Friday, August 17, 2012

Book Bites: Expectations Failed and Expectations Exceeded Edition

Here's a set of 3 quick reviews in an attempt to catch up on all the reading I've been doing summer vacation!

Island's End by Padma Venkatraman

Uido is thrilled to be chosen as her tribe's next oko-jumu--spiritual leader.   Living on their beautiful and isolated island, the community's connection to and understanding of spirit world is critical to their survival.  But while Uido is excited with her new role, others (like her older brother and her best female friend) do not respond as positively.  Meanwhile, strangers from another island have begun to visit their shore, bringing with them gifts that tempt the tribe to leave in search of different life.  When Uido's little brother becomes deathly ill, she will have to use all her abilities to save him while also finding a way to bring her tribe into the future without losing their past.

I picked up Island's End earlier this month as part of a hunt for middle grade/young YA books with young female protagonists taking traditionally male roles.  The summary blurb sounded as though it might fit into my general theme and the setting was unique and intriguing.  However, I found that my overall reaction to this novel was disappointment.  Venkatraman writes elegantly, providing rich and loving descriptions of Uido's world, bringing the lush island's diverse landscapes and Uido's visions of the spirit world to life for the reader.  The series of events portray the issues of cultural growth and shifts and the need to balance the values of long established traditions with survival in the modern world without harshly villifying or deifying any particular group.  Yet despite the technically exciting events that form the plot, the novel's pacing felt a bit off to me.  The climax and conclusion felt rushed, especially since the situation had the potential to be very thrilling.  Finally, I also had a little trouble feeling fully connected to Uido despite her first person narration.  Overall, the interesting setting didn't add up to an equally thrilling story.  

Deadly by Julie Chibbaro

Prudence Galewski wants something more out of life.  She wants more than her education in feminine refinement offered by Mrs. Browning's School for Girls and more than the meal ticket of a job as proper governess, secretary, or (ideally) wife that education will buy her.  Prudence is not like other girls; she's fascinated by the human body, by the emerging science of disease, and by the reasons that some people survive illness or injury while others do not.  When she takes a job as secretary at the growing Department of Health and Sanitation, Prudence gets her chance to be part of something bigger than her own limited daily grind.  Soon Prudence finds herself entangled in the Department's revolutionary and complex investigation of New York's quickly spreading typhoid outbreak.  

I'm a lifelong fan of historical fiction so I was intrigued by Deadly from my first glance through the inside flap summary.  A novel exploring the lesser known details of a significant historical event through the eyes of a unique protagonist?  Yes, please! In some ways, Deadly lived up to my hopes.  Prudence is an exciting protagonist, a young Jewish woman in early 1900s New York City with an interest in science and a determination to challenge the status quo.  As a librarian at a girls' school, I'm a big fan of interesting stories about women in science.  The diary format works well generally, especially because Prudence's anatomical sketches are woven into the novel as well.  The elements of real historical events including the experimental methods of the Department of Health and Sanitation to track the spread of disease and the experiences of the real 'Typhoid Mary' are fascinating and provide a decent amount of tension throughout the narrative.  However, despite all of these positive aspects, I would have difficulty recommending this one to a large number of students.  The pacing occasionally felt off, especially during the conclusion.  The narrative wound up too abruptly and much of the potential excitement was lost.  The promising premise just didn't pan out into a consistently interesting reading experience.  I might recommend this to some historical fiction fans or young scientists.                

Close To Famous by Joan Bauer

Foster McFee has big dreams: she dreams of becoming the next big celebrity chef and having her own inspirational cooking show.  Her mom Rayka dreams of using her big voice for more than backup singer gigs and they both dream of finding a new life after Foster's dad's died in Iraq.  But so far, neither of their dreams seem to be working out.  After fleeing Memphis in the middle of the night to escape Huck, Rayka's mean Elvis impersonator ex-boyfriend, the McFees find themselves starting over in the tiny town of Culpepper, Virginia where nearly everyone seems to have a big, unfinished dream.  Now, Foster's undefeated optimism and exceptional baking skills will truly be put to the test as she works to make her--and everyone else's--dreams come true.

As my username here may indicate,  I have a pretty big cupcake obsession.  I spend as much time trolling my favorite baking blogs and messing around in my very tiny kitchen as I do reading YA novels or prepping book talks.  So I was obviously drawn to Joan Bauer's newest middle grade novel from the moment I spotted the cover.  However, I soon found that the story and the character were even more delightful than the baked goods on the cover!  Foster is a great young protagonist whose narration illustrates her unique combination of optimism and realism;  she's already experienced some really difficult, frightening, and discouraging parts of life but although she recognizes that happiness and personal success aren't easy, she remains firm in her belief that both are possible.  Foster's embarrassment about her dyslexia and her worries about her mother are achingly real; she jumps right off the page as a wonderfully complex and likable middle school heroine.  The plot is full of interesting little twists and turns and emotional highs and lows; the supporting cast of characters are quirky and diverse, as usual with Bauer's work.  I thoroughly enjoyed Close To Famous and am working on a book trailer of it to share with my 7th graders this fall!        

