The Dream Thieves Vs. The Tragedy Paper (Aka. Battle of the Boarding Schools)

tragedy paperThe Tragedy Paper by Elizabeth Laban and The Dream Thieves by Maggie Stiefvater both involve boarding schools, and that’s pretty much where the similarities end. One is a standalone work of realistic fiction, while the other is a middle volume in a fantasy series.

How do I even write about The Dream Thieves, the second volume in Stiefvater’s Raven Cycle, without spoiling both it and the first volume? The Raven Boys ended on a huge plot twist, and that’s where the second volume takes off. I can say that (like The Raven Boys) The Dream Thieves is populated by a large cast of quirky characters and set in a small, quirky town. The meandering plot — a search for the grave of ancient Welsh King Glendower, who’s believed to be buried somewhere along the ley line that runs through Henrietta, Virgina — isn’t so much of a story as it is a world for the characters to inhabit. The Raven Cycle itself may as well be Stiefvater’s Cabeswater: the place where she goes to steal stories from her dreams. Two new characters, the enigmatic Gray Man and villainous Kavinsky, shake the loose plot even looser. At the center of the story is an intriguing heroine, Blue Sargeant, who is the only non-psychic member of a psychic family. Without her, the story would fall apart. I feel that The Raven Cycle would make a better television series than book series. The cleverly-barbed dialog has a screwball rhythm and sensibility to it that I would love to hear coming out of the characters’ mouths. I found Dream Thieves frustrating for much of the first 200 pages and then — just about halfway through — all the seemingly random events came together into a recognizable plot. The back half built steadily to a gripping climax that ends with … another plot twist.

I began reading The Tragedy Paper immediately after finishing Dream Thieves, and at first I really missed the rapid-fire dialog. Laban’s writing felt plain in comparison. However, her tightly-plotted story (which is a sort of mash-up of Looking For Alaska and 13 Reasons Why) pulled me in very quickly. In a dual narrative, high school senior Duncan Meade becomes the custodian of a series of recordings left behind by the former inhabitant of his dorm room, an outsider named Tim Macbeth. Tim’s recordings recount his time at the school, where he was instantly drawn to the seemingly unobtainable Vanessa (he’s albino, she’s beautiful, and her boyfriend is the most popular jock in school) who is, curiously, just as drawn to him. Soon I became as engrossed in unraveling Tim’s story as Duncan is. The tragedy that befell Tim and Vanessa during the previous school year unfolds gradually, teased and hinted at periodically by Duncan’s own painful memories. I didn’t want to put this book down, and it was a much faster read than The Dream Thieves.

When I had finished, I had no idea which book I liked better. I enjoyed both. Both had strengths and weaknesses. I had to sleep on it before deciding that the characters The Dream Thieves are more likely to stick with me. It might work better as a television series, but it would be a series that I would watch every week, even binge on, and perhaps obsess over between seasons.

Winner: The Dream Thieves by Maggie Stiefvater

dream thieves

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Reality Boy vs. Out of the Easy: AKA the “You Think Your Life Sucks” challenge

It is very clear that the committee that worked on these brackets were spot on in their selection of the best books of 2013.  Like others before me, I enter this challenge without a clear idea of which of the books is my favorite.  Both are books that were on my radar but I hadn’t yet read so I was able to go into this challenge without any preconceived notions.

index.aspxI had wanted to read Out of the Easy when it came out but when I read the first line of the novel (My mother’s a prostitute.) I knew that I wouldn’t be able to booktalk this novel to the middle schools and that put it on my “to read when I’m not reading for booklists” pile.  I’m really glad that this challenge forced this book into my hands.  This story takes place in 1950’s New Orleans where 17-year-old Josie Moraine, the daughter of a prostitute, is trying to remove herself from the life that her mom has created.  She moved out of her mom’s “house” at 12 and got her own apartment.  She works in a bookstore and cleans the Madame’s house for a living.  She has aspirations of college and becoming something more than just a girl from the Quarter.  Unfortunately, her past and her mother’s bad decisions keep pulling her down.  She has to decide if she is going to keep fighting to pull herself up and out.  Part Historical Fiction, part Mystery, part romance – this is a very satisfying read.  Ruta Sepetys is a wonderful writer and her second novel doesn’t disappoint.

Reality Boy is another book that I really wanted to read but was put on the “later” pile.  Gerald “The Crapper” Faust is so filled with anger, it overwhelms him.  He is in anger management counseling and fights the need to fight every day.  All of the anger stems from when he was five and his parents put his family on a reality television “Super Nanny” like show.  To show hindex.aspx1is disgust for the whole situation, Gerald did what his five-year-old self thought would best get his point across – he pooped on the dining room table.  It got such a reaction that he continued to do it to show his displeasure.  His five-year-old self never would have imagined that it would be something that he would have to carry around with him forever.  He really didn’t think that he would have to face life alone without a his family backing him up.  Unfortunately, his mom is distant (at best), his dad is a workaholic, his sister Lisi moved to Scotland and Tasha is so self-consumed that she only makes everything worse.  This is a really powerful novel and makes you look at the world of reality TV in a totally different light.  As you read it, you are angry for Gerald so it is no surprise that he is so mad himself. As the reader, hope that he can move beyond “The Crapper” and find a support system. That is exactly what a great book is supposed to do; give you a protagonist that you can support and cheer on and hope that they will come out ahead in the end.

