Sunday, November 30, 2014

Nothing Can Possibly Go Wrong by Prudence Shen (Goodreads Author), Faith Erin Hicks (Goodreads Author) (Illustrations)

I bought this because it won the YALSA Great Graphic Novels for Teens (Top Ten, 2014) thinking it might be okay for elementary but the swearing, attitudes, and topics make it best for middle or upper school. While it was funny at times, the main character's arc doesn't go as far as I would have liked to achieve depth of understanding that breaks stereotypes even though that is the author's goal.

Charlie Nolen, captain of Hollow Ridge High School basketball team, and his friend Nate Harding, president of the robotics club, end up being pitted against each other when the cheerleaders fight with the robotics club. The cheerleaders want new uniforms for state competition and the robotics club wants to enter the National robotics competition. Nate runs for student council and Charlie, who was dating the head cheerleader, is manipulated into running against Nate. The cheerleaders put Charlie's name on the ballot and believe he will fund them over the robotics. The nerdy Nate, is so aggressive in reaching his goal of being class president that he is mean to Charlie during the campaign, putting up demeaning photos or messages. Charlie doesn't appreciate Nate's actions. The politics get nasty and the principal refuses to fund either of them. Meanwhile, Charlie feels alone as he deals with his parents divorce and mom's recent engagement. Charlie lives with his father who travels for work leaving his son home alone and no adult in charge to help Charlie in case of an emergency.

The rival groups team up and the cheerleaders fund Nate's robotics club in a separate contest where robots fight each other for a large prize money that will fund both clubs. The cheerleaders are mean and manipulative. The black and white photos show them in uniforms that make them look militant. They came across flat to me and didn't break out of their stereotype. Charlie's ex-girlfriend is always frowning except on the one page where she gets what she wants. Then there is the confusing ending. Are the two boys, Jake and Gary, homosexuals? Or are they just putting down homosexuals in their "pervert" comment. Then there is the coaches comment, "D'you know how many scrawny white boys in this school would chew off your legs to get in the team's starting lineup?" Why single out one race? The illustration shows black kids on the team. The author's comments or humor made me uncomfortable because they stereotype homosexuals and suggest only white boys play basketball. Humor can go astray when it is insensitive to historical context of oppressed minorities.

Nate and Charlie's relationship fluctuate between mean and nice. At times Charlie is sympathetic such as when Nate is bummed by his parents and other times he's attacking him in an inappropriate way all because he wants funding so bad that he'll risk losing a friend. The basketball players don't even know that Charlie and Nate are friends implying Charlie doesn't want them to know about it. When Charlie is mad at Nate for his nasty public political announcement, he deals with it immaturely by giving Nate the finger. Later, he calms down and helps him with a robot design problem. But then Nate puts him down for his idea. It felt like their friendship wasn't moving forward but at times stuck in a loop. At the end the two discuss running for school president in the next election. Eventually their arc shows them becoming friends and willing to ignore social hierarchies that separate jocks and nerds.

Joanna actually interested me the most and came across as more authentic than the other characters. She's goofy in that she loves the robot like a being, but then drives it like a wild woman at the competition. She's a risk-taker and truly does break out of the stereotyped nerd. The illustrations add more to her character than the text. At the end, Charlie is still a jock who seems interested in her romantically although nothing happens so I'm not sure. Charlie seems to be willing to go public about his friendships with Nate since they agreed to run together. Nate is still socially inept. Both boys have big egos.  I wasn't sure why Charlie steals a car and none of the teenagers tell their parents about the competition. It seemed that the author just thought the phones ringing in the SUV would be funny. Which it was. But it wasn't logical. Another question I had was that how they lost in the final. The previous battle took up pages but the final wasn't shown except in one little square. I actually wondered if there was a mistake on the eBook. By the way, don't buy it as an eBook because the format is such that you can't enlarge it. I found it hard to see the details on the pictures.

