Book Review: A Great and Terrible Beauty

I've been a member of Random House's site Teens@Random for a little more than two months. In that time, I've completed a whole host of activities to earn points toward free books. These activities tend to be fun and creative. I truly enjoy participating in them. Once you earn several thousand points, which doesn't take very long, you can use those points to "purchase" books from the Random Store.

One of my most recent acquisitions is Libba Bray's novel A Great and Terrible Beauty. I'd seen this novel and the other two books in the series around for several years, but did not buy it because of the cover. For some reason, the cover did not appeal to me. What I had failed to do was actucally read the description of the book. Far from the romantic historical fiction novel I was expecting, A Great and Terrible Beauty is pure fantasy, complete with witchy characters and other-world mysteries.

This is a great read. It does have a touch of historical ficiton to it, but that history is mostly about the treatment and social expectations of young girls during the late 1800's in England. This historical content only serves to make a more realistic, enjoyable read because you are truly able to understand the confined world in which the main characters live. So, when these girls stumble upon a parallel world where they are as powerful and brave as they choose, it is easy to understand why they feel so liberated and want to stay in that world.

The short chapters and plot twists make for an exciting read, as does the increasing connection between the dead and the living. I was absolutely riveted while reading this book and did not want to put it down. I am happy that I finally decided to give this book a chance and now plan to order the next two books in the series ASAP!

Book Review: Incarceron

Catherine Fisher's new series Incarceron is a futuristic nightmare where no one seems to be having a happy or peaceful life. The two worlds portrayed in this novel--the prison underworld called Incarceron and the "outside" world--are dystopic and dysfunctional in there own ways. Incarceron is basically a huge prison world, where one of the main characters, Finn, grows up. Finn desperately wants to flee Incarceron, but is unsure and unable to break through the think metal walls.

On the other side of those walls lives the other main character, Claudia. She is the privileged daughter of Incarceron's warden and live relatively comfortably in her artificial 17th century world. The outside is kept as simple as life was in the 1600's by computers and technology. Why? So that people are kept working hard and are unable to revolt against their repressive government.

Though Claudia and Finn lead very different lives, they are united in the fact that they are trying to break free of the restraints of their respective environments. So, when they each find a crystal key and are able to communicate with each other, they form a friendship and a common mission--to break down the walls of Incarceron.

This review counts toward my participation in the 2010 Dystopian Lit Challenge.

On My Wishlist: Return to Sender

I have always loved Julia Alvarez. I have read several of her adult novels and I've taught her young adult novel Before We Were Free a few times. I find her writing to be a bit magical and her use of language is powerful. Here is a synopsis of why Alvarez wrote Return to Sender from her website:

The seed for the novel came when I got involved translating at local schools for the children of Mexican migrant workers who have now made their way up to Vermont. (And boosted our compromised Latino population!) These workers are now doing the milking on many of our dairy farms. Without them, many of our small farmers could not survive, as they, too, are being squeezed by the high cost of farming and a dearth of workers.

Seeing how baffled the Mexican children and their classmates were about how to understand this situation that had thrown us all together, I thought: we need a story to understand what is happening to us! The title comes from a dragnet operation that the Department of Homeland Security conducted in 2006, named, Return to Sender. Work places were raided and undocumented workers were seized. Their children were the biggest casualties of this operation -- left behind to be soothed and reassured until they could be finally reunited with their parents.

Because we do not live anywhere near Mexico, it can be hard for students in my school district to understand the multitude of issues related to immigration. I have lived in the Southwest, though, and know that there are no simple solutions to any of the issues related to immigration. I can't wait to read Return to Sender and to share it with my students!

Dystopian Fiction Reading Challenge 2010

I've already entered all sorts of contests for 2010, but what's one more? Even better, what's one more that I'd probably complete just by reading all of the books I promised to read for other challenges? When I first started teaching, dystopian lit was not my favorite type of read. I think, though, that this was because there was a serious lack of great YA dystopian fiction to be had. Now, there are all kinds of amazing dystopian books out there, some of which are now my favorite books of all time. I love The Hunger Games series, the Uglies series, the Maze Runner, and have now started Chaos Walking series. Chances are good that I'll find more great dystopian YA lit reads as the year progresses.

