Wednesday, February 29, 2012

CONTEMPLATING 5 STAR RATINGS

So I've been thinking recently about star ratings for the books I read. It was prompted by a discussion at my most recent book group when some mentioned they only use stars on goodreads and others said they never do and only do written thoughts. And then I had my students doing book talks this week and giving a rating within the talk. Overall, I like star ratings, it gives me a quick idea of what I or someone else thought of a book (especially for students who aren't yet able to fully articulate their thoughts and need help to get there - it's a starting point). However, it's not without it's flaws. I went to give a book a five star rating, and then took a second thought about it because I thought about how it compared to other books I had recently rated five stars.
And therein lies the dilemma...

When I looked back at all of the books that I've rated five starts, I realized that they don't necessarily compare to each other. There are different degrees of five star ratings I give based on various criteria I, as a reader, have created for myself:
-literary value
-writing
-story/plot
-characters
-connectedness
-readability
-obsessiveness
-right time
-social value
-enjoyability
There may be more involved, but those were the first things I started thinking of. What I realized is that a book doesn't necessarily have to have all of that for me to give it five stars, but any combination of multiple criteria could create a five star book for me.

Let's look at an example:When I think back on THE FAULT IN OUR STARS as a definite five star book because of it's literary value, social value, connectedness, story, writing, and characters - it definitely fits. Then, when I compare it to something like EMBRACE which was more of a five star because of it's story, readability, obsessiveness, right time, and enjoyability - it still fits. Would that have still been a five star book if I had read it at a different time? I'm not sure. But I've realized that so much of reading for me is related to mood and what I might need in my life at that specific point in time. That's why there are times when I reach for a romance book where I don't have to think much, and other times when I reach for a book on more serious social issues that need to be thought about in depth. Depending on my mood at the time and what else is going on in my life/head and what else I might have read recently and so many other factors, different books have different levels of coming to be five star books for me.

Does that mean I should go back and adjust ratings? No, I don't think so because, again, it's a discrete moment in time reaction to what I've read (and that would be a huge headache looking at the hundreds of books I've read!) Does it mean I should be more stingy with my five star ratings? Again, no, I don't think so. I think the rating is about my reaction to that book right after I've read it and it's related to my personal experience with that book. And isn't that all ultimately what we're looking for - having a personal experience with a book and having it become part of our shared conciousness? I think so. So, please don't judge me for my five star ratings-and don't compare them to each other! I love books and I love reading and I love that I can be enthusiastic about books and reading and have a medium through which to share it with others. Because, as a good friend of mine (and my sister classroom experiment teacher) said recently (@brianwyzlic who newly blogs at Wyz Reads - you should be following him if you're not yet!), "reading may be a solo activity, but literacy is absolutely a social activity." My ratings reflect the former and can lead to the latter.

So, my plan is to keep reading and keep using star ratings, and when those books come around that blow me away for whatever combination of reasons, that's when you'll see my five stars come up on goodreads - and that will be your indicator that that particular book affected me in some way and is worth a read. But, it does not necessarily mean that it's for the same reasons or to the same level as another five star book on my list. Thanks for letting me work though my thoughts here in writing (so helpful)!
I'd love to hear your thoughts about this! Comment away :)

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

GODDESS INTERRUPTED by Aimee Carter

Title: GODDESS INTERRUPTED (sequel to THE GODDESS TEST)
Author: Aimee Carter
Publisher: Harlequin Teen
Release Date: March 27, 2012
Number of Pages: 304
Source of Book: NetGalley eARC
Kate Winters has won immortality.

But if she wants a life in the Underworld with Henry, she’ll have to fight for it.

Becoming immortal wasn’t supposed to be the easy part. Though Kate is about to be crowned Queen of the Underworld, she’s as isolated as ever. And despite her growing love for Henry, ruler of the Underworld, he’s becoming ever more distant and secretive. Then, in the midst of Kate’s coronation, Henry is abducted by the only being powerful enough to kill him: the King of the Titans.

As the other gods prepare for a war that could end them all, it is up to Kate to save Henry from the depths of Tartarus. But in order to navigate the endless caverns of the Underworld, Kate must enlist the help of the one person who is the greatest threat to her future.

