Hyperbole and a Half

Hyperbole and a Half has been on my staggering TBR pile for quite some time, and I finally finished it on Christmas Eve. Now that the craziness of the holidays has (mostly) passed, I can take a little time to tell you what I think of this funny, strange, and thoroughly relatable book.

*Disclaimer: Normally, my posts deal with books for middle grade or YA readers. This is not one of those. This book is intended for an adult audience.*

In this book, Allie Brosh takes her fantastic blog and transfers it to a book that, if I’d been reading it in a group of people, would have elicited some rather strange looks aimed my way. Many parts of it were laugh-out-loud funny. (The cartoons–some of which have earned Internet meme fame–only added to that.) I particularly enjoyed her near-constant battles with her dogs. Hilarious stuff.

Other parts of the book, however, made me think, “Wow. Someone out there gets me.” Brosh isn’t shy about addressing her depression or the terrible thoughts that sometimes invade her head. Anyone who deals with any form of depression or anxiety is sure to find something to relate to in Brosh’s work, and those who’ve ever wondered about the toll mental illness takes may just have their eyes opened a bit.

Of course, Hyperbole and a Half isn’t all about one woman’s battle with depression. It’s about her childhood, her family, her daily struggles with somewhat difficult pets, and simply navigating through life with some humor (and profanity). Who doesn’t need a little of that?!

If you’re a fan of the Bloggess (who wrote Let’s Pretend This Never Happened and Furiously Happy), I suggest you give Hyperbole and a Half (both the blog and the book) a try. This book is a quick read that I think lots of adult readers will enjoy…if they haven’t already. (Apparently, I’m a little late to the party on this one. Oh well. Better late than never.)

Dangerous Waters: An Adventure on the Titanic

I typically don’t have a problem “selling” books about the Titanic to my students, so I was pleased to see Dangerous Waters on this year’s South Carolina Children’s Book Award nominee list. This adventure story, written by Gregory Mone, is a quick, exciting, entertaining book that young readers–especially those fascinated by the Titanic and its fateful voyage–will devour. (I’ll likely have to order more copies to meet demand.) I would definitely recommend this book for all libraries (and classrooms) that serve elementary and middle grade students.

Patrick Waters wants to work. He wants to be seen as valuable to his family, particularly his big brother James, who has a job in the engine room of the new ship, Titanic. One night, Patrick gets the chance of a lifetime. He finds a way to sneak aboard and work on the Titanic himself, but he’s not exactly cut out for the engine room. (He’s only twelve, after all.) Instead, Patrick finds a place as a steward on the mammoth ocean liner, and this position will change his life forever…

Patrick catches the eye of a wealthy passenger, Harry Elkins Widener, and eventually becomes the man’s private steward, not realizing that this new job will lead him down an intriguing and dangerous path. Harry is in possession of a rare and valuable book, and there are a couple of nefarious types on board who will do anything to steal such a prize.

Patrick isn’t sure what’s so special about this old book, so he does whatever he can to learn more. It seems this book may have the key to unlocking the most powerful force in the world, and some people will do anything–even kill–to learn its secrets. Patrick does his best to help Harry protect the book, but the Titanic is on a path that could put Patrick’s quest–and his very life–in jeopardy…

As the Titanic makes its way to its eventual demise, Patrick is trying to keep himself, his brother, Harry, and his precious book safe. In the process, Patrick discovers his own strengths and what really matters to him.

Will Patrick be able to save Harry’s book from those bent on stealing it? And will he be able to save himself from the tragedy that is to come? Join Patrick on his adventure aboard the Titanic when you read Dangerous Waters by Gregory Mone!

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The author’s note at the end of Dangerous Waters lets readers know that many of the characters in this book were based on real people. With the exception of Patrick, his brother, and a few others, all of the people mentioned in this book were actually on board the Titanic. (The Widener Library at Harvard University is named for Harry Elkins Widener.) I think that healthy dose of historical fact will make this event more real to young readers, many of whom think the story of Titanic is “cool” but don’t really think about those who died when the ship sank or had to go on with their lives after losing family and friends in the tragedy.

*An interesting exercise–following a reading of the book, of course–could be to write about the aftermath of the Titanic‘s sinking from the perspective of someone who survived. Putting students in touch with primary sources could make this even more poignant. Something to think about for this school year!*

Like I mentioned at the beginning of this post, Dangerous Waters is an easy sell to most students. I know my students will love it, and I hope it will lead them to further research about Titanic, the people on board, and the books that were so important to Harry Elkins Widener.

For more information about Dangerous Waters and author Gregory Mone, check out his website, blog, Goodreads page, or Twitter. Enjoy!

