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Posts Tagged ‘book reviews’

Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein  code name verity

This is a must-read for teens. And for adults. It’s no more only a ‘teen book’ than The Book Thief is a ‘teen book.’ Never mind how the publisher describes it. Read it.

Since Code Name Verity deals with espionage, it is hard to give you too much summary—this is one book that will be ruined by that. So—I want you to trust me. There’s everything to love here. Oh—trust the Printz Award Committee as well—it’s a Printz Award Honor book.

The basics: A couple of young women become great friends in World War II. They are British—but don’t call the Scottish girl English of you’re in big trouble. One is a pilot, who normally taxis planes for the male pilots, who use them in battle. The other is a telegraph operator. But both are required to serve both secretly and dangerously as the war effort becomes a struggle and Nazi Germany may well overcome all of Europe. Britain is Europe’s final hope.

In a flight over Nazi-occupied France, the fighter plane that the young women are in crashes. The survivor is held captive by the Nazis and tortured for information.  She is required to write information down, but she includes a narrative of how she and her friend arrived at the moment of the crash.

This book is about true bravery—courage in the face of incredible adversity, and not just of the two main characters, but of all sorts of ordinary British servicemen and citizens as well as ordinary French folk who aid the French Resistance. And even a few double-agent Nazis.

Sometimes we say there is a breathtaking moment in a book or a movie, and we don’t mean it literally. In Code Name Verity, think of literally sucking in your breath at the shock and being unable to let it out.

Code Name Verity deals with individual acts, courage, and moral ambiguity.

High school housekeeping: I recommend this book for all readers. You’ll learn something about WWII in Europe and the roles of both women and men. The afterword by the author, where she tells us about how she did her research, and how she decided which scenes would be credible and which scenes would have to be left out,  is great stuff. You can use this as a fictional springboard to do your own research on many issues from WW II—the Royal Air Force, the French Resistance, women in WW II, fighter pilots, Britain during the war, etc.

A little note on the use of the word ‘fag’ in the novel: As you are American teens, you may wonder at the word ‘fag’ used throughout the book—how people are trading them, giving them as gifts, etc. No worries—in Britain (and I believe this is still true) ‘fag’ is a common term for cigarette. In fact, there’s a history behind that use and the derogatory use of the word for a gay man. You could research it. Very sad.

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creation    Creation: How Science is Reinventing Life Itself by Adam Rutherford

Here’s a book title that I was surprised to find is not hyperbole. Science really is creating new life forms. Rutherford doesn’t mean cloning life forms we know. He means altering the structure and components of DNA and coming up with odd hybrids of life—such as a goat that excretes spider web silk in its milk.

The sorts of stories Rutherford tells are the ones that science fiction has often warned against, the monsters that come from the imagination of our Frankensteins. So, should we be afraid?

Rutherford, a geneticist, a writer and editor of the prestigious science journal Nature, and a presenter of programs for the BBC in the United Kingdom, is not particularly worried about the gains scientists have made in creating life. He regards this as “a golden age in biology.” This book, in part, takes the time to reassure the reader that all will be well. To do so, Rutherford even contends that the world’s best-known bogeymen (think Monsanto, for example) are not empowered to wreak havoc on our planet’s future.

Rutherford makes a good case for synthetic biology and synthetic genetics, but before he does, he reviews what is known about life and its origins. We take the tour of the history of life starting with the big bang and Higgs Boson (and the current experiment with the Large Hadron Collider to re-create that big bang), tour the development of the cell (and how mitochondria within cells point to a common origin of all life forms), and move through the structure of DNA, again, with a discussion of the evidence of a common origin for all life forms.

In addition, what it means to be alive is defined—well, sort of. A handy definition is “Life is a process that stops your molecules from simply decaying into more stable forms.” But I do like the longer version explaining Schrodinger’s argument; “Living systems are the continual maintenance of energy imbalance. In essence, life is the maintenance of disequilibrium, and energy as life uses it is derived from this inequity. . . . The entropy of the universe is bound only to increase, thereby ultimately creating a more balanced but less ordered existence.” Sounds almost philosophical, doesn’t it?

Rutherford tells the reader that “synthetic biology means different things to different people,” but explores it by looking at the world as a toolbox full of tools provided by evolution that are then available for creating new life-forms. One of the ways of creating these new life-forms is by altering DNA. DNA is shown to be a “data storage device” and scientists can now alter the available data.

Interesting  discussions of examples of synthetic biology include “Synthia,” a single synthetic cell created in 2010, and “Freckles” the goat, with her golden orb-weaver spider genetic code, which causes her milk to have spider silk in it. Of course, Rutherford discusses the value of these things—spider webs have important properties (they are very elastic and strong) that may be very useful in many applications.

