The Hub Reading Challenge

2014_hub_reading_challenge_logo_participantThis year I am participating in The Hub Reading Challenge. Now, I am not much of a reading challenge person. I’ve considered doing various challenges, like the Shelf Challenge or the 48 Hour Book Challenge. They always sound awesome and fun to start out with, but then I realize I just want to be able to read whatever I want and I don’t want to read books I’m not in the mood for!

But the Hub Reading Challenge is doable, I think. The challenge is to read 25 books between February 3 and June 22.  Not just any books, but books off a list of 2013 YALSA award winners and honors. There are something like 60 books to choose from, and a great variety of adult titles for teens, graphic novels, audiobooks, etc. So it comes down to a little more than one book a week, which I should theoretically be able to do and still read other books if I want do (and oh do I want to).

The hardest thing about this challenge is that I already read so many of the books on the list last year as they were coming out! For them to count towards the challenge, I would have to re-read them during the Feb-June period. And really, who has time to re-read books when there are always new books coming out every day? But that means most of the books left on the list are books I would not normally read on my own, so I do have to go out of my comfort zone and push myself to try reading new things. But hey, isn’t that the whole point of a reading challenge anyway?

The funny thing is that I consider myself a fast reader, but whenever I go to the weekly Hub Reading Challenge Check In I am SHOCKED, shocked I tell you, at how many books my fellow readers have read. Like some people have already read over 30 books, or more! It astounds me. As of today, I am at 12 books. But hey, I guess that means I’m halfway done! (Also, I tried this challenge last year and I only got to 10 books, so I’m already doing better than I did before!)

So now I’ll finally get to the good part and talk about a few of my favorite Hub Challenge books I’ve read this year.

13221769Beautiful Music for Ugly Children by Kirsten Cronn-Mills

Gabe was born a girl and his name was Elizabeth. But he has always known he was boy. This story takes place as Gabe is transitioning and going public as identifying as male. But what makes this book so great is that it is so much more than a story about transgender issues. It is about music and friendship and identity and the courage to live and speak your truth.

Relish by Lucy Knisley15786110

I had heard a lot of good things about this foodie graphic novel memoir and they were all true. Lucy Knisley writes (and draws) about her life growing up surrounded by gourmet chefs, food critics, and all around good food. Each section tells a different story from her growing up years and of course ties it all to food and ends with a recipe. I expected the book to be a little snobby but found it to be just the opposite.  I loved the stories about relationships and growing up and found a lot to relate to even though my upbringing did not have nearly so many fancy cheeses!

16231347The Adventures of Superhero Girl by Faith Erin Hicks

I am a huge fan of Faith Erin Hicks. I even got to meet her at ALA last summer! I totally wish now I had bought a copy of The Adventures of Superhero Girl and had her sign it because I really loved this book! The comic was originally posted online as a webcomic and I am so glad it has been compiled and printed in paper to reach a wider audience. The story follows Superhero Girl, a girl with your average superpowers just trying to get by. It is very charming and very funny and a really great read.

Charm & Strange by Stephanie Kuehn 16045088

There is no real way to talk about this book without giving too much away. The story alternates between the present and the past. Andrew Winston Winters used to go by Drew. Back then he was a nine-year-old tennis star with anger issues. Now he goes by Win, attends a New England boarding school, and tries to avoid other people. As the story progresses and more and more is revealed, this book will break your heart.

16151178The Sea of Tranquility by Katja Milljay

Apparently I’m really into books that pack an emotional punch right now, because this one is another hard-hitter. Nastya and Josh are two teens with tragic histories. Nastya has just started at a new school and is doing everything she can to keep people at a distance. She has taken a vow of silence and has not spoken in nearly two years. But she finds herself drawn to Josh, a young man in her woodworking class who also keeps people at a distance. Can their relationship save both of them?

 

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Favorite Reads of 2013 (Part One)

10836471 Midwinterblood by Marcus Sedgwick

This novel begins in the year 2073 when a man named Eric visits the island of Blessed and meets a woman named Merle. After this beginning section we have six different parts and each one goes back further in time, all the way back to the tenth century. The stories seem very different from one another, but they are all intertwined in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. There is a lot of symbolism in this book and the setting and atmosphere are just the right amount of spooky and mysterious. This is a beautiful book about love and sacrifice and one that is begging to be reread again and again.

