Looking Back: Favorite book of 2010 "The Magicians"

My persoanl rating: 5 of 5 stars

I was impressed by The Magicians. One of the quotes on the inside calls it "Harry Potter for adults." I would have to say that I agree, the novel does deal with many YA themes yet it is a cross-over novel, Quentin and crew graduate from Brakebills college about half way through.  The Magicians surprised me like Tithe surprised me, in that an urban fantasy can be nearly as rich as the traditional fantasy, though technically Grossman cheated a little by getting his characters to travel into a traditional fantasy world anyway.

Grossman's world is such that it has infinite possibilities, and though his Harvard vocabulary is showing, he still pulls off the college angst pretty well. It is interesting to see our "modern ideals and sensibilities" applied to the traditional fantasy world. He riffs on Rowling, Lewis, and Tolkien, while at the same time taking concepts made popular by those authors and making them his own.

Grossman will have a long legacy and his world is dense and full of possibilities. I would definitely recommend this for advance upper YA readers and adults. I am reading it again right now, as The Magician King is on my desk and I wanted to get back into the story. This was definitely my favorite read of 2010, and The Magician King might be my fav for 2011. We'll have to see! I have not had this kind of anticipation for a book in a long time, with the exception of my other favorite series, The Monstrumologist.

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Classroom Grade: B+ (coming of age story with upper level (adult) situations)

Pfeffer's Last Survivors Series

The Dead and the Gone (Last Survivors, #2)The Dead and the Gone by Susan Beth Pfeffer

My personal rating: 4 of 5 stars

Companion novel. I was never a fan of that term, however, I am now. “the dead & the gone” is cleverly done and taps into themes that young men clearly find interesting: survival, protecting one’s family, sticking to one’s morals in the face of adversity, the list goes on. Written from the third-person limited perspective, instead of the first-person narrations of the other two books in the series, it can stand on its own, or give the reader that deeper understanding of Pfeffer’s fictional world. I am a die-hard post-apocalypse fan, and this series is different in that it gives a bit more hope for our humanity. Most authors jump on the now cliché idea that humans become animals without society. Pfeffer has a little more hope/respect/naiveté about our species.

One of the best words to describe this series is “plausible”. It’s not a flashy word, not something you would think about standard YA fair and pick up because, well, it’s plausible. However, reading this series, and especially the first book, “Life as We Knew It”, I was forced to really consider how I might behave in the same situation. Then I wondered how the “big cities” differed from the country and if a male character would have handled things the same way. Fortunately, we don’t have to wonder, because in “the dead & the gone”, readers get just that.

Some readers looking for a grittier dystopian action-packed romp are in for a disappointment, this isn’t McCarthy’s “The Road.”. I think Pfeffer misses some opportunities to make some bold statements about religion, death, and society in this novel, but she does have some original thoughts and I enjoyed the companion novels better than the third, “This World We Live In” that brings all of the characters together.

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Opening Line: "At the moment when life as he had known it changed forever, Alex Morales was behind the counter at Joey’s Pizza, slicing a spinach pesto pie into eight roughly equal pieces."

Something Extra: Jackie Parker's interview with Susan Beth Pfeffer on her Interactive Reader blog and the series YouTube trailer:

Bottom Line: Over-all, this series was a great read. Definately a good selection for the classroom, and it will generate tons of things to discuss.  Girls and guys like this series, the companion novels are written from a female & male perspective.
Classroom Grade: A- (Life as We Knew It, the dead & the gone)  B (This World We Live In)

Anderson's "Twisted" - That's High School

My personal rating: 4 of 5 stars

I like Tyler Miller. Wait, no I don’t. Oh… yes I do. “Twisted” is kind of like this through the whole book. In some parts, Tyler seems very authentic and likeable (and sue me, I like my protagonists to be likeable). But he can also be very scary, especially as a first person narrator. Do we trust Tyler? Juvenile Delinquent Tyler? I understand that this is part of the point. But I found myself always wary of Tyler, and that kept me a little disconnected from the character. Tyler is searching for his identity, and so are we.

Tyler has issues with his father, and is isolated at school and home. This is a very authentic feeling for boys (frankly men, too) and I think anyone who has ever felt lonely in their life will appreciate these scenes. I had some issues with the middle and the end, Tyler is already ostracized on page one, even for the average reader, so ostracizing him further just didn't seem enough for me. Even Tyler is not entirely sure at points in the story if he did the things people are accusing him of. The turns him into a very unreliable narrator, and forces readers to analyze (maybe even over-analyze) every word he says. The story also diverts from the track of the love interest, and often that can conquer (read save) all, even for boys. Female bloggers tend to give this novel rave reviews. My students give it mixed. I am not raving, but I DO think this book has something to offer the male reading public.

Short chapters and an excellent use of white space, line breaks, and a gender neutral cover, all work well, so kudos to Anderson and Viking Juvenile for considering their audience. This is Anderson’s first attempt at a male lead, and in some places the authenticity is missing or seems forced, but on the whole, she gets it right enough.

The book broaches feelings that boys rarely access (mostly revolving about becoming an adult, and in this case becoming a man) and this book is a great avenue to explore those feelings. I wouldn’t say this is a “typical” guy book, however it has those elements, and maybe asks a little more of our young male readers, instead of just sitting them down with an action/sports novel.

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Opening Line: “I spent the last Friday of summer vacation spreading hot, sticky tar across the roof of George Washington High.”

Something Extra: Risha Mullins interviews Laurie Halse Anderson on her blog "For the Love of YA" and a interesting spicyreads.org YouTube interview.

Bottom Line: Give this book to students. Girls should like it and boys will be satisfied with its edgy feel and readability. It is a good example of realistic YA drama fiction.

