The Book Thief: A Review

The Book Thief by Markus ZusakGermany, 1939: Nazis are gaining ever more power. The country, maybe even the world, is holding its breath. Death, as he will tell you soon enough, has never been busier.

Liesel Meminger is fostered in a small town outside of Munich. Times are hard and money is tight. But it is a good life. Liesel lovers her foster father fiercely and, when the opportunity arises, she steals books to even the scales of the world.

But nothing lasts forever. Not pages in a book or friendships. Not secrets hidden in basements. Certainly not good moments in Nazi Germany in The Book Thief (2005) by Markus Zusak.

There isn’t a lot to say about this book that hasn’t been covered already. The Book Thief has received wide critical acclaim. It was Printz honor title in 2007. It was made into a movie in 2013.

The problem with picking up a book after everyone has been talking about it (and loving it) for years is that it puts a lot of pressure on the book. That’s a lot of hype to stand up against.

In this particular case, it was too much. The Book Thief is a very clever book. Death is the narrator. There are illustrations. It does so many cool things. But it was just never quite enough.

Honestly, The Book Thief is a miserable, gutting book. Not necessarily in a bad way. But not always in a good way either. The first parts dragged unbearably. They were ugly and dense but it picked up in the last third and the transformation is obvious for all of the characters. I can see how when it came out (and still) it is groundbreaking and shocking. It’s a powerful book if not a perfect one or one I ever want to read ever again.

Possible Pairings: Alan and Naomi by Myron Levoy, Number the Stars by Lois Lowry, Tamar by Mal Peet, Saint Death by Marcus Sedgwick, Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys, Hitler’s Canary by Sandi Toksvig, Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein, Afterworlds by Scott Westerfeld, American Street by Ibi Zoboi

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The Boyfriend List: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

The Boyfriend List by E. LockhartThe whole mess started with Finn. But it started a while ago. Before Finn was all cute and tall and athletic. Well, technically it might have had more to do with Kim. But Finn is definitely involved. So is Jackson. And his four ceramic frogs. Tommy Hazard, as usual, is blameless. Angelo and Noel aren’t really involved. But they might have helped make everything worse. When it’s all said and done Nora, Cricket and Meghan are all not speaking to her. Kim isn’t either but that isn’t really a surprise.

And that’s almost all before fifteen-year-old Ruby Oliver starts having panic attacks that lead to her eleven shrink appointments.

The first step in stopping the panic attacks is probably understanding what happened. Which requires looking at how things started (with Finn, obviously) and where they wound up (losing her best friend Kim, again duh). And a good way to figure things out is by making lists, right?

It’s not like one list could make Ruby’s life even worse by ruining her reputation and making her a social outcast. Right?

Wrong. One list can actually make Ruby’s life even worse by ruining her reputation and making her a social outcast in The Boyfriend List: 15 Guys, 11 Shrink Appointments, 4 Ceramic Frogs and Me, Ruby Oliver (2005) by E. Lockhart.

The Boyfriend List is the first book in E. Lockhart’s Ruby Oliver series.

Deceptively slim at 229 pages (paperback), The Boyfriend List is a complex story told out of chronological order. While Ruby’s life is essentially falling apart around her she also starts seeing Dr. Z and looking at her past interactions with boys to see what, exactly, happened. Lockhart moves seamlessly through distant and near past as she moves the story toward Ruby’s immediate present (the point from which she is narrating).

The resulting story is satisfyingly complex while still being straightforward. Despite what the title might suggest, this isn’t a book about boys. It’s about friendships and social interaction. And, okay, yes it’s also about boys. Lockhart brings humor and compassion to a book that is simultaneously zany and deeply authentic (I think, more on that in the Exclusive Bonus Content). Even more impressive: She does it all while creating a convincing cast of oddballs, smarties, and other likely suspects who are all fun to read about–even if some of them might be jerks (like Jackson). All in all a delightful book.

Ruby’s adventures continue in The Boy Book.

Possible Pairings: A Week of Mondays by Jessica Brody, Something Like Fate by Susane Colasanti, Boys Don’t Knit by T. S. Easton, The Lonely Hearts Club by Elizabeth Eulberg, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before by Jenny Han, Life by Committee by Corey Ann Haydu, Girl at Sea by Maureen Johnson, Alice, I Think by Susan Juby, The Museum of Heartbreak by Meg Leder, When We Collided by Emery Lord, Love and Other Foreign Words by Erin McCahan, Vibes by Amy Kathleen Ryan, The Unwritten Rule by Elizabeth Scott, Absolutely Maybe by Lisa Yee

Exclusive Bonus Content: The truth? I was nothing like Ruby and her friends in high school (except maybe Nora). I had no interest in boys and no time for them. Did any boys even like me in high school? Still not sure. (Probably not. But since I doubt any of my high school classmates read this blog I guess we’ll never really know.)

