Friday, February 27, 2015

Steelheart by Brandon Sanderson

Today's blog entry is from Noah, a high school senior. I wish I could say I wrote this book review, but I must give credit where credit is due. I did read the book and enjoy it more than I thought I would, and this captures why smart high school guys love Steelheart

Rarely do stories engender in me as many conflicting emotions as Brandon Sanderson’s sci-fi/fantasy novel Steelheart, the first of the Reckoners series. Tapped by Drew E. as the Galloway Book Club’s choice for the month of February, I approached the 400 page novel expecting a campy, melodramatic plotline with the approximate literary value of Go Dog Go, bound tenuously together by intermittently hard-to-follow action sequences and a poorly constructed romantic subplot. I found exactly what I expected.

And I couldn’t put it down.

Steelheart is a fantastical dystopian novel, set ten years after the appearance of a glowing red star in the heavens, known as Calamity. Roughly a year after Calamity’s appearance, certain humans began manifesting various powers—such as flight, the ability to create forcefields, super agility, impervious skin, and other equally ridiculous capabilities—and, for one reason or another, those individuals became implacably evil with no regard for human life. Such people are known as Epics.

I’m sure that description prompted many of you to role your eyes back into your head; the plot does, I wholeheartedly agree, sound patently ridiculous. But it is a siren, my friends, luring any readers within its range to dash their brain upon the rocks of literary mind candy. Seriously, after the first chapter I began counting down the time until I could read again. My sleep suffered. Had the novel been longer, a significant decline in my academic performance wouldn’t have been surprising. Throughout the course of reading the book, I suppressed the part of my brain that steadfastly reminded me how, objectively, I should find the novel silly rather than engrossing.

Sanderson’s protagonist, David, whose biblical name is possibly the only allusion in the entire book, was an eight year old when the High Epic Steelheart, now emperor of Newcago (used to be Chicago), killed his father. Now, David is an 18 year old with a deep-seated hatred for Epics and an even more intense desire for revenge. He has dedicated his adolescence to studying epics and a mysterious group, the Reckoners, who wage war on them. With incredible predictability, when a Reckoners cell appears in Newcago, David manages to join them and lobby for an attack on Steelheart.

I just read the above paragraph, and once again, I’m amazed at how much I enjoyed the book. I don’t know how it happened. What came over me? Surely IQ points dripped out of my ears whenever I cracked the novel—but, after some soul-searching, I regret nothing. Sanderson knows how to weave a tacky plotline into a web of suspense, wind up his readers, and force them, against their better judgement, to revel in a narrative brimming with superpowers, vendettas, and dramatic confrontations. To read Steelheart is stare down the darker demons of our literary tastes, which we all need to do once in a while.

Friday, February 13, 2015

March: Book Two by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell

The story of John Lewis's activism continues in this graphic novel. Book One covered his childhood and the sit-ins. This book continues with the Freedom Rides and ends with the March on Washington. This is also the time period when John is made head of SNCC and is walking the line of representing the will of the young people versus getting along with other civil rights leaders. Most interesting to me were the arguments about the content of Lewis' speech at the March on Washington and the last-minute changes that were made. As in the first book, the story is compelling and the artwork complements it perfectly. This is a book that everyone should know about.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Are You Experienced by Jordan Sonnenblick

Everyone has heard about Woodstock, the most famous concert of the 1960s. Can you imagine being transported back in time and experiencing it for yourself? That's what happens to 15-year-old Rich. And the craziest part of all is that he is attending the concert with his then 15-year-old Dad and his then 17-year-old uncle whom he knows is going to soon die an early death. I love Jordan Sonnenblick and this book is not only a great story with his typical mix of humor and sentiment, but I also learned a lot about the experience of being at Woodstock. Of course, you couldn't describe Woodstock without including some rather mature content, so this book is recommended for 8th grade on up. If you lost music, you will especially love this book with it's appearances by Jimi Hendrix and other legendary musicians.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Isla and the Happily Ever After by Stephanie Perkins

If you like Paris, exclusive boarding schools, and young love, this is the book for you. It's actually the third book of three loosely connected novels, including Anna and the French Kiss and Lola and the Boy Next Door. In this book we meet Isla, who has had a crush on Josh for years. They meet by chance in Manhattan before returning to school in Paris, and the stage is set for their romance. In spite of the predictable nature of the story, I enjoyed the characters and the settings (New York...Paris...Barcelona) and was happy with the ending. Recommended for high school romantics.