Henry’s first wife, Persephone.

Every once in awhile, I just want a good, escapism romance...and if it ties into mythology, which is one “genre” that my students have to read during the year, even better. I enjoyed The Goddess Test when I read it last year, so I was really excited to see the sequel on NetGalley the day that I bought my new ereader. Luckily, I was granted access to it and I immediately put my other book aside that I had been reading and booted up my device so I could delve back into the world of Kate and Henry.

This second book picks up six months after the first one ended and James is taking Kate back to Eden to go back to Henry after her spring and summer “off”. I adore these two, especially because they never make things easy for themselves, but underneath it all, there is a true love there. Of course, that fact that Kate is very young, and Henry’s existence has been since the beginning of humanity, they each have their own ways of dealing with things and angst to get through. Ultimately, though, this story comes back to Kate loving Henry and not being confident in his love for her. I totally get her feeling that no matter what anyone else tells her about Henry’s feelings for her, she needs to hear it from him to truly believe it. Not that he doesn’t have quite a bit of other things on his mind what with Calliope trying to get back at them all and a huge battle brewing and him being take captive by the king of the titans and Persephone coming back in the picture. All of this leads to Kate’s increasing insecurity in his feelings and a sense of loneliness that she’s not sure she can get past in order to live in the Underworld with this, her new family.

And what an entertaining family it is as they’re surrounded by a cast of entertaining gods and goddesses. One of the things I like most about Aimee’s series is the personalities she’s given to each of the main gods and goddesses that fit their “realms”. I’ve read a lot of mythology-related books now, and it’s always interesting to see how the author reimagines the same types of settings and characters. In this sequel, we get to visit the Underworld, and I love love love Aimee’s depiction of it. It’s beautiful and terrifying and as they traveled through the spirits’ different areas, and the scenery changed based on that person’s view of the afterlife, it was thought-provoking as well.
 
As much as the romance and drama seems to take the forefront of this book at times, I do appreciate the major themes coming out of it. Messages about it being completely up to you to choose to be happy or unhappy about things, and bravery being about moving past fear if you know it's the right thing to do, are things I think it's important for teens to hear. I really enjoyed this book, just as I did the first, but the ending was a shocker and quite the cliffhanger. It is going to feel like an extremely long wait for the final book in the trilogy now. But, I was left satisfied with the main concerns I had about the characters, and there was resolution the big things that I felt needed to be resolved in order for me to feel OK with where the story ended. I’m rooting for Kate and Henry, and as soon as they can learn to really communicate with each other, they’re going to be a powerhouse of a couple ruling the Underworld. Oh, but only if they can get those baddies out of their way and save humanity.

Monday, February 27, 2012

PANDEMONIUM by Lauren Oliver

Title: PANDEMONIUM (Sequel to DELIRIUM)
Author: Lauren Oliver
Publisher: HarperTeen
Release Date: February 28, 2012
Number of Pages: 375
Source of Book: ARC from NCTE Convention
Author's Website: laurenoliverbooks.com

Lauren Oliver captivated readers with DELIRIUM, the first book in a thrilling dystopian trilogy in which Lena Haloway dared to fall in love with Alex and escape the cure, the government-mandated procedure that renders a person immune to the disease of love. Lena and Alex staked their lives on leaving their oppressive society, but only Lena broke free.

PANDEMONIUM continues Lena’s gripping story. After escaping from Portland, Maine, Lena makes it to the Wilds and becomes part of an Invalid community, where she transforms herself into a warrior for the resistance. A future without Alex is unimaginable, but Lena pushes forward and fights, both for him and for a world in which love is no longer considered a disease. Swept up in a volatile mix of revolutionaries and counterinsurgents, Lena struggles to survive—and wonders if she may be falling in love again.

Full of danger, forbidden romance, and exquisite writing, Lauren Oliver’s sequel to Delirium races forward at a breathtaking pace and is sure to appeal to fans who crave the high-stakes action of THE HUNGER GAMES and the bittersweet love story of ROMEO AND JULIET.
This was one of the books that I was most searching for an ARC of at the NCTE Convention, and as soon as I heard they were out, I went directly to the Harper booth to snag one. I adore Lauren Oliver, she is a fantastic literary author, I've loved both BEFORE I FALL and DELIRIUM, and so kind and generous in person. I was lucky enough to be able to interview her back in October when she was in the Milwaukee area for LIESL & PO (check it out if you missed it) and have become even more of a fan since then. So, needless to say, I dove into this book right away and I wasn't disappointed, but it also wasn't exactly what I was expecting.

