Beauty Queens by Libba Bray

This is a review for the soon-to-be released YA novel ‘Beauty Queens’, by one of my favorite YA authors, Libba Bray.  It will be available in bookstores on May 24th.  While I received this book through the Amazon Vine program at no charge, all opinions expressed are my own. 

Beauty Queens should be required reading for all girls over the age of 12.  If you yourself know anyone who is or has ever been a girl (or would like to be one) or if you yourself are or were a girl (or would like to be one) you should read this book.

What kind of book is this?  I can’t even say.  It is not a spoof of Lord of the Flies.  It is not a picture-less comic book.  It is not a schmaltzy girl-power book.  It is not a coming-of-age story.  But it is kind of all of those things–a little bit.  In the best of ways.  And includes a pinch of The Sound of Music, exploding cosmetics, and a pirate in drag.  What more could you ask for in a book?

If you think this review is a little odd, read the book.  You’ll understand and you won’t be sorry you spent the time or the money.  This is the strangest book I’ve ever loved.  No.  That’s inaccurate.  This is the strangest book I’ve ever read, and I loved it.
I marked pages whilst reading it and then returned to those pages having absolutely no idea why I marked them.  I read sentences over and over again, delighting in the absurdity of the combination of words (and situations) that somehow work.  The last sentence of chapter thirty-six is one of the most ridiculous and awesome sentences ever written.  And the imagery…oh the imagery!  That Libba Bray can paint such a clear picture of such an insane world is truly a testament to her writing ability.  Bravo!

Did I mention that you should read this book?  Because you really, really should.

A cautionary note:  If you do not get sarcasm, you should not read this book.  Portions of it would be very dangerous indeed, if interpreted literally.

Another cautionary note (mainly for my students and their parents): This book contains graphic language, violence, and sexual situations.  It didn’t bother me.  If it will bother you, don’t read this book.


Beaten, Seared, and Sauced

This book was reviewed as part of the Amazon Vine program.  It is intended for an adult audience, but would be interesting to any school-aged young adult interested in a career in culinary arts.  Be advised, it does contain some inappropriate language.

Jonathan Dixon, a writer-turned-cook turned writer again, recounts the entire experience of attending The Culinary Institute of America in Beaten, Seared and Sauced and does so in great detail.  This memoir deals with every aspect of the two-year program, from orientation through graduation, with all of the class work, exams, and other work in between, and does so in a conversational and easy to read way.  For this alone it deserves the high rating.  But it is about more than just cooking, or The Culinary Institute, or even Dixon’s experience, and it is this that give the book such a mass appeal. 

I must admit–I chose this book due to a recent obsession with the show Top Chef, and I have to say that it didn’t disappoint.  I learned a lot about what it takes to succeed (or not, in some cases) at the nation’s top cooking school, and as embarrassing as this is to admit, this did enhance my viewing enjoyment of the cooking shows I so love. 

However, you don’t need to be a Top Chef or Food Network enthusiast to enjoy ‘Beaten, Seared and Sauced’.  While Dixon’s story is, at its heart, about cooking, it is also about taking chances and following one’s dreams, no matter how unorthodox they may seem.  Signing up to attend school at his age—38—placed him in the classroom with kids just out of high school, and Dixon doesn’t fail to point out his feelings about some of his age-related encounters.  Anyone considering making a similar change would be well-advised to read Dixon’s memoir.

Additionally, this book is a great read for all teachers and students, as it really does point out the qualities that make up a good teacher, along with what it takes to be a good student.  According to Dixon, a good teacher is one who encourages the best from his students but, surprisingly, there are many ways to go about this.  Also according to Dixon, to be a good student, one must treat every little thing learned and practices with the utmost care and importance. 

If what you are looking for is a day by day description of the working of CIA, you’ll find this here, too.  I continued to be shocked at how much was taught, and how quickly—one week to learn all about every wine in the world?  That’s a pretty intense curriculum.  Three days to learn about all of Asian cooking?  Crazy!  But students at CIA are doing just that, and thanks to Dixon, you can now glimpse into their world. 

At the end of this book, I wanted to know more about where Dixon’s life led.  If that’s not the measure of a successful memoir, I don’t know what is. 

To a Mountain in Tibet

The following review is for a book I received through the Amazon Vine Program.  It is intended for adults, but does not contain any questionable language or situations.  Content, however, may be challenging for younger readers.

This is not a book about traveling ‘to a mountain in tibet’.  This is a book about life, and death…and everything in between.

I must admit that on first read, I was not excited by this book.  I deemed it ‘not my kind of memoir’.  And yes, the language is rather flowery.   If you like flowery language, you’ll like this book.  But even if you are like me (and don’t), you’ll still enjoy ‘Mountain’.

I’ve never traveled to this part of the world.  Now I very much would like to do so, but only if I can take someone like Thubron with me.  As you follow him on his journey, you learn about everything from the flora and fauna of the areas he passes through, to the social, political, and spiritual history of the peoples and places explored, to his own relationship with his mother and father.  Even better, all of these aspects are woven together brilliantly.

Oddly, parts of ‘Mountain’ read like high fantasy, no small feat for a work of travel memoir.  I loved the line ‘I have too much imagined these mountains as mine’, and at one point the phrase ‘carved from the living basalt’–in reference to the Kailasa temple at Ellora (itself sounding high fantasty-ish)–drips with fantasy-writer-charm.  Of course, the undertones of high fantasy were not entirely due to the place names, but the place names do help–did Tolkein ever travel to Kailas?