Next by Kevin Waltman

Next is the story of Derrick Bowen, a high school freshmen with the potential to be an NBA player. He lives in Indianapolis and attends his local high school, where basketball is a BIG deal. This book is the story of his freshman year, in which he struggles to make the starting lineup on his team and he considers transferring to a mostly white private school in the suburbs where he might be more likely to win a state championship. This is a book for basketball fans—it is full of the play-by-play of Derrick's games and descriptions of practices and basketball strategy. Don't look for symbolism or deep meaning here—this book is just straightforward narrative. It's easy-to-read and pretty clean, so I would recommend it to hard-core basketball fans who might not otherwise be interested in reading. (Grades 7-9.)

Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi

My favorite graphic novels tend to be autobiographical. Two excellent ones from the past year are El Deafo and March Book One. Persepolis, written in 2003, is the story of a girl exactly my age growing up in Iran. Up until age 10 she enjoyed much freedom. But after the "Islamic Revolution" her co-ed secular school is closed and she must wear a veil and attend an all-girls school. Marjane is a rebel, though, and this book chronicles the next few years in which she refuses to be silenced. Readers may need to refresh themselves on some Iranian history as she lives through political turmoil and the war with Iraq. In some ways it is a difficult, disturbing story complete that includes torture and war, but at its heart it is a coming of age story of a girl trying to be herself in the midst of a repressive regime. Recommended for readers interested in history, human rights, and knowing more about the world. (High school and up.)

Monday, December 01, 2014

Trouble by Non Pratt

Hannah is a risk-taking girl who has relationships with numerous boys and finds herself pregnant. She knows the father of her baby but she's not telling anyone who it is (including you, the reader). Aaron is the new kid in school who has a deep dark secret of his own that he is running from. For some reason, Aaron is drawn to Hannah and wants to help her, so he offers to pretend to be the father of her child. It's a relationship that works for a time, but the two teenagers can't keep their lies hidden for long. The heart of this book is their friendship that endures even while both of their darkest secrets get exposed to the world. Hannah is a complex character who makes some really poor decisions. I had trouble liking her but I did enjoy learning more about her and seeing her face up to her problems. This is definitely a high school book for mature readers.

Summer of Letting Go by Gae Polisner

Francesca (also known as Frankie) is 15 years old and has a lot to deal with. She blames herself for the drowning death of your younger brother, Simon, four years ago. Her mother has become emotionally withdrawn, she suspects her father may be having an affair, and she has a crush on her best friend's boyfriend. A strange thing happens at the beginning of the summer—she meets a 4-year-old boy (also named Frankie) who reminds her so much of Simon that she starts to wonder if he could be the reincarnation of her brother. She gets a job as Frankie's babysitter and finds more and more eerie similarities between the two little boys. At the same time, she slowly lets go of her fear of the water, returning to the beach and the swimming pool for the first time in four years. There is friendship, romance and betrayal in this story, as well. Readers who like realistic fiction that's not too edgy or disturbing will enjoy getting to know Frankie and Frankie.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The Vanishing Season by Jodi Lynn Anderson

A ghost narrates this tale about three friends living in northern Wisconson. Maggie has just moved to a small town on Lake Michigan and she soon makes friends with beautiful, enigmatic Pauline and quiet, loyal Liam. Unfortunately, just as Maggie is moving in, bodies of teenage girls start appearing. No one knows why or how they are being killed, but girls are no longer safe in this small community. When Pauline's family takes her away, a romance blossoms between Maggie and Liam, but how can it last when Pauline returns? Rather than being a murder mystery, this book is really a slow-moving story of friendship, romance, and that ghost I mentioned at the beginning. I have to admit, I did not think the ending was fitting or believable. In fact, I was not satisfied at all, especially with how the author dealt with the murders. But I would love to hear other opinions so read it and let me know your thoughts. (And also, why would any parents leave their teenage daughter alone for the weekend with a murderer on the loose?)

Tuesday, November 04, 2014

The Body in the Woods by April Henry

This is a murder mystery involving a dead girl in the woods and the three teenagers who find her body. Alexis, Ruby, and Nick have recently joined the Portland County Sheriff's Search and Rescue Team, and while searching for a lost man they come across the victim. As in  most of these stories, the police tell them to leave the case to the experts, but the teenagers find themselves involved in tracking down the killer, who may be one of the hikers they encountered that day in the woods. Each of the characters has a story—Alexis is dealing with a mentally ill mother, Ruby is fixated on crime and her parents don't want her to be involved, and Nick's father died in Iraq and he wants to prove himself to be a hero. It's a somewhat predictable story, but if you like murder mysteries, it will keep you reading.

