Thursday, October 22, 2015

Marieke Nijkamp - THIS IS WHERE IT ENDS

Author: Marieke Nijkamp

Title: This Is Where It Ends

Genre: Contemporary YA, Realistic YA

Grade Level: 12th grade

Topics: School shootings, trauma, violence, death

Summary: 10:00 a.m.
The principal of Opportunity, Alabama's high school finishes her speech, welcoming the entire student body to a new semester and encouraging them to excel and achieve.

10:02 a.m.
The students get up to leave the auditorium for their next class.

10:03
The auditorium doors won't open.

10:05
Someone starts shooting.

Told over the span of 54 harrowing minutes from four different perspectives, terror reigns as one student's calculated revenge turns into the ultimate game of survival.

What stood out to me about this book: This book is harrowing and I dare anyone to feel "okay" after reading this. This is very much a book about trauma and loss, but it is also a book about characters dealing with acute crisis. At it's heart, This Is Where It Ends is a book about character relationships. Told from a diverse cast of characters' point of view, it shows how everyone has a reason to fear the boy with the gun.

Things that might upset people who rate movies: To say that this book deals with trigger issues is the understatement of the century. This book is incredibly visceral and will make you feel uncomfortable. This definitely does not go on anyone's comfort reads list, but it is an incredibly powerful, and important, read.

I would recommend this book to: Anyone looking for a book that honestly deals with the issue of school shootings and the trauma everyone deals with while going through this experience.

Overall Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Emily M. Danforth - THE MISEDUCATION OF CAMERON POST

Author: Emily M. Danforth

Title: The Miseducation of Cameron Post

Genre: Grade and 9 and up
Summary: Cameron Post feels a mix of guilt and relief when her parents die in a car accident. Their deaths mean they will never learn the truth she eventually comes to—that she's gay. Orphaned, Cameron comes to live with her old-fashioned grandmother and ultraconservative aunt Ruth. There she falls in love with her best friend, a beautiful cowgirl. When she’s eventually outed, her aunt sends her to God’s Promise, a religious conversion camp that is supposed to “cure” her homosexuality. At the camp, Cameron comes face to face with the cost of denying her true identity.
Writing: At 485 pages, The Miseducation of Cameron Post clocks in pretty hefty for a contemporary (or at least semi-contemporary) YA. The story takes us to 1992 Montana where Cameron Post experiences her first kiss - with a girl - the very day her parents die in a car accident. Although the writing seems a bit slow and languishing at times, it really captures the tone, particularly when it comes to the overbearing influence of religion on Cameron's life. Danforth's writing is critical and honest, but at the same time avoids judging as she attempts to shed a more holistic light on growing up gay in a time in a restrictive society.

Characters: By herself, Cameron is probably not the most interesting character, but rather, what makes her so intriguing are the circumstances, and characters she lives with and how she chooses to fit in, while at the same time not fitting in at all. Some of the characters around Cameron veer at the edge of being cardboard cut-outs - until they completely subvert the stereotype and aren't what they seem to be at all.

What stood out to me about this book: I loved the authentic "90s feel" of this book. It's really well grounded in the time and world, but Cameron Post's character is easy to identify with for basically anyone. She could be any girl at any school, even though this one is specifically set in the West. Cameron's character is complex and her struggles feel real and still applicable to today's world, even though the story is set more than twenty years ago.
The book takes some commitment as it's a bit slow going; if you are looking for high octane action and explosions, look elsewhere. The Miseducation of Cameron Post is for those who struggle with not fitting in, social expectations and family conflicts. It's very much a character- and conflict-driven novel.

Things that might upset people who rate movies: 
There are definitely some trigger issues in here. This is not a swear-y book, but there is a lot of trauma, both related to family and to religion, in these pages. The book deals with mental health issues related to being LGBT, hate speech, and homophobia.

I would recommend this book to: Anyone struggling with not fitting in, LGBT students and those looking for books about diverse characters told from diverse perspectives. This is book isn't for you if you want all of your stories to be fast-paced and lacking character depth.

Overall Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Elizabeth Wein - CODE NAME VERITY

Author: Elizabeth Wein

Title: Code Name Verity

Genre: Historical Fiction

Grade Level: 9 and up

Summary:  
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 and failure and her desperate hope to make it home. But will trading her secrets be enough to save her from the enemy?