With a Name Like Love

Not many people know this, but I’ve been struggling with my faith the past few years. (I consider myself a Christian, but I haven’t regularly attended church in a while. I have many reasons for this, none of which I’ll get into here.) I tell you this to introduce you to a book that may have done just a little to restore my faith. The book is With a Name Like Love by Tess Hilmo, and it’s a nominee for the 2013-14 South Carolina Children’s Book Award. I was kind of leery about reading this book because I thought it might be too preachy…seeing as how it’s about a preacher’s daughter and all. I was surprised, though, by how sweet the book was. It was quietly beautiful, and it presented faith–and Christian love–as I think it was truly meant to be:  selfless and without judgement.

Ollie is the eldest daughter of the traveling preacher Everlasting Love. (Yes, that’s his real name.) In the summer of 1957, the family–which consists of Everlasting Love and his wife Susanna, Ollie, and four other daughters–travels to the small town of Binder, Arkansas, to set up their revival tent for three days. On her first day in Binder, Ollie meets a boy who will change her life. Jimmy Koppel has seemingly lost everything. His mother is in jail for killing his father, and, if something doesn’t happen soon, he’ll be shipped off to live with an aunt he’s never met. Everyone in the town appears to hate Jimmy just because of who his daddy was, and no one will believe him when he says his mom is innocent. No one except Ollie, that is.

Ollie is determined to prove that Jimmy’s mom didn’t commit this horrible crime, but can she convince her father to stay in town longer than three days? She needs time to get information from Jimmy and prove his mom’s innocence, and time is something that’s quickly running out. And even if she does have time to do a little investigating, will folks’ attitudes about Jimmy’s family prevent them from coming forward with information…even if it could set an innocent woman free?

As Ollie and Jimmy become friends, they are confronted with both the best and worst in humanity. Some people just can’t let go of their own anger and hatred, but some show these two young people–and everyone else in this troubled community–that there are good people in the world, and those people will do whatever they can to help those they love or people in need. Will the good outweigh the bad in this small town? Will the truth about the death of Jimmy’s father come to light? And what will Ollie learn about herself, her family, and friendship through all of this? Learn what love really means when you read With a Name Like Love by Tess Hilmo.

With a Name Like Love would be a great addition to any elementary or middle school library. Regardless of a reader’s faith–or lack thereof–the message in this book is one that all could stand to receive. It will also find a place in many church libraries. (As a matter of fact, I can think of several adults who really need to read this book. It might make them take a closer look about their own attitudes and what Christian love is all about. “Love thy neighbor” is something that a lot of people just don’t take seriously.)

This book is a work of historical fiction, but young readers, especially those who’ve grown up in the South (or have older relatives who have) will have very little problem relating to some of the things in this book. Some, though, may find it odd or even fascinating that people used to live without things like refrigerators or flushing toilets. If readers have grown up in a church (as have most of my students), they’ll even recognize some of the hymns sung by the church-goers in this book.

With a Name Like Love is author Tess Hilmo’s first book. I honestly hope it won’t be the last! To learn more about this author and this lovely book, visit http://tesshilmo.com/.

Ungifted

Ungifted by Gordon Korman is about a young troublemaker who mistakenly gets transferred to the school for the gifted in his district. I’m coming to this book with the experience of someone who was in the gifted program at school. (Unlike the situation in this book, we didn’t have a separate school…just separate classes.) In many ways, it was a lot easier to identify with the “nerds” in this book that it was with the “normals.” Throughout middle and high school, I was never interested in attending school dances, I found most of my classmates to be vapid troglodytes, and I wasn’t all that concerned with being popular. I thought it was a lot more fun to get good grades, be in the band, and make my parents happy. (Yes, I know this makes me a weirdo.  I’m cool with that.) To this day, I have trouble understanding “normal” people (and I think they could say the same about understanding me).

Having said all that, I think Ungifted is an excellent read for anyone–nerd or normal–who has ever felt out of place. Even the main character, Donovan, has moments where he doesn’t fit in. When you boil this book down to its most basic idea, it’s all about being comfortable in your own skin and finding balance in your life. Even though this book is geared mainly toward middle grade readers, I think its message is one that we could all stand to learn.

Donovan Curtis’ middle name should be “Trouble.” He can’t seem to stop himself whenever the opportunity for mischief arises. Usually, he can get out of the messes he makes…but this time is a little different. All he did was hit a statue with a stick. How was he to know that the statue actually had two parts…and one of them was loose? Could he have possibly predicted that a large metal globe would careen down the hill at school and crash into the Hardcastle Middle School gymnasium during a big basketball game? Probably not…but all of it is his fault, and he knows that a severe punishment is coming.

