Sunday, October 19, 2014

Guy In Real Life by Steve Brezenoff

Guy In Real Life by Steve Brezenoff 
(Balzer & Bray, 2014)

Summary from publisher:
It is Labor Day weekend in Saint Paul, Minnesota, and boy and girl collide on a dark street at two thirty in the morning.  Lesh, who wears black, listens to metal, and plays MMOs; Svetlana, who embroiders her skirts, listens to Bj√∂rk and Berloiz, and dungeon masters her own RPG.  They should pick themselves up, continue on their way, and never talk to each other again.
But they don't.
This is a story of two people who do not belong in each other's lives, who find each other at a time when they desperately need someone who doesn't belong in their lives.  A story of those moments when we act like people we aren't in order to figure out who we are.  A story of the roles we all play --at school, at home, with our friends, and without our friends -- and the one person who might be able to show us who we are underneath it all.

Guy In Real Life is a romance of sorts, told in not one, not two, but three perspectives (kind of).  From the beginning the reader gets Lesh's side, Svetlana's side, but also Svvetlana's - the character Lesh invents in his MMORPG game online.  For someone who doesn't particularly enjoy role-playing games such as Dungeons & Dragons or Magic: The Gathering, I wondered if I would have the patience to stick with the gaming parts of this story.  In reality, it gave me a window into the world inhabited at times by my brother and others I know who play these types of games.  Where I use books to take myself out of reality from time to time, players of these games use the quest and adventure of the games.  Two different kinds of getting lost in stories.

Brezenoff does a great job of writing about a teenage boy who is just trying to figure himself out.  Most of the romance elements in the book are told from Lesh's perspective, and I thought that Brezenoff did a great job of not making Lesh too stereotypical, which would have been easy to do.  He also, though, did not make Lesh completely cheesy, which sometimes happens when trying to avoid the teen-boy stereotype.

Hand Guy In Real Life to your middle and high-school readers who enjoy realistic fiction.  It's a story that seems sweet on the surface, but underneath gives readers lots to think about.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Love Letters to the Dead by Ava Dellaira

Love Letters to the Dead by Ava Dellaira 
(Farrar, Strauss, Giroux Books for Young Readers, 2014)

Summary from publisher:
It begins as an assignment for English class:  write a letter to a dead person.
Laurel chooses Kurt Cobain because her sister, May, loved him.  And he died young, just like May.  Soon, Laurel has a notebook full of letters to the dead --to people like Janis Joplin, Heath Ledger, Amelia Earhart, and Amy Winehouse -- though she never gives a single one of them to her teacher.  She writes about starting high school, navigating the choppy waters of new friendships, learning to live with her splintering family, falling in love for the first time, and, most important, trying to grieve for May.  But how do you mourn for someone you haven't forgiven?
It's not until Laurel has written the truth about what happened to herself that she can finally accept what happened to May.  And only when Laurel has begun to see her sister as the person she was -- lovely and amazing and deeply flawed -- can she truly start to discover her own path.

This book has been on my radar since earlier this summer when I saw it appearing on friends' Goodreads timelines and, most importantly, my daughter read it and promptly filled her iTunes playlist with Kurt Cobain, Amy Winehouse, and Guns N Roses.  I wasn't sure what could account for her sudden change in musical taste until she started talking about how much she loved this book.

She was right... it's a great book.  At times hard to read, Dellaira weaves a tale that is at once heartbreaking and mysterious.  From the very first page, I knew that Laurel was broken inside, but I didn't know exactly why.  Of course, she was mourning the death of her sister, but I knew there was more to it.  Dellaira leaves little clues.... breadcrumbs.... for the reader to notice and follow until there is that gasp moment where everything comes together.

I know that I read this book differently than my 13-year-old daughter did.  I kept wondering if as a mom I would have noticed the signs that May was troubled and that something was going on with Laurel as well.  I hope I would have.  I'm not sure.  Molly loved this book because it gave her a look into a teenager's life that is very different from her own. She liked how the story was unpredictable but also realistic.

Hand this book to older readers who like realistic fiction with a bit of mystery and romance.  Read it yourself.  It's one of those books that appeals to both teens and adults.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Threatened by Eliot Schrefer

Threatened by Eliot Schrefer (Scholastic, 2014)

Summary from publisher:
When he was a boy, Luc's mother would warn him about the "mock men" living in the trees by their home -- chimpanzees whose cries filled the night.
Luc is older now, his mother is gone.  He lives in a house of mistreated orphans, barely getting by. Then a man calling himself Prof comes to town with a mysterious missing.  When Luc tries to rob him, the man isn't angry.  Instead, he offers Luc a job.
Together, Luc and Prof head into the rough, dangerous jungle in order to study the elusive chimpanzees.  There, Luc finally finds a new family -- and must act when that family comes under attack.

