Sunday, August 9, 2009

Out of Order

Colt Trammel is trying to make sense of his high school world. His classes are like gibberish, his girlfriend Grace freaks after he tells her he loves her, and his lab partner is a new girl with green hair, for Pete's sake. The only time Colt knows what's going on is when he's playing baseball.

A.M. Jenkins is a master at drawing readers right into the characters. Colt is not a simple jock stereotype. His love for Grace makes him vulnerable, and the failures he experiences in his classes make him feel perpetually stupid.

Colt's struggle with the romantic poets from his English class becomes crucial when his grades drop below what is acceptable for playing athletes. He finds a tutor in Chloe, formerly of the green hair. Jenkins writes their tutoring sessions with humor. Anyone who has struggled to understand classic poems will especially enjoy these parts of the books.

It is also nice to see in a book the boy's side of a painful dating relationship. Readers will sympathize with this supposed tough guy as he pines for Grace, who doesn't treat him well.

Jenkins gives us a three-dimensional character in Colt, who is likable despite some bad choices that will have the reader cringing. OUT OF ORDER is a realistic book, and readers will want to see more of what happens to Colt.

Monday, July 27, 2009


Dear Reader,
Lena is nine years old and her sister Dion is four when their mother dies in West Virginia. After a while, the girls stop waiting for Mama to come back and eventually settle in Chauncey, Ohio with their father. Often their father just stares at the wall, then smiles at Lena. "Only it was the smile he used to give Mama. Not a daddy-to-daughter smile. He wanted me to be Mama, but I'm not. I'm Lena."Disguising themselves as boys, Lena and Dion finally leave their father and head out on the open road to Pine Mountain, Kentucky, where Lena hopes they can hook up with some of Mama's people. It's scary on the road, hitching rides and sleeping outside or in hospital waiting rooms, but it's better than being scared of Daddy.It's late December, and traveling time is dreaming time. The sisters plan what they'll do when they grow up, but for now, Lena dreams of lots of food, presents, and music; Dion wants a grand piano, snow on Christmas morning, and hot chocolate with whipped cream.Might these wishes come true when Lena and Dion accept a ride from Miss Lily Price, a black woman who takes the girls home with her? Have Lena and Dion finally found the home they so desperately need and want? Can they really trust Lily Price, or are they setting themselves up to be hurt again? Lena knows there's no room for even one mistake.LENA, by Jacqueline Woodson, is the story of a gutsy girl who takes charge. Lena manages to escape her father and save herself and her younger sister from his abuse, as she faces issues that should not be in a child's life but often are. It is a story of growing up, facing fear with bravery, having tenderness for one another, and learning to trust.

Thursday, July 23, 2009


Dear Reader,
Tamar and Dart are spies in the book Tamar who parachute into Nazi-occupied Netherlands during the "Hunger Winter" of 1944. Tamar's mission is to convince Dutch resistance groups to unify under the authority of the British government. Dart is his wireless operator, at a time when a WO's life expectancy in the field is just a few months. Tamar is undercover as a farm laborer sent home from Nazi work camps due to broken health. Dart is disguised as a doctor in residence at a sanatorium. They communicate only with the help of local resistance members, any of whom could be Nazi spies. Very little information is given about the characters beyond their duties as spies. Both are Dutch, but it is never revealed how they came to be recruited by the British or what their lives were like before they were spies. It is almost as though their choice to become spies has erased all other sense of identity. They have no past and no future beyond their present mission, even as personal feelings begin to color their relationships to one another and the organization they serve. Approximately 50 years later, a teen girl, also named Tamar, inherits a mysterious box from her grandfather. She and her cousin Yoyo take a trip into the British countryside seeking the origins of the Tamar river and the answer to a family secret that has remained hidden for generations. The two stories dovetail in a compelling novel about the legacy of a world at war, binding people across borders and generations. World War II happened so long ago that it is beginning to pass from memory into history. The world of TAMAR's spies is so different from our own that it might as well be an imaginary world. The secret hiding places, archaic communications like Morse code, and extreme precautions like cyanide pills add to a sense of a vanished and exotic world. It is also a period that has been fetishized over the years by many fictional portrayals. Instead of making history seem more immediate, the many movies and novels about the period can serve to make it seem less real, more a Hollywood invention than actual events impacting the lives of millions. Nazis have become stock characters, as recognizable in their uniforms with stiff marching and salutes as the villain in swirling cape and twirling mustache was in melodramas long ago. It would be easy to write another novel about the atrocities of the war without adding anything new to the literature. Mal Peet avoids cliche through his vividly detailed recreation of The Netherlands in the winter of 1944. He writes about a population being starved into submission by their Nazi occupiers, forcing "hunger trippers" to walk miles into the country in search of food. He writes about silken code sheets that can be packed into a tiny capsule and swallowed in case of capture, and about wireless operators on amphetamines trying to stay alert through stifling boredom and constant fear. Best of all, the author refuses to oversimplify the conflict into good vs. evil. Most of the trouble in the novel relates to the competing agendas between different factions of the resistance, and misunderstandings between individuals who are supposed to be fighting on the same side. Nazis aren't the only enemy. The novel's protagonists also battle against fear, boredom, isolation, starvation, mistrust, substance abuse and nerves stretched to a breaking point. The level of detail in the book, invoking a specific time and place, as well as the moral complexity required of its characters in a world where the self-interest of survival is stronger than any code of honor, distinguish TAMAR in a sea of novels about World War II. Mal Peet finds the perfect balance between thrilling adventure and serious history without relying on stock characters or sentimentality. TAMAR is not the first novel to be written about spies during WWII, but it is one of the few written for a young adult audience and is one of the best novels on the subject for readers of any age.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

