Category Archives: Review

TQ Review: Perfect by Ellen Hopkins

Review: Perfect by Ellen Hopkins

Title: Perfect
Author: Ellen Hopkins
Publisher: Margaret K. McElderry Books
Publication Date: 2011

Good Reads Synopsis

This is another Ellen Hopkins YA novel. If I see an Ellen Hopkins book, especially one I haven’t read, I grab it and read it immediately. Ever since I first read Crank, I have been hooked. I love Hopkins’ books because:

  • they are written in verse form
  • they are so poignantly real
  • the characters are fully developed, yet elusive enough for us to fill in with our own background knowledge
  • the themes are ones we all struggle with, or know someone who struggles with it
  • they are thought provoking

I have not yet read all of Hopkins’ novels, but she is one I return to time and time again. My oldest daughter has read them all, since beginning with Crank when it was first published. I read Crank, because she recommended it. And the gritty reality of life with addiction and what it does to those surrounded by it made me yearn for more understanding. I picked up Perfect because it was suggested for a lower level reading student (it’s funny how something with such powerful themes and concepts can be deemed “lower level” because of things like sentence length–which is always short in a verse novel–and how many syllables the words have–but that’s a completely different post!). The student in question did not want to read it, which I think was a good choice, because the themes and concepts written in verse form would have proven difficult for this student. Perfect is a follow up to Conner’s story in Impulse (which I have not yet read, but didn’t seem to get in the way of my reading it).

So, I read it instead. It took me the better part of a semester–because I only read it during the Independent Reading time I use in my classroom, so fifteen minutes here and there added up eventually! I finished it and wished there was more.

Four seemingly independent story lines begin to tell the story and struggle each one faces in the search for a perfect version of themselves, which does not exist. Cara, Andre, Sean, and Kendra each have separate lives, but they intertwine through a variety of relationships. These four characters struggle through some very emotional and adult themes and ideas.

The themes and ideas covered include:

  • Perfection
  • Homosexuality
  • Eating Disorders
  • Use of drugs to enhance athletic performance
  • Suicide
  • Identity formation
  • Following one’s dreams when they conflict with others around you
  • Rape (touched on)
  • Drugs and alcohol use as a coping mechanism

What Hopkins does so well is develop the characters and have them tell their stories. These characters quickly take on a persona we can all identify with, or at least can consider identifying with. Her words for these characters flow from poem to poem and instance to instance. Her poems build the story up and interweave to tell, at once, individual and collective stories. I discovered, soon after starting it, that the end of one character’s “chapter” (for lack of a better word) alluded to the beginning of the next character’s “chapter” beginning. After reading the first set of “chapters” for the four characters, I knew I could use Hopkins’ carefully crafted characters as a way to show my students how characters are developed through their actions and interactions with those around them.

Overall, this is another Hopkins winner. She creates perfection driven students and leads them on a journey to self discovery every one of us goes through at some point in our lives.

My Rating

5 stars!

My Recommendations

  • Anyone who loves Ellen Hopkins
  • Anyone who loves novels in verse form
  • Anyone who loves or needs a good book on identity formation
  • Anyone who struggles with the idea of perfection (which doesn’t exist ;)!)
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TQ Review: Write Like This

Write Like This: Teaching Real-World Writing Through Modeling & Mentor Texts
Kelly Gallagher
Stenhouse Publishers 2011
ISBN 978-1-57110-896-8

“Writing has become foundational to finding meaningful employment across much of the workforce.” pg 3

7 out of 10 students leave school

“…without the necessary skills to actively participate in either civic life or in the global economy” pg 5

Why I Chose to Read this Book

I read Readicide two summers ago, in the midst of a teaching identity crisis and was working to figure out how to get non-readers to read again. When I received an email from Stenhouse Publishers announcing the release of Write Like This, I knew it would be well worth the read, because I have adopted many of Gallagher’s ideas from Readicide into my classroom.

