"Outside a dog a book is man's best friend, inside a dog it is too dark to read!" -Groucho Marx========="The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid." -Jane Austen========="I don’t believe in the kind of magic in my books. But I do believe something very magical can happen when you read a good book."-JK Rowling========"I spend a lot of time reading." -Bill Gates=========“Ahhh. Bed, book, kitten, sandwich. All one needed in life, really.” -Jacqueline Kelly=========

Friday, May 28, 2010

The Red Necklace: A Story of the French Revolution

We just completed a week of student-led conferences at our school. Students were required to stand before their adviser and parent(s) while talking about schooling experiences, goals, and challenges from the past year. Many talked about their favorite and least favorite classes. With one exception, all of the students expressed their dislike of their history class. After reading this book I was struck by the irony of that. Here is a book about a revolution where all the aristocracy had their heads lobbed off and the underclass became murderous mobs. How can anyone think that history is boring? I will hazard a guess that the problem lies in the volume of material that should be covered so that there isn't time to tarry on every really interesting tidbit from history.... or, today's students have grown up with such dramatic action movies to wow them that bloody revolutions seem tame in comparison. Either way, it is a shame because this is really interesting stuff.

Even though I was fascinated by Marie Antoinette ("Let them eat cake") and Louis the XVI as a teenager I really had no idea what the French Revolution was about. I didn't know, until I read this book, that the aristocracy and the clergy paid no taxes at all. All the taxes were paid by the middle class and the peasants. And when the aristocracy wanted to enhance their already lavish lifestyles they would just raise the rent on the already overburdened lower class. It really is delightful to learn history while reading a fictional book. It never feels like work and there is a storyline or a mystery to keep the reader moving along.

Sally Gardner admits that this book wasn't designed to be a completely accurate depiction of the French Revolution but there was certainly enough information about the lavish lifestyles of the few and the anger of the masses to pique my curiosity to learn even more. I challenge myself to read more historical fiction in the future.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Keesha's House by Helen Frost

"...Lately, I've been thinking about the hurdles
people face in their lives. It's like us kids are just touching
the starting line, with everybody watching
where we stand in sports and in our grades.
They measure us against each other, but no one knows what we
go through to get where we start from...
...He's good at sports. Good-looking. Most of the time, that's all we
watch. But how does someone face an unexpected hurdle?
that touches on what counts. And there's no grade for that." (p. 60-61)

This delightful short book written in poetic style was the 2004 Printz Honor book. Each chapter is assigned to a different teenager experiencing troubles with parents, school, the law, addiction, etc. They all eventually end up at Joe's house, but they call it Keesha's house, where they find peace and a respite from their worries and problems.

Unfortunately this book doesn't appeal to teenagers, even those who really like reading poetic prose. I wonder if it is because it is too concise, too wrapped up neatly, not quite angst-ridden enough. At any rate, it really is worth a look. It is short. I read it in a few hours. I am jealous of Frost's abilities to write poems that tell a story.

A few other books that are written in this poetic prose style: Crank by Ellen Hopkins (and all the other books she has recently written); Planet Pregnancy by Linda High; Sold by Patricia McCormick; A Bad Boy Can Be Good for a Girl by Tanya Stone; Because I am Furniture by Thalia Chaltas; the wonderful triology by Virginia Euwer Wolff that includes Make Lemonade and True Believer.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Books that have improved in my memory over time

I keep annotated journal entries of all the books I read. I've been doing this since 1997 when I realized that I wanted to remember all the books I was reading for book club. Without the journal the books would get all tangled up in my memory. Sometimes, not often, I read through the journals and reflect on the comments that I made on certain books. Frequently my estimation of the book at the time doesn't match what I currently think of the book after it has had the benefit of simmering in my memory for a while. In fact, I was rereading the diaries in this blog not long ago and my evaluation of some of the books I have reviewed no longer match...and this blog isn't even a year old.

