Monday, February 8, 2016

Bossypants by Tina Fey

Image result for bossypantsRating: 4 out 5 stars
277 pages

Tina Fey’s 2011 memoir Bossypants is a humorous, though scant reflection on the writer-comedian’s life up until the time of her popular portrayal of Sarah Palin during the 2008 election season and shortly before her critically acclaimed show 30 Rock ended. The book doesn’t describe her role as a boss much, making the title somewhat misleading.

A standout story in the book is the when the cruise ship during her honeymoon goes on fire: “Everyone is quiet. Which is the wooooooorst. It’s scary when a group of people all know instinctively not to joke around. Another voice over PA, repeating, ‘Please, remain calm. Please proceed to your muster stations.’ The German half of me is thinking, ‘Shove the old people out of the way. Shove the old and the infirm! If they are strong enough to resist you, they deserve to live.’ The Greek half of me wants to scream at our Greek captain. I do neither and proceed obediently. We stop at our cabin along the way so that I can change into sneakers. I have a strong urge to lie down and pretend this is not happening—like the old couple in Titanic. That’s how I want to go, ice-cold water rising around our spooning bodies and me somehow willing my body to nap…We’re going to be one of those stories of a couple that died on their honeymoon… I think about how horrible it will be if I have to get on the lifeboat and leave him behind.”

The last four chapters feature deeper introspection on topics such womanhood, motherhood, and being a working mom. She explains the challenges in a relatable way. She writes a prayer for her daughter that is hilarious “First Lord: No tattoos. May neither the Chinese symbol for truth nor Winnie-the-Pooh holding the FSU logo stain her tender haunches.”  The book includes graphics such as SNL scripts, photos, and text boxes which are a great postmodern touch. 

Tina Fey revealed many of her insecurities and anxieties throughout the book. Her lack of confidence coupled with her success is inspiring. Her candor is refreshing because she doesn’t seem like an out-of-touch celebrity, but a regular human being such as when she admits she loves the glamour of photo shoots saying: Photo shoots are THE FUNNEST!” She deftly addresses sexism and ageism in Hollywood using satire:  “I’ve known older men in comedy who can barely feed and clean themselves, and they still work. The women, though, they’re all ‘crazy.’ I have a suspicion—and hear me out, ‘cause this is a rough one—I have a suspicion that the definition of ‘crazy’ in show business is a woman who keeps talking even after no one wants to f#%& her anymore. The only person I can think of that has escaped the ‘crazy’ moniker is Betty White, which, obviously, is because people still want to have sex with her.”

An empowering moment of the book is when she lists all the physical traits women are supposed to have to be attractive according to society, then lists her own physical characteristics as perfectly fine: “Straight Greek eyebrows. They start at the hairline of my temple and, left unchecked, will grow straight across my face and onto yours… Droopy brown eyes designed to confuse predators into thinking I’m just on the verge of sleep and they should come back tomorrow to eat me… Permanently rounded shoulders from years of working at a computer… A rounded belly that is pushed out by my rounded posture no matter how many sit-ups I do. Which is mostly none, Wide German hips that look like somebody wrapped Pillsbury dough around a case of soda … I would not trade any of these features for anybody else’s. I wouldn’t trade the small thin-lipped mouth that makes me resemble my nephew. I wouldn’t even trade the acne scar on my right cheek, because that recurring zit spent more time with me in college than any boy ever did.”

More regular human moments from Tina Fey: “We dined at Red Lobster. There is no one of-woman-born who does not like Red Lobster cheddar biscuits. Anyone who claims otherwise is a liar and a Socialist. We fed fifteen people for two hundred dollars. Success!”

Her fear of terrorism after 9/11: “Then, on the TV hanging in the corner, Lester Holt came on MSNBC and said ‘Breaking news. Anthrax has been found at 30 Rockfeller Plaza…‘Nope,’ I thought. ‘I give up.’ I put on my coat, walked downstairs past my friends and coworkers without saying anything. I walked right past the host for that week, sweet Drew Barrymore, without telling her what I had heard. I just went to the elevator and left.” 

Not snitching celebrity guests who acted up on SNL: “Who were the d-bags, you ask? I couldn’t possibly tell you. But if you want to figure it out, here’s a clue: The letters from their names are sprinkled randomly through this chapter.”

And possibly the funniest lines of the memoir: “To hell with everybody! Maybe I’ll just wait until I’m fifty and give birth to a ball of fingers! ‘Merry Christmas from Tina, Jeff, Alice, and Ball of Fingers,” the card will say. (‘Happy Holiday’ on the ones I send to my agents.)

Monday, January 26, 2015

The Anti-Socialites Diary 4: #NotCool by Alicia and Tameka McKenzie

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars
132 pages

The Anti-Socialites Diary 4: #NotCool is the most dramatic diary in the series yet as Asia and Tasia fend off "The Bully Mafia" and cyber bullying in eighth grade at East Rivers Middle School. During their last weeks of summer vacation Asia, Tasia and their younger sister Mary come up with an elaborate scheme to raise money to buy a Wii U. They make homemade kites and sell 54 to earn $100. When their father finds the money in his toolbox he asks them where they got it from. Tasia confesses that they sold kites instead of going to the soccer field with Mary and their dad confiscates the money and shuts down their business because they were dishonest. The twins and Mary are extremely disappointed and scrap the idea of getting a Wii U altogether. The letdown causes Tasia to write "I can't believe I am going to say this but, I'll be happy when school starts again." Little does she know that it will be her roughest school year ever.

Asia's school year begins with her saying it is "BORING" and that "there's nothing going on." She explains that she is not being picked on or bullied so she doesn't know how to function. Her eighth grade teacher is Ms. Scarfinger who has "the best classroom library in the entire grade." She is still best friends with Celeste and sits next to another girl named Sharon, but she mostly reads a lot of books during class. The drama Asia expected early on occurs when a Vivienne-less "Hottie Clique" goes after Celeste and her boyfriend Chase. The new leader of "The Hottie Clique" Trina attempts to flirt with Chase, but he's not interested, so another Hottie Clique member named Margie goes after him too. The sabotage attempts end with a fake note on Celeste's desk claiming that Trina and Chase are secretly dating. Asia laughs it off and Celeste decides the whole thing is funny too. Asia has a much harder time finding the humor in the next incident involving Ricky Smalls and a trend on Twitter. She is informed by a student in Mr. Sage's class named Ronnie that her name is trending under the #NotCool hashtag for East Rivers' Twitter page. He shows her the tweets on his smartphone and Asia reads tweets such as #Asiasteeth, #Asiasbooks, #Asiashair, #Asiapants, etc. Asia is very hurt and cries alone in the bathroom. She decides to forgive Ricky and buys him a Christmas present, a book titled How to Lose Friends and Alienate People. Asia gets the best Christmas gifts: Twenty five plays by William Shakespeare and all of Toni Morrison's novels--a huge upgrade from her dusty book collection featuring two books about a creepy man named Mr. Sweeney and The Bad Spider Dog.

In January East Rivers school counselor Chairman invites Asia to be a motivational speaker on academics for 6th and 7th grade students. One of Asia's biggest fears is public speaking so she is mortified when Chairman tells her to deliver a speech. She mumbles her way through an incoherent speech and then leaves the room abruptly. The seventh graders laugh at her and Asia feels resentful towards Chairman. On Valentine's Day a rotund classmate of Asia's named Curtis Pitcher offers her a teddy bear and a bouquet of flowers and asks her to be his date for the eighth grade dance. Asia politely declines and leaves the classroom. She is relieved she said no when Celeste tells her that Curtis ripped the teddy bear apart after she left the room. Asia competes in the 15th annual school Spelling Bee and goes to the 16th round with Sharon. She wins the Spelling Bee by spelling "triskaidekaphobia" correctly. Sharon gets offended by Asia's celebratory statements and Celeste gets mad at her too. Asia later apologizes to Sharon for bragging. During the senior class picnic Asia is quite sure that Curtis threw a football at her on purpose that caused her to fall, but she lets it go because she knows he is bitter. It leads to a nice boy in her class named Dustin giving her a Band-Aid and eventually asking her to save a dance for him at the eighth grade dance. Asia wears a pretty yellow dress at the dance and tries to honor Dustin's wish, but she doesn't know how to dance at all. He leads the way and they have a great time. Asia graduates from East Rivers as the Valedictorian and wins free tickets to Six Flags for participating in a reading program challenge---she read 550 books during the school year which was way past the 150 book total for the challenge. Asia is elated that she survived middle school with all the bullying and clique drama and looks forward to doing great things in high school.