At first it might seem difficult to compare these two books but at their heart is the same basic concept – teens who are dealing with the really difficult lives as a result of poor decisions made by their parents.  The guidance they receive comes outside sources and they are (understandably) hesitant to accept it on any terms but their own.  Because they’ve both been fighting their whole lives, they are kind of selfish because there has never been anyone else to look out for them.  Both Gerald and Josie find love and support from people outside their family and ultimately it is those people who help them find their true selves and help to propel them forward.

I think I have to give this challenge to Out of the Easy by Ruta Sepetys.  Only because there were a couple things in Reality Boy that seemed a little incongruous (particularly he talked a lot about made up postal abbreviations and zip codes that didn’t really flow with the rest of the story).  Nothing that would keep me from reading or recommending the book – just that I had to choose a winner and that was the only nitpicky thing I can come up with.  I highly recommend that you read both books.

Winner:  Out of the Easy by Ruta Sepetys

This Song Will Save Your Life vs. The 5th Wave

This Song Will Save Your Life by Leila Sales and The 5th Wave by Rick Yancey bring together my two favorite This Song Will Save Your Lifetypes of books. I love realistic fiction with believable characters and a great story and I also love a book that is both dreadful and compelling.

This Song Will Save Your Life speaks to the insecure person in most (if not all) of us and gives hope to teens struggling with self-doubt. Elise is not just insecure, not just unpopular, she is maliciously preyed upon by bullies. Shortly after a failed suicide attempt, Elise sneaks out of her mother’s house to take a long walk during the night. She stumbles upon a couple of club kids who pull her into an underground nightclub……and here is where what every unpopular girl dreams of comes true. Elise makes cool new friends (much cooler than the popular kids at school), meets a boy, and finds her place in the world. Sometimes it’s hard to get close to new people because they don’t know your past, but in Elise’s case people who don’t know her past are exactly what she needs to help her see herself more clearly.

The 5th Wave by Rick Yancey is an intense page-turner that opens with Cassie, a sixteen-year-old girl alone in the woods wondering if she is the last human left on earth. Cassie has survived four waves of alien attacks, and is on an improbable mission to find her young brother Sammy. The narrative is not linear and it flips between Cassie, Sammy, and Ben, a high school football star turned heartless soldier in the aftermath of the 4th wave. This jarring narrative (rather than being distracting) puts the reader right on pace with the characters, for whom everything changes from moment to moment. Enemies become allies, leaders become villains, and friends become murderers. Everyone in The 5th Wave is either already dead, dying or soon to be dead and the characters must decide how and why to go on when there is no hope for the future. The 5th Wave is an intense page turner full of deception and despair, but it peppered with just enough hope to keep me optimistic.

Now comes the hard part. I really enjoyed both of these books and they are so different it’s really hard to pit one against the other. This Song Will Save Your Life is an uplifting story about important social issues. It has a great message and characters that I could really connect with, but in the end I’m a sucker for suspense and Rick Yancey’s intense story had me engrossed from the first page to the last.

WINNER: THE 5th WAVE BY RICK YANCEY

5th wave

Charm & Strange vs. Eleanor & Park (AKA The Battle of the Ampersand)

What do you look for in a story? Is it the characters Rainbow Rowell has eleanor and partkjpgcreated in Eleanor & Park or does the appeal come from a page turner like Stephanie Kuehn’s Charm & Strange that keeps you reading long past your bedtime?

Yesterday morning I was very excited to wake up to find new clips from an upcoming movie I am very anxious to see. But before I could watch these new clips, my coworker and I had a great discussion about spoilers, whether they come from a trailer/review sharing all the best parts or even just being told a twist exists.  We discussed how these things can completely change the experience for you. For example, when telling a friend to read Gone Girl, I talked up the appeal of this big twist which then ruined that moment for her.

Are you wondering if there is a point to be found here? I promise there is. Charm & Strange is one of those books in which it is hard to describe the story without giving away major plot points and twists. Some descriptions of this book can be misleading, there is a lot of talk of wolves and some have even labeled it as paranormal. Charm & Strange is more than that; it is a psychological story that allows the back story of the main character, Win, to slowly build while also watching how it is affecting his daily life. The author takes advantage of alternating timelines, a few science facts, and a bit of magic realism to pull this story together and keep you wondering what the truth is behind the tragedies of Win’s life.

Charm & Strange will stay with you and is a title you will want to discuss with others.

I feel differently about Eleanor & Park. It’s been a year since I initially read E&P and I decided to read it again for this tournament because the story didn’t stay with me. I remember the 80s aspect (who doesn’t love a good mix tape) and the love story. The 1980s setting is a large appeal of the novel but isn’t vital to the telling of their story; it is more about who Eleanor and Park and their story. Rainbow Rowell is coming off a great year with 2 bestselling novels and a Printz honor for this title.

The characters in these novels all face major issues and while it is easier to root for the love story, it is hard to ignore the struggles of Win’s life. In the end, it came down to the impact of the story and how the characters stayed with me after it was all over.

WINNER: Charm & Strange

charm and strange