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Round two: Afterworlds vs. Guy in Real Life

To begin with, full disclosure, I have been a fan of Scott Westerfeld for years. Also, I have never been a gamer. Of any kind. Ever. Having said that, it’s time to delve into two novels that employ the story within a story device in very different ways.

In Afterworlds by Scott Westerfeld, Darcy, the main character of the overarching story has just signed a contract for a book that she wrote during her senior year of high school. After graduation, with a huge advance in hand, she moves to New Yafterworldsork City and tries to find her way in the land of authors and publishing. Everything, from finding a cool apartment to getting her first girlfriend and gaining the support of her family seems to come easily to Darcy, which is what makes her whining and complaining so hard to take. The story that Darcy wrote, Afterworlds is told in chapters that alternate with her own. In that story, Lizzie is the lone survivor of a terrorist attack. To help her survive, she is transported to the Afterworld which begins her transition to a psychopomp. Along the way she finds love and deals with a truly evil being. While the terrorist attack will have you holding your breath while you tear through the story, the fact that Lizzie never has to deal with the horror of that experience is a missing piece to her character development.

Guy in Real Life by Steve Brezenoff approaches the story within a story in a much different way. In Guy in Real Life, Lesh wears black, listens to metal music and has a best friend who introduces him to MMOs. One night, he accidentally knocks Svetlana, an independent minded girl who is the Dragon Master in her friends’ RPG, off her bike and thus begins a reluctant friendship/relationship. Lesh’s character develops through the everyday action of the story, as well as his through his presence in the MMO where he first begins playing as a male character only to end up creating a female character based on Svetlana. The characters of Lesh, Lana and their friends are well developed and may remind you of some of the teens that you know. Sure, some of the characters say things that aren’t necessarily respectful and thoughtful, but that rings true for many fifteen-year-olds who are trying to figure out who they are and where they fit in the world.

While the intricate structure of Afterworlds is something to be commended, when it comes to characters that are relatable to the reader, Guy in Real Life has the advantage.

The Winner: Guy in Real Life by Steve Brezenoff

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Posted by on February 27, 2015 in Book Review, Tournament of Books

 

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Round Two: Noggin vs. Gabi, a Girl in Pieces

For Round 2 of the Book Tournament, I had to evaluate two very different books. Gabi, A Girl in Pieces and Noggin come from almost the opposite ends of the genre spectrum: the first was a realistic tale of teenage life while the second was more in the vein of Science Fiction.

Gabi, A Girl in Pieces by Isabel Quintero is a look into the microcosm of one girl’s senior year in high school. Told in diary format, Gabi Gabi, a Girl in Piecesgoes through a rollicking year, and Quintero does an amazing job highlighting the difficulties of teen life: from attempting to create meaningful relationships with friends and potential romantic partners to the difficult realities of teenage pregnancy, addicted parents, and coming out as gay to your parents, all together with the poetry that she is beginning both to study and to write. Gabi is also an interesting look into the culture of Mexican Americans, and interweaves Spanish and English into the text with great success to create an intercultural bilingual experience.

Gabi the character is also someone whom I came to admire and root for very early on in the book. She is thoughtful and bold (she takes initiative when it comes to her romantic relationships, which is something I would like to see more of in literature!) and she will do anything to protect her friends from harm. Her discovery and subsequent love of poetry was a perfect complement to her character. Through her, Quintero created a believable teenage world that was easy to get lost in.

in Noggin by John Corey Whaley, Travis Coates has been reanimated, Frankenstein-style. Five years ago, he had been dying of cancer and had elected to have his head chopped off and put into cryogenic storage in the hopes that one day science would progress far enough to reanimate him. Science moved a bit faster than anticipated, and after five years his head was attached to another dead boy’s body. While he’s sixteen and feels like it’s been only a few days since he went to his cold sleep, everyone else has had five years of experiences happen to them. The readjustment both of Travis and everyone around him to his reanimation and second chance at life form the basis of the plot.