In this companion to Endangered, Eliot Schrefer introduces his readers to a group of chimpanzees in the wilds of Gabon.  I was kind of afraid to read this one, knowing how much I loved Endangered; what if this one wasn't as good?   I shouldn't have worried.  This is a different story, in many ways less harrowing than the first, but just as good.  I find, having read both these books, that I want to learn more about chimpanzees as well as learn more about how Schrefer conducted the research for this book.

This, is not just a story meant to raise awareness of the problems of chimpanzees in the wild.  It is also the story of Luc, a boy whose mother died of AIDS and who is left orphaned and beholden to a moneylender due to his mother's debts.  Forced to live in squalid conditions by an abusive master, Luc is desperate to get away, and when offered the opportunity, jumps at it.  He knows, though, that in some ways this new life is too good to be true, and he is always on the lookout for those who would wish to return him to virtual slavery.  I can't help but think that Luc's story, while fictional, is not that far from the real-life stories of so many children orphaned throughout Africa by disease, famine, and civil war.

Schrefer takes a difficult topic and makes it approachable for young readers.  Hand this book to a middle or high school reader who enjoys realistic fiction with a bit of adventure mixed in.  Use this in conjunction with a study of endangered or threatened animals or as the starting place for a research project that might result in student activism.  The possibilities here are endless.

Monday, October 13, 2014

100 Sideways Miles by Andrew Smith

100 Sideways Miles by Andrew Smith 
(Simon & Schuster, 2014)

Summary from Goodreads:
Finn Easton sees the world through miles instead of minutes. It’s how he makes sense of the world, and how he tries to convince himself that he’s a real boy and not just a character in his father’s bestselling cult-classic book. Finn has two things going for him: his best friend, the possibly-insane-but-definitely-excellent Cade Hernandez, and Julia Bishop, the first girl he’s ever loved.

Then Julia moves away, and Finn is heartbroken. Feeling restless and trapped in the book, Finn embarks on a road trip with Cade to visit their college of choice in Oklahoma. When an unexpected accident happens and the boys become unlikely heroes, they take an eye-opening detour away from everything they thought they had planned—and learn how to write their own destiny.

I honestly wasn't sure what to think about this book when I first started reading it.  My 13-year-old daughter absolutely loved it - she loves every book she's read by Andrew Smith.  That doesn't necessarily mean, however, I that I will.  She often reminds me that I am not the target audience for YA fiction.  She's right.

I should not have doubted her, however.  Though not as strong as Winger, 100 Sideways Miles lets the reader inside the head of a teenage boy at a turning point in his life.  In this case Finn is finishing his junior year of high school and figuring out what's ahead.  He feels trapped in his life, both by his epilepsy and by the fact that his father wrote a wildly popular book and used his name for the main character.  When Finn meets Julia, a new girl at the school, he begins to see the world in a different way.

In some ways, Finn and his best friend Cade are stereotypical high school boys.  They both have one thing at the forefront of their minds, and yes, you can probably guess what it is.  I've never been a high school boy, but I'm guessing Smith didn't exaggerate with this particular character trait.  It would be easy to not go any deeper than that, however.  Finn and Cade both have deeper motivations, and as the reader gets farther into the book, those motivations become clear.

This is definitely a book for older readers.  It has language and sexual situations that would have kept it out of my seventh grade classroom library.  Hand this one to kids who enjoy realistic fiction.  It's a satisfying read that is sure to not only engage teen readers, but will also spur some conversations.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Isla and the Happily Ever After by Stephanie Perkins

Isla and the Happily Ever After 
by Stephanie Perkins (Dutton, 2014)

Summary from publisher:
Hopeless romantic Isla has had a crush on introspective cartoonist Josh since their first year at the School of America in paris.  And after a chance encounter in Manhattan over the summer, romance might be closer than Isla imagined.  But as they begin their senior year back in France, Isla and Josh are forced to confront the challenges every young couple must face, including family drama, uncertainty about their college futures, and the very real possibility of being apart.

What Perkins began back in Anna and the French Kiss, she wraps up in a satisfying fashion in Isla.  Over the course of three books, readers are drawn in to this too-good-to-be-believed teen age world of a Parisian co-ed boarding school.  Even though many of the details and settings were far beyond my own teenage experience, many of the emotions and dramas were close enough to make me want to keep reading about Isla and Josh.

This book is what I used to call a "vacation" book with my students; it's a book that you might choose to read for fun... to escape for a while into someone else's world but without having to work too hard.  Other people might call books like this "beach reads."  Either way, the implication is that this is a fun little French confection.  It's a bit more complicated with that.... Isla and Josh do have problems that they must deal with, but certainly not on the emotional-pull-o-meter as The Fault in Our Stars or Eleanor and Park.

