Stupid Fast (Book Review)

Stupid Fast (Book Review)

Over the course of one fateful summer, a high school kid figures out that he loves to run, and that he is able to do it incredibly well. He is more than fast. As the title suggests, he is Stupid Fast.

Despite his best friend having to leave for the summer, he conveniently begins dating the new girl in town, who just happens to have rented the house where his best friend used to live, and doesn’t seem to mind as our protagonist creeps on her through the window and door while she practices piano in the early morning, which he is able to see while on his disliked paper route.

When others in town begin to notice his impressive speed, he defies logic of his socially meaningless position in the high school hierarchy, and begins to mesh with the football players, working the weight room with them, running routes with the school QB, and building his endurance by running up the menacing town hill.

All the while, he is forced to lament the death of his father, who committed suicide when he was just a kid, his increasingly erratic brother, and his mother, who is slipping into a terrible mental state herself, destroying her family along the way.

fast2It is a lot to deal with for a teenager, and he does it the only way he knows how: by running.

There are some good things and bad things about Stupid Fast. The author attempts to write with constant humour, and while it does give the book a more lighthearted viewpoint, the humour often falls flat, and he does not manage to make the narrator’s voice as entertaining or funny as other YA authors, such as John Green, who has become the master of having his characters make light of serious situations. This failure to develop scenes that are different and fun makes the voice of the narrator kind of annoying, particularly near the beginning of the novel.

While the story definitely takes its time to get going, forcing readers to get through about the first hundred pages or so before anything of real significance begins to happen, it does become more entertaining once the repetitive nature of the first act is over with. Once you get past this, it does become a much quicker, and fun read. There are events that happen in much more rapid succession, and it makes me wish that this pace had been established at the beginning.

For the ending, without giving anything away, it ends too easily and abruptly for my taste. Not that I am adverse to happy endings, but this one read like he was in a hurry to get it all done, and decided to wrap it up quickly, in a nice little bow. He does a good job, however, in making sure that there are no loose ends, and story lines that served as undertones for the novel also were paid there due in the conclusion of the novel.

To his credit, Geoff Herbach, the author, does some things quite well, which keeps Stupid Fast open for a broader audience. He makes sure that the love story never veers into the cheesy or overly romantic territory that too many YA novels tend to do. He keeps it simple, and despite the coincidental nature of his meeting with the girl, the relationship remains pretty realistic for a teen romance. This ensures that the book will still be of interest for male readers, who are not looking for something sappy. Also, the inclusion of sports definitely helps. The sections about running, weightlifting, or football, tend to work quite well, but are not so detailed that they will ostracize non-sports fan readers.

Stupid Fast ended up being a pretty good read, and I quite enjoyed the novel. There were times when I wasn’t sure if it was going to be worth it, but once I got over that initial 100-page hump, it was well worth it. It is a good light read, nothing too serious here, despite the fact that there are some serious issues being dealt with. I wish it were funnier, and that perhaps the narrator had a more sarcastic voice, or something, but in the end, I liked it.

Thirteen Days to Midnight (Book Review)

Thirteen Days to Midnight (Book Review)

If you could only have one superpower, what would it be? How about being indestructible?

In Thirteen Days to Midnight, author Patrick Carman has put together a very strong YA novel. The story focuses on a teenage boy, who has to overcome the guilt of being in a car accident with his foster father, leaving the man dead. He is perplexed by the final words that his friend/caretaker says to him, when he hears him say, “You are indestructible,” right before the car hit the tree and killed him.

thirteen2Jacob doesn’t think too much of it, until he returns to school after a period of mourning, and meets the new girl: the beautiful Ophelia James, or Oh, as she likes to be called. She sports a cast on a broken forearm, and Jacob has the honor of being the first to sign it. Taken in by her beauty, he wants to write something memorable, and witty. The only thing he can think of, are those final words he heard before the crash: You are indestructible.

