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Posts from June 2008

The Adoration of Jenna Fox: Mary E. Pearson

Book: The Adoration of Jenna Fox
Author: Mary E. Pearson (blog)
Pages: 272
Age Range: 12 and up

The Adoration of Jenna FoxBackground: I knew from my first glimpse at a review that The Adoration of Jenna Fox was a book that I had to read. I carefully gleaned as little as possible from the reviews, because I knew that this was a book that I didn't want spoiled. (And not to worry, I promise not to spoil it, either). I added it to my wish list after reading a review at The Reading Zone. When I finally procured my copy, I had to start reading it that night. But I put it down quickly, because I knew that if I went past the first chapter or two, I would be up reading until I had finished it. Today, I eyed it, sitting there on the couch all day, promising myself that if I finished my other work, I could have it as a treat. I was motivated to finish up by 4:30, and then I read it in one sitting.

Review: Jenna Fox wakes up one day from a year-long coma. She can't remember anything about her previous life, and she doesn't feel any connection to her parents or her grandmother. She's not even sure that she really is Jenna Fox, and her grandmother's mysterious hostility seems to support this. She starts to assemble clues, all of which point to something very wrong. To something not normal. Mary Pearson's The Adoration of Jenna Fox is about Jenna's quest to figure out who she is. It is about identity. It is about the lengths that parents will go to to protect a child.

The Adoration of Jenna Fox is hugely suspenseful. I couldn't stop reading - I was dying to know what Jenna's secret was, and, once I knew, how she would adjust to it. At the same time, it's also a thought-provoking book, one that makes the reader stop and ponder deep issues. Set in a future society that looks, in some ways, like the past, the Adoration of Jenna Fox explores biological and ethical issues, and provides a cautionary perspective. It never feels like an issue book, though, because it's really all about Jenna. The reader gets to watch Jenna's personality unfold, as she recovers from her coma and learns to interact with the people around her.

Mary Pearson's writing is both lyrical and compelling. Poems mark the divisions between chapters, providing tangential peeks at insights, before Jenna is prepared to face them head on. Every word counts.

Here's the opening paragraphs of the book:

"I used to be someone.
Someone named Jenna Fox.
That's what they tell me. But I am more than a name. More than they tell me. More than the facts and statistics they fill me with. More than the video clips they make me watch.
More. But I'm not sure what."

Here are a couple of other passages, to give you an idea of the spare beauty of Pearson's prose (no spoilers, I promise):

"There's something about her eyes. Eyes don't breathe. I know that much. But hers look breathless." (Page 14)

"I lie back on my bed and look at the ceiling. A Cotswold ceiling is fairly uneventful. It matches me." (Page 99)

There are also extensive quotations from Thoreau's Walden, referenced by characters who know the words so well that they can use them to have real-world discussions. This adds to the old-fashioned feel of this book set some mysterious time into the future.

I was reading this book, and thinking to myself "how on earth was Mary Pearson able to come up with this book?" It is remarkable. It is not to be missed, by anyone from fans of speculative fiction to fans of novels in verse (though only a small part is in verse) to fans of adult "literary fiction". Don't read any more reviews - don't risk spoiling it - just go and get it. But make sure you have a clear chunk of time so that you can read it in one day. Because you're going to want to. Trust me.

Publisher: Henry Holt Books for Young Readers
Publication Date: April 29, 2008
Source of Book: Purchased it
Other Blog Reviews: The Reading Zone, Interactive Reader, A Hundred Visions and Revisions, Reading Rants, Becky's Book Reviews, Over My Head, the YA YA YAs, OMS Blog, Sarah Miller. See also my review of Mary's previous book, A Room on Lorelei Street
Author Interviews: Teen Book Review, Cynsations, Tea Cozy

© 2009 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.


Steel Trapp: Ridley Pearson

Book: Steel Trapp: The Challenge
Author: Ridley Pearson
Pages: 336
Age Range: 10-14

Steel TrappSteel Trapp: The Challenge, by Ridley Pearson, is a fast-paced, technologically savvy book that I think will please fans of the Alex Rider and Young James Bond books. Fourteen-year-old Steven Trapp is called Steel because of his photographic memory (as in, mind like a Steel Trapp). Even his mother calls him Steel. As the book begins, Steel and his mother are taking the train cross-country, so that Steel can compete in the National Science Challenge in Washington, DC. While on the train, Steel's photographic memory gets him into trouble. He notices something that he shouldn't, and an attempt to help goes disastrously wrong. Before he quite knows what's happening, he's on the loose in DC, partnered with a girl who is almost as smart as he is, and being chased by bad guys, federal agents, and his parents.

Both Steel and his friend Kaileigh invent cool gadgets and solve real-life puzzles that baffle the adults. They are resourceful and creative. Each has a strong compulsion to do the right thing, though they do bend rules along the way. They are, in short, the perfect protagonists for a book in this genre. I enjoyed reading about them.