Tasia dislikes her homeroom social studies teacher Mr. Hanes because he gives them a lot of homework. She really doesn't like the fact that he allows bullies such as Sheldon, Raven, and Darla to pick on her. Sheldon continues to make fun of Tasia this school year, but now she has to deal with the added taunts from Raven and Darla who are the meanest girls she's ever had class with. The three of them form what Tasia calls "The Bully Mafia" because they strongly enforce the social order in their class on a regular basis. Tasia really misses her best friend Rose Pettals who moved to Europe last school year and she also misses Orlando Depp, a boy she was friendly with as a study partner in her seventh grade class. Orlando is in a lower eighth grade class so she rarely sees him. The only bright spot to her day is math class with Mr. Sage who is cool and gives away extra credit points. Tasia often wins the extra credit points and gives her extra ones away to nice classmates, making Raven and Darla hate her even more. Tasia doesn't care because "a few bonus points won't change the fact that [they] are bullies!" During a school assembly Tasia has a big showdown with Raven and Darla after Mr. Sage announces that the eighth graders will get a week off from math if 70% of them pass the State Tests. Tasia asks Mr. Sage if students who pass can get the week off even if 70% don't pass and he says students who pass will get rewards. Raven and Darla get angry and throw a bottle of water and a piece of gum at her. Most of the students in the auditorium laugh at Tasia as she leaves to clean herself off. Tasia is so full of rage that she grabs a can of paint from the Art room and throws it on Raven and Darla's table at lunch. Principal Toady reprimands Tasia, Raven, and Darla--Tasia gets a whole month of detention and Darla gets suspended for three days for continued belligerent behavior.

While Darla is gone Raven tries to intimidate Tasia with threats, but Tasia fearlessly defends herself and tells Raven to get a life. "The Bully Mafia" takes a huge hit when Darla is transferred to another school by her worried mother. Tasia comments that "Darla's departure has significantly weakened the control that the 'tough' kids have over the nerds!" After that incident Tasia joins an after school program called Teens on the Rise with Asia and Celeste. She is surprised when she sees that Orlando has joined too. They reconnect and work together on their homework and even sit next to each other while watching The Great Gatsby. Celeste tries to encourage Tasia to go out with Orlando, but Tasia worries that Orlando doesn't like her. By the time Teens on the Rise ends Tasia has a startling epiphany that Orlando is too immature for her due to his behavior on the last day of the program. He acted like a "kindergartener" by following her around and picking on her. After that he asked her out, but Tasia refused. At the senior class picnic "The Hottie Clique" flirts with Orlando after finding out that Tasia liked him, but Tasia ignores them because she is over him already. Tasia is bored by the company of Geneva and Janice, two quiet girls in her class who were talking about trees. She was very happy when they went back to school. Tasia is hysterical over her mother's hideous dress choices for her and Asia's eighth grade dance, but her mom eventually buys them beautiful dresses. Tasia has tons of fun dancing to "Gangnam Style" and "Harlem Shake" at the dance and she even takes a picture with Orlando "to commemorate [her] ill-fated crush." At the graduation ceremony Tasia starts crying while delivering her Salutatory address. She's embarrassed, but she's also happy she received numerous awards and is done with middle school for good. Tasia reflects on what's actually "#NotCool": "students thinking they can bully others and get away with it" and "hopes 'The Hottie Clique' and 'The Bully Mafia' learn that people deserve to be treated with respect no matter how unstylish or unpopular they are."

Despite the heightened social tensions during their final year at East Rivers, Asia and Tasia succeed academically and become Valedictorian and Salutatorian. They stand up for themselves and stay focused on what really matters: education. The great lesson to take away from The Anti-Socialites Diary 4: #NotCool is that bullying doesn't make you cooler or smarter, but it makes the people you're picking on look cool and smart.  

Monday, January 19, 2015

The Anti-Socialites Diary 3: Team Misfits by Alicia and Tameka McKenzie

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars
133 pages

Asia and Tasia McKinley's social misfortunes at school continue in The Anti-Socialites Diary 3: Team Misfits. They have moved back to New York City over the summer and are attending East Rivers Middle School for seventh grade. The differences between East Rivers and their previous middle school are glaringly obvious when it comes to culture and fashion, but before the year begins they celebrate their 12th birthday. Asia describes the new house and neighborhood her family lives in and is genuinely excited about getting to make noise past 9:00 p.m. "because people don't go to bed [early] here like they do in Maryland." She then talks about having a successful and fun birthday party with others kids on her block--a stark contrast to Asia and Tasia's tenth birthday party discussed in Diary 1: The Awkward Beginnings. Before the school year starts Asia optimistically writes "hopefully seventh grade turns out to be a nice surprise too."

Unfortunately, East Rivers Middle School is nothing like Asia expects. Her classmates are way bigger than she is and they wear trendier clothes and act "cooler" than she ever imagined. Although this is not an entirely new experience, Asia feels the weight of her isolation when she reflects that she only gets noticed when her classmates make fun of her hair and clothes. But the worst part is the extreme bullying she deals with from Raven Nickels, who rips up one of her Bookgirl comics in the first month of school. Because she is shunned by her peers Asia is flabbergasted when she suddenly gets a boyfriend named Eddie afterschool one day. It feels like a dream and Asia thinks she's in love until the illusion is shattered when Ricardo tells her in front of everyone in the cafeteria that Eddie dumped her for lead member of "The Hottie Clique" Vivienne Kidd. After that Asia develops an intense dislike for Vivienne and confronts her about her dishonesty in the Eddie situation. Halfway through the school year Asia is transferred to a new class that has a vigorous curriculum. She still excels academically, but she feels lonelier than ever before she finally befriends a girl named Celeste White. Asia is surprised by this friendship because Celeste is socially acceptable and does well in her classes. The only drawback to their relationship is that Celeste is happily dating a boy named Chase and pressures Asia to get a new boyfriend despite her lack of interest. When Celeste suggests that Asia go out with Alex from her former class, Asia respectfully declines.

That doesn't stop Alex from pursuing Asia with creepy love notes that have terrible riddles. Asia tells Alex that she doesn't want to go out with him and he shocks her by dumping his entire lunch tray of food over head. Everyone laughs at her in the cafeteria and this incident leads Asia to get counseling sessions from the school guidance counselor, Chairman. He invites her on the exclusive college trip to Cromwell University in May. Asia goes on the trip and has a terrible time because "The Hottie Clique", Dylan, and Eddie make fun of her nonstop. By the time they ride back to the city Asia defends herself and gives all of her bullies a taste of their own medicine by stating cold, hard facts about their grades and personalities. At the end of the school year Asia is rewarded the Golden Student of the Year Award at an awards assembly and cries on stage in front of the whole school. Although she is embarrassed, she is extremely relieved that she made it through seventh grade with the top grades and made a great friend despite the bias against her.

Tasia's school year is engrossed by her battle with the ultimate mean girls crew "The Hottie Clique." In the beginning of the school year "The Hottie Clique" leader Vivienne invites Tasia to join them and says she'll be able to get her a boyfriend quickly. Tasia is hesitant, but decides to join so she can fit in. It turns out to be a huge mistake because Vivienne is very controlling and condescending. Shortly after Tasia abruptly leaves "The Hottie Clique" she meets a new girl named Rose Pettals and they become best friends. Tasia and Rose decide to start a book where they write about their classmates and call it The T.R.uth. The students in their class are curious about what they have put in the book, but it's locked and only they have the key. Vivienne attempts to steal Rose away from Tasia by bribing her with a boy she likes named Antonio, but Rose tells her no thanks. The T.R.uth is dramatically stolen by Vivienne's admirers Colby and Allen, who give the book to Vivienne. After Vivienne reads the book she rips up all the pages. Tasia vows to write a new book, but doesn't follow through when she learns that Vivienne has been transferred to another seventh grade class. Tasia is briefly relieved only to find out that she has to deal with a new major problem--a boy named Sheldon who transfers to her class. He is a class clown who likes to make all his jokes about Tasia, but he actually has a crush on her that he's afraid to admit. Tasia is disgusted by his furtive advances on her especially when he asks her to be his secret Valentine.