Travis is very funny and sarcastic, which is a state of being I greatly appreciate. I appreciated his relationship with his parents as well as his attempts to make new friends in high school – despite the circumstances being wildly different than any other teen’s experience, everyone can relate to trying to make new friends in a strange environment. In fact, the added wrinkle of him knowing the teachers and being recognized by some of the older kids was a nice touch, and is something that younger siblings experience all the time. It was almost as though Travis’s past self was the older brother and this new Travis finds that nogginhe has to somehow live up to the ghost of his own past.

However, there were some points in time when I couldn’t help but roll my eyes at him, especially when it came to his old girlfriend, Cate. While I understand the dichotomy of his experience versus the world’s experience (he feels like it’s only been a few weeks; the rest of the world knows it’s been five years), at some point in time I just wanted him to get over it and move on. That made it slightly more difficult for me to connect to him as a main character.

The Verdict: Both books were interesting looks into teenage experience. Gabi dealt with the difficulties of an average teenage life while Noggin framed pretty typical teenage experiences (making new friends, getting good grades, dealing with the end of a relationship) in an interesting and unique setting (it’s not like anyone else has ever been reanimated). Both are books that I would recommend to teens and that I think they would enjoy and get a lot out of.

That being said, Gabi, A Girl in Pieces quickly earned a place in my heart that Noggin failed to. While Noggin’s premise was very intriguing to me, the actual execution left something to be desired. It was still a fun book, but for me it fell short of the spectacularness that was Gabi, A Girl in Pieces. Gabi gripped me from the very beginning in a way that Noggin failed to, and I found it much easier to read and root for Gabi in all her endeavors. So while Noggin is still an amazing read, it’s just not quite on the same level as Gabi, A Girl in Pieces.

The Winner: Gabi: A Girl in Pieces by Isabel Quintero

 
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Posted by on February 26, 2015 in Book Review, Tournament of Books

 

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Round one: For Art’s Sake! I’ll Give You the Sun vs. The Vigilante Poets of Selwyn Academy

I’ll Give You the Sun details the alternating perspectives of artistic fraternal twins, Noah and Jude, and their individual exploration of identity, loss and love. Each twin struggles with their anguished responses to the same horrific event that altered the trajectory of their lives. This accident complicates their relationship with art, with each other and leaves a smear of guilt across the canvases of their lives. Additionally, both Noah and Jude struggle with their sexuality; Noah’s unfolding love sti'll give you the sunory and his thoughts and anxieties about being gay stand in contrast to Jude’s attempts to not be that girl.

Noah’s perspectives are told when he is 13 going on 14. He is on the cusp of adolescence and the world seems to be a gaping universe that he can fill with his artistic vision. Yet, he struggles intensely with the duality of his identity. Noah is bullied and doesn’t have many close friends outside of his sister, Jude, and his mom. His inner world is where the magic lies. Noah sees the world in brilliant colors and magical scenes that burst from his imaginative space. He is also beginning to realize that he is gay and does not know how to navigate this landscape. He and Jude are close, almost claustrophobic in their oneness with each other, but as things progress, we see parts of them start to separate and change.

Jude is the superstitious sculptor; she builds magnificent creations from sand, clay and stone. Her storyline takes place when she is 16. Much has changed since they were 13, including a horrible accident that essentially changed the twins forever. Jude hides her fear behind a belief in her dead Grandma Sweetwine’s “bible,” a collection of random passages detailing how to ward off bad vibes, spirits, or any other nefarious influences. Her post-accident journey has diverged dramatically from Noah’s, and she is on her own- the twins are scarred and bitter, alone and ridden with guilt. After the accident, both Noah and Jude’s ability to express themselves artistically has come to a complete halt. Noah seems to reject any artistic inclination and Jude, while studying at a local prestigious art school, cannot seem to push past the guilt and move into a space of artistic creation. However, it seems that the fates kept one link between them intact, and through a series of discoveries and coincidences, Noah and Jude begin to embrace their abandoned identities and break down barriers by coming clean with one another.

I’ll Give You the Sun is a stunning story about Noah and Jude’s struggle to find wholeness, to be something more than one half of a set of twins. It is a true coming-of-age story since their experiences have brought them through seeing the world as something to be broken up and divided between them to realizing the boundless possibilities and often uncomfortable revelations about humanity and our own evolving identities. I feel like I could write so many more paragraphs about the beauty and magnificence of this novel, but I will move forward!

