In Darkness by Nick Lake

12 Feb

imagesBibliographic Information

In Darkness by Nick Lake, Bloomsbury, New York, 2012, ISBN: 978-1-59990-743-7

Plot Summary

“In darkness, I count my blessings, like Manman taught me.

One: I am alive.

Two: there is no two.”

When In Darkness opens, 15-year-old Shorty is trapped under a collapsed building after the devastating earthquake that struck Haiti in 2010.  Just before the earthquake hit, Shorty was in the hospital recovering from a bullet wound, the result of a gang retaliation he helped organize and execute.  Now that he’s trapped, he recounts his story of how he became involved with the drug dealing gang and how his life began, and may end, “in darkness.”

Interspersed between Shorty’s narrative is another story of Toussaint L’Ouverture, the Haitian slave who led the first successful uprising against the French and English in order to free his people. Like Shorty, Toussaint has to fight for survival.  The French want desperately to keep control of Haiti (and keep the lucrative slave trade) and fight Toussaint’s army with more men, better ships and better weapons.

As Toussaint’s and Shorty’s stories unfold, the reader starts to see parallels in their struggles until finally the two characters become one in their fight for better lives and a better Haiti.

Critical Evaluation

In Darkness just won the 2012 Printz Award for Young Adult Literature and it’s easy to see why.  The novel is imaginatively written, well researched, and exciting from its opening to closing pages.  The dual narratives, number of characters, and sometimes graphic violence may be too much for younger readers.  But older readers will walk away from this novel with a better understanding of Haiti’s history, its people, and unique culture.

Shorty and Toussaint’s stories travel in opposite trajectories.  Shorty’s story is about the loss of innocence.  After seeing his father murdered and his sister abducted, Shorty’s heart fills with revenge against the gang that has destroyed his family.  This revenge makes him a killer and even though it’s hard to see what other options he might have growing up in one of the poorest slums on the planet, the reader still grieves as this young boy’s life spirals out of control.

Toussaint’s story, on the other hand, is of a middle-aged man emerging as his nation’s hero.  Author Lake does a terrific job of humanizing Toussaint, a man who has become mythologized for his role in winning Haiti its freedom.  What we see here is not only the brilliant strategist, but also a man who struggled with fear and doubt.  It is only because he doesn’t let his heart be ruled by hate and revenge that he’s able to not only free but save his country.

Switching back and forth between a story of Haiti’s past and Haiti’s present, it’s easy to get depressed about what’s happened in the country.  Toussaint is an idealist who fights for his people’s freedom.  Fast forward 200 years and we have Shorty, a young boy living in one of the poorest slums in the world, caught up in never-ending gang warfare.  Toussaint’s dream has clearly not become a reality, but Lake doesn’t leave the reader without hope.  There is forgiveness and redemption in the novel.  Through its alternating stories, Lake makes the reader want to learn more about Haiti’s past and do more to protect its future.

Information about the author

The author writes on his Amazon.com author page, “My name’s Nick and I write books for younger readers. My latest, BLOOD NINJA, is about ninjas who are also vampires – because the only thing more awesome than a ninja is a vampire ninja.

I like all the things you like, and I hate all the things you hate. I swear.

I live in a picture-postcard village in Oxfordshire, protected by trip-wires, boobytraps and a fat, lazy tomcat. Life in a picture-postcard village is very nice, but it’s a bit two-dimensional.”

Genre

Historical Fiction

Reading Level / Interest Age

Grade 10 and up

 

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan

6 Feb

9780374214913Bibliographic Information

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 2012, ISBN: 978-0-374-21491-3

Plot Summary

Clay Jannon is desperate for work.  Unable to find a web design gig in any of San Francisco’s disappearing internet start ups, he takes the only job he can find at a strange bookstore located next to a strip club on Broadway.  Mr. Penumbra’s tall and narrow store immediately strikes him as a strange place. “The shelves were packed close together, and it felt like I was standing at the border of a forest – not a friendly California forest, either, but an old Transylvanian forest, a forest full of wolves and witches and dagger-wielding bandits all waiting just beyond moonlight’s reach.”

original

The bookstore also has a mysterious clientele – an odd assortment of people who check out books written in a strange code.  Clay starts to wonder if he’s stumbled into the secret lair of some underground cult.  In order to discover the group’s secrets, he enlists his friends, all of whom have a unique skill set of their own, to discover what exactly is happening in Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore.  What they discover proves to be more mysterious than anything any of them could have imagined.

