Category Archives: books
Title: Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe
Author: Benjamin Alire Saenz
Publisher: Simon and Schuster
Release Date: 2012
Length: 359 page; 7 hours and 29 minutes
Genre: YA Contemporary
Source: Review copy from publisher
I would have never picked this book up on its own. It never would have made its way to my radar without winning a 2013 Printz Honor medal AND a Stonewall Book Award (AND a Belpre!) this January. Oh, a Stonewall award, you say? Hm.
Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe is a coming-of-age book about two awkward Mexican teenage boys growing up in the 1980s. Aristotle (Ari) is closed off from everyone, even himself. Dante, though also awkward, is brilliant and surprisingly confident. The two meet at the swimming pool one summer and become fast, intense friends. Ari needs Dante’s blunt questions, and Dante needs a loyal, non-judgemental friend. But life gets complicated. Emotions get complicated. Ari must learn who he is.
This is a quiet novel. It’s beautiful, lyrical, and emotional. Remember when I raved over the incredible feelings I experienced in The Sea of Tranquility? I would say Aristotle and Dante gave me a similar experience. I feel in love with both of these boys, felt the tension, and wanted to give everyone around me hugs. I HAVE JUST READ THIS INCREDIBLE BOOK AND I WANT TO HUG EVERYONE. Yeah, it was like that.
The desert setting (El Paso, Texas) was an interesting feature of the story. Ari and Dante spend a lot of time driving out to the desert to look at the stars, often with varying combinations of friends or girlfriends. It essentially reminded me of every single Counting Crows album I own. Sometimes books have soundtracks in my head, but this connection was so obvious that I can’t help myself! In particular, the song “Mrs. Potter’s Lullaby” was fitting. It’s one of my favorite songs, but I can’t embed the video from Germany (you can check it out on YouTube if you’re interested). Anyways, it’s this stanza from the song that sums up the novel:
“We drove out to the desert just to lie down beneath this bowl of stars
We stare up at the Palace like it’s the last of the great Pioneertown bars
We shout out these songs against the clang of electric guitars
You can see a million miles tonight
But you can’t get very far”
Since the book won a Stonewall, it obviously gets the LGBT tag. But I can’t really say why, because that would be spoiler-tastic. Let’s just say it’s more coming-of-age than LGBT, which is exactly what I’m looking for. Being LGBT does not define a character or a person, is one aspect of a greater life lived. That being said, this is far and away the best YA LGBT book I have read to date. So kudos, Benjamin Alire Saenz — you deserve every single award sticker on the front of your book.
FINAL GRADE: A Read it. It is a little slow at the beginning — Ari is a hard narrator to connect with, but that is by design (he can’t even connect with himself!). Honestly, I should just read every Printz novel because they are always stellar. This isn’t an action-packed, surprise-twist kind of novel. It’s not a romance or a trilogy, and there are no kick-ass female protagonists to be found. But it’s good. It gets the Tara stamp of approval.
Required Reading: Required for anyone interested in Mexican authors, books set in Texas, coming-of-age novels, literary fiction, fans of The Sea of Tranquility, and, of course, readers of LGBT fiction.
Library Recommendation: Put it in a high school library. As always, I would put it in my middle school library, but I’m a rebel. There are references to drinking, drinking and driving, sex, sexual feelings, and drug use. However, the parents presented in the novel are excellent representations of involved, realistic parents. I think all of the above issues are discussed by the parents with their children at various points in the novel.
Thoughts on the book? What was your favorite 2013 award-winning novel?
Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted by the bloggers over at the Broke and the Bookish. Book bloggers from all around create lists based on the chosen topics, and post links to the host blog to share our love of books. This week we are looking at books on tough topics. As a librarian, I felt these were important to helping students learn empathy and even actual useful information about important issues. It also breaks my heart that many of my students were seeing reflections of themselves in the stories they read. Here are some of my favorite picks:
Top Ten Books About Tough Topics
[this is not an after school special.]
All links go to my full review if you want to know more.