There are reasons for man to explore changes in both plant and animal life. They have to do with feeding a hungry world as less and less land is arable in a more extreme global climate, and with medical advances that will save lives. But whether you agree with Rutherford that these changes are harbingers of a golden age or whether you want everything to go back to organic, it is important to know what is happening in our world. And Creation is a good place to start finding out.

High school housekeeping: I read this book partly because I am a curious creature and want to know about synthetic biology, but partly because I think it is exactly the kind of book that the designers of the Common Core are hoping you’ll read—an ‘informational text’ if you will, one that has facts that could prove very useful to you.

Creation is very interesting and very informative. Rutherford’s writing is clear and he often uses analogies to language and to music to make points about science easier to understand. All of this is very helpful. So, would the average high school student pick this book up and read it, bringing delight to the lives of those Common Core Dr. Frankensteins?

Well—this is a book that many high school students would be fascinated by, especially those interested in becoming researchers or doctors. But it’s not easy, despite Rutherford’s lucid style. Students who have done well in biology class will have a much easier time with the discussion of the roles and components of DNA and RNA. Though not everyone is going to follow Rutherford’s argument for synthetic biology, those who can and do will be happily enriched.

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Full of Heart by J. R. Martinez with Alexandra Rockey Fleming    full of heart

You may know J. R. Martinez due to his fairly recent celebrity. In 2003, he was a nineteen-year-old soldier in Iraq. Only in the country for a month, and not yet battle-experienced, he was driving a Humvee when he hit a roadside bomb.

Martinez remembers this event in slow motion, saw his hands burning and then his face. When his fellow soldiers tried to pull him from the vehicle, his skin came away in their hands.

Martinez was a very good looking guy. He says that he was always afraid of Freddy Krueger in the Nightmare on Elm Street movies. When he first saw his burned face, he felt like Freddy. How would he ever get his life back?

The journey to getting his life back is the story of Full of Heart.

Martinez’s roots were not the kind that immediately lead to success. His mother was an illegal immigrant, who scraped together the money to come to the U.S. from El Salvador in hope of providing for her children, one of whom had no bones in her feet and, thus, couldn’t walk. Though Maria works like a dog, she makes some bad choices in men and finds herself with another child—J. R.—and a single parent. She does, however, makes some good choices in friends, and a few are a great help to her. They assist her in attaining legal status; eventually, she becomes a U. S. citizen.

In Hope, Arkansas (yes, the home of Bill Clinton), J. R. (Rene) dreams of being a football star. He carries that dream to Dalton, Georgia, where football is king. He’s not very big, but he’s determined and makes the high school team more because of his positive mindset than his talent. He works hard and improves on the field, but allows his grades to slide, ending his plan for a college scholarship. After this, Martinez decides that the army is for him.

Martinez is a prankster, full of good humor. But one of the things he learns in the army is “when you break the rules, you will be caught.” He spends a lot of time being ‘smoked’—doing endless push-ups and other drills. Once in Iraq, Martinez reflects on the strangeness of the country—how different it is than anything he’s ever experienced. But he is not there long before he is injured and shipped out for treatment.

Once Martinez begins his rehabilitation, he is reborn—this is a new life for him and he will succeed or fail based on his will and hard work. That he succeeds—in a larger-than-life way, wildly, improbably—is the crux if this story. His interviews with 60 Minutes and Oprah, his work on the soap opera All My Children and his eventual win on Dancing with the Stars are all sort of fantastical. But Martinez still regards his most important work as being a spokesman for the Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio where he recovered from his injuries.

High school housekeeping: Martinez’s story is as much a coming-of-age tale as the story of overcoming an injury. He’s young, a bit immature, and directionless when he is injured. He grows up very fast. This biography is pretty short—about 240 (physically small) pages. The writing is very accessible, and most high school students should have no problems reading it. I think most will be inspired as well.

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The Silver Linings Playbook by Matthew Quick  silver linings

Pat Peoples seems like the sweetest man on earth, but for some reason he’s coming home from a mental institution to live with his parents—in his mid-thirties—and he completely loses it when he hears Kenny G music.

Pat thinks he has been away for a few months. Actually it’s been four years. He thinks that he is experiencing “apart time” from his wife, and that if he can control his temper (‘it’s more important to be kind than to be right’), and stay on his rigorous exercise program and lose weight, he will win her back. Because, after all, his life is like a movie created by God. It will have the silver lining of a reunion with Nikki.

