Welcome to the jungle

For those of you arriving here via LS 583 @ Clarion.edu, my reading journal comprises the next 42 posts on the Reading between the lines page. Clicking on some of the tags may lead you astray (this is a new page for an old blog of mine); if so, simply choosing the correct category from the dropdown at left will bring you home again.

Unofficial bonus points for naming all the cheesy songs / pop culture references in the post titles.

Thanks for reading.


Big little brother

Doctorow, C. (2008). Little Brother. New York: Tor Teen.

Genre: Dystopian / realistic / near-future cyberpunk

Intended audience: Mid-teens and up; anti-authoritarians and rebels

Little brotherPersonal reaction to the book: This is thought-provoking if a little didactic (OK, a lot didactic at times). It’s a well-researched and totally subversive guide for teens. I would have read this book happily in high school.

Sadly, it really doesn’t feel totally over the top, even though it is written as a somewhat dystopian near-future novel. It is no surprise to discover Doctorow is not American; the post-911 American thought police would have got to him before he got around to publishing.

Author facts: Cory Doctorow co-edits the weblog Boing Boing. Born in Toronto, he now lives in London. He is the former European director of Electronic Freedom Foundation.

Related website: http://craphound.com/

Heavy-handed message

Zusak, M. (2002). I am the messenger. New York: Alfred E. Knopf.

Genre: Realistic / fable

Intended audience: Older teens

Personal reaction to the book:

MessengerSPOILER ALERT: Review contains spoiler.

I really enjoyed the book until the final chapter or so.

For most of the book, the game for a reader was guessing who was leaving the playing cards with clues that led Ed through the plot: Was it Ma? Audrey the love interest? One of the card players? One by one they got eliminated as suspects, until we were left with “Hi, I’m your author, here to rub your face in an obvious, moralistic, metatextual ending, where it turns out the AUTHOR, that’s right, me, the AUTHOR, created these little vignettes for Ed to work through.”

It’s a damned shame, because right up until then I thought this was the best YA novel I had read in quite some time. I had Zusak’s The book thief on my list but now I’m not sure I’ll bother.

Author facts: Marcus Zusak grew up and still lives in Sydney, Australia. The book thief is his most successful title to date. He has a wife, two children and two dogs he walks daily.

Related website: http://zusakbooks.tumblr.com/

Not enough lipstick for this pig

Zindel, P. (1972). The pigman. New York: Harper & Row.

Genre: Mainstream fiction

Intended audience: Teens

PigmanPersonal reaction to the book: Really badly written book. It is told from the point of view of two teens, a boy and a girl, but the author is unable to endow either with a unique voice (for example, when describing their evening together in Mr. Pignati’s house, both use the adjective “lovely,” within a few pages of each other. And it’s an odd choice of words, particularly for a young male character). So the characters aren’t particularly believable, either.

The plot is thin and feels contrived.

There is a point to be made, finally, at the end of the book, when the characters start to discuss the teens as an age between childhood and adulthood, but it’s been made many times elsewhere and often better. In fact, it read like it could have been a good short story and but had been dragged out.

Author facts: Started writing as a playwright, having been taught by Edward Albee. Was a chemistry teacher before he started writing full-time. Used his difficult childhood on Staten Island as the source for much of his writing.

Related website: http://www.paulzindel.com/

Sad ending to Funny Story

Vizzini, N. (2006). It’s kind of a funny story. New York: Miramax.

Genre: Realistic

Intended audience: Mid-teens and older

Kind of funny storyPersonal reaction to the book: This has strong overtones of One flew over the cuckoo’s nest. It’s not quite in that league, but a good read. Somehow the book is both less dismissive of and less dependent on the role of the therapist in solving teenage psychoses than some others. I liked the ending — happy without being Pollyannish — and the use of humor throughout.

I, like many others in the class, was sorry to hear that Ned Vizzini couldn’t conquer his demons.

Author facts: Many aspects of Ned Vizzini’s life – where he lived, his time in a mental ward, his depression – echo those of Craig Gilman, the protagonist of this novel. He killed himself by jumping off of a roof in 2013 at the age of 32. He was survived by his wife and a son.

Related website: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/12/21/books/ned-vizzini-author-of-teenage-novels-dies-at-32.html?_r=0

Mostly harmless

Turner, M.W. (2005). The thief. New York: Greenwillow. (First published 1996.)

Genre: Fantasy

Intended audience: Tweens / young teens

ThiefPersonal reaction to the book: The thief got the Douglas Adams review: Mostly harmless.

