Tag Archives: realistic fiction

Out of the Pocket

OutofthePocketby Bill Konigsberg

The best adjective I could think of to describe this book is perhaps “earnest.”

The reluctantly outed celebrity quarterback’s story is told with such sincerity and truth that the reader cannot but root for the main character.  Along the way, there is just the right amount of suspense and uncertainty — how everyone might react to the news and accept or disapprove of his sexuality or decision  making — to maintain a high interest level to continue reading.  I read through it quickly because I truly wanted to know what happened next.  The football play-by-play scenes are described with lucidity and are quite exhilarating.  So even this football layman could form clear mental pictures and follow the games with all the thrill a spectator at the games would possess.  That is one of the strengths of this book.

I cannot not quite decide whether Bobby is flesh and blood and completely realized or is a courageous face on the cover of a magazine or national campaign poster, whose story is told to and not quite lived by this reader.  Perhaps he is both — at different times in the telling, depending on whether he is put in the middle of a scenario and reacts, or he is being cool-headedly examined by himself in one of his many his internal monologues.

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Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe

Aristotle and DanteThis was high on my “to-read” list after the January 28th Youth Media Award announcement — It won the Stonewall Award, is a Printz honor and is also the Pura Belpré award winner. And the cover had always spoken to me. But, it took me a whole week to finish reading this easy and not very long book. Mostly because I found myself not being drawn back emotionally to the book every time I put it down and I also didn’t feel compelled to continue reading for a long time. I found Aristotle’s narrative too wordy, too self-analytical, too clinical, even, at times. There’s so much crying and laughing: as if those are the only two actions that can express the emotions of the characters. And the descriptions of the crying and laughing were not that varied. The way the father cries is not distinguishable from the way Dante cries. I think this is a message-y book — but the revelation at the very end of Aristotle’s sexuality does nothing to strengthen the book’s power for me. I can appreciate the everyday life style of the storytelling but at the same time, there is definitely plenty of tightening up that could be done. (Is it necessary to feature an aunt who was shunned by relatives because she was a lesbian and a brother who’s serving time for the murder of a transvestie all in one story and all in one person’s life?)

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Beauty Queens

Beauty Queensby Libba Bray

It’s not easy to categorize this book. There is a little bit of everything — actually, there are A LOT of everything, and almost every “disadvantaged” group of characters: a transgendered former boy band member, a hearing-impaired dancer, a mechanically talented lesbian, a second generation South East Asian overachiever, an African American overachiever, a dumb blond, a sex-maniac teen, a die-heart beauty queen – and a host of other supporting characters and villains. There lies the strength and the weakness of the book: it covers many possible grounds and actually treats all these characters sensitively and with depth; and it loses focus sometimes because all the varied characters and their back stories are told alternatively and at times the readers are pulled into the past when we want to move forward with the plot. It feels too much like the subject (reality TV and mass media) that the author set out to mock. Again, that could be a strength, if one views it and appreciates the intent; or it could be a distraction — at times, the readers might feel completely overloaded by the bombardment of so much farcical humor. I might have loved the book a bit more if some parts are better pruned. I am trying to understand the conceit of the book being published by The Corporation while it paints quite truthfully all the evil dealings the Cooperation sponsored. Perhaps, it is fitting: since the Cooperation only cares about profit margin and a Tell-it-All probably generates the highest monetary return, they don’t even care that it makes the Cooperation the arch-villain in the telling.

Very meta.

Just an aside: as a native of Republic of China – ROC, every time I see the Republic of ChaCha – ROC, with its grotesque dictator on display, I had the visceral cringing reaction. But, that’s just me.

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My Life in Pink and Green

My Life in Pink and Greenby Lisa Greenwald

I can see why 4th grade girls like this book: it’s about 7th/8th grade kids with a little bit of “grown-up” stuff like first crushes and family financial problems; and it is also SO much about “beauty tips” that are just like reading a clean teen magazine. I find nothing wrong with this book that has some tension to keep the readers going and will recommend it for a light, enjoyable read that also encourages, somewhat realistically, activism by young people.

