Book Review: The Future of Us

the future of us

Asher, Jay, and Carolyn Mackler. The Future of Us. Simon & Schuster Books, 2011.

I wouldn’t call myself a shopaholic, but there are a few items I will purchase somewhat impulsively: donuts, office supplies, and gently used bargain books. I especially enjoy stocking up on cheap YA paperbacks before school starts, trying to make my shelves look as full and varied as possible.

It’s easy, then, to forget individual purchases. I was perusing my shelves before summer break and discovered a copy of Jay Asher and Carolyn Mackler’s The Future of Us. As Jay Asher’s Thirteen Reasons Why has become a Netflix sensation and a popular read among my students, I was surprised that I never tackled The Future of Us. Recently, I decided to remedy that.

In the time of dial-up internet and the Bill Clinton/Monica Lewinsky scandal, Josh and Emma are neighbors and best friends. The relationship is on the cusp of blossoming into something more, but frightened Emma puts an immediate stop to it. Amid the awkwardness that follows, Josh brings Emma a copy of AOL to install on her new computer. As Emma gets to work creating her first e-mail address and setting up instant messenger, she discovers an interesting website. Called Facebook, the website contains photos and strange, stream-of-consciousness statements from a woman in her mid-thirties. Emma is startled to discover that the woman is her in the future, seemingly unhappily married to a stranger.

Puzzled and frightened of a computer virus, Emma invites Josh over to examine Facebook. They find an account for Josh as well, and are in shock as he seems to be married to one of the most attractive and popular girls in school. While Josh is desperate for his future to pan out just as Facebook says it will, Emma is determined to change the present, creating ripple effects that will give her the happy life she wants. How will Emma’s actions impact both their futures? Will Josh work up the courage to speak to his future wife? And will Josh and Emma ever resolve their feelings for one another?

Older readers will smile at the bits of nostalgia found in Asher and Mackler’s novel: the necessity of logging off the internet when another household member needs to use the phone, and the use of Walkmans, cassette tapes, pagers, and pay phones. The premise, too, is intriguing. Who could resist catching a glimpse of their future, especially if they knew they could change it?

Although I was certainly drawn in to The Future of Us, I found Josh and Emma’s relationship problematic. Emma spurned Josh’s affections until other girls began to find him interesting, making Emma something of an unsympathetic character. It would be difficult, too, to maintain the timeliness and relevancy of the book. Although students are still familiar with and use Facebook, social media is constantly changing and evolving.

The idea of the butterfly effect—found in time travel fiction and related to the decisions human beings make every day—has been a topic of conversation in my classroom this year. I could see excerpts from this novel strengthening my students’ understanding of the concept and encouraging them to think more seriously about the many ways their present impacts their future.

Book Review: Wonder Woman: Warbringer

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Bardugo, Leigh. Wonder Woman: Warbringer. New York, Random House, 2017.

After seeing the Wonder Woman movie in theaters, I immediately returned home and posted my thoughts to Facebook: “Wow. We do not deserve Wonder Woman.”

I was blown away by Gal Gadot’s flawless performance and Wonder Woman’s penchant for peace. I was excited for the little girls who saw the movie wearing capes and carrying their own lassos of truth. And, most importantly, I was energized by the positive press surrounding an action movie with a female lead.

I was powerless, then, to Leigh Bardugo’s newest release: a YA Wonder Woman novelization.

Wonder Woman: Warbringer follows teenaged Diana, who is considered a runt and weakling among the Amazons on her home island of Themyscira. The daughter of the queen Hippolyta, Diana sees a foot race as an opportunity to prove herself and make her mother proud. After the race begins, however, Diana hears unnerving screams. A ship has wrecked just outside the wards of mystical Themyscira, and a young girl—the ship’s sole survivor—is quickly drowning in the choppy water. Diana decides to forfeit the race and bring the girl, Alia, to safety, even though Amazons and mortals are forbidden to mix.

Alia’s presence has an adverse effect on the island—earthquakes rattle Themyscira, and Diana’s best friend becomes violently ill. Desperate and guilty, Diana seeks the guidance of Themyscira’s Oracle. The Oracle says that Alia is a “Warbringer”—the latest descendent in a long line of women who bring strife and warfare to the mortal world. The Oracle advises Diana to let Alia die, but brave Diana can’t bear the thought of Alia’s suffering. She makes the decision, then, to return Alia to the world of man. Will Diana ever return to Themyscira? Will she be shunned in the modern world? Will Alia continue to cause conflict and chaos with her mere presence?

