“More Than This”

More Than This by Patrick Ness  more than this

In a chilling prologue, a boy is drowning at sea. He tries over and over to save himself, but the water is too cold, the waves too rough, the craggy rocks too close. He is freezing—too cold to swim properly. And he is being smashed into the rocks by the waves.

As the novel proper opens, the boy has a name—Seth. And he has awakened into some weird world as the only person alive. It’s post-apocalyptic. He’s in a long-deserted English town, the boyhood home that he and his family had left after the terrible incident with his younger brother, Owen.

Is Seth in hell? Did he really die? Is the world he’s in now real? Was the life he remembers a dream? He certainly seems to be creating his universe. The things that he needs in order to survive appear as he desires them. A supermarket full of canned food and water. An outdoor supply store with sleeping bags, fuel and more. Uncanny escapes from danger.

And yet there are things in this world that are nothing Seth could have imagined on his own. The strange coffin-like pod in his attic, the presence of a creature intent on finding and killing him, and the unlikely sources of help that Seth finds.

How will Seth discover what is real and how will he stop the thing that is trying to kill him—if he’s actually alive?

High school housekeeping: As I’ve said before, I love Patrick Ness, and this is another great read. Like his other books, it’s longish (about 475 pages) and reading on grade level would be helpful. Nevertheless, Ness has the ability to end every single chapter on a cliffhanger—he does this better than any other YA author I’ve read. So if you are working on your reading skills, you just might find such a novel to be a great choice—you are pulled along rapidly, devouring the pages.

More Than This has the sci-fi feel of The Matrix, but it also ponders some serious questions about relationships, about the deep sorts of friendship in which one is willing to lay down his life for another. When others hurt us emotionally, how do we perceive their motivations versus the reality of what drives them to do what they do? What life events help us become the sorts of people we want to be?

There’s so much great adventure and action in More Than This—but if I discuss any of it, I think it will be a spoiler—because almost everything that happens is a big surprise, one unanticipated event after the next. So—just give Ness a try. I think you’ll be hooked.

Posted in Adventure Stories, Family Problems, Fiction, Horror/Mystery/Suspense, Over 375 pages, Romance, Sci-Fi/Futuristic, Young Adult Literature | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass”

yaqui delgado     Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass by Meg Medina

You’d think that this was just a titillating title for a silly girl-drama book.

But you’d be wrong.

Yaqui Delgado wants to Kick Your Ass is a really good book.

Piddy Sanchez is a Latina, but a fair-skinned girl of Cuban heritage. After her mother is hurt when the stairs give way, she and Piddy move away from their broken-down apartment building. They rent a house with a yard. Piddy’s mom sees this as a step upward for them. But Piddy has been launched into a hell that she couldn’t have previously imagined. Because at her new high school, where she is a sophomore, a girl named Yaqui Delgado has decided that Piddy is stuck up, that Piddy is shaking her ass–and particularly when Yaqui’s boyfriend is around.

Piddy is clueless. She never had an ass until recently, when her curves blossomed. How could she be shaking it? Worse, she doesn’t even know who Yaqui Delgado or her boyfriend, Alfredo, is.

Piddy decides to find out, but she’s in more trouble than she at first understands. And once she does get it—the fact that Yaqui really wants to hurt her—she finds herself changing in ways that affect her whole life. She had always been a good student, but she is so distracted that she isn’t turning in all of her assignments. Piddy tries to know Yaqui’s every move and worries every minute that she is in the hallways at school, lest she be jumped. Maybe she should just ditch school in order to stay safe? Her sleep suffers, her grades suffer, her friendships suffer, and her reputation suffers. Sadly, there are other students at school who know what is happening, but who don’t want to be involved. And Piddy is afraid to tell her mom because if word gets back to the school, Yaqui will really beat the crap out of her.

What’s going to happen to Piddy’s life now that this one person—out of nowhere and for no reason—has decided to ruin it?

High school housekeeping: The main plotline of this novel will keep you focused through to the conclusion, but there are also lots of minor plots that are interesting—who is Piddy’s dad and why doesn’t he ever contact her? Why is Piddy’s mom such a prude? What does Piddy’s old friend with the abusive, alcoholic dad know about life that can help Piddy? What is going to happen to those abandoned kittens?