Tasia turns him down, but keeps the chocolate he offers her. During the middle of the school year Tasia feels a bit lonely because Rose spends a lot of time with her boyfriend Antonio--that is until she develops a major crush on her classmate Orlando. She is partnered with Orlando for an English project and is pleasantly surprised by their easy camaraderie. Tasia and Rose attend the Spring Festival instead of going on the college trip to Cromwell University. Tasia thinks the festival is very boring and is mortified by a Justin Bieber impersonator. When Orlando arrives and helps Tasia buy a necklace she can't afford she goes into a daze prompting Rose to ask "Is there something you're not telling me?" Tasia says no and they laugh together because they both know she likes Orlando. May's entry begins in all caps: "DEVASTING, LIFE-CHANGING NEWS!" Sadly Rose moves away to Europe leaving Tasia to deal with Sheldon and "The Hottie Clique" by herself. In the last month of the school year Tasia and Rose talk over the phone and Tasia tells Rose the great news that Vivienne transferred to another school. Tasia is excited that she is hanging out with Orlando a lot in English class and reveals that he helps ease the pain of Rose's departure. The highlight of Tasia's year is a big hug from Orlando when he thanks her for helping him with his school work. Tasia dreams of the two of them being study partners in eighth grade and maybe more than that. For the first time in years Tasia and Asia do not get news that they are moving in the summer, instead they are invited on a trip to Treasure Island by their Uncle Wally. Tasia hopes to see One Direction there and predicts Asia, Mary, and Tasia will have a grand adventure.

The Anti-Socialites Diary 3: Team Misfits has tougher bullies and bigger social problems, but Asia and Tasia handle everything in stride because they're used to being outcasts. As grouping intensifies in middle school and beyond, Asia and Tasia feel fortunate that they always have someone they can talk to in their classes and they're confident that their intelligence will put them on top no matter how badly their peers mistreat them. Despite the harsher social conditions, the twins' display a lot of courage and optimism during all the changes they faced in seventh grade.

Monday, January 12, 2015

The Anti-Socialites Diary 2: Middle School Blues by Alicia and Tameka McKenzie

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars
130 pages

The second book in The Anti-Socialites' Diaries Diary 2: Middle School Blues opens with Tasia McKinley exclaiming that the new town her family has moved to named Grey Meadows is beautiful and that she and Asia along with their younger sister Mary are having a lot of fun riding their bicycles all summer. It doesn't take long before an instance of bullying occurs with three boys in the neighborhood calling Tasia, Asia, and Mary "Reject Girls." Nevertheless, Tasia hopes that she will fit in during sixth grade at Spartan Middle School.

When school starts Tasia immediately becomes the top student in all of her classes. She is accepted by Dina and Tamina, the coolest girls in sixth grade, who ask her to be a part of their dance group. Unfortunately Tasia is not a very good dancer and is summarily dismissed. She falls for her math classmate Victor Preggioni, but most of the girls in sixth grade like him. Tasia is encouraged by Victor's friendly conversations with her and decides she will compete to win his affection. After Tasia learns that her new friend Robin Delgado likes Victor too she gets a makeover. The makeover is unanimously derided by her peers and even Robin avoids her during this time period. Tasia overhears Victor saying he wouldn't go out with her because of her hair and teeth and realizes he was never worth any of the effort she put in to get his attention. Tasia has a shining moment in her science class when she wins a debate against her science teacher Mr. Alfie about women's contributions to science. Although her classmates are impressed with her reasoning Mr. Alfie punishes her for disrupting the lesson. Soon after this incident Tasia goes on the sixth grade camping trip called Camp Education.

There she encounters "a contentious crustacean" and finishes in last place for all the group camping challenges, but admits she enjoyed her time learning outside. The biggest disappointment of Tasia's school year occurs when she auditions for the lead role of  Freckles in the Spring play Middle School Musical and loses out to Robin. During a school pool trip Victor rescues Tasia from nearly drowning and feels grateful though the cool kids make fun of her kiddie bathing suit. At the end of the school year Tasia wins numerous academic awards from her teachers yet she is snubbed from all the yearbook superlatives. She hilariously claims that she is going to win every yearbook title next school year and plots her "social upgrades." She didn't realize then that she would move again in the summer.

Asia's school year begins with an unexpected physical altercation with a student in her gym class named Mya who was bullying her. The fight is instigated by mean boy Ron Purple who incessantly picks on Asia for no reason. Asia creates the superhero Bookgirl and draws the character in comic books as a protector of nerds and avenger against bullies. She also starts to read fantasy series voraciously, including The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, and Percy Jackson & The Olympians escape from the reality of Ron's jokes at her expense. In the friendship department Asia has to choose between Coral Nest and Faqua Grabini. Coral dislikes Faqua because she thinks she's too geeky and uncool and tries to make Asia avoid her. Asia succumbs to this scrutiny and limits her interactions with Faqua in between class time at their lockers. Asia feels guilty until she realizes that Coral is not really a true friend when Coral doesn't choose Asia to be on her team for a social studies project. After this Asia and Faqua develop a close friendship where they console each other over their lack of popularity and alienation from their classmates. During their first few weeks together as real friends they work together on an invention project in Woodshop class and have their efforts thwarted by the notorious copycat Mara Wilkes. Asia feels very lonely on Valentine's Day and doesn't attend the school dance because she doesn't have a date while Faqua does have a date. To top it off there are two boys in her Reading class who asks her questions just to make fun of her answers.

By the time the Camp Education trip comes around Asia is relieved and excited until she learns that she will sleep in Cabin D. The rumor about a 200 year old ghost haunting Cabin D looms over the entire experience and culminates on the final evening of the trip when Asia hears a creak after midnight. She catches three students pulling a prank and alerts a teacher. She is rewarded at the closing banquet of the trip. Back at school Asia gets in trouble with a bus driver and the principal for refusing to throw away her gum. While in a bathroom stall during church Asia overhears a conversation between Coral and her enemy Renee where Coral reveals that she wasn't really friends with Asia. In the last month of school the sixth graders have Field Day and play a game of Dare, Double Dare, or Death Dare. China and Sunny invite Asia to play and she agrees to do a Death Dare after Mya taunts her. Her Death Dare is to kiss Clover Mintson, "the dirtiest, most stinky kid in all of Grey Meadows, probably the whole world!" Asia tries to back out, but Mya and her cronies push Asia's face to Clover's cheek causing Asia to have nightmares for days after. When the school year ends Asia and Tasia along with their sisters Gina and Mary are completely shocked to learn that they will be moving back to New York immediately.

Asia and Tasia's transition to middle school is challenging, yet ultimately enlightening as they discover the true meaning of friendship and assert their values in a classroom setting. In tenuous times of a child's social development it is critical that they recognize how to handle situations like being verbally bullied on a regular basis and being ostracized for not wearing the latest fashions, but more importantly Asia and Tasia have to discern the characters of their peers and analyze their own behavior in difficult scenarios. The introspection in this book is evidence of the twins' maturation and what makes Diary 2: Middle School Blues an authentic sequel to Diary 1: The Awkward Beginnings.

Monday, January 5, 2015

The Anti-Socialites Diary 1: The Awkward Beginnings by Alicia and Tameka McKenzie

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
170 pages

The first book of The Anti-Socialites' Diaries series
Diary 1: The Awkward Beginnings opens in the month of August with the pronouncement "Our tenth birthday was complete disaster!" thus setting the tone for the many social pitfalls that main characters, twin sisters Asia and Tasia McKinley, face during the upcoming school year. Tasia writes of their expectations for a grand birthday party only to be greeted with the question "Isn't it your birthday?" by their older sister Gina in the afternoon. When their mother comes home with party decorations and a birthday cake they think things will turn around. Unfortunately no one comes to their party except another set of twins who live in the same building. Their only guests leave shortly after their arrival causing Asia and Tasia to cry. The twins view this as a bad omen for fifth grade--their final year at Whitlock Elementary School.

When the school year starts Tasia is concerned about looking fabulous for picture day and decides to do her own hair. It turns out bad and she ends up going to school with her "third grade hair style." While waiting in line for her turn to take a picture Tasia is mocked by her arch nemesis Porscha. A frustrated Tasia plots to "fight back against Porscha and company for the rest of my time here at Whitlock, just watch." Tasia's first opportunity to stand up for herself occurs at the end of October during "The First Annual Fifth Grade Halloween Jam." She is nervous about the mandatory "BOOgie Down Dance-Off",  but she performs a dance routine she learned from her dad in front of her classmates wearing an Orphan Annie costume. By the time she finishes everyone at the dance is laughing at her and Porscha adds insult to injury by calling her out over a microphone. Tasia leaves the dance crying and believes she'll never have a chance to compete with Porscha.