Classroom Grade: B

Buy These Books! Or Else! –The Monstrumology Series

This blog was originally going to be a lament about the loss of one of the most literary YA series to grace the shelves of bookstores and classrooms this decade, The Monstrumologist series by Rick Yancey. Earlier this month, the series was cancelled by Simon & Schuster, and Yancey spoke about his disappointment on Leila Roy's Bookshelves of Doom blog. Then Stephanie Oakes from her Stephanie Reads blog started a campaign to save the series. Less than a week later, Simon & Schuster announced they would publish the fourth book, supposedly the last in the series (come ON Rick, PLEASE don’t stop…).

In anticipation if the third book, “The Isle of Blood”, it is time for those of you out there who love quality YA fiction to go out and buy the first two books anyway you can, and show up in HOARDS on Sept. 13 and buy “The Isle of Blood”. There is a lot of “buzz” out there about this series, but “buzz” obviously does not keep books in print, buying books does. I buy books all the time, from Barnes & Noble, several used bookstores where I live, and even Goodwill. I flood my classroom with books that matter (and some honestly, some that don’t). This fosters a culture of reading in the classroom that is second to none. I have five copies of “The Monstrumologist” in my classroom, and two at home. I loved “The Curse of the Wendigo” too, and have shared my personal copies with students who couldn’t wait for the library to get them in stock.

There is just enough of everything in the Monstrumologist series to make it cross over several genres, making it appealing to a broad group of readers. Speculative fiction has probably the broadest umbrella, but this is definitely for the horror/thriller aficionado, historical fiction fan, it has elements of steampunk and is deep in detail and grand in scope. This is a book written by a man, with male leads, that appeals to a male (and female) audience, and is challenging. If you are a fan of Young Adult Literature (and this IS literature) you MUST make room on your shelf for this amazing series. If you have “The Hunger Games” on your shelf, good for you, it’s great. Now, slide it over and make room for the Montrumologist series.

Monstrumology has been saved, for now. Make sure it stays that way, and in print, buy the books! Heck, buy the ebook, too! Tell your friends! Drive them to the store on Sept. 13th! Because if you don’t we’ll just be stuck with dreck that can be cranked out by plot engines, composed by computers and tapped out in ebook form, with someone’s “name” on it but no author required. There is a reason the industry is downsizing and book sellers are going bankrupt. Here is your opportunity to say, “Not today!”

A Case for "Exit Here"

Sex, drugs, and rock and roll—a few of the cornerstones of realistic young adult literature. Now throw in a good portion of porn, rape, murder and a cast of callus, delinquent (even criminal) characters that have no respect for themselves or others—yes, we are still talking about young adult fiction. All of these, and more, can be found in Exit Here (2007), by Jason Myers.

So what could possibly be the value of having a book like Exit Here on the young adult classroom or library shelf?

Myers tackles some of the traditional themes of the young adult novel: searching for self, redemption, learning right vs. wrong, the price of knowledge, and taking responsibility for ones actions. Exit Here is overly sensational, gritty, and probably would be improved by being whittled down by about 100 pages. But the scary, drugged-up, dangerous world that Myers creates is by default, sensational. The reader is lured into this scary world with the hope that something good will happen; that these characters will realize that tweaking on cocaine, date rape, violence and generally hating life has got to come to an end eventually, even if it comes at a costly price. Fortunately there are a few bright spots at the end of Exit Here but like in life, there is not always a happy ending for everyone. Isn’t that a good lesson, too?

There are attempts at literary writing in Exit Here, and a few motifs are present. With the washing/water motif; Travis Wayne regularly attempts to “wash away” his guilt of a crime the reader doesn’t quite know about, but is known to be lurking in the recent past. When he has difficulty dealing with his emotions, he swims to exhaustion in his affluent family’s backyard pool. He ex-girlfriend works at The Waterfront restaurant, and he takes her to the shores of “the biggest lake in the state” for a romantic weekend, only for the water to be too cold to swim. Soon, he realizes that it is impossible to reclaim the past, and “good girl” Claire helps Travis to realize that there is a price to pay for living the way he has lived and he has to “come clean” the right way. The reader works through the torrid conclusions of Travis’s relationships with every character, each one more horrific than the last. The other strong motif is that of the loss of innocence associated with landmarks and buildings. Laura Kennedy lost her virginity to Travis in a playground. That same playground is set for demolition, and Travis convinces his father to donate the property to the city he even returns there in a vain attempt to stop the loss of his reality. There are also the images of the abandoned elementary school, the closing of the Victoria Theatre, and of course the decrepit, abandoned Last Chance Motel.

Myers is not didactic in Exit Here, and the reader is left to make many of the leaps in judgment all on his or her own. Almost every character in the book essentially asks if there is redemption, even for bad people who have done really bad things. Travis asks, “Don’t you think you can right your wrongs?” (74) Laura Kennedy asks, “Do people deserve a second chance?” (174), Claire asks, “Do you think I am a good person?” (204) and finally Natalie claims the answer to these questions, “We all get what we deserve” (320). Self loathing is prevalent in the text, and in several instances characters come right out and admit that they hate themselves. Travis admits it regularly. If he felt fine about his actions, and those of his “friends”, readers would also hate him. But he is changing. This holds the story together, and the reader’s interest, knowing (hoping) that there will be a comeuppance for many of the characters.

Early in the novel, Michael tells Travis, “I’ve watched you spend your whole life not feeling bad about anything you have ever done” (49). By the end, readers know the intimate and hidden details of Travis’s sordid life, and await the reckoning that his actions require and his own realization of redemption.