February books

Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta: I didn’t love it as much as the friend who recommended it to me did, but I did like it quite a lot. It did take me quite a while to get into, and I only stuck with it because (a) it felt like a payoff book and (b) my friend promised it would pay off. I wasn’t disappointed. Everything came together really well. Um, a brief summary is that the book is about this girl Taylor who is at a boarding school and has to confront her past. I seriously can’t say more without giving away the entire plot, so. Check it out. A quote:

I remember love. It’s what I have to keep on reminding myself. It’s funny how you can forget everything except people loving you. Maybe that’s why humans find it so hard getting over love affairs. It’s not the pain they’re getting over, it’s the love.

A Likely Story Book 1: Likely Story by David van Etten: THIS BOOK. It’s about a girl who WRITES A SOAP OPERA. It is super fun and cute and fluffy and. SHE WRITES A SOAP OPERA. I just…I cannot even capslock that enough. ALSO. Her mom is a soap star and the whole thing is about SOAPS and the main character is living her own soap opera what with being a cheater and having mom drama and all, and I just…SHE WRITES A SOAP OPERA. I was having serious reader’s block when I read this and it totally helped break my slump.

Confessions of a Serial Kisser by Wendelin van Draanen: This was…not that good. Oh, it was totally readable, but I wasn’t that enamored of the character at all. I am glad that it was a fluffy post-divorce thing where she’s obsessed with kissing and doesn’t go around sleeping with boys to dull the ache left in her heart or whatever, but still. Great last line, though.

Oh, also, I was attempting to read Dreams from My Father by [President] Barack Obama, but it got boring and I have too much other stuff to read. I got about halfway through and read enough to know he’s a really good writer even if he did switch to his mother’s POV during one scene (in his memoir. UM). But it just wasn’t keeping my interest.

January books

The Road to Paris by Nikki Grimes: Very fast read about a young girl who gets separated from her brother while in foster care. I found the book lacking in detail where I wanted it, even as Grimes paints a clear, complete picture of everything that happens. Just a little too sparse for my tastes. Delightful read, though.

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman: Hey, so, I read this for my reading group (book club for grad students, basically), and you may have heard that it won the Newbery. WELL. Clearly, we are psychic. Anyway, while I was reading the book, I didn’t think I would like it, but when I finished…I realized I did. Here’s my favorite quote from the book:

You’re alive […]. That means you have infinite potential. You can do anything, make anything, dream anything. If you change the world, the world will change. Potential. Once you’re dead, it’s gone. Over. You’ve made what you’ve made, dreamed your dream, written your name. […] [T]hat potential is finished.

Secret Spaces of Childhood by Elizabeth Goodenough: I had to read this for class, and some of the selections were an absolute chore to get through.

March books

Alice on Her Way by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor: This book is part of a super popular series that I have never, ever read (and, honestly, only heard of because of research for my class). That said, I liked it quite a bit. The series does tackle lots of issues. In this book alone there was: sex (Alice goes to a church group, her friend gives a hand and blow job), an abusive relationship, interracial dating, a mention of molestation, etc. And even though the book stood well alone (we decided as a class that it did), you can tell that there were larger conversations about most of these issues ongoing in the series. I kind of want to read them all now, but there are a LOT of books. Maybe I’ll just start with the high school years. That might be a fun summer project.

The Kingdom Keepers by Ridley Pearson: For a book that has such a clever premise (Disney characters come alive after dark; they’re trying to take over the world–Maleficent is the villain in this one), I am sorely disappointed in how cliched it is. The one black kid is a tall, athletic, and angry male? The main girl is so mysterious with a secret and the main (average white) boy can’t quite figure her out? The nerdy (white) boy has red hair and knows everything? The other two girls that are part of the team are completely useless, so much so that they disappear from the action at the end? There’s a character named JEZEBEL who totally manipulates the black kid with her sexiness? I mean, SERIOUSLY? That is totally lame. I read the whole book because I wanted to figure out just where it was going, but I am so, so turned off by the lazy and lame characterization that I don’t even know if I can comfortably give it three stars for being an interesting enough read. The more I think about it, the more I kind of hate it. It’s like Hero in that way.