Charlie yells quite a bit at his parents, who are pretty dysfunctional when it comes to parenting. When Charlie gets a concussion (which I couldn't figure out how he got it from the illustrations), the parents don't even come home to help or get another adult to step in. Instead Nate picks Charlie up at the hospital and brings him home. Later, the basketball team goes to Charlie's house when he invites them for pizza. Instead of having pizza they invite the school and turn it into a party with alcohol. Charlie is mad at them for taking advantage of him but doesn't stand up to the peer pressure like he didn't with the cheerleaders. During the party he hides under the bed. Nate joins him. He isn't very confrontational with peers or his parents and gets pushed around as a result. Also, Charlie's parents don't act responsible so it is easy to see why Charlie doesn't either. The author shows that anyone can be a bully; however, when jock Charlie decks some gargantuan nerds for insulting Joanna, I felt myself slipping back into stereotype zone. Joanna just showed she's a ruthless driver. I thought she'd get out of her own predicament. Instead boy rescues girl. While some action scenes seem to break out of the stereotypes, others don't.

Perhaps I'm being too picky. Perhaps my humor is off (okay... I know it is). Perhaps I shouldn't review young adult books. Perhaps I don't get graphic novels. Perhaps I need a teen perspective. Either way,  most of the character arcs and themes seemed to me to scratch only the surface of complex friendships and I found some details offensive. However, there are themes that can be used for worthwhile discussions. I just know that I'd choose other fare out there over this one. You'll have to decide for yourself. When I got to the last page, I really wondered if Charlie and Nate would stay friends. They seemed to have some trust and kindness issues even though Charlie had the courage to go public with his friendship. Like I said, read it and decide for yourself. I'm conflicted on this one. It was the little things that turned me off in the end. It is not often that I disagree with award winners, but this is one time I do.

3 Smileys

Journey to the Center of the Earth (Extraordinary Voyages #3) by Jules Verne, William Butcher (Editor)

One problem with reading the classics is I am not sure how the translation fares against other translations. This one seems well done and reminds me of the Victorian writers with its long romantic descriptions of nature wrapped up in scientific discussions that dip a bit too much into theory for my liking. But that's just personal taste. I nodded off on Professor Lidenbrock's paleontology spiel. I'm also the woman that dropped her geology class in college because she didn't like studying rocks. When the main character, geologist Axel, went off on the stratum layers of rocks I had no idea what I read after the passage. Ever do that? Completely zone out while reading technical details? You know... mouth hanging open, glazed-eyed look.  If you like science and adventure then you might like this and it's reflection on what people believed in the 1800s. I did like the book. The action, that is. Take into account that I read an hour a day on a treadmill because I like my sedentary reading experience to be active.

Overall, I liked this tale; however, my interest waned when the characters were in the interior and Axel's whiny, uncourageous voice seemed to repeat itself like a needle skipping on a record. He is such an unadventurous spirit I wanted to shake him. The introduction does a great job explaining the scientific inconsistencies and ideas during the 1800s. Make sure you don't pass it up because it enriches the text. You need to take into account the historical context of this work because there are annoying incidents. Take Axel's spunky girlfriend who was more ready-to-jump-into-the-earth than him. But of course a Victorian woman would not be able to do that.  Another irritating Victorian feature is when the Professor finds a skull and makes a politically incorrect statement about it representing the white race. It's offensive, but represents the times.

This adventure erupts when Professor Lidenbrock and his nephew Axel decipher a document found in an Icelandic book, the discovery of Arne Saknussemm's account of traveling down the Snaefell crater to the center of the Earth. Lidenbrock wants to make the same journey himself and drags the reluctant Axel to Reykjavik, Iceland. They hire a local guide, Hans, who adds some humor by insisting to be paid on a certain day even after they've almost been killed. He's so calm and matter-of-fact in his actions that he is the hero in their journey. Axel is scared to death on the journey and thinks it's only a matter of time before he'll die. He spends most of his time trying to get Lidenbrock to turn around, even after seeing amazing sights. When he sees a 12 foot tall man underground he responds by shrugging his shoulders. What an amazing dud! I'd had it with him at that point. Thank goodness, Lidenbrock's impulsiveness and enthusiasm worked as a foil to Axel's duddiness. I might have abandoned the boy if Hans and Lidenbrock had not been invented by Verne.