1.) Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher – Suicide.
2.) By The Time You Read This, I’ll Be Dead by Julie Anne Peters – Suicide.
3.) The Rules of Survival by Nancy Werlin – Living with an abusive parent.
4.) Before I Die by Jenny Downham – Teen cancer.
5.) A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness – Death of a parent.
6.) Hate List by Jennifer Brown – School shootings and bullying.
7.) The Mockingbirds by Daisy Whitney – Rape/date rape.
8.) Forever by Judy Blume – Teens having sex…and not dying/getting pregnant/regretting it/getting an STD.
9.) Paper Covers Rock by Jenny Hubbard – Witnessing the death of a friend.
10.) The Chosen One by Carol Lynch Williams – Escaping a polygamist cult.
What books about tough topics would you recommend?
Title: City of Ember, People of Sparks, Prophet of Yonwood, Diamond of Darkhold
Author: Jeanne DuPrau
Publisher/Year: Dell Yearling, 2003/2004/2006/2008
Pages: ~ 290
Genre: YA Dystopia
Source: Borrowed from library
Date Read: Between 2008-2009
Instead of reviewing these books individually, I thought I’d review the series. Reviewing a series is difficult without giving away the ending of the first book, but I’ll try to do this as spoiler-reduced as possible. I cannot promise spoiler free! This review is probably best for anyone who has read City of Ember already.
City of Ember is the story of Lina and Doon and a town that is loosing its lights. The society is dystopian, and Lena and Doon have recently been sorted into their jobs as full members of the society. But the lights keep flickering, and everyone worries that the electricity will go out forever. Lena and Doon soon realize that there is more to their society than they originally imagined, and that secrets are being kept from the people that could actually save them all from destruction!
People of Sparks continues the story of Lina and Doon as the people of Ember must learn to live and work with the people of Sparks. The two societies have difficulty working together and sharing resources. The Prophet of Yonwood is a sort of prequel to the the series, explaining (sort of) how Ember came to be. And The Diamond of Darkhold brings it all together, continuing the story of Lina and Doon while bringing in elements of Yonwood.
Honestly, City of Ember is the best of these books. I would suggest reading City of Ember and The People of Sparks and then stopping. DuPrau loses her way in the later two books. I don’t feel like either made much sense or did what I wanted it to do. There was so much potential in The Prophet of Yonwood to explain the creation of a rigid society, but it was more of an afterthought. We always see these crazy, rule-filled societies after they are created and are about to fall apart, it would have been fascinating to see the logistics of setting one up.
FINAL GRADE: B At the time, I rated City of Ember a B, and the rating still holds. I failed to rate the others, but I would give People of Sparks a B- and the others a C-. These are dystopian books for middle schoolers, so they are definitely on the lighter side of the genre. In my experience, my students who were big readers loved the series (upper elementary kids seemed to love them, too). My other kids often liked City of Ember, but had no interest in diving deeper into the story. The “twist” (/surprise reveal) in City of Ember is one that does stand out, though. Worth checking out.
What are your thoughts on this series?
Title: Where Things Come Back
Author: John Corey Whaley
Publisher/Year: Atheneum, 2011
Length: 228 pages
Genre: YA literary fiction
Source: Purchased from Amazon
Winner of the 2012 Printz Award
A giant woodpecker. A missing brother. An African missionary. Where Things Come Back is the story of each of these. All of these. It’s one of those stories where three seemingly different tales weave together to create one narrative.
First, the woodpecker. Lily, Arkansas is an in a tizzy because one man, a Mr. John Barker, has sighted an extinct woodpecker. The Lazarus woodpecker, to be exact. Everyone in town, especially the media, is a buzz with talk of the woodpecker and hopes for confirmation. The local motel, a cheeseburger, and even a hairstyle are all named after the woodpecker.
Second, the missing brother. One day, Gabriel Witter disappears. His brother, Cullen Witter (our protagonist) is left to deal with the situation and search for meaning in what has happened. Cullen’s also trying to date and manage his friendships in small-town America. He’s also a little skeptical of the whole woodpecker business. Basically, he’s searching for answers.
