Playing for Pizza by John Grisham

Playing for Pizza is far from what is considered "typical John Grisham." The man has written 20+ books now, and the majority of those are legal thrillers. What's so refreshing about JG is that he doesn't stick to a template for his stories. They vary in many different ways, and are bound together primarily by the law and the name on the covers. However, JG does have a few novels that deviate completely from any sort of legalese. Playing for Pizza, released last year, is one of them.
I didn't read the book jacket, and had no idea what this books was about. (All I needed to know was that it was John Grisham.) Therefore, imagine my surprise when I began the first chapter and was launched headfirst into the world of football, a very foreign land to me! Just as my eyes began to glaze over, though, in snaps the main character (Rick Dockery), an NFL third-string quarterback who has done some serious and terminating damage to his career. As a last option, his agent scores him a position with the Italian equivalent of an NFL team, the Parma Panthers. Rick reluctantly heads off to Parma, Italy, and his experiences there with his new team and in Italy are life changing.
Because I don't know a lick about football (well, I suppose I know more now than I did), all of the game scenes might as well have been written in Arabic. I'm sure tons of people can appreciate that aspect of the book. For me, the real treat was learning about Italian culture. About a third of the way through it, I seriously wanted to go to Italy. By the last page, I felt as though I had been there already. That's Grisham for you.



The Midwife's Apprentice, by Karen Cushman

Having recently renewed my committment to conquer more Newbery winners, one of my selections from the library last week was 1996 medal winner The Midwife's Apprentice. What a unique book, and one that is chock full of ammunition for discussion and study of character development! It is the tale (set in the Middle Ages) of an orphan girl who has nothing, no one, no knowledge of anything, and keeps warm in the winter by sleeping on huge mounds of poo. As you read her story, you will watch her go from Beetle (a name given by the village bullies) to Brat (the midwife's name for her) to Alyce (a name she finally chooses for herself). By the end of the book, she is a beautiful and confident young woman who is courageous enough to finally figure out her dreams, and then to boldly pursue them.

The vocabulary and topic of midwifery in Cushman's book obviously warrant its 6th grade reading level. While it has more to do with how Beetle/Brat/Alyce grows as a person than birthing babies, questions on that subject are likely to arise. My favorite aspect of TMA is the precision with which the story is told. Cushman uses 5 words to say what most authors need 15 to say. Another interesting and noteworthy trait is the unusual adaptability of the plot. I could easily see Cushman beefing up the details and marketing this to adults, or slimming down some of the events in order to create a picture book for children. Instead she chose a more straightforward approach, which (for me) was "just right!"



Author Jodi Picoult

I finished Picoult's latest novel this afternoon (Keeping Faith) and realized that I've read several books by this noteworthy author and have never posted. What is that all about?! Nevertheless, I am here to correct all wrong. First off, you've got to go into these brief summaries with a little bit of knowledge about Jodi Picoult's style. All of her books deal with family relationships, and most feature some sort of legal battle. Lots of her plots involve controversial topics, and resemble true headlines quite a bit. There are always twists and turns, and you find yourself making up your mind that the outcome will be one way, only to change your mind 2 pages later. They're all very good, and very thought-provoking, though you should know in advance that there's some language. To read about all of her novels, click here.
OK. Now the good stuff...

Keeping Faith is about the White family, and some bizarre things that happen to their daughter Faith. Mom and Dad are having some major marital issues, and an affair is discovered in Faith's presence. Soon after, Faith begins to see an imaginary friend that she calls her guard, and eventually God. Some of the things she begins saying and doing catch the eye of the Catholic Church and the Jewish authorities as well, not to mention the crowds of people who loiter on their front lawn to catch sight of the little girl. It gets ugly when Father-of-the-Year decides he wants custody of Faith, which results in a courtroom saga. There are some surprises, twists, and turns in the book, and each chapter will propel you to the next. You never know what is going to happen next, and Picoult is most intriguing as she keeps you guessing between the legitimacy of Faith's claims and the fact that the kid might just be blowin' smoke.

