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Archive for the ‘Over 375 Pages’ Category

this is what

This is What Happy Looks Like by Jennifer E. Smith

 

I’ve already said that I needed to walk away from the bullying books for a couple of weeks. With school starting, I wanted to read something upbeat. I don’t think I could have made a better choice than This is What Happy Looks Like.

 

Ellie lives in a small town in Maine. One day she gets an email from a stranger asking her to walk Wilbur. As a dog lover herself, she responds and lets the sender know about the mistake. Well, Wilbur is not a dog, but a pig—yes, just like in Charlotte’s web.

 

What Ellie doesn’t know is that the sender is Graham Larkin, a teen movie star and countrywide heartthrob. Because the two are strangers, they joke about the pig and then realize that they like the conversation. They write back and forth for months. Graham has been having a hard time making deep connections with others due to his fame. Even his parents act strange now that he has hit the big time. So, as he continues to write to Ellie, Graham decides to remain anonymous. When the venue for his next film falls through, Graham gets the director to shoot the movie in Ellie’s hometown.

 

What fun for Ellie, right? To find out that the guy she has a long-distance crush on is actually a star? But, there’s the catch. Ellie and her mother have a family secret. They need to stay out of the limelight because any interest would draw attention to her U.S. senator father—who, as a married man, had an affair with Ellie’s mom years before. Ellie hasn’t even told her best friend about this, and she hasn’t seen her father in years. Now it looks like he’ll be a candidate for president.

 

Smith does a great job showing the spark—the chemistry—between Graham and Ellie. We get why they enjoy one another so much. And they are both fully-drawn characters, people we feel we know. We like their intimate conversations, we like the way they treat one another. We’re rooting for them.

 

And even if things can’t work out like they do in the movies—well, this is what happy looks like. Enjoy.

High school housekeeping: Don’t let the length of this book scare you. Many of the pages just have the text of short emails.

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 rotters 

Rotters by Daniel Kraus

Such a weird story! The combination of bullying and horror story compelled me to finish the book, and I think it will appeal to anyone who likes really quirky stuff.

Joey Crouch has lived with his mother all of his life in Chicago. They don’t go out much and he’s never been over the Illinois state line. But when his mother is hit by a bus and killed, Joey is removed to a small town in Iowa to live with a father he’s never known.

Things are very bad from the start. Ken Harnett, Joey’s dad, doesn’t bother to pick him up at the depot. He immediately leaves the house upon Joey’s arrival and doesn’t return for three days. Meanwhile, Joey sleeps on the floor, has nothing to eat and notices a strange, nasty odor in the shack that he can’t identify.

Dressed poorly, hungry and stinking, Joey immediately becomes a target of bullying in his new high school—not only by jocks but by a sadistic biology teacher as well, one who daily makes Joey stand in front of the class and then uses him to point out body parts and their functions. (Just a note here from the teacher in me: I had a hard time believing that any teacher anywhere could get away with treating a student the way Joey was treated—but if one tried, I would hope that someone in the class would speak up and tell outsiders.)

The situation only gets worse when we discover what that terrific stink is: Ken is a modern-day grave robber. With nothing to lose at school, Joey decides to learn the trade, and we enter the bizarre brotherhood of this underworld. They are criminals with a strange code of honor, and the one of them who has broken the code is terrorizing all the others. He may have the power to use Joey to get at the whole group.

Rotters are people—because all people will die and then they will rot if they are not cremated. The descriptions of grave robbing, of disintegrating corpses, are the stuff of nightmares.  (So beware.) Yet the story is oddly original and well-written. There are a lot of interesting facts about the history of grave robbing and the ‘resurrection men’ who dug up corpses for scientists and professors to use in study. (Remember Jerry Cruncher in Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities?) When Joey has been bullied beyond endurance and he seeks revenge—well, imagine what a grave robber could do.

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 Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand unbroken

Unbroken is the incredible, nearly mythic, story of Louis Zamperini, an army air forces bomber whose plane crashed in the Pacific Ocean in 1943. Before the war, he had been an Olympic miler, and probably would have been the first man to break the four-minute mile if the war had not intervened.

 

Louie and his raft mates survived more than a month on the Pacific Ocean—through starvation and dehydration, shark attacks, and even a strafing by a Japanese bomber. One of Zamperini’s raft mates finally succumbed to starvation and the elements. Louie and the other, ‘Phil’ Allen Phillips, viewed land after forty-seven days at sea in the life raft. Unfortunately, they were spotted by a Japanese boat crew and taken prisoner. From the boat, they were sent to Kwajalein—or as it was commonly known, ‘Execution Island.’

