Thursday, May 31, 2007

Nineteen Minutes by Jodi Picoult

Jodi Picoult is a goddess. Really. And I bet her editor is pretty darn good, too. This is her 14th novel, and she hasn't disappointed me yet. Released in March 2007, this DRAMATIC novel about a high school shooting happened a month before the Virginia Tech shooting.

The odd thing is that a few months ago I argued against putting Shooter by Myers on the 2008 Abe Lincoln Illinois H.S. Book Award list. And I think I could quote myself: "Not another book about a school shooting!"

But Nineteen Minutes is different. In typical Picoult fashion, she takes a Oprah-like subject and makes it interesting and fresh. She has teenagers in almost all her novels, which makes them easier reads for young adults. As a mother, I love Alex in the story. She is a darn good judge and tries to be a great single mother. But things still aren't quite right with her daughter Josie. In fact, things aren't right with any of the characters in the novel. And that's what makes it great. People aren't perfect. In school, you are either bullied or the bullier. There is no such thing as an innocent bystander. And I have been in the position of the teachers in the novel. What do you do? Punish the bulliers so they end up picking on the kid more later? Pull the bullied aside and tell them you understand? Teach everyone karate? Teach character education? It's tough to teach respect in high school. One of the two detentions I gave last year was to a student who called another student a "fag." I wasn't meant to hear it, but I did. And I blew up. But here's what I'd like to know. Did the kid I punish retaliate in any way? Should I ask? Does it matter? Is it enough that the bullied kid knows that I won't allow kids to call him names in the library?

Ugh. Tough topic for me. And this is why I love this book. And why I'm buying multiple copies for my book club to discuss next fall. And then the faculty book club will be next. This book deserves to be read a lot at Paris High School.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

The Grave Tattoo by Val McDermid

Well, if you have to read a literary thriller from 2007, read The Double Bind. This adult novel took me hours to read. I kept finding other things to do. I did laundry, watched TV, took a nap. All because I couldn't finish this slow-moving supposed thriller.

Jane is a Wordsworth scholar and even grew up in the Lake District. So when a dead body with tattoos washes up in the bogs, she's interested. She thinks it might help prove her theory that Fletcher Christian, of Mutiny of the Bounty fame, told his story to William Wordsworth who then wrote an epic poem about the adventure. So Jane sets out to prove it. She researches and digs and eventually bodies start piling up behind her.

Basically the downfall to his novel is that I didn't get emotionally involved with any of the characters except for Tenille, the young black girl from the hood who loves poetry and claims Jane as her mentor. Jane was pretty boring, and so was her relationship with Dan and her ex-boyfriend Dave. This read was okay, but I've read better.

A Long Way Gone:Memoirs of a Boy Soldier by Ishmael Beah

I'm not sure what to think about this adult memoir. The atrocities that happened in Sierra Leone were horrible. I vaguely remember hearing about the fighting when I was in high school and college and can't imagine being a child anywhere in the world where this type of fighting takes place. Really, the children were roaming like packs of dogs. Fleeing from war, famine, and anyone who resembled the enemy. There was no "good" side. Both the army and the rebels were horrible. Ishmael was extremely lucky that he was rescued from the army and taken by UNICEF and other agencies to be rehabilitated. I was amazed by how long it took the young boys to get off the drugs and start to become normal again. The boy killed. And he was good at it. The nurses and social workers must have had tons of patience. The boys didn't want to get better. They didn't know anything was wrong with them.
I'm not sure if I can say this is a great book. The topic needs to be heard. And the message that young boys should not be fighting wars is loud and clear. The photographs of the young soldier on the cover and the author on the back of the jacket are amazing. Juxtaposition loud and clear. But I find myself asking tons of questions that I think ought to have been answered. The trip out of Sierra Leone went very quickly. Why did Laura accept him so easily? Why did his parents separate? Did he ever try again to find any of his family members? his other friends?

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

The Double Bind by Chris Bohjalian

Ahhh, I should have known this author wouldn't have let me down. With 50 pages to go, I was feeling a little disappointed, but BANG, the twist got me in the end. Yes. I'll admit it. I didn't expect everything that happened at the end. So, to me, this is a great book!

Laurel is attacked while riding her bike during college and spends the next few years becoming a leader at the local homeless shelter. She has a roommate who is also her best friend and a older boyfriend who cares for her. But then a homeless man dies and hundreds of photographs are found. Laurel finds pictures of Jay Gatsby's home (which is later her swim club) and frighteningly finds pictures of her on her bike the day of her attack. What was Bobbie Crocker doing there the day she was attacked? Was he really the son of Daisy Buchanan? the illegitimate son of Jay Gatsby? Laurel's investigation occupy most of the novel as she becomes obsessed with proving that Bobbie Crocker is the son of Daisy Buchanan. This is a fascinating read and I plan on putting this one on the reading list for any student who is a fan of The Great Gatsby.

