Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Becky's Review of Looking for Alaska

Green, John. 2005. LOOKING FOR ALASKA. New York: Dutton. ISBN 0525475060 [Suggested Grade Levels 9-12]

LOOKING FOR ALASKA is a coming-of-age novel starring Miles Halter and his eccentric cast of friends. Miles had always been different from his peers; for years he’d been searching for the “Great Perhaps” but he finally begins to understand the meaning of life when he ventures forth into the great unknown leaving his familiar home and school in Florida for his new life at a boarding school in Alabama. Miles, like all the characters in LOOKING FOR ALASKA, has his own eccentricities. Mile’s eccentric obsession—besides his love for philosophy—is his fascination with memorizing the last words of famous people. “It was an indulgence, learning last words. Other people had chocolate; I had dying declarations” (11). Miles, nicknamed, “Pudge,” is soon initiated into a close circle of friends including his roommate Chip Martin (the Colonel) and Alaska Young. It is his relationships with his friends—Alaska in particular—that will change his life forever.

LOOKING FOR ALASKA is well written. It is at times laugh-out-loud funny such as when Pudge and his friends are playing pranks on their peers or pondering the glory of the bufriedo, a deep-fried burrito, and at other times deeply touching such as when Pudge and Alaska are discussing the meaning of life and what it means to

Friday, April 18, 2008

review by alisonwonderland

Published in 1999. 198 pages.
2000 Printz Honor Book.

First sentence: It is my first morning of high school.

Last sentence: "Let me tell you about it."

Basic storyline: A traumatic event near the end of the summer has a devastating effect on Melinda's freshman year in high school.

Why I read this book: I put this book on my to-read list last year when I found out about Laurie Halse Anderson's work at The Hidden Side of a Leaf. (Here is Dewey's 2006 review of Speak.) I even picked the book up at the library, but other things took priority and I didn't get to it before I had to return it. As I was compiling 2008 challenge lists, I put Speak on my lists for the Cardathon, the Printz Award Challenge, Every Month is a Holiday, and the Young Adult Challenge. I was determined to read Speak at some point this year! Luckily for me, the host of my IRL book club choose Speak for our April group meeting - and the rest is history.

Why I loved this book: There are several reasons why I really loved this book. First, Melinda's voice is the perfect mix of sarcastic wit and honest pain. She is just so "real." Second, the subtle symbolism and literary references were so great. My favorite was a poster of Maya Angelou on the door of Melinda's secret hide-away; like Melinda, Angelou suffered a trauma as a child and stopped speaking for a time. Third, Anderson's writing is just so powerful. Here is a passage that my IRL book group host particularly liked:
Our frog lies on her back. Waiting for a prince to come and princessify her with a smooch? I stand over her with my knife. Ms. Keen's voice fades to a mosquito whine. My throat closes off. It is hard to breather. I put out my hand to steady myself against the table. David pins her froggy hands to the dissection tray. He spreads her froggy legs and pins her froggy feet. I have to slice open her belly. She doesn't say a word. She is already dead. A scream starts in my gut - I can feel the cut, smell the dirt, leaves in my hair.
Finally, I loved this book because it deals with a serious, important issue with such humor.

Cross-posted from my book blog.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Becky's Review of Speak

Anderson, Laurie Halse. 1999. Speak.

It is my first morning of high school. I have seven new notebooks, a skirt I hate, and a stomachache.

Meet Melinda. A ninth grader, a freshman. Maybe her experiences will remind you of your own high school days. Maybe not. But whether you were popular or among the outcasts, Speak has something vital to offer readers. Her story is powerful, yet not without humor.


1. We are here to help you.

2. You will have enough time to get to your class before the bell rings.

3. The dress-code will be enforced.

4. No smoking is allowed on school grounds.

5. Our football team will win the championship this year.

6. We expect more of you here.

7. Guidance counselors are always available to listen.

8. Your schedule was created with your needs in mind.

9. Your locker combination is private.

10. These will be the years you look back on fondly.

Speak places high school life under the microscope. In minute detail, the reader sees what high school is like perhaps from a perspective that is new to them. (Or perhaps one that feels all-too-familiar). The teachers. The students. The classmates. The classes. The cafeteria. The bus rides. Melinda isn't happy, and it shows, but she's an example of how appearances can be deceiving. Labeled a trouble maker by a few of her teachers and some of the administration, despised by most of her classmates, she would be easy to brush off, to cast aside as just another lazy, rebellious teen. A teen that needs discipline, punishment, stern lectures, but never a teen that needs compassion and mercy and understanding. But there is always more going on underneath the surface. Always.