Book Trailer

Favorite Lines: "It's like being in love, discovering your best friend."

"What changes a small boy from a bird-watcher into a Gestapo inquisitor?"

Writing: Code Name Verity is a first-person stream of conscious novel, whose first half is narrated by "Verity", before her friend Maddie takes over for the last half. The writing itself is both harrowing and beautiful, full of historical detail (bonus points for colloquially and historically correct German usage) and really sucks the reader into this tale of  friendship and oppression, turning pages trying to figure out the truth behind all of this and how this story can possibly end well.

Characters: What makes Code Name Verity so intriguing among other things is that although it's Verity's story, it also isn't her story at all as her pilot friend Maddie seems to feature prominently in her account of the events that led up to her capture in Nazi-occupied France. Let's just say that these two very compelling, strong protagonists are laying plenty of twists and turns into their narrative that make the reader unable not to like those two outwardly very unlikely friends.

Plot: Code Name Verity is a tale about women in WWII. It's about female spies, women pilots and girls who gun down airplanes to protect their country. The plot is rich in historical detail and really transplants the reader into WWII Britain and France. Verity and Maddie are two unlikely friends who find each other in one of the most dangerous time periods, but together they face unspeakable horrors, but also encounter lots of good in their travels. The plot seems to meander at times, but ultimately holds stunning twists and turns that kept me turning the pages. 

Things that would upset people who rate movies: Along with language and mentions of sexual abuse, there are scenes of violence, torture and content that is probably not suitable for younger students.

Ways for teachers to share this book with students: Code Name Verity absolutely lends itself to a unit on WWII, specifically the role of women in "men's professions" and the military. It is full of historical details about warfare, background of the allies, particularly Britain and Nazi-occupied France. It would also make a great book to compare and contrast to other historical YA like Markus Zusak's The Book Thief and even classics like Anne Frank's Diary of a Young Girl.

I would recommend this book to: Code Name Verity is a must-read for anyone interested in WWII history and the role of women in the military. You will like this if you enjoy spy stories as well as historical fiction. I would absolutely recommend it to anyone who liked Markus Zusak's The Book Thief as it in a way represents the other side of the war.

What really stood out about this book: Although there is plenty literature about WWII, we seldom read about the role of women in the war, especially their role in the military. Code Name Verity combines harrowing tales of WWII with exciting and twisted stories about female pilots and spies.

Overall rating: 5 of 5 stars


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Harper Lee - TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD


Author: Harper Lee

Title: To Kill A Mockingbird

Genre: Classic Literature, Realistic YA

Grade Level: 9 and up

Summary: 
"Shoot all the bluejays you want, if you can hit 'em, but remember it's a sin to kill a mockingbird." 
A lawyer's advice to his children as he defends the real mockingbird of Harper Lee's classic novel—a black man charged with the rape of a white girl. Through the young eyes of Scout and Jem Finch, Harper Lee explores with rich humor and unswerving honesty the irrationality of adult attitudes toward race and class in the Deep South of the 1930s. The conscience of a town steeped in prejudice, violence, and hypocrisy is pricked by the stamina and quiet heroism of one man's struggle for justice—but the weight of history will only tolerate so much. (Source: Amazon)
Favorite Lines: 
"Jem and I found our father satisfactory: he played with us, read to us, and treated us with courteous detachment."

"Atticus Finch is the same in his house as he is on the public streets"

"Atticus told me to delete the adjectives and I'd have the facts."

 "Don't eat things you find, Scout."

"It's never an insult to be called what somebody thinks is a bad name. It just shows you how poor that person is, it doesn't hurt you."

"Before Jem looks at anyone else he looks at me, and I've tried to live so I can look squarely back at him...if I connived at something like this, frankly I couldn't meet his eyes, and the day I can't do that I know I've lost him. I don't want to lose him and Scout, because they're all I've got."

Writing: To Kill A Mockingbird is narrated in first person from Scout's perspective. Her narrative is sometimes prone to rambling meandering and yet that's exactly what gives us a more complete picture of the events from her perspective as she tells the events that unfold as she sees them, in a direct, often naive way, always questioning to make sense around the events around her. In Scout's voice, Harper Lee brings the little Alabama town of Maycomb to live and draws several parallels to her own life and upbringing in a tale that not only brings up racism and hate crimes, but more than that questions the good in people that surround you and how sometimes the greatest courage lies in being the same person in one's house as one is on the public streets.