Princess Diaries 10: Forever Princess by Meg Cabot: I really, really enjoyed this book and thought it was a fitting end to the series. The characters were in fine form, and I loved all of the plot threads and how they came together. Also, I love Tina Hakim Baba and Michael Moscovitz forever and ever and ever. Plus also, Mia was really enjoyable in this book, which is great, because she’s one of my favorite Cabot heroines. So that made me happy. Also again, I learn so much science and psychology reading these books that it’s kind of ridiculous.

You Know Where to Find Me by Rachel Cohn: Oh, this book. I loathed it kind of a lot. First of all, it’s a fat girl narrative, and I hate, hate, hate fat girl narratives. (A fat girl narrative, btw, is a story all about how the main character is fat and she hates herself for being fat and fat, fat, fat, fat, FAT.) By the time I realized I was never going to get that turnaround from it being a fat girl narrative to something more (like in The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things), it was too late, and I was kind of invested in the end of the story. The fat girl narrative is especially troubling because the main character’s cousin is SEVERELY depressed and also skinny. So I really needed her to get over the fat girl thing and be about something else, but she never was! And I just wanted to punch her and the author in the face because it made me so angry.

The True Meaning of Smekday by Adam Rex: Hey, so this was super cute and fun, and the main character of the adventure was a BROWN GIRL. Yay, that made me happy! It is kind of absurd and strange because it’s about what happens when aliens take over the Earth and then other aliens come to fight those aliens, but it had great, great commentary on race relations and Manifest Destiny and privilege and also family. Good times.

Living Dead Girl by Elizabeth Scott: This book will haunt me for the REST OF MY LIFE. It is so freaking disturbing, omg. I seriously couldn’t put it down, and I doubt I will ever, ever forget it. Ever.

trifecta of book reviews

Hell Week by Rosemary Clement-Moore: This is a sequel to Prom Nights from Hell, a book that I enjoyed very much, so I was excited to see that it seems to be an ongoing series. What I like about this book is that the characters are interesting, there’s a complex female friendship, and Clement-Moore doesn’t shy away from the concept of religion in her demon fighting. What’s also really cool is that she tackles sororities as being an excellent site of evil because of the rituals and secrecy already inherent in them. (For the record: sororities are not bad in and of themselves, but the cloak of secrecy around them allows–in the book anyway–dirty dealings to go on kind of without question because of the secrecy. If that makes sense.) Reading the book, I was kind of on the fence about how I feel about it, but the more I think about it (and the fact that I think about it after reading!), the more I like it.

Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist by Rachel Cohn & David Levithan: I had actually tried to read this before and didn’t really care for it so quit. Mostly I found the narrative really annoying. Like, REALLY annoying. However, after seeing the movie, which I liked a lot, I gave it another go. I still find the narrative annoying, but it was easier to get through because I kept picturing the movie in my head. I also still much prefer the movie to the book. (One of my favorite bits from the movie–the bit about holding hands–was lifted straight from the book.) But the book wasn’t quite as obnoxious as I first found it. Don’t get me wrong! It is still obnoxious. Just not so much that I couldn’t get through it this time.

Also, I’ve read some of the reviews over on Goodreads that complain about the language, and I have to say that although I, too, was annoyed by the dropping of the f-bomb and the fact that the girls referred to each other as “bitch,” I found that to be pretty realistic, so it didn’t bug me as much as some of the other reviewers.

The Tales of Beedle the Bard by J. K. Rowling: My favorite two tales are “The Fountain of Fair Fortune” and the “The Tale of the Three Brothers.” Otherwise, I found the stories cute and/or horrific, depending. It’s an easy breezy read made better by all of the anti-censorship comments and the fact that Dumbledore uses “simulacrum.” I seriously got a kick out of that. Here’s an anti-censorship bit:

Mrs. Bluxam believed that The Tales of Beedle the Bard were damaging to children, because of what she called “their unhealthy preoccupation with the most horrid subjects, such as death, disease, bloodshed, wicked magic, unwholesome characters, and bodily effusions and eruptions of the most disgusting kind.” Mrs. Bloxam took a variety of old stories, including several of Beedle’s, and rewrote them according to her ideals, which she expressed as “filling the pure minds of our little angels with healthy, happy thoughts, keeping their sweet slumber free of wicked dreams, and protecting the precious flower of their innocence.” […] Mrs. Bloxam’s tale has met the same response from generations of Wizarding children: uncontrollable retching, followed by an immediate demand to have the book taken from them and mashed into a pulp.

