Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Insurgent: A Watery YA Sequel

Because I preordered the third installment of the Divergent trilogy, Allegiant, and I knew I would receive it around October 22nd, I wanted to read the 2nd book in the series, Insurgent.  The first book, Divergent, introduced a fantasy world constructed with the teenage girl audience in mind.  Lots of kissing, lots of breathless moments of the hot leader protecting the not so pretty, but really determined heroine, Tris.  The world itself was imaginative enough to hold my interest with the five factions- Dauntless, Amity, Candor, Erudite, and Abnegation (which oddly all seem to be dominated by teenagers with the exception of a few adult leaders), and the gutsy Dauntless initiation rituals.  When the faction inspired war began by the end of the first book, my interest waned a bit, but I still wanted to continue on to the 2nd and ultimately the 3rd book in the series.

Admittedly, Sci-Fi / Fantasy books are not my thing.  I love it, though, when a new author creates something that people love to read enough that they start buzzing about it.  Because a Divergent movie is in the not too distant future and the 3rd book was just released, I wanted to read this series to have an opinion.

Unfortunately, Insurgent, the 2nd book in the Divergent trilogy,  is a fluffy read - hardly any substance but teeming with an overabundance of teenage relationship angsty moments in the midst of a war that seems watery itself.  Tris just seems stupid to me in the 2nd installment, and Tobias (Four) also comes off as a jerk - moody, aloof, and then mushy all at once.  He lost his hard, edgy, mystique from the first book, and comes across more like a controlling boyfriend.

I found myself skimming pages, and wanting the inner dialogue of Tris and her self esteem issues to end as quickly as possible.  Rather than showing her fearless side, in this book, we see more of her Divergent tendencies, but they are all overridden by her attachment to Tobias.  I found the capture and torture of her rather boring, and the plans and attack strategies contrived and a bit cliche.  It really wasn't until the very end of this book that I felt mildly entertained and even considered picking up the 3rd book.

I know most teenage girls will completely disagree with me, and anyone who fell in love with the first book probably LOVED the second book, but now I need to either wade through my murky 2nd book emotions or scrap the series with one more book to go.

I've never been a quitter, so I vow to give Veronica Roth one more chance.  Right now she is 50/50 in my book, so maybe Allegiant will change my mind and tip my book scales more in her favor.

Monday, October 28, 2013

To Kill A Mockingbird - A Fall Feast

Every year when the leaves fall from the trees, when I need to locate my scraper to remove frost from my windshield in the morning, when I need to clean the drawers and closets and replace the light summer shorts with jeans and the tank tops with sweaters, I also need to replace my candy summer reading to the more substantial, hearty meal novels.  I love curling up with a great classic full of symbolism, diligently woven themes, and carefully crafted characters who experience epiphanies. My favorite hearty classic is still To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee.  Up until this year, every fall I handed out the purple covered coming of age gem. As students studied the front cover, and thumbed through the 280 pages, I smiled and couldn’t wait to feast on the substantial meal and once again join the Finch family in Maycomb, Alabama.  

This year, I will miss as students unravel the ghost story of Boo Radley or stage the trial of Tom Robinson.  I don’t get to witness students fight over the role of Atticus Finch as he defends Tom’s rights at a trial they lost before it even began due to the pervasive blanket of racism in the deep south in the 1930s.  When students laugh at Dill’s storytelling and his idea of how babies are born, or react to Scout’s treatment of Walter Cunningham when he pours syrup on his meal, I won’t be there to hear it.  As Scout and Jem take their eery walk home after Scout’s failed attempt to be a star ham in the Halloween pageant, I won’t teach students what really happened on that confusing journey home.  The definition of hero, will be up to another teacher to instill in the 10 Honors students, and the final sequence that brings the framed narrative full circle, will be up to another teacher to highlight.  Just knowing that students will still be experiencing Lee’s literary banquet makes me happy, though. 

Atticus Finch will always be my hero, and I believe if everyone followed his sage advice to Scout after her disastrous first day of school, that people would learn to get along a whole bunch better.  Scout tells her dad that she never wants to return to school because of her clueless teacher.  Atticus tells her, “if you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view . . . until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” If people followed this wisdom, our world would be different.  Before we taunted, teased, judged or ridiculed, if we could for a moment consider the other person’s side, many fights and disagreements would disappear, or at least we could come to an understanding.  I’ve witnessed 15 years worth of students ponder this theme, and try and put it into action in their classrooms and lives.  I assigned a “walk around in someone else’s shoes” activity, and watched students see the world from a different perspective.  If politicians, world leaders, parents, teachers, and neighbors tried Atticus’s “simple trick” humanity might be a lot more humane. 
Although candy summer books can transport us to different worlds and wrap us in easy romantic sagas, rarely do they transform us as people.  That’s the power of a hearty classic. This year as the leaves fall, and I grab my pumpkin latte to curl up with my substantial meal of To Kill A Mockingbird, I will miss my eager 10 Honors students and their discovery of how influential a good meal of a book can be. 

