Friday, June 26, 2009

Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson

I want to speak after I read this - I want to tell everyone I can to read this story. To read this story and then to listen very closely for the silence of those teenagers in your life. That is sometimes the only way they can really communicate!

Mel begins freshman year as an outcast by choice. As the world moves forward Mel is stuck – the words are stuck in her throat, her forward motion is stuck, her life is stuck. But, you the reader, don't really know why she is stuck... there are clues. But it's late in the book that Mel actually tells what happened that night at the party before school started.

Mel is ostracized for calling the cops on a party – when she was actually reporting something very different that underage drinking. How do you fit in after that? How do you get to the point where you even want to fit in? That is what Mel explores through this yearlong journey.

I don't want to say too much...I don't want to give anything more away. But, this is a heartbreaking story of a girl who just doesn't know how to move on. And then a teacher, not a cardboard cut-out adult, but a flesh and blood teacher, starts to break through Mel's shell.

Read it!!

Chanda's Secrets and Chanda's Wars by Allan Stratton

Chanda is a spirited teenager growing up poor in a small city in a fictional African country. She is very smart and loyal to her mother and her family.

The story opens with Chanda buying the coffin for her 1½ year old sister. Chanda’s good friend Esther no longer attends school, but earns a living doing odd jobs for tourists (hooking). It is only after a horrible attack and rape that Esther admits that this is the only way to earn money to buy back her siblings following her parents’ deaths. Then mama becomes sick. She leaves the family to go to her ancestral home. Chanda goes seeking her and finds her almost dead in an old cattle shed. As Chanda brings her mama home the neighborhood is faced with a dilemma. They all know it’s AIDS, but no one can voice that. Chanda is tired of the secrets, calls it what it is and celebrates her mother’s life.

There are more secrets for Chanda to keep or share, but through this she grows from a young girl to a young woman.

Chanda's Wars picks up right where the first book stopped.

Chanda again attempts to save her family – this time from an evil rebel leader who steals children, brands and brainwashes them to fight in his army while he kills families and loots villages. When Soly and Iris are stolen Chanda tracks the group cross country with Nelson’s (the boy her family wanted her to marry) reluctant help. Using a bees’ nest, a slingshot and the cover of darkness, they create enough confusion to rescue Soly, Iris and Nelson’s brother Paka, maim General Mandiki, and escape into the bush.

This story deals with the awful realities the children in Africa must face as they are thrown into the midst of civil wars. When Soly and Iris are taken, General Mandiki tells them that to return to their family would be certain death for them and their loved ones. He brands them with a hot iron on their chests and tells them that noone will trust them if they see his brand.

Parts of this story reminded me so much of A long Way Gone. It is a reality that I hope we never have to experience!!

Looking for Alaska by John Green

This is one of those angst filled high school books that I love! There are quirky characters, cardboard adult figures, and amazing pranks.

All sounds rosy at Culver Creek boarding school in Birmingham, Alabama. But...
(can't you almost hear the da da da daaaaa music)

Miles Halter decides his life as a nothing high school student just isn't enough - so he transfers as a junior from Florida to Alabama. He is roommates with Chip aka the Colonel. And the third leg of the friendship triangle is Alaska. An odd duck of a girl that every boy is in love with, every girl wants to be her friend, and she is driven by unspoken demons that rear their head when she is mighty drunk.

This threesome studies, dreams, smokes and plans pranks together.

Then tragedy... (there is that music again)
You knew there would be tragedy - that's how all these books work.

But, the book doesn't end with the tragedy -rather it divides the book into before and after. The chapters in the first half of the book are all the number of days before and the last half are the number of days after.

I really can't say much more... I don't want to give anything away. But, I really enjoyed this...

I will tell you there is an ongoing theme of trying to find your way out of the labyrinth - you can decide what it is that keeps you stuck inside the labyrinth. For Alaska it's suffering. For Miles it's invisibility. For Colonel -not sure...

Saturday, June 20, 2009

A Hole in my Life by Jack Gantos

This the first biography I've read in a long time. It's the second book for my YA lit class that we are reading together.

Jack has the writing bug – but can’t seem to figure out how to go about writing. Instead he floats through life making questionable choices, but not actually getting into much trouble until he meets Rik. Rik offers him the opportunity of his life – serve as second mate on a sailboat smuggling hash to NYC from St. Croix and earn $10,000. It seems like an easy way to make the money he needs to get into college – so Jack agrees.

The mission is doomed from the beginning, with storms, a broken sextant and a crazy skipper. But, Jack is hopeful. They arrive in NYC and aren’t caught until most of the hash is sold. Though Jack was not directly involved with the sale of drugs, he was an accomplice and put into prison.

Here his life begins to change. For the first time – he actually has something to write about. He uses the Brothers Karamazov as a journal and writes himself into a better frame of mind as he works in the prison hospital as an X-ray tech. After 15 months he is released.

The book is graphic in it's description of prison life and exploits. It is also very free in the details about doing drugs. I wanted to like Jack - but I really didn't care about him very much. So, if this was meant to be a cautionary tale about drug use - it was lost on me!!

Saturday, June 13, 2009

The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton

This is the first book for my YA Lit class. It was an interesting one to start with. I had read other Hinton books, but not this one.

Hinton does a great job of pulling you in to a gang of boys who look, from the outside, as if they have nothing going for them. Yet watching the events play out from inside - through Ponyboy's eyes - you have a completely different sense.

The story is told by a 14 year old on the edge of the gang, the school, the family. His is the textbook definition of an outsider from so many different angles. Yet, he also belongs to many different groups. He describes himself as a person who sees the sunset. His friend Johnny calls him Gold after Ponyboy recites a Robert Frost poem. Let's see - how may other 'greasers' would be able to recite poetry? How many non-greasers would be able to recite poetry?