From here, Jacob, Oh, and best friend Milo discover that there is power in the words, and that Jacob has control over it. If he says the words to someone, he can actually make them immune to anything, until he decides to take the power back. Only one person can have the power at the same time, but it opens a ton of possibilities for the trio of teens.

Thirteen Days to Midnight is a highly entertaining read. We are taken on a fun (to begin with) journey, where the kids take their time in establishing the rules of the power, considering how to use it to do good for people, and testing the limits of it. This allows us to read the descriptions of the many acts they undertake to see if they remain indestructible, and it lets our own minds run wild with the possibilities.

Of course, there are problems that arise. Jacob begins to discover that everytime he releases the power, his body begins to crave having it back, and when it is with others for too long, it begins to take its toll on them, both physically and mentally.

Here we get to learn more about the power, about the creepy, yet wonderful cult-ish book store owned by Milo’s father, the perfectly named Mr. Coffin. There is a history between Milo’s dad, Jacob’s pseudo-father, and the power, and the history is quite intriguing. Our heroes need to decide how to reign everything in when it seems like it is spinning out of control, and deciding how much responsibility weighs on them to do the right thing with it.

There are parts of this book that drag slightly, and some parts where the explanations are fairly confusing to understand, especially when it comes to the origins of the power, and how it really works when a life is saved, and is passed back and forth between people.

Regardless, this is a very good YA book. It is accessible to both males and females, and Carman is able to write a good, entertaining book without many of the downfalls of many recent YA novels. There is no sex, aside from a couple of very G-rated comments by Jacob, and even though there is a fair amount of implied violence, it never gets to the point of some books, where the violent descriptions are actually quite shocking. There is good balance here, but it doesn’t leave the reader any less entertained.

Generally, the pacing is quite solid, and the characters are likable. The subplots also do a good job in keeping the story moving forward, as there are several of them that add to the intrigue of the story.

Thirteen Days to Midnight is definitely a book I would recommend to kids, especially for those who are growing tired of series books, and want something with the same kind of excitement, but without having to commit themselves to reading an entire series of books. Now that I’ve said that, watch Carman turn around and make this into a series. But whatever, this is a fun book to read, with a fairly original premise.

Rikers High (Book Review)

Rikers High (Book Review)

A novel about a teen who has been sent to Rikers Island due to a fairly small charge, and becomes stuck there for months due to an ineffective court system seems like a pretty solid read. Plus, the novel is written by someone who spent years teaching at Rikers Island, to top it all off? This should be something good. Looking over some of the reviews for this novel on Goodreads, it seemed to be fairly well received, getting a score of 3.8/5.

Perhaps I would be getting into the novel version of Dangerous Minds, where a teacher really can make the difference in the life of a young, troubled person?

Sadly, I found none of these things to be true about Rikers High, and really feel that this novel was superficial and flat, in the end.

Martin is a teenage boy, sent to prison on a charge of “steering,” which involved him telling an undercover cop where to by weed in his neighborhood. A harmless enough charge, given that we are told time and again that Martin is a good kid. But he gets stuck on Rikers for months, due to what we are shown to be incompetence by his lawyer, and a system that just doesn’t care.

Returning to the prison after one of his failed court dates, Martin is caught in the middle of a scuffle between other inmates, and has his face slashed by a razor blade, leaving behind a four-inch scar that will be with him for the rest of his life.

rikers high2Eventually he is moved over to another section of the prison, where they send the students to school, so they can continue with their educations, or get their GEDs, or whatever else. There Martin is supposed to find his inspiration, influenced positively by the teachers he encounters, and the new people he is forced to live with.

The story is pretty straightforward, and we know from the start that it is on a finite timeline, because we know that Martin is going to be getting out of prison soon. So we know that he won’t be there to graduate in some heartfelt storyline, where his teachers break down and cry over all the positive changes he has gone through. In fact, he is only in the school portion of the prison for about a week, leading to one of the major problems of this novel: everything is superficial, and rarely goes beyond the surface of what could have been an emotional story about change.

