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Book Reviews

​​Best Book I've Read this Year

​Posted on September 27,  2012 by Karen Coats


This may seem really weird, but the best book I have read this year is a middle-grade nonfiction by Steve Sheinkin called Bomb: The Race to Build – and Steal – the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon. For context of how amazing this book is, let me state for the record that this is also the year I read the sequel to Laini Taylor’s Daughter of Smoke and Bone, Michelle Cooper’s The FitzOsbornes at War, and Elizabeth Wein’s Code Name Verity, so when I say that Bomb is the best book I’ve read all year, I am really saying something.​

Here’s what’s good about it:​

  • The structure. He starts with the FBI’s capture of Harry Gold and Gold’s subsequent confession, telling it in spy thriller fa shion. He ends the book with Harry Gold. So even though this is a mostly chronological history, he sets it in a satisfying narrative arc.
  • The storytelling: Fascinating individual stories of Robert Oppenheimer, Ted Hall, Erico Fermi, Klaus Fuchs, the Norwegian resistance fighters who blew up Germany’s heavy water facility, Richard Feyman, etc., etc. Everyone who was a player in this drama is given a lively backstory with surprising, often funny, notable, well-documented quotations. The plot arc takes you into the suspense and excitement of the bomb-making, and yes, it does make you root for the wrong things, but that’s the emotional core of this history–Sheinkin creates an empathetic response that has you breathless with suspense, hopeful that the trials will work, awed and heartbroken when they do, and grimly reluctant to acknowledge the fraught relationship and responsibility that emerges between ethics and enormous power.
  • The science: Usually I fuzz over technical explanations, but Sheinkin has a way of explaining things so that I was not only interested, but I understood the physics. I now understand why a plutonium bomb has to have a different design than a U-235 bomb, and what heavy water is and why it matters.
  • The intrigue and espionage: The spy work is fascinating. Without judging or even hinting at a personal bias, Sheinkin explains the motivation behind Fuchs’ and Hall’s determination to get the secrets of the bomb to the Russians. This context would lead to a great discussion of contemporary events, including the pressing problem of a nuclear Iran, and why some people might seem reluctant to intervene.

For those of you teaching 170 and 272, I can’t recommend this book highly enough as an exemplary nonfiction book for middle graders. For everyone else, it’s just an incredible read. ​​​

Book Review: Tiger Lily, by Jodi Lynn Anderson

Posted on August 13, 2012 by Karen Coats

Tiger Lily by Jodi Lynn Anderson
Submitted by Meghann Meeusen

My favorite reading this summer is a beautifully poignant retelling of Peter Pan that captivates the imagination and leaves readers with tears in their eyes. Jodi Lynn Anderson’s Tiger Lily revises JM Barrie’s famed text by examining the life of the book’s title character, the adopted teenage daughter of her tribe’s shaman who finds herself forced into marriage to a cruel man. As Tiger Lily struggles to come to grips with her unique view of her world, she meets a mysterious boy who respects, but is also intimated by her courage and strength. Brilliantly told from Tinker Bell’s perspective, Tiger Lily’s story is not simply one of romance, but explores what it means to live outside the norms of gender and culture, even when your home is a seemingly magical island inhabited by pirates, fairies, lost boys and a breathtakingly complex boy named Peter Pan.

Anderson’s characters have a depth, nuance and beauty that is both reverent of Barrie’s text and strikingly unique, with new characters like a shipwrecked English colonizer and Tiger Lily’s adoptive father Tik Tok rounding out the story’s departures from the original. Readers beware—this book does not offer the same characters that bring Barrie’s work to life, but Anderson’s cast do not need pixie dust to find their way into readers’ hearts, leaving fans of the original bewitched by the story’s heartbreaking glimpse into the “real” world of Neverland. ​


Posted on June 22, 2012 by Karen Coats

Here are this week’s mini-views:

Bitterblue, by Kristin Cashore (YA): If you missed Graceling, it’s probably because it got swallowed up by the fervor over The Hunger Games. Go back and read it immediately. Katsa is every bit as kick-ass as Katniss (but why are their names so similar?), and the book is just more stylistically satisfying. Katsa comes from one of the Seven Kingdoms, where sometimes children are born with “graces”–special talents that are sometimes useful and sometimes just strange. You know gracelings by the fact that their eyes are different colors. All gracelings are property of the king, so if your parents want to keep you, they have to hide your grace, which is nearly impossible. So Katsa is the King’s Assassin, because she seems to be gifted with the talent to kill people, but she’s actually graced with survival, which sometimes (well, often actually) involves the slaying of people trying to kill or otherwise hurt you. Okay, so read Graceling. Then read Fire, which introduces you to Leck, a really, really scary guy who met his end in Graceling. His grace is to persuade people of the reality he wants them to see. He also likes to torture small animals and children. Shudder. At any rate, Fire lives on the other side of the mountains from the Seven Kingdoms, in a place called the Dells. Her story is one of political intrigue, passion, prejudice, and coming to terms with her abilities and her physicality–she is what is known as a human “monster,” an extraordinarily beautiful creature with the ability to cause people to become completely entranced with her and to affect their perceptions of reality (kind of like Leck), and other animal monsters to want to feast on her flesh. Her father, also a monster, used this power in Very Bad Ways, so she is reluctant to use her power at all, but her country needs her. (theory connection: the monstrous feminine for sure)

