Monday, December 22, 2008

When the Legends Die by Hal Borland

Thomas Black Bull and his parents return to the wilderness to live in the old way after Thomas' father kills a man. When his father dies in an accident and his mother follows as a result of illness and grief soon after, Thomas is left alone. He has no desire to return to the white man's world and lives peacefully on his own for several years, befriending an orphaned bear cub along the way and renaming himself Bear's Brother.

Eventually, he is discovered and forced to attend school in town, where he is miserable. The teachers and officials at the school, some well-meaning and some not, try to "help" and "civilize" him. In the process, they make him ever more angry and miserable as they take away his connection with the old ways.

I loved the first and last parts of this book, but the middle, where Thomas becomes a brutal bronco rider known as Killer Tom, lost me. Readers who enjoy action may well like this part, but I was appalled at Thomas' brutality and had a hard time feeling sympathetic towards him.

In the end, Thomas is redeemed and manages to recapture his connection to his past. While the "happy" ending may be perceived as a bit too neat, I like to believe that this is how life is--that we all have the ability, however deeply it hides inside of us, to be true to ourselves.

Overall, I highly recommend this book.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Redwall by Brian Jacques

Book one in the Redwall series.

I picked this up on a whim the other day and was immediately drawn into the beautifully detailed world of Redwall and its animal inhabitants.

Redwall, the home of an order of peaceful mice, is threatened by Cluny, an evil rat who sets his sights upon Redwall Abbey. Young Matthias, an awkward young novitiate, is sent on a quest to recover the lost sword of Martin the Warrior (also a mouse). This sword is Redwall's only hope for defeating Cluny and his horde of mercenaries.

Through his quest for the sword, Matthias finds allies in unlikely places and forms bonds of friendship with a wide variety of creatures, each with a distinct personality, who help him to defeat Cluny.

Marvelous, highly detailed, and packed with action. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED for readers of all ages!

Friday, December 5, 2008

Maus I and II by Art Spiegelman

If you read nothing else this month, check out Art Spiegelman's marvelous graphic novel / memoir. In Maus, published in two parts, he recounts his father's experiences as a Jewish survivor of the Nazi concentration camps during WWII.

Intertwined with the horror of the Holocaust is the story of the troubled relationship between father and son. Set against the backdrop of contemporary modern life, the events of the Holocaust seem even more terrifying.

A MUST READ for all!

Monday, December 1, 2008

Maus I by Art Spiegelman

Part one of two.

Art Spiegelman interviewed his father, Vladek, a Holocaust survivor. Vladek's story is told in comic book format, with the Jews as mice and the Nazis as cats.

The graphic novel approach brings a new perspective to this moving memoir. I especially liked the way that Vladek's Holocaust memories were interwoven with the present relationship between the father and son. Not only do we get a glimpse of the horrors of the Holocaust, but we also see the profound and long-lasting effects on the survivors and the generations that followed.

A MUST-READ (don't forget part two)!

Sunday, November 23, 2008

American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang

I have said before that I am not a huge fan of graphic novels, but this is a book that I thoroughly enjoyed.

Three different stories, each featuring characters who are unhappy with who they are--Jin Wang, a lonely boy who wishes his classmates would accept him, Monkey King, a Chinese folk hero who sacrifices much in his quest to be accepted as a god, and Danny, an American teen who is tortured by the yearly visits of his stereotypically annoying Chinese cousin--intertwine in this clever and moving gem of a book. Readers of all cultural backgrounds will find common ground with Jin Wang and his struggles to fit in.

Highly recommended.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Vampire Kisses: Blood Relatives, Vol.II by Ellen Schreiber

Second book in the manga version of Ellen Schreiber's Vampire Kisses series.

Raven and Alexander's love story translates exceptionally well to the manga format. I like that the manga books are a parallel series, rather than merely a retelling of the existing books. My only complaint is how short these books are in relation to the price.

Alexander's half-vampire cousin, Claude, is still in town. Claude and his naughty vampire gang are looking for the vials of blood that can turn them into pure vampires. Alexander and Claude's grandmother always refused to make Claude a full vampire because she felt that he would abuse the power. Ruthless Claude will do anything to possess that powerful blood--even if it means putting Raven and her human friends in danger.