In trying to understand Nikki, Pat is reading all of the books that she teachers to her high school English classes. He’s surprised at how negative and depressing they are. As a former English teacher, I laughed at Pat’s comments on books like The Catcher in the Rye and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. They don’t have the kind of silver linings Pat expects form life, the kind that ought to be examples for kids.

At home, the silver lining also remains hidden. Things are not going as Pat planned despite hours of daily weightlifting, regular visits with a psychiatrist, and all that reading, Nikki isn’t back on the scene. But another woman, who at first seems like a nymphomaniac but is grieving in her own dysfunctional way, is following him on his long runs. Meanwhile, the mood of the Peoples household, and particularly Pat’s father, swings with the fortunes of the Philadelphia Eagles football team. Pat’s dad is emotionally distant and unforgiving.

So where’s the silver lining? It’s not the one Pat was looking for, but it’s there. And I loved going on the journey with Pat to find it. Good, heartwarming stuff that embraces dysfunctional people of all kinds.

High school housekeeping: I’m always hoping that high school students will read adult books because they often (though certainly not always) juggle more issues, have more challenging vocabulary and less certain endings—like real life. I think Silver Linings Playbook is a good choice for moving into adult fiction. It’s just slightly longer than the typical YA fiction, but shorter than much adult fiction. It’s funny. You’ll like the main character, the story, and the pace. You’ll like that you can compare it to the movie. In addition, Matthew Quick writes YA fiction as well—and we have his stuff in our library. He was a high school teacher at one time, and has a good sense of what entertains and informs you. As mentioned above, The Silver Linings Playbook has a humorous vein about the books read in high school English classes. I really think it would be fun to have a ‘Silver Linings Playbook’ class and read this novel first, then read all the novels mentioned in it—and compare students’ reactions to the book to Pat’s reactions.

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 reason to breathe    Reason to Breathe, by Rebecca Donovan

I was talking to another teacher at Chaffey High, Mrs. Vanderbeck (who used to work at Colony as well), about the bullying books I was reading this year. She told me about one she thought was great, so I asked her to write a guest blog post and share the book with you. Here it is!

I just finished a book, Reason to Breathe, by Rebecca Donovan.  It’s about bullying and physical abuse, but from the adults that are supposed to look out for you.  Emily, “Emma” has worked really hard to create a facade of indifference to all the students around her.  She is counting the days to her “liberation”. The day when she graduates from high school and is able to go to college. 

Emma is a straight A student, editor of the school newspaper, is a star soccer and basketball player, all the while hiding a terrible secret.  Her best friend, Sara, knows that things are not perfect at Emma’s home, but she doesn’t know the lengths Emma has gone to protect her little cousins.  In spite of her best efforts, she falls in love with Evan Matthews, a new student to her school, who won’t take “No” for an answer. The book is graphic, sad, and yet allows the reader to feel Emma’s annoyance, curiosity, interest and finally the love she thought was not meant for her, at least not in her current situation. I really enjoyed it. It’s a fast read. I am going to put it out for my students so they might read it during SSR. –Mrs. Vanderbeck

High school housekeeping: I looked and I have one copy at Chaffey, none at Colony. So I’m adding it to my ‘purchase ASAP’ list. I also see that it is the first book in a series, so if you also enjoy it, I’ll get the sequels. –Ms. W.

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Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach  stiff

“The way I see it, being dead is not terribly far off from being on a cruise ship. Most of your time is spent lying on your back.”—The opening sentence of Stiff

If Mary Roach weren’t so funny and—well, curious—some of the strange subject matter she chooses for her books might seem like fodder for a sick voyeur. But she is funny—and probably one of the most inquisitive people alive. Her desire to know about things becomes the reader’s desire to know. This is especially true in Stiff. I don’t think I am as spooked by dead bodies as some are, but before I read Stiff, I can’t say I ever thought of them as interesting. Now I do. And I’ve had the chance to think about my own body and its fate once I die.

Dead bodies—cadavers—are very useful to us. Scientists and researchers have always needed them. Through study of  the dead, people have learned that blood circulates and that the heart is the pump that keeps it moving, that the brain is the center of thought. Bodies donated to body farms, where corpses are left out to decay under various conditions, help investigators understand rates of decomposition, which is useful in murder investigations. Bodies or their parts can be used in understanding how land mines injure people. Doctors use “beating-heart’ cadavers in organ transplants. Did you know that corpses were used to test the guillotine?

In the history of the world, humans in several cultures have attributed magical or medical powers to dead bodies or dead body parts, and countless graves have been robbed to provide those parts. (OK, lots of graves were robbed for science as well, and there are some wild tales about that in this book.)

