Monthly Archives: March 2013

American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang

American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang

This graphic novel is not only beautifully drawn with vibrant color and interesting technique, it also skillfully presents three stories of characters who seem very different at first, but turn out to be one and the same: a story of a Chinese American boy who wants desperately to fit in, even at the cost of losing his most genuine best friend. Jin’s struggles to ask out the girl he likes, overcome jealousy, and endure being called names because of his ethnicity will be familiar to the reader. However, the stories of the monkey king and the Chinese deities provide a sense of extra flair for the graphic novel and might not be as familiar to a reader who has not researched Chinese culture. However, even without prior research this graphic novel can be very much enjoyed. I enjoyed the story as a reader and particularly admire the plot twist/the intersection of all three stories near the end. This was handled so gracefully on the author’s part that I think perhaps this would even be a great read for younger teen readers as well as older.

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March 28, 2013 · 8:39 pm

Hole In My Life

Hole In My Life

I have not read very much literature about being in prison, but from what I’ve seen and heard, Hole In My Life seems to be a very genuine portrayal of a young man’s struggle to rise above his situation, even when he feels despair all around him, and even when he is not free. The economy of language that Jack Gantos uses is stunning. At first, the very simple, minimalist sentence structure annoyed me, but I grew to really appreciate it more and more as Jack’s life became vastly more complicated with his impending incarceration. And what’s more, I think that even though the subject matter is very heavy, because of the pithy sentence structure, this book would work for middle school as well as high school readers: for those both struggling with reading and who are already strong readers.

The other thing I really admired about this memoir was that it was a memoir with a message. No, Jack Gantos didn’t push, “don’t do drugs, drugs are bad,” constantly on the reader. The message instead felt more honest and genuine. Jack Gantos was honest about his drug abuse and about his desire to do drugs to help relieve his anxiety. He was even honest about the feelings that he had about drugs in the beginning: he was really more interested in starting his life than doing drugs, but drugs were available to him and he used them as a means to escape his low self-esteem. I found the message instead to be that his overwhelming desire to be a writer, to write something that mattered, is what really pulled him through a difficult time in his life. Instead of constantly repeating the thought of “Don’t do drugs,” the pattern to be found instead is this driving desire to be like his favorite authors. This motif is recurring throughout the memoir and makes it possible to see that he was able to turn despair into hope by focusing on his dreams.

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March 26, 2013 · 5:24 pm

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

The Night Circus has elements of fantasy and historical fiction, but really it is, as the author describes her own writing, a fairy tale. It chronicles the impossible but inevitable love of opponents in a game of magic. The story has many tangents—some of which are followed up and some of which seem to be red herrings. I think this was intentional on the part of the author to mirror the idea of going to a circus or a carnival and being caught up in and amazed by what you see. Morgenstern leads the reader through a fun house or maze that seems very complicated. But the heart of the story remains simple: a man and woman who have no business falling in love do and they have to struggle to come up with a way to stay together.

As a reader, I was fully invested in the beautiful and mysterious world that Morgenstern created for the circus. I wanted to eat the fabulous dishes at Chandresh Lefevre’s Midnight Dinners and wear gowns that change colors to compliment the people I am standing closest to and never grow old (or at least age at an alarmingly slow rate) and see the contortionist who can bend in both forward positions and backward and be a patron of the circus that only opens at sundown and moves across the globe. The description, imagery, and word choice are absolutely fabulous throughout. I would recommend this to either an older teenager or at least one that is a very strong reader because the story and language are complex. However, this novel is extremely rewarding for the reader who is willing to continue to follow in the maze of the plot. It has many twists and turns, but often the writing and the descriptions are so spectacular that I did not want to put the book down.

