Book Review: Defy the Stars (April Uppercase Box)

defy the stars cover

Gray, Claudia. Defy the Stars. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2017. Print.

One of my favorite new shows last Fall was HBO’s Westworld. If you haven’t seen it, here’s what you need to know: robots that closely imitate humans can easily garner their sympathy.

Also, they can be unnerving. Terrifying, even.

This was in the back of my mind when I received a signed copy of Claudia Gray’s Defy the Stars in my April Uppercase Box. I’d encountered lots of snapshots of the book on Instagram (the beautiful cover is fun to photograph) and I knew a humanoid robot featured heavily in the plot. Would he be a pitiable or terrifying machine? I quickly began reading to find out.

Noemi Vidal is a citizen of Genesis, an eco-friendly and religious planet. Genesis became a haven for many Earth residents as their resources and climate began to erode. Because of this, Earth and Genesis are constantly warring with one another. Noemi, a soldier, is planning to take part in a suicide mission that will destroy the gate between Earth and Genesis. During a training exercise that ends in a surprise ambush, Noemi discovers a marooned ship, Daedalus, and a stranded “mech”—or servant robot—named Abel abandoned inside.

This mech, however, is far more advanced than the models Noemi has learned about in her studies of Earth. Abel has a photographic memory, excellent combat and piloting skills, and a sense of humor not seen in many machines. He even inadvertently gives Noemi an idea to save her planet, one that will require him to sacrifice his own life. Noemi, thrilled with this solution, holds Abel as something of a hostage. But, as they grow closer, Noemi discovers that Abel is more human than she had ever imagined. Both Abel and Noemi know that he was built for a great purpose—but what can it be? Will Noemi carry out her plan, saving her planet but destroying Abel? In this planetary war, who will come out on top?

The characterization of Noemi and Abel are Defy the Star’s greatest attributes. From the book’s beginning, readers will root for Noemi Vidal—she’s tough, has a heartbreaking backstory, and thirsts for vengeance. Abel, too, quickly endears himself to the reader. He is, at times, painfully lonely, and tries to understand human emotions and interactions. His matter-of-fact manner of speaking and cheeky arrogance sometimes made me laugh out loud.

Defy the Stars is action-packed—which is a good thing—but my main complaint is that the action rarely slows. In fact, there weren’t many moments of stillness until around page 300 or so, and the effect was dizzying. Those quiet, tender moments between Noemi and Abel were so important in showing Abel’s humanity and Noemi’s changing ideas. I simply wish there had been more of them.

This book would be an excellent way to springboard class discussions or debates about politics, government, and even climate change. In Defy the Stars, Earth reigns over other small, habitable planets, and further dominates in weaponry and wealth. The planet is slowly being stripped of its resources, few plants and crops thrive, and humans tightly pack large cities such as London. It would be interesting to have students consider various “butterfly effects” that would result in such a future, and to brainstorm positive changes they can make in the present to better our world.

Book Review: Noggin

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Whaley, John Corey. Noggin. New York: Atheneum for Young Readers, 2014. Print.

Like all perpetually exhausted educators, I enjoy a nice, long nap when the opportunity presents itself. Sometimes I’ll snooze so long that I wake up disoriented. For mere seconds, I’ll be unsure of where I am or I’ll flail around in a frenzy falsely believing I have overslept and am late for school.

It’s this penchant for sleep that drew me to the novel Noggin by John Corey Whaley. The novel’s protagonist, Travis, takes the ultimate nap—his head is cryogenically frozen for five years. If getting some shuteye for an hour or so befuddled me, I couldn’t fathom the prospect of “waking up” after half a decade. My interest was certainly piqued and I dove right into Noggin.

Quickly losing his battle with leukemia, sixteen-year-old Travis Coates has just one glimmer of hope. His head, the only part of his body free from disease, can be cryogenically frozen by an organization known as the Saranson Center. If a healthy donor body is found, the Saranson Center hopes to reattach Travis’ head and bring him back to life. Travis agrees to this, but as his condition worsens and he says goodbye to his family and friends, he truly believes that he will never see them again.

