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Round 3: Battle of the Demanding Parent

There has been quite a few interesting match-ups over the course of this tournament, but I think this one might be one of the most diverse.  Here I am…trying to choose between The Winner’s Curse by Marie Rutkoski and Gabi, A Girl in Pieces by Isobel Quintero.  I thought for quite some time about some kind of link between both of these stories and while one is a realistic fiction book written in journal form and the other is a fantasy thriller.  I finally found a common ground.  If there’s one thing that a majority of teens can always commiserate about, it’s parents.  Gabi and Kestrel could sit down and grab some coffee and talk for hours about how Gabi’s mom is constantly telling her she’s too American and will never get a man while Kestrel could unload the whole situation involving her father’s dream that she follow in his footsteps and choose a life in the military.  It was this realization that helped me organize my thoughts a bit.Gabi, a Girl in Pieces

I’m not going to take the time to fully summarize the plot of either of these books.  If you have been following the tournament, I’m sure you have an idea what the stories are about.  In short,  Gabi,  A Girl in Pieces is the journal of a Mexican-American high school senior who is dealing with a plethora of monumental issues in the lives of her loved ones including teen pregnancy, coming out to your family, and meth addiction.  Gabi uses her journal to organize her thoughts and emotions while uncovering her own identity through poetry.  The Winner’s Curse is a thriller set in a world where the Valorians have successfully the Herrani people who are now employed as slaves.  Kestrel, daughter of a high-ranking Valorian general, makes a spontaneous purchase at a slave auction which furthers her empathy for the Herrani people. With an uprising looming, Kestrel’s new relationship with Arin may sway on which side she plants her loyalty.

This is not an easy decision for me as I did not truly love either of these books.  I enjoyed them both and will definitely recommend them to others, but neither left me wishing the book just a bit longer.  I feel most people have already decided that Gabi, A Girl is Pieces will move on to the next round, but I’m not quite ready to set The Winner’s Curse on the back burner.  Gabi started out slow for me.  At first I thought it was an average book about a teen girl dealing with the same problems in every book.  While that’s true, Quintero managed to grab me when I least expected it.  Soon I could not stop reading the book.  I read close to 3/4 of the book in one sitting.  The connection was there and tears were flowing.  The Winner’s Curse is a much different book.  Gabi depends on its readers making the emotional connection and falling into Gabi’s life story.  The Winner’s Curse depends on the drama of the story to catch the reader.  While Gabi took a while for me to latch to her story, Kestrel grabbed me immediately.  Her character was more likeable from the get go.  Unfortunately I found some problems in The Winner’s Curse as well.  The whole story depends on Kestrel purchasing Arin.  Even after finishing the book, I still don’t know why Kestrel would get sucked into the auction and bid on Arin.  It’s so out of her character.  While I enjoyed the story, I kept going back to that fact the entire time.

I waited until the last minute to decide on a winner for this battle.  I thought that maybe the answer would just appear to me in a dream sequence.  Unfortunately I was not that lucky.  I finally landed on a deciding factor.  Gabi and Kestrel both have interesting stories.  Out of the two, whose life would I want to continue experiencing?  This may make me a bit unpopular, but I think that I have to choose The Winner’s Curse.

Winner: The Winner’s Curse

winner's curse

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Posted by on March 11, 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 Two: I’ll Give You the Sun vs. Grasshopper Jungle

So here’s the thing: Grasshopper Jungle by Andrew Smith got kind of a bum deal this round. I’m glad I read this book. There are a lot of things I liked about it – the gross-out humor, the crazy science, Robby and Ingrid and the underground compound with all its weird pieces sprinkled throughout Ealing, this dying Iowa town that felt so real in its insular detail. I loved the Unstoppable Corn and the Unstoppable Soldiers and the surreal quality of the science fiction laid over this absolutely normal town in the middle of nowhere.Grasshopper Jungle

Little things like how Smith uses food metaphors to describe the skin tones of all the white Iowans in the book – subtly pointing out how ridiculous a thing this is to do when describing a person of any color. Big things like how authentic Austin’s confusion regarding sexuality feels. Austin knows he’s in love with both his girlfriend Shann and his best friend Robby, but what does that mean? What should he do? And why does everything on Earth make him horny all the time?

Austin’s voice – and the question of how much of this history he’s sharing is actually, reliably true – and the question that rises from that – how much of any history is actually, reliably true? This is the heart of the book.

But (and you knew that but was coming from about a mile away – or the beginning of this post, anyway) – I am not the reader for this book. I know there are people out there who love this book. I know there are teens out there to whom I will recommend Grasshopper Jungle and who will adore it. It’s not you Grasshopper Jungle, it’s me. Austin kept going around and around in circles with his history and the voice kept me at arm’s distance, and honestly, I don’t like to have to think so hard about what the author is trying to do while I read (see, bum deal, right?).  I knew going in that there were going to be giant, unstoppable bugs who would only want two things – to paraphrase a bit: to eat and to copulate, but it felt like it took forever to get to the, er, copulating bugs!!

And then I read Jandy Nelson’s I’ll Give You the Sun. And I fell in love. This book – oh man this book. It kept me up ‘til 2 in the morning when I finally had to put it down and go to sleep only to wake up and immediately start reading it again. The twin voices of Noah and Jude separated by time and all the secrets and lies between them captured me in a way Austin’s voice just didn’t. Just like in Grasshopper Jungle there are complex explorations of identity and sexuality going on here both for Jude and for Noah, who are both attracted to boys.

