in the shootings because of the list she helped create. A list of people and things she and Nick hated. The list he used to pick his targets.

Now, after a summer of seclusion, Val is forced to confront her guilt as she returns to school to complete her senior year. Haunted by the memory of the boyfriend she still loves and navigating rocky relationships with her family, former friends and the girl whose life she saved, Val must come to grips with the tragedy that took place and her role in it, in order to make amends and move on with her life.

I will start off by saying, that, in high school in particular, I did have a mental list of people I severely disliked. I hesitate to call it hate but certainly they were not people I wanted to spend time with. So, I felt Valerie and Nick's pain at being the brunt of jokes, being the outcasts, etc, very well. Nonetheless, neither of these characters necessarily typified people we have seen in the media as being school shooters. For all intents and purposes, it really did seem like Nick loved Valerie. They had a group of friends, they went to basketball games and hung out. Neither of these characters were loners, but in the end, Valerie is left all alone to wonder, what went wrong?

Valerie is strong, she is weak, she is scared, and nervous. She just wants to be done with high school and move on. Who can blame her? It is how she deals with the aftershocks of the shooting that left me in tears and had me mentally cheering her on. Valerie is immediately shunned by the classmates of Garvin High. Rightly or wrongly, they all believe she had something to do with shooting, even though she ended up saving the life of one of her "hate list" enemies. She is enemy and hero rolled into one.

"The truth was most days I couldn't feel grateful no matter how hard I tried. Most days I couldn't even pinpoint how I felt. Sometimes sad, sometimes relieved, sometimes confused, sometimes misunderstood. And a lot of times angry. And, what's worse, I didn't know who I was angry at the most: myself, Nick, my parents, the school, the whole world. And then there was the anger that felt worst of all: anger at the students who died."

What I liked most about this book is Valerie. She is very confused, still very much in love with Nick, misses him immensely, even as her family and school life is falling apart. Her parents have a terrible marriage which only adds to the stress she feels. Her mom wants to be her champion again but she keeps withholding her trust even as Valerie reminds her again and again, SHE did not do anything wrong. She did not kill anyone or bring a gun to school.

"I took a walk, Mom. I didn't ruin your day. You ruined it by not trusting me." Mom's mouth hung open, her eyes wide. "When are you guys going to get it? I didn't shoot anybody! I didn't do it. Stop treating me like a criminal. I'm sick and tired of taking all the blame around here."

On top of that, Valerie's father is a total asshole. I absolutely could not stand him. Even at the end, as Valerie seemed to come to some acceptance about her father and their future relationship, I still hated him. There did not seem to be any love for his daughter in him.

I appreciated the glimpses of Nick as Valerie's boyfriend, and her friend. It made him a much more three dimensional character and not just "the shooter." The anger did show through, but there was also some joy and happiness with Valerie.

This is not a book that tries to answer the question of why school shootings happen, thank goodness. It's just a book about dealing with the aftermath of extreme violence and of coming to terms with a variety of new and scary emotions and world views. Valerie is a strong character and by the end of the story, I'm glad she finally started on the journey of finding herself, of deciding for herself who she is and what she finds important. It's the beginning of a great new journey for her. Brown makes great use of newspaper clips to talk about the day of the shooting, as well as flashbacks that help bring May 2nd alive for the reader. The writing is also very strong in this book and no character is perfect. Valerie, her mom, her dad, Nick, Valerie's friends are all doing their best to adjust to a new perspective about life and death. Jennifer Brown writes a compelling read that will strike a note with many teens.

And as a girl who grew up during Columbine, who felt the how scared and horrified the students of that school were, through the TV, let me just say I can really relate to how Valerie and her classmates felt. I know it's not the same, but I strongly identified with this book.

By book's end, you are left with this statement that Valerie's dad poses: "You may not have pulled the trigger, but you helped cause the tragedy." It's going to be up to you to decide how you feel about Valerie's role in this tragedy. I hope you can tell from my review how I feel about Valerie.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Review: The Chosen One by Carol Lynch Williams

The Chosen One by Carol Lynch Williams is a book I read when it was originally released but I decided to give it a re-read because it's nominated at the Cybils.

Synopsis: Thirteen-year-old Kyra has grown up in an isolated community without questioning the fact that her father has three wives and she has twenty brothers and sisters, with two more on the way. That is, without questioning them much---if you don’t count her secret visits to the Mobile Library on Wheels to read forbidden books, or her meetings with Joshua, the boy she hopes to choose for herself instead of having a man chosen for her.

But when the Prophet decrees that she must marry her sixty-year-old uncle---who already has six wives---Kyra must make a desperate choice in the face of violence and her own fears of losing her family forever.

This book has a ripped from the headlines quality to it because the topic of polygamy has become some what infamous in 2009. However, the main character, Kyra, is very easy to relate to, despite how she was raised. Kyra does not want to marry her Uncle Hyrum, a man fifty years older than her. Who could blame her? What thirteen year old girl would want to marry him? Kyra has the yearnings of a normal girl: she has a crush on Joshua, she relishes her secret visit to the book mobile, and she loves her family. Having three mothers and numerous siblings, that is normal for Kyra. What is not normal is being expected to marry an old man.

What is so scary about this book is the religion. Seriously, some bad stuff went on in this book. When one of the wives was forced to discipline her eight month old daughter for crying, I cried. The "discipline" was horrific and terrible. There was a certain shock value in it, I suppose, but at the same time, it felt real to the story. Kyra is not immune to the discipline of her community by any means. By protesting, by raising her voice, she becomes a target for the entire male population and it is terrible. Even her father eventually accepts her fate, and the wives, even Kyra's own mother, have no advice to offer. They have been indoctrinated to follow His will, even if God's will is terrible and brutal.

