Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Review: Wonder by R.J. Palacio

Wonder--R.J. Palacio
February 2012 by Knopf
315 pages--Goodreads

August (Auggie) Pullman was born with a facial deformity that prevented him from going to a mainstream school—until now. He's about to start 5th grade at Beecher Prep, and if you've ever been the new kid then you know how hard that can be. The thing is Auggie's just an ordinary kid, with an extraordinary face. But can he convince his new classmates that he's just like them, despite appearances?

Wonder is a beautiful story.  I stayed up way to late in order to finish it.  I'm really not sure how late I was up.  It is both funny and tear jerking.

Palacio makes excellent use of multiple points of view, highlighting the different experiences of each of the characters.  The multiple POVs make it very clear that there are always more than two sides to every story.  The transitions between POVs is well paced, never so frequent that the different voices become confusing or overwhelming.  POV switches are generally 70 or so pages apart and always at the right place plot-wise.

Side note, I know this book focus on the kids' experiences, but I would have loved a few chapters from Mom or Dad's perspective.  

The characters and their interactions with each other are authentic.  Middle school kids saying stupid things (both the dorky-awkward-dumb stuff and the varying degrees of intentionally hurtful stuff).  Friendships change because people change and life moves on.  I love that every character has the potential for good and bad.  The kids at school are jerks who alienate August because he's different.  But the same kids come to his rescue later on and become his friends.  Jack reacts authentically to August's unignorable differences.  He didn't want to be friends with the freak, then got to know him and became friends, but then wanted to separate himself from August to preserve his reputation.

I especially loved Via and her conflicting feelings about wanting to be there to support her brother and not wanting to always and only be known as August's sister and wanting to get attention from her parents but feeling selfish for doing so because that would take attention away from August.  Via's narrative would pair well with Rules.  

One of the best but most heartbreaking parts of the novel were the little comments from August that prove how much he was hurt by other people's reactions despite being "used" to them.  He notices when people don't look him in the eye or start even just a tiny bit when they first see him.  He's so matter of fact about it because he tries to hide the hurt, even to himself.  

The only problem I had with the novel was the ending.  I watched this TED talk the same day I read the book, and that definitely colored my reading of the novel.  (Spoilers ahead.  Ye be warned).  I wanted August's victory to be complete in just becoming an accepted and normal part of the community.  Instead, he became the exact sort of inspiration porn Stella Young talks about (seriously, go watch the TED talk).  I can see both sides of the issue.  We don't want to objectify or pedestalize people, but we also should be inspired by the people around us.  Wonder wasn't written in a vacuum.  I'm curious how I would feel about the ending in a reread of the book, and I'd love to have a class discussion tying the book and TED talk together.

Wonder is a great middle grade story, but it very enjoyable for older readers too.  It has surprising depth.  I feel like Wonder is a story that would grow well with rereading, like all the best books.  

P.S. for my own teachery notes--The book has really short chapters (generally 1-3 pages), making super accessible for even reluctant readers.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Review: Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein

Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein
May 2012 by Hyperion Books
343 pages--Goodreads

Oct. 11th, 1943-A British spy plane crashes in Nazi-occupied France. Its pilot and passenger are best friends. One of the girls has a chance at survival. The other has lost the game before it's barely begun.

When "Verity" is arrested by the Gestapo, she's sure she doesn't stand a chance. As a secret agent captured in enemy territory, she's living a spy's worst nightmare. Her Nazi interrogators give her a simple choice: reveal her mission or face a grisly execution.

As she intricately weaves her confession, Verity uncovers her past, how she became friends with the pilot Maddie, and why she left Maddie in the wrecked fuselage of their plane. On each new scrap of paper, Verity battles for her life, confronting her views on courage, failure and her desperate hope to make it home. But will trading her secrets be enough to save her from the enemy?

There was so much hype surrounding this book.  It won a Printz honor.  Many people raved about it and gave it 5-star reviews.  It was on all the recommendation lists for a little while.  And it wasn't bad; I actually quite liked it.  But it is slow.  Very slow.  The ending is fantastic, but you have to be willing to push through the first half of the novel to get there.  I read Code Name Verity using the audiobook, which worked out quite well.  The narration was excellent and it kept me going through the less-engaging first half of the novel.

I loved how well we got to know Julie and Maddie.  This book is sometimes pitched as a spy novel, which is just misleading.  No Bond or Borne here.  This is a book about the friendship between two young women, albeit in rather dangerous circumstances, but the events of WWII take a distant back seat to the women's friendship.  And I honestly don't remember the last time I read a young adult (not middle grade or children's) novel that celebrated love between friends with absolutely no romance whatsoever getting in the way.  Though it was slow, I do appreciate the development of their relationship.

Without being gratuitous, this book is honest in its descriptions of torture, interrogation, and execution.  But with its level of violence and some strong language, it is not a book for younger readers.

This next paragraph is spoilery, so feel free to skip it.  
I can't think of the last time an author has pulled off an unreliable narrator so well.  As I read the second half of the book and realized what Julie had done, I had to keep flipping back to earlier in the novel to see how she had done it (I actually had both a physical copy in addition audiobook).  Suffice it to say, there were many "What the heck!?" moments.  And the best part is Wein tells us from the start that there would be an unreliable narrator.  She says in the first few pages that sabotage is integral to the mission of a captured combatant.  It was sort of like Michael Cane's bookend statements in The Prestige about how you look for the secret but you won't find it because you want to be fooled.  