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March 21, 2013 · 10:26 pm

The Name of the Star by Maureen Johnson

The Name of the Star by Maureen Johnson

Aurora (Rory) Deveaux hails from Southern Louisiana. Her life is going to completely change when both she and her parents (who are professors) move to England. Her mother and father move to Bristol and Rory decides to go to a boarding school, Wexford, in the part of London that used to be Whitechapel (the slums). While this part of London no longer holds the danger that it once did because of the technology of London’s many security cameras, Rory quickly finds that fear has once again stirred in this area. And it has to do, once again, with the notorious and elusive figure of Jack the Ripper. Someone has begun a series of copycat murders…and is getting away with it. Security cameras fail to identify the new murderer, who has an obsessive following just as the original did. The Ripper is a faceless, nameless adversary until Rory finds that she has a new, unexpected gift.

I found that while I liked Maureen Johnson’s idea overall and thought it was very original, I was still left a bit disappointed. It is Jack the Ripper after all, and I wanted the atmosphere and the tone of the novel to be much more convincingly creepy. I would have to say that as far as paranormal thrillers go, Libba Bray’s The Diviners was a much stronger novel. Its construction was more seamless and how the subject of the supernatural was treated within the mystery felt more genuine and real. While I really applaud the idea for The Name of the Star (Jack the Ripper, is, after all, just a name) and found the research and the new direction the story took therein to be fascinating, I wasn’t as impressed as I hoped I would be. This might be because this novel is clearly only the first in a series and had a lot of character and world-building to do. Still, I recommend it to anyone who has an interest in paranormal mystery, Jack the Ripper, or wants to read about the many unexpected trials of an American teenage girl in London (really, the humor in this aspect of the novel is excellently done).

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March 19, 2013 · 7:42 pm

The Demon King: Cinda Williams Chima

The Demon King: Cinda Williams Chima

The Demon King is a fantasy novel set in a different world that focuses mainly on two different characters: Han and Raisa. Hanson (“Han”) Alister is just a common teenage boy trying to make an honest living to provide for his mother and sister, or so he thinks. He has unusual silver cuffs that wrap around both of his wrists and won’t come off no matter how he tries to have them removed. For this he is given the nickname “Cuffs” in the city, and has a reputation for being a Streetlord, the head of a gang called the Raggers, that he would rather put behind him. He tries to do so by staying at Marisa Pines, a campsite for the clan: the group of people who use green magic, but are also traders and craftsmen. However, he can never seem to stay out of trouble for long: this is demonstrated when he and his friend Fire Dancer come across a group of young wizards. Unknowingly, Han will take one of their amulets, intending at first just to sell it, but it will end up changing his life forever. Raisa is a princess and will someday be the queen, but she feels more trapped than ever by her mother, the current queen, who is constantly taking the advice of the High Wizard Gavan Bayar. Raisa wants the freedom to be young and make her own decisions about whom she will marry. She also wants to learn about what is happening in her own kingdom as she has lived a very sheltered life at the palace.

The Demon King is just the first in The Seven Realms series and predictably takes the position as the “world-building” novel. However, this did not necessarily diminish the value of the novel or my enjoyment of it. The characters were interesting and well drawn, with particular attention to the two protagonists whose points of view we are given in alternating chapters. Overall, I thought that the structure of the novel was very dense, but it was sewn together in a way that still made me want to turn the pages. The story especially begins to pick up at the one point where Raisa’s and Han’s stories intersect. As with the novel Legend by Marie Lu, I found this part of the story (the part where the two protagonists meet and spend a short length of time together without really knowing who the other is) to be the most interesting. I see some striking similarities in both situations. These two main protagonists have stories that are for the most part separate, but are also similar in that they are both struggling to form or establish their identity. When they meet, although it may initially be with conflict or conflicted feelings, this serves as a brief unveiling of the romantic possibilities between the characters, although that may have no place in this part of the novel or in this book of the series. In this way, the author can set up these possibilities and give readers a taste of what is perhaps to be, but without ending the series or the story prematurely. While I find this plot device to be helpful to the building of a series, I do have to say that it is what makes me yearn for stand-alone books even more. To me, that scenario has been the most interesting and well-written in both Legend and The Demon King. However, that being said, The Demon King is a very comprehensive first novel in a fantasy series. I am definitely interested in finishing the other novels in the series. I found the setting of the fantasy world to be excellently established. I especially thought that the psychology and structure of the gangs in the fictional city and how they mirror the gangs in our own world to be very interesting. Cinda Williams Chima is wonderful at building worlds with magic and magical possibilities, but that incorporate very real problems and real emotions that are encountered in our own real lives.
I also really enjoyed her other Heir series as well, especially The Wizard Heir.

