Category: reviews

I read the manga Battle Royale last summer, and now that I’ve read the first novel in the hit trilogy The Hunger Games, I can’t resist making a bit of a compare-and-contrast review.

Synopsis for both: A cruel government keeps its citizens in check by having a yearly “game” pitting dozens of teens against each other in a battle to the death.  This brutal game is shown on live TV.  There can be only one victor.

Checkouts: 10
Series checkouts (trilogy): 22
Typical reader: This ranges from older elementary boys, to high school girls, to classroom aides. There is no typical reader.
Source: Follett for the school, gift for my copy
Checkouts: Rated M, this does not belong in a school library.
Series checkouts (15 manga): Seriously. This puts “graphic” in graphic novels.
Typical reader: Fans of Japanese gore fests
Source: Local public library
My Goodreads rating: 5 stars My Goodreads rating: N/A

While reading Battle Royale, I realized that what I’d heard about The Hunger Games sounded a lot like this manga.  That’s absolutely true, at least on the surface.  The plot, as shown in the synopsis above, is interchangeable.  What’s different, besides the medium used to tell the story and the language/country of origin?

The main characters: Katniss of The Hunger Games is one of those YA heroines that I can really get behind.  She’s a survivor, strong and tough.  When her little sister’s name is drawn to participate in the Hunger Games, she refuses to let that happen and volunteers in her stead.  She is a skilled huntress and keeps her wits about her throughout the ordeal.  And she remains true to herself!  I don’t want to give anything away, but I was proud of how she handled things at the end of the book.

Shuuya of Battle Royale is a student in an ill-fated class that’s drugged on a field trip and sent to a deserted island for this story’s battle to the death.  He is a musician – which is rebellious in this dystopian Japan – and quite nonviolent; he would prefer to avoid killing his classmates at all costs.  Joined by a female classmate, Noriko, whose wound he dresses after she is shot before the game even begins, Shuuya tries to recruit and save other classmates in an alliance.  Only the transfer student, Shogo, joins them for long.

Perspective and style: The Hunger Games is a novel written in limited third-person, focusing on Katniss.  Most of the deaths occur “off-screen,” except for the battle near the end of the Games.  Battle Royale covers every one of the 42 students in the game, including offering back-stories on several of the contestants.  It is one of the most graphic, explicit sequential art pieces I’ve ever seen.  Most of that is violence, but there’s also some nudity and sexual situations.

This is one of the less gory death scenes.

Outside aid and restrictions: The students in Battle Royale each start with a backpack of supplies and one random weapon.  They are equipped with collars that track their movements and transmit their vital statistics to those who run the show.  If no one dies in a 24-hour period, someone’s tracking collar will detonate; this will also happen if a student strays into an area announced as being off-limits.

The competitors in The Hunger Games have it easier by far – if they survive the initial rush for supplies, and the bloodbath that ensues.  Katniss grabbed a bag and ran, narrowly escaping death.  After that, those who impressed the audiences in the Capital may be sent gifts via their sponsors.  These can really come in handy.

Movies: Battle Royale was made into a movie before it became a manga; both are based on a novel of the same name.  The movie was released in Japan in 2000.  The Hunger Games movie will be in theaters next month.

Sequels: The Hunger Games is part of a trilogy; I look forward to reading the next two books.  Battle Royale has a sequel manga series, Blitz Royale.  I’ve seen some art from it, and it’s not as good or realistic.

Who I would give the book to: As I said in the statistics, there are older elementary students who read The Hunger Games.  That’s pretty acceptable.  Battle Royale, on the other hand, fits well into my “Guilty Pleasures” category and would best go to mature adults who like manga filled with violence and social commentary, and Quentin Tarantino’s films.


Here’s my review of My Life, the Theater, and Other Tragedies by Allen Zadoff.

Checkouts: None, but it was recently added to the collection
Typical reader: Teens involved in theater – there’s not really anything at the school, but the community has a vivacious youth theater program
Source: Superiorland Preview Center

Synopsis: High school sophomore Adam Zeigler is a member of his high school’s theater crew, and loves working lights behind (or rather, above) the scenes.  During the production of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, however, he receives more attention than he ever wanted, and must learn to be courageous enough to face his fears, stand up to peer pressure, and talk to girls.

