Monday, August 31, 2015

Hacking Harvard by Robin Wasserman

The novel Hacking Harvard by Robin Wasserman starts with a prank. Readers quickly learn that these characters aim to do things that will make people stop and think, to consider what's happening - no whoopee cushions or silly hacks, but rather, something that means something, that makes a statement.

The bet is to get someone into Harvard that wouldn't get in otherwise. Not a prank, Max clarifies, but a hack. Forget the kid stuff they've done before - this will be something huge, powerful, meaningful. Schwarz doesn't want to get expelled. Eric doesn't want to do something immoral. They find out that this is a bet Max made with the Bongo Bums. Named after Richard Feynman, a prankster and bongo player, they are two juniors from Boston Latin High School who make bets and do things for bragging rights, and want a rivalry with the other boys, who'd rather be left alone and do their own thing. Max pretends the bet is for $100 but the amount increases throughout the book.

"We're going to take the biggest loser we can find - the least ambitious, least intelligent, least motivated, most delinquent and drugged-up slacker we can get our hands on - and we're going to sucker this school into letting him in." At least, that's what is shared with the readers on page 46. Our players are not so forthcoming with the full details. Readers learn more about the terms and the payout as the book goes on.

It's not about sabotaging the other party's candidate but getting your own candidate IN. They get a tough guy named Clay who beat Eric up as a kid, when Eric tried to stand up for other kids and ended up as the punching bag.

Also along for the ride is Alexandra Talese. Wanting a name that is a little daring and edgy, she has decided to go by Lex in college. She takes the name out on trial run during her first in-depth conversation with Eric, after the SATs.

Lex wants to go to Harvard of her own choosing, not for the sake of "superficial, society-imprinted, consumerist non-entities," not legacy, but because she wants it, because she thinks it's the best school to attend, the result of her extensive college research:

"I had made my pro/con charts, carefully weighed all the options, and chosen a winner. There was a reason Harvard had a reputation for being the best, I'd decided, and the reputation was self-fulfilling, because it meant Harvard got the best -- the best students, the best professors, the best resources -- which I meant I wanted it to get me. I wanted to get lost in the country's biggest library; I wanted to learn Shakespeare from a grand master while staring up at a ceiling carved hundreds of years before. [...] I wanted to be in awe of the school, the teachers, the history, the legacy -- I wanted to be terrified I wouldn't measure up. I wanted to prove that I could." - Page 83

Lex reveals that she uses knowledge to her advantage - not just her book smarts, but the things she knows about certain people. She doesn't sabotage them in a physical or evil way, but she casually (or otherwise) lets people's secrets slip out so that she is picked over them: running for sixth grade president, talking the other girl out of joining the newspaper staff in ninth grade, then holding her position on the yearbook staff - this girl's theme song should be Use What I Got by Lucy Woodward!(1)

So why would an overachiever team up with the bums? Because although she had great grades, community service, leadership positions, and school staff positions, she felt like there was nothing outstanding about her, nothing that set her apart. No national awards or anything unique, outstanding, international, or amazing. She was not one-of-a-kind, she was not a special snowflake, she was merely one of many smart fishes in the sea: "Nothing set me apart. Nothing to make me special." - Page 213

Throughout the story, Eric is the voice of reason. He considers himself a realist, and he normally abides by the honor system, doing the right thing because it's right, so he really struggles with the bet. Eric is Jewish and says that instead of doing good deeds in life in order to earn a wonderful afterlife in an eternal paradise, "Judaism isn't about what happens next. It's about what happens here, in this life. You don't necessarily get rewarded for doing the right thing; you don't get punished for doing the wrong thing. You're supposed to be a good person just because that's the right thing to do. Doing the right thing -- that's the reward." - Page 170

Max Kim is a legacy, with his father and two older sisters all Harvard grads. Max likes to sell 80s items on eBay and thinks things should have a 500% profit. He's in this not just for his father or Harvard, but because of what they've been told: "It's about all the (nonsense) they've been feeding us since preschool: Do your homework, be good, fall in line, do what we say, and maybe, if you're lucky, you'll get the golden ticket. We're supposed to act like the only thing that matters is getting into college -- getting into this college - and so most of the people who do get in are the ones who buy into the (nonsense) so completely that they've never done anything for any other reason. It doesn't matter what they want, what they like, what they care about, who they are -- they don't even know anymore, because they're trying so (darn) hard to be the people Harvard wants them to be. In the end they're not even real people anymore. They're zombies." - Page 47 (Yes, I replaced the swear words for the sake of my younger readers. I'm sure you can fill in the blanks.)