Hand this one to your girls who are looking for a romantic getaway, especially if they've already read the first two.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

The Storied LIfe of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2014)

Summary from publisher:
A.J. Fikry's life is not at all what he expected it to be.  His wife has died; his bookstore is experiencing the worst sales in its history; and now his prized possession, a rare collection of Poe poems, has been stolen.  Slowly but surely, he is isolating himself from all the people of Alice Island -- from Chief Lambiase, the well-intentioned police officer who's always felt kindly toward him; from Ismay, his sister-in-law, who is hell-bent on saving A.J. from his dreary self; from Amelia, the lovely and idealistic (if eccentric) Knightley Press sales rep who persists in taking the ferry to Alice Island, refusing to be deterred by A.J.'s bad attitude.  Even the books in his store have stopped holding pleasure for him.  These days, he can only see them as a sign of a world that is changing too rapidly.
And then a mysterious package appears at the bookstore. It's a small package, though large in weight -- an unexpected arrival that gives A.J. the opportunity to make his life over, the ability to see everything anew.  It doesn't take long for the locals to notice the change overcoming A.J., for the determined sales rep Amelia to see her curmudgeonly client in a new light, for the wisdom of all those books to become again the lifeblood of A.J.'s world.  Or for everything to twist again into a version of his life that he didn't see coming.

When this book was released over the summer, I noticed many of my Nerdy Book Club friends were picking it up and reading.  Deeply immersed in reading for the Amelia Elizabeth Walden book award final rounds, I added it to my "To Read" list.  I'm so very glad I did.

In this book, Zevin has written a love letter to books.  She has structured the book so that each chapter begins with the title and brief summary of a short story and an explanation of why Fikry feels connected to that particular story.  The story is then somehow connected to the chapter that follows.  For example, chapter 1 begins with "Lamb to the Slaughter" by Roald Dahl.  In this chapter, Fikry's beloved collection of Poe poems is stolen, and we meet Chief Lambiase, who eventually goes on to become a central character in the novel.

Frikry's bookstore is as much a character as the people who frequent it.  More than just a place to pick up a paperback on your way to the beach, Island Books is a refuge for the quirky collection of people who are part of Fikry's life and become more than friends - they are his family.

Thought not technically a YA book, this title would make an interesting addition to a high-school classroom library.  It's a quiet book, one that teen readers with eclectic tastes will find themselves drawn to, and one that adults, who have had life experiences similar to Fikry's as they grow up, have children, age, will find themselves thinking about long after they turn the last page.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Living With Jackie Chan By Jo Knowles

Living With Jackie Chan by Jo Knowles (Candlewick, 2013)

Summary from publisher:
This isn't how Josh expected to spend senior year.  He thought he'd be hanging out with his best friends, Dave and Caleb, driving around, partying, just like always.  But here he is, miles from home -- going to a new school, living with his Jackie Chan-obsessed uncle, Larry.  Trying to forget.
But Josh can't forget.  So many things bring back memories of last year and the night that changed everything.  He thinks about it every day.  The pain, the shame, the just not knowing are never far from his thoughts.  Why is he such a loser?  How could he have done what he did?
There are moments of peace, like when he's practicing karate paired with Stella, the girl upstairs and his one true friend.  When they move together through the katas, Josh feels connected in a way he has never felt before.  He wonders if they could be more than friends, but Stella's jealous boyfriend will make sure that doesn't happen.  Maybe it doesn't matter.  If Stella knew the truth, would she still think he was a true karate man?
Jumping Off Swings told the story of four high-school students and how one pregnancy changed all their lives.  In this heartfelt companion, readers follow Josh as he tries to come to terms with what happened and find a way to forgive.

Living With Jackie Chan is the perfect follow up to Jumping Off Swings.  Even better... it works as a stand alone. Admittedly, I read Jumping Off Swings several years ago.  I remember loving the book, putting it into my classroom library, and talking about it with kids.  I don't remember details of the storyline, so I wondered if I should reread before starting Living With Jackie Chan. I decided to throw caution to the wind, and began reading.

I didn't have to worry.

Knowles weaves just enough of the conflict from the first book into this one to allow the reader to read the books in any order.  In this new title, she follows the story of Josh, the accidental father of a baby who has been put up for adoption.  Full of guilt, both for the casual encounter that resulted in a pregnancy and also for walking away from his responsibility, he decides he needs to make a fresh start and goes to live with his uncle, a karate instructor.

As Josh devotes himself to the study of karate, he begins to feel at peace with himself and realizes in the end that the needs to make things right.  This is not an easy journey for him.  Knowles has a gift for bringing readers along the emotional ups and downs of her characters, and as a result readers come to fully understand Josh's struggles about the baby, the guilt, his parents, his future, and his friends.

Hand this book to readers who enjoy realistic fiction with a touch of romance.  This is one of those books that will appeal to both boys and girls who are looking for a book in which they will see themselves - the themes and struggles are universal ones.