Friday, November 29, 2013

Review: Ironskin by Tina Connolly

Ironskin--Tina Connolly
October 2012 by Tor Books
304 pages--Goodreads

Jane Eliot wears an iron mask.

It’s the only way to contain the fey curse that scars her cheek. The Great War is five years gone, but its scattered victims remain—the ironskin.

When a carefully worded listing appears for a governess to assist with a "delicate situation"—a child born during the Great War—Jane is certain the child is fey-cursed, and that she can help.

Teaching the unruly Dorie to suppress her curse is hard enough; she certainly didn’t expect to fall for the girl’s father, the enigmatic artist Edward Rochart. But her blossoming crush is stifled by her own scars, and by his parade of women. Ugly women, who enter his closed studio...and come out as beautiful as the fey.

Jane knows Rochart cannot love her, just as she knows that she must wear iron for the rest of her life. But what if neither of these things is true? Step by step Jane unlocks the secrets of her new life—and discovers just how far she will go to become whole again.

A steampunk fey reimagining of Jane Eyre, Ironskin worked so well until it didn't.  

The first two thirds of the book were great.  It was an adaptation like Cinder, where the base story was important to the plot without being a crutch; Connolly had her own story to tell.  She fundamentally changed Jane by giving her a loving childhood, but it worked for the story, especially with her rage curse.  Helen was too greedy* to deserve her name, but I could cope with it.  I liked how Adelle/Dorie's story was progressing as she developed her fey powers.  Grace Poole got a new and interesting back story. The only thing that really needed improvement was the development of the Jane/Rochart romance.

Then everything fell apart.  As we approached the climax, Jane and the other characters started doing things that didn't make any sense, didn't develop the plot, didn't heighten the suspense, and that were included only because Connolly was crutching on the original plot.  Why did Jane suddenly go back to the city during the siege?  Nothing was accomplished that couldn't have been done back at the estate.  The only way it made a particle of sense was to see it as a shoddy adaptation of Jane's post failed-wedding flight.  And things just got worse with the faces and the fey queen and demonic possession.  

After a strong start, Ironskin was a disappointment.  I'll just go watch this episode of The Autobiography of Jane Eyre instead.

*In an earlier draft I accidentally typed "Helen was too groovy."  Now I need a disco adaptation of Jane Eyre.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Book Chat: Bookish Gratitude

Hey it's a vlog!  It takes a long time to film and edit these, and I'm usually short on time, so I've been opting for written posts instead of video.  But it's the day before Thanksgiving and I have some time on my hands.  This month's book chat, courtesy of Misty at The Book Rat, is on thankfulness.

What bookish things are you thankful for?

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Mini Review: Charles and Emma: The Darwins' Leap of Faith by Deborah Heiligman

Charles and Emma:  The Darwins' Leap of Faith--Deborah Heiligman
December 2008 by Henry Holt and Co.
272 pages--Goodreads

Charles Darwin published The Origin of Species, his revolutionary tract on evolution and the fundamental ideas involved, in 1859. Nearly 150 years later, the theory of evolution continues to create tension between the scientific and religious communities. Challenges about teaching the theory of evolution in schools occur annually all over the country. This same debate raged within Darwin himself, and played an important part in his marriage: his wife, Emma, was quite religious, and her faith gave Charles a lot to think about as he worked on a theory that continues to spark intense debates.

Deborah Heiligman's new biography of Charles Darwin is a thought-provoking account of the man behind evolutionary theory: how his personal life affected his work and vice versa. The end result is an engaging exploration of history, science, and religion for young readers.

Charles and Emma
 is an interesting biography.  It let me get to know Charles and Emma Darwin as people.  I love how the biography focuses on their relationship as well as Darwin's theories.  The science story is well known, but I had never known how much Darwin struggled with the publication of his theories, both because of the inevitable public backlash and because of his personal religious doubts.  And I've never seen Emma's side of the story represented before.

Quotes from the Darwins' diaries and letters are weaved in seamlessly with the narration.  Charles and Emma is an engaging text. This is good nonfiction.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Review: Ungifted by Gordan Korman

Ungifted--Gordan Korman
August 2012 by Balzer + Bray
288 pages--Goodreads

The word gifted has never been applied to a kid like Donovan Curtis. It's usually more like Don't try this at home. So when the troublemaker pulls a major prank at his middle school, he thinks he's finally gone too far. But thanks to a mix-up by one of the administrators, instead of getting in trouble, Donovan is sent to the Academy of Scholastic Distinction (ASD), a special program for gifted and talented students.