I think Speak should be required reading for any adult who is working with teens or who plans to work with teens. As for requiring it for teens within the classroom setting, I'm not so sure. For one, any time a book is required it loses its power. If you "have" to read it, then it strips away most of your natural inclinations to like it. I certainly never "liked" any of my assigned reading. The message of Speak might lose its resonance if it is forced. Especially if it is dissected and analyzed for hidden messages and symbolism. That being said, I do feel it's a true must-read. And it does have much that would be discussion-worthy.

What do I love about Speak? Well, it's authentic. And it's thought-provoking. If you're an adult, it makes you remember (or is prone to making you remember) your own high school days. Rather those days were painful and you're still a bit bitter or if you were one of the rare who actually remember high school "as the best time of your life." It's all in the details. The small things. The small daily interactions of how you relate with others, and how they relate to you. All the little things that add up to create the big picture. I didn't read it as a teen. The book was published when I was in college. But I would hope that the book would help those teens who are going through some of these situations not feel so alone, so isolated. I would hope that they'd feel understood. And for those teens that are bullies, I hope that the book would make them think about their actions a little more, take time to think about how these "little" things are adding up to big-time misery for those that are 'beneath' them. I'm not naive enough to think that this book will have the same impact on every one who reads it. It is just one book after all. But I hope that those who do read it, it will have a strong enough impact that the story will stay with them for a while.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Fat Kid Rules the World

Going, K.L. 2003. Fat Kid Rules the World.

I'm a sweating fat kid standing on the edge of the subway platform staring at the tracks. I'm seventeen years old, weigh 296 pounds, and I'm six-foot-one. I have a crew cut, yes a crew cut, sallow skin, and the kind of mouth that puckers when I breathe. I'm wearing a shirt that reads Miami Beach--Spring Break 1997, and huge, bland tan pants--the only kind of pants I own. Eight pairs, all tan.

It's Sunday afternoon and I'm standing just over the yellow line trying to decide whether people would laugh if I jumped. Would it be funny if the Fat Kid got splattered by a subway train? Is that funny? I'm not being facetious; I really want to know. Like it or not, apparently there's something funny about fat people. Something unpredictable. Like when I put on my jacket and everyone in the hallway stifles laughter. Or when I stand up after sitting in the cafeteria and Jennifer Maraday, Brooke Rodriguez, and Amy Glover all bust a gut. I don't get angry. I just think, What was funny about that? Did my butt jiggle? Did I make the bench creak so loud that it sounded like a fart? Did I leave an indentation? There's got to be something, right? Right?

So it's not a stretch to be standing on the wrong side of the yellow line giving serious thought to whether people would laugh if I threw myself in front of the F train. And that's the one thing that can't happen. People can't laugh. Even I deserve a decent suicide.

Meet Troy Billings. Told in first person, the novel is one of life lost and found. Troy, ready to jump, or at least ready to think about being ready to jump is a young man who thinks he has nothing to live for. Until. And I love this until. Until he meets the most unlikeliest of friends. Curt MacCrae, a homeless teenager of legendary status in the music world. A former student at Troy's school, Troy knows--or thinks he knows--all about Curt MacCrae. The coolest of the cool. But also the skinniest of the skinny.

In this relationship, it's never quite clear (to them or to the reader) who is saving who. 2 kids. 2 sets of problems or issues. 1 unlikely dream. Curt wants--or needs--Troy to be his drummer. The problem? Troy doesn't know how to drum. He has the dream--most boys his age do--of being in a band, a punk band. But he doesn't have the know-how. But Curt is there to see that this is one dream becomes reality.

It's an unlikely pairing. It's an unusual book. But I liked it. I really liked. I had my doubts. His family, Troy's family, seems a bit dysfunctional, a bit disconnected in the beginning. Which of course mirrors how Troy feels about his family life. But as he discovers who he is and what he wants and needs, Troy's family is there with him. His brother. His father. Both are there and willing to stay there, to stay a part of his life. Troy finds out day by day just how lucky he is.

