Tuesday, April 29, 2008

No Right Turn - booktalk

by Terry Trueman

My father committed suicide. The shot wasn’t that loud, really, just one pop, not even as loud as a big firecracker, but I knew instantly what it was, and I ran downstairs. I saw my father sitting there with the bullet in his head. I called 911. Then I gave CPR to a dead man. Now, three years later, it’s like I died that day, too. I don’t talk to anyone, and nobody talks to me. I go to school and come home, but nothing seems real. Nothing matters. My life is just me and my mom. And that’s fine with me. I thought she was fine with it, too, until she started dating Don, the guy who just moved in down the street. What do we need him around for?

Don has a Corvette. I’m not a gearhead, but this car is sweet, It’s a 1976 model, low to the ground, with high curved fenders and a custom paint job: white on top and blue-green all along the lower section. The windows are tinted, and the tires are big, with bright chrome hubs. It’s sleek, powerful, and man, is it fast. Riding in the Stingray is like being strapped on the back of an oversized cheetah. It feels like it’s taking us for a ride, not the other way around. The rush is incredible: the rumble of the engine, the deep vibration. Soon we’re going over 100 mph. Then Don lets me drive. Let me tell you, it’s nothing like driving my mother’s Honda. When we finally get back to Don’s, I know I have to drive this car again. I have to.

Don’s out of town every Wednesday. If there’s ever a fire, the car’s what Don will save, and he doesn’t want to waste time searching for his keys. So he leaves them in the ignition. I know the code to his garage door. It’s like he’s practically inviting me to take the car for a ride. So I do. Every Wednesday night, that car and I have a date. I take it out to where the streets are straight and quiet, and I floor that pedal. Don installed a nitrous oxide system, so now it has even more horsepower. Geez, that baby flies! Or sometimes I drive around town, because what good is it if you never get to see people turn a little green when they see you behind the wheel of a ‘Vette? That’s how I meet Becka Thorson, the most gorgeous girl in the world. She thinks the car is mine. And she likes me. Or maybe she just likes the ‘Vette. I don’t know. As long as she’s sitting next to me, I don’t really care.

If I get caught, my mother will kill me. Becka won’t trust me. I don’t know what Don will do. But I know what the police will do. They’ll charge me with grand theft auto. But after three years of feeling as dead as my father, I’m finally feeling alive again. It’s worth the risk.

the dead & the gone - booktalk

the dead & the gone
by Susan Beth Pfeffer

The day that life as he knew it ended, Alex Morales didn’t have a clue. As far as he could tell, life went on just as it always did. He worked at the pizza shop, he worried about getting in to college, and his sisters were a pain. Yeah, he heard the sirens and saw the police cars and ambulances flash by, but in New York City, those were nothing new, even if it did seem as though there were more of them than usual. It wasn’t until he got home and the power went out that Alex vaguely remembered hearing something about an asteroid that was going to hit the moon. But nobody had been very excited about it. It wasn’t supposed to be a big deal. But it was. It changed things forever. That day, it was just Alex and Bri and Julie at home. His dad was in Puerto Rico for a funeral. His brother Carlos was with the Marines out in California. His mother had been called in to work at the hospital. He had no idea it would be weeks or months, if ever, before he’d ever see any of them again.

At first, things didn’t seem so bad. Mami had food in the house, and his uncle let him take more from his bodega. The blackouts weren’t a big deal. New Yorkers knew how to manage when the electricity went out for a few hours. But day after day went by with no word from Papi. Mami never came home, and the hospital couldn’t tell them where she was working or why she hadn’t called. As much as he hated the idea, Alex was in charge. Then the food began to run out. They couldn’t even get the news on the radio. The electricity went out for days at a time, and when it did come on, it was just for a couple of hours at best. There was no heat, not even outside, since ash from volcanoes blotted out the sun, pushing the temperature below freezing.

Things are getting desperate. When times get desperate, desperate people do desperate things. Things they never in their wildest dreams imagined they could do or would do. When everyone he loves and needs is dead or gone, when the world is falling apart, how is a seventeen-year-old supposed to take care of himself, let alone his sisters, one a religion-obsessed fifteen-year-old and the other a twelve-year-old spoiled brat? The answer is simple, but terribly, soul-destroyingly hard: he does what he has to do.

Black & White - booktalk

by Paul Volponi

(Note: This book is recommended for mature eighth graders and high school, due to the topic and language.)