The Hunger Games

The Hunger Games takes place in an unidentified future time period after the destruction of North America, in a nation known as Panem. Panem consists of a rich Capitol and twelve surrounding, poorer districts. As punishment for a previous rebellion against the Capitol, every year one boy and one girl from each district is forced to participate in "The Hunger Games", a televised event whereby the participants, or "tributes", must fight to the death in an outdoor arena until only one remains. The story follows 16-year-old Katniss Everdeen, a girl from District 12 who volunteers for the Games in place of her younger sister, Primrose. Also participating from District 12 is Peeta Mellark, a boy whom Katniss knows from school and who once gave Katniss bread when her family was starving.
Katniss and Peeta are taken to the Capitol, where they meet the other tributes and are publicly displayed to the Capitol audience. During this time, Peeta reveals on-air his long-time unrequited love for Katniss. Katniss believes this to be a ploy to gain audience support for the Games, which can be crucial for survival, as audience members are permitted to send gifts to the tributes during the Games. The Games begin with 11 of the 24 tributes dying in the first hour, while Katniss relies on her well-practiced hunting and outdoors skills to survive. As the Games continue, the tribute death toll increases, but both Katniss and Peeta are able to evade death.
Supposedly due to Katniss and Peeta's beloved image to the audience as "star-crossed lovers", a rule change is announced midway through the Games, stating that two tributes from the same district can win the Hunger Games as a pair. Upon hearing this, Katniss searches for Peeta and finds him wounded. She nurses him back to health and acts the part of a young girl falling in love to gain more favor with the audience. The couple manages to outlast all the other tributes, and the Gamemakers try to force them into a dramatic finale where one must kill the other to win. Instead, they both threaten suicide and are subsequently both declared winners. After returning to the Capitol, Katniss learns her ploy to save both her and Peeta has greatly upset the Capitol because it made them look like fools and she must watch over her shoulder from now on. Her on screen romance with Peeta also comes to a crashing halt when the cameras are gone and Peeta is heartbroken to learn it was all an act for the audience, though Katniss is not so sure of that herself anymore.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Zen and the Art of Faking It

Dear Reader,

I just finished reading Zen and the Art of Faking It by Jordan Sonnenblick. When San Lee moves to “Nowheresville” Pennsylvania, he has the opportunity to reinvent himself—again. Skater? Jock? Prep? As someone who has repeatedly moved from place to place, he’s played all of the roles.When he impresses his Social Studies class with his knowledge of Zen Buddhism that he learned at his last school, San Lee falls into his new identity—“Buddha Boy.” As San Lee pretends to be a Zen master, he ignores the very nature of Zen Buddhism—truth. After all, what kind of Zen master is adopted by American parents and has a dad in prison? Lyingto himself, his peers, and, Woody, the girl he loves, San’s efforts to fit in leave him an outcast until he realizes it is never too late to own up to the truth.Throughout the book, San quotes lines from Zen books he has found in the library. As he tries to enlighten others with his teachings, he ends up enlightening himself as well. The following line reflects a lesson San musthimself learn:
“The obstacle is the path” (173).
In this book, the truth is San’s obstacle, but the truth is also the path heneeds to take in order to make things right with his family, his friends, andhimself. Truth continues to be San’s obstacle because he is afraid to admitwho he really is. Only after he is honest with everyone in his life does hebegin to become the enlightened Zen master he was pretending to be.Few books make me laugh the way Zen and the Art of Faking It did.Perhaps this is because I share many of San’s characteristics: his worriesabout what people would think about him if they really knew who he was,his sarcasm, and without a doubt, his never-ending inner dialogue. Readingabout San’s quirks has made me laugh at some of my own.I rate this book a 10 out of 10. The author captures what it is really like toattend any middle school. He writes, “a school is a school is a school” andproves this as characters deal with bullies, mysterious teachers, jealousy,stereotypes, love, and pretend identities. Most importantly, through San’s“Zen guy” act, I started to change the way I view my world. San showedme that whether or not I understand what is happening in my life, it is stillhappening; I can’t avoid it: the present is what it is. By the last few pages ofthe book, I felt as though I, myself, was beginning to lead a Zen life.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Reality Check