Here are the specifics of this challenge as designed by Parajunkee:

Time Constraints:
Jan 1 2010 to Aug 24 2010

  1. Open to everyone (if you do not have a blog, just state in the comments section that you read the book and on what date)
  2. Any book format - Wiki list of dystopian lit
  3. Books can be chosen throughout the year, but must have been read within the timeline. Just because your read Fahrenheit 451 in 7th grade doesn't mean it counts.
  4. Sign-up below with Mr. Linky
  5. Post your reviews in the comments area
  6. Three Levels:
  • Level 1 - Experimental - 5 books
  • Level 2 - Addict - 10 books
  • Level 3 - Junkee - 20 books
Level 3 participants will get a dystopian button with their blog or name on it and entry into a contest to win The Hunger Games: Book 3.

Sounds great, right? Well, I've already started reading Incarceron by Catherine Fisher, so that's one title that I'll have read by the end of this week. Judging by my list of 75 YA titles on the right sidebar of this page, I have lots of other selections that will qualify as dystopian lit. I should at least earn the title of "addict" by the time the year is out!

Book Review: Playing With Matches

Playing With Matches is sorta like a story I've heard before, and sorta like nothing I've ever heard before. It's the story of a dorky kid named Leon, who catches himself yelling at his new locker-neighbor, Melody, a girl whose face was horribly disfigured by an explosion when she a little girl. Now, Melody is the brunt of many bad jokes and is a total outcast. As you could predict, Leon starts up a friendship with Melody and they start to date, him realizing that she's a great girl despite her ruined face.

And, if you guessed this much, you probably know that there's a popular, beautiful girl who Leon wishes he was dating. Of course, this girl doesn't know Leon is alive until he starts dating Melody. Then, it's all she can do to stop from falling all over Leon. Sorta. Once this oft-told plot is set into motion, Leon will have two girls to choose from: the perfectly unattainable cheerleader type, or the perfectly attainable dorky girl.

This is a pretty typical plot line is made a little less predictable by Melody's character. I feel in love with her faster than Leon. She was strong, smart, sly, and sexy in her own way. It did not take her long to feel like a real person to me; she was not a stock character at all. In fact, she was probably the most dynamic character in the whole book. I wanted to know her. She was that cool. Unfortunately, Leon takes too long to realize what I saw from the start: face or no face, she is the best girlfriend a teen guy who like nerdy movies and music could have.

Even if this book is a little predictable, I found myself reading it at a fast clip. If you're in the mood to awaken your inner nerd, or if you're just nerdy by nature, this might be a great book for you!

Book Review: After by Amy Efaw

I have to admit that I was a little nervous to read Amy Efaw's After. I had written a grant to get a couple of sets of books for the Chick Lit Book Club and had it funded without even reading the book. I'm not used to assigning or giving out books to students without reading them first, and this book has some pretty disturbing subject matter.

From what I'd read online, I knew that the main character in this book was a teen girl who hid her pregnancy, birthed her baby in secret, and then disposed of the baby in a dumpster. Obviously, this was going to be an intense read no matter what type of spin the author put on the plot. My fear, though, was that this book would come across as offensive or as making light of the situation. Almost as soon as I started reading, I realized that this was not the case.

The main character, Devon, is obviously disturbed mentally and emotionally by her situation. When the story opens, Devon truly has no recollection of giving birth or of putting her child into a dumpster. She is medically unstable and requires hospitalization to recover before she arrested for her crime. Always the perfect student and athlete, Devon does not comprehend her new reality. Over the course of a couple of weeks, though, her hard-nosed attorney helps her to understand the weight of her situation. If tried as an adult, Devon could spend the rest of her life in jail.

I loved Efaw's pace in this novel. She doesn't try to cover the entirety of Devon's situation. We only see a small slice of Devon's life and trial, but we see huge growth in her character during this short time. Though this crime is vile and unforgivable, the author allows some insight as to why teen girls like Devon might avoid reality and hide the truth from their families and friends. According to the author, this type of crime happens almost daily in our country, which was definitely news to me. Once I realized how often this horrific crime is committed, I knew that this book needed to be read by our book club. Hopefully, we'll find a way to talk about this book and this situation in a way that will benefit the Chicks!