Steel he has some interpersonal awkwardness that keeps him from being annoyingly perfect. For example, I enjoyed this description, from the scene in which he meets Kaileigh:

"Winded, Steel blurted out at her, which was pretty much the way he talked, winded or not. Talking with anyone other than his mom and dad, his mouth became a bottleneck, an impediment to the speed at which his mind worked. The faster he spoke, the fewer words piled up waiting to get out, so he spoke very fast." (Page 19)

And as for Kaileigh - she rocks! I do, however, have a quibble about this book that kept me from completely enjoying it. There were simply too many convenient coincidences. For example, at one point, while watching Steel and Kaileigh are watching the science challenge on a monitor, someone accidentally turns the channel. And in that minute, the television happens to display someone central to the mystery that Steel is trying to solve (and who he recognizes, of course, because of his perfect memory). And that's just one example among many. I can't share the others without giving too much away.

Now, I can suspend belief to read about a brilliant kid with a photographic memory who gets caught up in a federal investigation. I'm ok with accepting the kids being able to solve puzzles before the adults - that's part of the fun in reading this type of book. But this book had just too many coincidences that made things easier for the kids, and too many disparate elements that turned out to be connected. I'm a fan of Ridley Pearson's adult mysteries , and I don't recall noticing this as a general tendency of his. So my question is: do kids enjoy this sort of thing? Is it some kind of inside joke, "let's see how far we can push this?". Is this a desirable attribute of the book, for a middle school audience? Or is Pearson talking down to his readers? 

I still think Steel Trapp: The Challenge is a fun book. I will probably read whatever the next book is that comes out. I think that there's a need for books like this, with engaging plots, interesting technology, and characters that the reader cares about. But personally, I'll be looking in the next title for a plot that doesn't rely quite so much on serendipity.

Publisher: Disney Editions
Publication Date: March 25, 2008
Source of Book: Purchased it at Hicklebee's
Other Blog Reviews: Ms. Yingling Reads, The Junior Book Vault, BlogCritics

© 2009 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.


New English/Spanish Activity Book from RIF Makes Writing and Reading Fun

I received the following press release from RIF today, and thought that readers might be interested:

College Board’s National Commission on Writing Joins National Writing Project, Reading Is Fundamental to Promote Early Childhood Literacy

NEW YORK — Studies have shown that reading to young children promotes language development and, in time, academic achievement. A new book for preschoolers provides children’s first teachers—those at home—with a tool to help youngsters begin to develop literacy.

“The College Board’s National Commission on Writing believes there is a need to support early literacy development for children so they are prepared for success in school,” said Alan Heaps, vice president of Advocacy at the College Board. “To engage young children in both writing and reading, we’ve collaborated with the National Writing Project and Reading Is Fundamental to publish Our Book By Us! / Nuestro Libro ¡Hecho Por Nosotros! (this link goes to a PDF version) to help younger children on the road to literacy.”

Created with award-winning author/illustrator Peter H. Reynolds (Judy Moody, The Dot, Ish, Someday), this activity book is designed to encourage caregivers to read, write, listen and talk with their preschool-age children. “Our Book By Us!/NuestroLibro ¡Hecho Por Nosotros!” has 28 colorfully illustrated pages with text in both English and Spanish. The book contains a series of six “minibooks” featuring SugarLoaf, an enthusiastic teddy-bear-like character created by Reynolds. In the stories, SugarLoaf makes her own book about her life and adventures with the help of friends and relatives. As a special feature, each bilingual SugarLoaf minibook has activity pages that invite the child and caregiver to talk, draw and write about their own lives and experiences. Ideas for enjoyable extension activities demonstrate how everyday experiences can be opportunities to teach literacy.

“National Writing Project teachers understand that early literacy skills, which link reading and writing, develop first at home through interactions with parents, grandparents and caregivers long before a child enters a classroom,” said Sharon Washington, executive director of NWP. “That is why we are thrilled to have worked on this project that provides a fun, colorful developmental tool — assuring that more children are prepared for literacy instruction when they begin school.” NWP has posted the book at www.nwp.org.

The first 50,000 copies of “Our Book By Us!” will be distributed without charge to children in Head Start and other early learning programs served by RIF and through NWP sites around the country. The books are environmentally friendly, printed with soy ink on recycled paper. An electronic version also is available online through the Web sites of all three organizations.

“Thanks to the generous support of the College Board’s National Commission on Writing and the National Writing Project, RIF can further its mission of providing books and literacy resources to the children and families that need them most,” said Carol H. Rasco, RIF president and CEO. “When children have access to books and learn to read for fun, they tend to achieve greater success in school and life.”   

I think it's neat to see this as a bilingual project, and I hope that you'll find it useful.


Growing Bookworms Newsletter: June 10, 2008

Jpg_book009This evening I will be sending out the new issue of the Growing Bookworms weekly email newsletter. (If you would like to subscribe, you can find a sign-up form here.) The Growing Bookworms newsletter contains content from my blog focused on children's books and raising readers. There are currently more than 280 subscribers.

This week I have two reviews of young adult titles (one light-hearted, and one more serious), a children's literacy and reading news round-up, two Kidlitosphere round-ups with links to useful posts from the past week, and an edition of my reviews that made me want the book feature. I also have my round-up post from this past weekend's 48 Hour Book Challenge (a contest to read and blog as much as possible over a 48-hour period), with links to 11 additional reviews. Recent posts not included in this newsletter include:

  • A meme about my summer goals.
  • A post about a book that I recently reviewed that's now available for purchase (I Shall Not Want, by Julia Spencer-Fleming).
  • Eleven posts with reviews from the 48 Hour Book Challenge, plus my launch post. These reviews are linked below, in my Book Challenge Wrap-Up post.