Hahaha! I love that so much. I plan on using that excerpt when we get to Harry Potter in the class. How the authors respond to censorship is kind of a big deal and that she did it pretty explicitly in one of her books is fantastic.

Bindi Babes by Narinder Dhami (2004)

Everyone loves us. The teachers like us because we work hard, and we’re clever, polite and helpful. The other kids like us because we’re pretty and popular and funny and smart. They even have a name for us. The Bindi Babes. No one’s got more designer labels than we have. We’ve got everything we could ever want. Almost everything.

Remember what I said before? If people envy you, they’re not pitying you. If people envy you, they’re not looking at you and remembering what happened to your mum.

Our mum died.

It happens.

I think this quote sums up the book better than I ever could. The “us” in question are Amber, Jazz, and Geena, three Indian sisters living in England. The girls get everything they want from their dad because their mom has recently passed away, and not only that, but they’ve convinced themselves (as well as everyone around them) that they’re fine, just fine, and nothing at all bothers them. They are loved by all, worshipped by boys, and even have a pesky friend underfoot.

Everything is wonderful! Until their father announces that their Auntie is coming to live with them. They plot mightily to get her to leave and the cracks start to show. The story is funny and sweet while delving into some pretty serious issues: grief, racism, domestic violence. Mostly, though, the book is concerned with happiness and grief and the lies we tell ourselves to pretend to be the former and not deal with the latter.

That makes the book sound dour, and I promise it isn’t. The girls antics are really funny, and Dhami handles everything with a light touch. It’s great as a beach or light weekend read.

Haters by Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez (2006)

Words cannot express how much I loathe this book. I really cannot stand it. What makes it bad is that while I was reading I kept hoping things would get better or go somewhere interesting, and at the end, I just felt empty. What makes it worse is that the more I think about the book, the less I like it. I hate when that happens. When books make me think, I want it to be because they have done something right, not because they have done so much wrong.

The plot is basic Mean Girls fare. Paski moves from New Mexico to California and falls for the hot guy that is, of course, already going out with the school’s queen bee. She has to deal with fitting in blah blah blah basic stuff you already know.

I thought the book was going to be way more interesting than it turned out to be because there are hints of magical realism in the book. Paski’s grandmother is a psychic and Paski herself talks about her connection with nature and has this amulet that gives her vibes about who to trust and who not to trust. Also, Paski is a mountain biker and her dad is a cartoonist, which gives both of them something I haven’t seen much of in lit before.

It’s really too bad the book sucks so much.

Valdes-Rodriguez tries really hard to get at some fundamental truths. For example:

I smile at them, and they turn away. This is the weak spot in mean girls. They don’t know how to deal when you’re actually nice to them.

The problem is that Paski is never actually really nice to the “mean girls.” There’s nothing in the book whatsoever to show that her niceness unsettles Jessica (the queen bee) or her friends. Paski does befriend one of the girls, but as soon as she does, she drops the one true friend she had.

There are a ton of rushed/unexplained storylines in the story. There’s something going on with the neighbors that’s never fully explained. Paski just “knows” that Chris is awesome and that she should/could love him, but there’s no reason for the reader to think that. She also “knows” that the one not-really mean girl is okay, even though all they do is go shopping together, like, once.

Jessica turns out to be a one-dimensional cartoon villain with no real depth, even as Chris says that there’s more to her than it seems. No, really, there isn’t. At the end, she is cutthroat and ruthless with no real reason to be. It’s unrealistic and takes so much away from the story.

Paski is almost too perfect, even though she does have her moments:

How shallow, I know, but inside every deep, psychic girl, I would bet you there’s a shallow moron just waiting to come out.

Which is one of the reasons I kept reading. There are enough of these moments to make it seem like maybe, just maybe, everything is going somewhere.

