Saturday, July 18, 2015

The Goldfinch - Book Review

The GoldfinchThe Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The writer's job is to go out into the world, record what they can and then do their best to share it with the reader. Tartt does a wonderful job of taking her audience into the world of art crimes, loss, furniture restoration, drug addiction, mistaken love and redemption.

Theo, the protagonist, spends much of the novel trying to put back the pieces of his life that were blown apart by a terrorists bomb. The cast of characters are never flat, they live in a world Tartt has worked hard to give three dimensions. The reader will appreciate the time and craft she gives to making each character someone you cheer for or against.

It is a book that I could not put down and found to be engaging from the first page to the last.

View all my reviews

The Light Between Oceans - Book Review

The Light Between OceansThe Light Between Oceans by M.L. Stedman

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

We make hundreds of decisions everyday. Our morals and ethics guide us, the voice of our conscience. But sometimes we travel down a dark path when we make the wrong decisions for the right reasons. That is the heart of the moral and ethical dilemna in The Light Between Oceans.

The uniqueness of this novel comes from the creation of sympathetic characters by author M.L. Stedman. As the story unfolds, Tom and Isabel Sherbourne, shattered by war and three miscarriages, are given a miraculous gift from the waves of the ocean. Their decisions from that point on lead to a heart wrenching story that will haunt you long after you close the book.

Sometimes there are no right answers.

View all my reviews

Navigating Early - Book Review

Navigating EarlyNavigating Early by Clare Vanderpool

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Vanderpool creates an updated version of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn. Updating the story to take in the special bond between two boys lost in a Maine military school due to deaths in the family.

Early Auden and Jack Baker form an unlikely friendship after Jack's military father drops Jack off in the Maine woods after Jack's mother dies. Amidst the rigor and structure of military school Jack is drawn to Early, a boy who is allowed to live outside the military routine. Soon Jack and Early are on their way, in search of a monster bear terrorizing the towns around the school.

Their journey forces them to confront pirates, slavery, and the losses that torture them both. Vanderpool creates memorable characters that make us which we were twelve again so that we could travel with them down the river, experiencing the world with awe and wonder.

View all my reviews

You Are Not So Smart - Book Review

You Are Not So Smart: Why You Have Too Many Friends on Facebook, Why Your Memory Is Mostly Fiction, and 46 Other Ways You're Deluding YourselfYou Are Not So Smart: Why You Have Too Many Friends on Facebook, Why Your Memory Is Mostly Fiction, and 46 Other Ways You're Deluding Yourself by David McRaney

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Have you ever had a lucky shirt? A lucky seat where you watched all of your team's games? Ever believed something strange because you were unsure if the speaker was honest?

The old saying is true: "We do not see the world as it is, we see the world as we are." So who are we? Well we are mostly the same, trapped in our own heads, modifying our memories and actions to support our ideology.

David McRaney presents a straightforward, easy to read and understand little book about how our mind tries to make order out of the chaotic randomness of our existence on this rock.

View all my reviews

A Monster Calls - Book Review

A Monster CallsA Monster Calls by Patrick Ness

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazing story that is well told and a must read for anyone who has lost someone close. The metaphorical ending will leave you with literal tears.

View all my reviews

Big Little Lies - Book Review

Big Little LiesBig Little Lies by Liane Moriarty

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Big Little Lies begins with a death, and even though we know that is the end, the entire narrative captures the reader in a web of ethics and morality.

The story revolved around spousal abuse, helicopter parents, bullying, infidelity, parenting, murder and friendship. Moriarty layers all of these themes in a well told tale about the parents supporting the Kindergarten class at Pirriwee Public School.

A great read whose events lead to a wonderfully twisted conclusion.

View all my reviews

Dark Places - Book Review

Dark PlacesDark Places by Gillian Flynn

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Gillian Flynn's second novel, Dark Places, previews Flynn's talent for creating twisted, broken characters. Each possesses a secret, a piece to solving the grisly murders of the Day family in rural Kansas the day after New Years. Using present day narration, with point of view flashbacks, Flynn slowly reveals the truth of the crime one hour at a time.

Libby, the lone survivor, drifting through life, living off the trust fund set up for her from charitable donations. Middle-aged, her account is empty, no one wants to donate to a middle-aged woman, decades removed from the events that made her a media darling. Encouraged by true crime enthusiasts and their $500 checks, she begins a journey to fill in the gaps in her memory.