Code Name Verity is a well-written novel with excellent characters.  It's not as fast or exciting as the hype or description implies, but if you can put in the investment, it is worth it.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Review: Stolen Songbird

Stolen Songbird by Danielle L. Jensen
April 2014 by Strange Chemistry
469 pages--Goodreads

For five centuries, a witch’s curse has bound the trolls to their city beneath the ruins of Forsaken Mountain. Time enough for their dark and nefarious magic to fade from human memory and into myth. But a prophesy has been spoken of a union with the power to set the trolls free, and when Cécile de Troyes is kidnapped and taken beneath the mountain, she learns there is far more to the myth of the trolls than she could have imagined.

Cécile has only one thing on her mind after she is brought to Trollus: escape. Only the trolls are clever, fast, and inhumanly strong. She will have to bide her time, wait for the perfect opportunity.

But something unexpected happens while she’s waiting – she begins to fall for the enigmatic troll prince to whom she has been bonded and married. She begins to make friends. And she begins to see that she may be the only hope for the half-bloods – part troll, part human creatures who are slaves to the full-blooded trolls. There is a rebellion brewing. And her prince, Tristan, the future king, is its secret leader.

As Cécile becomes involved in the intricate political games of Trollus, she becomes more than a farmer’s daughter. She becomes a princess, the hope of a people, and a witch with magic powerful enough to change Trollus forever.

I will start off by saying that ending was so much not okay.  I need book two right now.  What do you mean book two wont be out for a year and then I have to wait a whole nother year for book three?!  GAHAHGadfjaoeiwnodainvpaofiahs.

Now that I've gotten that out, I will say that I loved Stolen Songbird.  It was not a perfect book and it is not a book for everyone, but I could not put it down.  With the exception of the 30 or 40 pages I read before going to bed, I read the whole 400+ pages in one day.  Had I started later in the day or had the book been longer, I would have needed to stay awake all night to finish it to find out what happened.

This is one of the very few times a romance has taken center stage in a plot without me objecting as I read.  With many, many romances I roll my eyes at how shallow the characters are and how uninteresting their story is, but I cared about this one a lot.  And the romance didn't detract from the other important things going on.  I really wanted Tristan and Cecile to get together, and at the same time I really wanted to figure out Tristan's political machinations.  And I wanted to find out whether the rebellion would work or fail miserably.  And I loved seeing how Cecile integrated herself into Troll society 

I also loved the minor characters.  Marc, Tips, even Anais, but especially the twins.  I loved Victoria and Vincent and their good natured competitions and Cecile's friendship with them.  Along with engaging characters, Jensen presents us with a rich world with complex political and social structures without infodumping.  We are given answers just a little bit at a time as Cecile learns things or figures them out.

Stolen Songbird reminded me a lot of The Hollow Kingdom but with more adventure and romance.  And endearing characters.  And pages.  Basically take everything I liked about The Hollow Kingdom and add more of it and you get Stolen Songbird.  I did not expect to love it so much.  It is not the right book for everyone, but it was the right book for me right now.  It's full of mystery and intrigue, and I need answers.  Do you hear me, Jensen.  I need book two now!

Mini Review: Rump by Liesl Shurtliff

Rump: The True Story of Rumplestiltskin--Liesl Shurtliff
April 2013 by Alfred A Knopf Books for Young Readers
272 pages--Goodreads

In a magic kingdom where your name is your destiny, 12-year-old Rump is the butt of everyone's joke. But when he finds an old spinning wheel, his luck seems to change. Rump discovers he has a gift for spinning straw into gold. His best friend, Red Riding Hood, warns him that magic is dangerous, and she’s right. With each thread he spins, he weaves himself deeper into a curse.

To break the spell, Rump must go on a perilous quest, fighting off pixies, trolls, poison apples, and a wickedly foolish queen. The odds are against him, but with courage and friendship—and a cheeky sense of humor—he just might triumph in the end.

Rump was a cute and funny read. I enjoyed the tie-ins to other fairy tales. It was a bit too simple for me. There is some MAJOR scooby-doo-ing/villain-monologue-ing near the end of the book. And the major twist is based on Rump's real name being Rumplestiltskin, which we all know going into the story (thank you cover picture), so we all knew what was going to happen. The foreshadowing for this unsurprising twist wouldn't bother a younger audience, but it made Rump's constant worry about his name a bit tedious for me.

As a bonus, the audiobook was read by Maxwell Glick aka THE Mr. Collins of The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, so that was awesome. Although, Glick used a sort of storytelling narration style that didn't quite fit with a first-person narrative, I still enjoyed listening to him read.  Cue the nostalgia.

Rump:  The True Story of Rumplestiltskin is a good quick read or bedtime story for young readers. 

P.S.--Small bone to pick with the cover:  Why is Red's hair not red?

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Fairy Tale Survey

Mel over at The Daily Prophecy created this survey based on fairy tales, and I thought I'd join in.  Thanks to Mel for creating the survey and to Deb over at Debz Bookshelf for pointing it out to me.  


Pinocchio – The boy whose nose grows when he lies.
Is there are book you lie about, because you feel ashamed for liking it?
Jane Austen novels.  I don't lie about them, but since people tend to assume that Austen novels are just fluffy romance, I sometimes feel a little silly calling them my favorites.  But they're not just fluff; there's a lot of biting social commentary in there.

Beauty and the Beast – The girl who fell in love with personality.
Which book do you love that has a hideous cover?
The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson.  I don't care for high fantasy covers.  They weird me out.  Luckily, Words of Radiance has a better cover.

Snow White – Hunted down for her beauty.
Do you ever buy a book based on the cover alone and if so, what is the last one?
No, I'm too judicious with my book buying, and even if the cover is gorgeous, I won't try a book if the jacket blurb doesn't sound interesting, I won't try it.  But the last cover beauty I was drawn to was The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate.  I love scroll work.