Alexander and Raven come up with a plan to trick Claude into returning to Romania, but Raven might just find herself in more danger than ever.

Fourth Comings by Megan McCafferty

Fourth book in the Jessica Darling series.

Jessica is back and as snarky as ever. She has graduated and is sharing a tiny apartment with her best friend, Hope, and her still-skanky friend, Manda. She enjoys her part-time job as a fact-checker for an obscure magazine, but doesn't make enough money to cover both her rent and her student loan payments. She babysits for her niece and feels like she is mooching because of the overly generous paycheck she receives for the babysitting.

She and Marcus are "on again," but Jessica doesn't see how she will continue the long-distance relationship with one of Princeton's newest freshmen. She intends to break up with him, but he shocks her with an out-of-the-blue marriage proposal.

Marcus asks Jessica to take a week to think about his proposal and, in the meantime, to write about her thoughts and feelings in a journal for him. Join Jessica for a week as she ponders what could (and should) come next in her life.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Looking for Alaska by John Green

Miles Halter is a high school junior who is tired of living his life under the radar. Fascinated by famous last words, Miles convinces his parents to enroll him in an elite boarding school in order to search for what Francois Rabelais called "The Great Perhaps" in his own final words.

Once at Culver Creek, he is invited into a close circle of friends by his roommate, Chip, a practical joker who insists on being called "the Colonel." He immediately falls for smart, sexy, and moody Alaska Young. She already has a boyfriend, but hooks Miles up with his first girlfriend.

When tragedy strikes, Miles and his friends must re-examine their lives and friendships as they try to find a way to move forward. Green uses the backdrop of a classroom assignment and a caring but crusty teacher to show how Miles and his friends come to terms with tragedy and each find closure.

The characters are well-realized and multi-dimensional. It is easy to care about them. Introspective readers will especially relate to Miles' emotional journey. Excellent novel, highly recommended for teen (and adult) readers.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

My lucky day!

After spending an exhausting and frustrating three hours working on a grant proposal with my teaching partner, I finally headed home, dragging a shitload of grading and planning stuff. And students complain about the amount of work we give them. If only they realized the amount of work it takes to plan and prepare, only to get (for the most part) a bunch of thrown-together, minimal-effort crap. Grrrrr...

Anyway, I shuffled inside like the hunchback of Notre Dame, lugging several bags and a pile of books. As I wrestled with the front door, my oh-so-incredibly-thoughtful husband pulled up bearing bags of his own--containing FOOD. Ah, bliss, no more decisions to make or drama to deal with.

Then, as I simultaneously inhaled my dinner and checked my email, I ran across an email from Highbridge Audio. I entered a drawing for a free audio copy of Ellen Hopkins' latest book, Identical, a few days ago and actually WON.

Who doesn't love it when things are free and easy?

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Artemis Fowl and the Time Paradox by Eoin Colfer

Book six in the Artemis Fowl series.

Artemis's mother is dying. When Artemis tries to use the last of his stolen magic to heal her, he only manages to make her condition worse. After summoning Holly to help, he discovers that his mother has a magical disease called spelltropy. The only known cure comes from the extinct African lemur. Artemis caused the death of the last one while trying to fund an expedition to save his father.

Artemis guilts Holly into traveling back in time with him to undo the damage and save that last lemur. They race against time (literally) to save the lemur before it is too late.

But even with the help of the demon warlock, No. 1, events might get too twisted to ever untangle. Not only does an old enemy reappear, but Artemis must also face a 10-year-old Artemis, who is ruthless enough to sabotage the entire mission.

I was disappointed that Artemis's love interest from the previous book never showed up. I also wanted to know more about the demons. Mulch Diggums is my favorite character and did not have as much fun as in previous books. While the book kept me entertained, the story became difficult to follow as it kept twisting in on itself. That pesky time paradox...

Identical by Ellen Hopkins

Kaeleigh and Raeanne are identical twins, mirror images of each other. They share a terrible secret.

Kaeleigh is the good girl--she does well in school and has a lead role in the school musical. Ian, her sort-of boyfriend, loves her deeply. Her father loves her too, but not the way a father should.

