FANGIRL by Rainbow Rowell (St. Martin’s Griffin, 2013)

14 Dec

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GENRE: Realistic Fiction

HONORS: New York Times Notable Book

REVIEW: Cath and her twin sister Wren are on their way to college but Cath isn’t ready to leave everything behind. She’s worried about their father, Art, who has been on shaky mental ground since their mother left ten years earlier. She feels abandoned by Wren, who wants to branch out and explore other friendships and share a room with someone who isn’t Cath for the first time in their lives. And most importantly, she’s not ready to leave Simon Snow behind, the lead of her favorite Harry Potter-like book series and the object of her fan fiction story Carry On, Simon which is wildly popular on the Internet. Cath is the ultimate fangirl—but she’s living in a world that’s not really her own. Simon and Baz are the main characters in her life. But as Cath moves through the complexities of her freshman year, her roommate Reagan, Reagan’s cute ex-boyfriend Levi, and a writing partner Nick, take key supporting roles as Cath learns to be her own best character in the original story of her life.

OPINION: A perfectly told story with just the right about of sweetness, bittersweetness, and complexity, Rowell has written another book that feels effortlessly consuming. Her characters crackle with charm and personality—Reagan, especially is a great mix of anger and allure. And Levi’s smile practically emanates from the page. The clever story-within-a-story creates a parallel of Simon and Cath’s lives which gives a lovely break away that always draws one back to the other story—you can’t wait to read Simon’s next chapter, but you don’t want to leave Cath’s evolving world either. In a lesser writer’s hands, it could feel cliché. But Rowell’s deftness with plot and dialogue give meaning to Cath’s quirky passion and gives us a glimpse at the world of fandom and people who never want a story to end. The same could be said of Fangirl. Let’s hope Cath and Levi live on somewhere on the Internet themselves.

IDEAS: Many comparisons have been made between Rowell’s voice and that of John Green. Both authors have found great success in telling stories of fully realized teens who are unpredictable, unaffected, and always truly themselves. A showcase of all of their books and a comparison of the protagonists of each could be very interesting.

THE VIGILANTE POETS OF SELWYN ACADEMY by Kate Hattemer (Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2014)

14 Dec

Screen Shot 2014-12-10 at 9.01.11 PM GENRE: Realistic Fiction

HONORS: None Known

REVIEW: Tricolons, interrobangs, a gerbil named for a condiment, Ezra Pound, and reality TV form an unlikely narrative in this charmingly odd tale of Ethan Andrezejczak and his best friends Jackson, Elizabeth, and Luke, and their fight for the artistic integrity of life. When a hit reality TV show, “For Art’s Sake,” begins filming at their Minneapolis arts high school, Ethan’s group scorns the fakeness and sleaziness of the endeavor. Inspired by Pound’s The Cantos, which they are studying in English, the group’s talented writer Luke writes his own long poem, titled Contrecantos, that tears apart the show. Their teacher, BradLee, pushes them to clandestinely distribute the poem to the school, setting off a chain of events and revelations that expose the truth of life and art.

OPINION: With a satisfying mix of quirky situations, witty dialogue, and brainy exploration, Vigilante Poets is a joyful journey into the meaning of life, the meaning of art, and the meaning of friendship (often set within a tricolon setting). Author Hattemer plays with many forms and makes complex ideas engaging when seen through the eyes of Ethan, the least talented of the many talents at the school. But as Ethan struggles to find his place—what he begins to think of as his “betweeness”—he begins to understand the “tremulous fusion between self-trust and self-doubt” and realizes that being talented at life is just as important as being talented at art. Vigilante Poets examines the differences between sacrificing for what you love and exploiting what you’re good at. It’s a deceptively light-feeling book with heavy ideas at its core.

IDEAS: Ezra Pound is a complicated writer with challenging words—could someone read the entire 120 sections of The Cantos and read this book as well? As doubtful as it is, it could be interesting to compare a few sections of The Cantos to analyze its meaning in relation to Vigilante Poets. A biography of Pound read in conjunction with this book could also be interesting. Or reading other long poems to learn about the genre (Frost, Dickinson, or Wilde) could be a good experience as well.

SO MUCH TO LIVE FOR by Lurlene McDaniel (Willowisp Press, 1991)

14 Dec

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GENRE: Realistic Fiction

HONORS: None Known

REVIEW: This third in the “Dawn Rochelle” series, So Much to Live For follows the protagonist, fifteen-year-old Dawn Rochelle, as she begins work at a camp for kids with cancer. Dawn has attended the camp herself—she’s a leukemia survivor and is in remission. But Dawn’s “easy” summer job becomes complicated when she runs up against Marlee, one of her campers with cancer—and a very bad attitude. As Dawn gets to know Marlee, she begins to know the depths of her loneliness and fear. And Dawn finds a new friend in Marlee, even as camp takes Dawn back to her own friendship with Sandy, her camp bestie who’s passed away after her own fight with cancer. At the end, Dawn realizes every fight is different, but everyone needs someone who’s on their side.