I recommend this book to anyone who enjoys YA lit. Super students will relate to Piddy, but anyone who has ever been bullied will also connect to Piddy’s emotional world immediately. In fact, anyone who has been extremely anxious about a life circumstance that s/he thinks s/he can’t change will be riveted to Piddy’s dilemma. S/he’ll also understand that Piddy, although she is very smart and resourceful in many ways, isn’t equipped to take on a street fighter like Yaqui whose resentment fuels her anger, who has had lots of practice beating people, and who has no parents who care what she does or who have any will to get her under control. Another important—and very realistic—aspect of the novel is the fact that Piddy has to make some changes to escape Yaqui. It isn’t right and it isn’t fair, but it is worth it so that Piddy can realize her own goals. Finally, with the help of a real friend, she learns how to keep her eyes in the prize.

Posted in Family Problems, Fiction, Multicultural, Read 180, Romance, Young Adult Literature | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Ask the Passengers”

Ask the Passengers by A. S. King  ask the passengers

Astrid Jones isn’t sure that her love is acceptable to anyone. She has a lot of it to give, but to whom? While she’s deciding—and deciding takes many months—she spends her odd free moments lying on a picnic table in the backyard, throwing her love up in the air, toward passengers on the airplanes that fly by.

These passengers appear to be able to feel Astrid’s love and respond to it—they all have problems with loving others and being loved. Just as Astrid does. Her mom is a stereotypical self-involved businesswoman who appears only to love Astrid’s sister. Her dad copes with his overbearing wife by staying stoned pretty much all the time. Her sister worries about being on the hockey team and the small town gossip about girl athletes being lesbians.

The small town narrow-mindedness of Unity Valley is getting to the whole family. You feel that in another environment they would be all right. But having to tough it out is worse for Astrid than the others. She thinks she may be gay. She feels that she’s in love with Dee, a girl who is out of the closet and very interested in Astrid. They both work for a caterer and sometimes find chances to kiss one another in the commercial refrigerator. But Astrid doesn’t want Dee to press her to do more. She doesn’t want to be forced to come out. She needs to work this out at her own pace.

Because life is so hard, Astrid finds comfort in her humanities class, where she learns about philosophers and their big questions. She images having several conversations with Socrates, studies paradoxes and looks forward to the day at school when the humanities students will dress in togas and pose paradoxes to the students at large. (This sounds like a great class for students who want to engage in life’s big questions. Oddly, the ‘paradoxes’ that Astrid and others come up with aren’t real paradoxes. This was a bit of a letdown for me, but in general, reviewers didn’t notice, so maybe it isn’t an issue for the reader. It may be enough that big questions are being asked.)

Astrid has friends who are also keeping secrets, also fearful of the small-town reputation-ruining machine. Ultimately, she learns to be brave, to accept herself, and even to accept others who are not as fearless as she becomes.

High school housekeeping: I know that you have seen every YA novel covered with exclamations on how it is the best book the reviewer has ever read. I think reading these blurbs is like seeing a product in the grocery store that screams “New formula!” Well, you’re going to see the ‘best book ever’ blurbs with Ask the Passengers, but don’t be too cynical. This really is a very good novel. It shows how coming into oneself can be a long, difficult process. While there are a few flaws—Astrid’s mom is one-dimensional, and believing that she would totally ignore one daughter while having ‘Mommy and Me’ dates with the other (including getting that daughter drunk each time) was something I couldn’t buy—there’s a great deal to like about this book. There’s value in working through Astrid’s process with her. Though not all teens are questioning their sexuality, Astrid’s way of dealing with big questions in order to find the courage to act on life issues can be a helpful model for the problems that all teens have to face.

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Summer Classic Reread: “Walden”

Summer Classic Reread: Walden by Henry David Thoreau  walden

Why I wanted to reread it: Walden is one of the great American classics because it speaks about nature, individualism, and creating a life philosophy. I think a lot about nature (actually, I obsess over global climate change and my culpability in it), worry about whether I have given up my individualism, and have been reading some works of philosophy. So—Walden seemed perfect.

The basics: Henry David Thoreau, one of the Transcendentalists of the mid-1800s, decided that he would explore his inner life by exploring nature. On July 4, 1845 he set

out to live in very simple, stripped-down circumstances near Walden Pond. He stayed there for two years, two months, and two days. Walden is a record of that adventure. It consists largely of the details of Thoreau’s daily life at Walden and of the nature that he observes. He connects his observations to deeper thoughts and thus discusses philosophical questions—and even answers many of those questions.

Thoreau isn’t alone the entire time he lives near Walden Pond. Lots of visitors come by and chat with him, including farmers and hunters. He goes into town periodically and during one of those ventures, he is arrested for not paying his poll tax. (This not paying the tax was an act of civil disobedience—he objected to the Mexican War because of its connection to slavery in the United States. He discusses the issue in an essay entitled “Civil Disobedience.”) Still, Thoreau has plenty of time by himself and his observations of nature are keen and obsessively detailed.