Fans of the movie will be just as enraptured with Bardugo’s novel. Diana’s super strength and endurance, literal way of speaking, and desire to do what is right are all present in the text. Alia, too, is an intriguing character. Her affliction and backstory are tragic, and, though she lacks Diana’s Amazonian attributes, she is, in many ways, just as brave as the burgeoning Wonder Woman.

There is a wide cast of characters in Wonder Woman: Warbringer: Alia’s brother Jason, best friend Nim, Jason’s friend Theo, Diana’s mother Hippolyta, adversary Tek, best friend Maeve, etc. Keeping up with their many personalities, backstories, and motivations was something of a juggling act.

As someone who teaches The Odyssey and sometimes struggles to drive home the many Greek gods and goddesses present in the text, this book presents a unique opportunity. Students could read excerpts from Wonder Woman: Warbringer and examine the ways the gods influence Diana’s story compared to the story of Odysseus. No matter how you use it, Bardugo’s novel would be a smart addition to a classroom library. Diana’s dedication to truth and righteousness makes her a hero worth emulating.

Book Review: Solo

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Alexander, Kwame and Mary R Hess. Solo. Nashville, TN. Blink. 2017.

Note: This is a review of an advanced, uncorrected proof.

I have a confession to make, one that might be a bit shocking to my fellow English majors: I’m not a poetry person. I have the deepest admiration for poets, and have read some pieces from Sylvia Plath and Percy Blythe Shelley that have touched me tremendously. While poems can certainly paint a pretty picture, I am drawn instead to the characterization and plot found in short stories and novels.

So, when teaching poetry to reluctant readers, I once found myself at a loss.

Thankfully, that changed when I heard about Kwame Alexander’s book The Crossover, the winner of a Newbery Medal. Written entirely in narrative verse, The Crossover allowed me to teach poetic elements while also providing a timely story that kept my students engaged. I was excited to meet Kwame Alexander at BookCon so that he could sign my copy of The Crossover, and I was even more excited to receive an advanced reader’s copy of Solo, Alexander’s latest novel-in-verse.

Solo follows Blade Morrison, the son of world-famous musician Rutherford Morrison. Rutherford, an addict, is both erratic and neglectful, while Blade’s sister Storm is self-absorbed and shallow. As his mother died unexpectedly during his childhood, Blade’s only moments of happiness come from playing guitar, writing songs, and spending time with Chapel, his girlfriend. Blade is in love with Chapel, even though they must sneak around to see one another. Chapel’s father does not approve of the relationship—Rutherford is constantly in the news because of his bad behavior, and Chapel’s father believes that Blade will follow suit.

After his father embarrasses him at his high school graduation, Blade shuts his family out. He wants to run away with Chapel and never look back; however, in the midst of his anger, Blade receives some shocking news—he is adopted. Will he be able to locate his birth mother? Why did his family keep this secret? Will his relationship with Chapel last? Will he be able to forgive Rutherford?

Like The Crossover, Solo is written entirely in verse, but Alexander experiments with other non-traditional forms. Some sections of the novel are handwritten song lyrics, some are explanations and meditations on famous rock n roll songs, some are text messages. The unique formatting drew me in immediately. The surprises and climatic moments in the text also felt genuine, which makes it a difficult book to put down.

Perhaps verse doesn’t lend itself to a great deal of characterization, but I felt many of the female characters came across flat. Chapel, especially, is the typical high school heartbreaker.

Although Solo is lengthy, it would be a valuable text to pull selections from or read it its entirety. While it is an excellent way to introduce poetry, Solo is also poignant in its contrast of extreme wealth and extreme poverty. This could certainly lead to important—and life changing—class discussions.

Book Review: Summer Days and Summer Nights: Twelve Love Stories

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Perkins, Stephanie, editor. Summer Days and Summer Nights: Twelve Love Stories. Griffin, 2016.

School is officially back in session. So far, I can’t complain—I have great students and am happy to be reunited with my coworkers. I feel satisfied and productive at day’s end.

But I miss summer already.