The Vigilante Poets of Selwyn Academy is a quick-witted, perfectly subversive novel about four friends, Ethan, Luke, Jackson, and Elizabeth (and the gerbil, of course), who band together to rid their school of a reality TV show that has infiltrated their institution. The four friends attend Selwyn Academy, a prestigious art school that has been chosen by Hollywood hotshots as the setting for a reality television show, For Art’s Sake. The students chosen to compete on the show must compete in a series of challenges for the chancevigilante poets of selwyn academy to win a $100,000 scholarship to any art school of their choice, and title of “America’s Best Teen Artist.” For this reason, many of the competitors (and faculty) will do anything to maintain their status quo within the show. However, Ethan and his friends begin to realize that the show’s presence has changed the entire atmosphere of Selwyn. Before, students would discuss Prokofiev and opera in the hallways of Selwyn. Now, all subject of conversation revolves around the fabricated drama coming from reality television.

Naturally, a revolution must take place. The teens use the styling of poet Ezra Pound to create their own Cantos, a self-published poem ridiculing the show and admonishing the student body to regain their artistic pride and prestige. The plan encounters some hitches, friendships are betrayed, and Ethan must step out of Luke’s shadow and find his voice in the “uprising.”

At first, it took me a few pages to get used to the rapid-fire inner monologue of Ethan’s introductions. I soon found the rhythm and became quickly enamored with each character. Author Kate Hattemer did a fantastic job of maintaining their individual voices and personalities, and I seriously fell in love with little Baconnaise, the gerbil. While reading Vigilante Poets, I felt as though I was a co-conspirator in writing the Contracantos– that the reader is a part of the subversive movement against the reality TV show. Overall, choosing one winner was genuinely difficult!

Verdict: Both of these novels discuss the struggle to discover your identity in an often chaotic, unpredictable world. Sometimes it is tragedy and loss that forces us to search ourselves, other times it is the need for truth in the midst of change. Both of these books have the potential to serve as a mirror for the lives of teens, and each author creates characters that are wildly memorable and unique. I have to go with my initial reaction on this one and choose I’ll Give You the Sun as the winner. My only complaint was that its near-perfect ending was anything short of miraculous. However, the journey was so beautiful and intense that I feel compelled to choose this novel. Jandy Nelson weaves art- its creation, its power, and its impact on our identity- as the central theme and uses it to create, break and restore her characters. Their journey from adolescence into young adults shows the importance of discovering yourself and confronting your demons, so to speak. Finally, I’ll Give You the Sun reminds us that real life is full of magic.

Winner: I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson

 
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Posted by on February 13, 2015 in Book Review, Tournament of Books

 

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Round one: Through the Woods vs Afterworlds

When I first received the two titles I was to read, I couldn’t help but wonder how –if at all- they might relate to each other. One was a graphic novel collection of short stories, the other a hefty tome (containing two stories for the price of one) that might do double-duty as gym equipment or a barricade in the (inevitable) zombie apocalypse. But I plunged in with an open mind and found that, besides getting more than one story out of each, both titles had their fair share of intense moments that left me wanting to know more but gleefully afraid to turn the page for fear of what I’d find.through the woods

Through the Woods by Emily Carroll brings together a collection of spine-tingling stories that harken back to the macabre fairy tales of the pre-Disney long ago. Nestled within the pages are five short horror stories, related by the terror invoked in us by things that go bump in the night and the horrific possibilities of gnarled and twisted woods: a father who disappears within them, leaving his three daughters to survive on their own; a woman chased into them so that she may avoid the terrors of her home; a brother killed within them out of jealousy; a thoughtless joke, discussed inside them, turned haunting; and a nesting place for the creatures of your nightmares. Borrowing hints and elements from such classics as Bluebeard and Little Red Riding Hood, Carroll rather deftly combines vintage images with modern stories that have a feeling of timelessness. As I was working my way through the stories, I was filled with an unending sense of dread and despair; in my heart of hearts, I knew, as in old-school fairy tales, there would be no happy endings within these pages. The imagery itself is at times striking with its highly contrasting black and white with streaks of red – weaving blood and gore throughout the stories- while managing to effectively use soft, smoky styles to contrast with the sharpness of the violence. With all that said, if there is a weakness to be found in this collection, it was that I had to read it in multiple sittings to avoid the feeling of sameness and the occasional predictability of the stories.