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

StageofLife Editors: YA Recommendations

Loki surrounded by our Editor's recommended YA reading

In honor of Teen Read Week (last week), I asked my teen editors to send me a list of their favorite YA books either books assigned in high school that they were forced to read for a grade, or books that they read on their own.  Here's what our brilliant editors and interns recommended:

From Nate:
Ready Player One by Ernest Cline: A great sci fi novel about a virtual reality utopia. The book is entirely filled with references and allusions to current pop culture and pop culture from the last 2-3 decades. Great book for teens into video games/pop culture.

Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card:   One of my favorite science fiction novels and is even more relevant now with the movie coming out soon. It's a great starting point for the genre as it doesn't get into heavy topics like Isaac Asimov or series like Dune

Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon:   Follows two teenaged aspiring comic artists during WW2. I don't have much to say other than it's a great book! A bit long though (like 800 pages)

The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien: Probably my favorite book I ever had to read from a school reading list. It's a weird blend of fiction/non-fiction and deals with the Vietnam war. I think many older teens go through a phase of being really interested in war novels, movies, etc. and this is one of the best in my opinion.

From Amanda:
The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold: addresses danger, result of violence, and meaning/acceptance of death

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston: deals with culture, racism, and ideas of love/respect

The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison: identity, family

From Megan: 
In high school I liked...

The Great Gatsby because I like how Gatsby's love for Daisy doesn't die after years of their separation and he refuses to give up in his search to find her again. I really like that it pulls in a lot of the elements of the 1920's and I love the new movie version! I think what really got my attention about this book is that the whole story is told through the eyes of Nick.

Tuesday's With Morrie because I never thought I would become so attached to a character, Morrie, in a book (while in high school). I loved how Morrie continued to teach even when he was no longer in a classroom, especially since I always wanted to go to school to be a teacher.

1984 because I loved how different the totalitarian government is from our own and how different the world would be if we operated under this type of rule. It made me think about what it would be like if there really was a telescreen in the wall watching my every move and how my life would be completely different.

Lord of the Flies because who doesn't love Piggy? I really like how these young boys are stranded on this island with no adult supervision at all and they still manage to figure out some way to live on this island together. Plus, young boys are not the type of people that would be expected to be all alone on this island.

Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan because how weird would it be for you to meet someone who has the exact same name as you in a place that can be considered to be very awkward. This book follows the lives of two Will Grayson's who lead two very different lives while following their love lives and friendships along with the usual drama of high school. 

After by Amy Efaw because the main character, Devon, is the all around good girl in her school. She ends up going to a juvenile detention after she gets caught in a sticky situation after giving birth to her own child on her own after swearing she was never pregnant. I really liked this book because it really opened my mind to what other types of things are happening out in the world and why some people make some of the decisions that they do. 

Sarah's Key by Tatiana de Rosnay because this follows the history of a house that was used during the time of the Holocaust. Sarah's younger brother is hiding in a closet when the rest of her family is taken away. Years later, the history of the house is discovered through the ancestors and newspapers of the past. I really liked this book because the story does a great job at switching between the past and present without becoming confusing, and it pulls in a lot of history without making it feel as though you're reading a history text book. 

The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold because this book sucks you in within the first two sentences and it doesn't go down hill from there. When a book starts off with a murder, I always want to find out who did it and why. I liked this book because it always kept my attention, and it shows just how little you can trust some of the people who live around you. 

From Raisa
Zero Regrets by Apolo Anton Ohno because it teaches that the best thing that people can do in life is try their best. 

Five Languages of Love by Gary Chapman  because in learning the different ways in which people like to express and receive love, we can better communicate with one another. 

The Five People You Meet in Heaven by Mitch Albom because it teaches that everyone does have a purpose in life. 

The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini because it teacher that there is time to make up for wrongs. 

Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson because it discusses the traumatic experience of rape and the journey to be able to speak about it. 

From Michelle: 
From Required High School reading: 

The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams: The opening monologue of this play is one of my favorite monologues ever written. I have a soft spot for Williams, and this play shines for its realistic characters and symbolism. 

The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls: An intriguing memoir that turned me onto blogging (i.e. writing about myself). The way she artfully blends fiction and reality makes for an interesting story. 

A Corner of the Universe by Ann M. Martin: The story of a young girl learning tolerance and acceptance, especially in regard to mentally disabled people, is important. This was a supplementary class read to Of Mice and Men, but I preferred Martin's book because it was more realistic and relatable. 

To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee: We didn't read much classic lit in high school, but this book really stood out to me for its important--and still timely--message. My freshman year Honors English teacher gave me the book as a gift. 

