Friday, August 26, 2011

Retelling an Epic

I've just finished a galley of Gil Marsh by A.C.E. Bauer, and I loved it. This YA retelling of the Epic of Gilgamesh maintains the "feel" of an ancient epic but is written with references to time and place that will resonate with today's teenagers. Although it is written in third person, the reader will absolutely see the story through Gil's eyes, and what a story it is! The book did raise some questions for me, but as I can't ask them without giving away too much, so I will save them for the book's publication in February 2012.

I also recently finished The Schwa Was Here by Neal Shusterman, which I started and read most of almost a year ago! One thing led to another and the book made it's way out of my reading pile, but I am glad I finished it. It's the perfect book for boys who are too cool to read books, and they might even learn something about friendship (accidentally, of course) if they read the whole thing.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Cutting to the Chase

I have been reading too much (is there any such thing?) and blogging too little. Time to make up for lost time.

I started 32 Candles, suggested my daughter also read it, told her never mind it wasn't that good after all (a lie), then finished it that very night. Great book, not for kids. I had forgotten how enjoyable it is to read a book written for adults!

Hate That Cat was not as good as Love That Dog, but it was pretty darn good. I will teach both books (sequentially) from now on!

I loved Okay for Now. Really, really loved it. But much like The Wednesday Wars, I wonder if kids will "get it" the way I did. After all, the closest they have come to having someone deliver their groceries is the Schwan's man!

Twenty Boy Summer made it to my summer reading list because of all the controversy recently surrounding it when a school district banned it. After reading the book, I have to say...I don't think it has a place as required reading, but it certainly belongs in a high school library. I don't make that assessment lightly; I generally believe that a classroom teacher should have the autonomy to decide what's best for her students. But in this case...well, there are too many moral issues raised in the book, and I would not be comfortable with the discussion happening in a way that excluded me as a parent, or my own religious and moral views. (I know, I could still read the book and have those discussions. But anyone who has teenagers knows that what they do in school every day is "nothing," so getting to a place where those discussions happen...well...easier said than done.)

I totally enjoyed The Department of Lost and Found by Allison Winn Scotch! Recently diagnosed with breast cancer, 30 year old overachiever Natalie decides to use the opportunity to figure out what went wrong in all of her failed relationships. Another book written for adults, not teens; maybe I enjoyed that as much as anything else. I do love young adult literature, but sometimes it is refreshing to follow a main character whose life looks a little more like mine.

I tried to read Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi again. It's a lost cause. It's just not the right book for me. I donated my copy to the public library, who didn't yet own it.

Finally, today I finished The Weird Sisters by Eleanor Brown. Since their father is a Shakespearean scholar who prefers to communicate by quoting the Bard (or just photocopying pages from his copy of The Riverside Shakespeare and highlighting the relevant passage), I wanted to write about the book in the form of a Shakespearean sonnet. Alas, it's more that I can quickly pen, and I do want to read another hour or two tonight...These three sisters (each named after one of Shakespeare's heroines), who once staged a production of Macbeth in which the three witches were the only characters, return home to care for their mother as she battles breast cancer. Rose (short for Rosalind) never left, and she must accept her sisters' help; Bianca is returning unemployed, having been caught embezzling from her Manhattan law firm; and Cordelia returns home from seven years of a gypsy lifestyle...pregnant. What was most wonderful about this book were the astute observations about relationships and forgiveness, but of course I did appreciate the oft-quoted Shakespeare as well!

Saturday, August 13, 2011

The Other Side of Life

I was lucky to read a galley copy of Lauren Oliver's forthcoming MG (middle grade) novel Liesl and Po. Since I seem hooked on mash-ups lately, I would say this book is The Graveyard Book meets The Little Princess with a dash of The Invention of Hugo Cabret. And since I loved all those books, I loved this one as well.

I am not sure how to summarize the book without giving too much away, so a description of the characters will have to suffice. Liesl is the beloved daughter of a man who died, now locked in the attic by her greedy step-mother. Po is a child from the Other Side who finds Liesl in her attic and asks her to draw him a picture. (Po has a pet named Bundle. Bundle is probably not really a main character its only dialogue is "mwark," but Bundle is adorable and brings comfort to children. I like Bundle very much.) And Will, who is an orphaned alchemist's apprentice and very much an important part of the story.

There are other characters, adults, and who cares about adults? (I do like Mo. He's an adult, but I care about him. You will, too.) The ending is vaguely predictable, but not in any way that detracts from the story. In fact, knowing what would inevitably happen, I found myself reading faster so I could see it unfold!

You'll have to wait until October to read this book, but it's worth the made me smile.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Peculiarly Good

I've just read two more books: Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs, then Deviant by Adrian McKinty.