Here are the titles of a few YA books that have improved in my memory over time:

Going Bovine by Libba Bray--- I think about this book and even quote from it frequently. Kelsey, a student at my school who is a huge fan of this book, told me that she was going to reread it for the third time over Spring Break. She wanted to because she had missed so much the first two times through the book. (Original review: Jan. 2010)

Marcelo in the Real World by Francisco X. Stork--- though I reported on this blog how much I like this book I was actually pretty lukewarm about it in the beginning. By the time the Printz committee met in early January I was tremendously disappointed that it didn't win any of the Printz honors for the year. (August 2009)

Liar by Justine Larbalestier--- I am still trapped in my thinking about this book...is the main character telling the truth at the end of the story or is she telling another lie? I think if a book has that much power to captivate and intrigue that it deserves an upgrade. (January 2010)

The Disreputable History of Frankie-Landau Banks by E. Lockhart--- this novel won a Printz Honor two years ago and many reviewers, like myself, think it should have been the winner. The more I think about this book the more I like Frankie. She is such a strong confident, self-assured female character. I wish all girls could channel her karma. (April 2009)

I am the Messenger by Marcus Zusak--- I was shocked to look back on the review I wrote for this book. How could I have not absolutely adored this book the first time I read it? Granted there is a lot of foul-language in the book and I only recommend it to mature readers, but many of those readers, especially boys, have reported that this is the best book they've ever read. (September 2006)

Paper Towns by John Green--- I am not sure why, but I seem to have a compulsive need to rank order books. Since I have read all of Green's books I am constantly shuffling them around in my brain trying to determine which one I like best. One of the things that has caused my estimation of this book to improve is how much my daughter likes it. Plus the funny parts, and there were lots of them, keep replaying in my head. (January 2009)

Fat Kid Rules the World by K.L. Going--- Granted, I have been high on this book for a long time but it has nearly reached cult status in my mind since I originally read it in 2007. Could it possibly be as good as I remember it now? Perhaps that is the sign that I should reread this novel. Of course, if I do and don't like it that will be fodder for a blog post of books of which my opinion has worsened. Ha! (October 2007)

What are the books that have improved in your memory over time?

P.S. I no longer rate books here on my blog. I decided to stop my rating system because my opinion seems to evolve over time and I don't want to feel "stuck" with a certain rating.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Will Grayson, Will Grayson by Green and Levithan

Will Grayson, Will Grayson I love you, I love you. Or maybe it is-- John Green and David Levithan-- I love you, I love you. (Something about the title just makes me want to repeat myself.)

This is the story by two fabulous YA authors about Tiny Cooper, "the world's largest person who is really, really gay" and two boys, both named Will Grayson whose lives intersect one night in Chicago. Will Grayson (owg) and Tiny have been best friends since 5th grade. Will has often stood by Tiny when his love life has gone sour and now Tiny attempts to set up Will with Jane so that he too can find love. The attempted set up falls apart when Will can't get into the club to hear the band and is left outside waiting for his friends. He ducks into a shop to wait and he here he meets the other will grayson (lower case) who is waiting for a male date that will never show up. Later Tiny helps will grayson through his disappointment and pain. While these relationships (and others) are evolving, Tiny is busy writing, producing, directing, casting, and performing in his own musical creation, Tiny Dancer, a musical about love and his life.

Two recurring themes of the book are that "love is tied to truth" and "being friends, that's just something you are". I found the book to be irresistible, especially during the opening night of the musical. I didn't find the book as humorous as many reviewers, but I was very moved by the deep friendship between the main characters. The story is told in alternating chapters from each Will Grayson's point of view (one in lower case) and is full of honest language, which I admit somewhat bothered me in the beginning. But the ending was so awesome that any memories of earlier discomfort on my part were wiped away. In fact, I love the ending so much I think I'll go reread it right now.

Now take a minute (literally) to view John Green in a video clip about the book. It'll make you smile, I promise.

*Now that book did not suffer from a shortage of musical numbers!

Sunday, May 9, 2010

City of Bones by Cassandra Clare

"Suddenly able to see demons and the Shadowhunters who are dedicated to returning them to their own dimension, fifteen-year-old Clary Fray is drawn into a bizarre world when her mother disappears and Clary herself is almost killed by a monster." -From the book jacket

So begins another imaginative and thrilling modern-day fantasy and the first book of a trilogy. I devoured this book just like my high school readers do. In fact, I started listening to this book on Talking/Audio CD but abandoned that method of consumption because I can read a lot faster than narrators can read. Though I literally zoomed through this book I don't give Ms. Clare an A for her writing style. A colleague who has read the other books in the series assures me that her writing improves in subsequent volumes. I know this sounds rather snobby of me since the story is so compelling why should it matter? Twilight wasn't high literature either and that didn't keep teens and adults alike from enjoying it.