My Goodreads rating: 5 stars

This is a really good coming-of-age novel.  It’s very much a “slice of life,” realistic fiction piece, almost falling into my palate cleansing “gentle reads” category.  There’s some language though, and teen relationship situations. Adam Zeigler is a complex teen with plenty of problems, ranging from acne to mourning his father, who was killed in a car accident two years prior.

I enjoyed the cast of characters in this book.  The protagonist narrator is complex, like I said, and so are the people he interacts with.  There’s diversity – his best friend “Reach” is Indian, and Mr. Apple, the drama teacher, is gay – but no one is stereotypical.  Mr. Apple was interesting, and his character was as round as his figure.  Adam’s nemesis of sorts, Derek, is a rich kid who is directing the play and takes credit for Adam’s great ideas while blaming him for mishaps such as when a fuse blows.  This guy needs to be a politician when he grows up, he’s such a charismatic player.  (That’s not a compliment.)

This is definitely a character-based story.  There is a plot; it’s Adam’s life and how he needs to “grow a pair,” to quote Reach.  He starts out as a bit of a doormat, honestly – afraid of the dark, afraid to talk to girls, and totally willing to bow to both the societal norms of the theater crowd and to the whims of Derek.

A driving force in this novel is the social environment of high school.  Cliques and peer pressure play major roles in the story.  In Adam’s school, there’s some old rivalry between the theater crew and the actors; the two groups are not supposed to talk to each other beyond what’s necessary, and each looks down upon the other.  So of course Adam takes a liking to a beautiful actress he sees dancing in the hallway one afternoon after practice.  He also breaks more societal rules by talking to Grace, a crew member on the outs because she dated Derek.  A lot of the pressure comes not only from Derek, the wannabe ruler of the theater, but also from Reach.

A funny thing happened on Goodreads a couple weeks ago.  I often enter the giveaways on the site in hopes of getting free books.  Thus far, I’ve never won.  But then, I got a message on Goodreads.  From an author.  Saying that his giveaway is overbooked and, “Since you are a librarian and review and blog about YA books regularly I would be happy to send you a review copy outside of the giveaway if you provide an address where I can send the book.”  Epic squeal.

So I am happy to bring to you a review of the middle-grade mystery, The Jinson Twins, Science Detectives, and the Mystery of Echo Lake by Steven L. Zeichner.

Checkouts: Coming soon to the library
Typical reader: Aimed at children age 11-13; I think the seventh grade science teacher will love it.
Source: From the author! Signed!!

Synopsis: Joe and Debbie Jinson decide to start a business during their summer vacation.  They are hired by the eccentric Mrs. Gray to help clean out her basement.  While doing so, Mrs. Gray mentions that her late husband was a sea captain who went down with his ship, but had apparently left her a treasure which she has not found.  The twins find a map, and with the help of Mr. Benjamin, the owner of the local junkyard (excuse me, Resource Recovery and Recycling Center), they use scientific principles to solve riddles and try to find the treasure.

My Goodreads rating: 4 stars (rounded up)

Let me be forthcoming in saying that mystery novels are not my cup of tea.  This took me about a week to read, which is a bit more than normal, because mysteries just don’t hold my interest very well.  However, I’m a librarian, and I need to be able to tell my students – and the readers of this blog – about all sorts of books.  If you like mysteries, you’ll probably get more excited over this book than I did (beyond the extreme happiness of getting a signed, free book from an author).

This novel has a great premise.  Using science to figure out a mystery appeals to educators, and a lot of kids like conducting science experiments.  There’s one provided in the back of the book, somewhat similar to what the Jinson twins did in their quest to find the treasure.  Mr. Benjamin encourages the protagonists to form hypotheses when they start investigating the map and riddle, and helps them with research and studying data they collect.