…or is it? Donovan knows that it’s just a matter of time before the superintendent calls him to the office for the punishment of a lifetime. Finally, the call comes…but it’s not exactly for what Donovan was expecting. It seems that there was a little mix-up, and Donovan is being transferred to the Academy of Scholastic Distinction (ASD). No detention.  No community service. No paying for the damaged gym. No, thanks to a paperwork snafu, Donovan is being moved to a school for gifted students. Nevermind that he’s not what any teacher (or parent, sibling, friend) would call “gifted.” While everyone is a little perplexed by this news, Donovan sees it as his chance to escape from the trouble he’s caused at Hardcastle Middle. After all, if he’s not there, it’ll be a lot harder for the superintendent to find him!

On Donovan’s first day at ASD, it becomes pretty clear that he doesn’t belong there. He doesn’t excel in any subject, and he spends more time in the bathroom than anywhere else. Both his teachers and his fellow students question why Donovan was placed at ASD. Soon, though, Donovan makes a place for himself at this prestigious school (that has much cooler, expensive, and newer stuff than the “normal” school down the road). Maybe what the high-IQ crowd needs most is a little dose of normal!

Donovan brings new life to his ASD homeroom. He convinces the class to give their robot a name. He shows them that playing lots of video games might give someone some mad skills in operating said robot. He gets his very pregnant sister to provide the class with a much needed human growth and development credit. He introduces one genius to YouTube (which may or may not have been a mistake). It’s also thanks to Donovan that his new friends get to experience their first school dance. (It doesn’t end well.) Even though Donovan knows he’s not really one of them, he feels more at home with his genius friends than he ever did with his trouble-making buddies at Hardcastle.

Even as he’s starting to fit in at ASD, Donovan’s past is closing in on him, and it’s just a matter of time before it’s revealed that he’s responsible for destroying the Hardcastle gym. What will happen to Donovan? And how will it effect his placement at ASD and the friendships he’s created there? Is Donovan really as “ungifted” as everyone seems to think, or do his gifts lie outside the realm of academics? Read Ungifted by Gordon Korman to learn how one kid can bridge the gap between “nerd” and “normal.”

As I said before, this book is a great read for anyone who’s ever struggled to fit in. The story is told from multiple perspectives–kid and adult, student and teacher, nerd and normal–so every reader should find something to relate to in Ungifted. I think this book highlights that everyone has gifts. Some are just more obvious than others.

Adults–specifically educators–will be struck by the educational inequalities in this book. It’s very plain that the smart kids get the newest, best stuff, while everyone else has to make do with old, worn-out buildings, substandard cafeteria food, and inadequate resources. (I’m sure most educators can think of a school or two that gets all the best stuff while the rest of us try to figure out ways to work with what we have.)

Ungifted would be a welcome addition to any upper elementary, middle, or even high school library. It’s a must-read!

I Hunt Killers

One of my favorite TV shows is Criminal Minds.  I think it’s fascinating to get a glimpse into the mind of a killer.  (Yes, that makes me a bit morbid, but society as a whole, in my opinion, has a morbid fascination with killers, especially serial killers.  Just look at the hoopla that still surrounds Jack the Ripper.)  Anyway, I finished a book a couple of days ago that offers an even more interesting perspective than we often see in our favorite crime dramas.  I Hunt Killers by Barry Lyga shows readers what life might be like for the son of one of the world’s most renowned (fictional) serial killers.

 

I Hunt Killers explores what life is like for our main character, Jasper “Jazz” Dent, who grew up with a vicious sociopath who cared nothing for human life.  Now that Jasper’s dad, who goes by so many monikers, is in prison, Jasper must face his own demons…and this becomes harder than ever when a new serial killer comes to town, one that is mimicking The Artist (otherwise known as Jazz’s dad).

Jazz is convinced that the recent murders in the town of Lobo’s Nod are the work of a serial killer, but no one seems to believe him.  But will that stop him from trying to prove his point?  Not even a little bit.  Jazz is putting the pieces of the puzzle together, and he’s sure that this new killer is copying his father’s work.  But how can he convince the police of this, especially when he knows he’ll end up being their prime suspect.  After all, Jazz was raised by pure evil.  How could he help but be infected by it?

As Jazz struggles to stop a killer, he is also examining his own mind and the disturbing images and urges that seem to be such a big part of him.  Jazz’s father, the great and terrible Billy Dent, never kept secrets from his son.  Jazz knows everything about Billy’s kills.  He was there for many of them.  Billy instructed Jazz on how to track victims (or prospects), how to clean up a crime scene, and how to kill.  That knowledge doesn’t just go away, and now Jazz is faced with the possibility that he’s more like his father than he’d ever want to admit.