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The Cardturner: A Novel about a King, a Queen, and a Joker

The Cardturner: A Novel about a King, a Queen, and a JokerBy Louis Sachar

I was extremely pleased with the first 3/4 of the book — liking the main characters, and especially the rich uncle who’s blind, extremely intelligent, and passionate about Bridge. Whose story is really the one to follow. I thought to myself: this is indeed a master storyteller at work. Then, there is a shift in the voice, the pacing, and the “genre” of the telling: from a highly believable and touching tale of inter-generational relationship, to the slightly draggy tale with a supernatural tint. The characters suddenly become less vivid, pawns of a not very satisfying conclusion of an otherwise very very strong book. I think this is due to the fact that the best part of the book is the interaction and the growing closeness of Alton and his blind uncle and once the uncle is no longer physically present, the story loses part of its glittering charm. I DID enjoy all the Bridge talks and strategies.

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A Long Walk to Water

A Long Walk to Water: Based on a True Storyby Linda Sue Park

This is a quiet book; it is also an explosive and extremely powerful book. For such a short book, it really packs a huge punch — one that lingers in my mind and makes me want to know more, find out more, and help out if I can!

It is a quiet book because Park reports and does not sensationalize. At times, in the beginning of Salva’s journey, I felt a slight disconnect: I did not feel that his forced exile from his village or even the loss of his new friend are scenes that moved me emotionally. As I kept reading, my mind and my heart mingled: the words that are matter-of-facts also became matter-of-heart and matter-of-wisdom. The portion of the journey involving Salva’s uncle, his guidance, and his death, is the center piece of the tale. I even feel that I’ve learned a precious lesson from his mantra of taking one step at a time, solving one problem at a time — to conquer seemingly insurmountable obstacles or to achieve seemingly impossible goals.

It is a powerful book because Park manages to tell a harrowing tale to a young audience that will surely stimulate empathy and activism.

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As Easy as Falling Off the Face of the Earth

As Easy as Falling Off the Face of the EarthI will write more about this book later — just want to mark the space for it here. It’s a REALLY unusual book. I kept wavering between LOVING it and WONDERING if it is actually a children’s book. Also wavering between WANTING more (because of the incredibly cool ways Perkins writes and tells the story) and DREADING more (because there are simply TOO many things that go wrong… too many Uh-Oh moments that it sometimes grated on me…)

Must think MORE about this one. But, finally finishing it, I found the ending satisfying and the book so so wise! My current thought is that this book deserves to be shared and many young readers deserve to be aware of this book!

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Yummy: The Last Days of a Southside Shorty

Yummy: The Last Days of a Southside Shortyby G. Neri

The topic and the actual event are so much more powerful than the book itself. I find the narrative voice (supposedly a fairy young child’s) unconvincing and slips into mere reporting for the majority of the tale. It does not really move me.

As to the graphic/art part of the book: I thought to myself, “Oh, the graphics quality will be improved, touched up, and finessed, and the face of the same character will be more consistently drawn so the readers won’t be confused… in the final book… ” … but then realized that I WAS reading the published book, not an ARC.  Slightly puzzled by my own less than lukewarm reception since it has received a starred review and high praises from several reviewers.  Someone, convince me!

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Will Grayson, Will Grayson

by John Green and David Levithan

Both John Green and David Levithan are known for their witticism, and both also have created stories where things get out of hand, and the reality just seems larger than life/real — I often think of it as “ultra realism.”  And in Will Grayson, Will Grayson, you get a double dose of this over-the-top tone: Their nerds are just nerdier, their gay characters gayer, their jokes funnier, their sorrows more desperate, and their big finale of a High School Musical is so improbable that readers just have to suspend ALL disbelief (WILLINGLY) and simply enjoy the ride.

