Review: Passenger

Passenger
Passenger by Alexandra Bracken

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is a BIG book. Lots of pages, yes, but Bracken tackles a lot with time-travel world building including passages to different eras and locales. Her main character is a headstrong, violin playing, steel-willed heroine, Etta, who pairs up with a biracial, former slave now self-proclaimed “privateer” (read pirate), Nicholas, to steal a magical astrolabe from an evil megalomaniac who also happens to be Nicholas’s grandfather. The pacing in this one is breakneck once you make it through the slow intro. Following the travelers from place to place proves challenging to keep up with and Bracken chooses both familiar and exotic locales for her characters to traverse.

Etta makes a few jumps in conclusive logic after she’s spirited away by Sophia that seem unrealistic. Her mother, Rose, is emotionally distant, and the leaps Etta makes in connecting her new time-traveling situation to assumptions about her mother’s intentions for her as a traveler are unbelievable in their accuracy. If her mother was as closed off as we are supposed to believe, Etta would need a lot more help in navigating this new wrinkle in her life and discovering her mother’s intent for Etta’s role in this game Ironwood is playing. Supporting character, Sophia Ironwood is deliciously awful and is at once pitiable for the callous way in which her grandfather Ironwood dismisses her, and easy to hate given her venomous attacks on Nicholas which, seem at first racially based, but develop a more complex nuance as the story progresses. Nicholas is trapped by the social constructs of his time and is sometimes annoying with his Doomsday View of his future, particularly when he becomes entangled with Etta. I always want love to overcome.

Ultimately, Bracken weaves it all together and brings the strengths of each character into play. The cliffhanger ending had me cursing the time lag between publications. Clearly, I enjoyed this one since I read it twice. I read it last spring after it had been out for a bit, and revisited it this month to prepare for reading Wayfarer, the conclusion to the story. I applaud Bracken for limiting herself to two installments since three or more seems to be The Thing in publishing these days.

BRIDGE: This would be a great title for lovers of historical fiction. It would pair well with a study of American Revolutionary time period or WWII Britain, those two locales receiving the most description and time in the story. The series itself would be a good one for character study as Sophia and Nicholas both change so much throughout the arc of the series.

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Review: Exit, Pursued by a Bear

Exit, Pursued by a Bear
Exit, Pursued by a Bear by E.K. Johnston

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

BRIDGE: (obvious) A Winter’s Tale by Shakespeare, Tess of the D’Ubervilles by Thomas Hardy, or House of Mirth by Edith Wharton

READ ALIKES: The Accident Season by Moira Fowley-Doyle, Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson, or

REVIEW: I’m usually a sucker for a happy ending, but this one left me with a weird taste in my mouth. I saw E.K. Johnston speak at ALAN in Nov. 2016, and I knew it would be an idealistic portrayal of a rape victim’s experience. I found myself continually thinking “Wow. That would never happen that way” or “Hermione is really handling this well”. On one hand, this book could be a good “instructional” read for families and communities on How To Deal with rape cases and victims. On the other hand, this could have an adverse affect on rape victims themselves. Hermione is so calm and well-adjusted throughout her ordeal, I worry that any reader who may have had an experience with sexual assault or is the victim of rape will feel that any reaction other than one like Hermione’s is a “wrong” reaction. While a situation like this without stumbling is sometimes reality, it is hardly the norm and I worry that it’s too easy.

That being said, Johnston’s writing is great and Hermione’s life and community are fullfilling. I also enjoyed a look into a high school cheerleading world that doesn’t involve airheads or cattiness. Again, perhaps not 100% reality, but cheerleaders get a bad wrap in YA and it’s nice to see the commitment to competition and their sport. Polly is a tremendous best friend and we should all be so lucky to have such a loyally fierce and supportive person in our corner. It’s a lovely snapshot of what humankind could be if we choose love and support.

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Review: Jane Steele

Jane Steele
Jane Steele by Lyndsay Faye

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The references and parallels to Jane Eyre are clever. Jane is equal parts wretched and conniving. She suffers and loves in equal measure; the fault of herself and others. A great book to pair with the Bronte Classic. One could create a scavenger hunt for younger readers to find the similarities and have older students compare thematic and motific similarities. Excellent audio narration.

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Back in Books

I’ve been MIA…I know. I’ve been changing jobs (gifted education specialist) and taking classes and raising kids and updating a house and doing life. Don’t worry – I’ve been reading all this time, but writing reviews and sharing my book journeys with you all has had to take a back seat to my professional changes and development. But I’m back and, while I still want to make suggestions about how to connect YA books to more classic texts, our classrooms have come a long way since I started this adventure. YA is more accepted than ever before in our nation’s schools even if it is still the “black sheep” of the literary family. I know there are still books being challenged out there, but we’re making progress. I don’t think it’s as important as it used to be to link a YA novel to a classic in order to feel like we’re justified teaching it in our classrooms.