Dear Reader,

Cody Laredo is finishing his sophomore year of high school on top of the world. He has passed all his classes, which means he’ll be able to QB the varsity football team in the fall. And he’s looking forward to a long, lazy summer, working at his dad’s landscaping business and spending all his spare time with his girlfriend, Clea Weston, the smartest, most beautiful girl in school. When Clea’s wealthy father abruptly whisks her away to the other side of the world for the summer, however, Cody starts to rethink his luck. Things go from bad to worse when Clea unwillingly transfers to an elite private school in Vermont for her junior year --- worlds away from Cody’s working-class background. And when Cody suffers a torn ACL following a hard hit in a fall football game, he feels like the whole world has been yanked out from under his feet.
Cody had been counting on his football talent --- it was his ticket to a Division I football scholarship, to a future away from his small Colorado town, to a life with Clea. But when he’s no longer Cody the quarterback, who is Cody, exactly? All his life he’s been told he has football smarts, not book smarts, a comment that seems to become a self-fulfilling prophecy when the combination of popping pain pills, missing Clea and generally giving up on himself prompts Cody to drop out of school and take a dead-end job.
Cody has just about given up on life when he suddenly finds a new mission. Clea has abruptly disappeared from her Vermont boarding school. The police seem to be flummoxed, and Cody holds a key clue --- a letter she wrote to him the day she disappeared. Cody sets off on a road trip to a world of privilege, wealth and secrets, a world he doesn’t understand but soon finds himself investigating. He doesn’t know who, if anyone, he can trust --- but he has to learn to trust himself again if he’s going to have any chance of finding Clea.
REALITY CHECK is a tight, smart mystery, one with plenty of twists and unexpected turns that will keep readers turning the pages. Just as compelling as the mystery plot, however, is the story of Cody’s journey to find himself, to discover his talents, to believe that he has worth somewhere other than on the football field. Abrahams also cleverly ties in plot points that could have been ripped from recent headlines, giving the mystery added currency and urgency. If the novel has a fault, it’s that the story’s conclusion feels slightly rushed, a little abrupt, so readers will probably be clamoring for more stories starring Cody and featuring the seemingly star-crossed lovers from different sides of the tracks.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Charlotte's Web

Dear reader, 7/13/09

Charlotte’s Web, E.B. White's classic tale of loyalty, friendship, and dealing with the realities of life takes place, for the most part, in a barn cellar in what is most likely in 1950s middle-America. Charlotte's Web begins early on a spring morning in the Arable kitchen. Eight-year-old Fern Arable learns that her father is heading out to do away with a tiny pig that was born the night before, and she quickly heads out to correct this horrible injustice. After much discussion, young Fern convinces her father to spare the runt's life, and he allows her to take the responsibility for raising the small pig upon herself. This is how the young pig, christened "Wilbur," begins his life full of adventure and controversy.
Soon, though he and Fern spend many idyllic days as faux mother and baby, Wilbur must leave the safety and routine of the Arable home. He is sold to Fern's uncle down the road, Homer Zuckerman, and Wilbur settles into his new home in Zuckerman's barn cellar. He is happy here, but he is also lonely and needs a friend. This is when a voice speaks out from the darkness, saying that it will be his friend.
The next day, Wilbur discovers that the voice belongs to Charlotte, a beautiful gray spider with a large vocabulary. She befriends Wilbur, and he no longer feels lonely in his new home. Eventually, though, Wilbur and Charlotte are faced with a horrible fact - Zuckerman is planning to slaughter Wilbur at Christmas. Charlotte promises that she will come up with a plan to save her friend.
After some thought, Charlotte concocts a scheme, based on the fact that humans are much even more gullible than the insects she traps in her web. One morning, when Zuckerman's hired man Lurvy brings Wilbur his breakfast, there in the spider's web are the words "Some Pig!" People come from miles around to witness the unexplainable phenomenon, and Charlotte feels her plan is working. She keeps up the charade, writing first "Terrific" and then "Radiant" in the web, and all who witness the "miracle" are very impressed with the pig. Due to his popularity, Zuckerman decided to take Wilbur to the County Fair - but on the day of the Fair, Mr. Arable mentions that Wilbur will make "extra good ham and bacon." Realizing she still has work to do, Charlotte agrees to accompany Wilbur to the Fair, though she explains to him that it is a very inconvenient time for her, as she is preparing to lay eggs.
Once at the Fair, Charlotte writes her final word in the web - "Humble," which epitomizes Wilbur. The Zuckermans and Arables are thrilled when Homer receives a special medal and $25 in recognition of his famous pig. Wilbur, too, is thrilled, assured that he will now be allowed to live. He is also excited to see that Charlotte has laid her eggs in an egg nest - 514 of them. His excitement is short-lived, however, when he learns her death is soon to come. Showing an until-now-unseen maturity, Wilbur decides to take on the responsibility for the eggs and takes the nest back with him to the barn. Later that day, Charlotte dies alone.
Months pass, and with spring comes the birth of the spiders. All but three of them, however, float away to find homes of their own. We are told that this continues for many generations, with a few of Charlotte's descendents stay with Wilbur. He loves her children and grandchildren, but Wilbur also knows that he will never forget Charlotte, his first, best, truest friend.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Julie and The Wolves Review

