May 28, 2013

Bomb: The Race to Build - and Steal - the World's Most Dangerous Weapon

I've been trying to work more nonfiction into my reading habits this year.  Namely, I like to kick butt at bar trivia and when watching Jeopardy (even though the trick to that is - the louder you answer, the more right you'll be) so it's good to learn things.  But I also don't want to be lost when a student comes up looking for help with school research, so it's good to stay in the know and/or relearn some history.

Steve Sheinkin is my favorite nonfiction author for children and teens.  He creates wonderful narrative nonfiction with engaging writing, great placement of images and in depth research.  His words are never condescending to young readers, but he still manages to explain difficult concepts accurately in layman's terms.  I love him.

That's why I was excited to see Bomb on the 2013 Hub Reading Challenge.  I had been looking forward to reading it and this finally gave me a reason to abandon my other work (kidding...) and pick it up.

Bomb is about just what the title says: The Race to Build - and Steal - the World's Most Dangerous Weapon.  Sheinkin ties together the stories of 3 nations - the US, Germany, and the Soviet Union - focusing on their quests to either build an atomic bomb, prevent the others from building an atomic bomb, or steal the plans for the atomic bomb. He moves between the history smoothly, never leaving the reader confused about the timeline of the events.

In addition to the bomb's meaning in terms of war, Sheinkin also focuses on the physics behind building the bomb, the steps taken by the scientists involved in the Manhattan Project, and the politics involved to keep the project top secret.  He also addresses the heavy emotional components that accompanied the creation of a weapon of mass destruction and how they connect to our lives today.

This book works for middle school and up, possibly even younger.  It's engaging and informative; I couldn't put it down. It works just as well for those looking for an interesting read as it does for those working on a project for school. I even think this could make a solid book club title selection.  Sheinkin also provides an annotated bibliography which is always immensely helpful to those readers who are interested in the topic or searching for more resources for their own work.  I highly recommend this and all of Sheinkin's other works.  Seriously. Go. Now.

Word to the wise.  Sometimes it's a good thing to think about where you are when you're reading particular books.  Because I frequently - well let's face it, almost exclusively - read children's and YA books, I've grown accustomed to ignoring the stares and freaked out expressions of people on public transportation. I don't even think about it anymore. But nothing quite prepares you for the looks you get at an airport and on an airplane when you're reading a book called Bomb.  Whoops.

May 19, 2013

This is Not a Test

This is Not a Test, by Courtney Summers, is a zombie apocalypse novel.  I'm not really into the whole walking dead frenzy that everyone seems to be in these days, but I decided to give the novel a try so I could have one under my belt in case any teen ever came looking for a new one.

Like all zombie stories, survival is key in this novel.  Zombies have overtaken the town and six teenagers remain, having taken shelter in their high school.  They board the doors, listen for help messages on the radio,  and try not to go crazy while playing the waiting game. But tensions are too high because not only are they in the middle of a zombie apocalypse, but they also have hormones. Crazy teen hormones.  Seriously, sometimes the teens' emotions change about 3 times in one page.

But they all have reasons for their emotional outbursts, or lack thereof. Sloane, the narrator, is a victim of severe domestic abuse and abandonment, and these experiences weigh her down in the group's survival efforts. Grace and Trace witnessed their parents get overcome by zombies and Chris, another teen survivor, is to blame for their downfall.  The novel moves from whether or not they can survive the physical demons to whether or not they can defeat their inner demons (how very Buffy - I mean really, they're trapped inside a high school and fighting demons).

The novel was...okay.  I think teens would really enjoy it.  There's action, lots of swearing, a little sex, drinking and survival of the fittest.  But the amount of blame in this book really weighed the book down for me and while relevant, started to become redundant around the 6th time Trace lashed out at Chris for leading his parents to their deaths.

This is Not a Test may or may not become a TV movie, but it probably depends on how we as a nation feel about zombies after World War Z comes out.