Now that you’re all caught up, proceed immediately to Bitterblue. As Leck’s daughter, rescued from his evil machinations by Katsa in Graceling, Bitterblue is now queen of a wrecked kingdom that is trying to recover from the cruel projects of her father. She is aided by advisors who worked for Leck, but she slowly realizes the depth of the trauma they underwent in working for her father, which has made them untrustworthy to her. So she has lots of puzzles to solve as she struggles to be the kind of queen she wants to be. Clearly, Cashore is working out something that has to do how to recover from an abusive father without becoming like him while cleaning up his messes; she does it with sensitivity and style, romance and intrigue, action and insight. Terrific series.

The Infects, by Sean Beaudoin (YA): If you only read one zombie novel in your life, let it be this one. Except, if you only read one zombie novel, you won’t get how brilliantly funny the parody is. So, okay, watch Zombieland for background, and then read this. Do you know Sean Beaudoin’s work? He’s definitely hipster YA, full of uber-cool geek culture references (is that a contradiction? I think not.) and literary genre allusion. Nick is arrested for a weird offense (that for some reason made me think of I Love Lucy), and sentenced to one of those wilderness survival things where the kids have nicknames (Holes, anyone?) and things go horribly wrong. He is rechristened Nero, and becomes de facto leader of the group when their counselors and one very hot female inmate suddenly develop a strong taste for each other (I love zombie puns). So, the usual zombie apocalypse dilemmas: fight or run, and if you run, run up the mountain or down toward the van, stick together or split up, kill your friends or try to save them, and finally, continue to try to beat the zombie hoard, or give up and let yourself be bitten. Now, this is Beaudoin, so if you have read his stuff, you will know some of what to expect: a protagonist who’s a little beaten down by life at eighteen, but still harbors hope that he will find the love of a girl who “looks like she stepped out of a graphic novel about sexy apocalypses,” and be able to make the world better for a little sister who complicates things with her special needs (this time she’s on the autism spectrum, and she poses a serious question about the fact that maybe humans need to evolve into something else, because what they are now just isn’t working for people like her), some sort of corporate espionage that critiques unreflective consumerism and unchecked greed, some sketchy adults, and some sort of sardonic voice that dialogues with the main character (this time it’s the Rock, who somehow inhabits Nero’s head). So, yeah, if zombies as a trope are a critique of whom we have become as humans, then this is the book to help you reflect on that. Highly recommended.

Smashed, by Lisa Leudeke (YA): Bright, athletic Katie knows she shouldn’t fall for Alec–he’s a bully who tortured her best friend, Matt, when they were younger. But he’s cute, and he does yard work, and he listens to her. He also likes to party with her, but when he’s drunk he’s a little too aggressive. One night, to avoid his advances, Katie insists on driving them home, but they get into an accident. While Katie goes for help, Alec slides into the driver’s seat, and people assume he was driving and she was the victim. He allows the lie to go forward, but he uses it to blackmail her. Solid problem novel with a credible (meaning emotionally difficult and messy for her, less so for him) resolution.

Burn for Burn, by Jenny Han and Siobhan Vivian (YA): Despite the fact that both Han and Vivian have had really good successes in the past, this is a don’t bother. Three girls join forces to get revenge on their peers for social slights, but the cause-effect arrow misses. One of their victims, Alex, is just misunderstood, and while the other two deserve their take-downs, it’s all a little gratuitous. In other words, the girls, who were mildly bullied, turn into real bullies to get their revenge. To be fair, Mary was so hurt by Reeve’s rejection and the chill effect it has on her classmates toward her that she attempts suicide in junior high, so she’s got a legitimate beef, but Kat’s and Lillia’s motivations aren’t strongly developed. And the ending is just annoying.

The Friendship Matchmaker, by Randa Abdel-Fattah (Gr. 3-6): This is fun and age-appropriate late-elementary/early junior high fare, full of lists and rules for how to make friends. Lara’s rules are mostly aimed at minimizing those things that make you seem weird or even individual, so there’s good stuff for discussion, and the plot itself undermines her advocacy for playing it safe and bland. For grown-ups, the parody of online dating is fun.

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