Characters: Aside from Scout, Atticus is probably one of my all-time favorite characters in classic literature. He stands to his word and is just one of those quietly "good" characters people can't help but love, because he does what he does without considering personal gain or without being self-righteous. He does what he does, because it's the right thing to do. It's that simple and yet not simple at all. 

In To Kill A Mockingbird, Harper Lee has created a set of diverse and often completely opposing characters who become foils for innocence at odds with social injustice and overall still retain meaning and importance today as we can still relate to them and their struggles.

Plot: Although Tom Robinson's trial is at the center of the novel, To Kill A Mockingbird is about more than that. It is about Southern life in the 1930's, the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl, racism and hate crimes. It also is about growing up and the loss of innocence, even becoming alienated with the adult world. At all of this, one central question is at the heart of the book: What is right and wrong and how do we live with the consequences of our actions? 

Things that would upset people who rate movies: There is violence, language and off-screen sexual content in this book, but the latter merely refers to the central issue in the trial and in itself isn't graphic.

Ways for teachers to share this book with students: Since To Kill A Mockingbird is essential to many an English curriculum, plenty of smart people have posted many ideas all over the internet on how to teach this book. Personally, I want to stress the importance of making connections and contrasts and relating this novel to our lives today. I will be teaching a unit on this during my student teaching and teach it in connection with Black History Week, including important historical figures as Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks and Malcolm X.

I would recommend this book to: I really do believe this is an essential classic everyone should read.

What really stood out about this book: In my opinion, what makes To Kill A Mockingbird a truly outstanding book is its sheer breath of scope as it seems to encompass life in the South and racism in the mid-1930's, but even though it is now over 50 years old, it still relates to us today as our society still battles inequality and injustices committed against parts of our population, but at the same time it may give us hope by how far we have progressed since the years the novel is set in and how real life characters like Atticus Finch can make all the difference.

Overall rating: 5 of 5 stars


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Markus Zusak - I AM THE MESSENGER

Author: Markus Zusak

Title: I Am The Messenger

Genre: contemporary YA

Grade Level: 9 and up

Summary:  
protect the diamonds
survive the clubs
dig deep through the spades
feel the hearts

Ed Kennedy is an underage cabdriver without much of a future. He's pathetic at playing cards, hopelessly in love with his best friend, Audrey, and utterly devoted to his coffee-drinking dog, the Doorman. His life is one of peaceful routine and incompetence until he inadvertently stops a bank robbery.

That's when the first ace arrives in the mail.

That's when Ed becomes the messenger.

Chosen to care, he makes his way through town helping and hurting (when necessary) until only one question remains: Who's behind Ed's mission? Source: Amazon)
Favorite Lines: 
"(My full name's Ed Kennedy. I'm nineteen. I'm an underage cabdriver. I'm typical of many of the young men you see in this suburban outpost of the city--not a lot of prospects of possibility. That aside, I read more books than I should, and I'm decidedly crap at sex and doing my taxes. Nice to meet you.)" (p. 5)

"This isn't about words. It's about glowing lights and small things that are big" (p. 221)

"Sometimes people are beautiful. Not in looks. Not in what they say. Just in what they are" (p. 224). 

Writing: The writing was probably my favorite part of this book. Markus Zusak just has this incredible knack to bend words into something that seems simple and yet profound at the same time. I Am The Messenger is equal parts irreverent and beautiful. Its characters come off as coarse at times and yet even then manage to be profound, all of which makes I Am The Messenger one of those books that aren't at all what you're expecting and I can't say I always "liked" it, but it certainly stuck with me long after I finished it.

Characters: Admittedly, I didn't always like Ed. I'm thinking that effect may be intentional, because you really sometimes just want to smack him over the head. But still, this doesn't keep you from rooting for him. Same counts for his friends, who sometimes seriously set off my douchebag-o-meter, but in the end there's still a lot that we learn about them as we read. Honorable mention for fluffy, if apparently incredibly stinky, side character goes to Ed's dog The Doorman, who is kind of a solid presence throughout the book and Ed's constant companion.