A Brief Summary

In Write Like This, Gallagher argues two basic premises for teaching students to write:

  1. Why students should write (real-world discourse), and
  2. for teachers to step out of their comfort zone and start writing before, in front of, and with their students, as well as find and use mentor texts to help students learn how to write for authentic audiences.

He argues this thesis by providing research based evidence, as well as, anecdotal observations.

He provides explanations of six pairs of authentic discourses, while stating there are many more than he could possibly mention. The six pairs he chose to focus on as part of what should be in any writing teacher’s classroom are:

  1. Express and Reflect
  2. Inform and Explain
  3. Evaluate and Judge
  4. Inquire and Explore
  5. Analyze and Interpret
  6. Take a Stand/Propose a Solution

He also briefly covers editing and revising, explaining how and why the two of these are very different steps in a writer’s process.

My Take Aways

Gallagher offers up so many examples—both of his own writing, mentor texts, and student writing—you can pick up the book and immediately have ideas to use in your own classroom.

I was already a big fan of “I do, we do, you do” in a classroom and Gallagher makes an even better argument in regards to writing instruction. My favorite (already tried—with varying levels of success) activities include:

  • Six Word Memoirs leading to longer Expressive and Reflexive writing
  • A Mistake that Should Last a Lifetime
  • “So What” Paper
  • Congrats Newly Minted _____ (Inform and Explain, great to teach/reinforce satire)
  • Sometimes You Can Judge a Book by Its Cover
  • the many ideas offered up about college and career writing
  • using mentor texts like written book reviews, columns from major publications, and many more
  • how to take this writing with real world applications and use it for literature (as so many of us teach reading and writing together)—I particularly like his use of the rating scale activity he uses for consumer products and transfers to literature like Animal Farm

Persuasive techniques, expository, narrative, and persuasive forms of writing are all covered, but in a way to encourage real world applications of such writing. His method of teaching grammar is also one I am hoping to incorporate into my classroom this year. I am always looking for ways to incorporate grammar into my classes and his method may be more effective than some I have tried.

Overall

I will read anything of Kelly Gallagher’s. He has not disappointed me yet. He includes real life “combat zone” examples and explanations, which are often more meaningful to me than research based data in the form of numbers and letters. He also writes in an easy to read style, with many metaphors and analogies to help make his ideas make sense. For me, this means he acknowledges, as we should as teachers to our students, his readers are as varied in understanding and knowledge and may need things presented in different ways.

Overall, I give this one a 5 star—any writing teacher, language arts teachers, or teacher in general who wants to incorporate MORE writing into their classroom should pick up this book and find some useful strategies.

TQ Review: I Am Not a Serial Killer by Dan Wells

Review: I Am Not a Serial Killer by Dan Wells

Title: I Am Not a Serial Killer John Cleaver #1
Author: Dan Wells
Publisher: Macmillan
Publication Date: 2010

GoodReads Synopsis

This was one I could have stopped reading and I wouldn’t have cared how the story turned out. I only finished it because it was such a quick read.

I picked it up at the local library because I was intrigued by the title. As I read the synopsis and the first few pages, I couldn’t help but wonder if this was a Dexter-ish take for the young adult group. I don’t know how I missed the supernatural take that comes in this story, which is what really turned me off from the book. As soon as I realized John was up against a supernatural demon, as it is referred to in the book, I kind of stopped caring how the story would turn out. I no longer cared if anyone lived or died. I no longer cared if John had friends or would get with the girl. I no longer cared that he lived in a funeral home. It just all fell apart when the monster turned out to be a supernatural monst

It’s not that I don’t like the supernatural. I bit my reading teeth on Stephen King for crying out loud! But, I was really interested in a real story about a real boy who might understand his sociopathic behavior and works hard to contain it in the real world. My guess is a teenage serial killer who kills only the bad guys, a la Dexter, may not have sold very well to publishers and parents. I think it would have made it a better story.

My Rating

2 stars!