Dear Reader, 7/10/09

I have recently finished reading the book Julie of the Wolves by Jean Craighead George. When a young Eskimo girl named Julie wanted to get away from her arranged marriage and strict aunt, she could think of no better person to travel to than her pen pal Amy, who lives in San Francisco. She was hoping to do this by getting jobs on cargo ships and traveling on the ships to San Francisco. While on her way to the port where the cargo ships docked, Julie got lost and could not find her way to civilization. Starving and desperate Julie tried to take food from a pack of wolves and they amazingly understood her trouble and let her stay with them. After several weeks of living with the wolves, Julie was abandoned by them because she could not keep up with them when they left after the winter ended. The feeling of losing companions you were close to was not new for Julie. Her mother died when she was four, and her father became lost on a hunting trip. The feelings of being alone made Julie remember her past. She lived with her strict aunt and the only time Julie enjoyed was the time she spent reading the letters sent to her by Amy. Julie’s aunt forced her to marry a man that turned out to be greedy and rude. Most of Julie’s time was spent at home helping her aunt sew.

Julie was lucky and was able to catch back up with the wolf pack. One of the small wolves had become sick and Julie nursed it back to health, and while doing so, learned that she liked the Eskimo way of life more than the way of life of civilized people because Eskimo people were more connected to and reliant on nature. She decided that she disagreed with the ways of civilization when a hunting plane shot the leader of the wolf pack. Several weeks later Julie found her way back to her village.

Julie got the idea of going to San Francisco from he pen pal Amy. This part of a letter sent especially persuaded Julie to make the journey.

“And when you get to San Francisco, we will buy you summer dresses,
and because you like curls, we’ll curl your hair. Then we’ll ride the trolley to
the theater and sit on velvet seats.
Mom says you can have the pink bedroom that looks over the garden
and down the bay and the Golden Gate Bridge.
When are you coming to San Francisco?
Your pen pal,
Amy” (70)

Amy felt like San Francisco would be a perfect place to travel because of the letters sent by Amy. It was warm, there were things to do to entertain you, and Julie could visit with her pen pal and talk without needing to wait for a reply in the mail. If it was not for this and other letters sent, Julie might not have felt so motivated to make such a long journey.

I enjoyed reading Julie of the Wolves because I can relate to Julie. I enjoy camping with my friends in the woods and I know how difficult and frustrating nature can often be. Julie had to face high winds and sub-zero temperatures. If it were not for her knowledge of wolves she probably would have starved. The wolf pack provided meat for Julie to eat and allowed her to stay with them as they lived in their dens for the coldest part of the year.

I rate this book a 10 out of 10. I feel like while you are reading this book you really get a feel for what the weather was like and how safe and comfortable Julie felt when she was with the wolf pack. I also love how the author made the ending of the book unexpected. You would think the story would end by Julie finding her way to her pen pal Amy. But actually, Julie changed her mind about what she thought about an Eskimo’s lifestyle. She decided that although some of the rules were unfair, being close to nature and helping out your village were what Julie really wanted.

Reviewer (please leave a comment to tell me what you thought about my review)

Frankenstein Review

Dear Reader, 7/10/09

I enjoy science fiction books because, when reading them, they let you escape from reality and take you to a place where anything is possible. That’s exactly how I felt when I read the book Frankenstein by Mary Shelly.