Sure, Martin would love some revenge on the guy who cut his face, but despite feeling angry a couple of times, nothing really comes of it. He is able to stay away from the regular prison issues, and is able to fight off his anger, fairly easily.

All of the characters in Rikers High, Martin included, are pretty flat. We don’t really learn anything about any of them. And this definitely left me not caring that much about them. No details about the lives of his friends are given, so we can’t relate to them at all. There is no sympathy for the characters, only knowing what is happening. The writing in the novel very much felt like we were distantly being told a story, and we were not at all involved in it, as readers. This left the whole story lacking, for me.

The character that meant to be the inspirational teacher, does very little in my mind to deserve that. He treats the prisoners with respect, which is great. He holds their attention in class, but no reason is given why. He teaches them English, and has them do a series of amateurish assignments that are directly from cliched movies about great teachers. For some reason, these tough kids totally buy into these assignments, and really take their time and care to do them well. They even engage in deep conversations during class time. But why? How do they trust this teacher? It is just assumed, from our first meeting with him, that he is the good guy, and people really like him. That’s it, the only explanation that is offered.

In fact, the inmates like all of their teachers, save one. I feel like it’s rare to find a high school where kids like, and respect, all of their teachers, let alone one on Rikers Island. I found the whole school portion of the novel to be unrealistic, and almost pointless. Martin really doesn’t learn anything from the school. We know that he was smart before he walked into the prison, and nothing about that changes during his time there. He feels some kind of bond with his English teacher, which, again, we are unsure of why it is happening, or what it stemmed from.

The author, Paul Volponi, taught at the Rikers high school for years, and states at the beginning of his book that many incidents that he writes about are based in fact. That may be true, but it somehow seems almost too tame for what one would expect.

Another issue with Rikers High is that there is very little suspense in the storyline. Will Martin ever come face-to-face with the kid who cut him? Will he get out of prison (we know, without a doubt, that he will)? What little build up there is, really fizzles into nothing. The head goon on their ward, who controls everything, offers some potential incidents that could have changed the course of the novel, but literally nothing ever happens with him. He acts tough. Martin doesn’t bite. Moving on. There is also the story of the kid in the bunk next to Martin, which I suppose offers the emotional end to the story that it needs. Sanchez, who is going to be soon going upstate to the adult prison to finish his sentence, is looking for a way out. I guess the fate of this kid helps Martin understand something that he didn’t before…no, wait. He definitely knew all he learns before. Perhaps this incident was just something to reinforce the idea that…prison is bad?

Even the “suspense” building up to one of Martin’s fateful last evenings on Rikers, seems to be shallow. There isn’t much more to it than that. We have seen these types of scenes before, and this one was stolen right from The Shawshank Redemption, which did it emotionally and brilliantly. Rikers High, on the other hand, did it without flair or real concern over what was happening.

I did not like this book, and would find few YA readers to recommend it to. I feel that even a younger audience would see through the skimpy characterization and general lack of interesting incidents to keep the plot moving forward. We never feel scared about Rikers High, and it actually seems like a pretty decent place, which couldn’t have been the intention of the author. There was potential here, and not having read any of his other works, I don’t know if this is along the same lines of his other writing, or just an idea that was there, but just didn’t take off.

I think that the average YA reader wants some more depth in the books they read, and I didn’t find that there was much depth at all in Rikers High.

The Beginning of Everything (Book Review)

The Beginning of Everything (Book Review)

There were several things in this book that reminded me of Eleanor and Park. Considering I am one of the few people that mostly disliked that book, that is not necessarily a good comparison, because I really did like The Beginning of Everything, and felt that despite similarities to Eleanor and Park, this is the better Young Adult novel.

The story is based around how our lives truly begin after a tragedy occurs in our lives. How after that point, we begin living the way that we will, for the rest of our lives. Our narrator, Ezra, describes how his best friend caught the severed head of a Japanese tourist on a roller coaster ride at Disneyland when he was 12 years old. This was the tragedy that chose to befall him, and his life was never the same afterwards. 

