Archive for May, 2009

“Slam”

“Slam” by Nick Hornby

I finished “Slam” recently, and it’s one of my favorite YA books of all time. The premise and outcome are realistic, but there are some fantasy aspects to Sam’s life that will make this book interesting to teens who are reluctant readers.

Sam is a skater (that’s on a skateboard, he tells us, not ice). At fifteen, he’s pretty easy-going. While his parents are divorced (he lives with his mum), and neither reached their life’s goal, he attributes this to the fact that they married too young because his mom was pregnant with him at sixteen. One of the important lessons of his life is not to repeat that mistake.

Becoming a father too early doesn’t seem like an issue for Sam. He’s no lady’s man and he looks to the skater Tony Hawk for advice—that is, he looks to a poster of Tony Hawk for advice. This is very funny because when Sam asks the poster of Hawk a question, the answer is always a direct quote from Hawk’s autobiography. (Sam has read it so many times that he knows it by heart.) Yet Sam meets a beautiful girl who has just broken up with her boyfriend. They fall madly in love (or so it seems), and are intimate immediately. They can’t bear to be away from one another—that is for about three weeks.

So Sam is already beginning to get bored of the relationship when Alicia sends him an urgent text-message on his sixteenth birthday to tell him she is pregnant. From here, Tony Hawk often propels Sam into the future without Sam having any knowledge of what has passed in the interim. (Why does his son have a dumb name like ‘Roof’? Sam wants to know.)

And here’s where I want to stop the plot summary, and say that this is why I like this book so much. Most books on teen pregnancy that I’ve read have unrealistic endings—they are too happy (the couple gets together) or too sad (no one helps the girl out and she is plunged into despair or suicide). In “Slam,” Sam and Alicia’s parents are trying to make this easier for them, but there is never a doubt that this is a mistake, and it will make both of their lives much harder. In addition, the teens realize about three weeks too late that what they are experiencing isn’t true love and it isn’t long-lasting. They are two very separate people with a baby in common.

Despite the tough subject matter, the novel is often hilarious. And if you are a skater, there’s the bonus that lots of the action and narrative is about something you love. Read it!

Add comment May 21, 2009

“The Silver Kiss”

“The Silver Kiss” by Annette C. Klause

It’s been a while since I read “The Silver Kiss,” but I want to recommend it to fans of the “Twilight” series.

Zoe, coming home from a hospital visit with her mother, who is dying of cancer, stays out past midnight–sad, lonely, and brimming with memories. While sitting in a playground that she loved as a child, she sees a tall, thin boy with pale skin and silvery hair. She is very afraid, remembering recent news headlines about a woman who was killed and drained of blood.

When Zoe later meets Simon, the two are attracted to one another. That Simon is a vampire causes Zoe to think desperate things—could he keep her mother from dying? Is he the murderer mentioned in the news? The two need each other to understand death, to keep from being caught in grief, and to stop the cycle of murder in town.

“The Silver Kiss” is by the same author who wrote “Blood and Chocolate,” a book several of you liked. This one is less overtly sensual, perhaps a bit more thoughtful. I highly recommend it to fans of vampire romances.

2 comments May 19, 2009

“The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood”

Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood by Rebecca Wells

356 pp.

Sidda Lee Walker, engaged to Connor, is coming to terms with the legacy of her mother, Vivi “Dahlin” Walker. Many years earlier, Vivi had “dropped her basket” and beaten her children. Sidda is left with physical as well as mental scars. When she tells an interviewer from the New York Times about the incident, the headline is Tap Dancing Child Abuser. Vivi reads this and refuses to forgive Sidda for misinterpreting her. “My love was a privilege you abused. I have withdrawn that privilege. You are out of my heart. You are banished to the outer reaches. I wish you nothing but unending guilt.”

As the book moves forward, Sidda postpones her wedding. She goes off alone to think about her mother and their relationship, and to bring back memories of her mother at an earlier time. Vivi has lent Sidda a scrapbook entitled the ‘The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood’ that chronicles the friendship of Vivi and three other girls.  These girls remain inseparable into adulthood, so the other women are like aunts to Sidda, their children her cousins. As Sidda looks through the scrapbook, alternate chapters give the real story behind each of the mementos. Though Vivi’s life had many difficulties, the Ya-Ya sisterhood helped her survive and grow. The four girls had nights out in the woods pretending to be Indian maidens, giving themselves Indian names; they played several pranks and often got in trouble. In adulthood, they were pregnant at the same time, and in old age, they still picnicked and drank together.