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathon Safron Foer: Beautifully written with a unique style and powerful storytelling. My favorite book: period. 

Recommended Reading / Non-Required books: 

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams: Hilarious and strange, this classic helped integrate me into the world of sci-fi literature, even when I was not the genre's biggest fan. 

Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell: This book speaks to Tumblr-loving, fandom-obsessed teens. The protagonist provides a fabulous insight into the world of an introvert who writes fanfiction for a Harry Potter-esque book series. 

If I Stay by Gayle Foreman: The guy at the bookstore sold it to me as being "sort of like Speak, but not quite as emotionally abusive." A girl who lost her family in a car accident must decide, while in a coma, whether she wants to live or die. Beautiful and emotional storytelling. 

Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson: Poetry-prose about a girl who was the victim of a horrible crime. I love this book so much I got a tattoo in its honor. 

The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things by Carolyn Mackler: A fat protagonist comes to terms with her body and familial relationships; an excellent introduction to body positivity. Probably my favorite YA book.

From Tracy:
Sunshine by Robin McKinley - This is still one of my favorite books to read from time to time. I think one of the things that I like most is the mysterious and magical world McKinley creates with demons, fairies, wizards, and vampires as part of the everyday. I like the tone McKinley uses to keep the tension of the book going, yet allows moments of light mysticism and fun.

Life As We Knew It by Susan Beth Pfeffer  - When I first read this book I couldn’t put it down. I read it all in one sitting. I thought the plot was so interesting and original. I felt like the plot was well developed and the depicted in a realistic manner of what could or would happen is such a scenario.

Eragon by Christopher Paolini - This book is a fantastical, magical read. The plot is full of pits and twists so that even when you think you can predict what is going to happen something comes in and changes everything. I also like how varied and memorable all the characters are. Lots of detail of the world – reminds me a bit of Tolkien.

Dragon Champion by E.E. Knight -  This book is amazing! It is so imaginative and complex! Auron’s journey growing up, fighting tooth and claw to come into his own is so full of danger, intrigue, and adventure. I love the in-depth lore about the different races of Demon, Dragon, Dwarf, Human, and Elf, as well as the dragon teachings Auron recites throughout the book.

Just Listen Sarah Dessen - I feel like this is a more realistic depiction of life as an older teen in high school which young adults can relate to. I really like the message this book conveys and the real life problems and the characters have to deal with.

Artemis Fowl by Eoin Colfer - I love the one-liner humor that runs rampant through the character dialogue. Great characters. I really enjoyed all the plotting and espionage that keep you guessing.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Underguards, Rephiam, and Emim, OH MY

The Bone Season by Samantha Shannon

I wasn’t sure what to expect from Samantha Shannon’s debut novel The Bone Season .  Before reading it, I knew the following information: 
  1. Samantha Shannon, only 21, wrote the book when she was a student at Oxford University
  2. The dude who played Gollum in Lord of the Rings, Andy Serkis, owns the film rights for the book
  3. Shannon plans to write 6 more books in the series which leads many critics to call her the next J.K. Rowling
  4. “The Bone Season” was selected as The Today Show’s first Book Club book
  5. Shannon does not consider her book “literary” 
  6. The book is set in 2059 in an authoritarian ruled London where clairvoyants are outlaws.  The main character in the book, Paige Mahoney, just happens to be a “voyant” (slang for clairvoyant) and one of the rarest kinds, a Dream Walker. 
  7. The reviews of the promise and worth of this book are way mixed

As soon as I saw the complex web of clairvoyant hierarchy before the map of Sheol, I again didn’t know what to expect.  Most books that contain maps and character webs bore me and thrill my husband who loves intricate Sci-Fi / Fantasy books. I, however, tried to suspend my judgement and give the book a chance.

The first person narration begins in London where Paige is a member of The Seven Dials Voyant gang under the leadership (or wrath) of mime-lord, Jaxon Hall.  In the first few chapters she is captured because she accidentally murders two Underguards, and after significant punishment, she is thrust into a secret clairvoyant penal colony called Sheol 1 that is run by the Rephaim, an ancient society with many secrets. This society enslaves voyants and trains them to fend off the Emim, fearsome creatures who skulk around the perimeter of the city. The blood consort, “Warden”, selects Paige from this Bone Season’s voyants to be his slave.  This comes with many mysteries as well.  Why does he want her? What role does Nashira, the blood sovereign play in this selection? Will Paige ever find a way out from this voyant prison?  

First, I must admit that I love the whole ESP / clairvoyant storyline.  When I was in 5th grade I read Lois Duncan’s “A Gift of Magic” in which the main character, Nancy, struggles with her ESP gift. I wanted to be Nancy and even though she had ESP I could relate to her trials in the book. Something about Shannon’s book made Paige, who is scrappy, vulnerable, but determined and quick to learn violence and leadership, unreachable.  Shannon developed Paige way more extensively than any of the other characters and when I wasn’t able to relate to her, it was hard for me to get a sense of the overwhelming amount of secondary characters in this book.    