I enjoyed it for sure.  I laughed out loud many times — both are so good at coming up with amazingly intelligent and painfully truthful funny one-liners (or one-paragraphers.)

What intrigued me the whole way was how these two YA superstar authors collaborated.  Did they challenge each other with surprising scenarios or was it all planned out?  Am I right in assuming that one wrote the Gay Will Grayson part and the other the Straight Will Grayson part?  Who wrote which?  (I thought I got it down from the beginning but now I’m not so entirely sure!)

One of my high school students read the book (a big Levithan fan, didn’t know John Green and now became a fan, too) and did not love love it because it reminds this student too much of the REAL life drama that goes on around the group of friends.  It probably is painful.

No matter how ultra realistic this novel is, so much truth is dragged up from the bottom of a teenager’s heart that one cannot but admire the authors’ deep connection with their own inner teens and their abilities to capture all those feelings in words.

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One Crazy Summer

by Rita Williams-Garcia

The quiet power of the book builds and builds and builds until at the end, my heart is squeezed and my eyes are wet. I feel for these characters as if they are my closest friends and Delphine’s resilience and vulnerability and her final “triumph” made me want to hug her and tell her how incredibly proud she should feel about herself and also to “be eleven” and to perhaps now relax just a smidgen and to be loved and cuddled once in a while.

My huge appreciation also goes to the author and editor.  What a hard thing to achieve portraying a young woman whose sole focus is on herself and her craft as a poet, who comes off as uncaring and abusive, but the entire time, this reader senses an admirable dedication and stoicism and does not view her as a monster mama. The final explanation of her hard life comes at the right time and gives just the right amount of information to let me know that she is just coming out of her own protective shell and there will be some softening and relationship building in the future. (But, no false hope of her suddenly and irrationally becoming a pampering, snuggling kind of mother.)

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The Illustrated Mum

by Jacqueline Wilson

Being my second time reading the book, I had the opportunity to pay more attention to Wilson’s incredible talent in portraying her characters without being shocked or distracted by the harrowing experiences that Dolphin must suffer through, growing up and living with a mother who is mentally unstable.  It amazes me how the reader can just “listen” to a couple of sentences and “see” a few gestures or facial expressions from a character and become totally aware of this character’s personality, even predicting his/her future behaviors.

There are definitely some flaws in Wilson’s plotting: the finding of Dolpin’s father is not only far-fetched, it also seems unnecessary from a plot-construction aspect.  It also does not necessarily serve an emotional relief for the character.  The foster mother and the return of Star, combined with Marigold’s treatment, might do the trick to reassure both Dolphin and the young readers that hope and a brighter future is on the horizon.

This is the April 2010 Children’s Literature Circle selection.

(Children’s Literature Circle is a monthly Faculty book group that I run at my school.)

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Buried Alive

Buried Alive! by Jacqueline Wilson

A short read about Tim and Biscuits, two best friends who have quite an adventurous little vacation by a Welsh seashore. Although the main characters are boys, Tim, the narrator, shares a lot of traits with many of Wilson’s girl main characters: outcast, somewhat of a cowardly weakling with no self-confidence, but eventually finds inner strengths and come out on top. Plenty of funny scenes and slightly unsettling personality traits of the “best friend” of the main character.

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Peace, Locomotion

Peace, Locomotionby Jacqueline Woodson

It’s nice to have a chance to know more about Lonnie (Locomotion) and the next chapter in his life. It is a moving account and one can’t help but admire every single person (well, maybe not Ms Cooper) in the story for their tenacity and compassion.

 

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The Day of the Pelican

The Day of the Pelican by Katherine Paterson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I wanted to put it on the shelf of “Historical Fiction” and then realized that, hmm… it is really a book of more or less current events in the world that the young readers are still living. 9/11 happened when the current 5th graders were 2 or 3. So, the “historical” part is recent, so recent that I wonder how we can best discuss the story with young readers.