The feel for Louisiana and the South in general adds local color to the novel. It is definitely a “chick” book, glorifying the long, fruitful friendships among women. I found the premise of Sidda as a dramatic director and her need for the scrapbook to help her in directing her next play too contrived.  A homecoming seemed a little easy as the outcome of such anger. However, there are wonderful moments in the book, especially on Vivi’s youth and her time in a convent school—and maybe I’m too harsh a critic because everyone else I know loved this book. If you are asked to read a loosely historical fiction to start a project, this is a good choice.

Add comment May 15, 2009

“Hatchet”

“Hatchet” by Gary Paulsen

195 pp.

Brian’s parents have divorced and he is going to visit his father in Canada, flying in a small Cessna with a middle-age pilot whose name escapes him (Jim or Jake) The trip is alternately exciting and boring until the pilot has a heart attack and dies. Brian tries to call for help over the radio, but he does not know his flight number or location. Eventually his cries are not heard. When the plane runs out of gas, Brian has been preparing mentally to land as close to the edge of the lake as he can manage to steer.

Brian’s survival in the wilderness is never a certain bet. The book depicts the difficulty of his situation. The only useful tool he has is a hatchet his mother insisted he take. Things that work in the movies don’t work for him; whenever something does work, it is though patience and persistence. Lighting a fire or gathering food can take all day. Mosquitoes nearly eat Brian alive; he is sunburned and blistered and always hungry.

Some of Brian’s first food is raw snapping turtle eggs, and the details of his eating them provide a context for understanding what true hunger is. However, he learns new survival techniques each day and become more aware of his environment. Eventually he is able to spear fish and shoot ruffed grouse with a bow and arrow. When a tornado strikes, Brian’s “house” is ruined, and it’s easy to understand how basic live can become.

This is a good tale of maturing, of survival. It is a detailed description of all that Brian must do to continue to exist and seems very realistic. Many students read this one before they get to high school. If you haven’t read it, do so, just so that you have same experience in reading a good adventure book as the rest of your classmates. (It’s a ‘cultural literacy’ thing.) I don’t like when Paulsen seems to imitate Hemingway’s style, but it may appeal to others—and who knows? Maybe there’s a literary criticism essay on ‘style’ just waiting to be written.

4 comments May 15, 2009

“The Giver”

“The Giver” by Lois Lowry

180 pp.

Jonas lives in a future utopia in which everyone seems to behave well and apologizes when they hurt someone’s feelings or do something wrong. In the evenings, families share their days, expressing their happiness and frustrations. In the morning, they dutifully report their dreams to one another.

There are many indicators that children are growing up. All children are presented with jobs or tools at the yearly Ceremony. Jonas’ sister, at 8, will start her volunteer hours and at the age of 12, Jonas receives his assignment for life. Rather then become the usual such as an engineer or nurturer, Jonas is to be the receiver, the most important job in the community. He will go to the current Receiver to be given communal memories which individuals don’t know about. Memory is considered too powerful and painful for the general population. The communities, encased in an artificial and perfect environment, know nothing of the heat of the sun or the cold of the winter snow. Jonas is disturbed by many of the memories he receives–of war especially. But he also receives a memory of love that that is more deep and binding than possible in the rational world of his community.

Jonas’ father is a nurturer. He accepts babies from the birth-givers, and works in a nurturing center where babies are kept until they turn one year old. One baby, Gabriel, is not very healthy, and Jonas’ father gets special permission to bring him home to sleep at night, hoping the extra care will help him gain a little weight. If Gabriel does not do better, he will be “Released”. Jonas helps Gabriel sleep by giving him memories, which is strictly forbidden.

Gabriel does not do as well as Jonas’ father had hoped and is scheduled for Release. Jonas and the Giver hatch a plan to bring memory back to the community, but to do so, Jonas must flee “elsewhere.”

