“The Vast Fields of Ordinary”

The Vast Fields of Ordinary by Nick Burd   vast fields
“’We’re all sick,’ Alex said. ‘I was thinking that the other night. . . . I remember in high school seeing people who seemed like they had it all together. . . . everyone thinks [they] have a perfect life and that they fall asleep every night without any thoughts or fears or whatever. But it’s not true. Everyone’s got that thing in them that keeps them awake.’

“I sat there for a while thinking about what he’d said. I thought of how many nights I’d stayed up late wondering what the world had in store for me, if I’d ever find someone that I could fall in love with. I wondered if all gay boys had nights like these, if there was a time when even someone like Alex stared up at his ceiling and wondered the same thing.’”

During the summer after he graduates from high school, Dade is going through change at a fierce pace, and while much of that can be scary, this coming-of-age novel is especially poignant. It’s a fresh take on a typical experience (and a typical plot line for a novel)—the desire to let go of the abusive (but deeply desired) love interest and find oneself in a better place with someone who loves truly, honestly, respectfully. And who is also very hot.

As the post-high-school summer begins, Dade’s life is pretty much a mess. He’s gay, but hasn’t come out yet. He has a boyfriend, or rather a guy who uses him sexually and secretly, Pablo Soto. Pablo is a football player with a girlfriend. He intends to live a ‘normal’ life, but keeps coming back to Dade. He is rude and a jerk, hurting Dade emotionally as a way to vent some of his frustrations at not being the stereotypical jock. Pablo’s girlfriend has her suspicions about Dade and both threatens and ostracizes him from the popular group.

Dade’s parents’ relationship is unraveling. His dad is having an affair; his mom is coping by self-medicating and meditating. Both are emotionally unavailable for Dade.

Dade find two people to hang onto—a friend, Lucy, who helps him navigate the uneven terrain of his coming-of-age, and Alex, the hot and seemingly dangerous, yet sweet, boyfriend.

High school housekeeping: I read The Vast Fields of Ordinary because the CHS PRIDE Club will be Skyping later this year with the author, Nick Burd. I think it’s a book that most any teen would enjoy. While it is especially poignant for students struggling with their sexuality, everyone can relate to falling for the wrong person and being brokenhearted even though they know that they have to break free in order to survive. I always like novels where someone finds a better love because they have examples of what genuine kindness is—of how people who really do love one another behave. The only criticism I have of the book is that a subplot about a missing child, meant to be symbolic, doesn’t work into the story well. And yet, while it doesn’t add anything, it doesn’t detract either, so it’s not something to keep a reader away.

That Dade is planning to go to college does add to the realism of the story. Even if he finds what he wants, he will be leaving for a new life. He is in a period of fresh beginnings, and fresh beginnings always bring sad endings along for the ride.

One more thing—Burd’s writing is lovely. It’s the sort of thing your teachers and I hope you’ll find and then continue finding. Because it’s the kind of thing that will make you a reader. Open this book and fall in.

Posted in Family Problems, Fiction, Human Rights Issues, Romance, Young Adult Literature | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Since You Asked”

since you asked        I had a great time at Maurene Goo’s presentation a few weeks ago at the Ontario City Library, Ovitt Branch. She’s the author of Since You Asked, a YA novel in journal form about Holly Kim.

“Fifteen-year-old Holly Kim, the copyeditor for her San Diego high school’s newspaper, accidentally submits a piece ripping everyone to shreds and suddenly finds herself the center of unwanted attention–but when the teacher in charge of the paper asks her to write a regular column, her troubles really start.

“Can she survive homecoming, mean-girl cliques, jocks, a secret admirer, and other high school embarrassments, all while struggling to balance her family’s traditional Korean values?” (Scholastic–publisher)

Maureen and Scholastic gave us a free (signed!) copy of Since You Asked and it is now ready for checkout. I think you’ll like the humor. And if you are looking for a book has a Korean American connection, Goo said that some of the events are based on her personal experience.

Come on over and check it out!

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

Adult Books for Teens: “The Circle”

The Circle by Dave Eggers  circle

With job prospects slim, Mae Holland, a 24-year-old college grad, has been working at a local utility company for a few years. She sees her job as a dead end, but what can she do? She has bills to pay.

