review: (advanced copy of) Fat Boy vs the Cheerleaders by Geoff Herbach

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*This book will be released Tuesday, May 6 2014. 

I received Fat Boy vs. the Cheerleaders by Geoff Herbach from the publisher Sourcebooks Fire. I don’t recall asking for it, but I am not one to turn down a free book. Especially one that pits band geeks against, well…anyone else. You see, I was a band geek. Will be one for life, I suppose. So I instantly fell in love with Gabe – nicknamed Chunk due to his spherical body – and his smart mouth. That isn’t to say I liked everything about him, however that’s the sign of a good character. One with traits you dislike, but whose soul you love.

Gabe and the marching band face a band camp-less summer due to funds from the soda machine being given to the new dance team, where in the past the funds were for the band. Gabe and his friends slowly start a rebellion…one that results in him in an interrogation cell. The book is told in first-person from inside that interrogation cell.

The team of unlikely heroes may seem incongruous to what Hollywood thinks of high school, but it’s 100% factual for what high school really is like. Football players do support the rebellion efforts of their band geek friends. Goth girls do fall for overzealous, overweight, rebellion-inciting boys. Friends who were once awesome do turn into the enemy. This is reality, and Herbach nailed it.

Recommended for:
High schoolers who like a little rebellion with their reading. Band geeks will pump their fists in the air, jocks will nod in approval, and goth girls will smile. Just a little.

Read-alikes:
Scar Boys had a similar misfit-turned-hero element. A.S King’s Reality Boy is not nearly as light as Fat Boy but a solid read-alike.

review: Uganda Be Kidding Me by Chelsea Handler

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Uganda Be Kidding Me is by one of the funniest women in the biz, Chelsea Handler. A memoir of her travels – including an African safari, the 2012 London Olympics, and Colorado – make me want to stuff myself into her purse and go with her everywhere. Everywhere. I’d go to Wal-Mart with her if she’d let me just to experience an outing in her presence.

Handler hates being alone so she takes people with her everywhere she goes. She actually ruined the anniversary plans one of her friends’ husbands had made because she insisted that she go to Africa with her. She made her sister leave the country when her family was relocating so she’d have at least one sister with her on the safari. She wants. She gets. I typically hate that kind of attitude in a person, but I make an exception for Handler – who gives as much as she takes. (She bought an aunt a house one Sunday afternoon when she was bored and hungover and because the aunt had been really good to her when she was a struggling actress/waitress years earlier.)

This is Handler’s fourth book, and it does not fail to make readers laugh out loud that snorty kind of laugh that makes others jump. Her deadpan voice comes through in her writing, so I completely believe her when she says she doesn’t use a ghostwriter.

Recommended for:
Anyone who doesn’t mind vulgar language and vivid descriptions of defecation and sex will LOVE this book!

Read-alikes:
Any other book by Handler (except Lies that Chelsea Handler Told Me which is actually written by her friends and family. It’s okay…but not fantastic because it’s not written by her, per say.)

I imagine the Mindy Kaling book Everyone is Hanging Out Without Me is similar, or so I believe because of things I’ve been told. In deadpan humor, I mean…not in the foul-mouthed kind of way.

review: Noggin’ by John Corey Whaley

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Noggin’ by John Corey Whaley is a dystopic- no, no that’s not right. It’s realistic fiction that- wait, no. That’s not right, either.

Okay, so I don’t quite know how to categorize a novel about a teen boy who is dying of cancer so he is cryogenically  frozen then given a new, non-cancerous body, via a head transplant. If that isn’t dystopic-science fiction-fantasy-romance then I don’t know what is. I mean, Whaley must really dislike genre stickers that librarians put on novels – or he was going for some kind of record number of stickers on the spine. Either way, the book is un-categorizable. (Yes, I know that isn’t a word. Just like head transplants aren’t real medical procedures. But I did it anyway, all in the name of fiction! HA!)

So I’ve told you the premise of the novel…but what fills the other 300 pages? Oh, right…teen romance. See, Travis feels like he just took a nap. Meanwhile, five years have passed and everyone has moved on. Everyone. Including his girlfriend Cate. In fact, she’s engaged. This, coupled with his parents odd behavior and the stares from his classmates (who were in elementary school when he was put under five years earlier) make for some very weird, mixed-up emotions in Travis that he can’t get a handle on.

