Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Series Coming to Ends

I have been re-reading the Obernewtyn books in preparation for the next books of the series to appear. The fifth book is scheduled to come out towards the end of the year and the sixth, and final, book is set to appear next year. I have also started re-reading the Harry Potter books, in preparation for the famous seventh and final book coming out in July.

With all this re-reading, I have begun asking myself, what will happen if I don't like the endings?

I must admit, I did NOT like Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince and it wasn't because Dumbledore died. That, I expected and had even officially predicted on HPforGrownUps. But the Spindle's End chapter and the chapter when they are in the cave with the Inferi are so painful to me that I cannot make myself listen to them on CD or re-read them. So I am thinking: the whole series will be ruined for me if I don't like the last book. What a shame to have it ruined, when the first books brought so much enjoyment to me.

Obernewtyn is similar, although the story is somewhat more complex. Each time a new book in the series has appeared, I have started to read it, only to realize that, in order to appreciate it, I need to remember some of the more obscure details and look for "ashlings" of ideas in earlier books. So I stop reading the new book and start at the beginning again.

Perhaps the authors have had this fear as well and maybe that is why the books have taken so long to appear. People have invested a great deal emotionally into these stories. What if the final ones don't work for them - both authors and readers?

I suppose there is some precedent for this in my experience. I loved Ender's Game and I still love it, even though I did not especially like the sequels - Speaker for the Dead and the others in that thread. And I loved Ender's Shadow, although the sequels in that thread haven't interested me either.

Perhaps the original books - e.g., in HP, up to the Order of the Phoenix, and, in the Obernewtyn Chronicles the Keeping Place - will still be satisfying to me, even if the others are not. But I sure would love to have both series, Obernewtyn and Harry Potter, end in triumph.

Totally Joe by James Howe

I've put off writing about this one for a day or so, because, frankly, I don't know what to think. A brief outline of the story is probably in order before I discuss it. The story revolves around Joe Bunch, who, in the course of writing an autobiography as a school assignment, gradually makes public the knowledge that he is gay.

And another preliminary explanation: I only know one person well who is publicly gay. I worked with two teachers who were gay and public, but I didn't know them privately - only in connection with my work.

My first impression of the book was, "Whoa! This guy is massively stereotyping this young gay kid." He doesn't like sports, he likes to dance, he likes music, colors, flamboyant dress, movies, etc., etc. All of the things you have probably associated with gay men, this kid evidently likes. All of the things you associate with "guy-guy"s this kid doesn't like - electronics, sports (as mentioned above), getting dirty, being outdoors, etc. This bugs me, because my perception is that gay people are completely varied in their tastes for/against music, dance, flamboyant dressing, etc. I kept thinking, couldn't Howe have included a few characteristics that would make this kid more than just a stereotype? Then, the second thought was - well, maybe there are kids who completely fit the stereotype. Maybe the author is saying that, even fitting the stereotype to a T is OK. The problem is, it was hard to get a feel for Joe as a person, rather than just a stereotype.

My second impressions were a bit more favorable. As the book progresses, you do get to know Joe a bit better and, yes, even accept that he really IS like the stereotype. And he is one funny kid. I had a student who was like him in some ways - he wasn't gay, but he was the kind of kid that you just like to watch and keep track of over the years, because he is INTERESTING. There is always something going on with him. I find kids like that fascinating. You really want to see them react to life, because their reactions are so full of vitality.

My third basic thought about the book is that all of it fit together too easily: the accepting friends, the boyfriend who isn't quite ready to "come out", the accepting parents, the supportive teacher, the principal who comes around. Maybe things really are changing, but I don't think my gay friend had it that easy - and it certainly took him a lot longer than age 12-13 to feel comfortable enough to go public.

And the Christian bully is also a stereotype. There are a lot of people who are less accepting of gay people who are not bullies and/or who are not Christian.

So is Howe trying to say, this is how it could be? Is his target audience kids who are thinking they might be gay and he is trying to reassure them that this is OK? If so, what if they run into more problems than Joe does? What if their parents aren't supportive or they don't have a helpful aunt and grandparents who eventually accept it?

As I said, I have mixed feelings about the book. I am glad it is relatively upbeat, and I find Joe fascinating, but I worry about some of the side messages.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Adam Canfield of the Slash by Michael Winerip

OK, I guess I can't write this unless I confess: I have tried to manage kids writing a school newspaper and it was NOWHERE near as good as this school newspaper. It should have been - the kids were 6th, 7th, and 8th graders. But, in actual fact, it was horrible. I was a horrible teacher/advisor. I was ashamed that what we published was so bad.