I will continue to review books, but I’m taking a bite-sized approach to my reviews. Who needs to read all my words anyway when there are so many books out there and so little time to read them? I’m still reviewing for authors, but I’m being picky. And I’m still teaching, planning, grading, mothering, wifing, and all the other roles that go into being me. Missed being here and excited to get back in the groove.

Review and Bridge: These Broken Stars

These Broken Stars
These Broken Stars by Amie Kaufman

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It took me a while to get to this book even though I had heard buzz about it for almost a year. I also have a hard time ignoring a striking cover and this one is gorgeous.

Tarver and Lilac’s story is somewhat cliche: the poor little rich girl gets stranded with the self-made war hero. Tarver does the expected survival skills smorgasboard and Lilac has the appropriate “girlie” reactions as her expected inner strength and adaptability develop. While the dialogue is appropriately filled with snarky banter, there were a few times it felt stilted. It smooths out as the story progresses and even though readers might expect to have a hard time connecting with archetypes they’ve seen a hundred times before, the connection between Tarver and Lilac seems genuine in the end. Kaufman and Spooner did a good job keeping the story moving when there are only two speaking characters for the majority of the action. In the end, readers will be invested in both the characters’ relationship and the outcome of their situation.

Just when it seems trite, the setting and premise of the book quickly kick it out of the cliche category. Reminiscent of Glow by Amy Kathleen Ryan or Across the Universe by Beth Revis, this space opera does not disappoint. The existence of space colonization and cross-galaxy travel make for rich world-building. The idea of terra-forming strange planets to make them habitable opens up so many possibilities for this series. That’s one of the things I like most about the first two books. Different worlds with different climates and different assimilation struggles make for an endless store of possible spinoffs.

I was disappointed that the second book, This Shattered World, seemed to be about a completely different set of characters. But as the story progressed, realized that the story arcs crossed paths and it’s made me highly anticipate the third book in the Starbound trilogy. The plot of the second book was more original and puts a twist on the surprise element from the first book. I’m interested to see how the authors bring everything to a close with the third book, Their Fractured Light.

Overall a good choice for sci-fi and romance fans.

BRIDGE BOOKS: This book could easily be paired with some more traditional titles to address the archetypes and plot schema used.
Romeo and Juliet – William Shakespeare
Wuthering Heights – Emily Bronte
Anna Karenina – Leo Tolstoy

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6 Read Alouds for Engaging Reluctant High School Readers

By the time students get to high school, pleasure reading has become, for many of them, nonexistent. I remember watching sophomores and juniors walk into my classroom and ask, “Why do you have all these books in here? I never read anymore.” As many of us have learned, somewhere between “Circle Time” read alouds in elementary school and when they walk in our doors in high school, we have managed to kill the love of reading in our students. As I’ve mentioned before in my 5 Best Read Alouds for Middle School, I think students are never to old to be read to. And more than ever, when books are dissected and analyzed and cited and thematically essayed to death in high school, we need to reintroduce our students to the LOVE OF STORY. Please keep in mind that these are merely suggestions and books that I have had success with in multiple districts. You, of course, are the best judge of whether a book and its content are appropriate for your students.

1. The Haunting of Gabriel Ashe by Dan Poblocki – Has Gabriel created a monster?

Something sinister lurks in the woods outside of Slade.

Gabe has seen it, or he thinks he has – a shadow standing at the tree line, watching Gabe’s house with faintly glowing eyes.

Despite Gabe’s misgivings, his new friend, Seth, relishes the creepy atmosphere of the forest. It’s the perfect setting for his imaginary struggle against the Hunter, a deformed child-eating creature said to leave the bones of his victims in his wake. It’s just a game, but it’s all a bit much for Gabe, who quickly loses interest as summer ends and the days grow shorter.

But then strange things start to happen. Frightening things. And Gabe knows it has to do with the dark figure watching him from the edge of the woods.

Is Seth out to teach Gabe a lesson? Or is the Hunter more than just a myth? Gabe isn’t sure which option is more horrifying, but he’s determined to learn the truth before someone gets hurt . . . or worse.

2. Blank Confession by Pete Hautman – Shayne Blank is the new kid in town–but that doesn’t stop him from getting into a lot of trouble very quickly. The other kids don’t understand him. He’s not afraid of anything. He seems too smart. And his background doesn’t add up. But when he walks into the police department to confess to a murder, it quickly becomes apparent that nothing is as it seems. There’s more to Shayne–and his story–than meets the eye. As the details begin to fill in, the only thing that becomes clear is that nothing about Shayne’s story is clear at all.