To me, one of the most interesting things that cadavers are used for is in test crashes and weapons testing. Yes, there are those ‘dummies’ for car crashes, but they can’t quite replicate what happens to people. (According to Roach, for every cadaver used to test and develop airbags, 147 lives are saved.) And then, we need to know what happens in airplane accidents, too. Bodies can be used in simulated air crashes. The information learned has helped investigators in deciding if a plane accident was truly an accident due to mechanical failure or the work of terrorists. Bodies can also be used to test bullet-proof vests and other equipment meant to save lives.

Despite her great sense of humor, Roach treats cadavers with respect, including all of the ones she meets in researching this book. Others who work with dead bodies—folks in medical school (you’ll be happy to know that your surgeon practices on dead bodies before s/he tries out new skills on you), researchers, morticians—all appear to have the same respect. Even the people who crash bodies to learn about car and plane accidents have a protocol of respectfulness that both surprised and comforted me.

Although we hate to think about it, we all die. Stiff addresses the (philosophical) problem of what we should do with our dead bodies. This goes far beyond the choices of burial or cremation. There are many opportunities in scientific research. And for those who want to be buried, there are new considerations of having a ‘green’ burial, one that is ecologically sound. Sort of like composting. The same is true of deciding in favor of ‘water reduction’ (or, less euphemistically, ‘tissue digestion’) instead of cremation, another sterile and less-polluting choice.

Crazy as it seems, our dead bodies can be as useful to humankind as anything we do while living. Finding out just how useful is the wild ride that is Stiff.

High school housekeeping: Stiff is an engaging introduction to how research works in real life. I think it’s the kind of book the framers of the Common Core are hoping you’ll read. Putting aside their naïve disdain for fiction, they are right about the need to also read this sort of nonfiction—it will open a new window on reality and may pique your interest in science. All in a book that you can’t put down.

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 Some Girls Are by Courtney Summers   some girls

 

Regina has bullied other girls all through high school. She’s popular. She’s Anna’s best friend. And Anna is the queen bee of the Hallowell High, calling all the shots, deciding who’s in and who’s out. What separates Anna from the typical queen bee is her sheer pleasure in hurting other people. She wants other students to be afraid of her.  She wants to see them suffer the humiliations she doles out. But she also doesn’t want to get her hands soiled. So she lets others do the dirty work, with the reward that they can continue to be her friend. Regina has done a lot to stay Anna’s best friend, and for three years, she thinks it’s been worth it. But all that changes one night at Josh’s party when everyone except Regina is drunk.

Regina is the designated driver, a role she hates because she’s so bored watching everyone making fools of themselves. But when she tries to rouse the drunken Anna from the den floor to take her home, Anna can’t be moved. Instead, Anna’s wasted boyfriend, Donnie, tries to rape Regina.

And here Regina makes her big mistake. She runs to Kara’s house. Kara who had been too sick to go to the party. Kara, whom Regina has always disrespected. The Kara that Regina was always putting in her place. So although Kara promises to help—and tells Regina she should stay quiet about the whole thing so that she doesn’t awaken Anna’s anger—she does just the opposite.

When Regina gets to school on Monday, she finds out about the rumors. There is nothing for her to do. Anna has frozen her out of the popular group, ruined her reputation and replaced her with Kara. Having the word ‘whore’ written on her locker is just the beginning of a series of more and more vicious ‘pranks’ that turn violent. The whole school is invited to an “IH8RA” website.

There’s no one that Regina can turn to, as she has alienated and hurt so many people by doing Anna’s bidding. She’s treated other people almost as badly as she is being treated now. That makes it hard to sympathize with her. What has she done to Liz to make her have a breakdown?

Yet one of the people Regina hurt is willing to give her another chance. That’s Michael, a loner who spends a lot of time writing in a journal. How does Regina endanger him just by hanging out with him?

“Do something.” Regina always thinks to herself. She wants to fix things. She wants to learn not to care what the popular group thinks. But her solutions often backfire because Anna is so good at being so bad. And because Regina doesn’t trust any adult enough to confine in them. It looks like she’s not going to be able to save Michael anymore than she can save herself.

High school housekeeping: It’s my goal to read many ‘bullying books’ this year. Although all the titles I read over the summer are good, they seem to appeal to a specific audience or have a supernatural element to them. Some Girls Are is the first that deals with real problems and allows them to have the worse possible outcomes.  It has broad appeal—I think this is the one that everybody will be telling friends to read. I hope that none of you have ever had to deal with anyone as vicious as Anna or Kara, but I bet a lot of readers will recognize their type. Mean girls to the nth degree.

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