This may seem really weird, but the best book I have read this year is a middle-grade nonfiction by Steve Sheinkin called Bomb: The Race to Build – and Steal – the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon. For context of how amazing this book is, let me state for the record that this is also the year I read the sequel to Laini Taylor’s Daughter of Smoke and Bone, Michelle Cooper’s The FitzOsbornes at War, and Elizabeth Wein’s Code Name Verity, so when I say that Bomb is the best book I’ve read all year, I am really saying something.
Here’s what’s good about it:
- The structure. He starts with the FBI’s capture of Harry Gold and Gold’s subsequent confession, telling it in spy thriller fashion. He ends the book with Harry Gold. So even though this is a mostly chronological history, he sets it in a satisfying narrative arc.
- The storytelling: Fascinating individual stories of Robert Oppenheimer, Ted Hall, Erico Fermi, Klaus Fuchs, the Norwegian resistance fighters who blew up Germany’s heavy water facility, Richard Feyman, etc., etc. Everyone who was a player in this drama is given a lively backstory with surprising, often funny, notable, well-documented quotations. The plot arc takes you into the suspense and excitement of the bomb-making, and yes, it does make you root for the wrong things, but that’s the emotional core of this history–Sheinkin creates an empathetic response that has you breathless with suspense, hopeful that the trials will work, awed and heartbroken when they do, and grimly reluctant to acknowledge the fraught relationship and responsibility that emerges between ethics and enormous power.
- The science: Usually I fuzz over technical explanations, but Sheinkin has a way of explaining things so that I was not only interested, but I understood the physics. I now understand why a plutonium bomb has to have a different design than a U-235 bomb, and what heavy water is and why it matters.
- The intrigue and espionage: The spy work is fascinating. Without judging or even hinting at a personal bias, Sheinkin explains the motivation behind Fuchs’ and Hall’s determination to get the secrets of the bomb to the Russians. This context would lead to a great discussion of contemporary events, including the pressing problem of a nuclear Iran, and why some people might seem reluctant to intervene.
For those of you teaching 170 and 272, I can’t recommend this book highly enough as an exemplary nonfiction book for middle graders. For everyone else, it’s just an incredible read.
Tiger Lily by Jodi Lynn Anderson
Submitted by Meghann Meeusen
My favorite reading this summer is a beautifully poignant retelling of Peter Pan that captivates the imagination and leaves readers with tears in their eyes. Jodi Lynn Anderson’s Tiger Lily revises JM Barrie’s famed text by examining the life of the book’s title character, the adopted teenage daughter of her tribe’s shaman who finds herself forced into marriage to a cruel man. As Tiger Lily struggles to come to grips with her unique view of her world, she meets a mysterious boy who respects, but is also intimated by her courage and strength. Brilliantly told from Tinker Bell’s perspective, Tiger Lily’s story is not simply one of romance, but explores what it means to live outside the norms of gender and culture, even when your home is a seemingly magical island inhabited by pirates, fairies, lost boys and a breathtakingly complex boy named Peter Pan.
Anderson’s characters have a depth, nuance and beauty that is both reverent of Barrie’s text and strikingly unique, with new characters like a shipwrecked English colonizer and Tiger Lily’s adoptive father Tik Tok rounding out the story’s departures from the original. Readers beware—this book does not offer the same characters that bring Barrie’s work to life, but Anderson’s cast do not need pixie dust to find their way into readers’ hearts, leaving fans of the original bewitched by the story’s heartbreaking glimpse into the “real” world of Neverland.