This should be enough reviews for anyone. Hope that you find them useful. Thanks for reading, and for growing bookworms!


Bonny Becker, Contest Winners, and Blog Tour Controversy

I was off in my own little world over the weekend, doing the 48 Hour Book Challenge. But now that I've had some time to catch up, I have a couple of links for you.

  • First up, congratulations to Bonny Becker. Her wonderful picture book, A Visitor for Bear, was featured by Daniel Pinkwater and Scott Simon on NPR this weekend. Bonny told me that it was coming up, and then I got the direct link from Tricia at The Miss Rumphius Effect. This is one of my favorite books so far this year, and I'm thrilled to see it getting such positive attention.
  • The winners have been announced for MotherReader's 48 Hour Book Challenge. A couple of these people spent astonishing amounts of time, and/or read astonishing numbers of books. It's very impressive. I'm also intrigued by the suggestion that a couple of people have made, about somehow using this to raise money for charity next year.
  • On a lighter note, 100 Scope Notes has an entertaining little tongue-in-cheek piece about movie adaptations of children's books. It's very fun - you should read it.
  • On Thursday I mentioned the new blog tour site KidzBookBuzz. I've since learned a bit more about it. I didn't realize that the authors were paying for the blog tours, above and beyond providing books, which makes me a bit more skeptical about this endeavor than when I mentioned it before. The whole thing has generated a fair bit of controversy among the children's book blogs. I suspect that there would be even more controversy, but for the distraction of the 48 Hour Book Challenge. Anyway, you can see critical posts at Chasing Ray (and also here), Big A little a, and Kelly Fineman. Becky's Book Reviews, on the other hand, takes a more positive view. I've already decided not to participate in this - organized blog tours are not really my thing. Also, for me, the idea of getting free books and making some sort of promise that you'll blog about the book unless you really hate it, well, that doesn't work for me. But I wouldn't rule out it working for other people. I would just recommend that if you're thinking of participating in this, you read the above posts, and weight the pros and cons for yourself. And if you're an author thinking of using this service, you should read the above posts, too.

And that's it for today. I also have a few more titles for my "want to read list" that came out of this weekend, but I'll save those for a post later in the week. I think that everyone has plenty of ideas for their reading lists right now.


Children's Literacy Round-Up: June 9

Here is some recent children's literacy news from around the wires:

  • The Children's Book Review has a nice article about summer reading tips, inspired by and linking to articles from Parents Magazine. I especially like the section on "set up reading as a challenge, not a chore." See also this article about summer reading by Brenda Rindge in the Charleston Post and Courier. I especially liked this item: "Introduce the bookmark. Remind your youngster that you don't have to finish a book in one sitting; you can stop after a few pages, or a chapter, and pick up where you left off at another time. Don't try to persuade your child to finish a book he doesn't like." Finally, see this Vallejo Times-Herald article by Tony Burchyns, which recommends that parents help kids to remain intellectually challenged over the summer.
  • Via the International Reading Association blog, the Harvard Education Letter has an article by Laura Pappano about the importance of building a sophisticated vocabulary in young children. The article says that "a growing body of research and classroom practice show that building a sophisticated vocabulary at an early age is also key to raising reading success—and narrowing the achievement gap."
  • The Battle Creek Enquirer has a brief article by Trace Christenson about a reading event called Read to Me, Under a Tree. "The program, for children up to age 5 in Head Start and Early Head Start, was designed to encourage young children to read, according to Barry Smith. Smith said the Fatherhood Male Involvement Program joined with the Head Start program at the Community Action Agency of South Central Michigan and the Early Reading First: I Can Read program at Western Michigan University for an afternoon of reading, games, food and raffles. Several adults from across the community sat down on quilts spread out on the grass at Bailey Park and had groups of kids listening to them read stories."
  • John Burgeson writes in the Connecticut Post about a celebration at a Bridgeport school in honor of the kids who, collectively, read 24,000 books over several months. "The day began with a parade in which a long line of youngsters exited the school, each class carrying a banner showing how many books they had read. Some wore hats made out of construction paper, and many were waiting for their permanent teeth to erupt."
  • A number of people have written about this already, but Joan Oleck wrote an engaging article in School Library Journal about the Toronto Public Library's fabulous new children's room. "The first of several planned KidsStops—places that look like play areas, but are aimed at getting little ones ready to read when they start school—was recently unveiled at the S. Walter Stewart branch in East York". There is a bunch of cool stuff - check out the article for details.
  • Education Week has an article by Alyson Klein and David J. Hoff about McCain and Obama's positions on K-12 education and No Child Left Behind. I can't say that the current positions of either candidate make me feel optimistic about this. But it's worth understanding where they stand.
  • In the Gaylord Herald-Times, Michael Jones writes about the success of a program that uses audiobooks (Playaways) to help reluctant readers. "By combining today’s technology, Playaways (think audio books on MP3 players), with the print version of books, Trevor and other reluctant readers at GIS have developed a passion for reading; an enthusiasm GIS sixth-grade teacher Melissa Jorgenson and librarian Christine Rinehart hope turns students into life-long readers."
  • This isn't exactly helpful information, but the Guardian reports in an education article by Anushka Asthana that English is "too hard to read for children". "Masha Bell, the literacy researcher who carried out the work, argued that there were 200 words on the list that could be improved by simply dropping 'surplus letters' such as the 'i' in friend or the 'u' in shoulder...
    Bell argued that the spelling system was a huge financial burden on schools and was to blame for poor literacy results compared with the rest of Europe." I think that this is probably true, but that it would be infeasible to try to make wholesale spelling changes now. But of course I'm far from being an expert.
  • The Toronto Star reports, in an article by Louise Brown, that active students get better grades. "New Ontario research shows schools that push fitness and nutrition have watched their standardized scores rise by as much as 50 per cent over two years in Grade 3 reading and 39 per cent in Grade 3 math – outscoring other schools in similar neighbourhoods by about eight points across all three subjects."