It wasn't exactly what Donovan had intended, but there couldn't be a more perfect hideout for someone like him. That is, if he can manage to fool people whose IQs are above genius level. And that becomes harder and harder as the students and teachers of ASD grow to realize that Donovan may not be good at math or science (or just about anything). But after an ongoing experiment with a live human (sister), an unforgettably dramatic middle-school dance, and the most astonishing come-from-behind robot victory ever, Donovan shows that his gifts might be exactly what the ASD students never knew they needed.

Ungifted is just a lot of fun. The characters are great.  Some reviewers thought the gifted kids were too extreme or stereotyped, but I thought it worked.  Sure they may be a bit extreme, but it's what worked.  As for Donovan, he is definitely true to life.  He reminds me uncomfortably of some of my students.  "Why are you doing (insert random weird thing)?"  "I don't know..."  And they really don't know.  They have no impulse control and no concept of consequences.  Donovan does bring a bit too much life to the gifted school for it to be truly plausible, but it's a fun book and middle schoolers love that kind of exaggeration. 

I loved the relationship between Donovan and Katie.  I love when sibling relationships are done well.  Korman perfectly captures the I-hate-you-but-if-anyone-else-tries-to-mess-with-you-I-will-beat-them-up feeling.  And the subplot with the dog was a fun touch, if too predictable.

Ungifted is filled with dramatic irony.  I wish the passages were easier to lift so I could use them in class, but without the context of the rest of the book, they don't make sense.  Ungifted is one of those books that both kids and adults can enjoy.  My students love it.  It is a fun and meaningful foray into the challenges and the joys of middle school life.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Review: The Boy Project by Kami Kinard

The Boy Project--Kami Kinard
January 2012 by Scholastic Press
256 pages--Goodreads

Wildly creative seventh grader Kara McAllister just had her best idea yet. She's going to take notes on all of the boys in her grade (and a few elsewhere) in order to answer a seemingly simple question: How can she get a boyfriend?

But Kara's project turns out to be a lot more complicated than she imagined. Soon there are secrets, lies, and an embarrassing incident in the boy's bathroom. Plus, Kara has to deal with mean girls, her slightly spacey BFF, and some surprising uses for duct tape. Still, if Kara's research leads her to the right boy, everything may just be worth it. . . .

Full of charts and graphs, heart and humor, this hilarious debut will resonate with tweens everywhere.

The Boy Project has a great premise.  Unfortunately, the execution wasn't what I hoped.  I loved the idea of having a character use science to figure out relationships, a topic very pertinent to young readers.  Yes, let's prove to kids that science matters, that science isn't boring.  I figured that even if the scientific rigor wasn't perfect, it would be a step in the right direction.  In some ways it was, but in others it fell very short.

This is mostly my personal philosophy coming in, but I wanted Kara to realize that she could be a whole and self actualized person without having a boyfriend.  I really think the drive to find the person who "completes you" is damaging.  I wanted Kara to be okay with not having a boyfriend.  Instead, every female character reinforced the idea that you are incomplete without a boyfriend.  Girls would stay in relationships with boys they didn't like until they had another boyfriend lined up because they didn't want to be alone.  Can we not see how dangerous that line of thinking is?!  If your worth as a human being is determined by your relationship status, you may not get out of a toxic relationship because even abuse is better than not having someone to "love" you.  I know that's not at all the message Kinard intended to send.  I know that middle schoolers are obsessed with crushes and they would want Kara to have her happy ending.  But can we please go beyond audience wish fulfillment when dealing with stuff like this?  Even if Kara's story had stayed the same, could we at least have changed Tabbi's?  Yes, this is a small part of the book and my reasoning might be a bit of a slippery slope, but cultural norms are formed and reinforced by small, subtle, sometimes unconscious messages. 

Kinard does create a realistic school, at least from the perspective of a middle school student.  As a teacher, I can see a lot of the things students fail to see, but from the tunnel-visioned view of a 7th grader, it's spot on.  You've got the popular girls who get all the boys' attention, the unattainable guys, the dweebs, the unfair teachers, the gross cafeteria food, the mindset that dates are way more important anything school has to teach.  Good luck being an informed voter someday since you resist all our attempts to teach you how to think.