And finally, the African missionary. Benton. He’s a got a crappy home life, and his mission isn’t quite helping him find the answers he’s searching for. He’s in a crisis of faith.
I’ll admit, it took me some time to get into this novel. In fact, I think it took me a couple of months and a couple of tries to keep going. The main conflict wasn’t apparent and I couldn’t tell where the story was going. Maybe the woodpecker thing just didn’t intrigue me. I don’t know. But once I got about 1/3 of the way in, I had to admit that John Corely Whaley knows what he’s doing. It’s a coming of age novel set in front of a mystery. It’s Cullen’s story, but it’s also Benton’s story. It’s biblical allusion out the wazzu.
If YA fiction has a “literary fiction” genre (which I would argue that it does), this novel would be among the small number of novels in that group. That’s why it won the Printz. For me, the book gave me a “WOW” moment at about the 80% mark, when I really didn’t know what was going to happen. For the first time in the novel, I felt fear. The quiet, crafted story entered the arena of suspense, and I was hooked. I dropped everything and read to the end. It all made sense and it all came together and I barely even saw it coming. I tip my hat to you, Mr. Whaley, for that.
FINAL GRADE: A Well written and memorable. Unpredictable. Solid, steady, and beautiful. I give books As for different reasons: the thrill ride that was Divergent, the slow-burn romance of The Sea of Tranquility, and the thought provoking/edgy Every Day. When I think of those books, I know Where Things Come Back must be among them. Excellent writing, multi-dimensional characters, phenomenal plot, and a killer ending. This novel may be short and it may be a little difficult to get started, but trust me: it’s worth it.
Required Reading: Required for anyone who doesn’t typically like YA, high school teachers, and fans of contemporary novels. Stay away if you need vampires or intense action to enjoy a book.
Library Recommendation: Strongly recommended for high school. I would skip it for my middle school library (I just don’t think it would interest them).
What do you think of Printz novels or the category of “literary fiction” in YA?
Title: The Time Machine
Author: HG Wells
Publisher: Trout Lake Media
First Published: 1895
Length: 4 hours, 10 minutes
The Time Machine is a sci-fi novel from 1895. It’s the story of the Time Traveller describing his trip to the future. He travels to the year 802,701AD, where he meets two group of creatures: the Eloi and the Morlocks. The Eloi are small creatures who live above ground in crumbling buildings. They are kind of lazy and dumb, but happy. He befriends a particular Eloi female named Weena. However, after learning that his time machine has been stolen, he discovers another group, the Morlocks. These creatures live below ground in tunnels and they are definitely sinister. The Time Traveller must get his machine back so he take Weena back home with him, but they end up getting attacked by Morlocks.
I first read this book in the sixth grade. While I could certainly map the plot and compare/contrast the Eloi and the Morlocks, I don’t think I really “got” the story. For example, I didn’t realize that this story essentially coined the word “time machine” and the idea of time travel using an object as a vehicle. I also had no concept of how the Eloi/Morlock creatures represented class struggle. The delicate, yet useless, class of creatures living above ground and the underground creatures who run the machinery beneath the surface. Now it’s a little more obvious what Wells was trying to say. My sixth grade brain had no context for that information. I just remember the Worlocks being really scary.
And is it just me, or is the “story within a story” conceit big in the these older books? My most recent classic was Frankenstein, which was a story within a story within a story. Here the narrator is just a dude listening to the time traveller recount his time spent in the future. However, at the end it totally makes sense why Wells did this. In fact, I found the ending the most oddly creepy part of the whole novel. I did not remember it at all.
FINAL GRADE: C Maybe it’s because I’d read the book before, but I found it lacking. It was only four hours long as an audiobook, and it took a long time before the Time Traveller even started telling his story. The actual time traveling, Eloi/Morlock part of the novel was relative short. I wanted more adventure, more action. But I recognize that this is a trail-blazing story, and my thirst for those elements comes from all the subsequent works that added them. It’s definitely worth a read as key work of science fiction, if nothing else.