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March 6, 2013 · 6:11 pm

Blue Lipstick by John Grandits

Blue Lipstick by John Grandits

Jessie is not your average teenage girl. She wears blue lipstick, makes her own clothes, plays volleyball and cello, and writes poetry to her cat. Blue Lipstick chronicles some of Jessie’s struggles and thoughts through not just poetry, but concrete poems: poems that also are heavily influenced by the graphic design of the page. As the book progresses, Jessie works on her “wall.” The barrier she’s put up against herself and all other people (except for some important exceptions: like her best friend, her cat Boo-Boo Kitty, and her little brother Robert for half of the time) including meat eaters and smokers and boy jocks.

Blue Lipstick is funny and original. Most of all, it was fun to read. The concrete poems that were laid out in a completely varied fashion on each page and made me have to move the book around and even read in the mirror! I thought Jessie’s voice was authentic and found many of her thoughts to relevant to life as a teenager. For example, she tells her dad that she would like to be an artist. He responds, “It’s tough being an artist. You’ve got to struggle for years. People often misunderstand your work. You’ve got to be thick-skinned because critics can be cruel. You don’t have any money. And in many ways you’re really alone,” at which point Jessie replies, “It sounds like high school.” However, I did think that much of the success of this book has to do with the original artwork, graphic design, and font choices of the poet/artist. The art is simplistic but still very unique, using only the color blue throughout and often making the words, letters, and phrases of the poetry part of a larger graphic image. I thought that this would be a refreshing read for teenagers because it is so different, but still allows the reader to connect to the poems and to the characters. Some younger readers may struggle with the poem designs. However, I feel that with the very visual nature of today’s learners, this book of poetry would be a success.

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March 5, 2013 · 3:32 am

Thoughts on Literary Criticism

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As an undergraduate student, my major was English. In many of my upper-level English classes we would explore different forms of literary criticism and literary theory. Some of my professors even favored one or two of these theories and so taught their classes in such a way as to promote those theories. But despite having favorites, many English professors I have come in contact with often try to analyze the literature they’ve assigned from as many different points of view as possible. Now that I am a library science student, I’ve quickly come to realize that this field also has a favored literary theory (though I’m sure there are plenty people who have differing views…we’re librarians after all, and all have our own opinions). Much of what I’ve read so far very much tends to favor Reader’s Response criticism. To some degree, this doesn’t surprise me, since this is a popular methodology for teaching literature in education. Louise M. Rosenblatt’s transactional experience (where the text causes the student to bring to the surface of their mind ideas, interactions from their life, and other personal experiences) is one that seems very familiar to the classroom, probing students to question not just “What does this mean?” but also, “What does this mean to me?”

While I am not anti-Reader’s Response theory (nor am I anti-any other literary theory; though I do often tend to say humbug to a lot of New Criticism theory), I know that I most likely will never approach any of the literature I come in contact with as a librarian solely from this point of view. At heart I am a New Historicist (New Historicism is also sometimes called Cultural Poetics or Cultural Materialism). The historical background of any work of art provides a much richer context for understanding the work. I will never be able to divorce a text from its author (at least not in my head) or its time period. Perhaps this is because I want to be a writer myself. I realize that this theory, just like any other, can have its own limitations and challenges. All this being said, I find it very interesting that so many librarians champion Reader’s Response theory. It makes sense in many ways, mostly for the fact that Reader’s Response is perhaps one of the most accepting, encompassing forms of literary criticism. Or perhaps THE most accepting. With the ethics and agenda of libraries and librarians in mind, the shoe does entirely fit.

A great read for any and all information about different forms of literary theories would be Literary Criticism by Charles E. Bressler.

 

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