Sunday, February 27, 2011

Poor Octavian

When we last saw Octavian, he was fleeing from the College of Novangelium... something or other*, with his mentor Prof. Trefusis to Boston. So we start The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing: Traitor to the Nation; Part II: The Kingdom on the Waves with Octavian securing lodging at a widow's house and returning to his beloved violin to earn money for their board. Through his band mates, he learns that Lord Dunmore, governor of Virginia, is offering freedom to all blacks who join his forces. The promise of freedom is too much for Octavian to resist so he joins up meeting again with Pro Bono, a fellow slave at the college, and meets for the first time people from his homeland of Oyo. Octavian must wrestle with his identity as a rather privileged slave versus those who have suffered greatly at the hands of plantation masters, and his misunderstood identity as a prince of Oyo.

No lie. This is a really hard book to read. It's challenging just in its word choice and style. It's difficult to watch Octavian who is so well-educated in someways be so naive in others. It's hard to know eventually they are going to lose and to watch the treatment of Blacks at the hands of Lord Dunmore. Heart-braking.

It's ultimately worth it though. You see the love Prof. Trefusis has for Octavian despite continued misunderstanding of their class differences. You see Octavian grow and struggle and ultimately master his own life and find a way to connect with something in this world. So yes, Octavian is a traitor to the nation, but his reasons are his own. And you can hardly blame his choice for some freedom when regardless of which nation he chooses to support he will ultimately be trampled by it.

*Sorry, I've returned the book already.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Riot

Most Civil War novels, focus on the battle front, where the action is bloody, or on the South whose whole way of life is dramatically changing, Walter Dean Myer's Riot takes a snapshot of New York City during the 4 days of the Draft Riot. President Lincoln has just called for more troops after Gettysburg and Irish immigrants focus their anger at free blacks in the city. 15 year-old Claire finds herself directly in the middle as the daughter of an African-American restaurant manager and his Irish wife. Claire, who has never given much thought to her skin tone (which is light enough to pass for white if needed), now finds herself lost in a sea of changing identity.

The novel itself is fine. It's written as a screenplay which allows for quick scene changes and lots of action. And it plays out in the 2-ish hours a movie would allow. And it's a new look at the Civil War which effected all parts of America, not just where there was fighting. (It's hard to imagine that with our modern wars.) Claire is a well-spoken teenager who wishes for more than she'll get, but you see the seeds of the Civil Rights movement in her feisty spirit.

However, I felt rushed. This is due to two factors: 1) I was listening to it on a playaway which is about the size of an mp3 player, but it holds exactly one book. That book cannot be downloaded or changed, but it also can't really be corrupted or scratched like other audiobooks. You provide your headphones and a AAA battery. I love them. BUT that gave me absolutely no clue on how long it might be. There was a 2 1/2 hour thing written in tiny print, but easily overlooked. I checked to see how many tracks there were and I was surprised at how quickly I got through them. 2) The playaway had a variable playback function so I sped it up (because I thought it was a normal audiobook and would take forever).

So while I wouldn't NOT recommend this book, I can't really recommend it either. Walter Dean Myers is a god about YA authors so, you know, he's worth reading. But maybe his best known work Monster would be a better place to start.

However, I highly recommend the playaway. It solves the portability problem of books on cd (which are limited mostly to my car and sometimes the computer), and it's pretty easy to use. They are a pretty new thing. Wikipedia says they're only at 10 library systems which have them so request your library to get them!

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

I Need a Hero

The last book in Sharon M. Draper's Jericho trilogy is called Just Another Hero. It really changed how I perceived November Blues, to the extent that I remember liking it much more than I know I did. In Just Another Hero, Kofi, who has until this point been a secondary character, is trying to find a way to pay for college--MIT to be specific--despite his parents who are either still hitting the party scene or looking for luck at the Argosy Casino while trying to avoid and then beat an addiction to pain killers. The other narrator, Arielle, is currently lonely having pushed away November and her other friends and her boyfriend Jericho. She seems to have the perfect spoiled life with a step-father who gives her $100 a week in allowance and buys her things like an iPhone, but he's very particular to distinguish that it's HIS money that pays for everything and Arielle and her mother should live according to HIS rules. Can she let money buy happiness or will she realize there are more important things?