My Recommendations

  • Not sure who I would recommend this one to…

TQ Review: The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland In a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne Valente

Review: The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland In a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne Valente

Title: The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland In a Ship of Her Own Making
Author: Catherynne Valente
Publisher: Feiwel & Friends
Publication Date: 2011

I really wanted to love this book. I love all things fairy tale related. I even dedicated a TTT post to all things fairy tale, especially retellings and new tales. So, when I saw this book on the library shelf I snapped it up and make my way home to enjoy it.

I was intrigued by the title. It elicits a sense of the “We Can Do It” spirit of Rosie the Riveter (one of my personal icons). Sadly, the book’s protagonist September does not live up to Rosie’s “Can Do” spirit. She stumbles her way through the novel, not quite sure of this way or that way, and reminds me more of The Scarecrow from The Wizard of Oz.

Speaking of Oz, this novel seems very much like an Oz story, only not as well developed. As I was reading it, I could almost outline the entire story before it happened. While I realize there are no new ideas under the sun, there are ways to make old ideas seem new. And I believe this was the author’s intent with this novel, but it doesn’t seem to reach that end.

I realize any “new” fairy tale is going to draw heavily from those tales already in existence. This novel seems too full of elements from other stories. It’s almost like the author made a list of great elements from classic tales and assigned her own, seemingly accidental, elements to replace them. Dorothy is from Kansas, September is from Nebraska. Both are “orphaned” in a sense. Dorothy flew on a tornado, September on a wind & cheetah.

Valente’s strength lies in her descriptive writing powers. But, lacking an original story, the description is too reminiscent of other tales. I really did want to love this book. 😦

My Rating

3 stars!

My Recommendations

  • Anyone who likes fairytales

TQ Review: Unholy Night by Seth Grahame-Smith

Review: Unholy Night by Seth Grahame-Smith

Title: Unholy Night
Author: Seth Grahame-Smith
Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
Publication Date: 2012

Good Reads Synopsis

This is the recently released novel by Seth Grahame-Smith, of Pride, Prejudice and Zombies and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter fame. I thoroughly enjoy Seth Grahame-Smith’s writing. Ever since seeing the cover for PP&Z and thought “what a clever idea,” I have made sure to read everything he publishes. And, with his newest novel, Unholy Night, I don’t see a need to stop reading him yet. What I find most fascinating about SG-S, as an author, is his progression from a mash-up writer, in PP&Z, to a historical fiction creator, in AL:VH & now UN. He used Abe Lincoln as a historical personality, with an array of real historical sources, to weave a plausible story about why Lincoln became a vampire hunter and why a nation was almost torn apart by vampires.

With Unholy Night, Grahame-Smith uses a real historical event–the birth of Jesus Christ and his being visited by 3 wise men, as the setting for a tale about who those wise men were–one in particular–and what their motives might have really been. All done with a lack of real historical sources. The English teacher in me marvels at his writing territory and how he keeps pushing into new territory with each new novel. I hope the streak continues.

As for the story itself, Unholy Night follows the journey of one of the wise men Balthazar, also known as the Antioch Ghost, and how he winds up not just visiting baby Jesus, but working to make sure no harm comes to him in light of Herod’s desire to kill the prophesied messiah. The story begins with Balthazar having to escape from Herod’s dungeons and does so with the other two “wise men,” Gaspar and Melchyor. Grahame-Smith weaves together another convincing story of why Balthazar stumbled across Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus, and why he decided to help them escape to Egypt.

I thought this book would have some Christian conservatives up in arms about this story, much like the controversy surrounding other books, like The Da Vinci Code. I am glad they have either not noticed this book, yet, or have allowed it to hold its place in fiction literature, as it should. There is nothing overtly outrageous and most of the factual story is kept factual. He simply takes the story of Jesus’ birth and the story of the wise men to expand on what doesn’t exist–the story of why 3 wise men were wandering the desert. It also brings to light, which I think is easily glossed over in church teachings, the horror of the times when Jesus was born. The history teacher in me enjoyed the historical references to Herod’s rule, as well as the rule of the area by Rome.

