Middler Books and More

This blog contains Bruce DuBoff's book reviews, info on other media, and related topics. It is a collaboration between the librarian and both the students of Pennsauken Intermediate School and Phifer Middle School in Pennsauken, NJ, and the general middler book reading community. The books featured here are appropriate for grades 5-8, though not all books reviewed here are appropriate for all of those ages.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Reeve, Philip. Here Lies Arthur (4 stars out of 4).
Gwyna does not know her age, she only knows that it is around 500 C.E., her master is dead, her master’s home is in flames, and the famous Arthur is responsible for her misery. Almost dead after being attacked, Gwyna escapes and is found by Myrddin the bard, who rescues her and begins a great adventure that unfolds quite differently than the legends on which it is based. Gwyna becomes a part of Myrddin’s plans to unify Britain with Arthur as its king, and a series of illusions are staged to catapult Arthur’s name into the spotlight. It becomes clear to Gwyna, changed to Gwyn and the appearance of a boy to hide her identity and save her life, that there are actually two Arthurs: “. . . the hard man who had burned my home, and another one who lived in Myrddin’s stories . . . I liked the Arthur of the stories better, but some of his bravery and mystery rubbed off on the real man” (62). Gwyn and Gwyna encounter many of the famous figures of Arthurian legend, but, as Myrddin explains, few live up to the stories woven around them, especially Arthur: “‘There’s no difference between Arthur and any other of Uthr’ s [Arthur’s father’s] landless bastards, except that Arthur has me to spin stories like that one about him’” (27). Gwyn/Gwyna witnesses and participates in the genesis and death of both Arthur the leader and Arthur the legend, and Myrddin’s cynicism makes Gwyn/Gwyna both wiser and more appreciative of what life can offer if one understands herself and her place in a world of opportunity and hope.
I once spent 2 years writing a three-part Arthurian blank verse narrative, and I do not read too much Arthurian literature because I do not like the watering down of the legends that authors usually choose. Fortunately, in Here Lies Arthur, Philip Reeve takes the opposite approach, refusing to insult or demean the reader, weaving an old straw story into a new gold standard. Mr. Reeve properly and cleverly understands that the Arthurian legends are not sacred, and that like any other stories, they can and should be molded to suit modern sensibilities. Myrddin is not the old magical wizard of Excalibur, he is Karl Rove in robes, with a touch of Joseph Goebbels for extra ruthlessness. Myrddin wants victory for Arthur at any cost, even risking alliances he spent years building. Even when he realizes that he overestimated Arthur’s skills as a leader, he continues to weave the myth of Arthur until the end of the tale. Philip Reeve has brilliantly reinvented the Arthurian legends for a modern audience, with all of the cynicism and propaganda of today. I enjoyed this book probably more than I expected; it is smart, funny, and irreverent at the right times, and this modern legend will appeal to the sensibilities of smart young people who have learned about cynicism and hypocrisy after experiencing the sick majesty of their first presidential election.

Mass, Wendy. 11 Birthdays (3 1/2 stars out of 4).
It may seem like only a coincidence that on the day they are born, Amanda Ellerby and Leo Fitzpatrick are together in the hospital, but when the mysterious, ancient Angelina D’Angelo appears and insinuates that the children (and families), strangers to each other, will be the best of friends, the fathers become uneasy: “The men were suddenly struck with an uneasy feeling, like they were remembering something out of a storybook someone read to them when they were children” (3). The uneasiness results from the town’s history, in which the two families once feuded so nastily that their struggles over the town’s apple orchards threatened to tear the small town of Willow Falls apart. Then, one day, after they were given a year to change their ways and save the town, they “magically” reconciled their differences, and became best friends, like Amanda and Leo. However, when a misunderstanding and a fight separate the two great-great-grandchildren, strange things start happening to Amanda, and time seems to be repeating itself: “Did I just dream everything that happened yesterday . . . I must be psychic! Maybe I always WAS, and it’s just coming out now that I’m eleven. I must be having premonitions, which was a vocabulary word in English class a few months ago” (63). The truth is far stranger than even Amanda predicts, and both she and Leo must discover the solution together or else risk their futures and be stuck forever in the past.
I sometimes forget that an old plot device to me may be a new literary innovation to my students, so I generally forgive authors for using old dogs as long as they add some new tricks. 11 Birthdays by Wendy Mass (Jeremy Fink and the Meaning of Life, A Mango Shaped Space) is a clever use of the Ground Hog Day scenario. Amanda and Leo are likable kids, and they are genuinely interested in being true to themselves, doing the right thing when they should and the wrong thing when they think they can. They are pragmatists who want to feel in control of their lives and their decisions, and they respond with appropriate horror when they realize that their lives may not be entirely their own. Ms. Mass cleverly sets up the story so that the title is ironic on several levels, and she weaves enough mystery into the plot to keep it moving forward. This book is excellent for on-level readers in 4th and 5th grade, but also for lower readers one or two grades higher.