There are some seriously quirky characters.  Mrs. Gray is one odd duck, and her African gray parrot, the Captain, adds both levity and unexpected insight.  There are villains quite suitable for this story – a trio of slightly older teen boys who feel that the twins are encroaching on their summer job “turf.”  This certainly isn’t an adult murder mystery; if not for the advanced reading level, it would be suitable for the elementary crowd.  Searching for treasure while on summer vacation is probably something many kids would be thrilled to do.  (See also, the movie “The Goonies.”)

At times this book feels like it was originally written in third-person, and was changed to a first-person from the point of view of Debbie, the female twin, late in the game.  There are a few pronoun errors – not enough to throw off the flow of the story, though – and something just seems a little “off” in Debbie’s narration.  Perhaps this was done to attract female readers to a science-based story.

Fun fact: The author is a pediatrician and works at Children’s National Medical Center, Washington, D. C., where he is Senior Investigator in the Children’s Research Institute.  His previous publications are the Handbook of Pediatric HIV Care (first and second editions) and Textbook of Pediatric HIV Care, both of which he edited.

I had the pleasure of finding a first edition, signed, copy of this at my local bookstore.  I debated about getting it so close to Christmas, but it was the last one in stock.  (My boyfriend can attest, I danced around with it in the aisle before buying it.)  So, thanks to this little splurge, I actually read this in a somewhat timely manner and you get a review in the month the book came out.

Checkouts: Coming soon to the library
Typical reader: Late elementary/middle school boys and girls alike should be able to pick up this thriller
Source: Personally purchased from Snowbound Books

Synopsis: In Los Angeles, two lives collide after a heinous crime.  Day is at 15 years old the Republic’s most wanted criminal, and has been accused of murder.  June is the Republic’s groomed prodigy who must track down Day, who allegedly killed her brother.  This is the story of a game of cat and mouse, told from the perspective of both.  And after a shocking turn of events, it is the story of uncovering the truth of what really happened, and what is really going on in the city.

My Goodreads rating: 4 stars

This has a great cover that has appealed to me since I first saw it on other bloggers’ reviews.  It’s shiny!  It’s also very gender-neutral, which is perfect for a book told from the perspectives of a young man and a young woman.  Anyone can pick it up and not be ashamed to be seen with it.

Day and June were destined for their lives by standardized testing, we learn early in the story.  While each has family history that plays into their status in life, the main determinant is the Trial that all children must take on their tenth birthdays.  Day flunked his, and escaped with his life to become a criminal.  June scored a perfect 1500 and is the darling of the Republic, head of her classes in university and destined for greatness.  But Day is certainly smarter and more physically fit than his Trial score indicated.  There’s perhaps a bit of social commentary here.

The narrative style is excellent.  Day and June alternate chapters, each with a different font style and color in the physical copy of the book.  It’s very easy to always know who you’re reading!  I love how the two stories came together.  The scene where they met was great – as was the scene where she finally figures out who, in fact, she’s been hanging out with on the streets.  As the story progresses past a certain turning point, the action really heats up, and you get so much more with both narratives than you would from a single point-of-view.

I felt that the first half was paced well, but things got so intense halfway through the book that I could hardly put it down after that.  The first half of the novel sets the characters, setting, and mood, and gives us an interesting game of cat and mouse.  But the second half!  That really is a suspenseful thriller that will keep you on the edge of your seat.

This is pretty lightly dystopian, very slightly science fiction.  It’s set in the future, but feels like it isn’t that far off.  The technology is somewhat advanced but very recognizable.  LA has a lake and a lot of flooding issues, and a lot more slums.  There’s also not much in the way of gory violence or adult themes.  If you’re not terribly into dystopias, this can still appeal to you.

Yay for YA: Paranormalcy review

I’m writing this with a fever and chills, so I may need to revisit this and revise it when I’m feeling better.  Anyway, here’s my review of Paranormalcy by Kiersten White.

Checkouts: Coming soon to the library
Typical reader: Middle school to teen girls who like paranormal fantasy/romance
Source: personally purchased at the Scholastic Book Fair

Synopsis: Evie can see things no one else can – she sees beneath the glamour of all sorts of paranormals.  She works for the International Paranormal Containment Agency, bagging and tagging paranormals around the globe.  Life is good with the IPCA; her best friend is a mermaid, she has a pretty pink taser, and she often makes it home in time to watch her favorite teen soap.  But then two things happen to shake up her life: paranormals are mysteriously dying, and a weird shapeshifter breaks into the IPCA.