Once the characters get into the volcanic crater they find a huge cavern containing a sea with ancient mammals and sea creatures both dead and alive. After crossing the sea they find a path with Saknussemm's runic initials and follow it. When they hit a blocked entrance they blow up the rock causing an earthquake that sends them on a journey to the surface of the Earth. I would have vomited Axel out of too if I was Mother Earth. He'd give anyone or thing indigestion. What we know about science today makes much of this story unbelievable. No one can survive the gases of a volcano and no one can ride a raft on top of lava to name a few. Still, it is a fun read. Just know that it is not a science fiction novel. The threesome don't solve any scientific need and their journey is more adventure than anything. Science is talked about and it gets tedious at times, but it's more a look into what the future might be like. The style of voice has the Professor and Axel sounding scholarly and formal.

I just finished reading about Snorri Sturluson and his descendant, scholar and librarian Arni Magnusson, who saved Sturluson's Icelandic sagas one of the few ancient written texts on Norse mythology in the early 1700s. There was a resurgence of public interest during the Victorian times in Sturluson's works and it is reflected in Jules Verne's piece. He uses the fictitious Arne Saknussemm and Iceland as the setting for his novel. I got a kick out of finding some Viking lore influenced Verne's novel. While, I enjoyed this book and like Victorian writers, I'm not sure who I'd recommend it to. Perhaps the high reader who loves adventure and science. At least now I'll have an idea of the plot when reading abridged versions for elementary students.

4 Smileys

Friday, November 28, 2014

The Whispering Skull (Lockwood & Co. #2) by Jonathan Stroud

I have two big papers due for a class I'm taking for certification credits and made the foolish mistake of picking up this book to read on the high-speed train to Tainan, Taiwan. What a ride! I couldn't put it down. If I could only read at a 150 miles per hour. Stroud's descriptions and character development are fantastic as always, but I really liked the twists and turns of the plot in book two of the Lockwood & Co. series. This mystery was cranked up a notch from book one with a snarky, harbinger skull that added ghoulish humor and three-dimensional villainy. Be warned, I guarantee you'll be shirking responsibilities once you start this creepy ghost mystery.

Lockwood & Company, made up of agents Lockwood, Lucy, and George, is trying to survive in a competitive ghost agency market. Even though six months earlier the trio rid London's most haunted house of powerful ghosts, they still have to work hard to keep the business going and more often than not come up against the Fittes Agency, the biggest ghost-busting outfit in town. When the two groups come head-to-head, they challenge each other to a competition where the loser must put an advertisement in the London Times announcing their loss.

The teams get hired by the government to solve a case involving the ghost of a Victorian doctor, Edmund Bickerstaff, and a powerful relic he created out of bones thats kills when a person looks at it.   The case was the result of George letting his curiosity for relics get the better of himself and endangering his life. Lucy is there to save the day. Her talents are becoming more focused and powerful. She is a strong female character that is smart and clever.

Lucy narrates the story in first person which adds to the claustrophobic tense situations. Her narrow viewpoint supports the mysteriousness of Lockwood as she is always trying to figure him out. She admires and likes him but resents that he is so reserved at times. He doesn't talk about his past or family and doesn't have hobbies. All three characters have nice arcs that tie in with the themes. Lucy learns more about trust, Lockwood learns to open up about his past, and George learns that being too obsessive can be unhealthy.  Lockwood also does the right thing in a competition when he recognizes that his win wouldn't have happened without the other teams help. Meanwhile the Fittes leader, Quill Kipps, gives a reason for his motivations and meanness toward Lockwood & Company when his life is saved. Great ghosts. Great gore. Great fun. Sure beats writing a college paper.

5 Smileys

Monday, November 17, 2014

Percy Jackson's Greek Gods (Percy Jackson and the Olympians companion book) by Rick Riordan (Goodreads Author), John Rocco (Illustrator)

This weighty book was cutting off the blood circulation in my legs after reading for two hours. I plopped it on my bathroom scale, the red digits glowing 4 pounds in the dark room. Okay, guess I have gramma-legs. Honestly, it felt like 10 pounds. Perhaps Rick Riordan can write about Hercules next and toss in a weight-lifting program for wimps like me. In this nonfiction gianto book, Riordan covers fifteen gods and goddesses in all their misery... I mean glory. Technically, I hear about the twelve Olympians, but Hestia, Dionysus, Hades, and Persephone are sometimes included; hence, 15. The narrator rightfully calls the Titans the first dysfunctional family and doesn't hold back moving on to the Olympians and exposing the raping, murdering, thieving, and psychopathic ways of them all.