The story told in Scott Westerfeld’s Afterworlds is two-fold: first there’s the story of Darcy Patel, a newly-signed 18 year-old author desperate to prove herself as a “real” writer in New York City, and then there is the story –as written by Darcy for NaNoWriMo- of Lizzie Scofield, the 17 year-old lone survivor of a terrorist attack. After Lizzie wills herself to appear dead in order to escape execution by the terrorists, she finds herself crossed over to the underworld where she meets the smoking hot Yamaraj and begins her transformation into a psychopomp. Did you get all that? Good. The two stories are artfully woven together by Westerfeld, told in alternating chapters that do a surprisingly good job of complementing each other rather than clashing the way one might expect such different stories to do. Coming in at a total of 599 pages, Afterworlds both looks and feels daunting until you start reading it; once you’re in, the pages practically turn themselves in this realistic meets paranormal romance YA novel. Not to be outdone by Through the Woods, Afterworlds has at least a few scenes that are sure to make even the most stoic reader think twice about dangling body parts over the edge of their bed at night. Darcy’s insecurity can be a bit much at times and Lizzie’s relationship with Yamaraj comes across as suffering from an acute case of insta-love, but when all is said and done, I could not stop reading because I had to know how things would resolve themselves, particularly where Lizzie was involved.

Call it a case of growing up in an era of “Happily ever after”s, but ultimately, it was the moments of happiness in Afterworlds that won me over. The unwavering, leaden dread that sat heavy in the pit of my stomach while reading Through the Woods simply did not provide enough variety and thus did not evoke a strong range of emotions or reactions within me. The highs and lows, the build-up of suspense and the quiet relief of crises averted in Afterworlds made it seem as though it literally and figuratively has more to offer.

Winner: Afterworlds by Scott Westefeld

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Posted by on February 13, 2015 in Book Review, Tournament of Books

 

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Round one: Noggin vs. Egg & Spoon

Noggin by John Corey Whaley is a contemporary science fiction novel about Travis Ray Coates, who WAS dying of cancer. At age 16, Travis knows that his cancer is terminal. He doesn’t have much time, but when he is approached by Dr. Lloyd Saranson of the Saranson Center for Life Preservation, he is given an option. He can have his head cryogenically frozen until a time that it can be attached to a donor body. No one is sure it will work, until 5 years later, when Travis is “reanimated”. Travis is now a healthy 16 year old, but his friends and family have progressed through their 5 years. Nothing has changed for Travis, so he now has to figure out how to blend his 16 year old person into a world where everyone else has changed.Egg and Spoon

Noggin is a quirky take on life and relationships. It was a very readable book, but had a few issues. Although teens may be able to relate to the relationship woes in the novel, the main character Travis is a bit overly obsessive when it comes to Cate. The characters evolve in most ways and there are both funny and touching moments

When paths cross, strange things can happen. In Egg & Spoon by Gregory Maguire, the lives of Elena Rudina a peasant girl and Ekaterina Ivanovna de Robichaux a wealthy girl intermix when Ekaterina’s (Cat) train is delayed on the way to meet the Tsar’s godson. Cat is bringing a Faberge Egg to the Tsar as a gift, but when she shows it to Elena, she drops it off the train. As she goes after the egg, the train moves on with Elena in it. The two then have to figure out how to get back to their own lives and stories with mistaken identities. Their journeys involve the Russian folk tales of Baba Yaga, The Firebird and the Ice dragon come to life. Unbeknownst to them, this journey helps them save all of Russia.

Egg & Spoon is part historical fiction, part fairy tale, part fantasy and part confusing. The story and imagery is amazing, but the author has a tendency to assume that the reader is already knowledgeable about the Russian folktales as well as writing at a very high comprehension level.