The tragedy for Ezra is when he catches his beautiful girlfriend cheating on him at a party. After he plays the incident with a coolness unusual for a teenager in this position, he proceeds to get hit in a violent car accident, and it cripples his leg.

beginEzra had been the most popular guy in school, the star of the highly respected tennis team, and a generally decent person. His leg injury was his tragedy, and it changed how he was going to have to live his life. 

Feeling abandoned after the accident, upon his return to school, Ezra takes up with a different clique, including his old best friend Toby, who had been the one to catch the severed head years ago. Ezra eventually fits in with the new group, even joining the debate team, something his former self would have never dreamed of. Here, he meets the new girl to the school, and noted ace at debate, Cassidy. Their relationship forms the centrepiece of the novel, once Ezra has settled back into life and stopped always wallowing over the loss of his popular status. 

And it provides some of the most tender, fun, and surprising moments of the novel. The relationship between Ezra and Cassidy felt far more real to me than the one between Eleanor and Park, even if it was based on some of the same things, nerdier things. There is still talk of music, and comics, and Doctor Who, but I felt that it was more genuine in this novel, and I could buy their relationship as being more honest and believable than in the other novel. 

Being intended for Young Adult audiences, this novel is a coming of age story, about how we need to choose to start living our lives, and about how our memories persist with us, regardless of how hard we try to forget about them, or move past them. We remember, just as other people do too. 

What makes this novel strong is the frequent literary references, especially those related to The Great Gatsby. Ezra is reading the famous Fitzgerald novel, and for the first time, is finding himself connect with a book. There are many similarities between the musings of Nick Carraway and Jay Gatsby that relate to Ezra and what he goes through inhis life, especially when his relationship with Cassidy inevitably becomes more tumultuous than he would have liked. Even when looking at his dog, Cooper, Ezra feels that he is talking to him in a Gatsby-esque voice, ending all of what he imagines Cooper to be saying with “Old Sport.”

The references don’t end with Gatsby, and I feel this is clever, as hopefully if the reference is not recognized by the reader, it will open them up to looking it up, and having them learn something along the way. An example of this is the frequent references to Michel Foucault’s panopticon, and the basics of the theory behind it. There are many other literary references, and puns, which will happen when the main group of characters, and Ezra’s closest friends, are almost too smart for their own good. There is plenty of hipsterness to go around.

The Beginning of Everything has a little bit of everything. There is humour, which is a must-have in a YA novel. There is a plausible love story, with some sex, but not so much that it should only be for much older teen readers. And the coming of age is something that could probably be easy to relate to for many readers. If they don’t get what they are reading, or can’t understand what the characters are going through, then the message will be lost. But, we have all faced some kind of tragedy, as this is something that can connect with everyone, and I found that it really worked well in this novel. Author Robyn Schneider did a really good job of incorporating all of the elements into a page-turning YA book. She even manages to provide us with a surprising ending that wraps up the novel beautifully.

Recommended. 

The Naturals (Book Review)

The Naturals (Book Review)

The first thing I noticed in looking for a cover image of Jennifer Lynn Barnes’ latest novel, The Naturals, is that there are a lot of really bad covers for this book. The version I read is fairly non-descript, something that suits the crime mystery novel inside of it. Alternate versions of the cover make the book look more teeny-bopper than it is, even though there is plenty of that.

naturalsThe Naturals is about a group of teens that are recruited by the FBI because of their special skills. Not super powers, thankfully, but simpler things, like lie detection, profiling, and ability with statistics. The kids are chosen and moved into a house near Washington, where they will be trained and eventually allowed to help the FBI solve cold cases- murders gone long unsolved by the Bureau.

Cassie joins the team, because she is tired of her ordinary 17-year-old life as a waitress, and maintains ideas that she can solve the unsolved murder of her mother, which happened five years before.

