review: Noggin’ by John Corey Whaley

noggin

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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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.

non-fiction Friday: To the End of June, the intimate life of American Foster Care by Cris Beam

end of june

To the End of June: the intimate life of American foster care by author, professor, and teacher at a women’s correctional facility Cris Beam is a harrowing look into the current state of the foster care system in America. Annually, nearly 650,000 children from birth to age 18 are in foster care. Let me put it this way: the population of Washington, DC is around 632,000. All of the foster children in America could fit into DC. That is horrific.

Beam uses her book to describe the bleak reality of foster care – from parents not working to get their children back, abuse from foster families, low budgets and staffing for Family Services departments, etc. People want babies – and are willing to endure international policies and extravagant court costs to get them – but won’t go through half of that effort (and significantly less cost) to give a forever home to older children or teenagers.

Maybe foster care agencies could do more recruiting among the parents who are looking to adopt privately or overseas and say, ‘Hey, we’ve got kids right here.’…there’s a chance – but if a mom takes her baby back, you’ve provided a young person with a vital foundation. It sounds terrible, but if you lose that baby you could try again. It sounds terrible, but that sounds a lot like pregnancy. Or like love.

Foster Care isn’t easy, and Beam absolutely makes sure that her readers are aware of that. She doesn’t paint pictures of unicorns and rainbows. But she does give great advice for those who are considering or are struggling with their foster children. She quotes Francine Cournos – former foster child and former deputy director of the New York State Psychiatric Institute:

Right up front we need a more therapeutic foster care model in which parents are trained to understand that when kids come to them they’re going to be distrustful, cut off, and too traumatized to make an attachment.

But it will be worth it! Giving a safe, loving, comfortable home and living situation to a young person whose past has been fraught with pain, anger, neglect, and/or sadness, could mean the difference in that young person becoming a stable member of society, or one that falls into a poor mental and/or emotional state, life of crime, homelessness, or worse. Because that is the reality.

Mary Keane, an adoptive mother who runs foster parenting training and recruitment classes in New York said that foster care, but definition, means personal sacrifice:

Parents should do [foster care] because the kids need it. Otherwise they’re going to be disappointed. You do it because you want to help a kid and because you enjoy seeing them grow. The gratitude for what you’ve done might come later. Like after 5 years of Hell.

While that may sound like nothing you’d ever want to get involved in, plenty of adults (single or married) are drawn to help. Not for the financial return they get from the state for housing and taking care of a foster child. That amount is abysmal. It’s about the desire to help.

Read-alikes: 
If you’re interested in learning facts, without personal agendas being shoved down your throat, read Five Days at Memorial by Sheri Fink. The Pulitzer prize-winning investigative journalist researched the heck out of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina’s devastation of Memorial Hospital. But it wasn’t just the physical structure that failed, but the emergency preparedness of the staff who couldn’t save everyone.

Recommended for:
I implore you to read this book if foster care or domestic adoption is on your mind. Even if you’re just moved by the Wednesday’s Child commercials you see on TV or by the South Korean pastor-turned-orphanage director Lee Jong-rak who created the baby Drop Box.

I attended a foster care and adoption information session last night in Fairfax County. Adoption has been in my heart for many years – even those teen and young adult years when I was convinced I’d never have children due to my complete lack of patience and tenderness – so attending the session was just to get a little information. I have never considered foster care because I was (am) afraid of loving someone, then having them taken from me. Then again, when they leave, chances are they’d be going back to their birth families (good!) or an adoptive home (unless I chose to adopt them). So that’d be a positive move! Regardless, the option has been tabled for now, as my husband and I are no where near ready for such a life-altering task.

review: Reality Boy by A.S. King

realityA.S. King has a way with words. A way that makes me cry. Not like it takes much to make me cry, but there are some books that do it to me, and it is genuine. This is one of those books.

It’s also one of those books that makes me question why we – Americans, humans, decent people – think certain things are okay. Why is it okay that we put children on reality TV shows, often in unflattering situations? Just for a good laugh? Or to make us feel better about our own not-so-great family lives? “Man, we sure are effed up, but at least we aren’t like those crazy fools on TV! Honey, grab me another beer!”

