Monday, March 31, 2008

The Unspoken, by Thomas Fahy

Fahy, Thomas (2008). The Unspoken. New York: Simon & Schuster, 166 pages.

Summary and Evaluation:
Five years ago, six teenagers who were forced to be in a cult burnt down the campsite killing the self-declared prophet, but not before he could prophesy that each of them would die of their worst fear in five years. Thus, when Allison and the others learn that her friend Harold mysteriously drowned, they are drawn back to the town where it all began. The curse is being fulfilled as others mysteriously disappear and die. It is up to Allison to discover the truth behind the mystery and find a way for herself and the others to survive.

When choosing this book, I prepared myself for a gruesome horror story, but was disappointed that it wasn't nearly as shocking as advertised. Allison's dreams during her seizures gave warning of impending death; however the details of the dreams were not vivid and did not create suspense. Each dream was followed by the discovery that one of her friends died. Though descriptive, they were not suspense builders. Even with the lack of suspense, the plot did move along quickly after the five surviving teens gathered. The story switches from the present to five years ago telling the horrors that each teen experienced while living in a commune with the other cult members. These frequent flashbacks were good for understanding each character's fears, but made very obvious the "who-done-it" aspect of the story. Fahy tries to resolve the story partly with realism and partly using the supernatural giving Allison one last premonition leaving the story unresolved and a bit unsettling. Many of the plot elements were left unexplained which I preferred. I could choose which explanations I most enjoyed.

Booktalk Hook: Because of the age of the characters and the style of writing, I would present this book to older YA's. To describe this book, I would read from the passage when the cult leader takes Allison to the confessional.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Street Love, by Walter Dean Myers

Myers, Walter Dean (2006). Street Love. New York: Amistad, 134 pages.

Summary and Evaluation:
Damian, an upper class student headed for the Ivy League, falls for Junice, a girl struggling to keep her family together after her mom goes to prison for dealing drugs. When they meet in the office one day, Damian is eager to get to know this beautiful girl, while Junice is careful to hide her life that she is ashamed of. Against the will of friends and family, each must show what they are willing to sacrifice in order to be together.

Like A Hero Ain't Nothin' but a Sandwich, the language of this book took some getting used to. Told in free verse, the rhythm and style kept changing as each character spoke. But after a little time, I acclimated and found that this form was beautiful. When Damian was hanging out with his guy friends, I felt like I was singing along to a rap. Other times, I was just reading concise angry sentences like when Junice is at family court. "You quote paragraphs and sentences/And laws with numbers and subsections/Will my tears erase them?" When Junice spoke the poetry used vivid imagery. She says that her hands can "crush razor blades and catch sunbeams." Novels in verse also do not tell the whole story. I appreciated the chance to add my own inferences to the story which is something I have not often found in the literature I've read so far. Although I liked the form of the book and I found the plot compelling, I was left disappointed at the end of the book. The ending seemed unrealistic and uncharacteristic of both Damian and Junice.

Booktalk Hook: I would create and memorize a free verse poem of my own that introduces Damian and Junice and their struggle to show their love for each other.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes, by Chris Crutcher

Crutcher, Chris (1993). Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes. New York: Greenwillow Books, 216 pages.

Summary and Evaluation:
Eric Calhoune, aka Moby, is obese; Sarah Byrnes is ugly and has been since she was three. An accidental burn permanently disfigured her face because her father would not let doctors repair it. Eric and Sarah Byrnes have been friends for life believing that "terminal ugliness" brought them together. At the beginning of high school Eric even started overeating afraid that he would lose Sarah's friendship if he lost weight due to swimming. Now it's senior year and Sarah Byrnes has suddenly sunken into a strange catatonia and is hospitalized. Eric finally discovers the truth about Sarah's deformity and must help free her from her horrible past.