I miss sleeping late and planning vacations and excursions. I miss the fantastic weather and my uniform of t-shirts and flip flops. I miss the casual, breezy air of the people I encountered.

That’s why I was glad to begin reading Summer Days and Summer Nights: Twelve Love Stories. A collection of short stories written by notable YA authors—Veronica Roth and Cassandra Clare among others—Summer Days and Summer Nights brings back the easy feelings of summertime. I’d also read and enjoyed My True Love Gave to Me, a Christmas-themed YA collection edited by Perkins.

Each story in the collection features a different facet of summer, from Dairy Queen ice cream cones and dips in the pool to days working at summer camps and resorts. Below is a short synopsis of each piece.

Head, Scales, Tongue, and Tail by Leah Bardugo: Gracie believes she’s seen a scaly creature in the lake of her small town. She consults a well-read tourist, Eli, and the two develop a strong friendship that resumes each summer. But will they get to the bottom of the supposed sea monster?

The End of Love by Nina Lacour: Fiona is desperate for distraction in the midst of her parents’ divorce. She signs up for a Geometry summer course despite already passing and excelling in Geometry. There, she reunites with three figures from her past, including one old flame.

Last Stand at the Cinegore by Libba Bray: Kevin works at the Cinegore, a movie theater that screens horror flicks and is owned by a mysterious movie director. He thinks this is perhaps his last chance to tell his coworker, Dani, how he feels about her. This plan is foiled when the patrons start acting a bit strange.

Sick Pleasure by Francesca Lia Block: I frequents a teenage dance club with her friends M and L. There she meets the mysterious A, a boy who loves to dance and sports a mohawk. Will their relationship last the entirety of summer?

In Twenty Minutes, Turn North by Stephanie Perkins: Marigold is reeling following her breakup with her boyfriend, North. After hearing that he has quit his job at his parents’ Christmas tree farm, Marigold decides to confront him and ask him to attend college. She finds him employed as a tram operator. Will North leave with her?

Souvenirs by Tim Federele: Matt peddles t-shirts at a local amusement park and is nearing the pre-determined “breakup date” he set with his boyfriend, Kieth (misspelling intentional). Kieth also works at the park as a performer, and he asks Matt to attend an end-of-the-year awards ceremony. How will this affect their relationship?

Inertia by Veronica Roth: After her friend Matt is in a devastating accident, Claire is summoned to the hospital to be part of his “Last Visitation”—a procedure that allows friends and family members to explore happy memories with someone who is near death. As Matt and Claire reminisce on their time together, Claire begins to wish she had handled some aspects of their friendship differently. Will she get a second chance?

Love is the Last Resort by Jon Skovron: Lena is employed at a resort, and she knows that summer is by far the busiest time. As she juggles the wants and needs of the various guests, she is intrigued by a new hire, Arlo. Will a plan involving the resort guests bring Lena and Arlo closer together?

Good Luck and Farewell by Brandy Colbert: Rashida is devastated when her cousin Audrey announces plans to move to San Francisco with her girlfriend, Gillian. After the death of Rashida’s mother, Audrey served as a mother figure. At the couple’s going away party, Rashida wrestles with her feelings while encountering similar ire from Gillian’s brother, Pierre.

Brand New Attractions by Cassandra Clare: Lulu is content with her life working at a “dark carnival”. When her father mysteriously runs off, Lulu’s uncle Walter and his stepson, Lucas, step in to take ownership of the carnival. Lulu is not pleased with some of her uncle’s changes.  Are his motives as pure as they appear?

A Thousand Ways This Could All Go Wrong by Jennifer E. Smith: Annie has spent most of her summer employed at a day camp where she is in charge of an active group of six-year-olds. When she runs into her crush, Griffin, at the grocery store, she decides to make a bold move and ask him on a date to the arcade. But does Griffin feel the same?

A Map of Tiny Perfect Things by Lev Grossman: Mark is living the same day—August 4th—over and over again. He isn’t sure to what to do about his predicament, but his interest is piqued by the appearance of a new face, Margaret, at the local pool. Margaret, too, is trapped in August 4th. Will the two find a way to break the cycle?

Each story has a unique narrative voice and the collection presents a myriad of romantic relationships. I like that fantasy pieces are placed alongside contemporary work and points-of-view and writing styles are varied. Some of the stories were so fantastic that I wished they could be elongated into a novel: Colbert’s Good Luck and Farewell and Roth’s Inertia were outstanding.