I should tell you what it’s about. That’s what a book review should begin with, right?

Reality Boy by AS King is about Gerald. He is sixteen now, but was only six when his family was on a reality TV show that is a lot like Supernanny – an actual TV show that puts a British nanny into an American household to whip the kids and family into shape. Gerald’s family was on the show, and his actions led him to be ridiculed and bullied over the past ten years. Dubbed “the crapper” for his penchant for defecating in random locations around the house – shoes, closets, tables, beds –  Gerald was thought to be acting out when in fact it was the only way he could think to respond to the violent sociopath living right under his own roof.

Gerald attends anger management classes, practices stress-reducing techniques including deep breathing and going to a safe place in his head, all in order to stay calm and not violent. Sometimes he is successful, other times not. Gerald’s story is a very difficult one to read, but one that just has to be true. There’s no conceivable way that real-life “reality kids” are not as scarred as the fictional Gerald. No way can a film crew walk into their lives and leave it in a better state.

I’ve been a reality TV show fan for many years. I love Top Chef, Rock of Love (yeah…the Bret Michaels show), Biggest Loser, Bachelor, etc…but those are adults. Adults who know what reality TV is like, that they can be portrayed as someone they are not by creative editing, that it is a game to be played. But those are adults. I have no sympathy for them. But when children are pulled into this crap, I can’t stand it. Even if it’s not a competitive show, even if it’s just a look into their lives – a la the Duggars – it is not okay. They didn’t ask for the cameras. They have no idea that what is filmed can be edited to make them look whatever way the producers think will grab more viewers.

Reality Boy is believable. It is scary and sad, but hopeful. Gerald, and a couple people in his life, hope for a better future. There is despair, but there is also hope. And for some people, that is what helps them push through each and every day.

Recommended for: 
Boys, girls, teens, and reality TV show fans (for the behind-the-scenes chapters. I wonder if King did any research into that).

Read-alikes: 
Eleanor & Park
and Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell, for their gritty realism.

review: & Sons a novel by David Gilbert

gilbert

& Sons by David Gilbert is a story about the men of the Dyer and Topping families over a brief week, but also throughout their entire lives. Told in the present, yet full of flashbacks and memories so rich you would think the narrators had just endured the pain of the memories, & Sons is about the fathers, the sons, themselves…and they are all described in such descriptive detail that the reader feels a bit voyeuristic, knowing such deeply personal things about the men who make up these fictional New York families.

Beginning at the funeral of Charles Topping – the best friend of renowned yet reclusive author Andrew Dyer – Topping’s son Phillip narrates the event, and the inner thoughts of every Topping and Dyer gentleman in attendance. After moving in with the eldest Dyer, one of the many uncomfortable moments Phillip makes the reader endure, Phillip watches Andrew and his three sons in a second attempt to fuse himself into the lives of the Dyer men. Long obsessed with the author, wishing to be another of Andrew’s son, to be a Dyer son’s best friend, to be Andy Jr.’s favorite teacher, Phillip observes the family’s quick recovery after years of estrangement, followed even more quickly by a crash.

There might be no gods, but we are still their playthings.

Life, I’m convinced, is filled with far more near misses than we dare to imagine. Late in waking up, missing a train, not answering a phone, going down 79th Street instead of 80th Street – how many of those moments have spared our life?

I found myself submerged in Gilbert’s writing. I was sitting in the pews, I felt the chill of the early Spring air, I felt the creak in my arthritic bones. But I felt all of this without reading anything as mundane as “it was cold out”. And I felt the resentment, the lust, and the hollowness, usually more than one at a time.

 

In my defense, I loved her. Then again, I’m guilty of easily falling in love, of confusing the abstract with the conrete, hoping the words might cast me as a caring individual and dispel my notions of a sinister center. I believe in love at first sight so that I might be seen.

I have no brothers or sons, but the familial intimacy – or lack thereof, depending on which character was expounding on their past or their present – is one that I believe some adult readers can relate to. The novel’s themes are relevant to most adults, and would be life-changing for teens if they were mature enough to realize that they can, in fact, learn from others’ mistakes.

Fathers start as gods and end as myths and in between whatever human form they take can be calamitous for their sons.

