“Shadow and Bone”

shadow and bone  Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo

Alina is an unlikely heroine. A lonely orphan whose only friend is fellow orphan Mal, she is raised without love or concern for her welfare. Both are recruited into the Ravka army as teens—Alina as a cartographer’s (mapmaker’s) assistant, and Mal as a tracker. Alina is a worrier and a ruminator more than an action-adventure hero. On her way to a frightening mission into the Shadow Fold, a magic and evil place, Alina is deeply fearful. The Shadow Fold, with its Valkyrie, is a great place to be killed. And Mal certainly would have been if Alina hadn’t suddenly manifested the power to summon light.

Alina’s power, hitherto unknown, is great. She is taken to live among the magical Grisha and tutored by the Darkling, a powerful and mysteriously charismatic man who is tasked with destroying the Shadow Fold. Her power, in his hands, may save the world. Yet Alina is adrift in the world of the Grisha with its court sycophants, its backstabbers and petty jealousies. She wants nothing more than to see Mal again. Although she writes to him regularly, he doesn’t answer. Perhaps the injuries he sustained in the Shadow Fold battle killed him after all. Perhaps he is just on a new mission. Her own behavior in Mal’s absence bewilders Alina. She had felt that she’d loved him, but always knew him to be a player and kept her heart’s secret. Now, she is drawn to the Darkling and the mission to save Ravka from the Shadow Fold.

High school housekeeping: I’m pretty sure that Shadow and Bone is a popular trilogy with teens, but I want to praise it because I think it deserves more readers in my own library and among my students. It has everything that a fantasy reader craves—a sense of mythology (Russian, in this case), magic, monstrous creatures, an epic fight between good and evil, fast action, creepy as well as mystical atmosphere, a love triangle, and a question of trust. Something I enjoyed was the handling of the question of good vs. evil: does good have any physical power over evil or is it just a spiritual power? That’s a question I believe most of us ask early in life. The first time I read a book with an answer that absorbed me was many years ago when I encountered Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes. It’s quite unlike Shadow and Bone in its storytelling, and yet this novel brought it to mind, connecting Bardugo to one of my favorite tellers of tale.

Anyone who enjoys fantasy, myth, or epic battles of good and evil will love this novel. And it has a bonus–it’s not overwritten (and thus overlong) as so many fantasy novels are.


Posted in Adventure Stories, Fable/Fairy Tale/Fantasy, Fiction, Romance, Supernatural, Young Adult Literature | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“The Unbecoming of Mara Dyer”

The Unbecoming of Mara Dyer by Michelle Hodkin  mara dyer

Awaking from a coma, Mara remembers nothing of the accident that landed her in the hospital and killed her best friend, her boyfriend and her boyfriend’s sister. They had all entered the children’s ward of a derelict psychiatric asylum on a dare.

Mara has never been one for frightening adventures. Why did she go into a building she knew to be unsafe? People, including her kind and worried parents, tell her that her memories will come back as she heals. But as Mara dreams and hallucinates, she can’t separate reality from her visions. Her mother, a psychiatrist, feels that Mara needs additional help in the form of medication and hospitalization, but agrees to give her a fresh start by moving from Rhode Island to Florida.

Florida doesn’t seem like the answer, as the wealthy and privileged brats who populate Mara’s new school do not take to her. Except for Noah, the hunky boy with the English accent who acts like he knows Mara from the moment he sets eyes on her. Dream-come-true Noah may not be what he appears, and Mara tries to keep her distance as rumors about his ‘use them and lose them’ history with girlfriends grows.

Why then does Mara’s caring and decent brother believe in Noah? Mara, too, has a deep sense of a soulful Noah that others haven’t seen. And the more she connects with him, the more she remembers about the night of the accident. And nothing about it—or about events that follow her and destroy her enemies—help to assuage Mara’s guilt. She feels like a murderer. Maybe with good reason.

High school housekeeping: I’m late coming to this novel. It’s intrigued me ever since I ordered it for my high school library. Both the title and the cover design are so appealing that I figured it would check out regularly without my help. I was right. But some of my favorite readers have recommended it to me, and I so I finally had a go with it over the holidays.