Over the next several months more embarrassing things happen to Tasia including her lying about getting an iPhone 5 for Christmas, but getting caught with a "SlimFlip", and her getting disqualified from the Science Fair after brazenly bragging to Porscha and her friends that she would win first place. After Tasia doesn't get selected to join the school band and chokes up during a choir performance at church, she gets a big breakthrough when she joins her friend Rosalyn and her sister Asia to form the group "The Spotlight Girls" to perform at the Spring Talent Show at the after school center The Spot. On the day of their performance Tasia is shocked to learn that Porscha and her friends Kyle and Zac joined the show in a last minute attempt to upstage The Spotlight Girls. They have a fancy set and expensive props which makes Tasia think that her performance will be overlooked. However, Rosalyn is unfazed and leads The Spotlight Girls to a successful performance and a standing ovation. They even sign a lot of autographs after the show. Tasia does experience additional humiliations by the end of the school year, but she receives a special gift and an important affirmation from her teacher Mrs. Suarez on the last day of school. Tasia reflects on the kindness of her teacher and her friend Ray and decides that the people who supported her were the ones who mattered all along.

Asia's school year starts with her trepidation over participating in the State Spelling Bee. Although she is an excellent speller, she doesn't feel comfortable competing against hundreds of students across New York State, especially not fourteen year-olds. When Asia walks on stage to spell her first word she loses consciousness. Her reputation as a nerd in Ms. Strict's class has now been replaced with the title "The Girl Who Fainted." Asia tries to ignore the chatter by reading books all time until she develops a major crush on her new classmate Marc. She fantasizes that he is her Prince Charming and dreams they'll be together in the near future, but another girl in her class named Natalie, who is pretty and popular, has her sights on Marc too.

While Asia is fuming with jealously over Natalie's flirtatious behavior towards Marc, she ends up being "Santa Partners" with her former crush Roy. Asia still feels animosity for Roy over something he did to her in fourth grade. Roy asks Asia if she wants the last Harry Potter movie for Christmas and Asia starts to believe that Roy has changed. She writes him a poem and gives him the gift he asks for---a month of completed homework, before she discovers that the Harry Potter gift was a hoax; it turns out to be a bootleg Justin Beiber CD. "The Untouchables", an exclusive popular group of fifth graders, all laugh when Natalie reveals the scam and Asia is heartbroken once again. To make matters even worse Ms. Strict announces that Marc has transferred to another school. Asia deals with this disappointment by hanging out with her friends Jill and Victoria, both of whom she has personality conflicts with. Drama ensues after Asia finds a Secret Admirer Card on her desk and Victoria writes a list of all the boys who could've given it to her. Once the boys in Ms. Strict's class find out about the card, they all deny it in ways that make Asia feel unlikable. The truth comes out over a month later during "The 14th Annual Whitlock Elementary Competition." A boy named Chuck explains to everyone in Ms. Strict's class that he used Asia as a subject for his science experiment to determine how low popularity levels effect the spread of gossip. Asia stops talking to her classmates and only hangs out with Rosalyn over the next few weeks. By the end of the school year Asia has a new crush, Simon, who is a friendly member of "The Untouchables" and she reconciles with her friends Jill and Victoria during graduation.

Although Asia and Tasia McKinley deal with their fair share of ridicule and go through numerous embarrassing social events during their final year at Whitlock Elementary School, they both learn the value of true friendship and support. Additionally they learn that it is important to have good character rather than succumb to the pressures of what it takes to be popular in school. There are moments that are very uncomfortable and sad, but the twins' resilience and their intelligence shine through, making them unlikely heroines and role models for young girls.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

El Deafo by CeCe Bell

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
233 pages

El Deafo is a graphic novel based on author and illustrator Cece Bell's experiences as a child dealing with significant hearing loss. It opens with Cece as a four-year old enjoying her life with her family and her friend Emma until one day she gets extremely sick and is taken to the hospital. She suffers from meningitis and stays in the hospital for a long time to recover. When she gets healthy enough to go home things are different, but she doesn't know what has changed. Soon her parents take her to an audiologist and discover that Cece has lost most of her hearing. The doctor gives her a hearing aid that comes with a pouch and has cords attached to it. The hearing aid helps her, but she has difficulties comprehending words.

Cece goes to a kindergarten class with other deaf children at Fisher school and they learn how to read mouths and take visual cues to help them understand what people are saying. At the end of the summer her family moves away and Cece goes to a new school. She gets a new hearing aid called the Phonic Ear that comes with a microphone her teacher has to wear. She hears her teacher Mrs. Lufton wherever she goes, even when the teacher uses the bathroom, which makes her giggle. She views it as a secret superpower. Cece feels lonely until she becomes friends with Laura. They are best friends in first grade and still friends in second grade, but Cece feels uncomfortable with how bossy Laura is. She doesn't allow Cece to make new friends and tells her what to wear and what to do all the time. On top of that Laura allowed Cece to get bit by her dog and laughed at her. Cece evaluates this friendship and prays they get different teachers in third grade. Cece ends up in a different class and makes a new friend named Ginny. She likes Ginny a lot, but feels like Ginny makes a big deal about her hearing and talks loud and slow to her on purpose. Ginny and Cece have a fallout after Cece yells at Ginny in frustration. They don't talk for a while after that. While Cece is watching television with her older brother and sister Ashley and Laura she sees a character wearing hearing aids just like hers. Someone calls that character "Deafo". When her sister tells her that Cece laughs and decides to call herself "El Deafo" imagining herself in a superhero costume.

Cece is invited to Ginny's sleepover weeks later and Cece is excited to go. There are awkward questions about Cece's deafness at the sleepover initially, but they settle in and have fun. When the guests have fun conversations after the lights are turned off Cece feels left out and asks Ginny's mother to call home. Cece imagines how the sleepover would have went if she were El Deafo. In the beginning of fourth grade a student who knows sign language starts signing to Cece and she is very disturbed, especially after her mother suggests they should learn sign language together. Her mother takes her to sign language classes and Cece hates them. She doesn't want people signaling her out and treating her like she's "special". Cece befriends a third grader named Martha and is relieved that she doesn't appear to know about her hearing problem during a sleepover. But Martha notices that Cece turned off her hearing aids when she started falling asleep and asks her "Did you just turn your hearing aids off on me?" Cece is surprised she knows and Martha tells her that the neighborhood kids told her. Cece decides that Martha can now be her superhero sidekick "True Friend". Over the summer Cece and Martha have lots of fun. New neighbors move in and Cece falls for a boy her age named Mike. Martha talks to him and he says they can use his trampoline. Cece imagines El Deafo hypnotizing Mike into liking her. When Cece and Martha play tag Cece runs into a tree branch and hurts her eye. She starts bleeding and Martha is sick with guilt. Martha avoids her for months after that.

Cece learns that her new teacher is Mrs. Sinklemann and that Mike and Ginny will be in her class. One the first day of school Cece feels weird about giving her teacher the microphone, but she relaxes as she begins to enjoy the class. One day during an exam Cece can't see the words on the board and asks a student next to her to tell her what it says. Mrs. Sinklemann gives her a zero on the test. Cece is distraught when she explains the situation to her mother. On Saturday Cece gets glasses and feels better again. One day in P.E. the teacher drops the microphone and breaks it, leaving Cece without a hearing aid for several weeks. When Cece's dad gives her a cool pencil from a business trip, a mean boy at the bus stop breaks it and makes Cece cry. During school Mike accompanies the mean boy to Cece and makes him say sorry. A new microphone arrives and Cece is genuinely happy when she gives it to Mrs. Sinklemann. Cece and Mike are selected to wear pajamas on stage for a sixth grade presentation. While they are on stage Cece starts laughing and Mike is curious. He asks her what she was laughing about and after some hesitation she reveals that she can hear Mrs. Sinklemann "wherever she is in the entire school building" and she heard her using the bathroom while they were on stage. Mike suggests Cece meet him at his house after school to try something. Cece dreams about their first date on the bus ride home. Mike explains that he'll walk downtown with her microphone to see how powerful it is. As Mike walks away and Cece listens to him other neighborhood kids ask Cece what's going on. When she tells them what she and Mike are doing they are very interested. Cece hears Martha talking with Mike saying that she can't talk to Cece anymore because she hurt her eye.