I know that many people read this novel before they get to high school, but if you haven’t read it, do so. It is often censored and would make a good read for “Banned Books Week.”

Add comment May 15, 2009

“Blood and Chocolate”

“Blood and Chocolate” by Annette Curtis Klause

264 pp.

Though “Blood and Chocolate” is a young adult book (that is, it’s meant for a teen audience), it is a very sensuous, even sexual book. Vivian, the she-werewolf, thinks a lot about having Aiden, a human, as a lover. She introduced herself to him after reading a poem he wrote about becoming a wolf. There are many scenes of the two almost having sex. In the end, Vivian decides to show Aiden that she is a werewolf. His reaction and subsequent behavior alienate Vivian from others at her school.

In the meantime, a werewolf is killing people in town. Vivian can’t remember doing the killing, but she keeps finding evidence that she is the culprit.

Throughout the book, Vivian has a conflict about her place in the wolf pack . At one point, a renegade she-werewolf attacks Vivian’s mother. When Vivian defends her mother, she becomes the lead female wolf, but rejects the pack leader Gabriel.

“Having fallen for a human boy, Vivian must battle both her pack mates and the fear of the townspeople to decide where she belongs and with whom.” (book jacket) The beautiful human Aiden or the werewolf Gabriel—with dual wolf and human natures?

If you are looking for a book with supernatural characters and are finished reading the “Twilight” series and “Vampire Academy”, I think you’ll like this one.

Add comment May 15, 2009

“Fallen Angels”

“Fallen Angles” by Walter Dean Myers

309 pp.

Richie Perry is an African-American boy who goes to Vietnam. His experiences there change his perception of the world. On his first day out, another new recruit is blown apart when he steps on a mine. A favorite understanding officer, Lieutenant Carroll, is killed a few months later. Soon after, a favorite companion, Brew, has his leg ripped open and dies during the evacuations as Perry holds his hand. Perry also finds that he often does not understand who is the enemy and is frightened of some of the villagers as they may be part of the Viet Cong. On one trip to a local village to search for VC, a woman hands a baby to a GI. The baby explodes, killing the GI. Other soldiers then kill the women and the other child who was with her.

Periodically, Perry is bored. There often seems to be racial tension in his platoon although it is never explored.

Among his other gruesome experiences, Perry is wounded twice. The book has a lot of suspense and excitement. The view of a young soldier seems to be realistic. Someone interested in what the Vietnam War was like or even what it feels like to be a soldier would “enjoy” reading Fallen Angles. This would work for projects requiring you to began with loosely historical fiction, but you can’t have a weak tummy. War is gorey.

Add comment May 15, 2009

“A Dirty Job” and “You Suck: A Love Story”

“A Dirty Job” and “You Suck: A Love Story,” both by Christopher Moore

I was talking with a COHS student about vampire books, and she recommended that I read some Christopher Moore titles, so I did. She thought they might be popular with COHS students.

“A Dirty Job” is about a ‘beta’ male, Charlie Asher. He is in a constant state of worry. His wife dies very unexpectedly after giving birth to their only child, Sophie. Charlie happens to walk into the room as Death—or a helper of Death—is collecting his wife’s soul. The ironic twist that Charlie is also called to be a sort of death helper (as opposed to Death with a capital ‘D”) creates a lot of the wacky humor that follows. In San Francisco alone (the setting of the novel), there are many helper deaths, and they collect souls in objects (soul vessels), which later will find their way to the right ‘soulless’ person. So, some of these death characters own used CD/record stores or, in Charlie’s case, a thrift shop that sells old clothes, etc. Charlie knows which of the old items hold the souls of owners who have died because they glow red.

Adding to the drama, the Forces of Darkness are on the rise, and they want to reap the souls as a way of gaining strength while working on conquering the world. They’d also like to snatch baby Sophie, so she must be guarded by giant Hellhounds. (Try keeping those in your house.)