Travis is surprised when he wakes up to an amazed room of medical professionals and his tearful parents. Things are not as he remembers, however; five years have passed, and his best friend Kyle and girlfriend Cate are noticeably absent. Most shocking, Travis is attached to an athletic, taller body. Still technically a sixteen-year-old, Travis must eventually return to high school, a feat made harder by the fact that he is now the subject of news broadcasts and late night talk shows. As more time passes, Travis finds changes everywhere he looks. His dad sneaks away from the house late at night. His friend Kyle is dodging important questions and lying to the people around him. And the love of his young life, Cate, is engaged to someone else. How will Travis adjust to being “left behind”? Will he find a purpose or meaning behind his second chance at life?

Whaley’s novel is infused with a strong narrative voice. Noggin is, above all, a funny story. Travis’ snarky sense of humor is prevalent right from the beginning, and he doesn’t hesitate to poke fun at himself or at the sentimentality of the people around him. On the other hand, Travis can also be extremely vulnerable, and the affection he had for his parents, Kyle, Cate, and new friend Hatton never wavered. There were also some strong images and scenes that will likely stick with me from my reading: Cate and Kyle trying to squeeze all the calendar holidays into a one day celebration before Travis died; Travis’ favorite arcade game, Space Invaders, and his determination to defeat his high score; and the various items from Travis’ life pre-resurrection: a pair of movie theater seats, a favorite poster, a painting made by Cate.

While the plot, voice, and conflict of Noggin couldn’t be more intriguing, I must admit that I found the ending a bit of a letdown. Without giving too much away, I wasn’t sure whether Travis experienced any true character growth or change. I felt a lack of resolution not just for his character, but for many of the other characters in the novel.

Still, I can see this book being a valuable classroom addition, particularly for young male readers. Teens who are experiencing a dark time in their own lives will relate to Travis a great deal. He asks the same questions many young people ask as they try to navigate their own personal relationships: How can you stop loving someone when their feelings have changed but yours haven’t? How can we move forward when life starts to feel hopeless or unfamiliar? Noggin encourages readers to live their best life and take advantage of all opportunities, a message certainly worth relaying to our students.

Book Review: LumberJanes

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Stevenson, Noelle, Shannon Watters, Brooke A. Allen, Maarta Laiho, and Aubrey Aiese. LumberJanes. Beware The Kitten Holy ed. Vol. 1. Los Angeles, CA: BOOM! Box, a division of Boom Entertainment, Inc., 2016. Print.

In my world, authors are rock stars.

I’ve been lucky enough to meet several of my favorites in person: John Green, Rainbow Rowell, and MT Anderson among others. Each time I encounter an author, I am energized not only as a voracious reader but as an aspiring author.

Recently, I had a unique opportunity to see such an author on stage. He wasn’t conducting a book signing or a meet-and-greet; instead, he was holding a charity Q&A session at my alma mater. Though it pains me to say this, I am not as familiar with his series of graphic novels as I am the subsequent television show adaptation.

The author was Robert Kirkman, and the show is The Walking Dead.

During the session, Kirkman said the key to writing a successful comic book—or creating any type of successful art—is to find a niche, something unique that is not currently out there. The novelty of your creation will likely lead to its success.

And, if this is the key to graphic novel success, then LumberJanes certainly has this formula down pat.

Assembled by a team of talented illustrators, LumberJanes Vol. 1: Beware the Kitten Holy introduces us to a motley crew of young female campers. The five girls attend Miss Quinzella Thiskwin Penniququl Thistle Crumpet’s Camp for Girls (or hard-core lady types, as the vandalized sign now says). The camp is a mixture between Girl Scouts and 4-H and the girls are expected to participate—and sometimes earn badges—in the standard activities: camping, canoeing, archery, etc.

But the camp is not a tranquil nature retreat. Throughout the course of the first issue, the girls encounter three-eyed foxes, “hipster” yetis, talking statues, and a boy’s camp where something feels a bit off. Most alarming of all, the girls uncover a foreboding message: they must beware the “kitten holy”. Will they ever decipher the meaning of this message? Will their misadventures get them kicked out of camp altogether?