Sleeping beauty – Cursed to sleep, awakened by true loves kiss.
 What is your favorite book couple?
Anne and Gilbert from Anne of Green Gables.  No competition.  They're intellectual equals and best friends.  They make sacrifices for each other and make each other better people.  And it's just fun to read their interactions.

Little Mermaid – Gave up on her old life for love.
Do you ever branch out to new genres or do you like to stick with the ones you know and love? If you try new things out, what is the latest book?
I like to try new genres both because I eventually get tired of fantasy and because I'd otherwise miss out on the gems in other genres.  And because I need to be able to recommend all sorts of books to my students. Friends with Boys is my latest favorite atypical-for-me-book.  It's a contemporary graphic novel with a dash of the supernatural.

Cinderella – Who lost her shoe after midnight.
What is the last book that made you stay up all night?
I don't pull all nighters.  I value sleep and my ability to function the next day too much.  Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is the only book I've pulled an all nighter for, and really, that was a special circumstance.  However, I will often stay up reading into the wee hours of the morning.  Sometimes I regret it, but it's usually worth it.  The last book I stayed up late for was Words of Radiance.

Rapunzel – locked up in a tower.
What is  the worst books you read last month?

It took me all of last month to read just one book (in my defense it was over 1000 pages long and I had a lot of teacher stuff to do), so I'll go back further and choose Scarlet by A.C. Gaughen.  I could easily lock it in a tower and leave it there to rot for all eternity.  I know a lot of people about the blogosphere love it, but I had some major, major issues with it.


Aladdin – The poor boy who found a genie.
What is the latest book treasure/gem you found?
The Running Dream by Wendelin Van Draanen.  I wanted to use it in my book groups unit, but another teacher is already using it.  Curses!

Alice in Wonderland – The girl who fell through a rabbit’s hole. 
Which book made you really feel like you landed in another world?

Zita the Spacegirl by Ben Hatake.  I could spend a very long time looking at the illustrations and noticing every little thing going on in the crowd shots with all the bizarre space creatures.  The alien planet is such a fun world to explore.

East of the sun and west of the moon – where a girl embarks on a journey to save her love.
Who is one of your favorite kick-butt heroines?

Lo from Fathomless.  She can't exactly be described as kick-butt, but she's one of the most fascinating female characters I've read about recently.  She's strong in a way that doesn't involve beating people up.

The Frog Prince – where an enchanted prince becomes human again.
What is a book you thought you would hate, but end up loving?

Crash by Jerry Spinelli.  I fully expected to get nothing out of a skinny little book about a middle school bully football player, but it was actually quite good.

Hansel and Gretel – left alone in the woods and captured by a witch.
Which duo (sister/sister, brother/sister) is your favorite and why?
Cinder and Iko from Cress and the rest of the Lunar Chronicles by Marissa Meyer.  They're technically not sisters, but they're close enough, and their relationship is too fun to leave out.

Little Red Riding Hood – almost eaten by a wolf dressed as her grandmother.
What book disappointed you after falling in love with the cover and blurb?  

Ironskin.  I wanted so much more out of a fey Jane Eyre adaptation.  The cover was really interesting, the premise was intriguing, the beginning of the book was good, and then the rest of the book didn't follow through.  I had to watch episodes of The Autobiography of Jane Eyre to console myself, not that rewatching AoJE is ever a bad thing.

Rumpelstilskin – nobody knows his name.
Which book do you love that doesn't get enough attention?
Okay for Now.  Just go read it.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Quotes--Top Five Wednesday

Top Five Wednesday is hosted by Lainey of gingerreadslainey.  This week's topic is quotes.

I am a bit of a strange one when it comes to quotes.  Most people like inspiring quotes, and while I do like those, I more often zero in on either morbidly creepy ones or the funny ones, so my list is a bit atypical.  I'm weird like that.

Here in no particular order are some of my favorite quotes.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Top 5 Wednesday--Genres

Hi!  It's me.  I know I've been MIA for a couple months.  Teaching has been crazy busy, but I want to get back to blogging.  So I'm going to start small.  I won't be thoroughly reviewing every book I read, like I've done for the last year or so, just the ones I have something to say about.  I won't be posting to any set schedule, but I'm going to shoot for about once a week.

I'm making my comeback by joining the Top 5 Wednesday meme started by Lainey of gingerreadslainey.  Yes, I know that's supposed to be a YouTube thing, but it's way faster to type up a post than to film and edit a video.  And I know that Top Ten Tuesday is a the bigger meme  in the text blogging world, but I don't like their topics as much.  And I know it's Thursday.  But you know what?  I don't care.  This is my blog and for the first time in forever (cue the music) I actually feel like writing something.  My blog, my space, my rules.

So anyways, this week's topic is Top Ten Genres.

Fantasy.  I would spend all my time reading this if I didn't stop myself.  There are just so many exciting looking fantasy adventures out there.  This will always be my go to genre.  Favorites include Mistborn (really anything written by Sanderson), Harry Potter, Dealing with Dragons, Dragon Slippers.

Fairy Tale Retellings.  Also fairy tale esque books.  Ditto to the above sentiment.  Favorites include Princess of Glass, Strands of Bronze and Gold, Entwined, Ella Enchanted, The Princess Curse, The Hero's Guide to Saving Your Kingdom.

Coming of Age Contemporary.  Not fluffy chick lit.  That's good every once in a while, but give me a book where the main character is struggling to figure out who they are and where they belong and couple it with excellent writing and I'm gone.  Favorites include Speak, Freak the Mighty, Rules, Okay for Now.

