Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Waiting to Forget, by Sheila Kelly Welch

Last year, I read all of the books on South Carolina's Junior Book Award Finalist and found that I thoroughly enjoyed most of them; Waiting to Forget is one of this year's books, and after reading it, I'm encouraged to attempt the whole list again this year.

Waiting to Forget is about two young children, T.J. and Angela, who have been in and out of foster care for their whole lives and have recently landed a permanent adoptive home. Soon after being adopted, Angela (the younger sibling) is in a accident - the details of the accident aren't revealed until the very end of the novel - so the book takes place in the waiting room of a hospital, as T.J. ponders where they've been, what they've seen, and how they've gotten to this point in their lives. The entire narrative is told in alternating chapters "Then" (when he and Angela lived with their mother and various foster families) and "Now" (while sitting in the hospital waiting room, and is revealed through T.J.'s "Life Book", which he was forced to make as a therapy project by one of his social workers.

I loved the simplistic, to-the-point style of the novel - the narrator described everything that T.J. and his sister went through with a very matter-of-fact tone, which for some reason worked to make things all the more emotional. T.J.'s mother had a string of no-good boyfriends who inevitably put the kids in trouble, and the way these evil characters were described, through their actions, was great.

Throughout the whole novel, T.J. founds himself pondering the difference between lies and reality, especially as he finds himself lying for his mother to keep her out of trouble. This novel really made me think about how we lie to protect people, even when we know it's not necessarily in our best interest.

Through the course of this short novel, T.J. undergoes a complete transformation in terms of his views of his past life and current situation, and I loved the way it was brought about through the contrast between the "Then" and "Now" chapters.

Although this novel is nowhere near as graphic as A Child Called It, which I think is part of what attracted my students to that book, I think that it will be popular in my classroom - my students love to read sort of real-life survival stories, and that's exactly what this was.

Finally, I really loved the cover of the book! I loved the simple black and white with the one pop of color. Those little origami cranes are important in the novel...but I'll let you figure out how!

Thursday, April 25, 2013

I'll Be There, by Holly Goldberg Sloan

Sometimes, you read a book that stays in your head for a long time. This one did for me, but not in an "I pondered x character for weeks..." or, "this book really made me think about y issue..." kind of way. No, what really happened was that I was singing an off-key rendition of Michael Jackson's "I'll Be There" for days.

Despite the mildly annoying after taste, I truly loved this book. And I honestly wasn't expecting to. It started out kind of slow, and this was actually the third time I've attempted to read it. However, once I got past the slow start (about 70 pages in), I found that I could NOT put the book down.

In the book, Emily Bell is an average seventeen year old. Her mom is an ER nurse, and her dad is a music professor who forces her to sing "I'll Be There" at their church - the scene that is the book's namesake. During this particular performance, a stranger sits in the crowd: a boy named Sam who has lived on the road with his convict father and his little brother, Riddle, for years. In fact, his life on the road began when he stopped going to school in the second grade. Emily is captivated by this stranger, and chases him out of the church. A spark flies, but without modern conveniences like a cell phone or a car, Sam knows he won't see Emily again. Emily has other plans, though. She becomes mildly - well, maybe severely...- obsessed and is determined to find Sam and pursue their future together. As their relationship unfolds, Sam's evil father finds out, and the crew of three is on the road again, leaving Emily devastated. With the help of ill-intentioned classmate Bobby Ellis, whose parents are an attorney and a detective, Emily tries to maintain hope that she can find and rescue Sam.

The book was so riddled with unexpected twists, turns, and adventures that I found it almost invigorating. It truly was one of those books where you start to really care about the characters and one of those novels in which every detail is connected in some way, but you can't quite figure out how. I don't want to say anything more for fear I'd give something away.

One of my favorite parts about the book was the ending. I'm sure you've seen a movie before where the story ends, and then there's a slideshow-y conclusion where pictures of the characters are shown and there's a little blurb about what happened to them after where the movie leaves off. Well, that's how the end of I'll Be There felt. It was a great ending and really tied up the loose ends, but still left me wondering a little. I want to see if this author's written anything else!!

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Looking For Alaska, by John Green

Oh. My. God.What a book. Looking for Alaska is perhaps the best book I've read all year - and this isn't the first time I've read it either. I think I could read this book 1,000 times and feel equally floored at the end of each reading...it's THAT good.

At its surface, Looking for Alaska is about friendships, boarding school, teenage love triangles. But deeper down, at its heart, Looking for Alaska is an eerily spiritual novel that tackle's some of life's big questions: why are we here, how do we navigate this life, how do we deal with life after death, and how do you know when to forgive?  Much of the novel centers around the characters' religious studies class and their assignments, and I found myself pondering these timeless questions right along with the characters.

The main character, Miles "Pudge" Halter, begins his junior year at Culver Creek High School - a boarding school - after having lived his whole previous life insignificantly, as an essentially friendless social outcast. Soon after arriving at "The Creek", Pudge realizes friendships and camaraderie like he has never known before. He finds this by way of his roommate, Chip - "The Colonel" - and a girl down the hall, Alaska Young. Alaska is the type of brilliant, complex, thoughtful girl that Miles has always dreamed of, and she loves books as much as Miles is obsessed with memorizing famous people's last words. In fact, in confirmation of her love of books, Miles says this:

"Her library filled her bookshelves then overflowed into waist-high stacks of books everywhere, piled haphazardly against the walls. If just one of them moved, I thought, the domino effect could engulf the three of use in an asphyxiating mass of literature," (15).