On the basketball court, Black and White are an unbeatable team. Off the court, they’re best friends. It doesn’t matter that Marcus is black and Eddie is white. They always have each other’s back. They’re inseparable. They even plan to accept scholarships to the same college, either St. Johns or UConn. Another thing they have in common is that neither has much cash to spare. And that’s a problem, because they need to come up with money for the senior class trip. Their parents can’t pay for it. The boys can’t get jobs, because they have practice every day. And drugs aren’t their thing, so they’re not about to deal. They decide the only thing they can do is pull a couple of stickups. They don’t plan to make a career of it. They’ll stop when they get enough cash.

Of course, nobody’s going to just hand over their cash, so Eddie takes his grandfather’s gun with him. He doesn’t intend to use it, but it’ll certainly help to make them more convincing. And they’re terrified, so anything that makes them look fierce is welcome. Their first victim is a white lady with $92 and a Walkman. Sweet. That’s half the cash they need and a little bonus. Their next victim is an old white man with $129 in bills. Now they’ve got enough for the class trip, so it’s their last stickup. But no…the guys on the team want everyone to wear the latest sneakers, which neither Black nor White own. They’ll have to pull one more job. This time their victim is a middle-aged black man, and this time, everything falls apart. This time, Marcus realizes, too late, that he knows this man from somewhere. This time, White fires the gun. They can see the blood on the back of the man’s head. Panicked, they run as far and as fast as they can. Did they kill the man?

A couple of days later, it’s the Black and White show on the basketball court. By halftime, the team is up 43-18. They’re the stars of the game and everyone is slapping them on the back. Fifteen minutes later, the police are slapping handcuffs on Marcus. Black is under arrest. What about White? At the end of the game, Eddie accepts a basketball scholarship to St. John’s.

When it comes down to friendship, guilt, and innocence, is everything really black and white?

Monday, April 28, 2008


The booktalks I presented at the Connecticut Library Association will be posted here a few at a time over the next two or three days. I will use the CLA booktalks tag to make them easier to find. (It will also bring up booktalks from last year.) I'm hoping that I won't have to type them all in from scratch, but when I try to cut and paste from Word, I'm getting dozens of lines of extra code garbage, and when I try to paste it in from a text file, I can't format it properly once it's here. Once I figure that problem out, I'll be good to go!

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Fey? Feh!

Hallowmere: In the Serpent's Coils by Tiffany Trent

I wanted to like this book, but I can't say I did. I found it a frustrating read, as it seemed to take forever for Corinne* to figure out what was going on. In a nutshell, she wakes up from a serious illness to discover that her mother is dead and she is living with her uncle, who she does not know and who dislikes children. She has started to have visions and see and hear things that do not seem to be of this world. Because of this and because she breaks his rules, her uncle sends her to a reform school for wayward girls. It is unclear what most of the girls there have done to deserve this fate, which I found annoying. Is Corinne the only girl there simply because she can see/hear the Fey? Even when I thought I had an answer to that question, later events made me wonder. The actions of the teachers in the school seem illogical and contradictory, especially later in the book. There's a story threading through the book that is intriguing, but it doesn't go anywhere. I can only suppose that it is continued and embroidered upon in the subsequent books. But because it's not resolved in any way in this one, the reader is left wondering what it has to do with anything, although I assume we are supposed to read between the lines and get the idea that all is not as it seems.
I found the idea of setting the book in 1865 fairly novel (not many fantasies of this type are set in the past), but I thought it could have been done more effectively.

There are already several books in this series, and I gather there will be ten in the series, not all of them written by Tiffany Trent. Hmmm. Okay, so it's a series, but they won't all be written by the original author? I find that...interesting.

*Was Corinne really a popular girl's name in 1850, when she would have been born?

Monday, April 21, 2008

So, What's Your Secret?

The Black Book of Secrets by F. E. Higgins
4Q/4P M

My library has this in its children's collection (which technically is for Pre-K to grade 6), but I think it's more a middle school (grades 5-8) book. I finished the book while in bed. Just before I fell asleep, I wrote a one-paragraph summary I really liked. But it was all in my head, and naturally, I can't remember a word of it now! But as I said in a previous post, because I read this while on leave, I'm confining my review to just a short summary and a reaction paragraph.

