Sunday, June 22, 2014

Game, by Barry Lyga

Title:  Game
Author: Barry Lyga
Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Year: 2013
Pages: 520
Genre:  Thriller
Themes:  Serial Killers, Family, Identity
Age Range: 10th Grade and Up

Game is the second book in a series about a boy named Jasper Dent.  In the first book, I Hunt Killers, we discover that Jasper's father, Billy Dent, is a notorious serial killer.  Jasper lives in the small town where he grew up with his horrible, racist grandmother, who is suffering from dementia.  In the first book, a copycat killer draws Jasper out, and he makes it his life's mission to capture serial killers, all the while questioning whether his unusual (read: crazy) upbringing by his murderous father made him a sociopath.  In the second book, Jasper's hunt for killers continues when he is approached by a New York City detective trying to catch a serial killer called Hat-Dog, because of the distinctive marks he leaves on his victims.  Jasper agrees to help the detective in an effort to prove that he is not capable of the horrendous acts his father trained him for.  In the process, he discovers that his father, who escaped from prison at the end of the first book, may be involved.

As an avid reader of thrillers, I am very much enjoying this series.  The premise is unique-in all of the thrillers that I have read over the years, I have never come across one where the main character is the child of a serial killer, nor one where the main character is a teenager.  That said, I must admit to being baffled as to why this book is published as a YA novel at all.  Lyga does not pull any punches when it comes to describing the terrible acts committed by his villains.  Jasper's character is undergoing one of the most unusual coming-of-age narratives ever described in fiction, but I don't really think that is enough to justify marketing this as a book for young adults.

Not to say that mature readers in their teens won't enjoy this series, especially if they are as fascinated by serial killers and their capacity to do violence as many adult readers.  But this book being placed in the YA category means it will be marketed to tweens and teens alike, and I'm just not sure that it fits in that category. Anyone who reads this blog regularly knows that I am not squeamish about violence in books for younger readers, nor do I generally shy away from books with controversial topics that some other adults may think are inappropriate for readers of a certain age. My general feeling is that kids and teens will self-select when it comes to reading.  If something they pick up is more mature than they are ready for, usually they either don't understand it or put it down as uninteresting to them.  But I think that this book really belongs with the other thrillers in the regular fiction section of the store.  Adult readers of thrillers will certainly enjoy it, and mature teenage readers who are transitioning to that section will find it, but younger readers aren't as likely to come across it.

The story itself is fast-paced, and Lyga spends more time developing the characters of Jasper's girlfriend and best friend, both of whom play major roles in the plot line.  Like many middle books in a series, it opens up more questions than it answers, though there is a resolution to the Hat-Dog business.  The ending is very much a cliff-hanger, and since the third book in the series doesn't come out until this fall, if you are an impatient reader you may want to wait to start the whole series.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Fortunately the Milk, by Neil Gaiman

Title:  Fortunately the Milk
Author:  Neil Gaiman
Publisher: Harper Collins
Year:  2013
Pages: 114
Genre:  Fantasy/Science Fiction
Themes:  Time Travel, Imagination
Age Range:  3rd-6th Grade

One day, when Mother has left Father in charge of the children, there is no milk for the cereal.  Father goes off to the market to purchase some, and comes back some hours later with the most fantastical tale of time travel.  Fortunately, the milk helped him get out of some pretty serious scrapes.  He was kidnapped by aliens, forced to walk the plank by pirates, and rescued by a stegosaurus in a hot air balloon.  The children aren't sure what to make of this story-was their dad really abducted by aliens, or is this convoluted story made up just to excuse their father's tardiness?

Followers of this blog, and my adult book blog Book Addict Reviews, will know that I have a bit of hero worship going on when it comes to Neil Gaiman.  He is one of those people that makes me wish that science had the ability to transport us into another person's mind to live for a day, just to see what makes them tick. Of course, that's what writers use words for, to present their unique perspective and voice, and Gaiman gives us a pretty clear view into his imagination with Fortunately, the Milk.

