Monthly Archives: October 2007

“The Off Season” by Catherine Gilbert Murdock


"The Off Season" is the sequel to "Dairy Queen." See the review right below this one? That's for "Dairy Queen." Go ahead, read it, I'll wait. :p

Ok, so you see how much I loved "Dairy Queen," and, because of that, I was incredibly excited to read "The Off Season." Now that I've finished it? Eh. It's not bad, but it certainly didn't live up to either my expectations or the high standard set by the first book.

In this one, the story begins mere days after the events of "Dairy Queen," meaning the big Hawley / Red Bend scrimmage just happened. You would think all the excitement and triumph of that game would carry over into "The Off Season," starting the book off with a spark, but that's not at all the case. Instead, D.J. is just as unsure as ever about Brian Nelson — hello, what happened to all the great progress they made in the last book? — and she's anxious about starting school. Where "Dairy Queen" really focused on D.J.'s work on the farm and all her sacrifices for her family, this one barely mentions farm work. Again, what gives?

I won't give away the entire plot of this book, other to say that it doesn't involve D.J. playing much football herself. Which is a shame, because in the first book, it was such a big deal for D.J. to find the courage and drive to even go out for the team in the first place. It's like she did all that for nothing, which is a big letdown for the reader. And Brian? Don't even get me started on Brian. While there are a few nice scenes between the two, most of D.J.'s interactions with Brian are via cell phone, which sort of undermines the dramatic tension and makes him, at best, an outsider to the story's plot. That plot, by the way, revolves very heavily around D.J.'s oldest brother Win and a catastrophic injury he suffers in a college football game.

As you can tell, I'm not all that enthused by "The Off Season." There are some nice moments, mostly with D.J.'s silent younger brother Curtis and her struggling older brother Win, but the book as a whole feels muddled. While "Dairy Queen" told a distinct story about a very important summer in one farm girl's life, "The Off Season" feels like it's going off in too many directions at once, and they're not all that successful. Is it a romance, a coming-of-age, an inspirational story of triumphing over adversity, a sports tale, a high school drama, or a book about prejudice? For me, "The Off Season" tried to be all these things at once, and failed badly.

I assume they'll be another novel in this series, since D.J. is gearing up for basketball season and dreaming of college at the end of the story. If you read the first book, I'm sure you'll want to read this one and find out what happens to D.J. You may be disappointed as I was, but curiosity will likely get the better of you. I'd say this one has the same target audience as the first, maybe a smidge older. I can only hope you enjoy it more than I did.

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Posted by on October 24, 2007 in Uncategorized


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“Dairy Queen” by Catherine Gilbert Murdock


Ok, before I go any further and give you some details and all, let me just say that I loved this book! And I don't even care all that much about football, which D.J. Schwenk, "Dairy Queen's" heroine, basically lives and breathes. But that's alright. For all you football haters out there, I can assure you that you'll adore D.J. and that you will laugh and smile and cringe right along with her.

Need some more details? Fair enough. D.J. is in the summer after 10th grade, a school year that was brutally difficult for her. Her father had a hip operation, her two college football playing brothers basically abandoned the family after a huge fight, her mom took on an extra job, and D.J. had to quit the basketball team in order to keep the family's Wisconsin dairy farm running. And, as if all that isn't enough, D.J. flunked English, too.

As the summer starts, D.J. is milking cows, baling hay, painting the barn, and, again, almost singlehandedly running the farm. One of her favorite cows, Joe Namath (her football-loving dad names all the cows for football players and coaches) is near death, causing D.J. to reevaluate her own life. Is D.J. herself just a cow, standing in her stall and doing everything she's told until, one day, she'll no longer be useful?

Family friend Jimmy Ott, coach of the rival football team in Hawley, sends over the team's quarterback, the rich, lazy, and somewhat obnoxious Brian Nelson, to work on the Schwenk farm. After some initial bumps, D.J. decides to train Brian when her dad is away at physical therapy each day. D.J. knows tons about football from her dad and older brothers, and she's a pretty good athlete herself. Soon enough, Brian and D.J. are running miles, doing sit-ups, and catching passes in a mini football field out on the farm. D.J., who thinks of herself as different or wrong because she's big, quiet, "stupid," and not terribly girly, finds herself having a great time each day with Brian. And Brian, who at first appears to be just another rich jock, starts to show D.J. a whole lot more.

I won't give away too much else, other than to say that all of D.J.'s training that summer — and the peace and contentment she feels while doing it — leads her to make an incredibly bold decision, particularly for a person who shies away from the spotlight. D.J. decides to try out for the Red Bend football team. The Red Bend boys' football team.