Here are this week’s mini-views:
Bitterblue, by Kristin Cashore (YA): If you missed Graceling, it’s probably because it got swallowed up by the fervor over The Hunger Games. Go back and read it immediately. Katsa is every bit as kick-ass as Katniss (but why are their names so similar?), and the book is just more stylistically satisfying. Katsa comes from one of the Seven Kingdoms, where sometimes children are born with “graces”–special talents that are sometimes useful and sometimes just strange. You know gracelings by the fact that their eyes are different colors. All gracelings are property of the king, so if your parents want to keep you, they have to hide your grace, which is nearly impossible. So Katsa is the King’s Assassin, because she seems to be gifted with the talent to kill people, but she’s actually graced with survival, which sometimes (well, often actually) involves the slaying of people trying to kill or otherwise hurt you. Okay, so read Graceling. Then read Fire, which introduces you to Leck, a really, really scary guy who met his end in Graceling. His grace is to persuade people of the reality he wants them to see. He also likes to torture small animals and children. Shudder. At any rate, Fire lives on the other side of the mountains from the Seven Kingdoms, in a place called the Dells. Her story is one of political intrigue, passion, prejudice, and coming to terms with her abilities and her physicality–she is what is known as a human “monster,” an extraordinarily beautiful creature with the ability to cause people to become completely entranced with her and to affect their perceptions of reality (kind of like Leck), and other animal monsters to want to feast on her flesh. Her father, also a monster, used this power in Very Bad Ways, so she is reluctant to use her power at all, but her country needs her. (theory connection: the monstrous feminine for sure)
Now that you’re all caught up, proceed immediately to Bitterblue. As Leck’s daughter, rescued from his evil machinations by Katsa in Graceling, Bitterblue is now queen of a wrecked kingdom that is trying to recover from the cruel projects of her father. She is aided by advisors who worked for Leck, but she slowly realizes the depth of the trauma they underwent in working for her father, which has made them untrustworthy to her. So she has lots of puzzles to solve as she struggles to be the kind of queen she wants to be. Clearly, Cashore is working out something that has to do how to recover from an abusive father without becoming like him while cleaning up his messes; she does it with sensitivity and style, romance and intrigue, action and insight. Terrific series.
The Infects, by Sean Beaudoin (YA): If you only read one zombie novel in your life, let it be this one. Except, if you only read one zombie novel, you won’t get how brilliantly funny the parody is. So, okay, watch Zombieland for background, and then read this. Do you know Sean Beaudoin’s work? He’s definitely hipster YA, full of uber-cool geek culture references (is that a contradiction? I think not.) and literary genre allusion. Nick is arrested for a weird offense (that for some reason made me think of I Love Lucy), and sentenced to one of those wilderness survival things where the kids have nicknames (Holes, anyone?) and things go horribly wrong. He is rechristened Nero, and becomes de facto leader of the group when their counselors and one very hot female inmate suddenly develop a strong taste for each other (I love zombie puns). So, the usual zombie apocalypse dilemmas: fight or run, and if you run, run up the mountain or down toward the van, stick together or split up, kill your friends or try to save them, and finally, continue to try to beat the zombie hoard, or give up and let yourself be bitten. Now, this is Beaudoin, so if you have read his stuff, you will know some of what to expect: a protagonist who’s a little beaten down by life at eighteen, but still harbors hope that he will find the love of a girl who “looks like she stepped out of a graphic novel about sexy apocalypses,” and be able to make the world better for a little sister who complicates things with her special needs (this time she’s on the autism spectrum, and she poses a serious question about the fact that maybe humans need to evolve into something else, because what they are now just isn’t working for people like her), some sort of corporate espionage that critiques unreflective consumerism and unchecked greed, some sketchy adults, and some sort of sardonic voice that dialogues with the main character (this time it’s the Rock, who somehow inhabits Nero’s head). So, yeah, if zombies as a trope are a critique of whom we have become as humans, then this is the book to help you reflect on that. Highly recommended.
Smashed, by Lisa Leudeke (YA): Bright, athletic Katie knows she shouldn’t fall for Alec–he’s a bully who tortured her best friend, Matt, when they were younger. But he’s cute, and he does yard work, and he listens to her. He also likes to party with her, but when he’s drunk he’s a little too aggressive. One night, to avoid his advances, Katie insists on driving them home, but they get into an accident. While Katie goes for help, Alec slides into the driver’s seat, and people assume he was driving and she was the victim. He allows the lie to go forward, but he uses it to blackmail her. Solid problem novel with a credible (meaning emotionally difficult and messy for her, less so for him) resolution.
Burn for Burn, by Jenny Han and Siobhan Vivian (YA): Despite the fact that both Han and Vivian have had really good successes in the past, this is a don’t bother. Three girls join forces to get revenge on their peers for social slights, but the cause-effect arrow misses. One of their victims, Alex, is just misunderstood, and while the other two deserve their take-downs, it’s all a little gratuitous. In other words, the girls, who were mildly bullied, turn into real bullies to get their revenge. To be fair, Mary was so hurt by Reeve’s rejection and the chill effect it has on her classmates toward her that she attempts suicide in junior high, so she’s got a legitimate beef, but Kat’s and Lillia’s motivations aren’t strongly developed. And the ending is just annoying.
