Thursday, February 28, 2008

The Falconer's Knot

The Falconer’s Knot
Mary Hoffman

Silvano is a young man who is in love with a married woman. When he’s accused of murdering this woman’s husband, his father sends him into hiding at a Franciscan friary, where he pretends to be a novice and hopes his name will be cleared.

Chiara’s parents are dead and her brother does not have money for a dowry so he sends her to become a postulant at the Poor Clares convent (which is located beside the friary). She has not received a call to be a nun, but she has little choice but to go to the convent.

Meanwhile at the friary a wealthy merchant is murdered. Soon thereafter there is another murder. Rumors circulate at first that Silvano is the murderer but then suspicion shifts to his mentor, Anselmo. Although Silvano and Chiara are not supposed to have any contact with each other they are thrown together on several different occasions and they start wondering who could be the murderer. As things in the friary become more and more chaotic the two are determined to solve the mystery.

This is a mystery, but it also has romance and there’s a lot to be learned about life in the Middle Ages. Hoffman does an excellent job of showing the importance of art and religion in everyday medieval life. I don’t think this is a mystery for everyone, but there are students who will enjoy it. I certainly did.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Fly on the Wall

Fly on the Wall
E. Lockhart

I have often said “I would love to be a fly on the wall when such-and-such happens.” For Gretchen Yee, her wish came true.

Gretchen lives in New York City, attending a special school for those who are talented in art. Gretchen’s preferred art style isn’t one that anyone else appreciates. She loves comic books and comic book heroes and that’s the type of drawings she does. Her drawing teacher doesn’t like her comic book style, and doesn’t mind criticizing her work in front of the whole class. In a school full of people who pride themselves on being weird, Gretchen feels ordinary and therefore out of place. There’s a guy she has a crush on, but she doesn’t know how to even talk to him, much less do anything about her crush. To make matters worse, she finds out that her parents are getting a divorce and she’s going to have to move. Her mom gets the chance to go on a vacation in the Caribbean and her father is going to Hong Kong on business, leaving Gretchen alone in the apartment for a week. Life is just not good.

Then she makes a fateful wish. She wishes she were a fly on the wall of the boys’ locker room. The next morning she is just that. After recovering from the shock of turning into a fly, she begins to learn how the “other half” conducts itself. Like all teenage girls would be, she is fascinated by all the boy parts she sees in the locker room, but then she begins to look under the surface and sees that many of the boys have just as many problems as the girls. They too are worried about their body images and they have lots of insecurities. Some are bullies, and some are gay. All are human. Now if she can just get back to her human self and act on all she’s learned . . .

This was a fun book with lots of humorous scenes but it had lots of serious undertones. Themes of divorce, homosexuality, homophobia, bullying, and just surviving as a teenager are throughout the book. For those concerned with such matters, there is a lot of strong language. I read my personal copy of the book and in my school zone this is a more appropriate book for high school readers. I enjoyed it, however, and will have no trouble recommending it to high school students.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Nonfiction Monday: Oh, Rats!

Oh, Rats!
Albert Marrin

Rats have never been a topic I was fascinated in, but I read a couple of blog entries about this book last year and was intrigued. I must say that I learned a lot about rats from it, although I must confess that I still don’t care for them. For those who like rats, and for those who like to be grossed out, this is a great book.

Marrin begins this book by exploring the characteristics of rats and then moves on the complicated relationship between rats and people. He does an excellent job exploring the worldwide impact of rats upon humans, although the majority of the focus is on Europe. I was amazed at the number of cultures that eat rat (although I probably shouldn’t have been). I was amused at some of the methods employed by people to get rid of rats, especially the idea of putting them on trial. The section on the bubonic plague didn’t really have information I hadn’t read elsewhere, but it was interesting (I did like the section on remedied for the plague although it would take a lot to get me to drink a handful of urine every day).

The only thing I could complain about is that in places I think the book could have been better written. There are some awkward sentences that an editor should have caught and had the author rework. Overall, however, this is going to be a great nonfiction booktalk for middle schoolers.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Shooting the Moon

Shooting the Moon
Frances O’Roark Dowell
Atheneum, 2008

Jamie Dexter is an Army brat. Her father is a Colonel, and she refers to him as such. Jamie is thrilled when her brother, T. J., joins the Army – she thinks it’s wonderful that he will soon be going to Vietnam and serving his country. She’s mystified when her dad is not excited and doesn’t understand why he would try to talk his son out of enlisting.

T. J. does go to Vietnam as a medic and Jamie starts volunteering at the rec center on base, where she gets to know a soldier, Private Hollister, who is assigned to work at the center and who also plays a mean hand of gin rummy. Soon T. J. starts sending letters home to his parents – not very detailed letters, just complaining about the food and talking about how nice the nurses were. He doesn’t write Jamie; instead he sends her a roll of film and asks her to develop it. Jamie doesn’t have any idea how to develop film, but the rec center has a dark lab, and a soldier shows her how. The first roll of film contains pretty innocuous pictures, but as T.J. sends more rolls, the pictures become darker, full of wounded soldiers missing arms and legs. Jamie doesn’t show her parents the pictures of the wounded soldiers; she chooses instead to share pictures of plants and soldiers sitting around drinking beer. At first she doesn’t understand the purpose of the pictures “As he trying to scare me? Or was he just trying to tell me that war wasn’t anything like the way we’d dreamed it, playing with our little green Army men under the trees?” (p. 115)
Shooting the Moon is not a long book, but it sure does pack a punch in its few pages. At a time when many people are questioning our involvement in Iraq, a book that looks at Vietnam is always relevant. Dowell’s writing is beautiful – there are many passages I could have quoted – and to a certain degree Jamie reminded me of Scout from To Kill a Mockingbird and anything that reminds me of that book is automatically wonderful. It will be interesting to see what type of attention Shooting the Moon will garner from award committees. It’s the first book I’ve read with a copyright date of 2008, and I think we’ve had an excellent start to the year