Historical Fiction.  Sometimes these are hard-hitting serious books, sometimes they're just good-ole adventures.   Favorites include Between Shades of Gray, Okay for Now, Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry, Leviathan (alternate history counts).

Dystopia as Social Critique not as Setting.  So many of the recent "dystopian" fiction in recent years has just been adventure set in a messed up society.  The story is there for the adventure, not for the exploration of the society.  Boring.  I want my dystopia to project potential futures based on society's current trends.  I want to see where we could go and why that path would be bad.  I want to explore corruption that is based in reality, not that was invented abstractly in the author's mind.  Favorites include Unwind, The Giver, Across a Star Swept Sea, Uglies.

If this post seems a bit unpolished and thrown together, it is.  I really should be planning a lesson right now and don't feel like hunting down an image or carefully drafting and editing.  I just want to get back into the blogging game.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Review: Cress by Marissa Meyer

Cress--Marissa Meyer
February 2014 by Feiwel & Friends
560 pages--Goodreads

Rapunzel’s tower is a satellite. She can’t let down her hair—or her guard.

In this third book in the bestselling Lunar Chronicles series, Cinder and Captain Thorne are fugitives on the run, with Scarlet and Wolf in tow. Together, they’re plotting to overthrow Queen Levana and her army.

Their best hope lies with Cress, who has been trapped on a satellite since childhood with only her netscreens as company. All that screen time has made Cress an excellent hacker—unfortunately, she’s just received orders from Levana to track down Cinder and her handsome accomplice.

When a daring rescue goes awry, the group is separated. Cress finally has her freedom, but it comes at a high price. Meanwhile, Queen Levana will let nothing stop her marriage to Emperor Kai. Cress, Scarlet, and Cinder may not have signed up to save the world, but they may be the only ones who can.

After almost a year's wait since reading Scarlet, Cress is finally out.  Huzzah!  It's a long one, but it's never slow.  There's always some rescue to pull off or some danger to avoid or some scheme to execute.

However, Meyer stretches herself too thin with all these characters.  I do enjoy seeing from each character's point of view, and POV switches are sometimes necessary to tell the story from its multiple locations.  But switching between  ten different characters is just too much.  At the same time, the characters are the best part, and I wouldn't have her cut any of them out.  I just wish we could see more of Cinder.

I really like where Meyer is taking Levana's character.  Rather than being evil for the sake of being evil, we get just a hint that her motivation is loneliness.  If her people will not love her on their own terms, she will make them love her; and she will conquer Earth so that more people will love her.  I hope Meyer expands this angle of Levana's character in the next book.  It makes her much more compelling than the generic evil queen.

I love how vulnerable Cinder is in this book.  Not to say she can't hold her own in a fight (she can) or that she's an emotional wreck (she's not).  She's just freaked out about the pressure of having to save the entire world (and moon).  She's scared and worried that she won't be able to do it.  She feels guilty for the deaths she's caused.  It's so nice to have a character who reacts normally to the saving the world situation rather than being completely confident or even just mildly worried.

My only major criticism, aside from the multiple perspectives, is that there isn't much chemistry between Thorne and Cress.  Wolf and Scarlet's relationship (while too sudden and cheesy) at least had chemistry.  I can see them going somewhere in the next book, but I don't root for them as I read like I am Cinder and Kai.

Cress is not a perfect novel, but it is a fun, fast-paced one.  Now I just have to sit here and wait for a year until Winter comes out.  

Thursday, January 23, 2014

A to Z Bookish Survey

Jamie at The Perpetual Page Turner created the survey a while ago, but I just found it thanks to Misty at The Book Rat.  I had some time on my hands (yay, no school!), so I put together my answers.

Author you've read the most books from:
Brian Jaques.  I read all of the Redwall books in middle school.  All of them.  I still have a secret desire to be a squirrel.  Or an otter.  Or a hare.  Really any Redwall creature would do.
(Want an easy way to figure this out if you have Goodreads and keep good track of your stuff? Go to your account, hit “my books”and on the left hand side under your shelves you will see “most read authors”)

Best Sequel Ever:
The Hero of Ages.  Prepare to have your mind blown.  This book does require the investment of 1000+ pages to get through the first two books.  Sanderson's books are amazing, but they are slow starters.

Currently Reading:
The Runaway King by Jennifer A. Nielsen.  I'm a sucker for a good first line:  "I had arrived early for my own assassination."  I quite liked The False Prince.  And book three, The Shadow Throne, comes out in February.

Drink of Choice While Reading:
Apple cider or hot chocolate.

E-reader or Physical Book?
Both.  Both is good.  With a Kindle I can get books for cheap that I never, ever have to pack (I hate moving).  But there's just something about browsing through a bookshelf, brushing my fingers against my favorites and flipping through physical pages.  So both.

Fictional Character You Probably Would Have Actually Dated In High School:
Gilbert Blythe.  Gilbert is real, real as in realistic and flawed.  He and Anne are intellectual equals; I love how they pushed each other in school--first out of spite, then in friendly competition..  He made some stupid mistakes (Carrots), but he always wanted the best for her.  He gave up the Avonlea School for her!  What could be more romantic?

Glad You Gave This Book A Chance:
The Watsons Go to Birmingham--1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis.  I read this partially because of a recommendation from a professor and partially because my school district banned it about 10 years ago (crazy, I know).  It ended up being both funnier and deeper than I expected.

Hidden Gem Book:
Okay for Now by Gary D. Schmidt.  More people need to read this book.

Important Moment in your Reading Life:
Getting permission to go to the library on my own.  Looking back on it, I'm surprised my mom let me ride my bike that far alone.