Mae’s college roommate, Annie, is a few years older than Mae and has not only landed a job at the prestigious and hip Silicon Valley ‘Circle,’ but is a superstar there, one of the top 40 employees on a campus of 10,000. She is able to pull some strings and get Mae a job as well.

There could be no better place to work than The Circle. It’s all things tech and all things social. The descriptions of the on-campus fitness facilities, parties, lectures and child care make the reader think of Google. And yet The Circle is so much more. Employees have free unlimited health care as long as they are willing to have their bodily systems tracked through internal monitors (they swallow them down with some juice) and external bracelets that indicate pulse, blood pressure, number of steps taken in a day, cholesterol levels—just about everything.

Healthcare is just one way that The Circle tracks its employees. Everyone who works there is expected to make life on the Circle campus the totality of their own lives. Mae doesn’t understand this at first. She isn’t checking all of her mail and feeds (think of thousands of Twitter-like messages a day). She gets in trouble for hurting the feelings of someone who is having an event on the Circle campus that Mae should have attended but didn’t even know about. No worries—Mae is soon with it, staying late at work and then setting up ‘house’ there in her own cubbie apartment so that she can participate nonstop. She is so active on the social network, that her feed is always in the top 2,000, making her a popular employee who inspires others with awe.

Three big projects in The Circle fascinate the reader. Employees are developing a sort of internal GPS system so that children can be perpetually tracked, and thus child abduction can be prevented. Surveillance cameras are being set up in public spaces so that crime can be monitored. Companies can place them on their grounds. Better yet, these cameras are very cheap, so anyone can buy one and place it anywhere, adding to the ability of The Circle to monitor behaviors, anywhere, anytime. And lastly, politicians are being asked to wear cameras and speaker monitors 24/7 so that their constituents will know that they aren’t making backroom deals and accepting bribes. If any politicians cry foul at this intrusion of personal liberty, it is assumed that they have something to hide. So that The Circle can show that it has nothing to hide, Mae is the employee chosen to wear this sort of monitor.

Mae loves being open to all people at all times. She receives so many messages from people all over the globe as they watch her. She feels that she is connected and that all of these people truly love her. And so she can’t understand why her parents are ungrateful for the excellent health care they are receiving through Mae’s employment or why her former boyfriend is trying to opt out of all social media and go rogue. But life is getting pretty dark for anyone who refuses The Circle’s vision.

High school housekeeping: I think this is a great adult book for teen readers. Granted, Eggers isn’t trying to be subtle here. The problems with giving oneself over to The Circle are the big, obvious kind to people who still care about privacy and the chance to be alone. (What is going to happen after every kid is ‘chipped’ to prevent abduction? The chip will still be there all of his or her life. What power does that give The Circle over him or her?) And yet, the heads of The Circle are always making convincing arguments for why the world will be better if they have their way. The truly scary thing about The Circle is that none of this sounds like science-fiction. Everything The Circle does is something we are already doing on a smaller scale and through a few central corporations and social media outlets. The Circle just manages to absorb these things.

If your teacher would like you to read an updated version of curriculum standards like 1984 and Brave New World, this is your book. It’d make a great compare/contrast project because, as mentioned above, all of the dark things that happen in The Circle are based on current technology. And unlike 1984, no one is torturing anyone to maintain the status quo. They get universal buy-in simply because 21st-century folks are so afraid of being left out, of not being loved and appreciated by the mass of ‘friends’ whom they know nothing about.

Posted in Controversial Issue/Debate, Family Problems, Fiction, Human Rights Issues, Literary Read Alike, Over 375 pages, Sci-Fi/Futuristic | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Throwback Thursday: “The Hot Zone”

hot zone    The Hot Zone by Richard Preston

This nonfiction thriller opens with the story of “Charles Monet,” a Frenchman in Western Kenya who contracts Marburg’s Disease after a visit to Mt. Elgan (between Uganda and Kenya)—a “biological island of rain forest.” Marburg is a level four biosafety hazard, which means that anyone coming in contact with it should wear a spacesuit. There is no known cure for level four biosafety diseases. Marburg kills one of four people who catch it.

