Birthmarked by Caragh O’Brien

“It’s kinda like A Handmaid’s Tale got lost in Panam.” – My sister’s quick explanation of the book Birthmarked.

My sister is rarely wrong and once again, she hit the nail on the head. Birthmarked is the kind of book that fans of The Hunger Games will adore. If you are sick and tired of the whole YA dystopian fiction thing, but perhaps are interested in issues of human rights, women’s rights, the rights of the child, climate change or class struggle, I suggest you still give Birthmarked a try.

ImageThe book is set four hundred years into the future where the Earth’s climate has changed. The land is much hotter and dryer. The community where the action takes place is on the northern shores of Unlake Superior. That technically sets it in modern day Canada – just saying. The wealthy and privileged people live in a walled city called “The Enclave.” Inside the walls, there is plenty of food, water, music, art, and colour coordinated outfits. The über rich people wear white. They are like royalty. Regular Enclavians (Enclaveites? Enclavers? Whatever) wear blue and the working class wear red. Life is great in the Enclave except for one major problem. Children in the community are being born sick and often not living much past the age of ten. If only there was a way to get new, healthy babies!  More on this later.

Meanwhile, outside the wall, there is a community of people who live to serve the Enclave but never get to go inside. They are generally poor and work very hard to make a living for their families. The protagonist, Gaia (Guy-ah) is a 16 year old midwife. (She delivers babies) Every month, she, like all the other midwives outside the wall, hand over the first three babies born to be ‘advanced.’ That means the babies are taken and given to adoptive families INSIDE the wall to be raised as their own. The babies are given everything they could possibly want and grow up well fed, educated and wealthy. The mothers and fathers outside the wall get paid for their babies and parents who get upset about having to give up their children…well, they kind of disappear.

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This IS a review! Godless by Pete Hautman

Being the leader of a growing religion is not all power and glory. For one thing, there is way too much politics. In other words, you have to lie a lot.” – Godless, pg 83.

ImageJason Bock is getting a bit fed up with the status quo. The teenager lives in a middle class family where his father is an active member of the Catholic church. Every Sunday, Jason and his parents go off to church and listen to the minister explain life, the universe and everything. Jason is also part of a youth group that meets a couple times a week to discuss Christian living and reaffirm the group leader’s belief that “Jesus is a really cool guy.”  Problem is, Jason doesn’t buy it. 

Jason, the protagonist in the story, has come to the conclusion that he is either an Atheist, ( a person who does not believe in God) or an Agnostic, (A person who isn’t sure if there is a God or not and believes they will probably never know.) His teenage brain is filled with questions that aren’t getting satisfactory answers from his dad, his minister or his youth group leader. 

One night, while out around town, Jason has a run in with a school bully who punches him out. When Jason wakes up, he’s laying on the ground, under the town’s water tower. Drips of water are falling on his face. Something in his mind clicks. Water! The source of all life! The tower is the source of clean water and therefore, the giver of life for the entire town! His (possibly concussed) logic leads him to the conclusion, the WATER TOWER is GOD!  Well not really…but to Jason, the water tower is just as good as an idea as a man on a cloud somewhere.  It also seems to really get his dad and the youth group leader upset and we alllllll know teens like to push boundaries.  He recruits a few friends and a new faith is born. 

That’s when the problems start. 

The ERC teacher in me loves the debate it opens up about the meaning of God and belief in a higher power. I’m not saying I agree with Jason, I just am always up for a good old fashion discussion about where everything came from. Who am I to say that Jason is wrong?  I would never say anyone’s faith is wrong.

One of the things I like about this books is that all of the characters are flawed. The protagonist isn’t a hero. He isn’t perfect and he really needs to come to grips with the fact that you can’t force people to change and be who you want them to be. This makes me think of some of the problems people face when discussing religion in real life too. Often, people want others to change and think and act like their religion dictates. I think history makes a pretty good argument that this kind of thinking doesn’t usually end well for anyone. 

Godless is a fast read. It’s medium size in length and it’s not very difficult as so far as the vocabulary goes.  I do suggest that the reader goes into the book with an open mind. The characters may think very differently from you about what God is or if God is how society portrays him, (her? it?)  If you have ever felt that the people around you are pushing a belief on you that you don’t fully agree with, this book may speak to you in interesting ways – kind of like how a water tower speaks to Jason. 

