Monthly Archives: December 2008

“The Last Lecture” by Randy Pausch


While not written or marketed as a young adult novel, I'm sure teens will find Randy Pausch's "The Last Lecture" a poignant and valuable book. It's, flat-out, a great read. Maybe you remember hearing about Randy, either on Oprah or just generally in the news media? He was a computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, a guy in his late 40s with a beautiful family, a great job, and, stunningly, a diagnosis in August of 2007 that his pancreatic cancer had returned and spread, giving Randy only months to live. Randy returned to Carnegie Mellon that fall to give a lecture on "Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams," which covered everything from his being allowed to paint on his bedroom walls as a teenager to becoming a Disney Imagineer. The video of this lecture became an Internet sensation (you can still view it on You Tube here), leading Randy to publish a book version of the lecture's advice in April of 2008, shortly before he died.

This book is just about the definition of a quick read — I knocked it out in under two hours — but it's so meaningful and bittersweet, especially reading it with the knowledge that Randy, this vibrant, unfailingly optimistic guy, is no longer with us. His death lends a sense of urgency to his advice. Randy basically covers his childhood dreams and discusses how he achieved them (he met Captain Kirk!), or, as the case may be, what not achieving them (NFL stardom!) taught him. Randy comes across as brilliant but relatable, honest, and, in the best sense of the word, earnest. While his life advice may seem obvious at times — I think we all sort of know that we should, say, face down brick walls and tell the truth — he presents these life lessons in a way that makes them feel new, fresh, and unquestionably important.

I was very moved by reading this book (I suspect you'd have to be made of stone not to be!). Above all, I just so enjoyed Randy's plainspoken manner, his tons of real-life examples to support his advice, and the uplifting quality of the entire book. I know that some of the high school kids in this area are required to read "Tuesdays with Morrie" or "It's Not About the Bike" as their "inspirational" summer reading choices. I hope these same teens will check out "The Last Lecture," a book they'll both learn from and enjoy.


Posted by on December 15, 2008 in Uncategorized


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“What I Saw and How I Lied” by Judy Blundell


I'm on a roll now! I read Judy Blundell's absolutely wonderful "What I Saw and How I Lied" in two nights, and I'm so eager to share my thoughts on it.

As many of you may have heard, "What I Saw and How I Lied" recently won the National Book Award for Young People's Literature. (Click here to see a video of the author's acceptance speech.) Wow, what a well-deserved honor! I read a lot of books, both teen and adult fiction, and since I read an ARC of Suzanne Collins' "The Hunger Games" back in June, I've said that was my favorite book of the year. I may need to rethink that assessment, because "What I Saw and How I Lied" is a true masterpiece of precise tone, setting, and writing style. I love the old noir mysteries from the 1940s, and this book perfectly captures that smokey, shadowy, double-crossing, staccato vibe from back in the day. But what's really fantastic is that Blundell has also crafted a compelling, multilayered story that somehow manages to combine all the elements of noir mysteries — murder, blackmail, deceit — with deeper issues of personal and family relationships, the lasting consequences of wartime actions, and the varied meanings of truth, justice, and responsibility.

I don't want to give away too many plot points — after all, this is a mystery! — so I'll try to provide only a general outline. It's the fall of 1947, and Evie Spooner, just shy of her sixteenth birthday, has grown up watching her gorgeous, sexy mom, Bev, turn heads (and raise jealousy and suspicions) nearly everywhere she goes. Evie thinks she's content existing safely in the background, but part of her longs to grow up already. Evie's stepfather, Joe, has returned from World War II and launched a chain of successful appliance stores throughout the New York City area. Evie desperately wants life to be perfect, and it seems that everyone — including Evie — is trying a bit too hard to prove that's the case. Still, even Evie can't help but notice that Joe is usually anxious and jittery and that her folks are arguing and drinking way too much. After a series of phone calls from a mysterious man, Joe abruptly packs up Bev and Evie and drives them down to Palm Beach, Florida for a "vacation."

When the Spooners arrive in boarded-up Palm Beach — the resort town doesn't really open until December — they find themselves among only a handful of guests at Le Mirage, including Mr. and Mrs. Grayson, a wealthy, secretive couple from New York City. They're also quickly joined by Peter Coleridge, a handsome, seemingly wealthy 23 year-old who served with Joe's unit in the war. While Evie is immediately smitten by the worldly, charming Peter, Joe seems increasingly disturbed by his very presence. As the fall passes, Evie falls in love with Peter, who has been spending many afternoons with Evie and Bev, driving, taking walks on the beach, or watching movies in a local theatre. Evie finally stops acting like a shy child and attempts to gain Peter's affections by showing him the woman she has become, setting in motion a chain of events that results in death, a cover up, an intricately enmeshed web of lies, and, ultimately, Evie's decision to reveal or keep hidden the real truth.