One aspect I did find difficult was the ability to visualize places I cannot even imagine.  Much of Thubron’s work is, obviously, landscape description–but having absolutely no reference point I found it difficult.  Thus, I found myself frequently resorting to Google Image searches.  Was this a negative aspect of the book?  Absolutely not.  I’ve now learned about the geography of a part of the world of which I’d previously been unaware.  The only negative part is how difficult (impossible?) it would be for me to actually visit Tibet myself some day.

If you are even thinking about picking up this book, do it.  You won’t be disappointed.  You will be moved, inspired, awed, sometimes shocked–at one point I actually almost cried–but definitely not disappointed.

Here Lies Bridget

The following review is for a book I received through the Amazon Vine Program.  It is intended for a young adult audience.

I imagine the pitch for this book was something like ‘The Wizard of Oz meets Cinderella meets It’s a Wonderful Life, written by a Psych major’.  If that sounds like a compelling story to you, by all means, read this book.  It pains me to give a novel such a low star rating, as I realize that the enjoyment of fiction is a very subjective experience.  However, I would be lying if I said I enjoyed this novel.  It was bad in a variety of ways.

First, given the book description, I assumed that I’d be reading the story of a girl trying to save her life by making it better–kind of like a YA novel version of the movie ‘Defending Your Life’.  What I found instead was 100 pages of exposition, in which the author did do a great job of creating a character who was absolutely awful–I have never hated a character as much as I hated Bridget.  But there are enough awful people in the real world–I’d prefer not to spend my time reading from the point of view of one.

Second, there were some technical issues with the story that I just could not get beyond.  The strange point of view used in the second part of the book–wherein Bridget is at once both herself and other characters–is not well done at all (though to be fair, that would be a very difficult thing to write).

Additionally, just because a character states that something is cliched, that doesn’t make the cliched situation any less, well, cliched.  In fact, it makes it worse, at least in my opinion.  Beyond the stated cliches (‘my heart skipped a cliched beat’ and ‘cliche drunk girl’) this book had every major cliche known to man–a ‘wicked’ stepmother, a friend with an eating disorder, and a main character with multiple psychological issues stemming from her childhood.

Finally, while a minor irritation, the incessant brand name references were a bit over the top–Bridget has Von Dutch jeans, used NARS lipgloss, and has a Prada bag.  She drank Vitamin Water so much I began wondering if there was such a thing as product placement in fiction (it there?)

I didn’t give up on the book, mainly because I truly wanted the main character to die–and given the title (and description, and cover art), I assumed at some point, she would.  Unfortunately, my wish didn’t exactly come true.  In fact, the only thing worse than the first half of this book was having to relive it all over again in the second half.

Strings Attached

Note–the following review was written for through the Amazon Vine program.  As such, I received the book at no cost to me, provided I would write a review on the Amazon site.  I am posting all reviews on this site as well.  All non-YA (young adult) books will be labeled as such–assume all others are intended for middle- and high school readers.

Just the other day, I was talking with some of my 8th grade students about why they don’t like historical fiction.  The main reason was that most of the historical fiction they’ve been assigned hasn’t been very interesting.  I am confident they would feel differently after reading Strings Attached.

Jumping back and forth between 1939, 1945, and 1950, Strings Attached tells the story of Kit Corrigan, a 17-year-old Irish American from Providence, Rhode Island.  To say that this is a story of a young girl who moved to New York City to make it in show business would be accurate–but it would leave out all of the good stuff.  At once a romance, a mystery, and, at times, a tragedy, Strings Attached is one of those rare books that seems to have everything–until you turn the page and find even more.

I tell my students that historical fiction is great because it sheds a human light on the big events of history.  Learning about World War II from a history book (or even from a really good history teacher) takes the big picture into account.  Historical fiction is all about the little picture–how regular people lived, day to day, during specific time periods.  Kit Corrigan’s story is a brilliant example of this.  You learn through her struggles, and her stories of poverty during the depression, and fear during wartime.  Children fortunate enough to have never experienced it first hand begin to understand what it must have been like to live with the thread of The Bomb, scurrying into the subway with Kit as the air raid siren sounds.

A final bonus for this book–there’s really nothing in this book that would make it inappropriate for its intended age group (middle and high school students).  While I am a proponent of allowing children uncensored access to all grade-level-appropriate books, some do contain language or situations ‘not suitable for children’.  While there is nothing bland about this book in any way, I can’t imagine anyone objecting to any of the content.


Where oh Where Have I Been?

I’ve not posted on here…since OCTOBER?  Really?  What happened?

Oh wait–I can tell you what happened.  They blocked WordPress at work, and I typically post on here during my free period, as I do a lot of reading and writing at school with you–my students.

Fear not–I have a new reason to post on this blog, even if I have to find time to do it at home.  I’ve recently been invited to join a program where I’m offered books to read and review, often before they are released to the public.  And guess what?  The best ones are the books for Young Adults.  I got my first delivery in the mail today, so expect a review on ‘Strings Attached’ sometime in the next few days!


Paper Towns

I wasn’t looking for The Perfect Book when I picked up this novel, which just goes to show that the most likely time to find something is when you are not looking for it.

This is the perfect book.  There is, quite simply, nothing missing from this book.  Name something great that could be in a book, and it’s in there.  Humor?  Check.  Mystery?  Check.  Deep thoughts?  Check?  Poetry, road trips, jokes about farting?  Check, check, check.  At one point I actually thought ‘well, there could be a musical number’ (I had been watching too much Glee) and then poof, an impromptu sing-along occurs.  I could go on and on and on about all of the fabulous things this inconspicuous novel contains, but really, you should stop reading this entry and go get the book.  Do it.  Now!