May 16, 2013

Sparks: The Epic, Completely True, (Almost) Holy Quest of Debbie

Sparks is an LGBT themed book that I read immediately after The Miseducation of Cameron Post in order to see how they compared.  While they both touch upon religion and its connection to sexuality and life, Sparks is definitely more comedic and light-hearted in its approach.

Debbie is in love with her best friend, Lisa.  Enough in love that she frequently attends Christian Youth Group sessions where they constantly harp on the dangers of homosexuality, just to spend more time with her.  It doesn't stop there. Debbie never swears, attempts to block out all improper thoughts, and only watches good old-fashioned family TV (i.e. Full House - this book is so full of Full House references that it is a 90s nostalgia fanatic's dream), because that's how wholesome Lisa lives her life.  But Debbie's lesbian secret is discovered  and her life spirals out of control as she attempts to tell Lisa before someone else can. During her journey, she relies on her new friends Tim and Emma and their invented religion, Bluedaism, to help build an identity separate from Lisa's.

I would say that Sparks is like a middle school LGBT version of Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist.  It's a novel about self-discovery, love, and friendship, and it all takes place in one night.  It's definitely entertaining in its approach, but I think tweens would appreciate it more for its approach to identity through Bluedaism (especially the bits about being Blueish and patting Bluedha) than the LGBT factor.  While S.J. Adams' novel focuses on gay acceptance and redefining what is "normal", the focus is more on accepting your personal identity.  Not only does Debbie need to construct her own self, but Emma struggles to accept her weight, Tim struggles to reveal his true sexuality (straight) and characters are frequently forced into roles they don't fit.  There is religious commentary sprinkled throughout.  It's definitely not an attack on religion, but a discussion on how religion should compliment who you are, not force you to hide your identity.

May 13, 2013

The Miseducation of Cameron Post

Within my incredible soft spot for YA literature, I have an even softer spot for LGBT YA fiction.  The Miseducation of Cameron Post, Danforth's Morris Award winning debut novel, is now in my top LGBT reads.

It's the 90s (yes, that is also a huge factor in why I love this novel) and Cameron lives in the middle of nowhere Montana.  She realizes she has different feelings towards girls at a young age, but her discovery coincides with the tragic death of her parents.  She doesn't know what to make of her feelings until years later when she meets another lesbian on her swim team.  Lindsey takes on the task of getting Cameron up to speed on lesbian speak and activities (music, movies, pride festivities) even when she moves back home after their summer together.  Cameron continues to live in secret until she is betrayed by a friend and forced to attend a curing camp by her conservative born-again Christian aunt.  Cameron continues to struggle at the camp, both with her feelings about her sexuality and also her guilt over her parents' deaths. 

I'm generalizing here, but a good chunk of LGBT fiction that I've encountered primarily focuses on either a character's confusion over whether or not s/he is gay or the reaction of others to a character's intentional or unintentional outing.  Cameron Post features both of these concepts, but also focuses on the internal struggle Cameron faces as she tries to grapple with the idea that maybe her family and church are right; what she's feeling may in fact be wrong.  Also, while the curing camp that Cameron is forced to attend is obviously supposed to be viewed as an antagonizing force, because the workers are shown to struggle when faced with adversity, Cameron's experience there isn't so black and white. I like that Danforth's realistically explores how a teen facing such a program feels when they want to please their family despite being angry with them.

Some of the scenes are pretty sexual, and there's drug and alcohol use littered throughout, so I'd definitely limit recommending this title to older teens or mature readers.  

May 12, 2013


In my effort to read more "boy books" (I cringe every time I use that phrase and I know I should stop and that my continual use of the phrase just furthers others' belief that such a thing exists and this is a run on sentence and I absolutely ADORE what Maureen Johnson did with cover flipping) I selected Terry Pratchett's Dodger from the Hub Reading Challenge List because male author + male title character = boy book for a lot of people. 

Dodger is a "tosher" (sewer scavenger) who saves a young lady, Simplicity, he sees being abused by two men.  Dodger is tasked with finding out all he can about Simplicity, ultimately learning that she is the secret wife of a prince and this status is blocking a planned political marriage.  It becomes clear that whoever is behind the attack won't stop until Simplicity is killed.  From that point on Dodger is determined to catch the villain. Throughout his quest, he unintentionally becomes a hero, and undergoes the process of evolving from tosher to gentleman in appearance while still maintaining his tosher street smarts and experience.