Assigned Reading: Assigned to all fans of science fiction, Doctor Who, and anyone looking for a quick classic.
Library Recommendation: Put it in a middle or high school library. You can probably find a relatively cheap edition. It’s not for every kid, but it’s a classic and it should be there. Also consider buying one of the graphic novel adaptations of the story, as I’m sure that format would appeal to kids.
What was the first time travel book you ever read?
Title: Nothing Can Possibly Go Wrong
Author: Prudence Shen and Faith Ellen Hicks
Release Date: 5/7/2013
Genre: YA contemporary
Format: Graphic novel
Source: ARC from NetGalley
Cheerleaders, a robotics team, and a school election? Oh. Do tell me more.
Nate and Charlie have been best friends since grade school, even though they are social opposites. Nate is the geeky president of the robotics team, while Charlie is the captain of the basketball team. When Nate hatches a plan to run for school president to ensure funding for the robotics team, he expects Charlie to be on his side — not to run against him! The cheerleaders have forced Charlie to run so the extra money will go toward new cheerleading uniforms. A prank-tastic battle ensues. Eventually, all forces (including the super organized, but bitchy, cheerleaders) must put their faith in a robot battle competition with a hefty cash prize. Sprinkle in some family and relationship drama, and you’ve got Nothing Can Possibly Go Wrong, FirstSecond’s latest YA contemporary graphic novel.
There are not a lot of good YA contemporary novels that feature a strong male friendship, so this graphic novel was refreshing. The story is sensitive to jocks and nerds, so it has wide appeal. The story is short, and some of the plots underdeveloped, but the characters are strong. My one criticism would be that the cheerleaders bordered on stereotypical. I kind of expected the novel to surprise me with the cheerleader characters, but they were fairly flat and definitely played the antagonistic role for the first half of the story. Overall, though, the story made me laugh and taught some lessons along the way. Teens will appreciate it, and that’s what matters.
FINAL GRADE: B FirstSecond, you have impressed me again. Your graphic novels always deliver. I’d recommend this for middle and high school libraries, and it will be a hit with both nerds and reluctant readers. Fans of other FirstSecond titles will enjoy this novel, as would fans of YA contemporary. This novel, or any of the other books from this publisher, would make great “gateway” graphic novels for any teachers or librarians looking for an introduction to the genre or titles for the classroom. I know I sound like I work for the publisher (I definitely don’t!), but there just isn’t anyone else out there offering what they offer.
Other 01FirstSecond titles of interest that I have read and reviewed:
Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted by the bloggers over at the Broke and the Bookish. Book bloggers from all around create lists based on the chosen topics, and post links to the host blog to share our love of books. This week we are looking at topics that grab our attention. We all have them. It might genres, settings, themes, but we have our bookish tendencies.
Top Ten Words/Topics That Will Make Me Pick Up A Book
[I'm so easy.]
Which words and topics grab your attention?
Well, kids…I did it! I made it through the first year of graduate school. I had my moments (getting on the motivation bus after spring break was rough), but I did it. In general, this has been one of the best years of my life. I’m academically challenged and intellectually stimulated on a daily basis. I had my butt kicked by a class, a paper, and a book.
I’ve learned a few things along the way, and even wrote a post on what I’d learned after the first semester. So now, in my wisdom as a student with one full year of her Ph.D behind her, I offer some advice to anyone embarking on a similar journey. Obviously, I’m no expert. I’m only drawing from my personal experience. But since many of you are similarly involved in the worlds of education, library science, and books, hopefully it applies.
1. The Ph.D is a collaboration, not a competition. I think a lot of us came into our cohort thinking that we were competing against each other for grades, assistantships, attention, and future jobs. However, we are quite specialized in our areas of interest and expertise. We learned that we all benefit when we help and support each other. That means tackling readings together, late night Facebook messaging over assignment details, and being respectful when offering questions/critiques after presentations or in papers. It also means we share information about conferences, opportunities, and assistantships with each other when we think they would be a good fit. I want to graduate with the most amazing colleagues in the country, why would I not help them get there?