Percy Jackson narrates with his wise-cracking, sarcastic, dumb humor that had me snort-laughing. He calls Zeus, "Thunderbritches," has play on words, uses SMS language or text messaging lexicons, and continually reminds readers that the Olympians' behavior isn't normal. Ya think? Jackson tries to be the voice of reason in the gods violent, unreasonable world. Believe me, you wouldn't want to be a Greek god. The power struggles and bad behaviors of the gods, goddesses, and kingpin Zeus, should turn off most readers from wanting to be dictators or scare them into making sacrifices or make them run in the opposite direction if they see one. Run, run, as fast as you can. That would be me.

The colloquial language makes this easy to read and Riordan uses his familiar technique of mnemonics to help with remembering difficult names. I kept a journal of who's who and still got blurry-eyed by the end. Of course the blood might not have been getting to my brain from this whale-of-a-book pushing on my legs.  Riordan has oodles of pop culture and technology references. I wonder if the book will seem outdated 20 years from now alluding to Tumblr, Facebook, Smartphones, One Direction, Baywatch, KFC, and Twinkies to name a few. Okay, maybe he doesn't mention the last but he does mention food. The pacing is fast-paced and the text reveals tidbits such as how the gods influenced Greek geography, word origins, the importance of the laurel leaf, and cities that honored particular gods. He also shows how arid cities and eruptions were tied in with the Greek creation myths. The additional facts enriches the action.

The unexpected twist on Riordan's presentation of the Olympians is showing the goddesses not as complete victims. Don't get me wrong, it's still a patriarchal social system, but the women do stand up for themselves or try to fight back. Riordan sneaks it in when he can without compromising historical accuracy. At least from my limited Greek myth knowledge, I didn't see any exaggerations. He uses dialogue to be creative and add a fun narrative to the facts and by having Percy narrate he is able to bring in a modern-day perspective. When the four sons of Ouranos decide to kill him, Percy says, "The girls were too wise to get involved in murder. They made their excuses and quickly left." He'll point out other times how today a boy and girl wouldn't treat each other with the disrespect shown by the gods and goddesses. He muses how dumb it is when the gods ask Zeus if they can marry a woman versus the god asking her directly. He also talks about how the gods act differently than humans stating the obvious such as a brother and sister wouldn't marry each other. The different versions of Greek myths can be confusing as well and Percy explains the historical inconsistencies as to which story he is going to go with in his narrative. While it isn't necessary to know the Percy Jackson series in order to read this book, you'd get more of the jokes and tone being familiar with the fiction series.

Even with Percy trying to balance things out, I got a bit depressed about the whole female being-taken-advantage-of-deal. Hades was the culprit. The man can be a downer. Just kidding. I got lost in the tales again once I got done with the women. Ugh. The gods were yucky to them. No wonder two swore off marriage. If D'aulaire's book of Greek myths is for elementary then Percy's Greek Gods is for upper elementary or middle school. The brilliant illustrations by John Rocco remind me of Renaissance art. The baby leading the cows reminded me of the Rubens artwork, except for the dark outline of the cow. Rocco uses a soft, dreamy palette that shows an innocent-looking baby Hermes stealing cows, with snow shoes on his feet. Perhaps the dark pencil around the cows signifies the two that Hermes eats or is meant to add a 3-dimensional look. Rocco captures the weird and humorous myth in his painting. Rocco's monster, Kampe, illustration is pretty spectacular and reminds me of Caravaggio's Medusa at the Uffizi museum in Italy. The humungous boar fighting the puny human will be a favorite with students too.

Greek mythology has violent stories. That's just the way it is. Percy does warn when a story is going to get more gory than usual. The gods and goddesses are nasty to each other, but the mortals seem to be the ones on the receiving end of the lightning bolt. They get vaporized, zapped, and quartered. Percy even comments how mortals would get punished for behavior that the gods and goddesses did all the time. But the gods held themselves to a different moral standard. This tome doesn't get into the Greek heroes. I can see why. It would be too much. I would have had a 10 pound book if Riordan had done that. All the same, I found myself wanting to hear their stories. Maybe Riordan will come out with another book and mention the heroes. He could publish it after Christmas and market it as a dumbbell/book combination. Or maybe not.