Pratcher mixes humor, adventure and historical fiction to create an entertaining, intelligent story.  When I first began reading the novel, I was immediately struck by how Dickens-like it was.  The fictional names alone scream out Dickens: Dodger, Simplicity, Mrs. Sharples (sometimes pronounced Sharp Balls), etc. Then Charles Dickens was revealed as a character (he's first introduced simply as "Charlie").  Thennnnn I learn that Dodger is actually based on the Artful Dodger, a character from Dickens' Oliver Twist, which I didn't know because I haven't read that book yet.  So yeah, that's why the book seems very Dickens.

Being historical fiction, the book also features a great number of "real" characters: Henry Mayhew, Angela Burdett-Coutts, Benjamin Disraeli, Robert Peel, and John Tenniel.  Even Sweeney Todd of urban legend/literary/musical fame makes a notable appearance.

Overall, even if the reader does not understand the historical and literary connections, the novel is a great read...for boys AND girls.

May 9, 2013


Drama, by Raina Telgemeier, is a graphic novel that follows Callie, a techie in her middle school drama club. Because drama club is the center of Callie's life, the club and her personal life frequently collide.  As such, the drama referenced in the title applies to both the drama club and the teenage drama Callie experiences in her daily routine: unrequited crushes, panic attacks over text messaging, potential gay-bashing bullies, etc.

The angst is very peppy.  If anything, Callie reminds me a bit of a young, stressed out Liz Lemon:

This approach effectively blends the campiness that surrounds all drama clubs with the personal angst; it would be incredibly jarring if the two didn't mesh. It doesn't beat the reader over the head with the drama, but still maintains its relatability.  It's great for middle schoolers looking for a graphic novel that is bright and funny with an emotional core.  However, for a teen looking for a more gripping, less peppy graphic novel, they'd be better off with selections similar to Anya's Ghost.

Also, the depiction of the drama club is spot on.  Tweens/teens who participates in theater will appreciate how well Telgemeier captures the spirit.

May 7, 2013

The Diviners

"Naughty John, Naughty John
Does his work with his apron on..."
While reading The Diviners, this will get under your skin.  Fast.

The diviners are people with special psychic powers - healing, prophetic, invisibility, etc. - all existing in Prohibition-era New York.  The first in a series, this novel focuses primarily on Evie, a young woman who can read a person's past through their objects.  While other diviners are mentioned and play bit roles in the plot, it's really Evie's story.  Using her power resulted in scandal in her small town home, so she is sent to NY to stay with and help her uncle with his occult museum.  After a series of occult-based murders occur, they are enlisted to help with the case.

This Libba Bray novel is chock full of suspense. As the reader, you are granted a front row seat to the gruesome attacks from the victims' perspectives.  You get to experience not only their confusion and ultimate fear, but the fear of Evie and the other diviners as they put the puzzle pieces together, bit by bit.

It's a very long novel, which can be a pain (I mean this literally when you drag it to work with you on a daily basis), but not because I think teens are turned off by long works. As I found out at the end of the novel, this is the first of a series and the characters introduced here will have more developed roles in the future books.  But at times their presence seems to drag out the main focus of this novel and left me wondering if it was exposition that could have waited until the sequels.

Regardless, the characterization is strong, the action suspenseful, and the writing is engaging and very clearly well-researched.  I was hesitant going into this novel because I had previously tried reading Bray's Going Bovine and couldn't bring myself to finish.  But this novel kept me interested from start to end. I highly recommend this novel for people who like well-developed thrillers and mysteries and/or people looking for suspense, paranormal plots, or historical fiction.  While the novel (and probably series as a whole) has many mystery elements, it's not a typical whodunnit type of thriller, so be wary of giving this out to someone looking for a fast mystery (the almost 600 pages will also probably clue the reader into it not being a fast mystery).