Author Michelle Hodkin owes a debt of gratitude to both the genius cover designer and the title creator; they situate the novel as something wholly original. While this doesn’t turn out to be the case—you’ll find lots of the usual tropes of YA fantasy fiction (and to be honest, you’ll like that—they are fun, and they are why you are reading this book)—there are some original and quirky twists. Though some professional reviewers found the inclusion of a murder trial to be a bridge too far, I really enjoyed the switch and subplot. I wish that subplot had concluded more neatly, but this is a “Book One.’ Not a single plotline is concluded, and the reader has to jump into the second book to see what will happen to the emotionally and mentally-challenged Mara—and anyone who gets in her way.

If you are a fan of YA fantasy/supernatural fiction, don’t miss this one.

Posted in Fable/Fairy Tale/Fantasy, Family Problems, Fiction, Horror/Mystery/Suspense, Over 375 pages, Romance, Supernatural, Young Adult Literature | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Adult Books for Teens: Common Core: “Capital in the Twenty-First Century”

Capital in the Twenty-First Century by Thomas Piketty  

How can a very small percentage of the population stockpile capital ? Why dcapitaloes the distribution of wealth in the twenty-first century seem to be so much less equable than in the twenty century? What are your chances of becoming wealthy? Is there some way to predict what economies for the remainder of the century will look like?

Piketty’s purpose in Capital in the Twenty-First Century is to answer these questions—to use mountains of data that have previously been unavailable or misinterpreted to show the reader how the world economic situation came to be. To arrive at his answers, he has studied records going all the way back to the French Revolution and the earliest recording of estate taxes. He describes and analyzes many political, social and economic philosophies. He looks at twenty countries and their histories of wealth as well as the wealth of their citizens.

Piketty isn’t a doomsayer, and he doesn’t insist that the course of the world can’t be changed. But he does use a great deal of evidence to argue that the increasing economic equity among citizens of western countries during the twentieth century was caused by the two global wars—that we shouldn’t see economic parity as a natural result of an ever more civilized society.

Capital more naturally accumulates for those that already have a tidy sum of it. For those who have more than a tidy sum, it accumulates exponentially. This isn’t because the rich are evilly plotting to suck the life out of the average Joe. But it isn’t because they are particularly worthy or smart either. It just is the nature of capital. This makes the divide between haves and have-nots wider and wider with time. As evidence, records of inheritances and capital gained from labor are reviewed. Today, when CEO’s can made many hundreds of times the salaries of the average worker at their corporations, their labor capital works as well as any other vast sum.

Piketty’s bottom line is that the return on capital exceeds the rate of economic growth—“r > g” (and that we are asking too much to have consistent economic growth rates much above 1%). This causes inequality and can very well lead to political unrest as democratic ideals and standards fall away. So, while all is not lost, it may be if we don’t do anything about it.

Capital in the Twenty-First Century is a clarion call to look at the accumulation of capital realistically and to work to alter economic trends before we lose the gains we have made in democratic (political) systems. His solutions would not be easy to effect, requiring as they would global cooperation.( Progressive taxes on wealth in select countries would mean that capital would move to others.) But as he presents it, the stakes are so high, the world must be willing to try.

High school housekeeping: This is a good choice for a high school economics student. It’s detailed and serious, but it’s a layman’s book, written so that the average person (with little to no background in economics) can understand it. I think it’s the sort of nonfiction that the framers of the Common Core standards would like to see in high school courses. As it utilizes so much historical data—and even looks at descriptions of capital and incomes from eighteenth and nineteenth century novels—a student can cull some interesting historical facts in her reading. Any reader will certainly understand the enormity of the problem of rising economic inequity.

Posted in Historical Fiction/Historical Element, Non-fiction, Over 375 pages | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Adult Books for Teens: “Yes Please!”

yes pleaseYes Please!
by Amy Poehler

If you think that arriving at stardom just consists of lucky breaks—or tossing your screenplay onto the lap of a sleeping star during air travel—then you need the reality check of Amy Poehler’s Yes Please! Her mid-life biography recounts the long years of work she endured—at all odd hours—to get to where she is today. Poehler has been a regular on Saturday Night Live, a host of various award shows and the star of the sit com Parks and Recreation. But before that she was a waitress and an office assistant. She lived in crummy apartments in major urban areas such as Chicago and New York where she learned about comedy at the ImprovOlympic (Chicago) and with the Upright Citizens Brigade (New York).

Something I love about stories of the ‘hard times’—and Poehler’s is no exception—it that a lot of what a person endures for his or her craft engenders great creativity. And, despite those crappy apartments and weird hours, those creative years often bind you to the best friends you’ll have in your life. Poehler’s recounting of her friendship with Tina Fey is only one of such stories. She has many, and she credits numerous people who have helped her on her path to success. The stories of Seth Meyers (SNL) and fellow cast members of Parks and Recreation are both funny and touching.