4 Smileys

Monday, November 10, 2014

Song of the Vikings: Snorri and the Making of Norse Myths by Nancy Marie Brown

This biography about the 13th century Icelandic Chieftain, Snorri Sturluson, who was murdered in his cellar when he angered King Haakon IV of Norway, is engrossing and slow at times. Full of great literary facts, sometimes the pacing got bogged down with all the different relatives vying for power. Perhaps if I had written the names down as I was reading, I wouldn't have gotten tripped up at times. I read 40 minutes everyday and perhaps one sitting would have helped me keep everyone straight. Nancy Marie Brown has a straight-forward narrative that is easy to read and engaging. She does a terrific job bringing to life the customs and lifestyle of the Icelandic people.

Snorri's famous books, "Heimskringla" and "Edda," were written on the history of Norwegian kings and Norse mythology and they had an enormous impact on literature, influencing the rise of the gothic novel in the 1700s, inspiring J.R.R. Tolkien, and leaving a footprint that can be seen in the immensely popular modern day Marvel comic movies and Game of Thrones television series. Snorri married a rich heiress and became a chieftain later acquiring more chiefdoms. An accomplished lawyer, he was chosen three times as lawspeaker for the Althing which is like being president of parliament. He got into trouble with King Haakon in his late 50s when he disobeyed the King's order to stay in Norway and returned to Iceland. The King sought consequences for Snorri's disobedience and Snorri's main rival that wanted to usurp him was quite willing to carry out the death sentence.

Snorri was a brilliant storyteller and brought to life the Norse gods of old making them "peculiarly human." The gods had limitations and were not particularly smart. They liked to play games on each other, joke, and be cruel. They also knew that the end of the world was coming but they didn't know how to stop it or save the world. Snorri adds humor and entertainment and while the poems are difficult to understand because of their complex style, they had a resurgence in the 1700s. Brown ties mythology with national history and shows how it evolves to some extent. She doesn't delve deeply into it but I found the few links she does make tantalizing. I'd like to explore this topic more. 

Brown's writing didn't feel as cohesive as her other book I read, "The Far-Traveler." The narrative felt scattered at times and while I know some of that is due to the long genealogies, I also felt the main focus got lost at times as she points out Snorri's skills as lawyer, historian, and poet. The section on kennings and how complex the poems are was really fascinating and I wished it had been closer to the beginning. I kept wondering why she wasn't quoting his poems. As she gives an example then I realized that it would read like nonsense to the modern day reader. What a difficult topic to write about and I admire her effort even if it falls short at times. In "The Far-Traveler," Brown frames the story with archeology and for me it was the glue that held it all together. I needed something more to hold all the pieces together.

The information in this book is valuable and heavily researched. I read about Snorri on Wikipedia after reading Brown's book and there are some conflicts between it and what she has written. They are small things but it would be a way to show students how the Internet is not always a reliable source. Snorri loved power and in the end it was his downfall. This is loaded with great facts and extensive footnotes. If you are interested in the Icelandic sagas and history of Norse mythology then I highly recommend it.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Asian American Dreams: The Emergence of an American People by Helen Zia

I was talking to a colleague who said she loved this book because it captured her conflicted identity growing up in America as an Asian who had no voice in government. She's an activist like Helen Zia. She tells a great story of her high school principal asking her at lunch one day how he could get the Chinese, Koreans, and white students to not eat separately. My colleague suggested to the principal to organize field trips. "Friendships are formed out of the classroom and the principal took me up on my idea." She used it as a small example of one person making a difference in her world of cultural divisions. I would have liked Zia to pepper her story with more hope-filled examples like my colleague's; particularly in the beginning. I felt bad that Zia had so many negative experiences and was a bit exhausted plowing through it all. Unfortunately, that was her reality.  Her book is meant to shock people into action by the injustices suffered by minority groups such as Koreans, Japanese, Filipinos, Chinese, and Asian-Indians. It is a history of the politicization of Asians in America.