I don't know, but I imagine that, if left to my own devices, my house would very much resemble the chaos of Alaska's library. 
Anyway, Alaska's mystery and dynamic being captivate Pudge instantly, leaving him utterly defenseless against her powers. Which leads me to a quote from the novel that I absolutely LOVED: 

"And what is an 'instant' death anyway? How long is an instant? It is one second? Ten?...What is an instant? Nothing is instant. Instant rice takes five minutes, instant pudding an hour. I doubt that an instant of blinding pain feels particularly instantaneous," (143). 

Their friendship soon leads to a horrific tragedy, which plunges Pudge into total consumption with two things: rationalizing her character, and determining what life is all about - something he calls the "Great Perhaps". Ultimately, Miles learns that "some mysteries aren't meant to be solved," (212), which I think is one of the hardest life lessons to learn. 

All in all, I cannot rave about this book enough - it's that amazing!! The only downfall is that there's a lot of teen drinking, profanity, and sexual innuendos, which render it inappropriate for most of my middle school readers :(

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

bully.com, by Joe Lawlor

When I picked up bully.com, I honestly wasn't too sure I was going to like it - mostly because of the cover. I know, I know...you can't judge a book by its cover. BUT, you know how you can tell when a movie is really low-budget because the picture quality absolutely stinks and the special effects are laughable? Yea, well that's how I felt about the cover of bully.com: LOW-BUDGET.

However, I was totally impressed with the plot of the novel, and with the way a male author was able to so expertly capture the true antics of middle school "mean girls".

The novel's protagonist/hero/sleuth-in-training is 7th grader Jun Li, a complete nerd who generally flies under the radar, unless he's arguing with teachers about extra credit, of all things. Jun's low profile all changes, though, when defamatory pictures of stereotypical "It Girl" Kimmie Cole are published to his school's website. Jun is instantly blamed, because he was logged in to a school computer at the time of the security breach, and it's common knowledge that he is a very capable hacker. Jun pleads innocence with the principal, who's feeling tremendous pressure to crack down on cyberbullying. So, the principal leaves Jun with an ultimatum: uncover the true perpetrator's identity in a week's time, or face expulsion. And so begins Jun's journey into a land he never thought he'd inhabit - the land of the Middle School Mean Girls. There are hiccups along the way, but Jun and his trusty sidekick, Chris, make sure justice is served. I was actually really shocked at who the offender was proven to be.

At first, as I read, I was honestly thinking, "wow, these characters are way too stereotypical - their actions are so predictable." But, the more I thought about it, I could see some of my students fitting into these tight molds - the predictability was totally accurate.

Some parts of the novel were underdeveloped and there were some sections that felt annoyingly repetitive, but overall it was a good read, and a great first novel for author Joe Lawlor.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

The Madness Underneath, by Maureen Johnson

Well, I think I found a new favorite author!! I loved The Name of the Star (the first book in this series), and this one was amazing as well.

In the first book, Rory Devaux learns that she can see ghosts. This book picks up where the first left off, with the Jack the Ripper case closed up, and Rory is learning to deal with her new "ability". She's working with a psychiatrist, and they soon decide she's ready to go back to Wexford, the London boarding school where it all went down. She soon reunites with Boo, Callum, and Stephen, her friends with the same ability. Of course, Rory meets up with a crew that is bent on bringing her down - will Rory and her friends be able to overcome the evil?

There were a few lines from the book that I absolutely LOVED, such as this one, in which Rory is describing how her roommate, Jazza, feels about one of their fellow boarders:

"There was an old feud there, one that predated my arrival. Charlotte was the full moon that brought out the werejazza."

I loved this clever comparison and thought the play on words was too cute! Then, there was a quote about normalcy that just seemed so real to me:
"Let me say this...There is no normal. I've never met a normal person. The concept is flawed. It implies that there is only one way people are supposed to be, and that can't possibly be true. Human experience is far too varied."
And then finally, this quote, while Rory is talking about the annoyance of dealing with anticipation:
"...waiting for the punishment was much worse than the actual punishment. The tick tick tick is much worse than the boom."

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Prodigy, by Marie Lu

I read Legend, the first book in this series, just a week or so ago, and I would rate it mediocre at best. But Prodigy really raised the bar! There was so much in Prodigy that I never would have expected after just reading Legend, and the plot really kept me guessing. This really redeemed the series for me. See, that's why sometimes you have to read the next installment even if you're not totally thrilled with the first :)

Anyway, Prodigy picks up where Legend left off. June helped her former arch nemesis flee the wrath of the Republic, and they are now wanted fugitives. Together they aim to leave the Republic, and join the illustrious Colonies in their plight against repression. However, they find themselves indebted to a Patriot leader, Razor, who has won the trust of Kaede and Tess (Day's sidekick). So, they agree to assist him in his assassination attempt on the Republic's Elector (dictator). But alas, things are not always what they seem and June and Day have to figure out yet again who they can trust and who they can't. 

During the whole plot, June is torn between the Elector and Day; Day is torn between the June and Tess. It seems that neither one of them can reconcile where their loyalties really lie. Towards the end, it seems almost certain that June and Day have chosen each other, but then a mysterious twist pops up. I won't give it away, but I will tell you that it shocked me and I wanted to cry during the last few pages. 

After Legend, I just felt like I had to read Prodigy; now, I truly cannot wait to read the third book, Champion!