The way Nelson structures the two narratives is masterful – revealing clues to what happened in the years between through both sides of the timeline without the plot or the timing ever seeming forced. Because it’s broken up like this, it’s almost a puzzle structure (literary i'll give you the suncatnip to me – more of GJ’s bum deal) where you can see the pieces falling into place faster and faster towards the end.

Grief is a theme of intense interest to me – my brother died in a car accident over 8 years ago and a close friend followed several years after from the flu – and this book is chock full of grief. Grief not only for those who have left us through death, but grief for how we hide ourselves from the world and grief for how often we seem to harm the ones we love.

But Nelson also shows how humor is still there – even when our worlds are falling apart. I kept stopping to read funny parts out loud to my husband. “I’m so glad I’m not a horse.” “Did you just say you’re glad you’re not a horse?” The way Nelson captures these things makes me wonder what kind of loss and grief she has lived through that she can depict them so well. I can only hope that any teens I know who are dealing with grief in their lives find their way to books like this one.

And to top it all off – I’ll Give You the Sun is also about the power of art to change lives, to remake the world, to break your heart open wide so it can be whole again. (I was a music major in college and my best friend was an art major – seriously the deck just could not BE more stacked against GJ.)

With all these themes (I didn’t even talk about forgiveness or ghosts or magic), I never felt bogged down in my reading. There were so many avenues of thought to explore, but I didn’t feel like I was admiring Nelson’s technique from afar – I was right there in the middle of it.. And on a slightly shallower note, the make-out scenes in I’ll Give You the Sun were really, really hot. Plus, I’m a sucker for a happy ending.

So, Grasshopper Jungle I like you a lot, I hope we can be friends. But my heart belongs to I’ll Give You the Sun. I just hope the next judge treats you kindly.

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

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

 

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Round one: Gabi, a Girl in Pieces Vs. The Impossible Knife of Memory

The Impossible Knife of Memory is the kind of book that hauntingly sucks you into its depths. I will be
the first to admit that this is not the type of book that I pick up on my own, so I was hesitant at first
about whether I would truly enjoy it.

The book follows 17 year old Hayley as she attempts to survive life with her war-injured veteran father.  impossible knife of memoryAs is slightly predictable, Hayley’s father is irrational, impulsive, bordering on alcoholism and very clearly suffering from PTSD. Andy Kincain is so torn apart by war that lacking the ability to re-adapt to life stateside, he consistently moves from place to place, never staying for long. He fears overpasses, crowds, IEDS and snipers around every corner.

Hayley attempts to raise herself and take care of her father while trying to figure out her own place in this world. Both Hayley and her father strike out against a cast of well-meaning characters and we, as the readers, know that the book will have to hit rock bottom before getting better.

This book was, I felt, a true representation of what it must be like for many families dealing with PTSD after military service. This kind of insight is deep and raw and your heart breaks for both Hayley and her father. Anderson does a good job at getting to the core of the emotion she is trying to convey and the book achieves the emotion well.

Gabi, a Girl in Pieces is the story of a 17-year-old Mexican-American girl living in California. She is a very average American girl living with the constant struggle of trying to be a “good” Mexican girl. Her family, her mother in particular, put a lot of pressure on her to help the family, not have sex and to lose weight. She is dealing with the very normal teen themes of friends, family, boys, high school, and college applications among other things when her real underlying stress is her drug-addicted father. He is a classic disappointment to his children, always making and breaking promises and disappearing for weeks on end to get high. She finds some release from this struggle in poetry, at which she discovers she is very good. It even leads to a new relationship with someone who seems to truly see her for who she is.

The book is told in diary format, which only serves to make you feel like you’re getting the entire truth from the character – good and bad. The truth is, there is no bad to Gabi. She is a good person, trying to look out for those she loves while searching for a way to be herself and love herself and be okay with that.

Seeing all this through Gabi’s eyes made me feel very connected to my own teenage years. Quintero has a way of writing that really makes it believable that these are Gabi’s words and not an imagining of a teen by an adult. You truly feel that this is a teen who isn’t sure where priorities should lie, but that nothing might ever be as important as what is happening right now. If that doesn’t describe most teens, than I don’t know what does!

The Verdict: As I have seen many other judges say that they weren’t sure who the winner would be until this point, I too am at a loss. While neither book was something I would have just grabbed off the shelf (dystopian, post-apocalyptic, zombies being my drugs of choice) both of these books were touching in memorable ways. The realism of both characters rang true. Both writers seem to grasp their stories, and neither of the endings seems far-fetched or drawn together too neatly to be real. Therefore, I have to go with my winner for two reasons. Firstly, the voices in each book felt real, but one book felt more true to really being the thoughts and words of a teen.  Secondly, hope. While both books had a hopeful ending, one of them left me feeling more hopeful that everything would be okay. I know, I know that’s a weird thing for a fan of dystopian books to choose as a deciding factor, but there you have it.

Winner: Gabi, a Girl in Pieces by Isabel Quintero

Gabi, a Girl in Pieces

 
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Posted by on February 10, 2015 in Book Review, Tournament of Books

 

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