Figuring out those storylines would have probably been sufficient in this novel, but in addition there's a person who is about to bring a gun into school. Is it a) Eddie, the juvenile delinquent who just got out of juvy for the Warriors of Distinct stunt pulled last year, b) Ozrick, the incredible smart but horribly picked on computer genius, or c) Crazy Jack with his loud cymbals and a desire to splash the world with a noise of color?

Also there's some petty theft going around. Draper does not pull any punches when it comes to getting every storyline imaginable in this novel. But it works.

Probably my favorite part of the novel was how Draper uses Mrs. Witherspoon's Beowulf unit to talk about what really makes a hero. The classroom discussions really stick with Kofi as he tries to figure how what kind of man he's going to be. And the person who turns out to be the hero during the gun incident is totally unexpected. Heroes come in all shapes and sizes, and this one is particularly satisfying.

The adults in this novel are really good. Some are dangerously flawed like Arielle's step-dad. Several others are just trying to make the best decisions they know how like Arielle's mom--eventually. The teachers are obviously engaged in the classroom and committed to getting the best out of and for their students. It came as little surprise when I learned Draper used to teach English at Walnut Hills, one of the better high schools in the Cincinnati system. (It even has it's own wikipedia article.) The adults aren't dopes and they don't take away from high schoolers*, but they're well-developed characters nonetheless.

It's just a good book. Uber-dramatic, but not in the way that usually makes me roll my eyes. While I knew most of the story line was unrealistic, it still felt authentic. So something was there that overcame the drama. (It's probably the same something that wasn't there in November Blues.) And that makes me want to go back and read the first book of the trilogy. The Battle of Jericho is on my To Be Read shelf right now.

*You know how in teen dramas like the OC and others the parents would get into their own stupid problems and they'd spend half the episode focusing on them? It's not like that. You might want to know more, but not enough to distract from the matter at hand.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Hold me Closer, Necromancer

This is so easy. Go read Hold me Closer, Necromancer right now. Just go. Come back and read my blog later. You won't be sorry...


Seriously, you're still here. Okay check out the book trailer:


(Seriously, people love it so much they make movies about it. Just read it!)

...

Okay. You still want a review. I love this book. Seriously, I'd marry it. If only for the fact that it makes you belt out Elton John every 5 minutes. (I really need to learn more words to that song.) I'm not even a big fan of "Tiny Dancer", but every time I sing "Hold me closer, necromaaaanser," I smile. A big goofy, everyone-is-looking-at-you-weird smile.

But the book is so much better than that. Sam and his buddies from the fast food restaurant, Ramone, Frank and Brooke, find out there is much more to Seattle than coffee shops and rain. For one there's this big evil dude Douglas Montgomery who wants Sam... well sometimes he wants Sam dead, sometimes he wants Sam to join him. He just keeps changing his mind and expects people to follow along--which they generally do because otherwise he'll kill you.

But why would Douglas Montgomery want Sam dead? Well it has to do with necromancy and secrets and binding spells. And Sam figures out why he's been a slacker all his life. I love it when people find out they're worth so much more than they thought.

So you've got suspense sponsored by a creepy, creepy, big, bad dude. You've got heartwarming finding your place in this world. But you've ALSO got super cool and hilarious sidekicks. There's Ramone as you heard in the book trailer. There's Brooke, who I would tell you much more about, but it's such a good reveal I don't want to spoil it. There's Brid who is like the coolest werewolf ever. She could kick Jacob Black's butt any day. And Ashley who runs errands in the netherworld in exchange for waffles and other favors, but gives you plenty of snark for free. :-)

But here's the highest compliment I can paid this book. Lish McBride does for necromancy what Joss Whedon did for vampires. Seriously awesome.

So please go read this book. Sing a couple rounds of "Hold me closer, necromancer" when no one's in earshot. And sigh in relief when you hear there's supposed to be a sequel in 2012. I love these characters too much to give them up after one book.