The Boy Project is one of those books that will probably be eaten up by students.  It's wish fulfillment with a touch of science thrown in.  Maybe if we can't escape one harmful gender role, maybe we can hope to tackle a different one.  

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Review: 13 Little Blue Envelopes by Maureen Johnson

13 Little Blue Envelopes--Maureen Johnson
2005 by Harper Collins
322 pages--Goodreads

Would you follow the directions?

Would you travel around the world?

Would you open the envelopes one by one?

Inside little blue envelope 1 are $1,000 and instructions to buy a plane ticket.

In envelope 2 are directions to a specific London flat.

The note in envelope 3 tells Ginny: Find a starving artist.

Because of envelope 4, Ginny and a playwright/thief/bloke–about–town called Keith go to Scotland together, with somewhat disastrous–-though utterly romantic–-results.

Everything about Ginny will change this summer, and it's all because of the 13 little blue envelopes.

Meh, this one's not for me.  It just seemed to unrealistic, partially because I would never go off to Europe without having every single step planned out or make out with a boy I had met earlier that day.  I can handle characters who are different from me, but not when they don't follow common sense and personal safety rules.  Sure, I'll go to this random guy's house.  I have no reason to trust him and don't even know his name.  No one knows I'm in this country or will miss me if I disappear.  Sure.  Why not?  What could possibly go wrong?  The whole book was a series of I-would-never-do-thats and they kept me from being able to lose myself in the story. 

Despite the life-changing journey promised in the blurb, Ginny never really grew or changed.  We don't see her before the trip, so we have nothing to compare her end-of-book self to.  A little, she-wouldn't-be-that-spontaneous-on-her-own isn't good enough. That's not significant change.  And I never felt like I got to know any of the other characters either, not even Peg, and the book is supposed to be about her almost as much as it is about Ginny.  

All around, 13 Little Blue Envelopes is just not the book for me.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Review: Steelheart by Brandon Sanderson

Steelheart--Brandon Sanderson
September 2013 by Delecorte
384 pages--Goodreads

There are no heroes.

Ten years ago, Calamity came. It was a burst in the sky that gave ordinary men and women extraordinary powers. The awed public started calling them Epics.

But Epics are no friend of man. With incredible gifts came the desire to rule. And to rule man you must crush his wills.

Nobody fights the Epics... nobody but the Reckoners. A shadowy group of ordinary humans, they spend their lives studying Epics, finding their weaknesses, and then assassinating them.

And David wants in. He wants Steelheart—the Epic who is said to be invincible. The Epic who killed David's father. For years, like the Reckoners, David's been studying, and planning—and he has something they need. Not an object, but an experience.

He's seen Steelheart bleed. And he wants revenge.

Steelheart is another book to add to Sanderson's already long list of great novels. I never thought I'd enjoy a superhero comic book in novel form so much.  Some of the twists are predictable, but over all the story is still very good.  Dan and I spent a long while after finishing the novel discussing how everything might work out in the next books.  Steelheart is a very visual story, almost begging to be a movie.  You can totally tell when during the action sequences we're supposed to switch to slow motion.  And that was part of the fun of it.

The premise is intriguing:  a world of super villains and a renegade bunch of humans trying to fight back.  But these villains aren't as complex as Sanderson's usually are.  It's too simplistic for all Epics to be inherently and completely evil from using their powers.  There has to be at least one good Epic.  But I trust he will develop the magic system later in the series.  And hopefully he'll explain the physics-defying powers, like never ending bullets, somewhere along the way.

Character development is usually where Sanderson shines, but he had a couple of misses in this book.  Cody is hilarious, David's horrible metaphors and similes are funny, and I really want to know more of Prof's back story.  However, Megan is not very fleshed out.  She's mostly a love interest.  She has potential hidden in her history and the end plot twist, which Sanderson could explore in later books.  But so far, she's kind of flat, just the hot fighter chick that the hero/audience to ogles at but who has no real personality.  Hopefully, that will change.

Steelheart is an great beginning to a new series.  My biggest complaint, beyond Megan, is the long wait until the sequel.  And Nightweilder is SUCH a good name for a bad guy.


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