 

On Execution Island, the true hell of their POW experience began. ‘The crash of The Green Hornet had left Louie and Phil in the most desperate physical extremity, without food, water or shelter. But in Kwajalein, the guards sought to deprive them of something that had sustained them even as all else had been lost: dignity.”

 

Both Louie and Phil were moved from one POW prison to another, always without being registered with the Red Cross so that no one would know they were alive. They were consistently mistreated. Having no other information, the army reported to their families that they were dead.

 

In the 1940s, the Japanese considered it shameful to be a prisoner of war and many Japanese soldiers killed themselves rather than be captured. When they captured Allied soldiers, they often felt that they were fair game for abuse. Because of this, Allied POWs in the Pacific fared far worse than those in Europe.

 

“The average army or army air forces Pacific POW had lost sixty-one pounds in captivity . . ..  Tuberculosis, malaria, dysentery, malnutrition, anemia, eye ailments, and festering wounds were widespread. [In one survey], 77 percent of POWs [were found to have] wet beriberi . . .. Among Canadian POWs, 84 percent had neurologic damage . . .. Men had been crippled and disfigured by unset broken bones, and their teeth had been ruined by beatings and years of chewing grit in their food. Others had gone blind from malnutrition.”

 

Louie, Phil, and their fellow POWs suffered all these ailments and more because they are starved and tortured. In the Omori POW camp, outside Tokyo, the men fell under the cruel persecution of Mutsuhiro Watanabe (‘The Bird’). The Bird is a true sociopath, brutalizing men one minute, possibly asking for forgiveness the next, and getting sexual pleasure from administering brutal beatings, clubbings and grotesque punishments involving excrement. He particularly hated Louie, singled him out and beat him, sometimes with a belt buckle, every day.

 

That anyone could have survived such terror appears miraculous.

 

 

Some of your teachers ask me to look for biographies or memoirs of inspirational Americans. I bought Unbroken awhile back when it was getting stellar reviews. Then it became a longtime bestseller. I’m so glad I finally had the chance to read it myself. (Sometimes it seems that this is what my summer break is for. 🙂) Not only is it one of the best biographies I’ve read, but it also has the long list of acknowledgements and endnotes that give you an understanding of what serious research looks like.

 

If you are looking for inspiration, just read the two-page forward of this book. You’ll be hooked.

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When we think of summer reading, we think of books we choose because we like them—books for fun.

In the past I’ve read long lists of YA books over the summer and have encouraged you to read some of them as well. This year I think I need to feed my soul with some not-so-light adult books that probably don’t have wide teen appeal. I will also be reading some books about bullying—both the cyber sort and the in-person attacks. (I listed choices in a recent post.)

Since I think you should pick some fun reads for summer, I hope you’ll read some YA books that are soon to be movies. Reading the book before you see the movie provides a good opportunity for you to compare and contrast two works; it’s a great way to think at a higher level without even realizing that your brain is working.

 Win-win.

 So many good teen books are coming as movies in the next few years. Here are some that I’ve read and reviewed:

 2013:

Catching Fire

(Second book in the Hunger Games trilogy)

Mortal Instruments: City of Bones

Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters

The Great Gatsby

(OK, it’s an adult book, but teens read it in school, it’s short, and it’s great—

romance, betrayal, mobsters–all the stuff teens love)

2014 and possibly 2015:

Divergent

Graceling

The Knife of Never Letting Go

(first book in the Chaos Walking series)

Incarceron

The Maze Runner

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children

The Fault in Our Stars

(Yea! It will star Shailene Woodley as Hazel. No word on Gus yet.)

Coming as movies soon, but I haven’t had the chance to read the books yet:

Infernal Devices by Cassandra Clare

Tunnels by Roderick Gordon

The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater

Wonder by R.J. Palacio

The Spectacular Now by Tim Tharp

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Seth Grahame-Smith (and Jane Austen, of course.)

Actually, I have had the chance to read this one,

but I didn’t like it, and I quit after a few chapters.

Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo

Have a great summer reading on your own and at the theater!

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team of rivals

Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin

I know this is a long shot, but I’m hoping

there’s a student who will take me up on this.

Summer reading for the truly motivated!

 While the focus of Team of Rivals is on Lincoln’s political acumen and on his relationship with his major political rivals turned advisers and friends, there is a lot of interesting discussion of their personal lives. This is a sort of group biography of the men who steered the country through the Civil War, and of the women who influenced them.