I also couldn’t decide which society she presented was worse - the 1984-esque world of 2059 London, or the Rephiam controlled Sheol 1.  Both seemed terrible, so the need to return to one or leave the other seemed odd to me.  Not to mention Shannon’s writing style which induced a few eye rolling moments because of the writing cliches and descriptions, lack of momentum, or the watery love stories in the book which seemed forced and a little creepy for various reasons.  

After I read “The Bone Season” and set it aside for a day, I kept thinking about the events of the book, and the limitless possibilities Shannon has for the other six books she plans to write (which will take her entire 20s to complete). Rather than any sort of annoyance or focus placed on the fact that she is only 21, I felt in awe of the imaginative landscape that she conceived.  I thought of how cool the movie will be, and I thought of the scores of young adults and adults alike who will read this book, and be impressed, baffled, possibly put off, and in awe of the worlds Shannon created at such a young age.  Anyone who has the power to get people reading 7 fantasy books, and talking about their worth, and comparing them to some of the greatest dystopias or fantasy literature ever written, is truly a magician in my mind, and when that one person is only 21, well the word that comes to mind is genius. 

If you are not seeking a literary masterpiece, but want to be transported to a terrifying dystopia that is reminiscent of “The Hunger Games”, “1984”, “A Clockwork Orange” (because of the new language Shannon created - this book comes complete with a voyant slang dictionary in the back), and possibly even a little dash of “Divergent”, this is the book for you. 

Monday, October 7, 2013

Attention Teenage Girls Ages 13-19

Divergent by Veronica Roth (movie release March 2014)

No wonder all my female high school students told me I had to read Veronica Roth's book Divergent. No wonder I could never quite keep it on my classroom library shelf.  No wonder all the girls who read the first one cheered when the second book in the series "Insurgent" finally came out last year.  No wonder they kept asking me when the third book "Allegiant" would be out.

If you know any teenage girl who read "The Hunger Games" and loved one or all of the trilogy, and you haven't seen this particular teenage girl reading anything lately because she can't find anything that is as good as "The Hunger Games," you need to hook this particular girl up with Veronica Roth's "Divergent" trilogy. Do it now before the Spring 2014 movie hype (watch the movie trailer ), and the last book in the trilogy called "Allegiant" (release date October 22, 2013) hits book stores.  The loud whir of teenage girl hysteria will reach a high squeal at this point, and there may be too many spoilers for a true reading experience.

I am not a teenage girl, but I really enjoyed "Divergent" and Roth's imaginative post apocalyptic Chicago society where each 16 year old, at the Choosing Ceremony, must decide which of the five factions that they want to belong to:
Candor: The Honest
Abnegation: The Selfless
Dauntless: The Brave
Amity: The Peaceful
Erudite: The Intelligent

This one choice directs their path for the rest of their lives.  If a 16 year old chooses their own faction, they are treated better than if they essentially defect from their family faction and join a new identity.

Sixteen year old Beatrice Prior whose faction aptitude test (designed to help the teenagers choose their fate and faction) was deemed inconclusive and "Divergent" (a word not to be mentioned or talked about in the society as her test administrator tells her "Divergence is extremely dangerous") decides to go against her Abnegation faction and instead chooses to join Dauntless who her father calls "the hellions" due to their fearless, almost reckless, adrenaline junkie ways.  Beatrice who nicknames herself Tris must first past the violent and mentally exhausting initiation to be accepted as Dauntless and rank well enough not to be cast out as factionless.

The concept is very much like "The Giver," or "Anthem," or "The Hunger Games," or many dystopian society books, but Roth also adds the angsty teenage female touch that makes this like reading a dystopian Sarah Dessen book.  Girls will drool over Four, one of the initiation leaders in Dauntless who chooses to both humiliate and protect Tris from the more blood thirsty leaders and initiates.  They will gush over the love story painted through the characters who are suffering and surviving in a very divided world where certain factions are deemed weak, and others are morphing into something they were never meant to be.

I finished this book quickly.  I felt breathless during some of the Dauntless initiation tasks.  I got a little gooey with the blossoming of new love.  As a grown woman, I did feel myself sometimes internally cringing at all the teenage love stuff, but . . . I still read it and enjoyed this page turner.

In Roth's dystopian society, she uncovers many truths of humanity - like what divides us is usually what unites us, that we all contain traits of each faction, and the age old question: is blood truly thicker than water?

As soon as I finished "Divergent," I quickly picked up "Insurgent" and am already half way through it.  I already pre-ordered third installment, "Allegiant," which will be out later this month.

If you have a teenage girl who needs a good book, get her hooked on this series.  She'll thank you for it.