I also read in the story the growth of Balthazar’s own faith. He begins with a lack of faith, actually he’s almost agnostic–there is a higher power, he just has no idea if it is the Jewish God or not. The journey he makes through the story and his going back to save baby Jesus even after he has no individual need to-in fact, his life would be easier if he didn’t-shows his growth in faith.

Seth Grahame-Smith writes in an energetic, keep-the-story-moving, prose. The story begins with an ibex watching a cloud of dust and ends with an ibex watching what happens to Rome. SG-S’s inclusion of such an innocuous symbol pulls the reader in and makes one sit back and wonder at the wonders surrounding us everyday. I heartily recommend this book to any one who likes a good chase story, a good feel good story, a good story about “wise” guys ;-).

I plan on sharing my love of this story with my students when school returns in the fall. I checked the book out from the library and I will make sure our school library purchases a copy, if they haven’t already!

The one downside to the book has more to do with editing, rather than the actual writing. There were more than a handful of spelling errors littered throughout the book, which should have been caught by a proofreader or editor. This is beyond mildly irritating, simply because of the number of errors. I don’t expect every book to be perfect and can let a few errors slip by unnoticed, but this one had far too many. It displeases me that a publisher would allow a work to be published with so many errors still apparent.

My Rating

5 stars!

My Recommendations

  • Anyone who loves a good chase/journey story
  • Anyone who loves Seth Grahme-Smith
  • Anyone who loves good historical fiction
  • Anyone who wants to imagine what Jesus’ first few days were like

TQ Review: Love & Leftovers by Sarah Tregay

Review: Love & Leftovers by Sarah Tregay

Publisher: Katherine Tegen Books
Publication Date: 2011

Good Reads Synopsis 

A typical teen love story, except written in verse. I read this one and finished it for the Verse Challenge.

The protagonist, Marcie, faces an impending divorce, a gay father and his new partner, a move across country (from Idaho to New Hampshire), leaving a boyfriend behind, as well as her friends, and the loneliness from all of it. Her mother, who she doesn’t realize suffers from clinical depression, is a shadow character and not much of an influence on Marcie. She meets a new boy (of course) and doesn’t necessarily fall in love with him, but uses him to fill the lonely void she feels.

When the time comes to return to Idaho, will she leave behind a mom who can’t take care of herself and a new boy who makes her feel like she is in love? Or, will she return to live with her father and reunite with her friends and the one she wanted to be in love with in the first place?

This book is all about the teenage quest for feeling “in place.” That deep desire we all have to fit in–at home, at school, in love–everywhere moves this books plot along. The writing, in verse, is simple yet poetic enough to evoke some feelings and thoughts. A bit more teenager-ish in poetry, which I expect from such a book. But, it does turn one off after awhile. Overall, I was not impressed, nor surprised by anything in the story. It’s not one I will probably every look at again and can really only think to recommend it to a few select female students who are into teen love stories.

My Rating

3 stars Meh…take it or leave it

My Recommendations

  • Anyone who enjoys novels in verse
  • Anyone who enjoys a sappy teen love story

TQ Review: How to Write a Sentence by Stanley Fish

Review: How to Write a Sentence by Stanley Fish

Title: How to Write a Sentence
Author: Stanley Fish
Publisher: Harper Collins Books
Publication Date: 2011

Good Reads Synopsis 

Every summer, I spend some time looking for new resources to use in my classroom. I had heard mention of How to Write a Sentence from an NPR Interview with Stanley Fish in 2011. It was one of those books on my to read list, but I hadn’t gotten around to it until this summer. After checking it out of the local library, I devoured the first half during one afternoon. I took copious notes and came across several good ideas for use in my classroom.