Critical Evaluation

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore had a few things going for it that made it a must read for me.  First off, it had a blurb from George Saunders, one of my favorite authors, on the back cover.  The story takes place in the two places where I spend the most time: San Francisco and Mountain View.  It’s about a man working in a bookstore / library and its cover glows in the dark.  Pretty much, I knew I was going to like this before I got to page one.

Mark Sloan’s book did not disappoint either.  There’s so much to like in this book about a hapless 20-something who stumbles across something of lasting value in our digital culture.  Mr. Penumbra’s has some big ideas about old and new technology, but these ideas are embedded in a fable-like story involving a young man on a quest for truth.

Clay’s quest is like many heroes’ journeys.  At the start, he is unprepared for the challenges of his quest, but through the assistance of friends (including a girlfriend who works at Google), and a spiritual guide (Mr. Penumbra), he is able to overcome the shadowy forces working against him.  After persevering through countless challenges, he learns an essential truth about himself and our world and emerges as a stronger, more capable, human being.

Information about the authors

From the author’s Amazon.com author page, we learn that “Robin Sloan grew up near Detroit and now splits his time between San Francisco and the internet. He graduated from Michigan State with a degree in economics and, from 2002 to 2012, worked at Poynter, Current TV, and Twitter.”

Genre

Fiction

Reading Level / Interest Age

Grade 10 and up

Colin Fischer by Ashley Edward Miller & Zack Stentz

24 Jan

tumblr_m97p5xLeUM1qzps3ko1_400Bibliographic Information

Colin Fischer by Ashley Edwards Miller and Zack Stentz, Razorbill, 2012, ISBN: 978-159514-578-9

Plot Summary

Freshman Colin Fischer’s first day of high school begins in the toilet. Before class has started, Wayne Connelly, the school bully, traps Colin in the bathroom and dunks him head first in the can and flushes.

Wayne, like many others at Colin’s school, doesn’t understand Colin’s quirks, including his need to refer to index cards to recognize facial expressions.  Colin has Asperger’s Syndrome, a condition that makes him hyper focused on facts and details, but clueless when it comes to reading people.

While Colin’s condition makes it hard for him to make friends, it gives him a unique perspective in solving crime.  When someone fires a gun in the school cafeteria, everyone thinks Wayne is the guilty party, but Colin thinks differently.  In order to clear Wayne’s name, Colin must partner with his tormentor and enter a world of messy social relationships to discover who the real culprit is.

Critical Evaluation

Colin Fischer is a fun and engaging read that will appeal to people who enjoyed The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, another mystery told from the perspective of a boy on the autism spectrum.  Unlike Mark Haddon’s book, the authors of Colin Fischer tell their story in the third person, which distances the reader somewhat from the main character.  The authors help us understand Colin’s thinking by starting each chapter with a diary entry and including interesting footnotes on various details of the text. While I prefer the voice and the dark humor of Haddon’s book, I enjoyed the way that Colin navigates his way through this mystery, often placing himself in dangerous situations.

The authors clearly understand Asperger’s (author Stentz claims to “be on the Asperger’s spectrum”.) Their depiction of high school made this reader question how familiar they were with public schools today.  (Do bullies really torment their victims with swirlies?  I’ve never heard of this happening.)  There were a few tropes and stereotypes here that I didn’t quite buy.  Besides this though, the mystery is well plotted, with a number of suspects and red herrings.  When the guilty party is revealed, I was surprised.  The authors also borrow a nice plot device from the classic Sherlock Holmes mysteries and give Colin a nemesis similar to Professor Moriarty was to the famous detective.

Information about the authors

From the book jacket we learn that Ashley Edward Miller and Zack Stentz “met on the Internet, a consequence of their mutual love of all things Star Trek.  Together, Miller and Stentz have written and/or produced over a under hours of television, including stints on Fringe and Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles.  Most recently, they co-wrote the films X-Men: First Class and Thor.  Miller and Stentz both live in Los Angeles.”