I read an advanced reader copy (ARC) of this book laying by the pool at the Vdara resort in Las Vegas. Except for re-applying sunscreen so my pale, freckled skin would stay as perfect as Scarlet O’Hara’s, I didn’t put the book down. (I took sips of my pina colada one-handed. Huzzah!) Although I found Travis to be super whiny and incredibly selfish, I get why Whaley made him such – he is a teen boy (read: pubescent) who just went through a traumatic experience. He is allowed to be a little whiny and selfish. But it’s when his selfishness begins to hurt others that his friends call him out.

This is a fantastic YA novel written by a fantastic author. I don’t think Noggin’ went as deep as his 2012 Printz Award winning Where Things Come Back but that’s just fine. It’s still great. Still worth reading and recommending.

Recommended for: 
Teen boys AND girls. Girls will like the “feels” and boys will appreciate the boy behavior.

Read-alikes:
There are just too many head-transplant books to choose from, so I’ll recommend books that have other, similar themes. Such as The Beginning of Everything by Robin Schneider and Winger by Andrew Smith.

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The Circle by Dave Eggers is the story of Mae Holland – a twenty-something working at The Circle, a GoogleAppleMicrosoft-like conglomerate that is the technology center of the country, nay, the world. Mae is awe-struck over the vastness of The Circle’s campus, and of its presence in nearly every aspect of a person’s life. After Mae’s arrival at The Circle, her colleagues push out such inventions as SeeChange (a tiny, inexpensive camera that anyone can install anywhere, including around their necks to promote transparency) and TruYouth (a tracking device injected into the bone of every infant so they can never be lost, but the device also tracks their academic standings, health records, and more). They sound harmless – helpful even – but Mae’s ex-boyfriend Mercer believes otherwise and fears The Circle’s all-encompassing control.

Mae doesn’t drink the Kool-Aid at first. She goes an entire weekend without sending one Zing (Tweet?), posting one Smile (“Like”?), or uploading pictures of her meals, her kayak trip, or of another daily activity. She is reprimanded by higher-ups who feel that her lack of posting shows she doesn’t care about sharing her experience with others. Her best friend, Annie, a heavy-hitter at The Circle, encourages her to do more with The Circle’s social scene, and Mae quickly becomes entranced by the place.

Then she goes transparent, being the first non-Congressperson to wear SeeChange for all of her waking hours. Her life is filmed, but a couple people are afraid of what will come next for The Circle, and the world, if such technology is commonplace.

The Circle is by the great Dave Eggers – Zeitoun is one of the most intriguing and affecting nonfiction books I’ve read. But unfortunately I felt this most recent one was a bit contrived. Maybe I read too much dystopia as it is, because this felt like just another on the pile. A technology company takes over the world by creating seemingly-harmless products, but those who want to maintain their privacy freak out and think it’s the end of the world. And even the “bad guys” aren’t that bad. They truly think they are doing good – keeping children safe from kidnappers, aiding in the health care system, forcing the government to be transparent and accountable for their actions – so you can’t hate them (although you do find them a bit odd and obsessed).

Recommended for:
Anyone who isn’t burned out from other dystopia or controlling-technology books. Definitely teens who like to read adult novels. Except for a couple PG sex inferences, this one is appropriate for older teens.

Read-alikes:
Machine Man
by Max Barry and Robopocalypse by Daniel H. Wilson.

review: Full Body Burden by Kristen Iversen

I grew up in Southern Maryland. We Marylanders are specific with our location because Maryland is quite a diverse state in terms of weather, attractions, and personality type. For example, Southern Maryland is located where the Chesapeake Bay and Patuxent River converge and is known for crabs, the Pax River Naval Air Station, and a country lifestyle with chain restaurants and high-end living in Solomon’s Island. The Eastern Shore is nestled between the Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic Ocean and is known for colleges and parties at the beach; Northern Maryland has more art and history gems than you’d think; and Western Maryland gets feet of snow when Southern Maryland gets a drop of rain. For a small state, we are quite unique, and I truly love going home to visit my parents because I get to experience its natural beauty.