When Mike and Martha reach Cece, Cece asks Martha to be friends again. Martha is still scared and leaves. Mike suggests that Cece uses her hearing aid to warn the class when Mrs. Sinklemann is returning after quiet math. The class agrees to Mike's plan and they goof off and party after the teacher leaves the room. Mike asks Cece what Mrs. Sinklemann is doing now and Cece tells him she is using the bathroom. The class thinks that's cool and a girl says she wishes she had a hearing aid too. Cece has a moment of clarity: "It's crazy! For so long, I've wished that I could hear like they do. But I have something they don't have---superpowers! And it's actually fun to share them like this!" She warns them that Mrs. Sinklemann is coming back and everyone returns to their seats and pretends they were doing their math work. Ginny asks Cece why she never told her about her powers. Cece says she doesn't know. Ginny then says "Mike told me to tell you that he was right! You're a hero!" Cece confidently thinks "Of course I'm a hero--I am El Deafo!" A month later the students in Mrs. Sinklemann's class make "Warm Fuzzies" for their friends after a guidance counselor's presentation on a book about feelings. During the activity Cece evaluates her recent feelings and starts to accept herself and the Phonic Ear. She even adds a replica of her hearing aids on her fuzzies bag. She gives fuzzies to Mike, Ginny, and even Laura. On the school ride home she gives her favorite fuzzy to Martha who sits next to her on the bus. Cece tells Martha that they should start over and that's she tough. Martha finally agrees to be friends again and Cece finally tells Martha about El Deafo and her sidekick True Friend.

Monday, September 15, 2014

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
232 pages

Madeleine L' Engle's Newberry Medal award-winning children's classic opens with the main character Meg Murry being afraid of a late night thunderstorm in her attic bedroom. She goes downstairs to relieve her anxiety and finds her five-year old prodigy brother Charles Wallace expecting her. He has prepared milk for her and her mother, Mrs. Murry, who comes in shortly afterwards. While they are eating sandwiches their dog Fortinbras growls alerting Mrs. Murry that someone is outside. She lets in a strange old lady named Mrs Whatsit, who Charles Wallace had met earlier. Meg makes Mrs Whatsit a tuna fish sandwich though she is suspicious of her. Mrs Whatsit informs Mrs. Murry that there is such thing as a tesseract.

At school the next day Meg gets upset and snaps at the principal when he asks her questions about her father. She tells Principal Jenkins that her father is coming home and that she'll believe he's not when her mother tells her so. When Meg goes home Charles Wallace takes her to Mrs Whatsit's house. There they see high school student Calvin O'Keefe and Charles Wallace is suspicious of him. After Calvin explains that he is a "biological sport" who felt compelled to be here, Charles Wallace decides it is okay to have him meet Mrs Whatsit. When they go inside the home they meet Mrs Who. She greets them and says it's almost time to get their father, but not yet. Meg and Charles Wallace invite Calvin to eat dinner with them. In the Murry home Calvin feels like he truly belongs for the first time in his life. Meg tells Calvin about her father and the details surrounding his disappearance while working on a top secret project for the government. Charles Wallace interjects and announces it is time for them to go. Mrs Whatsit and Mrs Who suddenly appear and they hear the voice of Mrs Which. Meg feels like she is being yanked away and then she doesn't feel her physical being at all. For a short time she can see nothing and when she feels her body again she hears Calvin and Charles Wallace asking Mrs Which where she is. Meg materializes on a new planet named Uriel, that is "the third planet of the star Malak in the spiral nebula Messier 101."

Mrs Whatsit explains to the children that they can tesser to different planets in the universe. Then she transforms into a white centaur-like creature and flies the children to the top of the mountains in Uriel to show them a dark shadow called The Black Thing that all the universe is fighting against. Mrs Whatsit reveals to Meg and Charles Wallace that their father is beyond the shadow and is fighting it. She flies them back to Mrs Who and Mrs Which and they describe the way they travel  through the fifth dimension called a tesseract. Next the children are tessered to a planet where they meet a being who can see the future named the Happy Medium. She shows the children their homes on Earth. When Meg sees her mother writing a letter to her father and looking unhappy, she becomes angry and demands to go to her father immediately. Mrs Which tessers them to another planet named Camazotz and they appear on a hill covered with trees that is overlooking a town similar to a town on Earth. The three old ladies tell the children that they must continue on their own to find Mr. Murry. Mrs Whatsit tells them they will need help, "but all I am allowed to give you is a little talisman. Calvin, your great gift is your ability to communicate, to communicate with all kinds of people. So for you, I will strengthen this gift. Meg, I give you your faults... Charles Wallace, to you I can give only the resilience of your childhood." Mrs Who gives Meg her spectacles saying "Save them for the final moment of peril" and Mrs Which commands them to go into town together and not to separate. Mrs. Whatsit warns Charles that he is in the most danger in Camazotz because of what he is.

Meg, Charles Wallace, and Calvin walk down into the town and reach rows of houses with children playing in front of each house. They notice something is strange and Charles Wallace points out that all the children are bouncing a ball in the same rhythm at the same exact time. The next moment in each house a woman comes out and calls their children inside and all the kids go inside at the same exact time except one kid who drops his ball. Charles Wallace picks up that ball and knocks on the door of the child's house. The mother opens the door and tells Charles Wallace that her child did not drop the ball and that there hasn't been an "Aberration" in three years. She slams the door in his face after saying he has no papers to come in. Meg, Charles Wallace, and Calvin continue on and reach a city area with buildings. They see a newspaper boy who is throwing the papers in a robotic fashion. They ask him where they can find out information and the newspaper boy tells them to go to CENTRAL Central Intelligence. The children go to this large building and decide that although it is dangerous they must go inside to find Mr. Murry. A worker inside the CENTRAL Central Intelligence building is astonished by their lack of information and inappropriate questions. He reports them to IT, a mysterious boss-like figure residents of Camazotz seem to fear. The children then walk into a room where there are a lot of machines and reach the end where they see a revolting man with red eyes sitting on a chair on a platform. The man does not open his mouth to speak to them, instead he talks to the children inside their minds.

Charles Wallace is furious with the red eyed man because he is unable to read the man telepathically like he can with most beings. The red eyed man challenges Charles Wallace to look into his eyes and be drawn in to find out who he is. Meg protests and tries to prevent Charles Wallace from being hypnotized, but Charles Wallace insists and succumbs to the power of IT that the red eyed man is possessed by. Charles Wallace then transforms into a brain washed citizen of Camazotz and tells Meg and Calvin that they would be happier and at peace if they submitted to IT as well. Charles Wallace takes them to Mr. Murry's location in another part of the building. They are led to a cell where Mr. Murry is trapped inside of a transparent column. Meg argues with Charles Wallace and then rescues her father by putting on Mrs Who's spectacles. She runs through the column her father is in and wakes him out of his stupor. He rejoices that his daughter there, but remarks that he is trapped. Meg places Mrs Who's spectacles on her father and he leaves the column with her. Charles Wallace orders Meg, Calvin, and Mr. Murry to follow him to IT. Charles Wallace refuses to acknowledge Mr. Murry as his father as they go to a "strange, domelike building." The group meets IT, which turns out to be a large, disembodied brain. IT tries to control their breathing, feelings, and thinking. As IT tries to take Meg and Calvin in, they fight against him. Mr. Murry then tessers them away when Meg is about to be consumed. Meg is paralyzed and feels frozen when she regains consciousness.

She hears her father telling Calvin that he was about to give in to IT when they came to rescue him. He talks about how he came to Camazotz. Meg starts speaking and is angry at her dad for leaving Charles Wallace behind. Suddenly three tall, eyeless creatures with four arms and tentacles for fingers approach. Calvin, Mr. Murry and Meg are frightened, but the creatures speak to them and say they will help Meg recover from being tessered through the Black Thing. One of the creatures picks Meg up and takes her away to heal her. Meg and the creature form a bond overnight and Meg affectionately calls her Aunt Beast. In the morning Aunt Beast takes Meg to a breakfast table where her father and Calvin are discussing how they can get Charles Wallace back. Meg displays anger towards her father as she tries to explain to the creatures who Mrs Whatsit, Mrs Who, and Mrs Which are. As she tries to describe them, the three old ladies appear to speak with Meg, Calvin, and Mr. Murry. They inform Meg that she alone must return to Camazotz to save Charles Wallace. Calvin and Mr. Murry protest, but Meg accepts the task, knowing she is the only one with a strong enough bond to rescue her little brother from IT.