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children was brilliant. I had the completely wrong impression of it: I thought it would be written for middle-grade readers, and I thought it would be silly. After all, the pictures are rather circus-like...I expected the book to follow suit. (The pictures, of course, are the vintage "found" photos which inspired the story; there are 44 in all.) In fact, I read in an interview with Ransom Riggs that he imagined the book to be something like the Gashlycrumb Tinies, which is far more in line with what I expected. Oh, but it was so much more! I don't dare say what lest I give it away, but the book is wonderful--and although the main character is 16, it is hardly a young adult book.

The next book I read was a galley of Deviant by Adrian McKinty. Imagine that Arne Duncan described his dream school to Dean Koontz as Koontz was imagining Nancy Drew chasing a serial killer: this is perhaps the book that would result. Sound strange? Well, is rather, but also riveting! I couldn't put it down! A caveat: there is a rather graphic description of a cat being tortured in the opening chapter, and there are far less graphic descriptions of cats being disemboweled throughout the book. If you can make it through chapter one, you'll be fine. And a quirk: there are a number of contemporary references, including many mentions of the Obamas and a car that has a "McCain-Palin 2008" bumper sticker. I was surprised by this, as the book ends up being somewhat dated as a result. (Will my students want to borrow it in five years, or will they wonder who those people--especially McCain & Palin--are?!)

Sunday, August 7, 2011

As good a time as any

I have not blogged faithfully since the end of 2010, and it's time to change that. New month, two books read, and it's time for a blog.

I just watched Matt Damon speaking on behalf of teachers--including his own mother. It is a rotten time politically to try to make a difference in students' lives; too many people are interested in bubble test scores over creating well-rounded and competent citizens. I am fortunate to teach in a small, rural district where we have not lost sight of the humanity of our students--knock on wood--but even here we feel the pressure from the state and federal levels. Last week in summer school, one of my students told me it doesn't matter if he passes or not; his mother promised him a snowmobile if he "just shows up" every day. Meaning he can show up and take a nap, stare at the ceiling, get sent out...doesn't matter to him, or (apparently) to his mother. Attendance is everything, and he gets a shiny new snowmobile. I imagine his mother's intentions were good in establishing this reward--I wonder if his mother realizes she should have set the bar so much higher to get the result I suspect she wants. Although teachers are judged based on this student's performance on a bubble test, there is a whole lot more than just what is happening in any classroom at play here.

Which is exactly what I was reminded of--in a completely different context--when I just read I Am J by Cris Beam. J is a transgender high school senior--born Jenifer, known as J, and slowly becoming Jason. Seeing the world through J's eyes, it is impossible not to be drawn into this story...I finished the book feeling like I had become a better, more enlightened, and more compassionate person.

Without giving too much away, it also left me heartbroken for all the teenagers who have to endure the rejection of their parents--not only students who struggle with gender identity, but so many children who cannot live up to the impossible dreams their parents expect will be reality. In an ironic life-literature juxtaposition, just as my summer school student's well-intentioned mother has set the bar far too low, too many parents set goals that are unattainable by the real-life children they have. They want their average kid to pull straight As, rather than acknowledging the hard work and commitment it takes their child to score in the B-range. They want their uncoordinated (or uninterested) child to be a star athlete. Too many parents ignore the strengths and weaknesses of the wonderful child they do have in favor of the imaginary greatness of the child they have imagined, to the frustration (and too often, the heartbreak) of everyone involved. J's story is powerful, and similar circumstances for too many teenagers are almost insurmountable. I hope that when the time comes, I will always be one of the adults who inspire hope, faith, and the tenacity to endure.

On a lighter note--or at least, on a funnier note--I also finished Libba Bray's Beauty Queens. It is good that I do most of my reading at home; when I laugh so hard I snort, it is embarrassing to be sitting alone in Starbucks. I am not sure that Libba Bray meant to paint caricatures of Sarah Palin and a young George W. Bush, but they are precisely who I imagined when I pictured Ladybird Hope and Harris, respectively. If you love either of them, do not read this book. You will be angry. But for the rest of you (and I like to think there are a lot of us), this book is great and will make you laugh. Really hard. There was a lot of snorting as I read. That's a good thing.

Another good thing about Beauty Queens is the cover. I've arranged a spot for it near the toy chest in the family room so that kids will (hopefully) continue to make unintentionally hilarious comments about the cover even now that I've finished reading the book. Such as, "Are you reading a book about lipstick? That's so weird and cool!" And (asked very excitedly), "Oh, does lipstick fit in a Nerf gun?!" And my favorite, which requires some explanation: some years ago, I was fortunate to attend a book signing with Libba Bray and asked her to sign a book for my young cousin, whose name appeared in her book...which, to said young cousin's mind, clearly meant the book must also be about bacon. (Her favorite food, obviously.) Kind Ms. Bray signed the book, "This book really IS about you and bacon!" When this same young girl--now 10--saw the cover of Beauty Queens, she said, "Oh! Libba Bray! Does she love bacon and lipstick?! I can't wait to be old enough to read her books! I am so gonna love her!"