One thing that I never did get comfortable with while living there was the Calvert Cliffs Nuclear Power Plant. I lived only 17 miles from the reactor whose “two pressurized light water reactor units produce more than 1,700 megawatts of electricity, which power more than 1 million homes.” Sounds powerful, eh? That’s what I thought. I vividly remember being in 8th grade, laying on my parents bed, talking to my boyfriend Eddie. We were both watching the news, and they were showing night raids in (I believe) Kosovo. We both commented on our proximity to the nuclear power plant. I had similar conversations two years later after 9/11. The combination of being 60 miles from Washington, DC and having a nuclear reactor in our back yard did not make for very settling thoughts. But as far as I know, terrorists have left Calvert Cliffs alone, as have natural disasters. Whew!

But the residents of Rocky Flats, Colorado – and surrounding neighborhoods – were not.

Are not.

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Kristen Iversen’s memoir and expose Full Body Burden: growing up in the nuclear shadows of Rocky Flats follows the bleak brief history of Rocky Flats – a nuclear weapons facility that created plutonium triggers for bombs. Between 1953 through the 1992, 70,000 triggers were created, but not all of the plutonium was out into the triggers. Instead, thousands of pounds of the highly dangerous element were lost – Materials Unaccounted For is the term used by employees, management, and the Department of Energy – and found in the air ducts of the plant, and in the soil, water, and bodies of animals and HUMAN BEINGS located around Rocky Flats.

Allow me to reiterate: thousands of pounds of a radioactive element – one of the key elements found in the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki – was wafting through the air around Boulder and Denver, Colorado. Animals burrowed it into the ground and ingested it. Humans breathed it in, and ate the animals that ingested it. They also drank the water it settled into.

And the Department of Justice, Department of Energy, Dow Chemical and Rockwell International lied about it. They withheld information, lied, sealed scientific findings, and otherwise refused to tell the public the truth about the plutonium in and around Rocky Flats. Cancer diagnoses and deaths were recorded in absurdly high rates, and scientists and doctors all around the world agree that plutonium was (and is) the cause.

This book terrified me. Not just the plutonium itself, but because of the lies that were created by the people we are supposed to trust to make the best decisions for us. The number of government agents and judges that lied, omitted facts, or sealed truths in top secret envelopes are all to blame for the deaths that occurred after the first whistleblowers told their stories. The Department of Energy, Dow Chemical, and Rockwell International are to blame for the shady and hurried practices that led to the insufficient handling of the deadly element. So many people are to blame, yet so many people will never ever seen reparations for their suffering.

Read this book. It skips a lot between the years, and is sometimes confusing with all of the names and dates, but it will make you more aware of what nuclear energy is really capable of – and the sacrifice we are making when we support it.

Recommended for:
Those interested in history and science will “enjoy” this novel. (You can’t/shouldn’t enjoy a novel that calls the government out for allowing Big Business to poison their citizens…) Anyone who needs to be energized (no pun intended). This book will anger you, hopefully into action.

Read-alikes:
Plutopia: nuclear families, atomic cities, and the great Soviet and American plutonium disasters by Kate Brown – a professor at University of Maryland Baltimore Campus – “provides the first definitive account of the great plutonium disasters of the United States and the Soviet Union”.   

 The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot because it also combine history and science in a remarkable way.

review: Kisses from Katie: a story of relentless love and redemption by Katie Davis

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Kisses from Katie: a story of relentless love and redemption by Katie Davis with Beth Clark is a moving memoir about a twenty-something’s experience working with children in rural Uganda. Katie, a middle-class white girl from Nashville, Tennessee was in high school when she first felt called to serve God in a unique way. When information about serving an orphanage in Uganda came across her computer, she couldn’t stop thinking of going there. Her parents relented and let her go over Christmas break during her senior year of high school. From her first day at the orphanage, she was enamored with the spirit of the children, the need of the community, and of her heart’s desire to stay.

I quit college; I quiet cute designer clothes and my yellow convertible; I quit my boyfriend. I no longer have all the things the world says are important….I cannot fathom being happier. Jesus wrecked my life, shattered it to pieces, and put it back together more beautifully.

Katie credits her faith in God as the driving force behind her intense desire to stay in Uganda past those two weeks. Upon graduating from high school, she forewent the college life she had anticipated, and instead returned to Uganda to serve for one year at the orphanage. She picked chiggers out of children’s skin, nursed babies back to health, bathed and prepared food for the wards, but most importantly, she fell in love with them.

Katie is still there, seven years later. She has adopted 14 girls, all of whom live with her in a large rented home that sometimes has power and running water, but always has happiness, laughter, and love. Throughout the book she describes challenges she saw families face, such as sickness, hunger, and no money to send their children to school. After their basic needs were met, Katie saw to it that hundreds of children could attend school. She started a charity called Amazima Ministries that raises money to support and send Ugandan children to school.