The novel is pretty squeaky-clean as far as YA goes, and it does little to push the boundaries in any of the areas that it dabbles in. This is good, in the sense that it is an easily recommendable read for almost any teen. You don’t need to worry about sex, drugs, swearing, and gore in this novel. Despite being about the hunt for a serial killer, The Naturals does not have the graphic violence that a novel like I Hunt Killers had.

There is an awkward, unnecessary, and fairly baseless love triangle that develops in the house, and really, it has very little to do with the story. It it far too predictable, from the moment Cassie walks into the house, and it does little to develop any of the characters, or push the plot in any direction or another. But, Barnes keeps it clean, and even though it is pretty much there only to appeal more to a female audience, it doesn’t do any real harm.

As for the mystery itself, it is pretty good. While being trained how to read crime scenes and files, Cassie and the FBI agents are thrown into the solving of a case that is eerily familiar to Cassie, as all the new victims bear a resemblance to her dead mother. And Cassie seems to be next on the list for the killer. This leads us on the chase for the new killer in town, before it is too late for his next victim, or to see if Cassie is his next victim. Barnes provides us with a few good hints along the way, and a couple of possibly killers, and does a pretty good job of keeping us guessing throughout the novel, as to who did it. I don’t know that the end was terribly satisfying, but at least I was kept guessing, which not all mysteries are able to do.

I think that The Naturals is an entertaining read, and it won’t take most readers long to plunge through the 308 pages of the book. It is not high-end literature, but it serves well as a relaxing book where we want to be taken on a fairly interesting journey to discover something bad.

Barnes has written a novel that has a fairly broad appeal. Despite having a female protagonist, and the aforementioned love story, boys might like this book as well because of the crimes, the idea of serial killers, the typically male characters, and the sultry character of Lia. As I said, for a crime novel, there is little that is offensive in here, to the point where there are some lines like, “…to figure out what the Hello Kitty went on the night before.” Case in point. Barnes took the time to ensure her novel wouldn’t write itself into a corner, and would be okay reading material for as many teens as possible.

There is nothing particularly special about The Naturals. Okay characters, pretty good story, solid mystery. But, overall, it is a pretty decent read.

Grasshopper Jungle (Book Review)

Grasshopper Jungle (Book Review)

In his acknowledgements at the back of the book, Andrew Smith states that he began writing Grasshopper Jungle as though no one would ever read it. He had decided to give up publishing his work, until he was convinced halfway through the novel that this one should see the light of day as well.

grasshopper-jungleSmith has created another fun, fascinating read, but one that lacks a distinctive audience. Jungle is too old for most YA readers, and too young for most adult readers. The true audience for this novel falls somewhere in between. Even though I did enjoy the book, I would find it hard to recommend to any of my students, even the high school ones, because of the language and some of the material in the novel. And I will pretty much recommend anything to students. Sex, violence, swearing. It’s all fine. But endless discussion about sperm, a fair amount of sex (both human and insect), frequent discussion about erections, and a goodly amount of swearing, makes this one a tough sell for me to give to a teenager (not because they can’t handle the material, but because I don’t want to field the parent phone call about the book I gave their kid). At times I found myself wishing that he would have dropped some of the language and edited parts of the sexual discussions, because it was a fun read that I could have seen myself giving to several people. Or, going in the opposite direction and making it purely a book for adults. That way, he could have gone all out and not censored any of his ideas.

Grasshopper Jungle is basically about two friends living in a boring Iowa town. They skateboard and smoke cigarettes. Austin and Robby have been friends since forever. Robby is gay, and in love with Austin. Austin is not sure what he is, as he is in love with his girlfriend, Shann, and Robby as well. He is confused, as he states time and time again throughout the novel. Eventually, the end of the world comes to town, in the form of large, man-sized, praying mantises that only like to do two things: eat and breed. The friends must figure out the mystery of the events leading up to the infestation, how to try and defeat it, and how to survive it together.