Overall, I really liked how Lauren chose to tell this story. It alternates between right after DELIRIUM ended and six months later. Through the alternating flashback/flashforward structure, the reader slowly learns about what happened to Lena and what she has had to go through to process all that she has learned and all that happened and how she has ended up where she is. Lena learns a whole new lifestyle after she escapes in the first book, and she has new experiences with new people. All of this is done within the context of her basically being new to this whole world of love being an okay emotion to feel, and that contextualizes everything she experiences.

Although I liked how the book was written, I wasn't as in love with this one as I was the first because it didn't go where I was necessarily hoping/expecting it to go. Without giving too much away, I was worried this book would veer into a certain direction, and it unfortunately does a little bit. Basically, I just feel that Lauren is such a strong writer that I didn't feel it needed this element and I didn't totally connect with it (and that's all I'll say because I don't want to get too spoilery), but, of course, I'm not a writing these characters, so I don't really know exactly what Lena needed in this story.

Ultimately, though, it's about Lena having to discover her own strength of character and courage, and figuring out what she wants for herself now that she knows what is really going on in her world. It's a bit of a quieter book than the first one, but definitely feels like it's setting up for an explosive finale. Warning: The ending is shocking. Not wholly unexpected, but still a little shocking, and will leave you clamoring for the final installment in this trilogy. It's going to be a long wait for REQUIEM next February!

Thursday, February 16, 2012

NEW GIRL by Paige Harbison

Title: NEW GIRL
Author: Paige Harbison
Publisher: Harlequin Teen
Release Date: January 31, 2012
Number of Pages: 304
Source of Book: NetGalley ARC

They call me 'New Girl'...

Ever since I arrived at exclusive, prestigious Manderly Academy, that’s who I am. New girl. Unknown. But not unnoticed—because of her.

Becca Normandy—that’s the name on everyone’s lips. The girl whose picture I see everywhere. The girl I can’t compare to. I mean, her going missing is the only reason a spot opened up for me at the academy. And everyone stares at me like it’s my fault.

Except for Max Holloway—the boy whose name shouldn’t be spoken. At least, not by me. Everyone thinks of him as Becca’s boyfriend but she’s gone, and here I am, replacing her. I wish it were that easy. Sometimes, when I think of Max, I can imagine how Becca’s life was so much better than mine could ever be.

And maybe she’s still out there, waiting to take it back

OK, this is one of those books that I kept reading hoping I would like it more, but unfortunately, it never quite hit the mark for me. Now, part of that is because of the context from which I come to reading books. As a teacher, a part of my brain as I'm reading is always engaged in thinking about if I would put a book in my classroom, and to which students in particular I want to "hand sell" it. From my point of view, NEW GIRL is not appropriate for middle school students. There are quite a few mature scenes with parties and relationships. There are no consequences for the sex in the book, and it's not really thought out ahead of time, which, for me, makes it something I can't recommend to young teens. So because of those content concerns, it made it hard for me to enjoy the book because it didn't feel totally realistic to me.

Then there were the intense characters. I kept reading to find out what would happen, but I didn't really like the characters - that made it difficult to like the book overall. I didn't connect with either of the girls (in fact one is pretty difficult to like at all); however, I actually liked the guys quite a bit. I wish there had been more of them - I think I would have liked the story better if it was actually their story.

The story is told from the points-of-view of the two girls: the new girl and the one she's replacing. To distinguish between the two characters, the new girl's chapters are told in first person and Becca's chapters are in third person. It made it clear, but honestly, for me, it was a little jarring each time I have to mentally switch between POVs. In addition, the way in which the story jumped around was a little difficult for me to follow. Time would pass, and I wasn't always able to understand it right away.