Mrs Whatsit gives Meg her love, Mrs Who quotes a Bible passage and Mrs Which tessers Meg to Camazotz and tells Meg that she has something that IT doesn't have and that is her only weapon. Meg wonders what she has that IT does not have as she walks straight to the building where IT has Charles Wallace under a spell. IT tries to manipulate Meg through Charles Wallace by lying, but when Charles Wallace says that Mrs Whatsit hates you, Meg realizes that she has love and IT does not. She tells Charles Wallace that she loves him repeatedly until Charles Wallace breaks free from IT and runs to Meg and hugs her tightly. They instantly tesser back to Earth where they appear in their twin brothers' vegetable garden still hugging. Mr. Murry and Calvin are there too. The twins and Mrs. Murry are outside walking towards them and run to Mr. Murry when they see him. The family shares a joyful group hug as Calvin smiles at the reunion. Meg looks at Calvin and pulls him into the hug too. Mrs Whatsit, Mrs Who, and Mrs Which appear and tell Meg they don't have time to say goodbye properly because they have something to do.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Miss Daisy is Crazy! by Dan Gutman

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
84 pages

The first book in Dan Gutman's My Weird School Series is Miss Daisy is Crazy. The main character bluntly introduces himself on the first day of school "My name is A.J. I like football and video games, and I hate school." He humorously elaborates "I have learned a lot in my eight years. One thing I learned is that there is no reason why kids should have to go to school. If you ask me, kids can learn all we need to learn by watching tv." A.J.'s attitude toward school is not surprising, however the students in Miss Daisy's class are completely surprised when Miss Daisy responds to A.J. "You know what A.J.? I hate school too." From then on Miss Daisy talks to her students in a way they don't expect and reveals very strange information about herself, including the fact that she can't read, write or do arithmetic.

During lunch time the students speculate that Miss Daisy might not be a real teacher after all because teachers are supposed to know how to read, write and do math. They then decide not to tell anyone the truth about Miss Daisy because they enjoy how weird she is and want her to stay as their teacher. One day Miss Daisy brings her favorite treat bonbons to class and uses the bonbons for the students to help her learn how to do math. When Miss Daisy suddenly incorporates math problems into a discussion about football A.J. interrupts saying "Wait a minute, I thought you told us we were finished with arithmetic." She tells A.J. that they were only talking about football. "Well, okay. Just as long as you weren't trying to sneak arithmetic into our conversation about football." A.J. responded. Then Miss Daisy asks "Would I do that?" and winks at A.J.

After Miss Daisy tells the class that she doesn't know who the first President of the United States is A.J. begins to suspect that his teacher is pretending not to know information. One day A.J. observes that Miss Daisy seems to be reading a paper and he shouts "Hey you're reading!" Miss Daisy denies it, and A.J. shrugs it off. He concludes that if Miss Daisy doesn't know anything then he and his classmates will just have to keep teaching her by working really hard together until the end of the school year. Of course Miss Daisy's plan all along was to get her students interested in their school work, particularly kids like A.J.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Pete the Cat: I Love My White Shoes by Eric Litwin and James Dean

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
40 pages

Pete the Cat: I Love My White Shoes is a joyful and encouraging story with a lovely lesson for children and adults. Pete the Cat is excited because he has brand new white shoes. He's so happy that he sings a song "I love my white shoes, I love my white shoes" as he's walking down the street. But when he accidently steps into a huge pile of strawberries his shoes turn red. Pete the Cat doesn't cry at all, he keeps on walking and singing. He sings "I love my red shoes, I love my red shoes."

Pete the Cate continues walking and singing until he accidently steps in a large pile of blueberries. Pete doesn't cry, he just keeps singing "I love my blue shoes, I love my blue shoes." He sings this until he steps into a big puddle of mud. Pete is still happy and still sings even though his new shoes are now covered with mud. He sings "I love my brown shoes, I love my brown shoes."

Pete the Cat is singing his song until he accidently steps into a large bucket of water. All the red from the strawberries, the blue from the blueberries, and the brown from the mud have washed away and his shoes are white again. But they're wet. Pete the Cat doesn't cry, he just keeps walking along and sings "I love my wet shoes, I love my wet shoes." The lesson that everyone can learn from Pete the Cat's love for his white shoes is that "No matter what you step in, keep on walking along and singing your song because it's all good."

Thursday, June 12, 2014

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars313 pages

John Green's sixth novel The Fault in Our Stars is a sad, funny, hopeful, and charming love story between two teenagers who have been diagnosed with terminal cancer. Hazel Lancaster is 16 years old with thyroid cancer and Augustus Waters is 17 years old who has osteosarcoma. When the novel begins Hazel's mother forces Hazel to go to Support Group because she's worried her daughter is suffering from depression. Hazel wears a cannula and carries around an oxygen tank she calls Phillip to support her weak lungs. Hazel comments that depression is a side effect of dying. She reluctantly goes to Support Group after she gets to record the next episodes of an America's Next Top Model marathon. When Hazel arrives at the church where the Support Group for cancer-stricken youth gather she is immediately annoyed by the leader Paul who always opens a meeting with his testimony about surviving testicular cancer. She sighs with her friend Isaac about the routine of the meetings.
Hazel does not expect to meet anyone new and is surprised to see a good-looking boy staring at her. After he keeps staring at her for awhile she stares back at him and he finally looks away. The cute boy introduces himself as Augustus Waters and says he's been cancer free for over a year after a battle with osteosarcoma that led to his right leg being amputated. He tells the group that he fears oblivion and a normally reticent Hazel speaks up saying "There was time before organisms experienced consciousness, and there will be time after. And if the inevitability of human oblivion worries you, I encourage you to ignore it. God knows that’s what everyone else does.” Augustus is impressed and smiles brightly at Hazel. Isaac talks about his upcoming surgery that will remove his remaining eye due to a rare care. When Support Group ends Hazel and Augustus observe Isaac and his girlfriend Monica making out. Hazel feels charmed by Augustus until he pulls a cigarette out. She gets angry, but he explains “It's a metaphor, see: You put the killing thing right between your teeth, but you don't give it the power to do its killing.” Hazel accepts his offer to see V for Vendetta at his house. Hazel meets Gus's parents and they watch the movie. Hazel tells Gus about her favorite book An Imperial Affliction and he gives her his favorite book The Price of Dawn. He wants to see her again, but she says she'll call him after she finishes reading his book. Hazel likes him, but she's scared that she's going to hurt him. Augustus reads An Imperial Affliction and is completely frustrated with its ending or lack thereof. Hazel explains that she's been trying to contact the author Peter Van Houten for years and never got a response. After Isaac gets his eye surgery he is extremely distraught over his girlfriend dumping him when Hazel visits him in the hospital and even when he's released. Augustus reveals that he's been able to correspond with the elusive Peter Van Houten through his assistant Lidewij Vliegenthart. As the days pass Hazel finds herself falling in love with Augustus despite feeling like a "grenade." These worries lead her to briefly obsess over Gus's last girlfriend who died from a brain tumor.
Hazel has an emergency medical trip and stays in the Intensive Care Unit for several days. She keeps her distance physically and tells Gus they can't kiss. During a meticulously planned picnic Augustus takes Hazel to a museum park and announces that he's been granted his wish from the Genies to take them to Amsterdam to meet Van Houten. Despite initial pushback from Hazel's doctors, the trip gets approved. When Hazel and her mother arrive to pick up Gus they hear him sobbing and screaming to his parents that it's his life and he can do what he wants. On their plane ride to Amsterdam Gus confesses his love for Hazel with a grand speech: "I'm in love with you, and I'm not in the business of denying myself the simple pleasure of saying true things. I'm in love with you, and I know that love is just a shout into the void, and that oblivion is inevitable, and that we're all doomed and that there will come a day when all our labor has been returned to dust, and I know the sun will swallow the only earth we'll ever have, and I am in love with you.” In Amsterdam Hazel and Gus are treated to a fancy dinner facing the canal by Van Houten. They drink champagne and eat the best food they've ever had. The next day they go to visit Peter Van Houten. He is surprised by their appearance and yells at his assistant to get rid of them. Lidewij invites them in and they learn that Van Houten never wanted them to come and that he's a raging alcoholic. He says cruel things about Hazel's cancer and doesn't answer any of her questions about his book despite Hazel shouting at him. Gus takes Hazel's hand and they leave abruptly. Lidewij quits her job and runs after them. She tells them she's sorry about his behavior and that she arranged the whole visit hoping that it would help Van Houten come out of his drunken stupor. Lidewij takes them to the Anne Frank House. Hazel and Gus passionately kiss when they get to the top floor. They go back to Gus's hotel room and make love for the first time. They spend the next day together sight-seeing, but before they leave Hazel's mother tells Gus they need time to talk. Gus then confesses to Hazel that while she was in the ICU he got a PET scan and his cancer recurred nearly everywhere in his body.
Hazel spends every day with Gus as his body deteriorates. Gus's charming personality is badly affected after a hospital stay where he has to start using a wheelchair. In the middle of one night he calls her and tells her he is at a gas station and can't reinsert his G-tube. Hazel sneaks out and meets him. He vomits and starts sobbing and saying he hates himself and his life. She holds his face and comforts him by mentioning the movie they watched together on their plane ride to Amsterdam. A few days later Gus calls Hazel for an emergency Support Group session and tells her to write a eulogy for him. Hazel's mom and dad want her to stay home because she's spent too much time with Gus lately. She yells that Gus asked her to write him a eulogy and that she would be home every day very soon. At the Support Group only Gus and Isaac are there. Isaac reads his eulogy for Gus and pokes fun at his conceited and talkative nature, then closes with "When the scientists of the future show up at my house with robot eyes and they tell me to try them on, I will tell the scientists to screw off, because I do not want to see a world without him." Hazel goes up and reads her eulogy. She tries her best to maintain her composure as she reads about their love story: "I can't talk about our love story, so I will talk about math. I am not a mathematician, but I know this: There are infinite numbers between 0 and 1. There's .1 and .12 and .112 and infinite collection of others. Of course, there is a Bigger infinite set of numbers between 0 and 2, or between 0 and a million. Some infinities are bigger than other infinities. A writer we used to like taught us that. There are days, many of them, when I resent the size of my unbounded set. I want more numbers than I'm likely to get, and God, I want more numbers for Augustus Waters than he got. But, Gus, my love, I cannot tell you how thankful I am for our little infinity. I wouldn't trade it for the world. You gave me a forever within the numbered days, and I'm grateful.” 
Augustus dies in the hospital eight days after his pre-funeral. At his real funeral Hazel puts a pack of cigarettes in his casket and kisses him on the cheek. She is shocked to see Van Houten has attended. He tells her that Gus corresponded with him after their trip and told him the only way he'd make up for ruining their visit is by attending his funeral and writing a eulogy for Hazel. At this point Hazel is over Van Houten and calls him a pathetic drunk after Gus's funeral. A week later Hazel goes to Isaac's house and they play a video game that Gus loved. Isaac mentions that Gus was writing something for Hazel, an epilogue to the book she liked. Hazel frantically tries to find out where Gus may have left his writing and visits his house to search his bedroom. She finds nothing, but after a conversation with her friend Kaitlyn she realizes he must have sent it to Van Houten. She contacts Lidewij who returns to Van Houten's place with her boyfriend to retrieve Gus's last letter. She scans the letter and emails it to Hazel, telling her she is mailing it out. Hazel reads the letter where Gus asks Van Houten to add to his eulogy for Hazel or edit it. The letter closes with Gus affirming his love for Hazel and not regretting their time together: “What else? She is so beautiful. You don’t get tired of looking at her. You never worry if she is smarter than you: You know she is. She is funny without ever being mean. I love her. I am so lucky to love her, Van Houten. You don’t get to choose if you get hurt in this world, old man, but you do have some say in who hurts you. I like my choices. I hope she likes hers." Hazel tells Augustus that she likes her choices too.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

