ROBOT – review one book on Thursdays- Divergent by Veronica Roth

robotI’ve mentioned Divergent several times on this blog. Thing is, it’s on the top of my mind- next week I begin teaching it. So, I thought, why not review a book I am teaching? Especially since I am rereading it right now, making notes in my kobo and designing/modifying a unit of study for my students to complete on it. My brain is all divergent right now!

Divergent by Veronica Roth is a modern dystopian novel. Set in future Chicago, the world outside of the fence has been destroyed by war. Those who were left set about building a society, each with different ideas about why the last society went wrong. Some felt cowardliness, some felt dishonesty, some thought it was because people did not value knowledge. Others still felt it was because people did not help enough and more felt it was because people were not accepting enough. So they formed five groups – Dauntless (the brave), Candor (the honest), Erudite (the intelligent), Abnegation (the selfless) and Amity (the friendly). Each faction lives apart, but each contributes to the well being of the society. When a child reaches the age of 16, they choose which faction they will belong to for the rest of their lives – do they stay with their parents or seek a different way of life? Divergent hc c(2) They get tested, a test which is supposed to help them understand who they are. Our main character, Beatrice, was born into Abnegation. She is questioning if she belongs there -and then is tested. Her results are inconclusive – a dangerous result in their society. She is deemed divergent by her tester and told to never speak of it. She knows she could choose from any faction – stay with her family, as they are expecting, go to Dauntless or Erudite, the other two factions that came up as results for her. I will give a spoiler – she chooses Dauntless and becomes Tris, the first jumper and the “stiff” who is trying to be brave.

Divergent follows Tris through her training and we see her building relationships with her fellow transfers. She has to try to fit in to a faction that is perhaps the polar opposite from how she was raised and has some struggles. The biggest struggle, however, is suppressing her divergence – hiding that she can be more than one thing. This comes to a head in the end as she is forced to make choices and determine where she fits and what she feels is right and fair.

Divergent is a great book for teens, especially in the grades seven to twelve category. They are figuring themselves out – where do I fit, do I need a faction of support or can I survive without a group of people like myself? When you are forced to decide on one characteristic that defines you, sometimes you are hard pressed to determine what it might be – can I not be brave and honest? Caring and wise? When is it brave to be selfless or selfless to be brave? In teaching this novel, teens find themselves questioning these issues, which is a huge part in their development.

This novel is not perfect. It’s a little simplistic at times and there are characters that could be more developed. There are questions that you might have as a reader that are not addressed in this book – is there more to the world? Where do they get some of the things they can’t make? However, it is the strongest of the three (well, three and a set of novellas) that make up this series. And it does get you thinking, even as an adult – where do I belong and why?

I have read this book too many times to count,  in hard cover, soft cover and on my kobo app. The ISBN is 9780062024039.

ROBOT – Review One Book on Thursdays – ‘Openly Straight’

robotThere are times that a concept of a book makes you think. It could be a questioning of the ethics of entertainment, such as ‘The Hunger Games’, or a look at values and nature vs nurture, such as ‘I Hunt Killers’. In this case, for me, ‘Openly Straight’ by Bill Konigsberg, made me think about what it would be like to be tired of being ‘that person’ in their lives and want to experience the world. Unsure what I mean? Read on….

Rafe is a normal American teenage boy. He’s got parents that he loves dearly and who love him dearly. He writes, he plays soccer, he’s won skiing prizes. And he’s gay. For him, that’s just part of who he is – he’s the guy who likes to do what he straightdoes and that’s him. But to others, he’s the GAY guy. And not in a homophobic way. But in a way where that’s all that is noticed about his personality. His parents made being parents of a gay child their lives – starting support groups, encouraging him to have boyfriends, fighting the fight against homophobia and discrimination. But for Rafe, being gay is only one part of his life while everyone around him thought it was all he was. Time for a change.  His goal – a “label-free life”. To accomplish this, Rafe transfers to an all-boys school in New England. His goal there is not to lie about himself but not to define any parts of his life either. He’s still planning to be who he is but he wants to be able to develop all facets of his life without any of them defining him.

And it works! Well, for a while. He gets a great writing teacher who knows what Rafe is trying to do. He has friends, teammates, party companions. He gets to just be Rafe and it’s great. He pretends he has a girl friend back home, which takes care of some of the dating concerns. And he gets to write and play soccer and be everything but gay. But is that enough? He can still fall in love – and does. And the truth is still there – gay may not be all he is, but it is a part of him. As his best friend points out, “How do you take a break from who you are?”. Rafe has to determine who he is and how he can make all parts of his life balance so that no one part of him threatens to take over the others.