Ben, convicted for the satanic murders and Libby's older brother, relives the day in memory. Each tragic moment building to the homicide.

Patty, Ben and Libby's mother, broke and overwhelmed with four children she cannot feed, an ex-husband she cannot get rid of and a looming foreclosure, relives the day of the murders and the decent into her own depression.

This novel can best be reviewed in two parts. The first 200 pages set up the characters, the crime, the questions people still have about Ben's guilt. This part drags at times, and often I would put down the novel and ask "Who cares?" or "What's the point?"

But, the last 140 pages put all of the characters into direct contact, forcing them to confront each other, to find the "truth." I ripped through the last third of the book, often times having to set it down for a moment to catch my breath.

I would say the payoff is worth the initial struggle and your perseverance pays off with the novels ending.

View all my reviews

Friday, July 17, 2015

Missing You - Book Review

Missing YouMissing You by Harlan Coben

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

You've read this novel before. Cliche ridden cop tropes and ridiculous dialogue riddle this story that tries to tie together a cops love life with her investigation of a terrifying serial killer who disguises his murders as mere "confidence schemes."

NYPD Kat Donovan lives in the shadows of her father's murder and the break up with her fiance a scant 18 years ago. A friend sets her up with a profile on an online dating service to help Kat get back in the game. Of course, scrolling through the profiles, Kat finds her former fiance but his name is changed.

Caught in the turmoil of her old love life Kat still wants to find the truth about her father's murder at the hands of a hit-man. As she digs deeper into the loose ends of her fathers death she is visited by an eighteen year old college student whose mother is missing. The last time she was seen was with a man she had just met on the same dating site Kat recently started visiting.

Needless to say these events attempt to merge together to form a page turning mystery that keeps you guessing until the end. Unfortunately Coben tries to delve into the world of cross-dressing yoga instructors and psychopathic murderers. The characters are hollow, cliche and predictable. Coben does create one memorable scene at the beginning of the novel when a man wakes up buried in a box. Anyone with claustrophobia issues will cringe reading this chapter, creeeeepy. Unfortunately Coben leaves that feeling of confinement and forces us to endure pages of explanation to how the serial killer scam works, it reads like a instruction manual for a wireless printer.

It will be a while before I put a Coben novel back into my too read stack. Too many other good books out there!

View all my reviews

Mr. Mercedes - Book Review

Mr. Mercedes (Bill Hodges Trilogy, #1)Mr. Mercedes by Stephen King
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I have a bias towards Stephen King and a bias against the "who-dunnit" genre. King has been scaring and entertaining me for almost three decades, and while some of his work is uneven, his latest novels have been very good. So I cracked the spine on Mr. Mercedes with high expectations, all of the lights turned on and the doors locked. Within a hundred pages I realized I had been duped into reading a mystery. The first part, according to King's Facebook page, of a trilogy.

It was much the same feeling I had while reading JK Rowlings "Cuckoo's Calling."

I read King and Rowling for their ability to create different realities and place their characters into difficult situations. If I want a mystery I can watch 20/20 or Dateline or the news. Murders and crime happen everyday. That is reality. Many people read to escape reality and in the case of Mr. Mercedes all we have is a fat retired detective, his lawn boy sidekick, and a bad guy who spent way too much time breast feeding as a toddler. Very little drama.

If you like the mystery drama this may be a "goodread" for you. But don't worry about things that go bump in the night, or the cat door mysteriously opening and closing, Mr. King seems to have kept all that to himself this time and the reader is not better for it.

View all my reviews

Pulse (Pulse #1) - Book Review

Pulse (Pulse, #1)Pulse by Patrick Carman

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Patrick Carman creates a barren, empty dystopian world where citizens are forced to move into States so the planet has a chance to reverse the effects of Global Warming. Living in the barren, desolated leftovers of society are the last hold outs, those people who refuse the lure of the States. Faith Daniels and her friends go to school in a ghost town, addicted to their Tablets, going to school so that a "teacher" can monitor them while they watch their lessons.

Trouble arises in the wonder twins of Wade and Clara, genetic athletic freaks. Over the course of time, Faith discovers she has a Pulse and with the help of Dylan, Hawk and the Drifters she will uncover a plot to destroy the States and end the balance between humans and the planet.

This is a good read that features a great cast, especially the villainous Wade and Clara. I am looking forward to reading the sequel. This has the potential to be a great series.