This is truly a fantastic coming-of-age story. D.J. never comes off as whiny or bitter, despite all her extra burdens, but simply as sad, lonely, and frustrated. Who can't relate? Still, despite all that, she maintains an optimistic streak, takes chances, and finally begins to become her own person, all in very realistic and touching ways. There's also a very nice subplot involving D.J.'s mostly silent younger brother, Curtis, which creates some super heartfelt moments. Plus, in case you couldn't figure this out from the description, D.J. ends up falling pretty badly for Brian, and I guarantee you will root for her romance.

My one and only complaint is that the book ends rather abruptly, even before the regular football season begins. But fear not! The sequel, "The Off Season," is already out, so you can continue to follow D.J.'s story without missing a beat. As for the audience for "Dairy Queen," there are some drinking references and scenes in the book, but they're not at all graphic or intense. D.J.'s romance with Brian is also incredibly clean, and there's very little tough language. I'd say girls in 7th grade and up, particularly those who enjoy sports themselves, will adore this book.

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Posted by on October 23, 2007 in Uncategorized


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“Slam” by Nick Hornby


Nick Hornby is a British author pretty well known for his novels about guys in relationships. Movies were made out of "High Fidelity" and "About a Boy," and his non-fiction soccer novel "Fever Pitch" was transformed into an American movie about the Red Sox. "Slam" is Hornby's first novel for teens, and it's a bit hit and miss.

Here we have Sam Jones, a British teen who loves skateboarding and almost literally worships Tony Hawk. Sam has memorized Tony's autobiography so that when he talks to Tony's life-size poster in his bedroom, he imagines Tony answering with passages from the book. Sam is an unexceptional student, although he is interested in graphic design; he prefers to spend his time skating and trying out new tricks with Rubbish and Rabbit or just hanging out at the small apartment he shares with his young mom. At a party, Sam meets Alicia, a very beautiful girl from a well-to-do family who attends a different school. Regular guy Sam — to his own shock — quickly wins Alicia's affections, and before long the two are in a pretty intense relationship. Unfortunately, the relationship sputters out, and Sam starts ignoring Alicia's texts and calls.

On his 16th birthday, just when Sam thinks he's finally done with Alicia for good, she drops a bombshell. Alicia is pregnant, Sam is the father, and she wants to keep the baby. At first, Sam freaks out and runs away to a rundown seaside resort. He soon returns to break the news to his mom and face the consequences. From there, we see Sam struggle uncertainly and rather poorly with love, fatherhood, and responsibility.

I'll be the first to admit that on picking it up, I had no idea "Slam" was about teen pregnancy. I honestly assumed it was a skateboarding novel, and while there is much talk of skating, it's certainly not the focus of the book. In that sense, I was disappointed. I also thought that very little happened throughout much of the novel. Indeed, after Sam returns from his seaside misadventure, the book seems to grind to a halt. There is much talk about fatherhood and a lost future and sacrifice and how Sam's life will change. Sam spends a great deal of time hashing all this out in his head while still mostly avoiding acting at all like an adult. To me, it felt like the same conversation repeated over and over again. While I'm sure Sam's unsettled reaction to becoming a teen dad is quite realistic, all this angst, thinking, and worrying doesn't make for the most lively novel. Finally, there is a plot device in which Sam is transported, possibly by the Tony Hawk poster, into three separate points in his future. For me, this magical element undermined the entire story, as it was jarring and felt entirely false.

On the plus side, Sam, who narrates his own story, has a great voice. I mean this in the sense that he sounds like a real teenager, he's engaging to the reader even when he's being stupid, lazy, or weak, and he's just all around a cool person to follow through a story. While Alicia often comes off like a shrill, desperate girl, Sam remains a compelling, likable character. I guess, in the end, I'm lukewarm at best on my recommendation of this novel. I will note that it's definitely geared toward high school students, since there is, as you might imagine, much talk about sex and adult relationships, and some foul language as well.

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Posted by on October 22, 2007 in Uncategorized


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“Zen and the Art of Faking It” by Jordan Sonnenblick


San Lee has moved around a lot in his fourteen years — California, Alabama, Texas, even Germany — as his family tried to stay ahead of his father's scams. Every time he moves, San assumes a new identity to better fit in with his peers, becoming a skate rat, a prep, or a wannabe jock based solely on the interests of his classmates. With his father in prison back in Texas, San and his mom move to Harrisonville, Pennsylvania. On his first day of school, San knowledgeably answers a question on eastern religion in Social Studies class. While San's answer is based solely on the fact that he did the same unit in his previous school, his classmates assume he's Buddhist because he is of Chinese descent, wears sandals, and has a cryptic name (the Laughing Archer, actually a band in Texas) written on his notebook. San likes the attention, especially that of the cute, quirky folk singer Woody, so he throws himself fully into the role of zen master. With books from the library, San learns enough about zen to reference famous sayings and stories, practice zazen meditation on a large rock across from school, and even counsel the basketball team in practicing form over results.