 – Ms. A

This is not a review

I have a backlog of 4 or 5 books that I need to review, and I will get to that.  In the meantime, this link to NPR is very appropriate:

 

http://www.npr.org/2012/07/24/157072526/best-ever-teen-novels-vote-for-your-favorites

Something Fierce by Carmen Aguirre

I feel like I have known Vancouver based playwright and author, Carmen Aguirre, all of my life. I have never met the woman, but after reading her first book, Something Fierce,  I feel as though she is an old friend who has just sat down at my kitchen table and filled me in on her secret past.

The book is an autobiography, (a true story told by the author, about her own life.) When Carmen was six years old, she, her mom and dad, and her little sister Ale, were forced to flee their home in Chile and move to Canada. Chile, a country on the west coast of South America was facing a serious and very dangerous political situation. Military General, Augusto Pinochet took over the country and many people, like the Aguirres, had to flee to escape his government’s murderous oppression. Growing up in Vancouver, Carmen and Ale go to school like any other girls and live their lives with their mom and dad who dream of returning to Chile and are secretly working as revolutionaries against Pinochet.

When Carmen is eleven years old, her mom tells her that she, her sister, and her step-father will all be going to live in South America to support the revolution. Leaving her friends, school and lifestyle behind, Carmen spends her teenage years bouncing between countries, hiding out from the police, and dealing with her parents disappearing for days on end. She even falls in love a few times!  A typical teenage girl in a very unique environment.

This book is NOT a light read: It is challenging. There is a lot of political history that gets referenced. I had to look a few things up and I have a minor in history! That being said, I learned a lot and I found the story very interesting and never got bored. My heart broke for Carmen and her sister.  I couldn’t wrap my head around how parents could believe in a political ideal so much that they would put their kids in harm’s way. I know it happens every day around the world, but reading about the fear of not knowing where your mom is for a week and worrying that she may have been arrested or killed was difficult.

So, to sum up, Carmen Aguirre’s book is a challenge to read, both intellectually and emotionally. That being said, it’s also brilliant, touching and exciting.  The language in it can be a little — er — salty, so if bad language offends you, maybe you’ll want to skip this one. If you are up for a challenge though, I highly suggest reading this book. You’ll never forget the characters and their stories.

-Ms A

The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks, by E. Lockhart

This novel by E. Lockhart is a standalone novel, unlike the previous Lockhart title I reviewed.  It’s a coming of age story (isn’t most YA lit, really?) with a bit of mystery and girl power thrown into the mix.

Set in a boarding school in the Eastern United States, the setting doesn’t overshadow the story.  The author doesn’t include a lot of useless details about class and residence.  Very few adults at the school are mentioned, and the few that are serve a purpose.  Other than that, the boarding school setting is essential to the story, as it really couldn’t happen anywhere else.

The protagonist, Frankie, is a sophomore (Grade 10) who was semi-invisible in her first year at the school.  She stuck to academic activities, like Debating (!) and was fairly dependent on her older sister, Zada. Now Zada has graduated, and Frankie “got hot” over the summer holidays.  She’s not so invisible anymore, and quickly ends up with a boyfriend who’s a pretty big deal at the school.

There are sort of two storylines in this novel.  The main one (and the one from which the title is derived) is the existence of a secret society at the school.  Frankie knows a bit about it, and doesn’t really like what she knows.  She is determined to find out more, regardless of the results. Frankie is smart and (for lack of a better word) spunky girl, and I enjoyed reading about her.

Frankie’s not all “I am woman, hear me roar”, though, and that’s what provides us with the second storyline. Frankie is learning how to be in a relationship, and Lockhart manages to portray a pretty true-to-life “first love” scenario.  At one point, Zada says to Frankie, “‘Don’t let him erase you,'”(130), and I thought that was a lovely big sister thing to say. In fact, a lot of the dialogue is nicely written and realistic.  There’s some swearing, but it’s not over the top.  Like John Green, Lockhart’s teenage characters are smart without being smarmy, and funny without being too funny.