As the body count rises, it’s up to Jazz (and a couple of loyal friends) to stop this new killer in his tracks, save the next victim(s) on his list, and prove to everyone–including Jazz himself–that it’s possible to rise above his horrible upbringing and do something that really matters.  Something that will save lives instead of destroying them.

I Hunt Killers is not a book for the faint of heart.  This book takes an all-too-realistic look at the life and mind of a sociopath…and the horror such a person could inflict on not only his victims but even his own family.  What would something like that do to an impressionable child?  You’ll get a glimpse of that in this book. 

While I related I Hunt Killers a bit to Criminal Minds, a friend of mine thought it was more like Dexter.  In a sense, it is.  (And if you’ve never seen Dexter, you really should…if you don’t mind copious amounts of blood, that is.)  While Jazz is trying to figure out who is committing these horrible crimes, he’s also dealing with his own violent urges–and how he could use those urges and his own past to stop this killer before he goes any further.  So, I guess this book is kind of the perfect combination of Criminal Minds and Dexter…and I can hardly wait to see where this winning combo takes us in the future.

I Hunt Killers is the first book in Barry Lyga’s Jasper Dent series.  The next book, Game, is set for an April 2013 release, and this book will further explore Jazz’s psyche and his efforts to stop history from repeating itself.

For more information on I Hunt Killers and other books by author Barry Lyga, visit http://barrylyga.com or follow the author on Twitter @barrylyga.  You may also want to check out this absolutely creeptastic book trailer from Little, Brown.  It made me want to go back and read the book all over again.

Immortal Beloved

Well, it’s day two of the Great Southern Snowstorm of 2011.  Schools have been closed for the past two days, are closed tomorrow, and will likely be closed the rest of the week.  While I’m not really looking forward to making those days up, I am enjoying this time off.  And what am I doing with all of this free time, you ask?  Reading, of course!  (I’ve also taken several naps.)  I finished a charming little children’s book yesterday.  It was about a boy and his cow (Little Joe by Sandra Neil Wallace).  Today, I finished reading Immortal Beloved by Cate Tiernan.  This book was a great fantasy novel that put a different spin on what it means to be an immortal.  I’m really looking forward to what happens to the book’s characters in future installments.

Nastasya is over four hundred years old.  She’s seen and done things that would horrify “normal” people, but she’s grown numb to nearly everything around her…until her best friend does something that she simply cannot get past.  After watching her friend take pleasure in using magick to torture and cripple an innocent mortal, Nastasya decides to break with her so-called friends and her party-girl lifestyle.  She just wants out, but where can she go?  Who can she turn to?

Nastasya turns to a woman she met nearly eighty years ago, a kind, compassionate soul named River.  River operates a home for wayward immortals, those who want to overcome the dark magick swirling inside of them.  At first, Nastasya is resistant to everything that River and the other teachers ask of her, but she gradually becomes a part of things at River’s Edge and realizes just how bleak her life was before.  She is forced to confront the atrocities of her past, and she comes face to face with one who played a major role in her life.

Things are by no means easy for Nastasya.  She is learning what it means to fight the darkness within, she’s facing her own demons, and she’s being humbled…a lot.  On top of that, she’s got a crush on a guy who seemingly wants nothing to do with her, one of the other students wants Nastasya dead, and her “best friend” is doing everything he can to find her.  Why?  Why is Nastasya so special?  She’ll find out soon enough, but, for every question answered, hundreds more will come up.  Nastasya has much to learn about being immortal and weilding her power, but will she use this knowledge for good or for evil?  Join Nastasya on her journey when you read Immortal Beloved by Cate Tiernan.

If you follow this blog at all, you’ve probably already figured out that I enjoyed this book.  I especially liked Nastasya.  Most of the time, she wasn’t an entirely pleasant character, but she had such a wonderful sarcastic voice.  (You probably can’t figure out why I liked her, can you?)  She’s just so wonderfully snarky.  I also enjoyed how her relationship with Reyn, one of the other students, played out.  That will definitely be a relationship to watch in future books.

I do have one complaint about this book–the title.  As soon as I saw the title, Immortal Beloved, I immediately thought of Beethoven, but maybe that’s just the former music major in me.  (By the way, Beethoven makes no appearance in this book.)  I also didn’t see how the title really related to Nastasya’s character, other than the fact that she was immortal.  It was the “beloved” part that muddied the waters.  I really think another title could have been chosen that really captured the true essence of the entire book and, more importantly, Nastasya’s struggles.