OPINION: McDaniels is known as the queen of sick-lit, and this book is the perfect example why. Here the drama, the story, and the entire premise is based on the protagonist’s illness—cancer is the main device that propels the action and the narrative. But there is no nuance here. There is only cancer bad, fighting it good. In fact, the entire book is overdone, overwritten, overworked. The writing is stilted and juvenile. The dialogue is forced and unnatural. But despite all these melodramatic parts, there is still something satisfying about the whole—a chicken potpie for the soul. It fills you, even though you have a stomachache at the end. McDaniels has hit on a formula that resonates (and has resonated) for generations of teens. Illness sells. And McDaniels peddles it well.

IDEAS: As the original sick-lit author, any of McDaniel’s books could be read in conjunction with the breadth of other novels in the sub-genre. It would be interesting to compare sick-lit of 1991 with sick-lit of twenty years later to see if there are differences now in how illness is portrayed.


PLEASE IGNORE VERA DIETZ by A.S. King (Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2010)

13 Dec

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GENRE: Realistic Fiction

HONORS: Printz Honor Book, 2011, Edgar Award Nominee, 2011

REVIEW: Vera Dietz has ignored a lot in her life. Or at least swept it under the rug, not to deal with it again. When her mother left (her former stripper mother, to be exact) she just moved on. When her best friend (and true love) Charlie Kahn was abused at the hands of his parents, ignored. And when Charlie drops her for a group of delinquent kids, she turns to alcohol to forget. But then Charlie dies. And Vera can’t ignore the fallout—or the reason he died and the crime he’s accused of committing. Now Vera must learn how to pay attention to her life and speak out for the person who can’t speak for himself, despite her conflicting feelings about him and their relationship.

OPINION: A heartbreaking story that touches on abuse, alcoholism, mental health issues, and a bevy of other challenging topics, Please Ignore Vera Dietz manages to evade all the stereotypes of these kinds of issues to create a cohesive mystery that keeps a reader engaged to the end. Told in short chapters from clever points of view (including the dead Charlie and the town’s famous pagoda on a hill), we know from the beginning that Charlie is dead. But along the way we learn how his death affected Vera’s life, including her relationship with her lonely father. And that’s a core theme in the book: loneliness. Each character (even dead Charlie and the pagoda) feel alienated and lost. And they must find ways to not feel ignored and disengaged. Author King shows the price one pays for not reaching out or not becoming involved—in this case, death. Please Ignore Vera Dietz is complex, multi-layered, and meaningful. And worth any reader’s full attention.

IDEAS: A. S. King is a well respected YA author who never shies away from difficult subject matter. A collection of her work, especially read in conjunction with another powerful writer, Laurie Halse Anderson, would be an interesting comparison.

THE 5TH WAVE by Rick Yancey (Penguin Group, 2013)

11 Dec

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GENRE: Science Fiction/Fantasy

HONORS: Red House children’s book award, 2014, Notable Children’s Books, The New York Times

REVIEW: The first wave, the aliens arrive. By the third, an ebola-like plague wipes out some 6 billion people. And the 5th wave is the worst, as aliens, who’ve taken over human bodies finish off the remaining humans on the planet they so desperately want for their own. Cassie Sullivan is one of the few remaining survivors. Tough as nails, she’s got one thing in mind in this brutal landscape: save her young brother Sammy, who has been taken to facility that trains young kids to be killers. As she struggles to find Sammy, Cassie is shot by a Silencer, a mercenary alien meant to track down and kill humans. Yet, somehow she survives, saved by Evan Walker, a teen who’s also lost his family and is also alone. Evan nurses her back to health and falls in love with her. But who is he really and can Cassie trust him? Together they search for Sammy and along the way run into Ben, a classmate of Cassie’s who she’s always secretly liked. Times are different and they band together to fight the aliens and escape with Sammy. They get out just in time. But where are they going to go?

OPINION: The 5th Wave uses all the tricks and twists books like The Hunger Games and Divergent have established, and pushes them to an even more satisfying alien invasion level. Told in alternating chapters between Cassie and Ben’s perspectives, we’re taken on a gruesome ride to an enemy that’s foggy and mysterious—and looks just like us. This troubling fact sets up the core horror of the story: we are the enemy. Cassie, like Katniss and Tris, is brains and brawn, with a side of lovestruckness that gives her a softer, more approachable side. The end of the story, with Cassie, Ben, and Evan escaping with Sammy, sets up a love triangle and trilogy that every reader will be waiting breathlessly to read more about. Yancey is a good writer—and a better marketer. The 5th Wave is already slated for a movie release in 2016.