Let's not forget Schwarz: geeky fellow, camera peeping got him out of their high school and homeschooled for two years. Now 16 and a Harvard freshman, this 96-pound weakling prefers numbers and photographs to real-life people, as humans are inherently flawed and photographs trap beauty on the page. Schwarz is eloquent. He doesn't necessarily use huge words, but he always uses full sentences and sometimes sounds a little antiquated ("I was not doing anything of any importance") as he actively avoids swearing and contractions (he tends to say "it is" rather that "it's"). He is awed by beautiful college girl named Stephanie who whines to him about her dates and breakups. He would be right at home in an 80s movie - and Max would then sell the movie poster on eBay.

The book also closes like a classic teen movie, providing information on what happened to all of the major players after high school - what colleges they attended, what career paths they followed, et cetera. There's also a disclaimer from the author asking readers not to hack in because it would be wrong, illegal, and dumb, and it's clear that she has both compassion for rising seniors dealing with college applications and total respect for admissions officers.

Wasserman is great at creating characters who are fueled by their goals and intentions, be they good or bad, selfish or selfless. The following speech is particularly awesome:

"Imagine there was something you really wanted. Not something petty, like knee-high leather boots or a new boyfriend, but something major. Something so significant that it would change your life forever. And imagine that you wanted that thing the way a child wants, without perspective, a wholehearted longing that consumed your entire being with the certainty that life would not, could not continue without it. Imagine that, like a child, you had no control over getting your heart's desire. You couldn't do anything other than lie awake at night and wish, furiously, desperately, hopelessly -- because, not actually being a child, you would know that wishing was useless. You would know that there are no magic wishes, no fairy godmothers descending with a wink and a want. Still, useless or not, you would dutifully squeeze your eyes shut every night, curl your hands into fists, listen to your heart thus, and, like a child, let yourself believe that someone was listening when you whispered: I wish. Now imagine that your wish was granted." - Pages 205-206

The book is mostly told in third person with first person woven in at the start, making readers curious about the narrator's identity until it is revealed - and it totally works.

Enjoy the book - but don't get any ideas, okay?

(1) Use What I Got by Lucy Woodward is an amazing song I have been known to listen to/belt out in order to pump myself up before a big event. I had the opportunity to sing it at an audition once - and I booked the gig.

- Review by Little Willow from Bildungsroman

Friday, August 28, 2015

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

Boise, ID doesn't have too many major league celebrities, so it made some pretty big waves when our resident author Anthony Doerr hit the bestseller lists and then proceeded to win the Pulitzer for his second novel, All the Light We Cannot See.

 Me, I'm a skeptic. The more hype something gets, the more reluctant I become to jump on the bandwagon. Not only that, but I've long betrayed my English major roots by doubting the readability and enjoyability of books that earn major awards. Consequently, I had no immediate plans to pick up the prize-winning WWII novel that everyone in town claimed to be reading until my book club named it as the choice of the month. Even then, I put it off until almost too late, and then began reading immediately to try to beat the clock. 

Except... I couldn't put it down.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Little Brother by Cory Doctorow

All Marcus wants to do is ditch school with his friends to see if they can figure out the new clue for Harajuku Fun Madness. Doing so puts them seriously in the wrong place at the wrong time. It is while the group of friends are skipping school in a post 9-11 San Francisco when terrorists attack. In the chaos that ensues Marcus and his friends are picked up by the Department of Homeland Security  and treated to a thorough questioning. Once released, Marcus very rightly feels very wronged by the very people that are supposed to be there to protect citizens. Marcus vows to make the DHS pay. One techno-geek and his friends create a network of hackers determined to expose the brutalities and injustices inflicted on the everyday people of San Francisco in the name of "Security" for all.

Doctorow masterfully describes the systems the Department of Homeland Security set up in order to track individuals and intimidate them. He creates an amazing array of technology based tools for Marcus and his friends to use to outwit the DHS out of easy to find and cheap materials, proving that sometimes an easy hack may function better than a really expensive device or system.
Readers that love technology, thrillers and the little guy fighting back will love Little Brother.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

The Secrets of Drearcliff Grange School by Kim Newman

Upcoming from Titan Books, The Secrets of Drearcliff Grange School, sounds pretty amazing. Here's the description from the publisher:
A week after her mother found her sleeping on the ceiling, Amy Thomsett is delivered to her new school, Drearcliff Grange in Somerset. Although it looks like a regular boarding school, Amy learns that Drearcliff girls are special, the daughters of criminal masterminds, outlaw scientists and master magicians. Several of the pupils also have special gifts like Amy’s, and when one of the girls in her dormitory is abducted by a mysterious group in black hoods, Amy forms a secret, superpowered society called the Moth Club to rescue their friend. They soon discover that the Hooded Conspiracy runs through the school, and it's up to the Moth Club to get to the heart of it.
Perfect autumn reading, don't you think? I hope it lives up to the description!