Just Finished:
The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate.  So good.  And the cover.  Silhouette plus scroll-work.  Swoon.

Kinds of Books You Won’t Read:
Paperback romances/bodice rippers--the ones with Fabio and his abs and a woman in a falling-off satin dress.  Just not interested.

Longest Book You’ve Read:
The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson

** easy way to find this out. Go to your Goodreads “read” list, don’t scroll down but where you are on the screen there will be this little tab on the bottom that lets you choose how you want to scroll or how many books you want display. There is also a sort option with a drop down and you can sort by page.

Major book hangover because of:
Seraphina.  The sequel is taking way too long to come out.

Number of Bookcases You Own:
One at home, three at school.

One Book You Have Read Multiple Times:
Anne of Green Gables.

Preferred Place To Read:
Curled up on the couch, often with a throw.

Quote that inspires you/gives you all the feels from a book you've read:
Although I do love a good set of feels, I actually prefer spunk, so here's my favorite quote from Jane Eyre as she's being interrogated by Mr. Brockelhurst:
"No sight so sad as that of a naughty child," he began, "especially a naughty little girl.  Do you know where the wicked go after death?"
"They go to hell," was my ready and orthodox answer.
"And what is hell?  Can you tell me that?"
"A pit full of fire."
"And should you like to fall into that pit, and to be burning there for ever?"
"No, sir."
"What must you do to avoid it?"
I deliberated a moment:  my answer, when it did come was objectionable:  "I must keep in good health and not die."

Reading Regret:
Ummmm, I was anti graphic novel for a little while.

Series You Started And Need To Finish(all books are out in series): Matched.  I really liked the first book, but I don't feel strongly compelled to pick up Crossed, even though I do want to read it...one of these days.

Three of your All-Time Favorite Books:
Anne of Green Gables
Ella Enchanted

Unapologetic Fangirl For:

Fairy tale retellings.

Very Excited For This Release More Than All The Others:
CRESS!!!  Just a couple more weeks.

Worst Bookish Habit:
Acquiring cheap Kindle books and then not reading them for a long time or ever.

X Marks The Spot: Start at the top left of your shelf and pick the 27th book:
Between Shades of Gray.

Your latest book purchase:
Goblin Secrets.

ZZZ-snatcher book (last book that kept you up WAY late):

Feel free to fill out the survey yourself or just let me know what you think in the comments. 

Monday, January 20, 2014

Review: The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly

The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate--Jacqueline Kelly
May 2009 by Henry Holt
338 pages--Goodreads

Calpurnia Virginia Tate is eleven years old in 1899 when she wonders why the yellow grasshoppers in her Texas backyard are so much bigger than the green ones.With a little help from her notoriously cantankerous grandfather, an avid naturalist, she figures out that the green grasshoppers are easier to see against the yellow grass, so they are eaten before they can get any larger.

As Callie explores the natural world around her, she develops a close relationship with her grandfather, navigates the dangers of living with six brothers, and comes up against just what it means to be a girl at the turn of the century.

Debut author Jacqueline Kelly deftly brings Callie and her family to life, capturing a year of growing up with unique sensitivity and a wry wit.

The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate is a highly enjoyable read with a gorgeous cover (I love silhouettes and scroll-work; this cover has both).  Made up of vignettes about one summer and fall, Callie's story is reminiscent of Anne of Green Gables and Little House on the Prairie with some Darwinian science thrown in.  I love Callie's adventures as a young naturalist, roaming the riverbed, collecting bugs and other scientific samples.  I especially love the relationship between her and her grandfather.

Callie's voice is distinct from the very start.  The writing in general is strong, but particularly in Callie's narrative voice.  She's a memorable character, and I love her spunk and determination.  Her observations about the world and people are hilarious, especially when three of her brothers have crushes on the same friend at the same time and Callie gets sick of being the middleman.  The brothers themselves are great.  I love Travis and his kittens and his unfortunate attachment to the family turkeys.

This novel presents a great coming of age story.  I completely understand Callie's desire to do something more than the life that was chosen for her, how she feels trapped by the societal and familial expectations that don't match up with her dreams.  This conflict is left mostly unresolved, and while I can understand why (time constraints--it would take years for Callie to work this out and this story only covers six months.) the ending feels just a bit incomplete.  I want some sort of reconciliation between Callie and her mother.

I wish this book had been around when I was younger.  Callie, Anne, Laura, and I would have been the best of friends despite differences in time, location, and fictionality.  There's just a bit of mild language (which I note only so I remember not to recommend the book to my ultra-ultra-sensitive students).  The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate is a well-written and thoroughly enjoyable book.  

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Review: Across a Star-Swept Sea by Diana Peterfreund

Across a Star-Swept Sea--Diana Peterfreund
October 2013 by Balzer +  Bray
464 pages--Goodreads

Centuries after wars nearly destroyed civilization, the two islands of New Pacifica stand alone, a terraformed paradise where even the Reduction—the devastating brain disorder that sparked the wars—is a distant memory. Yet on the isle of Galatea, an uprising against the ruling aristocrats has turned deadly. The revolutionaries’ weapon is a drug that damages their enemies’ brains, and the only hope is rescue by a mysterious spy known as the Wild Poppy.

On the neighboring island of Albion, no one suspects that the Wild Poppy is actually famously frivolous aristocrat Persis Blake. The teenager uses her shallow, socialite trappings to hide her true purpose: her gossipy flutternotes are encrypted plans, her pampered sea mink is genetically engineered for spying, and her well-publicized new romance with handsome Galatean medic Justen Helo… is her most dangerous mission ever.