Another man in Kenya, called Monet, doesn’t know what’s wrong with him—no one knows what’s wrong with him. So he is sent to a private hospital in Nairobi. To get there, he has contact with many friends and coworkers, flies on Kenya Airways, and takes a cab. He could easily infect anyone he comes in contact with. The fact that he is very sick on the plane, vomiting blood, means that his Marburg could spread anywhere in the world within 24 hours. This is a disease that can be caught even from a cadaver. Anyone catching it has the chance of dying an excruciating death as Marburg attempts to turn the host into itself and liquefies a person’s insides. Its effects on the brain are similar to the effects of rabies. The author describes this as the ‘who’ dying before the ‘what’ of a person.

A Dr. Musoko cares for Monet and catches the disease when Monet vomits a particle into his eye.

The story switches to that of Nancy and Jerry Jaxx. They are veterinarians working for the army. Nancy has a chance to work with Ebola—another level four biohazard—and does, against her husband’s wishes. Suspense is built when Nancy realizes that she has a tear in her spacesuit as well as her glove, which is covered in Ebola-laced blood.

Even the ensuing scientific discussion of Ebola and Marburg works in the element of suspense. Ebola is more terrible than Marburg. It kills nine out of ten people who catch it, and again, there is no vaccine and no cure. “From the moment Ebola enters your bloodstream, the war is already lost . . . .Ebola does in ten days what it takes AIDS ten years to accomplish.” Scientists who have seen it call it a ‘slate-wiper.’ The best thing about Ebola is that it kills people so fast, it has little time to infect others. It can move from the dead to the living. African mourners who have kissed the dead bodies of relatives have caught it. Hospital personnel have caught it by being in the room with someone in their death seizures—blood pours from all orifices and the spasms cause it to be splashed about the room. Yet, when villages were far apart and travel through Africa difficult, Ebola didn’t spread easily outside of a village. Now that anyone can go anywhere quickly, including across the world, the hazard is all the more terrifying.

After frightening the wits out of the reader about Ebola, the book moves on to Reston, Virginia where there was an Ebola outbreak at the Hazelton Research Products ‘monkeyhouse’ in 1989. Hazelton imported and sold monkeys for scientific research. Yet, no one thinks of an Ebola outbreak in the U.S. Everyone assumes it’s a disease that is very deadly to monkeys but harmless to humans (Simian Hemorrhagic Fever). Monkey spleen samples sent to the Center of Disease Control are handled as harmless—scientists even run their hands over them.

Oops. Workers at the monkeyhouse are getting sick. Enter the U. S. Army and the bio-hazard suits.

High school housekeeping: Considering the recent outbreaks of Ebola and the fact that the disease has traveled to the U.S., I think The Hot Zone is the perfect book for this Throwback Thursday. This is a great choice when looking for adult-level nonfiction because it reads like a suspense thriller. I think Stephen King was telling the truth when he said that even he found it scarier than a horror story.

Posted in Environmental Issues, Historical Fiction/Historical Element, Non-fiction, Over 375 pages | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Adult Books for Teens: “A Tale for the Time Being”

A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki     time being

Nao, a Japanese American girl, was born in California’s Silicon Valley, her father a successful ‘dot-com’ programmer. But as time passes, her dad and his projects become superfluous. In dire straits, the family has no choice but to move back to Japan.

As Nao has never lived in Japan, her Japanese language skills aren’t so great. She’s a cultural outsider in many ways, and simply doesn’t fit in with her classmates. They take full advantage of this and bully her mercilessly. Some of the things they do are downright bizarre, but a quick check against factual documents lets the reader know that the weird things Nao’s classmates do are not unheard of in Japan.

Nao tells us that she is a ‘time being’—someone who lives inside of time, as we all do. But, considering the horrors of her life and the fact that her own father has attempted suicide more than once, at sixteen, Nao has decided to ‘drop outside of time.’ That is, she plans to kill herself.