This novel is fairly long (342 pages), but Lockhart mixes things up by including emails, articles and even a paper that Frankie writes for a class assignment.  This break from normal narrative keeps the story moving along.  Lockhart includes bibliographical information for the articles and Frankie’s paper, which is an interesting touch — she did a fair bit of research for this novel.

The end is satisfying and makes sense, given what happens in the novel.  There’s a sense of hope, which I liked;  it could have gone the other way, but I think the readers would have been turned off by a hopeless ending.

I’m still a fan of E. Lockhart, and I think I’ll grab a few more on my next visit to school.  I’d recommend this book, but give yourself some time to read it, as it’s not a quick read.

~Ms. J.

Firegirl by Tony Abbott

          ImageAs if there was a person in there.It seems so stupid to even say something like that. But that’s what I felt. It was hard to think about her as being like the rest of us. (Pg 47)

I just finished reading the novel Firegirl, by Tony Abbott. This is a terrific story that introduces us to a young girl who was badly injured in a fire, as seen through the eyes of her classmate, Tom. Tom is the protagonist of the story and he also acts as the narrator. Tom is in Grade 7, is best friends with a boy named Jeff. He loves fast cars (especially the Cobra) and has a huge crush on a girl in his class named Courtney. Life is pretty normal for Tom until a new girl – Jessica – joins the class.

Jessica, in case you haven’t guessed is the girl who was burned in the fire. (Hence the title, Firegirl) When she first joins Tom’s class, the other kids, including Tom, have a hard time trying to figure out how to talk to her.

This short book (only 145 pages) deals with a number of issues that most people can relate to. Accepting people who look different than you or have different abilities than you is something that can be difficult for some people to do. When faced with meeting a new friend who looks different, like Jessica does, can make people grow and learn many of their negative reactions are actually based in their own fear. More often than not, that fear is unfounded and not really based on anything real.

Realizing that there are real people with real stories and real feelings inside each and every human is a step on the path to maturity. I guess you could put this book in the coming of age category for that reason too!

Will Tom be able to see Jessica for who is really is inside?  Will the other students accept Jessica just as any other girl? How does Jessica feel about all of this?  Read Tony Abbott’s Firegirl and find out!

-Ms A

the boyfriend list* by e. lockhart (the lack of capitalization is not my doing)

Before leaving school today, I grabbed four books that interested me.  I chose to read this one first because it was short.  Yes, I admit it: I chose the skinniest book — it’s the second-last day of school, okay?

I had some preconceptions when I started this book.  The first is that I pictured the protagonist, Ruby (Roo) as a mini-Zooey Deschanel type, based solely on the picture on the cover.  This was reinforced by the description of her fashion sense, but not much else.

My second preconception was that, because it was set in a “prep school”, I would find it unrealistic.  Having worked in a number of private schools, I’m often frustrated by how private school students are presented in books.  I was pleasantly surprised, though, as Gossip Girl, this was not.

the boyfriend list* is the first in a series of four, but it works as a standalone book.  The author uses some gimmicks, like lists and footnotes. Some readers might find these distracting.  Considering that I used the word gimmicks, I might be one of these people.  You do get used to it after a while, as it helps to establish the character and her tone.

The plot is pretty believable, if a bit dramatic.  Ruby is in the middle of a social-life meltdown which may or may not be her fault.  The story is told in the first person, but the author does manage to present varying perspectives.

The story moves along quickly, and there’s a little bit of mystery.  Ruby keeps hinting at something that has happened, but the incident isn’t explained until later in the book. Rather than feeling baited, I was intrigued, and was fairly satisfied when I got to the explanation. There was a subplot about Ruby’s parents that I didn’t see coming, but it worked, and added some closure to her story.

Ruby is a believable character.  I found her voice realistic, and the emotions described through the first person p.o.v. were credible.  The least believable character was Jackson, at least until we saw the jerky side of him.

While this wasn’t the best YA book I’ve read lately, it was enjoyable, and I’ll probably read the three remaining books in the next week or so.  I found myself caring about what happened to Ruby, and that’s enough to make me want to keep reading.

Ms. J.