I knew I could not change the village or the country of Uganda, but educated children could.

Katie is passionate and free with her love, but she is also pragmatic. She works hard to raise funds necessary for the education of the hundreds of children in her village. But sometimes things go wrong, and she has to endure the pain of being helpless. Helpless that is, except for the power of prayer.

I still have to sit with the Father in my sadness and brokenness over all the hurt in this world. Sometimes I still have to cry to Him and ask Him why innocent children must suffer and beg Him to move people to action.

Her faith in God and her ability to follow in the footsteps of Jesus is remarkable. She sees her behavior something she must do, instead of a selfless sacrifice that so many Westerners would never consider making.

People who want to make a difference get frustrated along the way. But if they have a particularly stressful day, they don’t qut. They keep going….They don’t do anything to call attention to themselves, they simply pay attention to the everyday needs of others, even if it’s only one person. They bring change in ways most people will never read about or applaud. And because of the way these world-changers are wired, they wouldn’t think of living their lives any other way.

Katie will probably never return to the United States. She will raise her daughters in Uganda, and when they are grown women doing remarkable things, she will adopt more orphaned girls and teach them to love and praise God, and to study hard, and to dream. I wonder if Katie realizes that she has become a version of her idol, Mother Teresa.

I will not change the world. Jesus will do that. I can, however, change the world for one person.

Recommended for:
Young men or women who may be struggling with the decisions they must make regarding their future. Some teens just don’t know what they should be aspiring towards, or what God has planned for them. This memoir will remind them that their lives are not their own, but the Lord’s, and that He will guide them if only they open their hearts to Him and His plan.

Read-alikes:
Life Without Limitations: inspiration for a ridiculously good lifby Nick Vujicic, the true-story of a man born with arms or legs, and how he turned that disability into a life that inspires thousands.

Neither this man nor his parents sinned, but this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life. John 9:3. Disease is certainly not a sin. And poverty is not a sin; it is a condition, a circumstance that allows God’s work to be displayed.

Adoption is wonderful and beautiful and the greatest blessing I have ever experienced. Adoption is also difficult and painful. Adoption is a beautiful picture of redemption. It is the Gospel in my living room….Adoption is a redemptive response to tragedy in this broken world.

guest review: Mothership by Martin Leicht and Isla Neal

This guest review comes from my colleague in the Teen Center, Devi. She is a voracious reader of all things non-realistic. When we first heard of this book, we mocked it for a solid 5 minutes. Devi decided to give it the benefit of doubt, and took it home with her that night. Here is what she thought of it:

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Let me start by saying that I have never had a book surprise me like this one did. When I heard about the plot, my first thought was how bad it sounded. Aliens impregnating teens… really? Well, I’m eating my words now.

Mothership by Martin Leicht and Isla Neal follows Elvie on board a spaceship that houses a school for pregnant teens. Elvie is just sixteen years old, and despite being surrounded by other pregnant teens she still has to deal with high school drama, even in space!  Let’s add an alien attack to that drama and you’ve got quite the story with hormonal girls screaming and crying and trying to stay alive. As it turns out, these so called alien attackers are actually the girls’ rescuers. But wait, one of them is the father of Elvie’s child! That’s right – we’re talking alien babies.  So now, not only does Elvie have to deal with having an alien baby, but she is also the smartest person on the ship and the only one who can really help the other girls and aliens escape. Escape from what, you ask? Oh, just the evil aliens that are trying to take over the ship and kill everyone.

As crazy as all of that might sound, this book is a terrific read. You want action? You’ve got it. Romance? Adventure? Sci-fi? Humor? You’ve got it! I could not put this book down until I was done. It is a quick read, but you will enjoy Elvie’s internal monologue as she switches from the present to her past. You meet her best friend Ducky, her quirky father, and Cole, her baby’s daddy who is also her arch-nemesis’ boyfriend. Elvie is not just your typical female protagonist; she is an intelligent girl who uses her resources and her wit to overcome her obstacles. Plus, her sarcastic outlook on everything really brings the humor to the story. She makes the book fun! You will be chuckling your way through the book, right up to an ending that will shock you into immediately wanting the sequel! In short, this book is so ridiculous, light-hearted, and funny, that you have to read it.