The Friendship Matchmaker, by Randa Abdel-Fattah (Gr. 3-6): This is fun and age-appropriate late-elementary/early junior high fare, full of lists and rules for how to make friends. Lara’s rules are mostly aimed at minimizing those things that make you seem weird or even individual, so there’s good stuff for discussion, and the plot itself undermines her advocacy for playing it safe and bland. For grown-ups, the parody of online dating is fun.
Since I read so many new books, and publish my reviews elsewhere, I thought I’d introduce a new feature: Mini-views! (Celia and Andrea from 375, this is for you guys!) Just little snips of what’s new and worthwhile, and what’s okay to miss. So, first installment:
Shadows, by Ilsa J. Bick, (YA): Oh. My. Goodness! Sequel to Ashes, and so much better than the first! Those crazy zombie kids just keep on coming and guess what? They like sex as well as eating living human flesh! Yuck. Bick’s stepped up her poetic language, doing remarkable stuff with imagery that is almost too vivid and grotesquely beautiful. This is a LOT gorier than the first, but also just chock full of plot developments. For instance, did you know that Yeager means Hunter in English? Yeah, so if you are reared in an Amish community like, say, Oren, and you were shunned so that you had to join the English world, your name would likely be changed from Yeager, like your brother who now leads the Council in Rule, to Hunter, who is helping the Spared to find shelter in Oren. Interesting, but what could it mean? And all the old guys, including a completely nutso militia guy named Zinn, seem to have some connection to the mine, along with some ancient grudges that aren’t quite bedded down. And maybe some of our favorite characters are not as Spared as we thought they were…Action, action, action, and a heartbreaking conclusion…which of course isn’t really a conclusion, just an intermission. Bring on the third book, please! (And oh, yeah, bring out the second–due out September 11th, I’ve heard.)
The Little Woods, by McCormick Templeman (YA): Cally enrolls in the boarding school where her sister was last seen–she’d gone to stay with the daughter of one of the teachers, who was a family friend, and both little girls went missing one night, and were presumed dead in a fire that burned the woods behind the school. Okay, it’s ten years later, and there’s been another disappearance, this time a girl Cally’s age. Cally has to solve the mystery, but she also needs to figure out which hot guy tastes better, Jack or Alex, and who her real friends are. It’s a cool mystery set in the middle of a school story limned with just a faint tang of creepiness. (July ’12 release)
The Stone Girl, by Alyssa B. Shienmel (YA): Meh, another anorexia story. This one features annoying diction. The main character’s name is Sethie, and the whole thing is written in third person present tense, with most of the sentences starting with “Sethie drinks…Sethie smiles…Sethis joins in…Sethie stops…Sethie remembers.” It’s so repetitive that it has to be intentional, but it’s crazy-making. Thematically, it fills a gap in the anorexia/bulimia literature by highlighting a girl who is more normal than not–this is a mild dysfunction that she will recover from, not one that will kill her. Anorexia as an almost normal phase of growing up girl. (August ’12 release)
One Moment, by Kristina McBride (YA): I liked this because it was a drama that didn’t become a melodrama. Six really close friends, two of them dating (that we know of). Maggie and Joey are opposites–Joey is that guy who pushes all the limits and does crazy stuff all the time, and Maggie is in love with him because he’s the first guy who’s shown a real interest, plus he’s the center of their group. Maggie and Joey are supposed to jump off this rock ledge together into a pool at the bottom, but Maggie balks, and Joey twists, hits his head, and dies. Maggie can’t remember what happened, and in piecing it all together, she learns a lot about her friends that she didn’t know. What’s nice here is that the emotional register is right–the kids are shocked, saddened, and temporarily wrecked by the accident, but it doesn’t drive anyone over the edge, and Maggie actually figures out a cool way to find closure. (June ’12 release)
Never Enough, by Denise Jaden (YA): This time, it’s the pretty, popular sister that’s anorexic/bulimic, while the frumpy, frizzy-haired sister is the main character. It’s always difficult to know what to think of these characters who assume they are ugly, but then have boys tell them they’re really pretty. Are girls simply incapable of honest self-assessment? What’s wrong with fine? Anyway, this is what I like to call chunky realism. What I mean is that it accounts for a whole life–work, school, hobbies, family, friends, guys. Like Sarah Dessen only not so tedious (I mean, there’s chunky realism and then there’s unending attention to minutiae that makes no difference whatsoever to the plot or character development–that’s Sarah Dessen. This is just chunky–enough to feel real, but not enough to bog down and make you want to scream I don’t care about the merits of fried pickles versus rosemary knots just get on with it!) The anorexia/bulimia plot is realistically portrayed, with things getting serious enough for Claire to go to a treatment center, and then things getting really serious when she meets girls with real anoretic skilz and mean competitive streaks. And then the blame game and the we can’t afford this so you fix it arguments between the parents. But it’s really Loann’s book of gaining wisdom, courage, and self-esteem. (July ’12 release)