3. Shattering Glass by Gail Giles* – “Simon Glass was easy to hate….I guess, really we each hated him for a different reason, but we didn’t realize it until the day we killed him.”

Fat, clumsy Simon Glass is a nerd, a loser who occupies the lowest rung on the high school social ladder. Everyone picks on him — until Rob Haynes shows up. Rob, a transfer student with charisma to spare, immediately becomes the undisputed leader of the senior class. And he has plans for Simon.
Rob enlists the help of his crew — wealthy, intellectual Young, ladies’ man Bob, and sweet, athletic Coop — in a mission: Turn sniveling Simon from total freak to would-be prom king.
But as Simon rises to the top of the social ranks, he shows a new confidence and a devious side that power-hungry Rob did not anticipate. And when Simon uncovers a dangerous secret, events darken. The result is disquieting, bone-chilling…and brutal.  *some profanity and sexual content

4. Killing Mr. Griffin – Lois Duncan – High school can be tough. But with teachers like Mr. Griffin it can seem impossible.

They only planned to scare him. But sometimes even the best-laid plans go wrong.

5. The Five People You Meet in Heaven – Mitch Albom – Eddie is a grizzled war veteran who feels trapped in a meaningless life of fixing rides at a seaside amusement park. His days are a dull routine of work, loneliness, and regret.

On his 83rd birthday, Eddie dies in a tragic accident, trying to save a little girl from a falling cart. He awakens in the afterlife, where he learns that heaven is not a lush Garden of Eden, but a place where your earthly life is explained to you by five people. These people may have been loved ones or distant strangers. Yet each of them changed your path forever.

One by one, Eddie’s five people illuminate the unseen connections of his earthly life. As the story builds to its stunning conclusion, Eddie desperately seeks redemption in the still-unknown last act of his life: Was it a heroic success or a devastating failure? The answer, which comes from the most unlikely of sources, is as inspirational as a glimpse of heaven itself.

6. “A Cheertastic Christmas Miracle” by John Green from Let It Snow with Maureen Johnson and Lauren Myracle – A Christmas Eve snowstorm transforms one small town into a romantic haven, the kind you see only in movies. Well, kinda. After all, a cold and wet hike from a stranded train through the middle of nowhere would not normally end with a delicious kiss from a charming stranger. And no one would think that a trip to the Waffle House through four feet of snow would lead to love with an old friend. Or that the way back to true love begins with a painfully early morning shift at Starbucks. Thanks to three of today’s bestselling teen authors the magic of the holidays shines on these hilarious and charming interconnected tales of love, romance, and breathtaking kisses.

Using these titles ans springboards, it is possible to get high school students interested in reading again. I’ve seen it. Good luck, and happy reading!

Doll Bones by Holly Black

PUBLISHER: Margaret K. McElderry Books

LENGTH: 247 pages

SOURCE: library book

SUMMARY:  Zach, Poppy and Alice have been friends for ever. They love playing with their action figure toys, imagining a magical world of adventure and heroism. But disaster strikes when, without warning, Zach’s father throws out all his toys, declaring he’s too old for them. Zach is furious, confused and embarrassed, deciding that the only way to cope is to stop playing . . . and stop being friends with Poppy and Alice. But one night the girls pay Zach a visit, and tell him about a series of mysterious occurrences. Poppy swears that she is now being haunted by a china doll – who claims that it is made from the ground-up bones of a murdered girl. They must return the doll to where the girl lived, and bury it. Otherwise the three children will be cursed for eternity.

BRIDGE: There are a multitude of ways one could use this to teach middle grade students about several anchor elements of literature. Black’s book has elements of Gothic literature and horror while following an adapted version of the hero’s quest. The inclusion of a male main character is refreshing in a book designed for middle grade readers. Zach is struggling with the transition from child to teen and the requisite longing and anger that accompanies it. Pairing this book with more traditional tales of boys coming of age could assist male and female readers alike in navigating such an emotionally charged change.

The story contains enough elements of mystery and ghostly elements to keep readers engaged. The modern elements of childhood merge nicely with the more antiquated elements of Gothic tales and provide a bridge to help readers understand the elements of story, mystery, and horror that are blended so well. While Poppy and Alice do seem somewhat interchangeable at times, the overall relationship between the children is one of a Three Musketeers bond that keeps the characters loyal to each other and to the story.

READERS: Doll Bones will appeal to fans of mystery and ghost stories. This type of magical realism appeals to readers who want to hold onto a little of the magic of childhood when ghosts are still very real in the dark and becoming a “grown up” seems the basest of betrayals. Male and female readers like will connect with the characters and the story.

OTHER TITLES: Readers who enjoy Black’s book might also enjoy Liesel and Po by Lauren Oliver, Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy by Karen Foxlee, and A Tale Dark and Grimm by Adam Gidwitz.