Winner: Noggin by John Corey Whaley

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Posted by on February 12, 2015 in Book Review, Tournament of Books

 

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Round one: The Winner’s Curse vs. This One Summer

In The Winner’s Curse by Marie Rutkowski, readers are introduced to a world wherein the nation of Herrani had not very long ago been conquered and then enslaved by the Valorian army. Kestrel, our seventeen year old main character, is the daughter of a Valorian army general, and is on the cusp of having to make a huge life choice because at the tender age of twenty, Valorian citizens are forced to either enlist in the military – or get married.winner's curse

Kestrel, of course, wants nothing to do with either of these options, preferring to devote her life to the piano rather than follow in her father’s footsteps or raise a litter of children. Music, however, was highly esteemed in Herrani society, and while it is acceptable for Valorians to enjoy, it is not permitted for a Valorian to play an instrument, sing, or otherwise make music in any way or form.

When the book began – and, honestly, based off of its summary – it reminded me of a strange combination between Wuthering Heights and Footloose, a correlation which was only strengthened by one of the characters, Arin Smith, and his resemblance to a younger, more verbose Heathcliff. But I digress – the book picks up remarkably once it delves into Smith’s revolutionary plans, and, even better, Kestrel grows a spine (apparently political intrigue suits her).

The Winner’s Curse also falls within the romance genre, and there is of course an obligatory love-triangle, which was for once not that obnoxious – all three characters are pretty well-developed, amusing, and well-written. On top of this, the world building was excellently handled; there was no info-dump, everything (society, rules, the culture, etc.) made sense and was explained naturally through the course of the book, and the political plot is, in a word, amazing. There were portions in the story where the plot was transparent, but it is an overall enjoyable journey that even featured awesome background characters.

This One Summer by Mariko Tamaki is, first and foremost, a piece of breathtaking artwork. I mean, the art for this graphic novel is seriously A+, 10/10 would recommend. This One Summer is about a young girl named Rose Abigail Wallace. Rose has gone on a family vacation to the same each in the same town and played with the same friend (Windy) since she was five, but this summer – THIS summer – it’s different. This summer Rose’s parents are fighting.

There are other kids at the beach, locals and vacationers like Rose and Windy, and everybody seems to know everybody in a small-town kind of way – which would be great, but apparently RThis-One-Summer1ose’s parents’ fight has also caused Rose to feel the need to act out in cruel little vindictive ways girls do – especially when aimed at other girls.

This One Summer is, at its heart, a coming of age story. The story is tied with a meditation on divorce and its possible effects on the children caught between feuding parents, but it is mostly about that period in life where a child teeters on the edge between youth and their teenaged years – and you can literally feel the teetering here, it’s excellent. On one side, Rose is very ambivalent towards growing up; all Rose really wants to do is relax at the beach with friends she’s had for years. On the other hand, however, this summer Rose is obsessed with the lives of the older teens at the beach, and is also experimenting with the words they use (sluts! boobs!) and the things they try (bullying! sex! cigarettes!).

The characters in This One Summer are achingly familiar to anyone who has grown up. The artwork is beautiful and the characters are lovely and bittersweet in their awkward transition towards adulthood. The story was very real and did not pull punches with either content or language.

The Verdict: This was a challenging round to judge for me. Not only is judging between two mediums is always going to be difficult, but I equally adore graphic novels and the Fantasy genre, so attempting to choose between the two was a strain. As much as I love myself some High Fantasy and world building, The Winner’s Curse was at heart a Romance and did not have a strong enough female protagonist for my tastes, never mind the whole casually treated background issue of war and enslavement of the conquered society. This One Summer, however vivid and beautiful, was just so horribly negative – though essentially a bildungsroman, the entire story was filled with girls hating on other girls (spoiler: there’s slut-shaming).