And that's all for this week. Happy summer reading!


Books Now Available: I Shall Not Want

Last month I reviewed an adult mystery title: I Shall Not Want, by Julia Spencer-Fleming. This is one of my all-time favorite mystery series (along with books by Lee Child, Deborah Crombie, Barry Maitland, and Carol O'Connell, in no particular order). I highly recommended I Shall Not Want for fans of the Clare Fergusson / Russ Van Alstyle series, but suggested that people start the series at the beginning. Today, Julia emailed to say that not only is I Shall Not Want available for purchase, but e-book editions of the first two books in the series are available for, as Julia puts it, the attractive price of $0. Here are the details.

"I Shall Not Want officially goes on sale Tuesday, June 10. To celebrate, St. Martin's Press is offering FREE ebook editions of the first two books in the Clare Fergusson/Russ Van Alstyne series. These free downloads are available right now, through Thursday, June 12. So act fast!

You can download the .pdf versions of In the Bleak Midwinter and A Fountain Filled With Blood at the I Shall Not Want book page of St. Martin's Press/Macmillan. At the Sony eBook Store, you can download the Sony Reader edition of A Fountain Filled With Blood. And finally, Amazon is offering Kindle editions of In the Bleak Midwinter and A Fountain Filled With Blood at the attractive price of $0.

If you're an e-book reader, don't miss the chance to grab the first two books of this fabulous series. But act fast - you only have a few days. And if you're already a fan of the series, do check out I Shall Not Want. You won't be disappointed.


Summer Goals Meme

Even though she knows that I'm not such a one for memes, Megan Germano from Read, Read, Read went ahead and tagged me anyway for the summer goals meme that's going around (started by Franki from A Year of Reading). Megan made it clear that I could say no if I wanted, but I have to admit that after reading Franki's post, I'd vaguely thought "hmm... do I need summer goals?". So, Megan, this one is for you.

Here are my top 4 goals for the summer.

  1. Inspired by the 48 Hour Book Challenge, my goal is to read and review more books this summer. I don't have a quantitative goal, because I'm already hopelessly off my target for the year, but I'm going to try a personal challenge to set aside one day for reading (around 10 hours) per month.
  2. Ride my exercise bike at least 3 hours/week.
  3. Watch as many Red Sox games as possible.
  4. Find a way to make my life feel more balanced.

That last one is, of course, impossible to quantify. But I think I'll know it when I see it. And 1 and 3, well, we might as well set goals that are things we want to do, right? My real goal with #2 is to get my balky knee back in shape so that I can go for walks - if the bike can help, the tedium will be totally worth it.

Even more rarely than I participate in memes will I tag other people. But this one feels new and fresh, since it just started this weekend. So I'm going to tag people in honor of each of my four goals. (This in no way means that they have to participate, or have to share in these goals, but for some reason this feels fun to me).

  1. Because I know she's interested in reading challenges for this summer, I tag Becky from Becky's Book Reviews.
  2. Because of that series that they did on the exercise of writing, I tag Liz Garton Scanlon and Sara Lewis Holmes.
  3. Because she's even more of a Red Sox fan than I am, I tag Kathy from Library Stew.
  4. Because I know that she can relate to balance issues, at least as related to blogging vs. everything else in life, I tag Kelly from Big A little a.

And if you share in any of the above goals, consider yourself tagged, too. Happy summer!

© 2009 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.


Reviews that Made Me Want the Book: Mega-Edition

Welcome to the latest edition of my reviews that made me want to read the book feature. I'm using this series of posts to keep track of books that catch my eye, and also to highlight the fabulous reviewers who pique my interest by getting to the heart of a book. In response to a suggestion from Aerin, I've made an extra effort to include a few adult titles in the mix (though it should be noted that I don't read very many adult-fiction focused blogs, so this is by no means a comprehensive list). In any event, this has ended up quite the mammoth addition to my wish list. Now if I only had time to read half of these titles...

Children's and YA Titles

Suddenly Supernatural: School SpiritSuddenly Supernatural: School Spirit, by Elizabeth Cody Kimmel is actually on my shelf already (I requested it from the Little, Brown catalog). But Betsy Bird moved it up on my list by saying: "to my amazement this book sucks me in instantly. With a rare combination of readability and genuine middle school trials and tribulations, author Elizabeth Cody Kimmel gives a well-placed kick to a genre that deserves a little rejiggering here and a little remastering there. A book I can honestly recommend to any kid looking for some great ghostly fare." How can I resist that? I've added it to my candidate list for the 48 Hour Book Challenge this weekend.