Bras & Broomsticks by Sarah Mlynowski

I listened to the audio book of this fun young adult chick lit book and cracked up laughing in the car. Really, Ariadne Meyers sounds just like a teenager and made me smile. A lot.

Rachel is 14 and struggling. She gets "Santa's Little Helper" ( a zit) and can't dance. Then she finds out that her younger sister just discovered that she is a witch. The sis brings a dead lobster back to life. At the supper table. And then Rachel finds out that her mother is a witch, too, who just doesn't use her powers. Oh. My. God. (as Rachel would say)

So Rachel talks her sister into giving her a dance spell so Rachel can join the dancing team for the annual fashion show and finally make it to the A-list. And they conspire to ruin the soon-to-be marriage of her pops and his fiance so they don't have an evil stepmother. And the fun begins. Because while magic is a quick fix, it doesn't work the way they want it to.

This is a fun, quick read that had me smiling the whole time. It's recommended for grades 6-9, but I think I'll buy this series for my high school. I think it will be really popular.

Monday, May 28, 2007

The Blood of Flowers by Anita Amirrezvani

This was pretty good historical fiction, except for the sex scenes. Yes, those were thrown in the middle of the book and didn't seem to have much significance other than making this the type of book students will pass around to their friends.

The young Iranian girl loses her father (and her dowry) and she and her mother have to become servants in a distant relative's household in Isfahan. The girl loves to make carpets and her uncle teaches her about the craft, even though girls don't usually learn from the master's. Because of poverty and the fear of being thrown out into the street, the young girl is coerced into agreeing to a temporary marriage (which I had never heard of until I read this novel) and she learns all there is to know about pleasing a man. This is the strange part of the book. The scenes don't have a point. Yes, she learns that she likes it and then she chooses not to renew the sigheh, even though it means devastation to her family. But she doesn't find another man by the end of the novel. She is able to support her family by making carpets with the help of her uncle and by becoming a favorite with the shah's harem. So the sex scenes have no real point. I guess she could have become a prostitute, but didn't. Maybe that's why they are in there. But anyway, take away those scenes, and this book would have been cohesive and beautiful. The Iranian storytelling is wonderful, and the descriptions of the carpets and what life was like during the Safavid dynasty was amazing.

Monday, May 21, 2007

The Dead Fathers Club by Matt Haig

Wow! This adult novel sucked me in, although I hated the lack of apostrophes and quotation marks. I know, the author did it on purpose to create a sense of voice, blah, blah, blah, but it still makes it hard for an old English teacher to read!
Philip's father dies at the beginning of the book and his ghost comes back to haunt him. The ghost wants Uncle Alan to die (for fixing the brakes on the car and causing the accident). The ghost tells Philip to steal a car and set a gas station on fire. All in all, Philip is one messed up kid and a very distrustful narrator. Who knows what to think. But this book definitely has a wow factor. Highly recommended.

A Far Country by Daniel Mason

I listened to the unabridged audio version of this adult novel and I was impressed, but I'm not sure if my students would be. This would be a great classroom novel to show what life is like in third world countries, but isn't something many students would pick up on their own.
Isabel was born in sugar cane country and grew up poor and hungry. She has a connection with her brother Isaias and is able to sense him in the cane and always find him. Then her brother runs away to the city to find work as a fiddler and Isabel follows. She watches her cousin's baby in the New Settlements (another word for slums) and has to learn the ways of the city. Finally, she finds him.
All in all, not much happens in the book, but the author is a truly gifted storyteller. It was a beautiful listen.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

The Meq by Steve Cash

This was the last student book club book for 2006-2007!! And it was a good one. This fantasy novel is also on the 2008 Abe Lincoln H.S. Book Award list, so the book clubbers are getting a head start on next year's list.
This was a very unique fantasy, so I appreciated reading it. I liked how the Meq remain twelve years old, and I loved all the historical tidbits thrown into the plot--Einstein, Jesse James, Scott Joplin, and the list goes on and on.
Z loses his parents at the beginning of the novel and they try to tell him that he is Meq and different, but he has to figure things out for himself. There are others like him in the world and he runs into a lot of them. Of course, there is the evil one who markets girls as slaves. But, most of the Meq are good and trying to use the power of the stones for good. Z travels to China and Africa for many years on his mission to rescue a friend's daughter and meet his beloved.
There is a sequel, Time Dancers, that I'll have to purchase next school year!

Monday, May 14, 2007

The Welsh Girl by Peter Ho Davies

This historical novel started out with such promise. And, from a literary standpoint, it probably delivered. But I didn't like the multiple stories and didn't see how they came together.