I hope I've done this wonderful book justice in my description. Rest assured, it's a winning combination of mystery and coming of age tale, and, along the way, the book raises some unsettling questions about justice, sacrifice, and redemption. Evie is a fully fleshed out character, and although you may recognize what's going on long before she does, you will still feel every moment of her shock, pain, and devastation at learning the truth. I loved how none of the relationships in the book — Evie and Bev, Bev and Joe, Evie and Peter — are ever exactly as they might appear at a given moment; both alliances and affections shift and change throughout the story, keeping the reader off balance.

Without any reservation, I would absolutely recommend this book for both boys and girls in grades 8 and higher. While there is ample smoking and drinking among the adults and two scenes that involve sexual situations, there's nothing here that should offend or alarm older middle school students. Instead, readers will find a tense mystery that will keep them eagerly turning the pages and a moral drama whose ramifications will linger with them long afterward.

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Posted by on December 5, 2008 in Uncategorized


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“The Graveyard Book” by Neil Gaiman


Wow, it's been a long time since I posted a review here! Full disclosure, it's also been a long time since I finished a teen book. Don't get me wrong, I've started quite a few (Barry Lyga's "Hero-Type" was probably the closest I came to completion), but I seemed to put each book down for one reason or another. I've also been reading more adult-oriented fiction lately, so let me know if you want to hear about David Baldacci's "Divine Justice" (the Camel Club returns!) or Jonathan Kellerman's latest Alex Delaware novel, "Bones."

Oh, but I did plow delightedly through Neil Gaiman's lovely, wry, deeply touching "The Graveyard Book," which I'll do my best to recap here. In "The Graveyard Book," we have a series of interconnected stories, each of which are self-contained incidents in the life of Nobody Owens, an orphaned baby raised by the spirits of a graveyard. Yup, if you just read that and said, "WHAT?!", try to remember it's Neil Gaiman we're talking about here. Trust me, it works.

At the outset of the story, Nobody is only a baby as he crawls away from "the man Jack," a knife-wielding assassin who has just killed his family. The baby wanders over to the graveyard, where dead spirits whose bodies are buried there have a sort of second life. After much discussion, the dead Mr. and Mrs. Owens are allowed to keep the baby, renamed Nobody, and raise him with all the rights and privileges of the graveyard. As he grows up, Nobody, unlike other living beings, can see and communicate with all the spirits of the graveyard, and he can literally fade into the background. Nobody (or "Bod" as he's known) is schooled by long-dead poets, ancient Romans, and Victorian era school teachers, which leads to some truly hilarious moments for the reader. Bod also has a guardian in Silas, the caretaker of the graveyard, who hovers between the worlds of the living and the dead. Silas is shadowy, mysterious, and unfailingly stern, but he cares deeply for Bod and risks his life several times to protect him. The relationship between Bod and Silas is utterly devoid of any romanticism or sentimentality, and it works all the better for it. Every ounce of feeling between the two is hard earned.

As you might expect, Bod has lots of adventures while growing up, including several harrowing trips to an ancient Druid tomb guarded by a sinister presence. He also passes through a ghoul gate and enters a hell-like dimension. For me, the ghoul gate story was the scariest and most disturbing part of the novel. While you might think a story set largely in a graveyard would be morbid or dark, let me remind you again that it's Neil Gaiman at work here! "The Graveyard Book" is more a story of friendship, family, love, and loyalty than a horror novel. Interestingly, much of the true evil Bod encounters comes from the "real" world of the living, whether through school bullies or "the man Jack's" twisted society of killers. So while elements here may be dark, the violence is never depicted in an obvious way. Instead, there's more an ominous threat or a sense of foreboding lingering around the edges of Bod's life. But there are also great moments of levity — some of the tombstone inscriptions will make you laugh out loud — and good humor here.

I absolutely loved "The Graveyard Book." I think it's a great novel for boys and girls in 5th grade and higher. As I said, there are some dark themes here, but middle school kids can easily handle it. They'll love Bod's adventures, his sense of daring and responsibility, and the magic and wonder woven beautifully throughout the story. Plus, as I mentioned, it's just plain funny at times. I'd also say that adults, even non-Gaiman fans, will find a lot to like here, as the depth of the characters and the complexity of the relationships add a richness to the story. Please give this one a try. I promise you won't be disappointed!

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Posted by on December 2, 2008 in Uncategorized


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