I found this novel difficult to get into. I liked the story just fine, but it was the way it was written that was a bit of a struggle for me. The repetitive style that Smith writes in worked wonderfully well in Winger, but often became irritating in Jungle. It seemed like everything was going around in circles for the first 150 pages. But, when things get going, they really get going in the novel. Once the infestation begins, the novel is a fun, action-packed book that is pretty hard to put down. Once the gang of Shann, Austin, and Robby find Eden, it becomes very interesting, and the whole purpose of the novel falls into place.

Austin is obsessed with history, and spends hours each day writing and drawing the history of his own lives. As the novel progresses, we see how everyone is connected through their history, and this is the brilliance of an Andrew Smith novel. While it is about giant insects eating all the people of a town, it is also about those connections, and what keeps us together and tears us apart. The relationships developed over the course of the novel are strong, and we get to feel the plight that each of the characters are going through. We understand Shann’s anger, as the boy she loves may possibly be gay, and may be in love with his best friend. We understand that Austin is confused, and he is trying his best to deal with his sexual urges, his feelings for the people closest to him, and his place in the small world they have created for themselves.

Despite not adoring the style in which the novel was written, Smith gets the job done. The frustrating repetition of the start of the novel slowly fades away, and when it is used during the second half, it tends to serve a more understandable purpose.

The novel ends satisfyingly as well, which is rare with books that could be deemed as being YA. I will assume that this will not be the beginning of a series, as Smith is not traditionally a series writer. Because of this, the ending is something that readers can be very pleased with, as we are given a conclusion that satisfies the story created.

While Grasshopper Jungle is not as laugh-out-loud funny as Winger, it has a distinct cleverness to it that is often hard to resist. As Austin goes through his life, recording their history as they live it, we are drawn into the strange world of Ealing, Iowa, the unique lives of the people that live within it, and the way that we are all connected through the stories of our past.

New Trailer: The Fault in Our Stars

When you love a book so much, it is scary to see it come to the big screen. And I love The Fault in Our Stars. I had long wondered why no John Green books had been transformed into films, given that there is such an appeal to his stories, and such a massive popularity among teens. Who of his fans don’t believe that Looking for Alaska, Paper Towns or Will Grayson, Will Grayson would make a great movie? It almost seems as though his novels are made to be classic teen love story films.

I was dreading to see what would become of TFiOS the moment that I heard it was being made into a movie.

And I hate to say it, but I think my fears have been realized. I know that Nerdfighters everywhere will be ecstatic about certain aspects of the trailer. I, unfortunately, am not sold.

The first trailer for the movie has been released, and upon first viewing, I instantly hated it. Upon further viewings, I have softened up my stance, but still am decidedly on the fence as to the results of what this film could be.

The lines, so beautifully written on the page, come across as hokey when heard aloud, delivered by actors (specifically, the actor playing Augustus Waters) that may not have the gumption to handle such a complex role as Hazel and Augustus. The trailer gives us the outline of a definite love story, which the novel is, but holds none of the humour or sarcasm that made the book so completely memorable. If the film lacks this, and it may not, as this is only a preview, then it is simply a sad love story that is left over. And the book is so much more than that. The greatest thing about Hazel in the novel is her unique way of looking at her life. She is going to die, she knows it. She is well aware that she is a grenade, but she deals with this reality in a way so uncommon across literature.

Some positives is that there seems to be many things that have made the cut from the novel into the film. Such as the literal heart of Jesus, a brief glimpse of Hazel reading An Imperial Affliction, going after Isaac’s ex-girlfriend. All of the big speeches from the novel seem to be there as well, although I was pretty surprised to hear chunks of them in the trailer.

I will still see this movie, if only as a sign of my dedication to John Green. As of now, I am uncertain to how it will translate on to the screen, and I am infinitely worried that the incredible story that Green put on to paper will not fully be told on celluloid. Time will tell. I want so badly for it to be a great adaptation. I want to love it like I love the novel. I want to be able to show the movie when I teach this novel to my class, as I already have done a couple of times. I want The Fault in Our Stars, the movie, to be as classic and memorable as the novel.