This book does a great job discussing tolerance vs acceptance. That is one of my biggest linguistic issues with social justice – when you teach tolerance you’re saying that there are bad things that you’ll put up with. Acceptance means you’ll be good with the person for everything they bring to the table. You are good enough. While Rafe is learning how to present himself so that he is accepted by all, he learns that sometimes the issues are different from he thinks – perhaps not telling people means that when they do learn about it, they won’t accept him. Not because he’s gay but because he’s dishonest. Because he’s presenting a different side of himself then they are expecting and is in a different place in his life than he’s saying he is. But the lesson that when you deny who you are to others, even through omission, you deny who you are to yourself and lose that part of you is a strong one and one Rafe has to learn, through trials, tribulations and acts of tolerance. It’s a story about a boy who came of age and then had to do it again to truly learn who he is.

Messy hair, great book!

Messy hair, great book!

Sometimes the characters are a little shallow or stereotypical. However, they are written in a smart, funny and often in realistic situations, so that can be forgiven. Konigsberg does a great job balancing the story of Rafe and showing how a character and develop, learn and grow. There is some “language” and a few sexual situations, which makes it realistic for a book about teens. For YA readers interested in LGBTQ issues or ones who work with social justice, this book is a great addition to a collection.

Plus, it has this quote, one of my favorites:

We were dancers and drummers and standers and jugglers, and there was nothing anyone needed to accept or tolerate. We celebrated

I read this book August 18th and 19th, 2013 in a real, live hardcover copy. The ISBN is 9780545509893. It now lives in my classroom library.

 

ROBOT – Review One Book on Thursday – Sisters in Sanity by Gayle Forman

robot‘Sisters in Sanity’ was an unexpected, beautifully titled little gift. I had craved a familiar read the other night and found myself adding ‘Where She Went’ by Gayle Forman to my reread shelf on Goodreads. While there I noticed this title, a fiction publication of hers that I had previously not read. I couldn’t sleep, I had wi-fi and next thing you know, I’m immersed in the book and ‘couldn’t sleep’ became ‘not sleeping due to reading’.

‘Sisters in Sanity’ is told by Brit, a sixteen year old who loves playing with her band and has a free (and kind) spirit. When she was a child, her parents were free spirits, running a coffee shop in Seattle. She can say she coloured with Kurt Cobain, had did book studies with a tattoo artist named Reggie and held court from her reserved table with the musicians and artists who filled her childhood world. Her parents met at a U2 concert: Dad was a roadie, Mom was an audience member who was pulled on stage to dance with Bono. Their artistic spirits extended to their parenting – they would and did go on adventures with Brit, like running away for a month to live on the beach or simply making meals with all purple food. Her mom was the instigator of most of these adventures – dad was the doctor appointment making, lunch packing solid parent. Mom was always freer with her thoughts and feelings. Until one day – as this freeness became oddness and the oddness became paranoia and the paranoia became paranoid schizophrenia – Mom was no longer there. She left them and lived apart with her disease, shattering their family, closing down their coffee shop and leaving Brit without her mother.

sisters

Taken from Goodreads

Eventually Dad divorces Mom, marries ‘Stepmonster’ and has another child. And Brit – magenta streaked hair, punk rock Brit – is left feeling alone and underappreciated in her family. Told by her father she can’t stay home by herself during a family trip to the grand canyon, she and her dad take a road trip, with the thought that Stepmonster and her half brother will join them. Instead, dad drops Brit at Red Rocks, a teen rehab facility, supposedly to help her be more friendly and open with her new family.

What he doesn’t realize is that he is dropping Brit at not a rehab but a boot camp. Run by Sherrif and Clayton, as well as other pseudo psychologists and professionals, girls are brought there by their families – or taken from their homes by “escorts’ from the camp hired by their families – and put through rigorous activities and demeaning therapies all in the name of healing them. Girls are there because of their sexuality, because of their eating habits, because they don’t quite fit and their parents want a quick fix. If you’re an insurance case, you’re magically progressed through the levels from one to six in three months (the maximum time insurance will pay). If not, you’re there until you make your way through the levels and fully accept yourself as the flawed and messed up person that you are.

Brit is in shock – she may not have wanted to go to the Grand Canyon but she didn’t want to be there! She doesn’t see anything wrong with her lifestyle. Luckily she meets the titular sisters – the rebellious V, Bebe the sex crazed daughter of a fading star, Cassie the lesbian from Texas and Martha, the overweight former beauty queen. They come together during quarry duty – moving rocks from one place to another – and begin to meet at night to support each other through their incarceration.  While their friendship does not always run smoothly, they are there for each other, through thick and thin, breakouts and breakdowns. As they try to fight the powers that placed them into this place, they learn more about who they are and what they can mean to each other.