My Goodreads rating: 4 stars

I do have to grumble a little bit over what probably won’t be a concern for the average reader of this book: the binding.  This book is 335 pages in the paperback format, and squished into a width less than two centimeters (at least in the Scholastic edition).  Gah.  Heaven help the librarian that has to rebind this, if it ever has pages come loose.  Also, even if you’re as careful with books as I am, you’ll probably end up creasing the spine somewhat.

But you’re not here to read about the worries of how a book is made, are you?  You’re here to learn about what’s inside, what the author has to offer with her writing.  Overall, what’s available is pretty dang good.

Paranormalcy comes across fluffy on the surface, but really has a lot of depth.  Evie is both a lighthearted girlie-girl who loves pink, fashion, and teen soap operas, and a teen searching for herself without knowing the extent of her powers or what she really is.  She also yearns for a normal life with a locker.  The sum of all parts of Evie is a strong, complex heroine that is both delightful and someone readers can relate to.

My favorite character was Alisha, the mermaid.  (Lish the fish?  Really?)  She lives in a tank in the IPCA, in the central processing room, loving her job and being Evie’s best friend.  Since she’s in a tank full of water, she talks through a computer, giving her a mechanical voice that will not translate when she swears.  Her reassuring Evie about how her faerie ex-boyfriend is no good in a series of “bleeping” is funny and endearing.  Indeed, the lack of actual swearing and lack of other “adult themes” make this a YA novel that I could comfortably hand to an older elementary student.

There is romance in this novel.  Just because there’s an ex-boyfriend in the picture as well as a new hottie attracting Evie’s attention doesn’t make for a love triangle, though, thank goodness (there’s something overdone in YA romance these days).  Reth, the faerie ex, was dumped by Evie after a show of scary violence.  And she still wants nothing to do with him, despite his advances and attempts at following whatever his strange agenda is regarding her.  Smart girl!  No, the romance is between Evie and the weird shapeshifter that breaks into the IPCA, whose name is Lend and comes across as a pretty nice guy.  After all heck breaks loose there, the plot focuses on Evie and Lend in a completely different environment.  It starts to reach the point of “blah” but soon gets back into plot and action.

I had a little problem with the writing/plot.  Multiple times, I guessed what was going to happen, and was proven right.  It was a little too predictable for my tastes.  This is a fun novel, but predictable.  The predictability does not hinder the experience enough to lower my rating, or to keep me from wanting to read the next in the series.

It’s time to start winding down the reviews for 2011.  I’ll get at least one, hopefully two, more fresh reviews up before the ball drops on Times Square, but I’m also going to share highlights from the year.

First up, my most ambivalent read of 2011: Unwind by Neal Shusterman.

Checkouts: Not owned
Typical reader: Fans of dystopian fiction
Source: Checked out from local public library

Synopsis (from Goodreads): The Second Civil War was fought over reproductive rights. The chilling resolution: Life is inviolable from the moment of conception until age thirteen. Between the ages of thirteen and eighteen, however, parents can have their child “unwound,” whereby all of the child’s organs are transplanted into different donors, so life doesn’t technically end. Connor is too difficult for his parents to control. Risa, a ward of the state is not enough to be kept alive. And Lev is a tithe, a child conceived and raised to be unwound. Together, they may have a chance to escape and to survive.

My Goodreads rating: Unrated, because I have no idea what to give it.

In the future, the Second Civil War is fought between pro-life and pro-choice. The result is a compromise: The Bill of Life, which protects life from conception to age 13, and from age 18 on. Between 13 and adulthood, parents and guardians can choose to retroactively “abort” or “unwind” their child – but the teen stays alive through a sophisticated form of organ donation. Unwound teens live on in recipients’ bodies.

Oh, and if a mother can’t wait that long, she can “stork” the child on someone’s doorstep. If she’s caught in the act, she has to keep it; if the homeowners find the baby, they have to keep it.