Plot: I Am The Messenger had me right from the beginning, which opens with a bank robbery gone wrong and Ed and his friends blatantly mocking the incompetence of the gunman who is threatening to shoot them all. It's a bit of a comedy of errors that meanders its way to a life-changing mission for Ed, who finally founds purpose, never mind how unclear said purpose is, in the questionable mission he is sent on presented to him in form of playing cards with cryptic messages. The entire book is a bit on the cryptic side and while that annoyed me at times, it also kept me guessing and ultimately turning the page.

Things that would upset people who rate movies: Violence, swearing, sexual content, this book has it all. If swearing in an Australian accent is not your thing, you may want to stay away from this one.

Ways for teachers to share this book with students: I Am The Messenger probably isn't a book that's very suitable for a whole class, but I would definitely recommend it to draw from for examples of metaphors, symbols and parables as it has plenty of those.

I would recommend this book to: I picked this book up right after reading The Book Thief instilled with the absolute need to read everything Zusak has written. But here is one word of caution: I Am The Messenger is a completely different book, so if you are looking for something similar to The Book Thief, this might not be the way to go. Instead, if you are looking for an engaging, cryptic take on contemporary YA with lots of Australian flair and dysfunctional characters, I Am The Messenger is your book!

What really stood out about this book: To boil it down to one thing: I Am The Messenger is one of those very "different" books. If you are looking for a new take on contemporary YA, this is for you. I also loved the distinctly Australian voice in this and the way that this book is almost, but not quite stream-of-conscious and keeps us guessing until the end.

Overall rating: 4 of 5 stars


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Scott Tracey - WITCH EYES

Author: Scott Tracey

Title: Witch Eyes

Genre: fantasy, paranormal

Grade Level: 7 and up

Summary:  
A boy who can see the world's secrets and unravel spells with just a glance.

Braden's witch eyes give him an enormous power. A mere look causes a kaleidoscopic explosion of emotions, memories, darkness, and magic. But this rare gift is also his biggest curse.

Compelled to learn about his shadowed past and the family he never knew, Braden is drawn to the city of Belle Dam, where he is soon caught between two feuding witch dynasties. Sworn rivals Catherine Lansing and Jason Thorpe will use anything--lies, manipulation, illusion, and even murder--to seize control of Braden's powers. To stop an ancient evil from destroying the town, Braden must master his gift, even through the shocking discovery that Jason is his father. While his feelings for an enigmatic boy named Trey grow deeper, Braden realizes a terrible truth: Trey is Catherine Lansing's son . . . and Braden may be destined to kill him.  (Source: Amazon)
Favorite Lines: "Binding circles were bad news, my uncle said. Since I was currently trapped in one, the word understatement came to mind" (p. 1).

"The aisles rippled around me, and I realized, too late, that the visions were starting. Shapes and colors that shouldn't have existed slipped into my sight as the veil dropped and everything came into focus" (p. 16).
Writing: Witch Eyes is a snarky, fast-paced read with some great visuals. It takes our contemporary world and superimposes a world of rivaling witch families and deadly magic on it. Though the writing seems a tad heavy-handed at times, with lots of dialogue tags and maybe a little low on subtlety, I still really enjoyed Tracey's debut and opening to his forthcoming trilogy.
Characters: Braden is the ultimate outsider. Even before he comes to Bel Dam, he's been homeschooled and friendless and things are bound to rapidly change for him when he comes to this new town, discovers his long-lost father and gets entangled in a family feud that may well turn out deadly for him. Braden is likeable despite, or maybe because of his flaws and I couldn't help but root for him and Trey as I was reading.
Another character who deserves honorable mention are Jade and Thomas, a psychic who soon becomes more than just Braden's tagalong.

Plot: To sum up Witch Eyes, it's basically a gay Romeo and Juliet with witches. If witches and feuding families and some romance layered with fun characters and a good dose of snark are your thing, Witch Eyes is for you. 

Things that would upset people who rate movies: Yes, this is a boy meets boy story. Yes, there is some language and some violence in here, but other than that you're safe. Promise.

Ways for teachers to share this book with students: Witch Eyes is a great modern-day adaptation of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet and lends itself very well to compare to the classic play. You may want to recommend this to students who like Romeo and Juliet and paranormal YA alike.

I would recommend this book to: This is a great book for anyone who likes Romeo and Juliet, but readers of paranormal romance or contemporary YA will enjoy this as well.