Though Persis is falling for Justen, she can’t risk showing him her true self, especially once she learns he’s hiding far more than simply his disenchantment with his country’s revolution and his undeniable attraction to the silly socialite he’s pretending to love. His darkest secret could plunge both islands into a new dark age, and Persis realizes that when it comes to Justen Helo, she’s not only risking her heart, she’s risking the world she’s sworn to protect.

In this thrilling adventure inspired by The Scarlet Pimpernel, Diana Peterfreund creates an exquisitely rendered world where nothing is as it seems and two teens with very different pasts fight for a future only they dare to imagine.

I am so impressed by this novel.  After being a bit disappointed by For Darkness Shows the Stars, I was worried that Across a Star-Swept Sea would follow suit.  No worries!  It takes everything that For Darkness did right and builds on it.

First, the setting is perfect.  It's an excellent adaptation of the source material.  Peterfreund takes the class system of the first book and fits it to the framework of the French revolution.  The the reduction was cured a few centuries ago, but there is still class tension between the aristos and regs.  In Galatea those tensions erupt into a Reign of Terror with people being reduced rather than guillotined.  Fervor blinds the revolutionaries to the cruelty of their actions until they care only for revenge against the aristos and those who support them for all their crimes and their fathers' crimes and their fathers' fathers' crimes.  In Albion things are more stable, but those tensions still exist.  Some aristos are fair stewards; others are not.  And whispers of revolution from discontented regs threaten destabilize a regency government.

And the fact that Justen invented the reduction drug (albeit by accident) is a great adaptation of Marguerite's accidental betrayal in the original.  Basically, I just love good adaptations.  The ones that bring out the most important parts of the original and adapting those conflicts into a new setting.  The ones that stay true to the core of the characters while bringing out something new and interesting about them.

In that light, Persis is so annoying, and I mean that in the best possible way.  Her disguise requires her to act in a manner WAY below her intellect.  It drove me crazy how she had to hold back her complicated opinions about politics, gender relations, and social equality.  I hated every time Justen thought of her as a spoiled idiot.  It is so perfect for this story and the tension it needs.  I was a bit worried about this aspect of the adaptation--there is a big difference between a fop and a shallow socialite woman--but Peterfreund pulls it off masterfully, causing even Justen, the oh-so-enlightend, to question his gender assumption.

I know it wouldn't fit the story, but I wish we could see more of Persis' parents.  Dealing with an Alzheimer's-like condition would be both a fascinating, though tragic, plot line.  Persis, understandably, wants to ignore what was happening to her mother, but I want to see more exploration of that situation.

I only have a couple of complaints.  First, the multiple perspectives get a bit confusing at times.  For the story Peterfreund is telling, we do need to see from multiple characters' perspectives, but there isn't quite enough cuing as to when we switch perspectives.  I don't need a label slapped on each section, but it needs to be clear in the first sentence who's talking.  Sometimes it takes nearly a paragraph before we know who is narrating.

Second, I know most people were excited to see them again, but Elliot, Kai, and the rest of their group feel out of place in this story. There would have been better ways to lure the Poppy into a trap (for example, Remy getting captured) without pulling these characters in so late in the game.  And then the ending itself is just a bit too sudden.  Minor qualms, but still.

Across a Star-Swept Sea is excellent, both as its own story and as as a retelling of The Scarlet Pimpernel.  I need to go rewatch the movie now.  If you haven't read For Darkness, don't let that stop you from reading Across a Star-Swept Sea.  It's more of a companion novel than a sequel and can stand on its own.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Review: Legend by Marie Lu

Legend--Marie Lu
November 2011 by Putnam Juvenile
320 pages--Goodreads

What was once the western United States is now home to the Republic, a nation perpetually at war with its neighbors. Born into an elite family in one of the Republic's wealthiest districts, fifteen-year-old June is a prodigy being groomed for success in the Republic's highest military circles. Born into the slums, fifteen-year-old Day is the country's most wanted criminal. But his motives may not be as malicious as they seem.

From very different worlds, June and Day have no reason to cross paths - until the day June's brother, Metias, is murdered and Day becomes the prime suspect. Caught in the ultimate game of cat and mouse, Day is in a race for his family's survival, while June seeks to avenge Metias's death. But in a shocking turn of events, the two uncover the truth of what has really brought them together, and the sinister lengths their country will go to keep its secrets.

Full of nonstop action, suspense, and romance, this novel is sure to move readers as much as it thrills. 

A bunch of my students love this series, so I figured I'd check Legend out.  Sadly, it was not as good as I had hoped it would be.  

I think I've finally figured out why most of the dystopian novels published in the last few years disappoint me:  they tend to use dystopia as a setting rather than as a social critique.  When I read a dystopia, I want the novel to hold up a mirror to our own world, to show the dangerous potential of where we could go, or to exaggerate our society's flaws so we can more easily see how they are problematic.  Books like Legend just use dystopia as a cool setting where the young heroes can be pitted against impossible odds.  That's just not as compelling to me.  

Additionally, the world building is too sparse.  Even ignoring the lack of social commentary, the setting is vague.  We never see how or why the Republic is a dystopia; we just have to take the synopsis's word that it is.  I need to see how the government is repressive.  What do they do that is so awful?  Since no one knows about the plague cause, that isn't enough.  What started the war between the Republic and the Colonies?  What happened to the United States to cause it to break  into factions?  Why would people start revolting at Day's arrest?  He's not a Robin Hood or a Mockingjay figure, and there's almost no evidence of repression, so the riot seems to exist solely to prick June's conscience.  More detail about the world will probably be revealed later in the series, that's too late.  You can surprise me later, but you must sell me on the world in the first book. 

