Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Audiobook Review: "Because It Is My Blood" by Gabrielle Zevin

Title: Because It Is My Blood
Author: Gabrielle Zevin
Publisher: Macmillan Young Listeners, 2012 (print available from Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
Narrator: Ilyana Kadushin

In book two of Gabrielle Zevin's Birthright series, we pick up Anya Balanchine's story after she is released from her summer incarceration at Liberty prison. This second installment had all the excitement and action of the first, as well as some great twists, but toward the end it fell victim to second-book syndrome.

Because of her prison time, Anya finds that not many schools will allow her to enroll with her checkered past. Eventually she finds herself in a situation she never envisioned herself in—she is sent to a different country, one where cacao is legal, to learn about how it is grown. But the longer she stays abroad, the more heated things get at home, until she must return to the life she has been condemned to live.

We come back into Zevin's futuristic America where chocolate and coffee are illegal and organized crime revolves around these two substances. I was struck by how much cacao's existence in this world mirrors marijuana's existence in ours, and I think that was what Zevin was aiming for, especially with some of the questions on the ballot in this upcoming election. It's an interesting parallel and does indeed make you think about illegal substances in our society, regardless of whether you believe they should be illegal or not.

The change of setting was welcome for me, as I'm not a huge fan of NYC anyway. Plus the new cast of characters that comes with the change of place is wonderful. Theo is my favorite character in the entire series so far now—love him. I'm interested to see where the next book will take us as far as the relationships between characters. Who will become allies, who will become enemies? It's pretty clear that Zevin has set up for something big in the next book.

That said, because of all the setup, the action tapered by the last pages of the book. We know something series shiz is about to go down, as Anya pretty much tells us so, but we are left with a short argument between Anya and another family member and then that's pretty much the end. Luckily the beginning and middle were gripping and full of action.

Ilyana Kadushin, as always, does an excellent job narrating Anya's story. Though her voices for other character's aren't always the most distinct, it doesn't really matter because Anya is the one telling it. Her narration is measured and calm, just what is needed for Anya.

I'm mostly looking forward to the next book in the Bloodright series, though I am also pretty apprehensive. I'm not a huge fan of violence, and I have the feeling there is going to be a lot in the next book.

Disclosure: I received this book for review from the publisher in exchange for an honest and fair review.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Book Review: "Ungifted" by Gordon Korman

Title: Ungifted
Author: Gordon Korman
Publisher: Balzer + Bray, 2012

Donovan Curtis has always been one to act before thinking. He'll just get this urge and act on it, and then he'll have to deal with the consequences afterward. But when his impulses lead to the accidental destruction of the middle school gym, he knows he's made a huge mistake this time. Luckily for him, an error works out in his favor and sends him to the Academy of Scholastic Distinction and away from the wrath of Superintendent Schultz, who has conveniently forgotten the name of the student he caught red-handed. Unfortunately Donovan is decidedly not gifted in the same ways his new classmates, all with extremely high IQs, are. Yet despite how clear it is he doesn't belong, he manages to figure out just what the self-described nerds need. He just needs to be able to fake his way through the Academy in order to stay there and out from under the watchful eye of the man looking for him.

This was a really fun look at what might happen if an average kid was thrown in a group of supersmart ones, though it was not without its flaws. Donovan really throws a wrench into the relatively normal proceedings of the Academy, which is admittedly far beyond what you would see in a regular middle school. I really liked how Donovan highlights this; the smart kids get all sorts of advantages and a very nurturing environment in which to work and learn, as opposed to the dismal surroundings and equipment found at his old school, Hardcastle Middle, where each grade has about 300 students. Korman shows how the way students are treated and the tools they have can really make a huge difference.

This story was told with lots of humor, too. This is my first book I've read by Korman, but I hear this is pretty typical of his work. The situations that Donovan gets himself into, and that the Academy students end up in, are pretty funny to read about. Plus the characters themselves are funny, both in manner and in the things they say.

One of the things I most appreciated about this book was how Korman wrote about a realistically pregnant woman in Katie, Donovan's very pregnant sister who ends up being a huge part of the plot. He does not shy away from the physical discomforts about being pregnant, such as the constant need to go to the bathroom, swollen ankles, the difficulty of moving around, etc. She is grumpy about her situation, and the fact that she misses her husband who is serving in Afghanistan only adds to her character and fueled my sympathy. It's rare that I read about a pregnant character who is engaging in the way Katie is, and who kids might be able to relate to. No, they might not be able to relate to the baby stuff, but her relationship with her brother is something any kid with a sibling can get. Plus, now readers will know a bit more about Human Growth and Development.

Yet this novel had its flaws too. I had trouble with the incredible stereotypical image given to the kids at the Academy. All are smaller and shrimpy, physically weak, and pasty from lack of sunlight. I understand that Donovan and his "normalcy" are at the heart of the book, but it kind of gives the message that supersmart people are all supposed to look and act a certain way. I'm also unsure as to the amount of diversity in the book, though there was little to no physical description of the characters so that could be left up to the reader to decide the ethnicities of the students—mostly all I had to go on was "pasty," which doesn't really lend me to think there are many (if any) students of color. I wish there had been more description, and character development actually. Only a handful of people had more to their character than how smart they were and their special talents. We occasionally got a first-person perspective from secondary characters, but many are left completely undeveloped.

Despite the issues I had with the characters, Korman manages to tell a fresh, fun story about how a person's ungiftedness might actually be his gift. It's a story of teamwork, friendship, and robots, which are always fun to have around.

Disclosure: I got this book from my local library.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Top Ten Books We Shouldn't Forget — Banned Books Week Edition

Red Epic Reads Badge

This week is Banned Books Week, and I have been trying to think of something to post about it. Luckily, this week's Top Ten Tuesday (hosted by The Broke and the Bookish) theme is books we don't want people to forget, and that works just perfectly with Banned Books Week. The best books to remember are the ones others want you to forget.

1. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie. Hands down one of the best, if not THE best, young adult novel I've ever read. If you haven't read it yet, do yourself a favor and do it this week.

2. The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky. Another brilliant novel, which is also often challenged. In happier news, this was recently made into a movie and is in theaters now. I would really like to see it!

3. Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson. This is a classic in YA lit as far as I'm concerned. Who remembers the Scroggins challenge?

4. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. I don't think anyone in America went through high school without reading this book, it is that much a part of American literature and our culture. A masterpiece, one that will never be forgotten.

5. Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D. Taylor. The first in a series of historical fiction about a black family in Mississippi, in 1933. Needless to say, there is abundant racism, and it's been banned for language, yet how can we forget this time in history and ignore what happened? I listened to this on audio, narrated by Lynne Thigpen (I remembered her from the game show Carmen Sandiego), and it is excellent.

6. The Color Purple by Alice Walker. This is just a great book that I feel doesn't get enough attention anymore.

7. The Giver by Lois Lowry. Another classic in children's lit, now complete with the release of Son today!

8. Blood and Chocolate by Annette Curtis Klause. An older paranormal romance, before they got truly eyeroll-inducing. I thought this werewolf story was very well done, with the ending I wanted (maybe not the one you would want, but I was happy with it). This one has been challenged for sexuality and unsuitability to age group.

9. Anastasia series by Lois Lowry. I've only read the first in this series, but it was so funny that it's hard for me to forget it. I really should continue the series.

10. A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle. This will forever be my favorite and have a place in my heart.

There you have it! My top ten favorite banned/challenged books that shouldn't be forgotten. I'm sure this list could be added to, because unfortunately many cases are made each year for banning or censoring books. Celebrate your right to read this week by reading one from this list, or really any book you want.
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