What really stood out about this book: What made me pick up this book was its new spin on the classic tale of Romeo and Juliet and its paranormal spin on the story along with the diversity. Ultimately, I got sucked in by Braden's voice in the first couple of pages and by just how dysfunctional his family relationships are.

Overall rating: 4 of 5 stars


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Monday, November 12, 2012

Markus Zusak - THE BOOK THIEF

Zusak, Markus. The Book Thief. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006.

Author: Markus Zusak

Title: The Book Thief

Genre: Historical Fiction, Realistic YA

Grade Level: 7 and up
Summary: It is 1939. Nazi Germany. The country is holding its breath. Death has never been busier, and will become busier still.

By her brother's graveside, Liesel Meminger's life is changed when she picks up a single object, partially hidden in he snow. It is The Grave Digger's Handbook, left there by accident, and it is her first act of book thievery. So begins a love affair with books and words, as Liesel, with the help of her accordion-playing foster father, learns to read. Soon she is stealing books from Nazi book-burnings, the mayor's wife's library, wherever there are books to be found.
But these are dangerous times. When Liesel's foster family hides a Jew in their basement, Liesel's world is both opened and closed down. (Source: back cover)
Favorite Lines: 

"***HERE IS A SMALL FACT***
You are going to die.  

I am in all truthfulness attempting to be cheerful about this whole topic, though most people find themselves hindered in believing me, no matter my protestations. Please, trust me. I most definitely can be cheerful. I can be amiable. Agreeable. Affable. And that's only the A's. Just don't ask me to be nice. Nice has nothing to do with me" (p. 3) 

"It was as though he'd opened her palm, given her the words, and closed it up again" (p. 256). 

"Five hundred souls. 
I carried them in my fingers, like suitcases. Or I'd throw them over my shoulder. It was only the children I carried in my arms" (p. 336). 

Writing: Markus Zusak doesn't sugarcoat anything. He tells this story of Nazi Germany in all its horrifying and heartbreaking detail, in prose that sings through the book in its unusual way with words that often gives us pause, makes us think about how we probably would never have put two or more words together like he does, in a way that's unexpected, that's surprising and yet gets us even closer into Liesel's story. 

Characters: Zusak lures us in immediately by giving The Book Thief a highly unusual narrator--how often do we read a story told by death himself? And given the years this novel spans, death certainly keeps busy. One could say he works himself to exhaustion. But death isn't one-sided in The Book Thief. As he himself states in the beginning, he is trying to be cheerful about this whole topic. Trying being the operative word, for even if death passes some by for the time being, he eventually gets the job done. 
Even though The Book Thief is narrated by death, it is mainly Liesel's story and this makes it a story of a foster family in Nazi Germany, the Jew they hide in their basement and quite a few stolen books. In Liesel we see how a girl's whole world can be tipped over by the power of words and by he characters she encounters on her love affair with words and as she shares words with others. In fact much of the outward heft of The Book Thief is probably due it being all about stories, people's stories to be specific, as we get to follow Liesel, Max and all the characters around them and really get to know them and how Nazi Germany and the war changes them and makes them grow, while inevitably taking some of them away as well.

Plot: The Book Thief could be an intensely depressing book. In many ways it is. But at the same time, if there's one thing that pervades its pages, like the painted words on the walls of Liesel's basement, it's the idea of hope. Hope that people will somehow manage to outsmart death after all. That somehow they what has been foreshadowed and alluded to, what death has flat-out told us, isn't going to happen after all.
In this story about Nazi Germany, Zusak weaves together many plot lines and subplots in order to create a complex and in many ways harrowing, yet also strangely hopeful picture of Nazi Germany and the lives and struggles of the characters and entire people's within in. 

Things that would upset people who rate movies: There is some language (though mostly in German) and obviously violence in this, though instead of making it graphic, Zusak shows us violence in a much more understated and factual manner that stresses its effect on people's lives over anything else. 

Ways for teachers to share this book with students: The Book Thief makes for a fantastic book to explore in an entire unit, not just on Nazi Germany (though one could certainly compare it to other works, fictional and nonfictional like Anne Frank's Diary of a Young Girl), but it also invites students to take a closer look at characterization and imagery as they explore Zusak's often unusual prose. A reader's/writer's journal would be a powerful companion to The Book Thief as it offers students the opportunity to make observations and connections as well as raise questions as they read on. The Book Thief is definitely a book that should be taught in context with some history, but the book itself lends itself to a discussion of historical events as they occur in the text. It also is one of those books that invites students to explore the possibilities of "What if?" What if Liesel had never found The Grave Digger's Handbook by her brother's graveside? What would have happened to Max if the Hubermanns hadn't taken him in? What would some alternative paths for individual characters be like? The Book Thief altogether invites a host of reader response approaches and activities as students delve deeper into the novel. 