Read-alikes:
The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach is quite similar to this, as it is a deep, layered look into quite a few characters who each could be the star of their own book.

Recommended for:
Adults, men or women, who enjoy description and language.

review: Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell

fangirl

Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell is the story of Cath (real name Cather, twin sister is Wren…get it? yeah, their mom wasn’t expecting twins and didn’t want to think of another name), whose anxiety keeps her from really enjoying her freshman year at the University of Nebraska. Daughter of a similarly-diagnosed father (but throw in a little manic just to keep things interesting) and estranged mother, Cath’s saving grace is her twin sister. Unfortunately college brings out the worst in her twin, and she chooses drinking, partying, and silly girlfriends over her sister and their shared love of writing Simon Snow fanfiction. So Cath continues writing by herself. But – unexpectedly to Cath but expected by YA readers – a boy gets in her way. More like two boys.

Levi is the always-smiling kinda-ex-boyfriend of her buxom roommate Reagan. Nick is her writing partner from her upper-level fiction-writing course. She is uniquely attracted to both, but denies her feelings because she’d rather spend her evenings and free time with the fictional Simon and Baz, characters from a fictional Harry Potter-like series whom she has re-written to be gay. The fictional fanfiction segments have as much typical Rainbow Rowell wit as the actual novel:

Simon spends the entire fifth book following Baz around and describing his eyes. It’s like a thesaurus entry for ‘gray’.

Cath writes about the two boys’ interactions and feelings so well, so intensely, but shies away from her own possible romantic interludes. Even when Levi says things that got my heart racing, she tries to deny her feelings.

I always get lost in the library, he said, no matter how many times I go. In fact, I think I lost there more, the more I go. Like it’s getting to know me and revealing new passages.

This is much more than a story about a college romance, or twin sisters finding their individual identities, or raising your voice over a sea of noise. It’s family, friendship, love, respect, and most importantly…it’s real. Rainbow has done it again. She has written a book that, despite not actually being Cather, I am Cather. And Wren. And Levi, too. Her characters transcend stereotypes and become multi-dimensional people who I feel like I know. Heck, maybe I do.

Read-alikes:
Anything other book by Rainbow Rowell, and Seraphina by Rachel Hartman (despite it being fantasy, complete with dragons and sword fighting).

Recommended for:
Young adult women, fans of fanfiction (I loved reading what Cath went through to publish her stories, and her sense of ownership over them), girls who feel that they are alone. It’s rather empowering, even.

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The book follows Cath’s love of fanfiction, right? So I LOVE that when I Google image search the book and fan art comes up. This one by artist Simini Blocker of Cath and Reagan is just spot-on and I love it. (She drew more of the Fangirl characters and I just adore them all.) More than that, readers are painting their nails in the color scheme of the book’s cover, and baking cakes. I just…I want to do all of it, but I have no one to do it with. 😦

fan

[Yet another] Side note to Eleanor & Park fans, IDK how I missed this until now but she posted her playlist for the book. Love it!!

Wednesday reads: no light reading

What a grab bag this week’s reads are. Zombie-people (kinda?), family relationships, and the true story of the aftermath of one of America’s worst natural disaster catastrophes. No light reading here, folks!

returnedThe Returned by Jason Mott is the story of how individuals and society deal with people returning from the dead – even 50 years after their death, as is the case with young Jacob, who died at age 8 and whose parents are now in their 70s. I’m waiting for it to get going, and I’m 6 CDs in, out of 9…so there is growing concern that the book will be more existential than literal. But check out the TV show trailer…although the storyline is drastically different, it looks awfully good. (The show is slated for Spring 2014.)

gilbert

& Sons by David Gilbert is the story of fathers, sons, men, and boys, all from the Topping and Dyer families of contemporary New York. Writers, students, professionals, amateurs…men from both families are one or the either, making for a fascinating and descriptive narrative.

Five-Days-at-Memorial-by-Sheri-FinkFive Days at Memorial by Sheri Fink is the product of incredible amounts of research into the goings-on at Memorial Hospital in New Orleans immediately before, during, and after rain and wind from Hurricane Katrina caused the levees to fail. I am a bit daunted – 200 pages in – with all the names and situations, but it is a harrowing tale.