So, in a way, I envied the principal in this story. She had kids working pretty independently on a school newspaper - one with real articles and decent substance. The kids typed it in, printed out proofing copy and gave it to the principal to check. Who knows, maybe this could really happen in real life. But it sure didn't happen with me. I guess I should stick to teaching math.

So, with that preface, the book is about two kids who are co-editors of the local school newspaper. This newspaper has had a reputation for excellence and the quality of the stories they include shows it. The kids are good - they get involved in real stories and real controversy and they end up doing things pretty well. The major characters are Jennifer, a black kid, and Adam Canfield, a white kid - both outstanding students. (Why does the book get named after the white male?) Secondary characters are Phoebe, a precocious 3rd grader, and the principal, Mrs. Marris, who is the person to look out for. Phoebe, who has a nose for good stories and good reporting, writes a story about the school janitor and another one about a local "smile" contest that form the basis of one of the plot element stories. Adam and Jennifer are the sleuths involved in the other major plot line.

One interesting sideline is the commentary about overscheduled kids. Adam has a habit of being late for everything, but it is no wonder - he has a daily schedule that is several feet long. Another interesting tidbit is the voluntary/mandatory cramming class designed to get kids to do well on the state exams. NCLB, anyone?

For all that, though, the book dragged a bit at times. I guess I felt I could see where the story was heading and I just wanted them to get on with it.

And, in a way, it is harder for a story that is supposedly realistic. Realism means that you have to show realistic things happening - and realism is sometimes a bit on the tedious and complicated side.

It is a good story, but a bit on the longwinded side.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

The Green Glass Sea by Ellen Klages

Although I question the premise behind the major part of this story, I still liked the book a lot. The premise is that a 10/11 year old girl moves to be with her father on the "Hill" - Los Alamos, during World War II. The scientists there are working feverishly to develop a secret new weapon to fight the war with. Perhaps it is just because we are so familiar with war and bombs from our news media, but I find it unlikely that kids of 10/11 would be completely clueless about what was going on there. True, it could have been a chemical weapon or a biological one, but with physicists and chemists and electrical engineers around in droves, it wouldn't take too much interpolation to reason out that it was a bomb. And a little girl who is smart enough to be taking algebra with the high school kids and who makes her own radio should also be smart enough to figure out that there is something big weapon-wise underway.

Nevertheless the story is interesting and some of the features of it are both common and unusual. It is interesting to see how much people smoke in the story. The parents are frequently lighting up. This is historically accurate, but most books leave that out nowadays, given the bad press that smoking (rightfully) has.

One of the common features of the story is the bullying behavior. Suze is bullied by the top dog girls and in turn looks down on Screwy Dewey. This problem is never addressed directly by adults - too much else is going on for them - but the girls eventually work it out - at least in part. An editorial comment: with all of the education in schools about bullying, I don't actually see it decreasing. It seems to be a common feature of childhood everywhere. Sometimes I think that adults should express more confidence in kids' abilities to work things out and save intervention for severe cases - physical and emotional.

I did find the name-dropping amusing. To call Oppenheimer "Oppie" and Richard Feynman "Dick" was fun. I doubt that Oppie would have had time to comfort the woman who was taking care of Dewey, but who knows.

The final true to life interesting feature was the trip to the test site, where the kids are allowed to pick up radioactive pieces of rock and watch them react to a Geiger counter - and allowed to keep the ones that weren't too active. It reminds me of the shoe stores of that era, where you stood on a machine and they x-rayed your foot to tell what size shoes you would need. We wouldn't dream of exposing ourselves to so much radiation nowadays, especially completely without shielding, but it was fairly common, even a decade after the war.

It is also interesting to me that, although the scientists knew what they were working on, they didn't really talk about the implications until after the weapon had been developed. I don't know if this is true to life, but I suspect, to some extent, it is. You are so wrapped up in your work and the problems and technical aspects that the greater picture is not only unforseen, but largely outside of concern.

All in all, it is an interesting and satisfying book, shedding light on an era and an event from a different perspective.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

How to Speak Dragonese by Cressida Cowell

This book is targeted at a slightly younger age group than most of the books I read. It is similar in tenor to the Time Warp Trio books by Jon Scieszka - a goofy, light-hearted take on something that almost resembles history. Only this series - of which this is, I think, the third book - is more fantasy than history, complete with miniature dragons and nanodragons and regular sized dragons. But it also has Romans and Vikings. It is a cute romp, but cuteness gets annoying after a while.