Monday, August 24, 2015

The 5th Wave by Rick Yancey

Cassie hasn’t seen anyone in weeks. She’s lonely and scared and one of the last humans alive on earth. Everything in her life—in the world—has changed in the six months since satellites first spotted the Other’s mothership passing by Mars.

Ten days after that sighting came the first of three waves of death, each more devastating than the previous. Billions of people die, including Cassie's mother, but Cassie, her father, and her five-year-old brother somehow survivied.

Then came the fourth wave: Silencers. Aliens, impossible to identify because they look human, out to kill the few remaining human survivors. They succeed in killing Cassie’s father, and separating Cassie from her brother, Sam.

Now Cassie is desperate to find Sam, and a few other surviving teens are fighting just as hard to stay alive, to stay human, as the fifth wave begins.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Flyboys by James Bradley

Fly­boys: A True Story of Courage by James Bradley is a non-fiction book about pilots in World War II. Mr. Bradley wrote sev­eral World War II books, the most famous is Flags of Our Fathers.

Fly­boys is an inter­est­ing book about a group of young men who had no idea what they were get­ting them­selves into. They were brave men who watched their friends die and still flew day in and day out.

I espe­cially liked the begin­ning of the book where Mr. Bradley talks about the his­tory of Japan, explain­ing how it came to invade other coun­tries and their feu­dal­is­tic cul­ture. The lat­ter came into impor­tance in the Japan­ese Army which made it impos­si­ble for sol­diers to refuse even the most inhu­mane orders.

Mr. Bradley chose a strange way to tell this story. The author jumps around a lot between his­tory, per­sonal sto­ries and time­lines and it’s dif­fi­cult, at some points, to keep track or coherence.

While there are some other issues with this book, it is a solid trib­ute to the brave Fly­boys in WWII. I would love to read his full inter­view with George H. W. Bush, who came across as gen­uine, tal­ented and modest.

Article first published as  Book Review: Flyboys by James Bradley

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Monster by CJ Skuse

A mythical beast that supposedly roams the land outside of an English boarding school, the mother of all snowstorms and the claustrophobic hysteria worthy of The Shining. This is Monster by CJ Skuse.

Natasha, or Nash as she's known by her friends, is attending the highly acclaimed Bathory Boarding School. Nash is competing to be Head Girl, no easy feat when you consider the competition that surrounds her - conniving, ego-centric girls that will high five you with one hand and stab you in the back with a compass with the other.

Then there's Maggie, Nash's only real friend at Bathory. Maggie has issues, in that she appears to be desperate to leave Bathory under any means necessary. This includes violating every rule possible, resulting in the girls having all of their internet and mobile phone privileges removed by the school's Matron.

Nash has bigger fish to fry, though. Her brother, Seb, has gone missing on a trip to South America, the only contact she has with her parents is on a shoddy pay phone in the school's reception area. Added to this, she's convinced she saw something in the woods one evening after her school netball game. Something big, something with yellow eyes. Her instincts tell her it's nothing, a trick of her imagination, but there's also a part of her brain that tells her it could be the fabled "Beast of Bathory," a gigantic cat-like creature that prowls the area, feeding on unsuspecting tourists and students.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Public School Superhero by James Patterson

 I was fooled. I thought that this next book was about a kid superhero called Stainlezz Steel who went about his hood defeating bad guys. the first few pages showed him bragging about defeating heavyweights super-villains.  I thought yes here is someone the kids can root for and he is a superhero of color also! Boy was I wrong.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Dear America: Letters Home from Vietnam

Dear America: Letters Home from Vietnam is a collection of letters (and a few poems) written by soldiers and nurses who served during the Vietnam War. The editor, Bernard Edelman, did a wonderful job, and I would've written this review sooner, but I picked up another book, Home Before Morning: The Story of an Army Nurse in Vietnam. It was written by one of the contributors to this volume. Edelman follows each letter with a paragraph about the writer of the letter. He mentioned that one writer, Lynda Van Devanter, had written a book about her nursing experience during the war. It's maybe even more amazing than this one, but I have to say both books are for mature readers.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

YOU NEED MORE SLEEP: Advice from Cats by Francesco Marciuliano

From the creator of I Could Pee on This and I Could Chew On This comes a book full of sound advice for a good life. Or a cat's life, anyhow, and don't cats seem to have good lives?