I initially chose this book because I wanted to read a sports story. This one was about swimming (a favorite of mine), but seemed to have more than descriptions of monotonous practices and vicious competitive spirit. Well, that was true. Woven into a rather secondary story of preparing for regionals is a complex story dealing with issues of religion, abortion, and abuse. Crutcher presents these issues in such a way that it forced me to consider the reasons for my own beliefs on the matters. Although challenging, the topics were introduced with sensitivity. Students brought up each issue during a course called Contemporary American Thought; then the issues remained present as various students had to deal with the real life applications of them. Suspenseful action scenes and the occasional bit of humor prevent the book from being overly philosophical. Eric's clashes with Sarah's father and testosterone heavy competition keep the story moving for those who may not be the philosophy types.

Booktalk Hook: Because this book has so many layers it may be difficult to summarize well, but I think a five sentence booktalk would work best. "Sarah Byrnes and Eric Calhoune are best friends because they are both ugly. When Sarah Byrnes was three she was scalded by a pot of boiling water - at least that's what she says. Now it's senior year and the normally vicious Sarah Byrnes has slipped into a mysterious catatonia. Eric is trying to balance school, swimming, and helping his friend find a way out of her mental trap. When all the secrets finally come out, Eric has to choose the best way to be loyal to his friend."

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Elsewhere, by Gabrielle Zevin

Zevin, Gabrielle (2005). Elsewhere, New York: Square Fish. 288 pages.

Summary and Evaluation: When Liz wakes up one morning sailing in the S.S. Nile, she assumes that she is still dreaming. In reality, she is dead and sailing to the afterlife, an island called Elsewhere, where she will live and work much like on Earth; only Liz will age backwards. At first, Liz struggles to cope with the reality that she is dead and separated from her family and friends, but with help from her grandmother and a few friends, particularly a young man named Owen, Liz comes to understand the importance of both of her lives. This fantasy reads very close to realistic fiction. Life in Elsewhere is very similar to life on Earth. People go to work everyday, shop at the mall, and have romantic relationships. The only difference is that animals and humans speak with one another and eventually everyone will become young again. Except for an out-of-place incident with some mermaids, there were no mythical creatures or great expeditions. For this reason, I enjoyed this fantasy novel. It puts an unusual and comical spin on the afterlife and reincarnation. How many people could imagine their grandmother hooking up with a rock star in the afterlife?

I could have used a little more description in some places. When Owen cooks for Liz there is an allusion that the food is mediocre, but no description of the food itself. When Owen saves the day all Liz says is "I'm pissed at you!" There is no resolution to the argument and there's no telling what actually solved the problem. At these points the scenarios end abruptly. Liz swims to the bottom of the ocean to make contact with her family, but the lack of description make it impossible to know what "The well" looks like. It is almost as if the author didn't know herself. Despite the lack of descriptions, the premise was fresh and at times the book was very emotional and funny.

Booktalk Hook: One of the biggest questions in life is "What happens after I die?" This book presents a perspective answer to that question. My booktalk would start with, "If you died tomorrow what do you think would happen?" Then I would tell how Liz died and the new life she has to face.

Monday, March 10, 2008

The Road of the Dead, by Kevin Brooks

Brooks, Kevin (2006). The Road of the Dead. New York: Scholastic. 339 pages.

Summary and Evaluation:
Fourteen year old Ruben has always had the ability to experience exactly what a member of his family is experiencing; thus he knows the exact moment his sister, Rachel, is murdered. Frustrated that they cannot get her body back, Ruben and his older brother, Cole, leave London for the small town where Rachel was murdered. Up against racial antagonism and a town desperate to keep its secrets, Cole and Ruben must find a way to see justice done. At first this book reeled me in, and I was anxious to see how the mystery was solved. About half way into the book, the murder is solved, and the book devolves into a story akin to a bad action movie - no plot, moderate characterization, a lot of shooting, and gallons of blood. The blood and shooting would have been no problem if only combined with sufficient evidence of motivation by Ruben and Cole. The only explanation is that Cole wants his sister's corpse back. I also had to remind myself that the book was set in England and the racial friction was between the British and the gypsies. The dialog and the language of the writing made the story feel like it was set in the American South. Racial discrimination between gypsies and other groups is not often handled in literature, and I would have appreciated more coverage of that theme. I also got the impression that Ruben's premonitions were an excuse to switch perspectives which became confusing. With that said, this book probably has great appeal for those who love action. Cliffhangers at the end of most chapters keep the action moving, and it is easy to get swept up in the bloody emotion of the moment.