The Welsh girl, Esther, works in a pub, has an alcoholic father, a dead mother, and the family takes in evacuees from the city during World War II. The English government sets up a German POW camp next to her dad's pasture and this provides tons of excitement for the community. She is drawn to Karsten, a young German POW who speaks English, has an affair with him, and tells him about how she became in the family way.

The second plot line is about Rotheram, a German 1/2 Jew who doesn't claim his Jewish heritage. He is an English interrogator sent to question Rudolf Hess in Wales. And I'm so glad I'm not the only one who didn't feel that this fit into the novel. I loved the idea of Hess in the novel. I found myself searching websites to see if this stuff was true, but it didn't fit in with Esther.

From Bookmarks Magazine: "Yet while they praised the book's complicated character portraits and its complex themes, many felt that the Rotheram-Hess subplot, while fascinating, was tangential to the novel's main triangle. "

So, this book is written beautifully. Love the characterization, description of the Welsh countryside, blah, blah, blah, but it doesn't fit together good enough for me.

Friday, May 11, 2007

The Edge of Winter by Luanne Rice

This audio book was your typical adult woman paperback book that you find at Wal-Mart. It was sappy. It was a love story. Lots of love stories, really. And I did enjoy it, but it was nothing special. No offense to all the Luanne Rice fans out there.

Book Description: "Neve Halloran and her daughter have shared a fierce love for the austere beauty of Rhode Island’s South County ever since Neve guided Mickey’s first baby steps along the sandy shore. Now, with Mickey a teenager and Neve’s last hope for happiness with her daughter’s loving but unstable father gone, both will struggle to make a new life together amid the windswept landscape that sustains them. Captivated by a fragile wildlife sanctuary, Mickey will move toward womanhood in the company of a lonely boy who shares her instinctive way with the creatures of the coast. And Neve will find herself drawn to a man who has devoted his life to the sanctuary, but who is unable to share the pain of a recent loss—or reconnect with the father who still bears the scars of World War II. As winter gives way to spring, and spring to summer, a secret will emerge that has lain buried in the depths just offshore for decades, a secret that will galvanize the small seaside community. For the waters bear their own vestige of the past—and their ceaseless rhythms may point the way to hope and new beginnings."

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Babylon's Ark: the incredible wartime rescue of the Baghdad Zoo by Lawrence Anthony with Graham Spence

Finally! A nonfiction book that I absolutely love and adore! I can't believe I found one! Hooray! or should I say hooah!

Lawrence Anthony is the founder of a wild animal preserve in South Africa who felt a calling after the invasion of Iraq in 2003. He had heard rumors of the best zoo in Arabia being decimated and that the animals were in desperate need of care. So he went. He knew the right people in the right places--ambassadors, bureaucrats, and military men who could get him into the country with some supplies and two Kuwaiti assistants. The three men luckily made it into Baghdad and learned quickly that the war was not over. Through bribery, bartering, philanthropy, and dumb luck, Anthony and his workers were able to keep the few animals left fed, watered, and medicated. I loved how the military men adopted Anthony, even though he was South African and not American, simply because he was there to help animals. This book is NOT political, which is one reason I like it. Anthony never down talks the war. He simply discusses the animals' plight and what he and the Iraqis did to help them. I appreciate the physical descriptions of the palaces and the zoo in Baghdad. I feel like I know the city better, and even though the actions in this book took place in 2003, I imagine a lot of things haven't changed. I can picture the crowded bazaars, the horrible Luna Park zoo, and the soldiers feeding their MREs to the starving animals. Once word got around the city that the zoo people were back, Anthony had to lead several rescue missions to retrieve animals who were dying. Some of Hussein's Arabian horses were found, Uday's personal zoo was liberated, and miscellaneous animals were bought on the black market and returned to the zoo. Anthony received the Earth Day Medal and Capt. Larry Burris gave him the Third Infantry Division's regimental medal for bravery. He deserved it. I'm in awe that one man can make so much difference in the lives of so many animals. Hopefully, someday, I'll be able to see the Baghdad Zoo. I'd be honored to.

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Tallgrass by Sandra Dallas

I finally finished this adult novel. And I say finally because it took me about a week and that is tooooo long. First of all, it's preachy. From the very first chapter, I thought the author should have just said, "Japanese-American internment camps are really, really bad and we should be ashamed of this part of our history."
Once you get past the preachiness, the plot is pretty good. I like the young character Rennie and her family. Daisy, the young Japanese-American girl who works for the family, is wonderful. The "mean boys" of the town are cliched characters. The whole plot line of the mysterious murder and rape of a little girl really adds to the book, but I didn't really like how it all wraps up nicely in the end.
All in all, I think this could be added to an American History reading list. But I think I'll have a hard time selling this book to students. I don't know if they'll get through the first three chapters to the little girl getting killed. That's when the book gets interesting.