Overall, it's an interesting mystery and the way the two stories were intertwined was intriguing. This story really shows how one manipulative person can really impact a community. The ending has an in your face wrap up and explanation of the lesson that isn't my preference for writing style. I appreciate more when the lessons are more subtly included. Ultimately, I did finish the book, and I read it in only two days, which shows how much the plot grabs the reader and makes you want to keep reading to find out what the true story is behind it all.

Monday, February 13, 2012

EYE OF THE STORM by Kate Messner

Title: EYE OF THE STORM
Author: Kate Messner
Publisher: Walker Books for Young Readers
Release Date: March 13, 2012
Number of Pages: 304
Source of Book: ARC from NCTE Convention

In the not-too-distant future, huge tornadoes and monster storms are a part of everyday life. Sent to spend the summer in the heart of storm country with her father in the special StormSafe community his company has developed, Jaden Meggs is excited to reconnect with her dad after he spent years researching storm technology in Russia. She’ll also be attending the exclusive summer science camp, Eye On Tomorrow, that her dad founded. There, Jaden meets Alex, a boy whose passion for science matches hers, and together they discover a horrible truth about her dad’s research that is putting countless lives at risk. As a massive tornado approaches, threatening to destroy everything in its path, Jaden is torn between loyalty to her dad and revealing his secret. Can she find the courage to confront her dad and save everyone from the biggest storm yet?

This is my first Kate Messner book and I hope to read many more! I've known her through twitter (she's also a middle school teacher) and now that I know her as an author I'm even more excited. I loved this story full of suspense and great characters. It was exciting and engaging and informative and entertaining and scary and hopeful. Jaden is a kick-butt girl who is smart and strong, and only gets more confident throughout the events of this story. I love reading smart characters who can be role models for my middle schoolers, and Kate has definitely written some in both Jaden and Alex in this book. I think Jaden and Alex made a great pairing, and it's refreshing to read about good people without all of the angst and drama of some of the young adult books I've read recently. This is a great middle grades book with really likeable characters who many will be able to relate to.

The world that Kate has created in this future society where storms and tornadoes have become much more powerful than they ever have before, is one in which I could see this society going, but it's scary at the same time. The details she puts in with all of the changes around the country and the world make it feel completely authentic and realistic. This is a well-researched book with details about storm formation and tornadoes that I imagine middle schoolers will find interesting. There is a villain (or two) and suspense and action which should hook my students, as well as friendships and family drama and a touch of flirtation which will hook others, and then the science aspects will grab others. It's definitely a book I can see having appeal for both boys and girls and I will have no hesitation recommending this one to any of them. This book is definitely one to add to any classroom library or middle school reader's collection.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

PAGE BY PAIGE by Laura Lee Gulledge

Title: PAGE BY PAIGE
Author:  Laura Lee Gulledge
Publisher: Amulet Books (an imprint of Abrams)
Release Date: May 1, 2011
Number of Pages: 192
Source of Book: Bought a signed copy at the NCTE Convention
Paige Turner has just moved to New York with her family, and she's having some trouble adjusting to the big city. In the pages of her sketchbook, she tries to make sense of her new life, including trying out her secret identity: artist. As she makes friends and starts to explore the city, she slowly brings her secret identity out into the open, a process that is equal parts terrifying and rewarding.Laura Lee Gulledge crafts stories and panels with images that are thought-provoking, funny, and emotionally resonant. Teens struggling to find their place can see themselves in Paige's honest, heartfelt story.
I haven't read as many graphic novels as I would like to, but this is absolutely one of my favorites I've ever read, and I don't think that will chance no matter how many I read! I'm so thankful that I saw Paul Hankins talking about it on twitter because when I saw in the booth at NCTE, I snapped it up right away. This is the kind of graphic novel I know I'll be able to hook my students with. It has quite a bit of girl appeal as Paige is a teen whose parents moved her to a new city and she has to start all over at a new school. As she's discovering her new city, she is also struggling to discover herself. It starts off with Paige staring at a blank sketchbook page, a realistic metaphor for a teenage girl starting at a new school and learning how to reinvent herself. This is a universal coming-of-age story written in an engaging way for a teen audience. It's quiet and subtle, much like Paige herself, with a beautiful art style, not so much comic book style. It's also about being brave and honest and true to oneself-all messages we all can use at times.