You have read better fantasies; you have read worse fantasies. It is appropriate for younger teens / tweens and is a safe recommendation for them. There’s a little violence, no sex, no swearing. It’s a standard quest fable with a nice twist in the tail.

A fun read, but nothing to set it apart from hundreds of other fantasy novels. Writing this from my notes three weeks after reading it, I can’t remember details already, so it’s not destined to stick with me (nor I think many other readers).

Author facts: She lives in Ohio with her husband. They spent a year in Oslo, Norway. She has a degree from University of Chicago.

Related website: http://www.meganwhalenturner.org/

Presto! C’est chic

Tobin, P., & Coover, C. (2013). Bandette, Volume 1: Presto! Milwaukie, Oregon: Dark Horse Comics.

Genre: Graphic novel

Intended audience: Mid-teens and older

BandettePersonal reaction to the book: A fun option to the dark violence and manga subgenres that dominate so much of the graphic novel scene. Bandette is a very French protagonist (think Amelie, from the movie of the same name). She is pert, sassy and indomitable: A great heroine for girls to follow. Unlike most costumed female heroines, she wears actual clothing. I would recommend the book for younger readers; the publisher recommends 15+ due to some smoking and a background sexual situation.

One quibble: The volume is a little slim, and very much first of a series. In my youth I read many “comic books” with more panels than this “graphic novel.”

Author facts: Tobin & Coover are a husband-and-wife team. He is the writer and she is the illustrator. They live in Portland, Oregon.

Related website: http://www.paultobin.net/ ; http://www.colleencoover.net/; http://periscopestudio.com/

Tapping at my chamber door

Stiefvater, M. (2012). The raven boys. New York: Scholastic.

Genre: Supernatural, adventure

Intended audience: Mid-teens and up.

Raven boysPersonal reaction to the book: Loved it. Well-rounded characters, believable motivations, good dialogue; by turns funny and emotionally satisfying. It does not talk down to its audience. The only book for the course thus far (out of six) where I wanted to read another book by the same author.

It is reminiscent of Neil Gaiman – although not as engrossing as his best – in creating a distinctively magical world that coexists with the humdrum.

My one critique is that it is part of a series and as such it does leave several major plot lines unresolved, although the ending isn’t a complete cliffhanger.

Author facts: A car fan, she owns a vintage Porsche, a 1973 Camaro and a 2012 Mitsubishi Evo. She plays several musical instruments. She lives in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, where The raven boys is set.

Related website: http://maggiestiefvater.com/

Stargirl abides

Spinelli, J. (2002). Stargirl. New York: Scholastic. (Originally published 2000.)

Genre: Realistic fiction

Intended audience: General YA

StargirlPersonal reaction to the book: It’s sweet without being sappy; it’s a quick read; it’s got enough fun to blunt the angst. It’s everything good about YA fiction.

Stargirl is one of those characters (Owen Meany) who it’s very easy to cheer for. There’s affection without sex, nobody contemplates suicide and the high school society, while dystopian, is dystopian in a thoroughly commonplace, 1990s high-school kind of way. All told, this is an easy book to have on a recommended shelf when you might not be around to help individual readers choose it. One of my favorites in this class.

It has a sequel, but I really don’t think I want to know more about Stargirl. She abides. I don’t know about you but I take comfort in that.

Author facts: Attended Gettysburg College and Johns Hopkins University. Has 21 grandchildren. Hails from Norristown, Pennsylvania.

Related website: http://www.jerryspinelli.com/

Mighty Maus

Spiegelman, A. (2008). Maus, I: A survivor’s tale: My father bleeds history. Paw Prints: Charlotte, North Carolina.

Genre: Graphic novel / memoir

Intended audience: Older teens, adults.

MausPersonal reaction to the book: Originally published in 1986, Maus pretty much set the standard for “serious” graphic novels, and it’s hard to separate reputation that from the book, coming to it late like this. I wasn’t blown away by it, but given my expectations coming in, that’s not surprising. It’s far easier to be impressed when you pick up a book without anticipating it will be anything special and it turns out to be brilliant.

I liked it, but wouldn’t urge it on anyone except readers looking to understand what’s possible in the graphic genre. Given the combination of subject, form and expectation, it’s not for everyone — despite its status as a modern classic.

Author facts: Art Spiegelman started to draw professionally at 16. He was the creator of the Garbage Pail Kids. His parents wanted him to become a dentist.

Related website: http://barclayagency.com/spiegelman.html