The Chronicles of Harris Burdick by Chris Van Allsburg

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars
192 pages

The Chronicles of Harris Burdick is a re-release of Chris Van Allsburg's 1984 picture book The Mysteries of Harris Burdick, but this time there are short stories written with the fourteen illustrations and captions. The fourteen stories are written by a distinguished variety of award-winning children's authors and illustrators, including Kate DiCamillo, Louis Sachar, Jon Scieszka, Stephen King, Walter Dean Myers, and Chris Van Allsburg. The famous authors wrote stories for the pictures and captions that the elusive Harris Burdick never returned to give the publisher so many years ago.

The short story collection opens with the story "Archie Smith, Boy Wonder" with the caption "A tiny voice asked, 'Is he the one?'" Tabitha King's interpretation of this picture is bizarre and confusing. Archie Smith is a baseball player who has an unspecified disability. After he plays a baseball game and goes to bed one night he hears two tiny voices discussing his unique personality. It's unclear whether he is imagining this or if they are real. Archie listens to a baseball game down the street and envisions the baseball sailing over the moon and landing in the bushes. He plans to find the ball the next day. There is an abrupt ending that may leave the reader wondering what the point of the story is.

The second story "Under the Rug" by Jon Scieszka has the caption "Two weeks later and it happened again." The story is funny and slightly creepy. The main character feeds a dust monster under the rug in his living room until it gets too big for him to feed it nonliving trash from his house. Unfortunately it is implied that he was going to feed his wise grandmother to the dust monster at the end, which is ironic given that he decided to do so by finally following her oft-given advice.

The third story "A Strange Day in July" by Sherman Alexie uses the caption "He threw with all his might, but the third stone came skipping back" in a haunting manner. The story features mischievous twins Timmy and Tina who play cruel tricks on strangers, their parents, their teacher, and their classmates. When they decide to walk around with an empty shirt to pretend they have a triplet named Mary Elizabeth, a frightening turn of events at the end of the school day appears to be paranormal punishment for their wicked behavior. The end of the story might disturb some readers.

The fourth story "Missing in Venice" by Gregory Maguire is probably the oddest story in this book. The caption for the illustration, that is also used on the book's cover, "Even with her mighty engines in reverse, the steam liner was pulled further and further into the canal", is cleverly embedded in a weird tale of a boy named Linus who is fed up with his na├»ve stepmother and purposefully strays away from her to get lost. He meets a strange old woman who has witch-like powers and owns a magic ring. Linus steals her ring and must face the consequences of this decision. He inadvertently serves justice to the lawyer who stole the jewels left by his father, and may have become the old woman's apprentice by the story's end.

The fifth story "Another Place, Another Time" by Cory Doctorow is a sad, but hopeful story featuring the caption "If there was an answer, he'd find it there." A young boy named Gilbert is devastated by the sudden loss of is father and sets out on a journey across the ocean on an abandoned rail car in search of the "infinite sideways" he discussed with his friends. Gilbert believes there is a way that people can manipulate time, which he calls a "tyrant." One summer day while traveling on the rail car he reaches a destination that has an alternate reality that might be exactly what he is looking for.

The sixth story "Uninvited Guests" by Jules Fieffer is a suspenseful and engaging interpretation of the caption "His heart was pounding. He was sure he had seen the doorknob turn." The main character is an author and illustrator completely obsessed with his work and sees two characters from his books in his house one day. They lead him to the basement while his house is on fire and he tries to process what is happening to him. Its up to the readers to determine whether the author is hallucinating or not.

The seventh story "The Harp" by Linda Sue Park is a magical and captivating story about an old magician who wants to do one last good deed before retiring. He casts a spell on two sisters named Emma and Frances. Frances turns into a frog and must learn to play a harp in the woods that will achieve a line in William Congreves' quote "Music hath charms to soothe the savage breast / To soften rocks, or bend a knotted oak" or they will remain enchanted. The sisters, who bickered often, learned to work together and soon were able to play songs on the harp together. They break the spell with a young boy named Brian who is mourning the loss of his mother. Brian hears music in the woods and the caption "So it's true he thought, it's really true" is well integrated in the rising action of the tale. There is a lovely twist at the end of the story.

The eighth story "Mr. Linden's Library" by Walter Dean Meyers unimaginatively executes the storyline and caption "He had warned her about the book. Now it was too late." A girl named Carol is curious about a retired merchant seaman named Mr. Linden who spends most of his time reading in his library at home. She notices during a visit to his house that he keeps reading the same page of the same book every time she sees him. When Mr. Linden tells her that some books are not worth reading, Carol sneaks to read his book and finds out that it continues with a new ending each time she reads it. After Mr. Linden passes away Carol realizes that she is never going to be able to stop reading the book Mr. Linden couldn't stop reading.

The ninth story, "The Seven Chairs" by Lois Lowry is a brilliant and profound narrative that pays homage to the power of womanhood. Lowry uses the caption "The fifth one ended up in France" to perfection. The story's exposition of the main character Mary Katherine and her life's journey following her ability to levitate is fascinating and a poignant lesson on identity. The chairs that Mary Elizabeth can levitate with are symbolism of the greater things people have to offer in this world.

The tenth story "The Third-Floor Bedroom" by Kate DiCamillo is written in letter format, a unique style in this book. The caption "It all began when someone left the window open" is haphazardly placed in the tale by the main character Pearlie. Pearlie is battling a sickness that confines her to bed and she writes letters to her brother in the meantime. Her relationship with her aunt improves during this time and Pearle's view of the world changes as she looks at her surroundings in this challenging period of her life.