Troy has a big problem. He thinks of himself as 'the fat kid.' His self-esteem (his self-confidence) is non-existent because he believes the lies he tells himself. Through his relationships with Curt and his friends as well as his changing relationships with his family, Troy is becoming someone he can like, someone he can respect, someone he can love.


Saturday, April 12, 2008

How I Live Now review by Heidi

When I checked this book out from the library, one of my co-workers saw the cover and exclaimed, "I love that one!" (She really did say "love" in bold and italics. This co-worker often uses enthusiastic words like "Fantastic," or "Awesome," or "Excellent," and it is very cute.) I find myself not wanting to say too much about the book, because I can't do it justice. You'll just have to read it.

A girl is sent to London because her family doesn't know what to do with her. No doubt from her dad's point of view she is anorexic and irrational, but we're not reading his POV, we're reading Daisy's. From her view, her soon-to-be-stepmother was trying to poison her, and at first that was why she stopped eating. Later, it became a means of power. So, she goes to the country outside London to live with her mother's sister and her cousins that she'd never met before.

Almost immediately her aunt travels to Oslo for peace talks, but the war breaks out while she is gone. The war is never defined clearly. We don't find out who attacked cities in England and the US. Even Daisy is unsure. This is a story that could happen a few moments in the future, or in the world just parallel to this one. All that doesn't matter: the war is backdrop for her life as it unfolds with her cousins, and the fierce loving larger-than-life bond they find for each other.

Not until I reflect on the whole story do I realize that this is a re-telling of a certain fairy tale. I'll leave that for the reader to discover. For a much better review, see Dewey's.

Here's the link to mine.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff

How I Live Now is my favorite book of 2008, so far. I loved it even more than Purple Hibiscus, though that hardly seems possible.

The main character, Daisy, is a fifteen year old girl from New York. Her mother died when she was born, and her father's new, pregnant girlfriend hates Daisy and all she stands for. Poor Daisy is shipped off to spend the summer with some cousins and an aunt she's never met, somewhere in the countryside in England. Daisy falls in love with her new family, as did I. Little Piper, especially, is so sweet and loving that I wanted to adopt her. The rest of the family is just the opposite of what Daisy has been living with back home: warm, gentle, caring. Their constant offers of tea remind me of my husband's family. And the way they paid attention to who Daisy really is as a person, which was novel for her, is so endearing.

Unfortunately, war strikes. Daisy's aunt is in Oslo giving a presentation when it happens, so she's trapped there. The children (the oldest, I think, is 16) are left on their own. For a while, it's idyllic, isolated as they are out in the country. But eventually, adults figure out they're alone, so they're separated, and then they're up close and personal with the war.

Mark Haddon called this novel, "That rare, rare thing, a first novel with a sustained, magical and utterly faultless voice." You know whose first novel I think has a sustained, magical and utterly faultless voice? Mark Haddon, that's who. But also Meg Rosoff. I was surprised to see that this was the 2005 Printz winner, yet I'd never heard of it until this year. It just seems like the world should have been swooning over it so loudly and so enthusiastically that I would have noticed. And my library only got it this year. I'm not sure how both my library and I failed to realize that this book had been around for four years, but I'm putting Rosoff's newer novels straight on to my wishlist. I also put this book on my wishlist, because I know I'll want to read it again, and soon.

I think what I love most, after Daisy's cousins and aunt, is the language. In this novel, people aren't simply dreaming, they're "strolling around" in their "unpleasantly populated subconscious." And spring on the farm is described as "Walt Disney on ecstasy."

The bond the cousins feel with nature, while they're living on the farm or foraging for food during the war, is magical. Only someone who has really lived close to the earth could have written this. It felt familiar to me, the rhythms of the seasons, the growth of the plants, and all the little details that only someone who really loves the outdoors would ever be aware of.

You can read an excerpt here and an kids' Q&A with the author here. After reading How I Live Now, I had a little crush on Rosoff, but then I saw in the Q&A that when asked what fictional character she'd like to be friends with, she picked Calvin of Calvin and Hobbes! And so my crush grew to inspire the smitten ravings you see before you. Here's what she said: "He's wild, non-conformist and completely uncivilized, has a fantastic imagination, a very loyal tiger, hilarious parents, and is never ever ever ever boring."