View all my reviews

Steelheart - Book Review

Steelheart (Reckoners, #1)Steelheart by Brandon Sanderson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This was a very interesting spin on the classic superhero tale. Sanderson creates a world where Epic's, mortals who developed special powers, have taken control of the world. Like mafia crime bosses, Epic's battle each other with their godlike powers in order to gain control of large urban areas. Stealheart controls Newcago and David and the Reckoners are searching for a way to bring down the corrupted deities of the twenty first century. Anyone who enjoys the superhero genre will enjoy this new spin on the idea that sometimes there are no superhero's out there coming to save us. We must save ourselves.

View all my reviews

A Game of Thrones - Book Review

A Game of Thrones (A Song of Ice and Fire, #1)A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

If it wasn't for HBO I probably would not have read the first novel in George R.R. Martin's magnus opus. There are two things I hardly ever do: watch a new mini-series on TV and read novels from a series (the notable exception being Stephen King's Dark Tower Series). But, since the internet almost break downs with the showing of each new episode of the series, I had to crack the spine on the novel and drop the titles into my Netflix queue.

A Game of Thrones is a combination of your favorite mafia story, combined with Lord of the Rings with a heaping helping of political intrigue. I have to admit, for most of this novel I was consulting online sites to keep track of the characters, the settings and the storyline. With help from the online superfans I was able to follow the Lannisters, Starks and the rest of the clans of the fictional land of Westeros.

The story never lacks for action and I never found myself setting the book aside because I was bored. There is plenty of murder, war, sex and soap opera type drama to make the reader yell "Oh, hell no!" with each twist of the dagger and clash of the swords.

I am looking forward to reading the next novel in the series and plugging in the blu rays to catch up on the series.

View all my reviews

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August - Book Review

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry AugustThe First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Time travel or multiple life stories seems to be a genre that I find myself gravitating to lately. First it was Life After Life by Kate Atkinson and then the movie About Time with Rachel McAdams and Domhnall Gleeson. If I could choose a super power it would be the ability to pause time and still move around in the magic space where all other temporal rules have been placed on pause. I was first introduced to the idea in the 1985 Twilight Zone episode "A Little Peace and Quiet." That story had a darker tone and heart breaking dilemna for the protagonist to deal with, I would hope, if I had the power, that I would not be faced with Penny's choice.

Claire North breathes life in the character of Harry August, a child conceived in rape and despair. His first life ends, like all our lives will, only to find himself born again, in the same circumstances but fully aware of his previous life. Young Harry part 2 loses his mind, a small child trapped in the duality of two lives, and throws himself from a window. The third version of Harry, aware of lives one and two, takes a little more pragmatic approach to his existence and thus begins a story that brings in the best of sci-fi, espionage, political intrigue and deception.

View all my reviews

Influx - Book Review

InfluxInflux by Daniel Suarez

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Influx is the literary equivalent of the summer blockbuster movie. Large, explosive scenes layered with placeholder characters running around trying to stop the latest armageddon moment caused by irresponsible use of human innovation.

Daniel Suarez seems to have a solid science background and jams everything he knows about current and future technologies in one novel. Jon Grady, a self-taught physics genius, invents a way to reflect gravity. This breakthrough draws the attention of the clandestine government agency Bureau of Technology Control (BTC).

Grady is locked away in Hibernity, a super-prison that holds the world genius's of the past thirty years. Thus begins Grady's journey to escape, bring down the BTC and free the unfairly persecuted scientists.

The concepts are huge, awesome moments that really stretch the imagination. Unfortunately, like a Michael Bay film, the flimsy characters, bad dialogue and all, proverbially "jump the shark." The novel is entertaining and if you can, like you do watching the overhyped summer flick, suspend most of your higher order thinking skills, you will find the novel enjoyable.

View all my reviews

The Girl On The Train - Book Review

The Girl on the TrainThe Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Three women. Two men. Affairs. Alcoholism. Spousal abuse. Matricide. Abortion. Abduction. Murder.

Two lust filled love triangles intersect in a quiet English suburb when one woman, Rachel, creates narratives about the houses she passes while riding the train every morning and afternoon. The alcoholic Rachel proves to be an unreliable narrator as she inserts herself, without an invitation, into the disappearance of one of the women, Megan, she sees every morning as her daily train rumbles towards work.