On Stage: Zora Neale Hurston's Spunk

Last night, I was lucky enough to catch a last dress rehearsal viewing of the Penobscot Theatre Company's Spunk, which is a stage version of Zora Neale Hurston's classic short story collection of the same name. I had never been to this theater before and I had never seen Spunk on stage, so I didn't know what to expect.

It was amazing. Truly. The theater was gorgeous and the seats were comfy. The stage was inviting and warm and the set was simple but dynamic enough to allow for scenes set in Florida and New York. The acting and singing were brilliant. There were times during this performance that I was literally clapping and bouncing in my seat. It had that Sunday morning church service effect on me.

The subject matter of these stories, though, is anything but Sunday morning. There's lots of lovin' and pimpin' and flirtin' goin' on. Issues of domestic violence and extra-martial affairs are also spotlighted. Through it all, though, there is a sense that the problems and issues that are discussed are timeless but not hopeless. Women can grow to find their strength to stand up to abusive husbands. Husbands who have been cheated on can either forgive their wives or leave their wives. Marriages can fail or succeed but life will continue. It is profound and straightforward all at the same time.

If you have an opportunity to visit Bangor, Maine, go to see this play! It runs now through March 7th. Enjoy!

On My Wishlist: The Writer's Block

I'm always looking for games and inspirational writing-prompt type books and materials to have in my classroom for student (and teacher) use. I've known about this little Writer's Block for a long, long time now, but it's been too expensive for me to purchase. I just have this moral sort of boundary about spending money on extra items that I probably won't really use too much in my classroom. This is a weird bit of morality, since I'm fine with spending all sorts of money on young adult titles and poetry and silly things like fancy magnets and markers and glitter. But, there's no way I'm spending ten bucks on a little Writer's Block! That would be crazy! Well, now that this cute little idea-packed block is listed for .68 cents, I think it's high time I purchased it.

Book Review: Tamar

Mal Peet's novel Tamar: A Novel of Espionage, Passion, and Betrayal is a bit like a more realistic version of the movie Intolerable Basterds with a bit of Richard Russo's Empire Falls. Kind of a weird combination, but I promise you that this is a stunning piece of fiction. It reads like a movie and is gripping in its back and forth between the 1940's and the 1990's.

Tamar is the name of a river in England, but in this story it is also the undercover name of a resistance fighter who's working undercover in the Netherlands during the Nazi occupation of the 1940's. Tamar the man is handsome, smart, and a great spy. He is stationed in a small farming village and is living with a woman named Marikje, who becomes his lover and confidant. Their love is kept secret, which is an effort to keep them safe from attention.

Fast forward fifty years to the story of a fifteen year-old girl named Tamar. Her beloved grandfather insisted on this strange name before she was born. After he commits suicide, he leaves a box with money, maps, old photographs, and some mysterious clues. Apparently, his last wish to her is that she embark upon a journey. Tamar does so, with the help of her cousin Yoyo. What she finds illuminates a dark period in her grandfather's past and helps connect her to her father.

This is a captivating read. It is lengthy, but well-crafted. The characters feel real and fresh--not cookie-cut out of history books. If you have an interest in WWII, this book may be right for you!

Masterpiece Theater: Jane Austen's Emma

I've read Jane Austen's classic Emma, and enjoyed it, but there is nothing like seeing the new Masterpiece Theater version of this tale. This movie was a mere four hours long, but I wanted it to go on and on. I was simply taken with this film. It was brilliant.

What made me love this version of Emma so well? The casting was amazing. The young woman who played Emma was stunning. She exuded the same sort of fresh naïveté as I imagined while reading the original text. She was beautiful, but did not seem full of herself. And Mr. Knightly. Oh my. I was fully in love with by the end of the first hour. I could have listened to him in his manly seriousness for many, many more hours than PBS had to offer! He was handsome and charming and Emma really, really upset me for not realizing what an absolute gem he was until the very end. Uggh! Just as frustrating as in the book.