I felt some of the stories were too fast-paced and scattered, particularly Skovron’s Love is the Last Resort. With a wide cast of characters and an abundance of motivations, it was almost impossible to keep up with who was who or to care deeply about the plot.

I would certainly recommend Summer Days and Summer Nights to teachers as these are all school appropriate, high-interest texts. Summer might be over, but these stories provide a fun way to revisit the (in my opinion) best time of the year.

Book Review: Words on Bathroom Walls

words on bathroom walls cover

Walton, Julia. Words on Bathroom Walls. New York: Random House, 2017. Print.

Although I have read some amazing fantasy books this year, YA contemporary fiction continues to be my favorite genre. As a teacher, there’s nothing more satisfying than locating a book for a student that deals with the same issues they might face in their day-to-day life. I love that today’s contemporary authors don’t shy away from tough topics, including mental illness. A great example of this is Julia Walton’s Words on Bathroom Walls, which centers on a teenage protagonist struggling with schizophrenia.

Sixteen-year-old Adam has entered a clinical trial for a new schizophrenia drug, ToZaPrex. This trial requires regular visits to a psychologist, but Adam refuses to engage in conversation during his appointments. He reaches a middle ground with his psychologist: he will answer the doctor’s questions in a journal. Within this journal, Adam chronicles his transition to a new, Catholic high school. Along with typical high school issues—classes, homework, making friends, dealing with bullies—Adam must also deal with the constant presence of his hallucinations. They range from Rebecca, a quiet, reassuring woman, to a group of mobsters who fire weapons into the ceiling.

Adam notices slight improvement while on ToZaPrex, and this is coupled with an exciting development: he meets and begins dating one of his classmates, Maya. A smart and attentive girl, Maya notices Adam’s twitching and grimaces. As their relationship intensifies, Adam considers telling Maya about his schizophrenia, but fear of her reaction keeps him silent. Just when things seem relatively calm, Adam receives some bad news: he isn’t making progress on ToZaPrex, and he will be dropped from the clinical trial. How will the lack of medication change Adam’s symptoms? Will he be able to function during the school day? Will he ever reveal his secret to Maya?

Words on Bathroom Walls is a quick, smooth read. Adam’s narrative voice is authentic, and the reader will feel as though they are privy to his private thoughts and struggles. There is truly no way to read this novel and not come away with a different point-of-view regarding mental health issues. In one of the most poignant sections of the book, Adam compares his life and illness to that of the perpetrator of the Sandy Hook Massacre. He knows that his illness will always scare and appall others, and that sort of loneliness and ostracization is difficult to imagine.

There is a pivotal moment in the book when Adam’s illness is revealed to his classmates. Without giving too much away, this scene is described in a quick, choppy manner, and I wanted more clarity regarding such a large reveal. It can be argued that the ambiguity speaks to Adam’s mental illness, but I still wished the entire scene was considerably slower.

Teachers who tackle psychological issues in their curriculum or teach a psychology class will want to check out Words on Bathroom Walls. It can serve as a springboard for discussions about a variety of issues—witch hunts, modern medicine, honesty, blended families, and religion. Students will be drawn in by the easy, conversational language and the vulnerability behind Adam’s tale.

Book Review: The Upworld

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Frantz, Lindsey S. The Upworld. Line by Lion Publications, 2017. Print.

Appalachia is my home, but depictions of the area in movies and books haven’t always been kind.

In recent years, I’ve been happy to see a surge of writing that celebrates Appalachia by acknowledging its flaws but also highlighting its beauty, knack for storytelling, and strong community ties. That’s why I was excited to begin reading Lindsey Frantz’s debut YA novel The Upworld, set entirely in Kentucky.

In a dystopian future, Appalachia has been divided into three distinct factions: those who dwell above ground in communities, those who dwell in caves below ground, and the Wylden, dangerous savages who travel in packs. Erilyn spent her early life below ground until a shameful accident wrought by her telekinetic abilities forced her to move “up world”. There, she met and befriended a woman named Rosemarie who taught her to forage and live off the land. After Rosemarie’s death, Erilyn lives alone in a pine tree with only her large feral cat, Luna, for company. Everything changes when a boy from one of the communities, Finn, runs into the forest, pursued by Wylden.