Tyrell by Coe Booth

Now this one I have no trouble placing on my personal "do not like" list. I guess I will never get used to YA books where the main character gets a blow job from his girlfriend and then later that same night goes to bed with another girl. Yes, this is a gritty, and probably true to life tale about the inner city and how rough life is there. And perhaps I am showing my middle class white origins, but there are better books about inner city life, in my opinion. I will take You Don't Know Me by David Klass or Make Lemonade by Virginia Euwer Wolff or When Kambia Elaine Flew in from Neptune by Lori Aurelia Williams.

The Higher Power of Lucky by Susan Patron

I know there is a lot of controversy about this book because of the use of the word "scrotum", but honestly, folks, that is not what the book is about. You'd think with so many books filled with violence and other sorts of mayhem, people would have much more to complain about than that word - would they have preferred the vernacular "balls"?

That said, I have mixed feelings about the book. There is nothing wrong with it and it is a decent story, but it isn't really one that will stay with me for a long time. It just isn't that memorable for me. I feel sorry for Lucky and her situation, but I don't really LIKE her enough to be cheering for her in the end like I should be.

The Misadventures of Maude March by Audrey Couloumbis

This is a historical fiction oriented book about two young girls who were orphaned and subsequently brought up by their aunt. The story begins when the aunt is accidently shot dead and the girls have to be taken in by the minister and his wife. The girls worked hard for the minister and his wife and their 5 young children, but when the older girl is supposed get married to a much older man, she balks and they run away. They take with them two horses and supplies enough to last part of their way. Their destination is Independence, Missouri, where they hope to find an uncle who was living there for a time.

The main idea of the book is that people can get embroiled in misadventures, even though their intentions are reasonable, according to their own views. And most of the characters in the book do get involved in misadventures - not just the titular Maude March. There is horse thievery, bank robbery, and murder, in addition to lots of other frontier misadventures. But it is enough to keep reluctant readers quite involved, I would think.

This is a Wild West type story with female protagonists and is a fairly good yarn. The only thing that made it fall a little short for me is that I like the narrating character, Sallie, the younger sister, better than I did Maude. In fact, I didn't think Maude's character was drawn as clearly as it could have been. I always seemed to have the feeling that I didn't quite understand what made Maude tick. Sallie was much clearer.

Not great literature, but a good enough read.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Adults Only by Morris Gleitzman

A few weeks ago, I read a couple of books by this author about cane toads in Australia. They certainly have great titles: Toad Rage, Toad Away, and Toad Heaven. They are amusing enough that they would appeal to middle grade readers, especially boys, I think, but they really aren't great literature. Not everything has to be, but it is nice when popular appeal meshes with some sort of lasting value. I would put Don't Pat the Wombat (Elizabeth Honey and William Clarke) in the category of having popular appeal, but also having a bit more to say than just amusing the readers.

At any rate, the above toad books were amusing enough that I decided to try some of his titles that sounded a bit more like they might have some substance. This one, Adults Only, is about a kid whose parents operate an adults only resort hotel and the misadventures engendered by their son, who has no one to play with and who tries desperately to both help and amuse himself without being seen. This book is also pretty shallow. It is amusing, but I just couldn't get absorbed by it. A confession: in the end, I just resorted to skimming to find out what happens. Too bad, it was an interesting idea and he is an amusing writer. I am not sure why I seem to need more.

The Sledding Hill by Chris Crutcher

I read this book for a science fiction book group. Once a year, they choose a YA title to read and this is the title for this year. Since I really enjoy YA books, and since science fiction was one thing I particularly enjoyed reading when I was in junior high, AND since I have enjoyed others of Crutcher's books a lot, I was surprised and disappointed about this one. First of all, the only thing bordering on being science fictiony is that the main character's best friend comes back after dieing in an accident and talks to him - a sort of haunting, as it were. The rest of the story is just about book censorship. There are a few amusing twists, but not enough to make it a good book - at least for me.

I wonder what the book group will make of it. I almost want to bring with me some YA science fiction and fantasy books that I think really ARE good - like the Obernewtyn Chronicles. I am currently re-reading them: Obernewtyn, The Farseekers, Ashling, and The Keepers (not sure about the title - that one is still downstairs). I am really enjoying them and I think this is my 4th time through them, as I have had to re-read the entire series each time a new book comes out. The fifth book is scheduled to come out this year and the sixth (and presumably final) one next year. I guess one reason why I am so sensitive about this is that the last time I went to this book group (normally, it conflicts with another activity I do), one person said that he hates YA books and will skip the meeting whenever YA books are being discussed. It is too bad to have his opinion validated.

I don't think this book is particularly bad - and it DID win some award, but I don't think it is particularly good either. As I said at the start, I have read other Chris Crutcher books that I really liked: Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes, Whale Talk. This one just doen's grab me.