You Need More Sleep, unlike the aforementioned books, is in prose rather than poetry. It consists of an Introduction followed by chapters: "Personal Relationships" (avoid them), "Social Interaction" (avoid it), "Career Advancement" (eliminate rivals), and "You, You, YOU!" (just what you'd expect). The book actually starts sweetly with a dedication to the author's "childhood's cat Bettina, who taught me everything I know except how to lie on top of a refrigerator without falling off." The introduction urges us to "Listen to the Cats", based on their "lives of utter confidence, complete independence, and blissful indifference while people continue to drive themselves to the brink of insanity with self-doubt, neediness, and the horrifying sensation that whatever they just texted, tweeted, or emailed will be the very end of their job, relationship, or reputation."

The first piece of advice in the "Personal Relationships" section is "Always Stay At Least 30 Feet from a Loved One", which extols the virtues of personal space.

A healthy relationship is as much about being together as it is as about personal space. And the best way to accomplish the latter is by never, ever sitting still. If your partner enters the room, get up and leave. If they follow you, make for the stars. If they pursue, do a hard turn into the bedroom, bank off the dresser, double-back into the hall, careen into the home office, swipe the workstation clean, fall into a wastebasket, and go back down the stairs. Keep running until they go to work and you get the eight hours of peace alone you both need for love to bloom.

The "Social Interaction" chapter features such noteworthy headlines as "Don't Be Nice to Unpleasant People", "It's Okay to Be Shy", and "Stay Quiet Just Long Enough to Be Taken Seriously" (possibly all sound advice, actually), interspersed with such things as "Steady Eye Contact is All the Listening You'll Ever Have to Do" and "Befriend People Who Are Good at Things You're Not. Like Opening Cans."

Monday, August 10, 2015

Poking a Dead Frog by Mike Sacks

Recently a childhood friend posted on Facebook that he was struggling to find the humor in Parks and Recreation, a show all his friends had told him was worth watching. After I recovered from my various levels of disbelief (You’re just now watching Parks and Recreation? You don’t find the character of Ron Swanson hilarious? Leslie Knope bothers you?), I thought about that most elemental of questions: What is Funny? The answer (other than farts, of course) may be unknowable, but Mike Sacks provides us with some of the smartest thinking about the question in his impressive Poking a Dead Frog: Conversations With Today’s Top Comedy Writers.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

POACHED by Stuart Gibbs

PoachedI thought BELLY UP by Stuart Gibbs was terrifically hilarious when I read it a few years ago so I decided to try another one of his books. 

Teddy is back solving mysteries at FunJungle and causing havoc in the process.  Living at a zoo evidently isn't exciting enough for Teddy.  His penchant for playing practical jokes has gotten him in some hot water in the past, but the occasion to investigate the kidnapping of the zoo's borrowed koala, Teddy takes things very seriously.

When it is revealed that Teddy is the prime suspect in Kazoo's disappearance, he knows he must take things into his own hands.  He is suddenly extremely busy dealing with Large Marge, a security guard out to get him, and handling a bully named Vance and his sidekicks who are harassing him at school and at the zoo.  Can he find the kidnapper before the koala starves?  Is it a disgruntled employee or one of the keepers hoping to strike it rich with a huge ransom?

POACHED is classic Stuart Gibbs with plenty of humor, non-stop action sequences, and amateur sleuthing.  It is perfect for middle grade readers looking for a fast, fun read.

Previously posted at

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

When Vampires Blog

The Coldest Girl in Coldtown is Holly Black's (The Spiderwick Chronicles, Tithe, Doll Bones) first vampire novel, based on her short story of the same name from the collection The Poison Eaters and Other Stories.

After passing out in a bathtub at a party the night before, seventeen year-old Tana wakes up prepared to be embarrassed about whatever kind of fool she's made of herself. But she's not prepared to find nearly everyone else from the party dead, attacked by vampires and drained of blood. It's horrifying, it's shocking, but it's the scale of the killings that's notable, not the attackers.

In Tana's world--like our own reality in every other respect--vampires are common. When Tana was six vampires were "Muppets, endlessly counting, or cartoon villains in black cloaks with red polyester linings." Sometime after that, a vampire from Springfield, MA, named Caspar Morales set about spreading vampirism as widely as he fancied. And now, the world has "gone cold." In some parts of the world, streets "teem with vampires," held in check only by vampire hunters who take out the undead in the usual ways: beheadings, wooden stakes to hearts, fire.

In the US, the problem is handled differently.