Paterson did a fabulous job turning such complex political and national picture into something easy to understand and identify with for its intended audience: 10-12-year-olds. I admire the main character Meli’s tenacity and her struggle to remain a decent human being and yet acknowledging the existence of hatred in her heart. Her brother is another amazingly realized character — although seemingly not a main character, this is really HIS story. Even the title refers to the day that brought all the changes upon him. The more I think about it, the more I marvel at the hardship he had to endure and survive and at the final positive change within.

This is an important book of our time and I wish many children will read it with their adults.

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Creature of the Night

Creature of the Night by Kate Thompson

The story definitely gripped me from the get go, and the voice of Bobby is raw and oh-so-real. I only wish that it had not been so “realistic,” that the creature of the night (which turns out to be Bobby in a sense when he realized how dark his life has been) – the Little Woman/Badger – features more prominently and the slightly creepy, surreal mood is maintained throughout the book. The long stretches Bobby’s work habits and his finding his way into PJ Dooley’s life are essential to the character development but it definitely slows down the momentum and almost feels like too much light and too light in a dark and heavy story.

Eventually, this is a realistic fiction, a coming-of-age story, a hopeful tale (with its feel-good epilogue,) and an intimate look at a troubled teen’s life. It shows a boy who battles with his inner demon, like a boxing match — He’s Down, the Demon’s Down, oh, no, He’s Down again.. he gets up… and the Demon strikes back… … … and yet.. we never got that really satisfying FINAL *POW* PUNCH. It is so real-life that it does not have enough dramatic force toward the end.

I might have been happy to NOT have that Epilogue — to keep myself guessing and thinking hard about his potential future(s).

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THe Astonishing Adventures of Fanboy and Goth Girl

The Astonishing Adventures of Fanboy and Goth Girl by Barry Lyga

So much of the book works for me — the painfully honest and self-deprecating tone of Fanboy who tells his own “adventure,” the unexpected plot surprises, and tension, the pacing, moving briskly and breathlessly from one chapter to the next, and the discussion of excellent graphic novels throughout the tale. And yet, some thing is not quite gelling at the end. I’m not as bothered by the non-conclusive ending as by the “revelation” that all adults are just like the bullies in the school: you just have to bully and fool them back and your life will be peachy. Hmm… is that what this amazingly big adventure all about? Very much puzzled.

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When the Whistle Blows

When the Whistle Blows When the Whistle Blows by Fran Slayton

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Judging by the somewhat muted and sleepy cover, I thought I was going to read a “pensive, quiet” coming-of-age, historical fiction. It turned out that the story is NOT all that quiet: every episode falls on an All Hallow’s Eve from early-40s to late-40s. You get the thrill of the secret Society’s weird, slightly off and scary way to honor a recently deceased member; you get the Halloween prank gone awry; you get the blood-pumping, almost heart-stopping football game actions; and you get the death and danger working on the steam-engined trains. But then, you also get so much HEART between the main character and his father. It is an entirely “male” book, glaringly so — you hardly see a female character and they hardly have even a speaking turn. It’s all… very, macho, but oddly also very tender. And so much humor and humorous wisdom. I am not ashamed to say that I cried hard at the end of the tale… mourning the passing of a man and of an era so lovingly and convincingly portrayed by the author.

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Hate That Cat

Hate That Cat: A NovelAuthor: Sharon Creech
Rating:
Reading Level: 2nd to 5th grade

Pages: 153
Publisher: HarperCollins
Edition: Hardcover, 2008

I was really delightfully surprised at how I enjoyed reading this one. I remember loving Love That Dog and did not think that I was emotionally manipulated — although most of the time I feel Creech’s books highly “manipulative.” And again, I cried over this little story and did not hate the fact that I cried. I have been wondering about Verse Novels and this book does not only present itself as a verse novel, it discusses the notion of poetry — light ones vs. “serious” ones; children’s self-reflective writing vs. classic, grand poetry. It’s definitely a very teacher-y book. I can see 4th-6th grade teachers all over thinking to themselves, “I can use this in my poetry unit! It even teaches techniques such as similes, metaphors, and alliteration!” The introduction of a deaf mother is an interesting touch. Maybe a little forced but it does offer the opportunity for the young readers to think and discuss the notion of beat/rhythm as “sounds” and actual physical vibrations. (Oh, my, god, can this book even be used by Science Teachers about sound waves?!!)