For those keeping score, this is one of my 2 self-chosen fantasy books. It's a 2011 Michael Printz honor book.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Singing the Blues

FYI I'm currently 5 books behind in reviews. Sigh.

I picked up November Blues as part of our multicultural unit. I thought I was picking up the first book of a two-parter, but it turned out to be the middle book of a trilogy. FAIL. So this book picks up after Josh has died leaving his girlfriend, November, pregnant and his best-friend/cousin, Jericho, in so much grief that he can't play his trumpet. Okay the parallel kind of fails a bit.

Jericho copes with his grief by putting down his trumpet and trying out for the football team, which of course he's a natural at. At the same time he develops a relationship with Olivia, an otherwise-ignored tuba and sousaphone player, after he is dumped by Arielle. He also provides support to November and his yet-to-be-born cousin.

Obviously, this is November's story. Jericho's grief is great, I'm sure, but November will have a day-in, day-out reminder of Josh. Fortunately, she loved Josh, but she's not mourning him as her one, true love. She just has to deal with whether she should give up the baby to Josh's parents, how she is going to college now that she can't go to Cornell, a mom who is extremely disappointed in her, and worries that her baby will have the same genetic defects as her brother.

Couple that with a dramatic medi-vac flight to Good Sam (aka the hospital you can see my apartment from). And it's a good story. I had a couple issues with Draper's writing style. The dialect fell flat at times. And while I love me some Cincinnati shout-outs, it was almost too much. However, I think that was just the newness talking, because I had no such problems in the book that followed... So I'm pretty much willing to chalk it up to second-in-the-series sag (think Empire Strikes Back, New Moon, etc.*).

So check out The Jericho Trilogy and check back for reviews of Just Another Hero and The Battle of Jericho.

*Wait a second. Did she just put Star Wars and Twilight in the same category?!? Why yes I did. :-)

Monday, February 14, 2011

Polly Misses Alex

How does anyone find time to read anything else when their class assigns 25 books in a semester? I don't know. I blame it on the fact I don't have kids or a full-time job. Don't hate because I get to read so much.

But every year at this time the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County sponsors a book for it's "On the Same Page Cincinnati" program. The idea is that libraries across the county host reading groups and events surrounding this one book so everyone can have this shared experience. Last year, it was The Hunger Games. I had wanted to read the book anyway so I participated in my introvert way (meaning I read the book from the library and gazed longingly at the archery contests for teenagers). This year, it was a book called Alex and Me: How a Scientist and a Parrot Discover the Hidden World of Animal Intelligence and Formed a Deep Bond in the Process by Irene Pepperberg. I was less than enthused, but I like Science Friday so I thought I'd give it a shot.

Oh my goodness, this book is amazing. Well technically Alex is amazing. Over the course of his 30 years, Alex learned how to label objects, colors and shapes, he could tell the difference between objects (and tell you what was different), and he even created his own word for "apple". That bird was smart! You'll love Alex even if you don't really like animals, because he's just too endearing.

I also really liked how Pepperberg wrote the book. It's understandable and friendly, but I didn't see a whole lot of evidence of bad science. She doesn't overstate her research with Alex and the other African greys. She talks about getting significant samples. All very good things.

But here's the lasting impact of the book for me:
1) Alex called almonds "cork nuts". This week my mom sent some unshelled nuts in the mail and those almonds do look an awful lot like corks. I think I'm going to adopt the term.
2) Pepperberg worked for a while at Media Lab at MIT and this place is amazing. I was listening to an old Science Friday episode from like October and they were celebrating Media Lab's 25th birthday--these are the people who gave us e-ink for Kindles and guitar hero. The fact that Pepperberg and Alex are associated with these guys makes them SO much cooler in my book.
3) In April, Rio a movie about... oh sad it's a rare blue macaw not a parrot... boo. Well, if you want some facts to go with your animation, Alex and Me will provide some balance. We'll go see it because it takes places in Rio.

These are obviously not the important parts of the book. And you'll undoubtedly fine much more significance than I have. But I still love it, and I'll encourage everyone to participate in On the Same Page Cincinnati even if you don't live here.