INSTALOVE.  Seriously?  A military girl working undercover and a rebel criminal living on the streets should both be much much much slower to trust and should not start making out with each other a day after they meet each other.  I can accept descriptions of Day's gorgeous eyes and June's stunning beauty.  I'll just roll my eyes and move on.  But their relationship is way to serious given the time frame. 

June and Day's personalities and voices are not distinct.  Aside from their differing circumstances, either character could be narrating at any given time.  If you are going to use two first-person narrators, their voices need to be clearly different from each other.  As similar as the two characters are, they should not be identical. 

Lu gets points for allowing Day to be vulnerable enough to cry, but those points are cancelled out by Day telling June, "Sorry.  I couldn't help it," to explain why he kissed her.  You'd better help it, Bucko.  Even if you are not in control of your feelings, you are certainly in control of your actions.  Words on even the hazy end of the victim-blaming spectrum are not romantic.

Despite all it's flaws, Legend is a decently enjoyable read.  The mysteries, despite the bland world, are intriguing.  The writing is fast-paced.  The plot is exciting, and the book draws you in from the first line.  Legend gets a low 3.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

End of Year 2013 Book Survey

Happy 2014!  I had a great year in books and in life.  I started teaching, which is why my posting has gotten spotty, and overall it's going well.  I love my kids (most of the time).  It's definitely a challenge, but there are moments that make it all worth while.  Despite being busy with teaching, I've been able to fit in a lot of good books.  Here are some of the highlights.  Thanks to Jamie over at The Perpetual Page Turner for the survey questions. 

1. Best Book You Read In 2013?
This is a tie between Okay for Now by Gary Schmidt and Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys.  They're both beautifully and powerfully written with characters that you love and root for as they endure all this crap.  Okay for Now is also sweet and funny, so I think it wins, but only by a little bit.

2. Book You Were Excited About and Thought You Were Going To Love More But Didn’t?
The Fault in Our Stars by John Green.  I know that by saying that, I'm signing up to be chased by a pitchfork-carrying mob full of feels.  I heard so much hype about it from so many people, that by the time I read it there was no way it could live up to its reputation.

3. Most surprising (in a good way!) book of 2013? 
Either Bomb by Steve Sheinkin or How They Croaked by Georgia Bragg.  These are both non-fiction, which is a genre I don't usually enjoy.  I read Bomb because it received so many awards, but I was surprised at how compelling of a narrative it presented.  How They Croaked is quirky and a delightfully gruesome book for reluctant readers.

4. Book you read in 2013 that you recommended to people most in 2013?
Definitely, Okay for Now.  I finished it and went to school the next day and recommended it to all my kids, and most everyone else too.

5. Best series you discovered in 2013?
The League of Princes by Christopher Healey (aka The Hero's Guide to...).  I'm a sucker for fairy tale retellings, and these are just hilarious.  They delve into the oft ignored stories of the Prince Charmings with fabulous, funny characters.

6. Favorite new author you discovered in 2013?
Christopher Paul Curtis.  I know he's not a new author, but I rediscovered his writing this year while reading The Watsons Go to Birmingham--1963 and realized that I really like his style.  
Honorable mention goes to Ruta Sepetys, Merrie Haskel, Jane Nickerson, and Terry Pratchet.

7. Best book that was out of your comfort zone or was a new genre for you?
Monster by Walter Dean Meyers.  I don't read a lot of realistic fiction, particularly about inner city kids, but this book had me on the edge of my seat as it approached the end of the trial.

8. Most thrilling, unputdownable book in 2013?
Airborn by Kenneth Oppel.  Sky pirates.  End of story.

9. Book You Read In 2013 That You Are Most Likely To Re-Read Next Year?
The Fault in Our Stars. I want to give it a second chance now that I can approach it with more reasonable expectations.

10. Favorite cover of a book you read in 2013?

This cover is gorgeous in person.  I love scroll work.

11. Most memorable character in 2013?
Monsieur Bernard from
Strands of Bronze and Gold by Jane Nickerson.  Bernard's true, abusive self is revealed so gradually, it's chilling.  Honorable mention goes to Death from The Book Thief by Markus Zuzak.

12. Most beautifully written book read in 2013?
Okay for Now.  Schmidt weaves Audubon's paintings in with the narrative excellently.

13. Book that had the greatest impact on you in 2013?
Between Shades of Gray.  It is both depressing and inspiring.  And I didn't know anything at all about the Russian concentration camps.

14. Book you can’t believe you waited until 2013 to finally read?
American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang.

15. Favorite Passage/Quote From A Book You Read In 2013?
"I've seen so many young men over the years who think they're running at other young men. They are not. They are running at me." -- Death, The Book Thief

"The element of surprise can offer a hero great advantage in battle. The element of oxygen - also important." -- The Hero's Guide to Storming the Castle by Christopher Healey.

"The purpose of a storyteller is is not to tell you how to think, but to give you questions to think on." -- Wit, The Way of Kings

16. Shortest & Longest Book You Read In 2013?
Shortest--Rapunzel's Revenge and Calamity Jack by Shannon Hale tie at 144 pages

Longest--The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson 1007 pages

17. Book That Had A Scene In It That Had You Reeling And Dying To Talk To Somebody About It?
Scarlet by Marissa Meyer.  The grandmother scene.  Just.  Aaaaaahhhh!