Rachel makes things more complicated because Megan lived just now down the street from Rachel's ex-husband and his new wife Anna. Rachel's help is unwanted by the police, by her ex-husband and by Megan's husband. Especially when all she can remember are images hidden in a drunken fog.

This novel is not as good as Gillian Flynn's "Gone Girl" but it does shine a light on the darker sides that only those who know us best get to see.

View all my reviews

Think Like a Freak - Book Review

Think Like a FreakThink Like a Freak by Steven D. Levitt
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Great stories, some cool ideas and you can find most of them for free on the Freakonomics podcast on iTunes. The best parts of the book are "The Three Hardest Words", "The Upside of Quitting", and "What do King Solomon and David Lee Roth Have in Common?"

View all my reviews

Feed - Book Review

FeedFeed by M.T. Anderson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Our connection to technology is quickly moving from the fingertip interface to the visual controls of the eye. Just over the horizon lies the ability to wirelessly connect the web directly to our mind - no reason to mess with clumsy input devices like fingers. MT Anderson explores a not too distant future where we are constantly wired to the net, pop up ads and direct messaging included.

The hyperconnectivity leads to a degradation of intellect as humans become the sheep of industry - impulsively consuming everything thrown their way. This is where we find a group of teenagers, partying on the moon, slaves to the instantaneous delights of being in the moment. In the midst of their revelry their feeds are hacked, they are left disconnected.

With a little medical ctrl-alt-del the group is back on line, except for Violet, whose feed input is beyond repair.

This book is hard to get into because the characters are frustrating, the decline of intellect is hard to follow as it seems they are almost speaking a foreign language. However, once you learn their language you begin to ask yourself if we could, would we try to slow down some of this technological advancement and ask ourselves, "Just because we can, does that mean we should?"

View all my reviews

Station Eleven - Book Review

Station ElevenStation Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Mandel travels through time, showing us the fragility of our existence through the stories of those connected by random collisions making us question if we live bound to the chains of destiny or the whim of chance.

Woven through a disconcerting, time warping narrative, characters of the past, present and near future try to reconcile broken relationships in the wake of a super-flu that erases 99.99% of the human population.

Station Eleven makes the reader question what is it, that we do everyday, that is really important. How do we insulate ourselves from "reality" by hiding in the pseudo reality of distraction?

The reader is rewarded for staying with the story through a plodding slow moving first act. As the connections between random characters become more clear, and the importance of their actions ripple forward in time, the beauty of the story becomes clear and the reader is left wondering if we are a galactic mistake of randomness, a species of destiny or somewhere on the infinite points in between.

View all my reviews

Monday, July 13, 2015

See How Easily You Can Integrate Rhetorical Devices with Character Perspective

In Stand Up! Speak Out!: A Social Action Curriculum for Building 21st Century Skills, Troy Drayton does a phenomenal job of integrating rhetorical devices with social social justice issues.

I wanted to look at extending this idea of expressing perspective by purposely using certain rhetorical devices.

My question, as I was reading Troy's chapter, morphed into how might I use his ideas on teaching rhetorical devices to also teach perspective using the literary archetype of the Shadow or Villain?

One of the epiphanies my students experience in reading and writing during the school year is no Hero is all good and no Villain is all evil. 

After using Troy's in-depth lessons on rhetorical devices, I want to let students loose on creating monologues for their favorite villains, composing persuasive, dramatic monologues from the perspectives of fictional villains.
Their goal is to convince the audience that the fictional, villainous actions committed were justified or, at the very least, sympathetic. This assignment focuses on voice, audience, and various rhetorical techniques studied in class.
If you would like students to research the concept of the villain monologue a little more, or want to brush up on the different purposes of villain monologues visit TV Tropes/Gloating
In preparation for their performance of their argumentative essay, students will practice developing a monologue. Writing from the perspective of an “unlikable” or unsympathetic figure will force students to exercise more awareness when composing a particular tone and choosing various rhetorical devices.

I love beginning with this quote about the reason so many villains feel they have to pontificate on their plans. I think you will find it also does a great job of continuing to show how the Shadow works from selfish ideals where as the Hero is growing to be more altruistic.