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

The Kids Are Not Alright: Some Girls Are by Courtney Summers & Wringer by Jerry Spinelli

photo from
From the surface, these two books appear to have more differences than similarities.  Courtney Summers' Some Girls Are was published more recently and it focuses on the intense social world of high school girls while Jerry Spinelli's Wringer is a middle grade novel exploring boyhood and boys.  If I hadn't happened to read these novels within a week of each other, I likely would never have connected the them.  However, reading one after the other, I couldn't help be see a relationship between these two novels: both stories clearly explore gender and bullying behavior among children and young adults in different but equally disturbing ways.

Only a few days ago, Regina lived an ideal life.  She was second in command of the Fearsome Fivesome, the most popular and powerful girls at Hallowell High; she had a boyfriend Josh and a best friend, Anna--queen of the school.  Then one night, at a party she didn't even want to attend, something happens.  And on Monday, Regina finds that her whole life has fallen apart, shattered by nasty rumors about her and Anna's boyfriend.  Having her friends completely freeze her out of their lives is horrible enough.   But worst of all, the rumors about what happened at the party aren't true--in fact, they don't come anywhere close to the terrifying reality.  Suddenly Regina finds herself on the receiving end of the kind of relentless daily torture her former clique has perfected from years of practice.

This mean girls tale is a chilling and intense examination of high school power dynamics, especially the complex relationships between young women. Exploring themes similar to those woven through both the now ubiquitous film  Mean Girls and Lauren Oliver's popular novel Before I Fall, Some Girls Are stands out as a dark and starkly realistic demonstration of how delicate and poisonous the intense power structure within groups of girls can become.  Regina is the ideal character to demonstrate the anxious tightrope teens might walk to maintain power among their peers; she has been on both sides of the popularity line and she has a full knowledge of the torture in store for her as Anna's designated enemy--because she has been the torturer in the past.  She understands that the bullying will be carried out through strategic silence and cruel actions carried out by Anna's allies; she knows that she will be erased.  Regina's narration is key to the novel's intensity and emotional power;  her painfully clear perception and her realistically turbulent emotions immerse readers in her experience immediately and allow us to empathize with her, especially as she confronts her own mistakes and her inability to completely correct them.  In very positive ways, her voice reminds me of Melinda from Laurie Halse Anderson's Speak, another great novel dealing with some similar topics.   

In the small town of Waymar, the annual Family Fest's pigeon shooting contest is the highlight of the year and the day a boy turns ten years old is the greatest moment of his life.  Because when a boy reaches his tenth birthday, he can at last become a wringer--a boy trained to run onto the field and wring the neck of injured pigeons at the annual event.  Being a wringer is the ultimate honor and tradition of Waymar boyhood.  But unlike his classmates, Palmer LaRue views his approaching tenth birthday with intense dread.  Because Palmer has a secret: he absolutely does not want to become a wringer.

After being mostly immersed in the world of older teenage characters, entering the world of children on the verge of adolescence through Jerry Spinelli's skilled writing was a simultaneously exciting and heartbreaking experience.  As Courtney Summers is able to delve into the adolescent female experience with great clarity in Some Girls Are, so Spinelli provides the readers of Wringer with a painfully realistic window into the experience of children as they begin to understand the ways that gender affects their lives.  Palmer is both a very universally relatable kid and a unique boy.  He wants to be part of a group--to be a 'normal boy' with a solid and safe place in his social world.  Yet Palmer is also unique because he has begun to question the way the people in his town define boyhood.  He struggles to balance his internal disgust for the wringer tradition with the continuous external pressure from others (especially his 'gang') about joining the tradition.  Spinelli's focused third person narration gives Palmer a very genuine voice, intelligent and perceptive but still very much shaped by a child's developing understanding of the world.  The other characters are equally well crafted and Palmer's relationship with his parents is a particularly wonderful piece of the story.  Wringer is ideal middle grade literature--a meaningful story with great character development and very relevant themes told with an elegantly simple writing style.

While Regina and Palmer's stories differ in many key ways (their ages and genders, for example), their experiences have more in common that it might appear on the surface, especially when viewed side by side.  Both Regina and Palmer have worked hard to fit into powerful, gendered peer groups; Regina found safety within the Fearsome Fivesome while Palmer gains some form of acceptance within the local gang of boys.  Some Girls Are begins when Regina makes a fatal mistake--trusting another ambitious member of their clique--and leaves herself open to attack; she loses her place among the powerful girls and slides to the outer edges of the social hierarchy.  The novel depicts Regina's struggle to deal with her unwilling dislocation and carve a new place in the world.  Meanwhile Wringer mostly deals with the earlier phase of the toxic group dynamic, describing Palmer's attempt to gain and retain a place among the boys in the neighborhood before he moves towards a decision to voluntarily transgress the established social order.  Additionally, both characters act as aggressors towards weaker peers at certain times before finding themselves as victims of harassment or bullying.  Through emotional resonant and technically well crafted storytelling, both novels demonstrate the cycle of bullying and the ways in which our peers enforce rigid expectations (especially those related to gender roles and behavior).  

Both Some Girls Are and Wringer would be interesting books to use for discussions among teens in high school and middle school respectively;  they also might be fascinating discussion starters for faculty or youth services staff book groups.