Roth, Matthue. Losers (3 stars out of 4). Contains graphic language.
Jupiter Jason Glazer, a 14-year-old Russian Jewish immigrant, is trying desperately to find his identity and place in a society with mores and a language that do not quite feel like his. Living in The Yards (the industrial section of lower Northeast Philadelphia) but attending the equivalent of Central High School, Jupiter’s most immediate problem is a bully named Bates, whose “two hundred pounds was shrouded in a T-shirt formerly owned, according to his insignia, by a band called the Thrill Kill Kult,* and the fists were garlanded by two (allowed in school, but only barely) bracelets studded with metal spikes” (4). Jupiter is not looking for trouble, and when he accidentally stumbles upon a party of cool kids thanks to the hacking skills of Vadim, his compu-dude Russian friend, Jupiter meets and immediately falls for Devin Murray, the most popular girl at school. He gains acceptance at the party and at school, but other problems linger. Not only is Jupiter crazy about Devin, he is also crazy about Margie, a waitress at the Glazer family’s favorite diner, and about the girl at the record store, and about everyone else with the proper equipment. On top of his hormonal difficulties, his family may be in jeopardy of losing its home, his friendship with Vadim is on the rocks, and he has learned a secret about Bates the bully that has even further complicated his life.
I have wanted to read a PUSH (Scholastic’s older teen, high interest series) novel for a while, but I was afraid that the content would not be appropriate for my 5-8 libraries. However, Losers by Matthue Roth seemed less intimidating than a couple of the others I saw; while some books are clearly targeted for high school students only, some seemed tame enough for my middle school. Despite overuse of all relevant letter bombs, this novel rang true to me, and although the storyline near the end contains holes, the rest of the novel is a sensitive and broad exploration of the post-immigrant experience, socio-economic labeling, and the normal emergence of male sexuality (no pun intended) without any graphic sex or promiscuity. Younger teens would enjoy this material as well as older ones, because even though Scholastic recommends this book for ages 15 and older, 13-year-olds are having the same thoughts as Jupiter and they may not have enough literature that realistically reflects their stage of coming of age.

*Reviewer’s note: The full name of the band is My Life with the Thrill Kill Kult, and they play mostly hypnotic and pop-flavored dance music; they’re actually pretty good, but their lyrics and content tend to be graphic.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Ferraiolo, Jack D. The Big Splash (3 1/2 stars out of 4).
My most challenging request as a book recommender is when a student asks for a funny book. As people like Michael Richards and Don Imus discovered a couple of years ago, and what Howard Stern has known for years, what is funny to one person is not funny to another. I have never chuckled once at a Captain Underpants book, yet my students love them. I thought The True Meaning of Smekday was the funniest middler book I had ever read and I laughed out loud while reading it; however, none of my students seemed to share my enthusiasm—some liked it, but not one thought it was laugh-out-loud funny. After having just finished The Big Splash by first-time novelist Jack D. Ferraiolo, I don’t know what to think. Since I found it very funny and entertaining, does that doom it to the back shelves? Should I tell my students I think it’s boring and hope for reverse psychology? However I decide to market it, it is the first middler noir book I have ever read, and it bowled me over and spit me out like a ragged hailstone in a Midwestern tornado.
Matt Stevens is tough, but he will need all of his wits to solve the biggest crime of his young life—the “shooting” (water pistol below the belt so it looks like the person peed her pants) of Nikki Fingers, once the most notorious ally of school boss Vinny Biggs, but now just plain old Nicole Finnegan until the shooting. Once a person is shot, he or she is in “the Outs,” the losers’ club, and ostracized from all school life. Matt runs a detective agency in his apartment building’s basement (imagine Encyclopedia Brown in seventh grade and with an attitude), and he is hired by Vinny, the underground leader of “The Frank,” Franklin Middle School, to find out who made the hit. Matt senses trouble after he negotiates with Vinny: “I sat there cursing myself for breaking one of my long-standing rules: Don’t ever work for Vinny Biggs . . . Nothing that paid well was ever easy” (11). Matt’s former best friend Kevin Carling, now Vinny’s lieutenant in “the organization,” is also involved, as well as Joey ‘the Hyena” Renoni, hall monitors (the police in this story) Katie and Melanie Kondo, and reporter Jimmy MacGregor, and Matt’s two potential love interests, kevin’s sister Liz and Nicole’s sister Jenny. The stakes are extremely high: once a student is in the Outs, he or she is history. Matt attempts to understand why the students at the Frank allow this system of humiliation: “Middle school is tough. Everyone’s got a reason to be insecure. If someone else is getting laughed at, then that means nobody’s laughing at you. And most kids feel like they’re always one step away from being the class joke” (21). Matt must put the pieces together and figure out who had means, opportunity and motive. His single mother is supportive but works too much to be around much of the time. When she starts to sense that Matt is hiding something big in his life she demands to be involved. Matt does not tell her about his case, but he does confide in her about his girl trouble: “I knew I wasn’t going to be able to get off the hook without giving her something to chew on. There’s nothing more persistent than a concerned mother. They’re like rottweilers with good intentions” (156). Amid all of this turmoil, Matt must keep Mom happy, be mindful of the traps that have been set for him, try not to anger his potential girlfriends (or Vinny), and deduce truth from deception in order to solve this case and move on with his life.
The narrator in this novel has his tongue so deeply planted in his cheek that it would need to be surgically removed. His voice is predictable, but not like the cliché this novel could have been; more like an old pair of jeans or loafers, comfortable and well-worn. Although there aren’t too many belly laughs, I chuckled quite a bit, and I hope my students do too, because I “get” all of the clever noir references and I fear they will not. However, understanding the noir tradition may not be necessary to enjoyment of the novel. With The Big Splash, Jack D. Ferraiola has transformed an old literary tradition into a fun, new, middler comedy/mystery/action genre; it may not matter that it also just happens to give homage to Sam Spade and his contemporaries.

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