I really enjoyed how Laura Lee structured the pacing of this book by dividing each section with the month of the school year, and Paige trying one piece of advice her grandmother gave her. Each piece of advice is something for Paige to do to help her come out of her shell, take risks, and stand up for herself. Paige (and Laura Lee) is a wonderful artist and many of the drawings are very creative in perspective and focus. I enjoyed the artistry of this book as much as I enjoyed the plot. Paige is an honest and likeable and realistic character as a teen girl, and the group of friends she makes are also really likeable. I wanted to be friends with all of them. Through meeting them and getting their support, Paige is able to take chances and trust that her feelings are valid and starts to gain confidence in herself. One of my favorite scenes was when the group of them went to the park and put happy vibes out for people to see. PAGE BY PAIGE is a book that I would recommend to anyone (whether they've read a graphic novel before or not) and I have confidence it will be fully enjoyed. In fact, many of my students have already done so (although I did have to teach a few of them how to "read" a graphic novel first so they would get the full effect of this book).

Monday, February 6, 2012

Happy Book Birthday, Daisy Whitney!

Daisy Whitney is one of my favorite authors (her books are like my literary comfort food), who I started to adore after reading her debut novel, THE MOCKINGBIRDS, as part of the Contemps Challenge last year. She writes great contemporary novels with likeable characters & meaningful messages &, of course, kissing. She also happens to be one of the nicest, most friendly people I know-she even skyped with my students who read her book last year! And, most excitingly, the sequel to last year's debut, THE RIVALS, came out today!
So, happy, happy book birthday, Daisy!!! And happy book reading to all of you out there - make sure to read THE MOCKINGBIRDS if you haven't yet (and why haven't you?! It's so important and so good!), and then get THE RIVALS to see what happens to Alex next. In celebration of THE RIVALS being out today, I decided to repost my recommendations for both books here. Enjoy & then go buy the books!

My review of THE MOCKINGBIRDS from December 18, 2010
Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Release Date: November 2, 2010
Number of Pages: 332
How I Got It: Won it from The Contemps Challenge

Some schools have honor codes.
Others have handbooks.
Themis Academy has the Mockingbirds.
Themis Academy is a quiet boarding school with an exceptional student body that the administration trusts to always behave the honorable way--the Themis Way. So when Alex is date raped during her junior year, she has two options: stay silent and hope someone helps her, or enlist the Mockingbirds--a secret society of students dedicated to righting the wrongs of their fellow peers.
In this honest, page-turning account of a teen girl's struggle to stand up for herself, debut author Daisy Whitney reminds readers that if you love something or someone--especially yourself--you fight for it.
THE MOCKINGBIRDS is one of those books that is so powerful for young adults to read, but deals with a very sensitive topic. In the same way that SPEAK by Laurie Halse Anderson brought the topic of date rape and it's psychological impact on a high school girl to adolescents eleven years ago, Daisy Whitney is doing it now in a more straight-forward way in her debut novel, THE MOCKINGBIRDS. To then find out that the author herself has personal experience with this, makes it all the more clear how true and accurate the portrayal of Alex's experiences in the aftermath of this horrifying experience are throughout this novel. At the start of the book Alex wakes up next to a boy she doesn't know and isn't able to remember how she got there. As she goes through that day trying to figure out and remember what happened to her, it becomes apparent that she was incapacitated and date raped. At her boarding school, where the adults trust the students to behave honorably because they are so exceptional in all they do, she has no adults to turn to for help, especially because she herself isn't sure of what happened. So, with the help and support of her close and loyal friends, she debates about turning to The Mockingbirds, a secret society made up of students who have decided to police and judge their own and right the wrongs fellow students commit. Alex's journey to find her truth and path is searingly honest and provides a powerful example of struggling to discover one's own truth and sense of right and wrong, and what one will do to find it.

I read this book in one day - I just wasn't able to put it down because Alex's story is so engrossing and captivating, providing a powerful message for young adults. It provides an interesting look at how those who want to stand up for others and do the right thing can organize a system to police themselves that works. It sends a strong message that "the absence of a no does not mean yes." It touches on bullying issues as well, and shows another way of looking at high school students: if they know what others are doing is wrong, what are they willing to do about it? At Themis Academy, The Mockingbirds are willing to do what it takes to call out those who have wronged others and support the victims in every way. Whitney's writing style drew me in, made me interested in the story and what was happening, and gave me clues along the way that propelled the story forward along with my desire to read it. She wrote smart, real characters with real friendships and struggles and desires. This book has main and secondary characters who were written so I honestly cared about them, wanted to know more about them, wanted to root for them, and would love to hang out with them.