Through all his efforts, San becomes super popular at his middle school. Everyone knows and respects "Buddha Boy," and San loves the attention. Even better, San and Woody become quite close, working on a zen project together, volunteering at a local soup kitchen, and even shooting free throws. Unfortunately for San, he's started lying to so many people about who he is that he feels like a complete fraud. When all his lies begin to unravel right around the time of a big basketball game at school, San may find himself all alone yet again.

San narrates his own story, and he's a great character to follow. He has a sarcastic, self-deprecating sense of humor (in other words, he makes fun of his own faults and shortcomings), but he generally means well. He knows he's screwing things up by lying, but he can't seem to stop himself because, let's face it, it's always more fun to be popular. I think lots of readers will identify with San's efforts to be someone he's not, even if they may cringe at the trouble he lands himself in. As I said, San is so funny and sort of charming that readers will root for him in spite of — or maybe because of — all his failings.

"Zen and the Art of Faking It" is entertaining, easy to read, and funny enough to make you giggle at times. It also contains some basketball action for all the sports fans out there. This is a completely age appropriate story for middle school readers, say in grades six and up, both boys and girls. I'd recommend it.

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Posted by on October 16, 2007 in Uncategorized


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“Neuromancer” by William Gibson


"Neuromancer" is a sci-fi novel first published in 1984, well before the Internet age that we all take for granted. Given the fact that the book is almost 25 years old, it's amazing that author William Gibson was able to envision a world of "cowboys" using portable computers to hack into "cyberspace" at a time when the vast majority of folks were working on typewriters. Yes, you read that correctly. Typewriters. And, yes, Gibson actually invented the term cyberspace. Pretty cool, huh?

So the novel does an incredible job of predicting how our current technological world functions. But is it any good? I won't lie. I had a very difficult time getting through the first few chapters, in which our hero Case (or, I guess, our anti-hero, because this fella has major issues) is drifting about Chiba City with little money and even less motivation. Case was once a world-class cowboy, illegally hacking into corporate computer networks, until he crossed one of his clients and had part of his body's nervous system destroyed. After the assault, Case is no longer able to "jack in," since hacking is essentially a virtual reality experience in which the cowboy experiences streams of data as physical objects.

Case has basically given up on life when a woman clad in tight leather with lens implants and retractable blades in her fingernails (think X-Men's Wolverine) shows up in his coffin hotel with a job offer. Case agrees to join the woman, Molly, and her employer, the mysterious Armitage, on a complex operation to penetrate the super secret Tessier-Ashpool network. In exchange for his hacking, Case gets a nerve-restoring operation and the promise of lots of credits. Case and Molly then travel around the world — our part of the U.S. is known as the Sprawl — assembling various gadgets and equipment for the run at Tessier-Ashpool, which will take place in an orbiting resort known as Freeside (think Jamaica, but with zero gravity!).

Confused yet? Well, I haven't even hit on artifical intelligence (turns out Case and Molly are actually working for Wintermute, an AI created by Tessier-Ashpool who now wants his freedom); a deranged drug addict with the ability to create elaborate illusions; a long-ago military operation called the Screaming Fist; cybernetic implants; a family that survives through cryogenic freezing and cloning; a Japanese assassin; and the long-dead personality of Case's friend reincarnated as a computer construct aptly named Flatline.

Yes, this book can get confusing. And, as I mentioned above, I found the immediate immersion in this world to be unsettling and almost chaotic. As at the beginning of the novel, there were several times during the story when I literally could not orient myself to the action and determine what was going on. But if you stick with it, the rewards are amazing. Gibson writes in a straightforward, accessible manner, and he keeps the story rolling along at an almost frantic pace. As a reader, it made me anxious to keep turning the pages. Gibson also uses incredible imagery to describe this bleak futuristic world, so even when the narrative gets a bit murky, you can still clearly envision what both a hacking Chinese computer virus and an utterly desolate, utterly lonely beach look like. Gibson's descriptions really are that good.

This book has lots of raw language, references to drugs and sex, and some disturbing imagery, so I'd only recommend it to high school readers. Having said that, if you're a sci-fi fan in that age group, I think you'll find "Neuromancer" to be a fast-paced, thought-provoking novel that's probably unlike anything you've read before.

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Posted by on October 5, 2007 in Uncategorized


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