Vitro by Jessica Khoury

Sophie Crue is just trying to see her mother again when she flies to Guam and hires a pilot to take her to Skin Island. Her mother is a scientist working on the high-security island and Sophie finds out that her mother's project is to create test-tube humans with chips implanted in their heads. Sophie is plunged into a dangerous world where her own mother may be the evil force that needs to be stopped. Fortunately, Sophie's pilot is her childhood friend, Jim, and he is her partner in trying to save the Vitros from their fate. There's a lot of action in this book and many characters should be dead several times over. I found it to be implausible, but addicting the more I read. Lately I have read multiple books about scientists engineering people to do their bidding—including Phoenix Island and Undivided.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

The Scar Boys by Len Vlahos

This is one of the best YA books I have read this year. I was hooked from the beginning and enjoyed it all the way through. It is the much-longer-than-250-word college essay of a boy named Harry, who in his own words is "ugly and shy and my face, head, and neck are covered with hideous scars." Harry's disfigurement (due to a childhood lightning strike) causes him a lot of social difficulties, but once he starts high school he makes a friend and they start a band. This is the story of the Scar Boys and how they navigate the difficult journey toward adulthood. It's also the story of how four teenagers try to stay friends even as they start to go separate ways. The unequal nature of Harry and John's friendship was the part that really seemed real to me and made this rise above the level of a book about guys in a band. I loved the writing and the characters and even the descriptions of a band on a road trip. Recommended for high school readers (lots of "adult" language).

Monday, September 15, 2014

Phoenix Island by John Dixon

When a high school boy tells me he read a great book, I always want to read it for myself. The kid who told me about this one has never steered me wrong, so I grabbed it right away. He was right. This book was violent and horrifying and perfect for readers who like action and adventure, with a touch of science fiction thrown in. It's about a Carl Freeman, a 16-year-old who is sentenced to a military-style boot camp for teenagers who have broken the law. Carl's problem is his temper. When he sees a bully in action he fights back, and even though he is usually protecting someone helpless, he causes a lot of damage. Carl is also an orphan, so when he is sent to Phoenix Island, he has no family to wonder where he went. What he finds on Phoenix Island is a cruel, physically violent book camp where kids are bullied, tortured, and maybe even killed. Carl, a champion boxer, eventually fights back but he is up against a powerful system that goes far beyond Phoenix Island. Be warned—this book has numerous graphically violent fight scenes so it's recommended for 9th grade-up.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Sisters by Raina Telgemeier

Smile by Raina Telgemeier is well-known to tween girls as a fantastic graphic novel aimed at them. It's the story of the author's horrible accident that damaged her teeth while in sixth grade. Sisters is the companion book to Smile, and it's also autobiographical. Raina longed for a little sister until she actually got one. When Amara is born nothing is quite like she thought it would be. In this story, the family is heading from California to Colorado on a big road trip and Raina and Amara aren't getting along. The girls worry about their parents relationship, deal with a not-so-fun family reunion, and find a big surprise in their mom's VW van. Anyone with siblings will recognize how true-to-life this story is. It's a quick, easy read that will be loved by fans of Raina Telgemeier's other books.

El Deafo by Cece Bell

This charming graphic novel will be loved by a wide range of readers. Although the characters are all rabbits, it's the true story of the author's girlhood and she dealt with sudden hearing loss at age four. Cece has all the insecurities and endearing hopefulness of any little girl, but her life is made much more complicated by the big hearing aid box that she must wear around her neck while at school. She spend one year in a special kindergarten class where she learns to read lips, but after that she is in public schools. Although her box sets her apart, she sometimes sees it as giving her super hearing and she fantasizes that she is a fearless superhero called "El Deafo." She longs for a true friend, and finds several friends as the book goes on. One tries to manipulate her, one makes a big deal out of her hearing loss (always talking slowly and loudly), and one shies away from her out of guilt. There are small moments that made me really empathize with kids with hearing issues, especially the time when, at a slumber party, Cece is shut out of the conversation because the girls turn out the lights. My 9-year-old son loved this book, and I suspect kids from 2nd through 8th grades will enjoy it on many levels. Anyone who grew up in the 1970s will also recognize their childhood in Cece's story. I recently met Cece Bell for the first time at the Decatur Book Festival. We went to the College of William & Mary together, although we never knew each other there. She is the author/illustrator of a series of Sock Monkey monkey picture books which I love, and her husband is Tom Angleberger, author of the Origami Yoda books.