2. It’s okay to be confident. This isn’t the place for humility. I spend my days with some really smart people, and it’s okay for them to acknowledge that they know a lot about a topic.
3. It’s also okay to say, “I don’t know.” This is different from humility. Saying “I don’t know” shows that I am realistic about my knowledge base. I’m self-aware. Often when I say I don’t know, I’m extending the statement: “I don’t know. How can I find about more about that topic?”
4. Pick your paper topics carefully. In all of my classes so far, the final papers have been fairly open-ended. Why spend all of that time on a paper that doesn’t serve some higher purpose? Maybe it’s something publishable, maybe it’s a future mini-section of something bigger. Take it to a conference. Basically, kill as many birds with that stone as possible.
5. Network. Network network network. Network with the faculty. Network across campus. Network with students in cohorts above you. Network with your own cohort, for goodness sake. This, to me, is the best argument I can offer for why this degree should be done full time. It probably sounds silly to people in the outside world (like my parents), but those connections made at afternoon happy hours, lunchtime lectures, and campus activities are priceless. Every time I leave a conversation with a faculty member I have a new opportunity of some kind in my pocket, even if I can’t always take advantage of that opportunity.
6. You will receive constructive criticism and you WILL appreciate it. In my previous life, I did not get a lot of cricism on my papers. I’m notorious for my poor editing skills, so a comment about better proofreading was typical (I try. Really, I do. I’m to the point where I’m just going pay a service to proofread for me, because I’ve yet to find anyone who can actually help me). Beyond that, I might have gotten a suggestion or two and that was it. Now the criticism is plentiful. And intense. We are no longer working toward “good enough for this class,” but “good enough for publication.” I can’t lie — it was tough at first. But that’s the game. Everyone is getting criticism like that. That’s how it works. I’ve had to stop being emotional about my writing and start being objective.
7. The Ph.D is about theory and research. We’ve struggled with this a lot in the first year. As former teachers, we want to make everything practical. What can teachers turn around and do tomorrow with what I’m learning. While that piece is important, it’s not crucial. Theory is important. Research is important. Don’t do a Ph.D if you are going to constantly ask about the practical application of everything.
8. No one outside of academia will care what you’re doing. This makes me sad, because I love what I’m doing and want to talk about it. People love talking about babies and weddings and home decor. And sports. They do not love hearing about research. It’s kind of made me realize who my real friends are. If I can listen to someone talk about various types of poops her baby has made, that same friend can listen to me talk about an idea I have for a paper.
9. …Or if they do care, they’ll tell you that you’re wrong. Several times in the past week I’ve explained a paper I wrote, and had people tell me it was a pointless topic. People who are not in education. It seems strange to me that anyone who knows nothing about a field would make such bold statements. The funny part is that these are always men. That’s right — they mansplained to me. It makes me mad, but it’s also a reality of this world. People who know nothing about your area of study and will give their opinions on it. Teachers are probably already familiar with this fact.
10. You will work harder than you’ve ever worked in you life. It’s true. My master’s degree was a cakewalk compared to this. I think somewhere the rumor was started that the Ph.D is like another master’s with a dissertation attached. Um, no. You could probably get by with that level of work, but you wouldn’t be successful with that level of work. This world is about 50% assigned coursework and 50% everything else. However, I also find that it’s one of the most rewarding experiences in my life. When the bar is high and I work my ass off, I’m impressed with what I accomplish. I like having my ass kicked by knowledge.
Okay, so there you have it. That’s what I’ve learned in my first year, and the knowledge I hope to pass along to anyone about to start this journey or thinking about starting a Ph.D. It’s not for everyone. This has been an awesome, crazy, ridiculous, busy, intense year, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
What have you learned in graduate school?