When Ludlow realizes that his drunkard parents intend to have his (perfectly good) teeth pulled out so they can earn a few pence for more drink, it's the last straw. He's determined to get out of their clutches for once and for all. He escapes his squalid life by catching on to the back of a coach
leaving the city. The coach belongs to a despicable man named Jeremiah Ratchet, and its destination is the small village of Pagus Parvus. Ratchet has made the lives of the villagers miserable by sucking them dry of nearly every penny they earn. After stealing Ratchet's scarf and mittens, Joe meanders up the hill, where he discovers that he is not the only newcomer. Joe Zabbidou has also just arrived in town. He intends to open a pawn shop in a building on the outskirts of the village. Joe welcomes Ludlow in. In fact, Joe is a very welcoming sort. He takes all sorts of things in trade, even the most worthless (a chipped chamber pot, anyone?). But every now and then, Joe will look at a customer and ask if he'd like to stop by for a visit later in the day...say about midnight? And when they come (as they always do), Joe greets them with a drink and a question: Do they have a secret they'd like to share? They do, always. And they are dark secrets, involving murders, grave robbing, thievery, and the like. It is Ludlow's job to record these secrets in Joe's black book of secrets. It becomes clear that the villagers hope that Joe, who has helped them in so many other ways, will also help them deal with Ratchet, but Joe steadfastly refuses to do so. Ludlow can only watch and wonder what Joe's intentions are. What does he do with the secrets he records? He pays handsomely for those secrets, but where does the money come from? And if he doesn't intend to help the villagers, why is he there?

This is an entertaining read, and I think it will get good word of mouth. But the imagery is vivid, and kids who are squeamish or prone to overactive imaginations may find it disturbing in spots. On the flip side, kids who like dark, creepy books will love the more sinister, grosser aspects of it. Higgins balances the dark with a tendency to go slightly over the top at times, especially with Ratchet, so just when things might be getting a little too horrific, there's a passage that can't be taken too seriously to lighten things up again. Ludlow is an appealing character, and Joe is an intriguing blend of mystery and simple(?) goodness. Higgins's ability to build tension worked for me as a reader, but also as a key plot element as the villagers get restless waiting for Joe's hatchet (so to speak) to fall on Ratchet. The ending is a bit of a stretch, but with the exception of one element of it, not surprising. After all, with books like this, it's pretty much a given that there's a book two in the works. Will I read the next one? It's not going to be on the top of my list, but I wouldn't be surprised if I checked it out at some point.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Do You Dare Take a Step Out of Line?

Unwind by Neil Shusterman
4Q 4P M/J

This didn't turn out to be quite what I thought it was going to be, but I still liked it and thought it gave lots of food for thought.

Imagine a world in which there is not a Bill of Rights, but a Bill of Life:

The Bill of Life states that human life may not be touched from the moment of conception until a child reaches the age of thirteen.

However, between the ages of thirteen and eighteen, a parent may choose to retroactively "abort" a child...

...on the condition that the child's life doesn't "technically" end.

The process by which a child is both terminated and yet kept alive is called "unwinding".

Unwinding is now a common and accepted practice in society.

Creepy, no?

Connor's parents decide he's too uncontrollable. Risa is a ward of the state. She hasn't gotten any talents that make her particularly valuable, so she's expendable. Lev was conceived specifically as a tithe, his family's donation to God. All three are scheduled for unwinding. Lev goes willingly, even gladly, but Connor and Risa are desperate to save themselves. They can't imagine that someone would be happy to be unwound, so when they get the opportunity to save themselves, they save Lev, too. At first, they find reason to hope. But Lev doesn't want to be saved, and his actions bring them close to disaster before they find people who will help them. But the question they should always keep in mind is "Why?" In this book, much is not what it seems to be. It will certainly leave you questioning.

Shusterman is scrupulous about playing fair to both sides of the abortion question (though that term is rarely, if ever, actually used). Unwinding is presented as a good thing, in that it enables others to live (every scrap of an unwind is used to prolong or enhance the life of another human being). Unwinding is also presented as an evil, robbing a person of his/her life without recognizing the value of that life except as it exists to help someone else. There's one truly freaky scene when we actually read from the point of view of someone being unwound. For that reason (especially), this one isn't one for the faint of heart. And you like to read for pure pleasure, without thinking about what you read, you'll probably want to give this book a pass, too. But if you like putting yourself into many character's point of view and thinking about moral issues, give this one a try. I promise lots of action, too. These are not kids who go willingly into that dark night.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

I'm back!

I'm back at work and can now begin posting again. Over the next week or so I'll be posting about some of the books I've read over the past couple of months. Most of the posts will be sans quotes and musings, but I hope you'll still find them interesting reading.