The eleventh story "Just Desert" by M.T. Anderson is a chilling science-fiction story reminiscent of The Matrix trilogy.  Anderson's interpretation of the caption "She lowered the knife and it grew even brighter" and it's accompanying illustration is far beyond what the reader might expect. A boy named Alex Lee is shocked to discover a few days before his birthday that he is the only real human being in the world and that his life is carefully constructed. His mother always told him not to go past Lunt Street, but when he does by mistake he sees a strange white space on the horizon and eerily vacant houses. He returns to Lunt Street the next day and his suspicions are confirmed when a gas station appears before his eyes while he is in the middle of the road with his bike. When he goes home his family tells him the truth and his mom says his memory will have to be erased again.

The twelfth story "Captain Tory" by Louis Sachar is very charming. A ghost named Captain Tory who is several hundred years old makes routine visits to a donut shop every morning before it opens. A boy named Paul observes Captain Tory through his window at the same time doing the same thing every day. One day Paul is worried when Captain Tory doesn't show up and then gets excited when he sees Captain Tory knocking on his mother's shop door below. Captain Tory asks for lantern fuel and this becomes his new routine. Paul is invited to see Captain Tory leave on his ghost ship one day and the caption "He swung his lantern three times and slowly the schooner appeared" is introduced just as Paul invites Captain Tory to stay with him and his mom. Captain Tory considers this and tells Paul he has to go, but eventually Captain Tory comes to live with Paul and his mother.

The thirteenth story "Oscar and Alphonse" by Chris Van Allsburg adeptly uses the illustration and the caption "She knew it was time to send them back. The caterpillars softly wiggled in her hand, spelling out 'goodbye.'" Alice is the daughter of a family of physicists who are fixated on solving the inscrutable Farkas Conjecture. Her father encouraged her to become a scientist to join him and her brothers in their passion, but Alice preferred to relax with nature. One morning Alice finds two caterpillars floating down a river on a leaf and rescues them. They spell out "thank you" on the rock she places them on. Alice converses with them and tells them she will protect them until they turn into cocoons. She names them Oscar and Alphonse and places them in a jar. Alice goes into her father's work room and the caterpillars tell her they know the answer to the Farkas Conjecture. They start shaping out the answer and Alice transcribes it. Oscar and Alphonse soon tire and tell her they will finish after they rest. When Alice's father and brothers find the paper Alice wrote the portion of the answer on they are amazed and exhilarated. Alice tells them that the caterpillars told her and they were too tired to finish. Her father permits Alice to finish the answer tomorrow. The next day the caterpillars are ready to be cocoons and Alice lets them go back outside without finishing the Farkas Conjecture.

The fourteenth story "The House on Maple Street" by Stephen King has the interesting caption, "It was perfect lift-off", with a suspenseful story centered around an odd discovery by the Bradbury children in their home. They are perturbed by a crack in a wall upstairs near their stepfather's office that reveals metal. Soon the children surreptitiously find metal is growing all throughout the house. The eldest Trent figures out from seeing a timer in the cellar that the house is turning into a rocket. Trent and the oldest sister use this information to plan an escape for their mother and siblings from their tyrannical stepfather. On the day the rocket is scheduled to take off Trent locks his stepfather in the house and watches on the sidewalk as the house lifts off into space with his brother and sisters.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made by Stephen Pastis

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
294 pages

Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made by Stephen Pastis is the hilarious story of a young detective attempting to solve crimes while facing his so called arch nemesis, sneaking behind his mother's back, pandering to his polar bear partner, and avoiding retention at school. Timmy Failure opens with the funniest line ever: "It's harder to drive a polar bear into somebody's living room than you think." From there on Timmy Failure never ceases to make the reader smile with his over-the-top confidence, his lack of awareness and single-minded determination to defame the character of his competition, Corrina Corrina aka the "Weevil Bun."

 Timmy Failure explains that his last name was once Fayleure, but it was changed to Failure. He insists that he is not a failure--in fact he's the best detective in town or "perhaps the nation." He is the founder and CEO of his own detective company, Failure Inc. Despite his office being in his mother's closet and the fact that he hasn't correctly solved any of his cases (though he believes he did), Timmy knows he's going to have a multi-billion dollar detective corporation one day. Timmy's blind confidence rubs off on the reader even though his first case involving stolen candy is botched in a matter of seconds when Timmy concludes that the obvious culprit has an alibi. Timmy writes short detective notes that will make you laugh out loud and shake your head, such as "Work of Monkeys?" and "TP...Tiny People?" when he's called to investigate a home that was trashed with toilet paper.

The best part about Timmy Failure is his commitment to his company and his business partner Total, a lazy and understandably not very cooperative polar bear. Timmy faces severe punishment when he loses his mother's beloved Segway, yet he comes up with a plan to get it back before his mother finds out it is missing. His initial plan involves his academically gifted best friend Rollo Tookus, but after Rollo spends the night inside a bank safe Timmy moves on to another haphazard scheme. He recruits Molly Maskins, a tangerine smelling classmate, to put on a fake play where the Segway is supposed to be a part of the show. Molly becomes a nuisance when she takes advantage of Timmy's distress by making incessant romantic overtures. When Timmy's mother finds out that the play is fraudulent and that Timmy is failing in school, she shuts down his company and forces his to stay home and do his school work instead of doing what he loves. Timmy also loses his business partner when Total is suddenly shipped to the local zoo.

The ensuing events include Timmy confiscating Corrina Corrina's journal to collect "evidence" to prove that she's stolen his mom's Segway, a botched attempt to free Total from the zoo, and Timmy driving a car into his teacher's living room. Everything appears to be a disaster, but Timmy ends up getting his company and his polar bear back and improving his grades at school. By the end of the novel Timmy solves all his cases by alleging that Molly Maskins was responsible for the crimes. Timmy's logic makes perfect sense if you understand the workings of his unique, oddly brilliant mind. The first Timmy Failure novel is a pure comical delight and the best children's book released in years.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

When Marian Sang: The True Recital of Marian Anderson by Pam Munoz Ryan

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
40 pages

When Marian Sang is the beautiful, inspiring true story of singing icon Marian Anderson and her work that inspired millions around the world and broke crucial racial barriers in the 20th century. Marian loved to sing since she was a little girl and impressed the choir director at Union Baptist Church before she was eight years old. Soon Marian was performing in front of many audiences among the black church community in Philadelphia who were in awe of her brilliant contralto.

Marian wanted to go to music school to hone her singing talent. When she was eighteen years old she went to a music school to fill out an application, but the white girl at the counter told her that they don't take colored people. This was heartbreaking for Marian, but continued to sing and traveled around the U.S. to perform. Many times Marian had to sing twice to separate audiences, one black and one white. Marian faced many prejudices, but she still continued to pursue her passion. Her breakthrough came when she auditioned for famous music teacher Giuseppe Boghetti. Initially he told her that he didn't take new students, but when he heard her sing he decided to work with her. He said he'd only need to work with her two years and then she'd be able to sing anywhere. Marian's community helped her raise money for the lessons and soon she learned to sing songs in different languages, including singing Italian opera scenes with Mr. Boghetti.

Marian wanted to learn more about the languages she sang in her lessons and decided to travel to Europe to broaden her horizons and break free from the limitations of black people in the U.S. She went overseas in 1927 and was invited to perform in numerous countries in Europe including Sweden, Denmark, Finland, France, England and Norway. Marian's voice was greatly praised wherever she went. Marian returned to America as a world-renowned singer. However she had to face the realities of the race problem in her country when she was unable to book a concert at Constitution Hall because of a "white performers only" policy. Marian continued to face rejections for her performances due to the color of her skin until President Franklin approved of Marian's invitation to sing at the Lincoln Memorial on Easter Sunday. Marian sang in front of an integrated audience of 75,000 people at the Lincoln Memorial and made history. The audience cheered for her and wanted to her hear sing more after she performed several songs.

Afterwards Marian continued to sing around the world for famous politicians, kings, composers, and musicians. She was a beacon of light for her segregated country. The only dream Marian had not fulfilled was her dream to sing at the Metropolitan Opera. No black person had ever sung there. One day Marian received her invitation. She was nervous, but her voice was strong. Marian opened her mouth to sing on stage and made history once again. Marian's life is a testament to the power of humility and resilience. The transformative ability of her amazing voice to unite people of all colors and backgrounds torn a part by prejudices makes When Marian Sang a profoundly inspirational story.