The Pact is another of Jodi Picoult's newest novels, and begins with the death of a teenage girl. The remaining 400+ pages detail the girl's relationship with her boyfriend, her family, their families, her secrets, and -above all- whether or not the couple had a suicide pact. It was disturbing yet compelling on so many levels. If you pick this one up, you can expect a story typical of JP in that there are all the twists and bends in the road. What's unexpected is the deeply sad reality of stories just like these kids'.

Nineteen Minutes should be required reading for every single educator, and for every Teacher Ed student at every college or university in America. You open the book and are launched right smack dab in the middle of a school shooting. When the dust settles, someone is arrested, and the trial uncovers some nasty bullying. Apparently lots of nasty things happen to kids when we aren't watching them. What I like about this approach to such a touchy subject is that JP isn't excusing murder by bringing out a troubled past. She is merely giving those of us who have been out of high school (or the students' version of it, anyway) much too long an accurate picture of what their life is like.

In Plain Truth was the first JP novel I read, and it is one of her older selections. It's the story of an Amish girl who was discovered with a dead infant, and how two opposing cultures (the American justice system and Amish tradition) dealt with her trial for allegedly murdering her child. The thing is, nobody knew the girl was pregnant. They don't know who the father is, and they surely do not know whether or not she really killed her child. As an added bonus, you get schooled on life with the Amish peeps as a local detective assigned to the case lives with them during her investigation.

My Sister's Keeper in probably the deepest of Picoult's books that I have read. It features a family that includes 2 sisters who are normal in every way, save the fact that the youngest was genetically planned to be spare parts for her older sister who has leukemia and is in constant need of bone marrow, blood, and kidney transplants. Then, Anna (the younger sister) decides she no longer wants to be her sister's donor. After the family is torn by a legal battle, and the book ends in a way that is rather shocking. What I like about this book is that it sparks some incredible discussions among readers, and it brings you to ask yourself some really uncomfortable questions.

The central theme behind The Tenth Circle is date rape. Daniel is Trixie's dad, and finds himself doing whatever it takes, even confronting his own demons, to protect his daughter. As an interesting side-story, Daniel is a comic book illustrator and there are comic illustrations of the story sprinkled throughout. Legend tells that if you look hard enough, there's a secret message spelled out in the illustrations. I didn't look hard enough. I just considered the book the prize.

So there ya have it. A lengthy post, I know, but remember I'm correcting wrongs here!



Twilight Series by Stephanie Meyer

Apparently vampires are all the rage for high schoolers and some pre-teens. The Twilight series, written by Stephanie Meyer, is about a group of Washington state teenagers...ordinary except for the fact that they just so happen to be vampires. The main character, Bella, falls for one of them (Edward Cullen), and the first 3 books in Meyer's series are about the ohsovery interesting adventures that follow the Cullen family. Yes, I realize that to say a series about vampires-especially one involving a love story between mortal and immortal-is good might seem strange. The thing about Twilight is that no plot synopsis or book review can truly do it justice. I myself raised my eyebrows and gave a weird look at the person who recommended it, and every time I try to tell someone about it, they give me that same exact look. I get it. Bear with me, though, because I am going to make an attempt here to explain.
The Cullens are indeed vampires, but have "renounced human blood based on moral grounds." Time recently featured an article (linked here) about Meyer's series, and in it I learned some pretty intriguing facts about the author and her characters. Her intended theme is the importance of doing the right thing regardless of what all the other kids are doing, and her books are free of the usuals that tend to plague young adult literature. There is no underage drinking, smoking, sex, etc. Edward and Bella rarely do anything beyond holding hands. Meyer actually shares in the Time article that she resists pressure to include intense sex scenes, because that is so prevalent elsewhere. She says that "you can go anywhere for graphic sex. It's harder to find a romance where they dwell on the hand-holding. I was a late bloomer. When I was 16, holding hands was just--wow."
But high school students aren't reading the Twilights because they are clean. They are reading them because of how incredibly well they are written. These stories take an ancient plot concept and give it a very fresh twist. The normal vampirish myths (intolerance for garlic, crucifixes, etc.) are debunked, but there is a pretty odd sensitivity to light that you'll have to discover for yourself. Meyer also does a fantastic job of planting little seeds of information in the first book that become huge branches of the plot in the second and third books.
So there ya go. This may not clear any at all of the confusion surrounding those vampire books, but al the very least now you'll know what the kids are reading!