IDEAS: The alien invasion genre has a second coming with this book, and it would be interesting to read it in conjunction with the first “wave” of alien invasion books like Invasion of the Body Snatchers which has a similar, yet less dystopian premise.

LOVE ME BACK by Merritt Tierce (Random House, 2014)

5 Dec

Screen Shot 2014-12-04 at 9.59.14 PM GENRE: Realistic Fiction

HONORS: None Known

REVIEW: Cutting a wide swath between young adulthood and when life gets real as an adult, Love Me Back tells the fragmented, unforgiving story of Marie, a young women full of potential who falls prey to bad decisions and circumstances. Trading in her chance to go to Yale for a baby and a series of dead end jobs waiting tables, Marie sabotages her happiness at every turn, degrading herself, demeaning her life, and traveling down a self-destructive path, the beginning of which is never made clear. She turns away from love to a series of horrible men who use her, sometimes to brutal ends, and the cold, threatening life behind the kitchen doors of the restaurant service industry. It’s not a tidy story with a happy ending—in fact, there’s no true ending at all. It’s simply a glimpse at a life most of us would be happy not to live.

OPINION: This difficult story is made even more brutal by unnerving writing which practically dares one not be disturbed. Marie is clearly missing some part of herself which she makes up for with drugs and dangerous sex—even doing things to jeopardize her relationship with her young daughter, who she loves, but in her own, damaged way. The jumpy nature of the narrative captures the moodiness and unpredictable nature of Marie’s life—one bad service can get you fired; one bad drug or bad man can get you killed. Her life is always on the edge, even as she provides patrons with a dining experience perfect and precise. It’s hard to see the overall merit in this book (and it is definitely not appropriate for younger readers) other than admire Tierce’s dedication to ugly truth. Love Me Back is hard to read for its rawness, blatantly looking the reader in the eye with a challenge to blink. But blinking might be the only way to get through all 224 pages without losing a little bit of your soul.

IDEAS: Due to the subject matter and the language, this book is only appropriate for older readers (17+) and could be considered in context of other more mature reads. A comparison with Go Ask Alice would be an interesting generational study.

MALEFICENT (Roth Films/Walt Disney Pictures, 2014)

4 Dec

Screen Shot 2014-12-03 at 9.48.42 PM GENRE: Fantasy

HONORS: None Known

REVIEW: We all know the story of Sleeping Beauty. But the woman behind her fate has always been more of a mystery (and infinitely more interesting). Maleficent brings us the story of the fairy turned warrior—a sweet girl in love who was betrayed and sought vengeance, until she found an unexpected love herself. Angelina Jolie is perfectly cast as the complex lead who defies easy categorization. She knows its wrong to care about a human boy, but she lets herself grow more deeply connected to Stefan. And while he loves her too, he gives it all up for a chance at power. Maleficent seeks revenge by cursing Stefan’s baby daughter, but as time marches to her sixteenth birthday when the curse is realized, Maleficent decides true love is possible, but not always with whom you thought. And even with a fairy tale ending, Maleficent is still a satisfyingly edgy take on the traditional fairy tale.

OPINION: Dark, brooding, and with a fairy tale feminist bent, Maleficent shows that good and evil is an overly simplistic construct that always needs a back story. Jolie is subtly brilliant as Maleficent, imbuing a shrug or light flip of the hand with many layers of meaning. And the scene where she discovers that Stefan has brutally cut off her wings is so good, it’s painful to watch. We truly feel the depth of her physical and emotional pain. The other original and meaningful part of the story is how the idea of “true love” plays out. In fairy tales, true love is between a princess and her prince. But here, true love is about the caring you feel for another person—their humanity drives the feeling. Maleficent’s final realization of her love for Aurora is moving (and we’re relieved that Prince Phillip isn’t the quick fix we’ve all come to expect from fairy tale love stories). Great sets, costumes, and make-up take this movie to an even higher level. Perhaps it’s a sign of other powerful women stories to come.

IDEAS: Especially for teen girls, this movie is a really interesting counterpart to true stories of “bad” or “evil” women throughout history and could be watched in conjunction with reading Bad Girls: Sirens, Jezebels, Murderesses, and Other Female Villains.