Raeanne knows about her father's visits to Kaeleigh's bed. While a part of her wants to protect Kaeleigh, another part of her feels jealous because her father didn't pick her. She breaks rules at every turn, skipping school, getting high, and having all kinds of sex.

The family was normal until the night of the accident, when their father, a judge, caused a fatal accident while driving drunk. Their mother responded by throwing herself into her political career and freezing out her family. Their parents are still married, but the marriage is in name only.

Their father, lonely and tortured by his own terrible secret, drinks to escape his demons. And he sexually abuses Kaeleigh.

I loved the format of the novel. The poems were beautifully written and the shapes, especially of the mirrored ones, made me slow down and savor the structure.

The treatment of Raeanne's drug use made me a bit uncomfortable, mostly because the negative aspects were downplayed. In Crank, which details a girl's downward spiral into addiction, her drug use is also graphic and descriptive, but the reader could clearly see the path of destruction.

I would have liked to have read more about Kaeleigh's relationship with her father and also about the events in his childhood that set him on the path of the abuser. Also, the twist at the end would have felt more authentic if it hadn't happened so close to the end of the book. I wanted to know more about what happened AFTER Kaeleigh faced the truth.

While this was not my favorite Hopkins novel, teen fans will not be able to put it down. It is chock full of issues and mature content. It's all in here--sexual abuse, drug and alcohol abuse, eating disorders, cutting, mental illness, bad boys, and, like Pandora's box, a small taste of hope and love.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Hatchet by Gary Paulsen

Brian is on his way to visit his father in Canada when the pilot of his small plane has a heart attack. Though Brian manages to gain control of the plane, it goes off course and he crashes into a lake. He survives the crash, but finds himself alone in the wilderness with only the clothes on his back and the hatchet his mother gave him.

As Brian struggles to survive on his own, he gradually gains the patience and skills he needs to keep himself alive.

A great survival story.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Change of Heart by Jodi Picoult

Picoult's specialty is the headline-inspired moral dilemma and this one is no exception.

Shay Bourne is on death row, awaiting execution for the murder of a young girl and her father. Miracles began to happen as soon as Shay arrives in the cell block--wine coming out of the faucets, changes in the health (both emotional and physical) of the other inmates, and a bird who is brought back to life. Some believe that Shay is a new messiah, especially after he decides to donate his heart to the 11-year-old sister of the little girl he killed.

Picoult explores religion, capital punishment, redemption, and mother/daughter relationships in her latest page turner.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

On the Fringe by Donald R. Gallo (ed.)

Another home-run collection for young adults edited by Donald R. Gallo. Anyone who reads YA lit will recognize the phenomenal authors featured in this collection--M.E. Kerr, Chris Crutcher, Jack Gantos, and Joan Bauer, to name a few.

What I liked best about this collection is that it went beyond the stereotypical tales of puny geeks getting bullied by muscle-bound, light-on-brains jocks. Each story deals with unique individuals who feel like outsiders for a variety of reasons. My favorite stories: "Muzak for Prozac," about a boy who stays medicated in order to deal with his guilt at outing a lesbian classmate and "Guns for Geeks," a horrifying and heartbreaking story inspired by the Columbine tragedy about a boy who is just not going to take the bullying anymore. A painful read, but something that we all need to think about.

Another collection of short stories that I also recommend, edited by Gallo as well, is No Easy Answers.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Tales of Uncle Remus: The Adventures of Brer Rabbit by Julius Lester

Julies Lester and Jerry Pinkney retell the marvelous tales of Uncle Remus with the same sly sense of humor and with the addition of some modern detalis (references to shopping malls and such). I listened to the audio version, which I highly recommend. It kept me laughing out loud even as I spent the day hauling around boxes of heavy textbooks.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Acceleration by Graham McNamee

Duncan still has nightmares about the day he failed to save a drowning girl. His guilt overwhelms him and his relationships with his family and friends suffer because of it.

Duncan takes a mind-numbingly boring job at the transit authority lost and found. One day, while poking around the dusty shelves looking for a book to read, he comes across a mysterious journal. The journal belongs to a serial killer wannabe who documents the acceleration of his crimes--torturing small animals, setting fires, to stalking women on the subway.