Beautiful Lies, by Jessica Warman (YA): I liked this, but the question is, did I really really like it? I think so. I mean, it’s a fine piece of storytelling featuring twins, mental illness (most likely PTSD, or something hereditary, since the grandmother was also inconsistently attuned to reality), and a serial killer. There’s no socially redeeming message or take-away insight, and I wouldn’t teach it because I couldn’t fit it into a category of something I like to teach, like identity or abjection or sex or gender issues or dystopia or vampires. But it is something I like to read, because it was unpredictable yet pulled its pieces together well. (August ’12 release)
Liar & Spy, by Rebecca Stead (middle grade): Okay, first, I did not like When You Reach Me. I mean, I liked everything about it until the weird fantasy element, which I thought was a huge plot mistake. But Stead redeemed herself for me with this one. Georges, the main character, is a sweetie who is trying not to let his disappointment over losing their house bother his out-of-work dad and overworked mom. He meets Safer, who is a delightful eccentric in a family of delightful eccentrics–love the little sister, Candy. Safer draws Georges into a game of spying on the neighbors that makes Georges uncomfortable, but he appreciates Safer’s friendship too much to demure, at least at first. Oh there is so much to like here–the relationships are warm and every character is distinct and interesting, quirky without screaming “look at me, I’m deliberately quirky so as to attract a Newbery Award!” Just the kind of low-key funny that keeps a smile on your face as you read. (August ’12 release)
For our first book club meeting, we read Ashes by Ilsa J. Bick, a post-apocalyptic YA novel that reviewers have called part Stephen King’s The Stand, part Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, and part Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead. Of course we couldn’t pass up the chance to read it! Here are our thoughts in a list:
- A good book to discuss for a book club, but not recommended to read for fun.
- We would put it above a few other YA dystopias, especially since we’re not liking the ones that have to teach us a lesson.
- Compared to other YA series novels that can stand alone on their own, this one has difficulty holding up as its own novel and only works as part of its series.
Critiques and Observations
- There’s a cultural critique of humanity, and in YA lit there’s a pattern of every person for themselves with human nature turning in on itself in contrast to real world scenarios where people actually come together and help each other. Ashes is no exception here and doesn’t break from this pattern.
- When things go awry in the text, there’s traditional patriarchal roles that come back into the foreground: protecting females to continue the species, feminist theory going out the window.
- Survival mentality overrides character personalities and replaces them with surviving in conditions and situations they would otherwise not choose.
Characters We Like
- Ellie and her Hello Kitty bag! Easily the most likable character of the lot who’s suffered so much, including the death of her grandfather.
Revealing Intertextual References
- Island of the Blue Dolphins and Robinson Crusoe: Novels that recreate the status quo without problematizing or questioning it.
- Beverly Cleary and Road Dahl: Authors of subversive texts for children found in… a not so subversive text.
- Oceans 11, Judge Judy, and the characters’s using 9/11 as a guide for their ages: Conflicting references that both date Ashes and don’t match up.
- Bella/Edward/Jacob patterned love triangle.
- Four legged BFF that conveniently gets into plot driving trouble!
- Disney Princess Woodland Creature Power: the dogs always liking Alex.
- Near Death Survival Super Power Jackpot: enhanced smell sense!
- Episodic plot hook overload with the too-catchy-to-put-down chapter endings of doom. Be forewarned – you won’t put it down!
Real World Connections and Inspirations
- The PEBBLES? Nano-tech that can destroy Alex’s brain tumor? Just like Angela Zhang’s cancer curing high school science project! Neat!
Fruits of Our Reading
Join us again May 5th when we’ll reviewing Jonathan Stroud’s Bartimeus: The Ring of Solomon after our May book club meeting!