Here Lies the Librarian by Richard Peck

This is another Richard Peck book in the tradition of A Year Down Yonder and A Long Way from Chicago. While those two books remain my favorites of this group, this is a worthy successor. Since the protagonist of the story is Peewee, who works with her brother is a car repair shop, this book also deals with gender roles. Peewee is beginning to grow out of her tomboy persona, but remains interested in cars and their mechanics. This is set in the era when cars were still noticed and paid attention to, in all of their newness and glory. The details about the various autos add a lot of fun. An enjoyable read.

Drum, Girls, and Dangerous Pie by Jordan Sonnenblick

The main idea of this book is that the main character is a regular middle student, with an annoying younger brother. As a typical teen, he is a bit whiny and self-centered, until the family finds out that the younger brother has leukemia. The book is about the family's dealings with the changes this bring, which are substantial. The subject matter could be really depressing and there are times when it is, but the writing is also peppered with humor and doses of normalcy. It makes the book more endearing and real.

I can't remember if I read this book before or after Sonnenblick's other book that I have read: Notes from a Midnight Driver. At any rate, I enjoyed the first one enough to seek out the second one. I think I like Drums a little bit better than Midnight Driver, but both were enjoyable.

Boy at War by Harry Mazer

This is a Battle of the Books book for the coming year here in Alaska. It is on the 7th and 8th grade list. From the cover, I thought maybe the book was a re-issue of an older book, but it doesn't appear to be such - at least for a brief look at the listing on Amazon.

In several ways, though, it reads like a book that was written a couple of decades ago - or maybe it is just that it is true to the WW II era setting in the way it depicts the family in the book. It seems old-fashioned - Mom, the caretaker of the kids; Dad the brave soldier bringing up his kids according to his military views. It isn't a bad book - it is probably pretty faithful to what could have happened. And it does bring up the prejudice suffered by Americans of Japanese ancestry. I enjoyed it, but it didn't impact me emotionally as much as I might have expected.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert

Finally, another adult book. I enjoyed the first section - her months in Italy. I have been to the northern parts of Italy and my husband and kids have been to the central part. And I can understand her love of the language and the food. The getting over the divorce part only relates to me in that I have also been getting over a couple of bad experiences - only job-related, not relationship-related.

But the pray part - India - is of less interest to me. I read it, but I resorted to skimming at the end. And the love section, I skimmed entirely. I am not sure why the love part doesn't appeal to me as much. I guess because her search was for a balance between eat and pray and by that point, it just seemed tedious.

I would have enjoyed the book if it had been just the eat and pray part, with the pray part cut down somewhat. I guess that shows where my own interests are, rather than the quality of the book and the writing.

I think this is frequently true. The parts of books that we most enjoy are parts that speak to our own issues and interests. I wonder at times if we can fairly judge books that are outside of those interests and issues. What do reading panels for book awards do when a book comes across their paths that is completely different? I guess the Printz people should be commended for the American Born Chinese selection. It certainly is different from most of the books on the list.

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan

I wish people wouldn't keep comparing books like this to Harry Potter. It just sets me up to think of them in certain ways, which they are not - and don't need to be. Sure, there are some parallels - the main male character is more than just a plain person, there is a female sidekick and a male friend. And these characters all have extra human powers. And the author draws on mythology, especially Greek and Roman, as background material for the story. There are other parallels, too, but for all of that, the book has a different feel to me. It is, much more American - much more shoot-em-up action. There are lots more chase scenes and much less character development. It is in some ways more like the Harry Potter movies.

The main character in the book, Percy Jackson, is a demi-god, the son of the god Poseidon and a human mother. He is sent on a quest to get back Zeus' lightning bolt, which has been stolen. Accompanying him are a satyr (his friend and protector) and the daughter of Athena and a human father.

And, now that I am writing this, I am seeing more and more Harry Potter parallels - much of the initial action takes place at a summer camp / school. There is a mentor (Chiron, who is a centaur). Percy and Annabeth are both demi-gods - half-bloods, as it were. The satyr, Grover, is presumably a full blood.

Oh, well. In spite of the parallels, the book can stand on its own. It is hip and interesting and I think reluctant readers might like it.

Sunday, May 6, 2007

Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin

This is one of those books that you read and 1) you are amazed that one person was able to do it and 2) you wonder why this isn't the way our foreign policy is structured in the first place.

The basic idea is that Greg Mortenson wanted to climb K2 and spent a great deal of time preparing for this goal. But disasters interfered and he failed to make it to the top and ended up instead, recuperating in a small village, far from where he planned to be. The kindness of the people led him to promise that he would return and build a school in the village. The book is the story of how that school came to be and all of the difficulties that had to be surmounted to bring it into existence.