Unfortunately, Paski is a bit too much of a Mary Sue. She’s pretty but doesn’t know it, but that’s okay because every other character tells us! (She looks like Rachel Bilson, btw.) She does know she’s a good bike rider, but, of course, she immediately catches on to motocross. She wins over Jessica’s friends and boyfriends, her father becomes rich, her neighbors thinks she’s fantastic, etc. Jessica is the only thorn in her side. However, since she’s an unbelievably flat villain, in the end, she poses no real challenge.

Read it to see how ridiculous it is or skip it to avoid being annoyed at how ridiculous it is. I’d choose the latter.

Love Among the Walnuts by Jean Ferris (2001)

This book is kind of absurd. Basically, Sandy and his parents live a fairytale life, shut off from the outside world. Everything they could possibly want, they have. Sandy is of indeterminate age because his parents stop keeping track of time, and since he has never been to school, it’s impossible to know what grade he should/would be in. You can imagine his surprise when something sinister happens to his parents! It’s really quite unpleasant to say the least. Especially since Sandy has no social/real world skills whatsoever.

Just to give an idea of what kind of life Sandy leads, a quote:

Sandy was dismayed at the number of times he had to say “I don’t know” when she asked him what he thought. He was beginning to wonder if, for all his educational advantages, he actually had ever thought.

So, Sandy is smart as a whip–book smart, just not a good critical thinker or real life participant. The book tries to resolve that tension by involving him with a nurse, Sunny, and the patients at an asylum down the road.

I asked my students to pick quotes they felt were most significant to the book, and one chose the following, which summed up most of the classes feelings on the book:

“What a bunch of balderdash.”

It fits. The students who liked it appreciated that it was fantastical and far removed from real life. It provided a real escape. I appreciated what it was trying to do, but I’m not sure I’d recommend it to anyone I know–not even a teen reader.

Writing Magic by Gail Carson Levine (2006)

I really enjoyed this book. It’s for young writers, but as an adult writer–or one who aspires to be a writer anyway–I found it really helpful. First, the book benefits by being aimed at children. There’s no pretentiousness here; everything is very straightforward. She explains the importance of plot and character and really breaks down every element. Most importantly, there are exercises at the end of each chapter to jump start writing. I also love that she ends every chapter with “Save what you wrote,” a callback to her rules for writers, #7 of which is:

Save everything you write, even if you don’t like it, even if you hate it. Save it for a minimum of fifteen years. I’m serious. At that time, if you want to, you can throw it out, but even then don’t discard your writing lightly.

My favorite passage from the book and the one that affected me most in that it completely encapsulated the problem I’ve been having with writing for the past couple of years is this:

Writing is deceptive. You know how to read. You know what you like in a book and in a story. You know how to write, how to make sentences and paragraphs. So why can’t you tell your story in the beautiful way it appears in your mind?

Yes, exactly. Why can’t I? That’s really what it boils down to, isn’t it? That wanting to write beautifully, that wanting the words to come out exactly the way you want to is not as easy as just sitting down and writing. No! It takes practice. I’ve been in school since forever and I’ve studied creative writing even, and I know that I have to write more if I want to write well, but that the block comes when I want, need, and expect the words to just magically appear on the paper before me. And in a few sentences, Levine manages to completely explain what I’m feeling.

There’s also a passage in the book where she says that part of the problem is that a lot of people don’t treat writing as a craft. If we wanted to play an instrument, our parents would tell us to practice. If we wanted to be dancers, our parents would tell us to practice. But when we write something, we get praised for it and it gets admired and that’s it. Our parents will say we’re wonderful writers, but it’s rare to have a parent say, “Great, now keep writing a lot for practice.” No! They’d just admire the next thing we write.

That spoke to me. I have written a lot of things that have been good and praised, but I never felt that writing was something I needed to do every day. And, now, even though it makes perfect sense that it takes more writing to write well, I still haven’t been able to make that transition. This book not only explains elements of crafts, but encourages writing and made me want to pick up a pen (or sit at a keyboard) and get to it.

I think this is an excellent book for young writers and older writers as well.