“You Suck,” published next after “A Dirty Job,” has some of the same characters, but apparently it’s more of a sequel to an older title “Bloodsucking Fiends” (one I haven’t read.) I liked this as a bit of a wake-up call for “Twilight” fans. Here are two undead young lovers who must drink blood to survive, and that’s actually pretty gross for them. Blood must be added to anything else they’d like to drink—coffee, for instance. Feeding at night, sleeping during the day, and accidentally getting burned by the sun turn out to be a drag. (Who could have guessed?) Worse yet, not everyone is happy to have vampires in the neighborhood (seriously fans of Edward—who would have guessed?!), and the two are being hunted both by an ancient vampire and Tommy’s former friends, the Animals—commonly know as Safeway Supermarket stock boys.

Fortunately, Tommy and Jody have a devoted minion—Abby Normal, goth girl, who appeared as a minor character in “A Dirty Job.” Abby’s journal entries make up a significant portion of the book. They are stereotypical whines and ranks from an emo teen who would like to be undead, too. Nevertheless, they are spot-on hilarious.

Moore’s novels mix horror with comedy, creating a farce. They are original in genre and laugh-out-loud funny—sometimes tear-inducing funny. The characters themselves are less original—they are stereotypes: the goth/emo teen, the beta male, and on—but they, too, are pretty darned amusing.

I agree that these novels could be popular with COHS students. They are very different from what I usually read—I found myself scanning quickly, looking for the next punch line, rather than contemplating a deeper significance. (Reading these books is very much like seeing a stand-up comic in a live show.)  Not a bad way to spend an evening. However, as you are in high school and I am a teacher, I’ll add this caveat: these are adult books. We have them here at COHS because the public library purchased them. I doubt the other high schools in our district have them because they contain low-brow sexual humor—in fact, some rude sex—and foul language. No, I don’t think they will make you lose your innocence or your beliefs, but it’s good to know what you’re getting into in case you don’t want to read this sort of thing. (I know some of you are not allowed to, or do not wish to, watch R-rated movies. Just as a guideline, if R-rated movies are out, so are these books.) Moore recently published a new title that is now on best seller lists—“Fool.” It’s located in the new fiction, but there’s a waiting list to check it out.

I’ll ask the student who recommended the books to make a comment about them, so you can get a teen point of view.

1 comment May 12, 2009

“The Boy in the Striped Pajamas” and “The Book Thief”

“The Boy in the Stripped Pajamas” by John Boyne and “The Book Thief” by Markus Zusak

It’s been a few months since I’ve read these books—one after the other—but I felt like I needed some space away from them before recommending them to you. Though students often ask for “Holocaust book” recommendations, it’s pretty depressing to read too many at once. However, these two deserve to be read. Unlike many ‘young adult’ books that are for kids in the fifth grade and up, “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas” and “The Book Thief” are truly for high school and beyond.

The main character in “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas” is Bruno, a small inquisitive nine-year-old living in Berlin, Germany during World War II. Though the narrative is third person, the point of view is Bruno’s. Although his father is a high-ranking officer, and Hitler (whom Bruno calls “the fury” because Fuhrer is a word he doesn’t know) comes to visit Bruno’s home, the boy has no knowledge of the war, nor any understanding of the Holocaust.

Bruno’s innocence is the one big problem I have with this novel. It’s not that he should understand the Holocaust—at that time, who could have imagined it, especially a little boy? It’s that he has no knowledge of Nazis or anti-Semitism. I gather from several other books on the period that being in the ‘Hitler Youth’ was vital for children if their parents were not to be ostracized. Bruno would have had a little uniform, gone to meetings, marched, and have been indoctrinated. He would have addressed others by saying “Heil Hitler” and he would have known who the Fuhrer was.

But seeing the story of Nazi Germany through the eyes of a total innocent helps the reader to see how truly out of balance Bruno’s world is. When his father is promoted to ‘Commandant’ and the family moves to ‘Out with’ (as Auschwitz sounds to the boy), Bruno can see a death camp from his window, only 50 yards away, but he doesn’t know why the people in it wear striped pajamas. As there are no children to play with (except his twelve-year-old sister, who plays with dolls), Bruno goes exploring and meets a boy who is on the other side of the fence, Shmuel. Though on opposite sides of the fence with very different lives, the boys maintain a friendship through conversation and imagination.