High school housekeeping: While Walden is a very important work of American literature—it deals with so many American themes—the individual, time, technology, nature, conscience—I have to be honest and say that it isn’t for every high school student. In fact, I’m betting that reading it from cover to cover would drive lots of teens nuts—Thoreau describes all the materials he buys to build his cabin, exactly what he pays for each item, how he plants his beans and exactly what it costs him compared to what he sells them for, etc. (Honestly, I hate to say this because it seems sacrilegious, but if I’m not honest, I’m going to lose your trust in my recommendations.)

If you are a star student, you might enjoy reading Walden because there is so much to think about. If you just want to get the flavor of Thoreau’s adventure, you could read just a section of it. The best thing to do is to read about why Thoreau went to the woods and why he left the woods. Then pick out some events at the cabin. Lots of high school anthologies include “The Battle of the Ants”—the red versus the black ant armies that are gruesomely tearing each other apart. But there are other sections that have some beautiful descriptions of the nature around Thoreau—particularly the lakes—that you might like.

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Summer Classic Reread: “The Turn of the Screw”

Summer Classic Reread: The Turn of the Screw by Henry James  turn of screw

Why I wanted to reread it: I loved it long ago. I know that many teachers recommend it for students because it is a horror story, and they hope that will be the enticement to read a literary master, Henry James. I wanted to see if, after more than 100 years, it’s still scary and whether it truly has teen appeal.

The basics: The novella is framed by a tale of folks telling each other scary stories on Christmas night. (Apparently this is something people used to do as I have read about scary Christmas stories elsewhere.) One of the company says he has a frightening true story and will read it to the group when the manuscript describing it arrives. It comes; he reads.

A governess is hired by a strange man to watch over his niece and nephew, to whom he is the legal guardian but seems to have little interest in. He is in London. They are at a country estate called Bly. The thing is, this strange man also has lots of sex appeal, and it appears that the governess is smitten with him. When he tells her that he doesn’t want any communication from her about what is going on with the kids, she makes it her goal to follow his instructions.

At first things are very sweet. The governess is only watching the little girl, Flora. She also has found a friend in the housekeeper, Mrs. Grose. But one day the boy, Miles, is kicked out of school and sent home. No one knows why. Is this something that the governess should tell the uncle? Well, she doesn’t. She enjoys the company of both the children, who are so sweet that it seems unnatural.

And the governess decides that it is unnatural when she sees a male figure lurking about the house. Eventually, she describes the man to the housekeeper who pegs him for the dead groundskeeper, Peter Quint, who was a horrific man in life. Later, the governess also sees the former governess, Miss Jessel, and so believes that there are two ghosts haunting and possessing the children.

But are there really any ghosts? Are the children really possessed by these demonic creatures? This is the question that makes the story so disturbing. There’s evidence both to suggest that the kids are keeping the ghosts a secret, and also that this is just some wild mental illness of the governess (brought on by sexual repression, perhaps?), who, in her sickness, is making herself a heroine who will save the children and thus—somehow, in some weird way—earn the gratitude of the sexy uncle. Whatever is true, the outcome is tragic.

High school housekeeping: This novella is still very creepy to me—it has the suspense you want in a ghost story and the ambiguity that leaves it open to interpretation. You can argue with your friends and teachers about what really happens. So—I think it stands up to the teen test, but with one caveat. The language is tough—the vocabulary is pretty high level. If you are reading on grade level, you’ll follow the story pretty well, I think. If you are working on your reading skills, you might not know what’s happening.

Reading The Turn of the Screw is a great way to introduce yourself to Henry James. Most of his work makes for pretty difficult reading (trust me, I’ve read a lot of it). Not that this is a bad thing—it’s difficult, but far more rewarding than much of what you might choose to read. But, as I’ve said before, I’m a big believer in literature ladders, so to speak. We don’t start at the top, no matter how great the books up there are. But if you want to read one of the great writers of English (James was both American and British), The Turn of the Screw is a good place to start.

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Common Core: Nonfiction: “Death’s Acre”

Death’s Acre: Inside the Legendary Forensic Lab the Body Farm Where the deaths acreDead Do Tell Tales by Dr. Bill Bass and Jon Jefferson

A number of students ask for forensic science books because their interest has been piqued by the many shows about forensic anthropologist solving murders from clues found on the victims’ bodies. And we have some appropriate titles in the library. But I’m happy to add Death’s Acre because it is an adult book and is more thorough than books we have that are written at a lower level. Dr. Bill Bass is the father (so to speak) of the Body Farm, that two acres in the Tennessee hills where donated bodies are left to the elements. And then studied for decomposition. This seemingly strange, even gruesome place has been vital to forensic anthropology. And thus to the capture and conviction of murderers.