According to Publisher's Weekly, Gaiman wrote this book as a counterpoint to the father in the book The Day I Swapped my Dad for Two Goldfish (my review here), in which the father is basically a passive lump to whom things happen, rather than an active participant in the story.  Gaiman wanted to write a story in which the father did the sort of heroic things that fathers wish they could do, with a healthy does of humor thrown in.  The book is quite short, especially when you factor in the illustrations on each page, but Gaiman fits in lots and lots of action.  It is essentially non-stop, with aliens and dinosaurs and pirates and all manner of silliness.  In fact, that silliness highlights one of the things that I love about Gaiman's writing.  How is it possible that the same man who wrote the very dark story Ocean and the End of the Lane could be the man who wrote Fortunately, the Milk?  Because he is mad versatile, that's how!

I would definitely say this book would make an excellent addition to any classroom library, and it could also be used as a read aloud or for guided reading.  There is not a ton of character development, but it is science fiction that does NOT include a superhero, which can be hard to find for this age range.  The time travel creates a narrative structure that is linear, sort of, but could lead to interesting discussions with students about time and the way we perceive it.  And as a mentor text for writing it could work great-students could choose an errand or chore they were supposed to do, and come up with a fantastical story for how or why it did or did not get accomplished.

Teacher Resources
Harper Collins Discussion Guide
Brightbulb STEM Activities for Fortunately, the Milk

Monday, June 2, 2014

Bashful Bob and Doleful Dorinda, by Margaret Atwood

Title:  Bashful Bob and Doleful Dorinda
Author:  Margaret Atwood
Illustrator: Dusan Petricic
Publisher:  Bloomsbury Publishing
Year: 2007
Genre:  Fantasy
Themes:  Alliteration, Friendship, Family
Age Range:  2nd through 5th Grade

Bob was abandoned by his mother and raised by a pack of dogs. Dorinda is an orphan being taken care of (in Cinderella like fashion) by distant relatives.  Bob is bashful, Dorinda is sad and lonely.  When Donrinda decides to run away, she encounters Bob living in the bushes on a vacant block with his canine companions.  Dorinda and Bob become fast friends, with Dorinda teaching Bob how to talk and behave in public.  When a rampaging buffalo threatens the town, Dorinda and Bob's quick thinking make them celebrities.  When Dorinda's long lost parents show up, and Bob's mother has a change of heart, they each get the one thing they were lacking-a home to call their own, with people who love them.

You may know Margaret Atwood from her many novels for adults.  She is a master of speculative fiction, demonstrated most notably in her books The Handmaid's Tale and Oryx and Crake.  She has written many feminist novels, and several volumes of poetry.  I've admired her work for a long time, and like many consider her one of the most important literary voices of the 20th and 21st centuries.  So imagine my delight to find that she has written books for children!  Atwood brings all of her prodigious alacrity with language to this charming story about a bashful boy and doleful girl.

The story reads in style very much like something written by Roald Dahl, taking on rather morose subjects with a sense of whimsy and sly humor.  But what truly makes this book unique, and perfect for classroom use, if that it is written in alliteration.  The first couple of lines gives you a sense of what's to come,

 "When Bob was a baby, he was abandoned in a basket, beside a beauty parlor.  His bubbleheaded mom, a brunette, had become a blonde in the beauty parlor, and was so blinded by her burnished brilliance that baby Bob was blotted from her brain."

The entire book reads this way, with B themed sentences for Bob and D themed sentences for Dorinda.  Despite this device, the story is not at all simplistic.  As you can see from the above sample, the vocabulary is very high level, and most of the sentences flow perfectly well, despite the challenges of finding alliterative phrases that express exactly what Atwood wants to say.  Teachers in my school have used this book, and another of Atwood's that I will review later, to teach alliteration, and to discuss how to find word meanings from context clues.

Speaking of context, the illustrations by Dusan Petricic  go perfectly with the text, and provide students with some clues as to the meaning of the often long, convoluted sentences Atwood wrote.  This is not a text I would hand students to read on their own unless they were pretty mature readers, but as a read aloud this book has lots to offer.