Anyway, I really enjoyed reading Immortal Beloved, and I hope you will, too.  The next book in this series, Darkness Falls, is due out in September of this year, and the third book, Immortal Light, will be released sometime in 2012.  For more information on Cate Tiernan and all of her books, visit http://catetiernan.org/.

Before I Fall

What would you do if you knew today was your last day on Earth?  Would you tell people what you really thought of them?  Would you spend the day with friends and family?  Would you avoid everyone and be depressed all day?  Before I read Before I Fall by Lauren Oliver, I thought I knew the answer to this question.  I thought I’d tear into my “enemies” and let them know what horrible people I thought they were.  I thought I’d eat all of my favorite foods without worrying about my blood sugar or weight.  I thought I’d have a Star Wars movie marathon.  I thought I’d spend a little time with my family.  Now, I’m not so sure.  Before I Fall really made me think about how I’d want to spend my last day, what’s really important to me, and what I could do now to change people’s impressions of me before it’s too late.

Samantha Kingston is one of the most popular girls at Thomas Jefferson High.  She’s got awesome friends and a hot boyfriend.  She’s invited to all the parties.  She gets the best table in the cafeteria.  So what if she and her friends can be a little mean to the people around them.  It’s high school, right?  Survival of the fittest and all that Darwinian drivel.

This day should be like any other for Sam.  She goes to school, cuts a class, gets some roses for Cupid Day, makes plans with her friends and boyfriend, and goes about her business.  But today is Sam’s last.  Her last everything.  In the blink of an eye, everything stops…then, it starts again.

Sam has an opportunity to change things.  Somehow she’s living her last day over and over again.  She can make different decisions.  She can be nicer (or meaner) to the people around her.  She can right some wrongs.  But will she?  And what impact will these changes have on how things turn out for Sam and the people around her?

Sam relives her last day seven times.  Does she learn anything?  Does she become who she really should be?  Does she realize what’s really important?  I’ll let you find out for yourself when you read Before I Fall by Lauren Oliver.

Before I Fall is an extremely powerful book, and it really makes the reader think.  Like I stated before, it forced me to think about what I would do if I knew this were my last day on Earth.  Honestly, I don’t have all that figured out (and I hope I never actually have to), but I like to think I would spend as much time with my family as possible, and everything else would fall into place.  Given recent events, especially the increased number of suicides among gay young adults, I think this book also helps readers see that actions, whether positive or negative, have lasting and often unintended results.  You never know what’s going on in someone’s head or how your words and actions could impact them.

If you liked Gayle Forman’s If I Stay, I think you’ll be really pleased with Before I Fall.  To learn more about this amazing book and its author, Lauren Oliver, visit http://www.laurenoliverbooks.com/.

Doppelganger

Note:  Throughout the next several weeks, I will be posting some booktalks that I wrote before I started this blog.  This one is for Doppelganger by David Stahler, Jr.  Enjoy!

He has no name.  He has no real family.  He is not even human.  He is a doppelganger.  His very nature commands him to kill and take on the form of his prey.  But he’s not at peace with his nature.  He does not want to kill.  He wants to be human, but we can’t always have what we want.  When his impulses become too much to bear, the doppelganger kills and takes on the form of Chris—all-star football player and your basic Mr. Popular.  But appearances can be deceiving.  It seems Chris is fighting his own demons, including an abusive father and a distant girlfriend, and the doppelganger takes those problems as his own as he begins to live Chris’s life.  He soon discovers that there is more than one kind of monster in the world.  Read Doppelganger and see how sometimes the truly monstrous actions come from those we’re closest to.

Jumped

As most people probably know, there are few books that I really despise.  I can say, with all honesty, that I hate most works by Charles Dickens (except A Christmas Carol).  I didn’t like Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, I would rather cut grass than read It by Stephen King, and I find most westerns to be mind-numbingly boring.  Well, now I can add another book to the list of those which make me cringe:  Jumped by Rita Williams-Garcia.

When I read the reviews and flap-copy for Jumped, I was interested in the premise:  Three girls with intertwined stories, and how one small action can balloon to impact lives forever.  The story revolves around an upcoming girl fight and whether or not one of the main characters should say anything to stop it.  When I actually sat down to read the book, however, I was less than interested.  It took me forever to get through it.  The book is only 168 pages, but it took me weeks to actually find the will to finish it.

None of the three main characters have redeeming qualities.  None of them learned anything from the eventual outcome of the book.  I found myself asking, “What’s the point?” several times throughout this book.  Now, some may think I’m being overly harsh, but Jumped definitely didn’t meet my standards for quality young adult fiction.