Hearkening back to Kirkman’s wise words, LumberJanes is different from anything I’ve ever read, and not just because of my unfamiliarity with graphic novels. The girls—Mal, Molly, Jo, April, and Ripley—have unique, stereotype-shattering personalities. April, for instance, is the tiniest and most daintily dressed of the crew, yet she is physically stronger and more daring than the other girls. Barney, a member of the boy’s camp, eschews traditionally male activities and prefers baking cookies. The feminist in me cheered throughout the duration of my read.

LumberJanes is interspersed with excerpts from The LumberJanes Field Manual, and these usually give readers a bit of tongue-in-cheek foreshadowing. The grammar errors in these excerpts, however, gave me pause as I read. There were many comma issues and incorrectly used words—a snippet from the chapter on earning a naval gauging badge, for example, says “be she will learn how to explore with a seeing and vigilant eye” when it intends to read as “but she will learn how to explore with a seeing and vigilant eye”. Some readers will skip these sections altogether, but careful readers might be bothered by these editing issues.

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed this first edition of LumberJanes and I believe my students would be just as enthusiastic. Educators who are teaching a unit on gender might find it especially fitting. The colorful illustrations and the moments of humor will be attractive to the most reluctant of readers. The battle cry of the LumberJanes—Friendship to the Max!—reminds us to look after and protect one another. This is a good reminder to our students that petty disagreements will fade with time, but supporting your friends in times of crisis is of paramount importance.

Book Review: The Hate U Give

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Thomas, Angie. The Hate U Give. Balzer & Bray/Hyperteen, 2017. Print.

I’m a stickler for the rules.

Ask anyone—my friends, my colleagues, my students. There’s just something about guidelines that make me feel safe, and I attempt to instill that same sense of security in my classroom.

But there is one area where I will always push and rail against the status quo. I want my students to read important books, even the frequently challenged or controversial (within reason, of course).

When I first read Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, I realized I was in possession of something so important that I had to incorporate it into my curriculum. I’ve read many good books since, but none that ignited that sort of fervor in me.

Until I read Angie Thomas’ The Hate U Give. My advice: get this book into the hands of your students. Lend it to your family and friends. Discuss it in book clubs and on Goodreads. This book is that important.

Starr Carter is a sixteen-year-old high school student, basketball player, and sneaker enthusiast stuck between two worlds. She lives with her family in the crumbling but familiar Garden Heights, an area saturated with gang warfare. On the other side of town, Starr attends a preppy private school, Williamson, where she is one of the only African American students in attendance.

Starr’s life is irrevocably altered when she witnesses the shooting death of her lifelong friend, Khalil. As the media and community begin pointing fingers, Starr realizes that, unless she speaks up, prejudices and misinformation will continue to mutilate the truth. Starr is told that her voice is her most powerful weapon, yet several factors keep her silent: her loyalty to her Uncle Carlos, a police detective; her fear of retribution from the gangs in Garden Heights; and her reputation among her friends at Williamson, including her white boyfriend Chris and racially insensitive friend Hailey. Will Starr ever merge her “Williamson Starr” persona with who she really is? Will she find the courage to share her eyewitness account with the world? Will Khalil ever receive the justice he deserves?

Starr’s heart is continually pulled in a million different directions, and this is perhaps The Hate U Give’s greatest attribute. Her allegiances are blurry and gray—for example, she is, at times, mortified at the thought of her Williamson friends or boyfriend visiting Garden Heights. At other moments, she appreciates her community’s eccentricities and is defensive of her family and neighbors. Starr’s complexities—and the many facets of her narrative—keep readers hooked until the very last page.

I could heap more praise upon this novel—the dialogue and pacing are perfect. The only thing I truly hungered for was sensory detail. I wanted more descriptions of Williamson, of Garden Heights, of the television studios and courtrooms and storefronts. But, again, this is nitpicking. Thomas’ novel is truly worthy of the praise it has received.

I wouldn’t hesitate to use The Hate U Give in my classroom. There was one section, specifically, that made me tear up with its poignancy:

“That’s the problem. We let people say stuff, and they say it so much that it becomes okay to them and normal for us. What’s the point of having a voice if you’re going to be silent in those moments you shouldn’t be?