Cross-posted in my blog.

2008 Printz books

It seems that the ALA chose this year's 2008 Printz award winner in January, and I somehow missed it. Maybe this is old news to the rest of you, but I thought I'd post a list of the winner and honor books this year for those of you who may want to add more to your lists or make changes in your lists.

Winner: The White Darkness by Geraldine McCaughrean: "Fourteen-year-old Symone's exciting vacation to Antarctica turns into a desperate struggle for survival when her uncle's obsessive quest leads them across the frozen wilderness into danger."

Honor books:

Dreamquake: Book Two of the Dreamhunter Duet by Elizabeth Knox
One Whole and Perfect Day by Judith Clarke
Repossessed by A.M. Jenkins
Your Own, Sylvia: A Verse Portrait of Sylvia Plath by Stephanie Hemphill

The White Darkness

McCaughrean, Geraldine. 2007. The White Darkness. (First U.S. edition, 2007; originally published in 2005).

What can I say about The White Darkness? Really? It was strange. Odd. One-of-a-kind. There were moments when I was really loving the oddness of it. After all, how many writers begin off their novel like this:

I have been in love with Titus Oates for quite a while now--which is ridiculous, since he's been dead for ninety years. But look at it this way. In ninety years I'll be dead, too, and then the age difference won't matter. Besides he isn't dead inside my head. We talk about all kinds of things. From whether hair color can change spontaneously to whether friends are better than family, and the best age for marrying: 14 or 125. Generally speaking, he knows more than I do, but on that particular subject we are even. He wasn't married--at least he wasn't when he died, which must have substantially cut down his chances. (1)

Who is Titus Oates? Why has he--though dead--captured this young teen's heart? He was an Antarctic explorer in Robert Scott's expedition in 1911/12. Her uncle fueled her interest in the Antarctic through books and dvds. Now, she is mesmerized and a tad obsessed. It must run in the family.

Her family. Also odd. There is her father who died after months of strange behavior. There is her "uncle" Victor who while no blood relation, takes the family under his protection. And there is the mother. The mother who is almost always silent. The author has almost chosen to give her no voice in this novel. And then there is our narrator, Symone. She is odd. She is to some extent deaf. She cannot hear anything without her hearing aids. That doesn't make her odd necessarily. I'm not suggesting it does. But wearing hearing aids at such a young age, does make Sym--as she calls herself--feel a little out of place with her peers. That and the fact that she is almost constantly in conversation with a dead man. Sym and Titus. An odd combination of narrators. He does play a vital role in the story. But whether that is because he provides some relief and normalcy from the other actually "real" characters...or if he is just proof of her debatable.

The story. What happens. Uncle Victor surprises Sym with a trip to Paris. But this isn't an ordinary trip to Paris. Without telling anyone--her mom, her school, etc--he is planning to head off to Antarctica with his "niece." Symone doesn't know either, not at first. And when she does find out, she tries to contact her mother--but there always seems to be some circumstance blocking her. The phone doesn't work. The radio is out. The two, Victor and Symone, are part of a group of tourists--or are they??? What is Uncle Victor's real motivations in dragging his "niece" all this way? And why is Symone only now beginning to see just how strange her uncle truly is?

I hesitate to describe any more of the novel. I don't want to spoil the plot. But I do want to say this. The further into the novel I read, the more uncomfortable I became. The less charmed I was by the quirkiness of the narration. It became evident fairly early on that we were talking of a severe case of mental illness. The narrator's mental status also being up for debate. The other characters? All equally strange and unexplainable. There was no one normal. No one trustworthy. No one that you could actually relate to or like. Everyone was either odd, weird, strange, quirky, or eccentric.

Do I like the novel? Not really. Why? I found the characters a little too odd. Too extreme. I just didn't connect with them. Yes, I kept reading the story. Yes, I suppose I wanted to know what happened. But it was more about closure--I didn't want to leave them stranded out on the ice without learning how it was resolved. I didn't like the characters. I thought they were all crazy.

Other readers may have a different take on the novel. It may appeal to them in a way that it doesn't for me. I can only say that this novel wasn't quite my style. We didn't really click that well.