FangirlFangirl by Rainbow Rowell

After I read this, I knew I had found my new favorite book. I already posted a review of this book here. Here, I’ll just say if you would like an amazing book about the first year college experience, fandom, writing, social anxiety, and family relationships with the best romance I have probably ever read, then you must absolutely read this book! Even if none of those things sound interesting to you, read it anyway. It is that good.

15819028 The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker

It’s no secret I love speculative fiction/magic realism/literary fantasy/whatever you want to call it. And this book was just my cup of tea. It takes place in the immigrant neighborhoods of New York in 1899. A Jewish man has a rabbi use old magic to make him a wife out of clay, a golem. When the man dies on the passage to the United States, the golem must make her own way in the city. A few blocks away, an Arabic tinsmith accidentally releases an ancient powerful jinni and worlds collide in beautiful ways when the two magical beings meet. I love what one of my new favorite authors, Anne Ursu, had to say about this book, “Here’s an adult book smart and inventive enough to be written for children.”

15953632If You Want to See a Whale by Julie Fogliano, illustrated by Erin Stead

It’s also no secret that I love whales. Whales are my favorite animal and my dream is to go whale watching, so I found this picture book about whale watching absolutely delightful. In this quiet and thoughtful book, the narrator describes the many things you must not do if you want to see a whale. Erin Stead won the Caldecott Medal a few years ago for A Sick Day for Amos McGee, also delightful. When I went to the ALA exhibits in Chicago this year, I got to meet her and she signed this book for me! I was in heaven.

1161536 The Dark Phoenix Saga by Chris Claremont

Even though this was written over thirty years ago, this was the best graphic novel/comic book I read all year and it also made me a dying and eternal fan of the X-Men. I’m always on the lookout for comics with strong female characters, and this story about Jean Grey of the X-Men could very well be the best I’ve read yet. I was initially put off by the retro comics style artwork and coloring, but once I was hooked on the story, it really started to grow on me. When it was over I was begging Michael for more amazing stories like this. Sadly, there really aren’t enough out there. But for a good read in its current run, definitely check out the new all-female cast X-Men title by Brian Wood.

15944406The Doll Bones by Holly Black

This is probably my favorite middle grade book of the year. It has just the right elements creepy old dolls, friendships, magic, quest adventures, and themes of growing up to make it a nearly perfect book. Zach, Poppy, and Alice are three friends who have always created fantasy worlds in their play together. Now that they are growing older, Zach is having doubts about whether he wants to keep playing the game. Then, Poppy tells Zach and Alice a dark story about an old doll in her mother’s cabinet and the ghost of the doll that is haunting her until she returns the doll to the site of her burial. Spooky but not too spooky and lots of fun, I highly recommend this book to readers of all ages, especially since I wish it had been around for me to read when I was younger because I could absolutely relate to these characters and their struggles with growing up and letting go of their fantasy worlds.

The Dream Thieves

17347389The Dream Thieves by Maggie Stiefvater. 14 and up. Scholastic Press. 439 pages. Copy provided by my library.

Be forewarned, this is the second book in a series, so you’re going to want to read The Raven Boys first. So go do that right now, and come back right away. Because, guys, the second book is even better.

In the first book, Blue, who was raised in a family of psychics, meets four best friends Gansey, Ronan, Adam, and Noah, who are students at the private school nearby. She joins them on their quest to find an ancient Welsh king and there is magic and mystery and the characters are so vivid they jump off the page and the relationships between all of them are very complex and interesting and it is just one heck of a great book.

And like I said, book two is even better! The best way I can describe The Dream Thieves, what I found myself thinking again and again as I was reading it, is that this book is intense. And not only intense, but fast paced and filled with emotion and tension on every page. Reading this book is like an experience in not being able to catch your breath for page after page after page.

You discover as you read that there is a lot more magic in this world than you realized. And it’s also really scary and can affect you in disturbing ways. This book is mostly about Ronan who is a dark and angry character with a really, really interesting story line. He can take stuff out of his dreams. And he learns how to control it and starts doing it more and more but there are dangerous people out there who are after him and also other people who have this gift and abuse it. But the plot is so much more complex than that and there are so many surprises and twists and turns and I don’t think I have ever read  a breathtaking page turner quite like it.

The five characters Stiefvater has created are so, so real. They are so strongly written and all have unique thoughts and desires and motives behind their actions. I can’t think of many other books with such a large main cast that are so strongly and distinctly written. It is really, really well done here. And I love each of those characters with my whole heart, even though quite a few of them are the kind of guys I would probably despise if I knew them in real life. But Blue even kind of acknowledges this but once she got to know them and was sucked into their world and their quest and their magic, she fell in love with all four of them too. I love this series and I am just dying to see where it is headed next.

Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell

FangirlFangirl by Rainbow Rowell. 14 and up. St. Martin’s Press. 433 pages. Copy provided by my library.

I think I have just discovered my favorite book of the year. Quite possibly my favorite book ever! Well, yes, I do have many, many favorites, but just trust me on this one. Fangirl is a really, really good book. I can’t remember the last book I read that affected me so deeply, that had me so lost in the story and the characters, so believing in every single word on the page. I don’t remember the last time I discovered an author who was speaking TO ME. Who wrote this book FOR ME. That is how Rainbow Rowell makes you feel. She has an amazing ability to look into the human soul and somehow capture it on the page. Have I mentioned I love this book?

Oh, you wanted an actual review? Not just me gushing my heart out in love? Okay, I’ll try to see what I can do.

Fangirl is the story of Cath in her freshman year of college. There absolutely need to be more books about this important life transition. (Another 2013 book that deals with year, though in my opinion not nearly so well, is Just One Day by Gayle Forman. Interesting to compare the two.) Anyway, Cath is very close to her twin sister Wren. They are going to the same Nebraska university but Wren doesn’t want to be roommates. She wants to experience college to the fullest and have her own social life apart from her sister. Cath has social anxiety and is a bit of a hermit, so she isn’t used to meeting people or doing things without Wren by her side. Navigating college on her own is really tough. Cath also writes fanfiction and has thousands of readers who hang on her every word. She is writing a Simon Snow story and is racing to get it finished before the final Simon Snow novel comes out. Over time, Cath does start to slowly make friends with her roommate and her roommate’s friend Levi.

The novel covers a whole year in Cath’s life. Some parts might feel slow to some readers, or as though not a lot is happening. But I loved the slower pace. Through that year we get to watch her grow into herself, find her voice as a writer, deal with her relationships with her partying sister and her mentally unstable dad and her nonexistent relationship with her mother (who left them), and oh did I mention fall in love? This book has the most achingly lovely and real romance. Normally I’m not a gushy person but oh I loved it and it made me feel swoony. Plus, there are so many parts that are just witty and hilarious and so, so funny. Rowell has such an amazing way with words. As a diehard Harry Potter fan, I loved the Simon Snow passages interspersed throughout. I actually really wish they were real books and that I could read more of that story. It was wonderful.

So, if I sound like I only have good things to say about this book, it is because mostly I do. It is a long book with a lot of plot threads and the ending seemed a little rushed in the way it tied up all the threads pretty quickly. I would have liked a slower burn of an ending to fit the pace of the rest of the book. Really, though, I just didn’t want the book to end. Cath and Levi and Wren and her dad and all the characters are so real to me now that as soon as I finished the book I missed them. And I have to say once again, this is the best book I’ve read all year.

Flora & Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures

16052012Flora & Ulysess: The Illuminated Adventures by Kate DiCamillo. Ages 8-12. Candlewick Press. 233 pages. Copy provided by my library.

Here’s a link to a fun interview with the author.

I was instantly charmed by Flora & Ulysses. It is absolutely just my kind of book. Flora, our smart, cynical young heroine loves to read about the adventures of the Illuminated Man in the comics her dad used to read to her. But now her parents are divorced and she lives with her mom, who writes romance novels and hates comic books. Ulysses, the superhero squirrel, got his powers when he was vacuumed up in a Ulysses turbo vacuum (it is also how he got his name). He was rescued by Flora, and became a flying, typing, poetry-writing superhero squirrel.

This book has a cast of fantastic peculiar side characters and it is both laugh-out-loud hilarious and tug-at-your-heartstrings sweet. There are comic book panels, drawn by K. G. Campbell, that occasionally further the story. And those scenes of action told through comic books style images really make this book fantastic. We even get to hear parts of the story from Ulysses’ point of view, and DiCamillo has nailed the narrative voice of a squirrel, let me tell you. It is simply perfect. The same goes for the voice of the entire book. It really is just pitch-perfect. There is a lot of clever wordplay in this book, which only adds to the charm and the characters of Flora and William Spiver. At is heart, though, it is a book about finding your place in the world, and it does a very fantastic job of sharing that message.

I fell in love with this super-powered squirrel and his best friend and champion Flora and I am going to be excited to share this with the children I work with. This very well may be one of my favorite books of the year.

Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock

New-FMLP-CoverForgive Me, Leonard Peacock by Matthew Quick. 14 and up. Little, Brown, Books for Young Readers. 273 pages. Copy provided by my library.

Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock is a perfect book if you are looking for an emotional punch in the gut. Leonard has decided is 18th birthday is the day he is going to die. He is going to kill his former best friend with his grandfather’s WWII relic Nazi gun, and then kill himself right after. But before that fateful moment, he has another mission to complete. He has four gifts for the four people in his life who care about him, and he is going to deliver the gifts and say goodbye to each of them.

The course of the book all takes place in this one day, and there is a lot of, will he, won’t he at the beginning that really carries the plot forward. I was very emotionally engaged in finding out what Leonard would decide to do, and what (if anything) would happen to make him change his mind and choose life. I was also in suspense about what terrible thing had happened to him to make him choose death and take the life of another. Everything is slowly revealed over the course of the novel, all of it in Leonard’s hard, cynical, angry voice. I really felt his character’s pain and it felt all too real to me as a reader.

Warning: Spoilers ahead. The side characters do at times feel a little like stock characters without any real depth. But this is Leonard’s story and we only get his perspective, so it could be this is how he sees them. Especially, Lauren; I feel his view of her is very warped. His neighbor Walt feels a little to idealized, and the sympathetic teacher as savior was a little overdone, but also all very raw and real as we saw things through Leonard’s eyes. One of the most unique things about this book are the letters from the future. I liked the author’s choice not to explain the origins of the letters at first. It left me wondering and I liked the time travel/speculative nature of it. When we find out that Leonard has written the letters himself as a writing exercise given to him by his teacher, I didn’t feel that ruined it for me. Instead, it showed me another side of Leonard, the hopeful side of him, the side that wants to live and wants to live through this and experience love again. I hope he does get a future like that, though at the end of the book we aren’t completely sure what lies in store for him. There is a glimmer of hope but it is only the faintest, faintest glimmer.

Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock is not a perfect novel. But it is a really, really great one. I think Matthew Quick handled a tough subject in a very believable and honest way. I will certainly be recommending this to older teens who like their books dark and gritty and real.

The Lions of Little Rock

The Lions of Little Rock. By Krisitin Levine. Putnum Juvenile, January 2012. 304 pages. $16.99.

The Lions of Little Rock is about an event in history I was not aware of before reading this book. In 1957, nine African-American high school students were integrated into the Little Rock schools and they were known as “The Little Rock Nine.” But this book tells the story about what happened after that. The city was so torn about integration that the next school year, all of the high schools in the city were closed for the entire year rather than integrate. But this story is also about Marlee, a 12-year-old girl who befriends a new girl at school named Liz, only to find out when Liz disappears from school that she was passing as white. Most of all, however, this is a story about Marlee finding her voice.

When the book starts out Marlee is very shy. The only people she talks to are her parents, her brother David, and her sister Judy. Other kids in her school even think she is mute. It is easy to sympathize with this character, especially if you have ever experienced shyness yourself. It is very rewarding to watch Marlee’s growth over the course of the year as she learns to speak up when she sees injustices around her.

The one thing Marlee does love is math. I though this aspect of Marlee’s personality was done very well. I liked that she counted prime numbers to herself when she was nervous, and her interest in magic boxes had me wanting to learn more. Another interesting thing that Marlee does is compare the people in her life to different beverages. “My brother, David, is a glass of sweet iced tea on a hot summer day,” or “Turns out Betty Jean wasn’t just plain water after all. She had a twist of lime that was all her own.” I really enjoyed this unique way of looking at the world, and it’s a good introduction to metaphors for readers. One thing I did notice that was slightly odd was how many times there are spilled drinks in the story, especially in the beginning of the book. I’m still trying to decide if there is any meaning behind this, but it was noticeable.

The historical and civil rights aspects of the story are done very well. We learn a lot about race relations during this period and the ugliness of the racism at this time is not lightly glossed over. This will foster a lot of discussion and if handled well can make this a powerful book. However, because of the racism and the violence and the scary situations that are portrayed, I would be careful about recommending this to younger children. I think for ages 12 and up would be a good guide for this one. There are many lessons to be learned from this book: friendship, finding a voice, courage, and civil rights are just a few. I am sure this book will be discussed in the months leading up to Newbery 2013. I would say it is a definite contender and a very enjoyable story.