30 Nov

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GENRE: Realistic Fiction

HONORS: Printz Honor Book, 2009

REVIEW: Frankie is a legacy at her boarding school, the daughter of Senior her well-connected dad. Sophomore year sends a changed 15-year-old to school—Frankie has grown into a beautiful girl, and armed with insider knowledge from her graduated sister, Zada, she’s ready to be more of a force at Alabaster Prep. She does become a force—but as a “she-wolf,” the girlfriend of a popular boy, senior Matthew Livingston. Matthew is a decent enough boyfriend but his loyalty to his group of friends is annoying and clubby, in that prep school boy sort of way. Frankie vows to infiltrate the “boys club” and finds herself as the mastermind of the Bassets. She plots legendary pranks and meaningful protests, but will the “cute” girl behind the events ever be taken seriously?

OPINION: A “feminist” manifesto of sorts, Disreputable History takes on the “old boys network” at its first indoctrination point—prep school. Frankie is everything that a successful person should be: smart, attractive, clever, focused, ambitious. In fact, the only thing that she isn’t is male. And she rebels against that failing by taking control of the male world she isn’t privy to. It’s a powerful message for teen girls—but Frankie’s approach is misguided. Instead of secretly taking over, it would have been more interesting to see her lead completely. But author Lockhart deftly taps into the mixed messages girls see and hear—Frankie wants “in” but she also wants to be liked—even loved—in the way that pretty girls usually are. Frankie shows us just how complicated it can be for a girl in a man’s world. Well-written, sly, and brimming with these complexities, Disreputable History is a must-read for teen girls and the boys who want to know them.

IDEAS: With a low-key feminist slant, it could be interesting to curate a collection of more overt feminist writing throughout history.

WILL GRAYSON, WILL GRAYSON by John Green and David Levithan (Dutton Juvenile, 2010)

29 Nov

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GENRE: Realistic Fiction

HONORS: None Known

REVIEW: Will Grayson is waiting out his remaining time in high school convinced he needs to keep quiet and not care about anything. He’s lost most of his “friends” after speaking up for his best friend Tiny Cooper, a 300-lb football player who is also a “really, really gay” musical writer. Meanwhile, will grayson (Will #2) is a closeted teen carrying on an email affair with his true love, Isaac, whom he’s never met. The two boys, Will and will plod through their lives, navigating the complexities of love and friendship until the fateful night they meet each other in a Chicago porn shop and find out what they share, besides their names.

OPINION: Written in a unique every-other-chapter by two YA powerhouses, Will Grayson is a smart, charming, funny story of teens learning to be themselves—and learning to think of others beside themselves. Both of the Will characters are self-centered and angry at the world (and at what the world expects of them). Will #1 watches idly by as Tiny grows even larger than his enormous girth—he’s a big personality and a giant presence in Will’s life, even introducing him to Jane who slowly becomes his girlfriend. But Will #1 resents Tiny’s importance. Will #2 is duped by his friend Maura into believing that Isaac is real, and he resents her forced presence in his life. When the two Wills meet they finally realize they don’t have to go it alone—they can be part of something larger and that acceptance can bring them the love and friendship they thought they’d been missing. A fantastic collaboration that really works, Will Grayson is a great read.

IDEAS: This book could bring together a collection of John Green and David Levithan books and readers could dissect how each author tells a story.



THE TURNING by Francine Prose (Harper Teen, 2012)

28 Nov

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GENRE: Horror

HONORS: None Known

REVIEW: Prose, a respected author of both fiction and non-fiction, takes her hand to YA for the first time in a modern retelling of Turning of the Screw by Henry James. Told in a series of letters from Jack to his girlfriend Sophie and his father, Jack recounts his summer job on a mysterious, isolated island caring for two odd children removed from the outside world. As the weeks go by, Jack’s letters become more desperate and paranoid, as he reveals his complex relationship with two ghosts that haunt the island. Are there truly ghosts? Or is Jack slowly loosing his grip on reality?

OPINION: While the original story was written in 1898, a 2012 version loses the mystery and isolation that was possible in a time without any other form of communication. Which leads to the letter writing structure of the story. The epistolary novel traps Prose into a clunky, unbelievable format that makes any descriptive passages or dialogue feel forced and ridiculous. Her writing is in no way similar to how a modern teenage boy would write to his girlfriend. And it’s challenging to believe that anyone in the throes of insanity or ghost sighting would have the presence of mind to recount the details he does in his letters. Adding to the dryness of the narrator is the dullness of the story—one can see this coming a mile away. Strange children, an isolated island, mysterious circumstances? There is nothing new or unexpected here. James’ story might hold up over time. But Prose’s version definitely doesn’t. This is a truly horrible book.

IDEAS: Due to its paranormal, spooky themes, this could be part of a Halloween reading series. It would also be interesting to compare and contrast it with Turning of the Screw.