After assisting Finn via her supernatural abilities, Erilyn nurses him back to health. The two develop feelings for one another, but as Winter looms closer, Erilyn knows that she cannot forage enough food to sustain two people. She convinces Finn to return to his community of Sunnybrook, but Finn refuses unless she accompanies him. It’s been so long since Erilyn was around others—will she adjust? Will the citizens of Sunnybrook discover her abilities? Does Finn’s ex, Morrigan, have it out for Erilyn? Is the mayor of Sunnybrook, Cillian, as innocent and friendly as he seems? And will Erilyn ever face the damage she caused below ground?

Frantz masterfully builds tension and suspense in The Upworld. Whether Erilyn, Finn, Luna, and company are running from Wylden, fighting their way out of Sunnybrook, or crawling through underground caverns, a sense of urgency is continuously present. Erilyn’s abilities are plainly stated and readers can easily put themselves in her shoes. The characters are multi-faceted—like Erilyn, we aren’t entirely sure who to trust. And the cover is beautiful—this is certainly a book you’ll want to display on your bookshelf and photograph for Instagram.

I desired more spark between Finn and Erilyn, perhaps more scenes of them growing together during their time alone in the forest. I also didn’t care for the nickname “Eri”—but I’m never a fan of shortening a main character’s name.

This novel would be a perfect addition to a dystopian unit. I’m using the prologue of this story (found in this anthology) with my classes this school year. Students who are fans of The Hunger Games and other books featuring powerful female protagonists will certainly be enthralled with both Erilyn and The Upworld.

Book Review: Song of the Current (June Uppercase Box)

song of the current cover

Tolcser, Sarah. Song of the Current. New York: Bloomsbury, 2017. Print.

Sometimes, being wrong is a good thing.

I’ve never been a big fan of pirate stories. The Pirates of the Caribbean movies admittedly lull me to sleep. Novels set at sea or within a boat have never been my first choice of reading material. So, when I saw a copy of Sarah Tolcser’s Song of the Current in my June Uppercase Box, I steeled myself for disappointment.

And I’m happy to report I was wrong. Very wrong. Tolcser’s novel is quite possibly the best book I’ve received from Uppercase and one of my favorite reads of 2017 (so far).

Caroline “Caro” Oresteia has spent her life on the river aboard her father’s wherry, Cormorant. She assists her father in delivering cargo and the occasional shipment of smuggled weapons. Caro’s father converses heavily with the god of the river, and Caro hopes that someday she too might have an experience with the divine. In the meantime, Caro’s focus is singular: she wants to take the reins of Cormorant upon her father’s retirement.

Caro’s life changes when she and her father sail into the town of Hespera’s Watch. There, the duo learns that a group of outlaws known as the Black Dogs have destroyed wherries in pursuit of an important piece of cargo. When officials in Hespera’s Watch cannot convince Caro’s father to carry this cargo to the intended recipient, he is jailed. Caro, in exchange for her father’s freedom, decides to sail Cormorant on her own and make the delivery. Caro is given a letter of marque and strict instructions not to open the box she is transporting. But, after a close scuffle with the Black Dogs, Caro can no longer resist—she has to open the box. What is inside? Why are the Black Dogs determined to confiscate it? Will Caro free her father?

Song of the Current’s strengths lie in its pacing and characterization. Whereas most novels that take place at sea tend to feel slow, the urgency behind Caro’s mission keeps the action moving. And Caro Oresteia is an intriguing, multi-faceted protagonist. Her love of the water, fierce loyalty to her family, and desire to converse with the gods will have the reader rooting for her from the book’s very beginning.

There is little to dislike in Tolcser’s tale. Those unfamiliar with sailing (like me!) might struggle with the nautical terminology, though Tolcser’s website contains a glossary. There is also an undefined though clearly burgeoning romantic relationship at the book’s end, and I wanted a bit more clarity. There is a sequel slated for next summer, though, so I’m hoping to receive answers then.

I am excited to recommend this book to my students, particularly those who enjoy novels with lots of action and suspense. Song of the Current makes some great social commentary as well—there are themes of political coercion, class warfare, and revolution. I can only hope that discussing Tolcser’s novel with my students will hold me over until the release of the sequel.