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Boy Toy

Boy Toy
Barry Lyga
Houghton Mifflin, 2007

Boy Toy
has to be one of the most difficult books I’ve ever read. It begins with a list of things “Ten Things I Learned at the Age of Twelve.” Number 1 is “The Black Plague was transmitted by fleas that were carried throughout Europe by rats.” Number 10 is “How to please a woman.” When Josh was in seventh grade he was molested by his beautiful, alluring history teacher. Eventually his parents realize what’s going on (it takes a traumatic event with one of Josh’s best friends), Mrs. Sherman is arrested and placed in prison. Josh’s life is never the same as before. He cannot get over the guilt of being the reason Eve (Mrs. Sherman) is in prison. He is quick to anger – often getting into fights – and except for his best friend Zik, he has isolated himself. Everyone knows what has happened to him, and his one desire is to graduate and get as far away from his hometown as possible. His one true love is baseball, but he is also a talented student who has never made less than an A in any class since third grade. To make things more complicated, Eve is now going to be released on parole. Josh goes nowhere without worrying about bumping in to her.

This is a story told largely in a series of flashbacks back to Josh’s seventh grade year when the abuse happened. Josh’s life is complicated not just by Eve, but also by his parents, whose relationship with each other is simply rotten. One of Josh’s problems is figuring out exactly what real love is, and he doesn’t have many examples from which to draw. In the end, he confronts Eve and is able to get some closure from the events that have so damaged him.

Although I read this book in one night (because I could not put it down), it really made me uncomfortable. I’ll take that as a good thing – no one should “enjoy” reading a book about molestation. Although Lyga targets a type of abuse that has been highlighted often in the papers these past few years, I think the emotions and guilt experience by Josh are pretty common for most people who have been sexually abused (not just by teachers). This is one of many strong points Boy Toy had. I also loved Josh’s relationship with Rachel (a girl who had been one of his best friends before the abuse and who is now interested in a romantic relationship if only Josh would allow it). Rachel is wonderful about understanding Josh and all of his problems. Lyga’s portrayal of Eve is also not one-dimensional. While Eve is most definitely the villain in the book, she is also quite damaged and, in the end, remorseful over her actions.

Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak did a masterful job of showing the horrors of rape; Boy Toy does the same with child molestation. I know this will be a book that many of my teachers will read and discuss.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Childhood Reads

From the time I was in 3rd grade until I was in 10th grade, I was going to be a nurse. I didn’t know anyone who was a nurse, but I had read the books. Oh boy, had I read the books. Perhaps my favorite series of books when I was little was the Sue Barton series, made even more challenging by the fact that I couldn’t get my hot little hands on several of them (Superintendent of Nurses and Neighborhood Nurse eluded me until the event of eBay). Sue was real and funny and I wanted to be her. I also loved the Cherry Ames books, and over the past twenty-five years or so (since I was in my teens), I’ve been able to find most of them in used bookstores and on the internet. I’ve never been able to get and read the last three. They are the hardest to find and their eBay prices were more than I was willing to pay. But somehow I stumbled on the fact that the Cherry Ames titles written by Helen Wells have been reprinted (completely ignoring the ones by Julie Tatham but that’s ok, I already have them). I ordered two of the three I'm missing and spent a very nice weekend reading them. For those who care, I thought Ski Nurse Mystery was better than Mystery in the Doctor’s Office but I liked both. It’s all formula fiction, but I ate it up as a child and it was a nice time of nostalgia for the weekend.

An interesting fact: I was taught in library school that Sue Barton, Student Nurse was the first novel intentionally marketed to young adults so when I do teacher in-services I introduce it at the first young adult novel.

Why didn’t I become a nurse? 10th grade biology convinced me that it I needed to look elsewhere. So I went to UNC-CH as an accounting major (it suited my anal-retentive nature) but quickly switched to history and political science. I did volunteer at UNC Hospitals and spent some very rewarding years working with kids with cancer.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Quick Question

Does anyone know if there is a site that collects links to various book trailers?  I love it when I come across a trailer I can use with a class, but I have difficulty finding them for myself.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

My To Be Read Pile

Robin Brande had a post yesterday about her To Be Read pile. Being the anal-retentive person that I am, I decided to count the books on my pile. Here are the totals:

At School (new books that I’ve pulled to read before they go on the shelves)
132 Fiction books
42 Nonfiction books
10 Graphic Novels

At Home
33 Adult Fiction books
6 Adult Nonfiction books
8 Young Adult books
2 Young Adult books

Grand Total: 233 books

Yes, that is scary and overwhelming. Not to mention that I’ve been stuck on the same book for the past week (I did sneak in two Cherry Ames books over the weekend but I’ll talk about that in a later post). I’m not sure what I’m going to do about this pile, except read my little heart out. I do know that they are all books I want to read, so I’m not going to give up on any of them at this point.

Edited to fix the grand total.  Yes, I can add -- I just hit the wrong button.