18. Favorite Relationship From A Book You Read In 2013.
Family--Catherine and David in Rules by Cynthia Lord

Friends--Prince Gustav and Prince Frederic from The Hero's Guide to Saving Your Kingdom by Christopher Healey
Romantic--Miri and Peder in Palace of Stone by Shannon Hale

19. Favorite Book You Read in 2013 From An Author You’ve Read Previously.
I've already talked about Okay for Now a lot, so I'll say Steelheart by Brandon Sanderson.

20. Best Book You Read In 2013 That You Read Based SOLELY On A Recommendation From Somebody Else:
The Watsons Go to Birmingham--1963 and 
The Emerald Atlas by John Stephens.

21. Genre You Read The Most From in 2013?
Without question, fantasy.  Fairy tale retellings ranks up there pretty high too.

22. Newest fictional crush from a book you read in 2013?
I don't crush on fictional boys anymore, but if I had to choose, I'd go with Peder from Palace of Stone.  He's like the Gilbert Blythe of fantasy.

23. Best 2013 debut you read?
Strands of Bronze and Gold.  So creepy.

24. Most vivid world/imagery in a book you read in 2013?
The Way of Kings.  Brandon Sanderson is a master of world building.

25. Book That Was The Most Fun To Read in 2013?
Airborn and 
How they Croaked.

26. Book That Made You Cry Or Nearly Cry in 2013?

Okay for Now.  Actual tears running down my face.  Also Freak the Mighty by Rodman Philbrick, which was a bit of a problem since at the time I was trying to teach it to my 7th graders.

27. Book You Read in 2013 That You Think Got Overlooked This Year Or When It Came Out?

Have you guessed yet?  Okay for Now.

1. One Book You Didn’t Get To In 2013 But Will Be Your Number 1 Priority in 2014?
Code Name Veirty by Elizabeth Wein.  I got this for my classroom library, but before I could read it one of my students checked it out and two others put their names on a waiting list.  As soon as they finish with it, I will read it.

2. Book You Are Most Anticipating For 2014 (non-debut)?
Cress by Marissa Meyer.  Prince Kai and Queen Levana and Cinder and dfaljkkdsfaa!!!!  I have to know what happens!

3. 2014 Debut You Are Most Anticipating?
Sekret by Lindsay Smith.  Spies and psychics and the KGB.

4. Series Ending You Are Most Anticipating in 2014?
I don't think any of the series I'm following end this year, so I'll list The Princess Curse by Merrie Haskell because it needs a sequel.  I need to know more about Reveka's awesome underworld powers.

5. One Thing You Hope To Accomplish Or Do In Your Reading/Blogging In 2014?
I want to read with greater variety.  I was doing a better job of this before school started.  Now I read whatever I'm in the mood for, can finish quickly, or have in my classroom library.  This leads to me reverting to my favorite genres.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Review: Scarlet by A. C. Gaughen

Scarlet--A. C. Gaughen
February 2012 by Walker Children's
292 pages--Goodreads

Posing as one of Robin Hood’s thieves to avoid the wrath of the evil Thief Taker Lord Gisbourne, Scarlet has kept her identity secret from all of Nottinghamshire. Only the Hood and his band know the truth: the agile thief posing as a whip of a boy is actually a fearless young woman with a secret past. Helping the people of Nottingham outwit the corrupt Sheriff of Nottingham could cost Scarlet her life as Gisbourne closes in.

It’s only her fierce loyalty to Robin—whose quick smiles and sharp temper have the rare power to unsettle her—that keeps Scarlet going and makes this fight worth dying for.

Aaarg!!  This book was such a disappointment.  I wanted Scarlet to be an awesome adventure about the girl hiding in plain sight among the Merry Men.  I wanted to know where she came from and why she was hiding from Gisbourne and how she got so good at knife throwing and why she dressed up like a man and why she joined Robin's group and how she hid her identity from the world.  Basically I wanted an Alanna-esque character inserted into the Robin Hood mythology.

Of all the stories that didn't need a stupid, stupid love triangle!  This could have been such a good book with knife throwing and daring escapes and hangings.  But instead, we spent the whole book listening to Robin, John, and Scarlet angst about who would get together with whom, completely ignoring the more important and deadly things going on.  Yes, Alanna had a love triangle too, but the adventure and the fate of the kingdom always came first.  The external plot or internal non-romantic conflict in a novel will always be more interesting to me than romantic angst.

And the best part of the awful unnecessary romance:  Robin, who never said a word to John about sleeping around, calls Scarlet a "whore" for accepting a little comfort in a moment when she is scared and injured and in shock.  And his reason for doing this?  "Hurting you is the best way I know to punish myself."  What kind of messed up crap is that?!  That statement is so close to justification for domestic abuse, I can't believe it made the final cut into the novel.  We'll just log it away with Carosel's If-he loves-you-it-doesn't-hurt-when-he-hits-you message.

The slightly less annoying or unsettling problems in the novel include:

  • The trust timeline was unrealistic.  Scarlet had been working with Robin and company for almost two years before the book gets started, and she didn't trust them at all.  Then, once we finish the first few chapters, she suddenly trusts them.  Because reasons.
  • Robin needs to be an adult.  Otherwise, the myth loses a lot of its significance.  Robin has to be a man when he returns from the crusades to find his lands seized and his people starving.  You can't blame a mere boy for letting his people down, but Robin the man has to accept that responsibility.  If you're going to make Robin a teenager, you better have a very good reason for doing it, and angst is not a good enough reason.

Scarlet was so disappointing, and yet frustratingly addictive.  I couldn't stop reading, even though I didn't like it.  This book sullies the good name of Scarlet.  Go read a good Scarlet instead where Marissa Meyer proves that a romantic sub plot can enhance rather than completely derail the main plot.


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