This book was a wonderful view of relationships and friendships. It made me appreciate the relationships I had as a teen with my parents – no matter how challenging I was, I was never placed in a facility such as Red Rock. But it also made me look at friendships and the power that they have to help a person endure trying times. Each girl is a bit of a stereotype and plays to that, yet each one fills a place in the ‘Sisters’.

If I had a critique of ‘Sisters in Sanity’, it would be that it’s unbelievable. Yet, the sad truth is that places such as Red Rock do exist. There are kids ripped from their beds or tricked into going to places where they will be reprogrammed into “good” children. Some of them, like Brit, are in a situation where they are true to how they are raised, it’s just the people doing the raising changed. Others, like her friends, are in situations that overwhelm their parents. Very few of them – if any – need to be there as much as their parents need to put them there. In terms of a discussion piece, this particular book could open discussions on the existence of these places and their purpose.

This book was a great find. I enjoyed it immensely and would recommend it to  other Gayle Forman fans as well as those looking for a ‘Ripped from the Headlines” tale of woe and friendship. I read it on September 15th on my Kobo. ISBN is 9780060887476.

 

ROBOT – Review One Book on Thursday – Dear Killer by Katherine Ewell

robotThis week I’d like to review a book I read a few months ago. It was a book with a concept that I found fascinating – ‘Dear Killer’ by Katherine Ewell. The premise is thus: Kit receives letters addressed ‘Dear Killer’. Each one requests that she murder a specific person and gives the reasons behind the request. She then decides who to kill and when she does, leaves a letter with the body. A prolific serial killer operating on her own societal standards. Well, the standards of her mother , the original ‘Dear Killer’ and the person training Kit. Murder is the only way of life Kit has ever known and the only way of relating to others her mother has taught her.

The rules are simple (taken from the book):

Taken from Goodreads

Taken from Goodreads

Rule One—Nothing is right, nothing is wrong.
Rule Two—Be careful.
Rule Three—Fight using your legs whenever possible, because they’re the strongest part of your body. Your arms are the weakest.
Rule Four—Hit to kill. The first blow should be the last, if at all possible.
Rule Five—The letters are the law.

Kit lives by these rules and others die by them. She gets paid to do this by the letter writers and essentially sees it as a service she’s doing, one that fits her nihilistic morals. But then, things get complicated, the rules don’t fit and Kit has to examine what she’s doing and how she feels about this turn of events.

I have to say that I found this concept a very interesting one. What do we learn from our family and what do we learn from society? When do we begin to fill a role because it’s expected vs filling the role because it’s what we’ve chosen. All of the relationships in this novel center around Kit and her role as killer. The reader is left wondering what would be happening in her relationships if she wasn’t so stuck in her world – if she had not be brought up to be a trained killer, who could and would she be? On a side note, it’s interesting to see a female character who kicks such butt in a realistic world (eg, non dystopian).

I found the service she provides fascinating. I don’t think I’d ever be in the position to request some kind of serial killer, but the fact that there are people so desperate they would request someone in their life to be killed was intriguing. The way Ewell builds the world, it seems totally believable that this could happen – that the services of an anonymous serial killer could be requested so often and for so long – a multi generational dear killer family.

This book is not for everyone. I have recommended it to students who tell me they like books about killers, crime and that fall a little more into the thriller genre.

I read this book on my kobo on April 4th, 2014. It was published by Katherine Tegan Books on April 1st, 2014. The ISBN is 9780062257802.

ROBOT – Review One Book on Thursday – Blind by Rachel DeWoskin

The book I’ve chosen this week is ‘Blind’ by Rachel DeWoskin. In this novel the main character Emma has been blinded by a freak firework accident. She has been blind for around a year and has decided to  be mainstreamed back into her old school with her old friends. Friends she grew up with and who knew her before the loss of her sight. However, one friend is not returning to school  – a member of their school community has been found dead, suspected suicide. Emma has to learn to deal with being blind as well as learn to deal with her grief and confusion over the death of her friend.

Losing a sense is a terrifying idea. Losing a sense in a freak accident while surrounded by your

family – those people who love and protect you – is even more terrifying. As a parent, the idea my son could lose something like his sight while standing with me scares me. Emma has to deal with the idea that the people who she always trusted to protect her were unable to keep her from such a negative life change. Emma has five sisters – one who is a baby – and one brother, and parents who love her and worry about her safety at all times, especially now. Her best friend Logan has her sight but does not have a supportive family who looks out for her; this is an issue with the girls and one that is never resolved. Logan is very supportive of Emma as she re-mainstreams, as is Leah. In fact, her whole family, other than her sister Sarah are supportive and do what they can to help her adjust to her new life. As Emma continues through her year, she learns more about what it means to be a friend, a sister and a daughter, as well as what it means to be a blind person in a sighted world.