A good biography always generalizes experience outward to the reader. Most likely, the reader is not on the road to stardom. Poehler connects to her reader with experiences that level the emotional field. She is entirely sincere in her confession that most of her interesting friends are not famous, and that many famous people she knows aren’t very interesting as friends. Her reflections on divorce are funny and yet true. And what’s great is that they aren’t a rant against her ex-husband, something that would get tiresome. Poehler’s advice on learning to apologize is something everyone should read. Really—even if you aren’t going to read her book, check it out from the library and read the apology chapter. It captures how difficult it is—and how necessary—to properly apologize. And a proper apology does not include excuses or wording like, “If I offended anyone, I’m sorry that they got offended.”

The one irritating piece of the book is Poehler’s long whine (or maybe it just feels longer than it is) on how hard it is to write a book—and this takes place at the very beginning, in the prologue. It has too much of the ‘poor me’ thing going. I know many writers who toil equally as hard and for a much longer period without a mega-bucks book deal, without any guarantee that they will ever have an audience. It’s a shame that the book begins this way because it makes the reader wonder if she should keep going. And she should keep going as there is so much worthwhile coming. Actually, a reader could skip the ‘a book is so hard to write’ whine altogether without missing anything.

I listened to the audio version of Yes Please! because there are some fun guests narrating—Poehler’s parents, Kathleen Turner, Seth Meyers, Carol Burnett, even Patrick Steward reading some haiku. If you can, get a hold of the audio and have a listen.

High school housekeeping: Some of you know Poehler and her work. I think you’ll enjoy her biography. It does have some colorful language, but no more than the average YA book. It’s a good choice for any assignment of the ‘American Dream today.’ It’s a good personal choice for anyone interested in a public life. And it’s a good choice for anyone who wonders how she’ll manage her creative spirit while engaging in real life—so, I guess that’s just about everyone. The inevitable student question: Is Yes Please! As good as Tina Fey’s Bossypants? Skip the opening whine mentioned above, and yes, it is.

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Kendra by Coe Booth   kendra

Kendra is tired of her Nana’s constrictive rules about the way she dresses and whether she can talk to boys. Her Nana is tired of having to take care of Kendra and hopes to avoid what she couldn’t with her daughter Renee, who is Kendra’s mom. Renee is twenty-eight; Kendra is fourteen—just the age that Renee was when she became Kendra’s mom.

But Renee really isn’t much of a mom to Kendra. She’s left that role for her own mother so that she could pursue her education and her dream—to get out of the Bronxwood projects. And she succeeds mightily, graduating with a Ph.D. from Princeton. Sadly it is at Renee’s graduation ceremony and celebration that Kendra realizes just how little Renee wants to be her mom. Everyone is asking Kendra if she hopes to be just like her ‘big sister’ and end up at Princeton. Big Sister? Isn’t she supposed to move in with Renee and finally escape the hawkeyed Nana?

Kendra, though justifiably feeling abandoned, also defends Renee against the snarky comments of her best friend (and aunt, although she is only a year older then Kendra), Adonna. Adonna is a material girl, and she has her eye on a cute baseball player, Nashawn. But then, he is Kendra’s secret crush as well. Kendra assumes that Nashawn will only like the better-dressed, sexier Adonna and is surprised when Nashawn comes onto her, hot and heavy. But he’s made plans with Adonna, too. Kendra feels that she’s being used. She is so desperate for love and affirmation that she forgets her own worth. How can she get that? The novel reminds us many times that it isn’t coming from Renee.

High school housekeeping: There are many reasons that Kendra will be an engaging read for teens—Kendra’s sense of abandonment, her involvement in a romantic triangle and her need to break out and be herself as well as to be loved with fewer conditions. I’m thinking about whether it’s fair to criticize a book because it turned out not to be the book I wanted it to be. I felt for Kendra as she was played by Nashawn and wanted the novel to show how she comes away from that, perhaps sadder, but certainly wiser. But this is not that book. Despite all its engaging qualities and realistically-portrayed teens and adults, it leans toward formula romance in its resolution. SPOLIER ALERT: I was genuinely surprised at how Kendra immediately (like, within seconds of being followed by Nashawn into dark but public places) agrees to both oral and anal sex to thwart her Nana’s threat of having her virginity checked by a doctor. These scenes are not gratuitous, and I could easily see them happening, just not without more development. And I so wanted Kendra to learn what all people must—others use you for their own purposes, but you’ll try not to see that—you’ll do really dumb things to stay around them because you are out of your mind with the infatuation and lust. And when they tire of using you, you’ll have to pick up the pieces.