Duncan feels driven to stop the would-be killer before he strikes, but when he tries to turn in the diary, the overworked police are not interested. Duncan, with the help of his two very different best friends, sets out to find the killer.
Plot and characterization are both handled well and the suspense gradually builds to an exciting climax. Very well-done mystery that will keep readers turning pages.

Don't skip the interview with the author at the end of the book. It will give you a fascinating glimpse into the writing of the novel--and it's funny.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Blackthorn Winter by Kathryn Reiss

During a trial separation, Juliana's mother takes Juliana and her little brother and sister to live in a tiny artist's colony in England. Juliana's mother plans to find some solitude and peace so that she can start painting again and recapture her artistic self. Juliana understands none of this and misses her dad.

Shortly after Juliana arrives in Blackthorn, her mother's school friend, a nosy and obnoxious woman, is murdered. Though a suspect is jailed right away, Juliana is convinced that the real killer is still on the loose and investigates on her own.

Juliana's investigation leads her to make some mysterious connections with her own past. Can she find the real killer before he - or she- strikes again?

Lots of creepy atmosphere and suspense will keep mystery fans turning pages.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Book trivia

Think you know about books? Try this free online book trivia game:

Friday, August 15, 2008

Stop in the Name of Pants! by Louise Rennison

Book NINE in the Georgia Nicolson series. If you haven't met Georgia yet, you'll want to start with the first book, Angus, Thongs, and Full-Frontal Snogging. These books are so funny that they come with a warning: Do not eat or drink (especially carbonated beverages) while reading. You WILL laugh out loud and it WILL hurt if food and/or drink comes spewing out of your nose. BEWARE!

Georgia is back, but still stuck in the cakeshop of love. She is the official girlfriend of the Luuurve God, Masimo, but she's all alone at home while he's visiting his family (and his ex-girlfriend) in Pizza-a-Go-Go Land.

Though Georgia has finally eschewed The Sex God, Robbie, with a firm hand, she can't stand it when he takes up with Wet Lindsay again.

Dave the Laugh keeps cropping up when Georgia least expects it. He gets all her jokes and they accidentally spend more time on the snogging scale.

When tragedy strikes Georgia finds that she can be (sort of) mature, but she still finds plenty of time to snog and do the bison disco with her mates. Still no choice, on the boyfriend front, though. How long is Dave going to wait for Georgia to realize that he is the one for her?

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Les Miserables by Victor Hugo

Spent the day rereading Les Mis and avoiding the work I should be doing to get ready for school. I loved this book the first time I read it in high school (even with a poor translation) and it just gets better every time.

Jean Valjean, #24601, spends years in prison after stealing a loaf of bread to feed his starving family. When he is finally released, he becomes ever more bitter because no one will give him, an ex-convict, a chance to start a new life. He repays a bishop's hospitality by stealing silverware. Instead of pressing charges, the bishop makes a furthur gift of a pair of silver candlesticks and tells Jean Valjean to use them to make a good life for himself and others.

The plot is complex, combining many storylines and historical connections. Hugo frequently digresses from the main storyline, but his story of love and redemption is a must-read. Once you have read this enormous book, check out the musical. Listen to the Original London Cast Recording. Better yet, go to London and see it live. And bring kleenex--lots of it.

Check out pictures from the musical, see video clips, and even buy tickets for a performance at the official website:

Monday, August 11, 2008

Breaking Dawn by Stephenie Meyer

Fourth (and final) book in the Twilight series.

I absolutely loved the first three books, and as a member of "Team Jacob" I was really hoping for a happy ending for him.

I have mixed feelings about the resolution to Meyer's marvelous series. Much of what I loved about the earlier books remains--the interesting twists of vampire and werewolf legend, the well-described setting, Jacob's snarky comments, and the realistic and entertaining dialogue between the characters. Even though the ending was too neat, I was glad that everyone got their happy endings.