Since that first school, at least 53 others have joined the list of projects sponsored by Mortenson and his organization, the Central Asian Institute.

For those who have read this blog for a while, you know that I am deeply interested in education and the form it takes in various cultures. I wish I had oodles of money to give to Mortenson and the CAI. This is how a "war" should be fought.

Books Again

I seem to go in spurts with reading. I have recently finished quite a few, but in the previous few weeks, I had read hardly any. At any rate, some brief notes.

Hattie Big Sky by Kirby Larson
I enjoyed this one. It is yet another instance of historical fiction that makes me think that, if history had been taught this way, I might have developed more interest for it.

The Diddakoi by Rumer Godden
This book brings up to me my persistent problems with bullying and the way it is treated in the schools. In this book, the little girl who is the target of bullying eventually gets beat up by several other little girls, but the adults concerned don't do anything to punish the girls who did the beating. They rely on the guilty feelings of the girls involved - and eventually that proves to be a workable solution. But I am a bit uneasy about this solution, as I am not sure that the young people involved in bullying will feel enough guilt to make them stop if the adults don't intervene. Yet, I see the effects of the opposite in schools, too. Adult intervene in too many situations in schools now. Even the simplest teasing gets brought to the teacher's attention and the teachers are expected to punish the perpetrators, even though the perpetrators may have been teased previously by the supposed victims. It gets into he said / she said bickering and wastes an enormous amount of time. Kids look to adults to solve all of their problems and don't learn to work out solutions themselves. Adults can NEVER stop all of the teasing and taunting that kids do - nor, in my opinion, should they. After all, there is not always a power figure around to sort things out. Yes, adults need to stop repeated, severe bullying, but I think kids need to work on developing their own strategies for dealing with simple teasing.

One Whole and Perfect Day by Judith Clarke
I love how many of the Aussie books have such depth of feeling for family. You really get the sense that, even when there are problems in the family, they are deeply committed to each other. This book works out a little too well to be real, but you forgive her for it, because it feels so good. If you need a feel good book with a happy ending to balance out all of those sad, but realistic ones, this is it.

I have also just finished Grief Girl (Erin Vincent). This is another Aussie book with a tremendous dedication to family. It is one of the most realistic books about death and grieving (targeted for teens) that I have ever read. And amazingly, it does its work while being engrossing as well.

I read Girl with Glasses (Marissa Walsh) - a one idea book. There was not enough of a story here for me.

Tribes by Arthur Slade
I read Tribes (Arthur Slade). I really liked the idea of the tribes and the analysis of high school crowds. But the main idea of the book wasn't as compelling for me. I couldn't feel his anger about his father's abandonment. I know it was completely suppressed, but still - I guess I needed more clues.

The Braid by Helen Frost
Interesting read - might fit in with a unit on immigration.

Foundling: Monster Blood Tattoo #1 by D. M. Cornish
I liked this one a LOT better than I expected to. Monsters and Blood and Tattoos just didn't sound like my thing, but I am glad I read it. I love just looking at the elaborate maps and marvel at the ability of authors to come up with such elaborate maps, place names, and background story. I concur with one of the reviews on Amazon, though. It seemed more like a prelude to a major story, rather than the story itself. I sizable chunk of the book isn't story, it is the aforementioned background information. Still, I am eagerly awaiting the next installment.

I read a manga book called Loveless and was completely confused by it. I guess you need to read all of the previous three books in order to even have a prayer of understanding what is going on.

And I am re-reading all of the Obernewtyn books in preparation for the release of book 5 later this year and book 6 next year.

I sometimes wonder what it is that draws me to certain books. There are some books that for some reason just speak to me deeply - books that I can't get too much of no matter how many times I read them. For me, there are only a few books in this class - Ender's Game and Ender's Shadow, Native Tongue and Judas Rose, The Obernewtyn Chronicles, the first 5 Harry Potter books (no, I don't like Half Blood Prince. In a way, it spoiled the story for me, unfortunately.), Anne of Green Gables.

Then there is a second group of books - one that I seem to identify with and treasure, but which I don't want to re-read more than a couple of times: Feed, Go and Come Back, Shabanu, Fahrenheit 451, Welcome to the Ark, The Impossible Prefect, and probably quite a few more that don't come to mind right now.

I know one of the things that appeals to me is if the story includes something about schools and learning. I am also greatly interested in how gifted kids come to deal with society. That doesn't explain all of the choices, but it does tie together some of them.