Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Monster by Walter Dean Myers

I gave this book a rating of four out of five. Steve Harmon is on trial for felony murder, and most of the plot deals with the courtroom testimony. Steve is accused of being the lookout during a drugstore robbery in which the owner was shot and killed. Witnesses testify that Steve's co-defendant was the actual shooter, and Steve appears guilty due to his association with him. Many of the witnesses are receiving deals from the prosecution for their testimonies, so the defense says the deals give them incentives to lie. They testify that Steve gave the signal that the store was clear to be robbed, but he firmly states that he was not there. I think the reader is still left wondering about Steve's guilt or innocence even after the verdict is read.

This book is unique, because it's written as a movie script. Steve is taking a high school course on film-making, and he feels his story will make an interesting movie. This style helps the plot move quickly, and it allows the reader to see the trial from Steve's point of view. The street slang of the witnesses and inmates makes their characters more real and believable. The fact that most of the plot is written as a script may bother some readers, but I feel it added an interesting twist to the novel.

Lexile level from lexile.com 670

The Wednesday Wars by Gary Schmidt

I gave this book a rating of four out of five. The main character, Holling Hoodhood, is in the seventh grade and seems to have a conflict with his teacher. Every Wednesday afternoon in this school the Jewish students travel to the synagogue and the Catholic students travel to their church. Holling is Presbyterian, so he is forced to spend every Wednesday afternoon with Mrs. Baker, his language arts teacher. She makes Holling do all kinds of chores and extra work, but she finally makes him start reading Shakespeare. Holling feels this is a real punishment, but he's an avid reader and gives it a shot. He ends up enjoying Shakespeare and has many conversations with Mrs. Baker about the meanings within the stories. He's able to offer modern insights into the stories, with Mrs. Baker's help, and is able to make connections to his own life.

The main conflict in the novel is Holling's battle to discover himself and his place in the world. Sounds pretty serious, but the author does a nice job of balancing that with some humor and interesting situations. How about the on-going idea of the two classroom rats being on the loose above the ceiling tiles? You know something will happen with them eventually. To be honest, the beginning of the book wasn't grabbing me, but it became much more interesting once I gave it a chance. I enjoyed the characters and all of the issues addressed from the late 1960's. The Vietnam War, the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, communism and the Cold War, flower children, and the New York Yankees are just a few of the topics that arise in the plot. In addition, Holling must deal with typical middle school issues such as dealing with teachers, a possible girlfriend, wacky classmates, hazing by eighth graders, and an overly-demanding father. His father may be the biggest obstacle in his life. The references to Shakespeare may not appeal to some readers, but the author spaces them throughout the plot so they don't become overwhelming.

Lexile level from lexile.com 990

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Peak by Roland Smith

I gave this book a rating of four out of five. Peak is an adventurous teenage boy who enjoys climbing man-made structures and painting graffiti on them as his signature. However, Peak gets caught and arrested. His famous, mountain-climbing father shows up to take Peak to Nepal where he wants his son to become the youngest person to climb Mt. Everest. This adventure is deadly dangerous and is complicated by presence of the Chinese army. Has Sherpa named Zopa helps Peak and his father, but he's not telling them the whole truth; he's up to something.

The conflict of the book begins between Peak and his father, but the focus changes to the dangers of climbing Mt. Everest as the book progresses. I'm a life-long learner, so I enjoyed finding out about the skills and strategy needed to climb a mountain. The book becomes more exciting as the climbing party nears the top of the mountain and the dangers become more extreme. Readers who are not willing to learn a little about the sport of mountain climbing probably won't enjoy the book, but I found it very entertaining. It's more than a mountain climbing book, but that is the central action.

Lexile level from lexile.com 760

Monday, December 6, 2010

Maus by Art Spiegelman

This book is a graphic novel about the Holocaust, and I gave it a rating of five out of five. I don't typically like graphic novels, but this one was very interesting. The plot centers on the author's retelling of his father's experiences during World War II. The father is a crotchety old Jewish man with vivid memories of his struggles to stay free of the Nazis. He is enlisted into the army and ends up being captured by the Germans. Much of his personal conflict is created by others trying to survive the Holocaust themselves. "Friends" become informants and safe havens become death traps as other Jews make deals with the enemy in order to stay alive. I never knew if the father's family was actually safe or if the Nazis were waiting outside to arrest them. They were captured several times and narrowly missed being sent to Auschwitz, the prison where millions of Jews were slaughtered.

The novel is very graphic, and not just due to the pictures. The subject of the Holocaust is treated head-on, and the actions of the Germans are described without trying to decrease the horror of the killings and violence. There is some mild profanity. The pictures are interesting partners to the plot, as the Jews are depicted as mice and the Germans are cats. The mice wear masks to reflect when they are secretly walking the streets, afraid to be recognized as Jews. I learned some new things about the Holocaust, and this book reinforced the tragedy of this event in our world's history.