Kyra's decision to leave is a hard one and is many ways forced upon her. But she eventually realizes she cannot NOT leave. I liked the ending in particular because well, it wasn't certain. Much like Kyra and her decision, she still isn't sure. The reader can hope for the best of course, but will she stick it out?

I also want to say how much I love that the library represented a safe haven for Kyra. Perhaps it was a bit too sappy but Patrick was a refuge for her. Being able to read books, books of her own choosing, have a positive male model who spoke fondly of his wife and son, who was so very different from her own father, it was a beneficial addition to the story. He wasn't the savior by any means, but he helped prod her into her choice.

This is a very fast-paced book, partly because Kyra only has one month until her marriage to Uncle Hyrum. The story moves swiftly, jumping from past to the present. It is very easy to follow however and the flashbacks don't hinder the storytelling flow. I read this book again in little over two hours. This is a story that will be hard for many teens to imagine because it is so very different from much of teen culture and lifestyle, but Kyra is still a character they will understand. She loves music, books, has a crush, and hopes for her future. This is a powerful story that will leave an impression. Perhaps some of the plot points felt a bit too contrived, but nonetheless, the solid character structure, both "good" guys and "bad" guys, along with the seemingly innocent but definitely not Kyra, will make for intense reading.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Partial reviews:

Going Bovine by Libba Bray: Not my cup of tea. I love, love, love her Gemma Doyle trilogy and I'm always excited for when an author tries something different. But, Going Bovine is just not working for me. It reminds me, in a weird way, of Jack Kerouac's On the Road. Why, I couldn't even tell you. But I couldn't put up with Jack Kerouac in college and I can't put up with Cameron's quest right now. And I like Cameron, he's an interesting character who faces a very unexpected challenge. But... once they left he hospital, the story just kind of lost me. I won't give up on this book completely because Libba Bray is an excellent writer and I like her insights into the world, but I think I'm going to set it aside for the time being.

What did YOU think about Going Bovine? Was it too out there? Or just the ride you needed for interesting reading?

Hate List by Jennifer Brown. This book is powerful and scary and real and fragile. It's gripping and I honestly can't put it down. Will it make my shortlist for the Cybils? Well, that I don't totally know, but it has my attention.

Up next: Gringolandia and The Chosen One.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Review: Marcelo in the Real World by Francisco X. Stork

Marcelo in the Real World was a book I was not expecting to like. I had heard the good reviews and words of praise but I was just resistant to reading it and I cannot even explain why. Well, it's been nominated as part of the Cybils so I had to give it a try. I'm really glad I did.

Starting with the cover, which is the one part of the book I did admire, even while being resistant to reading it, the story of Marcelo Sandoval unravels, twists, and turns. Marcelo is on the autism spectrum but he is highly functioning. He loves the ponies at his school and the responsibilities he will soon have to take care of them. That all changes when his father challenges him to work at his law firm for the summer, in the real world. Marcelo's father doesn't believe there is anything wrong with his son and he wants to see him step outside of his comfort zone. I don't fault his father for this, in fact, everyone should step out of their comfort zone at some point.

What I enjoyed most about this book was the character of Marcelo, who is seventeen. He is just an interesting person to get to know. His thought processes are a bit different, his special interest is God and religions in general so theological notions pepper this story. Marcelo really does not believe he will do well working at the law firm. He seems to have a mindset set on failure. But in fact, while he doesn't necessarily excel, he is as thoughtful and studious with his new duties as he was with the ponies. And he even makes a friend in Jasmine, his boss.

The real world interferes in a big way for Marcelo and his struggle to understand his father, why his father has made certain choices, and how he, Marcelo, is now forced to see him through a new lens become a central focus of this story. I didn't see his father as the bad guy, despite his not so great choices. He does care for Marcelo, that much is obvious I think, he just does not understand his son.

I think I am perhaps making this story sound simpler than it is. There are actually a lot of complex emotions and thoughts that Marcelo experiences throughout the course of the story. And that is perhaps its one big drawback. I'm not sure how interested teens are in this book. Honestly, it read more like an adult novel with a teen narrator than a story for teens. And that is a big difference. I really enjoyed it and Marcelo is a character I will not soon forget, but will teens think the same?

This book, this character, has courage. That is something many teens lack, heck many adults lack. Marcelo has to find his own inner courage and strength to make a big decision and that is something teens will relate to. So in that regard, this book could be a good story for teens. Marcelo's growing courage and faith, even without his internal music, is a wonder to read about. His journey against the pressures of the real world is both stark, realistic, and poignant. It has some great happy moments, and enough humor to make it all interesting too. But more than anything, there is courage.

There are a lot of positives to this story, and if you approach this book in an interesting way, I think it could be hand sold to teens. But will they pick it up on their own, that's the mystery.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

It's official!!

I feel so fortunate to share this exciting news. I'm a first time judge for the Cybils YA Fiction category. I'm a round 1 panelist so I have a lot of books to read ahead of me in the next three months but I'm so, so excited and ready for the challenge. I took home two bagfuls of titles yesterday from work, that are on the nominations list, so I'm already settling in.

It's going to be a great year for the Cybils!

Thursday, October 1, 2009

2009 Cybils

The 2009 Cybils (Children's and Young Adult Bloggers' Literary Awards) have begun. From now, October 1-October 15, you can nominate your favorite books in the following categories:

Easy Readers/Short Chapter Books
Fiction Picture Books
Graphic Novels
Middle Grade Fiction
Non-Fiction, MG/YA
Non-Fiction Picture Books
Young Adult Fiction

I have to say, the nominations are already great this year. I got in my nomination but the more I tried to nominate throughout this year, I've discovered they have already been nominated. So, if you have a book you want to see win this really great award, go and nominate!


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