If you have to look along the shaft of an arrow from the wrong end, if a man has you entirely at his mercy, then hope like hell that man is an evil man. Because the evil like power, power over people, and they want to see you in fear. They want you to know you're going to die. So they'll talk. They'll gloat. They'll watch you squirm. They'll put off the moment of murder like another man will put off a good cigar. So hope like hell your captor is an evil man. A good man will kill you with hardly a word.
— Terry PratchettMen at Arms

With the analysis of rhetorical devices finished, have your students watch or read a villainous speech you’ve found to be an extraordinary example. 

I have five that I feel comfortable showing to middle schoolers and are excellent examples of monologues, all with different purposes. Please preview all monologues before using them in class to make sure they are appropriate for your students.

The Incredibles: Syndrome and Mr. Incredible

The Matrix: Agent Smith and Morpheus

Empire Strikes Back: Darth Vader and Luke

Blade Runner: Roy Batty

The Fifth Element: Zorg

Literary Bonus: Screenwriter Luc Besson based this speech on the 1850 work of Frederic Bastiat, That Which is Seen and That Which is Unseen and more specifically the parable of the broken window. After watching this video, students could analyze the parable to see the flaws in Zorg's argument.

It is always helpful for students to have copies of the speech so that students can follow along. After viewing the clips, students break down the rhetorical elements used in the monologues. Ask the students, what patterns of persuasion or rhetorical appeal does the speaker use to show the audience that their immoral actions were justifiable?

After analysis, comparison and discussion, students may work independently or in groups up to three to choose a villain from fiction (TV, music, graphic novels, movies, video games, etc.) everyone in the group knows.

Differentiation might occur in many various forms from here. But here is a basic outline that can be modified by teachers for learners at any level.

“Write a dramatic monologue of at least ___ paragraphs from that villain’s perspective, justifying a major villainous action or story arc. Be sure to make use of _____________________ (how many and which rhetorical devices)."

Students will then present their monologues. You might have students make audio recordings, video recordings or have students dress in character and present the monologues live in class.

Students should have opportunities to practice their speeches for feedback before final performances. This will build the iterative process in your classroom and give students a chance to fail faster.

Student excitement for portraying a villain should be high, the assignment is filled with student choice and understanding the perspective of others is a lesson in understanding why we believe what we believe.

Clips for Older Audiences (please preview for language and content):

Watchmen: Ozymandius
Wall Street: Gordon Gekko
Inglorious Basterds: Hans Landa
Ratatouille: Anton Ego (confession of change)
8 Amazing Villainous Movie Monologues

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Countng by 7's - Book Review

Counting by 7sCounting by 7s by Holly Goldberg Sloan

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Willow Chance - brilliant, profound, heart-broken and an orphan.

Willow is a twelve year old prodigy of the life sciences, fluid in the workings of cells and roots and funny looking moles. The shell of her brilliance is shattered the day her parents are killed in a car accident. Lost in a world without relatives or close family friends, she ends up in the care of her bumbling guidance counselor and a Vietnamese nail salon owner.

What follows is a beautiful narrative about broken lives coming together to not only build a home for a little girl but to also find the truth in their own existence.

I nearly devoured this novel in one sitting, enjoying the brilliance of each character and the journey they took to make themselves part of something bigger. It is a novel I will recommend for years to come.

View all my reviews

Saturday, July 11, 2015

The Girl with All the Gifts - Book Review

The Girl with All the GiftsThe Girl with All the Gifts by M.R. Carey

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Just when you think a genre is overdone, that there is nothing new and fresh, along comes a novel like The Girl with All the Gifts by M.R. Carey. The science and character development behind this zombie apocalypse novel lift it above the hordes of flesh eating works that have flooded bookshelves.

The story opens with Melanie, a gifted student, in a special school for kids just like her. Kids who have to be locked in cells, strapped into special classroom chairs and muzzled before the teacher begins the first lesson of the day.

From here we are introduced to a small cast of characters who slowly unveil the twisted world that was left after The Hungries over ran civilization. The teacher who is the voice of compassion, the biologist who only wants to find a cure and the military sergeant that shoots first and asks questions later.

Everything seems fine and in balance until the school is discovered by Junkers, humans forced to scavenge, and Melanie and the adults are forced to flee into the jaws of the wide open world.

The Girl with All the Gifts is a smart novel, with plausible science, and a vision of a zombie apocalypse that feels all too possible.

View all my reviews

Friday, July 3, 2015

Great Way to Show Angles

This might be something schools could do by every door in the building - better yet have students work on this as a real extension of their learning.