Genre

Young Adult Fiction

Reading Level / Interest Age

Grade 9 and up

 

How Children Succeed by Paul Tough

18 Jan

20121016_howchildrensucceed_57Bibliographic Information

How Children Succeed by Paul Tough, Houghton Mifflin, 2012, ISBN 978-0-547-56465-4

Plot Summary

Did you know that the United States has the highest college drop out rate in the industrialized world? Paul Tough in his book How Children Succeed claims that our problem isn’t getting kids into college, it’s getting kids out of it.  “Whether or not a student is able to graduate from a decent American college doesn’t necessarily have all that much to do with how smart he or she is,” Tough writes. “It has to do, instead, with that same list of character strengths that produce high GPAs in middle school and high school.”  These character strengths are: Conscientiousness, Grit, Resilience, Perseverance, and Optimism.  Schools today that focus solely on developing students’ academic strengths are failing to help students learn these important non-academic skills – skills Tough claims can be taught to help students, especially those growing up in poverty, succeed.

Tough’s book collects the latest educational research that shows how important these character strengths are to student success.  In addition to summarizing the latest in neuroscience and social science research, he profiles success stories where schools or school programs are turning kids’ lives around.

Critical Evaluation

I first heard about Tough’s book on This American Life, which used it as the basis for an hour- long program devoted to its stories and research.  As someone who has read a lot of educational books, I found many surprises in Tough’s examination of successful programs and schools and a different lens to look at the persistent achievement gap between rich and poor students. Some of the research was familiar, (such as the importance of mindset – the idea that intelligence is not a fixed endowment) as were some of the profiles (I’ve read quite a few on the success of KIPP schools).  But overall, there is an impressive amount of research here that’s summarized clearly by the author.

Tough makes a convincing case that schools need to do more than just teach content.  Without some form of character education, we are not helping students gain the necessary skills to be successful in college and beyond.  The research in Tough’s book shows that these skills can be taught and learned.  As Tough writes, “It’s not like some kids are good and some kids are bad.  Some kids have good habits and some kids have bad habits…habits might be hard to change, but they’re not impossible to change.”

Information about the author

From the author’s Amazon.com page, we learn that “Paul Tough is the author, most recently, of “How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character.” His first book, “Whatever It Takes: Geoffrey Canada’s Quest to Change Harlem and America,” was published in 2008. He has written extensively about education, child development, poverty, and politics, including cover stories in the New York Times Magazine on character education, the achievement gap, and the Obama administration’s anti-poverty policies. He has worked as an editor at the New York Times Magazine and Harper’s Magazine and as a reporter and producer for the public-radio program “This American Life.” He was the founding editor of Open Letters, an online magazine. His writing has appeared in the New Yorker, Slate, GQ, Esquire, and Geist, and on the op-ed page of the New York Times. He lives with his wife and son in New York.

Genre

Non- Fiction, Education

Reading Level / Interest Age

Grade 11 and up

The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater

17 Jan

the-raven-boys-book-coverBibliographic Information

The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater, Scholastic Press, 2012, ISBN: 978-0545424929

Plot Summary

Nothing will squash your interest in boys quicker than a warning from your psychic mother that your first love will die if you kiss him.  16-year-old Blue Sargent has heard this all her life and as a result tries hard to avoid potential romantic partners.  When she sees the ghost of Gansey, a boy who attends the elite private school nearby, in the annual parade of the future dead, she is alarmed.  Should she tell him he only has one year to live?  Could he be her first love and thus a fulfillment of her mother’s prophecy?

Gansey, it turns out, has been following his own crowd of dead people.  He thinks he’s discovered a nearby ley line, which will allow him to connect with past and awaken the “sleeping” Welsh king, Glendower, who will grant him a reward. Helping him are a motley crew of friends, including, Adam, a poor boy on scholarship at the Aglionby, Ronan, a belligerent fighter about to be kicked out of school, and Noah, a strange figure who appears and disappears with growing frequency. When Blue finally meets the boys at a psychic reading, they form a bond.  Blue decides to help them in their quest to find the ley line, not knowing that someone close to them is desperate to find it first. As they get closer to their goal, Blue struggles to tell Gansey what she’s seen and whether it means that he is her first love.