The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch

This autobiography/memoir/encouragement piece was predictable in that it was everything I had already heard in the media. It was also incredibly surprising in Pausch's method of attacking this work here at the end of his life. For some background, Randy Pausch was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 06, and in August of 07 was given 3-6 months to live. He's now on month 10, by the way, and his day-to-day update page is here. As a former professor of computer science (specifically, virtual reality) at Carnegie Mellon University, he was invited back to give his last lecture. That lecture was recorded (as it seems everything is now) and posted to YouTube. The link to that is here, and as of this posting it has been viewed over 2 million times. Obviously, a clip that popular caught some national attention...hence the book. The book gives an in-depth view to Randy's state of mind and his reasoning for choosing the points to express. His primary motivation is to leave a legacy for his 3 very young children, who are unlikely to remember him very well, if at all.

I'll tell ya, this book is beyond inspirational. I don't know that I've ever come across someone who is doing about this whole dying thing as well as Randy Pausch. He's very realistic yet remarkable, funny but nerdy, and immediately likeable. Despite the fact that he chronicles his experiences in Academia that most people cannot and will never relate to, he does so in such a simplistic fashion that you understand and take away some deep life lessons from his excerpts. The last few chapters are when Randy begins to speak more specifically to and about his wife and children, and that part is pretty tough emotionally. He wraps it up nicely, however, and send you back to your life feeling all warm and fuzzy and better just for reading about him.

I highly recommend reading the book and then watching the lecture on TouTube. That will give you the whole picture, and therefore the best experience. My favorite line in the video clip is when Randy talks about the fact that he has indeed had a deathbed conversion experience: he recently purchased a Mac. ;)



Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry

I totally get why this book (author Mildred Taylor) won a Newbery in its year of publication. Set in the 1930's, it is the story of a black family living deep in the heart of Mississippi who is dealing with the ugly reality of racism at its worst. The Logans are a rarity because they own their own land (400 acres, to be exact), and are therefore exempt from lots of the difficulties that sharecropping black families deal with. However, because of their position of independence, they are somewhat of a target for the hate-filled racists who are looking to keep the "coloreds" in their place.
As I read it, I thought about lots of different angles from which to go about teaching this book in depth to students. The themes of friendship, trust, character, strength, responsibility, conformity vs. nonconformity, etc. would make this book an excellent choice for classroom study or a student book club. Just know that it is a question-sparker for sure...those make the greatest books! By the way, Thunder was written on an upper 5th grade reading level.
Curiously enough, David Logan (Papa) reminded me soooo much of my beloved Atticus Finch (To Kill a Mockingbird). He is the one to calm his family with the "it's not time to worry yet" phrase, and he handles the drama with class and nobility.


The Spiderwick Chronicles

The Spiderwick Chronicles is a collection of 5 books, all co-authored by Tony DiTerlizzi and Holly Black. They are absolutely perfect for those hesitant readers (especially of the male variety), or those with little to no interest in literature. The books are short but action-packed, and do a fantastic job of grabbing your attention from the get-go and leave you wanting more on the last page. There are also interesting little illustrations sprinkled throughout the text, which would also be appealing to those who just don't love to read.
There is one hilarious character named HogSqueale who I just loved. I coudn't begin to describe what sort of creature he is without basically ruining the plot of the first book, so we'll just say he's a faerie (Spiderwick spelling for "Fairy") and leave it at that. He has this hilarious habit of calling people and other faeries weird little nonsensical names like "nimbly-pants" and "chicken-lips." I have really been caught up with the HogSqueale Syndrome! I almost called someone Bucket Legs and Cinnamon Lashes earlier.
But seriously, the Spiderwick books are good stuff. I'd rate the series 4 out of 5 stars! Just don't judge it by its movie, which I sincerely hope you would never do anyway. Enjoy!