Booktalk Hook: Ruben's premonition at the beginning of the story elicits a lot of emotion. I would start a booktalk by asking the question, "How would you feel if you could know what your family members were experiencing at any moment? What if that family member were being murdered? This is exactly what happens to Ruben when he experiences his sister's murder along with her."

The Big Empty, by J.B. Stephens

Stephens, J. B. (2004). The Big Empty. New York: Penguin. 204 pages.

Summary and Evaluation:
Half of the world's population has been killed by Strain 7, a mysterious virus and the United States is under military rule. The government has forced everyone in the Midwest to evacuate and move to cities on the edges of the country. A secret "almost utopia" has formed a community and has invited many young people to join them. This first book in the series tells how seven teenagers from across the country must leave family, friends, and relative comfort in order to find this secret civilization.

I don't typically enjoy the melodrama of post-disaster stories nor do I enjoy survival stories; however I found that this story really kept me interested. Perhaps it was because the back of the book advertised that there were seven teenagers, and until about half way through I could only count six. I was interested in how all of the teenagers were going to come together. I also found that each of the characters had distinct personalities. Keely, a rich brainiac, met up with Amber, a feisty pregnant teen. Maggie, the shallow unaffected brat, flees New York with her angry boyfriend Michael. Irene uses her medical drama know-how to save Diego, and finally Jonah proves to be the resourceful one. I could tolerate the story because it was told in short chunks jumping from character to character. I wasn't told how everyone got from one place to another, but in stories like these I would rather imagine it than be told every minute detail. The abrupt ending even made me want to check out the second book in the series.

Booktalk Hook: I would do a basic booktalk for the entire series. To get their attention, I would start out saying, 'half of the world's population is dead and America has become a dictatorship." Then I would move into telling what people are doing about it and the adventures this group has.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Getting Away With Murder, by Chris Crowe

Crowe, Chris (2003). Getting Away with Murder: the True Story of the Emmett Till Case. New York: Dial. 128 pages.

Summary and Evaluation: In this nonfiction telling of the murder of Emmett Till and the farcical trial that followed, Crowe puts the crime into context with the Southern way of life and tensions of the emerging Civil Rights movement. Emmett Till was a fourteen year black youth from Chicago who when he visited family in Mississippi was brutally murdered and left in the Tallahatchie River. After an historic indictment (almost no lynching ever went to trial), J. W. Milam and Roy Bryant, the murders were tried and acquitted by an all white jury.

Learning about the Civil Rights Movement in school did not put in context everyday life for an African American in the South the way this book did. Knowing that up to that point, no white person had gone to trial for lynching and that it was accepted as part of life made the murder trial that much more important. Also, the murder could have been all but unnoticed if Emmett's mother, Mamie Till Bradley, had not instantly begun notifying the press of the incident. When the body of her son was finally returned to her, she insisted that the world see what they had done to her son. She allowed hundreds of irate citizens and the press to see Emmett's mangled body. The narrative of the trial was enhanced with high-quality photographs. It was only until I saw the photos of Milam and Bryant, playfully holding their children on their laps or happily lighting a cigar after the acquittal that I realized how apathetic the killers were to what they had done. No description of Emmett's corpse matched the photo of his mangled face and body.

While the message was powerful, the writing itself was a little disjointed. Tellings of the crime were often repeated in different section of the book. I also found it easy to get the many involved individuals confused. I often mistook the prosecuting attorney's words for the defense attorney's and had to flip back pages to ensure that I understood exactly who had done what.

Booktalk Hook: This book lends itself to the read aloud booktalk. Crowe includes concise newspaper articles that were printed around the time of the trial and contain detailed description of Emmett's body and the attitudes of the killers. I would select portions of the article on pages 68-69 to present to the group. It reports on the discovery of Till's body, its condition, and the possible murderers in such a way that it gives a sense of the ensuring injustice.