Monday, December 28, 2015

Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer

Into the Wild is the true story of Christopher McCandless, a young man from a well-to-do family who left everything behind to live the life of a tramp.  In fact, he renamed himself Alexander Supertramp.  After giving $25,000 from his savings to charity Alex left college to begin traveling throughout the west, carefully arranging things so that his family wouldn't discover he had gone for a few months.  Never staying more than a couple of weeks in any place Alex nevertheless made an impression on many people he met.  He himself was inspired by Jack London, Jon Muir, Thoreau, and other writers who extolled living life to the fullest.  After ten months on the road, Alex decided to hitchhike to Alaska.  Four months later his body was found in an abandoned bus on the edge of Denali where he had starved to death.

I believe I first heard about McCandless from a visiting author who used some of the music from the motion picture about his life as inspiration for a book.  I watched the movie and was left thinking about what an idiot this boy seemed to be, going into the wilderness completely unprepared.  During the two years since then I have heard from more than couple of young-ish people about how they read this book during college and were really inspired by Alex's life so I knew I had to read it for myself.  I can't say that my opinion of Alex has changed after reading Krakauer's book, but I do think I get why others find his story inspirational.  He is something of a modern-day Thoreau in terms of philosophy but one that probably speaks more to young people now.  Still, I remain unimpressed with his decisions and with Krakrauer's writing which is unnecessarily pretentious and full of labored metaphors.  Also, during our trip to Alaska this past summer I asked our Denali tour guide what real Alaskans think of McCandless.  They are not impressed.

Relief Map by Rosalie Knecht

Livy is spending a hot summer as she always does: hanging out in her small hometown with her best friend Nelson.  When the electricity goes out in their small town the residents are surprised to find that it was cut off purposefully by the police and FBI.  Furthermore, the access into and out of town has been closed as law enforcement searches for a wanted man from the Republic of Georgia.  The search for the man does on for days and the tensions and mistrust in the town begins to grow.  It seems that everyone has a secret to cover up including Livy and Nelson who end up involved in something that started with good intentions but ends up going wrong.  

This books seems intended to be an atmospheric piece but I didn't much enjoy the atmosphere.  Livy's involvement with the crime that is committed just frustrated me no end!  I realize that she - all of them, really - was swept up in events but she actively participated when it came down to it.  I was also expecting bigger secrets from the townsfolk based on the synopsis of the book.  Livy's parents seemed to have the biggest secret that was revealed while the other adults were just getting more frustrated with each other.  But even that seemed unrealistic to me in this day of riots, protests and marches.  Why weren't the people in this town taking more assertive action to resolve things?  I just had a hard time getting wrapped up in the events.

One of Us by Jeannie Waudby

K manages to survive a bombing by the Brotherhood and is rescued by Oskar.  K has no family and is very taken with Oskar so when he asks her to infiltrate the Brotherhood and report back to him, she agrees and is quickly enrolled in the Brotherhood academy.  Using her new name of Verity, K finds herself with friends for the first time in her life including Greg who might end up being more than just a friend.  K wants to help stop the terrorism she has heard about but the members of the Brotherhood tell a different story and K sees no evidence of plots amongst her friends and teachers.  In fact, the more time she spends in the Brotherhood the more convinced she becomes that there are no terrorism plans at all.  But Oskar makes it clear that refusing to do what he wants is not an option.

I was intrigued by the description of the book and was expecting it to be more like this:  someone from a fundamentalist sect ends up in our society and comes to realize that things are not as bad as she had been led to believe.  However, this book is not a bit different starting with the fact that the main character goes into the religious group.  It was never entirely clear to me whether the Brotherhood actually did have terrorists or if that was all just fear mongering on the part of mainstream society.  I think that a good deal of the book moves a bit slowly but once K goes to the rally with Oskar, things are fast-paced and exciting.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

It's a Wonderful Death by Sarah J. Schmitt

RJ dies unexpectedly and at the wrong time when a gypsy pushes her into the Grim Reaper.  RJ's not ready to die because she has a great life - popular and happy - and she figures she's owed the rest of her life since she wasn't the intended target in the first place.  Turns out, it's not that easy to return her to Earth and RJ has to sit through a tribunal to see if returning her is worth all the hassle.  The angels in charge of the decision aren't so sure RJ is worth it and she begins to agree with them when she is reminded of the mean things she did to earn her spot as queen bee at her school.  RJ is given an opportunity to turn her fate around by being put back into three situations in her life to see if she can make better decisions this time around and change her timeline. 