Anyway. I am pleased with the book.

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Sunrise Over Fallujah

Sunrise Over FallujahAuthor: Walter Dean Myers
Rating:
Reading Level: 6th, 7th, 8th, YA

Pages: 290
Publisher: Scholastic Press
Edition: Hardcover, 2008

It took me a while to read this one — in between, I finished quite a few other books — my opinions of the story and the telling wavered like a pendulum: sometimes I felt detached, bored and other times my heart almost stopped and I did not want to read on for fear of what was to come in the story, to the soldiers, to the “enemies.” It was at times, predictable, like the last death of the story — you did see it coming, somewhat. However, it did not diminish its impact and the manner of the soldier’s death elevated the book for me — the last letter was so real. So my final “verdict”? This book feels “real” — the mundane parts are mundane, because that is what an ordinary life is and we are seeing just an ordinary young person’s life, in an unusual setting. It is also real when things get to be so surreal that not the character, nor the reader can really absorb or interpret what’s going on. The emotion is true and raw and the manner of telling matches the character. So, all in all, an excellent book about a timely and important topic.

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Six Innings by James Preller

Six Innings Six Innings by James Preller

My review


rating: 4 of 5 stars
My reaction after finishing this short novel for pre-teen and teens, especially who are really into the finer points of baseball playing and the spirit of the game was a tremendous respect for the author. James Preller poured much of his passion for the game into a finely crafted story set in just ONE little league game: 6 innings, character sketches of 12 players of one visiting team, and the framing, soul-searching story of the 13-year-old severely ill ex-ballplayer-turned-announcer…

I am not particularly into baseball: enjoy watching the game once in a while, of course, but do not personally collect memorabilia or statistics as a life-long hobby. This book makes me want to know and learn more about the game, its history and all the psychological aspects of the players and the plays; it also makes me believe that there is a reason for someone, young or old, to be completely lost in the world of sports and get much of their life’s wisdom out of these games.

Preller also has quite a way with words and turn of phrases:

p. 15: “Aaron Foley, short and stocky with a squashed-in face that reminded Sam of an English bulldog, did more than toss his cookies. No Aaron projected his vomit across the room, spewing his insides as if fired from a cannon, a thunderous blast of wet barf splattering onto the tile floor.” p. 16… That’s how Sam and Mike began their friendship, sealed with a simple exchange, a look across a silent (but foul-smelling) distance.

p. 18: (About the five tools of baseball: speed, glove, arm, power, and the ability to hit for average.) Branden Reid, however, posesses a sixth tool, amnesia, the art of forgetting. Baseball is, after all, a game of failure. The only thing that a player can influence is the next play, the next at bat.

p. 22 (this describes the game, but somehow fittingly describes the book as well): “The slow rhythm of the game, a game of accumulation, of patterns, gathering itself toward the finish…” AND what a finish this book has! I felt like I witnessed a historic game after reading the last page of the book (and it isn’t even about the game or the innings or the winners and the losers.)

p. 63: “There’s a squarish, two-story bulding — an overachieving shed, really”

p. 46: On the field, baseball is a game of isolation, nine singular outposts of shared solitude… You are a “team” immediately before and after each play. (This does get repeated on page 132.)

p. 106: Tragedy, the stuff of comedy.

There are a few specific references that will definitely date the book — which is too bad: p. 40: the boys talking about Jessica Simpson and someone listening to the lyrics to a Jay-Z tune.

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