Many of the men discussed in Team of Rivals were prominent candidates for the Republican Party’s presidential nomination in 1860. Several of them were better known than Lincoln, particularly William Henry Seward. None of them thought Lincoln would secure the nomination. Yet it was their own rivalries that made Lincoln’s victory possible, as delegates who didn’t want a certain prominent candidate to be nominated would throw their votes to Lincoln.

I admit to knowing little about the Civil war period. This book was a thoroughly enjoyable way to learn about the lives of Abraham Lincoln and the men in his cabinet, of their relationships to family members, and in turn the influence those family members had on the direction of this country. Even more interesting—and instructive—was seeing how Lincoln was able to take all these rivals of his (and of one another) and pull them together in his cabinet—a team whose diverse opinions were crucial to Lincoln as he navigated one of the worst periods in U.S. history.

Once Lincoln had established his cabinet, William Seward, as secretary of state, thought that he would be running the country, with Lincoln as his puppet. But over time, he understood Lincoln’s political genius. The two became great friends. So, too with Edwin Stanton. Stanton had disrespected Lincoln when he was a lawyer working in Springfield, refusing to meet with or even talk to him after engaging him to work on a trial in Cincinnati, and calling him a ‘long-armed ape.’ Yet Lincoln later made Stanton his secretary of war. Stanton became a good friend and is the man who said, on Lincoln’s death, “Now he belongs to the ages.” In addition, the escaped slave, abolitionist and orator Frederick Douglass came to respect Lincoln after meeting him to discuss freeing slaves.

Unfortunately, Salmon Chase, Lincoln’s secretary of the treasury, could never put aside his jealousy of the president. Chase seemed to have no loyalties to friends and people who had helped his career (so it wasn’t just Lincoln), but he did stay loyal to anti-slavery platforms. His behavior appears to be wholly motivated from a desire to be the president—even at the expense of Lincoln’s policy and reputation. He always felt that he was more deserving of the presidency than Lincoln, and he let others know it. He was fond of submitting his resignation when he didn’t get what he wanted, but was surprised on the fifth submission that Lincoln accepted it. However, Lincoln later appointed Chase to be Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. According to Goodwin, Lincoln had a “singular ability to transcend personal vendetta, humiliation, or bitterness.” It is this as much as anything else that makes him a great man.

Another man who comes off poorly is General George McClellan, who couldn’t take action in leading Union troops into battle, yet blamed all his faults on others, and particularly on Lincoln’s leadership.

Deeply revealing of the political climate of the time is the role of the women in these men’s lives. I enjoyed Francis Seward’s abolitionist stance and the letters she wrote to her husband and friends about what brought her to the cause (the immorality of slavery, the pathetic situation of slaves that she saw as she traveled). Not all whites sympathetic to slaves held these same views. Many Northerners and Republicans (the party of Lincoln) held that slavery would naturally end as society became more urban and industrialized.

Kate Chase, daughter of Salmon Chase, was the beauty who was at the top of the social pecking order, the girl everyone wanted to admire or court. She was so popular that Mary Lincoln was sometimes jealous of her. And yet her marriage and subsequent life was tragic.

Mary Todd Lincoln sounds better in Team of Rivals than in the few sources I’ve read before. She appears to have suffered terrible migraine headaches, and this affected her responses in social situations. She does hold more grudges than Lincoln, but to be honest, just about anyone in the world does. (His ability to let go of past hurts is nearly superhuman.) Team of Rivals also discusses the over-the-top spending habits Mary is now so famous for. However, Goodwin also catalogs the necessary improvements she made in the White House, which had been left to fall apart. Mary wasn’t very good at controlling her image in the press—she did much good, such as regularly visiting hospitals to care for wounded Union soldiers. Her work went unnoticed while the wives of other Politicians were lauded for the same activities. And, of course, her grief over the loss of her children—eventually three of her four boys—had to be a major factor in her bouts of depression.

While this point may seem just a sidebar in the evaluation of the book, I think it’s valuable. The deep grief suffered by so many of these ‘major players’ on the national scene changed all of them, for better and for worse. Lincoln suffered the deaths of his mother, his much-loved sister, and two of his sons (another died after Lincoln was assassinated). Chase lost several wives and became dependent on his elder daughter to be his social coordinator. The Sewards lost a daughter. Others close to the Lincolns lost their sons and husbands in the war. That the death of young wives and children was so commonplace in the mid-nineteenth century is important to remember. People learned compassion or they learned to be unnecessarily mean.