The plot focuses on two Unwinds, Connor and Risa, and their unwilling Tithe (parents decided for religious reasons at birth to unwind their child for the greater good) companion, Lev, as they struggle to stay alive in a society that wants 99.44% of their bodies. It’s a good plot, with excellent pacing and some outstanding twists. I honestly did not expect the ending.

This book does get recognition for being one of the most disturbing novels I’ve read. You do get to find out what happens when an Unwind occurs – though it’s all the more powerful because of what’s left to your imagination. I was nauseous afterward and had to put the book down for a while.

On a meta-reading level, this is one that will make you THINK. Is it pro-life or pro-choice? Is it in favor of organ donations or against? What choices would you make in this society – and would you rather die or be unwound?

That said, I did not like several aspects of the book. The present-tense writing style grated on me. I found the main characters to be somewhat flat and couldn’t relate to them; you get more of a feel for the Admiral’s personality, background, what makes him tick than you do for the other characters. Connor and Risa are too intent on survival and immediate problems to introduce themselves to the reader very much. The third-person limited narration may be at fault there, and that sort of point-of-view may really irk some, especially since it changes focus with every chapter.

Five stars for being thought-provoking with some incredible twists. Two stars at most for style, characters, and the plot holes regarding the Bill of Life.  This is what makes it my Most Ambivalent Read of 2011.  I’m not going to pick up the next two books in the trilogy when they come out.  This was good for the shock value; what’s left for the sequels?

Yay for YA: Five Flavors of Dumb

I read this novel, Five Flavors of Dumb by Antony John, back in March, before I’d decided to start reviewing books here.  In an effort to keep posting every weekday in these last two weeks of the year, and in order to share a good book with you, I present to you a review.

Checkouts: I probably should donate it to the library.
Typical reader: Teens with interest in music or disabilities
Source: Personally purchased from Snowbound Books

Synopsis: Piper is witness to a hot new band’s impromptu performance on her high school’s front steps, and later has the guts to tell them they’re crap. The three-person band decides to challenge her in return – become their manager and get them a paying gig within a month. She accepts this potentially impossible task. It’s not just hard because they’re a new band that needs improvement – it’s hard because Piper is deaf.

My Goodreads rating: 4 stars

I couldn’t be in the same room as the book if I wanted to do something besides pick it up and continue reading.  This book is an intriguing compilation of hard rock history, the story of a band, teen romance and friendships in many forms, family dynamics, and a tale of coping with what many would consider a disability. Piper is an excellent, strong protagonist who brings together an eclectic band of five very different flavors of people (hence the title) while dealing with a family that doesn’t always support her – her parents dip into her college savings, earmarked for a university for the hearing impaired, to buy her deaf little sister a cochlear implant.

The characters are excellent, for the most part.  Piper and her brother Finn have an interesting, complex relationship of sibling love, rivalry, and dependance – while Piper can read lips and speak, it’s much easier to communicate with sign language while he serves as an interpreter.  The one character that I felt was a bit flat was the father.  While he does become more supportive as the story progresses, he comes across mostly as obtuse.

I picked up this entertaining book from a sea of teen fiction that was mostly either paranormal/paranormal romance or catty clique novels. It stood out as different, and it was.  If you’re looking for an antidote for the common teen novel, this is it.

OMG, it’s a post on a Wednesday!  Today was the last day of school before winter vacation, and I survived not only the library times with wired students and a few class parties, but also got done checking in and cataloging books in a timely enough manner to read a book, get home, and write this review before 9 p.m.  Be amazed.

My elementary students adore the Magic Tree House series.  It’s written for about a second grade reading level, but the Kindergarten teacher introduced her class to them and her students just love to check these books out and bring them home to read with a parent.  Bless her heart, she got a bunch of the series from Scholastic, let the students choose one book for Christmas, and gave me the rest for the library!  What an awesome present.

With all that in mind, I decided to take ten minutes and read the first in the series.  Here’s my review before I end up typing more words than are in the book!