I honestly thought I was going to like This One Summer best, but it turns out the winner is…

Winner: The Winner’s Curse by Marie Rutkowski

 
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Posted by on February 12, 2015 in Book Review, Tournament of Books

 

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Round one: Glory O’ Brien’s History of the Future VS Grasshopper Jungle AKA Chronicles of the Apocalypse

In Glory O’Brien’s History of the Future by A. S. King, Glory O’Brien has no future. Despite her impending high school graduation, and her talent as a reflective and creative photographer, Glory has applied to no colleges and made no plans. Glory has become paralyzed by the fear of becoming her mother, Darla. Darla O’Brien, also a smart, funny, creative young woman and a gifted photographer, committed suicide when Glory was four years old. Glory’s father never recovered, giving up on his own career as a painter and eating himself to 400 pounds; he has stopped truly living. Glory has a “best friend,” Ellie, who is a friend only by default of proximity. Though Ellie brags about one day running away from her family’s controlling hippie commune, she too has no future plans.Glory O'Brien's History of the Future

When Glory and Ellie drink the desiccated remains of a bat, the two girls can suddenly see the past and future of each person they meet. And Glory sees horrific things. Everyone’s future culminates in a second Civil War, the history of which Glory begins to write down. She seeks out new people to piece together the story of this future she uncovers, and in doing so discovers her own past, present, and future. She gains the courage to ask questions about her mom, sets healthier boundaries with the parasitic Ellie, and reconnects with her dad. Readers watch a frightened teen become a compassionate, courageous young adult who not only turns away from numb despair toward hope, but helps others do the same. Despite the dark future Glory sees, knowledge that she will play a role in the future empowers her. She has the power to build her own future and begins to do just that.

A more visceral apocalyptic tale, Andrew Smith’s Grasshopper Jungle is quite literally a story of piss, shit, blood, and semen – the very stuff of life. The dust jacket promises catastrophic action, with 6-foot, man-eating praying mantises, yet these monsters don’t appear till almost 150 pages into the story. And while they do provide pretty provocative action, they are but a metaphorical and atmospheric backdrop for Austin Sczerba’s quest for truth. Austin is chronicling the history of the end of the world as these giant bugs take over. And much like the giant bugs, EVERYTHING in the history of the end of the world makes Austin horny – most of all his girlfriend, Shann, and his best friend Robby. They are both in love with him, and he with them.  Austin can’t decide between the two people he loves more than anything in the world and he smashes both their hearts trying not to decide between them. But this is not the real crux of the story either.

As Austin tells his Grasshopper Junglepersonal history of the end of the world, he recounts the history of his Polish immigrant ancestors (and their glamorous urinals), vagrants, cooks, neighbors (and their testicles), friends, strangers, politicians (and their testicles), teachers, Saint Casimir, a mad scientist (and his semen), cave painters, and humanity itself. In the larger narrative created, we are a bunch of messy animals, trying and failing miserably to prevent the repetition of our own mistakes. And the inevitability of it is gut wrenching, terrifying, and tragic. The bugs, Austin, his friends, and family become a metaphor for all of humanity desperately chronicling their terrible mistakes in an effort to create some tiny change in human history. It’s funny and clever, crude and uncomfortable, raw and poignant, and absolutely heartbreaking. This is a story, like all of Andrew Smith’s, that will stay with me.

These were excellent books to juxtapose – both about teens finding themselves amidst tragedy, the unraveling of civilizations, and the connectedness of past, present, and future. But the history chronicled by Glory O’Brien pales in comparison to that written by Austin Sczerba. Glory’s magical visions of the future are almost unnecessary to the novel. They are emotionally distant, lifeless, lacking detail. But her story is more accessible than Grasshopper Jungle. I will be book-talking Glory’s story to my students, not Austin’s. Yet Grasshopper Jungle wins this competition, hands down. Austin’s history of apocalypse is acerbic, poetically profane, and epic in scope. The many layered meanings of Austin’s story, while creating a rich and complex picture of the human condition, do make it impenetrable to an inexperienced teen reader. This book requires a special student – one with advanced reading skills but also liberal appreciation of scatological and sexual references. For that reader, however, this book will dig inside and crack them open like the giant bugs of MI Plague Strain 412E.

P.S. I’m glad that Edgar Wright (Scott Pilgrim, Shaun of the Dead) has signed on to direct the movie version of Grasshopper Jungle. If anyone can do this book justice, it’s the creator of The World’s End.

Winner: Grasshopper Jungle by Andrew Smith

 

 
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Posted by on February 12, 2015 in Book Review, Tournament of Books

 

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