Since Team of Rivals covers such an important period of the country’s history, it includes insights on many of the significant issues and legislation of the day, particularly legal wrangling over slavery—the Missouri Compromise, the Kansas Nebraska Act, the Dred Scott decision, the Emancipation Proclamation, the Thirteenth Amendment, and more. Some of the events are shocking. Abolitionist Senator Charles Sumner, while railing against the expansion of slavery, verbally attacked senators who supported it. Congressman Preston Brooks later physically attacked Sumner, feeling that he was defending his relative’s honor. The idea that one man could cane another, nearly to death, right on the Senate floor, boggles the mind. Interestingly, this beating rallied the anti-slavery forces in the country.

This is such a great book on every level—the political, social, historical and personal. Not only that, but it includes many of the funny stories Lincoln was always telling—full of folk wisdom and often making his adversaries see the value of his point. The only thing that will keep you from reading it is the length—over 900 pages. While about 150 pages are endnotes and indices, that still leaves 750 pages. Even students who are good readers and enjoy history may not be able to find the time for such reading, especially if they are memorizing thousands of facts for AP tests!

Would you be willing to read this one over the summer? You won’t be disappointed. During the school year, you might make a deal with teachers who require about 200 pages of outside reading per quarter. Ask them if you can use Team of Rivals for biography as well as other nonfiction, and then as a free choice. That will cover at least 600 pages. I think any teacher would love the idea that you’d choose to read this book and enrich your education. By the time you get to Lincoln’s death, you will be so moved by his story that you’ll be hoping it won’t happen, even though you know it’s a historical fact. You can’t ask for more from a work of nonfiction.

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ashes   Ashes by Ilsa Bick (first in a trilogy)

Alex, seventeen and traveling alone in the Michigan wilderness, is on a mission to bid her goodbyes to the world. She has a brain tumor that appears unstoppable, even with experimental treatments. While Alex is on her backpacking adventure, an electromagnetic pulse—EMP—rocks the earth, killing many people. Yet after the EMP, Alex is not only alive, but changed. The sense of smell she had lost due to her cancer treatments is now so keen that she can smell emotions, such as fear.

Alex discovers that almost all others who are left alive are very old or very young. Generally, after the EMP blast, middle-ages folks are dead and teens become zombie-like—Alex refers to them as ‘brain-zapped.’ While the brain-zapped don’t eat one another, they crave human flesh. The combination of troubles is post-apocalyptic: teen zombies, a dying earth with fried technology and no means of modern communication, and a remaining population with no means of producing goods, including food. The worst in people comes out, and they fight and kill for survival supplies.

When the EMP takes place, Alex happens to be talking to a few people she met on her wilderness hike, a little girl named Ellie and Elle’s grandfather. The grandfather dies immediately, and Alex becomes Ellie’s protector. Later she teams with the hunky but shadowy Tom, who is on leave from the war in Afghanistan. They fear that they, too, will become brain-zapped. Their goal is to travel to safety, to find a town and some help. But along the way, danger separates them. Tom is wounded as survivors are stealing his provisions, and his wounds become infected. In seeking help, Alex finds a surviving town called Rule.

Rule is an odd place. Folks are deeply religious, but in a way that demands subservience from women. The fact that the folks in Rule are helping Alex is more sinister than it first seems. These survivors appear to be as dangerous as the zombies. Except for Chris, who has a crush on Alex.

Bick does a great job of framing her post-apocalyptic world and of explaining how such a thing might happen as well as hinting at the reasons why some young people like Alex, Tom, and Chris have survived. In all, she does a great job with drawing the reader in. Her writing is also very good. Given these things, and the fact that no plot points are concluded, most teens will quickly leap to the next book. However, Bick also spends a good portion of the novel with lengthy descriptions of the gross realities of this new world. Ashes is an A-One gore-fest. Bick has that paradoxical ability to stop the story dead in its tracks to wax on about zombies plucking out eyeballs and livers, and yet to make it feels like this is fast-paced action.

I’ve mentioned before that I’m something of a sissy in these matters. While the blood jets, the shootings and other violence didn’t get to me, I couldn’t stomach the frequent and vivid descriptions of pus—yellow-green, oozing, stinking. I read while waiting for appointments—and thus in public places—and often found myself unable to continue, the bile rising in my throat, the gag reflex operating. For this reason, I’m not going to continue the series. But if you don’t have these sorts of issues, this is a heart-smacking work for mature readers (about 14 years and up).

I’ve thought about why my reaction to books like Ashes is so different from Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, which is also set in a post-apocalyptic, violent world of survivalists and cannibals. I think it just comes down to the writing. McCarthy can make me realize all the terror of his world. I have the full emotional impact, the genuine sense of horror and concern for the characters. But I’m never at risk of puking while waiting for the dentist.

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days of blood

Look what arrived in both our libraries–book 2:

Days of Blood & Starlight

Come on over and check it out!

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