This novel is brimming with valuable talking points. When is it important to speak out? Why do we accept racism, sexism, homophobia, or prejudices of any kind as normal? How can the media alter our perception of victims and perpetrators alike? These might lead to tough conversations, but I feel The Hate U Give is worth it. Like I said earlier, the book is that important.

Book Review: The Breaking Light

the breaking light cover

Hansen, Heather. The Breaking Light. New York: Skyscape, 2017. Print.

Not to brag, but I’ve loved dystopias before dystopias were cool.

But, like most voracious readers of YA fiction, I found myself a bit “dystopia weary” following the monumental success of franchises like The Hunger Games and Divergent. As much as I loved them (my classroom is still slathered with Hunger Games memorabilia), I longed for something new and perused YA fantasy or realistic fiction instead. My self-imposed hiatus officially ended this past weekend with an email from Amazon. I could receive a download of a yet-to-be-released YA dystopian novel, The Breaking Light, as a perk of my Prime membership. The premise was simply too good to resist.

Arden and Dade are citizens of a completely vertical society. The poorest and most destitute—like Arden—live in the Undercity, housed at ground level. Above the Undercity stretches a series of Levels, topped by the Sky Towers where the wealthiest of citizens—like Dade—reside. Those in the Sky Towers, called Solizen, are the only individuals granted access to the sun. The rest of the population relies on time in a sun booth or injections of Vitamin D. When citizens cannot afford or access these alternatives, they often die from a painful affliction known as Violet Death.

Arden is heavily involved in a ruthless gang called Lasair. The group is headed by her brother and notorious for stealing Vitamin D shipments to turn into a recreational drug known as Shine. Arden is on her way to a Lasair meeting when she has an altercation with Dade, who she views as an obvious outsider. Unbeknownst to Arden, Dade also steals Vitamin D shipments, though his motives are a bit more virtuous—he distributes the injections to clinics who use them on orphaned children. Although Dade and Arden part after a scuffle, neither can shake their mutual attraction and their desire to see one another again.

As fate would have it, their paths cross for a second time at a nightclub where Arden is dealing Shine. Their reunion is short-lived as the club is soon infiltrated by government operatives—referred to as “govies” throughout the novel. After their escape, Arden and Dade reveal their identities to one another and struggle with the desire to be together despite their numerous differences. Socioeconomic divide aside, there are difficulties looming in the couple’s future: Dade’s father, a powerful member of the Solizen, has forced his son into an engagement with a girl named Clarissa for political reasons. Arden’s brother, Niall, is planning a complete upheaval of the government and families in power, known as Project Blackout. Arden and other members of Lasair view Project Blackout as nothing short of a suicide mission. Will Dade somehow stop his upcoming wedding? Can Arden slowly distance herself from Lasair and Project Blackout? Will the couple ever find acceptance in a completely divided society?

It was easy to lose myself in the society Hansen created—a world that was terrifying, dysfunctional, and had eerie similarities to plights citizens face today. Dade, like celebrities in our world, is constantly hounded by paparazzi. And, while most claim to hate the Solizen, they do love to keep up with them via broadcasts on their datapads, hearkening to society’s current obsession with fame and social media. Furthermore, it’s not difficult to see the parallel between the lack of healthcare available to citizens of the Undercity and the terrible treatment of the impoverished in our own world.

While the concept and world building were outstanding, I did find the writing style a bit juvenile at times, even for a YA novel. This is most prominent whenever Arden thinks about Dade. In one section, she describes his “yumminess”, in another she describes a kiss between them as “raw, needy, and hot”. Sure, teenagers are hormonal, but the voice felt jarring for someone as cunning and street smart as Arden.

That said, I would be open to recommending this book to my students. It would also be a fresh addition to their Dystopian Unit where they choose books such as 1984 and A Brave New World to read independently. The Breaking Light also has some striking similarities to Romeo and Juliet which were fun to uncover as I read; I can imagine, then, that they’d be equally fun to discuss with a class. I was excited to learn that The Breaking Light is the first in a series—let’s hope Hansen continues the tale of her star-crossed lovers for many books to come.