“The Boy in the Striped Pajamas” made my thoughts jump all the way back to a story I read in third grade (and believe me that’s a big leap!) entitled “They Grind Exceedingly Small,” in which a father, through his own acts of selfishness and disregard for others, loses all that matters. (I guess that wasn’t an appropriate story for a third grader, but my teacher thought I was a good reader and gave me a high school literature book to read from.) This quiet book of two boys’ lives ends horrifyingly, heartbreakingly.

Perhaps there is no other way to end a book that takes place in Germany (or Poland) during World War II, but “The Book Thief” is another heart breaker. Even so, I loved reading it—it’s one of the best young adult books I’ve ever read—because the writing is so good, the form of the narrative is creative, and the characters became so important to me.

“The Book Thief” is narrated by Death—and he’s not the cruel being you’d imagine, but he witnesses plenty of cruelty and pointless suffering as he arrives to take souls on their journeys. He becomes fascinated by a little girl, Liesel Meminger. He first ‘meets’ her when she is on a trip with her mother and brother to Molching, Germany, where the children are to live in a foster home because their mother has been branded a “Kommunist.” Liesel’s brother dies on the trip, and it is at his funeral that she steals her first book, a gravedigger’s manual.

Liesel can’t read. However once she is living in her foster home in a poor working class neighborhood, her foster father, Hans Hubermann, teaches her. He is a gentle man and helps Liesel through her nightmares about her brother. He plays the accordion and sleeps in a chair so that Liesel won’t be alone. Rosa, Leisel’s foster mother, is much more gruff—and yet, she has a kind heart, too, despite her use of pejorative language.

We readers not only love these people, but also the neighbor boy Rudy, who wants to be like Jesse Owens and becomes Liesel’s best friend. And when Max arrives, we are riveted, knowing that little good can come to those who refuse to join the Nazi party or to those who are Jewish.

Though Max had a friend who was helping him to escape the Nazis, he has been drafted into the army. Max’s one chance for survival is to get to Molching and find Hans. Years before, in World War I, a Jewish man saved Hans’s life. That man was Max’s father, and Hans had promised him that he would do anything for him. So with Max hidden in the basement, Liesel, though young, must keep the secret.

In the meanwhile, Liesel has learned to steal books from the library of the mayor’s wife (who allows this because she, too, cares for Liesel, a reader.) It is by reading that Liesel calms her terrified neighbors in a bomb shelter. Through all, Max and Liesel become true friends, helping each other to survive their losses. In a beautiful and ironic gesture, Max paints the pages of a copy of Mein Kampf so that he can write a story and paint pictures for Liesel—a gift of a book, a most meaningful choice.

I rarely love characters more than I did these. I wanted them to survive—all of them—but of course, this is Germany in World War II.

I, along with some friends who’ve read “The Book Thief” think it might be a good replacement for “The Diary of Anne Frank” in the eighth grade curriculum. If you have the opportunity, you should read both “The Book Thief” and “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas.” If you are short on time, you should read “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas” (which is a small book). If you have time for one longer book, and you want to remember it for the rest of your life, read “The Book Thief.”

1 comment May 7, 2009

“Crunch Time”

“Crunch Time” by Mariah Fredericks

Mrs. M in our English Department recommended this novel to me, and I just finished it.

“Crunch Time” is the story of Max, Daisy, Leo and Jane, who, though very different and socially isolated from one another, become friends when they decide that no one is showing up to teach their Princeton Review SAT class. They go out for pizza and then have regular dates at Jane’s house where they study.

Told as first-person observations by the four characters, how they react to one another with trust, anger, loyalty and betrayal is very realistic. Jane is the daughter of a movie star, but has no real life or image of her own. Daisy is an athlete who learns from her parents that saving the world and other people matters. Max is the intelligent school newspaper editor who has a crush on Daisy. Leo is the super-smart, super-cute guy who makes a play for Daisy. Yet all these kids have problems, and these come to the surface when it is discovered that someone at their school cheated on the SAT, jeopardizing all of their scores and thus, college admissions.Two of these characters are suspected, and they all start to suspect one another.

There’s true love, guys who are players, trouble with alcohol, a party where reputations are ruined, difficulties with parents, and an inappropriately interested stepfather. All good stuff. But the best thing about “Crunch Time” is the light it sheds on what happens when we judge people by standardized test scores.

Add comment May 6, 2009


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