Book Review: The Pox Party–Octavian Nothing, by M.T. Anderson

Octavian and his mother, Cassiopeia, have lived a sheltered life in Colonial Boston in the household of Mr. Gitney and the Novanglian College of Lucidity. While his role in the household is at first unclear, it is soon revealed that he and his mother are both slaves. The college is raising him with a classical education as a sort of experiment.

When funding runs out, new financiers have different plans for Octavian, and he ends up having to work in the house most of the day and do his own now-boring studies for a tiny bit of time in the afternoon. This is a difficult adjustment, because Octavian was accustomed to excellent tutors who encouraged his curiosity. When the party moves to the country to avoid the coming war, though, and holds a pox party, things get worse until, overcome with grief, Octavian flees. His work with the Revolutionary Army and attempts to avoid re-capture bring this volume to its conclusion.

I loved this book.  Although it is historical fiction, the questions raised by Octavian and his circumstances apply today. How much does the desired outcome of the funders of an experiment impact the results? What makes us human? What is freedom, and how is it best obtained? As the winner of the 2006 National Book Award, Octavian Nothing should be at home on the shelves of libraries.

I did not, however, like the 2nd book, which seemed to drag on forever, so I’d suggest stopping after Volume 1.

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Book Review: Punkzilla, by Adam Rapp

Jamie, at 14, is trying to get from Portland (Oregon, not Maine) to Memphis to see his older brother, Peter, who is dying from cancer. After going AWOL from the Missouri military school where his parents sent him following some bad behavior, he managed to hitchhike to Portland and survive with the help of some friends and various illegal substances. After reaching out to his brother, who was shunned by his family because he is gay, Jamie learns of Peter’s illness. Punkzilla follows Jamie, through letters he wrote in a notebook and some he has received, from Portland to Memphis, detailing all the seedy details.

This book won a Printz award, and after reading Punkzilla I understand why. Rapp’s writing is very honest. It accurately gives a 14-year-old’s view of the world without being condescending or censored. Because of that—and because of references to drugs, sex, drinking, smoking, and other “inappropriate” behaviors, I’m sure some parents, teachers, and even some teens will not find the book appropriate. However, the book also shows how Jamie goes from his “nice” middle-class family to being a street punk, and because Jamie is so open in his letters to his brother, readers see that despite his language or abuse of alcohol, Jamie really does have a kind heart and is very bright. Like many novels, Punkzilla’s theme is that of an outsider trying to find where he will be loved and accepted. Jamie, aka Punkzilla, is searching for that place, and one hopes that by the end of the book, he may just have found it.

Book Review: Allegiant, by Veronica Roth

Fans of Roth’s Divergent series have been waiting for Allegiant, the conclusion, especially with the upcoming (March 21, 2014!!) release of the Divergent movie.  In the series, Tris lives in a world where everyone must, at a certain age, join a faction based on values:  Abegnation (selflessness), Erudite (intelligence), Dauntless (bravery), Candor (honesty), or Amity (happiness/peace).  However, when Tris goes to test to see which faction she should join, she finds out she is divergent, meaning that she has characteristics of all the factions.  In Tris’s world, being divergent is dangerous because it threatens the very foundation of society.

Allegiant opens with Tris still inside the city (Chicago).  However, she and some other rebels, known as the allegiant, leave the city to discover what is beyond the wilderness.  What they find changes everything they know about their world and themselves.

It is difficult to review this novel without giving away plot, so I’m not going to write much else about the plot.  Roth does go a different direction in this installment.  Instead of being narrated entirely by Tris, the chapters alternate between her point of view and that of Four, Tris’s love interest.  While this change is an adjustment for those who have read the first two books, it works and, in the end, is completely necessary.

I do not know what I expected from the end of this series, but I could not have imagined what actually happens.  If you read the first two books in this series, you will want to check out Allegiant.  If you haven’t read the series, I encourage you to give Divergent a try before you see the movie.

Book Reviews: Butter, by Erin Jade Lange

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Butter is high school junior at Scottsdale High.  He likes to chat online, he gets good grades, he’s annoyed by his mother, and he plays the saxophone.  He’s in love with a gorgeous blonde named Anna.  Oh, and one more thing–he weighs over 400 lbs.

When an event at school embarrasses him in front of Anna, he decides he’s had enough.  Butter starts a blog promising to eat himself to death on New Year’s Eve.  When word gets out, the response is . . . weird.  Suddenly, Butter’s part of the popular crowd.  Jocks invite him to sit at their table, he’s invited to parties and to hang out after school.  But the same kids helping him knock items off his “bucket” list are also taking bets on whether he’ll go through with it and leaving crazy comments on his blog.  Are these guys really his friends?  Does he really want to end it all?  And if he gets up the nerve, will it even work?

I picked up Butter expecting a quick, light read over Thanksgiving break, and it did not disappoint on that front.  Make no mistake, though–the themes in Butter are dark and disturbing, and the book stays with you after its (somewhat unsatisfying, at least to this reader) conclusion.  Butter makes you question the nature of friendship, the social structures we place on ourselves, and the importance (or not?) of popularity.  It also makes you question our humanity–are we so disconnected from each other that we’ve turned everything, even a suicide attempt, into entertainment?

Despite the dark themes, Butter is a funny book.  The main character has a good, if grim, sense of humor, making the book entertaining.  If you’re looking for a break from homework or assigned reading, give Butter a try.

Book Review: Game of Thrones

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George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones series has gained popularity recently because of the hit television adaptation.  The series, set in the fictional land of Westeros and its surrounding lands, reveals the machinations of various families and forces as they fight for control of “the seven kingdoms,” often with deadly results.  Martin’s tale begins with two main families: the Starks of the north, and the Lannisters of the south.  While at first glance the families appear to be allies, it quickly becomes apparent that appearances can be deceiving.

Martin’s book opens with a supernatural scene that seems out of place once the main narration begins; however, as the story progresses, readers learn more about the ice-covered lands north of “the wall” and the mysterious forces most residents of Westeros believe to be legend.  As the high-born families of Westeros fight for the iron throne, the men of the Night Watch who guard the wall learn that the stories they heard around campfires as children are, indeed, reality.  The adventures continue, and readers soon learn that in this book the unexpected can and does happen.

I recommend this book for anyone who enjoys historical novels, fantasy, or adventurous war stories.  There is mature content, so readers should be prepared for that if they choose this book.  There are a lot of characters, which can get confusing, but as the book progresses it gets less confusing.  Give it a few chapters before deciding if you’ll keep reading or set it aside.  For those who hang in there, you’ll find yourself hunting for the next book in the series as soon as you finish the first!