However, where I was able to suspend my disbelief and go along for the ride in the earlier books, this one was a bit harder to take. Probably because Meyer's Mormon philosophy was much more obvious--I felt like I was getting beaten over the head with her belief system. The early marriage, the immediate pregnancy, the willingness to completely submerge her own needs and act like a martyr in order to keep the guys happy, the self-blame...Bella was a disappointment. And the conflict with the Volturi--underwhelming, to say the least.

If you enjoyed the rest of the series, don't let the negative reviews stop you from reading the finale. Even though I didn't LOVE it, I still think it was a worthwhile read.

Readers looking for a fantasy series with strong, smart female characters who rescue themselves, check out Libba Bray's Gemma Doyle trilogy. It combines elements of magic, romance, and historical fiction. And it might even make you think...

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Night by Elie Wiesel

Elie Wiesel describes the harrowing year he spent in a series of concentration camps during WWII after he and his family were "relocated." The men and women were separated upon arrival at the first camp and Elie never saw his mother and sister again.

He and his father managed to stay together in the camps and were a comfort to each other amidst the horrors of camp life. While I have read other reviews that wished for more detail, I think that the spare style captures the terror and unreality of his experiences. Anyone with even a bit of background knowledge about WWII will be able to feel the author's pain.

The author finds himself questioning the wisdom of worshipping a god who would allow such atrocities to occur, and is staggered by the unfathomable evil of the Nazi's "final solution."

The ending is heart-breaking and the author gives us no easy answers. At the end of the book, he is shattered by his losses and tormented by his memories, but he survives. And he shares his story so that we will not forget.

You can lead a kid to the library...

Encouraging reluctant readers to discover books that they actually want to read has long been a passion for me. There has been a lot of debate on the subject, but when it comes right down to it, creating readers is not as difficult as you might think.

Step 1: Read great books. There are loads of wonderful sites for book reviews. Some of my personal favorites for young adults are,, and For an excellent database of award-winning books, check out I also buy way too many books (if there is such a thing) online. Amazon's recommendations are usually very good. They have sure got me pegged! Once you establish a browsing and/or buying history, you'll get suggestions for more books you will likely enjoy.

Step 2: Know your children--their abilities and interests should be the primary guiding factors in what is "appropriate" reading material. The key is to provide books that are interesting and not too hard. We've all had the experience of reading something that is way too hard--maybe we CAN read it if we struggle, but we aren't going to seek out that experience again. It's no fun.

Step 3: Talk about books. Share the great books you read and be willing to take recommendations as well as to give them. Let your children see you reading. Make them wait while you finish just one more page. Laugh out loud or gasp in surprise as you read. Demonstrate by your own excitement how entrancing and meaningful a book can be. Expose children to a wide variety of books. Try different genres and encourage them to do the same.

It may not happen on the first try, but once a child has a single positive experience with a book, that "home run book" will help lead them on to the next great read.

As a middle and high school teacher with students who are very street smart, I lean toward edgier reading material that addresses the issues that many of my students face--drugs, sex, and violence come immediately to mind.

A couple of years ago, a parent complained about a book in our library (Forever by Judy Blume) and got it removed from the library because she objected to the sexual content. Her argument was that she got pregnant at a very young age and did not want her daughter to do the same thing.

Forever does contain numerous sex scenes between a high school boy and girl, and the sex scenes are graphic. I remember this book getting banned when I was in middle school, which meant that everyone ran out to get a copy and put a book cover on it. Then we passed it around and giggled over all the good parts. Just for the record, I did not become a raving sex maniac after reading Forever in 7th grade. How could I? I was alone in my room...reading.

Forever is a sweet and realistic story about first love, finding and eventually losing it. I want my students to learn the lesson in the story. You might fall head-over-heels for someone and think you're going to be together forever. But forever is a long time and things don't always work out. And you move on.

Okay. I completely respect a parent's right to censor their own child's reading material, just as they should also do for movies, music, video games, etc. However, where I have a problem is that the other 900 students were also kept from reading the same book. I wish more parents would monitor what their kids are doing. But I don't believe banning is the answer.

Imagine if parents read the same books their children were reading and then they actually (gasp) talked about them? What a marvelous teachable moment. What if that particular parent had read Forever with her daughter and followed up with a frank discussion about love and sex and responsibility and consequences and whatever else happened to come up?