So is this book authentic? I don’t know really but other people say it is so I’ll go with that. It’s weird reading books about the quintessential high school experience only to know your high school experience wasn’t like that. I’m starting to think I had a really skewed view of my high school life but who knows? Maybe the next big thing will be a book about a girl who spent all her time reading, working in a library, and doing homework instead of having boyfriend troubles or partying or whatever those authentic teens are doing. It could happen, right?

The Lightning Thief: A Review

The Lightning Thief by Rick RiordanPercy Jackson is used to getting in trouble at school and missing details about his surroundings. It’s kind of part of the territory when you’re dyslexic and have ADHD besides. Then there’s the fact that Percy isn’t just any twelve-year-old. He’s a trouble magnet–which might be how he wound up a private boarding school for troubled kids (his sixth school in as many years).2005

So, really, it probably isn’t that surprising when his evil math teacher blames Percy for a fight he didn’t even start.

What is surprising is when she sprouts wings and tries to kill him on a trip to the Metropolitan Museum to look at Greek and Roman artifacts. And his accidentally vaporizing her with a pen that turned into a sword is a bit of a shock as well.

Things only get worse from there.

It turns out all of the Greek and Roman myths Percy has been learning about aren’t so much myths as real. And kind of angry. And maybe ready to start a war over a suspicious theft.

With the help of some unlikely friends, Percy has ten days to find the stolen property, return it, save the world from the wrath of the gods, and figure out where he fits in this whole crazy mess in The Lightning Thief (2005) by Rick Riordan.

This book is the first in Riordan’s series “Percy Jackson and the Olympians.” With its episodic chapters, snappy narrative voice (courtesy of Percy), and non-stop action, The Lightning Thief is an obvious choice for reluctant readers. Although the story is slow to get to the core of the story (or the Olympians of the series title), the plot does move along at a steady pace that will work for readers of any ilk. The plot’s twists and turns (and a surprise ending that fooled this reviewer) are also nice additions to a fun story.

On the other hand, readers might wonder how a twelve-year-old who is not a big reader himself or a fan of school will know words like “debunct” and “mournfully” and choose to use them in his narration. This incongruity was particularly vexing since Percy has such an authentic voice otherwise. Despite his exceptional circumstances, it’s always clear that Percy is thinking and acting (and talking) like a real twelve-year-old boy which is one of the huge strengths of Riordan’s writing. Except when he pulls out words like “debunct” of course.

While some of the mythological figures come across more as caricatures than characters, Riordan does present figures and facts from the ancient Greek (and Roman) mythology in an original way. This might be a New Yorker’s point of view, but there is something very fitting about New York City being the portal to Mount Olympus and Los Angeles leading . . . well, elsewhere. Nitpicks aside, The Lightning Thief is an interesting blend of mythology and a fun, exciting story with a lot of humor and heart. A promising start to a clever series.

Possible Pairings: Temping Fate by Esther Friesner, A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin, The New Policeman by Kate Thompson, Skulduggery Pleasant by Derek Landy, The Amulet of Samarkand by Jonathan Stroud

Exclusive Bonus Content: I’m 99% certain that this is just me, but I was a little put off by the term “half-blood” being thrown around to describe all of the demi-gods even if it does kind of make sense and doesn’t really have the negative connotations it might in a different context. I also didn’t love the rampant idolization of parents who abandoned their children (even if they had to because they were gods)–it just didn’t work for me as the daughter of a single parent.

Unrelated, but I really like the cover art here by John Rocco. I like how it picks up specific details from the story and also shows Percy as a young boy. It’s very evocative of the story itself.

Princess Academy: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Princess Academy by Shannon HaleFourteen-year-old Miri wants a lot of things. She wants to be useful to her family. She wants to be taller and stronger. She wants desperately to work in the quarry and understand quarry speak the way everyone else on Mount Eskel does.

What Miri doesn’t want is to be a princess. At least, she doesn’t think she does.

There isn’t much room on Mount Eskel for princesses anyway. The mountain landscape is as beautiful as the linder stone the villagers mine for their livelihood but life there is hard. Lowland traders come to buy the mined linder, but it’s barely enough to secure food for the winter.

Be that as it may, the lowlander priests of the creator god read the omens and divined that Mount Eskel is the home of the Danland Prince’s future bride.

An academy is quickly established for the eligible girls to learn to be proper princesses. At the academy the girls will learn the finer points of commerce, politics, negotiation and the art of conversation. Poise, dancing, and etiquette will also be on the table among other things.