I would recommend this book to: In all honesty, The Book Thief is probably one of those rare books that I would flat out recommend to anyone. It is a great book for those already interested in topics like Nazi Germany, but it offers so much more to all kinds of readers, whether it is those that look for a more character- or a more plot-driven story, those who look for a new take on narration or those who just want to really dive into a book whose prose makes you want to curl up in it. 

What really stood out about this book: Other than death as its highly unconventional narrator, what really stands out about The Book Thief is a pervasive love of words and the way they can change lives and worlds. The Book Thief isn't just an ordinary take on Nazi Germany as it is full of so much detail, language and ideas that make us really connect to this part of history as The Book Thief evokes an almost visceral response in its readers. 

Overall rating: 5 of 5 stars


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Cindy Pon - SILVER PHOENIX

Pon, Cindy. Silver Phoenix. New York, NY: Greenwillow, 2009.

Author: Cindy Pon

Title: Silver Phoenix

Genre: Fantasy

Grade Level:  9 and up
Summary: No one wanted Ai Ling. And deep down she is relieved--despite the dishonor she has brought upon her family--to be unbetrothed and free, not some stranger's subservient bride banished into the inner quarters.
But now something is after her. Something terrifying--a force she cannot comprehend. And as pieces of the puzzle start to fit together, Ai Ling begins to understand that her journey to the Palace of Fragrant Dreams isn't only a quest to find her beloved father but a venture with stakes larger than she could have imagined.
Bravery, intelligence, the will to fight and fight hard... she will need all of these things. Just as she will need the new and mysterious power growing within her. She will also need help.
It is Chen Yong, who finds her partly submerged and barely breathing at the edge of a deep lake. There is something of unspeakable evil trying to drag her under. On a quest of his own, Chen Yong offers that help... and perhaps more. (Source: jacket copy)
Favorite Lines: "Her spirit surged. She concentrated on the immense cadaverous heart, focused her grief and ire. What she could heal, she could also destroy. Her spirit whirled around in a frenzy. The heart erupted and splattered. The beast howled once before it fell to its knees. It toppled, nearly pinning Chen Yong beneath its rotten bulk.
She snapped back into her own body, woozy, her head bent over the cold floor, her trembling hands barely able to hold herself up. Strong arms pulled Ai Ling to her feet.
"Are you all right?" Chen Yong asked. He took her dagger, still clutched in one hand, and sheathed it for her" (p. 188).

Writing: Silver Phoenix is set in a fantasy world inspired by Asian mythology and folklore. Cindy Pon brings this world to life with richly imagined prose and a great attention to detail, so that Ai Ling and her world keep surprising us in ways that makes the world of Silver Phoenix not your typical fantasy world. The world building is what makes this novel really stand out as it takes demons, dragon and sword fighting we would find in any typical fantasy world and surrounds them with colorful Asian myths and a social structure that creates a whole set of new problems for characters like Ai Ling as she has to break free of traditional role models and become the maker of her own fate in order to save her father and find her own way in life.

Characters: Ai Ling undergoes a lot of character growth as she becomes more determined, self-governed and overall complex throughout the novel. From the beginning she represents a character who is at odds with herself and her place in society and in many ways her journey to save her father becomes synonymous with her not only discovering hidden powers within herself, but also finding her own place in society.
What makes Chen Yong, her travel companion and love interest really intriguing is how his character is exemplary for how diversity is treated in this already (at least to us) diverse culture. Chen Yong himself is as much of a social outsider as Ai Ling due to his mixed race background and a lot of the story is driven by how his and Ai Ling's path intersect and how they are in many ways very similar in their search for answers and their struggle to be accepted within their culture.

Plot: Expecting a more character than plot-driven standard adventure fantasy, I was positively surprised of how the plot kept picking up through the beginning of the book, especially as Cindy Pon introduces more and more supernatural elements to Ai Ling's journey. Even though the main plot itself is fairly linear and slightly predictable, things get interesting when the element of reincarnation is introduced and the book takes an intriguing approach about life, rebirth and how individual paths are interwoven with the two.