Before Nao can commit suicide, she wants to write out the story of her awesome great-grandmother who is a Zen Buddhist nun and the mother of a World War II kamikaze pilot. Nao reflects on her great-grandmother’s life as it relates to Nao’s own life. And pretty quickly, she is telling her own story.

Ruth—a main character in the book—lives with her husband on a remote island in the North Pacific, part of British Columbia, Canada. She’s a writer (so yeah, the author of the book is named Ruth, and there is this whole idea of transcending place and time). She is having a bad time with writer’s block and should really be finishing a memoir. One day in 2012, as she is out on the coast, she finds that a Hello Kitty lunchbox has washed ashore. Opening it, she finds, sealed in a plastic bag, some items including Nao’s journal. Seeing that this is from Japan, Ruth wonders if it was swept away in the tsunami of 2011. As she reads—and she only allows herself to read one entry per day—she worries. Was Nao’s family killed in the tsunami? Has Nao committed suicide? Is there anything she can do to help Nao? How would Ruth even locate her?

How these two lives intersect is a beautiful story; at their point of intersection, they move into the realm of the supernatural. But here, this transcendence feels natural as the theme of being both inside and outside of time unfolds.

For the time being, we are all time beings. But connected ones.

High school housekeeping: This is a beautiful book, written for an adult audience at an adult reading level. For good teen readers, it is a gem—the endangered main character is a teenager, and so you will have an immediate connection to her. She thinks about some of the most serious things a teen must grapple with. If you are trying to work out deeper meaning in life, Nao’s relationship with her great-grandmother Jiko will touch and enlighten you. Her relationship to her chronically depressed father is also intriguing.

For those of you who are already good readers, we want to offer books that are not just ‘harder’ to read, but that are examples of good or great writing. A Tale for the Time Being was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award. My dears, those are some big prizes. This novel is altogether satisfying. Enjoy, enjoy.

Posted in Faith-Based/Religious Element, Family Problems, Fiction, Human Rights Issues, Multicultural, Over 375 pages, Supernatural | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Sticks and Stones”

Sticks and Stones by Beth Goobie   sticks and stones

“Jujube” got her nickname because she has one green eye and one blue. She’s a moderately popular girl at school—fifteen, sweet and friendly. She lives with her mom and has her friend Sophie and Sophie’s mom living at her house because Sophie’s abusive dad has just gotten out of jail.

So—while taking in Sophie might be more than average kindness, Jujube is pretty much an average girl. But she has more than an average crush on Brent. When he asks her to the dance, she learns about his reputation as ‘Mr. Warp Speed.’ What she doesn’t realize is how her own reputation will be destroyed after a few minutes alone with him in his car.

Jujube learns about the ruined reputations of other girls on campus and what they have endured as she is now enduring the same name-calling and disrespect. But unlike anyone before her, Jujube has a plan to help them all regain their self-esteem and power over their high school destiny.

High school housekeeping: Sticks and Stones is for high school students who are struggling with reading or learning English. The Lexile level is 430, about grade 2 to 3. It does a good job of showing how a girl can become empowered when she refuses to accept the gossip swirling around her.

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


masked  Masked by Norah McClintock

Daniel has a secret and not altogether ethical task to complete when he enters a convenience store. While he is snapping pictures of documents from a cabinet in a dirty old storeroom, a masked man with a gun enters the store. We think he’s there just to rob the owner and take off with the cash. But when he demands that he take the owner’s daughter with him, the complications begin.

What if Rosie’s boyfriend Corey, who is waiting to run away with her, walks through the door? How can Daniel get out? Is Rosie’s dad really the beast she describes? Or is his plea not to hurt his daughter more true to his character?

High school housekeeping: Masked is a quick read for students working on their reading skills. The Lexile level is 650 (about grade 5). Each chapter is told from the point of view of one of the people in the convenience store during the robbery—Daniel, Rosie and the Masked Man. It’s fun to see the story get stranger and stranger as the characters reveal their motivations for what they are doing. This is a robbery going wrong, but certainly not your typical one.

Posted in Family Problems, Fiction, Hi-Low/Quick Read, Horror/Mystery/Suspense, Read 180, Young Adult Literature | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment