Category Archives: books

Free Reading Friday: Caraval

CaravalIf I could pick one book I want made into a movie this very second, it would be this book. I simply LOVED it!

Stephanie Garber does a spectacular job of bringing the darkly magical world of Caraval to life. Part mystery, part magic, part love story, this book has something for everyone. Despite the fact that the book is set in a different world during what appears to be the equivalent of our 1800’s, Scarlet is a heroine any modern girl can relate to. The otherwordly setting is just real enough to be believable to anyone who like historical fiction, but just magical enough to appeal to those who love fantasy. I think this is the perfect book to introduce reluctant readers to the fantasy genre because of all the other elements from the genres of mystery, romance and historical fiction that it also incorporates.

Scarlet and her sister Donatella need to escape their abusive father who has spent the last 10 years making their lives hellish. They are both obsessed with Caraval, the magical game that takes place once a year, by magical invite only. Although Scarlet writes to the mysterious Legend, the master of Caraval for years, it is not until the eve of her engagement to a man she’s never met that she finally gets a response. And not just any response…three tickets to Caraval.

As much as Scarlet wants to go, she cannot let childish curiosity for the game outweigh her desire to save herself, and more importantly her daring, but younger sister from their father’s grasp. She believes her impending nuptials are the only escape. However, when Scarlet is kidnapped and taken to Legend’s private island where Caraval is being held, she toys with the idea of staying. It is not until her beloved sister is also kidnapped and held as the game’s prize that she consents to truly play.

From there the book is a glorious mix of mystery, magic and romance that readers are sure to fall in love with. Garber does a wonderful job of setting up the sequel in a way that has left me clamoring for more. This is my pick for Goodreads YA fantasy book of 2017.


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Free Reading Friday: Simon vs the Homo Sapiens Agenda

Simon and the Homo Sapiens AgendaSimon vs the Homo Sapiens Agenda by  Becky Albertalli is yet another book on the this year’s Rosie list, so I had to read it. Before I picked it up, I had no idea what the book was about. The title was intriguing though and even though I’ve read comments that the cover is keep no of boring, I like the faceless body and the title as a quote bubble.

It only took me about 20 pages to get into Simon’s story. My favorite chapters were definitely the emails between Simon and Blue. I love how cute and genuine their emails feel. I love how vulnerable they are with each other. And even though there was a part of me who wanted Blue to cave and reveal who he was to Simon much sooner, I understand why Albertalli had him wait. Blue’s reluctance to truly reveal himself to Simon (and the world) reflects just how scary first relationships can be. They are terrifying when you are straight and conform to all the expectations of society, so I can only imagine how immensely more terrifying they are for LGBT+ teens. Especially in Georgia…or any area that is intensely conservative.

Since my best friend lives in Athens, Georgia, it was doubly fun for me to read this book which is set outside of Atlanta. It was especially great to see Albertalli mention the Junkman’s Daughter since I’ve been to the original store in Athens. I love when I find places I’ve visited in real life in books as well.

Even though I was not thrilled with the idea of going back to school after the break, I was excited about sharing this book with my students. My school has a growing LGBT+ population and I knew I would have a bunch of students who really wanted to read it. I think it is super important for them to find books which portray romantic relationships they can relate to and see themselves reflected in. Sure enough, the second I book talked it, multiple hands reached out for it.

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Free Reading Friday: NEED

NEEDI grabbed NEED by Joelle Charbonneau because it is one of the Eliot Rosewater book nominees for the 2017-2018 school year. One of my goals this year is to read all of The Rosie books. I didn’t really have any idea what the book was about before I picked it up. All I knew was that a student had returned it to the library after only reading 50 pages or so and said it wasn’t for them.

I’m not sure what that student was talking about, because I found the book pretty darn compelling. I love that the book starts off by establishing the difference between a WANT and a NEED. In our society today, we’ve gotten so used to having our needs met that we tend to say we need things that we definitely just want. I know I am as guilty as everyone else. I say I need a new fitness tracker, but I don’t. I have one that works just fine. And even if it didn’t, it’s certainly not a NEED…it’s a want.

As the characters find out in this book, there is a big difference between a WANT and a NEED.

Kaylee, the main character has a definite NEED, even though it’s not for her. Her younger brother needs a new kidney and not only is she not a match, but when her father finds out about his son’s disease, he disappears without getting tested.

Enter her best friend Nate, who’s just found out about a social media website called NEED. The website offers the promise to “join your friends in discovering how much better life can be when you are presented with an anonymous way to express your thoughts and are given the tools to get the things you need.” The premise of the website is simple: Ask for something you NEED, then do a little task the website asks of you and your NEED will be fulfilled.

Nate’s brother gets an iPhone and all he has to do is send friend requests to 5 of his friends to join the website, which is open only to students at their high school. Sounds great, right? Such a simple act for such a great reward.

Of course as Kaylee knows, nothing really comes for free. Although skeptical, she asks for what she needs: a new kidney for her brother.

As the story unfolds, students are asked to do more and more to fulfill their needs. One boy, spurned by the girl he likes, agrees to leave a package anonymously on her doorstep. He thinks nothing of it, as he believes he truly needs the acne cream, which he is convinced is the reason he was spurned, and leaving a package he’s not allowed to look in is really no big deal. Of course, he doesn’t know about her nut allergy or the nuts in the cookies.

NEED is a compelling story that explores the depths people will sink to when they believe they are anonymous. It also explores the idea of taking responsibilities for our actions, what we truly need versus what we merely want and the dangers of social media, all of which are excellent topics for a YA novel.

As someone who has been teaching teenagers for twenty years now, I have seen just how dangerous and addictive social media can be for teenagers and I think this book is one that will not only resonate with teens, but hopefully make them stop and think about their activities online, their own culpability for their actions and the way they treat their peers.

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Wildcard Wednesday: Pop Chart Lab 100 Essential Novels

Pop chart fullSome time last fall I saw a Facebook post advertising Pop Chart Lab’s 100 Essential Novels poster. I was instantly smitten.

This is the perfect gift for anyone who loves books. The minute I saw it, I knew I had to have it. I told my husband it was on my Christmas list, which thrilled him because I’m very bad at giving him suggestions for Christmas presents. I’m very bad at giving anyone gift suggestions for myself. I love coming up with gifts for others, but for some reason when it’s my turn to make the list, everything I want goes right out of my head. But I wanted this chart.

Like the wonderful human being he is, he bought it for me. I unrolled it and delighted at all the shiny gold sections I was going to get to scratch off. I didn’t start scratching right away though. As much as I love the poster, I never had any intention of hanging it up at my house. This poster was destined to hang in my English classroom, hopefully as inspiration for my students who might be looking for a challenge OR who might just need a good book to read.

When we returned from break, I immediately hung the poster in my classroom, right on my front white board. I found the prefect place for it where students could see it, but it was still technically behind my desk. I didn’t want anyone to get the silly idea that they could scratch any books off the chart. I could just see it being too tempting for a few of them.

Once it was up, I started raving about it to all of my classes. My Advanced Placement English students were a bit more excited about it than my Film Lit kids were, but that was probably a combination of knowing me longer and being a bit more enthusiastic about reading. They immediately asked me how many of the books I’d read.

I’ll admit it was with a bit of chagrin that I had to reply I’d only read 35 of them. Yes, that’s right, even though I’d read over 120 books last year, only 35 of all the books I’ve read in my lifetime were on the 100 Essential Novels chart. I’m not sure exactly who decided these were the 100 books everyone should read. It’s not like Pop Chart Lab is a known authority on the subject. Many of the books on the list were not ones I’d read, even though I’d read several other books by the authors.

For example, I’d never read Great Expectations by Charles Dickens, but had read A Christmas Carol, Oliver Twist, A Tale of Two Cities, Hard Times and Bleak House. I’ll admit that a part of me wanted to scratch it off just because I felt it didn’t really matter which Dickens novel I’d read, just that I’d read Dickens. I mean, why Great Expectations and not A Tale of Two Cities (which I personally feel is the superior book)? It’s so arbitrary!

And while I may have railed a bit about this to my students, I also set a goal to read all 100 of the books on the list. I knew I wasn’t going to do it all this year. So, I set a more reasonable goal for myself: 1 book off the chart each month. That seemed completely manageable to me.

Pop Chart close upI am proud to say that with my completion of A Passage to India last night, I have officially made it halfway through the list.

That’s right, I’ve read 50 of the 100 essential novels. That also means that I’ve exceeded both my Goodreads goal for 2017 (123/100 books) and my Pop Chart Lab goal (15/12 books)…and it’s only November. Granted, I don’t know how many more books I’ll be able to get in before the of the year, but I am going to do my best to get at least 1 more essential novel and at least a dozen more books in before the new year rolls around.

I know it may seem silly, but having little goals like this, and especially ones with fun scratch off pictures, really makes me feel like I’m accomplishing something. Sure, it may take me anywhere from 3.5-5 years to read all of the novels on my Pop Chart Lab poster, but that’s ok. I’ll slog through them all. Glancing at the list I think this is completely achievable. Thanks to this list I’ve even found a few new favorite books (I’m looking at you Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao).

Of course I do know which book I am saving for the absolute last book I will read off the chart: Moby Dick. I’m dreading this tale of human frailty and whale blubber.

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Free Reading Friday: Kindness for Weakness

Even if KKindness for Weaknessindness for Weakness wasn’t one of the Eliot Rosewater nominees for 2107, I’d want to read it because Ruta Sepetys, one of my favorite new YA authors (who also has a book on the Rosie list) has a cover blurb claiming this book is a meeting between Monster and The Catcher in the Rye. To me, this is an intriguing combination, so I snapped it up.

I found the story of James, a 15 year old kid who has been abandoned by his father, neglected by his mother, abused by her boyfriend and all but forgotten by his older brother who was supposed to look out for him, compelling. Even though he knows his brother is not on the level when he asks him to deliver “packages” for him, James agrees in hopes that they can be closer. Plus, he’s so used to being so severely deprived, that the pittance his brother throws him for helping out is enough to make him nearly giddy. For the first time in a long time, his belly is full. It’s hard not to sympathize with a kid like James.

James becomes an even more sympathetic character when he gets busted while on a drug run with his brother. Despite the fact that Louis, his brother, takes off and leaves James totally alone to face the consequences, James doesn’t rat him out. He doesn’t want to be perceived as a cry baby weakling. He wants to show his brother that he is strong and can do his time at juvie. After all, he had an idea of what he was getting into and he made a choice.

His understandably bad decision lands him in Morton, the one place he’s warned he doesn’t want to end up. Unlike many juvenile facilities, Morton tends to resemble jail more than a rehabilitation facility. James spends much of his time in Morton trying to figure out what true strength means. Most of his peers believe any sort of kindness is weakness. They believe they have to step to someone, even if it means more time in Morton, the hospital or the morgue. In one scene, Mr. E, who is leading a group session asks what they’d do if someone stepped on their squeaky clean Jordans without apologizing. Everyone except James believes a beat down is in order. Even when Mr. E tells them that their response will be the difference between them being part of the 86% who end up back in lock up and the 14% who make it out, few are willing to let the “slight” go because it would show too much weakness.

This book is a great look at the toxic culture that exists which forces boys and men to be “strong,” no matter what the cost. I think this is a really important book for teenagers, especially teenage boys to read. The amount of time James and Shawn Gooodman, the author, spend exploring what strength really means is important.

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Free Reading Friday: Girling Up

girling upIf I had read Girling Up by Mayim Bialik when I was 12 or 13 or 14, I think it would have made a much bigger impact on my life. Reading it in my early 40’s meant it wasn’t quite as illuminating. I saw this book in my school library and grabbed a copy for a couple of reasons. First off, I like Mayim Bialik. I think it is positively fantastic that she is using the platform she’s been given as an actress to help empower young women. I am one of those people who do no believe celebrities should just shut up and entertain us like some sort of dancing monkeys. Even when I don’t agree with their platforms (and I do not agree 100% with Bialik’s), I do believe celebrities have a right to use their fame to promote the causes they believe in.