Things that would upset people who rate movies: Silver Phoenix is a very clean read. There is some non-graphic violence and some mild sexual references, but overall nothing explicit.

Ways for teachers to share this book with students: Silver Phoenix is a great book for teachers who would like to explore diverse cultures, specifically Asian mythology with their students. In a writing class, it would be a great example of how writers can take myths and legends and create something new, especially as far as fantasy is concerned. In individual reading projects, students could research some of the myths and folklore that inspired Silver Phoenix or explore their own take on Asian folklore in fantasy.

I would recommend this book to: Silver Phoenix is a great read for anyone interested in Asian culture and diversity in young adult literature. It also makes for an exciting new read for fans of traditional fantasy with a focus on hero's quests and strong female heroines.

What really stood out about this book: What made Silver Phoenix really unique and entertaining was its treatment of Asian myth and folklore and Ai Ling as strong female lead as well as its strong focus on diversity in young adult literature.

Overall rating: 4 of 5 stars 


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Sunday, November 4, 2012

Malinda Lo - ADAPTATION

Lo, Malinda. Adaptation. New York: Little, Brown, 2012.

Author: Malinda Lo

Title: Adaptation

Genre: Science Fiction

Grade Level: 9 and up
Summary: Across North America, flocks of birds hurl themselves into airplanes, causing at least a dozen to crash. Thousands of people die. Fearing terrorism, the United States government grounds all flights, and millions of travelers are stranded.

Reese and her debate team partner and longtime crush David are in Arizona when it happens. Everyone knows the world will never be the same. On their drive home to San Francisco, along a stretch of empty highway at night in the middle of Nevada, a bird flies into their headlights. The car flips over. When they wake up in a military hospital, the doctor won't tell them what happened, where they are--or how they've been miraculously healed.

Things become even stranger when Reese returns home. San Francisco feels like a different place with police enforcing curfew, hazmat teams collecting dead birds, and a strange presence that seems to be following her. When Reese unexpectedly collides with the beautiful Amber Gray, her search for the truth is forced in an entirely new direction--and threatens to expose a vast global conspiracy that the government has worked for decades to keep secret. (Source: Amazon)
Favorite Lines: "People are always going to think something about you that isn't real. It doesn't matter what they think. Nobody ever knows what to think of me. I'm not black enough for some folks, and I'm not Jewish enough for others. I mean, my favorite food is bacon. And then you throw in the gay thing and it messes it up even more" (p. 192).

Writing: The writing moves at breakneck speed: lots of action and conspiracies mixed in with great, complex character relationships that will keep you turning the page, because you want to get all of your questions answered. And there are a lot of those in Adaptation, which could bog down the writing and make it messy, but instead Malinda Lo manages to layer all these questions into an intriguing first book of a new series that may remind some a little bit of The X-Files and yet is something new altogether that successfully blends contemporary young adult with science fiction.

Characters: Throughout the book you can't help but root for Reese and Amber, who suddenly appears in Reese's life and seems perfect, maybe a little too perfect, but that just adds the fun to the plot. And then there's David, Reese's original crush, who tends to complicate thing. This all sounds a little bit like the making of a traditional YA love triangle, but it gets more interesting than that as Reese isn't just dealing with two people she is attracted to, she also deals with a life-changing accident and her attraction to Amber which presents something entirely new for Reese, who had always thought she was straight and then discovered she isn't -- at least not quite. The character relationships definitely mirror the kind of speed and complication with which the main plot progresses and add a great depth to this story.

Plot: Adaptation is one of those books that keeps you wondering what is actually going on here as you read and that's what makes the plot interesting, albeit sometimes a bit frustrating when there seem to be only more questions that may or may not get answered. The plot to Adaptation could be something right out of your favorite alien movie and yet it has more to it as it is inter-layered with lots of character conflict and government conspiracies that will keep you guessing and eager to read the sequel once you have finished this book. My only criticism would be that the plot seems to thin out and appear a bit hurried at the end when plot threads are wrapped up, but others are obviously left hanging in order to be pursued in a sequel.

Things that would upset people who rate movies: There is some language and sexual references in Adaptation.