I found the story sad, yet in a very detached way. Maybe it's because I am so many decades away from 14 - or maybe because this was an assigned book, but I wasn't able to sympathize the way I usually do. Instead, I could respect Ponyboy and the rest of the gang's perspective.

But, my motherly side wanted to shout at them and shake them and remind them that 'rumbling' will not make the problem go away, it only exacerbates it if they beat the Socs. So - for a pack of unmothered young men - they make some lousy decisions and come to some amazing ahha moments.

My favorite part is that it doesn't end at any event - instead it ends as it begins..."I had only two things on my mind: Paul Newman and a ride home."

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

The American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld

I starting reading this book with no preconcieved wasn't until after I finished that I read the reviews and the connections to Laura Bush. I even missed the disclaimer in the first page. I'm not slow or anything - I realized who the story was about - but I didn't understand that this was REALLY about Laura.

I have never been a fan of George Bush - not his politics or his demeanor. But, I believed that there must be more to him than we saw...because I really like Laura. She seemed to have it all. She was a librarian after all!! So he couldn't be all bad...he just couldn't be.

Then I read this book.

Now - I don't know.

I really liked the first sections. I liked the story. I felt for the difficulties of Alice's life. I appreciated her craving for quiet and peace. I also respected her choice of Charlie. He was what she wasn't. All that was easy and free in him was contained and uncomfortable in her. They were a perfect compliment.

But things changed. It is sort of like the picture on the cover. What a horrible choice for a cover photo. Alice is unpretentious and almost plain - and here is this headless torso in lace and gloves. Her wedding dress was described by her mother-in-law as peasanty. Clearly this isn't that Alice. Instead it's what she morphs into later...

That brings us to the last section - which I did not like at all. It felt like a big sloppy justification. The long monologues about why things were the way they were just annoyed me. It was as if Alice had forgotten things she had said her feeling that Charlie explaining that he wanted his life to matter showed that it might not matter. Now Alice was caught in that same cycle.

I wanted to shake Alice and're his wife - why don't you talk to him??? How can you let him be such a jerk! How can you think that it's endearing??? How can you forget who you are?

This book made me not like Laura as much.

This story annoyed me like so many other "based on facts" stories do...I constantly wondered which details of Laura's life match Alice's and I'm not sure if I really want to know. I would rather watch her from afar. And keep liking her and disliking her husband. After all, my Fellowship in the library program is courtesy of Laura.

So - what's the bottom line? As a novel, I found the first sections interesting and endearing. I found the last section annoying - and I found myself skimming to find the thread of the story again.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Percy Jackson and the Olympiads; Books 4 & 5

I just finished the last two books in the Percy Jackson and the Olympiads series. These are stories filled with Kronos the father of the gods is reconstituted with the help of Luke the traitor, Percy and Annabeth must battle first in a shifting labyrinth and later in the Empire State Building to save the known w

I liked these - but they were actually a bit more predictable than the earlier books. They were more driven by the action of battle than by the characters inside.

There were some interesting scenes though...
Rachel Elizabeth Dare, the odd mortal girl who can see through the mist.
Nico, the son of Hades, calling up a skeleton army and playing catch with a
hell hound
Annabeth and Percy finding the center of the labyrinth to be a modern day
labratory rather than an ancient dungeon

But, I think my favorite part is when Percy is chatting with Hestia, the goddess of the hearth. She is reminding him of the reasons people protect hearth and home. It was in that scene the Percy seems to grow up - to realize that this battle is real and he needs to focus on what is at stake.

Anyway - these are fun books filled with monsters, myths and lots of fighting! So - I of course loved them!!

Monday, June 1, 2009

Percy Jackson and the Olympiads; Books 1 - 3

It's time for me to start reading for my next life...Middle school and High school library!

At the last of my classes I asked current librarians for some suggestions to get me started. This is one series they suggested. There are 5 books in the series and I've read the first 3 and really enjoyed them.

The story is about Percy Jackson, a typical ADD kid with dyslexia who seems to have a special talent for getting thrown out of schools. In the Lightening Thief he discovers who he really is. In an odd fight at the Museum of Natural History in NYC he kills his math teacher, who has turned into some kind of a flying bird/woman, with a pen his English teacher gives him. The pen magically turns into a sword that he somehow knows how to use.

After this incident he is whisked away to a summer camp like none other. It is the camp for the children of the gods. Each child has one parent who is Greek god from Mt. Olympiad. Some the kids haven't been claimed, like Percy. But during a to the death capture the flag, Neptune, the god of the sea, claims Percy.

Each of the next books takes Percy on some type of life threatening quest. It seems there is some prophecy that one of the children of the 3 most major gods, Zeus, Neptune and the god of the dead, will make a decision on their 16th birthday which will be the downfall of Mt. Olympus and the gods. Percy is thought to be that child. So the Titans, those who controlled the world before the gods, want to get him on their side and work to overthrow the current rulers.

So, if you are interested in Greek mythology and adventure - this is a great series. I really don't know much about mythology. I've read bits and pieces of the stories, but these books make them come to life. All the stories are interrelated and depend on one another. It sort of reminds me of the dirty laundry that is aired on Desperate Housewives - who is involved with whom and all the damage and the problems that happen because of that.

Even Percy's life. The big 3 gods had taken a vow after WWII not to have anymore children with mortals. But, each of them does. (It was their quarreling and their children's power hungry ways that started WWII.)

I have really enjoyed these and look forward to finishing the series soon!