I just read Native American Tim Tingle's book called, How I became a Ghost, and he explains the first time he told the story of the Trail of Tears to a mostly white audience. He said that the first row stood up and left right away because he told about all the horrors and injustices that happened at the get-go. He changed the story to the viewpoint of a ten-year-old boy and presented a loving Native American family and rich culture, drawing the listener into the story. Later, he punched the audience between the eyes with the injustices and oppression white men inflicted on his Nation. Once he changed the tone and lured the audience into the story, he explained, they stopped walking out on him. Zia's book jumps immediately into the horrors and injustices that made me think of the white people that got up and left Tingle's talk. I wondered if white people abandoned Zia's book after the first few chapters. If you feel that way, I encourage you to not set it down.

Zia uses personal narratives at the beginning of the chapters but she can be heavy-handed at times. But I'm a white person and outsider who did not grow up poor, so my perspective is different. Or maybe her accusations toward white oppressors made me feel defensive and I need to take a harder look at my own biases. That is why I mentioned my Asian colleague at the start. She respectfully disagreed with me when I said the start of the book turned me off. She told me I couldn't understand the Asian plight because I was white. She's right. I don't. But I'm trying. Even living overseas as a minority, I get an idea but it isn't the same experience because I know I am a foreigner who will leave Taiwan and go back to America. As an expat, I don't vote. I don't speak the language. I don't pay taxes. I'm American, not Taiwanese. Asian Americans feel the same way. America is their country. They need a voice. They do vote. They do pay taxes. We had a good dialogue. Perhaps that is the strength of this book. It opens communication between different cultures, which is a cornerstone to building respect and understanding.

Zia came to our school and her speaking was more of what I wanted in her book that was written in 2000. She explained historically how cultures clash and their differences lead to conflict. Her book shows how groups overcome those conflicts. Major events in history show discrimination and hate crimes against different Asian groups. Many of these events correlate with global financial crises such as the recession in 1882 that resulted in high levels of unemployment and layoffs. The Chinese were blamed at the time for the bad economy. Thousands were driven out of America and many murdered. The government passed The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 that was the beginning of a ban on Chinese immigrants that lasted sixty years. The United States enacted a discriminatory law against a particular ethnic group for the first time ever.

One hundred years later a similar incident occurred with the murder of Vincent Chin in Detroit, Michigan. Chin, a Chinese man, was murdered on the night of his bachelor party because some white auto workers blamed the Japanese for the loss of auto jobs. With unemployment at 16%, people were looking for scapegoats. On the night of his death, the auto workers thought Chin was Japanese and got in a fight with him at a bar. Chin left with a friend and the men tracked him down, bludgeoning him to death in a parking lot. The recession of 1982 resulted from a global oil and energy crisis. American cars got about 5-10 miles to the gallon. Oil had gone from 20 cents a gallon to 4 dollars a gallon and American cars were gas guzzlers. The American auto industry collapsed as people bought more fuel efficient Japanese cars. Many people unjustly blamed Japan for the problem and the young engineer, Vincent Chin, became a victim of a hate crime.

The white men arrested for Chin's murder were given such light sentences that it caused the Asian community to band together as an organization, initiating the pan-Asian American movement. The killers served no jail time and the Asians knew that if Chin was white the killers would have gone to jail. Journalist Helen Zia and lawyer Liza Chan knew that they couldn't do anything after the sentence was handed down locally, so they brought federal charges against the white men saying that they violated Chin's civil rights. The man who swung the baseball bat at Chin's head killing him was sentenced to jail by a federal judge.

The book is full of major events that has resulted in the politicization of Asians: The Japanese Internment of 1942, The Immigration Act of 1965, Wards Cove vs. Atonio in 1989, Miss Saigon in 1991, the Los Angeles Riots in 1992, Hawaiian lawsuits for marriage equality in 1993, and Wen Ho Lee's wrongful imprisonment in 1999. Zia's book isn't limited to race, she dips into gender and sexuality as well. I actually liked the book more when the topic was broadened. The American Dream is the ethos for the United States. It is rooted in the Declaration of Independence that all men are created equal. The ideal means that the opportunity to work hard and succeed is available to all. It can only happen if inequalities are exposed for what they are and Zia does just that in her book. While this book should make Asians feel proud and visible, it might make Caucasians feel bad or uncomfortable. This is necessary to break down discriminatory barriers and create a culture that truly strives for the American dream.

4 Smileys