The title of Blind is double edged. Emma is a good person but she is blind to the needs of others. She sees, so to speak, just what is related to her life and not what is happening in the lives in others. This is a realization she comes to  herself, as she gets past the physical changes in her life and begins to realize the emotional. As a character she develops and changes from someone stuck in her own physical changes into someone who can feel and emote about the emotional needs of others. this change is helped along with the examination of the suicide of her classmate. Emma is forced to look externally and see her role in the world bigger than the loss of her eyesight.

I really liked this book. it presented a realistic view of what a nice, smart, caring teenager would go through if presented with such a freak accident. Reading as she learns how to both physically and emotionally cope with her world is a a story that is told in a realistic and gripping way. Relationships are hard at any age and when you throw in a major physical change, they become even tougher. Having Emma become blind, allows for the metaphor of emotional blindness to shine through and makes her journey to being a better person a more satisfying one for the reader. For me, it is her relationship with Sarah that is the lynchpin -once she realizes more about Sarah, Emma is able to know more about herself. At times there was a lot going on however, that seemed appropriate to the lives of the characters.

I would recommend this book to those who enjoy reality novels and like to watch the development of a character in to someone who is emotionally mature. In addition, anyone who has experience with people who have vision issues will appreciate the struggles faced by Emma and her family.

I read this book on my Kobo, finishing it August 26th. It was published August 7th, 2014 by Viking Junior, ISBN 9780670785223.

ROBOT – Review One Book On Thursday – ‘Say What You Will’ by Cammie McGovern

This is the first in what will hopefully be a long line of Thursday Book Reviews. My focus will be on Young Adult Literature, with perhaps some Adult literature that has appeal to young adults in general. Please note that all opinions are mine and based on my feelings when I read the book – your experience may vary.

Say What you Will Cover

Cover taken from Goodreads

The book I have chosen to review is ‘Say What you Will’ by Cammie McGovern. This book was marketed to readers of John Green and Rainbow Rowell, two authors I enjoy. This book is the Young Adult Debut of McGovern, an author who has previously published books geared to an older audience. This book is about love, loss and learning to communicate.

Amy was born with Cerebral Palsy. She cannot walk without a walker and relies on a voice box to verbally communicate with others. She has always been the smartest student in the class, however socially, she’s lagging behind her peers. Matthew has obsessive-compulsive disorder. His life has been ruled by fear, rituals and repeated thoughts that distract him from being able to live a full life. Amy and Matthew both live in the world but are unable to fully be a part of it.

In a bid to make friends, Amy convinces her parents to hire student aides to accompany her to classes and help her in school. This role is usually filled by adults in her life, further isolating her from her peers. She convinces Matthew to apply and in doing so begins a journey that neither of them could have ever anticipated.

This story is told partly in a series of messages between Amy and Matthew with narrative interjections in between messages to explain the characters thoughts and actions and partly in narrative form. We are told the story from both perspectives, learning more about what each feels about the developing relationship. We also learn more about their past, including how Amy has been treated in the school system and how Matthew began to develop his rituals. This all helps us understand how they develop their relationship and why they need each other more than they think. As their relationship takes an unexpected turn, we see how the love that they have that was so difficult to develop is so well deserved and hard won.

The characters in this novel – not just Amy and Matthew but all of the characters, including the other student helpers, other classmates and the parents – are nicely developed. Even if you do not agree with their decisions and even if they do not seem like great character development displays, you understand why they made the decisions they did. The juxtaposition of the two main characters – Amy who would love to speak but cannot and Matthew who can speak but doesn’t – is a beautiful one, as the character that you assume would be weak is the strongest of the two. There are many lessons in here for everyone, in terms of examining how you live your life and what is important to you.

At times the story seems unbelievable. There are plot twists that are questionable or feel as if they have simplified the situation (in making it complicated). This book is very situational and character driven and thus, with the plot issues you are reminded how people make bad decisions in their quest to be independent and mature; that no matter how mature these characters seemed, they are still teens learning their way through life.

Readers who enjoyed ‘Eleanor and Park’ or ‘Looking for Alaska’ might enjoy this novel.

I read this book on my Kobo App for iPad on June 8th, 2014. It was published by Harpur Teen on June 3rd, 2014. ISBN 9780062271129.