Critical Evaluation

In the interest of full disclosure, I should probably state here that I am not a big reader of fantasy.  For a great blog focused on science fiction and fantasy, I recommend The Book Smugglers at http://thebooksmugglers.com.  I like the kind of fantasy books that have one foot in the real world (think Daughter of Smoke and Bone or Everyday).  Maggie Stiefvater’s books are very popular with our young readers, so I decided to read her newest to become familiar with her work.  She is an excellent writer, and tells the kind of story that feels realistic to me, even though it involves the spirit world.

What I like best about this book is how it puts Blue in a difficult spot.  She has information about the fate of another and deciding if she should tell him is a great internal conflict for her character to wrestle with.  The fact that he may be her first true love only complicates matters.  Stiefvater also juxtaposes the world of privilege that Gansey lives in with the less affluent world of the other characters nicely.  (Gansey has access to a helicopter – that’s how rich he is).  In some ways, Blue and Gansey live in worlds as separate as the living and dead, but they form an interesting bond through their devotion to their friends.  Adam, Ronan, and Noah are all distinct and interesting, which makes their journey engaging to read.  The plot is suspenseful and has a lot of great surprises as the kids come closer to learning the truth about their fate and their connection to the living and the dead.

Information about the author

Stiefvater writes on her author’s Amazon.com page, “After a tumultuous past as a history major, calligraphy instructor, wedding musician, technical editor, and equestrian artist, I’m now a full-time writer living in the middle of nowhere, Virginia, with my charmingly straight-laced husband, two kids, four neurotic dogs who fart recreationally, and a 1973 Camaro named Loki. I’m also an award-winning colored pencil artist, play several musical instruments (most infamously, the bagpipes), and recently acquired a race car.”

Genre

Fantasy, Young Adult Fiction

Reading Level / Interest Age

Grade 9 and up

 

Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein

16 Jan

3992wein_code_name_verity-682x1024Bibliographic Information

Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein, Hyperion Book, 2012, ISBN: 978-1423152194

Plot Summary

The Nazis have captured secret agent “Verity” in occupied France.  After suffering weeks of torture, she finally agrees to give them the information they are seeking.  Part 1 of Code Name Verity is her confession, in which she tells the story of her experience training as an agent for the Resistance and more importantly her friendship with Maddie.  Maddie is a fellow teenage girl who has been trained as a pilot and now flies covert operations into occupied France to transport supplies and sometimes people. When Part 1 ends, “Verity” has provided her Nazi guards with information about these operations and given them vital access codes to help them with their war intelligence.

Or has she?

Part II of the book is told from Maddie’s perspective in which she recounts her attempts to find and rescue her friend before the Nazi’s kill her (and because they’re Nazi’s, they first plan to perform painful experiments on her body).  In her attempt to locate her friend, Maddie becomes trapped in occupied France as well. What she discovers there changes everything you think you knew about “Verity” and her role in the war.

Critical Evaluation

Code Name Verity had appeared on a number of “Best of 2012” lists for Young Adult literature.  When a friend wrote and said she had cried through the whole second half of the book, I decided to make it my first book of 2013.  It did not disappoint.  I would call the novel historical fiction, since its details of the war are so precise and accurate, but I worry this label gives the impression that the story is long on details and short on plot.  More accurately, this is an espionage thriller, in which spies double cross each other and the reader is constantly surprised at the plot’s twists and turns.

At the heart of the story is a friendship about two extraordinary girls.  “Verity” is outspoken, brave, and intelligent.  Maddie is introverted, more comfortable with machinery than with people.  In the turbulent time of World War II, they form an unlikely, but totally convincing, friendship, as each provides the other with sources of inspiration and courage.  When the Nazis capture “Verity”, I wanted her rescued, not so much for the war effort but so Maddie wouldn’t lose her closest friend.  What happens to each of them caught me by complete surprise.  More than once did I mutter, “I did not see that coming.”  The plot’s twists all felt true and satisfying, rather than manipulative to keep the reader guessing.