While the title suggests that the book is going to be about the Body Farm (actually called University of Tennessee Anthropology Research Facility), it is much more a memoir of Dr. Bass’s life. Dr. Bass has been involved in some interesting murder cases, called to testify as a witness at various trials. He details some of these murder cases and trials, and his understanding of the decomposition process, a process that varies greatly depending on location, season, and other factors, underlines the importance of his studies. While Bass is a scientist, and can find more humor in some of the gruesome aspects of death than most of us could, he is also appropriately respectful of the dead. His goal in dealing with rotting flesh, saw or hacked bones, and maggots blossoming from corpses is to give murder victims their due—to have the otherwise hidden details of their murders come to life, to find justice for them.

Bass discusses the difference between the sympathy he has for victims and their families and the overwhelming grief of losing his own loved ones. He reflects on his life and his loss of faith in an afterlife based on his experiences.

Professional reviewers warn that Death’s Acre is not for those with weak stomachs—descriptions of bodies in various states of decomposition (and especially those on whom blowflies have descended and who then swarm with maggots) can be distressing. However, I never watch TV programs with murders and bodies because I have a hard time with the very real looking corpses. Yet, I had no problem with the book’s descriptions of various murder victims. Neither did the few black and white photos of bones and bodies particularly distress me. So if you are interested in this branch of science, I say go ahead and give Death’s Acre a try.

High school housekeeping: Again, this book is more detailed than those nonfiction choices from publishers of teen works, yet it is under 300 pages, a very manageable length. It’s a great introduction to the field of forensic science and a nice overview of the life of one of its best practitioners. If you are assigned a biography or memoir and you are interested in forensic science, you could easily convince your teacher that this is the book you should read. I was engrossed by the discussions of murder victims and by what made the prosecutors decide whether to proceed to trial. Unlike on television, not very victim finds justice.

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Common Core: Nonfiction: “Brainstorm”

brainstorm    Brainstorm: The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain by Daniel J. Siegel, M.D.

There are four qualities of adolescence—the period between ages 12 and 24—that adults must try never to lose:

  • novelty seeking
  • social engagement
  • emotional intensity
  • creative exploration

To maintain these qualities helps a person to be a lifelong learner—one of those big goals that all educators hope their students achieve because it means they will have a full life.

Most adults think of adolescents as hormone-crazed drama kings and queens. But, of course, this isn’t fair. While the teen years are a time of emotional intensity and full of tears, they are also a time when playfulness and humor can emerge.

But still, adults understand one thing that adolescents might not: this period between age 12 and 24 is the most dangerous in life. At this age, the highest percentage of avoidable deaths occur. The brain isn’t finished forming and teens don’t fully grasp their risk-taking behaviors. They drink, do drugs and drive too fast; they kill themselves and others.

And yet somehow they can go from this to becoming adults who live on autopilot. As adults, they can find life too stressful, too difficult. They find it easier just to have a survival routine mode. They don’t make new friends or try new things. They are in a rut.

So how can we work on both these problems—to be careful enough in adolescence not to do real damage, but to keep the love of new experiences (novelty) as adults? Siegel gives the reader a lot of advice. He shows teens that although they are (and should be) more connected to peers at this age, they need to stay connected to adults to avoid dumb risk taking.

Brainstorm is actually about more than just the teenage brain. Anyone who wants to figure out why they do what they do, and who hopes to live a more fulfilling life, will enjoy the book. The bonus is that the conclusions are based on scientific research on the brain. So the reader will be comfortable in trying any of the several ‘mindsight tools’ that Siegel includes. And the book is organized so that the chapters can be read in any order that interests the reader—or s/he might concentrate on some of the chapters and skip others.

High school housekeeping:

This is a great book for any teen who’s worrying about handling her or his problems, about becoming an adult and losing the best of him or herself. It’s also great if your teacher gives you a nonfiction assignment. It’s the kind of book that the framers of the Common Core are hoping you’ll have the chance to read because it has facts about brain science (all put in layman’s terms) and yet it’s very interesting. If you are looking for a book that will help you practice mindfulness, the ‘mindsight’ exercises are a good start. At just over 300 pages, Brainstorm is also the shortest book I’ve read that does a good job of detailing how we can use brain science as the basis of working at creating our happiness or contentment. What better real-life application of learning can there be?

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