If you're at all a fan of Jane Austen or even just like watching "period" films, you should definitely check this out. The landscaping and the architecture and costumes are so well made and filmed. I truly wanted to jump through my TV and take a stroll through the gardens or try on a dress or two. It was that beautiful. I promise that your four hours will not be wasted!

You, too, can watch Emma!

On My Wishlist: IraqiGirl

Though most of the students I currently teach were just little munchkins when 9/11 and the ensuing Iraq War broke out, it seems like they don't quite understand all that this war has meant for the Iraqi people. (Not that I do either.) I would love to know more about the ways in which this war has affected Iraqi teens who, like my students, were little kids when this war started. Basically, many teens in today's Iraq have grown up in a war zone.

When I find books like IraqiGirl: Diary of a Teenage Girl in Iraq, I am excited by the possibility of opening my live of vision and my students' to a world that (for me at least) is hard to imagine. I think it's one thing to watch the nightly news and read Time magazine, but it's another to listen to the words of a teenager who's grown up with the destruction and uncertainty of war. I know that when I read books, I am able to create a movie in my head much more so than with a magazine article or a news clip. I look forward to reading this book and learning more from this brave young woman.

Book Review: Response

Paul Volponi's Response starts with an African American teen being beaten with a baseball bat by a group of white teens. Why were Noah, the main character, and his friends in a white neighborhood? Because they wanted to steal a car and send it off to a chop shop. Did the teens who attacked Noah and his two friends know that they planned on stealing a car? No. Therefore, the white teens, who beat Noah and his friends and shouted racial epithets, were charged with a hate crime.

The wonder of this story is that there is so much to think about. The plot is fairly simple, but raises all sorts of moral and ethical questions. Unfortunately, there are all kinds of real-world connections that can be made between this book and actual hate crimes that have happened in recent years. This book reads so realistically that it feels like it could be true. This is a great book for anyone interested in justice and equality. I know that I'll be thinking about it for a long, long time to come!

Book Review: The Killer's Cousin

When I found The Killer's Cousin by Nancy Werlin at my local bookstore, I had already read two Werlin books. One I loved and one was a little disappointing. I didn't know which category this title would fall under, but I purchased it because it had won the Edgar Award. The Edgar Award is given to books that are mysterious and creepy, and when I picked up The Killer's Cousin I was feeling like I needed some creep in my life.

For me, this read went super fast. I love a good whodunit story and this was a good one. For some reason, the narrator had me under his spell and I really felt for him. I wanted everything to work out for him and the other characters were sufficiently weird and obnoxious enough to make me worry for him. Here's the basic plot:

David Yaffe just went through the worst experience of his teen life. He was accused of killing his beloved girlfriend. He tries to escape the media headlines and accusing stares of his hometown by relocating to Cambridge, Massachusetts to live with his aunt, uncle, and cousin Lilly. Like David, this little family has had its fair share of grief. Their oldest daughter, Kathy, committed suicide just a year or two before David's arrival.

David is happy to blend into the attic apartment, but his cousin Lilly is not happy he's come to live with them. She starts to invade his privacy, is extremely rude and downright mean when he's around. It is obvious that Lilly is running things and doesn't want David to screw up the control that she has over her parents. When David starts seeing the ghost of his cousin Kathy, he realizes that her suicide might have been a cover-up for a much more disturbing crime.

I read this book in a few short hours. The Edgar Award was definitely not wasted on this read!

On My Wishlist: Poem in Your Pocket

Every April, National Poetry Month comes around and I get an excuse to be an out-and-out poetry dork. There are all kinds of great poetry promotions that happen in April, but the coolest and funnest is definitely Poem In Your Pocket Day. On this day, you can print out or write out a poem and carry it around in your pocket all day. I've used this celebration in my classroom with my students and it has been enormously successful.

Now, to add to this most excellent celebration, there is a Poem In Your Pocket book. This book is a collection of poems that you can carry year round. These poems in this book can literally be ripped out and put in your pocket. I can think of no better item to land in my pocket than a poem. So, I know I need to take this great book off my wishlist before this April. I'll post more about National Poetry Month before April comes along.