Checkouts, Dinosaurs Before Dark: 7
Series checkouts: 49 (over ten books, before the new additions)
Typical reader: Any elementary student, especially K-3
Sources: Various

Synopsis: Jack and his little sister Annie discover a tree house full of books.  When they point to a picture in a book, they find themselves in a new place!  Good thing there’s a book with a picture of their hometown, so they can return.  In the first adventure, they go back to the Cretaceous Era.

My Goodreads rating: 5 stars

This series really is cute, and appropriate for all elementary students!  Jack and Annie are curious adventurers, with distinct personalities that I could get a feel for in just the first book.  The use of a brother and sister helps to appeal to both boys and girls, which is great.

There are two awesome things about these books.  First, they’re educational.  Jack and Annie learn about what they encounter, with both their experiences and the books from the tree house.  Second, the books don’t pander like some at this reading level do.  You’re not going to have an explanation in every story about how Jack and Annie found the tree house, and what it does, blah blah blah.  There’s a simple page or so in every subsequent volume with a quick explanation about what happens in this series.  The Magic Tree House series lacks the boring repetition I’ve found in series like Junie B. Jones or the Baby-Sitters Club: Little Sister.  You’re not wasting any of the story itself on a recap of “last week’s episode,” or whatever.

There are even Magic Tree House Research Guide volumes that complement many of the chapter books, full of facts about the topics mentioned in the matching novel.  Fabulous.

Yay for YA: Cleopatra’s Moon review

I’d originally started reading this book, Cleopatra’s Moon by Vicky Alvear Shecter, back in September.  Then my own Queen Cleo got really sick and died, and I had to put it down.  Last week, I finally picked it back up.  Here’s my review.

Checkouts: New to the library
Typical reader: Students forced to do book reports on historical fiction.  And hopefully girls who like history and strong female figures.
Source: Superiorland Preview Center

Synopsis: Cleopatra Selene, daughter of the last queen of Egypt and the Roman Marcus Antonius, tells of her life from her idyllic days as a child, through her captivity in Rome in the household of her conqueror, to arriving in Mauritania to marry the client-king of that country.

My Goodreads rating: 4 stars

What’s the nice thing about reviewing a book about a historical figure’s life?  No spoilers!  Unless you’re picking up this book or reading my review of it with no prior knowledge of the life of Cleopatra Selene, you probably know the basic facts.

  • Cleopatra Selene was the only daughter of Queen Cleopatra VII, the last monarch of Egypt
  • Her father was Marcus Antonius, otherwise known as Mark Antony (the Roman triumvir who features in two of Shakespeare’s works, not the Latin pop singer)
  • She had a twin brother, Alexandros Helios, and a younger brother, Ptolemy Philadelphus
  • They had an older half-brother, Caesarion, whose father was Julius Caesar
  • She, Alexandros, and Ptolemy were taken after their parents’ defeat and deaths to Rome and marched in Octavian’s Triumph
  • Little or nothing is written about her brothers after that
  • She married Juba, the king of Mauritania, who was also raised in Rome by his people’s conquerors

This book fills in the gaps, from Cleopatra Selene’s point-of-view.  It is a richly-woven tale of a princess who started life happily and then had her world come crashing done around her.  Much of this blurs the line between historical and speculative fiction, but Ms. Shecter spins a pretty good yarn.  There’s intrigue, a dash of romance, Egyptian mythology, and one very smart heroine who manages to survive everything life throws at her.

One thing I particularly liked about the novel was how Rome was portrayed.  Roman history was most often written by the Romans, since they were the victors.  As this is from Selene’s perspective, we get a view of Rome that was probably just as accurate as the grand records of the likes of Plutarch and Seneca.  To Selene, Rome is filthy, abhorrent, and barbaric in comparison to her fair Alexandria, with its Library and Great Lighthouse.  We’re also treated to a view of the most famous and infamous queen of the ancient world from her daughter’s adoring perspective.  Today we know that Queen Cleopatra VII was extremely intelligent, and had written many treatises on a variety of matters; she was not just the cunning seductress both Rome and Hollywood made her out to be.  Cleopatra Selene’s account offers a view of just how awesome the queen likely was, but with a touch of motherly love.