Ways for teachers to share this book with students: Adaptation would be a great book for students to do a book project not only on characteristics of science fiction, but they could also explore how science fiction can be tied into what otherwise would be a contemporary or realistic young adult novel. They could compare this to science fiction classics as well as science fiction in film and TV to get a better idea on prevalent tropes and major themes. It could also be a great book for students to explore different conspiracy theories as they are in the main focus of Adaptation and students might be interested in researching different theories that are mentioned and alluded to in the book.

I would recommend this book to: Students who like science fiction not just in books, but also in film and tv will probably eat this book right up, but Adaptation also presents themes and tropes that fans of dystopian literature will enjoy.

What really stood  out about this book: Adaptation is a great blend of genres as it blends contemporary or realistic YA with science fiction. It also stands out by how it treats its central love interest and brings something new and entirely different to the almost standard element of the love triangle in young adult fiction. Its treatment of bisexuality definitely makes it an outstanding book not just for LGBTQ young adults.

Overall rating: 4 of 5 stars. 


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Thursday, November 1, 2012

Perry Moore - HERO

Moore, Perry. Hero. New York: Hyperion, 2007.

Author: Perry Moore
 
Title: Hero

Genre: It's a bird! It's a plane! Um...it's Contemporary YA meets Science Fiction meets the good old comic book...

Grade Level: 9 and up

Summary: 
The last thing in the world Thom Creed wants is to add to his dad, Hal's, pain, so he keeps secrets. Like that he has special powers. And that's he's been asked to join the League--the very organization of superheroes that spurned his father. The most painful secret is of all is one Thom can barely face himself: he's gay.
But becoming a member of the League opens up a whole new world to Thom. There, he connects with a misfit group of aspiring heroes, including Scarlett, who can control fire but not her anger; Typhoid Larry, who can make anyone sick with his touch; and Ruth, a wise old broad who can see the future. Like Thom, these heroes have things to hide, but they will have to learn to trust one another when they uncover a deadly conspiracy within the League.
To survive, Thom will face challenges he never imagined. To find happiness, he'll have to come to terms with his father's past and discover the kind of hero he really wants to be.
(Source: back cover)
Favorite Lines:

"I never thought I had a story worth telling, at least not one about me. I always knew I was different, but until I discovered I had my own story, I never thought I was anything special. My destiny began to unfurl at my very last game at school. What started with an accident on the court ended with the single most devastating look I ever got from my father. And it made me want to die" (p. 1).

Writing: Think of Hero as all of your favorite, campy comic books taken together and turned into book form. This genre-bending crossover of Contemporary YA, Science Fiction and Fantasy is the kind of pulpy, punchy book that ties in camp with deeper issues as Thom is figuring out himself and everyone around him.

Characters: We may want to think that superheroes are always supposed to be perfect, but Hero shows us what's under all the capes and spandex (never mind that capes aren't a good idea anyway, at least not if you don't know how to move in them and they could quickly turn into amateurish death traps). Every character has their secrets in Hero and we get to follow them to figuring out how to deal with all of this on top of a world-threatening conspiracy reminiscent of our favorite comic books.

Plot: Perry Moore layers all kinds of superhero tropes with the day-to-day struggles and conflicts of not-so-ordinary teens and tops it off with a captivating father-son story as Thom struggles to come to terms with all the things he doesn't want his father to know, yet ultimately finds himself unable to hide. Even though the plot is a bit slow going at first, Moore adds in enough humor and character quirks that tide us over until the bigger picture starts to come together and Hero turns into a pulpy, yet surprisingly profound read.

Things that would upset people who rate movies: Here be mild language, violence and sexual references.

Ways for teachers to share this book with students: Since Hero bridges genres between graphic novels and novels, it offers great opportunities for students to tie visual work together with writing as they might try and turn their favorite comics into writing or create their own superheroes and supervillains based on current issues and conflicts, which in turn offers engaging opportunities to work on characterization and world building as well as genre study as students have to utilize both graphic novels and fiction novels to explore their options and create their own original work.

I would recommend this book to: Geeks, this book is for you. Hero makes a great read not just for people interested in diversity issues and LGBTQ literature, but really anyone who likes character-driven superhero stories. 

What really stood out about this book: What makes Hero outstanding and memorable is how it blends campy comics and superhero tropes with current issues and contemporary, realistic young adult literature to create a mix of genres that has the potential to appeal to a wide range of teens and young adults.

Overall rating: 5 of 5 stars