This is a fun book with a few deeper themes, particularly towards the end.  I read it quickly, in part because each chapter ended on a nice cliffhanger that left me feeling like I could squeeze in just one more chapter...  I enjoyed RJ and her development but I did feel like the section leading up to her return to Earth was just too long to keep the story clicking along at a good pace. 

The Hired Girl by Laura Amy Schlitz

Joan wants to live a life like the heroines of her favorite books Jane Eyre and Ivanhoe but there is not much chance of that living on her father's farm and working like a dog to take care of him and her three brothers.  Joan's dad has even squashed her dream of becoming a schoolteacher by making her quit school and chasing off her former teacher who comes to visit.  When her father burns Joan's books she knows she has to leave to find a better life so she sneaks away and ends up in Baltimore where she lies about her age and manages to land a job as a hired girl making six dollars a week.  Joan is thrilled to be working for the Rosenbachs who seem to be living in the lap of luxury with electricity and carpet sweepers but that does not keep her from the drama any 14 year old in 1911 with a secret identity would face.  Joan writes about her struggles with religion, money and first love in her diary.

I enjoyed The Hired Girl throughout which is saying something since, as you know by now, historical fiction is not my preferred genre.  I had heard good things about it but I'd also heard that there was a lot of controversy about it so I was reading with an eye open to issues.  So far, most of the complaints about it I've read are discussing a few passages about Indians and Joan's insensitive, offhand comments about them.  What surprises me about this is that I have yet to read anything concerning Joan's comments about Jewish people or Catholics which is a large part of the story.  I'm sure those complaints are out there but they are not what comes up most readily when searching "hired girl controversy".  My point here is not really to comment on any of those issues other than to say that I was surprised there isn't MORE controversy out there about this title.  But I'm also a big believer in the fact that kids and teens don't bring the same stuff to a book that adults do.  In this case, that could be good or bad. 

Ignoring all that and just focusing on the story, I found Joan to be somewhat annoying and got frustrated by the mistakes she continued to make throughout.  I was also somewhat confused by Mrs. Rosenbach who definitely blew hot and cold toward Joan.  Finally, the entire resolution of things seemed quick and probably unrealistic given what had gone down and even though Joan was (mostly) not at fault.  But even with all of that, I enjoyed the story and wanted to know what was going to happen next. 

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Sunny Side Up by Jennifer L. Holms

Sunny is spending the summer of 1976 with her grandfather in Florida.  Every day he promises excitement only to then take her places like the post office or out to a very early dinner with "the girls", a group of senior citizens.  Sunny is also plagued by memories of some things her older brother did before she left home which hurt her and the rest of the family.  When she finally makes a new friend in Florida her time there becomes more interesting as the two find missing cats for the neighbors and read comic books.

 This graphic novel is very much in the tradition of Raina Telgemeier.  The basic story is funny and somewhat light but there is more happening beneath the surface as we learn more about Sunny's life at home.  This is exactly the kind of book my students love (and I enjoyed it, too!).  A great book for upper elementary and middle school.

Lizard Radio by Pat Schmaltz

Kivali was abandoned as a baby wearing only a T-shirt with a lizard printed on it.  Her adoptive mother Sheila has told Kivali that she is a saurian, someone from another planet of lizards so she has never been sure of her true identity.  Is she lizard or human?  Is she a boy or a girl?  Kivali doesn't know, which makes her a bender and puts her in danger of being sent to the Blight.  In order to help her conform to society's standards Kivali is sent to CropCamp where she learns how to grow crops but also how to be a part of the group.  Kivali immediately is given the nickname Lizard and finds, to her surprise, that she enjoys the routine of camp life - working and having friends.  Her world is rocked when she hears that Sheila has disappeared, possibly vaped, and that the lying camp director wants to become Lizard's new foster mother.  Something is not right with this story nor with director Darlene's interest in her.

This is a sci fi transgendered teen story which seems like something I would love, but I didn't.  I started out intrigued by the world being built and Kivali's true nature and how torn she felt by wanting to just go with the flow and be part of something, but that intrigue faded about 2/3 of the way into the book.  Then it was just long and too much abstract things about feeling the call to be a lizard.  I was also sure she was going to vape and I'd finally know more about what, exactly, that meant, but that didn't happen either.  I just got tired of the whole thing.