I will say that the beginning of the book was slow.  Some of the Egyptian mythology that she learned is interesting, but for the most part, Celopatra Selene’s placid life was … dull.  The pace really does not pick up until Marcus Antonius kills himself.  But the novel after that is quite worth a read.

Oh, and the cats included in the novel are awesome.  As well they should be.

My cat had been named Cleocatra, after Cleopatra Selene’s mother.  My dog is named Jubatus, as in the genus name for a cheetah; he looked a bit like a baby cheetah when we adopted him, and I’m a nerd like that.  We call him Juba for short.

A couple years after getting Juba, I read a biography on Cleopatra … and learned that Cleopatra Selene married a King Juba.  This is really a great joke in the household.  King Juba of Mauritania was a scholar king.  Juba the dog is not particularly bright.


unlike in the novel and likely in real history, my Cleo and Juba were better off ignoring each other.

Last week I got a comment requesting that I review a book, complete with an offer to send me a PDF file of the book so that I could do so.  From an author.  After flailing around excitedly, I accepted my very first book review request.

So here is my review of Ugly to Start With by John Michael Cummings.  I’d prefer to be nicer, but honesty is the best policy; it’s not a five-star book.

Checkouts: Not owned by the library
Typical reader: High school boys
Source: Direct from the author via email (Squee!)

Synopsis: Jason Stevens is a teen growing up in historic Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia, in the 1970s.  This is a collection of short, fictional stories about his less-than-ideal life.

My Goodreads rating: 3 stars

This book exemplifies the differences between middle-grade novels and those for young adults.  While the writing style and vocabulary are suitable for a younger audience, the subject matter certainly is not.  There are a lot of mature situations in this book, ranging from race relations to infidelity, from exploring sexuality to cruelty to animals.  This book is perfectly acceptable material for a public library, but my school library serves mostly K-8.  It doesn’t belong there.

I liked the simple, honest prose.  Jason isn’t the greatest person, particularly in the title story (I’ll get to that later), but he provides quality narration to his stories.  The short story format left me a bit wanting at times, because some vignettes ended without a sense of conclusion, but that’s a drawback to the confines of short stories.  On the other hand, the end of a short story is not the end of Jason’s overall tale.  There are pros and cons; your mileage may vary on this.

My favorite story was “The Scratchboard Project.”  In this, Jason visits a classmate’s house to sketch her for an art assignment.  It’s a story that gives a lot of depth to Jason’s dream of being an artist, as well as the world in which he lives.  The classmate he visits is a black girl in a different part of town, and both of them, as well as her family, have to deal with prejudices in the fullest sense of the word.  Jason and Shanice have to get past their presuppositions about each other as she poses for him and he sketches her, and their interactions break down the icy barriers.

My least favorite story was the title one.  A little cat comes to Jason’s house and his family takes her in, marveling at her soft, beautiful coat.  But in the summer, she gets into fights with other cats in the neighborhood and returns home with bloody sores and scratches.  The family refuses to let her in or care for her.  Jason goes so far to even shoot at her with a BB gun to chase her off.  You can imagine how well this sat with a cat-lover such as myself!  The story does well at illustrating how the family values only that which is beautiful, and has no love for what’s ugly – either “to start with” or what becomes so through circumstance.  It also shows their hypocrisy, considering how run-down their house is and how ugly within the father can be.
(To be honest, this story almost made me put the book down completely, but as Mr. Cummings’ web site mentions that he has a cat, I gave him the benefit of the doubt and continued.)

I have one thing to nitpick about this book.  In one story, Jason is looking at a board in his school with editorials pasted to it, and two phrases jumped out at me.  These were references to “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and “the X-Files.”  This book is set in the 1970s.  The movie “Raiders of the Lost Ark” came out in 1981.  “The X-Files” TV show ran from 1993 to 2002.  There’s another story that mentions the basketball skills of Magic Johnson, who played for the L.A. Lakers starting in 1979.  Please, fact-check.  I don’t appreciate historical inaccuracies.