As the story started to unfold I did start to notice a very interesting development. I kept noticing similarities to the Harry Potter series. Not that I am accusing Clare of plagiarism, just some obvious resemblances. Here are a few that I noticed:

-mundanes (muggles)- regular humans
-transformations (transfiguration)- changing into an animal form; both books had someone changed into a rat.
-magical motorbikes
-magical charms that hide buildings from being viewed/seen by human eyes
-birds of prey used as messengers
-very wicked being wants to take over the world- Valentine (Voldemort)
-half bloods looked down on by some full blooded Shadowhunters (Wizards)

There were also lots of differences between the two books and Ms. Clare has written a very exciting tale. I know I will make time to read the sequels soon.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Fire by Kristin Cashore

This book is the prequel to Graceling and starts with an introduction to how evil King Leck's grace advanced to the point where he could manipulate others simply with his voice.He re-enters the story later as the fighting between kingdoms heat up but in the meantime the story shifts to Fire, a beautiful monster girl and her relationships with the royal family. Monsters are enhanced and exceptionally beautiful versions of animals and their presence has peculiar effects on people-positive or negative. Fire assists the king through her abilities to manipulate people's thoughts and to read minds and motives.

This book is marvelous. I think the writing is superior to Graceling and I loved that book so I guess that means that I adore this one. Once again Cashore captures the reader with her creativity and imagination. The books can be read in either order. She wrote Graceling first but there is really nothing in this book that would spoil it if you read Fire first and vise versa. A word of caution, however, these books aren't really meant for a younger audience---there are lots of references to sexual activity, though nothing is too graphic. I reserve my recommendation for high school age readers and above.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Assassination Vacation/Words Do Matter

Sarah Vowell's book Assassination Vacation looks at the assassinations of three of our past Presidents: Lincoln, Garfield, and McKinley, by visiting and describing the spots associated with the assassination, that president, or the assassin.

Over half of the book was dedicated to the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and the plot and actions of John Wilkes Booth and others. I learned quite a lot and enjoyed Vowell's writing style and sense of humor. The next section was dedicated to Garfield- a President that no one knows much about, or seems to care much about. I think I started losing interest in the book at this point. I haven't spent enough time in Washington , DC to be familiar or feel enthralled as she described the statues in the mall that sort of related to Garfield. The third, and a fairly short section of the book was dedicated to the assassination of McKinley and to the politics of the day. She drew together several of the similarities with the politics of our country under George Bush and the politics under McKinley. The assassination of John F. Kennedy was not covered--nor was it explained why not, which I found disappointing. Perhaps Vowell ran out of steam for writing on this topic--kind of like I ran out of steam reading the book. The last section of the book was dedicated to the Lincoln Memorial. I found this short section to be thoughtful and poignant.

What did strike me as I read this book was how words spoken and written do matter.

The rhetoric today against President Obama from the right-wing quarter is so scary. It makes me afraid that some kook out there like Booth, Guiteau, or Czolgosz will decide that he needs to kill Obama as an act "to save the country." All three of these assassins thought they were killing the President for the good of the country or the cause.

Booth thought he'd be heralded as a hero for the Confederate cause. He was mystified that Lincoln's death seemed to reunite the union not rekindle the fight. He took Jefferson's words completely out of context: "The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants." By the way, that quote was on the back of Timothy McVeigh's T-shirt the day that he bombed the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. McVeigh thought his actions would start the great uprising against the tyrannical government, too.

Guiteau thought by killing Garfield that the Stalwarts would be thrilled. He actually thought that General Sherman would come and rescue him from jail. And Czolgosz shot McKinley in part to prove that he was an anarchist to his hero, Emma Goldman. Goldman was an anarchist of the day saying things like,"We must get rid of the galling yoke of government. We merely desire complete individual liberty and this can never be obtained as long as there is an existing government." Her words stirred up Czolgosz. "She set me on fire", he told his jailers. In addition during this time period Hearst, a renown newspaper publisher, published this editorial: "If bad institutions and bad men can be got rid of only by killing, then the killing must be done..." (p. 198.) Egads. Doesn't this sound like the rhetoric of today?

Beware! Words do matter. History proves it.