The Year We Disappeared: A Father-Daughter Memoir by Cylin and John Busby caught my eye when I saw it in the publisher's catalog (Bloomsbury). It's a memoir about a family that has to go into hiding after the father is the victim of a crime, and survives. I have already requested a copy. But Sarah from The Reading Zone made me want to read it even more when she said: "Yesterday I sat down to read it and finished in one sitting. This is a thrilling YA memoir with huge adult crossover appeal. In this day and age of TV crime dramas, this true life tale of a family nearly destroyed by a brutal shooting will not go unnoticed!"

SightLongstockings Daphne Grab and Coe Booth recently interviewed Adrienne Maria Vrettos about her new novel Sight. The Longstockings said: "If you’ve ever wished to be psychic, SIGHT will make you think twice! This book is sooo good. It’s beautifully written with great characters and an exciting ending. And it’s a story that will definitely stay with you for a long time." I read the description in the first paragraph and thought "hmm, kind of has a Lois Duncan feel". I loved Duncan's books as a young adult. So when I saw later in the interview that Vrettos was partially inspired to write this book by her love of one of Lois Duncan's titles, well, that was good enough for me. (Incidentally, this is the kind of tidbit that makes me happy to have started this reviews that made me want the book feature in the first place.)

Attack of the Growling EyeballsI'm always on the lookout for engaging books for early elementary school readers (in fact, I'll soon be participating in a blog tour on this topic hosted by Gail Gauthier). Bill from Literate Lives recently reviewed the first book in a new series written by Lin Oliver and illustrated by Stephen Gilpin, the Who Shrunk Daniel Funk Series. Daniel Funk is a boy who is able to shrink and re-grow, and has various adventures. Bill said: "Lin Oliver has created the perfect no brainer, can't put it down, laugh out loud read for third grade and up. I can't wait for the next installment...Escape of the Mini Mummy. Another great title." Sounds worth checking out to me.

Death by BikiniMs. Yingling is one of my most trusted sources of book suggestions. She said of Linda Gerber's Death by Bikini, a murder mystery: "Joan Lowery Nixon has always been my go-to author when it comes to mysteries that girls especially like, but this series will certainly circulate even better." I'm a mystery fan in general, and there's a bit of a shortage of detective stories aimed at teen readers, so this one goes on my list. Plus, it's a great cover!

Into the DarkSpeaking of mysteries, I very much enjoyed Peter Abrahams' first Echo Falls mystery, Down the Rabbit Hole. I didn't think that the second book, Behind the Curtain, was quite as strong, though I did like it. Now Doret, the HappyNappyBookseller, has convinced me to give the third book, Into the Dark, a look. Doret said: "What makes this book good is how Ingrid figures out the why. What makes this book great is the ending. There is nothing better then someone trying to cover up a murder with a murder. I loved the last few chapters, the action was fast, intense, scary, page turning good." My concern with the second book was that I felt like Abrahams had toned down the action, so I find this reassuring.

Ghost Letters Another books with mysterious happenings that caught my recently was Ghost Letters, by Stephen Alter, as reviewed by Lisa Chellman at Under the Covers. Lisa recommends it for fans of Blue Balliett's books. She calls it "a fun ride. Alter works many mail-related tropes—dogs who chase mailmen, carrier pigeons, secret wartime codes—into the plot (though a chain letter disappointingly went nowhere). There’s also a recurring poetry motif that, while not essential to the plot, does not feel out of place either."

Brooklyn BridgeI have a weaknesses for stories set in turn of the (20th) century New York. I also have a healthy respect for the opinions of Betsy Bird (aka A Fuse #8 Production), as evidenced by my having included another one of her recommendations above. So when Betsy reviewed Brooklyn Bridge, by Karen Hesse, a novel about the family that invented the stuffed teddy bear, I was intrigued. Betsy said: "This is perhaps one of Hesse’s most accomplished novels. It’s historical fiction that uses the past as a point of reference rather than as the point of the novel. Hesse is weaving together so many seemingly disparate elements and living breathing characters that the end result feels more like a film, a theatrical production, or a scene on a city street than a book for kids." However, it won't be available until September.

The Red NecklaceAnd, for another book with an intriguing historical setting, Tasha Saecker from Kids Lit reviewed Sally Gardner's second novel (after I, Coriander), The Red Necklace. Tasha said: "This book had me immediately upon reading the first page. The writing was flowery but intense, filled with images but equally gripping and fast paced. It was the tone of the French Revolution itself... This is a glory of a book. Highly recommended and one of the best of the year." Since I liked Gardner's first book, and since Tasha gave it such a strong endorsement, I'm ready to check it out.

The ExplosionistThen, in describing more of an alternative historical novel, Colleen Mondor piqued my interest in The Explosionist, by Jenny Davidson. Colleen said: "Davidson’s novel is by far one of the smartest YA titles I have read in quite some time and I would love to see it in on high school reading lists. I guarantee it would spark the sort of discussion that is rarely found when talking about Shakespeare (as impressive as the Bard can be). This is a book that demands deep thinking of its readers but promises suspense, intrigue and surprises at every turn." 

Adult Titles (most with crossover appeal)

Crazy SchoolCornelia Read's books have been on my radar since her first Madeline Dare mystery, A Field of Darkness, came out. Reading Rants! Out of the Ordinary Teen Booklists drew the second book in the series, The Crazy School, to my attention, saying: "This bitterly funny mystery by Edgar Award-nominated author Cornelia Read has a great cast of teen characters, but the best voice is that of jaded, wickedly witty slacker sleuth Madeline Dare herself. This is one seriously dark comedic nailbiter." Of course, I'll have to read A Field of Darkness first, because I am compulsive about reading series books in order.

A Kiss Before the Apocalypse Little Willow is a big fan of Thomas E. Sniegoski (and an especially big fan of his sometime co-author, Christopher Golden). She's been talking up both Sniegoski and Golden's books for quite some time, and they are on my radar. But her overview of Sniegoski's new urban fantasy A Kiss Before the Apocalypse made it onto the list of serious contenders. "Boston P.I. Remy Chandler has many talents. He can will himself invisible, he can speak and understand any foreign language (including the language of animals), and if he listens carefully, he can hear thoughts. Unusual, to say the least - for an ordinary man. But Remy is no ordinary man - he's an angel. Generations ago, he chose to renounce heaven and live on Earth. He's found a place among us ordinary humans; friendship, a job he's good at - and love. Now he is being drawn into a case with strong ties to his angelic past."

In the WoodsKelly Herold and I are kindred spirit readers, especially when it comes to adult titles. So when she recently wrote at Big A little a about Tana French's Edgar award winning (for best first novel by an American author) novel In the Woods, I paid attention. Kelly said: "Dark fairy tale themes and the unreliability of childhood memories haunt Ryan (the narrator, a detective) and In the Woods, making this a mystery teens will love. The detectives are young and live young lives--solving cases together while eating and drinking well into the night. Ryan's partner, Maddox, is a kickass heroine--smart, hardworking, and tough." Clearly, this is a title that I need to read. And in fact, I have already downloaded it from Audible, and started listening to it this morning.

The FireSometimes the mere knowledge that a book exists is enough of a reason to want it - you don't even need to know the title, or hear even a hint as to what it's about. And so it is with me in regards to Katherine Neville's sequel to The Eight and a new standalone title by Carol O'Connell. Trisha from The YA YA YAs included both titles in a recent post about 2008 titles that she's looking forward to reading. Here's what she said: "The Fire by Katherine Neville!!!!! - it’s been, what, over ten years since her last book was published? Plus, it’s the sequel to The Eight!!!! Finally!!" Tricia also was excited about: "Bone by Bone by Carol O’Connell!!!!! - it’s not a Mallory book, which disappointed me for a couple of seconds, because Find Me was excellent (and, wow, all that info about Mallory’s parents!). Then I remembered that the only other standalone O’Connell has written is the awesome Judas Child, which I absolutely love." I'm not quite so prone to exclamation points, but I agree 100% with Trisha about both The Eight and all of Carol O'Connell's books (especially Judas Child, the ending of which still haunts me).


Daughter of War: Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch

Book: Daughter of War
Author: Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch (blog)
Pages: 280
Age Range: 14 and up

Daughter of WarBackground: This title arrived on my doorstop a month or so ago, a review title from Fitzhenry and Whiteside that I hadn't requested. But once I read the blurb on the back of the book, and learned that it was set during the Armenian genocide, I knew that I had to read it. The Armenian genocide was the systematic destruction of more than a million Armenians by the Turkish government during World War I. Mheir, the person I share my life with, is Armenian. He immigrated to America when he was a baby, and is of 100% Armenian descent. I've known Mheir and his family for more than 20 years. And I know how raw the wounds from the Armenian genocide remain for their community even now, more than 90 years after the events in Turkey took place. (For more detail about the Armenian genocide, see this Wikipedia entry and references therein.)

I, who grew up safe and Protestant in the US, can't fully comprehend the way the Armenian people feel about the genocide. But I comprehend enough that this title was difficult for me to read. There's a line early in the book where an Armenian young man, in hiding, pretending to be an Arab, is afraid that he's been found out. The book says:

"But if the soldier knew, Kevork was no longer safe.
But was anywhere safe when you were Armenian?"

And I pictured the people I know who are Armenian. The notion of them not being safe, of them being taken from their homes and sent to march across the desert, or worse... Just because of who they are... It's unfathomable. But it happened. As it happened later, and even more horrifically in scope, to the Jewish people. I've read various books about the Holocaust, of course, but Daughter of War was even tougher for me to read, because I hold so many Armenians close to my heart.

Thus I can make no claim that the review that follows is objective. There are points where I suspect that the book crosses the fine line from story with a historical background into history lesson. But I'm not certain, and I found it compelling anyway.

Review: Daughter of War, by Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch, is the fictional story of two young lovers who are separated by the Turks during the Armenian genocide in World War I. Marta and Kevork were orphaned during a massacre of Armenians in the Adana province of Turkey in 1909. They spent the next six years at a German orphanage in Marash, where they fell in love and became betrothed. In 1915, however, as teenagers, they were deemed adult Armenians, and forcibly deported into the desert, expected to die. As the story begins a year later, Kevork has been rescued by a tribe of Arabs, and is living in Aleppo, Syria, disguised as an Arab shoemaker, living in constant fear.

Marta has been "rescued" by a Turkish family, taken as the involuntary Third Wife of a violent man. Her pregnancy by the man, however, causes the man's First Wife to send her away, back to the orphanage in Marash. The orphanage isn't a safe place for adult Armenians, however, and her presence puts everyone there in danger. In the story that follows, Marta and Kevork struggle to survive, and wonder if they will ever find their way back to one another. An essential map at the front of the book documents Marta and Kevork's travels, and a historical note gives some broader context.

This is a darkly disturbing book, one that doesn't flinch from describing the grim details of massacres and starvations, hatreds and betrayals. The worst of this is alluded to in flashbacks, however, making the suffering a bit easier for the reader to cope with. The brutality of the soldiers and the horrors of death and disease contrast with the innate resilience displayed by both Marta and Kevork, and the bravery of various non-Armenians who help them. It's not an easy read, but parts of it are uplifting. There are even a couple of scenes that demonstrate humor, albeit in a bit of a dark context.

Daughter of War manages to convey quite a bit of information about what was going on in Turkey and Syria between 1915 and 1918. Turks caught hiding Armenians could be killed, and their homes burned to the ground. The German orphanages were eventually shut down, because they were an embarrassment, because there weren't supposed to be orphans to save. Many people were killed by starvation, because the use of guns would have required too many bullets. After the war, women still needed to be rescued from the Turkish homes, where they had been kept as concubines, though many feared separation from their children. Many Armenian orphans were adopted and never rescued, and ended up raised as Turks, perhaps never even knowing that they were Armenian. The war wasn't kind to the Turkish foot soldiers, either, and the book has a measure of sympathy for them, too.

Most of this information is conveyed through Kevork and Marta's eyes (mostly Kevork's, as he spends more time on the road), lending it an immediacy that makes the book feel like a true story. This is the kind of book that seeps into your consciousness, and makes the comfortable room around you lose focus. I read the second half of the book in one sitting, then looked at the clock, astonished that 80 minutes had gone by, and I was still in my living room. The end brought tears to my eyes. Marta and Kevork are strong, resourceful characters. I'll remember them, along with an intrepid Turkish boy named Zeki, and an ethereal orphan named Angele, as though they were people I knew.

This is not a book for young readers. But I do recommend it for high school students and above. It would make an excellent addition to reading material on the Holocaust, as the event in Turkey were precursors to those in Germany, with both similarities and differences. It's also a love story, and setting it against one of the bleakest backdrops imaginable makes the love story that much more pure. And for those who like to know such things ahead of time, the book does end on a note of hope. It's one that I will read again, and share with others.

Publisher: Fitzhenry and Whiteside
Publication Date: April 2008
Source of Book: A review copy from the publisher

© 2009 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.


How NOT to be Popular: Jennifer Ziegler

Book: How NOT to be Popular
Author: Jennifer Ziegler (blog)
Pages: 352
Age Range: 13 and up

How NOT to be PopularBackground: When two of our nieces visited recently, I stocked their room with some children's and young adult titles that I was looking to part with, for various reasons. The older one picked up a copy of Jennifer Ziegler's How NOT to be Popular, and promptly became consumed by the book, finished it in a couple of days, and asked if she could take it home to share with her best friend. (You may be sure that I was more than happy to say yes to that request). I hadn't read the book at that point (somehow I ended up with the ARC and the hardcover, which was why the book landed in the pile), but my niece's recommendation bumped it up on my list. (Incidentally, her younger sister's title of choice was Patches and Scratches (Simply Sarah) by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor, a title that hadn't quite grabbed me, but turned out to be perfect for a dog-obsessed eight-year-old.)

Review: How NOT to be Popular, by Jennifer Ziegler, is about 17-year-old Sugar Magnolia Dempsey (who understandably goes by Maggie), daughter of two wandering, peace activist parents (the kind of people who like to hang out at Renaissance Festivals, and pick up hitchhikers). Maggie has been moving frequently throughout her entire life, but this latest move, from Portland, OR to Austin, TX, isn't sitting well with her. She's had to leave behind her first real boyfriend, Trevor, her best friend, and a modicum of popularity. Faced with the task of starting all over again in Austin, where she only expects to be for the four months of her final semester of high school, Maggie decides to go on a deliberate quest NOT to be popular. That way, she reasons, leaving Austin at the end of the semester won't be so painful.

Maggie does everything that she can think of to avoid popularity, from ignoring the school's Alpha male to wearing outlandish clothes to telling the truth about her family's unconventional ways. And what she learns is that unpopularity is much harder to come by than she expects. While this twist is somewhat predictable (I mean, how interesting would a book be about someone who stays in the shadows, isn't noticed, and quietly leaves town after four months?), there are a number of other areas in which Ziegler avoids taking the easy way out. Maggie's relationship with her parents is complex - she's embarrassed by them, but close to them at the same time, wanting to be worthy of the trust they place in her. Maggie eats lunch with a girl who is clearly unpopular, and the other girl isn't the coolest person in the world in disguise - Penny has clear issues that suggest that she'll never be part of the in crowd. Maggie's eventual love interest turns out to be more multi-dimensional than she first suspects. All of this will keep the reader turning the pages.

The Austin setting is also dead-on, right down to the importance of the local music scene, ringing true as a logical stop on Maggie's parents' travels. But what I think makes How NOT to be Popular work is Maggie's voice, which ranges from wry to insightful to laugh-out-loud funny. Here are a few examples:

"She's pretty in a waxy way. An orangey salon tan clashes with her red cami ... too much eye makeup ... hair the color of candlelight. A textbook example of high school female perfection, right down to the constant look of disgust" (Page 19)

"This is one of Rosie's things. She loves doing laundry--specifically, hanging it to dry in the open air. This is why I don't wear a lot of denim. Sunshine-dried blue jeans can practically stand up and walk around on their own." (Page 56)

"Static roars in my ears and I fight the temptation to toss ketchup packets at her rear end." (Page 113)

"She looks like the fiercest, angriest, most ill-tempered sugarplum fairy you could ever meet." (Page 171)

The scene in which Maggie takes her parents to lunch in the school cafeteria is hysterical. No short quote could possibly do it justice.

Maggie is smart, and a basically good kid who, eventually, learns from her own mistakes. Young teens will be able to relate to her. If a tad implausible from time to time (like the way that Maggie runs into her nemesis around every corner), How NOT to be Popular is still a fun romp through the rough waters of high school society. Recommended for teen girls, especially fans of Meg Cabot's How to be Popular and the like.

Publisher: Delacorte Books for Young Readers
Publication Date: January 2008
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher
Other Blog Reviews: Liv's Book Reviews, What an Awesome Title, I Crave Books, Em's Bookshelf, WordCandy Bookshelf, Through a Glass, Darkly

© 2009 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.


48 Hour Book Challenge - Wrap-Up Post

48hbcIt's 2:00 on Sunday afternoon, and I've just finished my 48 Hour Book Challenge. (You can find links to other wrap-up posts here.) Here are my stats:

Books read and reviewed: 11 (plus I started and didn't finish a 12th)

  • Running Out of Time - Margaret Peterson Haddix (review)
  • The Willoughbys - Lois Lowry (review)
  • Cicada Summer - Andrea Beaty (review)
  • Neptune's Children - Bonnie Dobkin (review)
  • Saffy's Angel - Hilary McKay (review)
  • 100 Cupboards - N. D. Wilson (review)
  • All the Lovely Bad Ones - Mary Downing Hahn (review)
  • Eleven - Patricia Reilly Giff (review)
  • Underwater - Debbie Levy (review)
  • Steel Trapp - Ridley Pearson (not finished, only read 17 pages)

    Time spent reading: 18 hours, 35 minutes (2.13 pages/minute)
    Time spent reviewing: 5 hours, 20 minutes (29 minutes/book)
    Total time spent: 23 hours, 55 minutes
    Total pages read: 2370

    Observations: I was very dedicated. I spent as much time as I possibly could on this challenge. I didn't do laundry, unload the dishwasher, or cook at all during the 48 hours. I did sleep, and I did shower, but I ate most of my meals quickly, and Mheir was severely neglected (he rented himself some violent movies, and played golf). Sadly, I had to attend a dinner event on Saturday which, though lovely, cut out my reading time after 5:00 pm that day. I tried to read when I got home, but the combination of an early day and wine at the dinner made this largely unsuccessful. But apart from that, I read and reviewed just about as much as I could. I ended up spending just slightly under 24 out of the 48 hours on the project. Not a bad ratio, if you take sleeping into account.

    The thing that kept me from reading more books was that for the life of me, I couldn't give the reviews short shrift. I normally spend about an hour per review, and I did manage to cut that in half, but I just wasn't willing to cut it any further. These were great books! They deserved to be talked about. And it does please me immensely to know that, after the past couple of months of writing fewer reviews than I would like, I was able to publish 11 of them this weekend. They aren't quite as full-fledged as I would normally do, but I feel like they're good enough to give people an impression of each book, and help people decide which ones might be a fit for them.

    So how do I feel about the challenge? It was stressful, a bit, concentrating so much on one thing, at the expense of others. (Of course it didn't need to be stressful, but my competitive spirit came to the surface). But it was also exhilarating and validating. Too often, I let all of the other responsibilities in my life push reading and reviewing aside. There are many days in which the only reading I do is in bed, before I fall asleep. And when life is busy, that sometimes amounts to barely a few pages.

    This weekend reminded me how much I love to sit down and read a book cover to cover, in one sitting. It reminded me of how much easier it is to write reviews if you write them immediately, while the book is still fresh. It reminded me of how many amazing and different books I have on my shelves, and how important it is for me in terms of my own happiness to make time to read them. Immersing myself in stories is what I love to do. I also love to share those stories, the best of them, with other readers through my blog.

    This weekend has convinced me that I need to make reading more of a priority all the time, not just on 48 Hour Book Challenge weekend. I'm thinking of setting aside one day a month to have my own personal 24-hour Book Challenge (because 48 hours in a row is a bit tough on Mheir). I'm not sure if I'll really be able to do it, without the additional motivation of a "contest". But I'm going to try.

    Pam, I can't thank you enough for the gift of this weekend! I don't need any prizes (though I wouldn't really refuse one) - my stack of 11 read and reviewed titles feels like quite enough. I'm already looking forward to next year.

    © 2009 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.