Posted in Family Problems, Fiction, Hi-Low/Quick Read, Mature Readers, Multicultural, Read 180, Romance, Young Adult Literature | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Adult Books for Teens: “Colorless Tsukuri Tazaki”

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami  Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki

Sometimes I love a book so much, it’s hard to know what to say about it without the effusion seeming insincere. Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki is one of those books. It was a joy to read. Once I read the tale, I realized that even the design of the cover was perfect.

Tsukuru is colorless only in that each of his four friends in high school has a color associated with his or her name—black, red, blue, and white. However, Tsukuru thinks of himself as lacking the verve of his friends; he senses that he is empty, and feels lucky to have their companionship. And the five Japanese students are the best kinds of friends, each complementing the qualities of the others. None is perfect, but taken together, they seem somehow whole, a complete individual entity. So it is strange—a weird betrayal—when the friends split to go off to college (Tsukuru goes to Tokyo) and the other four ostracize Tsukuru. At first Tsukuru tries to find out why. But the only answer he gets is something along the line of ‘you should know.’ And so he gives up on finding out.

The incident colors his colorless life—that is, everything that happens to him for years to come is filtered through the deep loss of the people who knew him best. For a time, he is thoroughly obsessed with death and has suicidal thoughts. In his mid-thirties, he is still very much alone although he is a successful engineer, designing train stations. When he meets a woman with whom he may be able to share his life, she understands that Tsukuru can never fully engage in a relationship, in love, until he deals with the inexplicable loss of his friends. And so he begins a long journey backward in time and forward into foreign lands, seeking a peace of mind that will allow him to connect with others. He is truly on a pilgrimage.  And by engaging in his story, the reader, too, takes a metaphysical journey into the meaning of friendships, of love, of loss and life’s purpose.

High school housekeeping: A good high school reader should have a go at Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki. Much of it deals with high school connections and betrayals, as well as young adult depression. It also shows a way through the past and its pain that I think could be very valuable for teens. Many students have an interest in Japan. Reading Murakami provides insights into Japanese culture. And life—in the all-encompassing, big picture way. I’m interested in your response to this lovely novel.

Posted in Fiction, Mature Readers, Multicultural, Over 375 pages | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Adult Books for Teens: “The Powers of Two”

Powers of TwoThe Powers of Two: Finding the Essence of Innovation in Creative Pairs by Joshua Wolf Shenk

The Powers of Two insists that the most creative grouping is pairs. Author Joshua Wolf Shenk uses lots of famous folks to make the point. There’s Paul McCarthy and John Lennon, of course. They appear throughout the book as examples. There are also Marie and Paul Curie, and Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak. Less famously ‘known-as-pairs’ pairs appear as well–business partners Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger are one intriguing pair. We know Buffet, but learn how Munger works in his creative and moneymaking process. We know, too, that Theo Van Gogh’s support of his famous artist brother Vincent was critical. But Theo as a creative partner may be a new idea to us, and Shenk makes his case for this partnership. Sometimes he focuses on rivalries. Particularly nasty comments about one another dot the discussion of twin sisters Ann Landers and Abigail Van Buren, who both wrote popular syndicated advice columns. According to Shenk, their life-long sibling rivalry is what made them so good at their jobs.

The discussion of pairs (and rivalries) that is the most fun to read is the one about Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. This is true because they are often quoted discussing how their rivalry pushed them to greatness and includes a lot of important basketball milestones.

Some of the pairings that Shenk makes are a bit of a stretch. When there is a third person who appears to be integral to the creative pair, Shenk makes them into a sort of Venn Diagram—two pairs, with one of the people crossing over into each pair. Like me, you may find this a pairing too far. Sometimes three creative people working together are just a trio. And four are just a quartet.

High school housekeeping: Despite the fact that Shenk tries too hard to turn every creative group into pairs, there is a lot to like about this book. There’s much to think about in terms of how having someone to bounce ideas off of can increase the creative output of everyone in the group. Or that rivalries, nasty as they can be, are opportunities for greatness. This is a good choice for Common Core ‘outside reading’ of ‘informational text’ (newspeak for nonfiction—fiction has plenty of information in it, too, no matter what the new-standards bearers are selling you).

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