But if you do, come see Irene Pepperberg on March 5th at 2pm at the main library. I think I might actually participate!

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Afterwards...

Gearing up for the multicultural unit of my YA class, I chose the book After Tupac and D Foster, a book mentioned several times in our YA textbook. It was a Newbery Honor book. (FYI: Across book awards it goes like this--every year one book gets an award and a few others get honors.) It seemed interesting.

I was vaguely aware of Tupac Shakur. We first got cable when I was in 8th grade and in came MTV so I was much more aware of rap culture than just a year earlier. But it was never really my thing. However for these girls (D Foster, Neeka, and an unnamed narrator), he was them. He spoke to their situations. He was fine. (Go ahead; google him. He had lovely puppy dog eyes.) He was the kid from the streets who made good.

The book runs from the time D Foster shows up on their street and Tupac gets shot the first time to the time D leave and Tupac is killed in a gun fight. Generally this book doesn't have much in the way of plot. Neeka is always fascinated by how D's foster mom lets her "roam" about the city so one day D takes the girls off the block to her favorite play with an amphitheater. Neeka's oldest brother gets out of jail. The other older brother gets into Georgetown on a basketball scholarship. But nothing really happens to the girls.

So you have to like character-driven novels. And this one did it fairly well. The girls are likable, very different from each other. I liked the unnamed narrator the best because she was bookish. But it's hard to say a lot about the book. It's just kind of ephemeral.

So if you're looking for something a little different or if you happened to LOVE Tupac, I'd recommend this book. It won't change your life, but your afternoon will be well spent.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Dear Diary

After the emotional heft of Speak, Tricks, and Deadline, I needed something fun so I pulled out Bridget Jones's Diary. I love this book in no small part because of its willingness to not be lazy and put the full possessive 's in the title.

For those who don't know BJD is about a women in her thirties who starts a new diary with a host of New Year's resolutions. Throughout the year, she gets in an out of a relationship with her boyfriend/boss of her publishing company, drinks a whole lot, quits her job, does embarrassing thing on tv, counsels her parents through a separation and divorce, and deals with the on again, off again presents of Mark Darcy, a top human rights barrister who is recently divorced. It's most popular because the movie adaptation starring Renee Zellwegger, Hugh Grant, and Colin Firth.

And if you've only seen the movie (which is wonderful), READ THE BOOK!! Oh my goodness, there is some mad-cap mayhem in it. I'm pretty kind to movie adaptations.* And BJD is wonderful with Colin Firth in his Darcy-ness. And Hugh Grant being the lovable scoundrel. But the book is pretty amazing. It has lots of the scenes you love from the movie, and a lot more scenes that are just great. Also lovely in my recollection is Bridget Jones: Edge of Reason, but you can skip the movie in that one.

I've been feeling a little too much in the category of "Smug Married". (Really my husband is great. And more great than frustrating. I love telling people about it, even to the point of wanting to get one of these t-shirts. Amazing, right?) And I adore my single friends and really don't want our relationship statuses to get in the way of our friendship. So living with Bridget for a while helped me regain some perspective.**

Also while there is a TON of drinking, it is not under-age. No one gets addicted to narcotics. No one ends up pregnant by willing or unwilling means. And no one dies. All wins especially after the books I've been reading.

*Except for A Ring of Endless Light,*** which took an immensely moving book about death and life and made it about saving dolphins.... AND Ella Enchanted, which took a smart, self-sacrificing heroine and made her dumb.

**Though I should also say that I flipped to the back cover and realized I bought this book on my honeymoon on a Greek island. Aw... :-)

***NPR had a story today called Why Do Girls Love Horses, Unicorns, and Dolphins? I'm not sure how insightful it was. I didn't stay until the end. But it reminded me of Madeleine L'Engle.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Meet the Deadline

My last realistic fiction novel is Deadline by Chris Crutcher. Ben Wolf goes in for his senior year cross country physical and finds out he has leukemia--a lethal form that will kill him within the year and treatment might give him a few months more. Being the persuasive geek he is, he convinces his doctor not to tell his parents (he's 18), and he's determined to live out his senior year as full of life as he can. This includes trying out for football (no need to fear brain injury), asking out Dallas Suzuki (rejection won't kill him), and terrorizing the government teacher who refuses to look at the other side of any issue (he doesn't need that diploma anyway).