Secondly, I am always on the lookout for non-fiction books which I might be able to use in my AP Language class. Since the course focuses on non-fiction and specifically looking for arguments non-fiction authors make as well as finding bias in non-fiction, I like to have a wide range of subjects for my students to pick from. Since Bialik has a PhD in neuroscience, I thought this book might really appeal to some of students who are really keen on science. I actually grabbed it because I have a specific student who is crazy about science and since I know that girls do not get nearly enough encouragement to explore different areas of STEM, I wanted to help meet her needs. I think students, especially female students, need more encouragement toward the sciences.

Finally, I picked up this book because she’s wearing a cape. Who doesn’t love a cape?

Although I am not the target audience for this book, I think that it will appeal to some of my students and I have every intention of adding it to my optional AP list. While it is geared a bit more toward students in 7-9th grade, even some of my seniors can benefit from the biological information she gives and the coping mechanisms she offers. I also plan on getting a copy for my daughter when she hits that horribly awful middle school period. I wish I would have had this book when I was in my early teens.

I have to admit there is something really satisfying about the idea of handing my daughter a book that may help her understand her period just a bit better written by Bailik, someone who helped me understand my own when I saw her dealing with it on her TV show Blossom.

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Free Reading Friday: Turtles All the Way Down

Turtles bookI’m not just giving this book 5 stars because I love John Green. Although I do very much love John Green. Especially after seeing him live for the Turtles All the Way Down book tour. John Green is an amazing human being who is funny and poignant and a spectacular writer.

But this review is not about John Green (although I would also give him 5 stars for his excellentness as a human being). This review is about his first book in five years: Turtles All the Way Down. As much as I wanted to read TAtWD the moment it came out, since I am lucky enough to live in one of the tour cities, I bought at ticket which included a signed copy of his book, so I had to wait a little over a week to get it. Of course, I started it that very night.

Like all of Green’s novels, it is a YA novel. This particular book centers on a high school junior named Aza. Aza transcends the usual nerdy, slightly socially awkward protagonist of most of Green’s novels. Unlike his other protagonists, Aza is suffering from some pretty serious mental health issues. Although she tries her best to hide it from her mom and best friend Daisy, Aza gets caught in these thought spirals, which she calls “invasives” that do exactly that: they invade her mind to such a degree that she becomes a danger to herself at times.

When Green was speaking during the tour, he talked quite a lot about psychic pain and a bit about his own struggle with mental illness. His words were extremely personal and it was easy to tell that Aza is a character he connects very deeply with. While he made it clear that his mental illness is not the same as Aza’s, he wanted the audience to know that the book was his attempt to accurately portray what it feels like to struggle with mental illness. As he makes clear in both the novel and on the tour, it is nearly impossible to describe pain, whether it is physical or psychic pain. When doctors ask us to describe the type of pain we are in, words tend to fail us. Grunts, moans and screams cover it best.

A member of the audience, who happens to be a professor at a local university who plans to teach Green’s book next semester, asked him what questions he would like her students to consider about mental illness when discussing this book. Green didn’t so much have a question for them to consider about a message in the book so much as he wanted them to consider whether or not he was able to portray mental illness accurately. He wants to know whether or not Aza’s experiences right true for people who suffer. His goal was not so much to make everyone able to empathize with Aza as it was to just try to give voice to what it’s like to live with mental illness.

While I consider myself very fortunate not to be fighting a life long battle with mental illness, when I lost my father five years ago, I sank into a pretty deep depression. I do not pretend to speak for anyone who suffers on a regular basis, but I think Green did a damn fine job of putting words to what I could not. Not even when doctors asked me to describe what I was going through. I could only communicate my pain in sobs, and not very well at that. However, I found Aza’s words so very fitting. The idea of feeling like you are and are not connected to your body, spiraling thoughts you can’t get out of and the inability to shut out those thoughts were all elements I struggled with. Finding myself swimming in dizziness and panic I could not explain or stop followed by an inability not to weep made me feel like I was so very lost. My depression made me feel like I was not me, but some sort of physical embodiment of the depression that was eating away at me. The monstrous depression took over and I was not sure who I was anymore.

While mine was a temporary depression that has eased over time, Green makes it very clear that Aza, like most people who struggle with mental illness, will not be so lucky. There is no miracle cure. There is surviving and there is moving forward.

I think this book is a crucial read for teens, especially for those who are living with mental illness. After all, “we’re here because we’re here because we’re here because we’re here.”

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