Fish paints writing sentences as both an art and a science. There are stylistic and content concerns to consider when writing a sentence, which Fish refers to as

an organization of items in the world…

or

a structure of logical relationships

Fish considers sentences as a building block for a written work, but also as a gem to be pulled and studied from a piece of writing. The book is filled with several of his favorite sentences from greats such as Dickens, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Salinger, and more. He puts the idea of sentences as an art and a science best in the following equation:

Sentence craft = sentence comprehension = sentence appreciation

The only downside to the book is in the second half. Chapters 1-3 cover HOW to write a sentence-logical structure or the relationships between actor, actions, and objects acted upon. There are many excellent examples of sentences meeting the formulas. He even goes so far as to discredit the way grammar is taught in schools traditionally, which I agree with wholeheartedly. If students are worried about figuring out the vocabulary of the elements of language, instead of how to use the elements correctly, they don’t learn how to write better and often don’t even learn the vocabulary of the elements either. He offers up the simplest sentence form as a building block of all sentences, because they all have to start somewhere.

DOER + DOING + DONE TO = Simple Sentence Structure

Chapters 4-7 concern the rhetorical structures of language-the argument or content. Fish focuses on 3 different styles: subordinating, additive, and satiric. He does not insist these are the only styles, just that they are the most apparent and easy to begin working on writing better sentences. Fish goes on to finish the book by discussing great first and last sentences. I must admit, at this point, I had grown a bit tired of reading a book about writing sentences. But, this probably had more to do with the break I took between reading the first half and the last half of the book.

I did gain several practices I can use in my classes to help students begin writing better sentences. As Fish points out, marking a sentence fragment, as a fragment on the paper and returning it to the student doesn’t help much. Teaching students a sentence fragment is a fragment out of context, out of real writing, is not helpful. But, teaching students the basic structure (Doer+Doing+Done To) and how to expand the simple sentence will produce results.

English teachers out there will know the equation used is Subject+Predicate+Object, but in reality, when will a real writer ever think in or use those terms? I find we often teach a complex vocabulary, usually out of context, for ideas or structures which could be simplified and understood more easily and lead to better writing. I plan on implementing several strategies from Fish’s book to see how useful they may be. Here are some of those ideas:

  • Look around the room, pick 5 objects and add a verb or modal auxiliary (would, should, could, might) then write a sentence using those words. Start with the simple sentence structure, then expand. (pg 16)
  • Start by writing a 3 word sentence. Expand to 15 words. Expand to 30 words. Expand to 100 words. (pg 23)
  • Showing how “perfect grammar” can equal nonsense sentences: “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously” and how to fix such meaningless sentences. (pg 27)
  • How to write sentences that cause reflection by using examples from works like King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” (pg 55)

My Rating

4 stars!

My Recommendations

  • Anyone who loves words
  • Anyone who teaches writing
  • Anyone who loves reading about how others write

TQ Review: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie

Review: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie

Title: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian
Author: Sherman Alexie
Publisher: Little Brown and Company
Publication Date: 2007

Good Reads Synopsis 

  Why I Read It

I recently subscribed to Sherman Alexie’s Twitter feed @Sherman_Alexie after having read several blog posts referring to The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian as one of the must reads for anyone. I also remember it coming out just as I was moving from teaching at the middle school level to the high school level. My reading of YA fiction went down drastically because I switched focus from teaching language arts and literature to history. Now that I am, once again, a member of my local library I checked it out.

Short Synopsis (no spoilers)

Junior has to make a decision. Does he stay on the Rez and end up like everyone else around him-a drunk Indian who didn’t fulfill his dreams. But, to leave the Rez, he will have to attend an all-white, small town high school. And he knows the choice to leave the Rez for school will bring with it consequences like being called a traitor, or worse.