Elizabeth Wein writes with such interesting and accurate detail, it’s clear she’s done her research about this time period and these military units. This is a part of the war effort that I knew nothing about and the book made me want to read about these extraordinary women who braved not only the enemy but also prejudice at home.

Information about the author

The author writes on her Amazon.com page “I was born in New York City in 1964, and moved to England when I was 3. I started school there. We lived practically in the shadow of Alderley Edge, the setting for several of Alan Garner’s books and for my own first book The Winter Prince; that landscape, and Garner’s books, have been a lifelong influence on me.

My father, who worked for the New York City Board of Education for most of his life, was sent to England to do teacher training at what is now Manchester Metropolitan University. He helped organize the Headstart program there. When I was six he was sent to the University of the West Indies in Jamaica for three years to do the same thing in Kingston. I loved Jamaica and became fluent in Jamaican patois (I can’t really speak it any more, but I can still understand it); but in 1973 my parents separated, and we ended up back in the USA living with my mother in Harrisburg, PA, where her parents were. When she died in a car accident in 1978, her wonderful parents took us in and raised us.

I went to Yale University, spent a work-study year back in England, and then spent seven years getting a PhD in Folklore at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. While I was there I learned to ring church bells in the English style known as “change ringing”, and in 1991 I met my future husband there at a bell ringers’ dinner-dance. He is English, and in 1995 I moved to England with him, and then to Scotland in 2000.

We share another unusual interest–flying in small planes. My husband got his private pilot’s license in 1993 and I got mine ten years later. Together we have flown in the States from Kalamazoo to New Hampshire; in Kenya we’ve flown from Nairobi to Malindi, on the coast, and also all over southern England. Alone, most of my flying has been in eastern Scotland.

We have two children.”

Genre

Young Adult Fiction

Reading Level / Interest Age

Grade 9 and up

 

Page by Paige by Laura Lee Gulledge

12 Dec

8928004Bibliographic Information

Page by Paige by Laura Lee Gulledge, Amulet Books, 2011, ISBN 978-0-8109-9722-6

Plot Summary

Paige has just moved from Virginia to New York with her family.  She’s away from her only friend and arguing with her mom, who’s too happy to be real.  To combat her loneliness, she buys a sketchbook and starts drawing.  To combat her artist block, she sets for herself the following rules:

  • Draw a few pages every week
  • Draw what you know.  If you feel it or see it, draw it
  • Listen to what’s going on in your head
  • Let yourself fail.  Don’t take it all so personally
  • Figure out what scares you and do it
  • KISS: Keep It Simple Stupid
  • Live a LOT to get better material.  Let yourself feel everything
  • Stay stimulated to avoid creative constipation
  • Trust your gut instinct.  Be honest with yourself.

These rules end up not only helping her with her art, but also with her life.  By following Emile Zola’s precept, “If you ask me what I came into this life to do, I will tell you: I came to live out loud”, Paige finds a way to share who she is with the people who matter most.

Critical Evaluation

I picked up this book after it was nominated as one of 2012 top ten reads by the Young Adult Library Services Association. http://www.ala.org/yalsa/sites/ala.org.yalsa/files/content/teenreading/teenstopten/2012TeensTopTenNominations.pdf

The story is a simple one.  A teenager moves with her family to the big city and must find a way to make a home there.  What makes this book different are the inventive drawings on nearly every page.  Laura Lee Gulledge not only shows the reader what happening in Paige’s daily life at school, she also shows how Paige processes those events in her head.  As a result, there are some great symbolic drawings of Paige trying to summon up the courage to be honest and tell the truth through her art. For anyone who’s struggled with doing creative work, Paige’s 9 Rules offer a great guide, not only to make great art but make a great life.

paige-5-12Information about the author

From the author’s page on the book cover, we learn that “Laura Lee Gulledge grew up in Virginia and moved to New York.  She has worked in art education and scenic painting, among other pursuits.  Visit her online at whoispaige.com.”

Genre

Graphic Novel

Reading Level / Interest Age

Grade 9 and up