Out of desire to create a “perfect human” a scientist named Dr. Frankenstein created a human out of used human parts. After he was created the monster tried many times to become accepted by humans but was rejected because of his terrible appearance. The monster soon became angry at his creator and killed Dr. Frankenstein’s son. Dr. Frankenstein figured the monster had done it when he saw the monster near the place where his son was killed. The monster demanded that Dr. Frankenstein would create a female monster so he could be happy. He agreed, but half way through he decided to stop to avoid further damage to society. He soon felt like his existence was causing many people to die because of what he created. Figuring he too was going to be killed Dr. Frankenstein married his cousin to feel needed but soon she too was killed.

When Dr. Frankenstein walked past the graves of all the people the monster had killed he realized how vicious the monster had become and devoted the rest of his life to kill him. He followed the monster through Europe and the North Pole. His chase was ended when he got stuck on a floating iceberg. His life was saved only because he was found by a ship that got lost at sea. When Dr. Frankenstein died the monster came out from hiding and begged for forgiveness from the seamen of the ship. They wanted to kill him for what he had done so the monster fled the boat, never to be seen again.

A quote that was important to the story was: “I thought with a sensation of madness on my promise of creating another like to him, and trembling with passion, tore to pieces the thing on which I was engaged,” Said Dr. Frankenstein. This quote is important to the story because if Dr. Frankenstein did not tear up the female monster he was creating the monster would not have killed Dr. Frankenstein’s family. Because the monster killed his family, Dr. Frankenstein chased the monster through Europe and the North Pole. Dr. Frankenstein later died because of exertion from his chase.

I rate this book a 9 out of 10 because I love how the book was written with humor and sadness. It was often funny when everyone said how hideous and ugly the monster was. The book was sad in the end when Dr. Frankenstein wanted more than anything for the monster that had killed everyone he loved to be dead. I took away one point because I thought the book was sometimes hard to follow. It was also hard to understand why Dr. Frankenstein wanted to make a human out of human parts. I would recommend this book to everyone who enjoys science fiction books and excitement.

Reviewer (please leave a comment to tell me what you thought about my review)

The Westing Game Review

The Westing Game
By: Reviewer

Dear Reader,

On a Halloween night a kid named Turtle was dared to go into Mr. Westing’s mansion. He had not been seen in a very long time and was thought to be hiding on a distant island. Turtle got inside and when she walked up into the bedroom she saw Mr. Westing, dead. He left a note on the table, it was a will. Only 16 people were allowed to hear the reading of the will. These people were close friends and relatives of Mr. Westing. The will said that he was killed by one of the 16 people in the room. The will also gave hints to who killed him. The person who found the answer to who had killed him first was going to win the estate and all of Mr. Westing’s over 200 million dollars.

The possible heirs of Mr. Westing’s money were put in pairs. These people would work together to try to answer the riddle. Each pair got a clue. The clues were difficult to understand and were mostly just a line of seemingly random words or letters. The pairs also got to share $10,000. The pairs worked for a couple months trying to make any meaning of the clue they were given. The possible heirs were then called back to the mansion to see if anyone had found the answer to the mystery, nobody had. The pairs then got another clue. Most groups now were starting to make sense of their clues and pretty soon all the pairs thought for sure they had the right person.

Again the possible heirs of the Westing estate were called to the mansion. Again nobody had the correct answer. The pairs got one last clue they now got only 5 minutes to use the clue to find the person who killed Mr. Westing. At the end of the five minutes only Turtle thought she knew who the killer was. Mr. Westing had actually not been killed at all. He had been pretending to be the doorman the entire time. The estate was split up between all the heirs.

The main theme of this book was suspense. Throughout the entire book you were unsure of how the story would turn out. The end caught me completely off guard. The whole story took a big twist when you learned that Mr. Westing was actually the doorman of the apartment building the people were living at. He had been talking to the possible heirs the whole time. He had been friends with them and acted like a normal doorman. My favorite part of the book is at the beginning when Turtle was dared to go into the Westing house she said,” Make it two dollars for each minute and you’re on.” She later regretted that bet after she ran out of the Westing House after she thought she saw Mr. Westing dead. Later in the book it was found that Mr. Westing was actually not dead and what Turtle saw was a wax dummy.
I would rate this book a 4 out of 5. I loved the story line but I though the story often got a little slow. Too much time was spent talking about people trying to find meaning of the clues which I guess was the point of the story. The author could have possibly done more to make the story more exciting. I would recommend this book to someone who enjoys a mystery with suspense. This book was, at some times, exciting and thrilling.

Reviewer (please leave a comment to tell me what you thought about my review)