  What I Liked

This novel is partially based on Alexie’s own experiences, which always lends a bit more credibility to a work of fiction. It gives the readers a more intimate view of situations they hope are only made up. Junior, the novel’s protagonist, begins the novel with a very frank, straightforward discussion of how he doesn’t fit in with his classmates. He has one true friend, who tends to be a bit of a bully to everyone but Junior, at least in the beginning. Junior spends much of the beginning of the novel looking at the dreams of those family and community members surrounding him. Admitting to himself, and a teacher who prods his thinking, his dreams will never be realized if he stays in school on the Rez he chooses to attend school in a small, all-white community 20 miles away.

The title of this book is genius and clearly paints the picture of the battle for self-identity. This, above all else, is the novels message. How does one find his/her identity when it is torn between two very separate worlds? Through several heartbreaking setbacks, Junior acknowledges the difficulty, while also admitting the necessity of having a foot in both worlds.

Alexie’s strengths as a writer is within his character’s voices. He writes his characters clearly. The novel is not heavy on description, which leaves the character’s actions and dialogue as the building blocks to the images readers must create in their heads as they read.

I absolutely loved Ellen Forney’s illustrations. Junior draws cartoons as a way to make sense of things around him. Her artwork looks like a teenage boy could have drawn it and clearly expresses the feelings Junior deals with in this novel.

Classroom Ideas

  •  As I read the first chapter, I thought to myself how it would be another great example of teaching voice to students learning to write. Voice is often one of the hardest style characteristics to teach and finding great examples of a writer’s voice is necessary.
  • Using the illustrations and the descriptions of why Junior writes would give students an example of how to use cartooning and journal writing as a tool.
  • Banned Books Month–there have been several instances of attempts to ban this book. I could see using it during Banned Books Month to stir discussion.

  My Rating

4 stars!

My Recommendations

  • Anyone who loves strong characters who overcome diversity and personal tragedy to succeed.
  • Anyone who loves Sherman Alexie.

TQ Review: Nevermore by William Hjortsberg

Review: Nevermore by William Hjortsberg

Title: Nevermore
Author: William Hjortsberg
Publisher: Open Road
Publication Date: March 2012

Good Reads Synopsis 

  Why I Read It

I am always interested in anything related to Poe, Houdini, and somewhat intrigued by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. After perusing NetGalley’s listings, I came across this novel by William Hjortsberg and decided it had to be worth the read. Poe, Houdini, and Doyle all in one. Had to be good.

Short Synopsis (no spoilers)

Murders begin piling up and they appear to be based on Poe’s stories. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, as lecturer, travels America to lecture on the occult and ends up being asked to help, or more often assumed to be helping, the NYC police solve these murders. Poe makes his own appearance in ghostly form, while Houdini tries to discredit the very mediums Doyle speaks about.

  My Review

Set during the Jazz Age, I enjoyed the period setting, but often got lost in the small details sprinkled throughout to set the stage. Historical novels should be engaging reads, but should not bog the reader down with lists of people, places, and facts. It takes the reader away from the storyline and in Hjortsberg’s novel, there were several points where the storyline got lost in the details of the period.

The separate plot lines did not come together well, either. Houdini and Doyle’s struggle over whether contact can be made with the dead was a great plot line and could have taken the plot of the novel all on its own. I understand the desire to make this plot line come alive with the Poe murders and Doyle experiencing contact with Poe’s dead ghost to help him figure out the murders. It would have made more sense to have Houdini experience the visits from Poe, since he was the one who did not believe in ghosts and other mediums.

Character development was left mostly to the reader. Maybe because the characters were so familiar, it was assumed readers would have their own preconceived ideas about the major players. While this may be true, the author should have spent more time fleshing out the characters, within the setting.

Overall the novel was a fair read, but it was not outstanding. Not one I will re-read or recommend to others.

  My Rating

2 stars

 

TQ Review: A Bad Boy Can Be Good for a Girl by Tanya Lee Stone

Review: A Bad Boy Can Be Good for a Girl by Tanya Lee Stone

Today’s review can be found at The Nerdy Book Club blog.

Be sure to check it out and let me know what you think of my review. It’s for a book I normally wouldn’t have given a second look at,  but…

Check out the review here.