None of which interests Miri one bit. She doesn’t want to be a princess. She wants to stay on Mount Eskel with her family. Except . . . Wouldn’t she prove how valuable she really is if she becomes princess?

It doesn’t take long for the other girls to have similar thoughts and competition soon becomes fierce. Miri is determined to prove herself but it might not take a tiara and a fine gown to do that, it might take a little thing called pluck in Princess Academy (2005) by Shannon Hale–a Newbery Honor book in 2006.

Despite what the title might suggest, Princess Academy is anything but girly. Miri and her friends are some of the toughest, most resilient characters around. The academy itself is also more than comportment and pretty dresses. There are arguments, bandits, and a very scary and very dark closet. No one said it would be easy becoming a princess.

Princess Academy is an honest, often funny book about learning that it takes more than physical strength to make a person strong. Miri is a real girl struggling to make sense of what it means to be a young woman instead of a girl while trying to make sense of what it might mean to be a princess. It is delightful to watch Miri’s world open up as she realizes there can be more to her life than Mount Eskel and see what this smart, brave character does with that knowledge.

Hale’s writing is snappy and engaging. Miri’s internal struggle with her desire to be a princess and her ties to Mount Eskel feel so real that most readers will not be able to guess  Miri’s true desires until the very end (let alone which girl will become the princess!).

Possible Pairings: Brightly Woven by Alexandra Bracken, Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine, Journey Across the Hidden Islands by Sarah Beth Durst, Princess of the Midnight Ball by Jessica Day George, Just Ella by Margaret Peterson Haddix, The Hero’s Guide to Saving Your Kingdom by Christopher Healy, Princess of Thorns by Stacey Jay, Enchanted by Alethea Kontis, Soundless by Richelle Mead, Kiki Strike by Kirsten Miller, Esperanza Rising by Pam Muñoz Ryan, The Accidental Highwayman by Ben Tripp, A Well-Timed Enchantment by Vivian Vande Velde, Dealing with Dragons by Patricia C. Wrede

Stealing Henry: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Stealing Henry by Carolyn MacCulloughThe night Savannah brains her stepfather Jack with the frying pan is the night she decides to leave home for good. It doesn’t matter that she has no money and her eight-year-old brother Henry to take care of. It doesn’t even matter that her stepfather will probably follow them. Savannah can stand a few obstacles as well as she can a slap or two. What she can’t stand is the idea of becoming like her mother Alice.

Alice used to be someone Savannah admired, someone she could look up to. But that was  another life when Alice was still looking for her own future and finding nothing she expected.

Savannah’s life wasn’t always about listening before entering a room and not making eye contact or talking back. Her childhood homes could fill a road atlas. Savannah and Alice traveled all across the country before the fateful day their car broke down and the party stopped for good.

Savannah and Henry are journeying to a house they’ve never seen. Eighteen years ago certain events conspired to drive Alice to leave that same house for good; events that would eventually determine the course of both Alice and Savannah’s lives in Stealing Henry (2005) by Carolyn MacCullough.

Stealing Henry draws readers in right from the beginning with a shocking opening line and a truly evocative cover (designed by Rodrigo Corral–the mastermind behind the US covers for the Uglies series). Nothing about Savannah’s life is easy and it’s simple to assume reading about her won’t be either. But the opposite is true. MacCullough’s lyrical prose pulls readers in, quickly making Savannah and her unreal life completely believable.

Even passing scenes of the local emergency room, Alice’s current place of employ, are skillfully written with a high degree of authenticity. Everything about this story is evocative and compelling.

I read Stealing Henry shortly after the van incident and a generally not peaceful time in my own life. Reading about Savannah and her own journey was somehow entirely appropriate for that situation and often comforting. Much like MacCullough’s later novels, this story is always optimistic. Even at her lowest, Savannah remains hopeful; the writing itself becoming both peaceful and reassuring.

Possible Pairings: The Secret Side of Empty by Maria E. Andreu, How to (un)Cage a Girl by Francesca Lia Block, The Secret Life of Prince Charming by Deb Caletti, The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Blue Plate Special by Michelle D. Kwasney, The Piper’s Son by Melina Marchetta, The Miles Between by Mary E. Pearson, Damaged by Amy Reed, The Bride’s Farewell by Meg Rosoff, Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell, The Unwritten Rule by Elizabeth Scott, Memoirs of a Teenage Amnesiac by Gabrielle Zevin, Little Voice by Sara Bareilles (music album)

13 Little Blue Envelopes: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Rule #1: You may bring only what fits in your backpack.