This book is about doing the right thing, finding yourself and your inner strength and beliefs by standing up for yourself and others, becoming stronger in knowing the truth and fighting for it, and surrounding yourself with ones you love who would stand up for and support you when you need them. I think the book speaks for itself: "Maybe, ultimately, that's what we're all aspiring to - to have our own sense of right and wrong and to act on it."

This is without a doubt one of the best books I've read this year, any year really, and I absolutely recommend that you read it! I look forward to reading more by Daisy Whitney! In fact, book 2 in The Mockingbirds is coming out in fall 2011 - it will definitely be on my to-read list!

Other Books You Might Like: SPEAK by Laurie Halse Anderson and THE DISREPUTABLE HISTORY OF FRANKIE LANDEAU-BANKS by e. Lockhart 

My review of THE RIVALS from November 25, 2011
Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Release Date: February 6, 2012
Number of Pages: 352
Source of Book: Requested ARC from publisher
When Alex Patrick was assaulted by another student last year, her elite boarding school wouldn't do anything about it. This year Alex is head of the Mockingbirds, a secret society of students who police and protect the student body. While she desperately wants to live up to the legacy that's been given to her, she's now dealing with a case unlike any the Mockingbirds have seen before.

It isn't rape. It isn't bullying. It isn't hate speech. A far-reaching prescription drug ring has sprung up, and students are using the drugs to cheat. But how do you try a case with no obvious victim? Especially when the facts don't add up, and each new clue drives a wedge between Alex and the people she loves most: her friends, her boyfriend, and her fellow Mockingbirds.

As Alex unravels the layers of deceit within the school, the administration, and even the student body the Mockingbirds protect, her struggle to navigate the murky waters of vigilante justice may reveal more about herself than she ever expected.
THE MOCKINGBIRDS was one of my absolute favorite books of last year, and I absolutely recommend it to everyone if you haven't read it yet (which, if you haven't, you need to go do immediately!!!)! And, Daisy is really fabulous - she even did a skype visit with my students after I was raving about her book on twitter. So, I was really excited to get an advanced copy of this sequel to read the continuation of Alex's story after the events she went through in the first book. Now, as the leader of The Mockingbirds (since she was helped by them in the first book) she has a whole new set of struggles to deal with. 
 
Alex is a great teen girl character. She has a lot of integrity, but is still a real girl with doubts, insecurities, hopes, mistakes, and the desire to do right. She stands up for what she believes in no matter what and is a truly loyal friend. Her honesty and desire to do what's right is inspiriting. It was great to read this book and get to watch Alex continue her recovery from last year's (book's) date rape and rediscover and recognize the strength she has in herself. It's not an easy journey for her, but with the help of true friends and others who are willing to stand up to those who are wrong, she makes the right choices in the end.
 
The Mockingbirds is an evolving entity in this book, as it needs to be. It is the only organization that is providing a safe outlet to those who have been wronged. There are interesting lessons on government, power, and human nature in this book. It really delves into what can students do when they feel adults won't help them - and I appreciated the message that there are some adults who will stand up and do what's right when they see kids needing help - even if the kids don't see it at first. It's an interesting journey of realizing you don't have to go it alone. 
 
Although it deals with some heavy topics, Daisy Whitney's writing is the comfort food of my reading life. There's just something so comforting in her contemporary style imbued with profound lessons in a non-preachy way, oh, and there's always kissing thrown in. It's all about who we choose to be in these books and how to find the courage to change our ways, be who we should, and do the right thing. That is true strength, bravery, and justice. It's about integrity, standing up for what's right, going for what you believe in, and doing right even in the face of adversity. All strong messages for teen girls.
 
I highly recommend Daisy Whitney's books if you haven't read them yet, and I'm so excited to know that she has several more different books in the works so we'll be able to continue reading her books for a long time.
 
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