Ben's no nonsense attitude to his last year is courageous and dumb. It's totally the move of an 18 year old who just found out he doesn't have the rest of his life ahead of him. If he was in my class, I'd find him terribly annoying, but in his brain you can't help but love him.

(Image from Fantastic fiction)

There's a lot going on in this book. His mom is bipolar and as the major peacemaker of the family he struggles with what will happen to his family once he's gone. He befriends the town drunk discovering a history of a Catholic priest scandal and a really good guy who just doesn't know how to do the right thing. He unites with his brother (the quarterback) to make an unstoppable team. He discovers hidden depths about Dallas Suzuki and helps her heal from her own history of abuse. But in all these things, he messes up like a normal teenager. He does ultimately realize he should tell everyone what's going on, but the revelation causes its own turmoil.

My favorite parts of this book had to be Ben's dream conversations with Hey-soos (you know the Spanish pronunciation of Jesus). They are irreverent as can be and verge on heresy, but Hey-soos provides the sounding board Ben needs when he can't talk to anyone else. He guides and directs and calls Ben on his bluffs. While I'm not in favor of reducing God to a Jiminy Cricket, let your conscience be your guide character, the scenes were just endearing.

Ben also gave some awesome book recommendations that I'm putting on my list. I can't help but love him.

So all in all Deadline is a pretty awesome book. It has the standard warnings of language and sexuality. (One of Ben's goals is to get laid before he dies.) But I think the whole tone of the book rises above that. There is a lot of football in it. Chris Crutcher is famous in the sports genre of YA and this one is about half sports, half YA drama. The teenage me would have been totally lost during the games. But if you can make it through that, it's worth reading.

This is the last in my realistic fiction. (Yes!) Except that multicultural fiction is up next and it's realistic fiction, in a different cultural setting. Sigh.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Tricks not treats.

Tricks by Ellen Hopkins is a book of poetry written from the viewpoint of 5 teens who end up in various ways selling their bodies. Eden is sent away to a reform camp by her religious parents for a forbidden relationship and escapes by offering sexual favors. Seth is thrown out by his father for being gay and end ups the boy toy of a powerful man named Carl. Whitney turns to a guy she met at the mall one day when her first love dumps her for not being a good lay and ends up being pimped out until she overdoses on heroin and black tar. Ginger runs away from home with her girlfriend, Alex, after being sold by her mother for sex. Alex and Ginger then make a living stripping, but drift apart as Alex gets into more dangerous tricks. And Cody turns to prostitution when his attempts at gambling (fueled by alcohol and some minor and major drug use) don't pull his family out of crushing debt, but it nearly costs him his life.

(Image from Amazon)

Hopkins writes these types of books--the poetry, the drug and sexual violence story lines. And she's gotten some pretty good reviews for it. A previous novel, Crank, was inspired by her own daughter's story of drug use. And these are certainly important stories that need to be told. But I don't think I need to be the one reading them. There are several things that bothered me about the story.

On one hand the poetry angle is kind of cool. Each time she changes voice, there's a poem written by the character which reveals an overall theme statement of the character at that time. But the rest of the poetry just seems like a way to provide a lot of white space (good for reluctant readers) and cover up some blah prose. I'm not a free verse person in general, but it was weird.

The story lines in general are a little too predictable. They felt like the PSAs you'd see in health or driver's ed classes. Of course, Seth's history of coming out would have a catholic priest. Of course, Eden's dogmatic preacher father would go all law on her and send her off to reform camp (which would just be worse for her). It felt like there was a list of over-used sexual violence plot devices and Hopkins used them all. It kept me from being really truly moved by their stories to just be revolted. It makes me feel callous, and I know that's not what Hopkins was going for.

So ultimately, while I respect what Hopkins is trying to do, I don't like this book. There might be situations where I could recommend it, but I'd always be a little skeptical. ("I didn't really care for it, but you might like it. It will only take four hours of your life.")