Rule #2: You may not bring guidebooks, phrase books, or any kind of foreign language aid. And no journals.

Rule #3: You cannot bring extra money or credit/debit cards, traveler’s checks, etc.

Rule #4: No electronic crutches. This means no laptop, no cell phone, no music, and no camera.

13 Little Blue Envelopes by Maureen JohnsonThe rules were straightforward, sent to Ginny Blackstone in the first of thirteen letters from her eccentric Aunt Peg. Ginny is used to her aunt’s whims and willing to play along because Aunt Peg is the only person in the world who can make Ginny seem interesting–even if it is just by association.

The letters will take Ginny to England and across Europe on an adventure that starts in the hope of understanding her wayward aunt. Along the way she’ll get a behind-the-scenes tour of Harrod’s from one of the store’s employees, meet artist/sometimes-thief Keith Dobson, and encounter youth hostels of various ilks. She will also karaoke. At the end of the summer, Ginny might discover she’s more interesting than she thought–all because of those 13 Little Blue Envelopes (2005) by Maureen Johnson.

Broken into chapters and separate headings for each envelope, this is a fast read that still has a lot of depth. The cover, along with some of Johnson’s other covers, is sometimes slammed for having a semi-headless, midriff-bearing girl on the cover. All the same, I love it. Not so much because it’s indicative of the story but of the novel’s overall vibe.

Equal parts travelogue, comedy, and Bildungsroman 13 Little Blue Envelopes is  jam-packed with excitement and appeal. It’s also a book about an ordinary girl discovering that sometimes just being herself can be extraordinary enough. Ginny is a persistent, resilient narrator that readers will be cheering for throughout this (sometimes) madcap novel.

Johnson is also working on a sequel called The Last Little Blue Envelope with a projected publication date in 2011.

Possible Pairings: Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher, Girl Overboard by Justina Chen, A Little Wanting Song by Cath Crowley, Dash and Lily’s Book of Dares by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan, Revolution by Jennifer Donnelly, Just One Day by Gayle Forman, Howard’s End by E. M. Forster, Two Summers by Aimee Friedman, Kitty Kitty by Michele Jaffe, Love and Other Foreign Words by Erin McCahan, Being Sloane Jacobs by Lauren Morrill, The Miles Between by Mary E. Pearson, The Square Root of Summer by Harriet Reuter Hapgood, Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell, The Geography of You and Me by Jennifer E. Smith, Roomies by Sara Zarr and Tara Altedbrando, Memoirs of a Teenage Amnesiac by Gabrielle Zevin

Dramacon Vol. 1: A Graphic Novel/Comic Book (Chick Lit Wednesday) Review

Dramacon Volume One coverChristie isn’t sure what to think at her first comic convention in Dramacon Vol. 1 (2005) by Svetlana Chmakova. She’s excited for a chance to exhibit the comic that she writes and her boyfriend illustrates. But when they get to the comic-con, it turns out nothing is what Christie expected.

Her boyfriend is a jerk. He says he’s flirting so that more girls will buy their comic buy Christie isn’t so sure–especially with the way he keeps leaving her alone for long periods at a time. Then there’s the mysterious cosplayer who keeps popping up when Christie needs him and seems to understand her better than her boyfriend ever will. Christie tries to make sense of her mixed feelings about the con and her love life in the foreground of a story that offers a tantalizing behind-the-scenes look at an convention no one is likely to forget!

Manga always gets a bad rap as the the “junk food” of the comic/graphic novel world. Truth be told, the junk food analogy always seems ridiculous when applied to books. Reading is reading and, frankly, I’d rather see someone reading manga or Goosebumps or whatever than not reading at all. Furthermore, I challenge anyone to find a better format for reluctant readers. If I could read Dramacon in a day I’m sure a reluctant reader could motor through it just as easily. And what is more thrilling for a kid who thinks they are a “slow” reader or who doesn’t like reading than to find a title they can plow through?

That said, Dramacon is also a really delightful story that is cute, peppy and will leave you smiling. This crazy sense of optimism and cheer permeates the book that will make it impossible to feel gloomy while reading it–really! (And the artwork is really great and well-plotted besides!)

The first in a three volume series, Chmakova gives readers action, romance and a surprising amount of character development given the relatively short format. Christie and her zany cohorts are really charming characters that I can’t wait to read more about.

The crossover potential is also huge because Dramacon covers so many topics: comic conventions, cosplay, relationships, coming of age, and even rape are all briefly (tactfully) touched upon here. Girls might gravitate to the pink cover, but boys are sure to appreciate Matt’s brooding, macho character. Dramacon is, basically, one of those mangas that can literally appeal to everyone.